Tag Archives: faith

Egrets

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“Where the path closed
down and over,
through the scumbled leaves,
fallen branches,
through the knotted catbrier,
I kept going.”

I don’t really like nature poetry. I’ve tried for years, taking recommendations, trying to more than just acknowledge its worth and actually revel in it. But there are few nature poems (or poets) that get me.

Or should I say: there are few nature poems (or poets) that I get.

And it isn’t for lack of love for nature, either. I’d take a day in the woods over shopping and call it blessed. Still, there’s something.

A friend once told me, “Egrets are auspicious birds.” We were standing by the ocean watching two egrets meander along the marsh. This friend is a reader of signs – a believer in “reasons for things” – and as I watched the egret bend its elegant neck to the marsh grasses, I almost believed her.

Battling through thorns, swatting at mosquitos, the narrator searches for something she doesn’t even know is there. At first, it’s just a clump of reeds shimmering across the shore. Then, suddenly, it bursts into life and white fire, egrets emerging from the reeds.

“Even half-asleep they had
such faith in the world
that made them –
tilting through the water,
unruffled, sure,
by the laws
of their faith not logic,
they opened their wings
softly and stepped
over every dark thing.”

“By the laws of their faith” – as though even birds have a sense of belonging. I imagined their long un-clumsy legs shifting with grace.

They opened their wings softly and stepped over every dark thing.

I sit on my bed, that last line resonating through the room as though I’d read it aloud.

I read it again, quickly, afraid almost that the words are not true. That I didn’t just read a poem about egrets and water and darkness and light.

But I did, and there it is on page 148. A real-live nature poem that stopped me in my mindless reading and gave words to transcendence.

She’s done it again, Mary Oliver, with her observations and daily life and the shaping of thought into poetry.

Maybe I don’t think I care for nature poetry.

If this is me not caring, then why has the image of egrets rising up out of the reeds, the image of “stepping over every dark thing”, settled so permanently in my mind?

[Photo: Texas Eagle]

Shutting Up

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I’ve thought of many books and inspirations that I’d like to pump into your veins to inoculate you from the traumas of living on this planet in a human body, but in the grand scheme of things I really, truly know that you will find all the wisdom you need at the moment you need it.

This is what I opened last week, slipped out of a little brown envelope and held in my hands. The card was perfect for me, complete with the stamp of a chicken and Rumi quote about birds flying and falling and flying again.

At first, I thought:

What?! Please, please, inoculate me! Send me every quote, every book, every shard of wisdom you have because right now I’m feeling so incredibly overwhelmed by being who I am and not who I am supposed to be.

But then, after a few moments of feigned irritation, I realized she was right.

I wasn’t ready.

And just as I have been suffocated by genocide in Iraq, Ebola in Sudan, the anger of supermarket workers and strikes, the racism and fear and riots, the brokenness of my students, the brokenness of everyone I love, the brokenness of me, I wonder if I would be equally as suffocated by bits of wisdom that I’m not yet ready to digest.

~     ~     ~

This was where the rest of my post was, the part where I write about learning to shut up and stop giving advice, stop giving wisdom. Where I stop myself from talking.

Then the irony caught up with me.

“You will find all the wisdom you need at the moment you need it.”

That was enough wisdom for that moment. And this one.

Prayer and Desire

photo 2 [“I don’t understand – what’s the point of praying? It’s not like we can change God’s mind.”]

When I pray – when I ask God for what I want – I am opening myself up for blessing.

I am trusting that God is capable of meeting my needs, my desires. Beyond capable, even. I am trusting that He wants to.

But, just as possibly, I am opening myself up for disappointment. For “no.” For dissatisfaction.

I am reminding myself that I am vulnerable. That I can be hurt and confused by circumstances. That I am at the mercy of my God.

[“So you’re telling me that prayer is all about our attitudes? It has nothing to do with God’s actions?”]

If I do not pray – if I choose instead not to commune with the Creator, not to bare my wants before the Lord – then I cannot say I am hurt. I cannot say that God withheld from me what I am convinced would be good for me. I cannot say that he told me “no” or directed my life down a path I never would have chosen.

If I do not pray, I can convince myself of my own strength.

I didn’t want it anyway.

Like the fox and the grapes, I will slink away in sadness cloaked in falsehoods.

I didn’t want to sing.

I didn’t want a home, a farm.

I didn’t want him.

I didn’t want little blonde babies.

I didn’t want to be a writer.

If I never want, I will never be disappointed. It has very similar outcomes to not loving, really: If I never love, I will never be hurt.

[“Don’t we choose? Don’t we get to decide what our lives look like?”]

I’ve gotten good at prayers of gratitude; ever since my blood clot, I look to the sky, see the peachy-pink shades of a sunset, and words of thankfulness tumble from my lips. It isn’t hard for me to remember the Lord’s goodness in what He has already done.

I haven’t yet mastered the trust that God remains good regardless of what happens. photo 2 And so, I come to the place I often find myself. The place where I must choose to live fuller – and probably be disappointed – or live safer – and walk the earth with shells of avoided disappointments.

Their very emptiness is enough to make me cry.

~     ~     ~

I prayed for the first time in weeks.

Yes, I’ve had random thoughts to the Lord, thanking Him, asking Him, talking to Him.

But I have been avoiding my desires. I’ve been avoiding admitting there are things I want. And I’ve been avoiding telling Him that I know He is in control.

Because if I don’t think He’s in control, He can’t allow (or not allow) things that will disappoint.

[“I just feel like He’s been removing all my reasons for going. All the reasons I thought I was doing this don’t exist anymore. I don’t understand.”]

I prayed for the first time today.

The first time in weeks.

And I asked Him for what I want. I do not know yet what the outcome will be. This could go the way of the beach house. This could go the way of so many of my life’s sister ships.

I do not know.

But I have prayed, and opened myself up to both the possibility of blessing and the possibility of disappointment.

Good Things #46: “Miss Representation”

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As you know by now, I am anything but with the times. Consistently, I find myself really into whatever was really cool six months ago. 

So, again, I am late to the party.

I finally watched the documentary Miss Representation after hearing about it since my senior year of college (it came out in 2011…come on, Cath!). I figured out the playstation, put the dvd in, and settled in to watch something that I was pretty sure wouldn’t shock me with any of its information, but that I hoped would shed some light on this topic that’s been really hitting me lately.

If you haven’t seen it, Miss Represenation is about how women are represented in media, whether it be movies, television, advertisements, magazines, the whole gambit. Image after image flashed in front of my eyes, and there was even a moment where I looked away – it seems that I’ve done a decent job of sheltering myself from the objectifying images used to sell products and make money. (Music videos are particularly horrifying.)

The documentary opens with Oprah Winfrey (of course, I thought, because she exhausts me, but I wanted to keep an open mind). Oprah talks about the objectification and sexualization of women, and how this documentary was an attempt at illuminating us to this fact and perhaps make the first steps to rectify it.

Some of the most moving parts of the film were the interviews with high school students. I don’t know how much was scripted and how much was thought of on-the-spot, but that doesn’t really matter to me. There was honesty in the words, regardless, and one young woman stood out. As her tears started to fall, she spoke about her little sister, how her sister hates herself, how she cuts herself, how kids at school make fun of her because she doesn’t fit our society’s standards for beauty.

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Over and over throughout the film, we hear that beauty should not be the measuring stick we use to determine our worth.

I heard it, and I thought Yes.

What should we use, then? What is an adequate measure of worth?

According to the documentary, it’s achievements.

Don’t comment on my body, look at all I’ve accomplished.

Don’t talk about my hair, see the list I’ve been able to check off.

Don’t tell me to lose weight; don’t you know I’ve won a dozen awards?

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At first, I didn’t realize what I was hearing. It sounded pretty good to me, actually, because I’d much rather be remembered for my intelligence or wit or ability to engage with people than a pretty (or not pretty…) physical attribute.

But then I saw the inherent problem with this answer to the imbalance of external vs. internal selves:

Just as not everyone is beautiful, not everyone is accomplished.

Not everyone wins awards.

Not everyone stands above the rest, because then who would the rest be?

This is an incomplete response to the problem. This leaves just as many women (and men) confused and frustrated as the lie of beauty-as-worth. I will just as quickly become dissatisfied and angry with myself when I don’t take first place or don’t win the campaign or don’t get the job as I do when I know I am not the most beautiful woman in the room.

So what is the answer?

How do we measure worth in a way that is not exclusive?

It is the answer I’ve been hearing my whole life but have never fully been able to comprehend.

It is the answer I rolled my eyes at in high school and college, but that now (and especially since watching this film) I am most convinced is true.

Our worth comes from the Lord.

You either nod your head in agreement, roll your eyes at my Christianese, or want to believe me but aren’t able to understand what that looks like.

What does it mean, I get my worth from God?

How can my worth not be tied up in what I do? In what I look like?

I do not understand.

And I still don’t, fully.

I know that I have a peace in me that I have never had before. I know that realizing I am loved by the Creator of the Universe is the most freeing knowledge I have ever (and will ever) come to. I know that the fact that I can’t earn His love, but that He gives it regardless of anything I am or do, is horrifying in its very bigness.

And I know that this is the only thing that will not fail me.

I will not always be young.

I will not be the best at what I do.

I will not always do the right thing.

But what is always true?

I am valued – and you are valued – more than we can imagine. This will never change.

And yes, I completely agree that the way media portrays women is detrimental to our whole society, men and women alike. Yes, we should work to view each and every one of us as a whole person, three-dimensional, flawed, and beautiful. Yes, it is important to both expression and art that all viewpoints be heard. I think Miss Representation is the beginning of half the answer to the problem.

But when we start to question our worth, when clothes don’t fit or that poem we’re trying to write doesn’t come out exactly as we’d hoped, when our days seemed filled with questions instead of answers, let’s remember the measuring stick we are to use.

Imagine what we could do with all the time we waste worrying about our looks, our honors, our accolades.

Infinite love gives infinite worth.

Good Things #45: A Face that Shines

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Exodus says that the people could tell Moses had been with God based only upon the look of his face.  It is real when it is real hard. Don’t go to a place to preach, go to help and in helping earn the opportunity to share the reason your face looks different.”

I asked my uncle about missions and what he thought about them and I tried to explain why I wrestle with a lot of what I see around me. And this is what he sent me.

It has been my prayer since opening his email.

Does my face look different? Does it shine?

Am I breathing in that I may breathe out?

 

Bleeding Out

Even if I was lonely, even if I was broke
Even if all the dogs in the pound let me know
Saying it’s never over, it never ends
Grab the guns and the ammo, let us descend
To the darkest of prisons, and break their defense
We will rattle the cages, rules will be bent
Oh, remind us our days are all numbered not spent
And peace it comes easy, like mist on a ridge

[Chorus]
Breathing in, breathing out, it’s all in my mouth
Gives me hope that I’ll be, something worth bleeding out
Breathing in, breathing out, it’s all in my mouth
Gives me hope that I’ll be, something worth bleeding out
All the worries folks tell us to break all of our ties
To our families and loved ones, we leave when we fly
To these cities we think we need in our lives
Oh you Manhattan jungle, you tangle our pride

[Chorus]
Breathing in, breathing out, it’s all in my mouth
Gives me hope that I’ll be, something worth bleeding out
Breathing in, breathing out, it’s all in my mouth
Gives me hope that I’ll be, something worth bleeding out

All the buildings, they lean and they smile down on us
And they shout from their roof tops, words we can’t trust
Like you’re dead, you are tired
You’re ruined, you’re dust
Oh you will amount to nothing, like tanks full of rust
But we scream back at them

From below on the street

All in unison we sing, at times, been redeemed
We are all of the beauty, that has not been seen
We are full of the color, that’s never been dreamed
Well, nothing we need ever dies, yeah
Nothing we need ever dies, yeah
Nothing we need ever dies
[Chorus]
Breathing in, breathing out, it’s all in my mouth
Gives me hope that I’ll be, something worth bleeding out
Breathing in, breathing out, it’s all in my mouth
Gives me hope that I’ll be, something worth bleeding out.

Ten Percent?

I’m sprawled out on a cozy bed, the May sun streaming through the blinds. I’ve got nothing more pressing to do on a Saturday afternoon than read a book.

I crack it open (or softly bend it open, ’cause it’s a paperback), and begin to read the book that’s been sitting by my chair for months.

I begin to read Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, and I know that change is afoot.

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Sure, all the stats are off (it was published in 2005), but the heart and soul of the book remains the same. Because it’s the heart and soul of the gospel, really, only in numbers and facts and practice.

Due to overconsumption, small numbers of affluent people strain the earth’s limited resources far more than much larger numbers of poor people (30).

[My junior year of college and I’m watching Justin McRoberts play his music and plead the case for thousands of hungry children. I raise my hand for a packet because I know myself: I will feel bad, maybe cry, have every intention of doing something, then get up and leave. I take a packet and I’ve been supporting a boy in India ever since. One. Only one.]

Is ten percent really enough?

It’s hard enough for me to write that check on Sunday, to drop it in the plate and trust that it will be put to good use. Because that’s what I’m doing: trusting. Trusting God to use the money I give to further His Kingdom. Trusting my deacons and trustees and pastors to look to Him for guidance.

Trusting that I will also pay my bills on time and not overdraw.

I am a fearful person.

Those of us in developed countries make up only one-fifth of the world’s population, yet we consume two-thirds of the planet’s resources (31).

So what am I going to do? Keep putting that ten percent in the offering plate? Keep sending money to India in the hopes that one boy will have a brighter future? Give to my friends who go on missions trips? Support another child in Africa? Egypt? South America?

Today, I didn’t buy a new sweatshirt. I wanted one, a green one that said “Cape Cod” because my old one wore out. I didn’t buy one after all – there wasn’t one exactly like I wanted.

I walked out of the store – sweatshirt-less and annoyed – and thought, Maybe that’s what I have to do.

Buy less stuff.

Eat less food.

Consume less gas.

Be mindful of where the extra goes because there’s more than enough to go around.

Advertisers promise that their products will satisfy our deepest needs and inner longings for love, acceptance, security, and sexual fulfillment (24).

I’m only a quarter of the way through the book, but I’m slowly working towards change. Change in myself is a hard thing to make.

Good Things #43: Being Told “No”

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I got the idea on the airplane to Chicago, reading Dubus’ Townie. He’d lived in a winter rental in a local beach community, and it dawned on me as I sailed through the sky:

Oh my gosh. I should buy a beach house.

If you know me – if you know my job and my life situation – you’re probably smiling and shaking your head, “There she goes again, too enthusiastic and a little bit crazy.” Because I teach at a Christian school. Because I’m only 25. Because FILL IN THE BLANK.

But really, I convinced myself (and my father, and my sister, and whoever else would listen to my rationale) that this was the way to do it. Buy a house that would help pay for itself. Get a roommate or two, rent it out for a month in the summer, and before you know it, you’ll own your home. I envisioned traipsing in the house after a long walk on the beach, me curled up reading in the sunlit evening, my sister (who, of course, would be buying the house with me) baking me delicious brownies, a glass of red wine in my hand.

I had it all planned out.

And when we found a three-bedroom house with a garden and brick walkways, an arbor, a loft (what?! are you kidding me? this is perfection.), and even a laundry chute, I let myself actually think it could happen.

I planned out a budget. I examined my finances and looked at my savings and promised myself “No more Starbucks!!!”.

I got a realtor, we got pre-approved for a mortgage, and then we looked into…flood insurance.

Ever heard of it? It’s this dreaded thing that, when you live in a small island community below sea level, threatens to destroy morale and your wallet.

The total was more than we would pay in taxes and it would only go up, my realtor said. It would be extremely hard to sell, and in one conversation the red wine I imagined sipping was dried up and my sister burned the brownies.

I got off the phone. I was at work when I called the realtor, and I was standing in the hot sun. My hair was on fire. I walked over to my friend who was eating lunch and told her what happened.

“I felt a lot of fear about it,” I said, “but usually my response to fear is ‘Get over it.'”

She laughed and gave me those eyes that mean: You’re psycho.

“Maybe this time it meant it wasn’t for me,” I finished, putting my head on the picnic table.

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I am grateful when I’m told “no.” This has been a long time coming, and it’s not a lesson I want to keep learning. Excitement fills my body so fully I can feel my skin tingling and I’m sure This is it! whether it be buying a house, moving across the country, dating a great guy, or applying for my dream job.

This is it! my body says, but circumstances and Jesus say differently.

I don’t blame God for good and bad in my life, at least not all the time. Sometimes, I do think things “just happen” and God makes good out of those things, too. But there have definitely been times when I’ve felt Him say, “No, Catherine, not this time, not this job, not this person.”

This time, it was “not this house,” and I am grateful in some ways.

I won’t be saddled with a mortgage.

I won’t have to leave my new flock of chickens.

I won’t have a longer commute.

I won’t have to live off oatmeal and yogurt for the next fifteen years.

I can still buy a bottle of wine, and my mom makes more than decent brownies.

There’s no denying, though, that there was a little loft in my would-be-bedroom with a brown ladder. That the tiny window let in sunshine, and I would’ve sat there drinking tea and dreaming, tucked away where no one would find me unless they knew where to look.

After the Burning [Guest Post]

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I’m honored to share Hannah’s story. I met Hannah when she started dating my childhood friend, David, and I even got to be part of their wedding last summer. I resonate with a lot of what Hannah has to say about expectations. You can read more of her writing at her blog, hannahlynnmell.com.

 

When David and I moved to Kansas last summer, I envisioned countless bright scenarios: making our first home together, establishing ourselves in a new arts community, gathering a circle of warm-hearted midwestern friends. We drove the moving truck cross country just three weeks after our July wedding, headed toward David’s first full-time teaching position and a shockingly inexpensive high rise apartment in downtown Wichita.

The low cost of living meant that I could piece together part-time work instead of looking for a full-time teaching job myself. The set-up offered precisely what I’d hoped for: ample time to write. I’d unleash volleys of cunning, heartfelt essays, utilize the glittering Interweb to network with likeminded creative-types, and watch my freelance career begin to unfold.

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You can smell the punch line, can’t you? We make our plans, and the good Lord chuckles. I love writing and revising essays; I don’t love submitting and resubmitting them. After ten minutes on Facebook or Twitter, I’ve had my fill of social networking for the week. It wasn’t that I spent the year in ardent pursuit of my dream but met with disappointment; my ardor dried up by the end of autumn.

Turns out I thrived on the bustle of teaching full-time. Waking early, putting on pretty clothes, riding my bike to school: my old routine suited me far more than staying in my pajamas and plunking away at a computer keyboard. When I found myself brooding at school, singing joyful songs with children snapped me out of it. In my new life I depended on afternoon voice lessons to buoy my spirit – and teaching students via Skype fell far short of teaching them in person.

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As autumn ended and winter set in, I grieved the loss of my Writing Career as though it had actually existed. I knew that I’d continue to write, but I unhanded the illusion that it would make me famous or even pay the bills. Okay, “unhanded” is a graceful but inaccurate verb. God had to pry the illusion from my sweaty, clutching fingers the way I’ve seen parents wrest dangerous objects from their toddlers.

Meanwhile, David’s teaching job dragged him through a disillusionment of his own. I don’t know which made me weep more: watching my husband struggle or letting go of the person I planned to become.

Fast forward to spring. Autumn and winter make a lot more sense when the world begins to blossom. Letting go of the person I planned to become? I’ve begun to recognize the loss as a gain.

Lines of burning grass create pattern on landscape at dusk

In the tall grass prairies of Kansas, spring is a time of burning. Native Americans started the tradition of setting fire to the old grass in order to instigate the rapid growth of new grass. Viktor Frankl wrote, “What is to give light must endure burning.” In prairie terms, we could slightly revise that: What is to give life must endure burning. As I survey the charred landscape of our time here in Kansas, I see fertile soil and green shoots. New dreams arise from the ashes of my surrender. David and I make plans to return to Massachusetts. I begin to outline a novel.

Catherine asked me to write about living the in-between. As she astutely observes, “We’re all there in one way or another.” David and I have experienced the in-between in full force this year, but I can’t remember a season of my life that didn’t feel like a transition. Like a baffled student, I return to the same lesson again and again. I’ll say it confidently now, with the windows open and the lilacs in blossom: the new life quickening within me will feed next year’s flames. When the grasses fade to yellow and the cold sets in, I’ll weep and question and eventually let go. I can’t tell you next year’s particulars, but I’m learning to love the pattern.

Hannah writes, Skypes voice lessons, and teaches yoga in Wichita, Kansas. She met Catherine through her husband David, one of Catherine’s childhood friends. Her blog lives at hannahlynnmell.com.

[Photo: James Nedresky at Flint Hills Images]

My Hands are Dying

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Today, I’m writing over at my dear friend Hannah’s blog, Breathe Deep. It’s a story that took a long time for me to be able to write, but it felt good to write it.

And for the first time in twenty-two years, she found a reason to plead for herself. Her blood, her gelatinous lungs breathing in and out. It was quick and suddenly she saw her hand – red and plump like Mickey Mouse’s – and she thought Oh my gosh, I am getting old. Look at these veins, and she hurriedly covered the purple spidery arm with a sweater.

You can only ignore for so long. The next morning the blood still pooled, the arm still hung heavy and without its customary strength, and she decided a doctor would know. If only to tell her nothing was wrong, go back to your little life of serving coffee and greasy eggs and feeling self-important. You are not so great as to be seriously ill. But that was a mistake because one place after the other, the ultrasound with its beat-beating and the reduction of her insides to a white-gray image from Mars. “Clot,” they said. 

It’s one of the those stories that had to start in the third person and grow more personal from there. To keep reading, head over here.

Come back Friday to read Hannah’s guest post about her own version of in-between living.

Maundy Thursday

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He spoke of the four cups of wine and their significance, how the Lord used four verbs of redemption in Exodus 6:6-7 when speaking about Israel:

I will bring you out…

I will rescue you…

I will redeem you…

I will take you…

Why is this night different from all other nights?

I wrote a letter to a college friend the other day, and faith came up, the strangeness of it, the constant shifting. I’ve changed more in the three years since college than I ever did when I was there, and my faith has been moving, too. I keep reminding myself that this isn’t something to be afraid of, that wrestling with doctrine and rightness of things and my own inconsistencies is exactly the way it should be.

It does scare me a little.

Why is this night different from all other nights?

God is not stagnant. Many of my friends are packing up and moving. God is not stagnant.

I am not moving house, but I am moving, constantly shaking things up, walking a new rabbit trail, searching and finding and searching again. I use new words to talk to God, but more than that, I find new ways to listen. I thank Him for the sun, and I thank Him for His unending forgiveness that I need daily.

God is not stagnant.

Why is this night different from all other nights?

There was a time last spring. I was in the throes of – I’m not sure what to call it – an emotional upheaval? A spiritual awakening? I’d just read Lauren Winner’s Still, and I wasn’t sure whether to be angry, sad, hopeful, or just realize its honesty. She wrote about the middle-place of faith, how sometimes we dwell in this space far longer than we anticipated. Throughout the whole book, her voice feels monotone, like her soul is weary with this middle-ness.

I sat in church, listening to my pastor’s words over the eucharist, and I was filled with fear.

My palms began to sweat. I stared at the communion table. It was the first time I realized what awe felt like.

The magnitude of what I was about to do, the bread and drink that would pass my lips, filled me with a visceral fear.

I have never had that same experience again, but I long for it.

The silence at the power of God.

The knowledge that He is so much more than I think He is, and thank God for that.

What makes this night different from all other nights?

To look forward to the feast of the Lord, when all is made new. To look forward to breaking bread with my Savior. To be shocked into wonder.