17 December, 2015

To Join the Story

When I was 4 years old a trailer began airing on TV for an upcoming Disney movie.  I didn’t catch what the story was actually about, but I was dazzled by an image of silver spoons diving into a bowl of punch in one beautiful fanning motion. It was the longing of my little heart to see that movie with the SPOONS. (Don’t you sometimes miss the tiny but true-hearted objectives and victories of childhood?)

One day a few months later Mom told us that she would have a surprise for us after all our schoolwork and chores were done.  We flew through our duties, ran to the living room, and sat down on the couch in an orderly line, looking as sweet and responsible and deserving as we possibly could.  

Mom walked into the living room holding something behind her.  She slowly drew it out for us to see, and it was...THE SPOONS MOVIE (otherwise known as Beauty and The Beast).  Oh, my heart!  What a sublime moment!  I hadn’t even told my parents of my interest in seeing the movie ...but mothers have an extra bit of magical intuition and so here it was, our very own copy to watch and memorize and sing along to.  As it turned out, there was a lot more to the story than dancing spoons.  There was some good stuff about sacrificial love turning hopeless creatures into their truest, best selves.

09 December, 2015

Even the Stones

For You, O Lord, our souls in stillness wait
Truly, our hope is in You

I’ve been singing this song a lot lately, but with a sorry lack of conviction.  These days my soul feels anything but still. In this month that is all about waiting, receiving, and rejoicing, I am running on fumes and doing more striving, more burdening myself with impossible standards, more “Why is my calendar so full?” than anything else.  I haven’t just reached my limits; I seem to have set up camp there. I would send you a postcard, but the view is a little bleak.

22 October, 2015

"I'm a spring person. I only like beginnings."

I was going to post a roundup of various articles, images, and miscellany I've encountered lately as a little kudos to those who are doing something to voice or repair the broken circles.

But instead of a list (after all, how many more lists does the internet need?), I decided to just share with you this one, beautiful little film called "Eleanor Ambos Interiors", which came on my radar via Design*Sponge.

© Sasha Arutyunova
"I get to see the beauty in different eyes, of different beholders, and it's always amazing...On the same canvas different creatures paint different paintings of their own vision, and I find that really wonderful."

"Invention. Invention is really the best."

Here is the sort of irony we love to encounter in removed, fictional settings for its dramatic power: A woman who has lived her life drunk on the pursuit of beauty, flying against the wind of convention -- now being slowly dragged down in subjection to her body which will eventual deny her the sense of sight, her main access to beauty. But this isn't fiction. This is the real-time experience of a real woman, and there is nothing romantic about the daily choices of attitude and action that she faces.

But here is also a simple and profound example of power as a generative thing. "Power" may not be the word that first comes to your mind when you look at Eleanor Ambos, but maybe this says more about our negative associations with the word than it does about Ambos. Andy Crouch has written and spoken extensively on power as servant leadership for the purpose of ensuring the flourishing of others. We are placed in the world and given creative ability so that all the possibilities of the world will unfold, will flourish, will be fully actualized. We are made to transform the raw material of the world in a way that elicits their "very goodness." As her body begins to limit her own ability to create, Ambos works to ensure that her eclectic empire of beautiful spaces and things will endure to provide other artists with the resources they need to create something new.

This is a sweet, sepia-toned snapshot of power as a generative thing that turns a functional space ("good") into a creative space ("very good"); as the feisty advocate of human creative potential; as humility that delights in the chance to make something possible for others rather than seeking personal gain. Enjoy this film, and then go make something!

16 June, 2015

"Trust me. It builds character."

A man and his noble hound
My father, with the silver hair and the voice that makes willing captives of any audience.  The mocha-rich, “they don’t make them like they used to” kind of voice that chooses words for their sonorous quality just as much as for their functionality.  An instinct for eloquence that enriches the conveyance of information.  

One of his knees is decorated with a long stuttering scar, a 4-inch white flag of surrender to the injury that ended his college football career and with it his days as a Virginia prep demi-god. Sometimes in my parents’ attic I look backwards on grainy 35mm Chuck with the blinding smile and a jersey for every sport.  Chuck before the knee held together by titanium and a spirit tamed by Aslan.  Chuck whose injuries built a training ground for life with a broken earthsuit.

God does not promise us easy but He promises reward, right standing, a good end.  This was the approach taken by my earthly father, too.  Through chore charts and sibling buddy systems and strict TV times he taught us that there are many things in life that are not easy but are worth doing because of their eventual sure reward.  You will pick all the ripe tomatoes before you can go play, and you will apologize and ask your brother’s forgiveness for hurting him, and you will only watch this much television per day.  And instead of scarcity you will find in these things a good life, a life of joy and service and hard work and pleasures more deeply enjoyed because you worked and waited for them.  

My father, the repudiator of the doctrine of instant gratification.  He taught his children to work and wait in faith, and he leads by example as he now endures an assignment whose end date is unknown.  I look at his shoes that will never again be creased from walking and I see a man learning to wait for the restoration of the body that is guaranteed by the deliverance of the soul. 

I am thankful for a father who teaches me to value the rewards of waiting -- the qualities of character formed by doing the best that you can and leaning on others when you can’t; the wisdom of perspective that says, “My life is one plot line of a bigger story written by an author I have learned to trust”; and the true rejoicing in victory that looks more like humility than ego.  Happy birthday, Dad. I love you.

14 April, 2015

State of Normalcy: Freedom from Fear

The night I dreamed that I had an epic street fight with Halle Berry in the parking lot of a 7-11, after which she stole my car just as a chemical-biological terrorist attack rolled in to wipe out me and every other person in sight, I realized that I might have just the slightest fear issues.  (I currently have no issues with Halle Berry.  She would never want my dented Volkswagen, anyway.)

The really bizarre thing, though, is that chemical-biological terrorism is a very real possibility in this place I've come to call home.  So are bomb threats, shootings, political scandal, and blue collar crime.  They're so possible that we've adopted some level of fear as normal, like a background song called "National Paranoia" that has played for so long that you've stopped noticing it.

07 April, 2015

State of Normalcy: Freedom of Acronymed Speech

Something struck me recently as I caught up with an old college friend whom I hadn't seen in three years. It was almost an out-of-body experience; I heard myself describing my job, my commute, and the general experience of life and work in the Washington, DC Metropolitan area with such matter-of-factness. I realized how many things I have come to accept as normal after living and working here for nearly seven years, but that mean nothing to visitors or newcomers. How many words and acronyms have become part of my vocabulary, how many expectations I have adopted about time and systems and resources, how many particular articles of clothing or accessories I'm "supposed" to have in my wardrobe...Some aspects of this adopted normalcy are admirable qualities of DC and its inhabitants/commuters. Some of them are truly ridiculous and could withstand some gentle mocking. So this is where we're headed next on the blog: an exploration of this somewhat precious, somewhat cringe-inducing State of Normalcy.

05 April, 2015

Beggars at the Feast

We come forward to receive something only You could give:
Wine that never sours, a crust that is a feast.
In the pouring out, the tearing up, the falling to our knees
we know that surely as we taste and see,
we have been set free.

We come forward to receive what we do not understand:
a homeless king of heaven serves beggars at the feast.
A final breath ignites a life that never will expire,
a broken body paves our path, and
Your bondage sets us free.

02 April, 2015

Morning Prayer: For What You Have Taken Away

A few years ago I taught at a small Christian school where each day began with a brief devotional time called Morning Prayer.  Over the two weeks leading up to Easter I'm publishing posts derived from devotionals I shared or experiences I had during that year, all having to do with presence and absence, generosity and loss.


(This doesn't technically belong in a series of morning prayers since it regards a dinner-time blessing, but today is Maundy Thursday and so I'm more committed to a theme than to a technicality.)

One winter evening during my year as a teacher one of my co-workers hosted a few of us in his home after school.  Our mission was to make egg rolls from scratch, fry them, and eat them while enjoying each other's company outside of work.  It was an evening of greasy fingers and spicy fluorescent-orange dipping sauce and boisterous laughter, but it's one quiet moment in particular that has stayed lodged in my mind since that night.

We took our seats around the table, mouths watering and poor-teacher-tummies rumbling at the sight of steaming golden rolls.  Our host said a prayer to bless the food, ending it with this: "We thank You, Father, for everything You have given us, and we thank You for everything You have taken away."

31 March, 2015

Morning Prayer: Placing a Bookmark

A few years ago I taught at a small Christian school where each day began with a brief devotional time called Morning Prayer.  Over the two weeks leading up to Easter I'm publishing posts derived from devotionals I shared or experiences I had during that year, all having to do with presence and absence, generosity and loss.


“But all the fulfillments were somehow, it seemed to me, incomplete, temporary, HURRIED.  We wished to know, to savor, to sink in – into the heart of the experience – to possess it wholly.  But there was never enough time; something still eluded us.” 

Sheldon van Auken, A Severe Mercy

When I was a little girl my family had a very good friend named Margaret.  Margaret was from England.  I hadn’t really been anywhere other than small-town Maryland, so Margaret was the most exotic person I knew. She was FROM the country where so many of my favorite stories were set.  When she told us that she used to travel through Sherwood Forest to go visit her grandmother, I just about died from the romance of it all! 

29 March, 2015

Morning Prayer: The Gift of Presence

A few years ago I taught at a small Christian school where each day began with a brief devotional time called Morning Prayer.  Over the two weeks leading up to Easter I'm publishing posts derived from devotionals I shared or experiences I had during that year, all having to do with presence and absence, generosity and loss.


My older sister Emily and I went to the same college.  This was really fun for me, but really confusing for everyone else on campus; it took some people an entire year to figure out that we weren't twins or a single person who popped up everywhere.  One friend remembered passing one of us on the sidewalk one afternoon, saying hello, and then ten minutes later passing the other one of us and thinking, "Wow, she changed clothes really fast!"

To help eliminate the confusion Emily and I lived on opposite ends of campus during our sophomore year.  I was having the hardest year of my life up to that point; not only was my workload overwhelming, but I was also beleaguered by some emotional battles and deep spiritual confusion. I was ashamed of some of the questions I had and didn't know who I could trust enough to voice them to.  My loneliness was compounded by living in my own room with no roommate for the first time in my life and hardly ever seeing my big sister due to our schedules.  

On one particularly bad night Emily happened to call my room.  As we talked she noticed the weariness in my voice.  She said, "Ginny, do you want to come sleep over in my room?"
Vintage Emily & Ginny

I couldn't have articulated to her everything that was on my heart, but I could pack my things in a backpack and trot across campus to her dorm.  We put on a movie, she worked on a drawing, and I just sat quietly.  We didn't have an epic conversation solving all my problems, but I experienced the first true rest that I had known in a long time.  Not just physical rest - which I needed - but the emotional rest in the presence of another person who loved me enough to give me some of her limited time and space.  She couldn't answer all of my questions or eradicate all of my doubts, but she could give me the significant gift of human presence when I needed it most, presence to take away loneliness.

Presence is a gift that is easy to overlook or forget, but it is profoundly powerful.  If you've read The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe you might remember how one night Aslan sets out for the Stone Table to give up his life for his friends' sake.  On the way he is overtaken by two of them, Susan and Lucy.  They know nothing of what he is about to do, but he is bolstered by their momentary company.  

"Are you ill, dear Aslan?" asked Susan.
"No," said Aslan. "I am sad and lonely. Lay your hands on my mane so that I can feel you are there and let us walk like that."

A few days from now we will remember the night of Jesus's betrayal and arrest.  We are told that after supper Jesus and His disciples went to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray.  Jesus knew what was in God's plan for Him that night.  He knew that great sadness and pain were coming.  He was about to experience utter rejection, utter loneliness.  He knew that the disciples couldn't change or ease any of that - He just wanted them to stay awake with Him through those hours of agonized prayer.  

I can attest to the power of companionship, having been a grateful recipient of it during trials.  But I have also found this to be encouraging as the one standing on the side, wishing so much that I could do something to relieve a friend of his or her suffering.  It is easy to think that if I lack the "perfect" words or just the right resources to immediately solve the situation, I'm not able to help at all.  I hold on to the hope that despite my deficit of wisdom or resources, the ability to serve as a shoulder to cry on, a listening ear, or a companion in the silence of grief-filled moments will nonetheless weave something a lifeline of grace. 

26 March, 2015

Morning Prayer: Nothing in Parentheses

A few years ago I taught at a small Christian school where each day began with a brief devotional time called Morning Prayer.  Over the two weeks leading up to Easter I'm publishing posts derived from devotionals I shared or experiences I had during that year, all having to do with presence and absence, generosity and loss.


During the 6 months that I lived in London I took a few days to visit my brother-in-law's family in Sweden.  Just a few days before visiting them I had been blindsided by a heartbreaking disappointment that was making me question a lot of decisions I had made in the past. I feared that I had made so many mistakes that I had ruined my future and now the rest of my life would have to be Plan B, or C or D... (So dramatic)  I also had a big decision looming on the horizon, and my distress over the past paralyzed me so much that I feared making that decision. 
My brother-in-law's mother, Karin, picked me up at the train station.  On the drive back to her house she asked me how I was doing, and I opened up to her.  I began describing some of my discouragement over the past.  I couldn't make sense of some of the things that had happened to me -- some of the careful decisions I had made seemed to have been complete dead ends.  I thought that I had wasted time, squandered opportunities, and probably disappointed God.    

Karin is very gentle but also very strong, qualities born of a life filled with adventure and some unexpected sadness.  Some things will probably never be explained or make sense until heaven.  But she has learned to lean very heavily on the Lord, and when you speak with her you know without a doubt that this is a woman who trusts in His goodness and His plan.  She listened patiently (which was amazing because I was an emotional nightmare), and then she said just enough to remind me to keep a perspective on this situation that was truer and further-reaching than just my immediate emotions.  She looked at me and said, "For the Christian, nothing in life is in parentheses."  Nothing in life is in parentheses.  

How do we use parentheses?  When we write, we use parentheses to include thoughts or information that aren't essential to the whole.  They are peripheral, you might say.  I was treating some of my decisions -- or their consequences -- as parenthetical, things that in the end didn't seem to make any sense in the narrative of my life.  Some of them even seemed to have impeded or derailed the course of my life.  Karin's words reminded me of the fundamental difference in God's perspective; to God, my decisions and experiences matter, and they are each a part of His complete plan for me.  With a few years' hindsight I can look back and see that some of those things that seemed like dead ends or detours actually were the richest sources of new knowledge of God, new ways of learning through experience that He is patient and powerful and generous and surprising.  Even small or "pointless" situations were His intense pursuit -- how on earth could I put them in parentheses?  

Writing this now is deeply convicting, challenging, as I face circumstances at work that tempt me to a despairing attitude about the story that God is writing in my life.  Let me remember...Let me trust that whichever direction this story goes, the path is not outside of God's power.  No decision I make -- or the impact of others' decisions -- is parenthetical to His plan or can lessen His love for me.  Nothing is in parentheses.  There is always, only Plan A.

24 March, 2015

Morning Prayer: Intense Pursuit

A few years ago I taught at a small Christian school where each day began with a brief devotional time called Morning Prayer.  Over the two weeks leading up to Easter I'm publishing posts derived from devotionals I shared or experiences I had during that year, all having to do with presence and absence, generosity and loss.


I harbor a cautious favoritism toward this fact of life: that words possess profound power.  I cherish that fact because that power can be richly life-giving, and I am cautious because that power can be utterly destructive.  I want to tell you about one constructively powerful statement that someone unknowingly spoke into my life during my first semester of college.

22 March, 2015

Morning Prayer: Embarrassed by Mercy

A few years ago I taught at a small Christian school where each day began with a brief devotional time called Morning Prayer.  Over the two weeks leading up to Easter I'm publishing posts derived from devotionals I shared or experiences I had during that year, all having to do with presence and absence, generosity and loss.


In 2012 I finished a brief stint living in London and visited a friend who lived in east Germany, a stay which I later blogged about here.  I wrote about Kordelia, the woman who visited the Bauhaus with us and then invited us back to her home for dinner. That evening we were overwhelmed by an unending parade of food offered to us -- chips, lemonade, homemade bread, cheese, salad, pizza, dessert, more pizza -- it just kept coming!  

It was a bit embarrassing to be showered with so much when I was a total stranger to them.  With every new offering, I said "thank you."  Over and over: "thank you so much!"  Kordelia finally stopped, looked at me, and said, "It makes me uncomfortable that you thank me so much...But I guess it would probably make you uncomfortable not to thank me, wouldn't it?"  ...Yeeeeeeesssss...
Babette's Feast, 1987

I grew up in Maryland, and while it wasn't quite the South a lot of my good friends were transplanted southerners, and their manners rubbed off on me.  It was drilled into me to say "Yes sir," "Yes ma'am," "Please," "Thank you."  I felt very rude if I didn't say thank you.  It was rote, habit, but it was subtly chased by the fear of some unspecified consequence for not being "good."  Kordelia's words were shocking because of how profoundly she didn't expect or need my thanks.  My thanks did not accomplish anything for her.  It was simply in her nature to give generously out of what she had been given, for the pure pleasure of sharing.  My gratitude wasn't the point.  Her hospitality was a gift to me and an opportunity to flex the muscles of who she was in her core.  But my excessive, dutiful "Thanks" in a way diminished her own experience of giving -- drawing too much attention to the act.  

What is the nature of a gift?  It's not a trade.  When someone gives a gift to you they aren't expecting anything back.  You are free to use it as you choose.  Thinking about that evening at Kordelia's helped me realize that I have a similar difficulty with simply receiving God's grace to me.  It's actually very hard to receive.  I often still feel guilt or embarrassment, as though God will somehow hold it against me if I don't do something to make up for all the trouble He's gone to.  

One of my favorite books is a short story called "Babette's Feast."  It is an amazing picture of lavish generosity to very oblivious recipients.  Late in the story, one character (who is burdened by his own regrets and misgivings about past choices) comes to realize that he has just been treated to the most extravagant meal in meager surroundings with simple people.  It was cooked by a woman who never hinted at the expense and effort it cost her.  Everyone has eaten quietly, receiving what was set before them. It is too late to help in any way with buying or cooking or serving any of it. The man stands up to give a toast and says:

"There comes a time when our eyes are opened and we come to realize that mercy is infinite.  We need only await it with confidence and receive it with gratitude.  Mercy imposes no conditions."

These gifts - food, shelter, friendship, the hospitality of strangers, a home for eternity - are given with no conditions.  We say thanks not out of duty or fear of disdain, but because this truth is too wonderful to not overflow our starving hearts.  We are given daily bread AND so much in addition that is non-essential to existence, because the Giver Himself is infinite; how could an infinitely generous heart stop at only providing essentials?  How could an infinitely generous heart impose conditions on the sun that shines on the evil and the good?  How could we ever hope to adequately thank, if thanks were the terms of the gift?  This is on my mind with the approach of Easter, that day that marks the ultimate extravagant feast which can only be received because it can never be repaid.  I hope to live less out of fear and more with my face turned up, gratefully embarrassed by Mercy.