Becoming Human: A Lesson From Galileo

fairyland-canyon-1632749_1920 (2)When we lived in Texas, it didn’t take long for me to geek out on all things NASA. It hadn’t occurred to me when we said we’d move to Houston that we were heading to the land of Apollo 13 fame. I had loved that movie when it came out and forgot that when Tom Hanks said, “Houston, we have a problem,” he quite literally meant Houston, Texas – the city we were relocating too.

Outside of that movie I hadn’t really thought about space much until I joined the staff at Habitat for Humanity in Dickinson and learned that many in the space community there were involved with our work over the years. I still think its a safe bet to say that we were likely the only non profit in the country to have not just one, but TWO “interplanetary geologists” on our board of directors. To this day I have no idea what an interplanetary geologist actually does but it sure sounds cool. I remember talking to one of them at a fundraising event and noting that I’d surely never used the term “cosmic dust” in a sentence before.

Here’s the thing I’ve realized about space exploration: Learning about the  vastness of the universe makes you feel incredibly small. Breathtakingly small. The very consideration of it can be anxiety provoking for someone like myself who likes to feel in control. And yet, I’m tempted to think that feeling small might not be such a bad thing in the end.

At some point during our time in Texas, Andy organized a date to the Brazos Bend state park observatory about an hour west of Galveston. Outside of Houston’s light pollution, you can take a turn behind two or three high powered telescopes – each about the size of a small bus – and check out constellations that we’re unable to see with our naked eyes. The most powerful telescope there revealed a set of stars that were 170,000 light years away. Which might not mean that much until you realize that this is the effect of someone turning a lamp on and then waiting 170,000 years for someone on earth to see it flicker on. Thus anyone looking into the telescope that night was looking at light that started shining that long ago too.

I know. I CANNOT.

At some point on the evening of our date, one of the observatory volunteers, A.K.A. “adorable super space nerd,” was using his laser pointer to point out various galaxies and constellations and he made a comment about how Galileo had used some combination of these constellations to determine that the earth revolved around the sun as opposed to the sun revolving around the earth – something that people in his time had held as “the sky is blue truth” for centuries.

“And this proclamation,” super space nerd reminded us, “Is what got Galileo excommunicated from the Catholic Church and put on house arrest.”

To which I, no offense intended to Galileo’s clear misfortune, essentially burst out laughing.

Because this is what we humans do.

All. the. time. 

For years upon years we build our lives, families, companies or churches around all sorts of theories that revolve around our ability to control some aspect of them. This could be building a company that fulfills a corporate mission on one hand but more than anything ensures my continued leadership of it. Or building a family that does great things in and for the world but more than anything reflects my unmatched parenting capabilities for all to see. Or building a life so harried that only a robot would choose it but that more than anything ensures that in my retirement I can really live the good life. Nevermind that none of these things are guaranteed to us. Ever.

When these dreams fall apart, because so often they do…we do one of two things: We either fall with it and see where the wind takes us next (this is rare) or we rush in and do any manner of ridiculous things to protect THE THING we hold most dear with all the might we can muster. In the halls of power at the Vatican this meant banishing a brilliant life so power could be maintained. Because if the earth revolves around the sun then the very heavens are not about us anymore.

and this cannot be so…

or can it? 

For me, becoming human again has involved getting to the understanding that my life is not primarily about me and my story. Which is funny, I realize, as I’m writing a blog about how we might live better stories. Its not that our desires and our personal make-up don’t come into play. They just simply don’t take the place of the sun.

I think acknowledging that we’re a part of a much bigger story and that perhaps we’ve tried to build a life in our own power could be the first step towards healing and wholeness. It could also be the thing that lets us live freely in relationship to the very source of our human power: God himself.

This is not easy though. I think its hard primarily because its not natural to admit that we’ve been living life in our own strength. In my own life, I just simply got so tired that I gave up. At which point things finally started to come together. 

 

So how do we know if we’re in proper orbit with God?

Our emotions do tell us a great deal. How calmly do you step off the field when its time to quit? How much do you despair when life takes you down an unintended or undesired path? Or alternatively, how quickly do we run to God with our fears, sadnesses and uncertainties? It is a mark of spiritual maturity to run to Him with our burdens after all. But its taken years of reading scripture and then sitting in corners all banged up for me to realize what the scriptures are calling me to.

Jesus wants us to come to Him. He just has this way of putting us all in our proper places again. In the best of ways. And while he’s definitely taken me to places I never would have asked to go I’ve also noticed that he’s never left me out in the cold. I’ve never been abandoned even when it sure as hell felt that way. Someone, even if its a stranger, comes out of the woodwork to help. Because we’re all orbiting the Sun together. Some of us are fighting our paths, others are walking freely in them. Most of us are somewhere in between. But we’re all orbiting our God whether we know it or not. Its those who follow the paths laid before them with an eye towards the center who seem to be living the most free.

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Beginnings

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I think its fair to say that I never understood the true wonder of a human life until I had my daughter. I thought when I started this blog that I would write more about parenting than I have. I think I’ve avoided it mostly because there’s not much I can write that hasn’t been written before. Its all true. I really would jump in front of a bus for this tiny person. Its just a reality and writing about it for me would feel a lot like writing “the sky is blue” on repeat.

Something I have wanted to reflect on more closely though are the truths about human nature and our relationship to God that are revealed so perfectly by children. These realities are THE THINGS that I couldn’t let go of when I was jumping around with fear over the decision to have kids and they are THE THINGS that keep me going when I’m tired and irritable from running after a two year old most days.

It would not be a lie for me to say that most days I can share at least one moment, often more, when I feel like God whispers to me through this 21 month old little person. She’s like the tiniest God reflector there ever was. She’ll delightedly explore a playground and I feel Him say: “Look at her. I’m calling you to be like that too.” Or I’ll swoon with pride over a new skill she’s picked up and I sense Him say to me on a soul level: “I love you that way too.” Even temper tantrums have their place as I realize that I act this way with God from time to time. And while I know its a universal feeling for parents to bring forth children and realize within short order that they would die for their kids, I don’t know that its instinctual for people to realize that through our kids God is saying the same thing back to us. I’m tempted to say that its not – or we’d all be a whole lot lighter.

Two things struck me profoundly when Ellie was born. The first was that I realized in an experiential way what it meant to be made in the image of God. I realized this because he gave me a first born child who is, at the moment and since she’s been born, a practical carbon copy of myself. I know she’ll mature and change and take on different interests and skills than I have but at the moment, raising her feels like raising an earlier version of myself with my husband’s delightfully long eyelashes.

The second thing I recall was amazement at how incredibly inefficient it is to raise a child. For all the babysitting I did as a teenager it wasn’t until I became responsible for one that the absurdity of a child’s helplessness came into view. Even with the technological advances of our day, there just aren’t any iBaby chargers available that you can stick your kid in for a couple of hours while you head down the street for a latte. Baby girl is coming with or you’re finding someone to watch her and that’s just the way it is. The fact that you need one adult person to spend 24 hours a day, 365 days per year for a minimum of 12 years in short walking distance of a child is astounding to me in a day and age where efficiency is king. Yet this is how kids become adults and how adults sustain their lives in community. It is a process of radical dependence regardless of the technology available to us.

I say all this to get back to a baseline of sorts. In Genesis, God creates Adam and Eve and says essentially this: “I’ve made a diverse and creatively complex world and as my kids, my image bearers, you are free to enjoy it all. Now take after me, and do what I do. Cultivate what I’ve given you and tend to it in creative ways. But do this with me. The minute you don’t you will put yourself in my shoes and the weight of that responsibility will be nothing short of crushing.” [paraphrase mine]

Is this not what we do when we raise a child? We give birth to another person who takes after us often in physical form or personality and then we give them the tools and materials they need to become cultivators themselves. I marvel as Ellie explores our house or helps herself to the pantry for a snack and reflects back to me the nature of divine love. She doesn’t really have to ask us for much (though for the sake of teaching manners or her own safety we encourage her to regularly). What we have is hers so long as its not harmful to her in some way. I’m also amazed that at 12 to 18 months these kids are anxious to get involved in the family routine. One of my main go-tos in terms of discipline lately is to ask Ellie for help when we need to clean up or avoid a probable tantrum over something she wants that I’m not ready for her to have. Her whole countenance moves into action as she feels enlisted as a big girl in the demands of the moment.

I guess what I want to say and am fumbling to express here is this: God has shown me through my kid that I take after him. At the same time I realize that everyone I meet is like him in some way too. He’s shown me that none of us were created to live life disconnected from the source of it. Its inefficient as hell and yet hell might just be the place where we’re so efficiently getting things done that we forget whom we were created for in the first place.

I believe on a soul level that this is what it means to be human. We bear the image of God to the world and in radical dependence on Him through our community we express his nature back to the world through the ways that we’re called to live and move and have our being. For parents, children are not valued once they start contributing in some tangible way to the family. They are valued in the first hours and days that they are born. In the same way, a child doesn’t arrive to us with a battery pack for use when her umbilical chord reserve runs dry. Babies are as needy and dependent as a person gets and they are, we are, designed that way. On purpose. So we might not be so focused on getting things done that we miss the primary relationship we were created for in the first place.

Becoming human, becoming whole, might just require a look back at the beginning. We need eyes to see our intrinsic worth and enough difficulty to push us into the arms of a God who would hold us, feed us and keep us warm. These – dear reader – these two realities, properly considered and inscribed on our hearts, would positively change the world. You are made in the image of God and whether you know it or not you are radically dependent on Him for your very breath. Reflect on this, ingest this on a soul level, and you’ll start finding out what it looks like to really live.

“You see how it is godlike to love the being of someone.

Your existence is a delight to us.”

(Rev. John Ames to his son in Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Gilead)

“I take literally the statement in the Gospel of John that God loves the world. I believe that the world was created and approved by love, that it subsists, coheres, and endures by love, and that, insofar as it is redeemable, it can be redeemed only by love. I believe that divine love, incarnate and indwelling in the world. summons the world always toward wholeness, which ultimately is reconciliation and atonement with God.”

– Wendell Berry

 

 

 

 

Becoming Human – a New Series!

becoming human

In CS Lewis’ fictional masterpiece The Screwtape Letters, Lewis crafts a story about a seasoned demon named Uncle Screwtape who is guiding his nephew Wormwood in the ways required to keep a human away from intimacy with a Holy God. I read this a couple of years ago on a whim and was surprised to find that I loved it. It is classic Lewis – helping us to see through these fictional letters how we, believers in a loving God, get in our own way when it comes to living out our love stories in the world. There are countless quotes from that book that I could share and write about but I personally love this one from one of Uncle Screwtape’s letters to his demon-in-training nephew:

“When [God] talks of their losing their selves, He means only abandoning the clamour of self-will; once they have done that, He really gives them back all their personality, and boasts (I am afraid, sincerely) that when they are wholly His they will be more themselves than ever.

-Uncle Screwtape

This has been a theme that’s come up over the past year or two for me – the fact that following the way, the truth, and the life of Jesus, through the power of the Holy Spirit, makes us more human; more ourselves. I’m finding this to be true and it looks so much different than I would have originally thought. This following of God has not made me any more successful financially or physically. In fact, having a child and making the spirit led choice to be her primary caretaker at home has understandably done the opposite to both my body and our pocketbook!

But even in spite of those realities, I’m finding my way towards an inner peace and joy that I had not considered possible over the past 15 years.  Oswald Chambers put it this way the other day:

“[Becoming human] is built entirely on the supernatural grace of God… We do not need the grace of God to withstand crises— human nature and pride are sufficient for us to face the stress and strain magnificently. But it does require the supernatural grace of God to live twenty-four hours of every day as a saint, [living and loving as a beloved child of God]. It is ingrained in us that we have to do exceptional things for God— but we do not. We have to be exceptional in the ordinary things of life, and holy on the ordinary streets, among ordinary people…this is not learned in five minutes.”

I’ve paraphrased Chamber’s words slightly here for clarity’s sake as he’s a bit Puritan at times. My favorite part is his gracious final sentence: “This is not learned in five minutes.” Ha! How true that is. I definitely feel like I am stumbling forward most days.

So for my own sake, and for you all, my readers, I’m considering a short series of posts entitled “Becoming Human.” These will be short posts about how a journey in partnership with God brings out the real Courtney, or the real insert your name here. I’m not entirely sure where this will go but I look forward to what we’ll discover together. I do think it will look a lot like a slow, perhaps at times difficult, but ultimately joyful path towards humble reliance on a God who knows us better than we know ourselves.

“Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” Luke 12:6-7

 

 

Getting From Here to There

brownie

I was talking to a friend earlier this week who was calling me back off the ledge. I was having a rare moment of exasperation at the fact that everything in my life these days feels so “in the middle.” We know the future will look different at some point but all the pieces haven’t come together yet. I feel somewhat stuck in the mud as I wonder what’s next and can’t do anything to get “there” any quicker. Wherever the elusive “there” might end up being.

Its such a weird feeling to have your life feel on hold. Upon reflection I will say that PMS does NOT help here in the slightest. I swear I was holding back every urge to grab all of my dishes off the shelf and throw them one by one onto the concrete slab out our back step as therapy.

As Heather and I talked though I mentioned to her again how this story of Jacob we’ve been reading lately is like God’s weekly nudge in my direction to pay attention. This entire story is the decades long saga of one man’s overwhelming longing to be blessed by God and how he both succeeds and fails (often miserably) to help himself towards God’s best for him.

Heather said something funny after I mentioned this long journey to joy. She said “You know Courtney…its not like Jacob didn’t have anything to smile about while he waited for his promised land. He married and had plenty of children during those twenty plus years. Each of those events would have been cause for joy.”

I really needed to hear this and it brought me back to what we had just listened to this past Sunday. In Genesis 33, Jacob is literally in between camps and neither of these places are his final destination. He’s leaving his conniving Uncle’s land and entering his brother’s territory – a brother whom he cheated out of his rightful inheritance two decades prior. To say that he’s in the middle of the unknown would be an understatement as he’s probably concerned that either his Uncle is pursuing him from behind or his brother is out to get him from the front.

But Genesis 33 is this really cool prodigal son chapter where Esau runs out to meet Jacob and gives him a tearful hug and looks in awe at Jacob’s wives and children and says “Look at all that you’ve been blessed with!” Jacob agrees and tries to convince Esau to take a large portion of his livestock as a gift for his kind dismissal of Jacob’s earlier actions. A cultural process of denial and acceptance of the gift ensues until Jacob finally insists Esau take the almost 300 animals from his flock by saying:

“because God has been gracious to me and I have all I need.” -Gen. 33:11

Ah, I just love this line.

As of this moment nothing has changed since that phone call with Heather on Monday. I still feel very much in limbo about most things in my life right now. But there was something about reading this again later that Monday afternoon. Ellie wouldn’t take a nap because she was all stuffed up with a cold and I was tempted to lose my mind once again as I also had the cold by this point and we both needed the rest. But I remember looking down in a moment of frustration and seeing a bag of chocolate chips on the table that I had picked up randomly at the grocery store the other day. Baking has never really been my thing but I remember thinking maybe we could figure something out some afternoon and threw them into my basket.

I reached up to the top shelf of our pantry and grabbed the recipe book that I’d leafed through a few weeks before and discovered that I had just enough flour and eggs and cocoa powder to turn these chocolate chips into homemade fudge walnut brownies. With Ellie strapped in her seat at the table I could engage her as my “helper” and make it a fun activity for us both to get involved with.

I don’t want to make this event more romantic than it was. I was still tired and kind of grumpy and I’ve truly never been all that excited by the process of baking. But for some reason making a pan of brownies was the activity we needed to get through a frustrating day. Once they cooled down we wrapped some of them up and took them to Ellie’s favorite people at the YMCA who watch her when I both work and work out. She totally dropped the whole plate on the ground on the way into the building but we all got over it and ate them anyway. We enjoyed the brownies and talked about the best way to eat them (cold,  from the fridge, with cold milk. AMAZING) and after a while went on our merry way back home.

I can’t help but think back to that day and how kind of centering it was to make a pan of brownies from scratch with my kid when I couldn’t figure out what was next. 

I think this is how you go from one camp to another camp without losing your mind. You look around and realize that while you might not have everything you want you probably have everything you need to do the next right thing. And then you do it. If you can, you invite some people in to do it with you or you offer them some of what you’ve put together while on your way to the next thing after that. Pretty soon, after doing this for a while, you might just realize when you look up that you’re almost there after all.

Pools and Puddles All Around Us

 

baby oak

Pools and Puddles All Around Us

By: Courtney Beck

You keep us close to the ground.

We grasp and claw hoping to rest our

chins on some higher plane

while the rocks and gravel and boulders at our feet

hinder the upward climb. We sit up in the dust with skinned

knees and bruised faces only to realize that for all our

grasping we almost missed the newborn

tree just over here that so recently started to sprout.

Such a vulnerable thing yet so certain of its need

to dig its roots down deep,

as far as they’ll go,

into mud.

 

Sitting beside it, our bodies exhale all our strife

into pools and puddles all around us and

We’re reminded that dirt aided by

the gracious sun and the waters of our difficulty

are the only things that ever built an oak.

The Value of Wrestling

mopping

Have you ever had a boss that you really admired? Or perhaps it was a beloved teacher or coach? Andy and I had one when we first met. Our boss in college was a man named Joe who’s worked at Loyola University (Loyola College when we attended) for the longest time. I remember the first time I met him was actually at a college day that I was attending in my senior year of high school to determine where I would go to school. Joe was in the student atrium after the event was over and he saw that my mom and I looked lost. He gave us directions to where we were headed and then asked if I would be coming to Loyola the following fall. I remember telling him that I was vacillating between Loyola and another school and he proceeded to tell me that I didn’t need to look elsewhere. Loyola would be a most welcoming home for me.

Joe wasn’t selling me a bill of goods. He was and continues to be proud of the school he works for and it showed. Two years later I would end up working for him and I noticed from the start that Joe didn’t ask any of his students to do anything that he wasn’t prepared to do himself. The man was always moving and was rarely without something in his hands – including a broom to sweep the floors of the warehouse where we met on summer mornings before a day’s work started.

As I got to know him and the students who were loyal to him, I realized that Joe was the type of guy you grew to instinctively want to please. He would notice and honor our extra efforts at an event and was quick to get in the thick of an event with us. Those who stuck with him eventually wanted to honor him back by making him look good too. Joe had a pet peeve: He never let us leave an event until the last chair was stacked and the last floor mopped. If we only had two mops then the whole staff stayed on the clock and took turns mopping floors until the gym floor was shining.

Here’s the thing I’ve realized about Joe and other magnetic leaders like him: For as much as his loyal staff members want to anticipate his needs and make him look good, Joe wanted to tap into the larger vision of the school he works for and make that a reality. Joe was not a leader looking to host events or activities to make himself look good. He was doing it to make Loyola look good. And Loyola has a specific vision to form adult men and women that will be of service in the world. Joe has always been committed to that.

There were times when I actually didn’t enjoy working for Joe. When we were on the clock for 20 hours at a stretch and waiting for the final tarp to be wrapped up in the gym after a commencement or alumni weekend, I recall thinking to myself that he should let some of us go home. I would plan elaborate human resource schemes while we all sat practically sleeping on top of each other in which we would all work on shifts at future events so that we wouldn’t have to work such long hours. What good was it for the rest of us to split up in groups and do odd tasks that were not urgent when most of us could go home at this very instant and get some sleep? But Joe had a bigger plan in mind and that was that our team operated like a small family within the much larger family that was Loyola College. He kept us at work doing odds and ends so we’d know what a family that works hard and does quality work looks like. He kept us at work so that the Loyola community and visitors who came to campus like I did years before would know what it looks like to have a vision for the future. Usually it looks like doing the tedious tasks that no one wants to do so that vision can become a reality.

We had a good summer at our house here in Atlanta but it didn’t come without its share of frustration on a couple of fronts. With Ellie in full on toddler mode there are days when we wrestle her to bed on a given night and collapse on the couch wondering when we’ll get to clock out on the exhaustion front. I know I’m not alone. I have friends and family members who are also in various stages of life wondering when the frustrating circumstance is going to turn over. When will they get to clock out on the illness, frustrating job, morning sickness or temper tantrums.

At church on Sundays we’ve been hearing our pastor preach about the story of Jacob. Jacob’s name means “deceiver” and he spent two decades of his life attempting to swindle and claw his way into what he thinks will be a blessed life. Finally he’s backed into a corner by his own doing and turns to God who then essentially says: OK, now you’re going to wrestle with ME.”

The Spoiler alert? Jacob doesn’t win the fight. He wrestles for the entire night until God through an angel essentially says “give up already.” Jacob, ever the stubborn one, tells him that he won’t until he gets what he wants. To which the angel responds by giving him a new name and a limp in his leg that he would endure for the rest of his life.

The angel changes Jacob’s name from “deceiver” to Israel which means “I struggled with God and with men and have overcome.” God is telling Jacob that from this point forward he gets a new identity. The new identity comes from the only one who knows the big picture. Jacob need not identify with his former self that dishonestly took his brother’s birthright but can identify with the fact that God chose him to wrestle with and was willing to let him keep fighting. While Jacob doesn’t win the fight, he doesn’t exactly lose it either. He would limp for the rest of his life as a physical reminder that he didn’t need to cheat, lie and steal to get what he wanted. God was calling him to wrestle with Him and through the successes and failures of those wrestlings over a lifetime he’d win what he really desired: a legacy that pointed to the fruit of struggle for the generations to consider after him.

After a couple of year’s on staff with Joe and the full time event services team, you inevitably acquire a nickname. When we come back to campus, Joe and David and John and Pat give us big hugs and call us Topper and Courtney Love – names we probably got on a scissor lift in the campus gym on a late Friday night after a concert let out. Those names remind us that we are deeply loved by the people who make Loyola University go. And the people who make Loyola go are the people that taught us you keep wrestling (with sound equipment and boxes of black drape) until the work is done and the whole family can go home. You may be exhausted and even frustrated when you’re in the thick of it and wondering why your boss won’t just let you leave for the night. But years later you’ll look back and realize that a part of you is different because you mopped the floors with your family at 2 AM. If nothing else you’ll know what you have to do when life asks you to do odd jobs at an odd hour. You grab a bucket, put in some hot water and soap, and you mop back and forth, back and forth until the work for the night is done and the floor shines nice and bright.

A Word on Friendship

Woman holiday journey travel relaxation

A couple of summers ago, Andy and I drove from Atlanta to Ocean City, New Jersey where my family vacations every year. It was a long drive but a good one where we spent significant amounts of time talking and attempting to keep a 6 month old entertained in her car seat (please be impressed that we succeeded).

At some point on the return trip home I got antsy and began to search my phone for those lists of questions to ask your spouse when you’re out on a date. I found a list of good ones pretty readily and asked Andy to answer them as he drove. Often, while he was formulating his response to one question or another I would also be thinking about how I might answer the question myself. It ended up encouraging some great conversation and got us through some long stretches on the way back to Atlanta.

I really don’t remember much of what we talked about. I know there were a lot of questions like: If you could do a career change, what would you do? There’s one question I do remember asking though that I will not soon forget. The question was:

“Why are your closest friends, your closest friends?” 

This struck me immediately for two reasons.

  1. I knew my answer almost as soon as I finished asking the question.
  2. The answer made me realize I was missing something. And missing it deeply.

I knew just as soon as I asked the question aloud that my closest friends are my closest friends because I have spent the most time with them. As Andy gave his thoughts on the subject of friendship I considered Kristin and Heather and Suzy and Marie and I realized that I had known each of these girls for at least a decade if not since the moment I was born! These four are and continue to be the ones I call when I want someone who gets it or who will get it just as soon as I get the issue out into open air.

In the moment that I named this. Named these friends and what their consistency meant to me I realized, all of a sudden, that I was missing it. Missing them of course, though I keep in touch with each of these four as regularly as one can once you move to a different state. Even more than connection with these specific individuals though I think I realized I was missing the point.

I started to sense in that moment what friendship expert Shasta Nelson revealed on a podcast interview with author Jen Hatmaker just a couple of months ago. She stated on the show that in her research she and other social scientists have come to realize that the way we American’s prioritize our lives has become cause for an epidemic of loneliness.  American’s are so focused on achievement that relationships and community have taken a back seat. I can think of dozens of times when I’ve ignored an opportunity for connection in the name of my to-do list. It took a road trip 10 hours south of my hometown to realize that perhaps in some bigger realm I’ve been missing the point.

I’m hesitant here as I continue to write. It would be all too easy for me to say here “pack up your stuff, find where the majority of your best friends and closest family members are and go live out the rest of your lives in communal bliss.” Despite the fact that every ounce of me wants to write this, I think that’s just swinging the pendulum in a completely different direction. We’ve all read about cultures or met people who made family or relationships the ultimate purpose of their lives. It can be disastrous as people cut each others heads off in the name of an illusive familial bliss. People are just as messy as the work we put our hands to.

So what do we do?

Here’s a few thoughts that are grounding me these days:

  1. Seek first the kingdom of God.

In Matthew 6 Jesus says, essentially: “I know you need the fruit of your labors (clothing, food, shelter). Any good father knows this about his kids. So bank on the fact that you’re my kid. Trust me and then do this: seek first the kingdom of God.” I’ve dabbled a bit in books on Kingdom theology, and let me tell you…it.is.a.cluster. I haven’t quite wrapped my mind completely around what Jesus (or what all the interpretation of Jesus) is trying to say. I believe that’s because the kingdom of God is mysterious. Like the nature of love, it’s too wonderful to be defined. I do sense a certain theme though that repeats itself throughout the scriptures and in the winsome people in my life. That theme looks a lot like the powerful and rich being brought low so they can see the poor and oppressed brought up and out of the valleys.

Think of Moses brought out of an Egyptian Palace descending to the bottom of the pyramids to lead the Hebrews out of slavery. Think of David brought up and out of a sheep’s pen to slay a giant. Think of Jesus, a King, born low as a baby, descending from high on his throne and ascending to a cross. Dying…and then waking back up. The mountains are made low and the valleys are raised up in the kingdom of God. 

Before any of us read this and simplistically say “OK, I’ll pull out my wallet and write a check to XYZ Charity,”  we may just be missing the point here too. Hear Jesus say in other gospel pages “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus is not giving an economic argument when he talks about the kingdom, though it certainly doesn’t exclude the economy. He’s saying blessed are the people who sense when they are brought low. Blessed therefore am I when I realize in my spirit that I am poor in friendship. Blessed am I because I get to run to the King and ask him to show me out of his riches what friendship looks like in my current poverty. 

2. Listen to God-given wisdom in any God-given season.

There’s a moment in that friendship podcast when Nelson says there are often two voices in her head competing for air time. The voice of her ego and the voice of wisdom. I loved this. Ego being: a person’s sense of self esteem or self importance.

In America in 2017, listening to my ego would look a lot like ignoring the still small voice that says again and again these days: “Relationships are important. Stick with this theme right now. Even when you’re tempted to work on your day off. Even as your introvert identity clamors for attention. Even when you want to run and hide.” Solomon, who asked for nothing more from God than wisdom, says it best when he says:

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven

Solomon knew what most Americans do not. There is a season for putting our all into our achievements. Undoubtedly. Solomon also knew that when the work was done it was time to call up his friends, set a fire in the fire pit and tell some stories in the cool autumn breeze. America has enjoyed great prosperity after much hard labor. We just haven’t figured out how to share it with those we love.


I’ve asked God to show me practically what friendship in 2017 America looks like. Here’s what he’s said so far:

“Just Connect.”

Connect locally. Connect on the phone. Connect in person. Connect by taking the trip. Connect by invitations to visit. Connect by being vulnerable. Connect by holding his hand. Connect by giving the gift. Connect by turning off the TV. Connect by taking the job. Connect by letting the next job go. Connect at the dinner table. Connect by reading the bible together. Connect by reading Moby Dick together. Connect by praying. Connect by getting on the floor with her and the blocks. Connect. Connect. Connect. Connect.

Does this post resonate with you? If so, would you share it either on your social media page or with friends who might be encouraged by it? I cannot tell you how often in the last 18 months I’ve heard in some way or another that people are lonely. Some doctors have named it the health crisis of our time. Seriously. One doctor said if faced with a patient who was morbidly obese and lonely he’d prescribe friendships as his first line of defense! I am convinced we have the tools at our disposal to be a great nation full of inspiring communities. We’re just letting our egos run the show right now. Here’s hoping we can get quiet enough to listen to the river of wisdom running below the surface. If we rise above the clamor I’m certain we can hear it roar. 

Much love, Courtney.

 

 

 

 

Mary Oliver is My Spirit Animal

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Hi Friends. I have been contemplative lately and when I get that way, at times, I like to read poetry. In the past year or so I have discovered both Mary Oliver and Wendell Berry and I just love so much of their poetry. I thought I’d share one of my Oliver favorites with you all. I have this saved on my phone for times like these because it reminds me that I’m not the only one who believes not only that “people do what they want” but that this whole world is one big question mark handed back to us that says: “What is it that you want?” So much so that Jesus asks it of us all the time in the gospels. I think it is THE question of life because it gets at the desires of our hearts. More on that some time. For now, I’ll let Miss Oliver encourage us:

 

Morning Poem
by: Mary Oliver

Every morning
the world
is created.
Under the orange
 
sticks of the sun
the heaped
ashes of the night
turn into leaves again
 
and fasten themselves to the high branches —
and the ponds appear
like black cloth
on which are painted islands

of summer lilies.
If it is your nature
to be happy
you will swim away along the soft trails
 
for hours, your imagination
alighting everywhere.
And if your spirit
carries within it
 
the thorn
that is heavier than lead —
if it’s all you can do
to keep on trudging —
 
there is still
somewhere deep within you
a beast shouting that the earth
is exactly what it wanted —

each pond with its blazing lilies
is a prayer heard and answered
lavishly,
every morning,
 
whether or not
you have ever dared to be happy,
whether or not
you have ever dared to pray.

 

Bring Me Your Bird Cage

birdcageSo we are called to be culture makers. Not sit back and endlessly critique. Not enter in and self righteously condemn. Nor are we called to gluttonously consume culture in its various forms either.We are to enter in and make spaces for gospel goodness to shine bright. But how?

It doesn’t take very long for me to read a blog post about a call to create culture before I start to feel my inner self get antsy and nervous. I know how this has played out in the past. I’ve felt the world on my shoulders and have moved in as its personal lever only to feel it crash down on me in frenetic glory when I take the one role I was never designed to take. The role of world changer, dear readers, is not my role.

Say it with me. This is important.

The role of world changer is not my role.

I’ve been camped out in John chapter 8 for a few weeks. Its the chapter when Jesus is confronted by both a woman caught in adultery and her accusers. The Pharisees desperately want their way of life, their rule keeping, validated. At this point they will throw anyone under the bus in hot pursuit.

So they cast a woman at Jesus’ feet and say, essentially, “You be the judge. You say you are God and you know the laws of God better than we do. So you tell us what to do with this woman who deserves judgement and a penalty.” (Never mind that there was clearly a man involved in this woman’s sin and yet no one is calling HIM to account. Pharisee Identity Awareness Week rule number one: if they’re not forthcoming with the WHOLE truth than their probably just trying to maintain a cherished identity and are best left to a corner petting their favorite teddy bear named “Pride.” The bottom will fall out for them at some point, I guarantee it. We’ll be ready to welcome them back to the table then.)

So what happens next? Jesus responds with a clearly articulated treatise on Mosaic law…

Ha! No, actually, that’s not how it goes.

Jesus bends over and starts drawing in the sand.

AND I JUST COULD NOT LOVE HIM MORE FOR THIS.

I love this because he’s giving the people in his midst a chance to get tired of themselves. He’s letting the Pharisees continue their finger wagging and he’s letting this woman continue in her despair and he is waiting for the moment when they all run out of breath. Finally, after we’re all wondering if he’s gone crazy on us, he holds up a verbal mirror to the woman’s accusers and says “If anyone of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”

The older ones leave first, having lived long enough to know that they fall short of perfection. Then the younger ones follow suit if only because their mentors led the way. Soon its Jesus and the accused staring at whatever picture Jesus drew on the ground while he was waiting for everyone to just “Give up on it, already.”

I kind of wonder here what he drew for her. Maybe it was an Israeli emoticon. You know, the smiley face of his day. Maybe. I like to think Jesus had a sense of humor. But this was a weighty moment for this woman so likely not. The guy was as pastoral as it gets. I’m betting it was more like the image of a bird, standing at the open door to her cage, ready to take flight.

Most of us know how the story ends. He asks the woman who has condemned her and looking around she says, “Not a soul.”

Though lets be honest, there’s still one hold out. The clamor has died down and the urgency has given way to exhaustion and everyone has left the stage. Except Jesus. He’s still there in all his authority and has any number of options at his disposal. No ones looking after all. He could lay a final coat of shame on nice and thick and leave her wondering for the rest of her days why she was so stupid to have walked the road she walked. But he doesn’t.

He lets the bird fly free.

“Go now, and leave your life of sin.” He says. To put it another way…“Leave your life of missing ME in your midst.”

Readers: If this isn’t culture making, I don’t know what is.

At this stage in the game of life, the year 2017, we are not so different from the clamor of the temple courts where Jesus is making space, holding up mirrors and drawing pictures of birds getting ready to take flight. We are all vacillating between our sky high soap boxes or iron clad bird cages and wondering how we’re ever going to walk again with the wind at our backs.

The answer lies in culture making. The answer lies in making space. We hold up mirrors to the overconfident and kindly point out the logs protruding out of their eyeballs and then we invite them to join their other four fingers to the one that’s pointing at the ashamed woman on the ground and ask her, together, if she needs help standing up.

Why? Because we are all going to need help standing one day. You will. I will. Don’t let American independence fool you. It is a joke. Actually, let me rephrase that. It’s a lie. American independence is a lie that is propping far too many people up and I, for one, would like it to fall down in droves. It appears it already is.

This doesn’t negate the fact that our lack of independence can be scary, though I would argue, it doesn’t have to be. We can trust in the great “space maker.” He’s pushing back the crowds that roar to life this peculiarly jarring type of shame – a shame birthed from loneliness and fear – and says something pretty clear following his interaction with the woman. He says it both to her and to all of us who will stick around long enough to listen:

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” John 8:12

To that I say: “Thank God.” Because the world needs a little more light. My soul needs a little more light. And I think yours might need it too. Lets keep making space for ourselves and for our neighbors. Pretty soon, I’m betting we’ll feel the wind at our backs. And with enough wind, everyone knows it won’t be long before we’re able to fly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to Change a Culture

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So, I have a confession to make. I have a terrible time reading fiction. Its just awful. Not the fiction. Me. I just can’t seem to do it. I have recently published a few articles in an online magazine and was asked to submit a couple of sentences for my bio. I am embarrassed to admit this but at the time I was asked I had just checked out two novels from our local library where I had forced myself to avoid any stack but the adult fiction section. So when I wrote my bio, in an effort to will myself into fiction glory I wrote that “I love an engaging novel.” GASP! Lies. This is all lies! Alas, I have renewed these books so many times that even the library basically said through their online portal the other day: “Give it up already. Other people will actually enjoy this one. We need it back.”

I’m still not willing to give up on the genre. I’m counting it a win that I got through half of this recent one. I’m also proud to say that there are a few outliers like Go Set a Watchman and The Signature of all Things that I actually enjoyed (Although, can anybody forgive Atticus Finch?! Ugh, NO, WE CANNOT. I am full of despair.) But clearly, I digress. In the end I’m a memoir/spiritual non fiction gal at heart. A spiritual memoir makes my heart go positively pitter patter.

All this to say that recently while successfully avoiding the mystery that I had promised myself to read cover to cover I ran to the library again to pick up a book I had encountered titled: Culture Making: Recovering our Creative Calling. The book is written to a Christian audience and is a treatise on our call to create culture. The book was kind of “heady” and so unless you’re game for a more textbook like read you may find it more laborious then you’re up for. Even for all my interest in these things I was tempted to put it down in parts until I came across an illustration the author used that I cannot get out of my head.

Crouch talked about life in his family and the culture he and his wife are creating in their home. On Tuesdays, its Crouch family chili night. Andy grabs beef and onions, tomatoes and peppers. After some fine chopping, dicing and sauteing its not long before the smells of chili envelop their house and dinner is served. The only problem with chili night at the Crouch home, he shares, is that he has a couple of picky eaters at his table. One child doesn’t like green peppers. Another hates onions. Yet its a cultural value at the Crouch house that you eat whats put in front of you. There will be no alternative meals made on the side for a picky child in this family. (Or in the Beck family for that matter. Eliana, my sweet. You will politely take note of this.)

The author made an interesting point though. What if one day, 10 years from now at the age of 15 or 16, one of the kids comes home and says he’s had enough of Tuesday chili night. Sure, he could devise a lengthy treatise on the health benefits of chicken nuggets and suggest the family change course on Tuesday nights. Mr. and Mrs. Crouch love chili though and the comfort that those smells and tastes bring to them on a given Tuesday night might not easily sway them. After the treatise fails, Crouch Jr. could continue to complain each Tuesday night and hope that enough whining will cause a change in their Tuesday night dinner plans. This won’t work either though because Andy and his wife are also committed to raising respectful children. Its likely that this method will end up with a hungry Crouch child in a bedroom with the door shut while the parents eat their food in peace.

You know what would probably work though? What if Crouch the younger, now old enough to drive and hold a knife without killing himself asked his dad for the car keys one night. Baby Crouch heads to Kroger and maybe he picks up chicken and breadcrumbs. He grabs some pasta and tomato sauce and whips up a glorious Chicken Parm Casserole that he found courtesy of Yummly or some other recipe website. The author drives home the point here. After a long day of work, if his teenage son uses his energy to actively turn Chili night into Crouch family Chicken Parm night, he’s betting it might actually have some sticking power. After all, what father isn’t going to take his son up on a rare opportunity to kick his feet up and rest after a long day at work while his son makes dinner. Sure, this isn’t going to change chili night the world over. There are some families that will still eat chili on Tuesdays. But for the Crouch family, Chicken Parm night might start to take root and actual change in one particular culture – the Crouch family Culture – could start to change.

I hate to make a dent in book sales but for those of you who don’t want to read the book in its entirety, here’s the main point: You don’t change a culture by endlessly critiquing or condemning it. You change a culture by rolling up your sleeves and making it. 

Its a subtle truth right? If we really sit down and think about it, this makes total sense. Who hasn’t been told that if you don’t like the way somethings going, you do it yourself. But in a social media age I fear its become all too easy to sit back and yell about “culture” going to hell in a hand basket (never mind that the word “culture” here as we use it is really rather ambiguous. What does “the culture” even really mean?) without realizing that we can all have a hand in making it different than it is. And, might I add, without realizing that by sitting back and yelling on social media we’re making a culture that says we should all sit back and yell on social media as opposed to doing something more helpful. Like making a Chicken Parm casserole for dinner for family and friends.

So what do we do now?

I’m not sure.

But as I’m writing this I have this stupid grin on my face because I know down to my toes that this is how you create change. So I think there may be more posts about this topic in the future. This topic of culture making, to be precise. Stay tuned! I’ll be back with more. Right now I gotta figure out how you actually make Chicken Parm Casserole. That sounds delicious!