Eyes to See

dog

Good morning faithful readers!

Thanks for your patience as I am taking a final writing class at Emory this semester and was required to submit a significant chunk of writing for my final project. Good news – I am attempting to write a book! I’ve never done anything like this before and I am learning a lot. Mostly I am learning that writing a book is a lot more like a journey than a day trip. I’m three chapters in and the book is already taking turns I never expected.

Which brings me to what God and I are communicating about these days: Adventure.

Adventure is a funny word for me. As you grow up and get older you start to buy into the things that your natural temperament wants desperately to set in stone for you. I was a nervous kid growing up and as my mom reminded me just this weekend during her visit to Atlanta, I struggled with change. I didn’t like to try new things. This was not news to me. I’ve always been this way. But lately, I’m wondering if this life narrative of mine is getting in the way and is driving key parts of my life when it should really be riding shotgun. It appears to be the difference between letting my ego run the show as opposed to my spirit-led soul.

If you pick up Elizabeth Gilbert’s amazing book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear you will see her address this dilemma head on as she encourages her readers to lean into a creative and adventurous life. Gilbert knows in this wise way that all of us are living every day trying to keep our devilish fears from running our show. She knows that our egos, the psychological parts of ourselves that tell us who we are, are necessary but also dangerous if we don’t understand their proper role.  In the book she says this:

“Your ego is a wonderful servant, but its a terrible master – because the only thing your ego ever wants is reward, reward, reward…An unchecked ego is what Buddhists call “a hungry ghost”- forever famished, eternally howling with need and greed…My saving grace is this, though: I know that I am not only an ego, I am also a soul…My soul, when I tend to it, is a far more expansive and fascinating source of guidance than my ego will ever be, because my soul desires only one thing: wonder.”

Isn’t that lovely? And true? It reminds me of this amazing passage in the gospel of John when the disciples ask Jesus about a man who was born blind. They are walking along and pass this man who, due to his deformity, was begging on the side of the road. “Rabbi” The disciples ask him, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” Then, after spitting in some mud and wiping it on his eyes Jesus heals the man of his blindness. 

I love this passage because its one where Jesus goes right after the lies we all tell ourselves. Think for a moment about anyone you’ve ever known who’s had something about themselves that they hated. You know…like…yourself. We all have parts of ourselves or our history that we wish were different and because they aren’t going away we’ve figured out some incredibly creative ways to hide them. Some of these hiding places are simply sentences we tell ourselves to keep from being exposed as a fraud.

Me, personally? I’ve always hated the part of me that’s so scared all the time. I feel like I have some natural talents and if I just wasn’t so damn afraid all the time I could really take those talents out for a spin. Forget simple blog posts. I’d write a daily blog post AND I’d write bestselling books! All while keeping a perfectly welcoming home and remaining happily married.

God knows me though. He knows that any human talent unchecked by reality will spin out of control into a god that can’t hold what its promising. So God lets me stay afraid. And I go to him on what is by now a moment to moment basis and he whispers “I’m on the case. This isn’t about you. This is about me.”

And then, for a moment, he heals.

Jesus’ healing of the blind man reminds me that God knows us better than we do. Jesus spoke so clearly to the blind man’s heart, as what blind beggar wouldn’t sit on a curb and wonder if he’d done something to deserve his disability? On a particularly bad day he’d surely blame his parents for passing along the genetic code that left him unable to see.

Jesus stomps his foot right in the middle of that hot mess and says:

“Stop talking. Stop thinking. Stop blaming. Stop planning.

Open. Up. Your. Eyes.”

Your weak spots are not about you. They are not about your parents.  They’re not about a list of do’s and don’ts. They’re about God, working mightily through your weaknesses. They’re about the paradox of the gospel made manifest. They’re about what God has been saying since the beginning of time. If you will own your smallness God will finally have room to move. And Oh, the things you will see.

Now, Open your eyes! 

A few weeks ago I was walking around our neighborhood when I saw a sign at someones curb with a note on it: “Free to a good home.” I was curious and removed the note to see a wall painting that is now hanging in our living room. It says this:

“Wouldn’t life be great if we all lived a little of it everyday.” 

Y’all, if you know me, this is HILARIOUS.

It has to be hilarious or I’d be hopping mad that God is rubbing his message in. It appears God is opening my eyes to the fact that I’ve been listening to my ego, my natural temperament, for a little too long. I’ve got a go-to line that I tell myself that says I’m just a scared little girl who has to do the things in her routine comfort zone or she’ll fall apart. I don’t think I even realize how slowly and slyly that line has weaved its way into my soul. So God, knowing this better than I do, has given me line after line after line in my life about adventure in recent weeks. He’s quite clearly trying to convince me that its time to let go of the side of the pool and join him in the deep end.

Here’s the funny thing…I don’t even necessarily know what any of this means. I have a general understanding of a few things on the calendar this year that will require some faith muscle. So far only one of those things is set in stone. And I think that’s actually the point. Its not so much that God is saying for me to hop on Expedia and book a flight I can’t afford to Europe as he’s saying I should just reach out my hands and hold onto his. He’s saying what my devotional read a couple of weeks ago:

“Give yourself fully to this adventure of increasing attentiveness to My Presence.”

He’s saying that we could be 30,000 feet in the air on a plane to the Bahamas or we could be sitting in pajamas on a rainy day in Atlanta and it doesn’t really matter. The adventure is in the communion of it all. The adventure is the fact that we’re doing it together. Because the only thing better than going on an adventure is going on an adventure with someone you love.

God will use anything from a man born blind to a woman born with a nervous temperament to get his eternal point across:

He is.

He is good.

He is glorious,

and he is reaching out to people like you and like me to re-frame the categories we put ourselves into. He wants to show the most important people in the room, namely ourselves, that he is a God of mercy and goodness and light. Truthfully, I think he’s waiting until we’re all so tired of the personal/communal blame game that we sit on the ground in our rags, lift up our faces and ask for eyes that can finally see. May the good Lord hasten that day.

***

“When we follow Jesus, it means that we don’t know exactly what it means, at least in detail. We follow him, letting him pick the roads, set the timetables, telling us what we need to know only when we need to know it…When Jesus says ‘follow me’ and we follow, we don’t know where we will go next or what we will do next…we follow the one who does know.” -Eugene Peterson, The Jesus Way

 

 

 

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Neon Winter

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Neon Winter

By: Courtney Beck

Look at that bluebird

Dancing in the bare tree limbs

Across the street from where you sit

In your car. Engine humming, thoughts whirling

Wondering, desperately, what’s

Next, what’s next, what’s next?

Blue’s red chest matches the light you wait

On, frustrated by the fact that even if it turns

Green, it might not matter all that much. You’ll still be

Stopped, and stuck, in the

Waiting of this peculiar season.

Which brings me to the bluebird’s girl,

Drab as the lower branch she rests on.

In clear view of Mr. Red Chest,

He flutters now on an abandoned roof

Revealing his remarkable glory.

She hops between branches and wonders why

She’d ever want to hurry the spring and its

Lush green leaves. Surely, they’ll comfort in their time,

While blocking the view to that neon blue coat that’s

Keeping us all warm on this cold January Day.

 

New Year. New Plan. Not What I Expected.

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Happy New Year folks. Well, I’ve been at this blogging thing since May and have posted 32 times! This is a minor miracle in my view as I can easily get swept into other initiatives. The best part is that I’ve heard back from at least one reader for each post who has encouraged me to keep going. Your comments and insights have been so encouraging so please keep them coming! I love learning from you all and am grateful that so many of you have stayed connected.

Now, lets talk about new beginnings. It’s the new year after all.

New Year, New You?

Hmmm. I’m skeptical.

Mostly because I know myself. And I know many of you. And while I know we’re all in different seasons and different stages of life I am sure of this: You and I are far more similar than we are different.

If you feel yourself wondering where all the holiday spunk went you’re in good company. Because let me tell you…2018 rolled over without much fanfare in our household. We got home from a holiday trip and found ourselves in much the same place we were in at the beginning of December. It was back to work for us. Bills need to be paid, laundry needs to be done, groceries need to be bought.

To be honest, this was a bit disheartening for me that first week of January so I took some to mull it all over. I thought about last year – the highs and the lows – and it didn’t take long for me to start considering elaborate plans for the new year. More regimented workouts. Clear writing goals. A color coded budget with tighter categories.

A few days of this though was all I needed to feel quite sick of it all, thank you very much. The older I get the less I’m able to cling to systems. All the more I find myself reaching out for relationship.

The defining word for my life in 2017 was this: Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering.

God, quite kindly and clearly, read me my mail in 2017 by showing me how easily I descend into elaborate mental plans and escape routes when all he asks me to do is lift up my face.

Hold up my hands. Wait for him. Wait on him.

And grow stronger in the waiting.

So as I sat in a coffee shop last week and felt “out of tune” with the plans I was writing out for myself I looked down at my watch and realized I had 45 minutes left until I had to pick my kid up for lunch. I could get that workout in that I’d been putting off all morning and be done with it. More than that, I’d actually be doing the thing that most new year’s plans revolve around.  An actual, legitimate workout.

Business guru Seth Godin says it well in his book Tribes. “If religion comprises rules you follow, faith is demonstrated by the actions you take. When you lead without compensation, when you sacrifice without guarantees, when you take risks because you believe, then you are demonstrating your faith…Of course it’s difficult… But it’s worth it.”

Can we be honest for a minute? The things we really want in life are things we have ZERO control over. Sure, you might want to lose 10 pounds in 2018. But I’m betting more than the 10 pounds you want to be the type of person who can feel comfortable enough to stay at a table that makes you nervous without forking food you aren’t hungry for into your mouth. I know I do. Or maybe you want to plan to stop spending frivolously and start contributing to a retirement plan or to a downpayment fund. I bet more than anything though what you really want is access to the inner peace that follows on the heels of good stewardship.

These heart level desires are the things that plans point to, yes, but they are also the things that I am convinced can only be achieved in partnership with the Holy Spirit of God.

Can I share an excerpt from an interview I heard the other day? Jen Hatmaker spoke with Chris Heuertz about his work with the Enneagram. While his thoughts on that test were interesting, I most quickly identified with his description of his time in his early 20s when he worked alongside Mother Teresa in Calcutta, India.

He says the following:

“She was fierce…on one hand you would see her holding a half-starved child or carrying a man who’s dying from tuberculosis across the street with such tenderness and care. Then on the other hand, she was a ball buster like, “Get out of my way,” and don’t stop her, and don’t try to slow her down. I’ll say this; the things that we learn from all of our mentors are less the words they tell us, and more how we watch them live. I watched her, and five times a day, along with the other sisters, they would stop for prayer, for adoration, for mass, for solitude, silence, and stillness…And what that taught me was that all the years that I was around her and all the works that I did in India, we used to think, “Man, they have to pray. They have to pray five times a day to support their efforts.”

Isn’t that beautiful?

People who didn’t know Mother Teresa ultimately remember her for the stunning works she did among the poorest of the poor. And they were stunning. But the people who walked it with her? They remembered how she depended on the Holy Spirit of God for the strength she needed to hold another dying soul. Because lets be clear. A life lived among the dying requires a strength that no human can muster on his or her own. You’d lose your mind.

Her action plan, if you wrote it out, probably looked a lot more like this

  1. Bathe the leper in front of me
  2. Ask Jesus for strength
  3. Write the letter.
  4. Cook the meal.
  5. Ask Jesus for a clear mind.
  6. Encourage a fellow sister
  7. Show the volunteer how to dress the wound compassionately.
  8. Ask Jesus for more help to make it to the end of the day.
  9. Sleep

Friends, do any of us know what we’re doing here? It’s a strange world where narcissists become President and people bully each other on a medium that 30 years ago no one had ever heard of – the internet. Truthfully, chaos feels so near, so often.

Yet if we commit to doing nothing else in 2018 but consistently returning back to the Source of our strength and saying we “Just can’t do it without him” I think we will find at the end of the year that we really could do it when we find that we actually did it with Him.

I have some plans for 2018. Some of them are loose. One of them has a remarkably clear action step that actually makes me sweat. All of them are part of a life full of goals for relational, spiritual and cultural fruit. And after 12 plus years in this game with God as my partner I can say that not a single one of them will come to fruition without the help of the Lord. I get in my own way. I’ve tried to do things on my own in the past and while I may have succeeded with an end result I’ve burned a bridge too many doing it that way. Some of those bridges were with other people and most of those bridges were the ones that connected my mind, heart and soul together. Which is not, in the end, a success.

So who’s in for a Spirit-led 2018? Who’s in for full days asking God for help with the next right thing. What else are we really going to do? I’m afraid we can strategize until the cows come home only to find ourselves lacking any power to make those plans come about.

Didn’t St. Paul say it best?

“the Kingdom of God is not a matter of talk, but of power.” 1 Corinthians 4:20

So here’s the real plan. I’m going to make some plans for 2018 and I’m going to hold them loosely. Everyday I’ll wake up and figure out a couple of things I can do to move those balls forward. And everyday I’ll pause at points throughout the day and ask for help. I’m not sure how it will all turn out. I am sure that some days will go as planned and some days we’ll fall off the wagon. But I also know there will be grace in it all and opportunities to grow in the highs and the lows. And that’s exciting to me. I like to envision myself on the eve of 2019 realizing that I’ve made it to high vistas and through low valleys with the help of the Holy Spirit and the community he’s given me.

So here’s to another year of stumbling forward. You in?

Becoming Human, Becoming Like Joseph.

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I read a blog post the other day that I have not been able to get off of my mind. It was titled What do we do with Joseph? The author explained that as her youngest daughter played with a nativity set she asked her mother why Joseph was included. “Mommy, if God is Jesus’ dad and Mary is Jesus’ mom then why do we need this guy?” The blog has a social justice thrust and the author was ultimately identifying with Joseph. She made the connection that she as a white, heterosexual American woman is for all intents and purposes in the position of Joseph in society today too. A position of power. She ended her post by essentially stating that she doesn’t know ultimately why Joseph was a part of the narrative of Christ’s birth nor does she know why God chooses to use her in 2017, but he has chosen to use them both, and so she’s happy to do her part.

OK people, can you hear me right now? I am groaning with despair over this statement she’s made.

While I understand in premise what the writer was trying to say, my gut response as I’ve read it over again and considered it over and over again in this Christmas season is this:

“God left Joseph in the story because FATHERS ARE NOT JUST SPERM DONORS!”

Sorry, I realize this comes across as crass but its the only way I know how to put it. I remember one of the first thoughts I had when Ellie was born was that I cannot imagine how women and men do the newborn months alone. 2 years into this journey of parenthood I STILL don’t know how people raise children alone?! I know this happens more often than we realize and I also know unequivocally that there is amazing grace available for the single moms and dads out there who as a result of sin or death are raising children alone. Yet I think Joseph and his part in the nativity is proof positive that God’s plan of redemption is an invitation to each of us to be active participants in a plan that often doesn’t look the way we expect.

I personally love the fact that God intervened in the life of a first century man named Joseph and said “Hi there Joe. Want to get in on what I’m doing here?”

The writer is correct that most of us can probably relate to Joseph though I don’t relate to him in the way that she did. I’m betting Joseph was pretty excited to get married when they were first engaged. I can picture him thinking about how he’d construct his life with Mary. Maybe he wanted to set up shop in the town where they’d met and they’d have a couple of kids and a white picket fence. Maybe he wanted to wait a few years to have kids and travel a bit before he and Mary settled down. What I am certain of is this. Joseph never imagined he’d live the first few years of his life on the run with a child that was conceived before he ever even spent a single night with his wife. He never thought following God would present the probable feelings of intense alienation as he stood by a woman he hardly knew and experienced their communal shunning together.

I imagine Joseph silently walking Mary on his donkey to Bethlehem and trying to convince himself the entire way that he’d heard God right. I imagine him trying to convince himself that what Mary said happened was really true and she was having a baby without ever having known a man intimately.

As I’m relating to Joseph this Advent I’m starting to imagine a great relationship with him, my spiritual grandfather of sorts, when we meet some day. We’ll sit down for coffee on the front porch of his or my heavenly mansion and talk about the times we had to walk in faith. We’ll share all the times in life that we had to lean on the chair of our lives with our whole selves and have faith that the chair wouldn’t break under the weight of it all. We’ll talk about the final moment of faith when the chair actually did break. We dropped to the ground in flurry of scary hot pain only to look up and realize that Jesus, Joseph’s son, was right there when the dust settled with a hand to help us up and welcome us home.

Most of all I think we’ll talk about how the Lord called us into what I have started to call “a third way.” 

With human eyes its easy for us to believe in our Joseph moments that we only have two options in front of us. We can either cut ourselves off from the situation and “divorce Mary quietly” as Joseph originally intended to do or we can remain “dutiful” for the rest of our lives and eventually begrudge the losses we endure as we slowly whither under the weight of the anvil that we’ve now personally placed on our backs.

This, readers, is just an impossible scenario.

I will not do this.

I cannot do this.

And you shouldn’t settle for this either. 

For all the focus on Mary in the nativity story, I wonder if Joseph might actually be the true hero in the story of Christmas. I don’t want to minimize Mary’s sacrifice as it was and is extraordinary. Yet Mary also had an angel of the Lord visit her in person in dazzling glory. I think if a terrifying, fiery angel showed up at my door I’d fall to my knees, hide my face and tell him to take whatever he wanted.

Joseph though? All he had was a dream and a religious tradition that said if you put the weight of your life on the chair of faith the chair may or may not break. The only guarantee for him was that the God who made the fiery angels would be there to pull him out of the wreckage regardless of what happened to the chair. I can imagine with his very human eyes that this was a terrifying proposition given how little he likely knew about the glory of God. After all, what do any of us really know about the glory of God?

So Joseph walked a donkey to Bethlehem because as a man who had big dreams for his life it was the only thing that he could really do. He knocked on doors and tried to convince himself that he was doing the right thing when he found a stable for his betrothed to labor in. Mary breathed hard and cried out and Joseph, unknowingly, made room for her fears while he leaned on his God with the weight of his whole self.

And when it was over Joseph held his son in his arms and introduced this newborn stranger to the animals in the barn. Just when he thought that holding a living breathing baby in spite of the pain and the fear they had just endured was the miracle, people started showing up. Shepherds came in their rags and filth and testified that glory had showed up in the fields where they’d been sleeping. They all, this new family and poor shepherds, sat in their poverty and marveled at what God was doing among the poor through this boy. Then kings came from the east and brought gifts from their kingdoms. They all, this new family and the kings, sat in their wealth and marveled at what God was doing among the rich through Joseph’s son.

At some point in it all I hope Joseph realized that the third option that God offered him was the space that would bring all of his fears and all of his dreams together in one terrifyingly glorious place.  If he’d lean into the fear that an unknown future with God offers, he’d slowly and surely get to the place where God meets us. That space is where our personal poverty spills up and out in such a way that our personal riches in Christ eventually fill to overflowing.

Joseph became all that God intended him to become, he became truly human, by saying yes to God’s third way, the way that doesn’t always seem right or feel right but ultimately is right over and over and over again for a lifetime. In so doing he’s been graced with a place in the nativity story. The only enduring story there ever was.

Thank you God for including Joseph, a man like you and like me, in the Christmas story. We identify with him because we do not always know that you are FOR US in a world and a body that changes in ways we do not expect. Help us to look for the third way. Show us this way in a way we can understand and help us to walk it in faith. We know that somewhere along the way we’ll see your glory and when we do, things will never be the same. 

“There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
    and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.
And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,
    the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
    the Spirit of counsel and might,
    the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
    or decide disputes by what his ears hear,
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
    and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
    and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist,
    and faithfulness the belt of his loins.” Isaiah 11: 1-5

 

Seraphina Speaks

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Seraphina Speaks

By: Courtney T. Beck

 

“Do not be afraid,” she says to me

on the heels of a kind of grief

some fires, this fire

blazes a trail to something new.

 

Would you follow these embers that

light up the dark?

Could you consider leaving

the safety of this house?

 

Here we go, yes, come with me

into the cool dark woods, here,

at the edge of familiar fields

 

Collect the kindling, stick to stick

find the heart of the wood past this

moss, these twigs, and those branches.

 

They lie vein-like, don’t you think?

Forgotten arteries, it seems

that danced in seasons past

to the rhythm of the oak.

 

Chop your own wood and

it will warm you twice, they say.

I say, chop the wood you find at the heart of the forest

and it will show you who you are.

 

Find the oak that lived long before you knew

of death and life and joy

and get to work

 

Put on your gloves and remove your jacket

Do what it takes with your ax and your grit

and become the oak that will warm you

 

And as chips and limbs fall in piles

to the damp earth at your feet

find your heart, bruised and vital

absorbed by a chopped oak house

 

whose walls and roof and floor and beams

will warm us;

our living, breathing bodies

until this fiery winter

gives way to the spring.

Becoming Human: Doing the Next Right Thing.

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I remember the day that things started to change for me in Galveston. I had left a beloved job in Baltimore in 2009 to join Andy in Texas as he started graduate school. At the time we moved the market was at its lowest point of the recession and jobs were hard to come by in Galveston and everywhere else.   I felt lucky at the start of my three year stint at a legally embattled housing authority to at least have a job. But luck soon gave way to frustration and depression as I learned that I was essentially filling a place holder position until the organization’s legal troubles were resolved. The Housing Authority had to remain staffed to prove its worth to a watching public but internally it did nothing but shift paper from one place to the next until the powers that be figured out where the legal troubles would land.

It didn’t take long for me to fall into depression. I had been prepped and primed my entire life to go out and make a difference in the world. I had managed to do that for the first three years of my career in Maryland. Then, out of nowhere, I found myself at an absolute stand still trying to figure out how to make a day pass.

I tried any manner of things to fix my problem. I looked for other jobs but there were none. I tried to connect like minded people together only to be told I was not following the chain of command. I started taking classes at the local community college but felt guilty if I did the homework for them at the office. All in all it was a miserable situation that I felt I couldn’t get out of. If I quit I’d still be twiddling my thumbs only it would be worse as we’d lose my income and health insurance.

One of the things our “chain of command” would do during these months of legal trouble was to consistently move staff offices from one side of the building to another. You can’t make this stuff up! A few of these moves made sense as the organization scaled down to size in the immediate aftermath of hurricane Ike. Our building had become a command post for disaster recovery and as people got back on their feet the staffing and space use adjusted accordingly. To this day though I’ll never understand how they justified moving my desk approximately six times over the course of three years. By the third or fourth move I found it down right insulting.

On the last move before I finally left the job my desk was placed in a poorly ventilated  space at the very front of the building. The ceiling was probably 12 to 14 feet high, the flooring was a hard brown tile and it was surrounded on all four sides by glass windows. Every time I took a phone call my voice would bounce off these non absorbent surfaces and cause an echo back into the phone, causing conversations to be near impossible. At lunchtime the smell of fried food at the nearby snack bar would waft through the vents that were insufficiently emitting the air conditioning I craved as the hot summer sun inched its way through the windows of my new “office.” This, dear reader, was my lowest point.

I came home from a blissful week away from it all one summer to rumors that another round of layoffs were headed our way. I was sure I was next and as much as I would have been happy to leave I became convinced that a lay off might just be the straw that broke my back. That Monday morning after my vacation I pulled out a devotional I’d been using and there in black and white was the one verse that had come up incessantly over the course of the previous three years:

“Do not be like the horse or the mule, which have no understanding but must be controlled by bit and bridle or they will not come to you…the LORD’s unfailing love surrounds the one who trusts in him.” Psalm 32: 9-10

And finally, after three years, I gave up. I wrote a letter to God on the legal pad on my desk. I told him, with heaps of hot anger that HE brought us to Texas, HE started Andy on this path to a graduate degree and so whatever happened next was on HIM. If we couldn’t pay our bills it was his fault. If we had to quit the program it would be his fault. If I went into a depression and anxiety spiral and had to have myself committed that would be his fault too. All I was willing to do from that moment forward was show up and do what was put in front of me to do. If that was legitimate work for the housing authority, I would of course do that. If it was helping some one mop the floor I would do that. But I was officially giving up on trying to do anything more meaningful than what was offered to me because I had tried and nothing had worked.

Somehow, after that morning, things started to change. First, the internal pressure I felt to be productive lifted and I felt freer. If there was nothing for me to do that day I would get some homework done for class and not feel guilty about it. The absolute BEST thing that happened though was that I didn’t get irritated with the people who would knock on my door at the front of the building and ask for help to offices I wasn’t connected with. I just figured I was supposed to help the individual at my door that day even though their questions were not associated with the office i was employed by. If I didn’t know where they should go I would try my best to figure out the answer for them since I clearly didn’t have much else pressing on me.

One day, just as I was closing my door to eat my lunch, a gentleman came by and asked if I could help him. I was still doing all of this imperfectly and given that it had been an even slower day than normal I was not in a great place emotionally. I had waited until three o clock to eat lunch – only really eating at that point to pass the time.

While I wasn’t really in the mood to help anyone at that moment on a Friday I remembered my deal with God and I told him to come in. He explained he had just gotten out of prison across the street for a crime he felt unjustly charged for. He had been in jail for several weeks and didn’t have a phone or any money and he needed a ride back to Houston, 45 minutes north.

I sat down at my computer and considered his problem. I knew enough not to offer a ride to someone who’d just left prison. The only person I knew I could call was a man I’d met who ran a prison ministry for formerly incarcerated men and women. I gave the man in front of me my lunch, hoping to keep him occupied on something other than my clueless self at the computer and got to work finding his number. After eating a few chips the man opened up:

“Ma’am, can I just say. I’ve been walking around this place for HOURS trying to get some help. And you’re the only person who’s given me the time of day. I can’t believe you gave me your lunch! I haven’t eaten since this morning. You must be one hell of a Christian.”

I shrugged his comment off, not wanting to admit to his face that there wasn’t much benevolence behind my actions. I called my friend who told me the last van heading toward Houston had already left for the afternoon but that he could get a ride on Monday morning if we gave him a call then. He would have to stay at the Salvation Army over the weekend where he could have a cot to sleep on and enough food to keep him going until Monday.

I hesitantly told the man the news, fearing he’d be as upset to stay at a shelter for the weekend as I would be in his position. But his reaction was priceless. You would have thought I had told the man that I had organized a limo ride and a four course meal. A smile spread across his face and he gave me a hug! He bounded out the front door of the building with the address to the shelter and I told him I would see him on Monday morning.

Here’s the final punch. On Monday morning the man walked through the door pushing an older gentleman in a wheelchair. He propped open the door to my space and said “Miss Courtney, I was able to arrange a ride to Houston this morning with someone I met this weekend. We’re not leaving until noon though so I figured I’d help my friend here get some paperwork done before I leave. Thanks so much for your help on Friday! I can’t wait to get home.”

If those two men came through the door of the YMCA that I am sitting in as I write this I would remember them like it was yesterday. That was a defining moment for me as I realized that becoming human, becoming Christlike, is really just a matter of doing whats right in front of you. Doing the next right thing, and letting God worry about the impact it does or doesn’t have. 

Within a month of that entire experience I had successfully avoided a lay off and got a new job at Habitat for Humanity in Dickinson, prepared to do the same work I had loved but left in Baltimore three years before. This time I was armed with the knowledge that if things went well or things went poorly it didn’t really matter. The pressure wasn’t on me to figure that all out. I had left Baltimore in a step of faith that God had better things in store for me. I walked out the doors of that housing authority three years to the day that I entered it and knew a degree more than I knew before that if I take the next step of faith he can handle the rest.

 

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.

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

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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.