"Not all who wander are lost…"

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Thank you, Abba, for:

church steeples pointing to the sky (look up)

beloved prodigals who remind us of, and connect us to, You (look up!)

cycles of change, leading (ultimately) to renewal (fall into winter, winter into spring, life into death, death into life)

hot chocolate on cold, rainy days (extra marshmallows, please!)

books (the kind that grow you up)

poiema (tattoo this on my heart: that you and I are God’s masterpiece, His workmanship, His poem…)

the musical cadence of rain on the roof (and rhythms of heartbeats and breathing)

naps (to process reading)

cricket songs, slowed down to human lifespans, that sound like unearthly choirs (the whole earth is full of His glory, and there is a speed of life where even the rocks sing audible praise to their Maker)

beautiful, intelligent, mature conversations with 5-year-old Sarah about art (she gets it… unsullied by fear, wide open to wonder)

ink-stained fingers (making art)

things that sparkle (and more art)

people who shine grace into darkness (near as my heart, far as the Rising Sun)

 

So, my goal to write a blog post for every day of November is not going to happen, but I am okay with that. Really. I refuse to beat myself up over something that already is and cannot be fixed. I’m going to live out the Serenity Prayer instead, and accept the things that I cannot change. Like the past. It is behind me and unreachable. I’m leaning forward now, into hope.

My temporary blog-silence fell out of several seemingly disconnected and unrelated things. First, a painful disagreement with someone I love, which erupted into angry words, tears, misinterpretation, misunderstanding, and just plain not hearing. The conflict circled round and round without resolution. Now we walk around one another stiffly, unsure how to proceed. Lean forward, Rebecca, into hope.

The incident prompted me to do a whole lot of thinking on the monastic practice of Voluntary Silence. Yes, I do catch the irony. It certainly seems inconsistent for a person who spends time making art out of words to take a vow of wordlessness. But honestly, in situations where words become weapons, silence looks golden.

And I’m not talking about the Silent Treatment, where not speaking becomes, itself, a weapon. More like what my grandma used to say: “If you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all.” But larger than that, even, because when every attempt to fix something with your words seems to lead to more hurt, just shut your mouth, eh? So, yeah. For now. Horizontal silence. Vertical conversation. Listen. Listen. Listen.

Leaning forward into hope really does mean praying for the right words to bring about resolution and restoration and healing. It means watching carefully and hoping faithfully for the right time to speak those words. It means having the courage to speak, in spite of the pain… speaking the words through the pain and into the heart of the pain and letting them heal it. We are broken. Hard graces expose our brokenness, lay us bare to heartache, but they remain graces, nevertheless.

Meanwhile, I’ve been having some long and hard vertical conversations with the only One who really knows my heart. He understands how and why I’ve become so unwilling to settle, yet again, for “sorry” without change, for regret without repentance. Not on my part. Not on my friend’s part. Jesus understands the frustration at its source. Not only my frustration, but also my friend’s. He sees the whole picture. He knows the back story. And He loves both of us. So I feel confident to trust Him here, to bind up our wounds and restore us.

The other cause for my delay in posting has been this book I’m reading. Yes, that sounds so lame. But haven’t you ever read a book that just blew your boat out of the water and left you feeling a little wobbly on your sandy land-legs? It’s a bit like coming out of the roller-skating rink after six hours on wheels and having to remember how to walk in plain shoes again. (Do people still roller-skate? Hmmm. I wonder.)

Anyway, this book by Emily P. Freeman, A Million Little Ways: Uncover the Art You Were Made to Live, came recommended to me from several different corners. It kept popping up on the “you might also like” thingies that tease you to shop a little more. The title definitely intrigued. It spoke of ideas that have been germinating in my spirit for a while now. So I downloaded it onto my Nooky Monster. And after The Conflict, I finally got around to reading it. Four times. Uninterrupted by anything else but art and sleep. (In that order.)

Now I’m blaming Ann Voskamp for this! Not just because it was on her blog A Holy Experience that I first saw the title. You see, I responded similarly to Ann’s beautiful book One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are. A birthday gift, I opened it curiously and began to read. When I had finished, I just flipped the book over and started reading it again. It was like eating a very rich, very chocolate, very decadent cake. The kind that comes on rare and special occasions. Chew slowly. Savor the words, prose-poetry for the heart, visual as her photographs. Reflect, reflect, reflect on every nuance of flavor and texture. And, ultimately, rise to the challenge. A friend and I together, undertake Ann’s dare, her challenge, to begin counting graces, to begin living right here and right now in the moment at hand, and to begin offering gratitude for those moments in our broken, paying-attention ways. Eyes wide to wonder.

God used — is still using —  Ann’s book to up-end my world, exponentially. The process of change hasn’t always been comfortable, but it has been beautiful and good. It has been expansive, in the most alarming ways. It has taken me deeper into real, abiding relationship with the Lover of my soul. It has colored every corner and crevice of my spirit. Aurora borealis colored. Bright, shining, double-rainbow glitter-glued. This is free, unfettered, glory art… the nothing-is-impossible kind of art that wise five-year-olds make. A promise from the only One who ever really keeps His promises anyway.

Fast-forward to A Million Little Ways. I’m not sure what it would have looked like if I had read the book a year ago, or even two months ago. But because I have been having this renewed love affair with my Savior, and because He has used this time to show me new things about His love for me, His acceptance of me, His plans for me, and because the title and teasers for this book spoke to some of the same things I’ve already been wrestling with and writing about on my blog, I have been beautifully blown away again, wobbling about on shoes without wheels, and looking for ways to say:

“Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

To Ann.

To Emily.

To God.

So this post may have started off rambling, in a wandering-around-aimless-and-lost kind of way. But I do think it found its way safely home… to the heart of grace that dwells in gratitude.

“At the most basic level of our identity, your job and my job is to be a poem, the image bearers of God, made to reflect his glory. The art you and I were born to make is released out of the core of who we truly are, where our spirit is joined in union with the Spirit of God. Any movement coming from that place reflects the glory of God. This is our highest purpose and, ultimately, our greatest joy.” Emily P. Freeman (emphasis mine)

 

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The Challenging Grace of Change

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A few of the moment’s hard graces:

1. The (ongoing) process of surrendering dear friends to the mission field in Japan so that others can grow in grace with them, as I was blessed to do for more than a decade

2. The privilege of caring for an aging parent. (“She is a delight to me. I don’t have to take care of her, I get to take care of her.”)

3. Friends who love me enough to confront my sinfulness

4. The cultivation of patience in my own quest for wellness and wholeness

I never grow tired of Robertson McQuilkin’s story, “Living By Vows.” When his wife Muriel was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, McQuilkin resigned his position as the president of Columbia Bible College and Seminary to care for her. He has said, “If I took care of her for 40 years, I would never be out of her debt.”

I remember weeping as McQuilkin told of his wife literally walking her feet bloody to be near him:

During those two years it became increasingly difficult to keep Muriel home. As soon as I left, she would take out after  me. With me, she was content; without me, she was distressed, sometimes terror stricken. The walk to school is a mile round trip. She would make that trip as many as ten times a day. Sometimes at night, when I helped her undress, I found bloody feet. When I told our family doctor, he choked up. “Such love,” he said simply. Then, after a moment, “I have a theory that the characteristics developed across the years come out at times like these.” I wish I loved God like that–desperate to be near him at all times. Thus she teaches me, day by day.

It’s been more than fifteen years since Pastor Erick Allen first shared “Living by Vows” with our congregation during a sermon at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Boone. During that time, I’ve come to realize that living by vows takes a million forms.

Such a lifestyle involves remembering to pray for my beloved friends in Japan, even when I miss them to the point of pain. (Maybe especially then.)

It requires faithfulness in friendship, even when friends are knocking off my rough edges and sandpapering my soul to a high gloss. They do the hard work of grace in me, daily transforming me into the person that Christ calls me to be.

It demands care and thoughtfulness in maintaining my mom’s dignity as age robs her of independence, agility, and endurance. Though mom does not suffer from Alzheimer’s or dementia, she does have bouts of forgetfulness that sometimes take me by surprise. I am learning to take these in stride.

Occasionally, mom gets impatient with my efforts to love her well, especially when she needs medical attention. A good friend once told me I would have to grow a tougher skin. And I am. Sort of. It helps to remember that, most of the time, mom is not so much impatient with me as with the fact that her life is changing, and change can be. So. Very. Hard.

McQuilken says of Muriel, “She is such a delight to me. I don’t have to care for her, I get to. One blessing is the way she is teaching me so much—about love, for example, God’s love. She picks flowers outside—anyone’s—and fills the house with them.” These words once made me long for the kind of commitment that allowed a man to honor his wedding vows so fully. Literally, “in sickness and in health.” This godly faithfulness was absent in my own marriage.

Now I see how beautifully the words also fit my role as a caregiver to my mom. We take care of one another, really. She gives me so much more than I give her. The flowers of her stories of childhood in Connecticut. The blossoms of her wisdom and sound advice. The rich soil of her profoundly unconditional love, which encourages me every day. Mom is my biggest fan, my boldest cheerleader, my staunchest encourager, and I am so thankful for the time we share together.

And, in some ways, the life of commitment to vows means remembering to be gentle with myself. Personal growth in all of its dimensions requires time and patience. I don’t get it right every day. But I love the idea of “a long obedience in the same direction,” which Eugene Patterson uses in reference to discipleship, defying the “quick fix” mentality of our instant gratification society.

I suspect Robertson McQuilken would say the concept applies equally well to living by vows.

Breath of God for Image Bearers

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I am blessed with:

1. an unexpected “girl’s lunch out” with my mother and sister

2. the blue richness that only comes in an autumn sky

3. friends who share common interests with enthusiasm

4. time for quiet reflection

5. the written words of those who have gone before (Thank you, C.S. Lewis!)

6. the serendipity of discovering others who are spinning the same tops that I am

Creativity to me is one of those God-given guarantees. We are created in His image and He is the ultimate Creator. Ergo, we are all creative.

Now, it is true, that only God can breathe something out of nothing. He spoke into the void and made the miracle of the universe and every miraculous diversity contained within it. No human can do this. At best, we co-create with the Father, using the things He has already made to gild beauty with wonder. This need to create is part of His image, breathed into us at our own creation, a compulsion to participate in making with Him and through Him. If you live, if you breathe, you are creative in some way.

The trouble is, so many people put incredible limitations on the definition of “creative.” For instance, a person who makes “art” is creative, but a person who makes dinner is not.

Recently, a friend of mine posted a photo on Facebook of the cutest wooden Christmas tree that she and her husband had built and stenciled. In the comments, another woman remarked that she herself couldn’t make anything, “Except breast milk.” Of course, I immediately responded that creativity takes many forms, breast milk included.

That little social networking convo has stayed with me… another spinning top, whirling its way toward resolution.

Her words perfectly illustrate the idea that so many people have about their own creativity, and give rise (again!) to the vehement argument I find myself making, every single time another person tells me they are not creative. You are! You ARE! YOU ARE!

Now I can push watercolors around with a brush. I can carry a tune. I can letter, draw and doodle. I can shape wire and stone into artistic designs that hang from earlobes and barn doors. I can even wrangle with words until they go where I tell them (mostly). But, to my sorrow, I have never given birth to a child. My creative response to this has always been in loving other people’s children (which I do well).

Here is a woman involved in the most profound act of co-creation imaginable, that of birthing and nourishing new life, and she does not recognize the God-breathed creativity within herself. Can there be more creative work than motherhood?

And so I argue that creativity is within you…

when you stir the pot that holds your family’s dinner.

when you teach the one and thirty in your classroom.

when you arrange the blankets on your daughter’s bed.

when you stoop to listen to a child.

when you offer to shop for an elderly shut-in.

when you leave all that is familiar and move your family to the mission field.

when you polish the window that frames the sunrise.

when you lean closer to the weeping friend to share his sorrow.

when you thrust the spade into the hard earth to plant a flower.

when you cast your line into sunlight-dappled waters.

when you invite your small group over for Games Night.

when you take the time to look the one who serves you in the eye and say “Thank you.”

when you brew the coffee before the church doors open.

when you speak light into darkness.

when you extend hospitality to your neighbors.

And yes, when you draw your baby near to nurse and nourish.

There is an art to everything, small or large, under heaven, and there is as much creativity in the person who stands before great art admiring as there is in the person who makes great art and hangs it to be admired. In these ways, and a million others, you reflect the creativity of your Maker.

So, please. Do not tell me you are not, and never have been, creative.

You’re breathing, aren’t you?

 

Spinning the Top

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I am blessed with:

  1. Mom’s recovery from a recent illness
  2. This morning’s “cradle sunrise”–full of pale pinks, blues and yellows
  3. Sharing part of my “His-story” aloud with a friend and discovering certain memories are not as painful to probe as they once were
  4. This pink-clad baby — laughing-right-out-loud-at-nothing-in-particular-but-baby-joy — on her mommy’s lap at the table beside me

I have found that I go through “seasons of thought” like the planet changes seasons. Often sparked by conundrums in my life or bumpy rides in relationships, these thoughts spin about like tops set in motion, until they achieve some resolution… or revolution… of enlightenment for me. I wrestle with them, like Jacob and the Lord, and I will not let them go until I am blessed with… something… understanding, peace, contentment, direction in the way I should go.

Mostly the top spinning is quiet. I do a lot of silent reflecting, reading, praying. Sometimes I need to bounce words off of others until I can find my way. Always, always, always, God speaks into this process at some point, which amazes and astounds me…. That He should hear my thoughts…. That He should care to offer His input in such beautiful, creative ways.

So, most recently, the whirlwind of thought has revolved around the question of pain. Deep, personal pain, encountered in my  life and in the lives of people around me. Our reactions to pain. The patterns that we tend to play out over and over again, every time we encounter experiences that threaten our comfort or gouge deep-down, indelible scars into our trust.

We run away.

We clench our teeth and shoulders and hands.

We shake our fists at one another and Heaven.

We withdraw from others.

We hide.

We wear masks.

We lick our wounds.

We gnaw our hearts.

We grow angry, bitter even.

We lash out at others.

We deny our needs and vulnerabilities before the enemy, and we make enemies of everyone.

These are some of the patterns that I have observed in others, but also (dare I confess it?) participated in myself, when confronted by pain.

More specifically, I’ve been thinking about how we are to love into those places of pain and brokenness in a way that honors Our Father, who is love.

So I’ve been reflecting, reading, praying, pinging ideas and words off friends whose opinions I value, and praying some more on this one. And God has been speaking into the process with His usual creativity.

Reading Ann Voskamp’s blog A Holy Experience, I am reminded that we are all like Jacob, looking for blessings we cannot give ourselves. It was a pattern in Jacob’s life… disguising himself as Esau for a blessing from his earthly father, enduring a wrenched hip socket for a blessing from his Heavenly Father. But it is a pattern of need that we all share. Ann writes:

Everybody is just a brave beggar looking for a blessing. We’re all Jacobs. There isn’t anybody who isn’t starved for a word of blessing.  What if no one had to dress up any better, any stronger, any braver — and we just handed out words that bless to everyone just as they are in all their real and honest messiness?  What if we weren’t about dressing up as good — but about giving the blessing now? This changes your life and a thousand more: Only speak words that make souls stronger. To the smoldering teenager and the bored guy pumping gas and the burdened husband slumped at the table and the volcanic kid spewing lava ugly everywhere. In the beginning was the Word and the Word was God and words have the power of God in them. Words have the power to literally breathe life — to literally reshape the atoms of real lives. Sticks and stones may break bones — but only words can curse a soul or be a blessing We could make it a different world: We don’t demand anyone go dressing up as good, to get our blessing now.

So I am reminded by my Father through Ann’s blog: “words have the power of God in them.” I am reminded of the need to choose words carefully, thoughtfully, and to lay them down tenderly, like a blessing, on the souls of those around me who are wrestling through this messy business called life… just like I am.

Never mind our patterns. Jesus knows we have them. Do we really think He sits on His throne in Heaven muttering:

“Oh, here we go again!” [Big eye roll] “Ignore her.”

“That’s just her way.” [Careless shrug] “Leave her alone.”

“He does that every time.” [Angry gesture] “Just walk away.”

I suspect laying down a blessing is a bit like forgiveness… How many times must I forgive? How many times must I bless?

Well… how often does Jesus forgive? How often does He bless?

And do I really wanna be like Jesus, or do I just say I do?

“What if no one had to dress up

 any better, any stronger, any braver —

and we just handed out words that bless

to everyone

just as they are

in all their real and honest messiness?”

The question gives me a lot to think about.

Embracing thanksgiving as a lifestyle

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So my friend and I have been seriously applying Ann Voskamp’s book One Thousand Gifts to our daily living… learning to hold our hands open to God’s blessings and give thanks for them, even when they (sometimes) don’t feel like blessings. Our Friday morning breakfast conversations are filled with the struggle, the challenge, the very real effort involved in this practice.

There are definitely areas on both of our lives where we just. aren’t. there. (YET.) And maybe we won’t get there this side of Heaven. But I’ve decided that’s okay. I don’t think Jesus will fault me for being open to thankfulness, even when I wrestle to actually BE thankful.

The PROCESS is the thing. And in those quiet moments of slowing down, listing gratitude, naming miracles, I have begun to see His blessings everywhere. The richest one of all has been the growing ability to really see this moment. The one right in front of me. The one He wants me to LIVE in. Right. NOW.

How often do I allow my joy to be robbed by my tendencies to dwell on the sorrows and failures behind me or borrow troubles from a tomorrow that may never come? Mindfulness of the moment has never been my default setting. And yet, here He is, in this moment, teaching me attentiveness and gratitude. I am a debtor to Grace, it’s true. But not impoverished by the debt.