Thursday, August 28, 2014

in His Presence

Towards the end of the school year, a friend remarked how many of his friends had said they regretted living in a blur - always busy, always occupied, not taking the time to stop and rest, care for people, and simply be present. He thanked me, because he said that observing me try to live well, thoughtfully and without rush reminded him to slow down and be present himself.

That made me feel good. All last year it was heavy on my heart to live thoughtfully, take nothing for granted, and make every minute count. I realized in a new way what it means to walk in the Presence of God on a daily basis, and realized that it is only possible to fully experience His Presence when I myself am fully present, and vice versa. Nothing chases away an awareness of closeness with Jesus more than a crazy to-do list or a preoccupation with the past or the future. But when I am fully present wherever I am, keeping my eyes wide and hands open to see and receive His gifts, that is when I am closest to Him.

So I made present my word for the year. I wanted to remind myself that Jesus is always present with me, and that therefore it is worth my while to make every effort to be fully present myself.

I succeeded, for the most part, during the school year. I think that this is due to the fact that I experienced so many new things that I was not equipped to handle on my own that I automatically was in a state of continuous reliance on God. As I went to Him for help and guidance and wisdom I walked in His Presence and in the Present. It was a sweet blessing.

But this summer I think I forgot how desperately I need and desire God's Presence and guidance and fellowship. I was back at home, in the very familiar role of daughter and sister that I have successfully fulfilled for years. We went through a big transition with a move, but that was nothing new: we have moved many times before. So I unconsciously reverted to relying on myself instead of relying on God and seeking His Presence constantly.

Through the chaos of moving I found myself longing for the stability and control of school life - a stability that I have since realized is imaginary. What I needed was not the stability and routine of a specific place, but the constant awareness of God's Presence that the Holy Spirit had blessed me with during the school year. By wishing I was back at school, I missed out on fully enjoying what God was giving me this summer - sweet, sweet time with my family and with Him.

My summer was challenging and amazing, but it would have been even more so had I heeded my lesson from last year and God's prompting to remain in His Presence and in the present. I should have resisted the impulse to think that because I had already been through similar experiences, I could assert some independence and do things for myself. I gained nothing by that - and I lost precious time.

I don't want to continue my mistake of the summer into the school year. As I dive back into life at college, I need to remember that even though college is no longer as unfamiliar as it was last year, I must seek God's Presence even more fervently. I need to seek His aid to be present this year - accepting the challenges and joys of sophomore year without wishing I could be in another place (home) or another time (freshman year). More and more I realize that my own unaided attempts to follow Jim Elliot's excellent advice - "Wherever you are, be all there" - are destined to failure. Because the past and the future can be idealized, but the present is all too clearly imperfect.

It is only when I cling to Jesus and His promise to be with me always that I can truly be present and see the beauty of the present in spite of its imperfections. Only when I cling to Jesus and His Presence will I be able to see and rejoice in the grace that He so eagerly pours out on me.

"Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age." Matthew 28:20

Monday, August 25, 2014

Stars and Dots

I have been called a conservative, a feminist, an American, a European, an evangelical, a mystic (it's a long story), and many other things by many people. And, when those words are unpacked by the particular people that chose them, I am all of these things. But they are not necessarily how I would describe myself. In fact, I have a hard time applying adjectives to myself beyond the essentials: Christian, lover of Jesus, lover of people. Beyond that, I am too complicated to successfully describe myself with a few trite words without constructing a false image.
 For example, when the word feminist is defined as a woman who thinks deeply, who can hold her own in an argument, who doesn’t take the Biblical injunction for wives to submit to their husbands as an excuse for men to treat women like doormats, and who has a wide comfort zone, I am a feminist. However, I do not go around saying that I am a feminist, because the definition I just gave you is a pretty personalized one, and not one that most people think of when they hear that word.
The thing is, definitions matter. All too often, people either talk about entirely different things using the same terminology or the same things using different terminology. Either way, if terms are not defined confusion is the predictable result. I know from personal experience: I have a tendency to think I know what someone is saying and then to completely misunderstand them because I misunderstood their terms.
This confusion when it comes to defining terms is toxic when it comes to the terms we use to label people. Labels do have their place, but only when we realize that a person is more than the label you stick on them.
One of the books I loved as a kid is You Are Special, by Max Lucado. It tells the story of the Wemmicks, wooden puppets who spend their time sticking gold stars or grey dots on other Wemmicks. The Wemmicks who have lots of gold stars are extremely popular, and the Wemmicks who have mostly grey dots are social failures. The story is about a Wemmick called Punchinello. Punchinello is completely covered in grey dots, and is very depressed. One day, he meets a Wemmick named Lucia who has no stickers at all. It’s not that people don’t try to give them to her: they just won’t stick. She tells Punchinello that she goes to see the Maker every day, and she knows Him, she doesn’t care what the other Wemmicks think. And so, while she still possesses the characteristics that cause other Wemmicks to try to give her stickers, they don’t stick. She is not defined by any one trait – except the love of the Maker.
I think that all of us have probably glibly applied a label to someone, just as the Wemmicks apply stickers, and then never seen beyond that label to the person it describes. We miss seeing a masterpiece of the Maker when we do this. Once a person has a label, like American or conservative or homosexual or socialist or homeschooler or gardener or whatever, it is easy to stop seeing the person and only see your particular definition of the label.
The problem with a label is that while it is meant to describe someone, it often ends up defining him (or her) in our minds. And no person can be defined by one, or two, or ten labels. People are much more complex than that.  
In Anna Karenina, one character, Oblonsky, says that Levin, his future brother-in-law, is a reactionist. Levin answers to the effect that, “I never thought about what I am. I am Constantine Levin: that is all.” How often do I miss who the people in my life are because I am so preoccupied trying to figure out what they are?
I think it is okay to use words to describe people – that is one of the ways we navigate life in community. But I think that before we describe someone, we should seek to see who he is – not what he is – before God. Only after that should we carefully apply labels from that understanding, rather than using labels as a kind of shortcut (and shortcuts often turn out to be long detours) to understanding someone.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

the romantic side of familiar things

"In Bleak House I have purposely dwelt upon the romantic side of familiar things."
~Charles Dickens~
I think that a large portion of what sets apart great artists is the ability to see the familiar and mundane with fresh eyes. Artists like Dickens study what is familiar as no one else bothers to - and discover beauty and romance in life that no one else takes the time to see. This study of the commonplace is what makes their work so spectacular, because it enables us for a moment to remove the blinders of familiarity and see the world with the vision of wonder.
"Familiarity breeds contempt." This saying has a great measure of truth to it. When we see and do the same things day after day, it is easy to stop caring about them and noticing the details. It's like our vision is unfocused: we see what we need to in order to function, but have lost or weakened our capacity to actually see the clear, bright, meticulous detail that surrounds us. Life can far too easily become monotonous for those who are easily disenchanted with the familiar. I don't want this to be true of me.
Although discovering new places and people and experiences is one of my favorite activities, and I certainly don't want to get stuck in a cozy little comfort zone that I am loathe to leave behind me, the fact is that most of my life will be lived with some measure of familiarity: familiar routines, places, people, conversations, and classes or a job. When I do the same thing day after day after day, it takes great effort to cultivate a habitual sense of wonder.
I want to make that effort. To not limit my experience of wonder and delight to the few opportunities a year that I have to travel and explore. Those times are precious gifts that are absolutely not to be taken lightly. But I want to experience wonder and delight every single day that I walk this earth - as I go from class to class in college just as much as when I hop from city to city on vacation; as I plug away at my job just as much as when I get to pursue special projects; as I do laundry for my family just as much as when I am enchanted by the laundry hanging from the lines in small towns in Europe. And that pursuit of wonder means refusing to gloss over my everyday experiences simply because they are everyday.
I have learned that a carefully cultivated sense of wonder in my home life in no way mitigates my enjoyment of the out-of-the ordinary: it enhances it. Because when I stare up at the Alps in awe or wander through a fishing village on the Mediterranean or ride a double-decker bus in London, my pleasure is not tainted by a dread of returning home to daily life. Instead, I am able to enjoy the unfamiliar fully, knowing that I am creating a treasure of memories to take home with me as I return to the more quiet, but just as important, wonders of home.
I will never be a great novelist like Dickens. but my life and the way I live it is in a sense a work of art. I want to be able to say at the end of my life that "I have purposely dwelt upon the romantic side of familiar things."
Or, as Mary Oliver says, "When it's over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement."

Saturday, August 16, 2014

a process

It happens often, but that doesn't mitigate the wonder.

I puzzle something out - slowly think through an idea that is planted by a Bible verse, or a stray word in a conversation, or a book that I am reading, or a combination of all of the above. I think and think and come to a conclusion about a truth that I have missed, or reach deeper into the meaning of a truth that I have always known. It is hard work, but it is satisfying work. It takes awhile. Sometimes days. Sometimes weeks. Occasionally months or years.

I reach a conclusion that doesn't exactly change everything, but subtly changes the way that I view everything.

This process is fascinating and exhilarating, but also a little...frightening. Because I wonder if what I've discovered has value. After all, I'm only an inexperienced young woman, so it is natural to wonder if I'm pulling my ideas out of thin air and if they have no basis in reality. I wonder if my mind-blowing thought is just an illusion, since I have never encountered it anywhere else.

And then it happens. I start seeing the truth that I have discovered in many different places. Woven through the Scriptures. In books hundreds of years old. In blog posts from last month. In quotes I stumble across online from people I highly respect. And this fills me with delight.

It is an indication that what is so new to me, what I worked so hard to reach, is as old as the hills. This truth has been spoken by and to God's people for centuries, has changed many more lives than my own.

And it is different, more valuable, than if I had just been taught about it by other people from the beginning. It is also much more valuable than if I figured it out on my own and then never found any indication that others agree with what I have discovered. At the same time, this truth is old and confirmed and solid, but also new and exciting and personal because of the work that I did to arrive at it. I confidently claim it, knowing that it has been claimed through the centuries by those who seek what I do: a wild, precious life lived in the presence of the Father and spilling His grace out into the lives of those around me.

This pattern is a reminder that God is with me, that He loves me, that He wants me to puzzle my way to a truth by myself because the process will bring me closer to Him. Then, once He has walked me through it, He confirms my conclusion by showing me that many, many of His children have walked through this process and come to the same conclusion.

It's a pretty amazing feeling.