Wednesday, May 31, 2017

6 things I learned in May

I always look forward to reading Emily Freeman's  "Things I learned this month" (recently changed to "Things I learned this quarter") posts, so today I'm linking up to share a handful of things I learned in May.

1. Death by cow is more likely than death by shark. 
A friend just told me this. I was a little incredulous, but it's true. Sharks kill on average 5 people per year worldwide (1 per year in the US), while around 20 people per year are killed by bovine attacks. Who knew cows could be so lethal? The funny thing is, this has zero effect on my love of hiking through picturesque alpine cow pastures or my trepidation when it comes to swimming in the ocean. Check out more interesting shark stats here and here.

2. I love road tripping solo on backroads with no GPS and only a road atlas to guide me.
I visited Liza at her new home in small town South Carolina a couple of weeks ago, and while I loved spending time with her, I also loved the adventure of the road trip. South Carolina is gorgeous, and I enjoyed myself listening to music and following signs from one quaint town to the next. I only got lost twice, and I much prefer getting lost in a relaxed sort of way to having an aggravating GPS telling me what to do every two minutes.

3. "Acting is telling the truth under imaginary circumstances." 
I stumbled across this quote by Emma Watson last week, and it has provided much food for thought. Not only is this true of acting, but of what good literature accomplishes as well.

4. Someday I want to name my house.
I've always thought that would be cool, but I'm horrible at coming up with names for things. But names are important, and where I live is important, so I wherever I settle will probably end up with a name. Montreat, the tiny community in the Appalachians where my grandparents live, is gifted with residents who know how to name their houses. Some of my favorites: "Nooks and Grannies," "Cram a Lot Inn," "Windy Wildflower," and "Aslan's Pause."

5. I have separation anxiety from my books.
I went on a couple of weekend trips this month, brought several more books than I actually opened on each one, and regretted not bringing others as soon as I headed out of town. My dad bought my whole family kindles years ago, exasperated by the weight all of our books added to the load on family trips, but I forget that the kindle exists most of the time and hands-down prefer hard copy. Which is kind of a problem, what with my family's itinerant lifestyle.

6. "The Lord's timing is seldom early, but He is never late."
Someone mentioned this in conversation, and it's a truth that I have been holding on to and seeing proved true recently.

What have you learned this month? Share in the comments below!

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

"trust Me, and take the next step"

During my time at Wheaton, I experienced some seasons of intense growth and others of quiet contentment.

I thought that my final season at Wheaton would be one of the quiet contentment variety. I expected to focus on strengthening old friendships and finishing strong academically, but I did not anticipate anything particularly noteworthy.

I thought wrong.

My last month at Wheaton was filled with the most concentrated and specific outpouring of the Lord's encouragement and preparation that I have ever experienced. This outpouring came on so many levels - through classes; through conversations with old friends, new friends, and total strangers; through well-loved poems and poems I encountered for the first time; through Scripture; through quiet assurances of the Lord's love and steadfast faithfulness.

This outpouring was multi-faceted. The Lord confirmed things I had known for a long time and revealed things I had never thought of before. He at once broadened and sharpened my vision and doused it with a double helping of wonder. I was alive to His presence and guidance and overwhelming grace.

To even begin to go into specifics would take a ridiculous amount of time. I spent the first week after graduation journaling all this and only finished after writing around 13,500 words. (By hand.) I will spare you that. But there was a common current in this flood of encouragement.

In some ways it all started one week that I had been uncharacteristically agitated and preoccupied. I finally came before the Lord in prayer, ready to lay my laundry list of worries and what-ifs before Him when He stopped my thoughts in their well-worn tracks.

"Be still and rest."

He gave me these words, and He gave my distracted soul the ability to be still and rest before Him. He recentered me in His presence. In the midst of my fretting, He reminded me of another time that He had spoken as I prayed.

Basically, He reminded me to trust Him. 

All year, as I figured out what to do after graduation, the Lord had been teaching me to trust Him and take the next step. That evening in March, He reminded me that this attitude applies not only to major life decisions but also to every moment of every day. I'm not supposed to know how a conversation will pan out. I don't need to figure out why I'm supposed to be in a given place at a given time. I don't need to overanalyze or be ready with a detailed plan of action for the best-case scenario, the worst-case scenario, and every scenario in between. 

As difficult as it is for this planner to admit, my job is not to know what the next step will lead to. My job is simply to take the next step as the Spirit leads and trust the Lord to provide the next step after that when He sees fit.

"Trust Me, and take the next step."

It seems so simple, so basic. 

It changed everything. Being tethered to the Holy Spirit, taking almost literally every step of every day in dependence on Him, led to unequaled freedom and confidence. (Paradox, yes; surprise, no.) 

It was this that opened my heart for the Lord to speak to me on so many profound levels as I walked through my last weeks at Wheaton. It is as if He said: "You think you're finished, but I still have more for you here - more joy, more fellowship, more growth. I'm not finished with you here." 

Not only was that season deeply life-giving at the time, but I know that it will be a source of consolation as I face a challenging year of transition. The Lord is faithful. Always. Faithful when He is pouring out encouragement and life by the bucketload, and faithful in the times when everything seems dry. I know that the changes He worked in me even in my last days at Wheaton will draw me closer to Him for a long time to come. I'm only beginning to learn what it looks like to truly trust Him and take the next step.

So as I rejoice in the Lord's work in and through me at Wheaton, as I grieve that my time at Wheaton is over, and as I step into my upcoming adventure in Germany, I'm resting in the Lord's faithfulness and eager to receive whatever grace He has for me. 

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

of stories and vision and wonder

A few weeks before I graduated, I was one of four seniors asked to share reflections on my time as an English major with the students, faculty, and staff of the English Department. I want to share those reflections with y'all as well. 

~ ~ ~

     The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple
As false dawn.
              Outside the open window 
The morning air is all awash with angels.

     Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,
Some are in smocks: but truly there they are.
Now they are rising together in calm swells
Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear 
With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing;

     Now they are flying in place, conveying
The terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving
And staying like white water; and now of a sudden
They swoon down into so rapt a quiet 
That nobody seems to be there.
               The soul shrinks

     From all that it is about to remember,
From the punctual rape of every bless├Ęd day,
And cries, 
               “Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry,
Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam
And clear dances done in the sight of heaven.”

     Yet, as the sun acknowledges
With a warm look the world’s hunks and colors, 
The soul descends once more in bitter love
To accept the waking body, saying now
In a changed voice as the man yawns and rises,

     “Bring them down from their ruddy gallows;
Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves; 
Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating
Of dark habits,
              keeping their difficult balance.

~Richard Wilbur

~ ~ ~

When Dr. Coolidge asked me to speak for department chapel, I knew I had to read this poem by Richard Wilbur. Keep it in mind, because I am going to talk about it more in a few minutes. But before I do that, I want to share some advice that directly relates to why this poem is so important to me. This advice comes from Mary Oliver, another poet that I love. Her  “instructions for living a life” are “pay attention, be astonished, tell about it.” This is how we are called to live, to “always be on the lookout for the presence of wonder,” as E.B. White says. 

There’s a problem, though: it’s really easy to get stuck in the rut of routine and stop truly seeing. We approach the world pragmatically rather than enjoying the gift that it simply is. We become blinded by familiarity instead of seeing the world with the vision of wonder. I, for one, am always looking for ways to re-vision - ways to see the world with fresh eyes. My go-to aid for that is literature. 

This is one reason I love the above poem. It’s called “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World.” I love that Wilbur wrote a poem about laundry - a quotidian chore that is not in the least poetic to most people. He takes something familiar that we rarely pay attention to, defamiliarizes it, and asks us to reconsider how we see commonplace things. He uses ordinary imagery as an entry point into profound meditation.

I’d be willing to bet that many of you are English majors because you love the way that literature helps you engage with the world in new ways. Salmon Rushdie says that “Literature is in part the business of finding new angles at which to enter reality.” In studying literature, we receive new eyes to see what Dickens calls the “romantic side of familiar things.” 

One of my favorite moments as an English major was during sophomore year. It was fall, and one of the trees near my dorm was aflame with spectacular color. I’d been enjoying this in solitude for several days, when one day I encountered a friend en route between the dorm and cafeteria. I grabbed her and said, “Rachel! Finally someone who will understand!!! Look at that tree!!!” We stood there gazing at the tree, rejoicing in its glory and beauty. 

The next day in Victorian Literature we discussed Hopkins’ poem "God’s Grandeur". Dr. Colon talked about how Hopkins uses the techniques of inscape and instress as tools to help us recognize the “treeness” of each individual tree. She said, “most people look at a tree and think, it’s just a tree. But Hopkins tells us - GUYS! It’s not just a tree. It’s a TREE.” Rachel was in that class with me, and we just looked at each other and telepathically said “well, that was perfect timing.” 

One thing great authors do so well is study commonplace things that everyone else ignores in order to rediscover their beauty and power. But there is more to it than that. Good literature doesn’t just reveal the deep beauty of this world: it also reveals its deep brokenness, which is often equally easy to ignore. Great authors force us to come face to face with the pain that permeates the world. A good example of this is Toni Morrison’s recent novel Home. It is the narrative of an African American Korean War vet returning home to Georgia. Through it, Morrison pulls the scab off the 1950s, which we usually remember as a happy-go-lucky, leave-it-to-Beaver time. She explores with precision and poignancy the problems of systemic racism. Morrison refuses us the luxury of crafting an image of reality that isn’t true and instead uses her work to force us to face deep-seated brokenness.

The question then remains, as English majors, how do we use the renewed vision that literature gives us? Do we get to read the stories, close the books, and continue as if nothing had happened? I don’t think that’s adequate. Chip and Dan Heath, in their book Made to Stick, write that “a credible idea makes people believe. An emotional idea makes people care. And the right stories make people act.” Stories make people act.

We have a responsibility to act on the vision that literature gives us. This dovetails with our calling as Christians to see the world for what it truly is. We know that the world is good, because it was created by a good God as an expression of love. We can see goodness and beauty in places where other people see only the mundane. We are called to cultivate that beauty so other people can see and respond to it. On the flip side, we know that the world is deeply broken as a result of the fall. And we are called to see the world’s brokenness, wade into it, get our feet muddy, and begin the work of restoration that will culminate in the Kingdom of Christ. This is our calling - to cherish the world’s beauty and to rebuild the world’s brokenness. But in order to do that we have to have the kind of vision that can see beauty and brokenness. Through my time at Wheaton I have learned that literature is one of the most powerful tools there is to mold our vision. And vision leads to action. 

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

I'm back!

On Sunday I graduated from college.

That's kind of crazy, y'all.

People keep asking me how I feel, and I don't really know how to answer. How to capture the culmination of four years in one brief response? How to recount the myriad ways the Lord has been faithful above and beyond all I could even have thought to ask for? How to express the sense of accomplishment and loss that comes with such a major transition?

Right now I can't answer those questions - it's all too close. But a few weeks ago I revisited some old posts and stumbled across one that I wrote on August 27th, 2015, right after returning to Wheaton for my junior year. As I read, I was astonished at how beautifully what I wrote then speaks to where I am now, so I want to share this post again with you.

~ ~ ~

"I Want"

"Great people don't do great things; God does great things through surrendered people." ~Jennie Allen

It's the beginning of a new school year. As a junior in college, I find that I and many of my peers are thinking hard about what we want - what we want from community life, from our studies this year, and, in the not-so-distant-future, from life after college.

To be honest, I want a lot of things, ranging all over the place in level of importance.

I want to have a fabulous apartment that people feel welcome in.

I want to enjoy being a college student - not get so swamped in work that I forget to appreciate the gift of being a full-time student with no more pressing responsibilities. 

I want to get decent grades.

I want to read every book that peaks my interest in both the college library and the public library.

I want to study in Oxford.

I want to live in Germany.

I want to get an interesting job.

Eventually I want to get married.

The list goes on and on.

I want, I want, I want.

But, as pressing as these desires may seem, none of them reach the core of what I truly want.

I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death, and so, somehow, to attain the resurrection of the dead. 

I want to live a life that is Christ.

I want to know the POWER of the Holy Spirit.

I want to die to myself and my desires so that I may fling myself without reserve into the life God unfolds for me, knowing that every step of the way He is drawing me closer to Himself, who is the source of fullness of joy and eternal life.

How do I prepare for this kind of life? More pressingly, how do I live it now - a life poured out as a living sacrifice to God, not a living witness that in spite of my words to the contrary I still think of myself as number one?

How do I keep my sights fixed on things above, where my heart is hidden with Christ in God, and not on earthly things while still affirming the goodness of His earthly gifts?

How do I learn to live prepared to lay everything He has given me down in a heartbeat and cling only to Him?

How do I know when to lay aside my plans and open myself to the wonder of His Plan - and yet not be paralyzed when I don't receive my own personal cloud like the Israelites had in the wilderness?

How do I love with Christ's love?

These are the questions of a lifetime. But as I head into this next school year, I want to start working them out, prioritizing these fundamental desires over all other superficial, circumstantial ones. I want to do this now, while I am still in college. Before I settle down and form habits that get me stuck in an earthly rut of selfishness and independence instead of the heavenly freedom of complete dependence upon God.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God. ~Romans 12:1

For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain. ~Philippians 1:21

For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. ~Colossians 3:3

For God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and self-control. ~2 Timothy 1:7

Delight yourself in the LORD and He will give you the desires of your heart. ~Psalm 37:4

~ ~ ~

As I read back through this, I was overwhelmed by the Lord's lavish generosity. He has indeed used the last four years to shape me and set me on a trajectory of prioritizing the truly important - of fixing my sights on Him. He has drawn me close to Himself in ways that it never occurred to me to ask for, laying the foundation of trust that will enable me to walk forward in complete dependence on Him.  

And in the midst of that He has also granted me so many of the other "wants" - some expressed in this post and others not. Of the things I listed above as superficial wants, all have been realized except reading every book in the library (a pipe dream) and getting married (there's still plenty of time for that).  That's wild.

So I guess the answer to the question "Hey college graduate! How do you feel?" is: I'm excited, and a little bit nervous, and absolutely, utterly overwhelmed at the lovingkindness of the Lord. The same questions that I asked at the start of my junior year figure prominently in the set of questions I am living into now. I have no idea what this is going to look like, but whatever comes next, the Lord has promised to be with me, and He is faithful.