Lessons from the Monastery (When you are Bitter)

Do you ever have those days when “the shoulds “clamor but truth prevails?

I should have done the dishes piled up from last night’s dinner which are railing against me and what I believe—that one should always clean up after a meal. 

I should have gone through piles of papers collected, hauntingly reminding me of bills due and deadlines I’ve likely forgotten.

I should have made an appointment to fix my daughter’s knee, which has hurt on and off for months.  She will ask when she gets home:  did you make the appointment Mama?  Did you? When will you? Why didn’t you?

Rather, all I can think about is my bitter heart.

I am bursting with the awareness, the stinging tang of understanding.

Of how I have lived with it for so long – like Naomi in the book of Ruth in the Old Testament – bitter.

The awareness tastes sharp and severe on my tongue.

I sat in Taizé prayer today at the monastery — soaking in the echoing songs, the verse, the smells and comportment of the faithful gray-haired women sitting around me.  For the first time I was hearing the story of the founding of the Taizé  Community in France; learning of this tradition of repetition, listening and meditating, as we waited for the Lord.

But then, we were given time to pray. It was remarkable. I don’t know about you but I don’t pray – not much.  At least not well.  I am certainly no “warrior” of prayer.   Martin Luther King Jr. said “To be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing.”  Okay, it’s not so much that I don’t pray I suppose, but that I have so many doubts.  My conscience won’t allow me to simply tell God what I want or need.

My limited theological understanding and lack of faith simply don’t impress it upon me to pray – not much.

(I realized recently I don’t think I even know what I think about corporate prayer. But that is for another day…)

We were given space, within the service today to pray.   So I did.

And so, I let go of my control on my mind and heart.  And go it did, racing – Airborne, soaring like so many spirits.

I began collecting my worries like a slightly frantic, manic creature.

I began to set my worries down — like weighty, heavy stones.

I place them there, one after another.

… For a friend, who lives with chronic illness.  I want to see her more. I have many regrets.

… For my children and specific things I worry about for each of them, faith, academics, relationships, health, and futures.

… For my 74-year-old mother’s future and all that is involved in her long-term care.

… For my future, for my past, for my days – it’s been two weeks since I really let myself stop, slow, truly listen.

… For my days, yes I worry so about my days.  I worry about being wasteful.  I worry about being useless. I worry about not helping others enough.  I worry that my life is a waste.

And there it was.  The awareness. 

I have puzzled out what the book of Ruth means.  Which character in the tiny book that I relate to, Naomi – bitter, Boaz – faithful, Ruth – Bold.  Oh, there it is so crystal clear.

I am bitterness. Sure, I’ve come a long way.  I have had some healing.

God has loved me through my addiction and through my fear of failure and through my bitterness.

I have believed {I am so bitter that} God has forgotten me and there is no longer any purpose for my life.  I have tried to do the things in front of me – certainly the obvious one  motherhood, the creative work of writing and photography, but deep, deep down I have felt abandoned by God.

There it is.

Aching, reaching, grasping for some deeper purpose to my life and surely knowing all the while, that this time of dearth, of learning was and is important.  Just like Naomi, who said “call me Mara (which means bitter),” I have been bitter.

I sit with the weighty knowledge, almost crushed, but not.  Still wondering what God intends to do.  Jeremiah 29:11 says; “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope.”

I do believe that. I do even as I taste bitter.  As I sit and wonder and pray.

—————————————————————————————–

This is part of a Lent Series, Lessons from the Monastery.

Lesson One.

I learned today this type of listening is called kenotic listening.  It is characterized by reverencing what is sacred in someone else. So often, when interacting with each other, we dwell on all their faults.   Their failings, their annoying bits and pieces, even how they disappoint us or let us down.  A kenotic listener affirms the good in others.

Lesson Two.

I don’t find it hard to confess that dissatisfaction comes easily to me, along with the admission that my life has disappointed me. Disillusionment too, as my life is not what I thought it would be. I can admit this is true. Well, that’s not exactly right – I had no plan.  No grand scheme.  I didn’t have any idea what I would do with my life as a youngster.  One thing I knew. From that moment when I was swiftly rescued, “healed” in an only God could have done it miraculous sort of way.

This was lesson three.

Why Stay in the Church? (Here’s Why I thank God for Mine.) UPDATED

God has many that the church does not have, and the church has many that God does not have.  ~ Augustine

 

Even though it is totally embarrassing to be labeled an “evangelical” Christian today, mostly because of the politicization of organized religion and because there are so many crazies on the religious right.  (I know.  I’m not helping by saying that.)

But seriously, it’s plain  mortifying to be considered “evangelical” most days especially if you turn on cable television whether it’s MSNBC or Fox “news.”

Still I have been attending mine for more than ten years and have good reasons to stay at my evangelical church.

Sojourners Magazine does a good job of describing the type of evangelical Christian that I consider myself to be.  I care about racial and social justice, the environment, human rights, having a consistent life ethic and trying to be a peacemaker.  I do not always succeed.

The truth is there is no perfect church.

But I think there is an ignorance and arrogance to think that  you do not need a church home.

I’ve already written once at least, that I can remember, about what I love about my church.  It’s here, titled I Like My Church.  They Don’t Tell Me What to Think.  But Rachel Held Evans the author of Evolving in Monkeytown  is discussing why she left the church and why she has returned.  In  a response to this, I replied. I’ve expanded it here.

Why I stay in church?

These are not in any order but how they toppled out of my brain.

 

  1. A significant reason that I stay at my church (even though it has grown into a mega-church since we’ve been there) is because they don’t take sides on political issues.  They teach what the Bible says and they intentionally stay away from hot “issues.”  This shows great maturity and wisdom, in my opinion.
  2. I also stay at my church because although they are more conservative on women than I would like, they love and accept me as I am. (If you are regular reader of my blog, you know that I can be a sometimes ranting, sometimes angry and frustrated, and sometimes hurt feminist, a misfit in the evangelical church.)  I stay because I believe as I grow into God’s grace, I may be heard since the message isn’t mine, but the truth of Jesus.  I stay because although the “church govt. structures (being a part of a denomination)” haven’t caught up with their beliefs, what they are practicing is an affirmation of women fully using their gifts and abilities and serving out of those God given gifts, almost.
  3. I stay because there are people in my church that are spiritually alive and actively living out their faith, who love Jesus and express that through loving one another, in order to reach our community.  I see it every day.  It is beautiful.  It’s radical.  It is only from God.
  4.  I stay because of the community that I have found within a smaller group which buoys my faith, prays for one another, serves our community together, confesses sin and accepts one another quite unconditionally.
  5.  I stay because they have a solid biblical hermeneutic, one that I can believe in.  They don’t read the Bible literally, thank God!
  6. They encourage questions and regularly say that there are varied perspectives and interpretations.  Amen!
  7. Their position on science, faith and creation which fits under number five, but is important enough to me to be it’s own reason. (I’ve listed some links to talks below.)
  8. I stay because through the study of scripture, through learning in community, through developing a life of devotion I am being transformed.  I am not the same person.

 

Everything I write about the spiritual life here on my blog, and I do all the time, it is because of what I am learning, how I am being challenged to grow and develop, because of these things.

This is why, I regularly thank God for my church even though there is no perfect church including mine.  Why are you at your church? Or why not?


When It Hurts to be called out by God’s Spirit

This now has a part two.  It is found here.

I’ve been uneasy and perturbed.  I am a Slow Learner.  I know that an edgy, even grumpy unsettled spirit inside me usually means that there’s business to attend to and something to be learned.  I am  drawn down into a Place of Reckoning.  I am learning in the place of Love where God begins to change and shape me into Someone Other Than Me.

It usually requires time. And when finally my ego shrinks down to a normal size, I am ready to start.  This time I shakily verbalized it to Tom.

Bless him, my Tom has my rhythms down.  He knows when I need an ear, when I want (need or don’t need) advice, and the instances that I must simply talk (out loud.)  Introverts will know what I mean.  We introverts talk all the time, right?  It is just in our heads, which is sometimes unproductive, unhelpful or unclear.

Gideon was the most unlikely of people to lead the people of Israel and perhaps ironically, his name means “Destroyer,” “Mighty warrior,” or “Feller (of trees).”  His story read in chapters 6 to 8 of the Book of Judges in the Hebrew Bible was not one of a giant faith, in my opinion. Really his faith was immature; he was often testing and always questioning God’s power, before he would act.  He had a “do this for me and I will do x for you” attitude.

That’s me.  I suppose what most convicted me by thinking about Gideon’s story is the obvious ways that I’ve flailed about, unsure and doubting myself every step of the way over the last few years. I have made some messes and done some stupid shit.  Recently (the last two years especially) I’ve been angry and unsatisfied, especially wanting “clarity about my career.”  I have asked for it, even demanding it. [As if God cares, really what I do.  Okay, he cares some but ultimately, this is only measured against who I am and how I treat others. How do I love?  Do I serve the needs of those who are powerless among us? ]

How very ungrateful I have been.

My heart lurches.  I know ingratitude when it sneers at me.

Fact is the Strong Independent Me believes deeply that women should have a job. (Everyone should have a “job” men and women, young people, old people …  I fundamentally believe in the idea that everyone should contribute to the community, everyone is obligated to this.)

It is especially important to me that women have careers and “represent.”   Do you know what I mean?  I live with a lot of guilt, even shame that I don’t have a career right now. Or even simply a job.  Just a job. Any job.

And this is how it goes in my head. Beyond the value to the community, a job earns “Respect.”  Respect would make me feel validated and valuable and valued.  A job where I go to a different place (than my home) and do “things.”  If I am most honest, things that will build me up and help others recognize my value.  Then bring home a paycheck for all the same reasons.

I’m a writer.

I know with certainty that I would write even if I never got paid or published because I have been a writer for as long as I can remember and it is who I am. The same goes for my photography — I live and breathe the pulse of life through a lens.  I put word by word, ideas together as an offering.

But as I toil in relative obscurity, Ego Me leaps out saying that this won’t do.  Who cares if you are an essayist or poet, who cares if you are writing here on this blog if no one knows and applauds? Bingo! That’s the crux.  Validate me world!  Say what you think of me please.

A friend got mad at something I said.  Mad because I said that art is useless.  I know that is not true.  And I don’t even believe it, but the voices in my head tell me otherwise.

That’s crazy, and besides, in God’s framing of things it shouldn’t matter.  I have to know my value is legit no matter what I do. 

And I have (to learn) to believe that creating art is not useless.

And so for now at least, I will write.

And what I felt most convicted about from the sermon this week was my infantile attitude and my lack of gratitude for this life that I have.  Shame on me.   My anxiety comes out of this place.  My fear comes directly from that spigot, gushing, flowing, spilling all over me in ugly incomprehensible ways.

Gideon tested God on more than one occasion.  He never complained, but he didn’t believe.

Do you flail about in an infantile way demanding that God meet all your needs as if you deserve to be happy, fulfilled and useful? 

Have you learned the slow path to contentment and spiritual maturity that involves a way of relaxing into Him, both by trusting and by stepping out into an unknown future looming ahead?

May it be so.

P.S.  As I mentioned, this has a part two.  It is found here.

Highs and Lows of being an Artist in the Church

I know how blessed I am by my church though most of the time I wish only for a few deep connections.  

But a mega church blesses others when they can put on a quality mini-conference.  This weekend I attended the Pulse Arts conference sponsored by Blackhawk in Madison, WI.   It’s a unique event that brings together worship leaders, songwriters, visual artists, dancers and anyone who considers themselves “a creative” for a 24 hour blitz of music, learning and rubbing shoulders with others of a kind.  For one brief period it feels normal, even great, to be an artist and a Christian.

Two years ago I met a few artists at a Pulse event who have since then became more than acquaintances, though not quite friends. I am collaborating on a Stations of the Cross art show in a few weeks with six other visual artists and a half-dozen or more musicians.  This materialized from relationships made at the Pulse conference.  I had to put myself forward as wanting do something collaborative. Oh how I hate to put myself forward — It’s so scary.  More on that later.

Ego and Self-esteem.

Is it just creative types that are the unlikely and slightly grotesque blend of both insecure and full of themselves?

I speak for myself when I say that it is hard to be a creative and a follower of Jesus’ teachings.  We know we must be original, even imaginative.  We know we must put ourselves forward, promote ourselves and our work.

At an event like Pulse where there are some who have “made it” the conversations were dominated by the singers and songwriters who haven’t made it who are full of puppy dog, hero-worship.

I went this weekend wanting, even needing, to have deep discussions about art and faith — mostly our deep faith as an artist.  In that aspect I was a little disappointed.

Creating Art for Art’s sake.

(Who decides what’s good anyway?) 

Creatives live with the tension between our need to be fresh and original, all the while knowing there is no new idea under the sun. We also know for a fact that unless you promote yourself you may toil in obscurity forever.  But self-promotion is an anathema, at least to me.

I spent a lot of time this weekend thinking about this connection between making “good” art, success and self-promotion. 

Someone promotes themselves really well and gets a ton of attention for their thing, whatever it is.  I look at it and think it is about nothing.   Do I simply not know quality when I see it? How do “the Arts” and artists in general win, if we’re simply promoting (and opening doors) for our friends without being objective about the quality?  Yes, that’s the way the world works.  And if I’m unwilling to play the game, should I just give up now?

Before you start thinking I’m just whining because I haven’t personally been “discovered” I hope you will read on.  It is so much more complicated than that.

Essentially, art is useless.

We all know that.  We have complex reasons for creating.

In the positive column, the reasons are many. We hope to help others escape or enter a different place in a good beautiful way through the images or words or ideas or music we make.  We hope to challenge someone to a different way of thinking.  One of the sessions talked about creating for or out of a renewed sense of wonder with the world God created. We create to challenge and to point toward injustice and ugliness of the world, in the hopes of bringing change. And especially if we are believers, we create out of a wish to comfort and console, to move others toward the consolation of God.  This is not a Hallmark conclusion, but as Tolkien said in his essay On Fairy Stories, we accept “the happy disaster” of this life. Tolkien the master of language and communicating even made up a word for “the happy disaster” calling it eucatastrophe.

As artists who are Christians we are able to create a sacred space in time for others that accepts the long defeat of this life and yet also reflects the hope we have in Jesus.                                                      

I suppose in the end I was able to see very clearly this weekend that the “experts” are simply people a little further down the path, who are pointing out what they have learned.  Depending on their facility to talk about it, the depth of their self-awareness, the richness of their experience with Christ, and how well they tell their story, they may or may not be able to help someone else.   But there is no magic to it.

I also faced that no matter how much you may believe that you are creating something worthwhile, something more than “useless art” the tension exists that success for the artist, just like everything else in the world, and can be simplified down to being popular and cool. Yes, we’re all still living in a perpetual hell of high school.  Each of us has within us something unique to give, because we are gloriously different from one another, and yet sadly that doesn’t guarantee success.

How does One Succeed? These are the people who succeed: (mostly) Those that have a combination of skinny good looks (yes, even Christians idolize youth), an ability to communicate well with others and a willingness to do self-promote, to learn and work the system, a tireless belief in themselves and lastly a strong ego.  They are the ones that usually “make it.”  Yes, cynical me.  There are exceptions of course.

Downward Mobility of Christ

Ironically this success formula is nothing like what we Christians are called to, which is the downward mobility of Christ.

In the end I realized that I must be willing to do some of that self-promotion and there is no shame in it, if you don’t want to toil in obscurity.

But as it is equally imperative to create from an inner, original space.  And it must not, dare I say cannot, be motivated out of a desire to succeed–to reach the big time.  I must create from that place of absolute acceptance that I have received from God, the place of being loved by the Holy One.  God made only one of me, only one of you.  Do the thing he has given you, your creative work, out of that place.

Lay it down, yes your best work, as an offering to the Holy One and continue to create, write, dream, and give of your heart.

Not gazing out, or up toward the desire for success but looking down, setting it down as an offering to God. 

It may seem like you are giving away little pieces of your heart to just a few people here and there.  (Okay, I speak for myself when I say that.)

But I was encouraged this weekend.

I came away still believing that word followed by word, image by image, song by song, we are making sense of the world through our art.

Yes, we are to work

backward,

downward,

toward a perfection that is found only

in creating for the Holy One.

Who Needs a Heart when a Heart can be Broken?

For one human being to love another;

that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks,

the ultimate, the last test and proof,

the work for which all other work is but preparation.


— Rainer Maria Rilke

[I have avoided writing this; dreaded the moment when I force myself to write about the sermon on Sunday about Turning your Family or Friends into an Idol. A part of my Be Real series.]

I have spent the last twenty-three years trying to understand my family and a lifetime of living within relationships that I cannot understand.  It has been long and hard.  Even in my most optimistic moments, yes I do have them, I don’t have much good to say about growing up in my family of origin. I do not idolize family, if anything I have turned recovery from my family’s co-dependence into an idol by spending so much emotional energy on it.  These days, I just want to do and think about something else.  I’m tired of the subject.  It is a stove that guarantees to burn.

My family of origin was dysfunctional.  My family was hard to grow up in.  I got an acid stomach ache every time I walked through the doors of my parent’s home as a young adult, when I was living nearby and coming over for Sunday meals.  My family was (Oh!  You see, there goes my blood pressure rising as I write this.  My heart is beating more quickly.  Anxiety floods into my chest. Cold white panic sits in my belly.)  Just to talk about it still causes me physical pain.

I’ve told this story elsewhere on my blog, so I don’t want to belabor it.  My father was verbally and emotionally abusive.  Home was a place of fear, secrets, and shame.  My family was not all bad – there was love, my mother reminded me recently.  You could call it that.  My father could be tender and loving.  One never knew if he was going to think you were good or bad, pleasing or not, funny and clever or rude and cheeky, insightful and brave or insulting and mean.  It had no logic or rhythm, my father’s anger.  It only had the same result over and over – to me family came to mean fear, anxiety and pulse pounding stress.

My family was nothing you’d want to be a part of and that hurts.  If my father had lived I don’t know what I would have done about his impact on my children.  I am (mostly) grateful that I never had to figure that out, because he was verbally mean and dangerous, and his anger was frightening.  (My stomach lurches again.)  It still frightens me because I am his child — I got his brain and his verbal skills and red hot temper.

I did two decades of psychotherapy to heal.  I spent years in a fog of alcohol and before that as a workaholic.  I was always eager to make my dad happy and he rarely was satisfied with me. This is his legacy.  This is what I have now — and all I can do is stumble to the foot of the cross.  Without Jesus in my life I would be – without Jesus I am a shattered and broken person.  If there is anything good in me, it is Jesus.

So when I hear sermons about how people idolize their family to the point of putting them ahead of Yahweh (which is what any idol is) I feel kind of sick to my stomach.  And my heart feels heavy with sadness that can’t be ignored.  I’m not ignoring it but I’m also trying not to place it too high in importance.

I don’t even feel envy anymore, okay perhaps a little, when I hear my pastor talk about how important his family is to him.  But I’ve lived long enough and had enough hurtful experiences to not even believe in that mysterious thing — familial love — as something special or attainable, at least not for me.

We are not family in any way that our culture says is good.  I don’t believe I can change that.  I’m not sure that I should try.  All I can do is work on my stuff – be responsible for how I treat others – not shutting anyone out when they reach for me.  We are separate, autonomous, and seemingly lost to each other.  I deeply love each member of my family but I know that they have found “family” elsewhere.

Most days it is all I can do to love my husband and kids without smothering, boxing in, shaming, chiding and berating, criticizing, or condemning someone.  You do what you know. I want to know something different, something better.  And Tom has taught me something else, he is beautiful, pure and good.  After almost twenty years of marriage, I can say he will not intentionally hurt me and I believe it.

It is all I can do to try to live in the midst of the reality that I have no faith in the idea family. To me it represents broken hopes and pain.  When people talk about their “precious family” life, I will smile in response and inside I am wondering what the hell they are talking about.

Lest you completely despair for me, I wrotethe following poem last year.  It too is true.

I Never Knew Love

I never knew
that love would be so good.

Our beautiful chaotic life
of music, creativity and ideas. Of
trust, values, and goodness.
Of dreams.

I’ve learned
what it means to give up yourself, yes die
to self. That’s love
to me.

Often the world says
otherwise. But they don’t have
this beautiful chaotic life
we share.

I thought we had to fight,

and disagree
more than not. I imagined
we would be in constant friction.
Because the house that raised me
burned to the ground.

But I learned
the way to live is to give. Then
you get it all back without even realizing you are loved.

My dear, you are, everything.
And from you I have learned
to live.

So how can that be true and all the above as well?  All I can say is that it is and that is the tension of life.  I am learning how be in and make a family.  I am learning about loving, giving, and hoping and perhaps one day I will be able write more about what it means to create your own “precious family.”  Until then, all I can say is, no, I don’t idolize my family.

(Parenting by Free Fall is something I wrote about my fear of parenting based on my experiences.)

Just Make the Salsa: Living without Fear

A response to a Blackhawk’s Sermon.  A part of my Be Real Series.

April, 2007Do one thing every day that scares you!  — Eleanor Roosevelt

f.e.a.r.

The strangest things scare me. I was not afraid to become a mother. But almost every day I am afraid of being a mother who messes up her kids beyond repair.  I am not afraid of travelling the world and yet I am afraid to talk to my Indian neighbor and invite her for tea.  I am afraid to learn Russian or to play the piano again, but I do not fear writing this blog (mostly).  I know that I take beautiful unique photographs, but I am afraid of people paying me for my images.  Every shoot I do, I wrestle with the little demon on my shoulder that says that I should turn them down.  I have allowed my fear to make me stop taking pictures.

I allow my fear keep me from lovin’ on other people, many times, because I need others’ validation to tell me I’m okay. Oh how I hate it!  That is why it hit me so profoundly recently that I was squandering my skills as a photographer mainly because I was afraid. My struggle with low self-esteem and too easily needing the word of validation from others keeps me from living my life.  What is this about?

This is about not getting my identity from Christ.

So for me a sermon on the idol of image — this was profound.  I want other people to validate me and not just that, but the people who I decide are important.

When you continuously seek this validation from others you can never stop.  It is never enough.  I believe that was one of the things my father was plagued by and perhaps what fueled his anger — the constant need to do more because he wasn’t good enough. Thankfully the “do more” piece has been worked out of my life through my depression experience when I quit work to be at-home, but the “I’m Not Okay” hole is huge and intense.  And kind of embarrassing to admit.

Of all the crazy, mixed up ideas!  If I actually found my full identity in Jesus there would be nothing to prove!

That would be a life without f.e.a.r.

I have a friend that makes amazing salsa with fresh ingredients chopped just right, in a way that people love.  And they buy jars and jars of her salsa.  So she keeps making it.  I don’t think she would say she’s an entrepreneur.  She’s a very humble person.  She just saw an opportunity in front of her and went for it.  She didn’t have fear holding her back.  I would have had a thousand “what ifs” keeping me from doing it.  I know, because I’ve had a similar idea to sell Mel’s Soups and Pies out of my home kitchen, but I am too afraid of failing.

Just Make the Salsa!

I want to be willing to just “make the salsa!”  Life doesn’t have to be a place where we fear failure all the time, where we worry about what others will think of our actions, where we are constantly protecting the “image” of what others perceive of us.

This fractured, broken life is not the way that God intended it be.  If I can learn to be a reflection of Jesus in my life, then I can lose my f.e.a.r.

Oh God, please help me to receive my validation from you.  Help me to know that your approval is all I really need.  I am your child.  I am loved dearly — beloved.  The rest of it, success or affirmation of others, acclamation is just extra. Help me to rest in you, the source of everything I am, or ever will be.

9 t Do not lie to one another, seeing that u you have put off vthe old self 4 with its practices 10 and w have put on x the new self, y which is being renewed in knowledge z after the image of a its creator. 11 b Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, 5 free; but Christ is c all, and in all.

12 d Put on then, as f compassionate hearts, g kindness, h humility, meekness, and patience, 13 h bearing with one another and, i if one has a complaint against another, g forgiving each other; g as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 And above all these put on j love, which k binds everything together in l perfect harmony. 15 And let m the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called n in one body. And o be thankful. 16 Let p the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, q singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, r with thankfulness in your hearts to God. 17 And s whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, t giving thanks to God the Father through him. —  Colossians 3:9-14

Imagine living without f.e.a.r.


Creativity is an Act of Faith, Like Forgiveness

It’s a simple idea really that life gives us many opportunities to change and we have the choice to continuously grow or remain stuck.  It stuns me when I realize how often and how easily we do choose just that — to be stuck.  We get stuck in bitterness toward another person.  We get stuck in the pain of a transgression or mistake we have made.  I came to the realization recently that I have been stuck creatively for a long time.  And this is connected to lack of forgiveness on my part. It is also connected to putting my achievements artistically and what others think of me ahead of my relationship with Christ.  I took my eyes off Christ and put them on my status and what other people think of me.

Looking Back.

I have long imagined working for an NGO — long before I found my passion for photography.  It started with being a missionary kid and doing that work as my first and only career path. Years ago, I began to see there might be a way to fuse a lifelong passion for service to others with my burgeoning photography skills.  Granted, photographers are a dime a dozen and many are do-gooders that want to serve globally.

I knew my chances were slim to make a living at it, but I was full of passion and enthusiasm in 2008 when I applied and was accepted in a Master’s Photography Class to be held in Cambodia.  When I wrote an email to friends to raise money for the trip I felt honored to be going to Siem Reap to learn.  A close friend that I respected as a photographer wrote back opposed the idea and discouraged me from “wasting my money.”  The details of why he was so sure don’t matter now, but the important thing is that I allowed his comments to become overly significant.  I perceived them to be an assessment of my talent or potential as a photographer and an artist. Too easily I let it crush me and I didn’t end up going to Cambodia.  I talked myself out of it for a variety of reasons and over time that choice and his advice became large and loud in my life.

When I look back I see that this is when I began close down creatively by allowing the idea that I wasn’t “good enough” to wind its way into my marrow and psyche.  I lost confidence in myself and eventually I quit my professional photography pursuits.  More importantly my friend’s untended message eventually became louder in my head than what Jesus thought of me. I was isolated and alone creatively and did not have other voices speaking into my world.

(Although my husband disagrees interjecting here that in his opinion I did have a type of community online.  And lots of other people affirming my work which is true.  I even had someone track me down on Flickr, because of my work.  And that began a creative relationship with Our Lives Magazine which continues today.) But I didn’t know other artists in the community and I felt alone creatively and spiritually.

Let’s be clear. I know that my friend is not responsible for any of the events that transpired after our disagreement.  In retrospect what he said should not have had the power that it did but I lacked creative confidence.  I am only now realizing these things because I am in a healthier place.  I became bitter toward the person and situation. I was unable to enjoy the God-given gift of creativity.  I could not longer enjoy participation with any sort of creative process. And I doubted my artistic talent.  Eventually I quit.  And I was so wrong to do that.

The Healing.

I am working my way through a creative “recovery” of sorts in a book The Artist’s Way.  In it, Julia Cameron says:

“Art is a spiritual transaction.  Artists are visionaries.  We routinely practice a form of faith, seeing clearly and moving toward a creative goal that shimmers in the distance — often visible to us, but invisible to others.

… Art is an act of faith, and we practice practicing it. Sometimes we are called on pilgrimages on its behalf and, like many pilgrims, we doubt the call even as we answer it.”

How true for me.  And I wonder if I had been a part of any kind of artistic community, Christian or otherwise, at the time that I went through this “creative identity crisis” would I have given it up so easily? Why are artists are so isolated and have trouble supporting one another? How do we find community?  

I am not the first to wonder these things.  David Taylor is has thought and written extensively on the subject of supporting artists of faith.  As a pastor at Hope Chapel in Austin, Texas, he oversaw the arts ministry and adult education program. He also edited the book For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts. He has degrees in theology (MCS) and biblical studies (ThM) and is doing doctoral studies at Duke University. He wrote the best thing I have read on the topic A Meditation on the Art of Encouragement.

As I have gone through this experience God has put on my heart the question of how Christian artists help one another in the work of integration growing our faith and our creative pursuits?  If I had a mentor as I was starting out with my photography how would things have gone differently?  To continue with Julia Cameron,

“We must remain ready to ask, open-minded enough to be led, and willing to believe despite our bouts of disbelief.  Creativity is an act of faith and we must be faithful to that faith, willing to share it to help others, and to be helped in return.”

Artists need one another in order to be encouraged and mature in their craft.  We need to gather and share what we are working on, talk about how we create and discuss any challenges we may be facing as practitioners regardless of our discipline, skill level, or experience.   An artist’s ongoing creativity and belief in themselves are acts of faith that must be set at the foot of the Cross regularly.  Reaching out to other artists for encouragement and to encourage others are acts act of faith and although scary sometimes it is important enough to take the risk, just as forgiving and letting go of bitterness are also important acts of faith. These beautiful actions as believers require faith in the living God, the power of the Holy Spirit and in the death of Jesus on the Cross for us all.

Becoming UnStuck!

If I can only take my eyes off myself and off the views and opinions of others, and put them where they should be at Jesus feet.  And so recently I began to reach out based on the conviction that we artists need one another!  We need to be encouraged in the “faith” of creativity.  And I could do it because I know now that this isn’t about me and whether I’m good or bad at my art.  It is simply, I believe, right!

I thank God that we can grow and change and experience redemption in the form of healing and that through the resurrection we can become unstuck. That in the very act of forgiving we can lose our bitterness.  I thank God for the promises of Romans 6.

I am grateful that time offers us a panoramic view of our life so that we learn and grow by looking backward.

David Taylor seems to understand what it is like.

“If you asked me to tell you the Top Three Most Important Things I Have Observed throughout all my years as a pastor, one would be this: artists need continuous encouragement. This isn’t because they are a particularly weak. All humans need encouragement. But artists need it principally because of the nature of their work. Their work requires them to travel frequently into the realm of their own emotions, and then deeper still into their soul, and this can be demanding, wearying work.

“The two assumptions that inform my work of encouraging artists are that the natural condition of human beings, from Adam and Eve to the present day, is the condition of being afraid. For artists to become all that God intends for them to be, they must pass through many experiences of pain, each experience ushering them to a new level of growth and maturity.”

Amen and amen.  We must be willing to look back and address the things in our past that have made us stuck spiritually, creatively, or emotionally and forgive ourselves.  I’m grateful that this is what I have been able to do.  And I am praying and looking for ways that  I can play a role in encouraging and supporting other artists in the Madison community.

———

This is a part of a series titled BE REAL.  Still, many days, as I search, as I long for, need, wander, hope and fear — the process becomes an idol.  The process becomes this thing that distracts me from who God is, what it means to be his beloved child, and the few things that he calls me to each day.

  1. I wrote a poem in response to a sermon about the greatest of idols self-identity. This sermon  kicked off a series titled American Idols.  The premise is that anything in your life, even a good thing, that becomes more important than God is an idol.  In an age of psychology and self-healing, through medicines and talk therapy, self-worth can all too quickly become an idol.  For me, the journey of finding my way back to faith and belief was so huge in my development of a healthy identity.
  2. Here is what I wrote the week before in response to the sermon Stop.

These are a series I am writing called: Be Real.  One of the ways I’m going to do that– be real — is by writing a response to the sermons I hear at my church, Blackhawk. These responses are not from the church they are my personal reflections.  I am always challenged by teachers at Blackhawk, sometimes profoundly, but I don’t — to be honest — always take the time needed to apply them to my life. But, if life is too busy to apply what you’re learning about your faith and if you don’t change and grow, what’s the point? So here goes.  Many people are busier than I, including my husband, and I just hope that this helps reinforce in some small way what God was already saying to you.

————————


I Sold My Soul to Work: A response to Blackhawk’s sermon “Success”

One of the strongest messages I received from my father was don’t be a slackerFairly regularly he communicated to me that he was fearful that I just might be one.  It was subtle, but I got the message that I needed to work harder. He was always pushing.

He was very driven.  I thought being driven was a positive quality growing up.  And Dad’s motives were good I believe.  Dad and Mom were doing the Lord’s work and how could we not give the Lord 120%?  I suppose that is why I was so afraid to quit my job to stay home with my children.  I was afraid that deep down I was the slacker he saw in me.  What would happen to me if I didn’t have fear of failure, or good-natured competition, or general-freaking-out-all-the-time-to-get-things-done pushing me? For those were the things motivating me at the time.

As I sought God’s direction for my life in the decision to stay or leave InterVarsity, I had no idea how much I needed to learn.  And that began a decade long journey.  Ironically, this simple message was taught on Sunday at church about the idol of Success.  I sat there wishing that I had heard the sermon fifteen years ago, perhaps it would have saved me a lot of grief.  But truthfully I likely would not have “heard” it.  I needed to go through what I did, to learn a difficult lesson.  I hope the younger people listening yesterday can learn this earth shattering lesson without living it out painfully like I did.

I grew up believing that I WAS what I accomplished.  My worth was in what I could DO.   I don’t think my parents knew they were teaching me that, but I got the message that the harder you worked, the better you could and should feel about your contribution.  The more degrees you got, the better you could feel about your brilliance.  The more areas of responsibility you were given, obviously, the more of a Star you were and the more respect and affirmation I received from Dad.  I sat at the master’s feet, my father, who was a doer.  He was an extremely talented, hard-working person that motivated others to do great things.   He was always coming up with new ideas.  He was generally a big shot in the mission world, quite important and well-respected.   I learned my ideas about work from him.

I went to work for my father soon out of college mostly because I wanted him to like me.  When he gave me my first promotion I heard angels singing and the sun came out a little brighter.  I had finally arrived in his good graces.  And then I quickly became scared to death, because even though I knew what was expected of me – DO NOT FAIL – I didn’t believe I was capable, or talented, or smart enough.

That began my decade of perfecting the life of a workaholic.  I would not fail, because I worked longer and harder than everyone around me.  (This is what I thought at the time anyway.  There were many workaholics at my side as well as balanced people who worked smarter than I did.)

I sold my soul to the god of success.  The truth was more painful.  My identity was completely wrapped up in what I did and accomplished.  Tim Mackie said on Sunday, “Our culture worships at the altar of success and achievement.”  And how!  He also said, “A counterfeit god is anything that is so central to your life that should you lose it your life would not be worth living.”

That was my job.   I completely lost my way.  I lost my faith, kneeling at the idols of work, perfectionism, achievement and power.  I was ironically doing many good things for all wrong reasons.  Every day at work I attempted to prove to everyone, but especially my dad, but also the doubters and haters who (quite rightly) worried about Dad hiring two of his children for major roles in the Urbana convention.   Every day I thought I had to prove that I was good enough and deserved to have my job.  Deeply insecure, I didn’t know my value as a child of Yahweh. I finally burned out and then I quit—mostly out of a need to get away from all that, from the person that I had become, who I didn’t like at all—to be at home with my children.  I had three under the age of four and a pre-teen step daughter.

Right about now you are thinking, those poor kids.  Yeah, in some ways it is true that you could feel sorry for them but the lessons God taught me have made me who I am today and I wouldn’t trade them even knowing my children had to live with me through several struggles with major depression and my alcoholism.

This breakdown of Ecclesiastes 4 was so beautiful in its simplicity.

Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from one person’s envy of another. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.  Fools fold their hands and consume their own flesh.  Better is a handful of quietness than two handfuls of toil and a striving after wind. (Ecclesiastes 4:5-6)

The same word hand in English means three different things in Hebrew. (And people wonder why we don’t trust the translators?)  Hand is used three times here to mean three different things.

  • “Folding your hand (yad)” in Hebrew is forearm, visualize folding your arms on your chest.  That is the slacker or lazy person I spoke of. The person taking it easy dishonors themselves and God, and is a fool.  It is good to use your time and talents to honor the Lord.
  •  “A handful (kaph)” is a word that helps you visualizes an open hand, palm up.
  • “Rather than two handfuls (khophen).”  This  is grabbing a fistful of something.

When I worked, I was grabbing for everything—the next project, the next department.  I was constantly dwelling on what I didn’t have and could not appreciate the honor and responsibility of what was before me.  I couldn’t enjoy my own successes.  I trampled on people in my department blindly so that I could grab at more responsibility and power.  I was never satisfied with my own work.  I was never content with my accomplishments.  I look back now, ashamed.  I was too young and more importantly without the spiritual maturity to know what I was doing.  Being raised to believe that I was what I accomplished, well, I was doomed — destined to fail.

The open hands of tranquility!  Even now, there are still areas where I push myself out of insecurity and fear and out of a desire to “be somebody.”  And a big one for me is being a feminist.  Let me explain.  I fret continuously about the lack of power and influence that women have – not only in the Church, but that is a large part of what I think about.  The role of women and being a feminist has been  at times an idol in my life in that I have made it the ultimate thing.  I am afraid of personally giving up whatever bit of power or influence i have as a women and think about this for all women in the Church.  I am afraid of women being perceived as lightweights, that men (who already have power) might think we take up needless space in the universe and really only have one significant purpose.  I know!  I have been totally two-fisted toward God about this, distrusting the leadership of the church as well as individuals I interact with on this subject. 

I come to my role as a feminist woman in the evangelical church often suspicious, fearful and distrusting.  I have not been tranquil or at peace about this for a long time.  And here’s an earth shattering realization for me.  I feel like I am letting “womankind” down by being a stay-at-home mom.  As if somehow I should have a career that shows that women can make money, contribute ideas, and make a significant difference in the world just as well as men, and I should be doing that for womankind.  I know how silly and pathetic that sounds.  I care so much more about my own reputation as a woman and I deeply care what others think of me still.  I worry that I am not doing enough or not proving my worth with my choice to be at home.

This remains unresolved in my and all I can do today is admit it, confess it and pray that I can do this work that God has put before me from a place of trust that my life is a gift from God. I must trust that He gave me my mind and heart; he gave me the things that make my heart ache or my soul sing.  All these are from Yahweh!   Pray for the peace found in doing the things He put before me – in raising my children which is profoundly challenging, daunting, and an incredible honor.   I want to approach motherhood openhandedly while bringing my screwed up, sinful, dysfunctional ideas about my value to the Cross every day.  I want to breathe in the peace of knowing I am beloved and that I am forgiven for those years of fretting and striving for significance and meaning in things that would never satisfy.  I am forgiven for the years of trying to earn my earthly father’s and Yahweh’s love.   My task is to wake up every day remembering that I have nothing to prove — not to my father, not to myself, not to men or women, not to anyone.

Melody

———

Here is a poem I wrote in response to last week’s sermon, about the greatest of idols self-identity – allowing our meaning and purpose to come from anything but Yahweh.   The sermon  kicked off a series titled American Idols.  The premise is that anything in your life, even a good thing, that becomes more important than God is an idol.  In an age of psychology and self-healing, through medicines and talk therapy, self-worth can all too quickly become an idol.  For me, the journey of finding my way back to faith and belief was so huge in my development of a healthy identity.  Still, many days, as I search, as I long for, need, wander, hope and fear — the process becomes an idol.  The process becomes this thing that distracts me from who God is, what it means to be his beloved child, and the few things that he calls me to each day.

Here is what I wrote the week before in response to the sermon Stop.

These are a series I am writing called: Be Real.  One of the ways I’m going to do that– be real — is by writing a response to the sermons I hear at my church, Blackhawk. These responses are not from the church, just my reflections.  I am always challenged by teachers at Blackhawk, sometimes profoundly, but I don’t — to be honest — always take the time needed to apply them to my life. But, if life is too busy to apply what you’re learning about your faith and if you don’t change and grow, what’s the point? So here goes.  Many people are busier than I, including my husband, and I just hope that this helps reinforce in some small way what God was already saying to you.

————————

I searched hard for an image from Urbana 96 or Urbana 2000 because those are the events that I did the promotion for, but the website seems to be stripped of the historic images. The image above was taken after I left.  I suppose I should say for the record that I by no means failed at filling the Urbana conventions that I worked on.  They were both more than full, bursting.  If that is what you are measuring as success.

Something God has slowly wrestled away from me one finger at a time …

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

— Henry David Thoreau

For many years now Tom and I have felt like we’re playing the Game of the American Dream.

Although it looks perfectly delightful on the outside, the conspicuous consumption of our lives keeps us awake at night.  It’s no secret that we must make pretty good money, since I don’t have to work but we’re not even very careful with our money.  We know we are lucky to have a such a good income and we have our retirement funds, and because of his business we’re insured up to our eye balls.   But at the same time have no short-term savings and live month-to-month.  And we’ve gotten ourselves in trouble a few times wanting a vacation or bedroom furniture or to build out a studio and putting it on credit because we don’t save for those eventualities.

I shop compulsively — like I do so many things — with more than twenty years of bad spending choices and not living deliberately.  I confess to my own addictive spending habits which have taken years to reform and I must say I am not fully there.  It has been an area where I have had a two-fisted grip on that “need” to have things and this is something God has slowly wrestled away from me one finger at a time.

In 2008 we decided enough was enough and with the help of a family member stopped spending on credit (for good we hope) by getting a personal loan to end the endless high interest chase of debt.  And we are paying that off at low-interest over several years.   So far, as it comes to credit, we are reformed.

But we are continuously asking how do we live more deliberately?

We have begun to ask each other hard questions about cultural expectations, the influence of media on our world view and our children’s minds and souls, asking what is “life-giving, important, and meaningful?” and how should that change the way we spend our money.  A recent series at church on Generosity (aptly titled Let’s Get Fiscal) has also had interesting timing  for us.  And right in the midst of this sermon series and our personal discussion and prayer about fiscal irresponsibility and generosity we had someone in our life that really needs our financial help.   We have to face that we don’t have money on hand to help.  Because of our financial irresponsibility we cannot help someone that we love and whom we want to help.  That hurts and convicts and fits right in to what God’s doing. The timing is striking and as we have sought to listen to God, because he is clearly speaking to us.  The sermon series told us startlingly that 3.6 billion people in the world live on $2 or less a day. (Passing the Plate, by Smith, Emerson and Snell)  And I heard recently on NPR that more than half of the Egyptians now protesting for a better life live on $2 a day.

I am the “Rich Man.”

As Jesus was starting out on his way to Jerusalem, a man came running up to him, knelt down, and asked, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Why do you call me good?” Jesus asked. “Only God is truly good. But to answer your question, you know the commandments: ‘You must not murder. You must not commit adultery. You must not steal. You must not testify falsely. You must not cheat anyone. Honor your father and mother.’e Teacher,” the man replied, “I’ve obeyed all these commandments since I was young.” Looking at the man, Jesus felt genuine love for him. “There is still one thing you haven’t done,” he told him. “Go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”  At this the man’s face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions. Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God!” This amazed them. But Jesus said again, “Dear children, it is very hardf to enter the Kingdom of God. In fact, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God!”  The disciples were astounded. “Then who in the world can be saved?” they asked. Jesus looked at them intently and said, “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But not with God. Everything is possible with God.”  Then Peter began to speak up. “We’ve given up everything to follow you,” he said. “Yes,” Jesus replied, “and I assure you that everyone who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or property, for my sake and for the Good News, will receive now in return a hundred times as many houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and property—along with persecution. And in the world to come that person will have eternal life. But many who are the greatest now will be least important then, and those who seem least important now will be the greatest then.g” (Mark 10, New Living Translation)

Now more than ever, we are thinking about living intentionally and thinking it through carefully.  What we do and how we do it impacts, or should, how we spend, how generous we are, how we are able to make choices deliberately and carefully.  A recently blog entry by Rachel Held Evans talked about our purpose and essential living in this way:

“It seems to me that there are all of these voices telling me that I need certain things—privacy, boundaries, a 3-bedroom house, a two-car garage, clean neighbors, cool friends, fashionable clothes, TV, junk food, exercise equipment, a plan, a religion, a career, certainty, approval, stacks and stacks of books, and lotion that gives my skin a healthy-looking glow.  Rarely do I stop, take stock of how I spend my money and my time, and ask myself—Do I really need this? Is this really essential? What is its purpose?

Donald Miller, in A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, put this way:

The ambitions we have will become the stories we live. If you want to know what a person’s story is about, just ask them what they want. If we don’t want anything, we are living boring stories, and if we want a Roomba vacuüm cleaner, we are living stupid stories. If it won’t work in a story, it won’t work in life. 

Why do I write about this?  I believe it is a defining sin — conspicuous consumption and the love of money.  It is a lack of contentment — my pastor calls it a “cancer of discontentment.” He also reminded us of the prayer of Agur in Proverbs 30.  It says:  

Surely I am more stupid than any man,  And I do not have the understanding of a man.  Neither have I learned wisdom,  Nor do I have the knowledge of the Holy One.   Who has ascended into heaven and descended?  Who has gathered the wind in His fists?  Who has wrapped the waters in His garment?  Who has established all the ends of the earth?  What is His name or His son’s name?  Surely you know!  Every word of God is tested;  He is a shield to those who take refuge in Him.  Do not add to His words  Or He will reprove you, and you will be proved a liar.

Two things I asked of You,  Do not refuse me before I die:  Keep deception and lies far from me,  Give me neither poverty nor riches; Feed me with the food that is my portion,  That I not be full and deny You and say, “Who is the LORD?”  Or that I not be in want and steal,  And profane the name of my God.

Tom and I begin a journey tonight, taking a Financial Peace University by Dave Ramsey.  I don’t know where it will lead.  I don’t know what God is doing.  But I invite you to follow along, because surely, I believe, we are not alone. I am tired of this heavy and oppressive way of life.

Are you too suffocating from the weight of the “American Dream?”  Are you burdened by consumption without knowing what to do about it?

I invite you to follow along and see what we learn.


Anticipation … is Making Me Wait.

“Faith is different from theology because theology is reasoned, systematic, and orderly, whereas faith is disorderly, intermittent, and full of surprises … Faith is homesickness. Faith is a lump in the throat. Faith is less a position on than a movement toward, less a sure thing than a hunch. Faith is waiting.” — Frederick Buechner

It’s the new year.  Which means nothing really except a calendar roll over.  It provides an opportunity to reconsider our focus and intentions.  The children continue with their job of school.  Husband continues with work and musical passions.  He started a shoe-gaze type rock band in 2010 and that will continue to be his focus outside of work.  We each continue with the opportunities before us.  At church we are taught to love where we live; that’s my challenge in 2011, as I seek clarity about …well,  me.

What I’m Learning.

I’ve thought hard over the past few years and realized that I am stuck in a way.  As God has done this incredible work in my heart, mind and soul and then put me back together into the person of his making, rather than being confident in the transformation, I have grown afraid.  Fearing the hell of depression returning I’ve grown cautious and careful, reluctant to take risks of any kind or to believe in the possibilities of my future.  I have forgotten how to believe that I have a future and a hope.  Sounds strange and odd to me as I write it down but as I sat at coffee this week with a new friend, we talked about our areas of brokenness and healing.  I expressed my worry that my “mess” is impacting my children in negative ways.  I was expressing the worry I have over my complicity.

I realized in a flash of insight that I have carried an awful load on my back.  A load of fear.  And in many ways of doubt and lack of faith!  Doubt that God has plans to use me … any more.  Doubt that I have something unique to give … to the global plan of God or even local Madison.  Doubt — nagging at my soul, tearing at my heart, filling my mind, even consuming my hope.

If I could sum up what I feel God has led me to and through in the last few years, it is found in the lyrics of the song Holiness by Sonicflood.

Holiness, holiness is what I long for, Holiness is what I need. Holiness, holiness is what You want from me.

So, take my heart and form it. Take my mind and transform it. Take my will and conform it. To Yours, to Yours, oh, Lord.

Faithfulness, faithfulness is what I long for. Faithfulness is what I need. Faithfulness, faithfulness is what You want from me.

Brokenness, brokenness is what I long for. Brokenness is what I need. Brokenness, brokenness is what You want from me.

© 1999 Gotee Records; HOLINESS LYRICS – SONICFLOOD

What I Know.

This path and my story over the last few years has been about the metamorphosis of my person.  A reshaping.  A tempering.  An internal spiritual revolution if you can forgive the dramatic way of expressing it.  But it has been nothing less!  Healing implies God is finished, which is untrue.  But He allowed me to fall apart and he put me back together again.  And I learned a few things from those years of pain.

… I know God has given me the spiritual gift of Mercy. I have never been more sure of anything.  Painfully sure, to a point that I question  His care because it hurts so.  But I am learning what to do with that.  There is so much more I need to know about this and what to do with it.

… I know God has given me a Voice through writing and my photography — a way of speaking that people listen to.  A way of telling the truth.  I am learning to hone it.  And learning to listen to Him.  I seek more quiet spaces in order to listen well.  I find the noise of life to be debilitating and soul sucking!  My ability to listen to God and to listen to my heart, mind and soul and believe in my ideas is also progressing.

… I know God has put in me a thirst, a hunger, a hollowed-out cavern of unsatisfied need for the WORD of God which I cannot live without satisfying.   I want to know what to do with it?  And so I wait.

... I know that God has given me “eyes and ears” for the Ancient Tears of Women through out the history of the Church and perhaps this is a part of the heart of mercy.  I do not know why, but I do hear them crying.  And I know something must be done, said, understood, written so that future women & girls do not have that same spiritual pain.  I live in it, breath it in and out.  Their tears and cries echo in my soul becoming my tear, my cry for justice, mercy and hope for women in the Church.  As I said, I don’t know why.  I don’t know what I am to do with it yet.  And so I wait.

… I am impatient to see and understand why I have these gifts and why I hear these voices with an equal measure of apprehension and anticipation.

… I confess that I have not trusted God or believed that I have a good future ahead of me.  In my years of being broken down, losing e v e r y t h i n g that I knew to be true and solid,  God has taken the shards of what I once was, swept them up and formed me into something else — someone other than who I once was.  I just haven’t believed that this someone could be useful to God.

You see in those years, I was driven.  And insecure.  Hungry for authority and power, for significance.  Passionate,zealous and perfectionistic.  Continuously pushing myself.  Never satisfied with my work.  Rarely satisfied with others and overly judgmental, critical and irritated.  I became lonely, sad, and most importantly spiritually lacking a true faith.  I was bereft and lost as up until a few years ago I did not comprehend that Jesus died for me — yes, if I were the only one here on earth Jesus would have given his life for me — my life, my sin.  Me.  I could not accept that.  I didn’t not understand G R A C E.

And then God began to work.  And though painful it is beautiful.

But I still don’t want to live a small life.

“I live a small life. Well, valuable but small. And sometimes I wonder, do I do it because I like it or because I haven’t been brave?Meg Ryan’s character in You’ve Got Mail.

I fear insignificance and I fear my need for the opposite.  The search for significance has run deep in me.  As long as I can remember I believed that God had “saved” my life for a reason.  As a toddler I choked on a peanut and through a series of dangerous events came close to a predicted death (This was in Papua New Guinea and Australia in 1968) but God intervened; At least that is what I have always believed — that He saved me for a reason and I have been searching for that reason my entire life.

I have been Searching.

Do you believe this? I think I do.

“When God created humankind in the divine image, the highest expression of that image is the power to be a decision maker. In this sense, one is never complete, but is always being formed by the decisions we make. If this be true, God casts the responsibility on us to choose that which is best for us. These choices come inevitably from the judgments we make about what reflects our highest selves.  Each one of us is a unique person, with gifts, abilities and desires that give us the opportunities for creativity. To discover who we are and what those deep desires of our hearts mean gives us the clue to making decisions about what we do with our lives. If we choose wisely, we will experience the joy of growing a self and offering it as a source of strength to others. This does not mean that God is not with us in the critical moments of decision-making. Through prayer and meditation, we have access into the divine Presence that provides guidance and inspiration. God is never so pleased as when we stand up and make a moral decision that reflects our desire to live at the highest and most useful level attainable.”  —The Rev. Dr. Brooks Ramsey

To end where I began, with Beuchner, I am reminded that “faith is disorderly, intermittent, and full of surprises…. Faith is homesickness. Faith is a lump in the throat. Faith is less a position on than a movement toward, less a sure thing than a hunch. Faith is waiting.”

Yes, I am waiting with a lump in my throat. I’ve learned some things.  I anticipate the new year with hope and joy.

Yes, anticipation.

Glutted with Good Things

I know it’s been a while.

I’ve been glutted with books and blogs and music and helping the kids prepare for a new school year and moving Molly back in (My 22 year old step daughter.)

I have been blessed with renewed friendships, times of striking & revealing Bible study, answers to prayer, working in my garden and yard, preparing delicious food, having providential experiences and conversations.  Oh, and daily exercise!  Good things — all.  I am reveling in gratitude for all of it — for being loved by Abba and the wonder of being a mother, a wife, a friend, a sister, a daughter, a neighbor, a writer, and a photographer.  I think this strange feeling is … joy?!

Tom asked me to type this up for him after reading it to him this morning.

I thought I’d pass it on to you as well:

And you, too, youthful reader, will realize the Vision (not the idle wish) of your heart, be it base or beautiful, or a mixture of both, for you will always gravitate toward that which you, secretly, most love.  Into your hands will be placed the exact results of your own thoughts; you will receive that which you earn; no more, no less.  Whatever your present environment may be, you will fall, remain, or rise with your thoughts, your Vision, your Ideal.  You will become as small as your controlling desire; as great as your dominant aspiration . . . .

In all human affairs there are efforts, and there are results, and the strength of the effort is the measure of the result.  Chance is not.  “Gifts,” powers, material, intellectual, and spiritual possessions are the fruits of effort; they are thoughts completed, objects accomplished, visions realized.

The Vision that you glorify in your mind, the Ideal that you enthrone in your heart— this you will build your life by, this you will become.

—From As a Man Thinketh by James Allen

Lastly, I want to encourage you to listen to this message that I heard yesterday at Blackhawk.  I am still gathering my thoughts about it, but I have to say that I am psyched!  Overjoyed and blessed by this sermon about Men & Women and the Church.  The title says it is about Marriage but listen to it, it’s not about marriage.  It’s about the redemption of the place of women in a patriarchal society and challenges the cultural belief that it’s okay to take this into the church and into a marriage relationship.

You will find it here. Titled: The Marriage Dance.

I have a number of posts I am ruminating over — when there is time.

Until then,

be well friends.

MHH

god sees me :: a story of hope

God has shown me twice this week, by marking time in my past, to show me how I have changed.  When this happened I was blown away by how much God loves me, something I have long struggled to believe.  And that in and of itself is so sweet.  So good.  I just sat in the moment, feeling precious.  God loves me enough to show me the changes, the progress, the healing that has come.

When I fell into my first major depression in 02, I didn’t really know what was happening to me.  At first I just sat absorbing the fact that I couldn’t think, or sleep, or make decisions, or read; I couldn’t do anything.  It was strange.  Foggy.  A bit like being in slow motion.  A ten-hour day at home with three small children didn’t feel like a day at all.  It felt like a flash, because I wasn’t really conscious. I had no words to describe what was happening to me.  Depression took everything.

Lost My Way

After five weeks stranded in this place, I finally told Tom that something strange was going on.  And then my friend Carol, then at some point I told my parents.  I remember sitting on my back porch talking on the phone to my father who had called.  Of course he said he would cancel all his plans and come straight away if I needed him.  He was good in an emergency.  But I declined his offer knowing it wouldn’t be that pleasant nor likely to be helpful.  And I don’t remember much about that conversation except saying “Dad, I just want to be happy. I can’t remember the last time I felt happy.”

Looking back today, from the perspective finally of joy and contentment, I have to admit that I never believed I deserved happiness.  It wasn’t something on the conscious level or anything I thought about very clearly.  But at a deep, foundational level I couldn’t remember happiness.  And didn’t believe I deserved it.  I would reach out for it sometimes.  Usually that resulted in hurt because I did it in such needy or aggressive way.  And more than how others treated me, my thinking about myself was so bad, so low; I had a deep hatred for myself.

I can only guess that this was caused by being yelled at so often and so unexpectedly as a child, young adult and adult.  You knew it might come at some point, but you could never guess why he was mad or what you might have done.  My father was unpredictable in his rages.  Berating.  Pushing.  Demanding that you admit wrongdoing.  Keeping at you, over and over again verbally — until you concede to him, whatever it was.  The subject didn’t matter. You must apologize.  You must ask for forgiveness, absolutely.  Looking back, he was Psychotic.

And so, inside I slowly disappeared.  Life was numbing and I was without opinion.  Without question I began to do whatever he expected of me.  And that too reinforces your own loathing.  I was a classic under achiever, my one way of getting his goat.

Every once in a while over the years, the last time happened in the late ’90s, I would meet someone who seemed to see right through  the walls and ask me “Why are you in so much pain?”  It was if I was translucent and they could peer into my heart and soul in a way that I couldn’t even do any more.  I just looked at this person who didn’t even know me, with shock and disbelief at what they saw.  I felt exposed and yet I had revealed nothing.  They felt the pain I had stopped feeling.  It was horrible.  And yet, looking back it was so important.  Again, one of those markers God gives me to see how far I have come.

I worked for my father for many years. My reasons (I see now) were to receive his affirmation.  And it worked, though I worked too much and became a workaholic.  I worked unreasonable hours, had no boundaries between work and my life, and I had hardly any personal life until I met Tom.  Even then, I really had trouble getting home for dinner, worked through lunches, lived and breathed work.  I worked 150% and knew that I couldn’t fail, which was what I was sure was going to happen if I stopped striving, because it was my father’s reputation and his good will toward me that were hanging in the balance.  His love?

It wasn’t until I had my third baby in five years and quit that life to be at home that it all came crashing down around me.  Thank God it did.  I say that because it began a nine-year process of finding myself , FINDING LIFE — Oh, the mistakes I had to make in order for that to happen.  But hey, I was doing the sped up version of adolescent rebellion I guess.  Growing, learning, expanding, reaching, feeling.  Finally feeling. And it felt terrible, and good at the same time.

Nine long years.  And in those years I found

  • Photography.
  • Writing poetry and thought put into words in general.
  • A study of the Bible and the power of prayer with faithful believing women.
  • I developed opinions, thoughts and ideas that originate with me!
  • I found gardening and theology.
  • I have been slowly overcoming of anxiety – mostly social anxiety which I get so badly even still.  I really do hate that.
  • I have found joy.  I’m actually glad to be alive.
  • I have found love from humans and cats,
  • And more important than any of this I have found that Jesus loves me.  No really, he does and I never believed it.  After the phone conversation with my father he sent me a postcard in a frame that said “You are the One Jesus Loves.”  I was so uncomfortable with it that I buried it in a sock drawer for years.  Long past when he died.  I really couldn’t fathom it.   Sunday, right before church, I found the post-it that he included on it which said: “And your father loves you too.  Love, Dad. 7/02” (Yes, in the strange third person.)
  • I don’t want to die anymore.
  • I started smoking in that time, which was a slow suicide and last year I quit smoking.
  • I starting drinking, socially at first, and then heavily and began to abuse it.  And I quit drinking over a period of three or four l o n g years.  When I started to think about quitting, I thought I would never have any fun again.  I actually thought that.  No fun, ever again.  I had no idea what true contentment and joy, even happiness was until I quit drinking, accepted my powerlessness against it, and faced the shit I had been so cleverly (or not so cleverly really) been avoiding.

When I was depressed I thought I would never be happy.  When I overdosed, a small part of me must have wanted to live because I woke up and told Tom what I had done and I lived.  But only a tiny piece of me still wanted life, mostly I still hated myself.

But it has been the process of becoming ME that has made it possible to consider forgiving my father and mother.  I know I am a strong  person.  As I begin to want more from life, I can accept and voice what happened to me.  Yes, my father had to die for me to have the courage.

This near decade long process made it possible for forgiveness.  And it isn’t a short or easy road.  Truly, it has taken all those years.

My first honest words expressed about my dad were in a poem called “Good Dad. Bad Dad.”  It felt so risky, so bold at the time.  After reading it again after all these years, I think I’ll post it here:

Good Dad. Bad Dad.
I shed no tears today
for the warrior who has fallen.
Taken down by Cancer's sword.
My heart is full of memories,
good and bad.
Good Dad. Bad Dad.
Constant worry.
Constant change.
Who could have foreseen
the Cancer overtaking his mind;
that became my liberation
in five short months.
The danger --
of loving too much;
needing tenderness,
and all the things Daddy's are supposed to be.
PAIN. FEAR.
Emotions jangling around me
like some kind of white noise;
pushing their way into my conscious thoughts.
Invaders, threatening to undo
the weak hold I've found on a Good Life.
So many memories
good and bad,
bad and good.
Who was he?  Why was he MY dad?
MY tormentor.
MY warrior;
Finally broken,
beaten by the cancer
that was to become my friend.
Betrayal,
these thoughts which plague me.
Broken;
the unspoken promise
to keep our secrets to the end.
How do I remember?
How do I stay true and honest,
when the Truth causes an ache
too strong to feel,
to face,
to bear.
Good Dad. Bad Dad.
Who was he in the end?
A demon? A saint?
Now simply a Muse --
remembered, but no longer feared.
Thought of
in furtive,
anxious moments.
Good Dad. Bad Dad.
Who is he to me now?
A man driven to despair
Living a chaotic, frantic life.
Not the Good Life I choose,
Not the legacy I will repeat.
Good Girl. Bad Girl.
Who will I listen to?
Who will I believe?
I am the woman I choose to become
today,
tomorrow.
These are the Good Days
that I can change.
Yesterday is Dead.
Burned in the funeral pyre.
Vapors
Mist
Dust settling around me.
Good Girl. Bad Girl.
Good.
Bad.
Good.
by Melody Hanson, 2004

So how does it work, to forgive a tormentor, an oppressor, an abuser?  Does it mean taking someone’s anger and rebuke over and over again?  I’ll never know if I could have stood up to my father?  I have never met someone who did and stayed in relationship with him.  That’s daunting.

Forgiving is “the opposite of ignoring and excusing.  It is moving toward the offense.” And that’s been my path. Naming the pain. Drawing attention to it in my writing.  My father’s anger and rages were ugly and dangerous and as a child I was constantly afraid of him.  With some amount of distance – his death  – and my personal work, I’ve worked to let go of it.  But there will never be restoration and reconciliation because he has gone.

On the other hand, I’ve also experiences anger toward my mom over the years for her lack of action, defense of us and for shutting down.  She also disappeared into health problems, depression, and eventually alcohol. But we, two fragile and broken people are working on a long healing process and I try every day to trust her and not expect or need her to change.

My pastor said recently about forgiveness: “Let go, open your heart, move toward the pain. Recognize the person’s humanity, their broken heart and sense of failure.”  I can do that with my mom.

For the longest time I couldn’t have said that my pain and hurt belonged to my father.   I had a blessedly complex relationship with him.  I longed for his approval while at the same time had much hurt, anger and resentment for his controlling behaviors.  I learned to be exceptionally passive aggressive and sarcastic because that was, I thought, the only safe way that I could express myself.

“Safe” is so ironic.  I don’t remember ever feeling safe growing up.  I was anxious, afraid, tense, doubtful, insecure, wracked with shame, self-loathing, and fear.  Fear of the ambiguity of my home growing up — I actually said to a boyfriend “Treat me well or treat me badly. I don’t care.  Just be consistent.”  I longed for it.

But grace, coming from God in the life of Jesus and the sacrifice done for me — that’s changed everything!!!  He takes the most broken and restores.  Better put, he heals.

He makes like new but different, strong;  his touch, attention, and gaze are profound.  I will never be the same.

I have a new life.  I have a life.  I have started living.  I have hope.  I have joy.   I may not ever feel loved by my human father …but I’m going to be okay.  I don’t expect the way forward to be simple because as I grow God continues to ask things of me that are difficult.

Will you obey?  Will you choose my path?  Will you give such and such up?  Will you forgive?  Will you seek me?  Will you be disciplined to know my words, the Word?  Will you exercise because you know it helps your mood, and eat right?  Will you pray?  Will you have a generous heart?  Will you sacrifice your desires for mine?

Every day, if I am listening, God speaks.

Will I choose life today?