Tag Archives: faith

“Some Sweetness”

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“Grab somebody, come on down/ Bring your paintbrush, we’re paintin’ the town/ Oh there’s some sweetness goin’ ’round/  Catch it down in New Orleans…You wanna do some livin’ before you die/ Do it down in New Orleans…” The Princess and the Frog, “Down In New Orleans”

My final morning in the Big Easy started slowly.  I packed in a quiet apartment, before my hosts were awake, and thought about how quickly it all had passed.  I was so nervous about the trip, about everything involved, and now I wanted it to last indefinitely.  I straightened up the living room and tip-toed over the creaky wood floors, savoring each minute left in the city.

R and I drove back to the French Quarter for breakfast.  Early on a Sunday, it was just coming to life.  Families strolled the streets and vendors unloaded their wares.  It was just beginning to stretch out of sleep as we wandered in.  We walked down to the Mississippi River.  The Mississippi River.  It was surreal, something out of books and history, something huge and untamable.  We stood on its banks in the warming sun, staring out at the rippling water.  I may as well have been visiting the rings of Saturn.  It was all so mythic.  It was smaller than I thought, quieter, but still magical.

We walked the banks back to the historic Cafe du Monde.  Standing in the winding line, we watched people pass and eat.  We inched into the shade of the cafe, thankful for a little relief from the ever-hotter sun.  We picked our way to a table in the back, ready for the heavenly beignets to arrive.  We swooned over the cute children, covered in powdered sugar, being wheeled in in strollers.  Realizing that there is no dignified way to eat a beignet, I dove in.  R laughed as a fine, white dust settled on her black dress and I fought to find a way to bite without sugar coating my entire face.  Eating more than we should have, I finished my plate, reminding myself of Robert Frost’s insight: “Yet knowing how way leads on to way/ I doubted if I should ever come back.”

Breakfast at the Cafe du Monde!

After  breakfast, we walked back to the car, taking a detour through the French Market.  Looking through used books, shot glasses, produce and drinks, I picked up a small souvenir to send home and we hopped back in the car and headed to church.  I was a bit nervous about going to church, but R wanted me to see it and I wanted to enjoy all of her New Orleans.  We pulled up under a tree and she pointed out that we were parked next to a few of the remaining Projects.  Even they were beautiful.  Red brick houses with old trees lining the streets made even the neediest part of the city enchanting.  We walked into the building and I immediately felt out of place.  After growing up Protestant in a Catholic school, I still feel unwelcome when I attend mass.  I sat alone in the pew as R ran to the bathroom, and looked around the sanctuary.  Transported back to my theology classes in college, I noticed a lot about the church without speaking to anyone.  It was bright, open.  The colors were light and welcoming.  The Stations of the Cross were closer to folk art than anything else and beautiful.  R pointed out that there is only one crucifix in the building, and it is off to the side of the altar, out of sight.  People walked around, some praying, others chatting.  The choir warmed up, piano music floating through the room.

The choir leader emerged from behind the piano, which was adorned with a Saints pennant.  She walked to the front of the sanctuary, dressed in a Saints jersey, black leather pants, and a gold chain belt.  She talked to those of us who were seated, explaining the new language that has been added to the mass and how to follow along.  She was lively and funny, engaging as she readied the congregation for mass.  Then the service began.  The music was enlivening.  The piano played, a horn and saxophone joined in, a drum kept time and a tambourine made appearances.  People sang with joy, the priests swaying at the altar as they did.  Everything that could be sung was, and it was sung with zest.  The mass was familiar but new, welcoming in ways it never was before.  We sang the Lord’s Prayer.  We sang “Peace Like a River” after the sign of peace, which was mashed up with Sinatra’s “When You’re Smiling.”  It was a party, relevant and accessible in ways that I had never felt before.  The mass, which was the same one we crashed at the cathedral, was tailored to its congregation, meeting their passions and needs beautifully.

The priest’s homily hit me deeply.  Tears flooded my eyes as I realized why exactly I loved this city.  He talked about giving to Caesar what is his and God what is His.  He talked about life, how it is fleeting and the important things are what belong to God.  “Amens” filled the air as he continued, a far cry from the silent, formal masses I knew from childhood.  He talked about money belonging to Caesar, because it is stamped in his image, and us belonging to God, because we are created in His.  He instructed that we are to give everything to God, because our lives are His: money, time, burdens, joys.  As the mass concluded, the recessional hymn was a game day tradition: “When the Saints Go Marching In.”  And then a “Who dat?” chant started.  R grinned widely, at home in room of people in love with life and their city.

We got back in the car and I tried to explain what I was thinking and feeling.  We drove through New Orleans and down to the 9th Ward.  She explained the Ward system, described different neighborhoods, and prepared me for what I was about to see.  As we rolled through the streets, I caught glimpses of gutted houses, rotten porches.  Spray paint still marks homes, though I didn’t even want to ask what it all meant.  As we arrived in the Lower 9th, I was fascinated by it all.  I had expected something frightening, a graveyard of houses.  I imagined dark, decaying messes, frames falling apart, destruction everywhere.  In fact, there were cute little homes, brightly colored, all over.  They were smaller than the ones on St. Charles, but I couldn’t help but love them too.  She explained that every empty lot I saw was once a home.  I saw quite a few, filled with dirt or looking like a lawn with no home to claim it.  We crept over the jagged streets and asked if I truly understood what I was seeing.  I apparently wasn’t.  There were plenty of clear lots, but there were also countless homes in fields of grass, reaching at least shoulder-height.  These were once homes too.  What looked like a house built on a lot with meadows surrounding it was a neighbor to an un-kept lot.  Then it hit me just how much was missing, what was lost.  It was weird, driving past places where people died and entire lives were lost.  We talked about whether we would come back, if we lost everything, or if we would just rather not see it all.  She showed me the homes Brad Pitt was helping rebuild.  They were cool, but couldn’t hold a candle to the beauty of the aged New Orleans.

We got back on the Interstate, driving toward my trip home.  We passed through a massive cemetery, lining both sides of the freeway.  White tombs litter the graveyard, housing generations of families together.  They keep the dead away from the mud and rain, keep them buried in the storm.  As I hugged R goodbye, I was sad to leave it all.

I tried to explain to her what I had fallen in love with.  New Orleans is a city at ease with tragedy.  It is violent.  Cemeteries litter neighborhoods.  Brass bands lead funeral processions.  Katrina still lurks, a scar that they cannot shake.  In the middle of all of this is Bourbon Street, children dancing in church, artists lining the street.  There are festivals and music, drinks for everyone and hospitality freely shown.  It is a city with every reason to mourn and fear, but it chooses life.  There is a choice to live the little time we have, to accept that it will end, and the determination to taste all that we can of this world.  The passion and zeal of the city are inspiring, it bursts with energy and celebration.  They dance for marriages and deaths, communion and touch downs.  It is the opposite of my life–vivid and electric.  It refuses to give up or grow up, greeting each day like a child: twirling through life with wonder and radiance.

“Mardi Gras is the love of life.  It is the harmonic convergence of our food, our music, our creativity, our eccentricity, our neighborhoods, and our joy of living.  All at once.”  Chris Rose, 1 Dead in Attic

Plans

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“Have I ever given you reason not to trust me?” –Jack Sparrow, Pirates of the Caribbean

Today was a mess.  I was put in my place, reminded that hope is really not for me.  As my three o’clock meeting approached, my computer (yes, this one, that works so great right now) and internet decided to conspire against me.  I spent more than an hour trying to get it up and running and online.  Yesterday I downloaded every update, ran every scan possible, and was ready for my web conference.  I had an hour to just get onto the website and, go figure, couldn’t.  I did everything in my power and ended up in tears watching a job opportunity slip away.

I quickly called into the number listed with the web address and hoped I could get by with just listening in.  I was late and missed the first minute or two of the meeting.  I took notes the best I could, scribbling every term or direction that they gave, for a program that I could not see in front of me.  I tried to calm myself and focus and planned how to best send an apology email and ask to still be considered for this training session.  In less than half of the time we were told, the meeting ended.  I apparently understood more than most of the other candidates did, who asked questions, without ever seeing the website.  I got all of the information that I needed to log on (miraculously) after the meeting ended and was able to easily navigate the training site.

I called my mom, still shaking from the frustration and emotion racing through me.  (I may have used some very, very harsh expletives when yelling at my laptop.)  I calmed down as I told her all about the frustratingly unsurprising bad luck I had.  I tried to shake the tension with a quick shopping run before rush hour set in in the valley.  As I walked down the hall to my car, one thought flooded my whirling mind.  “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘Plans to prosper you and not to harm you.  Plans to give you hope and a future.'” 

I have felt discouraged and hopeless about much in my life since graduating from college.  I have felt stuck, cornered in a place that I never intended to be.  I have tried, but grown so tired trying to find a way out, a way back.  At some point, I resigned myself to the fact that it doesn’t get much better than this.  So it goes.  And then, though I fought it, I allowed myself a little hope, a bit of dreaming.  And then it all failed me.  I barely made it through and it remains to be seen whether any of this will work out.  Yet in my frustration, through all my self-pity and self-loathing, I heard it:  “Plans to give you hope and a future.”

My plans are not His plans, and His are rarely mine.  Since graduating and losing (and perhaps leaving) much of my faith support system, it is far harder to hear His plan.  Perhaps I have not been seeking it, and that’s why it’s not clear.  I am still unhappy, still stressed about this new venture, but today I heard Him.  I know that, while I still doubt and fear, deep inside me is rooted this promise.  Somewhere, beyond what I was aware of or thinking about, His words echoed.  Somewhere, woven deeper within me than my skepticism and self-destruction, is the knowledge that He does have a plan to give me a future, one full of hope, worth hoping for. 

 

The Ring and The Cross

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“It is a burden he should never have had to bear.”  –Gandalf, The Fellowship of the Ring

In these last few minutes of Good Friday, I have been collecting my thoughts on what today means.  It means something slightly different every year that passes.  In the years that I went to Catalina for the days leading up to Easter, the death of my Savior meant something different from any year before.  When I was a child, we prepared for it with Stations of the Cross, washing of feet, and a Seder meal.  The choice of death, on my behalf, means something different every year because life means something different each year.  I mean something different. 

This week I watched the film Inglourious Basterds.  The film itself is relatively irrelevant here except for its violence.  While much less than I expected, its graphic nature was perhaps worse than I anticipated.  I flashed back to my Senior year of college.  As we finished studying the book of Mark, ending obviously with the Crucifixion, I was deeply struck by the gore of it, the depravity.  The way that humans torture each other, mock each other, humiliate and pain each other will never cease to perplex, sadden and sicken me.  We watched the death scene from Braveheart after reading the passage, a visual of the sort of scene we had just experienced.  I felt myself growing angry and disgusted as it played, looking away for much of it.  After reading about Jesus’ death, we watch a blockbuster film that profits from the depiction of a tortuous death.  It just sat entirely wrong with me.  Those feelings about violence came back to me watching Basterds and I really digress into this only to show that Easter means something different.  I still was uneasy with the violence, but not in the same heated, emotional way that I was on the island.  Life is different this year.

Tonight I sit in front of my television as the first installment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy plays.  Appropriately enough, Gandalf just plunged into the depths of Moria with the scary fire monster.  All three films are playing this weekend, culminating on Sunday with the Return of the King.  The blueray dvds release next week, so I am sure this is tied to the sales of them, but I can’t help but think that it is also deeply tied to Easter.  As a literature and theology student, I spent a lot of time analyzing christ-figures in art.  Any number of characters in this epic qualify for that title, but I was thinking of Frodo in particular tonight.  He is similar to Jesus, but so different.  They both bear loads, on behalf of the world, that they did not deserve, if you will, to carry.  They travel through hell and back, literally seeing the “end of all things.”  They leave this world, at peace and ready, leaving behind a world that they saved.  Frodo is much more human, in some ways.  Jesus tells Peter to stay alert, reminding him that, “the spirit is willing, but the body is weak.” (Mark 14:38)  I grew up thinking that this was in reference to His own feelings, to His sacrifice, but it refers to His companions.  When Frodo begins to fall under the ring’s power, this phrase comes to mind.  He wants to do right, to be good, but there are things that humans (or hobbits) fall prey to.  We are weak.  No matter how noble the intent, people are frail.  Eventually, Frodo ends the ring’s reign and Peter and the other disciples become the church, but it’s messy and a long road.  There are missteps and ugly mistakes, but the spirit’s willingness outlasts the flesh’s weakness. 

I’m going to leap again, since I’ve already been all over the place here, to Aslan.  As I’ve been rereading the Chronicles of Narnia, there has been so much that has amazed me.  Lewis is brilliant.  The thing that strikes me every time I read The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe is the scene at the Stone Table.  This actually starts as Aslan quietly walks to his death, alone.  The girls watch him leave and follow for a bit until they are caught.  He tells them, when they beg to follow, “I should be glad of company tonight.”  This is the second thing that strikes me about Aslan, Frodo and Jesus.  There is an immense loneliness and isolation in their stories.  As the lion approaches his slaughter, he goes quietly and willingly, with no hesitation and fear.  Jesus’ prayer in the garden has always touched me.  He is a willing sacrifice, the payment for all sin, but He asks if there is another way.  It is not weak, nor cowardly, but honest.  He is willing to do His Father’s will, but if there is a way out of what is coming, He wants to take it.  He is sorrowful, scared, lonely and anxious.  This makes the whole story so much more beautiful, powerful.  He didn’t do something that was easy.  It was scary, and He wanted out.  He didn’t want out enough to deny God’s will, but He didn’t want what was waiting. 

I have perhaps the lowest pain tolerance in history.  I fear almost everything that might bring discomfort.  I know the feeling of dread, the clenching nausea that rolls from my stomach throughout my body.  I know fear.  I know loneliness.  I know what it is to feel, whether it is true or not, that no one else can possibly understand my pain, my isolation, my fears.  I can relate to a God who wants to do what’s right, but really is scared of the cost.  I like that my God knows what it is to feel alone.  Not because I want God to feel sad or be pained, but it means He knows how I feel.  He knows the desperate feeling of just wanting to feel connected, the empty ache of being left by those He loves.  He knows my racing heart as I wait to get a shot, because He felt the terror of impending pain.  While my pain cannot compare to His, my isolation paling in comparison, He knows how I feel. 

Today is a day to remember that Jesus, God with us, chose a brutal death.  He died.  A man that walked this earth and sat under this sun, that saw the flowers bloom in spring and had a favorite food and a family, died.  He chose death so that people He never knew, people who curse His name, people who killed Him, would have salvation from damnation.  He died.  He chose the hard, scary, lonely road to death for me.  His victory will be celebrated in a couple of days, but today, His lonely sacrifice is the focus. 

“I am sorry I brought this upon you, my boy. I’m sorry that… you must carry this burden. I’m sorry for everything.”  –Bilbo, The Fellowship of the Ring

“I am only one, but still I am one”

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“I don’t say he’s a great man.  Willie Loman never made a lot of money.  His name was never in the paper.  He’s not the finest character that ever lived.  But he’s a human being… so attention must be paid.  He’s not allowed to fall in his grave like an old dog.  Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person.”  –Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman

I love the new CBS television show “Undercover Boss.”  I have only watched a handful of the episodes that have aired, but there is something so moving about the show.  Leaders of vast businesses disguise themselves, which is somewhat unnecessary, and perform everyday duties at different levels in their company.  The show presumes that, while learning how to improve productivity and profits, they see what life is like for those they employ.  Almost every show follows this format: boss “slums” it by not shaving and changing their name.  They presume that they know how to do the work and laugh at bit when they are not as adept as they thought.  Then they get sore.  They see just how demanding the work their employees perform is and they see how little praise and recognition they get.  They hear the stories of those who work hard to eek out a life, then they reveal themselves as changed people.  Each boss does something huge and personal for the people they met and grew to love and something small to change the company based on their experience.

Despite my love for the show, I recommend it to everyone with one caveat: I don’t think it’s fair that they only help the handful of people they met.  It’s nice and touching, but for the rest of the nameless cogs in the company, it does nothing.  That is, until I watched the show tonight. 

Here I digress: this week I sent in my first census.  I have been counted under my parents’ household twice before, but this was the first time I sent one of my own in.  The commercials on television tout the importance of being counted and the implications that the census has on our lives, but it really was a remarkable experience.  I was somewhat disappointed by how simple and superficial the questions were: name, age, sex, race.  There was nothing to it.  Still, for some reason, I felt something exciting, something big when I filled it out and mailed it in.  I count.  I am on record.  I am important enough to take note of.  And I wasn’t a number.  Since high school I have been a number.  Well, I guess, since the day I was born, Social Security has seen me as a number.  I was a four-digit high school number, seven-digit college number and now a seven-digit work number.  All of this and yet, to the US Government, I am me.  There is something so personal about the clinical, standardized form. 

That digression leads to me being a little more forgiving of “Undercover Boss.”  Yes, there are probably hundreds, if not thousands, of employees who get nothing out of the show.  Tonight, the boss gave one man $10,000 to help pay for his wedding.  The part of me that is wired to want things to be fair dies a little bit.  Then there is the part of me that just mailed in her census.  That man, his story, his life touched his boss.  He became a part of his CEO’s story.  And he, in turn, became a part of his employee’s story.  It is intensely personal.  I fell into the same trap that I’m caught in everyday: a business isn’t a massive group, it’s individuals.  Yes, there are many, many others who will never benefit from this new perspective the CEO gained.  Then there are some, people with names and stories and families, that are effected for that precise reason: they are people with lives and hearts. 

This is the essence of why the show works.  People matter.  The work they do matters.  When the CEO of 7-11 went and made coffee, he saw how huge the job is.  He understood that sitting in the corporate boardroom does not keep the company running any more than the hourly associates who change coffee filters.  Working for a large retail company, I may be more moved by the show than others because I am on the nameless end of the deal.  I have managers that are in my store weekly who do not know my name.  I do not know who my CEO is any more than they know me.  To walk into our store, they wouldn’t need a disguise.  They may as well operate a million miles away from us.  There is such a huge disconnect, such an ugly separation from them and us

I’m sure that Karl Marx would have plenty to say about my alienation and discontent.  One a more personal level, beyond production and goods, so much of what we crave is to be known, to be noticed.  We want to be more than a number, to be a person.  A person is more than a name, it’s a whole being– all our joys and fears, our needs and gifts.  We want to count.  Jesus assured His followers of the importance they held, that their lives mattered to God.  They would be risking their lives, but there would be providence.  He reminded them that, “Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered” (Luke 12:7).  We want to know that someone notices us, the big and the small things.  Sure, I want my boss to know my name.  I also want my friends to know that my eyes are hazel, not brown.  We want to matter enough for someone to pay attention.  The idea that something as insignificant and ever-changing as the number of our hairs is noticed is humbling and comforting in a world where I rarely feel noticed.  One of the most quoted, most beautiful Psalms has the writer proclaiming “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Psalms 139:13).  Our Creator knows us that intimately, that closely.  He has known us forever.  While this is incredibly moving and beautiful, we still want others to see us too.  I still want people to see me.  It’s nice to think that in a country that stretches out over more than 3 million square miles, I mean something.  In fact, I mean just as much as any star in Hollywood or politician on Capitol Hill.  I am important enough to count.   

“You’re waiting tables and parking cars/ You’ve been selling cell phones at the shopping mall/ And you began to believe that all you are is material/ It’s nonsensical…” –Switchfoot, “4:12”

Not-So-Small Talk

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“And how can we live, never meeting you?”

“But you shall meet me, dear one,” said Aslan.

“Are–are you there too, Sir?” said Edmund.

“I am,” said Aslan.  “But there I have another name.  You must learn to know me by that name.  This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.”  —C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

I have been thinking about this idea a lot lately, but this short article I read tonight confirmed my instincts: shallow is unsatisfying. 

I have struggled since graduating college with making friends that I truly and deeply connect with.  The people I met in school were not superior or smarter or deeper because they were college kids.  They did tend to be people working at understanding and  living out their lives with God at the center.  They were struggling with doubts and insecurities and disappointments, but they had a certain lense that they saw the world through: Christ.  Even those who did not believe the same things I do seemed to be open to looking, to seeking to know what it is that gives this life meaning.  This is not to say that the people I’ve met since don’t have this same drive, because I think, deep down, we all do.  It simply doesn’t come up.

I love movies.  I love television.  I like to shop and am trying to learn how to cook.  I read the news on occasion and have minimal knowledge of video games, sports and geography.  This can make for conversations that stretch far beyond the weather, which is always gorgeous, but at some point they stop satisfying.  At some point, something about the talks I had with people about God and our purpose in life, justice and passion, doubt and excitement as we began to understand more, they seemed to leave me full.  I was grounded and stretched in my own ideas and thought, challenged to put what I learned and discovered into practice.  I spent four years thinking about who my Creator and Redeemer is, who I am, what we have to do with each other, and my place among the rest of the world.  Big stuff, at times, but the stuff that fuels me.

The people I enjoy spending time with the most are those who venture into these heavier realms.  I know that I won’t always agree with what others think, and that religion is a personal, sensitive subject.  But it’s not even all about doctrine and ritual.  It’s the core questions that stir deep in all of us: who am I, really?  What am I doing with my life?  What is the point of all of this?  Those are huge questions with a million smaller questions hiding inside them.  I don’t mean to say that every conversation needs to result in a complete examination of one’s soul, but at times, it’s nice to leave the world of gossip and pleasantries behind.

I miss the talks that I used to have.  Very few people today talk with me about my passions, my gifts.  No one really asks what I have and want to offer the world.  No one asks my thoughts on social justice or forgiveness or joy.  I miss those times of really being asked questions, of dialogue that made me see myself and the other person in bigger ways.  As I think about this longing for deep conversation, I realize that the talks aren’t  necessarily even what I miss.

I miss God.  I miss having people share in my journey to know Him.  I miss being asked how I feel about Him and reminded how He feels about me.  I know that I can and should go to church to fill this void.  It somehow does not feel the same, though, without those close friends who knew me well enough to really dig into my life.  I just know that I love my friends from high school and my childhood.  No one will know me in quite the same way as those people who watched me learn ride a bike and drive, read and wear makeup.  I love the friends I have made recently.  They remind me what it is to have fun and enjoy living in the moment.  However, I haven’t loved people, loved God, loved myself, the way that I did in college.  I haven’t known what it is to be truly happy, loving, passionate, peaceful and generous like I did then.  I miss those days of seeking God’s intentions and desires for me and my life.  I recently have felt, as strong as the sun on my shoulders, the call of God to know Him again.  It may be sparked by the books I have read or the music I have played, but I feel a slow fire starting to kindle the passion I had for scripture, for prayer and for God’s heart for this world.  My heart has ached for the discipline of learning about Him, loving Him and others.  I want to be the person I was when I cared more about ministry than school or social status.  It’s scary when I think of how far I have pulled from that life, how little I think about the one who constantly seeks me.  It’s also a relief to know that at my core, in the deepest, most authentic part of me, I am still seeking Him.

 

“But everything inside you knows/ There’s more than what you’ve heard/ There’s so much more than empty conversations/ Filled with empty words/ And you’re on fire/ When He’s near you/ You’re on fire/ When He speaks/ You’re on fire/ Burning at these mysteries…”  –Switchfoot, “On Fire”

To Trust Or Not To Trust, That Is the Question…

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“But the lion told me I must undress first… So I started scratching myself and my scales began coming off all over the place.  And then I scratched a little deeper and, instead of just scales coming off here and there, my whole skin started peeling off beautifully… It was a most lovely feeling.”  –C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Lately I have thought a lot about trusting other people.  The nightly news would have us believe that no one can be trusted.  Ever.  I do not think that I am nearly that cynical, but I have realized that I am perhaps not as quick to trust others as I once thought.  I lend quickly and easily.  I do not worry too much about being repaid or having items returned to me, which at times leads to losses.  But as soon as I am asked to trust another person with more than the material, with something deeper, it takes a lot for me to have faith in others. 

Much of my fears stem from personal insecurity and self-consciousness.  That is a given.  I realized this in college.  While involved in ministry, we talked about being open and honest a lot.  In order to have a relationship with God, while He does not need us to tell Him anything, we have to be willing to open up about everything.  We have to bring Him our fears and shortcomings and all the dark things we work hard to hide from everyone, perhaps even ourselves.  This openness with an invisible God is difficult enough, but it extends to our community as well.  It is impossible to be authentic, to work through faith and doubt together without honesty.  We cannot help each other through struggles without being open about our own.  There is truth to all of this, and a freedom too.  Secrets, shame, hidden fears weigh us down in ways we cannot understand until we release them.  However, there is also a huge danger.

“Then the lion said–but I don’t know if he spoke– ‘You will have to let me undress you.’  I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now…  The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart.  And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt.  The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off.”  –C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

This image of Eustace being cleaned by Aslan is one of the most remarkable, salient descriptions of a baptism.  I was reading it recently and was reminded of the tradition of washing feet.  When Jesus does this for His disciples, it is far more than an act of cleanliness.  We talked many times of the symbolism, of the Teacher and Savior stooping down to do servants’ work.  He lowered Himself to serve His followers, literally touching the dirtiest, roughest parts of them and washing it clean.  When done well, the act of following in His footsteps and washing each others’ feet is one of the most touching, beautiful things I’ve witnessed.

I have no issues with washing the feet of another.  I do not hesitate to serve, to cleanse the feet of those I lead.  I don’t mind talking with people about their struggles or hardships, reserving judgement and keeping an open heart and mind.  But I have always been far harder on myself than others.  I hate allowing others to touch my feet.  I know that they are ugly and rough and cringe at the idea of someone touching them.  I feel wholly unworthy.  I talked about this intense discomfort with a friend one night when we were discussing the story in scripture.  It is so hard for me to imagine someone seeing how bad my feet can get, how dark my thoughts can be, how hateful my heart has been, and not reject me.  Letting someone into those ugly dirty places is showing them every reason they should reject me.   I simply cannot do it.

I can talk superficially about struggles I may have.  I do not feign perfection.  I can scrape away some of my own facade and shed a few layers of skin.  I admit that I struggle with insecurity, that I have a hard time really even understanding the meaning of “self-esteem.”  I worry about my family and the struggles that seemed to emerge as I grew older.  I constantly fight a deep feeling of loneliness.  But the real demons I fight, the dark things that haunt me, those are the ones that lay deep beneath layers that I don’t know if I’ll ever peel back.  I may want to, and try to, but the fear of being that vulnerable and open is too great.  I do plenty of things that make it hard for me to make friends without showing people the really damaged parts of me.  There is just too much risk involved in honesty sometimes.

I hope that I can work on this.  I hope someday that I am comfortable in knowing that, no matter who rejects me, I am loved beyond comprehension by my Creator.  I hope that that knowledge is enough.  I hope that I can trust people as much as they deserve.  A part of me thinks that what I have to share is not as messy as I think, that my friends can handle the truth.  A bigger part of me is scared to find out if that’s true.  I’ve come close to complete openness, with a very few people.  Close isn’t quite there, but someday, with someone, I hope that I’ll get there.  Perhaps it will take God’s grace to peel it all away, to get back to the real me inside.  I can only take comfort in knowing that, when I eventually give in, when I let it all go, the pain will be liberating enough to be bearable.

“Deciding whether or not to trust a person is like deciding whether or not to climb a tree, because you might get a wonderful view from the highest branch, or you might simply get covered in sap, and for this reason many people choose to spend their time alone and indoors, where it is harder to get a splinter.”  –Lemony Snicket

JOY to My World

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“Even stop lights/ Blink a bright red and green…”  –Silver Bells

In the realm of retail, Christmas means working harder, faster, longer hours.  There is nothing particularly joyful about this time of year.  We are overworked, underappreciated and often the target of Scrooges, Grinches, and people simply tired of lines.  It’s not the happiest season of the mall.

The other night I was leaving my job at midnight.  As I walked to my car I reveled in the stillness and quite of the empty parking lot.  I drove down the length of the mall, a little irritated at the late hour, ready to be home and in bed.  It was a striking sight, however, to see the empty street.  No cars lined up for spots or shoppers dashing across streets.  Bags didn’t cram carts and noise didn’t bombard my ears.  It was literally a breath of fresh, cool air.  Despite the oddly pretty solitude of an empty mall, I still resented working so late.  As I came around a bend in the road, all that frustration and cynicism and ugliness melted away. 

Through the buildings, I could see the Hilton hotel.  Illuminated in its windows was “JOY.”  Simple, succinct and glowing before me was a reminder of what Christmas really is.  This is a time of pure, true joy.  It’s surrounded by family and traditions that I cherish.  It’s a time when friendships rekindle and people want to be close in ways they don’t at other times.  It’s delicious food and presents and parties.  But, more than anything, it’s hope.  The birth of Christ meant hope for mankind, for a broken people.  It is hope of relationships being mended with our Creator and each other and a hope of life.  There is nothing more joyful than hope. 

I have found myself feeling especially happy lately.  It has been a lasting, deep happiness that I don’t really remember enjoying throughout my life.  I’m sure it doesn’t hurt that this is a time of year that I love for the aforementioned reasons and more.  It’s also the result of different friends and interactions and reflection.  But it’s a feeling that, more than anything I think I’ve felt before, feels like lasting joy.  It was such a small reminder of the big things in life.  Not the customers who complain and cut in line, or the inadequacy of my Christmas budget.  I have a family I love, friends that I love, a job and home, food and health.  There is no reason not to be joyful.  I know that sounds so trite and insincere, but seeing it blazing across a building, I realized that Christmas is above all a time of joy.

“Tis the season to be jolly and joyous/ With a burst of pleasure, we feel it all right/ It’s the season when the saints can employ us/ To spread the news about peace and to keep love alive…”  –The Muppets’ Christmas Carol

A Season of Giving

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“Little baby/ I am a poor boy too/ I have no gift to bring/ That’s fit to give the King/ Shall I play for you?…”  –The Little Drummer Boy

 

I have had so much swirling around my mind this Christmas season.  I really wish I had been more disciplined and written more, but so life goes.

Each time I hear the Little Drummer Boy on the radio I am deeply touched by the song.  I know that it can be annoying, with all the “pum-puming,” and is a staple of Christmas pageants, so the song is nothing novel or especially noteworthy.  However, each time I hear it I get chills as the final verse starts.  The image of wanting to honor God, with nothing to give but your talent and passion, is inspiring. 

This year I have worked less and earned less than in years past.  I found as I started my shopping for my family that I couldn’t afford to buy much for them.  I’m not quite so worried about the amount of money that I can spend as I am that I feel limited.  I want to get them more.  I want to give them more.  I see things all around that remind me of them or that they would enjoy and I want to be able to give them.  I know that they are not expecting more or asking for more, but I like giving more.  I like letting them know that they are far away but on my mind.  I know that my words can do that, but presents seem to speak a little louder. 

The image of giving in the song is so powerful.  Honoring Christ is all that matters.  With no wealth to spare, his ability to drum is all the boy can bring to a child much like him.  I was deeply moved the other day and listened to this song.  It was such a humble request: Shall I play for him?  He asked permission to give the baby something.  I know this isn’t a true story, but an image of the scene was so strong in my mind.  New parents, tired and scared and excited and probably overwhelmed, are approached by strangers bearing gifts to their child.  Now, with baby showers, this is so common, but I wonder if it was at that time.  People come to worship your new little baby, including a dirty, poor little boy.  I imagine Mary indulging him, not really wanting the drum played, but letting him do it anyway. 

The emotion of the simple song always strikes me.  The boy plays his “best” for the baby.  It is such a childlike thing to say, so pure and innocent.  I realize that this is all that is asked of us.  We wonder what it is to bring glory to God.  We ask what we can do for others, how we can give and follow Christ.  We can play our drums.  We can take the little things that we have, the gifts we have been given, talents we possess and passions we hold, and give them.  We can give them the best that we can.  We can offer what we have and are now, not what we earn or will be or make happen. 

That’s the essence of Christmas.  God gave Himself.  He gave His love, His grace, His simple presence.  That’s what we celebrate.  It’s so simple.  We complicate the holiday so much, make it so busy and hard.  It’s as simple as asking, “Can I be me for someone?  Can I give what I’ve got here and now?” 

In the end, what the boy brings is enough.  It is powerful and celebratory and glorifies the baby.  God smiles at him.  I can’t imagine what that feeling would be.  God smiles at him for what he has brought, for being himself.  Being himself brings God glory and pleases Him.  Being himself is enough.

“Give what you have to somebody.  It may be better than you think.”  –Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

A Season of Potential

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“Mary, did you know/ That your baby boy will give sight to a blind man?/ Did you know/ That your baby boy will calm a storm with His hand?/ Did you know/ That your baby boy has walked where angels trod?/ And when you kiss your little boy/ You’ve kissed the face of God…” –Mark Lowry

I love the Christmas season.  Advent does not even seem long enough to prepare for Christmas.  A mere four weeks simply does not give enough time to be ready for the holiday.  I have always loved Christmas, as far back as I can remember.  I’m sure that the showering of gifts didn’t hurt my childhood love of the holiday, but there is so much more to it than that. 

I love the preparation for Christmas.  As I think about my family’s traditions, so much comes to mind that I will have to save that for another night.  So full of nostalgia and comfort, our rituals are as much a part of the holiday as the date itself.  I love the closeness of people, the openness and generosity, that surrounds the holiday.  I love the food, the celebration and joy that surrounds the day.  And I especially love Christmas carols.

Working retail has almost broken me of my love for Christmas music.  For a holiday that is deeply religious in its origin, there are few songs that are strictly secular.  Those few are the ones that repeat all day long in the store.  They are jolly and festive, but rarely as moving as those that at least mention, if not celebrate, the origin of the holiday. 

Today, for the first time this season, I heard part of Mary Did You Know? on the radio.  This song, first introduced to me in Catholic elementary school, has always moved me.  The lyrics are beautiful and the song is almost haunting in its questioning.  Did she know that the baby she carried would be who He was?  I have studied the Gospels in detail and I know the stories of the Nativity relatively well.  Biblically, the angel came to her and another visited Joseph.  Sure, they got the jist of what was to come, of how much this child would change their lives.  So little scripture is devoted to them and the start of their family, that it’s easy to over-simplify the gravity of their situation.  I wonder how much they really understood. 

This song hits so deeply at the personal side of the story.  I think this is probably why I find it so moving.  My dad has told me that as a parent it is a completely different experience to listen to the lyrics.  Did that girl have any idea what she and her little boy were in for?  As she felt Him grow, as she gave birth, as she held and fed and bathed Him, did she have any idea?  Could she have foreseen the crucifixion when she washed His scraped knees?  Did she really understand the incarnation of God in her baby?  Can anyone wrap their mind around that in a finite way?  Or was she just a new mother, glad that the child was alive and had ten fingers and toes? 

I spent Thanksgiving with my aunt and uncle and my two young cousins.  One of my cousins just turned five and the other one.  They are such tiny people, already forming personalities.  They have opinions and ideas and tell stories.  Despite these things, they are so unformed.  There is so much more about them that will develop and grow and define them.  It’s exciting to think that they are just starting to become actual people, to be more than cute little talking dolls.  I don’t see them as often as I would like, so when I do, they are so different!  They change and grow so quickly, and I’m excited to watch them grow up.  The older they get, the more excited I am to know them and witness their lives unfolding. 

I wonder if Mary and Joseph felt the same way.  Did they revere their son and see Him as God, or did they get excited when He started to become someone.  Did they know He was destined for things that the word “great” doesn’t even begin to describe, or was is just fun to hear Him tell stories and be excited over bugs and leaves and every little that caught His eye?  I know that Christianity, and particularly Catholicism, place Mary in high esteem and like to think of her as holy and special.  I do not think that she was unimportant or ordinary.  I do think she was human.  I think it makes the story so much better to think of her that way.  She was a young, first-time mother who knew her baby was different, knew that she was different, but couldn’t possibly know the big picture.  She was a mom.  It had to have been hard and tiring and exciting and scary and joyful and frustrating and everything in between.  It had to have been fun to watch His hesitant first steps and hear Him talk about His friends and watch Him be a big brother.  The biggest part of the miracle of Christmas, the part that is so important, was the humanity.  God became human.  It’s a much better story when His parents are too.

“If help and salvation are to come, they can only come from the children, for the children are the makers of men.”  –Maria Montessori