Posts Tagged With: story

Entering Rest in the Midst of Calendar Chaos

IMG_0936It’s the first week of the academic year and with it brings two welcome cookouts for UC Christian Grads, a prayer gathering, meetings with ministry partners, and continued planning. For the first time in several months I’ll be immersed in interactions with students and faculty nearly every day. I’m looking forward to each appointment on my calendar – along with the ones not scheduled. Even as I’m eager to step into this work, I’m also leery. In this chaotic mess of activity I can often lose myself and the purpose of all this activity. Then at the end of the semester I look back and wonder what happened. But that’s not the way I want to begin the year – flailing around for a solid landing place that never appears. No, I want to step out from a firm foundation.

So, before I drive across the bridge over the Ohio River into Cincinnati, I stop at the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption in Covington.

Opening the solid, wooden doors I am surrounded by a quiet comfort. The firmness of the stone, the height of the vaulted ceilings, the diffused light through the stained glass, the muffled sound of the traffic, and the light scent of incense and candles invites me to rest even in the midst of work. This is a place of refuge in which my thoughts turn to God instead of my calendar.

Slowly I walk in front of the altar, across the marble floors to the chapel of the Blessed Sacrament. Sliding into the back pew I sit and close my eyes to rest in this space and allow it to speak to me. Opening my eyes I gaze at the jeweled-toned stained glass before me: an image of Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness. God met them in that place abundantly and in ways they never imagined – manna raining down, water gushing out, and God’s presence in the light and cloud surrounding the tabernacle. The desperation of the people was heard and met.

But the story told on the walls in this small chapel doesn’t end here. On the side walls murals by Frank Duveneck portray Jesus – sacrificing himself on the cross as the bread of life and breaking bread three days later with two disciples in Emmaus. In these images we see how God himself became the bread to feed us, in a fuller and more lasting way than with manna.

Sitting here I am able to focus again on the truth that Jesus is our living bread, our true source of nourishment. Since I’m prone to want to feed myself, I need to hear these words over and over. I need to stop kneading the dough of my life to death and, instead, hold out my hands to the living bread.

The readings from the past Sunday undergird these musings:

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. – John 6:35

Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him! – Psalm 34:8

I sit and feed on these words and images until it’s time to leave. Then, I take a last look around and walk through the nave noticing the banks of candles lit by previous visitors. Others who have taken refuge and encountered the bread of life in this space. I don’t know how the others left – in hope or despair.

As for me, this place as helped me remember that solid foundation that undergirds all this activity. And not just remember, but rest in the foundation of Christ. Walking out of the doors, I now see the food I’m purchasing for the cookout tonight as not one more task to finish, but part of a larger story of following Jesus and inviting others to come along.

Let the feast begin!

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Ruth: An Unexpected Story

96aaa4b2405372e8_640_fieldsThe journey through Ruth continues – check out the latest installment at the Emerging Scholars Blog – http://blog.emergingscholars.org/2015/03/ruth-an-unexpected-story/.

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Leave the Story Up to Him

IMG_2552“Our memories are ultimately only fragments, broken by our forgetting, pieces of a past we are not always even sure is our own. And they remain fragments – a broken story – until they are made whole by prayer. In prayer, God mends the fragments into the art of a life, like stained glass, like a quilt, like cobblestone bricks on a circling path.” – Travis Scholl, Walking the Labyrinth

The art of a life.

What a beautiful and life giving image! I don’t know about you, but I can get so caught up in doing all the tasks on my list on a given day that by the end I can’t make sense of it. It’s as if I had paint, clay, ballet shoes, and a piano and just threw everything around without much thought. The materials were good, but the end product doesn’t fit together.

Just this past week several of my days included setting up appointments, running to the store for last minute meal preparations, meeting with students, getting lost in the Web, writing blog posts, cleaning the house, sending off thank-you notes, filling out forms, making dinner, and, finally, sitting in front of the television. In the end I wondered why I’m doing any of it, except to make it to the next day. It seems to be a mess with little meaning.

Many of these activities have potential to be part of something more cohesive – a welcome home for guests, a book for fellow pilgrims, a thriving ministry for students and faculty. The pieces are there. Yet I realize there are often too many pieces for a single picture, or even the wrong pieces. Can a writing life really fit with the schedule of a single woman trying to set up a home, grieve the loss of a mother, build new connections with family, and serve graduate students and faculty? Oh, and then there are the volunteering I’ve agreed to do; the travels I’ve taken and plan to take; the unwritten articles and the untaught classes; the many museums I want to visit; and the meals with friends and walks outside. How can all of these things fit together?

In the end I see a lot of ragged edges and mismatched pieces as I try to create a whole. Maybe what I need is to find a different place to volunteer or a new writing project. Or, a new community of friends who would challenge me just a bit more. But all my efforts usually end up with the same result: a frustrating collage of activities that doesn’t make sense even to me.

Into this whirlwind, Travis Scholl’s words speak peace. Reading his record of walking a labyrinth during Lent reminds me that the meaning of my life is not in my hands. Not in any of our hands. Life comes together as I look beyond myself, especially as I seek God in prayer, learning to see in the way he sees. Through this practice I can look back and realize how these disparate activities fit together into a work of art I could never have intentionally made myself.

After the fact, and through God’s eyes, I can see how what I thought was just another meeting turned into a conversation on education that eventually led to a job offer and to the writing of a book. I can also see how each time I vacuum I am becoming more attuned to the moment and place in which I live, relishing the small things. Through prayer my vision changes and I can tell the story of the past and look forward to the one that is ahead.

I can pick up the materials God has set before me each day, work with them, enjoy them, and leave the story up to him.

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Waiting to Breathe

IMG_1489The Spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life. – Job 33:4

We all have habits we fall into while waiting for a big event. Mine is often holding my breath – both literally and figuratively. As I prepare for the imminent journey to England, along with fall plans for ministry, anxiety is building within me and I catch myself not breathing. Waiting to finish that next task, I don’t fill my lungs fully. Short, shallow breaths keep me going as my shoulders gradually rise throughout the day. I’m attempting to hold on until July 18 when I can finally let go and revel in the places and stories for which I’ve been planning.

As I hold on, though, I’m in danger of losing the very stories that center me for the pilgrimage ahead. I forget to look around where God has me today and live as if these fulfilling stories can only enter my life during these extreme trips. The rest of life is merely waiting for them to take place. If I continue in this state, I may find myself unable to slow down and change my routine of running from task to task even once in England. So, I’m stopping now to breathe. To consider some of the practices drawing me to travel, but also those that I would like to engage with more deeply when I return.

Playing  The child in me wants to break out and play. I’m looking forward to spending time on this upcoming pilgrimage learning to sketch, sharing writing with others, visiting sites, attending concerts, and taking in the new places. All of these activities come without expectations that they need to be finished by a certain date, reach a certain number of people, or be judged. I want to encounter each of these activities with wonder and willingness to enjoy each moments and try new things.

Feasting  Associated with the play, I want to feast on words, places, and food. Instead of worrying over budgets and living in scarcity, I’m eager to thoroughly enjoy the abundance of each day – even within limitations. First feasting in the mercy and love that God pours on us, then in the other gifts that he graciously shares from his creation.

Creating  I can’t wait to sit, draw, write, imagine, and weave stories. I’m looking forward to being in a space that honors creativity and those who express it through various media. I like to think that I have a spark of creativity in me that needs to get out, even in the midst of administrative tasks. If nothing else, I am eager to see the creativity of God expressed through his people.

Gathering From a young age I’ve yearned to gather with people of similar interests. To laugh and learn together. While I’ve always been surrounded by a loving family and friends, there have been a few significant times that a group has coalesced around a shared experience – whether that’s at a camp, at college, or through travel. These times and people have been key turning points in my life. Maybe this coming pilgrimage will be another one.

Worshiping  In, through, and under all of these practices I long to see God in the midst of all molding a story. Ironically, even though I work in campus ministry, it can easily become an array of tasks instead of a space in which to worship and see God. Stepping away from the weekly routine I look forward to engaging with God anew.

As I prepare for this upcoming pilgrimage, I want to be open to the stories in which I find myself. To be looking for the ones I expect, following the ones that have drawn me, but also to welcome all that I encounter. This journey isn’t about designing a comfortable story in which to hide. Instead through these practices I want to be challenged to honestly engage with God’s story – and return with a renewed experience of flourishing in God’s grace and sharing this with others.

Even now I’m starting to breathe more freely. I’m entering a space outside of the daily task-driven routine. This isn’t necessarily an ideal place, but one in which I can meet the reality of life on a new level, to rework deep stories, and to return to provide space for people to play, feast, create, gather, worship – and breathe.

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Ask for the Ancient Paths

IMG010Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls. – Jeremiah 6:16

Have you ever wondered where all our inner turmoil gets us?

As I look back over my journal entries from last year I am struck by how much complaining and critiquing they contain.  Nothing major or incisive about the world – just a general negative picture of daily life.  I didn’t get enough sleep.  I didn’t want to work.  I felt hemmed in.  For the most part I saw life as something to get through to reach the a few times of rest.  I wanted it to be different, but I struggled to see how.

Trying to honestly assess my life, I fell into a spiral of complaining.  It started because I was frustrated by an underlying and nagging discontent. If I pinpointed where and what was holding me back from the job I wanted, from writing, from building friendships, I could get rid of it and go on with life.  Yet, my reflections had the opposite outcome.  Instead of making me more free, these complaints became the reality of my life.  It was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I needed an external prophet to point to the way out of this turmoil.  Words of God from the prophet Jeremiah speak of such a new path.

  • Stand by the roads and look

I’ve got to get out and look, not inside myself, but to the ways out there. Some are roads I’ve walked on; others have been trod by friends, family, other pilgrims.  The point is I’ve got to go out.

  •  Ask for the ancient paths, where the way is good

I need to ask, not strike out on my own to try to fix, to create a story that will work.  Instead, the Lord is calling his people to ask him for these roads.  He will guide as he did Abraham, Ruth, Nehemiah, and many others.

  •  Walk in it and find rest for your souls.

Finally, I need to walk along these paths.  Not sit and fret about why I can’t, or give excuses.  It’s time to go, and in the going with God, find the rest that I can’t create myself.

I’ve been doing it all wrong.  I’ve struggled to create the road and then do the walking – all on my own.  I also haven’t taken the time to stand and look.  What I thought was a year of honest looking, wasn’t.  At least it wasn’t the right kind of looking.  Instead of getting out and seeing where God had lain the roads for me, I stayed inside and dreamt about the comfort of remaining within.  Safe.  Secure.  I tried to put together the perfect story and plan for life.  Again, by myself.  And along the way I stopped looking at the roads and became comfortable in the ditch.

Overall, last year wasn’t terrible.  There were quite a few highlights – conversations with friends, travels to authors’ homes, new ministry opportunities.  As I consider what was different about the life-giving times, I realize that in those moments I was looking outside of myself, standing by the roads and taking time to consider the ancient paths.

And, yes, every once in awhile, actually walking.

It’s time to change to use these moments as my models, instead of the endless complaining.  Instead of focusing on what’s not working and what I don’t like, it’s time to get out.  To look at the roads, to pray to see those ancient paths, and to walk in the good ways more often.  I have it on good authority that Someone will be with me as I do so.

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Redecorating a Different Success

Eight years ago I moved into my current bedroom.  It was small, but sufficient, even cozy.  Yet, it has never felt quite right.  A light oak chair rail divided the room horizontally with a dark evergreen painted below and a dirty beige above.  At least twenty nail holes marked the walls where previous owners had hung pictures and diplomas in this former office.  The beige carpet had black stains.  It could have been oil, tar, or coffee, but whatever it was, it wasn’t coming out.  Even though I filled this space with my furniture, books, and clothes, it increasingly felt foreign.  It was not holding my story well when the shadow of another story seemed to surround me. 

It’s not that I wasn’t able to redecorate this space. It’s just that I had never planned to be here for this long.  Then several family health emergencies, including my father’s death, along with career changes, kept me here.  In the midst of everything, an inertia quickly set in.  For years I’ve included repainting this room on my annual list of goals.  Still, I never found the right time.  I knew that the whole process – painting the walls, staining the trim, updating the closet, and laying the carpet – would mean several weeks of disruption.  I didn’t want to mess with it.  

At some level, I’ve also kept this room in a state of unfinished living because I wanted to follow that story of moving.  I felt that if I got frustrated enough I would leave. Well, I’m still here and should probably set down firmer roots, claiming the space for how ever long I am here – for one year or twenty.  Finally, the dinginess of the walls and the frustration with my inaction has started to bear down on me.  I want to see my pictures hung on the walls, not evidence from the life of someone else.  It’s time to make this room mine.

I started by selecting a new color – blissful blue.  A blue like the brilliant autumn skies.  Cool and warm at the same time. Then I took everything out: books, furniture, clothes, pictures.  With a crow bar I removed the chair rail and the old closet shelves.  Now it was ready for me to step and open a new chapter for the this space.  First, I filled-in all the holes in the wall and removed splattered paint from the trim.  After my mom and I re-stained the trim it was time to paint the walls. What a great feeling to cover the green and beige – creating a new canvas.  A fresh look in which to weave stories.  

IMG_2255As I waited for the carpeting to arrive – two weeks – I had time to re-imagine the floor arrangement.  My bed and desk had been facing the center of the house, inward looking.  This simple reality could have added to the inertia as my psyche followed my physique and spent too much time looking within, enclosed by walls that were ill fitting. I decided that I would find a way to arrange things so everything would look out.  Now this room has not only a different color, but a different view.  Both the bed and desk are looking outward – the desk directly in front of the window.  It’s reminiscent of the placement of many desks I’ve seen in authors’ homes.  Moreover, with this new arrangement there was room for a rocking chair where the sun hits everyday.  I can sit here and enjoy looking out the window as I read a book, dream of a new pilgrimage, or write.  

Even though it’s not quite finished, I can finally say it’s a place of my own.  I still have to figure out what to hang on the walls.  Pictures from my past and maybe some I will make. Now I feel an energy to actively create these new images of pilgrimage.  No longer am I ashamed of where I am, feeling stuck in the grooves of a broken record. I had thought success would be moving out in order to create a place of my own. Maybe a spot in the city, or a retreat center in the country.  Well, who knows when that will be, if ever.  So, I’m going to live, looking out on the world before me.  Living into this story, here.  

 

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My Haitian Story – A Question Filled Beginning

So I read the stories, got the vaccines, packed the bags, and headed to Haiti.  I knew that the team was planning to work on a guest house, help with vacation Bible school, and pass out Bibles.  Still, I remained unsure about the trip.  What story was I heading towards?

Our travel plans had us changing planes in Miami – the following morning.  So 17 hours after leaving Kentucky we were still in the United States.  A lull before the storm.  This was time for the team to finally meet one another.  I wanted to share the stories I had read and see what others thought.  However, everyone else was talking about their excitement to serve – they were on board with the story of heading on a mission trip.  There weren’t a lot of questions.  At this point, it didn’t seem the place to redirect the team’s attention.  I was the one on the outside of this story.  So, I sat back and watched.

The flight into Haiti was uneventful.  Then we landed and saw the destruction that still hadn’t been repaired following the earthquake.  Here was the place where planes had been backed up after the earthquake.  We were familiar with these stories.  Navigating into the chaos of the airport and to our waiting van was like being thrown into the deep end of the swimming pool and frantically swimming to stay afloat.  Surrounded by people crowding in on us, we had to stay with the team.  Eventually we were outside.  The caribbean sun beat down as we waited for the van and people to load our 18+ bags.  While waiting I watched – UN troops, airport ‘employees’ looking for work, people waiting for family, vehicles parked randomly in the lot, chaotic driving patterns, dust.  How would I keep all this in my head?  What does it mean?  What’s the story here?

Driving to Jacmel provided another time to listen for the story.  First we encountered crawling traffic through Port-au-Prince.  All arteries were backed up.  We just had to wait.  The narrow roads were full of cars, taptaps (buses), and motor bikes.  Some of the roads were well-paved, others had gullies that could serve as pools.  People were everywhere – walking, selling, living.  Seas of tents filled every large, open space.  Crumbling buildings, including the National Palace, were the backdrop to this scene.  The cathedral looked like a ruined abbey; however, instead of being demolished by the edict of a king, an earthquake took this one.  Booksellers were amidst vendors of all other products along the sidewalks.  The inertia was apparent.

Slowly we made the way out and started up the mountains.  Roads were before us – narrow and winding, but free of traffic.  With our windows now open, I continued to watch out the window seeing the beautiful, though deforested mountainsides.  Several times team members made comments about how resourceful people the people were who created the terraced farming.  Maybe, but there is a larger story beyond what we saw.  Wouldn’t it be better to have retained most of the forests to help prevent erosion and land slides?

Throughout this drive questions kept coming to mind as I watched the scenery pass by and tried to take pictures of the valleys below.  I yearned to capture the stories behind the views but knew that I would always miss.  Miss the photo as the van drove faster than my fingers and eyes could connect with the camera, but, more importantly, miss truly connecting with the lives of the people we passed.

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Is this really God’s Story?

How are we telling God’s story?  So often my first instinct is to make the message palatable, connecting it to the needs of the person in front of me.  Do you need a better life purpose?  God has the answer.  What about a way to deal with evil?  That, too, God handily addresses.  Just believe God is with you in suffering and move on.  Maybe what I share is not a full-fledged health and wealth gospel, but I do really want people to like God’s message.  As if my re-creating the story will help God.  You know, God, your story is a bit bloody, challenging, and unbelievable at parts, so let me help.

I definitely don’t want to go to the opposite extreme and share only the hell fire and damnation stories.  But I have been moving too far away from the real story.  In the book, Telling God’s Story, John W. Wright explores how two larger narratives in our lives (personal salvation and national election) have eclipsed those that are in the Bible.  American Christians have often focused on how my/our lives are going to be okay – how I am saved and how I am part of God’s specially chosen people.  Once we see ourselves as owners of that final, happy ending of eternal salvation, we can continue in our lives without much discomfort – even through struggle.  A diagnosis of cancer is a test to my own faith, a flood shows how the community coming together and affirms that we are God’s special people.

As I thought about this more deeply, I started to see how this understanding of God’s story is quite shallow compared to what God shows us through his interaction with people throughout history.  In the American version, the story becomes a trite comedy merging together the narratives of the secular and sacred to such a degree that it can be difficult to tell the two apart.  Is there really any difference?  The focus – as in the literary definition of comedy – is on everything turning out for us in the end.  Being comfortable.  Resting in salvation.  Is this the narrative we find in the Bible?  Isn’t it rather a tragedy – something that wakes us out of complacency – in which we are never the heros.

Like pilgrimages, the biblical narrative is unsettling.  We want to travel toward a nicely tied up story that will change our lives with minimal effort.  Yet, if we really dig into this story, we find something else.  Pilgrimages work when they shake up our lives, when the liminal moments cause us to question the story we are moving towards and our place in it.  Perhaps these times make us confront our failings head on, turn from past ways, to be honest and move into a new story.  That should be the Bible – God’s word reading us instead of the other way around.  If we are honest, we see that life is a series of tragedies, a realization that all we do will fail.  The Gospel isn’t about a happily ever after, but a working out of God’s Word today.  In the midst of our groanings are the birth pains of the redemption God is working out.  It is humbling to not be in control of the story, but there is One who is.  The more we know of that One, the more we will allow Him to be the hero of our story, no matter how painful that is.

What story are you following?

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Opportunities of a Broken Computer

I’ve been yearning for a break in my weekly schedule.  Waiting for something to allow for a journey towards another story, if even for a few hours.  In the middle of an academic quarter I can’t just up and go to a pilgrimage site.  At least it wouldn’t be advisable.  But I keep wishing for something to slow me down.  However, when that opportunity arrives, I balk – especially when it takes the form of a three to seven day repair of my laptop’s logic board.

At first I was calm and considered how this would give me some of that longed for break.  Maybe I could spend a few hours at an art museum, exploring a library, or looking at new forms of ministry.  Then I started thinking about a few tasks that still needed to be finished – today.  It took me several hours to figure out an hour’s worth of work as I moved between two old computers, an iphone, and files somewhere in the cloud.  Now I have to figure out how to work for the rest of the week. 

Not only have I lost the tool that helps me with work, my writing pad is gone for a few days.  What do I do without the computer that contains all the files on which I want to work?  I have access to other computers, but without ready access to the projects I’ve started I feel lost.  Everything is backed up, but inaccessible.  So, I’m on hold.  Do I try to recreate the work on another computer for now, or do I take a break?  During this time I feel restless and guilty.  I should be working, getting something done.  Keystrokes equal productivity, right? 

If I am honest, I often hide behind a computer screen.  I put off going to the library or heading to campus because I must first accomplish the work that I’ve tied to the computer – writing outlines, compiling agendas, sending emails, or researching projects.  These and similar tasks provide a measure of accomplishment and they are something in which I am in control.  Once I leave the keyboard I don’t know what will happen. 

There are many excuses to not head towards that story beyond my daily routine – yet deeply held within my soul.  It’s not practical, it’s too far away, I will let down others, there are too many unknowns.  And when this change is forced, through events like a broken computer, there’s a yearning to get back to normal as quickly as possible.  Within a routine I know how to measure success.  Out on that new road, I’m not sure.  I don’t know what I will encounter. 

For now that road is time without my computer.  I’ll be on campus and at home for days without this electronic security blanket.  It feels as if I’ve lost something.  But in this discomfort I’m forced to look around with new eyes.  Observe these days.  Take field notes.  Be open to a new story.  This isn’t the break I was wanting, though it may be the break I need.

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A Story Thief – Cancer

So, while I’m setting up my life to write and move out of ruts, another storyline has entered, one that will take up time and place.  It must.

My mother is in a six-month chemo treatment for cancer.  The prognosis is good at this point.  Still the menace that is cancer looms over us.  We wonder what side effects this treatment will produce.  How will schedules need to be adjusted this time?  What food will be palatable?

Cancer redefines the road ahead.  Scheduled activities are put on hold until we see what happens.  Regular volunteer efforts are on hiatus.  A tension hovers over the house.  A workshop on story that I was looking forward to attending is now a heavy task as I figure out how to go and still be present.  I’ll likely return home a day early.

In all this, how do I not succumb to this thief of life?  Cancer does not have to redirect all our energy to its treatment.  In fact, such a change means that it wins.  The challenge before me is to live an abundant life even with this cancer in the family.  It is difficult to focus on the important and best each day instead of just getting through.  However, maybe the root of my problem is the definition of an abundant life.  It’s not about living in a world without difficulties, a world designed just for me.  No, it is living fully in the real mess of life that now contains many more activities out of my control.

Part of me wants to fight these intrusions on my time.  Yet, I am beginning to see that instead of glaring at them with frustration, I can see them in a new light.  Spending time to research, shop for, and prepare food that is appetizing and has plenty of protein, fiber and calories provides a space for my sister, nieces, and me to work together.  Going to doctor appointments makes me slow down my own schedule and prioritize activities – even giving myself permission to take breaks, enjoy a walk, work in a garden, or eat a lunch out.

In John 10:10 Jesus reminds us that the thief comes to kill and steal and destroy; however, he has come that people might have life.  Instead of conceding to defeat, I’m now looking at the next months as a time to more fully define an abundant life.  If I’m not going to journey towards a story across the ocean, I can travel more deeply into the one here at home.

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