Sunday, September 29, 2013

Hercules and Me

Last night I was home alone but felt like celebrating the weekend. So I did what all cool twenty-somethings do on a Saturday night-- I popped a Disney movie into the DVD player. (This is a true story, and I accept myself.) The movie was Hercules, and I took the opportunity to sing along-- loudly-- since there was nobody was around to be annoyed by it. My hour-and-a-half long trip down (the not-too-distant) memory lane was quite wonderful. I laughed, I cried, it was better than CATS. 

Ok, actually, I did cry. (This is also true, and I still accept myself.) I cried because the story in so many ways illustrates the gospel-- my own story, the story of humanity-- and that's something that will never cease to move me. And as I watched and had these reflections, I remembered having a similar reaction to this movie just a few years ago in college (see, I told you it was a not-too-distant memory lane!) and writing about it. So I went back and read what I wrote then, just for kicks. And again I'll post the complete and unabridged version of it here, including the lack of punctuation I found so desirous during that season: 

ok so i was watching hercules tonight (yes, i watch disney movies on friday nights and i'm ok w/ that) and i really felt like God had a message for me through it. silly, i know. however, i really feel like we can relate to hercules...spiritually. as he is growing up he senses something within himself that makes him long for more...and he can't find true belonging from anyone. he is confused because he knows- although he doesn't how how he knows it- that he was meant for something greater. and nothing will satisfy until he finds that. and that's how we are too...we sense in our spirits something eternal, and a desire for something more, something greater than just what we can see. and that's because there in fact IS something greater! and we were created with a capacity and even a desire for it...which is why we seek to find that fulfillment in everything. however, as hercules learns that only restoration with his true Father can fulfill him and restore him to his true identity, it is only our True Father that can ultimately be our source of life and fulfillment.

"the thief comes to steal, kill and destroy, but i have come so that you may have life, and to the fullest"

john 10:10

also, another thing i learned from hercules tonight was how to pray. when he goes to the temple of zeus his prayer is so right- he says "please hear my prayer...i need to know. please tell me who i am, and where i belong" gosh, if only i could get my identity and sense of belonging from Christ alone- the One who really has the answers!    

Apparently, not much has changed about me other than the fact that I now capitalize things. Well, and one other thing has changed: I feel that the Lord has answered my Hercules prayer, in the sense that I am beginning to understand what it means to know who I am as a result of His love for me. It doesn't mean I'm not still insecure, or that I don't still compare myself to others, or that I don't still sometimes feel left out, isolated, or "on the outside." But it does mean that those things have less power over me than they did five years ago; that as God's daughter, I am growing; and that His delight is shaping my sense of identity and belonging in ways that actually change how I live. 

In what ways do you long for something more, or hunger for a sense of identity and belonging? In what ways do you think of God having (or not having) an answer to that?

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Future

This is our last year in seminary, which means "the future" is about eight months away. And we have no idea what it will look like. In a lot of ways, I'm excited about the possibilities-- where will we move next? What will we be doing? Who will we meet, what new place will we fall in love with, what is God preparing us for right now? 

But in other ways, it's kind of terrifying. Will we like the new place? Will we be good at whatever's next? Will we even get a job? If we don't, does that mean we're not "good enough," or worse, that we spent four years in grad school preparing for the wrong vocation? And this next fear might seem strange to some of you-- but it will make perfect sense to others-- as a woman especially, I sometimes fear that I'll be "left behind" in the world of Christian ministry; that whatever church or agency won't be as interested in what I think or what I can contribute as they will be in my husband. 

While wrestling with these thoughts and questions, I remembered a prayer I wrote my freshman year of college. Just having moved a thousand miles away from home and taking on a task-- music conservatory-- that was totally new to me, "the future" was upon me and I felt overwhelmed.

i just want You to tell me who i am
so i can be assured
...and i can be secure
that You love me not because
of what i do
or what i try to prove
but because you think that i'm
perfect for You
and You're proud of the way i am
..that all this is just a part of Your plan

(I guess I thought it was cute not to capitalize anything!) But truly, remembering this little poem was God's way of comforting me today. I can look back and realize: God loved me through college, not because I performed totally perfectly or had everything figured out, but just because I'm His child. And I can see now that the questions, the struggles, the doubts-- the awkward steps as I found my way into "the future"-- were part of God's plan for that season of my life. And it encourages me to repent of any notion that I have something to prove-- even when it comes to Christian ministry. 

"The future" is approaching. But the unchanging reality of God's love for me makes me secure, and it calms the questions and fears in my heart. "The future" is unknown-- but my identity in Him is not.    

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Thinking Twice About My Mac

Last week, Michael and I watched a documentary on the history of advertisement (yes, nerd alert. We know it). It was actually more fascinating than I expected, and somewhat surprising in its main point. The argument was that by the late 50's, "information based" advertising had pretty much run its course-- commercials boasting "get the whitest teeth ever!" or "have the cleanest carpet money can buy!" became trite and, frankly, impossible to prove. So marketers switched strategies and instead of informing potential clients as to the actual product, commercials began to sell something else entirely. 

The experts learned that what people are really after, what they fundamentally want, is not just whiter teeth or a cleaner carpet: what drives the consumer is a desire for transcendence-- a way to understand their lives as having meaning-- and a desire to belong to a community. So ads slowly began to adjust accordingly. No longer do beer commercials, for example, tout their great taste or caloric make-up; rather, they show the beer-drinker surrounded by beautiful people living "the good life." No longer do Chevy commercials ramble on about the specs and perks of having a pick-up truck; now, they depict a father and son finding themselves in the great outdoors, rediscovering the meaning of life together. The idea is if you want that kind of life, you need their product.

Thinking about this phenomenon in advertising, I was a bit shocked at how little to do with actual products this strategy employs, and a bit impressed at how effective it is. I mean, I'll admit it-- I wanted an Apple because it was cool-- because I wanted to be part of the community! And yet, one of the interviewees on the documentary shared the ironic reality behind such strategies of branding: "We are selling transcendence and community, and obviously the products we sell can't really provide that. So people keep shopping." (Then he laughed.)

As a Christian, the marketing experts' observations make sense to me: as  God's image bearers, we are created not to live as animals, roaming around just looking for the next meal, but to want to make sense of our lives; to crave transcendence, to find meaning in something bigger than ourselves. And what's more, as God's image bearers, created things can't fill that space. As much as I loved my shiny new iPhone, it is not quite transcendent enough to quiet the longing in my heart. Neither is a beer, or an engagement ring, or the best kitchen HGTV can design. So this documentary affirmed that those longings are real and true and valid-- not to be stuffed, ignored, or shamed-- but that they can only be found in the One who created me, the Transcendent One, who gives my life meaning and invites me into the community that has been shaped by His love and redemption. 

And I hope it will help me to think twice the next time I feel the "need" to get another Apple product. 

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

9/11: A Memoir and a Reminder

Today is my first day of an "all day class" that will meet three times this semester. I put it in my calendar and wondered if anyone would mention the anniversary of 9/11; would people remember in Texas, or are we too far removed from the trauma that rocked the East years ago?  However, the man teaching our class was a pastor in New York City for many years, and he shared the story from his own life of seeing the twin tours fall. 

It was in the context of telling us how and when he first came to New York City, being a Georgia boy originally. He said that he and his wife arrived on September 10, 2001 to look at apartments. In the middle of their tour, their real-estate agent took them up to the top floor of their apartment building to watch the planes hit and the frantic crowds pour into the street. And that was their first day in NYC. 

Naturally, when he and his wife went back home to pack up their things, a lot of their friends asked, "Are you sure you want to move to that place? Maybe this disaster was a sign that you ought to rethink your decision to move." But another friend of theirs said, "Maybe the Lord allowed you to be there when it actually happened so that you can connect with your new church in NYC about this traumatic experience not as an outsider, but as one of them. You were there when it happened, not safe and isolated in some other part of the country. You will be able to engage with New Yorkers not as a distant observer, but as a New Yorker yourself." 

As I listened to his story, I remembered my own friends who experienced 9/11
not as detached bystanders, hearing about it in passing or on the news, but as people whose lives were completely turned upside down. Whose homes were destroyed, whose jobs were lost, whose parents, children, and friends were taken. I remembered the sense of personal tragedy connected to this day for them that I, who experienced 9/11 as an 8th grader in South Carolina, couldn't quite understand. I was sympathetic to their loss, but very much on the outside. 

My professor's story moved me because I understood what he meant about experiencing the pain of his people as one of them, and the difference that makes. And I was moved because his story gave me a new picture for understanding Jesus' story. In the gospel, God did not choose to minister to us from His place of safety and comfort while we scrambled frantically in the aftermath of tragedy. He didn't use rubber gloves or sterile instruments; He didn't remain at a distance; He didn't issue a proclamation from Heaven's "loud speaker."  Instead, He ministered to us by entering in. By taking off His safety gloves and taking on flesh; by experiencing the pain of His people as one of them. He chose to leave His home of beauty and move here and experience all the chaos and turmoil and brokenness that have caused our suffering. And it is from that place of lowliness and identification with us that He rescues and calls us to identify with Him

So whether today is painful for you because of what it calls to mind or whether a different date is one that changed everything for you, I pray that you are comforted along with me by the good news that there is a God who enters into the pain with you.

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Void, the Holy, and Me

Today, one of my favorite professors spoke at a luncheon at our school. She is actually a philosopher by profession (read: dream job) and teaches about how to understand the Christian life and Christian experience from a philosophical perspective. Today she shared about what the gospel has to do with our humanity. Citing the work of James Loder, she said that there are four dimensions to personhood, two of which are discussed frequently-- "me and my situation in the world," and two of which tend to be under-emphasized-- "the Void and the Holy." 

She defined the Void as "the threat of non-being." In a very unprofessional nutshell, it's our encounter with the reality that we are in need. Whether it's a near-death experience that wakes us up to this reality ("I could actually be gone in an instant") or a painful loss ("This other person can't be my rock anymore") or a low season ("I need rescue in a way I can't even describe"), we all experience the Void in one way or another. And it can be in small ways-- like I experience every morning until coffee comes-- or big ways, like the events in our lives that change everything. But one way or another, to be human is to come into contact with that reality. 

My prof said that there are a number of ways to responding to the Void, the most common of which is avoidance: that nagging, that longing, that realization that something more is needed often gets stuffed under the rug (or under a Big Mac, a bottle of wine, or a crazy work schedule). But there are other ways of responding too, like wallowing in it: that uncomfortable feeling can become  supreme-- to the extent that dwelling in the fear, the pain, or the confusion feels like the only option. 

But the fourth dimension of personhood is just as necessary to our humanness as are the others: the Holy. "The gracious possibility of new being," the Holy is our encounter with that which we need. A remission report, a repaired relationship, a new perspective on life, that cup of coffee-- the Holy is what we find when we refuse to ignore the Void or to wallow in it. It's the rescue that comes from outside of us and gives us a new way of being in the world. 

For the Christian, the ultimate experience of the Void and the Holy is the gospel. We realize our dependence upon God as created beings and that we are at His mercy-- that our only hope for life is in Him and that He doesn't owe it to us-- that in choosing to sin, we pretty much gave Him the finger, rejecting our birthright as His beloved children and severing the relationship. For the Christian, the ultimate experience of the Void is as Jesus described it in the story of the prodigal son, who realized that rebellion against his father ended up not being freedom, but death; who "came to himself," returned home, and asked for mercy enough to become one of his father's hired hands. 

And so, for the Christian the ultimate experience of the Holy is God's response. In the story Jesus tells, the Father ran to his rebellious son "while he was still a long way off" and embraced him. He forgave and restored his son to full status in the home and threw a party to celebrate. There was no talk of hired help or groveling to earn a place back at the dinner table. There was simply "the graciousness of new being," an unexpected and joyous new ending to a story that only a few chapters before seemed hopeless. 

As I listened to my professor propose that the gospel is essential to our humanness because the Void and the Holy are inescapable aspects of our experience in the world, I thought of my past month. The reality is I've encountered the Void in ways that bring home to me the truth of what she was saying. I've watched my healthy mother get cancer. I've watched my beautiful grandmother pass out of this world. I've seen my own emotional equilibrium falter and fail, my relationships change in ways that are beyond my control. In short, I've realized that I am a contingent being-- I could "not be" tomorrow, just like that-- and what's more, that I'm weak and needy, dependent, not even in control of my own emotions (and that coffee only helps so much!). And in fact, the people around me, in whom I'm so tempted to put my hope-- my mother, my grandmother, my husband-- are in the same boat. None of us is a given, none of us is an unshakeable reality. 

This would crush me if not for the rest of the story: the Holy Who comes. God is not contingent, He's not going anywhere. And He has invited me to put my trust in Him through all the ups and downs of life as a creature, like losing the ones I love and experiencing my own instability in the midst of it. So knowing Him makes my experience of the Void a crucial part of the story but one that doesn't crush me. And for that reason alone, I don't have to avoid it (stuff my feelings of pain, loss, and fear) or wallow in it. I don't have to, because I know that these things simply remind me that I am dependent-- contingent, creaturely, in need of rescue-- and that that Rescue has come from outside of me, bringing an unexpected and joyous new ending to a story that only a few chapters before seemed hopeless. 

What has your experience of the Void been? Is your tendency to avoid it or wallow in it? What is your experience of the Holy?

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

A Lesson in Grieving and a Letter to My Grandmother

One of the realities of living in a broken world is that we often experience tragedies before we have the emotional and spiritual resources to process them. To some degree, this characterized my adolescence. My father's battle with cancer and subsequent death four years later was one I did not know how to survive, let alone make sense of. I remember crying in the bathroom in 7th grade one day and stopping to ask myself, "Why am I crying?" I didn't know how to connect the pain I was feeling to the crisis I was experiencing. 

This confusion led to other non-verbal outlets that grew increasingly destructive: by age 12, I had learned to express pain by inflicting it on myself. Thankfully, some adults in my life loved me enough to rebuke my behavior but also to teach me how to speak the truth ("I'm hurting") in healthier ways. One of the greatest gifts they ever gave me was permission to grieve loss. Now as an adult myself, I'm surprised at how often I still need to be reminded of this great gift: that loss is real, that my pain matters to God, and that living with faithfulness means staying alive to that pain and expressing it. 

Two weeks ago, my grandmother died. After a few days of "pushing through" my tears and getting on with my to-do list, I found myself alone with her memory and my sadness on an airplane. And I was reminded that the knot in my throat was not to be swallowed or ignored, but honored; that taking the time to feel what I was feeling was not a sign of weakness or defeat but one of reality; and that though my grandmother's passing could be considered normal or even something to be celebrated (to live to an old age is a great gift!), I still have permission to grieve. 

The memories of a little girl and her grandmother aren't earth-shattering or foreign-policy changing announcements. They're not particularly important for others to know about, they aren't about anyone famous, and they're not even necessarily unique to me. But I am going to share them because they are real, they matter to God, and they are just a few of the tiny threads that remind us what it is to be human. My hope is that if you choose to read them, you will feel a bit more permission to grieve your own losses, and to know that your little memories matter, too. 

Dear Mama Suzy,

How do I begin a letter I know you can’t read? Words were so meaningful to you; I want to use them well even though I know they’re for my own sake right now. The truth is, in the past few days I’ve begun to realize the extent to which words have been a bond between us. It was you who first awed me with their beauty, mesmerizing me with the power of recitation. Your endless supply of poems to share in any occasion comforted and moved me, even before I understood their meaning. It was you who taught me to love the look of words on a page; I remember asking you to teach me how to write in cursive the way you did. My hand never moved quite as skillfully as yours, but you encouraged my efforts nonetheless. You told me stories while I practiced, stories about your mother’s and grandmother’s families, and how you loved the sound of their names. And so it was you who awakened and named for me my own passion for words: spoken, written, sung. 

You shared my love of music, and exampled for me the depth of emotion and meaning that song conveys. Your own life was a song, tragic and beautiful. Tragic, because you lost more than most people can imagine; and beautiful, because you sang through the pain with a hope and a joy that surprised all who heard. I’ve never met anyone who has suffered as peacefully as you have. Even when I heard of your passing, I had no doubt that you died with a smile and a blessing.  It is those of us who are left here without you who now struggle to do the same. 

There is so much to celebrate about your life and yet so much to grieve in our loss of it. You’ve given me an immeasurable gift; the gift of yourself. Your stories, your passions, your time, your love. But even as I treasure them, they pierce me with the pain of your passing. I’m reading a book that you gave me and cherishing the kinship with you; knowing you once read it, knowing it brought you pleasure, knowing it is something I can still share with you. And yet as I read it, I’m saddened that I can’t thank you for the gift. I can’t call you to tell you how much I enjoyed the characters or the story or the break from schoolbooks. I can’t share the love of words with you ever again, in fact. Never again will you read a poem of mine, or recite one for me. Never again will you jot down your beautiful thoughts with your beautiful hand on a note for me. Never again will you even read an email or say a prayer for me that I can hear. Never will I be blessed by your sweet voice or soft touch, never will I get to hold your hand— your hand, which is in fact my earliest memory of you.

It was my first time enjoying the dignifying privilege of being the front-seat passenger in your car and being captivated, not by the moving world outside the windows, but by your hands. They were quite mysterious to a five year old: large, spotted, veiny. Unabashedly, I asked you why they looked so different from mine. You responded, “These hands have washed lots of dishes. They’ve changed lots of diapers and held lots of children. They are worn from use.” You introduced me to the wonder of time— that there is something special about a person who has been around for that long.

Mama Suzy, there was something special about you. Now that you’re gone, I feel that reality with pain; a pain that is a new companion to loss. See, when I lost my dad, I had time to prepare. We all knew the time was short, and we got to say goodbye. Your death was sudden, and I feel robbed. Robbed of conversations I thought we’d have one day, robbed of time to spend listening to your voice and stroking your hair. I feel robbed of your opportunity to hold my first child and love the sound of his name. I feel that I robbed you, too, by not calling you enough, not telling you how much I love you, how much you’ve made me who I am. Can you ever forgive me? Can you somehow now be assured of how much you meant to me, how much you still mean to me? I’m so sorry.

On Saturday, I’ll be at a wedding during your funeral. What a strange paradox. I’m torn inside about it, but I know you’re not. I know I’m doing what you would want me to do, and I know it pleases you that I’ll be celebrating life even while mourning your death. I never imagined it would end this way, but I do imagine that you’re happy about it. Will you help me to honor your memory on Saturday? Will you help me to feel the peace you enjoyed throughout your life—the peace that sustained you through the loss of two sons and two husbands? I want to walk as you walked. I want to be like you, even though you’re gone.

I want my words, my song, my hands, to be like yours one day.