Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Waiting for It

To wait idly is the worst of conditions. 
-Robert Falcon Scott

When I was little, our advent wreath was not a wreath at all. Ours were advent logs which stretched the length of my parents maple kitchen table and were still rough from their life outdoors and sticky with sap. The logs held 25 candles between them, counting the seemingly interminable number of days until Christmas.  Each night during Advent after the dishes were cleared away, we would turn the kitchen light off and set flame to another purple candle as my mom read from our advent book about how advent meant 'coming.'

As we read about different aspects of the Christmas story we ate sugar cookies in the shape of the Bethlehem star, wise men, or a shepherds crook.  Great sugar cookies; decorated with coloured sprinkles and those little silver balls that are so hard they might as well be made of titanium.  I loved Advent. I loved everything about December and the waiting in anticipation for Christmas.  I loved candy ribbons and the ceremony of lighting candles and gathering around the piano as a family and singing all four verses of 'O Come, O Come Emmanuel'.  I loved tree decorating and Christmas pageants and carols which are only sung once a year.  I loved the waiting and I didn't want to rush it.  I didn't want to miss the anticipation--as though Christmas would somehow be less exciting without laying the groundwork of active waiting--of preparing to receive the one who was coming. Advent is waiting at its finest because we already know the end of the story.  We celebrate the waiting because the Saviour is already come.  We commemorate the waiting because the waiting was important, too.  It was the frayed edge of faith that God was going to do something.  That God was coming to save us from the mess that we had made.  That God was going to keep His word.

Those long ago Christmas Eve's would arrive and my mother would take out my green velvet dress that was only for very special occasions and I would pull on white leotard stockings and black patent leather shoes and bundle off through the dark to church for the Christmas Eve Candlelight Service.  There would be carols and Christmas oranges and the excitement that we were all watching for what was about to happen.  Our family tradition was to open one present on Christmas Eve before going to bed.  I always know it will be pyjamas--new flannel ones usually decorated with cats--but it is always my favourite gift to open because Christmas will steal in at some point during the night and last years pjs just won't cut it; even sleeping is an occasion.

It arrives with the parting of eyelids.  The world is strangely silent in a deep breath before the realization of what day it is and an outburst of Joy to the World! and running into my sister and brother's bedrooms declaring, "It's Christmas! It's Christmas!" like some farmyard rooster who never misses his cue.  Seeing the stockings which hung limp only hours before; lumpy and filled to overflowing and the presents under the tree and lights twinkling and coffee percolating and my beloved family sleepy and disheveled in their new pyjamas as they unwrap the tokens of love that someone else gave them.  I never wanted the presents to end, not because I wanted more things, but because I wanted Christmas to keep going.  Then there would be turkey dinner and cousins and the adults exploding into laughter in the other room over jokes I couldn't understand.  It was a feast.  It was a banquet.  It was Christmas Day and it felt like Heaven.

In most other circumstances waiting is less exciting.  There are no candles being lit to track the days, no special cookies, no songs around the piano or special decorations that are only admired for one month out of the year.  There are no snow globes of the nativity with wind up music that plink out the notes of Silent Night.  There is just the day in-day out of waiting for something that hope tells you is on its way.  Hope whispers it, really--but she never mentions when you might expect it to arrive.  Will it be tomorrow? Ten years down the road? Will you see it with your own eyes, or like Abraham--only as a  shape appearing on the horizon?  Waiting is the worst.

Waiting is an active job to the one who waits but it always looks like nothing to the one who isn't. Waiting is emotionally exhausting and if you wait even a few moments longer than you expected, inevitably, doubt creeps in.  Maybe you are in the wrong place. Maybe the other person forgot about your appointment.  Maybe you imagined that something was going to happen but it won't.

Maybe it was all in your head.

I've been waiting for a long time.  For specific things to happen like wanting someone to want to publish my novel; waiting to hear back from stuff I've sent off, hoping that maybe this time it will be an acceptance and not rejection, or worse, indifference.  I keep waiting for things to happen that will feel like Christmas Day--the culmination of everything that I've been waiting for.  Sometimes it just feels like I am waiting for some kind of vindication for all the choices that I've made that pushed me out into deep waters alone.  Not that the deep is bad, but it can be scary--especially when no one else has come with you.  I've hated this waiting for so much of the time.  I felt like I was just in a holding pattern and that there wasn't anything to do in the meantime except try to justify myself to myself.  And really, what was the value of any of the things that I was doing?  Doubts--like chicken pox--rising out of my skin to itch and keep me awake at night.

Lately it has dawned on me that I've been missing out on the treasures to be found in this period of my life that seems characterized by waiting.  I've fought it. I've resented it. I've tried to get out of it.  I've lost people and things along the way.

Waiting is costly.  But it has its purposes and it has its own beauty--if you are willing to look for it. If you are willing to submit to it.  And, once you start looking, it is hard not to see it.  This past summer while walking at the off leash park, I was stunned by the variety and abundance of the smallest of wild flowers.  They bloomed only a few days but they were exquisite.  I have walked those trails over a hundred times and never noticed them like I did this summer.  I'm not the only one who walks there.  Dogs trample them unaware, tails waging like a metronome.  People keep walking, eyes on the ground to avoid tripping over a protruding stone or tree root.  They watch to avoid trouble, not see beauty.  I know, because I'm tempted to walk that way, too--only seeing potential obstacles and missing out on the beauty that decorates even the grass.

"Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time.  He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God's work from beginning to end." Ecclesiastes 3:11 (NLT)

Anticipation lays the groundwork for the satisfaction of a longing fulfilled. What is a celebration if not the marking of a change?  It carries with it the eager expectation of hopes that cannot help but be fulfilled.  And, maybe the satisfaction and celebration that I am longing for isn't the kind that is found in the activities of mortals, like books published.  Maybe it is Eternity set in my human heart that I am yearning for-- but for now, I want to see everything that is beautiful in this time.  I want to celebrate the waiting like Advent because the coming joy is as inevitable as Christmas day.

Friday, July 25, 2014

You Only Go to Church

I recently had to write out my testimony for a class I was participating in at church and, like any of us who became Christians early in life, and have lived relatively tamely, I dreaded the task.  I dreaded it because I was afraid to find that there wasn’t much of a story to tell.  I was afraid I’d be that inevitable bridesmaid at the banquet crying and boring the crowd with her interminable speech about a series of nothings.  (Better to decline the opportunity to speechify altogether, or, if you must, raise a glass and say, “You rock, Betsy Ross!” (Or whatever the bride’s name happens to be.) Then just sit back down.  The crowd will thank you.

That approach wasn’t going to cut it for my testimony, though, as much as I might like to charge a glass, point to the heavens and give Jesus a shout out.  I was supposed to be telling a story with a turning point.  Problem was, I couldn’t really think of one.   There was no stark before and after photo to say, “Look at the mess Morgan was making before Jesus showed up!   Look at how awesome she’s been since! Where does one sign up for the Lamb’s Book of Life?” 

While I made a confession of faith and prayed a prayer asking Jesus into my heart at the age of eight while perched on the edge of a hide-a-bed on a sunny summer morning; I have no recollection of a time in my life when I did not have an awareness of God.  I knew who Jesus was, that he was born in Bethlehem to Mary and Joseph; that a host of angels rejoiced while shepherds and kings worshipped.  I knew He died on a cross to pay for all the sins of the world and rose from the dead on the third day.  I feel like I’ve always known this.  I have always had an awareness of His omnipresence and that the Bible is how people would know Right from Wrong.  I knew this like I knew my grandparents and that I lived in Calgary.

I come from a family of smart people and I was a “good kid”.  I heard that cigarettes were bad for you and so I never had any desire to smoke.  If someone, be it at school or church or my parents explained that something was bad for me or wrong, I appreciated the tip.  Why fall into mistakes that could be avoided? 

“Just say no?” 

You got it.

For instance, lacking desire and the prerequisite ethnicity, I never joined one of Calgary’s Asian gangs. I never experimented with drugs. I never had a teen pregnancy (or, let’s be honest, was ever in danger of having a teen pregnancy).  I was a good girl.  I was smart. But when faced with a testimonial task, I worried that because I had avoided some major catastrophes, I was boring.  I had not teetered on the brink of destruction and been pulled back from the abyss; ergo, my testimony was a dull litany of doing the right thing one monotonous time after another.   In fact, a number of years back, I even had the following exchange with a rather blunt, but well-meaning, immigrant lady.

Her: (disgust barely disguised by a thick accent) “You only go to church.”

Me: (startled) “I...I go other places…”  Granted, we were at church at the time.

Her: (incredulous and dismissive.  Both at the same time.) “Really... Really?  You only go to church.  You need to go to a sports club.”

I think she was actually commenting on my opportunities to socialize with the opposite sex rather than my physical fitness levels. (But to be perfectly honest, that interpretation held some water, too.) But it doesn’t exactly feel amazing when the septuagenarians think you might be kind of lame. 

So what do the rest of us say?  Those of us who only go to church? Those of us without the definitive before and after lifestyle changes that make for gripping testimonials of what Jesus has done.  Where is the big moment that will explain our life choices; demonstrating why we’ve chosen to throw our meagre selves on the transcendent God of the Universe?  What is the difference that He has made?

I realized a couple of weeks back when hyping my workout regime to a friend that I was probably more evangelistic about that program than I am about Jesus Christ.  … This struck me as a bad thing, like I probably have some screwed up priorities.  But the unfortunate truth is, I have way more conversations about the Tracy Anderson Method and the difference it has made to my body and my fitness level than I do about the ongoing process of spiritual transformation that Jesus is working out in my life.  It isn’t that it isn’t happening.  It’s just that I don’t talk about it much because no one really asks.  Maybe they’re afraid that I would think them impertinent; but I sort of doubt that is the reason.  I think it is because they can’t see it.  

This realization has been chaffing my thoughts ever since but I think I’ve begun to put my finger on the problem: the ever important before and after photos are missing.  For those of us who never really went sideways--at least not in obvious ways--the spiritual before photo looks a lot like the after photo, only younger.  Whereas in the realm of physical fitness, all people have to do is see my ass kickin’ ass (Just kidding. … not really...) to know that something is different. Something is working.  

And, the thought that something would actually work?  That prompts questions, despite the fact that most people have just as much psychological baggage associated with food and fitness as they do about God related stuff.  But the acute crises of self-image that arise in those moments in the change room are harder to dull than a pervasive sense of being alone and aimless in a potentially meaningless universe.  Ever heard a woman having a meltdown in one of the adjacent change rooms at Swimco? You’d have to have a heart of stone not to weep with her a little bit, wishing you could encourage her that she doesn’t have to be this way.  She doesn’t have to feel this.  There are solutions that actually deliver.  The problem is that offering the solution sounds like judgement; as though I am agreeing to the assessment that her thighs are indeed thunderous even though I am only in the other change room listening to her hopeless disappointment, never seeing.

But I don’t see people when they find themselves lying awake at night or crying in their car for reasons that are unclear even to them.  And, even if I did, I’d be all hung up on my fear issues about whether people would think I have some bizarre agenda in wanting them to convert to Christianity.  The problem with the term Christianity is that it has come to mean a religion (which is just a prescribed way of going about your business) instead of being changed because you’ve met someone awesome and fallen in love with Him and you don’t want to behave in a way that is an affront to His character because you’d rather be more like Him, than less.

The truth is, for most of my life I couldn’t have explained that to anyone.  I was like a toddler who could speak the words but had no real comprehension of what they actually meant. I once told my mom that I didn’t have to make a mistake firsthand in order to learn.  I could learn by watching someone else.  That statement made such an impression that I began fashioning an identity for myself that was predicated on being wise.   And I wanted to do the right thing--because God was watching and while He talked a good grace game with Jesus, He seemed to have some smiting moments, too. So, I thought the best thing possible was to be right.  It was the ultimate cheat sheet for life, not to mention a hidden opportunity to develop into an excellent modern day Pharisee.

And as a result--though certainly, no one ever taught me this (and I would have disagreed with it if someone had stated it)--I somehow developed this subconscious belief that if I were ‘good’ enough I could sidestep pain.  Emotional, psychological, spiritual--whatever--I didn’t want any.  And sin led to pain, ergo, sin was a dumb idea.   So, obeying God would, ipso facto, mean He wouldn’t let anything bad happen to me because I tried so hard to be right.  And, for a while, my experience confirmed this totally faulty notion. The truth was, it just hadn’t been tested yet.   (I’ve pretty much come to terms with the fact that I am a quintessential late bloomer. The last rose of the summer, that’s me.  Right before the frost.)

This wild rose is too eager to represent me.

What I have learned in the mean time from the various storms of life that have come and gone is that God is a whole lot bigger and cooler than whatever weirdo assumptions I had about Him being up in heaven biting his fingernails about whether or not I was going to take up smoking.  While it seems silly to me now, I remember the huge swell of relief I felt when I realized that God wasn’t going to be disappointed in me if I didn’t want to be a missionary.  Somewhere along the line I developed this notion that if something was good--but I wasn’t at all interested in it--God must want me to do it and just turn my frown upside down.  Clearly, it was His desire for the people He loves to be putting their shoulder to the wheel on tasks that they hate.

Thankfully, mercifully, God got that idea out of my system.  He would have been perfectly justified in being totally offended in that misunderstanding of His character.  But really what He was revealing was that I didn’t know Him very well.  I knew some stuff about Him.  I knew what was on the list of right and wrong.  The things I feared about Him were unjustified and the things I thought I understood about what He does often were as well.  I knew a lot with my intellect but it was sort of like the difference between knowing that Robert Downey Jr. is a funny guy in the movies, versus knowing Robert Downey Jr. well enough not to have to say his three names together.  

Being smart and knowing a lot of stuff about someone is great (or stalkerish--don’t be creepy), but it isn’t enough.  Someone might hear any number of details about me, but that doesn’t mean they know me.  It doesn’t follow that they would have a sense of my character and my emotional engagement.  They wouldn’t know why I make the decisions that I make or what is important to me.  They would have to actually spend time with me and listen to me; they would need to watch what I do and when they didn’t understand, they would have to ask me why I made the decisions that I made in order to begin to understand me as a human being, let alone the One who calls forth each of the billions of stars by name.   Spending time with God is about as ephemeral a concept as anything because it often felt like generating something out of nothing.  But sometimes when I stopped focusing on myself, or the problem for a moment or two, there would be glimpses of something real.  Something transcendent.  Someone.  There would be flashes of realization that I wasn’t just leaving God a voicemail and maybe He might get back to me with a present or something--if I had managed to tread that fine line of acceptability.  

As a result, I realize that my testimony is mostly a story about how God has systematically been shooting down all the false impressions I have had about Him.  I used to read the Bible so that I knew what to do; so that I wouldn’t make any mistakes.  It wasn’t getting to know God’s character.  Prayer was more like a wish list for Santa, but instead of asking for that doll with the dress that changed colour, it was stuff like, “Help this person get better, help that person to stop being such a tool…”.  (Inspirational stuff.  I wonder if God was as bored listening to me, as I was praying it.)   Gradually, the truth has dawned and dazzled me, that the more time I spend with God, the more I trust Him and the less frightening and random the world seems; the less I am concerned with being right.  Suddenly, it is just about being comfortable in His presence and agreeing with Him about what He says about things.  

Maybe humans are just natural pessimists, but we focus on the bad stuff and wonder how a good God can even exist if planes are shot out of the sky and infectious diseases rage and children are violated and murdered.  We don’t see our lives as full of joy and beauty and opportunities to be heroic.  We don’t even stop to wonder at why we even believe those things are inherently wrong.  We don’t even question our conviction that we should experience good things.  Instead, like Stalin, we shake our fist at heaven and declare that nothing good can come from these bad things.  And certainly, from my human point of view, that does appear to be the case.  But God has a different view; a wider lens with which to view the whole panorama of life.  And, if coming Himself to die for our sins doesn’t demonstrate His desire rescue us and heal our hurts--then, really, it’s just another misconception about who He is.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Scary Big

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver.  Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe.  But he’s good.  He’s the King.” --C.S Lewis, “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”

Sometimes, in order to understand something, you need to be looking at it from the inside out.  Faith is like that.  I can talk to you about Jesus and how I know Him, but unless you know Him, too--it won’t really mean that much to you.  You’ll probably assume I mean that I know of Him in an intellectual kind of way.  Sort of like me telling you that I know Abraham Lincoln because I studied the American Civil War and read a biography or two.  That’s nice.  He seems like he was a good guy.  Or, like when someone says that they love a celebrity.  They might love the idea of him, but they don’t love him--because they don’t know him.  They’ve just created an image in their mind to admire and attributed worth to it.  To know someone, to truly understand them, is to know them from the inside out.  Unfortunately--due to a lack of omnipotence--we can never fully know another human being.  We might get close to them but we can only know them to the extent that they are open to being known.  We can only know things about them.  We can only know what they show.  I think this is why we love books because we get the chance to glimpse inside someone else’s mind and feel what they feel; even if they are only fictional.  

But, mystery of mysteries, there is the opportunity of being fully known ourselves.  Even parents scratch their heads and wonder what is going on inside that kid of theirs.  That child who came from their own bodies, who was raised in their home, whose experience has largely been shared--is still enigmatic.  So, in order to be truly known, there is only one choice.  There is only One other who shares all your experience and who knows the thoughts and emotions that duke it out for dominance in your mind.  There is only One who looks at everything and sees you from the inside out.  

He’s scary, though, if you really think about it; scary like a tornado is scary.  Dangerous.  Big.  Too powerful for comfort.  Out of our control and fully capable of ending everything.  In the face of a tornado, all we can do is crawl into a hole in the ground and hope it doesn’t pass too close by.  In the face of God? There is no hole deep enough.

If you attempt to grasp the size of the known universe and your mind blows a circuit because it can’t comprehend something that big and then you read that the universe is only a handbreadth to God; well, effectively, your opinion means bo diddly compared to what the Big Guy says.  You may not like the fact that a tornado can uproot your house and obliterate it from existence, but your feelings on the matter have no effect upon the reality of the weather situation.  If a tornado can make you feel small and powerless, imagine--if you can bear to--the power of the One who’s name is I AM.  He doesn’t need another name.  He just is.  He speaks and things burst into being.  He is light.  He is both wave and particle. He is truth because what He says is.  He is emotion and intelligence.  Math and physics.  Art and beauty.  Joy and anger.  He is.  And we were made in His image.  But we don’t last like He lasts.  We exist for a page of history--if we manage to make a real big splash--but most of us only make it in as a footnote.

We want so desperately to matter, though.  I know I do.  I want my life to have the permanence of purpose; of a mission accomplished.  I want to matter to the One who outlasts everyone.  And, the mind-blowing thing is, I do.   He invites each one of us to be on His side.  He invites us to meet Him and never be the same again.  And, when we meet Him, we realize that we are fully known.  That we always have been.   Paul, (before he was renamed Paul, but while he was still the Church persecuting Saul) met Jesus while he was traveling to Damascus and was asked why he insisted on going against the grain.  Why was he fighting God?  “It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” (Acts 26:14).

Why are you fighting my intended purpose for you? 

Have you ever tried to use the wrong tool to accomplish a job? Used a butter knife instead of a screw driver? Tried to haul something big with a sedan instead of truck?  Something is going to get damaged in the process.  It is hard for you.  I think Jesus was speaking with compassion even though His first question to Saul was, “Why are you persecuting me?”

Saul believed he was doing the right thing, but in actuality he had set himself up against the One who spoke the Universe into being.  It isn’t hard to imagine that battle being exhausting to the point of painful.  It isn’t hard to imagine because I’ve done it myself--not hunting down Christians and throwing them in prison exactly--but I’ve certainly made a lot of mistakes and injured people all the while thinking I was doing the right thing.  We just wear ourselves out on the wrong purposes; fighting the wrong battles.   We use machetes to spread butter and wind up with cut hands, destroyed bread and wasted butter.  We waste our purpose because we think we know better than God even though we barely know who we are.

But Jesus knew Paul all along.  He knew him while he was still the flinty Pharisee named Saul who had made it his life’s mission to squash out the followers of Jesus.   He knew the what and the why.  He knew Saul as he was but then He spoke a new identity over him; a new purpose. A mission to be accomplished. When Saul beheld Jesus he was never the same. He knew who he was in relation to God and that changed everything about him from the inside out.  He was fully known and he was fully transformed.  God is the measuring line.  God is the permanent standard by which we--the impermanent image bearers--circle around like electrons and gain purpose and definition.  We are who He says we are; even before we know it ourselves.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Pass the Spoon

I realized this week that sometimes all God is asking me to do is pass a spoon.  You know, like when you are making dinner and hoisting a heavy pot over a serving dish and pouring out the contents; you need a spoon to scrape out the pot but, inevitably, none are within reach.  Then, someone else walks into the kitchen.

"Can you grab me a spoon, please?"

"Sure, here you go."

(Nota Bene: If you ever read this kind of dialogue in fiction you need to close the book and seek out a better usage of your time.)

This is not a monumental request with a prerequisite self-sacrificing response.  Neither the spoon passer or the pass-ee would even think the exchange worth mentioning if asked what they did with their day.  It wouldn't be worth recording in your life annals.

May 23, 2014

Dear Diary,

Today I fetched a spoon for someone who needed it.  I know.  This stuff just keeps happening.  

Stay lovin',

P.S  Also, the next Christian who uses the phrase: 'do life together',--so help me--gets the aforementioned spoon up their nose.  

Literal spoon passing is a nothing in the grand scheme of the day, let alone the Grand Scheme of Things.  But the pot did need scraping out and the spoon needed to be passed.  Someone--anyone nearby could have done it.  But I get all caught up in myself and thinking that maybe God means for me to be this generation's Wilberforce, instead of the girl who moves stuff around when asked.  And, honestly, when you are the one holding that heavy dutch oven aloft, you just want someone to step in and lend you the help you are looking for.

The great thing is that after I've passed that spoon to the person who needed it, I have no bearing upon the outcome of the utensil's usage.  I passed the spoon.  What the person scraping out the pot does with it is their affair.  They know what they wanted it for--what the intended purpose was.  In fact, I might hand over the spoon expecting it to be used for scraping out the pot; only to see that the cook was looking to taste test their creation instead.  It really doesn't matter.  I am the spoon passer--not the cook.  I may get a 'thank you' for my assistance, but that is really all there is to it.  I did my job and moved on.  I left the outcome to the one in charge.

I think we get hung up on the idea of outcomes.   We go into this self-involved thinking that only results in misery for us.  If God is asking me to do something, it's probably critical and therefore of paramount importance that I make a success of it…'  This is only sort of true.  And by sort of, I mean that I think the focus is all wrong.  Yes.  If God is asking you to do something, it's important.  But, in my experience, it hasn't been for the reason that I envisioned ahead of time.  Sometimes I think He's just asking to see if I am listening and willing to be obedient to His request.  Turns out, God has bigger things going on than I can imagine.  So, instead of wasting my time feeling responsible for outcomes that God never intends--I think I'll just hand over the nearest spoon and move on.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Advice from the Fridge

At risk of being too inspired by the banal platitudes inscribed on fridge magnets and erroneously attributed to Oscar Wilde, I put forth the following statement:

“Be yourself.  Everyone else is already taken.”

An obvious assertion, or a profound one, depending on how long you think about it; sort of like the way that words go weird when repeated several times. 

We’ve all worn various masquerades in our lives.  Some costumes might have sufficed for an evening or maybe even a season while others have become such a comfortable second skin that is is almost indistinguishable from the real flesh beneath; the true self that has never seen the light of day.  No one starts out in life intending to stay hidden.   But like those heavily made up women who have become drag queen-like caricatures of their real femininity, we keep accenting the disguise instead of revealing the truth about ourselves.  The disguise grows coral-like, until the artifice is a ponderous mass; the result of a thousand concealing decisions made day in, day out, for decades.

We wear our personality disguises because we’re afraid of being seen--and yet, we cannot bear not to be seen--so we stage manage ourselves, trying to present just the right version of ME so that no one will have cause to reject us.  Maybe it is humour.  Maybe it is brains.  Maybe it is strength or stoicism.  Maybe it is selfishness or selflessness.  We wrap ourselves up in the banners that make us feel safe--ramparts that we can defend. 

This is a rampart.  I know.  The connection is flimsy.

If you’ve ever read any advice about the “craft” of Writing, you will quickly encounter the discussion of Voice.  All writers are urged to find their Voice but no one can tell you what yours looks or sounds like.  Voice is an ineffable quality and defies concrete explanation.  You can’t describe someone else’s voice with any real efficacy.   You can talk about pitch and timbre and rhythm and tone; but such things have to be heard to be heard.  It isn’t so much what is said but the way that it is said.  As a writer looking for professional development help, this is super irritating advice.  Sort of like Obi Wan telling Luke to use the Force when he just found out there was a Force ten minutes previous, not to mention there is now a little spinning droid shooting sparks at him.  

Voice is the indescribable quality that causes you to read on because there is just something about it.  Readers know when they’ve encountered it; although they might not articulate it as such.  Voice is the soul of the storyteller that lets you, as the reader, know who you can trust.  Sometimes you may not like the Voice.  You may disagree with the things that it says.  But you know when you’ve encountered a real Voice--instead of a masquerade--because the real is memorable and phony forgettable.

It sounds like finding it should be simple, but it isn’t.  It sounds simple because everyone has one.  It sounds simple because individuals can’t really help but be unique despite our best efforts to be the same.  It sounds simple, but it isn’t.  It isn’t simple because we’re all such good actors that we’re even able to fool ourselves about who we are and what our voices sound like.   We forget that we put on a costume to protect ourselves from criticism and rejection.  We buried our true voices--and, we probably did it fairly early in life.

Unmasking your voice in writing is a herculean challenge. It takes a lot of practice.  A lot of misfires.  A lot of words spilled onto endless pages that never seem to amount to anything worth reading over again.  It is only after a lot of time has passed and a lot of words pass through your fingers that you start to recognize Your Voice.  It pops up like a yellow thread running through a tapestry and you probably hated the sight of it at first.  Like it was a bubble of rust appearing unwelcome under the paint of your car. “That shouldn’t be there,” you think.  “That doesn’t look anything like Dorothy Parker or Pat Conroy or Jane Austen,” or whatever other heroic Voice you’ve been aping in your writing.  “I don’t like the sound of that,” you think to yourself.  I don’t like the sound of that because it feels … unnerving; too close to something that might be painful.  Besides, I know that everyone likes Jane Austen.  Writing like Jane Austen probably won’t cost me anything (although, I guarantee you, it cost her everything.)

Why else would every writer be tempted to write their own version of Pride and Prejudice, even adding zombies or murders in order to justify having their name included on the book jacket? We want to wrap ourselves in the mantle of someone else. Someone wiser.  Someone stronger.  Someone better.  A voice we value.  The problem remains, though.   The imitation is only ever a covering--a wrapper--that hides and protects the substance within.  It’s always cut too small though, and the words spoken in our own voices show up like feet sticking out from underneath a blanket.  Feet that must be amputated--erased-- in order to keep up the act of mimicry.  But mimicry has only ever been a cute parlor trick. It’s entertaining to see someone do an impression of Al Pacino or Robert De Niro, but mostly because it allows you to pretend for a moment that you are in the presence of a fascinating person you don’t know.  It is only an ephemeral impression of their voice.  But the mimic can’t tell you who De Niro or Pacino really are or what they think about things.  It’s only a magician’s illusion.

One of my favourite novels is Margaret Mitchell’s, Gone With The Wind.  I have read it several times, but I remember my initial vexation at the lack of certainty at the end over Rhett and Scarlett’s future.  Did he really not give a damn anymore? Or, was that just his wounds talking?  Would Scarlett’s formidable will be able to win him back, just as she had clawed her way back from utter destitution?  Was it actually too late?  Margaret Mitchell never tells.

I’m not the only one who wonders about what happened to the Butlers, because in 1991 Scarlett by Alexandra Ripley was published to harsh criticism and great sales.  It isn’t the only ‘sequel’ out there, either.  If you’ve ever had the misfortune to pick up fan fiction, you know that it is an unappetizing substitute for the real thing.  While Ripley may have imagined Scarlett and Rhett and Mammy and Ashley in great detail, she was not their creator.  She can’t know what Mitchell knew.  Everyone else in the world can only play pretend with characters named Rhett and Scarlett.  Only Margaret Mitchell can make them live. Even the greatest mimic can never produce anything more than an imitation of the real thing.  Painting like Da Vinci, doesn’t make you Da Vinci.

So--given all this--why do we think that it is okay to hide ourselves, to ape others while denying our own Voice that runs a stubborn yellow thread through our portion of this tapestried world?   Why dye the yellow thread red or blue or black when yellow is what is required?  What good is someone else’s voice? If someone else could do it or say it better, God would have likely sent someone else instead.  Your voice is important.  Your true Voice, that is. Your authentic self.  A masquerade just won’t do.

But unmasking is stomach churning stuff.  You feel exposed.  Vulnerable. Open to criticism without defense because there you are, on display for all to see.  But I think the reward is greater than the cost of unmasking. While criticism may be leveled at you, not at the disguise, praise will be real.  That will be genuine.  That is worth something mighty.  

I realized not too long ago that if I what I wrote didn’t frighten me at least a little bit--make me feel exposed in some way--then it probably wasn’t worth too much because didn’t cost me anything.  It was just opinions without any heart.  It was just the noise of my brain without the value of me.  And, if there isn’t anything of me on the page--then what, really, is the point of writing at all?  When we receive something phony from someone, we, like Holden Caulfield, resent it. “I was surrounded by phonies--they were coming in the windows…”  We’re starving for real connections; for eye contact and soul contact.  No one hungers for the PR managed highlight reel of social media. We just don’t know how else to be; how else to connect.  We keep gilding the lily of our disguise instead of taking the risk of making the small, but monumental choices to be our real selves day in and day out.  

You were created with a purpose.  The Bible says so.   You were created to speak into this time and place.  The World needs your voice.  Besides, I understand that everyone else’s is already taken.

Friday, May 2, 2014

"Who told you that you were naked?"

Who told you that you were naked?
Who told you that you were exposed?

Who told you what shame is?

Who told you that you were naked?

“I --

I did--

I did.”

Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat?

“I --
I did.

I didn’t know what I was doing; 
though I thought that I did.”

Who told you that you were naked?

The answer is always the same.

"I did."

I used to think that the answer was the serpent.  He was the deceiver.  He was the one that set up Eve and Adam to fall like dominoes with just the right push. But it wasn’t him, though I am sure he was pleased with the result.  He knew he was making a mess.  He was crafty.  But he probably couldn’t anticipate all the outcomes of Mankind’s eyes being opened.  No one else seems to know our weaknesses like we do. The serpent wasn’t the one that told them that they were naked.  It was the knowledge of Good and of Evil.  It was Adam. It was Eve.  They grasped it.  Their eyes were opened.

They knew.

And shame was born--

And fear.

"You won’t die.  You’ll be like God."

Not a lie exactly, but certainly not the whole truth.  A partial truth that implies a lie.  Implies that you can’t trust that God who walks with you every day.  That He’s keeping something good from you.  Knowledge.  The ability to distinguish between Good and Evil.  Wisdom--after all--shouldn’t we all be seeking it?

"You’ll be like God." 

Like God.  

Equal with God.  

The serpent’s own grasping--his downfall-- became our own.  Because misery loves company, maybe.  Because evil defies containment.  Because destroying someone else’s creation is the outcome of jealousy; sparked by a desire to wound.

The Knowledge of Good and of Evil opens eyes and kills innocence.  It revealed who they were in relation to God.  How small.  How exposed. How wrongful their disobedience.   Fear and shame and horror came flooding into their consciousness like a tidal wave and instead of being able to enjoy fellowship with God as they had in their innocence, the urge to hide overwhelmed them.  Their ease and confidence in their relationship with God and one with another had been childlike and free of confusion and doubt.  Now everything was different and it could never go back to the way it had been.  


This tree is innocent.

Why did God put the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden at all?  Is He some horrible cosmic tease?  It wasn’t even hidden away as some gnarled old tree that produced anemic-looking, unappealing fruit.  It was in the middle of the Garden.  It was pleasing to the eye and good for eating.  Why do that?  Or at the very least, why not explain a little further? 

“Listen up, newly created ones, I know this looks good to eat, but seriously, this is poison for you.  You are made in the image of Me.  You aren’t actually able to be Me.  You can’t handle the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  ‘You can’t handle the truth!’  And when I say, ‘when you eat of it, you will die’; I’m talking about more than just your physical life.  I’m talking about a loss of innocence which can never be recovered.  I’m talking about a whole lot of truth you aren’t able to comprehend...”  

Maybe it was because they couldn’t understand the explanation. They just needed to trust.  

It is tempting to blame everyone else for the way that things don’t go our way.  Or when we are awash with the fear of our own blame.

It is other people. “This woman you put here with me…”

It is the devil. “The serpent deceived me…”

It is God.  “Why did you put the Tree in the Garden in the first place?” 

When I was a kid, my mom told me about this creepy dream that she had about bad guys in the house and she only had seconds to get all of us out.  But my siblings and I kept arguing with her and asking why she was telling us to do the things that she told us to do and we wasted the precious moments when we could have escaped unharmed.  Now, if this wasn’t a real dream, my mom has a genius for manipulation that might be unparalleled in the annals of motherhood, because I certainly learned the lesson she was teaching on the importance of unquestioning obedience to trusted authorities.  She freaked me the hell out because I could believe it.  I could believe that I would disobey, that I would argue; that I could endanger everyone.

I think God put the tree in the Garden because He values freedom.  Obedience means little if there is no choice.  Love means little if there is no choice.  The intangibles that we value highly mean nothing if they don’t cost something.  God, who can do anything, binds Himself by the promises He makes.  He has given us the same freedom.  The freedom to choose or reject. Marriage vows place limits on freedom in exchange for something greater.  He gave us the freedom to obey His trustworthy authority or to rebel.  

He knew what was going to happen.  

He knew what we were going to cost Him.  

He did it, anyway.  

Monday, April 28, 2014

Who Does That?

Ever been watching a movie and been struck with the thought, 'Who does that?'   A quick poll of my acquaintance reveals the answer: No one.

Here is a sampling of filmmaker misconceptions about life:

1.  Only in Hollywood films do women wear matching bra and underwear.  This just seems to be the norm.  In reality, realizing that you are wearing matching underthings is sort of like finding out it is February 29th. "Wow! Really?  Huh. Well, that's a heck of a thing."  The choice of these garments is almost entirely predicated upon the colour of the article of clothing a woman plans on wearing over it.  End of story.  Underthings demystified.

2. Car doors do not require shutting.  In real life, I think only minivans have this capability.  But you still have to pull on the handle or something.  It's not like you jump out of the car and your Honda Odyssey just knows. "Don't worry, buddy. You get on with your day.  I'll button up."

3. People don't say, 'Goodbye,' when ending a phone call.  They just hang up like their acquaintances won't be offended by such a brusque cutoff without so much as a dismissal.  Real telephone conversations don't end like that.  Usually--or, maybe just depending on the person you are talking to--there is the a 2-10 minute wind up period where people start mentioning that they had better get going and saying "Well," in a definitive sort of manner.  In the movies, people just hang up.  It's crazy.  I'm actually kind of jealous of this one.

4. Female athletes/warriors always kick into action with their hair down.  They do this intentionally.  It's just absurd.  Try and find your car in a parking lot on a windy day when your hair is down; let alone score the game winning goal or fend off a sword-wielding Saxon.  That is a recipe for tragedy.

I realize that filmmakers make the choices they do based on how things will look onscreen.  Maybe your actress looks better with her hair down.  Perhaps pausing to close the car door slows down the action of the scene.   I understand that.  However, what about the fact that instead of watching your movie and being involved in the story unfolding, I'm busy wondering about who actually wears matching underwear?

Because he's not buying it, either.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Good Friday Thoughts - "It is finished."

When Jesus said, “It is finished”, it looked like death.  

Jesus said, “It is finished.”  And Satan thought that he had won.

Place yourself at the Place of the Skull where the Author of Life was brought to die.  Maybe you would stand only a few feet from the foot of the cross--close--where the air was heavy with pain and punctuated with gasps of agony from those on the crosses and those who watched as their beloved ones began the slow, hard work of dying. Or, maybe you would hang back with the crowd further away because, you’re not quite sure, but there is something about this Man. You’re waiting to see what will happen. You want to see God show up.   Your ears are assaulted by the crowing of those who called for Jesus to come down from the cross if he really was who He claimed to be.  Send a legion of angels, Lord.  Send a punitive bolt of lightening from heaven. Rend the earth so that everyone knows who You are.  So that everyone knows Who they are messing with.  Then the darkness

And out of that darkness, people revealed their hearts.  Have you ever noticed how mockery and sincerity can speak exactly the same words? One held aloft by the gossamer thin mysticism of faith, the other inadequately shrouded in doubt’s heavy mantle.

Maybe Elijah will come and get him?
Maybe Elijah will come and get him? 

Hail, the King of the Jews! 
Hail, the King of the Jews! 

Come down from that cross!
Come down from the cross. 

Don’t you think all of his followers were praying that? “Please don’t let this be it. Show yourself!  Don’t let them mock you.  Please, Lord, don’t let it be this way.  Please don’t let this be the way it goes.”

Everything was wrong.  Everything was a horror.  But Jesus said it was finished and then He died. Died, died. 

Then, there was an earthquake; as though the earth’s foundation--her tectonic plates-- knew the travesty that had been committed. And, the curtain separating the Holy of Holies in the temple that was torn in two. The dead were coming out of their tombs like Lazarus, but with no Jesus standing outside. Think of it. The dead had been raised but Jesus was still dead.  And, it wasn’t like death in a movie.  There was no one to come running in at the last possible moment and charge up the paddles to bring Jesus back.  There was a dead body that went through the natural stages after death.  Rigor mortis.  Blood separating.  Pooling. Decomposition.  Brain cells are the first thing to be damaged irrevocably.  That only takes a few minutes and then it doesn’t matter if a person can be revived.  They won’t be the same.  They will be damaged. No fancy tricks. No sci-fi cryogenic freezing.  Just death and the way of all flesh.

So you stand, if you can, and watch as the God you love, but don’t understand, dies.  Leaves you. Is taken from you.  And as He is crucified so are all your hopes and expectations of who He is and what He was going to do; pinned to the cross that He hangs upon.

But there was Jesus, hanging there, counting down His life’s few remaining breaths of earth’s heavy air and declaring it was finished.  What was He talking about?  Was he delirious with pain? Overcome, perhaps? Wouldn’t He have waited until after the resurrection to declare that it was finished? 

Jesus waited out three days of dead.  A rolling ticker marking off the passage of time.  “This time yesterday, Jesus said…”  “This time yesterday, Jesus...”  Three days of decomposing.  Three barren days of hopes dashed and broken hearts and grief. Three days of wondering how we could have got it so wrong.  Three days of wondering why on earth God thought this was a good idea.  Three long days.   Only God can take the damaging mantle of death and reappear in more glory.  But He let all of that time elapse.

Why was it finished before it was finished?  Why was it finished before He rose in the conquering victory that everyone could see? That proved who He is; beyond the shadow of a doubt.

I think it is because Jesus never doubted His Father. 

I think it is because Jesus knew that grace would always bat last; that the miracle of resurrection would come because God overcomes.  Because God’s work is not made null just because we have not see it yet--because we have not understood it.  Jesus knew through the sure eyes of faith that He would accomplish the reconciliation of Mankind.  He would rescue.  He would save.   He would make the payment for our sin.  He would swallow up death’s obliterating power with the awesome eternal presence of the Great I AM.  He was the Lamb of God who took away the sins of the world.  It was finished.  The Old Covenant complete, the New Covenant come.  

It was finished.  

It had begun.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Rally Cry for the Forgotten Girls of my Tribe (Part 2)

"You mustn't be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling."

This is my manifesto to the forgotten girls of my tribe.  This is my call to arms--my rally cry to being alive--because someone somewhere along the line told us that life was a waiting game.  Wait on God. Wait on the right circumstance.  Wait on sex.  Wait on the right moment.  Get a Promise Ring and True Love Waits.  Someone handed us T-shirt slogans to live by instead of living water.  And while we may feel we've done everything right--trimmed up our lamps with extra oil and whatnot--we still feel like the foolish virgins locked out of the feast.

I think all the waiting is wrong.  Or, I think that it sent us all an unconscious message that we were never meant to read.  Wait on God, sure, absolutely.  But let's not just blanket apply that slogan without context--without individual circumstances--because it might reinforce the impression that God is one tardy fellow and that really isn't the impression you get from Jesus in the Bible.  He was always on the move.

This picture has absolutely nothing to do with this post.

So, are we waiting for something God hasn't asked us to wait for?  It's an important question.  One I've almost been afraid to ask because I don't want to know how much time; how many opportunities I let slide by while I waited for an alarm--that had never even been set--to ring.  But I'm facing it now because I've been hemmed in on every side and I think Jesus wants me to deal with all of the psychological and emotional junk I've been hoarding.  Stuff He never asked me to keep--ideas that someone handed me that weren't good for me to learn--that I picked up while I was waiting.  For some time now it has felt like He shut the door on my life with us both inside and is asking me to examine each piece of garbage that I decided to store in my psyche.  He picks it up, hands it to me and we talk about it.  First (and once I acknowledge that He has handed me something) I tell him what I think about it.  He waits until I've exhausted myself talking about me and my problems and why I think things are the way they are and how I think things will be and what I think I would do if I could do anything about it and… After all that rambling and I finally shut my pie hole, He tells me what is true and then holds out His hand for me to hand the junk to Him whereupon He chucks it out the window of my soul with a resounding crash along with all the other discarded lies.

Here are a couple of the broken ideas that I picked up somewhere along the way and kept ahold of until they handicapped me.

1) No one will like you.  Assume it ahead of time so that you don't feel as disappointed and rejected when it happens.

This one was wide-reaching and almost completely crippling.  It applied to everyone.  Strangers, teachers, peers, guys--even family.  (But of course, they just love you because they have to.)   I assumed that no guy would like me ever (rendering me flabbergasted and awkward when some actually did).  I believed I was inconsequential and worse--unlovable.   Jesus has been showing me that this is worse that just utter bullshit. (He didn't exactly use that word, but I knew what He was getting at.) It's toxic poison that someone dumped in the well of my soul at some point.  A malicious lie.  The problem with something this dark is that no one can convince you that it isn't true.  But, boy oh boy, can anyone and everyone confirm it.

Jesus is the only one that can sift through the junk to save the valuables while throwing out the hoard of garbage.  Have you ever noticed that you can lose your valuables in a pile of junk and even if you happen to see them sitting amongst the misshapen curios of your tortured emotional menagerie; it is hard to see their worth?  Things that are worthy of a place of honour in your life; not crammed into a drawer with the odd bits of bobs of things you don't know what else to do with. I have valuables worth  worth clutching close, but you'd never know it sometimes.  Jewel-like truths that I was redeemed for love's sake at the highest price and He's got the scars to prove it.

2) God's will/pleasure is measured by the success or failure of the venture.

Unfortunately, this one was really ingrained and I had no idea how deep it ran.  But when Jesus tossed it to me, I kept trying to put pieces of it back on the shelf as though it was important.  How else am I going to measure if I am on the right track?  How else will I know if God is pleased with me? This stupid misunderstanding of God's personality and character really messes us all up.  It tells us (indirectly) that if we are struggling, we must be outside of God's will.  If we were in God's will, or had heard from Him properly--we wouldn't be in this mess--we wouldn't feel so lousy.   Maybe we'd be married.  Maybe our careers would be thriving.  Maybe those people we've always prayed for would change.  After all, we must be doing something wrong, right?  We know that God doesn't make mistakes and has said stuff about victory and joy like a fountain in our souls.  So…? Inevitably we come to the false conclusion that difficulty and struggle and worn out hopes must mean that it wasn't God's will, right?


Jesus just tossed that one out of the window and looked very satisfied when it shattered on the ground.   He gives a little knowing smile--because when He was doing the Father's will it involved a crucifixion. God's will for Him looked like a whole lot of death before resurrection day came; before the perishable rose up imperishable.  It is anathema to our modern Western worldview that God might send us in to slog away on (what is by all appearances) a hopeless cause. And maybe it will always look hopeless to human eyes on this southern side of Heaven. But do you trust the one who sent you?  Especially when it looks like He sent you to failure?

Neither does this one.

God can turn a corner on your life whenever He wants to.  But I think I have discovered that He usually wants to see something from you first.  For me, most recently, this involved me sending a couple of text messages.  More than that--it was swallowing my pride--it was an action to not be ruled by my fear of someone else making an incorrect assumption about me.  It wasn't like I awoke in the night with a strong impression from the Holy Spirit--it was something that I just sort of wanted to do but was afraid of what the consequences of it might be.  I did it, though.  And, the aftermath was intense--fierce--and maybe just a little bit horrible.  But when it was over, it was truly over.  And I knew it. I was free.  The pain and the thoughts that had shackled me were finally gone.

The coin toss of success or failure is a big issue for me because I am always on the look out for vindication.  For everyone to see how justified I was in making the choices that I have made.  Many of them have been rather unconventional for a fairly traditionally-minded kind of gal.  The problem with seeking vindication is that it is all about my pride. And, it seems to me that Jesus doesn't appreciate being crowded in my soul by my overinflated pride.  Too much me (artificial, projected, pseudo-me) and not enough Him, as it were.  But I still want human success because success on God's terms is impossible to measure at this point in the space-time continuum. I want to be proud of myself and I want others to be impressed.  This is the smallness of who I really am.

So Jesus has been patiently waiting while I whine and wail and cling to my pride in my personal success (or putting my hope in it and yearning for it).  I get the sense He's examining His fingernails while He's waiting.  And boy, He's been waiting a good long while. I am exhausted from all my temper tantrum-ing about wanting to keep it. But if I am truthful; my soul is starting to look like a much nicer place to hang out without all this extra junk.  So, I sigh and hand my saviour my pride in my own success and watch as He long bombs it out the window with gusto.

But what does all this personal house cleaning have to do with my fellow Amazon warriors?  Those tough broads and classy dames, who despite their best efforts don't fit snugly into Christian culture, those wild girls who are about to run free, who I am pleased to count myself among? Everything.  When I realized that Jesus wasn't going to let me out of my psychological/emotional/spiritual Hoarder's Paradise until we dealt with some of my junk; when I realized I was completely stuck and couldn't advance my cause in any direction--I began to see His fingerprints on everything.  So rather than rail against the Great I AM, I thought it was time to step up to the table and let Jesus sort through my stuff with me.

Now, I am not saying that all the single ladies out there are exactly like me and have the same hoarded crap in their psyche--but I am certain that there are a couple of touchstones.  Maybe you feel judged about sex from without and within.  The world says your choice is weird and a waste.  You occasionally wonder if they aren't right.  Christian Culture doesn't know what to do with you either.  You were supposed to go to Bridal School (sorry, *Bible School*) and pick up a husband when you were nineteen.  Now no one knows what to do with you.  Chances are, whatever you have done or not done, you feel kind of messed up about it.

Maybe you feel hurt.  Like God forgot about you or abandoned you. He wrote everyone else a story, but forgot to finish yours.  Or maybe you have moved even further down the isolating path.  You are disillusioned and a little bitter because you did your best to do everything He told you to, and Christian Culture told you to, but it has only seemed to handicap you while all those other girls who didn't live quite so particularly and did exactly what they wanted now have their kids and husbands and, gee, they just seem so fulfilled while none of their bad choices resulted in any discernible consequences.

So, what's the deal, God?

All of the above are crappy things to feel.  You certainly aren't alone in feeling them.  And why does it seem like Jesus is so silent on this thing--this major thing--when He is plenty noisy on other stuff?

I'm afraid, dear sisters, that we may be focusing our attention on the wrong thing.  I don't think it is a question of the availability of stand up Christian dudes. (There may have been a war.  They may require our aid.  But it isn't something Jesus is talking about so until then…we're really only wasting our own precious time.) It is time to ask ourselves.  What does Jesus want to talk about? What does He want you to hand Him so that He can throw it out of the window of your life forever.  There may be a whole bunch of things.  The fact that God isn't talking about the availability of potential husbands may be a sign that there is something more pressing He wants to discuss.  And, take it from me, He can wait you out.

I'm not saying that even if you let Him work through your emotional hoard with you that you won't still hope for the right relationship to come along.  You probably will.  But I'm willing to bet that the desire won't be a deflection--that it wouldn't be an effort to self-medicate with a relationship.  It would just be a nice thing, like going to see Captain America: The Winter Soldier again.   You don't have to, it won't ruin your life if you don't.  It would just be a nice way to spend the evening.

Because-- Chris Evans.

How do I hate thee, Hair Salons? Let me count the ways.

(I published a previous version of this article earlier this week in which I tried to be measured and composed. Turns out, it did not nearly...