All things in moderation...except beauty

I’m so out of practice with this writing thing. I haven’t been noticing the moments that spur me on to write of something meaningful. I needed to get hit over the head with inspiration and that happened last night. I was overwhelmed with the wealth of beauty spilling all over the place at the Over the Rhine concert. It felt wasteful to me, extravagant. If I had been there when Mary anointed Jesus with expensive oil, I probably would have been anxious about her extravagance. I would have been chastised in that story because I think goodness and beauty is in short supply and caution takes hold of me, telling me to take care and absorb what I can. But there isn’t always a next time. Sometimes, you just have to absorb what you can with open hands, not clenched fists. 

So last night at the show, I tried but I couldn’t take it all in. I couldn’t chew on every lyric and note the way I felt they deserved. I could only let them wash over me and every once in a while get pierced by something true. Something like, “Love: let it be not just a feeling, but the broken beauty of what we choose to do" (from "All Over Ohio"). Or: “When you find your little dream, cost you everything...” (from "Earthbound Love Song"). Separating the lyrics from the whole of the songs they’re a part of doesn’t feel right, but those are the remnants that are still rattling around in me today.   

I felt that sense of wasting beauty in Seattle a couple of weeks ago, too. Frustrated by the inability of my eyes to drink up all that beauty, and at my camera’s shortcomings in capturing the layers of water, mountains, trees, and sky. I wanted to take it with me. But we can’t take it with us. The beauty is in the seeing. Not in the taking.

When I have a deep conversation with someone, I feel the same pressure to somehow capture in my soul all that was said, and more importantly, felt. The feeling of connecting to something beautiful is so fleeting that even as I witness it before my eyes, I am grieving the inevitable loss of it. That might sound pathetic and sad, but so far in my life, my experiences of joy untempered by any kind of grief or sadness are not the kinds of deep joy that last. And so, when I feel sadness at the beauty of a sunset from West Seattle or ache at the expression of a lyric, I know it’s really good. It’s so good that it’s worth grieving the loss of it.


Remembering how to rest

This weekend all of Minneapolis seems to be somewhere else. At least the Minneapolis with which I am acquainted. Just me and the birds, who seem to be having a party outside my window right now. The people left and so did summer. So much for open windows and flip flops. I'm back in my slippers and fleece.

I'm thinking that this Memorial Day exodus is timely, though, because I'm still trying to figure out how to transition between the sprint at the end of a semester and the screeching halt of summer vacation. During these first few days of no structure, I always feel like I'm forgetting something, or I should be somewhere, and whatever I'm doing is not the thing that I really should be doing. There's no rest. Instead, there's a subtle uneasiness lurking in the background of every moment that I'm going to be caught unprepared because I've been wasting my time. In other words, every summer I have to re-learn how to rest and remember that I am not what I do.

I'm hopeful that one effect of these whiplash transitions will be to help me learn to rest in the One who made me and not feel frantic with worry when I don't know what's next. I never know for sure what's coming (even when I think I do), and I don't need to if I'm really trusting Him. Easy to say and think in my head, hard to live out. I think God's giving me all the help I need, though, clearing out a city for me to learn to rest in Him alone. He's teaching me to say, "I have no good apart from you." (Psalm 16:2)


Uncertainty avoidance

I stopped by a liquor store in an affluent suburb on the way home from work today to pick up a bottle of wine. I don't usually go to this store and it always feels unnaturally quiet and orderly compared to the one near my house in the city on Chicago and Lake. A trip to Chicago Lake is a little risky, but the risk equals the reward. If you're willing to brave the free-for-all parking lot with no clear flow of traffic and people milling around in the little open space that exists, it can be an entertaining (and cheap!) experience. Apparently alcohol brings all sorts of people together and you see it right there in the mini-UN that forms each day among the aisles of vodka, gin, beer, and of course, malt liquor. The women at checkout are used to being hit on and handle it like pros. Once I was in line and and the young woman behind the counter said, when asked if she had a boyfriend, "You asked me that yesterday, buddy, and the answer's still yes!" So, for one, you have some resilient guys coming through the doors.

It's a little chaotic and always crowded, but people bear with one another and they do so pretty well. If you don't bear with your neighbors, or the people in line at the liquor store, in the city, things go downhill fast. There's no space for an alternative.

In light of my Chicago Lake experiences, I was taken aback today during my visit to the liquor store in the "good" part of town. I walked through the perfectly ordered aisles, noting the higher prices. I guess we pay for straight lines and silence. I was asked, in hushed tones, if I needed any help, which I politely turned down, using my library voice. But when I got to checkout the silence was broken by a customer who was having a bad day. He behaved as if he were already well into the six-pack he was purchasing, grumbling that he wanted part of his bill to go toward the city "so they could hire someone to shovel the goddamn sidewalk." He started yelling about the sidewalks and everyone in the store stopped and stared and shifted from foot to foot. In Chicago Lake, no one bats an eye at this kind of exchange, but here I could feel people's hands go to their smartphones, ready to dial in case things got ugly.

The man went on for only about 30 seconds before the employees joined forces to kick him out. Meanwhile, two well-dressed businessmen in front of me who appeared to be purchasing about $300 worth of liquor, loudly remarked, "Somebody needs to shut that guy up!" They, too, seemed to have drawn the conclusion that in this store, customers pay for silence and avoiding the unexpected or anything that might make them the least bit uncomfortable. The looks of disgust people's faces suggested that they actually hated this man for taking loudly and making them unsure about what he would do next. They wanted him out of there and then they laughed about him as soon as he was out the door.

First of all, yuck. Is this what we do when people "misbehave"? Try to get them to shut up as soon as possible? "Stop ruining my picture perfect retail experience" was the message. I felt gross just being there, I think because I am usually on the side of the people who want as little of their life disrupted as possible. And as I drove home I started thinking about how dangerous it is to get comfortable. We get a little money, a little space, and we start to believe the illusion that we can control our surroundings. Maybe we move to a place where we don't have to deal with people who behave differently than us. And when those people invade our insulated territory, we lash out. Granted, this man was a bit volatile and not exactly inviting civil conversation. But did we have to gang up on him?  And why was it that he could have rambled on as much as he liked in a store 10 miles north, but was shown the door after 30 seconds in this part of town?

It's alarmingly easy for me to judge the judgers and make all sorts of assumptions about them. I just did. But the reason today's experience left such a bitter taste in my mouth is that I'm more often right there with the judgers, preferring to know what to expect and distancing myself from uncertainty and discomfort. And then on one rare day when I don't seek to run from the discomfort, I tend to think quite highly of myself for not judging the outspoken customer (although, I'm sure I was judging him, too, somehow). Yet I let myself off the hook for judging everyone else in the store. Both kinds of judgment are ugly and not for me to pass. I don't want to do either one. I just want to see people (not stereotype them) and not run from them when they do something unexpected. Which, let's face it, people tend to do. Even the people we think are just like us.

[And I don’t believe, by any means, that everyone who moves to the suburbs or some other “comfortable” area is trying to insulate themselves from the unexpected or from people who are different from them. It’s not nearly that simple. I know and love plenty of people who live in the “good” part of town and embrace people who are different from them.]


"He withdrew.... and he had compassion on them"

I've been reading in Matthew and landed in chapter 14 this week. In verses 1 through 12, the story of John the Baptist's death is told. Immediately after this story, verse 13 says, "Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself." The Lord of heaven and earth was grieving the loss of a friend, at least that's my interpretation. He withdrew. He wanted to be alone for a while. That draws me to my Savior more, knowing he, too, was sad. 

But the next part gets me even more. Verse 13 continues and says, "But when the crowds heard of it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick."

Maybe it's a bad idea to try to put myself in my Savior's shoes (or sandals). Or maybe it's right because when I do I see how much more I have need of Him. If I'm in His place, there's no way I'm going to have compassion on those people. I'm taking that boat way out into the middle of the lake and staying put until they all go home. I'm coming up with a disguise so that they won't know it's me and let me slip by to go be with a few close friends. I'm certainly not figuring out how to feed five thousand of them. 

But thanks be to God that He did not come as just a man. He came and had compassion on them and healed their sick in the middle of his grief. Not after he was finished with it. Not when it was convenient for him. Right in the middle of it. 

I'm so thankful that we have a Savior who withdrew and yet didn't stay withdrawn. I withdraw sometimes and I'm glad to know I have a God who understands that. I'm more grateful to know that He has compassion on me and is healing me. He doesn't condemn our clinginess but welcomes it. He gets us, but He's not us. What a Savior!


Playing chicken with semis. In other words, teaching.

I've only been at this a few years so far, but so far, teaching is proving to be exactly what I was warned it would be by a professor in grad school: like trying to run across a freeway, as demonstrated by Eddie Murphy's character in the film, Bowfinger.

It's actually rather exciting when I somehow escape with my life, which I have done so far this week with God's help. The problem is that I seem to have many colleagues who have found the crosswalk and are making it through each class with ease. This drives me crazy. How dare they act like they've seen it all before and are just strolling through the teaching life! That makes me have to pretend like I'm not shrieking my way across the freeway, which is a difficult act to pull off. Don't they face the deathly silence that occurs before the first class begins. Those few minutes when everyone is staring at the teacher, waiting, wondering what she could possibly offer that is of any value. When that teacher is me I'm just trying to look busy, fiddling with the technology, making eye contact with a few students when I feel brave, drinking way more water than is necessary, and just hoping that my fly isn't down or there isn't spinach stuck in my teeth.

But then we get started and I learn their names and a little bit about them and that is like magic! It's like, "Oh, you're not that scary! You're an individual with a story and you seem to be willing to share part of it. Maybe not right now, but I think that you might be willing to engage in this class with me. And I love this subject and I thought maybe you might, too! Want to see?"

Then it gets fun. When they get interested in the subject and we can explore together, then I don't mind running across the freeway anymore. Still scary sometimes, but scary with a purpose is totally worth it.


You're talking so loudly I can't hear you

I've been teaching just long enough now to recognize the pattern I fall into of steeling myself for a new semester. Part of that preparation is finding some quiet time to just think and be without obsessing over a to do list. That's a luxury, for sure, but a necessary one for me. Without some quiet time, I quickly become a mess.

I've spent a long time thinking about why I can't regroup with people very well. The easy answer is introversion. Introverts charge their batteries with alone time, while extroverts charge their batteries with people. But I recently read a much more satisfying explanation or perhaps just an elaboration on what it means to be an introvert. I'm re-reading Let's Take the Long Way Home, a memoir about friendship (and the loss of a beloved friend) by Gail Caldwell, and she says that, "For both of us, in different ways, the volume of the world had been turned up a notch." The world is "noisier" to some of us. That doesn't mean that we have better hearing, but maybe just less capacity for handling the noise. It can be, as Caldwell notes, "a failing or an asset." When I get together with big groups of people, I feel like I'm drinking from a fire hose. I have to go home and dry out for a couple of days to recover. I try to turn down the volume by moving farther away from the noise. Not always a good thing, I suppose, but survival isn't always pretty.

Sometimes, though, I find people who know how to whisper. Thank God for these whisperers. They keep me connected to, rather than merely overwhelmed by, this messy, noisy, terrible, wonderful world.


Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing

Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing. I want this to be my attitude in 2013. It may seem odd to desire sorrow, but try not to separate them into two things--sorrow and rejoicing. They are one. The truly strange thing is that we think they can be separate. In this life, they are always intertwined. Always. And when I feel a tinge of soulful sorrow in my rejoicing, or when realize a small spark of joy in my grieving, that is when I feel truly alive. Because that is life.

I heard a great sermon at Bethlehem Baptist Church about this last Sunday, a much-needed word to launch me into a new year. Everything that Pastor John said seemed to resonate and I'm so thankful for how he opened Scripture to me on Sunday and how he has done so for the last 10 years I've been at Bethlehem.  In particular, I was helped by his claim that "what the world needs from the church is our indomitable joy in Jesus in the midst of suffering and sorrow." Amen. The world needs this. My soul needs this because it is a true thing. Suffering, joyful Christians prove Jesus' worth and I pray that my life would show His worth this year.

I have a friend who might have cancer. She doesn't know yet. But she does know Jesus and she is one of the most joyful people I know. I'm talking about serious, contagious joy. Not frivolous joy. Not fake joy. Rock solid joy. The kind that doesn't disappear in the face of a diagnosis. I look at her and my faith is strengthened. I look at her and I know that my Redeemer lives. No matter how much sorrow this world gives me, there is always cause to rejoice.