coexistence

coexist

I heard it said the other day
On Christian radio
(So it must be true)
That, obviously, faith and discouragement can’t coexist.
And it struck me that
For this announcer to be so bold
It’s assumed that many believe just this.

And I was discouraged by this,
(Faithless, that is);
Discouraged that
Sad souls would think themselves unworthy to be saved
Because they were, simply, sad.
Discouraged that
The broken-hearted would try to muster up some healing,
And when they broke again,
Would think it was permanent.
Discouraged that when disappointment comes and the days get rough,
It’s “obviously” my fault for not being faithful enough.
Insult to injury has never been so clear,
To those who weep for justice here.

Is not discouragement, in a sense,
When hope collides with reality?
This makes the heart sick,
And to be heart-sick is to touch the scarred wrist of the world,
Feel the feeble pulse,
And know that Someone else bears self-inflicted scars.
The One who wept had faith in His Father,
But it didn’t stop him from feeling,
From hurting,
From dying.

This is not obvious,
And neither is it en-couraging,
That God would come to a discouraged people and tell them to buck up,
Be brave,
Stop all that crying,
And get on with being faithful.
No.
He loves the broken-hearted,
He came for the sick,
And He knows we can’t save ourselves.
Let the weight pull us to our knees in surrender,
Not to our feet in self-will.

Deliver us now from our self-made faith,
And lift up our heads by your grace.
That we may live the life that you lived,
Saddened and saved in this place.

“The next stop will be…”

4T5 Cadbury's train

These seats always creak and huff when we travelers sit in them. We’re as weary as they are, or so it would seem.

It’s 5:09, and in four minutes this train will leave the station, and I’m just glad I got a corner seat on the upper level. It’s nearest the air conditioning, and I have my 99-cent iced coffee with just cream, no sugar. I used to add easy ice to my order, but they never caught that one, or maybe they thought I couldn’t tell that it was still packed to the brim. Why try to save on the stale coffee you’re trying to get rid of? Give the people the caffeine they crave.

I’ve calculated that full ice constitutes the loss of at least five sips of coffee. That’s a margin I truly miss on the ride home.

I have options for mind occupation on the train ride home – a book, Bible reading, writing, surfing Twitter… but my mind is whirling with options of a different kind, and online job searches are calling my name.

Scroll, scroll, click, nope, refresh, scroll, scroll, scroll.

Perhaps I’m just another millennial looking for that elusive perfect job, and I think so highly of myself that I can’t take an entry-level position in something I may not like.

Scroll, scroll, hm. Maybe. That’s far away from family. Sigh.

Perhaps I’m just too focused on my passions and not focused enough on the practicality of just getting a job, darn it. Or my standards are so high that I won’t accept the perfectly normal job staring me in the face.

Scroll, definitely not, scroll, scroll, click, looks possible, save for later. Scroll, scroll…

I wonder what the stats are for people who hate their job.

Oh, thanks Google, about 70%. Why should I be so privileged as to think I could like mine someday?

The thing is, right now I’m in the 30%. I don’t actually hate my current job. I love it. Sure, it has it’s problems, but I love my colleagues, I enjoy the work, it’s diverse and often exciting. I believe in the value of what I’m doing. The only reason I’m looking is because I have a family and the pay isn’t cutting it for the cost of living in Chicago. I don’t even blame my employers for that. It’s just the way it is right now.

I’ve got a dream job in mind right now, like most people. Mine has switched around a lot (because these darn millennials can’t commit) but currently I’d like to write stories for a living, from wherever it’s cheap to live and my kids have a yard.  Quite the American dream.

“The next stop will be… Harlem Avenue.  Now approaching… Harlem Avenue.”

These beasts of many burdens sling their backpacks up and over, cinch the straps, tap their pockets to confirm they have wallets, stumble over feet.  Hisses, shuffles, the ding, c-click, ding, c-clang of the train starting up again.  We leave them on the platform, walking to their homes, to the bar, to some dingy pizza place. The sense of abandonment wanes over the years.  It’s been five now, for me. Many more for others.

Now I’m looking up organizations I would like to work with, to see if there are any jobs I could qualify for within their sparkling ranks.

Job descriptions are terrifying, and I know why, because I redid mine over the summer along with my entire manual. When you actually sit down and start categorizing what you do in your job, you realize just how much there is, even though most of it you didn’t have a clue how to do at all, initially. Add in supervisor expectations (what they think you do or what they wish you would do) and you’ve got a recipe for Super-Employee. Part of me wants a “BS filter” option on this app. The other part of me is scared spitless that they might actually mean what they say.

The train yards are whizzing away and the landscapes subtly become greener. The city is a breathless heaving machine, all complicated moving parts and rush and noise. The suburbs are fake trees and fake grass and fake smiles and fake lives, and the real versions of each are often indistinguishable, so who really knows which one I see? In between, though, I really don’t know what it’s like. It looks… well, it’s gone now, I guess I’ll never know.

“The next stop will be… Berwyn. Now approaching… Berwyn.”

What’s perhaps most frustrating is the insecurity, and the doubts that plague me about the next steps of life.

Am I good enough to get a different job?
Does God want me to move on or am I just being discontent?
What if I hate the new one I get even though it looks great?
What if we have to relocate and pull up the roots we’ve been putting down for five years?
I should be happy that we have it as good as we do right now.

There is nothing here to hold on to. The questions produce only more questions. The self-doubt, the other-doubt, the God-doubt – it’s an abyss, and I know it, and I still ask the questions.

“The next stop will be… Riverside. Now approaching… Riverside.”

Doubt. Insidious, pseudo-holy, parasitic. Brother to fear. Son to pride. I am Yours, but I am not. You love me, but You do not. First tool of the devil. “Did God really say…”

The appropriate response, of course, is “Duh. Bug off.” Heir of the fall, I respond by justifying, waffling, trying to do it myself, failing, falling, sinning in my heart against the God who cannot love me more than He does, who has my good in His heart, who holds the world and this itty-bitty baby in His hands.

My six-month-old is learning an age-old truth. After months of getting exactly what he asks for when he asks for it, the party is winding down. Welcome to life, kid. We are always there, always watching out for you, and we love you to pieces. But no, you may not get your way at this moment, no matter how much you rage at us.

The exception is when you are hurting. We can’t get there fast enough.

“The next stop will be… Brookfield. Now approaching… Brookfield.”

I’ve always liked how Metra Mom says my home-stop, lilting, cheery, like the sound of those two things mingled and expressed, smiling. Sounds like content. I pack up my own burden and sling it on my back, check my belonging, stumble over others. This is my stop.

We all stand, bovine, heads slightly bowed. Some people had good days and chew the cud at each other. Some people had bad days and chew the cud at each other. Most stand silently, bearing their various burdens and waiting to lower them with loved ones at home, or not at all. Travelers all, we shuttle from place to place, willing slaves to routine, for the sake of all of our different motivations – family, money, fame, passions.

When will I stop pursuing and let myself be caught by my true Home?

 

 

 

 

Fewer walls.

Trying out taking the side off of K’s crib.
 
Told the little punk with Extreme Dad Voice that Under No Circumstances was he to get out of bed and roam around the house.
 
I’m sitting on the couch doing Very Important Adulting Things (surfing Facebook).
 
Thumps. Giggles. A blonde goblin in a diaper tiptoes round the corner, looking back at his sister and grinning with the sheer joy of disobedience.
 
Suddenly he spots me sitting on the couch.
 
We stare at each other. I’m trying to be fierce with a straight face. His smile slithers away.
 
He backs up slowly into the room. He may possibly think that I just might not have seen him. Just to be sure, he begins intoning what sounds like an ancient kid-wizard protection spell at me (something like “bed bed bed bed”). He’s determined to lull Daddy Ogre into inaction…
 
He disappears, and there’s a thump and more giggles. He doesn’t come out again.
 
I haven’t got the heart to discipline him for his transgression. Although I’m pretty sure he will end up sound asleep, spread-eagled, on the floor tonight.

She’s four, after all.

IMG_3055-2

“Daddy, I want to show you something,” she crows, skipping down the park path.

About ten minutes ago, they’d both gotten cold and decided the splash pad wasn’t as interesting anymore. Her brother is content to sit, hooded in his yellow-striped towel, and watch trains go by, periodically yelling “TRAIN!” to Mommy.  But she is too excited.  Her shivers are gone, and the muggy weight of late summer is a suitable towel.  There is much to explore.

She clambers up the red sandy concrete of the skate park half-pipe.  The sign says that the walkway is not for pedestrians, but whoever skated here recently is long gone.  My adult mind dismisses any danger and hopes her exploration is meaningful.  I trail behind, soaking in the moment and my clothes.  The splash pad looked like a lot of fun, what can I say.

She wants to show me how she can climb up all by herself.  She is brimming with excitement and fourness. She filled up on the latter yesterday, overflowing with balloons and ribbons and this new purple bike with its white plastic basket.  $10 on Craigslist. We’re proud of that.

She got to choose her cake – pink cake with blueberries on top – and helped Mommy make it in the afternoon.  That is, after she spent a couple hours working on her bike skills.  Bikes are freedom, wild and unrestrained and a little bit dangerous.  Wheels to take to places, baskets to carry your treasures, the open road, the wind in your face.  Am I that different, in my late 20s, stretching the bonds of my 5-year job, sniffing the wind for the next thing?

But she’s back, and will not be ignored.  She slid down the half-pipe against my wishes (she’s four, after all), leaving a wet stripe on the curve.  Scratches?  None, to be sure, but I ask anyway. She confirms that my concern is silly.  I knew it was.  I just wanted to be concerned.

She climbs again, and shows me how brave she is, walking back and forth on the foot-wide ledge without my help (she’s four, after all).  She is brave.  She’ll have to be.  She stops and sits and, finding the concrete warm from the day, stretches out.  She is cozy in her fourness, wrapped in bravery and good cheer and, I hope, the knowledge that I’m nearby. I stand by her and lean on the half-pipe (“Not too close!”) and we talk about things that little girls talk about with their daddies.

Earlier, some teenage punks – daughters and sons reveling in their sixteenness – swarmed the swings right as she flitted toward them.  And she stopped, and considered them.  They were foreign, turquoise hair and flat brims and skinny jeans and ill-fitting boots.  Did she glimpse something of her future?  I was far away when she turned, and my outrage was tempered when she didn’t care.  But I wanted her to ask them if she could swing.  I wanted them to see her.  I wanted them to remember, maybe, what it is to be small in a big world.  My guess is, they know, but don’t talk about it often.

She is so old right now, and so young.  So taken with her world and her self, squealing at spiders and playing peekaboo with the princess in the mirror.  Her name is Nadia too, and they both have blue eyes and curls and a smile that stops my heart.  She’s learning to pray, to listen when I talk to her about Jesus, though it’s clear the Wonder hasn’t penetrated her heart. We pray it will and we walk alongside her. She is so tender, breakable at the smallest slight, fierce in her wrath, tempestuous in her sorrow.

She is four.

There are many birth-days ahead, when we celebrate her being zero before this, and one, and two, and three… We count them with thankful hearts for a safe pregnancy and delivery, which is withheld from so many others for reasons impossible to understand without the mind of God.  We count them with happy hearts for the life coursing in her veins, overflowing in her laughter, and we celebrate with toys and games and sweets to show her she is worth celebrating.

We count them to remember: the coughing cry, the excitement and surprise at a girl when everyone said boy, the squinched-up eyes that opened dark and sweet and perpetually suspicious.  How I hated it when medical punks woke her in the night to poke and prod and test, when we only wanted her to know love, not professional disinterest.

Do these only get harder, days brilliant and sharp-edged and rare, diamonds of summer?  I’m collecting them for my winter years, to uncover and admire – will they be as clear then? – to remind her of her summer when her children are in theirs. In our hearts we all need this.

She wants to sit and watch the sun go down, and I do too, so we linger longer.  Her brother has since given up sitting and is racing up and down ramps, tripping and colliding into everything and bouncing back with skinned knees, unperturbed.  He experiences life differently at two. His sister has time to sit and enjoy sunsets.

All the time in the world. She’s four, after all.

creative tongues

Christians are creative forces in the world.

By the word creative, I’m not referring to innovative idea-mongers or artsy collectives.  To me, “creative” refers to calling into existence that which is not yet (ex nihilo, if you will).  For Christ-followers, this creation and re-creation is our lifeblood – both in our very existence and every day as Christ makes us new.  And thus we have this as our common responsibility and joy in a destructive world: to create that which is not yet, within our given spheres of influence.  In a given situation, this could mean calling into existence beauty, truth, peace, grace, etc.

I find that the most difficult creative tool for me to master is my tongue.  Which is unfortunate because it’s the foremost tool I’ve been given.

It seems sometimes that I absorbed everything about my Bible school upbringing that taught me to think critically and defend all that is excellent and right, but somehow practicing at gracious, honest dialogue slipped my mind.  My tendency, in a pinch, is to either avoid conflict altogether or to verbally body-slam my adversary (for the record, that’s the only way I could ever body-slam anyone).  Or, more often, I complain to my friends and family under the guise of venting about problems.  There is no better excuse for gossip than being a verbal processor.

And here’s where creation comes in.  First, to remind me that I am forgiven, redeemed, and free from the fear and pride that characterizes my communication.  And second, to provide me with the motivation and the means to change.

Our words, in direct correlation to the power of the Word Himself, have the power to create or destroy.  We have the opportunity to dignify or vilify, love or hate, lift up or ignore, seek to understand or seek to be understood, provide peace or impose stress.  We have the power to breathe life or deal death with our words.  And as Christ-followers the latter is not an option.

The motivating force behind a creative tongue is charity, otherwise known as, well, love (agape), but I’m using it for the connotation of leniency in judging others, especially when it comes to encountering their art.  This requires perspective – crawling into another person’s viewpoint and making ourselves at home there – and the constant remembrance that blimey, God loves this person too.

When it comes to our tongues, it also involves shutting up and listening.  Sometimes when our tongues hang out behind our teeth with nothing to do they end up having a nice little chat with our hearts and minds and maybe God, and end up speaking God’s words – i.e. words of creative power.

We can never forget that our daily interactions are not with philosophies and rhetoric – they are with real live humans created in the image of God and dearly loved by Him.  When we talk with non-believers or believers about the art, culture, and events that surround us (no matter how broken they are) we should be creating, not destroying.

excellence | identity

Originally published on www.madenewblog.com.

All I really remember about my first few years of lessons is that I wanted to play.   My brother and sister both played, and it looked like fun.  When I started it was the pure joy of creating something beautiful and meaningful out of nothing.  Poof – Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.”  Just by pressing down white and black keys, I could make tears come to my mom’s eyes.  How cool is that?

During my teen years, I got serious.  As a teenager and college student, I entered wholeheartedly into my craft.  I was good at piano, people liked it when I played, and I had fun doing it.  Everybody told me I should pursue it as far as I could go, educationally and otherwise; that I had a career ahead of me.  So I pushed ahead.  Possibly due to the trauma of puberty (or something more inherent), I began placing higher and higher value on the affirmation and criticism of others.  I began to fear performing.  I began to stress out about recitals and competitions and master classes.

To avoid what I perceived as the cardinal sin of the musician – messing up in performance – I pushed myself harder, practiced more, made sure every note was as perfect as possible, every page memorized.  I Christianized this concoction of pride and fear by labeling it “pursuing excellence”.  That somehow rang better in my ears than “self-aggrandizing” or “wildly afraid of failing”.  In fact, I think that’s where it all intersected – concurrently in my teenage Christian life,  I was struggling deeply with the shame of sins I couldn’t shake, and the desire to be admired for my holiness in front of my peers.  Naturally, this spilled into my musical life.

As a young pianist, if I didn’t do well on a performance I blamed it on everything from letting my pride get in the way to not practicing hard enough.  It most certainly would have been wiser to memorize Bach than memorize the Lost Woods maze sequence from Ocarina of Time (a hypothetical situation, of course… but if you’re interested: right, left, right, left, straight, left, right). The point is that it came down, somehow, to not loving the Lord enough to discipline myself and work hard.  Because after all, He’s the one who gave me my abilities, and wouldn’t it be a waste of those God-given gifts to not work hard(er) on them?  And isn’t that what God wants – for us to hone our talents for His glory?

We are given such good gifts in the arts.  The ability to manipulate sound into exquisite sonic patterns that can rip a soul apart or mend it.  The opportunity to mix and match colors, lines, textures and shapes to represent something of profound meaning.  Communicating depth of feeling and truth with little black lines and arcs on a blank page.  These are neither small nor simple gifts, and therefore not easily mastered, if ever.  Thus, we have a joyous responsibility to play skillfully, to seek excellence in our craft, because honestly – such truth and beauty are worth pursuing.

But my heart in this matter was centering my pursuit of excellence on who I was and hoped to someday be, rather than being made new (shameless, I know) in Jesus Christ.

Fast-forward to my first few years of college, and I was optimistically wrapping my dreams for the future around my craft, like overstuffing a flimsy flour tortilla with taco ingredients (something I still struggle with).

I think the breaking point was when I performed rather abysmally during a master class for a visiting pianist my senior year.  I remember vividly the anger and disillusionment I felt afterward.  I felt that I was simply not good enough, to make a living, to get noticed, to be famous, whatever it was I was searching for – I didn’t really know what that was anyway.  At that moment I just felt lost.  If I didn’t have my musical ability, what did I have?  I had poured my heart and soul into every aspect of this artistic endeavor, seeking to make it the best it could be, and then (cue sad violin music) tossed it out into a cold, cruel world, where critics and misunderstandings and the mediocrity of mass culture at large ripped it apart.

Obviously,  I’m poking fun at my younger self and how devastatingly serious I was about this moment.  I even wrote a blog post shortly thereafter entitled: “The Moulder of Dreams” which was meant to be a broodingly brilliant pun.  The editors changed it to “Molder of Dreams” because they didn’t think anyone would catch the British spelling.  How primitive of them.  But I’m thankful for the angst because it pushed me to a living truth; I’m not sure how else I would have received it.

I associated doing the best that I could at my craft with who I was.  In this vein, my struggle to perfect my art mirrored my struggle to perfect myself.

This slowly became evident to me.  Accumulated shame, disillusionment, and a class about unity with Christ converged and I realized what I had been avoiding all along – that in Christ, my identity is not mine to form or control (thank God!), but in Him, through Him, and because of Him.  I remember actually crying from the relief of this truth finally penetrating my heart.

It’s often difficult to put feet to this.  I can realize I’m out of shape, but until I get up off the couch and exercise, there will not be a transformation.  Again, hypothetical.  And that is where I am now – ironically, sitting on the couch typing this post, but that’s not what I mean.  I am struggling to relinquish control while striving to live a holy life.  Seems like an oxymoron, but mostly what it’s done is to bring this moron to his knees a lot.

So, with all of that said, what about excellence in art?

I speak this to my forgetful self:

Excellence is not beating myself up until I get it right.

Excellence is not what defines the success of my art.

Excellence is not an indicator of how much I love God.

Excellence is not designed to impress Christ enough that He loves me.

Choosing to pursue that which excels – the joyous, the peaceful, the living, the holy, the viscerally true – is a real thing, motivated by real love.  That all-too-familiar maxim of the apostle Paul takes on an identity focus:

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8)

Excellence denotes that which excels, is above, is high and lifted up, lofty and beyond our understanding.  Paul placed it in a litany of words such as true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, and praiseworthy.  We know of only one Artist deserving of such language.  And that Artist has chosen to reflect His excellence in His Art.  He has created, on and in and around this world, things breathtaking, arresting, terrifying, beyond comprehension in their power, beyond understanding in their delicacy.

And in this, true excellence in [anything] is linked, finally, to identity – not to a what or a how, but a Who. Excellence in art-life should be an outpouring of worship to Him, crafted thoughtfully and with truly high standards because of who we are in Christ.

Oof.  Now to get up off the couch and, trusting Christ for the results, see it through.