Monday, December 17, 2012

Waiting with joy

"We'll arrive in two more hours!" My friend Kt sent me this text message a few minutes ago, letting me know that she and her husband Wyatt would be arriving soon. Several of my Texas friends have families to visit in Florida, and Alabama makes a perfect halfway-haven. Yesterday I spent all day looking forward to the arrival of Amanda, Zachary, and Baby Lily; today I've been receiving frequent updates as Kt and Wyatt draw near (Wyatt sent the best so far: "Over the river & through the woods / To Bethany's house we go!).

Yesterday was also the third Sunday of Advent: the Sunday when most churches light a rose-colored or blue candle, its color a symbol of joy in the midst of a penitential season. Many liturgies call this Sunday "Gaudete" Sunday -- "gaudete" is a Latin imperative, meaning "Y'all rejoice!" The coincidence of personal and liturgical expectation has set me pondering what it means to rejoice as we wait.

My parents named me "Joy" (it is my middle name), and my teachers trained me to be a scholar, so this morning I curled up with a thick volume of Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. (My college boyfriend gave me the entire 10-volume set for Christmas one year. That, and a harp. But that's a story for another entry). At first I thought I should look up χαίρω. This verb means "I rejoice" and appears in familiar Bible verses such as Philippians 4:4-6, a passage often used on Gaudete Sunday. However, as I looked at my Greek New Testament, I realized that of all the times "joy" appears in the New Testament,  it appears most often in Luke, and Luke uses a different word. In Luke 1, Zechariah, Elizabeth, and Mary receive astounding promises: they all learn of children--their children--whose coming will be a cause for joy. The verb for "rejoice" or "be joyful" in these passages is αγάλλομαι. Stick with me now, because I learned some fascinating (and practical) things about joy from this word.

Kittel's notes, first of all, that the verb αγάλλομαι is a "new construct" derived from an older Greek word that means "to make resplendent, to adorn," and the new word builds on its source, meaning "to adorn oneself," and even "to be proud."  Aγάλλομαι only appears in Biblical language (both the Septuagint and New Testament) and in early Christian writings. Unlike χαίρω, which appears in Greek texts throughout the ancient world, and which can refer to many kinds of merriment, αγάλλομαι never loses its religious connotations, always meaning "joy in God or joy before Him." Perhaps most fascinatingly, αγάλλομαι refers to joy in both the present and future; faith makes future joy real in the present. And finally, even individual joy--such as Elizabeth's delight in finally conceiving a child--is always eschatological and communal: my joy will be bone-shakingly real to me, but is also yours as it looks forward to the full redemption Christ brings.

My fellow word-nerds probably enjoyed that lesson in etymology, but what does all that Greek say about how I can practice the joyful expectation of Advent? Here are a few thoughts, which I have derived both from Herr Kittel and from the experience of waiting for my beloved friends to reach my door:

* I adorn myself and my life in order to demonstrate my joyful hope.  As I wait for friends, I make sure that my rooms are in order, that the lights on the Christmas tree are shining. I put on a favorite shirt and brush my hair. Even before my friends arrive, I will show that I am about to participate in something wonderful.  As I wait for Christmas, I hang symbols of hope on a tiny tree, inviting all who enter to read evergreen signs that foretell unending joy.

* I allow the joy-that-is-coming to direct my work and ways. Because I am confident that Kt and Wyatt will come, I have set dough rising for bread. The smell and texture of that food--already good, but not yet ready to eat--remind me of what will come. Similarly, because I know that Christ has come, comes now, and will come again, I strive to reorient my life according to that arrival. For this reason I went to grad school and spent six years learning to lead others toward the love of wisdom, rather than plunging into a more lucrative profession.

* I use language that sets my joy apart from the world's happiness. This one is hard, much more than a reluctance to curse or swear. It is grace, seasoned with salt. Paradox instead of proposition. Stories that speak otherwise. Handwritten letters. I long for the day when creation ceases to groan and begins to sing. I long for the day when language doesn't falter before truth, but until that day, I can try to make language dance even as it stumbles.

* I consider my joy to belong to all who are called by Christ's name, and I remember that we are waiting together. If my brothers and sisters cannot share my joy, or question it, then I must mistrust it, too, and call it happy-pretty-something-or-other, but not joy, not Advent, not Christmas. I ask, "How might my wealth, my tranquility, my strength add stones to the roads in the Kingdom of God?"  Whether I wait for a train, a friend, or a messiah, good company takes so much sorrow out of the delay.

In many ways, my life right now is like the third Sunday of Advent. After years of wondering if I would ever finish my PhD, my life has turned into a tall rose-colored candle. I recognize that I do not, cannot, yet enjoy all the things I am waiting for in this world or the world to come. Nevertheless, this Advent balances so much of the agonized, uncertain waiting I experienced last year. Waiting is hard, and darkness often threatens to snuff out the pink candle along with all good lights. But for those of us who have new words for "joy," there is no fear that the dark will overwhelm our hope. The darkness has never comprehended the light, and for this reason, above all, we wait with joy.

Waiting with joy. 

Most of us have experienced difficult times of waiting, but can you think of a time you were able to wait for something with joy? 

Sunday, December 16, 2012

the lines have fallen

Trail on the University of Mobile Campus, October 2012

I'm trying to understand tonight's feeling: this weight of gratitude, hope, and sorrow that has been brooding above me, keeping me warm on this winter's night. To this end, I've drafted five different entries. Not one has worked. I've tried to tell stories about how moving here is different from my many transitions in the last ten years. I tried reflecting on what I learned this semester. I tried describing the difference between being "Dr." and "Miss." I tried to understand why this semester feels so momentous, though I have been teaching college English for six years now.

Maybe the stories aren't ready to hatch yet. Or maybe I'm too tired to tell them well. They may come later,  but right now I just feel too broken with joy and hope, wonder and repentance, to trust very many of my own words. For now, only this:

The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.
                                                    (Psalm 16:6 ESV)

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The first adventure

December always makes me nostalgic, and last night I pulled an old journal off my shelf. In it are the annals of my freshman year of college, and I have decided to post an entry from that journal--an account of a trip some friends and I took after our first Honors party. It was the sort of journey that might not seem important to an observer, but it radically changed my understanding of life and community. Ten years later, the prose seems a little too precious and poetical, but I can't fault my 19-year-old too self too much for affected language: every flute and flourish was a sign of how deeply I was falling in love with new friends and with the idea that home could be a place where adventures happen. 

December 8, 2002

How wonderfully blessed I am! Last night as Keith, Mark, Rachel, Emily and I left the Honors House (it was about 11:30, after the Christmas party), I sat in the street to better see the stars, which were glinting as though polished by the chilling air. Someone said, "We should go to the mountains and see the stars there." Rachel, always eager to make dreams reality, asked, "Whose car are we taking?" "We can take mine," Keith offered.

And then, unbelievably, beautifully, we were on our way. No one wanted to hesitate or discuss, lest some sober voice kill our momentum. At first, Emily was reluctant, heeding her keen concern for being prepared, but we prevailed, and she joined us.

Even before we came to the mountains we were giddy, heddy [sic] with one another's company. Sevierville, Gatlinburg were dreaming in electric color -- when the road rose along a ridge and we stopped to look down into its valley, it looked like a field sown with seeds of light, or a shimmering lode in the dark wall of a mine. There too I saw a tree spangled with stars instead of leaves, just the image I think Wordsworth must have known when he wrote, "Shine, poet, in thy place, and be content."

Driving on, we entered the parkway through the Great Smoky Mountain National Forest, our headlights following the road like two needles embroidering a dark cloth with bright, serpentine stitches. High enough now for snow--the child's joy in seeing a season's first snow never diminishes. Hands numb from icy caresses, eyes wide in the clean darkness, ears turned to a hidden river, shouting for joy in its coursing, completely unselfconscious. Even the pain of warming as we drove onward was rich to me.

The final lookout on the parkway was most amazing. It hinted of large beauty to be shown in daytime, but in the darkness the magnificence of the earth was draped, serving only as our foundation for turning to the sky. So much was visible, so many stars who are not preeminent, but vital. Andromeda, the Ursae, and the Pleiades were revealed, and we even saw the soft ribbon of our galaxy....There were shooting stars as well, some briefly precious, and one like a long drop of melted silver.

By this time Emily was glad she had sacrificed scruples for spontaneity. [...] All night I was so full of love and thankfulness to God. We returned at five this morning, but none of us were sleepy in church, even with only three hours of sleep. I think we were still too thrilled by our adventure. Thank you, God, for laughter, and hugs, [...] for cappuccino at four am and safety home. For shooting stars and silent nights....holy nights.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Being useful isn't enough

Ideally, the culture of a Christian congregation should be such that every member feels valued, noticed, encouraged, tended. This need may be particularly urgent for single adults, who may not have many other relationships in which they experience love.

Doing it right.

A friend of mine and fellow blogger (explore her lovely words here) recently sent me a link to an article entitled "Serving in Ways Married People Can't." The author discusses the ways in which the freedom of being single allows one to go and give in ways married people (especially those with children) cannot. As far as it goes, this article is really good, and it reminded me how thankful I am to be able to decide, for example, to spend a month in China on a mission trip.

Indeed, if I were to write a book on "How to Be Content as a Single Christian," a chapter on "Being Useful" would have a privileged spot in the table of contents. I love being useful, whether that means serving in the nursery so parents can worship, sitting on a committee, leading a Bible study group, or something else. Like my mother, I savor the rush of endorphins (and perhaps also pride) that comes from accomplishing some necessary work.

At the same time, being useful is not enough to establish the contentment of an unmarried man or woman. We must know that we are beloved.

Theologically, I know that, as a member of the Church, I am the Bride of Christ. However, that assertion doesn't always assuage loneliness. I've heard many preachers use an illustration that makes much the same point: two parents hear their a child crying in the night, and going into his room, assure their little boy that Jesus is always with him. "I know," the child sobs, "but sometimes you need someone with skin."

My Texas church gave "skin" to Christ's love in many ways.  Having visited several other churches since I moved, however, I am beginning to wonder how many congregations intentionally look for ways to make single adults feel not only useful, but beloved.

You can read through my blog archives to for examples of how a church can make a single woman feel   so loved she can hardly bear the weight of it: celebrating important life events (here and here), asking to hear her story (here), providing small groups for study and support (again, here), teaching her to say good-bye (here). I could list so many more: giving hugs, cultivating friendships, offering dinner invitations.

No matter what practical expression that love takes, churches should fight the assumption that single adulthood is a time to be as useful as possible, and that Jesus will satisfy our need for love until marriage comes. For some us, marriage may never come. If we are to experience human love, oh church, it must come from you, and it must come now.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Advent Decorations, Part 1

Last week I wrote about my decision not to put up my Christmas tree immediately after Thanksgiving (read all about it here), but I wouldn't want anyone to think that I object to decorations per se. Rather, I love having little elements to signal the natural, academic, or Christian seasons of my home. This weekend, in honor of Advent, I did introduce some new elements to my house. First, the Advent wreath, which I used yesterday to welcome the first Sunday of Advent.

While I live here, Advent will be "the season in which I don't use my record player." 

I also brought out my nativity scene, but its arrangement represents my efforts to approach Christmas slowly and thoughtfully.

Can you guess what's missing?
The angel has delivered divine messages to Mary and Joseph, while the shepherd remains occupied with his flock. 
The Magi will spend several more weeks journeying from afar--at the moment they are
in the exotic land of Greek mythology and Arthurian legend. 
That's all for now. The tree will come up soon: probably this Saturday evening in preparation for the second Sunday of Advent. I've never done decorations like this before. Usually I pull all my ornaments and other Christmas things at once, but I am enjoying this experiment. It feels less like swallowing a whole bag of candy at once, and more like savoring a deep, warm cup of cider

How do you decorate for Christmas? Does everything go up at once, or do you bring things out slowly? 

Monday, December 3, 2012

Hoping for Advent

My Texas church welcomed Advent in a beautifully Baptist sort of way: on the first Sunday of Advent we would have a potluck lunch, followed by Advent-wreath making in the fellowship hall. Cutting and arranging juniper branches with friends became a time of hope and reflection even during the most busy doctoral semesters. Sunday morning worship would include a time of lighting and discussing a candle from the church's large wreath, and many years the sermons during Advent would follow the lectionary texts used by our high-church kindred.

Celebrated in this way, Advent slowed the season down for me, encouraged me to study church history, turned my eyes to familiar passages of Scripture, and prepared my heart for Christmas.

The church I've been attending in Alabama has many virtues--hospitality, generosity, concern for the poor, active missions efforts--but overall it shows about as much awareness of church history as a shopping mall. Consequently, I've been pondering how to keep the season without the support of a local congregation.

When some late (but all the more serendipitous) graduation money came to me in the mail last month, I decided that I would buy a beautiful Advent wreath. I found one from Abbey Press, which is housed at the beautiful archabbey of St. Meinrad in southern Indiana. It arrived the week of Thanksgiving, and on Saturday I covered my turntable with a green cloth, placed the wreath there, and filled it with holly from the bush that grows outside my office.

Sunday morning I followed the morning readings from Common Prayer, but I set aside the last hour of my day to welcome the first Sunday of Advent. I made myself a little order of service (which you can read here), turned down the lights, and read through the daily reading from Watch for the Light, then Isaiah 9, then the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins. I asked God to teach me how to keep my lamp trimmed and burning, how to make sure my oil was ready for the Lord's coming.

Finally, I stood before my wreath and sang "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" while I lit the first candle, the candle representing hope. For an instant, I felt terribly alone in my private Advent hour: pitiful, even, with my quavering voice and makeshift liturgy. I missed the friends whose voices have caroled that with me for the last six years.

Strange to say, that loneliness washed over me like a wave, passing quickly and leaving me clean: so clean, swept free from distractions or uncertainties. Advent, I realized, belongs to those "who mourn in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear." I do not mean that I feel in exile in Alabama -- hardly so. However, that salt tang of that sorrow reminded me that my hope as a Christian should answer creation's exile, and that this season should revive my dedication to impossible prayers: prayers that a beloved skeptic would return to the faith, prayers for all the lonely adults in our hyper-individualized culture, prayers for reconciliation among denominations, prayers for revival in North Korea and jubilee in Iran.

I let the candle burn for nearly an hour. With the house lights off, I sat in my favorite chair and watched the candle shine. Its light sang my own words back to me: "Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel...."

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Why I need a fake boyfriend

This really just happened.

As I stepped out my door to head to the University of Mobile's Christmas Spectacular concert, I nearly stumbled over an unexpected crowd at my doorstep. I share my open-air landing with three other apartments, and sometimes my neighbors across the way will sit on the landing or its steps to smoke. The people sitting outside the door tonight were not my neighbors, but were (I think) friends or relatives who had come over to watch the Alabama game. I found a woman in her fifties or sixties, an infant, and two men about my age, both shirtless (in December?!).  I said, "Hello," and this is how the conversation proceeded:

Woman: "Well we were just admiring the flowers you have out here in pots -- and the rocking chair. That makes it all real homey. And you are gorgeous!"

Me: "Oh, thank you. I especially like keeping the rosemary because--"

Woman: [interrupting me] "Are you single?"

Me: "Yes."

Woman: "Well, hey, these are my boys here.  That's Cody--"

Cody: "Hey."

Woman: "--and that's Jessie."

Jessie: "Hey."

Woman: "Baby, you are just gorgeous! What do you do?"

Me: "I'm an English professor down the road at the University of Mobile. Actually, I need to be on my way -- I'm headed to a concert to see some of my students perform."

Woman: "Well stay safe! You really are gorgeous! Bye-bye, baby!"

Cody: "You be safe out there."

Me: "Umm, okay! Nice to meet y'all."

I could still hear them talking as I headed down the three flights of stairs toward my car. Just before I reached the ground floor, I heard the woman say, "Well Cody, why didn't you talk to her?" Cody responded, "I tried, Mama, but she ran off!"

As my Mississippi-mother has often reminded me, people in the deep South are "in your business" to an extent they are not in Indiana or even Texas. As I've discussed before, I don't take offense at questions about whether or not I am single, but  I'm never sure how to answer the question graciously, particularly when the ambitious mama of two shirtless men is the one asking.

When total strangers ask about my love life, am I allowed to lie and say I'm dating or, more securely, that I'm already bound to an arranged marriage? At least then I wouldn't find myself tongue-tied and bashful outside my own door!

Have you ever been in a situation such as this? How do you (or how should I) answer the question, "Are you single?"

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Why I haven't sold my dulcimer

Ten years ago,  my English 101 professor, Dr. L, told our class that instead of our regular classroom, our last class before Thanksgiving would be meet in the Appalachian Center, a beautiful old house on the Carson-Newman College campus. "I'll bring my guitar," Dr. L said, "Billy can bring his djembe, and Bethany will bring her dulcimer. Instead of rushing through another essay, we'll celebrate Thanksgiving with music."

We made a funny ensemble -- one guitarist, one drummer, a damsel with a dulcimer, and a dozen Baptist-college freshmen. We sang hymns, mostly: "Blest Be the Tie that Binds," "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing," "For the Beauty of the Earth," "Amazing Grace," and others. I missed more than a few notes, but in the chorus of voices and drum-beats and guitar-strings, my mistakes didn't ruin the song or lead anyone astray. I remembered all my high-school years in choir, the delight of letting my single voice dwell in a much greater sound than I could produce alone.

Unfortunately, that Thanksgiving sing-along was a unique event. My friends and I did plenty of singing in college--especially on long road trips--but in the years since I have hardly played at all.

I always look back on that first college semester fondly, for it was full of so many things I spent my adolescence praying for: rigorous academics, adventures in the mountains, a group of friends, and, of course, sing-alongs. I do not exaggerate to say that in stepping onto campus at eighteen, I found myself in the sort of place I thought only existed in my daydreams. For a short time, my dulcimer was part of that ponderous and lovely incarnation.

Indeed, for most of the time I have owned my dulcimer, I have felt more guilt than enthusiasm when I think about it. Once every year or two I will buy a new book of music to prod me to practice, but these resolutions haven't lasted long. I like music, and sang in choirs for years, but my other pursuits--writing, knitting, baking--not only bring more immediate gratification, but also come more easily to me.

You might wonder, then, why I haven't simply sold the dulcimer and removed the object of so much guilt. I have enough interesting (even eccentric) hobbies that I don't need the dulcimer to keep me busy or provide a topic for dinner conversation. Even so, I cannot bring myself to give it up. That Thanksgiving sing-along still haunts me with hope--hope that one day my imperfect notes will find a home again within the singing of my friends.

Tonight I tuned my hammered dulcimer for the first time in years. Tomorrow I have a chance to meet with some new friends interested in playing music together, and although I am ashamed at how much I've forgotten, I'm hopeful. I may never be able to play as well as the musician in this video, but tonight, tuning my dulcimer was my of affirming that the world of late-November hymn-sings, the world of discourse-giving-way-music, the world of abandon-the-rushing-for-the beautiful, that this world exists in more than memory.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Exchanging anticlimax for hope

"Anticlimactic."  My fourth-grade teacher used this word to answer a question I posed, with some urgency, when I was ten years old. "What do you call it," I had asked, "when you look forward to something with all your heart, and then it isn't as good as you imagined?"

I asked this question with reference to Christmas. As a child, I would have told you that Christmas was my favorite time of year, but really, I loved everything about Christmas except the actual calendar days deemed "the holiday season." Beginning in July, I would count down the days until December 25, and from the age of six until I was ten or eleven, I recorded multi-hour Christmas "radio" programs on cassette tapes. I pored over children's biographies of Saint Nicholas, read about Christmas customs in foreign lands, and memorized the lyric to every carol I could find. However, the actual observance of Christmas rarely satisfied my hopes for the holiday. I often felt that the Christmas I imagined--a world of starlight and midnight journeys and strange friends--existed in a realm of time that eluded my December 25 countdown. A similar feeling hit me in college, when I realized that I only used the word "home" to designate elsewheres--places I was not.

My Yuletide discontent is hardly unique, but it lies behind the practical decision I decided to share with you all tonight. I have decided, for the first time in my life, not to decorate a Christmas tree.

Oh, it will go up eventually, but I am forestalling my typical Thanksgiving-is-over-let's-have-Christmas customs. Thanksgiving came unusually early this year, so early that the Sunday following is not even the first Sunday in Advent according to the liturgical year. Even if Thanksgiving were later, however, I would be waiting to put up my tree for the sake of experiencing Advent.

For several years I have been trying to understand what Advent means, and how observing it might enrich our celebration of Christmas by curtailing the annual surfeit of trees-lights-films-and-fa-la-la.
No tree yet.

A Baptist born and bred, I first heard of Advent in high school, when I discovered Plough Publishing's semi-annual reader. They published readings from writers throughout Christian history who delved into Advent as a time of expectation and repentance--two essential conditions for joy. (The best of these reading were later published in Plough's wonderful anthology Watch for the Light). It was not until last year, however, that I realized how precious this season of consecrated waiting could be (read those reflections here). I was waiting for job news, waiting to finish my dissertation, waiting to see what vision I might rightfully build for the next season of my life.

This year, I am happy in a wonderful job, finished with my dissertation, and, most days, waiting for nothing more urgent than a letter from a friend. Nevertheless, I am praying for ways to be intentional in my celebration of Advent. Delaying the appearance of my Christmas tree might seem like a small act of defiance, but my hope for this little sacrifice is strong.

I enjoyed the privilege of growing up without Daylight Savings Time (thanks, Indiana), and even after ten years I still despise being jolted from one season to the next with the time changes. I miss the gradual descent of the sun toward the winter solstice, and the slow lengthening of days throughout the spring. In the same way, I do not wish to fling myself from one holiday to another. I still have spiced pork and maple pie from Thanksgiving to enjoy. The pear trees are more intensely vermillion this week than last -- why must I hurry into mass-produced visions of a Currier & Ives December?

And so my window displays no tree -- not yet. I will deck my halls, but slowly, and with care. Next Sunday the Advent wreath will come out, and perhaps I will cut a sprig of holly from the bush outside my office. Then the crèche (but the magi must stay across the room until Epiphany). Then the music: first "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" and "Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus," with triumphant carols waiting just a little longer.

When I watch for Advent in this way, resisting rushed and reckless merriment, Christmas no long disappoints my visions. Rather, attending to Advent reminds me that every day of our terrestrial calendars--including December 25--is part of the universe's long winter, and that all creation still moans, waiting for its full redemption.

Are you from a religious tradition that observes Advent? What, if anything, do you do to make the weeks preceding Christmas a time of repentance and expectation?

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Thankful: An Ordinarily Absurd Thursday

When I walk out of my office on Thursday afternoons, I usually see something like this: 

This photo is actually a smaller-than-usual meeting of the Thursday Club, a group of students and faculty who meet each week to share poetry we have written or discovered.

Thursday Club is, like many things that happen at a small liberal-arts college, unnecessary. Superfluous. Frivolous.  Financially unprofitable.

Some might see meetings such as this as decadent, or, more charitably, as a luxury enjoyed by privileged people who aren't burdened with more important work to do. That "more important work" could be anything from wage earning to evangelism to feeding the hungry. Such an attitude, however, would miss the point of Thursday Club, and of the countless other absurdly beautiful things that happen at a place such as this.

Because of course we are burdened--with deadlines, with family sorrows, with global anxieties. We have work to do--academic, professional, domestic, missional. We have bills and tests, dependents and superiors, vocations and commissions.

And yet, we remind each other that the study of truth, beauty, and goodness is, in the final sense, not decadent at all. Reading a poem in the cool November air and the bright November sun, we learn to believe the consolation the archangel Michael gives Adam when announcing mankind's exile from Paradise. In Book 11 of Milton's Paradise Lost, Michael assures Adam that

"...this pre-eminence [in Eden] thou hast lost, brought down
To dwell on even ground now with thy sons:
Yet doubt not but in valley and in plain
God is, as here, and will be found alike
Present, and of his presence many a sign
Still following thee, still compassing thee round
With goodness and paternal love..."

I am thankful to work and live in a place where, on an ordinary Thursday, my friend Steve reads an ancient poem--the Old English "Dream of the Rood"--while his student Will plays an Anglo-Saxon lyre they built together. It might seem absurd--it might seem a scandal--but it is very good, and I give thanks for it today.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Thankful to be an only child

"Oh, you don't seem like an only child at all!" All my life, people have been saying this to me as though it were a compliment. From this backward praise, I have inferred that only children have a reputation for being spoiled or, as my grandmother would say, "rurnt."

However, being an only child shaped me in undeniable ways; it was not something I had to overcome or defy by some special act of virtue.

Today, therefore, I am giving thanks for growing up as an only child.

I'm their favorite. 

Before I proceed, let me say that I do not mean to suggest that being an only child is superior to having multiple children. My parents had their reasons for stopping after me; perhaps I will invite them to share those reasons here one day. Indeed, I'm not sure how many children I would like to have or adopt one day. I just know that I am thankful for being an only child in the same way I am thankful for having blue eyes, or for having a surname that begins with "B." This is the life God gave me, and I rejoice in it.

I am thankful to be an only child because mother could (and can) hug me tightly and say, "You're my favorite" without feeling any guilt

.....I was able to accompany my parents nearly everywhere: mission trips, collegiate conferences, late-night Bible studies, and more. I can only remember having a babysitter once or twice. Because I was single and well-behaved, I rarely had to be left behind. This also meant that my mother could spend more time ministering to college students. I firmly believe that God called her to be a minister above and beyond calling her to be my mother, but she has often said that with more children she probably would not have been able to be so involved in the lives of college students.

....I learned to seek kinship and concord beyond my biological family. Alone, the nuclear Bear family could not satisfy my abundant desire for playmates and protectors, and so I turned to others to be my aunts, uncles, elder brothers, little sisters, and more. Sometimes I wished for brothers and sisters, but most of my friends who had siblings seemed to spend most of their time fighting. I decided as a child that I would much rather spend time with people who loved one another, whether they were linked by blood or not.

....I have always loved solitude and silence.  I always had at least one or two close school friends, but I spent an extraordinary amount of my first eighteen years alone, or in the company of people much older than I was. I didn't really start hanging out with people my own age until college. While this solitude may have enhanced my native shyness, it also allowed me to become quite content in my own company. I filled my solitary hours with reading, walking, and writing--habits that continue to serve me well. that solitude, I grew brave. Only recently have I begun to think of myself as brave, but much of the courage I have comes from the self-sufficiency I developed as an only child. Especially as a teenager, I really and truly did not care what other people thought about my faith, my clothes, my habits, or my speech. In ninth or tenth grade, I made myself a bag that said, "Wherever the world is headed, head the other way." While this could lead to being a little too contrarian or self-satisfied, for the most part my "onlyness" allowed me to make choices based on principle, rather than peer pressure.

With the exception of being the "favorite," none of these things are exclusive to only children. Many men and women with siblings love solitude, cultivate kinships, and grow brave. However, in my own life, these blessings were undoubtedly the products of being the only child in the house.

Were you an only child? If so, what did you enjoy about that life? If you have siblings, in what ways are you thankful for them?

Monday, November 5, 2012

Thankful: A Single Girl Needs Married Friends

Today, I am thankful for all my married friends.

I am finally at an age where most of my friends are wed. The shift came a year or two ago, when I realized that in a group of ten friends from church, I might be the only person unmarried. Now that I am in a job where most of my colleagues are married, it is even more clear that my minority position is most likely permanent.

My most recently-married friends. I wrote about their wedding here.

You might think that it has become more difficult to remain content as a single woman among so many married peers, but that hasn't been my experience. As an only child (in a world of siblings), an introvert (in a world of extroverts), and a general nonconformist, I've never really minded being the odd one out. Even more importantly, my married friends are all admirable, adorable, amazing people, and they use their marriages to bless everyone around them, including me. Consequently, the grace I am celebrating today includes all my married friends.

Here are some of the wonderful things they do....

1. They provide resources I don't have.

One of the most frightening things about being single (or, let's be honest: being an adult) is facing difficulties without help. Investigating creepy sounds from downstairs. Dealing with the steam pouring from the engine. Packing for a job interview when I am too sick to sit up. Married couples, simply by being two instead of one, often have twice as many practical resources to share. For example, my friend and neighbor Stephanie would send her husband (and also my friend) Jon to walk through my apartment for me when I was worried about mysterious sounds. This may seem like a little thing, but it had the power to make the world seem far less frightening.

Some of my favorite married people.  Jenn was with us but didn't make it into the picture. (Picture stolen from Stephanie Harris Trevor's Facebook page.

2. They keep me from idealizing marriage. 

My mother often says, "Being single is hard. Being married is hard. They're just hard in different ways." My temperament is more optimistic than my mother's, but I am thankful that my married friends do not hide the fact that marriage--like every good labor--has its difficult days. Recognizing that husbands and wives must practice patience, silence, humility, and submission in ways I can hardly fathom keeps me from pitying the burden of my own state.

3. They keep me from denigrating singleness. 

I have heard some single people complain about their married friends nagging them to date, or no longer hanging out with them.  Thankfully, my married friends do none of those things. In fact, some of the greatest affirmation I have had as a single woman have come from married men and women. They remind me that my state frees me to travel, study, explore, and serve in ways they cannot. I have often roused myself from discontent by saying, "If Julianna thinks my life is beautiful and full, who am I to scorn my own riches?"

4. They have children. 

Children only became interesting to me as my own friends began to bear and adopt them. As a child and teen, I was never particularly interested in younger children. For the last ten years or so, however, children have become marvelous to me. The fact that we can bring new people into the world still strikes me as a deep mystery, and I am thankful to witness this mystery in the lives of my friends. As I near thirty and begin to wonder if I will ever have children of my own, I am thankful for friends who allow me to love their children as a kind of unofficial aunt. I am thankful for little boys for whom I can make castles, little girls who want to play with the little cats I knit, and whole crops of babies to outfit in sweaters.

5. They provide a safe place for mixed-gender friendships. 

If I were to name my closest, share-my-deepest-secrets-wth sorts of friends, the list would be pretty equally divided between men and women. However, maintaining friendships between men and women is much more difficult at 28 than it was at 12, or even than it was at 20. While observers are likely to assume romantic interest in any male-female friendships, those assumptions are much more dangerous than they once were. If someone thought Mark and I were flirting in college, I could simply laugh it off. However, now that Mark is married, I am much more sensitive to how our friendship could look to outsiders. I would hesitate to spend large amounts of time with Mark alone -- not because I don't trust him, or myself--but because it might mislead others. Happily, Mark's wife, Moriah, has become a dear friend in her own right, and their marriage has allowed to me to stay friends with Mark by becoming friends with them both.  As I have discussed elsewhere, I'm not very interested in women-only-events, and I would mourn the loss of my close male friends.

6. They bring me into families. 

Whatever virtues a single life might have (and there are many), it can too easily lack any sense of belonging. Eating alone is nothing like being a part of a family, but then again, exchanging tepid courtesies and fleeting handshakes on Sunday morning isn't much better (in fact, I consider it far worse than honest solitude). However, over the years my married friends have been tenacious and creative in their willingness to invite me into their lives. They have used Skype, meals, guest rooms and houses to make a place for me. They didn't make me demand or beg entry; they invited and celebrated my coming.  These were not casual arrangements, not acts of pity, but decisions made from love. In these actions, my friends showed that they were committed to me--not in the same way they were committed to one another, but with bonds of Christian love that are real and lasting.

With Grant and Jenn at my graduation. May 2012

I've not done my friends justice with this post, but then gratitude, not justice, was my aim.  We all need to people in different stages and seasons of life to temper and challenge us. If I ever do marry, these friends will be my mentors and guides. Until then, or if I never marry, they will remain friends who baffle, humble, and delight me with their oh-so-different, oh-so-common lives.

If you are single, what do your married friends do that make you grateful? If you are married, how are you grateful for your single friends? 

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Thankful: Farmers' Markets

Today I am thankful for Famers' Markets and other small businesses. "Small is beautiful," said my favorite economist, and I attempt to live out this principle by searching for small markets and community businesses.  The closer I can be to the farmer, builder, or otherwise creator of the goods I need, the happier I am. I want the learn about heritage breeds of pigs from the farmer who sells me sausage. I want to the lady selling fruit trees to invite us out to her home to see the other trees. I want to reward people who work with dirt and bees and boats and animals all week, then rise early on a Saturday so that I can set a splendid table.

In Texas, the Waco Downtown Farmers Market not only provided me with in-season produce, fresh eggs, local cheese, and humanely-raised meats, but also served as a small festival at the end of many brutal academic weeks. I would see friends from church, or from Foxfire Fridays, or from school. I was so thankful for the clean, wholesome vigor of those markets. They reminded me to pray that my own life would be abundant and rich.

Today was only my second visit to the Mobile downtown market, but it has already rekindled my flagging interest in cooking well and wisely. Even better, it is becoming a place to talk, rest, watch, and listen with friends. Sadly, the market here doesn't run all year, as it does in Waco (come on, Mobile!), but I will gladly attend every Saturday I can. Today I gave thanks for the humor and generosity of the man pictured above, who sold me a bag of "apple persimmons," then spent five minutes explaining how and when to enjoy them. Farmers' Markets remind me that the world is full of honest people like him, and that is reason for thanks indeed.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Thankful: Indiana

Today I am thankful for Indiana. I didn't think much about it for the eighteen years I spent growing up there, but it was (and is) a Good Place: a place with trees, public libraries, farm festivals, gentle hills, red leaves in autumn. Returning to Indiana reminds me that home is not always a place that matches our abstract principles about what-makes-a-good-place-to-live, but is often rooted on something far more concrete and simple: it is a place that allows a wandering daughter to rest in things she could love even before wit and memory gave them names.

What are you thankful for today?

Thursday, November 1, 2012


Last year, I vowed that I would blog each day about gratitude (read the introduction here). I didn't manage many entries, not because I wasn't thankful, but because after scores of job applications and hundreds of dissertation pages, I had few words left. 

I'd like to try again this year. Each day I will post a paragraph, picture, or both that inspires my thanks. I would be so happy if you would join me by naming grace in the comments below. 

Today, I am grateful for things that grow: seeds in community gardens, chrysanthemums by the front door, bread dough, little girls, little boys, friendships, essays, willow trees, students, trust, Narnian lampposts, and laughter. 

Photo by Grace Schuler

What are you grateful for today?

Saturday, October 27, 2012

How to travel back in time

1. Consider the reasons for your pilgrimage. 

Some of the earliest games I remember playing involved going back in time. In first and second grade, I would arrange my dolls and myself into "Victorian" family photos. A little later, my friend Elissa and I undertook countless treks across the yard as 19th-century pioneers. In fifth grade, I tried to build a time machine to take me to the 1940s.

As a teenager and adult, I have loved history for its exotic ways and values, but most of all because in history I find so many alternatives to the hurried, harried, heretical ways many people live their lives in the twenty-first century. I know that no time in history is without fault, but I treasure history as the source of meaningful traditions -- that is, creatively sustained ways of thinking, loving, doing, eating, building, and living.

More recently, I have continued to study history for the sake of empathy. If can feel the life of a woman from 1384--however briefly--I am better prepared to understand and love my neighbor in 2012.

2.  Assemble an outfit. You'll do better in the days of yore if you look more or less like you belong there. Do you research, but remember that you just might have everything you need for a 600-year-old ensemble waiting in your own drawers and cupboards. 

Here I am in my homemade medieval dress or "kirtle." The kirtle itself is fairly authentic in its construction, though the material and accessories are not. However, I only spent $5 on this outfit -- the price of the shoes I found at Goodwill to complete the outfit.

3. Take a road to its utter end. If possible, take several roads until you can take them no further.  

When I was very small, too young to go beyond the sidewalk of our city block by myself, I would sit on the street corners and strain my eyes, wondering where South 9th Street or Grant Avenue ended. I was convinced that wonderful things must happen when roads End. Last Saturday, I took I-65 south to Exit 0, then drove further south on Alabama 293 until it ended, and finally, I drove on Dauphin Island's Bienville Blvd until I reached the end not only of the road, but of the island itself.

The end of the road.

4. Travel in good company. Find friends who know they way back, or who are willing to explore with you. 

5. Savor all that is obsolete, strange, and lost. 

I spent this weekend camping at an event called Gatalop, sponsored by the local chapter of the Society for Creative Anachronism. We spent the weekend at Ft. Gaines on Dauphin Island, Alabama. Amid the tournaments, meals, music, revelry, and markets, I spent most of my time trying to see, smell, hear, and feel as a medieval woman might.

I attended to the creak and slap of wooden shutters in the wind; to the crisp snap of canvas tent flaps; to the sound of drums in the night; to the sight of a piper standing atop the fortified walls; to the  warm shadows of firelight as I drifted to sleep; to the snug tension of a rope bed; to the precious weight of wool on a cold day.

6. Bring the past back with you. 

On an ordinary day, I might lead one group of students through a 14th-century text, discuss a 3000-year-old epic with another, then come home to knead bread according to a nineteenth-century recipe and knit a sweater from a 1940s pattern. It is difficult to feel lonely when so much history comes to rest in my small rooms.

Do you ever travel back in time through books, movies, music, or perhaps even reenacting? What sort of presence does the past have in your daily life? 

Friday, October 26, 2012

A letter to one I wronged

Dear M.V.,

I never wanted to be your friend. During lunch hour in the schoolyard, I would notice you following me from a distance, waiting for a break in the circle I had formed with Ashley, Audrina, and Kirsten. Eventually you would stand just next to me, and we let you in kindly enough, shifting our conversation from girlhood gossip to the small-talk of sixth grade: Mr. B's homework, the opacity of pre-algebra, the agony of mandatory orange gym shirts. I knew, proper little Christian that I was, that I must be nice to you, talk to you, but in the evenings I would complain to my mother, "We can't talk about anything important while she's there! You can't just make someone be your friend!" I was more than content with a very small number of people I deemed worthy of friendship.  I still ranked these friends, with all the seriousness of childhood, into degrees and ranks. Only the year before, Elissa and I had, after two years of being "second-best friends," promoted one another to the status of "best friend." By sidling up to me day after day, you violated my rigid laws of affection and loyalty.

But Elissa was in China with her family that year, and I might have cast aside my petty rules if I had liked you. But I didn't like you. I didn't like you because you made me sad.

I was odd and awkward in my own ways at 12 years old, but I was clever enough and pretty enough to be liked in spite of my eccentricity. You wore sweat pants to school each day, you smelled strange, and your conversation moved in timid, fluttering circles. I remember you telling me again and again about your brother, and how you were going to give him new pajama pants for Christmas because he always had holes in the seat of his.  Your brother, I knew, was nearly 20, and for some reason the state of his pajamas struck me as a sign of sickness or dysfunction. I worried about your home--a home where no one was making sure people dressed properly, or washed regularly or taught you about things like bras and deodorant and schoolwork.

I remember a day when, in our English class, we picked texts for our book reports. I knew you loved the Little House on the Prairie, but someone claimed that book before you could. When it was your turn to choose, you sat blankly, biting your lip. I felt sick and cried for you as I walked home, but I never told you how sorry I was.
Your isolation hurt me, but I always kept a distance, never allowing kindness to grow into something that would connect me to your slattern life. Instead, I channeled my anxiety into trying to fix you.  What you needed, my friends and I decided, was Help. When you would join our circle, we would begin discussing, for example, how many times a week we washed our hair--never asking you directly, but hoping that you might think, "Ah! So one must wash the hair! How foolish of me to neglect this!"

When these subtle methods proved ineffectual, I addressed the problem more directly. I wrote you a note, as kindly (I thought) as possible, detailing a few of things you could to improve yourself.
The anger of your response shocked me. You wrote a note on grubby paper and addressed me throughout as "MISS BEAR," as though capital letters and formal language could assert your insulted dignity. You told me to mind my own business and to leave you alone.

I was wickedly relieved. I felt I had done my duty and, based on your response, I guessed that I would no longer have to make room for you in time, attention, or conversation.
This relief did not last long, and that was my own fault. Around seventh grade, I began praying that God would teach me what love meant. I felt myself growing sarcastic and self-satisfied; I began to worry that I "had not love," and I was right. God answered this prayer, as he often answers dangerous prayers, with tears. Soon my prim desire to improve those less fortunate gave way to something far more frightening and beautiful.

Unfortunately, by the time this transformation moved from my heart to my hands--about the time I entered high school-- you had vanished. Did you move? Drop out? Not even Facebook can tell me.
For years I have carried your face in my mind--your school picture from that sixth-grade year. You were wearing a new sweatshirt, one with the Lion King on the front, and you were smiling--a strange, confident smile I never saw on your everyday face.

Every autumn, when I remember Indiana and grade school, that image moves slowly forward, just as timidly and hopefully as you once walked up to me. And whenever it does, I say, "I am so sorry."
I am so sorry, M.V., for seeing you as a project instead of a person. I am sorry for offering superficial kindness instead of love. I am sorry for avoiding you at lunch, for never trusting you with one of my silly schoolgirl secrets. I am sorry for never asking why you loved Little House on the Prairie, for not inviting you to come to my house after school.
I am so sorry. Will you please forgive me?


Friday, October 19, 2012

A letter to all those who told me to "toughen up"

Dear Sirs and Madams,

I know you meant well. I recognize that many of you probably felt a moral obligation to prepare me for the harsh "real worlds" beyond your care: first grade, college, academia, interstate traffic. Moreover, I realize that my tenderness must have seemed tiresome to you. A kindergartener must stop crying under the table if she is to learn her alphabet, and trembling does make steering a car rather difficult.

From the vantage of adulthood, I understand why you made the refrain of my childhood, adolescence, and even grad school, "Bethany really needs to toughen up." However, I am writing to object, on record, to the terms of your admonitions.

When I cried over a B+ in 9th grade biology, hearing my teacher mutter, "Some people need to suck it up" really didn't help. My classmates showed much more compassion and wisdom in the notes they passed, reminding me that I had no reason to be ashamed of the grade, and that I could bring my average up with just a little extra work.

When anxiety followed me to every driving lesson, asking, "How many times do you have to make the same mistake before you learn from it?" was poor pedagogy on your part. I survived your bullying and gained my license, but not until my gentle college friends taught me to love mountain roads did I begin to drive without tears and terrors.

I could tell more tales, but I think you can see the theme.

I was so ashamed by your constant call to toughen up. I collected your comments as evidence that I was simply not meant to live in this world, and as early as first grade I began to daydream about a special box that would allow me to go to school without having to speak to anyone. (Anti-social tendencies aside, it was a pretty cool, almost TARDIS-like box. It had a periscope and a magic door that led to my own private garden world). As a teenager, these fantasies had evolved into visions of a hermitage I would build on the side of a remote mountain, far away from the world with its frightening roads and people.

Lacking the resources to build a magic box or a hermitage, my attempts at toughness involved shutting down. I would leave the room when a movie made my parents cry, I avoided praying aloud at meals, and I rarely spoke at school, knowing that whenever I did, it would be clear to all that I was "sheltered" and not capable of withstanding the world's rough winds.

However, I could not sustain such coldness for long, and by the time I graduated from high school, my resignation had grown into something like defiance. I began to ask myself, "What things in this world are 'tough'?" Stale bread. Overcooked meat. Callouses. Stones. Steel. I couldn't come up with a single thing known for "toughness" that I wanted to be anything like. This realization was important. It replaced shame with a kind of contentment. At the same time, I still believed that my meekness was vulnerability, and that while it might be superior in a spiritual sense, it was a disadvantage for living in the world. Withdrawal and seclusion still seemed like the best option.

Happily, other voices soon drowned out your misguided advice. Mark taught me to look people in the eye. Rachel convinced me to join her in a weight-training class. Keith gave calm advice about driving. Mary encouraged me to speak up in class. Perhaps the most precious words came from Lennon, who has known me since sixth grade, and who lived with my family for a season during high school. "You look so fragile, we all worry you might break," he said to me a few years ago, "but you're so much stronger than anybody--including you--realizes." He could say this because he knew something you never seemed to understand--that while thick skin gives the illusion of security, there is a far more lasting strength in faith, and faith often looks like a broken heart.

I confess that some days I agree more with you than with Lennon--especially on the nights when I am overcome by the sheer weight of so much feeling--so much joy, sorrow, confusion, possibility, anxiety, and hope in the lives of the people around me. But then I think of my brilliant, brave friends. Not a single one of them has ever said, "I love how inflexible you are," or "You're really being too compassionate," or "It's nerdy of you to care so much." I think of the words that guide my life. Nowhere does the good book say, "They shall know you by your toughness," or "Verily, I say unto you, feel not, for your God is a God of stone."

Why didn't you urge me to be of good cheer, or to be supple and strong? Why didn't you tell me that "courage" literally means what comes from the heart? Why was it always about "toughness"?

The tough may get ahead, beat the crowd, and gain a prize or two, but they're not the ones who inherit the earth.



Even when I try to look tough, I can't really pull it off.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Flight to the Wedding Feast

Costa Rica, October 13, 2012 Photo by Larissa Smith 

I've been to at least 100 weddings in my 28 years. When I was a three-year-old flower girl, I was very excited about my basket of flowers, but I was not happy about all the people looking at me, and a bridesmaid had to carry me down the aisle. As an older child, I was most excited about eating cake and throwing rice.

As a teenager, all the weddings I attended were for college students I loved and admired. I celebrated these weddings with awe. I knew that in those solemn hours I was witnessing the culmination of countless cautious flirtations, late-night conversations, hard questions, daring adventures, and growing trust. I was curious but shy about the joy of these events. Once, when I refused to come up for the bouquet toss, pleading shyness, the bride commanded the groom to literally carry me from my chair to the dance floor. Their joy in that day was so great that they would suffer no excuses from bashful guests.

More recently, I have reveled in the weddings of many dear friends. Each and every one has had beautiful moments: praying with Mark before he took his place at the altar to await his bride; listening to Lindsay sing for her new husband's mother-son dance; watching Martin and Mary shine like a king and queen during their wedding mass.

The Bible says that one of the purposes of marriage is to give us a glimpse of the relationship between Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5.31-32), and Jesus uses images of wedding feasts again and again in his parables about the Kingdom of God.

Last week I flew to Costa Rica for the wedding of some of my dearest friends, and ever since, I've been thinking about what my five-score weddings have taught me about the way the world should be. I spent most of yesterday's Sabbath flying back to the US, and as I travelled, I used these pictures to pray for the world's redemption.

Costa Rica, October 12, 2012 

The Costa Rica wedding is still too recent for me to write about it in full -- it is too dear, too precious to become public just yet. But I will say that it has given me even better pictures of the way this world can and will be changed by love:

...And then the bride and her bridegroom will make a home for those they love in a strange and beautiful land. They will give them rooms that perch on the hillsides, with windows that look to the ocean. Together--bride and groom and guests--they will venture into the mountains, will feel the heat of volcanoes, will fly from tree to tree. They will feast for days, and when the wedding night comes, even those who are shy and sore and heavy-hearted will dance. They will send lanterns into the night sky like fledgling stars. Save your coins for this, save your days and lift up your heart. Make your best dress ready and find shoes for climbing. Don't miss your flight to the wedding feast. 

Costa Rica, October 13, 2012 Photo by Larissa Smith

Monday, October 8, 2012

Being Here

I had just finished grading an essay when my friend Dr. M. appeared at my door. "Dr. Bear, do you know what you're doing this afternoon?"

Depending on the day, the appropriate answer to this question might be, "studying Kant for Faculty Reading Club" or "figuring midterm grades" or "reading poetry outside with Thursday Club." This particular Friday, however, I knew Dr. M. expected a different answer.

"I'm going kayaking," I smiled. Dr. M. had promised (or warned) me some weeks earlier than one day he would bring his kayak to campus and set me adrift along one of the inlets of the Chickasabogue that runs through our 700+ acre campus. I wasn't sure if this was some sort of new faculty rite of passage, or simply one more example of the kind of hale whimsy that seems so common here. He showed me the path down to the creek and told me to have fun. I was to make my journey, then bring the kayak back to the trail for him to retrieve that evening.

I savored the first half hour of my trip, soaking up more silence than I've known in months. I tried to name and notice: water like melted amber, sunlight warm but not heavy.

As I floated steadily forward, I began to worry about the current that had brought me so gently into this silence. Sure enough, as soon as I turned around I realized that I was going to have to fight my way back. I felt like Odysseus -- either I would ricochet from bank to bank, or I would get caught in eddies that turned me in relentless circles. It seemed to take me ages to progress even a few yards. To move past a particularly swift section of water, I had to use the overhanging trees to pull the kayak forward, bit by bit.

It had been a very, very long time since I had done anything so purely physical. I exercise nearly every day, but I rarely push myself hard enough to roar in frustration, as I did several times during my voyage on the Chickasabogue. Soon the kayak and I were covered in pine needles, bark, and wet sand. I willed all my strength into my arms, concentrating only on the hope of forward motion.

After half an hour of agonizingly slow progress, the current slackened, and soon I heard Dr. A (another friend and colleague) shouting, "I found her!" A few more stern strokes and I was around the final bend. Dr. A, her daughter, and two of Dr. M's students were playing in the shallows.

Exhausted but strangely happy after my battle, I was no longer thinking about all the reading I needed to do that evening, nor the papers I still needed to grade. Instead of hurrying home, I lingered on the bank for a while. Dr. A's daughter jumped like a bird from sand to water, water to sand, while the students swam to the opposite bank and brought back black-eyed susans for us to put in our hair. Dr. A says that when the black-eyed susans bloom, you know the summer heat has finally broken.   As the sun was sinking below the trees, I finally took the trail back up toward my office. I went home, took a shower, and then fell asleep for twelve hours.

When I woke the next morning, my first instinct was to make a parable of the whole thing: an illustration for the virtues of persistence, or nonconformity, or eating oatmeal. The adventure had been both beautiful and maddening; I was determined to make it useful, as well.

Nothing I came up with seemed quite right, and consequently, I didn't write about my experience on Saturday, as I had originally planned. "What am I supposed to do with my adventure?" I kept asking myself.

Not until Sunday did I realize that I don't need to "do" anything with my odyssey up the Chickasabogue. While there was nothing very restful about paddling upstream, there was something deeply restful in the way that journey demanded my utter and complete presence. For the past decade, I have intentionally been trying to learn to be present in conversations, locations, work, moments, but I'm still terrible at it: I put away dishes during the 30-second breaks in my weight-training routine; I make grocery lists during sermons; I drift during phone conversations; I knit during dates. Without constant effort, my mind turns to plans, deadlines, and projects which, however good in themselves, remove me from what I am supposedly experiencing.

When I meditate on the Sabbath, it seems that an important aspect of resting is presence--being fully here, without regard for the future, with attention undivided on the good things of the day. As I continue to learn to keep the Sabbath holy, I  treasure experiences that teach me to be joyfully, impossibly, irreducibly present. The list of such experiences is short but rich: Christmas, face-to-face conversations, teaching. And, apparently, kayaking upstream.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Silent Prayer (A Sonnet)

They tell us that the spirit prays

with groans more rich than words,

while tongues of fire, dove-winged birds

could shatter heaven any day,

and we are quickened by that grace,

and strive to trace the inward

wind that shatters chaos into chords

and sculpts earth’s dust into a face.

Yet you still wait in stony care—

no morning breaks upon your eyes;

you guard a grave, no peace atones

for all the nights you have watched here:

waiting for the dead to rise

to the shouts of interceding stone.
If you'd like to see the picture that inspired this poem, click here.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

A Fruitful Home

Creativity begins at home.

Lately I've been reading a book called Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture. The author, Shannon Hayes, provides compelling arguments and case studies that present homemaking as a subversive, liberating, beautiful way to oppose much of what ails the industrial (or post-industrial) world.

Many of Hayes's arguments are similar to those put forward by Doris Janzen Longacre in Living More With Less, a life-shaping book I blogged about last summer (read that entry here). Unlike Longacre, Hayes does not write from a theological perspective, and at times her arguments seem to suffer from a kind of domestic-feminist utopianism.  Nevertheless, I am enjoying Radical Homemakers, and I find many of its ideas inspiring.

For example, Hayes argues throughout the book that we should think of our homes primarily as centers of production rather than as units of consumption. She articulates something I have stumbled around in many of my meditations on home: that home is a place where we have resources and make the things we need in community with others (here is one version of that meditation). She indicts economic rubrics that measure the wealth of a home in terms of how much it can or does buy per year, rather than its more complex resources, such as time and relationships.

One of the exciting things about this season of life is that I know I am laying down the habits and ideals that will guide the rest of my adult life. I pray for a robust vision of how that life can flourish.  Thus, I have been thinking and praying about ways my home can be a center of production and not merely a unit of consumption.

Furthermore, I hope that anything I produce in my home would have both material and spiritual value.

What does my home currently produce? 

bread/shared meals 
clothing/ security and comfort
yarn/warmth and hope
letters/friendship and wisdom 
naps/rest and havenhood 

Almost all of my dreams for the future involve deepening the ways in which my home is productive, bearing fruit in many ways.  One day, I hope my home will cultivate

fairy tales  
hospitality to international students
communal prayer 

In Texas I had friends with similar visions, and we worked together to produce all kinds of things in our homes: gardens, hummus, looms, sing-a-longs, Thanksgiving dinners, and much more. Here, too, I have friends who demonstrate what it means to tend a fruitful home. For example, each month my friend and fellow professor Steve hosts, along with his wife Grace, a "fun day" for students and faculty.  This past Saturday was typical: we enjoyed a long and rich breakfast of homemade waffles (with real maple syrup!), fresh fruit, tea, and coffee. We talked, laughed, held children on our laps, told stories. One student mentioned that he would like to memorize some Old English poetry and recite it at a local art walk. Conversation soon turned to the Anglo-Saxon lyres that were used to accompany such poetry, and within minutes everyone was gathered around Steve's work bench, plotting musical instruments and receiving an impromptu lesson in woodworking.

I pray that my home will be such a place --not that I can offer lessons in lyre-making or spoon-carving, but that my home will be a place where ideas take shape in wood or wool, a place where we loath wastefulness because we made, picked, cooked with our own hands.

I pray that my home will be a place where people can be free from systems they do not trust--systems that measure success in dollars, systems that exploit labor for the sake of profit, systems that mass-produce mediocrity, systems that encourage obsolescence and gluttony.

This prayer begins with the 600-square feet I physically inhabit, but it does not end here. I want all my homes--Apartment 218, the University of Mobile, Alabama, my church, my friendships, my family--to be fruitful and free. I can't help but smile to think of it. I'm still so young, with so many ideas, and so much wealth to plant and invest in lasting things, things that will grow.

"But we urge you, brothers, to [love one another] more and more, and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one."
(1 Thessalonians 4:10-12 ESV)

Do you agree that the home should be considered a site for production rather than a unit of consumption? What are some things you produce in your home? What would you like to begin producing? 

Monday, October 1, 2012

In Defense of Millennials

They are "digital natives," sending thousands of text messages each month. They don't value marriage highly. They are postponing the responsibilities of adulthood. They are narcissistic.

Who are "they"? If you were in worship with me yesterday, you would know the answer is "Millennials" or members of "Generation Y" -- the rising generation of men and women from the ages of 12-32.

Yesterday, the church I have been visiting took a break from our recent study of Colossians for a special presentation on the need to reach Millennials with the Gospel.

I have done little more than skim the abundant research on Generation Y (this article from The Atlantic provides a nice survey), but, being the narcissistic Millennial that I am, I am always interested to see how the established generations perceive those of us who are just reaching the threshold of our thirties.

The presentation was rather doom-and-gloom, featuring the typical sound bytes about my generation's dissociation from institutional religion, our ridiculously inflated sense of self-esteem, and our skepticism about marriage.

I'm not denying that those are some of the excesses and faults of my generation. I can only speak anecdotally, but I have railed against many of these traits in my own students, who are (at the youngest) still within ten years of my own age. For example, when they say in the same breath, "Yes, there are absolute truths," and "Opinions can't be wrong,"  I am tempted to bemoan the future of a world entrusted to such cheerful and unthinking relativists.

Nevertheless, yesterday's presentation dismayed me because it only presented aspects of my generation that seem to pose a threat to the spread of the Gospel.  After church I spoke at length about this topic with my mother, who has spent the past thirty years laboring to proclaim the Gospel and to build God's Kingdom among college students. She pointed out that while many Millennials are uninvolved in church, they are also more open to the idea of a spiritual life than many of the hard-line materialists of the previous generations. Similarly, while it is true that many young adults are moving home or moving from job to job, it is also true that we, unlike our parents, do not define our success primarily by our monetary wealth.

This conversation with my mother emphasized a point that yesterday's speaker only mentioned at the end of his talk, namely, that if churches want to reach Millennials, they cannot do it by demanding that Millennials learn the "cultural norms" of church-going Gen Xers, Baby Boomers, and elders. Instead, he said, we must offer them the norms of the Gospel.

There is so much hope and power in that statement. Instead of creating a false sense of urgency about Millennials "postponing adult responsibilities," I wish he would have focused his presentation on the differences between the norms of, for example, the Baby Boomers, and the norms of the Gospel.

We want a better vision of adulthood than the mirage that lures so many men and women into lonely marriages, fruitless careers, and destructive communities. To ease my discontent with this Sunday's presentation, I tried to imagine what it such a sermon would have sounded like at Calvary, my church home in Texas. Imagination soon turned to memory: in January of this year I heard another sermon about young adults, but one with so much more precision and hope. If you'd like to listen, visit this link and listen to Jonathan Tran's sermon from 1/22/12. To hear the sermon, jump to minute 37:50).

Please don't misunderstand me: my generation needs the Gospel just as urgently as every generation since Adam and Eve stumbled out of Eden. We need good news and discipleship and communion. However, before you rail against us, make sure that it is the Gospel you are living, and not simply the norms of your own generation.

What are the differences between inviting people into "the norms of our [older] generations" and "the norms of the Gospel"? How can churches reach Generation Y?