Monday, December 23, 2013

A Hope Carol


 
 
 A night was near, a day was near;
  Between a day and night
I heard sweet voices calling clear,
    Calling me:
I heard a whirr of wing on wing,
  But could not see the sight;
I long to see my birds that sing,—
    I long to see.

In "A Hope Carol," Christina Rossetti sings the twilight hopes of Advent. The speaker finds herself in half-light, where ordinary time no longer makes sense: day and night approach at once. The voices she hears--winged voices, heralding joy--are "clear" but invisible. 

I can think of no more fitting poem for the final hours of Advent. We have heard from Scriptures, carols, prophecies, and traditions that joy has come, comes now, and will come again, but what we see so often argues against our hopes. We hear, but we long to see.


Below the stars, beyond the moon,
  Between the night and day,
I heard a rising falling tune
    Calling me:
I long to see the pipes and strings
  Whereon such minstrels play;
I long to see each face that sings,—
    I long to see. 
 
"Below the stars, beyond the moon" -- now space cavorts and shifts, making room for something that sounds like a fairy tale, or a gospel. The "rising fall tune" is sanguine but not naive, mournful but not despairing. And it calls. It calls us not to some generalized goodwill, but to a desire for intimate and particular love: we long to see "each face that sings."


To-day or may be not to-day,
  To-night or not to-night;
All voices that command or pray,
    Calling me,
Shall kindle in my soul such fire,
  And in my eyes such light,
That I shall see that heart’s desire
    I long to see.
 
At Advent, when my longing for a cozy vacation seems at odds with my desire for revelation, when I know that I long for Christ but can't imagine what his coming will actually mean, I take comfort in Rossetti's ability to set hope in resonance with uncertainty. But no, not uncertainty: with space, waiting, humility, silence?  She does not doubt that vision will come; she does not doubt that she will see, but she cannot name "that heart's desire." She concludes with her refrain, "I long to see" -- the same refrain we have heard from Simeon, from Anna, and from a thousand other mighty and minor prophets. 

Some days I boast precise visions of how the Incarnation ought to change the world. I grasp hold of programs, doctrines, or theories that seem to fit with my interpretation of Christ's words and ministry. These programs can be good, for they are, like church-buildings, man-made places to work for the glory of God. Such structures can be beautiful, effective, and holy.  In these last hours of Advent, I am spending time with my sister Rossetti. She has become one of the the "voices that command or pray, / Calling me." 

She calls me to step out into the cold twilight, to walk toward a place "Below the stars, beyond the moon," and to watch for the light.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

If you are weary

"Can I come?"

We asked my friends, her parents, and they nodded: twenty minutes until supper, and the sun slipping down toward a hundred bays and bayous.

Out the door, across the road, under a quarter moon. "There's Venus," she said, pointing above the pines. My little hound leaped toward the bright planet, straining at the leash.

"Let's run!" and off we romped, careening across the field, toward the tree line, then back again, to the edge of the creek, running faster even as the light faded.

"Hello!" she called up the loving planet, as though inviting the wandering star to run with us. We circled and ran and galloped until we tumbled to the grass, even the puppy panting to stop.

"It is good to sit on the grass and look upon the moon," she said. "It's good," I said.

"Teach me something," I said, and so she told me about the planets (how one is tilted, how early observers thought this one was a comet), and about the moon that changes with such constancy.

Before going inside, we took one more run, round the trees in a crazy orbit, and then I took her home.

If you are weary, go run with a six-year-old who has braids down her back and stars in her eyes. Go, take the hound and leave the work and romp under the waxing moon. Laugh in the cold air until your lungs hurt. Then take the child home, promise to come back with a new story to read, and turn toward your own house.

Remember, as you walk, that this this is advent, season of hope, and of peace, and of waiting. Ponder what it means to wait, and wonder what it is your heart hopes to see.  Look up. Find that planet "kindling love in man," and smile to see she's running home with you.


Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Learning to abound

"...I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me..."
During my first three decades, I learned many ways to thrive with a little. Under the tutelage of my mother, I began to make due and mend at an early age, so that I can now feed twenty people for twenty dollars, repair the holes in my socks, and perform many other acts of lowly-wise economy. Even more importantly, my parents' financial poverty taught me to live comfortably with the presence of need. Fiercely, they would say to me, "If you don't know how to accept charity, you don't know how to accept love." We received a lot of charity -- canned goods, hand-me-down clothes, even cars. I was never embarrassed to receive such gifts; rather, I loved the stories that came with them (read about a few of my favorites here). Indeed, I would have described our life as rich, full, sustaining, and comfortable.

Nevertheless, these lessons in paucity served me well during my twenties, when I lived in pocket-sized apartments and worked upwards of sixty hours each week, when I doubted--constantly--my fitness to be among the wise and brilliant people I found at Baylor. Graduate school made me hungry and brought me lower than I had ever been before, yet the friendships I formed, the skills I honed, and the love I experienced surpassed anything I had known before.

For the last two years, however, the theme has shifted from need to abundance, from hunger to satiety. The changes during these two years have brought  joy, but will I seem ungrateful if I confess that they have also bewildered me? What is the secret to abounding? It is so easy to use wealth poorly, to hoard and exploit and waste. The sickening slip of Thanksgiving Day into Black Friday is only the most timely example of abundance giving way to glut.

Show me, O Lord, and show me, O Church, a better way. 

Do you ever find that God answers prayers before you think to pray them? As I pondered this entry on abundance, I realized that the best lesson I've received on abundance came one week ago, on my thirtieth birthday.

In the weeks leading up to my birthday, I rather facetiously mentioned to Kala, housemate, that as I was turning thirty, I should demand that people bring me thirty gifts. I had forgotten about this request as she and I prepared for our party -- a double celebration, since Kala's birthday also falls on November 20. We decided to ask our guests to put on fancy dresses and suits and come ready to read scenes from Shakespeare. As our house began to fill with friends in all their finery, I realized that Kala had taken my silly suggestion and turned into something beautiful. Thirty cookies from Rebekah and Gary, and another thirty from Bethany D. Amanda and Anna gave each of us lovely mugs--and mine also came with thirty tea bags.  I laughed over these sweet gifts, but after the main party, Kala brought out more treasures: parcels my friends had shipped to her at work--thirty Christmas ornaments from Julianna, thirty skeins of embroidery thread from Wyatt and Kt Ruth, thirty notecards from Kala's mother. And then a book, full of lovely pages, some already full with lists of "thirty things" my friends loved in my life.

I spent the last quarter hour of my thirtieth birthday sitting at the table, surrounded by tokens of abundance. Leading up to my birthday, a few people asked if I was worried about growing old, but when the day came, I could only laugh at such a foolish question. Why fear thirty when age is such an index of abundance? At thirty, I have surpassed my twenty-nine-year-old-self in books, laughter, friends, tea, sermons, sleeps, and a thousand other good things. All those little piles on my table were counters for years, bright and tumbled. Abundance, glittering and colorful, savory and sweet. Here was the answer from God's people: We give you too much to eat on your own --  share it. Here are too many fine threads to hoard for yourself -- make them into something beautiful.

Only Christ can keep me safe from avarice and heedless wealth. As I enter my thirties, I am praying the Spirit will guide me through any fasting days that come, but also through the strange and humbling seasons of abundance. 


Monday, November 4, 2013

Back in time

Dear Indiana,

Until 2005, you had the good sense not to observe Daylight Savings Time, and in that resistance, you shaped my eyes and spirit in beautiful ways.

While growing up on your western edge, I didn't think much about Daylight Savings, though I was proud that my otherwise-bland state had at least one mark of distinction. During my first semester of college, however, I experienced a "time change" for the first time, when my roommate insisted that we change our clocks in order to satisfy some sort of enforced chronological economy.  I was troubled to think that we could so recklessly rename and tamper with the hours and minutes. How arrogant, I thought, to wrench the clock away from the sun, conforming instead to railroad tables or agricultural conveniences. I wanted the hours on the clock to be a perfect language, signifier conforming sweetly to signified. Instead, I faced a truth I was learning, at the same time, in my first linguistics class: that human languages were arbitrary, flawed systems for stumbling into meaning, not pure and perfect lanterns shining into the truth of things.

Perhaps because I associate my first time change with such philosophical and spiritual dislocations, I remember my eighteen years of Indiana-time so fondly. I realize that you had plenty of good economic and logistical reasons to join the silly Daylight Savings Time bandwagon, but by waiting so long, you gave me something precious.

As a child, I could look out our kitchen window and name the hour perfectly. Each year, daylight slowly, slowly contracted toward the December solstice, then slowly, sweetly grew toward June. Our house faced due east, and I could measure the season through the shadows that fell through curtain laces and tree branches.  Living through these slow hours, winter never surprised us, and summer was coy, offering her delights only after we had endured a patient and penitent spring.

Very few men and women my age have enjoyed this privilege of slow time, seasonable time. Instead, most members of my generation were born into a world where time is all chronos: humans  at war with their clocks, wrangling time into systems that can mandate hours at the office, but which make little sense to children and morning glories and other wise creatures.

But you, my dear, backward Indiana, let me grow up in kairos, the appointed seasons of the sun and  the Holy Spirit. If this means that I often find myself, to borrow Wendell Berry's words, "bewildered in our timely dwelling place," so much the better.  The disorientation reminds me that I should always  mistrust clocks, for they never mark the times that matter.


Your prodigal daughter,

Bethany
Indiana sky: my first and favorite timepiece
     

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

neighbors and the "n----" word

Dear Neighbor,

Using the "n-- word" in front of me is not a good strategy for endearing yourself, and so I'm more than a little surprised at myself for writing to you during these "30 days to 30" of meaningful influence. We were discussing the recent neighborhood break-ins, and you made it clear that you believed the thieves were black. "Now I'm not racist," you said, "but there's black people and then there's n-------s."

You were not the first person to ever say such things in front of me. My home state of Indiana has a nasty legacy of racism that often works its way into conversation (this is an extreme, but not isolated, example). Even my own grandmother, unhappy that we had hired Miss Dorsie to "look in" on her as her memory and health failed, would trouble my heart by saying things like, "I think that black woman you hired is stealing my candy." (She actually came to love Dorsie very much, but that is worth its own story).

Even so, your words shocked me. Our conversations to this point had been bland and neighborly: the success or failure of tomato plants, varieties of dog food for a shiny coat. But that evening, I was in turmoil.  Normally when you talk--for you talk a great deal--I nod and smile, but of course I couldn't keep smiling. Turmoil: what should I say? what authority do I have to say anything? God, forgive me.

Afraid to tackle your word and assumptions directly, I think I mumbled some story about some neighborhood teens who had done an excellent job cutting my grass, to which you responded that they were probably casing my house in preparation to rob me. At the point I created an excuse to leave the conversation and finish my walk.

That conversation left a bad taste in my mouth. I was ashamed of myself for not saying more, but I also could not imagine what I could have said. The simplest, and perhaps the best, would have been "Please don't use such language in front of me." But a thing is no less hard because it is simple and good.

I spent a week reflecting on the many ways in which cowardice enervates virtue; if nothing else, I should thank you for prompting that stern lesson.

I am really writing, however, to thank you for not letting the story end here. A few days ago, as I was taking Cora out on a run, you called to me from your backyard. Heart sinking, I stopped. Without any preliminary small talk, you said, "I haven't had any peace since we talked last week. I'm sorry for the words I used. When I spoke, your face just fell, and I thought, 'Would I have said that in front of my daughter? Would I have said it in front of my black friends?' And of course the answer was no. Your face--it just fell. I'm so sorry."

This was a much more tender shock. I lingered for a while, and we talked about words and their power, and you, perhaps in a lopsided effort to show equal-opportunity suspicion, suggested that perhaps the thieves were a white family that had been renting a house nearby. 

 It was a strangely redemptive answer to the the worries that had been nagging at me. One apology cannot heal all things, but it helps. It helps me remember that patterns of fear and suspicion change slowly, but they can change. Perhaps for now only your language has changed, but that may herald more. It helps me remember that I have my own prejudices--racial, social, economic, religious--and that I must never let those unthinking, unloving assumptions control my language. It helps me remember that the Holy Spirit can speak through conscience, through sad eyes and troubled faces, even when his servants are tongue-tied.

Your neighbor,

Bethany
     
    

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

I prayed for brothers

Dear Lennon,
 
You know the story better than I do: how you approached me in 7th grade homeroom and said, in a single breath, "Hey-I-see-you-pray-at-lunch-do-you-go-to-church-can-I-come-with-you?" In the years since, you have told me about the anxieties and stirrings that led to this question, but at the time I was baffled by such a profound request from a boy I hardly knew.

Sixteen years later, we've known one another more than half our lives. You--and now you with Amy and sweet Andrew--are home to me, just as my parents are. I know I would not be myself without your friendship, your fraternity.

Every memory is worth its own story -- how can I catalog them? It seems unfair to summarize the shining May of your wedding day, impossible to relate the joy in your voice when, in the wee hours of the morning, you called to tell me of the birth of your son. The ordinary days are even harder to distill. Those long evening bike rides along the railroad tracks, for example, the summer  I left for college. Or the season you came to live at our house, inhabiting Spare Oom, next to my own room in the attic, when we would spend every Friday night talking into the small hours, sometimes waking my father with our laughter.

What about the night you left for Iraq? I was on the phone with you until the last possible moment, and then you said, "Okay, I -- it's time to go." Suddenly, because of you, I had joined that ancient and universal sisterhood of women who have watched, with terror and pride, as fathers, sons, husbands, brothers leave for war. Until you came home, I braided yellow ribbons into my hair. When you came back, the stories you told humbled me in ways nothing else has.

In 7th grade I'm quite sure I outweighed you, but you grew strong so quickly -- you are still strong, but one of the gentlest men I know. You can be sanguine to a fault; your resilience and good cheer amaze me.  You are a devoted husband, a loving father, and a wise teacher. Your vocation is to protect people from harm and ignorance, and sometimes you must do those things roughly, but you also make the world beautiful. My best teapot and my favorite knitting needles, after all, were gifts from you.

Sometimes I am amazed you put up with me when were teenagers. When I consider all that you endured and witnessed before you were eighteen, I wonder that I didn't seem impossibly naive, hopelessly fragile. But for all of that, you were the first person to ever tell me that I was strong. Thank you for all the years you have spent provoking and protecting me. Thank you for teaching Andrew to call me "Aunt Bethany," and for demanding that I come each Christmas. Thank you for marrying my friend Amy, so that she has remained such a strong and beautiful presence in my life. When I was a little girl, I prayed for brothers, and you were God's first answer.

Your sister,

Bethany

2002: Easter baskets at home

2007: Home from Iraq to meet his newborn boy
2011: Christmas with one of my favorite families

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

In which sausage is a love language

Dear Grandpa,
   Did I ever write you a letter while you were alive? I posted epistles to strangers with pretty houses, authors who penned fine tales, and friends from summer camp, but I don't think I ever wrote to you. In fact, I don't remember having a proper conversation with you until the months just before you died. When family gathered at your house, I always stayed near  Grandma, who gave me "orange drink" (what was that, anyway?) and let me play with that battered Madame Alexander doll, whom I named Lyca, after the William Blake poem. You would sit by the television, only a foot or two away, because you were legally blind, and watch football or westerns. You and your television were equally inscrutable to me; I could imagine no entry, no opening words.
   Had anyone asked directly, "Do you love each other?" I would have said "Of course," hoping they did not ask for proof. I had no proof, except that I was often sad when I thought how sad you seemed. And proof of love from you?  For a long time I had only one story, this story:
   I was seven or eight years old, and my parents left me at your house after Christmas. They were taking their students to an inner-city mission, and they thought it was too dangerous for me to come along. I did not want to stay with you and Grandma. Normally your house was full to bursting with aunts, uncles, and cousins, but on my own I felt lost in your house. There were rules I did not like, such as, "You may not eat outside of the kitchen," and the water from the faucet smelled of iron and I wanted to go home.
   I remember sitting on the carpeted floor of the living room, leaning against the couch, wanting something--I don't remember what--but being too timid to ask. Suddenly you walked into the room and stood before me. Because I usually saw you sitting, you seemed so large standing -- tall and broad, a blacksmith's son. You had a plate of cheese, crackers, and sausage, one of your own favorite snacks. You set the plate down on the floor in front of me -- on the carpet, which Grandma did not allow. I asked, "Is it okay?" and you nodded. I would like to think you smiled or tousled my hair--it would fit the story well--but I don't think you did. I hope I said, "Thank you," but perhaps I really am your kin, and I had already learned silence from you. You left the snack and returned to your chair by your television.
    Most snacks fade from memory with the eating, but I remember those crackers and sausage after twenty years. I remember because in that gesture you answered the questions I had been afraid to ask: that you noticed me, so quiet among the bustle of other grandchildren; and that, in that moment, at least, you understood that I was sad and you found a way to make it better. That you loved me.
   Thank you for teaching me that doing a small thing in love can shatter darkness. Thank you for teaching me that the way we treat children matters, even when their sadness might seem slight or trivial. Thank you, always, for the cheese and sausage and crackers. I love you, too.

Yours,
Bethany
My grandfather as a young man.

Monday, October 21, 2013

30 Days to 30

In thirty days, I will be thirty years old. Yesterday I asked some friends how they thought I should celebrate this transition, and the ever-wise Liz suggested I write to thirty people who have shaped my life and ways. Her suggestion resonated with something I've wanted to do for a long time with this blog: provide my readers with a sense of the great cloud of witnesses surrounding and sustaining me in my quest for Home. Over the next thirty days, I will post letters each day to a person or community that has helped bring me through thirty glad years of life.

Dear Students,

For twenty years, I waited for you. Coming home from kindergarten, I would set up schools for my dolls and teach them songs. Years later, as a college freshman I would slip into empty classrooms and cover the boards in sonnets and sentence diagrams. I taught myself by imagining you with me.

I met you first in China. You were Chinese, South Korean, and Uzbek, shy and respectful, eager to learn English. I was twenty and terrified, stumbling my way through each day's lesson. You plunged into our course, studied and struggled, laughed and wondered. You called me, "Teacher! Teacher!" slipped your arms through mine, and led me down to Yanji, guiding me through rainy streets. You were Misha, who would laugh, in that deep Uzbek accent, "Ah, you name iz Bear! The animal! But you are such a little bear!" You were Tak-Bong, who cried with me on the day I left China behind. You were Pu Zhen, who made me promise to visit your home in Tibet on my honeymoon.

With my students at Yanbian University of Science and Technology, Summer 2003


Three years later, you were Texans, green-and-gold Baylor undergrads.  I felt like a child playing dress-up in my heels and mascara, but when I asked a question you would say, "Yes ma'am." At first I wanted to giggle, but I knew you said it because your mamas had taught you well, and then I realized you said it because you thought I had a right to be there, saying words, grading papers, teaching. For six years you were my consolation, ballast against the weight of doctoral courses, exams, and dissertation. You taught me about humor and faith, diligence and deceit, apathy and ambition. You were gregarious, enthusiastic, lazy, audacious, flighty, courteous, beautiful. You were Abigail, who could always make her classmates laugh; Lincoln, brimming with excitement about music; Kirat, who decorated my hands with henna; Chase, who would linger after class with questions about Tennyson.

Autumn 2007: These Baylor freshmen had my class at 8 AM during my first-ever semester of teaching. Bless their hearts.

Spring 2012: My last group of Baylor students. Bright and joyful, all of them.

And now you are Southerners, raised among hills and coastlines I hardly know. You work hard, so hard I worry that you will spend yourselves too soon. You do brilliant things because you love excellence: class discussions and amateur theatricals, concerts and essays, mission trips and potlucks. When I interviewed here, you welcomed me, prayed for me. You come to my office and interrupt my grading or my reading and I do not care because your eyes are always so alive. You come to my house to bless my new home, or to roast marshmallows in the yard, or to ask questions about the midterm. You are Tiffany, who gathered her friends to carry boxes to my third-floor apartment. You are Amanda, who traveled to Italy with me. You are Anna quiet in class, yet with such wise eyes. You are Regis and Bethany, who asked if I would see family at Christmas, who worried that I might be alone for the holidays. You are Sara, now in Texas learning to teach on her own.  In so many ways, you are more than I can name.

Autumn 2013: Enjoying a houseful of students

I have often thought about how my own teachers shaped the person I have become, but today I realize how much I owe to you. In very practical ways, I spend most hours each week working for you: reading, planning, presenting, evaluating. For so many years I studied for the sake of studying, with a hermetic joy. Now I study for you. After so many years of hearing you call me, "Teacher," I have finally begun to believe that I can claim that name. You are my protégés, my judges, my audience, my agitators, my friends: my students. Thank you for all you have taught me.

Ever yours,

Teacher/Miss/Dr. Bear



Monday, September 23, 2013

Heart-Hound

Adopting a puppy frightened me far more than buying a house. The house intimidated me plenty, and for good reasons (legal forms! mortgage! washing machines!). Still, bringing a 7-pound puppy into that house scared me in ways home-buying never did. 

I've always identified primarily as a "cat person," but for years I said that when I had a house I would consider adopting a dog. When I mentioned this to my friend Sara,  she took it upon herself to become my canine match-maker, sending me links to local animal shelters during study breaks from her honors thesis. One of those links included pictures of a new litter of hound pups.


A very wee houndling.
 These big eyes won my affection immediately, and on a rainy spring afternoon, Sara and I drove to the Prichard Animal Shelter and filled out the adoption forms. When I picked the wee beast up a few days later, I was both thrilled and terrified. What business do I have caring for a living creature? I thought. I barely remember to feed myself three times a day. Other worries were more selfish. What if she chews my things? What if I can never leave town for a weekend? What if she digs up my vegetable garden?

All these worries about one tiny dog came from an old and ugly truth: above almost anything else, I treasure the freedom to do-as-I-wish-when-I-wish.

I have spent much of my life trying to govern and limit this love, to delight in surrendering my own will for God and neighbor. Apparently, something within me still resists that surrender. 

For the first few weeks I had my pup at home, I didn't feel much better. I don't love her enough, I would think as I drove home at lunch to let her out. She doesn't obey, I would grumble as I wrested another sock from her tiny fangs. I feel so guilty, I would tell my friends, still hearing her terrified bay and howl as I locked her inside the house.

Slowly, however, my fears subsided. When the semester turned to summer, I had more time to spend with her. I walked with her, combed fleas off of her, tested toys and treats to see what she liked. My language changed, and she became "houndling," "pupwise," "hobbit-hound," and a dozen other silly names.

I gave up more freedom and more time for her sake. And for all that I gave, my love increased. 

For those of you with spouses, or children, or other sacred bonds, this paradox might not surprise you. Even I have learned it before: with every letter that I write or prayer I say, for every act of service or shared hour, I come to love a person better.

What made the puppy different, however, is that I was obligated to care for her. I brought her home; she was my responsibility, and this made our relationship monumental in my quiet little life.  One of the strange things about being a single adult is that there are very few living beings who ever demand anything of you. That's not to say I don't have a desire or duty to provide for the needs of others; rather, it means that on a typical day, I receive far more requests in my professional capacity (Dr. Bear, can you help me with this journal?) than in any personal, vulnerable or taxing sense. This dog, on the other hand, asks for everything. Relentlessly and without shame she demands  that I rise earlier, walk longer, play more often. And strange to say, the more she asks, the more I want to give. 

Sometimes I worry that I have woven my life so tightly that there is little room for others to find a lasting home with me. Friends never ask as much I could give, and so I color my days and ways according to my own designs. Some days I even wonder, fearfully, "How could I ever marry? How could I make room for children in this happy, tidy life?"

But then I remember that once, I was brave enough to set aside Spare Oom, consecrating my house and days to making a home for others. And even as I remember, I receive a friendly nip from my little hound. I named her "Cora," deriving it from "cor," the Latin word for "heart." She is neither my child nor my hobby; she is my dog, my companion, my heart-hound, reminding me that more often than not, we must commit to something, to someone, before we can even begin to love.



Tuesday, September 17, 2013

imaginary autumns and loving where you live


 Entering adulthood profoundly disrupted my sense of time.  When I moved to Texas to begin grad school, the steady rhythm of spring, summer, autumn, winter--which I had enjoyed as a child in Indiana and as a student in Tennessee--gave way to a relentless cycle of summer, summer, spring, and more summer. That first fall, I was grieving in nearly every area of my life--personal, academic, spiritual--and the feeling that I was being denied a "proper autumn" was too much to bear. All through September, I sulked. I scoured the Internet for pictures of brilliant oak and maple foliage. I pretended the ridiculous air conditioning on campus was natural autumn air. Nor was I alone in my longing. Other northerners would sit with me in the break room, speaking wistfully of jackets and gloves.  Even the Texans would join in, lamenting their state's lack of a leaf-glorious fall.
  By October, these imagined autumns were beginning to taste gluttonous. The visions of leaf-covered paths had become a little too sweet, like cider boiled down to syrup. Even more troubling, the only place in Waco, Texas where I could find visible signs of the autumn I imagined were Walmart and Starbucks. They capitalized on autumnal sentimentality, offering plastic maple-leaf wreaths and artificial pumpkin drinks at a profit.
   At first, I told myself that I was entitled to these autumn trappings for nostalgia's sake, if nothing else. "If Texas won't provide me with real foliage," I pouted, "I will buy my own and hang it on the door." But then, for some blessed reason, I put the wreath back and left the store.  
   For the rest of that first Texas fall, I tried to keep my eyes open for autumn--not the brilliant, tempestuous signs of my childhood, but some native sign of the year's slow turn.  Soon, I had begun to notice so many beautiful things. In Texas, autumn didn't mean fierce winds and woolen hats: it meant opening the windows after a summer indoors; morning glories on the banks of the Brazos; and the return of the songbirds. It meant waiting for the day when the pecans fell, and you could gather rich nuts by the bag-full on nearly every street-corner, or along the Pecan Bottoms at Cameron Park. It meant planting winter gardens with swiss chard, collards, carrots, and cabbage; going to the Sorghum Festival; watching rain fall for the first time since spring.
     Learning to watch for autumn as it came--rather than as I pined for it to come--was probably the wisest thing I could have done in that first homesick year. It taught me to love the place where I lived, rather than lamenting the places I had left behind.

Autumn in Alabama


     I am still learning what autumn means here, in Alabama, on the edge of many waters. Last year it meant hurricane parties and open windows, wool berets and sandals, home-brewed iced chai, Shakespeare on campus and Farmers' Markets downtown, Japanese persimmons, front-porch talks, and satsuma oranges. Already the mornings grow cool, purple mums bloom instead of azaleas. As in Texas, it's time for winter gardens: bring the peppers in and plant the greens.
    Imagined seasons and distant ideals have their place--a deep, inspiring, good place--but for travelers who  feel far from home, there is so much grace is opening our eyes to the season we find ourselves in. Maybe the day calls for a silk shirt instead of a wool sweater. Maybe your yard is full of crepe-myrtle blossoms instead of orange oak leaves. Maybe so. For my part, while I will always treasure the northern autumns of my childhood, I hope that today I will have the courage to choose silk and crepe myrtles over air conditioning and plastic wreaths.

    

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

In Praise of Extroverts

"Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. [...] Let him who is not in community beware of being alone."  
Dietrich Bonhoeffer includes this warning in his challenging little book Life Together. His admonition has come to mind several times this week, as my Facebook newsfeed and Pinterest boards seem to be full of article praising introverts. Posts such as this, this, and this abound. As an off-the-chart introvert (INFJ, according to the Meyers-Brigg Type Index), I suppose I ought to be glad that the general public is receiving sound advice about our care and keeping.

Really, though, I'm kind of sick of all this hype about introverts.  We have our virtues, no doubt, but I think that even these virtues shine best when sharpened against the very real strength of extroverts.

Many of my dearest friends are extroverts, and while we don't always understand one another, we have learned to give thanks for one another. And so, in honor of my father, my Lindsay, my Emily, and so many other dear outward-going friends, I offer a few thoughts in praise of extroverts.

Extroverts enliven community

Left to my own introverted devices, I would only communicate to people through handwritten letters. I might venture face to face conversations if we could meet in the privacy of my own living room, and if we stopped talking every fifteen minutes so I could take a nap to recharge.  Yes, yes, I exaggerate -- but only slightly. I spent most of my adolescence in more-or-less voluntary solitude, ignoring Bonhoeffer's warning. I had no real community, and so my solitude sank into selfishness.

In college, however, I met people who loved people in ways that baffled me. These men and women took pains to connect and gather people together. During these years, I never lost my love of a quiet meal with a good book, but I did discover the new joy of a full table and long, loud, laughing supper.  I still spent hours studying on my own, but I came to appreciate the nights when my friends kidnapped me from the library for an impromptu group road trip. Without my more extroverted friends, my understanding of community and, more importantly, of the Church, would have remained incomplete during those formative college years.

Extroverts model generosity

Even if we seem open and talkative, introverts often reveal our secondary personality traits as our "public" side, while only manifesting primary qualities among trusted friends. For example, my deepest, most powerful response to an idea, person or situation is always emotional, not analytical or rational. However, my public and professional life emphasizes my analytic, thinking side: I have a PhD, I teach critical analysis of literature, etc. I do have a strong rational capacity; it simply isn't my primary response to the world. Only a select few--those I deem worthy--see the parts of me I value the most.

Extroverts, on the other hand, often humble me with their radical openness. They display their hearts and minds to nearly anyone. This can make life with extroverts messy, but at their best, extroverts have taught me how beautiful it can be to meet any human as a potential friend, brother, sister.

Extroverts spread the word

One of my own worst habits as an introvert is projecting my introversion onto others. "I don't want to bother them...." I tell myself, justifying my reticence about mentioning a new book, a concert, even the Gospel. Because I often simply wish to be left alone, even when someone is offering me something brilliant or vital, I  give up too easily when I have a message others need to hear.

My favorite extroverts seem untroubled by these inhibitions. "Come one, come all!" they will cry. "The more the merrier!" Because extroverts garner energy from people, they thrive on the busy street or in the bustling room, and the genuinely want as many people as possible to come, see, taste, and enjoy with them.

Extroverts allow introverts to be introverts

I spend much of my time pretending to be an extrovert, especially in my professional life. Furthermore, as a single person without a nearby "best friend" or family, I have to put myself forward in order to build relationships. These are rewarding efforts, but when I am in the company of a true extrovert, I find myself thanking God for a chance to rest.

Both of my parents are extroverts, and when I am home for Christmas, I savor being able to sit in the living room and simply listen. Visitors might call, and my mother and father will keep them talking, allowing me to sit, smile, and knit. Even introverts love being in a circle of beloved friends, but this introvert certainly appreciates not being the one responsible for keeping the conversation going.

My dear, dear extroverts: you bewilder and exasperate me, but my solitude would have little value without your challenging, God-gathering witness. It may seem like everyone's celebrating introverts these days, but at least one among your quiet kindred wants you to know how much she loves you.

A few of my favorite extroverts....







Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Grant us, Lord, a grocery store

As a child, one of my favorite games was "pioneers." Inspired by the Little House books, I spent hours pretending that I had packed my wagon, left loved ones behind, and ventured into the wilderness. This was an apt game for an American child, for as soon I was eighteen, I began to measure success in the number of miles I had travelled from home. I had plenty of good stories to help me wander, plenty of epics and novels and allegories to tell me that moving is best, exile is ideal.

I don't want to dismiss the years in which "home" was a complicated, and at times nearly hopeless, concept for me. Part of living the Way of Christ is knowing that we are "sojourners and exiles" in this world (1 Peter 2:11). At the same time, when God's people were living in exile in Babylon, the Word of the Lord came through the prophet Jeremiah, saying "Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare" (Jeremiah 29:28).

As I wrote yesterday, I am living, for the first time in memory, without the feeling that I will soon be moving on. Perhaps (not certainly, but perhaps) this will be home for the rest of my life on earth. As I try to understand what that means, the words of Jeremiah provide some hopeful clues. "Carry on," the prophet tells me. "Wager that you will have time for your seeds to sprout. Know your neighbors. Pray for the prosperity of this place."

Today, praying for the prosperity of this place means praying for a grocery store. When I imagine a prosperous community, I imagine a self-sufficient place, where people have access to the goods and services they need, and where they directly contribute to the welfare of one another by using those goods and services. One reason I moved to this community was its potential for that kind of self-sufficiency. The city is laid out in a way that makes walking and cycling easy, and from my house, I can reach a school, two churches, and three gas stations by walking for about 5 minutes. Walk a little longer--or bike--and I can easily reach a post office, general store, bank, and pharmacy.

By unidentified (unidentified) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
At the same time, there are many vacant buildings in Chickasaw that point to a time when more businesses could thrive in a small town. The hardware store is still in business, but most of their wares are dusty and faded, as though the inventory hasn't moved for years. Many more are simply empty. I pray for these buildings each time I walk, ride, or drive by. I want little local businesses, affordable and intimate, to thrive here. I want a proper grocery store, with a good selection of produce and all the basic dry goods.  I am praying that some entrepreneur will move into town and set up shop. I keep trying to think of un or under-employed friends who might be up to the challenge. For my own purposes, having a grocery store would mean I could do nearly all my shopping within Chickasaw itself.

At the same time, when I ask God for a grocery store, I am doing more than praying for a more convenient errand route. I am begging food for the roots I am trying to put down here. I am praying for a place where I can see my neighbors, know their children, ask about their lives. In other words, when I pray for a grocery store, I am praying for God's kingdom to come in Chickasaw as it is in heaven.

I've never had much patience for middle ground: either I am painting my dreams with universal strokes, abiding in enormous ideals, or I am nesting in small spaces, building little altars in the grass outside my door. Trying to pray for a national economy or a multi-national peace plan overwhelms me, frustrates me with particulars and logistics and obstacles. Only among the stars or down with the grass-roots do my hands feel free to pray and build. And so today I pray:

Grant us, Lord, a grocery store.

Monday, August 5, 2013

One year in Alabama

Rain is pouring off my roof, drops matching the swift rhythm of the ceiling fan here on the porch. Summer--the last summer of my twenties--ends soon, and having lived my entire life on an academic calendar, the end of summer always feels like the end of the year. That's an especially apt feeling now, as the end of summer also marks the end of my first year in Alabama.

One year. 1/6 of the time I lived in Texas. 1/4 of the time I was at college. 1/30 of my life thus far. I've used my blog to chronicle much of what has happened in the last year: the victorious graduation that preceded it, the bittersweet departure from Texas, the rich hospitality of my colleagues and students, the quest to buy a house, the magnificent trip to Italy.

My first year in Alabama has been a festival year, a year of bounty, a year in which everything has felt so new. This is the year for which I have planned, waited, and prayed for so long.

As this year ends, my first feeling is gratitude to the God who has made me say,
"The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance" (Psalm 16:6) 
And welling up with the gratitude comes wonder. Specifically, wonder at the idea of stability, rootedness, being-here-ness.  For the first time in my life, I'm not directing my work and energy to some future place, and while I rest in this thought, I'm not entirely sure what to do with it. From kindergarten onward I was looking forward to college; in college I was deeply content but could never forget that I would have to move on one day; and in grad school I worked, lived, and loved with the knowledge that I did not come to Texas to stay. I do not mean to say that I would never leave Mobile, but I have no desire to leave, and I may never have reason to leave.

What does that mean? How do I do this well? How do I pray for the years to come? These are the questions I am asking myself on a rainy Alabama afternoon, as thunder and church bells ring out together, one year later.



Saturday, July 27, 2013

Italy: Santa Margherita de' Cerchi

By the time we found this tiny church, we had already seen many of Florence's grandest sights: Michaelangel's David;  the masterpieces of the Uffizi Gallery; the soaring Duomo; and beautiful Santa Croce, housing the graves of Galileo, Michelangelo, Machiavelli, and Dante. Like so many things in Italy, these glorious works towered over us physically and historically, demanding our attention, even reverence.

Santa Margherita, on the other hand, nearly eluded us. We were threading through a narrow alley, looking for a museum about Dante, when a tablet with some English writing caught my eye.


Without the sign, the doors to the church would have looked like any number of doors leading into courtyards, little shops, or up to flats and galleries.  Once I realized what I was seeing, however, I understood that this was a place I would have been very sorry to miss.

Tradition says that in this church, Dante Alighieri saw Beatrice Portinari for the first time. Some historians apparently contest this claim, but the church, which goes back at least to the year 1032, was undisputedly the parish church of Beatrice's family, and she is buried here.

If you haven't read Dante's Divine Comedy, in which Beatrice inspires Dante's journey toward heavenly revelation, my little blog entry isn't going to do much toward convincing you why stumbling into this church was such a humbling serendipity.

But maybe, maybe I can put it like this: so much of what I saw in Italy was magnificent, built by men of genius for the glory of God. Those buildings moved me to worship, and I hope that the stones of Santa Croce, St. Peter's, and the Duomo stand for centuries to come. And yet, in the Divine Comedy, Dante takes his readers higher than the tallest dome, and his visionary words about justice, mercy, and beatitude have rung longer and farther than the loudest church-bells in Florence. And Beatrice, who captured Dante's heart when she was barely nine years old, and who died when she was only twenty-four, is buried in a little parish church, tucked away on one of Florence's narrowest streets.

The memory of this church has served me well since I returned to the states to my little life: my house with its daily chores and company; my work, meaningful but hardly grand; my beloved little streets and neighborhood. Finding Santa Margherita reminded me that sometimes, the best stories take root in such small and hidden places.

How many places like this have I missed in my tours and travels? How many do I miss as I go about my daily work?

If I keep my eyes open, how many other doors in shadowed walls will lead to a benediction?



Gustave Doré's illustration to Dante's Inferno. Plate VII: Canto II: "Beatrice am I, who do bid thee go" (Longfellow's translation). This image is in the public domain. 

Friday, June 28, 2013

My hypothetical husband, the spy

This week, I'm visiting my hometown in Indiana. My mother and I just had the following conversation, and it was too good to keep to myself: 


Mama: You've had enough big life events in the last year. Let's not get married this year.

Me: Married? But I'm not even.....

Mama: Oh, I know, I know. But these things happen.

Me: Even if I were to fall in love and decide to marry someone, I wouldn't want to be engaged this year.

Mama: But you always said you wanted a Christmas wedding....

Me: Good grief, Mama, I've been unmarried for twenty-nine years already; I think I could manage to wait until the next Christmas.

Mama: But there might be a war.

Me: A war? So, you want me to move up the date of my hypothetical wedding because of a hypothetical war?

Mama [nodding]: He might be a spy. [pause] You know, I had a friend in college who had to get married in a hurry because her husband was going to jail. [pause] Don't marry someone who's going to jail.

Me: I won't. Unless it's for defending civil rights, or something like that.

Mama: Right. Don't marry someone going to jail unless he's going for a just cause.

Me: Okay, Mama. I promise.

(From the  State Library of Queensland. No known copyright restrictions)

Monday, June 24, 2013

I rest in hope

In the Basilica of Santa Croce, I stood before the graves of Michelangelo, Dante, Galileo, Ghiberti, and Machiavelli. I saw Giotto's 14th-century frescoes of the life of St. Francis, and I even saw a bit of robe said to have been worn by that merry Jongleur de Dieu. These monuments struck me like the tocsins of cathedral bells, but in all of beautiful Santa Croce, it was the conjugation of verbs that moved me most.



Most of the foreign languages I have studied --Latin, biblical Greek, Old English--are "dead," and so I am not used to encountering a language I know outside of a book. But in Italy, the walls whispered to me. Words, incised in marble or hammered into gold, surprised me at every turn. I find Ecce ancilla domini over that doorway, and something shakes the dust off my high-school Latin, tumbling me into a beloved chapter from Luke's Gospel. Behold the handmaiden of the Lord.

In Santa Croce, the tombs were speaking. Rich panels of marble paved the floor of the nave and transept, memorializing a body and soul at rest. Mostly they told me that so-and-so was buried here, many spoke of resting in peace. The ornate graves sang of the mighty artists and thinkers who had done so much to the glory of God. Of all these voices of the dead, one quickened me more than all the others.



 vixi in deo · quiesco in spe · resurgam utinam in caritate æterna

With much of the Latin I saw in Italy, I struggled to hear clearly, to gather words into the ordered hope of a sentence, but this inscription seemed to cry out in the quiet of the church: I lived in God; I rest in hope; I will rise again in love everlasting.* I lived, I rest, I will rise. Settled, carved in stone, yet moving through past, present, and future with the rhythm of a living breath.

Common hope in a foreign land. Cradle-truths from a half-forgotten tongue. Baptist girls are not accustomed to treading on tombs -- most of our churches don't even have their own graveyards. When I entered Santa Croce, I looked at the monuments of the Greats and thought, I am here to revere the work they have done. But no. The dead said, we are resting here in hope. Walk on us, climb over us, read, recite, and pace over our words, polish them to transparency until the grace blinds you in its shining. Come join us in the floor of the church. Listen to the faithful sing and step over you. Rest here, and rise in love everlasting.






* Before publishing this entry, I checked with some scholar-friends whose Latin skills are sharper than mine. They suggested a few other  translations, including the lovely possibility that the final clause should be, "would that I might rise to everlasting love." However, others argued that my (simpler) translation is actually more likely, since the tomb is medieval. I am choosing to include the text as it came to me in the moment, but I make no claims that it is a perfect translation.  



Saturday, June 1, 2013

Italy: The Bells of the Duomo

For most of my life, I have encountered Grand and Historical Works of Art in one of two ways: through museums or in books. While seeing a painting in person is far more vivid than studying its replica in a book, both settings can create an artificial context for a work. Perhaps the gallery imposes a certain perimeter of white space around the painting, or the textbook offers an explanatory gloss under the picture of a famous statue. Often, these new contexts help a visitor make sense of a work. Furthermore,  gallery collections and mechanical reproduction allow far more people to experience important works than would otherwise have access to them.

Museums and books also tend to organize works of art into sensible narratives. Perhaps I study the doors of the Baptistery of St. John in a chapter on "The Birth of the Renaissance," or I see Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus" not in the Medici country villa where it originally hung, but in a gallery room full of other Botticelli paintings. I can look at the work, place it in the story, and move on. Or I can choose not to study it at all. I can close the book, turn away from the gallery.

The most moving works of art I saw in Florence, however, upset my typical experiences with art, context, and choice. On our first day in Florence, my friends and I had an excellent guide who took us on a walk through the city. Our plan was to see the famous works of the Uffiizi and Accademia galleries the next day. The day was low and cloudy, threatening rain. Towards the end of our walk, we were strolling down a busy Florentine street, savoring cones of gelato and talking about something utterly unrelated to the Renaissance or to art history.

We turned a corner, and suddenly a mountain of pink and green marble soared up in front of us. Or so it seemed. As it happened, we had taken a back street to the Duomo, Florence's mighty basilica, with a dome that shapes the city's skyline, if you look from a distance.

Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore


The breadth and height of the Duomo, approached from such a near angle, crushed any sense of consoling distance. This was no gallery piece, no flattened photograph in a hand-held book. It was a standing, as it had stood for hundreds of years, bearing witness to God's glory, human genius, Florentine wealth, political history, Catholic theology, and more. Our guide was saying something about the marble, local quarries, Brunelleschi, but I heard little, for as we stood at the foot of the bell tower , bells began to ring. These were not like the sweet Methodist bells of my neighborhood, but powerful, unrelenting tones.

The bell tower

Hearing those bells was the only time in Italy I cried. I think it is because they eradicated any lingering distance between me and the object I had come to contemplate. They knocked down the white walls of my mind's gallery, ringing me into a living city, with a vast, beautiful, complicated church at its center.

The marble of the Duomo

The weight, the nearness of the massive church almost offended me. How dare it surprise me like this? How dare it stand there, presuming upon my reverence? Reeling from this offense, I was shocked to realize how much of my appreciation for beauty depends upon my own ability to choose. What picture shall I hang on my wall? Which room in the museum shall I visit? Which picture will I study from the book? The Duomo gave me no such choice. Either I could encounter it on its own terms, or I must leave the city and all it stood for.

And how did I respond? I wept when the bells rang, for it sounded as though they were calling all the world to prayer. And the next day, after a morning in tourist-thronged galleries, we returned to the Duomo and attended mass. Though I am not Catholic, I have attend various masses with friends, and my knowledge of Latin helped me follow along, dimly, with the prayers, scriptures, and songs. Like so many medieval Christians, I worshipped and prayed without understanding, in my own tongue, exactly what was happening. Nevertheless, attending mass in the Duomo helped reconcile me to the astounding beauty of the place. No longer was the Duomo a  Grand and Historical Work of Art I was trying to "appreciate," but a church in which I worshipped. In a humble, stumbling way, I went from being a spectator to a participant.

For the rest of our time in Florence, I always waited for and heard the bells of the Duomo with joy.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Italy: Sunsets in Venice

As I was growing up, my family only travelled for two reasons: to see family or to meet Jesus. We made yearly trips to relatives in Indiana and Mississippi, as well as numerous pilgrimages to religious conferences and mission trips, usually as part of my parents' ministerial work with college students. I loved (and still do love) such journeys, not least because they have a clear purpose, and I like Purposes. 

Going on a trip with a purpose lays the foundation for telling a good story when you return. Perhaps you fulfilled the purpose gloriously. For example, you might report that you and your kin renewed your love for one another, that you helped clear debris after a natural disaster, or that you heard a life-changing sermon. Even if the purpose falls apart, there's a tale in such disasters.  

I know how to tell family stories and mission trip stories. However, I'm not really sure how to talk about my recent trip to Italy. Last month I spent nine days in Venice, Florence, and Rome. And why? Because I could.  I could enumerate my list of justifications (a desire to travel with four bright young women; an academic interest in seeing the cradle of the Renaissance, etc), but in truth, the trip was like art itself: gratuitous, costly, and yet, mysteriously, essential. 

 I'm not going to try to give the grand narrative of my trip to Italy because I have no idea what that story is. It's out there, somewhere, beyond the ken of my mere week's worth of reflection. Instead, I want to share a few moments from our trip, scenes and experiences that suggest, but do not explicate, the mysterious purpose that compelled me to buy a ticket to Italy instead of paying to have my car's air conditioner fixed, or instead of buying a washer and dryer. 

Maps are curious documents: in order to guide a traveller through a multi-dimensional world, cartographers simplify space, color, and information. As a child in a midwestern town, this simplification seemed slight, since the grid-even streets of my neighborhood contained little more than the map suggested: modest houses and lots of green grass.

In Venice, my excellent map necessarily excluded almost all of the really interesting things about the city: the shop-window full of Carnival masks; the gelateria smelling of fresh waffle cones; the children playing the piazza; the glorious little church, all pink and green marble, tucked behind humbler buildings.; the deep quiet of a city without cars. The cartographer had more than enough to occupy him (or her) with mere directions, for Venice is a warren of tiny streets that seem to change names every thirty feet.

When deciding what grand sights to see, my companions and I planned our days in Venice from other sources, using the map simply to navigate from one point to another. However, on our last evening in the city, I noticed a curious detail on the map. Along the northern shore of the island-city, a little note said, "Vantage point for the most spectacular sunsets in Venice."

All the other information on the map was objective, offering names of streets, stations, museums, and neighborhoods. This tantalizing note, however, offered a glimpse of the map-maker, surely someone who knew Venice well and could not resist sharing a favorite spot to rest after a long day of walking cobblestone streets.

We followed this note, expecting to find a picturesque park or a historic pier from which we could enjoy the sunset. Instead, we found ourselves far from the tourist mainstays. The map lead us past a large hospital, through a quiet neighborhood of apartments, and finally to a little vaparetto dock. Lacking chairs or benches, we sat on the dock, looked to the west, and waited for the sun to set.



As we sat in the twilight, something in us settled. For an hour, we stopped feeling like tourists. We were not gazing upon, nor even discussing, any of the famous landmarks of the city. Instead, we sat on a ordinary boat dock, under the windows of ordinary families. As we watched the sun dye the sky, we shared stories about boys and laughed. We were half a world away, entirely at home.  Our mapmaker had guided us to a little corner of Venice we would not have thought to seek on our own.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Until you bless me


Under my pillow. Inside the blue teapot. On the porch windows.  Above the doorway. Between the couch cushions. Within the folds of a bathroom towel. 




These are just a few of the places I found benedictions today. In a sense, these serendipities are of my own devising. On Sunday, I invited friends, baked bread, set the table, and then demanded a blessing. Go into each room, I said, and pen a prayer. Inscribe my walls and tuck your blessings into the smallest corners of my house. Speak peace over this place. 

In a sense, these blessings were superfluous. The friends who came--students, colleagues, children, mentors--have already blessed this house with their presence. They have stood in the yard, offered compost for the garden. They have brought their children to gallop across the wood floors. They have come to cradle my new puppy. They have sat at the table and planned trips across the seas. They have been here with me. 

Even so, I begged them for their prayers. Gently enough, of course, but still cringing a little. Is it selfish to demand a blessing? Audacious to expect them to write words over my house, when I have yet to do as much for them? Superstitious to want their handwriting to cover the house from floor to ceiling, yard to Spare Oom

Yes. Yea, verily. Even so, I asked. 

And they gave. They gave me their prayers with all the generosity and abandon of the saints. They prayed that friends would be familiar with all the doors, that the table would be full, that no harm would come to the house or its inhabitants, that even the lean days would call me back to the heart of Christ. Some wrote formal poems--staggering prayers for comfort, laughter, mystery. 

As they did this thing for me, it seemed that  they were kin to the one with whom Jacob wrestled: "I will not let you go unless you bless me." But of course, they are kind and image of that one who blesses and wounds, and I felt a strange reverence for each of them: children of God, Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve, glorious and fallen, strong in the harrowing love of Christ. 

When they left, I felt the weight of what I had done. I had called upon the Lord, demanding a blessing, and he had delivered me through the prayers of his people. The weight and rhythm of their love settled on me, and I slept.

When I woke, I let myself read one or two of the blessings I could see, but most I have left, intending to savor them slowly.   Every day since, I have woken to find some new mercy waiting. 

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Spare Oom





In C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, the marvelous, soul-shaping adventures of the Pevensie children begin when the youngest of them, Lucy, enters the spare room of a large country house. The only item in the room is a large wardrobe, and it is through this wardrobe that Lucy finds her way into Narnia. As she explains this to her first friend in Narnia, Mr. Tumnus, he mistakenly thinks she is from a country called "Spare Oom."

When I was a little child, first hearing these stories, our house had no spare room, and I suspected that my inability to find Narnia had to do with this lack. When I was twelve, my father turned our unfinished attic into a precious garret-bedroom for me, a second bathroom, and a spare room. It had considerably more furniture in it than the room Lewis made famous, but it was a spare room nonetheless. 

I never found a portal to a magic world, but once we had our own Spare Oom, curious things began to happen. Once, an Kenyan student who arrived at the university and found she had no housing stayed with us for a week, filling our house with her warm, cadenced laughter and insisting on braiding my long hair into a network of intricate braids. Then Lennon moved in. We had been friends since we were twelve, but in the months he inhabited Spare Oom, I learned what it meant to have a brother. When we made a space that was open to the needs of others, we found ourselves tumbling into stories we would not have imagined for ourselves. 

When my friends Grant and Jenn bought their house in Texas, they sought a house big enough to share -- a house with rooms to spare for whomever God would bring them. I was the first person to benefit from that beautiful generosity, and during our year together I experienced what it meant to live in common and in accord. Many in my generation will talk about the idea of Christian community, but they made physical space for a radical way of living, and that year bore fruit in ways I am only beginning to understand. 

And so, with Narnia and Waco in mind, I have kept one room of my house empty, spare of furniture, wares, or sundries. I have vowed to keep it free from things so that it will be ready when the Lord calls for it. I will not let it become a place to store excess clothes or books or boxes. I have room enough for my wealth in the other rooms of the house, and I tithe my money, so why not my house as well? 

One day, I think this room will be full, but I don't think I will be the one to fill it. Sometimes I pray pictures of how this might be: wayfarers stopping along their road to Elsewhere; a friend fallen on hard times; a young prophet painting banners for God's revolution; someone who wants to plant a garden with me.

Most days, however, I simply rest in the knowledge of this room. On days when my desk is piled with bills to pay, papers to grade, tickets to book, lessons to prepare, meals to cook--in the midst of so much tending, Spare Oom stands apart. Uncluttered. Unhurried. Demanding nothing from me (nothing to dust, nothing to buy, nothing to do). Waiting. Simply knowing that it is in my home, open and waiting, settles me. 

My Spare Oom holds none of the things that make a place recognizably "mine," but in a sense, it is the heart of this house--a reminder that even if the property is in my name, the home belongs to the Lord, and I fill, tend, cook, welcome, work, and rest here at His good pleasure. My Spare Oom has no wardrobe, but my prayer is that in this room, we will build doors to other worlds: the realm of the redeemed, the new heaven and new earth, home. 

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Listening and hospitality



"Listening," says servant-scholar Henri Nouwen, "is a form of spiritual hospitality."* Listening has never been one of my strengths. I spent much of my childhood alone, amusing myself during my parents' many meetings and events, or sitting in classrooms where I mastered a concept long before the teacher had finished explaining it. Consequently, I learned to read, to ponder, to make lists, to doodle, and to work ahead, but not to attend closely to the words around me. 

More problematically, I have a wicked instinct for turning a everything to myself. I leave many conversations angry with myself for telling one of my own stories when I should have asked a question, annoyed that I missed a chance to listen to someone I want to know better.  Sometimes a story is the beautiful and best way to talk with someone, but too often I speak only because I want to make a good impression or draw out laughter or remind everyone, "This is me. I am here. You should care." 

For Lent several years ago, I fasted from sharing my own stories, opinions, or feelings unless someone directly asked me about them. I committed to asking questions, rather than telling, in my conversations with others. 

This fast changed not merely my language, but my attitudes and postures toward others. When telling my own story was not a possibility, I grew more careful and patient, no longer simply waiting for a gap into which I could insert my own tale. I found myself studying the faces of my friends, pondering how much untold joy, sorrow, hope, and uncertainty could lie behind the most familiar eyes. 

Lent has given way to Easter, yet moving into my new house has renewed my desire to listen well. At home, I know who I am. At home, I choose the pictures on the wall and I shape the bread on the table, so I have no need to prove myself. I am present and secure, and that security allows me to forget myself. To ask you questions. To smile in silence and notice the color of your eyes. To listen. 

If you come to my house and I spend our time talking only about myself, then I have not welcomed you. I have put myself on display, perhaps, but I have not invited you to make this place your home. When you speak and stay, however, you take ownership of this house with me -- if only for an hour, you belong in that chair by the window or at this place at the table. 

Since Friday alone, I have had nearly twenty different friends and students come here for a meal or a moment, and I have tried very hard to listen to them. Now when I walk through my dining room, my kitchen, or my yard, I hear their voices. Reminding me to listen, they are well come. 

Do you listen well? What circumstances or practices help you become a better listener? How do you know when someone is listening to you?
* from Bread for the Journey