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,

Indiana sky: my first and favorite timepiece