Sunday, August 28, 2011

Glass Full

Last week, my husband and I attended a dinner party with several other couples – some of whom we had known for years, and some who we didn’t know at all.  It was a relational group – conversations flowed easily, and we made connections of mutual friends, colleges, churches, and interests that could have been charted like a constellation map.  Eventually, we migrated to the living room to congregate over dessert.  The “get to know you” question of the evening:  “As a couple, what has been the highlight and what has been the lowlight of the year?” It shouldn’t have been a particularly difficult question to answer.  The couples were given a few minutes to discuss with each other prior to answering in the larger group (the hosts, by the way, were counselors and knew this to be wise).  I was stopped.  Not by the question, but by my scrambling for an answer.

Like a mad woman searching frantically for keys that I was sure I had just seen, I found myself digging through my purse full of memories from the last year.  Surely there was a major disappointment somewhere.  I was able to surface the highlights rather quickly.  But to my own surprise, I couldn’t seem to locate the doubtless difficult times with the same ease.  I’m well aware that life is a grab-bag full of good and bad, and that some folks seem to  beat the odds regarding pulling out more prizes than duds, at least from appearances.  But our history, although peppered with some delightful treasures, has been one with considerable struggle.  Wow.  Perhaps this year has been different.

I finally came around to acknowledging that this year has indeed been one of unexpected respite.  Isn’t this what we’ve been waiting for?  A season filled with richness of experience, joyful celebration, and relative peace.  The glass was unusually full.  Then why did I have a faint feeling of sadness like a microscopic crack threatening to siphon my merriment, drop by drop?  Then it slowly dawned upon me.  I had a vague sense that I've felt this way before.

~ As I watched my beautiful newborn sleep, I reveled in inexplicable delight… yet I secretly feared that he may not wake up

~ When a year’s worth of uncertainly came to an end, resulting in our stay in Charlotte, a new job, and a move to a wonderful neighborhood…  as we sighed with relief, there was an underlying “what if we loose this?”

~ When medical tests returned negative – an up-to-date affirmation that I was healthy… but what about next time?

"Our life is a short time in expectation, a time in which sadness and joy kiss each other at every moment. There is a quality of sadness that pervades all the moments of our lives. It seems that there is no such thing as a clear-cut pure joy, but that even in the most happy moments of our existence we sense a tinge of sadness. In every satisfaction, there is an awareness of limitations. In every success, there is the fear of jealousy. Behind every smile, there is a tear. In every embrace, there is loneliness. In every friendship, distance. And in all forms of light, there is the knowledge of surrounding darkness . . . But this intimate experience in which every bit of life is touched by a bit of death can point us beyond the limits of our existence. It can do so by making us look forward in expectation to the day when our hearts will be filled with perfect joy, a joy that no one shall take away from us."
Henri Nouwen   

So maybe, just maybe, the microscopic crack in the glass is there for our own protection.  Perhaps it is the way in which our Father gently reminds us that we were not made for this world, and that even the best days – or years – fall short of the glory which He has prepared for us.  When we no longer try to fill our own glasses with that which can evaporate, rather we finally find ourselves basking in an ocean of eternal perfection.

What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived – the things God has prepared for those who love Him.” 1 Cor. 2:9

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Other Side of the Stone

Recently, my husband and I snuck away for a weekend in the mountains.  Given life with 5 children who happen to be at such different stages (ages 7-24), our times away are precious and rare.  Through the years, we’ve learned that it’s a good idea to talk about expectations for our time away prior to departure.  Often, we try to run together in the mornings (ahem… that is, he’s gracious enough to jog at a much slower pace than he normally would, and I try to “gut it out” in the spirit of recreating together).   This trip, following a particularly busy season for our family, I opted out.  I wanted time alone to decompress.  He would run alone, and I’d take peaceful morning walks through the tranquil little town of Blowing Rock.

On our second morning away, I felt particularly refreshed from a good night’s sleep. Before I knew it, my morning walk picked up pace, and I found myself enjoying a slow, steady jog. The roads were desolate, the storefronts dark, and I wound my way down the main street, through the park, and eventually back toward the inn where we were staying. 

Having been recently thinking and writing about stones, I was acutely aware of their various uses in the architecture around me.  They piled together creating a picturesque church, lined the sidewalks directing shoppers to their destinations, and paved the way to historic inns.  Yes, the stones represented strength, consistency through years, support and directionThese were good things.

Until…  I tripped.  Yes, as I was swept up in the imagery of the stones, the context abruptly shifted.  I had come to a place on the path where the larger stones had remained intact, but the areas around the stone had been worn away through seasons of use and erosion.  The tip of my shoe caught the edge, and I stumbled to keep from falling.  Hmmm.  Perhaps there is another dimension to the metaphor.

As we pick up in the story of Joshua (you can catch up here), Joshua lists all that God has done to protect and bless the Israelites.  Joshua then charges them to put away false gods (ie idols) and serve God only (Joshua 24:14-15).  Ok – that’s difficult to translate into today's terms.   Although the concept of idols may seem irrelevant in our modern society, unfortunately, they are all too present in each of our worlds.

“We think that idols (counterfeit gods) are bad things, but that is almost never the case.  The greater the good, the more likely we are to expect that we can satisfy our deepest needs and hopes.  Anything can serve as a counterfeit god.  Especially the very best things in life.”  Tim Keller

The people respond to Joshua, “We will serve the Lord our God and we will obey His voice.” (Joshua 24:24)  Of course.  After all that they’d been through, they would be foolish not to.

Joshua takes a large stone to set up under a tree by the sanctuary of the Lord.  We’d expect him to say, “Great!  You’ve made a wise choice that will please your God and serve you well.  Here’s another memorial stone to remind you.”  Instead, his response is ”Behold, this stone shall be a witness against us, for it has heard all the words of the Lord which He spoke to us, thus it shall be a witness against you, so that you do not deny your God.” (Joshua 24:25-28)

Yikes.  The stone was not a reminder of their wise choice, rather it foreshadowed their fickle nature and inevitable return to false gods.  They, like us, overestimated their loyalty to the only One who could ultimately provide for them.

Think of the times you've been provided for.   Chances are, if they’re biggies, the provision came from beyond you.  Only God can bring us through the hardest of situations.  It is when we reach the end of our proverbial ropes that He will step in to rescue.  Yet we spend much of our energies trying to avoid that very thing.  We’re competent.  We’re resilient.  We construct our lives in ways that take control. We work hard to avoid dependence on God in the everyday – I can manage my life, thank you very much.  God can stick to the miracles and healings when I get in a pinch. And that posture of the heart, at its very core, is the  essence of idolatry.

What are some of the counterfeit gods in my life?  Financial security, a unique community of rich friendships, health and well-being of my family, excellent education for my children, intellectual pursuit, and even a healthy lifestyle.  These are good things, but things in which I ultimately place too much hope and significance.

As the memorial stones in life remind us of God’s provision, they should simultaneously serve as a caution to us.  They warn us of our defiant nature, and remind us of  the places we take control and manipulate life rather than resting in the Father.  We try to gain our footing on the gravelly self-made crevices that exist between the solid, sustainable, eternal stones.  And because He’s good and wants what is best for us, He allows us to stumble.  He’s constantly calling us back to Himself.

So after stumbling on the side street of Blowing Rock, I’m reminded that I’m limited.  And that a richer, more peaceful life can be found if I’ll acknowledge my innate tendency to reject God by relying on my own strategies for life.  And the very, very good news is that I’ll find not shame nor condemnation, but rather hope and ultimate rest, when I consider “the other side of the stone.”

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Top Ten Reasons We're Excited for School

Tis the season for back-to-school shopping, planning, paperwork, and a return to a more scheduled life.  Even the non-list makers (like me) are making lists to ensure that everything gets done.  I for one, love the fall.  For me, it signifies a fresh start to a year full of possibilities.  This morning, as we were discussing the next few weeks together, I commented that I was full of anticipation and excitement for this year in particular.  My son said, "Mom, you always say that."

Well, yes I do.  And in the spirit of list making, here are few things that I'm most excited about as we launch off into a new school year:

10.  Great Read-Alouds - Our time reading great books together will always be a cornerstone of our schooling.  I love the smell, feel, and pictures in the books, and I love the sound of my children begging for "just one more chapter,"  the conversation that bubbles up as a result of our reading, and the richness that is added to our family culture.  We have a long list of books on the docket, most of which are "living books."  I look forward to meeting new friends, experiencing different cultures, and having a front row seat as major historical events unfold - all while cuddled together on the couch.  

9.  First Lego League - Brings to mind images of happy, carefree children building towers with boxes of brightly-colored legos.  Not quite.  This year, Will (my newly 12 yr old) is participating in the FLL.  Think intricately-built robots, student-designed computer programs to direct the robots, team building, problem solving, public speaking, with the culmination being a competition with other groups in the state.  Given his talents and interests, the FLL has given him a place to explore and grow, and has been welcome addition to our school year.

8.  Community Bible Study (CBS)- We'll be studying the gospel of Luke this year.  Ya can't go wrong there!  I'm grateful that not only the children and I will be studying the same thing, but that David's evening class will be as well.  "Education without values, useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil."  C.S. Lewis

7.  Fun Fridays - I learned last year that we do much better if we arrange our week so that we spend Monday-Wednesday on our core classes (math, writing, languages, etc.), CBS on Thursday, then reserve Friday for Science.  Last year, we studied birds, including participating in the Cornell Dept. of Ornithology bird count study.  This year, we're studying plants.  I know nothing.  Hopefully I'll know more by the end of the year.  We start Friday mornings on the porch reading about the topic for the day, then spend much of the rest of the day doing an experiment, nature walk on the greenway, or painting/drawing whatever we learned about.  Fridays often entail field trips to the museum, a play, the library, or adventures with friends.

6.  Music - I love our home being filled with beautiful music.  With 3 children practicing piano, one playing the guitar, and the youngest (and possibly her mother as well) adding violin to the list of instruments being practiced, I'd estimate that we have 2-3 hours of music screeching, banging flowing from our home everyday.

5.  Writing/Art/Latin - We have been lavished upon greatly with wonderful teachers who speak into the lives of my children.  I'm forever grateful for their technical expertise, passion, individual gifting, and their unequivocal dedication to and love for the kiddos.  And I'm a lucky duck because I get to see them every week.

4.  Training for a 5K - For the first time, we'll be training as a family to run a 5K together.  The schedule started this weekend, and we'll be running 3 days during the week and once on the weekend in preparation for the race this fall.  I look forward to their experiencing the discipline, persistence, commitment, and reward of support from each other as we gasp breeze through the miles.

3.  Philadelphia - We use a classical approach to studying history, which basically means that  we take all of history and divide it into 4 years, to be repeated after the 4th year.  We covered Ancients, then Medieval, Renaissance, and now we're coming up on the Explorers/American history.  So, we're off to see the Liberty Bell, the National Constitution Center, Independence Hall, and no doubt a few famous Philly cheese steaks in October.  And by the way, we'll just so happen to be able to catch the Andrew Peterson/ Steven Curtis Chapman concert in PA on the way.  Our trips to experience whatever we've been studying continue to be one of my favorite dimensions to our schooling.

2.  Rembrandt - This year, we have a fabulous line-up of resources from which to study the life and works of Rembrandt.  As I was plotting our our trip to PA, I was thrilled to discover that the Philadelphia Museum of Art would be hosting "Rembrandt:  The Faces of Jesus" during our trip.  Rembrandt's 7 paintings of  Jesus will be reunited for the first time since 1656.  In posing an ethnographically correct (Jewish) model and using a human face to depict Jesus, Rembrandt revolutionized the history of Christian art. We started reading The Night Watch:  Adventures with Rembrandt and enjoying his artwork this week.  We're warming up to becoming friends.  I can hardly wait.

1.  Margin - I don't take for granted the privilege and responsibility that I have in tailoring my children's education.  Through the years, I've become convinced that the best part of what we do can never be measured by a year-end test.  I try to apply the general principles of "do what's most important first," then make plans around those priorities.  We've cut out some activities this year hoping to create more margin... To serve our refugee friends.  To be more available to others.  To have leisurely conversations about life, art, the Panthers, and whatever else is on our minds.  To play in the creek.  To read for pleasure.  To stop and watch the spider miraculously spinning her web or the weary yet determined ant carry the crumb to her home. To learn to be still.

As you venture into your school year, please join me by reviewing your own lists.  Do they support your long-term priorities?   Are you considering making changes to help your practical-everyday life line up more closely with your this-is-what-I-value-most life? I'd love to hear more.  Best wishes, and a "Happy New Year" to you and yours!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Full Disclosure

This is a disclaimer:
If you've read any of my posts about books,  I feel that in good conscience (wink), I should let you know: I’m not an English scholar, I’m not an author, and my resume doesn't include teaching as a previous occupation.  The only authority from which I speak is one of my own experience...

So why the time and energy given to discussion about books? 

Here’s a snippet of my story:

I’ve been a lover of literature since high school.  For my 15th birthday, my dad bought me The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson.  For my 16th, The Complete Poems and Plays of T.S. Eliot.  My high school literature teacher allowed us to dissect and discuss U2 songs as an introduction to poetry.  The spark was ignited.  I was mesmerized by the alchemy that occurred through taking individual, common words, and rearranging them in such a way as to create something much more powerful than the sum of themselves. 

In college, if I had had my “druthers,”  I would have majored in English or Philosophy.  But I came from a pragmatic home, and a degree in Business was a much more practical choice.  No complaints – I ended up with a (wonderful) career in corporate America, but my love of literature laid semi-dormant for another season of life. 

When the decision was made to homeschool our younger children, I became immersed in a new sub-culture.  As with any sub-culture, there was both good and bad, but the good was really good.  During our first year of schooling, I attended a large homeschool conference and book fair with a dear friend.  We stumbled upon Jan Bloom’s booth, which held thousands of beautiful old books for sale.   Hearts beat faster as we feverishly plundered through the shelves in search of hidden treasures waiting to be claimed. Jan had written a book on books, and was an alchemist in her own right.  She would talk about each book as if it were her own child.  As she carefully took each one off of the shelf (“held be center of the spine, not top, which could do damage”), she would chronicle the history of the author and the list of its sibling books.  With a twinkle in her eye, Jan ushered us into each story, introduced us to the characters, and prepared us for the adventure on which we would be taken.  Within a span of minutes, I had experienced the heart of C.S. Lewis’s observation of friendship:

Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: 
"What! You too? I thought I was the only one."

My love of literature was aroused from years of hibernation.  Yet this time, I was not alone.  My friend and I continued to learn about, revel in, and search for great books.  Book fairs, library sales, and an occasional antique mall produced well-stocked home libraries.  We were fortunate enough to bring speakers like Jan Bloom, Sally Clarkson, and Sarah Clarkson to Charlotte.  These women poured into our lives, and the lives of our friends and children.  The culture and substance our children’s childhoods have been indelibly altered as a result.

To whom much is given, much is required.  I’m acutely aware that I’ve been entrusted with a treasure of great value.  In the months to come, I will occasionally be including among my posts some thoughts, observations, and suggestions of books for both adults and children.  I'd like to thank you in advance for graciously overlooking inevitable mixed metaphors, occasional apostrophe errors, and accidental misplaced modifiers.  I also want to be upfront in letting you know that few of the thoughts contained in those upcoming posts are uniquely mine.  They are a melding of the teachings of others.  My hope is that the ideas, resources and experiences that I share are added to your own.  And from those primary elements, the Great Alchemist can transform the common into the extraordinary.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

A Good Book is Like a Lemonade Stand

When we moved to Charlotte in 1994, I accepted a job at a large bank as the manager of the Commercial Training Program.  To you non-bankers, it may sound like a stuffy office job.  It was actually great fun.  Not only did I get to participate in hiring the latest crop of college graduates, but they were placed in my care for 12-18 months of training and development.  My charge was to ensure that by the end of that time, they had received all of the coaching, training, information and experience needed to be able to assess the health of a company, negotiate and sell bank products, and manage the entire banking relationship for a portfolio of companies.

I was fortunate enough to partner with a rather progressive consulting company that developed day-long seminars for specific topics.  The owner of the company was a former therapist, and her unique methodology was born from her experiences in the counseling office.  She understood how people learned.  She knew the difference between short-term understanding and life-long, rooted learning.  One of the most impactful seminars that we utilized was “The Lemonade Stand Game.” 

The goal of “The Lemonade Stand Game” was simple.  At the end of the day, “players” would have received an entire semester’s worth of general accounting principles,  and they would be able to remember and apply those principles in real-life situations.  The set up: an actual grown-up version of a lemonade stand, sign, pitchers and all.  The game started by participants buying sugar, water, ice, etc. needed for the stand.  They were given a small amount of cash, but had to borrow the remainder needed for set-up.  And then of course, the participants sold lemonade.  With the cash they collected, they saved some, paid off a portion of the debt, and used the remainder for additional purchases.  Within hours, The Lemonade Stand Game had taken a safe, familiar concept and had used it to build a framework on which could be hung more difficult, complex concepts.  By the end of the day, the players had effortlessly absorbed far more accounting than many of us had retained from several college courses.

Why?  The Lemonade Stand Game had taken a non-threatening, familiar, and safe concept and had used it to build a common framework.  This framework was etched in the minds of the players (really... who could ever forget playing "lemonade stand" in the middle of corporate America?), and it provided a starting point from which other more complex concepts could be hung.  We were surprised by the vast degree of learning that took place with little to no effort.

Good books work in much the same way. 


~Since we can interact with them at our own pace (and without fear of rejection or judgement), they are safe.  Our defenses come down and we are in a much more "teachable"place. 

~Books utilize common ground.  We bring to them our predispositions and our experiences.  They don’t mind.  They begin their work in us where we are.  We strive to identify with the characters, their situations, their hopes, fears and dreams.  Much like meeting a new friend and scrambling to find commonalities, we automatically look for ways to connect.  It is then that story can have access to impact the deepest parts of our soul.

~The scaffolding of new (or changing) perceptions, ideas, and emotion is often constructed without our awareness.  Days, weeks, and even years after the last page is read, we are surprised every time by the random, yet significant ways a story can continue to have impact.  It changes us forever, by subtly shaping how we view the world, and how we view ourselves.

Well-written story can take many forms.  It is sneaky.  It gets inside my heart and my head without my being immediately aware.  Then the lessons learned pop up unexpectedly for years to come.

Here are a few examples of books that have recently influenced the shaping of my mind and my heart:

Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali (non-fiction)
Infidel is an autobiography of a Somalian woman who eventually fled both her country and her family's religious and cultural beliefs.   I began reading Infidel to glean further understanding of the Islamic culture.  Our family has been involved with a Somalian refugee family for several years.  We've visited with the 8 of them in the living room of their small, 2 bedroom apartment.  We’ve heard the horror stories including their midnight flight (on foot) through the jungle to Kenya.  Our children have grown up as friends.  I wanted to understand their culture in a more meaningful way.  But...  I was not prepared for the substantial, disruptive impact that this Muslim woman's true story would have in my own life.  As I read her observations and criticisms of her own culture, I was challenged to look at my own beliefs with new eyes.   I was stopped to consider how my own upbringing and environment had shaped my perspective of family, loyalty, and religion.  As I’m currently reading through Nomad, her sequel, the healthy disruption continues.

The Trunk by Elizabeth Coatsworth (fiction)
Although this book is hard to find, it’s worth the hunt.  The narrative of The Trunk unfolds through the eyes of a woman who follows her artist-husband to the jungle in order to support his dreams.  It ultimately reveals that the individual lens through which we each see the world greatly colors, and yes distorts, the reality of others’ characters and actions.  I was drawn to the adventurous story and the author's startling insight into relationships.  I was not prepared for the extent to which the jarring twists (and truths) at the end would reflect and reveal troublesome inclinations in my life and view of others. The Trunk left me wondering what it would be like to watch a video of my life, only from God's perfect perspective, not my own.  How would I view others differently?  Myself?  My marriage? Friendships?  

Tales of the Kingdom by David and Karen Mains (children's fiction)
In particular, the story of "Princess Amanda and the Dragon."  A hauntingly accurate picture of our subtle slide into seduction.  We make small, seemingly insignificant compromises that take root and grow in our hearts until they become too big to tame.  I come back to this story again and again, and it quietly creeps up in my conscience when I take the first steps in hiding and nurturing my own "baby dragons" that eventually outgrow my ability to tame them.  More on that story another day.

So, as we come to the close of the summer, let us not leave behind the magic of chasing fireflies, swimming pools, and lemonade stands.  There are worlds yet to be explored, friends yet to meet, and "things yet to be thunk"...  all to be found in the pages of a good book.