Wednesday, September 21, 2011

At the Start Line Again... This Time for Hutchmoot

Frozen puffs of air tumbled from a deep sea of mouths - some chattering with excitement, others just doing their work of oxygen exchange.  It was mid-December, and I found myself in the middle of what felt like a platoon of runners.  The starting line was up ahead, and I had slipped inconspicuously into the crowd of  folks who ran at a similar pace to mine.

I looked like them - donned in Nike apparel, timing chip laced onto my shoe, and sporting my trusty black running hat.

 I had trained like them - having spent the last few months studying and implementing a standard training schedule with the obedience of an infantryman.

But when the actual moment had finally arrived, I stood in the middle of the crowded Charlotte street knowing one thing for certain - I wasn't like them.  They were runners.  I was not.  And it was too late to back out.  What in the world had I gotten myself in to?

As I've confessed earlier (full disclosure found here), my education and work experience have been primarily focused in the business world.  I'm not a writer.  But through the years, I've found that words and thoughts would clutter my brain unless I found a way to capture, bring order to, and free them from the roaming wilderness of my mind.  While ambling through life, I'll occasionally trip upon an experience that I don't want to forget. The ideas, emotions, and spiritual applications morph from pleasant fleeting visitors floating among my thoughts into a vicious stampede demanding to be noticed.  Order from chaos would be obtained only by putting pencil to paper.  Occasionally, as friends would experience similar situations, I'd hesitantly share some of my writing in the hope that the words would bring tangible form to the commonalities in life... and that we'd both be a little less alone.

This summer, I took the leap of sharing some of my meandering thoughts in a more public forum (which you're currently reading).  At the least, or perhaps most importantly,  I'd be leaving written memorial stones for my children to remind them of the great things the Father has done in the lives of our family, and in the world around us.  Thus is the birth of my writing on a more intentional and frequent basis.  It has become a more integral part of my days, particularly when I've read or experienced something of significance.

The day before yesterday was one of those "wake up in the morning expecting a regular day" days.  After returning from a lovely coffee date with a new friend, I learned that a spot had opened up for "Hutchmoot" - a conference in Nashville founded by Andrew Peterson and his friends at the Rabbit Room.  Months ago, the conference had filled up so quickly that I didn't even have a chance to consider registering.  Just as well.  Hutchmoot draws musicians, artists, "real" writers, and other uber-gifted folks from across the country to spend a weekend together experiencing "live music, great food and conversation, and a series of discussions centered on art, faith, and the telling of great stories across a range of mediums." Oh my.  My heart beats faster just thinking about it.  But I don't really qualify, so a very closed registration saved me from the risk of... well, the risk of hoping and being disappointed.  Or even more terrifying, the risk of hoping and receiving that for which I had dared to dream.

I half-heartedly decided to  tap gently on the first door down the hallway that would lead to Hutchmoot.  I fully believed (and secretly hoped) that the door wouldn't open.  I called my husband at work and instructed him, "I just need you to tell me that I can't go to Nashville this weekend." There were a multitude of factors which would support this reasonable response, including prior commitments and a full schedule.  He didn't follow the script.  He wanted me to go.  Shortly thereafter, a multitude of questionable details were quickly resolved, and my trip to Nashville became an unexpected reality.

Remember the "what have I gotten myself in to" dilemma I experienced at the starting line?  Well, here I am again.  I hardly consider myself a writer, yet that is the closest category under which I fit during the weekend.  My only preparation through the years has been one of soul, not one of skill.  Once again,  I will find myself surrounded by those with far more experience and "right" to be there.  But just as I did during my race, I'll will myself to put one foot in front of the other and believe that my training, albeit quite different from those around me, will be sufficient for each step of the way.

I can't help but to chuckle (or wince) that my last post was about living freely, without comparing to or performing for others.  Drat.  Sounded good last week. Stings a little this week.  But what I can be sure of is that the Father is good.  He is intentional.  He uses our weaknesses, not our strengths, to bring glory to Himself.  And I'd be well-advised to remember that "True humility is not thinking of less of yourself;  it is thinking of yourself less."  Tim Keller

So if I cross your mind this weekend, I'd ask you to pray for all those who will be attending Hutchmoot in Nashville:

~That we all would be aware of the subtle entrapments of comparison, pride, envy, shame, and a much longer list of enemies of humility.

~That in the midst of a stimulating environment rich with talent, conversation, and beauty, we would be mindful to worship the Creator, not the creation.

~That as we pause for a few days to consider the Great Storyteller, we'd experience a glimpse of the Great Story itself...

Then Jesus gave John a beautiful dream - except John was wide awake and what he saw was real and one day it would all come true...

I see a throne.  And on the throne is a king.  And the King is Jesus.  All around the throne people are bowing down.  They are giving him their treasures.

There are loud cheers and clapping, clapping and bright laughter like a thousand waterfalls and everyone bursts out singing a new song...

"This is our King!  The Lamb who died, so we don't have to - our Rescuer.  All Honor and Glory!  Forever and ever."  And every creature everywhere, in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, joins in.

And then

From all around

A wide



S i l e n c e

And I see Satan - God's horrible enemy - thrown down, defeated

I see a sparkling city shimmering in the sky:  glittering, glowing, coming down!  From heaven.  And from the sky.  Heaven is coming down to earth!

God's city is beautiful.  Walls of topaz, jasper, sapphire.  Wide streets paved with gold.  Gleaming pearl gates that are never locked shut.

Where is the sun?  Where is the moon?  They aren't needed anymore.  God is all the Light people need.  No more darkness!  No more night!

And the King says, "Look!  God and his children are together again.  No more running away.  Or hiding.  No more crying or being lonely or afraid.  No more being sick or dying.  Because all those things are gone.  Yes, they're gone forever.  Everything sad has come untrue.  And see - I have wiped away every tear from every eye!"

And then a deep, beautiful voice that sounded like thunder in the sky says, "Look, I'm making everything new!"

Sally Lloyd-Jones The Jesus Storybook Bible

A very public "Thank You" to the one who continues to cheer me on through the races of life - and who has the courage to go "off script" from time to time.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Lessons from the Master (part 2 of 2): Freedom from Ties that Bind

"The Painter in His Studio" by Rembrandt

Rembrandt van Rijn is undoubtedly considered one of the Great Masters of painting and etching.  As with all of us, his life was marked by both success and tragedy.  He suffered the death of his wife and 3 of his 4 children, and endured significant scandal and bankruptcy. It would be reckless to hold Rembrandt up as the standard for which we should strive, yet there is merit to gleaming insights from his remarkable life. 

During his career, Rembrandt received a fair degree of criticism for his unconventional methodologies. Ironically, it was often this deviation from the norm that resulted in the extraordinary nature of his artwork.  Some say he was intentionally "bucking the system."  I'd suggest that his motivation was not externally motivated defiance.  Rather, he was intensely determined to be true to self.  

“Instead of being commissioned, the subjects for most of his works were chosen by Rembrandt himself.  Other contemporary portrait painters, like Van Dyck, Velazquez, or Hals, worked almost exclusively on commission, which meant they had to abide by the narrow restrictions on the form imposed by the expectations of the sitter.  Make me look good, whatever you do.”  Roger Housden

Rather than painting in order to please patrons, Rembrandt honored his sense of creative expression.  He chose artistic integrity over financial security.  Some of his most moving and memorable works were produced as a result of the resulting creative freedom.  He painted in order to reveal souls, not capture images.  Holland was a magnet for refugees, and many of his subjects were poor Jewish neighbors (he was the first of his time to paint Jesus as a young Jewish man).  He captured the moods of everyday people as they went about in ordinary life – teaching a toddler to walk, cleaning, and sleeping.   All because he was free from the ties that come with needing to please others.

I’d imagine that if Rembrandt had restricted his artwork to the parameters set by patrons, his paintings still would have been remarkable.  We simply would have never  known that we missed the best part of him.  The same is true of our lives - although seemingly fruitful from the outside, we often don't experience the fullness of life that we were intended to live.  We too, miss the best part.

I’m challenged by the contrast of Rembrandt’s freedom with my frequent bondage to the opinion of others, and to the commitment  to make life work on my terms.  I want a life freedom, yet find myself bowing down to the idols of approval and control.  The struggle is revealed daily…

~ When I find myself angry with my older children for making poor choices, or with my young children when they exhibit less-than-expected manners.  Not always because I want what is honoring to God, but at times because I want affirmation that we’re good parents.  Rather than live a life marked by patience and encouragement, I become a slave to approval.

~ When I’m not willing to go to my husband and ask for forgiveness after an argument, even when I know  that I was in the wrong.  Rather than living a life marked by love and freedom, I become a slave to the illusion of control.

~ When I maintain a safe distance from friends instead of entering into the messiness of relationship.  Rather than living a life marked by integrity and long-suffering, I become a slave to the attainment of safety and acceptance.

I want to live a life marked by peace, integrity, humility, and vibrancy.

Yet I also want to win the approval of others, control of my life, and experience safety in relationships – all which come with strings attached.  Ties that bind.  Chains that enslave.   By my own hand.

We see the cycle of bondage as it played out in Israel’s history.  Until they were delivered.  

We are still in need. 

I am still in need…

Our enemy, our captor is no pharaoh on the Nile
Our toil is neither mud nor brick nor sand
Our ankles bear no calluses from chains, yet Lord, we're bound
Imprisoned here, we dwell in our own land

Deliver us, deliver us
Oh Yahweh, hear our cry
And gather us beneath your wings tonight

Our sins they are more numerous than all the lambs we slay
These shackles they were made with our own hands
Our toil is our atonement and our freedom yours to give
So Yahweh, break your silence if you can

Andrew Peterson “Deliver Us”

The majority of us will not leave a portfolio of priceless artwork for which we will be remembered.  Our legacy will be more subtle, yet no less significant than that of Rembrandt’s.  We’ve each been given a unique palette of talents, experiences, and predispositions with which we paint upon the canvas of the world.  We leave our mark on those we meet, indelibly altering the composition and tone of their lives.  

Daily, we choose for whom we are painting.  

Do I take the talents and abilities that I’ve been given to fulfill the expectations of others (or myself)? In doing so, I become a slave to that which I hope to attain.

Or do I choose to live life as a student of the Master?  Trusting his guidance, studying his ways, and painting to please him alone...  and as a result, leaving behind a legacy that bears a resemblance to the Master himself.  

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.  Stand firm, then and do not let yourselves be burdened by a yoke of slavery.”  Galatians 5:1

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Lessons from the Master (part 1of 2): Rembrandt's Self-Portraits and Me

Rembrandt, Self-Portrait in a Cap, Open-Mouthed, 1630, etching

Art was one of those classes I took to offset my load of “real” course work. The teacher was straight out of the textbook.  Perhaps my memory is tainted, but he really did look like Van Gogh, minus the bandaged ear.  He was a quirky, melancholy, disheveled man who became highly animated when he talked about artwork.  I don’t remember much from class other than sketching leaves, a tennis shoe, and shadowed 3-dimensional blocks.  The most lasting instruction I received from Van Gogh was:  “Don’t ever say that a painting is pretty.”  The humble beginnings of my art appreciation education.

One of the perks of our homeschooling lifestyle is the freedom, flexibility, and capacity to step out of the mainstream pace of life and delve deeply into whatever we’re studying.  We’ve begun a (one-sided) relationship with Rembrandt Van Rijn.  As with any relationship, we’re in the early stages of turning over various pieces of the puzzle of his life and artwork, and studying them individually.  Each gives a glimpse of the larger, finished project.  As a side note, I’m struck that even if we had lived down the street from him, shared dinners and holidays, and had the ability to talk with him over a hot cup of Dutch koffie, we’d still limited in how well we could know him.  That’s just the way we’re created – as a bottomless box of puzzle pieces.  No matter how many are plucked out, studied, and meticulously rearranged, only the Creator has the vision to see us in our entirety.  I find it somewhat humorous that we think we have each other “figured out.”

But back to Rembrandt… One of the puzzle pieces we’ve pulled out of the box is his uncanny use of light and shadow.  Another is his tendency to buck the convention of the time when painting groups of people.  Rather than paint a series of portraits all on the same canvas, he created a storyline of characters.  His paintings evoke emotion and questions:  “What were they talking about?”  “Who was the man in the shadows?”  “What was she feeling?”  The famous Night Watch was one of those controversial paintings in which Rembrandt created a compelling scene rather than a string of flat portraits.  Not all of his subjects were pleased. Some actually demanded their money back.

Personally, one of the most compelling pieces of the Rembrandt puzzle has been his remarkable insight into human emotion.  His paintings draw you to the souls of the subject.  This unique characteristic of his artwork leaves us with an obvious question:  How did he know so much about the nature of people?

In the 50 years of Rembrandt’s career, he produced more than 90 self-portraits.  He became a student of himself  - not only studying the detail of his physical being, but also exploring the complexities and diversity of human emotion. His discovery of self was not rooted in self-absorption.  Artists who were narcissistic tended to paint themselves repeatedly in their best form.  Rembrandt, however, exposed his heart as both kind and enraged, his mind as both theatrical and analytical, and his disposition as both carefree and pensive.  He used self-study as a tool to gain insight into the full range of the human condition.  And the result was his remarkable ability to capture an extensive range emotional and psychological aspects on canvas.  He deliberately explored and discovered self for the purpose of gaining in-depth insight into others.

So what lesson can we learn from the master?

We live in a society that has written reams of self-help books, booming syndication of Dr. Phil and Oprah, and promises fulfillment if only you can identify and achieve  whatever it is that makes you happy.  Self-examination and self-help are in vogue.  However, I’d argue that the motivation and methodology behind most of today's approaches to self-exploration differ greatly from Rembrandt’s.  And from the Master’s as well.

How can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. Matthew 7:4-5

Having an accurate self-assessment is one of the first steps to loving others well.  We all have some form of plank that blocks our view.  The plank can take the form of arrogance or shame. It can masquerade as intellect, discernment, religion, or volunteer service.  It’s anything that distorts the Truth of who we are,  and it in turn distorts our view of others.  If we’re willing to acknowledge the plank, then to have it removed bit by bit, the process is painful yet the result is freeing.  I’ve shared a bit of my own journey here, and I hope to continue undergoing the process of log-extraction as long as I have breath. Although there will always be remnants of the log this side of heaven, our eyesight can be greatly restored.  As we begin to see more clearly, we are enabled to love others in a way that more closely resembles the love of the Father.  In short, we can begin to get ourselves out the way, and let Him love others through us.  

An unsolicited, unpaid-for, no kick-back, but straight-from-the-heart advertisement:  

For those of you who live in Charlotte and would like to spend some focused energy on the art of walking through life with others, I’d highly recommend your consideration of Barnabas Training.   This powerful approach utilizes reading, writing, group and individual discussions to help us discover "the log in our own eye" so that we are better equipped to see more clearly and love others well.