Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Unlikely Places

He had traded in his Armani suit for a bright orange jumper.  Rather than dining at five star restaurants, he now waited in line for standard institutional meals.  His daily interactions no longer took place in the oak-paneled boardroom, for his domain had been reduced to a ten by ten foot cell.  He had worked his way through school, climbed the corporate ladder from the bottom rung, and had arrived at a coveted position of wealth and status.  But through the years, the cocktail of success had numbed his conscience.  He was abruptly awakened from his drunken stupor as the cell door clanged shut. The echo resonating down the long cement corridor served as a haunting reminder of his long chain of life-changing choices. 

Although he had traveled throughout the world, this was a foreign country for which he could not have time to prepare. He sat quietly digesting every morsel of information that would help him understand this new land.  The culture, language and customs of this place were alien to the life he had known.

His new neighbor, an intimidating hulk of a man, had gained his citizenship through taking the life of another.  He observed that very same man tenderly giving his new, hard-labored-for shoes to one who needed them more.  Time after time, he witnessed acts of kindness, selflessness, and courage within this world set apart from acceptable society.  He slowly discovered that all he had previously believed about “these people” was not accurate.  Yes, they had made poor, often devastating choices, yet in each man resided a more complex story.  Another side.  Alongside the obvious, well-documented depravity was the irrefutable existence of dignity.

Over time, his relationships shifted from that of outcast to friend, and he grew to love these criminals.  These undesirables.  These prodigals.  Together, they had found the strange peace that comes when many layers worn in the world are stripped away, and the naked truth remains. Life’s circumstances had leveled the playing field for these men of extremely diverse backgrounds.  There was no plotting to manipulate the future.  No fortune to be made or social ladder to climb.  No pretense.  No attempts to explain or defend. Locked away behind bars, he was able to find freedom.

The countdown of years droned on, one slow minute following another.  From the outside, his life looked painfully monotonous compared to the stimulating world that he once knew.  Yet the simplicity of his days allowed space for movement and growth of a different kind.  He found and spoke words of truth about the realities of his life without fear of judgment or condemnation.  As his scrambling to control and manipulate life was no longer a viable strategy, there was an ease and relief that settled in his soul.  Room was made for a new inhabitant – One who would never leave nor forsake.   One who restores the years that poor choices have taken.  One who makes all things new.

Trapped in the worst of situations, there was no way out. 

He lost all that he had in the world.  

He gained Life.

"You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope.  With less of you there is more of God and his rule.
You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you.  Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.
You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are – no more, no less.  That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.
You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God.  He’s the food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.
You’re blessed when you care.  At the moment of being “care-full,” you find yourselves cared for.
You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight.  That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family. 
You’re blessed when you get your inside world – your mind and heart – put right.  Then you can see God in the outside world. 
You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution.  The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom. .”  
The Message

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


Blog⋅mo⋅sisnoun  1. the tendency of knowledge, wisdom, talent, or status in life, to pass through a barrier (computer screen or book) from those who have to those who want, thus equalizing the knowledge, wisdom, talent and state of life of both parties.
Recently, a friend of mine was in the midst of a particularly difficult season of marriage.  While trying to find evidence of folks who had gone through similar trials and come out the other side, she discovered a blog that offered great hope.  The authors’ marriage had survived the worst of offenses, yet they had labored through regaining trust and rebuilding relationship.  They offered hope that marriage could indeed survive the darkest of seasons.  As we talked through the pros and cons of following such a blog while she was in the early stages of rebuilding her own marriage, a possible danger surfaced:  blogmosis.  The tendency to read about the life of another, and hope that in doing so, our own journey will take a similar path.  She coined the term, by the way.  Clever, huh?
On some level, we all hope that blogmosis will occur in our own lives.  We seek comfort, wisdom, enlightenment and assurance as we walk through disappointments and challenges in life.  The sources to which we look may vary – a blog, book, speaker, or friend can offer hope that their story may rub off on ours.  We want to know that someone else has traveled this road and succeeded, and perhaps their good fortune will bleed into ours.
No doubt, the stories of those who’ve gone before us can offer hope and direction.  Yet all too often, the line is blurred when we desire that another’s story becomes our story.  I want what another has. Ever so stealthily, legitimate desire mutates into coveting that which is not meant for me.  
In the scientific realm, osmosis is defined as the tendency of water in salt water to flow across a barrier from an area of low concentration to an area of high concentration until both sides of the barrier reach equilibrium.  Similarly, the propensity toward blogmosis can only be prevented when we reach a state of equilibrium as we relate to the lives of others...

~When we choose to believe that our unique journey in life is equal in value to that of all others

~When we accept that the individuality of our own story holds infinite dignity 

~When we can be inspired, challenged, or convicted by the journey of another, yet still rest in believing that we are created with unique talents and abilities to be used for specific purpose
~When we attempt to view our lives not through our own eyes but from the eyes of our wise, perfect, incapable-of-error Creator 
~ When we focus not on the life that we would like to have, but on the life that we have been given
I’m grateful for the stories of those around me, and for the vast array of technology that gives unlimited, immediate access.  When kept in proper perspective, they can give me a glimpse of the greater story for which I was made.  Yet as with any good thing, the best can be twisted into the destructive.  I can't live my life fully if I'm trying to replicate someone else's.

I want to see clearly.
I want to be wise.
I want to be content....
I want to live fully in my own story.
"Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life; everyone must carry out a concrete assignment that demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated, thus, everyone's task is unique as his specific opportunity to implement it."  Viktor Frankl

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Left Behind

It’s been a hard few months.  Yesterday provided an almost humorous dot at the end of the exclamation point.  As I reclined in the dentist’s chair, my distaste for the relentless shriek of his drill could only be outdone by the aromatic waft of chiseled tooth.   I wasn’t sure if I would laugh or cry as I took account of the past several weeks.  Due to the congestion pooling in the back of my throat, I decided that neither response would improve the situation.  Rendered unable to do much else, I couldn’t help but recount the toll that the fall (and The Fall) had taken on our family.

Sometime in mid-October, I developed a cough that decided it didn't want to leave.  Without going into extensive detail (which I’m happy to do for any medical professional who cares to offer an opinion), I’ll share that I’ve now been coughing and generally feeling crummy for three months.  Which means that I haven’t been sleeping for three months.  Add to the formula a colony of “little friends” (term affectionately coined by my husband) had taken up permanent residency in my daughter’s hair, significant parenting challenges with multiple kids,  a particularly full home at Christmas, a son who had been up the entire night due to an ear infection (seriously? I though we were way past those), and now a broken tooth.   I’d say that I needed that like a hole in the head but…   well, it all starts feeling like a bad joke.

I’m acutely aware that the challenges I’ve faced in the last months are minor compared to those of so many.  I don’t have a serious illness, I have an amazingly supportive family, and we’re able to procure medical help when needed.  Nevertheless, there has been a modicum of grief.  I’ve missed a dear friend’s baby shower and first baby being born, I couldn’t help another friend through a move, my cherished time reading aloud with my children has been limited significantly, and I haven’t been able to exercise in months.  I’ve grown weary of waiting for life to return to normal, and have experienced a strange sadness as life for those around me has continued without my involvement.  I feel like a spectator watching the parade go by, only to be left behind.

There are many ways we experience being left behind.  Illness, the intense needs of young children (or aging parents), significant struggles in marriage, shame from the past, and disappointment in friendships only to name a few.  Everyone else seems to be happily marching along - at least if we believe the one-dimensional messages we receive via Christmas newsletters, Facebook updates, and in cordial conversations in the hallway at church.  We place our hope in life “returning to normal” and wait for the storms, and for the loneliness they often produce, to pass.

But perhaps there is a greater gift to be gleaned than the return to normalcy

“…as long as you keep pointing to the specifics, you will miss the full meaning of your pain.  You will deceive yourself into believing that if the people, circumstances, and events had been different, your pain would not exist.  This might be partly true, but the deeper truth is that the situation which brought about your pain was simply the form in which you came in touch with the human condition of suffering.  Your pain is the concrete way in which you participate in the pain of humanity.”  Henri Nouwen

I believe that this challenging season of life will not be wasted.  My hope is that I will develop eyes to see more keenly others who feel left behind, ears to appreciate the more subtle music of those around me, and a heart that will be softened and enabled to love more deeply.  Both the in the small inconveniences in life and in the large tragedies, there is greater purpose.

So if you find yourself watching the parade pass you by, take heart. Know that even in our loneliness, we are not alone.  And one day, we will gather together at the ultimate celebration, under the Great Banner, when everything sad will indeed come untrue. 

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Year in Review: Top 10 Books of 2011

I have a love/hate relationship with lists.  I'm a fair-weather list maker and follower at best. I'm skeptical of any book that has "Ten Steps to..." in the title.  The implication being that if I read and correctly execute the given list of suggestions, the relevant segment of my life will become controllable with a predictable, desired outcome.  Although lists can be helpful in pointing us in the right direction, there is a potential danger when we assign them too much power and assurance.

With that being said, however, I'll bookmark a good resource list any day.  I love to hear what my friends are listening to or reading, and I'm always on the lookout for like-heartedness.  As we pack up the Christmas ornaments, clean up the New Year's confetti, and look forward to whatever the new year has to bring, I wanted to pause and share a few of my favorite books from the past year with you.  Hopefully, you'll find something of interest to include on your 2012 reading list.  What an honor it is to share these books that have meant so much to me this year.  It feels like I'm introducing you to some of my dearest friends.

In no particular order, here are my top 10 from 2011:

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
I'd seen this book on several lists and assumed it would be an immediate favorite.  Turns out that it took some time for it to rise to that spot, but it eventually landed there. Gilead reads like poetry, and is thoughtful and compelling.  A letter written from father to son, there is much to be treasured.

Miz Lil and the Chronicles of Grace by Walt Wangerin Jr.
Oh my.  This may be the most life-impacting book that I read this year.  Highly recommended.   I'll be reading it again.

The Eyes of the Heart: A Memoir of Lost and Found by Frederick Beuchner
Thoughtful and poignant.  If you're a Beuchner fan, this book gives you a glimpse of significant people and events that were influential in his life.  If you haven't read Beuchner, it's a great place to start.

The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald
One of the few books I'll continue to re-read.  The truest of stories for adults as well as children.  Reading it (again) resulted in some of my meanderings here and here.

Bird by Bird:  Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
I've never read a book that can be both highly irreverent yet profoundly insightful at the same time.  And wow, is she funny. Lamott's book is less about the technical aspects of writing, but more about the discipline and cost required, the heart challenges, the realities, limitations, and joys of writing... and life.

The Jesus Storybook Bible by Sally Lloyd-Jones
I'm guessing that I'll be reading this every year... for the rest of my life.  It's that significant.  If you don't have children, don't let that stop you.  More on The Jesus Storybook Bible can be found here.

Nomad by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
A few thoughts about Nomad found here.

How Rembrandt Reveals Your Beautiful and Imperfect Self by Roger Housden
A thoughtful look at Rembrandt's life and work.  Housden elaborates on the following lessons learned from Rembrandt:  Open your eyes * Love this world * Troubles will come * Stand like a tree * Keep the faith * Embrace the Inevitable.  

The Charlatan's Boy by Jonathan Rogers
One of the most delightful books that I've read in years.  Andrew Peterson accurately describes Rogers' style as "Mark Twain meets C.S. Lewis."  Clever and light-hearted in spirit, but deep in content.   And Rogers just so happens to be a Furman grad.  'Nough said.

The Trunk by Elizabeth Coatsworth
A few thoughts about The Trunk found here.

Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery
If you've never read it, this is the year. Charming.  Particularly when read out loud.  Even if you are alone.

Ok.  That was 11.  I told you that I'm not great at the list thing.

As the new year commences, here are a few books I'm working through and that will most likely make it on the 2012 list:

The Meaning of Marriage by Tim Keller
Ragman and Other Cries of Faith by Walt Wangerin, Jr.
Walking on Water by Madeleine L'Engle

Happy reading to you and yours as we venture into the new year.  I'd love to hear what's on your list...

“When you listen and read one thinker, you become a clone… two thinkers, you become confused… ten thinkers, you’ll begin developing your own voice… two or three hundred thinkers, you become wise and develop your voice.”               Tim Keller