I don't even know what I was doing when I burst into tears. I was busying myself with yet another task that needed to be done right then. Maybe I was washing the dishes that inevitably pile up in the sink. I swear, no one else was in the kitchen when I washed the last one and another cup appeared out of thin air. Perhaps I was sweeping the crumbs off the kitchen floor - again. All I know is I was frantically cleaning so I could get to the other endless tasks waiting for me - writing deadlines, bills to pay, or emails to answer.
In an effort to get it all done I was rushing around the kitchen when the scent of Georgia summer invaded my senses. I stopped near the bowl of gardenias I had brought into the house earlier that day.
If you haven't lived below the Mason-Dixon line, you won't understand how the aroma of this flower signals the coming of summer in the mind of a child of the South. The Gardenia is a staple of the southern garden. The plant itself is a bush, it's leathery leaves shiny and thick. One day there will be tight green buds, nothing more than the promise of a flower waiting to unfurl. The very next day there is an explosion of white, the smell of the Cape Jasmine flowers thick in the air.
When I was growing up we would find the biggest white blossoms, the velvety soft petals -- thicker and smoother than the rose and more fragrant than even the honeysuckle that grew wild in the woods -- and pluck them from the bush outside our back door. We would place a bowl full of the blooms floating in water somewhere in our house. Before the thermometer reached 100, before we broke out the bathing suits and sprinklers -- this scent floating gently through the house told us summer had arrived.
That night in all of my busyness, the captivating aroma caught in the air for a moment and took me back in time. All at once the memories of so many summer nights spent on the back porch came flooding in. I would sit for hours talking on the phone (yes, the kind that you actually had to dial a real number to call and that either had a chord or a battery that would beep incessantly if the cordless phone had been away from the base too long).
I can't tell you what drama was unfolding on any given night as there were so many -- from friend to boy dramas, school or parent problems. But it always seemed like the problem of the hour meant the world as we knew it caving in on us. Everything seemed to be life or death, so urgent. I think now, with regret, how I missed so many little moments caught up in all the things that never really mattered at all.
And here I am -- years later and supposedly so much wiser. I am doing it all again. That pile of dishes has to be conquered or I will go insane. If I don't meet that deadline my writing career will certainly come crashing down all around me. The lie of scarcity says there is never enough time. I must get it all done - today!
Meanwhile, the love of my life -- the one I could only have dreamed of as the boy-crazy, headstrong teen that I was back then -- he is sitting in the other room, waiting for just a few minutes with me before the day ends. My two little ones are upstairs sleeping peacefully, replicas of another child that wanted nothing more than to catch just some fireflies in a mason jar before summer's end.
I can teach them the joys of a Georgia summer - of gardenia blooms and fireworks set against the backdrop of Stone Mountain, of whippoorwill calls and rootbeer floats. Or I can miss it all by being caught up in all the tasks marking up my overly full agenda, even the necessary and good things that distract me from what really matters.
The sobs caught in my chest and I dropped what I was doing in the kitchen and, before I knew it, I was sitting on my front porch surrounded by gardenia blossoms. Some were in full-bloom and others were waiting to spring into the world tomorrow. The clean, tropical smell mixed with the humid night air and enveloped me like the sultry voice of Billie Holiday, who used to wear a gardenia in her hair whenever she performed. I don't know how long I sat out there, stroking the velvety side of a flower until I had rubbed a hole in the petal. Memory mixed with prayer, tears with laughter. Continue Reading
Sometimes it is the burdens I bring home from the workday that I unload on my husband. Other times it is the frustrations with the kids or just with daily life. Over the years I have poured out my heart to this man who willingly listens with a nod and a knowing smile. It’s not always pretty.
He rarely offers advice unless I ask and he doesn’t rush in to fix it. He just listens, offers the gift of his presence.
Ever the worrier, I find my balance in him with his effortless trust that everything will be okay in the end. He helps this controller loosen her grip, the fixer in me let others be who they are.
I am the opposite from him in almost every way.
God knows I needed a man like this, even though sometimes I would love him to just be able to fix all of my mess.
A few months ago we celebrated ten years of building this life together and dreamed of some time away, just the two of us. We have been in a particularly stressful season of life lately and the tension building in both of our shoulders showed it.
We sat crunching numbers together as my tears fell down. That cruise we had been looking at booking for our anniversary felt like it was slipping through my fingertips as unexpected expenses piled up.
He gently took my hand. “Trust me?” he asked. “Can we do this, see it as an investment in us?”
My breathing slowed and I wanted to say “no.” I wanted to tell him about how the numbers didn’t add up and why I held onto my worry like a safety net. Instead, I nodded and he squeezed me tight.
I held onto him as he prayed over our kids, our finances, this trip, and our marriage.
As we sat on the deck of that cruise ship under the Caribbean sun, I looked up from my novel, the first I had the chance to read in months. He was engrossed in a book of his own. This day wasn’t some magic solution but it was something we both needed desperately and he knew it. We didn’t talk much that morning on the ship, just held space together.
We’ve been holding space together for ten years now. Sometimes there are words and other times we can just be silent. That’s the beauty of partnership.
I realize how grateful I was for this man who could be with my in the big, joyful moments and sit with me through the struggling ones, too.
I think about what a reflection of Our Father he is in that way. Continue Reading
Community can be an elusive goal, a moving target. Really living in community with others doesn’t come as naturally as proximity and it certainly comes with loss, heartache, and a lot of work.
For years, I thought of community as something that was built into the church. I mean, we are called the Body of Christ. We are all supposed to be part of the same living, breathing organism. That comes naturally, right?
I glimpsed real moments of community in a small group that lived our lives all tangles up with each other. All these young married couples were clueless as we navigated births and deaths, faith and lack thereof. Life was a mess of baby showers (one every other month the year we added about seven babies into the midst), birthdays, and snatches of prayer caught in the moments the little ones were playing.
Then the anchor of our little group moved away and we fell into disarray, tumbling out of community and groping in the dark for something that looked like what we had known before.
I knew there was a hunger in me for someone to really see me, a loneliness I couldn’t put my finger on. I didn’t realize how deeply it ran or how universal this longing really is until last week.
When I stepped into the home of a friend I’d only known online for the past year, a relationship grew deeper but I also realized that the foundation was already there. We met through a collaborative blog she founded and we have chatted over email and facebook, texts and through the words of our lives we put out there online for all to read.
I fell right into her life - picking up her daughter from school, meeting those she lives life with, and sharing our hearts over dinner. Hearing her words straight from her, instead of on a screen, and hugging her neck made the friendship so much sweeter. But I realized that community already existed there. She already knew me.
I expected an awkwardness in online relationships becoming real at the Festival of Faith and Writing when I met dozens of people that have only been bio pictures on a screen to me before. I found community instead, people longing to know and be known just like I was.
Maybe it is something about writers – how we can’t do small talk because we lay our lives bare in our words for all to read anyway. But we moved right into spiritual conversations and sharing our struggles, our hopes, and fears. There were tears and laughter over late nights because we just didn’t want it to end.
In several panels I heard writers talk about their blogs as their homes – places they build community. Leslie Leyland Fields talked about her blog being a place where she can invite people into her home, saying because of it she lives “in a bigger house with open windows.”
I realized these places I visit online are people’s homes, that social media (flawed as it is with false selves and picking fights) has built a global Body of Christ that I couldn’t truly see until it became flesh for me.
Back at home this week, I dove back into writing for my home – my own little corner of the internet. Comments came in and I realized I have a little community right here. Voices of my friends waited for me on Voxer and their words flowed in text messages, across facebook and twitter, emails and on blogs.
I also sat across several tables this week with members of my little group, scattered and gathered back together in different ways. We don’t look the same as we used to but our lives are still tangled up together.
I made space by getting up at 5 am, a long breakfast with an old friend before work. We shamelessly prayed in the middle of all the people bustling around us, grabbing their breakfast before heading off into their day.
I looked at her and said, “This is the church. Right here, we are it right here and now.” Continue Reading
My love quickly turned to a need to please and my feelings of being loved to a fear of failure.
I remember feeling overwhelmed by love when I started following Christ, but the feeling didn’t last long. Like a hamster on a wheel, I started performing. I learned all the right things to say and do, the places and people to avoid, the ways a Christian is “supposed” to look.
I was overtaken with a fear that I wouldn’t measure up. There was a story that was read to us one day in youth group. The gist of the story was a man who found himself in a room full of file cabinets. On the cards in were written every sin, every evil thought and dark place inside of him. Jesus read them all and then canceled them out with his blood, showing the man he was forgiven.
Looking back, I know the intention was to show us that we can be forgiven but all I heard was the part where every horrible thing I ever thought of doing was laid bare before Jesus. I spent so much trying to please him and when I failed, I ran the other way instead.
After years of running from Christ, so tired of that endless race of striving, I found myself sitting again in a room of students. A woman passionate about us wayward college girls was trying desperately to convey God’s love to us. She read us words from the book of Romans telling us that no matter what we had done it was forgotten forever.
“No condemnation,” she said “for those in Christ Jesus. Literally none. Your sins are completely gone, remembered no more.”
Brick by brick the walls I had built up to protect myself came tumbling down and I crumbled before her in tears. I had lived so long in fear of my own failure.
Through my tears, I cried out, “Why didn’t anyone tell me this sooner?”
Fifteen years later, I still struggle to remember this truth, still fighting my tendency to be motivated by fear instead of love.
I sat in another room of students last week, a very different kind. A gathering of writers, we all came to the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing to learn about growing our craft and to connect with other writers. Continue Reading
“When I am constantly running there is no time for being. When there is no time for being there is no time for listening.” - Madeline L’Engle
I love contemplation – in theory.
The year began for me in the aching beauty of an abbey church. The very architecture spoke to me of stillness. The concrete columns towering into arched rafters above were solid, sturdy, glorious. The scene around me reflected what I want my interior life to look like. That still, solid, steadiness is what I hope to embody.
I know that only comes with the contemplation and prayer that the inhabitants of those very walls live by. I began my year learning from the Benedictine monks that lived within the abbey, wanting to practice more of that kind of stillness in my own spirit.
But away from those warm and inviting walls where a single sound is magnified into echoing responses due to the silence – there is so much noise. Inside my head and heart - noise.
A third of the way into the year, I have been on more planes than in the past few years combined. I have been running so much and that isn’t to say I haven’t had moments of extreme clarity when God’s voice has broken through the noise.
I have heard Him in my journeys and in spite of them.
My scene today is a very different one than the dimly lit monastery. Noises and music rise together inside the coffee shop I sit inside, a shelter from the crisp Chicago day. I can’t pick out a single voice, the sounds more of a symphony of chatter than a single conversation.
It’s full of noise but my heart can still find space to be quiet here. There is something beautiful to me about being still in the middle of the city bustling around me.
Whether I am traveling or at home, in the quiet or in a crowd I can find a place for stillness if I will just stop running. The problem is I don’t often stop long enough to do the very thing I know my heart so desperately needs.
On my way to the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing, three days in which I am sure I will find little time for stillness, I am so grateful to have time to stop running if only for a moment.
My journey to FFW is starting with a writer’s retreat in which there will be time for prayer, contemplation, and writing. I think I am most looking forward to and most resistant to this part of the journey, all at the same time.
I have been trying make contemplation part of my daily life but it is so contrary to my evangelical church experience. Though I have often stepped outside of the tradition in which I first discovered Christ and still belong, the tendency to place worship in the neat little boxes I learned there are still so ingrained.
Stillness is still an effort for me. I want it to just feel easy but it is work at the same time. The two seem contrary to each other, so I often throw up my hands and walk away from the very practices I long to explore like centering prayer and examen.
In The Contemplative Writer, Ed Cyzewski (one of the people organizing the retreat tomorrow) talks about contemplative prayer as something that “removes us from the spiritual rat race where we’re always trying to make ourselves worthy of God or proving our mettle as disciples of Jesus.”
The rat race had been my life for so long that as soon as I remove myself from the endless cycles of striving, I find myself wandering right back to it.
Just like it is hard to let myself be known by others, it is so hard for me to be still and know. To be and not do. Everything in me fights against it but all I am longs to know how, too.
In this coffee shop I try to be still in the midst of the noise. Tomorrow I will practice contemplation with others, struggling to love it more in practice than in theory. I know it won’t be easy. Not much that actually brings us closer to truly knowing God is.
So here’s to knowing and being known this week…