Beyond the Catch-Phrase
Have you seen those gimmicks on social media that ask if the car is blue or green? You plunk in your answer only to learn the car was actually green when you said blue, or vice versa. It’s not a new lesson; either our DNA or our perspective can take us down a completely different path than the person next to us.
At one point I was part of a ministry that emphasized learning Scripture as one of its core values. I learned how to navigate the Bible, to understand the nature of God and how He wants to interact with us. (Confession: I was just a tiny bit of an over-achiever back then. And laid-back was only used in reference to a car seat.) If the Scripture passages were about self-discipline, I was going to be the most self-disciplined. If they were about purity, I was going to be the purest.
Scripture is amazing, and timeless. There are a myriad of teachings that convey God’s heart toward mankind and His standards. The Sermon on the Mount from the Gospels and Jesus’ numerous parables teach us life lessons for relationships, money, time, and prayer. The fruits of the Spirit give the briefest insight into the outcomes of a God-centered life, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Still working on some of those…) The Epistles teach us how to live in community with one another, as followers of Christ, how to love and forgive.
In any culture young adults find affinity in groups and doing things together. It’s an exciting time of life, with new-found independence and (hopefully) income. Everyone dresses alike, group-thinks and adopts trendy catch-phrases to reflect their one-ness. One such phrase we adopted was the pursuit of “God’s best” for our lives. It was sort of a shared core-value, and it got tossed around more than a set of Yahtzee dice. “You could go to New Jersey but you want God’s best for your life, don’t you?” or “You could become the Surgeon General but maybe that wouldn’t be God’s best.”
Whether in this group or some other, catch-phrases or group-think mindsets evolve. Most likely God’s best was originally intended to imply a life surrendered to God’s ways and standards. Instead we inferred a sort of nirvana of a painless future with dreams fulfilled, and problems solved. At what point did fantasy replace an authentic pursuit of godliness? Speaking of which, what would the phrase, God’s best have meant to Mother Theresa? Based on the evidence of her life, it must have meant a life spent emulating the Gospels, i.e., feeding, clothing and loving the unloved, where ever God led her, i.e., Calcutta.
This diatribe about God’s best is only one example but a ginger, truthful examination reveals much. I, for one, bacon-wrap phrases and principles with my own dreams or wounds and then pin it on God with questions, pain or expectations. Suppose my visual of God’s best has always entailed the proverbial white picket fence, a husband, and 2.3 children and a dog. Wouldn’t that be misleading for me as a condo-renting, non-parental, non-dog owning single? It’s a lens that I see through, and one that can lead me to misunderstand God’s abundance toward me.
What if we were to choose authenticity over catch phrases and clarity over shallow communications? What if we were to stand in the midst of what’s done and dreams unfulfilled and took the risk of owning our life, calling it what it is, and reaching toward the One who gave His only Son?
A Thing of Beauty
After a drawn-out year I’m finally settling into a home where I can put down some roots, and stay a while. A few treasures had bumped and crunched in this move or that one, and so I found myself with a few repair projects, first a teapot whose handle was now in four pieces. Mr. Hardware was quite helpful and recommended a fancy new cement. I snagged it, and a tube of super glue just in case things didn’t go quite as I’d planned.
This teapot has never been the sturdiest of souls, always the first to burst into tears when something unjust happens. Clearly, this last move had injured it nearly beyond repair. The first product wasn’t adhering quickly enough before the weight of the broken piece would fall out of it’s position. Finally with the super glue I was able to glue all four pieces at the same time rather than one at a time.
I couldn’t help but notice that the restoration process for this teapot was unique just as our own healing journey requires a unique combination of restorative ingredients. I realized my turquoise bit of pottery would never host a tea party again. I’m pretty sure the potter put a rather slinky handle on this chubby and adorable pot, but even with an entire ounce of super glue plotzed in every crack and crevice, it would never be the same.
And so it is with us. Some have been decimated by life’s harsh circumstances. Others are running from the rod which measured them as a child, and found them lacking. So severe were it’s judgments that they mete out penalties against their bodies, or crush others needlessly. With others, an unfulfilled dream or failure to become the man or woman they’d hoped, a yawning ache remains.
The Bible, in Jeremiah 18, contains a beautiful story about the prophet being prompted by the Lord to visit the potter’s house for an object lesson quite like mine. As Jeremiah observes the potter at the wheel, the Lord asks a poignant question of Jeremiah, “Can I not do with you as the potter does the clay?” The more intimate and beautiful friendships with Him come with yieldedness to God, as the Potter.
Lent is a beautiful season for reflection. My question is this, have you come to the place where you’ve reached the end of yourself? The way in which we become unstuck in this life is to yield. Obviously my teapot doesn’t have a will. But submitting to the process of becoming reconciled to our Maker requires a choice. When we get to the place where we stop yelling about our rights, and yelling about how life should have gone, then we will find intimacy with God. It’s when we listen and release our fist into an opened hand that we find Him if we invite Him to speak, and to heal. In the process we may find that – healed – we’ll never become the person of our dreams. Yet, I do promise this, we’ll discover the dreams that our Maker had for us. After all, maybe you were meant to be a thing of Beauty rather than Function.
Tea can be such a plebeian pursuit when you’re a fancy teapot sporting a wickedly cracked handle.
Go in Love.
Without preamble about my multi-year absence from this space, my stories always seem to form out of chaos. And so I find myself, once again, reaching into the disorder of a season in an effort to craft narrative and strategy. This past year offered dozens of fragments of perspective, slivers of insight not yet joined to a whole perspective; it was as though I was seeing ‘in a mirror dimly’.
It is deeply satisfying for me, even comforting, to construct a narrative about what I’ve observed. Often in my work, I employ this method for solving software problems. Whenever I have a bit of code that just won’t behave, it’s storytime. Somehow, amid the silliness of personifying inanimate bits of data into characters, plot and motive, I find my solution.
Suppose the fragments of our lives – the situations that cause us to say, “Why me, again?” or “Why this?” when assembled side-by-side comprise a fractal that is our life. Only then can things start to make sense. It is not so much about the broken pieces, those unexplained events, so much as who we become in the sorting.
Deconstructing circumstances and seasons in our lives demands courage. Sifting. Pausing. Gazing. Releasing. Embracing. Reaching inward, we are confronted with our inability to make sense of things. Or worse, we connect the wrong dots, and wind up in Topeka. It happens. And yet, if we are willing God reveals His magnificent ability to bring order out of chaos, to make all things new. He who hovered over the darkness and void at Creation, and brought order with His words, is doing so yet today.
And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” And He said, “Write, for these words are faithful and true.” Revelation 21:5 NAS
The Creative Process – Extracting Beauty From the Void
Your deadline is now. Actually it’s tomorrow morning but your project or presentation is a mess. Something has got to happen or you’re toast.
Feel that panic? I do.
What is it that causes us to pull it together and deliver the goods in the 11th hour?
The creative process is perhaps my favorite topic to write about. I’m reminded of some great principles extracted from Genesis 1, that help me manage my creative endeavors, whether for work or personal.
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and void; and darkness was over the surface of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters.” Genesis 1:1-2
In the beginning of a creative effort, we find it formless and void. We are shocked and even panicked at its lack of form. The vacuum can be overwhelming.
“…Darkness was over the surface of the deep… ” The lack of light – even life – is everywhere. This reminds me of when, too early on in a project, we are looking for life, a spark, and it is off-putting when we don’t find it. God, in His most notable creative work, creation itself, indicates that darkness was everywhere.
We are invited to emulate God in His creative method, to brood over our creative works until they become transformed, bearing Light and Life.
“Then God said, ‘Let there be light’: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.” Genesis 1:3-4
Creative endeavors come in all sizes shapes and colors. Regardless of what it is, it is necessary to say what it’s going to be.
A teacher creates a lesson plan against a curriculum. An architect works against a blueprint. With my line of work I have a functional design and deliverables. A writer produces an outline of what he or she will write. Every line of work has its own commitment of what the creative effort will be, or not be. In doing so we emulate God’s method when He says, “Let there be Light.”
The words we use to define a project are often packed with meaning. My teacher friend often cites how a curriculum she has compiled meets the requirements of ‘Common Core’. Among teachers and parents that phrase is packed with meaning. God’s reference to Light is packed with meaning too, in His first words He is creating a way for the Son to be made manifest in the natural realm, His Son who is already present with Him at Creation. Father, Son and the Holy Spirit are all present there in that moment.
The creative process is multi-dimensional but we break it down by realizing that every endeavor is, at first, formless and void. It only begins to become when we declare what it will be and what it will not be.
Enough for now. Go create!
Through The Eyes of a Child
Maybe it’s the nature of who I am. Or maybe its this lifetime of never having been married. I’m 44, for heaven’s sake. Did you know that AARP had the audacity to send me an early enrollment form? I nearly spat on it. I don’t know what compels me toward child-likeness, but I’ll suggest that it’s a dominant gene in my DNA.
And yes, Virginia, your DNA is twisted all to heck.
And did I tell you I might be slightly ADD? I’m only just now getting the picture. It’s that whole distraction thing. Like a freight train. Bird! Plane! Boing! Zoom! But ADD folk make great writers and programmers as long as you give them headphones with classical music. It soothes their fuffled reathers.
Childlike. To be like a child.
So many things in life demand every inch of our attention span, our energy, our focus. We need to drive the ROI. Think outside the box. Strategize. Give! Be present in the moment! Expand. Reduce. Minimize. Be faster, more efficient. It’s exhausting to just write the phrases let alone give them any meaningful consideration.
I possess memories of a nearly idyllic childhood. As kids in the Penhale family, together with our friends, we ran wild across acreages with creeks and barns and trees and open fields. We lived in the land of make believe. We would tumble indoors after playing in the creek all day, soaked to the bone, muddy, covered with horse hair or just outdoor-ness. We thought we were so burdened, so encumbered with cares. In reality we lived like bandits. Our needs were few. We trusted more. We didn’t need elaborate explanations about why.
A little boy asked me once, “Why is red?”
I looked him square in the eye and said, “Because.” He nodded solemnly, and ran off to play.
It’s enough to be like a child.
Beauty Demands Engagement
Have you ever wondered about the subjects in a painting or a photograph? Truly great artists have developed the ability to capture their audience’s attention beyond a single, cursory glance. So aptly will they have portrayed their subject’s expression, the activity of the moment or even the stillness that we, as their audience are compelled to lapse into storytelling. No matter where we are, time seems to stand still for a moment and like small sailboats we bobble away from the shore for just a moment and we wonder…
How is it that I can feel the community in this painting? Edward Henry Potthast was particularly gifted at capturing the simple connections between people. The women have their arms around one another and you can almost feel the intimacy of their chatter. The children are splashing and giggling together, entranced with the kersploosh! they can make by tromping in the water.
I can’t help but wonder at the way in which Johannes Vermeer, the 17th-Century Dutch Painter who created Girl With a Pearl Earring captured his subject’s expression. Was it really as Tracy Chevallier described in her magnificent novel by the same name? Tracy’s story is so well written that you step back into time with her and perceive how a young girl might have come to be a model for a renowned artist in the city where she lived, and all of the ensuing conflict that occurred. R.Z. Sheppard reviewed Chevallier’s book, Girl With a Pearl Earring, and offered the following review for Time Magazine:
Tracy most certainly did her research of Vermeer’s art. But even she gives evidence of the way in which Vermeer’s art compelled her to see the paintings in person, and to understand more about why he painted the subjects he did.
Our culture demands detachment and isolation. Beauty demands connection and engagement, no matter how tragic the underlying story. Enter into a moment this week. Really see something beautiful. Ask questions. It’s analytical, to be sure, but it’s restful as well.
There are a couple of exhibits occurring at the Joslyn Art Musuem presently through the mid-part of September. Landscapes from the Age of Impressionism and Beyond Impressionism
Leaving a Legacy
I remember when I was growing up, my Dad would show us stuff. He was intent on teaching us to identify trees and plants, like Morrel mushrooms, Bittersweet and Sumac. Of course he taught us useful stuff too, how to back up a truck with a trailer; how to drive a boat; how to collect sap and make Maple Syrup and, best of all, how to fish. Although my growing up years are mostly wrapped in nostalgia and I have few opportunities to exercise those skills, what I actually learned was this: I am limitless in my ability to learn a skill and do it. Dad taught us to be learners, and to not be afraid to try new things.
One year Dad decided to build a cabin on the back edge of our property. Dad was neither a builder nor an architect but he and my lovely, artist-in-residence Mom put their skills together. With the help of generous builder-type friends, the tiny, humble building came together. At the time the cabin served as the best fort and doll house a girl could ask for! We loved it! With it’s steeply-sloped corrugated roof, woodstove and dry sink, the cabin stood on stilts and overlooked the trout stream that ran through our property. My friends and I would traipse around in the woods and slosh in the creek for hours at a time.
It wasn’t until I was well into my adult years that I learned the strain that building the cabin placed on our family. Apparently it wasn’t the most fiscally responsible undertaking, nor was the building designed to withstand 25 years of rugged weather. My Dad has been gone for some time now, and yet the cabin stands perhaps as a tribute to his tremendous influence on our lives.
Talk is cheap and we spout ideas of who we are and what we’ll one day become. The fact is, we are not who we say we are. We are what we do.
Dad didn’t leave behind a cabin. He left behind a legacy of attempts to show us how important we were to him, how deeply he cared and how much he wanted us to love the things he loved.
Plain and simple, Dad wasn’t great at communicating. I still wonder about who he really was, and why he called me Scout.
But I know he loved me.
And I’m not afraid to try stuff.
Sitting beside my recently planted Butterfly Bush, I pondered its plentiful blooms and perchy branches, so inviting to tiny, flight-weary visitors. It doesn’t do much for me, as bushes go, in that there’s no rhyme nor reason to its growth pattern. It resembles the drunken and disorderly conduct of bushes. Yet it has succulent purple blossoms, and the bumblebees frequently wave their thanks as they zoom in for a sip of something cool. Butterflies dance about and then land on its wayward branches.
My heart is always warmed by the courage of the crocus in Springtime, fearlessly nudging their way through the frozen earth. When kersplatted with snow and ice, they tuck their heads and shout, “No worries! I’ll stop back tomorrow!” No promise of Spring is more faithfully kept than by the classic simplicity of tulips. Strong and straight they keep their sentry in a clear vase on the shelf, nodding only to Time as it marches by.
I love the intense aroma of Lilacs, my longtime favorite Spring flower. The front yard of my childhood home was filled with enormous bushes and we’d weave our bikes through their archways, and use lilac leaves as our money as we imagined our marriages to the stars of the tv series, CHiPS. Winding our way through the apple orchard we’d rest with our dolls beneath the crabby branches, or crawl up to get a better view. It’s only now that I realize how intoxicating the lilac’s scent can be…no wonder marrying Erik Estrada seemed possible!
I’m a girly-girl at heart. There’s nothing that makes my heart flutter more than a tiny bit of bling. Shiny, swirly, rings and things that go round and round and catch the sunlight, and make me smile for a while. Even better when that little something is accompanied by a word or two, an “I love you” or “I’m sorry”.
It’s a story worth telling since it still makes me chuckle. A former boyfriend erred by spouting words that were less than complimentary to me. Clearly, the memory is blocked due to trauma, but it involved a reference to a barnyard animal. Perhaps I was munching or crunching something with a bit too much enthusiasm. I hope I never recall. But he was rewarded with the opportunity to restore my smile that day with jewelry. We wandered into a sterling silver shop, picked out a bracelet, and together decided it was a bit of Barnyard Bling. Whenever that bracelet manages to spin about my wrist, I don’t recall the offense as much as I recall the apology. It was sincere.
I don’t own a lot of jewelry, but I treasure some of the pieces I’ve collected. A periodot from an antique shop at Five Points, NC. An amethyst from Basel, Switzerland. Two wedding bands from my Grams. A swanky 60’s necklace from my Mother comprised of blue glass ‘fingers’… fabulous. None have much financial value, and needn’t have, for the pieces I like the most are those with intense or unusual color.
The emerald-cut peridot is of the palest green. I like to flutter my hand in the sun and watch the room glitter with refracted rays piercing through it’s planes. The amethyst has a triangular gold ring band. It was one of the first pieces of jewelry I purchased for myself. When I wear it, I’m reminded of my jaunts to Europe. The old, yellow-gold wedding bands are chock full of family history, and remind me of my darling grandmother. She always wore one of them on her middle finger, and it seemed so classically handsome to me. Mother’s blue glass necklace speaks for itself as one that enters the room before its wearer. It’s dramatic and heavy, but lovely.
Color is provacative. It’s characteristics, whether brilliance or pallor, demand a response from their observer. Our minds make mental and even emotional connections with colors. The beautiful thing about color is that we are forced to engage with it, to really see it, and to let it affect us.
A man is never more masculine when his boyish grin flashes at the sight of a bright yellow biscuit joiner. They make power tools in canary yellow for a reason. A woman is never more feminine when she utters that childlike, “Ohhh LOOK!” and flutters over a proffered daisy with petals to ponder, “He loves me. He loves me not. He loves me….”
What is it about the rain that it seems to wash my soul, along with the landscape? It rains and I’m suddenly motivated to clean and organize and set things right. The Vibrunum in the front yard received an extensive haircut but I managed to hold off on the Hydrangeas that have refused to bloom in two years. I adore Hydrangeas. Obviously we’re not getting on well, however, and the rain makes me decisive. They need to go.
If I blame the rain for this piercing sense of direction, what is it that keeps hope alive? My experiences and memories as I trip-trop through life fan the flame….and bring desire for tomorrow. This collection of sensations and perceptions are stored far from my loping shears. Imagine if I went foraging through my soul with this same kind of tenacity – snip, snap, snipping away at this precious pile of moments. You see, the courage for the days and weeks to come is fueled by knowing that I am loved, seeing my breakthroughs in the past, believing I am safe….free to fail.
Hope fuels courage.
Hope’s flames are fanned in the smallest furnaces. I’ve been hearing a woodpecker in my yard. I suspect that he was responsible for drilling the substantial hole in the bird feeder. But I was fond of his contribution, nonetheless. He makes me smile as he rat-a-tat-tats. The poppies I’ve recently planted are just beginning to come up. Soon they’ll swish their fancy skirts in the breeze. I caught a glimpse of a robin yanking a worm from the ground …half its bird-weight in worm! What a catch! Seriously now, that’s akin to finding a pair of lovely heels on sale! Or arriving early for a library book sale.
Hope. It’s not joy. It’s hope. It’s the visceral belief, a sub-conscious knowing, that my contribution matters.
Yours does too.