Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Job Security or God Security?

But those who wait upon God get fresh strength.        Philippians 4: 6-7
They spread their wings and soar like eagles,
They run and don't get tired,
They walk and don't lag behind.
Isaiah 40: 31 (The Message)

I got a letter in the mail yesterday from a friend I hadn't heard from in a few years. I was glad to learn she seems to be doing well. She asked me if I felt lost. I had to ponder that for the rest of the day. I suppose it depends on how one defines lost. If I'm not sure where I'll find full-time self-supporting employment by the time I graduate, then, yes, maybe I seem lost. But how many of us are emotionally and financially secure in our current jobs? Those with the best 401K's, benefits and stellar performance appraisals in the morning could still be pink slipped by the end of the day. What does job security mean? Knowing that you will be employed in some capacity in order to pay the bills or confidence that the entity for whom you work will keep you on and promote you until retirement?

The temptation, in spite of logging in a half day of job searching, is to work oneself into hysterics because of an unknown future. But whose future is known? How does one cope with any uncertainty?

What does the Bible say about being lost and wandering around in uncertainties? Do the exact opposite of the Israelites in Exodus? Moses would not have been eager to write that motley crew shining letters of recommendations based on their bad attitudes and lack of obedience. But if God can miraculously lead the second generation of Israelites to their Promised Land, then shouldn't I trust that He will lead me out my desert to the Promised Land of employment? By faith I left a financially secure job. He has already led me this far. Why am I wavering now?

Yesterday afternoon I stumbled upon an article online titled "Why Worry is a Choice." Written by Deepak Chopra, it provides fabulous insight about the illusions behind anxiety and how to overcome it in a concrete way, besides panting in a paper bag. Then I dreamed last night that I was wrestling with a large snake. My interpretation? Satan wants to keep all of us mired down in fear and despair. We must recognize that and treat the disillusionment with the Truth of God's word. My prescription for the day? Three tablespoons of Isaiah 40: 27-31 morning, noon and night and 50 mg of Philippians 4: 6-7 at night.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Finding Balance in the Mary/Martha story in Luke 10

The story of Mary and Martha is found in the Gospel of Luke chapter 10, verses 38-42. Five short verses always manage to spark the flames of controversy and tension among women young and old, with or without siblings. I'm no exception. This passage strikes a particularly tender, sensitive chord within me because the three primary characters are two sisters and Jesus. The dynamics between Martha and Mary are precisely the same between my older sister and me.

I've heard two sermons preached on this and skimmed through a book called "Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World" by Joanna Weaver. Yep. I'm a Mary. It's a personality style. I'm wired to be reflective, to contemplate, and to listen.  Maybe there are more "Marthas" than "Marys" in the world. Most women I know resonate with Martha.

What I've come to discover for myself is that it's okay to be a "Mary." For most of my life I've wrestled with the guilt and shame of not being a "Martha." 

I would be clumsy and awkward at throwing a meal together for a large group of people, even though scripture commands us to be hospitable. Just the idea of laboring over every detail of an exquisite cuisine, no matter how delicious, is enough to send me fleeing to McDonald's to take comfort in a simple burger. Food planning, preparation, serving and entertaining is clearly not my gift. I can disclose that without shame today and stand in awe and admiration of the women for whom hospitality comes more naturally. I'm not saying I couldn't or wouldn't rise to the occasion if I believed that's what God was asking me to do. Spaghetti would be on the plate because it's quick and easy. Pasta from a box. Sauce from a can. (Make mental note: do not come knocking on my door if you expect a five star three course meal made from scratch.)

Hospitality is not about wowing guests with the latest "Martha Stuart" (pun intended) inspired concoction. Guests aren't there to critique the meal. They hunger for meaningful conversation and that's not as likely to happen if the host is too stressed about overcooked broccoli or dry turkey. I think that's the point Jesus was trying to make to Martha. He probably would have been content with canned soup, Doritos and water for his purpose in visiting at that time.

This story is not about proving Martha "wrong" and Mary "right."  On the contrary, they're both right. God does call us to action. The church needs people to serve. In fact, right before this scripture is the Good Samaritan parable where Jesus is trying to instill the truth that everyone is the Christian's neighbor.

Instead, we might learn to find the balance between quiet, reflective listening to Christ from Mary's example, and getting the errands run, the dishes washed and the laundry done from Martha's example. Yes, this is difficult to do and how to go about doing exactly that is the premise of "Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World." (next week's blog) It's about respecting and honoring each other's differences and helping one another find balance. The "Marys" could gently encourage "Marthas" to slow down while reassuring them that what they have done is indeed appreciated. If a "Martha"  could just gently interrupt my reflecting and remind me to get the cake out of the oven, toss the salad, and pour the drinks, I would be ever so appreciative.

Friday, July 9, 2010

See me by the sea

It's the distant rumble of another wave about to land. It's the sound the water makes against the sand as it recedes. It's the way that the waves swell and fold in to each other just before release and crash onto the sand.  His dance and His melodies seduce me. His voice calms me.

We met in the mid 1990s, when my parents owned a time share in Cancun Mexico, where we spent some of my college spring breaks. This wasn't my first introduction to the beach. I had been to Captiva Island on the Gulf Coast of Florida and the southeast coastline, but it was the Carribean who spoke to me in a way that I could not ignore.

Some family and friends from the Midwest still roll their eyes with skeptical looks when I fly to Des Moines from Pittsburgh for reunions and declare that my final destination will be some coastal city or town - in part because I've been talking about it for about 10 years and still haven't moved. (But hey, life isn't over just yet.) While I cannot deny a certain amount of pride about being raised in Des Moines and have nothing against family and friends who chose Iowa, Minnesota or Kansas as a place to raise their families, I could, but chose not to ignore the strength of the undertow pulling me toward the sea.

Some Midwesterners tend to associate beaches with an elite, overindulgent lifestyle, but it's not about proving myself "better." It's not about becoming a beach bunny, showing off a bikini or scoping out "hot bodies." It's not about physically distancing myself from family or escaping my values. 

It's about moving toward the Sacred and Holy.

W. Phillip Keller, author of "Sea Edge" (1985) explains it so well in his opening dedication: "To those who love the sea edge and sense God's presence there." Exactly. I can experience the full essence of the Almighty through every sense by the sea. Keller writes of the healing powers of the sea, due to its chemical compounds. "The sea water itself  is a marvelous healing agency. Cuts, wounds, abrasions, sores, and skin blemishes are sterilized, cleansed and enabled to heal with great rapidity. Even injured joints and torn ligaments, if bathed in the sea, then exposed to the warm therapy of the sun, will mend in wondrous ways. Just walking barefoot on the sand, letting the ocean waves play about one's feet and legs is beneficial. The splash of sea water on the skin makes it throb and tingle with exquisite delight as the blood comes racing to the surface of the body . . . the Spirit of God reminds me that similarly He is my great Healer. It is He who restores my soul. It is He who renews my spirit. it is He who restores to my life the health and wholesomeness of His own character."

Anne Morrow Lindbergh has written insightful meditations on life inspired from the sea in "Gift from the Sea" originally published in 1955 renewed for its 50th anniversary publication in 2005.

Not only are the rhythms of the sea soathing and healing, but the sun creates millions of diamonds when it shines, making it a precious jewel, and more meaningful to me than stained glass windows, an altar and a pulpit. I fall to my knees in the sand and praise God for the gift of the sea.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Thick Skin

Before I can begin processing and making sense of all that happened in Spain, I must release some fury and frustration concerning this MFA program.

What makes a good writer? I ponder that in a deeply philosophical way on this evening as I continue to itch and peel away the damaged skin on my sunburned legs from two weeks ago while kayaking in the Mediterranean without sunscreen. What makes a good writer is weighing heavily on my mind after just receiving scorching feedback from you on my non-fiction pieces. (I should have applied sunscreen and tossed back a few shots of tequila before reading your comments.)

A phrase from a week of basketball camp drifts back to my mind, suddenly, that could be applied to any practice or discipline. Nothing at all about basketball stuck with me, but the phrase, "perfect practice makes perfect" always has. Not practice makes perfect, but perfect practice makes perfect. How can this be applied to writing? Would you agree that the regular, consistent practice of "perfect" writing is what it takes to achieve excellence? Or publication?  Or at least a good grade from you? I can accept that. If nothing else, two semesters of this program has forced me to establish regular writing times that I otherwise would not have been disciplined to do.

What I cannot accept, however,  is you comparing me to other classmates to illustrate just how far I fall short of their brilliance. I've already ascertained that I am surrounded by many more talented writers than myself. Why am I paying you a ridiculous amount of money only to be told something I already know? Your job is to encourage, coach, help, facilitate, lead, model, and be an example. In theory, this particular program is promoted for being "encouraging and supportive."  I find that to be true based on the feedback from my classmates, but  not  from you. In fact, I've learned a lot more from my younger, perky, fresh-faced 20-year-old classmates than you who has been "teaching" here for a thousand years. Why haven't my 11 classmates and I been meeting at Borders once a week for three hours between January and April to workshop  and suck down cappuccinos instead of paying you who haven't said more than three sentences about my work or anyone else's all semester?

I realize that I haven't been able to process and integrate all the changes and revisions in my work that were suggested to me by my classmates and you.  I'm still learning and growing and developing as a writer. I'm sorry for making you look bad. But consider the possibility that your teaching style could use some adjustment as well. As in actually doing it. You're not the first one to tell me I'm "not getting it," or that I'm "not catching on." I'm not about to let the one opinion of you discourage me.  Measurable learning and growth is not always neatly reflected during your convenient time frame of three months. Accusing me of "not getting it" is like glaring at a sunburn and demanding that the skin regenerate immediately. As much as sunburned person would like instant healing, it takes a long time for those surface level epithelial cells to heal, just like it takes time to process and integrate all the complicated metaphors and figuratively language you wanted to see in my writing blossom forth. Growth and development happens in stages. Sometimes you have to peel back several layers before you get to the juicy, pink, raw stuff.

You say I'm holding back. That my material is all reportage and not enough of me. Don't you realize that my background is in journalism? Of course I'm finding it difficult to integrate myself into my writing and you aren't helping. Chatham, you chose me, but I'm losing patience with you. Go ahead and have your little private meetings in your ivory tower with the program director to discuss how you're going "to solve a problem like Leslie who just can't get it." I may decide to pack my bags by the end of the month and head south where my talents and gifts will be more appreciated and valued.

If the one thing you wanted was to instill in all your students the ability to withstand criticism and thick skin, you've succeeded! Congratulate yourselves.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

thoughts and musings in anticipation of Spain

Spain will change me, I'm told. I don't dispute that, but exactly how, I don't yet know. I've been asked to consider exactly how I think I will change and I'm finding it almost impossible to answer. Right now I'm more anxious about the red-eye flight, the process of traveling that could be fraught with every imaginable obstacle during international travel. Will I be robbed of my passport and money? Deal with illness? Once we are all safely at our destination,  the games may begin.

Just before moving to Pittsburgh from Kansas, I was invigorated and desperate for a change of scenery. I couldn't wait to start classes and meet new people. Then I arrived and dealt with challenge after difficulty after obstacle. I proved to myself that when pushed and shoved and held under the fire, I had some degree of endurance and capability.  Just before any new experience, whether we're preparing for marriage, moving, death, living independently, or job, we can do everything we can to think we're prepared, but we still don't know what's around the bend. Any new experience teaches us something new about ourselves and that new self-awareness is a gift.  The more new experiences I have, the more I find myself increasingly drawn to  people who also regularly put themselves in new and different places and situations.

I've never traveled to another country for  Christian missionary work, but I've heard countless stories from those who have testify that they were radically changed by the people to whom they were ministering. I think the same principle applies to Spain. This is not a vacation, but an opportunity for Spain to teach me something about life beyond  the comfort and familiarity of America.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Place entry #8 week of 4/12-4/18

 Lessons from the pond

The clouds hang like draperies, thick and low,  shifting from charcoal to purple, then green to white.  Tiny flakes of ice swirl and fall down intermittently with the biting wind. It can't be more than 50 degrees Fahrenheit today. Without sunshine, it reveals no emotion. It's swollen due to recent rains and probably a little sore from shouldering so many twigs, seedlings, waterfowl, fish and silt. The leaves of the towering Maple are now fully formed. It will soon provide refreshing shade from the sun for the ducks when temperatures soar into the 90s. The pink and magenta blossoms from the shrubs forming the perimeter along the south bank shout out their beauty in contrast to the silent, colorless waters. A few heavy branches and sticks with torn bark and other debris lay clustered around the Maple, most likely sliced off by the impressive thunderstorm winds a couple nights ago.

I think about the power of water, ice, wind and lightning on all plant life and recall how massive branches and leaves and twigs choked the streets of my former tree lined neighborhood in Kansas after a tornado. We look with dismay and call it destruction. Maybe nature calls it pruning and trimming.

 There are multiple life lessons to be learned from communing in nature because it reflects the wisdom of our Great Creator. Regular visits to the pond have reminded me of this during the past few months.

  1. Life is seasonal. There are seasons of renewal, rebirth, growth and death. There are periods when it appears nothing changes or happens because the activity is hidden and silent. And when you least expect it, everything changes. This is how nature teaches us patience.
  2.  Sometimes it is necessary to let go of what may seem to be a precious treasure in order to receive something even better. What if the Great Maple refused to drop its leaves last fall? What if it was so proud of its beautiful colors that it tried to keep them? Then there would be no room for new leaves to sprout forth now.
  3. The ducks don't quack, "I don't need you!" to the pond. The birds don't twitter "I don't need you" to the trees. The trees don't bark "Stay off my branches," to the squirrels and birds. There's a beautiful display of interdependence. Each living thing is sustained and nourished by the other. We can accept this in nature, but often fail to apply this  elsewhere in human relationships. We were not created to be emotionally or spiritually self-sufficient.

At the conclusion of this final required entry, I ponder "turning over a new leaf" in choosing another physical place for the summer and visiting regularly to write about it here. This exercise has become a form of meditation and prayer and has thus changed me. It's taught me to observant to the present moment.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Final post #8 week of 4/12-4/18

Bridging the gap between awareness and apathy: A skeptic changes attitude about nature and writing

Mission Impossible, should I choose to accept: Select and commit to a physical setting that you will go to regularly and give detailed descriptions of in blog.

It sounded simple enough in the beginning. After much contemplation about inspiration and travel distance, however, I realized this would require more discipline than I was comfortable with.    Furthermore, having lived in Pittsburgh for just three months, I still wasn't yet familiar with the city to have a sense of a "perfect place." This prompted me to do some research on the city parks. Alas! There are so many! Highland Park revealed itself as a potential candidate, but after a couple drive-a-rounds in January, it failed to inspire me.

Then someone told me about Washington's Landing, a little marina off of 31st street where I could access a walking trail near the river. I was on my way there for the first time on the Friday before this was due when I received an unexpected and upsetting phone call. The conversation soured my mood to the point where I was totally unable to focus on the original purpose for driving there and devoted six pages of my journal reflecting on it. No more Washington's Landing for me. Too far to drive.  By Sunday, I still hadn't made up my mind. I happen to be on campus then, and noticed the pond for the first time, stopped and christened  it "my perfect place" out of desperation. 

I had been seeking out a specific natural setting regularly when living in Des Moines, not for the purpose of describing it, but as a means to escape and pour out angst regarding another area life. But something startling began to unfold. Sitting on the bare ground, writing in the present tense about my observations of this pond also helped ground me in the present moment, something I've always wrestled with. Rather than seeking out a natural setting to scribble complaints and discontent about circumstances beyond my control, this activity helped me put myself aside and open up to whatever the present had to teach me.

Mission Impossible, should I choose to accept: The readings and a 290 page text called Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams.

Although postings on this text were wide ranging and controversial, it has influenced me the most. Her concern about the Great Salt Lake was the undertow that drew me in. TTW's relationship with her family and the illness touched me deeply because I had a similar experience with another family member.  She has become a role model and guide for me.

Lisa Couturier's work on urban nature also excited me and helped me understand how to seek out nature in an urban setting. The Native American's approach to nature writing was also deeply moving. Their land and sense of place is so deeply ingrained within their culture that it flows "naturally" into their  writing.  They don't need to give it a name and genre. It's humbling and inspiring.

Barbara Kingsolver's essays were thought provoking as well, and I think it's noteworthy to mention that I'm a quarter of the way through Animal Vegetable Garden as one of the required readings to prepare for a field trip to Spain in a few weeks. I wish I could share my reactions to this work in this class because I'm discovering many connections. (It suddenly occurs to me that every writer I admire from this class is female.)

Final Mission Impossible, should I choose to accept: The Final Project . . . navigate my way through the crazy maze of highways.

I began fretting about this weeks before it was due. Ideally, I wanted to focus on oceans or beaches, but those don't exist in Pittsburgh. I thought about sense of place and water and the readings on urban nature turned me on to the idea of writing about what the City of Bridges is most famous for: the rivers.  A Pittsburgh native and friend helped orient me to the newly renovated south side near the Hot Metal Bridge. A classmate and I explored part of this river trail together and then I took a wrong turn on our back and we took the scenic route home. The two week process of losing and finding my around the riverfront walking trails were critical in helping me feel a little more connected to the City of Bridges. After losing my way around downtown several times -- with and without the GPS -- this small town two-highway girl in me was zipping around the North Shore to the South Shore freeways like I'd lived here all my life. Well . . . sort of.

The City of Bridges has bridged the gap between apathy and awareness to nature and my surroundings.  It has shown me the rivers. It has instilled me with more confidence. It has revealed a part of my writerly self that would not have surfaced if I had not intentionally changed my environment. And it's only just begun. These bridges have more plans for me.