Sunday, December 4, 2011

Beauty & the Truth

[Cue apologies for ridiculous lapse in bloggery. I really am trying to be better...]

I started writing this post a few days ago, but every time I came back to it, it became more ranty and tangential. (I'll give you a moment to adjust to a universe in which those words might describe me.)

So I'll simply say this: I find it sad that we think we have to change truths to make them better stories. I say this with a wink at myself, because exaggeration and elaboration are some of my finest skills, but the bottom line remains, whether I'm writing to myself or anyone else: the truth is always better.

I got thinking about this in the National Gallery of Art in D.C. this week. Walking through room after room of Madonna and Childs gets you thinking in that direction, but every painting bothered me. It's not that they weren't beautiful--they certainly were. But I kept seeing this strange alien-angel (the term I adopted at the time) rather than a real, maternal woman.

From the brief scriptural account of Mary, I can imagine her as a wonderful, joyful mother. Certainly scared and nervous as all new mothers are at times, but a woman delighting in her blessings, all the more because she'd been told (how specifically, we can only guess) about them ahead of time. But rather than a woman glowing from loving radiance and humble gratitude, this strange automaton with a halo stared back at me in the Gallery, awkwardly holding this thing that she was evidently responsible for. The expression her eyes held was not, "From now on all nations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me," (Luke 1:48-9) but "...What do I do with this thing?" This woman seems so concerned with being saintly--keeping her halo unmussed, perhaps--that she can't be distracted by mothering. (The photo I snapped below is the most maternal I saw.) And aside from her cold angelicness, the Madonna seen in these paintings is a wealthy gentlewoman--one can easily imagine the servant just off-canvas, ready to take the baby off her hands so she can return to her embroidery. And though I didn't get a picture, type "italian painting virgin reading" into Google, and you'll see the ideas concerning her education.

My problem with all this? It takes away from the truth. It's more powerful to me that God chose a devout but poor girl instead of a king's daughter to raise His Son. It's more meaningful that she reacted with grace and gratitude than with aloofness and sanctity. That she was a normal human being--not sinless and perfect--breathes life into what would be dull and flat. She didn't have to be perfect because, just like the rest of us, Christ would be perfect on her behalf. Find me the translation that reads, "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, except for Mary who was perfect all on her own" (Romans 3:23).

I have the same beef with the whole DaVinci Code deal. I find it comical that the conspiracy is pitched from the angle that the Church has been trying to write women out of the picture. To me, it would be much less significant for Magdalene to be part of Christ's inner circle only because she was His wife; the fact that, in an incredibly patriarchal society, he chose to involve several women in his work speaks louder to the role of women in a faith system than if he happened to be married. Otherwise, it's just Jesus's girlfriend crashing the man meeting.

I love stories--all the more if they're true. And I think it takes something important away from them when they're airbrushed and tweaked and censored. The choosing of both Mary and Mary Magdalene is all the more special when viewed from the truths of who they really were--and all we have of those facts are a few brief verses. I can't wait to hear the whole, beautiful story in person one day. I hope they're both having a good laugh over what we've turned them into.

My story is rough around the edges, and so much the better. No one would be interested in hearing about the perfect girl who skipped to church every Sunday and always listened to her mother and was ever happy and cheerful. That my father left, that I struggled with terrible self-image and self-worth, that I gave suicide more than a passing look, that I've stumbled and made mistakes and continue to bumble around in the dark--these are the things that make my story worth reading. And because Someone showed up to redeem every false step, and to save me from every disaster--well, that's what makes it worth living. We're broken and busted up, and so we need saving from outside ourselves--to mess with Robert Browning a bit, "or what's a Christmas for?"*

Pictured: "Madonna and Child Enthroned." Gentile de Fabriano, c. 1420. National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

* A favorite of mine from Mr. Browning: "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, / Or what's a heaven for?" (from "Andrea del Santo" -- a poem, coincidentally, written in the voice of a misunderstood classic Italian painter)

Monday, September 19, 2011

32,000 Miles Above Normal

Anyone who knows me would agree that I am a romantic. I always have been. I could give a litany of examples, but if in doubt, please take my word for it. And I'm not talking about the flighty chick flicks, the teenage romances. I mean the real stuff, the epic, the sprawling, the life-long. And while I love the stories--books, movies, oral histories--I want my own more than I can describe. More than anything else of this world, I want the big epic love story. And by that, I don't mean a perfect unblemished fairy tale. I know perfectly well that love is hard work, and commitment still harder--I have the familial history to prove it. But still I want it. A friend of mine pegged this desire well a few years ago, specifying that I didn't want to "get married," I wanted to "be married;" I don't want a wedding day as much as I want a 50th anniversary party, if you will. It's not about designing a perfect wedding day (though I plan on having a killer wedding bash, let's not kid around), but about craving the relationship and intimacy of marriage. 

It's sad to me that the last phrase there has lost its power in the last century or so. I don't mean to romanticize the past, but only to say that the cultural understanding of marriage has become something different, something less than it was. And unfortunately, even in a faith community that talks a great deal of "the sanctity of marriage," the generic American Christian community has proved no better at keeping its vows than anyone else.

But I meander off my topic. (Surprise, surprise.)

I want to get married. 

I have no guarantee of it. (Cue the well-meant contradictions here; but you can't guarantee it, either.) That's not meant to be self-deprecating or negative, it's just the truth. 

I do have some evidences, I suppose: I find it troublesome to think that God would wire me to be so geared toward the romantic if He weren't planning on using the wiring. I've felt, from time to time, inclinations pointing me in the direction of marital love. (Any details thereof would lead to labels of crazy or worse, so I'll stay vague.) And most of the time, I have a pretty vaguely-hopeful attitude about it--a well-adjusted "someday my prince will come" mindset. 

But at the moment i am several miles over Connecticut or so, and sitting on airplanes tends to bring out the introspective in me. Something about sitting so high above the world brings on a natural inclination to perspective-shift, I suppose. 

So this afternoon I find myself wondering. Not in depression or fear or anxiety, but just hanging the question out there among the clouds to my right. 

What if I doesn't happen? Can I be satisfied in my life without this thing I want most? And the subtext of that question, Would I allow God to change my heart so that it's NOT what I desire most?

Because I can't get behind a doctrine that says God wants us pining for something He doesn't intend to give. If we're desiring something that's not meant for us, there's a breakdown in communication. So my options are A) I am getting married eventually, just not tomorrow, or B) I'm resisting His desire to shape and refine my own. 

I asked the question silently, calling it over rippling oceans of cloud. And I don't hear them echo back, "Yes; May 23, 2014. His name is Beauregard and you look lovely." But neither do I hear--by which I mean, feel any inclination toward a "No." But do I read into that?

I'm reminded of something I heard once, regarding seeking where God wants you to go: "You put your 'yes' on the table; God will put it on the map."

If I'm going anywhere in this rambling, I guess it's here: I don't know, and the not knowing is okay. I am what seems to be a dying breed: the truly, contentedly single. God sets the desires of my heart, and He intends to give them to me in divine timing, unfolding a plan of the most complex, beautiful, perfect design. Whatever it is, I'm confident it will blow my mind, knock the wind out of me, and drop me to my knees.

That's good enough for me.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Gift of Falling Apart

[Drafter's Note: I hope this blog doesn't come off like I'm having crazy revelations all the time. It's just that in an effort not to make this a diary of what I did today, I tend to only come here to write when I have something substantial to say. Hence the gaps.]

A friend sent me a simple text message last night: "Chandra, I am about to fall apart."
And I know what he's talking about, and we've already mowed through all the cliches and go-to phrases of comfort and healing. I studied the words for several minutes, wondering what new words might work, and as I was wondering, this beautiful idea came to me.

We get to fall apart. I'm not sure how this idea will translate from my head to the page, but the more I thought about it last night, the more falling apart seemed a privilege rather than a problem. How exhausting would it be to have to keep it together all the time, to not have an outlet--a messy, who-cares-if-the-mascara-runs means of letting whatever is IN, out.

I hope this isn't just a woman thing, though I think it's certainly embraced more by women than men. There's a certain community when women cry at movies (or Kodak commercials), an understanding when we sometimes need a few minutes to bawl like a baby. And I don't really know if men are allowed this grace, but I hope they are, even in certain small spaces of close friendship or marriage. Because being able to fall apart is necessary. I really believe that.

"It's part of what we do," I wrote back to him. "It's allowed. A part of being human. We get to fall apart, and we get to be put back together." The best part of an argument is making up. The best part of falling apart is getting put back together. At times, this can be a human response--a hug or an encouraging talk--but, I'm sorry, nothing beats getting restored by Jesus. I recognize that this may be a strange concept for some, but there's really nothing that comes close. A far cry from cliches and empty promises, this is real healing, real restoration. All the king's horses and all the king's men may not be able to put me together again, but the King of Creation certainly can.

Falling apart isn't a malfunction. It's not an indication that we have screwed up, only an indication that we are human. We are meant to be able to fall apart, because we are meant to know that there in Something bigger than us, ready and waiting to put us back together.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Shame, Shame, Go Away

shame: [noun] a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior

Revelation is a funny thing. It can be some huge and dawning realization but--for me, anyway--it's more often the little things. The shades of meaning, the nuances and subtleties of words. And looking into those nuances can cause a totally new perspective on the world.

I was at a worship service last night, and I have been trying to figure out how to put that in context for people who don't participate in a faith body. I'm sure it would seem the craziest thing--call the cops or the men in white coats--to be seen from the outside. The best explanation, as usual, is the simplest: it's the provision of environment for expression. Music is typically central, but different people respond in different ways, just as in everything else. Expression has to be individual for it to be authentic. And while similar expressors will tend to find themselves together, there's a certain beauty in the cacophony of each person finding their own means of communicating the cry of their hearts.

In this worship service last night, one of the lead singers stopped at one point and encouraged the audience (a strange and inaccurate term) to seek a new revelation from God, a new experience. Not for the sake of experience itself, but to understand, on a real and emotional level, something new about God. And while I agreed with her that this would be good, if I was honest I would admit that I didn't really ask for this for myself, because if I'm not careful, I find myself in a I Know All This Already default setting.

But revelation doesn't always wait for an engraved invitation.

The new subtlety that divinely arrived in the brain last night--it could be dismissed as me just dipping deeper within myself, but I know I'm not that deep, so that ain't it--was fairly simple, but it has not let me go for, what, 26 hours or so: In addition to sin and death, God--Jesus--has taken away my shame. This is a phrase I'm familiar with, and have used often, but I registered last night that I have been thinking of it, using it, incorrectly. Because I looked up the definition of the word, and it's not actually what I've been thinking it was.

Here's how I saw it: Shame is an actual, perceivable thing, potentially outwardly so. Like Hester's scarlet letter, it is a sign and a remnant of what caused and came before it. And so the sacrifice of Christ--His taking on what would otherwise separate us from God--takes that away, cutting through the threads that would mark us as shamed. In a different metaphor, our sin leaves a scar, and the sacrifice is the balm that brings full healing.

But shame is not a scar, it's a feeling. Just look at the definition. It's what lingers, even after the letter is torn away, even when the scar is gone. And this is what the big deal is, to me. It would be enough--too much, in fact, even so--for Christ to have taken our sin, and its resultant death. How much more absurdly kind of Him to take away the outward appearance of it? But He doesn't stop there: He wants my shame, too. Not just the outward, but the inward. He wants the piece in me that still knows, that growls of what I am capable of. He can take that, too, because what good is a clean thing that acts as though it is not? It makes both absolute sense and absolute lunacy, and maybe that's why it's occupied my thoughts so much. Jesus Christ died so that I wouldn't feel bad about myself?? Are you kidding?

And yet, true. And I think this is where the acceptance aspect comes in. Christ can pay for my sins, can rebuild the broken connection between God and me, but until I act like that is true--until I accept that He didn't patch me up or give me a quick fix-up, but completely restored and remade me as new and unblemished by this Old Thing--it's useless. I found myself wrapped up in mental images last night: The first, of me being cleaned out, like scraping mildew from an old tub. You scrape and scratch until everything is cleaned off; but as the image faded in my mind, I realized that wasn't good enough. Being cleaned out isn't any good if it just leaves you empty.

And in the same way, our sin and shame aren't taken away so we can be vacuums. If I am truly freed in Christ, if I really am set free from the trap of thinking of myself all the time, what could I be at liberty to do? Because I'd still be thinking about something. I'm sorry, but I can't get behind an idea that perfection is nothing. And so if I'm no longer thinking about myself, I'm focused on God, right? And focusing on God would lead me to love others through Him. Because a vacuum isn't good enough. A vacuum will just fill up with whatever crap is lying around. But a scraped, cleaned out self, refilled with the grace of a perfect God? That could be a self worth driving around the world.

...Again, I'm afraid I haven't spun an entirely sensical narrative. But again, that's why it's a blog. Leave your thoughts, if you would...

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Red Rover, Red Rover

I’m not really sure where I’m going with this—no guaranties of a beginning, middle, and end—but I guess that’s the upswing of a blog: no editorial process. This ain’t no Great American Novel.
I have spent pieces of the morning in an email conversation with a friend, wherein both of us have been thoroughly vulnerable and transparent about past and present emotional and psychological issues. And this isn’t a close friend, either—just someone I know, but the topic came up and in we went. Nothing huge and earth-shattering, and it started as a bit of a joke, but we’ve been plumbing deep waters now for the past couple hours. And I started wondering at how natural—that’s not the right word—how instinctual, maybe—it is to go deep with someone. (And for the record, this is coming from someone who puts up plenty of walls and holds plenty back, due to the myriad issues I have.)
We’ve come to identify our culture as one of self-reliance and self-dependence, of guardedness and the understanding that trust is no longer an issue because truth is no longer expected. And while I think those are on-point descriptors of what we believe we are, I don’t know that they are truly accurate of who we are. My brain is wired not to depend on other people, particularly men, because when I was 3 I learned my first lesson in that school, and I learned that lesson well. I spent much of my life crafting a version of myself that I thought would be most acceptable to people, and I could shift that self to accommodate different audiences. And while I’ve sought and found healing for a great many of my issues, they are still in there, the default settings on synapses tucked deep between my ears. So why is it that it takes two emails and half an hour for me to pour out a list of what makes me tick (or, more to the point, what jars and messes up my ticks)?
The vaguely new-agey, self-helpy psychology we know and love seems to send a message of self-discovery and self-containment; share your energy with the world but don’t let anything in to affect you, reject anything that tries to put itself on your perfect-already self. A gospel of glass walls, perhaps. But I don’t see how that meshes with a people who seem to have something in them that wants to meld and merge, give and take. You can’t do that through, over, or around a wall, glass or otherwise. (Some would argue that some people just aren’t wired like that, and I understand having major issues with closeness, but—please correct me if I’m wrong—I think it’s still a basic human drive, to be understood and accepted and taken in by someone else. And I don’t think that’s limited to a romantic, soul-mate sort of relationship; I think it extends to even basic, relatively momentary encounters.) There remains a need to cry across the distance, to issue an invitation to run into someone's arms--Red Rover, on an emotional level.
I am resisting the urge to write some sort of conclusive, summarizing thought, in part because I don’t know that there is one. Fiction Family, my greatest musical love these days, sings, “There’s war in my blood / I’ve still got wars to be won,” and maybe that’s my only conclusion—that I am at war with myself. That part of me craves to muddle into other people, to let my guard down and love and be accepted, to eradicate any walls I see; and the other part thrashes against the embrace, struggles out and into the open where I don’t need to depend on anyone, where I can assure myself that I am fine on my own, just me and my bricks and mortar.
One of my issues I mentioned with my friend today was my need to be consistently funny, because if people keep laughing they won’t stop to wonder if I’m worth the trouble (that’s a harsh, but not inaccurate, phrasing), and so I suppose it’s fitting that I end with a comic. When I mused about these thoughts on Facebook today, my brother posted yesterday's Pearls Before Swine comic:

Friday, August 12, 2011

Allergies & Stupidity

The dichotomy of two phrases I've come across tonight (one I wrote, the other I read from a friend) have got me thinking, and even though part of me wants to be snuggled in bed finishing my Stephen King book, the rest of me wants to write. (Okay, most of the rest of me wants to write; the rest of me wants to post a blog entry so I can maintain regularity.)

The first is the idea of what I've come to think of as spiritual allergies--things our souls are allergic to. Death tops the list, but any semblance of it counts, too: friends who move away, a relationship that breaks and goes unrepaired, feelings (real or imagined) of abandonment. We were not designed for a world where these things are the norm, and so they slap us in the face every time. Even those of us whose lives have been marked by these allergies don't go numb to the feeling. It hurts anew every time, and this is perhaps, in part, why the idea of heaven is so desirable: a place to breathe freely. Like a clean house to someone with an allergy to dust, or the end of pollen season.

A friend of mine is moving hundreds of miles away, and even in an age where Facetime is an app away, this is still a hurtful, unnatural thing. It feels all wrong: a friendship shouldn't be summarized in a greeting card; one hug can't hold someone over indefinitely. We are allergic to this.

Another friend is in his seventh month of watching a broken relationship stay broken, and he's exhausted. "I know it's stupid, but I am so upset right now," his text message reads. I am immediate in my contradiction, because when did we decide it was stupid to feel hurt, to become emotionally involved in other people? (I'm aware that this is touching into my post from earlier this week, but bear with me.) I'm writing to myself here, because I do this as much as anyone. I allow myself anger or resentment, but in a private corner apart from my faith, and when I come out of it, I leave it behind (or, perhaps more accurately, brush it under the rug). But there is a place within faith for feelings of defeat, of exhaustion, of frustration, of anger. " 'Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing'" (Luke 13:34). If it's good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for me.

If I asked you how long it's been since you genuinely, fully reacted to something--I don't mean you punched someone out (though maybe you did), I just mean didn't immediately put half a mask on, or call yourself stupid or naive--would you know how long it's been?

Have you remembered now, a sentence later?


Again, I'm not saying we're supposed to be crazed emotion-driven Neanderthals, crashing through the world because we feel like it. But this whole business of masking and redirecting and pretending isn't working, and it's convincing a world that my faith isn't real. And that's something else I'm allergic to.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

A God of Moods

In one of her Bible studies, Beth Moore made a brief statement that has stuck with me since (though I consistently forget it when it's most applicable): "God can not only change your life, He can change your day; and God can not only change your day, He can change your mood." So often I take my moods as part of myself, some unavoidable, unchangeable, just-deal-with it part of life. And while emotions can certainly spin us all over the map, why do we assume that this is out of the jurisdiction of the one who made us, complete with those very emotions?

I was very excited--stoked, psyched, elated, on fire--about something a couple months ago; a new direction God was very clearly paving out for me. But for various practical reasons, it's had to be put on the backburner. And in the last week or two, I've been having serious doubts, wondering why I'm so non-excited about it--did I misunderstand? Have I made the wrong decision? etc. etc. But I was talking to a friend yesterday, and something just slipped out of my mouth: "It's like God has turned down the fire, knowing I wouldn't be able to contain myself, keeping it under wraps all this time."

In the immortal words of Keanu Reeves, "Woah."

How crazy would it be that I don't necessarily have to ask God to control my emotions? And how ridiculous that I spend weeks in uncertainty, rather than going to the God who gave me this and every other calling, to see what the deal was?

I find myself wondering if I sometimes under-feel God; if I assume that feelings and emotions are (and should be) separate from what God is doing with and around me. I don't mean that I should let emotions set the tone for everything, but discrediting them entirely limits the might of my Creator, at least in my own head. And this whole thing--this faith, this walk, this relationship with Christ--should be based on fact and truth, but also love and gratitude and joy, and sometimes pain and hurt and brokenheartedness. For truth to be real in me, it has to make it to my emotions, to my instinctive reactions; otherwise, it's just a book.

As a favorite song of mine says,
"I need more than a truth to believe,
I need a truth that moves, lives and breathes
To sweep me off my feet.
It's got to be more like falling in love
Than something to believe in;
More like losing my heart
Than giving my allegiance."
(You should probably just listen to the whole thing here.)

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Misnomer of "Chapter One"

I am (for the most part) resisting the urge to wax poetical about starting a blog--namely how the surfeit of color, font, layout, and background choices leave you no longer remembering how you were going to wittily yet soulfully justify your new blog's existence.

I've started blogs before, and the creation of a new one should tell you how successful I've been at the upkeep. But I used to call myself a writer, and I miss it (whether I miss the writing or the identity is anyone's guess). And while the grand plans of bestsellers and book signings are (largely) behind me, I still crave the feel of words finding their way from my mind and out through my fingers, because Facebook statuses and work emails just aren't cutting it.

I tried to procrastinate further by pulling several books (my Bible, Mere Christianity, half my Donald Miller collection) from the shelf in the search for a title; and, amusingly, found it on the first page I turned to: in the intro blurbs of Miller's A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. I had underlined it when I'd first read the book, and all manner of paging through the others I'd pulled didn't draw me away from it. After some lovely words about Don, Steve Duin of The Oregonian writes, "His premise will haunt you until you set out to discover if memorable lives, like unforgettable books, often require several drafts and a loving editor."

And I suppose that's the justification; that while there's nothing huge and momentous about today, I do have the feeling of going through a change of drafts; like a pretty serious copyedit has just been returned to me, with some things question-marked and others highlighted, and I wanted somewhere to write about it.

So here goes.