Archives for March 2017

When Small Talk Isn’t So Small After All

The vets staying at the Veterans Hospital in town hang out at the local strip mall. We see them every time we stop for milk and a five dollar bunch of flowers. Often, there will be one or two vets smoking on the corner, leaning heavy into a cane or crutch. They call to one another across donuts and coffee, or chat in the aisles of the Rite Aid. Sometimes their wounds are obvious–lost limbs, disfigurement, a limp. And other times, it’s the faraway stare, the nervous glance over their shoulder, the war-weary eyes that hint at invisible damage.

I pulled into the parking lot last week, and an older veteran stood on the corner of the Stop and Shop and followed my car with his eyes. I got out, grabbed my bags from the trunk, and he continued to stare. His face told a thousand stories, and his leg, permanently damaged in one skirmish or another, told a story too. I tried to look away.

Minutes earlier, I’d huffed my way out of the house after hours of household chores, while my husband lay prone on the sofa with a cold drink and an ipad in his hand. My annoyance led me to speed my way to the store, slam the car door, and attempt to sneak by the man without so much as a nod hello.

He called out to me, “Hey there! I used to drive a car just like yours. Do you love it? Is it a stick shift?” For a split second I wondered if I could walk by and pretend not to hear him. His left leg held all of his weight, and my polite, fake, smile held mine. I turned to face him.

We chatted cars for a minute, and while I considered how much time this conversation would cost me, he considered sharing a piece of his history. His story tumbled out. He spoke of the years he was stationed in Germany, the multiple languages he speaks, and his love for European travel. He told me of a car just like mine that saved his life in a head on collision with two other vehicles on a German highway. He told me a story of near misses, something akin to salvation.

After we chatted for a while, and I turned to enter the supermarket, he called out a blessing on me and then again on my family. I mumbled a brief thank you, and I walked away thinking I should say something to bless him too, but the words buried themselves in my own discomfort. The conversation was as awkward as you imagine it to be between a war vet and a harried housewife, but I walked away feeling as if I was richer for this chance meeting with a stranger. Near misses can cause one’s fake smile to transform into a real one, and one’s harried heart to enlarge in size.

I am so quick to dismiss the gift of a timely conversation. I almost missed out on a opportunity to see God in the face of another human being that day. I almost rejected the gift of a blessing from a stranger. When the man reached out in conversation, I wondered what he wanted or needed from me, not realizing I was the one with the greater need. I needed to stop tending my small wounds, exit my own story, and receive the gift of another’s.

Fame Doesn’t Satisfy the Soul’s Hunger

I read an article recently in which a handful of famous actors and musicians shared their thoughts on fame and life in the public eye. Overwhelmingly, they saw fame as a curse, resulting in a lifestyle they never would have chosen for themselves had they calculated the cost. In most cases fame cost them their friendships, their faith in fellow man, and their freedom.

The soul isn’t made for fame, and yet many of us seek some form of it, thinking it will fill all of the empty places inside of us. So often, we already have everything we need to feel full and satisfied, but our eyes grow larger than what our souls can hold. We stretch against an ever-growing hunger.

While fame isn’t a primary motivation in my life, wanting to be known and admired is important to me in ways that, left unchecked, can become unhealthy. It is the sickness of being fallen and human. I have the love of a good man, the blessing of my children, the support of extended family, the soul-connections of deep friendship, and yet I continue to grasp for more.

When will I sit at the banquet table of my life and taste the sweet abundance spread before me?

“Enough is as good as a feast.” A friend wrote these words, and this truth continues to reverberate in my heart like the clear ringing of a bell. I don’t like this word “enough” and like any good American, I have set my life in opposition to it. I like more, bigger, better. Forget “enough”, forget satisfied. I want excess. Fame. Fortune. Feasting.

My idea of fame and fortune looks different than your average starlet’s, no billboards or magazine covers for me, but it is rooted in the same discontent. It is rooted in the belief that my life should add up to more than the everydayness of it. I forget that when I accepted Christ, I chose to live in an upside down kingdom where the last shall be first and the first shall be last. I am called to become less so that Christ may become more in me.

Enough is as good as a feast, my friend told me. This is love expressed through letters, reminding me to be satisfied in my smallness.

When Our Weakness Becomes A Strength

A few years ago, I joined my daughter’s class for a school field trip to Thomas Edison’s former laboratory here in New Jersey. The word laboratory sounds very clinical and boring, but in reality, it’s a large warehouse of a building, full of rooms fitted with dark wood paneled walls or heavy machinery or musical instruments. It is a delight.

The music room in particular held my attention. Painted strips of wood covered the walls which were lined with black and white photographs. Beneath our feet, worn oak floors bore the scars of a thousand visitors. The room itself held all sorts of instruments and multiple versions of the phonograph. In fact, the number of phonographs sprinkled throughout the entire complex bordered on overkill, until I learned that Edison spent fifty-two years perfecting this particular invention.

He called the phonograph his “baby”.

I thought all of this was amusing, charming even, until the docent made an almost throw-away comment. She said Thomas Edison, inventor of a device that reproduces the sound of music, suffered from extreme hearing loss since his childhood. While not completely deaf, he was severely hearing impaired.

Edison’s biggest weakness became the impetus for birthing his “baby”–his favorite invention plucked from his imagination.

I’ve thought about this off and on for several years, especially during times when I feel ill-equipped for the task at hand, whether it be a challenge in my parenting, creating, working, serving or simply in loving others well. My weakness can be a place where I flourish in spite of myself. This is counter-intuitive, unless I believe, as Paul writes in 2 Corinthians,

“For this thing I sought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said to me, My grace is sufficient for you: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest on me.”

Allowing the power of Christ to rest on me results in strength, in courage, in tenacity. Edison showed a single-mindedness for fifty-two years, to create while wrestling against his own shortcomings. This is the kind of gumption I want for myself and for my kids. To stick with it. To dig deep into the well of my weakness, and find Christ there offering me a cup of living water to drink.

I read later that Edison could’ve chosen corrective surgery to improve his hearing, and certainly he could have invented a hearing aide. But, he’d grown comfortable with the quiet his weak hearing afforded him. He allowed books, deep thinking, creation, and invention to fill the silence. And we, the recipients of his long labor, are richer for it.

On Cultivating Gentleness

I noticed it in the way she smoothed the hair from Kaitlyn’s face. Her fingertips slipped over the sheen of sweat and tucked the girl’s damp curls away from her contorted features. She touched her child’s body with a gentleness I couldn’t summon after two years of being her daughter’s registered nurse.

Watching her, I realized I’d lost this sense of tenderness in caring for my patients…

To read the rest of this story on the art of gentleness, join me at In Touch Ministries.

Five Steps to Living More Creatively

This one’s for the artists, the magic-makers, the wannabes. It’s for the closet creatives, the outsiders, the daydream believers. This one is for you, the one with the pocket full of treasures stored up with nowhere to empty them. And it’s for you with the questions and the hollowed out well that houses a dry creative soul.

As creators, we often feel the constant buzz of frustration between three opposing tensions: a soul searching for rivers of inspiration, a desire to create, and a schedule that won’t allow for it. Our well of words runs dry, and we see no clouds gathering on the horizon to fill it again.

I keep a few tricks tucked away for the days when my creativity needs replenishing, performing a sort of rain dance by inviting poetry, novels, or music that call the rains of inspiration. But, sometimes my usual methods wear thin, as does the time it takes to indulge in them.

In the middle of a recent creative funk, my family took a short getaway to Disney World during a school break. I looked forward to the visit, and hoped that by surrounding myself with a cornucopia of sights and sounds created by the most imaginative minds, they would inject life and color into my own artistic endeavors.

Instead, I felt lifeless and drained. When I’m in a creative dry spell, I can find it difficult to enjoy the good work of others–it stirs up envy instead of inspiration. Rather than wallow in self-pity at my inability to produce stories with the fairytale quality of Peter Pan or the enduring sweetness of Winnie the Pooh, I turned my attention away from the carefully engineered and curated magic of Walt Disney.

I turned my gaze to what is most epic and boring and funny and tragic and artful and true–the people rubbing elbows and shoulders with me.

I slipped on my favorite pair of $12.99 sunglasses, and from behind my reflective lenses, I watched as a thousand stories unfolded in the maze of people wandering the parks. The crowds swelled, and when I became attentive, I saw countless small acts of courage, silly antics, and relationships unfolding. I saw individuals with their stories captured in wrinkles, freckles, or tattoos written across their bodies and faces.

I’d been looking for art in the flash and glitter, but the art was written across the lives of the lovers, the families, and the friendships. A cloud arrived on the horizon, and by calling it out of blue skies, it brought rain and refreshment.

If you find yourself in need of inspiration, I offer you a few steps I follow to live a more creative life.

Pay attention:

“Attention is the beginning of devotion.” ~Mary Oliver in Upstream

If you remember nothing else, remember this. Paying attention is what separates the artist from those of us who merely dream of making art but never follow through. You must become someone who notices the details hidden in plain sight.

Take note of the withering look she gave him, the soft words he whispered, the hand the child grasped.  The way he moves to music, the tattoo on her left calf, the slant of light through tree limbs. These details fill the well, and will give you something to draw from when your soul feels dry.

Develop a habit of remembering:

It’s not enough to pay attention, we must also capture the things we’ve heard and seen. Develop a habit of remembering in a manner that works best for you.

I write little notes to myself in my phone or longer entries in my journal, or I snap a quick photo. Sometimes, I tell someone what I’ve seen because through the act of telling, I bury the memory deeper for recollection.

It’s important to not only remember the details of the experience, but also how that experience made you feel. Be as vivid and specific as possible in your descriptions. You will thank yourself later.

Invite stillness:

We stood at attention, we wrote notes to remember, and now we must let all of that inspiration sink deep into the parts of us where quiet and stillness keep company. We unearth meaning through stillness.

In this space, we allow everything we’ve gathered begin a conversation inside of us without our input. We let the voices chatter and the images converge, until a form begins to rise out of what once was shapeless.

Welcome inspiration:

I have rejected ideas or new forms of creativity because I didn’t like their shape on arrival. Worse, I have declared some experiences useless, a waste of time, or boring. Inspiration can come from anywhere or anything, but we have to welcome it on its arrival.

Paying attention is the first drop in the well of inspiration. What would it take for you to receive a drenching rainfall?

Create from a place of  trust:

If we pay attention, develop a habit of remembering, invite stillness, and welcome inspiration, we find ourselves in a posture of receiving. Once we receive, we can create from all that’s taken place under the surface, as the waters of inspiration rise.

At this point, I often feel afraid that I don’t have enough to draw from, that I’ll release a bucket to gather the words, and it will come up empty. Creating out of a place of fear is different than creating out of a place of vulnerability. Vulnerability invites trust, leading to a full-bodied work of art. Fear invites doubt, leading to a thin, pale version of what our work could be.

Trust that you’ve done the work. Trust that your artist soul knows what to do with it. Trust that you are the one to shepherd this work of art into the world and offer it to the rest of us.

We are waiting.