Discovering Ourselves in the Face of a Stranger

We noticed a small knot of locals—a group of elderly men sitting together on a bench nearby, chatting in Italian, laughing heartily at jokes that escaped us. My husband and I stood in silence, eavesdropping, while water lapped against the wood dock and the late afternoon sun warmed our skin. Then the men’s conversation slowed as gray heads leaned close and one man began to sing, with the others joining in an a cappella chorus…

To read the rest of the story about discovering ourselves in the face of a stranger, join me at In Touch Ministries. While you’re there, have a look around at the other articles. This month’s issue is fantastic.

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.

Celebrating Advent: A Guide for Beginners

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In our family, life revolves on it’s own little axis around Time. Just as the sun sets the seasons for the earth, Time sets the season of life for us as a family. The years do their work and we adjust our expectations and our decisions accordingly. We may find ourselves in a season of rest or growth or pruning, but as we spin through the seasons, I find myself keeping certain rhythms throughout the year. Rhythms help Time and I keep track of one another. They give me point on which to focus, so I don’t spin out of control.

Growing up in a non-denominational church, I was unaware that the Christian church celebrates its own version of the seasons. My idea of a church calendar looked very much like your average Gregorian calendar with a few extra prayer meetings and pot-lucks thrown in for good measure. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I learned people observed seasons of Lent and Advent. Well into adulthood, I discovered I have lived my entire life spinning in Ordinary Time.

I have so much to learn about the Liturgical year, and so much to gain from it too. I see it as a set of rhythms rather than a set of rules, on which to build my spiritual life throughout the year. But, Time can be a cruel master, and I don’t have the hours to dedicate to studying the church calendar and understanding with as deep a commitment as I’d like. So, for now, I have built a bridge to Advent, one that is helping me stay focused on this season with little time, effort, or know-how.

I offer you Advent for Beginners:

Look for the Light

I find myself rising early to light the candles in the still-dark rooms below. I sit in the candle light, adding the glow of the twinkle lights on the Christmas tree, and I wait for the sun to rise above the giant oak in the garden. The sun cuts through the morning fog, and for a few moments, its rays split the tree in two. No matter how dark the night, I know the light will come. And with it, a longing for peace, a growing hope, and joy in knowing that the Light of the world has already brought the cosmos into our chaos.

“The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it.” ~John 1:5

Invite Poetry

After the lighting of the candles, I start the day with prayer and poetry. There is a time for storybooks and simplicity, but Advent reveals itself to me as a poem. It is rhythm and metaphor and song. It is the most potent truth revealed through a single Word. It is impossible to understand in one reading, yet the longer I sit with it in the growing light, the longer I roll the words in my mouth, the longer I allow the truth to illuminate my spirit, the more I grow in understanding.

“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…in Him was life, and the life was the Light of men..” ~John 1:1,4

Embrace Anticipation

Apart from the quiet mornings, there is much work to do in this busy season–so very much to accomplish. However, I am trying to see with eyes of anticipation rather than dread. As I participate in the usual rhythms of this season, I remind myself that the building excitement I see in my children should foster a sense of anticipation and excitement in me too. The Greatest Gift has come, and He will return again. Advent focuses my thoughts on the coming Kingdom, and helps me to live in anticipation of the day when all will be set right, when we will see his glory once again, full of grace and truth.

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” ~John 1:14

……….

One lovely book I have found invaluable for helping me to center on this season is a compilation by Sarah Arthur called Light Upon Light. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Also, Luci Shaw’s Accompanied by Angels: Poems of the Incarnation.

**This is a re-post from the archives because I still feel like a beginner when it comes to the liturgical calendar. Maybe you do too? Do you have any resources you’d like to share?

Naming the Longing

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Adjacent to the parking lot of our condominium building, sat a clump of pine trees with fine, green needles and dripping sap. The landscapers planted the trees in such a way that, once grown, they formed a canopy above a small, oval opening. If one looked hard enough, and squinted against the sunlight, one might see it.

As kids, my neighbor, Michelle and I, discovered this opening and it became my favorite place to retreat from pesky siblings and the heat of summer…

For the rest of the story, follow me on over to the Mudroom where I write more about naming the longing inside each of us.

Blessed are the Peacemakers

 

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I sat on the beach listening to the sound of seagulls squawk in circles while searching for a sand-covered potato chip or a half-eaten sandwich. Beneath them, white foam and waves of dark gray crashed on wet sand, and as I watched them roll in, I thought of the waves and waves and waves of endless violence and grief we’ve experienced this year in America and beyond. I have no more words–they are caught in my throat, and have become a stream of tears beneath a stone of sorrow.

A few days ago, before our country bled red once again, I watched a school of dolphins swim close to the shoreline. It’s a rare sight on this coast, and I felt joy bubble up as they dove and rose again in a synchronized dance. A swimmer paddle boarded out to catch a glimpse up close and returned with the report that a baby dolphin swam beneath them. Every time the young one turned in a new direction, the the entire group of dolphins followed, protecting the baby from harm. Eventually, they swam away together, and their bobbing fins disappeared where the sky meets the horizon.

After the news reports, I find myself turning inwards, wanting to grieve for the losses alone, wanting to swim in the current of my own feelings. But, I recognize this is not a time for private grief. When the news shows face after face of dead men speaking to us from the grave, the grief must be a public one. This is not the time to swim alone.

Have you found a place for your grief or fear? Have you found a place to lament or repent or cry or pray? Have you found a place to show your weakness and allow yourself to be guided by another’s strength? If not, I encourage you to look around you. I have leaned hard into the strength of my friend Deidra, and her online gathering Prayers of the People. Look for the people who are gathering together in peace, look for the ones in whom you recognize courage, look for the ones who hold hope behind a veil of tears. They will be a shield and binder of wounds. They will be our peacemakers.