"What if there are really gleaming, castellated cities hung upside down over the desert sand? What limpid lakes and cool date palms have our caravans always passed untried? Until, one by one, by the blindest of leaps, we light on the road to these places, we must stumble in darkness and hunger." ~Annie Dillard
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Lessons from a Summer Evening

“If you watch too hard, it won’t light up,”
she says this to me about her lightning bug, as if the
wriggling creature comprehends that this is
what I am doing. But I am not watching it, not at all.
I am, instead, doing my best to push it off of my
finger and into the mason jar without squishing
its legs, or head, or its florescent bottom against the side.
I finally get it into the jar and she fills it with things
it should like: some clumpy grass, a thin stick, other bugs.
It scales the glass walls with ease and circles 
the top, pokes its nose through a tiny air hole. It stops.
It doesn’t light. Hasn’t for a few minutes, now, 
but when I look into the distant woods where 
the shadows have already fallen, the bugs flash
every time I blink; a mid-summer fireworks display. 
But we are still so exposed out here, and I advise her
to wait. “Just give him another minute or two,” I reason. 
“He probably likes it dark.” But she is restless.
She tries to darken the glass with her small hands. 
They leave large gaps and fail to keep the light out;
no one is fooled. Agitated now, she taps the top of the lid 
and watches the bug slip, just a bit. “Stop watching,” she says,
to me, to herself, to the evening. “Stop watching and then
it will happen.” She turns the lid and closes her eyes.
She stands like that, jar open, eyes closed, until the shadows
drop. Does one minute pass, or ten? When she comes to, 
the jar is empty and the world around her alight.
I hear her whisper, to herself, to me, “Sometimes, 
you just have to take your eyes off of things for a while.”
It was one of the hardest things I have ever done,
to turn silently and creep back to the lit-from-inside house.
I shut the shades, tucked myself into bed, closed my eyes.
She came in glowing some time later, and her light
has not gone out since.

Compulsion

We are compelled,
Not by what stares us
In the eyes and makes
Demands, but by that
Which hovers outside our
Reach and says very little:
A thought, a fear,
A scrap of hope worn thin.
Let us pray, then,
To be haunted by angels
And dressed down by devils.
For in the one, we shall learn
Trust; in the other,
to laugh.

Bend a Knee

The absurdity
of bowing to a 
wooden post—whose
face you chipped out
yourself with a chisel
and hammer—in order
to secure your salvation
rivals only the complete
insanity of casting
all your cares 
before the altar of
anxiety and expecting
her to envelop your 
world in safety.
Bend a knee, instead,
at the temple of Fear
Not and bring all 
your treasures there.
They will be taken from
you but you will get them
back in the end,
or so they tell me.

Love Poem No. 1

I never thought
that life would slip me on like
a leather glove.

You have been good to me in
all the ways that someone can be good.
When I fall asleep early, you 
bring me to bed and lock the doors.
I wake in the morning and feel known. 

Our love is gnarled and knotty and
smooth—freshly sanded grain on 
a rustic tabletop.
I want to take it apart and build
something that moves:
a pirate ship, or a catapult.
You prefer growing things.

Cultivate me with the 
delicate hands of a gardener;
teach me to mature in stillness.
In return, I will dismantle you piece
by piece and make you into something
fierce and free.

Gypsies

You were gypsies, once.

Do you remember those days,
when you were the wanderers?
You have told me the tales in soft whispers
over so many rooted years.

We were just babies and when 
you finally stopped, we were there, too—
accidental passengers on your pilgrimage.
Infants bundled to your chest as you walked
far from home.

The settling was easy for us.
We learned the foreign dialects, 
became fluent in the rituals and rhythms.
They grew to be our very own.

But we have gypsy blood, gypsy memories.
We are strapping our children to our breasts
this very moment and
checking the thickness of our soles. 
I know that you will remain.

One day our sons and daughters
will recall this journey in different tongues
as they raise their children to their chests.
I will beg God to guide their wandering—
perhaps even to bless it—
As, maybe, this is home.

The Discipline of Confession

This is the second post in a series of thoughts and stories surrounding the spiritual disciplines that will be posted on Fridays. I am defining the term “spiritual discipline” very loosely to refer to a practice that one engages in regularly and intentionally in order to draw closer to God or deepen one’s relationship with God. Click here to read the intro post and here to read last week’s post on the discipline of showing up.

—-

A while back, I had a very nice, cordial conversation with someone who I really like, and when we said goodbye and walked away, I was startled to discover that I was upset.

It took me an hour or two to believe that I was, in fact, upset. Whereas before the conversation I’d been going about my day joyfully, after the conversation I felt irritable and lost in the spinning wheels of my mind. I began feeling really badly about myself; I heard a tape playing in my head telling me that I was a failure, but I had no idea where all of this was coming from. Over and over again I asked myself why I felt so angry. I wasn’t at all angry at the person I’d been talking to. Rather, I was feeling angry with myself.

Finally, I got into my car and went for a drive. I left the music off and let my mind wander—trying to allow whatever was bothering me to release into the night and leave me alone. But I kept coming back to the conversation, and I realized that maybe there was something there that God wanted me to pay attention to.

I replayed the conversation in my mind, trying to identify the point at which everything had shifted. It didn’t take me long to hear the two sentences the person had said in passing—sentences that hurt even to think about—and I knew I was getting close to the answer. My friend had been explaining something and in the process had inadvertently struck a nerve. I’d felt attacked, defensive. And though my friend was not communicating this message in any way (and would, in fact, be distraught to know this is how I’d taken it), I took the two sentences as if they had said Kristin, you’re a total loser and a complete disappointment to everyone

As I kept driving through the night in my silent car, I was—for once—able to step out of the downward spiral and see how my reaction was totally disproportionate to the stimulus. In fact, if I looked at it objectively, my reaction and ultimate conclusion looked completely unreasonable. I know this person. I know that they don’t think this about me. The point they were making in our conversation had very little to do with me. Yet, why was something in me going to that dark, extreme place so easily?

I began speaking out loud in my dark car as I rolled through the lonely streets. I asked God to help me unravel what was going haywire in me; to show me what the exposed nerve was that was accidentally struck by my friend.

For me, it usually comes down to two things when I feel the weight of offense like I did in that moment: criticism and rejection. Like many people, I don’t take criticism well—at times I receive even the kindest feedback as a negative judgement and rejection of my person. If you say: maybe you should try doing it this way I sometimes hear well, you’re obviously stupid and a complete failure. I have long believed that maybe this is just my personality. That I am just sensitive, and that I just need to push through hard moments and move on.

I was stopped at a stop light, all alone at a lonely intersection late at night, when God spoke truth into my whirling mind. 

This isn’t about your personality. This is about what you’re choosing to believe.

Suddenly, I could see what was happening, clear as day.

I’d felt criticized because I was unsure of how I was handling a certain situation that my friend had brought up. I was unsure because—ultimately—I didn’t really believe that it was up to God to intervene and make things right. At the bottom, I thought I was the one in control, the one who had to fix everything, and I was feeling the anxiety that comes from the world weighing on your shoulders. Certainly, failure is inevitable if it is up to me to fix the world. No wonder I was feeling so agitated.

But the truth is that I am not in control. It is not all up to me. And that is a mercy.

A few minutes later I pulled into my driveway and sat there in the dark. I confessed it all, out loud, before God. I confessed to being defensive, to being overly critical of myself, to being willing to believe that I am worthless and a failure. Most importantly, I confessed how I’d taken on the belief that I was in control of things; I’d made myself God, rather than trusting in the One who is really God. I confessed how much I needed Him, and how much I needed it to be true that He is God, and I am not.

I am prone to think that the discipline of confession is a painful thing. That it is hard to admit to the things we think and do, that it is a punishment of sorts. But that night, I began to think of confession as a gift. I didn’t experience condemnation when I confessed reality; I experienced freedom from the self-condemnation that I’d put myself through all day. Confessing my unhealthy and misdirected thoughts cleared the air. It was like taking a deep breath after coming up from underwater. I knew that I could let this go; it was time to move on.

Confession has become a small and regular discipline for me. It is a regular discipline because it happens daily—sometimes hourly. It is small because it is such a little action that I take. A lot of times it is me pausing and stating the reality in my mind: God, I don’t believe that you’re in control of this or God, I think you really messed up here. Hearing myself confess these things forces me to re-examine what I am believing in the bottom of my heart, and it allows me to recalibrate and move on.

So how about you? Does the discipline of confession factor into your life? What does it look like?

The Discipline of Showing Up

This is the first in a series of thoughts and stories surrounding the spiritual disciplines that will be posted on Fridays. I am defining the term “spiritual discipline” very loosely to refer to a practice that one engages in regularly and intentionally in order to draw closer to God or deepen one’s relationship with God. Click here to read the intro post on the spiritual discipline series.

—-

When I was twenty-one years old, a two year old little boy, who I loved, died.

It is a really sad story. How can it not be—for any two year old, in any situation? I’d lived with him and his wonderful mom in a funny home that summer; it was a home full of random misfits trying to get their lives together. I was there as the official intern. For the first few days I thought that meant that I’d get to save people, or at least be instrumental in helping them turn their lives around. 

It only took a week or so for me to realize that I was there mostly to drive people around in an old, beat-up fifteen passenger van: to court, to the hospital, to job interviews. I also learned pretty quickly that it was best if I just kept quiet and tried not to give too much advice.

My saving grace that summer—that hard, hard summer—was the little boy. He was living at the house while he awaited a lifesaving kidney transplant. He was so cute and tiny and full of personality. And he loved me. I think that’s really what saved me—the fact that someone loved me there. He’d come into my room early in the morning and wake me up with his chubby little face with the tube coming out of his nose and taped down his neck all the way to somewhere where I couldn’t see it. He would find my camera while I was still in bed sleeping and I’d wake to the clicking of the aperture and a lens pointed centimeters away from my face. He would grin and giggle the moment I opened my eyes. So would I.

By the time I left to go back across town to school in the fall, there was a date set for his surgery. It was going to happen while I was away at camp for a week. I thought about him while I was gone, and about his mom. They’d waited for over a year for the surgery. They’d been living apart from their family in another country, and I knew how great a sacrifice it had been. I was relieved that the surgery was finally happening and hopeful that they might make it home soon.

A week went by.

When I returned seven days later, I checked my voicemail.

[BEEP] Hu-hullo? Hu-hullo, Kristin? Uh, this is Terry. Um. Uh. I’m, I’m so s-s-s-s-sorry to t-t-tell you this, but, he, he died. There was a complication and h-h-h-he died. I’m s-s-so s-s-sorry. [BEEP]

I was devastated. It was the last thing I expected to hear. 

Shaking, and barely holding it together, I called the house and talked to the woman who ran the place. They were inconsolable. This little boy had meant everything, to everyone—not just to me. 

It was over. There was nothing to be done. I had missed the funeral. It had all happened so fast.

When I hung up the phone, I knew. I knew I would never talk to them again. That though I said goodbye and promised to come by soon, I never would.

It hurt too much. And all I knew to do was to stop showing up. Because that was the easiest way to dodge the pain. And because what would I say?

That was twelve years ago. I haven’t been back.

—-

I have learned that I have this tendency.

When things get hard, when all seems lost, when it is just too much….I stop showing up.

I have good excuses. I can convince you of them all and explain how I have not bailed but rather maintained healthy boundaries. I have spotted the crack in the foundation and left the building before it crumbled. I have broken up with you so that you cannot break up with me. Wisdom, I call it.

Perhaps it is.

But maybe, just maybe, it is a lost opportunity.

There are a few places in my life right now where I am tempted to stop showing up. Things are hard or scary or I feel clueless in knowing how to act or what to say. I have these moments where I want to run and hide because I don’t know what is going to happen next; getting out of bed or off of the couch sometimes feels like pushing a boulder off of myself.

And when I bring these things to God, I think he is asking me to just keep showing up. I must kindly overrule my body and gently disagree with my fear. I must tell it to get up, to eat, to get dressed, to get in the car, to do the things that it needs to do. There are days when ordering my sad, scared little self to just show up is the only reason why I make it. It has become a discipline like fasting for me. Showing up is an act of faith, an act of obedience. It is my willing spirit telling my weak flesh that God is here, we don’t want to miss him, do we?

A funny thing happens when I show up. The hard conversations and awkward moments don’t suddenly disappear. No. I still find myself wanting to run away sometimes. But you know what? They’re not ever as scary as I think they are going to be. And even when things go badly, at least I’m still in the ring. I’m learning to wield things like humility and confession and repentance and perseverance and forgiveness and reconciliation, and these are good, good things. 

And when I show up—not just with my body but with my whole, open, vulnerable self—God usually shows up too. I’m learning that showing up is worth it just for that. 

—-

Six months after the boy died, I ended up in a counselor’s office.

I wasn’t really sure why I was there. I complained that I felt numb. That something just felt wrong

I told him the story of the boy who died and about how since then I had just felt…hard. Unable to engage. But I didn’t understand why.

His answer was somewhere along the lines of: Has it occurred to you that maybe, just maybe, your heart is completely and utterly broken? That you’ve been walking around for six months with a shattered heart, pretending you’re fine when you’re not? Would you like to talk about it?

And though I never went back there to that house or to those people, I found ways to show up, grief in hand, to my life. I wrote about that summer and I read my words to people who cared. I talked about it. I got past the fear of opening up that raw, painful wound, and dove in headfirst.

Showing up to reality didn’t make reality hurt less, but there was definitely something redemptive about it. 

God always has been and always will be present in the nooks and crannies of our lives that we’re sure he’s not in. I can choose to avoid those places and never be proven wrong. Or, I can practice the discipline of showing up, willing spirit guiding weak flesh, and dare God to meet me there.

So how about you? 

Are there places in your life where you’re scared to show up? How can you practice the discipline of showing up in the hopes of finding God?

An Attempt At Something…

I have a lovely blue book sitting on a shelf in my overly-stuffed and disorganized bookcase, along with so many other ones, and every once in a while I pry it from its small space, dust it off, and try to insert its wisdom into my everyday life. It’s name? Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth by Richard J. Foster.

It’s a great book; a true classic. It takes the reader through various spiritual disciplines (solitude, study, submission, worship, confession, etc.) in hopes of helping the one seeking God to, well, find Him. I notice that I tend to take this book out when I feel lacking. When I feel like I’m not doing a good enough job of pursuing God. I always hope that it will give me some ideas and inspiration to do better.

And though all of these disciplines and habits are really, really good, the timing of when I turn to them tends to make it so I end up feeling (and doing) even worse. I try to put some rigid disciplines in place in my life, and I find that I fail every. single. time. Does this happen to anyone else?

I’ve been thinking about that. 

God has been pressing me a lot about taking note of where I am, and starting there. He’s talking to me about this in lots of areas of my life. I tend to want to be somewhere further down the road, and so often I don’t even notice where I am, or what I have. 

And so, the other day, when I wanted to drag out this book and “add some structure and discipline to my spiritual life” I felt like maybe God was calling me not to add—but, maybe, instead, to notice what I already do, and to start by getting better at those things. That brought an immediate feeling of relief. So much less pressure. So much less contrived. So much less me trying stupidly to work for my relationship with God and make it something it’s not.

I’ve been taking note these last couple of days. I’ve been watching myself, listening to myself, noticing those around me. It turns out that there are lots of ways in which I engage in “spiritual disciplines” every day. Sometimes these are things (like study and solitude and worship) that Foster—and the overall Christian tradition—name as regular spiritual practices. Other times, they are things that look a little different, but they are nonetheless practices that I do intentionally and regularly in the hopes of growing closer to God.

I have decided that I’m going to use my blog to write about some of these spiritual disciplines on a regular basis. Every Friday, I’m going to try and describe a spiritual discipline or practice that I engage in intentionally and regularly as part of following after Jesus. We’ll see how this goes. I am not very good at the regular writing and posting thing. This in itself may prove to be a hard discipline.

I would also like to invite you all, my lovely readers, to engage in this conversation. Is there a spiritual discipline that you engage in (traditional or not) that you’d like to tell us about? Feel free to tell us about it in the comments. Also, I am hoping that some of you writers (I know you’re out there) might want to tell us your story by contributing a post. If so, send me an email (kristinardell@yahoo.com) and tell me that you’re interested in sharing on my blog. 

It’s an experiment. We’ll see how it goes. Maybe we’ll learn something?

When Valentines and the Nightly News Collide

She was sitting on the floor making Valentines.

image

She’d cut each paper—24 of them—to a precise size, creased a straight fold down the center, and was busy writing the Valentine message on the inside. Each letter was painstakingly formed, her spelling careful and tedious. 

Happy Valentine’s Day! From: Molly

I was sitting next to her, watching the process and in awe of how big she is getting. The girl can read chapter books and play soduku, for goodness sake. She’s practically grown.

But as I watched her, I also watched past her, at the television. We seldom watch the news in our house; it is too rife with fires and shootings and other things that I feel the need to filter, for now. The national news was on on this particular evening only because we were waiting for the Olympics to begin.

And so, in between talk of Sochi and discussions of healthcare, a report about Syria came on. I don’t know if it was the sudden shouting of distressed Syrians from the television that made her look up, or if it was the fact that the reporter was talking about children and so she felt like the story involved her. But no matter the reason, Molly, who had been henceforth absorbed in her Valentines, stopped what she was doing and watched the story unfold on the television before her.

An entire town of people was being evacuated. Mothers with small children wheeled small suitcases, bullets exploding in buildings around them. Parents shouted and pushed their families forward, faster, faster, away from danger. Luggage was abandoned all over the highway—lives just left there, important possessions abandoned. And the piece de resistance: a mother crying into the camera and the reporter explaining that she had lost her son in all of the activity. We watched as the frantic woman rushed back into the exploding town looking for her small child, shouting his name heartbreakingly at the top of her lungs. The reporter then spoke somberly into the camera and ended the clip with this sobering statement: “We never did find out if that mother found her missing son.”

Molly watched the whole thing rather intently. Her pencil dropped out of her hand and she stared at these tragic images coming across our screen. I was holding the remote, pointing the whole time at the television. There was a battle raging within me about whether or not I should change the channel; whether I should turn on Wheel of Fortune and keep her from seeing these hard, raw, terrible things happening to other kids her age on the other side of the world. 

I didn’t. 

I let it stay, and I watched her watch the whole thing. She didn’t react, never said a word about it. When it was over she went back to writing happy messages on pink and red valentines, and we haven’t spoken of it since.

But she watched. She saw.

I haven’t been able to get that 30 second long scene out of my head since. 

Parents, how do we balance this? 

How do we give our kids an idea of what is happening in the world without shattering their sense of security? How do we hand them a true understanding of reality, and all that it involves, without also instilling in them hopelessness and despair? Because I get it. If you follow so many of the things happening in this world to their logical and inevitable ends, it doesn’t look good. It looks really, really scary.

I don’t have any real answers, for now. My kids are still so little that I am just beginning to think through these types of things. I’m certain that the answer involves balance, thoughtfulness; pulling back the curtain a little at a time. Conversations and questions.

But, above all, I don’t want my kids to be afraid—even though there is much to be afraid of. I don’t want them to view their lives as one long exercise in holding their good things tightly and running from potential dangers and threats. No. I want them to be generous. To hold good things loosely, to share with those who don’t have. Sometimes, I want them to run into danger, and not away from it. Because I think that’s often what it is to be human. And it’s certainly what it is to be a Christian.

For now, I think I’ll just let her keep working on her valentines. I’ll let her hold her thoughts about what she saw on the news somewhere in the recesses of her mind, and I’ll be ready to dive into those questions when she brings them up. 

And I will pray that as she grows, so will her understanding of love. That someday, love won’t just look like kitschy pink hearts and Disney valentines, but that it might look like entering into pain. That it might look like giving away what she has. That it might look like helping those she sees suffering on the news or in her everyday life.

And that, sometimes, it might look like pouring your whole self into making a cute valentine for a friend.

image

Lament

my hair falls long now and I
twist silken strands round my index

finger, looping and knotting while
my mind wanders and you talk

to me of the disappointments of the 
day. I watch how low and heavy 

the clouds hang and I think that sometimes
I feel like them: so saturated and longing

for release, yet blown northward through 
the night, a collection of frantic, colliding 

molecules just floating there like 
hope outside the window where we

can’t quite touch it, though our fingers press
white against the pane. instead we press 

each other and whisper up a prayer, thinking
we might somehow begin to believe it:

 His mercies are new every morning.