Impractical Things

c86e2723-a49d-41e7-90a4-4366c45f1d15 Sometimes your now curmudgeonly heart needs to encounter something that will make it soft again, and remind you of those things that formerly made your heart sing. This night, it was music that did it for me, though I might have missed it had I given into the “logical” side of my mind that likes to weigh the usefulness and practicality of most things. I think I had somehow begun to forget that which I thought was essential to my being: that art and music and beauty are so vital to life, because they point us to the reality of a God who is beautiful in ways beyond what we can imagine. Well-crafted music is so mystifying and “impractical” in some senses, but it’s something that gives so much satisfaction to the soul and reminds you of the reality of a life that goes beyond whatever moment in which you might currently feel stuck.

On this night I was at a worship concert, and I sat with my eyes closed and absorbed the beauty that was filling the place, melting a little bit when the strings joined in. There was no real paint in sight with which to satisfy my sudden intense desire to create, so I began painting scenes in my mind, and imagining just how wonderful Heaven is going to sound if this much wonder can exist on our fallen earth. When my eyes were open, they were looking around at the old theater with all of its intricate decorations. I was especially fixated on the gilded figures above the stage, for in the low lighting they appeared as angels dancing with joy.

Then we came to the next set of songs, and here it was not the music but the lyrics of truth that wedged themselves into my heart and broke away its hard shell from the inside. They were words that first reminded me that no matter what happens, no matter who leaves me, no matter who lets me down, no matter how many times I let myself down, that He is there. He came, and He will not leave. My lips were finally able to utter again in complete sincerity a declaration that He is good; one that spit in the face of all the lies that screamed at me saying that He is anything but. I was led to declare that though I know the depths of my weakness, I am able to remain steadfast in Him, because His Spirit is within me. I walked away feeling more stable than I have in a long time, all because God used “impractical” music and lyric and story and beauty that was grounded in truth to work restoration in a way that the so called “practical” things of life could not presently do for me.

So dear reader, if your heart longs to engage in music or art or storytelling, ground it in truth, give it to God, and see how He might use your “impractical” gift to accomplish very practical purposes.

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[If you want to know what I was listening to, check out Molly Kate Skaggs’ Album “Overtaken” if you also want to melt into a puddle, as well as “Beautiful Surrender” by Jonathan David and Melissa Helser]

Illusions

[From the Archives: I don’t really remember writing this, and it’s not all that I’d like it to be. However, I found it and hoped it might encourage someone who struggles with the same internal battles]

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I usually like artists, but not this one.

This one is destructive.

This one is a liar.

His medium is illusions. He cannot create, he only copies the same old darkness that the world has known for ages.

If you don’t pay attention you’ll wake up one day to find yourself penned in by fences that only exist in your mind, believing that this sham world is as real as those concrete truths which now seem to evaporate as mist.

I might sound like I possess a touch of madness, but we’ve all met this fiend before.

His name is Fear.

We’ve allowed him a seat at the kitchen table of our minds, from whence he skillfully twists the conversations.

Suddenly our days look bleak, friends seem distant, words more cutting and the future more grim.

A life once marked with hope can soon be bowed to the frustrations of the smallest obstacle, and cower at the feet of beasts who do not actually exist. Meanwhile those things that should actually have your prayers and energies focused upon them will be forgotten.

He is an artist in many fields. Once banished, he must be defended against or his return is imminent.

I thought in many ways that I was done with him. I overcame him months ago to make the right decision, but now at the point where I must fight his illusions, I temporarily gave in to them.

I did not ask for the heavenly help I needed, but rather sat back defeated to watch as he gleefully painted in dark hues his favorite images of failure, inadequacy and loneliness.

Had I immediately called for help I would have avoided the embarrassment of the dark blots Fear cast upon my behavior. I complained, and sat glued to the reel of despair that played repeatedly before me.

But then an unlikely hero entered this story: Deuteronomy.

As Moses gave his recap of the days after the Exodus, I saw the grimy fingered artist at work in the people of God so many years ago.

They had the option of choosing to trust God and enter the promised land, and see God’s mighty hand at work in a way many of us dream to see it. Surely they would obey, because they had seen miracles with their own eyes! Surely we all would chose the right path if we had seen such things, we say.

They had seen it.

But Fear painted pictures of giants too large, and cities too strong.

They forgot the reality of the fact that though they had very real obstacles, they had the help of a very real God who told them not to be afraid.

Not to be afraid because He was with them.

Yet Fear won, and that generation died in the desert.

(That’s all Fear really has to offer anyone in the end.)

It was then I realized that Fear wanted me to believe that God’s promises were only the mirage of an oasis in the desert.

This time it is the oasis that is real, and the desert the illusion.

As long as I stay close to the source of living water, the desert can never truly kill me.

It was this simple lesson I’ve “learned” so many times before that proves Fear’s work to be no more than a mist before the God who created me for His glory, Who loves me as His child.

Yes, the Israelite’s fear might have been based in the very real residents of Canaan, unlike my fears which were almost completely in my own mind.

Yes, in life we can be thrown in truly dangerous situations, and victory might not always appear in the way we expect it. We may, in such cases, have very real foes to fight.

Yet in any case we cannot allow fear to dine with us. We cannot welcome him in.

Instead it is the LORD we should choose to abide with, and when I enlist my Creator’s help to keep fear at bay, I gain the assistance of an artist Who colors my life with warm hues of hope.

Icing.

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[I wrote most of this in May, and finished it . . . in July]

“Tell me something about yourself,” the traveling speaker asked, having gone down the row asking each person the same as they introduced themselves.

I paused. “I like to create things.”

“What sort of things?”

“Paintings, cakes, stories.  But I rarely finish my stories.”

“Do you finish your cakes?”

“Yes!” I laughed in response.

“Why do you finish your cakes and not your stories?”

The answer came sooner than is characteristic of this ponderer. “People eat my cakes. They don’t read my stories.”

In that moment, it somehow seemed like an epiphany, whose meaning was not yet clear. Then I forgot about it, until tonight.

Tonight I combed through my computer files, hoping to find a forgotten piece of writing that could be polished to some semblance of beauty. What I found were bits of fiction, journaling and poetry. They were written so long ago that it was if I was reading them for the first time as I had no recollection of them whatsoever. Some were quite dismal, some dramatic, but some surprised me by giving me hope that maybe it would be worthwhile to continue practicing my craft. There was one tale in particular that drew me in and made me feel as if I were suffering from some sort of author’s amnesia. The first page of this story was intriguing, and I waited with bated breath to see where it was going, scrolling down to page two. I yelped in indignation at my former self, for the scene ended abruptly.  I had left myself hanging in the midst of an unfinished story whose anticipated plot I couldn’t recall. By not finishing that story when the idea was fresh, I lost an opportunity I can’t get back. As I continued to peruse my files, this scenario repeated itself, sometimes with thoughts being left behind in mid-sentence. The only stories that were finished were the ones that had something in common with my cakes: stories I wrote with the anticipation of sharing them with specific people.

I’ve written this post thus far, and I’m tempted to give it up as I feel there is too much here that I can’t seem to convey, but I couldn’t handle the irony. What have I learned from this experience? I suppose learning something isn’t a requirement, but somehow with me everything turns out to be a lesson, and I took two main things from this. *First, I think I should find more merit in writing just to write for the joy of it, to work through thoughts and feelings with no thought of somehow gaining approval from others. Yet simultaneously, the motivation to excel, follow through and actually finish well is so much stronger  when you have the anticipation of sharing it with another. To have someone urging you onward is something we should all have and participate in, regardless of whether it is in reference to making a cake, writing a story, or anything else that is good. God didn’t mean for us to take on life alone, something that I so often find myself attempting to do.

Second, I wonder what “stories” in life I am currently leaving unfinished. What am I not pursuing because I’m too scared, too lazy, or I feel too inadequate? What will I look back on later and see a beautiful beginning, only to watch it vanish into thin air because I gave up? What will I regret later that I could change now, wishing I could talk to my former self into pursuing? Those questions are not easily answered, but are worth pondering. Now, I’m not suggesting that everything started is worth finishing, and we need to be careful in discerning what is. However, I’ve found it to be an uncomfortable truth that the things that are really worthwhile in life and for eternity to come are the things that do not come easily. Forming healthy habits, meaningful relationships, serving others, sharing the gospel and even maturing are beautiful things that only come through a perseverance that throws aside laziness, awkwardness, fears, what-ifs, and a gaze upon one’s self that reveals more weakness than we care to see. Yet if we manage by God’s grace to persevere, to finish in those things He has led us into, we will be left with something ultimately more dear than whatever it was we gave up. So here’s to finishing well with the help of a community and strength from the Lord, whether it be cakes, stories, or things infinitely more important.

 

*Basically what we have from this point on is a loquacious pep talk directed to myself. These things are so easily forgotten, and I need to be reminded often!

Imperfection & Painter’s Tape

Summer Non FB

[From the archives]

Blue painters’ tape clung to the walls, the ceiling, the trim. The doors, the floors, the windows and even the toilet. Everywhere, blue tape, many with little Sharpie notations, explaining why the spot had been marked. It was as if this house I had been painting all summer had been suddenly afflicted with a sticky blue rash. In reality, my boss had invited a few friends come to look over the place with fresh eyes. She was planning on selling the house, and wanted to make certain that we did not miss anything important that needed attention. This was a good idea, and I know that they all meant well. None of this was directed toward me, the tape simply displayed observations of what needed to be done.

However when I arrived to the house to work that day, I found that it was just me there all alone with the painters’ tape and the bad attitude I had already been struggling against all morning.

As I walked through the house I became more and more agitated, and I consequently began to attempt to sort out just why this bothered me so.  I came up with the following list:

  • I had been working hard, and someone was pointing out all that I hadn’t accomplished.
  • Some of them were so obvious that I couldn’t help but feel less than brilliant that they had thought they needed mentioning
  •  I already knew that many of the things marked were problems, but hadn’t had the time to address them yet.
  • The tape pointed out ALL of the things that were wrong, at the exact same time.
  • Consequently, I had no idea where to start as the number of imperfections were overwhelming.

Usually I could laugh away something such as this, but as it came on top of an already soured mood I found that it distinctly frustrated me and had to pray some penitent prayers. However, that’s not the point of this story.

The point is how I realized that sometimes I do this very thing to myself. I metaphorically take out a roll of painters’ tape and begin marking all of my imperfections. All of the things that I can think of that are wrong with me; all of the things that need work. Knowing all the while at the back of my mind that there are surely even more things I have missed.

And I become frustrated.

I feel like a failure.

I’m overwhelmed.

I’m unsure where to begin; with so many problems screaming at me, which one do I address first?

To state the obvious, this is not helpful.

To resolve this, let us now return to that real life house that was covered in bothersome blue tape.

My boss arrived later that day, cheerfully bringing me lunch.

I was frustrated, but she was not a bit bothered.

I felt like I was failing, but she did not see it that way in the least.

I did not know where to start, but she did. She told me to keep working on those same tasks she had assigned to me before I had even beheld that distressing tape.

She trusted that I had listened to her enough beforehand, that I knew what she was trying to accomplish and therefore would know which pieces of tape to disregard and which to address.

As we surveyed the tape we also found that some of the problems marked were not actually issues. They were simply the results of actually living in the house, and they could not be permanently removed without the resident of the house ceasing to carry out daily activities.

And others, we found, weren’t priorities, but were things that it would be good to get to eventually.

When our observance of the tape was finished, the tasks I was assigned to first were the most important ones; the things that were seriously going to interfere with my boss’s purpose in selling the house if they were not dealt with swiftly.

I feel no need, dear reader to pick apart for you what all those things meant to me allegorically, but to me it was a picture of my life and my God. The LORD knows I am not perfect, never was, and won’t be until glorification. It bothers me intensely, and though I know He has already paid for my transgressions in Christ’s atoning death, I continue to mark them all out with “blue tape.” Rather than helping me deal with my issues, this tends to paralyze me with frustration. I sit there and wonder “what’s the point?” Yet if I would just look up, I would see that like my boss was, He is patient and kind, knowing that there is indeed work to be done, but showing none of the despondency I heap upon myself. His grace soothes me into putting down the tape, disregarding the mass of imperfections, and simply begin to work with His help on those things He has already called me to do. Yes, there is much left undone, and when it comes to actual sin, it should never be tolerated.  But step by step I can trust that as I go to Him, He will continue to show me what things really matter at what time, and how He desires me to deal with them. I can rest in the fact that He wants to help me grow and represent Him well, and He has the ability to empower me to do so even when my weakness tells me otherwise. I’m never going to be perfect, and that’s just fine, as long as I am consistently moving forward in my journey of becoming more like my Savior. My good, good Savior.

Be challenged and encouraged, though it does take diligence to persevere, He has given us all that we need to begin this journey with Him:

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.  For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge,  and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness,  and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.  For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” -2 Peter 1:3-8

 

Wandering to Work: My First Week

DSCF8461-001The sun has not quite set on my first week working in the shop. I say not quite because the sun doesn’t begin to go sleep around here until about the time I do. Maybe even later.

I began the week praying against the fears that were beginning to rise up and ask me what I had gotten myself into, for I really had no idea. The day dawned that I would find out and I managed to leave those pesky fears at my door and set off into Aberdeen to begin my twenty minute walk to work. “Wander” might be a better word than “walk” to describe what I did that first day, for “walk” seems to include too much of a sense of direction. I soon abandoned my screen shots of Google’s directions and looked to the old standby for help: a good “old fashioned” paper map. I subtly attempted to mask the fact I was lost from the locals (who were too concerned with getting to work to notice anyway), and located what seemed to be the best route. Eventually I managed to make it through the roundabout without getting smushed, accomplished by religiously waiting on the “walk” signs as I did not yet trust my own judgement about which way the cars might be coming. More recently however, I sometimes dash in rebellion of the walk sign,  looking to the locals for direction as I assume they value their lives and will cross accordingly. I digress. Somehow I managed to arrive on time.

The shop was larger than I expected, with the cafe in the back making up a sizable portion of it. The cafe is a nice addition, serving up Britain’s classic breakfasts, as well as scones with jam and other items such as paninis and tatties for lunch. I can’t forget  to mention the tea and coffees of course, or the tasty looking traybakes (I plan to begin running again tomorrow)! My manager, a co-worker and I sat down there to begin the day with prayer, soon followed by a fresh cup of coffee. Can’t think of a better way to begin.

My first day included time spent becoming familiar with the product. Translation? I spent time browsing through the books. If you know me at all, you realize that this means I was feeling fairly blissful. Since I’ve been in I’ve learned to use the till (and to not tell people their change is “sixty-seven cents,” or many chuckles will follow) set up some displays, price items, and been directed to alphabetize the books. I’m not sure I’ve accomplished enough yet to say I’ve really worked. Yet what little I’ve done really doesn’t feel like work because (embarrassingly enough) things such as alphabetizing books is something I’ve found myself doing at stores before; stores which do not employ me. I know.

Though I have much still to learn, I feel like I’m getting on well enough at the minute. My co-workers are very kind and patient, and my manager serves as a living “Mental Floss,” giving me a daily dose of Scottish facts, phrases or history, which of course are well received. Additionally I love talking to the people who come in, and not simply because it means I get to listen to various accents all day. It was just today that I felt like I knew enough of the basics to be able to relax and just converse with people, and it felt good when I was able to help customers find what they wanted.. But more than that I see how this can be a ministry of encouragement. There are some very dear people who come into the shop and are obviously simply in need of a chat and a listening ear, which I am more than happy to supply. I had a lovely conversation today with a sweet lady about how God works in our lives, and how Christ is our ultimate example, even in suffering. She encouraged me by telling me how she came to know Christ later in life and now hopes to see her family do so as well (feel free to join me in a prayer for this). She bought some little cards with verses on them that she hopes to use to encourage others, while another lady bought a Bible to leave for a new flatmate if she was interested, and many people come in to find books to give to friends who desire to learn more. Sometimes people come in with their own questions, such as a fellow who popped in recently. He was definitely seeking to know about God, but also seemed to be seeking in some strange places as well, desiring to find his purpose in life so it seemed from what he said (feel free to pray for him as well!). All sorts come in, and I’m learning to look for ways to help and encourage others wherever they might be in life and whoever they might be. I’ve got a bit of distance to cover in this respect, as words don’t always come easily at times, but it will be a worthwhile practice I’m sure. With the realization that I’m no longer in the Bible belt and people have to go searching for something “Christian” if they want it, I saw how this shop can truly be used as an encouragement to the Church community and a resource for those who want to reach out to others. Because of all of the above and more, I’m feeling quite thankful to be here.

Quiet & by Myself: Thoughts of the Jetlagged

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I’ve been here a total of two and a half days, and I had to pull up my calendar to tell you that much.

I’m still in a bit of a fog.

There are many things that I might consider as new or strange right now, but really the oddest bit for me is being so alone. I’m not as good at being alone as I used to be, for I actually have grown accustomed to people being around. The sweet thing about experiencing what seems to be a lull in life is that it has made me appreciate the people in my life even more, though every single one of them is far away at the moment. Additionally, church today and lunch after  were that much more appreciated.

Yet for the most part, I have been alone. My new flatmate is currently out of town for a bit. The flat is still, with no one to engage me in the conversation I am so accustomed to back at CIU. I wasn’t bothered at the thought of being alone at night, until my first night here. It was roughly ten-thirty, and I was in bed when I heard the lock on the front door begin to rattle and the door swing open. Whhhaatt? I made the obvious choice and I walked out to meet the would be intruder. In my half awake state I am either incredibly brave or incredibly senseless (in my defense it sounded as if they had a key, and intruders don’t usually carry keys. But still). Standing at the door, equally surprised was a kind looking woman, who soon proved to be a friend of the absent flatmate, come to stay the night. When I awoke the next day she was gone, and I was alone again.

It’s a strange feeling to wander about a city you know nothing about, without the internet or a phone to depend upon for help. As soon as I leave my flat, I am truly disconnected. This sense of freedom from being contacted or contacting anyone is both disconcerting and soothing; you just live and trust God will help you if you need it. That probably doesn’t sound odd to those of you who remember life before cell phones, but in today’s culture it feels very strange to be so out of sync with everyone in your world.

With all this time on my hands (I don’t start at the shop until Tuesday) I’ve been able to sit in the stillness and reassess some things. The last few weeks have been a whirlwind, and though they were great fun, I realized that at many points I’ve been a road-trip sort of diet, both physically and spiritually. Not eating for health but grabbing a bowl of cereal here, and a Psalm to snack on there. Here in this alone time before things grow busy (especially before school starts in August!) I have a chance to pursue the good things again. Let me tell you what you already know; when your lifestyle is unhealthy it’s not easy to change. It takes dedication to be able to overcome the whims of what you might desire at any given moment, whether it’s another shortbread biscuit or choosing another hour of a mind-numbing TV show because you don’t want to put forth the effort to think. For in addition to eating random things that I don’t need, I’ve developed a dreadful habit of entering the black hole of the internet for a few hours before bedtime, and for no particular or even enjoyable reason. I am always left feeling disgusted with myself, not only that I have stayed up later than intended, but also that I have whittled away hours that could have been used to write, for prayers, or to sleep.

This has shown me that sometimes being alone can be hard in unexpected ways. When you are left with yourself and nothing particular you must do, you are forced to access your choices. There is no one else to “blame” for distracting you from all those things you obviously would have done otherwise. Just you, and the truths realized on such occasions can be rough.

Yet, it’s not just you, which is something that must be taken into account. It’s tempting to fill alone time with noise, I’ve found. Yet how wonderful that the Lord is ever near to hear our prayers, ready to teach us if we will only allow the quiet to continue and let ourselves focus. It can be a battle, no doubt.  In my days wandering strange streets, my time spent reclining next to the window, or even sitting here in a dark flat typing I know that He is the only One who goes with me everywhere. Therefore in those times when He is the only Other present, I want to learn to give Him my full attention instead of ignoring my truest Companion.

Travel Advice & Summer Plans

I haven’t even left the airport and I already have a valuable piece of travel information to share. No matter how much it entices you with its delicious guacamole and relatively healthy ingredients, say no to the burrito so large that no average human should be able to fit it in their mouth. Please, make a far more sensible choice, such as something that comes with a plate and a fork! Why is this so important you ask?

If you want to be humbled and embarrassed, be my guest. Attempt to whittle away that behemoth one bite at a time as you hold it in flimsy foil that allows for escapees no matter how delicate your process. Watch as chicken bombs repeatedly fall to the seat next to you, spraying rice and guacamole debris in a six inch radius. Attempt to clean the sauce out of your jeans without grinding it in. Try to convince yourself that the smile on the face of the elderly gentleman you just made eye-contact with is not because he is laughing at you internally. Grimace as a man in an expensive suit sits next to you, and pray that you succeeded in cleaning the grease from his seat. Ponder the thought that you haven’t even boarded the plane, and you already feel gross from this experience, feeling none of the class you secretly hoped to exude on a plane headed to Paris.

However, if you would rather avoid such disturbing happenings, the answer is clear. Simply say no to gargantuan burritos before your next transatlantic flight.

Why am I at the airport? Apparently, I’m going to Scotland. I say apparently because it hasn’t quite sunk in, even now. While I am there I will fulfill my internship requirements by working with a great Christian ministry called CLC, in a bookshop with a cafe in it. For those of you so inclined to pray, I would surely appreciate it. Please pray for travels, acclimating, that I’ll be a blessing to the team and anyone I meet, that this will help give me direction for the future, and most importantly that I would learn to love people well and be able to live and speak in a way that reflects Jesus to all I might meet.

I can still be contacted via the internet and snail mail, but my phone will be off for the summer. I’ll attempt to keep updating those interested here as time allows.

I truly have no idea what this summer holds, but that’s fine because He does, and He is going with me on this new adventure.