Ambition: An Invitation to Read, Consider, and Discuss

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Are you ambitious?

What’s your gut response to that question?

Mine is conflicted.

Ambition – Derived from the Latin word ambitio, from ambio, to go about, or to seek by making interest . . .This word had its origin in the practice of Roman candidates for office, who went about the city to solicit votes.

 

A desire of preferment, or of honor; a desire of excellence or superiority. It is used in a good sense; as, emulation may spring from a laudable ambition. It denotes also an inordinate desire for power, or eminence, often accompanied with illegal means to obtain the object.

– Webster’s 1828 Dictionary

 

We can be quick to denounce ambition as a character flaw. One that leads to pride, greed, and the discounting of others. Perhaps I can be too ambitious – for security, for comfort, status, or on behalf of my children.

Or, we can esteem ambition as the fuel that propels us toward fulfilling our potential. It sustains, motivates, and inspires. Perhaps I’m not ambitious enough – to believe that my gifting (and brokenness) can benefit others, or to commit to the hard work and inconvenience that a life marked by stewardship requires.

Both views are true. Both views are incomplete. The truest truth of ambition is found in its nuance. When I’m willing to sift through and examine the layers of nuance, I begin to catch  glimpses of the truest truths about me.

How would you define ambition?

The (many and varied) answers to that question reflect that which we value most. It’s a question worth exploring. A question that’s complex and multi-faceted and best approached from a number of different vantage points.

Please consider joining a group of folks as we read and discuss Ambition, a collection of essays written by members of the Chrysostom Society. You’ll hear from a variety of writers including Luci Shaw and Eugene Peterson, each looking at the topic of ambition from a slightly different angle. You can purchase your book here. If you order now, you should receive the book in time to begin reading with us. The reading schedule (which is subject to and most probably will change) is as follows:

November 9: Essays 1,2
November 16: Essays 3,4
November 23: Essays 5,6
November 30: Essays 7-9

– – –

Consider asking a few friends to read along and discuss together. If you’re on Facebook, request to Greener Trees Reads and you’ll be added to the group. Greener Trees Reads was born in 2011, when a group of friends wanted to dig deeper into The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers. We quickly found that reading together helped us:

1) Read more carefully 
2) View the text from different perspectives (therefore seeing them more fully) 
3) Get to know one another along the way (an accidental, but wonderful, byproduct).

In the last few years, the books we’ve read together have included: Refractions by Makoto Fujimura, The Art of T.S. Eliot by Helen Gardner, So Brave, Young, and Handsome by Leif Enger (our conversation took place over at The Rabbit Room), Through a Screen Darkly by Jeffrey Overstreet, The Supper of the Lamb by Robert Capone, Breath for the Bones by Luci Shaw, and Silence by Shusaku Endo. We’d love for you to join us.

 



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Of Maps and Shadows

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Many thanks to my friend (and partner in crime), Carrie Givens, for wrapping up our reading of Breath for the Bones by Luci Shaw. Carolyn Clare Givens works in Communications at Church at Charlotte in North Carolina and does freelance writing and editing. A displaced Northerner now exploring the foreign ways of the south, she has previously bumped around the world, both as a missionary kid and as an adult. She revels in good stories, good music, and wrestles with the intersection of faith, art, vocation, and culture. Online, she hangs out at her website, carolyncgivens.com, on Twitter, and at her page on Facebook.

I once had a haphazard, twenty-minute lesson in orienteering. I’d never seen an orienteering compass, so I asked my friend Ben to show me how it worked. He began to demonstrate, lifting the compass to eye level, finding a mountain peak through the trees, and turning the map into alignment.

One of my pastors, Dave Huber, was recently teaching about the concept of wisdom in Scripture. He noted that the Bible doesn’t give us a map for life, but rather teaches us the fixed points of truth and trusts us to navigate life based on them.

As I stood in the woods with Ben and the orienteering compass, I quickly learned the value of fixed points. Three more steps to the left and we wouldn’t have been able to see that mountain peak. Without that fixed point, it would have been easy to be overwhelmed by the darkness of the trees, the confusing paths between them. Even with our map, without the fixed points, we may not have been able to find our way home.

Walking through life, there have been plenty of moments when I’ve been more surrounded by the trees than in sight of the fixed points of truth. Sometimes God, and His truth, seems invisible. Luci Shaw, in her book Breath for the Bones, writes of this feeling:

The God who is not there. Or, the God who is there but not here, except for occasional momentary visitations. I have often felt, in reflective moments as well as at the raw edge of experience, that I have a now-you-see-him, now-you-don’t God, a chiaroscuro God, some of whose features are highlighted in the manner of the Italian renaissance painters who employed that technique, but whose being exhibits such mystery, such inscrutability, such otherness, that it can only be represented by deep shadow, which might as well signify absence as obscurity, it is so unknowable. (p. 151)

It often feels that we have more shadows than light in our story. We wander in the woods with the lengthening darkness and we cannot glimpse the mountains.

In Breath for the Bones, Shaw speaks of the role of art in these times, and of the difficulty Christians often encounter when faced with the shadows. Not only is there the tension of authenticity—presenting through our art the struggles as well as the joys and peace of life—but as Christians, we strive to speak truth in our art. Unfortunately, as Shaw points out, truth isn’t always perfectly clear, nor is it always pleasant to face. She writes,

Christians who practice art must not always feel bound to produce sweetness and light. We have to recognize the darkness and shadow as well as the light, and realize that God allows shadows into our lives. God is not dark and evil, but he embodies mystery. (p. 161)

She goes on to say that the contrast between darkness and light is valuable—for you cannot see one without the other. “Contrast highlights, as it were; it allows meaning to be seen and experienced” (p. 161). The part of the journey lost among the trees may be dark and frightening, but we would not fully understand what it means to be lost unless we also had some understanding of having the fixed point in our sights and navigating toward it. But to get through the trees, we must sometimes walk through areas where we cannot see the mountain peak. And to do so, to step onto the confusing paths among the trees and away from the glimpse of alpenglow, requires a certain faith. “All mystery feels like a fog,” Shaw writes. “It presents hiddenness. It demands strong faith to walk into it believing that one day it will be demystified” (p. 162).

And this, I think, is the moment where the Christian artist comes into his own. I had a professor who used to say, “The writer is the one who points and says, ‘See.’” She knew the power of art to help navigate the darkness. It’s a wild and dangerous profession, one that the artist shares with the men and women through the ages whom God called to speak the truth. To do so, He asked them to lay on their side for a year, to marry a whore, to be sawn in two. It’s never been an easy life. “Christian poets stand with the seer and prophet,” says Shaw, “one foot in heaven, one on earth, perpetually torn by that duality of focus as the divine dream is channeled through their human voice or pen” (p. 164). We glimpse the light on the mountaintop and we point to it as we walk through the darkness.

Another pastor at my church, Jim Kallam, spoke recently about the final words of Jesus in Scripture—not His words to His disciples before He ascended, but His words in the twenty-second chapter of Revelation. Jesus describes Himself one final time in that chapter, saying, “I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star” (Rev. 22:17 ESV). Jimmy said, “The morning star appears in the night sky when the night has reached its greatest degree of darkness…and what that signifies simply to me is this: though it may still be dark, it will never again be totally dark.”

Andy Gullahorn, in his song “Grand Canyon,” sings,

I can’t sleep
There’s too much weighing on my mind
But there’s a bird out there
Still singing in the dead of night
Like it knows there’s a season
when the sun’s gonna set
But the story isn’t over yet

The artist, the poet, the writer is the one who points and says “See.” The faithful artist is the one who navigates the dark, shadowy mystery by the Bright Morning Star, and is singing with the bird in the dead of night, saying that though we can’t see them through the trees, the mountaintops are still there, awaiting our approach to a break in the branches when we can lift up our orienteering compass to eye level and continue to find our way forward.

– – –

This post was written in response to reading Breath for the Bones by Luci Shaw. You can catch up here:

Graffiti Art and Repentance (Intro, Chp 1-2)
Tell Me a Story (Chp 3-5)
Pressing Into the Quiet (Chp 6-7)
A Musing on Divine Love (Chp 8-10)
Of Maps and Shadows (Chp 11-12)



If you liked this post, you might like these:

A Musing on Divine Love

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I’m grateful to introduce you to Jennifer Kennedy, our guest writer for the day. It took a bit of urging for Jennifer to share her thoughts with you. I’m so very glad she did.

I’m quite ambivalent about posting this – so uncomfortable that I searched for another poem about which to write. I looked in three other collections. There were many evocative and beautiful verses.  But no other shook me as this one has. Four days after I read the poem, I saw this passage from Chapter 9 in Breath for the Bones:

“Tame it, make it predictable and palatable, overlay it with a veneer of orthodox respectability, eradicate its irony and wit, control its passion and force, and maybe, maybe, it will be allowed to slip inside the sanctuary and be shown into a back pew. The sterility of such a domesticated art shows us the dire results of ultimate control.”

So I find myself without defense or reason for withholding it from this forum – save my discomfort in doing so. And the level to which it has disturbed me has no bearing upon the truth of it.

I was thumbing through a collection of Shaw poetry, Listen to the Green, and came across this one. I read it once. Then again. And yet again.

Bride

The thin smooth eggshell of her
rigid , indrawn by a private gravity –
her convex surface
offers no toe-hold for analysis.
But perhaps the perfect smile –
the self-assured sheen –
her insularity’s bright
white carapace that shuns another’s touch
ask of you:
Is it her coolness or her cowardice
(or are they one) that closes in –
ward on itself
denying entrance?
The probes of God’s sharp grace
his bruising mouth (and yours)
threaten to broach her brittleness.
And heaven’s breath, hot,
see how she shrinks from it
on her ice palace
as from all passion that seeks
center
in her hidden hollowness.

Not knowing she’s destined for shell
shock
vainly she shields her vulnerable vacuum –
postpones the breaking and entering –
love’s emptying of
her chilly emptiness.

-Luci Shaw

After the first reading – I guessed it was a metaphor for Christ and the Church – and perhaps it is. But I also saw that irrepressible, irresistible Grace – the one that compelled the “kicking, struggling” Lewis to his knees, the Hound of Heaven pursuing an individual soul.  But, now – here, in the most (I cannot this of a more discreet way to put this) sexually charged images. I held my breath and my face burned.  I hastily flipped the book over to the back cover – the one with all the testimonials – looking for some validation, wanting to ask someone, “Is it ok to read this?” Somewhere amid the words from Christianity Today and Madeleine L’Engle was this: “There are some poems that make you catch your breath. This happens over and over when I read [Luci Shaw’s] poetry. – Ruth Bell Graham.” If Mrs. Graham could find herself breathless and keep reading, then I felt I was in good company.

As I pondered the verse, my mind seized upon an image of Bernini’s sculpture Apollo and Daphne. I suppose it was my psyche’s way of finding some comfort zone – an image of passion I could look upon without dying of embarrassment. It’s such a magnificent work – emotion and energy and mythical magic captured in a moment. I imagine it’s what that bride feels beneath her cool immaculate exterior – fleeing in terror at the real possibility of being possessed and wholly claimed. She’d rather be wrapped forever in a column of wood, unmoved and unmoving but for her waving branches and the fluttering of her green and shining tresses – safe from the consuming and consummating love of a god.

I had a chance to actually see this statue – almost. I was in Rome with a small group of humanities students from Milligan. We walked up to the Galleria Borghese – and were stunned to find it closed indefinitely for a sweeping renovation. My art teacher kicked the corrugated steel barricade in frustration and then said some words I cannot repeat.  The object of our desire was within, and we were hopelessly without.

I still cannot read this poem without feeling unsettled. It’s sometimes frightening to see the God you worship in a startling way you never considered before. To be honest, I will never view the expression “the God-shaped void in your soul” the same again. But I have this strange idea that divine love is very different from what we mortals can perceive. It comes to us in fractals – split into components we can comprehend – storge, eros, phileo, agape – love in different hues. But within its Source they combine and flame with the white-hot intensity of a star – a passion that no steel barricade or bright white carapace can shield – a Love to overcome and complete us. I cannot adequately explain this, but I do believe this – that He loves and desires us THAT much.

But my cheeks are still burning. Maybe yours are, too. If so, I’m sorry to have disturbed you. But you’re in good company.

Jennifer Kennedy finds interest in just about everything in the wide world (except perhaps vector calculus and heavy metal music.) But she claims expertise only as a motherfluffer, baby wrangler, and lactation diva in the wee hours. When she’s not pishing in the hedgerows or practicing Bach cantatas on YouTube to annoy the three men in her life, she loves reading and writing about such wonders as skink tails, elven folk, winged horses, and canoeing in the lost forests of the Lord God bird.

– – –

This post was written in response to reading Breath for the Bones by Luci Shaw. You can catch up with what we’ve read here:

Graffiti Art and Repentance (Intro, Chp 1-2)
Tell Me a Story (Chp 3-5)
Pressing Into the Quiet (Chp 6-7)
A Musing on Divine Love (Chp 8-10)
Week of October 6: Chp 11-12



If you liked this post, you might like these:

Pressing Into the Quiet

quietThe following guest post was written by Kelly Keller. Kelly is a transplanted Massachusetts native who this year celebrates a full decade living in Charlotte, NC. When she’s not homeschooling her five kids (four boys, one girl), Kelly enjoys live music, baseball, writing, reading great books, and traveling with her best friend and husband, David. If you don’t want to hear her blathering on about her upcoming trip to the UK this fall, you should probably just avoid her from now on.

I live a loud life.

It’s not loud in the sense of enthusiasm or passion. There are things I am quite passionate about — just ask me — but I don’t wear flashy clothing or make thunderous, sweeping statements about politics or other issues.

It’s just loud here. In our home we have five active children between the ages of 6 and 13. They learn, they fight, they make explosion sounds, and my name is the one they call most often. This position is a privilege, I am aware.

But when we’re discussing reflection, quiet, and what Luci Shaw in Breath for the Bones calls “active readiness,” I immediately view it as a fight. When there are needs to be addressed at every turn, it’s difficult to cultivate meditative thinking.

No matter what the “noise” is in your life, that sentence right there may be the understatement of the century. It’s difficult to cultivate meditative thinking when the roommate insists on the twenty-four hour news channel….when the boss demands long hours in a drab office…when people fill your schedule for all good, but all time-consuming and noisy, needs.

But “cultivate” is exactly what we must do. Like tilling the soil, cultivation of quiet is sometimes a hard-won battle. We must exert ourselves to break through the unyielding soil. It requires more than a little effort in a culture that wants to fill our days with sound.

The culture. Yes, it is true, the culture is at fault. But so are we — after all, we make the culture. As Ms. Shaw rightly points out:

“But so many are afraid of silence and of being alone. They wonder, What if nothing happens? What if God ignores me? Or what if he isn’t there? But, in gradual steps, and given some simple tools, people can begin to experience contemplation for themselves and discover that it is transformative. And this transformation (as well as the waiting) also informs — always — the place where our creative work is done. For artists, this combination of discipline and listening-receiving is a true cornerstone.” (p.79)

Shaw later says,

“…passivity has no place in the life of art or of Christian spirituality.” (81)

She uses the term “active readiness” to describe the role of an artist or individual in a waiting time. The phrase rang a bell in me, because it reminded me of Charlotte Mason’s concept of “masterly inactivity.” As a teacher, sometimes I press into a child to gain knowledge, but other times I must retreat and allow time and the Holy Spirit to enlighten. This retreat is not passive, but active. The teacher is backing away consciously. Always the Spirit-led result is better than a reckless, human straining towards mastery.

It doesn’t need to be in quiet solitude that these moments happen — although those moments help the process. It is a cultivation of our minds and spirits to recognize God’s work in our lives and how He is unfolding our days before us. That realization happens just as often in the noise of my family as it does in a solitary place. It’s a matter of my heart and the effort I’m taking to listen.

But like I said before, the quiet times certainly help. We are finite creatures. We can’t clear our heads and come to good perspective if we are immersed in the bedlam our culture makes available to us twenty-four hours a day.

This perspective that this is an exercise is a helpful one. While the world often wants to look at time of quiet as leisure, Shaw casts that time for Christians, and artists in particular, in a light of important effort and discipline.

Perhaps I would more passionately pursue it if I saw it that way. A little less rolling over for a few more minutes of sleep. A little less media. A little more quiet.

– – –

This post was written in response to reading Breath for the Bones by Luci Shaw. If you’d like to read along, the schedule is as follows:

Week 1: Graffiti Art and Repentance (Intro, Chp 1-2)
Week 2: Tell Me a Story (Chp 3-5)
This week: Chp 6-7
Sept 22: Catch up (or read ahead)
Sept 29: Chp 8-10
Oct 6: Chp 11-12



If you liked this post, you might like these:

Tell Me a Story

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I’m grateful to share this guest post, written by Jen Rose Yokel, with you. In addition to being one of the original members of Greener Trees Reads, Jen is a writer, radio nerd, music lover, and hopeless literature addict, who grew up in the weird state of Florida where wild reptiles roam free. She writes for The Rabbit Room, fancies herself a poet and has been blogging since she begged an Internet acquaintance for a LiveJournal invite in 2002. Currently, she is settling into married life with her husband Chris in Fall River, MA. She doesn’t particularly enjoy writing about herself in third person, but she would like you to know that she really digs Apple products, vinyl records, good coffee, and spelunking used bookstores.

From the moment I stepped inside, something felt different. Different from any church experience I’d had before. I took the copy of what we called a bulletin in my Baptist heritage. Instead it was a list of readings, instructions, recitations.

I was about to experience my first Anglican liturgy.

It felt foreign, and yet, completely at home. There were no lights, no worship band on stage. The priest wore robes, walked to the middle of the church, read Scripture. We stood and knelt and took communion from a common cup. The sermon was short, lively, but the heart of the service was hearing the Word and taking the bread and wine.

It was otherworldly, beautiful in its calm reverence. Funny considering just a decade before I’d craved a more energetic experience than my memories of little Southern churches with a liturgy of hard pews and “Turn to page 320 and sing the first, third, and fourth verses.” I wanted movement, excitement, and everything else seemed dead. Now, I craved quiet, because everything else seemed fake.

My church journey has taken a number of turns, including a couple of charismatic side trips, many rock concert worship experiences, and now, a tiny city church that walks a line between Baptist and liturgical. If I think long enough, every one of them have their flaws. If I go into them with openness and appreciation, every one of them have their beauties.

Cliché as it seems, there’s some truth to the bumper sticker-ish advice: if you find the perfect church, run, because you’re going to ruin it. But what if all of us, together, in our fragmented quirky ways, are all simply telling the greater Story?

This isn’t to excuse harmful theology, but I wonder sometimes if despite all our grasping, searching, and learning, in the end we will always struggle to apprehend “pure truth,” always strain against the confines of logic, always fall short of grasping reality.

Maybe this is why, when asked hard questions about blinding truth, Jesus, the incarnation of the God who wove the universe and history, and continues telling the tale into a new creation, would say, “Let me tell you a story…”

As Luci Shaw tells it in Chapter 3 of Breath for the Bones

“I am reminded of an afternoon when my youngest daughter came home from high school, saying in disgust, ‘Well, today we dissected a grasshopper.’ As if that’s any way to discover what a grasshopper is.

We know the truth about grasshoppers not from a scatter of small body parts under a scalpel on a lab table, but from seeing them arcing up from the long, hot grass in a summer field…” (43)

I could chart the bits a of grasshopper for you and tell you what it does, or I could point to a real one, strong legs propelling it through the garden before you can blink. Dissection kills.

I can tell you what I think I know about God through the stories, grasp for an explanation, cross-reference and dole out doctrine, or I could let you read them and know a little something about Jesus through the way he talked about prodigals and treasures, through the way he put on a towel and washed the grime from his friends’ feet on his last night before dying on earth, before waking from death and changing everything.

This isn’t to say that it’s wrong to take a systematic approach. Great evil has been done by misinterpreting Scripture, and great good has been done for our understanding and inspiration. There is nothing wrong with memorizing a verse that gives you strength, feeling a flash of insight, or connecting the lines between stories, poems, and letters to see the structure of the Gospel.

What is a problem though is when we fail to recognize the limits of our language and understanding. “Truth is a touchy subject, a daunting word,” says Shaw. “It demands our serious thought… and we’re still baffled by it.” (40) You can’t face infinite God in limited flesh without being mystified.

Rather than letting our differences divide us into camps of black and white, perhaps it’s a better thing to let them give colors and shades to our understanding, to see the thrum of life below the surface with a “baptized imagination.” We seek truth. Our metaphors break down. They bump us up against contradictions and paradox, ask us to believe God’s people are oaks of righteousness and withering grass. Still we go on, together catching fleeting glimpses and trying to describe what a grasshopper is.

Shaw describes faith as “a large, rambling house… added onto over the years.” What happens inside makes it remarkable:

“Inside the building lives a diverse community, an extended family of people variously occupied — cooking, cleaning, studying, conversing, teaching, giving advice,receiving advice, listening, rehearsing, resting, making love, dreaming, creating. They are young and old, male and female, single and married, widowed and divorced, inexperienced and mature, naive and wise. They are school children, parents, laborers, teachers, businesspeople, scholars, artists.

Moving among them, talking and working with them, is and ordinary-looking man; it is the Christ, the One who lends the house its personal warmth, its structure, its creative center, its vision, its reason for being.” (x)

Not a specific kind of church — not in stained glass, icons, fog machines, or a rented movie theater — but a community. And our imaginations unlock the rooms, let us wander into each other’s space where we are free to ask, “tell me a story.”

Where do you see your room in the “house of faith”? What have you learned from people in other rooms?

How does seeing Scripture as a story rather than a theology text alter your understanding?

– – –

This post was written in response to reading Breath for the Bones by Luci Shaw. If you’d like to read along, the schedule is as follows:

Last week: Intro, Chp 1-2
This week:  Chp 3-5
Sept 15: Chp 6-7
Sept 22: Chp 8-10
Sept 29: Chp 11-12



If you liked this post, you might like these:

Graffiti Art and Repentance

Greener Trees Reads was born when a few friends, after attending Hutchmoot 2011, wanted to dig deeper into The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers. We found that reading together helped us: 1) Read more carefully 2) View the text from different perspectives (therefore seeing them more fully) 3) Get to know one another along the way (an accidental, but wonderful, byproduct). This fall, we’ll be reading, discussing, and writing in response to Breath for the Bones by Luci Shaw. You are cordially invited to join us. For those who won’t be reading along, the plan is to pluck one idea from each week’s reading to share with you. Please consider the question(s) posed and share your response – we have much to learn from each other.

– – –

Week 1: Graffiti Art and Repentance

In celebration of our 20th anniversary, my husband and I took a trip to New York City. It had been far too long since I’d visited the Big Apple, and I couldn’t wait. At the top of my “to-do” list for the weekend were: two Broadway shows, an exhibit on Children’s literature at the NYC Public Library, and a long, unhurried stroll through the Metropolitan Museum of Art. For the months prior, I had binged on books (and an occasional movie) about the life of Vincent Van Gogh and was giddy about spending some time with his work. It did not disappoint.

One afternoon, we had a few unscheduled hours before dinner. Since my husband had graciously allowed me to direct the agenda for the majority of our trip, I suggested that he decide what to do in that small slice of free time. After considering multiple options, he landed on visiting The Museum of the City of New York. Sounded great to me. Museum = art = culture. Yet upon arrival, I discovered that museum = graffiti. I paused, weighed my options, and muttered (internally), “I will humor him and endure.” I am a lover of art. Graffiti is an imitation at best.

After entering the museum, I glanced at the first exhibit – and promptly dismissed the “art and artists” represented. Silently, I was pining away for the unfortunate loss of the next few valuable hours. Yet as we meandered through the exhibits, something inside me shifted. My pace slowed. I became more curious and less dismissive. As I read the stories of the featured graffiti artists, as I looked closely at the detailed renderings in their sketchbooks, and as I stood under the massive sections of their intricate work, what I had deemed chaotic I saw as beautiful. The surging symphony of color and line played a melody I’d never heard before. Each display sang the unique song of its artist’s life and experience. In dismissing the graffiti art as less than “real art”, I had been dismissing an entire culture (and its expression) as less valid than my own.

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Less than an hour later, I left the museum having grown – if even just a bit – in compassion. If I could so unwittingly devalue an entire culture, then how frequently do I make the same mistake with individual people? I make assumptions. I dismiss. I devalue. All in the blink of an eye. A crash course on the history of graffiti art in New York softened my heart.

Makoto Fujimura talks about being willing to “stand under art – not over it.” If we’re willing to be curious, to be expectant – to come as a little child – when approaching art, we are given the divine privilege of tasting another’s experience of life. In turn, our hearts are stretched to grow in understanding, compassion, or gratefulness. We become more human.

Poetry, and any art, says something in a way that nothing else can, and that something that art says is so qualitatively different that it demands a radically different expression. Where linear, logical thinking may produce prose with a specific function – information or historical record or critical analysis or instruction – art selects and reflects on a small slice of human experience and lays it out there, a gift to anyone who is willing to savor it and enter into the artist’s experience even in a minimal way. . . It is my soul crying out to your soul: This is what I see and how I feel. Can you see it? Can you feel it too? ( p.4)

 – – –

When has a work of art (poetry, painting, music, dance – or even graffiti) impacted you?

How were you changed as a result?

– – – 

If you’d like to read with us, you can order Breath for Bones at the Rabbit Room. The reading schedule is as follows (but may possibly and will most probably shift):

Sept 1: Intro, Chp 1-2
Sept 8: Chp 3-5
Sept 15: Chp 6-7
Sept 22: Chp 8-10
Sept 29: Chp 11-12



If you liked this post, you might like these:

Catching Up: Conferences, Cliffhangers, and a Movie Critic

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Lots of life happening at our house these days.

A friend recently asked me if she needed to re-subscribe to Greener Trees – she hadn’t received anything in her inbox for a while. I tried to log in to the blog’s administrative page to work on a few things and couldn’t remember my password. Apparently, it’s time for an update.

Here’s what I’ve been up to lately:

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A little over a year ago, I was honored to join a team of wonderful folks over at Story Warren. You can learn more about their mission here. I’m delighted to share that Story Warren’s inaugural conference, Inkwell, will be held in Charlotte on June 21. On that day, two of my favorite worlds will collide. To say that I’m excited is an understatement. The conference is sold out, but there are still tickets available to the Andrew Peterson and Randall Goodgame concert to be held later that evening. We are lucky ducks, indeed.

* * *

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Last summer, Greener Trees Reads (online reading group) read Jeffery Overstreet’s Through a Screen Darkly together. In the fall, I was able to meet and chat with Overstreet during the wonderful weekend called Hutchmoot. We talked about the possibility of working on a future project together. Months later, the idea became reality. Here it is:

Once upon a time, two total strangers — one a mother and a teacher with a background in business; the other a writer, editor, and film critic — became friends after she invited him to join an online discussion of his book about film. They were both Christians. And they met at an arts-and-faith gathering called Hutchmoot in Nashville. They both agreed that they wanted to work together on something someday. You can continue reading here:

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/lookingcloser/2014/04/noah-2014-part-two-of-a-two-part-commentary/#ixzz331Sgw68s

This summer, we’ll be listening to and discussing the recordings from Hutchmoot. If you have an interest in the intersection of faith and art, you may consider purchasing the 17 hours of audio here. It will be well-worth your investment.

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A simple assigned writing prompt surfaced this long-forgotten memory. We have much to learn from each other – far more than initially meets the eye. Over at Art House America:

Not much was said as we hiked up the trail. Words would have tarnished the moment. The Colorado mountains were doing their thing — offering the fresh taste of reality in a saccharine-laced world. The climb provided ample time to survey the landscape. I was overcome with the beauty, so thick I couldn’t swallow it all in one gulp. I had to take in little sips. You can continue reading here.

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In March, David and I celebrated twenty years of marriage by taking a few days away in the Big Apple. It was a rare grown-up playdate – complete with Broadway shows, unbelievable food, and my first visit to the Met. I’ve binged on the life and works of Van Gogh this spring, so standing before Starry Night was a hi-light. We’re deeply grateful for twenty years of struggle, joy, friendship, community, and far more detours from the assumed path of life than we could have imagined.

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Perhaps the biggest news coming from our home is the newest addition – Little Lucy. It’s amazing how much joy this sweet little pup has brought into our home. She’s six months old and we are all smitten.

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Happy summer from our home to yours!

 



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Looking Back: Books of 2013

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The kiddos last January at Makoto Fujimura’s Four Quartets exhibit.

As I look back at the adventures, mishaps, joys and trials of the past year, it seems fitting to recount the books that have gently adjusted my vision. Some books have been read and discussed in a group, while others I’ve enjoyed with my family or alone with a cup of hot tea. Here are a few books that left their mark on my life during 2013:

With the Reading Group
In 2011, a small group of folks came together (virtually) to read and discuss The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers. Greener Trees Reads was born. In the past few years, we’ve read and discussed several books, each of which has stretched, challenged, and inspired me in unique ways. These are the books that we read together in 2013:

Through a Screen Darkly by Jeffrey Overstreet*
If you watch movies, read this book. If you’re a parent, read this book. If you want to better love your neighbor, read this book. It’s as much about posture of heart as it is about movie-going. As a result of reading Through a Screen Darkly, I’ve viewed not only movies, but also current events and the people in my life through a different lens. You can get a taste of the book and our group’s discussion of it here.

The Art of T.S. Eliot by Helen Gardner
I’m an ardent supporter of Makoto Fujimura – both his art and his writing. Last year, our group read his book Refractions, and Mako was kind enough to join our discussion. At his suggestion, we read The Art of T.S. Eliot in preparation of the Four Quartets exhibit at Duke University. This book was a stretch (to say the least) for me, but it was successful in illuminating Eliot’s work as well as exercising literary muscles of mine that had previously been inactive. More on my stretching here.

So Brave, Young and Handsome by Leif Enger*
Shortly after Leif Enger was announced as the keynote speaker for Hutchmoot, I was asked to lead an online discussion of So Brave, Young, and Handsome over at the Rabbit Room. I was hesitant. My only experience of reading with a group had been limited to non-fiction. I had no idea where to start. But this book made the process easy. Enger is a master with words and subtext. I took pages of notes from So Brave, Young and Handsome and enjoyed hearing the insights of others. I emerged from our weeks of discussion reminded and hopeful. Redemption is a messy, beautiful business.

“A line only gets grace when it curves, you know.” Leif Enger (So Brave, Young and Handsome)

The Supper of the Lamb by Robert Capon
I’m not sure how one book can simultaneously be about cooking, seeing the miracles in everyday life, and idolatry, but this one is. An entire chapter dedicated to the cutting of an onion is potentially life-altering, and I own a new whisk and two new knives as a result of my reading.

“Food is the daily sacrament of unnecessary goodness, ordained for a continual remembrance that the world will always be more delicious than it is useful. Necessity is the mother only of clichés. It takes playfulness to make poetry.” Robert Capon (Supper of the Lamb)

With the Kiddos

The Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
This one took me by surprise. A story of friendship, character revealed in hardship, and the hope that creativity can offer. I almost didn’t make it through.  My painful experience of the first few chapters is chronicled here.

The Singing Tree and The Good Master by Kate Seredy
Seredy has quickly become one of our favorite authors. Hard to find in hardback, but worth the hunt.

The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom
It was an honor and a privilege to read and discuss The Hiding Place with my children. A glimpse into our conversation and an explanation of why we still read aloud to with them here.

On My Own

The Bird in the Tree by Elizabeth Goudge
My last read for the year. If you’ve never read Goudge, this is a good place to start. I look forward to reading the remaining books of the Eliots of Damerosehay Trilogy in the upcoming months.

“Beauty and shabbiness are quite compatible. . . A thing of beauty is a joy forever, but it must be a costly and strong beauty, purchased at a high price of service or sacrifice, not skin-deep but bone-deep, if it is to be as desirable at the shabby end as it was at the sumptuous beginning.”  Elizabeth Goudge (The Bird in the Tree)

Death by Living by N.D. Wilson*
Last year, Notes from a Tilt-A-Whirl was significant in shifting the culture of our family (a bit more on that here). Death by Living had a similar impact. “Life is meant to be spent.” Those six words play out in a million everyday choices. I’m fairly certain that the recent decision to add a new member to our family can be traced back to seeds of ideas planted by Wilson. A book can be a dangerous (and glorious) thing.

“When Job lifted his face to the Storm, when he asked and was answered, he learned that he was very small. He learned that his life was a story. He spoke with the Author, and learned that the genre had not been an accident. God tells stories that make Sunday school teachers sweat and mothers write their children permission slips excusing them from encountering reality.” N.D. Wilson (Death by Living)

Peace Like a River by Leif Enger*
For years, I’d heard friends proclaim that Peace Like a River was their favorite book. A few come close to swooning when they speak of it – for good reason. Enger weaves an endearing tail of adventure, family tragedy, and healing, with the bright thread of hope running throughout.

“We see a newborn moth unwrapping itself and announce, Look, children, a miracle! But let an irreversible wound be knit back to seamlessness? We won’t even see it, though we look at it every day.” Leif Enger (Peace Like a River)

Fiddler’s Green by A.S. Peterson*

The sequel to The Fiddler’s Gun. If you’re looking for a meaningful, rich, story that is full of adventure, Peterson’s books are not to be missed.

Lilith by George MacDonald
I read this book by sheer will. It’s been a long time since I started a book and so desperately wanted to quit. But I love MacDonald’s work and decided to trust the author more than my own judgement. I trudged through the first 3/4 of the book, wavering between being bored and wondering if I just wasn’t smart enough to “get” it. The last 1/4 was more than worth the work. I’ll read this one again. And perhaps again.

The Crowd, the Critic, and the Muse by Michael Gungor
This is the year I became a fan of Gungor‘s music. Although this book was written with “creatives” in mind, it has significant insight to offer to everyone. After all, we are all “creatives” in some capacity.

The Weight of Glory by C.S. Lewis
I’ve heard quotes taken from The Weight of Glory for years. Now I know why. Lewis never disappoints.

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* I’ve had the very good fortune to meet the authors of several of the books listed at a gathering called Hutchmoot in Nashville, Tennessee. This year, the sessions of these authors as well as a number of additional writers, musicians, and generally swell people were recorded, and you can purchase the 17 hours of audio here.

May your 2014 be filled with beauty, friendship, and many a good book!

 

 

 

 

 



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Summoned by Music and Light

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Today’s guest post was written by Carrie Givens – writer, teacher, editor, friend, and a member of the Greener Trees online discussion group. 

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I have a friend who is a composer. One of his pieces, performed by a quartet of two violins, viola, and cello, he wrote following the sudden tragic death of a mentor and professor. There’s a moment, late in the fugue, when the first violin raises its voice to the heavens in a single, pure, heartbreaking note. It holds, longer than you think it should be able to hold, seeming to carry all the sorrow of the world.

There’s a moment that happens sometimes after a grey or rainy day when the sun breaks out below the clouds as it sets, turning all the world a rich, gold. As evening winds down, we are left in quiet with this strange and lovely light which tinges everything with beauty.

In Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility, there’s a scene where the camera pulls back from the mother and daughter working at the table into the next room, and we watch the final moments of their conversation from afar, framed by the doorway, lit by the light coming in from an open door and interrupted by the gentle flapping of an apron hung on a wall hook blowing into the frame.

Michael Gungor, in his book The Crowd, the Critic, and the Muse, writes: “The single atom in the atomic bomb can lay waste to a city. Maybe one note of music holds within it the power to end war” (p. 62).

There is power in great beauty. Beauty heals, it soothes, it allures, it inspires. And when we see it, in a film, in a book, in a moment, it can catch us by surprise and stay with us forever. We can lift it up from the depths of our memory again and again, and every time it draws us toward the Creator of beauty, the Beautiful One Himself.

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Jeffrey Overstreet begins Chapter 13 examining Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors: Blue. He writes, “Every scene—in fact, almost every shot—unfolds like a poem. . . .Kieslowski leaves clues for us to consider—little windows into understanding the state of Julie’s heart. When we take the time to think about them, we begin to participate in the film in a way that popular commercial cinema doesn’t allow. There are long passages in Blue in which no one says anything and we must shift our attention to what we see in order to discern what is happening.” (p. 305-306)

Are there other films that come to mind in which the filmmaker leaves clues like this—focus on particular objects, use of light, use of music or sound? Have you found yourself participating in those movies in the way Overstreet talks about above?

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Blue became a way I could move through my loss by experiencing someone else’s journey rather than facing my own pain directly. It coaxed me to give creative shape to the grief.” (p. 308)

Have there been movies, other works of art, or moments of beauty that have helped you through a time of loss, sorrow, or grief? Has art ever helped you “to give creative shape to the grief”?

“The power of narrative lies in the succession of events: This happens and then that happens. . . . Imagery speaks even when nothing is happening, offering us something more than provocation to anticipate what’s next.” (p. 309)

What are some of the ways that the nature of film as a visual art form – one based in imagery – impacts how filmmakers approach narrative? Are there movies you’ve seen where the filmmaker has taken full advantage of the opportunity to tell stories through images?

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“Saint John of the Cross wrote that man is like a window through which God is shining. If the window is clean and undefiled, it allows us to see past it, to the light. We hardly notice it at all. And yet, if a man gives evidence of any kind of arrogance or ego and self-interest, then that window becomes noticeable. It is not fulfilling its purpose. It is not merely a vessel for the light.” (p. 320)

“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.” (John 1: 6-8)

“You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’. . . He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:28, 30)

How do the words of Saint John of the Cross and John the Baptist speak to one another? Have you seen characters in movies or met individuals in life who have exemplified being a “window”? What have you learned from them?

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“There have been so many moments at the movies that have become part of my history, giving me images that function as a vocabulary, enhancing what I experience when I am away from the screen.” (p. 322)

Much of Jeffrey Overstreet’s final chapter is made up of retelling the experiences he mentions in the quote above, when a moment from a movie enhances what he experiences away from the screen. Have you had moments like that?

 

Carolyn Clare Givens lives outside of Philadelphia where she’s a freelance editor and writer. She edits and writes for The Curator and teaches as an adjunct faculty member at Cairn University. She has bumped around the world, growing up as a missionary kid in Michigan and Hong Kong, and serving on staff at Alaska Bible College. 

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If you’d like to join us or to catch up on the conversation:
Introduction/Schedule
Week 1 – How We Watch
Week 2 – Saving the World
Week 3 – Fools and Jokers
Intermission – Raising Arizona: An Appreciation
Week 4 – The Art of Darkness

 



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The Art of Darkness

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Look at the picture.

What do you see?

My eye is drawn first to the two profiles facing each other.

I could stop there and would be correct in my description. Partially.

But if I’m willing to take a step back, look away, and view the picture with fresh eyes, I’ll gain a different perspective. I’ll see more. While the darkness reveals the profiles, the negative space reveals an urn. The darkness exposes the white paper that had always been there.

~ Rembrandt used darkness to draw the viewer’s eye to the light.
~ Haydn used bold dynamics in  Symphony 94 (his “big surprise”) to capture the listener’s attention for the rest of the (much quieter) piece.
~ And the darkness found movies can give us a new perspective on the light that is, and always has been, present in the world.

Sometimes looking into the darkness can help us see the light.

* * *

Welcome to our discussion of Through a Screen Darkly by Jeffrey Overstreet. Feel free to join in the discussion, even if you’re not reading along. We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Week 4 – Art of Darkness
Movie of the Week – Apocalypse Now

I’m grateful for the experience of Taxi Driver, as disturbing as it is. It reminds me of what others are experiencing outside of my daily routine. For many of these individuals, a kind word, a conversation, or a gift could come as a bright and guiding light in a time of crisis. – p. 246

1. How can some movies, which are disturbing and hard to watch, result in the viewer having a softened heart? Have you ever had that experience?

 

They’re (people pedaling various modes of escapism) after us like paparazzi to celebrities – salespeople eager to sell us redemption at a reasonable price. In seeking satisfaction along these misguided paths, we ensure that we, as a culture, remain dissatisfied. Pursuing happiness, we try to steer clear of anything difficult or inconvenient, convinced that there are shortcuts to joy. As a result, we end up unhappy, disconnected, weak, and lonely – p. 254

Clearly, the heart is the problem. Both Apocalypse Now and Titanic show ambitious human endeavors that lead to catastrophic failure. – p.286

When Bruce’s  (from Bruce Almighty) definition of love is self-referential – seizing the freedom to do what pleases him – he is not capable of finding or receiving love. Some freedoms are only accessible through the denial of ego, along the humbling path of service. Freedom to follow one’s baser appetites is not freedom of all, but slavery. – p.290

2. Many movies focus on characters who live beyond boundaries, who have achieved “the American dream”, and who indulge in their hearts’ desires. At first glance, these films could seem dangerous, drawing us deeper into worldliness and depravity. How could they, like the black and white picture above, result in our seeing the light more clearly?

 

I suspect that these films (Alien, The Thing, The Shining) resonate not merely because they’re outrageous but also because we know they are illustrations of the truth. Evil does exist as a force outside of us, seeking to lure us into error. That leaves us to determine if we are ultimately helpless, or if there might be a power greater than evil seeking to help us escape the monsters. – p.273

Code Unknown (and other similar movies) could be, for some viewers, nothing more than an 118-minute downer. But the watchful may find glimmers of hope. And perhaps we can find understanding by noting what is absent from these confused lives. – p.264

If a heart opens to reveal ugliness and corruption and we respond by recoiling and turning away, we also turn away from the possibility of redemption. – p.267

3. What do you make of Overstreet’s thoughts on the depiction of evil in movies, and of the possible resulting redemption?

 

4. When you think of darkness in movies (in a character’s heart, a society, situation, etc.), what movie comes to mind? What redemption could come from watching that particular film?

 

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If you’d like to join us or to catch up on the conversation:
Introduction/Schedule
Week 1 – How We Watch
Week 2 – Saving the World
Week 3 – Fools and Jokers
Intermission – Raising Arizona: An Appreciation

 

 

 



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