Ambition: An Invitation to Read, Consider, and Discuss

Ambition-Cover-Final-lg

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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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



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Posture

Xray-Julie-Posture-June-2013

I recently had an ugly fall while running. I lost a layer of skin on my hand, mobility of my jaw, and a modicum of dignity. I gained six stitches squarely at the base of my chin and a healthy fear of pavement. Months later, I’m grateful to report that the external injuries are no longer visible. My body had totally healed. Almost.

Despite my recovery, one nagging reminder of the painful incident remained. My jaw wouldn’t close completely – at least not without intentional effort. It’s amazing what we take for granted every day. Eyes that blink. Fingers that grasp. And a jaw that closes when not in use.

Weeks rolled into months. There was no longer pain in my jaw – just a nagging reminder that something wasn’t quite right. Surely time would heal that as well. When time didn’t heal, my dentist nudged me in the direction of a physical therapist.

I confess that the few minutes spent filling out paperwork were marked by a combination of pride and irritation. I’m rarely sick. This would eventually get better on its own. For crying out loud, I don’t even have a primary care doctor. Doesn’t that say something? I should have waited it out. I have better things to do with my time. Then the physical therapist walked through the door.

After asking the prescribed battery of questions and assessing my condition, she made a few, measured comments. If I didn’t deal with the cause behind the issue, permanent scar tissue could develop. Full healing might become impossible.

The recommended rehabilitation for my jaw included daily ice packs, isometric exercises, and the need to hold my head straight (rather than tipped forward). I read a lot during the day. A whole lot. Actually, most of my activities result in my head being tipped forward ever so slightly. Apparently, this didn’t help my jaw; rather it stretched out the very muscles needed to keep my jaw securely closed. If these actions didn’t remedy my problem, we’d have to resort to a high dose of topical steroids. “We’ll see,” I thought. After all, we were heading out-of-town for several days. Surely, it will get better on its own. Pride and denial make a powerful cocktail.

I promptly disregarded all instruction while on our trip, except I was intentional about correcting my posture. Head up, jaw back. It turns out that I didn’t need ice packs or exercises. I didn’t need steroids. Within days, the tension in my jaw had vanished. It closed easily and without effort. A change of a few degrees in posture had changed everything.

Some injuries are obvious. The gash in my chin and subsequent flow of blood made it clear that a visit to the emergency room was in order. Six stitches, and I was on my way toward healing. Other injuries are more subtle and easier to disregard. Like my achy jaw, they may not demand immediate attention, but if left untreated, long-term damage can occur.

I have “achy jaws” in many areas of life.

~ Relationships that aren’t completely healthy, but that I’ve chosen not to address. “It will get better over time. Surely.”

~ Envy of others who are smarter, more disciplined in their pursuit of fitness and nutrition, better parents, etc.

~ Laziness masked as busyness. If my life is full of (fill in the blank), I can’t possibly have time to attend to (fill in the blank).

The chronic, muted ache is a warning sign of a deeper problem. One that won’t go away with time and could prove to be insidious if left untreated. At the very least, it’s a problem that will prevent me from flourishing.

Yet if we’re willing to listen to the ache and have the courage to address the root cause, then there’s hope.

Sometimes hope comes in the form of excruciating surgery.  Sometimes it’s found in years of adjustments and rehabilitation.  In the midst of the uncertainty and suffering, we can take courage. We are under the tender care of the Great Physician.

But occasionally, our pain is more subtle. It’s the result of spiritual misalignment – the seemingly innocuous habit of looking down rather than looking up.

Sometimes hope comes from a change in posture.



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Joy in the Shadows

Something wasn’t quite right.  The room down the hall that had been filled with the lighthearted chatter had become eerily quiet.  My reason knew better, but my mother’s heart, innately built to protect my offspring, grew concerned.  I followed the littered trail of plastic weapons, grappling hooks, and super heroes that had been carelessly discarded.  At first, I couldn’t find them.  But the trusty trail did its work.

Two little blonde-haired boys were crouched and wedged between the sofa and the spacious window against which it sat.  They didn’t move.  Flooded with relief, I turned my attention to that which held them captive.   They seemed to be peering into nothingness.  Our backyard looked as it always had.  Trees, a playground, and a struggling vegetable garden composed the familiar scene.  “Look closer, mama.”  Said my youngest.  “It’s just hidden in the dark.”

Sure enough, as I shifted my focus from the landscape to what was immediately before me, hidden stealthily among the shadows, was a tiny, eight-legged miracle.  She was completing her signature stripe down the middle of her masterpiece. Watching my boys took my breath away.  The Creator of the universe had beckoned these tender ones to come and play with him.  They had been introduced to their maker through his handiwork.  They had received a taste of joy.  All through the work of a tiny spider.

Joy is one of those words we use frequently.  We memorize the verses, sing the songs, and speak of joy in our everyday conversations.  In Galatians 5, Paul says that joy is one of the distinguishing marks of the Christian life.  Yet what does it meant to “find joy” in the midst of our scheduled, demanding, and ordinary lives?

The Greek word for joy, charis, means “grace recognized.”  God’s grace is always present.  It never leaves us.  At times, grace is easily seen.  It’s showcased in the infectious laugh of an infant, the delight of a bridegroom, Bach played perfectly on the cello, relief flowing from a good doctor’s report, forgiveness granted from a loved one, the bursting buds of spring and the vibrant leaves of autumn.  For an instant, we’re deeply aware of God’s presence in the midst of a very fallen world.   The veil between heaven and earth becomes thin.  We are given a taste of the divine, of the ancient, and of the eternal, all in the blink of an eye.  We are given a taste of joy.

At other times, grace, like that tiny spider, is working away in the shadows.  It is no less real and no less present than when spinning in full sunlight, yet it is much more difficult to see.  Life is full of shadows.  In our family, broken (or limping) relationships, miscarriage of a child, job loss, and the challenges that come with marriage and parenting name a few.

Yet God promises his children that his grace is sufficient, and He is working in the midst of all circumstances.   I believe that to be true, yet something often clouds my vision from seeing that grace.  It prevents me from experiencing the joy that is available.

There is an ongoing battle within me between my pursuit of happiness and my desire to have joy.  Although joy may produce happiness, the two are not interchangeable.  Joy is always available.  Happiness is dependant on circumstance.  Our Maker created us for joy, yet we can’t produce or manipulate it. That’s the rub.  I’m made for joy, but I spend my days chasing after happiness.

“The difference between shallow happiness and a deep, sustaining joy, is sorrow.  Happiness lives where sorrow is not.  When sorrow arrives, happiness dies.  It can’t stand pain.  Joy, on the other hand, rises from sorrow and therefore can withstand all grief.  Joy, by the grace of God, is the transfiguration of suffering into endurance, and of endurance into character, and of character into hope – and the hope that has become our joy does not (as happiness must for those who depend on it) disappoint us.”  Walt Wangerin

Daily, I miss out on the opportunities to experience joy simply because I’m too distracted.  When circumstances make God’s grace more difficult to see, I want to lean toward the window that offers hope rather than returning to the “toys” of my everyday routine. Those toys come in many forms, such as busy schedules, ministry, work, home projects, exercise, and great books.  They are good gifts from the Father, but I give them too much power.  They provide the security of the familiar.  They provide relief.  They provide comfort.  They provide a temporary anesthetic for a chronic ache.  They’re temporary substitutes for the real thing, but I’m still left wanting more.

My boys’ intent gazes offered evidence that something significant was occurring.   It caused me to shift my focus and draw in closer.  I wanted to see.  Every day brings evidence that grace, though not easily seen, does indeed exist.  It whispers that joy is always possible.  When I watch a friend walk through a hard stretch of life, yet choose to look for more.  When the landscape of circumstance provides no plausible reason for deep peace and contentment, yet peace and contentment abound, I draw in closer.  I want to see.  When I look through the shadows of disappointment, fear, anger, or despair, my maker transforms my belief into discovery.  I no longer know only about him.  I experience him.  Grace recognized.

Joy can be found in the most unexpected places.  In the hurting (or rejoicing) co-worker down the hall, in the redemption offered by a hard conversation with a friend, and in the painful void that accompanies loneliness.  Every day and every season bring a unique composition of light and shadow.  Every day and every season offer new opportunities to experience joy.

A few years ago, our family entered a season of unknowns.  The economic dominos fell directly on top of my husband’s group at the bank.  As result, his job went away.  Early on, the possibility of making a radical career change was invigorating. We were open to whatever God had planned… that is, as long as we remained in Charlotte.  We found it relatively easy to hold occupation and lifestyle loosely, yet we clung tightly to our community. Our feet were firmly planted in the Queen City.  As the months ticked away, relocating became much more than just a remote possibility.   All roads were leading to a job in Nashville.  We were moving.  We made the house-hunting trip, began making connections in our new city, and sold our home.

The greatest gift we received from those twelve months was not the surprise ending of a job in Charlotte.  It was not in the detail of circumstance or in the granting of our hearts’ desires.  The real surprise ending was that our hearts’ desires had been changed.  Rather than clinging to what we thought life should look like, we began to want God’s best – regardless of circumstance.   Job loss resulted in our surrendering control.  We experienced the peace and freedom that comes only from total dependence on the Father.  There it is.  The tiny eight-legged miracle spinning in the shadows. Grace recognized.  Joy.

God leaves his fingerprints all over my day, if only I’ll have the eyes to see them.  I’ve been created with a voracious appetite for joy, yet I spoil it by snacking on pleasure, convenience, and whatever promises relief from pain.   Rather than retreat from the darkness that can be present in life, I want to lean toward it. To see the gift of the moment.  To receive and embrace what has been given to me rather than longing for lesser gifts.

“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak.  We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered to us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.  We are far too easily pleased.”  C.S. Lewis

At every turn, grace awaits discovery.  The spider is spinning, the flowers are bursting into bloom, and the earth and all its inhabitants are proclaiming that there is hope.  One day, everything sad will finally come untrue.  The sun will rise for the last time, and will forever dispel the shadows that temporarily hinder our vision.  Everyday, we’re offered a glimpse of that eternal joy.  At times, it’s glaring brightly for all to see.  Yet at others, we may need to lean in toward the shadows.  As the eyes of our heart strain to see the miracle of grace, it’s not through panes of glass that we peer.  It’s through the shadows cast by two pieces of rough, blood-stained timbers.  Through the eternal intersection where death and life gave birth to hope.   We have access to the hope that will not disappoint when we’re willing to “Look closer… it’s just hidden in the dark.”

 

 

This article was originally published in the Spring 2012 newsletter of The Barnabas Center, a Christian counseling center located in Charlotte. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



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You Are Cordially Invited



Most days, I’m deeply aware of the benefits of our life style.  Schooling at home gives us tremendous flexibility to take advantage of a myriad of rich experiences.  Books read aloud routinely become family friends, and recess often takes the form of digging in the creek or building forts outside.  Fidgety boys take basketball breaks when needed, and my crafty girl creates throughout the day.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.  Usually.

Several weeks ago, I hastily became quite knowledgeable about the admission procedures and tuition for the private schools in our area.   I also paid particular attention to the big yellow bus schedule, and took note that there were plenty of available seats.  My mind began to construct a new schedule for myself – one that included long runs and a home with preordained periods of quiet. Yes, it was one of those weeks. And my commentary has nothing to do with school choice.  It has everything to do with the motivation behind all of my, well all of our, choices.

I don’t want to be selfish.  I don’t want to become angry with my kids, short-tempered with my husband, or aloof with my friends.  I want to be more. I want to be patient, kind, and other-centered.  But last week, I wasn’t having much luck.  And rather than deal with the mounting evidence that I was the problem, I found myself wanting to sweep it under the carpet.  Or more accurately, put it on the bus and send it away.

Voices were competing for my attention and energy.  There were the high-pitched needs of the children, the muted desires of my husband, and the emphatically heated debate between self-justification and self-contempt that raged inside of me.  But somewhere in the midst of the mental and emotional chaos, I heard that still small voice.

I’m inviting you to more.

When your children’s needs outweigh your capacity to give,
I’m inviting you to grow in dependence.

When your tired husband returns from a trip, and you want his help more than you want him,
I’m inviting you to grow in selflessness.

When you’ve been treated unfairly and want to retaliate (or withdraw),
I’m inviting you to grow in kindness.

When customer service eats up half your day then drops your call,
the guy selling pine needles interrupts dinner,
and the dog ruins the living room rug (again),
I’m inviting you to grow in patience.

When a friend disappoints out of her own insecurities or fears,
I’m inviting you to grow in faithfulness.

When there are mounting bills,
piles of laundry,
sick children and weary hearts,
I’m inviting you to grow in joy.

When you’re heartbroken, and even angry, that life doesn’t look like you had hoped,
I’m inviting you to grow in peace.

And lastly…

When you realize that the problem isn’t your needy kiddos (or schooling choice),
Or your husband,
Or your friends,
Or your life situation,
Or those annoying people who interrupt your day,

It’s your own selfish heart.

But I’m not condemning you…
I’m inviting you to grow in love




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Unlikely Places


He had traded in his Armani suit for a bright orange jumper.  Rather than dining at five star restaurants, he now waited in line for standard institutional meals.  His daily interactions no longer took place in the oak-paneled boardroom, for his domain had been reduced to a ten by ten foot cell.  He had worked his way through school, climbed the corporate ladder from the bottom rung, and had arrived at a coveted position of wealth and status.  But through the years, the cocktail of success had numbed his conscience.  He was abruptly awakened from his drunken stupor as the cell door clanged shut. The echo resonating down the long cement corridor served as a haunting reminder of his long chain of life-changing choices.

Although he had traveled throughout the world, this was a foreign country for which he could not have time to prepare. He sat quietly digesting every morsel of information that would help him understand this new land.  The culture, language and customs of this place were alien to the life he had known.

His new neighbor, an intimidating hulk of a man, had gained his citizenship through taking the life of another.  He observed that very same man tenderly giving his new, hard-labored-for shoes to one who needed them more.  Time after time, he witnessed acts of kindness, selflessness, and courage within this world set apart from acceptable society.  He slowly discovered that all he had previously believed about “these people” was not accurate.  Yes, they had made poor, often devastating choices, yet in each man resided a more complex story.  Another side.  Alongside the obvious, well-documented depravity was the irrefutable existence of dignity.

Over time, his relationships shifted from that of outcast to friend, and he grew to love these criminals.  These undesirables. These prodigals. Together, they had found the strange peace that comes when many layers worn in the world are stripped away, and the naked truth remains. Life’s circumstances had leveled the playing field for these men of extremely diverse backgrounds.  There was no plotting to manipulate the future.  No fortune to be made or social ladder to climb.  No pretense.  No attempts to explain or defend. Locked away behind bars, he was able to find freedom.

The countdown of years droned on, one slow minute following another.  From the outside, his life looked painfully monotonous compared to the stimulating world that he once knew.  Yet the simplicity of his days allowed space for movement and growth of a different kind.  He found and spoke words of truth about the realities of his life without fear of judgment or condemnation.  As his scrambling to control and manipulate life was no longer a viable strategy, there was an ease and relief that settled in his soul.  Room was made for a new inhabitant – One who would never leave nor forsake.   One who restores the years that poor choices have taken.  One who makes all things new.

Trapped in the worst of situations, there was no way out.

He lost all that he had in the world.

He gained Life.

*******

You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope.  With less of you there is more of God and his rule.

You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you.  Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.

You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are –no more, no less.  That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.

You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God.  He’s the food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.

You’re blessed when you care.  At the moment of being “care-full,” you find yourselves cared for.

You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family. 

You’re blessed when you get your inside world – your mind and heart – put right.  Then you can see God in the outside world. 

You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution.  The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom. .”  

The Message



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Blogmosis





Blogmosisnoun  1. the tendency of knowledge, wisdom, talent, or status in life, to pass through a barrier (computer screen or book) from those who have to those who want, thus equalizing the knowledge, wisdom, talent and state of life of both parties.

*****

Recently, a friend of mine was in the midst of a particularly difficult season of marriage.  While trying to find evidence of folks who had gone through similar trials and come out the other side, she discovered a blog that offered great hope.  The authors’ marriage had survived the worst of offenses, yet they had labored through regaining trust and rebuilding relationship.  They offered hope that marriage could indeed survive the darkest of seasons.  As we talked through the pros and cons of following such a blog while she was in the early stages of rebuilding her own marriage, a possible danger surfaced:  blogmosis.  The tendency to read about the life of another, and hope that in doing so, our own journey will take a similar path.  She coined the term, by the way.  Clever, huh?

On some level, we all hope that blogmosis will occur in our own lives.  We seek comfort, wisdom, enlightenment and assurance as we walk through disappointments and challenges in life.  The sources to which we look may vary – a blog, book, speaker, or friend can offer hope that their story may rub off on ours.  We want to know that someone else has traveled this road and succeeded, and perhaps their good fortune will bleed into ours.

No doubt, the stories of those who’ve gone before us can offer hope and direction.  Yet all too often, the line is blurred when we desire that another’s story becomes our story.  I want what another has. Ever so stealthily, legitimate desire mutates into coveting that which is not meant for me.  

In the scientific realm, osmosis is defined as the tendency of water in salt water to flow across a barrier from an area of low concentration to an area of high concentration until both sides of the barrier reach equilibrium.  Similarly, the propensity toward blogmosis can only be prevented when we reach a state of equilibrium as we relate to the lives of others…

~When we choose to believe that our unique journey in life is equal in value to that of all others

~When we accept that the individuality of our own story holds infinite dignity

~When we can be inspired, challenged, or convicted by the journey of another, yet still rest in believing that we are created with unique talents and abilities to be used for specific purpose

~When we attempt to view our lives not through our own eyes but from the eyes of our wise, perfect, incapable-of-error Creator

~ When we focus not on the life that we would like to have, but on the life that we have been given

I’m grateful for the stories of those around me, and for the vast array of technology that gives unlimited, immediate access.  When kept in proper perspective, they can give me a glimpse of the greater story for which I was made.  Yet as with any good thing, the best can be twisted into the destructive.  I can’t live my life fully if I’m trying to replicate someone else’s.

I want to see clearly.

I want to be wise.

I want to be content….

I want to live fully in my own story.

*******

 “Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life; everyone must carry out a concrete assignment that demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated, thus, everyone’s task is unique as his specific opportunity to implement it.”  Viktor Frankl



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Left Behind

It’s been a hard few months.  Yesterday provided an almost humorous dot at the end of the exclamation point.  As I reclined in the dentist’s chair, my distaste for the relentless shriek of his drill could only be outdone by the aromatic waft of chiseled tooth.   I wasn’t sure if I would laugh or cry as I took account of the past several weeks.  Due to the congestion pooling in the back of my throat, I decided that neither response would improve the situation.  Rendered unable to do much else, I couldn’t help but recount the toll that the fall (and The Fall) had taken on our family.

Sometime in mid-October, I developed a cough that decided it didn’t want to leave.  Without going into extensive detail (which I’m happy to do for any medical professional who cares to offer an opinion), I’ll share that I’ve now been coughing and generally feeling crummy for three months.  Which means that I haven’t been sleeping for three months.  Add to the formula a colony of “little friends” (term affectionately coined by my husband) had taken up permanent residency in my daughter’s hair, significant parenting challenges with multiple kids,  a particularly full home at Christmas, a son who had been up the entire night due to an ear infection (seriously? I though we were way past those), and now a broken tooth.  I’d say that I needed that like a hole in the head but…   well, it all starts feeling like a bad joke.

I’m acutely aware that the challenges I’ve faced in the last months are minor compared to those of so many.  I don’t have a serious illness, I have an amazingly supportive family, and we’re able to procure medical help when needed.  Nevertheless, there has been a modicum of grief.  I’ve missed a dear friend’s baby shower and first baby being born, I couldn’t help another friend through a move, my cherished time reading aloud with my children has been limited significantly, and I haven’t been able to exercise in months.  I’ve grown weary of waiting for life to return to normal, and have experienced a strange sadness as life for those around me has continued without my involvement.  I feel like a spectator watching the parade go by, only to be left behind.

There are many ways we experience being left behind.  Illness, the intense needs of young children (or aging parents), significant struggles in marriage, shame from the past, and disappointment in friendships only to name a few.  Everyone else seems to be happily marching along – at least if we believe the one-dimensional messages we receive via Christmas newsletters, Facebook updates, and in cordial conversations in the hallway at church.  We place our hope in life “returning to normal” and wait for the storms, and for the loneliness they often produce, to pass.

But perhaps there is a greater gift to be gleaned than the return to normalcy

“…as long as you keep pointing to the specifics, you will miss the full meaning of your pain. You will deceive yourself into believing that if the people, circumstances, and events had been different, your pain would not exist.  This might be partly true, but the deeper truth is that the situation which brought about your pain was simply the form in which you came in touch with the human condition of suffering.  Your pain is the concrete way in which you participate in the pain of humanity.”   Henri Nouwen

 

I believe that this challenging season of life will not be wasted.  My hope is that I will develop eyes to see more keenly others who feel left behind, ears to appreciate the more subtle music of those around me, and a heart that will be softened and enabled to love more deeply.  Both the in the small inconveniences in life and in the large tragedies, there is greater purpose.

So if you find yourself watching the parade pass you by, take heart. Know that even in our loneliness, we are not alone.  And one day, we will gather together at the ultimate celebration, under the Great Banner, when every thing sad will indeed come untrue.



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Houston, We Have a Problem

Taken from Apollo 13 during the crisis

We recently watched Apollo 13 with our younger boys for the first time.  I’ve seen it before, but what a treat to see it through their eyes.  Together, we felt the eager anticipation of three astronauts who had labored throughout their careers with the ultimate goal in mind – to walk on the surface of the moon.   Since the inaugural landing had taken place months earlier, Americans were no longer captivated by the endeavor.  What had once seemed unimaginable had quickly become last year’s news.  For the astronauts of Apollo 13, however, their eyes were fixed on the goal.  It was to be their turn.

The entire team of engineers, astronauts, and those on ground control had planned for every conceivable contingency.  They knew that problems could arise, and they had planned accordingly.  Early in their flight, a mishap did indeed occur.  They took it in stride, then were grateful that “our glitch for the mission was over.”  Within minutes, however, everything changed.  “Houston, we have a problem.”

The story rapidly unfolded as the three astronauts realized that their ultimate goal of walking on the moon was no longer a possibility.  In fact, it became clear that their return to earth would be somewhat of a miracle.    We were drawn into their tight quarters, felt the loss of power, and more acutely, the loss of control.  No one had conceived that such a multi-system failure could occur.  There was no contingency plan for a disaster of this magnitude.  In the midst of the crisis, they were all forced to disband the plan for what should have been, and to go back to the proverbial drawing board.

“It wasn’t supposed to be like this.”  I’ve said it.  Perhaps you have as well.  We anticipate disruptions in life.  We know they can happen and plan accordingly.  We buy the right insurance, secure the right job, marry the right person, and discipline our kids according the philosophy of the day. We’re not naive – we know that we’ll have our glitches along the way, but acknowledge piously that those problems will make us stronger.  Until one very ordinary day, we’re not facing another malfunction to be repaired, but have suddenly found ourselves drifting in space as the result of a potentially lethal explosion.  We certainly didn’t see it coming, and couldn’t possibly have planned our own remedy in advance.

~Death of a loved one

~Infidelity

~A defiant, rebellious child

~Serious Illness

~Financial disaster

We travel through life anticipating our own version of walking on the moon – the day when all of our hard work will finally pay off.  But in the blink of an eye, everything can change…

Houston, we have a problem.

As the crew became aware of the situation’s severity, a chain reaction of emotion was instigated.  Within minutes, there was an awareness that the pinnacle for which they had trained through the years, would never be reached.  They would not walk on the moon.  This realization brought with it gut-wrenching grief as life-long dreams literally disappeared into vapor.

Then came the dramatic shift.

They had to leave behind the dream of “what should have been” in order to accept “what actually was.”

It was only after that pivotal decision that they were able to move forward.  The goal of walking on the moon, which had once felt paramount, instantly became insignificant.  Perspective had changed radically.  The chance of survival was slim.

Alone, they were helpless.  Completely at the mercy of the ground crew which was working frantically to come up with a solution, the astronauts had to wait.  In silence.  In darkness.  In the cold.  Have you been there?  I have, and it’s a terrifying to be thrust into the reality of our own limitations.

They had to reorient themselves:

~by scrapping the original plan

~by redefining their goal

~by letting go of control and following the direction of another

After days of peril and excruciating uncertainty, the astronauts were successfully brought back home.  That which had once seemed routine became priceless.  Not one of the three ever walked on the moon, but as they let go of “what should be,” they were free to discover the miracle of what actually was.

“This could be the worst disaster NASA’s ever faced,” lamented the NASA Program Director.  True.  But not the end of the story.  The Flight Director responded, “With all due respect, sir, I believe this is gonna be our finest hour.”

And it was.

From the ashes of great crisis, beauty can indeed rise.

And one day, we’ve been promised, that it will.

~~~~~~~~~~

Intensive investigation revealed that the near-fatal malfunction was a result of a production error 4 years prior to the Apollo 13 flight.  Any blame-shifting or finger pointing during the crisis had been misplaced.  It became clear that the error was not caused by either the astronauts on board or the crew on the ground. They were all the unfortunate heirs of a pre-existing faulty condition.

Paul in 2 Corinthians 4: 8 says: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair.”

*The word for perplexed in the original means “no way through” and the word for despair is the same word intensified meaning ” utterly without any way through”.

We can trust the Lord to find a way through for us in all circumstances so that whereas we may be stumped, not seeing any way forward though our problems, He will never let us be persuaded that there is absolutely no way through. He will keep us from despair. He will provide the promised way out. (1 Cor 10:13)

*Borrowed from Ieuan LLoyd-Jones 

 



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The Invisible Thread to Nashville… and Back

If you haven’t read The Princess and the Goblin and missed the earlier post giving a bit of background information, you can catch up here.

 

Back to The Princess and the Goblin… As the story continues, Irene’s grandmother (who lives in the attic and is invisible to everyone but Irene) spins an invisible thread.  She attaches the thread to a ring, then instructs Irene that if she ever finds herself in danger, she is to follow the thread wherever it takes her.   The story proceeds to unfold as Irene is frightened once again by the creatures. Yet this time, she follows her grandmother’s thread rather than reacting out of fear.  Instead of leading Irene upstairs to the safety of her grandmother, the thread leads her outside, down the mountain, through the dark forest and into a dangerous cave.  Although the thread takes her through places of great peril, she ultimately discovers and saves her friend Curdie, who had been taken captive by the goblins and hidden deeply away in a cave.  The thread miraculously leads them through seemingly insurmountable dangers, then ultimately back to the safety of the castle.

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“We’re moving to Nashville.”  Although we knew it had been a possibility and had seen friends who were in the same position, we never thought that we’d be the ones preparing to leave.  Two years ago, my husband’s group at the bank was disbanded.  It was the day before our anniversary when he received the news.  In his words, “While most wives were understandably worried about what was coming next, mine was giddy.” Only weeks earlier during our weekly small group meeting, I had casually uttered, “I wish it would all stop.  That the hamster wheel would come to a screeching halt.” After years of over-commitment and unrelenting activity, I longed for a slower pace of life.  Be careful what you ask for…

 

After absorbing and then processing the news, we decided to take a 6 month break before looking for employment.  By worldly standards, it was a risky thing to do.  David was an unemployed banker in a banking city, which was filled with 2,000 of his best friends in the same situation.  But we knew who held the cards.  We knew for whom we actually worked.  We were given the gift of peace.  Our hope was simple.  We wanted to step back, enjoy our family, and open our hands to receive what had been planned for us. This was an opportunity to live in the kind of dependence for which we were created.   Great peace came from living in the moment regardless of the outcome.  David, who tends to be prone to anxiety, slept soundly.  We loved having him home.  The hamster wheel had stopped, and we were having a happy little hamster party.

Within a few months, two ministry opportunities unexpectedly surfaced and became viable possibilities.  Well-meaning friends would ask, “Do you feel called into ministry?”  Our answer seemed somewhat illusive, but it was true.  We’d answer, “We don’t know if we’ve been called into ministry, but we feel like we’ve done what we were supposed to for today.” Seven months flew by, and it turned out that neither of the two ministry opportunities would be our ultimate destination.  During those months, David had chosen to pour himself and his talents into organizations and people we loved dearly, and that had been a gift unto itself.  But still no job.

Eight months into the adventure, it was time to consider banking opportunities that may exist in Charlotte.  He began the job-hunting process. With 2,000 of his best friends. Although were not married to a particular home or life-style, we had been holding white-knuckled to our amazing community in Charlotte.  We couldn’t fathom leaving.  “God, we’ll do anything… but that. “  Of course, it’s the “anything but that” which he uses to teach us that all we really need is him.  And it’s the “anything but that” which proves that idols don’t have to come in the shape of houses, country clubs, or lifestyles.  They can also come in the form of Godly people and unique community.

Shortly after commencing the job search,  David received “the call” from a bank in Nashville. We had always said that we would grow old here, but if we ever had to move, Nashville would be our top city of choice. I started doing homework on churches, ballet studios, and music programs.  We made the house-hunting trip, and I found a beautiful old bookshop in which to make my dwelling while David had his final round of interviews downtown.  The kind old shopkeeper asked if I’d like to go behind the shop to the warehouse, and I spent over an hour digging through stacks of dusty, ragged books.  This could be my new home.  The great finds in the bookstore helped.  I do have my priorities, you know.

We returned to North Carolina and put our house on the market.  Homes in our neighborhood had been lingering on the market for months, and we didn’t want to waist time.  We had talked for years about moving to another neighborhood, so there seemed to be no downside and we had plenty of time to sort out the details.  Or so we thought.  Our home went under contract in less than 12 hours and after 3 showings.  We were shocked.  We were moving.

Later that week, David received an unexpected call from a former colleague.  We were surprised to learn that he was a final candidate for a job in Charlotte. The folks in Nashville graciously allowed him the time to decide, and the folks in Charlotte sped the process up beyond what we could have anticipated. You can guess the end of the story.  We’re still here.

Although we all know that life can turn “on a dime” and that we ultimately have little control of our own destinies, we spend an extraordinary amount of time and energy fighting that universal truth.  We think we can plan, maneuver, and even convince God to give us what we want.  We’ve inherited an insidious spiritual cancer that tries to convince us that we know best.  Then God is gracious enough to intervene and remind us that it’s not true.  That he knows what we need far better than we do.  What we need is often not what we want.  What we need most is dependence on Him. 

Today, we stand grateful for the invisible thread that led us through such an adventure.  The path was never clear.   It was full of twists, turns, caverns, and surprises that didn’t make sense at the time. We experienced many great gifts during those months – time together, peace in the midst of turmoil, steadfast friends, and the storybook ending of staying in Charlotte.  Yet we’ve seen enough life to learn that although these are good things, they too could be taken away at any time.

The greatest gift that we received along the way has been the assurance that “no, we are definitely not in charge.”  And yes, the One who is in charge is good and faithful and true.  He gently leads if only we’ll choose to unwrap our white-knuckled fingers from around whatever it is that we grasp – in order to hold tight to the invisible thread. We can’t hold both at once.  May we remember and believe, as Irene’s grandmother promised, “You must not doubt the thread.  Of one thing you may be sure, that while you hold it, I hold it too.

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For the rest of the story, visit “Lest We Forget”


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