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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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



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Back to School: Poetry 101

My alma mater. Where my soul and mind were well fed.

I’m going back to school.  Wanna come?

Don’t you remember the excitement of the new year?  A legion of sharpened pencils.  A carefully-selected notebook with neatly arranged folders.  A stark calendar awaiting the scribbled adornment of activities, assignments, and football games. But at the heart of all the frenzy is the promise of a new beginning.  A fresh start. The potential of the unknown.

As we grow older, the line between seasons begins to blur. The workplace rarely closes for summer vacation, and new starts are far less definitive.  We become pragmatic and resolved.  Too often, we trade in curiosity and imagination for practicality and security.  We deny an invaluable portion of our inheritance – the part of our souls that was designed to create.  Why?

“Children are more creative (than are adults) and are natural inventors.  Their worldview is incomplete and demands discovery. They prosper because they embrace their ignorance instead of ignoring it. And they are willing to explore, investigate, and put their ideas to the test because they are willing to fail.” (Sam McNerney. Killing Creativity: Why Kids Draw Pictures of Monsters & Adults Don’t )

 

We’re too busy.  Our schedules are packed with “have-tos” and we rarely venture to consider the “dream-ofs.”  I’d suggest, however, that under the emperor’s fine purple garments of busy schedules often exists the exposing, naked reality of our own fear. Fear of failure.  Fear of looking silly or impractical.  Or fear of wanting more.

My friend, John, is a gifted therapist who spends his days talking with folks as they struggle to make sense of the hard things in life.  John recently discovered that he has quite a talent for sculpting.  In writing about his journey, John notes that “Sometimes, the riskiest thing for us to do is to trust and try.”

So how about it?  You don’t have to step on the yellow school bus or move into a college dorm this fall in order to try something new.  If you could go back to school, what classes would you take that you missed the first time around?  What activities?  Why not trust and try?

I’ve always been a lover of the well-written word.  I enjoy discovering and reading poetry with my children, and have a special place in my heart for the prose of Emily Dickinson and T.S. Eliot. I dabbled in poetry in high school and college, yet I’ve settled comfortably into the role of a distanced appreciator.

This fall, Chris Yokel (who you may remember from Redeeming the Fall) will be offering two 4-week sessions for folks who have limited or no experience with poetry, but who’d like to learn more.  In a nutshell:

The Basics of Poetry (Sept.17 – Oct. 7): Basic literary elements of poetry.  Teaching videos will be posted on Youtube.

Poetry Writing Workshop (Oct. 15 – Nov.11): Poetry workshop including exercises to help challenge and prod you along.

The class has been designed for those who need flexibility and can commit varying degrees of time. You can find out more detail and sign up for the class at chrisyokel.com.

Whether it’s daring to venture into a poetry class or a pottery studio, exploring a new genre of music or learning the art of cooking Thai cuisine, take a chance. Excitement is drifting through the early autumn air. Breathe in deeply. Let it inspire you.

And if you’re afraid of trying something new, well, I’ll embarrass myself first on the world wide web, so whatever you choose to do may feel a bit less vulnerable. Here goes my first, timid, awkward attempt at haiku:

no more excuses
keyboard strokes dash through veiled pride
to create brings life

 
Shared with…



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The Art of the Picture Frame

Museums pay thousands of dollars for artisans to restore, recreate, and preserve them. They can substantially transform our experience of beauty.  We pass by them multiple times a day, but rarely give them any thought.  Frames.

~ A frame draws out the hidden beauty of a painting that would otherwise go unnoticed.

~ A frame sets the artwork apart from its environment.

~ A frame draws the viewer’s eye to that which is important.

Rembrandt’s home was cluttered with props – costumes, animal skins, armor and ornate jewelry.  To the passerby, there was nothing outstanding about the collection (other than its eclectic nature).  Rembrandt, however, saw the potential in each item.  Rather than scanning the landscape and seeing only clutter, he saw endless possibilities that could be captured and worthy of  framing.  The ordinary, when set apart from its environment, became extraordinary.

At any given time, my home is filled a variety of nondescript objects.   Some on display, some in piles, and some tucked away in hopes that visitors won’t see.  Yet if I pause to consider one small section of a room, each isolated item represents a novel’s worth of story.  (More on that here.)  The ordinary, when set apart from its environment, becomes extraordinary.

Imagine going about your day carrying an empty frame.  As you look around your office, home, or community, there are limitless opportunities to pause and examine more intently.  Take out your frame and choose one.  What had been part of the landscape becomes set apart.  It now has your focused attention.  The trash can overflowing with crumpled papers.  The shiny new bike filled with promise of adventure. The bird salvaging bits of yesterday’s discarded craft project to be woven into tomorrow’s home.   The frame draws out that which would otherwise go unnoticed.

The same is true of our inner lives.  Now imagine carrying an empty frame through which you look at life’s circumstances, the soul of another, or your own heart.  Nothing in the environment changes, yet where you place your frame will significantly alter your perspective.  You get to choose.

When my child, husband, friend, (or fill in your own blank) becomes difficult or frustrating, I can choose.  Where will I place my frame?  Will I focus on the inconvenience caused to me, pain inflicted upon me, or cost paid by me in order to love?  I can become quite comfortable, even entranced, while inspecting closely  the harm that has been done.  The longer I gaze, the more I see.  The more I see, the more locked into place my frame becomes.

Yet I have a choice.  In that same situation, I can move the frame.  I can shift the focus from myself to another.   Although the pain inflicted is still present, it loses its power when I refuse to make it the focal point of my thoughts.  My attention is shifted.  A  frame has the ability to draw out beauty which was already present, yet would otherwise go unnoticed.  By shifting my gaze, I can train my eye to refocus.  I can learn to see the world from a different vantage point.

~The frustrating child becomes the child who needs affirmation

~The spouse who has disappointed becomes the partner who is overwhelmed with life and needs support

~The hurtful friend becomes the friend who is hurting and in need of grace

It’s all in where we place the frame.  In that choice, we hold the power of bestowing blessing or curses upon another, and ultimately, in bringing blessing or curses upon ourselves.

So pick up your invisible frame and explore the familiar landscape with new eyes – Great works of art are awaiting your discovery.

“Art consists of limitation. The most beautiful part of every picture is the frame.”

G.K. Chesterton

 



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Curiosity for Lent

Having grown up in a small town in the mountains of Tennessee, my worldview was largely shaped by the individual faces in our small community.  I had one friend who was Jewish.  One was Catholic.  One who wasn’t aloud to wear shorts because they were too revealing. Another who actually took her Bible to church.  These differences never caused division – they simply provided the adjectives with which each family was described.

Friends’ distinctive religious celebrations brought a welcome diversity into a fairly homogenous community.  To attend a bat mitzvah in our little town felt somewhat cosmopolitan.   The cross of ashes worn on the forehead of a few classmates evoked a subtle sense of mystery.  We respected the differences of our faiths.  However, to cross over the line between respecting and learning from one another felt too bold and uncertain.

As a young adult, my experience of God shifted from one of inherited religion to one of chosen relationship.  Gradually, I began to suspect that I might have something to learn from the different ways in which others encountered, experienced, and worshiped God. I wanted His life, His teachings, and His ultimate death and resurrection to be more than an intellectual assent or a religious practice. I was not longer content to just know about Him.  I wanted to know Him.

An attempt to move beyond wanting toward knowing came shortly after I graduated from college.  Every Wednesday during Lent, I slipped out of my office at the bank and walked down the street to attend a church service.  The choice in church was not deliberate or intentional – it’s location and schedule simply made attendance relatively easy.  Each sermon focused on one of the people involved in the Passion of Jesus. Preparing for Christmas had been an expected part of my annual tradition. Preparing for Easter had not.  Intentionally altering my routine, in order to focus my heart, changed my experience of the season.  It changed me.

As we consider the world in which Jesus walked, he encountered primarily two kinds of people.  Those who held so tightly to their systems of religion and life that they missed Him, and those who were curious enough to follow.  As we embark on the season of Lent, we all bring our childhood history, our adult experiences, our preconceptions, and our annual rituals (or lack thereof) along with us.  Although these bring a sense of tradition and security, I wonder what it would look like if we allowed ourselves to become curious…

~ Curious about how others commemorate the next 40 days

~ Curious about the “whys” behind the Lenten traditions practiced by others

~ Curious enough, perhaps, to slip into a service at a different church, read a new book, or alter our routine in some way to make more room in our hearts for the season ahead.   And ultimately, to make more room in our hearts for the One who came to rescue us from ourselves.

I want to see Him with fresh eyes.  

I didn’t grow up in, nor do we currently attend, a liturgical church which formally celebrates the season of Lent.  However, I look forward to the next four weeks with great anticipation. We’ll be reading as a family, I’ll be reading on my own, and we plan to attend Vespers at a local Abbey.  Our choices will most likely differ from yours, yet the hope is that we all approach this season not with a sense of duty or habit, but with a renewed sense of wonder and curiosity.

~~~~~~~~~~

A few suggestions if you’re looking for books:

If you have children, or enjoy reading historical fiction, I’d highly recommend reading Arnold Ytreeide’s book, Amon’s Adventure. Written by the author of the Advent series Jotham’s Journey, each of the 28 chapters is a great read-aloud which provides fodder for rich conversation and reflection.  It paints a vibrant picture of the political, social, and religious climate in which Jesus lived.  Amon’s Adventure illuminates the complexity and confusion Jesus’ ministry brought to those who loved and were trying to obey Yahweh.  Jesus wasn’t what they were expecting. That same tension exists to some level for all of us today.



This year, I have discovered and soaked myself in the writings of Walter Wangerin, Jr.  I referenced the book Miz Lil and the Chronicles of Grace in my “Top 10 List” for 2011, and I’ve been lining up his books in my reading queue ever since.


Life of the Beloved by Henri Nouwen has become one of those staple books in our library to which I return again and again.


I’d love to hear from anyone who is willing to share books, resources, or traditions that have been meaningful to you during this Lenten season.  You’ll be an encouragement to others. Perhaps you’ll peak their curiosity.  Blessings to you and yours.



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