Ambition: An Invitation to Read, Consider, and Discuss


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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Fools and Jokers


“Noah built an ark, the prophet Hosea married a prostitute, poor suffering Job refused to curse God, and John the Baptist ate bugs in the wilderness. They all experienced doubt. They all had things to learn. Yet their unconventional behavior drew attention to their vision, which conveys essential truth.” Jeffrey Overstreet

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 3 – Fools and Jokers
Movie of the Week – The Fisher King

Webster defines ‘the fool’ as “One who is destitute in reason, or the common powers of understanding; an idiot.”

We see ‘the fool’ everyday. In the neighborhood, at work, on the highway, in our families, and if we’re honest, in the mirror.

When I meet ‘the fool’, I should pay close attention. My reaction to him reveals a great deal about the state of my heart.

Am I quick to judge?
Grateful that I am not him?
Offended by his choices and behavior?

Or am I willing to pause and see that the fool has something to teach me. . .

“Some of the great fools, as Hamlet proves to be, behave in the manic fashion more deliberately and strategically in order to unsettle those around them and lure wrongdoers into exposing their devices.” – p. 210

“If I’m confronted with bizarre behavior on the street or on the bus, I am likely to cross at the nearest crosswalk or get up and move closer to the bus driver. But in the safety of my theater seat, I sometimes find that these characters reveal a great deal not only through their ranting but also by the way they provoke people around them to all manner of revealing behavior.” – p.201

“In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Finding Neverland and Nurse Betty, these characters stir up trouble for the strict, the proud, the upright and the overly rational.” – p.208

1) What character comes to mind when you think of “the fool”?  What truth did he/she reveal?

Take a few minutes to read “Why Honey Boo Boo is Like a Flannery O’Connor Character” by Jonathan Rogers(Rumor has it that Jonathan may have a few things to add to our discussion in the upcoming weeks.)

2. What do you make of the Honey Boo Boo article? How does it relate to Overstreet’s take on ‘the fool’?


“The healthiest laughter is that which recognizes our shared fallibility.” -p.226

“Many of us are laughing because we see and reject the errors on display and because we are admitting our own culpability in such folly, without despairing from the shame of it. The laughter is release: I’ve been there, I recognize that, I acknowledge the folly of human behavior, and I know there’s a better way.” – p.220

We enjoy comedy streaming from the TV or movie screen.
Our laughter is spontaneous, involuntary and without invoking further reflection.
We move on to the next scene, sitcom, or to decide what we’ll have for dinner, grateful for having been given a break from the “real world.

But occasionally. . .
As we’re gulping in prime-time lightheartedness,
We ingest traces of something more substantive.

We discover that the comic elixir wasn’t a mixture of well-timed stunts, clever puns, or sticky situations. It was concocted from the most basic ingredients. Those that represent the truth of who we really are – the good, the bad, the obvious, the unspeakable.

Have a taste.

3. How can comedy convey eternal truths? What does laughter (even at ourselves, or perhaps particularly at ourselves) have to do with Hope?


* * *

For further reading:
Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale by Frederick Buechner

If you’d like to join us or to catch up on the conversation:
Week 1 – How We Watch
Week 2 – Saving the World



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Mirror, Mirror

Well, this isn’t  a fun piece to write.  It’s really more of a confession.  But I think it’s worth some time and attention for all of us to consider.

David was traveling this week, and called home as I was winding down for the evening. After debriefing from the day, I casually mentioned that I wished he had been with me to watch the news.  This is where it gets, well, not pretty.  If you like what you know of me, you may want to stop reading here.

I had been watching CNN report on a certain preacher from a certain state who had made certain offensive comments regarding certain groups.  A woman from the congregation had been interviewed in response to the recent press that her church had received.  Regardless of where you land on the specific issues discussed, I’m not sure that anyone could argue that she was thoughtful or logical in her responses.  Rather, she reinforced the very stereotype that many folks hold of Christians living in Bible Belt.  I was incredulous.   I wanted someone to share in my astonishment – in a dark sort of way.  But I couldn’t stay there for long.  An uneasiness crept up on me like the early stages of poison ivy.  One dot.  Then two.  Eventually, I couldn’t ignore my discomfort with my own disposition.

“God speaks to us about ourselves, about what he wants us to do and what he wants us to become…  A face comes toward us down the street.  Do we raise our eyes or do we keep them lowered, passing by in silence?  Somebody says something about someone else, and what he says happens to be not only cruel but also funny;  and everybody laughs.  Do we laugh too, or do we speak the truth?  When a friend has hurt us, do we take pleasure in hating him, because hate has its pleasures as well as love, or do we try to build back some flimsy little bridge?”  Frederick Buechner

If I consider my actions on a daily basis, I really do try to love others well.  To reach out, to be available, to be willing to be sorry and open to change.  But if I stop to consider my reactions on a daily basis – to those who hurt me, disappoint me, or hold substantially different views than my own, well, that’s not quite so attractive. I can be quick to judge.  Easily offended.  Justified in my frustration.  Grateful to be on the right side of the issues (cringe).  Yes, I’m increasingly convinced that the best mirror to reveal my spiritual condition is not my actions… it’s my reactions.  They unveil a much more accurate picture of my heart.

Why the gap between good intentions and poor responses?  How can Christians, who should be carrying the banner of loving well, speak with such disdain and condescension of their spiritual siblings who have different viewpoints? We all suffer from a degree of spiritual myopia, in which our vision is blurred and constantly needs adjustment.  This side of heaven, none of us see with complete clarity.

“The New Testament, without going into details, gives us a pretty clear hint of what a fully Christian society would be like…. If there were such a society in existence and you or I visited it, I think that we should come away with a curious impression… each of us would like some bits of it, but I am afraid that very few of us would like the whole… We have all departed from that total plan in different ways, and each of us wants to make out that his own modification of the original plan is the plan itself.  You will find this again and again about anything that is really Christian;  every one is attracted by bits of it and wants to pick out those bits and leave the rest.”  C.S. Lewis

May we have the courage to look into the mirror of our reactions,
the humility to admit our imperfect vision,
and compassion for those who are suffering from vision impairment themselves.

Otherwise, we’re more like “them” than we’d like to admit.  Or perhaps, that very admission is actually the first step to seeing more clearly.

Well, that’s it for today, folks.  I hope that we’re still friends.  And if we’re not, then I hope to be gracious in my response 🙂



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Election Day


We live in a democracy (well, technically a republic, my son reminded me).

Your voice counts.
The voting machine is your mouthpiece.
And regardless of who wins the presidential election, your participation in the process came at an inestimable cost to those who’ve fought for (and continue to fight for) our freedom.

So “Huzzah!” for the freedom to vote. For the opportunity express our opinions without fear of imprisonment. For the public square (and the world-wide web). The written word is my mouthpiece. And it allows us to hear and glean from the voices of those who have gone before us.

I offer the viewpoints below, not as a personal political statement, rather as fodder to add to the bonfire of political thought.  Not as voices of absolute truth, but as opinions to be considered.  Not as a stance on issues, rather as a perspective on the posture of the heart.

“Christians may be at times, ‘cobelligerents’ with the Left or Right, but never allies.  If there is social injustice, say there is social injustice.  If we need order, say we need order… But do not align yourself as though you are in either of these camps:  You are an ally of neither.  The church of the Lord Jesus Christ is different from either – totally different.”  Francis Schaeffer

 ~ Although I have definite political opinions and leanings, can I acknowledge that there is some degree of truth to be found on both sides of the party line?  Do I think, speak, and live out of the truth that my membership in the Kingdom supersedes my allegiance to a political party? 

“A political programme can never in reality be more than probably right.  We never know all the facts about the present and we can only guess the future.  To attach to a party programme – whose highest real claim is to reasonable prudence – the sort of assent which we should reserve for demonstrable theorems, is a kind of intoxication.”  C.S. Lewis 

~ Will I approach the issues, the candidates, and the proposed solutions with humility and admission that my viewpoint, no matter how informed, is still limited?

“For a Christian, Jesus is the one in whom it has indeed become manifest that revolution and conversation cannot be separated in the human search for experiential transcendence.  His appearance in our midst has made it undeniably clear that changing the human heart and changing society are not separate tasks, but are as interconnected as the two beams of the cross. 

Jesus was a revolutionary who did not become an extremist, since he did not offer an ideology, but himself.  He was also a mystic, who did not use his intimate relationship with God to avoid the social evils of his time, but shocked his milieu to the point of being executed as rebel.  In this sense he also remains for modern humanity the way to liberation and freedom.”  Henri Nouwen

~Am I placing my ultimate hope in the government, or in the Author of all Hope?

“First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out.  Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out.  Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out.  And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.”  Pastor Martin Niemoller  

~Although I may focus on the issues that are most likely to impact me, can I make room in my heart to care about the concerns of others? 

May we stand firm in our convictions, but let us do so with humble hearts.


Breathe Deep by The Lost Dogs


Politicians, morticians, Philistines, homophobes
Skinheads, Dead heads, tax evaders, street kids
Alcoholics, workaholics, wise guys, dim wits
Blue collars, white collars, war mongers, peace nicks

Breathe deep
Breathe deep the Breath of God
Breathe deep
Breathe deep the Breath of God

Suicidals, rock idols, shut-ins, drop outs
Friendless, homeless, penniless and depressed
Presidents, residents, foreigners and aliens
Dissidents, feminists, xenophobes and chauvinists

Breathe deep
Breathe deep the Breath of God
Breathe deep
Breathe deep the Breath of God

Evolutionists, creationists, perverts, slum lords
Dead-beats, athletes, Protestants and Catholics
Housewives, neophytes, pro-choice, pro-life
Misogynists, monogamists, philanthropists, blacks and whites

Breathe deep
Breathe deep the Breath of God
Breathe deep
Breathe deep the Breath of God

Police, obese, lawyers, and government
Sex offenders, tax collectors, war vets, rejects
Atheists, Scientists, racists, sadists
Photographers, biographers, artists, pornographers

Breathe deep
Breathe deep the Breath of God
Breathe deep
Breathe deep the Breath of God

Gays and lesbians, demagogues and thespians
The disabled, preachers, doctors and teachers
Meat eaters, wife beaters, judges and juries
Long hair, no hair, everybody everywhere!

Breathe deep
Breathe deep the Breath of God
Breathe deep
Breathe deep the Breath of God

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Here We Go Again… Parenting Teenagers the Second Time Around


Barely over a mile in, and I’m sucking wind.  So sad.  It’s hard to believe that a few years ago, an exponentially longer run resulted in euphoria, not fatigue. I’ve been moderately sick for a few months and unable to run, so today was the big day.  Despite perfect weather, adequate sleep, and the strategically-timed cup of coffee, I limped along fueled by sheer determination.  I’m tired.

We have five children, ages 8-25, and currently have no teenagers.  Think about it.  Our family makeup could practically be used as a logic riddle.  The last few years have been somewhat of a “golden age” in our home with no little ones awake in the wee hours of the morning, and no new drivers or high school parties requiring late night parenting vigils.  Let me be clear – I love much about the teen years.  The shift from childhood toward maturity, meaningful conversations, pivotal choices, and a glimpse into what their adult life may hold, collectively make this phase of parenting significant.  But as with any worthwhile endeavor, that which is of great value often comes at great cost.

At one point, we had two teenagers, a pre-schooler, a toddler, and a newborn living in our home.  Our oldest children are now in their early twenties and actually survived their teen years, largely in spite of us. On this side of the “parenting the teenager” journey, I’m increasingly convinced that much of the stress and heartache along the way is largely reflective of the parents, not the kiddos.  That, by the way, is a personal confession.  In hindsight, there is nothing like a normal, healthy teenager to reveal the selfish heart and personal agenda of a parent.  But somehow, we all made it through, and watching our young adults make their way in the world has made it well worth the effort required.

In my 39th year, I confessed to a friend that running a longish race was on my unspoken bucket list.  She didn’t let me stop at a wish, and pledged to run all of the longer training runs with me.  Before I knew it, I had registered for the race, printed out my training schedule, and purchased bright new running shoes.  I had no idea what the next few months would hold, but was fueled by excitement, aspiration, and a meticulously-loaded ipod.   I couldn’t have anticipated the cold, dark, insanely early morning runs or the “gut through it because I only had four narrow windows each week for runs.  But somehow, we made it through, and race day made it well worth the effort required.

As I embark on the familiar territory of starting to run again, you’d think that it would be easier this time.  I know what to expect. I know my best times of the day to run, and the proper way to eat and hydrate.   I’ve run much faster and further with considerably less effort.  But for some reason, starting over today seemed harder.

During the last several months, it has become clear that it’s time once again to lace up our shoes and prepare for parenting the next round of teenagers (the oldest of our younger crowd is twelve).  And as we embark on this second round of parenting teens, you’d think that we’d be better prepared for an easier experience.  We’ve covered similar territory before. We know what to expect. Which may be why it feels daunting this time… but for very different reasons.

Thankfully, what I’ve lost through the years in terms of energy and brain cells, I’ve gained in other areas.  Although this is the section where you might expect the “now we’re wiser and more prepared,” well… here is what is different: This time around, I’m more aware of my selfishness and the reality that I do indeed have a personal agenda.  I’m less sure of the answers, and more curious about the questions.  And most importantly, I have a glimpse of my general tendency to parent out of my own strength and wisdom.  The challenge this time isn’t getting it right. It’s acknowledging that I can’t.

No doubt, we made a multitude of mistakes the first time around.  And my guess is that we’ll make a whole new batch of mistakes with this second opportunity.  But I’ve come to believe that the goal is not to be the perfect parent, but rather to become a diligent pupil of the Ultimate Teacher.  And in doing so, I hope to slow down and enjoy the scenery of the everyday.  To focus less on the finish line, the adults that we hope our teens will become, and focus more on the gift of each step along the way.  Even the accidental rabbit trails I wouldn’t have chosen, unexpected obstacles in the path, and weary muscles are a gift.  They are a necessary part of the process, and will eventually be absorbed into our larger lives’ stories.

As dormant muscles are reawakened, healthier patterns are established, and the initial shock to the system ushers in a “new norm,” my hope is that:

  •  I’ll be less likely to gauge my progress by the apparent pace of those around me
  •  I won’t take one step for granted – even on the hardest of days 
  •  I’ll be mindful of the Source of all true wisdom, energy, and direction, and will parent accordingly  

I’ll count it an honor and a privilege to run this race…the second time around 

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The Tricky Wicket of Gift Giving

Birthdays are significant in our home.  We’re not big on decorations or even presents, but the hope is that the birthday person feels celebrated and enjoyed.  When possible, we spend the day together enjoying some combination of favorite homemade meals, restaurants, and activities.  It’s a veritable crime for the one being celebrated to do any work.  King or queen for the day is the goal. 

This past summer, I was enjoying a relatively low-key birthday day.  My husband had made plans for the evening.  My children, who had been well-trained in the way of Silander birthday custom, greeted me in the morning with shiny, anticipating faces.  They sincerely wanted me to enjoy my day.  They wanted me to feel loved.  Their motives were pure.

Shortly after breakfast, my cherubs were quick to relieve me from manual labor, and they started cleaning the kitchen.  But somehow, in an instant, the mood shifted.  Child A began arguing with Child B about who was to do what chore.  Exasperated Child C interrupted and proceeded to boss give direction to the less-than-righteous siblings.  After giving up hope that the situation would resolve itself, I finally stepped in to mediate. My efforts were temporarily successful, but within the hour, a modified version of the same situation transpired.  My frustration was growing.  It was my birthday.  “All I really want for my birthday is for you all to love each other well and for us to enjoy the day together,”  I stated, as if this would be the obvious end of the matter.  And it was.  For awhile.  

My frustration dissolved into sadness as I realized a hard truth.  My children love me.  From the deepest, sweetest, brightest places in their hearts, they wanted me to be blessed on my birthday.  But, an insidious cloud had gathered and was overshadowing their good desires.  They wanted to honor me… but on their terms.  The cost of laying aside their own agendas was too high.

When for a fleeting moment, I attempt to look honestly at my own heart, I’m saddened to acknowledge that I give to others in much the same way.  We had nine under our roof this Christmas, and it didn’t take long for my feeble, misguided attempts at caring for others to buckle under the strain.  Too often, I give out of my natural inclinations and tendencies – which does not necessarily result in a gift that is meaningful to the recipient.  Even if my motives are pure.  

Imagine that my talent and interest was in knitting, and that I knitted the same red wool scarf for everyone on my Christmas list.  For some, the scarf would be a treasure.  The time taken to create, the warmth the scarf provides, and the much-desired fashion accent would leave the receiver feeling loved well.  Those are the easy-to-love people in my life.  My natural inclinations fit well with their needs.

But others may be allergic to wool, look terrible in red, or are hot-natured with no need for a scarf.  If I want another to feel loved, I have to pause and consider what would be best for them.  And all too often, the time and energy required to stretch beyond my natural inclinations, comfort, and agenda…  well, the order is just too tall.  So I knit my red scarf and convince myself that it will be enough.  Or I cook a meal rather than spend time with a sick friend.  Or I clean up the house rather than offer kind words to my husband. Eventually, we both feel missed and hurt.

I’ve never been one to make new year’s resolutions, but I do have some hopes as we launch into 2012.  I want to pause and consider those folks in my life who are difficult to love with new eyes.  Rather than taking offense that my “red scarf” doesn’t succeed in making another feel loved, I long to lay down my pride, comfort, agenda, and expectations in order to grow in grace.   I want to be willing and teachable to love in new ways – for the benefit of another. 

I also plan  to be more intentional in my reading, consistent in healthy cooking, and possibly train for a race. And by the way… I’m actually taking my first knitting class with my daughter this month. Perhaps I’ll make a red scarf for myself.

Happy New Year to you and yours!

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Lessons from the Master: A Study in Contrast

The grande marble halls were lined with majestic columns standing guard.  Although my steps were steady and dignified, I had to work hard to contain my right-before-present-opening-Christmas-morning giddiness.  Then it finally happened.  After months of anticipation, a budding (albeit one-sided) friendship was culminated.  I found myself face to face with my first Rembrandt.

I knew that the collection would be focused on the life of Jesus, but didn’t know what specific paintings we would be viewing.  As we finally turned the corner and entered the exhibit,  The Woman Taken in Adultery commanded center stage.  I’m not generally quick to become teary-eyed, but in that particular moment, I found myself struggling to appear only appropriately, moderately interested.

The Woman Taken in Adultery by Rembrandt

So much about the painting is captivating.  The richness of color, diverse cast of characters, anachronistic costumes, and barely distinguishable shapes lurking in the darkness create a scene steeped in tension and drama.  But perhaps the most startling artistic element, that which is so very Rembrantesque, is the way in which light and composition are used to guide the viewer’s eye methodically through the story.  We’re drawn immediately to the woman… then to the Source of Light…. and eventually back through the crowd ultimately leading to the Jewish officials.

I know enough about art (very little) to be dangerous.  But this is what I do know…

Oil paint applied to a simple 3 ft X 2 ft  oak canvas 367 years ago brilliantly summarizes the ministry of Jesus, as well as the world that he came to rescue.

Take a long look into the painting.  You’ll be touched in different places of the heart than am I.  I wish we could stroll through the gallery together, pause, reflect, and process our experience over a hot cup of Starbucks.  As you’d share with me, I’d be given the gift of seeing the painting with different eyes.  Here are a few of my own observations that in turn, I’d share with you:

~Light is experienced most intensely in the presence of darkness.

~We labor to hide our deepest, darkest selves from others.  But look into the painting.  Ultimate rest and blessing are a result of stepping into the light.

~Those lurking in the shadows “have it all together” in the eyes of their world – they are the bankers, lawyers, board members, elders of the church.  They spend their lives grateful that they aren’t needy.  They have figured out how to make life work, and aren’t about to let their hard-earned stability be disrupted.

~The folks “in charge” have colluded to trap the woman… in order to trap Jesus… yet he turns the tables.  The people or circumstances which seem to have control over our lives serve merely as a backdrop for real life.  There is only one who holds the position of ultimate authority.  And he is good..

~The woman caught has no defense.  She is guilty.  Blame shifting isn’t an option.  All pretense, social standing, worldly security is doomed, and she has absolutely no control over the situation.   She is at the mercy of another.

The Woman Taken in Adultery is a study of contrasts:

Between pride and humility

Between judgment and grace

Between self-sufficiency and dependency

Between control and brokenness

The Woman Taken in Adultery summarizes the entire ministry of Jesus:

“He disturbs the comfortable, and comforts the disturbed.” Tim Keller

Daily, we’re given the choice of where we insert ourselves into the painting.  If we’re really honest, most of us spend more time lurking in the shadows rather than giving up the control required to bask in the warmth of life and grace.

Are you willing to look into the painting?

Where would you place yourself?

Where do you want to be?

Yes, my new friend, Rembrandt, has given me a new perspective from which I can hope to see myself a bit more accurately.  As I discover dark areas in my life of which I’ve been previously unaware, I find that I’m guilty as well – of pride, judgment, self-sufficiency and control.  And I can’t shift the blame.  Yet when I’m willing to risk exposure and emerge from the shadows, I’m grateful to find grace, not judgment.  From the one who is ultimately in charge.  Who has all authority.  Who is good.  Who came to earth to rescue his children from the darkness of despair, sickness, broken relationships, and loneliness.  Who came to shatter the dark with light, rescue the lost, and redeem the broken.

Sometimes we need friends to point us in the right direction… and sometimes a work of art does the trick.


Although we weren’t allowed to take pictures during our visit to the Rembrandt exhibit, we were able to bring home some beautiful sketches from three different portraits of Jesus.

by Caroline – age 7

by Sam – age 10

by Will – age 12


A few resources to consider if you’d like to begin your own adventure with Rembrandt:

The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming by Henri Nouwen
.  Highly recommended.  This was my introduction to Rembrandt, and one of the few books I own that I’ve read more than once.

How Rembrandt Reveals Your Beautiful, Imperfect Self by Roger Housden
.  Worth a read.  I’m at the end of this book, and it’s given me much about which to think.

The Night Watch: Adventure with Rembrandt by Isabelle Lawrence
.  This is a piece of historical fiction which takes place in Rembrandt’s home and studio while he is commissioned to paint the Night Watch – a fun read with children). This book is out of print, but fairly easily found on Amazon or used books.

Art Museums for the Uninitiated by Russ Ramsey.
  A great article about venturing into the world of art.

Picture Study Portfolios by Emily Cottrill.  A practical, easy to use method of becoming familiar with great artists and their work. Each portfolio comes with a portrait and biography of the artist, eight laminated full-color works by the artist, step-by-step instructions for doing a picture study and recommended books for additional learning.  This methodology and information are equally applicable for adults and children.

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Tell Me a Story

Lessons from the Master: Rembrandt’s Self-Portraits and Me

Art was one of those classes I took to offset my load of “real” course work. The teacher was straight out of the textbook.  Perhaps my memory is tainted, but he really did look like Van Gogh, minus the bandaged ear.  He was a quirky, melancholy, disheveled man who became highly animated when he talked about artwork.  I don’t remember much from class other than sketching leaves, a tennis shoe, and shadowed 3-dimensional blocks.  The most lasting instruction I received from Van Gogh was:  “Don’t ever say that a painting is pretty.”  The humble beginnings of my art appreciation education.

One of the perks of our homeschooling lifestyle is the freedom, flexibility, and capacity to step out of the mainstream pace of life and delve deeply into whatever we’re studying.  We’ve begun a (one-sided) relationship with Rembrandt Van Rijn.  As with any relationship, we’re in the early stages of turning over various pieces of the puzzle of his life and artwork, and studying them individually.  Each gives a glimpse of the larger, finished project.  As a side note, I’m struck that even if we had lived down the street from him, shared dinners and holidays, and had the ability to talk with him over a hot cup of Dutch koffie, we’d still limited in how well we could know him.  That’s just the way we’re created – as a bottomless box of puzzle pieces.  No matter how many are plucked out, studied, and meticulously rearranged, only the Creator has the vision to see us in our entirety.  I find it somewhat humorous that we think we have each other “figured out.”

But back to Rembrandt… One of the puzzle pieces we’ve pulled out of the box is his uncanny use of light and shadow.  Another is his tendency to buck the convention of the time when painting groups of people.  Rather than paint a series of portraits all on the same canvas, he created a storyline of characters.  His paintings evoke emotion and questions:  “What were they talking about?”  “Who was the man in the shadows?”  “What was she feeling?”  The famous Night Watch was one of those controversial paintings in which Rembrandt created a compelling scene rather than a string of flat portraits.  Not all of his subjects were pleased. Some actually demanded their money back.

Personally, one of the most compelling pieces of the Rembrandt puzzle has been his remarkable insight into human emotion.  His paintings draw you to the souls of the subject.  This unique characteristic of his artwork leaves us with an obvious question:  How did he know so much about the nature of people?

In the 50 years of Rembrandt’s career, he produced more than 90 self-portraits.  He became a student of himself  – not only studying the detail of his physical being, but also exploring the complexities and diversity of human emotion. His discovery of self was not rooted in self-absorption.  Artists who were narcissistic tended to paint themselves repeatedly in their best form.  Rembrandt, however, exposed his heart as both kind and enraged, his mind as both theatrical and analytical, and his disposition as both carefree and pensive.  He used self-study as a tool to gain insight into the full range of the human condition.  And the result was his remarkable ability to capture an extensive range emotional and psychological aspects on canvas.  He deliberately explored and discovered self for the purpose of gaining in-depth insight into others.

So what lesson can we learn from the master?

We live in a society that has written reams of self-help books, booming syndication of Dr. Phil and Oprah, and promises fulfillment if only you can identify and achieve  whatever it is that makes you happy.  Self-examination and self-help are in vogue.  However, I’d argue that the motivation and methodology behind most of today’s approaches to self-exploration differ greatly from Rembrandt’s.  And from the Master’s as well.

How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. Matthew 7:4-5

Having an accurate self-assessment is one of the first steps to loving others well.  We all have some form of plank that blocks our view.  The plank can take the form of arrogance or shame. It can masquerade as intellect, discernment, religion, or volunteer service.  It’s anything that distorts the Truth of who we are,  and it in turn distorts our view of others.  If we’re willing to acknowledge the plank, then to have it removed bit by bit, the process is painful yet the result is freeing.  I’ve shared a bit of my own journey here, and I hope to continue undergoing the process of log-extraction as long as I have breath. Although there will always be remnants of the log this side of heaven, our eyesight can be greatly restored.  

As we begin to see more clearly, we are enabled to love others in a way that more closely resembles the love of the Father.   We can begin to get ourselves out the way, and let Him love others through us.  

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The Other Side of the Stone

Recently, my husband and I snuck away for a weekend in the mountains.  Given life with 5 children who happen to be at such different stages (ages 7-24), our times away are precious and rare.  Through the years, we’ve learned that it’s a good idea to talk about expectations for our time away prior to departure.  Often, we try to run together in the mornings (ahem… that is, he’s gracious enough to jog at a much slower pace than he normally would, and I try to “gut it out” in the spirit of recreating together).   This trip, following a particularly busy season for our family, I opted out.  I wanted time alone to decompress.  He would run alone, and I’d take peaceful morning walks through the tranquil little town of Blowing Rock.

On our second morning away, I felt particularly refreshed from a good night’s sleep. Before I knew it, my morning walk picked up pace, and I found myself enjoying a slow, steady jog. The roads were desolate, the storefronts dark, and I wound my way down the main street, through the park, and eventually back toward the inn where we were staying.

Having been recently thinking and writing about stones, I was acutely aware of their various uses in the architecture around me.  They piled together creating a picturesque church, lined the sidewalks directing shoppers to their destinations, and paved the way to historic inns.  Yes, the stones represented strength, consistency through years, support and directionThese were good things.

Until…  I tripped.  Yes, as I was swept up in the imagery of the stones, the context abruptly shifted.  I had come to a place on the path where the larger stones had remained intact, but the areas around the stone had been worn away through seasons of use and erosion.  The tip of my shoe caught the edge, and I stumbled to keep from falling.  Hmmm.  Perhaps there is another dimension to the metaphor.

As we pick up in the story of Joshua (you can catch up here), Joshua lists all that God has done to protect and bless the Israelites.  Joshua then charges them to put away false gods (ie idols) and serve God only (Joshua 24:14-15).  Ok – that’s difficult to translate into today’s terms.   Although the concept of idols may seem irrelevant in our modern society, unfortunately, they are all too present in each of our worlds.

“We think that idols (counterfeit gods) are bad things, but that is almost never the case.  The greater the good, the more likely we are to expect that we can satisfy our deepest needs and hopes.  Anything can serve as a counterfeit god.  Especially the very best things in life.”  Tim Keller

The people respond to Joshua, “We will serve the Lord our God and we will obey His voice.” (Joshua 24:24)  Of course.  After all that they’d been through, they would be foolish not to.

Joshua takes a large stone to set up under a tree by the sanctuary of the Lord.  We’d expect him to say, “Great!  You’ve made a wise choice that will please your God and serve you well.  Here’s another memorial stone to remind you.”  Instead, his response is ”Behold, this stone shall be a witness against us, for it has heard all the words of the Lord which He spoke to us, thus it shall be a witness against you, so that you do not deny your God.” (Joshua 24:25-28)

Yikes.  The stone was not a reminder of their wise choice, rather it foreshadowed their fickle nature and inevitable return to false gods.  They, like us, overestimated their loyalty to the only One who could ultimately provide for them.

Think of the times you’ve been provided for.   Chances are, if they’re biggies, the provision came from beyond you.  Only God can bring us through the hardest of situations.  It is when we reach the end of our proverbial ropes that He will step in to rescue.  Yet we spend much of our energies trying to avoid that very thing.  We’re competent.  We’re resilient.  We construct our lives in ways that take control. We work hard to avoid dependence on God in the everyday – I can manage my life, thank you very much.  God can stick to the miracles and healings when I get in a pinch. And that posture of the heart, at its very core, is the  essence of idolatry.

What are some of the counterfeit gods in my life?  Financial security, a unique community of rich friendships, health and well-being of my family, excellent education for my children, intellectual pursuit, and even a healthy lifestyle.  These are good things, but things in which I ultimately place too much hope and significance.

As the memorial stones in life remind us of God’s provision, they should simultaneously serve as a caution to us.  They warn us of our defiant nature, and remind us of the places we take control and manipulate life rather than resting in the Father.  We try to gain our footing on the gravelly self-made crevices that exist between the solid, sustainable, eternal stones.  And because He’s good and wants what is best for us, He allows us to stumble.  He’s constantly calling us back to Himself.

So after stumbling on the side street of Blowing Rock, I’m reminded that I’m limited.  And that a richer, more peaceful life can be found if I’ll acknowledge my innate tendency to reject God by relying on my own strategies for life.  And the very, very good news is that I’ll find not shame nor condemnation, but rather hope and ultimate rest, when I consider “the other side of the stone.”

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I’m Both

Mid-summer in Charlotte. Lungs tire easily while laboring to extract oxygen from the thick, syrupy air.  I’m a fair-weather runner.  I don’t run when it’s too cold, and I don’t run when it’s too hot.  A few days ago, I arose to find that we’d been given an unexpected remission from weeks of incessant heat.  The air was a crisp 56 degrees.  It was an opportunity not to be missed.  I laced up my shoes and stepped out into what felt like the first hints of autumn.  My run was particularly enjoyable.  The air was cool and clean, the paths were peaceful, and the music on my ipod calmed my soul. I had temporarily defied the gravity of my own lethargy, had risen early to challenge my muscles and lungs, and had pushed through the last leg of the run. Upon arriving home, I was tired, but the kind of tired that was deeply rewarding.  I had done something good for my body.  I felt refreshed and healthy.  And then…  I promptly ate a handful of Oreo cookies.

I would like to think of myself as being increasingly health-conscious.   We eat organic foods whenever possible, limit our red meat intake, consume whole-wheat rather than white breads and pastas, and encourage exercise as a life-long habit.  But then there are the Oreos.  My kryptonite.  And sea-salted dark chocolate almonds from Trader Joes.  Against those, I have little power.  I would like to define myself in terms of health, not indulgence, yet both are true.  I am both healthy and indulgent at the same time.  A paradox of sorts… or rather a more complete picture.  I am both forgiving and critical.  I am gracious and demanding.  I am deeply flawed yet wonderfully made.  If I deny either side of the equation, I hold an unrealistic picture of myself.

And if I am both at the same time, then I need to acknowledge that the same is true for others.   Those who I hold closest and in highest regard have the capacity to fail miserably.  And those who I find hard to love, well… there is another side to that equation as well.

During a sermon on forgiveness, Tim Keller used a caricature artist as to illustrate the way we often view difficult people.  The caricature artist takes his subject’s most demonstrative characteristic and exaggerates it.  He then captures it on paper to be frozen in time.  For instance… if the subject has slightly large ears, the artists creates those ears to be far larger than life, then in drawing them, dooms the subject to a likeness that is unchangeable.

We do much the same thing, particularly with someone who is difficult to love.   We tend to look at that person and see the attributes which are most irritating… or most unlikeable… or which cause us great pain.   And then we exaggerate them and freeze in time the picture that we have created.  It works out nicely, you know.  As long as I can convince myself that the person who is causing me pain is primarily evil, or selfish, or suffers from some deep neurosis, then I feel a certain relief from obligation.   But if there were another side to the equation, well that just complicates things.

Many of us go through life rather unaware that we make assumptions about others, draw our own caricatures, and file them neatly away in our mental sketchbooks.  This is particularly true when we’re looking at those closest to us.  We think we have them figured out.  We forget that there is always another side to the equation.  There is no doubt more than we see.   Or unfortunately care to see.

So what is the antidote to assumption?  How can we look beyond the mental caricatures that we have created in order to see the multi-dimensional people who God actually created?  How can we begin to see them as “fearfully and wonderfully” made?   The antidote to assumption is curiosity. 

So if my husband (theoretically, of course) is distant or aloof, I could take his behavior personally (theoretically again), OR could I become curious as to what is going on in his job… or with his friends… or in his heart…

If my relationship with a dear friend becomes strained, do I assume that she’s just being selfish or (fill in the blank with whatever you may assume), OR am I willing to be humble and vulnerable enough to ask if I’m the offending party…  or if there is something else going on in her life that may have nothing to do with me…

Am I willing to be curious about those closest to me?  Those I’ve known for most of my life?  Those who I think I have figured out?

A healthy dose of humility and curiosity does have its con’s.  I may find out that I was wrong.  That there has been more to love in another than I had imagined.  That I’ve lived too much of my life drawing caricatures rather than enjoying whole people.  Yet it is with that revelation that freedom begins.  Freedom from assuming, incorrectly sketching, and missing people for who they actually are.  Freedom to see the whole picture, and freedom to love well.  Oh yes, and freedom to enjoy both my brisk run and my Oreos.

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