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.

 



If you liked this post, you might like these:

The Invisible Thread to Nashville... and Back
Back to School: Poetry 101
December 23rd

Of Maps and Shadows

me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– – –

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

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



If you liked this post, you might like these:

A Letter to My Church
The Art of Darkness
Less than Ideal

A Musing on Divine Love

appolo

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

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

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

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

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

Bride

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

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

-Luci Shaw

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

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

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

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

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

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

– – –

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

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



If you liked this post, you might like these:

At the Start Line Again - This Time for Hutchmoot
Join Us
A Letter to My Church

Graffiti Art and Repentance

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

– – –

Week 1: Graffiti Art and Repentance

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

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

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

city_as_canvas2

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

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

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

 – – –

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

How were you changed as a result?

– – – 

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

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



If you liked this post, you might like these:

Micah 6:8
Barre Work
Fear Not