Sunday, November 28, 2010

To Prepare a Place

Many things tug at my spirit as "the Holidays" approach. 'Tis the season for ... taxes, class registration, fees, and 3,000 lbs of sand in the back of the truck. I won't get to be with family again this year and for some reason after five years I suddenly find myself missing my home in California. I miss the days of hosting get-togethers, sharing traditional home-cooked food, playing board games, getting on each others' nerves as only family can do...

Perhaps because of this disconnect, I venture into this time of year with a distinct longing in my heart for greater meaning. Alone, I'm likely to wake up on Christmas Eve to find that it is just another day; whatever opportunity there is in this time and for this season will be gone before I've even realized it's started. Oh, sure, there will be church services here and there, but unless I am actually living these days out of a more meaningful story, church is, at best, a glimpse of something that is passing me by.

So, what I am searching for, I think, is my own personal traditions. I want intentional practices that engage my heart and mind in order that I might connect with God during this season. Advent devotionals, decorating, candle-lighting - there has to be something I can do to remind my spirit to meet, commune, and worship in the midst of the chaos, commercialism, superstition and stale religion. Why can't there be something that I can do to make this time more meaningful?

Incidentally, I had kind of a big fight with a friend this weekend. In the aftermath I was reminded of a story...

It was the winter of my move to Kansas City. I had prayed all summer about going back to school. I had submitted applications and visited campuses, trying to engage in the process that I had circumvented at 18. Prospects took a turn for the worst and there was a solid month of depressing dead ends. There was no money. There were no housing prospects. Loose ends wiggled this way and that, refusing to be tied up. My lease was running out and a new tenant wanted in. Things were going nowhere and I was starting to feel pretty bleak.

After 30 days of praying I fell upon the passage in John 14:2-3.

Behold, I go before you to prepare a place for you. And if I go, I will come back to take you to be with me, so that where I am, there you will be also.

Yeah, yeah, I thought. Jesus goes before us to prepare a place with his Father for us in heaven someday. I'm familiar with this passage.

No, God said. I go before you to prepare a place for you. Now.

Hrm. What does that mean?

The next day I got an email about a house I looked at in Kansas City - the asking price had dropped $30,000. I then got a call from someone who suddenly wanted to pay me what he owed me, and within a week I got the money for both the house and the bachelor's program I had fallen in love with at MidAmerica. A month later I closed on my house, and in another 30 days I moved.

When I arrived in Kansas City, I discovered the story behind my house - it seems God had actually been preparing it years before I could have known I would even need a house - before I ever dreamed of going back to school. And the money that paid for it - it turns out that someone in my home church had put it up so that the person who paid me *could* pay me. In fact, the story of my house alone could fill pages, but that is a blog for another time. And what God did for my home he also did for my school and my church and my job, too.

Behold, I go before you to prepare a place for you.

That is when I decided that, where He leads me, I will follow - no matter what, no matter where, no matter how - for wherever he is, that is where I want to be.

I think of it now in the aftermath of a hurtful fight with a friend and in the midst of my advent ponderings because in moments like these, when I am far from family, when I feel alone and disconnected from others and from a greater story, I am most aware of feeling like I don't belong, like there is no place for me. No one seems to go before me to make my path straight or safe, to ensure that things work out. It's like that 30 days of dead ends.

Which also makes me think of a humble couple wandering the streets of Bethlehem on a cold, dark night. There was no place for them. The God of the Universe who had promised a savior to a people for generations upon generations appeared to a girl, told her that she was going to play a part in the fulfillment of scripture by having a baby out of wedlock (what a horrible term), and when that baby was due to be born, that girl was in the street because that same God forgot to make hotel reservations.

Of course, we know that God didn't forget anything. God had gone before them. He did prepare a place. It just didn't seem like it at the time.

And that wasn't the only time...

Foxes have dens and birds have nests but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head (Matt 8:20, Luke 9:58).

Throughout scripture we see Christ and his followers without a place of belonging, even to the point that they are described a strangers and aliens in this world. Yet God had prepared a place, a place in His plan of redemption, a place of sorrow and sacrifice, yes, but also a place at His right hand, victorious over death.

I suppose the theme I see in each of these stories, both my own and those from scripture, is that there will be dark, cold, lonely moments - moments when it seems like no one has gone before you, that there is no place prepared and nowhere to 'lay your head' - but the truth is, though we cannot see it, God does go before us and He does prepare a place for us, in His plan, in His work, in His presence.

This comfort, then, brings me back to the way I want to approach this season.

In the wilderness, prepare the way for the Lord... (Is 40:3).

If advent means arrival then I want to prepare the way, to prepare to meet God here and now in this place and this time, and to prepare a place for Him - even as He prepared and does prepare a place for me. That is how I will choose a season of greater meaning in the midst of disappointment, loneliness, and chaos. That is what gives greater meaning to the times when things seem a little bleak, the times when things aren't working out and we feel like we don't belong and there isn't a place for us.

Prepare me, O God, to meet with you.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

An Unlikely Credo

A Conclusion to My Labyrinth

Since taking a break from graduate studies I have felt a bit like an autumn leaf caught in an eddy. The current has taken me here and there, over and under - to visit fears and futures, regrets and hopes, passions and purposes and various other landmarks of the heart.  It has been an interesting adventure, kind of like a spontaneous, open-ended road trip with God.  I never quite know where we're going or where we'll end up or what we will find along the way - but isn't that kind of what adventure is all about?  Indeed, there may be many posts yet about that journey later.  My purpose, however, in taking this break has been to stop - to stop the maniacal busyness and the achievement drivenness and, instead, to wait and listen - to seek and hear from God specifically about purpose, calling, and the good works He has set aside for and designed me to do.

Today and for the last weeks I have been hearing something specific.  It is as if the gentle voice of my spirit has been whispering something to my conscious mind.  Interestingly, as I sat down to write it out I discovered that I had already written it. I stumbled upon a draft for a blog entry from April 12th ... almost the very day I stepped away from my internship...

April 12, 2010

We interrupt this broadcast with a short blog ...

(Well, maybe not a short blog. After all, when have I ever written a short blog?  Unless it was merely to feature a quote from someone else?) 

... so, a blog, anyway, about STORY and the Importance of Story.

In fact, if you have ever happened upon my Sparrow Anthology page you have discovered a blog that abruptly and rather unceremoniously launches itself into STORY, namely, a couple of analogous serial short stories apparently about princesses, dragons, gardens, epic journeys, and people being lost at sea, that sort of thing. The significance of these stories is not that they are particularly well-written, though they can be interesting.  It is not that they were imported from another blog so that the readers there (who patiently awaited and read each chapter as it was being written) might have them all in one place to read as a story, though this is true.  It is not that they are necessarily good fiction or fantasy.  No, the signficance is that they are word pictures depicting real-life adventures, heartaches, and lessons.  They are symbols, symbols of my story, painted so that others might find something of their story in mine.

In fact, "Confessions of a Church Girl" in its own way has been an attempt to articulate just how these stories began and why they are important.  This site is one link between my life, my culture, and the mythical adventures captured in the short stories that I write.  It all started with the realization that I no longer wanted to watch others live life, but wanted to live a life worth watching - I wanted to live a life that actually tells a story - and not just any story, but the story my heart most longed to tell.

As a counselor I could tell you about the significance of story therapeutically.  It is what we use to make meaning of the events of our lives.  Story determines whether we are the good guy or the bad guy, the main character or a foil.  There are branches of psychology and paradigms of treatment utterly dedicated to story...

That was the end of the draft on April 12th. As I read these words now I realize that in my graduate studies there was a dominant story attempting to tell me who I was and what I was to do.  I found bits of my story in the midst of it, but in the end I found that my story, the story God was telling in my heart and life, and the dominant story were actually two very different things.  The story my conservative, private university was telling was not one in which I was mentored or encouraged to find God and His calling on my life at all.  The faculty took a hand-washed approach (it's not my problem, it's yours) to our formation. The new professors were fresh out of their doctorate programs, no teaching experience, very little clinical expertise, and they offered even less about or toward an encounter with God, personally or corporately.  Their wisdom, with the exception of one, came from the book chapters they had read that morning (if they had bothered to read them, which sometimes they did not).  If I saw or heard their hearts at all, the stories they were telling were dismissive, overworked, and desperate, frankly - desperate to make a bottom line.  And their bottom line was about passing a test, not about the students in their midst, not about the lives they had in their hands, but frantically pulling off whatever they thought was going to get their CACREP accreditation.

It's not a bad bottom line.  But it's not the point of my story.   In fact, it kind of flies in the face of my story, which is about relationship, people, and challenging the bottom line mentality in order to recognize, participate in, and appreciate a larger story.

Interestingly, stepping away from that insanity did not silence the voices of competing story.  In this time of rest and seeking, other dominant stories have tried to tell me who I am.  The fact is, I live and work among the rich and educated, for example.  I am poor and, at present, a graduate-school dropout. I live in a world in which one is supposed to have a full-time career and/or a family, a certain income and standards for living including a Christian paradigm of abolishing any kind of debt.  I am single and, at present, I work part time in a support role while participating in ministry to addicts and finding creative ways to pay student loans.  Imagine how these stories would define me.  Moreover, there is this culture all around me, a culture of quiet nights at home watching tv, days spent surfing the net, illicit relationships with make-believe people - a culture in which we don't really live in the real world.  This story is particularly compelling to a postmodern world that has been kicked around in real life by the stories that have come before.  This is the story of the Labyrinth.

And there among the cacophony is a simple credo ... I don't want to watch others live life. I want to live a life worth watching.  I don't want to be a spectator, a surrogate-user, a media consumer, a tv-watcher; nothing more than an audience member at a show.  I want to be someone who lives, who truly lives, in the real world that is scary and discouraging and frustrating and yet good and beautiful.  I want to live the story of my life, not someone else's, not some institution's, not some culture's - the story of my heart, the story of my God.  I want to be someone who lives in such a manner that it is inspiring, that it inspires others to want to live, too.

In the twists and turns of life we forget sometimes to live, to live our stories instead of buying into a substitute, a farce, a mirage designed to make us forget that we have a story, a life, a calling.  And it is fitting that bookending my time of intentional seeking and listening for God's story is this credo, my credo, that I must remember and challenge myself with every day.

As a side note, I have continued my studies in the Old Testament during this time and I constantly revisit the instructions the Hebrews were given in order to take their land of promise.  One of the most vital imperatives they had was to remember.  They placed stones from the Jordan after they crossed it on the banks of their new land, an altar of sorts, to remember, to tell their story, to seek God and to keep their covenant with Him.  I have decided to build my own memorial altar in the form of a book, a covenant book.  In it I will record reminders - images, scripture, articles of faith, visions, vows, promises and covenants - of my story, of the story God is telling in me, in my heart, through my life.  On one page it will read:

I don't want to watch others live life.  I want to live a life worth watching.