Advent: week three

December 14, 2015 § 3 Comments

It hardly feels like Christmastime here in Dallas. I’m sitting outside under the leafy oak tree, sunlight dappling the green lawn, birds chirping in the limbs overhead. Earlier, I jogged around the block, enjoying the 70 degree weather in my T-shirt and running shorts.

Though it’s hardly Christmas-like, I am glad for the warmth. There is something sweet in weather like this, something that makes me rather nostalgic for summers in high school, for the excitement of driving down a rarely trodden dirt road, for the pleasure of climbing a hefty low-limbed tree.

This weather is making me feel good, making me feel something rather like joy, something rather like hope.

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And of course, hope is at the heart of Advent.

But hope isn’t always so easy to come by, and the thing we have hope in during Advent (namely, that the eternal and everlasting being we call God tucked Himself into the tiny and temporal being of a baby) often seems silly at best and downright mad at worst.

This weather, though, it’s making me look at hope through new eyes. It’s making me pause and wonder, what if?

*

What if the eternal and everlasting being we call God tucked Himself into the tiny and temporal being of a baby?

And what if He did that so that He could grow up and die?

And what if, in dying, He turned back the clocks, unfolded the sheets of time, threw back the stars in their galaxies?

What if He’s doing that in us now, clawing away our crusty exteriors, breathing fresh air into the dark holes of our being, filling us up with honey and wine?

What if we stepped back from our expectations of what the world is and will be and always has been, and thought, maybe God came to Earth as a little baby?

What if we dared to hope, dared to look around for God, dared to see Him, if just for one brief instant, here in the sunshine of a balmy winter’s day, here, on Earth?

Some days

November 25, 2015 § 4 Comments

Some days, you just need to go.

You need to call up your friend who lives far away. You need to pack a red duffle bag with a random assortment of clothes. You need to buy a plane ticket and get on that plane and fly to Colorado.

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Some days, when you feel twisted inside, when you feel a little like a deflated balloon, when you see a hundred looming question marks ahead, when it seems like you’re stuck in a maze and keep coming upon the same horrid corner, on those days, you need to take a deep breath of cold mountain air.

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You need to remember what you forgot.

You need to remember who you are.

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Some days, you need to spend time with a friend who knows you as well as you know yourself (and sometimes even better).

Some days, you need to drive a few hundred miles until you’re in the middle of nowhere and there’s nothing but you and the silence and the sky.

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Some days, you need to sleep outside in a tent to remember what it’s like to be vulnerable and afraid.

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And some days, you need to stop for bread and soup to remember all that’s nourishing and kind.

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You need to get up and go so you can return.

So you can face those giant question marks again.

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And so you go.

And so you remember.

And you are filled with courage.

And you are filled with strength.

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And you return.

And when you return, nothing has changed, not really. Nothing except you.

But that makes all the difference, you see, because you, you, are ready.

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(Almost) a quarter of a century

November 11, 2015 § 8 Comments

This week, I catch a plane from Dallas to Denver, flying north as the sun rises, landing in view of the snow-capped mountains, greeted at baggage claim by one of my closest friends who now lives here.

She is the kind of friend I hope everyone has at some point in his or her life, a friend who’s known me through the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, a friend who understands my single-line cryptic text messages sent in moments of despair, a friend whom strangers stop to comment on how happy we seem together, a friend who suggests road trips when we’re both feeling a little stir-crazy, a little unsure of what-the-hell-we’re-doing-with-our-lives, a little in need of wide open spaces and close companionship and fresh autumn air.

I am twenty-four and she is twenty-five, and so we are both right out of college in this strange in-between time where neither of us have our dream jobs and neither of us live in a city we truly love and neither of us are entirely sure we won’t be stuck for the rest of our lives telling well-meaning acquaintances who ask what we do that we’re “in transition.”

It is a stage of life where we have a lot of ambition and hope and courage, and piled on top of that a lot of fear and doubt, a stage of life so often caricatured by statistics and glazed-over profiles in newspapers and magazines: the generation of millennials-come-of-age who can’t seem to launch, can’t seem to move out of their parents’ basements, can’t seem to get full-time jobs, can’t seem to get off of social media, and can’t seem to accept that this is real life and real life is hard and you can’t always get what you want, but, oh by the way, this is 21st century America so actually you can have everything you want, you just have to either do something you love or find happiness in the small things while doing something you hate, and it will help if you eat healthy and learn these meditation tricks and buy a standing desk and then, then, all will be well and you really will look like that photo of the happy-go-lucky lifestyle blogger with over a million followers on Instagram.

Both of us are fairly level-headed and fairly well aware that these stereotypes are just that, stereotypes, and need not apply to us. But both of us are also “in transition”, and in need of each other and of Colorado’s open sky.

*

Over the last few years, I have had countless conversations with friends and acquaintances around my age about how being in your twenties is just plain hard.

Usually, we talk about how up until now, everything in our lives was fairly mapped out: go to middle school, graduate; go to high school, graduate; go to college and, yes, graduate.

Now, many of us find ourselves in limbo. We have glimpses, dreams, visions of good and meaningful things we want to do with our lives, but how in heaven’s name do we get from here to there, and do we really have to take this boring office job or become a coffee shop barista or live at home with our parents along the way?

And even if we are fortunate enough to get the job we’ve always wanted or move to the city in which we’ve always thought would be amazing to live, suddenly, we see the cracks in the glamor and realize, okay, this isn’t exactly what I thought it would be. I miss my friends. I miss my family. I’m not quite sure this job is my vocation, or whatever, because it certainly isn’t filling me up to the brim.

I have been in both of these situations, and I think the word “hard” is apt. It may not be hard in the same way physical pain is hard or loss of a loved one is hard or poverty is hard or life as an immigrant is hard, but it is still hard, it is still confusing, and it still matters a heck of a whole lot when it’s happening to you.

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I am a Christian, and I have many Christian friends, and this is usually the part of the story where we start talking about finding fulfillment in God rather than our situations in life. We might bring up God’s will and how it is mysterious and how we never quite know exactly what He’s doing in our lives but through this suffering God is probably drawing us closer to Him, and isn’t that wonderful, isn’t that just peaches and cream?

I think it is. I really think it is. I think so, because I’ve been there. I’ve been at a low low place, where I thought I would be eaten alive by depression, where everywhere I looked I only saw creeping blackness threatening to tear apart my soul, and the presence of God was the only thing that kept me going. The words from the Psalms were my lifeline, hemming me in, behind and before, a healing balm, a soothing whisper, and yes, I was drawn closer into the mysterious presence of God during that time.

And yet, I don’t think it is blasphemous or uninformed or impious to say that a flippant answer like this doesn’t always feel like enough. Sometimes, looking for God’s will doesn’t seem like it’s getting me anywhere, and sometimes, telling myself that this is all part of a plan is a flimsy way of saying I’m trying to make the best of something that right now just doesn’t make much sense.

*

My friend and I go to a park near her apartment and kick around a soccer ball. The sun is a high and bright November light. It is so warm, I wish I had packed shorts. We laugh as we reminisce about our crazy high school. We remember how I am no good at soccer. We toss around ideas for our upcoming road trip.

In the distance, the snow-capped mountains are one line of navy blue and another line of jagged bright peaks jutting high in the sky, a wall of solidity.

We go for a walk beside a sparkling creek, falling into step beside one another, continuing a conversation we’ve been having for years, one that began sometime in high school. We talk about our past, present, and future. We talk about our dreams.

Some of those dreams have become a reality. Some are still half-formed. Others are dreams we didn’t even know we had until they miraculously came true. God is surprising that way, I guess, always giving us what we need when we don’t even know we need it, always slowly revealing our insides to ourselves mysteriously over time.

This morning, I wake in the dark apartment to snow falling quietly. It is peaceful, a cold blanket, a fresh presence, and as I watch the flurries fall I think, we’re pressing into the uncertainty of a quarter of a century and together, in Colorado, under the sharp-edged mountains and the softly falling snow, all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

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A life lesson from a dog

October 23, 2015 § 2 Comments

Every morning, after I drink my one to ten cups of coffee, I take Scout for a walk.

Scout is a border collie, a good-looking dog, if I do say so myself, with a half-white, half-black face rather like the phantom of the opera’s, the cutest wagging tail, and the brightest eyes that literally will melt your heart if you let them.

I hesitate to call him my dog because he was technically a Christmas present from my parents to my younger brother who then passed him along to my mom when he went to college who then passed him along to my grandmother who I happen to live with.

Still, Scout follows me around the house when I’m at home and has recently taken to sleeping in my room, something he used to reserve only for my mom and grandmother, who are both willing to hand feed him from a spoon, so even if he isn’t my dog, I seem to have inadvertently become his human.

I usually find walking Scout in the mornings a bit of an ordeal.

This isn’t because I have to get out of bed early to exercise. I am one of those strange breed of people who love both mornings and exercise.

No, it is because Scout finds everything along our way THE MOST INTERESTING THING IN THE ENTIRE WORLD and absolutely has to stop to inspect it.

We are barely out of the front door when Scout must stop to snuffle through the bush that borders the neighbor’s property. Then, we cross the street and he must do his business on a utility pole. And then, it’s a few more steps before a patch of ordinary grass must be thoroughly sniffed.

I always know when Scout will stop because he always inspects the same things every time: the patch of green ivy, the especially-gnarly-and-strangely-maroon-colored rock, the particularly large trunk of a live oak tree, and the pile of cut branches that’s been there forever and is probably infested with snakes.

What he’s looking for, I never know.

What I do know is this: no matter how many times he’s looked at that bush or that street sign or that concrete curb, it is still fascinating, it is still a marvel of existence, it still commands his full attention as though it were THE MOST INTERESTING THING IN THE ENTIRE WORLD.

Sometimes, waiting for Scout provides opportunities for thinking.

Last weekend, while Scout tangled his leash in a particularly prickly bush, I thought about one of my favorite writers, Annie Dillard, and her book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, an enigmatic account of her experience living in a cabin on the edge of a creek in the Appalachians.

In it, Dillard says that when she was a child in Pittsburgh she used to hide pennies in the sidewalk around her neighborhood, then draw chalk arrows pointing toward the hidden pennies for passersby to find. As a child, she thought any pedestrian would be delighted to find free money lying about, but as an adult, she wonders how many people actually cared about finding a penny, let alone bothered to pick one up.

“It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won’t stoop to pick up a penny,” writes Dillard. “But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days.”

I think about this passage as I untangle Scout from that bush.

I think about how Dillard seems to be saying that the way we look at the world changes the way we experience it.

If you look for hundred-dollar bills on the sidewalk, you’ll be sorely disappointed. But if you look for pennies, before long, you’ll have a jingling collection.

In the same way, if you look for miracles or adventure or unusual occurrences on an ordinary street in a suburb of Dallas, you’ll probably be disappointed. But if you look for dew-dropped blades of grass or red-breasted cardinals or patches of multi-colored pansies, you’ll find yourself filled with delight at the splendor and mystery of the created world.

I am, of course, no good at this. While Scout races out of the front door straight for that neighbor’s bush, my response is something like, for heaven’s sake, Scout, we’ve seen this bush a milliton times, will you come on!

But then I pause and remember Dillard’s words and think, no, wait, look around, don’t expect something different, don’t expect anything at all. Instead, look at that bush and that tree and that patch of lawn and you’ll find the sparkling copper pennies that will make you rich.

Or, at least in Scout’s case, you’ll find some delightfully sniffable blades of grass.

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