More on Contemplation

Last week (or perhaps longer than that–I’ve lost track of time), I told you about the lessons I learned six years. ago.

Namely, I learned that busyness does not equal value.

And I learned how to be still.

As I focused more on my writing, this stillness and contemplation became a necessary posture to my artistic and my Christian life (which are one and the same–I only have one life to live [cue soap opera music]).

Side note: It’s funny how we talk about our spiritual life and our work life and our family life as if we have either (1) numerous lives or (2) split personalities.

Back to our regularly scheduled program: Learning stillness and contemplation did not mean that I never practiced contemplation before. It means I learned how to practice it in a different way.

In seminary, I often heard the complaint that the academic nature of the work detracted from the spiritual walk. In other words, how does charting the book of Joshua or memorizing Hebrew declensions or researching for an exegetical on a passage in Romans contribute to my "spiritual walk"? 

Let me first say that I believe these questions arise from a problem Schleiermacher contributed to with his heart/hands/head categories, though he was trying to address what we might call the ivory tower problem (to put things too simplistically).

The seminary, in attempts to bridge this perceived gap between academic knowledge and "spiritual walk" (which, in essence, is how we experience our relationship with God), created a program called Spiritual Formation, which emphasized community, identity, and ministry direction. Before I say anything more, you need to know that I heart this program. The relationships I made in this program mean the world to me and helped me grow in ways I never expected.

(Really, I’m digressing from my point about contemplation. Not that you should be surprised by my rabbit trailing.)

The problem has a deeper root: why would we consider "academic knowledge" separate from (and even contrary to!) our "spiritual walks"? And this brings me back to my original subject: my contemplative life.

Personally, I found seminary, with all of its academic rigor, to draw me closer to God and to his body. I met believers from all across the world and all across time both in person and through books and lectures. I learned from them. My studies, whether charting, parsing, memorizing, or calculating how many hours I could go without sleep, contributed to my relationship with God not because now I suddently had more information but because I contemplated each aspect, wondered about God’s creativity and creation, his actions throughout history, the hope of our future, and his continual work. These kings of Israel and Judah are intimately personal to me because they are part of my myth, my history.

Rewind another several years. In college, as a music major, I spent my days rehearsing with chamber groups or orchestras, practicing while couped-up in a tiny room, listening to symphonies for hours to understand the intricacies of the music. In short, I had no "life" outside of music.

Again, this did not preclude contemplation. Instead, this "musical life" drew me to the beauty of God and the beauty of the Imago Dei present in all humans.

I tell you this because, as Gina reminded me in the comments, different stages of our lives require different things of us. In college and seminary, I could not have the same time and stillness as I do now. But I did have contemplation. Contemplation is a posture and a mind-set that combats empty intelligence, value in busyness, and escapism. It is done both in community and individually. 

I expect that my life won’t always have the stillness I have now. But I make it my goal to maintain a sense of contemplation.

Popinjay: Bizarre

Note: For this picture, I had to shower early. On days I don’t have to teach, I usually don’t shower until my husband calls to let me know he’s on his way home from work. This is particularly painful in summer in Texas as I carry the stench from my morning workout throughout the day. Laziness. Pure laziness.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. She’s reading. What’s so bizarre about that? But, dear cyber friend, it’s not the fact that I’m reading. It’s what I’m reading.

actual books from my shelves

Growing up, I read anything I could get my hands on–Janette Oke, Agatha Christie, The Count of Monte Cristo, shampoo bottles. But I categorically refused two genres: sci-fi (although fantasy, such as Madeleine L’Engle and C.S. Lewis were okay–I was a good Christian girl, after all) and horror.

Then I met The Man Who Would Become My Husband (dibs on the title). During his formative years, his family (prompted by his grandmother, if I have the story correctly) bonded over Star Trek. (Note: he never attended a conference or dressed as a character.) He still loves Star Trek and most things sci-fi. This was almost a Deal Breaker for us. After all, sci-fi is weird. (I turned a blind eye to the books I loved in high school, namely Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, and The Illustrated Man. Also to the fact that Sweeney Todd is and has been my favorite musical. Song and dance do wonders of covering up serial killers.) Before we met, I had watched a handful of X-Files episodes at a friend’s house and part of one of the Star Trek movies (although all I remember is whales being beamed up, Scottie; I think I hid in the kitchen under the auspices of socializing for most of the movie).

Then he made me watch some, and I have to admit (albeit begrudgingly) that some of the shows I’ve added to my faves list are of the sci-fi genre. Like Eureka (my foray into sci-fi because of the main character who says things like “So why don’t we just call it a death ray” to the crazy scientist who gives said death ray an even crazier scientific name. You had to be there). And Firefly. And, yes, Battlestar Galactica.

Fine. Some sci-fi, weird though it may be, is good. Good characters. Good themes. Well-written. Fine.

Then I met one of my two closest writing friends. And, yes, she writes horror. Good horror. Good characters. Good themes. Well-written. (Have I mentioned that another fave TV show is Dexter? I don’t know if that constitutes as horror, but it’s about a serial killer, and there’s lots of blood. And no song and dance.) (Oh, and this particular close writing friend happens to be the instigator of Popinjay. As well as a lot of trouble.)

Sigh. Is there no respect for a person’s prejudice these days?

The other close writing friend? She writes paranormal. (Really there’s no point in linking to her blog here since she only blogs as often as I meet a friendly squirrel. That’s rare, folks, to clarify. Rare.)

I’m not sure what it says about me that the two of my fellow writers who get me most are horror and paranormal specialists.

So thanks to these influences, I’ve expanded my horizons, and all that jazz. The extent of this insanity: I even have a sci-fi and a horror story in me. (Both from my dreams, which have always been vivid and horrific. Last night’s dream featured a purple python who ate a small boy. For someone with a phobia to that particular [and Satanic] reptile, this is as horrifying as it gets.)

And there you have it, folks. Why a picture of me reading H.G. Wells and Stephen King is bizarre.

This post has been sponsored by Popinjay, a fine roundup of amateur photographers everywhere (and who isn’t an amateur photographer these days?). This week’s word: bizarre.

The Master's Artist: To Publish or Perfect

I’m up today at The Master’s Artist considering the question of whether we should publish or perfect our work.

On the one hand, why would I want to put anything out there that is
less than my best? I have one opportunity to impress, and I don’t want
to waste it. One must dress for success. Plus, we all know this is the
answer the agents want to see. Case closed.

On the other hand, my work will never match the ideal I have in my head. The novel is
perfect. Until I translate it onto page. If I wait until perfection,
I’ll never publish. (Perhaps some of you have better luck with
attaining the unflawed and unblemished.)

On the other hand,
settling for mediocre art leaves a bad taste in my mouth (although that
could be last night’s garlic sauce). Art and excellence go together
like beans and rice. If choosing publishing over perfection means
settling (such a dirty word), I’ll have none of that, thank you very
much.

Read the rest here.

Postures of an Artist, Part I

"It is an appeal to Christians who aren’t artists to benefit from the contemplative life of the artist, to slow down, lower the volume, and experience what life and faith consist of below the surface. It is not a call to the life of an ascetic, one withdrawn from the life of the senses; the purpose of contemplation and reflection is to strengthen us for a productive life in society and culture."
- from Performing the Sacred: Theology and Theatre in Dialogue by Todd Eric Johnson

Six years ago, I walked across a stage, shook hands with deans and presidents, accepted a piece of paper that claimed I’d earned my Masters of Theology, and slipped my tassel from one side of the mortarboard to another. I said my goodbyes to friends off to save bodies and souls across the world, moved apartments, and began my highly lucrative and influential job as a receptionist in a surgeon’s office.

You’ve heard this story before. I’d given up a position with a church-planting team in Italy to see where this thing was headed with a certain man. (Spoiler alert: Certain Man became Husband, and I have never doubted nor regreted my decision.) I went from all-night exegeticals and all-day school and church work to a boring life. Suddenly, I had evenings free. I didn’t have to study at lunch. I didn’t have to multitask during my sleep.

In the United States, and in the evangelical camp of the United States, that meant I was wasting my life.

During this time, I learned the beauty of the contemplative life. I rediscovered my journal. On Saturday mornings, I filled my mug at the coffee house underneath my apartment, walked to the park across the DART tracks, and doodled. Or wrote meaningless sentences. Or prayed. Or sometimes just watched.

I have to work these days to maintain this pace of life, and I’m blessed to have a husband who supports this, even though it means I don’t make as much money as I might otherwise. Even though it means my house may not be spotless (I’ve made friends with the spiders). Even though it means sometimes I don’t have dinner ready until 8:30 or 9:00 at night.

Lately I’ve been considering the postures of an artist. People call me a free spirit, by which they mean corporate life makes me red (and I don’t mean Bolshevik). But this term doesn’t mean much to me because I depend on daily routine, daily gestures or postures. To many, my life is mundane. But it is only in this mundanity that I can create.

Mundanity requires discipline. It’s easier to fill my schedule with all these other good things. It feels selfish to say no. But trust me, you get used to it. Addicted to it. Because in that no is the time to contemplate. And contemplation is a necessary posture of an artistic life. Nay, contemplation, I’d venture to say, is a necessary posture of the Christian life.

Different stages in life demand different responses. There are times when we have to forego the time to contemplate for one reason or another. But too often, we succumb to filled calendars because this seems better to us. A full calendar means a productive life, importance, meaning. I’ve discovered, though, that a full calendar means lack of creativity.

Over half of the year in the liturgical calendar is devoted to ordinary days. We have times and stages for the celebrations and fullness of Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter. But most of our days are meant to be spent between these times in the mundanity of life.

In that mundanity I find contemplation. And only through that contemplation can I be the artist I want to be.

The Worst of Humanity

I think sometimes we’re tempted to think:

Wouldn’t it be easier to nuke the Middle East?

Wouldn’t it be easier if the mountains of Haiti, melting around them, would finally collapse and hit the reset button on the whole country?

Wouldn’t it be easier to shed myself of this needy relationship, which only, after all, brings me down?

Wouldn’t it be easier to get rid of all the immigrants and leave them to their own countries and problems?

But that would mean that the Bible would have ended after Genesis 3.

For Better or Worse: NGOs in Haiti

I’ve been catching up on podcasts during my morning exercise time, and this morning, I listened to This American Life’s report on the state of things in Haiti (originally broadcast May 21, 2010).

The report attempts to answer how there can be 10,000 NGOs operating in Haiti and yet Haiti continues to deteriorate financially every year. It feels wrong to ask this, but the question comes anyway: Is foreign aid doing more harm than good?

I don’t believe the answer is to take our money and leave, but the podcast left me wondering how we can truly help, not just throw money at the situation to make ourselves feel better.

Side note: This American Life does an excellent job of engaging the listener with real-life situations rather than tossing meaningless facts at us out of context. 

Listen to "Island Time" here. You can also download it via iTunes.

Book Thoughts: Back on Murder by J. Mark Bertrand

Back on Murder is a detective novel about Roland March, a checked-out detective seeking for a way to check back in. When the murder of local gang leader coincides with the kidnapping of a church-going good girl, Roland tries to find the ties that bind despite the doubts of his coworkers.

With snappy yet elegant prose, Bertrand unveils the plot deftly without falling into either predictability or unbelievability. He just as gracefully weaves in Roland’s past, offering bits and pieces without dumping everything in your lap. Roland is the kind of guy you want to succeed, although you can also understand why the force (meaning police force, not Star Wars) disregards him.

The perfect summer read, Back on Murder also offers the chance to look deeper at issues of spirituality for those who want, specifically the issue of risk v. safety as we go out into the world. It also offers an outsider’s view of the church, as Roland is not a Christian but is solving a case directly related to a local church.

This book offers the best of all worlds: excellent prose, cunning plot, and well-developed character. Outside of a healthy dose of Agatha Christie as a child, my experience with detective novels has been limited. But between Back on Murder and the Chet and Bernie Mysteries by Spencer Quinn, I’ve been convinced to spend more time with the genre, and I look forward to upcoming books in the Roland March series.


*Fine print: Because of a silly FCA or FAA or AARP rule, I’m required to tell you that I received a copy of this book for free (although Publisher’s Weekly is not required to give you the same information). This in no way imposed upon me an expectation of giving the book a good review (or a review at all, if I so chose).

The Master's Artist: The Fourth-Grade Poetry Reading

I’m up today at The Master’s Artist.

A sneak preview:

One by one, the fourth graders approach the podium, perhaps praying to
Erato, the muse of poetry, to offer their poems. Chins tucked,
microphones held precariously in the general vicinity of their mouths,
half-whispering, they rush through their pieces. Half of the works are
entitled “I Am.” The others are acrostics of their names, their
favorite things, and in one case, a dead sister.

Read the rest here.

An Actual Real, Live Blog Post (Cue Applause)

I took exactly two photos in Jersey this trip. This is one of them.

The other one you probably would be even less interested in because it’s of my niece and the family dog. Both with Phillies hats. (I call Brandy the family dog because though she belongs to my parents, we’ve all adopted her. All except for my husband, who in general is not a fan of dogs. Unless they’re the dogs that lie around all day with no energy.)

To sum up: beach, greasy foods, a winning Phillies game (with a walk-off homerun–we ordered that in advance). Exciting stuff.

The good news is my travels are over. Which means a return to routine. Which, oddly enough, means a return to interesting things to say.

Isn’t that paradoxical? It seems when my life is more interesting, I have less to say. When life settles into the mundane, I become Chatty Chatterbox once again. I think it has something to do with the posture of contemplation. (In fact, I already have some thoughts churning regarding this. You could say I’m contemplating contemplation. Don’t worry. You know I’ll share.)

So until churned contemplation becomes solidified into something resembling butter, I’m signing off.

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