Courage

Processed with VSCOcam with f2 presetI leaned my head against the cold of the bus window as Bethlehem slid by outside. My cheeks were wet with tears, unexpected and unbidden and there nonetheless. I was tired, tired of hearing and tired of seeing so much hardship and hardness. I was weary of information and weary of stories, weary of caring so much. I wished my empathy would run dry, but it was always there, a bottomless well in a land with little water.

The land. Israel. That hard, holy land.

I was on day seven of a ten day trip, and each one of them had been full of full things. This was no ordinary trip to the holy land. It was an excursion into the depths of the conflict and tragedy that darken the storyline of this newish nation. Along with many others I spent every waking hour meeting with people from every point of view—Israelis, Palestinians, activists, rabbis, sheiks, pastors, refugees, farmers, settlers, etc. They were gracious and hospitable, and they were often funny and endearing. And each of them held opinions and lived stories that could change your mind or break your heart or both. Add in the newness of experiencing a new country and a unique culture, seeing ancient sites and “walking where Jesus walked,” and it had fashioned itself into a harrowing adventure. It was guerrilla tourism.

On that seventh day, as the trip neared its end, I could finally see the finish line. When you’re running a race they say that you have to push through to the end, but if you’ve ever run you know how hard that is. As you round the last corner you can feel your breath getting away from you and your form beginning to falter. Then, when the white line is in sight, your body begs you to slow down and trot to the end. You have to push. The trip’s itinerary was going to demand a mad sprint to the end, but I could feel my own mental and emotional footing beginning to slip.

So I sat there and cried. And at the time I couldn’t have articulated a lick of this, so I just looked like a basket case crying in the back of the bus, my forehead bouncing against the window glass.

And then a verse was in my head, scrolling by like the headlines of a news ticker.

“Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the LORD!”

I wish I could say that this sudden memory of Psalm 31:24 made me sit up, wipe away the tears, and smile. Instead I started crying harder. Ugly kind of crying. I knew instantly that this wasn’t God cooing, “Don’t worry, it’s alright.” No. Far from it. He was whispering, “Be strong. Keep going. The finish line is a long way off yet.” In that moment I realized that the plane ride home was anything but a finish line. In fact, my courage was going to be most needed when the trip was over.

Deep down I think I believed that the trip would be incredible but that it would be something I could easily set aside when I got home. What I found was that it *was* incredible … and very difficult, difficult in a way that one might want to hide from. I suddenly saw in myself the instinct to have my cry here in Bethlehem and then do my best to pretend it never happened, to repress it, to come home and for the next couple weeks tell a few good stories, nod soberly as I recounted the toll of the conflict, and then move on.

But I was being told to be strong. I was being told to have courage. And courage often requires action. I took out my journal and wrote.

My heart has been broken for this place and these people. God, give me the courage not to set them aside.

The next afternoon a friend I’d made on the trip leaned across the aisle of the bus and handed me a bag full of bracelets. She told me I could pick one if I liked. Each of them was emblazoned with a word: hope, love, peace, etc. I reached in and indiscriminately grabbed a handful. Every single one of them read: COURAGE.

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State Your Intentions

PlaygroundIntroverted or not, we all crave relationships of some kind. Nowhere do I see the evidence of this more than in my own children, particularly in our five-year-old, Finnden. He’s a sensitive boy, in tune with the needs and moods of those around him while, somehow, being mostly immersed in his own world. He can play for an hour by himself, talking, singing, and making up stories as he crashes his Matchbox cars together. Given the choice he would never leave the house because leaving the house means changing out of his pajamas.

But even my home-bodied, introverted little boy craves friendships.

Not long after he started talking we noticed Finn was having awkward moments on the playground. He and a few other children would be in line for the slide, or chasing one another up and down the playground steps, when suddenly all activity would cease for a moment. The children would all look at Finn, their brows knit together, listening. From the “parent bench” on the other side of the playground we could see his mouth moving, but couldn’t make out what he was saying. We saw this happen again and again.

I went into spy mode.

I started sneaking up on him, staying just out of sight, waiting for “the moment.” I’m sure I looked like some kind of creeper. I guess I actually was. But it paid off. Eventually I was able to witness one of these moments.

All of the kids were running back and forth wielding sticks, immersed in some game of knights and princesses. Then one of them suggested they run for the swings, and they all agreed. Out of nowhere, Finnden suddenly shouted, “Wait!”

Everyone stopped. They looked at him expectantly.

Finally, in a voice hardly above a whisper, he asked, “Will you be my friends?” The other children stood there, looking from one to the other until a boy about Finn’s age finally shrugged his shoulders, and said, “Sure!” And then, together, they all ran off to the swings.

I don’t know where he learned this. I don’t know why he’s developed this awkward way of forging friendships, but we’ve seen it play out again and again even as he’s grown older. He’ll meet a kid at a park, or the library, or a Chick-fil-a play area, and he’ll suddenly stop whatever it is he’s doing, tilt his head to the side a little, and conspiratorially whisper, “Will you be my friend?” Other children’s responses to this rather forward request have run the gamut, from furtive glances at anyone who might be listening to tacit nods. Some have ignored the question completely while others have answered with a hearty, “Of course!”

His request is anything but suave, but it is so very honest and earnest. He desires relationships.

I know the feeling.

Inside is that angst, that desire, that longing for close friendships, and it’s often coupled with fear, self-doubt, and a complete loss of where exactly to begin.

When you move to a new place you’re faced with the prospect of meeting new people. But beyond the need to become familiar with co-workers and friendly with neighbors, there grows a steadily more urgent need to make friends. Real friends. The friends who will become “your people.” These are the people who become your go-to’s, your impromptu deep-conversationalist, and your open-the-fridge-and-grab-a-whatever people. These are the kinds of relationships we all crave and are so rarely able to craft. We want these people, and we want to be these people for other people.

I’ve often waited for friendships to come to me. I’ve waited for someone to show an interest, or to be thrown into a situation that demands friendship. But when we moved almost 11 months ago I started taking a few cues from Finn. Instead of stumbling through the pseudo-dating rituals of forming new friendships, I’ve begun trying to be more honest, forthright, and clear. I’ve done the adult version of: Will you be my friend? And I’ve been amazed how a little daring, a little self-disclosure, and a little feigned-ignorance of social norms is often appreciated and even reciprocated. In addition to some very awkward moments honesty also garners you some very fast and meaningful friends, those rare people who will push past what feels normal to find what is right.

Morning’s Little Choices

Morning

Each morning I make a choice.

If I get out of bed at 6 I will have the house to myself. I will tiptoe around the bedroom, stumble my way toward the bathroom, and eventually find my running clothes. Once everything has been strapped on or laced up I will step out into a cold and still morning and have not just the house but the whole world to myself, or so it seems. The trail will be empty, just me and the deer who reflect me in their black-globe eyes, standing still as stones as I run by.

Silent except my breath, and the fall of my feet on the crushed gravel. The morning will be the magic of mist hanging low somewhere between the dew-covered grass and the sunrise.

If I get out of bed at 7, or a little after really, I’ll hear the shuffle of pajama-clad feet padding down the hallway and the near-silent scuffle of a little boy climbing up on the side of the bed. He’ll crawl in beside me, and I’ll hear the tiny ticks of static as he slides close as close can be under the covers. I’ll feel the tender weight of his tiny hand as he sets it on my shoulder. I’ll turn my face toward him, eyes still closed, and my hand will find his chest to feel the beat of his heart and the rise and fall of his breath under my palm all at once.

This is a hard little choice, though either outcome makes the day a little easier.

Reading Poetry

Two weeks of
turning the pages
and turning down corners of
Billy Collins, and Wendell Berry, and Mary Oliver.

Sitting with three old souls,
who speak in soft tones,
murmuring and mulling over the things most true.

Just us four.
Each one, in turn, looks at me square
and sees my soul and
tells me who I am,
that I’m peculiar in all the right ways and
quite right in celebrating the world the way I do.

“Be not bridled by the
unromantic ritual of daily life,”
says Mary, with a conspiratorial lean.

“Yes,” nods Billy. “The Devil is in the doldrums,
so romanticize the hell out of them.”

“Right out,” smiles Wendell
between puffs of his pipe.
“Right out.”

These three and me
with tea between us.
Talking about little things
that are the biggest things in the world.

Just Play

I hadn’t written much of anything in months other than pithy captions on Instagram photos, nor was I in a hurry to do more. My actual writing had grown stagnant, but my desire to have written was still gushing. Starting seemed insurmountable, ideas and lines flying here and there and the task of organizing all those birds in flight into the single-file lines of rational sentence structure wore me thin before I could even begin.

I was explaining this wearying paralysis to a friend (read: complaining), and she looked at me with only a marginal amount of sympathy and said, “Just play.”

Take the pressure out of it. Stop trying to be brilliant. Make some nonsense. Write whatever comes to mind. Just write.

A couple months ago, with her words ringing in the back of my mind, I made a commitment to start writing every day.

Failure commenced the very next day when I wrote a sum total of nothing.

But the experiment hasn’t been an all-out disaster. Most days I do write. Some days I don’t. I’m trying not to beat myself up about it, trying to extend myself a little grace. And trying to play, to have fun, but also finding that I might have forgotten how.

I started small. I would try to write a paragraph at the very least, and I was doing okay. Then Anne Lamott and her lovely little bird book conspired with my inner-Achiever, and I found myself whispering to myself, saying thing like, “If you were really serious about this writing-everyday-thing you’d be writing at least three hundred words a day.”

Cue the musical montage depicting my five days of discipline and self-satisfaction. Smash cut to me brooding in the mirror as I brush my teeth at the end of another day in a long line of not typing a word.

What this experiment continues to reveal is that I’m all for discipline, but I also need to allow for a natural ebb and flow. Without that little bit of give, healthy discipline quickly erodes into resentment, stress, and other downward-spiraling nonsense.

I’ve been in a bit of a busy stretch the last week or so that’s kept me from writing for any regular block of time, so I’ve been trying something new. I just finished the book Accidental Creative (highly recommended), and it talks about doing a better job of noticing the fly-away thoughts we have throughout the day, those momentary flashes of insight or pangs of emotion that rise up in the course of ordinary conversations, commutes, and correspondence. Todd Henry (he’s the author) recommends carrying a few index cards at all times to capture these thoughts before they disappear into the ether.

(In her book Bird by Bird Anne Lamott suggests the same technique, but I’m already feeling a bit abused by her genius so I’m giving credit to Todd.)

Well, I emphatically will not carry note cards. They remind me of homework and flash cards and public speaking, and I’ll have none of that. But I will carry my phone, and for the last week or so I’ve been capturing these fragments of thought every time I can remember to do so.

And it feels like play.

Out of necessity these rapid-fire snippets are often captured without a filter, a result of needing to get them down as quick as I can in the bitty breaks between meetings or stoplights. No filter means they’re rife with misspellings and non-sequiturs, but they’re also full of reality and raw originality. I look back and I see moments that would have passed by with a half-smile only to be forever forgotten. A single rhyme or instance of alliteration will materialize in my head, and in the course of writing it down it will suddenly bloom into a whole stanza (a whole stanza of really awful poetry, mind you, but a memento of a beautiful moment nonetheless, written in ugly sentence structure… like this).

I’m easily topping three hundred words a day now (take that Anne!) and having a lot of fun. I feel as if I’m casting seeds, little insignificant fragments of things that just might become something really beautiful when I have the chance to coax more out of them with a little care.

I’m playing.

Sometimes making things can start to feel like a burden rather than a privilege. Or the immensity of touching the untouchable can suddenly seem too much. Or as our eyes cross with the complexity of it, the masterpiece at hand can begin to look like a paint-by-numbers. And maybe, sometimes, it is. When I’m in these dark, confining rooms called fear, worry, and complacency I sometimes need to burst out the front door. I need to feel my feet running down the street. I need to start ringing the doorbells of every neighbor with the surnames of Wonder, Laughter, and Discovery painted on their mailbox to ask if any of them might come out and play with me. We each need a place where we can experiment, and try, and fail, and withhold judgment, and maybe find a way out of these very dark rooms. We all need a way to just play.

Shadows: A Spoken Word

ShadowsWe all have questions, dangling thoughts that are unanswered, things we wonder but sometimes only in whispers. One of the tasks and responsibilities of artists is to poke at these kinds of questions and raise the decibels of those whispers.

The team and I recently had the opportunity to develop a new piece that asks the questions and dives headfirst into the misconceptions many of us have about who God is… who he really is. This is that.

Editing and motion graphics: Andrew Schuurmann
Additional motion graphics: Charles Booth
Producer: Sherri Meyer
Executive Producer: Paul Johnson