From the Basement

May 15, 2011

On Faith, Writing, & the Freedom of Letting Go

Filed under: Faith,Writing — jeannablue @ 3:45 pm
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My writing is deeply connected to my faith; the writing and the spiritual often go hand in hand. When one suffers, the other suffers; when one is going well, the other tends to be going well, too. Curious how this happens.

Last year, I wrote through spiritual difficulties. But I reached a point of—depression, acedia, call it what you will—where I ceased writing along with praying, reading scripture, etc. There have been glimmers over the last few months, posts where I was trying to break through.

It’s starting to break away. I’m writing again, and while I feel tremendous guilt for leaving the blog relatively untouched, I am to the point where I can no longer write with expectation, with the albatross of obligation ‘round my neck. I’m trying to let go of that guilt of what I “should” be doing, like working on the blog, because I have friends who’ve said they’ve benefited from it as much as I have … but God uses us where we’re at. For a time, this blog was exactly what I needed. It may become what I need once again in the future. But I’m posting this to say that I’m releasing myself from the “expectation” of writing here.

I am writing every day, three pages a morning in a classic black-and-white Composition book. It’s a move straight out of the Julia Cameron playbook. Those are three pages that are never reread, that are for no one’s eyes but yours. Because truly, there are some things I’m dealing with right now that I simply cannot work through in such a public forum. So I’m working through them in morning pages, and it’s good.

This might sound strange to say, but to me, writing is more vital than prayer: perhaps because so often my writing goes in and out of prayer. I cannot pray or think for any length of time without a pen in my hand, and so my thoughts are addressing God one moment and then dwelling on something else the next, and then jotting an idea for the chapter in my story and then praying again …  Writing brings clarity, so when I am in a dry period, or a depressed period, or one of acedia—again, I hardly know what to call these spells I go through—I miss writing almost as much as I miss God. Writing is direction. It is freedom. It is calming. It helps me think through things. And I feel close to God. Not that faith is driven by emotion, but when I’m writing, I feel like I’m a hair’s breath away from heaven, away from seeing Him, and there’s just no better feeling in the world.

I did not start this post intending to sort of release myself from the “obligation” of this blog, but … I am. No obligations. No expectations. No one else. Just me, my notebook, my pen, and my God.

Writing is like breathing, it’s possible to learn to do it well, but the point is to do it no matter what.

—Julia Cameron, The Right to Write

November 8, 2010

How Great Thou Art

The last week especially has been full of worry and fear and strife, much of it self-made. I’ve been listening to this song just now and am so convicted of my doubt, so assured of and wrapped up in my Savior’s love. The song speaks for itself. The Lord speaks for himself.

Sung by Susan Boyle…

…and Carrie Underwood…

…and Chris Tomlin…

October 6, 2010

An Exhortation to Love (inspired by Glee & Joan Osborne)

I’ve been listening to the song “One of Us,” released by Joan Osborne in 1995, most recently covered by the cast of Glee, all day long.

Something in this song is provoking my spirit. I can sing this song in total worship, in the full knowledge that Jesus was one of us, convicted by the hard questions the song addresses (“If God had a face, what would it look like and would you want to see?”). Joan Osborne, the writer and singer, was obviously influenced by her Catholic upbringing, even though she has since left it and now professes Buddhist influences. And tonight, the cast of Glee, characters openly Christian, Jewish, agnostic, and atheist alike, closed the episode asking the titular question – “What if God was one of us?” – even as the show’s creator, Ryan Murphy, said, “My point of view is that God is everybody’s collective goodness.” (Fabulous recap of the episode and Murphy’s quote  here – http://www.eonline.com/uberblog/watch_with_kristin/b204027_glee-dux_praise_cheesus_ryan_murphy.html)

As I wrote yesterday, the book I’m reading right now is Angela Thomas’s Do You Know Who I Am? – a question that every woman (everyone) addresses to God. As I was journaling and praying today, the immediate response was God saying, “Do you know who I AM?” (a response Thomas also chronicles in the book, incidentally – good to know God’s consistent in this! *chuckle).

A lot of lessons are coalescing right now – my reading in Piper’s Future Grace, which rests on the foundation that unbelief is the root of all sin and that the ability to walk in “future grace” comes from having faith in God’s promises, in knowing His character and trusting Him. This last weekend at Think, we were challenged to love God with all our hearts, all our souls, and especially all our minds – not to let the means of loving supercede the Greatest Commandment, which is to love God, but to examine and study and learn of the character and nature of God, that we may not boast in our own abilities but in the great grace and love and awesome glory of His son, Jesus Christ.

This song – “One of Us” – it could be a prayer for this generation. It makes me think – we are so close. While religion will (most) always be used by those in power for destructive purposes (the Crusades, discrimination, slavery, etc.), the heart of the people… the heart I see in my peers, in this generation… is a desperate cry for love and acceptance. As depraved as we are – as depraved as any generation has been, for there is nothing new under the sun – there is a very public desperation for acceptance.

The call for acceptance and tolerance – cries at an all-time media high this week because of the tragic suicides of teenagers due to bullying, largely over their sexuality – are piercing. Church, do you hear these cries? Our culture is not desperate for your anti-sin propaganda; they are desperate for a transformative, powerful love – the kind of love that will wrap a gay teenage boy up in its arms and offer him a life he never dreamed of. Not only unconditional acceptance, but unconditional love. Grace unceasing. Peace that surpasses understanding. Purpose. And the promise of life hereafter with the One who holds you in His arms every day.

Glee creator Ryan Murphy said that tolerance is at the heart of the show – an attitude which, while commendable, is startling in its tepid insufficiency. It is not enough to tolerate, and I think that regardless of religious creed (or lack thereof), we all know it.

“Tolerance” was not something Jesus Christ practiced. He didn’t “tolerate” prostitutes and tax collectors. And He didn’t just accept them in the crowd as He taught. He ate with them. He loved on them. To the thief who hung on the cross beside Him, Jesus said, “You will be with me in paradise.” And this was a thief whose only “work” was to acknowledge Christ as the Son of God.

That’s love. That’s grace. Don’t give me your cock and bull good works propaganda. I don’t want it. Any work not founded in faith and any work not done in love is dead, and I don’t give a damn how good your motivations are. What message is there but the Cross, where people did nothing and Christ did everything? Tullian Tchividjian gave a fabulous message last Friday on how the church somehow feels a need to caution its congregants about grace, as if it’s this wild thing that could be let loose to great destruction if we let it – Lord forgive us that we would temper and dilute the power of Your grace! (Now I want to go find my notes on his talk, which was entitled “Giving Thought to Gospel Math: Why Jesus + Nothing = Everything.”)

In John 13:35, Jesus says, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Yes, discussions about doctrine and theology and transgression and the necessity of faith in action are critical to the maturing of believers… but people do not come to Christianity because of its rules. And might I add, they do not come to Christianity. They come to Jesus Christ, the giver of all good gifts, our savior, whose love for us is beyond human description.

People come because they know they are not enough.

They come because they know there is something greater.

They come because they realize that that something greater is the love of Jesus Christ, the son of God, our Redeemer.

Church, people do not need to hear the rules or how much of a sin [______ – homosexuality, adultery, take your pick] is – have the last few millennia shown you that that approach does not work? This is not a game where people come because of us. They come… they only ever come… because of Jesus Christ, who offers an unconditional love which makes words like “tolerance” seem pale and cheap.

The verse bears repeating… “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

As humans, we fail in loving each other. I fail so much, every day. But in God and His son Jesus Christ, through the gift of the Holy Spirit, we can love… and the beautiful thing is that His love is so glorious that even a hint reflected in this life makes me want to go running into His arms.

What if God was one of us? … what if God was reflected in us, strangers on a bus trying to make our way home…

July 22, 2010

How God used Hilary Duff & the Rascal Flatts to get my attention (again)

Tonight, I was going through CD’s from high school. In between the incredulity (all the rap!) and laughter (Girl All The Bad Guys Want, anyone?), I found inspiration and hope in the last CD I put in… God’s timing, man, God’s timing.

The only quote that seems appropriate to introduce these songs (which are few among many of their kind in my musical history) is something President Lincoln said – “I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go.”

“On the Way Down” – Ryan Cabrera

Sick and tired of this world; there’s no more air, trippin’ over myself goin’ nowhere – waiting, suffocating, no direction and I took a dive and –

On the way down, I saw you and you saved me from myself. And I won’t forget the way you loved me. On the way down, I almost fell right through, but I held onto you….

I was so afraid of going under, but now the weight of the world feels like nothing, no, nothing…. And I won’t forget the way you loved me…. All that I wanted, all that I needed…

“So Yesterday” – Hilary Duff (yes, Hilary Duff). The song is about a breakup, but the chorus is so full of hope and release – being able to let it go.

Cause if it’s over, let it go and come tomorrow it will seem so yesterday, so yesterday – I’m just a bird that’s already flown away. Laugh it off, and let it go, and when you wake up it will seem so yesterday, so yesterday – haven’t you heard that I’m gonna be okay?

“Feels Like Today” – Rascal Flatts. This bit is from the first verse:

But I know something is coming. I don’t know what it is, but I know it’s amazing, you save me. My time is coming, and I’ll find my way out of this longest drought…

And hearing that song inspired me to go listen to my favorite Rascal Flatts tune, their cover of “Bless the Broken Road.” Rascal Flatts is a country band that has owned the faith-filled messages in their music. Even though Selah released a “Christian” version of the song that substitutes the word “savior” for “lover” at the end, I prefer lover. For Jesus is the lover of our souls, and his passion for us is overwhelming.

This is one of the most beautiful, humbling praises I’ve ever heard… even if you don’t like country, I exhort you to listen.

We worship a faithful God. In our darkest hours and our loneliest times, in the light of day and in the dead of night, he is there. We can just roll on home into our Lover’s arms – thank you Jesus for the mercy and intimacy, for how you are a refuge for my soul. When this world feels chaotic and hectic and frenzied, you are there in the midst of it. You are for us, therefore no one can be against us. And nothing – not the powers of this earth, not the government, not a difficult economy or crazy job market or concern over using the right words, not fear or pride – nothing can separate us from you and your will for our loves, from the awesome, terrible, awe-inspiring love you hold for us. Nothing can separate us from your love. Nothing can divide us from your purpose. We are in your light, and there cannot be dark where there is light. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

July 20, 2010

Curls, Control, & Contentment: An Essay on Faith

I wrote this back in January (hence the references to grad school), but I really needed to read it today. How awesome is it when God uses us to remind ourselves of His goodness and mercy…

~*~

I’m currently sitting at my aunt’s office desk, and for some inexplicable reason I have a bottle of hairspray next to me. It is extreme hold hairspray. It literally says that. Extreme. It is beyond strong, beyond maximum – extreme (Aussie Instant Freeze). On the front, it says that it “arrests your style.” Seriously? My hair is under arrest! That is the level to which I’ve resorted in order to feel like I’m in control.

Let’s back up. In 7th grade, I cut my budding curls down to a pixie cut. As in, early 1990s Winona Ryder short. My hair, which went from straight to curly during those peachy puberty years, absolutely terrified me. I had no confidence in my ability to manage my curls. So I cut them off until I was ready to grow them back out, ready to deal with them (it took a year).

This is me in a nutshell. I was so scared of this unruly thing in my life (it just so happened to be growing on my head), that I cut it off and kept it at a distance until I was ready to let it back into my life, where I timidly began to think about creative ways to manage it. I am now to the point where I’m perfectly comfortable letting my three (maybe four) day hair be shown in public – or perhaps that’s senioritis attacking my personal hygiene. Who knows.

At the root of this fear is a lack of confidence. I didn’t have confidence in what I was given. I also didn’t have confidence in my ability to manage the situation. But really, I didn’t have confidence in myself (or my Creator). We control-freaks hold things with a death grip, terrified that letting go means falling into the unknown – into the painful truth that we don’t control nearly as much as we think we do. The world does not revolve around our plans and schedules, wants and desires. There are plenty of things that are absolutely outside of our control, and we have to learn to accept that. Easier said than done. I for one am so not there yet, but it’s where my heart wants to be, and I think that counts for something.

As graduating seniors, we are concerned with getting a job, getting into graduate school – things that are decidedly outside of our control. Our conversations abound with negative prophecies and heart-heavy predictions. There are so many unknown factors, things that can have absolutely nothing to do with us – budgets, hiring cuts, smaller acceptance rates. Maybe… maybe… maybe… We love to torture ourselves with fantasies of worst-case scenarios. And to what end? Imagining the future only leads to heartache. It distracts us from the present as well as from the promises of our faith. As C.S. Lewis said, the future is the thing that is least like eternity. When it comes down to it, dwelling on the future merely feeds my lust for control.

It helps to get perspective, and that can come from both good and bad situations. I most recently got a reality-check from the latter. I met a friend for lunch the other day. That morning, I’d completed yet another application and for some reason, the anxiety was shooting through the roof, to the point where I ended up running to the toilet. Proof that all those negative anxieties and fantasies we indulge in affect our bodies.

So I met my friend for lunch. My news – applications (what else is new?). Her news – her cousin, who is around our age, was diagnosed with cancer. Talk about perspective. Now, this is not one of those “it can always be worse” exhortations – that’s not a productive method of coping. Rather, that lunch was a reminder. Even though there is the fundamental difference that I invited my situation and her cousin did not, life remains a series of unknowns for us both and, indeed, for everyone. It takes a lot of faith to get through each day.

The unknowns can bad things we don’t expect. Illness. The death of a loved one. A breakup, a divorce. Arrest. And then they can be things that we do – like knowing we’ll hear back, one way or the other, from prospective jobs, internships, schools. Getting to hold a newborn baby. Going home for Christmas to find the house chock-full of treats baked in anticipation of your arrival. And then, wow, there are the genuine surprises – like meeting the right person at the right time or unexpectedly finding a way to pay for something you’ve needed. The fun chances, the joyful surprises – these happen all around us, too!

We forget that it’s not our ability to predict or expect outcomes that matters. None of us have that kind of foresight. It’s how we handle those outcomes, those journeys. It comes down to having confidence in yourself and not in your trappings or expectations. It’s about trusting who you are. Because we each have worth, we each have value, and no matter what situation we are placed in, those things are sure.

As believers, we are the beloved of Christ, and it is in His eyes that we are made whole and complete. When we find our identity in Him – when we know that Jesus is at our side and that He is our Abba Father who is for us, offering the gifts of peace and joy and grace and love – when we can rest in His loving arms and say “come what may” because all things work to the good of those who love Him who have been called according to His purpose – when we know that if our earthly parents love us and want to give us good gifts, how much more does He want to give! – when we know these things and can rest in them, there is confidence. There is peace. There is light. And it is that light in a difficult situation, that peace that surpasses all understanding – those are the things that mark us as His.

I want more peace. I want to radiate joy and contentment, not anxiety and fear. I have nothing to be afraid of. Nothing! He has hedged me behind and before, and as long as I just crawl up into His lap and remember that, first and foremost, I am a daughter of the King, all is good. Because life with him is good.

I’m reminded of the Niebuhr prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I can’t change, the courage to change the things that I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” The good news is that He gives us serenity, courage, and wisdom. All we have to do is ask. We should consistently turn our situations over to Him in prayer, but so too should we ask for the character and the mindset that will alter how we see the situation. More righteousness. More Christlikeness – more like Christ.

Christ is perfect love, and perfect love casts out all fear. Lately, my fear has been crowding out my excitement. I don’t always feel like I can choose excitement, and that’s partly due to my internalization of the world telling me that a good student and an ambitious individual should be worrisome, anxious, nervous for their future. But why on earth am I taking their advice? I have EVERY reason to be excited right now. Every reason to have faith that all will work to the good. I rebuke the words that tell me that sitting around every day nervously checking my email and mailbox is a proper way to manage my time. Like my curls, I have no control over what’s growing right now.

Another issue at play here is waiting. Waiting is a blessed time, truly. In the Bible (and in life), it’s a time of preparation. Of prayerful supplication. Of purification. In short, waiting is a process to be embraced.

And I want to embrace this time: the waiting, the joy, and the knowledge that come what may, my Abba has got me on His lap and He’s saying “Wait for what I do next – I’ve got so many wonderful things planned for you! You’re going to love how I have you do My work, the opportunities to love people, to reach people – you’re going to love it, you’re just going to love it.” I want to shuck fear off of me, to slither out of that skin of anxiety and worry, to just be joy. I want that. And as long as my eyes are focused on my Abba, the joy is for the taking.

May 21, 2010

“Traveling”

I’ve been traveling, I suppose. It’s something I had to do. What appears to be listless time sitting at the breakfast bar to my mother has been, at the core, a very important time in my life.

I’m in transition. In transition toward purpose. Toward something. I don’t know what. While my peers are still in class, I’ve had two blessed (and equally rocky) months at home, sprinkled with visits and conversation, but on the whole, a time of solitude and reflection. I’ve taken two months off from the “real world,” as it were; in spite of all the job applications, it’s been months of journeying into myself, wondering, questioning.

Characters in books do it all the time. Jessie, the protagonist of Susan Monk Kidd’s The Mermaid Chair (which I’m currently reading), returns to Egret Island off the coast of South Carolina to care for her mentally ailing mother and ends up staying for an indefinite period of time. She rediscovers her love for art, takes a hiatus from her marriage, uncovers revelatory and shocking information about her father’s death, and has an affair with a monk who is months away from taking his final vows.

Notwithstanding the monk and marriage parts, I can relate to her hiatus. I’ve unearthed a deep love for reading and especially writing, a love buried under the dirt and grime of academia and banal to-do lists. I’ve rediscovered how much I love my boyfriend. How desperate I am to strike out on my life. Also, how bad I am at waiting on God. (Some days are better than others, and the last few days, I have been racked with an impatience that is sometimes angry, sometimes bitter, but never pleasant.)

“Traveling,” is what a character in The Mermaid Chair calls it. A spiritual journey into your soul, into yourself. Figuring myself out, though the last few months have posed more questions than answers. The only thing that has strengthened has been my relationship and reliance on God, in spite of the toddler in me that throws tantrums in the waiting room – he remains the constant that ties the threads of my life together. He’s the only thing that makes things make sense.

A part of me wants to apologize to the friends that are reading this blog – it may feel monotonous at times, the same concerns – the waiting, the job hunting, reflecting on the transient state of my life. But the truth is, even though this is public and numerous friends have been directed toward it … it’s for me. All my life, I’ve processed by writing. My prayers are almost always written; I get distracted by shiny objects and a need for coffee otherwise. And writing this blog has been an indescribably wonderful source of support over the last month. So really, I just want to say that I appreciate my friends’ dedication and patience, and that you are welcome to tune in whenever you like. And in the meantime, I’ll keep writing, reading, processing, praying.

“Patience is more than endurance. A saint’s life is in the hands of God like a bow and arrow in the hands of an archer. God is aiming at something the saint cannot see, and He stretches and strains, and every now and again the saint says–‘I cannot stand anymore.’ God does not heed, He goes on stretching till His purpose is in sight, then He lets fly. Trust yourself in God’s hands. Maintain your relationship to Jesus Christ by the patience of faith.” – Oswald Chambers

“We work in our darkness a great deal with little real knowledge of what we are doing.” – John Steinbeck

April 28, 2010

Doing what you love > Fearing what you love

Do you ever get nervous after you finish a project and then start a new one? That’s where I’m at right now. I just finished a multi-chapter short story (under 10K words) for an online gift exchange that I’ve participated in for several years. I think this might be the last year I do it, because I’m itching to dive into my own work.

Many of you know that I had the darndest time finishing this story. I’ve sort of figured out why – it wasn’t the story, per se. I liked the prompt and I really enjoyed the writing. What held me back was a latent fear of what comes after, a knowledge that once I finished that story, I had to stop BS-ing myself and actually sit down and take time to write my own stuff every day. This is why I so enjoy creative writing classes: built in deadlines, quick feedback, explicit assignments, and the I’m-doing-it-for-a-grade mentality. Not that I write for grades (goodness, no!); it’s just that when there’s the knowledge that I’m turning it in, the other fears are suppressed.

I have ungodly-high levels of expectation for my writing, expectations which will probably never be met in this lifetime. And if I ever come close, it will only be through that daily practice of writing. Writing is work – it is a craft, and like any craft, it requires practice. Apprenticeship. Years of toil. Everyone writes shitty first drafts (as Anne Lamott says) and they only get better if you roll up your sleeves and dig in.

Everyone has a different writing process, sort of like how people practice their spirituality/faith in different ways. I had an instructor this last year who is a self-described “binge writer” – she writes multiple chapters in a fury, and then doesn’t write for a few weeks, and then comes back to it. And then there are the folks who write every day, even if it’s only for fifteen minutes. On the faith side of things, I have friends who need daily quiet time and friends who don’t, friends for whom art or dance is their primary mode of worship, and friends who light candles at the alter in their room.

While I can do the binge writing and even the binge praying, truth is, I need a daily schedule to keep myself in the zone and focused. (This is part of why I’m keeping a blog.) I need daily prayer and quiet time, and I’ll preferably be reading a book (Angela Thomas, Katie Brazelton, etc.) along with it. Finding daily faith time is something I’ve got in the habit of over these last two years. But daily writing time… I’m not quite there yet.

I long for a time two summers ago, the time when I finished my first novel. There wasn’t fear or anxiety; it was erased by the knowledge that every day over my lunch hour, I would go to Acoustic Café, order a half hoagie sandwich and a Coke, and then sit for the duration of the hour writing as furiously on yellow legal tablets as I could. It was a daily practice, something I did to keep myself sane in the midst of a crazy internship, and I long – oh, how I long – for that feeling again. I haven’t been writing regularly (save for creative writing classes) since that summer.

A book by Barbara Demarco-Barrett has been my writing salvation for this last year. It’s entitled Pen On Fire: A Busy Woman’s Guide to Igniting the Writer Within. Her writing solution is fifteen minutes a day, plain and simple, whether it’s when the water’s boiling for dinner or when you first wake up in the morning. I took that advice to heart last summer when I worked at a daycare. I would take my legal tablets to work with me, scribbling furiously in the off-moments when the kids were reading or having free time. There weren’t many off-moments, but over the course of the summer, I completed the rough draft of the short story that became part of my honors project.

This last month, I’ve been at home – both at Mom’s and at Dad’s – and I’ve got some writing done, sure. I’ve been writing this blog. But I’ve been lazy about my fiction because I’m so darn afraid of what’s going to happen when I get in that schedule. Part of me is afraid that I’m not going to want to let it go, that embracing my writing means acknowledging that grad school is on the back burner.

It might seem like we’re switching gears here, but I promise we’re not. Let me put it this way: my boyfriend wants to be a professor because he honest to goodness loves teaching physics – and he’s really good at it, too. Me, I love the material. I enjoy literature and lit analysis, lit theory … I never want for research subjects. But when the BF asked me about my ideal job in academia, I said that my ideal was a position where I taught part-time, thus having time for writing. (Because I hold no illusions about professors at liberal arts schools; they work their asses off and are lucky if they get their own research done.)

It’s not that I’ve put writing and grad school into binary opposition, that it’s one or the other. But it’s hard – so hard – to keep writing while you’re in grad school (unless you’re in the MFA program). I have it on the authority of those who know. And writing is not something I want to sacrifice for a life in academe. It’d be great to do both, but I’d rather write.

All this to say, the answer that I gave should have been a clue that the Little Girl Downstairs was alive and well, and that maybe the Big Girl Downstairs was ignoring her strongest desires. The LGD is that six-year-old who declared to her parents that she would be a writer someday and who never relinquished that dream; she is the ten-year-old whose poem about the Titanic was published in the local paper after winning a contest and who realized how wonderful it was to write things other people actually wanted to read – that little girl has never gone away. That little girl longs to write for the rest of her life, and preferably to get paid for it, too. But that little girl is also afraid of what it means to realize her dream.

I think that what our biggest dreams can be the things we’re most afraid of. Funny how that works.

There are only two things I can do at this point: first, pray, because love casts out fear. And second, get my butt in a chair and start writing. Confront the monster head on. Get back in the saddle. Get back to doing what makes me feel more alive than anything else on this earth.

And then, keep doing it.

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