Meanderings on BEING

When I read the following post to my husband (he and my mother-in-law serve as a sounding board for nearly everything I put on the blog), he responded, “I’ve never ever asked myself the questions you wonder about in this piece, but I’m assuming that if you’ve wondered it, someone else has, so, yes, post it.” I then asked him, “Do you think I’m out on a theological limb in this one–just a bit?” At that he grinned, half-shrugged, and said, “Maybe a little, but not too much.” (I’ve done some adjusting since I first read it to him, and I think I’ve moved closer to the trunk.) SO, if you choose to read on, just know I am NOT claiming this is solid theology but simply, as titled, my mind’s meanderings on my being/personhood/individuality.

It all started with these questions: If I am accepted ONLY in Christ, then does God love ME? For that matter, who am I? If I am called to become more and more like Christ, then WHO am I becoming? How can I still be ME and yet be like Christ? And WHO, exactly, is God loving? Me or Christ in me?

Scripture tells me I have no “good” in me, but it also says I am made in the image of God. I have value as God’s creation in general (like the sparrows) and, to a greater extent, because of that image.

I still wonder, though, do I have value simply in being myself?

But, wait, without God, I do not exist.

Now my head is spinning!

In Him we live and move and have our being. So is there part of God’s being in me? Well, if there is no good in me, then, no, there is no “divine” in me. God is good to His core–no, that’s not strong enough. He IS good, so not only is He never unsure about what is right-wrong/good-evil, He is never tempted to do anything that disagrees with His pure nature. Well, that doesn’t describe me at all. So what does it mean that I am “made in His image”?

I go back to my earlier statement: without God I have no being. I am NOT.

Yet I am. Even in a state of alienation from God—my pre-redeemed state—I have been given being. I am able to think and reason and love and hate and feel pain and joy.

I certainly do not FEEL like a puppet.

Nor did Jesus Christ–very God/very man–treat people as puppets. That, right there, wows me. Each person He encountered was His own creation. He could have chosen NOT to create any of them. In one sense, they were nothing more than clay in His hands.

Yet He treated each person as an individual. He treated each with respect as a human, as an individual. Even when He came down hard on a person or a group of people, it was never belittling but related to the choice they had made to set or follow their own standard/to be their own god–and they were definitely faced with the option of choosing differently. (I think of Nicodemus as a particular example of this.)

We are not only treated as individuals; we ARE so individual—down to our fingerprints, as if God is saying, “I am so big I am able to put a unique image of myself in every single one of you, and I will never have to duplicate or repeat.” (We get a beautiful picture of this in Psalm 139, in which the writer, David, imagines God being present–right there–shaping him in utero uniquely and specifically–no cookie cutter “creation” going on.)

This brings me back to my original question: Who am I? But now I realize that there are two ways to ask that question, one good and one bad. The bad way is when I am wanting an individuality/personhood that is separate from God, from being His, from being linked to Him as the Source and the Sustainer.

And isn’t that the same desire Satan had?

Lucifer wanted to be Lucifer on His own. He didn’t want to maintain his being as an angel OF God. He wanted to be Lucifer, just Lucifer. He didn’t want God to be linked to his being.

God granted Lucifer’s request. I know Lucifer was cast out of heaven, but he wasn’t annihilated. Can anything that God creates ever by truly annihilated?

So Lucifer “won,” in the sense that a rebellious child “wins” autonomy. He was allowed to separate. We see the consequences. Lucifer has lost all good. He has NO good impulses. He never creates, only destroys. He destroyed Eve–and then Adam and all their offspring–with the same temptation.

When I want to be MYSELF (and I am speaking here as one who is following Christ), am I trying to separate from Christ in me? Am I trying to fill the God-blank inside me with ME (pure self-focus). And in so doing, do I, like Satan, ironically, become capable only of destruction, never creation?

Hmm. I am imagining the “God-blank” as a sphere within our souls that has a beautiful, unique shape but which is un-filled. It is merely keeping a portion of my soul from being tainted with the selfishness/self-focus that permeates the rest of me. That empty sphere will either be filled with God or be overtaken by all the rest. In its empty state, it has no power to DO good, only to keep space for Good to enter in. When Christ enters it, His Good has power and begins its work in me, renewing me.

My mind returns to Nicodemus here: is this somehow related to “being born of the Spirit”? When I surrender and say, I am Yours, God. You work Your new creation in me, exactly as YOU want to, then am I born anew to be the ME He originally intended? So, though I am becoming more like Christ, with more of God filling me, yet He is filling me uniquely so that MY becoming like Christ is wholly different than my husband or my children or any other person becoming like Him. Together we are His body, but each cell within it is individual.

He is too great to simply duplicate Himself or even a small portion of Himself. There is TOO much of Him to ever be exhausted.

So perhaps God says to each of us: “You are YOU. Yes, you are from me, yet you are you, and the more you surrender to ME, the more you become the YOU I designed you to be. I take joy in your uniqueness because you display ME uniquely.

“When you are focused on self, you are not YOU—the real YOU is being overcome. The real YOU is completely at peace in your being my intricate masterpiece. You lose self-focus and, in so doing, become more YOU.”

All this is too big for me, but I end in awe rather than confusion because I have returned to my Creator. I place my weary, addled head on His chest; I feel His loving arms encircle me; and my spirit is reminded that He is for me.

I rest my whole being in that.

Sharing a site

I’ve been following “Leaf and Twig” for nearly a year now, and it just struck me that I’ve never passed it on as a suggestion. Each day Catherine Arcolio, the artist behind “Leaf and Twig,” posts an incredible nature photo and a short poem to go with it. I’ve found it a wonderful way to celebrate God’s beauty found in both creation and word. The link above takes you to the entire site, but the links below take you to a couple of my favorites from months past.


“Seeing Through”

“Unexpected Blooms”

the inner eye

Thought I would share some pictures we've actually taken of our recent moments. This is a picture Em took of PJ.

Thought I would share some pictures we’ve actually taken of our recent moments. This is a picture Em took of PJ.

During her freshman year of high school, Judy took a media arts class. (Judy and her younger sister, Kelly, are international students at Wheaton Academy and have lived with us during the past two school years. They are currently at home with their beloved mom and dad but will return to the Underwood household in a little under a month. We are quite excited about that–at the same time we know it is very hard for their parents.) One of the emphases of the media arts class was photography, and Judy made good use of my Nikon. It was fun to download pictures and see the various styles of the three different users

Another picture taken by Em

Another picture taken by Em

(Judy, Emily, and I).

One day, while Judy and I were out walking, I saw something beautiful and bemoaned the fact I didn’t have a camera with me. “You have to take a picture with your inner eye,” she told me. It was something her media arts teacher, the very talented and bighearted Matt Hockett, taught her. “He said when we take special note of something beautiful, we carry it with us, and it is a gift forever.”

And another by Em--of her favorite subject matter: PJ

And another by Em–of her favorite subject matter: PJ

I’ve remembered that, and I was reminded of it when we recently watched The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Photographer Sean O’Connell (played by Sean Penn) has gone to great effort to take a picture of the reclusive snow leopard, but when it finally appears, he moves his head away from the camera.

Walter Mitty asks him, “When are you going to take it?”

Sean says, “Sometimes I don’t. If I like a moment, for me, personally, I don’t like to have the distraction of the camera. I just want to stay in it.”

“Stay in it?” Mitty asks.

“Yeah. Right there. Right here.”

This scene in turn reminded me of a conversation I had a while back with a friend. We talked about not living in the past or the future but accepting the present moment as exactly where (or when) God wants us to be. We rob ourselves of His intent in our lives when we fail or refuse to stay in the present. We discussed the “waiting patiently” so often mentioned in the Psalms–that perhaps it is not waiting in the sense of wanting the moment or time period to pass so we can experience something different, but it is waiting in that place/time with the expectation that there is purpose in the moment/time period itself, no matter how difficult it is. We brainstormed other things that seem to relate, such as the “abiding” that Christ emphasizes in John 15. We brought in the creation of time, and how God has made and is making a day specifically for her and another specifically for me–with some points of overlap (the Amplified version speaks of it as God “bringing about” a day). That wowed us! We used the words “stay,” “sojourn,” and “continue” to help us grasp the idea of living in the present moment in a God-honoring way.

I’ve been practicing taking “photos” with my inner eye: the snail-like trail I leave behind me when I walk through the wet grass at the dog park, and how the sun’s early rays turn it silver; the house sparrow swaying on a thin limb above a gathering of other small birds–the white band around his neck reminds me of a clerical collar, and I imagine him delivering a well-crafted sermon to his audience; the exquisite spider web that glistens with dew.

Perhaps we can also practice the active treasuring of each moment, and as we practice we can learn to rejoice and be glad in each day, in each moment (Psalm 118:24). We can see our days with an inner eye that is informed by eternity and Truth, and we can carry them within as gifts that remind us of God’s faithfulness and sovereignty.



Let the Mom Wars…Stop

One year ago, as the mom of a 7th grader, I was on the games committee for the 7th and 8th grade gala at my daughter’s school. I chose that committee because I assumed it wouldn’t involve decorating and because, during the actual event, my only responsibility would be to run a game and hang out with kids. But on set-up day, after I’d put together an indoor basketball hoop (which I enjoyed doing), I was asked to hang some fancy paper on the walls. Other moms were busily—and seemingly happily—doing similar jobs, but with each passing minute, I wanted more and more to escape to a quiet corner, pull out my laptop, and write.

The parents of 8th graders have virtually no responsibilities for the gala, so this year, after taking a few pictures of Em and friends in fancy attire, I went out to eat with a few other 8th grade moms. At some point one mom asked, “So what does everyone want to accomplish this summer?”

One mom said she wanted to paint her kitchen. Another wanted to work on memory books for her child moving on to high school. I didn’t voice the writing goals which jumped up immediately, waving their hands—because they had nothing to do with running my household or mothering my kids. I cast about for a less self-absorbed goal: plant a garden? (I’ve thought briefly about it!), clean the attic?… and decided to say nothing.

A few years ago my daughter was dealing with some girl drama at school. It involved an “in group” and an “out group” and those who were somewhere in between.

When she asked me for advice, I said, “Just give it time. It gets better as you get older. Women are more sure of who they are and less worried about what group they fit into.”

I don’t think I meant to outright lie. I must have been feeling fairly self confident in that second, and maybe there is a little truth to it; she was in fifth grade, after all.

But I don’t think we’ve outgrown this.

Deep down we are afraid that others’ callings or gifts or interests have more significance than our own. So we compare to convince ourselves that our own interests/gifts/callings (i/g/c) matter—and since sin always takes a good thing (in this case, significance) and twists it—we cannot simply accept our own i/g/c as valuable but must de-value others’ differences in order to feel better in comparison.

My family has recently begun attending a church that strongly emphasizes the unity of the Body, so I’ve been doing much thinking about differences and gifts in the context of the church.

But it applies to my mom-world as well.

To look down on someone else’s i/g/c—be it paid or volunteer—is to denigrate the body of Christ (whether it is represented by a church family or a group of moms pulling off a school event). A single human—or mom—cannot do all the different tasks and assignments God is weaving together into one great whole. Therefore, each person’s unique contribution is needed. Crayola doesn’t produce nearly enough shades to accomplish God’s varied and beautiful masterpiece: one mom must color with her chartreuse; I with my burnt umber; another with cerulean blue:.

So some moms like to volunteer a lot in their kid’s school; some don’t. Some enjoy working outside the home; others don’t. Some like crafts and scrapbooking and recording life events in beautiful, handmade books; others—like me—hate that. Some are convinced that motherhood is the best phase of their lives; others of us are still wondering how it happened.

When we compare differences instead of celebrating them, we harm God’s work. Comparison keeps us from relationship with those who have varied interests or passions; it strips from us enjoyment and appreciation of another’s i/g/c (and therefore we don’t encourage others to use their gifts); ultimately, comparison robs us of joy in our own work.

I’ve thought a lot about valuing those who are down-and-out, who have a different ethnicity than mine, who feel “other.”

But what about valuing those who, from the outside, look so much like me?

Yesterday morning I attended the final session of the spring women’s Bible study at my church. With my contribution in hand (a plastic bag of bagels and cream cheese still in its container), I looked for the food drop-off area before heading to the chapel. I found a table laden with wonderful food, beautifully staged with lovely fabrics and antique pieces. Each of the eating tables nearby had sprays from a bridal veil bush artfully arranged in pots and jars.

I couldn’t do that if I had step-by-step instructions with a kit provided.

I wouldn’t even think of doing that.

And in spiteful moments, I might even look down on that gift as less necessary or valuable than the gifts of the women about to minister to me with their teaching and music and administration.

But—God be thanked—spite was absent.

Instead I noticed. I valued. I enjoyed.



Dry Wells

A reading of this post is at its end.

I really DO like dandelions--and wild violets.

I really DO like dandelions–and wild violets.

The well has run dry. At first it was simply, “I have to push off writing a blog post until I meet other writing deadlines.” Then, during a weekend when I spent MUCH time in the car running errands, I noticed an emptiness. No strings of thoughts connected in my head. Phrases popped up, but a blog post generally requires more than my observations on the nude dandelion stems I noticed when stopped at a red light. (Trying to put together a line that sounded like poetry, I played with ideas like “a tangle of hollow stems, wound round each other, trying to hide their nakedness” and “look-at-me blossoms withered to fluff. Now even that has blown away”).

But not only did that seem very negative toward dandelions–which I like–it was as far as I got. The thought trail ended, and my mind jumped next to “what to fix for dinner.”

Still, there wasn’t time to actually write, so the vague feeling of emptiness was easily shoved aside.

But this afternoon, the deadlines aren’t as pressing, so I’m writing a blog post.

And nothing is coming!

Usually panic would already be fluttering (“Will I ever be able to write again? Am I done?”), but today I’ve been able to pin its wings and tell it to “Settle down” in a firm voice.

It has.

That’s Grace.

Grace in painful kindness lets my well get bone dry so I stop looking at it and stop trying to sponge up the droplets. Grace helps me to see the cracks in my cistern and, oddly, to be at peace about my own brokenness.

Then Grace turns me to the spring that never runs dry.

Sometimes this Source is like a waterfall, spilling over me with power. Today, though, it is a gently bubbling brook, smooth, with no undercurrent. I will eventually wade, will plunge in, but for right now I am content to stretch out in the quiet shallows.

Grace knows exactly what I need.

I am very grateful for this, not only for the trust I am able to rest in today in regards to my writing, but for the understanding that this applies to my motherhood, to my marriage, to my friendships, to my running of a busy household.

My wells run dry—much of the time.

Making way for Grace.

And that’s good.

NOTE: I wrote this yesterday afternoon. This morning, at my church’s women’s Bible study, we sang “You’ll Come” by Hillsong United. These words jumped out at me: “You’ll come, let Your glory fall/As You respond to us/Spirit rain/Flood into our thirsty hearts again/You’ll come, You’ll come.” Here’s a link to the entire song performed by Hillsong: “You’ll Come.”

NOTE 2: I had already discovered some beautiful verses in Isaiah 58 that are incredibly inspiring (who doesn’t want to be known as a “repairer” and “restorer” of things/people who are broken!?). Then, also in the Bible study, I was reminded of the following verses in John 7. Enjoy–and thanks for reading.

John 7:37-39a (click on the link to read the entire chapter)

On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.”[c] 39 By this he meant the Spirit,whom those who believed in him were later to receive.

Isaiah 58:10-12 (click on the link to read the entire chapter)

“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
11 The Lord will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.
12 Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.

The neon of vanity

Look close--you can see the neon reflected in his eyes!

Look close–you can see the neon reflected in his eyes!

When seen in the light of bright sun, neon doesn’t shine.

You can’t even tell it’s on.

It has to be dark for neon to “look” bright.

My son, Patrick, questions, “Mom, why can’t we look right into the sun?”

Were we able to before sin darkened our souls?

Could we look right at God’s glory, brighter even than the sun He created, and gaze right at it?

Were we able to, moonlike, reflect it? To shine like Moses did—and that even when he wasn’t able to directly LOOK at God?

Anything I create that wars with God for supremacy is like neon,

But to reflect requires abdication of self

And I don’t find that in me.

It must require a looking elsewhere–

Like up.

536224_10202174906961243_2094760043_nTill I’m dazzled.

Celebrating our slivers

I took this pic in Kenya last summer. Those are discarded water bottle woven into a wire fence. Very creative!

I took this pic in Kenya last summer. Those are discarded water bottles woven into a wire fence. Very creative!

Not long ago one of the pastors at our church mentioned a scene in the movie Amadeus to illustrate a sermon point, and I was gripped by a line he repeated from it: “I am the patron saint of mediocrity.”

The musician Salieri says that at the end of the film. He has made a full confession to a young priest and finishes with that line. “You, too, are, mediocre,” he says in effect to the priest. “I, the patron saint of mediocrity, will speak for you.” He is referring to his musical talent as “mediocre,” but he didn’t always see it that way. As a younger man, he viewed it as a reward from God for his piety and devotion—until he was faced with the genius of Mozart, and realized his own talents paled in comparison. Not only does Salieri grow jealous of the younger composer’s gift, he is angry at God for giving them to such an irreverent man while he, Salieri, labors and toils “to the glory of God” and produces far less stellar work.

In the film (which is based on a legend and not exact truth) Salieri’s jealousy sours him. He stops producing music and fixates on Mozart’s destruction. He allows Mozart’s music to silence his own.

We all have that option. There are few geniuses; most of us muddle about in a state, comparatively, of mediocrity. But that shouldn’t dishearten us. It shouldn’t have disheartened Salieri.

No, he was not talented to the degree Mozart was. But what if Salieri had music only he could create? What if his abdication of his talent resulted in something being left undone that was meant to testify to some particular facet of God’s creativity and beauty? Compared to Mozart’s broader testimony, perhaps Salieri’s would have been but a sliver, but when Salieri abdicated his talents, he failed to redeem a portion of the manifestation of God lost to mankind in the Fall.

I’m extrapolating here in my application, but in trying to imitate someone else’s gift, or in failing to pursue the unique way in which God has gifted us (though it may be far less in scope and greatness than others), we “create” a lack. We “live” out and perpetuate the Fall. No, we in essence say, God is not purposeful and good. He plays favorites, and the amount of His love can be measured based on the ways He has gifted us. The cruel lie comes full circle when we believe we must earn God’s love and can do so only by exercising our talents; therefore, the lesser the talent, the less able we are to please God and “get” His approval and love.

Scripture tells us this is a lie. God honors the widow’s mite; Jesus extols the woman who anoints his feet with her tears and wipes them with her loose hair. He flat out says He chooses the weakest among humanity. The Beatitudes praise those who accept their vulnerabilities. The Gospel “works” only when we admit how greatly we need it, how completely unable we are to earn it.

So press on into your giftedness, no matter what it is. Press into it as part of God’s purpose for you, not as something you deserve, but as something He’s given so you can know and point to Him as the author of all good, of all creativity. Don’t compare your gift with others’ and don’t measure its greatness by how others react to it. Know (and remind yourself often) that since God gave the gift to you, He has purpose for it, and He is pleased when you exercise it. Your gift may not reach millions or even dozens of people. Your gift may be meant to touch only one. But to that person, your gift can be the touch of God.

There is a wonderful by-product to this: when we view and use our gifts in this way, we do not begrudge others theirs. We can rejoice. We can encourage. Salieri hurried down the road to bitter envy. We, instead, can support others in their talents. When we do this, our gifts mingle and grow, and our creativity is not only a testimony to God’s imagination but also to His love.

Early in Amadeus, when Salieri is still honored and praised as a gifted musician, Mozart listens to one of Salieri’s compositions. He immediately sits down, plays the piece from memory, critiques it, and then plays it again with his own vastly improved improvisations. Salieri’s face reveals his heart. He is shamed, and he is jealous. These are our natural reactions. But Romans tells us Christ has set us free from our natural “body of death” to think and live as redeemed people. How different might Salieri’s and Mozart’s stories have been had Salieri rejoiced in providing Mozart with an idea that Mozart was able to bring magically alive. Who knows what their partnership might have produced!

God certainly creates geniuses, people touched to create in seemingly effortless ways—it’s a little glimpse of God’s work! But the rest of us, gifted to one degree or another, in one way or another, are celebrated in Scripture as a body—working in harmony, honoring each other—especially those whose gifts are less celebrated by the world—and together providing a shimmering image of Christ.