Be Still and Create

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“In an age of movement, nothing is more critical than stillness. In an age of distraction, nothing can feel more luxurious than paying attention.”

Pico Iyer in The Art of Stillness


I sit on my couch, coffee beside me, mindlessly playing a game on my iPhone. This has never been a problem for me before, but it is now.  I was the one that never succumbed to this kind of mindless drivel. I would create through writing, decorating, or planning innovative public health programs.  Now, even when I have time I struggle to focus; struggle to keep any sort of disciplined schedule.  As I play the game, my mind wanders. It wanders to my mom, a recent widow; to one of my children who is going through a crisis; and then on to other more mundane worries. They all have one thing in common: they are out of my control. What is in my control is pressing five red squares linked together. This will create a rocket, and with that little rocket, I will win this game and claim victory over a machine. And then I will do it again, and again, and again.  Until I don’t win, and I restlessly realize that I have just spent an unthinkable amount of time on a phone game.

In The Art of Stillness, author Pico Iyer talks about how many people in Silicon Valley try to observe an internet Sabbath. People take a 24 to 48 hour break from their online jobs creating high tech instruments and content so they can relax and reboot. Employees take this time so that they are at maximum creativity when they return. They rest so they can create programs that keep us, their ever-willing customers, online all the time. It is a profound irony that someone somewhere may have taken an internet Sabbath and then created a game that I now sit and play for hours. I squander my moments of stillness and with it, my ability to create.

I have run out of lives on my game, and so I wait. I wait and I think about what it means to be still; what it means to renew my mind and soul so that I will pay attention; so that I will have both the desire and the will to create.


I live in a city that goes to bed late and gets up in the early morning hours. My first activity as I leave my apartment is to walk 15 minutes to the subway. Noise is immediate and continuous. It’s in the train engine roaring, in people having conversations, in the homeless population at Central Square, sometimes insulting each other and other times laughing, but always loud. I travel three stops to my office in downtown Boston, the busiest section of the city. The pace and demands are relentless, wordlessly declaring that being still is an absurd impossibility. And this creeps into my subconscious mind, so that even when I have time, I have bought into the lie that being still is impossible.

Yet all around, I see evidence of how being still creates life. The small purple flowers of crocuses have just emerged from a still earth.  The brown branches of long dormant forsythia have given birth to brilliant yellow flowers.  Budding trees and bushes join this holy movement and add their pops of color against a grey April sky and cold sterile buildings.  After months of stillness, spring bursts forth like an artist who has taken a sabbatical and moves on to create her greatest work of art.

It is the work of a God whose infinite creativity spoke a world into being, who marked off the dimensions of the earth’s foundations as morning stars sang.

“Where were you
when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you possess understanding!
Who set its measurements—if you know—
or who stretched a measuring line across it?
On what were its bases set,
or who laid its cornerstone—
when the morning stars sang in chorus,
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”*

Between marking off the measurements of the earth’s foundations and laying its cornerstone, was God still? Did he create, and then sit in stillness, communing with members of the Trinity, only to go back days, months, and years later and create more? Has stillness always been a part of creation?

Be still, and breathe.

Be still, and create.

Be still, and bring life.

Be still, and know God.


The lives on the game have refreshed. I pause a minute and realize that what I long for, this game cannot give. Only taking a time to be still will equip me to write the words I long to write, to create the programs I long to create.  I reluctantly shut off my phone, the hardest step in the process of disengaging from what has become my adult pacifier. Outside the city is still. Inside, I sit in stillness, my own communion with the holy Trinity. This moment is perhaps the most creative thing I will do today, but it is a start and it is enough.


*Job 38: 4-7 NET

Purchase Between Worlds or Worlds Apart here for $15.00/each or 2 for $25!

A Life Overseas – Creating Place

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I’m at A Life Overseas today talking about creating a sense of place and home. I would love it if you joined me! 


In recent years, authors have released a plethora of Christian books about home and place. From Jen Pollock Michel’s Keeping Place to Tish Oxenreider’s At Home in the World, many have a lot to say about roots, feeling at home, and stability.

I read these books with both appreciation and cynicism. I’ve lived in 28 houses on continents and can’t count the hours I’ve spent moving or in airports.  So I appreciate that writers take time to explore home and place, but I also read with skepticism. Do they really know what it’s like to be uprooted? Do they really understand what it is to be separated from family and friends by oceans and continents for long periods of time? Do they honestly know what it is to try to create home when everything ‘home like’ is gone? I’m well aware that this is arrogant, that to long for home is human, but there are times when I still feel it.

The ALOS community knows all about pulling up roots, transplanting, and working to feel at home where we don’t belong.

In truth, I believe that one of the most important things we can do overseas is create place and home. Living as if this world is not our home may sound good in a hymn, but it neglects the important truth about who we are as humans. In the words of Paul Tournier, we are incarnate beings and to be human is to need a place, to be rooted and attached to that place.  Spending years in borrowed housing, eating from borrowed dishes, and living on borrowed furniture is not healthy when our goal is to enter a community overseas. If everything around us shouts “temporary”, it’s hard for us to feel rooted.

But how do we do that? There are two areas that I want to discuss: The first is a theology of place while the second is a purely practical look at how we might physically create space.

Theology of Place: 

First off, I think we need to recognize the importance of place and home. We can’t create a home if we don’t think doing so is important.

A year after I graduated from college, I decided to go overseas to work as a nurse. It was summer and I was living in the city of Chicago. Since I was leaving for Pakistan in September my roommate and I decided to get rid of most of the things in our apartment in June. We blithely rid ourselves of all the things that we owned. Down came curtains; out the door went furniture; into the hands of friends went dishes and precious items. It was a horrible summer and I ended up in tears in a counselor’s office. As we talked, the counselor began quizzing me on my living situation. When she discovered that I barely had a bed and a few dishes, she gently informed me that this was one of the problems.  I had assumed that getting rid of all my earthly belongings three months before I left was the best way for me to prepare. I was wrong. I lived as a temporary, friendless person that summer. My disconnection from place was profound and I suffered because of it.

In coming to us through the Incarnation, Jesus attached himself to time and place. He was a human who lived during a specific historic time period. He was son of Mary and Joseph, a carpenter. He was John’s cousin and he lived in Nazareth where he inhabited a physical home. I like to imagine that Mary delighted in creating earthly space for this son of hers; the one who was present at the creation of the world when God the Father created our physical home; the one who would dramatically bridge the gap between heaven and earth for the rest of us so that one day, we would have a permanent home.

In an interview with A Life Overseas, Jen Pollock Michel writes: “At the beginning, Genesis 1 drives toward this idea that God is making a habitable world for his people. ‘It is good’ is a way for God to say, ‘It is homelike. People can live here.’ And then of course in Revelation, we see God bringing heaven to earth and welcoming his children to dwell with him.” 

I think it’s easy for us as Christians to disavow the importance of home and place; to perhaps see ourselves as more spiritual because we live in rented homes, or serve in far off places and aren’t as tethered to place as the friend with a five bedroom house and full basement. But perhaps that tethered friend has something to teach us about creating space. In leaving homes and families to work in communities that are different from we are, it is important to write our names in the land and learn how to live well in those places. One of the ways that we live well is by creating home and place.

While this earth may be temporary, in creating us God called us into a particular space and time – we honor that when we create place. Place will change, but the character of God will not. He will always be a God who values home, who invites us to his eternal home. This understanding is foundational to using the practical tools that follow.

Join me here at A Life Overseas to read the rest of the piece!

We are Too Fortunate


This weekend we walked along the rocky coast, a bright sun beginning its journey to set and emerge on the other side of the world. It was so incredibly beautiful. “We are too fortunate!” I thought to myself.

Too fortunate.

The words are not original to me, but they came into my vocabulary a number of years ago through an artist’s pottery shop in the town of Rockport. On this Monday, where my Sabbath rest collides with my daily reality, I want to remind myself of those words “We are too fortunate.”


Travel to the end of Route 128 in the North Shore of Boston and you will end up in Rockport, Massachusetts – a charming town on the rocky Atlantic coast, where art galleries mix with unique shops and beautiful gardens.

Rockport is at the end of the railway line and there is not a better ending to that particular train journey.

Some of the well-known landmarks in the area include Bearskin neck jutting into the sea and the main tourist area of the town and Motif #1, an old fishing shack that is said to be the most painted site in all of the United States;

A number of years ago there was a small pottery shop in town called Too Fortunate Pottery. I first discovered this shop years ago when, wanting to escape the madness of an American mall at Christmastime, my husband and I chose to do all of our Christmas shopping in Rockport. Wandering in to the pottery shop I wanted to stay forever.  The shop was filled with light and creativity. It wasn’t just the pottery itself, beautiful though it was, it was the peace and the space transporting me to a world  beyond my current reality. Perhaps it was the timing since we found this shop in the middle of a critical process of culture-shock, experiencing our first Christmas in ten years in the United States after moving from Cairo.

On one of my future visits to the shop I began speaking with one of the owners.  I asked her about the name of the store. She looked at me, paused, and then replied “One day, as we were working and creating, we looked at each other and realized that we were too fortunate to have this shop and do what we loved all day long. The name came to us that day – Too Fortunate Pottery.”

I have never forgotten this conversation and this window into the creativity and gratefulness of the artists.

Perhaps it’s my limited view, but I see fewer people passionate about their work. I can’t think of many who could put up the sign “Too Fortunate” to describe their life’s work and calling. There are also many who may not be willing to give up their retirement plans, yearly raises, and that critical 2-week vacation that the west understands as the American Dream to do what they are passionate about. For others, it is finances and life circumstances that dictate their work, demanding attention to jobs that are not their life choice.

This is what makes the work of the artist so critical and desperately needed.  Because artists create spaces where the rest of us can relax and enter into places where time doesn’t matter and peace radiates all around.

In the words of another, art becomes essential not decorative* so that we too might consider ourselves too fortunate.

*Bono on The Psalms

This post was revised from one written in 2011. 

Live Slowly; Enter in Gently

I find it impossibly difficult to return to writing after summer time. It’s so maddening. I finally have the space and the quiet I need to write and … nothing. Brick walls. Dead ends. The words refuse to come. I have nothing to say. I have nothing more to write about.

Perhaps you haven’t noticed, but I really don’t write much during the summer. Like many I greet every summer with joy at the longer lazy days. Summer in Kansas smells like fresh cut grass and barbecues, sunscreen and chlorine. I enjoy my kids streaming in the front door and heading out the back. The youngest teenager still needs shuttling around and it pleases me to drop her off at the pool or at a friend’s house. One would think that with flexible scheduling would come serendipitous wide-open moments to write. However in my experience those moments never seem to materialize. I end up frustrated and greatly peeved at the people and perturbances that seem to conspire to keep me from picking up my proverbial pen! The problem perplexes me every year and then I’m perpetually surprised at my perennial seasonal shock!

The summer is now over. At least here in Kansas it seems that way. University students are pouring back into town and settling in on campus. Our local school district officially welcomed back elementary and secondary school students on Tuesday. The air is cooling off a little at night now. The fall football schedule is published. Summer is over.

I sat down to write yesterday morning. Granted, I did have some technical problems with my aging Macintosh computer, but that didn’t fully explain why I had the hardest time writing. Nothing would come. I started several attempts, bits of words, bobs of ideas, but nothing stuck. I couldn’t write. I contemplated messaging Marilyn that I’m done. I can no longer write. I really do have nothing to say.

I suppose it’s similar to how I felt when we got back from our family vacation on August 10th. August 11th I woke up completely overwhelmed. I sat in my chair with my morning cup of coffee and quietly contemplated the day and the daunting list of things to do. The amount of things on that list left me paralyzed. I wasn’t sure how to proceed. Lowell joined me on the other side of the room, in his chair, and he enquired after me. I took a deep breath and said, unbeknownst even to myself, “I’m determined to live slowly today.” I’m not sure where that bubble of wisdom broke loose from but it rose quietly to the surface in response to my own panic and Lowell’s question and it seems to apply to the writing thing too.

More wisdom came today when I finally prayed about my writing woes. I brought my stubborn fingers to the Father; I laid bare my broken word bank to his scrutiny. Any purpose in me that points to writing comes only from him. I’m created to bear the Divine’s image to the world…part of how I do that is through my words, my writing. Of course it makes sense to pray about it. And as I did another quiet thought floated to the top, “Enter in Gently, Robynn”.

It was balm and bandage. It was consolation and (hopefully) a quiet cure. I will live slowly. I will breath in and out the creative courage that comes from the very Spirit of God. I will enter in gently.

I know the application is broader than returning from a holiday or coming back to writing. We are given many opportunities to live slowly and enter gently. Oftentimes it seems more efficient to rush through our panic, to push past our own obstinacies or hesitations. But I think more often than not, even if the to-do is accomplished, we’ve only served to muddy the waters and stir up our spirits to greater anxieties. Living slowly and with gentle rhythms works against that frenzy and mysteriously frees us up to be more present, more whole hearted.

There’s an old song we used to sing at boarding school. I think the words went something like this: I want to be the pen of a ready writer; and what the Father gives to me I’ll bring. I only want to do his will. I only want to glorify my king. I knew it was from a psalm but for the life of me I couldn’t remember it well enough to find it. Until today. Psalms 45:1 is a writer’s holy mandate and when read gently reads like this (in a modern slightly me-modified version):

My heart bursts its banks,
spilling beauty and goodness.
I pour it out in a poem to the king,
shaping the river into words….slowly and gently!

 

 

Meditations and Truth – A Book Giveaway


Sun streams through lace curtains as I sit in my living room. Except for the low buzz of my electronic servants that sit in my kitchen, it is completely quiet.

It has felt like a rough week. Orthodox Lent began on Sunday night, a night when I was sitting in an  immigration line that stretched to the airplane gate at Logan International Airport. The week did not get easier. Family sickness that led to urgent care visits and intravenous fluids, jet lag exhaustion, multiple priorities at work, and adhering to a strict first week fast had me face to face with my human frailty and my anger. I didn’t like what I saw. This morning I woke to news that a suicide bomb went off in a busy street in Istanbul. A street where my brother and sister-in-law walk many times a week for church and jobs, where Turks gather by tens of thousands every week. I am acutely aware of a world broken and my own part in that world.

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Over a month ago I received a coloring book from Doorlight Publications. Would I be willing to take a look and review the book? I had sort of kept up with the “adult coloring book” trend, and I love coloring so I said yes — I would be glad to.

The book arrived late afternoon one day and I began flipping through it. I was taken aback by how beautiful the drawings were.  Each one is a hand drawn masterpiece. The artist, Lorien Atwood, grew up in Pakistan and the Middle East, and the designs are clearly inspired by these parts of the world that I love. They are a rich ensemble of lines and circles that flow into gorgeous designs. But this coloring book is different – because in the middle of each drawing is a verse taken from the Bible. Each drawing expertly symbolizes the verse and the result is remarkable. As you color, you find yourself meditating on the words before you and truth soaks into and awakens your soul.

As I looked at each drawing, and thought of the hours of work of this artist, an artist who loves God and uses her God-given gift to create, the words of Madeleine L’Engle came to mind:

“God is constantly creating, in us, through us, with us, and to co-create with God is our human calling. It is the calling for all of us, his creatures, but it is perhaps more conscious with the artist–or should I say the Christian artist?”

Setting out my colored pencils, I picked my colors and began to add to what Lorien started for me. I had no real plan, just the pencils and the art in front of me. Before long, the picture began to sing through the black and white. Colors and words flowed together and I found myself relaxing, meditating, and thinking of how, when we give it a chance, truth changes us.

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I think about this now, as I remember the week before. Truth changes us. But sometimes we have to sit still long enough to let it happen.  

__________________

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Blogger’s Note: I am not one to quickly buy into trends, but this book is no trend. It is a beautiful, reflective work of art created specifically to use as meditation and encouragement. I will be giving away two of these books at Communicating Across Boundaries through Western Holy Week. If you want to be considered, please leave a comment here. I look forward to sharing these with you! They are remarkable.

If you are interested in purchasing a book and don’t want to wait for the giveaway, the books are for sale at Coloring in Truth USA. 

Read an interview with Lorien here

On Being Miss Rumphius and Robynn Bliss

 

lupines by Janet Wachter

Today Robynn is taking a day off – I dedicate this post to her and talk about why she’s taking today off at the end! 

One of my favorite children’s books is Miss Rumphius. 

The book begins with a little girl named Alice on a grandfather’s lap. There she would sit listening to exciting stories of faraway places. She would listen and listen and then say to her grandfather “When I grow up, I too will go to faraway places, and when I grow old, I too will live beside the sea.”

Her grandfather says ““That is all very well, little Alice”….“but there is a third thing you must do…You must do something to make the world more beautiful.”

“All right” says Alice. So Alice becomes a librarian – A librarian named Miss Rumphius. As a librarian she helped children find books that told them all about far away places. When she retired she decided to travel herself to see some of those far away places she had only visited through books. She travels and travels, gets tired, and finally ends up in a small cottage by the sea. But she still hasn’t figured out what to do to make the world a more beautiful place. Miss Rumphius ends up with a terrible back ache and has to have complete bed rest. It’s while laying in her bed that she knows what she wants to do to make the world a more beautiful place: she will plant lupine seeds. That way lupines will grow all over the country side.

So when Miss Rumphius is well again that’s what she does. She walks all over spreading lupine seeds. And the next year the ground is covered with beautiful lupines. She is now little and old and people call her the “lupine lady.”

The book ends delightfully with Miss Rumphius telling her nieces and nephews stories about far away places. And when they say they too want to go live in far away places and have houses by the sea she says to them exactly what her grandfather said to her:

“That is all very well….”but there is a third thing you must do…You must do something to make the world more beautiful.”

The book is based on the author’s great-aunt. It is a delightful read no matter what age you are and should be on every child’s bookshelf.

Today I was reminded of this beautiful book when my friend Janet, an amazing photographer, posted pictures of beautiful lupines. On this Friday the idea of lupines and making the world a more beautiful place makes me smile. And it makes me think of Robynn who is taking this week off as she transforms a house that is not beautiful into a place that is beautiful and warm, a place where she can love her family and care for her mother-in-law. And I love this. I love that she is transforming a house. I love that the ugly mural on a wall is being covered with fresh paint. I love that she is in the business of helping to transform lives and souls. 

So here’s to you on your day off Robynn! Keep on making the world a more beautiful place — through your writing which we get to enjoy weekly, through transforming your house, and for being a person used to transform souls. We love you.

Today how can you make the world a more beautiful place? 

Picture Credit: Janet Wachter who is also making the world a more beautiful place. Thank you Janet!

Readers – stay tuned for a book giveaway next week! 

 *Check out the book Between Worlds:Essays on Culture and Belonging – Available at Amazon USAmazon UKAmazon GermanyBarnes & Noble!

 

In Praise of Idle Moments

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 The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done. “Idle dreaming is often of the essence of what we do,” wrote Thomas Pynchon in his essay on sloth. Archimedes’ “Eureka” in the bath, Newton’s apple, Jekyll & Hyde and the benzene ring: history is full of stories of inspirations that come in idle moments and dreams from Tim Kreider in “The Busy Trap”

It’s a Thursday morning and I am blurry with a post World Series hangover of sorts. For the many of you who are not from the United States, the World Series is an annual event crowning the baseball season. Among sports enthusiasts in the U.S. this is a Big Deal. And this year the team who came out shining is the Boston Red Sox. This is My Team. I am not a sports enthusiast, but one of the things I’ve done in recent years is to try to understand the excitement that baseball garners in this part of the world. Call it an anthropological study if you will. This team, whose home field is walking distance from where I live, was my maternal grandma’s favorite. I needed to understand something of the magic if I was to live here, just like I needed to understand the love of soccer in Egypt, or cricket in Pakistan. And a surprising thing has happened– one that has taught me some good lessons about living cross- culturally in my passport country. It turns out I like this game they call “baseball”! I’ll write more on that in a later post because I think there are some good lessons to be explored.

But for now I’m taking a break.
It turns out that my post from Tuesday on the security blanket of busy touched an unexpected nerve. The words “I’m so busy” are deeply ingrained in our vocabulary, more so our actions. My cousin, Judi, said this “It’s more than ingrained…it’s like it is revered, prized, valued.” 

But beyond the words is how embedded this is in our psyche, in the fabric of who we are and the damage this does to our health, our creative abilities, and our friendships.

CS Lewis says “We live, in fact, in a world starved for solitude, silence, and private: and therefore starved for meditation and true friendship.

I will be honest — I have lacked inspiration for just about everything lately. I am doing mediocre work at my day job, I don’t feel I have much to share in person, and I am struggling to find inspiration in writing. I have glorified busy and I am reaping the fruits.

Perhaps you feel the same.

I think I need some idle moments. In idle moments I can step back and “see the whole” not just the fragmented parts. In idle moments I can gain wisdom and a heart for people. In idle moments I can hear God.

So I’m going to give you a bit of space from my writing, and me some necessary space from my own voice, and I am going to idle. I am going to have some idle moments and dreams!

How about you? Do you need time to be idle in the best possible way? To read and dream, to hear the voice of God? 

Word of God speak
Would You pour down like rain
Washing my eyes to see
Your majesty
To be still and know
That You’re in this place
Please let me stay and rest
In Your holiness
Word of God speak

Blogger’s Note:  Robynn’s post from Friday will be published as planned on Friday – and I will see you soon! Thank you so much for entering my world through reading and commenting. It is a gift.