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. 

On Being Miss Rumphius and Robynn Bliss

 

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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!

 

Blogs are Relentless Critters….

By Robynn

English teachers always say, “Write about what you know”.

Well today I don’t know much. I think I’m all wrote out.

Being a part of the Communicating Across Boundaries blog has been a high privilege for me. I love the weekly discipline of writing. I love being forced into a corner and being made to put it all down on paper. It’s been so good for me, so cathartic, so healing. I love you, the readers. I cherish your interactions with each piece, your comments. The moment, although rare, when a friend or an acquaintance who, unbeknownst to me, reads the blog and tells me so when we meet…that moment is priceless! I’m humbled by the idea that you take time to read and interact with what you read.

But blogs are relentless critters. The weekly blog starts whimpering the minute the previous one has been submitted. Blogs refused to be ignored. They bark. They bicker. They belch and bitch.

And they make so many assumptions. Each week the blog presumes I have one great thought, or one brilliant insight, or at the very least one mildly amusing anecdote. There’s no room for nothing. I must generate something. I must encapsulate one moment and wrap it in clever jargon and serve it up with a discerning punch line or wise moral message.

Today my pen is dry. My thoughts are garbled. My moments mock interpretation. Wisdom is scarce. Amusing isn’t funny.

A friend of Henri Noewen, the prolific Catholic writer, once said of him, “Henri never had an unpublished thought.”

I guess some of mine aren’t worth publishing…at least not today.

Of course the bemused reality is that –voila! –I did indeed generate a clever blog piece for today and I did provide one thoughtful insight, namely that not all insights are that thoughtful. So the subversive blog wins again, proving my point and bringing up that old cliché: damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Or perhaps it’s what that great writer Madeleine L’Engle says: “Inspiration usually comes during work, rather than before it.”
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Warehouse Epiphany.

Ugly pieces of furniture are piled up in a musty warehouse. It’s hard to distinguish a dresser from a chair, a table from a nightstand. Scratched and worn, these pieces seem to languish; cast offs from a better day.

And then my husband picks one out, his eyes alight with challenge. “This piece” he says. “It will be beautiful!”.
It’s the eyes of the artist that see past the worn. The piece has good bones; can be restored to beauty and purpose.

Me? I still think it’s ugly.

But our living room is proof that he’s right. That ugly worn can be transformed to a piece that captures the eye with its charm and style. So I smile as we wedge the piece into our car.

The difference? He sees through the eyes of a creator, an artist; through eyes of his soul.

The lesson is not lost. We — sitting in Life’s warehouse feeling often ugly, scratched and worn, are seen by our Creator-artist as useful and beautiful. We have amazing potential when the artist is given room to transform.

I’m lost in the wonder of truth; this warehouse epiphany. I hold tight to what I know is a revelation from my Creator.

The ugly- worn can be transformed to beautiful-useful.

I smile as we drive home.

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And God Said “Tonight I’ll Give Them….Chartreuse”

By the time we reached our favorite rocks the sun was setting over the ocean. The colors looked as if all the blue, purple, green and gold had spilled out across a canvas, blended yet distinct, in a crash of colors. Standing on the rocks we stared, we marveled. There is no way man could create such beauty.

My husband shook his head and looking toward the ocean said “And God said ‘Tonight I’ll give them….. Chartreuse'” We both laughed. It was just like that. As if God had come out with his brushes and in broad strokes painted the sky just for us, deciding on colors at the last minute to surprise and delight.

Of all the analogies that we try to use to help our finite peanut-sized brains grasp the character and person of God, God as artist is my favorite.

An artist that delights in the work of their hands, that paints with broad sweeps and draws with the infinite detail of pen and ink; that uses clay one day, shaping it into pitchers and bowls, and oil the next; that reaches into a never-ending box of brushes and artist supplies and comes up with the newest creative project.

And the grateful audience sits back in awe. Only we aren’t just an audience – we are participants in his creative process, his thoughtful design. We not only long for and appreciate beauty, we love to create it. Beauty nourishes the soul and revives the spirit.

When I doubt the goodness of God I have only to think of the ocean, the waves and the tonight-I’ll-give-them-chartreuse sky.

“Art is as much a necessity for man as eating and drinking. The need for beauty and creation embodying it is inseparable from man, and without it man would perhaps have refused to live in the world. Man craves it, finds and accepts beauty without any conditions just because it is beauty and worships it with veneration…. and it is perhaps in this that the greatest secret of creative art lies, namely that the image of beauty created by art at once becomes something to be worshipped without any conditions…. The need for beauty is felt more strongly when men are at variance with their reality, in a state of disharmony, in conflict, that is to say, when they are most of all alive.” Dostoevsky 

Coming up Empty

What do you do when you come up empty? 

My pen is poised but I come up empty. Thoughts should be swirling – there are enough ideas to last a life time in the city. But my eyes are not communicating to my brain, and my brain is not communicating to my pen. I feel like I have nothing of substance to say.

It’s this that tells me I need a break, need to rest awhile. My tired body and brain are on overdrive and it shows in my inability to create.

This happens in life. We come up empty. Like being in line at a fruit stand longing for the taste of the golden banana, ripe enough but not too ripe; or the deep red strawberries, plumper than we’ve ever seen – only to find that we have no money; our purse or pockets are empty. The disappointment is acute and though we may try bribing or bargaining our way into the grace of the fruit stand man, we rarely walk away with what we planned.

Unlike the fruit stand, I don’t have to bargain or bribe my way out of this. “Seek the Lord and his strength” I am told in the Book by my bedside. “Seek his presence continually.”* the written words speak and challenge from the page.

My job is to keep writing and rest in the outcome. Keep trusting that words will come, put together just as my Creator intends. And to rest in the God who knows my frame.

I don’t know where you are today – but I know that there are times where life comes up empty and blank.  Perhaps this is when we are most willing and ready to have God write our page in words that are powerful with ink that won’t fade.

What do you do when you come up empty? 

*1 Chronicles 16:11

Demon of Domestic Perfection – Be Gone!

I love to decorate. I have been known to wander around for hours with a picture looking for that perfect spot, until I finally find it – over the antique table with the pottery on it, or above a chair, or whatever it is I find. Until it’s hanging at the perfect height in the perfect place, I will not rest.

I attribute my love of decorating to Nancy and Bettie Addleton. From the time I was a little girl, I used to love seeing what “Auntie Bettie” had done in her home. She could turn a mud hut into a mansion, using all locally made materials. In some of the villages where she lived during her years in Pakistan, that was quite a feat, but she found pottery, wicker, plants and fabrics that would make interior decorators in Paris envious. Her daughter, Nancy, followed suit and always had a great eye for putting things together to create a perfect ensemble. As I began to experiment with creating and decorating, I discovered that it was fun as well as a way to express myself through my surroundings until a few years ago.

It was at that time that I realized I had been inhabited by a demon of perfection and it was a terrible place to be. I was living in Phoenix in a beautiful home, surrounded by homes that were even more beautiful. There in lay my dissatisfaction and my quest for domestic perfection. The God-given gift of creativity had become a demon that couldn’t be satisfied, despite numerous trips to Home Goods for wall art and trinkets and Home Depot for light fixtures and paint.

I, the person who sat on floors eating curries in villages in Pakistan, the woman who didn’t think she would ever own a house, the person who lived in Pakistan and Egypt, who had traveled around Turkey and the Sinai with small children, had become a crazy person addicted to perfection in my home.

It took a move to a city and losing 1000 square feet of living space to exorcise the demon. The designer paint and cathedral ceilings I was so proud of are long gone and in their place is a decent sized condo that will not be in a magazine but smells and looks like home with all its comfort and imperfection. I still love the occasional poring over magazines and creating, but the love is in its proper place and no longer an obsession with perfection.

When does a love for something and a gift cease to be either, and become bondage? It can happen with almost anything – our intellects, our art, our jobs, our “ministries”, our backgrounds, or the achievements of our children. It’s a subtle cross-over where something goes from being a gift given by God to be developed and used  and moves to a place of taking over our identity and giving us value, instead of the opposite. Our attachment and obsession is not always noticeable, until we lose what we had. Then the crisis comes.

In the case of domestic perfection, I have realized that my home is to be a vehicle by which to share my life, if it becomes anything more, or anything less, then I need to examine why.