bigger pond

Archive for the 'Faith' Category

Puritan Ghosts

Monday, September 15th, 2008

Sometimes it frightens me that I — in some mutant embodiment of the “Puritan work ethic” — seriously consider emotional and physical burn-out to be a viable option for dealing with a crisis. It’s right there, on the table next to wiser choices such as “seek professional counsel” and “stop trying to control the outcome of someone else’s life.” I can’t explain why it’s such an attractive option at the outset, but I am slowly recognizing just how diametrically opposed my choice of burn-out is to true incarnational living.

The Fun We Forget

Saturday, September 6th, 2008

I married off two siblings this summer, resulting in more people that I love becoming permanent fixtures in my life. While each of their weddings were lovely, I was most excited — not about the flowers, fanciness, or even the family gathering — but about everything that would happen after those six hours of vows, photographs, and other assorted trappings.

Paigey, Corinne, and I all grew up in Christian homes. We were all taught from the time we were little that marriage is a solemn endeavor. By the time we were in junior high and high school, a kind of healthy fear had been instilled in us of romantic relationships. We were acutely aware that marriage, mirroring the bond of Christ and the church, was hard work. That it would reveal our sin. That it would hurt us. That it would involve more tough “hanging on” than easy “being in love.” It’s a strange and somber state of mind that, I think, usually only occurs in those of us who have been raised in the church.

And I’m glad I was taught well. But, as I told each of my sweet sisters prior to their wedding days, these sober truths are far from the whole story. Sometimes, in the midst of our cautious ponderings, we forget a rather key aspect of marriage.

It’s also a lot of fun. Delightful, joyful fun.

Even the part where you’re hanging on.

Symbolism for the Body

Sunday, August 3rd, 2008

It’s been a long time coming, but this month Noel and I have finally been offered wine for communion at our own church. It is amazing — even unsettling — how quickly our bodies and minds rewire expectations. After two years of tipping back little cups of Welch’s finest every Sunday, I had grown to associate the solemn words, “Christ’s blood, for you,” with an easy shot of sugary, watery juice-from-concentrate.

When I took wine, I shivered a little. Rather than being a sweet, comforting splash, the wine stung. The initial sharpness and developing complexity jolted me. I can forget the grape juice almost immediately after I drink it. I cannot do that with the wine. The wine lingers. It traces a line of acid down my throat; its tannins linger in the back of my mouth. My body cannot forget it quickly, and so my mind and my spirit are prompted to consider longer and more carefully the gravity of what I have just done.

Isn’t this what Christ sacrifice is? Mingling a sting with layered richness, the wine speaks to the bitterness and the glory, the already and the not yet, that I claim when I take this sacrament.

When we begin to separate the physical reprecussions of the symbol from its spiritual meaning, we begin to veer towards an unhelpful — an incorrect — dualism of spirit and fbody. But God became flesh to save us. He gives us sacraments to call to our flesh, to offer us truth incarnate in touchable, tastable, visible forms. When I take the wine, I relish the symbolism that serves my soul through my body.

An Eva Hesse Kind of Week

Tuesday, March 11th, 2008

It is telling of my weakness that brief, punchy criticism directed towards my abilities in a none-too-important quadrant of my life can swiftly debilitate me. The specifics of the criticism were really immaterial; all I took away was a panicking sense of self-doubt, a questioning of my calling, and the impulse to cry any time someone asked me about my MA thesis.

Sometimes I have days or weeks that remind me of particular artists. I’ve had Fred Tomaselli days where everything seems like a fascinating, jubilant burst of colorful bits. I have had Kiki Smith weeks, where I am acutely aware of the aches and longings of those hurting around me. I have had Lorna Simpson days where the lingering, haunting effects of our culture’s past wrongs ask to be mourned. I’ve even had Marcel Duchamp days where life is just…wackier. (I can’t really say that I’ve ever had a Rubens day, though. I’m not sure what that would entail.)

The last five days — feeling incapable, fearful, and insubstantial — have been part of an Eva Hessa kind of week.

rope piece 1970

Working in New York through the sixties, Hesse worked both within and against the dominant minimalist aesthetic, creating works that toyed with materials and with its relationship to the viewer. Her works often projected out into the viewer’s space, blurring the demarcations between painting and sculpture, object and environment. Many of Hesse’s works, particularly in the late sixties, used new industrial – and dangerous – materials such as latex and fiberglass to create sculptural works which were powerful in their fragility. This work, Rope Piece from 1970, is a drooping, amorphous installation that evokes the body with a minimalist nod. Looped and dangling, the rope somehow still suggests a body.

My own body, while so tense from the stress of the last few days, recognizes itself here. It’s a body aware of weakness, a body on the brink of tears. My fear of others’ opinions — and thus my frequent forgetting of my freedom in Christ — can cripple me. I transpose the criticism of one area onto the substance of my very calling. Should I be in grad school? Should I be writing a thesis? Is my work meaningful? Original? Substantial? Why can’t I write a normal sentence?

With a sister in Darfur and a sister-to-be who is under great expectations, this existential crisis over my academic ability seems rather silly. To some extent, surely it is.

Yet the beautiful thing about Eva Hesse weeks is that I am also reminded of the Incarnation. The Incarnation is the Word becoming a tired, broken body. It is God being born in bloody straw, sweating as he walked, needing naps, crying bitterly. The Incarnation is the God giving dignity to particulars, saying “yes” to the importance of form and flesh and sight. The Incarnation is the reason my unsteady heart and welling fear need not paralyze me. And the Incarnation reminds me why this is my kingdom calling in the first place.

Full Buckets

Sunday, November 25th, 2007

As April and I reluctantly drove Rachel to the airport on Saturday morning, our buckets — our metaphorical storage containers for emotion — started to leak. The part of life where you don’t get to live with or right next to your best friends is probably a result of the Fall.

Noel and I had a wonderful Thanksgiving. We eschewed blood relatives this time around, and instead celebrated with old roommates, laughing about old times, but also excitedly participating in the now of each person’s life. We talked about new relationships, new churches, new programs of study, new heights and depths of cooking and cleanliness. It is so precious to see how these relationships have persisted, despite distance and changing seasons. These people are woven into my heart in surprisingly tight ways.

I am humbled to have these friendships. I am thankful that Noel and I have a little home where old friends can come and relax and be known. I am content, knowing that another Thanksgiving reunion will certainly come.

Loving the City

Sunday, August 19th, 2007

Prior to moving to St. Louis, I probably would not have announced any particular love for cities. I would certainly have told you that rural Idaho was not my schtick. I would probably have even proclaimed that large, mainland suburbs freak me out. Still, I would not have thought to tell you that I wanted to be an urbanite. Now, a year later, I have grown to love living in this city.

New Friend at the City Museum

(Loving a gargoyle at the City Museum)

I had a list of reasons for loving the city: the art, the food, the diversity of people, the energy, the accessibility. But those scattered perks had yet to coalesce into a coherent theology of living and investing in a city. Today, our assistant pastor (pulling from some of Tim Keller’s ideas on urban evangelicalism)gave me words for that.

A city, by its nature, is a place of refuge. Cities began as places of refuge, a place to be safe from the elements, enemy attacks, or hungry animals. Those who flock to the city today tend to be the impoverished, the homeless, the hurt, and the addicts, the refugees, immigrants, welfare recipients, and low-wage earners. They come because they need the city. They need a grocery store and a laundromat that is two blocks away. They need the concentration of minimum requirement jobs. They need wheelchair accessible curbs. Often, those who despise the city are those who are powerful enough to get along without it.

The city magnifies cultural development. Keller says that cities function like magnifying glasses, enlarging and intensifying all that the human heart contains. This, of course, includes both our divinely given, culture-making impulse and our inherently sinful nature. Cities thus become testaments of what God has called us to do and what he has forbidden.

The city is a place to meet God. The city is a place of spiritual restlessness. The crush of ideas and cultures packed so tightly together is unsettling. Rather than seeing the city as a place of spiritual decay, perhaps we can instead see it as a place of spiritual longing, a field ready to be sown and watered.

In Jeremiah 29:5-7, God tells His exiled people to invest — to make a home and a life — in a city they despised:

Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

It is in this context that He promises to give us a future and a hope. I want to think about the city — and our life in it — this way. Our little house, our mostly black neighborhood, the Eritrean restaurant owner who thinks Noel is a technological wonder, the Chinese architecture students who spent Thanksgiving with us, the university down the road, my friend Amy who lets me drop in her house just to visit, the black single mom that gives me fashion advice, the metro full of slightly smelly people, the workers who recognize me at the local coffee shop… this is our investment. It’s easy to romanticize the city, or to romanticize the impact that our daily, simple life has in the city. But all of this reminds me that I need other people. I am not — I cannot be — self-sufficient. And only when I am weak, does He make me strong.

Soccer, Marriage, and the Incarnation

Thursday, June 28th, 2007

I am married to a man who loves soccer.

Pop

I myself have always preferred soccer to the ridiculously torpid pace of baseball, the erratic momentum of American football, and the braggadocio of professional basketball, but I never quite imagined living a life that would include:

Now, lest anyone be either too impressed or appalled, I tend to do these things in the company of said soccer fanatic, a state of affairs which makes it all a little less sad and, perhaps, a little more theologically sound.

Marriage is a relationship that can only exist — much less thrive — on a foundation of continual and mutual self-sacrifice. Jesus’ example is clear: by taking on flesh to live and die, He became like those He loved. In ministry, particularly overseas, Christians widely embrace the idea of living among those whom they serve; by eating the food, wearing the clothes, and singing the songs of the people who surround them, they live out Christ’s love. Yet, particularly in my early college years, I worried about ‘losing’ myself when I got married. I saw my identity as something I needed to protect, something that should never really be compromised by a man. I would have, of course, told you that marriage should be a selfless relationship, but I imagined such sacrifice taking place on the more grand and dramatic stage of, say, ‘life goals’ or ‘caring for an ailing spouse.’

Eyeful

What I’ve been learning for the past two and a half years, though, is that the Incarnation is realized most truly in the mundane. It is echoed when I ask Noel to teach me how to punt a soccer ball. It’s knowing — and caring — where Samuel Eto’o plays next year. For Noel, it means asking for rice with dinner or going to a slew of gallery openings.

Pursuing an incarnational marriage means that I’m watching the Copa America tonight — US versus Argentina — and that I can’t wait.

Raising Kids Without Race

Wednesday, June 13th, 2007

Towards the end of the semester, discussion in my 1930s class rabbit-trailed to more contemporary debates that left me uneasy and rather at odds with the practical outworkings of contemporary theories on race. At it’s pithiest incarnation, the question was such: should the white, adoptive parents of a Guatemalan child raise that child to know Spanish? The implications may run deeper than you think.

If you teach a dark-haired, almond-eyed child to speak Guatemalan even though she is living in a Caucasian community, what are you saying about race? Do we assume that, simply because of biology, the girl will have some sort of affinity for the language? If she will never live in Guatemala, is it inauthentic to teach her to like Chiles Rellenos when her adoptive parents just eat steak and potatoes? If you teach her Spanish and culture, are you simply caving to the folks who will profile her by appearance and assume that she must speak another tongue? Are you giving in to racism?
Currently, critical race theory is the defacto position of most academics. It posits that race is purely a social construction that people “perform.” In other words, there are no inherent character vices or strengths that accompany the DNA that makes someone’s skin yellow or hair curly. African Americans are not naturally energetic. Japanese Americans are not naturally conscientious. Caucasians are not naturally adventurous. Instead, any shared characteristics in groups of people who share biological race are the results of social conditioning. I mimic those around me. I act “white” — as I have seen it performed — when I want to be perceived as “white.” I act “Japanese-American” when I am expected to do so.

The attraction of this theory is, of course, that it firmly repudiates the dangerous xenophobic and racist logic of, say, the Third Reich. Where I get stuck, however, is in its actual practice.

We are all culture-bound image-bearers. At first consideration, I suppose that statement could fit nicely with critical race theory. Yet, I wonder if part of recognizing our tie to culture is to acknowledge and confront, rather than theoretically deny, the ways that race has shaped our current relationships. I think it’s worth it for a Guatemalan girl — even one raised in Missouri — to know how cultural, historical perceptions of race play into the ‘need’ for her to be adopted in the first place. It’s worth explaining to her why people might speak slowly and loudly to her and why some day she’ll have trouble finding makeup that matches her skin tone. Can you really raise kids without race?

Already. Not Yet.

Thursday, April 12th, 2007

Over the last few weeks, through the Lenten season, I have been reminded — joyfully and achingly — of redemption’s already and not yet.

The “already” is breathtaking. Marriages are starting, friends are beginning new ventures, siblings are finding success in their callings. Mary Bell is finally going to Japan. Our small group is growing with newly arrived and newly announced infant additions.

But, the “not-yet” is heartbreaking. Friends have revealed ongoing health struggles and emotional aches. Two days after her baptism, Amelia, a little baby from our church here, was diagnosed with leukemia. Yesterday, Caldwell, one of Paige’s roommates was in a serious car accident and is now in the ICU. Their hurt is real and they, and their families, need your prayers.

Kiki Smith, Untitled 2002

Art people talk a lot about the “abject.” Julia Kristeva, in “Approaching Abjection” writes that the abject is the cast aside and the wretched that stands just outside the order that we know. According to Kristeva, since the abject exists along the edges of our comfort, when we are confronted by its reality we are challenged; it “beseeches a discharge, a convulsion, a crying out.”

I find myself returning to Kiki Smith’s 2002 sculpture Untitled: a crouched figure with the long, stretched out arms, broken in its beseeching. The figure is stripped bare with visionless eyes and cold skin. For the unbeliever, the work stops at the reminder of human fragility. For the Christian, our theology of the not-yet allows us to face the already without denial or fear. Instead, we recognize the damage and the creation’s cries as the devastation wrought by sin. But hurt so great demands a greater Savior, a greater redemption, a greater future than we can imagine.

And this is why I study contemporary art; the broken bodies become my acts of worship. While believing the resurrection hope, Untitled ensures that I never forget the visceral and enduring ache of sin.