Saturday, October 19, 2013

of scars and meaning; a treatise on stories

"I like the scars because I like the stories.  Bravery, stupidity, pain-- none of them come easy." -Julie Martinez.

There's an idea that runs around certain circles that "Christian stories" ought to to be clean and neat, wrapped up little boxes of suburbanized ideas, white picket fences, and August barbecues while you tell someone you're praying for them (though you'll probably forget.)

I've fallen in love with quite a different kind of story, the kind that I hope to write about and read about and live for the rest of my pinprick of a life.

In the stories I love, there are monsters;

they are dragons, grand and steaming fire.
they are aliens with strange faces and brazen violence.
they are bureaucrats with plastic pens.
they are demons who look like angels and speak with an orangey- grey tinge.
they are men who have run from pain and into drunkenness.
they are wrapped in barbed wire, estranged from hope.

I don't believe that sharp edged darkness is stronger than light, and I believe that though the hero's hands may waver, the best stories are the kinds that march through a kind of soul blackness, the kinds that cross swords in the valley of the shadow of death-- that feature the kinds of heroes that emerge only because they had something stronger than death and hell pushing them forward and giving them strength (and peace.)

In the stories I love, the heroes are human;

some of them brave and cursed and still fighting.
some of them forgiven, clad in white.
some of them burdened by the stars.
some of them craving escape and crying out for home.
some of them curled up in little balls because of their pain.
some of them numb, broken by their own sins.
some of them tragedies with hearts of gold.

In these stories, the heroes are not perfect, they are not stain-free, and they are usually scarred.   They are fighters, believers and unbelievers, hopeful and depressed, struggling to pursue the light.   Finding it does not come free or easy, but I would argue that the stories are better for it.

"Why do we look for truth in books?"  -Daniel Schwabauer

We're storied creatures, bathed in the echoes of humanity, thirsting for our lives to be more than a blip on the radar, a pinprick on the tackboard.   We pretend we're searching for security, for safety and happiness, but it's not true.  We want what we've wanted since childhood-  a good story.  But we've grown up being told that stories are insignificant, that they're entertainment; something to come home to after a long day; nothing more.

But stories, grand stories, terrifying stories, the kind that make children quake and shake comfortable adults from suburban lives onto great adventures, the kind that are about darkness and light and the invasion of hope into a bleak world, the kind that feature terrible monsters and noir heroes and conflict that points to glorious, universe shaking Truth--

those stories are the kind we're running from, and the kind that some of us are desperate enough to sell everything to find.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

I'm here, I'm not going to leave you.

There's a saying that I've heard tossed around when hard times come, or bad days happen.

"Sometimes God calms the storm, and sometimes He calms His child."

But I don't agree, not today.  It was going to be a good day.   I was going to do some good things, love my family, maybe write a bit more of that novel and feel satisfied with life.  But there were clouds on the horizon when I woke up, and then the first wave slapped my face.   I came upstairs from my bedroom, saw a look on the face of someone I love who is tired, exhausted.

I can't make myself ask why.  My lips go dry and parched and my heart seizes up.   I'm afraid, afraid of what she'll say, because I know that it won't be something I can fix.  I won't be able to pray it away or hug it away or sit there and honestly tell her that it's going to get better in this life, because what if it never, ever does?

Swirl, shake, rain in torrents down from the sky.  God isn't calming the storm.

Clenched teeth, a gut fear, I'm hiding behind my bedroom door, blasting my music.  God isn't calming my soul.

So I wait, and I listen, and I tell Him that I need Him to help, because I can't.  It's the storm kicking it's heels at me again, splashing rough waves into my home.

Sometimes He calms the storm, and sometimes He calms His child?
I know the sentiment meant well.

I refuse to believe He is silent in this storm.  I hear him, stronger than the waves, deeper than the rushing waters, bigger than this fear.  Battered, bruised, more coursing water, and a Voice.

"I'm here, I'm not going to leave you."

Sometimes He calms the storm, sometimes He calms His child.  

And sometimes He stands in the middle of the roaring water and holds me and tells me I'll never be alone.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

We, the creatives

 (OYAN Summer Workshop 2013)

We, the creatives.
Writers, artists, musicians, filmmakers, costumers, actors, storytellers.

Gathered together by a curriculum that promised to teach us how to write a novel.  We couldn't have imagined this, that it would do so much more than teach us craft.  No one could have plotted out the story of OYAN, detailed the way it would explode like fireworks and become so much more than a couple of DVDs and a workbook.

No one could have anticipated Rivendell; Bigger on the Inside; Ordinary Heroes.

We learned, through OYAN, to tell good stories, deep stories, truth-and-reality stories, honest stories.  We learned to open our hearts onto pages, let the complex beauty and tragedy of human souls rush like a waterfall into our work.  We learned to treat our stories with respect, and we learned to love them.  We learned that our stories mattered.

And we learned this together.  We're still learning

So when we gathered in Olathe, Kansas this past week to fuel our creativity, it made sense that all of the things we learned were heightened.   One flame alone in a dark room is still bright, but bring a hundred other candles nearby, and the room will glow.
"Though the embers are new/ whatever you do/ Please don't let the fire die."  -Owl City, "Embers"
I hope that everyone at the Workshop felt as I did when they went home.  Burdened by passion but also excited by it.  Eager to create and to have faith in our calling.   Soul-excited for the fire that is burning, even though it's new and sometimes it sputters.

We, the creatives.

It's easy to forget that our work is worth it when we're hunched over laptops in our respective homes, fighting with unruly characters and praying over gritty themes.   Creating, regardless of what you create, is an act that doesn't come easily and isn't often glamorous.  Between the glory moments of a perfect sentence or a finished project there are dozens of days when you'd prefer to be a plumber than a creative.

Admit it, it's true. Sometimes you think your work isn't worth the effort. Sometimes you need a spark outside of yourself to remind you of the validity of your art.

So when two hundred + candles come together, the sparks start flying, swirling, and the energy makes each ember brighter, stronger, hotter.

That's the OYAN Workshop.  That's why I came home excited about creating.  My novel, poetry, visual arts, blog posts, personality studies.  I've felt my creative soul more alive in the past week than it has been in the past six months.

But regardless of whether you were at the Workshop, if you are a creator in any sense, know these two things;

One, creating is worth it, because God is a creator, and in creating, you have the opportunity to reflect Him.

Two, create in community.  Find the place where your passions intersect with someone else's, whether that be a single friend or an internet community or a drama society or a writing curriculum. Find the people who make you want to create.  Find the people you can stay up till three am talking about theme with, or the people who will read your entire first draft and not tell you your writing stinks.  Find a place where your creativeness is valued.  Find a place that nurses your embers till they become red hot flames that won't die.

I've found my place.  It's an internet forum, and a Facebook group, and conversations about personality type and plot vs character and monkey stroodles.  It's a week in Olathe, and it's full of fresh embers, and it's my Rivendell, and it's home.

"So go out there, and make a world!" -John Green.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

glory in souls

I think the mark of spiritual maturity isn’t that you have a safe life where you follow all the rules and look respectable and have a clean house and don’t cuss.  I think the mark of spiritual maturity should be looked for in the soul, because it starts in the soul.  Of course, it comes out in how you live. It should. That’s one of its proofs.  But we are foolish if we believe that because someone is clean on the outside, that they are alive on the inside.  It is easy to pretend on the outside. It is impossible to fake a dead soul.  

I think the mark of spiritual maturity is how much your soul yearns for God, and what it does with that yearning. I think spiritual maturity is how you talk to the God who made the Big Dipper and the inchworm and your one of a kind face.  I think spiritual maturity is measured in your relationship with the one who couldn’t just let you die without hope, who chose to bear everything on your sake, who forsook glory so He could awaken your soul.

Spiritual maturity isn’t about what you don’t do or the rules you keep or the verses you have memorized or the tv shows you don’t watch or the car you drive or your bank book or the hymns you sing.  Spiritual maturity usually involves some throwing out of the book, because it isn’t sufficient.  A soul who has been captivated by a God big enough to create a universe and loving enough to redeem it will not simply be ‘clean and orderly.’   That soul will overflow with glory.  Even if life sucks.  Even if sorrow and despair and sin and darkness characterizes its situation more than spiritual ‘cleanliness’.  

The soul who has been given glory will keep rambling on.  That soul will not be simple.  Life isn’t simple.  Even the cleanest of circumstances is still messy, because our souls are dark and complex and afraid and longing.  But for the soul that is known by God, there will be a glory big enough to overcome the pits.  There will be a rope that it clings on to even when the glory seems to fade into cracked lips and cracking relationships and cracking hearts.

Because that soul, that spiritually mature soul, it knows that glory does not die.
God will not be overcome, and neither will His children. 

Souls that overflow with glory, that spill it out in big ways and little, that eek with the beauty and depth and love that comes from the source of glory, those souls are spiritually mature.  And they are beautiful, despite their pain. Maybe even because of it.  God makes vessels of glory out of earthen pots.  And he likes to shine through their cracks.  

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

I am not the hero.

I've talked with Micah quite a bit lately about living and dying and extraordinary faith, about how when you're in love with God, everything precious and insignificant about your life fades in comparison.  We sat in the van outside of her house after I drove her home from Bible study, and we talked about how we'd rather die like a French Revolutionist on the barricades then rust out in lukewarm mediocrity.   Christ is worth everything, we reminded each other, and I think we both felt that hole in our hearts bursting because it couldn't contain the majesty that is God and His plan.

(Micah wrote a beautiful blog post about some of those thoughts here. Seriously, go read it.)

But tonight, and the last few nights, I'm not sure exactly what it means to let my heart burst and my life burn like a torch- to die, namely.

I'm still doing things like homework and university applications and dishes and family quarrels and Bible studies and television and staying up past my bedtime.

Then there is this, which I've read several times over the last few weeks:

"We are afflicted in ever way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, 
so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.  
For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake."

Life right now doesn't feel like dying, and I don't feel like someone who is carrying that particular kind of death or life around.

Of course, following Christ in His death, being overcome by the majesty of God, isn't something that demands actual death in our North American culture.  There are no barricades for me to die on today.  Instead there is law homework and serving my family and prayer and speaking with love.  And God is no less present, and He is no less central to my existence, and He is no less glorious, but my eyes were captured by a fire and I feel like there's more smoke then fire here.

If I'm being completely honest, that's what makes me angst the most.  Dying isn't a path of actual thorns, and I'm not on the mission field or raising money for the needy or fighting abortion or evangelizing on street corners.

I watch my favourite characters on the screen, and they fight monsters.  They stare at death, they flame and burn and choose death and sacrifice and passion, and I come out of that with this ache, because how do I die like that?

Maybe that's the thing I have to give up in order to die.  I want to be the hero.  I want to fight the glorious battles that cost the most and hurt the most and I want to be victorious.   I want to die and get it over with, to be presented with an adventure and set off on it.  I want to die on the barricade, not in the green field of normal life.
We sang at church this Sunday that "our God is greater, and stronger, and higher than any other".   I had come from a week of mediocrity.  I had come from a week where the death of the barricades, of the gunshot wound, of the monster-fighting was more appealing to me then the death of Jesus.  My death more precious than his.

Our pastor reminded us, gently, from the pulpit that all the blood of the martyrs was not worth one drop of Christ's blood.  My pride want to fight that idea.   I want to believe that I'm the penultimate hero in the narrative of my life, that I am the focal point, that something I have done will make my life worthwhile.

"I'm not the hero of my story, am I Lord?" I asked, and it hurt to realize how I had valued myself over Him.

I am not the hero.  I have never been.  I can never be.

Instead, the man on the tree, the ransom, the passionately sacrificial son of God is the hero of my story. He is my worth, and my glory, and my joy, and my reason for dying.

How do I carry that kind of death in my body?  I don't feel like I know what that looks like.  And the burden of heroism and sacrifice and the battlefield is still an ember in my soul.  But how to die right here?  That may not be glorious in the way that I imagine, but that's not really the point.

Jesus is a better hero then me.

And I want to be His.

And what that looks like in the writing of the story, I want Him to decide.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

On "Stars", Les Mis and the Elder Brother

"Stars/ In their multitudes/ Scarce to be counted/ Filling the darkness"

I saw Les Miserables three times in the theatre last month. It blew me away for many reasons (which may become the subject of multiple blog posts), but there is one character in particular that gave me a lot to think about.


Javert is one of my favourite characters in Les Mis.  He is an officer of the law with a flawed view of God, a man with the law in one hand and a inability to see grace as he dispenses what he really believes is just in the eyes of God.

Literally all that Javert can see is the Law.  This is why the contrast between Javert and Valjean is so strong.  The highest good, in Javert's mind, is that the Law is maintained.  That Justice is served.

Whether or not you agree with how he goes about fulfilling these things, you can't deny that Justice is good.  So Javert's intentions aren't evil.  They're based on a desire that God has- that justice would be throughout the land.

The problem with Javert is that he can't see the relationship between Law and Grace. 

As I was thinking about Javert, I really started seeing him as the elder brother in the story of the prodigal son.  It's not a perfect parallel, but I saw some striking similarities.  

So at the beginning of the story, Valjean becomes a thief.  His motives are good, but he ends up in jail for his actions.  When he is released, Valjean is wretched, lost and poor, ruined in the finest sense of the word.  He steals a set of silver.  He's caught. 

And then he's shown mercy.  Valjean is welcomed into both the arms of the priest and into the arms of God.  Forgiven for his crimes. Welcomed back into grace. This mercy begins to transforms the way Valjean sees his entire life.

Javert doesn't know these things about Valjean.  But Javert has lived a life of law-keeping and law-enforcing.  Javert has obeyed the law to the letter.  And all he can see in Valjean is a man who stole bread and broke parole.  All he can see in Valjean is a thief deserving punishment. 

But Valjean has experienced mercy, a mercy that has coloured his future and made him into a man of mercy.

To Javert, Valjean is the one who didn't deserve anything yet was given everything.  He sees the prisoner who has slipped through the grasp of the Law again and again.

In the song "Stars," Javert sings this verse:

"And so it has been and so it is written
On the doorway to paradise
That those who falter and those who fall
Must pay the price!"

What Javert doesn't understand is that grace (and paradise), unlike law, cannot be earned. 

That is also what makes Javert tragic, in my mind.  He is so captivated by fulfilling the Law that he has closed his eyes to seeing grace.  He can't imagine a world where mercy could overcome law.  So when Valjean doesn't kill him, granting him life, it cracks the whole way that Javert has seen the world. 

In his last scene, Javert sings these words:

"Damned if I'll live in the debt of a thief!
Damned if I'll yield at the end of the chase.
I am the Law and the Law is not mocked
I'll spit his pity right back in his face
There is nothing on earth that we share
It is either Valjean or Javert!

And must I now begin to doubt,
Who never doubted all these years?
My heart is stone and still it trembles
The world I have known is lost in shadow.
Is he from heaven or from hell?
And does he know
That granting me my life today
This man has killed me even so?"

We would do well to think of Javert more complexly, I think.  Because there is more of the Javert in us than we may realize.  He has the heart of the elder brother who was more concerned with keeping the law then celebrating with a redeemed brother.  Javert is a drastically painted picture of law without grace, justice without mercy, and perfection without a changed heart.

I've seen a lot of Javert in myself.  And I think we all can act like little Javerts, valuing perfection and law-keeping over the grace that is given in the Gospel.  We make our lists- believe me, I've done this- and we try to live a perfect life in the hopes that we will receive favour.  In the hopes that we will earn paradise and that God will think well of us.

In our Javert-like hearts, we value outward perfection over a heart that has been transformed by grace.

That's been one of the biggest struggles of my Christian journey.  Does God's favour come through living rightly or through being granted mercy in my sinful state?   Do I earn grace?  Once I have been given mercy, do I have to keep on doing good things in order to keep that mercy?

Valjean had a heart that had been broken by sin and mended by grace, a heart that was washed and given grace.  That grace spilled out of Valjean, making him into the man that rescued Cosette, pulled Marius through a sewer.  It made im into the man who even forgave Javert.

And Javert, ruined by the knowledge that his law keeping didn't buy him grace, jumped off a bridge.

In the end, it is "either Valjean or Javert."   Because these two men- Javert and Valjean- are two ways of seeing the world- two ways of seeing the Gospel, Christ, and what it means to be forgiven.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Hobbits with Swords {2013 Winter Workshop}

 So I started writing this post a few weeks ago, but it seems even more fitting to finish it now as I sit in the airport on my way home from the 2013 OYAN Winter Workshop.

Hobbits with swords.

That sounds like a brilliant idea.  Put the destruction of the Ring of Power in the hands of three foot high, peace loving, mushroom eating farmers.  They're extremely capable of stealing produce, but the chances of them staying alive against a Nazgul?

Highly unlikely, as they'd barely be able to reach his knee.

I’ve felt like a Hobbit quite a lot recently.

‘There is no way’, I think.  Absolutely no way that I could go up against the evil and suffering and sorrow and tragedy in the world and come out triumphant.  My strengths are about three feet high and my talents- I'm good at stealing produce and keeping my Hobbit-hole clean, but I've barely ever even held a sword, and the prospect of battle scares me back to my hole, my tea and my books and the refuge of the internet.

Sorry God. You'd better find an Aragorn, because I'm a Hobbit.

I'm not particularly strong, and my failings are much greater than my strengths.  I love Jesus. But I still stumble, fumbling in the darkness as I fight loneliness and fear and my own unfaithfulness.  More often then not, I don't come out very triumphant.

This week, we've heard about Warriors.  We've heard about how the best stories may be yet to be written. We've heard about the God who wants us to imagine and create. We've heard about writing with honesty and writing for Truth.

I was struck over and over this week of how much I felt at home with all of you.  You give me a glimpse of what Heaven will look like.  Your love and care are a gift that comes from God through you and I can't imagine how much I would be different if it were not from you.

I would have loved to stay in Kansas forever with you.  Telling stories, laughing, being together.  Writing, learning, growing. Being safe.
But the sense I got at the worship and prayer service on Sunday morning was something quite different.  It's easy to love the Workshop. It's easy to want to stay there, to dread going home and leaving all the people who have made your heart more alive.  Now that we're home, it's easy to curl up and mourn the fact that we're apart again. 

But we can't. OYAN is just the beginning.  It's the launch pad to send us back into the world and to prepare us for loving Jesus in our individual lives.  OYAN is the battle cry.  It's the swords placed in our hands, the story written to enflame our hearts and call us anew.  The Workshop was our Rivendell.  We were healed.  We made friends. We chose to take up our weapons and to live for Christ.

Now we go home to begin the real battle.  I'll admit, my own battles scare me more than a little.  My sword had gotten dull.  I need Christ to be fuller in my life and my writing.  But I'm His and you are His, and He moves mountains and changes hearts and creates things like OYAN. 

So go home. You may be a hobbit, but the war's already won. 

We're ordinary heroes belonging to Christ.

I pray that that's true for each of you for the rest of your lives.

Much love, Abby.