Neon Winter

bluebird

Neon Winter

By: Courtney Beck

Look at that bluebird

Dancing in the bare tree limbs

Across the street from where you sit

In your car. Engine humming, thoughts whirling

Wondering, desperately, what’s

Next, what’s next, what’s next?

Blue’s red chest matches the light you wait

On, frustrated by the fact that even if it turns

Green, it might not matter all that much. You’ll still be

Stopped, and stuck, in the

Waiting of this peculiar season.

Which brings me to the bluebird’s girl,

Drab as the lower branch she rests on.

In clear view of Mr. Red Chest,

He flutters now on an abandoned roof

Revealing his remarkable glory.

She hops between branches and wonders why

She’d ever want to hurry the spring and its

Lush green leaves. Surely, they’ll comfort in their time,

While blocking the view to that neon blue coat that’s

Keeping us all warm on this cold January Day.

 

New Year. New Plan. Not What I Expected.

sea-sunset-beach-couple (2)

Happy New Year folks. Well, I’ve been at this blogging thing since May and have posted 32 times! This is a minor miracle in my view as I can easily get swept into other initiatives. The best part is that I’ve heard back from at least one reader for each post who has encouraged me to keep going. Your comments and insights have been so encouraging so please keep them coming! I love learning from you all and am grateful that so many of you have stayed connected.

Now, lets talk about new beginnings. It’s the new year after all.

New Year, New You?

Hmmm. I’m skeptical.

Mostly because I know myself. And I know many of you. And while I know we’re all in different seasons and different stages of life I am sure of this: You and I are far more similar than we are different.

If you feel yourself wondering where all the holiday spunk went you’re in good company. Because let me tell you…2018 rolled over without much fanfare in our household. We got home from a holiday trip and found ourselves in much the same place we were in at the beginning of December. It was back to work for us. Bills need to be paid, laundry needs to be done, groceries need to be bought.

To be honest, this was a bit disheartening for me that first week of January so I took some to mull it all over. I thought about last year – the highs and the lows – and it didn’t take long for me to start considering elaborate plans for the new year. More regimented workouts. Clear writing goals. A color coded budget with tighter categories.

A few days of this though was all I needed to feel quite sick of it all, thank you very much. The older I get the less I’m able to cling to systems. All the more I find myself reaching out for relationship.

The defining word for my life in 2017 was this: Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering.

God, quite kindly and clearly, read me my mail in 2017 by showing me how easily I descend into elaborate mental plans and escape routes when all he asks me to do is lift up my face.

Hold up my hands. Wait for him. Wait on him.

And grow stronger in the waiting.

So as I sat in a coffee shop last week and felt “out of tune” with the plans I was writing out for myself I looked down at my watch and realized I had 45 minutes left until I had to pick my kid up for lunch. I could get that workout in that I’d been putting off all morning and be done with it. More than that, I’d actually be doing the thing that most new year’s plans revolve around.  An actual, legitimate workout.

Business guru Seth Godin says it well in his book Tribes. “If religion comprises rules you follow, faith is demonstrated by the actions you take. When you lead without compensation, when you sacrifice without guarantees, when you take risks because you believe, then you are demonstrating your faith…Of course it’s difficult… But it’s worth it.”

Can we be honest for a minute? The things we really want in life are things we have ZERO control over. Sure, you might want to lose 10 pounds in 2018. But I’m betting more than the 10 pounds you want to be the type of person who can feel comfortable enough to stay at a table that makes you nervous without forking food you aren’t hungry for into your mouth. I know I do. Or maybe you want to plan to stop spending frivolously and start contributing to a retirement plan or to a downpayment fund. I bet more than anything though what you really want is access to the inner peace that follows on the heels of good stewardship.

These heart level desires are the things that plans point to, yes, but they are also the things that I am convinced can only be achieved in partnership with the Holy Spirit of God.

Can I share an excerpt from an interview I heard the other day? Jen Hatmaker spoke with Chris Heuertz about his work with the Enneagram. While his thoughts on that test were interesting, I most quickly identified with his description of his time in his early 20s when he worked alongside Mother Teresa in Calcutta, India.

He says the following:

“She was fierce…on one hand you would see her holding a half-starved child or carrying a man who’s dying from tuberculosis across the street with such tenderness and care. Then on the other hand, she was a ball buster like, “Get out of my way,” and don’t stop her, and don’t try to slow her down. I’ll say this; the things that we learn from all of our mentors are less the words they tell us, and more how we watch them live. I watched her, and five times a day, along with the other sisters, they would stop for prayer, for adoration, for mass, for solitude, silence, and stillness…And what that taught me was that all the years that I was around her and all the works that I did in India, we used to think, “Man, they have to pray. They have to pray five times a day to support their efforts.”

Isn’t that beautiful?

People who didn’t know Mother Teresa ultimately remember her for the stunning works she did among the poorest of the poor. And they were stunning. But the people who walked it with her? They remembered how she depended on the Holy Spirit of God for the strength she needed to hold another dying soul. Because lets be clear. A life lived among the dying requires a strength that no human can muster on his or her own. You’d lose your mind.

Her action plan, if you wrote it out, probably looked a lot more like this

  1. Bathe the leper in front of me
  2. Ask Jesus for strength
  3. Write the letter.
  4. Cook the meal.
  5. Ask Jesus for a clear mind.
  6. Encourage a fellow sister
  7. Show the volunteer how to dress the wound compassionately.
  8. Ask Jesus for more help to make it to the end of the day.
  9. Sleep

Friends, do any of us know what we’re doing here? It’s a strange world where narcissists become President and people bully each other on a medium that 30 years ago no one had ever heard of – the internet. Truthfully, chaos feels so near, so often.

Yet if we commit to doing nothing else in 2018 but consistently returning back to the Source of our strength and saying we “Just can’t do it without him” I think we will find at the end of the year that we really could do it when we find that we actually did it with Him.

I have some plans for 2018. Some of them are loose. One of them has a remarkably clear action step that actually makes me sweat. All of them are part of a life full of goals for relational, spiritual and cultural fruit. And after 12 plus years in this game with God as my partner I can say that not a single one of them will come to fruition without the help of the Lord. I get in my own way. I’ve tried to do things on my own in the past and while I may have succeeded with an end result I’ve burned a bridge too many doing it that way. Some of those bridges were with other people and most of those bridges were the ones that connected my mind, heart and soul together. Which is not, in the end, a success.

So who’s in for a Spirit-led 2018? Who’s in for full days asking God for help with the next right thing. What else are we really going to do? I’m afraid we can strategize until the cows come home only to find ourselves lacking any power to make those plans come about.

Didn’t St. Paul say it best?

“the Kingdom of God is not a matter of talk, but of power.” 1 Corinthians 4:20

So here’s the real plan. I’m going to make some plans for 2018 and I’m going to hold them loosely. Everyday I’ll wake up and figure out a couple of things I can do to move those balls forward. And everyday I’ll pause at points throughout the day and ask for help. I’m not sure how it will all turn out. I am sure that some days will go as planned and some days we’ll fall off the wagon. But I also know there will be grace in it all and opportunities to grow in the highs and the lows. And that’s exciting to me. I like to envision myself on the eve of 2019 realizing that I’ve made it to high vistas and through low valleys with the help of the Holy Spirit and the community he’s given me.

So here’s to another year of stumbling forward. You in?

Becoming Human, Becoming Like Joseph.

crib-1807861_640 (2)

I read a blog post the other day that I have not been able to get off of my mind. It was titled What do we do with Joseph? The author explained that as her youngest daughter played with a nativity set she asked her mother why Joseph was included. “Mommy, if God is Jesus’ dad and Mary is Jesus’ mom then why do we need this guy?” The blog has a social justice thrust and the author was ultimately identifying with Joseph. She made the connection that she as a white, heterosexual American woman is for all intents and purposes in the position of Joseph in society today too. A position of power. She ended her post by essentially stating that she doesn’t know ultimately why Joseph was a part of the narrative of Christ’s birth nor does she know why God chooses to use her in 2017, but he has chosen to use them both, and so she’s happy to do her part.

OK people, can you hear me right now? I am groaning with despair over this statement she’s made.

While I understand in premise what the writer was trying to say, my gut response as I’ve read it over again and considered it over and over again in this Christmas season is this:

“God left Joseph in the story because FATHERS ARE NOT JUST SPERM DONORS!”

Sorry, I realize this comes across as crass but its the only way I know how to put it. I remember one of the first thoughts I had when Ellie was born was that I cannot imagine how women and men do the newborn months alone. 2 years into this journey of parenthood I STILL don’t know how people raise children alone?! I know this happens more often than we realize and I also know unequivocally that there is amazing grace available for the single moms and dads out there who as a result of sin or death are raising children alone. Yet I think Joseph and his part in the nativity is proof positive that God’s plan of redemption is an invitation to each of us to be active participants in a plan that often doesn’t look the way we expect.

I personally love the fact that God intervened in the life of a first century man named Joseph and said “Hi there Joe. Want to get in on what I’m doing here?”

The writer is correct that most of us can probably relate to Joseph though I don’t relate to him in the way that she did. I’m betting Joseph was pretty excited to get married when they were first engaged. I can picture him thinking about how he’d construct his life with Mary. Maybe he wanted to set up shop in the town where they’d met and they’d have a couple of kids and a white picket fence. Maybe he wanted to wait a few years to have kids and travel a bit before he and Mary settled down. What I am certain of is this. Joseph never imagined he’d live the first few years of his life on the run with a child that was conceived before he ever even spent a single night with his wife. He never thought following God would present the probable feelings of intense alienation as he stood by a woman he hardly knew and experienced their communal shunning together.

I imagine Joseph silently walking Mary on his donkey to Bethlehem and trying to convince himself the entire way that he’d heard God right. I imagine him trying to convince himself that what Mary said happened was really true and she was having a baby without ever having known a man intimately.

As I’m relating to Joseph this Advent I’m starting to imagine a great relationship with him, my spiritual grandfather of sorts, when we meet some day. We’ll sit down for coffee on the front porch of his or my heavenly mansion and talk about the times we had to walk in faith. We’ll share all the times in life that we had to lean on the chair of our lives with our whole selves and have faith that the chair wouldn’t break under the weight of it all. We’ll talk about the final moment of faith when the chair actually did break. We dropped to the ground in flurry of scary hot pain only to look up and realize that Jesus, Joseph’s son, was right there when the dust settled with a hand to help us up and welcome us home.

Most of all I think we’ll talk about how the Lord called us into what I have started to call “a third way.” 

With human eyes its easy for us to believe in our Joseph moments that we only have two options in front of us. We can either cut ourselves off from the situation and “divorce Mary quietly” as Joseph originally intended to do or we can remain “dutiful” for the rest of our lives and eventually begrudge the losses we endure as we slowly whither under the weight of the anvil that we’ve now personally placed on our backs.

This, readers, is just an impossible scenario.

I will not do this.

I cannot do this.

And you shouldn’t settle for this either. 

For all the focus on Mary in the nativity story, I wonder if Joseph might actually be the true hero in the story of Christmas. I don’t want to minimize Mary’s sacrifice as it was and is extraordinary. Yet Mary also had an angel of the Lord visit her in person in dazzling glory. I think if a terrifying, fiery angel showed up at my door I’d fall to my knees, hide my face and tell him to take whatever he wanted.

Joseph though? All he had was a dream and a religious tradition that said if you put the weight of your life on the chair of faith the chair may or may not break. The only guarantee for him was that the God who made the fiery angels would be there to pull him out of the wreckage regardless of what happened to the chair. I can imagine with his very human eyes that this was a terrifying proposition given how little he likely knew about the glory of God. After all, what do any of us really know about the glory of God?

So Joseph walked a donkey to Bethlehem because as a man who had big dreams for his life it was the only thing that he could really do. He knocked on doors and tried to convince himself that he was doing the right thing when he found a stable for his betrothed to labor in. Mary breathed hard and cried out and Joseph, unknowingly, made room for her fears while he leaned on his God with the weight of his whole self.

And when it was over Joseph held his son in his arms and introduced this newborn stranger to the animals in the barn. Just when he thought that holding a living breathing baby in spite of the pain and the fear they had just endured was the miracle, people started showing up. Shepherds came in their rags and filth and testified that glory had showed up in the fields where they’d been sleeping. They all, this new family and poor shepherds, sat in their poverty and marveled at what God was doing among the poor through this boy. Then kings came from the east and brought gifts from their kingdoms. They all, this new family and the kings, sat in their wealth and marveled at what God was doing among the rich through Joseph’s son.

At some point in it all I hope Joseph realized that the third option that God offered him was the space that would bring all of his fears and all of his dreams together in one terrifyingly glorious place.  If he’d lean into the fear that an unknown future with God offers, he’d slowly and surely get to the place where God meets us. That space is where our personal poverty spills up and out in such a way that our personal riches in Christ eventually fill to overflowing.

Joseph became all that God intended him to become, he became truly human, by saying yes to God’s third way, the way that doesn’t always seem right or feel right but ultimately is right over and over and over again for a lifetime. In so doing he’s been graced with a place in the nativity story. The only enduring story there ever was.

Thank you God for including Joseph, a man like you and like me, in the Christmas story. We identify with him because we do not always know that you are FOR US in a world and a body that changes in ways we do not expect. Help us to look for the third way. Show us this way in a way we can understand and help us to walk it in faith. We know that somewhere along the way we’ll see your glory and when we do, things will never be the same. 

“There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
    and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.
And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,
    the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
    the Spirit of counsel and might,
    the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
    or decide disputes by what his ears hear,
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
    and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
    and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist,
    and faithfulness the belt of his loins.” Isaiah 11: 1-5

 

Seraphina Speaks

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

Seraphina Speaks

By: Courtney T. Beck

 

“Do not be afraid,” she says to me

on the heels of a kind of grief

some fires, this fire

blazes a trail to something new.

 

Would you follow these embers that

light up the dark?

Could you consider leaving

the safety of this house?

 

Here we go, yes, come with me

into the cool dark woods, here,

at the edge of familiar fields

 

Collect the kindling, stick to stick

find the heart of the wood past this

moss, these twigs, and those branches.

 

They lie vein-like, don’t you think?

Forgotten arteries, it seems

that danced in seasons past

to the rhythm of the oak.

 

Chop your own wood and

it will warm you twice, they say.

I say, chop the wood you find at the heart of the forest

and it will show you who you are.

 

Find the oak that lived long before you knew

of death and life and joy

and get to work

 

Put on your gloves and remove your jacket

Do what it takes with your ax and your grit

and become the oak that will warm you

 

And as chips and limbs fall in piles

to the damp earth at your feet

find your heart, bruised and vital

absorbed by a chopped oak house

 

whose walls and roof and floor and beams

will warm us;

our living, breathing bodies

until this fiery winter

gives way to the spring.

Becoming Human: Doing the Next Right Thing.

light-fashion-hands-woman.jpg

I remember the day that things started to change for me in Galveston. I had left a beloved job in Baltimore in 2009 to join Andy in Texas as he started graduate school. At the time we moved the market was at its lowest point of the recession and jobs were hard to come by in Galveston and everywhere else.   I felt lucky at the start of my three year stint at a legally embattled housing authority to at least have a job. But luck soon gave way to frustration and depression as I learned that I was essentially filling a place holder position until the organization’s legal troubles were resolved. The Housing Authority had to remain staffed to prove its worth to a watching public but internally it did nothing but shift paper from one place to the next until the powers that be figured out where the legal troubles would land.

It didn’t take long for me to fall into depression. I had been prepped and primed my entire life to go out and make a difference in the world. I had managed to do that for the first three years of my career in Maryland. Then, out of nowhere, I found myself at an absolute stand still trying to figure out how to make a day pass.

I tried any manner of things to fix my problem. I looked for other jobs but there were none. I tried to connect like minded people together only to be told I was not following the chain of command. I started taking classes at the local community college but felt guilty if I did the homework for them at the office. All in all it was a miserable situation that I felt I couldn’t get out of. If I quit I’d still be twiddling my thumbs only it would be worse as we’d lose my income and health insurance.

One of the things our “chain of command” would do during these months of legal trouble was to consistently move staff offices from one side of the building to another. You can’t make this stuff up! A few of these moves made sense as the organization scaled down to size in the immediate aftermath of hurricane Ike. Our building had become a command post for disaster recovery and as people got back on their feet the staffing and space use adjusted accordingly. To this day though I’ll never understand how they justified moving my desk approximately six times over the course of three years. By the third or fourth move I found it down right insulting.

On the last move before I finally left the job my desk was placed in a poorly ventilated  space at the very front of the building. The ceiling was probably 12 to 14 feet high, the flooring was a hard brown tile and it was surrounded on all four sides by glass windows. Every time I took a phone call my voice would bounce off these non absorbent surfaces and cause an echo back into the phone, causing conversations to be near impossible. At lunchtime the smell of fried food at the nearby snack bar would waft through the vents that were insufficiently emitting the air conditioning I craved as the hot summer sun inched its way through the windows of my new “office.” This, dear reader, was my lowest point.

I came home from a blissful week away from it all one summer to rumors that another round of layoffs were headed our way. I was sure I was next and as much as I would have been happy to leave I became convinced that a lay off might just be the straw that broke my back. That Monday morning after my vacation I pulled out a devotional I’d been using and there in black and white was the one verse that had come up incessantly over the course of the previous three years:

“Do not be like the horse or the mule, which have no understanding but must be controlled by bit and bridle or they will not come to you…the LORD’s unfailing love surrounds the one who trusts in him.” Psalm 32: 9-10

And finally, after three years, I gave up. I wrote a letter to God on the legal pad on my desk. I told him, with heaps of hot anger that HE brought us to Texas, HE started Andy on this path to a graduate degree and so whatever happened next was on HIM. If we couldn’t pay our bills it was his fault. If we had to quit the program it would be his fault. If I went into a depression and anxiety spiral and had to have myself committed that would be his fault too. All I was willing to do from that moment forward was show up and do what was put in front of me to do. If that was legitimate work for the housing authority, I would of course do that. If it was helping some one mop the floor I would do that. But I was officially giving up on trying to do anything more meaningful than what was offered to me because I had tried and nothing had worked.

Somehow, after that morning, things started to change. First, the internal pressure I felt to be productive lifted and I felt freer. If there was nothing for me to do that day I would get some homework done for class and not feel guilty about it. The absolute BEST thing that happened though was that I didn’t get irritated with the people who would knock on my door at the front of the building and ask for help to offices I wasn’t connected with. I just figured I was supposed to help the individual at my door that day even though their questions were not associated with the office i was employed by. If I didn’t know where they should go I would try my best to figure out the answer for them since I clearly didn’t have much else pressing on me.

One day, just as I was closing my door to eat my lunch, a gentleman came by and asked if I could help him. I was still doing all of this imperfectly and given that it had been an even slower day than normal I was not in a great place emotionally. I had waited until three o clock to eat lunch – only really eating at that point to pass the time.

While I wasn’t really in the mood to help anyone at that moment on a Friday I remembered my deal with God and I told him to come in. He explained he had just gotten out of prison across the street for a crime he felt unjustly charged for. He had been in jail for several weeks and didn’t have a phone or any money and he needed a ride back to Houston, 45 minutes north.

I sat down at my computer and considered his problem. I knew enough not to offer a ride to someone who’d just left prison. The only person I knew I could call was a man I’d met who ran a prison ministry for formerly incarcerated men and women. I gave the man in front of me my lunch, hoping to keep him occupied on something other than my clueless self at the computer and got to work finding his number. After eating a few chips the man opened up:

“Ma’am, can I just say. I’ve been walking around this place for HOURS trying to get some help. And you’re the only person who’s given me the time of day. I can’t believe you gave me your lunch! I haven’t eaten since this morning. You must be one hell of a Christian.”

I shrugged his comment off, not wanting to admit to his face that there wasn’t much benevolence behind my actions. I called my friend who told me the last van heading toward Houston had already left for the afternoon but that he could get a ride on Monday morning if we gave him a call then. He would have to stay at the Salvation Army over the weekend where he could have a cot to sleep on and enough food to keep him going until Monday.

I hesitantly told the man the news, fearing he’d be as upset to stay at a shelter for the weekend as I would be in his position. But his reaction was priceless. You would have thought I had told the man that I had organized a limo ride and a four course meal. A smile spread across his face and he gave me a hug! He bounded out the front door of the building with the address to the shelter and I told him I would see him on Monday morning.

Here’s the final punch. On Monday morning the man walked through the door pushing an older gentleman in a wheelchair. He propped open the door to my space and said “Miss Courtney, I was able to arrange a ride to Houston this morning with someone I met this weekend. We’re not leaving until noon though so I figured I’d help my friend here get some paperwork done before I leave. Thanks so much for your help on Friday! I can’t wait to get home.”

If those two men came through the door of the YMCA that I am sitting in as I write this I would remember them like it was yesterday. That was a defining moment for me as I realized that becoming human, becoming Christlike, is really just a matter of doing whats right in front of you. Doing the next right thing, and letting God worry about the impact it does or doesn’t have. 

Within a month of that entire experience I had successfully avoided a lay off and got a new job at Habitat for Humanity in Dickinson, prepared to do the same work I had loved but left in Baltimore three years before. This time I was armed with the knowledge that if things went well or things went poorly it didn’t really matter. The pressure wasn’t on me to figure that all out. I had left Baltimore in a step of faith that God had better things in store for me. I walked out the doors of that housing authority three years to the day that I entered it and knew a degree more than I knew before that if I take the next step of faith he can handle the rest.