Five Minute Friday: Encouragement

It’s a new year and time to start writing again, if only life will cooperate.  Since life almost never cooperates with my desire for long spaces of silence and peppermint tea, I’m writing for five minutes with the community at Five Minute Friday.  My goal is to write each week on Friday but here it is week #2, Saturday and I’ve already missed week #1.  If you enjoy writing in community, consider joining us.

Last Tuesday night, a community of women (plus Steve) I gather with listened to our teacher talk about our will to be loved.  Why is it hard, she asked, for us to receive compliments?  To accept gentle and loving touch?  To let ourselves be loved?

My husband doesn’t think I have this problem—he says my only love language problem is that I’m fluent in all five and like a sponge, can’t soak up enough.  In a way, he’s right.  I tend to say, “I receive that,” when someone compliments me.  Not because I’m sure it’s true but because it does grow old to always be on the defensive, fighting off any encouragement people care to give.

As I thought about what my teacher shared, and why it can be difficult to trust the good that others see in us or want to give to us, I could only think about control.  Being in control makes us the masters of our own fate but we are woefully inadequate for the task.  So we shrug off the shoulder squeeze, the kind word, the insight that makes us uncomfortable because we are really living poorly as our own masters.  The encouragement that comes is meant to strengthen us for our true task: living as reflections of God’s beautiful image; when we are living as our own god, encouragement does nothing for us but call our attention to our humiliating failures.

Living with limits, being ourselves, reflecting God’s image: these are the places where encouragement can give our wobbling knees and faltering hearts the courage they need to go on.  Moving ahead in our idolatry of self only makes the kind words of a sister fall flat.

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Wet on Wet

Blotches that became trees, with my formation class in mind.

Blotches that became trees, with my formation class in mind.

I don’t actually paint. But in an effort to spend time with women from other cultures in my painfully mono-cultural Kentucky life, I’ve joined a painting class on Thursday mornings at a large gathering for international women. It was there, a few weeks ago, that I was introduced to painting “wet on wet.” Using water colors and thick, absorbent water color paper, we splashed colors all over and watched them have their way. They bled and smeared and spiraled out of control. We watched and waited. We grew bored and turned our attention to another project while we waited. The paint dried and suddenly we were faced with the real creative work: how to turn these splotches of color into a picture?

Most of us mimicked nature, offering the sincerest flattery to the One who creates beauty from ashes through our imitation. These unremarkable spots of color are transformed—sometimes beautifully and sometimes not—into flowers and trees and landscapes. After some effort, a picture is revealed in more wholeness, a kind of Rorschach transformation of art.

It reminds me of what I’ve learned through the women (and Steve, our lone man) and the readings of my formation class. Not a single one of us knew what we were going to get in this life. We were born into a situation we did not control, not one little bit. We didn’t choose our family or our looks or our generation or our birthplace. That none of us were born on the steppes of Mongolia in the 7th century is only this: God’s gracious choice for us. For others, the steppes of Mongolia were exactly what he graciously chose.

Life unfolded. We grew up. Many of us married. Who knew how it would all turn out? The longer I am married, the less responsible I feel for choosing a man of solid character. I have friends who were divorced within a few years, surprised that a man who showed no signs of it previously was abusive or adulterous or both. We birthed children; we waited for the adoption referral. We chose colleges and careers and spouses and geographies. We chose well. At other times, we didn’t. And life began to resemble those blotches of color—beautiful, confusing, bleeding and spiraling out of control. What would we make of it?

Formation gives me, and us, the space and the vocabulary to begin making art with our lives. In the same way I learned what “wet on wet” meant a few Thursdays ago, I learn from the writers and the leaders and the communities of formation in which I engage how to make beauty out of that which I do not control. On Tuesday evenings, I gather around a table of people who are full of humor and thoughtfulness. Women who are transparent and aware and innocent. People without guile and people full of hope and people who are flourishing. I gain courage as I watch them live and learn the art of grace. I find inner gentleness, a listening heart, an attention to my Creator as I dwell on their lives and their sincerity around the table. They show me how to live wet on wet and create beauty when I can only see blotches.

The River

A five minute Tuesday, as I’ve missed several weeks of writing!

For the lunch hour, I hung suspended between my life then and my life now. And for a brief moment, I felt like I was home again.

What does one make when her bishop from Rwanda comes for lunch? I’ve never been to Rwanda but there was that moment when I was nineteen, when I looked out past the tarmac to Lake Victoria, breathed Africa in and felt alive like I had never before. There was a moment that becoming the hands and feet of Jesus to others radically different had nothing to do with desperation or poverty or guilt or anything except the overwhelming reality of life. Of joy. Of entering into the stream of God that brings only delight. All that can happen in an instant on portable stairs after two days in various airplanes and airports.

And it can happen again when the lilt of eastern and central Africa returns in the presence of one’s bishop. When the table is piled high with chicken stew and rice and beans and sweet potato and biscuits and bananas and chai. When the stories chronicled in that lilt make you think for days and wonder aloud with your husband about how Africa has changed you and if you’ve changed even the tiniest square inch of her with your presence.

Because it isn’t about where for me. Or even who. This ache that makes me weep to return to Africa is selfish is many ways. It is about joy. About a waterfall of grace that pours down like you can’t imagine in a desert. When our bishop knelt on our floor, we knelt with him. And he prayed for us. The best part? That he prayed again for God to give us our needs and protect us from our wants. “Don’t lead us to our wants, our Lord.” Please, Lord.

I want comfort and ease and peace and nothing. scary. ever. again. I want to forget how my five year old ended up in the corner last week crying, “They’re going to kill me tonight,” when the neighbor’s satellite TV repairman peaked in our front window in the dark. I want to forget what it was like to live with a panic room. I want to forget the rocks thrown. I want to forget the inconvenience. The running out of water. I want to always have hot running water. I want to think hot running water is an inalienable right. I want to live in a house that doesn’t accumulate dust in a week, much less by the end of a day—enough to write in on the floor. I want to avoid people radically different. I want everyone to think like me, talk like me, dress like me and accept that I want to run outside for no other purpose than running. (Except then I don’t want those things.) My wants go on and on.

Underneath them all is my deepest need. There is a river whose streams bring joy. I need to live by that river, wherever I live. That river flows across time zones and for me, it has always brought me with it to other places. My only need is drink my fill of the abundance of that river, to be drenched in the fountain of life wherever I live.