Saturday, September 21, 2013

A Letter to My Pastor


Though I’ve very little time for writing I cannot let another Sunday come without telling you how much I appreciated last week's sermon.

As I think you know, my husband and I, and our three daughters, have been living in a low-income apartment on Franklin Road. Though a far cry from the kind of poverty I have encountered in other parts of the world the environment in which we live is nevertheless marked by a degree of external brokenness that far surpasses anything I’ve ever experienced before on a daily basis. 

I believe that, like Abraham, our decision to get out of our father’s country, and move to this land that we did not know, was an act of obedience. And yet I have been surprised - even offended - at the degree to which God has demonstrated His grace to me by exposing my sin, and my need for Him, rather than – I now realize, I somehow vaguely anticipated – ushering me into a season of spiritual vitality.

Like a character in a Flannery O’Connor story, I am being given essential pieces of self-knowledge through violent means. “Violent” in the sense that God has wrenched from my grasp those people and things which – unbeknownst to me – had taken hold of my heart's affections, giving me a sense of security and worth apart from Christ; in exchange, He is showing me the grotesqueness of the sin in my heart, and my need for grace, which is, in itself, as Miss O'Connor would affirm, a grace.

For example, I have, very naively, never considered myself someone who harbors what Malcolm Gladwell terms, “racial preference.” But living here, on Franklin Road, has shattered my self-image: I not only recognize, in a much deeper way, why racial prejudices form, I see their seeds struggling to take root in my own heart.

This raises troubling questions: how can you love someone whom you are tempted to look down upon? Whom you judge? Toward whom you feel a paradoxical combination of pity and contempt?

You can’t.

At least, not without Jesus.

In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl writes, "When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves." But as a Christian I recognize what is simultaneously liberating and devastating news: I cannot change myself.

I need Jesus for that, too.

Yesterday, while walking up the soiled stairs to my apartment, my mind was suddenly struck with the phrase: change or die. As far as slogans go, this is a fine one, for a Darwinian economy. Alter it only slightly and it becomes better suited to describe the life of the Christian: for to follow Jesus means answering the call both to change and to die, though not in that order. 

For the Christian must die in order to change. 

Perhaps more accurately, it is as we die - to those loyalties and affections which keep us from loving God and our neighbor -- that we change. We come alive in the truest sense. Not overnight. But slowly, painfully... 

I wonder if this is not the meaning of Paul's admonishment, "You foolish person! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies!" (1 Cor. 15:36). As we die, we not only discover a life hidden with Christ in God, but we come alive to the world in a deeper and more authentic way.

As you said, we learn to love God more and to love people more.


This kind of change is always a process. It is also always a gift of God's grace. As Flannery O'Connor herself says, "All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful."

Your sermon inspired me to stop resisting. 

--------------------------------
Under The Mercy

HM Baker

Imogen Rose


   It's the little things... that make your heart sing.

Monday, July 29, 2013

The Year Begins Now


*Image courtesy of Frolic

“Help me, O Lord, to throw myself absolutely and wholly on thee, for better, for worse, without comfort, and all but hopeless. Give me peace of soul, confidence, enlargement of mind, morning joy that comes after night heaviness; Water my soul richly with divine blessings; Grant that I may welcome thy humbling in private so that I might enjoy thee in public; Give me a mountain top as high as the valley is low.” ~”Peril,” Puritan Prayers and Devotions

In my last post I announced that our family would be saying goodbye to Tucson -- to that land of desert gardens, big skies, and glowing sunsets - for Atlanta, Georgia.

What I did not disclose was that we would be moving – not into a cheerful neighborhood full of happy families, where lemonade stands linger on well-groomed lawns – but into a low-income apartment on a street called Franklin Road.
 
Dutch manages the property, and is engaged in the slow process of turning it around – remodeling units, bringing the buildings up to code, and installing programs aimed to assist the people who live here. He wants to make this plot of land, which is scattered with buildings in varying states of disrepair, into a community – a place people can proudly call home.

This vision came to him out of Isaiah 58:12 which says: “…you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in.” He asked me to support him by moving onto this street, into one of these “broken places,” for a time. I asked how long. "A year," he said, "give or take a few months."

I didn’t want to do it.

At the time I was six months pregnant.  I would have a hard enough time getting myself up and down the stairs, never mind the children or the groceries. What would it be like when I had another baby?

Then he took me into one of the units. I had to cover my mouth because of the stench. Dead cockroaches were scattered all over the stained carpet. Doors had been ripped out of their frames; the kitchen was dark and cramped, with only a fluorescent light above the sink.

“We’ll clean it up,” Dutch said. “We’ll paint the walls and put in new carpet.”

I was trying not to panic. “What about the bathroom?” I asked. Toilet, sink, and tub were streaked with rust and grime. In fact, the whole place looked like the scene of a crime or the abandoned quarters of drug addicts or hoodlums. Here and there were bits of trash – an empty chip bag, a fast food wrapper; personal items, forgotten, perhaps, or simply abandoned in the hurry to leave: a child’s barrette, a small plastic horse, one cracked half of an Easter egg. Pieces of a life. Broken pieces.

“We’ll clean that up, too,” Dutch said. “We will replace the sink and spray the tub so that it looks new.”

I sighed. My chest felt heavy, constricted. He made it sound so simple. But we are both old enough to know that nothing worth doing is ever simple. Or easy. Especially not at the beginning.

Really, Lord? I thought. Could this really be what you are asking of me?

Now more than ever I want to build my own home. With a big backyard and a garden full of flowers; with creaking wood floors, a painted porch swing, and quiet corners in which children can read and dream and play.
 
Besides, I do not possess any real qualifications to assist in this kind of work. I majored in English Literature. I love to read books, tell stories. I cannot justly be called a community developer, unless you define "community development" as cleaning the toys up off the living room carpet long enough for three little people and one big one to meaningfully engage one another. Thus you can imagine my distress at the thought of applying to myself any of the labels I have heard used to describe the work of community building. When a friend of mine introduced me at a party, explaining that Dutch and I were moving into a low-income apartment to do “intentional living,” I felt panic. Guilty panic.

As far as I am concerned, I am not doing “intentional living.” I’m just living. I’m an ordinary mother, about to have a baby. My concerns are common enough. On the most basic level, I want for my children what most mothers want: a safe and stimulating environment where they can grow up into the best version of themselves, the people God made them to be. I want our family, all of us, to thrive.

But in spite of these doubts, I said yes. Yes to Dutch. Yes to God. Now I have a new address: I am living in that newly remodeled unit on Franklin Road. I am no longer pregnant; our newest daughter, Imogen Rose, was born six weeks ago.

I was right, getting the groceries and the children up the stairs is something of a production. But the most difficult thing by far is acting as a daily witness to the irreconcilable brokenness that surrounds me.
 
There are days I ask myself, why am I here?

It is not because I am qualified. It is not because I am able, in and of myself, to love my neighbors. I don’t have that much time or energy or – to be frank – that much interest.

In the few short months since we moved here I’ve realized how much of my life I have spent surrounded by people who for the most part look like me, dress like me, speak like me, and essentially reinforce my way of looking at the world.

Stripped of all that is familiar, separated from the people who know and understand me, I see how much of my identity, my security and significance, has been built upon people and things, rather than Christ.

Lacking comfort, I see how much I crave it. And when it comes to choosing between what is comfortable and what is obedient, my heart will choose comfort every time.

That is the real truth.

But there is good news: I serve a God who makes all things possible. He is able. If He can make a blind man see… He can change me. He can give me what I lack so that I, in turn, can have something to give other people. He can give me the grace to keep choosing obedience, in spite of myself, and in the process discover that it is not, in fact, an abnegation of joy, but an entryway to it.

Jesus said, "...I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it abundantly." To find life - a live green thing growing up out of dead soil. That is grace; and at the moment my whole life is built upon the premise that I will find it, even here, on Franklin Road.

I don’t know how long we will live here. Or whether what we are trying to do will “succeed” by any external measure. But I do know that this is the vision God put on my husband’s heart. This is the door He opened for our family. And when I am willing to stop and really listen, I can hear Him whispering to my heart, Heather, right now, today, for YOU, this is the way; walk in it.

As a result:

I am learning to define safety as obedience to God.

I am learning to replace my fears with greater faith.

I am learning not to define people by outward appearances.

I am praying the words of St. Augustine:

“O Lord, let me offer you in sacrifice the service of my thoughts and my tongue, but first give me what I may offer you.”

That is the only kind of intentional living I am capable of at the moment: to intentionally allow God to expose my heart’s misguided affections, the ones that keep me from loving God and people. By His grace, He will do it; and His grace, to me, will not be wasted.

So... let’s get on with it… Let the Year Begin Now.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Happy New


It’s been a while since I've written. Too long. Another miscarriage, a job change, a pregnancy – and with it three solid months of acute “morning sickness” – wrenched the proverbial pen from my hands. I must pick it up again. I must also mention: we are moving in the spring, from this now beloved trail dust town of Tucson to Atlanta, Georgia. The Peach State. At least, I believe that is what they call it. We don’t know a soul there but I am looking forward to the trees. A friend of mine described it as a “city full of gardens,” and when Dutch and I visited at the end of October, it was true – as the plane descended all I saw were colored tree tops crowding houses and streets, as well as an astonishing number of parks. On the ground, we wound through neighborhoods overhung with trees – I’m not sure what kind. Oak, maybe. And Elm. Anyway, they were big, enormous, their trunks hunched over the sidewalks in postures of concern, as if to shield from danger any little ones that might be found frolicking beneath their sprawling branches.  

We passed one house – a single story white bungalow with gray shutters and a glossy black front door – and I prevailed upon Dutch to park the car across the street. There was a little girl out front, maybe three or four, being pushed in a wooden swing by a man I assume was her father. Warm afternoon light filtered through the leaves of the trees, through the girl’s blonde hair, and over the rope handles she clung too so tightly, giving the whole scene a look of timeless incandescence. Through the large front window of the house I glimpsed a wooden dollhouse, a coat rack, the backs of chairs. A life. Their life.

And I wondered, could God give us a life here?  A new life? Of course, He could, I thought. He can. Leaves – golden green, auburn, and orange – flitted slowly to the ground like benedictions, blessing the sidewalks, the manicured lawns, and, it seemed to me, the two of us where we sat, voyeurs beneath the reflective windshield. He is bringing us up from the desert, I thought, and though this new land is not Canaan, it is the land He has chosen for us. And that makes it a land of promise.



Friday, June 15, 2012

Three















Wednesday, June 13, 2012

One Year Ago Today

*The black-haired baby with the ruddy complexion is Evangeline, the day I brought her home from the hospital. Olivia is beside her.
Last night we walked to the Bunny Bench, the name Audrey and Evangeline have given to the bench that sits at the tip of the golf course near our home. The sun had disappeared behind a low ribbon of mountain peaks along the northwestern horizon, but the light had not quite gone out of the sky.

We rounded the corner past the Bunny Bench, and up the winding, starlit path. We could smell the sweet, fresh earthy smell of grass, so recently watered; and in the distance came the “chh-chh-chh-chh” of sprinklers wetting some distant part of the green. In the brooding silver-gray moments before the sky blackened utterly, I watched as the focal point of beauty changed from colored clouds to flickering city lights. In an instant, in no time at all, a thick canopy had been erected above our heads and the black dome that was the sky was filled with stars that shone all the brighter for the blackness of the night. 

Ahead of us the path was flanked with the wiry, almost sinister silhouettes of cottonwoods, their sleek dark trunks shining in the starlight, and above us one star shone brighter than all the others; so bright it compelled me to exclaim, “Wow! Girls, do you think that’s a star or a planet?” The girls looked up quizzically from where they sat, side by side, in the stroller, and studied the star a moment quietly, their awed faces reflecting the silver-blue light of the moon.  

“I think it’s the star what God put up when Jesus was born,” Audrey said solemnly, then paused.  “Or maybe it’s the Olivia Star.”

Suddenly Evie gave a deep, anguished cry, as if in pain. “Oh!” she moaned. “Oh, my friend! I miss my friend Olivia!”

“I know, Evie,” I said.

But Evie kept on: “She died! Oh! Olivia died!”

I was dumb-founded. Evie was two years old when Olivia died. How could she remember her enough to express genuine grief? At last, my voice nearly swallowed by chokes and gasps, I said, “You're right, Evie. Olivia is with Jesus. Did you know that? Did you know He is holding her in His arms?”

“Oh!” she moaned. “But I want to play with huh! I really whoosh I could play with huh.”

I glanced over at Dutch to gauge the depth of his astonishment. “I’m sorry, Evie," I said again, groping for words. "You will be able to play with her someday. When we see her again in Heaven.”

“But I want to play with huh now!” Evie persisted, and started to cry.

The part of me which a moment before had suggested that perhaps these were false cries, full of affectation, was now utterly silenced, replaced by the sounds of a child's lamentations for her departed friend: “Oooooh! I miss Olivia. I miss my friend!”

Audrey, who had been observing this scene in silence, gallantly leaned over and kissed her sister on the knee. “Oh, Evie,” she said reassuringly, patting Evie's leg now. “Don’t worry! Just look at the star! You have to stay looking at the star. It will remind you about Olivia. It will say that you would be okay…” Then -- right there, in the darkness and quiet -- Audrey began to sing: 

“O, please! O please! Shine the moon for me! 
  O, please! O, please! Shine the star for me! 
  Jesus, please, check on Livia for us
  Make sure that she’s okay… 
  Tell her that we want to play with her another day
  ...in Heaven.”

I looked again at the star, shining more radiantly than all the others...like Jesus, our Bright Morning Star. The One for whom we stand and wait; the One who says, “Do not be discouraged! Be not afraid! Do not dismay. I am the Living One. My work is finished. I am coming quickly, and I will make all things new!"

Without Jesus, words of consolation, so often given, like, "She will live on forever in your hearts" or "Her spirit will never be forgotten" are just... words. Whimsical, empty words. Without a whit of truth to justify or ground them. Memories fade; and, for all we can see, life ends when the body does. "But that Christ on His cross did rise / and fall, / Sin had eternally benighted all" (John Donne). It is only because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that we dare to hope - to believe with confidence - that Olivia now experiences that blessed state which, Paul says, is “better by far” than life on this earth: union with Jesus. We will see her again. In the place of "No More Tears."
 *Audrey drew this picture of Olivia and Jesus on May 25th, the day that Olivia would have turned three.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Notes On a Wilderness Prophet

“And Moses was content to dwell with the man…” ~Exodus 2.15-21

Moses is commonly regarded as the greatest prophet of the Old Testament. Yet he started out as a flop. From a temporal standpoint, his role as mediator, deliverer and rescuer ended before it began, like the burgeoning ingénue whose much-anticipated debut onstage ends with boos and jeers, instead of applause.

"Moses was forty years old when it came into his heart to visit his brothers, the children of Israel” (Acts 7.23). But who can say how long he had nursed this hidden dream – that of saving his people from the cruel bondage of his adoptive grandfather? Was the impulse to visit them sudden and spontaneous? Or painstakingly planned - perhaps from the first moment he discovered his true origins? We cannot know.

What is clear is that Moses's decision to visit his people reflected his desire to identify with them. Perhaps he nurtured a vague hope that his kinsman might recognize in this decision his desire to defend and help them. Perhaps they would recognize him as the deliverer for which they had long hoped, and would confer upon him their confidence as a would-be leader.

But whatever his expectations might have been, Moses could not have prepared himself for what he actually saw - the cruelty and injustice, the misery and filth; nor could he anticipate the effect such realities would have on his conduct. For when he saw an Egyptian guard mistreating an Israelite slave - his brother! - Moses could not restrain himself: he got between the men, “struck down” the Egyptian, and killed him, thus sealing his own fate, and forcing himself to flee into the wilderness of Midian.

"He supposed that his brothers would understand that God was giving them salvation by his hand, but they did not understand" (Acts 7.25). Ironically, as so often happens in today's world, the very act Moses imagined would secure his reputation was the self-same one that undid it: for the Israelites did not want this kind of attention; nor had they asked him for any such help. 

The book of Hebrews affirms the idea that Moses's ex-patriation was an act of his own will and not the product of haphazard circumstance - "[B]y faith...he refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter" (Heb. 11.24). Yet those truths which are presented so clearly and cleanly in Scripture have to be worked out in the messiness of time: for even if Moses had counted the cost before putting himself in such a jeopardizing position, even if he chose "rather to endure ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin" (Heb. 11.25), he did not know the future. Nor could he have anticipated, precisely, what this step of faith would mean for him in practical terms. Could it be that this outcome was worse than his worst imaginings? 


For in choosing to be identified with the Israelite people Moses not only forfeited his status as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, he made himself an outcast in both the Egyptian and Hebrew culture. There could be no going back – not to the old life, not in the old way. That Moses had died with the Egyptian. Now he was alone, in the wilderness – all at once, and irrevocably, an exile and a criminal, a stranger in yet another strange land. In a single act, he had burned all his bridges. He had flung himself into the unknown, into the arms of God.

Can you imagine the shock and horror he must have felt during that frenzied flight out of Egypt? No doubt Moses sat down beside Midian's well, dizzy and confused, his mind pulsing with questions: What had just happened? -- and how? Then – all at once – a group of seven shepherdesses arrived and began to water their father’s flock. Such pretty women, he might have thought, and yet - so strange! The Midianite culture was as alien to him as, presumably, the Israelite culture was to them. But these thoughts were interrupted when a band of shepherds appeared and began to drive the women away. Despite his exhaustion, his bewilderment and despair, Moses roused himself and did the first thing that came into his mind to do: “[He] stood up and saved them, and watered their flock.”

There is a kind of teleological inevitability to Moses’s actions here… One gets the impression that he simply could not help himself. Like the acorn that cannot but become the tree, or the compass needle pointing irresistibly north, Moses could not but intervene and deliver the women from the hands of the unjust shepherds. In so doing, he offered a tiny hint of proof - if not to himself, then to God, to Creation, the sun, moon, and stars - that he was, in fact, born to rescue.

Like that greatest Deliverer, Jesus, whom his ministry foretold, God had woven it into the fabric of Moses's being to be a deliverer, and deliver he would, in whatever circumstances God provided. This is, perhaps, the point at which Moses’s remarkable humility first presents itself: for Moses was content to do what God put before him, without insisting for work more “worthy” of his talent. If his circumstances would change, God would change them; and it was not for him to try to engineer an alternative.


For saving the women, Moses – whom the shepherdesses identify simply as “an Egyptian ” (Ex. 2.15) – is invited into the home of their father, Jethro, a shepherd and Midian’s priest. Moses is offered bread, shelter, and a wife, Zipporah, one of the seven whom he had rescued. Nevertheless, it would have been only natural -  axiomatic, expected - for Moses to have any number of highly unfavorable reactions to this turn of events. Yet Scripture tells us “…Moses was content to dwell with the man (Ex. 2.21, italics mine).

Think of it! Moses, the Egyptian, raised in the household of Pharaoh, in the culture of Egypt, was content to dwell with a Midianite shepherd, an occupation which was considered an abomination to the Egyptians (Ex. 46.34). Likewise, Moses, the Israelite, born into the priestly tribe of the Levites, was content to live with a non-Israelite priest, and marry a non-Israelite woman, facts which, by themselves, would have destroyed any hope Moses might have nurtured of somehow re-entering either society. This, I imagine, was precisely God’s intent.

For how else but as an outcast of earthly society could Moses have become the most humble man who ever lived, "considering the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt" (Heb. 11.26)? How, if God had not hollowed him of every inclination to “seek great things for himself,” could Moses have had the meekness to serve as God’s spokesman? How, if God had not kept him for forty years as a kind of wilderness captive could Moses have been prepared to lead God’s people through the wilderness for yet another forty? Most importantly, how, if he had not been emptied of every atom of self-reliance, self-effort, and self-assurance, could he have served as the vessel through which God’s great wonders would be made manifest? 

Yes, it's true. Astonishing as it might seem, Moses was content -- for forty years! - to do humble shepherd's work. And when these forty years were expired there appeared to him in the wilderness an angel of the Lord in a flame, in a burning bush:  “When Moses saw it, he was amazed at the sight, and as he drew near to look, there came the voice of the Lord: 'I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob.' And Moses trembled and did not dare to look. Then the Lord said to him, 'Take off the sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground” (Acts 7.30-34).

"This Moses, whom they rejected, saying, 'Who made you a ruler and a judge?'--this man God sent as both ruler and redeemer…” (Acts 7.33). This Moses. The one who had acted presumptuously all those years before now responded to God with incredulity. “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” Gone was the young, impetuous and self-assured man; in his place was a man of brokenness and humility. “Who am I…?” Moses no longer entertained illusions that he possessed within himself the qualities required to free the people from their cruel bondage. He knew that, if they would be delivered, God would deliver them, not by the might or power of any man, but by His Spirit. Paradoxically, God was calling Moses to be, at once, Deliverer and Not-deliver: He would be the ship; God the wind to make it move. He the instrument; God the skilled player. He the empty vessel; God the water, filling it and bringing life to many.
 
“A saint’s life is in the hands of God like a bow and arrow in the hands of an archer. God is aiming at something the saint cannot see, and He stretches and strains, and very now and again the saint says – ‘I cannot stand any more.’ God does not heed, He goes on stretching till His purpose is in sight, then He lets fly.” ~Oswald Chambers

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Easter Blooms


On days like these, full of endless messes, runny noses, and wilted flowers, I glory in the thought that one day we will all be as fresh and pure and untouched by the blights of sin and decay as my girls appear in these pictures. In Christ, we can; in Christ, we are; in Christ, we will be.

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Price of Peace

"The motto was 'Pax,' but the word was set in a circle of thorns. Pax: peace, but what a strange peace, made of unremitting toil and effort, seldom with a seen result; subject to constant interruptions, unexpected demands, short sleep at nights, little comfort, sometimes scant food; beset with disappointments and usually misunderstood; yet peace all the same, undeviating, filled with joy and gratitude and love. 'It is my own peace I give unto you.' Not, notice, the world's peace."

These are the opening words of Rumer Godden's novel, In This House of Brede, which chronicles the life of a 42-year-old woman who leaves a thriving career, "her flat in London overlooking a garden square, its rooms so finished and exquisite, with Persian rugs, furniture, pictures," to become a nun in a cloistered Benedictine community. I read them last night, sitting up in bed, unable to sleep. They seem worth repeating on this Good Friday as we reflect upon the price that Jesus paid to win for us victory over Hell and death, and to give us, in their place, unending life and peace - His peace, which surpasses understanding, and abides with us through every sorrow, gale and storm.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

We’ll Always Have Paris

“There are only two places in the world where we can live happy: at home and in Paris.” ~Ernest Hemingway

“These things…are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.” ~CS Lewis, The Weight of Glory

What woman doesn’t dream of going to Paris?

In this regard, I am not unique. I had the chance to go once, when I was a student in Rome, but – being very young and very, very romantic – I decided to forego the opportunity in the hope of seeing it first with the man I loved.

That was eleven years ago.

Thus you can imagine my elation when, in early December, Dutch asked whether I’d like to spend New Year’s Eve with him there.

We left Christmas Day, after the girls had opened their presents, and returned a week later: in all we spent six exquisite days, without interruption, walking the streets of Paris, exploring approximately twelve of its twenty arrondissements. We saw the Royal Ballet - a dream of mine - at the Opera Garnier; we heard a gospel choir in the St. Germaine Chapel; and happened on a Christmas concert in La Madeleine where I wept through operatic performances of Silent Night in German, O Holy Night in French, and Ave Maria in Italian; and even managed a vespers service at Notre Dame Cathedral. We visited the world's most extraordinary museums, the Louvre, Musee D’Orsay, and the Jacque-Mart, which just "happened" to be exhibiting some newly restored tryptics by my favorite Late Medieval painter, Fra Angelico. I drank a glass of champagne in the library of the hotel where Oscar Wilde expired; and walked the elegant Vosgues Square, where Victor Hugo lived and wrote Les Miserables; we even sampled Hemingway’s signature cocktail in the bar that bears his name, located inside the glittering Paris Ritz.

After a few days walking the city I started to joke that in Paris everything can be cleanly divided into two categories: boutiques (for merchandise) and salons (for services). It truly is a city for gourmands.

I’ll never forget my visit to Laduree, the world’s most elegant patisserie or "tea salon." After paying 5 euro – approximately 7 US dollars – for an éclair au chocolat a smartly dressed, pinch-faced clerk handed me a mint green bag with the words Laduree wreathed in a garland of gold across the front. I stepped out of the shop onto the street, with all the excitement of Charlie after he’s been handed that winning Willy Wonka bar. Breathlessly, I pulled a rectangular pastry box out of the bag, and broke its golden seal: there, beneath a sheet of shimmering tissue paper, lay the most exquisite chocolate eclair I had ever seen!

It was a quintessential culinary experience, the kind you might hear described in scintillating detail by Julia Child or MK Fisher. The eclair was a perfect oblong shape; the texture, soft and chewy, without a hint of dryness; and the cream inside was cool and refreshing without being too sweet.

And that is Paris. Beauty of form. The cult of the senses. Artistry down to the detail. These qualities form the essence of a city whose culture revolves around the worship of beauty – beautiful buildings, beautiful parks, beautiful art, beautiful furnishings, beautiful food, beautiful clothes. To quote a line from Keats, in Paris “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, - that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Yet if I had to choose one word to describe my visit to Paris it would probably be iconoclastic. And I mean this literally; for the word itself means: “image breaking.”

With each day that passed, the ideal - or should I say idyll - of Paris, as it is so often represented by artists and writers, began to crack and splinter; by large and small degrees, reality began to burst in: there were the sidewalks crowded with sad faces, the homeless people on the steps of a bakery near our hotel, rattling Haagen Daaz cups full of change, the graffiti on old buildings, vomit in the Metro, trash in the streets.

On our last day in Paris, on a street near the Bastille, all those cracked pieces finally came loose and the ideal image shattered. It was New Year’s Eve and we’d just been to Bleu Sucre, one of the city’s most celebrated boulangeries. Our stomachs were full; our pockets, empty; and as we teetered along, without thought or care of anything save where to go for dinner, I tore into a warm baguette which the man in line ahead of me had insisted would change my life.

We rounded a corner and the sidewalk emptied into a kind of round-about. Not more than ten feet away, a mother and her three children – two toddlers and a baby – were camped out in a glass phone booth. They sat on a mound of tattered blankets and stared, vacant-eyed, at passersby. One of them - the youngest toddler - was guzzling Coke from an enormous plastic bottle.

A stab of something like agony pierced my heart. My mouth went dry and the morsel of bread I was chewing became a dead, tasteless thing, like ash. Disgusted with myself, and with the world, I felt a sudden urge to go home – home and away from here; home to a place unlike any home I’ve ever visited. Home to Heaven.

As shameful as it sounds, I think I’d have been more willing to “accept” the sight of this poor family as a representation of the brokenness of this world on the streets of almost any other city in the world. In LA or New York it would have been distressing, but not in the same way surprising. But in Paris, France? On a day so close to Christmas? In a street still dressed up with Christmas garlands and New Year’s streamers and twinkling displays of chocolate letters declaring "Joyeux Noel!" and "Bon Anee!" in every shop window? No. This wasn’t right at all. Not at all.

And this brings me to the heart of the matter or, should I say, the matter of my own heart – for in the almost tragicomic absurdity of that unbearable moment I saw the idols of my own heart exposed, clanging into one another like a shocking pair of brass cymbals. I realized, I had been drinking the kool-aid! I had been entertaining the false notion that there is somewhere in this world, some little pocket of perfection where - with enough money, enough beauty and talent and opportunity - it is possible to find lasting happiness.

But as CS Lewis would say, this is a cheat: Paris may be the city of lights; but it is hardly Paradise.

Another cheat today and, I think, especially for women, comes in the form of images. Images – like the ones in this post - which represent the world in an idealized way, and thus try to trick us into thinking not only that the ideal can be reality, but that it is achievable, if only for an elite few. Even now, as I look back at many of my pictures, a part of me doubts the veracity of my own observations. How truly astonishing and ridiculous! I was there; I took the pictures; I know that the moment captured was a real moment – full of ragged edges. Yet the desire to idolize it – to make it an idol – is intrinsic, tempting us to spend our energies running after God’s shadows, rather than looking to God Himself.

There is something quite liberating about seeing our romantic illusions shattered because the shattering frees us to enjoy the beauties of this world for what they are without turning them into idols. This is, I think, what Blake was getting at when he said, “He who binds to himself a joy / Does the winged life destroy / But he who kisses the joy as it flies / Lives in eternity’s sunrise.” God created us to enjoy the joys of being alive - but without setting our hope on them. When we try to “bind them to us” we not only destroy "the "winged life," the life of the soul as it pants for eternity, we destroy the joys that are chiefly meant to serve as their signposts. We become enslaved to the gifts rather than letting them lead us back to the Giver.

My conclusion, therefore, upon returning home to the desert on January 1st: never trust anything that doesn't have seams. Put another way, the beauties of this world should only be trusted to the degree that they lead us to Christ; to the degree that they awaken and undergird and magnify our appetite for Heaven. The woman who learns to practice this art - this art which is also a discipline - she is the one who "lives in eternity's sunrise," who has glimpsed, if only faintly, and from far off, a true vision of reality.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Little Bird


We trimmed the palm tree out beside the vegetable garden and found a nest with one egg inside, perfectly preserved in a crevice near the trunk. The mother appeared to have abandoned it - driven away, I'm sure, by the awful noise and exposure. After hours of pleading, the girls were granted permission to adopt it, egg and all. This meant, of course, creating a new perch for the nest, on a chair beside the bed so that they could blow it kisses and make sure it was safe from Daddy - whom you never could trust when it came to eggs since he was liable to boil it and eat it for breakfast.

When I went in for the second time to kiss Evie goodnight I found her sitting up in bed, holding the bowl that held the nest in her two hands. She was examining it with such concentration I didn't have the heart to scold her. "Are you looking at your nest?" I asked finally. She looked up at me and nodded vigorously, and smiled her rueful, dragon-slaying smile: "It's im-pressive!" she exclaimed. I couldn't but be drawn into the mystery of the moment - and for several seconds we bent our heads down and studied the nest together quietly. I noticed that in addition to countless small twigs, the mother bird had salvaged some tiny uprooted carrots from our garden, and woven them into her nest. I had pulled them up weeks before and left them in a tattered pile beside the planter. Too small to use, I'd thought. But in fact the carrot tops - so long and leafy and green - were put to perfect use; and the tiny shriveled carrots brought a reassuring touch of color to the scheme.

I looked up at Evie, who was still studying the nest with care. "Evie," I said, "you're impressive. You know that?" She looked at me and laughed uproariously as if I had made the most unorthodox suggestion. "No, you're impressive!" she challenged. "Oh, alright," I said. "You win." And I knew with sudden irrevocable conviction that I had been outmatched.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Fifth Position


Audrey is 5!