“a good story in which to learn to fail”

I just finished reading Lauren Winner’s new book StillIt’s a series of reflections on life after losing her mom, ending her marriage and trying to figure out if the God she once passionately confessed is really there at all. Life, as she says, “in the middle.” In some places I found myself revelling in her soul-pricking insight while others left me scratching my head, but part way through I made a decision. I decided to exchange any ambivalence I had over her journey (this woman I didn’t even know) for acceptance of who she was in the pages before me –a gifted, thoughtful woman authentically pursuing her God.

This snippet, perhaps my favorite in the book, is a beautiful picture of why I’m glad I did:

“It turns out the Christian story is a good story in which to learn to fail. As the ethicist Samuel Wells has written, some stories feature heroes and some stories feature saints and the difference between them matters: ‘Stories . . . told with . . . heroes at the center of them . . . are told to laud the virtues of the heroes–for if the hero failed, all would be lost. By contrast, a saint can fail in a way that the hero can’t, because the failure of the saint reveals the forgiveness and the new possibilities made in God, and the saint is just a small character in a story that’s always fundamentally about God.’

“I am not a saint,” says Winner. “I am, however, beginning to learn that I am a small character in a story that is always fundamentally about God.”

Ditto.

“Are You A . . . ?” (A Quick Reflection on the Festival of Faith and Writing)

Over the weekend, I attended the Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Lots of bloggers are commenting on their experience (check out Michelle Van Loon’s for starters ) and if I had the energy, I’d write a post of my own. But instead (my friend Caryn and I were just marveling over how tired we still are) I’ve mustered up just enough for this one thought:

Early Saturday morning I was having breakfast with a few colleagues in the conference center lobby when, in desperate need of more coffee, I wandered into the “restricted section” (reserved for conference presenters and hotel guests) for a refill. I overheard a middle-aged man asking Pulitzer Prize winning author Marilynne Robinson if she was a presenter at the conference.

“Yes,” she said. “I am.”

“Oh,” he said. “Are you an author?”

“Yes,” she said again. “I am.”

I politely smiled, not quite bold (or socially inept) enough to stick around for the rest of the conversation. But as I made my way back to my colleagues, I couldn’t help but think how even the most successful people are only known and celebrated within the circles in which they are known and celebrated.

It was a sliver of a moment, but one dripping with profundity about motivation and perspective and humility and pursuing our dreams.  Because — whatever our circle —  someone’s bound to ask all of us if we are, well, anyone at all.

And no matter what that circle, our answer will be yes.

And our answer will be no.

And the person who asked might not really care about our answer to either.

My (one and only) Lenten Reflection

I recently read this Bernard Bailey quote on a whimsical little sign hanging in a store window: “When they discover the center of the universe, a lot of people will be disappointed to discover they are not it.”

I laughed because I knew that by “a lot of people” he meant me. It’s been the recurring lesson of my Lenten season.

True confession: I’ve never really done Lent before. I didn’t grow up with the tradition, wasn’t raised in the brand of Christianity that practiced it. During the past six years, however, thanks to our current church, that’s changed. I’ve come to appreciate it. I’ve listened to friends and acquaintances talk about their attempts to give up wine or chocolate or Facebook or some other vice that’s squeezed a little too tight and have admired their discipline and conviction. But for no particular reason (except perhaps my own laziness), I’ve never chosen to join them.

So this year, I decided to give it a go. Uninspired by the typical dietary restrictions, I decided to do a weekly fast. Nothing crazy, just breakfast and lunch, about 12 hours in the middle of my week. While I’ve fasted before (sporadically and always for specific reasons), I’ve more so enjoyed making it part of my normal routine. I’ve found it enlightening, refreshing. Even now, as I sit here typing away my last couple of hours, I’m strangely sad to see it end. Not because I love being hungry, but because my brief little exercise in self denial has taught me something about myself that I needed to be reminded of.

It’s not very often I deprive myself of the things I want. Anything, really. I’m alarmed, in fact, by how accustomed I’ve become to filling my needs when and how I feel like it. How easy it is to open my laptop or my pantry or my wallet and get the exact thing I want at the exact moment I want it. I’m quick to over indulge, protective of what’s “mine” and am ridiculously, pathetically awful at dying to myself.

But my weaknesses have reminded me of God’s goodness and grace. His patience, his tenderness, his empathy. The needs only he can meet, the longings which aren’t meant to be fulfilled, the necessity of dependence, the vulnerability of limitations, the crystallizing that happens by yearning for that which lasts but is not yet here. Most of all, though, it’s reminded me of my own brokenness, my utter inability to do life on my own and my desperate need for a Savior.

My friend Adele says, “Our small denials of the self show us just how little taste we actually have for sacrifice. . . .” Which ultimately reminds me of how great his was. Fitting, I suppose, considering this is Holy Week, the culmination of why we practice Lent in the first place.

Letter from a Birmingham Jail

From Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

“Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom. They have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of Albany, Georgia, with us. They have gone down the highways of the South on tortuous rides for freedom. Yes, they have gone to jail with us. Some have been dismissed from their churches, have lost the support of their bishops and fellow ministers. But they have acted in the faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times. They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment. I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour. But even if the church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future. I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are at present misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny. Before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson etched the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence across the pages of history, we were here. For more than two centuries our forebears labored in this country without wages; they made cotton king; they built the homes of their masters while suffering gross injustice and shameful humiliation -and yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to thrive and develop. If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.”

Read the full letter here.