Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Star-Gazing [Rough poem]

[There is supposed to be some indentation in this poem, but I am not in the mood to struggle with html and blogger over it. Whatever.]

I need to go out and meet
the placid stares of the frozen stars.
But each time I step into the night,
the streetlamps glare at me.

I cast my eyes earthward, seek safety in shadows,
but there the flickers of fireflies
and the flashes of photographs
and the travelers' swinging lanterns
and the swooping headlights of cars
that zoom across the world (like ungraspable ghosts,
like angels on unknowable missions)

distract me

from those distant, distinct pinpricks,
from those burning worlds whose flames rage
unseen for millions of years before
I begin to distinguish their millenarian gaze.

You, Stars, not the streetlamps, hold
my destiny, my soul's seeds.
Yet the earthly lights shout in my ears
while the heavenly lights only whisper--Why
do the constellations of my own experience
glow so gently, when every other person's lights
dazzle my eyes, blinding me
to the Stars I seek?

Open my eyes, Starlight!

Sing to me, shine on me. Turn me inside-
out, and let your brilliance drown every false flicker.
Then I'll breathe


the truth of my existence: Let there be


Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Prosaic, Poetic

Poetry has been eluding me lately, or I have been eluding it--avoiding its stare, not answering when it calls my name in the dark.

Sometimes I don't feel like talking to you, Poetry, my friend. You have known me so long that I am afraid sometimes of what you will say to the person I have become. Or is it, more charitably, that I assume you know already everything in my heart?

But I need the illumination of your images--I type this in the dark, eyes shut. See, even now I will not meet your gaze. I am bent over, forehead on my feet. I have folded myself like one of those paper cranes I have been making since I was four years old--angles, creases, flattened and reshaped. Like them, I am a simple square, if you unfold me--creased, maybe, or crinkled, and patterned with colors and designs. Still, unfold me and smooth me out and I am just this single layer of paper. A square is clean and crisp, but meaninglesss.

That is what I fear, when I avoid you, Poetry. I am afraid you'll unfold me and reveal that my inside is a void. What if, inside, I am just hollow?

I don't want to be empty.

When I trust you and listen to you--when I sit down and sip tea with you in the comfortable chairs that offer to swallow me in their huge embrace (instead of turning away from your voice to run through the corridors of other people's stories)--when I hand over the keys and the combinations to all my locks, and you open the doors and cupboards and boxes and drawers, one by one, and shine your lamp inside them: they aren't really empty. Even if they were, you would fill them with good things, Poetry, my generous friend. You are light, not darkness. I forget sometimes. Forgive me.

I will come sit at your feet once more, and listen to your stories. You will sing me the songs of my heart, the music you hear through your stethoscope. You'll show me the snapshots of my journeys, pictures you took when I thought you had abandoned me, now arranged and preserved, ephemeral moments captured for my perusal. You'll feed me a hot meal, with plenty of vegetables, and make sure I'm satisfied. Yes, you are my friend, I do know this.

I'll come visit soon, I promise. Wait for me. Answer the door when I finally knock. And for the moment, remind me of the directions to your house.

Saturday, January 23, 2010


"The Lord their God will save them on that day
as the flock of his people.
They will sparkle in his land
like jewels in a crown."
--Zechariah 9:16
We are his sheep, and we are his jewels. God is making all things new, and all things glorious--and all things beautiful? Not because we are bad or ugly now, but because he is the ultimate Artist.

Moreover, we aren't supposed to be jewels left in the ground to be beautiful but undiscovered; nor polished and ensconced in a drawer, nestled in velvet and darkness; nor piled together indiscriminately in a treasure chest as an investment for the future. We are like jewels in a crown: in the open, in the sunlight, to be seen, associated with God.

Just a brief update on books and movies

I haven't been writing because I've been absorbed in running ERP experiments and, more importantly, talking with my visiting friend about life, the universe and everything. But on the media-consumption front:
  • Finished Four Loves a while back. My central insight: that I try to escape Eros for the comfort of Affection. The familiar pulls me so strongly, and the adventure of the unknown sometimes feels like another danger. Run from the uncertainty, slow down, back away: hands in front of me, palms out, watching, watching. I don't know what's coming next, so I'd rather watch from a safe distance. Only, in backing away, I can't see what's behind me, and I stumble and fall anyway.

  • Also read a Discworld book: Equal Rites. Terry Pratchett somehow managed to mix feminism, magic, quantum mechanics, and many-worlds theory into a very appealing and coherent mix. I recommend!

  • Watched "Devdas" (Bollywood! gorgeous but so tragic, *tear*) and Hitchcock's "Vertigo" (suspenseful with injections of trippy-ness) plus the end of "Jules et Jim" (totally bizarre and I never want to watch the whole movie). Also "Everything is Illuminated" which was beautiful and tragic but also shot through with hilarity.

  • Making progress through Letham's Holy Trinity, finally! I only have 40 pages left. Far too much content to try to extract and summarize, because I don't have the theological background to create an outline of any sort. The point I've been dwelling on, though, is that worship reflects the nature of the Trinity--that in worshiping, we emulate the communion among the persons of the Trinity--that the love of the Father for the Son, the way the Son glorifies the Father, the way the Spirit reveals the Son--that, in attributing worth, these relations have the same essence as the worship that humans offer. Letham also points out that most of Christian worship actually isn't Trinitarian. Ultimately Christian worship should be centered around the God that is distinctly Christian, i.e., the triune God. But most of the hymns could just as easily apply to the God of Judaism or Islam. . . Strange thought.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Advice [Question of the Day]

Funny how timely this question is...

A lot of people turn to me for advice. Well, they turn to me as a confidante, and they get sympathy and advice packaged together. Occasionally they also get verbally smacked, because I get upset when I think someone I love is going to do something stupid. So who are these lots of people? My sister; my almost twin (who is coming to visit me! yay!), and sometimes the third in that trio; my other self, the boys across the hall (practically brothers), the boyfriend, the gay boy who was and is my first friend here; my accountability/hiking/breakfast/MPPC buddy; and at least a couple other girl friends here at school.

I suppose I don't really know how many of them turn to me for the purpose of getting advice. But if they listen to my advice and thank me for it, I think that counts.

I give advice on boy / girl situations, on what makes a good relationship (or really, on what things I know make for a bad relationship: process of elimination...); on finding peace, on hearing from God; on what classes to take, on what major to choose, or on how to choose a major; on resolving arguments, on getting along with parents; on reading the Bible, on forming habits, on praying; on cooking; on working in a group; on books to read. I give advice about staying sane, about pausing, about looking for perspective, about stepping back. I give advice on living with pain, on letting go of guilt, on looking for joy.

And really, it's not so much advice as it is sharing my experiences. I try to tell people the reactions that I have experienced and observed so they have some more data without conducting the experiments themselves... Of course, the variables are different for everyone, but some of the conditions are invariably the same. We're all human, after all.

Is giving advice part of my job? Depends what you mean by "job." It's not part of being a student (which I suppose is my job, since it's my task right now; technically I'm even being paid for it). It's not part of being a research assistant, that's for sure, since I haven't a clue what I'm doing. Giving advice isn't in the job description for anything I'm getting paid for or graded on.

But I think the most important "job" I can do right now is being a friend. I want to be the kind of friend that you don't just watch movies with, but the kind you exchange ideas and books with. But more than that, I want to be the kind of friend who knows your life and whose life you know. And more than that: I want to be the kind of friend who knows your joys and struggles and hopes and fears... I want to be the kind of friend who can say "I see you" the way they say it in "Avatar": I see into you. I know you.

And so advice is part of my job--my calling? my place in life? my mission?

But it's certainly not the important part. The part that matters isn't the advice I give so much as the relationships that put me in situations where my advice is wanted and (I hope) useful. It's not the view I see from the mountaintop that matters, because I could see pictures of that view or an IMAX rendition of it and get the same images. What matters is the fact that I'm actually on the mountain, the journey and the destination that put me in a place to be able to see the view. It would be good to be there on the mountain even if I were blind, even if the clouds covered the landscape.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Split Pea Soup

I could start writing about cooking and never stop.

I watch (and enjoy) a calculus lecture, from two and a half years later and almost 200 miles away, but when the video screen goes black and youtube offers me related videos, I need to come back to my body. I need to be present.

Cooking: it is all about being there. Being here. Being now. Cooking is timing and attention and transformation. Heft the bag of split peas, feel them, through the plastic, shifting. The thousand split peas will pour out of this bag, cascade across the bottom of the bowl. If I poured them onto the floor, they would scatter and skitter into every corner. They are independent, they do not love each other. But for now, they are one shape, moving together, formed by my hands into this reassuring solid. When I set the bag on the counter vertically, it slouches, but does not sway.

And then the onions, like giant pearls. The onions wait patiently in the bottom drawer in the refrigerator, but when their time comes, they shine through the whole kitchen. When I pick up an onion to slip and rip away its brown jacket, it fills my palm. For an instant, this onion globe is the entire world. Under the crisp outer paper, the onion is silken smooth. Today I sliced one along its equator, revealing concentric circles. Pale and perfect inside, the two hemispheres glowed on the cutting board, as though I had split the planet apart and found it suffused with light.

Chopping the onions, the knife is very real in my hand: its weight, its solidity, the sliding of the blade through the onions. Like the peas, the onions will be sundered into a thousand independent pieces. With each severance, the onion cries out, and its scream hangs in the air as an acrid vapor. But to no avail. The knife mercilessly destroys the harmony of those opalescent globes. They are bound for a bowl and then a bowel.

When I slide the onions into the pot, I scrape the knife across the edge. The metal rings. The onions, below, crinkle and shiver in the hot oil.

Meanwhile, I pour the peas into a bowl, and fill it with water. My language lacks a word for the song of liquid pouring into legumes. . . It's a very transient fountain, but lovely nonetheless. I immerse myself in the cooking, bury my hands in the peas to clean them. I can smell the peas: a quiet smell, minerals, sunshine. My hands massage the peas. Clouds drift into the water. Rinse, repeat. The little golden peas cling to my hands but I wash them back into the crowd, and then they all go in with the onion in the pot.

Pour in five cups of water. Wash the dishes, listen for the water to boil. Listen for the plopping, popping sounds that say to stir the pot. Smell: the onions, the softening peas, the steam.

Later I squirt in the lemon juice the recipe calls for. But it's not enough. Instead, the kitchen tells me what the soup needs. I drizzle black molasses across the sandy-colored peas. The cider vinegar reeks, but I add a capful, and another. Stir and taste, add and stir again and simmer some more. . .

At the end of the hour, it's lunch, ladled into a bowl that I hold in my hands. In the bowl is soup, and in the soup is myself. I eat, and I thank God for creation, for these glorious vegetables, for these scents and sounds, and I rejoice in this kitchen, where I play creator.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Word of the Day

Scytale, introduced to me via this cute site.
I want to do fun kid's cryptography! Too bad none of the people I would be most inclined to give messages to are around at the moment. . .

Saturday, January 9, 2010


From the introduction to Andy Crouch's book Culture-Making: Recovering Our Creative calling:
The worst thing we could do is follow that familiar advice to “pray as if it all depended on God, and work as if it all depended on you.” Rather, we need to become people who work as if it all depends on God—because it does, and because that is the best possible news. We work for, indeed work in the life and power of, a gracious and infinitely resourceful Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. And we need to know ourselves well enough that the thought that it might in fact all depend on us would drive us straight to fasting and trembling prayer.
This is where my fundamental struggle lies: in thinking that it depends on me. In believing that my friend or my worth or the problems of the world depend on me, I drive myself to run away and try to blame other people for the problems I see, or try not to see the problems in the first place. They aren't my problems, I try to convince myself, turning my face away and refusing to help. But my conscience keeps trying to look back, and, though I'm not facing the problems anymore, I can't get rid of the guilt. I picked it up, somewhere along the line, and every time I notice the sufferings of the world, the guilt weighs just a little heavier...

But the truth is, these problems do not depend on me. The world depends on God, and He hasn't abandoned it, won't abandon it. Things may be a mess now, but He's still working, and because it all depends on Him, I can join in, I can face the problems, I can help, without picking up the burden of the entire responsibility.

I can look at how broken the world is, but still has hope, because I can also look at how strong God is. Sovereign, Creator, Everlasting: these are the words I want to understand.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Philemon on "Why evangelize?"

[DISCLAIMER: According to my wise father, my exegesis here is totally wrong, and the "sharing" in question is about fellowship within the church... But I bet there are other passages around that talk about the blessings that come from evangelizing. Maybe I'll look for them someday... Anyway, I think it's reasonable for me to say that this is what God was saying to me through this passage on that particular day, even if it's not what Paul was really saying to Philemon and his church.]

Anyone who has spent a significant amount of time in church has been told, over and over again, about the importance of telling other people about God. Usually the reason comes across as something like:
  • We have a duty to save souls / change lives / help people
  • We have a duty to show people who God is
  • The Bible says to, so why bother thinking about the reason?
Ultimately, all the reasons I have in my head for why I should evangelize (church-speak that too often translates into "force yourself to talk about God to people who aren't really interested" instead of "live with God in a way that makes it natural for Him to come up in conversation") are about me either helping the other people, or fulfilling a "mission" / "call" / duty / job / obligation / burden.

But I was reading Philemon this morning, and when Paul says,
I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that. . .
the reason he gives doesn't mention the people who will hear God's message, doesn't talk about a task assigned to Philemon and other Christians, doesn't bring up God's commands. Rather, the sentence continues,
so that you may have a full understanding of. . .
Of what? Of what we have to do to get to God? (since the best way to learn is to teach) Of how hard it must have been for Christ? (since no one wanted to hear his message either (not true, btw)) Of how messed up things are, out there in the world? Of how much the world needs us? (No: the world needs God, not us.)

None of those matches Paul's theology. Here's the whole sentence:
I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.
Paul's reason for praying that Philemon and his church actively share their faith is for them to know all the good things God has already given them. That is, Paul is telling them to share the gospel for their own sake! So that they will really know the good things that they already have, in Christ. For them to receive understanding, not for them to give it.

Which makes a lot of sense in light of what I've been reading in John, where the verb "give" shows up everywhere, and the giver is always God. God gives "the right to become children of God," gives light, gives eternal life, gives "the bread of heaven," gives "living water," gives the Son, gives Himself.

So often I think I can give to God by doing things right. But God doesn't need me to give to Him. He wants to give to me. God is the Giver, and we are the humble receivers.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Suddenly determinants are so much cooler

I just found out what the determinant really means! It's not just a bunch of numbers, it's the absolute value of the parallelogram whose sides are the vectors involved! Why don't they tell us these things when we first learn the operations? This is like doing derivatives for years before finding out that they are the tangents.

Thank you, MIT!

And if you're not as excited as I am, well, that's perfectly okay. Just wanted to share...

Books: recent past, present, and near future

The good way to do this would be to comment on each book and talk about what it said to me, but that would take an eternity. Besides, I'm still digesting content. Ideas from these will be showing up (have been showing up) in my other writing, I'm sure.
  • Four Loves by C.S. Lewis. I got pointed to it yesterday when I was trying to find writing about the Christian theology of the body and desire. Besides, I've been meaning to read this book (and all of Lewis's other stuff) for ages. As befits C.S. Lewis, this book is deeply insightful and surprisingly practical--or perhaps "relevant" would be a better word. At any rate, it is shedding light on the emotional ecology, shall I say, of a number of relational environments. . . I'm about half-way through, having just finished the section on Affection.

  • Hopefully I'll make some headway in Holy Trinity this break. I've been hiking through this book for, what, 4 years now? If I had realized it was a seminary textbook when I first picked it up, I don't know if I would have bought it...

  • Mudhouse Sabbath by Lauren Winner. I read it New Year's Day, en route from St. Louis to JFK. I really liked this book: meditations on living intentionally, on structuring your life and thoughts around God, on living ritual and tradition.

  • Hearing God by Dallas Willard. Finally finished it, two nights ago! I started that book in August and I kept reading it in really small increments because it does take a lot of, hm, chewing. Definitely worthwhile. I intend to go back and reread the section on the "still small voice," to properly absorb. (Does that make me a cow, if I chew the literary cud?)

  • Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell. I finished this around Christmas, and I think I'm going to go back to the beginning of that book, too. (Thanks so much, Finney!)

  • A Wrinkle in Time and A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L'Engle. It had been a long time since I read those books, and I am so glad I reread them. I hate describing things in superlatives, so I'm just going to tell you to READ THEM if you haven't already. (And read the middle book too! I just couldn't find it on my bookshelf!) One of the major themes, painted beautifully, is the interconnectedness of all things, from the stars down to the mitochondria. We all need each other, L'Engle says.
As for what I'm reading next, here are 3 from the top of my mental stack:
  • Adger's Core Syntax, because sentences are fascinating!

  • Kingdom Without Borders from Urbana, about the church around the world. I'm excited to learn about different cultures and how God works in different places.

  • A commentary on Hosea, lent to me by the pastor at church, in preparation for Bible study next semester.

There is a lamentable lack of fiction on this list, despite the glorious exception of Madeleine L'Engle. Any suggestions for novels for me to read?

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Adventure v. Tranquility [Question from 1/4/10]

As a gateway into everything that's on my mind, Monday's question:
Which would you choose right now: adventure or tranquility? Which would you choose for the long run: adventure or tranquility?
In one sense I'm choosing tranquility right now, because I've consciously chosen a quiet January. For the next 20 days, I have no schedule. These 3 weeks will be fluid, and like any liquid I know they will slip through my fingers, uncontainable, passing by so quickly. They will pass by quietly too, I think. The apartment is nearly silent these days, because I am the only one here, as though I owned my own house. I haven't been locking my bedroom door, since I am the only one who even comes into the common room. No one else is using the bathroom, no one leaving dishes in the sink, no one cranking the heater up to 80 degrees, no one forgetting to lock the door into the apartment.

No one is making noise in the building, either. The first morning I was back, I was surprised to see footprints in the fresh snow by the back door to the building, because the whole place is so silent. The heater whirs and the wind sighs, but no human voices speak in the hallway, and no doors slam closed. The building is sleeping, and the warm air murmuring out of the heaters is its tranquil snoring, its steady breathing.

Yes, I am tranquil now, in this quiet building, with the pale sunlight pouring in the window, and the snow frozen in patterns on the ground outside.

But I haven't been tranquil for all of these recent days, and my apartment hasn't been empty this whole time, and I haven't been silent this whole week. On New Year's Eve, I was in St. Louis, at the Urbana conference, singing and shouting and dancing with 17,000 other Jesus-followers, and my ears were ringing. On the first day of the new year, I was on the clattering Metrolink, and on a roaring Delta plane, and on the whooshing Airtrain out of JFK, and on the rumbling LIRR to come back here. My sister was with me, to sing and chatter and cry and giggle and screech and guffaw. Urbana was an adventure. Traveling in the snow was an adventure. Sisterhood is an adventure.

So I've been choosing those adventures. And even more, I'm choosing the adventure of letting go. Emotions are spirited creatures, which shriek and soar and scatter more often than they curl up and sleep. I'm letting my emotions out to run, instead of trying to keep them in stalls in a static stable. I'm letting someone into my life, into the unswept and badly lit corners, into the rooms visitors never touch. He is asking about the cabinets whose contents I don't show people. I find myself unlocking doors, taking out boxes to show him old pictures, opening notebooks I wrote in as a child.

Opening, opening: I am opening my mind and my heart and my arms, and isn't that the essence of an adventure? When you are all out in the open, there is no telling what might fall in or out, what you might gain or lose. When I let my emotions go galloping through the fields, I don't know when or how they'll come back. But I am trying to learn how to ride them. I will risk the bruises and brokenness, so I can feel the wind sweep across my skin, see the sun paint the mountains. I will risk falling because I want to go places, and isn't that the meaning of adventure, too? Exploring new spaces, from which you might not find your way home.

And I want to choose adventure for the rest of my life, too. Tranquility appeals to me, enchants me. Tranquility entrances me into a sleep of self-absorption. Comfort promises peace. But real peace comes in the midst of storms. Real peace comes not from hiding indoors but from knowing the world God created. Instead of folding in on myself, I want to be unfolded, unfurled. I want to have a greater surface area--the better to absorb the light of life.

I'm afraid of that light, I confess. I want the security of staying still. I want to settle in a quiet neighborhood and live next door to my sister and to my best friends, and raise our children like one big bunch of cousins. I want to shut my eyes to the brokenness of the world and focus on packaging myself in cotton and bubble-wrap so nothing can shatter me. I'm afraid of being hurt, of dying.

But the real reason I don't want to die is that I want to live. Life comes from engagement, not isolation. So I want the adventure that pries me open, that tears away my delusions, that unwraps me. I want the adventure that tosses me into God's capable hands, where I've belonged this whole time.

That's what I heard at Urbana, I believe. God confronted me with the fact that my real objection to going into missions is not that I'm uncertain of His will (though I am) but that I'm too certain of my own will. The problem is that I dream this little dream, colored in pastels, of the perfect suburban life with the neat picket fence, when I could be--should be--am called to be--dreaming God's almighty dream of redemption for the whole world, in painted in bold brushstrokes across a canvas as wide as creation. The problem is that I keep seeking tranquility instead of adventure: the adventure of trust. I'm afraid to trust God.

I'm afraid to trust myself, too. I want an instruction manual for my life, step by step instructions on how to solve these equations, algebra in the spirit of the Gauss-Jordan method. I'm afraid to step out and trust that God wants me to explore, that He wants be to really become myself (since after all He made me who I am). In my effort to rely on Him, I sometimes try to make myself an automaton, but that's not what He wants. "I have come that you may have life, and have it to the full," Jesus said.

And isn't that the essence of adventure?