Wednesday, December 23, 2009

the simple life

Do you remember that show "The Simple Life"--our first ridiculous introduction to Paris Hilton and her schemes toward some kind of legitimate celebrity? Well, Arkansas is not all like that. And I don't know of many other families besides the Duggars who have enough children to man a football team. But things are a little bit simpler here. It's probably the lack of school work and schedules. And the fact that we're in a house in the woods at the end of a gravel road. I feel like I'm stuck inside a Taylor Swift song--here is a place where the moon shines like a spotlight on the lake and you might actually get away with calling it a one-horse town. I think it's also my grandparents. They remind me of a time in my life that was simpler. And they are simply good. Paw Paw makes us a decadent breakfast every morning and refuses any help. Grandma lets me sit with her while she curls her hair and tells me how nice mine looks, longer and with bangs, thicker somehow (sharing hair woes with her reminds me that I am somebody's baby--my mother's thick mane makes me look like an adopted child). The two of them, my grandparents, they really do fight--no, just live--like an old married couple. It's nice to be reminded that relationships (of any sort) really can work. People can complement each other and finish each other's sentences and be cranky with one another without really minding and live together for over 50 years.

Last night we went to the movie theater downtown. It was free popcorn and coke night--just because, they said, every Tuesday is free popcorn and coke night. Our tickets costs just $6 each. We parked our car right out front, on Main Street, without fear of returning to a boot on the tire and a $50 fee. Paw Paw reflected upon a simpler time even further away, a time when he had young granddaughters to take to see Disney movies about princesses falling in love. We all took a trip back to that time last night--it was at my request that we see the only movie playing at the one-house Gem: The Princess and the Frog. Of course, this time on the way home, the twenty-four year old granddaughter noted scornfully with her mother that Disney still had their modern princess swept off her feet by the prince in a matter of hours, to be married within days, despite attempts at the beginning of the movie to make her an independent woman. I don't think the four year old Whitney would've minded that quite as much.

Two nights ago we soaked up a little more local culture. My grandparents operate a free health clinic in town and their church has been producing a Christmas play for the last three years as a fundraiser. Afterwards, Mom and I experienced our first round of introductions to some of the church folk. When we told one woman that I went to school in Atlanta, at Emory, she nodded wisely and asked, "Candler. That's a good conservative school there, now isn't it?" "Well, no ma'am. Candler actually tends a bit more towards the liberal end of things." After pausing for a moment of thought, she concluded, "That's good. It's good to have somebody on the inside that can change things." She also said to me, earlier in the conversation when Grandma first said I was a student at divinity school, that she "loved divinity." I was struck dumb momentarily, not sure whether this was some way unbeknownst to me for expressing one's personal devotion to the Lord, or if this woman was a particular fan of divinity schools in general. Apparently, as I was told later by my grandmother, divinity is some form of dessert. Hard to believe that there is a dessert I have not yet met, but it seems that my face did betray a bit more of my cluelessness that I had intended. Perhaps I can make it up to her by bringing Candler down from the inside.

Liberal or conservative biases aside, it has been nice to take a break from school work (though not from theological ponderings altogether) and return to a few simpler talents of my own: shopping at WalMart (thank you, YouthWorks), doing a little cooking, singing in the church choir. Reading. I finished Donald Miller--darn him still for making me want to write. Everything has become a story--I start narrating my life inside my head as it is happening (well, I do it more than usual), constructing clever sentences about the silliest little things, remembering conversations and things people say because it might make for a funny reenactment in a memoir about my life. Here's one that I had to write down:

Phone rings. Paw Paw answers. It's the preacher from the church, he says, as he hands the phone to Maw.

"No, I don't want to play at the New Year's Eve service," she says by way of greeting.

Pause. "Well now don't start in with all that God-talk or you'll make me say yes. What would I have to play?"

Pause. "Well of course I can play that--I used to be a Lutheran."

Of course, in the end Grandma agrees to play at the service. I am left laughing and mentally scribbling this scene into my memory and am encouraged to know that Donald Miller may be onto something--that real life may be funny and poignant and meaningful, whether you're traveling through painted deserts or sitting around the kitchen table in Heber Springs, Arkansas.

I also want to hike the Grand Canyon now. And watch the sun rise. I don't know if I've ever just sat and done that. That makes me pretty sad.

There will be a few more days in Arkansas to do that. Tomorrow, Christmas Eve, the family is coming. There will be food and bustle and awkward conversations until things settle in and we're comfortable with one another again, for these few hours at least. There will be cousins with boyfriends and babies, reflected by the increasing number of stockings across the fireplace mantle. I stop for only a minute to wonder when my stocking holder will have one with a name done in puff paint tucked next to it, then decide that right now, this is just right, where I am. I've got stories of seminary and Atlanta and future plans to retell again and again. The independent princess.

On Monday I will fly to Texas to see old friends, one of whom is getting married. She asked me to lead a Scripture reading in the ceremony, and I think sentimentally how that is much better of a gift she is giving me than the utensil holder I bought for her off the registry. But I've been awful sentimental lately. The day before I left Atlanta, I woke up in time to catch the end of Mona Lisa Smile on tv and I sobbed and sobbed as Julia Roberts left Wellesley and all her students behind, but all the girls jumped on bicycles and chased down her car and waved her off with tears in their eyes. I realized then how much I hate goodbyes. I think that's why I am soaking up every moment here with the grandparents I see only once a year, why I'm excited to see my friends next week but already heart wrenched to leave them again, why I'm planning a trip to Chicago in March to end that period after your last goodbye with (several) someone(s) when you're left wondering when it is, if ever, you will see each other again.

That's kind of life though, isn't it? Even the simplicity of Arkansas can't change some things. But I've gotten dreadfully long-winded. I hope you have a merry Christmas, simple in joy and hope, wherever you are celebrating.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

time for a breather

home again. it's been delightful so far. i got puppy kisses and brother hugs the moment i walked in the door. last night we sat in front of the fire and finished a puzzle and drank holiday beer all together. i slept in late this morning, then went for a run with baxter--it was a beautiful, crisp morning. i straightened out some things with my candidacy process after lunch, then headed out for my first round of christmas shopping. i'm not done yet, but i actually have gift suggestions from everyone in my family--a rare occurance. tonight we're eating homemade chili and potatoes for dinner and tomorrow it may snow! (slush?)

but i'm also sad to have left atlanta. i think it's because i don't like getting thrown out of rhythm--even if it is for a break and a trip home. it is nice to exhale, however, after the end of the semester. i have a feeling school will only get harder from here, but it's also weird to think that we just have 5 semesters left! i know, i know, that sounds like a lot (and it is), but i love it so much that it's hard to already scratch one semester off the list. this is such a precious time in my life, and i want to savor every moment, even as I count down the days of reading and papers and tests listed on syllabi as i go along. our OT professor has reminded us several times this semester (usually before a big test) that we should count it as an extreme privilege that it is our full-time job to study, and to study what we love at that. (for another take on grad students, click here). i actually had a moment of realization during my OT final that i was enjoying writing an essay on the exile. that, friends, is a pretty good sign of being in the right place.

but for now, it is time for a brief break from the OT and from all day study sessions at caribou coffee and from counting the number of not-pants worn by undergrads in the library. i've got only a few days at home in charlotte before jetting off to arkansas and spending christmas with my grandparents and extended family. then it's off on a mini-trip to texas for ashleigh's wedding before heading back to charlotte for a few days. j-term starts on the 4th back at emory. if i could squeeze anything else in, i really would like to go skiing--maybe a day trip up to boone would be feasible? we shall see.

one of my to-dos over the holiday break is to figure out what i want to do this summer. there is an internship or two that i want to apply for, and i'd welcome any suggestions of jobs or programs to apply for if anyone knows of any good opportunities. i'd really like to be a traveling vagabond this summer, but barring a lottery win (made even more unlikely by the fact that i don't play the lottery), that probably won't happen.

i would also welcome any suggestions for books to read over the break. i need to finish the donald miller i started on a whim midway through the semester, and i'm sure i have a list a mile long i'd like to work on--if only i had ever taken the care to write that list down. unfortunately, i may have to start reading my history of methodism book soon if i want to avoid being overwhelmed during j-term. but we'll see...

i pray that your christmas season is filled with joyful expectation for the coming of Jesus our King. watch for him like the coming of the dawn on a black, cold night. wait for him as a people in exile and defeat wait for the hope that they know will one day come.

Saturday, December 12, 2009


note for the future: combining allergy medicine with situations of extreme mental fatigue and nervous anticipation may have hazardous effects.

if this happens during finals week of graduate school, combined effects may lead to nonchalance over studying for the last exam of the semester. may cause delusions where it's okay to eat chocolate ice cream and 7up for dinner.

combination may be lethal if said anticipation is over both finals and a boy. may lead to over-reactions. will require heightened dosages of romantic comedies and episodes of 'say yes to the dress.'

Thursday, December 3, 2009

catch my attention

in recent years, there's a prayer that i've started to pray that is somewhat dangerous.

Lord, catch my attention.

truth be told, God could answer that prayer in many ways. so let me clarify. i pray this prayer from a place of complacency. of frustration with myself or with a system in which i am embedded (America, the Church, my family).

catch-my-attention prayers don't ask for blessing. they do ask for healing, but healing through brokenness. these are prayers that ask for something "bad" to happen in order to wake me from my blindness to what is really happening. to jolt me out of the routines and habits that have become destructive without my awareness.

so i should clarify even further--this is a prayer i'm trying to pray. when i'm honest with myself, it's not something i'm really prepared to ask for. but i'm thankful that my eyes are being opened to why i need to pray this way.

the first time i prayed in this way was during undergrad. it was the end of my junior year and i was trying to decide (yet again) whether or not i should change my major. i had several long phone conversations with my parents, and out of this context came a revelation from my father that he was unhappy in his job--and nearly always had been. he does extremely well for himself, and for the family by extension, but the long hours and the lack of fulfillment had begun to pile up, i believe. of course, i saw this as a nudging from the God my father doesn't know very well, a nudge towards something of greater significance. out of this, i began to pray that my father would lose his job--or that something would happen that would drive him to quit. (we're getting honest here). i knew that there was no way he could just up and leave a job of such security and benefits for our whole family. but i grew to see that such a thing might be the best way for my father to find fulfillment and find God. how true is it, sad or not, that so many people meet God when they're forced to their knees or in their last hour? it's that jolt out of complacency and comfort that makes the bubble pop and lets us see that there is much more to life than the idols we have created--there is a God who loves us, there are family and friends who love us more for our money or our accomplishments, there is a beautiful world full of beautiful people brimming with potential.

my dad is still with his same job, and i know that i benefit from his success immensely--and always have. i know that if this prayer were to be fulfilled, i would lose a lot of the things in which i have grown comfortable. an upheaval in the family of this sort might then serve two purposes: to lead my father to a place of fulfillment and to snap me out of my reliance on the material things he has always provided for me.

i actually started thinking about this post today during my last Old Testament class of the semester. we've spent a lot of time in this class discussing the theme of land in the OT--how central it is to the relationship between God and Israel, how it is gift, it is covenant. the Israelites received their law codes while they were yet outside the land. the Deuteronomic sermon was given just on the other side of the Jordan (putatively at least). as the Israelites stood on the brink of landedness for the first time in their existence as a people, on the brink of the Abrahamic promise fulfilled, God issued a warning: things are different in the land. when you settle down, build houses and towns and get comfortable, don't forget that this land is a precious gift from God. don't get complacent--you're not going to have to collect manna everyday from now on, but remember where you're blesings come from. as my professor aptly put it, it becomes very tempting to forget that it is God who provides when there's a Walmart up the street. and of course, what happened? the Israelites did forget. they became complacent in their blessings and left Torah behind. and God caught their attention: exile.

there's a lot of implications here that i won't go into, because the point i want to make is that there is a glaring analogy between the people of ancient Israel and contemporary America. we are complacent in our blessings, in our Christianity! we have little respect for the land--it is exploited instead of appreciated. we have Walmarts and Starbucks and iPods and SUVs and all the rest of it (please know i implicate myself in all of these things). our earth is dying, our ("national") faith is a facade, and we can hardly distinguish God from Santa Claus, from President Obama.

how does God need to catch our attention as a nation? that is one heck of a scary question--and i'm terrified to pray it. but i'm also convicted--America is hurting. American Christianity is moving further and further away from biblical principles to self-help mumbo-jumbo. we are certainly due for an "exile"--we've long since broken covenant. how will God respond? and how can i pray for our nation to be knocked down off its high horse a bit while still embodying love and goodness? what will it take to grab our attention, and what will it cost? i don't know the answer, but i think it's something i need to start praying for.

habakkuk 1:5--Look at the nations and watch--and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told.

Are we prepared to take God up on that? are we ready for this to happen in our generation?

as i said before, i am every bit as wrapped up in american consumerism and the like as the next girl. maybe i'm even worse off, because i'm starting to recognize these flaws and still fail to really act--to stop shopping at Walmart and drinking fancy lattes and filling my closet with too many clothes.

i have other catch-my-attention prayers that i've been praying for myself, most of which revolve around my new seminary experience. i've been lulled into a place of what has felt at times like spiritual complacency (though as mentioned in my last post, Pastor Shane may disagree by the simple fact that i'm in seminary, but it's still how i feel sometimes). so i pray for God to catch my attention, to grab my spiritual heart--again, not knowing what that will look like (it's often in the form of Psalm 51:10-12). maybe seeing something like the awesome power of nature (hmm, the Atlanta floods??) or having to rigorously defend my faith. another, more concrete example has been my struggle with perfectionism. i've considered praying for a 'C' (or below?!) on a paper or even in a class so i can see that nothing will be chucked out the window if that happens--not my faith, not my career, not my friends and family. stepping out from under the shadow of a 4.0 GPA might be really nice. it might be really nice not to feel compelled to live up to the pressure i put on myself to maintain that at Candler. that's not why i'm here.

praying these prayers genuinely, i think, is going to next require moving to a place where I'm prepared and truly willing for God to answer them.