To Write Of Grace

It’s happened again.

The semester has gotten the better of me, moving at a pace I can barely maintain, hardly a moment to pause, or ponder, or write.

No matter how strong the intentions I begin the year with — intentions of early morning rising and daily writing — they always seem to dissipate like so much summer dreaming.  And thus it is that my calendar declares Aberderes 027October nearly over and the semester halfway through, and yet my last blog post was in August.  Cultural Field Studies came and went without comment, as did Spiritual Emphasis Week, and a September camping trip to the highlands of the Aberdares.

I am very good at preaching a discipline of writing.  And very poor at practicing it.

And I know that this is my life.  That if I cannot discover a way to incorporate the writing I long to do into my days, and nights, as they are, then I never will.  The ideal working environment — the hours free to ponder words at my own pace — will never happen upon me.  And though I certainly may return to school one day, to pursue my own studies, I will not discover writing waiting for me there, like some long-suffering and ever-patient friend.

There are muscles in the brain — in one’s writing fingers — the same way there are muscles in an athlete’s arms and legs.  Fail to use them, and they will atrophy. Unnurtured, discipline goes the way of all good things: it dissipates, and fades, and turns to so much useless gelatin.  So much unhelpful weight.

Which is why I am returning to NaNoWriMo this November — not to purge some burning story from within me, but simply to remind myself that writing is a choice, a discipline, and one that I am capable of making.

And why I am writing today.  Because one must begin somewhere.  Must choose to pick up the pieces (for the thousandth time) and start again.  There is tenacity in continuing on when one has momentum behind one.  Tenacity in choosing not to stop, not to slow, not to quit.  But there is also a kind of tenacity — a grittier kind, perhaps — in choosing to start again when one has slowed, stopped, failed.    Choosing to stoop to pick up the balls when one has dropped them; choosing to put them back up in the air, fairly certain one will drop them again.

For better or for worse that’s my life these days.

And I am trying to learn to recognize this process, this continually growing awareness of my own weakness, as an opportunity rather than a failure.   An opportunity to remember that I am not God.  That I was never meant to be God.  Which is also a reminder to fix my eyes on the one who is God.  The one who has the strength I do not.  The one who does not slumber or sleep.  The one who watches over my bedside.  The one who can lift me up on wings like eagles.  What does the Lord require of me, a frail and failing mortal?  To seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly in the shadow of the Almighty.  All of these tasks require me to take my eyes off myself — to release my desire for perfection — and to care about bigger things.  More important things.

I am fascinated by the Old Testament story of Moses.  The prince who tried to save his people, and failed.  And who, crushed by that failure, disappeared into the wilderness until his very identity had been all but purged from him.  When God spoke to Moses, at last, out of a burning bush, utterly gone was the cocky prince, ready to make decisions about what was right and wrong.  Ready to be the arbiter of justice and the working arm of God.  And in his place, a man humble in his own weakness, empty of his own greatness.  Like Gideon’s three hundred, here at last was a smallness God could use.

I think God is busy making me smaller, so God can be greater.  And I am trying to embrace the lesson.  To lean back into the foundation that is not, and Aberderes 042never has been,
my own strength. The water I draw from the well of my own identity, discipline, courage, faith, will always, ultimately, run dry.  Which is why I need to draw on a different source — why I need to return, daily, to the water of life, the water capable of turning me into a vessel cracked, but overflowing.

In the words of Rumi:

Come, come, whoever you are.
Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving.
It doesn’t matter.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vow
a thousand times
Come, yet again, come, come.

If this is not the message of grace, I don’t know what is.

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Cultural Field Studies

Somehow, it’s the last day of January, and yet, the end of only our first full week back to school.  And, as anyone who’s ever taught (or in anyway participated in) a first week back to school can tell you, first weeks are not easy.

I suppose that anyone familiar with physics could tell you the same thing.

There is a rhythm to school life — a momentum that keeps one moving.  Remove oneself from that rhythm, and it is hard, very hard, to get oneself back into sync.

And so we are struggling — students and staff alike — to remember why we are here and how it is we do what we do.  But like riding a bike, it will come back to us — but not immediately [those who have told you that bike-riding is a skill you can’t grow rusty in have never, themselves, spent long periods divorced from their bicycle — I can testify that while its rhythms will come back, it won’t be without the initial wobbles, during which, if you are lucky, you will avoid running over a civilian by opting to hit the pole instead].

But why, you might ask, are we only now adjusting back to the joys and rigors of the classroom?  I have, after all, been back in country for three weeks, and Rosslyn has been officially in session since the 13th.

The answer is Cultural Field Studies — or CFS — the part of the year where we send students out, armed with a pair of chaperons (one male, one female) to explore the Kenya that exists beyond the boundaries of Rosslyn’s campus and Nairobi’s city limits.

As a new player in this adventure, I really had no idea what to expect — though my father’s often repeated life-motto, “this is an experience I refuse to be denied,” has lodged in me a need to meet the unknown with the courage my Scandinavian, Viking, explorer ancestors would expect.

[Okay, so that was a joke.  What he’s actually instilled in me is the need to encounter life with the courage required of one who takes God’s word seriously — and all of those admonitions to “fear not.”  NYCpastor.com may try to convince you that wanderlusting is not the trait of a biblical woman, but you might find that hard to square with the lives of Sarah, and Rebekah, and Rachel, and Leah, and Hagar, and Rahab, and Deborah, and Ruth, and Hannah, and Esther, and a myriad of others (including both Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Christ) — all of whom sought God in the details of their lives’ sojourns and accepted the journey from his hand, open-palmed, with a heart that cried, “I am the Lord’s servant, may it be to me according to your word.”  We do not only have patriarchs in this faith, we have matriarchs, and it is time we paid attention to them.]

CFS 003So off we went, with eleven teenagers in tow, on a nine-and-a-half hour bus ride that landed us in the city of Kitale and introduced us to the Seeds Children’s Home.

It’s hard to know how to sum up that week.  How to describe to you the faces of those children, wrapped in rapture as they braided and re-braided my hair (so long and strange and wisp-like), their giggles of delight
CFS 079as I tried to shape their names with my unwieldy foreign tongue (a dutiful student copying the Kiswhahili words they taught me), their gentle voices as they repeated passage after passage of memorized scripture or sang me their favorite song about the love of Christ who they had “a lot of” down in their hearts.

My overarching impression of that week is one of beauty.  I encountered Jesus — encountered him in the faces of Carolina and Gloria, CFS 095two little girls who gave me, out of their great riches, jewelry made from the yarn of their sweaters and the work of their hands (Carolina tried to teach me the trick of crocheting without a crochet needle, using a tiny stick as substitute, but I was no good at the technique); I encountered him in Helen’s story — the strong and courageous Kenyan woman who, along with her husband, has ushered in a piece of God’s Kingdom on earth through her
persistence in walking forward, daily,
in the task set before her feet; and I encountered him in my students — in their love, and delight, poured out for each other and for the children and for me.

I saw the face of Christ, and the thing about such encounters is that the face of Christ is the face of CFS 035beauty, and, as my youngest brother will tell you, beauty is a piercing, powerful thing.

Whatever awaits me in my classroom on Monday and in the weeks, and months, ahead, I am blessed to have this job.  Blessed to serve these students.  Blessed to see this beauty.

*Photo Credit: Gloria Atieno

**If you’re interested in sponsoring the work of the Seeds Children’s Home, and partnering in the work that Helen and Richard are pursuing, please visit mightyacornfoundation.org.