Monday, April 22, 2013

"Decorating Tips for Crazily Creative Familes..."

Another fun day in a highly creative household. My husband continues to build a dragon in our dining room (okay, he's actually only working on the tail section at home at this point).


One of the ways I bring in money as a writer is by ghost-writing web content for various clients through a freelance site. This means I write all sorts of odd and interesting little articles and blurbs (good thing I'm a research geek). They may be on all sorts of topics: travel, food, parenting, home repair, books (once in a while, if I'm lucky), etc.

Today I was working on an article about home decor. More specifically on tips for making a more peaceful environment in your home.

This just cracks me up. I'm sitting in my crowded little office corner behind my eighty-three year old couch that is positively begging for a slip cover I can't afford to give it. Yes, listening to Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier (I do get peaceful touches in where I can!) but my living space is basically a leaning tower of boxes, books, papers, and yes...dragon innards.

Wouldn't it be fun if someone wanted to pay me to write an article on "Decorating Tips for Crazily Creative Families"? File that under "writer dreams..."!

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Praising Him For Pine Needles

We've been studying plant cells this week. Our own microscope revealed wonders to us at the kitchen table. The membrane of an onion really is a marvel of beauty when you look at its inner structure.

Then we turned to some micrographs online. And this one blew me away.

It's the cross section of a pine needle.

Let me say that again, just so you can marvel over it with me one more time: it's the cross section of a pine needle.

Is it any wonder that the world is so beautiful? This is the secret, inner life of a pine needle, the kind of needle lying by thousands on the forest floor, here today and gone tomorrow. This is the beauty of the inner structure that no one sees, unless they really go looking, with intention and attention. 

And who puts that desire in us to look? And who puts the desire in us to create beautiful designs? And where does our drive and ability to create such intricate, lovely designs (think Celtic knotwork, Tiffany stained glass, Van Gogh poplars) come from? From the one who makes pine needles look like this. Praise Him!

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Bilbo's Song (An Original Poem)

I have a dragon in my living room. Okay, just the skeleton of one. My husband continues to build Smaug for the middle-school production of The Hobbit he's directing this spring. And I continue to be on a total Tolkien tear, reading more literary criticism than I have in quite a while.

More on some of the things I'm reading soon. For now, a poem I penned a couple of days ago. It sure is lovely to be hanging out with Bilbo again.

Bilbo’s Song

As anyone who knows me likely knows,
at home my life is filled with lovely prose.
Green hills, good food, a round and solid door,
my pipe and blooming garden, heathered moor.
All’s quiet here until the kettle sings.
You’ll find me on the doorstep blowing rings.

But you can read me like an open book.
Away? My life’s a poem, a rushing brook.
The cozy, prosy things so sure and sweet
are like a dream. They keep me on my feet
when journey’s long and all becomes a quest.
And sometimes I’m not sure which I love best.

The homey prose, it fills my traveler’s pack,
but it’s poetry that sings me there and back.
I couldn’t live without the deep, familiar places.
But oh! Indeed I love the wilder spaces.

~EMP 4/15/13

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Pondering Good and Evil (And So Very Thankful for All That's Good)

In the wake of the tragedy in Boston yesterday, a number of people have been posting comments and quotes on Facebook. That’s not a bad thing. I’ve begun to realize that FB is truly becoming a place where people gather to grieve, to get angry, to try to make sense of complex, crazy things happening in our world. While the quotes and captions nearly always over-simplify any complex event, they can act as springboards to help us think and pray through what’s going on around us.

Social media also often gives us comfort  – even on days when people are grieving and angry over something that has just happened, there are blessed reminders that life goes on and blessings still abound. People still post beautiful pictures (of their grandkids, their cats, the place they wish they could travel). People still post recipes of good food that they’re thinking of making for their family, or creative ideas about teaching their children. And it can give us a sense of confluence or serendipity as people post reminders of this day in history – it might be the birthday of someone inspiring, or the anniversary of an important event.

Today, for instance, happens to be the 50th anniversary of the day that Martin Luther King began writing his letter from the Birmingham Jail. The confluence of that memorable moment in history and the tragedy of yesterday have coalesced in such a way that it seems to make sense to turn to MLK for wisdom, comfort, and strength. The letter, which points to the importance of non-violence resistance in the face of evil, seems as pertinent now as it did then, because evil never entirely goes away in this world – it just takes on different forms and tries different tactics. And as the Christian vision reminds us, it’s still on its way to ultimate defeat.

One of the quotes I’ve seen today is this: “When evil men plot, good men must plan. When evil men burn and bomb, good men must build and bind. When evil men shout words of hatred, good men must commit themselves to the glories of love.” This quote is being attributed to MLK, and out of curiosity, I went to look it up. I haven’t been able to find a source for it yet (if anyone knows, let me know please) but at any rate, whether he said it or not, it’s understandable why it would surface today. There’s a lot of good to chew on in that quote, but I think we need to be careful with it too.

A quote like this is clearly snipped from a larger piece of rhetoric. It sounds like a speech or sermon. (Again, frustrated I can’t find its context.) As such, it reads in a rhythmic way, paralleling good and evil and contrasting what they each do. Evil plots, burns, bombs, shouts hatred. Good plans, builds, binds, commits to love. Yes. I find myself feeling a little cautious though, about using this kind of speech within every day conversation. I think what the quote is saying, in a sense, is that this is what evil looks like when it is manifested in a person’s actions. If someone is committed to evil, he or she will do these things. And this is what good looks like, when manifested in a person’s actions. If a person is committed to good, he or she will do these things.

The truth of the gospel is that we’re all sinners, lost and broken, in need of healing. At our best we are sinners saved by grace. While it’s true that certain actions most definitely deserve the adjective “evil” – an accurate description to cover what someone did yesterday in Boston – I do think we have to be careful when throw around evil as an adjective to describe people. It can too quickly turn into a picture of “them” and “us.”

It’s not that the adjective is not sometimes accurate or deserved. We’ve all done it, called someone “an evil person” if we see that their habitual commitment to darkness and cruelty earns them such an appellation. We’ve also done the reverse. “He’s a good man,” we will say about someone who has shown a long commitment to compassion and care and decency. But just as our saying “he’s a good man,” doesn’t negate the fact that the person we say that about is still a sinner, prone to human frailties and mistakes, our saying that someone is evil, even if they have truly committed awful acts, cannot negate the fact that they may actually still have it within them to do something good. Or, more importantly, we cannot let ourselves forget that such a person is still within the reach of mercy and redemption – not unless we are willing to say that evil is stronger than grace and forgiveness. Which it is most emphatically not.

If I’m meandering here, forgive me, but this is something I think we need to work through on real heart levels as Christians. Naming evil for what it is – yes, that’s important. Realizing that people can truly become corrupted by darkness and sin – yes, that’s important too, not least because it helps us guard our own hearts. What we commit our hearts, minds, and lives to can shape who we become, in the direction of good or evil.

But we are not intrinsically “evil people” or “good people.” We are all people created in the image of a very good God, but that image has been corrupted in us. How far it has been corrupted (or redeemed) will show forth in our acts, our words, our lives. What – and mostly importantly who -- we choose to commit our lives to matters.

One thing I have been heartened by in the response of many people to yesterday’s tragedy is how quickly they have gone on to say it’s time to overcome such evil with good. I think that must be the impetus behind sharing the quote above and others like it. That’s a deeply Christian response, and yet I am seeing it – in various forms – from people who don’t self-identify as Christians, as well as from those who do. There seems to be some sort of latent understanding, even in our post-Christian culture, that to give into the power of hatred and evil by trying to combat it with its own methods is not only misguided and short-sighted but ultimately just plain wrong. It won’t work, and even if it seemed to (in the short run) it runs the risk of moving us and shaping us in the very direction of the evil we abhor.

What I find myself longing to say to well-meaning friends and acquaintances longing for peace is that it’s not just enough to commit ourselves to well-meaning hopes, or even to kind and loving actions, as important as both of those things are. It’s not enough because ultimately, in our human sinfulness, we will fail in those commitments. I know this, because I fail in them dozens of times a day in small ways, and sometimes in big ways. It’s why I keep needing to confess my sins against God and my neighbors. We need more than just good will and pretty pictures and inspiring captions (as seriously helpful as all of those can be) to keep us committed to light and love and impossible seeming forgiveness in the face of heinous evil. We need the empowerment of someone outside us (and within us) who *cannot* and *does not* fail in little ways or big ways when it comes to loving and forgiving. We need the Holy Spirit.

Without him, without the triune God who is love at work within us to love, we risk become noisy gongs and clanging cymbals. We may be clanging “love” and ringing “peace,” and those are good words and important things to be making noise over. But without him, we may find ourselves falling into understandable anger and despair at the many awful things we see in the world, and yes even in people, around us. We need God to turn to, not only for the empowerment and strength he gives us to stay committed to light in a world that can feel awfully dark sometimes, but because we need loving ears that will listen and strong arms that will hold us when we really do need to lament and grieve and shout out against the darkness. (See the Psalms.)

More on this as I continue to ponder. And please, feel free to ponder with me.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Homeschool Challenge #314

"Moooommm! I can't study while you're singing!"

(At least it's a happy challenge!)

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Sunday Blessings

This morning I went back for healing prayer after communion. My ear has been feeling worse the past few days, and I’d had a particularly bad night with a lot of fluid build-up. All during morning worship and teaching Sunday School, I’d been feeling frustrated with how congested it was feeling, and how badly I was hearing.

Two lovely folks from our congregation prayed for me, one of whom happens to be a bishop. He anointed me and laid hands on my ear while he prayed. During the closing song at communion, I could feel my ear begin to pop (which it usually only does when I move my head way back into a certain position) and I could feel the fluid levels start to go down and the ear start to open up. After church, I mentioned to my husband and daughter that it was much better. The fluid is definitely still there, but I was amazed and blessed that the ear opened the way it did. And though I’m still struggling, it’s been better all afternoon that it has been for the past few days.

My daughter grinned at me and said “wow, prayer!” when I told her. Later this afternoon, she asked me how I was doing and I said the ear was still not as full of fluid as it had been. She asked, “Can I pray for you?” I told her of course, and she laid hands on my ear and asked God to help bring the fluid down.

Actually, she first said, “Please help bring Mommy’s ear down--” Then she giggled a little and said, “I mean the fluid, not her whole ear.” Because we are a silly family, after the Amen, my husband said something teasingly about how funny it would be if my ear started sliding down my neck. I laughed and said I was glad that God was wise and would know not to do that. Then the sweet girl, who has been studying ancient history all year, said, “Actually, that sounds like something the Greek gods would do – if they were real.” I agreed, and said something like, “That’s true, because they often were rather sly and not--” and into my slight pause, the sweet girl popped up with “godly.” We all agreed and had a good laugh again.

So much encouragement in just a few small encounters, conversations, prayers. The encouragement of being prayed for, and helped toward healing, by others in the body of Christ. The encouragement of seeing my daughter spontaneously copy the prayer practices modeled before her. The encouragement of realizing once again the joy of knowing the true and living God, who is never sly or manipulative, but holy and full of delight in doing good things for his children.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Bits of beauty (birthday edition)

Our family made its annual trek to the conservatory in late March, courtesy of my parents, in honor of my birthday. As always, I like to share some of the beauty of the day here.

These pale, melon-colored tulips were so lovely.

But I love so much at the Phipps, including the simple, ordinary ivy climbing up the brick walls...

and the magnolia bud in the Asian garden area. Last year, it was blooming already. This year, just full of promise.

And Then There's Patience...

I had to chuckle when I realized that my earlier post, on worry, is the second (or maybe third?) post I've done on that topic this year. Clearly this is something on my heart, something the Lord is working deep into the fabric of my days.

But freedom from worry isn't the only area the Lord is working in. There's the little matter of patience...

The funny thing about patience is that until recently, I would have told you that it wasn't one of the virtues I needed to wrestle with much. Unlike worry, with which I obviously have a long track record, patience is something that I've more or less always thought I've been blessed with...or at least been blessed with enough.

It's only been recently that I've been recognizing in myself a spirit of impatience in certain situations. They're not always the biggies (how often, I am realizing, that's true in our spiritual lives!) but the little places that tend to trip me up unawares. I feel hasty and rushed to "get things done" when almost everything in my life is needing to move at a slower, more thoughtful pace. In trying to match my rhythm to that necessary pace, I sometimes stumble.

Take my computer, for instance. (Which sort of sounds like the start of one of those awful, old "take my wife...please" jokes from 1950s comedians!) It is so slow it's almost working backwards some days. I have spent time being actively grateful for it anyway, reminding myself of what a miracle even my dinosaur of a computer would look like to...well, I was going to say Laura Ingalls, but I'll just go ahead and say my grandmother, because that's true enough.

But some days I just have to laugh. I have so much to do...papers to grade, articles to write, reviews to write, research to conduct for writing projects, teaching, ministry work. And knowing it's all "out there" at high speeds just out of reach sometimes makes me feel like a wild horse chomping at the bit. (Forgive the drama, but we've been reading The Black Stallion during bedtime read-aloud...) I have days where I know what I need to do could only take "x" amount of time, but given technological issues, it takes far, far longer.

And I have two choices when that happens. I can get frustrated and ungrateful and waste *more* time complaining, or I can use the down-time of slow page loads to do something else pray.

I've been trying to make that my default lately. My habit has been to jump up and go do something else (fold laundry, load dishes, etc.) but that makes for a lot of jumpy time when I am going back and forth from one task to another, giving two minutes here and three minutes there. I feel dis-integrated when I do that too much. So sometimes, when I know a page load is going to take long enough to drive me batty but not long enough to really do much of anything productive (especially because sometimes I have to sit there refreshing the page) I'm closing my eyes, meditating briefly, asking the Lord to bring to mind who he wants me to pray for, and moving into moments of prayer.

I'm not there yet. But I suspect the more I try to work on this habit, the more patience he will work into the soil of my heart.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

The War on Worry

I’ve always been something of a worrier. When I was young, the fact that I worried a lot but didn’t talk about it led to all sorts of stress-related problems. By the time I was thirteen, I had developed a duodenal ulcer, which meant that I had to begin to learn, slowly, how to manage my worries and stress levels in ways that were much healthier than simply “stuffing” them.

32 years later, I still have a tendency (which I’ve learned to guard against and work through) to be a “stuffer.” And I married a “stuffer,” something we quickly learned we had in common that has caused us to work hard at learning to communicate our feelings with one another in wise (but hopefully honest) ways. When we had our daughter, now over a decade ago, it quickly became clear that she had inherited all our worrying tendencies ~ times a bunch. From the time she was very small, our daughter has been something of a chronic worrier, which in recent years has moved into more serious issues with anxiety (coupled with some other issues) which we have been prayerfully trying to help her through.

What’s been interesting for us, however, is that our daughter didn’t inherit our introverted, stuffer natures. She is an extrovert and what we kindly term an “erupter.” When she has worries, everybody knows about them because she talks about them – a lot. Repeatedly. And because she is a highly bright, gifted person with an amazing imagination, and struggles with obsessive tendencies too, she can come up with a lot of scenarios that borrow trouble.

What this has meant, among other things, is a lot of teaching in our household about not worrying. We dwell in the land of Matthew 6. We meditate a lot – individually, together – on Jesus saying that we shouldn’t be anxious. We’ve talked about why he says that, because Jesus’ commands (though they may sometimes feel impossible to us when we face them in our graced fallenness) are never burdensome. He doesn’t make up things for us to obey like a gym teacher gleefully placing obstacles in our path to see if we’re tough enough to take it. When he tells us to do something (or not to do something) we can trust that he does so for our ultimate good, because he knows that if we were to engage habitually in the practice it would not be good for our souls, our minds, our spirits, our bodies – our whole self. Because he loves us wholly.

Consider the lilies of the field...
 We’ve not only talked about this teaching a lot, we’ve tried hard to live it – D and I especially as we try to model not being anxious it for the sweet girl. We have prayed so much about her deepening anxiety struggles (which seem to be intensifying as puberty nears) and we will continue to.

The Lord, in his graciousness, has had us needing to model freedom from anxiety in the midst of years that, on a natural level, would seem to cause nothing but anxiety. We continue to do arts ministry in a small, industrial town. We continue to work part-time and self-employed projects, partly by choice (to free us up to do the work we’re called to do as homeschoolers and missioners/ministers) and partly because those are the doors God has opened. We continue to run a shortfall almost every month in the income we need, and we continue to rely on regular and occasional gifts from people who love us and want to support our lives and ministry here. We continue to pay down a lot of debt from years of underemployment and unemployment when we went through a real hard time and weren’t able to find enough work at all (and as we were discerning our long term call here). We continue to find more things we can give up, more things we can do without, more ways we can live deeper and lean harder on God. We continue to understand manna in ways that I would never have guessed we could when God first assured me, back in 1997, that he could indeed set a table in the wilderness.

Living this way sometimes feels adventurous and freeing and bold, especially when we are learning to give more out of our little, and sometimes overwhelming and downright scary (it depends on which day you catch me) but one thing I’ve had to realize over and over is that I cannot stay in a place of chronic worry. One, because I’ve imbibed my own teaching to my daughter over the years – every time I preach to her heart, I preach to my own, and you can’t live for years in the land of Matthew 6 and not reach a place where you realize deep, deep down that Jesus MEANT what he said about not worrying, that it’s not good for you, that it shows a lack of trust, that it’s disobedient and not how you want to live. Two, because I can’t live in a place of chronic worry when I am trying to model for my anxiety struggling child how to be free.

Okay, yes, true confession, there are days when I am feeling worried on the inside and I pretend on the outside that I’m not. But I have ceased to feel like a hypocrite when I do that. I have begun to realize it’s the kind of holy pretending or play-acting that C.S. Lewis talks about, when he says that sometimes when we are feeling not at all kind, the best thing we can do is act kind, even when we truly don’t feel it, because the more we PRACTICE it, the more we will discover we are becoming what we’re pretending to be. Jack says it better than that, of course, but that’s the gist of it. So sometimes I take a deep breath and act like I’m not worried for the sake of keeping peace, for the sake of not shaking up my daughter, for the sheer sake of obedience. Yes, Abba, I will take you at your word that I am not supposed to worry, that you’ve got this provision thing covered, that even if we don’t have what I think we really need, we will have enough and you will see us through and we will discover a way forward.

Then there are days, however, when I realize that I am moving into a whole new place, by God’s grace, where I am really not worrying – even over things I used to worry about. I had a little exchange with my daughter just today that sort of woke me up to that in a wonderful way. We’ve had a long, struggling week, one of those weeks where the income losses we’ve suffered (in two job areas/projects) in the past couple of years have really made themselves known (primarily because this is a time of year when we have some extra bills, but we also used to get paid from a work project around this time to help us through, and that work isn’t there this year). We’ve had overdue bills and have been eking out incredibly low-budget meals while hanging on and waiting for the next bit of manna. Some of that arrived yesterday in an unexpected fashion, in a way that totally blessed us and will really help us through the next week.

I was feeling grateful for that this afternoon when the sweet girl suddenly said something to me which I didn’t catch. It may have been that I was lost in thought, it may also have been (quite probably) that I didn’t hear her because I have a lot of fluid in my right ear right now. I have a chronic, recurring problem with that ear, which in past years, I would have dealt with by now. Dealing with it is not cheap. This year I can’t, because I no longer have health insurance and I can’t afford an insurance-less visit to a doctor or chiropractor (a cheaper, possible alternative, I hope) to try to take care of it right now. I am trusting that in time, the Lord will provide a way to allow me to move forward and do something about it, but we’ve got several “back-burner” issues like this right now, including D’s real need for new glasses, and we can only prioritize one thing at a time. In the meantime I’ve accepted that for now, I just need to deal with some discomfort and hearing issues.

But I know the family must get tired of hearing me say “huh?” or “what?” or “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that,” and I probably said something like that to the sweet girl today. She suddenly got a very worried look on her face. “I wish you could something to help your ear get better, Mom,” she said soberly. “It worries me that your ear is like that. You need insurance. It worries me that you don’t have it.”

In the past, I must confess, this has been one of the biggest worries in my own inner shelf full of worries. I’m in my mid-forties. I try to take good care of myself, given our circumstances. But I know that things happen. I know people get ill. I know that one serious illness without insurance could wipe out all our years of careful trying to climb out of the hole and then some. I know we’ve got nothing in reserve if I get sick. I suspect some people sometimes think I am being willfully reckless or martyr-like not to carry insurance (not realizing that it’s simply impossible for us right now…we tried hard to keep up premiums on the cheapest policy we could find, and we simply couldn’t...not without deciding not to eat, and that wasn’t an option)! This has been one of the biggest trust issues of my life. I try not to talk about it. The sweet girl probably wouldn’t even know that I didn’t have insurance except that, well, we’re a three person family and she’s a bright ten year old and I had to come up with a straight answer when she kept asking me why I wasn’t going to the doctor for anything anymore.

So I completely floored my self today when I responded, almost without thinking, to her concern. “That’s sweet,” I told her, “and I appreciate your concern. I’d like to be able to take care of my ear too. And I hope I can get insurance again soon. But you know what? I’m not worried about it.”

Seriously, I said those words. And I realized, a few seconds after they slipped out of my mouth, that on some level I actually meant them. I wasn’t just saying it to say it, or to make her feel better. It wasn’t entirely holy pretending. It was for real. This doesn’t mean I won’t have an anxiety attack in the middle of the night some night again, or that I won’t worry again tomorrow, but it means – praise God! – I am growing. I am learning. I am leaning. I am understanding the strength and comfort of the Holy Spirit in new and deeper ways. I am starting to seriously take some ground in the war on worry.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Celebrating Poetry Month: With Sijo and Science

The sweet girl and I enjoyed reading Linda Sue Park’s Tap Dancing on the Roof this week. It’s a collection of sijo, a Korean form of poetry that follows a certain syllabic (or stress) pattern in English. The easiest forms of it are either a three line poem with each line running 14-16 syllables, or a 6 line poem with each line running 7-8 syllables, though other variations are possible.

Topics can vary, with the introduction of a given topic in line one, further description in line two, and a surprising twist in line three.

Every since reading the book, I can’t seem to stop thinking in sijo form. It lends itself to fun musings.

Given our school science experiment today – we dissected an owl pellet – I couldn’t resist trying my hand at a sijo musing on that very subject…

The soft brown fluff of owl pellet disguises a digested feast:
each tiny bone, claw, beak, a new piece in this predator puzzle.
I’m sure the prey was puzzled too when it heard the soft whoosh of wings.
                                                                                                (EMP, 4/4/13)

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

March Was a Good Month for Latin

Just think about it: in March we had the beginning of spring, a new pope, and holy week.

Which means we had the vernal equinox, habemus papam, and Maundy Thursday.

Equinox from the Latin words aequus nox, meaning equal night. (During an equinox, the length of day and night is the same.)

Habemus Papam: "We have a pope." Habemus is the first person plural usage of the verb habere (to have) and papam (related to our word papa/father) is in the accusative case (used within the sentence as a direct object).

Maundy Thursday: the word Maundy comes from the Latin word "mandatum" which means commandment. "Mandatum novum" means new commandment. This comes from Jesus' words at the Last Supper: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” (And yes, though at first glance you may think it shouldn't be in the accusative, it's just because the English sentence structure throws you off. The subject of the sentence is "I": if you move the words around to say "I give to you a new commandment," it becomes clear that "commandment" is the direct object, and novum, as the adjective describing commandment, must agree with it in case and number.)

I love that Latin is everywhere we look. It makes teaching and learning it so much more rewarding. I read recently that about 90% of our English words that have at least two syllables are derived from Latin. Pretty lively for a "dead language," eh? Reminds me of some of the plants we saw at the conservatory last week, bearing signs that said, "Am I dead, or just dormant?"