One More Dab of Paint [Guest Post]

I’m so excited to introduce you to my friend Kelly O’Dell Stanley today! I’ve known Kelly via the Internet for a while, and I had the honor of connecting with her in real life this past February on my Epic Winter Road Trip…and then again at the Festival of Faith and Writing. She is an amazing writer, and as someone who has a complicated relationship with prayer, I absolutely can’t wait for her first book, The Art of Praying Upside Down, due out next spring with Tyndale!

Please give her a wonderful welcome and lots of comments — and then pop over to her site and read more!

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I remember the moment that the pieces clicked into place. I was sitting in a stuffy art history room, taking notes in the ambient light from the slide projector. As a college graphic design major, I liked the idea of studying History of Modern Art. As the daughter of a watercolorist who painted realistic scenes, I was skeptical. Picasso? Mondrian? Who cares about a big red square?

And then my professor explained that these artists weren’t celebrated for their accurate drawing skills. They were not lauded for their attention to detail or the caliber of their brush strokes. Rather, they’re famous because they expressed their views of the world in a whole new way. They started with the same traditions and skills as the rest of the world, and then.

And then.

Then they saw something new. Maybe it took courage to put it out there for the world, or perhaps they had no choice. The truth of what they’d glimpsed—while elusive and not always immediately clear—mattered too much for them to ignore it. They translated what they saw, what they knew, into art. And now we study these paintings because of the path the artist took to get there. Because what they revealed was unusual. A mishmash of techniques and traditions—keeping what works, discarding the rest—resulting in a whole new take on something that had grown stale.

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One Friday night on a business trip, I glanced out my fourth floor hotel window. Across the lawn, in another wing, a large conference room was wrapped with glass. Men in black suits, yarmulkes circling the crowns of their heads, dark beards covering their faces, stood in tidy rows. And back and forth, in different rhythms, they rocked. Quickly, almost frantically, their upper bodies moved forward and back, forward and back.

I clung to the window frame, static electricity molding the curtain to my head. Hoping not to be seen watching this intimate ritual, yet unable to pull myself away.

I pray like that.

Not just like that, of course, but I find myself rocking forward, slowly and softly, when I kneel to pray. I have never known why, although something sparked inside me years ago when I read that Jewish men pray like this to engage their bodies as well as their minds. This is the first time, though, that I’d witnessed davening in person.

A kind of certainty chinks itself deep inside, an errant puzzle piece falling into place. Another borrowed tradition. This has always been the rhythm of my prayer, a melody that echoes the rhythm of my faith. Forward and back. An ebb and a flow. Moving as quickly in one direction as the other, equal parts forward-surge and reverse.

In prayer, I close in with the Holy One, but I’m afraid to stay too close. I feel myself burrowing under His protective wing, but before I get too comfortable, I find excuses to leave.

That night, forehead pressed to the glass, I began to understand something about my own worship. That if I move too far in either direction, I can’t stay upright. It may look like I’m all over the place, but I’m simply trying to reach Him without falling over in the process. Because faith, prayer, growth—they sometimes happen in tiny, tentative steps. Not gigantic leaps, but a precariously orchestrated dance for balance.

*

Lately, it seems all the loud voices shout and condemn, sharp beaks pecking at our beliefs again and again—until all that’s left is a decaying corpse and a large black bird circling ominously overhead. When we look at all of the differences, blasphemy and indoctrination and cultural shifts, Christians who don’t look very Christ-like, judgment and condemnation, how do we stay upright?

I wish I knew all the answers. But I suspect it has to do with where we’re looking for our inspiration. And how we display it when we find it.

This makes me think again about those artists I studied in college. Acceptance wasn’t what drove them. Something deep down inside insisted that they express themselves. They borrowed techniques and traditions, wrestling with them until they could transform the pieces into something new, something true. Something that, even if it was beyond most people’s understanding, eventually made a lasting mark.

And that comforts me. Because my faith—my relationship with God, the ways I practice, the words I pray—may not look much like anyone else’s. And yours may not look like mine.

I hold tight to the conviction that even if it doesn’t change the world, my faith changes me. Whatever way I come to express my faith in Jesus will be worth all of the stumble-steps, all of the discarded attempts, if I find God along the way. Because as flawed as a particular church or tradition or teaching may be, there are still parts worth clinging to. I won’t—and don’t have to—wrap my arms around the ideas that don’t work. But I do have to open my eyes in order to see the ones that do.

I’m willing to explore. Willing to take a chance. Willing to lean forward, adding a dot of paint to my canvas, quickly, before I rock backwards and can no longer reach it. If I yield to my natural rhythm, the to and fro of my prayer, before long, my face will draw near to the composition. Those times are sweet and lovely. But so are the ones when I pull back—because if I’m lucky, just like with art, maybe the distance will reveal something that I couldn’t see up close.

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So, for now, I’ll stop fighting it. I’ll lean into my own rhythm, one much like that of these men praying in the glass conference room and the artists who struggled many years ago. Forward and back. The faith I’ve found through loss and love, heartbreak and despair, hope and joy and sorrow. The rhythm of my faith that rocks me, gently, through doubt and questions and wonder.

Into a place—a new place—where I can remain.

 

Stanley_Kelly photoKelly O’Dell Stanley is a graphic designer, writer, and author of The Art of Praying Upside Down (to come this spring from Tyndale Momentum). With over two decades of experience in the advertising world, three kids (20, 18 and 13), and a husband of 23 years, she’s learned to look at life in unconventional ways—sometimes even upside down. In 2013, an essay of Kelly’s received first place in the Writer’s Digest Competition in Inspirational Writing. She lives in Crawfordsville, Indiana, where she operates her own graphic design business and constantly seeks new ways to see what’s happening all around her.

Connect with her on her blog or on Twitter.

Mentoring Week at SheLoves Magazine

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My lovely friend Heather Caliri dreamed up a beautiful series on Mentoring this week. Like many churchy terms, this one has some baggage for me. But it tugs, too, at some of my long-held desires and hopes. After all, there is something so beautiful about someone a little farther along in their journey who takes the time to turn around, look back, see you, stay.

I’m so honored to help Heather kick off the series over at SheLoves Magazine today with my piece “Making Space Anyway.” Here’s the beginning:

I was 14, maybe 15, when I gathered up all of my courage, walked up to the pastor’s wife in the church foyer, and asked her if maybe she would consider mentoring me.

She was tall and beautiful with a kind smile and platinum blonde hair that she wore swept up into a Grace-Kelly-style bun. Every week she sat in the second row, stage left, while her husband preached the morning message.

Those were the years when I flared like a Roman Candle, aflame with love for Jesus and, simultaneously, for an high school senior with Big Missionary Dreams. He was the kind of boy that people followed, and I was no exception. His faith was charismatic and his smile was easy, and I imagined that I would wait for him forever, follow him to the ends of the unsaved world.

I can’t remember why, exactly, I asked the pastor’s wife of all people. Certainly I thought she was lovely; probably I revered her in some vague and glowing way. But the most likely reason is that I imagined that I would be her someday. I thought I would follow The Boy to some far off place, and that someday, it would be me, sitting in the second row, stage left, while he preached the morning message at the front. I wanted to know how to be that girl.

She said no.

[Continue reading at SheLoves]

A Good Day to Come Awake

“You can hold back from the suffering of the world, that is something you are free to do and it is in accordance with your nature, but perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could have avoided.” ~ Franz Kafka

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This week, I was up in Duluth – my favorite writing getaway location – when the world fell apart.

From the balcony of my hotel room, overlooking Lake Superior, I read about ISIS and their senseless murder of Christians in Iraq. I read about the death of Mike Brown and followed the subsequent protests in Ferguson, smoky with fear and tear-gas, loud with pain and rage.

Robin Williams lost his battle with Depression, and my Facebook feed bloomed with sadness and solidarity and photos and quotations.

I’d intended this week to completely unplug from the Internet and to focus, instead, on the quiet, lonely work of writing. But the world was falling apart, and it seemed disrespectful and selfish to look away. So I read the tweets and the articles and the posts, and then I sat for a long time and looked at the still, silent lake.

I thought about a phrase that I once read about Lake Superior – how she never gives up her dead. The water is so cold that the bacterial action is slowed and bodies remain sunk deep in the heart of her. I suppose this is creepy, but as I thought of those who were taken too soon from the crumbling world this week, it seemed exactly right.

I don’t want to give up the dead either.

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On Tuesday, I rented a paddle board from a nice family at the tip of the Duluth inlet, and I planted my feet on top of the waves, working my way toward the end of my sightline.

I like paddle boarding because it makes me feel strong, and I don’t often feel that way. Most of the time, I feel like I’m carrying too much, like I’m about to drop the ball any second.

But there’s something about the way my arms feel when I’m propelling myself through the water with only one long oar. The water is heavy, and the wind is making wild waves underneath me, but I’m strong enough.

On the paddle board, I don’t listen to my powerlessness, I believe in my strength. I feel the muscles in my arms burn as I push forward against the wind. It’s slow work, but I make it up to the place where the shoreline turns and disappears, and then, more impressively, I make it back.

“It’s a good day to come a little more awake,” my wise friend Esther Emery said on Twitter that morning, and I think about that as I paddle, the water splashing against my legs, the oar rubbing a blister into the palm of my hand. Sea gulls circle and fall against the water with careless grace. A small plane with a red-checkered tail is practicing taking off and landing.

That morning on the balcony, I’d read a 2010 interview that Robin Williams did with The Guardian, where he talked about his recent relapse with alcohol and the thing that caused it. Fear. “It’s just literally being afraid. And you think, oh, this will ease the fear. And it doesn’t.”

I think about my own senseless anxiety, regulated by the small pill I take every night before bed. And then I think about the other types of fear that govern my choices: the fear of failure that keeps me paralyzed at the blank page. The fear of loss and pain and the fear for my children in a world that is completely terrifying in so many ways. Fear of that which I don’t understand which isolates me from others.

It’s a good day to come a little more awake.

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That night, I go alone to a 9:20 movie in downtown Duluth, the storefronts darkly lit, the restaurant neon blazing. On the streets, black boys in sideways caps and too-big Jersey shirts walk in packs, laughing.

It’s a good day to come a little more awake.

The world is falling apart, and there’s not much I can do about any of it. I can’t rescue the displaced Christians in Iraq or stand by the protesters in Ferguson or bring back Robin Williams.

But I can notice the feeling in my body as I walk alone on the dark street. I can choose to reject the narrative of fear that I’ve been given – not in words, but in the subtext of a lifetime spent in the white-dominated suburbs.

I can choose to believe that it is true that perfect love casts out all fear. The fear of depression and suicide and war. The fear of those whose lives and culture I don’t understand. Perfect love casts it out, the Bible says, and my arms are strong. I can let go of fear. I can hang on to love.

Tonight, my arms are tired and sore from a day of paddling against the wind…but in a good way.

Around me the boys laugh, and the moon is almost full. The lake below is glimmering in the starlight, holding close the dead, and it is a good day to come a little more awake.

 

Thanks to my friend Esther Emery for the words that fueled this post. If you’re not reading her blog, start now.

Changing the Soil of My Heart, Little by Little [Guest Post]

Now that I’m back (more-or-less) to the blogging world, I’m excited to introduce to you a few more new voices. Anita Mathias is a truly beautiful writer, and I’m so honored to have her over here today to share! Please welcome her.

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I read the Gospels, I hear them preached, and tap, tap, tap, go my jubilant feet.

The Gospels tell me lovely things I wanted to believe but feared were not true; that fellow Christians often suggested were not true, by their deeds, if not their words; and that our world definitely believes are not true. I read the Gospels and sense everything sad coming untrue, as Sam Gamgee exclaims in his delight.

What only fools gather and heap into barns? And see here: He says, it’s safe to forgive and bless even our pesky enemies, for he has our affairs in hand. And–look, he says prayer can move mountains, lame feet, dead bodies, anything… And look, I am commanded not to worry, but to live free as a bird–commanded, I tell you.

Tap, tap, tap, my toes beat at the Gospel’s jazz rhythm of hope.

“Oh yes!” I resolve as Rilke did when faced with the sheer beauty of the Archaic Torso of Apollo, “I will revise my life.”

I have decided to follow Jesus, my heart sings. I will forever live in the waterfall, the force field of God’s power.

* * *

And then, I go out into the world, where not everyone in the stands is a cheerleader and I am sometimes cheated; where my prayers are not instantly answered and my words are plagiarized.

And something leaks out of me.

The resolve to seek comfort and joy in the filling of the Holy Spirit? Well, it becomes chocolate and the Holy Spirit. And 10,000 pedometer steps, for my body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, well…

And keeping the house orderly for God is not a God of disorder but of peace…Well. And waking very early in the morning, while it is still dark to spend time with my heavenly Father. Well…

Oh, I had wanted to speak words which  give energy and  life, but I hear myself speaking critical words which sap resolve, words which stem from tiredness and frustration, and I am filled with shame.

Oh, wretched woman that I am, who will rescue me from this body of death?

* * *

Jesus Christ will, oh yes, he will, through multiple means of grace.

And here is one, suggested by the prophet Habbakuk, 2600 years ago. I will write down the vision and make it plain that I may run when I read it

What I resolved when I was on fire on the mountain-top, I will rre-read in the damp-squibby valley.

I have a sheet of “epiphanies and resolutions” in my prayer journal. I resolutely pray through each desire of my heart, a page or so a day,  and when I come to that page, I resolve again.

And I resume revising my life.

* * *

In the long run, failure does not matter. Getting side-tracked doesn’t matter. All that matters is beginning again. And again. The simple glory of persisting.

Yes, I will eat more veggies and walk more because my body is a temple of the Holy Spirit and I want to keep it fit and strong. Yes, I will run an orderly house for the sake of my own mental health and happiness and for the peace of its inhabitants. Yes, “there is nothing but love,”–so help me God, I will remember that “all is small save love, for love is all in all.” Yes, I will wake early. And writing, oh yes, writing! I will write faithfully as a bird sings, for that is what I’ve been created to do.

“The essential thing in heaven and in earth is that there should be long obedience in the same direction. There thereby results, and has always resulted something which has made life worth living:   virtue, art, music, dancing, reason, spirituality– anything whatever that is transfiguring, refined, foolish, or divine,” Nietzche wrote in Beyond Good and Evil.

“If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavours to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours,” Thoreau observed.

And I read my resolves, and I re-resolve, and by persisting  with the help of invisible friends—the Lord Jesus himself; God my Father; the Holy Spirit my Comforter; and the protective angelic hosts sent at my prayers – I will more than conquer those invisible enemies of my soul, the birds of distraction, the sun of discouragement, the thorns of hassles and the temptation to earn more than necessary.

And, God willing, my heart through constant amendments with the sun of grace, the water of the word and the compost of Christian community will become good soil, in which those beautiful seeds of the gospel, seeds of mercy, kindness, gentleness and love will be fruitful–ever so fruitful.

 

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Anita Mathias is the author of Wandering Between Two Worlds (Benediction Classics, 2007). She has won a writing fellowship from The National Endowment for the Arts & her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The London MagazineCommonwealAmerica, The Christian Century, and The Best Spiritual Writing anthologies.  She recently visited Cambodia as a Tearfund blogger.

Anita lives in Oxford, England, and blogs at Dreaming Beneath the Spires. She tweets @anitamathias1 & is on Facebook at Dreaming Beneath the Spires.