Saturday, August 24, 2013

Love Deeply. Hold Loosely

"I've left enough things behind and seen the good of it to realize that it's not always a bad thing to lose."
- Jon Foreman

We live in a world of impermanence. 

The other day I was on the phone with a very dear friend who lives very far away, and we talked about the way our fast-paced, constantly relocating and moving culture is one where community often becomes a revolving door of short-term associations. Especially at the college age when proximity is temporary, the danger is developing calluses-- no longer choosing to invest in relationships because the cost too far outweighs the seemingly meager return once separation occurs again.

I have started experiencing this on a deep level than normal after a year of constant relocation between my family in Texas, my friends-like-family in Colorado, and the strange culture of Nashville. I often experience a crippling terror of every good thing I encounter leaving, I begin to feel like my story has been one endless string of goodbyes and closing chapters. And the temptation is to simply shut down relationships as the cause of the problem.

I can’t speak for everyone, but I feel like I am not alone in this. Because I am an all-or-nothing extremist at heart, coping tends towards either mourning inconsolably for what I’ve had to leave behind or else ignoring it completely and telling myself I never really cared about all of that so much after all. Both are lies. 

With a world so cracked and bloodied, so far short of what it should have been, we can’t afford to set out to brave adventures alone. But we also can’t expect that we won’t be torn from companions along the way. My favorite story involves fellowship, but one of the key events is the necessary breaking of that fellowship to further the greater overarching purpose each of the characters is assigned. 

The trick is that if we only think about the fact that we could lose good things, the good thing ceases to be enjoyed. When I’m enjoying a set by one of my favorite bands, I never once look at the time to gauge how much longer they have to play. I’m too fully captured by the beauty of the moment. It’s a kind of fearless delight I am learning to strive for when I am with people.

And yet separations come-- and they must. So in the face of this tension, it’s in almost paradoxical balance I find the truth, as is so often the case. My heart wrestles with it, and I don’t quite understand how to do it yet, but I accept it as true: I have to love deeply but hold loosely. I have to stare down the reality that loving will mean heartache, and I have to choose to love anyway. 

Because in the end, my Christ and my experience and my own heart all resonate with the reality that people are worth it. I will love my friends deeply, even when it’s years between meetings. I will love my family with all my heart, even when that means crying through phone conversations because the miles are long and lonely. I will try to let my heart grow to be big enough to accept this moment fully, with joy and with willingness to accept partings when the time comes.

And after all, we live in the age of text messages and facebook that transport our words across the world in seconds. There are ways to make the goodbyes a little easier after all.

“Hold me fast, ‘cause I’m a hopeless wanderer. And I will learn to love the skies I’m under.”
- Mumford & Sons

Monday, August 19, 2013

Three of Seven

Growing up, if I happened to be out in public without siblings in tow (which was rare) and someone asked me how many brothers and sisters I had, my response tended to be met with pity.

I remember vividly showing up for a sewing camp at age 11 (just in case you forgot or didn’t know, that statement should remind you that I was homeschooled) and politely explaining to the elderly lady teaching it that I was one of seven children. Her jaw literally dropped, and after a moment she managed (in proper southern fashion) “lands’ sakes! Why would anyone want that many?”

(Roughly 1997)
(2001, a few hours after my parents' minion roster was completed)
There are dark sides to big families, and I would be the last person to deny that-- there can be endless feelings of invisibility, desperate competition with siblings to try to win some sense of significance and individuality, fights that quickly turn to all-out brawls as siblings choose sides. Take the potential for drama and irritation in your average family and multiply it by six extra kids. Add in the fact that in my case all of us were around each other 24/7 due to homeschooling (and for the first 10 years of my life we all lived in a house that was just a little bigger than a spacious apartment), and the reality is that my childhood relationships with my siblings were not often positive.

And so for a time I thought that perhaps the disbelief I encountered was well-founded, that trying to make so many little humans peacefully coexist was an impossible and unwise pursuit. Maybe I really was a victim. Maybe there'd been some vast mistake. As a teenager, I learned to sheepishly nod my head in uneasy agreement with criticism of families with more than two or three kids. When I got older though, I started to question it more, to revisit the criticisms I’d so often heard first from acquaintances and later from the broader context of culture.

I understand that usually the grown-ups who offered pity meant well, assuming I couldn’t be properly cared for, could not grow into a whole adult, in such a crowded environment. But although this wasn’t intended, the comments about how there were too many of us also easily imply that my four younger siblings shouldn’t have been born. That is a statement I reject with my whole being-- first and most importantly because the world would be incomplete without Mercy’s compassion, Spencer’s swagger, Lucy’s creativity, and Jasper’s hope, and second because I wouldn’t even be fully myself if I had not had the privilege of being their big sister.

See, the thing is that to a large extent they were always right-- being in a big family is usually a harder environment to grow up in. For this reason and others, having a packed house isn’t a calling everyone has (and I do definitely think it has to be a calling for it to work at all). Certainly it’s not universally beneficial for all children. Trying to navigate the emotional complexities of that many people that close to you is a task any mature adult would find daunting, and as a kid it’s outright impossible sometimes.

But the reality is that I would not have traded it for anything. That environment gave my character a chance to be refined in a way I never could have found elsewhere. The years of carrying family responsibilities shaped my understanding of what it is to be selfless (as did observing how much my father sacrificed to make such a big family work). Even the endless sibling squabbles taught me more about forgiveness than I ever would have understood had I not had to share a bed every night with the sisters I’d been fighting with all day.

It may be that big families are one of those experiences that makes or breaks you-- in ways, my heart has experienced both. I think that the parenting method used has a massive impact on how well big families function, and so do external factors like the social and spiritual climate you’re in. I can’t speak into the complexities of other big family situations or experiences, and I can’t say what would have happened had I not encountered God the way I did as a teenager and had everything about the way I interact with people change. But at least in my case, I can say without reservation that it was worth it.

So when I run across extremely negative statements about big families, I think about the souls this world would have missed out on had my parents not been brave enough to bet against the odds... because as far as I’m concerned, the pay off has been more glorious and messy and beautiful than anyone could possibly have foreseen.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Trust and the Dark

For the first several years that I attended the yearly gathering of the teenage writers’ group I’ve long been a part of, usually the result was the classic “mountain top” spiritual experience we often crave-- quite literally, given that it usually takes place at a remote ranch hidden on top of a mountain. Now that I am older, the result is usually more one of steadying than catapulting, of some small thing that embeds itself in my heart and grows with the steady nourishment of everyday life.

Each year, on Sunday morning we’re sent off to find a quiet place and talk to God. And each year, I take twice as long as I’m supposed to, and fortunately everyone is gracious enough to let me. This year was no different. I have a special place hidden in the heart of an aspen grove that I have always reserved for these times, and I hiked up there again and settled into the quiet, breathless awe of space reserved for knowing God.

I am on the other side of a stretch life in 2011 and part of 2012 that was often characterized by what could be called a dark night of the soul, what was for me a long life chapter punctuated by moments of intense doubt, wrestling with my faith, and learning how to trust God when He seemed utterly silent. That season drew to a close through living in Colorado and all the things that stretch of my life was, but as I sat on my mountainside with God, I felt the weight of all the retrospective questions I still had-- no longer questions of who God was, but the much more childlike question Father, why were You quiet so long?

With a kind of desperate honesty I asked Him why in shadows He hadn’t made it all stop, why He couldn’t have changed my heart sooner, why I’d had to live dark hours in the lives of my friends and my family and my own soul that I could now never erase. And in the sacred space created by vulnerability, I heard Him give me a gentle question in return:

If I had called your name, stretched out My hand to lead you out, would you have trusted Me enough to come?

I knew the answer immediately. As much as I’d begged Him to change things, as much as I’d waited and prayed for daylight to break, if He had offered a way into the light that looked different than I expected, I would not have gone with Him. I would have stayed in the night for fear the road to the dawn would give way under me halfway through.

Those years of my life were purposeful, and I believe with all my heart that they needed to happen to shape my faith into what it has become. But that simple question has pushed me to reexamine how I navigate life now, looking at my motives with honesty. Sometimes I think we pray for rescue, but only so long as it shows up in the form we’ve already given it in our minds-- the bright lights, the knight in shining armor, financial stability. When rescue shows up requiring we let go of what we know and hold the hand of the Divine in the dark, we may find that we didn’t really want it as much as we thought.

I have been landed in yet another season of instability and insecurity-- in a new city with a new apartment and a new name, seeking places to invest myself. And in this gray of not knowing, looking back tells me that trust is the only direction that will lead me anywhere, even if when God calls me I can’t see the road yet at all. I am young and I am uncertain and I am afraid, but like Peter I’m stepping onto the rolling darkness of the waves and trusting it will bear my weight... simply because Christ said “come.”

Saturday, August 3, 2013

After the Storm: The Wedding Story

It’s been some months since I simply told stories on this blog. There are some thoughts too complex to put into words though, some moments we live that can’t be separated into the resulting emotional implications. So this will be told as a story-- as an honest story, a little disjointed, a little too big for the words I use to pin it down.

The morning of the wedding I woke up nervous for the first time in all the planning process, suddenly realizing how many people would be watching me. I calmed my nerves with a massive cup of coffee and time sitting in my parents’ living room, surrounded by siblings and some of my very dearest friends who had been staying with us. It was a deceptive quiet, so normal that my youngest sister Lucy’s urging to get us into cars and over to the room where we’d be getting ready seemed hard to take seriously.

We were getting ready in a dorm room we’d rented in the same building where most of our guests were staying and where the reception would take place later. I set up my iPod playing rock and roll, and Lucy (our designated hair and makeup artist) got started doing my older sister Lina’s hair. As I waited my turn, I kept updated on the crew setting up the reception, headed by my remarkably capable friend Rebekah. It seemed a shame to rent a dorm room and not make full use of its potential, so my friend Ruth and I may or may not have ended up jumping on one of the beds. Caleb, my adopted brother from college, brought us some Monster energy drinks, my usual fuel of choice.

My childhood friend and official wedding photographer, Sarah, arrived with my dear friend Becca around the time I was getting into my dress so Lucy could do my hair. It was a fantastic blur of my favorite songs playing and my dear friends talking as we finished getting ready, racing to meet the deadline of noon for starting pictures. Lucy finished my hair and makeup just in time, and Lina helped me get jewelry on (all hand-crafted pieces by Lucy) as Ruth helped me tie my converse (which I couldn’t reach due to the constraints of the dress).

Sarah and I headed over to the chapel through sheets of sharp summer sunlight. Given that usually the only dresses I consent to wear are Renaissance Faire garb, all the delicate, shining white of the dress my mother had made threatened to overwhelm me a little bit, but my sturdy black chuck taylors kept me firmly rooted in remembering who I was.

The chapel I had chosen as a wedding venue has been a kind of crossroads for some of the most important moments of my life. It’s a place where peace saturates every creaking pew, every thread of worn blue carpet. I had found refuge there countless times through highschool and college, often curled up on the floor at the foot of the cross on the front wall, claiming the sanctuary granted by those old white walls.

Sarah and I got some quick individual shots of me in the back prayer room before going out to meet with the rest of the wedding party, who had by that time gathered in the main room. Picture taking was a comforting chaos of trying to track down all six of my siblings for all the shots they were needed in, replacing some Christmas light bulbs last minute, and gulping Monster and Gatorade every time a sister shoved one of them at me with the request that I stay hydrated.

My three uncles on my mom’s side arrived just as the final preparations were falling into place, and I dashed out of the chapel to hug them despite admonitions that I should probably be laying low since guests were starting to arrive. Just before I was shooed into the back room for good, the officiating minister arrived-- my college Bible and Greek professor, who immediately could tell how nervous I was and offered kind words of reassurance before I was banished to the back.

As I waited with my sisters, they tried to get me to eat, but by this point I was too focused on thinking through how to survive the ceremony with so many people watching me. There was an old out of tune guitar in the back room, missing a string, and I picked it up and distractedly plucked out Mumford & Sons and Disciple songs as I listened to the noise of guests streaming in and reacting to the slideshow I’d made to play as their welcome.

Those last minutes disappeared incredibly fast, and then my sisters and I were following the musical cues as my dear friend Joy started playing her arrangement of Skillet’s “Yours to Hold” on the piano. We walked around the building to the entrance and lined up. I watched each of my beautiful sisters walk down the aisle, holding their glowing lanterns, perfectly timed. 

Then there was a pause as I waited with my dad, listening for the right cue. Joy transitioned gently into Mumford & Sons’ “After the Storm,” stacking octaves into a crescendo as my cue.

As I walked down that endless aisle lined with so many watching eyes I had to (somewhat unsuccessfully) remind myself a hundred times to look up from the floor. My dad’s steadying presence beside me helped tremendously.

When we reached the front I employed a tactic I learned long, long ago when I feel overwhelmed-- I narrowed everything until all that I saw was Jordan across from me and the minister beside me, the words we’d be saying and what it meant.

After the introduction and Jordan’s father’s prayer, Joy led us in singing “In Christ Alone.” To be there in that chapel with Jordan, buoyed up by so many voices, singing that song, was the most important moment in the ceremony for me. It was an admission that the day, the moment, was a deep grace-- that it was too big for me to carry, too big for Jordan to carry, but my Christ was entering in with us to meet the overwhelming immensity with His sustaining love. And in that moment I saw redemption finding yet another hollow in my heart and making its home, turning the shadows of my fear and inadequacy into the radiance of His promise: I am with you always. You’ll never be alone.

The minister spoke on 1 Corinthians 13, which is not unusual for a wedding, but he gave the original historical context of the passage, which is-- the distinction made me smile, and for just a moment I could almost imagine I was in one of his classes again, processing ideas and connecting concepts. Then he led us into the traditional vows.

These past two years, I have developed a strong habit of shrugging off commentary on Jordan and I’s relationship, even if it comes from him-- making light of our affection or outright denying it, as if it’s really not too big a deal that we’re promising the rest of our lives to each other. There are a lot of reasons I do this that are rooted in the past, but a big part of it is simply self-preservation-- trying desperately not to face the earth-shattering implications of what we’ve chosen, not even knowing how to outwardly address something so internally intense. But that day, hearing his words matched by his softened, incredibly earnest eyes, came the greatest miracle of all: I fully knew that he meant what he was saying. I might not ever understand how that could be possible, but for that moment my heart held that truth with all its mystery and weight.

The final moments were a blur of suddenly seeing the rings on our hands and knowing we’d set something irrevocably in place combined with the simple relief that the heaviest part was over. Joy played “Trade a Moment” by Disciple as we walked down the rows of friends and family and out the chapel doors into the blinding Texas afternoon.

After guests had filtered out of the chapel to go to the reception, Jordan and I met with Sarah for some shots of us (and some detour instrument playing) before we headed over to the reception. 

All the decorations an incredible team of helpers had set in place the day before were perfect-- sheet music paper stars and roses hung from low ceiling and climbed over ledges. Candles burned on windowsills and in alcoves. 

The reception food was entirely provided by friends and family, a diverse potluck spread complimented by my family’s trademark chai and my mother’s incredible cake-crafting abilities. My dear friend, former housemate, and longtime mentor Mangy was tirelessly at work in the kitchen along with a dear friend’s mom who has become a friend to me in her own right. It was incredible to watch so many details flowing flawlessly without any input from me.

The most important thing I had wanted from the reception was to know that everyone there connected, felt like a part of it, did not feel overlooked. And when Jordan and I retreated behind the guest book counter to observe for a while, I saw that was indeed how it ended up-- friends and family in groups and pairs and at tables, vibrant and human and living, all with the soundtrack of the playlist my brother Spencer was carefully DJing from a corner. 

There are so many moments from that reception that were treasures for me personally, things I carried away from that day and always will hold close: escaping the crowd with my CleanPlace family for a group picture (after all, this story is their story also). Sharing hugs and tears with the friend who knew best what that ceremony in that chapel meant in my story. Watching Spencer quickly pull up a playlist of nostalgia-inducing songs by The Beatles once my pre-arranged playlist ran out.

A moment that I shared with many was the speech that my sister and maid of honor Mercy gave at the reception. She offered words gilded with the brilliance of her graceful heart, words that offered gentle assurance of redemption in places where I have known the greatest fear of failure. As the sibling who has seen probably the most of me (and definitely the worst of me), she had every right to let that time be slanted by the selfish heart I have been, to present only reserved and polite nothings. Instead she offered up the deepest, most compassionate parts of her heart with an earnest honesty that left the room breathless-- and left me broken by the grace that has made me her sister.

By the time I thought to ask someone what time it was, already it was an hour later than my upper estimate of when I’d initially planned on leaving. So bubbles were passed out and everyone lined up. Jordan and I were unsure whether to exit in a stately manner or run, but one of my uncles came up behind me with a mischievous grin and pointed out that with my shoes I really had no excuse not to run. So we went for it.

Various miscreants (who have yet to reveal their identities) had covered our van in soap and toilet paper. Fortunately, driving that kind of vehicle in my rather classless neighborhood is actually not that conspicuous. The only real hitch in all my planning came when we got to my parents’ house to get our luggage, and I realized I had forgotten a key. After calling 6 family members and having the odd experience of sitting nonchalantly on my parents’ front lawn in a wedding dress, my brother Spencer came to the rescue, and he and my youngest brother Jasper saw us off.

That whole day was a rare case of the veil of the ordinary, the tiredness, of life being rolled back to reveal hints of the light underneath. It was a day of seeing that more people care more about me than I had ever dared dream, of being surrounded by those who had shared in and endured my bitterness, my brokenness-- now getting to share in light. It was a day of reclaiming a piece of the pure innocence that says joy is still more than an idealist’s fantasy, that the incarnation of Love Himself still lives as His redemption works its way out in a thousand details: in our hearts that are still beating strong after all the storms they have weathered, in a sacred promise sealed with rings and the removal of a mask. It was a day of knowing that beautiful things are still real, even if (especially if) it has cost us everything to reach them.

As Jordan and I drove down the familiar tarmac of I-20 towards Dallas, the sunset glittering in the soap smears over our windshield, I played again the song that I began clinging to as a promise from the time we first started this journey together-- the song that had welled up in my wounds and sealed them with the gentle balm of hope:

Well, I’m scared of what’s behind and what’s before.
But there will come a time, you’ll see, with no more tears
and love will not break your heart but dismiss your fears.
Get over your hill and see what you find there
with grace in your heart and flowers in your hair.
{Mumford & Sons}

- Elraen -

All photography by the incomparable Sarah Chapin