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Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Fear and Faith

I started a new phase of my life yesterday: I am back at seminary, this time at Azusa Pacific University, taking a couple of courses in order to get the extra units needed to start another graduate degree in Fall 2013. It is wonderful to be back in school again. I am a lifelong learner, and simply enjoy the entire process of lecture, reading, discussion, and application. So my Inner (Outer?!) Nerd was blissfully happy.

The course is Pastoral Counseling for Adolescents, and it is remarkable to take this course after so many years already logged in youth ministry. My first seminary courses were taken in 1984, and it is incredible to me what has ensued in those intervening years in terms of learning, experience, mistakes, joys, sorrows. Naturally, I wish I had known then what I know now, but that is what life is all about, right?

I am beginning to reflect on all the things that have changed in youth ministry in this long season of experience. There are simple things like going from using dittos to promote events in 1984 to creating Facebook events! But there are deeper, more profound issues as well, and the one that comes to mind on this anniversary of 9/11 is fear. Many horrifying events occurred well before 9/11 in our history -- two World Wars, AIDS, Vietnam, assassinations, atom bombs, nuclear threat, racism to name a few... but I would say there are two significant game-changers in the way we work emotionally in the United States: Columbine on April 20, 1999 and the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.

I am challenged to come up with words adequate to describe the level of fear I now sense with parents in comparison to the ways I related to parents at the beginning of my career. The intriguing part is that in the mid-eighties, it's not as if parents had lived in a world of puppies and rainbows. The decades of drugs and free love in the 60's, along with the cynicism coming out of Vietnam, Watergate and Jonestown in the 70's were not exactly a walk in the park!

But 9/11 and Columbine feel different. The fear and unimagined terror hit so close to home, and feel so tangible and invasive. How can we allay such paralyzing concerns? I look to scripture and there are some fundamentals that keep me anchored:

Isaiah 8
11 The Lord has given me a strong warning not to think like everyone else does. He said,

12 “Don’t call everything a conspiracy, like they do,
    and don’t live in dread of what frightens them.
13 Make the Lord of Heaven’s Armies holy in your life.
    He is the one you should fear.
He is the one who should make you tremble.
14     He will keep you safe.
But to Israel and Judah
    he will be a stone that makes people stumble,
    a rock that makes them fall.
And for the people of Jerusalem
    he will be a trap and a snare.
15 Many will stumble and fall,
    never to rise again.
    They will be snared and captured.”

16 Preserve the teaching of God;
    entrust his instructions to those who follow me.
17 I will wait for the Lord,
    who has turned away from the descendants of Jacob.
    I will put my hope in him.

I have had countless conversations with students over the years of what it means to "fear the Lord." But I think this passage begins to capture it. It is an issue of whom we give power to ~ someone utterly trustworthy, or someone who seeks to destroy us? Fear can be positive, believe it or not, according to whom we fear.

I do not mean to oversimplify or trivialize. Fear can be a dreadful thing, and I know it well. But I am seeking to understand the reality of what it means to walk by faith and not by sight: to not look at immediate circumstances and to what I can see as the final answer. That is to think like everyone else does. Instead, I yearn to wait for the Lord... (and) put my hope in him. My fear becomes one of healthy respect and awe.

May we not be a people of anxious fear, but ones of sober reality who live anchored in the One who keeps us safe in the truest, most reliable and eternal way. If you continue to read in Isaiah (and I encourage you to do so) we find unbelievable promises. Here's the teaser, and with this I conclude; from Isaiah 9:2,

The people who walk in darkness
    will see a great light.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Dream a Little Dream

I have books all over my house. My home office is filled with three separate six-shelf bookcases, crammed with books (and there is a stacker in the closet that holds a bunch more). My living room holds all of my housemate's books, and my bedroom has another shelf of books on the wall, a maple table with books, and my bedside table has about ten books lined up on it. As I mentioned last month, I have now entered the Kindle world, so now my crazed book ownership can go somewhat underground.

The books next to my bed are my "secret stash," books I have acquired over several years, most of which I have not read. I sometimes wonder if I enjoy owning them more than reading them, because I am unconsciously so hesitant to read them.

I should mention that every single one is about the craft of writing.

If I sit and analyze this a bit (as I am doing right now), I think there are several competing reasons for my resistance to reading them. Most strongly, I think of these books as treasures that I do not want to fritter away carelessly. I want to read them when I can truly enjoy them. I am the sort of person who eats the frosting last when eating a piece of cake. I am good at delaying gratification. These books are the ultimate dessert for me.

But I also know that a rather large part of me is slightly afraid of these books as well. To read them feels like I am claiming that I am a writer, and I am not ready to do that. I certainly love to write, but in no way would I call myself a writer. Yes, I have written some articles, but those are three to four pages at most, and emerge out of my own experience and training. I would not say they truly emerge out of some deeper place, though at times I have twiddled with the edges of it.

Lastly, there is a part of me that feels pressure: once I finish these books, there will be no more excuses. No longer would I be able to say that I cannot start writing until I have learned how to do "it." Believe me, I know that is completely lame and one only learns how to write by writing, and rest assured, I do that almost every day. I just haven't figured out if I want to go further than that. I love everything I am working on in my life, but many times I have had the conversation of whether or not I have at least one book in me...

So this week, I had some space to let myself pull out one of my precious treasures. There is only one other book in the stack that I have read: The Faith of a Writer, by Joyce Carol Oates, that I read this past June during my vacation in Grand Teton.

This new one is pictured above: Writers Dreaming: Twenty-Six Writers Talk About Their Dreams and the Creative Process by Naomi Epel. First off, let me say, this is a funny little book. It was published in 1993, and quite possibly the most quaint thing about it is how often each writer refers to working on a word processor. My, how times have changed.

And I am not sure one can really call it a book as much as a collection of interviews. Epel has apparently hosted a weekly radio show called "Book Talk," and she is also a "dream researcher" (right, I don't know what that is either). Writers Dreaming compiles the notes from her interviews of writers and how dreams have influenced their work.

I will tell you that I pay attention to my dreams. I do not see anything magical in them. They are not crystal balls that I consult to figure out my future. As a mentor has told me, Dreams are simply your unconscious trying to figure yourself out. So I pay attention to my dreams to find out what is really bothering me, what I am afraid of, what I am yearning for, etc.

Let's be clear: I do not plan on sharing any of my dreams with you! But I want to tell you that this book, quirky as it is, actually has some great things to say about writing and how it works. I am learning a lot as I read.

Here are some examples:

  • Isabel Allende: Maybe I'm a writer because I'm desperately trying to clean up my mess. Here's another one: Without my demons what will I write about?
  • Maya Angelou: I do believe dreams have a function. I don't see anything that has no function, not anything that has been created. I may not understand its function or be able to to even use it, make it utile, but I believe it has a reason.
  • John Barth (I have never heard of him either): Those rituals of getting ready to write seem to conduce a kind of trance state.
  • Richard Ford: I'm trying to cause people to be interested in the particulars of their lives because I think that that's one thing literature can do for us. It can say to us: pay attention. Pay closer attention. Pay stricter attention to what you say to your son. Pay stricter attention to what you say to someone you love.
  • Sue Grafton: As I write I keep a journal for each novel that I work on... I'm finding now that some of the freest writing I do is in the journal because psychologically that feels like playtime.
  • Spalding Gray: So what I had the students do first was to speak their stories, their autobiographic story, into a tape recorder. Then I'd have them transcribe it and begin to work on making the transcription like writing. My theory was, and it works, that they will find their personal voice in that way because it is their voice. (Is that brilliant or what??)
  • Allan Gurganus: Writing is a kind of free fall that you then go back and edit and shape. I think the best things that I've ever got as a writer come frequently all in a burst.
  • James W. Hall: There's this romantic picture of writers, sometimes, that you either are going to be a great writer or have a great life. And you have to choose one or the other. I don't think that's true for me. I don't believe that that has to be an either-or choice. But you have to consciously decide that. You can't let your ordinary life drift and just sink into the creative world all the time.
That last one is perhaps the greatest advice for me. I will never forget, after having spent several academic quarters plowing through Coleridge (opium addict, bipolar), Hemingway (shot his head off), Fitzgerald (drank himself to death), Sylvia Plath (suicide), et cetera et cetera, coming to the conclusion that I could never be a great writer because I was simply too normal! I have operated under that assumption for nearly thirty years. So Hall's statement is a gift. 

Consider tracking this book down on half.com or finding it in your library. It's worth the time, in my opinion. I'm only about halfway through it, so you may be hearing from me again on this subject...

Saturday, September 1, 2012

A New Salad for September

What a GREAT day... slept in, slow morning, nice bike ride over to my church softball tournament, great barbecue and conversation, more bike riding, a couple of fun house projects, and then of course, some cooking.

I'm not ready to say goodbye to zucchini, summer tomatoes, red bell peppers and delicious berries... but I'm happily welcoming cauliflower and brussels sprouts as fall vegetables slowly make their appearance.

I perused my latest issue of Vegetarian Times and promptly adapted one of the recipes from it tonight. I have no ability to photograph my food, so I'm posting a photo on the left that includes several of tonight's ingredients, hopefully to get your taste buds going.

I practically licked the bowl -- this was very, very good. And rather simple to throw together.

Warm Salad of Buckwheat and Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Cranberries and Walnuts
Serves 2

Use an earthy, nutty grain for this one: I chose to try out buckwheat in my never-ending search for new gluten-free options. I have to say I was totally satisfied and made a new friend in those little buckwheat groats. Other possibilities (not all GF) include couscous, quinoa, brown rice or millet.

1 lb Brussels sprouts, trimmed and quartered lengthwise
4 tb olive oil
2/3 c buckwheat groats
1/3 c toasted chopped walnuts
1/2 c dried cranberries
1 tb dried parsley
1 tb balsamic vinegar
2 tsp pure maple syrup
1 tsp lemon juice

Preheat oven to 475 F. Toss Brussels sprouts with 1 1/2 tb oil in large bowl, seasoning with salt if desire. Arrange sprouts in single layer on 13x9 inch baking dish. Roast 20 to 24 minutes or til brown and tender, stirring once. Set aside.

Meanwhile, spread out the walnuts on a tray and toast them in the toaster oven. Chop them up.

At same time, heat large saucepan over medium heat. Add buckwheat groats (or other grain) and roast 6-8 minutes. Add 1 3/4 c water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover and simmer 20 minutes or til liquid is absorbed. Transfer to large bowl, cool for 5 minutes, then fold in Brussels sprouts, walnuts, cranberries, and parsley into buckwheat.

Whisk together remaining olive oil, vinegar, syrup, and lemon juice in a bowl. Stir into buckwheat mixture and season with more salt if desired.