On Poetry, Legalism, and Love

September 19th, 2012 § 3,258

I set my alarm early yesterday so that I would be productive. Productive is a euphemism for valuable.

The sky was white, and there was something particular about the chill of the morning  that tugged me towards a blanket and a stack of newly-acquired poetry books. As I flipped through the pages, reading words exact and clean, I remembered beauty.

I was surprised by it, as if three-and-a-half minutes earlier I didn’t know beauty existed. What chronic amnesia!

How quick I am to forget—there is beauty, here, now. In the steam rising off my tea. In the seconds hand chattering happily on the wall-clock. In the texture of the soft, chunky-woven blanket against my skin.

It was an extravagant morning, God kissing me with poems on a Tuesday.

This, of course, got me thinking about grace (poetry will do that to person), and I was thinking about how profoundly backwards my heart is most all of the time.

My heart feels as though it is hard to love God, to give God devotion. But sitting with the scrupulous imagery of Sexton and Oliver, I remembered this as complete nonsense.

Deep down, my heart believes I can do quite well at this loving-God business. If you’re anything like me, it is profoundly more difficult to receive God’s love, as a poem on a Tuesday.

And not because I think I am horrible or bad or disgusting.

But because my heart is given to the idea that I am actually quite marvelous, that I can be good enough and work hard enough and achieve well enough. My heart is given to the idea that Jesus didn’t accomplish it all—that there is more of my value left to secure, more of my worth left to prove, more of God’s affection left to earn.

There isn’t.

This is the wretched, suffocating, miserable, lonely law of self-justification.

The thing about it is, any self-respecting person quickly realizes that accepting free, unconditional love means that you can’t earn it—that you don’t deserve it—and this cuts against what any self-respecting person builds their identity on. I landed on the thought that we all operate in legalism mode, we all suffer under the law of proving ourselves, of being good and behaving rightly, up until the point where our tangled, crippled, needy hearts are leveled by God’s love—released by the Incarnate One from the laws we cling to and were born breaking.

The other day I heard a friend say that God is the devoted one; that God is, always has been, and always will be the first lover. This is good news. And 99.9% of the time I know this cognitively, as a nice thought, like unicorns or traveling first-class.

But yesterday, amidst the poems and the white-sky morning, I glimpsed for a brief moment the reality that God loves me, that He has spoken beauty in front and behind and on top of me, that His grace is not a far-off, fancy, theoretical idea, but that it is here, now, today, helping me off the rat-wheel of self-addiction.

I was made to enjoy Him.

I was made to enjoy Him.

He kissed me with poems on a Tuesday, and has called me to receive them.

 

On The Road

August 21st, 2012 § 58

“Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.”
–Jack Kerouac, On the Road

I’m a firm believer that routines are beautiful and necessary and meant to be broken. There is nothing that ripens our souls quite like a good trip.

I had the privilege of traveling a sizeable distance this summer with four very special travel buddies, three of whom are younger than I.

This means I ripened my soul while also growing my sense of humor.

For those lamenting that I chose not to write about these newest adventures, I apologize.

I can tell you that if you ever decide to drive across country with pre-adolescents, you’ll find yourself jotting down quotes like, “I’m gonna drug my kids from here to St. Louis.” and “You’re really getting on my casinos!” and “Uh oh! I lost my underwear.”

Around mile 3,000, you begin laughing hysterically at road signs that say, “Beware of dust over road” and “Don’t be fooled: grade continues for 4 miles.”

That’s when you know you’ve been on the road a little too long.

But then you pull out the plantain chips and string cheese and peanut butter M&M’s, and you believe anew that you can make it another 2,500 miles.

For those who want an even clearer picture of the trip, I compiled some rough documentary footage. I’m pretty sure it will feel long and painful to viewers who weren’t along for the journey, but then so do parts of a 5,000 mile trip, so there ya’ go.

21 days on the road in a nutshell.

 

 

Life in the Black Hole

August 7th, 2012 § 46

I found a sweet, little card in Kirkwood with a quote that grabbed me.

It says on the front, “Life is between the trapeze bars.”

It’s actually a birthday card, but I bought it for myself because I needed those words.

These days I feel like I’m drowning in big, existential life questions.

Where am I to be?

What am I to do?

How am I to know?

The irony is, for however existential these questions feel to me, they are extraordinarily practical. And when you don’t have answers to them, you feel as though you’ve been sucked down an identity-less, black hole.

In this black hole, you have plenty of time to wonder at what it must feel like to be a good computer engineer, to know early on that you’re wired in ways that make you a great numbers-cruncher or kindergarten teacher or phlebotomist. How commendable these things are!

These are the kinds of paths that responsible parents must dream for their children.

Clear. Straight. Accessible.

Turns out, it’s quite difficult to translate big, wild, unruly passions into acceptable categories. Outlandish hopes don’t feed you when you’re hungry, no matter how deeply they’ve sprouted and stretched the seams of your heart.

And so you are between the bars.

Free-falling.

Suspended only by the love of God, the Creative One who says, “I am making all things new.”

Hallelujah!

There is life to be found here.

In the black hole.

With the God of grace.

Dog-eared Days

June 19th, 2012 § 68

A couple of days ago, two of my favorite human beings on the planet shared vows, a kiss, and some cake. They will also share the rest of their lives together.

Days like these are big, sobering, celebratory days. The kind that dog-ear the pages of our lives.

As I was thinking about this—and all the  life-change I’ve witnessed over the past year—I was reminded of a lecture given by one of my favorite professors.

It was about theatre as heightened reality.

For those of you who aren’t familiar, the anchor of most successful storytelling is conflict—without it, compelling dramatic performance is hard to come by.

My professor said that what makes theatre so special is that characters have no choice but to stay in the room with the conflict.

In real life, we walk out.

We withdraw.

We avoid.

We shut down. We leave things unacknowledged. We choose what’s easiest in the moment.

But in theatrical performance, if the story is to move forward, if there is to be a curtain call, the characters’ only choice is to stay in the room — conflict and all.

And this makes theatre spectacular.

I think about my newly-wedded friends, and wonder if this principle doesn’t make life spectacular too.

When we stay in the room, when we lean into conflict enough to come out the other side changed people, we live rich, meaningful, compelling stories.

The dog-eared days are those times when we promise to stay in the room. People who look each other in the eye and say, whether we’re poor and sick, or wealthy and well, I will stay in the room with you. I will fight it out. I will let myself be challenged and changed.

But really, it’s all the other pages of our lives—the middle places, the ho-hum chapters, the underbelly of our neediness—where there is room to choose the truly spectacular.

My daily plea is that I would lay down my own cowardice long enough to live a story that’s worth telling, and I’m grateful for friends who are showing me how.

The Glorious Unnecessary

May 28th, 2012 § 60

A few days ago, I was eating raspberries, and I was absolutely awe-struck.

If you’ve never taken the time to ruminate on the beauty of a single raspberry, put it on your to-do list immediately, I beg of you! Raspberries are decidedly regal. The combination of their delicate shape, velvety flesh, and brilliantly femme fatale color is enough to make any reasonably sensing person keel over with delight.

And so it was that these raspberries got me thinking about the world, and the privilege it is to be alive in it.

I was struck by the thought that this world wasn’t created out of necessity. It was made for enjoyment. Fingerprints and popcorn and peacock feathers and the smell of late spring at dusk—these things are not utilitarian! They are gifts! They are divine kisses! Punctuation marks on the most poetic love letter ever written. How much this pleasure-taking God loves us that he would give us such things!

This lead me to thinking about the kind of person I want to be, and about the way I want to live in the world.

Friends, I want to operate out of the knowledge that this world and everything in it is a big, gigantic, juicy splurge.

It didn’t have to be. But it is. And this is a profound gift.

I want to be alive to my senses.

I want to practice enjoyment.

I want to cultivate gratitude for the smell of cilantro and the way the ground feels under my feet and the cadence of darling, little child voices.

I want to go out of this world slurping on its beauty, wiping my mouth with the back of my hand, grateful to have known the sweet nectar that is all created things, and the love of God that brought them to be.

Humans have done a miserable job of taking pleasure.

We do it selfishly, or as if it is a tremendous chore.

All the more reason why pleasure-taking is an important practice for those who know the Creator of all things! It cannot wait for tomorrow. The world desperately needs people who love being alive, people who mirror God’s care and creativity and enjoyment, people who push back against the effects of the Fall by moving about their lives in the knowledge that this world actually matters to God, and will one day be restored to its fullest, richest, most potent glory.

I know I haven’t become this person in full, but raspberries help.

 

 

Newly Born

April 30th, 2012 § 65

Two weeks ago today another created one was born into the world.

She is my niece, and I love her with the weight of my whole being.

I knew before she was born that babies were my favorite ever. I’ve hoped for a long time that heaven will smell like a newborn, and the cuteness of their tiny little existence could just about kill me.

But as I glued my gaze on the miracle of this new child, the one I will know for a lifetime as my niece, I couldn’t help but think about what the world feels like from her perspective—all the newness and fear and wonder and confusion and love.

And my mind landed somewhere so profound, I was utterly undone.

Sleeping in my arms was a gift that abbreviated the entire human condition.

We get born. We get bigger. We get better at pretending. We get old. But the newly born—in the purity of their dependence, pleasure, and exhaustion—tell the honest truth about who we are and what our existence feels like most of the time.

Her quiet cries echo the beauty and brokenness of every created one that has gone before her, and when I hear it I instinctively whisper, “I know. I know.”

A lump forms in my throat the way it does when the truth about things has been revealed again. All I can feel is grateful that I get to be alive to this moment, to a love so much bigger than myself.

Hallelujah.

She is born.

And I am priviledged to welcome her into the fullness of this difficult, wonderful world.

April 5th, 2012 § 48

Days ago during my 200 mile drive, I was thinking about how often people in my life call me “Miss Clauson” in casual conversation.

Probably too often.

I don’t know what kind of vibes I’m giving off to elicit this prim designation, but I laughed out my mortification for a good seven miles.

22 Things I Learned in My 22nd Year

February 28th, 2012 § 48

I’ve spent the last few years developing the habit of making a list on my birthday. The list consists of behaviors, lessons, values, truths, etc that I learned or cultivated in my previous year of life. There’s nothing too small or silly or mundane to make the list, and there’s no rules really, except to write what is true.
This habit is partly reactionary—I know too many people who don’t think deeply about their lives. And I want to be the kind of person who wrings every last drop of wonder and wisdom and joy out of this difficult, beautiful life. But mostly I make this list because it’s a tangible way for me to discover growth. Growth isn’t always easy to identify, and I’ve found that a bird’s eye view of the year I just lived helps me to practice celebration and offer up gratitude to a God who is abundance, and who gives abundance.
This year…
(1) I learned how to scrape a coconut

(2) I learned how to take bucket showers

(3) I learned that I’m capable of training and running a 10k

(4) I learned that nothing makes me more unstable than having to build a model with foam core and an exacto knife

(5) I learned that I live in bondage to the fear that I won’t be loved and accepted

(6) I learned that I am deeply and securely loved by God

(7) I learned that when I eat a s’more, I almost always wish I hadn’t

(8) I learned that long car rides by myself almost always involve some crying

(9) I learned that people don’t need me to be their savior

(10) I learned that research is so much harder than it sounds

(11) I learned that Princess Laea and Luke Skywalker are actually sister and brother

(12) I learned the wisdom of apologizing first

(13) I learned that I have a decently high tolerance for cleaning up vomit

(14) I learned that I never find a hot cup of tea regrettable

(15) I learned that ‘family’ is a term that can be used for the people you eat with on a regular basis

(16) I learned that I can’t change other people

(17) I learned that this world is profoundly broken, and God is immensely good

(18) I learned that my ideal form of exercise is something social/relational, staunchly non-competitive, and requiring a sense of humor

(19) I learned how to write a grant proposal

(20) I learned that I can’t do it on my own

(21) I learned that I am capable of great acts of boldness

(22) I learned more love, less fear

Amen.

Trinity Presbyterian: A Love Story

January 29th, 2012 § 35

There was a miserably long season where I believed that God didn’t love my intellectual parts. I thought, at some level, that God was deeply displeased with my big, scary questions, my wild curiosities, and my fierce hunger to know.

I walked this season with a frightfully jaded heart—itching with fear and aching to belong. But by some extra-ordinary miracle, I walked my jaded, fearful heart through the doors of a small sanctuary, kissed by all kinds of natural light and crawling with so many children, you couldn’t help but see the face of God.

For a while, I’d go and soak it all in—the love and communion and simplicity—but I’d leave before it ever got awkward, before I ever had to actually get to know anyone.

Any single person who’s ever tried to insert themselves into a church body knows that it takes courage and intentionality and a whole slew of other messy things I was too scared to give…until I was so smitten that I knew I couldn’t keep running away. I had to push in. I had to learn names and listen to life-stories.

So I did the obvious: I befriended a bunch of older ladies. I went to their potlucks and bible studies, and I listened regularly to their chatter about ailments of all kinds. This was, of course, the single wisest thing I could have done because they love you with fierceness and loyalty, they unapologetically claim you as their own, and they take you out for the occasional breakfast sandwich. These women are hilarious and beautiful and wise. And they were my tributary into a body of intriguing, imperfect people that are now my church.

So many things have changed since I sat in those red pews for the first time. I’ve learned names and listened to life-stories and laid claim to the glorious truth that God not only delights in my intellect, but created it in the first place.

When I think about that sweet, little building and the people who fill it weekly with love and belonging, I am lost in the love story—replete with gladness and gratitude, joy and healing.

The Wesley House: A Love Story

December 29th, 2011 § 45

When I was young, I thought that family was a term applied to those people who share a gene pool in common with you. And there is a very specific and mysterious kind of beauty in this understanding of family.

But with emerging adulthood, I learned that family is really a term to describe the people you share meals with most often.

For the last two years, I’ve been breaking bread with a group of ragamuffins who inhabit the Wesley House, a co-op for those college students wise-enough to brave daily life with fifteen roommates. The varied and beautiful people I’ve been rubbing shoulders with for the last twenty-four months brought me a fuller understanding of family, and gave me a treasure trove of stories, memories, and moments of hilarium along the way.

Sunsets and star-gazing on the roof.

Evenings around our illegal fire pit.

Swinging on the monster-tire swing.

The infamous “general consumption” counter, and the millions of calories that sustain it (most of which derive from cookies, bagels, cake, and candy—all slightly sketchy at best).

The string of poorly executed pranks involving everything from jello to goldfish, toothbrushes to crawdads.

Walking up the cobble-stone path to our front door, and drinking in the picture of our kitchen abuzz with light and music and pre-dinner activity.

Skinny dipping with the girls.

Beer-tasting with the boys.

The infamous piano playing and guitar plucking. If you need to know more, watch this video.

Those painful house meetings and the surprisingly painless house parties.

The endless conversations about men and women and the ways they are different—many of these differences which were being discovered for the very first time. (Two-words: butt hair)

Movie-nights and indie-dance breaks.

Arguments over ranch dressing milkshakes and what exactly constitutes a vegetable.

Learning (at least for a few of us) to say “You were right” and “I’m sorry”.

Birthdays, Thanksgiving feasts, more birthdays, and secret-santa gift exchanges.

Chili cook-off and Pi(e) day.

The beauty of all those glorious girl-times—laughing until we cried and crying until we laughed.

The way joy creeps in to every crevice of our shabby house, outfitted with its ratty old couches.

The relentless love of fifteen different people learning to cheer each other on in the arena of university life, learning to be family to one another.

While my list of memories seems endless, my Wesley House season is quickly coming to a close.

Anne Lamott wrote that the hardest part of being alive is learning to love back. I think what she means is that deep down we are self-addicted beings who want our needs met and our wants fulfilled and our dreams come true, and its immensely difficult to set all those things down long enough to love another being, with needs and wants and dreams of their own.

At the end of the day and the end of this season, I’m most grateful for the ways the Wesley House has taught me to love back.

The magnificence of our awkward, imperfect, little clan had a way of continually eroding away any and all pre-conceived notions—teaching me to live more openly and give more freely and love more deeply. What grace this is.

And so, my dear Wesley House, it is with tremendous gratitude that I say: I love you back.