Liminality and Into the Woods: Or, What I’m Learning

It is early Sunday morning and I am sitting on the couch watching the thunderstorm outside turn from really dark to a slightly less-dark color. There are cinnamon rolls in the oven and half of my apartment is sparklingly clean and clutter-free. Even still, I am not sure that I’m ready for “real life” to begin again tomorrow.

I wanted to take some time before I get back into the craziness to reflect on what I’ve been learning over the last two weeks. Isn’t it funny how God will use different threads in your life to create a startling or new image of something He’s been trying to teach you? That’s been my experience in the last couple of days.

The first thread: I’m not sure if any of my recent blog posts have given this impression (ha!), but I feel that I am facing a crossroads in my life and my career. There have been some really dark moments lately where I’m not sure if teaching is the right career, I’m not sure if I’m in the right place, and I’m really not sure where I should be headed. It’s easy for people on the outside to say, “Trust God!” or “He knows right where He wants you!” I know this advice is well-meant, but it’s very difficult to take that advice and apply it practically. I believe that God has my best interests at heart, but when I’m the one who has to make decisions without the benefit of a burning bush or cloud of smoke, how do I know when to stay and when to go? Over the break I was able to have some great conversations with friends who have been in the same situation. I am constantly being reminded of little lessons I have learned before but somehow keep forgetting. The main one? Obedience is obedience. Wherever I am, if I am being obedient to what the Lord says, then I am being obedient. Isn’t that what I am called to be? I shouldn’t get caught up in others’ opinions if I know in my hear that I am being obedient to the Lord.

The second thread: Any fellow readers of The Rabbit Room out there? Well, the Lord has greatly used that community to minister to me. Friday as I was driving back I listened to a session from the 2013 Hutchmoot on Liminality or Liminal Space. It seemed like my heart was speaking an “amen” to every word I was hearing. How refreshing to hear that there are other believers who have struggled with this threshold time of liminality. Liminality is the time “in-between” social rituals. It’s basically the moment when you realize that you’ve left the familiar behind and you’re staring out into the great unknown. I didn’t realize that my feelings of disorder and uncertainty had a name! The speakers emphasized that just as chaos necessarily comes before order, so liminal space will come before any sense of structure or security. Knowing that there are others who have trusted God to show them the right path out of this swamp is a huge encouragement. It’s like all of the uncertainty and doubts the first thread caused, I can now name them–I can say to myself, “Sarah, you are in the sea of liminality right now. What choices can you make that demonstrate faith and obedience while still waiting on the Lord to show you the way out?”

The third thread: It seems silly, but I was really impacted by the movie Into the Woods. I saw it Friday night after my enlightening drive learning about liminality, and if you’re looking for the perfect cinematic display of “liminal space,” the “woods” of Into the Woods is perfect. All of our favorite familiar storybook characters end up going into the woods to make their wishes come true. While in the woods, they are confronted with giants and witches and the consequences of their wishes. The woods are the perfect visual metaphor for liminality. It’s a place without place, its a space of confusion with time to reflect and learn from your mistakes.

The main theme: One of the songs from Into the Woods is called “No one is alone.” Here’s my favorite little bit:

Mother cannot guide you.
Now you’re on your own.
Only me beside you.
Still, you’re not alone.
No one is alone. Truly.
No one is alone.
Sometimes people leave you.
Halfway through the wood.
Others may decieve you.
You decide what’s good.
You decide alone.
But no one is alone.

Because there are no coincidences in God’s economy, it’s no coincidence that I’ve also been listening to Jill Phillips’ new album that deals with a lot of these same issues–one of the songs is called “You are Not Alone.”

So what does this all mean? Well, I think it comes to this: I am not alone; no one is alone. I feel like I am about to be overtaken by the seas of uncertainty, but I have friends and family and strangers and movies and Scripture to tell me that God will not leave me here or let me live in uncertainty forever. I have a savior who has experienced these feelings Himself and He won’t leave me. He won’t forget me or fail to show me the way of escape. He has only ever been faithful to me, He drew me out of the woods of my sin and into the light of his presence. I can trust him to show me the way out, and I can be obedient even while I am still in the midst of confusion. My prayer is that I can transfer this into my real life come Monday morning.

Resolution #3

I shall not fall into the falsehood that this day, or any day, is merely another ambiguous and plodding twenty-four hours, but rather a unique event, filled, if I so wish, with worthy potentialities. I shall not be fool enough to suppose that trouble and pain are wholly evil parentheses in my existence, but just as likely ladders to be climbed toward moral and spiritual manhood. –Clyde Kilby

 

On Wednesday morning I left for work much later than usual. I am always one of the first people at school, but for some reason on Wednesday I took my time in the morning and made it to school right on time instead of an hour and a half early. It was nice to have the sun already halfway up when I stepped into the car. Usually I’m getting to see the first rays of morning as I drive. This later sunrise was gorgeous–there was even a tiny half-formed rainbow. It was worth being scatter-brained during first period just because of the glory of that sunrise.

It’s easy in the car, listening to my favorite music, watching a beautifully unique sunrise, to think of this day as being full of “worthy potentialities.” Somehow, though, when I unlock the door of my classroom all of those “potentialities” melt away and I am left with what seems to be another “plodding and ambiguous” day. It would seem to be an easy fix–just change your mindset and your approach to each day. But have you ever tried to change your entire paradigm for handling a difficult day? It’s tough!

On Thursday and Friday I tried to remember as I walked to my desk and looked at my to-do list that the day before me was as unique as the sunrise I had just witnessed. I would be filled with inspiration for a few moments, and then lose it all when my students walked into the room already fussing with each other. I think this is when relying on Christ becomes the most important thing I can do all day. Maybe my prayer should not have been, Lord, change my heart about these days, make me see them as worthwhile and full of opportunities. That’s a great prayer, I just don’t think it asks the right question. It asks for instant change, for a radically different mindset at 6:00 in the morning.

Maybe my prayer should have been, Lord, you have made these next 24 hours unique and beautiful. Go with me in every hour and show me the opportunities I have to glorify You. When I forget and return to plodding or complaining, show me how foolish it is to believe that this day is just an “evil parentheses.” Show me instead that by relying on You in even my most frustrating and ambiguous moments that you are merely pushing me up another rung on the ladder “toward moral and spiritual manhood.” 

Resolution #2

“Instead of the accustomed idea of a mindless and endless evolutionary change to which we can neither add nor subtract, I shall suppose the universe guided by an Intelligence which, as Aristotle said of Greek drama, requires a beginning, a middle, and an end. I think this will save me from the cynicism expressed by Bertrand Russell before his death, when he said, “There is darkness within, and when I die there will be darkness without. There is no splendor, no vastness anywhere, only triviality for a moment and then nothing.”

-Clyde Kilby

 

Intelligence requires a beginning, a middle, and an end. No thought is fully conceived without these three parts. All of life is a drama, and these are its fundamental parts: beginning, middle end. The Bible and all of creation start at the very beginning–“In the beginning God created…” If any thought is to prevent cynicism, surely this is it!

God requires a beginning, a middle, and an end of all of us–in our lives, in the universe. We all have a set storyline, a pattern and a path to follow. Knowing that there will be an end that has been planned from the beginning gives us hope and allows us to enjoy the vastness and the splendor we see here. My heart breaks for Bertrand Russell, who, in his blindness, could not see the beauty and the evidence of God in nature. I think of the places I have been where I see vastness and splendor–the Isle of Skye, the American West, the ocean and the endless skies, and I am amazed. God has granted us these things in order that we might see their splendor and praise the one who is more splendid. We should enjoy the vastness on this earth, even if this earthly majesty truly is only a triviality in the face of an eternity that is grander than any we could create or imagine.

“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!

‘For who has known the mind of the Lord,
    or who has been his counselor?’
‘Or who has given a gift to him
    that he might be repaid?’

For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.”

–Romans 11:33-35

Resolution #1

I wrote this back in August when I first decided to respond in writing to Clyde Kilby’s 10 resolutions for mental health. As it is now November, I am clearly trying to climb my way back onto the blogging wagon, seeing as I fell off back in August. Can you say blogger guilt?

Resolution #1:
“At least once every day I shall look steadily up at the sky and remember that I, a consciousness with a conscience, am on a planet traveling in space with wonderfully mysterious things above and about me.”

Today I looked steadily up at the sky. It was hot and humid and the sky was full of enormous clouds. They stood in giant mounds, white on top but heavy on the bottom with gray potential. Where the sun was hidden the clouds were rimmed in an over-brilliant white—the kind of white that makes you squint. My excuse for such bold sky staring was a trip to the rental office to pay this month’s rent. As I walked I thought about Kilby’s statement: I, a consciousness with a conscience, am on a planet traveling in space with wonderfully mysterious things above and about me.

Back from my mundane quest and mulling over those words, I easily understand his passion for the mysterious things that surround us. The hot breeze that makes my hair stick to my forehead is mysterious. How does it ruffle the trees and then vanish? What is its point of origin? What is its exotic destination? The clouds themselves are mysterious. They hang heavy in the sky but float along on the softest breeze. Each white plume seems to grow as you watch it, soaking up the moisture in the air like a giant kitchen sponge. The gray cast of light makes everything seem dim, yet the clouds around the sun are brilliant with August heat. The cosmos we inhabit are mysterious, to be sure, but so are these everyday miracles of nature. I agree with Kilby; these gifts of extraordinary beauty are wonderfully mysterious. As I sit and ponder, though, I wonder at his including a statement about our human condition. I am a “consciousness with a conscience,” but what difference does that make in the face of such overwhelming mystery? Why mention my state at all—why not just marvel at the God of nature?

The nearest answer I can find is that our very condition is a wonderfully mysterious thing. We are not just conscious of the beauty that surrounds us, but we are conscious that it is good. We are conscious that the giver of these gifts is good and we are mysteriously blessed to be here on this ordinary day under a hot sun.

Our conscience tells us that there cannot be such great beauty and such unrivaled mysteries above and about us without a God to whom the glory can be given. We must choose to remember, when we drive home and see the clouds piled high on the sunset or when we glance out the window at a rain shower, to be thankful that we are conscious of this beauty. We must also remember that we can only respond to such beauty because of the God who sculpts the clouds and provides the rain.

For me personally, this resolution serves to remind me of the reason I have always enjoyed looking at the clouds; every day they are uniquely beautiful. I have never seen two skies that look exactly the same. Today I am reminded that only an infinitely beautiful and infinitely creative God could provide unique skies over us all our lives. He is the wonderfully mysterious thing above and about us.

Inspiration from John Piper

Recently I have been reading John Piper’s devotional Taste and See before bed. One of the meditations a few nights ago was inspired by an English professor of Piper’s, Clyde Kilby. Piper recalls a lecture in which Kilby challenged his students to “drink in the remedies of God in nature” instead of “seeking mental health in the mirror of self-analysis” (Piper 69). Kilby then went on to give ten resolutions for mental health. These resolutions resonated with me, and I have returned to them many times in the few short days since I first read them.

I have decided to take each of the ten resolutions in turn and respond to them in writing. My next ten posts will be dedicated to this particular idea and source of inspiration.

All of these resolutions are taken from John Piper’s Taste and See, published by Multnomah Books. You can find the book here and Piper’s website here.

My First Year

Four Years: The amount of time it took for me to graduate with a degree in education.

Six Weeks: The amount of time I waited for my first job offer.

Six Weeks: The amount of time I had to move to a new city, prepare my apartment, and psych myself up for my first year of teaching.

30 Seconds: The amount of time it took for me to realize how unprepared I was.

 

I’ve already written a little bit about my first year of teaching, which you can read about here, but now that I’m a few weeks removed from the varying traumas and successes of my first year, I want to debrief. I’m sure that I will write many more posts about the hilarities of being a new teacher, and I’m sure that over time my insights into this first year will deepen and mature, but I feel that some kind of closure is needed. Especially since I’m now only 28 days away from embarking on my (canyoubelieveit?) second year of teaching.

First of all, I am amazed at how faithful God has been to me as a first year teacher. Anyone who knew me during high school and college can attest to the fact that I never EVER wanted to teach middle school. I was  am convinced that it takes a special kind of person to teach middle school. And after teaching seventh grade for a year, I can tell you now that I am probably not cut out for teaching middle school for my entire life. But it’s kind of funny how when you tell God you will never EVER do something, He seems to put you in a position to do that very thing. Which is, obviously, how I ended up in seventh grade again.

As the year went on and I learned more and more, I saw that God had put me back in the seventh grade for “such a time as this,” to humble me and make me depend on Him and on others around me. I had to learn how to teach skills, not just concepts. The students I taught during my internship were seniors in high school; they knew how to form a sentence. My students this year had to be taught what a noun is THREE TIMES. And let’s be real: a few of them still don’t know. No matter how many college English classes you take or how many education courses you ace, it’s really difficult to explain adverbs to someone who really isn’t listening to 80% of what you say. I had to learn patience. I had to learn how to be loud and obnoxious and actually yell to get my students’ attention. I had to learn not to be self-conscious. I had to get over my own middle school short-comings. I had to deal with mean girls and rude kids all over again. Some days it sucked. Other days it was incredibly awesome.

Secondly, I have been inspired by the teachers who work around me–especially the ones who are obviously and wonderfully called to be a middle school teacher. They can teach skills to students at any level, they can be patient and funny and strict disciplinarians. So many of the teachers I work with gave me such helpful advice that when I started to write thank you notes I realized that there would be too many to write!

Everyone will tell you that your first year of teaching is awful. First year teachers are expected to be experts on their first day at work. They are expected to walk into the classroom with an excellent understanding of school policies and procedures, curriculum requirements, state and national standards, classroom management skills, and  content knowledge. We are expected to be able to give directions around campus even if we just started exploring it ourselves. We are expected to be able to navigate through training and professional development for programs about which we know nothing. We must implement differentiated instruction and IEP accommodations even though most of us have only had one college course on Special Education Law.  First year teachers are held to higher standards because they are supposed to bring “fresh ideas” and “new experiences” to a school, when really we’re just trying not to cry at the drop of a hat. New teachers need to be able to deal with parent conferences, and phone calls, and emails at all hours of the day and even on weekends. We are grading papers and turning in lesson plans and creating worksheets and trying to juggle a personal life on top of all that.

I realize that the above paragraph might sound vaguely like an “angry teacher rant,” but it wasn’t meant to. Suffice it to say, first year teachers are faced with a Herculean task. I’ve never been more relieved than I was when I drove home from work on our last day of post-planning. The first year is survivable. You might earn a few gray hairs or lose just a few of your marbles, but it is survivable!

I’m very excited to start my second year with more preparation, with a definite list of things that do and don’t work in the 7th grade.

I’m sure as I mull over the last year there will be much, much more to discuss, but for now I’ll leave you with this little verse that has meant a lot to me this year:

“Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.”

-Genesis 28:16

Surely the Lord was in my job search, in my first difficult year, and in all the personal struggles and victories I faced. Surely He is in this place, and I did not know it.

 

 

An Easter Trilogy

Here are three drafts of poems I composed over the course of Holy Week and Easter Weekend. 

 

“Holy Week”

You set your face toward Jerusalem,
and so the world spins toward Sunday,
whether I am ready or not.
We are born hoping for resurrection.

      What can wash away my sin?

You bid us to come prepared,
and I don’t mean to take you lightly,
but this holiness is too heavy.
I can’t lift it; I don’t try.

       Nothing can for sin atone.

You warn us to watch and wait,
but the days slip by in their ordinariness,
and I ignore your calls to remembrance.
Daily life drowns out true life.

       What can make me whole again? 

We have been waiting, but Friday still comes too soon,
and I have not even removed my coat
or laid down my palms.
Hosanna, forgive me.

         Nothing good that I have done.

I fear my proclivity to worry about minutes
and forget the hours you have suffered
since before the foundation of the world.
Remind me of the fullness of time.

Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

 

 


 

“Good Friday”

Today is the day I realize
some part of the weight of sin.
Today is the day I am crushed,
but not completely.

For only you could stand up
under the full weight of death
and give yourself over to the crushing
agony of separation
and full knowledge of despair.

Today is the day I realize
the horror of lost innocence
in small and large transgressions,
The aching hearts of children
who know no better,
the murder of love
and the murder of you who are love,
the disillusion of marriage
and its dissolution,
the defeat of life
in its place of origin,
the panic of insanity,
the terror of uncertainty,
the endlessness of death,
the brokenness of dreams,
the emptiness of waiting,
the hunger of desire.

Because I know in part
I have realized in part.
I see in part
and mourn in part.

But you know fully
and have realized fully.
You see it all
and you mourn it all.

Today is the day I realize
that where we would die,
where we would suffocate
and be obliterated,
You stood.
You bore.
You were crushed so I could stand

Today is the day I realize these things.

 


 

“Easter”

I let the brown dog out into the clear air
and watch as she lowers her nose into
piles of petals
blown there by yesterday’s rain.

Each exhale
creates a flurry of motion
as pink flakes rise and fall with her breath.

It seems like a simple Sunday ritual:
The dog, the waving springtime.
But does Lucy feel today’s weight?

An exhale from the tomb,
An exhale from nature,
Life that scatters petals, shatters shrouds.