Today I teach my last unit for my advanced writing classes. We begin studying the classic humanities essay.
Here, a writer begins with a curious observation–about anything at all ranging from the natural world to any kind of concept–and then uses the essay to move through increasingly complex questions about this observation in order to arrive at an epiphany.
The reader observes the mind at work. The writer cultivates wonder and carries the reader along on the journey. We study current research about curiosity, wonder, and the pleasure of epiphany.
We talk about what it means to orchestrate a moment of epiphany–both for the writer and the reader. As Mary Pipher explains, “epiphanies cannot be scheduled, but they can be invited.” We invite moments of insight, of new understanding, and of a reordered mind because we keep asking questions about our topic. Normally, the questions end when we arrive at knowledge that helps us see a connection to what it means to be human, to our sense of self, or to some category we care about like history, science, sociology, psychology, anthropology, philosophy / ethics, or theology. I find that it normally takes about 10 questions until we get at what we’re really after. When we feel satisfied with our exploration, we discover fields of study that truly matter to us.
For example: It’s snowed last night, and it’s nearly mid-April. Consider these questions:
- What causes it to snow in April? Is our planet in danger?
- What happens to spring? Is everything just pushed back, like when schools open on a two-hour delay?
- Will birds still make their nests, or are nests weather-dependent, as if a certain temperature cues the birds?
- Will bears keep hibernating in the woods behind the house?
- Has this happened before?
- What if we lived in perpetual winter?
- What bothers me so much about this?
- How dependent are we on seasons or a sense of cyclical time for well-being?
- What does spring symbolize to me that it worries me so much that it’s not here yet?
- Isn’t spring so marvelous? How does it even happen? Who designed it?
Students love the humanities essay because they explore their own minds working, they cultivate curiosity, and they realize the joy of wonder.
Today I learned that people enjoy answering questions that contain the word “best.”
Especially when engaging with older folks who enjoy looking back over a lifetime of memories, the question, “What was the best. . . ?” draws out information for a great conversation. You might ask, “What did you enjoy best about raising children? About your work life? About your marriage? What are you enjoying best about your life now?”
With students, I might ask, “What was the best sentence you remember from the reading? or What was the best part of your paper? or even What’s the best thing you’ve learned in class so far?”
When someone asks me, “What was the best part of your day?” I always love talking about what I’m learning. It’s a telling answer; you’ll learn that I love to learn. You’ll find that when others answer this question, you’ll see what they value, what they care most deeply about, and what motivates them in life.
I cannot wait to try the “best” question out on my daughters:
(My youngest talks about the snow. She loves snow. It’s magical, Christmasy, and so bizarre in April.)
If you don’t know what to ask someone to draw them out into conversation, try using the language of “the best” about any category, and see what happens.
Today I realize that I absolutely must scrub the kitchen floor.
If I don’t, I think about the stains of chocolate from Kate’s “Dipping Chocolate Cookies”; I think about the cilantro deep in the crevices from our shrimp taco night; I think about coffee grounds and cinnamon and stained tiles from dripping teabags.
I realize this is strange, but then I wonder if you have a symbol of order in your own life–that thing that, if clean and arranged, makes everything else feel manageable. And then I wonder if we were only self-aware enough to know what this thing was, and if we attended to it, we’d feel much better about our start-of-the-week.
I need a sign in my home that says, “If I’m out of sorts, remind me to clean the kitchen floor.”
I wonder if, when I’m snapping at my children or husband, they might whisper gently, “Mom, is this really about the kitchen floor? Might we clean it? You’ll feel so much better. There. There. Let’s clean it.”
The clean kitchen floor symbolizes order and that all is right and at peace again. My office might erupt with papers and spill over with books, but it won’t matter. It’s the kitchen floor that for some bizarre reason determines my mindset.
A made bed. Carefully folded blankets on a couch. Orderly bookshelves. An organized refrigerator. Tidy drawers. Whatever it is, do that thing that brings everything else to order.
Today I learn how our good intentions do not mean the same thing as a plan of action.
Scheduling what we intend to do–exercise, write, meal plan, clean, or whatever it is you wish to accomplish–doesn’t just happen. But if we make a schedule or some kind of real, tangible plan, things happen.
When I schedule the writing or the daily walk, it happens. When I don’t, but merely wish it to happen, it hardly happens.
So I’m reminded again about planning.
Today, two friends arrive for afternoon tea and fruit.
That’s it: tea and orange slices.
I remember how, years ago–back in the days of toddlers, sleep-deprivation, and tighter budgets– hospitality meant I popped popcorn and filled a pitcher of ice water for friends who sat and talked with me as I folded laundry and apologized for the state of the home.
I always worried that small hospitality wasn’t enough.
I used to believe that hospitality only meant a lavish spread. After all, the Italian Mamas trained me well for those times I want to truly bless others with a feast prepared in love.
But then there’s small hospitality. A teacup. An orange slice. A candle lit. A listening ear. The guests themselves provide the decorations of laughter and good cheer. We feast instead on stories and prayer requests and sharing deeply from the heart.
Our capacity for only small hospitality shouldn’t prevent our gathering together. Sometimes, those small, singular items of refreshment bless as much as the feast. If you stock up on herbal teas and always have some oranges or apples on hand, you have enough for a wonderful afternoon.
Beginning to transform little girl bedrooms into teen bedrooms over the past years has blessed our daughters. It’s a fun way for them to connect with us, and the ideas don’t require lots of money. At this point, they lead the way with color choices and ideas, and we become the labor (well, it’s mostly my husband).
For one of the updated bedroom ideas put forth by my oldest daughter, Ash used whiteboard paint to create an enormous whiteboard that combines with a cork board for notes and photos. He framed the borders and made a ledge for all her dry erase markers. She claims she needs the whiteboard for all her complex math problems! (I, of course, picture Sheldon Cooper from the Big Bang Theory, working on all his equations).
My younger daughter who will turn 13 soon wished to paint her bedroom a peach color, and Ash will transform the closet space that’s full of old toys into a recessed desk with shelving. We box up most of the stuffed animals and toys from younger days, and we trade them out for craft supplies, books, and study tools.
Years ago, I read how important personal space is for teens. Helping them design a fresh bedroom space as they transitioned to the teenage years functioned as a rite of passage. It does take time and a willingness to endure some chaos of painting and small-scale construction, but helping teens have a space all their own–no matter how humble or small–matters.
Today, high winds whip through our neighborhood. We receive alerts of fallen limbs blocking a roadway and of school buses delayed on their journeys homeward.
In a single moment, the backyard flares with afternoon sun, storm clouds, snow, and wind so strong the thickest oaks sway. It’s like a collection of all the season’s weather in one view. And it’s as if the weather cannot decide who she is.
Some days come like this–all at once and rowdy and unusual–because that’s the nature of spring. Some days, we forget ourselves; we try on different ways of living and remember other versions of ourselves. It’s like our orderly life now erupts because we’re at a crossroads of seasons: winter’s gone, but spring isn’t quite here. It’s a moment of unpredictability, chaos, and uncertainty.
I remember when my neighbor told me to take my cues from nature in order to establish spiritual rhythms. She reminded me of the coming back inside, the hibernation of winter. I think of summer’s rich growth and autumn’s glorious harvest. And today? It’s spring’s unpredictable shooting up in so many places, from so many directions, of possibility.
It feels like a wind storm. And that’s spring.
I find myself so thrilled to speak on Ephesians 2:6 to the State College MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers) group this evening. Those years were some of the hardest of my whole life. I would have died without Jesus.
As I prepare my presentation to these young mothers on how to heal from the jealousy and comparison of those parenting years, I praise God for a new audience to teach. I cannot wait to be with these moms and see the power of God’s word.
And I marvel that, really, I wrote Seated for Christ for college girls most of all. But God’s word is for everyone, everywhere.
That’s something I’ve learned this year through all these different audiences: God’s word is powerful for anyone. I’ve seen Ephesians 2:6 matter to older folks, graduate students, and even children in party dresses for a seated with Christ tea party. Ephesians 2:6 arrived to the minds of teens and then to retired women and then to church leaders. It didn’t matter the age or the status; God’s word mattered.
(And it also didn’t matter if I performed the speaking task well. It didn’t matter if I was having a good day or felt particularly effective. I’m so thankful God’s work doesn’t depend upon our talent!)
I remember how, in the same month, I spoke to the very wealthy and the very poor. I spoke to the smartest professors and then those never completing high school. I spoke to the grieving and the rejoicing, the addicted and the recovered. And God’s word went forth.
I think of all the audiences for this same talk on being seated with Christ and the power of God’s word to apply to all people, everywhere. I just love to see it. Is there anything more powerful than His word in all the earth?
As I review the manuscript edits from the first round of editing for Chosen for Christ, I remember to hold the words loosely. They’re not mine. These gifts of writing belong to God; my words belong to Him. Learning to revise and consider the input of others in a creative process represents a challenge for most writers, and I’m no different.
But I’m learning, and it’s a wonderful journey.
I say this morning what Peter proclaims in 1 Peter 1:3: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. . .”
Words fail to capture what happened on that day when Jesus rose from the dead. It was a conquering of sin forever. It was a restoration of what was lost. It was a promise that we’d forever live in God’s presence because the righteous requirements of God’s law were now fully satisfied.
We cannot understand how conquered we were, how lost we are, how separated from Him. We cannot know the distress and death that sin works in us apart from Jesus. We are foolish, distracted, and temporarily believing happiness and meaning exist apart from Him. We claim such intelligence in a culture moving away from the reality that we are dead in our sin. We do not know what life is. We do not know the joy to be had in His presence.
We rush on past this resurrection Sunday. We miss the turn on our journey. But maybe today, you won’t miss this divine signal. You won’t miss His call. You’ll know that all the pain and confusion of your life has everything to do with how far you’ve turned from Jesus.
He is risen!