Silent Sounds

IMG_6883 The best gift my mom ever gave me was the gift of silence. Not that she was a quiet person to live with. She wasn’t. She still isn’t. She currently lives alone on 17 acres of land down a long dirt driveway, but even the birds and horses know when she comes home. If mom needs a set of listening ears, any ol' bird will do. I find great solace in the fact that Francis of Assissi talked to birds too. He ended up a Saint, so there is complete hope for my mom. She processes life with whatever human, animal or tree that is nearby. I like this about her. But she also processes much of life in silence. She taught my sisters and I this gift of silence at an early age.

Now that I am a mom, I know unwaveringly that some of this silence-teaching was for her own sanity.

“Everybody go to your room and create something with toilet paper and scotch tape or read a book or take a nap. I don’t care what you do in there. Go! Now! One hour! Don’t bother your sisters!”

They were moments for her to decompress and find rest amidst the chaos of raising three girls that were only five years a part. But beyond those moments of sanity-silence there were also moments of purposeful silence. I remember them as far back as five-years-old. Hiking on trails, wandering aimlessly in the woods behind our house, being quiet to listen for small animals, or laying in bed at night. Mom intentionally created (forced) moments of silence so that we could listen.

We weren’t always sure what we were supposed to be listening for.

A big booming voice, a whisper, an answer, a condemnation, a challenge, a bird?

But we did know this: God talked to mom. And if we would just shut-up, we might hear God too.

My earliest memories of purposeful silence are at the beach in Florida for youth camp. My mom, a youth minister for a large church, would start each day with something she created called “Silent Sounds.” She wrote short devotionals for the students that ended with an invitation to reflect on a passage of scripture and questions that could be spoken out to the ocean, where presumably God vacationed. Teenagers would spread out all over the beach. I watched them as a little girl and wondered what God would say to them. Undoubtedly there were students who just built sand castles and carved curse words into the sand with sticks. But others were brave enough to look out into the unknown forever and speak out questions to this mysterious God of the universe and wait for answers to wash ashore.

For years my mom led students through this practice. She did so when I was five-years-old and was still doing so when I was fifteen-years-old and she was my youth pastor and I was sitting along the shore, reading her words, contemplating whether I was brave enough to listen for God’s voice. Brave enough to ask for answers.

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At some point in the day we had a chance to talk about the moments on the beach if we wanted to. And ever since I was a little girl, I’ve been struck with how many different types of people will speak up, longing to share their experience during those silent moments. The thing is, people who are brave enough to sit on the beach in silence and ask the questions are often desperate for an answer. And they usually get an answer. Only it’s not usually the answer they were looking for. And they are so taken back by what they do hear that they want to speak it out loud- to verify it, validate it, gift it to others, to know they are not alone.

We are usually tempted to sit in silence and ask for answers. During times of sharing, people often started by saying they were looking for answers about their job, their boyfriend, their cheerleading tryouts, their family, their shame, their education and the ubiquitous 'what am I supposed to do with my life?' And those questions aren’t bad.

Only, God never really seemed to answer them for people.

What usually turned up in the washing waves, salty air and scratchy sand looked less like specific answers to our most burning questions and more like platitudes of peace, purpose and power.

I am here. I am holy. You are loved.

People always seemed surprised and relieved. There was a sense that they had seen God’s  holiness and kindness as they dug their toes deep into the sand and their eyes scanned the horizon to see where their help would come from. They may not have walked away knowing whether they should ask for a raise, quit a job, or pursue a new relationship, but they knew all over again that God was present and Holy and they were loved…

and somehow that was enough.

Today, I am (yet again) at a crossroads in my life looking for answers. And everything in me wants Jesus to write out an itinerary, hand it off to a dove and send it to me down here on earth in a tiny scroll decorated with ribbons and cupcake stickers, “Jenny’s Scroll of Answers Straight From God!,” it would say.

And yet if history is any indicator of what happens next it is this: God’s will for me right now is very broad. It could be accomplished through any number of jobs, living in any number of cities, pursuing any number of passions. And that type of freedom scares me. No wonder we have created a rather unbiblical theology that imagines God telling us exactly what to do, exactly how to do it, and exactly when to act on every single decision in our lives. I wish it were that easy. Except that then we would never, as my friend says, run wild through the river Jordan laughing and smiling as we bravely, nervously, beautifully pursue a dream concocted deep in our hearts that only makes sense in light of our love for Jesus.

The truth is, some moments in life God seems to have a specific will for us but other times (the majority it seems) He stands alongside of us and says, “What would you like to do? What do you dream it looking like? Ok! Let’s go then!”

If history is any indicator of how this all plays out it is this: When I am silent before the Lord looking for answers, more times than not the answer given to me is no answer at all.

Because in the sacred silence I find something else and it is better than the specific answers I so desperately longed for.

In the silence there is a reshaping of my perspective, a reshaping of my fears, a reshaping of my questions. My answer-crazed heart is steadied and I find God at the edge of the ocean dancing in the clouds, rushing in the tides of clear water, pushing against the back of my legs, running fierce back to sea, inviting me to look at a broader pallet painted wild and free, declaring the only answer I need-

I am here. I am holy. You are loved.

At the waters edge I am invited to partake in a new kind of answer. An answer that is really no answer at all. A reminder of God’s holiness, my belovedness, and a sea of freedom in-between.

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Cat-Cloud Lady

Ohio River Sunset

I take pictures. Probably too many.

In fact, I'm slightly concerned that if I die in a freak accident, whoever finds me will turn on my phone, hoping to find a contact number, hoping to find some trace of family- next of kin- hoping for some sort of proof that I lived...

and all they will find are pictures of clouds.

And that's weird. 

I don't want to go out like Cat-Ladies do.

You know.

"The cat lady died." "How sad." "Yeah, I heard the only way anyone knew she was dead is that her cats sent out an SOS message." "Well, yeah, she didn't have any friends... all she had was cats."

The poor person who finds me will think the same thing. "Daughter? She had a daughter? Nope. I'm pretty sure all this lady had was a creepy obsession of clouds."

I don't want to be the creepy cloud lady. But I fear I am turning into just such a woman. I told you that my friend and I took a road trip from Santa Fe to Dallas. I probably didn't tell you that I added an entire hour to the trip by asking her to stop so I could take pictures... of seemingly nothing. Empty fields with a single windmill. Sunrays bursting out of a patch of clouds hovering over a dry, dusty oil field. Flowers. Stray, ugly flowers.

Recently, before diving into a study of scripture, she and I were sharing coffee with our girlfriends on a porch near a busy parking lot. Within a matter of minutes the clouds above our heads collided with the setting sun to make a beautiful mural of cotton candy, swirly, rich, sad, majestic strokes of beauty.

"Excuse me," I said while I excitedly fumbled for my phone, "I have to go get pictures of those clouds."

As I walked off, I heard my friend say, "She does that. She takes pictures of clouds. That's kind of her thing."

I'm such a cat lady.

And the thing is- I'm not even a real photographer in the same way that I am not even a real singer.

I'm ashamed to say that I could not read a note of music to save my life.

I don't sight read. I don't have any vibrato in my voice. I don't know what key I sing songs in. I don't even know how many keys there are. I don't have proper breath control and I don't do any of the right things to get ready for shows. I don't warm my voice up. And though the voice doctor told me I needed to forever swear off caffeine, wine, chocolate, whistling and milk... I still find that the best way to get myself ready to go on stage is by drinking a double-tall, extra hot, mocha with extra whip cream. And I will never stop whistling.

I take pictures the same way. On my iPhone. Which usually has a lens that is covered in a film of Annie's goldfish or apple juice. Gruby-finger-osmosis covers the lens for so long I'm unaware it's even there. And I use the word "lens" lightly. It is the only lens I am familiar with. My sister has a fancy shmancy camera. I could sell it and pay rent for two or three months. It's real nice. But I wouldn't know how to use it... to me it looks like a big, black, clunky monster. It gives me the willies.

I just sing. And I just take pictures. And I just write.

I could be a lot better at all of them. If I had discipline and structure and a wee bit more education, perhaps I could even shine. But I'm not terribly interested in being an expert at anything. There are lots of experts. Rightfully so. Someone has to be a "real" singer. A "real" photographer. A "real" author. They are worthy and high artistic callings. And the people who master the ins and outs of their crafts fly to places that perhaps I will never see. And they bring the rest of us with them. I have relinquished the pages of fame and history to them.

But me? I have accepted my plight as a simple person who lacks a bit of discipline or proper know-how and makes up for it with a propensity to live with my eyes open. To live without holding back. To go for it...

even if I don't reach it the proper way

the way someone more qualified than me might.

That's how my pictures get here. I just go for it. I take pictures. I don't stop to think about how silly it is that I think I am taking professional pictures- with the best of them- on my iPhone 3G. I don't think how absurd it is that I'm scurrying out of coffee meetings and pulling over on the side of highways to take pictures with my dinky camera and dinky knowledge of how to properly shoot a picture of a flower or a sunset. I don't think that way.

In fact, most of the times, I don't think.

I do. I act. I capture and bottle it up and let it come back out.

And I do so because...

well,

I like it.

So maybe I will come across like the cat lady. But you know what? She probably really loved those nasty, gangly little cats. All 37 of them. Just the way I love my cloud pictures. All 370 million of them.

So- I hope you enjoy browsing through my pictures. I'm an amateur. But, in my book, that's an ok title to have. Amateur.

Whatever you are an amateur at... 

remember, sometimes you have to

Do it without thinking. Love it. Embrace it.

You don't have to be professionally trained. You just need a little passion. 

To see more of my pictures, visit my flicker site. Click on this link or copy and paste: http://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/