The Hundred-and-Eighth Letter: In the beginning was the Word

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Dear Daughters,

In the beginning was the Word.

In the beginning, God created.

In the beginning, God spoke words.

We have a small canvas in our dining room that your uncle painted about twenty years ago. It kind of looks like a dark cliff with a reddish brownish sky behind it, and there are words painted across the bottom in such a way that they run off the canvas. It looks like this

In the beginnin—
        God cre—

To be honest, it’s not excellent art. Even your uncle would say so. But it fits well up there among the abstract paintings you’ve both painted over the last few years and some of my early handlettered canvases.

I like it because it lets the creative act be in process—perpetually in process. 

Yes, in the beginning, God created.

But in the now, God is still creating.

And CS Lewis, in Mere Christianity, points to God’s ‘eternal now’ existence to show that our “today” is as present to God as that first day of creation was/is.

So in the beginning, God created.

And right there with God, was the Word.

And the Word was God.

***

We just wrapped up our second year of homeschooling. The year before that, during our foray into this new season, we learned the first seven verses of John 1 in both English and Latin. I can still say them and sing them. Who knows if you can.

Here are verses 1 through 3:

In the beginning was the Word.
And the Word was with God.
And the Word was God.
This was with God in the beginning.
All things were made through Him.
And without Him, nothing was made, that was made.

What does it mean that the Word was God? That the Word was with God? That Jesus is the Word?

Because that’s of course how the church has interpreted these verses, that Jesus is the Word of God. And Jesus is God. And the Trinitarian God is eternal, so from before the beginning.

Goodness, it can hurt your head if you let it, trust me.

But what about this idea that Jesus is the Word?

Well, let’s see. Creation is spoken into existence. (Or sung into existence, if you’re reading The Magician’s Nephew.) And Scripture tells us that all things were created through Jesus. Through the Word.

Without Jesus, nothing was made. Without the Word.

Without words.

***

Now, I get that I’m a writer, and a handletterer to boot, so I have a particularly high view of words. Of the written word, the spoken word, the crafted word.

I love words.

And I’ve been thinking about what difference it makes to my own faith journey and to the Christian church as a whole that we attest to Jesus being called the Word of God.

I’m teaching a weeklong class this summer on worship and hand-lettering, and I’ve called it “Worship, Welcome, and the Word.”

I chose that title last fall when I decided on the theme for the class, and back then I wrote up a blurb to explain the theme, but it wasn’t until recently that I really sat down and started thinking through and preparing for our class time discussions.

What does it mean to our worship services that Jesus is the Word, and that the Word was with God from the beginning—that the Word was God?

When we talk about churches we attend, Christians in general—or at least evangelical Christians—tend to talk about preaching and about worship style.  Why do we do that? Why do we choose churches based on this criteria? But that’s what we do. Is the preaching good? we ask. What’s the music like? 

I want to move beyond that. And I think we do that by the middle W in my class title—Welcome. 

Thinking about Jesus as the Word, and thinking about worship through the lens of words, can really open up our discussions of worship and the role it plays in welcoming others into the Kingdom.

We are quick to put Jesus at the center of our services—which is, of course, important!—but we tend to focus on Jesus as the way to heaven, or Jesus as teacher, or Jesus as shepherd, or Jesus as the suffering servant. All good things. All important.

But what about Jesus as the Word?

I’m still working out how this matters, because I have this hunch that it does.

Our worship services are full of words, aren’t they? Preaching and praying and singing and making announcements and reading lots of words from the 

Bible, the Word of God, we call it—it’s a very wordy faith. We hang words on our church banners, print them in our bulletins, and post them on our Facebook pages. Words, words, words.

The Gospel message is more than lowercase w words.

It’s about the power of the Word and how that transforms the power of our words.

The words we use when we talk to one another, yes, within the walls of our church, but even more so when we are outside of the church being The Church. Yes, maybe in those moments and conversations and relationships most of all are when the words we use reflect the Word.

Or should reflect The Word.

Words can welcome.

Words can exclude.

Words can wound.

Words can warm.

Words can draw boundaries and lines in the sand. (Jesus literally drew lines in the sand one time—remember what happened next?)

Words can offer safe spaces for vulnerable conversations, me-too words saying you are welcome here in this space, and yes, I know it is hard.

Girls, I really think words matter. How we write them, how we say them, how we feel them deep inside when we’re struggling to pray. All of this. All the words. And they matter because Jesus is the Word.

The Word now. The Word from the beginning.

This matters.

And when there are no words, there is still The Word.

In the beginning.

Now.

Love,

Your Momma

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The Hundred-and-Sixth Letter: Fancy Cursive & Plain-Jane Hospitality

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Dear Daughters,

A few weeks ago, I made you a framed poster of the cursive alphabet for our homeschool room. Considering that I am a hand-lettering artist, making such a simple poster ended up taking a lot more deliberate focus than I expected. You know why?

Because I am in the habit of making my own cursive too fancy.

When you were first learning cursive—by which I mean, when you first started imitating the writing that you saw me painting on my canvases—you did it the way of faux calligraphy, like you saw me doing. You thickened your downstrokes. You added flourishes and curly-cues at the end of words. It was adorable, you trying to make your words look like mine. But when we actually started school for Kindergarten, and I wanted to teach you how to practice cursive as part of our handwriting lessons, I had to get you writing regular old plain-Jane cursive.

And it was hard.

For both of us.

It was hard for you because you wanted to make it look fancy. You saw what I was doing and wanted to do it too. (That’s hard for grownups, too, trust me.)

It was hard for me because I could hardly remember how plain cursive looked. It had been a long time since anyone expected me to make my cursive so ordinary, so normal, so everyday.

And so there I was a few weeks ago, writing out the cursive alphabet in pencil, and erasing, and doing a letter again, and erasing, and doing that letter again, simpler this time, sometimes even asking you, “Is this the way your handwriting book has you make a letter ‘W’?” that I found myself feeling the weight of a metaphor.

Girls, it is often during these sorts of tasks, as I lean over a table, eraser in hand or pencil tucked behind my ear, doing something over and over again, that I feel like I figure things out. Call it a nudge of the Holy Spirit, call it the synchronicity of the Universe, call it just the results of thoughtful attention, but I often get my best, deepest thoughts just then, during an ordinary, repetitive task, and often when you are underfoot.

So here it is: the cursive-writing-is-like-hospitality metaphor.

It is hard, in this busy life, to offer ordinary, everyday, plain-Jane hospitality.

It seems to me that when we get in the habit of seeing our homes in terms of picture-perfect Instagram boxes, or when we think HGTV and dinner parties and Fixer-Upper as real-life, or when we simply aren’t living up to our own standards of how much laundry needs to be done or dishes need to be washed or self-care needs to happen because life is so full and we just don’t have time to squeeze in any kind of dinner-planning or invitation-offering or front-door-opening, well, that’s a good sign we have succumbed to the problem of fancy-cursive hospitality.

If our lives are too full to fit in hospitality, it’s because we’re making hospitality too fancy.

And we have forgotten what hospitality is.

It is not a gift given to a certain few.

It is not meal planning and fresh flowers and multiple courses of food.

It is not waiting until the green linoleum is replaced or the yard is neatened up or we finally take the plunge and hire someone to clean our bathrooms for us. It is not waiting until the kids are no longer having quiet time in the afternoons or we have a weekend open where we can actually catch up on XYZ or get to that specialty store to buy that special thing or maybe even just to vacuum the floor. We wait and we want the perfect time and the plan because we like plans and there is so much to do all the time but trust me there has got to be a break here somewhere and then I promise I will finally plan to invite those people over…

No, girls, just no.

Hospitality in the plain-Jane form is this: living life alongside other people. Simply inviting them in to what life already is.

That’s the part that’s easy to forget.

Yes, that part when we invite folks into what our life is, not what we want it to be or what we think it is for other people or what it might be for us in an ideal world on an ideal day at the end of an ideal week.

But to what life is. Today.

Because there is no such thing as an ideal day at the end of an ideal week.

For the record, I’m not talking here about radical invite-strangers-to-your-dinner-table hospitality. I mean, I do think we are called to that, and I can be kind of preachy about it, too, but that’s not what I mean here.

No, I’m talking about opening our normal life to share a normal minute.

And not making it fancy.

I’m talking about a potluck of chili and fixins and assorted desserts and water and coffee and too many people to fit comfortably in the house so thank goodness it ended up being 60 degrees and sunny today. I’m talking about mud in the grass and three families who can’t make it because of illness and one child who gets sick outside before her momma even gets a chance to eat the peanut butter pie she brought. I’m talking about just-met-them-last-night new friends chatting with known-for-a-decade old friends, and we’ll figure out how to let people wash their own dishes even though that makes things awkward kind of hospitality.

And, girls, let’s be real: I’m also talking about genuinely not feeling like doing it but doing it anyway, even after we realize it’s the same weekend as a million other commitments and we’ll be out late the night before and it’s the beginning of a long, busy month, and the week before is the polar vortex, and does anyone even care if it’s the Super Bowl, is that a good reason to cancel, no, okay, let’s just do it, and we do and it is good because that is what hospitality is.

Yes, that is what non-fancy, plain-Jane hospitality is.

Y’all, shared life on a normal day will never, ever be convenient.

But we do it anyway.

Because I want you to know how to write cursive.

And I want you to know how to share your life.

And I want you to know it is all hard.

Really hard.

But all good, too.

Love,

Your Momma

The Sixtieth Letter: Handwriting Is My Jam

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Dear Daughters,

I have, as long as I can remember, loved to write longhand on paper.

I have also, as long as I can remember, practiced my handwriting.

I don’t know what that makes me, but certainly some level of nerd. I remember in my teens when I started shifting my lowercase ‘a’ intentionally to look more like a typeset ‘a’ because I had noticed it in someone else’s handwriting and thought it was cool.

This means I have always been aware of letters and how they look on the page.

And I guess this means that I have been a typography nerd before I even knew what the word “typography” was.

Fonts matter a lot to me. And by that I mean they matter a lot more than they should. To me, fonts have personalities and they send underlying messages. So when an email or a sign or a book or magazine uses a font that sends a different message than the words themselves, I feel the same tension as when there are actual typographical errors on the page.

Yes, I’m that kind of nerd.

I remember practicing to write with my left hand in elementary school on the off chance I would break my right arm. I suppose I’m still able to do that, to write with my left hand, but I haven’t tried in a long time. I did try this evening to write backwards in cursive, as I used to in middle school. I remember exchanging notes with my friend Jess Kisner in backwards script back in eighth grade, holding the pages up to the light to read them easily as the backwards script reversed when read through the page. Why did we do this? Surely we knew anyone who obtained the secret note would be able to do the same thing. But at least, I suppose, nobody could read over our shoulders as we wrote those notes to each other.

When I was in high school, I began experimenting with what I would now call hand-lettering. I remember taking quotes and trying to make each letter of each word an artistic image or creative design. I remember, especially, writing out “every man’s death diminishes me” during one of our state government school programs at the capitol building. Clearly I was paying attention to the program. Clearly I’ve always been left-leaning in my convictions.

As I was an academically minded nerd, I didn’t take many art classes, even though they were offered by my large public high school. We actually had a great art program. But I spent my days enrolled in AP classes to get the weighted GPA, even then with the goal of valedictorian, which is only mysteriously important to me now as I look back on it.

As an adult in my twenties, I discovered an Austin-based graphic designer & typographer. I was looking around at his website and I had an epiphany. If I had known that people did this sort of thing for a living–that people studied and developed fonts and letter-based designs–the whole trajectory of my life may have been different. Isn’t that strange? I remember emailing your Uncle Stephen a link to the guy’s website and saying, “DID YOU KNOW PEOPLE DID THIS AS A JOB?

Seriously, if I had it all to do again, I would have taken more art, and I probably would have learned some graphic design along the way.

Because letters are so my jam.

I’m fortunate that as a mom of wee ones in my thirties, I have managed to carve out an art life. The “fortunate” part is that I’m part of a community that loves art, and I have artsy friends who are also squeezing art into their lives, who are organized enough to get together for weekly meetings to work through The Artists Way or Walking in the World, workbooks on creativity and calling and vocation and art.

I have a writing group made up of writers who also make art. These women commission me to paint for them. They are my biggest cheerleaders. Well, apart from your dad, who is by far the best encourager there is. He tells me I’m awesome all the time, and he believes it. Your Grandma Troutman also tells me I’m pretty great, pretty much every time I post a new letter. And your Uncle Stephen jokes about being the president of my fan club. So I’m definitely fortunate to have people who cheer me on when it comes to art.

But seriously, let me get back to this handwriting thing.

I love handwriting. I love to write. I love to copy down quotes. I love to hand-letter them into artsy designs just because. I like to make lists, as I’ve mentioned once or twice in these letters. I love to send real letters, with stamps and everything. I don’t know what it would be like to just sign my name to a generic card because I am kind of compulsive about writing out long messages to people. It’s like I just hiccup and suddenly there is a paragraph on the page.

I do love my handwriting. I’m such a nerd. I like to practice writing. I like to read about lettering. I like to read about fonts. I like to practice fonts.

And I love that you are learning to write your letters. I’m so excited to teach you cursive. I love how you sit beside me and watch me letter in my notebooks. “That’s so pretty, Momma,” you say, over and over and over again, as I write and doodle or paint my letters and sayings and verses.

“That’s so beautiful, Momma.”

“Good job, Momma.”

“You’re a good artist, Momma.”

You’re the sweetest little encouragers.

I have been impressed already with the way you seem to have an eye for design and image and beauty and style. Not because you like my art, but because you care about how things are. You take note of beauty in nature, and you notice when things are different. You comment on colors and designs. You love catalogs because of the repeated patterns, and you especially get a kick out of the fashion designs in my Vogue.

Sometimes I think I might be imagining it, but your dad has noticed, too.

It gives me hope that you, too, love design and art and beauty.

It gives me hope that you like letters and colors and layout.

It gives me hope that you might be a nerd just like me.

Love,

Your Momma