how faint a whisper

glimpses of God in a heaven-crammed earth


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for my friend, on her wedding day

I woke up early this morning, easing out of bed and lacing up sneakers to slip out into the dawn. Down the driveway and onto the road I ran into the early stillness, the mist swirling around the edges of the woods like steam, the air quiet, the broken blacktop empty. I rounded the corner and the fields opened and rolled into the edge of the sky. The sun was just peeking over the trees, a ball of unnaturally deep red, and the richness of the golden green soybeans danced in its slanting light. It was ordinary, and yet astoundingly beautiful, and as I ran, I thought of you. Just down the road, you slept. I wondered what your first thoughts were, on this mind and body and heart filled day. I prayed for your joy and thinking of you, I drank in the stillness. The rest of the day will come, and it will be full, and fast, and beautiful, but it can wait for just a few minutes. Already I can feel the heat burning off what little late summer chill this morning had. Even for all the beauty coming, I would not wish this day on any faster. I would not miss this. Change comes so quickly on its own.

By the time I have run on and turned around to reach this point on the way home, the sun is fully ablaze, high and orange and so bright I can hardly look at the fields, their nuances of color bleached by the daylight. The humidity sits like a blanket and the trees stand motionless in it, bursting with life in their fullest green of the year.

Today you asked us to stand with you and witness, which really is just another way to say to see, and then to tell. In a few hours, these friends that love you will start to come. From hours and states away their cars will pull down this country road and park on the grass. They will walk through the trees and sit in their shade and wait for you. They will come because this day stands as one of the few times we give physical testimony to that which is always true: that we each only have two eyes, and cannot possibly see it all alone. Today you pledge to each other, and we to you, that we are meant to walk together in this beautiful broken world. See into each other’s blindness, be strong in each other’s weakness. It is not good for man to be alone. So as I ran, I prayed to witness well. I prayed for open eyes, to pay attention.

You did not see these morning fields, but in the winter, if ever the snow lasts so long you have forgotten what colors are, I will paint them for you with the words of memory. I will tell how rich they were, how glory giving. When the winds of life blow relentlessly, I will remind you how still the trees stood. How they arched over your vows and stood straight and tall by your side, silently clapping their hands in praise to the giver of all good gifts. We will wonder together at how deep their roots were driven into contentment with the simple that is asked of them. When some of the days are not nearly as perfect as this one, the blueness of the sky replaced by gray and the peals of thunder, I will remind you that sometimes, sunshine is blinding. Sometimes it distorts. Sometimes the most beautiful of colors are only seen as it sets, or plays games of hiding behind trees and clouds. Sometimes it is only in the slanting beams of the hidden light that you can see for the first time clearly all the dust in the air and how it has settled on dreams. And if the sun should ever seem to disappear all together, and you find yourself in that just before dawn dark of all darkness, I will stay up with you in your sleepless fear. We will go outside and wait for the sun to rise. I will remind you that it always does.

It’s late. I ran out of the stillness and into the fullness of this day. We laughed and sang and got choked up and stood and gathered and ate and danced. The light shifted low again and the end of summer corn stretched toward the evening sky. I saw you sneak off for some pictures in its foreground, and I was glad that you captured the beauty. Then we waved you off into this new life and slowly, the rest of the cars disappeared as suddenly and unseen as they had come, this great cloud of witnesses. And now the sun has dropped altogether, just a glow on the edge of the hills, and the stars are out. We sit in darkness together by the pool, exhausted but so sweetly full. Suddenly with clean up finished, shoes off, and hair down, it’s all ordinary again, except richer. We’ve sat here, but never at the end of this day. You’ve never been gone. But I’m thankful that all of this is less a separation as it is a saturation. Two lives have blended to one. Two families are sitting together, their laughter drifting into the quiet evening. When we leave, we hug them truly. Good has been filled with goodness. Life will not always be this simple, the days this perfect, the fellowship this sweet. Beauty will more often be ordinary, but that does not mean it’s not richer. All His paths drip with abundance. And when this world says everything contrary; that life’s hardness cannot be good, that dying to your desires cannot bring life, that stillness cannot be worthwhile, that all that marriage asks cannot possibly make sense…

…walk with me. We’ll go outside and down to the edge of the fields to watch the sun rise, and we’ll tell each other again how beautiful the colors of your covenant were today. How beautiful, in the light of His grace, they always will be.


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Easter weekend

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Thursday

As often as the story seems to start
with the lone figure, bleeding in the garden
it really began yesterday
and every day before.

I forget to remember,
vision narrowed in my circumstantial tunnel
that He was in the beginning with God.
With God. Eternally present,
He entered time.

Do I feel the ache of the world?
How he must have felt
every day, the irrepressible longing
of that which is, but not yet,
but had been for Him, and which He gave up, of love
for this world, of love
for His Father’s glory, of love
for His Father’s will.

And this Man of Sorrows,
with the world on His shoulders,
casts in light my easy load.*
Reminds me I do not own even this – my suffering.**
But the right is lost
in the 10,000 days which He lived, and waited,
and longed, and all the while knew
it was coming to this night of anguish.

But I, like His friends, can only live one day at a time,
see only my pain, feel only my weariness,
and selfish to the core,
I have fallen asleep.

Friday 

The church is dark tonight.
Why? The world is dark enough.
But these evening shadows
reflect that mid-day darkness
black as we have never known.
Even my soul feels dark
and the church meets that tonight as well.

We end in silence.
And how rare its reverberations
amidst the clamor of the world
to stop, and say
we will reflect that day
when the loudest shout of history
echoed in silence.
When the closeness of God,
tearing heaven’s curtain,
arrived only in the moment
He turned from His Son.

And we sit in this building,
around this table,
in our homes.
Or we walk city streets,
forest paths,
country lanes
tonight
and God is present.
Sometimes shouting, sometimes silent,
in this sometimes dark sometimes light world,
reminding us that both are true,
in the same way that there is no deeper gratefulness
than that we have a reason to weep tonight.
So we join the church in its darkness.
We join each other in silence.

Saturday 

So little we know of this day
except that it came.
Their eyes opened in the briefest moment of peace
before the floodgates of memory opened to grief,
in an instant realizing that despite their depth of desire otherwise,
they awoke.
The sun had risen.
They were alive, and He was dead.

Where was He?
The eternal One, in union with God,
where could death take Him?
And did any piece of the world feel His leaving?
The cold grave stones,
the night-settled dust,
the grain, still reaching in its growth
toward the sky, still blue.
But as all appeared unchanged,
the rumbling, trembling anticipation of heaven
knew, as no one else did,
that this day would ever after be understood
in the knowledge
that tomorrow has come.

I try to understand what they must have felt
fighting the welling tide of hopelessness,
feeling that the worst had come true:
the world was the same.
I try to understand, but I can’t.
Every one of my days only makes sense
in the light of tomorrow.
And the darkest of my valleys
are still only but the shadow of death
and will never be as dark
as that Saturday’s sunrise.

Sunday

We had egg sandwiches for breakfast
in aprons over Sunday dresses.
It could not be more ordinary
this extraordinary day.
And isn’t that what we celebrate?
For He came back to life – extraordinary!
But what He came back to – life, ordinary.
And what He came back to give us –
life, ordinary.
And in that, an invitation:
We may not yet sleep, but we are always being changed.
For this day must change us,
and in every possible way,
or perhaps we have fallen asleep after all.

So as we sit in church pews this morning, we worship.
As we sing and listen, we worship.
And as we stand up and leave, we worship.
As we eat, and laugh, and walk, and touch,
and drive, and create, and talk, and love.
As we open balcony doors to spring air,
we worship.
For today, He is risen.
And tomorrow, He is risen.
With every breath, He is risen.
In every mile, He is risen.
And in that truth is our life
extraordinary
indeed.

Monday

It was dark Sunday night when I got home
so I didn’t see it,
but in the sweet stillness of spring evenings
I think the world came alive.
Crying life! life! in response to His.
I woke Monday morning to the birds,
the grass green,
the rain healing,
the mud tender.
And my life mirrors the season,
soft between my toes, maybe messy, maybe fragile,
but real. And beautiful.
Reminding me once again to walk in both truths.
And that just as He did,
this world is always proclaiming
that we every day die, and will die someday,
yet every day live, and will live forever.
In this is beauty, brevity, richness, sobriety,
sorrow, and fullness of joy.
What a hope is eternity.
What a wonder it is to live.

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* “I see the Man of Sorrows and His long troubled road. I see the world on His shoulders and my easy load.” – Sara Groves, When the Saints

** “A whole host of self absorbed temptations greet us when we treat suffering as something that belongs to us. This passage [2 Cor 1:3-11] reminds us that our suffering belongs to the Lord. It is an instrument of His purpose in us and for others. The way we suffer must put Christ on center stage. The Redeemer owns our disappointment and fear. He owns our physical and spiritual pain. He owns our rejection and aloneness. He owns our dashed expectations and broken dreams. It all belongs to Him for His purpose. When we feel like dying, He calls us to a greater death. He calls us to die to our suffering so that we may live for Him.” – Paul David Tripp, Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands 


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a day on the trail

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4:45 am, the square numbers of my watch alarm flash at me in the darkness. I silence it and lay still for just a moment, listening to the soft breathing of the students next to me, the rhythmic waves of an ocean that never sleeps, the occasional bird, and other than that…nothing. I slip out of the tent trying to intrude as little as possible into the morning sacredness. It is beautifully routine: opening the stove, pumping the fuel bottle, the small flare of match light and then the soft blue glow of a priming flame. The rolling and stuffing of the very little I have, or need, for life here, everything tucking away into its same familiar spot in the backpack. The only light the small circle of my headlamp, the only sound the ones I’m making. It’s like being a visitor, yet feeling home.

The stove is ready and as I turn it up it roars into life and sound. A pot of water for coffee goes on top. It’s 5 am, and the student leaders of the day are up and beginning to wake the rest of the group. Everyone is tired, but they don’t complain. Everything has a reason in the woods, including what time you get up. I’m sure it helps that they don’t even know what time it is…it’s just dark or getting light, light or getting dark, with so much more actually being affected by those distinctions than it does in the world of light switches. I sit and watch them for a minute as they move around in the morning. IMG_9471smallTen days ago they didn’t know how to pack a backpack or light a stove, but here they are settled into the routine, water boiling, tents coming down, packed packs leaning against trees, all before the sun has even begun to pierce the inky black. Life takes more work here and we are governed by the series of processes that have to happen to give us strength and move us on to the next night’s location. Maybe it seems tedious to some, but mostly it feels restful, in our overwhelmingly stimulating society, to only have to do a very few things, and be able to do them well. Less options mean less questions, and then space for the deeper questions to emerge, the ones that need an un-distractedness we almost never allow in everyday life. Aren’t you bored in the woods, people sometimes ask? Almost never. In its restrictions I actually feel a freedom that is often missing in my everyday life with its 90% of time spent choosing between options that don’t actually matter, leaving so little time for what really does. I’m not saying I’d want to be here all the time, but that reality, that reminder, is why I treasure this escape on a regular basis.

We’re on the trail by 6 am. The students know the trail, for we hiked it in just two days ago. And so they know that we have to start our day with quad-burning ‘Red Hill,’ unrelenting and exposed and 100 times easier if we can beat the heat of the sun to the top. My co-leader and I didn’t make that decision, today’s student leaders did. As their knowledge grows, so does their ability to make wise decisions for the environment in which they find themselves. It’s the reason I was glad to wake up at 4:45. We hope they will carry these lessons with them out of this place, a reminder that wisdom requires attentiveness to what has come behind and what goes before.

We walk the first part of the trail in mostly silence, stopping only to take off and put back on boots for one chilly river crossing, and then we are at the hill. One by one on the way up, headlamps switch off, the slowly increasing light becoming just enough to let our eyes adjust to its natural dimness. Ahead of us a rugged coastal peak juts into clear blue sky, and the sun is rising right behind it, rays of color seeming to squeeze around its sides, too eager to wait for the full orb to burst from the top. Later, at the end of the trip when we’re telling stories, this will be many people’s favorite morning. We reach the top of the hill just as the sun breaks through in its full brightness and heat, and stop for just a few minutes for some celebratory selfies (these are college students, after all!), and then shoulder the packs and continue on. There are still many miles to go.

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There is something really incredible, if strange, about walking all day, just one foot in front of the other, and then going to sleep just to do it all over again the next.  I realize to some people that sounds like some unique form of torture, and I’ll admit, that thought occasionally crosses my mind, usually followed by, “who thought this was fun?” But more often than not, I am reconciled to myself by the end of the day, and loving it again. It doesn’t look like accomplishing much – a measly amount of miles in this world where I can wake up in New York and be in California by the afternoon if I want to – but the place we just came from? You can’t get there except on your legs. You can’t zip in and out again, and there is a wonder in that. A secret, almost. Definitely a simplicity. It’s not the same as the people of old, or the few remaining nomadic groups of today, equipped as we are in our first world society with countless ways to make even the backcountry comfortable and relatively high-tech. But the idea is still the same: you can only bring what you carry. Life must be simple, for it consists of what you hoist on your back. And the older I get, the more I realize my back is not invincible, nor is my faith, and so the less I want to carry, literally and figuratively. The more I want to leave behind, hand over, or give up altogether.

IMG_9412smallJust before the end of that day’s section, the students have a beautiful chance to illustrate that very principle. There is a dangerous section of foot wide trail with cliffs up on our right hand and down on our left to crashing waves below. On the first journey through, going the opposite direction, we stopped them here to explain the danger, and challenge them to choose what we hardly ever do: weakness over pride. This time, we don’t even ask. Reaching the point in the trail they know, several students simply stop and take off their packs, letting others of us pick them up. Whatever battle had to be fought internally, it had already been won, in no small part by the presence of a community that has chosen to define weakness and strength in different ways, and a trip that strives to emphasize at every step the truth that we are defined by what Christ says we are, and nothing else. That, and the necessity of the trail. Watching them, and knowing how hard it is for me to admit weakness in my own situations of necessity, I am so encouraged. How often in life do we take action so decisively, in a way that can’t be hidden, to say “I’m weak and incapable of carrying my portion of weight through this section. In this way, you are stronger. Will you walk twice as far to carry my pack as well as yours?” Of course nobody says those words, but that is what the action demonstrates. For better or worse, it is sometimes harder to hide weakness in the woods. I pray it teaches these students, and myself, to not hide it other times, when it would be easier to. And so others of us shoulder an extra pack, take an extra journey through the section, and it is simply part of being a group. Part of being a body, even. Tomorrow someone else will be weak in a different way, and so no one mentions it, we simply walk on.

We reach our next campsite at 11:30. The students are estatic – it took them significantly longer on the way in, and they wanted to get to camp early enough to hike back to a nearby waterfall. It’s an easy half mile back to the falls, but as we walk further back into the thick growth, thinking it must be getting close but seeing nothing, we begin to prepare ourselves for disappointment. “It must be small,” the students are saying. “There’s not enough space. Why did we bother hiking back here?” Even a mile of extra walking is a lot with the preciousness of time and energy here. Then, without warning and almost seeming to defy possibility, what had been nothing but woods turned a corner and opened into a wide clearing, deep, circular pool, and an incredible 300 foot waterfall crashing down from blue sky.

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Laughter and joy and pictures and wonder fill the next several minutes, and then the student leaders tell the group they’ve chosen this spot for today’s Selah, an intentional pause to be with the Lord. For 30 minutes we sit and face the crashing water. I find myself watching the water fall with an attentiveness I never have before, realizing it doesn’t simply fall from top to bottom so much as bump along, slightly diverted by every rock along the way. Sometimes a side current becomes so small it hits one last ledge and simply vanishes into mist, never even making it to the ground. And every single time, the path is different. Watching becomes wonder which becomes prayer, though perhaps not with any words. As Mary Oliver says,

maybe such devotion, in which one holds the world in the clasp of attention,
isn’t the perfect prayer, but it must be close, for the sorrow, whose name is doubt,
is thus subdued, and not through the weaponry of reason,
but of pure submission. Tell me, what else could beauty be for?

IMG_9553smallI blink away tears as I return praise for just being here, not only with my body, but my heart and mind as well. It is not that I don’t think of home – a shower perhaps, a bed off the ground – or long to talk with those I love, but I have just sat and watched a waterfall for 20 minutes and thought of nothing of the past or the future, the burdens or the fears I inevitably carried into the woods with me. It is an addictive peace, impossible to forget when you’ve tasted it, but incredibly challenging to recreate. I have learned enough to not try to make these moments last. They are gifts to remind me that I spend far more days out of the woods than in it, and that I must fight for that same contentment in the rest of my life, without waterfalls or maybe 20 minutes to sit at all.

We get back to camp by mid-afternoon and settle in for presentations the students have been working on for several days. It’s one of their largest assignments, an engagement with the ideas of beloved and imposter, two concepts from a book they had to read before the course began. It’s a reading and discussion common to many trips we lead, but on this one we have the most time to dive deeply into it, and I’ve been looking forward to today. These concepts of what it truly means to be and live as the beloved of Christ, and discovering and uncovering the imposter selves we put forward to others, hit at the very core of the discussion of identity, such a powerful one for college students. The next two and a half hours are sweet ones. There are skits and laughter, challenging questions, confessions of doubt, and confessions of sin. There are realizations and tears and washing of feet in the icy cold river. IMG_9266smallSome of the students mention, both then and later, that they have never had such open, honest conversation of faith with a group before. It took 11 days of just us and the woods, but they caught a glimpse of what vulnerability and edification look like, a glimpse of authentic relationship in this world of nonstop communication but so little connection. Later, in a rare moment alone, I pray that as our time as a group inevitably ends, and quickly, these students will realize that community is not limited to these people, or our days in the woods. I pray that this glimpse will push them to recreate what they have been a part of here, and that they will seek out those who not only remind them that they are beloved, but also that the One who loves them is worthy of all of their life in response.

Night comes early in the woods. Crouched in small clearings beneath a thick canopy of trees it gets dark here before the rest of the sky. We wait as long as we can, eyes adjusting to the dim until we can’t see what we’re stirring and the headlamps begin to click on. Over dinner my co-leader and I debrief the day. Just the night before we had hit that point  of asking, “are we doing enough?” Maybe it’s the wrong question, but one that usually comes at some point in every trip. And the Lord’s challenge for me in it is always the same: that the growth of these students is not where my identity lies either. But I am called to be faithful in the small and simple moments, and sometimes in those the Lord allows for sweet reminders that He is there, and He is working. I’m thankful for today’s glimpses. We pull over the next day’s student leaders to talk about tomorrow, then gather the whole group one more time before bed. It’s only 9:00 as I’m crawling back into the tent, but I will fall right asleep in the sweetness of physical exhaustion. Tomorrow morning will come early again.

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well-traveled

Well-traveled, these paths are.

Though it seems we never walk them the same way twice. Or perhaps it is everything else that changes; the trees and the weather, the season, the burdens we carry, the tiredness of our feet; while the path – the path is the same, beaten smooth by the journey of shared experience, the journey of practice.

I do wonder, sometimes, if there is something that helps us, like travelers in the night who slip through without our notice. Is it possible? Can a path become familiar just by our allowing it to exist between us? Openness and vulnerability and challenge seem to have grown feet once spoken, and now run constantly before us, beating smooth paths through new wildernesses we have not yet crossed. We do not even know we will need to. But somehow, when we arrive, there is already a path, like a familiar gift in an frighteningly unknown land.

Then there are the paths we have walked thousands of times. Paths of faith and calling, work and dreams, marriage and motherhood, desire and joy. Every season the surroundings look different, and we walk differently – at times skipping in celebration, at times barely a crawl. Sometimes we have to meet each other halfway, an arm to lean on and finish the journey. But every time, there is comfort in the path. When all else looks new, to look down and know that I have walked this before, and I know where it leads. No matter how dark it is, I am not lost.

Sometimes we have not chosen the path so much as found ourselves on it. Recently, we have wearily eroded the path of loss, slowly and with tears. Loss of family, loss of children, loss of dreams. We did not set out to walk this way, but journey long enough and we all knew it would come. We did not want this path to feel well-traveled, but it does, and there is a sweet mercy in that, if severe.

That is a strange path, loss, as sometimes with doubt, or depression, or deep brokenness. Those paths are strikingly solitary, but somehow shared all the same. We can’t join each other on it: it seems to incessantly curve, wide enough just for one, jungle thick on its edges. But we have traced those dark, narrow, curves, and this path is the hardest to forget. So as another walks it we are there, tracing parallel tracks in the darkness, close enough to be present, if just beyond sight. Close enough that we both know we are not alone. Someone else has walked this way, if only to know the path for those who will come behind.

It takes work at times. Storms down trees across the paths and divert streams to wash them away. New seasons and new jobs and new relationships and new lives come up like spring growth, transforming a landscape. Familiar landmarks seem to have disappeared and everything looks new. The path will quickly become unknown if we do not walk it. We will cut away the fallen trees, follow the stream bed’s new curves, and in it all, pay attention. Notice and learn and proclaim the beauty of the new bud, the vista that a fallen tree has revealed. We will study the path with our time, with our questions and our love, until it becomes well-traveled again. (Though sometimes we will remember that old oak tree, and pull back the vines that now hide it, just to remind each other that it is still there, with deeply sunk roots the brightly-colored peony will never obtain. And we will remind each other that “change will come as surely as the seasons, and twice as quick.”)

I cannot fully describe the comfort of well-traveled paths. It is like coming home while still journeying, which is quite a rare gift indeed. It is a life-giving knowledge, perhaps at times even a life-saving one. It is to start the unknown journey, the unknown conversation, the unknown question, without fear, because those who have taken the time to travel with me well whisper the greatest gift of relationship: you. are. known.

And so, with grace our feet, we travel on.

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the waiting joy of Christmas

We stood tonight in the dimmed light, candles flickering in our hands, and the organ soft, just enough to guide our voices. The familiar words washed over like comfort, one of my favorite moments of Christmas each year, and always I want the song to last longer than it does. There’s something about that space and remembrance that makes me realize how infrequently life is, in fact, silent, or all is calm. There’s an ache in the peace.

Sometimes I forget the wonder that is the colliding truths of Christmas. There’s a section in Lauren Winner’s book, Girl Meets God, where she talks about the words of the old liturgy that led into the Lord’s prayer with “we are bold to say…” We lose something in the loss of those words, she says. We lose an understanding of how bold it all really is. To say He is our Father, even though He is in heaven. To say He is a King, and a Savior, even though He was a baby.

One of my favorite Christmas hymns, What Child is This?, in a portion of the second verse that is too often left off, tries to capture this:

Nails, spear shall pierce Him through,
The cross be born for me, for you
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.

How strange it all is, that He came as a baby. How incredible that from that first moment, helpless and weak, He was already the silent Word pleading, every breath of His existence a reminder, a cry out to His Father, “You must save them! Because I am here, doing this.”  The nails and spear and cross were there, in the very fact of the Word made flesh. Yet how instructive it is that, even as He was living to die, He still somehow saw the meaning in every moment of life, living it in a fullness we still only dream of.

I wonder if it was to teach us to wait.

I was talking with a friend recently about the period of time right before Jesus’ birth. For four hundred years, God was silent. No prophets, no Messiah. Four hundred years. Generations lived and died and in every moment of it, waited. And waited in a way we never have, those born after Christ, with the living and active word and the gift of the Spirit. They waited in silence…and then He was born, and for one night, for one night for those few who knew, I wonder if it truly felt that all was silent, and holy, and calm, and right in the world. But then of course, He was a baby, and they knew that still, they must live. They must wait. I imagine there was an ache in the joy.

What is this season but a reflection of the whole of our lives? The Lord knew we would need reminding, and so built into each year this waiting and hoping and rejoicing, this living out, in four short weeks, what we continue to live every day beyond it. We know the end, but we must wait for it. We are healed and we are whole and we are redeemed and Christ came. Yet we are here, and we are broken, and we are weary, and we sin, and we ache. And Christ is coming again. So all of our aching is woven to this truth: that the world is not as it should be. Our relationships are not as they should be; we are not as we should be. Not as we will be. And we ache not for ourselves or our own comfort, but for the way we know, and carry, the redemption of Christ in an unredeemed world.

On no day is there more joy than remembering the miracle that Christ came. But perhaps also on no night is there more ache than remembering that we wait, even though it is finished. The one contains the other, for we wait with assurance, a waiting fraught with eternal hope. Perhaps nothing could be more terrifying than having nothing left to ache for. And for this as well, the Lord knows we need Christmas. We need to remember that because of this miraculous day, and every one of the year that follows it, year after year…as Andrew Peterson so poignantly illustrates, “the aching may remain, but the breaking does not.

So strengthen the weak hands,
And make firm the feeble knees…
For waters shall burst forth in the wilderness,
And streams in the desert,
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
And come to Zion with singing,
With everlasting joy on their heads,
They shall obtain joy and gladness,
And sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
Isaiah 35

Merry Christmas, indeed.


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thoughts from a city in November

This time last year, I was in Chicago, staying downtown in a hotel on the waterfront with a friend who was attending a conference, then doing a reverse commute out to the suburbs every day to spend time with my brother and sister-in-law. It was about a 10 minute walk from the hotel to the train station, and twice a day, to and from, face hunkered down against the biting wind, I passed a giant banner on the corner of a building, one of those massive advertisements you couldn’t possibly not see. It had pictures of exquisitely dressed women with scads of jewelry draped in seductive poses over a number of pieces of furniture, and honestly, in my quick glance of annoyance twice a day, I had no idea what it was advertising. I didn’t really care to know, I guess.

In a collision of circumstances, I was at the same time reading the book Seven by Jen Hatmaker. Seven is the story of one woman’s attempt (in an extreme form, she readily admits) to dig deeply into the excess in her life by disciplining herself in one of seven areas for a month each. For a month she eats only seven foods, for a month she gives away seven items a day, for a month she wears only seven articles of clothing, and so on, all while documenting how the Lord is challenging and teaching her through it all.

I don’t know if it was the allure of a city, staying in the way-outside-my-budget hotel, rubbing up against people that were so far beyond my realm of a comparable life, reading Seven, or perhaps some combination of it all, but all of a sudden on one of those cold walks I realized I was wrestling inwardly with the frustratingly subconscious desire, having arisen without permission, for things I didn’t even really want. I stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and looked up at that banner draped on the corner of the building. Studying it for a minute I finally realized it was an advertisement for the building itself, a set of luxury apartments, coming soon. But what made it so cryptic and yet so telling is that it wasn’t advertising apartments at all, it was advertising a lifestyle. Live here, it screamed, and you too can look like this, get someone who looks like this, have clothes and jewelry and furniture like this, and of course, (as isn’t this always the pitch?), somehow, in it, find true happiness. I lowered my head and walked on, tears smarting in my eyes as it all came rushing together in painful awareness.

I’m in a different city now, on the verge of another year’s holidays, the incessant din of advertising rising to a fevered pitch, but always the same message: without this, you’re incomplete. And of course the message lies not just in possessions, though that is one of the most outwardly accessible ways to communicate it. And simplicity is far, far deeper than the things we own, but it is most definitely a place to start. Interestingly enough, though, our most outward cultural artifacts are the last that anyone wants to talk about. Perhaps it is because it seems so innocuous, the least important thing to consider in a host of societal ills and personal sanctification. Or perhaps it is because we are so quick to judge our value by our appearance, especially as women, and so quick to judge the value of others by their possessions, especially as Americans, and so it simply hits far closer to home than we’d care to admit. That was the realization the Lord had for me that week in Chicago. While in one voice I may proclaim how little I care or how free I am from these traps, it is far from true. And there is something about the coming of another holiday season that makes my heart want to scream out against so much in our culture, my longing for simplicity and stillness intensified by the fact that these holidays carry inherent in their very existence the answers to true stillness, and everything in our culture plows that message over with ultimately unsatisfying alternatives. And most of all, wanting to scream out against my own heart, and that any part of me still believes in the satisfaction of the lies.

And so my thoughts keep returning back to these truths from the pages of my journal that day in Chicago, my heart echoing the same prayer:

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I am not free from the susceptibility to comparison, nor the desire for a lifestyle the Lord has not allowed me and, in many ways, does not desire for any of His children. A lifestyle that feeds on the consumerism of our culture: the lies that it matters most how you look and what you wear and what you have. A lifestyle that spends recklessly, with access to a whole realm of options I do not have. A lifestyle of comfort in material terms, of alleged happiness that money can buy. All of a sudden I want, and I am not satisfied. But truly, I am rich. I am comfortable. I am beyond happy and it has nothing to do with money. I am privileged. I am cared for and provided for, first by a Heavenly Father who loves me, and then by the generosity of others. But clearly I am not free from the idol of money. I am not free from the sin of comparison. So I confess, and I accept and proclaim His truth to my heart:

I am not defined by my beauty, but by the beauty of your sacrifice.
I am not defined by my clothes, but by your robes of righteousness.
I am not defined by my worldly and cultural knowledge and awareness, but by my knowledge of you and awareness of your presence.
I am not defined by what I can buy, but by what I have been given, and what I can lose.

Are my clothes just a little wrong? A little outdated, a little worn? Enough to blend in but not enough to stand out? Thank you, Lord, for the opportunity to, neither by over-love or neglect, draw no more than needed time and attention to something so earth-bound. It is good to dress well – but I must not need to.

Will I never achieve the standards of beauty my culture upholds? Do I look in the mirror and see imperfection? Already wrinkles around the eyes and a thought that maybe I’ve passed the best days? Thank you, Lord, for the chance to remember that no man’s desire defines me, but Yours alone, and it is blind. No, actually, not blind, but rightly seeing. And it sees a beauty I can’t even dream of, because it’s Christ’s beauty. It is good to care for my physical body, while acknowledging its temporalness.

Do I not know the right songs, the right stores, the right shows, the right jokes? Do I not drink the right things, use the right words, or even hold the right dreams? Do I not fit in often with a crowd, and sometimes even believers? Thank you, Lord, that your wisdom looked foolish to the world, and all of the world’s wisdom is foolish to you. Thank you for the opportunity to sometimes have only you, to learn to need only you.

It is good to be relevant, but oh Father, protect us from being the same.


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dying beautifully

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Yesterday morning it was cold. I walked the gravel path, hands tucked up into my sleeves to stay warm, hood up and framing my face against the late fall morning. I walked because I could – because I was in a place where, slipping out early enough, I would see no one else and hear nothing else but the rustle of leaves, and my shoes on the path. I walked because I needed the clarity of prayer that sometimes it seems only movement can bring me. I felt full to the brim of conversations that bring life, and glimpses of joyful hope. Yet I felt stripped by sin, by shared grief, by the weight of love of those I prayed for as I walked. I felt like the leaves under my feet.

Familiar words drifted across my mind, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies…” Sure, the parable is easy to see when we’re speaking of seeds, but trees don’t grow from their fallen leaves. They just bloom and grow to fall and die again, year after year after year. In my state of heart it almost seemed cruel, a purposeless cycle of nature.

Walking along the path I turned to the right to see a quiet cemetery nestled away just down a hill – its edges rimmed by trees of every imaginable color, and a blanket of red and orange coating the ground. Walking down the hill and crouching near to the ground as the sun began to fight its way through the clouds and trees above me, my restless heart was silenced, as I desperately hoped it would be, by the reminder of a deep, simple, truth: yes, the leaves die, and they fall. But in their process of dying and of falling, they make the world more beautiful.

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The process of death requires much change in the leaves. When they hold on, staying on the tree and embracing a process which can only lead eventually to falling, when they allow the change to be visible, it is stunningly beautiful. Sometimes the wind rattles the trees, more vehemently it seems as the season increases, as death comes closer. And so often the leaves must withstand much wind before they fall. They cannot help being moved by it, but they are beautiful both in their moving and their holding on. Sometimes, it is that last, hard, cold blast of wind that causes them to fall. But often they fall when there is no wind at all, or the gentlest of breezes. Have you ever watched a leaf fall on a still day, all the way from the release from the tree, with seemingly no logical explanation? It doesn’t so much fall as float, in graceful arcs and swoops and turns, bending willingly to unseen movements of air, beautiful even in the surrender of falling. And then it lands, seeming to settle into the ground with a sigh, and it is still. And the stillness is beautiful. It becomes a part of coating the grass with color, and then it dies.

Of course, these are trees. They don’t think about anything like this, not do they have a choice in their surrender. But somehow the Lord still finds it purposeful to repeat this pattern again and again, maybe more for us. For the reminder that while most of the time we long for similitude, we are mostly called to change. That while most of the time we may wish for beaches of endless summer, narrow roads are usually found in rough terrain, subject to the effects of seasons. We are continually somewhere in our own cycles of dying and new life, and perhaps we could learn something from the willingness of the trees.

I have a friend who is walking through a long process of dying. Not a physical death, but a death nonetheless, with the grief which surrounds it: the dying of a dream, a career, a ministry, a decade of work and seeming worth. I had been praying for her as I walked that morning, and it was her real-life example I saw paralleled in the fall leaves. As clear and vibrant as the red and oranges around me, she is making the world more beautiful in her process of dying and of falling. And not only the world, but my own life, as she allows me to walk beside and watch. Her openness to allow the Lord’s changes to be visible in her is stunningly beautiful. And the coming of winter is slow, and sometimes uncertain, and no doubt it would be easier to shake the leaves free and be done with the tension of this active process of dying while still being asked to live. But willingly she waits, a picture of beauty to who knows how many passing eyes, clinging hard through some strong bitter winds, up and through the moment only the Lord knows. It may be a few months or a few years, but she will have to surrender, let it fall, and let it die. And when that day comes, I have no doubt the stillness in which it settles will be the hardest, but most beautiful of all, as it reflects the stillness of a heart which knows we are rooted in the One who conquered the grave.

How I long to die so graciously as I am privileged to watch in her. It is a death that trusts in the promise of new life. That trusts that barrenness comes only for a season. That trusts that even when she cannot see or understand it, there are those who are being blessed by the colors of the change of dying who could not have been in the season of lushest life. It is a death that trusts that we are created to make beautiful things, and enrich the world, and then die to them. Their beauty was never our own to hold.

The process of dying will never be easy. Never. Sin brought it into the world, and in it we are constantly reminded that this is not as it should be. We are reminded that we are not as we should be, and that that is the very reason that death is required, a letting go of even beautiful and good things, because our life does not consist in them, and because for whatever reason this is the time that the Lord has decided we will be more beautiful, and more glorious, and shaped more into His image, by the process of a season of dying. And in that knowledge, and that trust, we can understand how it is that we can be both stripped, and oh so full. Grieving all that is not as it should be, while filled with joyful hope in the glimpses we have seen of what can. Life is lived most often in both of those realities held together. Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing. Dying, and yet we live.

How thankful I am for the strength the Lord has given my sweet friend, and that it comes from the strength of Christ. How I long to, in the slightest measure like Him, make the world ever more beautiful by the process of my dying.