how faint a whisper

glimpses of God in a heaven-crammed earth

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to be a refugee


61 days ago I came out of six weeks in the mountains in Wyoming.

Yesterday, I went back to the mountains. This time to the Adirondacks – my home mountains in many ways. It was a whirlwind trip – eleven hours of driving to hike for ten, an 18 mile slog up and down Allen Mountain in the rain, another peak checked off.

And while yes, I did need to complete this infamous of the High Peaks at some point on the way to my 46, mostly I went because I needed to escape to the mountains. I went because my time in the Winds of Wyoming began a summer that has profoundly shook and shaped me, and because I am still whirling in it all. Because in three days, on Monday, classes start for my fifth semester of grad school, and I’m not ready. Not that I don’t want to be here, that I don’t love what I’m studying, that I don’t feel profoundly privileged, but I’m weary. Emotionally, physically, spiritually bone-deep-weary, and I’m not ready for the pace and the demand and the discipline and the focus. I feel very weak, and very broken, and very much not enough.

So I ran away to the mountains for space and time. For that strange truth of how pushing my body beyond comfort, drinking in ordinary beauty, having silence and no screens and it not mattering if the rain ran down my face in sheets: how all that can be needed, healing, and re-setting. So I went, and most of the time I didn’t even know what I was thinking or praying, but I just walked in the realness of my heart and life with the Lord, and pleaded for Him to walk with me.

This morning I opened up a book I am working through called Habakkuk Before Breakfast, and read this portion of liturgy:

So why are you here?
Every heart, every heart to love will come,
but like a refugee.

Then come, dear friends,
come as refugees to love,
come and bring your broken offerings,
                your broken hearts,
                your broken bodies,
                your broken spirits,
                your broken lives.

What time is it?
It is time to tell the truth.

Come as refugees to love. Such an interesting phrase, and I am caught in it. To be a refugee is to have abandoned all else, to come with everything I have, to have no backup plan, to have reserved nothing, to be utterly at the mercy of the place to which I have come. To bring it all, and trust it all, to Love. No story unexplored, no pain unseen, no shaping unsurrendered. (It is time to tell the truth.) Reading and reflecting on these words felt like naming a known and current place. This is the moment I am in: that of being invited to bring all that I have, leave nothing back, and realizing the truth is that what I have to bring is so very broken.  All of it. Even some of the Lord’s gifts that I have run away with I have broken and now I bring them back, humble like the prodigal, having no next step from this, no back up plan, but knowing – in the deep parts of me that actually know the truth of the Father’s love – that I won’t need one. That love always accepts the refugee. The pilgrim, you could say.

For 61 days I’ve been searching for the next step. Fighting for it. Built on beliefs which are true – that I should be always striving to discern in my journey with the Lord what is next; what He is saying and how He asking me to follow, how this new learning or space reshapes my life once again. This is the journey of spiritual formation, over and over and over again. But also this fight is built on the oh-so-deeply rooted fear that maybe what is next is not an end of being weak. A fear of being empty, and being led, like Elijah, out of the provision of the wilderness anyway, and into all that is being asked of me. Not being ready for it. Not having wrapped up this wilderness portion of the journey or the questions and stories it has unearthed. Feeling like some long-shut doors of my heart and life have blown open and now everything behind them is just sitting there, painfully revealed but with no sense of how I go about sorting and building. What goes on display, and what gets thrown on the fire? How do all these pieces get reassembled and what kind of wonder may there be when they do?

See, I’m a sorter. Part of it is necessitated by the incessant temporary feeling of my life; of thirteen moves in ten years and more than 100 days a year on the road. And so I sort: quickly. Everything has a place and within a few hours of returning from somewhere, it is in place. Because then I can move forward, be back “home” as quickly as possible, because the next departure is probably coming fast. Physical or emotional or spiritual, the ability to sort is a crucial part of feeling in control. So I want to sort this. I want to make note of the feeling, the realization, the uncovering, offer a prayer (legitimate!) of gratitude, then carefully build this piece of learning into place and start moving toward the next five steps.

(Also, when I’m trying to sort life through writing, I pile metaphors on top of each other…so let me go back to the original…)

The problem is that inherent in being a refugee is to come not knowing the next step. I have to know I bring nothing, but also all of me. I have to bring everything broken, understanding nothing is valuable in itself, but knowing that being met by love imparts value to even what seems like the most impossible places. So as I hiked yesterday, I think this was the shift that began. The shift to stop trying to fight the emptiness, the weakness, the weariness; to stop trying to “sort” it and therefore, by default, move on from it…the shift to instead just bring it. Surrender it. But not because in doing that it will be magically transformed into a felt strength and fullness, but because I will be transformed when Love accepts the broken, passionate gift (as He always does), and turns and looks at me.

So in that space on the mountain, the Lord promised nothing, in a sense, except that He sees me. He didn’t even whisper, “my grace is sufficient,” though that’s true, but not in the way we often say it that twists the measurement of sufficiency to really mean self-sufficiency again. I’m pretty sure that’s not what He meant. In one sense, I don’t bring the empty cup to be filled. Definitely not so I can feel sufficient to dole it out again. Fullness is a promise of relationship with the Lord, I just don’t think it looks like we think it looks. A lot of times it looks like still longing. The point right now isn’t to be filled, the point is the cup is empty, and that’s alright. There are a lot of holes in the bottom of my life right now. I hope they can let the water seep through to the ground so that things can grow all the same, though I am in much less control of that process than I would like. Though the growth may be much more wild than I would have sorted my own life to yield. But in the wildness there is wonder and mystery and beauty, and more than control, I want to live a life of wonder, even if this is what that means.

I hope I have courage to plant the seeds I have been given right now; seeds of weakness, and weariness, and emptiness. I hope I have courage to sit amidst the scattered and broken pieces of a refugee life and just let it be. Just lament, be seen, and be loved.

Monday will come, and I will be fine. But not because I have figured it out, or know how to take the next step. Not because I am enough. I am just a refugee at the mercy of Love, leaning on His enough-ness for sustaining in my brokenness. Knowing nothing may change about what I have to offer for a long while now. I am not enough.

But I am also not alone.

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a day on the trail


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.









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.


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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“The practice of paying attention is the rarest of gifts because it depends upon the harshest of disciplines. So uncommon is it for us to grasp the beauty and mystery of ordinary things that, when we finally do so, it often brings us to the verge of tears. Appalled by our own poverty, we awake in wonder to a splendor of which we had never dreamed.”
– Belden Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes


The sun was shining yesterday like healing after a long, cold winter. The trees have exploded into buds white and pink and green, tiny fragile versions of their full selves. Every year I tell myself I’m going to notice. I’m going to watch and see the actual day when they first appear, when the green tendrils start sneaking up the brown blades of grass. But every year I miss it. Every year there is some morning when I wake and all of a sudden spring is here. The buds are open and the grass is a shade of green I had forgotten existed. The wonder of new life is bursting forth from every crack of the earth.

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We got some great snow after Christmas. I was like a little kid, as with last year’s winter being so incredibly lame, and the two before that spent in the African desert, I hadn’t seen this much snow for a very long time.

It doesn’t so much look like this anymore. Instead New York has currently decided to gift us with one of winters’ worst attributes – bitter cold and windy with no snow. boo. But hopefully we’ll see this again a few more times before the end of the winter.

Snow is so beautiful. It’s almost as if, through its pure whiteness, it makes everything around it seem cleaner and newer for a while, transformed by this soft, silent blanket of white, and somehow I feel as though I can be new again, the dirty brown and mud of the death of winter covered by a beauty I could never create. And then I remember that I am new, and can be new again every day. And suddenly the ordinary is extraordinarily not so; a reminder of redemption in a coating of snow.

A lot of things clamor for our attention and our clutter our vision in this life. I’m glad I didn’t miss this one. How faint a whisper. Continue reading

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a killing frost

I woke up this morning to this:

I love living in a place with seasons. I love the way the cycle of nature; the death of fall and rebirth of spring; echo our death and rebirth in Christ. And I love that we can be reminded of this year after year after year.

But this morning as I was entranced by the beauty of the coating of frost, standing in the wet grass soaking my slippers because I was so excited to get some pictures I didn’t bother to put shoes on first, I was struck by a new thought: there is amazing beauty even in death. Even in this “killing frost,” as they say, in the clear indication of the winter that is fast approaching, in the stark bareness of branches and brownness of plants, there is still beauty.

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