Belonging to Faithfulness

Lately, I’ve been pondering faithfulness.

Every six weeks or so, I get to teach junior high Sunday school. We’re studying Exodus and on Sunday, I taught on Exodus 24 – the confirmation of the covenant. We are a covenant people, secured as the people of God through His faithfulness; our lavish promises are dust. Yet even as we break the faith, echoes of covenant faithfulness still dance on my heart. The covenant teaches me that I belong to that which is bigger than myself. This plays out in numerous ways each day – I belong to my household and as such am bound up in the joys and sorrow of my roommates – sometimes multiplying the joys and sometimes adding to the sorrows. I belong to my church, through the gift of the blood of Christ and the vows I stood up and promised. But today, I’ve been pondering a more unusual fidelity of belonging.

There is a small community of people, tied together not by blood or geography or denomination or occupation, but through an abiding belief that beauty is found in unexpected places and that Christ plays in 10,000 places. They believe that in some small measure, the story of one of us is the story of us all. And because of that, fidelity plants fast roots.

Today, this community prepared to gather in Nashville. This year, I will not be joining them, as faithfulness to family must trump faithfulness to this band of kindred souls. It was at once a decision that was obvious and terribly hard. And so I am left pondering what it will look like to belong to these friends only from a distance. In fact, I spend most of the year belonging from a distance, with Facebook being used to its absolutely best potential to soften the blow of the miles. Occasional road trips, concerts, and impromptu gatherings are grace that bring me closer to a handful of these dear friends, but even these are dim reflections of the fullness that I know is possible.

So the question that I am left with is how to cultivate and grow my own faithfulness to these souls across time and space, with no promise of flesh-and-blood communion. What will it look like to belong to one another outside of shared meals on candlelit tables, or conversations on rickety swings or silence exhaled in unison on a concrete sidewalk? This sort of faithfulness seems harder. I am left to belong through prayers offered up for needs spoken and groaned for; through books poured over as imaginations are cultivated in the same soil; through music washing over me as it washes over you.

And so, I will abide in faithfulness and trust in the Lord to hold us all in the palm of His hand,

where we first belonged, and shall remain forever.

*click*

If I hadn’t already called dibs on teleportation, I would claim “photographic memory” as my superpower.

When I was a kid, I read the Cam Jansen books. The main character is a red-headed girl, so like Nancy Drew and Anne (of the green gables) you just knew she was going to be awesome. And sure enough, she was. Cam (real name: Jennifer) is a super detective, who uses her photographic memory to solve mysteries. Best as I can remember, she blinks her eyes and says *click* and can remember anything.

Sign me up.

I spent last week with high schoolers. First, teenage-sitting for two of my favorite people, then, on a retreat with 50 high school students, including twelve of my own. (I’ve known them for seven years and so feel like the possessive pronoun is appropriate.) And I so desperately want to remember each and every moment.

Musty copies of Emerson and Thoreau delicately leafed through to find the perfect poetry recitation on Valentine’s Day while I make two teenage boys omelets for breakfast.                *click*

Six girls sitting on basement barstools, with their backs to me, reaching over each other for bags of chocolate, half-eaten chips and one lone bag of carrots as their laughter melds together.                *click*

The face of the confident senior as he shouts out song lyrics in the middle of a crowded dance floor, with no care for being on key.                *click*

Late night cuddle fests on top of four interlocking sleeping bags when conversations are no longer coherent and I can no longer tell which limb belongs to which girl.                *click*

An iPod stuffed inside a cup for better amplification to accompany a Disney sing-along and dance party in between chopping vegetables in the kitchen.                *click*

Hands clasped in prayer as thanksgiving is offered up for honey nut cheerios in the same breath as God’s unfailing grace.                *click*

Seven years feels like a whole lifetime. How many snapshots of the Lord’s faithfulness have I already forgotten? What moments of joy lay dormant in my memory? Seven years ago, these faces were names on a page. Now, they are stories, tears, personalized laughter, brokenness and redemption, fears and hopes. Seven years is an eternity.

I am often asked why I spend so much of my free time with teenagers. Why I answer my phone when it rings at two in the morning. Why someone pushing 30 needs snapchat on her phone. Why I would drive an hour across town in rush hour traffic for a half hour conversation over coffee. For me, these snapshots are the reason. But perhaps for you, I need to go back a bit further.

I’m sitting in a semi-circle of girls, facing my choir teacher, listening to her tell a class full of public school show choir girls that irrespective of what we believed, she knew that the God of the universe had allowed her husband to spin circles on the snowy highway, hit the median and walk away without a scratch.                *click*

It is a warm night in Goshen, Virginia and I am sitting on the steps of a Rockbridge dorm, bombarding my Young Life leader with hard questions about heaven and hell, confident that even though the answers may allude her, she will be there to hear any of my hard questions.                *click*

A rambunctious group of junior high girls is piled into the second floor church bathroom – the one with the couches – ignoring our discussion questions and giggling about boys as our high school leaders smiled and followed along.                *click*

A table of eager fourth graders nervously eye each other’s frilly Bible covers and meticulously placed book tabs as we get ready to study Esther and Ruth with two women who have seemingly arbitrarily decided to invest in a small group of 10 year old girls.                *click*

I could start answering your questions by explaining that I was well-loved as a teenager. Older women opened their lives to me and let me ask hard questions and showed me that though life would be difficult, God had given us each other. I am simply following the model that was given me.

 We, though, are going to love—love and be loved. First we were loved, now we love. He loved us first.” 1 John 4:19, MSG

Isn’t it the model we have all been given? There are a million ways to love from love. But for as long as they will have me, I will choose this way. Seven years is just the beginning.

Darkness to Light

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.” Isaiah 9:2

“Remember how much light you have.” Ben Shive

I don’t know when Christ was born. I don’t know the day that Mary and Joseph finally held their new baby in their arms or what the joyous celebration sounded like from the upper room. But I know that when God in his sovereignty allowed us to establish a feast in remembrance of Christ’s birth, midwinter was the perfect time.

Darkness and light take on new meaning as the sun sets at 5 o’clock and we sit down to dinner and rise to our work all in darkness. Cloudy, hazy days of snow and fog blot out the sun and our very bodies long for the darkness to at last yield to the light.

Into that void enters Advent. Isaiah foretold the light and John proclaimed it: “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). All of Advent has been straining forward to the light; waiting for Christ’s glorious appearance to those who dwell in a land of deep darkness.

I love the rhythms of Advent, pointing backward and calling us to remember the groaning and longing, the disobedience of Israel and the faithfulness of God and the prophesies that promised a deliverer, against all odds. But, too often I camp in the first Advent, forgetting that we are still in darkness, waiting for Christ to come again. Only this time, the darkness has already been broken; the horizon has started to glow. And, still not content to leave us alone, God placed his own spirit, the spirit of Emmanuel, inside of us, that we might bear witness to the light and be the light to the world in darkness.

As Advent at last ushers in Christmas day, may you remember how much light you have.

“Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” Isaiah 60:1

Amen and amen. Merry Christmas, indeed.

Wearing Thin

The kitchen table broke today.

The small wood fibers had worked so hard

to hold the cold, dark metal in place.

They had born the seasons, held the weight

of pumpkins waiting to be carved, steaming casseroles

and Christmas cookies left to cool.

One of the drilled holes grew tired

of being mistaken for a foot rest, of

fists pounded, of forced expansions for feasts unasked for

and it gave way.

The other held on as long as it could, but

left alone, its former strength seemed

only a liability. Presumed upon until

one

final

exhale

sent

Red flowers spilling to the floor.

Further Up and Further In: A Hutchmoot

I’ve just returned from a rich, engaging weekend, full of thoughtful people and packed with insight I have yet to fully process. But I returned to a head cold, absent roommates and an attitude that I thought I had left behind. All week, I have used my illness, the shuttered federal government, or a busy schedule as excuses from pressing in to the life that has been given me. I have resented the care of my home, cursed the work I have been given to do and squandered the time that I was given.

At Hutchmoot, Jonathan Rogers gave us some thoughts – for free, he said. Not what you paid for. He told a story of turning in his swivel chair to talk with his wife. When a “ding” sounded from behind him, it took all of his concentration not to turn his back on his bride and attend to his email. Charles Hummel has written about “the tyranny of the urgent.” But I think it’s more than that. It’s an inversion of importance, from the tangible to the intangible. And this isn’t an isolated problem; it pervades nearly every category of thinking.

Jonathan spoke not of the “sins of the flesh” but of the “sins of the fleshlessness.” We devote ourselves to disembodied devices trusting in them for entertainment, distraction, community. But in so doing, we miss the world around us that the God of the Universe spoke into being. We ignore the image of God as he stands behind us in the line at the grocery store. We sit at a restaurant, phones on the table, waiting to be called to something better, all the while missing the holiness of the community within arms’ reach.

Keith Getty and Kevin Twit talked about thinking about theology the way that scripture does, and presented, as an example, the idea that God is a rock. Scripture uses that metaphor time and time again, but we are much more comfortable applying vast theological terms to God, ascribing worth to Him because of His omnipotence. But to call Him a rock seems too small, too…earthy. Yet that is how God reveals Himself to us. The tangible takes precedence over the intangible. We serve a God who came in the flesh; who appeared to His creation in the most tangible way possible. Perhaps it should not surprise when, in our sin, we diminish the sacred in the earth, in each other.

This weekend realigned importance. Tables had been prepared and Lewis and company worked tirelessly, with great joy to set those tables with food worth savoring. The food itself was a reminder of the glorious earthiness of creation – no microwaves, no shortcuts, just delicious flavors getting to know one another over a gas range in a church basement. These were extravagant riches. In all of this, I was surrounded by no mere mortals, but the very image of God. His grace was all around me, in this community of weary saints, pressing in to the choice to learn to love what they’ve been given.

Bonhoeffer writes, “It is grace, nothing but grace that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.” And indeed, it was a weekend of grace. I was shown unmerited favor as people I did not know spoke about their worlds as if I inhabited them as well. New friends were as unguarded in their weariness as I am with only my dearest friends. This community that has formed would have very little in common if you sparked a political debate or grouped people by their chosen career. Family structure, family history, denominational affiliation – these would all divide us further. But for four days, we lean in to loving that which God has given us, in the hopes that when we return home, we will continue to find beauty and worth in the postage stamps God has placed us.

My confession to you, dear reader, is that I have not done this well. I have been restless, short-tempered and unimaginative. Meals have not been shared, books have not been opened and questions have not been asked. I have horded the riches of Hutchmoot, reluctant to open my hand and give them away, forgetting that I serve a God who draws manna from the sky and water from the desert. He multiplies our feeblest offerings and bids us only to come. I will fail, but I will press on: further up and further in!

Yearly Reflections

If you had told me that this fall would begin as a season of reflection, I would have given you a sideways glance and followed it with a vaguely condescending remark about how September and October were full of travel and kick-offs and deadlines, and I would just as soon save my introspection for a more appropriate season like midwinter. February was made for introspection.

What I failed to consider were the milestones that steadily filed past, paying no attention to my desire to limit my contemplations to gloomier months.

- -

The first arrived right on schedule on the first of September. I have never been one to hold onto vivid memories. That’s always been Laura’s job. But sometimes I think that my brain knew it had limit capacity for such things and therefore waited until college to kick in. Labor Day weekend, 2003 was, for those of you keeping score at home, ten years ago. It was ten years ago that I sat outside on the chapel steps at Grove City College, facing the chapel gardens, having the first deep, authentic conversations about faith, life, relationships and struggle. I can’t tell you everyone who was there that afternoon, or the full list of subjects that were discussed. But a full decade has not been enough to erase my memory of the feelings of safety and comfort that welled up inside of me on those steps.

There was no way to know then that many of the men and women on the steps that day would continue speaking those hard truths into my life for the next decade. I think if I had been able to be that honest, I would have told you that the kinds of relationships we would go on to have were beyond my wildest expectations. That I would walk alongside these men and women as they moved across the country (or out of the country), fell in love, changed professions, doubted God’s love, entered marriages and prayerfully planned families was too much for my heart to hope for at the age of 18. That we would celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, holidays and plain old Wednesdays together from across the country, or from the same living room did not enter my mind ten years ago. And yet as I look back now, these are many of the richest relationships of my life. When I stop and think about these friends ten years later, even hoping for another decade of laughter and accountability and joy that matches this one is hard for me to imagine. But we serve a God who, by His power at work within us, is able to do infinitely more than we could ever dare to ask or imagine. And so I dream boldly.

- -

Closely related to arriving at college was graduating from high school ten years ago. And so last weekend, I dutifully made my way back home, to be reunited with people who were by my side for the first 18 years of my life. In living rooms, dimly lit bars, church pews and brightly colored ice cream parlors, I talked about life with people who have known me for more than twenty years. There is so much that doesn’t need to be said or explained that it’s hard to know where to start. So we drag out old jokes, laugh at the rolling slideshow of formerly embarrassing photos and confirm major life updates that danced across our newsfeed. Everyone seems happy, confident. We talked to those we had kept up with, or those we wished we had, and then with the curiosities – people who we had forgotten about or simply lost contact with. And in all these conversations, people seemed less tied to the groups I associated them with from high school. Instead, some had stepped forward and some had stayed put.

The first group had expanded their worlds through experiences or education or relationships. They thought about the world around them and wanted to have real, life-giving conversations. The second group may have also had new experiences, more education or different relationships, but they had not been allowed to impact them. And so, these people seemed stuck. Stuck in comparison and gossip and keeping up appearances. This stopped me in my place and caused me to ask which group I belonged to. Have I been open to new experiences? Have I let people not just enter my life but impact it as well? Have I learned more so that I appear more educated or to become more thoughtful, more compassionate, more understanding? These are the questions that define a decade, and I want to be certain in my answers to them.

- -

The most looming introspections have been on my horizon for quite some time, creeping slowly, almost imperceptibly closer. And yet, it has arrived. My kiddos are seniors this year. Never would I have imagined the impact these girls would have on my life. I know their Starbucks orders, the boys they’ve liked, the girls they’ve fought with, the sadness behind the tears they’ve cried. But more than that, I know their hearts and their lives. I have gladly given up sleep, evenings home alone, and healthy eating to spend time with these dear girls. Six years is a long time to know anybody. But 12-18 feels like a lifetime. And I have one year left with them. Just one.

I want to follow them around, shouting the lessons that I’ve learned since I was in their shoes, hoping that they will trust my advice. I want every hug to be a running one and every conversation to be deep and meaningful. But even then, there wouldn’t be enough time. It’s moving too quickly. College applications are due and now they’re straddling two worlds, eager for what the Lord has for them next. So what will I leave them with? What will my legacy be? I pray that these girls will remember being heard, loved, and directed to Christ. That they will remember laughter and hands intertwined in prayer. And that later on down the road, when life is different than expected, they would remember the examples of men and women who walked alongside them, seeking to faithfully follow Christ, and that they would continue on that long road of obedience.

- -

If September has taught me nothing else, it’s that the years will fly by and that all we are promised is today. May we all use it well.

Sudden and Imperceptible

Change comes slow/And sometimes you don’t notice/The twilight into darkness/The sunrise into day – Jill Phillips

Charge will come as surely as the seasons and twice as quick.” – Little Women

Fall is coming. Its been on its way for awhile now. A wall of warmth no longer waits to greet me as I get the morning paper. The mosquitoes have faded and the flowers are in their final days. I haven’t seen any member of my household for more than three minutes during the last 72 hours. My girls went to their first day of senior year this week. Work is doubling down with the promise of still more to come, and Target had the audacity to set up their Halloween displays this week. And yet in spite of the early warning signs, I keep having to remind myself that summer if drawing to a close.

I’m not ready to give up daylight, wildflowers and pitchers of iced tea on the counter. Yet in spite of my protestations, I know that the rhythm of the seasons is good for my soul. Even when I fight against it, the four quarters of the year work their way under my skin and I can’t help but obey their cries to play, work, rest and create. The calendar grounds me and draws me out of myself, tying me to the rest of humanity who must also submit to her call. And once I yield, I remember that I love this turning sphere and the magic inherent in her that prompts leaves to change colors overnight, that whispers frost onto my windows and sings sprouts out of the ground. If I hadn’t seen it time and time again with my own eyes, I would call you a liar and cower as the world around me seemed to come undone. If I doubted the faithfulness of the One who speaks the seasons to change, I would worry of a world full of winter, but never Christmas. But I have seen, and I do believe.

But I am quick to forget. Change is coming for me in all directions. Many nights, it feels like he is prowling around, just waiting until I get comfortable before he will spring and attack, with changes at home, at work, at church, in relationships. Nothing feels out of his grasp. And I feel that the world around me may come undone.

I wonder if this is how my flowers feel. The nights are colder now, and the sun’s rays don’t have quite the impact they once did. Do they feel undone? I wonder, if I told them what was coming, about getting buried in the earth but growing up again as more than they were before, if they would believe me. Perhaps.

But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?

Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.

Amen.