Stammering

I read it in your word, learn it from the story

of those gestures with which your hands

cupped themselves around each fledgling thing —

warm, encompassing, wise.

You pronounced live strongly and die softly

and ceaselessly repeated: Be.

But before the first death murder came.

With a rent tore through your perfect circles

and a scream broke in

and scattered all those voices

that had just come together

to sing to you,

to carry you about,

their bridge over all abysses —

  .

And what they have been stammering since

are fragments

of your ancient name.

– Rainer Maria Rilke, from The Book of Hours translated by Edward Snow


There was an earthquake in Nepal today. Last week, it was a volcano in Chile. And hundreds of refugees drowned in the Mediterranean after an overcrowded boat capsized. All the while, tent cities burst their borders, wars incapacitate another generation and in our own cities, we clamor for explanations of injustice.

A scream broke in.

Voices scattered.

All we have are fragments.

The broken world bears witness to this story. But the Word that spoke creation speaks yet a better word:

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” – Revelation 21:3-4

The voices will again come together; the fragments will be rejoined and all will be made new. But until then, we listen for your ancient name. We wait and we hope and we stammer:

Come, Lord Jesus.

Come Dance

I love the seasons of the church and the rhythms that come with them. There’s something profoundly beautiful to me about setting apart time to wait, to slow down, to fast, to anticipate; it’s only made more beautiful in knowing that this discipline connects me to others across the world and across history. None of these disciplines come naturally to me, and all require a measure of sacrifice. They run counter to the pervasive values of our culture that honor busyness and individuality and immediate gratification. But to me, that makes these seasons all the more dear.

Traditionally, we think of longing associated with Advent. Advent is, after all, the time when we look back to the saints that came before us and remember that they faithfully (or less than faithfully) waited year after year and generation after generation for the promised to be fulfilled. And we remember that we too are waiting for full fulfillment. But Lent is also about waiting, about longing. In Lent, we traditionally observe some form of fasting, reminding ourselves of our full and total dependence on God – the season starts with the reminder that we are dust and headed back to dust. Rather grim. But in Lend, we read the old stories of the insufficient kings and weak prophets, knowing that we too, are unable to redeem ourselves; incapable of turning this dust into anything more than dust.

But underneath this somber reality is a secret: we know the end of the story. Christ is risen! Our longings are met in him and our weakness is fulfilled in him. And so we wait for the final day when he will return and all will be right and restored and whole.

But it’s in HOPE that we wait. Shauna Niequist explains it this way:

“To choose to celebrate in the world we live in right now may seem irresponsible. It might seem frivolous, like cotton candy and charm bracelets. But I believe it is a serious undertaking, and one that has the potential to return us to our best selves and deliver us back to the men and women God created us to be, people who choose to see the best, believe the best, year for the best. Through that longing…we are changed and inspired and ennobled, able to see the handwriting of a holy God where another person just sees the same old tired streets and sidewalks.

The world is inviting us to get up and dance to the music that’s been playing since the beginning of time, if you bend all the way down and put your ear to the group to listen to it.”

He is risen! Come join the dance.

Bringing the Impossible Forth

I start each year off with goals. They are serious and frivolous, but all lean toward deeper authenticity, community, health. But here’s the thing: they’re all attainable. I write them down in January, knowing that they’ll be locked down by early Spring. Things like: build a sustainable budget, have intentional conversations, read the Bible in one year (okay, not technically done by Spring, but with an app that persistently alerts me to my slacking, that one’s hard to avoid), cook at least once a week (harder than you might think), read the newspaper.

But this year, on top of all the formal, fancy goals that are fit to be taken out and displayed at parties, I made some secret goals; some just-me resolutions that are a bit more ambitious and by no mean guaranteed.

One of these goals has pushed me to read more; to make the most of my isolationist household and not retreat into hours of Netflix reruns. To motivate me, I reordered my bookshelves, moving all those sulking, purchased-but-not-read books into one long, daunting row. And so, at mid-March, I’m slowly conquering my goal, averaging a two-book-a-month pace. I’ve read memoirs, science fiction, fantasy, and even a literary journal, all, in their own way, about redemption and restoration. They’re about hope and promise, but more than that, they’re about clinging to the light in a world full of despair.

They each approach this from different ways: home-cooked food and hospitality; forging community against impossible odds; pursuing the discipline of meaningful relationships; bringing unique art and poetry and story to a world that values mass production; celebrating daily life. Through their own voices, this collection of authors imagines a fuller, richer world and calls me to inhabit it, even if only through their imagination contained in those pages.

This winter has been long, and filled with uncertainty. There is a very real tension between the day-to-day world that I live in and the one I hope to inhabit. And these books have helped give me a language and a framework for thinking about that; about the “now and not yet” tension that fills all of our lives.

The truth in these books calls me out of the fearful world that my secret resolutions live in. They were formed in a pressurized, white-knuckled world where trying is only pursued if success if predetermined. But the beauty of our redemption is that success seemed impossible, but prevailed anyway. To believe in a God that will and is making all things new is necessarily a call to defy cynicism with hope and loneliness with hospitality. It’s to not just believe the impossible but to act and hope and imagine in such a way as to somehow bring the impossible forth.

Year in Review

It has been a long year. Looking back over my calendar, it’s almost surprising to find that the year had the same amount of Mondays as usual and that there wasn’t a hidden month in there somewhere. More so than any year in recent memory, this year has felt so disjointed that the only reasonable conclusion is that it contained multiple years in one, bound together by some mysterious gap in the space/time continuum (I’ve been watching a lot of Dr. Who this year). I’ve given each era a title, to worthily distinguish it from the others:

  • The End (Jan ’14 – Sept ’14)
  • No Man’s Land (July ’14 – Nov ’14)
  • A Beginning? (Dec ’14)

The End was marvelous. Normal and full of life and celebrations and hard, messiness lived out in genuine community. Sometimes normal is hard to write about, so I’ll skip to the less-than-normal bits. The year began with The End in mind, although with just one end truly anticipated, the Good Lord thought He’d add some more, just to make the season true to its name. The first half of the year was filled with high school students – a full sprint to soak up all of their remaining time at home. Two retreats (one in the midst of having mono), d-group breakfasts at 5 Doors Down, coffee dates, last: track meet, concert, recital, performance, etc. Constant questioning about what other wisdom I had to impact during the days that were left. Senior night. And then suddenly, silence. They were gone. Graduation came and they left for camp, family vacation, immersion programs. And then they really left. For Alabama, Pennsylvania, Boston, Chicago, California. There were no more hands to hold in pews on Sunday mornings. No more lessons to plan or 12 hour days at church. Just silence. In fairness, this was always going to be hard. I have not known adult life without these girls. They’ve always been there to welcome me to church, to fill my free time, to occupy my prayers. I don’t know how to do life without them. In truth, I’m still trying to figure it out. Even when you know The End is coming, it still finds you unprepared.

But when you don’t know it’s coming, it can knock your feet out from under you and leave you dizzily trying to refocus a life that you thought you knew. In early spring, we decided to leave 5 Doors. It made sense – we were logical more than sentimental. Our lives were going different directions and it was the next clear step. So we tried to redistribute our kitchen and parse out the trinket shelves. But even when I was able to stretch my mind back and remember who the original owner of the Pride and Prejudice DVD was, I found it impossible to remember who I was apart from these women. How did I process life away from the black, candle-lit table? What did hospitality look like without a dining room table that could fit twelve? How could I sustain my spirit when entering a house to the hum of the refrigerator instead of laughter? I don’t have the answers, other than to say, I still don’t know. What I do know is that I thought moving would clearly be The End. That a new beginning was sure to follow. But the Lord had another end in mind first.

After Labor Day, my church added a third service on Sunday mornings. It is definitely safe to say that this should not have upended my life the way that it did. But upend it did. I finally lost my moorings. The one constant across my eight years of transient DC existence (and a rather changing constant at that) has been this church. When I tried to get rid of it, the Lord clearly had other plans. Yet when I longed for it to stay, and stay the same, the Lord’s plans again prevailed. I no longer saw the familiar faces I had grown accustomed to. I didn’t know where to sit or who to sit with or what my part was in the body. Added to the rest of The End, I cracked.

I fell into No Man’s Land.

I can’t recommend that you visit. It’s a dark place with more tears than sunshine. The exit signs are dim and flickering and the darkness leads you to believe you are all alone. My No Man’s Land was a vacuum, formed out of the backdrops of what was left after The End – lots of relationships, but none that I came home to. There were shadows of familiarity, until I actually focused my gaze and realized nothing was as it seemed. When I was home, I ate dinner alone. Laughter was replaced by the drone of the TV, until I started avoiding home altogether. I flitted around, visiting with friends, but perpetually feeling like I was catching up with them rather than growing our relationships. There were good things in this season, too – I began volunteering with Story Warren, Dan continued to be a source of consistency and support, I joined the admissions committee of the Fellows Program, and was able to travel more freely to Cleveland, Maine, New York City, Clemson and Nashville. But relationally, I was exhausted. Not from an abundance – as I’m more familiar with – but from a lack. Without roommates to process life with, or high schoolers to pour life into, my mind swirled around, constantly moving, but never getting anywhere. It felt like a wilderness with nothing but untended ground for company.

I think it was Christmas that saved me. Or, more specifically, it was Advent that shined a light in the darkness and let me see more clearly. Yes, my world is different now. Darker. But there are lessons to be learned in the darkness. One of them may just be learning how turn on the lights. In my No Man’s Land, the lights are called People and the first switch is called Hospitality. The first kind was a hospitality of life – to invite others (particularly my silent and isolationist roommates) into my world. In Advent, that meant invitations to decorate the house, eat Swedish gingersnaps, pick out a tree, watch Christmas movies. Although I got a lot of no’s, a few yes’s were enough to leave the lights on. The second kind was a hospitality of home. This house has always felt borrowed – I sit at a borrowed table in someone else’s chairs – so I have felt reluctant to invite others in. But darkness, my darkness anyway, is countered by company. So I opened my doors. We gathered and ate soup and watched It’s a Wonderful Life. Then, my d-group girls were home from college so we once again met for brunch. The house feels a bit more like home now. Not perfect, but more solid than a mere echo.

Although this year has not followed the path I imagined, and I would have strongly preferred to stay out of the wilderness, there is something profoundly beautiful about being pulled out of darkness during Advent:

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

I am not alone. Emmanuel came down, not to immediately take away my waiting and my wilderness, but to wait with me as He makes all things new. It’s not much yet, but it just might be A Beginning.

Thankfulness at 30: Laura

It should be noted that she won’t be happy about this. My sister is not one to love the spotlight or to seek after public praise. But I’m the big sister (and have been for 30 years now) which means I do what I want. So, onward!

My sister and I weren’t always friends. Not like we are now, anyway. And my friendship with Laura has been the absolute best part of my twenties. This is the story of how that happened.

Our worlds have always been parallel, as is prone to happen when you have only known life without the other for two brief minutes. But for most of our lives, they were just that – parallel, but not touching. I think the lines started to bend slightly in high school, when marching band and young life and musical theater drew both of us in. But even then, we occupied different corners and were drawn by different things.

Then, we left for college – me to Pennsylvania and Laura to Michigan; both small, Christian, liberal arts schools, but again, parallel. We had the same sort of existence: classes, new friends, boy drama, chapels, meals in the dining hall, shared living spaces, crazy antics – but parallel, not the same, and aside from occasional visits, no longer even touching.

If our lives were ever to pull further away from each other, after graduation would have been the time. I headed off to a fast-paced fellows year in DC and Laura stayed in Holland, commuting to Grand Rapids. And I suppose they did pull apart a bit, as it was harder to explain our separate worlds to each other, and limited vacation time meant that we weren’t spending days at a time seeing how the other lived. I imagine that it would have been easy to continue on this way, perhaps forever; checking in on the other’s world, popping by as a tourist in an unfamiliar place.

But that is not our story. This is.

Not everyone is given a twin, someone to share a lifetime with. And as we turned 25, we decided to celebrate that fact, and take ourselves to Europe. Ireland, specifically, and then Edinburgh and London. And I think that’s when the first big shift happened. Every part of the trip was done together from the extensive planning beforehand to spending ten full days together. But more than that, in going to Ireland, we were entering Laura’s world – she had studied abroad there, and so she was in charge. And our parallel tracks crossed, and switched places, growing a bit closer together in the process. In between cross country bus trips, tours of castles older than our country and attempting to hide our obvious tourism, we had a lot of conversations – about growing up, and real jobs, and how church was hard, and what it felt like to watch our friends jump two life stages ahead of us. They weren’t revolutionary conversations, but that was the beauty of them.  They were points of connection, pulling our lives closer together.

The next year, Laura invited me to join her at this conference called Hutchmoot. She had attended the year before and come home…fuller. I was truly honored to be invited, to get a backstage pass into her world. My expectations were fully set on being a spectator, perhaps learning more about Laura in the same way that an anthropologist might. But what happened instead was that the community at Hutchmoot, including my sister, kept inviting me in. They behaved as if I belonged, and much to my surprise, I found that I did. This has become so much more than just a shared membership. Hutchmoot, the Rabbit Room, and the friends that we have made there have given me and Laura a significant shared vocabulary. For the first time since we were very young, we were listening to the same music, reading the same books, thinking about the same topics. We were being shaped and influenced by the same sources, and in the process, without really trying, we found that our lives were starting to overlap. There was more laughter on our phone calls, more honesty, more shared experiences to draw on. Out of that first conference came two more trips to Nashville with a third on the calendar. We’ve road-tripped to West Virginia to spend a weekend with new friends and gone to visit the other to coincide with concerts or special events. In short, we’ve done the things that friends do. And we’ve become rather good friends along the way.

These days, we’re pretty good at doing life together from a distance. We catch up on the mundane details of our days as they are unfolding, through gchat; we text and call and FaceTime during important cultural events like electing a new Pope or the Olympics or the premier of the final Harry Potter movie. But in addition to daily life, each year since Hutchmoot, we’ve gone on an adventure. In 2012, we invited our parents on our second European adventure, this time to Italy. Parents are great because they come with nicer lodging and fancier meals, and if they’re my parents, they’re also just delightful company. Laura and I got to continue forging new memories together, this time with our parents by our side.

In 2013, the international travel budget was a bit depleted as Laura was paying for grad school and I had just started a new job with significantly fewer vacation days. Undeterred, we managed to find a long weekend to head south and pay Hogwarts a visit. It is not an exaggeration to say that I was just about as excited to see the Hogwarts castle in the distance as I had been to see Big Ben. Judge me if you must. And this year, we’ve gone to New York City to be together as we enter another decade of life, side by side.

My sister is steady and faithful, inquisitive and grounded. She is thoughtful where I am impulsive and quick to listen while I am usually just quick to speak. Each year has made her more compassionate and her many, many hours spent listening have shaped her to be wise. She is passionate about good and true stories and can offer you words with the power of transformation behind them, whether they are her own or referenced from another. Laura is a rememberer – she got the part of the brain that absorbs trivia and details, but she also remembers birthdays and milestones and formative conversations. She is a world-class planner, an excellently resourceful cook and a great reader. These things have all been true of Laura for a long time, I have just been slow to see them. And though I wish that I had come to appreciate Laura much sooner, I am so grateful to know who she is now. She is simply the best kind of person, and one whom I am honored to call a friend.

Happy birthday, Laura! I couldn’t ask for anything more.

Thankfulness at 30: Church

Growing up, my parents were baby Christians, who for the most part, managed to figure things out as the went along. Somewhere along the way, they acquired the theology that church was a good place to be. And so we were there all the time – Sundays and Tuesday nights, mid-week youth group, vacation Bible school, concerts, you name it. If the church was open, chances are strong that we were in the building.

I suppose that this could have backfired horribly, but what happened instead was that I developed a deep and abiding love of the church. I love church buildings, and pastors, and the range of personalities that faithfully sit next to each other week by week. I love the mission of the church – to make disciples and to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world. We don’t do either of these perfectly – far from it – but even being given the assignment is a privilege. And I have had the honor of being a part of some wonderful churches.

My home church was (and largely still is) a community church. I went to school with 90% of the people in my Sunday school class and I don’t think I could find a single street in my hometown that didn’t have a family who attended that church. The pastors faithfully preached the gospel of grace and the people there succeeded in loving me well, which included telling me when I was in the wrong or had taken on too much. Even now, though I know fewer faces and fewer songs, BPC provides an anchor for me when I am home, and I am grateful.

When I got to college, I struggled to settle into a church. My mom is on staff at my home church, and I had taken for granted that church would be a place of known familiarity. It wasn’t until my senior year, when a tiny little Anglican church plant moved into the town next door that I really settled into rhythms of church away from home. The service was held at night and was followed by a glorious potluck dinner. That whole year, I was invited into the lives of families and into the community of worship. I discovered that I loved the ancient words of liturgy and of the creeds; that there was an abiding beauty in reciting truths that were hundreds and thousands of years old and yet true today. It was okay to be a mess there. You could talk about addiction or miscarriage or doubt and still be welcomed around the table. Hardships were met with tangible support and covered in prayer, just the way the church should be. To be so immersed in a community like that right as I was entering adulthood was a powerful force that only elevated my already high views of what a church should be. It was a grace – unsought and yet freely given, and I am so thankful.

It was out of this context that I moved to Northern Virginia and entered into the fellows program. Part of the fellows package is a church – in my case, McLean Presbyterian Church. And from that church comes your host family, an assigned area of service (5th and 6th grade girls, for me) and theologically-aligned seminary classes. Before I go on to tell you about the blessing that MPC has been in my life, the kindness that they’ve shown me and the wisdom that I’ve heard there, I must begin with a confession. I was a hard sell. Fellows year was hard for me and I pinned a lot of that on my church. I took most people at face value and declared the church too southern, too conservative and too formal for me. To be honest, those things are still true. But instead of asking if grace pervaded their lives or how they dealt with brokenness or what relationships there looked like, I pretty much stopped at the surface. And that probably would have been the end of it.

Except.

I had developed these wonderful relationships with the pastors during my time as a fellow. I’d been to their homes, fought with them about theology, told them the things I was ashamed of and the joys of my life, and had been met with grace and compassion. They let me interrupt their days and truly cared for me with the love of Christ. Although all but one of these men has moved on to other ministry opportunities, their love and care for me while I have been far from home has been the single most unexpected blessing of my time here. I am grateful that I will have all of eternity to say thank you.

And then, I joined this intensive women’s Bible study/mentoring program (truth: because the cool kids were doing it) and spent two years in the care of women who were bright, absolutely hilarious, deeply wounded, and completely committed to the Lord. Their vulnerability and encouragement was a gift – probably more than they could know – and revealed to me a side of the church that I had been blind to previously.

And then, I got called back to help out with the 6th grade girls and somehow just never stopped helping. If you have never had the privilege of watching a group of girls navigate the perils of adolescence and emerge on the other side, let me tell you first, it is hard and if you are even remotely in touch with how they are doing, it will break your heart. But it will also make you laugh until you cry, challenge you about how you live out your own faith, and deeply encourage you with all that they have to offer. My girls are in college now, learning even more deeply who they are and who the Lord is calling them to be – and I am so thrilled to still be a part of that process, even if from a distance.

After that came two marvelous groups of roommates that not only made me laugh and let me cry, but stood by my side to worship along with me. And countless friends. And families who have invited me to be one of their own. And none of this even touches on how fortunate I am to hear the gospel preached each week; to sing old hymns and new songs, all that speak to the same ancient truths. I haven’t told you about the rocking chairs or the couches by the pastors’ offices or the secret ladder that takes you above the fellowship hall. You don’t know how to use the industrial dish washer or where the pool noodles are stored for noodle fight night or where to find the special key that turns on the lights in the library. But after all, the church is people, not a building. So perhaps I have told you all that you need to know.

I have been well loved, sometimes in encouragement, sometimes in compassion, and sometimes in rebuke. But even on the hard days, I am so, so grateful. Thank you for being home.

Thankfulness at 30: Work

It is, perhaps, fitting that this post is delayed due to a long day at work. As a general rule, I’m an 8-hour-a-day kinda gal. I work hard while I’m at the office, make sure to meet all my deadlines, and try to make the office better for my having shown up to work. But by 4:30 or 5, I’m ready to be done. Not in a “I paid my time” kind of way, but in a “my brain cannot continue” sort of way. After 8 hours of staring at a computer screen, I just need to stop. I need to create something – homemade stew or a flower arrangement or a letter for a friend. And I need to turn my mind to other things. Sometimes I get lost in a book or meet a friend for dinner or just spend a few hours with a journal, people-watching at the town center by my house. And although that may sound ordinary, around here, that balance is a gift. And so I try to have a good attitude about the long days, because I am grateful that they are not the norm.

DC jobs that do more than pay lip-service to work-life balance are few and far between. Sixty or seventy hour weeks are significantly more common than 40-hour ones, and even more so as you move up the ladder. But that’s not the kind of story that I want my life to tell; I want to color that relationships and rest provide and the clarity that comes after an honest vacation. And in this, I have been truly fortunate.

Since moving to DC, I have worked for three vastly different organizations – the U.S. Senate, a small research-based non-profit, and a very large corporate consulting firm. The cultures of each have been as different as their dress codes and their mission statements. But in all three, I was able to find balance. On the hill, that looked like embracing the long days, but knowing that recess was right around the corner. Then, in the private sector, that meant conveying my own expectations for balance and them taking advantage of flexible work schedules and the ability to work remotely. Because of the generosity and flexibility of my employers, I’ve been able to routinely take completely off-line vacations, schedule long weekends with friends, and stay in Ohio for the full week between Christmas and New Years, even if my vacation days are all spent. My companies have sent me on trips to Ohio, Chicago, Denver, Seattle, and Nashville, functionally paying for me to visit dear family and friends. Particularly in my twenties, as I worked to continue nurturing old relationships and investing in new ones, this has been a gift.

But I don’t want you to think that my only gratefulness toward work lies in what I am able to do once I leave work; far from it. Although every job has its days of drudgery, on the whole, I have loved the work that I am able to do and the people who work by my side. I’ve been given tremendous opportunities to learn about the intricacies of our government, outcomes for vulnerable families and every facet of our educational system. I’ve learned how to talk to complete strangers for two uninterrupted hours and how to fix complex statistical syntax when one seemingly insignificant variable changes. I can speak semi-coherently about overhead costs and direct you to the coffee shop hiding in the basement of the Russell Senate Office Building and tell you which hotel chains are most likely to accommodate your per diem. It is important to me that I keep learning, and my jobs have been full of opportunities at every turn.

During fellows year, we spent much of our class time talking about vocation – how work fits into a Kingdom economy and how to view the daily tasks that now occupied much of our time. It was impressed upon me that work is good; that by engaging in work, we are imaging our creator; that the actual tasks we were accomplishing were contributing to a flourishing society according to the creation mandate. This involved more of a shift in perspective than changes to my typical work day. But with eyes to see, the evaluation reports that I write are enabling programs to run more effectively and children to learn more. Sure, re-formatting a table for the third time isn’t anyone’s idea of fun, but it will convey the information better so that more people can understand. And that may be small, but that does not make it insignificant.

On top of all of this, I’ve also just had a lot of fun. I’ve traveled to new cities with coworkers who have become dear friends and had the opportunity to wander freely around nearly every government building. Alongside coworkers, I’ve gone office trick-or-treating (in full costume), competed in office-based Olympics, had chili cook-offs, recurring meetings at chick-fil-a, and engaged in semi-sanctioned limbo contests. Outside of work, I’ve met up with coworkers for happy hours, birthday parties and museum tours, and this weekend, I’ll be cheering at the Ohio State game alongside my boss. There are more than 5 million people living in the greater DC area, and I’ve had the privilege of working with some of the best of them.

And so, I am grateful. My twenties have been full of meaningful work that can be used to help our world flourish, and on days when it feels like the darkness might be winning, that is no small task. Beyond even the worth and dignity of the work itself, my specific jobs have afforded me surprising flexibility to see those that I love and to pursue my other interests. So thanks for the last decade, work. I look forward to many more.