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.

Moving

While it may not be an overstatement to describe my recent move as the hardest I have made in my life, that statement seems to beg for sympathy and neglects to mention that on the whole, I have had a wonderful life. Nevertheless, this season of my life has been filled with transitions and goodbyes and unasked for beginnings, which have made this city feel uncharted despite my 7 years spent in her care. Where the anonymity of the nation’s capital once felt bold and liberating, it now presses in on me, tightening my chest like the July humidity.

So to counter the ache that I feel for home and the longing I have to be known, I have taken to finding the good things. The blessings hidden in the city or the joy of finding unexpected familiar faces in the crowd.

– A storm came in today. One of those bend-the-trees-with-the-wind storms that lights up the sky enough for you to see waves of rain fanning from the sky. I watched the storm, safely perched in my 8th floor office with space to appreciate it’s terrifying beauty and engaging work to return to once it had passed.
– I write this on a train. A train taking me to see an old friend in the city. Amid transience and happy hour friendships, there are glimpse of longevity; of staying; of pressing in to the harder road.
– Although I am grateful for safe public transportation, I am even more grateful that my daily commute spans less than 1 mile. That my home-work-life circles overlap and that my life is not eaten by traffic or crowded trains, giving me the freedom to read, cook, write, rest.
– That coherent life led me to spend the weekend visiting with neighbors. To be sure, they were my friends before they were my neighbors, but reclaiming the life of a neighborhood is, as Wendell Berry says, a gift. Each step reinforces that these streets are my streets; these trees are my trees. I am not alone but have been bound up with others, if only by the same HOA.

And none of these tell of the ties of covenant relationships spoke of by James on Sunday or the meal shared with my oldest friend that same night. They don’t tell of the daily care that surrounds me or my family who loves me across the miles. And I am sure that still more graces will be given, more blessing will appear.

May we all have eyes to see.

Constraint.

I’ve been thinking a lot about constraint. Limitations. Boundaries. They are words that I chafe against; they make me bristle and put me on the defensive. But lately, they have also been defining me.

I just moved away from my safe, comfortable, known house of 5 Doors Down into a house of strangers. Technically, this was my choice. I wasn’t evicted and I’m not being held hostage. But I am here because of constraints. I am constrained by my income and my belief that living within my means is the best course of action. DC traffic forms a clear boundary and my attitude in traffic limits the time I should spend commuting. All of these constraints pooled together to drive me to my current situation.

On a broader level, everything that defines me constrains me. I live in DC, not somewhere else. That comes with transience and traffic and a perpetual election cycle. I am a member of just one church (as a part of the holy, catholic and apostolic kind), where vows I have taken bind me to service, to obedience, to accountability. I have a specific occupation that comes with unique assignments and a finite number of vacation days. Each of these things constrain me. They set the boundaries of my life. But in so doing, they also set me free. I am free to be involved in one church, one city. I am free to invest in this relationship and not that one. I am free to live a life of fullness and wholeness where God has placed me, and am also free from worrying about all of the vast facets of life that have not placed a boundary around me.

But even as I write that, I feel resentment toward those constraints sneaking in. There are days that I want to defy the laws of physics and the expectations of work and spend a year teleporting around to any friend who needs me. I have sat in inexplicable traffic jams as hot tears rolled down my face in protest of such an obstacle to relationships. But I am bound, in time and place, to the life that I have chosen, that God has given me.

The Psalmist writes, “The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places.” And that’s well and good for King David, but I often feel like my boundary lines have been gerrymandered to cause the most frustration.

I’ve been reading this little book by Kate Harris called Wonder Women. She lives in DC and just gets it. In it, she reminds me that I am not the first person in history to feel the impact of unpleasant constraints:

“One of the more radical claims of Christianity is that we worship a God who willingly took on constraints. We worship a God who bent low and took on flesh…And it has some pretty profound things to tell us about what God thinks of our so-called limitations — especially if you’re like me and prefer to greet limitations with kicking and screaming or maybe a good, long pout”

I have not given up heaven for earth; perfection for the fall. I have only known this broken world with these limitations. And though I fight against them, a wider story is at work; a deeper magic that the world has almost forgotten. Kate goes on to say:

“Still, Easter reminds us — even at the height of human limitations on the cross — that God does not perceive them as we do. God is not surprised by even the ultimate constraint of death, nor is He deterred by it…[And so] we consent to our constraints, trusting He will use them as He did at the incarnation, to bring forth abundance.”

I don’t know what sort of abundance might be waiting for me at the next turn, but I want to be open to it. Open arms, open hands, in one city, one place.

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.

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.

All Shall be Well

Friday was rushed, crammed with work deadlines, more changes at the church I love, and a rather violent attempt to throw the right blend of possessions in my car to make sure I could clothe myself and entertain a house full of 12-18 year old girls for the weekend. I left home around 1 to avoid the endemic traffic of rush hour Fridays, but I brought the world with me. I played out hard conversations in my mind, alternating between yelling my frustrations and attempting dignified acceptance of the circumstances that felt pressure-cooked by Friday-at-5 deadlines. I parked at a Starbucks halfway between DC and the middle of nowhere. I pulled out my laptop. I fielded calls from my boss. I wrote. I edited. I focused. And then, I hit send and was done.

But turning off my computer is so much easier than turning off my mind. My mind wanted to fight with God. To rest instead of serve. But as the traffic waned and the ground rose and the road swayed and turned, I rolled down the windows and the world and the God who made her spoke peace to my heart. For 50 miles of farms and main streets, I inhaled shalom and exhaled myself.

I arrived to the sounds of children laughing, music playing, and rocking chairs creaking under the weight of souls at rest. And when evening came, I could see the stars.

All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

Julian of Norwich