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.

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*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.

A Testing of Vows

More than four years ago, after a series of classes, discussions, debates, and prayer, I stood up, alongside brothers and sisters, and made five promises; or, better stated, took five vows. The first three are essentially vows of personal faith and piety. The fourth is about support and service. On the whole, these have been easy. But the fifth one; that fifth vow is hard. It pushes back and challenges me to a life that is more than the one I am seeking.

Do you submit yourself to the governance and discipline of the church and promise to study its purity and peace?

First of all, I do not “submit” very well. So right off the bat, this one is tough to swallow. Then, inherent in this vow is the promise (or at least looming prospect) of discipline:  unsurprisingly, not a favorite of mine. And we end with a study of purity and peace. The “study” part is fine, but I’m a firestorm. I doubt very much that anyone has ever described me as peaceful.

This is more than I want.

What I want is rebellion and to go my own way. I want to be the loudest and last voice yelling for my cause. I want to pick and choose and be the arbiter of whatever sort of ‘justice’ suits me today.

But settling for my desires betrays a lack of imagination.

I have been called to a life bigger than the one I know. And I have been called there alongside brothers and sisters who watched me promise to “study the church’s purity and peace.” And it is these men and women, these voices, who listen to my tyranny, then show me a better way. One that is more than I could ever dare to ask or imagine.

Pathetic Fallacy

I remember very little from my high school English classes. I could probably come up with an incomplete list of our summer reading assignments, and write a paragraph summarizing Catch-22, Crime and Punishment, or The Awakening, but that would only betray how much I’ve forgotten. But stored deep in the recesses of my mind is a memory of one small discussion of a minor literary device: pathetic fallacy. Though this type of personification can be applied in a variety of ways, my fickle memory only held on to one – the use of weather to display or parallel a character’s internal or emotional state.

The day is dreary, filled with a thick fog that won’t seem to lift. Where sunlight manages to break through, all it can muster the strength to do is illuminate the low, dark clouds crawling across the sky. Yet it all seems right.

Yesterday, a dear man won his battle with Alzheimer’s, left his broken body behind, and is now rejoicing, whole again, at his Savior’s side. But his gain is our loss. His death left a family behind to wrestle with far more questions than we have answers. That they should wake up today and discover a world still moving when theirs has crashed to a halt only adds to the indignity and insult of death in a fallen world.

But when the sky is dark and the clouds are thick, it is easier to believe that all is not as it should be; that the world is mourning with you. And indeed, it is easier for me to remember their pain; to remember that I am now bound up in their story by the strength of Christ’s blood that has made them my family. And so I mourn with those who mourn, grateful that we serve a God who was not content to leave us in our pain, but who dwelt among us and understands the injustice of the sun’s warmth on a tear-stained cheek.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 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.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.”

Rev 21:1-5a

Amen and amen. Come Lord Jesus.

The Song of Advent

It arrives each year unbidden, slowly moving toward me, nearly imperceptible until its final descent. But then, the monotonous rhythm of the ordinary every day is interrupted with a new sound. It is the song of Advent, awakening in me the longing, the desire, the anticipation that Christ is coming.

For generations and across centuries, the people of God waited. From the very beginning, Adam and Eve longed for the One who would crush the serpent’s head, returning them to the life they no longer had access to. The Israelites made bricks day after day until it was all that they knew, wondering if God had forgotten them, but yet clinging to the hope of the promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Knowing that they were God’s chosen people, and waiting for God to again bless those who blessed them and curse those who cursed them. All through the prophets, the promises grew louder; One was coming who would bind up the brokenhearted and proclaim liberty to the captives. All through history, every story whispered the name of the One who is coming. The familiar carols recount the scene:

“Long lay the world in sin and error, pining till He appeared”

“O come, o come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel”

“O come, Desire of Nations, bind all peoples in one heart and mind. Bid envy, strife, and quarrels cease, and fill the world with heaven’s peace.”

The songs continue:

“A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices; for yonder breaks a new and glorious mourn.”

“Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel has come to thee O Israel!”

Advent lets me join in both parts of this story. I know the truth – that the promises were true; that Christ has come! That He stood up in the temple and proclaimed freedom to the captive. That He has crushed the serpent’s head and again made a way for mankind to walk with God, just as Adam and Eve longed for. But the promises are still being delivered. Peace on Earth is now a possibility but is not yet a reality. The brokenhearted can now be comforted and healed, but all do not yet experience that. The reality of the promises is here, but it is not yet finally fulfilled.

And so in Advent, we look back to see the work that has been accomplished and we remember the promises that are yet to come. As my friend Sam says, “we focus on the longing we feel for the true New World, when the dwelling place of God will be with man…and we will be home again on earth.” And so we wait, together with our family, our friends, and the Church as the weary world longs to once again rejoice.

“The not yet will be worth it,” Advent whispers in the dark.

So let its song fill you.

Broken

It was a simple assignment. On one note card, tell us how you describe Hutchmoot to your friends.

I thought about conversations leading up to this weekend. I was going to Nashville to visit dear friends; to see my sister; to hear good music. I took the path of least resistance and tried to dissect Hutchmoot into its minimum components. What is Hutchmoot? I had no words. What was this place? A conference? A concert series? Workshops on faith? music? writing? life?

Although I had been to Hutchmoot the year prior, I stumbled and grasped for words to describe what I was walking into. All of my descriptions felt hollow. When I was honest with myself, I was incredulous that my memories would hold  up.

My heart was tired and weary from a long year of gridlock and routine and mediocre disappointments. I needed rest. A booster shot. Something to wake me up or tide me over.

The first 24 hours were a blur. I remember hugging familiar faces, receiving a warm welcome from AP and listening to a gloriously authentic concert while trying to quiet my mind of the DC distractions I had left behind. I remember adding Nate Wilson to my list of favorite people and smiling as Sally Lloyd-Jones stepped up to the microphone. Warm British accents are impossible to ignore.

She introduced us to her new book, “Thoughts to Make your Heart Sing.” Implicit in the title is that my heart is not currently singing.

Yes.

My heart was tired. And grown-up. Do grown-up hearts sing?

Sally’s simple, beautiful writing brought tears to my eyes. She read about a world where “our hearts are out of step with God and the universe and each other and our very selves.” She spoke of being lost like sheep who always seem to do the exact thing that is worst for them. When she sat down, many other eyes were glistening.

Then, my new-favorite-person Nate stood up. He talked about the pope’s art hallway and the shush-guards catching tourists hip-shooting photos of the Sistine Chapel. But also about the process of “trying to catch a life…grasping for wind and [catching] two handfuls.”

Rather than pulling me out of my weariness, they were joining me. They met my eyes and I saw that they, too, had known the same heaviness of the soul.

Later that evening, AP would take the stage and proclaim:

Well you’ve never met a single soul/
Who didn’t feel the curse’s toll/
Who didn’t wish that death would die/
Maybe that’s the reason why//
And it hurts so bad/

Over the rest of the weekend, I saw many eyes that spoke of sadness. Maybe it was a devastating brokenness or a slow fade to gray. But, over meals that spoke of heaven, or on concrete steps, playground swings, or crowded hallways, a deeper truth began to shine through: “The promise is not drowned out by the weeping; it is declared by it.” AP had written these words a decade earlier, but they spoke truth into my heart.

Likewise, Sally reminded me, “while we wait, God wants us to remember: sin, sickness, tears, death – they won’t last. They will come to an end.”

And there was my answer.

Hutchmoot is a place for the broken to gather. To find strength and solace on the ancient paths. To discover that indeed, you are not alone, and to hear the refrain, “what? you too?” dance across twinkle-lit tables.

The answer is Jesus. And He is waiting in every corner, and in every eye.

Come.

Ash Wednesday

There is something rich and mysterious about a corporate Ash Wednesday service; about joining together with strangers and friends and together saying:

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.”

We come from construction sites, or our home offices, capitol hill, or a cubical in Rosslyn. We file into pews early, on time, late. We exhale.

This is the time to remember. To “worthily lament our sins.” The sanctuary is dark. Darker than it could be. People fidget in their seats. “Acknowledging our wretchedness” is not an easy task. But it is good. And so we remember.

We think on the lies and deception, the lust, greed, and envy, the slander, the anger, the hate. We remember the sins of omission: the grace not extended, the kind word held back, the poor slighted, the widow ignored.

Amidst these accusers, a voice: “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Short. Short like a canyon. Short like a chasm. Like the other side of the ocean, like the distance to the sun. Fallen short. How true this is. How arrogant am I to presume on God’s kindness? To think that perhaps I am not so far gone?

But I am so far gone.

I need this day, these words. I need a “new and contrite heart”, for mine is heavy and failing.

I need this place, these people. I am not alone. I am no better, no worse. “We [all], worthily lament our sins” just as “[we] all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”

And I need this sign, these ashes. I need the instruction, on my own head, to “remember that you are dust, and to dust shall you return.”

Even my best efforts are dust. But “Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns” has redeemed me. He has paid for my lust, my anger, my sloth, my greed. It is on his head so that I might “obtain…perfect remission and forgiveness.”

Thanks be to God.