Peace and Light

O Come, O King of Nations / Bind in one the hearts of all mankind / Bid all our sad divisions cease / And be Yourself our King of Peace.

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

 

“The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” John 1: 5

It has been a dark Advent. There is, I suspect, the usual amount of daylight and evening, but the world has felt dark. Senseless deaths across our world have reduced us to senseless people: choosing fear over hope nearly every time, as we retreat deeper and deeper into our own idols of presumed safety – isolationism, bigotry, political might, silence. We bury our heads and are surprised to find that the landscape is ever darker. Yet into this, “a voice cries, ‘in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.'” (Is. 40:3).

Peace and light are two of the most ubiquitous images of Christmas – they adorn greeting cards, yard signs, and lampposts in quaint towns. Yet for all this, my usual response is to pass by these symbols in favor of the loftier “Emmanuel,” “King of Kings,” or “Redeemer.” This year, even those familiar references seemed out of touch. I needed something tangible that my big words and theological concepts weren’t quite delivering.

It took a toy soldier in the midst of a chintzy lights display to pull me back into the deeper, truer story. The soldier (like many who had gone before him) held a spear. But instead of a sharp blade, the end of his spear was a small orb of light. A symbol of war and conflict came bearing not a sword, but light.

So simple, but that image has stuck with me all Advent. Christ’s coming was unexpected. Born to an illegitimate couple in a backwater town, his birth was not your typical pomp and circumstance-laden royal delivery. His ascension to power was in fact a descent even lower. As He grew up, He was friends with day laborers, IRS employees, prostitutes, and AIDS patients (or their 1st century equivalents). The one time that a sword showed up in his so-called “conquering kingdom,” it was in the hands of one of his best friends, who got yelled at for his trouble. This was not what people expected, or really even what they had hoped for. He had some of the traits they were looking for (miracles are always nice), but He must have seemed a bit like a soldier carrying light – a confusing picture that wasn’t what (they thought) was needed.

As our world grows increasingly dark and afraid, I can’t help thinking that what we need is a soldier of light. A fierce warrior who will turn weapons into tools (Is. 2:4) and spread light and clarity instead of darkness and chaos.

Come Lord Jesus.

Merry Christmas.

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.

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.

Thankfulness at 30: People (There)

Nearly all of my twenties have been spent in DC, but they have been gloriously punctuated by dear friends who live far away. Before we get to them, two other thanks are in order, to explain the fullness of these relationships.

First, shout-out to mom and dad. Aside from seasonal allergies and unshrinkable thighs, I am grateful for nearly everything that my parents have given me. But it wasn’t until I left home that I realized one particularly rare gift that I had taken for granted: the stubborn persistence of relationships across time and space. I was never taught that people could be seasonal – in your life at one moment, then gone the next – and so it never became part of my worldview. Some of this belief can be attributed to my very stable small town. People just stayed, so you stayed friends with them. But most of what formed this line of thinking has been a gift, passed on from my parents. Long car rides were a chance for dad to go through his phone book and catch up with friends from high school or college. Visits to new cities were excuses to drop in on old friends and stories would be interrupted mid-beat with the directive to call up so-and-so and have them finish the story, verbatim.  My parents’ friends do not exist in frozen photographs or yearly Christmas cards; they are real people with voices that I recognize and homes that have been opened to me.

The second thanks goes to technology, or perhaps better still, the God who saw fit to have me born into a generation that would be heart-wrenchingly mobile, yet able to speak face-to-face with just the touch of a button. I’m still holding out for teleportation, but in the meantime, FaceTime, Skype, Google Hang-Outs and StageIt shows allow me to see the faces of loved ones across the miles, in real time, and Facebook gives me a window into the daily life of friends that a little more than one decade ago would not have been possible.

My parents’ belief in the importance of lasting relationships and the increasing connectivity afforded by technology have paved the way for the depth of these relationships. In my twenties, as I moved far from home and far from those who knew me, it never occurred to me that I had a choice. We would all just simply keep being friends.  And I am grateful.

Now. Onto you who are out there.


To my family.

You guys. You are the best. I can’t imagine having another one. We all genuinely like each other – cousins, aunts/uncles, siblings, right on up the list. Really! Snapchat and secret Facebook pages and sometimes even snail mail keep us in touch, when we’re not home for the holidays or together on vacation. My parents come and visit all the time and not just to check in, but to genuinely know and experience my world so they can love it through my eyes. Last year, my sister and I saw each other during eleven out of the twelve months – this year, we’re tracking at more like eight, but still not too shabby for living five states away. And if you take into account gchat, FaceTime, and regular old phone calls, I would guess that less than 100 days have passed during this whole decade that I haven’t spoken to at least one member of my family. They are the best, and just continue to get better, even though we keep spreading further apart.

To my other family.

My friend family. Mal-o, Seth, Steve, Kevin, Emily, Ellie, Rachel, Dave, Matthew, Adam and Larissa, in order of appearance. Most of you have known me for every birthday of my twenties. Some of you were even involved in a kidnapping scheme when I turned 21. And here we are, all these birthdays later. All I can say is thank you. Thank you for pressing in, through my stubbornness and strong opinions. Thank you for believing me when I insisted that it would be better if we all stayed friends [file under: stubbornness and strong opinions]. I’m grateful that you have used your precious few vacation days to travel to West Virginia, Maryland, Virginia, New York, Pennsylvania – all for the sake of laughter and being known. Thank you for trusting me with the raw parts of your story and for patiently listening as my own layers pulled back. I would trade 100 ordinary Tuesdays for just one day of being all together again. I’m grateful for our holidays, but also for our phone calls and email chains and letters and Hang-outs. I’m grateful for floors made of lava and for croquet mallets and for Dave’s chefs knife. For planned spontaneity and systems of personal involvement and banagrams and fishbowl. For your honesty. For your willingness to stay awake until the last person arrived at home. For loving me enough to argue with me and to call me out when I’m in the wrong and to let me cry until I feel better. It is impossible to describe all of the ways and reasons why I am grateful for you, but they are known to you. Thank you.

And finally, to the Rabbit Room.

More specifically, to you kindred souls that I have met at Hutchmoot. Thank you. You are silly and kind and brave and faithful. A collection of souls that makes me want to live up to what you believe me to be. At best, I only see these friends once a year, and in many ways, it cannot be explained why I love these people so. This year, they will be gathering without me, while Laura and I venture off to celebrate our 30th birthday in New York City. But each day, they pass through my newsfeed, “ennobling the whole shebang” with music, laughter, anecdotes and prayers – a shiny corner of the generally dark interwebs. Most of these friends could not tell you where I went to college or what I do for a living or the name of my hometown. But they know my heart, and that is more than enough.

I can’t help but think that life would be better if you were all here, meeting me for coffee, coming over for dinner, sitting next to me in the pew. But the Lord who is over all of us has determined to place us in our own little postage stamps. Yet He has given us each other.

And I am grateful.

Thankfulness at 30: People (Here)

During the fellows program, we were assigned to make a list of our governing values – the underlying principles that led us to make decisions and set priorities. Among my values were punctuality, loyalty, learning, family and relationships.

But I’m realizing more and more that I am primarily governed by relationships. I make decisions based on people and will shift my whole day around if someone that I love needs me to. As is true of most things, this is harder to do in DC – jobs can be inflexible, traffic can destroy the best laid plans, and after long days, a lot of people just want to be left alone.

It can be a lonely world when you are prioritizing people, but the people around you have a different agenda. But from the day that I arrived in this city, I have been blessed with people who are determined to invite me in, to fight the traffic, to let me stay for dinner even when it’s frozen pizza on paper plates. And because of them, I have not been alone. My twenties have been full of rich relationships, open arms and seats at the table. And I am grateful.

I want to write long stories of all the people who have preserved through the anonymity of this city to make it feel like home, but I am afraid that my pen will run out and my memory will fail me. I was welcomed in when I was a stranger and given a home and the trusting hearts of 6th grade girls. I want to tell you about the movie marathons we had seemingly every week when Amy was sick. About the late nights spent at the black kitchen table at 5 Doors as candles barely illuminated the room. I want you to know the joy of memorizing another family’s prayers and how fun it is to offer a birthday toast for someone else’s child. I want to take you on walks around Springfield and Sycamore and Great Falls. I could write about the Easter afternoon spent on a porch swing with dear women, or about sitting in a van talking about how to love teenagers well. I could paint you pictures of standing Monday night dinners and open mic nights and progressive dinner parties. We’ve been caroling and camping and canoeing and sledding and seen the sun rise and gotten deliberately snowed in together. I have ugly cried in my pastor’s office and taken a moment behind my couch and been told that I would not die alone, because I have the love of these dear friends. They have inconvenienced themselves for the sake of loving me well, and that is the best gift I could ask for.

I cannot tell you all of their stories. Instead, I offer their names.

Tim, Jodi, Bill, John, Cynthia, James, Amy, Regan, Ryan, Dan, Mark, Betsy, Lori, Carrie, Maripat, Deb, Jim, Laura, Steve, Becca, Cameron, Megan, Marianne, Liz, Elizabeth, Janice, Amy, CPosse, BlakeHouse, and Dan. 

You have loved me well. You have allowed me into your lives and insisted that you know me in the process. There is no greater gift that you could have given me. I enter my 30s in this place, far from home, but still known and loved all the same, because you invited me in, and let me love you in return.

Thank you.