pa rum pum pum pum

I am that little child with that flimsy toy drum strapped around his angular little boy shoulder. Come, they told him. The sticks strike that moon face, commanding air and passers-by to listen to the rhythm, the foolish parade of one. I am that simple, repeat refrain. And even then, he does it better. He found the drum and the sticks and the bravery to begin. Honest talk, I'm getting a little worked up facing this blank page. I am sad for being gone, sad for not playing my song (foolish as it sounds), sad for hiding my gift under a bushel basket full of distractions - mindless social media and early bedtimes with a tired brain.

My wet mess of a face almost matches the mess I meant to clean in our apartment when Pat left with Zella two hours ago. I don't know why, but imagining myself into the story of the little drummer boy is just so exactly where I am right now. I guess the small gesture - lifting strap over shoulder and calling on a hidden, inner repertoire - convicts all my defenses.

Whew, I didn't know I needed this kind of cry - let me take a moment. Let's all take a moment.

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I know - it's not technically Christmas music. But sometimes the song beating rhythms behind our ribcage isn't jingling bells. Most times, in my case. The Advent season is not triumphant. It is precious beauty, but it is sad too. We are the reason Jesus came all the way down, all the terrifying way down, from celestial glory to stomachs growling and torrential storms. I am both loved by this act and reminded that there was reason for His condescension. I am the reason.

My proneness to wander so pressed on the heart of God until it broke Him and compassion poured out in the real life of a little babe.

 

Anyway, I salute you - little boy and your silly pa rum pum pum pum refrain. Thanks for being brave enough to bang on your drum and make a grown woman cry while thinking about it. Here is me striking my drum in your honor.

the habit of meeting together

Winter is not in my marrow this year and I am trying to figure out why it bothers me so. I like a snow that settles fast and deep like a feathery blanket, and then fades without a slush parade. The snow of this winter is just exactly the way I like it and today felt like April. But discomfort better suits the Lenten season; the chill in my marrow is its perfect pair. O, Lent. Old, steady, dark, and stubborn friend.

This is the season of giving up and taking up and pressing in. I added that - the pressing in. My soul is weary of resolutions and restrictions. I hear Grover saying, "Neeeeeeeear" ........ "Faaaaaaaar," and this is my Lent dance - searching for the Lord and pressing in, getting near, bending toward, listening.

And meeting.

I joked with some guests recently that we host 10-15 times a week. We laughed because there are seven days and that's silly... but there are also mornings, noons, and nights. There are coffees and teas and stop bys. There are neighbors and strangers and friends. And there is this little human named Zella Ruth, always bending out of the hold on my hip to see who will open the door next.

She has a shoebox in the kitchen with jar lids, measuring spoons and a hot and sour soup container. She spends a lot of time with that shoebox because I spend a lot of time in the kitchen because Team Kolts is in the habit of meeting together. In the first months of our marriage, we struggled to agree on our definitions of "an open door." One night, I was angrier than I ever remember being in my entire life - so angry I felt heat puffing out my ears and we called an emergency counseling session with our pastor the next day (silly story about a couch, not even really worth re-telling).

All these ... months later, we weekly compare notes to see who we've invited over and daily check in about who might be stopping by. *I got a text while writing this and now a friend is staying with us for the weekend. Don't worry - no hot ears.

Lent is pressing in.

And I am holding fast the confession of my hope without wavering. I'm praying for the unwavering part, actually. But there is something so irreplaceable about meeting together. I remember an exasperated mom at the dentist's office asked my parents once, "How'd you get your five kids to turn out alright?" And my parents said something like, "It was the Lord... but we did go to church every Sunday."

It was never about attendance. It was about the habit of meeting together and I think I am starting to feel the best weight of that.

Hebrews 10:24-25, "Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near."

I need this preached to me - I need to hear this good news that there is hope, the good news that God is faithful. And I need to preach the same.

Our pastor spoke recently about salvaging the word "preaching." He said that we need to both hear and speak true words to each other, the good news that God says we matter and that what we do matters. We need to hear and speak the true words that the pain and hurt of this world needs to be reckoned with and has been already in the person of Jesus.

Sometimes I preach to Zella. Nose to nose, I sing into closed eyes and (sometimes) her open mouth wail, "...I'll be satisfied as long, as I walk let me walk close to Thee." If she can't hear the good news in it, I do. "Thro' this world of toil and snares, If I falter, Lord, who cares? Who with me my burden shares? None but Thee, dear Lord, none but Thee."

After Will died, I needed preaching. I needed true words, simple words of hope and peace and kingdom come. I needed Jesus more and above anything else.

Lent is pressing in and I need the habit of meeting together to keep happening in my living room. I need friends who come looking for prayer and neighbors who accept invitations to dinner. I need conversations in kitchens and I need walks in the park. I need to be pressed farther up and further in, where the preaching is desperate because the siren song is too strong to stop.

Her eyelashes are like branches now, shading those sweet cheeks from winter skies gray. We ventured out on Ash Wednesday and Zella Ruth made irreverent babbles throughout the somber liturgy. She didn't know Lent was pressing in, but I hope she felt something of the ash on her head and the silent exit from the meeting together.

I can't seem to shake this Ash Wednesday prayer and especially that this liturgy assumes a gathering.

The Collect for Ash Wednesday

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, for ever and ever. Amen

generosity in bleak winters

It's easier than you might think to let the city hype and lights fade to background noise, but I'm sure I look like a Scrooge. I am just trying to figure out how to anticipate this whole story - the glorious and painful ordinary of a Son who came into the world struggling to suffer and die. I want to desire the coming of Jesus - the birth, life, death and resurrection of Him - because it is the only delight where the sparkles don't shake off. It is the anchor of hope I have to hold with white knuckles, the glory story that is as deep as this grief story and more painful than morning sickness.

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teach me to know

The trees lit up in shades like candles on a cake in the quiet of Maine. Quiet had a sound on those winding backroads and hiking trails and it was the perfect escape. After work last Friday, Patrick scooped me up into a North-bound surprise in a rented VW Jetta with 21 miles on it. I thought about putting pen to paper a few times, but I didn't. It was a weekend like a benediction, that deserved my palms face up and free of distraction. And I relented. I gave in. I let sunshine joy freckle my cheeks through the windshield and forest joy crunch under my feet and marriage joy come at me from all sides. It has been pressing in for a while now, but I have been resisting. I still am, I guess - resisting joy.

And that's strange because joy has never been this hard... joy is something I thought I really understood. And then I got married. And then my mom called to say my brother died. And now things are complicated. The reality is, things were complicated before, but it felt easier to regulate when I only had to explain things to myself. If I didn't feel joy, I believed it was there anyway and I pushed through with gritted teeth. I sometimes got silent or reflective and I sometimes hid away until the clouds cleared, but I was almost proud that I knew my way around joy.

Now there is someone in my life whose joy is wrapped up in my joy. My sadness and silence and sour days can actually hurt him - that is how much my husband cares about my joy. There are, maybe, legitimate reasons to resist joy (or at least reasons for tension) - like grief. But then there are very selfish and very proud reasons to resist joy and I am ashamed to say I know all the reasons. To make things more complicated, I care about Patrick's joy too. I want him to be full of the most possible joy.

And being married feels like the craziest experiment in the human condition - both the condition of being image bearers of God and the condition of being broken by sin. It's like putting everything most precious to two people inside a clothes dryer and cranking to high heat. Maybe it's not like that. Maybe it's more like what Paul says in Romans, "I do not understand myself. I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate."

I can't tell you how badly I want to step into joy, because I know joy is strength and delight... but also because I know Patrick cares so much about my joy. And it doesn't make any sense to resist it. Not a bit of sense.

We were making our way back to the city on Sunday and the air in that little rental car was getting crowded. As buildings stretched up into skylines instead of trees, I squirmed under the weight of city living. In the last miles of colorful highway driving, I rocked deep to this song - as deep as one can rock in the passenger seat of a traffic jam. My favorite dusk colors were getting painted across the sky and my favorite human was all delight behind the wheel.

The "carried away" part is like the beats of my soul when I resist joy - carried away by questions and doubts and fears and failures. And I can feel my fingernails pressing into my palms. Carried away. The weekend was like a benediction, one I received with open hands and one that made me aware of my everyday posture - the regular way I hold my hands and keep my heart. Ahem... nails in palms and carried away. I swayed extra because I wanted that lesson of open palms and numbering days to get stuck in my soul. Almost a week later and I have bad news to report. Looks like this is a daily declaration, friends. And some days my declaration sounds more like a question.

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I am praying that the Lord would teach me to number my days - not to know how many, but to believe that He does. Praying, believing, trusting, living, believing, praying, hoping, waiting. All these things.

"So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom." Psalm 90:12

 

there is a crack in the door filled with light

If God is on my side, who could be against me?

I'll tell you who - apathy and grief and sadness and confusion and depression and discontent, especially discontent. That's who. These are all "against me."

It's gonna get good and honest, friends. First, you should play this song by NEEDTOBREATHE that I danced to in my living room last week. I didn't even care that the curtains weren't all the way closed and our 5-feet-away neighbors could probably see me stretching out in homemade modern dance moves on slippery hardwood floors. It's okay, they clearly don't care that we can see them.

[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q7IABRTOz0Y]

Well, this is officially the weirdest part of my grief story (does it keep getting weirder?) - the part where I am still living, where I still have appointments and things coming up on the weekends and plans for this summer. This is the weirdest part of grief and it wrings at my insides usually when I am least prepared. Like when we watched a beautiful, northern New York sun sink behind mountains on Sunday or every time I walk in the door after a full day of work and see the excitement in my husband's eyes because I am home.

People will find me after this post - perfectly lovely and well meaning folks - and they will say, "Give yourself time, Caroline. Give yourself grace to feel whatever you need to feel." I get that, or at least I think I am starting to. But, I also feel the Spirit telling me to preach Romans to my fickle heart. Grief isn't a trump card to "do whatever you want until you feel like doing something else." I don't get to sin that grace might increase.

And it isn't all grief. That is the worst part.

I think am afraid of being content. I am afraid, I guess, that being "ok" where I am professionally, creatively, and intellectually means I have given up on everything I haven't accomplished. I think I was/am afraid that this is it. I guess I want what everyone else wants: purpose, joy, fulfillment, significance. And grief makes me want all those things more while sapping my strength to chase like I could when I was less weary. So, I am afraid to be fully where I am if that place is too humble or too confused or even just too regular.

But there is a crack in the door filled with light.

I am learning about joy. There have been sweet times in my life where I think I felt the full freedom of joy and then there are times when I would rather slum it in the wasteland then turn my head towards the light. I would rather proudly declare the things that are dark than step into the light of the open doorway. Marriage is teaching me these things about joy and it is painful. I didn't think I would be so resistant to my own benefit.

Pat is so patient and encouraging as I sort out my grumbles. He reminds me often that joy is a choice because God is not different in dark times. God is not less light or less provision. God is the same and He is all we need to get by, really.

There is a beautiful story in the Old Testament, one of my favorites. It's actually in that long and tedious book of Numbers (21). The Israelites, all grumbles, are out in the desert. The whole freshly exodus-ed group was telling Moses they thought it would be better to be slaves in Egypt than to wander around in the wilderness (as free people with miracle food falling from heaven). Then they started to notice snakes at their ankles, snakes that bit people and bites that took their lives. The people came back to Moses and pleaded for him to do something - to speak on their behalf to God (who they knew they had offended). God instructed Moses to fashion a bronze serpent on a pole and to tell the people that whoever would look up at the pole would live. And that's what happened - some looked up and some didn't, but the snakes still swerved at their ankles.

I really relate to this grumble-heavy waywardness. After being saved from a tyrant and preserved in the wilderness, the Israelites doubt that God can/will provide for them, for their joy. To experience God's provision, the people had to obey His Word. The snakes stayed, but He saved those who believed His word because God is a promise keeper.

I wonder... I wonder how they talked about that snake-saving event - if later they said, "I am looking at the bronze serpent and I am not dying, but boy are there so many snakes around my ankles." Because, that's where I feel I am.

My pride keeps me from stepping into the light of joy because I really like to remember how hard it is with all these snakes. It's hard to fully step into the provision of marriage joy and work joy and friendship joy and creation joy... because half my heart wants to talk about snakes at my ankles.

The point of "God is on my side" is not that there is no one against me. The point is that God is sovereign over everything that is against me. There is not a single snake or emotion or creative brick wall that is more powerful or able to steal the joy God provides. If God is on my side, which snake can prevail?

I'd like to stand in that crack of the door filled with light - to make statements about joy that aren't quickly qualified by snakes at my ankles. I'd like to bring the grief and grumpiness of me into that shaft of light and believe that His light is  enough to cast out all darkness forever.


Find all our grief notes at this link and join with my family as we mourn in hope.

lessons in love and emptiness

Few folks on the 19th floor of 42nd and Madison knew I was in California over the weekend. Few of them knew I was gone at all. I handed out hellos and good mornings with my best Monday face, because they all had weekends, too, and I didn't know what theirs were about either.

Mine was full of lessons in love and emptiness.

I always thought love was about giving away something I've got, something that came from the overflow of my abundance. You don't show up to a potluck without a casserole (am I right, Midwest?) and you don't show up to love someone without something to offer - even if it's a shoulder or a bit of laughter or a few tears.

I have often tried to love people that way. But, I think I am learning that love is about being empty. Love knocks on the door without a casserole or an explanation, because my confidence in knocking at all has nothing to do with what I can offer.

And it's hard to think that love can come out of that, out of nothing. But that is what I was learning this weekend. We can be confident love-givers when we are empty. When we realize our words and gifts and casseroles are not the love message, we are left to just be present.

We are present to not figure things out, to not make things better, to not share wise words. Present to question and doubt and consider and believe. Present to be present and not to give a casserole or eat a casserole or have an agenda.

And all of these lessons in love and emptiness remind me of Jesus. He knew how to be present. He knew how to forget about the commotion and the crowds and the distractions so that he could be present with that bleeding woman, reaching out in faith to touch his robe (Mark 5:25). He was always getting empty of all the things we try to offer others in love so that he could be love by being present.

So, I'm trying to learn to get empty more often. I'm trying to learn to offer myself like Jesus.

Last night, freshly back from California with my new lessons on love and emptiness, Patrick tried to share something with me in our new living room. But I already had my apron on and I was very focused on preparing the apartment to host guests.

My apology sounded like a less-than-empty offering, like a casserole I whipped up to cover the offenses. "Here, just eat this and we'll both feel better." But it isn't the same as being empty. He needed my empty moments, the quiet space of my presence.

So, I'm still learning about that.

those who return to Him

As the father looked upon him, and kissed him much, there probably came another kiss, which seemed to say "There is no soreness left: I have not only forgiven, but I have forgotten too. It is all gone, clean gone. I will never accuse you of it any more. I will never love you any less. I will never treat you as though you were still an unworthy and untrustworthy person." Probably  at that there came another kiss; for do not forget that his father forgave him "and kissed him much," to show that the sin was all forgiven. There stood the prodigal, overwhelmed by his father's goodness, yet remembering his past life. As he looked on himself, and thought, "I have these old rags on still, and I have just come from feeding the swine," I can imagine that his father would give him another kiss, as much as to say, "My boy, I do not recollect the past; I am so glad to see you that I do not see any filth on you, or any rags on you either. I am so delighted to have you with me once more that, as I would pick up a diamond out of the mire, and be glad to get the diamond again, so do I pick you up, you are so precious to me." This is the gracious and glorious way in which God treats those who return to Him. As for their sin, He has put it away so that He will not remember it. He forgives like a God. - Charles Spurgeon, "Prodigal Love for the Prodigal Son"

This is sweet beauty. This is the "gracious and glorious way in which God treats those who return to Him," this is His delight over diamonds that never lose their value. The Spring season is bursting with its own diamond offerings, of bright colors and bold raindrops and the warmth the winter was craving. Spring wears beauty so well and I am obliged to "waste" New York minutes admiring it.

There are too many kisses for us to gloss over the story of the Prodigal Son in a synopsis.

Greedy child asked Dad for inheritance early and then wildly wasted every penny before coming home, where Dad received him with a party.

The father's undignified run was too brilliant to get smashed into the word "received" and the kisses were too many for this reunion to be an average greeting. He kissed the soreness out and the guilt and the shame and the worry - He kissed it all with the power of a Father who forgives.

I've been thinking about value and worth and (okay, fine) diamonds. There has never been a time in my life when I have thought more about what I don't have. I suppose NYC does that to everyone, to some degree, but it has never been part of my rhythm. Contentment has carried me through the sparse and plentiful times in miraculous ways, so this thinking is throwing me for a loop.

People (particularly women) everywhere are obsessed with knowing what might make them more lovable and that manifests itself in all sorts of colorful and crazy ways in this city. My sister's advice when I moved to New York was, "Care, you can wear anything and no one would bat an eye. That's the nice thing about New York. You'll sit next to someone in a suit and someone in fishnet stockings on the same subway ride."

Turns out, she was right.

What I wasn't prepared for was the way my eyesight has changed. I am more aware of myself, my style (and lack of), and all the categories I do not fit inside. People say, "If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere." I'm still trying to find out what "make it" means to figure out if I passed. But I'm not trying too hard to understand that litmus test, because there are too many kisses in the story of the Prodigal Son and the Loving Father.

When my pastor preached on Luke 15 this past Sunday, I thought about the Father's eyesight instead. His love that covers a multitude of sins looked out on that haphazard hellion of a son and broke with compassion. The worth of the son was not about the words he prepared or the way he presented himself. The worth of the son was bound up in the love and compassion of the Father when the son returned home. He lavished love and kisses and let all the neighbors talk about his ridiculous sprint when the son was still "a long way off."

This is the beauty the spring shouts, because winter did not deserve to be reborn into Spring. Winter died because God blew in Spring with the power of His words.

We are worthy of the Father's love because He has said it is so and we hear those words spoken over us when we return to him, haphazard and tangled and unkept. This is the freedom of Spring - that the tree did nothing to earn its blooms and the sky did nothing to earn its shine. God, in His grace, is speaking His love over creation. And those who return to Him will hear the words spoken directly over their souls.

Hello, Spring! Hello, Easter!

this is the first day

"This is the first day." Sure, Sunday was the beginning of a new week and the beginning of the Easter season and the beginning of Spring. But it was not just that, not at all just that.

"This is the first day," our pastor said at least five times in his sermon Sunday.

He said it like he was announcing a baby's first breath or a rocket's first flight, like there was a definite and precise time of origin and there was not anything like day before that day. Like, perhaps, when the first dawn broke the first day as God breathed life out of nothing.

When Christ rose from the dead, everything changed... forever. Everything, forever changed. History and future and eternity and the way the sunlight presently stretches across my morning routine. Sunday would have been the first day of a new work week for the Jewish people, but all work was different on this new "first" day, in light of the resurrection.

We are living in the light of an empty tomb - on the sky side of a conquered grave.

That is why we spread the feast table in Prospect Park on Sunday and gathered friends and broke bread and said grace and joyfully remembered together our redemption. We are on the sky side of a conquered grave with Jesus.

As if that wasn't reason enough to celebrate on Sunday, Patrick decided it would be another first. He thought that Easter was the most appropriate time to make this special invitation because of the way every feast and marriage and celebration is wrapped up inside the immeasurable blessing of salvation.

At the end of a long day of celebrating, Patrick asked me to be his bride and it is making me the happiest little Midwestern Brooklyn girl you have ever seen.

It took a while for the shock to wear off (when I say I had no idea it was coming, I mean like you would be surprised if those big check people showed up at your door). Of course, I was hoping it would happen in the future, but I was not expecting it Sunday when we could share the joy with my brother and sister-in-law who were visiting... which is probably why our excitement turned into silly dancing in my living room.

And now, this. I am engaged! I have a fiance! I am going to marry my best friend!

The sweet beauty of Easter just claimed a whole new piece of my heart. It's like knowing the best secret that I can tell everyone and like my rib cage is warm like the best whiskey. It's... sorry, words won't do at all here. Words just won't do to explain how wonderful it feels to step into love like this.

I'll spare you my mushy babble for now. I will just say that it seemed the best way to start this part of the journey - remembering the Bridegroom we anticipate together and the marriage feast He has prepared.

For now, we will enjoy "every good gift" the Lord pours out and we will enjoy it with all the zany delight those gifts deserve.

 

the sun will rise

Love as Christ loved. That is the message of Maundy Thursday, the new commandment Christ gave to the disciples in his final, informal sermon. Love one another. He commands it because He knows it can be done, though it is impossible.

We are not naturally lovely people - not naturally kind or caring. We are selfish and proud and have been since that forbidden fruit. We guard our independence and vacation time and personal freedom and charity, considering others sparingly and only when we feel like it. To "love one another" is an impossible command, but Jesus commands it because He knows it is possible. His is a love that can swallow up every force that opposes it, even death.

His is a love that empowers love when the network of human nature fights against it.

Christ shows us love and then commands us to do what only He can make possible in our lives. "Love one another" is not a reason for Easter resolutions or a slogan for social justice. "Love one another" is an impossible command that Jesus obeyed perfectly on the cross, a command that we can obey by way of His righteousness.

Jesus commands us to love one another and then He shows us what love looks like as he lives out the prophecy spoken in Isaiah.

Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. [ISAIAH 53:1-6]

I still do not understand it, but I read myself in these words. I hid my face, esteemed him not, and threw my grief on his bloody back. And today we remember that He was crushed. He was pierced and wounded because of our black hearts and secret sins. Today, we remember the sky went black when death killed the healer.

This is the darkest day, but there is hope on the horizon. There are rays hiding behind the dark sky, lit by the glory of the Creator - our God who knew all along that there would be a resurrection. And the resurrection lights the way for our love of one another.

[vimeo http://vimeo.com/28486389]

hot pressure heartburn

It felt like heartburn, but I am sure it wasn't. The hot pressure pushing against my rib cage on Monday might be as close as I have ever felt to groaning with creation for the coming of the Lord (Romans 8:19). My body craves Jesus' return as much as my spirit, and together (I think) they press up against my bones to remind me of my true home.

This week is about death.

Even in the triumphal entry on Sunday, we know it is death toward which we process. Even as we sing "Hosanna!" on the road into Jerusalem with the redeemed, we save our breath for the "Crucify!" in the center of the city with the masses. The true drama of the scene churns up this hot pressure heartburn behind my rib cage.

It is frightening, unless you believe in the God who keeps promises. This God, who loved the world so much that He threw His seed to the earth to be sown in death. The evidence is in the palms of His hands and the scars on His sides.

The resurrection is waiting on the other side like the buds breaking through dead branches and the sprouts peeking out from dry ground. Resurrection is hiding, buried safe in God's plan for redemption.

This week is about death, but it was always about life to God.

“See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called  children of God; and so we are. In this the love of God was made manifest  among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live  through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us  and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 3:1, 4:9-10).

“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For  one will scarcely die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person  one would dare even to die – but God shows his love for us in that while we  were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6-8).

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be  slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:35-39).

Passages from the Journey to the Cross devotional.

truth is the best comfort

The wind squealed through deserted school windows today, pushing raindrops against the panes. It is Spring Break and the 14 foot creamy white office ceilings felt cavernous above my head. I wrote some proposals and planned some programs and printed some decorations for bulletin boards. I pushed play on my rainy day Spotify mix and wished the Jewish Passover holiday meant seven days of job-free preparation for Protestants, too. My heart is not in the office because my heart is racing toward the Resurrection.

It might have been this passage from Isaiah 25 that swelled the ache in me, but I'm pretty sure the ache was already there. This is one of those rare situations where the word "epic" is actually appropriate. A mountaintop, a feast of rich food, an abundance of well-aged wine... and the main event where death is swallowed up forever. Forever death is swallowed up and forever the reproach of God's people is taken away.

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken. It will be said on that day, “Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the Lord; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.” [ISAIAH 25:6-9]

"Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us." There is brilliant, unmatched weight in these words. The mass of the Milky Way and the heaviest mountains are pebbles to these words. I imagine whispering them at the table the Lord will prepare, for the crushing joy will have stolen my voice.

"Behold," I'll whisper with the widest eyes, "It is all true and you are God. I have waited for you and believed that you are my salvation. You are the Lord!"

Truth is the best comfort.

Truth is not easy or cheap or immediate or luxurious, but it is really the best comfort. And I guess comfort is what I needed on this rainy day when my heart is preoccupied with the Resurrection celebration. In my impatience, I started to wonder if I am secretly hoping Easter weekend will naturally reorder my joy. Maybe I let the ruts of the Lenten road sink too deep in my soul and maybe I have hung all my hope on this weekend to pull me out.

You all probably just think I need to take a break from introspection, which is probably (always) true. I regret the mazes of my mind, too, but they are there still, haunting me regardless.

Honest? I want hot chocolate and blankets and movies and sleep all day. Because that sounds like the kind of comfort I can taste and feel.

But, when I read this passage from the pages of Isaiah, I know that Truth is best. When I read the word, "Behold" I realize the rain is temporary, the career questions are temporary, the sunshine weekends are temporary, the personal struggles are temporary, and the best joys on earth are temporary.

Truth is the best comfort because there is a day when I will say, "Behold," when I stand in front of the One who prepared a feast.

because fears repeat

I made a list in the "Notes" part of my phone on the way to work yesterday. I blush reading the words now, because they sound like a high schooler's diary entry, or at least a college freshman. And that is embarrassing when you are 29, I think. I was grateful the strangers crowding my shoulders were strangers - because it would be inappropriate for them to point and laugh about things I should keep hidden. I was getting off at Fulton, anyway, so if they wanted to be inappropriate I wouldn't have to know.

I am good at keeping fears secret. I publish my fears in blogposts (see here and here and here and here), but this week I realized electronic confessions keep a safe distance. After I write out all my wrestling, the fears feel "dealt with."

Turns out, casting out fears (by way of perfect love) is more like turning away stray cats than some other more permanent banishment, like throwing heavy rocks in deep oceans. The fears keep showing up at my door and I keep telling them to go away, because truth says God's love can do that (1 John 4:18).

I believe God's word is true, which is why I end so many of my blogposts with paragraphs that preach back to the way I feel in the first lines. But knowing and believing truth sometimes (often) does not change the way you feel. Not always at least, not for me.

The fears will show up again even after the best, believing "casting out." And when they do - when I open my door to find that same stray meow - my shock gives way to recognition and I start my internal scheming to get rid of it... again.

That's why it feels like high school and college and 5th grade and right now. Because fears repeat. And no matter how many times I act surprised by the scratch at my door, I know I will recognize the meow on the other side.

So, I listed my fears on my phone and then fought back tears in the crowd of strangers trying not to look at me. Truth casted out fears (again) and truth made Friday life abundant.

But I am learning that fears are not "dealt with" ... fears are lived through.

Believing perfect love casts out fear means looking up with the Israelites at that bronze serpent in the desert (Numbers 21) because God keeps His promises. There will always be serpents and stray cats, but there will also be God.

We are one week away from celebrating the way God raised up His Son on the cross so we could look up for an eternal casting out of every fear. This is the kind of freedom that doesn't just "deal with" all the fear we have going on.

This freedom means you can live right through fears without being ruled by them.

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when the Spirit says

I was in the church choir a couple weeks ago and we sang a beautiful song. It had few words, but the melody moved like little children's feet. I could see bodies swaying in my peripheral vision and then I realized my hips were moving, too. It is that kind of song. Our choir director sent us this version to encourage a few minutes of preparation before we came together as a group for the hour rehearsal on Sunday morning.

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I love the simplicity.

It sounds like a child vowing to do a very noble and impossible thing without knowing how impossible it is (but believing the nobility warrants dramatic commitment). Simple, noble, honest, and impossible.

And that little chorus has been playing across my soul for the weeks since. And I started to wonder "when the Spirit says" pray in my life, because those are the times when my dramatic commitment is tested.

Do I become dishonest when I do not pray when the Spirit says pray? Am I less honest when I bury my worries or when I share joys with friends or when I sing grief in sad songs?

Redemption is wrapped up in the "I'm gonna," or at least that's how I read it. Like a child who forgot (again) to clean up his toys or help her brother or stay inside the fence, we look up with round, noble eyes and present our honest "I'm gonna" to the Father who knows how many times we have strayed.

He is the one who makes us honest. Because of redemption, because of His mercies new every morning, we can claim freedom to pray and sing and serve and love and dance in the ways Christ has called us to do those things.

In Christ, our sanctification is a hard and honest refining, a grace covered progress where all our "I'm gonna's" depend on all His "I did's."

 

our striving would be losing

If there ever was someone who deserved the distinction of being absolute, that someone is Jesus. He declared himself the absolute, only way to enter into the kingdom of heaven (John 14:6). In this question, there is no grey area - not a single drop of ying yang to dilute what He has spelled out explicitly in His word. Christ is salvation for those who believe, but salvation is bigger than we think. It is not just a salvation from judgment. Christ's salvation is also salvation into righteousness. In the same moment that He freed us from the bloody (literal) cycle of sacrifices, He freed us into obedience by way of His righteousness. We are no longer ruled by the destruction of our secret hearts and the destruction of our sinful humanity. We are not ruled by the darkness that seems to rule the world.

"For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." (2 Corinthians 5:21)

We are freed from judgment by Christ's atoning sacrifice and freed into obedience by Christ's imputing righteousness.

What we believe about Jesus Christ matters because our lives could never stand up to God's righteous judgment. My sin goes before me and follows close behind. The good I want to do gets muddled up in my own schemes and I am daily reminded of my sin that leads to death. I am weak against greed and pride and lust and fear and faithlessness. There is not a day I could stand upright in the face of God's righteous judgment.

But God, being rich in mercy called His children before the foundations of the world into freedom from the judgment that is due our dead bones.

I need for Christ to offer a salvation that is more than just a courtroom scene where He takes my guilty sentence. I need for Him to be the justice I act and the mercy I show and the love I share. I need for Him to be the righteousness that roots out my fear and greed and lust and pride and I need Him as replacement. I need for Christ to be who God sees when I stand before the throne of judgment. AND HE IS, dear friends!

What we believe about Jesus Christ matters because His sacrifice both atones for our sin (receiving the judgment we are due) AND imputes our righteousness (replacing ours with the perfect life Christ lived).

He is the perfect heart condition when I try to muster compassion. He is the perfect generosity when I scrounge for change. He is the perfect host when I frenzy about with overlapping plans. He is the perfect listener, counselor, and encourager when I am trying very hard and very imperfectly to be all those things.

Yesterday, I sang "A Mighty Fortress is Our God" with a group of strangers in a beautiful church near Union Square. This second verse really tore apart my spirit.

Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing; Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing: Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He; Lord Sabaoth, His Name, from age to age the same, And He must win the battle.

I do a lot of striving - a lot of confiding in my own strength - and none of it gets me closer to a better salvation. Absolutely not one single attempt (or many) at righteousness will be the reason Christ invites or denies me into His kingdom. Because there is only one right Man, a Man of God's own choosing, who has the power and perfection to be condemned in my guilty place so that I can become the righteousness of God. Salvation doesn't get any better than that.

No matter how many hungry folks we feed or naked people we clothe or strangers we invite in, we would never do it perfectly and we would never do it enough. I would never do righteousness enough and (if I could be so bold) you wouldn't either. We are always striving and our striving is always losing, but God made a way for us to be free of judgment and freed to righteousness. And that way is Jesus.

What we believe about Him is the most pressing, most prominent, most permanent thing today. He makes perfect all our imperfect attempts because He gave us His righteousness. We are freed from striving for perfection and freed from losing at that game. We are freed into obedience because salvation doesn't depend on our righteous performance. Salvation depends on the cross and Christ performed that perfectly... so that we could enter into His joy and invite others to the banquet table to meet the Man of God's own choosing.

As I click at my keyboard, wet and sloppy tears are tracking through the blush on my cheeks. Everything is snot-messy because salvation will always be a mystery. I don't understand why I get to know Christ. I don't understand why my sin does not banish me forever from His presence. I don't understand why I never have a better response. I don't understand why my daily song doesn't sound like worship. I don't understand why my heart can be so resistant to miracles.

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.

For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:20-31 ESV)

rain & sadness

The drip, drip, drop little April showers are finally ushering in a Spring that will stay in the city - I think. I don't mind pulling on my rain boots in the morning or carrying around an umbrella. I don't mind at all because there are bird chirps in the morning and sun shines behind the clouds. I don't mind because last night I wore a dress without tights for date night and lingered over coffee on the Lower East Side with my favorite human after going to an event with only tourists in attendance. I don't mind that the rain started when we walked home because he covered me with his coat. Rain is also the most fitting backdrop to this week of lament, nestled inside the forty day reflection of Lent. I have a hard time knowing where to store all the sadness that weighs like literal weight on my soul. I am sad for my own sin, heaped on the back of my Savior. I am sad because my sin makes the cross a necessity. But heaped upon those heaps is a sadness for whitewashed Christian fellowship.

Christ went to the cross for that, too - for all the ways we fail at Christian community, all the ways we do not trust and obey.

I've been thinking about Christian fellowship quite a bit lately and then I read this today in my devotional.

The way of Christian fellowship is empathy, which means we must not assume that everyone around us is fine. In our conversations, we must listen for complaints and cries and help them become laments. In our gathered worship, we must acknowledge the hurting and leave room for struggle and silence. In our counsel, we must pray with and over and for the hurting. This is essential to authentic Christian faith: Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2).

We are not fine, that's why Christ had to die. In his death and resurrection, He secured our freedom but we will not be truly "fine" until we meet Him in eternity. There is struggle here and the Christian community is not a place to hide that struggle, but instead a place to share it.

And, maybe, it is our ability to bear one another's burdens well that looks different to the world. Maybe our joyful suffering together is the kind of testimony to the suffering of the cross that this generation would understand.

like a heavy raindrop on my soul

My pastor is trying to trick us into memorizing Psalm 32, all of it. I guess I can't call it a trick if he told us the plan and if we all recite it together once a week. The second Sunday I read it in the bulletin, my voice slipped into the lull of liturgy and my mind tried to wander. I mouthed the words in the light of stained glass and corporate contemplation. I wasn't surprised when the reading ended and I felt like I could have just read a paragraph from any book. This past Sunday, we read chapter 32 again and I soaked it in.

I let each word fall like a heavy raindrop on my soul.

And I was not disappointed.

I am in a bit of a word desert right now. I don't like to write when I have nothing to say and I think that is for the best. This morning I am content to hear words spoken over me - the same words God is speaking over all His creation in this very moment.

Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.

Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah

I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. Selah

Therefore let everyone who is godly offer prayer to you at a time when you may be found; surely in the rush of great waters, they shall not reach him.

You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with shouts of deliverance. Selah

I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you. Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding, which must be curbed with bit and bridle, or it will not stay near you.

Many are the sorrows of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds the one who trusts in the LORD. Be glad in the LORD, and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart! (Psalm 32 ESV)

choosing Love

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Something about leaving my dentist appointment in Chinatown to wait impatiently for the J train at Canal Street with my large Starbucks and NY Times made me feel especially New York this morning.

It's all a miracle - the dentist in Chinatown, the daily subway navigation, the insurance coverage, the dreamy roommate situation, and the two avenues between Patrick and me. These are all daily, mysterious miracles from a gracious God who sees me in the middle of all these city lights.

But, I have also felt especially Austin and especially Chicago and especially Tegucigalpa  and especially Ames and especially Des Moines in the recent string of years and God's grace has pursued me in every location with daily, mysterious miracles. I have not found God to be less wonderful or faithful or beautiful in any of these locations, but more so.

My pastor recently shared a story about the first time he saw the mountains. After a long road trip with friends, he finally saw the sharp peaks stretch out into the sky and they were all overwhelmed with emotion. Words didn't seem to fit the new beauty standing like stone giants in front of them.

And then my pastor asked if we should have a similar response as we step into a crowded morning subway car. We all laughed because that's ridiculous, but then we all got silent.

Because if we really believe humanity is as special as God claims - that He breathes life into our bones and thought into our brains and movement into our muscles to give Him glory in a way the rest of creation cannot - then every human is marvelous.

People ask me, "How do you like New York?" And I promise I'm not copping out when I say, "I choose to love it."

I'm not saying something between the lines or hinting something inside those five words. I am just saying that loving New York is a choice and I am honest about choosing it.

I choose to love the crazy crowds of people and the commute (a fight I lose on the regular) and the millions of possibilities for social plans and the red hot ambition of artists and entrepreneurs and Wall Street analysts. I choose to love my neighbors and my strangers and my friends. I choose to love the sunlight through my third floor window and our little house plants and the guys who smoke weed in our stairwells.

But, I am learning about choosing love and about miracles and about all that makes creation marvelous.

Because my arms have not been twisted into this love and my days are not full of resignation, though my writing might read that way. I wish you could stand in the kitchen with me on a Monday night or sit at my desk with me during a crowded lunch period or sing next to me in Williamsburg during Sunday morning church or stumble up the subway steps at Winthrop on my way back home - then you would know what a joy it is to choose to love this place, full of marvelous people God created with great intention and care.

I choose to love NYC because this city is lovely. Depraved and thoughtful and broken and inspired and lost and scarred and... lovely. Love here (and everywhere) is not an emotion I can muster from my heart or an action I can force from my hands. It is what happens when you stand in front of a breathtaking miracle (and a crowded subway of them) and let awe seep out of your soul.

Choosing to love is believing all that God has said about humanity, and then believing Christ (on the cross) overcame my every desire to live like the opposite.

because we have song, they said

The birds sang all over my coffee this morning, through the open window by the fire escape. I wish I knew their song. It seems like creation doesn't hold back or get nervous or feel awkward about its praise. It's just the song inside and the only way is out.

The sunrise and the starlight and the sparrows under God's watchful eye, all just singing out the songs buried inside. If I imagined myself into conversation with the birds outside my window and I asked them why they sang, I wonder what they would say. I wonder if they would think me silly and simple minded when they reply,

"...because we have song."

This is the only option, but it is also the best and I love that the birds know that, and the mountains know that, and the life inside dead tree branches know that. Creation sings without shame or fear, but not to get glory.

Creation sings because the Creator gave them a song. And when creation sings, the songmaker is glorified.

I have a song inside, between doubts and delights and deserts. But the song is not for me. The singing is not so I can hear my own voice, but because I have a song. This, so that God would be glorified and others would see that I am also a part of the Spring chorus of sunlight and starlight and sparrows letting loose melodies into the sky.

Happy Sabbath day, friends.