these are a shadow

…all that is worth remembering of life is the poetry of it

truth louder than tantrums

In the days of the downpour, when we stay inside closed doors and watch from windows, it is my style to wander dreamily through the day. I sip hot tea, read essays, study Scripture, and discover new mellow music to wrap the room in an ambience of rest. Extra episodes of Flynn’s favorite shows are allowed, and we color enthusiastically with new crayons.

Today these sweet things fit in the tiny spaces between the cacophony of loud and long toddler tantrums. These hard-won moments of peace were brief, and nearly any movement could send the scales tipping towards the next full-body cry against all of life’s unfairness.  This was all too familiar to me, it is rage we all give when we are told that we are not in control. I had to step into his fighting, whether he welcomed me or not, and tell him that I understand, that I love him, but that this is all meant to push us toward Jesus, the great idol-crusher and our freedom from sin. All this weakness and anger, sweetheart. Take it to Jesus. He is all you really need. (Not a pop-tart. Not more TV. Not even the freedom to color on your favorite canvas shoes.)

This is not the picture every day, my every skill and philosophy as a mother put to the test.  But being a mother has caused me to press more deeply into the truth I profess and has urged me to be more engaged with the word of God. I need it for the long, tireless tantrum days when I need the words to speak over my boy, the words to pray, the assurance that my standing with God does not depend on how I handled things, but on the complete obedience of Jesus Christ. I also need it for the peaceful, happy, obedient days when I tend to lean more on my own strength and need to teach myself (and my family) that our goodness is not our peace.

I cannot afford to neglect the lamp to our feet and the light to our path that is God’s word. It is so easy to allow the noise of days like this one to push me away from it; it is tempting to seek rest and reward in the latest Instagram updates, a fabulous sale at my favorite store, a nap, or the final chapters of an engaging novel. All of these are good and wonderful gifts, but all gifts have their proper place at the footstool of the Giver. He made me (and my little one) to know him, to be in fellowship with him for eternity, and there is no better place to know him than in the Book he has given us. I hope we will all linger longer in its pages today, open our hearts wider to its instruction, and allow our idols to lose their luster next to the shimmering glory of Jesus.

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st. george

We drove to the island last Saturday –

the one in the gulf that is a must-see from hours around,

gently humming but far from crowded –

and offering plenty of quiet space for our

salty dips in that clear blue which

perfectly blurred into aqua shallows and

white sands.

The waves were a gentle sway

that felt like medicine and mercy

as the horizon vanished into the sky and

I caught sight of the dolphin dance

beyond the flock of pelicans, sharing the sea as

they took turns diving after their next meal.

Water had never made me feel ease like this –

but all there was to see and feel was

crystal, shimmering, cooling peace

for my sandpaper soul, deep-down

thirsty for sun and swimming

in the promise of God’s better, brighter love.

slowed down by sunshine

My son rarely misses a thing. He is two years old, and while I am frequently feeling hurried, anticipating the next box on my to-do list, he is my much-needed full stop. He meanders slowly when we walk, often retracing his steps or taking detours. He enthusiastically names everything he recognizes along our path, and makes sure I see it and name it, too. My high-speed mind and heart, accustomed to instant gratification and quick information, resists this slow-down that is necessary for flourishing. I need the observation and intake that slows down to savor and share goodness, rather than the rapid glances and hasty, rushing words that starve the soul.

As I write this, our little family is on a two-month adventure in Florida’s panhandle. Seth is interning while in-between school years, and we were all welcomed and housed on-site at his workplace. The entire landscape and air of Florida is new to each of us and we are always looking for the next place to explore on days off. It is all so green, so lush, so inviting. The heat is bearable, especially since we heard that it is reaching even higher temperatures back home in Pennsylvania. We’ll gladly take Florida this summer.

Even while Seth and I are always pointing out incredible trees, moss, clouds, or buildings to one another while we drive around, nothing comes close to the attention that Flynn gives to all things. At the lake, he was so reluctant to move past the first “big tree,” which bowed over our walkway and dipped its branches into the water on the other side. The countless ducks, panting for handouts, were beginning to sizzle my nerves, when all Flynn could do was open his mouth wide, peer over his sunglasses, and watch the waddling birds parading around. I had to tell myself: Stop. This is a new corner of the world for you, see the variety and the grace! So when we found the gazebo and the peak of Flynn’s day, I had to bend down with him and look up at the ceiling, too. Diving into his joy, I gasped in wonder with him and felt every step of his joy-dance as an extra pound in my heart, swelling to burst.

Then I saw the people more clearly. It seemed like we met nearly every sort of person you could think up while on our walk, and nearly each one thrilled over the sweetness and shades of our Flynn. (Sunglasses being his essential accessory this month, for walks, dinnertime, bedtime, you name it.) From the homeless trying to get some sleep on the benches, to the runners passing us by several times, to the picnicking families in the shade, we were all there to seek a restorative afternoon. I hope each person found some of that in one another’s presence, created like and loved by the one true and living God of beauty.

Our apartment complex is filled with a brilliant rainbow of diversity, too. Our hearts have been widened by the generosity of the family from India at the playground, the smiling woman from Nigeria we pass walking around the development, and the young, single dog owner who slows down for a chat. I’m used to the comfort of living in my own world, avoiding conversation and fearing differences. Having my little explorer by my side is an instant way that God’s grace has gently open wide the door to meeting and loving neighbors.

It sometimes takes a bit of new scenery to nudge me awake, some fresh beauty and routine to help me better treasure the more familiar parts and people in my life. In this season, it is my toddler’s eagerness that is leading me in this needed exercise: slowing down, looking up, and stepping closer.

baptism waters

Swallowed in the lapping waters,

I rose again, sealed and assured

by this resurrection movement

of the work already started.

As surely as salt waves swept over skin,

my fevered body raised to celebration song from the shore,

so also has Christ bound me up with Himself,

dying in weakness and rising to have everything.

 

Raised with a shout over thrilling deliverance

and chilling baptistry waters,

he was given sign and seal

on our first date, as he ran hard out of darkness

into marvelous light, and

joined steps with me. We help each other

keep steady on since rebirth

and until death divides us.

 

The gift is kind – for us, forgetful –

And this is the Gospel to see and celebrate

with fresh air, remembering our own going under and

coming up with Christ.

The newest, sister, was sung over, too

as we saw with cleared eyes

and took heart in today’s dry valley

of pride and angry fist-shaking,

because we are not complete, but on our way there.

We are winning – by strength outside our limited

selves, the strength of the eternal

Son, baptized in our skin, obedient for us – and

with us till the good end.

a seat at his table

It took me years to feel welcome at the communion table. Taking the Lord’s supper holds weighty significance for every believer in the body of Christ, but as one who heavily struggled as a child and teenager over the meaning of salvation, church membership, and the sacraments, I now feel a special tenderness and love for this recurring remembrance feast.

I grew up in churches where membership was held in such a high, careful place that people joining in new membership was almost rare. It often seemed as if I had to possess not only thorough knowledge of doctrine and creeds to be an official part of the church, but that I also had to be 100% convinced of my salvation and be able to explain it in a compelling enough manner to be baptized and let in to the operations and blessings of the church. The thought of even approaching a pastor about membership made me afraid. I would spend the quiet moments during communion, while the plates passed me by, to pray that I would be able to take part, too. The fence around the table seemed too high for me to ever scale.

Beginning in college, I started attending churches in which the government of the church structure as well as its approach towards Christians and families is markedly different. Being a part of these churches as I have transitioned into adult life has helped me see that God’s grace is big, that children should be treated as part of God’s family, and that the waters of baptism and the bread and of the Lord’s supper are indeed for me. I also encountered different perspectives on the sacraments in my theology classes in college, deepening some of my convictions while challenging others. My heart was imprinted with poetic descriptions of moving towards the table even as we tremble, of taking hold of the cup even while our flesh marks its inconsistencies on the glass. One of my favorite preachers came as a special guest as part of a college conference, and spoke on this very thing, tying the Lord’s supper to God’s covenant with Abraham and His gracious condescension to His people in their doubt. Yahweh knew we would need the truth as something to touch, taste, and see (many times over) as we journey on towards the day when faith becomes sight. The Lord’s Supper is God bending low to meet us and feed us, weak as we are.

These ideas have left indelible marks on my heart, helping me to hear God’s tender assuring voice welcoming me to take part. I can come and know with certainty that no matter what happens in between our gathering feasts, He is there and is the same, every time. He is for me, open-armed and ready. He knows me and is not surprised by anything that I have done, by any dark thought that either creeps or darts its way into that sweet place of communion with Christ and His church. And that as certainly as I eat and drink physical bread and wine, so does His word prove true, so does He dwell within me, never to depart.

The somber warnings issued by preachers before the sacrament I now see as good and right. They are not meant to condemn or drive away. They are spoken because there is a holy need for caution and care, because this feast is for the church of Christ, whom He calls to faithfulness. Preachers are right to read these warnings and urge reverence. If a member of their congregation is living in unrepentant sin, there is a place in the process of church discipline that may require suspension from participating in the Lord’s supper. But this should only be for a time, only while unwillingness and rebellion persist, and only for the end of gaining the sinning brother or sister back through the ministry of reconciliation. If there is submission, a returning to God even in its infant stages, there must be a welcome seat at the table.

Paul’s words to the Corinthian church are for us too, and direct us to grace if we look closely: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” (I Corinthians 11:27-28)

Jesus speaks “Take, eat and drink. Remember me.” As the church gathers to celebrate this supper until He comes again, may we know the wideness in God’s mercy and may we be his welcoming voice to all who come, saying those words our hearts need in every moment: “The body of Christ was broken for you. The blood of Christ was shed for you.”

the gathering truth

One preacher gave the word picture I held on to – his word artistry helps me latch on to old truths in new ways. He spoke of the ‘tangled skein’ of voices calling to the rich fool in Jesus’ parable, and calling to us. The confusion that spins when we listen to a multitude of voices.

I looked up at the phrase. I do want to welcome the voices that will widen my mind and heart – while being rooted in truth and sensitive to beauty. But I lazily open the doors to the rapid-fire, constant stream of things, social media’s heart trap. The good there can be excellence, but by the time I find it, I have wandered an easy maze that’s left me dizzy and turned around. The discontent grows, rest comes slow, and I find another thing I must have or another voice I should imitate. Rather than growing my heart for greater love and creative generosity, I’ve let it splinter and unwind in a thousand directions.

The voice of Christ – it is always here, and always speaking. His word is the gathering truth that unites our hearts again to love him. There is where I must listen first and most often. Tangled skeins and unraveled hearts are straightened and bound up in Him.

I have found other clarifying places to linger, by more grace from His hand. Here is one, with A.W. Tozer’s helpful, humbling way: “While we are looking at God we do not see ourselves – blessed riddance. The man who has struggled to purify himself and has had nothing but repeated failures will experience real relief when he stops tinkering with his soul and looks away to the perfect one.”

It is the looking away that I need. When my eyes meet the truth, my hands stop their frenzied grabbing, sore from tireless tries to smooth, sort, and collect. I remember that I am being sung over in love by the lasting, shimmering One who keeps and helps. And as one shaky step follows another, I am sure that I am and will be filled with all that I need, heart thrumming heavenward home.

“But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.”

after night, morning

Our spirits, when the heavy things have been lifted, soar with new lightness. Now that his new job allows him to be home at 3:30, we are often together for the golden hour, the place and time where I feel the soaring most wonderfully. We walk for ice cream, or sit at the table for a shared supper, or clumsily toss a football in the yard. With all of it there is deep joy and celebration. If there is pain, we say it, and we soothe with more words and tactile grace. At the end, when the sky is dark, we sing and pray and read of Christ and our hope.

These heavy things I keep whispering of, the struggles of our marriage, the wanderings of our hearts, the wounds we are still healing from, we are not afraid to tell. But I want to speak it all with care and respect, and be sure to pull out the shards of beauty that are splintered through our story of the past two years and are being pieced together for the good of today and the glory of our future. You may only see parts and glimpses of us at times, and they may  be dark. Always try to see the goodness and the light, though. Even if it is just that spark of hope that comes when you realize that you are not the only ones.

And so many times, I have felt that no one can know my pain. Maybe someone distant, unlinked to my life, is going through this. But never do I imagine that the people I see and speak to at church on Sunday, or at work on a weekday, are facing this, or would know what to say if they knew that we do. That has started to change, ever since Seth has asked for an open ear each week with our friend and pastor. At the beginning of the year, he put words and terms with his struggles. He stepped into the light of accountability, and ever since has been doing the hard work of laying the truth on the table, and of doing whatever it takes to overcome things that have fought tooth and nail for our marriage and our lives.

::::

“I’m a binge drinker. If it’s in the fridge, I can’t stop.
“I’ve been smoking weed while you were at work for the last month.”
(The confessions that were needed but so very painful. So much hidden, yet so much known.)

A night in the hospital after an alcohol-induced diabetic coma.
And other terrifying nights where we were in different frames of mind and body–  and all I felt was a wall between us while I frantically grasped for the right words and the right feelings.
(The nights and days where I trembled for his life and our future.)

In these hard and lonely days, my soul has felt stretched to tearing. I have experienced deep pain because I have heard the darkest, loudest lies shout in my ears, telling me that I was not strong or useful or worthy or loved. That I was utterly alone. That because we couldn’t fix this, we had failed and there was no hope. I have struggled for a heart of grace, freedom from bitterness, and the ability to believe the best about my husband. [How do I love him, even today? Even in this?] I have made myself sick with worry that I would lose him. I have been tempted to stop believing that God is good. 

::::

This has been our night and our sorrow, in just a few words.

Yet we have also glimpsed magnificence:
Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes with the morning. And with the morning comes the cry to be satisfied with the steady love of God that never left. (Psalm 90:14) In each and every valley where we gasped for air and strained for the smallest glimpse of light, God has held us. He has torn down the glittering hopes we placed in each other for wholeness, and is showing us that we cannot save each other, or fill each other’s every last missing part. (To really know this is freedom.) Jesus is our fullness, our strength, and our morning song.

I am confident that this is not our only and last season of weeping. And some of this is still fresh and painful. Addictions do not go away from us cleanly and finally, most of the time — There is ongoing and real struggle every day, and will be until the day when Jesus comes to heal all wounds and wipe all tears. But please be tender and quick to see the glory being made in us. Please help us remember and believe that the best things are true and that we are never alone.

freedom to tell

I find it so much harder to write about today ever since I got married. I used to process my thoughts through words on paper or screen, and I found freedom in being as see-through as I could in those places. Writing was a process that helped me age spiritually and emotionally, as I needed to do. Not that I was ever very frequent or consistent with words, but it seemed more natural then to sort my thoughts into order and true words, whenever they began to swirl.

Lately, I have realized that since my life in its entirety has been bound up with Seth’s, it becomes trickier to figure out a way to tell the stories in my head without unwrapping those sacred, hidden parts of us that we are sharing just between us. I can think up plenty of past phases to taste again in my mouth, to remember and savor again in a good re-telling. But to tell of the present requires a new way to process, and I need to figure it out, because I need to keep writing. I want to tell of today with candor and courage, but hold the tenderest parts with greatest care.

Just the other day, during a difficult talk with my husband and our pastor, Seth was urged to free me from some heavy burdens I have been carrying. As husband and wife, and as Christians, we should be bearing each other’s burdens in order to help each other along toward light and truth. Here, we were both helped to see that I had been taking, and he had been placing, too much weight upon my shoulders, and that I needed relief. Some of my first thoughts went toward this fear I had towards creativity. That my necessary transparency in writing had become impossible to me, as I was afraid of telling the truth of what we have known, of what we have felt, of why I have cried in dark corners, of why he goes back to things he promised he’d leave. I couldn’t tell of the beautiful, victorious days in a right way, without also telling of the dark and terrifying ones. Right away, Seth looked into my eyes, and gently told me to tell without fear. To bring our stories to the page, no matter how hard they have been to live through, and no matter how hard they are to re-tell. Already I felt less weight in my soul, and the light just begin to finger its way to my shattered places.

As we have been learning, light is painful at first, when it shows us all that is not right. All that we have done, all that we have suffered. But it is grace all along, for it floods us with life. It buoys us to the air of freedom, where we can dance in the company of the others who have known those same darkest nights. It bids our heaven-sent helpers take our hands, and speak help to our tired hearts: “Your Jesus will not fail you.”  

I want to stay here in the fields and open air of grace, living and telling of the Light meeting our darkness, making all things new. So, here is my new start. I pray you’ll patiently prod me along the way to keep me telling. For there is so much to tell.

january steps

We have dreams with shapes, and we have dreams we can’t yet picture. The arrival of this year is stirring our hearts to move forward with some plans we have for change, in the hope of deep longings becoming true. Our hearts feel hardly more than inadequacy and fear, because all is hidden in the shadow of tomorrow and all we know is our smallness. We search for right paths, for the wisest thing, but it is hard when we still feel like children without a clue.

 

The chances of it all fitting the way we’d like to seem too slim, and we are tempted to cast off all courage. Waiting may be the name of this season, too. But still, we search, work, and try, and deep down we know the sureness of what God has said and done – about himself and for us – and that the unraveling of our handcrafted plans for the building of new ones is part of our lifelong journey of learning to take our hopes to his cradling, capable hands.

 

And it is a deep, cleansing breath when we feel the scribbled, frantic piles of our plans born away by the bearer of our burdens. As a good poet reminded me in the lines that follow, making my life story beautiful and right was never my work from the start.

 

Most blessings sprout not from the plans

We make, but from the soil of their sad ruin.

Watch their slow, unstoppable unraveling,

 

Their disassembly, the final shudder, and

Their collapse, and the dustcloud that follows.

Pay attention then to the way your heart

Breathes a sigh of relief when the work

 

That was never yours anyway is lifted

From your tired hands. Pay attention,

When you clean up the mess, to the treasure

That the wreck unearthed, and give thanks

 

For your folly and God’s favor.

  {Andrew Peterson, from “Paying Attention”}

to love, even today

Never before binding myself to my husband have I ever known such stretching of heart. I’ve felt pain and bliss as everyone does, but never this way. When love and marriage happened to him and me, so intriguingly fast and right, it was not how I had come to dream of it or expect it to arrive. We slipped into each other’s lives by surprise, and nearly without effort. Two starkly different souls with opposite histories saw that their lives were somehow heading in the same direction all of a sudden. It seemed wonderful to join the adventure of life side-by-side.

We met at the campground where prayer nourished the ground and the Creator’s praise energized every game and hiking trip. Generous hearts and homes helped us, guided us, and looked out for our good and growth. I stepped from that valley to the church in another one – a perfect May day where love and gladness beamed from all faces. There we made our forever covenants with God and each other. It was unforgettably perfect.

And here we are today, one year and one month later. The newness and thrill of being married comes and goes with the hard, ragged tries to live in step and understand one another. But there is never any doubt at the end of each day that we belong this way — straining and learning to love each other without condition.

Who would ever have thought that a self-righteous perfectionist with a religion degree would be fitting herself with a former drug addict and emo punk band lead singer that got kicked out of high school? He’s still silencing the calls to “come back” and the lie that he’s a failure — I impatiently bruise him when I attempt to fix his wounds with rules and Law, (which is often my urge instead of tenderness and still more grace.)He’s impulsive and a little sloppy –I’m a planner who needs every painful detail, obsessed about straight lines and mental order. He carries the weight of diabetes and seasonal depression –I’ve never known any suffering worse than menstrual cramps. He’s a joker and a goofball — I take every word at its value and get hurt easily. He’s easygoing and social –I’m fighting off painful self-consciousness and fear of people. This is just the start of our complexities.

This first year has brought so much delight over being one, sometimes it seems our hearts will burst with the wonder of it. It brings great pleasure to see how our differences fit just so brilliantly — how two so very opposite people can find home and healing in each other. But somehow it seems that this year has just as often shown us the dark, shadowy parts of ourselves, and the ways our differences can be used to hurt one another. We find ourselves frequently uttering pained, helpless cries to God, (or even struggling to pray at all) because we’re discovering more of how deeply we’re broken and cannot save one another. The temptation to throw up our hands grows strong, as we feel so fiercely our inadequacy to love the way we really need it.

With a sigh of thankfulness, we can say with confidence that these shadows have not shouted loud enough to break us, but have helped us fall hard on the only one who can save us. Jesus is the sinless spouse who daily bears with us, the most disappointing, frustrating and opposite people. We abandoned him, and still: he went after us in love. Even now, he is tenderly with us to the end.

And that is how I can hold tighter to Seth each day, even when we can’t seem to find any hope, even when we’ve hurt each other the same ways again after so many promises, even after we’ve uncovered an even deeper, uglier wound we’ve never seen before and can’t feel the love we speak. We’re being held all along the way, and all the pain of learning love is drawing us deeper into light, and making us glimmer just a little more brightly with peeks of what we’ll be one day. We’re stretched and we weep, but in our expanding we are better filled with Jesus and deeper breaths of grace. In belonging to Him, we are free to lay down our lives for one another and be honest without any fear of being cast out.

And we can be brave enough to face today and say:
“Oh, darling, let’s lift our heads and keep on. I love you forever.”