Tuesday, December 30, 2014

On earthy hope, cocoons and the edges of wildness

The pause between Christmas day and the beginning of a new year has in recent years been fraught, for me, with a gnawing, hungry hope. An eagerness to cast off the old, which honestly hasn't been all that endearing these past years, and leap into newness. Or, at the very least, the glimmer of hope of newness. And what has happened these past years, too, is four or five months into this supposed newness, a weight of grief falls heavy on my heart. Things aren't all that different, it mocks. In fact, they're not different at all - and they probably never will be.

Does anyone else burn with exhaustion in their souls at the damned near impossible task of warding off cynicism and discouragement, while simultaneously seeking to honor the grief of losses splayed like a pile of bones one upon the other, while at the same time keeping a space vacant, no matter how small it is, to house the mystery of hope, the unexpected beauty strewn across our paths that day or so imperceptibly growing with time we nearly miss it?

Yeah, that.

I know that exhaustion well. Maybe you do, too. It is not so simple a gesture, I think, to embrace hope, for in expanding space to hope and love and light, we also expand our capacities for disappointment and heartbreak, for doubt and anger and darkness. We cannot grow one direction without growing in the other.

I'm not talking here about the biblical "hope that doesn't disappoint," but a hope more earthy and common to us humans. The hope of "maybe tomorrow will be better" or "maybe life will let up for awhile and I can breathe again" or "maybe that dream will begin to be fulfilled" or "maybe this (whatever this is) what won't be in vain."

We all have these kinds of hopes, don't we?

It doesn't have to mean we're not doing our best to live fully into this present moment, only that we're willing to consider there may be more light beyond this moment, and depending on what kind of moment we're in, it may be just what we need to get through to the next. 

This, friends, is where I've found myself, like I said, at the advent of a new year for some years now. 

But this year, it's different. I'm less eager, I suppose, to throw myself at the mercy of "high hopes" for newness. And it's more than that, too. It's a gentler hope, like the slow burn of an ember, flickering and holding steady through the night. I find myself leaning back on hope instead of pressing forward into it, and this subtle difference in posture changes the tone entirely. I'm resting, being carried along by a current, not bracing myself for rapids ahead or floating in my own little world like rapids don't exist.

This is where I am. I guess you might call it peace, though it isn't without its struggle, its tension.

It's an irony, no? That peace and tension can coexist? It seems all they need is respectful awareness of each other. 

* * * * * 

For several years, I've tried to participate in the One Word challenge. Writers pick a word that colors the theme of their year ahead and weave this theme, periodically, through their posts that year. Both times I've picked a word and it's fallen flat after the first post. Maybe I was trying too hard or not listening well, or maybe it's just not my thing to pick one word.

I still don't have a word. But I can tell you where I see myself in imagery, stepping across the threshold of next year:

Nestled, for now, inside a cocoon. Craving wide open spaces at the rougher edges of faith and God, where wildness and mystery dwell, outside of neat containment.

Yes, I'm here. Swaddled in this cocoon of the unknown, not only resting, but transfiguring. A caterpillar might know, instictually, that she'll one day emerge as a butterfly or a moth. But perhaps not. Perhaps she is swaddled tight, too, through the cycle of transformation, not knowing when or how or what she'll be when she emerges. Knowing she cannot ultimately control these things. So she gives herself over to it, to the process of change, to the grace of this great Weaver of beauty, and lets go.

So much of me, of my life and faith and marriage and writing, are bound up in this cocoon, that it's a sense of relief, really, to recognize this is where I am.  I can stop running desperate to hope or resisting it and work, instead, with the natural rhythms of metamorphosis. 

What this may mean for my writing is that I will tuck words away for awhile, letting them take shape in more private spaces.  I'm not so hungry to share all my words here, but to keep some in the sacred dark for however long they need.

I cannot say what this all will look like or what I will look like, for that is part of the journey through the unknown I'm learning to walk - to cocoon in - but I do know this:

“All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”

And somehow, that is enough for me, for this day, for this year. 

Linking up at Beth's for the last Unforced Rhythms of 2014.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

When you can't hear the angels singing above the world's weeping

It's less than two days before Christmas and it has yet to "feel" like Christmas. This week is passing, looking and feeling much the same as most weeks, except my husband is in California with his family, so I'm in no hurry to get home. That, and traffic has been exceptionally bad, a maze of clogged cars snaking through the city streets and highways. 

At times this season, I've sat in our living room with the lights off, except for the twinkling tree, listening to Nat King Cole croon Christmas tunes, pensively willing anything to feel the same as it once did. It didn't, really. Most of the time, I restlessly changed the station to one of my favorites, Gregorian chants, and the voices would settle on me as the striking of a brass bowl does at the beginning and end of silences in the contemplative service I enjoy on Sunday evenings, reminding me this is where I am now.

The bowl rings. An invitation to inward reflection. Pause. The bowl rings again. A call to unfurl outward once more.

And to be perfectly honest, I'm relieved it doesn't "feel" like Christmas this year. Somehow, this lack of festive feeling, this feeling instead like any other day, carves out space in my soul to hear and see beyond feeling, placing me right at the feet of this ancient, still-unfolding Story. 

With my husband absent, I sit criscross in the place we've sat every night through December, in front of our nativity, reading daily snatches of the Advent story. Taking deep breaths, I imagine the resonant call to silence. Instead of reaching right away to light the candles, I wait, and pick up a paper printed with a prayer I've fallen in love with. Here, I tread quietly into the Presence.

O God, it is night. The night is for stillness. Let us be still in the presence of God.

Deep breath. Release.

It is night after a long day.

Not only my long day, but the world's long day. I let the weight of this sink in slowly.

What has been done has been done; what has not been done has not been done.

Images from the news flash across my mind, all that has been "done" this day and days before this day, that cannot be undone. The killings, the sickness and disease, the natural disasters, the court rulings, the violent protests, the wars. And all that has not been done - justice, peace, mercy, healing, reconciliation, brotherly love. 

The tears spring from what has seemed of late a desert. I stare blurry-eyed at the ridiculous, cartoonish tiny creche of baby Jesus, thinking, What kind of world is this?

The thought of grieving each and every sorrow born this night is unbearable, crushing, impossible. 

Where are you, Jesus? The cry echoes this dark room.

This is no world I'd want to bring a child into, I confess.

There's no telling if this was a world Mary wanted to bring a child into, either, let alone this child. And yet, he came. Into the womb of a world no less dark and tormented two thousand years ago, while the cries of grieving mothers also pierced the shroud of night, he came.

He came. And you know what? Most of the time, I can't tell that he did. Things look and feel and sound, so often, like a savior has yet to be born. Like our hopes were in vain.  Like light, in fact, did get swallowed up in darkness.

I would be a liar to say otherwise. To not admit that, so much of the time, declarations of "Emmanuel, God with us," fall shallow on the ears, dull on the heart. 

Even so. When I can't see the difference it makes on a day that feels like any other day - that, in reality, is any other - some part of my soul is that brass bowl, resonant and bright, ringing out that this birth changed everything. Seen and unseen, known and unknown, felt and unfelt, heard and unheard.

Another deep, shuddering, wet breath - Let it be.

The words that shift me from seeing and feeling, to faith in the company of doubt. There is nothing more I can do this night, but let it be.

The night is dark. Let our fears of the darkness of the world and of our own lives rest in you.

I let it all roll off at the imagined base of a feeding trough which cradles a baby born to be a sacrifice. 

The night is quiet. Let the quietness of your peace enfold us, all dear to us, and all who have no peace.

I speak this slow, a blessing over all that lives and moves outside my door. Peace.

The night heralds the dawn. Let us look expectantly to a new day, new joys, new possibilities. 

I close my eyes and pray to open wider the door of my heart to this hope. Hope for me, for you, for us - for the whole earth and all living things. Maybe it was every bit as hard to imagine for the ancient Israelites listening to half-crazed prophets proclaim a distant promise of a God-Messiah, as it is for me to imagine a new day for this old, weary, heartsick world. 

Most nights, I can't imagine it. The best I can do is utter these words - 

In your holy name we pray.

I let my hand mark the sign of the cross as I whisper, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Picking up the lighter, I watch the candles flicker to life, reflections of my faint hope in the darkness.

Amen, let it be.

* * * * * 

Linking up at Beth's for the last Unforced Rhythms of 2014. 

For more Advent reflections this season, you may read here and here and here.


Sunday, December 14, 2014

How nature sings its preparation

I got a new body for my broken camera recently. For nearly a year, I've been without this extra eye, and I've felt its absence.

Maybe you're like me. When words hide underground amidst a churning of thoughts, I seek expression in pictures. Let them do the talking, my heart insists. I am not ready to speak.

So, as has been my pull this Advent season, I head outdoors, with eyes scanning for signs of the world preparing her earthen house for the coming Christ. For how can I put this to words, but that my ears have grown a tad weary and wary of so many human voices speaking on behalf of Christ? So I step out where the voices sing soft, so soft I need to silence mine to listen, and when I do, I hear their strength wrapped in subtlety of poetry. Unfinished, colorful, mysterious, laced with hope, they speak.

For those who have ears to hear, eyes to see.

How they prepare the way.

 Clinging to the branch, dying
that slow fade of death that precedes 
yes - but still 
alive, blood red.

for glad tidings,
great joy,
quiver of hope from the heavens,
 for the light holding
fast in the sullen skies,

the light,
the food,
the drink,
hanging from the tree.

 The rising Morning Star,
the skeleton trees clapping
their hands;
 the flocks of the forest
piercing the skies
with song;

 the wizened trees bowed low.

Wings lifted to the wind,
 they perch,
they wait.
For Love that came 
once, as a tiny seed.

And then a forest,
ever spreading.

Instinctively, they know
Love will come again.

Linking up with Unforced Rhythms, hosted this month at Beth's blog, newly renamed Trading Good for Grace.

And linking a late Five-minute Friday, to the prompt of "Prepare."

For more Advent reflections, click here - and here.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Tales of beauty from the rubbish heap: The beauty of neediness

It's an honor to feature another friend's tale of beauty from the rubbish heap, a little dream I rolled out last May. From the first day I happened upon her words, I was drawn in by her courage and commitment to show her real self as a person in church ministry, and how she feels about her role, without the expected "Christianese". Would you please welcome Liz von Ehrenkrook, whose refreshing and thought-provoking words you'll find over at her blog, So I Married a Youth Pastor?

* * * * * 


I have always been proud of my independence. It’s been a romantic sort of notion, never needing anyone for anything but keeping them around because I enjoy their company.

When I turned 18, I moved out of my parent’s house and into my first apartment, in another state. I was on my own and living alone. It was the most exciting thing in my life since I’d gotten my driver’s license and graduated high school.

I loved reporting to no one. On weekends I chose whether or not I wanted to see anyone or go anywhere. I ate what I wanted for every meal, if I ate at all. I slept in.

When I would venture out, I’d spend hours driving at night learning which highways intersected and which part of Seattle was my favorite. I’d cruise the streets, watching people spill out of bars and dream of turning 21.

I remember a married friend asking me once, “What do you do at home when you’re by yourself?”

“The same as you do. I read, clean and do laundry, watch movies, cook meals. I just don’t have anyone in the next room when I do.”

I had not yet discovered the term introvert.

* * * * *

It’s taken me a long time to realize how much I insulated myself with independence. It was my protection; it kept people from getting too close.

I needed to know there was nothing I couldn’t do on my own. I needed to know that if I never did find a forever mate I could carry all the groceries up the stairs, replace the burned-out light bulbs, mow the grass and change a tire.

Being strong-willed meant I was a healthy woman who could master the single life void of a man’s help - or anyone’s help for that matter.

I needed to be viewed first as independent and self-sufficient.

* * * * *

I’ve been married for almost eight years now. My husband, Mat, told me recently that I had changed, “You’re so needy. I’ve never seen you like this before.”

I cried. How did I get like this?

Needy is a bad word in my book.

Mat has always wanted to be my provider, my rock, but my independence short-changed him. I wouldn’t let him reach the things on the tops of shelves, or bandage a wound if I’d hurt myself; I’d break my back rearranging furniture before allowing him to help.

I didn’t realize I was sending a message: “I love you, but I don’t need you.”

* * * * *

A few weeks ago I sat on the couch holding back tears. They were the big kind, the ones that fill your eyelids and then spill out onto your cheeks in a thick, steady stream. I didn’t know how to express what I was feeling so I sat still, trying to shut myself down.

Mat was putting on his shoes, he had somewhere to be; I didn’t want him to leave me but I didn’t want to burden him with the ask, “Please stay.” The words were caught in my throat.

He moved to kiss me goodbye and the tears exploded. He didn’t ask me what was wrong; he simply pulled me into him and held me while my mascara stained his shirt.

Mat cancelled his plans without question telling the guys, “My wife needs me.”

* * * * *

I am learning how to love my husband according to his love languages, not my own. And loving differently has inadvertently taught me how to be needy.

So while I can get through the day without my husband’s help, I don’t want to.

I absolutely, without apology, need Mat. I am desperate for him.

The relationship I have with Mat has grown my relationship with Jesus. I’m pretty sure it’s no accident.

My independence taught me I didn’t need Jesus and for the six years I was on my own, living alone, I didn’t know him.

Marriage changed me. I love Jesus because he loves me in return, in my own language. I understand more now about God’s love because of Mat’s love for me.

I have learned how to trust, and I am learning how to let go.

More importantly I’m learning how to be needy.

Lord, I need you
Oh, I need you
Every hour I need you
My one defense, my righteousness
Oh, God, how I need you

Monday, December 8, 2014

A perpetual state of advent

I'm strolling the sides of a riverbank, scanning tall grasses for signs of heron, or the skies for eagles. I always come to this park east of Seattle, with its acres of off-leash dog park mingling with trails of bird sanctuary, for soul breaths. It's the best of two worlds, dogs and birds. I love them both, as I love the water and the forests and the marshy reeds beside the river.  The song that's been thrumming in my heart all week, comes out my mouth as I walk along, alone.

O Savior, rend the heavens wide
Come down, come down with mighty stride
Unlock the gates, the doors break down
Unbar the way to heaven's crown

I find comfort in familiar outdoor sanctuaries, during a season of growth and change, where my internal landscape is anything but familiar. During this season of Advent, where what's familiar no longer feels a comfort. Even as I'm making peace with spiritual tension, I sometimes long, in moments of tiredness, to climb back into the lap of where I've come from and curl up in warmth, knowing full well I would not find there the embrace I crave.

So I swallow gulps of fresh December air. Of mulch and dog and river. And I talk to God, singing as I meander through the deserted parts of the park.

O Morning Star, O Radiant Sun
When will we sing your morning song?
Come, Son of God, without your light
We grope in gloom and dark of night 

I marvel, at how nothing really feels the same in me, in this season. At how expansively we can change, and how we don't determine our paths entirely, and how the unexpected, the "nevers" of life, can sometimes beautify our stories, like lines burrowed into a face. 

And how those of us who find ourselves daily caught between What Was and What is Yet to Come, between the old and the new, are living in a perpetual state of advent. That middle place, where tension resides, is advent.

We are perfectly positioned in this tension for the birth of Christ to break into our lives - yet again, or for the first time - not in spite of, but especially because, we are profoundly aware of being in process and are choosing to wait here, where there are few comforts.

And so I pray a prayer I keep returning to, Christmas season or not - "Be born in me, again." 

Be born in our world, again.

There shall we all our praises bring
Ever to you, our Savior King
There shall we laud you and adore
Forever and forever more

Linking up with the community of Unforced Rhythms, hosted this month at Beth's blog, where she wrote a beautiful piece on peace and advent this week.

Also, linking up with Heather at EO for Just Write. 

For last week's advent post, read here.  

Friday, December 5, 2014

Five-minute Friday: Dear Church

  [Linking up with Kate and the Five-Minute Friday community to the prompt of  "Dear." This is not in the five-minute format, as it generally is not for me, but I thank you for allowing me the liberty to go with it...]

Dear Church,

I fumble for words to begin, and even so, they snag at the edges of my heart's corners. There are so many layers and textures, don't you know, to how I feel about you?

I want you to know, before you know anything else, that I love you. 

I do. I love you, even though I admit I don't know exactly what that looks like so much of the time - especially now. Even though that love, at times, is conflicted. What does it mean, I ask myself, to love you well, with as much truth as I can lay hold of? 

It's complicated, like so many relationships are these days. 

I guess the answer for me is, I love you as a mother. You might not have carried me in a physical womb, but in a spiritual womb of sorts, I was born from you and into your arms. And you raised me up in the ways you knew best. You wanted me to know right from wrong, to have a compass to guide me on this journey, to shape who I would become and who I would follow and how I would live and love. To keep me safe along the way.

And like any home, as an adult, I have needed to tuck into the folds of who I am those things you taught me that I hold dear. And to let go of those things that no longer aid me in my journey, but hold me back from who I'm becoming. I've needed to reaffirm those things I still believe as truths and slowly, carefully identify, untangle and unlearn those things I no longer believe.

It's been a long time coming to this place of launching out, but the time has come. As any grown child, I need to push away, find my way in this world. I carry your words with me in my heart, and I'm working on tuning out the ongoing soundtrack of words that you mean well, that sound like noisy chatter in my head.

I'm not angry with you, but I do forgive you. For the ways you've failed to mirror the love of the One who breathed you into being. For the ones you've hurt along the way, myself included. For being imperfect, as all of us are. 

I'm not running away, nor am I leaving for good. But I'm not sure my coming back will mean I'll live again in your house.

I need to go, so I can clear my head, my heart, and turn the next page of this story.

I hope to live in the same neighborhood, several houses down, where we can freely visit, sit in each others' kitchens and around each others' tables, and help each other out, as family does, in good times and bad. I will always honor you as a mother. 

Can you trust that my leaving from underneath your roof is not the same as leaving the family? I am not abandoning you. You are, for better or worse, woven into my story. And long, long before my story ever was, you laid out for me a history.

I simply cannot remain here as I am here, in these too-small walls, in the same bedroom I've always had, with the same childhood bed and the posters on the wall, the same music playing on the stereo, the nightlight dimly aglow in the dark.

I need to find my new way of being in this family.

This is a huge part of my childhood, my teenage years, my young adulthood, I'm packing up and taking with me. It's a wrenching, a tearing, to move out of this house. 

It's a sadness, to see your face in the window and know you probably don't understand why I need to do this. I hate the thought of hurting you, but I cannot stay at the expense of not following the One you've always taught me to follow to the outer edges where I can so dimly see he's calling me to come in trust. 

Please, don't ask me to define for you exactly what this will look like. I cannot answer that yet.

But it's here I feel a deep courage welling up inside me. A tenuous peace, the very essence of tension itself. Isn't what I always wanted that I not live a comfortable life? I just assumed, for all those years, it meant uncomfortable in the sense of radical opposition to the status quo. Living in poverty, in danger, in another country far across the world.  Instead, I'm finding it's a quieter, perhaps no less radical choice to make my home right here, in this place of spiritual tension, where I have no place to lay my head except next to Christ's at the end of each day.

I don't expect you to understand or agree with all the whys or the hows of this journey. But I do hope, one day, you can look at me and see some kind of reflection of the beautiful, untamable One you always wanted me to look like.

I hope we can see that in each other, for in understanding each other, this is where we'll truly discover how to love.  That's really all that matters, is it not?

With respect and gratitude, 


Monday, December 1, 2014

The ache of Advent: giving up

I chased the moon on my walk home the other night, as she played peekaboo. Above rooftops and tight spaces between buildings, cracks in the arms of trees linked against the sky, power lines like black epicenters running through her heart, street lamps littering the night with excess light. She perched on the ledge of skyline, a lover's veiled face, with one traceable curve of translucent skin revealed. 

And I ached to touch the untouchable beauty.

* * * * * 

This whiff of mystery and beauty and longing in the night air is how I feel about the season of Advent this year. 

That veiled moon with her skin exposed, so ancient and familiar, both known and vastly unknown to me. 

A distant promise seemingly untouchable, ever coming closer, looming larger on the horizon, gradually revealed. 

The mounting anticipation. 

The darkness of night, so heavy at times, and yet standing here in the midst of it with all senses open, wildly vibrant. 

The unveiling of hope in not so much a blaze of glory as a whispered secret meant to be spread far and wide, to the darkest ends of the earth, easily drowned out in the throng.

I want to follow this whispered secret home as I much as I want to chase the moon.

* * * * *  
Arriving home, I stand on the balcony and crane my neck to see her, the moon, but she's slipped beyond my sight. The music flooding my ears through my headphones does not drown out the surge of wind, gently bowing bushes and tree branches, opaque clouds drifting as living paintings across the  backdrop of inky sky.

I can't do this, I murmur to God on the wind, at my side. Not this year.

I can't try to resurrect festive holiday feelings in activities and traditions, hoping to silence the grief. 

I can't read Christ in the same pages of story, told with the same words, sitting in the same places I once sat. 

If I must close my eyes and listen to the wind and the trees tell the Story of a coming Savior; if I must open my eyes and see him in the crescent moon, ever growing; I will.

Maybe the Story will be told to me this year in the vein of an old carol - and my storytellers, all of creation, singing -  

Do you see what I see? 

A star, a star, dancing in the night
with a tail as big as a kite...

Do you hear what I hear?
A song, a song, high above the trees
with a voice as big as the seas...

 Do you know what I know?

The Child, the Child, sleeping in the night
he will bring us goodness and light.

* * * * *

The piano song still surging in my ears through headphones, I look down and see the title of it on my Pandora screen - 

"I give up." (Please, go here to listen. And maybe just sit a moment. The piano sings like the wind).

Yes, yes I do. 

Not on the Story, but on searching this year for new glimpses of its mystery and glory told in the same, worn voices. I give up on trying to squeeze what is new in my faith back into old places my faith has outgrown.

I give up this year on expecting to one day resurrect the holidays as they used to be and myself as I used to be in them. 

I give up on looking for Christ in all of the same places I used to expect to find him. Before there were churches and sermons and blog posts, and even a story printed in the pages of a bible, all the way back then, there was a Story unfolding and waiting to be born in the flesh of a God-child. Before the Story was ever born on a page, it was seeded and scattered throughout creation, in the wildest, commonest, humblest of places.

I want to find him there.

This heart of mine, doubting, disturbed and still yawning open, longs to see the birth of Christ outside the walls of church, right where I am, in the fields and down by the lake and walking the web of city streets between home and elsewhere.

* * * * * 

I kneel down on the cold concrete and let the promise of Advent season wash over me, dancing through me like the wind in all its joyful energy this night. My face tilts upward, toward the wind, and I close my eyes and listen.

He will bring us goodness and light.

Linking up with the lovely community of writers at Unforced Rhythms.

* This post was written, not only for myself, but especially for all who find themselves at the start of another holiday season, another Advent, with conflicted feelings and a changing landscape of faith, maybe even where loss and grief have touched and altered how they experience this season. Who perhaps, like me, are caught in transition from old to new and hunger, more than anything, for a place in the midst of it all to see what is with fresh eyes and to long for what is not yet with others who are on a similar journey. I plan on writing more Advent reflections throughout this month, about once a week, and invite you to make yourself at home here if this place resonates with you.