God’s kingdom is like
patterned for beauty
God’s kingdom is like
ragged strips, fit for nothing
woven into strength
Sometimes they make me feel downright weary. Like when driving down the main strip of our town, all the billboards and ads and store signs. Or when I visit any webpage – even the personal ones like email – and words are vying for my attention in every crammed space possible.
And the junk mail on the kitchen table. And wading through someone’s musings before finally getting to the recipe at the very bottom of the webpage.
Everyone has words to say these days. Everyone has an opinion, a story, a blog. When I started this blog almost ten years ago, it was a relatively new thing. Blogs were written by people who truly loved words – treasured them, chiseling them to perfection before setting them out, trembling, as works of art for the world.
To the writer, words are precious. And our stories – they are not very readily given – because writers know that not every story should be told, and every story that is told is an offering. A moment of deep vulnerability.
I have not written here in a long time because the artist in me recoils at the thought of adding my words to the cacophony that has become the internet. Will I then become exactly what I dislike – a nobody who thinks all the world needs to hear my thoughts, however paltry they may be? And if my words indeed have value, what will keep them from becoming trampled in the general crush of listicles and how-tos and sensational headlines and feel-good stories? How will they be anything more than noise?
The written word has become a commodity.
And I haven’t written because the “not relevant enough” voice is pretty strong, and I guess I better include lots of artistic photos and be witty and sexy and put together a nice, shiny package before I hit Publish.
It’s the “cool” factor. I’ve never had it. In sixth grade I bought a Michael Jordan homework planner, and one of the “popular” girls saw it and said something to the effect of, “That still doesn’t make you one of us.” In that moment I knew that I was destined to be “uncool” forever. But I also remember feeling mortified – not because of her disdain, but because I had sold out. I had tried to be someone I was not, and I detested myself for it.
The eternal dilemma of the artist: the external pressure to be whatever the perceived “should” is pitted against the internal desire to offer something different – something meaningful – something real.
My life has changed a lot in ten years. I started this blog during a time of suffering and questioning, and I had all sorts of deep, soul-searching thoughts. Now life is more settled and I am…happier. Those deep thoughts don’t come as often as they used to, and writing out of a place of contentedness is something I’m not sure I know how to do.
But I’d like to take up the challenge and be here a little more often. I hope it’s not just noise, but something worth holding onto for a little while.
Words are precious. They are not a commodity to me. I intend to reclaim them.
It’s a breezy, quiet Friday. Piano recitals are done; summer is (almost) officially here.
[Aside: I just adore my piano kids. Each one of them is a little friend, with their unique personalities and quirks. And I get to hang out with them every week. What fun!]
I always have a hard time “settling” after a busy, high-stress week. I’ve been wandering around the house today, wondering what to do with myself.
(I could clean. There’s always something to clean. But who wants to do that on their day off?)
For awhile I assumed that I had “settled” pretty well into my new role as Wife. After all, I’ve been deeply grateful and full of joy. The joy of marriage has been a lovely, grassy, wide space in my heart.
I love wide open spaces.
But even so, change is hard. . .no matter how good it is. There’s still the sense of displacement. What began as a delightful walk through the field has turned into a bit of wandering in a treeless plain, not having anything solid to rest my eyes on.
I’ve come to a realization:
I can’t live in the open spaces of my heart without some landmarks.
Wide-open Joy has a touch of “otherness” about it. It’s too much for me to take in. I need a few trees. I need stopping points. I need tangibles.
I need eucharisteo.
Eucharisteo: gratitude in the Presence of God, where everything that we experience (even the hard things) is made sacred.
So I dug out my old eucharisteo journal. I’m not sure why I stopped writing in it. Life became “normal,” I suppose. I started it during that first year I moved up here – another huge change in my life.
It’s funny – I remember those few years of my life as being very chaotic. My heart and mind were in disarray. I hardly knew myself. I had no idea where I was going. I was full of anger and bitterness and uncertainty.
But my gratitude journal paints a different portrait.
Reading back through the numbered entries is like looking through old photos. Recorded on those pages are all sorts of things that I had almost forgotten:
The beginning of a friendship
Hope, fulfillment, disappointment
Sweet days with my parents and sister
Even in the midst of turmoil, my life was full of beauty and meaning. The hard things had purpose. God was moving me along a path.
In stopping to reflect on the little moments of my life, I became more present to myself and my place. And to Jesus, who holds me together in this wild, messy, uncertain web of life.
It’s time to do that again. To find my place in smallness, in noticing, in recording.
“This is the place where I can meet God, who by His incarnation has thrown off his otherness.” (Henri Nouwen, Intimacy)
Gratitude for the small things: Joy Incarnate.
So I have this yard.
Because I got married, and now I live in this house on half an acre, and whoever landscaped the place crammed it full of bushy perennials.
In my yard, I have six (6?!) dogwoods. Six of the grow-like-there’s-no-tomorrow-variety dogwoods. Under each dogwood, and around the perimeter in general, I have a thriving crop of Canadian Thistle.
And I have gravel. Lots and lots of gravel. Which, by the way, makes a very lousy ground cover. So I’ve been scraping it all off, piling it along one side of the house, and putting down compost.
Of course, I could just blast out all the thistles with chemicals. But I wouldn’t call that gardening. Gardening is about taking care of the soil. So I’m opting for a sore back and dumping compost on everything, in hopes that eventually the soil will be built up enough that the good stuff will grow and the thistles will pack it up!
And already, I can see my little rows of lettuce and arugula coming up around the black raspberries that are just starting to bloom, the climbing rose I planted is thriving, and at least for today, all the thistles have been pulled out (they’ll be back tomorrow).
I love it. It’s a little overwhelming. But it’s also good, hard, meaningful work.
Being a gardener means you believe in tomorrow.
Unfortunately, there is a type of gardener which is only be concerned about today – today’s profit – and has no patience for investing in our soil for the future. These gardeners use technologies and methods that have long been hailed as “progress.”
But many of us know that true progress looks a lot different. It requires looking behind and rediscovering the old ways of gardening. It requires calling for reform in the food industry.
So we now have new language for our “new” practices. Now we must call a carrot an “organic” carrot, and farmers must be “certified organic,” and tried-and-true varieties of tomatoes must be called “heirlooms.”
The irony is that our “new” movement was a reality to our great-grandfathers.
In an astonishingly short period of time, the space of about 50 years, we as a society threw out and proceeded to forget the “technology” behind producing healthy, sustainable crops – technology that was developed and proven effective over hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years.
With it went the knowledge of our local flora and fauna, bird calls, how to swing an ax and build, well, anything. In short, when we ceded the responsibility of making and doing for ourselves, we lost the basic knowledge of survival.
Case in point: My piano students and I “planted” bean seeds in plastic baggies as part of a goal-setting project. Most of them had never planted anything before. And most of them wanted to know what those “white stringy things” were at the bottom of the bag.
Roots. Those are roots.
We’ve forgotten our roots. Our ability to navigate the natural world around us is quickly disappearing.
With the loss of our ability to think and do for ourselves came our loss of place. We are out of touch with our place, our locale, which means we are lonelier than ever. With place comes relationship, and from there we discover common purpose and common hope.
Instead of being able to talk to my neighbor about when to put my carrot seed in the ground, I have to wade through multiple books, all of which have different ideas about my carrots. Instead of learning to make lacto-fermented veggies from a friend, I have to sift through article after article, resulting in nothing more than a gnawing fear that I’ll poison my husband.
The fields of gardening and homemaking used to be rich with meaningful connections and community lore. Now I merely feel isolated and frustrated.
But being a gardener means believing in tomorrow.
So, I have this yard.
And a neighborhood. And neighbors whose yards touch mine. There’s a farmer’s market not too far away, and tomorrow I’m going to go meet some of the people whose roots go deep in this city.
And slowly, slowly, I’m discovering my new place. As I spend time in my garden, tending and breaking and healing. As I plant flowers and stand up to see Carla as she walks her new baby down the sidewalk, and we talk how to cook chile rellenos. As I trim bushes and Dijana comes out to walk the dog and we chat about how she is afraid of losing her job.
Because I got married, and now I live here, and taking on this huge change of roles requires me to garden, to tend the soil and set down some deep roots.
Sometimes you give and give and give. . .
And they gobble you up and hand you back a plate of crumbs.
I gave myself to a church, once. I mean, took them into my heart and loved them, brooded over them, hoped for them. They were grateful for awhile, but the giving was never mutual. They didn’t take me into their hearts.
And then. . .rejection.
My heart poured itself out, and was left empty.
In January, I will stand in front of a group of women. I will look out across their faces, and I will put my heart on the keys, in the microphone, for any of them to take.
I will give again – I will take them into my heart.
Because giving and taking is often one and the same, when it’s about people.
I tremble to think of it, now. How I put my heart right out there, back then; right out there for the taking. . .and the smashing, and the breaking, and the loving, and the grieving.
But there’s this other thing, too, just as real as the pain:
Jesus loves His Church. And in spite of it all, I can’t seem to help loving His Church, either. Even after all the years of disappointments and hurts, I can’t help rejoicing in the victories and in the beating hearts that come hopeful and empty.
They beat imperfectly, yes. But they come.
And that sets my heart to giving again.
The LORD is my strength and my shield;
My heart trusts in him, and I have been helped;
Therefore my heart dances for joy, and in my song will I praise him…
Save your people and bless your inheritance;
Shepherd them and carry them for ever.
You’ve heard of The Five Love Languages?
I have most of them in fairly even measure. . .
Except for one. The one that seems to matter the most this time of year.
I got the dregs of the barrel in terms of gifts as a love language. It’s not that I don’t like giving gifts, because I really do. It makes me happy to make people feel special. It’s just that it doesn’t come naturally, thus requiring a monumental amount of energy.
So each Christmas, I try to figure out how to get around it. Maybe we can just give a charitable donation, put everyone’s name on it, and call it good? (I actually suggested that to my roommates one year. Needless to say, they didn’t go for it.)
Alas, there’s no mercy for the likes of me at Christmas. Sometimes tradition is just too powerful to fight. Gifts! Gifts for everyone we love! Gifts for people we don’t even know! And they all better be meaningful, practical, and special!
Add to that the equally monumental task of trying to navigate the tensions between consumerism, not-so-deep pockets, and the desire to honor the Advent of the Savior. . .
It’s a little exhausting, folks.
However, I can rally. I just have to pull myself into a certain cobwebby corner of my brain and try to think like a gift-giver.
Thankfully, the Lord is faithful to help us, and He brought both tasks together for me through one little verse:
“Let us make a vow to the LORD our God and keep it; let all around him bring gifts to him who is worthy to be feared.” (Psalm 76:11, italics mine)
This arrested my attention one morning this week. In all the focus of giving gifts to the people in my life, I had overlooked the One most worthy of receiving.
But what do you give the Great Gift-Giver???
As I sat at the window and pondered, watching the neighborhood kids trudging to school, the answer came, and it was exactly what I didn’t want to hear. But it was too clear to miss – like someone reached over and stamped it on the glass:
Give me your music.
A couple weeks ago, I was asked to lead some worship for a women’s event. My initial reaction? Not a chance.
Why? Well, my relationship with music ministry is broken. It’s a gigantic ball of complicated mess, and I’ve come to terms with the sad state of things. No need to dredge it all up again, thank you very much.
This confession probably comes as a surprise to most people. After all, here I am, newly married to a musician (we have 14 instruments in our house – no joke). I serve on a worship team at a healthy church, and teach piano at an amazing place called The Studio. I have visions of dabbling in vocal jazz and madrigals again, and in my sleep dream at least once a week of directing an ensemble of some sort.
This is a good place to be. I’ve accepted my musician-identity as a piano teacher who fills the need for a keyboardist at church, and that’s about where it ends. Let’s not mess with it.
Give me your music.
But Lord, You do know what You’re getting into, right? You realize that it comes with a backlog of confusing experiences? Like in college, where overwhelming feelings of insufficiency and frustration, as well as fear of music becoming an idol, led me to abandon my pursuits altogether. Or when I was doing full-time ministry, and music wasn’t even part of my work, and You were okay with that. And then I moved up here, and a musician friend showed me that I had something precious to give, so I was like, Alright, then, I’ll become a worship director at a struggling church, and pour my heart and soul into ministering through music…until there was maliciousness and blackmail and a whole garbage-truck load of hurt.
Give me your music.
No. No. No! Why does it have to be music, Lord? I’ve never felt at peace there. I want to minister in other ways, like discipleship or. . .well, discipleship pretty much sums it up.
I miss being in people’s lives. Like, actually making a difference and watching them grow spiritually – not up on a stage, 25 feet away, hoping someone might raise their hand or something to show me they are engaged.
Give me your music.
A conversation comes to mind, back two or so years ago, walking through the forest behind the church, where I told God I was done trying to tell Him what to do with me. I told Him I was ready to let go of my preconceived ideas about what I was good at or how I should be serving Him. I vowed to let God call the shots.
I meant specifically my desire to have a speaking or scripture teaching ministry of some sort. . .and a husband. God took me to mean everything, of course.
“Let us make a vow to the LORD our God and keep it. . .”
He took me at my word, and right away packed me off to work with special needs kids. I meekly obeyed, a little daunted by the reality that God was, in fact, in charge, and figuring I was done with formal ministry for good, not to mention getting a husband.
But I see now that I haven’t kept my vow. In my heart, I’ve been telling the Lord what I should be doing. Or rather, what I shouldn’t be doing. And I definitely shouldn’t be doing worship ministry.
Give me your music. You can trust Me with your music.
There’s this thing I’ve noticed: when I look at a broken thing in my life, all I can see is something impossible to unravel. I can’t imagine it looking like anything other than a mess. And I sure can’t imagine how I would be able to minister to others through it.
But when I look at that broken thing with Jesus, I see a mess that shimmers around the edges with something called hope.
Music ministry. It’s not the gift I would choose to give the Lord. But it’s the gift the Lord chose to give me. He meant it for good.
It can still be good.
Time to think like a gift-giver. The giver gives what would bless the other person, even if they would never in a million years want it for themselves. And then, the receiver beautifies the gift for the giver – because of the joy it brings them.
So, this Advent season, while racking my brain for gifts to set under the tree, I will also spend quiet moments giving the Lord a gift. A gift that will bless Him because it brings Him joy. The gift of myself, even the messy parts.
. . .let all around him bring gifts to him who is worthy to be feared.”
I’m feeling very happy and peaceful this morning. I confess that my mood has more to do with the sunshine than anything else (and perhaps the fact that I get to send my darling off to work with a kiss every morning).
I’m glad God gives us times when it is easy to be happy.
This restful happiness that I’ve felt since getting married is all the more striking to me as I realize just how long it has been. . .and that it took a wedding to get it back.
I feel slightly guilty about that. I should be able to find my happiness in Jesus, right? But shoulds and oughts do not mend a broken heart. I had some deep hurts that only a wedding could fix, and I guess I won’t be ashamed to admit it!
My wedding day was perfect in every way. And our ceremony was doubly joyful and meaningful because of the stories that came before, the stories nearly everyone at our wedding knew: my story of being engaged once before and rejected an hour beforehand; his story of losing his brother; our stories of walking numbly through pain and deep disappointment, of God-rejection and mercy and repentance.
As a friend wrote to me, “Even on your wedding day, the past wasn’t avoided. It was part of your day but it didn’t overshadow your day. Your joy was complete. And somehow the past brought forth more beauty in your identity.”
The past was part of my day, and it did beautify everything. But the joyful half-hour that everyone could see was the result of some deeply difficult hours and days leading up to it.
I had to fight hard against the shadows, my friends.
And believe me, it required a great deal of courage. Because in order to have joy, I had to believe that God wanted to give me this priceless treasure called marriage.
I wish I could adequately convey the state of my mind these past several years – the doubts about my own heart and ability to discern, doubting the love of the people around me, doubting the presence of God – the fears of being abandoned – the overarching sadness, because grief gets into the very fibers and changes the way we perceive everything.
Being engaged was especially challenging. It was a sweet time, and Steve worked hard to make it that way. Still, those little clouds of sadness and doubt hovered. I hated that they were there; I felt that I had been robbed of the carefree joy that every girl should have, and I was tempted to stay in a place of mourning. Satan wanted it that way. He labored constantly to press the weight of grief and fear into my mind.
No amount of sweet, sunshiny engagement days would make happiness easy for me. If I wanted joy, I had to choose it. I had to fight for it.
But if our engagement lacked the carefree idealism that I thought it should have, it had heaps of something else I soon came to appreciate very much:
Because when you travel from feeling like God has wronged you to seeing that you have been graciously loved beyond what you deserved, Gratitude is the only real response.
I’ll never forget a dream I had, during the time of my deepest pain. In my dream, God was sitting on a chair surrounded by a crowd of children. He was a little bit like Santa Claus, with each child sitting on his lap and telling him what they most wanted. When it was my turn, I didn’t want to sit on his lap. And when I did. . .He wouldn’t look at me.
He would not even acknowledge me.
I had entrusted my most treasured dream for my life to God, and He ignored me. Worse yet, He took it and trampled all over it. Shred it to pieces. Ruined it beyond repair.
And now He was giving it back? Do I dare trust Him? Always that little fear, whispering behind my ear, “He might do it again, you know. He might take it away at the last moment, to teach you some lesson you didn’t know you needed to learn.”
That voice was especially hard to silence.
Jesus said that our Father wants to give us good gifts, and I really tried hard to believe it. But man, was it ever a difficult task to accept. My relationship with God had a serious rift in it that was not easy to overcome.
Many friends have commented, “How wonderful to see your wedding day redeemed!” Yes, indeed! But the greatest need for redemption was not a new dream or a new wedding – it was my own heart. I needed God to redeem the way I felt about Him – to believe that God wanted to give me a good gift. And not only a good gift, but one that I considered to be a very great treasure.
I had already come to understand that my painful past was His loving me. But I had subsequently gotten it into my head that pain and loss were the only lessons the Lord had for me, His only way of loving me. Now I had to believe that He wanted to love me with something inherently good and beautiful.
I really did try. But it wasn’t until my father walked me down the aisle that these things gained full access to my heart.
It was the most precious moment of all to me. My engagement was hard for him, too. He was thwarted once from giving his daughter her wedding; robbed of that dearest last walk and sweetest first dance. It was hard for him to believe and to trust.
But I see now how much our fathers long to give us good gifts!
When my father walked me down that aisle, it was like my heavenly Father was lovingly promenading his beloved daughter. It was Jesus, taking my hand and leading me into a room, beautifully decorated for this great occasion of gift-giving, like a child being led into the old-fashioned Christmas room, where their heart’s desire – the glorious tree with gifts under its branches – awaits them.
How wonderful the father’s tenderness! How sweet the father’s joy, to see his daughter so happy, so peaceful, so grateful.
And how glad I am now that God took the measures He did to save me for this beautiful plan! How thankful I am that I fought against the grief and doubt and fear. My wedding day was rich in joy; I felt enveloped in it, not only in my own heart but in the hearts of all those who love me.
I no longer have to say, “the wedding that failed.” Doubt and fear no longer rule my mind. I have entrusted my heart-dream to the One who loves me, and have found His resources so rich, so generous.
I have often wondered if Naomi’s words to her daughters-in-law were also for me: “May the Lord grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.” (Ruth 1:9, italics mine)
I think that is exactly what the Lord has done, and even in more ways than I realized. Yes, He has given me rest and happiness in my own home, with a husband. But even more, He has given me rest in a redeemed heart towards God my Father.