Classic, on-the-way-to-communion breakdown. It had something to do with Ephesians 2 and the sermon turning over soil I had let harden in my soul. It had something to do with Taryn singing “Although we are weeping, Lord help us keep sowing the seeds of Your kingdom…” It had something to do with remembering what it is to be human, I guess. Mostly that.
God has been pursuing me these weeks while I hide in crowded subway cars and underneath early winter layers. He has been pursuing me with a simple, pressing whisper, “I am still holding things together.”
It is a hard whisper to hear with winter creeping in, painting everything in greys beyond the concrete that already colors this city. It is a hard whisper to hear in grief. But, God has been pursuing me in these weeks with this whisper to consider that He is still in the middle of making all things new.
Even if I close my eyes against it, God is still making beautiful things.
I keep coming back to Colossians 1, where it says of Christ,
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1:15-17 ESV)
All things were created through him and for him. Every new life and every mustard seed breaking the earth’s surface and every wave crashing the coast, all these are confirmations that He is still creating and He still has good plans.
Sometimes, like now, I have to gulp that down with two word prayers for more belief. O, God. Are you? Is this? Please come. Be here. Show me. Still me. Show yourself.
But I can’t blink it away.
He is actively holding all things together because His design is good. He persists in holding us together as we persist in breaking things apart or as we get broken apart. He persists and does not abandon His creation, but not for pity. He persists because He will always be about the work of restoring creation to its original dignity.
That’s what our pastor talked about in church yesterday – that God persisted and pursued when we thought brokenness was the end of our story, the defining moment. But He doesn’t rescue us out of our brokenness. He does the opposite. He holds us together inside of it.
“Our task in the present … is to live as resurrection people in between Easter and the final day, with our Christian life, corporate and individual, in both worship and mission, as a sign of the first and a foretaste of the second.” N.T. Wright in Surprised by Hope
Then came the morning, today. Somewhere far away from city clouds, the rhythm God set in motion so long ago woke up like it was waiting for the rest of the sentence.
…then came the morning.
I started thinking on the phrase when Lone Bellow released a single by that name from their upcoming album. It’s so weird that you can’t resist the morning.
Like a light, like a stone rolled away… the morning.
Jesus’s resurrection happened in the morning, after that third day. Seems like it was the most fitting way for him to conquer death, with the sunrise as a backdrop after night took over at noon the day before. And we are supposed to be resurrection people – baptized into the very resurrection of Jesus to live transformed lives – lives lit with the rhythm of the morning.
But that sounds way more glorious then sewing the seam of my shirt at work today, hunched in front of my computer monitor and trying to appear nonchalant about the rip that I can only blame on my hips. It sounds more triumphant than my sob session after church on Sunday with a dear friend who stood in front of me until I got all my sorrow out.
But I can’t resist the morning. It is God’s clock, the sunrise timepiece He throws over this little earth at the beginning of every day. Sometimes, I shut my eyes and shake my head and furrow my brow against it, like the valiant efforts of a stubborn child. And then sometimes, giggles get out and eyes open wide on a bike ride back from Williamsburg on Bedford Avenue – down the stretch of hills and green lights before Empire. I biked right into that little bit of resurrection sunrise at 11 pm and I said, “This is good.”
It is good to name good.
Maybe it is another way to be image bearers, to be fully human – to name good without any qualifiers or reservations or conditional statements. Because, in the beginning everything was good. God created the heavens and the earth, the sea and the stars, the plants and creatures and oceans and lands, and then He said, “This is good.” Then He made humans and said, “This is very good.” There is power in his “good” declaration and we are invited into it as His image bearers. There are still good things here, on earth. All the “good” is not gone from God’s declaration and we (resurrection people) are invited to name all the “good” things about God’s design.
But, boy, is it hard.
I am praying to get more in the habit of naming “good,” believing that God has not forgotten what He so carefully designed. I know because… then came the morning.
My brain hurts from thinking. There’s a lot of push and pull around here lately, but I think mostly good. It feels good to stretch into the pages of N.T. Wright and Alexander Schmeman and Albert Wolters (in between subways and raincoats and falling leaves). But I’m out of words. Here are some old ones from last October…
We don’t follow someone because we think we have the best answer or the best adventure or because we know how to beat the antagonist in the story.
We follow someone because we believe he has something we do not.
When the disciples were called out of their busy, productive lives as fishermen and tax collectors and ordinaries, they said yes to a very mysterious man with an authoritative voice. They knew little about his mission or his history or his agenda, but they didn’t ask questions. They followed.
They chased the mystery that called them into following. They said yes before they knew all the answers about where to direct the clamoring children and how to calm a crowd. They said yes before they knew demons would flee when they spoke and before they knew entire towns would reject them as they shook the dust off their feet.
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.
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
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.
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 linkand join with my family as we mourn in hope.
It is raining today – a thick, damp autumn drizzle that will try to keep the city folks from the farmer’s markets. Rain is settling the dust in the city and calming the rush of a long work week. We are all underneath the weight of it, all the living of us.
I am still alive today and the smell of thyme is filling my senses in our favorite neighborhood coffeeshop. I’m writing in the corner while a cozy crowd brunches Saturday morning into the afternoon. This is the rhythm of the weekend. We work all week so that we can wake up late for lazy brunch on a rainy Saturday. It’s a rhythm we wrote for ourselves and a rhythm we are resigned to keep like a metronome. Morning, work, night, sleep, busy, work, busy, weekend, play, rest, weekend. Repeat.
Consciously or subconsciously Christians have accepted the whole ethos of our joyless and business-minded culture. They believe that the only way to be taken “seriously” by the “serious” – that is, by modern man – is to be serious, and, therefore, to reduce to a symbolic “minimum” what in the past was so tremendously central in the life of the Church – the joy of the feast. – Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World (1963)
I really “get” what Alexander Schmemann is saying. Today is about the business-minded, serious, modern man with five and ten year plans. Weekends and scheduled holidays are available for joy and for feasting, unless you have stored up vacation time for something in between. Schmemann wrote “For the Life of the World,” in 1963 as a study guide for the National Student Christian Federation Conference in Athens, Ohio – several decades and states removed from my hipster life in Brooklyn in 2014. But, today is still about that same rhythm. I am resigned to the groove of that same calendar that tells us when to work, when to holiday, when to rest, and when to feast. I usually try to stand by the window…
In the weekday mornings, I join the coffee-perked rush on the Q train over the Manhattan Bridge.
In the weekday evenings, I join the long-faced rush on the Q train back over the same bridge in the opposite direction.
Schmemann’s book is about liturgy and the church calendar, but reading these chapters has felt a little like lighting a match. God keeps rhythm like a metronome. We hear it in the words at the close of the first day of Creation, “And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.” (Genesis 1). It keeps repeating, “There was evening and there was morning, the second day.” The third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh follow with that same rhythm. There was evening and there was morning, like a metronome.
The Israelites were all about God’s metronome. They ordered their lives around celebrations that anticipated the coming of the promised Messiah. People traveled from all over – long, dusty, and dangerous travels – so that they could dip into the barrels of celebration wine and break the bread of provision around long tables of neighbors, strangers, and friends. They didn’t always do it right, sure. But it seems like everyone agreed that gathering was important. And not just gathering, but gathering to anticipate the promises of God – to remind one another of the ways He provided in the past and to point toward His provision in the future.
We gather to celebrate birthdays and holidays and those days that come standard, pre-typed on our calendars. But in these, often (maybe), we let our joy get contained inside the event. Thanksgiving is coming. We will anticipate the meal, the guests, the full bellies in the afternoon. We anticipate joy on that day of gathering, but it will pass. Work will find us again on Friday or Monday at 9 am and we will slide into the same rhythm.
Schmemann writes, “The modern world has relegated joy to the category of “fun” and “relaxation.” It is justified and permissible on our “time off”; it is a concession, a compromise. And Christians have come to believe all this, or rather they have ceased to believe that the feast, the joy have something to do precisely with the “serious problems” of life itself, may even be the Christian answer to them.”
Yes, Schmemann, I believe it is. Joy is the Christian answer to the “serious problems” of life itself. But it can’t be faked or smashed into a day that looks in on itself. Joy cannot get celebrated when it is about a birthday or about a national holiday or about vacation time. Joy is the answer to the serious problems of life because it is always looking to Christ – back to the work of the cross that looks forward to our hope of eternity. Joy is our anticipation of what we taste but cannot grasp on this side of heaven.
Joy is the rhythm of God’s metronome.
I am in the middle of these thoughts about joy and feasting. They are not finished but they begged to be written out when they still felt awkward and gangly. This past month, in the middle of a very “serious problem of life” God offered a unique grace that allowed me to step into the joy of two different weddings. Feasting is hard to do when you are mourning. Joy is hard to do when you are sad. Dancing is hard to do when you are weeping. Strong is hard to do when you are weak. It almost feels wrong to smile, to dance, to laugh, to sing, to joy. It almost feels dishonest and disrespectful to be anything but depressed. Death is a serious problem of life.
But, these two weddings were feasts of joy that looked back on God’s provision in Christ and forward to the promises of abundance here and in eternity. I didn’t know what to do as joy wrestled the sorrow and everything got tangled. I didn’t know how to do either one well.
But joy is the rhythm of God’s metronome.
Joy swallows up sorrow, in the end. Right now, they wrestle it out in my heart – fighting for thoughts and emotions and words. But, in the end joy swallows up sorrow and that is what feasting and gathering is all about, this rhythm with a different beat.
Thanks for your patience in reading these very unfinished thoughts, friends. Is it okay that they don’t make sense? That they mix metaphors and jump around like a scatterplot graph?