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?
I’m staring at a square box at the end of a grid of square boxes that says today we celebrate William being born. I’ve been staring at that box all day, in my mind. During all the lame office emergencies and in between the tip-tap typing of emails… Yes, I’ll write those meeting notes for you, Ed. Sure, I’ll create a new job number for that client. Ok, I’ll have that little envelope sent by messenger.
Everything is dust because I’m staring at a square box in my mind, a blank square box because William is not alive inside of it to be celebrated. And it feels wrong.
It is Tuesday and then it will be Wednesday and then Saturday will come and then more days after that. The days are drunk, blurring slurs with excuses about all the ways my body refuses to be productive.
I can’t seem to make any progress on the list – that growing list of normal, important, useful things – because my body is all the meaning of the word “weight.” And it is effort to pull it up, make it walk and talk and dance and think and smile. It is effort I don’t have in me.
I am called to live.
It was the phrase repeating in my head to the question printed on the guide in my lap last week. We were meditating on Acts 3, on the way Peter and John fixed their gaze on the lame man and offered him something other than what he was begging for. The guide was asking us what we are to do with our eyes and hands and hearts in this city. I could only speak in my head, but it was just that phrase, “I am called to live.”
I am not convinced I know what that means, but it feels important. And it mostly feels important by default. I still have breath. I’m here on the day my brother was born and I am breathing while he is not. So, it must be a calling. God formed me 29 years ago and has since not stopped breathing life into my bones. He is actively preserving me from death today, at least for right now. Maybe calling that a “calling” is wrong, but it is that phrase that keeps repeating.
Being back in Brooklyn reminds me how much breath there is here. So many humans and all with breath in their bones – so many folks with life happening to them because God is declaring it so. I don’t know who is really living – it’s hard to tell. I work with the moneymakers. They are happy sometimes and very unhappy other times, but they are always at the office. I live with my neighbors and my friends and all the subway riders. They have their good days and their bad days, but they (we, most of us) are always in a hurry. I wonder who is really living and who is confident to define “really living” anyway?
I want to be alive.
I don’t mean I want to skydive and eat tarantulas. This calling that is happening to me and not happening to my brother feels bigger than extreme sport clichés. I don’t want to feel alive with breath catching in my lungs like a bucket list.
I want the most core, purest essence, the singlest bottom line of all of it. I want to sidle up to the very breath of life – the slows and fasts and quiets and louds of it. I want every moment I am present to be as heavy as every moment he is absent. I want the same heaviness without any marketing or mottos or catchy repeating choruses.
We must be a wayward mess of our calling. I am, anyway. Because I can’t catch the slows and fasts on the right beat. I can’t seem to run to the right finish line. I can’t pick up the right groceries for this calling. I’ve Amelia Bedelia-ed the whole thing – always flopping wild toward what I think is life in my apron with half-baked cookies. And we are a whole city of flopping, frenzied messes chasing life and breathing in just enough of it to flop and frenzy some more.
Life must be about getting close, like a nail under a hammer inside a board, to the One giving us all this breath. The steps are messier than chronology because days are like years and my brother is not here for his birthday. And if I was a beggar today by the entrance to the temple when Peter and John walked by, I would be asking for Will. I would have hands outstretched, asking for someone to bring him back to his wife and his family and his friends. And if Peter and John fixed their gaze on me, they’d probably say something like, “William I do not have, but what I do have I give to you…”
But Peter said, “I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!” And he took him by the right hand and raised him up, and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. And leaping up he stood and began to walk, and entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. And all the people saw him walking and praising God, and recognized him as the one who sat at the Beautiful Gate of the temple, asking for alms. And they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him. (Acts 3:6-10 ESV)
I don’t know what that means for my “calling,” except that William will never come back. I’m not called to search for him. I know where he is, because he believed in eternity and he believed that Jesus prepared a place for him there by going to the cross. He is having the best birthday with the One who made him – all the mechanical brilliance and adventurous spunk of him. But, here, I am still breathing. I have a hole in my left, black sock and I haven’t changed out of my Manhattan work clothes yet, but I am still breathing.
The closest I can think – the nail under the hammer in the board – is knowing that same Lord, the one who is deciding to give me breath. The rest of it is still suffering to make sense – the minutes in every day and the celebrations and the guilt when I get paralyzed. The rest, outside of knowing the God who gives me breath, still feels like a thousand faces staring at me on the subway.
I am called to live. And I’ll start by trying to know the Life-Giver.
I have a place to start and that’s something. As far as I know, I have a box inside a grid of boxes called October and I would like each one to prove that I am alive.
Find all our grief notes at this linkand join with my family as we mourn in hope.
We are in a class called the Brooklyn Fellows and it meets on Mondays. Last winter, when we were applying to be a part of it, the whole “Mondays” thing was a big deal. It meant we could only host Pancake Mondays once/month. Cutting back on the “thing” that is making me love New York felt like a weird step forward, but we thought meeting with a group of folks who also voluntarily applied to something with a required reading list and syllabus was a good enough idea.
This past weekend, we gathered with this group around a long table and before we started our discussion on a very thick Church History book (that neither Patrick nor I finished) we sang this song.
This group of strangers and friends, this city, this body, this mountain, this sea, this grief, this joy, this song, this day, this sorrow, this job, this sunshine, and this.
This. All of this.
I know the sound of His sweet song of praise – the melody of rocks and trees and skies and seas. I can recognize the joyful tune that creation sings and I have often sung along. These are words believers sing – strong words that proclaim a funny paradox. None of this is mine. There is not a particle I can claim, of the beauty I see. Even my own body is not my own because it was bought with a price.
Still, I rush all my particles up against the gravity pushing me down to say, “Not my this. Please let this alone so I can hold it close!” That is when I feel the funny paradox the most. None of this is mine, not even the thoughts I hoard like jewels. But all of this He shares with me. That’s a lot of this. And it just expanded more than the weight of the world in the last two and a half months.
That though the wrong seems oft so strong,
God is the ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world,
why should my heart be sad? The lord is King—let the heavens ring. God reigns—let the earth be glad.
This is my Father’s world.
I walk a desert lone. In a bush ablaze to my wondering gaze
God makes His glory known.
This is my Father’s world,
a wanderer I may roam Whate’er my lot, it matters not, My heart is still at home.
This is my Father’s world:
the battle is not done: Jesus who died shall be satisfied, And earth and Heav’n be one.
When this includes deserts and wrongs and sadness and battles on battles, the last lines of “My Father’s World” become especially important. Jesus who died shall be satisfied, and earth and heav’n be one. The depth of this is infinitely deeper now because He includes us in His inheritance. Everything I can grasp and hold and hoard in this world pales to that union of earth and heaven becoming one.
But, what I am grappling with today is much more tangible, much more temporary and tactile. There is joy here, in all of this. God did not stop keeping promises when my world got full of grief. He did not stop being abundant life. God did not stop authoring laughter or dancing or sunshine or autumn breezes. He still authors all those things.
This world – all the beauty and all the ugly – is His and He will hear our groans until earth and Heav’n are one. Until then, I will sing, “God is the ruler yet.”
Find all our grief notes at this linkand join with my family as we mourn in hope.
fragile dust clouds, broken and crumbled parts floating, dancing, disappearing like dry mist into pale sky
out of it we came particles on top of particles, tiny pieces knit together when we got formed
I don’t write much poetry anymore. Most poetry I do have reads like someone who wants to hear herself think in rhythms – seems so proud and silly now. But Patrick is encouraging me to weave words differently these days. He thinks it would help and he might be right – it might be the ambiguity that punctuated sentences cannot afford. I’ll keep trying.
We felt the first breath of autumn Saturday and yesterday morning it swooped inside our open windows to wake us from Sunday slumber. I wish the seasons wouldn’t change. I want this new absence to be as present as this moment – to always feel strange and wrong and deep. But the September sun is covering a new nook in the living room and I am reading with a cup of hot tea and a breeze around my neck. It’s that push and pull again. All the wonderful things about September are now hard things, too.
That’s my new favorite sun-bathing nook and the front of our new building and our bikes before we took them for a ride yesterday. We had no destination, but I knew we would be fools to not make one up. It’s September, the month that ushers in the best season.
There are apple trees in upstate orchards and farmer’s market Saturdays and favorite cardigans and pumpkin recipes for every meal. There are bike rides and football games and homemade versions of fancy hot drinks. There are these things in September and I don’t want them as much as I do.
He was born in September, but just barely. September 30th.
Missing and remembering well is hard work, because it will never feel less wrong that he is gone. It will never get balanced out in a slow fade, especially never in September.
our bodies passing by like specks, caught by shafts of light at dusk, floating without consequence or weight.
I’ll keep trying and writing and praying. September is a hard month, but it is also beautiful.
Find all our grief notes at this linkand join with my family as we mourn in hope.