generosity in bleak winters

My mom says I’m in the ICU, emotionally. She says I shouldn’t push the great grief weight away and I couldn’t even if I wanted to. She says to read those books she sent because it is not good to ignore it.

I know, Mom. I know.

Advent season is different this year – strange, like I am experiencing it for the first time.

This time, it is crude and rough as much as it is beautiful and bold. It feels more like a stable than a fancy Christmas Eve production. It feels stripped down, but that’s not right either because nothing was stripped away in that manger scene. That’s just all there was – stable, manger, animals, bright star, labor pains, angel choir in the pasture, shepherds on their way to worship.

This is not the acoustic version of something more glorious. This was the glory, all of it.

And I feel the glory in the weeping gut of me, gripping an anchor and believing there is hope in this simple story.

My Aunt Sherry shared a sweet phrase from one of her Advent readings – that, in this strange season of glory, we are “spiritually pregnant with hope.” I guess I get that. Pregnancy is not fancy or perfectly wrapped. It is weird and painful and awkward. It is declined invitations and sleeping early and it is emotions on emotions. But, it is also life. Pregnancy is that beautiful affirmation that God is still invested in creation, still interested in life. It is hope the shape of a lime or a prune or a grapefruit or a watermelon.

The advent sermon series preaches generosity and I am learning this is God’s glorious version – the best release of His love. He chose to make His Son humanity with every bit of regular, un-fancy, and painful awkwardness. God was most generous in Jesus. Christ emptied Himself of all that He had rights to – all the glory and the fame and the comfort and the beauty and right relationship so that we could receive the greatest gift. The glory of the Christmas story is that Jesus grasped instead the ordinary so that all of creation could be made glorious.

But Jesus was not a stable born baby that grew to great fame. The story doesn’t ever get more fancy. The glory is inside the ordinary, painful, trudging out of his life.

I was talking to my sister about this the other night, about how we can’t get into “the spirit” of things. It’s easier than you might think to let the city hype and lights fade to background noise, but I’m sure I look like a Scrooge. I am just trying to figure out how to anticipate this whole story – the glorious and painful ordinary of a Son who came into the world struggling and to later suffer and die. I want to desire the coming of Jesus – the birth, life, death and resurrection of Him – because it is the only delight where the sparkles don’t shake off. It is the anchor of hope I hold with white knuckles, the glory story that is as deep as this grief story and more painful than morning sickness.

We gather on Sundays for Advent dinners at our apartment. This past week, I made shepherd’s pie because it sounded like comfort food, almost like a Midwest casserole. As we reclined at table, I read the opening prayer:

May the splendor of your glory dawn in our hearts,
we pray, Almighty God,
that all shadows of the night may be scattered
and we may be shown to be children of light
by the advent of your Only begotten Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Evan lit the candles and Tam told us the reason, “As Scripture testifies: Jesus is the Word through whom all things were made. In him is life and his life is the light of all people. We prayed confession together and read the Scripture from Matthew. We recited the Lord’s prayer and sang “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” before closing in prayer again.

I don’t know what it looks like to be generous in bleak winters like this one. I don’t understand the heart of God to love us so deeply in our wickedness to send such a gift in such an un-fancy way. But that is the glorious story – the first, best and only version. That is the glory story and I want to be pregnant with hope about it. I want to believe that all shadows of the night may be scattered and that I may be shown to be a child of the light.

I think that might be the only way I can be generous in the bleak winters, to believe He scatters shadows of the night and that His light is in me as He lives and reigns in this world. Giving my heart sounds like more energy than I’ve got. Maybe I could manage stepping into the light, believing He is the light, and praying He make me worthy to tell the glory story. Maybe I could manage that.

Sidenote: I’ve been listening to my friend Wilder’s Christmas album on repeat. So good.


Find all the writings on grief at this link and join with us as we mourn in hope.

“I will slow the pace”

Today, the rain.

The slanting, pounding, and unforgiving kind.

I’m only a little bit sad I can’t go to the laundromat, again. Instead, I am nursing a tall glass of water, lighting my new creamy Anthropologie candle, and letting this Rain for Roots album preach to my heart.

Simple truths.

I could say I am singing these songs for my little one – so I will have all the words memorized when Baby K comes. But, the truth is, I need to hear this invitation. I need to remember that God is not rushed in His love for us. He invites us into a slow and steady love, full of peace and rest and strength.

My pastor mentioned a passage in Ezekiel several sermons ago that I had never heard. In Ezekiel 16, God is remembering the history of the people Israel and compares it to a baby being born. This baby was abhorred, thrown out into an open field without clothes and without care, without compassion. But when God passed by, He reached into all the naked, bloody mess and said, “Live!” Our pastor had us imagine a God who would tend to an infant child like a mother or a father would – with gentle hands and sweet assurances.

God deals with us in such a way, with kind and slow attention to the dryness on our elbows and the rain that seeps through our boots to our toes. God cares for us in such a way, but I forget.

Yesterday, I forgot.

It was a day like a backwards onion, an ugly one. Layers on layers of frustrations and emotions but I couldn’t figure out how to get back to the root of it all so I could be “okay.” I do not trust pregnancy hormones and I already had a bad relationship with woman emotions. I would rather swallow everything down with the eight glasses of prescribed pregnancy water I am drinking everyday.

It got messy in the middle. You would think that a girl who has morning sickness-ed (and stealthily recovered) at the Q train Canal stop, the reception desk, the conference room, and various bathrooms could swallow down an onion’s worth of emotions. Nope, sure could not.

I met Patrick at Brooklyn Fellows class and we went through an ancient prayer exercise called The Examen where you use Scripture to move through these five meditations:

1. Become aware of God’s presence.
2. Review the day with gratitude.
3. Pay attention to your emotions.
4. Choose one feature of the day and pray from it.
5. Look toward tomorrow.

It was a bad day to have this kind of meditation. Review the day with gratitude? I had spent much of my day feeling faulted and failed. Pay attention to my emotions? They went haywire. I had a meltdown. I fell completely apart while saying, “I hate that I’m falling apart.” There was a lot to pray about. Looking forward to tomorrow was hard.

When we got home, I jumped right into bed. Patrick came around to my side to tuck me in with encouragement, but I pulled the sheets over my head and said, “I can’t talk to you right now.” I don’t know why I said that. I knew the tears would come and I didn’t want him to have to deal with the onion I couldn’t seem to swallow or peel, even with St. Ignatius and his ancient prayer exercise.

He didn’t let me hide. He hugged me as I cried it out and listened as I sputtered, “I don’t even know myself… I’m so frustrated that I am angry… and I am angry because I don’t like who I am right now, because I don’t know what to do about it.”

I don’t know how long he listened or how long I cried, but at one point he pulled back the covers and said, “Get up. We are going to pray.” And we knelt by the bed and he prayed it out. When he got done with all his honest words I said, “Amen.” He didn’t let me stop there.He refused to let anger sleep in our bed. I think you should pray, he said.

I was still tense and slobbery, but I got some words out and relaxed into a simple conversation that has lately been God’s one-sided, “Come.” I confessed anger and asked for peace. I started to feel the slower pace of His rest and I started to believe He had compassion on my slobbery face.

Come to me,
Walk with me
Learn the rhythms of my grace

Come to me,
I have all you need
Learn to rest even while you are awake

Are you tired?
Are you worried?
Worn out from the day?
Have you been in a hurry?
I will slow the pace

My sister got some hard news this week. My mom had a hard day on Friday. Some might say these days feel the worst, but our family has respectfully redefined our use of superlatives. That is part of the onion layers, too – the figuring out emotions and frustrations in light of the great grief weight. I think we fall apart more than we stay together, but that’s why there is this simple truth about the tender care of a Father who slows the pace.

In New York and Des Moines and little Lewis. In Michigan and California and Ames. In every place where there is hurting, every place where there is brokenness, and every place where God’s creation lives, there is an invitation to slow the pace.

a deep and bellowing good

I am not prepared for this, for Advent.

Last week we feasted and gave thanks and it was the starkest thanks I’ve ever offered, I think. It was rickety and raw, like the rusty farm gates on my childhood farm. It was a functional thankfulness that felt very different than singing “Count Your Many Blessings” with all my aunts and uncles and cousins in the basement of Grandpa’s house. No less abundant (my head tells my heart) but very much different.

I think that’s okay.

A special place had been prepared for each guest and our table boasted a capacity crowd. The whole day was arranging and baking and tasting, folding special printed napkins and finding/ironing the tablecloth we bought at Fat Albert’s, the neighborhood “everything” store. Olive branches hung from string lights above us and the Feast of Thanks groove mix mingled between our shoulders.

I blinked it all in behind candlelight and treasured the rickety emotions for later sorting (ahem… still sorting). We represented a collection of states and histories and families and stories, memories and pains and wounds and griefs. But we were all present and belonging at this table set for us.

There’s a little snapshot of the crowd gathered. We were present, each of us breathing and eating under a canopy of twinkle lights in a Brooklyn apartment in the middle of New York.

And now it is Advent – that season where we prepare to remember that God sent His Son to be born into this world. God sent His Son to breathe and cry and joy and struggle and feast and gather and mourn here, on this very earth.

My heart is sluggish and resistant to the idea of anticipation, but just today I realized how I have been very desperately looking for signs of life for a while now… looking for proof that life is good. Not family portrait good or campfire songs good, but a deep and bellowing good – the kind that carves the grooves my grief runs through. And here, in Advent, is God’s affirmation.

Earth was not just a good enough place for the Son of the Creator of the Universe. God sent His Son to get bruised knees and dusty feet and a full belly in a place that He still loves, for a people He still loves.

Advent has always been good news of great joy because I remember God’s provision in Christ – that God invited us in our sin to meet our Savior. But, this year I needed to feel God’s deep and bellowing affirmation that life on earth is not a consolation prize. We are not in a waiting pattern for something better, later, next, sometime, future.

In the middle of strife and sick and thorns and death and my rickety thanks, God is affirming that His redemption has already started. He is still knitting life together in wombs. Today, I heard a heartbeat in mine. That static-y “wooga wooga” sound is nothing like pleasantries and everything like bellowing affirmation.

I signed up for counseling today and my scattered heart needs it, but this was a special kind of therapy in a doctor’s office on 46th Street. I was squeezing Patrick’s hand and we were both watching life wiggle around inside my belly. “Oh, so active!” they said. We giggled and marveled and asked silly questions. And God affirmed, deeper than all my efforts to be okay or move forward or understand.

And it’s all very complicated, but I am holding on to that affirmation that God is making new life, because that somehow affirms all the lives that He is sustaining.

I can’t believe I am awake past midnight. Pregnancy is beautiful, but pregnancy is also super weird. At least I had some good Christmas tunes to keep this late night company.

Psalm prayers + silent Saturdays

I am glad for Psalm prayers I don’t write and for Saturdays where silence can really stretch out. I didn’t realize I was whispering at the bagel shop until the sweet red-haired girl leaned in closer and raised her eyebrows over tortoise shell Warby Parkers, “Sorry, hon, what did you say?”

“Um, ehm.. I’d like an egg and avocado…”

“Oh, you want number 4 on 7 grain? Anything else?”

I felt like a child whose mom sent her out for eggs and this redhead knew I was breaking the rules. But I just bought a Dirt Devil and I’m hosting Thanksgiving, so I read the [free copy of the] New York Times like I belonged in the adult world. I picked up a few groceries on my way home. And when I got home, I stayed. I baked and pureed pumpkin, hand wrote a few cards, made brown sugar+cinnamon+chocolate chip cookies for tomorrow, put away dishes and drank tea. (Okay, I also ate four Oreos but I did not feel good about that). At some point in the middle of the candlelit silence, I read this:

By the word of the LORD the heavens were made,
and by the breath of his mouth all their host.
He gathers the waters of the sea as a heap;
he puts the deeps in storehouses. (Psalm 33:6-7 ESV)

And I breathed prayers without any new words. All these Psalm words are prayers enough and my words can’t get that big. My words can’t make heavens and my breath can’t make host to fill them. The waters ignore my commands and the deeps don’t respond. Only God can do this. And only God would want to cause this kind of creation commotion when He needs no one and no thing.

I feel very created today, very in my place.

Our soul waits for the LORD;
he is our help and our shield.
For our heart is glad in him,
because we trust in his holy name.
Let your steadfast love, O LORD, be upon us,
even as we hope in you. (Psalm 33:20-22 ESV)

Why is the One who gathers the waters in a heap also my help and shield? And how is He that?

The radiator is hissing in the corner, sputtering like antique apartment heaters do. It feels selfish to stay indoors, but I don’t feel well and I can’t remember the last day when I didn’t have plans. I suppose that is an excuse. Scripture needs silent space and time. I came to no conclusions and wrote no prayers; I don’t feel better or wiser. But I am remembering. I remember who the Lord says that He is. And I remember that I trust Him.

I trust that He is God and He has not given up on His redemption plan. He is very much in the middle of making all things new – old things and dead things and dry bones and this old, stubborn heart.

I’ve been a lot of inward lately. Last week, I was walking out of the subway after a frustrating stop-and-go “We are delayed because of train traffic ahead. We apologize for any inconvenience” situations. I was bundled and hunched and leaving sighs on the sidewalk when someone touched my arm and pulled me close. Patrick was leaving to go to work, but caught me just in time to say, “Hey, I love you.” I hoped that he couldn’t see all the self-pity in my face because the streetlight lit up his and it was full of the best husband love.

Unless the LORD builds the house,
those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the LORD watches over the city,
the watchman stays awake in vain. (Psalm 127:1 ESV)

Sometimes living is labor. I don’t mean working the 9-5. I mean just living. I let Psalm 127:1 sing over some of the silence today until it felt like my deeps started to listen.

And I remember. Unless the Lord builds the house (read: plans, days, vocation, prayer, family, community), I will labor in vain. My building efforts end up being for my own glory or my own preservation or my own pride. But, the Lord – He is a great builder and none of His plans go to waste. None.

It is still Saturday and there is a bit of it left to savor.

a simple, pressing whisper

I lost it in church yesterday.

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.

so we can intersect

Where are You?

I am here, in the middle of things,
blinking against black with heavy eyelids
but the scenery stays the same.
And, where are you?

You are always everywhere,
but where is it that we intersect?
I forget where I go to be with You -
that place where You are with me.

I am here in the middle
like an astronaut or an island.

Where are You?
Because I am in the middle
and everything is unfinished.

I am not ready to go,
I am not ready to stay.
Please, tell me where You are
so we can intersect.

in the habit of naming good

“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.