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.

teach me to know

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


there is a crack in the door filled with light

If God is on my side, who could be against me?

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 link and join with my family as we mourn in hope.

lessons in love and emptiness

Few folks on the 19th floor of 42nd and Madison knew I was in California over the weekend. Few of them knew I was gone at all. I handed out hellos and good mornings with my best Monday face, because they all had weekends, too, and I didn’t know what theirs were about either.

Mine was full of lessons in love and emptiness.

I always thought love was about giving away something I’ve got, something that came from the overflow of my abundance. You don’t show up to a potluck without a casserole (am I right, Midwest?) and you don’t show up to love someone without something to offer – even if it’s a shoulder or a bit of laughter or a few tears.

I have often tried to love people that way. But, I think I am learning that love is about being empty. Love knocks on the door without a casserole or an explanation, because my confidence in knocking at all has nothing to do with what I can offer.

And it’s hard to think that love can come out of that, out of nothing. But that is what I was learning this weekend. We can be confident love-givers when we are empty. When we realize our words and gifts and casseroles are not the love message, we are left to just be present.

We are present to not figure things out, to not make things better, to not share wise words. Present to question and doubt and consider and believe. Present to be present and not to give a casserole or eat a casserole or have an agenda.

And all of these lessons in love and emptiness remind me of Jesus. He knew how to be present. He knew how to forget about the commotion and the crowds and the distractions so that he could be present with that bleeding woman, reaching out in faith to touch his robe (Mark 5:25). He was always getting empty of all the things we try to offer others in love so that he could be love by being present.

So, I’m trying to learn to get empty more often. I’m trying to learn to offer myself like Jesus.

Last night, freshly back from California with my new lessons on love and emptiness, Patrick tried to share something with me in our new living room. But I already had my apron on and I was very focused on preparing the apartment to host guests.

My apology sounded like a less-than-empty offering, like a casserole I whipped up to cover the offenses. “Here, just eat this and we’ll both feel better.” But it isn’t the same as being empty. He needed my empty moments, the quiet space of my presence.

So, I’m still learning about that.

those who return to Him

As the father looked upon him, and kissed him much, there probably came another kiss, which seemed to say “There is no soreness left: I have not only forgiven, but I have forgotten too. It is all gone, clean gone. I will never accuse you of it any more. I will never love you any less. I will never treat you as though you were still an unworthy and untrustworthy person.” Probably  at that there came another kiss; for do not forget that his father forgave him “and kissed him much,” to show that the sin was all forgiven. There stood the prodigal, overwhelmed by his father’s goodness, yet remembering his past life. As he looked on himself, and thought, “I have these old rags on still, and I have just come from feeding the swine,” I can imagine that his father would give him another kiss, as much as to say, “My boy, I do not recollect the past; I am so glad to see you that I do not see any filth on you, or any rags on you either. I am so delighted to have you with me once more that, as I would pick up a diamond out of the mire, and be glad to get the diamond again, so do I pick you up, you are so precious to me.” This is the gracious and glorious way in which God treats those who return to Him. As for their sin, He has put it away so that He will not remember it. He forgives like a God. – Charles Spurgeon, “Prodigal Love for the Prodigal Son”

This is sweet beauty. This is the “gracious and glorious way in which God treats those who return to Him,” this is His delight over diamonds that never lose their value. The Spring season is bursting with its own diamond offerings, of bright colors and bold raindrops and the warmth the winter was craving. Spring wears beauty so well and I am obliged to “waste” New York minutes admiring it.

There are too many kisses for us to gloss over the story of the Prodigal Son in a synopsis.

Greedy child asked Dad for inheritance early and then wildly wasted every penny before coming home, where Dad received him with a party.

The father’s undignified run was too brilliant to get smashed into the word “received” and the kisses were too many for this reunion to be an average greeting. He kissed the soreness out and the guilt and the shame and the worry – He kissed it all with the power of a Father who forgives.

I’ve been thinking about value and worth and (okay, fine) diamonds. There has never been a time in my life when I have thought more about what I don’t have. I suppose NYC does that to everyone, to some degree, but it has never been part of my rhythm. Contentment has carried me through the sparse and plentiful times in miraculous ways, so this thinking is throwing me for a loop.

People (particularly women) everywhere are obsessed with knowing what might make them more lovable and that manifests itself in all sorts of colorful and crazy ways in this city. My sister’s advice when I moved to New York was, “Care, you can wear anything and no one would bat an eye. That’s the nice thing about New York. You’ll sit next to someone in a suit and someone in fishnet stockings on the same subway ride.”

Turns out, she was right.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the way my eyesight has changed. I am more aware of myself, my style (and lack of), and all the categories I do not fit inside. People say, “If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere.” I’m still trying to find out what “make it” means to figure out if I passed. But I’m not trying too hard to understand that litmus test, because there are too many kisses in the story of the Prodigal Son and the Loving Father.

When my pastor preached on Luke 15 this past Sunday, I thought about the Father’s eyesight instead. His love that covers a multitude of sins looked out on that haphazard hellion of a son and broke with compassion. The worth of the son was not about the words he prepared or the way he presented himself. The worth of the son was bound up in the love and compassion of the Father when the son returned home. He lavished love and kisses and let all the neighbors talk about his ridiculous sprint when the son was still “a long way off.”

This is the beauty the spring shouts, because winter did not deserve to be reborn into Spring. Winter died because God blew in Spring with the power of His words.

We are worthy of the Father’s love because He has said it is so and we hear those words spoken over us when we return to him, haphazard and tangled and unkept. This is the freedom of Spring – that the tree did nothing to earn its blooms and the sky did nothing to earn its shine. God, in His grace, is speaking His love over creation. And those who return to Him will hear the words spoken directly over their souls.

Hello, Spring! Hello, Easter!

this is the first day

“This is the first day.”

Sure, Sunday was the beginning of a new week and the beginning of the Easter season and the beginning of Spring. But it was not just that, not at all just that.

“This is the first day,” our pastor said at least five times in his sermon Sunday.

He said it like he was announcing a baby’s first breath or a rocket’s first flight, like there was a definite and precise time of origin and there was not anything like day before that day. Like, perhaps, when the first dawn broke the first day as God breathed life out of nothing.

When Christ rose from the dead, everything changed… forever. Everything, forever changed. History and future and eternity and the way the sunlight presently stretches across my morning routine. Sunday would have been the first day of a new work week for the Jewish people, but all work was different on this new “first” day, in light of the resurrection.

We are living in the light of an empty tomb – on the sky side of a conquered grave.

That is why we spread the feast table in Prospect Park on Sunday and gathered friends and broke bread and said grace and joyfully remembered together our redemption. We are on the sky side of a conquered grave with Jesus.

As if that wasn’t reason enough to celebrate on Sunday, Patrick decided it would be another first. He thought that Easter was the most appropriate time to make this special invitation because of the way every feast and marriage and celebration is wrapped up inside the immeasurable blessing of salvation.

At the end of a long day of celebrating, Patrick asked me to be his bride and it is making me the happiest little Midwestern Brooklyn girl you have ever seen.

It took a while for the shock to wear off (when I say I had no idea it was coming, I mean like you would be surprised if those big check people showed up at your door). Of course, I was hoping it would happen in the future, but I was not expecting it Sunday when we could share the joy with my brother and sister-in-law who were visiting… which is probably why our excitement turned into silly dancing in my living room.

And now, this.
I am engaged! I have a fiance! I am going to marry my best friend!

The sweet beauty of Easter just claimed a whole new piece of my heart. It’s like knowing the best secret that I can tell everyone and like my rib cage is warm like the best whiskey. It’s… sorry, words won’t do at all here. Words just won’t do to explain how wonderful it feels to step into love like this.

I’ll spare you my mushy babble for now. I will just say that it seemed the best way to start this part of the journey – remembering the Bridegroom we anticipate together and the marriage feast He has prepared.

For now, we will enjoy “every good gift” the Lord pours out and we will enjoy it with all the zany delight those gifts deserve.


the sun will rise

Love as Christ loved.

That is the message of Maundy Thursday, the new commandment Christ gave to the disciples in his final, informal sermon. Love one another. He commands it because He knows it can be done, though it is impossible.

We are not naturally lovely people – not naturally kind or caring. We are selfish and proud and have been since that forbidden fruit. We guard our independence and vacation time and personal freedom and charity, considering others sparingly and only when we feel like it. To “love one another” is an impossible command, but Jesus commands it because He knows it is possible. His is a love that can swallow up every force that opposes it, even death.

His is a love that empowers love when the network of human nature fights against it.

Christ shows us love and then commands us to do what only He can make possible in our lives. “Love one another” is not a reason for Easter resolutions or a slogan for social justice. “Love one another” is an impossible command that Jesus obeyed perfectly on the cross, a command that we can obey by way of His righteousness.

Jesus commands us to love one another and then He shows us what love looks like as he lives out the prophecy spoken in Isaiah.

Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
[ISAIAH 53:1-6]

I still do not understand it, but I read myself in these words. I hid my face, esteemed him not, and threw my grief on his bloody back. And today we remember that He was crushed. He was pierced and wounded because of our black hearts and secret sins. Today, we remember the sky went black when death killed the healer.

This is the darkest day, but there is hope on the horizon. There are rays hiding behind the dark sky, lit by the glory of the Creator – our God who knew all along that there would be a resurrection. And the resurrection lights the way for our love of one another.