the habit of meeting together

Winter is not in my marrow this year and I am trying to figure out why it bothers me so. I like a snow that settles fast and deep like a feathery blanket, and then fades without a slush parade. The snow of this winter is just exactly the way I like it and today felt like April. But discomfort better suits the Lenten season; the chill in my marrow is its perfect pair.

O, Lent. Old, steady, dark, and stubborn friend.

This is the season of giving up and taking up and pressing in. I added that – the pressing in. My soul is weary of resolutions and restrictions. I hear Grover saying, “Neeeeeeeear” …….. “Faaaaaaaar,” and this is my Lent dance – searching for the Lord and pressing in, getting near, bending toward, listening.

And meeting.

I joked with some guests recently that we host 10-15 times a week. We laughed because there are seven days and that’s silly… but there are also mornings, noons, and nights. There are coffees and teas and stop bys. There are neighbors and strangers and friends. And there is this little human named Zella Ruth, always bending out of the hold on my hip to see who will open the door next.

She has a shoebox in the kitchen with jar lids, measuring spoons and a hot and sour soup container. She spends a lot of time with that shoebox because I spend a lot of time in the kitchen because Team Kolts is in the habit of meeting together. In the first months of our marriage, we struggled to agree on our definitions of “an open door.” One night, I was angrier than I ever remember being in my entire life – so angry I felt heat puffing out my ears and we called an emergency counseling session with our pastor the next day (silly story about a couch, not even really worth re-telling).

All these … months later, we weekly compare notes to see who we’ve invited over and daily check in about who might be stopping by. *I got a text while writing this and now a friend is staying with us for the weekend. Don’t worry – no hot ears.

Lent is pressing in.

And I am holding fast the confession of my hope without wavering. I’m praying for the unwavering part, actually. But there is something so irreplaceable about meeting together. I remember an exasperated mom at the dentist’s office asked my parents once, “How’d you get your five kids to turn out alright?” And my parents said something like, “It was the Lord… but we did go to church every Sunday.”

It was never about attendance. It was about the habit of meeting together and I think I am starting to feel the best weight of that.

Hebrews 10:24-25, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”

I need this preached to me – I need to hear this good news that there is hope, the good news that God is faithful. And I need to preach the same.

Our pastor spoke recently about salvaging the word “preaching.” He said that we need to both hear and speak true words to each other, the good news that God says we matter and that what we do matters. We need to hear and speak the true words that the pain and hurt of this world needs to be reckoned with and has been already in the person of Jesus.

Sometimes I preach to Zella. Nose to nose, I sing into closed eyes and (sometimes) her open mouth wail, “…I’ll be satisfied as long, as I walk let me walk close to Thee.” If she can’t hear the good news in it, I do. “Thro’ this world of toil and snares, If I falter, Lord, who cares? Who with me my burden shares? None but Thee, dear Lord, none but Thee.”

After Will died, I needed preaching. I needed true words, simple words of hope and peace and kingdom come. I needed Jesus more and above anything else.

Lent is pressing in and I need the habit of meeting together to keep happening in my living room. I need friends who come looking for prayer and neighbors who accept invitations to dinner. I need conversations in kitchens and I need walks in the park. I need to be pressed farther up and further in, where the preaching is desperate because the siren song is too strong to stop.

Her eyelashes are like branches now, shading those sweet cheeks from winter skies gray. We ventured out on Ash Wednesday and Zella Ruth made irreverent babbles throughout the somber liturgy. She didn’t know Lent was pressing in, but I hope she felt something of the ash on her head and the silent exit from the meeting together.

I can’t seem to shake this Ash Wednesday prayer and especially that this liturgy assumes a gathering.

The Collect for Ash Wednesday

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen

a holy hush did not hover

IMG_8272The advent wreath is uneven – dried eucalyptus folded and woven around a green foam ring with four purple candles sticking up like smooth royal towers in a bramble patch. My grandpa made the wooden base that holds the large, white pineapple candle in the center. And the bulky tradition sits unceremoniously on our table, on top of a feast-speckled fabric runner and underneath long eucalyptus branches leftover from a chandelier I couldn’t throw away.

The irreverent transformation of our antique gateleg table did not have all the feels of spiritual renewal. No mystery hid in the clinking of cider and whiskey glasses. A holy hush did not hover above our bowls of butternut squash soup.

We ladled out seconds and then reclined to read the liturgy for the first week of Advent. Tam struck the match that lit the first candle – the candle of Hope – and Grace read from Matthew 13,

35 Therefore stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows,[c] or in the morning— 36 lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. 37 And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake.”

I heard my soul saying the emotions are spent. We are dead broke on emotions so I don’t try to wrestle more out. I just say, “Ok, soul.” And then I heard the words from this passage and thought, but at least let’s stay awake.

The neighbors must have opinions. Our windows were open, on the first day of the first week of Advent, to let the last cool breezes of autumn hug our shoulders. While the good folks next door were high-fiving touchdowns and shaking fists at referees, we were singing “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” … all the verses. And then we sang the first verse again to layer some harmonies under the skillful conductorship of our friend Jeremy. The prayer of confession sounded the most Monty Python – all nine of us confessing out loud, with the same words, how we have strayed and how badly we need to be rescued, forgiven, and restored.

It’s the 14:39 mark in Bach’s Cantata 140. After the soul pleads salvation’s quicker coming for six minutes, Zion hears the watchmen calling… and I say to my soul, let’s stay awake for this.

Wake up and don’t sleep through this. Be awake to plead and to grieve and to joy and to see and to fail and to receive and to hear. Be awake to anticipate the song of a Savior.

Be awake for Advent, I say to my soul – all the irreverence of it… the leftover decorations and the mess of it. Be awake and at all costs stay awake. Invite enough shoulders around your table that elbows touch your side. And when you get sleepy, soul, light a candle. When your eyes droop, soul, read Scripture. When you have no ceremony, soul, raise a toast. Stay awake, soul, because there is a song after the song you are singing and you will want to hear.

God, please help me stay awake.

in the midst of my escaping

I’ve been listening to this song by Young Oceans, called The Gates. It makes me uncomfortable because in the middle, if I sing all the words, I am a liar. The music sounds more confident than I feel, but the words betray a heart that feels so many other things.

I wanna wake and feel Your glory
I wanna speak in tongues of angels for You Lord
I wanna sing a song eternal
I wanna trample on the curses of the earth
I wanna call upon Your healing
I wanna see the sick and weary be made new
I wanna swim inside the blessings
I wanna swim inside the blessings of the Lord

It’s all the things I want to want, but I’m too weak or frail or scared or lazy or tired or selfish. Or I am all those things.

The beauty of Christmas – Christ coming to earth – came wrapped inside wrapping inside wrapping inside wrapping this year. It came slow like the full nine months of labor pains, much deeper than I’ve ever anticipated this season before.

And when I shake with sobs in bed or pray for water hotter than my tears in the shower, I need Emmanuel. I need the truth of “God with us” on earth. When I wish I was 13 years old again or when I go to sleep to be hidden, I need Emmanuel.

I’m not proud of wanting to escape. But when life is hard, you just dream of it being easier I guess. Easier commute to work, easier free time, easier time management, easier professional life, easier marriage, easier living, easier. Not lazy, just better. I’m not proud of wanting easier.

Maybe that’s why I love liturgy so much. It makes me say the words I do not feel. And that’s why Scripture memory is a life vest these days. Even if those are the only words I repeat, the only ones I sing… even if I don’t feel them completely, I know there is a gift wrapped inside a gift wrapped inside a gift that is more inside than any thief of joy.

God with us. He is here, even when I am not wanting Him. He is here, when I want to be elsewhere. God with us, pursuing us in love.

Did You say, ‘seek, you will surely find’?
I am searching, Lord turn Your eyes to mine
But I’m weary, pacing at these gates
Jesus come, come now, don’t delay

Like a child, ever faithful may I be
This I ask, God of mercy hear my plea
I have wandered with a soul impure
For this scorn, Father, send a cure

Last week, I memorized from John 11:25-26, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die…”

It’s one of those verses that’s hard to say, but I stumble through. I speak and trust God will grant the belief I need to be moved by these words. He is good and true and He is holding me up in the midst of my escaping.


 

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

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.

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.

praying for more belief

I’ve been sleeping a lot.

They tell me, “Sorrow is exhausting,” so I guess a twelve hour stretch of slumber is allowed. The days are perfection, hovering at 70 with dreamy cloud cover and begging to be biked. We stuffed my purple, craigslisted road bike into the trunk on our return trip from Iowa, so now I get a better wind return for my energy investment. But I get tired even on perfect days.

I’ve been reading through old posts lately, like this post I wrote on Black Friday, the day Will and Grace came to visit. I felt like I had really climbed inside Lent, like sadness was a weight I wore for clothes. It was heavy and I couldn’t wait to trade it for white lilies on Resurrection Sunday. But it is strange looking back now at these words…

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.

All those days in Lent when I felt weighed down by solidarity with Christ feel like feathers now. It’s like Black Friday happened again, or is happening, or is some sort of constant, awful undercurrent.

It can get mechanical, navigating grief. The deepest feelings I had before now feel like dramatics. But I know this is not the case. I know in my head that it was the blackest day when Christ died. I know we are not mourning without hope, because I know Christ did not stay dead.

But we are mourning.

And it is hard to be selfless. It is hard to take a genuine interest in the welfare of others, to think eternal thoughts and love without condition. Those were hard things before grief.

I feel it the worst with Patrick and our less-than-two-months marriage. I want to blame my bad communication and silent treatment on mourning. I want to crawl inside my sadness and away from the tension of hope, even for a little bit. I want for him to know what I need, magically, without me saying a word and I want for him to know when that changes. Grief is tempting as a great excuse for sin, maybe, and it is stretching us to the maximum.

We never got tickets to that “honeymoon phase” people talk about. But I do remember, on the worst day of my life, what it felt like to be held by someone I trusted completely. We had been married less than one month when we got the news that my brother (and my husband’s best friend) had died. Neither of us decided to let the other inside the pain, it just happened. I let my grief press up against his chest and I let his consolation cover me while I rambled incomplete sentences and tried to keep afternoon appointments. I never once wondered if I could trust him with all this, I just did.

I found this post recently from the same week leading up to Easter.

It is frightening, unless you believe in the God who keeps promises. This God, who loved the world so much that He threw His seed to the earth to be sown in death. The evidence is in the palms of His hands and the scars on His sides.

The resurrection is waiting on the other side like the buds breaking through dead branches and the sprouts peeking out from dry ground. Resurrection is hiding, buried safe in God’s plan for redemption.

This week is about death, but it was always about life to God.

It is frightening, unless you believe in the God who keeps promises. I am learning that life, sometimes, is still frightening… while you are believing. So, we pray for more belief. In our marriage, we pray for more belief that God is keeping His promise to us so we can keep our promises to one another. In our family, we are praying for more belief so we can be support and love when we feel weak. In our friends and neighbor circles, we are praying for more belief to talk about the weird tension of mourning and hope and all the in-between that makes no sense.

That last line is heavy, “This week is about death, but it was always about life to God.” It’s about Christ on the cross, but it is also about Will because he became new when he trusted Jesus. The death in him was gone when he believed Christ stood in death’s place on his behalf.

This is what I know and what I believe, but I am praying for belief that brings peace when this trade doesn’t make sense.

Note: I’m not sure how much this grief needs written out, but maybe you’ll be patient with me as I do some sorting. 


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

our striving would be losing

If there ever was someone who deserved the distinction of being absolute, that someone is Jesus. He declared himself the absolute, only way to enter into the kingdom of heaven (John 14:6). In this question, there is no grey area – not a single drop of ying yang to dilute what He has spelled out explicitly in His word.

Christ is salvation for those who believe, but salvation is bigger than we think. It is not just a salvation from judgment. Christ’s salvation is also salvation into righteousness. In the same moment that He freed us from the bloody (literal) cycle of sacrifices, He freed us into obedience by way of His righteousness. We are no longer ruled by the destruction of our secret hearts and the destruction of our sinful humanity. We are not ruled by the darkness that seems to rule the world.

“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)

We are freed from judgment by Christ’s atoning sacrifice and freed into obedience by Christ’s imputing righteousness.

What we believe about Jesus Christ matters because our lives could never stand up to God’s righteous judgment. My sin goes before me and follows close behind. The good I want to do gets muddled up in my own schemes and I am daily reminded of my sin that leads to death. I am weak against greed and pride and lust and fear and faithlessness. There is not a day I could stand upright in the face of God’s righteous judgment.

But God, being rich in mercy called His children before the foundations of the world into freedom from the judgment that is due our dead bones.

I need for Christ to offer a salvation that is more than just a courtroom scene where He takes my guilty sentence. I need for Him to be the justice I act and the mercy I show and the love I share. I need for Him to be the righteousness that roots out my fear and greed and lust and pride and I need Him as replacement. I need for Christ to be who God sees when I stand before the throne of judgment. AND HE IS, dear friends!

What we believe about Jesus Christ matters because His sacrifice both atones for our sin (receiving the judgment we are due) AND imputes our righteousness (replacing ours with the perfect life Christ lived).

He is the perfect heart condition when I try to muster compassion. He is the perfect generosity when I scrounge for change. He is the perfect host when I frenzy about with overlapping plans. He is the perfect listener, counselor, and encourager when I am trying very hard and very imperfectly to be all those things.

Yesterday, I sang “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” with a group of strangers in a beautiful church near Union Square. This second verse really tore apart my spirit.

Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing;
Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing:
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He;
Lord Sabaoth, His Name, from age to age the same,
And He must win the battle.

I do a lot of striving – a lot of confiding in my own strength – and none of it gets me closer to a better salvation. Absolutely not one single attempt (or many) at righteousness will be the reason Christ invites or denies me into His kingdom. Because there is only one right Man, a Man of God’s own choosing, who has the power and perfection to be condemned in my guilty place so that I can become the righteousness of God. Salvation doesn’t get any better than that.

No matter how many hungry folks we feed or naked people we clothe or strangers we invite in, we would never do it perfectly and we would never do it enough. I would never do righteousness enough and (if I could be so bold) you wouldn’t either. We are always striving and our striving is always losing, but God made a way for us to be free of judgment and freed to righteousness. And that way is Jesus.

What we believe about Him is the most pressing, most prominent, most permanent thing today. He makes perfect all our imperfect attempts because He gave us His righteousness. We are freed from striving for perfection and freed from losing at that game. We are freed into obedience because salvation doesn’t depend on our righteous performance. Salvation depends on the cross and Christ performed that perfectly… so that we could enter into His joy and invite others to the banquet table to meet the Man of God’s own choosing.

As I click at my keyboard, wet and sloppy tears are tracking through the blush on my cheeks. Everything is snot-messy because salvation will always be a mystery. I don’t understand why I get to know Christ. I don’t understand why my sin does not banish me forever from His presence. I don’t understand why I never have a better response. I don’t understand why my daily song doesn’t sound like worship. I don’t understand why my heart can be so resistant to miracles.

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.

For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:20-31 ESV)