the liturgy of ordinary time

I am keeping track of time, barely. Sweat drops and slices of fruit and sips from iced cold brew. Molasses and moonshine; slow, fast, strong, fragrant.

My fingers tickle the contours of her face. Feather soft eyebrows, a tender dip in the bridge of her nose, a jaw line that hides under squishy cheeks, and her little jut of a chin with a bumpy, brave scar. We started the tickle when she was tiny. Maybe it was one of those long car rides from Iowa to New York when I realized she loved all kinds of soft touch. Then it got bundled up with her night and nap routines and now she makes specific requests. “Tickle my hands, Mama.” 

Most days, I count it a privilege and the tickle is sweet and slow and savored. Every once in a while, I wrestle the inner voices arguing about my being subject to the tickle whims of a two year old as images of ‘real work’ roll through my mind. And then the tickles are rushed and tired and phoned in.

One night, mind drifting to our guests on the other side of the door, I rolled my eyes as my fingers flicked past nose, ears and cheeks hoping for a fast sleepfall. Then, she reached out her pudgy fingers and started her own tracing. “Tickle Mama’s eyebowwwws.” I didn’t know my shoulders were tense until they relaxed completely at her touch. “Tickle Mama’s nooooohs.” I hid my surprise behind the early summer darkness and gloried in the generous mind of my girl. And so, she traced my face and I felt the sweet and savored slowness of a rightly executed tickle. 

She fell asleep eventually. And we are still in Ordinary Time.

Ordinary Time – that long and feastless stretch following Advent and Pentecost on the church calendar where there is nothing to anchor or move us like the drama of the seasons before. I’ve been waking up for more of the ordinary minutes – the slower, silent ticks of the clock before the day feels fast forward.  The sun reaches its bright, Eastern arms through our bedroom window at 5 and 6 am and my mind will not stay tucked in sleep.

C.S. Lewis and Martin Laird meet somewhere in my mind now, as I pick up the remains of coloring projects and a trail of books leading back to a disheveled bottom shelf. That passage from The Weight of Glory muddles into view: 

War makes death real to us, and that would have been regarded as one of its blessings by most of the great Christians of the past. They thought it good for us to be always aware of our mortality. I am inclined to think they were right.
― C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

When I first devoured these pages in college (oof, years ago), I felt lazy and disengaged in my slow moments. I prayed – Lord, please never find me inactive in the serious work of the Christian life. It is somber like war and I don’t want to be a mere civilian.

I wanted death to be real – all the awkward and cold angles of it – because I thought that meant I would do better at living.

Yesterday, I was bad at being alive. I transmorphed after those early, solitary moments of apartment sunshine into a turtle snail, a snurtle… or something that could escape inside itself without explanation. Except that I was in almost constant motion – in my mind and with my hands. I jostled household chores early and made plans for midday, but everything played like a private concert of dischord – all the notes were wrong and only I could hear the sound. 

I guess that was death – the awkward and cold angles of it – keeping me aware of my mortality and making me a human I did not recognize.

Because “aware of my mortality” means sin and demons and a herd of wolves looking like sheep – and all of that buried deep in my chest where the discordant symphony played its miserable song. This is who you are, human – short-tempered, impulsive, ungrateful, cynical, distressed. Living aware of my mortality is the real pits.

I read “A Grief Observed” after my brother died. Yesterday marked three years since that terrible phone call collapsed me on our apartment floor. I crawled inside the broken tenderness of C.S. Lewis’s grieving heart that pushed against death and all its agony for the living. Confused, angered, depleted, desperate, tired… not exactly motivated to greater motion, greater purpose. Just paralyzed by an invisible, writhing pain monster I could sometimes see. 

Your problem is, you don’t know who you are. Let me tell you who you are. You are a ray of God’s own light. You say you seek God, but a ray of light doesn’t seek the sun; it’s coming from the sun. You are a branch on the vine of God. A branch doesn’t seek the vine; it’s already part of the vine. A wave doesn’t look for the ocean; it’s already full of ocean.

Martin Laird, Into the Silent Land

My eyes stung when I woke this morning, evidence of what I couldn’t keep inside yesterday. I am still wearing the shirt that was soaked in snot less than 12 hours ago. We read the morning Psalm together and prayed as directed, “In the depths of our isolation we cry to you, Lord God; give light in our darkness and bring us out of the prison of our despair through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

And this small, crawling motion. This, rhythm of entering the Lord’s presence with my fickle humanity and asking impossible things, is my mortal pace. I am trapped, bound in this body and darkness, but God – completely outside this constraint – shares His glory and shines His light.

Lord, I have called daily upon you; 
I have stretched out my hands to you.
Do you work wonders for the dead?
Will the shades stand up and praise you?
Shall your loving-kindness be declared in the grave,
your faithfulness in the land of destruction?
Shall your wonders be known in the dark
or your righteous deeds in the land where all is forgotten?
 
But as for me, O Lord, I will cry to you;
early in the morning my prayer shall come before you.

I paused and read again Psalm 88 – about wonders and darkness and the forgotten land. I don’t have an exegesis hiding in my head, but I know my heart wonders often if the Light can reach all the dark – even the places I don’t understand, the places language fails and nothing is right. I am tempted to filter the verses with a simpler, safer tone in my reading with Zella. But God’s Word does not allow it. The darkness is too stark to be sweet, ever. And His light is too glorious to be anything less than complete.

My mortality is not going away, but neither is God’s eternity. And He has somehow mysteriously linked the two in the death of His Son. And that somehow mysteriously informs my identity – yesterday in my transmorphed paralysis and today in my Light-infused slow motion. And that all somehow makes sense in His economy.

I most hated that yesterday felt ordinary. I hated that oatmeal still cooked the same and the stroller was still cumbersome and the storm still changed plans. I hated forgetfulness and poorly timed naps and the innocence that was attached at my hip and in my belly. I hated the ordinary-ness so thoroughly I could not think of anything else.

Because death is not ordinary.

But, here we are – positioned still inside those dreadfully unimpressive words – Ordinary Time. Like the stretch of time after a dramatic Pentecost… the clock creeps on and the days stretch without celebration and I am mortal. But, God in His great mercy, reminds me I am His and He has conquered death and dark and despair in the kingdom come. He is Light and His mystery brings the morning sun that dried my puffy eyes in ordinary time.

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.


To read more from my grief journey, you can find those posts here.

heaping cups of consolation

Today, I woke up on an air mattress in the middle of my bedroom, sorting out strange dreams and back stiffness. It’s a long story and one I’m currently stuck in the middle of, so I’ll give you the full version when I can say “this too shall pass” with the kind of tone that believes it will.

For now, the morning light is stretching out across the living room while I enjoy a slow cup of french press coffee. For now, I am stretching into this blue sky Saturday while I listen to Keller preach on anxiety and emotions and the psychology of happiness. I am not usually an emotional roller coaster, so I am a little ashamed to admit I have been one the past couple days.

Last night, I had a shot of whiskey before going to bed.

It felt more like an old-fashioned remedy to nervousness than it felt like self-medication, but it was probably both. So, when I opened an email from my dear friend Whitney this morning, my heart was primed. I needed an encouraging word – the kind that speaks Truth softly but firmly and without reservation. The sermon she sent was called, “The Wounded Spirit” and I instantly felt guilty for thinking my spirit qualified. I recently watched Scott Hamilton’s story in his I AM SECOND video – what kind of candle can my troubles hold to that struggle?

Theodore Roosevelt said “comparison is the thief of joy,” and in this case its thievery also included consolation. Our problems are always small in comparison to the problems of others, at least mine are. I can always find someone who has it worse, always, and I end up disqualifying myself for consolation as a result. But, I listened to the sermon anyway – even if I felt guilty for thinking my heart qualified.

And I found heaping cups of consolation, buried like treasure inside Scripture.

An anxious heart weighs a man down but a good word makes him glad. (Proverbs 12:25)

Hope deferred makes the heart sick,
but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life. (Proverbs 13:12, ESV)

The heart knows its own bitterness,
and no stranger shares its joy. (Proverbs 14:10, ESV)

A glad heart makes a cheerful face,
but by sorrow of heart the spirit is crushed.
The heart of him who has understanding seeks knowledge,
but the mouths of fools feed on folly. (Proverbs 15:13-14, ESV)

The wicked flee when no one pursues, but the righteous are bold as a lion. (Proverbs 28:1)

In each of these passages and a few more, Keller points to the good news of the Gospel – Christ is the ultimate good word, the best hope, the supremest joy, the most sincere gladness, and the boldest righteousness. But this good news does not live inside a vacuum. This good news lives inside this real world, in real and unforgiving circumstances.

“Happiness is determined by how you deal with your circumstances on the inside – how you process, how you address, how you view them.” – Tim Keller

God’s sweet consolation does not mind how trivial or monumental our anxiety. He does not measure our worries against one another and dole out consolation accordingly. The good news of the Gospel is that it will never run out.

My heart always qualifies for consolation and the consolation of the Good News will never run out.

At the end of the sermon, Keller stresses,

“Come on! He took the tree of death so you can have the tree of life. Use that on your conscience, use that on your emotions, use that on your existential angst. That’ll get rid of your fear of death. But most of all use it on the hope of your heart…”

This too shall pass. Yes, I believe it will.

The hope in my heart is not something I’ve conquered or created. The hope in my heart is heaping cups of consolation from the Giver of Good News.

solitude is an OK thing to need

The Atlantic did not have to be the one to tell me.

I did not, necessarily, need to read it from the pen of artists who have already ‘made it,’ but I suppose I believed it more easily. I was quick to let the words resonate – to make my solitude-seeking legitimate and unselfish and regular. Maybe it was just that title, “What Great Artists Need: Solitude” that made me first click through to the lengthy article. I want to be a great artist someday (everyday) and I will gladly take all pieces of free, expert advice.

And so Dorthe Nors tells me she learned about needing solitude from the creative genius of Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman. In addition to having a very interesting name, Bergman is known for directing somewhere around sixty films and documentaries. But Nors points to his writing in The Atlantic article.

All of it resonated, but some little bits are still haunting me almost two weeks later. Because I do battle with solitude. Every time I plan a party or agree to a coffee date there are moments (and sometimes many) when I want to cancel. I want to turn inside myself because it is easier and because I’m out of energy and because there is no way I can attempt all the creative things on my to-do list if I am never alone. Let’s be honest – forget creative… I won’t get to the practical things either like cleaning out the fridge or fixing our bathroom door so it closes or worrying about the baby mouse I have seen scurry across our kitchen floor twice.

Alone time is good to get things like your kitchen and your bathroom and your soul in order. Solitude should not always get the leftovers because many times it is where we do serious business with the demons in our lives. Nors writes,

“Solitude, I think, heightens artistic receptivity in a way that can be challenging and painful. When you sit there, alone and working, you get thrown back on yourself. Your life and your emotions, what you think and what you feel, are constantly being thrown back on you. And then the “too much humanity” feeling is even stronger: you can’t run away from yourself. You can’t run away from your emotions and your memory and the material you’re working on. Artistic solitude is a decision to turn and face these feelings, to sit with them for long periods of time.

It takes the courage to be there. You run into your own pettiness. Your own cowardice. You run into all kinds of ugly sides of yourself. But the things that you’ve experienced in your life become the writing that you do. And there’s no easy way to get to it, if you want to write literary fiction.

And that’s what Bergman and other Swedish writers have taught me—to stay in that painful zone, discipline myself through it to get where I want.”

This is what Swedish authors are teaching Nors and what Nors is teaching me. It does take courage to be alone – and not just for the baby mouse that needs to be caught in my kitchen. I am a petty person and cowardly and all kinds of ugly. If I’m never alone, I never really feel the weight of those things I am. Nors talks about something Bergman wrote in one of his journals, compiled in a book called Images,

“Here, in my solitude, I have the feeling that I contain too much humanity.”

It’s not even about creating the kind of literary fiction that will be remembered like Bergman and Nors. It’s about having the imprint of eternity on our souls… and knowing that the eternal imprint is never contained by a body or inside a day.

It’s a too much feeling that not all the words in all the world could explain. But it is a tension that doesn’t need explanation as much as it needs space.

Rest. Tension. Time. Space. Struggle.

All this, my solitude-seeking, could also be related to my search for Sabbath rest. Artist or not, we all need that.

It was a jumble of reasons that landed me in the middle of reflections on solitude and Sabbath as I read the lessons Dorthe Nors learned from Ingmar Bergman. But, I guess I get it. It is good to be with people, but it is good to be alone – to fight against the too much pushing free of my chest. It is good to do battle with the space between my silent face and an empty ceiling. It is good to sit with the painful, weighty bits of humanity inside that remind me I am weak and poor and ill-equipped for everything I try.

It is good to make space enough for a full swing of the only sword fashioned to win against such a mighty weight, such a mighty too much.

dawn and dusk

My favorite time of day changes as the day wakes up and walks with me. Generally, just after lunch has never received the title and perhaps also late morning, but I can’t tell you for certain. I just know that there are moments when I glance up from whatever I’m doing – walking, reading, working, thinking – and I’m hit between the eyes with wonder.

Dawn and dusk are regular wonder hits in my life.

When the blue-grey morning sky gives way to pink-peach tones, the fuzzy coming together on the horizon makes me want to set my day’s destination to “first star on the right and straight on ’til morning” with Peter Pan.

Do you know the feeling? The feeling of wonder?

Dawn and dusk have that effect on me, so this morning I took a good, long pause to watch the warm colors bloom into the grey. I watched them fuzz together and then the gray get swallowed up. And as I squinted at the sun on my morning walk, I delighted in its fuzzy beginnings hours earlier. I smiled at the way the sun had introduced itself to this day quietly and then quickly took over the sky with bold rays.

I hope I can keep this feeling of wonder until dusk when it happens in reverse. Maybe it will help to reflect on this devotional from Solid Joys, “Christ is Like Sunlight” where John Piper explains Hebrews 1:3,

He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature.”

Piper writes, “Jesus relates to God the way radiance relates to glory, or the way the rays of sunlight relate to the sun.” And so, it is this relationship that is inspiring wonder in my favorite times of day.

If I was still in 8th grade…

If I was still in 8th grade, I would probably write a song about this emotion. I would probably scribble this excitement into stanzas and practice at the piano. I would write about this infinite hope holding my hand like Hercules and putting ground beneath each forward step. I would write about treasure and blessing and the joy bursting out like a thousand piñatas.

I would write about these lessons I’m learning and I would not be ashamed to sing out my young, cheesy optimism. Several weeks ago I came across a huge stack of diaries, dating back to age 13 and documenting almost every year since.

As I read some of the pages, I rolled my eyes at the drama and blushed at the honesty. When I started writing, I used pencil because I thought I may have to go back and edit it for future publication. I also included chapters (again to save time in the editing process).

It all sounds so goofy now, but there is at least one thing I do not want to lose from my 8th grade self.

Hope.

Not just the melodramatic and flaky hope for a diary to be published or a song to be picked up by Point of Grace (because I sent them a song and gave permission for them to use it on their next album), but the kind of steady hope that is fueling my days. This hope is as concrete as the jungle where I now live, but it is indestructible.

This hope in the future grace of the Lord means I have certain hope for good things in this world and certain hope for eternity. This is a different language than hoping for rain or a job or a good report from the doctor. This hope, rooted in the work of Christ, is secure. I am hoping in something that will come to pass.

This is why I have joy like confetti and footsteps like dancin and days like diamonds – because God is in the heavens doing whatever He pleases, and He was pleased to call me child.

Today is my second day of work as a middle school success counselor in a rougher part of Brooklyn. A certain hope is exactly the kind – the only kind – of hope that can make this a joyful pursuit.

a willing heart, still incomplete

I want a lot of things. No surprise there, I suppose. The intensity might change and the objects of my wanting, but there’s no question: I want things.

And sometimes I get what I want. I will myself to do what needs doing in order to grasp what was once outside my reach. Like the limes I picked up today on the way home from church – I wanted fresh limeade, so I willed myself to drive out of the way to stop at the grocery store. In awhile, after I type out this bit of inspiration, I will sip the limeade that was only a thought a couple hours ago.

But steadfastness does not work that way.

This morning, as we were singing one of my favorite hymns, I stayed on these lines when everyone else sang the next stanza,

Gracious God, my heart renew
Make my spirit right and true
Thy salvation’s joy impart
Steadfast make my willing heart
Steadfast make my willing heart

Apart from God, my willing heart is incomplete – left wanting a faithfulness that is beyond my reach. Often (ahem, daily) my willingness wearies and wavers and no matter how sincere my resolve, I fail and fall. I will never be faithful on my own. No matter how much I want to be faithful, it will always be just outside my reach.

No matter how sincere, willingness does not a steadfast heart make.

There must be something outside of my will and outside of my sincerity that makes me steadfast, because my attempts at faithfulness will always fail.

What grace that God takes our willingness and adds His faithfulness to make us steadfast! Though we fall and fail, our steadfastness depends on His faithfulness and in this He never wavers or wearies.

We come willing and God makes us steadfast.

The exchange makes no sense because it is no exchange at all. We come with only a faltering “want” for faithfulness, but in Christ God adds His faithfulness and our hearts can be made steadfast.

Miraculous.