expose the monsters

I lived three whole days yesterday, three separate and beautiful days packed gently into one late winter weekend Saturday. It started with an introduction to the best new neighborhood coffee shop and then an early meet up at the Hilton in Manhattan, included a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, a good sit by the river, a ferry ride back up to Midtown, laundry with the roommate, my first Prospect Park rollerblade, and it all ended with good, solid conversation.

Packed to perfection like brown sugar, I’d say.

The people in my apartment building probably think we’re crazy for rollerblading in the lobby, but I think they probably have amused conversations about it later (I take that as an “everybody wins” scenario).

The air is colder, but the sun is still shining over the little Brooklyn buildings out my window and I can feel the newness of today. I love the Sabbath because it pulls my heart like a magnet toward restful, quiet, deeper things. I resist often, but the morning is always the best time to get myself in the right current.

This is the second Sunday of Lent and I am meeting my monsters. You know the ones, right? The greedy monsters that hide in your gut or your mind or your wallet, growling to get filled on things that don’t last. I am meeting my monsters as I fast and as I feast these forty days. Honest? I want to give up and give in (and I have here and there).

I didn’t even do anything drastic, I am just that weak!

Getting empty like Jesus in the wilderness is not just a mental battle of self-control. Getting empty is asking Jesus with the rich, young ruler to examine my heart and then matching his loving gaze. I don’t know how many times I’ve read this passage and missed the way Jesus looked at this man before responding, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21)

Jesus saw through all the ways this man had been filled by the world and then he looked at him and loved him (v. 21). With tender love and compassion, Jesus invited the man into emptiness so that he could be full to overflowing. It doesn’t make sense to explain and it didn’t make sense to the man who walked away with sadness like a garment.

Jesus wants to draw us inside this miracle of empty abundance. He wants us to expose the monsters hiding out in our hearts and feeding on all that is unlovely, because those things do not fill. Jesus is inviting us to get empty so that we can be full of a love that doesn’t rust or run out.

It sounds like a fairy tale and it isn’t in real life.

In real life it is hard, but very good and very right. In real life it is the current I want to get inside on this Sabbath Sunday. Join me?

because we have song, they said

The birds sang all over my coffee this morning, through the open window by the fire escape. I wish I knew their song. It seems like creation doesn’t hold back or get nervous or feel awkward about its praise.

It’s just the song inside and the only way is out.

The sunrise and the starlight and the sparrows under God’s watchful eye, all just singing out the songs buried inside. If I imagined myself into conversation with the birds outside my window and I asked them why they sang, I wonder what they would say. I wonder if they would think me silly and simple minded when they reply,

“…because we have song.”

This is the only option, but it is also the best and I love that the birds know that, and the mountains know that, and the life inside dead tree branches know that. Creation sings without shame or fear, but not to get glory.

Creation sings because the Creator gave them a song. And when creation sings, the songmaker is glorified.

I have a song inside, between doubts and delights and deserts. But the song is not for me. The singing is not so I can hear my own voice, but because I have a song. This, so that God would be glorified and others would see that I am also a part of the Spring chorus of sunlight and starlight and sparrows letting loose melodies into the sky.

Happy Sabbath day, friends.

the message of presence is not worn out

Every week of Epiphany season, I need to hear that Jesus is present – inside today and inside me and inside sunshine, storms, and celebrations. I need to believe He is present.

But belief is tricky.

Our “Yes, Lord” gets tangled up with our “Why, Lord” in a mess of circumstances. Even if life has leveled out and we feel good about our daily routine, career status, and financial situation – even if our questions and doubts are less about hardships and more about boredom or purpose.

Belief is slippery when things are going “well” and when things are not.

In whatever circumstance we find ourselves balancing our “Yes, Lord” and our “Why, Lord” – we will always have to answer the question of belief. Do we believe Jesus is present in the midst of it, whatever it is? I’d like to always answer yes. I would even say I am willing to fight for that yes – to fight for belief when I am downcast and when I am filled with delight.

Because belief is slippery, but God is not.

This morning, we read the passage from Matthew 14:22-33. You may know the story. The disciples get caught in a doozy of a storm, in the middle of the night, with no rescue in sight. Jesus had just sent them off in the boat hours earlier while he dismissed the crowds and prayed in the mountains. The storm raged the waves and the storm raged the little boat, but still Jesus did not come. In the fourth watch of night, Jesus appeared on the water and His presence terrified the disciples. Jesus announced Himself by saying,

“Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”

I love, love, love this. Because I am afraid often, in or outside of storms. I am afraid of taxes and of falling in front of subways and of wasting moments. I am afraid often. This morning, I learned that the most common command in Scripture is against fear.

I love that we are commanded not to fear by the One who casts fear out by His presence.

And Peter believes. He watches Jesus walking on top of the evil deeps and says, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” This is belief. He believed that the words of Jesus held power over fear and over the deeps and over the doozy of a storm. He is not free of doubt, but He believes in the power of Jesus’ word above all else.

Jesus said, “Come” and so Peter got out. Just like that. He put one leg over the edge and then the other. Or maybe he jumped. But, I love how simple we read the words. When Jesus said, “Come,” Peter physically moved from feet-on-the-boat to feet-on-the-water. This is belief!

What does it mean to believe Jesus is present?

>>It means I believe He is sovereign.
His presence – forever before and forever after this moment – is a proclamation of His sovereignty. When Peter stepped out there on the rumbly waves, he was saying that He believed Jesus had control over the wind and the waves and his life.

Life is ripe for adventure – for all the crazy, troubling, exciting ways Christ is saying, “Come.” When we believe He is strong over little and big evils, over little and big joys, we believe His sovereignty is more important than our feelings about circumstances. And we believe that strength is exactly where we are – here, present with us.

>>It means I believe He will hold me up.
Okay, so Peter was not perfect at believing, but Christ held him up. When the waves splashed at his ankles and when he started to wobble, Christ held him up. Peter believed in Christ enough to get his legs over the edge. He believed Christ cared for Him deeply and would keep His word.

I want to be held up and I want to need to be held up, because then I can know a more full God. I can know a little more of His power that I would never know if I stayed in the boat. It is good to be willfully in a place of need so God is praised for provision. In this case, the provision was life and Peter believed Jesus was able.

>>It means I will move toward Him.
I love to look at the movement in the gospels. The crowds come to Jesus, the disciples follow Jesus, and Jesus calls people to Himself. There is a movement of drawing near in the good news of the gospel and there is a movement in this life when we believe Jesus is present. As I believe Jesus is sovereign and able and good, I am always moving to be nearer to Him.

This morning in the sermon, my pastor talked about all Jesus’ miracles really being about the presence of Jesus. And I can see the beauty and weight of that statement when I think of the gospel moving today. Nearer still, my heart cries. Believe He is sovereign, believe He will hold me up, and believe He is calling, “Come.”

These are my Sunday thoughts, drenched in rare February sunshine and spread out over the full length of this Sabbath. The message of presence in the season of Epiphany is not worn out. It will never because we will never run out of Jesus.

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.

love at the end

Remember all those days I thought commuting was beautiful? All those days I fought the NYC face and left early in defiance of minute crunching? Remember when I arrived to work in time to write a blog before the day began?

Well, anyway, I guess six months will do it. No more leaving early and no more new routes, but I don’t need another reason to talk about commuting. Train lines pretty much start and end every conversation – trains to live by, trains to get places, trains under construction, trains delayed, and trains full of “showtime, showtime, showtime.”

But it is okay to savor minutes in my apartment in the morning. It is okay to be quiet and sit still before the day begins. It is okay to declare Sabbath daily before chaos and maybe I should do it more often. Because, gosh, it is busy here.

When I first moved to NYC, I had two things on my mind: love this man and find beauty. I did not move to make it in this city as an actress or a business lady or to struggle up abstract creative ladders. Somehow, knowing that was like saying, “I’m not like the rest of this concrete madness. I value minutes and sunshine and neighboring.” I was different.

Six months later, I still value minutes and sunshine and neighboring, but I am desperate for Sabbath rest. I am like every other commuter in the morning, fighting crowds and sounds and shoulders. I am like every other apartment dweller, fighting for quiet minutes and then fighting to fill them. And now I am desperate for Sabbath rest.

My pastor talked about Sabbath rest on Sunday, right after I wrote about it unfolding slowly. Gathered around the weekly spread of cheese, crackers, fruits, and sweets last night, we revisited the passage in Matthew 12 where Jesus heals the man with the shriveled hand on the Sabbath.

It’s funny, living here. Because there is nothing we don’t work for. The act of striving is kind of the moving gears of this city. Commuting is work, work is work, plans are work, friends are work, keeping up appearances is work. We work for everything; we strive hard to believe “everything” is important to work for.

But rest. 

We can not work for rest, regardless of the comp hours we accumulate or the vacation/sick/personal days we are allowed. We cannot gain rest for our souls by living better, though we believe with the Pharisees that somehow we can.

Christ accomplished our rest.

It’s a different kind of Sabbath because Christ fought for and won our rest on the cross. I do not know how to make this more of my rhythm, but I want to learn what it means to rest in the middle of moving gears. I want to learn how to rest while hosting, neighboring, friendshipping, loving, and being.

I need to learn better how to rest.

I don’t know what your Sabbath soundtrack would sound like, but mine has John Mark McMillan’s new song, “Love at the End.” If you have a minute to listen and read the lyrics, do it.

slow Sabbath

Today is a new day and today is the Sabbath, so it has two things going for it and the clock still says 8 am.

The Lord welcomes me when days have weight I do not understand.
The Lord is faithful and He is strong.

And today I will not pretend to steal strength.

Maybe if I start off admitting my weakness, I will not be so surprised when I need to lean on His strength. More than just admitting, though, this day’s beginning needs believing that it is good to not be God. It is good to believe God is completely and uniquely God, that all things rest on His shoulders and all things are held together in His hand.

“In our giving heed to God’s power there rises up in us a realization that God created the universe for this: So that we could have the supremely satisfying experience of not being God, but admiring the Godness of God — the strength of God. There settles over us a peaceful realization that admiration of the infinite is the final end of all things.” Solid Joys DevotionalGladly Not God

It is good to believe that being human is okay and even just the way God planned things. It is good to praise God for the strength it takes to hold the world together. And as I praise this God of strength today, I will not pretend to steal strength away because it never works.

Being human and weak is the only way we can rejoice in the freedom of God being God and strong.

In His strength, we are held up.

lessons in intervals

My mom doesn’t have time to write emails.

She juggles four schedules, a full-time job with teenagers, foster mom shenanigans, and now post-lymes disease syndrome is in the mix. She doesn’t really have time to read my blog or call me on the phone or listen to my heartsickness because she has a world that refuses to fit inside each day’s minutes.

I was standing on the subway platform waiting for the J train at the Crescent stop last week and the tracks made a very squeaky interval that sounded like West Side Story. It sounded like, “There’s a place for us…” and the phrase started accompanying the train’s song.

It took me back to all those nights with my mom in the piano room where we would practice listening for the “NBC” interval, the “happy birthday” interval and all those other intervals. She would play one and we would guess a fourth or fifth or seventh. I’m not sure why she had time to teach us things like that or how she had time to make them fun. We weren’t paying her for piano lessons and it wasn’t the easiest activity to undertake with five hooligans in a constant game of chase around the house.

But, I remember sitting there and sometimes rolling my eyes through my lesson. I remember her exasperation and her persistence. I remember thinking that she wanted me to learn intervals more than I wanted me to learn intervals.

“There’s a place for us…”

It’s like playing word association with melodies – like hearing fragments of stories sliding around on the breeze. And, anyway, hearing that interval from West Side Story was like comfort food. I was the only one standing there, looking at the sun going down and trying not to sigh into the New York commuter face. And I tasted the comfort in those notes – notes that took me back to the nights I learned intervals sitting next to my mom on that old, dented piano bench.

Yep, I thought. There is a place for me here, a place for us.

I got an email the other day from my mom.

Did you know that the color of the tree leaves in the fall is actually the ABSENCE of chlorophyll (which is required for photosynthesis)??

So let’s get this straight.  The leaves are more beautiful in color when they are empty of the thing that makes them green.  Hm..

Am I more beautiful when I’m empty?  Is this what 2 Cor 12:9 means?

 “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.”

Leaves get empty and what is left behind are cold fireworks that float to the earth in friendly piles. Leaves get empty of what makes them alive and that is when leaves get beautiful.

Why did God make even death and absence beautiful? Why did He get so creative with the season that ushers in winter?

I imagine he could have done many other productive things, tended to many other beautiful endeavors. Why think to drain the leaves of life and replace them with cold, colorful flames?

Because even (and especially) in this detail God is loving us. He is gently and divinely displaying His glory. He is drawing us into wonder, into whimsy and wide eyes. He is painting his beauty in the emptiness of creation and (maybe) revealing that He can transform something dead.

It was an email like interval lessons and my mom doesn’t have time for any of it. She is weak, like all of us, and today I’m glad for the lesson on power in weakness because we both need it. She is probably taking a lymes-induced nap before powering through Sabbath evening while I warm by afternoon window sunlight and think about the beauty of emptiness.

The first part of the Sabbath felt smooshed and time empty. It felt a little restless and run hungry. I needed to hear that familiar interval – the sound of Scripture reminding me that I shouldn’t ever fight to be full. I needed to remember that God considers His creation a worthy investment – a fitting canvas to display His glory in nonsensical ways.