Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Calling out Names

I just can’t shake the beautiful, soul-piercing image of something I witnessed a week or so ago. Our church likes to do its business town hall style, a democratic system with obvious benefits and drawbacks. At the last meeting I attended, I was sitting in the back doodling and listening to the discussion surrounding the hiring a staff position. Many people knew the candidate in question, since said candidate had worked at the church before. But many others in the audience did not know him and had standard questions about his ability to do the deeply (inter)personal pastoral work inherent in the job. The discussion had been predictably town hall-ish, until the moment in question, the one I can’t shake, the one that haunts and inspires me.

A question was asked. A woman took the mic in response, stood and turned to the group, asking for the names of people who had been deeply impacted by the candidate, impacted in the “now I am spending the days of my life doing something that I would not have chosen to do were it not for this person” sort of way. And that is when it started. Names began to roll easily off lips all around the room. Names began to rise and swirl in the rafters: sweet incense, smoky perfume. Names of real people, only some of whom I knew, lifted in public witness. Names and names and more names.

The woman with the microphone just stood there, a placeholder, a gatherer. She kept nodding and when all was quiet again, she sat back down.

I keep thinking about all those names. What if the new bodies promised in heaven are but garments made of names? Will I be dressed to meet my Maker? The gathering of names – placeholders of rich, fruitful life – is, of course, not work reserved for pastors. It is the narrow, rocky path chosen by anyone who claims to follow Christ. The deal is this: If I have breath in my lungs, it was given to me to spend on the lives of others. If I have shoes, they were given that I may walk a long road with a weary traveler. If I have bread, it is for breaking, sharing, sustaining. But can I say that today’s breath brought life to others? Or that I have worn out my shoes as I should? Or broken bread in community? I’d rather not give account.

Lord, help me see, even today, that there is nothing more beautiful than the smoky perfume of names. And help me spend myself thus.


And to the one who was hired, I say, welcome back, Brother. We are so pleased to have you among us again and to say like Paul, Silas and Timothy to the church of the Thessalonians: “We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in the Lord Jesus Christ” (I Thessalonians 1:3). Come walk among us. And may God bless these rafters with names.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Writing Our Words, Remembering Our Place

I wouldn’t consider us a particularly craft-y people, but we did finally make a sign to hang in the entryway that I pray will season our coming and going with rememberance.

First we sanded a piece of wood we had lying around.

(note the way-too-small “safety goggles” Sis pulled from the dress-up bin and the kid, who doesn’t like loud noise, covering her ears and crying in the background.)

Then we rubbed it with an old tee-shirt dipped in Manhattan Mist (also lying around).

We painted kid prints.

Dad made it “fancy” with the router.

Then we wrote our words.


The bible says much about grace. But as I think about it today and what of grace I pray my children take to the schoolyard, I see the chemistry between two passages. The Apostle Paul, especially, brings up the subject often, almost as if it is always on his mind. And it probably was. By his own admission he was a man of wrath and destruction, wielding a bloody club heavy with the weight of legalism. But he was stopped on the road. And spoken to by God. And thereafter marshaled the zealous resources of his personality in making the grace of God known to others. He says things like, “I pray that out of his glorious riches [God] may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ…be[ing] filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:16-19). He says things like that because he knew – way deep – what God’s grace feels like. I desperately want our home to be a place of grace. I desperately want my babies put down their roots in the good earth of understanding that a big God came near with a blood offering stronger than the most shameful things we have conspired to under cloak of darkness. His love is made available to us only and always by his grace. I want them to feel the freedom of God’s grace, to wear it next to their skin, and hand it out like candy to those who cross their paths.

And I pray that the grace of God in the hearts of my children will grow, like the mustard seed in Luke 13, “which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds perched in its branches.” The bible, for me, seems full of the image of strong trees. And this one from the parable in Luke started out small. A small kernel of faith, planted in good soil, reaching its height, calling the birds to perch and the farmer to shade. The years compressed in this story, between planting and perching, can only be a story of grace. Grace in the soil, grace in the rain, grace in the protection from fire. Lord, let them grow in grace.


In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:9), Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Peace. We need it. In this home. And in the circles in which we travel. And not only do we need acts of peace and brave moments of peacemaking, but we also must remember to speak the blessing of peace. Out loud. When Hannah, barren and weeping, poured out her soul to God in his house, the priest Eli questioned her, assuming it was wine that was causing her to yell and flail and stumble around the temple. But it was not wine. It was blinding grief. And so, after hearing her story, he blessed her. “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him” (I Samuel 1:17). And Jesus used the same words to bless another weeping woman, the one who mixed her tears with perfume, and wiped his feet in front of the audience of law-keepers and bean-counters who insulted Jesus for letting such a storied woman touch him. He forgave her sins and sent her on with a blessing, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” I pray that my children will see - through the eye of God - roads of peace. And I pray that he will give them words of peace with which to bless. And I pray, that on the days that we yell and rub each other wrong and say things we don’t mean before breakfast, we will stop a minute at the threshold and remember to reach out with a well-worn olive branch. Lord, make it so.


“[Jesus] knew that he had come from God and was returning to God, so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist.” John 13:3b-4

I pray that my children will do things in this selfish world that will seem crazy. I pray that they will know when to bend a knee in service to others, make a sacrifice, share a crayon, give their shirt, turn a cheek. I can’t even begin to know how to talk to them about how to find those moments and live them right, other than to remind them that they belong, not only to the honor of our family name, but to God himself. When Christ bent to wash his disciples feet – dusty, hot and odorous – he grounded himself between the heaven from which he came and the heaven to which he would return. And that grounding, that deep knowing to whom he belonged, set his feet upon a steady rock from which he could, without fear, bend his body low.

The way of Christ makes no sense here. The math we learn in school does not teach us anything about God’s economy. Nor does the alphabet we practice writing, decoding, and piecing back together in orders all our own bring us close enough to the heart of God. So I pray that my children will learn to listen to the still, small voice in their soul that suggests actions that won’t earn them praise or popularity or guarantees. I pray that they will play even when they can’t earn tickets, knowing this place, beautiful as it may be, is not their home. I pray that they remember whose they are, and wear that remembering all their days.

Friday, July 27, 2012


Last Sunday, a friend loaned me a book I didn’t even know I needed to read. I have just started it, and already it is working its fingery threads into my spirit. The author tells her story of using her pen to make lists on her way to Eucharisteo: grace, thankgiving, joy. She makes the case for looking closer, getting into the habit of hunting for gratitude in the bits and pieces. She claims, through her story-telling, that painting our thanksgiving in broad strokes does not necessarily bring us life-giving breath. And what she is saying is feeling real for me today.

I am grateful. But I am starting to wonder if I look for and offer my thanksgiving through the same wide gate with which I invite in all manner of anxiety. A few summers ago, when I couldn’t breath and couldn’t sleep and stumbled into the doctor’s office with three small children clutching the bagel-bribes I had brought to keep them still while I made my confession, I learned a new word: globalized anxiety. And now I am seeing that I often offer gratitude with the same blunt instrument. Globalized gratitude. Of course I am glad that


But somehow I am still hungry, still looking for pieces small enough to chew.

And so my mind turns to the bag of beads we brought with us to Bocono. The local word for beads is pepitas (literal translation: seeds). The eye of my camera was drawn to the beauty of bead-stringers against blue walls, lost in concentration, making choices about which color to choose next. And I am thinking there may be a lesson for me in the image. The discipline of choosing gratitude requires that I focus on individual seeds and string them together one at a time, paying some attention to their order and the way they make patterns. The habit of giving thanks in all circumstances is close work. It may be less of a general sun salutation, and more of a writing down, slowing down, forming of syllables, choosing of words. And these words are – in every way – seeds. Small shells of promise, with life inside, waiting patiently to be worked into the humus.

So I offer my first second-look. Yesterday I took a handful of photos at the flower garden. Summer, and the diligent woman who tends the garden, had offered a feast of color and light. But today I noticed something I hadn’t seen before: the rich brown canvas of my baby’s eye had captured the clouds (and even a miniature reflection of myself). In the beautiful almond of his eye, I found the expansive promise of the open blue that wraps us here, offers us rain in season, and filters the powerful rays of our galaxy’s star, lest we be burned. And so I pray: thank you, Lord, for little glimpses and second looks.

Psalm 95:2 “Let us come before him with thanksgiving . . .”

Checking on Investments

These good-looking people came to visit us this week. It was so fun to see them and such an honor to have them in our home. They are so precious to us because they were part of an amazing volunteer staff that worked with the high school group at the church where my husband and I grew up. Now that I am a “grown up” myself, their gift of love and time seems all the more sweet. They faithfully came to the church after work every Thursday night to listen to us talk about our days (against a backdrop of music that I am sure was too loud) and watch bizarre feats of adolescent challenge like swallowing goldfish and spinning around in circles after drinking a gallon of milk. They had us in their home for weekly bible study. And when my would-be husband and I thought it would be funny to let ourselves into their house and rearrange the furniture while they were at work (since we knew the secret location of the hide-a-key) they smiled and asked if we could stay for dinner. They took us water-skiing, used their vacation to come with us to camp, and made us feel important. I hope I said thanks. I probably didn’t.

Now their beautiful daughters are grown, the oldest is packing for college. A handful of states separate us. And yet they came to visit. We wandered around a u-pick flower garden together and introduced them to the local coffee venue before they continued on their way.

As part of the tour-of-our-town, we stopped by to show them my husband’s office where he spends his days helping people invest their income. At Mrs. J’s prompting, our kids took turns in Dad’s chair, doling out sage advice about how to invest her pretend money. Sis suggested she save it up, and use it to go somewhere God might want her to go someday. Peanut volunteered to spend it for her on undisclosed items needing refrigeration. And I thought about what good investments look like. Good investments give dividends. They grow over time. Ten years out, they are stronger and more valuable, having been under the watchful eye of the investor. I hope that is what our life looks like to these precious friends. I hope they can see that their investment in us has been growing in value. I hope they can recognize their prints on our marriage, our home, our children. Because we are so grateful. And if I knew how, I would say thanks.

Plain Jane, Part 2

A few days ago Peanut got a decent little scrape across her ankle. We were at the playground and she came running over, tearful, looking for a kiss, which I gladly gave. She sniffed, wiped her eyes, and said, "Now I don't have plain skin."

That kid. Always thinking. Always looking for ways to prove me wrong, to wiggle out from under discipline, to bend and stretch until the definitions do not fit. I love it. And I love that she heard me.

Sometimes I feel like everything is uphill, that I am investing myself in the wrong conversations with my kids, my colleagues, my neighbors, whoever. So Peanut and her bloody ankle was a sweet little gift that gives me hope that the things we try to teach our children around the table, over chores, at bedtime, sometimes find their way into the "real world" of playgrounds and schoolyards where kids get chosen last, left out, and pushed around. Her little scrape reminds me that we handed out bookmarks at our wedding with the text of Deuteronomy 6:4-9, mostly as a reminder to ourselves that we wanted God to establish, in our marriage, a home where he would be always welcome, always seasoning the conversation. I love the Deuteronomy text, sometimes referred to as the Shema Yisrael, because it is intended to be repeated daily since we are forgetful, distracted people.

I still haven’t written anything on the doorframe of our house. But I think I know what I want it to say:

Grow in grace
Go in peace
Remember whose you are

Maybe I’ll go buy a fat marker today and get down to it. Because I already feel the desperate closing down of summer. And sooner than I like, we will all be going back into our schoolyards. And I want our comings and goings to be seasoned with a grounded remembering.

Deuteronomy 4:6-9: Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

August Weddings

In August we will be attending two weddings. In the first, I will stand with a sister-friend to whom a corner of my soul belongs. The second, two weeks later, will be the wedding of my little brother, who has – when I wasn’t looking – grown into a fine man. Both couples will honeymoon near the sea. And because I have marriage and the ocean on my mind, I noticed a copy of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s meditations on the intertwining of these two subjects at the thrift store on Thursday. I bought it for $1.89. I still intend to give it to my sister-friend, but thought I should reread it first. And I am glad I did. Lindbergh first published the collection of meditations in 1955, and I find her grapplings with the life’s basic tensions (between self and other, woman and man, woman and family, solitude and community) speaking to me a second time.

She quotes from the poet Rilke: “A complete sharing between two people is an impossibility, and whenever it seems, nevertheless, to exist, it is a narrowing, a mutual agreement which robs either one member or both of his fullest freedom and development. But, once the realization is accepted that, even between the closest human beings, infinite distances continue to exist, a wonderful living side by side can grow up, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole and against a wide sky!”

There is much that can be said on the topic of marriage. My experience of the institution generally, and my own covenant with my husband, breathes and grows and changes. That is the nature of living things. And so my own collection of thoughts here is in no way definitive or complete. But Lindbergh has stuck a cord, and I want to play it just a minute.

Surely, there is certainly a type of distancing in marriage which it cannot endure, as well as a righteous call to protect it with one’s life and feed it time and prayer and closeness. But I also have to remember honestly that at the outset I saw in my husband what I had not seen in any other man I had dated, namely, space for me to grow. He seemed to see me, and to understand that, at twenty-two, there wasn’t much for either of us to know about who I would be at thirty or forty or seventy-five. I have always loved that about him. And I think that is the kind of space to which Rilke speaks. Not the distancing of cold silences and diverging interests, but the space to move and breath, to look up each morning in anticipation of manna, and stretch out an arm towards impossible dreams.

Lindbergh, like many before her, takes up the metaphor of dance: “A good relationship has a pattern like a dance and is built on some of the same rules. The partners do not need to hold on tightly, because they move confidently in the same pattern, intricate but gay and swift and free, like a country dance of Mozart’s. To touch heavily would be to arrest the pattern and freeze the movement, to check the endlessly changing beauty of its unfolding. There is no place here for the possessive clutch, the clinging arm, the heavy hand; only the barest touch in passing. Now arm in arm, now face to face, now back to back – it does not matter which. Because they know they are partners, moving to the same rhythm, creating patterns together, and being invisibly nourished by it.”

Even as she carries the image, Lindbergh acknowledges the difficulty in learning to move this way, going on to suggest that is it fear that keeps us from ever becoming really good dancers: “[We] cling nostalgically to the last moment or clutch greedily towards the next. Fear destroys the ‘winged life’" and precludes a humble, naked look at the veritable nature of our affection. Emotionally, we can be nothing more than we are. And emotionally, we are intermittent. Lindbergh: “When you love someone you do not love them all the time, in exactly the same way, from moment to moment. It is an impossibility. It is even a lie to pretend to. And yet this is exactly what most of us demand. We have so little faith in the ebb and flow of life, of love, of relationships. We leap at the flow of the tide and resist in terror its ebb. We are afraid it will never return. We insist on permanency, on duration, on continuity; when the only continuity possible, in life as in love, is in growth, in fluidity – in freedom . . . in the present relationship” as it is now. In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ himself warns against storing up tomorrows worries (Matt. 6:34). He promises that our Heavenly Father knows what we need and is able to provide. And if God himself is to provide our portion, we are then free to dance with our partner in the present without fear.

And so this is what I pray for my loved ones which will walk the isle next month and what I want to give my own husband this year: three-hundred-and-sixty-five days of dancing in the present, close enough to feel the warmth of love, but with enough space to appreciate the sacred gift of Other against a wide sky.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Men Like Oaks

These two young men spent their days with us while we were in Bocono. They drove us around in badass 4x4s

carried the many heavy boxes of doctoring-and-dentisting goods from place to place

bought us bread

watched out for us, even on the playground

and made my daughter smile like this:

And when it was time for us to leave, they escorted our van all the way to the city limits. Just because, I guess.


On our last day we walked up one arterial road and down another with the task of praying for the city.

It was my idea, but my motives were (as usual) unpure. I mostly just wanted to walk, since I knew we had a seven-hour bus ride and another 24ish hours of air travel ahead. As we started up the narrow, broken sidewalk I asked God to calm my nerves and help me think about something other than myself for 30 minutes. When my spirit finally came around I was overwhelmed. How do I pray for a city? I didn’t know where to start. Then I looked up. Sis was walking ahead of my, holding hands with one of these young men who had so patiently and completely offered her big brother love. And when he turned around I saw that his eyes were as wet as mine.

And so I prayed - with a heart wrenched and earnest - that the Lord would watch over these two young lives and pour out on them a heaping measure of his riches. I prayed through Psalm 1:

Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
2 but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law day and night.
3 That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
whatever they do prospers.

I prayed that he would guard their steps, help them put their feet in the right place before they stand, and keep them from corrupting company. I asked that he would grow them straight and tall and mighty with deep roots, near the stream. I asked that he would bless their studies, that they would find work that satisfies them, and allows them to provide for their families. I prayed for them as husbands. I prayed for them as fathers. I prayed for long lives of service and thanked God in advance for the good fruit and shade that they would provide their communities.


In some of the slower moments during the trip, while the doctors were doctoring and we were waiting out the rain, we talked about music. One of the young men introduced me to this song:

It was playing today as I ate lunch and my heart burned again with prayer over these two young lives.
Today, I feel the distance between home and Bocono in my throat.
I miss these souls and ask God again for his close and constant blessing on my friends who feel so far away.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Boats and Planes

Last time she was at the monastery, Sis gave one of the beautiful Sisters (who lives and serves there) an origami flower. She also told the Sister of our plans to spend two weeks in Venezuela playing with kids while they waited to see the doctor. “Would you like to take some paper with you?” the Sister asked. Sis smiled and they disappeared for a few minutes, returning with a thick stack of computer paper in summery pastels.

Between the day at St. Gert’s and the trip, Sis forgot how to make flowers, but our translator-friend knew how to make little boats, which turned out to be just the thing for rainy season.

One morning, as we were waiting out the downpour that had halted set up in a small church, Sis and her friend Ceaser hurried to make boats, and sprinted across the street to take advantage of the river running down the drainage trench. They chased their boats with abandon, the on-looking adults cheered, and the little barcitos spun away from their charges.

When it wasn’t raining, we used the paper to make planes and sombreros.

And Sis set up an “official” airport in a vacant lot.

Every time I handed out a piece of paper, a spark of gratitude for the foresight of the Sister from St. Gertrude’s warmed my heart. I watched children huddling over muddy puddles, talking and smiling, and was grateful for the specific way that Benedictine hospitality had reached through the arm of one Sister, into the suitcase of my kid, and out into the campo around Bocono.

"Always be eager to practice hospitality." Romans 12:13b