Sunday, December 29

What I Read in 2013

This was a sabbatical year, a teaching year, a traveling year, a shifting year.  This was the year of the guest room, the church plant, the identity shift.  In this year reading pushed me through the hard and in the end I found that I read (even) less fiction, more vision casting words and I discovered Barbara Brown Taylor. 

My List
  1. The Promise of Paradox: A Celebration of Contradictions in the Christian Life by Parker J. Palmer
  2. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
  3. The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin
  4. Love Does by Bob Goff
  5. Sticky Faith: Everyday Ideas to Build Lasting Faith in Your Kids by Kara Powell and Chap Clark
  6. Hearing Her Voice:  A Case for Women Giving Sermons by John Dickson
  7. Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo
  8. John for Everyone, Pt. 1 by N.T. Wright
  9. Mansions of the Heart: Exploring the Seven Stages of Spiritual Growth by Thomas Ashbrook
  10. The Crowd, the Critic and the Muse by Michael Gungor
  11. Abundant Simplicity: Discovering the Unhurried Rhythms of Grace by Jan Johnson
  12. Reluctant Pilgrim: A Moody, Somewhat Self-Indulgent Introvert's Search for Spiritual Community by  Enuma Okoro
  13. John for Everyone, Pt. 2 by N.T. Wright
  14. Greater: Dream Bigger, Start Smaller, Ignite God's Vision for Your Life by Steven Furtick
  15. Unexpected Gifts: Discovering the Way of Community by Christopher Heuertz
  16. Bread and Wine: A Love Letter to Life Around the Table by Shauna Niequist
  17. Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith by Barbara Brown Taylor
  18. A Thousand Mornings: Poems by Mary Oliver
  19. Undaunted: Daring to Do What God Calls You To Do by Christine Caine
  20. Wonderstruck: Awaken to the Nearness of God by Margaret Feinberg
  21. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
  22. Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
  23. A Praying Life by Paul Miller
  24. The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
  25. The Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard
  26. Kingdom Journeys: Rediscovering the Lost Spiritual Discipline by Seth Barnes
  27. Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott
  28. Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger
  29. A Reason for God by Timothy Keller
  30. The Burning Word: A Christian Encounter with Jewish Midrash by Judith Kunst
  31. When God is Silent by Barbara Brown Taylor
  32. Wonderstruck (again) by Margaret Feinberg
  33. The Ten Year Nap by Meg Wolitzer
  34. The Furious Longing of God by Brennan Manning
  35. UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity and Why it Matters by David Kinnaman
  36. Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life by Henri Nouwen
  37. The Virtue of Dialogue: Conversation as a Hopeful Practice of Church Communities by S. Christopher Smith
  38. After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters by N.T. Wright
  39. Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition by Christine Pohl
  40. Speaking of Jesus: The Art of Not-Evangelism by Carl Medearis
  41. The Good and Beautiful God by James Bryan Smith
  42. Signature Sins: Taming our Wayward Hearts by Michael Mangis
  43. Barefoot Church: Serving the Least in a Consumer Culture by Brandon Hatmaker
  44. Tangible Kingdom: Creating Incarnational Community by Hugh Halter and Matt Smay
  45. The Art of Neighboring by Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon 
  46. The Scent of Water: Grace for Every Kind of Broken by Naomi Zacharias
  47. Stitches: A Handbook of Meaning, Hope and Repair by Anne Lamott
  48. Unexpected Gifts (again) by Christopher Heuertz
  49. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling

My favorites

Love Does by Bob Goff:  Seriously, let's stop standing around preaching love and just do it.  This was the most fun I'd had reading a book in a long time.

Abundant Simplicity by Jan Johnson:  A book is good when it inspires me to scour bookseller websites looking for similar reads.  It's the first I've read from Jan Johnson and I enjoy her easy writing.  This is one you read "in the midst" of activity.  Don't read it in preparation for simplicity.  Read it when you most need to make the adjustment.

Bread and Wine by Shauna Niequist:  Shauna obviously wrote out of who she is in this one.  Insightful and warm run-on sentences -- just the way I like her.  I always love to write after I read her.

Leaving Church by Barbara Brown Taylor: Here's a tip: if you have any of her books abiding on your "to-read" shelves for years like I did, pull them off, sit down and read them.  Don't delay.  You will literally feel your heart grow.

The Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard:  He's well respected for a reason.  I'm so glad he lived and gave us such wonderful insight. So honored to have finally read some of it.

The Burning Word by Judith Kunst:  This book was my summer practice, my sabbatical read.  It was with me when everything fell.  It inspired a sermon.  It and its practices was new water for my dying soul.

Compassion by Henri Nouwen:  When I wanted to cease thinking, cease growing, cease loving people I, of course, had to do the opposite. I had to move into the act of "suffering with."  And I had to teach others how to do it. Nouwen held my hand and showed me the way.

Unexpected Gifts by Christopher Heuertz:  I've read it twice now.  Once for me, once for the community we're building that needs to hear this message so we don't make the mistakes that sideswiped us all.  So we can learn to see the unexpected gifts of struggles and dissonance and not force each others hands.  Community really is everything.

Sunday, December 15

Third Sunday of Advent

Tonight we are halfway through the season of Advent. Being just a month, it feels like a pretty quick sprint.

Two weeks ago we lit the first candle, the Prophet's Candle or the Candle of Hope and we considered how even just a little light chases away the darkness.  How we, like the prophets, sit in this middle space between what God has done in sending Christ the first time and what he will do in sending him again.

As we relight the first candle we read another prophecy of Jesus spoken of in Zechariah 9:9

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout in triumph, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you;
He is just and endowed with salvation,
Humble, and mounted on a donkey,
Even on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Last Sunday we lit the second candle, the Bethlehem Candle or the Candle of Promise and we considered how God's promises were kept in the coming baby in Bethlehem -- the ruler over Israel, the shepherd of his flock, strong and majestic who secures life for us. (Micah 5)

Prophecies aren't just predictions, they're promises from God himself. Jeremiah 3 tells us of one such promise:

5“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord,
when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch,
and he shall reign as king and deal wisely,
and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.
6 In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely.
And this is the name by which he will be called:‘The Lord is our righteousness.’

And now, already, we're halfway through.  In this season when we all have pushed through our own stories -- the end of semesters, the frigid cold, the shock in these last days -- have we also been pushing into the hope and the promises of God in this season? The year is ending and celebrations are impending.  Are we just pushing through, or pushing into?

It's a bit of a balancing act to walk through a season in both a state of reflection and celebration. And we feel that tension tonight. We've had food and drink and conversation. The white elephant gifts and the cookies and desserts are patiently waiting. But first we're reflecting, because without the reflection, the celebration is shallow. We don't do the reception without the wedding; the wedding gives us the substance for the reception. The reflection gives us the reason for the party.

So it seems to be the perfect night to talk about joy and, traditionally, this third candle is the Shepherd's Candle or the Candle of Joy.

Joy is a bit of an unnatural thing. We know the state of our world, of the hearts of people. We see what we do to one another -- and sometimes it seems there's no good reason to feel joy. Yesterday was the one year anniversary of the slaughter of the children in Connecticut. It's only been a year. Friday was the shooting at Arapahoe High School.  In our neighborhood. We are not far from darkness. 

Somehow in order to breathe, to persevere, through the darkness we live in we need something to be the guide. And that's what I think joy is for us. I don't think it ever strays too far beyond reach. In the middle of contentment joy is there out loud, like paint on the walls. But in the middle of trial, it's there, hidden, padding the floor where we lie down in grief. Deep and steady and settled.

Having a sense of joy is somehow attached to our sense of something greater than ourselves. In short, joy is the steady push toward trust in God. Which means that it doesn't always have to be happy, just thankful or hopeful. It isn't something we reasoned into being, it is something we express through faith.

I looked to the scriptures to ask, "Am I far off? Does it seem to say that joy is not happiness, that it is more present than we acknowledge?" And here is what the scriptures told me: Joy is our strength (Neh 8:10), it is God's presence with us (Ps. 16:11), it is an apt answer (Pr. 15:23), it is justice done (Pr. 21:15), it is a gift from God (Ecc 2:26), it is the perfection of beauty (in the city of Jerusalem) (Lam 2:15), it is a fruit of the spirit (Gal. 5:22).

My definition came a little clearer and a little wider.  Yes, it is a steady push toward trust in God, that is our action in pursuing it.  But in feeling joy I have to say that it is a finely sharpened pleasure or trust. I feel joy when I sense that what is right is what is happening.

The shepherds experienced this joy. Luke 2:8-20:

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.
The two hours I had to wait on Friday was long. My son called me from inside his school. He was the first to tell me of the shooting, my son who was in a neighboring school now in lock out. While we talked, I was first alarmed and then calmed that I would have all three of them back that day. But I had to wait to make the family right again.

Imagine waiting hundreds of years before things would be made right, before a promise would be fulfilled. Before a voice would be heard crying in a stable. Before my sons were present with me again. When we finally get what we're waiting for, we hug it so tightly and cry tears of joy. Tears of joy is an appropriate response when in a moment of tension, things are made right.

This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’
Glorifiying and praising God for making good on a promise that had been repeated for centuries is an appropriate response. The singing and the shouts are a fitting reply. The receiving of guests and gifts and banquets and dinners and celebrations are how we welcome that which is now our right reality.
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Contemplation is an appropriate response to joy. When that which you've trusted in guides you into fulfillment, stepping back and considering how that story emerged is right. And the shepherds' final response was to take their experience back to their home and share their joy with others, because joy isn't something that happens to us but something we carry with us.  And, in the darkness, maybe it's the something greater that actually carries us and tells us that all things will be made right.

But to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation.  - 1 Peter 4:13

His glory came in that newborn baby. It's time for Joy.

Blessing:May the God who gives you a hope and a promise, give you joy as you follow him in ever brightening days and may you seek to join him in making all things right and spread his joy in strength and justice and beauty.

Thursday, December 5

Ere Long Gaudete*

When my oldest was small and grew frantic about himself, I would wrap my arms around him and hold him fixed and give him time to agree with stillness.

And when I let go of his arms he breathed free from all the self-imposed frustration over people and expectations and self -- a toe-headed leader in 5T shorts newly able to direct his emotions toward meaningful things.

Today, I felt that relief.  When the snow came again, winter white hug from God, it stilled my soul. I quickly accepted the closeness, content to wane, and halted in order to receive.

There, waiting for me to grab hold again, was joy. 

When I watched the cold blanket fall and the inches build up against the stoop, I submitted to the Almighty agenda.  And I grew straight instead of scattered.  Because when I stick with his presence I stay the course of joy.

I remember, right after our world spun out of orbit, that there was a beautiful day when I had peace that was truly beyond my understanding.  For that one day I felt like a visiting sojourner in a place of contentment and faith and knowing; it was beautiful and light and welcome.  Rightly judged, in the following days I was back in the stampede toward grief and pain.  When I asked a friend to suggest what that day of peace was even about she said, "Sometimes God gives us glimpses of what wholeness will look like later."

Today is that later time.  And it isn't cursory.  I've been sitting on it, testing it, seeing if it's fleeting or fast.  It's actually been a succession of days now. A new way of seeing that I've known before.  When we pray so long for wholeness and lightness and satisfaction it feels a tremendous gift when it gallops back over after months afield in someone else's pasture.  A return of something that was always mine in the first place.  I lay it across my shoulders like the shepherd with a hundred sheep again.

The snow doesn't bring it.  It just reminds me that the joy is here whether I want to live in it or not.  Because we can choose to live outside of joy; to chase it with cheating, snap its hindquarter with the whip of obstinance, spook it with entitlement while it's on a loose rein.  But joy is really ever present even when our attention is given to fear and jealousy -- and people and expectations and self.
"For the one who pleases him, God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy.                              -- Ecclesiastes 2:26
Like all gifts, we receive it. When we open up our hands to joy we get wisdom and knowledge too.  And wisdom says that this is my right way to go: engage the meaningful work in front of me, be present with the small son finally reading, love the new church growing in my living room, light the advent candles, cherish the husband and be still.

I let it fall around me, everywhere, grateful for each flake.  Carefully designed to be my liturgy of joy.


*Gaudete, gaudete! Christus est natus                          Rejoice, rejoice! Christ is born
Ex Maria virgine, gaudete!                                            
(Out) Of the Virgin Mary — rejoice!
Tempus adest gratiæ                                                  The time of grace has come—
Hoc quod optabamus,                                                  what we have wished for,
Carmina lætitiæ                                                          songs of joy
Devote reddamus.                                                       Let us give back faithfully.

......linking up with shelovesmagazine LinkUP: Joy

Sunday, December 1

First Sunday of Advent

Tonight we begin our Collective.  I have the honor of giving the first words.  It seemed appropriate to leave them here as a marker, a remembrance of a first moment.  There will be moments for dialogue, silence and light. Thanks be to God.

It is fitting that we are beginning tonight. That we are beginning a community on the day when traditionally the church begins its new year called Advent. The Jewish New Year, the High Holidays Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur were in September.  The secular New Year is coming, and the academic new year is well underway. 

We mark these special days with special celebrations. The Jews celebrate by blowing the shofar and casting off what's left in their pockets. We all celebrate our calendar New Year in Times Square or Paris with champagne and fireworks and kisses at midnight. In August or September we begrudgingly celebrate with new notebooks and routines and maybe coffee to get the brain working.

Tonight we celebrate Advent with light. We are now in a season of darkness. The leaves are fallen, the time change is behind us. We are well into the season of sleep and rest, of hard freezes and snow and are are fast approaching the longest night of the year, just days before Christmas. It is fitting to celebrate Advent with light.

This is a traditional symbol of Advent: a wreath of greenery with four candlesticks surrounding one pillar candle in the center. In the northern hemisphere the wreath is evergreen, which reminds us that we are eternal beings, that we are no longer without life in us. The circle is a symbol of eternal life, God's unending love, or even the long time when people lived in darkness waiting for the coming Messiah, the light of the world.

And then there is the light. In Advent, candle light is our symbol of hope. The use of light reflects what Luke’s gospel says about the advent of Christ:
Luke 1: 78-79 ‘By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.’
Advent means, “coming.” We progressively light the candles, one each week as a way to mark the passage of time while we wait for the advent of Christ at Christmas. We come together in these weeks before Christmas as a way of expressing our anticipation for what God will do, and to give a faith-filled expression that we believe not only did he come the first time as a babe in a manger, as a suffering servant, as a teacher, a savior, a redeemer and risen Lord – but that he will come again to rescue and redeem everything.

Advent finds us caught in that middle place. We have seen the work of God and we are looking forward to that work completed.

The candles in the wreath have meanings that differ depending on the tradition you journey from. The colors may be purple and rose or blue. Ours are white, purely out of preference, because white seems to be a color of hopeful expectation, but maybe it means something different to you. The focus is not on the candles, but on Christ who is our light.

The candles for us won't stray from the traditional meanings: all are geared to unfold the story of redemption through the coming of Jesus. The first is the Prophet's Candle or the Candle of Hope.

“The prophets were people who stood on the borders between heaven and earth, between our present time and God's future time. They came to know God so well (a very painful experience, as some of them discovered) that they could discern the shape of his plan: to rescue the world through the sufferings of his chosen one, his anointed, the Messiah."

“They knew that God had more grace coming – grace that would rescue people from where and what they had been, and would give them a wonderful, glorious new destiny and hope.” (N.T. Wright)

There are over 300 prophecies from the Old Testament that point us to Jesus and that we can actually see him fulfilling in the gospel narratives. Tonight we'll just read one from Isaiah 60:1-6:
1 Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
2 For behold, darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will be seen upon you.
3 And nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your rising.
4 Lift up your eyes all around, and see;
they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from afar,
and your daughters shall be carried on the hip.
5 Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and exult,
because the abundance of the sea shall be turned to you,
the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
6 A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall bring good news, the praises of the Lor

Isaiah gives us both of the stories, both the darkness and the light. And he describes – this is what it will look like when the light comes. He had a foot in both worlds and knew this is what we need and this is what it will look like when our needs are met.  But we can't rush right to the light. We wouldn't even want to unless we were made aware of our darkness.

When we come into Advent we are confronted with darkness.
No candles are lit yet.  We are still sitting in it.

What would be exposed in your life if light were to hit it? That you are only concerned with your immediate interests? That you believe you are somehow unfit to carry hope for the future? That you live under a suffocating blanket of doubt regarding faith? That really as close as we are, we’re strangers and you don't really want to know what it means to be a good neighbor? That you tell yourself untruths about your worth and our identity?

That's the darkness. That's the need. That is actually what the prophets spent much of their time exposing. They knew the light was coming and they said, “Knowing this, do you still want to hang onto that?”  What would the prophets speak to you?

In the passage in Luke the darkness is chased away by the tender mercies of God.

In the passage from Isaiah the darkness is chased away when a great community of people gather together around the unifying Lord.

What would chase away your darkness? What would light look like for you? [Light the Candle]   Would tender mercies look like a friend who could listen and help you sort out your true self, from your false self? Would it look like being freed from addiction and temptation by the renewing of your mind? Would it look like a progressive movement toward character and away from just trying to be good? Would it look like a chance to be a part of a great community, perhaps this one, that walks together toward the light of Christ? Would it look like drawing more deeply into love, more deeply into trust?

What do you need to hear from God, what do you need Jesus to be to chase away that darkness?

God doesn't leave us in darkness.  While he meets us where we're at and loves us in spite of all things we've said and done and been, he continually moves us into light.  When he created the world, it all began in darkness and because God has always been, he somehow was there existing in that darkness, just as he is with you in yours. 

But he also began by giving light.  And then in the next act of creation he diffused the atmosphere and condensed the water down into ocean so that light could be more clearly seen.  And then on the fourth day he created the sun, moon and stars... a little more light, and a little more and then some more. It doesn't take much to dispel darkness, but God does more than push it aside.  He overcomes it. 

John 1:1-5
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

In John's passage, what chases away the darkness that existed before the creation of the world is the Word, the God that made all things, the God that came to the world as the light of men offering life.  Jesus is what light looks like.

We gather here tonight not to count down the days before Christmas, but to enter into life with Christ. We don't participate in the “coming” of Christ as spectators, but as those who, like the prophets, live with one foot in the world and one in the kingdom of God. We don't come and say, “Come, Lord Jesus and take us straightaway to peace” instead we say, “Come, Lord Jesus and end our darkness.”

You go tonight in the way the prophets did, knowing what God has done, and knowing what he wants to do. You go knowing that God has more grace coming – grace that can rescue you from where you've been and what you've done and grace that will give you a wonderful new destiny and hope.

Community Prayer:
The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. 
Captivated by the darkness, we ignore your glowing ember. 
Intimidated by the glare, we hide from your warmth. 
Confused by the shadows, we misunderstand your vision. 
Compelled by the light, we embrace your promise. 
Jesus, source of light, remind us again that you burn and beckon in our darkness, even here, even now. 
Come, Lord Jesus. End our darkness.
Ending Blessing:
By the tender mercy of our God, may the dawn from on high break upon us, to give light to we who sit in darkness and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Friday, November 22

In Which I Become New and Present

When the snow came, I could feel the revolution.  Walking through the neighborhood, camera in hand, I was looking for my final moment.  And what I entered was an experience.

Everything was new.

Beneath the white sky, the contrast faded, the comparison dimmed and I could see myself outside the shadows. Sleek, impartial snow covered everything.  All sound -- nonsense and truth -- was muffled.  Every neighbor had to push it aside without exception.  We all began again from the same place.  And I discovered that even my heart at last had equal footing.

The wonderful thing about change is that it happens to us before we're aware of it.  It arrives before we can name it, like a baby born a month early, new and wonderful and so surprising.

The first new sounds came from my heart, "I'm entering this season with joy." There in the snow and frigid cold it was so obvious that this was just how it was going to be.  And I was glad to have that declarative statement signed and done.  Glad that there would be no more in-between.  The success of this season is not tied to the last. This season is new.  "Move into it."

It was like God put his great thumb down on the swirling and questioning and said, "Be still."
And I was.


Spiritual disciplines are those rhythms we create in order to conform more closely to image of Christ.  When we sense that we're a bit far from what God has designed us to be, we submit to a practice that forms our character and informs our spirit.  We combine the domains of life so that they aren't all segregated like some elementary school, but integrated so that the physical act can affect the spiritual becoming and the relationship can shape the faith.

When I began this practice three weeks ago Autumn's brightness woke me from my sadness.  I needed to cease from bringing the past into my present.  I didn't need to answer every question, just pry my fingers from the crank that churned the questions out.

This discipline of the present has brought me to that place of feeling whole and hopeful.  Breathing in more of God's design.  Living with open hands.  Ready to receive good gifts.  I want to see and smell and taste the days and know that whatever form they take, they are for me when I am present and pure.


We sat in the living room, mugs of coffee and tea, listening to the story of my friend who amazes me with her ability to see the ends of God.  It hasn't been without work.  It hasn't been without pushing hard into the promises of God and testing them to see if they will hold fast and true.  He thinks she's beautiful and covered and so desirable. She knows that now.  Her bones can live.

And all the friends who've said, "We'll go with you into this new wholeness," drank from their mugs and nodded and said, "This is the kind of church we're going to be."  My friend, my season, my church, my wholeness: I was sitting in the middle of all things new.  It was fully formed and breathing before I could call it by name.

He is making all things new.  He's begun, already, with me.


If you want to follow my journey through the Discipline of the Present here are the links to each post:
October 30  The Life I've Been Missing
October 31  Following a Nudge
November 1 Courage to Risk
November 2  Marginality
November 3 The Discipline of Presence
November 4  The Table of Loss and Profit
November 5  When Cookies Come Running
November 7  What's Saving Your Life
November 8  A Closing Ode
November 9  IKEA and the Kingdom of God
November 10  He Gives Himself
November 12  Trying
November 13  When Sinking
November 14  Take Risks
November 15  The Success of Love
November 17  Inquiry
November 18  Keeping Score
November 19  The Practice of the Eyes
November 20  Being the Gift

Wednesday, November 20

Being the Gift

I nearly forgot the day.  The chance phone call pulled me out of the fog prodding my memory. I would have missed the moment, missed the nerves, the helplessness. What would have been worse?  Enduring the first interview in fourteen years, burning the arm pressing the blouse, quizzing the systematic theology in the bed at night?  Or forgetting it and disqualifying myself, inept and neglectful.

I endured.

That day I tried to marshal from deep within, dormant now waking, the suppressed theologian:  Is salvation ours to keep?   Are the good works even necessary?  How do we treat the homosexual image of God? What is assured about heaven?  This was no easy moment.  

I braved it with more blessing than brilliance.

When the distinguished professor left the room, satisfied to grant the faculty place, I let out my breath, received my instructions and then let my new boss, my old friend heavy with trust and hope, pray over me, my gifts, my students.  

I said, when heads were lifted, "This is the gift. Thank you.  
"No," he named me, "You're the gift to me."


The semester has been a series of firsts and fortitude.  With everything else swirling these months, it was all I could do to read the books distracted and write the lessons distressed.  Each week invited me to strip the dare and with its imposing cloak wipe away the dolor.  Each was a savior breathing confidence and purpose into my hollowed out bones.  

But when I sat down with them, I came alive. This group, these students fit just for me, pressed my study of hospitality, compassion, intercession. Let me lead them around negative perceptions, extend their good news and introduce new cultures and conversations.  Missional warriors, they pressed forward, sent, and came out faithful, remade and brave.  I'm amazed at their truth and grace.

Today, I wished them well.  Gifts all.  Thanked them for their fervor and fire.  Asked their final thoughts, more gracious words of affirmation could not have been voiced: 
 "A clear gifting... meaningful...challenged...favorite." 
All the convening grit, all the pushing through had changed, bolstered and surfaced my aptitude, my passion, my grasp and transferred ownership to them.  

What aching homeschool mother deserves such favor?  What jilted pastor's wife receives such grace?  What neophyte writer reaps such pools of expression?  What shepherd teacher merits such impact and weight?

I. No longer afraid to be the gift I was named to be.

Tuesday, November 19

A Practice of the Eyes

The morning came when my husband bent down to kiss my waking head.  Fresh from the shower he reminds me of all things new.

Yesterday echoed of illness and stillness -- not by my prediction.  But shouldn't interruptions be seen as invitations? What God had for me was presence and I was grateful.

Today, thinking the young son would return to class, I was midway into my own plan when, surprised, I turned the corner and bent low to rub his back while he let his stomach go. Again. Today would be yesterday in disguise.

Placing my gym clothes back fresh in the drawer, my words to the Father were, "Follow me around today.  You'll need to provide a moment."

More of the same; stories and tissues and bites of banana. What will emerge significant?

James says, when we pray we need to do it with boldness, never doubting the character of God, purely motivated to see him model what it means to be a doer.  So, I asked him, "Do." And he nudged his people.


The first knock, my neighbor (my friend) with scones fresh from the oven. Saying, "Thank you" and "I don't know" and "Let's be intentional."  Of course we will.  We've journeyed together these past four years far beyond the titles and positions into that realm of friendship where I am heard and altered and filled up every single time.

When you close a chapter that involves friends, where you've invested and devoted, you don't know what it looks like to be together in a different way.  When do we meet?  When do I know you'll just be there? When will we talk about the dynamic life?  I don't know.  But let's be intentional.


The second knock (can this be happening?):  My friend with gifts for a new baby girl that we're showering through the mail.  And then a gift for me. Something perfect, of course.  "Thank you" and "It's not clear" and "I wish."  And then couch conversations about the wrestling over where to find joy and family.  When I closed this chapter it changed things for her. I know. I know. I keep forgetting how connected we all really are.

If we have no peace it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each another. -- Mother Teresa

This friend, she's not so far that I can't call her a neighbor too, is a positive force.  She can push me and question me with all the love and grace I need to see things another way.  She defines things. Thinks the best.  Does the word.  Develops. I won't let go of that kind of good.  I'd be lost without it.  Oh, that we could continue kingdom work together.  It's not clear.  I wish.


They brought gifts so they could say more than just words.  Because what do you say when someone has freely handed you love and loyalty?  When she's demonstrated that what she says and what she does are both equal and congruent.  When you know she's excelled in prayer for you?  How do you express that because of her your vision and direction are forever reshaped? That you've found a deeper part of yourself because she was willing to bring the shovel and help you dig?

The same thing you say to Jesus who does all of those things for us; who gives us this honor of letting us reflect him to other people: Thank you.

The practice of giving thanks...eucharisteo...this is the way we practice the presence of God, stay present to his presence, and it is always a practice of the eyes. We don't have to change what we see. Only the way we see.  -- Ann Voskamp

Monday, November 18

Keeping Score

Sometimes the weekend is both joy and sorrow.
Good friends and inspiration and dreaming and defining and then, too, teenage traumas and meltdowns.

A throwing up of the hands and a bending low of the knees. My calisthenics.

Tired from the exercise, my distracted mind can't even do the musts waiting unchecked on the list.  The calendar is unforgiving and the sun is going down.

When the moon rises on Sunday I think, "Tomorrow, I'll reset and do it all."  And then deep in the night, when that moon is mid-stride another son falls ill and I spend hours wishing him well and calling out to sleep that doesn't come.

Reset the plans and make room: for the boy in pajamas, snakes and ladders, applesauce and stories.

Thankful for his sleep when my study can happen.
Thankful for his shows that let me do my work.
Thankful that the fever never came, the storm passed quickly, the blue eyes are brighter at day's end.
Today he knew I was here.
Joy 1.  Sorrow 0

Sunday, November 17


First, there was the Disruptive Librarian: "the purpose of the library is the pursuit of happiness first and education second."  Those big idea places inspire and hire people who are part wizard part explorer.  Yes.

There followed the Creative Maven:  "Creativity is a type of deviance."  When the social norms aren't connection and generosity and aren't moved along by midwives in the marketplace then yes again.

The Insurance Maverick laid out three things for a co-op structure: compelling need, ownership structure and intrinsic values.  My church-planter brain went fast to work to fuse it all.

I nodded with the Work/Life Integrater who said, "Forget balance.  If you integrate you don't balance.  You just live."  Words I've been living by for years already. Why try to be two opposing things?

The Impact Entrepeneur from Bethlehem. The Obesity Physician. The Student Scientist all filled in a night of passion and purpose. Thinking the best of one another opened the door for unity in our city through inquiry.

When the women took the stage with galoshes and strings, introduced themselves by their FEMA numbers and played their rustic songs about the September flood waters, I felt that growing sense of the present moment. That lump in my throat, nearly healed up now, reminded me that I still think in victim's language. These women, too, experienced those ferocious moments of "I'll never be the same," of deep breaths and shock.  They were acted upon. Displaced.  Pushed into a new path.  And to heal they wrote music. 

It was a melodic example of that quote that's been guiding me through it all: "feel the hurt and continue to give beautiful pieces of yourself away..."

There I sat, the Medicaid card in my own wallet, the fresh exercise in marginality, drawing inspiration from overcomers to move along. What music was I performing?  What new creation is coming of the destruction?  What beauty?  How much of this resurrection life do I actually subscribe to?  My personal inquiries set me back to finding the answers.  To pursuing unity.

I dipped my fingers into the unknown. I was asking questions my textbooks didn't know the answer to.  Inquiry is what being human is all about.  - Sara Volz, Student Scientist

Friday, November 15

The Success of Love

I am the mother of three boys.

I'm the mother of wrestling matches and dart gun wars, of broken ear buds and chipped front teeth, of ripped out knees, pocket knives, and half-assembled structures strewn about to pierce my calloused feet. I'm the mother of noise, of energy, of body odor and tears.  Of towels never hung, competition never ending and milk never enough.  I'm the mother of all the toilet seats left up and all the laundry thrown down.  And this is how I succeed -- by loving the people I've been given.

They're alive and they make me also. Their hearts beat for different passions, but they're beating, strong and daring.  Sometimes they argue and fight.  Sometimes they break and bend.  Sometimes they're more wonderful than I can bear.

And sometimes they're crazy loud.

I never knew it; the noise was the water I swam in when they were all home with me, all talking at once while we assembled science kits and multiplied fractions and (on my bravest days) painted paper mache. Three of them calling, "Mom! Mom!" daily was my normal and my base.  It wasn't until life shifted in this great drama, when those voices moved from our home to the schools that I realized the level of chaos I had thrived in.

People would ask, "How do you do it?"  I'd just gaze back a blank stare. Do what?  Live?  Teach? Breathe?  Isn't it just like you?  One thing at a time.  Intention and Care.   Did it look like I was merely surviving?

The chaos was the proof of the life.  It was the blood in my veins, the wind in our sails that pushed us wildly into the day.  It was unfinished and rough, fluid and full, drive and pluck and verve and vim. And the day I saw them off it stopped.

Today: The hours in my day without them are longer than the hours with. And in those hours I fill space meant for noise and fire and kick with thought and muse and words. I teach to different ears.  I give to different hearts.  And when the afternoon air grows thick and still I can only wait for them to return.

As much as I, abstract sequential, love the quiet, the study, the calm and order -- I love the moment they come back, bags tossed, cupboards thrown open, hunting for bite and bread and way and wont. Throwing off that other day, that other place, and breathing deep the air I saved just for them.

Today I am grateful for quiet moments, meaningful work, for the distraction of purpose.  But greater still are those three voices who can call my name and I know I get to succeed again.

Thursday, November 14

Take Risks

A different board.  A different way ahead.

Today there was a room full of expectant friends.
New and old.  Push and pull.  Invitation and challenge.
Dreaming of the what, thinking through the why, dialoguing the how.

Risk saw a strong foothold today.

"We will have to take risks, to chance failure, to be willing to walk away from the familiar paths that have brought us to this point." - Alan Hirsch

Wednesday, November 13

When Sinking

This was a big clue for me.

After our Lenten fast was over and we had a few dollars to spend, we made this board so I could get some of the things in my head out where the family could benefit from it.

During the spring and summer, I filled it.  Religiously. With all the lists and quotes and gratitudes I could think of. The boys added to it a little. They knew what was coming up.  They looked and stopped asking, "What's for dinner?"  It worked well.

It's been empty for a month.

Q:  How do you know you're falling?  Sinking into the past?  Operating out of a former reality instead of moving into the next one?  Stalling out in the mire of grief, unanswerable questions, and pain?

A:  When you drop the things that are most like you.  I didn't weed the beds, didn't check the grades, didn't journal, didn't read. I didn't organize the family's calendar, finances, meals, activities.  I could only do what was in front of me, with strong sighs and weak resolve.

There's the weight loss, the bad dreams, the emptiness; all signs of depression.  And when it lingers into the second and third months you stop talking about it, hiding it because the friends have moved on and you probably should have too.  When you asked me how I was and I said, "Hanging in there," it was as honest as I could be, a lid to prevent the deep well from bubbling up.  Again.

I read this week that mourning is a maturing process. We push through it to recovery, acceptance. But depression doesn't move toward maturity.  It leaves us stuck. And you can only tread water for so long before you sink.

The fourth chapter of James addresses it all.  And, thanks be to God, he says, "It's expected.  It's necessary."

The chapter begins with a fight for control, one that ballooned up into murderous proportions, where spirits were stunted, selfishness reigned.  James knows that the only thing fit to follow the coarse is the curative.  That the way to mend a heart is to exhume it.  Let it out.  Feel it.  Be angry.

Sit in the "second storm" and let God realign the spirit he's looking for. James, like a loving older brother, holds our hand and says, "Here's how to do it."
Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.  JAMES 4:7-10 
Submit yourselves to God.  Work with him. Hand in your victim badge. You're not entitled to feel belittled, betrayed, or beaten forever. He's not wasting this. Not for a minute.

Resist the devil.  Use the wisdom from above that James already lined out..look it up.  Put some distance between you and the thing that bubbled into destruction.  Practice virtue.  Make some breaks no matter how hard they might be.

Draw near to God.  This is what the spiritual disciplines are for. I'm engaging the Discipline of the Present.  But there's also solitude, fasting, study, gratitude.  James would suggest controlling your tongue, caring for the poor, practicing peace.

Cleanse and purify.  Because nothing wise will come unless we're first of all pure.  He's said it before and he's saying it again, "Get rid of the double-mindedness."  Are we believing the truth about ourselves or about others?  Get the motives right.  Let go of that vice you've got a death grip on.  That selfish ambition is so yesterday.

Mourn.  It's part of the cleansing. It's the only way to move from being that old kind of human to being new.  Humility is the answer to strife.

This is how we get to humble, how we see ourselves through God's eyes, loved and lifted.

Yesterday:  Grieve, mourn, wail.

Today: Cook. Plan. Think. Love.

Tuesday, November 12


He didn't know I was there. This fuzzy picture is my proof.

Proof that I'm trying.

I'm trying to become the kind of parent who can drop everything to be there for the program that means more to them than it does to me. He wanted to wear his Cub Scout uniform because it seemed the right thing to do.  He learned the National Anthem and America the Beautiful.  I'm so proud of him for doing it, for singing it, for being a part of a community that's bigger than himself.

I'm trying to learn this new language of homework and fundraisers and signing in to get a sticker to sneak down the hall just to watch him for a second.   Homework is the easy one.  Because he snuggles up next to me with his pencil sometimes.  Because I get to teach him sometimes.  Because he wants to do it to be a part of all the brothers doing their homework together.  It brings us together in that sense.

I'm trying to become that mother that can with grace and trust let someone else have my son for the bulk of the day.  His teacher is, indeed, a lovely and loving woman.  I can't help but appreciate and support her. And  the reading specialist, the music teacher, the art teacher, the gym teacher, and the principal who smiles at me each morning and tells me to have a great day as I descend the sidewalk sonless.

I'm trying on a new culture that lets go. A culture that says even though we're separate a lot, we can still do parades and picnics and thankful meals together.  A culture that says you, Mom, are the support we need  but if you can't do it then we can still feed him lunch.  A culture that says we're doing some serious work, but, really, come by anytime and get a sticker and sneak down the hall just to watch him for a second.

I'm trying to do this well, to lean in, to be a student and to breathe this second half of life.  This is what's in front of me today.

Sunday, November 10

He Gives Himself

"May the God who reimagined a broken humanity take our gifts and intentions to work with him to restore health, wholeness and beauty to the world."   
Pentecost 26 :: November 10
Today with sons in pajamas long into the day, wishes for the next season being put down into happy lists, I purged the cupboards in our home, made room for the worship, removed the wax, shined the glass.

Tucked in the drawer with the place mats and the birthday candles, empty match books and stray Christmas ornaments I found that first pamphlet; the one from the first day of our introduction. The interview with my husband before our new community: Introductions and Epilogues.  And the deep welled up within me.

Why do we tuck significant things in strange places?  Did my mother do that?  Slip the momentos into the china hutch?  Tuck the memories among the vases and the candles we only pull out at Christmas?  Did I think I would stumble on it at some later date and sigh?  Perhaps I thought there'd be a time when we'd have friends around our table and I'd casually pull it out and gratefully say, "Look, this is what brought us here. This is why we're together like this."  Surely, I never could have imagined.

With everything put to rights I stored the paper with the other items I will cherish sometime out from now. Then, looking out into the yard at the naked grape vines, the breath slowing in the dogwoods, the hostas long asleep, I spoke words from a deeper place: "{our lost brother} did not bring us here. The Father did."  Then I took another breath and filled the deep with hope.


These are the last weeks of Ordinary Time.  And in as much as we both have and haven't started a new community we make visits to other places for worship, finding the beautiful people and expressions of this city we call home.  Tonight we went back to that very church we entered right after we first arrived.

That Easter morning, before our introduction to the new friends in the afternoon, we dressed our three small sons (oh, how they've grown) into suitable clothes and found this liturgical community that was a little bit jazz and a little bit Jesus.  They offered sweet busy bags for the boys, a feeling of family, and theology deep and thick.

Tonight, their losses are evident.  They've experienced the hard too.  I wondered, do they go through their own cabinets and find momentos from times of great invitation that turned to great challenge?  Do they ask God for answers or do they just tuck the past away and take the new journey?  In that room I could find many mentors.  We'd tell this same story I think:

God himself does not give answers. He gives himself.       - Frederick Buechner

Advent is coming.  Advent means coming.  And all of us seem to be in a state of preparation for that something new that's really about something very old.  A story that doesn't change; a God who walks with us no matter what.  "I promised that I would always be with you.  I am still with you, so do not be afraid. "  Haggai 2:5

Saturday, November 9

IKEA and the Kingdom of God

Every church has a beginning.  And in the beginning are the visions: The philosophies, structures, and dreams.  There are the first humble conversations, the blank slate possibilities, the all important question of "who."  There are legalities and accounts.  There is information and communication.  There is prayer and struggle, hope and fear.

But today there needed to be something tangible, something to hold and ordain for service. Today there needed to be a communion plate and candles; cushions and carpet for the friends filling our home in order to become a church in our living room. 

Today we walked the aisles and gave our silent thanks.

Friday, November 8

A Closing Ode

The Journey                                               
One day you finally knew                        Five women began it – this sojourn to renew the mind.
what you had to do, and began,              Then we were six,
though the voices around you                  then eight.
kept shouting 
their advice—                                          Three and a half years
though the whole house                           Eight books of the Bible
began to tremble                                     Twenty more friends
and you felt the old tug                            Two retreats
at your ankles.                                          Brunches
"Mend my life!"                                        Two more groups.
each voice cried. 
But you didn't stop.                                  They told me the effects; I saw with my own eyes.
You knew what you had to do,                  This shaped them, connected them, moved them into mission.
though the wind pried                               We began in a place where we just showed up
with its stiff fingers                                    and we ended in a bond that made us new.
at the very foundations,                            Today.
though their melancholy 
was terrible.                                             Together we filled the canvas with colors
It was already late                                    from the stories of Jesus,
enough, and a wild night,                                        words from Paul,
and the road full of fallen                                         bravery of Esther.
branches and stones. 
But little by little,                                      And then James came and told us all the truth of the moment.
as you left their voices behind,                   “If you know what is right to do and don't do it...”
the stars began to burn 
through the sheets of clouds,                    I scratched out a vision for it, expanding it wider and deeper,
and there was a new voice                        gathered a few of them and said, “Let's do this.
which you slowly                                      Can we do this?” But my soul said, “No.”
recognized as your own, 
that kept you company                             It was never my intent
as you strode deeper and deeper              to create something that broke down walls.
into the world                                           It was my intent to build.
determined to do                                      But the foundation where we all began is gone.
the only thing you could do—
determined to save                                   I thought I could keep my fingers around it.
the only life you could save.                     When everything else was torn away I said, “This is mine.
                                                                 No one can take it.” And no one did.
- Mary Oliver                                             But in the end I chose to give it.

                                                 Because a good shepherd lays down her life for her sheep.

                                                 Because when you delay a death, what is the value of a life?

                                                 It was here that I found them, love inside their warm embrace.
                                                 It was here that I found that teaching voice, the heart beating fast
                                                 over truth. It was here that I struggled through the hard season
                                                 daring the words to find my faults and finally discovered what
                                                  wisdom would say: Above all else, be pure.

                                                 "Oh, the wildness of this night,
                                                  It's already late enough."

                                                  I can only do the next                                                                 right thing.