Words When There are None

Screenshot from Every Moment Holy website

I don’t know why, but I usually have more words than one person needs. However, the supply comes and goes. At both tips of the deep lows and soaring highs that my personality tends toward, I have no words. Only tears or gasps, like last night on my walk when I saw the enormous orange moon slipping up from the horizon. Or in times of confusion and anger and sorrow. Or when I don’t know how to pray.

My culture came away from rote prayers, prayer books, and liturgy, ostensibly because we valued direct connection with the Holy Spirit, and I’m glad for that. I don’t like to be tied to a form that becomes hollow.

But in the cascading sorrows of this season, as well as the shimmering beauty that lingers, I found a place that has words when I have none. I don’t use the book every day, but I go again and again tothe first volume of Every Moment Holy, and I sit with the words that remind me of simple truth, enduring safety, and the anchor of God’s sovereignty. You too? You forget too that something bigger is going on here, and God is still in charge of the world? Yeah, me too. That’s why I love this prayer book so much.

Sometimes I call it a prayer book for millennials, because it has a prayer for drinking coffee, a prayer when reading too much news, a prayer when seeing someone beautiful, a prayer when camping, a prayer before going on stage. One of my favorites alludes to a Narnian story: it’s a prayer when feasting with friends, and reminds us that eating together is an act of war. Yes! Count me in to fight the dark side by feasting together!

Screen shot of the Every Moment Holy, partial list of contents, vol. 1

Jesus countered the proud, public prayers of His day by telling us to pray secretly, and He modeled that in His solitary nights of prayer. For all of us individually, secret times of connection with the Father shape our character and  anchor our public service. If we crowd out these secret moments, we lose way more than we can know.

Other places in the New Testament show God’s people praying together and collectively pushing back the dark powers around them. Humans are finite and limited and near-sighted enough that we forget the spiritual reality that shimmers beyond our sight. If we would see and hear what happens in the spiritual world around us, it would take our breath away.

I hold enormous comfort knowing the Spirit prays for me when I have no words. I also love using this prayer book, but I dream of these prayers printed and handed  around small groups and church benches and Sunday schools all over the globe. The second volume is prayers about death, grief, and hope, which I don’t have yet, but seems appropriate and necessary these days.

Liturgy for a Time of Widespread Suffering

Liturgy for Embracing Both Joy & Sorrow

In collective prayer, we hear each other say the words we can’t string together, reminding ourselves of what is enduring, verbally expressing hope and joy and sorrow, and audibly saying words we know to be true even though we don’t feel their reality. We often do this unconsciously in songs. What if we would intentionally speak words together in prayer—words and phrases and silences we don’t have but someone else wrote for times like this?

These two volumes make lovely gifts. Here’s a short list of PDFs from volume two, but you probably should buy copies of both volumes for yourself and your friends.

Instead of God’s people being known for their suspicion and outrage, I long for God’s people to be known for their love and worship. To have child-like faith. To keep our faces turned toward the God who will one day right all the wrongs that rain around us. To instinctively reach for someone’s hand and pray for them or with them when we don’t know what to say.

Imagine if neighbors would say “Have you heard about  their prayer meetings? Do you see how crazily they love those who disagree with them? They look like they have a shining secret! I wonder what makes them so gentle and beautiful?”

Imagine if prayers would be the words we’re remembered for.

 

Doodling Toward Wholeness

In 2015, I wrote a post about my favorite therapy. In it, I wrote about what helps to keep me less twitchy. I’ve kept the therapy because it’s cheap and cheerful and who needs Hallmark if you can doodle?

I made this for my sister-in-law who kept it on her fridge.

I’ve kept adding designs to my Pinterest board and whenever I’m at loose ends or bored–and let’s face it, that’s rare–I go to this board to get me unstuck. All I need is paper and a black gel pen.

Once I was in church and trying to stay awake, so I doodled on the notebook paper in my Bible, inspired by the design on a dress I saw.

It’s worn and tattered, but I don’t feel like throwing it away.

I doodle when I’m in an orientation meeting that I’ve heard before. I doodle when I’m trying to stay awake in church, which is rare. I doodle when I’m at an art party, and sometimes the doodles progress to color.

A wedding card

This happy pile emerged from an art party at Christmas time.

This stiletto is way too fun to make!

Remnants found in my Bible on the backs of church bulletins. The color comes from markers borrowed from the child beside me.

I scribbled this during a members meeting at church.

Now I do simple sketching and watercolors on cards. I make a bunch of the same kind of design because it’s easy but I try to keep updating and improving the designs so that not everyone in my world gets this design for the next three years.

Making cards gives me a viable outlet because I need to go somewhere with what I make, and I can’t coat my walls with all of it. And anyone loves receiving a handmade, unique card, don’t they?

Anyone can do this, and that’s the beauty of it. Buy a pack of cards and envelopes from Joann Fabrics or Michaels with a coupon and a pack of 8 gel pens from Dollar Tree and you’re set. You can supplement with watercolor or colored gel pens or sequin stickers, but less is more, and extras aren’t essential. Turn on a classical music playlist and doodle for thirty minutes and the process will significantly improve your week. If it doesn’t help, talk to me!

In these crazy, chaotic times, creating beauty in whatever form you choose is a decisive, active way to defy the chaos and declare that hate and tragedy and death aren’t the deepest realities. Maybe you don’t doodle but you bake a cake or make soup. Or tend a flowerbed. Or do woodburning. Or shine your windows. Or pot plants and give them away. I don’t care what the medium or mode is, but be sure you create regularly.

Creating is a means to an end: aligning the whole person with what is true, good, and beautiful, and sharing it. The world–and your soul–is starving for beauty. What will you create and share?

 

White Space

In an intense season when I didn’t have the emotional elastic to flex or be gracious, my mentor told me to think about margins. “Think of the white space around a notebook page. Margin makes the writing legible, lets the eye rest instead of cramming the page full. How much white space is in your life right now?”

Oh. White space? The days were crazy full because I was learning the ropes at a new job, evenings and weekends were full of people around me, and what was margin?

Her words marked a pivot point for when I learned the value of claiming white space to live well.

Last month, July, marked a year that began a fast slide into a dark, oppressive tunnel for me. In the space of two weeks, I heard multiple pieces of devastating news that affected me and people close to me, and sadness closed in on me like heavy, noxious air that doesn’t lift. It smeared and blurred my days. I didn’t despair, but felt so, so sad. I heard about cancer, suicides, child prostitution, more cancer, refugees, and the dark didn’t go away.

It sounds melodramatic now to say it this way, but I felt blind to sunshine and deaf to laughter. I asked my journal When will the madness end, and how is it pity that stays His hand? Tears simmered just under the surface every day for months. I went through the motions of working, talking, living, but felt robotic and dutiful, operating out of scarcity, not abundance. 

Light broke through now and then, thin golden hair lines that kept me from despair and told me that darkness isn’t the only reality:

  • Writing poetry
  • A friend’s confidence that heartache matters to Jesus
  • Deep, restful sleep
  • Vitamin D and mid-day walks even in driving snow
  • Life-giving connections with people, unpredicted and surprising
  • Golden moons and pink sunrises that took my breath away

In that age-long year, with its time warps of non-routine and aching social distancing, I found a cushion of comfort in white spaces.

Last summer, some evenings the madness lifted when I sat in the hammock on the porch and read or listened to the night sounds and ate round salted tortilla chips from Aldi. It wasn’t a balanced diet, but I didn’t know what to cook, and now and then eating a bowl of tortilla chips gave me space to breathe.

In the fall, my housemate and I painted our shared living spaces, the kitchen and living room, a pearly light grey trimmed with white. Before we painted, most of the walls were covered with stuff–my stuff, let’s be honest. But now the biggest walls are empty and we love it. I always liked our space, and now I love it even more. It’s white-on-white space. Welcoming. Rest. Calm. 

I drive mostly in silence. It gives me a chance to close the whirring, jangling open tabs in my brain one by one. When I need music to feed me, I click “shuffle play” for my choral gems playlist, and I don’t have words for how those voices and harmonies calm me. Recently a counselor friend told me that in the weeks after the horrific shooting at Nickel Mines, the Amish community would gather to sing and sing for hours. I haven’t suffered the trauma they did, but I can see how the mind-soul-body layers of a person are aligned when we sing or listen to singing. Singing soothes and calms and heals me and gives me a buffer from the madness.

This past May and June, the heavy, dark air in my soul slowly lifted. The sun came up earlier. I heard myself laughing and singing more. A trans-Atlantic margin of white space to see siblings gave me a break and a re-set on multiple levels. I rode a bus between major cities in Jordan and watched new landscape and architecture slide past the windows and I felt more alive than I’d been for a long, long time. The sun pressed hard on my face in Greece, telling my body firmly that this is summer, summer, summer, and winter is far away. White space. Rest. And did I mention sunshine?

Now I’ve discovered the lightness of social media fasting. For a week in June, I took Facebook and Instagram off my phone. I was tired of the mindless scrolling and the numbing dopamine and I wanted to read more books and sleep more. It was a very nice week. Then I went to a five-day retreat with no internet access. For the first 24 hours, I felt fidgety because what if I was missing out on something important? Then the fidgets went away and I almost got high on the freedom of being disconnected from the outside world. It was looooovely! Now I access Facebook during the day because it’s part of my job, but when I’m home, I don’t need it except for the rare times I post something. I found an app that limits my Instagram screen time to 15 minutes a day, and I love it. Sometimes on weekends, I extend the time limit, but I love the white space this app helps me reclaim from the day.

My days and pages are still crammed and scribbled full of more than I can do well, and I still tend toward panic and anxiety and feeling snappy. I don’t enjoy talking about this part of my life and I can do it here only because I’ve first talked these things over with strong, safe people I lean on. Dumping all of my (most presentable) guts out on the interwebs like this has limited value unless it can spark a resolution in all of us to work hard at reclaiming space to breathe, rest, give margin around the madness.

Join me?

 

What Gives You Joy?

Last week I was in front of a group of razor-sharp students in Ethics class. I had been asked to share stories from my life that shaped me, ordered my loves, showed me a direction to walk toward. Telling stories is fun and easy. In the Q&A afterward, though, I found it hard to think on my feet and respond well.

What gives you joy? I love this question, but I wasn’t ready for it, and stumbled around it in ways that make me wish for a replay. The question and my initial response still lingers in my head, so here’s how I wish I’d have answered.

People give me joy. They are unpredictable, colorful, zany. Interacting with people, talking, laughing, hearing their stories refreshes and relaxes me. Silence, closed faces, refusal to interact makes me angry–not a response I’m proud of. I want to live so that anyone feels safe and free to put anything on the table to talk about. I’m not great with conversation and conflict resolution and asking questions to understand but it’s my goal, the direction I want to walk toward.

Simplicity gives me joy. I don’t like details. I don’t like STUFF (pronounced in a repulsed tone of voice), as in things that collect dust or peel or get grubby. They weigh me down and clog my brain. I’m impractical that way, and I’m not proud of it either. I need to learn how to live well in the tension of living in the real world where we need to maintain houses and cars and food. If Jesus’ life showed us the definition of the good life, I see simplicity in His lifestyle. He didn’t even own a pillow. I see Him caring about people, prioritizing them over stuff. I love

  • salt and lemon on avocado
  • sunshine, sunshine, sunshine
  • toddler’s giggles
  • gradients of colors like brush strokes on a cherry or apple
  • the shape of eyes and sweep of cheekbones
  • raindrops on petals

Creating gives me joy. I care deeply that God’s people create more than they consume. I love the process of creating something that didn’t exist before:

  • A pot of soup.
  • A poem.
  • A conversation.
  • A doodle in the margin.
  • A change of attitude.

In creating, I feel more whole, less fragmented, because the process aligns all the parts of me, and lets me embrace, for a fleeting moment, something of what it means to carry God’s image as Creator. I wonder what kind of woodwork Jesus made, and how His fingers handled a piece of wood. I wonder how He engaged people in conversations.

There’s limited value in putting my joys and dislikes on the world wide web unless it nudges someone else to order their loves, define their joys, and weigh them against what Jesus loves.

What gives you joy?

What They’re Asking

sven-6h6eXFQ239E-unsplash

Photo by Sven on Unsplash

This poem refers to Britt Marie Was Here, a novel by Fredrik Backman. I didn’t love the story, but Britt Marie’s empty, desperate life pierced me. I felt that her hunger was not as odd as it might seem, so I wrote this response.

Britt Marie displaced her husband’s shaver
So she could hear him say her name
To ask where it was.
He didn’t say it nicely
But it was her name and
When he said it
She knew who she was.

Backman’s novel is truer than fiction
And older than Enneagram numbers
Because women have always
Wondered and wandered
To voices that grunt, nod, or whisper
Answers to their questions that echo
Echo over oceans, porches, trails, cereal bowls—
Do you see me?
Am I beautiful?
With this mole and with this limp
And even when I can’t see you and
With that mistake—
Do I matter?
Can you read my voice?

I don’t know and I can’t hear and
What did you say?
If you said yesterday
That I’m the sun and moon to you
I wonder if today it’s true.
Do you see past my brain to my pulse,
And what do you see there?
Is it pretty? Do you like it?

She may not mouth the words or
Trust her lisp to ask
But she puzzles, dreams, doubts,
Whoever she is—
The lithe bride, the mall janitor,
And the receptionist’s hello—all ask,
Sotto voce, just like
The sparky barista, the wallflower,
And the social butterfly
Who visits all the sweet spots.

She never displaces a shaver
But she still listens
To be named,
Seen,
Belong.

But We Had Hoped

Maybe we’re sufficiently far enough out from Christmas that I can safely talk about the questions I have about it. Please don’t call me a Scrooge before you hear me out!

I love chocolate and chocolate-covered everything and candles and carols– all the music that Christmas evokes. But I’ve never seen how plates of cookies and candy link to Jesus’ birth.

Growing up, Christmas wasn’t a big deal in our family. We had a great Christmas dinner and friends or family to eat it with, and I value that simplicity. We never exchanged gifts, because our parents wanted us to think about how we could give to people who had less than we did. I’m grateful for this, even though every Christmas now I feel caught out and odd because I don’t have the gift-giving, card-giving rhythm everyone else does. Special gifts are lovely, and I love a party as much as any extrovert in a pandemic does, but I’ve never seen that we celebrate a friend’s birthday by giving everyone else presents.

Maybe it’s the rebel in me, but I look for ways to give unbirthday gifts outside of Christmas. I’m not highly organized at this, but sometimes I try. Last Thanksgiving break, I rounded up a dozen simple vases, (I was going to spray paint quart jars but you know how scarce they are this year. Dollar Tree to the rescue!) bought two rolls of ribbon, and went foraging for greens. I spent several hours arranging the greens at the kitchen table, then handed them out to friends over the next days. It was so much fun, so simple, and a way to give seasonal beauty that lasted at least a month.

Now I’m dreaming of making bunches of biscotti and passing them out in the next months. Wouldn’t homemade gifts be more special when they’re unexpected?

I like traditions and feasts and making candy together and reveling in gorgeous Christmas music, so I don’t plan on deleting Christmas from my life. But let’s not confuse happy, delicious traditions with a deeply significant event in history that’s so murky we know few details about how it was. Is there a way that we could keep the lines clearer between tradition and remembering the wonder of Incarnation?

We can call things tradition or fun but I don’t see how chocolates connect with the Incarnation. You can disagree, and that’s ok. Maybe I’ve not entered rightly or fully into celebrating spiritual realities.

To help start fresh traditions and clear connections to help us remember significant spiritual realities, I propose we start celebrating Easter as a bigger, brighter, richer event than we usually do. The worst possible thing happened on Good Friday, and then the most unimaginable, wonderful thing happened, and most of us say oh yeah, Easter’s coming soon–when is it, exactly–I don’t remember–shall we get some lilies for the table?

I dream of our whole calendar focused toward remembering this most unbelievable, shattering event. There’s much about that day in history and that context that we don’t know, but whenever I read the Emmaus story and the walkers tell Jesus “We had hoped he was to redeem Israel,” it breaks my heart every single time.

All of us know hope, broken hope, and the way a heart implodes. Easter is the only antidote in the world for that universal human experience, and it’s something to celebrate long and loud.

But how?

It’s been a whole year of Lent, not just forty days, and I have any amount of books and poetry and devotionals to help focus me in this Lenten season, and none of it is helping. I have no elastic in my soul to expand to Lenten Bible studies or reading eloquent poems. I’ve given up so much this year, I can’t think about deliberately cutting out another thing or adding something special while I wait for Easter.

So this is my dilemma. I want to celebrate Easter with beauty and joy and anticipation, and build traditions and remember how the worst possible thing became better than anyone’s dream. But this doesn’t seem to be the year to start. And I don’t know what to do about it.

I’m in the “but we had hoped” stage and most days I’m ok, but other days I’m edgy and whimpery and not a paragon of celebration and virtue. I’m like one of the two walking home to Emmaus, head down, disappointed, unable to make sense of what’s happening.

It’s dark but it’s a season and it won’t always be this way. Meanwhile, in the next post, I’ll list the tiny steps I’m taking toward light and beauty.

Toward Light

To follow up on from the last blog post: here are steps I’m taking toward light. They’re not connected to Lent or Resurrection like I idealize, but they help keep me from spiraling down and crumpling.

  • I’m writing a poem every week. It’s kinda fun and a little healing.
  • I made a royal pavlova to celebrate a friend’s birthday. And biscotti another weekend. Different kinds, all irresistible.
  • I use Sara Hagerty’s adoration list to focus and settle me every morning. She has a new list every month, and I love them so much for their simplicity and truth.
  • I take great joy in my miniature orchid that’s blooming its heart out (photo up top) and my other normal-size orchid that blooms stunning berry colors every year and is popping buds again. Both take minimal effort to nurture, and their colors give me so much. The mini orchid is called an “espresso orchid” and its cheery flowers are just slightly bigger than a quarter. Exquisite.
  • For whatever reason these days, I wake up 30-90 minutes before the alarm goes. Now I effortlessly have extra time in my day, so I wrap up in a blanket at my desk and study to teach Sunday school or do some other project and look out at the eastern waking sky and feel so, so peaceful. I always think of Emily Dickenson’s lines, I’ll tell you how the Sun rose – /A Ribbon at a time –
  • After lunch, I take a 10-20 minute walk outside so as to get all the sunshine at its optimal time. Sometimes I invite or compel a co-worker to come along. This noon walk decision is the absolutely best thing that I’ve done all winter.
  • I listen to choral music–my play list or a new find. Loud. As loud as is socially acceptable.
  • I do housework or drive or walk in silence, letting the sounds and ideas and sights of the moment wash over me without needing to solve or conclude.
  • I went with friends to a greenhouse and fell in love with these strings of dolphins. Who can be uncheered with a string of leaping dolphins? I’m not so great with succulents, but I hope I can keep them leaping.
  • I try hard to eat more protein and fewer carbs. It’s a constant fight.
  • I spend as little money as possible. But when I find books I know I’ll read, or make food for someone, or join friends at a restaurant, I spend with no guilt.
  • I visualize rolling my burdens onto Jesus’ shoulders. It’s something like the way I shrug off a heavy backpack onto the shoulder of a friend who offers to carry it for me. The exercise forces me to deliberately focus on Him instead of only at the injustice and hardship that takes me down.

The brighter evenings, the brave crocus blossoms, the chirpy Baltimore orioles tell me that “no winter is forever, and no spring skips its turn.”

Filters & Personas

Photo by Teigan Rodger on Unsplash

I wonder why

People cry for authenticity

Honesty, transparency

But use

A million filters

In their stories.

This glow,

That persona,

Woke lingo.

I reach for clarity

Tempered with grace,

Steel and velvet

In their place.

Glory and agony,

Diamonds and shards.

Real. Liminal. True.

The best

And highest moments

Never reach IG

Because they sparkle IRL,

Real-time, not reels where

The expanse of reality

Stays screen-flat,

A likeness, not life.

But dopamine hits

And the scrolling thumb

Is running from—

From stab and throb?

From pine and pungent mist and moon?

From laughter, questions gone soon?

Be still, the poet said.

Ask the pulse

Its hunger,

How the drug of choice

Lifts higher than this moment:

That leaf’s blaze,

This shimmering chord,

Those dimpled grins.

Be still.

Be here.

Silence seeps

Its sweet tang.

Pleiades stills

A raucous brain.

Flicker, flame,

Shine, tune

Sigh, pine.

Vast sky expands,

Woos, implants

A yen for more

And grants it.

Songs Stay On

It was a year, as everyone has already noted.

I don’t have words yet to talk well about it, and there are still clouds and questions with no answers. I am hopeful but not glib about 2021. Not chirpy, as my personality tends to be.

This not the place to list last year’s losses. That would take too long and be too depressing. But one immense loss has been choir, choir concerts, and formal and informal singing groups. I feel incredulous that last January, just before the year started unravelling, I went with friends to a packed auditorium in Cleveland to hear the St. Olaf Choir conducted by Dr. Anton Armstrong. I still listen to some of the songs I heard that night. I’m not a gifted singer, but listening to songs and singing with people feeds me like nothing else does and I miss it terribly.

In the darkest, hardest parts of the year, when I couldn’t sing, I listened to others sing. Often it was “Jesus Strong and Kind.” Or “Sure on This Shining Night.”

When everything inside me feels scrambled, I listen to choral music. When I want to rest my soul, I turn on my favorites, this curated list of chorale gems. The voices, harmonies, and chord progressions soothe something deep in me. I start breathing deeper and my focus shifts from troubles around me to the shimmering melodies or words. This list has multiple arrangements and languages of the Lord’s prayer and Psalm 23. Wonder how that happened.

This list are all my favorites depending on the moment, but indulge me while I share my exceptional choices:

  • Pieces from Stellenbosch Choir. From South Africa, they have a rare, winning blend of Dutch harmonies and African rhythms. I dream of hearing this group in person some day.
  • The first time I heard the stunning soprano lines in Arvo Part’s “And I Heard a Voice,” it took my breath away. Then I read the backstory to the song, and how he composed it in his native Estonian, and now I like it even more.
  • Sometimes I wake up with lines from Forrest’s “Come to Me” or Mealor’s “The Beautitudes” in my head, and it makes the whole day better.
  • Whenever I hear “Indodana,” I see the silhouettes of the women at Jesus’ cross, weeping with no words. I can’t listen to the song without some emotional fortitude because it’s so sad. But it gives voice to what was the most wrecked night of their lives.

I often think CCM has more honest lament than classical and sacred music does, so I find some CCM lyrics cathartic and healing, but I don’t find most CCM beautiful aesthetically. And beauty is what I need when I’m fragile or sad. Beauty (very loud or very soft) or silence.

Toward the end of last year, I got to sit in on the dress rehearsal for this recorded Christmas concert. The only thing that’s better than singing in choir is listening to your friends sing. While they practiced, I sat on the floor in the back of the gym in the dark and cried because it was so beautiful. Earlier in the year, some of them were also in on this virtual choir and I’m so proud of them.

Clearly, this is the era of virtual choirs. Even though it goes against most of what is true and enjoyable about choir, virtual choirs offer something better than silence and isolation. Last summer, I heard about Eric Whitaker’s “Sing Gently” virtual choir about two days before the tracks were due in. I downloaded the sheet music and the practice tracks, but didn’t have time to finish. That close, I would’ve joined over 17,000 singers to debut that sweet song, and it would’ve been a nice way to remember the year. Maybe another song, another time.

Hope wears thin these days, but in brighter moments, I believe that some day we’ll pack into auditoriums and sing again. I dream of attending a concert like this of Brahm’s “Requiem.” The European elegance, red and black formal wear, the singers surrounding the audience–I would be be in raptures.

Singing aligns all the parts of a person with beauty and goodness, which is one reason it’s so healing for me. In this fragmented, splintered, fraught era, we need more singing. We need songs everywhere. We need truth and beauty and goodness flung around in music and voices and community. We could never have too much.

Snow Globe

This morning marks seven years that I woke up in the hospital after the worst day of my life. This morning, I saw the same light, the same cold, but everything is different. My brokenness then was physical and emotional and He is still healing me and I can never say how grateful I am. Today’s shaken globe reveals other kinds of brokenness in all of us. Different ways, different places, different aches. But I believe with all my heart that He walks with us, weeps with us, and leads us to wholeness and this keeps me from despair when the world shakes and breaks.

This is the light

And this is the ice

And this is the years

He heals me.

*

That morning,

She came in from the ice

And held me soft and

Snow glittered on her black wool.

*

Inside, looking out,

The snow globe, steady,

Turned and turned,

These seven seasoned years.

*

This morning,

I see light and ice,

Feel cheeks wet with stupendous

Overwhelm.

The gentle healer shakes the snow globe

Again

But never drops it.

*

This is the light and

This is the life

His wondrous hands

Poured into mine.