Big Medicine and Strong Magic

wpid-20141111_070642.jpgI went on a mini, individual retreat these past two days.

When I walked into my room tired from the road and ready to dig into the meal I’d brought, the first thing to greet me was a painting of bread and wine. I was hungry, and there was Communion. I longed for it.

I have thought about Communion a lot over my life. It is a mystery, it is a beauty, it is at times strange and unreal, sometimes so close, and at other times I struggle to feel anything. I am determined to keep exploring this mystery…

For no specific reason, the thought of communion in my retreat center room took me back to a memory of sharing communion with my mother. It’s the closest memory I have of sharing “church” with her, and I really wish the memory would last longer. I think it came about when she had taken me to walk through one of those live-action Jesus-walk things they do at Christmas time… You know, where the people dress up like first century citizens living in Bethlehem and talk with you about this new Jesus guy. I really can’t remember much about the experience except that I loved it and there were fritters… (There’s a better chance I’ll remember something if food’s attached to it.) Anyway, after the walk, we were led in to the church where we could take communion. It’s fairly possible that I’m mixing two memories together on this one, but I do remember that it was an unfamiliar church. My mom and I sat down on the pew with our bread and our grape juice and I must’ve looked confused because she started to tell me what to do: “Just say your own little prayer and then eat.”

My mom, bless her. The most specific memory I have of her connected to a  spiritual experience, and it’s her teaching me at a young age how to make communion my own. She was teaching her obsessive-compulsive little girl that she didn’t have to worry about the right rules or the right words, but that she could simply accept God’s gift and find personal communion with Him.

wpid-20141111_065130.jpgI’m sure I’m reading too much into this memory, but it’s all I have to go on, so I am running with it. I love my mom. I wish I knew more about her life and her faith. My dad would tell me some things, and I’m so grateful that a few months before he died he told me about how my mom always liked going to church and sitting in the sanctuary. God, I really wish I knew more…

It’s not fair. I wish I could talk to them about this stuff on this side of eternity. I want to ask my mom more about communion, about God, about the purpose of life and how she got through the hard times… I want to ask my dad about eternity, about prayer, I want to share the things I’m learning (or rather questioning) with him. I want to hear him sing off key again. I want to hear my mother sing, I can hardly remember it…

I never meant for this post to turn into what it has become. I suppose I am always going to write about them, and that’s good, it keeps them real and alive for me.

I really did enjoy contemplating communion (in all senses of the word) these past two days… I read Letters to Malcolm by C.S. Lewis and took comfort in the fact that the scholar who taught me so much still could never understand the mystery of Communion, and that he was okay with it, with taking the mystery. “Here is big medicine and strong magic,” he said.

Yes. I found another kind of magic in the retreat center’s outdoor labyrinth, a winding path that leads to one center core. This one, with its Colorado rose stones guiding the way, was homemade by the boyscouts, as the nuns told me. I had no idea how much I would appreciate this labyrinth. It was bitter cold and snowing out. I had gotten up to wander the grounds with the hopes of seeing the sunrise, but it was too cloudy for that. My wandering did lead me to a garden and the labyrinth however. Wrapped in my blanket with my cup of rapidly cooling coffee, I waited for the deer to exit and then entered in…

What can I say? Trust the path, is the phrase that kept coming back to me. Yes, the labyrinth led me in some twisting ways, and at times I felt so far from the center that I felt it would take ages to get there, but the time went by faster than I thought, and the path always led me right. It was a comforting exercise in trust and a symbol that I’m sure I will harken back to many times. wpid-20141111_065152.jpg

Strong magic. Sacred space. Each moment is sacred, God is all in all, “joy is the serious business of heaven.” In God, we live and move and have our being… Even here, back in the normal way of things. Even now. Oh, bless the Lord, my soul.

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Substance.

It has been almost a year now since my dad died.

It sucks. It is painful. I miss him, and I am trying not to think about it too much. Strangely enough, though, I feel similar now to how I felt last year, just before it happened: hopeful. This tragedy has led me to a place I never thought I’d be, and I think I am finally starting to settle into that place, to find the hope in it. God has blessed me with a joy I never thought I’d find. …And I am terrified of losing it all again (just as I had lost my hope last year).

One day, one breath at a time. Manna today, what is it? I cannot comprehend it, but I can choose to accept it, this mystery, and I can trust that God will provide this inexplicably satisfying mystery daily. Today the manna brings delight to my soul. Tomorrow it may not be so joyful, but it will still fill me, as my God promises never to leave me nor forsake me.

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Jumbled thoughts on the new year

So what I wrote in my last post about choosing to take joy is very much easier to write about than to do. It seems that every time I proclaim that I will take joy, darkness rushes in to try to steal that joy away. I have decided that I have to change the notion to: “I will take joy — and I will not let it be stolen from me. No one can take away my joy because my joy does not come from within me, it comes from the Father who holds me, and no one can snatch me out of my Father’s hand.”

Still, easier said than done, but I have to start by saying it or I will never do it.

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I’ve been thinking a lot about church recently, mostly because it seems impossible for me to find one. For the past few months, I’ve been working most Sunday mornings, and even when I do rarely get the morning off, it’s still difficult to get to a church because of sudden illness or necessary babysitting. When I do get the chance to go, community is hard to find, and it doesn’t come about as instantly as I’d want it to. (And why, oh why, is it so hard to find people my own age in church in middle America?) I miss my old communities. I miss how easy it was to form friendships at Crossroads in Scotland. I miss how quickly the people of Metanoia in Maryland embraced me.

You’d think that if I needed church and Christian community at any particular time in my life, it’d be now…right? Now that I’m in a new place, orphaned, directionless… But God doesn’t seem to be bringing me that community as quickly as He has in the past.  And I don’t understand it.

I am grateful, however, that I still feel Him so close, that I still worship Him and learn from Him, even if it’s not in the midst of a congregation. I am lonely, and sometimes I ache for a community like this, but I can still sing with the earth. I don’t know exactly what He’s up to right now, but He hasn’t left me, and that is good.

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On the first day of 2014, I glanced back through my journal and found a verse I had written down back in July. The verse was Isaiah 51:3, and I wrote about it on my Facebook status that day:

“The LORD will surely comfort Zion and will look with compassion on all her ruins; He will make her deserts like Eden, her wastelands like the garden of the LORD. Joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the sound of singing.” -Reading Isaiah 51:3 at the start of this new year, when the passage of time seems depressing and daunting rather than “happy,” but my God is in the business of turning wastelands into gardens.

Yes, amen. Wastelands into gardens. But wasn’t that the same tune I was singing a year ago? Two, three years ago? A way in the desert and streams in the wasteland. Is this the tune I am to sing all my life? Am I to move from one wasteland to the next, following the Way, sipping from the streams that miraculously burst through the ground at just the moment when I feel I can’t go on any longer without a drink? If that is to be my journey, at least I will not be making it alone.

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The LORD will comfort His people, He will look with compassion on His daughter, and He has comforted me. He has made streams appear in the desert before, and He has made a way in the chaos and the wasteland, so I will trust Him to do so again. And again, and again, for all my days.

But I am like an olive tree
flourishing in the house of the God;
I trust in God’s unfailing love
for ever and ever.
-Psalm 52:8

“In Transition…” One Year Later

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Last year, I wrote this blog post on Christmas Eve called “In Transition.” It’s odd how I feel pretty much the same way now, though rather than hitting a speedbump, I’ve faced an earth-shaking crash that seems to have turned my world upside-down and render me senseless.

In that post last year, I wrote this:

One day from now marks the traditional anniversary of the moment my God left the throne of Heaven, took on flesh, and became a baby, a baby that would grow up to die for my wrongdoings and then conquer death to bring freedom and victory to the whole world.
So maybe that’s all that matters. I don’t know what I’m doing, but I know the Gospel. …
May this be a time of sweet communion with the LORD, then. I want to know my Father’s heart so deeply, to bind mine with His so closely, that the way is obvious. And even if it isn’t, even if I still don’t get an answer, at least I will be drawing closer to the Lover of my soul.

I am grateful to have kept a log of my journey and be able to look back on these words to find comfort, comfort in the encouragement to simply commune with the LORD.

Manna today, or I starve. And that’s for today, not tomorrow, not a week from now, not a year from now, but today. There’s a reason God specifically commanded the Israelites to only gather enough manna in the morning for that day alone. (And when they disobeyed and tried to save some for leftovers, it rotted. See Exodus 16:16-20) Manna today. I must see His goodness today, or I won’t make it to tomorrow. And if I see His goodness today, then that is enough. He provides today, and therefore He will provide tomorrow, and two weeks from now, and decades from now.

Remember earlier this year when I blogged about my trek through the Hebrew prophets post-exile? I wish I had started blogging even earlier, when I was reading about the prophets in conjunction with the accounts of their various kings, because then I could’ve blogged about Habakkuk. I remember writing about Habakkuk for my college course on “The Problem of Evil,” because Habakkuk cries out to God about the evil he sees in his world and God’s plan to let the Babylonians carry the Israelites into exile, but in the end the prophet chooses wisdom over knowledge and joy over despair and lives by faith in a sovereign God.

I am grateful that such a sovereign God led me to read through the Old Testament prophets last year so that this year, when I am so in need of their stories, He can bring them to mind again.

Habakkuk 3:17-19 says in shigionoth (wild, emotional, enthusiastic song):

Though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the LORD;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
He makes my feet like the deer’s;
He makes me tread on my high places.

Yet. I. will. take. joy.

That’s not a very easy thing to say or do right now. Grief still troubles me in the middle of the night, it still suddenly stabs the heart in the course of a normal day. Confusion and worry and fear tend to cloud my future. Joy sometimes seems too simple. Or worse, joy seems like forgetting, forgetting the father I lost, forgetting the need for a future.

But joy is not forgetting, joy is remembering. Habakkuk didn’t forget the evil surrounding him, but rather he chose to remember the goodness of the Lord and to trust in that goodness to carry him through the hardship, to allow him to tread on the high places, to give him hope and a future.

To quote Voskamp again: “Instead of filling with expectations, the joy-filled expect nothing– and are filled. This breath! This oak tree! This daisy! This work! This sky! This day! Surprise!”

I will take joy.
“LORD, I have heard of your fame: I stand in awe of your deeds, O LORD. Renew them in our day, in our time make them known…” –Habakkuk 3:2

November Walks

The months are passing faster than I’d like them to…
The leaves are almost gone, June has turned into November… It seems that death is finally sinking in, and nature has finally caught up to my grief.
IMG_9868_ed from summer…
…to fall.IMG_0552

The purple thistles that gave me hope in those tumultuous summer months
are shriveled and brown these days… but still standing.

The natural world around me now echoes my heart under this dark shadow:
The bare, dead branches
the cracked and yellowing grass…

I walked this lake in summer,
when it was full of flowers and green grass.
I walked it in harvest time, under September sun
through golden fields and crisp red leaves.

(Walk another mile, stare across the fields of grain: this is how the prophets trained.Josh Garrels)

Now I walk it in November, as autumn turns to winter.
I have watched this lake scenery die around me.

And yet, even as I sit here,
birds chirp in the dead trees
and ducks flock to the waters.
The sinking sun kisses the earth
and all the world glows at death of day.

And now we are all dying. Golden. Mourning.
But soon the night will be over, dawn will break. And after winter must come spring.
Why do I keep coming back to this hope?

Because I cannot survive any other way,
And, thankfully, the Majesty just won’t let me go.

* * *

I read what Ann Voskamp says in her book One Thousand Gifts: “When we are despairing, we can choose to live as the Israelites gathering manna. Forty long years, God’s people daily eat manna- a substance whose name literally means, ‘What is it?’ Hungry, they choose to gather up that which is baffling. They fill on that which has no meaning. More than 14,600 days they take their daily nourishment from that which they don’t comprehend. They find soul-filling in the inexplicable. They eat the mystery. They eat the mystery. And the mystery, that which made no sense, is ‘like wafers of honey’ on the lips.”

I choose to eat the mystery, because I am hungry, so hungry. I do not understand this time, but I have to believe that my soul will be filled anyway, if I gather it up, if I keep carrying on, if I let the mystery nourish me. I choose to take in that which makes no sense, and pray that I too will find honey on the lips soon enough. Amen.

slow autumn breaths

I’m sitting here, watching my nieces play together. Each time they cuddle with me or give me a hug or smile at my entrance, it’s like my world gets just a little bit better.

I drive West, and I see the mountains in the distance, shadowy giants guarding snowcapped strongholds, the sun illuminating only pieces here and there, clouds covering, clouds breaking… And I feel, just a little bit, like I could be okay.

This could be okay.
There is majesty here, beauty that I can fall into every day.

And then I move, I go to work, surrounded by new people, and I wrestle with this new term: orphan. Is that what I am now? It hurts to go to a place every day and interact with countless people who have no idea that I’m thinking about all this. Something fundamental has changed about who I am, and nobody here in Colorado knows it. I don’t think I’m looking for pity, I am simply looking for someone out there to recognize what is going on inside me and to offer me their acknowledgement, a hand to keep me going…

I don’t know how to find it. Instead of running to the One I know is there, reaching, holding… I search for comfort in stories and fantasies and all I want to do is escape this term, escape this state of being, escape this new way of living, of living without. I get so lost, and sometimes it still feels like I’m drowning.

So I step outside, I breathe in this autumn air, and I try to let the Majesty take me.
I can’t do this any other way.

Stretches to the Skies

When I think about it (which doesn’t happen nearly enough), I am so amazed by the faithfulness of our God. He is always faithful, always, even when I am nowhere near being faithful to Him. I just wanted to take a moment to meditate on that fact: God is faithful.

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His faithfulness stretches to the skies.
To the skies.

I’ve read this verse (Psalm 36:5) hundreds of times, I sing the song in my head, and I just skip over the power of this line. I acknowledge it for the pretty metaphor that it is, and I keep on singing. But God’s faithfulness stretches to the sky, His love reaches to the heavens. The psalmist didn’t know how else to describe it, so he picked the infinite gap between earth and sky as a starting point: “Yeah, my God’s faithfulness is larger than that.” I think sometimes I just don’t pay enough attention to the word faithfulness. I don’t let myself truly chew on its meaning. Why should God be faithful? We are certainly not beings worthy of His faithful love. He calls us His beloved, but we are adulterous, selfish, and foolish.

And yet, my God is faithful. He is faithful to me, but even more so He is faithful to who He is and the promises He has made. And He is faithful to remind me time and time again of those promises when I forget. God has provided for me a hundred times over and has carried me through time and time again. Why should now be any different?

I feel like a little child, asking Daddy over and over again to tell me that He loves me, to whisper to me that everything’s going to be alright, to assure me that I’ve made the right decision. I ask Him to tell me the same story over and over again, the story of where He’s been, and what He’s doing. And He is faithful. He always answers, He always listens, He is always close. Abba, I love you. I do believe, help my unbelief. Help me to be faithful to You, never wavering in my trust in You, never seeking lesser loves, never turning my back on you… Help me to be faithful like you.

Praise the LORD all you nations;
extol Him, all you peoples.
For great is His love toward us,
and the faithfulness of the LORD endures forever.
Praise the LORD.
(Psalm 117)
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True Story

It’s my 100th published post today everybody! Hopefully in the next few days I’ll take some time to reflect on my first one hundred posts and my journey as chronicled in blogging. Thank you so much for reading and following. I appreciate you, and I am grateful to be able to blog freely.
However, I’m going to use post number 100 to send you over to Small Still Voices today to read my latest contribution, entitled “True Story.”

True story: I am so foolish.
I make a lot of mistakes.
[I hate making mistakes.]
I worry a lot about those mistakes,
About possible future mistakes,
About whether or not I’m making a mistake right now, right this minute.
[I have trouble trusting myself.]

Click to read the rest at Small, Still Voices!

How Precious to Me

I’m blogging at Small, Still Voices today. Here’s an excerpt:

How precious to me
Are your thoughts, O God.
So high, so wide, so deep,
How precious to me.
So if I were to count them,
I would live and die in perfect bliss
The counting, it is never over
And the beauty, it never ends.

If I were to spend my entire life doing absolutely nothing except counting the thoughts and dreams of God and praising Him for them, my life would be bliss. That’s what this song says…. Click here to read the rest at Small, Still Voices!

Haggai: “Give careful thought to your ways.”

Today, I moved in my Biblical trek through Israel’s history to the book of Ezra, and I was pretty excited. This is it, the promises that God made through Jeremiah are being fulfilled! God has allowed His people to return to their inheritance, and they are eagerly choosing to leave the prosperity of Babylon behind in order to rebuild the ruins of Jerusalem. What a story!

In Ezra 3, they start right away with building an altar and sacrificing to the LORD. Alright, Israelites, that’s what I like to see! Ezra goes on to record the building of the second temple, and how the enemies around Jerusalem tried to thwart the process, but God continued to move the Persian kings’ hearts to favor His people and order the empire to comply with the rebuilding of the temple. This is pretty awesome!

It all goes so fast in Ezra, but I almost missed something. Did you know there were almost twenty years and two prophets between the first exiles’ return to Jerusalem and the actual building of the second temple? Those prophets were Haggai and Zechariah, and they urged the Israelites to refocus on the LORD Almighty, and the people listened.

So today, I read Haggai. Haggai’s name derives from words meaning “festive,” “feast,” and “the festival of the Lord.” His prophetic words call the Israelites to honor and worship God by rebuilding His temple. It’s as if he’s saying, “Come on, look at what God has done for us. He has given us reason to be festive, let us honor Him.” The message God gave him, recorded in only two chapters, can be summed up in 1:4-6:

“Is it time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses while this house [the temple] remains a ruin?” Now this is what the LORD Almighty says, “Give careful thought to your ways. You planted much, but have harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill. You put on clothes, but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it.”

The exiles had returned to their home, to the land promised by God, and they began to rebuild it. They built houses for themselves and tried to restart the economy, but the land was desolate. They worked on everything else except the house of the LORD, and they lacked some serious blessings because of it. Haggai 1:11 speaks of a drought that halted the production of every kind of crop in the land.

The people weren’t deliberately turning away from the LORD, they just weren’t thinking very clearly. They had hit some roadblocks in the construction process, so they set it aside and just kind of forgot. And so God offered them a reminder that I’d like to paraphrase:

“Hey, Israel, remember: I promised to be with you, and here I am. Rebuild My dwelling place, and the land will bloom in abundance.” 

As I read this today, God added between the lines: “Give careful thought to your ways. Are you seeking me? Are you serving me? Or are you seeking to rebuild your own house, to have all of your own affairs in order, before you work on Mine?”

For the past couple of days, I’ve been working on this blog and applying to countless jobs and trying to build my own dwelling place for the future, but I haven’t been spending very much time focusing on the Word of my God.

In church this week, the pastor told us that when the Bible calls us to meditate on the things of God, the same type of wording can be used to describe a dog gnawing on a bone. It’s the same type of idea, chewing on the Word of the God, absorbing every bit of it.

I want to do that. Nothing else matters. Nothing I build matters, unless I am first and foremost building a dwelling place for the LORD. I am a dwelling place for the LORD. Am I increasing His space daily? Haggai served as a gentle reminder to the people of Israel to keep their focus on the LORD alone. I pray that I can respond as they did, and earnestly prepare a place for Him.