Poetry as Prayer

To the Holy Spirit by Wendell Berry

O Thou, far off and here, whole and broken,

Who in necessity and in bounty wait,

Whose truth is light and dark, mute though spoken,

By Thy wide grace show me Thy narrow gate.

 

Witnessing the Beauty

Sometimes I don’t write for fear that I am still too young to have anything worth saying.

Yesterday, I began a book by Eugene Peterson where he talked about this very thing – not writing until you have lived through certain experiences, walked this earth for some time. Books end, and this signals that a work has been completed, as if the lesson written about has ended, as if one has become an expert because of their words. How do you write when you know you’re not an expert? How do you finish with uncertain claims? For the older I get, the less I claim to know surely.

 

This semester ended slowly and calmly. One of my professors charged me with the final words: “always watch for beauty,” and I almost cried; apparently simple statements packed with meaning move me to tears. It reminded me of my true work here on earth. I may not have the clarity that others would like me to offer, yet I can watch for beauty and find ways to testify to it. After all, can anyone really be more than a witness to what they have seen? We are called to be witnesses not experts. I don’t have many answers, but I have a heart that longs for all things beautiful.

Beauty is such a strange and familiar thing, which together are qualities that are sure to make something lose its meaning. When I was younger, I never liked thinking about beauty because it was presented to me as the only conversation young women could have. “What does beauty mean? What makes us beautiful?” were the questions asked only to be followed by one verse that is apparently the only one that is prescribed for women so they can be confident about the Bible’s definition of beauty.

The culture will define words if 1) we don’t know what the Scriptures say about something, or 2) we have reduced the Scriptures to say far less than what they actually do. I’ve heard many panels full of women defining a limited idea of beauty; I see those with the trendiest fashion sense chosen for Christian celebrity status, and I’m annoyed with my own preoccupation with image. It all makes me wonder if what we are choosing to define us will never satisfy, as we miss all that is real right in front of our eyes.

When I see things becoming whole, I find something beautiful. When I see things living into their created purpose, I see beauty. When I wonder at how a tree can be so silent, only moved by wind and growth, I catch a glimpse of beauty. Beauty always makes me desire more. It’s both transcendent and close; It is God with us. Beauty reminds us there is something much larger than ourselves in this created world, and we want to be swept away into it, believing our longing and search for beauty may actually make us whole. As soon as we try to define it too narrowly, it slips away. We arrive too late, we see it through a screen rather than with our eyes, and the moment loses its splendor. It feels fleeting; yet it remains with us, resides among us, if only we pay attention, watch for beauty, keep our eyes open. This is the paradox of beauty; this is the paradox of God with us. This is the Christ who plays in ten thousand places.

“Christ plays in ten thousand places // Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not His // To the Father through the features of men’s faces” – (Gerald Manley Hopkins)

Being a witness to the beauty may also make us witnesses to the Christ, the person in whom we find all beauty and glory come together, a beauty so wonderful that it makes all things whole. The created world reveals is Creator, a Creator that desires all things to be made new, be made whole. This is the beauty that quiets us, draws us into worship, and forms us into witnesses of all we have seen.

Will you watch with me?

In the Graceful Wild

Let’s take a walk together. Let’s go out into the open, into a great and graceful clearing, and let’s be uninhibited. After all, we’re in the wild, where humans have always faked control while our collective spirit longs and knows freedom can be found here if we simply let go of our need to be secure within our thick walls. We know the open was made for us. This is the place where joy and freedom meet.

We may need to jump some fences, beat back the brush; each step will be worth it. Remember, we move in rhythm, together. The glory will be there on the other side.

Have most of our problems come because we have forgotten we are free?

Let’s leave our labels and our fears on the outside, burn them in the brush, tie them to the fences. We’ll find out soon enough that the wide-open space will redefine every fear, every label, and maybe even, every single one of us.

Let’s seek God in the wild, where our souls come alive in safety and eternal space. The older I get, the less I know about God, yet the more space I need for the Divine gravity.

Even though we do not know, we know we are seen in the clearing. And if we pay attention, we can finally learn to see one another.  

the quiet flame

IMG_2314

When a fire burns, it may need a little tending, but for the most part, it knows what it needs to do on its own. It’s fire; it knows its nature, and so it burns. I used to marvel and get lost in fire burning because I liked to watch it burn layers away, shining light into an otherwise dark space. Now I see it simply doing what it was meant to do: burn.

Therefore, to burn seems inhuman, something humans are not meant to do. To burn for all to see seems unnatural; when we are set aflame unwillingly, we don’t want to be seen. I want to be in secret; my outer layer peeling away only to quickly expose the inside, before the inside joins all of the other fragmented and lost pieces.

We rejoice in being called light, in shining. Oh, how we shine. We forget that light is meant to burn. It burns all the unnecessary things away to find the center, to reach the brightest light within and without.

There may be many years before we burn our brightest, before we open ourselves up to the Consuming Fire. We find it is not our manufactured light, but Another all-consuming light.

The Consuming Fire is silent, as most wildfires are. Most natural growth does its work in silence, as the flowers grow and as the wind blows. We listen if we are intent on hearing. We burn only if we approach the flame.

I used to wonder why all the mystics talked about the flame burning inside of them, working away all of the things of the world until they could meet the Consuming Flame who would ultimately consume them with divine love. I wondered how this flame had been lost, why the only purpose of light was to bring light to others. I wondered why the flame within was forgotten, until I entered it and felt its silent pain. We will carry the mark of this burning love. I want to be a light to shine before all; I do not want the wound of this flame. I can be my own artificial light; I do not know the cost of its purity. I do not desire to be consumed; I desire to be known.

Yet the fire works only when I lose the desire to be known, the be seen, to be set ablaze on the city’s highest hill. Only then will I enter the fire that is all consuming and find my true self. All may seem lost in the blaze, until you find your new light, a life that always receives more than what it surrenders to the flames.

I Don’t Know How to Pray

There have been many times, people, and places that remind me that I know very little about prayer. Mother Teresa is one of those people whose prayers make little worldly sense, and yet you will find few people who will disagree that she was a woman who knew how to pray, to love, and to live as Christ in this world.

No Greater Love, a compilation of Mother Teresa’s teachings has become a devotional of sorts for me recently. I have few words of my own, and I wonder if that is one way to begin prayer. I leave you with her words this blessed Sunday:

“In reality, there is only one true prayer, only one substantial prayer: Christ Himself.”

“God wants us to be more childlike, more humble, more grateful in prayer, to remember we all belong to the mystical body of Christ, which is praying always.”

“In the silence of the heart God speaks. If you face God in prayer and silence, God will speak to you. Then you will know that you are nothing. It is only when you realize your nothingness, your emptiness, that God can fill you with Himself.”

“I shall keep the silence of my heart with greater care, so that in the silence of my heart I hear His words of comfort and from the fullness of my heart I comfort Jesus in the distressing disguise of the poor.”

“There is no prayer without sacrifice, and there is not sacrifice without prayer…We need to give Christ a chance to make use of us, to be His word and His work, to share His food and His clothing in the world today.”

Lord, please teach us to pray.

Amen.

On Being Weary and Doing Good

We sit ourselves down outside of the coffee shop to soak up one of the last warm fall days. We begin by revisiting our past conversations. 

I ask, “I was in a pretty cynical place back then, wasn’t I?”

She nods in agreement, and we both let out a little laughter of relief and a lighthearted knowing. My laughter reminds me that I often take myself too seriously.

I’m becoming more aware of what cynicism feels like and sounds like when it begins to rear its head in my life. It’s a place where my heart can go and stay for days if it really wants. It’s the case of a weary soul threatening a very young life, and I see it all around me. I see it in others, and as much as I know cynicism is different for everyone, I know it will likely destroy me. Yet, the ironic thing is: because I am hyperaware of my own cynicism, it also has afforded me time to think about the nature of hope.

Today, as I was leaning into my own cynicism, I was reminded of Galatians 6 and the section that talks about goodness. I am prone to being tired almost all of the time, and having energy can often feel like a constant battle in my life. I wonder if there are things worthy of my energy, my heart, my desire, and my time, things worthy of wearing me out. I wonder how much time I spend on the things that wear down my fragile heart and steal my hope. My despair runs in quickly again as I see yet another thing that I want to change in and about the world. If I spend all of my energy on the things that make me angry and tired, I will have little energy left to actually do something about the things that aren’t right.

I return to the the Scripture in Galatians, which surprises me because it does not say “do not become weary with all that is not yet right”; instead  it says “do not become weary in doing good.” I fear in reading this that there is not enough good in my life to qualify me for this level of weariness. I assume some grand revelation or transformation will bring me hope. I assume it will be big and loud and glamorous. Could it be something as simple and small as goodness? 

In the book “Women of Spirit”, it talks about how women who were not traditionally given leadership roles in the church won over those around them, not because of their loud cries for equality but instead by their holy, pure, and good lives. Richard Foster talks about Phoebe Palmer is his book “Streams of Living Water” when writing about the Holiness tradition in the church. Her leadership, her gifts, her goodness drew people to her. She “transcended limits of gender and denominations.” Not that raising a voice against injustice doesn’t matter, by all means it does; but if that is our only way, we may be overcome by all that makes a soul bitter and desolate. There is a work that goodness can do that our voices may never be able to; goodness is a practice, an act, a faithful defiance. It is a fruit that is normal and natural in Kingdom life. 

Goodness doesn’t sell and probably won’t make many people famous. Most people committed to good, simply, faithful lives only become known after their death because only then will they not be able to stop their fame. Others will choose to tell the beauty of another’s goodness. 

In 2 Peter 1, Peter is writing to encourage the church. He begins by saying that God’s divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life. In his first book, he begins by talking about our living hope. And then, in 2 Peter 1: 5-9, this is what he says:

“For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

He begins both of his books with these two themes: hope and goodness. Somehow I wonder if they feed one another in a way that will bring life. I wonder if they will bring life to the weary souls and those who are tired and tried and suffering and wondering if there is any Goodness and Hope left. 

Things sown in goodness will reap a harvest if we do not give up, and the harvest is our hope

What my cynicism represents to me is that I have spent too much time thinking about myself. I need something that will open me up and pour me out. Something less pretentious than platforms, some story that is greater than myself. I desire a movement of love that is only set ablaze when it is consumed by Divine love. I am looking for a hope that just may begin with goodness. 

 

What I’m Into: December 2013

It’s been awhile since my last “What I’m Into” post, but I’m plotting out the next month or so for my blog, so I figured this would provide a good wrap-up for the year.

After this December, I am officially half way down with grad school, which doesn’t actually feel as exciting as I thought it may. But, nonetheless, I’m feeling great about my program and am increasingly thankful for GFES.

Nate and I had our first Christmas celebration just the two of us this year. It was strange to not have a larger family gathering, but it was nice to begin some of our own unique traditions together.

What I Read:

Last year over the holidays, I spent my break reading The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown, which changed so many things for me in my identity and how I practice both love and courage. It’s my favorite work of hers so far.

This break, I did not want to even look at a book of non-fiction and told myself I would only read fiction over break. So far, Madeleine L’Engle has awakened and captured my imagination, and The History of Love by Nicole Krauss has opened wide my heart. I don’t want this to be over. (I started to listen to Eugene Peterson’s memoir The Pastor on audio during our long New Year’s road trip, but that doesn’t count as reading. I love it so far. Listening to a book allows me to recognize different ways of writing that I don’t see when I am reading. Eugene loves the word “congenial.”)

I also read On The Incarnation by St. Athanasius. Technically, I finished this in November, but I was constantly referring to it as I worked on my end of the semester research paper on Athanasius. I loved reading his book on the Incarnation before Christmas. Reading these primary texts awakened something in me that made me want to read the rich and ancient texts of my faith tradition.

TV:

SCANDAL! Olivia Pope is uh-maz-ing. I usually don’t get into shows like this (or, really, any at all!), but I’m loving the mystery and the character development. I love Olivia as the lead lady.

Music:

Noah Gunderson- especially this song. I wonder how many people have sung/prayed this song in their own ways. (warning: some language)

The Brilliance’s Advent albums

James Blake’ Overgrown

Favorite Online Reads:

As someone who works in Higher Ed, this article about Campus Diversity and Advertising was not necessarily surprising to me, but interesting nonetheless.

A hopeful read and a good reflection on what Ben Myers likes about Christianity. I’m thinking about compiling my own.

Christena Cleveland’s Reconciliation books to read. I want to read all of these!

I loved all of John Blase’s advent poems, but this one may have been my favorite.

Also, why do Christians disagree? This was long but extremely fascinating to me. I’m curious to learn more about how we can have forward-moving conversations around difference these days.

As my husband and I talk increasingly about philosophy of ministry and church, this article was so helpful to me, written by one of my seminary professors. He says, “we simply have no theology for church decline,” and ends with, “Healthy things carry their cross,” a cross that may or may not mean what we think it does when it comes to church growth/decline. Yet, God has a way of being found in places we have neglected to look; therefore, as A.J. Swoboda says, “All told, I’ve ultimately come to believe that modern Evangelicalism has no theological room for seeing God in a shrinking church.

Favorite Follows:

@audrey assad, @faiththeology (Ben Myers), @Enneagram4facts

Food:

I made Joy the Baker’s maple blueberry scones for Christmas morning. Perfection. This was the “in process” shot, and I had forgotten I had a cute apron to match this dainty pastry.

Image

What I’m Looking Forward to in 2014:

-starting the Whole30 with Nate the first full week of January. I have been undisciplined with gluten since my race in October and have definitely felt it. I’m excited to do this detox for both of us and am already excited for some of the recipes I have found!

-reading more fiction

-celebrating others. I feel like I’ve been in a funk these past couple months. The winter cold, missing friends that are far away, and my sometimes-too-introspective self makes it difficult to get out of my head at times. I want to make it a goal to celebrate others in unique and meaningful ways this year.

-reading more from people of color, non-Americans, and other diverse authors. I wanted to try to only read books by people of color in 2014 but am wondering how possible this will be in light of grad school. I’m making a list and hoping to stick to this as much as possible.

Instagram Moments:

an advent reflection:

Imagehaving my two past ARDs in the same room was a great gift (one all the way from GA!)ImageI’m linking up with Leigh Kramer for this month’s post. Join us, would you?

The Familiar and the Strange

I like to read theologians that make great sense to me. Call it bias or preference, I like the things I think I already know about God to be confirmed. Give me more of the familiar God that gives me peace and makes me feel all warm and fuzzy on the inside. It’s Christmas time after all, and it’s cold here in the north.

Recently, I was reading Stanley Hauerwas write about how theologians try to make sense of God in their writing. He argues that the “theological sentence that does its proper work does so just to the extent it makes the familiar strange.”* This is quite a striking statement in a world that wants to make sense of all things. This is the world that has created all of the theological explanations and reasoning. Making sense of God is popular, and I suppose it’s good for the church business.

For some time, I’ve been wondering why I have made God so predictable. It is better for God to fit inside my box, a box that has little room for the idea of generosity or mystery. I assume many find themselves inside this all too restrictive and clearly defined box. Defending our views of God gives us the power of knowledge that says we can actually contain the nature of God in our minds.

Incarnation rips through all of our boxes of our enlightened intellect and causes quite a ruckus, as if a child has found its Christmas present early, and doesn’t care one bit if the box had been wrapped neatly and nicely for that special moment on Christmas morning when the present can finally be revealed. Incarnation does not care about the chaos that occurs when a box is ripped open with its contents strewn all throughout the room. In fact, naming and entering into the chaos kind of seems to be the point.

The mother Mary seemed to understand this more than a modern mother who becomes flustered when the child locates the present and opens it early and all by itself. This is not the picture perfect scenario she had imagined for her babe’s first Christmas. Mary wasn’t filled with thoughts of idealized mornings, and as Madeleine L’Engle so beautifully understood, Mary also couldn’t have been filled with reason. In fact, “this is the irrational season.”* Mystery is to be embraced, and it must be embraced through the arrival of the Christ-child. When we do not have room for the mysteriously human Christ-child, we have no room for the God who is breaking through into our world. The God who has once been distant has come close; this is a work of wonder and divine intention, not of human reason and strategic planning.

Over time, we have chosen to categorize the wonder, and we like to call this knowledge. We do know God by how God is revealed to us in our world. Therefore, we know God because God came into our world. We know God because God acts in our individual lives. We say we know God by what has already come to be, yet we never quite know when God will act. We cannot anticipate what God will do or how God will do it; but we hope and believe that above all else, God is and God will, and this is a God that receives our hope and our trust. We submit the time and the method into God’s hands. We trust the God who has become human; we trust God to continue the work and spirit of the Incarnation.

We may have never expected God to become human. For God to become human was unfathomable; God was completely other than humanity, and becoming human would certainly mean that a human could never be fully divine.

Yet, God took on what was familiar to us so that we could know God. God works in both the familiar and the unexpected.

What, then, can I actually say of God? I can say that I know God much more in silence than in words. I can say that I know God more through God’s presence, by God’s immanence rather than by contemplating God’s magnitude. I might say that I only know the fruit of knowledge, which is only revealed as love.

What kind of knowing do we then have of God? 
Do we speak words about ourselves or about God? Do we only say what we know to be true to us, or are we making statements about who God is? What, then, can we say of God?

“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” Or as The Message likes to say, “he moved into the neighborhood”, and therefore “we saw the glory with our own eyes.”

What I cannot say about God, I can look around and hope to find something that will help me name what I see. Is God in our neighborhood? Is this what glory looks like? Do I find God in transcendence, or do I find God in embodiment? And the Light often comes into the darkness and answers “yes.”

As the Scriptures say, Jesus is the “yes” to all of the promises of God. And again, I am reminded that I may remember the promises, I may believe in the God-man, Jesus, and yet I’m still humbly moving towards the Light- the light that has come into the world, the light that enlightens all of the world, the light that is still to come. I know the answer is “yes” even when I do not always know how to articulate the question.

There are things I am told to claim about God in order to have right belief. It would be good to remember that the word we use is still belief at its root, and we must mean that and not something other. It is conviction; it is experience; it is faith. Can I claim anything about God that isn’t fragmented and longing to be whole, only to be fulfilled in the eternal God? Can we say anything other than “God is God, and I am not”, and allow that to inform and shape how we see Jesus, the world, and our theology?

Can we say anything other than “the Word became flesh, and made his dwelling among us?” Our words are always about the God who is altogether familiar and strange. It is familiar for all things to be about us; it is strange for us when they are not. And yet Jesus took on that which is familiar to us so that we may embrace both the familiar and the strange. He shows us how to be human again, which is something we have once known, have lost, and hope to know again. So he comes to us and inhabits everything that we see so that maybe, just maybe, we can move our way toward him, toward love, toward the One who is both familiar and strange. Paul says it this way, “Now that you know God- or rather are known by God;”* for in God, we are known. Even when God is not familiar to us, we are familiar to God; we are strangers no longer. For God has moved into our neighborhood.

*Article by Stanley Hauerwas: http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2013/09/26/3856546.htm

*Madeleine L’Engle “This is the Irrational Season” poem

*Galatians 4:9

Nightly Prayers

It’s 1:00am, and I’m wide awake and full of wandering thoughts. Drifting into all sorts of blabber, the words spread out and fill up every single space. (Don’t we all wonder if this is really prayer?) I begin with scattered lists, this and that and this person: I pray for them like they are the world’s worst problem. Lord, have mercy. There are a million things for which I should pray:

For the heaviness and darkness of the world

For all who are tired and weary and poor

For the good that could have been done today

For the bitterness and anger taking root inside of me

For the time I stumbled over words shared with a hurting friend

For the time I wanted to cry big tears for all that felt lost

For the time I didn’t and don’t and will not trust

For the man laying next to me, precious and undeserved gift

For the friend too far away

For the ones I never see but the ones you always do

For wondering if love will really be enough.

Sleeping may be the best form of prayer, the only kind of surrender one can offer each day.

I’ll drift into a land that, at its best, will fill with dreams and hopes of beginning again. Many words turn into silence, simply breathing, yielding to the Spirit. I am overwhelmed by how the magnitude of all the words slowly submit to the fragile, weary, quiet soul. Sleep is a gift when it pays attention to what the body needs; sleep is the relinquishing prayer, a declaration that my body cannot carry the weight any longer. So, we sleep.

And you keep carrying the cosmos.

Maybe prayer is the giving of all that we can no longer bear or analyze or express,

Maybe belief is in the waking.

Somehow you hear us all

And what is more, you hear and do not lose hope.

You are eternally watchful and awake

Which may be the miracle

I can sleep and pray and believe

and rest upon.

The time for things to be born

The only thing I seem to know how to write about lately is St. Athanasius.

Athanasius, that ol’ defender of the divinity of Jesus and the equality of God the Father and the Son. He saw the Incarnation for its cosmic implications for all of creation. I think he has a few old tricks to teach us young pups. Most of the medieval writers I have been reading set the Incarnation within its impact on the entire cosmos. Yet we often personalize it, removing its power and breadth. Athanasius reminded me that the Incarnation is the greatest revelation of God to humanity; it is the only way that humanity can know God.

And he came to us as a tiny, innocent babe. I’ve always been interested in the well-known characters who are said to have surrounded him shortly after his birth. The shepherds, the angels, the wise men, the young mother and father. It’s quite an eclectic crowd if you ask me. I know they didn’t all come at the same time as my nativity scene would like me to believe, but the scene reminds me that from his birth, Jesus was always drawing in eclectic crowds.

Mary, the woman we often forget, the women who often reminds me of Abraham. For through her child, all nations will be blessed. We talk of Abraham, the faithful one, who believed in the hope of a child, that God could do the impossible. We see this story in Mary, faithful girl, who believed God would do what God said. And because of this, Mary, Theotokos, created room for the child in her life. In Abraham and in Mary, I see a common thread: the offspring that would bless, the way in which we bear forth God’s blessing in this world, the way we extend Christ to those around us.

I wonder what it means to bear Jesus, to bring forth the Word Incarnate into our world. What does it mean to embody this man? What does it mean for God to uniquely give new life to each of us? What does it mean to surrender a son to the world, to extend his new life to others?

The Creator has come into our world, so he can recreate all things.

The Creator came into this world in the form of a baby first; nothing is too humble or obscure for him. According to Athanasius, his love for humanity was the purpose of Christ’s embodiment. Love always bears forth new life. Love comes near. Love must be embodied.

The time for things to be born is coming, and I want to be found in anticipation, longing for the Advent of our Creator.

Lord, in your coming, make us new. Make us alive to all the ways you come to us. May we bear you into this dark and violent world. May there be peace in your arrival.