How can I keep from singing

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I'm not going to lie.

It's been a rough winter.

From dog bites to anxiety attacks to the harshest winter anyone can remember (seriously, the farmers whose ancestors immigrated here from the northern parts of Scandinavia are sick of this winter), I have found myself wallowing in the darkness, wandering in cold places, lost in the wilderness.

My husband did a sermon recently on the temptation of Jesus. He noted that Jesus didn't choose to go into the wilderness, he was lead there (I would venture to guess he might've been dragged). For some reason, the knowledge of Jesus' unchosen time in the wilderness was a comfort. That he didn't desire any of this death or pain and that he understood my own little version of wilderness because he'd been through it, big time.

When my five-year-old came inside today from playing in the melting snow (more like mud, really), she was gloriously happy, red-cheeked and dirty, making her mother breathless by talking a mile a minute about how she'd collected rotten vegetables to feed the bugs in her ant house, how she'd helped Daddy fix the tractor.

After she ran back outside, she left some of her spring behind.

For months, I've been begging for life, crying out for spring, searching for one bright spot of green poking through the wintered earth.

My daughter brought life right to me. Her hands were filthy with it, her eyes sparkling with it, her voice a song to life anew.

I felt so grateful. And I began to sing and cry because I couldn't help it:

"No storm can shake my inmost calm while to that rock I'm clinging; since Love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?"

My life flows on in endless song;
Above earth's lamentation,
I hear the sweet, tho' far-off hymn
That hails a new creation;
Thro' all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul—
How can I keep from singing?
What tho' my joys and comforts die?
The Lord my Saviour liveth;
What tho' the darkness gather round?
Songs in the night he giveth.
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that refuge clinging;
Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth,
How can I keep from singing?
I lift my eyes; the cloud grows thin;
I see the blue above it;
And day by day this pathway smooths,
Since first I learned to love it;
The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart,
A fountain ever springing;
All things are mine since I am his—
How can I keep from singing?*
*I used to think this was an Enya song. But then I discovered that it's actually an old Quaker hymn. And Love is Christ the Lord. Beautiful!

Out of the Darkness

DSC_0004 After a strange and long winter with flurries even in mid-April, we entered into the heat and rain of spring on bended knee, nearly kissing the green earth in thanks and praise. When our monthly community worship time approached, I decided to plan it as a praise time for the rebirth of spring. But as I planned, I was a little lost and distracted by the sense that the joy I wanted to convey wasn't the only thing I was feeling.

With bombs, explosions, factory collapses, stories of abuse and pain, friends that are struggling, I can't seem to shake the grief from my shoulders.

When I was three, I started asking my mom where children go when they die. A few years later, my nighttimes were so plagued by fears of the dark and of the faces on the woodgrains of my closet door that my mother, out of desperation, did a sort of exorcism of the evil from my room. In Jr. High and Highschool, I refused to go to parties where they would show horror movies.

Clearly, I thought about death and dark things quite a lot from an early age. And gradually, I'm ashamed to admit that I began to hole myself off from bad things. I tried to focus instead on beautiful things, good things, funny things, pleasing things, lighthearted things, all in an effort to keep those bad thoughts from my mind.

You're way ahead of me, aren't you, knowing already that it doesn't work to avoid the brokenness of the world, mainly because so much of it is inside me already.

Eventually, I realized  that instead of shutting away or hiding from the darker things of the world, I needed to find a way to cope with them to write about them and most importantly, to lament and grieve the brokenness in our world.

Many books of the Old Testament chronicle the lament of Israel, the prophets and even, occasionally, the lament of a king or two. When I began reading Walter Brueggemann's The Prophetic Imagination with Kelley Nikondeha's book club, I was struck most of all that those who speak prophetic words often must energize a community or a society into action by speaking directly to the pain and mortality in all of us. For someone like me, it's easy to pretend that if we just ignore the bad things, they will go away.  But it ain't gonna happen. And those prophetic voices are laboring to do the very opposite: to shake us out of our complacency and open our eyes. And what's more, I'm realizing that the more I peer into the darkness, into my own brokenness and the pain others endure, looking for some glimmer of hope or redemption, the more I'm seeing the God of all light.

Brueggemann's book inspires me to listen for those prophetic voices who are speaking into the cracks in our hearts, urging us into compassion and action.

I think this song, [audio http://thebeautyofthishour.files.wordpress.com/2013/05/01-trouble-and-woe.m4a] by Ruth Moody is a beautiful take on facing the darkness and letting a song bring light, transforming it from trouble and woe to mystery and joy:

This world is full of trouble and woe/All I see is trouble everywhere I go/I'm gonna sing the trouble that I know

This world is full of sadness and tears/They fill us full of sadness and full of fear/I'm gonna sing until my eyes are clear

I'm gonna dig deep down into my heart/I'm gonna dig deep down, I'm gonna do my part/I'm gonna sing, sing a brand new start

This world is full of promise and love/Promise of a new day with no dark clouds above/I'm gonna sing that world I'm dreamin' of

This world is full of joy and mystery/ This world will be of joy, I believe it will be/ When we know what it is to be free

This world is full of trouble and woe/All I see is trouble everywhere I go/ I'm gonna sing, sing my way back home

Celebrating Remarkable Women

"Hope" by George Fredric Watts Today is International Women's Day.

Historically, this has been a day dedicated to advancing the human rights of women and children.  It was inspired by an 1857 protest in New York City by garment workers who were decrying appalling work conditions and low wages.  Over the years, this has been a day to celebrate advances for women.

But sometimes it seems as if there's very little to celebrate.*

Women and children are still trafficked for sex not only around the world but in the US as well. Children are homeless lacking a safe home or basic necessities.  Single mothers struggle to make ends meet, all the while facing a system that either shames them for needing assistance or allows them to fall through the cracks.

Today, I want to acknowledge women that lament the sadness of the not-yet.

That mourn with the women and children who aren't yet safe or free from abuse and pain.

I want to celebrate women who love and serve.  Who hope for future abundance.  Who struggle and juggle the demands of daily life to love as Christ does. Who hope for the someday and work for the right-now.

They are:

My family women, my sisters, life-giving mothers and creators. They give out song and laughter. They are deeply committed to the church with all its joy and baggage.

They are foster mothers, wives and students. They are single mothers or single.

They are church leaders, ministers, neighbors and friends. They are businesswomen and homemakers.

They are teachers, deep thinkers and book lovers who invest in intentional community and hospitality.

They volunteer and serve the marginalized.  They live in inner cities and open their homes to children who don't have a safe place.

They give their heart to friends in many African countries. They live in Thailand, Texas, Russia, the Midwest, Canada, Scotland, Colorado, and Italy. They share the gospel, homeschool, educate, and parent children while managing the challenges and joys of autism, health concerns and numerous surgeries.

They are creative and loving, wise and kind.

They grow their own food and cook, work full-time, mend and darn and knit like fiends.  They know everything about gardening.

They are many: amazing grandmothers, aunts, friends. They are highly educated. They didn't go to college. They are women whose writing and work inspire.

They are women who've quietly and faithfully sailed through the pain of years in community. Who have stayed because of a desperate but abiding hope.

Each of them has left her mark on the world, showing God's grace, provision and goodness.

I want to celebrate what these women have done to love people in this broken world.

I want to thank them.

*Read Jocelyn's essay at renew and sustain about her journey of finding hope in the "small" efforts to address the hurts of the world. She is also a woman to be celebrated!

Unstoppable joy: the tension of ashes and piano keys

DSC_0053 Ash Wednesday services are usually solemn times when we reflect on our own mortality, the death of Jesus and our need for repentance.

But at our Wednesday gathering, we experienced a different aspect of the service: young children running across the linoleum floors, totally oblivious to the solemnity of the occasion.  While the rest of us were receiving the ashes on our foreheads, my son ran to the piano and plunked at the keys before anyone could stop him.  The black ribbons we tied together as a symbol of our unity in brokenness, my daughter was attempting to use as a jump rope.

As a mother, I was just a little bit horrified and all I wanted them to be was quiet and well-behaved.

But then someone stopped me.  A friend with older children (who usually knows just what to say) approached me after the service.

She loved that our children were oblivious to the soberness of the service.  She loved that nothing would stop their joy.  She loved that we are supposed to have faith and hearts like theirs...full and lively.

So here is this tension of Lent and our lives in Christ. Our faith does and should include the darker things.  We will mourn and grieve and be penitent.  But we should also share in the joy of celebration, just like our children.  Just as we celebrate death on Ash Wednesday, joyful that death will take us to new life, we can acknowledge that death is very very sad.  That though Jesus has overcome it, we still feel death's sting.

I'd like to live in this tension of death-grieving and mortality celebration.  I'd like to be joyful in sorrow and patient in solemnity.

And I'd like to be a little more observant of the way my children approach worship and prayer, with unstoppable joy.

You stay hidden within that misery

A prayer by Walter Brueggemann: God, holy, sovereign, faithful, generous--
   that is the first thing we know and affirm at the break of day.
 But then, from these old hard texts we notice
      that your holy, sovereign, faithful generous way with us and
         with our people is in this endless tale of violence...
         war, plunder, rape, incest, deception, and death.
 You stay hidden within that misery,
               at work even against such circumstance.
 We notice that our long-term narrative is just like every other tale,
   wreaking with violence, just like every other...
   except for you...holy, sovereign, faithful, generous.
 We trust your hidden ways today in our narrative
      and in all the narratives of violence in force today.
 Work your good will,
         give us eyes to notice what can be seen of you,
         give us faith to trust what stays hidden of you
         give us nerve to obey you this day,
               even where we do not see.
We pray in the name of Jesus who confounds all our tales of misery.
Amen.
--From "Awed to Heaven, Rooted to Earth"

Longing for light

IMG_3073 My friend Ang and I are planning the first monthly community-wide worship service this Friday.  We are also involved in a small church but many people who are our neighbors on the property don't attend church with us.  This has been heartbreaking for many reasons.

But as we ask God to help us reconcile with him, with one another and with creation, we are moved to see that our community is growing in unexpected ways.  The church itself is not growing.  But our community meal-times are nearly bursting with life.

I don't presume to know what God is doing in our church or in this community or beyond us because I believe his glory isn't often visible by our narrow sight.  But we must try to follow where He leads.  So we hope that all of our neighbors will join us in worship this Friday in a time of reflection and longing for the light of Christ, the light that is coming.

In preparation, I've been moved by the hymn Christ be our Light, one that I've sung before but hadn't listened to in the time of Advent.  It is a song of hope and lament, that the world is not yet new, that people still suffer and despair, that the kingdom has not yet come.  In my best days, I believe the church is a mystical place where God is glorified in ways we don't understand and often don't see.  There is God's power and love in our gathering, and I pray that he shines in our hearts and that he moves among us with his light.

1. Longing for light, we wait in darkness. Longing for truth, we turn to you. Make us your own, your holy people, light for the world to see.

Refrain Christ, be our light! Shine in our hearts. Shine through the darkness. Christ, be our light! Shine in your church gathered today.

2. Longing for peace, our world is troubled. Longing for hope, many despair. Your word alone has pow’r to save us. Make us your living voice.

3. Longing for food, many are hungry. Longing for water, many still thirst. Make us your bread, broken for others, shared until all are fed.

4. Longing for shelter, many are homeless. Longing for warmth, many are cold. Make us your building, sheltering others, walls made of living stone.

5. Many the gifts, many the people, many the hearts that yearn to belong. Let us be servants to one another, making your kingdom come.

Some days

I love this song.*  I like the beat, the unapologetically full-voiced declarations and the many-voiced chorus.  But I also like this song because I understand the angst of being pulled between two parts of myself. Some days I'm caught between the beauty of a this recent global vision, where those without voices can finally be heard, and between the voices of those next door.

Some days the words on the screen are a cacophony and I feel my spirit shrinking a little into the sense that I'm not doing enough.  I'm not serving enough. I'm not writing enough. I'm not loving my children enough.  I'm not disciplining them enough.  I'm not strong enough.  I'm not meek enough.

Some days I listen to those I don't know and I ignore the knock at my door.

That's the pity of my excess.  Why can't I love where I'm needed and support those who love where I cannot? Why can't I weep for the women and children in the Congo and care for my hurting neighbor?

Some days I cannot do both.  Somedays I don't have the heart for it.  Maybe my spirit is too selfish.  Maybe no one has the heart.

Some days I do.  When I let go of that which I cannot control.  When I dig deep and turn to face my church, my neighbor, my community, my family, the widow, the orphan and the stranger down the street. When I seek to know where God is creating new things in me rather than wishing He'd do it a little more like He does it in someone else.

But those days are covered with intentional prayer, with action, and with the force of my own will, all the while hoping for a will that's not my own.  Thy will be done.

Some days I know what I stand for.  Those are the days that God and those around me keep my legs strong.

*there is strong language in this song

Old Love

Before I married Farmer, I didn't know any songs by Mary Chapin Carpenter except "Shut up and Kiss Me." I thought she was a silly country singer.  Then one day he played "The Age of Miracles" for me and it made me cry. Her voice is like a strummed cello, vibrations deep and melancholy.  Her lyrics are like Psalms of lament: searching, sometimes hopeful, the poetry of pain to words. Her newest album is one of Farmer's favorites, Ashes and Roses.

One song called "Old Love" is just such a psalm-like poem of longing in sadness and hope, for a love that lasts. Knowing that Chapin Carpenter had herself recently gone through a divorce when she made the album, gives the song an even greater connection to a lament.

This song, of course, makes me think about my relationship with Farmer.  But it also makes me think of the church, the longing we have for reconciled relationships with our brothers and sisters.  The hope that we have that God will connect us in those moments so that love "holds on/ when it's told, love, that all hope is gone."

I want old love, the kind that holds on When it’s told, love, that all hope is gone Against all odds, wagers and prayers To the wall love, to the furthest somewhere

I want old love, the kind that takes years To turn to gold, love, burnished and seared On the high wire, by rain, wind and sun With the hard times forgiven and done*

lyrics from http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/marychapincarpenter/oldlove.html

Lament

Image I just finished reading a post from my friend Jessica.  She tells the terrible story about a predator in the refugee community she works with in Texas.  This man preyed upon children in the community, preyed upon families who were economically and culturally vulnerable.  He knew where to go.

It's devastating and unthinkable.

There is also a story of a man in the history of our community, one who left crippling pain in the wake of his abuse, even decades later.

These stories are so common that it is easy to pass over them until they touch those closest to us: the abuses in churches, the oppression and desolation of war and its fighters and innocents, the stories about children in foreign countries (most recently Syria) who continue to be tortured and killed, genocide, extreme famine and starvation, homeless families and children.

Many of these stories have the most horrifying of victims in common: children.

And we are left to ask, how can God allow children to be hurt, to be sold into sex traffic, to be abused in a foster care system, to be homeless? Where is the beauty in this?

The Psalms are full of laments about the pain of life.

    Why, Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?

In his arrogance the wicked man hunts down the weak, who are caught in the schemes he devises. He boasts about the cravings of his heart...

His victims are crushed, they collapse; they fall under his strength. 11 He says to himself, “God will never notice; he covers his face and never sees." (Ps 10)

I have no answers.  And no matter what anyone says, the Bible doesn't offer answers to these questions either.  Because I don't think the Bible is about answers.  It is about relationships: with God, with each other, with creation, with ourselves and with our enemies, even those who do such terrible things to children.

This is where I see the beauty in such pain:

In the people who refuse to spectate or ignore.

In Jessica's and Caren's rage.  In the strength of the refugee community's men who stand beside them. In the courage of mothers who have left devastating circumstances in their home countries only to be confronted with the chaos of new language, new culture and unfamiliar danger that face their children and families.

In the folks who spend their energy, time and lives to care for those who hurt.  In my friend Angela's work that requires her to read through awful stories of sexual abuse so that she can better educate people about appropriate behavior.

In the fortitude of those who lament their pain and shake their fists at God.

In the God who empties the most precious part of himself for his beloved creatures, even the ones who do terrible things to each other.

I can't believe in a God that doesn't allow us to doubt and question him.  When Job had everything taken from him, you'd better believe he questioned God.  And his friends (Eliaphaz among them), so pious were they, rebuked him for it, telling him how God was beyond questioning.

What was God's response to Job and his friends?

“Do you know when the mountain goats give birth? Do you watch when the doe bears her fawn? Do you count the months till they bear? Do you know the time they give birth? They crouch down and bring forth their young; their labor pains are ended. Their young thrive and grow strong in the wilds; they leave and do not return...

The Lord said to Job:

“Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him? Let him who accuses God answer him!”

Then Job answered the Lord:

“I am unworthy —how can I reply to you? I put my hand over my mouth. I spoke once, but I have no answer — twice, but I will say no more.”

After the Lord had said these things to Job, he said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has...My servant Job will pray for you, and I will accept his prayer and not deal with you according to your folly. You have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has. (Job 39-42)”

God blessed Job for his truth-telling.  For his questions and laments. For they told more truth about God than Job's friends words.**

I pray to have the faith to question the justice of the world and even of God.  And may I add to the beauty with that same rage, courage, work, strength, fortitude and self-emptying.

God protect those little ones.

*image is George Fredric Watts "Hope" from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hope_(painting)

** Idea of God blessing the questions of Job from: A New Kind of Christianity by Brian D McLaren.  I don't endorse all of his book but I like many of the ideas within.