Beholding Beauty in All Its Forms

When God created his people, he put them in a garden. Before he gave the mandate to work, to be fruitful and multiply, he set them in the center of beauty, goodness, and life. It is almost as if he wanted them to be primarily people who beheld rather than produced. It didn't take long for the beauty of the best to be thwarted by the enemy though, and so absorption of the self instead of the Creator has been stealing our gaze ever since. We are still all worshippers though, some of us blindly and some of us perennially reminded to lift our eyes to a better hill, one from which our help comes. The temptation to produce our own glory instead of absorbing the glory God wants us to behold is always near to us and we must become experts in bouncing our gazes back to him. 

Here are some (hopefully) true and beautiful and good words I've read, said, listened to, and feasted upon this week. 

Listen

We listened to this short talk from Andy Crouch this past week about high friction and low friction and I cannot recommend it more highly. It has been ringing in our ears for over a week now. 

Beau Hughes is the pastor of The Village Church Denton (once a campus of my church, now a plant of it), and he shared these words with us last week. It was one of my favorite testimonies in my near ten years at TVC. 

I spoke with my friend Christine Hoover about her new book, Searching for Spring, and my own journey with waiting for marriage, babies, and just all things slow coming

Sing

This album is coming soon from Audrey Assad and you're going to want to feast on it. 

Sandra McCracken just released her newest and it's the perfect Lenten soundtrack. 

This album has been going nearly non-stop in our house the past week. 

Short Reads

This interview with Karen Swallor Prior and her husband Roy is one of the best things I read online this week. Take a few minutes and feast on it. 

A few months ago Eric Schumacher sent me the draft for this article at Risen Motherhood. It was just before our most recent miscarriage and what a blessing for both Nate and me to read. 

My friend Tony Woodlief is (thank God) writing more regularly again. This piece on parenting his new twin boys in this season of life is rich, rich, rich. Read through to the end. We all need this reminder. 

Long Reads

Nate and I have been dreaming of a big backyard garden since we first saw our property in Denver. It hasn't come to fruition yet, but we're still dreaming. This book is helping

This is a memoir written by an upstate New York farmer. She's from one side of the Adirondacks and I'm from the other, but the culture, weather, farming, people, and anecdotes are all very similar. I loved this book. 

I first read this book in high school and started rereading it again last week. I'd forgotten how perfect it is. 

. . .

I hope you find some beauty in some of these recommendations or other sources you find on your own. I hope you can still your own hand of production long enough to appreciate the gifts, minds, and works of others. And I hope, more than all that, you can lift your gaze to the good, good Father who gives every good and perfect gift in its right and perfect time and never one single moment before. 

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Gathering Seashells and a Wasted Life

One of the spaces on the Internet that is quickly becoming my favorite is Fathom Magazine, a once a month online publication doing everything with excellence. They've been asking me to contribute for a while, and I finally did a few weeks ago. My piece Gather Your Seashells While Ye May went live yesterday with their February issue. In it, I try to navigate the waters of the "Don't Waste Your Life" movement and how it has crippled us more than freed us.

Here is an excerpt and I hope you'll click through to read the whole piece

It is nearly twenty years now since a strange tincture of fear and passion filled the hearts of my fellowmen and me. We heard the the cry of Don’t Waste Your Life, it took root, has been proven, and has been found wanting. Life, it seems, won’t be wasted, no matter how hard we’ve convinced ourselves it might.

I, along with hundreds of thousands of other college students from all over the world, listened as a midwestern pastor by the name of John Piper put something like the fear of God in us. His illustration of a retired couple spending their last years traveling around the United States and collecting seashells—and his call to not be like them, to not waste our lives—rattled us. His book by the same title circulates among the same demographic still, swelling the hearts and minds of young people who still fear their lives may only be mere drops in an ocean instead of the crest of a tsunami of change.

To waste a life gathering seashells has become the joke tinged with a little bit of fear that it might become us someday if we don’t stay sober-minded and radical at the same time. 

A few months ago my husband and I visited my family who live near the sugar-white sand of the Gulf of Mexico. He and I took off our shoes and ran down the beach to dip our toes in the clear and turquoise blue waters. We spread our fleece jackets on the ground and sat there for an hour. The waves reached the shore and faded back into blue, leaving behind an almost perfect line of cracked shells on the squeaky sand.

He gathered a few white and orange and speckled brown ones and put them in his pocket to keep. We listened to the roar of the water, the fishermen to our left, and the gulls over us, the squeak of runners on sand behind us. We magnified the Lord because he created all of it for his glory, but also for our good—because what is beauty if not the best good we can find on earth? And then we stood up, shook our jackets, walked slowly back to the dunes, found our shoes, and left. 

The fear of a wasted life still rings in my ears along with the waves of the sea, but twenty years have not only aged me—they have matured me. Our collective parents (whose lives, our naïve twenty-something minds thought, were surely being wasted) are growing old now, surrounding themselves with trinkets and grandchildren and memories as long as they can hold them. Is this, we think, what we once thought of as a wasted life? This age, this wisdom, this seasoned life, better with age and tougher too, hardened by suffering, softened with blows, the ones for whom eternity grows sweeter still? Dare I call this a wasted life?

Continue reading...

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Ministry in Rural Places Matters

I wanted to tell you a story today because it's a story I remind myself of often. It will require a little bit of back-story, and some details about my most formative years, but I will try my best to be succinct and clear and honoring because what the world doesn't need is another tell-all. 

When I was seventeen years old I came home for a weekend from the summer wilderness camp where I was working. I was in the passenger seat of my parent's car and we were driving up the long driveway to our home in the wooded and beautiful Bucks County, PA, and just as the woods were clearing and the house was coming into view, my parent told me we were moving. They had been looking at property six hours north, a few miles from Canada, where they could buy a farm on two-hundred acres with cash after our home was sold in PA.

That's the short version. Sometime later—I can't remember exactly, but not long in my recollection, we all piled into our vehicle (all seven kids at the time and our parents) and made the trek northward. The trees began to grow shorter, the fields bigger, the air thinner, and the temperatures colder. It was the year after an ice-storm that had left most of that part of the country without power for weeks and the trees looked like someone had taken a scythe to them all at the same level—iced tips had grown heavy and broken them off. It looked desolate to me. I loved our home in PA. This place looked like a land headed into a deep, long frost, full of strange people with strange accents and dilapidated houses and shut down farms and cheap land. It looked less like a Promised Land and more like a place of mass exodus. 

Somehow my parents had gotten connected with some folks who had also moved from Pennsylvania a few years earlier. They had no history of farming, sustainability, food preservation, healing the land, or any of the aspirations my parents also had, and yet they were doing it, one field, one animal, one jar of canned beets at a time. We pulled onto the dirt road leading to their home and I didn't know it then, but I was about to meet two people who never pretended to know where they were going, but showed me the way just the same. 

We spent a few days with this family, looking at farms all over the county, and when we ended up buying one, it was less than two miles from this original homestead. They became our friends. They became our only friends. He was a musician, she was an artist (and neither of them your run of the mill either—both wildly talented from the art scene of Cincinnati). Their children worn linen and denim and bare feet and there was this wild freedom that existed in their home. It wasn't without restraint, that's not what I mean, but just this beautiful sort of room to stretch and grow and dialogue and think for yourself and always the word Gospel, which was a word I didn't understand as they used it. I knew the gospel as a thing old men in suits or young men with chic-tracks or old women with felt-boards used it, "Believe the gospel and ask Jesus into your heart," sort of way. But after the asking of Jesus into your heart happened, there seemed to be no use in my world for the gospel again. 

But these folks talked about gospel as if it were a thing alive and real and for today, a thing that could change you today and today and today and today and tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow and forever. There was no end to the richness of this gospel of which they spoke. They used it as fluidly as they quoted Wendell Berry and talked about grass farming and creation care and this was before any of this was cool. They were just up here in the middle of nowhere on a few hundred acres trying to live faithfully in the context God had put them, and that's where I met them. 

I have hundreds of examples to give you of how they became, for me, a bedrock of certainty. When my brother was killed, Paula was at our house immediately. Rick spent the morning on the phone with the organ donors. When my parents split, Paula listened to me cry and process. Rick helped my brothers learn the work of manhood wasn't limited to work of the hands but work of the heart. When I struggled with the theology of the church we all went to, Paula helped me parse it, process it, and always, always, always used the word Gospel in this strange way that still felt awkward and crumbly in my mouth. Rick was the first person who ever married the burning of creation care in me with the word of God—helping me see the creation mandate wasn't simply to marry and have babies, but to live on the earth as stewards, small-c-creators, subduers but not abusers. They are some of the deepest thinkers I know and without question, the hardest workers. Nothing is uninspected, no aspect of church, theology, politics, farming, culture, or art. 

Eventually, many of you know the story, I left that place, disillusioned, disheartened, sure that what I understood to be the message of the Church was not something I was willing to stake my life on anymore. But the curious use of the word gospel never left me. There was something about the theology this family read that grabbed ahold of me, stuck to me, there was something of truth in this way of being. Vulnerable and true, faithful and humble, away from the three point sermons and clever acronyms to dictate how to date or how to commit or how to have a healthy church or how to do anything Christians were supposed to do. There was life in this way of thinking and I wanted it. I wanted it desperately. 

That wanting led me to Texas and to a culture that uses the word Gospel ad nauseum, so commonly it's almost as if it's another word like taco or elevator or mushroom. Just a word we insert into every sentence in order to remind us of its great power—a power I once did not know it had and a power I am prone to still forgetting every day. But I have never forgotten this family who still lives on a couple hundred acres in upstate New York, whose farm has grown and still stayed small, whose children have spread their wings and flown, and at whose table I sat this past year talking while Paula canned beets at the end of summer. 

Whenever I think about who I want to be when I grow up, especially as I am now the age Paula was when I first met her, I think about them. There are bits of the story that might change (dairy farming, upstate New York), but the overarching principles stay the same: faithfulness for the long haul in quiet, unseen, wild, difficult places. 

I wanted to share this story for a few reasons, and I know it's long and I hope you've borne with me. More and more there is a felt urgency toward planting churches in the city. It seems every week another article goes up on the Big Name Blogs with ten reasons to live in the city, five reasons to plant in the city, twenty-five reasons why the city is better for your kids, and so on. And every time I read those articles, I feel a little ache inside, because the crossroads of my life happened on a remote farmstead in a town of 800 people in a place of mass exodus to The City in a state known mainly for its city. The trajectory of my life was altered in a profound way not by people who used clever acronyms or ten steps to anything, but who woke each morning, lit the wood stove, drank black fair trade coffee in the still dark morning, and who put one foot in front of another in a day of faithfulness. They are those of whom the world is not worthy and if I didn't tell you their names in this piece, you would never hear of them. 

And that matters. 

They matter. 

I know, refugees and multi-cultural endeavors, and millions of people in big cities matter too, but people in small places matter too and the ripple effect of their lives can reach millions too. I said to Nate last night that I do not want to think highly of myself, but I am here and writing this today and being read by you and thousands of others because of their faithfulness. Because the word Gospel was not forgotten or overused but a real, living, life-changing word and it changed mine.

The Internet is a beautiful thing (or can be) and I don't know where you're reading this from today. Perhaps you live in a city and have a quiet pulsing desire for ministry in the rural context. Perhaps you're already in a rural context and feel at times like your ministry there is void or small or unnoticed. Or perhaps you're of the "city is better" mindset and can't see the worth of rural ministry because the numbers don't add up. I don't know. I guess I just wanted to say that someone sees you. Someone sees your faithfulness. Someone sees the faithfulness of those rural folks. And it matters. It mattered and matters to me. I am a life that was changed by it. I thank them for it regularly and they are humble and so it seems like no big thing to them, but to me, it matters. To God, it matters. And if it matters to someone, it should matter to everyone, however insignificantly, it should matter.  

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Counseling and the "Inconsolable Things"

If you ever get the chance to pay someone $100+ dollars to sit across from you and tell you all the things you're doing wrong and call it counseling, I suggest you do. It sounds like a lose-lose, but I promise if the counselor is good (and mine is), it will be worth every penny. You would think you would leave a room like that poorer both in money and in strength, but the truth is the money is an investment for the aching muscles you're exercising. It's like the gym for your soul. You stretch, you grow, you ache, you get stronger. That's the hope anyway. 

I've been learning, for example, that most of my life has been spent trying to do two things. The first is protect myself and others from bad experiences (or what I perceive to be bad), so much so that I want to rewrite the story as it's happening, tying myself into a pretzel if it will make them feel better until I get eaten alive. The second is that what I have always thought to be a disposition toward patience and long-suffering is actually particular species of passivity and avoidance. Counseling is glorious, I tell you. 

Like the gym, though, all these sudden realizations about weak muscles eventually become realizations that you're stronger than you think you are while also realizing you're a lot weaker than you think you are. It's this beautiful conundrum and I still don't know how it works. I confess I'm weak and I can't make everyone's story more beautiful and, in that, I find the Spirit strengthening me to be faithful to whatever story He has for me. I know I must seem daft to have not known this before, but counseling, I tell you. 

Zack Eswine has written about the "inconsolable things," his book: Sensing Jesus (Which you can no long buy, but you can purchase The Imperfect Pastor which is a tightened, more polished version of it. Though I will always have the softest spot in my heart for the original, less polished sort.). I wanted to share them with you today in hopes that they encourage you like they've encouraged me. 

“Inconsolable things” are the sins and miseries that will not be eradicated until heaven comes home, the things that only Jesus, and no one of us, can overcome. We cannot expect to change what Jesus has left unfixed for the moment. The presence of inconsolable things does not mean the absence of Jesus’ power, however. Rather, it establishes the context for it. There in the midst of what is inconsolable to us, the true unique nature and quality of Jesus’s  power shows itself to be unlike any other power we have seen.

This is what I mean. Jesus teaches us that the faith of a mustard seed can move a mountain. “Nothing will be impossible for you” (Matt. 17:20). So we bring faith to what troubles us. And according to Jesus it would seem that there is nothing in the world that we can’t fix if we just have the smallest seed of faith.

But this is not the conclusion Jesus draws for us. This challenges our Herodian ideas. Though nothing will be impossible for us with faith, “you always have the poor with you,” Jesus says (Matt. 26:11). The paradox emerges. When it comes to poverty, there is no knockout punch or decision in your favor. You must step into the ring with faith, knowing that you will not win in the way you want to. Faith takes its stand amid an unremoved trouble.

The inconsolable things, therefore, are identified first by the “cannots” of Jesus’s teaching. These things he identifies as impossible for any human being. For example, no matter who we are, “no one can serve two masters,” no one (Matt. 6:24). Even if we are wise and knowledgeable by his grace, there are still things and seasons in our lives that we “cannot bear… now” (John 16:12). No matter how strong a will a person has, “the branch cannot bear fruit by itself” (John 15:4). No matter how many oaths we take or how much we spin words into boast, we “cannot make one hair black or white,” Jesus says (Matt. 5:36).

These cannots from Jesus teach us that sickness, death, poverty, and the sin that bores into and infests the human being will not be removed on the basis of any human effort, no matter how strong, godly, or wise that effort is. The power to give this salvation is inconsolable as it relates to us. We cannot give people the new birth with God (John 3:3-5). We cannot justify someone, make her righteous, sanctify her, give her adoption, convict her of sin, or change her heart (Luke 19:27; 1 Cor. 12:3).

This presence of inconsolable things reminds us that healing is not the same as heaven. Miracles are real and powerful, but they do not remove the inconsolable things. Those whose leprosy Jesus healed coughed again or skinned their elbows. Those who were blind but now able to see could still get a speck of burning sand stuck in their eye. The formerly lame could still fall and break their leg. Lazarus was raised from the dead only to find his resumed life filled with death threats. Moreover, the raised friend of Jesus would die again someday, along with this company of the healed. Bodily healing in this world is not heaven. Sickness and death are inconsolable things. Their healing reveals Jesus but does not remove sickness or death from life under the sun. A soldier survives combat only to die in a car accident on the way home (or forty years later of cancer). Miracles never remove our need for Jesus.

In my first pastorate we began to make ourselves available as elders once a quarter on a Sunday evening. Our intention was to invite people to what James teaches us in his letter about coming to the elders when sick for prayer and anointing with oil (James 5:13-15). During those seasons of prayer and worship nearly everyone was nourished and encouraged in their faith. A handful of them were even healed. I remember a young girl whose eyes were fading into blindness. The doctors that week were astonished to learn that the cause of the trouble had disappeared. We all rejoiced in amazement and gave thanks to Jesus. I still do. The peace he gives is a sign, as we will see in a moment, that he is here.

Yet, Joni’s healed eyes did not remove eye disease or blindness from the world. Healed eyes humbled us into tears of gratitude, but this did not mean that Joni’s life was no heaven or that ours was. She was still a middle-school girl within a lovely but broken family, with all the realities of a fallen world and an untamed heart. So were we. It’s like being a hero. the moment the hero rushed into the burning home to save a young boy resounds with a sacred dignity. At the same time, we know that buildings still burn. The little boy still has a whole life ahead of him of grace and joy but also of ache and inconsolable things. The hero himself still lives on too for another forty years. But heroes aren’t always so, as a long life of broken moments reminds each of us.

Inconsolable things reveal and refer to the ache that exists in every created thing and within even those who have the Spirit of God (Rom. 8:18-23). There is an ache within us that will remain even if what ails on the porch is blessedly mended. Jesus demonstrated there are some things he did not change but left as they were for a time, until he comes. We minister the peace of Jesus amid the troubling unremoved. He walks there with us and leads us through. Jesus empowers us to resist both adding to the damage and hastily trying to do what only Jesus can.

I've read this passage in Sensing Jesus ten or more times and know it cognitively, but there is coming to me a real, deep, painful change inside me in recent months. It both empowers me to say, "I cannot" and frees me to trust that sometimes faithfulness for me is simply obeying without the pretty ending here on earth. If that's you too, I'm praying for you today, that we would rest knowing we exist in the Already/Not yet of the kingdom. That Christ has come but he has left some things still unconsoled and he is coming again. 

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Seasons, Readings, Writings, and Thanksgivings

I've been a bit MIA around these parts lately. Part of that is due to our month long fast and the other things my fingers found to keep busy. Part of that is just that it's winter and winter, for me, has always been a hibernation time. I think God created the seasons for a reason and he means for us to live into them instead of living into the seasons we make for ourselves. I think part of the reason our world is so tired and hurried and anxious is because we are constantly trying to force unnatural rhythms onto life. We take vacations in the summer and fill our autumns and winters with activities galore, never minding that God designed summer for growth, autumn for harvest, winter for rest, and spring for planting. If we were to truly live into those seasons just as they are, I think we would be less prone to throw around words like "contentment" or "season of life" or "exhausted" as lazily as we do. God meant for winter to slow us down, to slow our production, to sometimes cease our growth, and to let dead things die if they must. And none of that is bad. It's just our perspective that needs to change. 

Also, though, I've been sick the past week and it's easy to talk about hibernating when you can't breathe out of your nose or your mouth and when your head feels like it's under twenty feet of water. So there's that. But also, seasons. 

I read a lot throughout January and although most of my reading wasn't online, I did read a few pieces I wanted to share with you. They might interest you too: 

I cut this one out of our Sunday Times and taped it to our fridge I loved it so much. The Poet of Light by Christian Wiman on Richard Wilbur

If you've seen Look & See: a portrait of Wendell Berry, then you probably had the same complaint I did: we hardly saw anything of Berry himself! But something I loved about the documentary was the delightful presence of his wife. Here's an article on her that made me want to be a wife like she is

This was a quiet podcast for a quiet evening, both of which I quite enjoyed. Krista Tippett interviewed John O'Donohue for OnBeing

Speakings of podcasts, Nate and I worked through this series from Beau Hughes (The Village Church, Denton) on shame. I cannot recommend it more highly. 

I hope you took a few minutes to read Rachel Denhollander's words at the conclusion of the Larry Nassar trial. This is a great follow-up interview at Christianity Today with her

I subscribe to Poetry Foundation's Poem of the Day feed and you might want to as well. Listening to poetry is such a good discipline. Reading it is fine and good too, of course, but poetry is lyrical and best experienced heard. 

Also, I just wanted to say a heartfelt thank you to all of you who support Sayable on Patreon and who have downloaded the e-books. I have gotten so many messages from you saying you're being encouraged by the work there. That means so much to me. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

I am only 30 away from 200 supporters on Patreon, at which point I'll be starting to coach a small writing group. Details about it will come after that point, but I will say there will be an application process and it will be opened first to Patreon supporters. I will only be able to invite 20 people into the group (which will last between 12-16 weeks, still undecided on that), so if you are at all interested you'll need to begin preparing a 300 word non-fiction writing sample (on anything). There will be a cost for participation in the group, but it won't be astronomical, just to cover my time coaching. I read through my tentative plan to Nate last week and started getting pretty excited about this endeavor. Everything we'll be doing has been part of my process of becoming a better writer, thinker, and receiver of criticism. I hope it helps each of you as well. Again, more details on that after we reach 200. Grateful for each of you. 

View from the sickbay. Harper is under there somewhere...and Nate, I think. 

View from the sickbay. Harper is under there somewhere...and Nate, I think.