Even Dying Can Be Beautiful

If you follow me on Instagram you're probably fed up with my exclamations of joy over the weather in Texas this year. If you know me in person you are definitely fed up with it. I made people physically get up from their chairs last night to go look at the sunset. I dragged my husband into the nearby golden woodsy area for family photos. I keep going on the same route for my walk every day because the trees are changing so slowly and dramatically and I don't want to miss a single moment of it. 

To understand this delight you must understand that fall in Texas is usually just fell. The trees turn from greenish brown to brown and then all drop in the span of a week. The weather moves from hot as blazes to bone-chilly in about the same time and the whole thing lasts about a month and then it's practically summer again. But not 2017. For all the other rotten state of things in our world, country, and, this week, our state, 2017 went gangbusters on the weather. So, thank you, 2017. We needed this. Humanity needed this. We needed to remember nothing lasts forever and everything beautiful dies in its time, and someday life will come again. 

Autumn is my favorite season. I love the dark mornings and dark evenings. I love the damp smell of leaves. I love the wind. I love the grey days. But I also love the things we do more frequently in autumn. I love dinner by candlelight and wool socks. I love heavier covers on our beds and warmer sheets. Fall bouquets and stews and soups. Give it all to me and I am happy. And, in the spirit of good-will, here are some ways you can enjoy your fall too. 

This habit. When the evening begins to dim by dinnertime, we light candles every night at our table. I prefer beeswax candles because they're better for you + they smell delish. These hand-rolled ones are great, but don't burn nearly as long as these. We have both though. 

This soup. This is a fall staple in our house. It is perfect on day one and day two and even day three if it lasts that long. I could eat soup every day happily, but especially this one. 

This moisturizer. If you're anything like me, once fall hits all the dry skin shows itself. I use a version of this and I love it. The place I get it from has discontinued theirs (plight of many small businesses...), but this one has the same three ingredients. I tried my hand at making body butter last week and so I'm going to attempt making my own version of this soon. I use it every single day on my face, neck, and hands. 

This bread. I make a loaf of this bread at the beginning of the week and it sustains our house-hold of three (two grown men and me) the whole week. You might need to make a double batch if you've got kids. The recipe is in the comments on this link.

This wreath. We haven't got a serious garden this year (aiming for it in 2018), but this little herb wreath is a perfect way to preserve those herbs you grew and you can just pinch off a bit through the winter for your meals. 

This stew. There is nothing better than a good stew on a crisp day. This is one of my favorite recipes, although I substitute Bragg liquid aminos for the soy sauce. 

This pie. I made this pie a few weeks ago and it was gone in less than 12 hours. I'll do a few things differently when I make it next, namely simmer those cranberries down a bit before popping them in with the apples, but otherwise this pie was the perfect fall desert, tart and crisp and buttery goodness. The recipe called for 3/4 cup of sugar, but we like things more tart than sweet, so I halved that. It was perfect for us. 

This bouquet. As much as I love flowers, I love their autumn iterations even more. When I walk I gather bits and pieces of brown and golden and purple and berries and have them in vases throughout our house. They'll last all through the fall since they don't have to be kept in water and they just continue to dry out. Here's some more inspiration. 

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The Hidden Grief of Singleness

I caught myself staring at my husband the other day. Gray is creeping into his full head of hair, small wrinkles forming at the corners of his eyes, a tiny patch of white in his beard. There is a dignity in aging for men, I think to myself, as I think ahead to my next cut and color, dabbing vitamin E oil onto the darkening age spots of my face. Men grow more attractive the older they get and I think women do too, but the world is telling us our bloom came and went, it is time to droop and drop and become the ground from which the next crop will come. 

The name Eve means "the mother of all living," but it does not mean "always mothering all that is living." There is not a woman among us who does not feel the age of fertility closing, the gap between fully alive and to dust we shall return ending. Most of us have a monthly reminder of one more opportunity lost. We are all coming to the last chapter of motherhood, whether we bear children or not. 

I am leaving in a few hours to pick up my oldest friend from the airport. There is no one in the world who knows me as well, as deep, as long, and as wholly as she does. How could anyone, even my husband? She held me through fitful nights after my brother was killed. I have listened to her for years mourn things she cannot control. She was equal parts older sister to my youngest siblings and I to hers. There is no scent in the world as familiar to me as hers. I have always assumed she would marry first. She is cute, vivacious, tiny, adventurous, nurturing, full of life, bringing joy wherever she goes. She gives of herself in every possible manner, always pouring out, never lacking in love to give. I have learned more about motherhood from her than anyone in my life. And yet, she is not married, and I am and it pains me. I physically ache for her in this sometimes. She was made to mother, to be a wife. I don't know anyone made for it more. 

. . .

It occurs to me more and more recently that the barrenness of singleness is a silent pain. In our singleness we feel the lack of a partner often and others' suppose it is our deepest ache. It can be tempting to see it as the only barrier between today and joy. Yet there is another, sometimes more difficult, pain unmarried women face and this is the pain of barrenness. Some find ways around this ache, adopting or fostering children. But for most unmarried women that monthly reminder of aging reminds them again and again that time is running out. Men can prolong marriage as long as they like, but women know there is a deadline and it is half of a man's life-span. Men wonder why, sometimes, some women are anxious to be united? It is no mystery to me: we are dealing with only half the time and must move doubly fast if we are to become mothers of what is living. 

The older I grow, and the more familiar I grow with my own body's failure to make and hold a child, the more I talk to my unmarried friends, the more I hear it is not the lack of a partner that pains or has pained us all most, it is the lack of motherhood. 

There is a very real ache for children that cannot be replaced by mentoring, discipleship, practicing hospitality. Nothing can be substituted for hearing the words "Mama" or "Daddy" from the lips of a child. Yet, I think, we cannot look at the substance of our being mothers as only within the gift of children. Nurturing others is not some consolation prize for the barren, it is the call for every Christian. Our problem is not that we are being withheld from, it is that we view the gift of nurturing too narrowly. We think it is only—and best—done with children we bear, but that is not the call to the New Testament family. In the Old Testament the family of God was nuclear and extended, but limited to one lineage. In the New Testament, the family of God is corporate and available to all, mothers and fathers and sons and daughters and brothers and sisters—this is the language of the New Testament Christian. We are all family now. 

Eve was created to be a helpmeet, but she was named to be a mother. She was called to a man, but called mother. Her very identity, the way she specifically imaged God, was to conceive, birth, mother, nurture, grow, care for, and gather her offspring to herself. We may feel called to marriage (even if we have not been given the gift of it yet), but our identity, our substance, who we are is not some future event: it is now. Mother. Now. 

If you are unmarried today and the secret pain of barrenness haunts you, I want to encourage you to face that pain. It is a very real and legitimate ache. You were made to ache for this. A friend of mine talked recently about how the pain of singleness/barrenness doesn't haunt her, but sometimes it hits her and I loved that. I think God wants all of us, regardless of our season in life, to be hit by true, real, and good longings, but not be haunted by them. This friend went on to talk about a situation in which I've found myself too: buying a baby gift for a friend and going out to her car in tears. 

John Piper said, "Occasionally, weep deeply over the life that you hoped would be. Grieve the losses. Feel the pain. Then wash your face, trust God, and embrace the life that he’s given you."

The Bible gives us permission to weep deeply over the life we hoped we would have, and to not feel ashamed of that hope or disappointment. It is okay to grieve those losses and feel that pain. Go out to your car armed with tiny onesies you just bought for your friend, the scent of powder and sweet baby things still on you, and weep, cry hard aching sobs. You were made to mother. You are built for it. And it is not happening for you right now. And that is sad. Deeply sad. And that is okay. Really okay. 

. . .

I'll pick up my friend today, my oldest and dearest friend, and for the next ten days we will do all the things we love to do together, make, create, laugh, cry, be, dream, cook, talk, or not. She will nurture me and I will hopefully nurture her. It is our identity to do so. We are daughters of the post-fall Eve, bodies broken, dreams unrealized, fears alive, but we are also the daughters of pre-fall Eve, imaging God, tending to life, nurturing growth, mothers of what is living. 

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Living the Whole Life

I am working through two books concurrently (three, if you count fiction, which I do, but not for today's purposes). One is Eugene Peterson's As Kingfishers Catch Fire and the other is Curt Thompson's The Soul of Shame. Both were gifts to me from friends who read them and knew I would need them or love them, or both. 

For many years I thought of myself first as an artist, a spinner of words. I lived in a place full of natural beauty, with never enough words to describe the way the blue heron dipped his head into the quiet riverbed, amidst lily pods and sodden sea grass. Waterfalls and mountains and quiet piney woods and apple orchards were mere minutes away, ripe for inspiration. I drew my cues from poetry and the contemplative. 

Then I moved to the other side of the country and my mind began to be captured by the intellect of theology, ideas, concepts, and I began to think of myself as a thinker, and lost the artist within. I was valued for my mind and ideas, and less valued for art. And I thought myself okay with this because I thought intellect was better than art. 

A friend turned 30 a few weeks ago and felt the things we all feel when we pass a marker in life: fear, anxiety, inadequacy, the question of "Have I wasted my life?" I remember feeling all of those same things on the eve of my 30th and in some ways those feelings have increased, but really it's just that I think myself more aware of their presence and less aware of their power. Turning 30 was hard, but being 30 wasn't. There is hopefully a settling sense of growth, maturity, and the temporality of life that no longer frightens you as much as invigorates you. If being in my 40s or 50s or 60s only brings an increase of that, I await it eagerly. Age brings the disparate pieces back together again, I think, or it should. All the scattered feelings and identities and questions come more into focus with a quiet, settled yes.

So I am reading Peterson and Thompson and both of them wrote about the union of these disparate pieces, namely the body, spirit, heart, and mind. How when we only address one of these, or address it more than the others, we begin to live lopsided lives. I am thinking of a man who skips leg day at the gym, whose body is strong on top and meager on the bottom. Or a comic illustration I saw many years ago of a man who only lifted weights with one arm so it was bulky and disordered from the other which was skinny and limp. We laugh because it's laughable but we also do it more than we like to admit. At least I do. I exercise my mind because it's easier than exercising my body. I engage my spirit because it's easier than engaging my mind. I entreat my body because it's easier than giving my heart. I am lopsided piecemeal. 

The growing awareness of these malnourished pieces came into focus over the past year in the void of anything to feed them (affirmation is such a powerful feast and we are such hungry paupers). We have been trying to begin seeing ourselves as whole creations intended for wholeness, instead of limping along at breakneck speeds without the equal use of our limbs. What does it mean to slow the growth of one part of us, in order to give attention to another? What does it mean to set aside the mind for the flourishing of the spirit, or to prioritize the health of the body when the spirit is strong? Not to neglect the other at its own peril, but to acknowledge that we are more than one appendage and therefore must attend to all of them? 

We are by nature legalists, always adding to the laws of God because we fear he will overlook us otherwise. But what does it mean to trust the Creator made us for wholeness and not half-ness? I cannot answer that for you and most of the time cannot even answer it for me. It takes time and trust and some times are easier than others. But I know I want it. 

I wonder, sometimes, if one of the reasons we're constantly searching for meaning in everything is because we're discontent with our under-exercised limbs. I read this recently and it's funny because it's true: 

"It’s easy to believe that if we look good enough, perhaps it might be true that our lives are meaningful or even blessed. Everywhere we go, we can see evidence of this. Walking along the Seine, one sees dozens of people from all over the world standing with their backs to the view, smiling hopefully up at their iPhones. Millions of selfie sticks are purchased out of hope and fear."

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in my car waiting for someone and a girl sat on a park bench alone nearby. For nearly twenty minutes she posed herself with her phone camera, shooting image after image, and deleting, I'm sure, all but one. There were probably wrinkles or glints of light or too much chin or not enough hair or someone in the background or any number of reasons why being a whole person with wrinkles and frizzy hair and among others would not do for her. I don't know her, but I wanted to sit with her, make conversation, distract her from the myth of Narcissist inside her for one moment. Tell her she is not less than a body, but that she is certainly more than one. 

Someone asked me recently how we help young teens not obsess about perfection and I don't know the answer. I think it starts with teaching them they are whole people, whole image bearers, that their hearts, souls, minds, and bodies are all made by God and he called all of creation good. I think that's where we start, by not neglecting what God called good—even if it's frightening to engage. I don't know what you'll find there, when you begin to stop counting calories and running incessantly, when you begin to engage your mind instead of only your body. I don't know what will happen when you set aside the books and papers and themes and dig out the painful occurrences of your childhood, ways your spirit was crushed and hasn't ever recovered. 

Yesterday morning I sat on the couch with my husband and confessed some shame I've been feeling about something that happened when I was nine years old. I had wronged and been wronged and couldn't differentiate the shame I felt from doing wrong and being wronged in the same scenario. All I knew is, years later, confessions later, I still feel the clinging shame of those moments. Most of that is because I've neglected that space, have been afraid to enter into it for fear of what I'll find there. It's easier to engage my mind or my body than it is to open the door to my heart. But I must go there, I know I must, because wholeness cannot happen when only half-ness thrives. 

And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:28-31

Lifting the Hands that Hang Down

I'm an internal processor and, I suspect like most internal processors, prefer stillness and the ministry of presence when I'm suffering or confused or in pain. I don't run to a multitude of counselors or need to process my feelings with seven to ten friends or even more than one. I don't like hearing platitudes or trite cliches. Getting preached at or rebuked in the midst of pain only shuts me down further. What I desire is the gift of presence. 

This can be a hard gift to give though because we're a fix it quick culture, even within the church. We want to answer, minister, heal, advise, counsel, and find the fastest way through the searing loss. 

A story I've gone back to again and again and again in the past two years is the man who saw men as trees walking. I find such comfort in the half-way healing of a blind man. Jesus completed the healing and it wasn't his intention to leave the man with incomplete sight, but for some reason, he did not heal him completely immediately. I am fascinated with this Jesus. What is Jesus trying to say about himself in that moment? What aspect of his character did he want the man and those standing around to see? The thing I keep coming back to is this: Jesus completes the work, but the timing isn't always what we expect. I've quoted this before, but Zack Eswine says, "It's not our job to finish what Jesus has left unfinished." So much of our Christianese platitudes are just that: trying to wrap up, seal, heal, and solidify what Jesus is still in the process of working in. 

We all know someone today who is suffering in some way. Perhaps a physical ailment, or walking through a confusing situation, or who just lost someone special. I know, for me, the past two years have been rote with suffering and a lot of it was the sort people don't look at as the Real Suffering. Moving cross-country three times, miscarrying, my husband's job loss, confusion about church situations, losing 100k on our house sale, witnessing the shooting of a police-officer and then living in a city where we heard gunshots weekly for a year, it felt like everywhere I looked I saw dimly, mere shapes of what was real, but not anything solid or real or hope-inducing. There was no one thing that I could point to and say, "This is what hurts." Everything hurt. Everything was tender. Everything was painful to touch or even talk about. 

In those spaces, a few friends gave me the gift of presence and it made such a difference for me. I knew the truth of the gospel and the Word of God. What I didn't need was to be pounded over the head with things I knew were true, but which didn't feel true. There were plenty of counselors and advisers and good-idea-givers, lots of times I said things rote with confusion and was met with less than empathy, many moments of sadness and awkward silence. But what meant the most, looking back, was: 

The gift of flowers or a plant.

A note in the mail or under my office door.

An offer to drop a meal off at my house.

A drive out of the cities and into the mountains or country together.

Someone who simply listened, who wept when I did. 

A good, long hug

An envelope full of cards, gift-cards, and money. 

These might have seemed a small thing to the givers, but they meant paramount things to us in the moment. They were the ministry of presence to us in a time when nothing could fix all that felt broken except Jesus—who for our good and his glory had left those things unfixed for that moment. 

Here's my encouragement to you today (and some I gave to myself this morning regarding a few friends): think of a few friends who are suffering, maybe (especially?) suffering silently, and give them the gift of presence. It's really easy to lavish gifts on people who have success, lots of notice, are surrounded by hordes of people, where you know your gift will be Instagrammed and given shout-out about on social media. Something in our flesh loves to give more to those people for some reason. I'm not sure why. But those quiet sufferers might need it more today. That bouquet of flowers showing up anonymously or with a card simply stated they're loved and seen, or that tight hug in a hallway or coffee shop, or the offer to just drive an hour or two away from it all for a bit—these things mean more than most of us can know from our relative place of peace and joy.

Sometimes we can't lift our own drooping hands or strengthen our weak knees, and we need the Church to come alongside us and help. I'm praying if you need that today, someone sees, and if you can be that today, you are. 

Distracted Devotion: The Divided Attentions of Marriage

A month ago I messaged our pastor after his first sermon in a series of three on marriage and said, "Really great sermon. Will there be one on the value and need of singleness?" He replied quickly it was in the line-up and yesterday it was delivered. It was the sermon I had wished to hear in my years of singleness at The Village and it was a sermon I was grateful my counterparts were hearing (both married and un-married). Matt read me the draft before he preached it, deferring to the challenges I gave him, and I know from several others he did the same with them. One of the reasons I love being back here is because we have a pastor who listens to his people and doesn't need to be the final arbiter on anything. The result, for this sermon and any other, really, was it was staunchly Biblical, full of encouragement, and humble in delivery. 

I wanted to walk away full of renewed hope for my unmarried sisters and brothers, and hope for my married friends too, that we would all walk forward energized, excited, and truly commissioned for work together. But only a few minutes into the sermon, Matt read from I Corinthians 7:32-35, and I felt sick inside. I know this Scripture. I know it backwards and forwards. I committed my life to knowing it and living it and embodying it in my singleness. I was anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please him in body and spirit. I was determined to be undistracted by the things of this world. Determined to serve the Church and my church fully. Determined to be wholly committed to this gift of singleness. I had good days and bad ones, but I can honestly say as I faced my groom on our wedding day, I had tried to be obedient and faithful and had no regrets. 

But since marriage? Friend. It has been two years of piling regrets, piling shame, and piling guilt. I have not known how to receive this gift of marriage as a gift. I have not known how to draw my eyes in from my previous breadth of ministry to the current depth of it. To "care for the concerns of my home," seems to be the antithesis of all I spent my life on before. To "be anxious about the things of this world," seems to be the opposite of the call I tried to fill. To "please a husband," seems to shout of everything I tried not to do in my singleness—craft myself into a man-pleasing woman. 

I have known this tearing of my ontological self to be happening, but I have tried and tried to somehow make both true. I have tried to make the aim to be anxious about the Lord and the world, how to please the Lord and please my husband, and the tearing feels so incomplete still.

I have said before that marriage is not the most sanctifying thing and that for some singleness may be their most sanctifying thing. I have also said the sanctification that happens in marriage is different than the kind that happens in singleness, and this verse in I Corinthians, so often my aim in my singleness, describes the different better than I could. I used to judge married folks for being so worldly minded, more concerned about their homes and husbands and kid's schedules than the Wide World Out There. But yesterday in church, I felt the pit of conviction grow large in my innards. It isn't disobedience to be concerned with the things of this world. It's different, but not disobedience. 

Maybe some of you long married folks are shaking your heads at me, rolling your eyes, and maybe you unmarried folks are desperate for the trade, but as for me, I'm wondering how long oh Lord? How long, I asked Nate in the car on the way home yesterday, will this process be painful for me? It has truly felt like I'm being ripped apart inside as I learn to turn my gaze inward, focus on pleasing my husband and working in our home, seeking to honor the Lord in a different context.

How long will it hurt? How long will it feel like a loss? I asked Nate. 

I don't think he answered, not directly at least, he rarely does. My husband is a question asker to my questions, leading me to the water of life and washing me in it. It will hurt as long as we live in this world and call ourselves Jesus-followers, I think. Since creation we've been turning our gaze from what is best and setting it on the things of this world. It's not all wrong, though, and I saw that yesterday in I Corinthians 7. 

My favorite poem, one I've quoted here so often I hope you all know it as well as I do now, is called Love Calls Us to the Things of this World, and it is about laundry, billowing, blowing, and clear dances done in the sight of heaven. I weep every time I read it because it reminds me of how much work it is to love, truly love. The real substance of love is not only the being, but the doing. The being loved is dependent on the other, but the doing of love is on me, with the Spirit's help. And right now, as long as I am married, God, who is love, has called me to the things of this world, how I may please my husband. It is a different call, and one I am not quite comfortable in, and may never be, but it is my call. And it is good. 

I think perhaps we all have grass is greener moments. I know there were plenty of times in my singleness when I wanted the breadth of my life to be shrinked to a singular depth—to a man, and thought it would be better than what I had. And I know there are some who wish to be free of the constraints of marriage and children (and laundry if we're honest). And maybe there are some of you who are so comfortably settled in this day and gift in which you live that you never dream of the other. I don't know where you are today, but I do know it is the gift you've been given for today. As our dear old Elisabeth said, "God still holds tomorrow."