After 32 Months of Marriage

Collin and I are celebrating our third anniversary. Earlier this year, I wrote the below poem for Collin. I’ve been writing quite a lot of poetry lately. Perhaps because I read and edit essays all day, my words are coming in more concise forms. I don’t yet trust the Internet with my poetry, which is embarrassingly simple and, I believe, needs much refining before it’s presentable. This one is quite straightforward, so I’m going to share it.

I’m conflicted also about how to represent our marriage online. Social media have created a climate of extreme sentiment and celebration. Those are good parts of the human experience, but they aren’t everything. I fear that all the smiley, sweet photos of us present a distorted impression of our marriage. It’s dark and very difficult at times. I think you can hear even in this poem that it’s a lovely but solemn business. I’m thankful that the best things in life are too complex to be represented online, and as with my poetry, the few people whose presence in our life is more real and constant than a screen can capture—they are familiar with all the shades of our life, and walk with us. With those thoughts now unburdened from my mind, here’s an image of marriage that caught my imagination:

There’s an impression on my finger now

even when it’s bare,

when the ring’s rested in its dish by the sink.

Two hard horizontal lines—and a darker blush between.

One quarter of an inch,

where a symbol you had made—

yellow gold and diamonds,

blessed in the name of the Trinity

(that one strangely sacred hour)—

marks a bind to one another,

a transcendent covenant,

an impression on the world.

 

A recent photo of us, from my sister's wedding.

A recent photo of us, from my sister’s wedding.

Poems and Theology for Christmas: Incarnation

IIn my recent article for Christianity Today, I invite Christians of all types of consider observing the 12 Days of Christmas as well as Advent. You can read “Always Advent and Never Christmas” here. Today is the fifth day of Christmas (I’m still waiting to receive my five golden rings), and I want to share a few thoughts on Christmas theology, as well as the writing of others that’s enriching my Christmas.

The central reality of Christmas—really, of Christianity—is the Incarnation: God with us. Humanity and divinity united, reconciled. Richard Crashaw captured its glory in these lines:

Welcome, all wonders in one sight!
Eternity shut in a span;
Summer in winter; day in night;
Heaven in earth, and God in man.
Great little one, whose all-embracing birth
Lifts earth to heaven, stoops heav’n to earth.

When Jesus came to us as God Incarnate, he literally united heaven and earth. Our salvation occurs in His Incarnation—as it is what allows us to have union with Him. God with us. Christ in you, the hope of glory. There is a physical sense in which Christ is truly present in our members—and us in His. Shortly before Christmas, it was my turn to give the devotional in our staff meeting. I shared this poem by St. Symeon:

We awaken in Christ’s body
as Christ awakens our bodies,
and my poor hand is Christ, He enters
my foot, and is infinitely me.

I move my hand, and wonderfully
my hand becomes Christ, becomes all of Him
(for God is indivisibly
whole, seamless in His Godhood).

I move my foot, and at once
He appears like a flash of lightning.
Do my words seem blasphemous? — Then
open your heart to Him

and let yourself receive the one
who is opening to you so deeply.
For if we genuinely love Him,
we wake up inside Christ’s body

where all our body, all over,
every most hidden part of it,
is realized in joy as Him,
and He makes us, utterly, real,

and everything that is hurt, everything
that seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful,
maimed, ugly, irreparably
damaged, is in Him transformed.

We prayed at that meeting for a friend of mine whose body has been ravaged by cancer. Her reality has been devastating and dark. And yet this poem attests: every part of her is made whole and healed by Christ. This is the hope of the Incarnation.

On the last Sunday of Advent, I snuck into Fourth Presbyterian Church on Michigan Avenue to hear Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols (the Christmas harp piece to rule them all) performed during their worship service. I don’t think I could ever be a Presbyterian, but the combination of this space, Britten’s stunning harp and choir piece, and, what was probably the most beautiful sermon I’ve ever heard (preached by one tiny, poetic lady pastor), I don’t know. I’m could maybe flinch on that.

She described the Incarnation as God’s protest against all material evil, his presence in our mess:

When the Word becomes flesh and blood and moves into our neighborhood, what we call incarnation, it is God’s protest song against all that tries to demean us—against all the voices that tell us we are not enough to be loved, to be worthy. Incarnation is God’s protest song against our own behavior with each other that seeks more to create walls and mistrust rather than to seek cooperation and peace. Incarnation is God’s protest song against the evil that does not think twice about massacring 130 kids in Pakistan for the so-called purpose of revenge. It is God’s protest song against the horror and tragedy that teenage kids will kill each other for a coat. It is God’s protest song against all that separates us from each other and attempts to separate us from God.

It was a revelation for me this year that Christmas is not primarily about the nativity. That historic moment is critical and beautiful; we should reflect on it, perhaps even sentimentally. More than that, though, we should dwell in the reality it points to, the reality that’s transforming everything: uniting heaven and earth, healing our bodies, standing in protest of the broken social structures we’re witnessing. Christmas—the gospel, really—can be summed up in three words: God with us. As Symeon says, “Do my words seem blasphemous? — / Then open your heart to Him / and let yourself receive the one / who is opening to you so deeply.”

(P.S. Don’t miss the two Christmas poems we published in The Behemoth: a whimsical, celebratory Gaudete and lovely original collect by our editor Mark Galli.)

Turn, turn, turn

I was honored when my former professor, Kelli Worrall, who is also a mentor and friend, asked me to guest blog on her lovely corner of the Internet, This Odd House, where she’s hosting a series on waiting. Below is my post. Please check out some of Kelli’s lovely writing.

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In my childhood home hung a beige stone plaque with loopy, cut-out letters. To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven. Ecclesiastes 3:1. I’m no Hebrew scholar, but I’m partial to this lovely King James iteration, etched in my memory as it traced my childish lips a thousand and one times, while I was washing dishes or eating dinner or filling up the dog’s bowl.

During a recent season of lonely and difficult change, I stumbled upon a print of these exact words at a Hobby Lobby in rural Illinois. It’s not exactly my style—black foam with gold lettering. But I absolutely purchased the thing (with a 40% off coupon, of course. How do they stay in business?) and hung it my apartment. I’ve found myself clinging to these words with newfound need.

Pete Seeger must have been touched by this verse, as he wrote a melody to accompany it. The song is Ecclesiastes 3 nearly verbatim, with the addition of a soft echo: turn, turn, turn.

To everything (Turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (Turn, turn, turn)
And a time to every purpose under heaven

(Here’s a cute video of Judy Collins and him singing it together.)

We’re getting to that time of year when everything becomes outrageously beautiful. As the leaves change and the wind grows sharp and the days get shorter, we tune into the fact that God is turning everything, always. If the seasons are a symphony, fall is the movement God plays so loudly that none can miss it. Or perhaps it’s not even the volume that gets us, but the soft and striking harmonies he creates with color and texture. Turn, turn, turn.

Fall, to me, is often about making peace with change. Chicago spends the summer in perpetual celebration (it’s all beaches and block parties and festivals around here). Come October, we start to settle (it’s all cozy socks and staying in and homemade soup). In this stillness we give thanks that summer was, and we relish that fall is, and we try, at least, to accept that winter will be. Turn, turn, turn.

Submitting to this change is ultimately submitting to the (unchanged) Changer, who was and is and always will be, unto the ages of ages.

Kelli asked me to write on the concept of waiting. We’re all waiting for a future something. I’m waiting for the time when we live close to our families again, or when we’re ready to have babies, or when we can afford a second car. Maybe you’re waiting to finally get married, or get a better job, or conceive, or pay off debts, or grant someone forgiveness.

Waiting is a human thing, which means it’s equal parts holy and harry. Every oddity of life on this earth has something to teach us about redemption (which, come to find out, is more about living into our humanity than fleeing it). There’s certainly a future orientation to this life. Our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ. But anticipation becomes malignant when it eclipses today. As Christians we know our times are in God’s hand, which means we can quit frittering and worrying and always looking forward.

As we await the fulfillment of dreams, as we endure change—or the lack thereof—we must accept that God has ordained a season for everything, even the broken and beautiful pieces of today. Christ is before all things, and in him all things hold together. It’s certainly his will that we might have life, and life to the fullest, today. A friend put it this way: “We focus so much on fulfilling our own dreams that we forget we’re all living God’s.”

Making peace with the present then, is nothing more than giving thanks. It’s nothing more than simple, decided gratitude. It’s nothing more than submission, surrender to God’s sovereignty: past, present, and future. Gratitude in the here and now—present-tense living—may be the greatest worship we can offer God.

Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble. This is a command Jesus both spoke and was made to obey. I think of him as he awaited the darkest moment of his life—of history, really—and the moment of redemption (resurrection, glory, ascension, reunion with the Father). Turn, turn, turn. He sat down with his disciples, he broke bread, and he gave thanks.

So I ask myself, I ask you: What are you waiting for? Is it eclipsing of today? Do you pray only for your will and your wishes, or do you give thanks for God’s will already made manifest?

In verses, in plaques, in Pete Seeger songs. In prayer, in dreams, in the words of Jesus, in autumn leaves, may you find peace in the turning by giving thanks.

Our Love for Coffee & My New Piece on Her.meneutics

Coffee shops have been a centerpiece in my life since my teens, mostly because Collin has been working in the coffee industry since he was 15. I can remember one of our first times hanging out; we sat the independent suburban shop where he once worked and talked for several hours, learning much about each other and realizing how much we had in common.

Since then, I’ve watched him compete in latte-art throwdowns and pourover brewing competitions. I have attended countless formal coffee cuppings, met Honduran coffee farmers, and toured the roasting facilities of many specialty coffee companies. I’ve been the happy beneficiary of many leftover pastries after closing. We honeymooned in Portland, because we were both excited to check out the bustling coffee scene there (though, I did have to remind him more than once that it wasn’t  a business trip). The centrality of coffee in our relationship even motivated us to take the below engagement photos at Intelligentsia’s lovely Monadnock store.

All this coffee love meant I had to say yes when my colleague, who is the editor of Her.meneutics, Christianity Today‘s blog for women, asked if I wanted to write about how Christians are working in coffee and engage with this NPR article on Louisville’s “Christian coffee” scene. So please click over there check out my piece: “Give Us This Day Our Daily Brew.”

Photos by Stephanie Horstkoetter

Photos by Stephanie Horstkoetter

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I previously wrote for Her.meneutics on stewarding language—and why I don’t (generally) use emojis.

What Makes a Marriage

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This month my parents will celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. On May 27, 1989, they held trembling hands before the altar at a little church in Yorktown, Texas, the same church where his parents had stood a few decades before. Both knew the pain of previous marriage and divorce, neither knew the love and grace of Christ. My dad proposed over the phone, scared, but knowing it was right. He was to be transferred across the country in just a few weeks. They bought a plain gold band—all they could afford—and two weeks later she walked down the aisle in a simple, knee-length white dress. A few friends and family surrounded them as they vowed a lifetime to each other. They may not have understood all that was said or prayed that day, but God did, and He blessed their union.

In the next few years, Christ drew my mom to himself first, then my dad. My siblings and I have had the privilege of being raised in a gracious, Christ-centered marriage. Knowing this milestone was coming up, Audrey, Alex, and I wanted to honor and celebrate them, so last weekend we threw them a surprise silver anniversary party, with a Texas touch. We had a country band and awesome barbecue. We hugged, danced, cried, and talked about what we’ve seen in their union these last 25 years.

As I prepared to give a toast, Proverbs 3:3-4 came to mind: “Let love and faithfulness never leave you. Bind them around your neck; write them on the tablet of your heart.” Those two things are what a marriage is made of: love and faithfulness.

The love part is easy, at least at first. It’s assumed. There’s no better picture of all-enveloping, relentless, Father God-like love, than the way a groom looks at his bride, and the way she admires him. I still see that love in the way my parents look at one another, the way they hold hands, the way they serve each other. This is the part of the equation that culture generally pushes—the part the gives happy feelings, butterflies, and foot-popping kisses. It’s what Cinderella and other fairytales exalt. It’s what I always thought happily-ever-afters were made of.

But I was wrong about that. It took getting engaged and staring flatly at the reality of my happily-ever-after to realize that it takes more than that love. Love runs out, at least the romantic gushy sort. That’s where faithfulness comes in.

Faithfulness isn’t feeling; it’s character; it’s a long obedience in the same direction. It’s a reflection of our covenant-making—and covenant-keeping—God. This is why we make our vows in the presence of witnesses and of the Church; because we don’t have the strength to keep them on our own. My dad has always been a picture of faithfulness to me, of constancy, patience, quiet strength. Ultimately, the faithfulness we lean into when the happy feelings run out—that’s the beautiful part of marriage. That’s intended to be a reflection of God’s faithfulness to his Church (even in the face of Her unfaithfulness)—indeed, it’s an extension of the faithfulness we receive in Christ.

In a wedding ceremony, we bind two people into one on the foundation of love and faithfulness. But what will hold love and faithfulness together throughout their lifetime is grace. The grace of Jesus Christ, the grace my parents each accepted—and then reflected to one another day-to-day.

I’m only two years into my marriage, and I can see how much we need grace to sustain both love and faithfulness. I look at their 25 years, and I am amazed. I saw grace in their marriage, day-to-day, in the way they spoke of one another, and laughed and cried and prayed together. They certainly hurt one another, but they gave grace generously. That’s what it takes.

Mom and dad, grace is the heart of your marriage. And—praise God—we don’t have to muster it. He gives it us in his Son. Thank you for choosing love and faithfulness. Thank you for leaning into grace. Glory to God for your union. I love you, and I’m so thankful for the example that you’ve set for us.

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Holy Week and Hunger

When we started making that often-written-about millennial move to the high church, started calling communion eucharist, started reading weekly collects, started praying the hours (or at least thinking about praying the hours), we knew a few things: We knew we needed more than what we were getting from the Church then. We knew we were tired of being cushioned and entertained. We knew we desired beauty and substance, liturgy and sacrament, history and tradition.

But we didn’t know that the high church would transform our faith or inform our marriage. That worshipping the same way Christians have for two thousand years would draw us nearer to Christ than ever before. That following the rhythms of the Church year would tune our ears to God’s whispering, would create space for the Holy Spirit to dwell richly in us, allowing him to rub away rough patches, to sanctify, to draw things to the light.

It’s Holy Week, and I’m hungry. Easter hasn’t sprung up out of nowhere. It’s being birthed from a long, slow, Holy Lent (just as outside the spotty green on our grass, and tiny flower buds showing their tentative faces, follow a long, painful, dark winter). 40 days of fasting and discipline, of omitted Alleluias, climax this week. And knowing what’s ahead, I’m hungry. Ready to hear the story, sensitive and tuned-in. A little weepy (teary in my car as I hear audio of the Boston marathon bombing or the story of hundreds missing in a Korean shipwreck).

Our little church will work hard this week. We’ll gather more often than usual, telling each other story of that week, of how he entered, ate, spoke, blessed, bled, lay, and rose. On Sunday, we waved our palms and spoke Hosannas. At Thursday’s dramatic service, we’ll pour cold water on each other’s feet and remember that first New Covenant Passover. On dark, Good Friday, we’ll gather in mourning to walk through the stations of the cross, each one crafted by a different artist in our community. Vulnerable and brave, we’ll think a lot about death, and we’ll wait while he lie in the grave.  All in preparation for Sunday.

We need this week. Need it to make Easter Easter. I’ve been thinking back on past Holy Weeks all through Lent, thinking about what makes them Holy. And feeling a deep hunger to walk through these traditions with my community, to prepare our hearts for the glory of the resurrection. To face death together, because we know the hope of Christ in us.

Observing the Church year transforms us. It creates hunger, it guides our spirits, it draws us into the rhythm of the God’s people. After several years of following the calendar, I’m aware of the sanctifying effects of it.  Not just in my “spiritual life,” but in all life. In how I hear radio stories and my dietary patterns and my emotional stability.

This year, it’s gone like this: It’s Advent, and I’m longing. It’s Christmas, and I’m hopeful, joyful. It’s Epiphany, and I’m stunned. It’s ordinary time, and frankly I’m a little bored. It’s Lent, and I’m sad, tired. It’s Holy Week, and I’m hungry.

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Fall

We’re just getting to that point in the year where Chicago starts to look like some majestic oil painting. This time last year, I wrote this short piece as part of a set for the 2013 ARCH reflecting on the seasons of the year in Chicago and at Moody. I plan to share the rest in due season.

Come each October, autumn begins to make her appearance in Chicago. The wind’s touch slowly grows sharper, and the temperatures begin to drop. Scarves, hats, and coats are debuted. LaSalle’s arboreal row dawns oranges, mustards, and browns. A flourishing tree in the plaza gently surrenders her red berries and leaves, laying a beautiful carpet that crunches under the step of a student’s brown boots.

It’s a time of harvest as the midwest rakes in the earth’s bounty. On Saturday mornings, groups leave through the Arch and head to the farmer’s market at the intersection of Clark and Division, where merchants sell gourds and a hundred varieties of apples.

Joe’s coffee shop offers the long-anticipated pumpkin spice latte. Girls take on seasonal Pinterest projects, dawning their doors with tea-stained coffee filter wreaths. In the fall, a simple walk through the neighborhood feels magical. Leaves funnel on the sidewalk before us, circling in the wind as if controlled by some conductor’s baton.

Fall is a symphony, and God performs it so loudly that none can miss it. As He makes music out of color, texture, and movement, we are all struck by the way He changes not only the earth, but us.

Fall

I feel it in my knees today

I feel it in my knees today,
the need
to bend

to crawl into some holy space
kneel there in the silence
press my forehead against the hard, cold wood of the pew
feel my heaviness fall on my joints
hear the kneeler’s cushion shift under my weight

to feel the physicality of me
Spirit and flesh unbroken
to feel the physicality of Him
human, yet God

to mumble incoherently
or say softly in my mind
what I have done
and what I have left undone

I feel it in my knees again,
rising and shuffling forward
that I might bend again
low, humble at the altar
like Marie Antoinette at her bedroom window,
a broken monarch, a forced surrender

head bowed low, hands cupped and raised,
hopeful,
that I might receive you

Lord, yet bread
Word, yet wine

Piece on Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics

Today I’m pleased and honored to have a piece published on Christianity Today’s blog for women, Her.meneutics.

In the Beginning was the … Emoticon?

I belong to a generation of online natives, owning my first cell phone around age 10 and learning to communicate via text message years before I wrote emails or crafted essays.

These days, you’ll still find me texting, toting around my iPhone and spewing a stream of tweets and Instagram updates, but I draw my digital line at emojis, those tiny smiley faces and cartoon symbols. Right about now some of you probably want to reach for that one that looks like The Scream. But stay with me. As a writer and a Christian, I care for too much for words to indulge emoticons.

Words are a gift from God, a piece of his created order given to humanity, as author Marilyn Chandler McIntyre reminds us in Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies. Christians are fundamentally a people of the Word, a body formed by Holy Scripture. What we know about our faith we know by words.

Our Scriptures were inspired by the Holy Spirit and crafted by the God-breathed creativity of men. Before they were written, they were passed down orally, repeated by communities and families, memorized—in homes and tabernacles and tents of meeting. The sacred sharing of the Word is preserved in the church when we gather each week and to feed each other on Scripture…

            Read the rest here…

The Window Seat

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 ‘ve always requested the window seat. Though I inevitably have to ask my two row-sharers mid-flight to rise and awkwardly shuffle to the side so I can use the potty. Though my legs be cramped and my bladder be full. I opt for the widow seat.

Flying has become a signpost in my life the last four years: transition, change, loss, excitement, opportunity, joy. And it’s created a rhythm. Between semesters, at holidays, at summer’s end. 66 bus to Blue Line all the way to O’Hare–relieved, exhausted, joyful, post-exams bliss.

And then back. Coming over the turn of 59, after what seems and endless series of winding and dropping Houston highways, hotels and shuttle busses beginning to spot the feeder. It means we’re close to the airport and nearer to the goodbyes. Collecting the bags and squeezing sisters tighter than I knew I could. And then off. By myself usually.

So I take the window seat. I nestle in, and though tears may follow (which have, thankfully, tapered through the years), I have landscape to watch and, approaching my destination, my temporary home, I see it in all its splendor. Glittering there over the lake. Inviting me, charming me.

I’ll never forget the view from the window seat in Ireland, lifting my shade and seeing that we were there. The green was unbelievable. Radiating up at us, a smiling and silly stereotype. And as we got closer, lovely fences, winding rivers, rolling hills spotted with cottages and sheep.

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Approaching Chicago, it’s always the same strange routine. Heading due East, we approach the city, pass over our little neighborhood and Wicker Park, over West Town and then the Loop. And you think it couldn’t get any more beautiful. But the plane doesn’t descend.

It propels on, going straight over Lake Michigan. The water looks like old leather from up there, shriveled and deep blue, the lowering sun casting a cylinder of glowing light over it. And then the plane turns, gently and dramatically, revealing the other side. You pass back over the city and enjoy her splendor one more time.

This ritual has welcomed me to Chicago dozens of times–always to start a new semester. But after spending last weekend with my family in Houston, I boarded United 1577 last night and went through the whole routine.

And I realized as I watched the skyline sink into the background that this is the first time I’m returning to no new beginning. And that it’s a funny coincidence I would be on that very same flight I normally take to start the fall semester, with classes commencing that next day. But I’m not taking on another semester. I’m not moving in with a new roommate. I’m not starting a new job.

And though this at first hits me with emptiness, something about that glitzy skyline glimmered with hope and potential. There’s not something new right now, but there’s the dream of something new. There’s the dream of when we get to live in the same city as our families–when I can invite Audrey over for dinner or go to Alex’s performances. When I can meet Mom or Dana for lunch or coffee. There’s the dream of when we’ll start a family, when our love and God’s grace will blossom into a new life. There’s the dream of when I’ll go back to the classroom. There’s the dream, sweet and full of potential. But not yet.

Right now, here’s what God has given us: the dream of today. The dream that has flesh and bones, that makes noise and talks and smells. The dream of our reality–our townhouse, and my commute, and Collin’s new coffee shop, and our cat. The dream of our community and neighborhood and fragile young marriage to nurture. That’s my new beginning, everyday something to witness and take in from the window seat.