What I should have said

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“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” John 13:34

One of my favorite quotes about music comes from C.P.E. Bach. He said, “A musician cannot move others unless he himself is moved.” I did feel moved on Monday at the recital, and I think others did, too. It wasn't because it was perfect, but because the compositions my colleagues and I performed together were also moving us. I realized on Monday that feeling so moved can make it hard to verbalize all you wanted to share in your spoken program notes. As I played the final notes of the last piece, Barber’s Canzonetta, something came up for me; it felt as if something was missing.

I had shared with the audience the conditions that surrounded the composition of this work:  that Samuel Barber had composed it—these his final notes— as he lay dying of cancer in 1981. I had mentioned what few people know about Barber; how struggled with a deep depression and feelings of failure after his opera “Anthony and Cleopatra” had been named a "fiasco."  I said that after the bad reviews, in spite of all his previous successes, Barber never really recovered. He was described by those that knew him to have fallen into a pit of despair, a bad spiral of alcoholism. When the commission came to write an oboe concerto, and he knew he likely wouldn’t live to finish it, he started with the second movement, which was posthumously published on its own, as the Canzonetta. I closed my remarks with the statement that I had a lot of respect for a composer who bravely "sang his song" in face of his despair and his fear of failure. This swan song was simple and lyrical, deeply poignant and expressive at its core. That's all that I had managed to say.  

But as I played, I started thinking about my students and how so many of them are struggling with insecurities and anxiety. I thought of a colleague from my conservatory days who was hospitalized after thoughts of suicide when the expected job offer fell through.  I remembered stories I’d heard in my Artist’s Way group at Grace Church, a tough critic’s words that were never forgotten. 

I had wanted to say that while I cannot name all the oboe can express, I can name is this: we artists should take care of one another. 

Many composers I played on Monday used music as a vehicle to process their feelings of love, loss and longing—and, oh, how lucky we oboists are, to play this beautiful repertoire! Yet, these great composers needed more than music to find healing and peace. We all do. One thing we need is to feel support and connection with fellow musicians, artists, who are there in the trenches with us. Instead of being competitive, envious, or intimidated, we need to feel understood by some of the only people on the planet who "get it." They know the deep feelings that come with dedication to this craft better than anyone. They know firsthand that there will be loss, disappointment, and maybe even despair. These are risks we all take in doing what we do. We must remind each other that we are not alone. I want to believe that we can offer each other a hand to show the way out of our darknesses, when it’s difficult see the light alone.

It moves me to wonder if Barber had felt alone after that great disappointment. I pray he felt the love and support of those around him in his final days, as he penned a simple oboe piece as his farewell. In his music, I hear deep pain, but I hear love and resolution, too.

If you are reading this and find yourself in a similar place to Barber, allow me to remind you: no matter how large your failure, how public your embarrassment, how damaged you feel by your circumstances today or those of your past, these things do not define you. You are not all the auditions you did not win, all the notes you missed, all the bad reviews— those things are just things that happened to you because you were brave enough to try. You are unique and irreplaceable, your voice is necessary to this world, because you are the only you we have. Regardless of how well you perform on any given day, that fact never, ever changes. Take the hand of a friend and fellow artist and walk back into the light. After grieving these painful and challenging times (and I won’t lie and say that part is easy), there will be life abundant waiting for you on the other side. 

This is my favorite thing about Lumina Arts: seeing the power of a community of other artists, who gather round to listen and provide space for the processing of all the feelings. Yes, the act of composing and playing music can be healing, but what I wanted to say after the recital is that I am starting to believe that it isn’t the music itself that is healing, but the connection we find with others in it, composer to performer or performer to listener. Suddenly C.P.E. Bach’s words are ringing truer than ever. 

Wasn't that what Jesus meant in giving this new commandment? Loving God with your heart, soul, and mind—that was only the beginning. I believe Jesus was saying that once you have this love for God, the next step is sharing it with others, and it is only through loving them that it is truly shared. Or put a different way, it is only through being moved that we can move others. Jesus, God’s love personified, is proof that we are not alone, that God himself wants to be near enought to us to enter the trenches, too. Lest we forget, God is an artist. The composer of this great universe understands the depth of all of your feelings of pain and despair. God "gets it." 

Similarly, mastering music, reaching “perfection” as an artist (if that were possible!) is only the beginning. We thought being “good” or winning the audition or playing a perfect recital would be the thing that would make us feel worthy, satisfied, fulfilled. It turns out a lasting sense of fulfillment is found solely in the fellowship of the movers and the moved. This gift that music offers us, this opportunity to love one another as our Artist-God loves us—within it we do find healing, peace, and joy for our weary souls, together. We are loved. And this is enough.

That’s what I wanted to say before my audience receded into the night. That is what I should have said to anyone and everyone I know, in case they needed to hear it. Let’s take care of one another, ok?

Today I played Poulenc and was happy to be alive.

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“Be filled with the Spirit…sing and make music from your heart to the Lord.” Ephesians 5:18-19

This Monday evening, October 14th at 8PM in Gore Recital Hall, I’ll be performing my first faculty recital at University of Delaware. When I was younger and dreamt about the kind of career I wanted, the idea of giving recitals set my heart aflutter. More than playing in an orchestra or opera pit, I’ve always loved the idea of a tailored concert, creating an experience for an audience, one that we share together for a mutually meaningful experience of music (I hope). This particular recital is one full of repertoire that is near and dear to my heart, so I am very excited to share it.

Every instrument has its ethos or character (anyone who’s heard Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” knows that.) Ask your instrumentalist friends what kinds of music composers usually write for their instrument and they can likely sum it up in a few words. I’d venture to say that the oboe is one of the most type-cast characters out there, and I do not mind one bit. What type you may ask? The sweet, longing, melancholy type. (I joke that composers don’t write fast notes for oboists because they figure they’re all too busy making reeds.) But in all seriousness, composers do regularly give us lovely, lyrical melodies. One of the composers whose work I am performing on Monday, Samuel Barber, is often quoted as saying: “I like to give my best themes to the oboe.” That’s proof enough to me that composers trust the oboe’s melodic and lyrical abilities!

As I design each recital, I often start with a question or a set of questions I want to work around. For the upcoming one, I kept coming back to this: Why, at so many poignant parts of a movie, does an oboe solo appear in the soundtrack? Why do composers utilize the oboe’s ability to play long, sustained melodies more often then not? Why do so many composers write for oboe late in life? At almost every turn, the oboe is being given the opportunity to express something unexplainably poignant, meaningful, and profound. What a privilege it is to be an instrumentalist, and especially an oboist, in those moments—to be given these fleeting seconds of music, entrusted with a precious gem to polish up and wear, so we can all marvel at its beauty.

With these questions in mind, each work on the program for Monday was either written by a composer late in life and/or centers around ideas of love, loss, and longing. Saint Säens’ “Sonata” was one of his final compositions. Vaughan Williams’ “Ten Blake Songs,” also written late in his life, are musical settings of selected poems from William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience” set for the rare combination of oboe and tenor alone. Thea Musgrave, a living Scottish composer, composed “Niobe for Oboe Solo and Recorded Soundtrack” in 1987 after the Greek myth of Niobe, who lamented the death of her children, was pitied by the God’s, and turned into stone, in which state she continued to weep. I’ll be playing the Musgrave with a live feed of the recorded sounds designed to go with the oboe part. Poulenc’s “Sonata” is one of his final works, too. It is really the musical equivalent of the five stages of grief, as he cycles through anger, denial, nostalgia and more, at the loss of his friend Prokofiev, to whom the work is dedicated. The final piece on the program, Barber’s “Canzonetta” (my favorite) was his very last work, composed as he was dying of cancer in 1981.

I know what you’re thinking: that sounds like a terribly depressing evening of music. But if you can stay with me, I believe this program is a testament to all the oboe can say when words fail us. Playing the quotations of Prokofiev’s music in Poulec’s Sonata is like being a third wheel in that friendship, being a witness to their connection and mutual joy, part of the comradery they found in music. It makes me happy to be alive.

The fact that Barber entrusted his final notes to the oboe, is the great artist’s signature as he says farewell, post-battle with alcoholism and depression when his final opera failed: it is like holding a holy relic.

Who in the audience has not felt the pain and beauty of life’s impermanence? Maybe hearing these composers express themselves beautifully as they let go will help someone know they are not alone.

As you can see, this work of designing programs with audiences in mind aligns so well with the creativity-as-a-spiritual-practice work of Lumina Arts. This program for Monday is one that leaves big questions hanging in the air. Music gives us a safe space, an outlet to ask questions about big unanswerable things, about God.

Most of the scriptures about music in the Bible are about joy and praise. There is this one spot in Ephesians though (see scripture above) where Paul urges us to use music to not only collectively praise God, but sing to one another as a sign that we are filled with Christ’s spirit, one of grace and truth. “Singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart” to me means letting the songs in your heart out for others to hear, making space for the big questions that that can bring up, reassuring each other that even though life can be painful, and our loss can feel permanent, there’s more offered us beyond this life. What a gift we have in music (and all the arts), to have a place to feel our feelings together, a place where God meets us.

I am choosing to see the works for this recital as a celebration of all music can do, of all the ways it can help us process and persevere, how it can remind us of God’s provision and nearness. How else can you celebrate the joy and remember the pain of life at the same time? From measure to measure in this music we can do both, the performers and audience together, singing our hearts’ songs. I hope to see you there.

Divine Details: finding God in “just-so”

Elmslie Wharton, “Still Life Poinsettias”

Elmslie Wharton, “Still Life Poinsettias”

“Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘See, I have chosen Bezalel…and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills— to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of crafts…so that they may make all that I have commanded.’” Exodus 31: 2-7

This past week a friend and I were hanging art for the Art Loop in the lobby at the Grace Church campus. As a musician, it is rare that I get such insight into the process of visual artists from their own perspective. As we hung the work, I got to hold (very carefully) each of the beautiful oil paintings. I was enthralled by their texture and detail up close. I could see the individual brush strokes, the minute details of color and shading. In one work, I had sensed the location of the source of light, but as I looked closer I noticed it was a tiny bit of white paint in the figure’s hair that was creating this affect.

As we hung them, my friend (a museum curator) was explaining to me how some artists stretch their own canvases. I had so many questions— how does that work? Why do artists do it? What are the pros and cons of buying the canvas pre-stretched? Apparently stretching your own is all about controlling the feel of the brush against the tightness of the canvas. Suddenly it all made sense to me. Painters, just like oboists, have to have things “just so.” Little details matter….of course they do!

I can’t tell you why all my reeds need to be tied in blue thread—they just do. I always write better if I use a specific pen in a specific type of notebook. I have string player friends who wear their wedding rings on their right hand, because they don’t like how it feels on the fingerboard side. This “just so-ness” in artists isn’t always applauded by our friends and family. At first glance it might seem over-the-top—why stretch your own canvas? Why make your own reeds, when you can buy them? These seemingly inconsequential things, with all their idiosyncrasies, are elevated for us as we try to make beautiful things.

You’ve heard the phrase “The devil is in the details.” I’ve been reflecting on that and have decided: for me, it isn’t the devil, but the divine. This way of seeing the world, of caring deeply about aesthetics, is an attitude I feel we share with our great Creator (just catch a sunrise and you immediately sense that whoever designed this world had an affinity for the beautiful). Anyone in the business of making beautiful things knows that these effects come from the choreography of many minute details. The way you hold the instrument matters, the way your hands come in contact with the keys, whether or not you stretch your own canvas—it all matters: all these little aesthetic choices are not just because artists are particular, but because something magical happens when they come together perfectly. In a mystical and miraculous act of creation, the human and the spiritual meet, “just so.”

Bezalel would have likely agreed. (He’s a new Bible person I learned about recently.) He was the man mentioned in the Exodus passage above, where God describes the “how-to” of building the Tabernacle to Moses. The Tabernacle is meant to symbolize the place on earth that God planned to inhabit. Escaping from slavery in Egypt, the Israelites are given a new way of living, all the details of which are described “just-so.” The Tabernacle will be center piece of this new life. Bezalel is the artisan who gets the gig.

There are many things I love about this story: I love that God wants to make the Tabernacle beautiful, explaining to Bezalel to use scarlet and blue tapestry, precious jewels, and special furniture, all designed with the finest craftsmanship. It isn’t solely a utilitarian structure like a voting booth or a work cubicle; it is performance art. It feels decadent and extravagant. The Tabernacle was very important to the Israelites because it was the symbolic and “incarnate” place where the holy met the earthly, where God dwelled. Even in its design and creation, God’s Wisdom and Spirit dwelled among them and in them, giving life to their artistic prowess and skill.

I love too, that God is deeply in the details of the creation of the Tabernacle. I feel a kindred spirit with God in that—I can completely understand wanting this structure “just-so.” What a relief to know that God gave wisdom, understanding, and talent to the artists for that project (and offers us the same in every project we set about to accomplish.) We can rest as we create, knowing that there are gifts to be gotten from the Source of creative power, each time I sit down at the desk or music stand. I am not alone when I am creating; on the contrary, each time I do so, I collaborate with God.

Just like the source of light is made clear through key details in a painting, God paints God’s Self right into our canvases (pre-stretched or not.) In the Gospel of John, it says of Jesus: “and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1:14) The Greek word used for dwelling was the same word for the Tabernacle. In other words, The Word became incarnate and “tabernacled” among us. The work of art that God had instructed the people to build with their skill and artistry—to hold the Holiest of Holies—was now embodied by this man Jesus.

Jesus is God’s finest work of art. The good news is: instead of destroying the Tabernacle, he embodied it that we, too, can be living tabernacles, living artworks, of God. Through Jesus, we are again reminded of God’s commitment to our flourishing, and not just a basic run-of-the-mill existence, but one of artisanal, creative, and beautiful joy.

So to all the artists out there who get flack for needing things to be a certain way, what you do and how you do it matters: the way your pen feels on the paper, which direction your desk is facing in your writing room, the brand of rosin you use on your bow, the temperature of the water for your reeds. We know, from Bezalel’s work on the Tabernacle, that God is in the details, that God trusts artists enough to collaborate with us, that our work matters.

Here’s the best part: God still calls us artists to the “just-so,” meeting us in our moments of beauty, details and all.

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To all the “Keepers of Information”

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“Remember me, Lord…” Psalm 106:4

I have been feeling forgetful lately. I put it that way because whether or not I actually have forgotten something is irrelevant. It is this persistent feeling: I cant remember what I am supposed to be remembering. As soon as I wake up, it takes my brain a few seconds to load the latest list. While it metamorphically downloads, I rub my eyes and sigh. I gear up to dodge the deadlines, to manage our lives that feel like that arcade game where you are on racetrack with a steering wheel that doesn’t work, escaping a crash every curve by the skin of your teeth.

I’m not so sure this is a problem that is specific to people with young children. Honestly, from what I gather from friends in all stages of life, many of us are struggling with these feelings of being over-scheduled, overwhelmed, under-rested. Our smart phones, watches, and tablets are supposed to make life easier. Yet lately I’m finding the constant buzzing, the “time-to-leave” notifications, the ceaseless flow of texts and emails that require response—I feel like I never stop working. And it is my memory that is holding the whole thing afloat.

How many of you are the designated Keeper of Information? You know what I mean—the one who knows how much milk is in the fridge, who knows what’s for dinner, when the dry cleaning is ready. (In my husband’s defense, he’s keeps a lot too—like the condition of our roof, which plants need to be watered when, which bills need to be paid and lots of other things— I am so grateful that we share these duties.) But for whoever keeps the information, it is stressful to know that with a single memory misstep we could find ourselves with no clean clothes, no food for dinner, and no one to be home to let the repair person in or move the car for street cleaning. While it is truly a “first world problem” to have so many wonderful blessings to keep track of, I’m not so sure this is how being blessed is supposed to feel.

In an effort to grab hold of all that is in my brain, to hang on to each thread of our exciting and hectic life, I recently started a new practice of writing everything down, taking notes throughout my day like a doctor would for a patient’s chart. Every meeting I have with a student, every phone call with a friend, every to-do item that pops up (long term, short term, big or small)— I take it down. Besides the fact that I’m filling up notebooks rather quickly, I am enjoying this practice.

It actually feels artistic to empty my mind, leaving it there on paper. With all the newly available mental space, I am finding myself more creative and available for that gentle tug of inspiration and motivation. Even still, writing it all down doesn’t take away the constant need to remember—now I just have to remember to read the notebook!

At some point in this new practice, I found myself writing to God, praying in to-do list form. Between my notes about the meeting at school and a list of books and podcasts my friend recommended, I had written: “Lord, give me peace.” Sometimes these little lines to God are all my busy mind can manage in regards to prayer. When I read them back days later, I realize how often I forget to remember God. It made me wonder if God ever forgets me.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, there are repeated examples of that specific anthropomorphism (human attribute given to God) where God remembers. When people seem to have lost all hope or are devastated beyond repair, it says God remembers them. God remembers Noah and the flood recedes and God remembers Rachel and she conceives. I must be honest and say that when I first read it I thought: “See, this is proof that God can forget.” And who could blame God? I can barely remember to buy diapers and I am just the Keeper of Estevez Information not the Keeper of the Universe.

But as I dug a little deeper, I discovered each instance of God remembering is immediately followed by the description of what God did to help. When it says God remembers, these words are synomous with God acting on behalf of the remembered. Instead of reading it like God was a fallible human who could forget, I am reading it like the writers of these scriptures were saying: “In case you think God had forgotten, here is proof God didn’t: God acted.”

I also learned that our word “remember” is connected to the word religion, from the Latin “religio,” meaning “to put back together or connect.” (Think about the word “ligament.”) When we say God remembers us, it is God putting us back together again. God doesn’t just keep all the information like my (often futile) note taking practice: God is present and active in our healing, in the righting of the world. We can trust God is holding it all together because God remembers.

As I finish another week of life in this role as Keeper of Estevez Information, I am deciding to lay down my notebook for a second and offer a prayer of thanks in non to-do list form. Today I am choosing to see my failing human memory not as a source of anger and stress, but as a reminder of God’s power and omnipotence, sovereignty and grace.

We can rest in the knowledge that we are not forgotten, no matter how often we forget.

You’ve gotta eat

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When [the disciples] landed [their boat], they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’” John 21:9, 12

This past summer my family and I ate our way through Spain. I had the opportunity to travel there with the University of Delaware Wind Ensemble and Edwin, Eva, and my mother-in-law came along for some vacation after the tour. My husband had tried to explain it to me before our trip; the act of eating the gastronomical goodness of the average Spanish meal would be as central to our experience as much as any museum, historical site, or other stops along the way.

Spain, I might add, is also my husband’s very favorite place on God’s green earth. Since before we even purchased our tickets he excitedly went on and on about the tapas—little dishes of goodies that fill the table with color and flavor, including everything from grilled peppers to patatas bravas (Spain’s answer to French fries) to octopus and garlic shrimp. He told me about the numerous regional paellas which were probably my favorite. (Top picture is Valencian Paella!) The dish, put simply, is rice flavored with saffron, cooked with seafood and/or chicken and/or rabbit and/or chorizo, depending on the region. Before the trip, Edwin had made his own red wine sangria recipe, but Spanish sangria, vino de verano (summer wine) and fresh-squeezed orange juice, were beyond any description anyone could have given. As much as Edwin talked it up, I was surprised to find it not a bit oversold. Yet, what surprised me most, was how spending almost a month in Spain—between concerts and family vacation—could change my outlook on eating all together.

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The thing that struck me most about eating in Spain, was not the food itself per se, but the way Spaniards approached eating in general. Take dinner, for example. In the summer it stays light very late, in some places as late as 11PM, and so dinner begins (at the earliest) at 9:00. (Some restaurants open early for tourists, at 8PM!) The later in the day, the lighter the fare becomes (hence, the tapas concept.) At the average Spanish restaurant at 11 PM, you will see tables full of people chatting and enjoying each other’s company, sitting together late into the night leisurely enjoying a “meal.” I put it in quotes because it goes on so long and the food is so varied that it feels more like appetizers that just keep coming. Eventually everyone is drinking coffee instead of wine and the evening ends with a stroll in the plaza, not with that crazy-full American dinner feeling, but one of lightness, satisfaction, laughter, and energy. The Spanish seem to savor just a few morsels of these curated dishes, each made with top ingredients, and the conversation and togetherness are like their own little tapas, too. Watching Spaniards eat, it seemed everyone was surrounded by friends and family, and the meal was just as much as a social event as it was dinner. The servers are in no hurry. Many times I thought we were done and out came another dish. Edwin had to constantly remind me to slow down; enjoy each bite, sit, and savor. In those moments I was so grateful to be alive, eating in Spain was in-and-of-itself an act of gratitude for all that we had been given… even if it was after midnight before we finished.

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In the passage at the top of this post, from the end of the Gospel of John, we find Jesus our Chef—resurrected—cooking some fish. (You know, as resurrected people tend to do). Of all the things Jesus might say to me when I encounter him: “Hungry? I made you some fish,” seems the most unexpected. Yet knowing what I know now about how they eat in Spain, I’m starting to understand the sweetness of finding Jesus preparing and sharing a meal for those he loved on earth.

Just as Jesus tends to do, the poignant symbolism and practicality of his actions break my heart open. I imagine the disciples wandering around—worried, shocked, lost—since Jesus’ death. They have to be wondering what to do next, how to go about life after all that had happened, forgetting to eat, unable to sleep, not practicing good self-care. And there’s Jesus: who doesn’t just make the fish appear in their nets, but gets to work building the fire and cooking them himself.

We have a God who can, has, and will provide for each of our cravings.

The one who created the act of eating, which could have been one of life’s boring necessities, created our need for nourishment as an unbelievably satisfying experience. Each time our hunger returns, Jesus teaches us to pray for more. Yet just like the manna in the wilderness Jesus instructs us to ask for only our daily bread. Maybe we don’t see that God wants us to depend on him daily—not only because he will provide for our needs, but because he plans on coming down to the beach himself and serve us everything we hunger for. Our need for the fish Jesus offers tells us that our cravings have congruent satisfaction, and these hungers are to be satisfied not just by a divinely ordained harvest, but by God’s own sacrifice and service.

But we, like the disciples, come to the table longing for more than calories. We long for the community and connection that is a meal in Spain. Jesus offers that, too. I imagine the disciples eating tapas with Jesus on the beach, as the sun rises, laughing, grateful, hearts burning within them. They likely offered thanks to God for the bounty in the nets and for the hands that prepared the meal—and realized it was God himself who had done both.

To see Jesus constantly breaking bread with those he loved reminds me to eat dinner Spanish-style more often. When we pause to be grateful for the beauty and blessings we have on our table, whatever the cuisine, we realize we are in the presence of the divine. Jesus knew, like the Spaniards, breaking bread together is about much more than sustenance; it’s about community and belonging. And at Jesus’s Table, all are welcome.

#becauseofRHE

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You’ve probably heard by now. One of my favorite Christian writers, Rachel Held Evans, 37, passed away on May 4th from complications from the flu. She is survived by two small children (ages 1 and 3) and her husband Dan. As the days pass, I still find myself processing this news, having to remind myself after a couple of hours of not thinking about it, that she is gone and there will be no more books. I will never get to meet her in person. The truth of it is starting to sink in. Her books on my nightstand look different now, and I keep thinking of her children. 

Another thing that is coming to the surface is the realization of just how deeply Rachel’s writings affected me, how I hear her voice in my head sometimes as I write. (I liked to listen to her read her own books on audible because of her southern accent.) The hashtag #becauseofRHE is trending and I can see why; everyone is sharing the ways her life made a difference in theirs, and I am right there with them.  

As for me, she gave me permission to have doubts, she gave words to my fears and angers at the church. She helped me see that you don’t have to give up on the Bible even though people have used it to oppress people for centuries. She confirmed for me the knowledge that their was truly room at the table for everyone and that church should call us ALL into community to love one another, not just those who look and act like us. And when that process is uncomfortable, we can look to Jesus who knew something about discomfort and sacrificial service and radical inclusion.

I never felt called to be a pastor, but I longed to have conversations about my questions about the Bible and felt deeply moved towards Christianity...yet I didn’t know what to do with that, how to translate those needs to real life. Rachel Held Evans’ books were like having conversations with someone who had thought my same thoughts, but then had fashioned them into the most beautiful, thoughtful, insightful prose, right there on the page for all to enjoy. She had a profound effect on my writing, and to be honest, she’s why I’m writing this blog in the first place. 

You can listen to the podcast we recorded about her this week here

I wanted to share an excerpt of hers that is probably my most favorite thing she ever wrote. This is from her book Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding The Church and is taken from a chapter entitled, "Body." 

Rest In Peace, good and faithful servant.

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"You are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it."
—1 Corinthians 12:27

“The church is a whore, but she is my mother.”  The quote is attributed to St. Augustine, but no one’s really tracked it down. I’d venture to guess it originated with a man, though, and an unimaginative one at that.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate the sentiment—that despite her persistent wanderings and betrayals, the church births us and feeds us and names us children of God—it’ s just that when we leave men to draw all the theological conclusions about a metaphorically feminine church, we end up with rather predictable categories, don’t we?

Virgin. Whore. Mother.

But what might a woman say about church as she? What might a woman say about the church as body and bride?

Perhaps she would speak of the way a regular body moves through the world—always changing, never perfect—capable of nurturing life, not simply through the womb, but through hands, feet, eyes, voice, and brain. Every part is sacred. Every part has a function.

Perhaps she would speak of impossible expectations and all the time she’s wasted trying to contort herself into the shape of those amorphous silhouettes that flit from magazines and billboards into her mind. Or of this screwed-up notion of purity as a status, as something awarded by men with tests and checklists and the power to give it and take it away.

Perhaps she would speak of the surprise of seeing herself—flaws and all—in the mirror on her wedding day. Or of the reality that with new life comes swollen breasts, dry heaves, dirty diapers, snotty noses, late-night arguments, and a whole army of new dangers and fears she never even considered before because life-giving isn’t nearly as glamorous as it sounds, but it’s a thousand times more beautiful.

Perhaps she would talk about being underestimated, about surprising people and surprising herself. Or about how there are moments when her own strength startles her, and moments when her weakness—her forgetfulness, her fear, her exhaustion—unnerve her.

Maybe she would tell of the time, in the mountains with bare feet on the ground, she stood tall and wise and felt every cell in her body smile in assent as she inhaled and exhaled and in one loud second realized, I’m alive! I’m enfleshed! only to forget it the next.

Or maybe she would explain how none of the categories created for her sum her up or capture her essence.

If the church is like a body, like a bride, then perhaps we ought to take her through what Barbara Brown Taylor’s calls the “spiritual practice of wearing skin”:

Whether you are sick or well, lovely or irregular, there comes a time when it is vitally important to your spiritual health to drop your clothes, look in the mirror, and say, ‘Here I am. This is the body-like-no-other that my life has shaped. I live here. This is my soul’s address. After you have taken a good look around, you may decide that there is a lot to be thankful for, all things considered. Bodies take real beatings. That they heal from most things is an underrated miracle. That they give birth is beyond reckoning.

“When I do this,” she says, “I generally decide that it is time to do a better job of wearing my skin with gratitude instead of loathing.”

So let’s turn the mirror:

This is the church. Here she is. Lovely, irregular, sometimes sick and sometimes well. This is the body-like-no-other that God has shaped and placed in the world. Jesus lives here; this is his soul’s address. There is a lot to be thankful for, all things considered.  She has taken a beating, the church. Every day she meets the gates of hell and she prevails. Every day she serves, stumbles, injures, and repairs. That she has healed is an underrated miracle. That she gives birth is beyond reckoning. Maybe it’s time to make peace with her. Maybe its time to embrace her, flawed as she is.

Maybe it’s time to smile back.

Sometimes I think the biggest challenge in talking about the church is telling ourselves the truth about it—acknowledging the scars, staring down the ugly bits, marveling at its resiliency, and believing that this flawed and magnificent body is enough, for now, to carry us through the world and into the arms of Christ.

Perhaps there is more to the church than mother and whore. And perhaps we might learn this from a woman

A word in support of bravery, courtesy of Brené and Carnetta

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 “For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” 2 Timothy 1:7

This is Carnetta. She’s been a student of mine for about eight months. About thirty years ago she heard an oboe on the radio and immediately loved the sound. She decided right then and there: this was an instrument she would play one day. Soon after, she found a student model oboe and put it under her bed for safe-keeping. She got married and had children. She worked full-time as a high school Spanish teacher. She was busy, but her dream never died. Twenty-five years went by and the oboe stayed under the bed. Finally, she retired and decided to try lessons. Today she plays in a number of bands for seniors in and around Wilmington, and this Sunday she will participate in my studio class recital, playing repertoire that is very challenging, alongside my other students in middle school, high school and college.  When I think about being brave, I think of Carnetta.

Bravery has been on my mind lately, as this week I finally got around to watching Brené Brown’s Netflix special about courage. I have been ruminating about her words ever since, wondering if I’m living my life “in the arena,” as she puts it. This idea, and the title of her book “Daring Greatly,” are drawn from a famous quote by Theodore Roosevelt: 

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” 

Carnetta is living her life in the arena. The musical arena, which can be a particularly scary one. Something like learning an instrument does not have a clear winner or loser, like a boxing match. We find ourselves looking for accolades and other concrete confirmation that we are “good enough” in the most arbitrary places. Did you get accepted into a conservatory? Did you win the audition? Were you complimented by one of the greats? As if anybody who didn’t accomplish these things shouldn’t be allowed to play! Even in those moments where we musicians feel on top of the world, it is easy to immediately worry about the long way down. Because here’s the thing: it is only a matter of time before someone else enters the arena, someone that can play faster, more beautifully, more “perfect” than you.  And Carnetta knows how she wants to sound—she heard it on the radio. There are days that she falls short of that, like we all do. And I know it can be so hard to keep going, to be brave in the face of fear of failure and embarrassment, to be the oldest student on the recital. And yet, she does keep going. Week after week, lesson after lesson, Carnetta stays in the arena. Can you tell I’m proud of her?

Without knowing it, just like Brené Brown, Carnetta calls me into my own arena too.

I had wanted to write a blog for a long time, but there were lots of things stopping me. I had so much respect for others who were doing the same: how could I contend with them? What did I have to say that anyone cared to read anyway? And talking about my faith was particularly scary: what if people disagree and are critical of me? What if they think less of me because I am a Christian? What if no one reads it? What if it’s derivative and lame? All these thoughts (and plenty that are much worse) race through my brain every week before I hit publish. And yet, on Thursdays when I see her, I would constantly tell Carnetta my own version of Roosevelt’s words: “It is much easier to be on the sidelines critiquing others than to be up there doing it yourself.” And inside of my own struggles, I’ve learned that sometimes people don’t read my blog, sometimes it is not brilliant or share-worthy, and sometimes people do criticize me on threads that make me want to make like Carnetta’s oboe and hide under the bed. But surprisingly, none of that has made me stop writing... yet. I’m still sitting here bravely typing away and finding great joy in being vulnerable in my writing, because, just like Brené Brown says, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”

The good news is that we are not alone inside our arenas. The scripture from Paul’s letter to Timothy at the top of this post reminds me: God made us with a spirit of bravery, not cowardice. Bravery, then, is in our DNA. But that is not all: we also get power, love and self-discipline, too...and boy, do we need it. Bravery without love and self-discipline would be ruthless and unwieldy. And of course there is no such thing as love without bravery. Truly loving anything means taking a risk. Finally, the self-discipline that God has given us helps when we are holding tightly to the ropes, longing to step out of the arena and give up. When the dream is under the bed, you do not have to muster your own strength to pull it out; all that you need is already within you. You are carrying the powerful spirit of God. You are made for bravery, love, self-discipline and, best of all, joy. All of that awaits you in the arena.

Oh, and if you are doing it right, you will fail, you will fall. It isn’t a maybe, it is for sure. But what’s the alternative? Brene Brown reminds us, “It can be hard [in the arena] but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”

Jesus knows something about finding his way out of the darkness, he knows something about being knocked down. His face was marred by dust, sweat and blood, too. When we follow him, he’ll lead us into the arena, where it can hurt, but that’s also where we will experience all that God has planned for our lives: it is there where we will live up to our greatest potential for joy, creativity, and love. You are not alone in your brave, scary place. Lo, he is with us always, even to the end of the age.

So, what’s under your bed? What’s keeping you on the sidelines? If it’s been twenty-five years since you thought about your dream, don’t worry, it is never too late to be brave. Come join us inside the arena, you’ll be in good company. I’m learning that #daringgreatly is not only trending, it is God’s will for our lives.  

Dead Man Walking: The View from the Pit

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While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘Take and eat; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.’ When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.”  Matthew 26: 26-28, 30

Tonight is opening night for our local opera company, Opera Delaware. I’ve had the pleasure of playing oboe and English horn in their production of “Dead Man Walking.” (Learn more here.) The story is a true one—based on the famous book, turned Oscar-winning movie, by nun, Sister Helen Prejean, C.S.J. The opera tells the story of Sister Helen becoming the pen pal and then spiritual guide for a murder (Joseph de Rocher) who waits on death row. The libretto is by Terrance McNally and the exquisite score is by American composer Jake Heggie.

All these hours in the pit have had me remembering one of my favorite things about opera: Leitmotif. This German term describes the musical snippet (a melody, rhythm, or harmonic progression) used to represent a person, place, thing or situation in music. Now you might be tempted to think that John Williams invented this concept when he composed the soundtrack to Star Wars (cue Princess Lea theme), but it turns out it’s been around, as far as musicologists can tell, as long as people have been using music to tell stories. 

Great composers take the leitmotif phenomenon to a new level—allowing the themes of particular characters to morph and change just as the people they represent were doing during the events of the story. In “Dead Man Walking,” Heggie is masterful with his use of leitmotif, and I’ve enjoyed imagining the action of the opera from down below in the pit, as each character comes alive through music.

When you break the word down, the literal meaning of leitmotif is something close to “guiding” or “leading motive.” Lately the concept of leitmotif is resonating deeply with me on a spiritual level.  

Being a character’s musical representative is not something I take it lightly. As the English horn player, I play the leitmotif of the mother of the murder, Mrs. De Rocher. Her beautiful and sad melody, as she pleads to the judge to spare her son’s life in her first scene, has been entrusted to my care. What a privilege to get to weep with her in the lilting and searching music, as she sings: “I’d gladly give my own life to undo what happened.” I get to be a key part of the scene, to help her express her longing and pain, to guide the listener into her breaking heart. 

And isn’t it amazing that the themes say just as much about the composer who wrote them as the characters they represent? It is clear that Jake Heggie feels compassion and love for the defendant’s mother because of the way he treats her leitmotifs.  

I got to thinking the other night during rehearsal, how life can sometimes feel like an opera. I don’t know about you, but I often find myself reaching to music to help me process my emotions, wishing there was a soundtrack swelling at moments of intense joy and leitmotifs for the characters of my life. It got me wondering what my leitmotif would sound like, if it would be as unique as my finger print, if it would reflect the depth of my experience being alive. What would my theme, in this opera of my life, be guiding people towards? 

In the passage at the beginning of this post, from the Gospel of Matthew, we find Jesus singing, too. He leads the disciples in a hymn following the Passover meal, as would have been the custom. I found it interesting that more than one Gospel writer depicts this little detail. To think of Jesus leading them in a song of praise, he himself a dead man walking, that fact breaks my heart open.

In his final moments before arrest and execution, here was Jesus, God’s leitmotif, guiding us in a praise song at his darkest hour. 

If Jesus found God worthy to be praised in that moment, then his song tells us that God’s character is one that will never forsake us. It shows us that, regardless of all the brokenness and heartbreak in the world, God is good and worthy of our songs. Jesus reminds us that, even in moments of intense pain, we can rest in the knowledge that his kingdom of justice and love will have no end, regardless of the pits we find ourselves in. 

As I look up tonight during the curtain call (because, let’s me honest, I cannot look away from my music even for a second), I am so thankful for Sister Helen for sharing her beautiful and harrowing story with the world. I am thankful for the power of forgiveness, which she reminds us we can find only in God. As we in the orchestra have the privilege of singing the characters’ sighs that are too deep for words, I remember that if we are willing to listen for it, our Creator’s leitmotif tells us of God’s love as it calls to us. Jesus’ song leads us into the very heart of God. It is there we find hope in the face of cynicism, forgiveness in the face of bitter resentment, and love in the face of hatred and despair.

Sometimes this opera of life, with its powerful counterpoint of pain and beauty, leaves us with nothing to do but sing.

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Women’s Work

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Tissot, “Woman behold thy son”

Mary Magdalene

The squabbling soldiers gone, the women got
What fell to them. Beneath the drooping eyes
Of Pilate’s guard (the afternoon was hot)
They laid him out and shooed the stinging flies,

Rubbed linen strips with myrrh and aloes, rinsed
The dust from limbs whose wounds no longer bled.
As if the crown still pressed there, Mary winced
When, with a separate cloth, they wrapped his head;

And she recalled the pressure of his palm,
The scent of spikenard, Simon’s baleful stare,
And how, the whole house filling with the balm,
She wiped his wet feet with her loosened hair.

Days later, at the empty tomb alone,
She thought first of his pierced and broken feet
And wept, incredulous. But he was gone,
The wrappings, neatly rolled, still faintly sweet.

A gardener was bending in the shade
Among the gravestones. Trembling with dismay,
She cried, “Where is he? Tell me where you’ve laid
His body. Who has taken him away?”

He didn’t answer. When she called again,
The stranger stood and took a step or two.
Her fear became bewilderment. And then
He said her name, and suddenly she knew.

 —Catherine Tufariello

I’m not surprised one bit that it was the women who were with him at the cross until the end, who prepared his body for burial and waited at the tomb, even after the other disciples had fled.

When I gave birth to Eva Ruth, the entire team of doctors, nurses, and surgeons in the operating room happened to be female. In fact, of the sixteen people there (including the baby in utero), the only male was my husband, Edwin. It was a powerful thing to experience; being led into motherhood, just as my daughter was led into the world, at the hands of women. Later, when I reflected on it, something about it felt ancient and tribal—all the women huddled around me doing the difficult and messy work of bringing forth new life. I felt so taken care of, so seen and safe.

No, I am not surprised that it was the women who were left standing by at this terrible hour. I know many women with that particular fierceness and fortitude, and not just a high tolerance for pain, but endurance. My mother-in-law immediately comes to mind. She swoops in and cares for me in ways that I hadn’t realized I needed; making food, sweeping floors, taking night duty with Eva—not just for me, but other women of the tribe who need help. She pours herself out in service of others, a selflessness that never seems to waver. Some might call these things “women’s work,” but after the events of Maundy Thursday, when Jesus had washed their feet and reminded the disciples that he had come to serve and not be served, it might make more sense to call this, not women’s work, but Christ’s work.  

Today, I find myself wondering if I would have stayed with the women at the cross. Could I have watched the gruesome and horrific death of someone I loved, someone I had believed would change everything? Would I have remained at the cross with someone who had included me when everyone else just pretended I didn’t exist, someone who made me feel seen and safe, but who’s death seemed to confirm my deepest fears about the world? Could you stand by and watch? 

As we see the Marys and others there at the foot of the cross, risking their lives to be with Jesus in his darkest hour, I’m so moved that the writers of the Gospel included this detail; I’m so grateful to those women—Jesus’ female tribe— refusing to leave him.

As Eva left the womb by women’s hands, so Jesus entered the tomb by these hands, too.

These acts of service that, as the poem above says, “fall to us,” give us each an opportunity to be like Christ. These women remind me of my own innate fierceness, the power of vulnerability, and of the importance of showing up for our tribe.

They soothe my agitated, knee-jerk, feminist reaction to so many stories in the Bible; helping me believe what the Gospel writers say is true. Why include details about women when their presence as key players in the story and as witnesses of the resurrection could only discount the credibility of the story to begin with? (Historical note: women’s testimony was not admissible in court at this time.) Jesus’s ministry was inclusive and ours should be too.

They give me hope that when we stand by each other in times of trial and desperation— as painful as those moments can be— if we are willing to see him, we find Jesus calling our name, confirming our identity as brothers and sisters, beloved children of God. 

The women remind us, as someone once said, “the ground is level at the foot of the cross”—that forgiveness and grace are offered to everyone. From the Garden of Eden to the dark and dusty hill of Golgotha, it was the women who would first receive the Good News, and I am not surprised one bit.

Artist-God in the Garden

 “Gethsemane’s Dolor” by Gloria Ssali

 “Gethsemane’s Dolor” by Gloria Ssali

“We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” Romans 8:28

“CONGRATULATIONS! YOUR GIFT OF A NEW DAY IS HERE!!!!” This is how the daily devotional podcast I’ve been listening to begins. The extreme positivity of it, how it is so unapologetically cheery: well, to put it lightly, it makes me cringe. I am constantly rolling my eyes at this woman’s voice and at this opening, especially. Just to complete your mental picture of the start of the show: those words are shouted in a high-pitched squeal by someone who is clearly AMPED. All the while, music, that sounds like something they’d play during Cross Fit, is blaring. When I first heard this, it took everything I had not to turn it off right then and there. Yet, for some reason, I kept listening.

I mentioned this to a friend, assuming she’d agree with me, (after all, eye-rolling is one of our favorite pastimes) but before she even had a chance to respond, I stopped myself. I heard something in my voice that shocked me. Out of my mouth came a new kind of negativity, laced with cynicism. Why did I find this message so off-putting? Mary Oliver reminded me yesterday in her poem and it didn’t bother me at all. Am I really so gloomy that a couple of minutes of hyped-up inspirational speaking makes me roll my eyes? Was it the message that bothered me or the delivery? If it annoyed me so badly, why did I keep listening, day after day? 

We artists have a tendency to glorify sadness. It’s hard not to when it can lead to so much productivity. During periods of hardship, I’ve seen seeds of inspiration bloom and turn pain into something beautiful to channel into my music. I thought being melancholy was a prerequisite to being artsy. Yet, as I noticed the negativity in my voice discussing the podcast, I’m wondering if maybe this “suffering artist” persona isn’t working for me anymore, that maybe God is calling me into something more joyful. 

When I was thinking about becoming Christian again, after years away from the church in college, I remember worrying that going back would mean giving up my emotional artist self, trading it in for the saccharine-sweet caricature of the Christians in my mind. I remember hearing the verse from Romans above, and resisting the temptation to eye roll. Christianity wasn’t for real people with real problems. It wasn’t for artists who really sought to understand the depths of pain and loss, those of us who used suffering, who turned it into something beautiful.

During that time, I found myself at a “seekers night” at a church in NYC. A famous orchestra conductor was giving a talk about her conversion. I can’t recall her exact words, but it went something like this: “Most people will lead you to believe that becoming a Christian will make you happier. That was not the case for me, at least not in the way I thought at the time. In reality, it was right after I became a Christian that my life fell apart. All I can do now is thank God that I had faith in that moment, because who knows where I would be without it.”

For her, Jesus was not an inspirational speaker or a podcast host, waxing optimistic or pushing self-help advice. The Christianity that she was describing, this Jesus: who would sit with you in your suffering, maybe this was someone I could get behind. This Christianity did not deny suffering and loss, but centered around a man who cried when his friend died, who loved his mother, who understood how pain and joy go hand in hand when you really love someone deeply. I suddenly realized how judgmental I was being, assuming all Christians had been brainwashed to forget their problems or were too naive to see the pain around them.

One of the things that finally led me back to faith in God was the image of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, praying for those people who were, in that very moment, abandoning him, sentencing him to death. He prayed for those who would kill him. He prayed for us.

Kneeling in the garden, he struck me as a fellow artist—someone who understood the mixture of sorrow and joy that is life, someone who could see the beauty in all the suffering. God, through Jesus, could harness the utter catastrophe of death on a cross and turn it into the most beautiful work of love, one that would literally save the world.

Believing Jesus was an artist, a deep-feeler, lover of my soul, that was what led me back to church.

And what did he pray for us at his last hour? Well, he prayed for us to have joy.  This means that Christianity is a faith that makes room for our suffering and pain, because God suffered. And since, in his deepest moment of pain, he prayed not that we would not suffer but when we would, we would have joy like him—I know I can rest in the truth that God is working all things together for good.

And I do not need to roll my eyes, because it’s complex and painful and real and beautiful and true.

So with a totally reasonable amount of enthusiasm, allow me to remind you again: congratulations, your gift of a new day is here. Maybe it is hard for me to stomach the unabashed positivity of the podcast every morning, but I still listen. I listen because it reminds me that Jesus prayed for me to have joy at his last hour. And maybe my joy doesn’t have to look like a cheerful southern lady screaming the good news at me, and that’s ok. I am working to be less cynical and remember the joy Jesus prayed for, and I will with God’s help.

I listen because it reminds me that we artists do not have to stay in the “suffering artist” narrative, because Jesus himself did not stay there. I know that our faith makes space for all expressions of things that God is working out for good, even when we cannot see the goodness yet.

Christianity can hold your problems, it can hold your pain—having faith in God does not mean pretending they do not exist. 

On this day where we remember God in the garden, I believe more than ever: this Artist-God, creator of all things, can harness our ugliest suffering, as he did Christ’s, and use it to work out exquisitely beautiful forgiveness, justice, hope, and peace....sounds pretty artistic to me.

your one wild and precious life

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Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean-

the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don't know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

—Mary Oliver

I have this friend who you might call “crunchy.” She drinks out of mason jars in lieu of plastic cups. She makes her own yogurt. She always smells like some earthy essential oil. I enjoy her presence and these idiosyncrasies of her character, even when she is offering unsolicited advice for natural health remedies and pointing out how I can reduce my carbon footprint. I’m constantly inspired by how much she delights in and cherishes God’s creation, even though she wouldn’t call herself a believer in any higher power. I think almost anyone, religious or not, can sense something sacred in nature. I like how Mary Oliver captures that so beautifully in this poem; how it seems the most natural thing ever, when watching grasshoppers, to think about prayer and the brevity of this precious life. 

John the Baptist, a preacher and forerunner to Christ, was another character who’d have been called “crunchy” if the term existed in his day. We are told in the Gospel of Matthew that “in those days he [John] came preaching in the wilderness of Judea...his clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey.” (Matthew 3: 1-3) John’s crunchiness was an important part of his identity, as it fulfilled the prophecy from Isaiah that said, “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’” (Isaiah 40:3)

I’ve often wondered why the news to prepare the way for the Messiah had to come from the wilderness. Why not “a voice of one calling in the temple” or “a voice of one calling in the palace”? I believe it’s another example of God turning our expectations on their head, reminding us to look in the very last place we’d expect to find God acting. Instead of on a powerful stallion, Jesus road into Jerusalem on a humble donkey. It makes perfect sense then that his forerunner was a hippie prophet, who washed away sins, not in some purified fountain of holy water, but in a muddy river right there in the neighborhood. If we are willing to notice, like Mary Oliver does, the simplest, humblest, earthiest things can carry the most sacred and divine significance when we see the way God uses them. 

Prayer: God of grasshopper and muddy water, thank you that the voice cried out in the wilderness, as it reminds us of your abundance, in the unabashed blossoming of your world each spring. Thank you for surpassing all of our expectations, for choosing the most unlikely and crunchiest characters to lead us to you. Help us to pay attention, to pray in all the ways that we can, especially by rejoicing in all you have made. Help us as we seek to follow John’s call to prepare the way, help us to understand what that means for us this week. We submit to you all the plans for “our one wild and precious life,” knowing that only in Christ are we offered real freedom. In his name we pray, Amen. 

We will always have Paris

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“He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart.” Ecclesiastes 3:11

I’m sure you’ve seen the news by now, the harrowing images of the cathedral on fire, the world watching in horror. I heard over and over again on numerous broadcasts: Notre Dame was a church that took generations to build. In fact, no one who began construction on it was alive at its completion. For such history to be destroyed in mere hours....so heartbreaking. Firefighters made a decision as they tried to control the blaze: to let the roof burn (losing centuries-old timber) in order to save the iconic facade and bell towers. In the light of a new day, the fire is out, they are still surveying the damage, but the cathedral still stands.

My friend Ariana and I took a weekend trip to Paris from Germany when we were studying there back in 2007. We had both spent years in music history classes learning about all that had happened in and around Notre Dame Cathedral. (Polyphony was said to have started there, music with more than one independent voice). So, the church was at the top of my list of things to see, right after Eiffel Tower and the Mona Lisa.

When I saw the news of the fire and saw friends posting about their past trips, it took me back to that time—wandering around Paris, I looked for meaning, wondered where my life was headed.

I remember feeling such longing as I entered the church; longing to feel close to God (who I wasn’t even sure was real), longing to know if all these historical relicts my professors had taught me about still mattered, I yearned to feel valid, good-enough, secure. I was deep within your average 20-something quarter life crisis. I entered Paris with so many questions, and left with some selfies and tired feet. 

I don’t look back with judgement on that girl; in fact, I admire her. Those feelings of longing were real and completely founded. I believe they are questions we all ask—no matter our age—and when we let them, these questions can lead us right to God. And so the verse from Ecclesiastes reminds us— God has set our hearts for eternity, something beyond this world. And suddenly it’s clear why it hurts so much to lose even one spire of a church from the Middle Ages.

Just to be alive, to feel the spring Parisian sun on your face as you step outside, to have deep conversations with a friend as you walk along the Seine, having the privilege to stand before the artwork created by and cared for by our ancestors—of course we want it to go on forever. Even in times of pain and questioning or doubt, maybe especially in those times, we yearn for permanence, hoping beyond hope that it doesn’t have to end. All things being beautiful in their time, we want them to stay that way forever.  

As a Christian, I believe that we would not have a true longing for something that God does not plan on satisfying. Yet, even when I can convince myself of this reality— that one day all will be restored, eternally—it still hurts so badly to carry this eternal heart around in an impermanent chest, to feel it break at the sight of a falling spire. And in the waiting, I can’t help but ask, as the Psalmist does, “How long, O Lord?”

So we look on Tuesday to what we believe God is doing on Sunday with hope. As uncomfortable as it is in this in-between place, I want to follow Jesus into the darkness, believing that there will be light at the other side of the grave. Easter promises us that there is eternal restoration for Notre Dame and for our weary hearts, too. 

Prayer: Eternal God, thank you for the wonders of your creation, for the talent you have so freely given to your people so that generations are blessed by masterpieces that speak of your glory. Thank you for the eternity you have set in our hearts, even when that is painful. Help us to be patient while you work in your time to restore all that is lost. Help our questions lead us to you, as we seek to travel with Jesus this week from “the cross, to the grave, to the sky.” Let us be reenergized, heartened, and strengthened by his endurance, his patience, and his joy.  In his name we pray, Amen. 

 

Holy Week Devotional: International Bank of Dad

Each day during Holy Week I will be sharing poems, prayers, and visual art for meditation, in hopes of helping us make space for the Passion Narrative in a new way.

If you’re anything like me, this story is one you have heard many times. Once I had a conductor who used to say every Christmas when the orchestra was weary from playing the nineteenth Nutcracker Ballet of the season, “Put your heart and soul into each and every show, because this may be someone’s first time hearing it or their last.” My hope is that God will speak to our hearts, to move us deeply, whether this story is new or old to us, to remind us to be present in heart, soul, and mind this week.

Art has been a surefire way for me to feel God’s presence over the years. I have felt my heart burn within me as I listened to or played music, read poetry, or stood before a beautiful painting. And so I pray you’ll meet me here each day to seek God, the Artist behind all the beauty we see, to behold the Passion of Christ with new eyes.

Below is a poem by St. John of the Cross, a Spanish saint of the sixteenth century. I’ve included it in it’s original Spanish with an English translation.

Soneto a Cristo crucificado

No me mueve, mi Dios, para quererte

el cielo que me tienes prometido,

ni me mueve el infierno tan temido

para dejar por eso de ofenderte.

 ¡Tú me mueves, Señor!  Muéveme el verte       

clavado en una cruz y escarnecido;

muéveme ver tu cuerpo tan herido;

muévenme tus afrentas y tu muerte.

Muéveme en fin, tu amor, y en tal manera

que aunque no hubiera cielo, yo te amara,       

y aunque no hubiera infierno, te temiera.

No me tienes que dar porque te quiera,

pues aunque lo que espero no esperara,

lo mismo que te quiero te quisiera.

                  —St. John of the Cross

 

Sonnet to Christ Crucified

Heaven that you have promised me, my God,

Does not move me to love you.

Nor does hell so dreadful move me

To leave all that offends you.

 

You move me, Lord. It moves me to see you

Mocked, nailed to that cross.

It moves me to see your body so wounded.

Your dishonour moves me, and your death.

You move me to your love in such a way

That —even if there were no heaven— I would love you;

And —even if there were no hell— I would fear you.

 

You do not have to give to gain my love;

For —even if what I hope for becomes hopeless—

In the same way I love you, I would love you still.

—Translated by Stacy Shoop, 1996

 

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We bought my dad a t-shirt with the above image as a joke for Father’s Day. I remember him wearing it throughout our vacation to Florida one year, and getting laughs all over Disney World. When I think about all the ways my dad and the rest of my family have provided for me over the years, I can’t believe it: they sustained my life from infancy to adulthood, paid for my education, gave me food and shelter, etc. etc. And they didn’t just give me the things I needed, but most of the things I wanted, too. And yet, it was not all the things he gave me that made me love my dad. I loved him whether he bought me the new bike or not. 

This Tax Day, Monday of Holy Week, upon reading this beautiful poem of St. John of the Cross, it got me thinking about why we love God. Do we love God because we are promised heaven? Because we are afraid of hell? Do we seek to love God because of what God can do for us, because God can give us happiness, peace, joy, freedom? Is our relationship with God like a bank: do we believe we can earn credit by being righteous, expecting a pay out when we find ourselves in need? Or do we love God no matter the circumstances of our lives?  

I want to love God for the right reasons, to have a relationship that is not a transactional one. Like the poet says, I want to look to what God did in Jesus—his death and resurrection— I want to find that beautiful, lovely, life-changing. 

Prayer: Lord, help me “even when what I hope for becomes hopeless” to love you still, to look to the cross and let it transform my heart. Draw me closer to you this week. Amen.