Erasing Margins

 A mosaic created by Jamie Hutchinson, a member of the Creative Vision Factory and our Artist’s Way Creative Cluster at Grace Church. 

A mosaic created by Jamie Hutchinson, a member of the Creative Vision Factory and our Artist’s Way Creative Cluster at Grace Church. 

“Looking at his disciples, he said: "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.’” Luke 6:20

I should have learned by now that when Jesus makes statements like that, he doesn’t often mean what I think he means.

When I started working at Grace Church and began Lumina, I was longing for a place to explore my feelings about creativity and spirituality. I had come from many years of frantic hustling—trying to make it in the world of classical music and academia, feeling empty and burnt out, wondering whether or not my work connected to my faith at all.

I found myself reading “The Artist’s Way” which takes on these exact questions. Through the church, we started the first Artist’s Way Creative Cluster, which brought anyone who called themselves an artist into community each week to discuss and wrestle their way through Julia Cameron’s guided tour of their soul. It’s a tough book, albeit healing and formative. The book calls the reader deep into their past to discover (and attempt to heal) the emotional wounds that may be affecting their creativity and freedom today. Yet, the book has this ability to call you into the future as well—to bring your attention to your dreams and all that your “artist child” wants to express and explore.

Sitting around the table with that first group was inspiring, but what was about to happen would leave me standing on holy ground. Being new Wilmington, someone from that first group introduced me to Michael Kalmbach, director of Creative Vision Factory, a place (right near the church) that provides individuals on the behavioral health spectrum opportunities for self-expression, empowerment, and recovery through the arts. It’s this bustling peer-run art studio where members can come and make art, receive personalized instruction, and even participate in public art projects like building mosaics throughout the city. When we were due to start the next Artist’s Way Creative Cluster, I decided to reach out to Michael and folks at the Factory to see if anyone there would be interested in joining.

Soon that Creative Cluster was 15 strong. I’ll never forget pulling up twenty minutes before that first class to find 3 or 4 people outside of the church with suitcases and plastic bags full of all their earthly belongings. I quickly learned that those who are houseless often show up at unpredictable times. You would too if you had nowhere to put your stuff.

I’d never been in a room with a such a diverse group of people. On one side of the table was a wealthy retiree in her 60’s who’d just finished life-coach certification. Next to her was a highly tattooed recovering heroine addict. Across from them was a large man with nicotine stained fingers and a soft genuine smile who smelled like he hadn’t showered in weeks, and then there was the 50-something lady who mentioned she owned an orchard with 500 different kinds of apples.

These people looked so different from the outside, but at that table we all had one thing in common: we were artists

The discussion we had over the next 12 weeks wasn’t always easy. There was a point I hired a certified art therapist to help me as the group got bigger and bigger. I felt out of my league. I went to the group feeling so anxious. I carried the stories I heard there with me when I left—ones of abuse, mental illness, and hard times...interwoven with stories of God’s faithfulness—hope, inspiration and healing through creativity. Without fail though, I left the group each week feeling I had witnessed something truly holy. This was what church was supposed to be—we show up and are accepted just as we are, because we call ourselves Children of God. 

The group also showed me that many of the folks from Creative Vision Factory did not need to heal their creative impulse like I did. It turned out that they were far more connected to their Creator then I was, too. I had spent all this time relying on my achievements and success as an artist and yet I felt empty.

Those struggling with where their next meal was coming from had an abundance of hope and healing to offer me, and for that I am eternally grateful.

In his book, “Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion,” Father Gregory Boyle, a priest and advocate for the poor in one of the most impoverished neighborhood in Los Angeles, said, “Soon we imagine, with God, a circle of compassion. Then we imagine no one standing outside of that circle, moving ourselves closer to the margins so that the margins themselves will be erased. We stand there with those whose dignity has been denied. We locate ourselves with the poor and the powerless and the voiceless. At the edges, we join the easily despised and readily left out. We situate ourselves right next to the disposable so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away.” This Creative Cluster was the first time I had even come close to seeing the margin disappear, and it was hands down the most powerful spiritual experience I’ve ever had.

All along, I had read the scripture above and thought that God was only calling us to love and value the poor in our midst...and surely he was saying that. And yet, I’m starting to see the radical nature of this scripture’s deeper meaning. Through my experience of working with those the world considers “poor,” I’m realizing something about my own poverty, a spiritual one. For it was the folks on the margins that taught me how to really rely on God, when God is all you have. Their creativity and therefore their spirituality were their lifelines to staying clean, staying hopeful, staying alive. I had never had to depend on God like that. 

So when Jesus says “Blessed are the poor,” maybe he’s saying: happy are those who are aware of the spiritual poverty within their own hearts, as well as the material poverty around them. Happy are those who are humble enough to see their privilege and can admit that all that they have comes from God. Happy are those who see that they aren’t so different from those the world finds disposable. Happy are those who can widen the circle of compassion until the margins disappear.

With this mentality, the Kingdom of God is starting to look a lot like the Creative Vision Factory, and for that, I am thankful.  

Taste and See

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What happened once I started distributing communion was the truly disturbing, dreadful realization about Christianity: You can't be a Christian by yourself.” 

Sara Miles, Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion

In every relationship there are always those initial few weeks in which you both work hard crafting your image. Early in my relationship with my husband, I invited him over to my apartment for dinner. I really liked him, and I wanted to impress him by making him a (seemingly) effortless tasty gourmet meal. Now before your traditional-gender-role alarms go off, I must mention that I am a feminist, and I’m someone who’s found little use for old-fashioned ideas like “a woman’s place is in the kitchen” and “the way to a man’s heart is through the stomach” etc. but there was something about this relationship that made me want to prepare food for him, a man who loves to eat. It suprised me, this impulse to spend time preparing a meal for a man I admired. I pictured us enjoying it with a nice bottle of wine and great conversation. I even dreamt of us doing the dishes together after the meal!

Looking back on this evening, I was pretty “on the nose”  with my recipe choice—Ina Garten’s Engagement Chicken, which jokingly was supposed to elicit a proposal from anyone who walks into the home of the one preparing it. Of course Edwin didn’t propose that night (to be honest, he prefers salmon, as I know now), and I can’t remember who did the dishes. Flash forward a few years...married with a small child, we are lucky if we get to eat dinner together like that once a week. 

When I first came back to Christianity as a young adult, the idea of communion kind of creeped me out. Somehow, as a child, the details of the Eucharist had never really sunk in. I liked the idea of commemorating Jesus’s last night on earth with a big meal, but this mysterious act of partaking in the body and blood of Christ—which, by the way, we call a “celebration” but can feel like a funeral—as a new-old Christian, it mystified me and gave me pause. I wasn’t surprised to learn that the highly persecuted early Christians were accused of cannibalism. 

But lately the idea of communion and its meaning have been expanding for me. In his book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis talks about how the fact that it is through the sacraments of our faith (that is, the things we do) that the spiritual becomes the physical.  He says, “There is no good trying to be more spiritual than God. God never meant man to be a purely spiritual creature. That is why He uses material things like bread and wine to put the new life into us. We may think this rather crude and unspiritual. God does not: He invented eating. He likes matter. He invented it.”

I like this image of God: a love interest impressing us with a meal. Imagine God in the kitchen preparing food for you, calling you to remember the moment of Jesus’ humanity and his sacrificial love. When I think back on that meal with Edwin, I don’t remember whether or not the food was good, but I remember our conversation. I remember our connection. And that is what is offered us at the Lord’s Table, too. God has given us an act, which gets inside our very being and elevates the mundane act of eating to a holy one. This is an opportunity for Communion in truest sense of the word—coming together in unity, with God and with each other.

This Sunday is World Communion Sunday and Christians of every variety will all partake in the Lord’s Supper in celebration of all we have in common. It also happens to be the baptism of our little Eva, so our family is blessed to participate in two of these special sacraments in one day. 

An ordinary sprinkle of water on Eva’s head becomes a powerful symbol of her identity in Christ. An ordinary bite of bread and sip of juice become food for this journey, a reminder of a God who came to pursue us and who gives us concrete actions to experience new life in community. We can’t be Christians by ourselves, as Sara Miles reminds us. 

The image I was attempting to craft in front of my future husband—one of domesticity and easy-breezy-beautiful-Martha-Stewart living—he saw right through it, and thank goodness. Being who I really am is so much easier, and turns out he finds that person lovable. And when we come to the table to receive Jesus at communion, we can come as we are, too. Yet, at that meal, if we are lucky, we will walk away forever changed.

Garden of Eatin’

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“Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day...” Genesis 3:8a

Watching someone try food for the first time is pretty cool. My husband seemed legit disappointed when she didn’t like avocado. (He jokingly said: “What kind of Latina doesn’t like aguacate??”) I am perplexed by her unabashed love of carrots. Regardless of her taste, this exploration into the world of solids has been full of wonder and delight for both Edwin and me. We are in the heart of purée territory these days, and because the internet makes you afraid of everything, I’ve been making my own baby food.

It’s pretty simple, actually, and I’m enjoying it. This is the first time I’ve gotten a glimpse of how people could love gardening. You can imagine my shock when I (a true southerner) steamed some sweet potatoes and threw them in the food processor (no butter, no cinnamon, no marshmallows, no sugar) and they came out tasting like candy. (Someone should tell Paula Dean.)

To think that that delicousness came from the ground! 

I’ve often thought about the first person who discovered we could eat certain foods—I am thankful for their creativity and out-of-the-box thinking. To grab a giant root looking thing or a potentially poisonous berry and think, “Hmm, looks delicious! Let’s try it!”—that’s thinking like an artist.

When I’m making food for baby Eva, just like when I’m making music, I feel like I’m collaborating with the divine.  

It suddenly seems like a miracle that something so sweet and nutritious could exist, and not just exist, but hold essential nutrients for our thriving. This is, I think, one of the reasons why people love diets like Whole 30 and Paleo. There’s a joy I’m finding in being connected to the food’s source, and shockingly, it feels similar to the joy of being connected to our Life Source. I’ve shared some of my complex feelings about food, so for me this is progress. 

The delight I’ve found in connecting to the earth reminded me of the above verse from Genesis. When I came upon it again this week, I had a realization:

God’s connection to creation is one of participation.

The verse doesn’t say God walked in the garden everyday, but it left me wondering if God might have made it a habit. And why the “cool of the day”? What was the “sound of the Lord God walking”? Whatever the answers, it seemed that the God of this verse was more than a omnipresent divinity who had made the world and ruled over it. This God seemed intent on being among us, not above us. 

Hebrew Interlinear resource helped me explore some of my questions about it. I learned “sound” is often translated to mean “voice,” so it could say “they heard God’s voice.” And—the most interesting thing to me—the phrase “the cool of the day” uses the same word (spirit/breath/wind) from Genesis 1:2—“And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” So it could mean: they heard God’s voice in the wind or breeze. 

I like to think that God had made a habit of walking there, and like a fragrance permeating a space, God’s voice was carried by the wind throughout the garden. Suddenly, there I go again, picturing Jesus. I have a habit of doing that whenever God takes on human form in the Hebrew Scriptures. When Jacob wrestles with God (Genesis 32), when the mystery man appears in the fiery furnace (Daniel 3), at creation (Genesis 1, John 1)...I love imagining that human form to be the Christ, in history all along, waiting, even still, to be fully known. So, here in Genesis, I imagine Jesus coming to delight in a daily paseíto in this beautiful garden creation with Adam and Eve (add them to the list of beautiful things that came from the ground), and together they enjoy the breeze, that is God’s voice, rustling through the trees. 

With this image, we see a God who’s not afraid to get dirt under fingernails, who enjoys creation right along side us, watching us taste and see all the mysterious and magnificent things within it.

I wonder if Jesus was thinking about these things when he was in that other garden, Gethsemane.

Was it one of those nights with no wind at all? 

Just like I’m enjoying getting a front row seat to see my daughter explore all this world has it offer, I believe our God delights in our delight (Zephaniah 3:17.) That from the garden of Eden to Gethsemane and back, God cares about this place. So much so, he came to live among us, to begin the work of repairing and restoring all that we and this creation were made to be. From the sweetest potato to the perfect aguacate, one day we’ll enjoy the fruits of God’s creation together in peace, while the wind of God’s Spirit sets our hair to dancing.

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I think that I shall never see/a poem lovely as a tree*

 Photo Cred: Marshall Everett 

Photo Cred: Marshall Everett 

“Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid.” Micah 4:4

There’s a part in the musical “Hamilton” where George Washington has decided not to run for re-election and he sings the above verse from the prophet Micah. He explains to Alexander Hamilton why he’s done being president, as he dictates his farewell address to him. He says he wants to sit under his own vine and fig tree—“a moment alone in the shade, at home in the nation we’ve made.”

One of the many genius things about “Hamilton” is that Lin-Manuel Miranda knows the writings of the founding fathers so well that he is able to weave real historical quotes into the lyrics and dialogue of the musical. I learned this week that the real George Washington actually quoted this verse more than once in his public writings, most notably in this beautiful letter to a Jewish Congregation in Rhode Island in 1790. While it’s depicted in the spirit of his rest and retirement in “Hamilton,” it was more often used to explore his dreams of religious liberty and peace that Washington loved to evoke in his writings. This all came to mind as I was thinking of figs this week (that’s our Icon), and it seemed timely, as it’s peace week and today happens to be the International Day of Peace. 

In thinking of this verse as it’s portrayed in these contexts, something came up for me:  

Would sitting under my own vine and fig tree make me feel peaceful and at rest? Not really...because I am not so good with plants. 

No one told me retiring to the peaceful Kingdom of God involved gardening.

Do you ever play the game I like to call, “instead ofs”? Say to yourself, “Instead of _______, I wish the Bible said ________. Well, I wish it said: “Everyone will sit under their own cabana and drink their own piña coladas” but, instead, we will tend to our own bushes, we will work the ground to make something beautiful and fruitful and it will belong to us

So, in this peaceful Kingdom of God that Micah is describing, we may actually be doing a little work. If we read it this way, I think it’s saying something deep about God’s character.

There is nothing in this creation that God will fail to redeem—and I don’t know about you, but work surely needs redemption from where I sit.

My attitudes around my work are far from peaceful. I toggle between burning the candle at both ends and burning out. I put too much value in how I’m performing as an artist and teacher, and when it doesn’t go perfectly, I feel defeated and lose my joy.

Somewhere along the way, my work became my worth.

And when you’re in the business of making things, like we artists do— making personal, deeply-felt things—when your vine and fig tree are synonymous to who you are, your work (read: worth) feels particularly vulnerable, volatile, and the opposite of peaceful. 

Maybe this verse is more about claiming the space for our own personal gardens to bloom and bear fruit. If so, it convinces me that God cares about not only how we live, but the art we make.

Any gardener knows that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, in regards to working with the earth. My mother-in-law, a certified “plant whisperer,” comes to our home every couple of weeks and moves the plants around, watering, pruning, talking sweetly to them.... and lo and behold, these actions yield amazing results, better than Edwin or I could ever do. There’s a Spirit in collaboration with her in making those plants flourish, something beyond fertilizer and water and sunlight in the right amounts.

What if we too have a Collaborator with us in our work and in our harvest?

This wouldn’t allow us to take all the credit when things go well nor despair too deeply when they don’t.  

The life that George Washington longed for and the Kingdom of God that Micah foretold aren’t here yet. But, I believe that when Jesus came to live among us, parts of that world have entered into this one and remnants of it exist today. When we open ourselves up to the potential of our creative gardens within, we claim our spot for a fig tree and vine, a spot that can only be claimed by us. And our work matters, the things we make matter, so much so that God wants us to perfect that relationship with things to which we tend.

I want to make space for my creative self to be open to collaborating with God...who, by the way, lest we forget...is willing to get into the dirt with us. That means courage, patience, gentleness, and the right amounts of fertilizer, water and sunlight...and only you and your Maker can create the fertile ground for your fig tree and vine to become all that they were destined to be.

Next Tuesday, September 25, at Grace, we are starting a new Artist’s Way Creative Cluster—around these very topics of creativity and spirituality. If you’re looking for a community to help you heal or activate your creative impulse, this is it! 

There were surely people who made George Washington afraid as he tended to his vines and fig trees in the fertile fruit of his labor, America. And so there will be those making us afraid for a time, too. But we wait in the hope that the great Collaborator will return one day to bring the real peace—redeeming our relationships with each other, with our work, and with that elusive thing called rest.  

 *Title comes from the poem “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer

Water, Water Everywhere

 On one of the many bodies of water nearby, the Delaware River, during a recent sail on the Kalmar Nyckel.

On one of the many bodies of water nearby, the Delaware River, during a recent sail on the Kalmar Nyckel.

An outsider might not think that there are perks to being a pastor’s wife. I never thought I’d end up here, to be honest, being married to a pastor. As with any career, there are pros and cons to having your spouse be called to a life of spiritual shepherdry. Here are just a few:

Pro: You feel like God really hears your prayers because you’ve got an eloquent pray-er in your back pocket. (I do believe that God hears everyone’s prayers equally...but still, the more eloquent the better.)

Con: Sometimes, when I’m really hungry (read: hangry) I’d rather not take the time to bless the food. 

Pro: Speaking of food, lots of church people bring you meals, hold the baby... basically support and love you like you’re their family.

Con: Sundays can be long days. 

Pro: If you’re in a spiritual drought, you’ve got someone who not only knows and loves you intimately, but someone who knows and loves the one who made you intimately, and is trained in pastoral care, no less. Edwin’s good at helping me keep things in perspective.

Con: Travel to see my family is always impossible on Christmas. 

So, the pros definitely outweigh the cons. Currently, my favorite part of being married to Edwin is dreaming big of what the church can do, especially in regards to planning worship and sermon series in particular. I know that sounds so dorky, but all we need for an awesome date night is a flip chart or a dry erase board for brainstorming! #lame

I haven’t always loved church, (more on that later) but these days, I really love weekly worship and the community that forms when people come together in Jesus’ name. People will say the church is dying, but I think it’s just changing, and it’s exciting to be part of that change.

It’s hard to pinpoint when and why my mind changed about this...it happened before I even met Edwin, actually. I think church used to feel at best like school—you dread going back, but once you get there it’s not so bad. And at its worst like a chore—a necessary evil to make your parents or grandparents happy. But now, since I started seeing church as a fueling station—a place to fill the tank after a long week, a place to gather all the things I need to satisfy me for the journey, a headquarters for the relief efforts sent into the world to help—I look forward to it. And being married to a pastor means having the ability to ask (or in some cases demand) all my questions about faith to be answered, and from the pulpit, no less.  

That’s what I think church should be most of all—a place to ask your questions and not feel like you’re screaming into an empty cave or met with angry glares, a place to come and be reminded that you are loved, no matter what you’ve done or failed to do. Lastly, a place where you can’t just stay the way you are, because encountering Love like that changes you.

The latest sermon series at Grace is called ICONS, and I feel the need to tell everyone that this particular line of preaching was my idea. I’ve wanted to have discussion around these topics for years.

Here’s the premise: “We live in a culture that values images--just think of social media, movies, and our ever-present phones.  We are surrounded by images that mean something to us, or might even offend us. We find several reoccurring images in the Bible that hold lots of meaning. What can they teach us about God, ourselves, and our world?”

Take for example, water... this week’s icon. What comes to mind when you think of Biblical images of water? Creation of the world, Noah and the flood, parting of the Red Sea, Moses striking the rock, Amos’ flowing torrents of justice, Jesus turning water into wine, Jesus with the woman at the well, Baptism, Psalm 1’s tree by the stream, Moses in the basket sent down the river, etc. etc. 

This archetypal image in the Bible would have spoken to ancient readers differently than it does us, right? Or maybe not? That’s what is so interesting. Water is a necessity for life for them, and us, even now... and so what is God saying in this....The Gospel According to Water? 

I like to imagine God and the other members of the Trinity sitting around brainstorming, too.

The use of this image is genius, in my opinion. The thing that makes it timeless is its connection to our daily life and sustenance. Each time we wash our hands, drink from the nifty water bottles that keep things cold for 12 hours, flush the toilet, take a shower, water the plants, listen to the rain...there is that epic story of God again. And yet, it’s a complex one. It is not just a feel-good image of flowing streams and thirst quenching liquids. For me, those stories of watery destruction keep interrupting the more idyllic images, and I don’t know what to do with them.  (As I type this, my family down south is battening down the hatches in preparation for Hurricane Florence, for goodness sake.) 

And yet, Jesus called himself the Living Water.

Maybe the reason why there are these contradictory images of water throughout the Bible is so we can get that Jesus is the ultimate thirst quencher and the place to go for a true deep (and yet gentle) steam clean. He’s got the water that will satisfy a thirsty ancient middle eastern woman (John 4), but also a 21st century pastor’s wife armed with a Brita filter and lots and lots of questions. This water that Jesus has is hot enough to clean us, but does not burn.  And can you imagine never being thirsty again? That’s an amazing story.

I hope you’ll join us on this journey through the Bible’s icons. What are the images of the Bible that mean the most to you: Light? Bread? Figs? Gardens? Salt? 

The ultimate pro of this life being so closely tethered to God’s church are all those in the boat alongside Edwin and me...that means you. Speaking of boats, Jesus walked on water! There’s another one!

 

 

 


 

Praise be!

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Now that you’ve taken that picture in for a second and have hopefully stopped laughing, let me describe what you’re seeing here. That, my dear readers, is what a *free* glamour shot session at the Abbeville (SC) Career Center circa 1990 will get you. Pardon the glare on the photo. This is actually a picture of a picture. The original resurfaced because my sister found it in a closet of an old house that my grandparents owned. The original was....get this...24 X 36 inches....that’s movie poster size. My grandmother had it blown up for our viewing pleasure. Not as a joke, at least, I don’t think. My favorite part is the remnants of fingernail polish on my thumb, so strategically placed in the nonchalant-collar-grabbing pose, a standard of the 90’s. So close to being glamorous. So close. 

Once this picture resurfaced, we all have enjoyed laughing over it, including me. Something about it just makes me giddy. It takes me back to that day, parts of which I remember well. That girl was so excited to be there getting all glammed up. I remember when my mom and sister and I walked in to the house after we had finished our glamour sessions. We still had the hair and make-up but were in our normal clothes. (My hair probably had a wing span of 3 feet.) You should have seen the look on my dad’s face when the Judd sisters walked in the house inhabiting the bodies of his wife and daughters. 

I remember this encounter with my father more than I remember the shoot itself. I felt so beautiful and also so silly for feeling so beautiful, as I walked into the room to greet him. I watched my dad’s eyes eagerly for approval and praise, but also eager to laugh at the ridiculousness of that moment.  I can’t remember what my dad said now, but I know I felt like an imposter in that hair and make-up, and yet I know he smiled with me and made me feel seen. 

As we close our Summer in the Psalms series, I’ve been thinking a lot about praise. How much we long for praise from others, and also how praise makes the circle of enjoyment of something complete. The last Psalm, #150, is short and sweet:  

 1 Praise the Lord.

Praise God in his sanctuary;

    praise him in his mighty heavens.

2 Praise him for his acts of power;

    praise him for his surpassing greatness.

3 Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet,

    praise him with the harp and lyre,

4 praise him with timbrel and dancing,

    praise him with the strings and pipe,

5 praise him with the clash of cymbals,

    praise him with resounding cymbals.

6 Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.

When I hear the opening words to the psalm, it takes me back to another part of childhood. Choir robes, organ music, men in suits and ladies in hats...all the trappings of “church” as I knew it growing up.

The hard part about making this psalmist’s excitement to praise feel real in my daily life is about as easy as trying to reconcile the make-up/hair of that glamour photo session with an 8-year-old’s street clothes.

And yet, like I looked to my earthly father to share in my joy and silliness that day, I think it is possible to praise God in a way that feels real and genuine, silly and longing, encompassing all that is within us. When we share in the gratitude and relish in all we have in community with others, praising God starts to feel real. After all, the psalmist is describing an orchestra, not a solo. We celebrate with laughter and tears, with instruments that may clash, in the spirit of sheer extravagance and glorious ridiculousness that is our experience here. And doing that with others, whether through the ancient Christian rituals of our ancestors or applauding the sun as it sinks into the sea, the circle of praise and joy is complete.

So, here I am, sharing my most embarrassing photo on the internet. Isn’t it strange that the most embarrassing one is also my favorite? In the end, our praise here on earth is just a picture of a picture. For now we see dimly as if in a mirror, but one day we will praise face-to-face. Hopefully in a sequined jacket.

Temporary Temples

“I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” Psalm 139:14

 Eva and mom right after she was born.

Eva and mom right after she was born.

The idea of hating my body seems pretty strange when I think about it rationally. As far as bodies go, mine’s served me well. I mean, what’s my body ever done to garner such hatred from me? 

And even if my body had “failed” me in some major way, why hatred? Disappointment, frustration, anger, sure...but hatred?  

Oh, but I’ve spent so much of my life hating my body. It was particularly bad when I was in New York City— a city that brings out the eating disorder in even the most well-adjusted. I subsisted on coffee all day and counted pretzels to eat with the (carefully measured) 2 tablespoons of peanut butter for “dinner.” I’d keep a pair of size 2 jeans in my drawer, even though they were too tight to actually wear out of the house, because I would constantly make sure I could still button them. If I couldn’t, I would launch into a tailspin of self-hatred, which for me looked like constant exercise and careful eating (read: starving myself), and (mostly psychological) beratement as punishment. 

Thank God I am able to manage this neurosis before it morphs into full-on anorexia with the help of therapy and my amazing husband. But as I came to Psalm 139 this week, an old standard in my life, verse 14 struck me in a new way. 

I’d always been a little confused about the word “fearfully.” At first I interpreted it to mean something close to cowardly. Which, granted, makes no sense in the context, but somehow rang so true, nonetheless. I sure felt like I was made a coward, because behind my hatred for my body was fear: (irrational) fear of veering further and further from a size 2... and all the culturally prescribed body image norms that are everywhere. (#firstworldproblems, am I right?) And behind those fears were more fears of not being lovable or perfect or enough. 

This week I researched the word “fearfully” as it's used here. (Edwin showed me how to use an ancient Hebrew lexicon, which is super cool!) And it turns out this word pretty much means the opposite of cowardly.

As best as I can understand it, fearfully here means something closer to “awesomely” or  “reverently” or “marvelously.”

I am awesomely made.

I am reverently made.

I am marvelously made.

David in this Psalm is not talking about what we are like, but about how God made us, if that makes sense. The adverb is describing the verb “made.” So it’s not “I am awesome” but “God did an awesome job making me.” This slight change of perspective made all the difference for me this week, and somehow this is the first time I’ve been able to really hear this message.

How would I treat my body if deep down I knew it was knit together reverently by the creator of the universe? 

Eva’s head was facing the wrong way in the womb. Instead of coming out the "natural way," I had to have surgery to get her out. I felt disappointed that I didn’t get to experience labor, but looking back on my pregnancy and at myself now, the whole process is helping me heal my relationship with my body. My hatred is morphing into respect and curiosity and wonder now for a lot of reasons, but especially because I want to teach my daughter to love her body. To know that she was made marvelously, awesomely, reverently, even though my body hadn't been "perfect" through the process and was permanently scarred by the experience.

It’s the most creative thing I’ve ever done, being a mother, and yet, I feel like so little of it (if any) has been a work of my own hands. I can (and will) tell her, that I was just a vessel, that she was made marvelously, a miracle completely out of our control. I want her to believe that no matter her size or perceived imperfections or ways her body may disappoint her, she is lovable and enough, not because I made her, but because God did. I know the start of her believing these things is me believing them, too.

In the end our bodies do fail us. No one has ever made it out of this alive, as they say. And because God himself in Jesus had a body, we know God values these temporary temples we inhabit. We can rest in the hope that one day they'll be healed and restored to all their glory (2 Corinthians 5: 1-3.) And in his body, Jesus wept at the loss of his friend (John 11:35), so we see God mourning with us when our bodies disappoint, frustrate, anger, and inevitably fail us. And here’s the amazing part, in the meantime, we can come to God with our hatred of ourselves too. God can heal it in the most surprising ways.

So if you find yourself hating your body this week, allow me to inform you that you are lovable and enough, just because your were made that way. Don't spend time hating your marvelous, awesome, reverently made body. There is nothing you have done or can do...no illness, no weight gain or loss, no addiction, no abuse...that can change that. 

Synchronicity

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We’ve all experienced it. You were randomly thinking about someone you haven’t seen in ages and within hours you run into them in an airport in a city in which neither of you lives. You announce your birthday and someone says you were born on the same day as their sister/aunt/best friend.

Here are two from my life:

1. My first name is Merideth, but my family calls me Meri. It wasn’t until I was engaged to my husband that I learned that his grandmother in Guatemala, Maria, also goes by Meri. 

2. My parents met in a bar in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. My mom was there on vacation with some friends (She was born and raised in Ohio), and my dad (who grew up just a few hours away) was living there for the summer with his grandmother. My dad asked my mom to dance, and as they were chatting they discovered that my mother had family in Abbeville, SC... the same small town my dad was from...a town of only approx. 5,000 people.

Coincidences, synchronicity, serendipities.... I’ve often heard people say that “the universe” was sending them a message, or (for the more religious) that God was sending them a sign.  

At the heart of this thinking is a search for meaning. Deep down, we want to believe that somebody somewhere out there is paying attention to our lives, and we want these coincidences to be the communication about where we should go...what we should do...who we should marry...how we should feel.

But here’s the thing: it turns out these instances of “rare” happenstance are actually quite common, according to statistics. (I was kind of sad to find out that fact while I was reading and researching this topic this week.) 

I think instead of asking “What are the chances?” It’s more interesting to ask, “Why do I find this meaningful?”

We care so much about the narrative and purpose and meaning of our lives that we’ll create it ourselves, in the stories we spin. 

But what if someone is paying attention to our lives?

I leave you with one last coincidence, one to which I ascribe meaning.

My parents live part time in the mountains of North Carolina, in a beautiful little cottage with an incredible view.

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The view from my parents deck of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Todd, NC

Edwin and I visited them there a few summers ago, the summer we first read through the book of Psalms as a devotional, actually. We had been reading the Psalms for so long that I had just about had enough. I was ready to move on to another book of the Bible already! (I’m not so good at doing devotionals, can you tell?)

But that morning, we sat down on the porch to read that day’s Psalm and when we opened the book to read which one was next, we both gasped. It was Psalm 121... the first verse of which we happened to be staring at. My parents had just put up a beautifully engraved wooden inscription right at the bottom of the fence on the deck overlooking the breathtaking mountains.

I lift up my eyes to the mountains—

    where does my help come from?

2 My help comes from the Lord,

    the Maker of heaven and earth.

3 He will not let your foot slip—

    he who watches over you will not slumber;

4 indeed, he who watches over Israel

    will neither slumber nor sleep.

5 The Lord watches over you—

    the Lord is your shade at your right hand;

6 the sun will not harm you by day,

    nor the moon by night.

7 The Lord will keep you from all harm—

    he will watch over your life;

8 the Lord will watch over your coming and going

    both now and forevermore.

I choose to see this synchronity as a God-wink. Not a Sign—with a capital S—per se (although I suppose God could do that if God wanted), but more like a loving and subtle little wink. Not because I deny that statistically the occurrence of something like that happening is quite common, but because I believe what the Psalm says, that there is someone who is paying attention... there is someone watching over us, who neither slumbers nor sleeps. 

And it isn’t just anyone. It’s the maker of those mountains. Those mountains that some say are 1.1 billion years old, some of the oldest in this world.

I imagine God watching over our lives, and the maker of the universe just can’t resist a little wink of love, to see if we notice.

Hidden Gems

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When I started studying music, I was completely blown away by music theory. At last, I had language for the intricacies and craftsmanship and joy that I sensed was there. Many of my classmates were bored stiff by classes in form and analysis, but not me.

Music theory is basically the math of music: a system that allows the organization or structure to make itself known. It can function on the micro and macro level—reducing complex music to just a few notes (Schenkerian analysis) or charting a pattern of every individual note and their order (Serialsim). As I gained more knowledge of the design, I loved it all the more... but the amazing thing was that the music was “good” whether you understood all that was happening within it or not. 

Here’s the amazing part—in my opinion, the best composers were the ones who broke the “rules.” It was music theory that helped me put a name to the spirit of revolution I heard in Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony...because, just one example of his rule-breaking, the coda (the extra added part at the end of a piece) is almost just as long as the main section or the exposition. It was understanding Mozart’s abilities to turn the key relationships in sonata form on their head that confirmed his genius in my eyes. Understanding the language within and giggling at a composer’s deviation from the expected—it made me feel like I was in cahoots with them.

These turns of form or harmonic surprises were like gems that Mozart or Beethoven had left just for me inside the deep rocks of their scores. It was a message in a bottle, centuries old, waiting there in those dusty libraries for me to find it. 

I often wondered if God feels this way about creation. The master artist, God created this world and within it are all its secrets. Below our feet, way down in the dirt are the colorful and yummy vegetables. Crack open that brown rough exterior and find a delicious coconut. The cure for cancer, in some combination of materials, is waiting as the scientists furiously labor to find it. And whether you understand the intraciticies of creation, God deemed it “good.”

I like to think that God delights in watching us discover the wonders of creation, that God might cheer us along as we giggle and gasp at its beauty.

This week, while reading Psalm 115 (I confess, a psalm I was not familiar with) I came to verse 16 and it stopped me in my tracks: The highest heavens belong to the Lord, but the earth he has given to mankind.” I had forgotten to think of our planet as a gift... instead of something I have a right to. There are lots of instances where the scriptures talk about the earth being God’s...but I like this verse about it being ours, and given to us as a gift. 

What a great gift. It not only sustains us with everything we need, but goes way beyond the utilitarian. God didn’t have to make SO many flowers in SO many colors, but God did. God didn’t have to make mountain ranges underneath the ocean bigger than the ones on land, waiting down there for the fish to enjoy, but God did. God didn’t have to make us be able to fall in love, to have the intellect to contemplate a higher power, but God did. God made us to eat, and didn’t have to make food delicious, but God did. To me, that’s proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy. This gift given to us is lavish and extravagant. Anyone who gives a gift like that is clearly in love with the recipient.

And we all know that we don’t do a great job of taking care of this gift. But even when the oceans are filling with plastic, and animals are held in captivity to avoid their extinction, even when we raise weapons against each other, God hasn’t given up on us.

And just like Mozart or Beethoven or any great composer, just when we least expect it, God breaks the rules of the apparent theory. Hidden in history, Jesus (God himself) breaks into creation, to answer our questions about the giver, to save us from ourselves, and to begin the process of repairing all the damage that’s been done. And by God’s grace, we continue His work of uncovering all that is hidden within this gift that is our planet.

Speak to, speak through

Psalm 100
Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth.
Worship the Lord with gladness;
come before him with joyful songs.
Know that the Lord is God.
It is he who made us, and we are his;
we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving
and his courts with praise;
give thanks to him and praise his name.
For the Lord is good and his love endures forever;
his faithfulness continues through all generations
.

Last weekend Edwin, Eva Ruth, and I traveled to Bloomfield Hills, Michigan to Kirk in the Hills Presbyterian Church. Our friend Nate Phillips is the pastor there and invited Edwin to preach in a series they are doing called "The Future Church." I came along and played oboe. 

This church is something to see—a spectacular example of Gothic architecture, surrounded by lakes and green gardens.

 Photo cred: Dale Carlson

Photo cred: Dale Carlson

Playing or singing in worship was always something I "enjoyed." I put that in quotes in hopes to conveying the condescension with which I approached these musical appearances until recently. Basically, they were all about me. If I'm honest, deep down I think I felt, "I'm doing these people a favor by playing some pretty oboe for them as part of their service. Aren't they lucky!" This seems so sad to me now, but it's true. Even though I grew up making music in worship, somehow the switch got flipped and I started performing rather than attempting to have a spiritual experience myself. In my defense, it’s very hard, because most of the time when I’m playing anywhere, even in church, my mind is racing--calculating the rhythm and the pitch and adjusting instantaneously, while attempting to sing through a phrase, breathe, support, play the right notes...etc. This is the mind of a musician. It’s something I’ve been working on, mindful music-making. And so, it still surprises me when I encounter the spiritual while making music in church. (Imagine that, finding God in a church!) But this Sunday at “The Kirk” in spite of the hectic travel the day before and the sleepless 6-month-old, I tapped into that “flow” that Julia Cameron talks about in the Artist’s Way

The second service was held out in the garden, just off the sanctuary, and the organist and I played the prelude from inside by ourselves. The moment had this amazingly private and personal feeling. Since I was playing Morricone's Gabriel’s Oboe, a simple piece I play from memory and have performed MANY times, I decided to make this rendition a prayer. I stood in the empty sanctuary, sang my heart out through my oboe.    

 Photo Cred: Dale Carlson

Photo Cred: Dale Carlson

It felt like that mystery in the smoke and smell of incense. It felt like a conversation. It felt like joy. For me, it reverberated beyond the walls of that church, not because of my playing (I was so unaware of it, I must say, I don’t totally know how I sounded) but because of all the beauty in that place.  

The cane I used to make my reed was grown in France, and the dryness or wetness of that year’s season was in my sound. The sun and the stars of that beautiful place and the beautiful hands that harvested the cane, those that made my oboe, that labored for the perfection of that cathedral—all that beauty was resonating, sympathetic vibrations. It felt effortless, transcendent.

I believe that beauty is the language God speaks. Sacred or secular art, inside a Gothic cathedral or a dingy practice room, when we experience or make beauty we are connected to the divine. God spoke the world into creation--a master artist, making beautiful things out of dust. I don't always do as the Psalmist says... "enter his gates with thanksgiving and praise." Instead, I enter his gates with tiredness and busyness. I didn't realize that coming with thanksgiving and praise would lead to an encounter with beauty, and an experience of joy so deep it could make my heart burst. "For the Lord is good and his love endures forever," indeed.

So what was my prayer last Sunday morning as I played in that empty cathedral? It was a simple one, one that it is becoming my mantra. 

Lord, speak to me. Lord, speak through me. 

 

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Ari, Nate and Lucy Phillips with Edwin, Eva Ruth and me. Not pictured: Grace, Lily, and Max.

You aren’t ________ enough.

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This week I taught an oboe lesson to a promising young student who had just graduated with his bachelor’s in music from a great school. In the final moments of the lesson, I was asking him what his plans were long term, in regards to his career. We had worked on orchestral excerpts during the lesson and I was curious if he was planning on taking auditions. He sighed. He mentioned that he wasn’t sure what he wanted—“Part of me thinks it’d be fine going the public-school-teaching route because I like kids and it is safe and secure... and another huge part of me wants my whole life to be oboe.” He paused and looked at his feet. “And that’s when I start to consider whether or not I’m good enough.”

I had heard this many times...students wanting to know if they were “good enough.” I usually try to find a way to encourage them without engaging in that particular line of questioning. What does “good enough” even mean? In my experience, this conversation inhibits real work from getting done.

As I left that lesson, I started noticing how many conversations I have with myself on a daily basis about my acceptability. I choose my outfit, and depending on the size of my jeans I feel thin enough or not. I make a phone call or write a text and wonder if the way I said something came across wrong, and I wonder if I’m likeable enough or not. I share an idea with a friend and based on her reaction I am either creative enough or not. It’s exhausting...the constant judging and verdict making.

The Bible is always talking about “righteousness.” That word makes me squirm, and I’ve never totally known why. Merriam Webster describes it as “acting in accord with divine or moral law, free from guilt or sin” and suddenly I understand why it makes me so uncomfortable. When I look at how I measure up to God’s divine law, I swing from feeling like I’m not that bad to feeling like I am most definitely not good enough. 

And almost right on cue...one of the Psalms this week talked about the righteousness— “The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon” (Psalm 92:12)

The Cedar of Lebanon has a rich history, I’ve just recently learned. It can grow up to 120 feet tall and 8 feet wide, and it was apparently the lumber used by Solomon to build the temple. And here’s the best part—there’s a Cedar of Lebanon practically in our backyard. At the Wilmington & Brandywine Cemetery right around the corner from the church, stands one at the entrance, brought from the Holy Land from the cemetery’s founding director in 1850.  This is the tree you see at the top of this post. I wonder if bringing this tree back and planting it in that cemetery next to his lost loved ones made James Canby feel righteous.

I started thinking today, as I drove past that righteous Cedar of Lebanon...I think it was the trees’ proximity to God that made it righteous. After all, verse 13 of Psalm 92 reads “planted in the house of the Lord, they will flourish in the courts of our God.” It was nothing they were in and of themselves that made them righteous. And so it is with us. It is Jesus that makes us good enough. And how do we come to find him? Following David’s way, we find Jesus through prayer. And we go to the cedar trees of this world, ordinary things deemed holy by association, we seek the mysterious Spirit. 

Standing under the massive trees of the world, the verdict is in, we aren’t good enough. We aren’t beautiful enough or kind or creative enough.  But there’s something better than being good... being loved... more than enough. And that’s good news.

 

 

“For the Director of Music”

 King David, Artist Unknown

King David, Artist Unknown

Last evening, I attended a dinner for the choirs at Grace Church and their families. It was a gathering in honor of Dr. Neil Harmon, Grace’s director of music for the last 19 years (!), who will be leaving us in a matter of weeks. As we gathered last night, I kept thinking about all the people that have been blessed by Neil’s work. It’s rare to find someone who is equally gifted at all aspects of this type of job—choral conducting, handbells, composing, keyboard playing, working with children—Neil does it all with grace and skill. His humility and kindness are icing on the cake. He will be dearly missed, to say the least.

As we prepare for Neil’s departure and as I read and reread the inscription “For the Director of Music” at the front of so many Psalms these days, I can’t help but think about the role of music in the church and therefore the role of the musician in the church. 

Music has the power to deepen faith, to draw us to God.

Some of my earliest musical memories were singing in the children’s choir with Mrs. Judy at Main Street United Methodist Church in Abbeville, South Carolina. My siblings and I later started violin lessons through folks connected to church too, and so I guess you could say my musical life began there. Those musicians made an inexplicable difference in my life. They changed my life’s entire course, in fact. Music was also my entry point into faith, and as I type that, I realize how holy the ground on which we stand is, as we participate in musical offerings on Sunday mornings. What a responsibility—to use our gifts and talents for something so beyond ourselves. It’s almost a miracle, how we musicians are afforded the privilege to help others worship God...in spite of ourselves.

With music’s power, I see how it would be easy to worship the music or the musician instead of their Maker. And that is dangerous, because, as I learned in music school, some of the most heavenly sacred music was written by people who weren’t the most pious. (Bach being the exception of course!) If you’ve seen the movie Amadeus, you’ve gotten a glimpse into the life of Mozart, the composer of the divinely inspired Ave Verum Corpus, K. 618. Even David, the author of so many of the Psalms, was far from perfect. AND YET, God used them. God blessed them even though they didn’t deserve it, and God uses them to bless us. I am so grateful that in spite of our imperfections, we are given musical gifts we can use to God’s glory. 

Neil’s ministry at Grace has been a testament to his faith and we are so grateful for his service. And yet, we know that the ways he’s blessed us will not fade after his departure. There is something he leaves behind that will continue to resonate throughout our beautiful sanctuary—he’s reminded us to humbly use our talents to praise God, lift up others, and sing in joy and thanksgiving for all we’ve been given.  

Neil, we’ll miss you, and we will continue to “sing and make music in your heart to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:19) as you have taught us. Thank you for helping us discover and develop our talents.

 “Let all that has breath, Praise the Lord” (Psalm 150.) 

 

Vulnerable + Resilient

 Photo cred—Bristol Physical Theatre Project

Photo cred—Bristol Physical Theatre Project

First a story, as told to me by one of Lincoln Center’s master teaching artists, Jean Taylor:

Jean and her colleague were teaching a young group of children and one of them stood out immediately. While most of the kids (around 4-6 years old I think*) wore simple leotards or shorts, Bethany was dressed in what can be best described as an elaborate tutu...complete with a huge bow on her head. The layers of tulle extended almost beyond her wing span.

All was well in the class until Bethany announces she needs to use the bathroom. She was gone for quite some time, and so Jean goes to check on her. Just as she was about to knock, thankfully, Bethany came out.

The sight that Jean beheld was really something. Bethany had taken the outfit off and had put it back on inside out. The back of the tutu was completely crammed inside and looked lumpy around her backside. She had pulled part of the tutu out of the leg holes on both sides in an effort to make things right. Her bow had navigated down the side of her head and was completely lopsided. 

She looked up at Jean as she walked hurriedly past her and said with a smile, “It’s the best I could do!” And then trotted happily back to class.

I laughed out loud when Jean shared this with our group this week. We all did! Perhaps because my mother used to adorn my head with bows, so I could feel Bethany’s pain...or maybe because this kind of attitude teaches us something deep about vulnerability and resilience.

Jean shared it as part of a workshop for teaching artists in clowning. Yes, you read that right...how to be a clown. (Think less circus-clown and more Italian masked theatre.) This type of acting is taught in conservatories as a way for actors to develop movement, improvisation, and character. We actually wore noses and participated in an exercise called “eccentric dance.” (Thankfully there is no video evidence of this!)

Bethany and the clowns we all let loose in our class remind us that vulnerability and resilience go together— in teaching, learning and living. When you’re vulnerable and authentic enough to be known...to show up in your fabulous tutu when everyone else is in shorts...only when you are bringing your authentic self... can you really create, learn, and grow. And when you’re resilient enough to bounce back in the face of disappointment and hardship (pull that tutu out through the leg holes and embrace your ridiculousness!)—then we can find the wonder and joy that are available to us. 

As I return again to the Psalms each day, I realize the Psalmists have this vulnerability + resilience recipe down pat. In Psalm 66:20 the psalmist even mentions that fear of rejection— Praise be to God, who has not rejected my prayer or withheld his love from me!”

And as we’ve seen all summer, these prayers hold nothing back. In many of the lament Psalms, it isn’t clear on what timeline (or sometimes even if) God has answered (Psalm 4, 13, 88). We’ve forgotten how to be vulnerable so magnificently that now there are classes where we learn how to be clowns. 

This is one of the things I find most compelling about Christianity. The Psalms are pointing to true vulnerability and resilience—found only in God Himself, in Jesus. Vulnerable enough to weep and bleed and resilient enough to persevere in the face of death...all out of love for us.

What are you holding back in your interactions with God or others? Or is it resilience that you lack? When you’re faced with hardship how do you respond? How can you embrace and celebrate your ridiculousness today? I’ve got a red nose you can borrow, if you need one.

 

*this story was shared with me via word-of-mouth this week at LCE Summer Forum in NYC— pardon any missed or inaccurate details!