Sacred Ordinary Days

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“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you.” Isaiah 49:15

There’s this picture of my mother’s parents, Daba and Papa, on my dresser in my bedroom. Daba and Papa lived in Ohio and my parents would drive us to see them once or twice a year, all the way from South Carolina. Sometimes we’d all travel together to exotic places, full of adventure, like Disney World, NYC, or the Grand Canyon. Since we saw them so rarely, I think everyone felt they had to make the most of these trips. They showed this little girl from rural South Carolina the world. Those memories are forever burned into my brain. 

Yet, in this particular picture, they were at home in their house in Hudson, standing in the kitchen. Based on their posture and clothing it looks like they are about to walk out the door. I don’t remember where they were going, who took this picture, or why. I love that this picture captures their energy and love so well. They look middle-aged and healthy. They look like themselves, as I remember them, anyway.

Photos of weddings, birthday parties, and other mountain-top moments are priceless, sure, but this snapshot of them in their kitchen reminds me how sacred the ordinary is. Truth is, we spend so much of our time doing perfectly unspectacular things (like going to the bank or popping into a doughnut shop), wearing ordinary clothes (like my Daba’s raincoat, which she loved and still owns to this day.) When I look at this picture, it occurs to me: this ordinary day, this candid shot of two people before they rushed out the door— we didn’t know it then, but within these moments were our whole lives.

Now that I’m a year into having my own daughter (Eva’s birthday was this past Tuesday), I am even more aware of the intensities and paradoxes of time’s passing—the power of memory and the beautiful complexities of family. Looking back, when I had envisioned myself as a parent, I realize now that I was picturing myself with a child about the age of four. I had thought so much about what kind of parent I wanted to be. I even had a running list of lullabies I wanted to sing to my child, saved on my computer before I was ever married.  I realize now that I had failed to see the ways in which parenting is not a stagnant state of being, but a constant balancing act with a very a steep learning curve, a daily pouring out of oneself for another. Just when you get the hang of it, in comes a tooth. I didn’t realize that you’d be learning how to parent every single day, because your child grows older each day and has different needs.

There are the big moments—first smiles, first solid foods, first steps—but the majority of parenting is just like the photo of Daba and Papa standing in the kitchen. On the outside it looks like nothing special, but one day we’ll look back at the snapshot of this day and find the details to be precious lifelines of memory about who we were and, oh, how we loved.

As I wean now, after a year of nursing Eva, this Scripture from the Prophet Isaiah rings true in a different way for me. It was amazing that, by God's grace, I could first make a human being with my body and then could make enough milk to sustain her life—trust me, the miracle of that is not lost on me. It was not easy, and while I feel lucky to have had a successful and largely uneventful breastfeeding experience, I did not love it as much as some women seem do. I felt guilty about this at first, but I’ve learned to let those feelings go. Before breastfeeding, I thought I would need to set an alarm to feed her. Turns out nursing mothers’ bodies have their own alarm system, an uncomfortably accurate one (often enough).

Knowing we have a God that has compassion for us like a nursing mother—take it from this nursing mother—means that God is committed to us completely. And not just committed to our thriving, promising to feed us and sustain our life, but if God is like a nursing mother than God is vulnerable in this offering, literally pouring God’s self out for our benefit. Any breastfeeding mother will tell you that the act of nursing is not utilitarian, but one of many ways we physically act out of compassion and connection with our children. To know that God loves us like that, holding us close to God’s heart, offering comfort, sustenance, and protection at the risk of God’s self; that is a beautiful metaphor.

The prophet goes even further, saying that though earthly mothers may forget, God never will.

The picture of my grandparents on the dresser was taken before Daba began losing her memory. It was a day well before Papa was diagnosed with Leukemia, before oxygen tanks or hospice nurses, before the emergency numbers were written in big letters by the phone in that kitchen. We had no idea that within all these moments that seem so ordinary—standing in the kitchen or feeding Eva at 3AM—were so many blessings, miracles, showing us who God is: the everlasting source of love— timeless, compassionate, eternal love—and right there with us in every sacred ordinary day.

We need to talk about artists’ mental health

Sewanee Summer Music Festival, 1998, around the time I first starting taking oboe lessons.

Sewanee Summer Music Festival, 1998, around the time I first starting taking oboe lessons.

“Let the godly strike me! It will be a kindness! If they correct me, it is soothing medicine.” Psalm 141:5

This week as I prepare for a new semester, I was looking over the questionnaires my oboe students filled out back in the fall. At the start of the each new school year, I ask each student what they feel their strengths and weaknesses are and what they want to work on in oboe lessons. The responses are usually eerily similar. First of all, their list of weaknesses is usually double the length of strengths. They also use so many qualifiers before each strength: “Sometimes, I am pretty good at playing fast,” or “When I have a good reed, I have a nice tone.” Lastly, over and over, students mention they want to work on having more confidence or feeling less anxious about oboe.

My philosophy around teaching music, especially at the college level, means working with the whole person. As private teachers, we work one-on-one with young people who are at the precipice of the working world, and so I’ve found my role ends up being part music teacher, part career-counselor, part mentor. I’m constantly saddened at the way mental health issues from mild anxiety to deep depression plague students, and as I work with more non-student, working artists through “The Artist’s Way Creative Clusters” at Grace, I’d say there is something going on with mental health and artists. 

This is no surprise to me, being a sufferer myself. My own journey to becoming a professional musician and a more joyful mother have been riddled with a struggle with anxiety and self-acceptance. 

Of all the hats I wear as an oboe professor and artist group leader, therapist is not a hat I am qualified or interested in wearing. Knowing the power of talking with a licensed professional, I am constantly referring students to counseling centers, following up with them at the next meeting to make sure they got an appointment, etc. And it greatly saddens me that so many artists, myself included, are held captive by their anxiety and stress to the point of physical illness, panic attacks, or worse. It leaves me asking—how did we get here?

The age-old picture of the “suffering artist” comes to mind: this lie that somehow it’s impossible to be a successful, productive artist and to also have joy and practice good self-care. A lie I believed myself for years.  I worry that because becoming an artist of any kind involves so much critique—we say it’s about the process but focus on the product—that we may destroy our own creative impulse and the impulse in others we mentor, beyond repair.

Anyone who has had classical music lessons knows that they center around critique. When you just start learning how to play an instrument, it seems anti-creative. You go to a master teacher who can fix all of your issues one-by-one, over and over, until you can hold the bow correctly or use your air in just the right way or lift your fingers just so. We work for years to perfect tiny muscles and movements to make something very complicated look easy, effortless. There are numerous artistic choices to be made when playing oboe, but it takes years to have enough control and facility to even be able to make these choices.  Isn’t that incredible? Who would want to subject themself to that?

Someone who has a song to sing, that’s who.

I got to thinking, after reading my students’ questionnaires, about all the feedback we get during life. I thought about all my teachers and all they had corrected in me over the years and how painful that process was sometimes, how that led me down a path of self-hatred, too. I thought about how much trust it requires to allow someone to criticize your sound, for example, something that feels as personal as a fingerprint. How can I help students learn to play more in tune, to have facility across all registers, to make their own beautiful sound so as to lead to a more satisfying and meaningful relationship with their instrument? How can I encourage them not to equate their work with their worth?

There’s this verse in Psalm 141 that says: “Let the godly strike me! It will be a kindness! If they correct me, it is soothing medicine.” (New Living Translation) 

I don’t know about you, but even the gentlest of critiques has never felt like soothing medicine to me. And no “strike” has ever felt like a kindness. I want so badly to take criticism like that: to lay out my shortcomings with great vulnerability and have someone’s feedback be healing rather than shame-inducing. And as a teacher, I want my critique to build students up, to set them free, to help them find their way, not send them down the road to self-doubt and depression.

I believe the key to this attitude towards criticism described here is in the word “godly.” In some other translations it is translated “righteous,” which can be a trigger-word for me, bringing up thoughts of judgementalism and self-righteousness. In this instance it makes me think of the only person I’ve ever known who was righteous. 

Over and over in the Gospels we see Jesus healing and then calling people into a new way of life in the same interaction. His gentleness permeates these encounters. He kneels down to the woman caught in adultery and mysteriously writes something in the sand  (John 8:6), he gentle rubs mud on a man’s eyes (John 9:6), he reaches out and touches the man with leprosy who everyone would have considered unclean (Matthew 8:3) and even when they don’t ask for it, he says: “Your sins are forgiven. Go and sin no more.” And that’s it. He doesn’t confirm that they understand their issues and can outline a plan to be different. He offers them healing and forgiveness, and they walk away forever changed. 

So that is what it is like to have the Godly “strike you: not with violence, but like a good shepherd rescuing his beloved sheep from getting trapped, injured, or lost, bringing them joyfully back into the fold. In Jesus’s example, we are set right again with compassion and that is a soothing medicine. 

When we look at Jesus’ gentleness and power as a healer, we get an example for how to give and receive feedback. We do so to lead to someone’s being mended (not to their feeling shame) and we do so oh so gently. And when we see others do this without gentleness (or even with malice) we know that our worth and value are not in question, because the only Righteous One loved us enough to get in the mud with us and our problems and, if we only look for them, offers the most creative of solutions to make us new.

If you’re an artist and you’re reading this, I hope you know that this story that the world tells us—that good art requires from us pain, depression, martyrdom, that the only way to be successful is to sacrifice yourself at the artist altar, giving up your happiness, sleep, health, and sense of joy—I am here to tell you that that is a lie.

You were made by The Great Creator to sing your life song, a song that only you can sing or paint or write. Find mentors you trust to guide and offer you that soothing medicine, to help you change for the sole purpose of your being led towards deeper self-expression. Find a good therapist. Make no mistake: making art is hard work, but the kind of hard work that can leave you blissfully tired and fulfilled even when you’re so far from being “done.” Be patient and gentle with yourself as Jesus would be, as Jesus is.   

What’s in your hand?

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“Moses answered, “What if they do not believe me or listen to me and say, ‘The Lord did not appear to you?’ Then the Lord said to him, “What is that in your hand?” “A staff,” he replied.” Exodus 4:1-2

Have you ever taken a moment to zoom out and look at your life from afar? After all my days on earth (almost 13,000) I am now here in this moment, doing this job, wearing these clothes, living in this house. My path to here was winding with some detours that felt long enough to be destinations themselves. I’ve lived in South Carolina, Ohio, Baden-Württemberg (Germany), Connecticut, New York, Illinois, Mississippi, North Carolina, and now Delaware. I’ve known and loved so many people, made so much music. The details as to how I got to this moment are so intricate, convoluted, and beautiful. When I look back on them, it’s like trying to count the stars, connecting each moment to the next in a complex and breathtaking constellation, unique to my life.

Making an oboe, photo cred: Howarth London

Making an oboe, photo cred: Howarth London

But today as I zoom out, I had the most amazing thought: I have spent the last twenty years making music on a hollowed-out piece of wood. I wrangle and wrestle this wood of the oboe and the cane of the reeds in hopes of playing a beautiful phrase. This art is my calling, my job.

It’s particularly fun to play the zoom-out game while sitting in an orchestra, to think of all the similar journeys surrounding me. We all decided to dedicate our lives to the perfection and mastery of these hollowed-out sticks or wooden boxes with strings tied across them. It’s easy to get lost in the particular intracies of a job, but when you look at the bigger picture and see it for what it is— rather simple, yet hugely miraculous, and also sort of strange— my, is it humbling!

Moses was a stick-wielding fellow too. In this particular passage in Exodus, he’s having a crisis of confidence about all that God is asking him to do at the burning bush. He asks God, “What if they do not believe me or listen to me?” And God answers this question with another question. God asks, “What is in your hand?” Like me with my oboe, I see Moses looking down at the staff thinking, “How did I end up here, holding this stick?”

I cannot count the number of times I’ve wondered whether or not I’d chosen the right path. When I remind myself that the oboe is just a stick, when I remember that the notes on the page are just ink (which is basically just colored water), when I see that none of this is forever branded in perpituity; it is easier to have fun, to bask in the awe of these technologies and traditions, and to find my voice again in art-making. But there were many years of wandering in the desert, wondering if this whole being-a-professional-oboist thing was a fool’s errand, whether or not I actually had what it takes to “make it,” and if I was wasting my time with something as “frivolous as music.

One summer while I was a student, I was part of the student orchestra program at the Aspen Music Festival. I had the opportunity to play in a masterclass with some of our country’s most famous oboists and one class in particular stands out. The teacher, a very well-known oboist, principal of one of the top orchestras in the US, told the class that after almost thirty years of playing in his orchestra, in this the apex of oboe jobs, he was just now starting to develop a good relationship with the oboe. Just now. I wasn’t able to get him to dive more deeply into what his idea of a “good relationship” was, but I could guess. 

At the time it shocked me that winning that big job and excelling at it was not enough to help this teacher feel like he had complete control or understanding of the oboe. I also felt relief to know that having doubts, fears, and frustration about our craft was normal and common. And yet, as many ups and downs as there were over the years, I never have been able to put my stick down. I do feel called to sing my life-song through music, and when I look down in my hand, there lies an oboe, so I suppose God intends to use it after all. 

I’m deciding to see Moses with his staff as proof that God can do amazing things with sticks. That stick he thought was just for walking or herding sheep would bring water to a thirsty nation, freedom in the parting of the mighty Red Sea, leading them to the promised land. And when our relationship with our stick deteriorates, when we feel like giving up and breaking it across our knee, we can trust that all things are possible with God.

We may not think that the arts can change the world, that we ought to ditch music and dedicate ourselves to law so as to create a more just world, to climatology to save our planet, to brain surgery to save lives: that there are more worthy sticks to wield. But Moses at the burning bush is proof that God uses whatever we have right there in our hands, that all careers can have the power to bring about justice, peace, and healing.

So whatever your stick or schtick may be, whether it a paintbrush, frying pan, keyboard, law degree, pen, or seat in congress— and no matter how unqualified or frustrated you may feel as you get down to work—you do not need to worry. You have already been given everything you need. In fact, it is right there in your hand.

Like Moses, we may not get to see the promised land. We may not reach that apex of achievement we had envisioned for ourselves, and even if we do, it will likely not satisfy us. But if we only look closer, we see we could be part of something far better than we could ever imagine. In all our stick waving, in our music, in our work, we realize that God can use the most unlikely materials to change everything.

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God has the good reeds

My reed desk these days

My reed desk these days

“In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit intercedes for us through wordless groans.” Romans 8:26

My prayers usually go something like this: “Lord, thank you for this day. Please ______________. Amen. 

Let’s be honest: this is the gussied up, safe-for-work version. Sometimes I do not even manage to utter thanks before diving into my needs. And it occurs to me, am I really asking for help or am I just venting? I often wonder, if my prayers were transcribed, would they read just like a big worrying session with “Dear God” and “Amen” as bookends?  

Lately my prayer life has been pretty dismal. It might be the sleeplessness of having an 11-month old or the fact that things are mostly “ok” at the moment, but I’m lucky if I mutter a quick prayer for someone who is sick, like I say I will. Sometimes I just don’t know what to say to God.

Along with my tenuous prayer life, I also haven’t felt like writing or practicing. Every time I sit down to start, I’m met with this same emptiness and drought. All the music that needs to be learned, the blinking cursor, they mock me. 

Feeling blocked is something I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about over the last few years. After Juilliard, I felt more blocked than ever. Since then, I’ve been leading the Artist’s Way Creative Clusters at Grace, going through Julia Cameron’s amazing book over and over. I just started my fifth time through the process. It focuses on the healing of our creative impulse through spiritual practices of journaling, self-reflection, and self-care. It teaches that God is the source of all our creativity, that creativity is God’s will for our lives, that everyone is an artist, because God is one and we were made in God’s image. I like it because it requires discipline: participants must journal three pages stream-of-consciousness writing each morning, but it is also whimsical and fun, as it requires everyone to take their “artist within” on a date each week.

I’ve seen the book change people’s lives, not just creatively, but spiritually, too. Just this week one of the participants, after only two weeks of class, sent me a text that said: “This book is really transforming me from the inside out.”

So then, you can see why it worries me when I start to feel dry again, after all this caring for my “artist child,” like Julia Cameron has suggested.

In the midst of this conundrum, I came across an answer. Cameron fills the first week’s reading with statements you are supposed to repeat to yourself throughout the course. The one that struck me this time was: “My creativity heals myself and others.” Maybe the key to feeling unblocked could be found in the act of creating itself.

So after a few more days of drought, I decided to sit down and make something.

One thing that felt manageable (or perhaps another way to procrastinate writing and practicing) was to make some oboe reeds: which, if you know anything about making oboe reeds, it’s not the most creative of processes. But, even so, I put some music on, created an atmosphere. I watched my hands as they followed through the familiar process of scoring, shaping, tying, scraping—a process I have done thousands of times during my twenty years of playing oboe. And sure enough, I started to feel the Holy Spirit, the creative genius, inspiration, tapping me on the shoulder, inviting itself into my process of writing and music-making.

I started to feel excited about the reeds, about the way they might sound, about the music I could play with them. The cane was a beautiful yellow color and felt smooth against my dry, winter-worn fingers. I thought of all the people who had touched the cane before it arrived in my hands, what animals and weather patterns had crossed its path while it grew in the wild. I thought about writing this paragraph. I realized that this process was helping my breathing to slow down. It was helping me look at the world like it could be, to be grateful for all that I have, to dream of making beautiful music and teaching others to do so.  

There’s this part in the Artist’s Way that I have underlined:  

“God has lots of movie ideas, novel ideas, poems, songs, paintings, acting jobs. God has a supply of loves, friends, houses that are all available to us. By listening to the creator within, we are led to our right path. On that path we find friends, lovers, money, and meaningful work. Very often, when we cannot seem to find an adequate supply, it is because we are insisting on a particular human source of supply. We must learn to let the flow manifest itself where it will—not where we will it.” (Julia Cameron, “The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity,” page 92.)

Once I finished the reeds, I started writing and then praying, and it all started to feel simultaneous, pouring forth like I had finally tapped a well with water.

Just by sitting down to make reeds, opening the case, starting to type, I was met there by my Creator. And this act of creativity did start to heal me from the inside out.

And here’s the thing: we don’t even have to make anything the world calls “good” for this meeting to occur. God wants our ranting and venting, our adolescent poetry, our out-of-tune long-tone exercises after a few weeks off. God wants to hear all these songs, all these prayers, sung by his beloved children.

When we seek God as creator, as source, we can count on God to appear to show us the way to our right path. There’s no pressure to sit down alone and manifest the perfect reed or blog post. All that is required is an openness to collaborate with the source of all the good ideas, eloquent paragraphs, and perfect reeds.

And so it is with prayer. When we learn to let the flow of our prayers manifest where God wills them—Thy will be done—when we allow the Spirit to intercede on our behalf, to pray for what we would pray for if we knew what God knows, our wordless groans are turned into beautiful symphonies of communion with our maker, much more eloquent and satisfying than we could ever compose ourselves.    

 We just have to show up to the desk. 

Daddy Rabbit

My grandfather, Thomas Erskine Hite, “Daddy Rabbit” 

My grandfather, Thomas Erskine Hite, “Daddy Rabbit” 

“So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God's Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, "Abba, Father." Romans 8:15

It’s something you remember, seeing your father cry. We had just left his office to go on a mail run. I had haphazardly agreed to be the receptionist at his law office one summer before going to college, and I welcomed any invite to leave the desk. (Later I would elevate this position to “Director of Telecommunication Services” on my first resume.)

Looking back on that job, I was less excited about answering phones and more interested in running in the same circle as my dad for once. My other siblings always seemed to have a different kind of access to our father than I did, almost by coincidence, since they had more in common with him. My brothers, with all their athleticism, could always find him in the stands, arriving early to set up his chair. My older sister was the first to follow in his footsteps as an attorney. She worked closely with him, getting her name added next to his on the door to the office. Looking back, I think I took that job as receptionist to have something in common with my dad, to be near him.

Don’t get me wrong. He wasn’t the buttoned-up, hard-to-talk-to type of dad at all. Yet, there was this energy about him that kept him pulsating just out of reach. He had (and has) a lot of hobbies, friends, and interests. He dislikes talking on the phone. I always knew he was proud of me, but being proud of me is different than having things in common with him. I always longed to be close to him like that.

That day on the mail run, we drove the few miles towards the post office and listened to his favorite classic rock station. I can’t remember what we chit-chatted about, but it was sunny, and we were both upbeat. He jumped down from the car to go into the post office and after a while, I remember wondering what was taking so long. When he came back out, I saw that his eyes were red and he was crying.  

I think my father loved being a father because he loved being fathered by his own dad so much. My grandpa, who we called “Daddy Rabbit,” was a legend in our small southern town. The high school football stadium was named after him. He was football coach and elementary school principal, and just like my dad, Daddy Rabbit had that magnetic and frenetic energy about him that people gravitated towards. There were stories of him being a gruff and strict coach and teacher, and stories of him being a tender, caring, and fiercely loyal friend, principal, and father. He cared deeply about justice. He refused to let the district send a child who had recovered from polio to another school, and he carried the boy up and down the stairs every day himself. He spoke out on behalf of people of color during the difficult days of integration in South Carolina.

Daddy Rabbit died of a stroke, after years of suffering with minimal use of one side of his body. I was only seven when he died, so these stories and his legacy loom larger than concrete memories of his actual presence for me. My dad has never said as much, but I think losing him was the biggest tragedy in his life. Dad was only thirty-eight when his father died.

In the post office my dad had run into a veteran in a wheel chair. My dad didn’t know him, so he was surprised when the man had called him over. He told my father that he had played football for Daddy Rabbit, that after high school he had been to Korea and lost his legs. He struggled mightily when he returned with PTSD and depression. He told my father that one day he had a gun in his mouth, ready to pull the trigger and end it all. Before he did, he saw Daddy Rabbit in his mind’s eye, talking to him like he used to back in high school, with his aggressive tone, saying, “Only cowards give up, and you are no coward, son.” (Disclaimer: suicide is not cowardly.) He decided not to kill himself that day, and it was the memory of my grandfather yelling at him on the football sidelines that saved him.

Even though I’ve only known the love of a stable, caring, and inspiring earthly father, I sometimes find the image of God as Father troubling. I can imagine for those whose fathers were abusive, absent, or worse, that this image could be triggering. Yet the fact remains, Jesus calls God father. (“Abba,” actually, which means something closer to “Dad.”) There are lots of images of God as mother in the Bible too, but why does Jesus call God father and not mother so boldly throughout the Gospels?

This image troubles me most because of all the horrible examples of earthly fathers out there. The patriarchy has hurt so many. The #metoo movement has uncovered only some of the damage that this toxic masculinity has caused. I do not believe this was ever God’s goal for men or fathers, but why would God have to be called something that comes with such baggage for so many people? 

To see the beauty of this name for God, I’m finding it helpful to remember that God is not male or female. It does seem strange to parcel out gender from a name like father, but it’s helpful for me in this case.

What if God is trying to redeem fatherhood with this title? What if I tried looking to the Bible for who God is first, letting that enlighten my view of fathers, instead of looking at fathers first to enlighten my view of God.  

When we look at fathers this way, we can see glimpses of God’s character in good fathering. That day in the post office with the veteran, my father got such a glimpse.

When we call, God answers, and reminds us of our value, even when our earthly fathers do not.

I see God in Daddy Rabbit as father as he spoke into the depths of that man’s soul when he needed it, reminding him of his value and ultimately saving his life. Maybe all the fathering the wounded veteran could handle was an image of his coach yelling at him. Aren’t we all longing for that kind of coaching? Fiercely loving, confident, truth, spoken deeply into our souls... by someone who loves us and wants the best for us? That’s what God as father can do. 

The quote from Paul’s letter to the Romans reminds us that we are adopted into God’s family through Christ, and so even if our earthly fathers fail us, through Jesus, regardless of our gender, we stand to inherit God’s great wealth. Yet, God wants nothing more than to spend time with us, to have things in common with us, to know us intimately, to speak truth about who we are and whose we are and will do so as many times and as long as it takes for us to believe it.

Daddy Rabbit was this type of adoptive father to many. He continues to father me through his legacy that he passed down to his own son, my dad.

In the end, we are not God’s slaves, employees, or tenants—we are God’s children. We can be so bold as to call God “Abba, Father.” To see the sweetness of this name for God, to allow it to melt and heal my heart, to show me the ways in which God is at work in all things, that’s what I long for.

In our faith tradition, we believe in a God that takes our distress seriously, a God who mourns when we mourn. That day as we left the post office, I saw my father cry because he missed his dad. And since we know that God weeps with us, I think that means that all good fathers cry.

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My dad and me on my wedding day.

The Eternal Now

“Healing Arts,” by Helen Kagan

“Healing Arts,” by Helen Kagan

“But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.” 2 Peter 3:8

They say that time heals all wounds. That doesn’t feel particularly true for me these days. With the whiplash and emotional hangover of the holidays still lingering, here on the second week of 2019, I almost feel the opposite might be true: time can make you remember old wounds, and how they still kind of hurt. Alongside the joy of Christmas and the hope of the new year can come the familiar ache of that old wound—you know the one. It brings with it a rush of nostalgia and loss—an inexplicable heaviness, a general malaise. We feel the absence of those missing, an irretrievable past, an uncertain future—all of it seemingly brought on by this passage of time, the date turning over, another year come and gone. Time only seems to have made this wound part of the permanent landscape of things within us now. The scar tissue covers all with its great web, but a wound it remains.

There’s this story in the Gospel of Luke where Jesus is surrounded by throngs of people when Jairus, one of the Jewish leaders, pleads with Jesus to follow him to his home where his twelve-year-old daughter lay dying. Jesus agrees and as they were making their way there, he suddenly stops and says, “Who touched me?” I imagine Peter saying something like: “We’re in a huge crowd...literally everyone is touching you.” It turns out a woman who’d been bleeding for twelve years had reached out to grab the hem of his garment, in hopes of being healed. Jesus had felt a healing power leave him and her bleeding had miraculously stopped. Jesus has her explain the situation to everyone there, pausing even longer on the way to Jairus’ daughter.  

I’ve heard this story from Luke many times before (I love any story in the Bible about a woman) but when I came across it again during this my “angsty New Years phase,” I was struck by something new. I never considered how Jairus must have felt waiting for Jesus as he healed the bleeding woman. I imagine him with his arms crossed and eyebrows lifted. (Much like the way I look at Edwin when we are out on an important errand and he runs into a neighbor.) Jairus had finally gotten the help his daughter needed, and Jesus had the audacity to stop and heal someone else.

I see myself in Jairus; impatient for God to hurry up and get to work fixing the problems I deem important. We learn that the girl died during the Lord’s little detour! If this woman had been sick for twelve years couldn’t she have waited a little bit longer for Jesus to beat the clock to save the girl?!  

In this reading of the story, after my own long night with a sick baby (just an ear infection, thank God), every second Jesus puts off Jairus’ daughter seems like an eternity. I start to wonder if Jesus and I are working from the same timeline.

Why wasn’t he rushing to heal her? I can’t name a single instance of Jesus rushing anywhere, ever. Maybe he wasn’t rushed because, unlike us, Jesus is not tethered to ticking clocks. Whether you’re twelve years old or twelve years bleeding, Jesus is on his way and his timing is not ours.

These healings and their order remind me that God’s time has broken into this world, in the person of Jesus. This “eternal now,” —where all can be redeemed, regardless of our human stipulations—is where God meets us, in peace, with grace and healing. It is impossible for my human brain to grasp. What I see as “too late” turns out to be an opportunity for an even greater miracle. At the end of the Gospel story, Jesus does more than just heal Jairus’ daughter; he brings her back to life. It seems that healing is offered to all those who seek it, after all.

But when?

Maybe you’ve been praying for a clean cancer screen, a positive pregnancy test, to find lasting love or to feel like you’ve truly made it. You stand by and watch all your friends get engaged or hear stories of miraculous healing and you’re left praying and waiting. It feels like Jesus is never going to follow you home to the sight of your wound.

Or maybe you feel Jesus is already too late. Your grandmother will never be at Christmas again, never meet your husband or daughter. Your fertile years are gone. The Alzheimer’s has stolen her away. There’s too much damaged, too much lost. It feels like there is no way to make things right, short of resurrection.

This year I am hanging on the truth that Jesus is right on time. In spite of it being hugely uncomfortable, not unfolding as per my Google calendar, I want to seek God in the eternal now. I want to stop rushing. I don’t want to live in a mindset of scarcity. Most of all I want to trust God enough to stop constantly asking to hurry it up. When we seek God’s time, this eternal now, our past is redeemed, our future is open. 

It is not too late.

And yet, please join me as I continue to count the seconds. I believe God is ok with that. In fact, I believe God didn’t want us to be alone in this waiting or this woundedness. The Wounded Healer himself—that was, is and is to come—waits and weeps with us.

So let the maxim be: God heals all wounds...in God’s time.

*sigh*

Lord, do not tarry...only say the word and I shall be healed.

O Holy Night!

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Tuesday, December 25, 2018

O holy night! The stars are brightly shining

It is the night of our dear Savior's birth

Long lay the world in sin and error pining

'Til He appeared and the Spirit felt its worth

A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices

For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn

Fall on your knees! O hear the angel voices!

O night divine, the night when Christ was born

O night, O holy night, O night divine!

O night, O holy night, O night divine!

—Placide Cappeau (1808–1877)

While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were ter- rified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. (Luke 1:6-11)

Merry Christmas, at last! Indeed, the night so often associated with fear, death, and uncertainty has given way to the birth of Christ, light of the world, “savior at thy birth” and the reason our soul feels worth. That’s the claim of this carol. Our humanity must be grounded in the true humanity of Jesus if we are to live with self-respect and respect of others, because we know our “worth.” Scripture tells us that we have been “bought with a price,” for which God, in Jesus Christ, has given us everything, at the cost of life. This brings us full circle to the beginning of this Devotional. I hope it has blessed you. I hope you see your worth and the worth of those around you through the lens of Christ, whose life, death and resurrection have made all the difference.

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Prayer: God of Merry-making and Christmastide, help me to welcome the Christ Child, as ruler of my heart, that I may see how valuable I am, a value that is non-negotiable and displayed by the cost of Christ’s Cross. Help me to live in this Christmas spirit all the year-long. In Christ’s name, Amen.

—Rev. Edwin Estevez

Joy to the World

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Friday, December 21, 2018

Joy to the world,

the Lord is come

Let earth receive her King!

Let every heart prepare Him room

And Heaven and nature sing

And Heaven and nature sing

And Heaven, and Heaven, and nature sing!

“Happy is the man who does not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path of sinners, or join a group of mockers! Instead, his delight is in the Lord's instruction, and he meditates on it day and night.” Psalms 1:1-2

This carol and the opening of the book of Psalms reminds me of the joy and happiness that God intends for us. When we radiate God's love and light, we allow ourselves to be a vessel through which to bring joy to the world. This has been a personal calling on my life: to make life better for others. I'm intentional about bringing happiness to all who I encounter, first centering myself in my own true happiness. Then my family, especially my son. And finally bringing light to a community of children and families in need. This level of happiness for other requires daily meditation and a deep rooted knowledge of the greatness of God. While the journey has not been easy, I've found such happiness in the Lord. And I'm honored to live a life full of purpose in helping others to find their joy.

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Prayer: Father use me to radiate your greatness. Bring joy to the world through my life of service. Amen.

—Chandra Pitts

The Friendly Beasts

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Thursday, December 20, 2018

Jesus our brother, kind and good

Was humbly born in a stable rude

And the friendly beasts around Him stood,

Jesus our brother, kind and good.

"I," said the donkey, shaggy and brown,

"I carried His mother up hill and down;

I carried her safely to Bethlehem town."

"I," said the donkey, shaggy and brown.

"I," said the cow all white and red

"I gave Him my manger for His bed;

I gave him my hay to pillow his head."

"I," said the cow all white and red.

"I," said the sheep with curly horn,

"I gave Him my wool for His blanket warm;

He wore my coat on Christmas morn."

"I," said the sheep with curly horn.

"I," said the dove from the rafters high,

"I cooed Him to sleep so He would not cry;

We cooed him to sleep, my mate and I."

"I," said the dove from the rafters high.

Thus every beast by some good spell,

In the stable dark was glad to tell

Of the gift he gave Immanuel,

The gift he gave Immanuel.

 —12th century, Latin

 

...”and [Mary] gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. Gospel of Luke 2:7

 

THE NATIVITY

Among the oxen (like an ox I’m slow)

I see a glory in the stable grow

Which, with the ox’s dullness might at length

Give me an ox’s strength.

Among the asses (stubborn I as they)

I see my Saviour where I looked for hay;

So may my beastlike folly learn at least

The patience of a beast.

Among the sheep (I like a sheep have strayed)

I watch the manger where my Lord is laid;

Oh that my baa-ing nature would win thence

Some woolly innocence!

——C. S. Lewis

Did you know C. S. Lewis wrote poetry? It’s not his most well-known or beloved writing, but it certainly reflects his deepest interests. The author of The Chronicles of Narnia had a fanciful imagination deeply connected to his faith. He believed a glorious world once existed, when human beings, animals, trees and all creation could communicate with one another—hence, the talking beasts of Narnia. Interestingly, this poem is also about beasts and our commonness with them. Like the carol, The Friendly Beasts, perhaps we might learn, how to humbly play our part as creatures of God.

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Prayer: God, help us honor your creation and be thankful for all you have made. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

—Rev. Edwin Estevez

Of the Father’s Love Begotten

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Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Of the Father’s love begotten,

Ere the worlds began to be,

He is Alpha and Omega,

He the source, the ending He,

Of the things that are, that have been,

And that future years shall see,

Evermore and evermore!

At His Word the worlds were framèd;

He commanded; it was done:

Heaven and earth and depths of ocean

In their threefold order one;

All that grows beneath the shining

Of the moon and burning sun,

Evermore and evermore!

O ye heights of heaven adore Him;

Angel hosts, His praises sing;

Powers, dominions, bow before Him,

and extol our God and King!

Let no tongue on earth be silent,

Every voice in concert sing,

Evermore and evermore!

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; with- out him nothing was made that has been made... The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1: 1-3, 14

As I imagine the Great Creator God designing and speaking creation into existence, it brings me great joy to picture Jesus there in that process. Poignantly, we see in Genesis with Adam being asked to name the animals, that you and I are called to be part of that creating, too. I think it is easy to forget how much God values us. Through Jesus we understand God’s power, his gentleness, his commitment to all they made.

Isn’t it amazing that this carol says Jesus was of the father’s love begotten? That Jesus was created, born, begotten of the Father’s love, not of anger or wrath. Instead of God being an angry old man in the sky, God is a force of love that longs for relationship and community, and that love was there since the beginning of time. That love was the impulse from which all things were made.

Christmas, then, is a celebration of God’s longing for relationship made human. As Jesus broke in on Christmas, he came to show us the love from which he was begotten. The one whom heaven adored, whom powers and kingdoms bow down before, he is born. “Let no tongue on earth be silent!”

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Prayer: God, thank you for loving us enough to send your son Jesus. In His mighty and holy name we pray, Amen.

—Merideth Hite Estevez

The Holly and the Ivy

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Tuesday, December 18, 2018

The holly and the ivy,

When they are both full grown,

Of all trees that are in the wood,

The holly bears the crown

O, the rising of the sun,

And the running of the deer

The playing of the merry organ,

Sweet singing in the choir.

The holly bears a blossom,

As white as lily flow'are,

And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ,

To be our dear Saviour

The holly bears a berry,

As red as any blood,

And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ,

To do poor sinners good

The holly bears a prickle,

As sharp as any thorn,

And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ,

On Christmas Day in the morn

The holly bears a bark,

As bitter as the gall,

And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ,

For to redeem us all

The holly and the ivy,

When they are both full grown,

Of all trees that are in the wood,

The holly bears the crown

“A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.” Isaiah 11:1

These lyrics are almost too hard to sing with the simple melody we usually sing for this carol. But in those words are the reason for the season: Jesus came to save us. The majestic and beautiful holly comes with its blossoms, thorns, and bark all harkening to something yet to come. When the choir sang this as part of their Feast of Carols a few years ago, I was struck by the reminders every verse of Jesus’ Crucifixion through the parts of the tree. A baby came as a gift to us in the midst of a stable, a star lit night, in a place far from his parents’ home. Now that we know of the other end of this baby’s life (and Resurrection) can we fully feel the intertwined emotions in the lyrics. Let us all remember the life of Jesus whenever we see holly this Christmas season.

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Prayer: Holy God in this season of Advent we prepare our hearts for your coming. You are the vine, we are the branches. Come and tend us. Prune us. Clean us. Discard in us everything that does not bear fruit, Nourish in us everything that bears much fruit. Yours is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, now and forever. Amen

—Diane Olin White

O Little Town of Bethlehem

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Monday December 17, 2018

O little town of Bethlehem

How still we see thee lie

Above thy deep and dreamless sleep

The silent stars go by

Yet in thy dark streets shineth

The everlasting Light

The hopes and fears of all the years

Are met in thee tonight

For Christ is born of Mary

And gathered all above

While mortals sleep, the angels keep

Their watch of wondering love

O morning stars together

Proclaim the holy birth

And praises sing to God the King

And Peace to men on earth

How silently, how silently

The wondrous gift is given!

So God imparts to human hearts

The blessings of His heaven.

No ear may his His coming,

But in this world of sin,

Where meek souls will receive him still,

The dear Christ enters in.

O holy Child of Bethlehem

Descend to us, we pray

Cast out our sin and enter in

Be born to us today

We hear the Christmas angels

The great glad tidings tell

O come to us, abide with us

Our Lord Emmanuel.

“As God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” Colossians 3:12

The text is set in Bethlehem, the night of Jesus’ birth. Each of the four stanzas seem to embody the four words most associated with Advent: Peace, Joy, Hope and Love. The first stanza speaks of peace, found in sleep and starlight. It also promises that, even in oft war-torn regions like Bethlehem in Jerusalem, peace can prevail. This verse also speaks of the persistence of light, within us, and the light of Christ’s love. The second stanza is rooted in Joy, a proclamation of a new birth. And not just any birth, but the birth of our God and King, Jesus Christ. Further, it promises peace to the mortals of the earth. It is very interesting that this event occurs while mortals sleep, meaning that our salvation was a gift given to us, even as we lay safe and sleeping. But it also de- mands of us maturity as we grow from Christian children to our Christian adulthood. Love is the theme of the third stanza. In fact, the love of the smallest and meekest among us. The love that it took for God to send his Son to earth, to suffer and die for our sins. A love, and salvation, in the form of an adored child, that is offered to the even the least of these; the meekest. And, fittingly, it is Hope that rounds out the verses. The hope we live: that one day, the Lord will descend, much like on the very first Christmas Eve, and, until then, can be born in us for the world to witness each day of the year.

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Prayer: Holy creator and sustainer, may this Advent and Christmas be a time where we all embody and share the light of God’s love, and may that light lead, to harmony, honor, and peace, both in our homes and our nations. May the peace, joy, hope and love of our salvation be a light in the darkened places and lead others to the manger, to come and adore our Lord and our salvation, the infant Jesus Christ. Amen.

—Matthew Thomas

Hark the Herald Angels Sing!

“Joy to the world” by Erin Leeper

“Joy to the world” by Erin Leeper

Friday, December 14, 2018

Hark the herald angels sing

Glory to the newborn King!

Peace on earth and mercy mild

God and sinners reconciled

Joyful, all ye nations rise

Join the triumph of the skies

With the angelic host proclaim:

"Christ is born in Bethlehem

Hark! The herald angels sing

Glory to the newborn King!

Hail the heav'n-born Prince of Peace!

Hail the Son of Righteousness!

Light and life to all He brings

Ris'n with healing in His wings

Mild He lays His glory by

Born that man no more may die

Born to raise the sons of earth

Born to give them second birth

Hark! The herald angels sing

Glory to the newborn King!

Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth. Worship the LORD with gladness; come into his presence with singing. Psalm 100: 1-2

When I was years old and in the 4th grade I loved to act and sing. I grew up in a small NJ town with an actual "Main Street" and one stop light. There were not a lot of opportunities for my exuberant desire for creative expression. Luckily, that year our Episcopal church got a new priest with new ideas and she started a children's choir and produced musicals.

The children's choir consisted of 8 kids and the laid-back choir director assigned vocal parts based on where you sat on the first day. If you sat by the window you were declared "Soprano" and if you sat by the wall you were dubbed "Alto."

l loved singing this song because it was so joyful and it told a biblical story that I could actually understand. "Hey, the angels are really happy and having a party, making noise because Jesus was born!"

Sitting through church as child I felt comfortable but never could get the meaning of the gospel readings or sermons. But the songs, they made sense!

Thinking back it was probably the first time I was really engaged in worship, its that good memory and comfort level with the church that brought me back to it as a young adult.

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rayer: Dear God, thank you for the ways music and the arts bring us closer to you and your joyful exuberance. Bless our singing and rejoicing this holiday season and evermore. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

—Wednesday Lampinen