Artist-God in the Garden

 “Gethsemane’s Dolor” by Gloria Ssali

 “Gethsemane’s Dolor” by Gloria Ssali

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

your one wild and precious life

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Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean-

the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

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

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

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

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don't know exactly what a prayer is.

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

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

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

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

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

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

—Mary Oliver

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

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

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

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

We will always have Paris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Holy Week Devotional: International Bank of Dad

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

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

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

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

Soneto a Cristo crucificado

No me mueve, mi Dios, para quererte

el cielo que me tienes prometido,

ni me mueve el infierno tan temido

para dejar por eso de ofenderte.

 ¡Tú me mueves, Señor!  Muéveme el verte       

clavado en una cruz y escarnecido;

muéveme ver tu cuerpo tan herido;

muévenme tus afrentas y tu muerte.

Muéveme en fin, tu amor, y en tal manera

que aunque no hubiera cielo, yo te amara,       

y aunque no hubiera infierno, te temiera.

No me tienes que dar porque te quiera,

pues aunque lo que espero no esperara,

lo mismo que te quiero te quisiera.

                  —St. John of the Cross

 

Sonnet to Christ Crucified

Heaven that you have promised me, my God,

Does not move me to love you.

Nor does hell so dreadful move me

To leave all that offends you.

 

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

Mocked, nailed to that cross.

It moves me to see your body so wounded.

Your dishonour moves me, and your death.

You move me to your love in such a way

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

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

 

You do not have to give to gain my love;

For —even if what I hope for becomes hopeless—

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

—Translated by Stacy Shoop, 1996

 

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

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

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

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

Mimi’s Letters

Mimi with my cousin Jeffrey, photo cred John Ross.

Mimi with my cousin Jeffrey, photo cred John Ross.

 “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Write in a book all the words that I have spoken to you.” Jeremiah 30:2

My grandmother Mimi was the kind of person who baked cookies for prisoners, the kind of person who always told my mother we were just tired when we misbehaved. (Following a tantrum, during which I ripped the wall-paper off the wall, she exclaimed to my mother, “Oh, Debby, she’s just so tired!”) She had gone to college in a day when not a lot of women had. After a career as a teacher she took on the somewhat full time job of helping my parents with me and my three siblings. She lived down the street in the house that looked like a barn, where my dad had grown up. Some of my earliest memories are of her teaching me to read (Bible stories and Bernstein Bears) and showing me how to count to one hundred. I jumped with glee as I put each set of ten together, hopping back and forth from the couch to the chair in her house with the shag carpet as she stood nearby and smiled.

She was a true southern lady. Proper but warm, deep but playful, I never doubted her love for me for one second of the twenty-five years I had her in my life. Even when her memory started to fade and then completely left her, she never lost her gentle, loving, and compassionate way. That’s proof that someone is good to the core, in my book.

When her husband, my grandfather, died, she came to stay with us for a while. She had spent years nursing him after he’d had a stroke. I remember her using a strap made of seatbelt material to walk him to and from the kitchen for lunch, his limp side seemed so heavy and helpless in my mind’s eye, her strength incredible. She never once let on if she ever felt it was a burden to care for him, and she remained a fortress of strength until his end. When she came to our house after his passing, even though I was eight years old at the time, alongside the grief, I sensed an emptiness and restlessness in her, like her hands were newly empty and she didn’t know what to do with them.

We slept in the same bed for those first few months of her living with us. That first night before bed, my eyes were wide with wonder: it was the first time I’d ever seen her with her hair down. She smelled like Ponds Cold Cream and powder. She would recite Psalm 23 and the Lord’s Prayer every night and, always the teacher, she made me memorize them too. A few weeks into this arrangement, she went down to the dollar store and bought me some slippers because she noticed my feet were cold against her legs when we got in bed together. Her presence in my life was analogous to a guardian angel: she brought me wisdom, peace, comfort, and protection. What I wouldn’t give to introduce her to Edwin and Eva, to sit on her couch and “visit” (as she called it.)

The paragraphs you just read were started in my journal. This “practice” of journaling every day is one that many artists swear by, especially Julia Cameron, in her book about creativity as a spiritual practice, “The Artist’s Way.” She says journaling or more specifically writing “morning pages,” three long-hand, stream of consciousness pages daily, will increase creative flow or at the very least, drain the brain of all that blocks creative thinking.

When I tried this for the first time I found it to be an inane exercise. Three pages of complaining about how tired I am or recounting days where nothing interesting happened, morning after morning— it was a unique combination of boring and humiliating. Nothing felt creative about that process, it felt petty and frustrating, like digging myself out of the mud. But as I settled into the practice, something magical happened.

Mimi was a big letter writer and always wrote to me if I was away at camp or at music festivals. After an update of what was going on, she always ended the letter by telling me how proud of me she was. Even though this occurred in every letter I never got tired of reading it. Her handwriting swirled on the page like something magical and ancient. I keep one of her letters in my box of important papers because seeing her handwriting makes me feel close to her, reading those last lines reminds me of my value, long after her passing.

So you can imagine my surprise when, a few days into this tedious journaling practice, I discovered something close to Mimi’s ancient and magical script coming out of my pen. I hadn’t written in cursive since the fourth grade, but in an effort to write fast, I haphazardly tried again. I struggled to remember how to write each letter, and as my pen carried me swiftly to each word, I unlocked an old part of myself, a part of that little girl who slept in bed beside Mimi. My handwriting looked like hers!

Maybe this is one of the truly spiritual aspects of creativity—that when we open our minds and dump them out (the good, the bad and the oh, so ugly), we may be surprised at the beauty of what we find. Since I spent time writing about her I not only noticed the similarities in our cursive and recalled memories I had forgotten, I also keep dreaming of her, her presence as comforting as ever. Putting all that is inside us on paper affords us the pleasure of knowing our own minds. In that process, I have felt not only Mimi’s presence, but God’s, mightily.

So perhaps this is why the prophets were always telling the people to write things down: surely so they wouldn’t forget them and could pass them on to future generations, but maybe it was also because God knew the power and mystery of putting pen to paper. This practice does more than give us prayers and psalms to teach to our grandchildren to recite before bed. It calls us into our memories, helps us process loss, and reintroduces us to the still small voice we are normally too busy to hear. As we see (and begin to understand) all that is within us, we find God at work, completing that which was started in us at creation, and just like the end of Mimi’s letter, reminding us of our value. I dare to say that this act of writing something down, that the prophets urged Israel and Cameron urges us to do now—it is the beginning of believing these beautiful mysteries happened at all.

And so, now I show up at my notebook each day, not just to write, but to listen. In the stream of consciousness blabber, in the tedious to-do lists, the memories that resurface (both painful and precious), the prayers pleaded, complaints aired, dreams given voice, I seek to know my own mind. And through this process, I’m learning something I think Mimi wanted me to know: I cannot know myself completely without knowing God.

My writing is nothing like a record of all the great prophets’ words or a history of an entire people. Yet, we each have within us our mini-manifesto, a record of one life that God is at work in. I believe we are still called to write it down, just as God instructed Israel. So try it. You may be surprised at what you find right there waiting for you in your own handwriting.

The sweet spot

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“The integrity of the upright guides them, but the crookedness of the treacherous destroys them.” Proverbs 11:3

There’s this sweet spot on the oboe, that when found, the sound has deep resonance. My teachers taught me how to search for it, and now I spend my days helping others find it too. When the right reed, instrument, and embouchure combination come together and the player finds *just* the right angle at which to hold the instrument, the sound opens up and rings. When this happens, there’s no falsehood in the pitch or the tone, just a beautiful purity and clarity. And here’s the amazing thing: whenever you find the sweet spot, the sound you make is still completely unique and individual to you as a player. The sweet spot is where your voice sings in its truest sense. It’s a difficult thing to describe to students who’ve never experienced it. The best analogy I could come up with is the image of a jack-o-lantern: when you’re playing in the sweet spot, you can suddenly feel sound pouring out of every hole in your head, like light from a pumpkin lit from within. It’s interesting as a teacher to watch students’ eyes widen with clarity as this finally happens. I always tell them, “You’ll know it when you feel it.”

Lately, I’ve been wondering if life has a sweet spot, too.

After years of living a crazy-busy, coffee-fueled, anxious lifestyle, I am starting to think that I am not currently living my life with any sustainable resonance, if such a thing is possible. Maybe it’s having a young child or being out in the work force for a few years now... I seem to have lost my right-out-of-college freelance musician hustle. I just feel I can no longer take the ebb and flow of the pesky anxiety that always seems to find me, like a gray cloud on an otherwise sunny day, or that inexplicable sadness that seems just around the corner, even though nothing is really wrong. It keeps me worrying so I can’t enjoy the things that are wonderful. The constant and frantic movement to the next thing...and the next... makes it impossible to enjoy any particular moment. Can you relate?

It is tricky to pinpoint how or where it began. There was no specific moment where I remember these feelings starting, in some ways I wonder if I’ve always been this way, even since childhood. I do know one thing: the world seems to value this break-neck tempo, this harder-faster-better mentality, especially here in America. I know for myself it is hard to get off the merry-go-round because of how good I feel when I am able to juggle everything successfully (albeit tired.)

There’s something addictive about being busy. When my mind is fully occupied it means I don’t have time to sit with things that are uncomfortable or to really look closely at my life. “I’m sorry I don’t have time” is the best excuse there is, because it allows us to seem really busy and important, while avoiding the little lies we are telling ourselves and others. I suppose, “I’m sorry I will not make time for that,” is more accurate. We make an idol out of being perceived as busy, accomplished, in-demand, and successful, especially as artists... but at what cost? What do we lose when we fill every empty space in our life with more and more, even good things? What if the only way to be creative means to, first and foremost, be bored?

This week, in light of these feelings, I’ve been thinking about the above proverb about integrity, but not in the way that you may think. 

I wonder if instead of the traditional definition of integrity that we use: “adherence to moral and ethical principles,” it would be more useful to consider the other two definitions listed here: “the state of being whole, entire, or undiminished” or “a sound, unimpaired, or perfect condition.”

Maybe being a person of integrity means more than being moral. Maybe it also means being integrated—a person of wholeness and of a sound condition—someone who’s life resonates in the sweet spot.

If I ask myself if I am integrated, I’m not sure I could answer in the positive. In fact, I know I am not. If I was, I wouldn’t find myself buying things I don’t need or throwing away food I don’t eat. It would mean I could play with my toddler without feeling anxious about all the emails I should be writing. Being a person of integrity or wholeness would mean saying no to opportunities that are not right for me, even if they will bring in more money or accolades (or first, doing the self-reflection to figure out what those right things are), spending more time feeling grateful and less time feeling worried, resisting the temptation to fill all the empty space—to leave it for thinking, reflecting, and just letting my mind wander. It would mean ending relationships that feel toxic and energy-zapping. In short, it would mean checking everything I do, everything I buy, everything I say, against that that has my life resonating deeply. It would mean exactly what the proverb tells us—that when we are guided by this kind of integrity we flourish; while if we continue in the scattered, crooked, impaired, and diminished existence we are living in now, we will eventually destroy ourselves.

It’s so easy to read the Bible like it’s a collection of cautionary tales or, even worse, a rule book. When Jesus said “You are the light of the world,” what if he meant we each carry with us something special, that, when we can let it resonate, can be a light by which others find their way through the world? What if it’s about being more than what our Sunday school teachers told us about being moral, but also being whole, being of sound and resonant body and mind? In other words, maybe integrity is about finding our sweet spot and letting the light shine from there.

If this is the kind of life we are searching for, then let Jesus be our example. He knew when it was time to retreat into the wilderness to pray. He knew when to work hard and when to rest. He sat fully present around a table with friends even though he knew he would soon die. He was full of joy and mirth, and yet we see his heart breaking for all that was and is wrong in the world. He loved deeply. He was willing to die for the truth, and this integrity made his life resonate deeply through all time and eternity. His light shined as brightly as the sun. He was integrated, whole, undiminished, and perfect, and it’s because of him that we can be perfected too.

Playing outside of the sweet spot on oboe is certainly possible, just like living with this crippling chaos and overwhelming busyness is possible (and all too common.) But if life’s sweet spot is anything like the oboe’s, then when we find it, it will mean all we are gaining is fair greater than anything we are giving up. It will mean finding our voice and never wanting to turn back.

Living with this type of integrity would not mean assimilating to any old ideal, but living into our own unique and personal sense of moving through the world, a way that resonates with who we were each created to be, a way that lights us up. Any other way and we fall short of truly experiencing what it is to let the light pour from within us, and that’s no way to play the oboe or to live. I only pray we will know it when we feel it. 

Artists: You have everything you need.

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 “And he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills—to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood and to engage in all kinds of artistic crafts....He has filled them with skill to do all kinds of work as engravers, designers, embroiderers in blue, purple and scarlet yarn and fine linen, and weavers—all of them skilled workers and designers.” Exodus 35: 31-33, 35

When I received the invitation to hear Ben Folds play with the Philadelphia Orchestra, I almost turned it down. If you don’t know Ben Folds (or remember him) you can fall down the rabbit hole of my 20’s here. If you do remember him, you might think it’s a strange combination—one of the country’s best symphony orchestras in concert with an irreverent pop-star pianist. I almost didn’t go for numerous reasons: 1) I had worked all day and it had been a long week. 2) I’m ashamed to say I had yet to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra since I moved to the area, and I wanted my first concert to feature one of the 3 B’s—Bach, Beethoven, or Brahms— not Ben Folds. 3) After teaching music all week, the last thing I wanted to do was go to a concert and think about music, even if it was the Philadelphia Orchestra. (Sad, but true.)

So, there I was, tired and in good company, feeling pretty creatively dry, not expecting much from the evening. Yet, it was the encore that left me floating out of the Kimmel Center with renewed inspiration and hope.

I still struggle with burn out and periods of creative drought, and sometimes when I’m desperate, I look to the Bible for help.

Full disclosure: sometimes I use God’s word like a Magic 8 Ball. I’ve been known to ask a question of God, flip to a random page and verse in hopes of receiving a sort of “telegram” from the Almighty. As you can imagine, this rarely works, and (let’s be honest) is often pretty comical. But, lately, I’ve been wanting to talk to God about: my creativity, about my worry that burn out and general fatigue as a working classical musician is destroying my creative impulse, and that it’s made me forget what I loved about making music in the first place. I wanted proof that this creative work we do is valid and, most of all, I wanted to confirm my suspicion (and my hope) that this “spirit” I feel collaborating with me when things are going well, is the Spirit of God. Remembering that God is within my work as an oboist—well, that just might motivate me to keep going when things are hard.

Although the Bible isn’t a Magic 8 Ball or a fortune teller, it is something better. I came across this passage from Exodus, where we see God equipping God’s people with all the skills they need to build the Tabernacle. Moses relayed the information that they were going to create an amazing house for the Lord to dwell within, and certain artisans would be working in stone, metals, embroidery, etc. to make this happen. They were going to make something incredible, and it wouldn’t be Moses who would do it alone.

I wonder if the Israelite artists had a crisis of confidence in this moment. Until recently, they had spent their time and skill making bricks as Egyptian slaves. Maybe their creative impulse was broken too. And now God was asking them to come back out on stage (one night only!) to make something truly beautiful, not just a utilitarian carrying case for the Torah, but an extravagant work of art in honor of the One who had released them from their captivity, a place that God would inhabit God’s self. And they needn’t worry, each of them would be filled with the Spirit—with wisdom, understanding, knowledge, and skill—to do all they were called to, however impossible it seemed at the time.

Speaking of impossible feats of artistry, Ben Folds has a history of writing songs on stage. (This is a classical musician’s nightmare!) As an encore last night, he composed a brand-new song in collaboration with the orchestra, right in front of the audience’s eyes.

He started with a riff for the basses. Playing it once or twice on the piano, the bass section caught on right away (after all, this is the Philly Orchestra.) Next, he added two violin parts, the concert master executing it perfectly on the first try and effortlessly passing it back to the rest of the violin stands. On he went from section to section, until every person had a part. It took a total of five minutes. Like most pop songs, it was very simple, but what moved me was the energy that began to permeate the space during this process. I was seated with friends behind the orchestra and as I watched the players’ eyes closely, I saw a kind of awakening I hadn’t seen in the show yet. They smiled and playfully approached this endeavor with such a contagious joy. This joy, like the music they were making, palpably filled the entire hall, rising like incense all the way to the highest balcony. They created something more beautiful and real than anything Ben Folds could have ever done alone.

As my friends and I walked into the cold night, I got to thinking about how we become so obsessed with all that we don’t know as artists, that we forget that everything we need to begin is already within us. As a gift from God, God’s Spirit seeks to encourage our gifts and to collaborate with us! The tricky part comes next, when we realize this does not mean we don’t need to continue honing our craft. Yet, it means we can do so from a place of confidence and playfulness as beloved children of God,  believing that those whom God calls, God equips.

Everything we need has already been given to us. If we are open to it, the Spirit will find us at our writing desk, painting studio, or even the Kimmel Center, when we are willing to accept the invitation and show up.

Reflections from a sick bed, brought to you by St. Patrick

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This past Wednesday my “life” screeched to a halt. The symptoms of an illness appearing again in the middle of the night, the familiar heaviness that accompanies them, and that deep and sinister malaise in tow. I put “life” in quotes because here I am on the other side, on the road to feeling like myself again, very far from dead, thank God. Yet for those days I was incapacitated, I did feel that this illness stopped me in my tracks, stopped my “life” as I knew it.

As I lay in bed, unable to play with my daughter, eat, drink, or work, I am shocked at how quickly everything had been put on pause, even though I knew my life (the non-quotes version) was not actually in danger (Praise God). All the things I had taken for granted were glaring—preparing a delicious meal and eating it, having the energy to carry Eva Ruth up the stairs to her room, being able to sleep without the crippling nausea constantly waking me. These little things are now precious to me again with a new clarity and sweetness as I recover.

Oh, how grateful I am that the pause button has been released and “life” can continue. Maybe it’s the beautiful sunshine that cannot keep the secret of winter’s ending, but everything has a new kind of shimmer around it. Spring is on its way. The light will very truly overcome the darkness this coming Wednesday, when the Spring Equinox officially makes day longer than night. If we are just willing to see it, “life” and life are glowing with gratitude, grace, and healing.

Below is a prayer often attributed to Saint Patrick. According to tradition, he wrote this prayer for protection upon his return to Ireland, where he was to bring the Christian faith to the country’s king in the 5th-century AD. You can read more about the prayer and St. Patrick here. (For those Grace Church folks, the end might seem familiar: we have been using this prayer as a Benediction during Lent.)

As I arise from my sick bed, I do so with “the strength of the love of the cherubim” (what an image!) and with Christ on every side. Thank you all for your prayers during this time, and a special thanks to all those who showed up this week, loving me back to “life.” You know who you are.

____

I arise today

Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,

Through belief in the Threeness,

Through confession of the Oneness

of the Creator of creation.


I arise today

Through the strength of Christ's birth with His baptism,

Through the strength of His crucifixion with His burial,

Through the strength of His resurrection with His ascension,

Through the strength of His descent for the judgment of doom.


I arise today

Through the strength of the love of cherubim,

In the obedience of angels,

In the service of archangels,

In the hope of resurrection to meet with reward,

In the prayers of patriarchs,

In the predictions of prophets,

In the preaching of apostles,

In the faith of confessors,

In the innocence of holy virgins,

In the deeds of righteous men.


I arise today, through

The strength of heaven,

The light of the sun,

The radiance of the moon,

The splendor of fire,

The speed of lightning,

The swiftness of wind,

The depth of the sea,

The stability of the earth,

The firmness of rock.


I arise today, through

God's strength to pilot me,

God's might to uphold me,

God's wisdom to guide me,

God's eye to look before me,

God's ear to hear me,

God's word to speak for me,

God's hand to guard me,

God's shield to protect me,

God's host to save me

From snares of devils,

From temptation of vices,

From everyone who shall wish me ill,

afar and near.


Christ with me,

Christ before me,

Christ behind me,

Christ in me,

Christ beneath me,

Christ above me,

Christ on my right,

Christ on my left,

Christ when I lie down,

Christ when I sit down,

Christ when I arise,

Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,

Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,

Christ in every eye that sees me,

Christ in every ear that hears me.

You can’t take it with you

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“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Matthew 6:21

This week I had the honor of meeting the wife of a famous sculptor. I love getting to know the women behind well-known men. They often have a certain kind of gravitas, a familiar, all-knowing smirk as you sense they are their own force to be reckoned with. Almost seven years since her husband’s passing, 96 years old, Inge Parks carries herself with a joy and graciousness that lights up the small room in her now health center home.

I came to visit Mrs. Parks because she and her late husband Charles were faithful attendees at Grace Church, and his presence remains with us in the few pieces of his work scattered throughout our campus. A parishioner who lives in her facility set up the meeting.

I expected to find Inge in an expansive abode, the incredible artwork of her late husband towering over her, but instead, she sat smiling brightly from her wheel chair in the simple room, which was just big enough for her and her nurse companion. Her walls were covered with smiling family—children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren—in photographs representing decades of love and a life lived together. There was one gorgeous old snapshot of her and Charles standing in the driveway from what looked like the 1950’s. They smiled like they were in love, both of them beautiful and young.

There were one or two small sculptures, but Inge made sure to tell me that her children and grandchildren were coming to visit soon and that she would send these pieces with them, including the photos.

I knew that Inge was a generous lady—a year before Charles died, the family and the foundation donated what was left of his collection (nearly 300 pieces) to the state of Delaware—but I had no idea just how at peace she would seem with all that giving and letting go. 

Oh, what treasures Charles Parks made! That I knew before I met Inge, from my encounters with his works at Grace and around the city of Wilmington. But what I realized by looking at those photos in her room, were his treasures were not just made in his workshop on the Brandywine, but in his home, in his family, in his living. Married for seventy years, he and Inge had four children. It would have been easy, if I were her, to create a shrine to their seemingly perfect life, especially when your husband left so much of himself behind in his work. But instead of doing that, she sent the work on its way, as if it made her lighter to do so, as if it made her free.

The Bible talks a lot about our relationship to possessions, and I have been known to skip over these parts, especially those verses about idol worship. This is 21st-century America. We don’t have a problem with bowing down and worshipping statues. Charles Parks’ sculptures are not calves made from melted Egyptian gold to be prayed to, after all. But re-reading Jesus’s words in the Gospel of Matthew about money and learning of Inge Park’s generosity, made me realize that we do plenty of worshiping of idols in our own way. I put my value in my treasures, my heart in my blessings instead of the Blesser.

If I’m honest I can see how it would be possible to “worship” our mementos and our legacy, to place our value and identity in them, making these good things ultimate things. We hoard all that represents this love and connection, and we keep it under lock and key.  We rent storage units to hold all we can’t bear to throw away. Our most prized possessions collect dust on a shelf, in a dark jewelry box, or a safety deposit box across town. Marie Kondo’s “Tidying Up,” all the rage on Netflix, put forth the philosophy of keeping only the things that “spark joy.” Whatever your feelings about her methods, she has certainly stirred up a popular conversation about the average American and their relationship to objects, myself included.

During Lent, we Christians talk a lot about penitence and fasting, almsgiving and self-denial. To an outsider it may seem pretty glum. On Ash Wednesday as the the pastor drew the cross on my forehead, she looked me in the eye and said, “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” At first glance that might seem pretty dismal, negative, or dramatically somber, but this week, inspired by Inge Parks, I am letting it feel freeing.

What if when we hold something and find it sparks joy, we give it away, instead of folding it perfectly and storing it with like items alla Marie Kondo? What if we could let go of this attitude of scarcity, and we really believed what Jesus said?

“Where your treasure is, there your heart is.” Maybe Jesus meant: “What do you have that if taken away, you’d find life not worth living? What do you have that if lost, you’d be inconsolable? That is your treasure. That is where your heart is, and the problem with your heart being held in such temporal objects or beings is that the great blessings of family or meaningful work cannot withstand the test of time. Even the bronze sculptures of Charles Parks will return to the dust eventually, pieces left behind for some anthropologist to find long after our civilization is gone.

No matter how much joy it sparks now, we cannot take it with us.

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I treasure Eva and I think constantly about how I want her to remember me. I treasure our home which I have worked hard to fill with objects that bring us joy. I treasure Edwin and the things that symbolize our love, my engagement ring and the piece of vintage jewelry he bought me for my last birthday.  I treasure our collection of crosses that hang in our kitchen, which we’ve picked up traveling over the last five years or so. This is where my treasure (and my heart) is, and when I think about losing these people and these things, it makes my heart sick.

Yet, I know deep down that all the love and joy that is sparked here on earth is only a foretaste of what is offered us when we believe; that these things only point to the most beautiful thing of all, something I will never have to let go of, something eternal.

Do I live like I believe that?

I think we hold on tightly to the blessings and memories of this life because we aren’t really hopeful enough about what is coming next. No amount of acid free paper can stop the clock from taking its toll on all our memories here, and yet I want to believe this longing we experience—the urge to create the statue, to freeze time in photographs, to want it to go on forever— I want to believe that longing will be satisfied. When we are promised that “everything will be made new,” it doesn’t mean “out with the old, in with the new,” but that all things created will be renewed

No wonder Inge Parks gave all of Charles' sculptures away and no wonder Charles failed to even sign many of them. They understood that we can live and love deeply while we are here, but we can also let go of these momentos of the life that we’ve created, because we are looking toward the restoration of all things in Christ.

All of our treasures will be left to Eva when we are gone, whether she wants them or not. But after this week I’m deciding to listen to Jesus (and to Inge)— to trust that I don’t need to hold so tightly to things, but to share in the cherishing of all our blessings, here and now. When we let things go, as we watch others relish in all that God has given us— that is a joy so sparkly it shines beyond this world and straight into the world to come.

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What Artists Can Teach the Church

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For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago. “ Ephesians 2:10 (New Living Translation)

Do you remember when you first found “your people?” The people whose presence allowed you to really exhale for what seemed like the first time in your life?  

As a young person, I was bored a millisecond after kickoff at the ball games. This was inconvenient, since I was born into a sports family in a sports town (think Friday Night Lights.) I never knew where I fit in, that is, until The Opera House.

The first thing you notice when you walk into the old brick building is the smell. It’s kind of musty, but woody and clean. Beneath all the red carpet the hard wood whines with reassurance; the whole place alive with a music of memory.  The fact that such a gem of a theater existed in my small southern town was a miracle, a gift from God. You can read more about the history of the Abbeville Opera House here.

There was this one show, a musical, called “The Fantasticks.” I saw the entire run, ushered every show. It had only a few actors and a minimal set, and to a twelve-year-old girl seated all the way in the back, it was just the most amazing thing ever. The longing and the humor, the world they were creating—that was a world I wanted to be in; a world I felt, even at that age, I belonged in. I wanted to make art and be around creative people. I wanted to sing, to make music, to be on stage. There is this line that one of the characters screams in the show, I’ll never forget it: “Please God, please! Don’t let me be normal!”

Once I started acting in plays myself, I was in awe of the wildness of the actors, their unapologetic  boldness, the complete disregard for what other people thought of them. I had no idea there were people like that in the world. I had no idea you could have a life in the arts until that moment. These were my people. The passion I didn’t feel at the smell of the boiled peanuts at Hite Stadium, I felt for the musty, creaky-floored brick building on the end of the town square, where all my dreams were given life. It was there that I found my way to myself.

The Bible Belt was a pretty safe place for a upper middle class, cis-gendered, straight, white girl to grow up. I never worried about being persecuted for my sexual orientation or skin color. I was never kicked out of a church for any reason, and felt comfortable and welcome pretty much everywhere I went. Even with the prejudices against women that permeate our patriarchal society, I had advocates who fought for me throughout my schooling and now.

Yet there was an anxiety I see now in myself as I look back on those adolescent years: a fear that if I wasn’t like everyone else, there would be consequences. My connection to The Opera House felt thrilling and different than what I thought people expected, and it worried me.

And yet, I felt God’s presence there. In the darkness of backstage as I waited in the wings, my heart pulsed with hope. I hadn’t felt that excitement or joy from any other place in my world. The openness and freedom there, I see now, was the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit, reassuring me that I was loved by God, just as God had made me. That stage was a gateway to the rest of my life, the door to the good things God had planned for me.

This week the leadership in the church I’ve been invested in since my youth doubled down on their restrictions of LGBTQ+ clergy and same-sex marriages, and it got me thinking about what we artists can teach the church.

There’s this thing people say in theater (improv specifically) called the “yes, and” principle. It’s a rule that whatever your improv partner suggests, instead of taking it in your own direction, you say “Yes, and...” and build a scene together. There is nothing more hopeful and inclusive than “yes, and.”

What if instead of “no, but” the church could say “yes, and” to all those who have felt excluded, judged, and discarded in the name of Jesus?

Let us not forget this aspect of God’s character that Paul reminds of in Ephesians: God is an artist and we are God’s masterpiece. Regardless of sexual orientation, gender presentation, skin color, marital status, likes or dislikes, God has stamped us each with God’s image and labeled it Masterpiece.

Artists know a masterpiece when they see it.

Church should make us feel like little Meri Hite watching the “The Fantasticks.” Seeing that story come to life made me want to change mine, to dedicate myself to the practice of whatever that joy was behind that curtain. Church should be the kind of place where we all find our way to ourselves, where we are loved and affirmed for who we are. Church should have us exhaling with relief that we fit in: not because we are perfect or all the same, but because being loved and safe allows us to begin to see the ways we could all stand to change, how we are all being made new.

If God’s church be more like a community theater, let us not forget that we have a text far greater than any Shakespeare play or Rodgers and Hammerstein musical to enact. This text requires scholarly inquiry, context, meditation, and prayer to understand. These are things we dare not do alone. The Bible is not a figment of a master playwright’s imagination but the truth about who we are and whose we are. We certainly cannot do that discernment of Scripture and the acting out of its wisdom with only a roomful of people who look and act just like us. The living word of God, Christ himself, calls us to be a church of diversity, inclusion, and affirmation: a church of “yes, and.”

So, let all God’s people say, “yes, and” to our siblings in the faith, unique and irreplaceable members of the company of God’s creation, who need Jesus’ radical hospitality now more than ever. 

Please God, please, don’t let us be normal.

I am the problem in our marriage.

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“Bear with each other.” Colossians 3: 13

My husband Edwin and I have this little ritual after we’ve had a disagreement. Once we’ve talked through things as best we can, we each take turns saying, “I am the problem in our marriage.”

Full disclosure: sometimes I say it with my teeth closed and jaw clinched, and it can take me a little while to be able to utter the words. It honestly shocks me as I think about it now, how good it feels to hear Edwin say it. I stand fully vindicated and proud...that is, until he looks at me expectantly to say it back. We got this idea from someone with a long, successful marriage; a humble, loving, joyful couple that we admire. 

Lots of friends had told us that marriage was hard, so while I wan’t surprised at that fact, I was surprised at the specific way marriage is hard.  For example, I thought by “hard” they meant your spouse would have annoying habits that (although you find them cute now) would grate on your nerves so badly you’d eventually want to run for the hills. This is true, no doubt, but the hardest thing is this: when someone knows all your habits intimately, if you let them, they can show you real ways that you could stand to change. There’s not someone there just nagging you to pick up your socks, but to show you that leaving your clothing strewn across the floor is inconsiderate to those around you and for that reason, you should stop.

Letting someone see you that closely, with all your bad habits, imperfection, stray hairs...that requires a crazy amount of trust. Knowing someone like that and loving them enough to call them into being better...that take gentleness. It would be much easier just staying single and being left to do whatever you want with your socks, but if I know I am not perfect, how will I ever change if not by this process of being loved?

More than the annoyances of living in close proximity to someone else, being in the kind of a relationship where you see each other clearly, loving each other as you are, and yet, loving your spouse too much to let them stay that way— this is what’s hard, and amazing, about marriage. 

And when we both say “I am the problem in our marriage,” we are submitting to one another in love, knowing that we have both are working to be better and that this relationship is a place we can do that together, with each other’s help. Who was at fault in each particular instance is less important than admitting that we are both working to change, and it is by submitting to each other that we will.

The picture you see at the top of this post sits above the sink in our kitchen. I can’t remember who’s idea the picture frame guest book was for the wedding, but boy, am I glad we did that. As I stand before it everyday washing dishes, I feel the love and support of each one of those people who witnessed us making the promise to stick around no matter what. It sits on the wall as a benediction over the kitchen. I hear those people whispering to me, our friends and family, young, old, married, single, reminding me to bear with Edwin, to be at peace, to be grateful, and to remember that marriage is one of the ways that we are being made new in this life. Edwin is calling me into being the most glorious version of myself, while simultaneously loving me just the way I am. Allowing someone to do that—to see all the way to the bottom of who you are and not go running for the hills—is not easy.

This marriage thing was not meant to happen in a vacuum but with a collective community of support and encouragement, and their names on that frame remind me we are not alone in our promises to each other.

The first time I learned that the church was nicknamed “The Bride of Christ” I found it a little strange. Frankly, I was uncomfortable with this metaphor. As I live into my marriage, I’m becoming more and more ok with this idea, and I’m even starting to find it beautiful.

Knowing that Christ loves his people like a good spouse: seeing us all the way to the bottom and loving us just the way we are, while calling us gently into being less argumentative, less prideful, less selfish, more considerate, loving, and patient, like a life-partner— that is a metaphor that melts my stubborn and cynical heart. 

It’s true what they say, that you shouldn’t marry someone thinking that you can change them. But, if you’re lucky, you will find yourself changed by marriage. 

And so it is with loving God: God doesn’t love us because God believes we can change or because we have changed, but we are able to change because God loves us. I trust Christ in his gentleness to help me see the ways I am the problem, and I am thankful for that great cloud of witnesses who stand in support of these endeavors to love and commit ourselves to each other and our Creator. 

Turns out the whole Bible is a love story between God and God’s people, and every good love story ends in wedding.

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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.