I tend to think of seasons as four separate compartments to the year. Like nesting boxes in graduated sizes.
I forget that they are more like the Lego blocks in my son’s latest creation. Interlocking and overlapping. Difficult to pry apart.
Recently, I stood over the sink and ate a peach. It tasted perfectly peachy, and the juice ran in rivers down my right arm. Like a sunset, melting.
I held the fading summer sun in my hand, and watched gray clouds hauling themselves briskly across an autumn sky. Yellow leaves somersaulted across the grass.
I also tend to think of prayer in separate compartments. Like the paper trays I keep on my desk.
There is the inbox and the outbox. There is a spot marked urgent and one for the less pressing overflow.
If I think long enough, I can assign each prayer a neat label. Answered. Unanswered. Ongoing. Expires in five days. The paper trail of prayer is clearly defined. Requests move in one direction. Responses in the other.
But of course prayer is nothing like my paper tray. Of course, of course, I tell myself. Of course it is so much more like standing in a chill autumn wind while you hold summer in your hand.
The truly astonishing thing about prayer is not that our prayers are sometimes answered. The thing that never fails to startle me, to wake me up and scatter the paper piles of my mind, is that even the prayers themselves are given.
First, the prayer like one falling leaf.
Then, the answer, like the taste of that sweet peach.
On Friday, I breathed out the heaviness of the whole week with the thought It has been a long time since someone prayed for me.
That sort of thing was once a regular occurrence. I lived on a cushion of tightly knit community, and I rarely went more than a week or two without someone reaching out a hand. Someone holding out a prayer.
But two cross-country moves in four years have disrupted so many once-regular things. And every so often I let myself feel the jagged edges. Every so often I lean into them and breathe my own jaggedness.
Which is one way I know to pray without ceasing.
On Saturday a friend drove thirty minutes to come sit on my porch. While our children played, we talked. And we prayed.
She reached out her hand. She gave me her prayer.
I responded, with surprise and with gratitude, Amen.
Which came first? Like chickens and eggs. Like seeds and flowers. Prayers and answers are a puzzle I hope I never solve.
It must have happened eight or nine years ago. One particular day about midway through the decade we spent in that southside Chicago neighborhood.
I know this because my firstborn will soon turn eleven, but that day her stout little legs just managed to reach the sidewalk. We were sitting with my husband and a friend on the front steps of our apartment building.
Our little girl hopped up and ran a short burst down the sidewalk, and I heard him. Our friend. He had his eyes on our daughter when he whispered to my husband,
She isn’t afraid of me.
And I heard his surprise and his pleasure.
Our friend was black, and I wish I could say that I didn’t understand his words. That it took me a moment to grasp what he had said. But I understood instantly, and instantly I was ashamed. Ashamed that what should have been a given, a starting point, was, instead, a gift.
It would be simpler if I could say that our friend did not deserve fear and end my story there. If I could outline in a few easy words the injustice of a culture that perpetuates the association between black men and danger. Because it is deeply unjust.
I could remind you that he was our friend. I could tell you that he wrote poetry and loved his children, and we could share the satisfaction of our outrage.
But the full story is more complicated.
Yes, he was our friend, but he was unemployed. He was sometimes homeless. He was a recovering drug addict, and he had only recently been released from prison.
And now when I tell you that he used to hang out with my husband in the living room while in the kitchen my daughter and I filled a bag with food for his children, you might wonder if we should have been afraid.
When I am feeling especially desperate I tend to pray this: Jesus, where are you?
I pray these words as if I don’t know the answer, but today I am remembering the answer he has already given. In Matthew 25 he tells us where to look.
If you are seeking Christ look for the one who is hungry. The one who is thirsty. Listen for the stranger knocking at your door. Watch for the criminal, the one who is or has been in prison.
In other words, searching for Christ is anything but safe.
Our king has aligned himself with the suffering, and suffering is messy. Wounded people can be explosive and ugly in their anger and in their pain.
They might say hurtful things.
They might even throw Molotov cocktails.
My Pennsylvania neighborhood is peaceful and green. I am sure Jesus meets with me here. I am convinced he makes a home with us even on ordinary, suburban streets.
But I am sensing an invitation to travel somewhere else. To a place where suffering is no longer polite and hidden but erupting in deeply messy ways. Perhaps it is only a figurative journey, a journey I will make in my thoughts and prayers and in my storytelling, yet I still hesitate.
I hear Jesus speaking the words he once spoke to Thomas. I hear him saying Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side.
I always imagined it to be a straightforward request. Reach out. Touch. Now I see that in reaching out we might be carried farther than we ever intended. Our reaching might draw us right out of our circles of peaceful green and on toward wounded people in troubled places.
Not because we have solutions. Not because we know what to do. Or even what to say.
Only because we are following a wounded Lord. And we want to be where he is.
I’ve written about my extended family before.
These are almost always stories of absence. The cousins we have yet to meet. The grandparents we too rarely hold. Family, for us, is always too much or too little.
I am a foreigner to my own family,
a stranger to my own mother’s children.
Our lives are stretched across too many time zones. My father has always said it is a good thing our country is not any larger because then we would only live farther apart. But with one sister’s imminent move to Hawaii, our country has suddenly grown much larger. And we will, indeed, live farther apart.
But summer days are reunion days, and through some miracle of spirit and frequent flier miles, we came together.
They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, and I have found this to be true. But now I know that absence grows other good fruit. Because the holes in our lives where family might be do not stay empty. These gaps and fissures turn out to be fertile ground for things like hospitality and community. Friendship and adventure. Without family to lean on, we become needy, but these needs are always met.
We come together and discover that we do not have less but so much more. We have family, and we have friends. We have family, and we have neighbors. We have family, and we have our communities. We have family, and we have life in abundance.
We have more.
May your deeds be shown to your servants,
your splendor to their children.
I wrote a version of this post almost exactly two years ago. In early June of 2012, I had been wandering in a Florida wilderness for two years. I was tired of waiting. Tired of rootless living. I was six months pregnant and desperate to leave Florida. I wanted my baby girl to be born wherever home might be. But I had no idea where home might be.
Six weeks after our arrival in Pennsylvania, Elsa Spring was born. Today, that baby girl is rounding the curve on two years old. And we have come home. Every day I breathe “thank you.”
But it is Pentecost again, and I have realized something. We are lost and we are found, we are lost and we are found again, but we never truly leave this song behind. This beautiful ache of a song.
Pentecost Sunday is approaching, and I feel stuck in that room. Waiting. Asking this question: how did they survive the long, empty days between Jesus leaving and the Comforter coming?
How did they endure being lifted up by the joy of a promise believed only to drop again into the discouragement of yet another not yet?
And why the gap? Why did they have to wait at all?
We do know that the wait moved them to gather together. I imagine the promise was easier to believe when they could see the hope in one another’s faces. When they could pass around their Jesus stories, like a platter of bread and fish. Stories multiplied into hope. And faith.
And I imagine they worshipped. Sang and prayed.
Was this what it was all for? Was their worship the reason?
Did God wait, strain with holding himself back, because he wanted to hear their songs?
“Call to me,” he had once told them. “And I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know” (Jeremiah 33:3).
Call. My husband tells me this word suggests something organized, something formal. Something created. Like a song. Like a poem. Something more than careless words tossed at the sky.
Maybe you don’t sing songs. Maybe you don’t write poems. But maybe you journal. Maybe you sketch. Maybe you take photographs or bake bread for the neighbors. Maybe you orchestrate elaborate finger-painted messes with the three-year-olds at church and maybe, just maybe, that is a call? A song? A cry of longing for more of God?
And maybe that is the point of it all. The point of waiting. The point of living. To add our call to the many others until a crescendo of sound and beauty and worship rises to heaven and all is unleashed.
Then, just as it was that Pentecost when God’s church was born, wind and fire reveal the great unknowns.
What have we all been waiting for? To hear the mysteries of God’s glory in a language we can comprehend.
Those unsearchable glories we never even knew to seek.
It’s Valentine’s Day, and I’m sharing a story of friendship. Really, though, I’m telling you that carrots are the new roses, and I want to give 250 South African orphans and vulnerable children a garden. A garden! Of course, I can’t do it on my own. But Valentine’s Day is just the day for acknowledging that I am not alone, and you are not alone, and those children? Not alone. Not forgotten. Join me?
When I first met Lisa-Jo, she was an attorney at a powerful Chicago law firm and I was a PhD candidate at an elite university. We were both pursuing Big Plans, and we were both very far from home. Though, admittedly, Lisa-Jo’s family in South Africa were just a wee bit farther away than my own in Texas.
Recently, she and I talked about those long ago young women and what they would think of our current lives. We agreed they would be horrified.
Which is only one more reason why I’m glad I don’t have final control over my life. Left to my own devices, I would never even have discovered my dreams, let alone seen them realized.
(photos courtesy of Lisa-Jo Baker)
Back then Lisa-Jo was determined never to be a mother. I was desperate for kids but couldn’t get pregnant. We got to know one another in a church small group for young married couples. Over the course of only a few weeks, most of those couples, two by two, announced unexpected pregnancies. Lisa-Jo and I became like storm-tossed survivors clinging to the same life preserver.
I will always be grateful for the wreck of those days, for the way unhappiness tossed us together. And I will always be grateful for the many ways in which Lisa-Jo held on to me, and to our friendship, despite the travels and adventures, the heartaches and the joys to come.
Today, she is not an attorney and I am not a professor, and when we spend time together, there are seven children tugging at our elbows. I don’t think either one of us will ever stop feeling surprised at the way things have turned out. I know we will never stop being grateful.
In fact, surprise and gratitude are at the heart of Lisa-Jo’s new book. You can pre-order a copy of Surprised by Motherhood: Everything I Never Expected about Being a Mom, and I highly recommend that you do. I am lucky enough to have read an early copy, and it is a powerful story, beautifully told.
It is a memoir of motherhood, and there is a lot of pink on the cover, but I hope that many men will find this book as well. Lisa-Jo’s is a story that speaks especially to mothers, but, like all good stories, it is for everyone.
Today is Valentine’s Day, and I can’t think of a better way to mark that holiday on this blog than by telling you about the great big love flash mob being organized by my friend Lisa-Jo. Thanks to her vision and hard work, you and I have the opportunity to send – not roses – but an entire garden. And we get to send that garden to a community in South Africa eager to plant and cultivate and harvest.
We want to give a garden to the orphans and vulnerable children of the Maubane Community Center. The cost is $5000. We want to do this in one day.
It’s happening here.
There is something about autumn in this Pennsylvania countryside that turns my mind to ghost stories.
When the fog curls around the trunk of the weeping willow, I half expect to see the headless horseman ride by.
When I pass the field where the Hessian soldiers camped before they joined the redcoats, I think I almost see their faded muskets between the trees.
There aren’t many places left in our world where the past feels so near. So everpresent.
Truthfully, I’m not sure I believe in death when I cross vast parking lots or stand beneath fluorescent lights. But I am learning. This place of somber black horse-drawn buggies, covered bridges, and old stone farmhouses is working a change in me.
I am learning that fluorescent light and concrete don’t tell the truth. I am learning that some realities can only be glimpsed in the low, golden light of Autumn.
I’m sharing a story about a covered bridge and a cloud of witnesses. I hope you’ll click through to read it at Living the Story (via BibleDude.net).