Last summer, Jude (my five-year-old son) and I were packing up our things for a day at the beach. As we were leaving, he said, “Can we invite Eddy*?” Eddy is our middle-aged neighbor who spends hours out on his porch with a couple of other townies smoking weed and drinking beer. We pass by him daily and exchange greetings or talk about the latest Red Sox game. Continuing reading over here…
I was five years old the first time I saw someone almost die. It was a baby. I had woken up to the sound of the doorbell. My father, one of the only doctors in our rural area, padded down the stairs to open the door. I stood at the landing and saw our neighbor lady who lived on the next farm over shove something into his arms. She was too upset to speak and ran back to her car, yelling something about having other children at home. I went down the stairs and knelt next to my dad. He had begun CPR and asked me to bring him his old, leather doctor’s bag. The baby was blue, and I watched as my dad calmly breathed life back into him. As I grew up, I would see this boy on the bus as we rode to school – a constant reminder of what it means to literally help your neighbor.
Fetching my father’s doctor’s bag and joining him side-by-side in the act of saving this child’s life became the first of many memories in which my parents invited me to join them as they responded to the needs of our community. They were able to respond simply because they made themselves available—to listen, to learn, and to defend—and they did this for everyone. They believed that everyone should play a part in restoring hope. This legacy made me realize from a young age that I have something to offer to the person next to me and that it is an honor and a privilege to contribute to my greater community.
This invitation to respond to the needs of the community is one I extend regularly to my 6-year-old son. This is practically demonstrated by having him help me make meals for new parents, giving rides regularly to people who don’t have transportation, buying hot chocolate for the crossing guard on cold mornings, taking our homeless friends to get ice cream, making cards for our neighbors who are sick and cleaning up trash around our neighborhood. Although these things may be much more efficient or even “safer” to do on my own, it would rob both of us from the joy of serving our brothers and sisters together. As a team.
On that night I almost witnessed my first death, my dad could have easily told me to go back upstairs, to go to bed, to get out of his way. But he didn’t. Instead, he invited me in to the story. He set the tone for the rest of my life as a nurse, a public health professional, and a friend. He and my mother played a role in creating my identity as a valuable contributor to the global community. My hope is to impart the same sense of worth and identity to my own son, to widen his vision and lengthen his strides as he moves through life, so he will always know he’s part of a bigger story.
I recently stopped over in Nairobi, Kenya to visit a dear friend. I arrived in the middle of the night, travel-weary, and quickly dropped off to sleep before we could exchange much more than a long hug. The next morning, I woke up to her jumping into my bed. Before I had even sat up or put on my glasses, we had already dissected the public school system in the U.S. and discussed quality improvement initiatives that would benefit posterity.
This one doesn’t toe-in. She jumps all the way in with everyone, everywhere. She’s the one I wrote about in one of my most viewed blog posts The Painful Process of Authentic Compassion. She has suffered much and she loves much. Our friendship embodies one of my favorite quotes by Richard Rohr: “There is nothing to prove and nothing to protect. I am who I am and it’s enough.”
When you find people like this in your life, you have to grab them tightly and never let them go. They are the ones to whom there is no need to make disclaimers, excuses or pretenses. Consequently, conversing is efficient, productive, contemplative, and satisfying. Something that would take you 1 hour to explain to someone you’re not as comfortable with comes out in 10 minutes with the knowing and known soul.
In three short days, we had lived more life than we’d lived all year. We crashed a Kenyan wedding in a game park and twirled and thrilled and celebrated the couple’s love. We drove through the dark night on a old dirt road, ignoring roadside police as they tried to wave us over, desperate to get further out, further in. We laid outside for hours under the stars at our campsite on Lake Naivasha, bundled up in thick sweaters and blankets, listening to the nocturnal wildlife all around us. We woke at dawn to go on a bird-watching boat tour. We saw giraffes.
We hiked 9 miles down a treacherous gorge and came out near Pride Rock just in time to get stuck in a tremendous rain storm thundering through the savannah. We had to hike quickly up the side of the ridge to avoid the floods in the valley.
By the end, we were covered in blisters, scratches, and bruises. Our muscles ached. Our throats were dry. We were bone-soaked and freezing. Our bellies were growling. We were very much alive and had to keep taking off our shoes because of the holy ground all around.
That night, after we were clean and dry, we stretched out by the fire, shared a bottle of wine and filled the air with our laughter and weeping. We were exhausted, but energized. We were among strangers, but completely known. We had gone into the depths, figuratively and literally, and we had come out with a new song.
The heights and depths we had experienced since we last saw each other had carved out new chords, some major and some minor, still blending in perfect harmony. Our lyrics had changed, but our timbre remained the same. Our tempos vacillated – at times adagio, others allegro — yet we found the moments when our rhythms came together in a perfect meter.
The song of the saints.
“The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.” C.S. Lewis
One time I was passing by an artist’s table and my eye caught a glimpse of a painting. I stopped to get a closer look and without knowing why, tears came flowing down my cheeks. I could barely breathe. Something in it moved me beyond words.
The artist saw me weeping and she came over to explain the painting. She said she created it when her mother was dying of cancer. It was a picture of a figure riding on a horse and beneath it, it said, “He is coming.” At the time, I was working as a nurse for people who were dying of cancer. It was transcendent – the way the colors, the message and the depth touched my heart without first knowing the meaning in the natural.
This is longing. It’s the same thing that happens when we hear a song and weep. It’s what Lewis describes as the meaning of our own past, our desire for a country we haven’t visited, a dream we have yet discovered. It’s what others have called “deep time” — a full awareness of past, present, and future, and of things not being completely as they should be.
When my eyes saw this painting, my own inner longing for wholeness in my patients matched exactly what the artist had created.
The entire Bible is a narrative full of longing. Its writer is intimately familiar with longing and we were created in His image. So, it’s no surprise when we listen to songs like “The God of Loss” by Darlingside or “Farther Along” by Josh Garrels, or “There Will Be Time” by Mumford & Sons that we put them on repeat, pour a glass of wine, lay our head back, breathe deeply, and are transported to another place where our longings are stirred and hopes arise. We are listening to the sound of heaven. We were made for this.
And what comes through them is not just the beauty of the perfectly crafted stanza, the harmonious blend of chords and voice, but it’s Him. It’s His voice calling us.
Deep unto deep.
We were made for more.
Only the brave lean into their longings; those who are not afraid to experience hope deferred because they are fully confident in their Comforter.
And those brave ones who lean into their longings and experience the grief of what can feel like a withholding of good, a stone for bread, a snake for fish, fully open themselves up to the true character of their Maker and the fellowship of the suffering of the saints.
Our intimacy with others, our intimacy with Him is directly proportional to the amount of courage and honesty we have when naming our own longings. We must embrace and not run from them. It’s in this tense and secret place where we are assured that there truly is more.
It’s where we start to know fully what we only know in part.
It’s where we start believing that this world is not our home.
I grew up in a rural town in Missouri. My dad delivered me at home, surrounded by over 200 acres of pure country farmland. The closest house was a quarter of a mile away. I grew up running through the fields — the long grass scratching my legs, my skin covered with chigger bites, eyes red and watery from diving in the hay, shoes covered in manure. There was no sense of time, just an old antique dinner bell my mom would ring when we needed to come in for meals. If we were too far away to hear it, it meant we had gone too far. There were no other parameters.
It was in these fields that I learned how to catch lightning bugs, kill snakes without getting bit, slip through barbed wire fences, hopscotch across hay bales, hang by my knees high in trees, kiss and be kissed, and identify constellations. It was also where I decided to follow Jesus. At age 5, I was out in the field with my 16-year-old brother. He explained what it meant to believe in Jesus asked me if I wanted to follow Him. I said yes and my answer has never wavered despite the pain and shame of adolescence and young adulthood.
Even though most of my life is now lived in the city, I get back to that farm pretty regularly. And now my boy gets to experience it all. When he comes in after hearing the bell with scratches all over his legs, rashes from the hay, and smelling like manure, I grab him and pull him close and take in the smell of childhood and adventure. It takes me back to the beginning of my own love story.
There’s a song* I’ve been singing over and over that says:
So, take me back/Back to the beginning/When I was young/Running through the fields with you…
I love going back to the beginning. Because it was in those fields that I learned how to hear the voice of the Shepherd. He would call my name in the morning and I would run out to be with Him when the ground was still wet with dew and grass would cake to my bare feet. He would comfort me at night when I laid out under the stars and threw my poetry at the moon.
Sometimes in order to raise up the age old foundations, we have to go back to the beginning and remember how our stories started, where our dreams were birthed and what made our soul sing. We have to remember where He found us when He told us we were at the time for love**.
He found me in the fields.
And He still does.
*United Pursuit, “Let it Happen”
There are times when you find yourself at the bloody and painful part of the gospel story. Darkness has covered the earth. Everything has been shaken. Your Savior has breathed His last. You don’t realize the temple veil has been torn in two. It starts to rain. You don’t understand the prophecies or the promises. You have no recollection that He told you He would rebuild the temple in just 3 days, and even if you did, 3 days is too long to wait.
We are not people who want to sit between Friday and Sunday. We do everything in our power to run, numb, or subdue. And yet, there were a few who did not. A few who had the courage, the compassion and the tenderness to press in.
In The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis, we read that Lucy and Susan followed Aslan to the Stone Table. At one point during their walk, it says that Aslan was so far bent over from grief that his nose rubbed the ground. He begged Lucy and Susan to bury their hands in his mane to comfort him. When he arrived at the Stone Table, he told them to leave, but they refused. After he died there, Lucy and Susan stayed to tend to his body. It was there that they saw him roar back to life. And it was then that he invited them to ride on his back as he went back to seek his revenge of the White Witch.
On that glorious resurrection Sunday, Mary ran to the tomb. She had no idea that it would be empty. She couldn’t have possibly known what the prophecies meant at the time. Perhaps Mary simply wanted to lay next to his dead body because it was better than being holed up in fear with the disciples. And Mary was the first to see the resurrected Lord. It says that she was weeping at the tomb when Jesus appeared and when He called her by name, her eyes were opened and she held onto Him and wouldn’t let Him go. Mary was honored because she pressed into her grief. She didn’t stand in her pain and make accusations. She didn’t stop believing in His goodness. She embraced her pain and was given the gift of seeing the dead raised to life.
When I was in 4th grade, I read The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe for the first time. I had no idea it was a story about the gospel of Jesus. When Aslan died, I threw the book down and could not stop sobbing. I ran into my mom’s room and buried myself into her. I said, “I can’t read this book anymore. I can’t finish it if Aslan isn’t alive.” My mom looked at me with this twinkle in her eye and said, “Emily, oh, Emily. You have to keep reading. Please, keep reading.”
It’s been His answer for everything in this season.
“Can this be true?”
“Are you really in this?”
“I can’t bear where this story is going.”
For those of us who are in the part of the gospel between Friday and Sunday, I want to encourage you to keep reading. Take a moment to sit in the grief of the death of something or someone you love, but then keep reading. Don’t withdraw or shrink back in fear. Feel the warmth of His mane and trust that you actually bring comfort to Him when you weep. Let the grief take you further in. Because the deeper magic from before the dawn of time is just now starting to stir.
Can you feel it?
Aslan is on the move.
Many of you have asked for a digital copy of my Christmas letter. I hope He continues to bring you hope and healing as you sing a new song in 2017.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking about what to write in my Christmas newsletter. I even went so far as to write a very lengthy draft of all the fun and delightful things that Jude and I did with our family and friends. I could have sent it and it would have been mostly true. We did get to do some wonderful things together this year with the people we love. I traveled to over 20 U.S. States and 8 countries and got a promotion at work. Jude started kindergarten and has been growing in wisdom, stature, and favor with God and men. But, it would have read just like those Facebook and Instagram posts that we all can’t stand: “Look at my beautiful and flawless life. Look at my perfect children, my global travels, and my successful career. Look at how happy everyone is! And did I mention I lost 10 lbs and got a Tesla?” It’s not that we can’t stand the fact that people are happy; it’s the fact that we all know it’s not the whole story.
A letter like that would have only represented part of the story for the entire year, because the whole picture is very different and may be familiar to many of you. 2016 has been a really difficult year. There has been a lot of pain, individually and collectively. Many of our relationships have changed. We’ve had dear friends who were like family move away. We’ve had people start relationships, get married and shift out of our daily life. We’ve had challenges with transitioning from pre-school to kindergarten. Our church lost its pastor and in the process, we lost some of our closest friends. We’ve seen more black people die, more mass shootings, and a host of Syrian refugees washed up on the shore as they fled their homes. We wrestled through a disgusting election. We’ve seen dreams dashed and innocence lost. Candles have been lit. Prayers have been prayed. And many tears have fallen.
And instead of days filled with perfect, smiling faces, which has become our virtual reality, 2016 was actually me getting up at 5:30 a.m. every day to read the Word, pray, and lean into the comfort of the Father. It was not shrinking back from disappointment and suffering. It was pressing into unfulfilled longing, believing it was birthed in heaven, and clinging to hope, even when deferred. It was believing that He does act on our behalf, that sorrow and sighing will flee away, that He is good (but never safe) and that He is near to the brokenhearted. It was going deep with my community, letting them carry my burdens, and in return, helping them carry theirs. It was choosing forgiveness, over and over, even when the person didn’t ask. It was loving and not being loved in return. It was singing songs of praise and thanksgiving with tears running down my face. It was the bloody part of the gospel, the painful part between Friday and Sunday, where Peter and John and Mary are counting down the hours until they can run to the tomb. It was believing that what He said is true. That He came once and will come again. And this is Christmas. This is advent: All of creation groaning, being stretched wider and wider, full of longing for this One who is our peace.
My prayer is that we will enter 2017 with a new song on our lips and hope in our hearts.