all the light that came after.

Shoes by the front door, a stone fireplace with stockings that looks sturdy enough to brace my shaky frame against.

I stand there half expecting myself to blurt out the words everyone keeps telling me not to say.

Because the words that pour out of the radio this time of year are, “let your heart be light” and as we know from last year, I’m a sucker for trying to figure out exactly what that means.

My eyes scan pages and pages of my textbooks for final exams and I’m trying to cram in all this information about how the first stars came to be. The authors tell me about what happened when they exploded, about all the light that came after.

I keep thinking about God and how His first words of creation were “let there be light” and I know there must be something to that.

I keep wondering if I explode or speak if some kind of light comes after.

Because maybe the magic of this whole season, the reason that we’re all obsessed with Hallmark Christmas movies is that they are scene after scene of people saying a bunch of horribly strung together sentences of things we’ve never had the nerve to say.

I’ve never felt I lacked nerve, but I’ve hoarded silence in the moments that seemed to matter. I’ve felt like a lover of lost causes in moments when it felt improper to say the thing that sits heavily on my shoulders.

Timing. Timing has never been my strong suit and it always seems that Christmas comes at precisely the time in which I have an armload of things I need to say and a crowd full of people and thoughts saying, it’s probably not the best time.

Because Christmas is cozy, quiet, a soft piano in the background of a department store. It’s chunky scarves, rosy cheeks, passing babies, wondering why everyone doesn’t get together more often. It’s silent nights, holy nights, it is good words written and stuffed inside gold foiled envelopes.

But I am the last minute shopper, donkey locked out of the stable, little off-beat drummer girl. I once demanded to be the angel in the Christmas play holding a stuffed beagle. I am the Barbara Robinson novel come to life. I am the girl who once nearly cut off her circulation and had a purple arm trying to buy Christmas presents in a Christian bookstore.

All is calm, all is bright. I am not good at calm. Sometimes I get the bright, but I rarely get the calm.

I find that I’m so occupied these days with sewing up my mouth, putting on my Christmas best, and hoping that no one notices me leaning against this fireplace holding back all the things that Ralph and Hugh (the writers of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas) missed when penning that song. Like sometimes gathering faithful friends and dear ones do not make my troubles feel miles away or out of sight. Sometimes, it makes me have to bite my lower lip because I do not know how to let “the fates allow”. Who are these fates? I do not know if I want them to allow. I think maybe I want to step in and decide some things and say some things before these fates get tangled up in this whole thing.

How am I going to have myself a merry little Christmas when this whole thing is left up to these vague fates and I’m just supposed to be hanging some star and figuring out what it means to “let my heart be light”?

Let your heart be light? I keep going back to that. Is that up to me or those fates? If it’s up to me, I want to say all these things that people tell me not to say. But then again, what if that makes us all heavier?

So then I’m supposed to hang some shining star. Well, that seems possible. I read about God and how light was His first priority. My textbooks then tell me those first stars exploded into all these other stars (according to science).

Well, then I think maybe if I just start with one thing, just one bit of light, more will come.

So maybe this blog is just about hanging that one star. Maybe it’s about saying that one thing, throwing out that one light and hoping that it explodes into a thousand more little lights.

We all have heavy things weighing on us and we all want this moment, this time, this season to be magical. We want it to be healing, something that brings us hope and helps us believe in goodness again.

Maybe you’re like me and you’re a little shaky, holding some things that you wish you could say, fix, change, or make happen. Maybe you’re a little lonely, tired, terrified, broken, confused. Maybe you just wish you had more time or capacity to enjoy it and feel it all.

Whatever it is you’re holding, I’m not going to tell you that all your troubles are going to be miles away. Your troubles are where they are. I’m not going to tell you it’s “a bright time or the right time to rock the night away” (mostly because I don’t even know what that means). I’m just going to tell you that I don’t know if any light will come after we say things we wish we could say. But there was the best Light that came, that stayed, that’s still here. It was here before the first words of “let there be light” were ever even spoken. And I don’t know what fates Ralph and Hugh were talking about, but I can assure you of this, the Faithful one who gives us all this light, well He’s tangled up in all of it.

A couple thousand years ago, He hung another star and regardless of what our shoulders might hold, we have to remember all the light that came after. It allows us to all have ourselves a merry little Christmas, even in this, even now.

 

 

 

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Thanksgiving + Home + Monsters

There was a time when coming home was heavy with grief. My days were spent with white knuckles, mapping out my escape route.

Every time someone asked if I was ever coming home, the knot in my stomach tightened. I faked a smile with my shrugged shoulders, but I knew the answer.

It seemed impossible to ever be here and not be miserable, not wish that here was anywhere else.

But plans change and sometimes we become the person who returns to the place we spent years running from only to realize that those monsters aren’t so scary once we turn on the light.

Thankful.

That when I look back on the last few years I did not get the things I wanted. That while I sat yelling for God to take away the monsters, He taught me instead to turn on the light. For a long time, it seemed cruel and merciless, but it turned out to be the thing that brought me to the doorstep of a place I never thought I could return to because I was no longer afraid of the dark.

Fear does not win, darkness does not get to stay, and thanksgiving becomes our song when we find ourselves trusting that there is a reason for what seems like delay, unexpected answers, silence. 

There was and has always been a reason, many reasons. That I might learn the touch of God who would lift my arms in darkness and teach me how to find the light. That I would not live believing in a distant God who simply sweeps out monsters without showing me that they are not meant to hold me down, keep me paralyzed, keep me from putting my feet in places I love and with people I’m meant to know. To take away my fear, to give me the courage to walk into rooms of darkness and turn on the light for somebody else.

Thankful.

That home does not have to be our enemy, the place of our deepest pain and disappointment. The thing that we dread, the darkness we can’t reach out in, the room in which we feel paralyzed. That home oftentimes feels like the place in which we see our prayers answered least, God’s silence most, but is the place when we learn to turn on the lights, we will see those monsters are just shadows.

Because Maybe the Other Shoe Drops, Maybe it Doesn’t

You know what I’m learning? There’s no symphony that starts playing when the good stuff shows up.

And God answers prayers that I longed for, but never even knew how to pray.

The old songs and places won’t always break your heart; and there’s no such thing as too much love.

You also don’t have to balance all the good stuff with equal amounts of hard stuff. For every good thing you see in someone, you don’t have to find something wrong. And you should really stop expecting that on the other end of every conversation. Not everyone sitting across from you is finding things to fix (if they are, you should reevaluate where you’re sitting). 

Balance is a word that sounds so noble, healthy, mature, but has been a demon that’s kept me awake at night. You said too much. You should have said more. Whatever it is, balance has always tried to replace the word enough. But enough doesn’t mean equal and/or perfect.

Enough is just enough. Enough is what we are. There is freedom in enough. Enough is the love you can rest in when you don’t have to have all the right words, fill the silence, do anything other than just exist. Find that space and fight for it, even if it scares you.

And God? Well, He is the solo occupant of the space labeled perfect. To be called enough by the One in that chair? I’ll take that. To know that He’s got people in his corner who will also believe that about me? That tells me all the fear, the worry, the demons of balance, comparison, and insecurity are a waste of my God-given time.

I’m starting to think I’ve blamed a lot of my pain and anxiety on God, when the truth is that I am the one who makes this whole thing complicated. It’s like I’ve been waiting for some symphony, some permission slip, for God to pop out from behind a door and tell me it’s finally okay to celebrate the good. The truth is that the breath in my lungs is that permission slip. But that need to be balanced tells me to wait, to hold back, to see if another shoe is going to drop and to expect pain to show up on the other end of the scale.

But then there’s hope, she’s a fierce rival of balance. She knows just how to spin you freely into placing all your bets on the good stuff.

Because maybe the other shoe drops, maybe it doesn’t. Maybe you rip off the other shoe you’re wearing and just realize that being barefoot but brave was always a better way to live anyway.

Celebrating and the Weight of Grace

In the days after we celebrated, I spent most of my hours painting.

I am not a painter.

But that month my hands stayed stained with shades of blue, my shirts dyed, brushes dripping over the sink. I left my apartment only to grab takeout and steal from the sky another hue to replicate.

The secrets we were keeping were ones that I eventually realized my hands could not tell. No matter how many strokes I made with those brushes, the truth was still trapped inside.

A few weeks later I sat in the corner booth of an old Italian restaurant in my hometown. The person who sat across from me was the first person to ever really hear the whole truth, the terrifying, gut-wrenching, honest-to-God truth. Out of my mouth came the thread that threatened to unravel everything inside of me—the truth about how disappointed I had turned out to be.

Disappointment, that was a word I was so afraid to say. It felt so heavy, so dark, that was a shade, a hue that I’d refused to paint. Admitting disappointment felt like defeat. And even though I knew nothing would ever turn out the way I had once hoped, admitting disappointment for even a second had never been an option.

But the night with the strings of lights, sentimental words, and the seconds of forgetting the past flung me back to reliving that reality: sometimes we paint the perfect picture in our minds and wake up one day to realize that picture is never going to be possible.

I had to relive that over and over again, that the world I’d painted in my mind would never quite be the one God would paint on the canvas that is my life. Every time I celebrated another milestone, I would also wince at the bitterness I felt that God was using a shade, a tone that was different than the one I would have chosen.

Then came Room 176.

When the sweet lady with her yellow paper gave me that location, I never had the thought that it was going to be a place that would change my life. Four white walls, but that’s the place that God pulled back a piece of the curtain and said “I made all the colors and I mix them just right.” 

If I had gotten the life I tried to paint, I would have been standing somewhere else.

Those words are the hardest to swallow. As I now reflect on the greatest moment of my life to date, I break my own heart with the truth that God knows if He leaves us to work out our own lives, we will take away the greatest gifts He gives. Sometimes He breaks our hearts now to keep us from missing our dreams later.

I think of the moments when I’ve sat with God and told Him not to use that brush, that color, that shade; that I’m disappointed with His pace, His technique, His progress. I think of that day in the old Italian restaurant and my disappointment. I think of the birth of my nephew, the moment when I laid down my paintbrush and felt my knees buckle at the weight of God’s grace.

In these days we’ve been celebrating, I haven’t picked up a paintbrush. My hands have not been stained and I haven’t gone to that old Italian restaurant and cried in the corner booth. I’ve still thought about the promises we broke, the disappointment I’ve felt, and the picture I had in my mind. Honestly, I still thought about my favorite shades of blue and for a split second wished God used them more. But last night, I rocked that baby boy to sleep and started to fall in love with shades and hues that before those moments I’d never even seen.

Loneliness, God, and the Nonsense We Make Up

Five years.

That’s how long it’s been since I stopped eating refined sugar and white flour. The moment the doctor told me this could affect you having children, that was the moment it all changed for me.

I cried to you in the bathroom floor. We went on drives and I ate horrible sugar-free candy that I eventually figured out wasn’t a worthy substitute. Every time someone offered me birthday cake I would think of little hands, feet, first birthdays, and vacations to the mountains. I thought of how much I could regret never holding them, snuggling them, I learned to force myself to politely decline.

Twenty-five years. 

That’s how long it’s been without a honorable and proper date. I remember the moment I sat on that trampoline at twelve years old and decided not to settle. I told you that I didn’t want to spend my young adult years searching for a sentimental fairytale if it meant missing out on a life that you had for me.

I cried to you in the bathroom floor. We went on drives and I would sit in parking lots and watch the sunset with you. When all my friends posted on their AIM away messages and MySpace profiles about their boyfriends, I would sit on that green carpet in that big brick building and tell you that I knew it would be worth waiting.

Five months.

That’s how long it’s been since I lived alone. I came home every night to that apartment and you were there. I would sit on my couch, eat dinner, and I could feel you sitting next to me. You were there when I put up my Christmas tree, nearly flooded the bathroom, learned how to make that amazing soup.

I cried to you in the kitchen floor. We went on more drives and I became so content with living alone. Those cold months were some of the happiest moments of my life even though circumstances were tough and I was being tested in some of the hardest ways I’ve ever experienced.

All this time.

I thought by now I would have mastered and overcome the feelings of loneliness.

But when I slide on another bridesmaid dress, rock another newborn baby, refuse another slice of birthday cake, watch another year go by on the calendar my humanity does not lessen and my loneliness does not subside.

I still cry to you in my bedroom floor. We still go on drives and sit in parking lots. I am aware that you see me. I still hear you speak. You promise me that you will never leave me, but you don’t promise me that overcoming this feeling produces a certain kind of reward.

Five minutes.

That’s how long it takes for you to silence the war inside my head.

To tell me that you never said the right person shows up when we stop feeling lonely or stop looking. You never wrote that anywhere inside your book. It was humans who took someone’s experience and made a Christian theology/ridiculous piece of advice to defend and explain why someone else’s loneliness hasn’t been taken away.

You tell me that you’re not afraid of my feelings, not afraid of my loneliness and won’t punish me for it by withholding good things. You aren’t waiting until I get over it. You aren’t up there tapping your watch thinking, I could really do something if this girl would just stop whining. 

You remind me that I’ve never once seen you address loneliness with a harsh response. That I’ve never seen you correct someone for it, be disappointed in it, threatened by it. I’ve never seen you angered by it. You ask me when I’ve seen you withhold from the lonely or the barren. You ask me when I have seen you punish them for acknowledging the state that they are in. You remind me instead that you are the God who says that perfect religion is for people to take care of the widow and the orphan. You are the God who first addressed loneliness, saw it and said it was not good. You made it a priority, stuck it at the top of the list.

Never once were you the God who punished it. Withheld from those in it or corrected those who felt it. You tell me again not to fear it, not to try and escape it. You will not punish it.

The only one afraid of it, ashamed of it, punishing it, and threatened by it is me.

“What will you tell them?”

That’s the thing you ask me. What will I tell those that come to me, who ask about what I’ve learned in this season of loneliness. I laugh and then immediately start to cry.

“I’ll tell them to fight it out for themselves. I’ll tell them not to believe all the things people tell them about getting out of it. That it’s not about getting out. That it’s not something to fear. I’ll tell them it’s a feeling, it’s just a feeling, and those are not things we should fear because they are not facts. I’ll tell them that they can’t stay there forever, that they absolutely won’t. But I’ll tell them they can’t always outrun it.

I will tell them that God isn’t intimidated, mad, or withholding because of their loneliness. That He’s got them and that He is going to do something right there in the middle of it. He’s not waiting for them to master or gold medal this thing. I’ll tell them He’s a God of grace—and despite what you’ve been told, He’s not waiting and expecting us to figure this thing out on our own.”

 

 

 

I was right, God broke my heart.

I had a feeling when we were driving back from Tennessee that he was going to break my heart.

The fog sat between the mountains and I found myself spilling all my best words to him. I put every little part of me in his hands. I trusted him with every thought, every fear, the things that I had been holding inside of me for so many years.

I had just discovered The Lumineers and we listened to them on repeat. I have relived that day a million times: the taste of gas station coffee, the freedom of a road trip to a new place. Just twenty years old, my words were shaky, my heart was fragile, but I couldn’t stop myself from unpacking it all right there in his arms.

Still, I had this undeniable feeling he was going to break my heart.

As it turned out, I was right, God broke my heart. In the kind of way that only He can, in the way that offers no clear cut explanations or answers, in the way that you can never fully understand. You are angry, but it doesn’t feel justified; He’s God, after all. He knows all these things you don’t. You can’t really effectively argue with Him and you can’t get revenge.

God. Isn’t He the one who is supposed to be most trusted being in existence? Yet, He broke my heart. He had taken from me the very thing I had wanted most at that point my life. I told Him all about it, I had given him the secrets of my heart, prayed to Him about my biggest dreams. I had given Him my desires with shaky hands, biting my lip, nervous that I wasn’t good enough to have them anyway.

I spent a lot of years after that angry and hurt. Whenever I heard a song by The Lumineers, saw another foggy morning, thought of that Tennessee town, I thought about how that was the day I’d voluntarily fallen in love with a God whom I suspected might break my heart.

Five years later I still think of that day. I think of the drive through those mountains, how I complimented His color palette choices of green, gray, and brown. I remember that I knew He might break it, but that my heart was so full and alive that I couldn’t stop it from bleeding right there on His hands.

That would be the lesson that would follow me through all the years of pain: love can’t hold it in, but it will never regret the moments that it chooses to give it all away, chooses truth over fear.

Over those five years, there were a million more times that I would not or could not say to other people the things that my heart needed to say. I learned the pain of navigating that kind of regret.

But I never once regretted that morning with God. No matter the pain it ended up causing me.

Because there will never be another that can tuck the fog in the trees and make the contrast and exposure of the skies hit the perfect levels; that can create the perfect tones that crack my chest wide open and cause me to confess all the things that give Him permission to break my heart.

And on that day, by giving Him the things I thought I wanted most, He gave to me a God that was more than a story inside of a book. I found a God who was real and whom I had invited to come and sit inside of my world. A God who listens to my songs and laughs with me over Bean Street Coffee. I was given the gift of a God who is present, who is in my photographs and memories. Who, when the radio plays our songs, I can now close my eyes and whisper, “Remember that day?” In those years of my heartbreak, He gave to me Himself and years of stories, ticket stubs, parking lot conversations, back road drives, cups of coffee by the lake.

By breaking my heart in a way that I still don’t fully understand, it opened a door that caused me to keep coming back to Him to say, “God, I love you. I don’t understand how you could let this happen.” This heartbreak was my beautiful gift. It was the thing that He has used to draw me back to Himself over and over again. It became the thing that continued to give me more of those foggy days in the mountains, moments of spilling my heart out, seconds when I just couldn’t stop myself from handing it all to Him even if I knew it might not turn out the way I would hope.

And now when I hear The Lumineers, see those photos, find myself driving through the Tennessee mountains, the tears I cry are ones of gratitude. I find myself thankful that He took my shaky hands, holding what I thought I wanted most, and gave me something so much better in its place.

 

 

 

 

Idaho: What Makes Love Last?

When I left for Idaho one of the things I was seeking the answer to was, what makes love last? How do people make it stick?

I kept crashing headfirst into the reality that it isn’t years that produce success; it isn’t stability that creates longevity. Finding out these were not the answers started to blow my world apart. I always believed these were secret ingredients that my millennial generation couldn’t grasp with our microwaves and fast-food upbringing.

Waiting to board my plane to Boise, I met a man with a bright red backpack; his stories had me leaning in with awe.

“I got divorced a few years ago. It took some time to get my stuff together after that, but now I just travel all the time.”

His pain was visible. I asked him what he did before he got divorced, before seeing the rainforest, kayaking in Belize, or racing motorcycles in the desert.

He once built beautiful homes that were stable and strong. He built one for his wife. I sat there willing to bet they had muffin tins. I imagined his wife baked dozens: blueberry, chocolate chip, and pumpkin. But after years inside that home, they still didn’t last. Now that house sits empty on acres of land. He told me that he doesn’t know how to let go of it. It is lonely and empty, but he can’t let it go.

I had plans to find him when our plane landed. I needed to ask him what he would have done differently.

But he was at the front and I was at the back. By the time we touched down and deplaned, it was too late. The man with the red backpack was long gone.

It isn’t the house. It isn’t the stable job and the keeping our feet on the same piece of land. That’s all I could think as the doors opened and Idaho greeted me with her sunshine.

It isn’t the muffin tin. Heaven help me, if there’s one thing I’m learning after my break down in Kroger, it’s that. Those aren’t what make it last. It isn’t the perfect life that we build and never move our feet from. It isn’t an illusion of stability that we can fit inside of cabinets and between four walls. That won’t keep us in the arms of another person. It isn’t just forty years of furniture and picture frames that keep it together.

So I set out on this restless adventure across what I anticipated to be the most boring state in the continental United States. And it was nothing I expected. It was an incredible mix of learning how muffin tins are not the answer, but they are not the things we can blame for why we fall apart.

I don’t think I found a secret ingredient or all the answers. Still, I found something I needed, but not until the trip ended and I was crying at the gate waiting to fly home.

I sat watching a man and his pregnant wife. He was so exhausted that he could not keep his eyes open. She was far enough along in her pregnancy that she could barely see over her baby bump.

She attempted to put her shoes on, but it’s not an easy task when you cannot see your own feet. Immediately, her husband slid to the floor and began to help her. His eyes so heavy, his mouth opening with a yawn. When he seemed certain that she was mostly settled and could finish the task, he slid back into his seat and shut his eyes. I could tell he was literally seconds from falling into a nap.

A few minutes later she exhaled with frustration, struggling as she reached to finish the final stretch of tying the last shoe. Almost there, but not quite.

He heard it. He knew the sound of her. Without even opening his eyes, he slowly slid back onto the floor without hesitation. When his knees hit the carpet, he cracked open his eyes. The sweetest and softest smile covered his face. He tied the shoe.

She giggled. He laughed. I cried.

I thought of my friend with the red backpack. I thought about all the trips he’s taken this year. I thought about how he is getting older and how one day he’s going to be sitting at Gate C2 and he will sigh because his bones will be aching.

Connie won’t be there to help him tie his shoes.

The big strong stable house might be standing, the muffin tins might be inside of the cabinets. The plane tickets might take him to all the places he resented his marriage and house for never letting him go, but they will not tie his shoes. 

We’re all looking for something to give our lives for. Something worthy of sliding onto the floor, digging our knees into the dirty airport carpet for: something worth the words and the fight.

A life that looks perfect and stable will not make us stay. Good jobs, paychecks, houses that have bay windows, and the years we spent building them will not be what make us stay in their arms.

Somewhere in the stretch of those few seconds that her husband almost fell back asleep, there was a building in my chest as I watched her struggle to put that shoe on. But when that man fell to his knees to help her, despite the fact that he had just been down there minutes earlier, despite his exhaustion, regardless of the ungodly germs on that airport carpet, that’s when I realized that it isn’t years, it can’t be.

It’s something more like not letting the years pass.

It’s realizing that sometimes only seconds pass before it’s our turn again.

I cried in that airport because I realized that I don’t always know the kind of love that takes another turn a few seconds later. The kind of love that doesn’t have to follow a perfect rhythm of give and receive.

Sometimes it all goes out of order and you don’t tally it up. Sometimes the clock ticks by and you don’t remember who owes what and why. Sometimes you’ve been the one to slide to the floor the last eight times. Sometimes you’re the one in the chair and their sleepy brown eyes are staring up at you. Sometimes you’re the one learning how to let go and receive the help your tired body needs.

Friend with the red backpack:  I hope that you will forgive yourself for the years in between. I pray you find people whose shoes are worth tying on airport floors and who will slide to the carpet when you can’t tie your own. That you come to find God and see the way He ties our shoes when we’ve taken our lives to gates where no one else knows our names. That you’ll come to know your loafers are worthy of a good double knot and that it might be time to let that old house go.