July 19, 2018

On Hearing the Music

Andrew and I sat down in our seats at the Tabernacle in downtown Atlanta. First, actually, mid-squatting, our heads were jarred back by a chuckle from two men who would sit behind us: "We were waiting to see who these unlucky folks would be." Because: the pole.

This turned out to be a "Who's laughing now?" scenario as our friends whose knees were folded into their chests began to side-eye our ability to stretch our legs into the nothingness on either side. And a little lean--Andrew to the right and I to the left-- would not be the rain on our parade.

But I chase rabbits.

Andrew immediately pulled up The Tabernacle on Wikipedia to give us some historical landscape and ground our feet a bit. (We like context.) A Baptist church built in 1910, sold to developers in 1994 who turned it into a House of Blues. We spy copper-coated organ pipes peeking out from behind the setup on stage and we sit in an ornate lower balcony with another balcony overhead. We've come to church.

The band we've come to see... (but gosh, that doesn't say it right). The artist we have come to enjoy... (but even still, the words don't hold). Because, it's the beauty we came for and any synonym of concert feels too small. The Punch Brothers were making music this night. 

I've followed Chris Thile for more than twenty years of his career, and, as the cliché goes, he could sing his way through the phonebook and I would pay my entrance fee. What I have always loved about his performance is the way Music becomes a separate entity in the room which we all behold, himself included. 

Chris T., Gabe, Noam, Chris E. and Paul all gave offerings with their respective instruments. The unlikely hero of the mandolin, smallest of all, led foot with melody and picked on all the heart-strings of this native Kentuckian. Guitar and fiddle (or violin depending on your vernacular flavor) colored the in-betweens and the bass held us from the bottom and rounded it all out. All the sounds tangled together in ways that gripped one's heart, left me chin-in-hands and elbows-on-knees. The prayerful posture for the ears, like I couldn't get them close enough to the magic. 

So mesmerized by the night was I... that I didn't get any fun pictures to share. 

The whole room was getting lost in the beauty and the magic and the fun, and the artists were, too. We watched all of them in different displays of wonder throughout the night. A smile overtaking Chris's face so heavily that it weighted his whole head downwards, chin to neck. Noam closing his eyes for a moment to listen, listen. 

And Chris Thile, in his typically sly way, was giving political commentary without giving political commentary: "It's tricky out there, isn't it?" 

Yes, we all nod.

"It's better in here." 

It was. 

And of all things, it made me think about liturgy. 

The cultural lean of the church worship service these days is to seem like a concert, feel like a mall, look like a coffee shop so that the unchurched would be led in by breadcrumbs--this feels normal, this also feels normal, still feeling normal--and then offer the gospel when everyone feels good and comfortable. (Or, in some cases, not presenting the gospel at all-- but that's a whole different animal.) 

But what if our worship were not a shadow of a good concert... what if a good concert were a shadow of what our worship could be? 

The beauty of that night with the Punch Brothers was that we were all enchanted with something bigger than us: the picking of the strings that became music, that became art, that became a tangible way we could hold onto the glory of God. It wasn't normal life; We didn't want it to be normal life. It was tricky outside. It was good in there. 

What if our worship services didn't remind us of the world we were stepping out of? What if we didn't apologize for the mystery of the gospel? When we sit at the table of the Lord's supper, when we  gaze on baptismal waters and remember our own, when we hear neighboring voices singing and pleading their own hearts to heaven, when we confess our sin and allow words of forgiveness to wash over us, when we hear the truth of God's Word which stands as a rock in the midst of our sinking sand... It's uncomfortably abnormal, but it's enchanting. 

In worship, we are able to align our hearts with the bigger story of God's kingdom and not confuse it with our own cultural or personal agendas. We come in saying: It's tricky out there. We sit saying: It's better in here. We leave saying: Now my heart has been tuned to take the music out with me... to sing the gospel to my own heart and to sow the seeds of its goodness for my neighbor's sake. 

And in six more days (or six more minutes), our hearts will need to be re-tuned. Our minds will need to be re-enchanted. Our bodies will need to be reminded of the posture of humility. 

It's tricky out there. It's better in here. 

** A PS to say that much of my thought in this area has recently been shaped by two incredible books: You are What You Love and its more scholarly counterpart, Imagining the Kingdom, both by James K.A. Smith. I heartily recommend You are What You Love unless you want a real challenge in Imagining the Kingdom. (I think I understood about 30% of that book but that 30% was worth the read!)

May 12, 2018

On Mountain Goats and Motherhood

It's that middle place for children, right after self-awareness and just before it's singed with pride and embarrassment... when they look back at you after a great or terrible act with a question in their eyes... "Did you see that?" Of course, it carries far past the little years, but there is this short period of time where their need to be seen is so... seen. They threw a ball! Did you see that? They pushed their brother. Did you see that? Their chubby little fingers stacked the third block and it didn't fall--- head turns and eyes grow: Did you see that?

Our seeing their accomplishment actually completes it for them... but it's more than that, isn't it? They feel at home in our gaze; They feel like a whole person with our eyes on them. To be seen is to be.

We would be fools to think that we somehow grew out of this basic human need... We've just figured out how to shade our eyes so that no one sees us looking around, trying to catch another's gaze. Did anyone see that?

We can feel this sorely (though not solely) as mothers. When every part of our body and brain and soul just needs to lie down.... and yet, we can't even remember what made us so tired.

We hurt from loving, we ache from longing, and no matter how incredibly affirmative our husbands might be--we can still feel unseen. Is anyone watching you make four lunches at once?? We may (I have) turn to sharing our moments on social media.... maybe a few hundred hearts and thumbs will quench this thirst. Maybe a comment of solidarity will pick me up off the ground--but it can't last, can it? I can't hold that person's face in my hands to fix their gaze forever.

And it's not just the hard things, like when two people need their bottoms wiped at the exact same time (always, always... law of nature!). But it's the beautiful moments, too-- when your baby hugs your leg and says, "I love you!" for the first time, unprompted. Oh, did anyone SEE that?!

And so, like I experienced as a young mother, our brains can spiral down into a philosophical depression-- Is my life of motherhood the proverbial tree that falls in the forest? Do these common, everyday moments mean anything outside of someone's gaze?

Now listen, I know and you know. I can recite with my children: "Does God see all things?" "YES! Nothing can be hidden from God." But for a long, long time... this truth was only swimming around in my head.

And then studying Job with a women's group at church, a verse actually took my breath away:

"Do you know when the mountain goats are born? Do you watch when the mother deer gives birth?Do you know how many months they must carry their babies? Do you know when it is the right time for them to be born?" Job 39:1-2

And maybe mountain goats aren't going to do the same for you, but this thought arrested me. There is a goat wandering the craggy cliffs of Montana who has never brushed the gaze of one human being. And yet-- my God watches her birth a new life.

And if my God follows the plight of this goat, how much more does His gaze intimately cover my entire life? We are seen. Hemmed in behind and before... there is Someone familiar with all of our ways; Even the darkness is not dark to Him!

And we don't have to be ashamed of this longing to be seen... it is woven into us. But the gaze that can actually complete a moment--that can breathe beauty and meaning--is the gaze of our Father.

Lift your heads up, mothers! Cry with Hagar, even in your wilderness-- "You are the God who SEES me!" Because, as with all attributes of God... His seeing is wrapped up in love. There is a kind gaze upon us. Our moments have meaning and our motherhood has meaning and we are someone because we are living under the watchful eye of Him who breathed us into life.

So ache, and be seen. Rejoice, and be seen. Long with longings too deep for words.... and know that there is One who sees what you can't even name. Run your race in the freedom of an eye fixed upon you, and have a very happy Mother's Day!

February 08, 2018

When You Leave a Place

There was a giant of a magnolia tree in our backyard in Hattiesburg... limbs reaching out in at attempt to cover the whole yard like a mother hen. We hammock swung there and it shaded the boys' clubhouse. Andrew took a ladder out each spring at my request to pull off those perfumed flowers that filled our whole house with the smell of Mississippi. And I feel like I know what it's like to be that tree; I stared at it with knowing eyes... my feet starting to get heavy and I could feel them getting all knotted up in the ground. My roots were taking...

I remember taking this picture while weeping... filled with love for our home and that tree

When you love a place, everything gets personified. Our house... it felt like a child and a parent and a best friend. I knew which places to lunge over in the hall when a baby was sleeping, and we knew exactly at what spot and what time the peep hole will make a rainbow in the entry way, a gift to my children who waited expectantly for it every morning. "Can I hold the rainbow?"

little chubby Charlie hand... 

I can close my eyes and feel the familiarity of walking up those porch stairs and into our entry, the room warm with the light from the hanging pendant Andrew got me for Mother's Day. We stood in that entry saying hellos and goodbyes to so many dear to us... lingered there for sometimes an hour more when we meant to call it a night, because the company was just too good. We zipped jackets there and probably had a few arguments over lunch boxes and pine straw and where IS that left shoe.

We gutted that house and filled it up with us. Painted walls. Cultivated gardens to bring forth hydrangeas and kale and our own little Eden.

On Day One of our move-in we started reno on the kitchen

The house that knows us. That gave the background to our biggest celebrations... that kept our feet steady during days when our knees buckled under the weight of sorrow, that knew our hot breath and tears when we couldn't stand upright. We hid in its clefts during tornados and laid in the sunspots of its screened-in porch on those warm days that stretched from eternity to eternity.

And of course it wasn't just that house that was hard to leave... but it was the most surprisingly hard thing to leave. I didn't know how much my heart would cleave to it. How I would long for our car to find its way back to the driveway and to feel "home" when we are home.

Our precious neighbors getting salutations from my boys every time they left from and returned to their house
I know that we are pilgrims in this world and that journeying through different places and peoples is good for our hearts in that way- it's good that we are being trained to not anchor ourselves down to temporal things. But it's also not how it's supposed to be, either. We are pilgriming to an eternal land... with finality and rest. And so our hearts long for that, too. We burrowed ourselves down in Hattiesburg and our hearts and souls practiced eternity there. It was a hard thing to pick up our bags and say, "Not yet. This is not home yet."

So here's a long overdue homage to our Mississippi folk... you were our home in a way that no other place will ever be a home.

Slow life and neighbors ending up unexpectedly on your front porch

You lived up to your reputation to be the most hospitable and giving state in every sense of the word. Gave us Sunday-lunch tables to sit around and opened up your doors for playdates. You showed me how to value beauty in everyday things- like those magnolia blossoms in the church hallways or a little piece of pottery in your kitchen window sill.

You taught me how to be a mother, how to slow down and play with my babies in the backyard. How to turn on the water hose and eat watermelon on front porches with friends. You showed up in dark corners of our lives by leaving a milkshake on our front porch when I miscarried our second baby, coming by to weep with us on those same steps when our house contract fell through.

You were family to us when we had no family near, coming to Easter lunches and birthday parties and piano recitals and baptisms.... and all you precious, precious people who babysat our children just because! Just because you are so dear, and because you love so deeply and without borders. You Mississippi people do that the best.

Student becomes friend becomes family
Rosemary wearing Allison's baptism gown

Your children became my children and my children became your children... and we watched them grow by measuring them by the tiger mural at the zoo. We went from days sweating bullets at the lemur cage to driving our babies to their first day of kindergarten together... how did it happen so quickly?

Too tiny. Impossible. 

The mamas in the mirror making my heart swell
We sat in those pews together, Mississippi friends, and I learned to love church with you in a way I hadn't before. To long to be in those pews more than anywhere but heaven itself. We gave side glances and squeezed hands when I knew we were singing a song you had to choose to believe, when you had one of those weeks and your mouth had to plead your heart to heaven-- I pled with you. You pled with me.

You worked by our side in ministry, bringing the good news of hope to students on campus. You were those students that we loved dearly.... you came in our home and shared life with us and maybe you heard the true gospel for the first time there, maybe we had the incredible privilege of taking you by the hand and leading you to Jesus's throne of grace. You prayed for us and gave and gave and gave of yourself to put wind under our wings. Mississippi people will never let you do ministry alone--you made sure we knew you were with us.

We started traditions together-- Trick or Treat in Innswood and Easter egg hunts in the Bentons' backyard. You came over on Christmas Day and we shot bottle rockets on 4th of July.

This picture always takes my breath I love it so so much.
We rode up S 21st to have a coffee at T-Bones or veer off to Kamper Park to meet. We would stop and talk to our neighbors in their yard, or wave to Toby who walked his dog past our house every day and became the mayor the week after we left. Ordinary days, brimming with grace. We didn't have the eyes to see the holy grounds we were treading.

Car-pooled with these boys for nearly three years, lots of excitement on these rides including a knocked-out tooth!
When you leave a place and people like this, you don't really leave. You wonder--despite all your good theology--if your shadow stretches back 400 miles because surely your life doesn't make sense outside of the borders of that world you left.

Our heart aches and grieves even eight months later for home. And yet we know... we know that this short feast in Hattiesburg-- that truly felt like our whole lives-- was the most profound gift to us. The fact that it had a beginning and an end gives time a frame so that we can hold it in our hands. We can grasp it tightly to our chest and we can give thanks to a God who let us practice eternity there.  

I will always be from Kentucky. But I think our family will always be from Mississippi... we were grown there. Breathed to life there.

Mississippi-- you are dearly loved, dearly missed, dearly appreciated for the ways that you made us into a family. 

How we came
How we left... sad to lose Samford and sad about W's face in this pic

Charlie asks to go back to his "City House" (what he calls our Hattie house for some reason) at least weekly... Wilson told us at Christmas that it didn't feel like Christmas because we weren't in Hattiesburg. It's hard to ache for a place but even harder to watch your children ache. It's made me wonder how our Heavenly Father looks into our weeping eyes... 

On our last night at church we sang "On Jordan's Stormy Banks I Stand"--and through my tears, I think I understood. He must know that every longing in our heart is really us casting that wishful eye. I know He aches with us as we ache, but I also know He wants to teach our hearts to sing-- we are bound, we are bound, we are bound for the promised land! If our Mississippi home is but a shadow... what a promised land it must be.