Pieces Go Missing

first wrote this post two years ago. There have been years in my life when I have deeply needed the encouragement to welcome December with tireless hope. Perhaps this is a year like that for you; if so, I pray these words speak to your soul. -Cg-


I was reminded this morning that tomorrow, December 1, marks the day of an accident two years ago that took a beloved friend and mentor from this earth. It was the start of a hard Christmas season. One where tears held their own against the joy and the laughter.

It was the start of a year of sorrow followed by sorrow—a year that changed my whole life in many ways. A year that I can look back to now with a measure of joy, seeing the hand of the One who shapes all my experiences with His grace and mercy, but a hard year, nonetheless.

There are pieces missing from my life now which were all comfortably settled in place just two years ago.

I could say the same thing about a cold, snowy January day almost five years ago. And another one four years back. And a hot, humid July one sixteen years back. I’m certain many of us can point to those days—those periods or moments—in our lives when everything changed, when the bruises formed for the first time, when we began to carry our burdens, when the cracks fissured our hearts.

And Christmas is a time when those bruises, those burdens, those cracks tend to lose the veneer we’ve washed over them for the rest of the year. Some of us have families who we can honestly share our burdens with. Some of our families are the source of those bruises. Some of us have found communities of friends that have helped heal our broken hearts. Some are still seeking them.

But, somehow, we still enter Christmas thinking perhaps this year will be different, this year will be the year we’re far enough from the hurt not to feel it anymore. We still look to January first as a new page, a new opportunity to try again.

I was struck this morning by the lyrics of Sleeping At Last’s song “Snow.”

The branches have traded their leaves for white sleeves
All warm-blooded creatures make ghosts as they breathe
Scarves are wrapped tightly like gifts under trees
Christmas lights tangle in knots annually

Our families huddle closely
Betting warmth against the cold
But our bruises seem to surface
Like mud beneath the snow

So we sing carols softly, as sweet as we know
A prayer that our burdens will lift as we go
Like young love still waiting under mistletoe
We’ll welcome December with tireless hope

Let our bells keep on ringing
Making angels in the snow
May the melody disarm us
When the cracks begin to show

Like the petals in our pockets
May we remember who we are
Unconditionally cared for
By those who share our broken hearts

The table is set and our glasses are full
Though pieces go missing, may we still feel whole
We’ll build new traditions in place of the old
’cause life without revision will silence our souls

So let the bells keep on ringing
Making angels in the snow
May the melody surround us
When the cracks begin to show

Like the petals in our pockets
May we remember who we are
Unconditionally cared for
By those who share our broken hearts

As gentle as feathers, the snow piles high
Our world gets rewritten and retraced every time
Like fresh plates and clean slates, our future is white
New Year’s resolutions will reset tonight

“We’ll welcome December with tireless hope.”

We humans are a people of hope. In light of everything that has happened in the course of human history, it seems a bit foolish. Why would we hope when we know that every lifecycle ends with death? Why would we hope when we see broken relationships all around us? Why would we hope in light of war, famine, nature’s destruction?

We hope because we are made in the image of God. We are a broken, fallen people, and we are offered wholeness and restoration.

We hope because the Son of God came to earth one Christmas and fulfilled His calling:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

–Luke 4:18-21, ESV

He came to this earth to partake in the human condition and to overcome it. He came to share our broken hearts and to make us whole. He came to rewrite the world.

May your December be filled with hope. May you remember who you are: You are unconditionally cared for by One who shares your scars.

Watch Sleeping At Last’s video for “Snow”

Sleeping At Last is offering a Christmas Collection (including “Snow”) for download at Noisetrade. I’m loving listening to it so far this season. Go get yourself a copy and leave a tip!

This Is My Story

“In biblical Hebrew, there is no word for ‘history.’ Instead of ‘history,’ the word ‘memory’ is used. The idea is that history is someone else’s story, but memory is your own.”
–Heidi Johnston

The Settles Connection at Hutchmoot 2015, Photo by Mark Geil.

The Settles Connection at Hutchmoot 2015, Photo by Mark Geil.

Story, story, story. The word echoed through my weekend, shaped by various tongues. Once or twice it might have come out as “narrative,” a slight variant on the form, but the same essence.

“We tell stories from the image we hold in our hearts,” Jonathan Rogers said as he spoke of honoring our place—our hometown or family. We tell stories to support the thesis we have of “home.” We love our hometowns and our families, he reminded us, not because they are great, but because they are ours. “Remembering this lends the story to universality. Every human place has mythic experience.”

“Baseball is such a multi-purpose narrative tool,” said Russ Ramsey.

“The best way to tell someone you love them is to listen to them,” Michael Card said.

“This is not forever,” Heidi Johnston said. “We are just living in a day of a story that spans all of time.” She challenged us to be so immersed in the Bible that what we write tells the story of Scripture. If we speak only from our imagination without being anchored in truth, she said, we are only giving empty hope.

“Stories name our hopes we’ve hidden away and didn’t know we had,” said Doug McKelvey. “A song or a painting or a story can play on the imagination of the reader or the listener or the viewer almost in the same way a pianist can play on the piano keys.” Telling your story is throwing out a line and hoping that it connects with someone, he said. You’re inviting that person in as a third part of the creative process when they grip the line you’ve thrown out.

“Story is an invitation into a house that becomes a cosmos,” said Walt Wangerin. “What makes the story present and grants us the opportunity to be in the story at this present time is the telling.”

He reminded us of Deuteronomy 5, when Moses tells the story of Sinai to those about to enter the land. The generation who were there at Sinai are all dead, but Moses spoke to the generation before him as if the story were their own. His words echoed Heidi Johnston’s from earlier in the day, “History is someone else’s story; memory is your own.”

“Beware the man who makes himself the hero of his own story,” said Russ Ramsey in his sermon on Sunday morning. He combined the warning with this, “May we try to be brave, believing that trying to be brave is being brave because the author of life controls the narrative, and we are in his hands.”

On Saturday night, as the Settles Connection sang “Blessed Assurance” they invited us to sing along.

Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!
Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine!
Heir of salvation, purchase of God,
Born of His Spirit, washed in His blood.


This is my story, this is my song,
Praising my Savior all the day long;
This is my story, this is my song,
Praising my Savior all the day long.

“This is my story…” My story.

My story is that of a bride adorned for her bridegroom.

My story is that of a people whose God chased after their wayward hearts like a lover.

My story is that of a hard-headed disciple who betrayed his best friend and his Lord, only to be restored over a coal fire on the beach.

My story is that of a servant, entrusted by his master with five talents and turning them into ten.

My story is that of a king who took what he lusted after and killed to keep his sin hidden.

My story is that of a man who took his son to the mountain to sacrifice him, only to learn that the God he served would never ask such a thing like the gods of his past did.

My story is the story of a group of people who came together to discover the strangers they’d met were already their friends.

My story is the tale of a people made in the image of God who once turned away from him, but found him a gracious God with mercies new each morning, who shows steadfast love thousands of those who love him and keep his commandments.

These stories are my own, so deeply pressed into my soul they’ve left a mark. That mark, when watered, will become the seed of new stories. And I can throw out those stories into the world like a line, awaiting a hand to catch them and tie them to the hand’s own stories. And the line will go out again and again, so that strand after strand after strand all lead back to the truest story of all: that of a God who loved his creation so much he lay down his own life to save it from its brokenness.

New Post at Church at Charlotte Blog

I’ve got a new post up at the Church at Charlotte blog today, some thoughts on what I learned when I visited Auschwitz. Last week was the 70th anniversary of that camp’s liberation. It’s likely the last commemoration that many of the survivors will make it to. I read a piece that talked about how remembering Auschwitz will change–by necessity–as the survivors are no longer with us.

It reminded me of our tour guide the day I visited, and her story:

Agnieszka responded by telling a story. She had gotten the job and started the training and—understandably—been overwhelmed by the horror of it all. So she considered quitting. She turned to a friend for counsel, an older woman who was a psychologist. Agnieszka laid out her case to her friend. It couldn’t be emotionally healthy, she argued, to learn all those stories and tell them over and over. She should quit, right?

Read on.

 

Poppy

Christine sent me a text message today with a photo of a poppy. “Remembrance Day poppy. Worn by Canadians for the two weeks leading up to November 11,” she wrote.

PoppyWhen Trent told her they wore them for two weeks, she tells me she replied, “You guys are serious about this.”

Canada poured a lot into World War I. Five years of war. Five years of volunteers. And an ocean separating those at home from the battles themselves. Canada itself was not in particular danger during the war, but she knew the stakes.

I stood in a Canadian WWI cemetery in France in the summer of 1998. We’d spent much of our time on that trip exploring the history of the end of the Second World War—we’d seen the Normandy beaches, the American Cemetery with its white marble crosses—but that day it was the Canadians who drew our attention.

I walked through the brick arches and down the steps to the lines of graves, and, looking over them, I whispered familiar words:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place, and in the sky,
The larks, still bravely singing, fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead; short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe!
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high!
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
                   –John McCrae

Seven years later I was driving to work on November 11, and at an intersection an elderly man was walking between the cars, passing out poppies. He dropped one on the ground, and as he reached down to pick it up, the light changed and the driver of the car in front of me impatiently scooted around him to go through.

The man straightened, holding the little red flower. I pulled my car forward, rolled my window down and reached out for it, smiling at him. He smiled back and gave me the tiny scrap of wire and cloth in his hand, now mine to hold high.

***

It seems remarkably fitting that I ended this month of posts with one about Remembrance Day. Sights bring memories, but only if we tell their story will the memories remain for the next generation. Let us not forget—neither our joys or the sacrifices and sorrows of those who have given us the chance to see and remember.

Pairings

coffee_and_grapefruit_rob_richesThere are certain food and beverage pairings that make two delicious things even more delightful. Take Kenyan coffee and grapefruit, for example. Or sharp cheddar and red wine.

But there are other pairings that shouldn’t be attempted, one of which I’d forgotten about until this evening, when I happened upon it again.

I used to go to a Vespers service at my friends’ church and we’d often go out to eat afterward. The pub where we usually went had an excellent Buffalo Chicken Strip dinner that was my typical order. One night, I also ordered a glass of wine, White Zinfandel—a fruity, sweet wine.

I’d eaten a few bites of my chicken before I took a sip of wine. When I did, I made a face—slightly shocked, rather bemused.

“Well that was a strange combination,” I said.

My friends looked at my plate and my drink and put two and two together. “What did it taste like?” they asked.

I fumbled for a moment, trying to place my finger on the familiar, strange experience on my tongue. Finally, from the depths of my childhood it came to me.

“Pop Rocks,” I said.

Baseball

It’s Game 7 of the World Series. Though I stopped tracking the postseason baseball closely when the Tigers collapsed, I discovered in myself this evening a great urge to watch it all come together to whatever end.

BaseballBaseball’s always been around. I went to at least one game a year regularly as a child, and Dad typically made sure to catch the World Series, no matter who was playing.

But perhaps one of my favorite World Series memories was in 2004, when the Red Sox were sweeping the Cardinals. I’m as close to a neutral as you can be about both teams—unless they’re playing the Tigers, I don’t have any particular desires for them to win or lose. But the Sox making their run was a wild ride, and I think it may be time for everyone to learn the secret I know: how the Red Sox reversed the curse.

My cousin Stacy, her husband Jeremy, and their kids were visiting the US that autumn. They were missionaries in South America. Stacy grew up in Pennsylvania and Bolivia then returned to the latter as a missionary where she met Jeremy, an Englishman.

Jeremy and the kids hadn’t spent much time in the US, and they managed to arrive at a prime American cultural moment. They’d been in New England during the ALCS, and found themselves staying with Red Sox fans the night of Game 4. The Sox were down three games to the Yankees, and Jeremy watched his first baseball game.

It’s likely you know the outcome of that game. Even if you’re not a baseball fan, that postseason run is the stuff of legend. The Red Sox pulled out a win against the Yankees that night, and for three more games after that. Then they went on to sweep the Cardinals, breaking their 86-year-long World Series championship drought.

At the end of ALCS Game 4, as they celebrated that the Red Sox were still alive against the Yankees, my cousins’ friends turned to Jeremy.
“That was your first game?” they asked.
“Yes, I’ve never seen one before,” he answered.
“You have to keep watching,” they said.

So Jeremy kept watching, as much as he was able. He tuned in to portions of the final three games of the ALCS, and the Red Sox knocked the Yankees out of the running. He kept it up as they went up against the Cardinals. Evidently, though, a few of the intricacies had passed him by, as I discovered when he watched a game at my parents’ house.

We sat in my parents’ family room, my dad, Jeremy, and I half watching the game, half watching the kids play. Stacy and my mom were in the kitchen working on something. Jeremy told us of his curse-reversing power, and we talked of the series currently going. Then came my highlight of the series.

“Now,” Jeremy asked my dad, “If they win this match, how many will they continue to play?”
Before Dad could answer, from the kitchen came Stacy’s voice, correcting her British husband’s terminology. “Not a match, honey. It’s a game.”

The Stalker Robin

I was trying to do some organizing and purging of digital files this evening. A friend mentioned on Facebook yesterday how full of junk her digital files were, and commented, “I don’t think I would have let them get so messy if they were physical and I could see them.” I’m in the same boat. I do tend to collect papers, but every once in a while I hold a purge. I take the piles and I go through them sheet by sheet, filing the necessary ones, recycling the rest. It’s a good rhythm.

My most successful purge to date was the spring before I moved to Alaska. My parents were studying in London for five weeks and I had their house to myself. They had cable and rerun episodes of Clean Sweep made an incredibly inspiring background for purging and organizing projects. So I brought the piles of my world down to the family room, turned that on in the background and worked at sorting my life to that point into a manageable size and system.

One morning, I woke and made my way downstairs to a rhythmic thumping in the family room. Confused, I peeked around the corner as I got to the kitchen and looked into the family room. There, beyond my piles of papers spread across the floor, standing on the firewood stand outside and launching himself repeatedly at the window, smashing against it, then landing back on the firewood stand, was a robin.

His rusty frontispiece was tufty and ruffled. His feathers didn’t lie smoothly. Everything about his appearance pointed to him being slightly undone. The fact that he was running into the window at twenty second intervals only confirmed the matter.

Thinking the bird must be seeing his reflection in the window, due to the dimmer interior of the house, I walked over and kindly lowered the window shade for him, hoping that would cut the glare enough to set him right. I glanced at the window on the far side of the fireplace. Best to lower that one, too.

Half an hour later, settled with my breakfast and my coffee, I looked up to notice that when I’d lowered the second shade, it had not gone fully down to the sill. In the triangle of window at the bottom of the crooked shade stood the robin, ducking his head down to peak in and cocking it to one side, eyeing me.

Photo by David Wenning

Photo by David Wenning

I crossed the room, closed the shade, and then closed the shade to the window on the back of the family room. An hour later, the robin had made his way around to the doorwall, where he stood on the ledge, tilting his head and staring.

That morning began a month-long fascination the bird had with me. He would stand on the window sills and stare in every day. He would sit in the back yard and watch my movements through the doorwall. He would come to the front door, stand on the porch, and tap-tap-tap on the metal kick plate. When I went to the door, thinking someone had knocked, he quickly flew back, landed in the pin oak tree about fifteen feet from the door, settled his unkempt feathers, and cocked his head in my direction.

When my parents returned I told them of the stalker robin. Sure enough, their first morning home he made his appearance at the front door. Tap-tap-tap.

I left for Alaska soon after, and about halfway through my first summer up there, I got a note from Mom. “Your robin has been hanging around all summer, though we didn’t see him much this week.”

That afternoon, a robin ran into my open apartment window.

He landed on the ground, dazed, but generally unhurt. As I watched him right himself, I noted his rusty front and raggedy feathers. He cocked his head at me once before taking off once more.

I never saw him again, but a week later the stalker robin appeared back in my parents’ yard.

Tiny Horse in a Turtle Costume

I keep having to remind myself that Halloween is coming. This is the first time in my living-out-on-my-own adult life that I’ve lived in a place where I might get trick-or-treaters. I actually had to buy candy. Sure, I’ve only seen six kids in my neighborhood, but you never know how far they’ll come from on Halloween.

I think I missed the Newtown Halloween Parade already. It’s likely it would have been last weekend—typically it’s the Saturday before Halloween. Which I discovered the first year I lived there when, at 10:00 a.m. on Saturday morning, a marching band began to play outside my bedroom window.

Surprised, I opened the curtain to discover that yes, a band indeed was marching down the street next to my house, led by a drum major clad from head to toe in a green body suit. He was a very brave young man.

1186153_595842591212_1733777672_nThe band came along, costumed to varying degrees, and, following them, quite possibly the most adorable thing in the face of creation. A hundred or so little kids, all dressed up in their costumes, walking up the street with mommy and daddy, following the marching band.

That parade became one of my favorite traditions. I would grab myself a cup of hot cocoa, open the living room window, and sit on the sofa, looking out to watch the parade of two and a half-foot tall Batgirls, pajama-clad color guard, small pirates, Lego men, lions riding in strollers, and Narnian princesses.

Two years ago, I found perhaps the most amusing sight of my parade experiences. A woman was trying to navigate away from the marching band, pulling what I thought was a costumed dog toward my side of the street. I was videoing the band, and found myself slightly perturbed that they were in my shot, but not bothered enough to care. It was only when they turned, so the animal stood perpendicular to my position, that I realized he had hooves. There, on a leash outside my window, videoed for all the world to see, was a tiny horse in a turtle costume.

Tiny Horse

Pie

I’m convinced that God made pie to bring me joy.

I baked my first pie of the fall season this evening. It’s a little shocking to me that I’ve managed to delay this long. I think I may have been actually tricked into delaying by the southern temperatures that have hovered closer to 70 degrees than 60. I don’t hate the temps, but I am frustrated that they’ve confused my internal pie-maker.

PieI’ve written before of my love of pie. I love pie. I love most kinds of pie. I have established myself as the pie-innards maker in my family. My father, on the other hand, has established himself as the pie crust maker in the family. That only bothers me a little bit.

Two years ago, Hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey and Philly and knocked out a power plant in Newtown leaving me without power for the better part of four days. Fortunately, I had a gas stove, so with a lighter and an iron skillet, I was still able to cook food and not forced to subsist on emergency rations—though I do remember drinking a whole lot of milk the first night.

I’d made a pumpkin pie right before the storm, and it became my primary sustenance in those four days. I kept it out on the dryer in the lean-to (because when the weather was 55 degrees or less outside, that made as good a fridge as any, and it saved me having to open my own fridge and let the cool out).

I’d slice a piece of the pie, set it in the skillet, light the burner and slowly warm it through. Toasty-bottomed pumpkin pie. A quality life choice.

My final evening without power, I was done. Our house had been built in the 1800s and between the drafty windows and the stone and plaster walls, all the warmth had been drawn away by day four. Power had returned to campus, so I’d worked that day, but when I got home and took one step inside my frigid kitchen, I looked at the pumpkin pie and bade it farewell.

Joy-in-a-pan though it was, sustenance though it was, balanced meal though I argued it was…Applebee’s had power again and I was going out to eat.

Oops, I Forgot

I’ve got a good memory. One of the reasons I chose the theme of exploring memories was because I knew I had lots of them.

But here’s the thing: I know it’s beginning to diminish.

Last night, I forgot to write a blog post. No big deal, but not something I would have forgotten five years ago. It’s strange to be able to see my memory growing weaker. Terrifying sometimes. But mostly just strange. One of those things that comes with age…and you know that you’ve got plenty of beautiful things like wisdom and experience and gray hairs coming with age, too, but you feel that one thing slipping from your fingers.

And you wonder if you’ve made it an idol, and whether you’ll be able to survive without it.

I can’t remember nearly half of 2012. Well, no, it’s there—deep in the background—but I can’t dredge it up very well.

At Christmas that year, when Christine and I began to decorate our tree (accompanied by Filipino Christmas music, hot chocolate, and a YouTube crackling fireplace), Christine couldn’t find her ornaments. When we’d packed up the tree the Christmas before, she’d put them somewhere and they were nowhere to be found a year later. But we had mine, and she had the ones that she’d bought during 2012 (she’d traveled through Europe that summer), so we made a go of it. As she pulled out ornaments from their packages, she held up one, smiling, with an expression of, “Remember this!?” on her face.

It was a ruby slipper. I looked at her, blank.

1450972_600499194342_1410669521_n“From the Smithsonian?” she said. “Dorothy’s slippers?”
Vaguely, the memory of the museum came to me. “That was this year?” I asked.
“It was January,” she said. Then, there was a pause as she looked at me. “Wow, you really did have a rough year.”

The first half of 2012 was one of grief, of stress, of overwork, and pain. I remember those things. I remember those I lost that year.

This past spring I flipped through an old notebook—the one I take with me to church and everywhere and jot notes and thoughts and story ideas whenever they come to me.

One page is dated early January 2012. The next is dated in July.

The forgotten months.