A Letter to My Church

We met when I was just a child. I stumbled through your doors, a young girl who had become both a bride and a parent only months before. New city, new job, new marriage, new family – my feeble knees attempting to carry more weight than was humanly possible. You offered truth, friendly smiles, a destination for my weekly pilgrimage in search of hope.  Week after week, we greeted one another warmly.  We became acquaintances.

You asked small, cordial questions. The first crossroad was approached. I offered a slight glimpse of my wounded heart. I answered you in riddles, both hoping and fearing you would pursue more. You asked the next question. You listened. You didn’t minimize. You didn’t try to manage the chaos or despair. You didn’t turn away.  Week after week, we spoke briefly, yet with greater intention. We became friends.

Weeks rolled into months tumbled into years. We watched first graders receive Bibles and high school students launch off to college. We sat together at weddings witnessing the birth of new families. We observed helplessly as dying marriages gasped their last breaths. We celebrated the debut of desperately longed-for babies. We wept as tiny coffins were being lowered into frigid ground. He gave and He took away. Week after week, we continued to meet. To draw together for an hour or two. To sing and to pray. To tell each other the old, old story. To be reminded that yes, it is all true.

You were often my mother, my father, my siblings. My teacher, my student, my traveling companion. You brought me food when I was sick, when a new baby was born, and when another was lost. You shared your stories, your fears, your dreams, and your talents. With each kind act, knowing glance and deeper question, you offered healing and restoration. You spoke words of truth about yourself, about me, and about the One who brought us together. You loved well.

Yet there were seasons when you were the source of great pain. You were too busy. You didn’t have room in your circle of friends. You were tending to your own wounds and trying to repair the brokenness present in your own life. You failed me. And I did the same to you. But strangely, the pain and silence created an invaluable space.

For the brave work of longing.

For the reminder that we were not made for this world.

For the homesickness which nudged me back on the path toward Home. 

Despite the disappointments, we continued to meet. Week after week. Preschool Christmas pageant after Thanksgiving Eve communion after Maundy Thursday after crowded Easter morning. We didn’t give up on one another. We kept coming back – at times running and at others limping. Our relationship changed. We became family.

Our kinship was not born of common interest, background, social standing or life experience. It wouldn’t necessarily have been of our own choosing. Yet we loved the same Father who saw fit to bring us together. Week after week, a sacred alchemy transpired. The common became Holy. Through the jagged cracks of a broken, selfish, and prideful people, the Glory of the Most High spilled out and penetrated the darkness.

You changed shape as some were called away to other communities. They left as a result of following the Father, and their appointed time with us had been fulfilled. I confess that I’ve been tempted to do the same, but for less than admirable reasons. When I wanted more from you, or when you weren’t serving me in the ways that I had hoped. When our differences felt threatening. The gaps between us too wide to cross. I longed to flee to a place where my opinions were affirmed. But He knew that our differences served a marked purpose. What had seemed like an obstacle to my ideal had actually been rescuing me from a mirage. Yes, you had your own idols. But when you didn’t bow down to mine, you were offering a different perspective.  You saved me from myself.

Thank you for coming back week after week, year after year.

For leaning in. For your goodness and your weakness. For your hopeful words of encouragement and your honest tears of brokenness. For having vision for my life, my marriage, and my family when I wasn’t able. For granting me the sacred privilege of speaking into your life as well.

In your faithfulness and in your failures, you continue to draw me back to our Father. 


We walk through your doors

Broken and weary

Self-sufficient and prideful

Critical of those different

Blind to need

Brokenhearted by life

Enslaved by selfishness

You welcome us in

Giving room to rest

To struggle

To Fail

To Grow

To Hope

I am thankful.







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December 23rd

Lessons from the Master: Freedom from Ties that Bind

“The Painter in His Studio” by Rembrandt

Rembrandt van Rijn is undoubtedly considered one of the Great Masters of painting and etching.  As with all of us, his life was marked by both success and tragedy.  He suffered the death of his wife and 3 of his 4 children, and endured significant scandal and bankruptcy. It would be reckless to hold Rembrandt up as the standard for which we should strive, yet there is merit to gleaming insights from his remarkable life.

During his career, Rembrandt received a fair degree of criticism for his unconventional methodologies. Ironically, it was often this deviation from the norm that resulted in the extraordinary nature of his artwork.  Some say he was intentionally “bucking the system.”  I’d suggest that his motivation was not externally motivated defiance.  Rather, he was intensely determined to be true to self.

“Instead of being commissioned, the subjects for most of his works were chosen by Rembrandt himself.  Other contemporary portrait painters, like Van Dyck, Velazquez, or Hals, worked almost exclusively on commission, which meant they had to abide by the narrow restrictions on the form imposed by the expectations of the sitter.  Make me look good, whatever you do.”    Roger Housden

Rather than painting in order to please patrons, Rembrandt honored his sense of creative expression.  He chose artistic integrity over financial security.  Some of his most moving and memorable works were produced as a result of the resulting creative freedom.  He painted in order to reveal souls, not capture images.  Holland was a magnet for refugees, and many of his subjects were poor Jewish neighbors (he was the first of his time to paint Jesus as a young Jewish man).  He captured the moods of everyday people as they went about in ordinary life – teaching a toddler to walk, cleaning, and sleeping.   All because he was free from the ties that come with needing to please others.

I’d imagine that if Rembrandt had restricted his artwork to the parameters set by patrons, his paintings still would have been remarkable.  We simply would have never  known that we missed the best part of him.  The same is true of our lives – although seemingly fruitful from the outside, we often don’t experience the fullness of life that we were intended to live.  We too, miss the best part.

I’m challenged by the contrast of Rembrandt’s freedom with my frequent bondage to the opinion of others, and to the commitment to make life work on my terms.  I want a life freedom, yet find myself bowing down to the idols of approval and control.  The struggle is revealed daily…

~ When I find myself angry with my older children for making poor choices, or with my young children when they exhibit less-than-expected manners.  Not always because I want what is honoring to God, but at times because I want affirmation that we’re good parents.  Rather than live a life marked by patience and encouragement, I become a slave to approval.

~ When I’m not willing to go to my husband and ask for forgiveness after an argument, even when I know  that I was in the wrong.  Rather than living a life marked by love and freedom, I become a slave to the illusion of control.

~ When I maintain a safe distance from friends instead of entering into the messiness of relationship.  Rather than living a life marked by integrity and long-suffering, I become a slave to the attainment of safety and acceptance.

I want to live a life marked by peace, integrity, humility, and vibrancy.

Yet I also want to win the approval of others, control of my life, and experience safety in relationships – all which come with strings attached.  Ties that bind.  Chains that enslave.   By my own hand.

We see the cycle of bondage as it played out in Israel’s history.  Until they were delivered.

We are still in need.

I am still in need…

 Our enemy, our captor is no pharaoh on the Nile

Our toil is neither mud nor brick nor sand

Our ankles bear no calluses from chains, yet Lord, we’re bound

Imprisoned here, we dwell in our own land

 Deliver us, deliver us

Oh Yahweh, hear our cry

And gather us beneath your wings tonight

 Our sins they are more numerous than all the lambs we slay

These shackles they were made with our own hands

Our toil is our atonement and our freedom yours to give

So Yahweh, break your silence if you can

 Andrew Peterson “Deliver Us”

The majority of us will not leave a portfolio of priceless artwork for which we will be remembered.  Our legacy will be more subtle, yet no less significant than that of Rembrandt’s.  We’ve each been given a unique palette of talents, experiences, and predispositions with which we paint upon the canvas of the world.  We leave our mark on those we meet, indelibly altering the composition and tone of their lives.

Daily, we choose for whom we are painting.

Do I take the talents and abilities that I’ve been given to fulfill the expectations of others (or myself)? In doing so, I become a slave to that which I hope to attain.

Or do I choose to live life as a student of the Master?  Trusting his guidance, studying his ways, and painting to please him alone…  and as a result, leaving behind a legacy that bears a resemblance to the Master himself.

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.  Stand firm, then and do not let yourselves be burdened by a yoke of slavery.”  Galatians 5:1


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I’m Both

Mid-summer in Charlotte. Lungs tire easily while laboring to extract oxygen from the thick, syrupy air.  I’m a fair-weather runner.  I don’t run when it’s too cold, and I don’t run when it’s too hot.  A few days ago, I arose to find that we’d been given an unexpected remission from weeks of incessant heat.  The air was a crisp 56 degrees.  It was an opportunity not to be missed.  I laced up my shoes and stepped out into what felt like the first hints of autumn.  My run was particularly enjoyable.  The air was cool and clean, the paths were peaceful, and the music on my ipod calmed my soul. I had temporarily defied the gravity of my own lethargy, had risen early to challenge my muscles and lungs, and had pushed through the last leg of the run. Upon arriving home, I was tired, but the kind of tired that was deeply rewarding.  I had done something good for my body.  I felt refreshed and healthy.  And then…  I promptly ate a handful of Oreo cookies.

I would like to think of myself as being increasingly health-conscious.   We eat organic foods whenever possible, limit our red meat intake, consume whole-wheat rather than white breads and pastas, and encourage exercise as a life-long habit.  But then there are the Oreos.  My kryptonite.  And sea-salted dark chocolate almonds from Trader Joes.  Against those, I have little power.  I would like to define myself in terms of health, not indulgence, yet both are true.  I am both healthy and indulgent at the same time.  A paradox of sorts… or rather a more complete picture.  I am both forgiving and critical.  I am gracious and demanding.  I am deeply flawed yet wonderfully made.  If I deny either side of the equation, I hold an unrealistic picture of myself.

And if I am both at the same time, then I need to acknowledge that the same is true for others.   Those who I hold closest and in highest regard have the capacity to fail miserably.  And those who I find hard to love, well… there is another side to that equation as well.

During a sermon on forgiveness, Tim Keller used a caricature artist as to illustrate the way we often view difficult people.  The caricature artist takes his subject’s most demonstrative characteristic and exaggerates it.  He then captures it on paper to be frozen in time.  For instance… if the subject has slightly large ears, the artists creates those ears to be far larger than life, then in drawing them, dooms the subject to a likeness that is unchangeable.

We do much the same thing, particularly with someone who is difficult to love.   We tend to look at that person and see the attributes which are most irritating… or most unlikeable… or which cause us great pain.   And then we exaggerate them and freeze in time the picture that we have created.  It works out nicely, you know.  As long as I can convince myself that the person who is causing me pain is primarily evil, or selfish, or suffers from some deep neurosis, then I feel a certain relief from obligation.   But if there were another side to the equation, well that just complicates things.

Many of us go through life rather unaware that we make assumptions about others, draw our own caricatures, and file them neatly away in our mental sketchbooks.  This is particularly true when we’re looking at those closest to us.  We think we have them figured out.  We forget that there is always another side to the equation.  There is no doubt more than we see.   Or unfortunately care to see.

So what is the antidote to assumption?  How can we look beyond the mental caricatures that we have created in order to see the multi-dimensional people who God actually created?  How can we begin to see them as “fearfully and wonderfully” made?   The antidote to assumption is curiosity. 

So if my husband (theoretically, of course) is distant or aloof, I could take his behavior personally (theoretically again), OR could I become curious as to what is going on in his job… or with his friends… or in his heart…

If my relationship with a dear friend becomes strained, do I assume that she’s just being selfish or (fill in the blank with whatever you may assume), OR am I willing to be humble and vulnerable enough to ask if I’m the offending party…  or if there is something else going on in her life that may have nothing to do with me…

Am I willing to be curious about those closest to me?  Those I’ve known for most of my life?  Those who I think I have figured out?

A healthy dose of humility and curiosity does have its con’s.  I may find out that I was wrong.  That there has been more to love in another than I had imagined.  That I’ve lived too much of my life drawing caricatures rather than enjoying whole people.  Yet it is with that revelation that freedom begins.  Freedom from assuming, incorrectly sketching, and missing people for who they actually are.  Freedom to see the whole picture, and freedom to love well.  Oh yes, and freedom to enjoy both my brisk run and my Oreos.

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Measure by Measure

Caroline, my youngest, came into the world dancing, twirling, and humming a happy tune. The baby of five, she plays her role in the family flawlessly.  From the moment we brought her home, we not only loved her, but we loved all that came with her – lots of pink, hair bows, bloomers, baby dolls, and ballet dresses.  As a toddler, she woke up smiling with open arms (literally) looking for hugs.  She spent her days either dancing with poise and grace (as much as a 2 yr old can have), OR chasing her big brothers with a pink cowboy gun.  I’ve learned much from her.  She soaks in every ounce of life and lives each moment to the fullest.  Nothing is boring.  She notices the newest bird that decided to reside in our yard, writes stories for hours (phonetically – reading them can become a game in itself) and has vision for any scrap of yarn or paper.  She’s a living craft tornado, sucking up remnants in her path and leaving a trail of destruction, along with a mighty creative craft project, behind.

We are finally wrapping up the school year.  In the last few weeks, we’ve completed year-end testing, finished (almost) worn out workbooks, scrambled to wrap up the final details and participate in our oldest daughter’s wedding, made it through the dress rehearsal and ballet recital, and have only to complete the piano recital in order to officially wrap up the year.  I’m tired.  And ready to be done.

Will, my 11 year old, spent the last few months preparing to play three piano pieces in his sister’s wedding.  Perfection of his pieces had received priority over the younger ones’ recital preparation.  I generally left the practice schedule of the younger two to their own management.  Even the 7-year old Craft Tornado.  As with most things, our negligence eventually catches up with us.  Two weeks before the recital, I found myself sitting beside my sweet Caroline to listen to her piano recital piece, only to learn that she had quite far to go.  Not to put the final touches on her piece, but to get the basic notes and to play the rhythm correctly.  It was 8pm – her bedtime, and her piano teacher would be coming in the morning.  I was tired.  She was tired.  We needed to make weeks’ worth of progress quickly.  It wasn’t the best set up.

Over time, the most endearing characteristic of another often becomes the most frustrating.  Caroline is highly relational.  Everything can (and does) become fodder for conversation.  How far she sits from the piano.  Which line she should practice.  What she should wear to the recital.  I began our session aware that her lack of preparation was primarily my fault.  I was the adult.  I had neglected directing her for the past weeks due to preparation for the wedding.  She was tired.  But as her attempts to practice continued, impatience began to bubble up within me.  Her talk to play ratio was 3:1.  We weren’t making much progress, and the clock was ticking.

There was one particular measure that she just couldn’t master.  It didn’t help that each time she played it (incorrectly), she would stop and look at me – not at the music.  She was looking to me for affirmation, support, and encouragement.  I was trying to mask my irritation behind a half-hearted smile and the mantra “let’s slow down and work on that one measure”.  My husband entered the scene, cheery and somewhat bewildered at my poorly-masked exasperation.   With his presence bringing a sense of reinforcement (and accountability for me), we pressed through. Eventually, she hit the right notes at the right time.   At this point, we were well past her bedtime, and encroaching upon mine.  The next morning, I held my breath as she played for her teacher.  Would all be forgotten?  Would the prior evening’s work be too little too late?  Then much to my amazement, her teacher removed the sheet music, and Caroline played the piece straight through.  No big deal.  Hmmmm….

I was struck that this is the heart of mothering:  repeatedly coaching, encouraging, nudging… measure by measure.  Until one day, what we have so diligently (and imperfectly) stumbled through, argued over, yet pressed beyond, becomes seemingly effortless.  And I get to be there to see it all.  With much practice, the music had been written onto her heart.   One day, she too will find deep satisfaction and enjoy playing Bach.  That which had once felt insurmountable would seem insignificant.

As I look back upon those few pivotal days last week, I’m reminded that we all trudge through life in much the same manner. We don’t grow and mature by leaps and bounds. Rather, it’s a slow and steady plodding.  Working through every day, conflict, achievement, and disappointment, one by one. In lieu of being irritated by the time and energy that relationship with others costs me, I want to appreciate the privilege I have in getting to be there.  I want to look at my children, my husband, my friends, (and myself) with eyes that see beyond today.  To have vision to look through the bumbling notes and believe that more is possible.   And I want to count it an honor to walk with others through life, measure by measure.

“He who began a good work in you will carry in on to completion
 until the day of Christ Jesus.”  Phillipians 1:6

By the way, she did a beautiful job.

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The BIG POWER of the small question

I’m new to Facebook.  Barely 2 weeks into joining this virtual community, I find myself with over 100 friends.  This new community is buzzing with activity – posts, questions, messages, and shared photos.  There is a constant stream of communication.  Updates, comments, and peeks into family vacations.  Some of the Facebook crowd apparently doesn’t sleep.  Cyberspace pulsates incessantly as folks reach out in desperate attempt to make connection with one another.  Yet beneath the bustling community, I’ve felt an undertone of sadness.  I’ve found myself wondering if those who spend so much time online have counted the cost associated.  The precious currency of time is spent pecking away at the keyboard rather than investing in the family and friends with whom they (we) live?

Lest I become too critical of the online community, I’d suggest that we all have our forms of “misspending” our currency of time and energy.  I often go about my days talking, not listening.  Doing, not being.  Telling, not asking.  When we I take the time to engage another, I often resort to a chronic dialogue.  “How was your day?”… “How are you?”…  “How was the weekend?”…  The questions, though good-intended, do little to stimulate any depth of response from another.  They are too familiar.  Too broad in scope and too easily satisfied with vague answers.

In The Eyes of the Heart, Frederick Buechner tells of his driving desire to learn more about his father, who had died when Buechner was young. He spent years mining the memories of friends and relatives in order to excavate some new nugget of information regarding his father.  He was after something deeper than “he he had been a charming, handsome young man, and everybody liked him.”  Later in life, his daughter told him that he’s was asking in the wrong way.  “If you want to get a big answer, she said, you should ask a little question.  I should ask people if they remembered ever eating a meal with him.  Or playing tennis with him.  Or arguing with him about politics.  Or being with him at a bar, or the movies, or on a subway.  Who could say what one, small concrete memory might jog loose?”

Perhaps we would be well served to take the same advice.  Could we take the time to be intentional and ask small questions?  If we really want to know more of someone, do we have a vision of what “more” could look like?

  • When my husband comes home from tennis with friends, do I ask him, “How was the afternoon?” OR do I dare ask him “How did it feel to be with that group of guys?” (true example from yesterday… and I didn’t)
  • When my children seem unusually fragile, do I take the time to ask what had transpired earlier when their friend had been over?
  •  Do I simply ask my friend, “How was your vacation?” OR do I dare ask what it was like to try and reconnect with her husband?

I can only imagine how my relationships could be transformed and deepened if I frequently gave others time to paint descriptive pictures of the scenes of their life.  What details have I been missing in the rush of the day?  What details have I hurriedly assumed and added in?  Could I slow down and intentionally  ask deliberate “small” questions?

Probably not with my 100 Facebook friends.  But perhaps with a few.

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