A Psalm for Palm Sunday

We’ve been sleeping with the windows open at night. When morning begins to spread her skirt of light, it’s the song of the robins that coaxes open my eyes. Last week I planted my garden greens and yesterday I noticed their sleepy faces poking up from the soil bed. Tomorrow the weatherman calls for snow.

I think the robin song is the most hopeful of all songs.

Since I returned from Refine the Retreat, I have had my own retreat, of sorts. I’ve been quiet—curled into family and the moments as lived. Presence has been nourishing me, the slow-going through the days. I’m slowly getting back up to speed with life.

Yesterday I gave a short homily for a Lenten luncheon series at the church of one of my mentors. I thought I’d share a slightly edited version of that message here. As we prepare to enter Holy Week, may you be blessed, dear one.

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I spent my 48th birthday with a group of about 45 women at Refine the Retreat. We were at a retreat center called Our Lady of the Pines—a beautiful, former girls school turned nunnery turned sanctuary—where our hearts were primed to hear God’s voice. Each morning I led the women in lectio divina. We walked a prayer labyrinth on the property and prayed under birdsong mingled with the voices of tall, limber pines singing in the wind. When the time came to give my message, I was changed. I felt close to these women—safe—and God kept nudging me to give a different message than the one I’d prepared. I felt the urging to share more deeply and allow myself to be vulnerable.

So I did. In the context of scripture, I shared the story of a difficult experience my family had just been through. Something that had caused great pain that still touches us in many ways. And as I was speaking the words out loud, I was taken by surprise. I felt a sob well up in my throat and there was nothing I could do to suppress it. I had never spoken about this story publicly and my emotions took me off guard. But when that sob escaped, something beautiful happened. Every eye turned unblinkingly upon me. The tears had captured their attention. This is something they all understood so well: sorrow; grief; the deep soul disappointment that life hands us sometimes. I looked out over the faces of the women I was speaking to and I saw only love.

After a time of worship, as we clustered in small groups sipping coffee and nibbling sweets, woman after woman approached me. In hushed tones, they shared similar stories of darkness. Times of despair and pain. With few exceptions, these women told me how they kept their pain a secret, held it tightly to their hearts, locked behind cut-flower words and plastered on smiles only gum-deep.

My heart broke as I listened and the realization sunk into me: We do not feel safe to share our pain, our brokenness—our humanity—in our churches.

Eugene Peterson says the Psalms are where we go to learn our language as it develops into maturity, as it answers God. The Psalms are fraught with humanity, giving breath to a plenary human experience. The Psalm on the lectionary for this Palm Sunday is chapter 31:6-19.  It’s a typical lament; a cry for help and complaint that moves through petition and toward a statement of trust and praise. In fact, a large portion of the Psalms could be categorized as lament. The estimates are from one third to one quarter of the Psalms falling in this category. And that word—Psalm—the Hebrew word for Psalm means “praises.” Does it seem odd to you that a book of praises would hold so many laments? Or do we need to change our definition of praise?

 And why is this Psalm a companion to Palm Sunday? It certainly lends very little triumph to the triumphal entry. But what it does do is boldly hold that tension that often so colors the human experience. A lament does the unthinkable—it holds anguish and hope side-by-side; revealing the depth of the nature of human life. The Lenten season is a time when the humanity of Jesus calls out to our own humanity.

When I read the story of the Triumphal entry, I cannot help wondering what was going through Jesus’ mind as he wrapped his legs around the soft underbelly of that donkey, the noise of the crowd ringing in his ears.  He knew what he was going to. He’d already tried to explain to his disciples on two different occasions that he was going to his death. No heavenly army swooping in, no Roman defeat, no redemption of all the years of oppression his people had faced. What was he thinking?

Jesus was fully human. It was Pilot who said it: “Behold the man!”

But do I? Behold the man? Too often I want to impose upon Jesus some kind of superpowers, but Jesus was a man. Fully God, yes, but fully human as well. How could one made of flesh and bone, one whose blood ran as hot and cold as ours, how could he withstand such horrors? How could he plead with God to take away this cup and still end by saying, “Yet not what I will, but what you will”? Jesus felt the full range of human emotions. Yet he was as close to the Father as any human could be. Anguish and hope held side-by-side.

Writer Dan Allender reminds us that “the poetry of the psalms were the hymns of the people of God. It was their song book,” he says. “it was what they sang in the temple at their worship services. The psalms are often thought to be the private poetry of people who struggled with God … [but] God intends for lament to be part of worship; and he intends for it to be done in community.”

How many times must our Lord have sung the Psalms, given his voice to lament?

Lament cuts through insincerity, unveils pretense, and leads to trust and wonder. Because true worship involves bringing every aspect of our lives before God—not ignoring the hard stuff of life, but worshipping in the midst of our struggles.

Jesus prayed a portion of Psalm 31 from the cross: Into your hands I commit my spirit … Such a beautiful statement of trust. But don’t you wonder, if he had sung this Psalm before … don’t you imagine that the rest of the Psalm was on his mind as well? And the hard stuff comes after that sweet statement of trust.

Be merciful to me, O LORD, for I am in distress; my eyes grow weak with sorrow, my soul and my body with grief …

 Jesus knew the power of lament. He knew the power of sharing sorrow publically.

At the first Refine the Retreat, one of the ladies who is an artist told us about the Japanese art of Kintsugi (or kintsukuroi). It’s a 500-year-old method for repairing broken pottery. You see, she said, in those ancient times, most families only had one good bowl or platter.  If it was broken, repair was necessary. Over time, artisans began repairing the cracks with a special lacquer mixed with gold, so that a bowl highly valued by the family may have many gold-veined lines through it. The golden seams became a sign of value, instead of disrepair. The cracks a vehicle to appreciate beauty in brokenness.

We are a flawed people living in a fallen world. But we have been healed with something far more precious than gold lacquer. We are washed in the blood of Jesus. But we remain in this in-between time—redeemed but waiting. Broken, but beloved. This is our reality: in this life, we will have troubles. If Jesus did not shy away from lament, why should we?

Our times are in your hands, O LORD. Let your face shine on your servants, save us in your unfailing love. Amen.

West Virginia Morning: Lifting the Small Voice

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In the mornings, my injured foot screams against movement, complaining with every bit of weight it carries. Yesterday, I returned to work and donned real shoes for the first time since the sprain. I did well walking the hard floors of the hospital all day, or so I thought, until this morning. So it’s more ice for me, foot up, and sulking. I am a poor patient.

We are tumbling back into the chronos time, jumping into the calendar days, and with each sinking of the sun the light-soaked sea seems a distant memory. Some things do not wait for us to catch up.

Last week when my family was slowing by the sea, a very disturbed young man entered a church in South Carolina and, after sitting with a group in Bible study for over an hour, shot and killed nine people. This terrible news came to us late by today’s standards—we were partially unplugged as we opened our hearts to leisure and to each other. But the next morning, my mother-in-law texted us a picture of Bonnie, who stayed with her grandparents while we were away. She wanted to show us how our girl was keeping their cats in check. In the picture, Bonnie stands guard before a cat-occupied chair. Behind this silly scene, the television. And on the screen are pictures of the nine individuals killed in that senseless attack.

I couldn’t breath when I took it in.

The rest of our holiday was tainted, the dark whisper of death shadowing each moment. How dare we frolic in the sun, laugh as ocean waves lap over us, toil through shells and sand—when individuals and our nation were hurting so? It all felt so frivolous, yet … I held each moment all the more tenderly for my breaking heart.

And so we have realized that all our knowledge, all our perceived progress, all that we think we know about race relationships in this world can turn to dust in our mouths in an instant. We have been naïve in the desire to believe love has conquered and all is well. We are left bruised and bewildered.

Where do we go from here? How can anything I say even matter?

Before we left on holiday, I finished up some editorial work for The High Calling on an upcoming theme called “The Power of Empathy.” I read so many resources about empathy when preparing my editorial summary. One of the best was Brene Brown’s TED talk on “The Power of Vulnerability.” In it, she gives four qualities of empathy:

  1. The ability to take the perspective of another person.
  2. Staying out of judgment.
  3. Recognizing emotion in other people and,
  4. Communicating this recognition.

Brown says, “Empathy is a choice and it’s a vulnerable choice because in order to connect with you I have to connect with something inside myself that knows that feeling.”

My voice is but a small one. One white woman who knows so little of how to love through a mess like this. Yet, it’s important for me to speak, it’s important for me to communicate that I recognize how broken this world is, how sorry I am, how helpless I feel. It’s important for me to speak against this terrible violence, to wonder with the many what can be done. I am trying to look at the world through a different perspective. I will keep trying. It matters.

Christian Wiman speaks of “life as landscape” or “resume.” We all long to look back on our existence as a whole and name our impact on the world. But, he says, this isn’t the best way. Life is incremental, he says, and we can never “really see this one thing that all our increments (and decrements, I suppose) add up to.” He goes on to say, “We are meant to be a lens for truths that we ourselves cannot see.”

I want my life, my words, to be a lens for truth.

If you are struggling with what to say and do, you may want to read this post from my friend Deidra. We must join hands and speak. As writers and storytellers we have a unique position of influence. Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes says, “Stories set the inner life into motion.” The stories I share here are meant to bring unity, to shine light on beauty, and awaken in each reader the awareness that we all share certain qualities. But also to celebrate our differences without judgment. Natalie Goldberg says, “We walk through so many myths of each other and ourselves, we are so thankful when someone sees us for who we are and accepts us.”

This is a good place to begin. Again. And again. One increment at a time. Being a lens for truth. Letting our stories move people to action, even small ones.

We move forward in this hard place. Together.

Broken

I sit at the kitchen table with the window open this morning—let the cool spring breeze and the chatter of the finches ease me into the holy. I have a sermon to write, but the scriptures aren’t speaking. Or maybe I’m not listening.
My boys are off for a service project with their youth group, so I’m home alone but I can’t seem to focus my prayers. I think it’s that special we watched on the History Channel last night—the one on the Hatfields and McCoys. I’ve had trouble shaking the images, all that bloodshed we only read about in West Virginia history class in the 8th grade. Now Devil Anse has the face of Kevin Costner and as the credits rolled last night I wept real tears for real lives lost.
The bad stuff of the world seems too big today and I have to count on the Spirit to intercede with those sighs and groans again. I’m watching the Goldfinches and sipping from my favorite mug—the one Ann gave me—when the handle makes a clean break and the mug falls with a loud clank on the table. My finger is bleeding and there is coffee everywhere and oh, no, not this mug! I feel so sad that the gift is broken and I wonder what kind of silent fissure could have made so clean a break.

So much of the broken is cloaked in silence.
I clean up the mess, wash away blood and think about my friend Linda—what she’s doing to give a voice to some of that brokenness. I pray for it with my heart but I still have no words.
It’s Eugene Peterson who helps. Praying the Psalms—learning their language—is not an option, he says. It’s a mandate.
We need fluency in the language of the country we live in, he says.
Quietly I go to the bookshelf and find my old copy of Psalms for Praying. Lament fills the quiet, names the broken, gives words where there are none.
And through the open window the birds keep chatting. The world keeps spinning. But maybe not as quietly as before.
With my sandy, the

No Words for Beauty

Valley Falls

There are always things left unsaid and I learned my lesson a long time ago not to bring up the hard stuff. It just makes people uncomfortable.

It leaves little holes all over me—tiny pinpricks in my skin that burn and eventually my heart begins seeping.
I am not good at pretending.
We come to see the family—to see my first great nephew. We come to see one baby and learn about another. And I have two seconds of surprise and shock and what?? before she casually places the ultrasound pictures in my hands.
Sometimes, there are no words for beauty.
We walk under these budding trees—a blanket of new lace over our heads—and hum to the sound of the river rushing fast below us. I can see the railroad tracks and just beyond—her curvaceous whitewaters.

Valley Falls
There has been much rain of late and she is in a hurry to get to the sea and the sound of her calling to us as she rushes by fills me with terror and exhilaration.
Is this still the Tygart River? I ask the locals, who rarely name such things. They only know her by her intimate—by what nature gives to her. We don’t need to talk; this language is our native tongue.

Valley Falls
I am with my sister and my mother and the kids don’t feel the earth’s heartbeat the way I do. How to say? Remember when? Remember when the woods were our refuge? And we would crash down ravines of fern and dying leaves and snack on wild onions when we grew hungry and then pick the ticks off of each other in the fading evening sun?
We would stay out all day, remember? And not eat anything. Maybe take a drink out of the creek.

Valley Falls
She says it to me and we are lost in the smell of new leaves opening up and decaying leaves underfoot and the way our legs feel straining up the hill. I am in heaven but I want to cry.
We find a waterfall and stand underneath, let the spray cool our dirty skin. I am wearing a white blouse. I didn’t come prepared for hiking. My sister loaned me some tennis shoes and they are soaked through from wading through the mud.

Valley Falls
When Teddy falls on the slippery rock, I watch his head snap back and I feel terror grip me. He catches himself, but he hits hard and I feel it in my soul. I feel the broken bone. He cradles his arm the whole way back and cannot bend it for the pain.
Me—I am so relieved that he didn’t hit his head—that he can still move his legs—that I can’t worry too much. We have lunch and he won’t eat.
I am looking at the ultrasound pictures, feeling sad so deep I cannot name it. I want to ask so many questions, but the bridge is too wide. I swallow hard.
And what I hold in my hand only screams to me what an outsider I am to my own family and I feel so lonely. I only have words to give but when the words are not received, when the words are not wanted…there is only silence.
There are eight hands at the table that have all made mistakes. We’ve given our hearts and our bodies to the wrong men. We’ve turned away from God in agony and defeat and loathed the skin we wear. This path we chose…it brought us back to our Good God broken and on our knees.

Jordan Lee
This is what I want to say. I want to say to leave the shame. Turn your face to the Light. If we belong to Him, we are clothed in grace. Only grace. No man or woman is covered in less. Do not let anyone tell you otherwise.
Grace.
That is what the Divine Love is about.
And I want to ask about love and about the pain of bearing it all and I want to embrace this one who has my same blood.
But the bridge is too wide.
So we make nice and snap more pictures by the water and I pile my boys in the car to drive the long drive home. He and I spend the evening at the ER—with the X-ray techs and the other sickly people. And I feel tired, but I know it has nothing to do with the sleepless night or that long hike I took in my white blouse, or the long drive home, or the five hours in the ER.
I know that it’s about that long bridge I keep trying to cross. I’m not even halfway there and already I’m exhausted.  Teddy wears a blue cast now, but I am the one who is broken. Is there a cast for the heart? I ponder and stumble and I keep coming back to this:
The LORD himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged. (Deut. 31:8)
I know I am not alone on this long and wearisome walk. There is One who walks beside. Sometimes this One will even carry. So. I keep putting one foot in front of the other. And I try to speak love when I can. Sometimes, silence must do.
Because sometimes, there are just no words for beauty.

Sharing with Emily:

And Jen today, and all the Soli Deo Gloria sisters:

This Must Be…

this must be
how
it feels
when the hard
shell breaks wide
open and
insides become
skin—when what
was hidden strains
toward light.
this must be
how
it feels
to be a star
on fire—burn
from the inside
out and shine
for miles and
miles.
this must be
how
it feels
to be rock
hewn into form,
given a face
with edges
hammered
away, rough places
broken and blasted
off.
broken shell
star on fire
stone-hewed heart…
this is what it is like
to love.

Written for One Shot Wednesday, a community poetry project by One Stop Poetry. Drop in on some great poetry over there today.