Sunday, August 17, 2014

A letter to my future husband (for real this time)

Two years ago, I published my first-ever "Letter to My Future Husband" (read it here), even though I wasn't sure he existed. Today I offer the second letter.

Dear Steven,

I am not accustomed to being wrong.  Teachers always praised my apt answers, and friends have lauded my accurate intuitions. You, maddening man, have taught me that I have been wrong more times than I count on all sorts of things. To my surprise, I am finding that being is wrong is much more beautiful than I ever would have guessed.

Consider: I was wrong when I imagined that this summer would be mostly about teaching online courses and writing a conference paper. I was wrong when I thought I could never meet someone I loved more than my job. I was wrong when I thought it would take me years of knowing someone before I would be willing to marry him.

On the day you proposed, we had eaten lunch in a soup kitchen, helped an elderly man weed his community garden plot, and waded up to our necks in the river that runs through Austin. I had realized, weeks earlier, that if I were ever going to marry anyone, it would be you, but I was still trying to understand how and when such a thing could happen. And I knew, on some level deeper than I could explain, that you were grappling with the same questions. At the same time, I was increasingly certain that you would ask me to be your wife. I imagined the question coming somewhere in the future, somewhere in an appointed season, the kairos of our intwining days. Even so, in chronos, the moment itself, I was stunned. I think you were, too.

When I said yes, we both laughed and cried, bewildered and joyful to find ourselves on the threshold of a parable: a life together that, we pray, will grow into a picture of the wedding feast of Christ. We prayed underneath the hot sun and the cool green tree, and then remembered that we had left your car with your friends, and that we needed to find a bus to take home. So it's been since our first conversation: a perfect collision of the sublime and the ordinary, the marvelous and mundane.  


When I told the news of our engagement to my friend Emily, she nearly dropped her baby. Having stilled the child, Emily laughed. "I feel like Sara from the Bible," she said, "hearing the news that she will conceive."   And then, as I told her about you--about your revolutionary work with farming and the homeless and community, about how I admire your faith, your capacity for vision, your boldness, your strength--the laughter moved from her lips to her eyes. "Oh, I've waited so long to meet the person who could captivate you," she said. "I knew he would have to be someone amazing."  I hope it gives you joy to think that not only I, but my friends, have been waiting to meet you for a very long time.

Our friends. They love us so: even as they have sputtered with shock at our timeline, they have toasted us, prayed over us, asked us hard and necessary questions, hugged us, cried with us. Some of them know they story as well as we can tell it, others are still reeling from the mere news. Even so, they trust us, and they have told us so. More importantly, they trust the God we love. They know our choice, our partnership, will drive us deeper into the heart of God than we have ever been before.   


When I bought my house, I set aside one room as a place for God to work.  I called it "Spare Oom" after The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  I determined I would not fill that room with my possessions or my plans, but that I would wait for God to fill it with a good story. Kala was the first answer to that prayer, and she brought so much joy with her. We both knew, of course, that her season there would be short, that she would go from Spare Oom to somewhere else. But that, of course, is the point of Spare Oom. In the Chronicles of Narnia, Spare Oom isn't a place you stay: it is a threshold, a place that leads you to a world you did not imagine possible. When I gave that room to God, I thought I was consecrating a physical space for hospitality, but in fact I was opening a space in my life. I was saying, "Don't let me fill my life only with what I can plan or understand. Don't let me spend my time and money only on what pleases or amuses me. Fill my world with others and with friends. Invade my tidy home for the sake of your kingdom." By bringing Spare Oom into my house, my life, I allowed God to lead me to an unexpected door. When I said yes to you, I stepped through the door. Before me, I see an unfamiliar landscape: beautiful, strange, and yet it somehow feels like home.

Love ever,


Friday, May 2, 2014

After two years

After two years, you have not forgotten their names. You remember where they sit in church, the classes the teach, the house where they live. You remember bluebonnets and firewheels, Texas roads, and where to find peppers at the grocery store.

And yet, after two years, you have forgotten so much. The timbre and pitch of their voices, deeper than you remembered. The grip of their hands--soft, hard, wide or wispy--when you say grace before supper. You have forgotten the length of their stride on a morning walk, how you must quicken your steps to keep pace. The harmony lines they take with the hymns. Their taste for greens, or peaches. And perhaps you have also forgotten their tempers: the quips and picks that are not just, the insecurities, the subtle rivalries. The messy desk or the favorite mug. The songs they hum in the car.

It feels nothing like betrayal, this forgetting. You almost wish it did, for then you would have a reason to beg their forgiveness, to love them more for the grace they would extend. But that's a friendly heresy, and you know better: that forgetting is like wind and rain, in turns gentle and severe. Or it is like a fast when the bridegroom has gone away, a preparation for the feast when he returns.

Among such friends, you forget it has been two years since you were in their arms.You marvel as you remember, remember, remember, like watching the characters in a much-loved storybook step off the page, turning from word to flesh.


Monday, December 23, 2013

A Hope Carol

 A night was near, a day was near;
  Between a day and night
I heard sweet voices calling clear,
    Calling me:
I heard a whirr of wing on wing,
  But could not see the sight;
I long to see my birds that sing,—
    I long to see.

In "A Hope Carol," Christina Rossetti sings the twilight hopes of Advent. The speaker finds herself in half-light, where ordinary time no longer makes sense: day and night approach at once. The voices she hears--winged voices, heralding joy--are "clear" but invisible. 

I can think of no more fitting poem for the final hours of Advent. We have heard from Scriptures, carols, prophecies, and traditions that joy has come, comes now, and will come again, but what we see so often argues against our hopes. We hear, but we long to see.

Below the stars, beyond the moon,
  Between the night and day,
I heard a rising falling tune
    Calling me:
I long to see the pipes and strings
  Whereon such minstrels play;
I long to see each face that sings,—
    I long to see. 
"Below the stars, beyond the moon" -- now space cavorts and shifts, making room for something that sounds like a fairy tale, or a gospel. The "rising fall tune" is sanguine but not naive, mournful but not despairing. And it calls. It calls us not to some generalized goodwill, but to a desire for intimate and particular love: we long to see "each face that sings."

To-day or may be not to-day,
  To-night or not to-night;
All voices that command or pray,
    Calling me,
Shall kindle in my soul such fire,
  And in my eyes such light,
That I shall see that heart’s desire
    I long to see.
At Advent, when my longing for a cozy vacation seems at odds with my desire for revelation, when I know that I long for Christ but can't imagine what his coming will actually mean, I take comfort in Rossetti's ability to set hope in resonance with uncertainty. But no, not uncertainty: with space, waiting, humility, silence?  She does not doubt that vision will come; she does not doubt that she will see, but she cannot name "that heart's desire." She concludes with her refrain, "I long to see" -- the same refrain we have heard from Simeon, from Anna, and from a thousand other mighty and minor prophets. 

Some days I boast precise visions of how the Incarnation ought to change the world. I grasp hold of programs, doctrines, or theories that seem to fit with my interpretation of Christ's words and ministry. These programs can be good, for they are, like church-buildings, man-made places to work for the glory of God. Such structures can be beautiful, effective, and holy.  In these last hours of Advent, I am spending time with my sister Rossetti. She has become one of the the "voices that command or pray, / Calling me." 

She calls me to step out into the cold twilight, to walk toward a place "Below the stars, beyond the moon," and to watch for the light.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

If you are weary

"Can I come?"

We asked my friends, her parents, and they nodded: twenty minutes until supper, and the sun slipping down toward a hundred bays and bayous.

Out the door, across the road, under a quarter moon. "There's Venus," she said, pointing above the pines. My little hound leaped toward the bright planet, straining at the leash.

"Let's run!" and off we romped, careening across the field, toward the tree line, then back again, to the edge of the creek, running faster even as the light faded.

"Hello!" she called up the loving planet, as though inviting the wandering star to run with us. We circled and ran and galloped until we tumbled to the grass, even the puppy panting to stop.

"It is good to sit on the grass and look upon the moon," she said. "It's good," I said.

"Teach me something," I said, and so she told me about the planets (how one is tilted, how early observers thought this one was a comet), and about the moon that changes with such constancy.

Before going inside, we took one more run, round the trees in a crazy orbit, and then I took her home.

If you are weary, go run with a six-year-old who has braids down her back and stars in her eyes. Go, take the hound and leave the work and romp under the waxing moon. Laugh in the cold air until your lungs hurt. Then take the child home, promise to come back with a new story to read, and turn toward your own house.

Remember, as you walk, that this this is advent, season of hope, and of peace, and of waiting. Ponder what it means to wait, and wonder what it is your heart hopes to see.  Look up. Find that planet "kindling love in man," and smile to see she's running home with you.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Learning to abound

"...I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me..."
During my first three decades, I learned many ways to thrive with a little. Under the tutelage of my mother, I began to make due and mend at an early age, so that I can now feed twenty people for twenty dollars, repair the holes in my socks, and perform many other acts of lowly-wise economy. Even more importantly, my parents' financial poverty taught me to live comfortably with the presence of need. Fiercely, they would say to me, "If you don't know how to accept charity, you don't know how to accept love." We received a lot of charity -- canned goods, hand-me-down clothes, even cars. I was never embarrassed to receive such gifts; rather, I loved the stories that came with them (read about a few of my favorites here). Indeed, I would have described our life as rich, full, sustaining, and comfortable.

Nevertheless, these lessons in paucity served me well during my twenties, when I lived in pocket-sized apartments and worked upwards of sixty hours each week, when I doubted--constantly--my fitness to be among the wise and brilliant people I found at Baylor. Graduate school made me hungry and brought me lower than I had ever been before, yet the friendships I formed, the skills I honed, and the love I experienced surpassed anything I had known before.

For the last two years, however, the theme has shifted from need to abundance, from hunger to satiety. The changes during these two years have brought  joy, but will I seem ungrateful if I confess that they have also bewildered me? What is the secret to abounding? It is so easy to use wealth poorly, to hoard and exploit and waste. The sickening slip of Thanksgiving Day into Black Friday is only the most timely example of abundance giving way to glut.

Show me, O Lord, and show me, O Church, a better way. 

Do you ever find that God answers prayers before you think to pray them? As I pondered this entry on abundance, I realized that the best lesson I've received on abundance came one week ago, on my thirtieth birthday.

In the weeks leading up to my birthday, I rather facetiously mentioned to Kala, housemate, that as I was turning thirty, I should demand that people bring me thirty gifts. I had forgotten about this request as she and I prepared for our party -- a double celebration, since Kala's birthday also falls on November 20. We decided to ask our guests to put on fancy dresses and suits and come ready to read scenes from Shakespeare. As our house began to fill with friends in all their finery, I realized that Kala had taken my silly suggestion and turned into something beautiful. Thirty cookies from Rebekah and Gary, and another thirty from Bethany D. Amanda and Anna gave each of us lovely mugs--and mine also came with thirty tea bags.  I laughed over these sweet gifts, but after the main party, Kala brought out more treasures: parcels my friends had shipped to her at work--thirty Christmas ornaments from Julianna, thirty skeins of embroidery thread from Wyatt and Kt Ruth, thirty notecards from Kala's mother. And then a book, full of lovely pages, some already full with lists of "thirty things" my friends loved in my life.

I spent the last quarter hour of my thirtieth birthday sitting at the table, surrounded by tokens of abundance. Leading up to my birthday, a few people asked if I was worried about growing old, but when the day came, I could only laugh at such a foolish question. Why fear thirty when age is such an index of abundance? At thirty, I have surpassed my twenty-nine-year-old-self in books, laughter, friends, tea, sermons, sleeps, and a thousand other good things. All those little piles on my table were counters for years, bright and tumbled. Abundance, glittering and colorful, savory and sweet. Here was the answer from God's people: We give you too much to eat on your own --  share it. Here are too many fine threads to hoard for yourself -- make them into something beautiful.

Only Christ can keep me safe from avarice and heedless wealth. As I enter my thirties, I am praying the Spirit will guide me through any fasting days that come, but also through the strange and humbling seasons of abundance. 

Monday, November 4, 2013

Back in time

Dear Indiana,

Until 2005, you had the good sense not to observe Daylight Savings Time, and in that resistance, you shaped my eyes and spirit in beautiful ways.

While growing up on your western edge, I didn't think much about Daylight Savings, though I was proud that my otherwise-bland state had at least one mark of distinction. During my first semester of college, however, I experienced a "time change" for the first time, when my roommate insisted that we change our clocks in order to satisfy some sort of enforced chronological economy.  I was troubled to think that we could so recklessly rename and tamper with the hours and minutes. How arrogant, I thought, to wrench the clock away from the sun, conforming instead to railroad tables or agricultural conveniences. I wanted the hours on the clock to be a perfect language, signifier conforming sweetly to signified. Instead, I faced a truth I was learning, at the same time, in my first linguistics class: that human languages were arbitrary, flawed systems for stumbling into meaning, not pure and perfect lanterns shining into the truth of things.

Perhaps because I associate my first time change with such philosophical and spiritual dislocations, I remember my eighteen years of Indiana-time so fondly. I realize that you had plenty of good economic and logistical reasons to join the silly Daylight Savings Time bandwagon, but by waiting so long, you gave me something precious.

As a child, I could look out our kitchen window and name the hour perfectly. Each year, daylight slowly, slowly contracted toward the December solstice, then slowly, sweetly grew toward June. Our house faced due east, and I could measure the season through the shadows that fell through curtain laces and tree branches.  Living through these slow hours, winter never surprised us, and summer was coy, offering her delights only after we had endured a patient and penitent spring.

Very few men and women my age have enjoyed this privilege of slow time, seasonable time. Instead, most members of my generation were born into a world where time is all chronos: humans  at war with their clocks, wrangling time into systems that can mandate hours at the office, but which make little sense to children and morning glories and other wise creatures.

But you, my dear, backward Indiana, let me grow up in kairos, the appointed seasons of the sun and  the Holy Spirit. If this means that I often find myself, to borrow Wendell Berry's words, "bewildered in our timely dwelling place," so much the better.  The disorientation reminds me that I should always  mistrust clocks, for they never mark the times that matter.

Your prodigal daughter,

Indiana sky: my first and favorite timepiece

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

neighbors and the "n----" word

Dear Neighbor,

Using the "n-- word" in front of me is not a good strategy for endearing yourself, and so I'm more than a little surprised at myself for writing to you during these "30 days to 30" of meaningful influence. We were discussing the recent neighborhood break-ins, and you made it clear that you believed the thieves were black. "Now I'm not racist," you said, "but there's black people and then there's n-------s."

You were not the first person to ever say such things in front of me. My home state of Indiana has a nasty legacy of racism that often works its way into conversation (this is an extreme, but not isolated, example). Even my own grandmother, unhappy that we had hired Miss Dorsie to "look in" on her as her memory and health failed, would trouble my heart by saying things like, "I think that black woman you hired is stealing my candy." (She actually came to love Dorsie very much, but that is worth its own story).

Even so, your words shocked me. Our conversations to this point had been bland and neighborly: the success or failure of tomato plants, varieties of dog food for a shiny coat. But that evening, I was in turmoil.  Normally when you talk--for you talk a great deal--I nod and smile, but of course I couldn't keep smiling. Turmoil: what should I say? what authority do I have to say anything? God, forgive me.

Afraid to tackle your word and assumptions directly, I think I mumbled some story about some neighborhood teens who had done an excellent job cutting my grass, to which you responded that they were probably casing my house in preparation to rob me. At the point I created an excuse to leave the conversation and finish my walk.

That conversation left a bad taste in my mouth. I was ashamed of myself for not saying more, but I also could not imagine what I could have said. The simplest, and perhaps the best, would have been "Please don't use such language in front of me." But a thing is no less hard because it is simple and good.

I spent a week reflecting on the many ways in which cowardice enervates virtue; if nothing else, I should thank you for prompting that stern lesson.

I am really writing, however, to thank you for not letting the story end here. A few days ago, as I was taking Cora out on a run, you called to me from your backyard. Heart sinking, I stopped. Without any preliminary small talk, you said, "I haven't had any peace since we talked last week. I'm sorry for the words I used. When I spoke, your face just fell, and I thought, 'Would I have said that in front of my daughter? Would I have said it in front of my black friends?' And of course the answer was no. Your face--it just fell. I'm so sorry."

This was a much more tender shock. I lingered for a while, and we talked about words and their power, and you, perhaps in a lopsided effort to show equal-opportunity suspicion, suggested that perhaps the thieves were a white family that had been renting a house nearby. 

 It was a strangely redemptive answer to the the worries that had been nagging at me. One apology cannot heal all things, but it helps. It helps me remember that patterns of fear and suspicion change slowly, but they can change. Perhaps for now only your language has changed, but that may herald more. It helps me remember that I have my own prejudices--racial, social, economic, religious--and that I must never let those unthinking, unloving assumptions control my language. It helps me remember that the Holy Spirit can speak through conscience, through sad eyes and troubled faces, even when his servants are tongue-tied.

Your neighbor,