I’ve been quiet over here for a few months. And it’s not that I haven’t been writing at all, it’s just that I haven’t been sure of what to say. Sometimes, you’re so tired from climbing to the top of the mountain to proclaim something that you don’t have the breath to get it out and you need a moment to recover.
My grandfather died. I lost my job. I moved into a new house. I got a little lost.
To make things a little crazier, I travelled for six weeks.
St. Andrews, Scotland.
Lost Valley Ranch, Colorado.
The last one was a dream. I had wanted to go to Camp Well from the moment I heard about it from my dear friend Jenn but I determined that it just wasn’t happening. Too much was in the air and I wasn’t sure when I’d land. And I didn’t think I had a place to land.
I travel a lot and I photograph women’s events a lot and while it’s one of the highlights of my young life, it can also get a little lonely. To stand so close to something and not be part of it is a tricky balance. It’s not that I could never join in, it’s just that I’m there to work. So when I got the call that Jenn and her co-founder Kelly wanted me to come shoot Camp Well, I knew that it was an amazing opportunity so I had to say yes, but my expectations were business as usual.
I once believed a lie that if you’re working somewhere, you don’t participate. This isn’t for you. Keep your head down. Don’t tell your story. Call it humility. Call it servanthood.
That was until I crossed the cattle guard into Lost Valley Ranch.
The first night, we had a meal and we could sit just about anywhere, so I did at the corner table. I made conversation with a woman who had just recently returned from living overseas and another who has a dream to write a cookbook. We ate and I got up every few minutes to capture a few photos or a few seconds of film. As the meal ended and we started to head toward the hayride (because of course a hayride is taking us back to the ranch) I stood there, hands frozen, capturing images.
That night, the speakers talked about lies and the truth and things like how we all have assignments from God–things like caring for our neighbors or our children or our friends. Things like how we have wounds and how Jesus heals us. Things like how we all have a story to tell and a place at the table.
I sat in the wings, half listening, editing photos of dinner.
The second night, we gathered in the barn. Because it’s a ranch and of course we did. The temperature had dropped into the 20’s and we were bundled. My hands were still frozen, but I’d gotten used to it and women passed me by saying things like, “Don’t forget to grab some food!” and “Get in line; this looks amazing.”
I smiled and said, “I will; don’t worry!” but in my head I knew that I wasn’t there to eat–I was there to work. To capture what was a life-changing week for these women. I was there to document what they couldn’t. I snapped away and finally as the line at the buffet vanished someone called out, “Melissa, you’re over by us!”
I stopped, half in shock. There must be an empty place-setting or someone finished and left. Surely, there isn’t a place designated for the photographer. That’s not how this works. We get the leftovers or a quick bite on a bench nearby.
As I approached the end of the table, I looked down and saw that there was a table setting with my name written across a little scrap of paper. Part of me came undone. I hid it with humor.
“Oh, I guess I have a place at the table–and that’s what we’re all about!” I joked. I still wouldn’t let myself sit down for several minutes. Finally, I grabbed a bite to eat and sat down sheepishly, talking freely with these incredible dreamers and do-ers, secretly feeling like I shouldn’t be there.
These women were game-changers. They were driven and established and I was so eager to cheer them on in their endeavors, but had no idea that I was carrying a weight of isolation from the last months of heartache and uncertainty. After the session that night, I sat and talked to a woman who had sort of been there in all of these moments of faith and fear and she said to me, “You use humor to mask pain, don’t you?”
I thought back to the moment the night before when I saw my name on the table. I knew that I was trapped and all I could get out was a, “sometimes.”
This is the thing about being lonely: you stop advocating for yourself. You start to believe that it’s okay for you to be alone. And you can be thisclose to people who are connecting with each other and not let yourself be known. You can be thisclose to people being set free and find yourself in tremendous bondage.
When we went inside for the evening session, my name was on the table again. What even. It was an envelope we weren’t allowed to read. I never even took my seat out of wanting to “get the job done” but after the session, as we dismissed for the night, I picked mine up quickly and went back to my cabin.
I was stunned to find that it wasn’t a general card of well-wishing, but rather was a letter from a close friend that the staff had tracked down weeks prior. It was a note of encouragement with a list of everything she was cheering for in my life. For my friendships and my writing and my work. I felt myself on the edge of being loved and it was tender and dear and I went back to my cabin and lit a fire in the fireplace and wrote down honest words and suddenly, a weight shifted.
Something in me felt seen. Even now, when I close my eyes, I can see the images of my name across a scrap of paper, on an envelope, on a tile and a card. This seemingly simple practice of inviting me–the photographer–to the table was starting to sink in.
The final night, I felt shaky. I felt like eye contact would mean tears and I wasn’t entirely sure why. I listened to more stories of courage and bravery and what it meant to surround yourself with a team of dream-defenders. I thought of my own dreams and wondered who would defend them. And like an answer straight out of the sky, Jenn and one of the “camp counselors” Tova stood up for a quick announcement. I grabbed my camera, ever-ready for a moment.
“We want to take a moment and honor someone who isn’t always seen. They don’t always get noticed.”
I stood there, camera in hand, waiting for them to honor the Ranch staff. And then, in what felt like slow motion that even now brings tears to my eyes, Jenn threw out her hands in my direction. The women of Camp Well started to clap and I sank down into my chair, taking off my glasses. Jenn took my camera. A dam broke and I covered my face as I started to weep. I wept for every moment in the past year that I felt lost. For every instance of being not enough. For every ache of being not included.
I’ve been trying to put my finger on what makes people like Jenn and Kelly so special. I think it’s because they founded Camp Well to bring every woman to the table. To connect us to a bigger network of women who are just as scared and isolated and uncertain as the next gal. To bring every last one of us to the foot of the cross. This wasn’t a cheerleading camp to pump ourselves up, but a place to re-focus our eyes to see the work of God in one another.
As the final morning came, I found myself a little (read: a lot) lighter. Not because I finally got some credit or managed to have my whole life fulfilled by applause (because that’s never going to last forever, y’all.) Rather, I knew deep down that I had moved from the outskirts to participation in a profound way simply because I was seen.
A woman who had only known me a few days grabbed me by the shoulders, looked into my eyes and said, “Melissa, I will show up for you every time.”
Suddenly, what these women were carrying, I was carrying. When they succeed at their dreams, we all succeed. When they need encouragement, we all get to cheer. When I’m falling apart, they show up.
In short, I had a seat at the table and it made all the difference.
No one was every fully satisfied by standing in the wings and watching everyone else get free. May we have eyes to see, arms to welcome and an extra place setting for those who are easily missed. For He has set a banquet table for every last one of us because that’s who He is and it’s what He desires for us to do.
What kindness. Thanks be to God.
“Thanks for being the best best friend an 8-year-old could wish for.”
It was a Facebook message from my childhood best friend Lindsey. We haven’t seen each other in nearly a decade, but she had found an old collection of postcards she’d written and never sent to me. We caught up quickly and reminisced over how bad our handwriting was. Maybe it still is a little rough around the edges.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about growing up.
The time I crashed my tricycle down the stairs of the porch in my parents’ backyard.
Learning to shoot free-throws just a few feet from there after school on the hoop I begged my parents for.
Exploring the neighborhood with my friends, trying not to get thorns from the blackberry bushes in our ankles.
And it makes me pause because every one of those memories happened with specific people. They were my ride-or-dies, my confidants and fellow adventurers. And it hits me that we’ve lost touch and barely talk anymore and a part of me mourns a little bit.
It’s not like we ever had a talk like, “Well. This is goodbye.” and agreed things were over between us. No, we just grew apart the way that most of our relationships grow apart. Time and interests and moves and jobs and college all got between us and now I’m left with all these memories.
It feels like running ahead a bit and then turning around to see that you’ve lost them. Or when you talk on your cell phone and they lose signal and suddenly you pause and say, “…hello?”
So this one’s for the people who meant a great deal to me. This is my way of honoring them. And of course this isn’t everyone, but as I reflect on what it means to be (almost) 28, it feels wildly unfair to not take the time to write this post. These are a few of the random memories that seem to surface more than others.
Here’s to Greg, Eric, Tommy and Sebastian (whom we called ‘Sebi’.) They were the boys of the neighborhood and we spent a lot of evenings together on bikes or running through our yards. They were the first people that made it feel okay to be a little tom-boyish and daring. We made up stories and fought dragons and played a LOT of video games and I owe a lot of my love for Nintendo to those goons.
Here’s to Blake, the first boy I really liked. We would Instant Message through MSN Messenger and made up codes for when parents were in the room, even though we really didn’t talk about anything but the Anaheim Angels. He taught me that sometimes feelings are scary, but sometimes you’re met with someone crushing on you, too and it’s exciting and special.
Here’s to Nicole who would run the dreaded mile with me. We spent the whole time complaining about how much we hated the mile. It was junior high and some kids got special colored shorts for being more athletic but we never did and we DID NOT CARE BECAUSE RUNNING A MILE WAS THE ABSOLUTE WORST.
Here’s to Andrea who wanted to start a band with me and Mira and Erica and how we played on the swingset and you were brave enough to jump off and I wasn’t. I bought a Hit Clip of an N*SYNC song and brought it to your house and we saw Tarzan together which made us run around your room because we were basically now Tarzan.
Here’s to Kelsey and Bryce and Colleen who wouldn’t judge me when I was always late to neighborhood carpool. I always was showing up at the last second and I’m sure, looking back, that I was a terrible person for it, but there were some things going on at home that I never talked about and they were really kind to me when I didn’t deserve it. I’m sure we all laugh now at me running down the driveway, but I also believe it was a gift to be welcomed with very little condemnation.
Here’s to Katherine and her old Buick–or maybe it was an Oldsmobile. We would find the toughest dirt roads in our small town and go ‘potholing.’ We’d hit our heads on the ceiling of the car as we basically were off-roading in a car that was certainly not designed for it. One time, we were almost sideways and had to climb to the other side of the car to distribute the weight so we wouldn’t flip. It’s fine.
Here’s to Amy and Jon and Josh and Joelle who were Jr. High Leaders with me, even though I was young. They let me hang out with them sometimes outside of Youth Group and they really didn’t have to, but it makes me want to invite others in and invest in the person a bit behind me in the journey.
Here’s to my teachers who taught me to write (Ms. Duncan-Rice and Mr. West and Professor Hecht and Dr. DeRosset) and told me that I would one day write a book. Who knows if that’s true, but you always believed it was.
Here’s to road trip memories with Emily and Kylie and Lizi and Matt and Simone and Jim and Anna and David and all the places we went. The redwoods and San Fransisco and Portland and Seattle and the Midwest and Indiana and Niagara Falls and Canada and Pennsylvania (which lasts forever.) We ate a lot of junk food and our metabolism was so much better then and I’d also like to say HERE’S TO THAT QUICK METABOLISM OF MY EARLY 20’S. RIP.
Here’s to college study sessions with Isabel and Carissa and Sarah and April and Tiffany and Alysha and Jamie and Kelsey and Audrey and all those girls on the tenth floor. The ones I sang with on the roof over downtown Chicago. The ones who dressed up for dessert and went to the beach to play volleyball (even though none of us were good at that) and snuck onto the roof of the Drake Hotel where Obama stayed when he came though the Windy City.
Here’s to Ashton who took me home with her for Christmas in Virginia. And Rachel who let me hang with her family in the days before that. To the Lothrop house and the places I fell in love with my seminary boyfriend and the people who rebuilt me when it didn’t work out.
Here’s to late night dance parties and shouting the lyrics to every song on the 1989 album by Taylor Swift while we looked for an open McDonalds. To running around in a Casino in Connecticut after we went to a random Salt N Pepa concert. To sleepy eyes at the gas station, grabbing snacks to keep us awake on the car ride back to Massachusetts.
This is the part where I cry.
Where things in my heart and my head are loud and exciting and young and wild and free and I’m smiling so big as I remember all these random moments. And suddenly, I pause and turn around and none of you are here.
And they say that people grow apart. Sometimes it feels like you were all the best thing to happen to me for those moments I needed you. I needed a companion to complain with walking around that dirt track. I needed an older crew to show me the ropes. I needed a family to be with when mine was on the other coast. I needed to sing lyrics about being young and single. I needed a ride back to Boston after wedding a thousand miles away.
Every one of you answered the call. You walked, you drove, you wrote notes, you sent texts, you listened and you introduced me to music.
And it sounds funny because I’m a grown adult living in Nashville (can you believe that?) and on a Monday night all I can think about is you. And how you slipped between the cracks. And how I never got the chance to thank you properly.
So, if you’re reading this, I want to take a moment to tell you this:
I remember. I remember how it felt to be with you and I was carrying some dark, heavy stuff, but you were there for me without knowing I needed it. I moved away to Chicago and then Boston and then Austin and now Nashville and it feels like we’re a million miles from those days. I got a job writing, which feels insane and like someone put a toddler in control who approved that idea, but I love it.
I hope that you’re doing really well. I hope that you know what you meant to me and you may never actually know, but this is better than nothing, I suppose.
I hope you fell in love and took some risks and I hope you got to see some snow and lightning bugs and the Atlantic Ocean and your favorite band. I hope that you have felt a bit lost and then found again. I hope that you are reading this from a home that is good and safe and honest.
I’m sorry for the times you felt alone and afraid. I’m sorry I wasn’t there when you got terrible news or found yourself heartbroken. I hope that you were put back together by people who loved you into a stronger place.
A lot of the time, it seems you fell between the cracks, but then I realize you never did. Because you’re still in my mind when I run a mile or drive over a pothole precariously or play Zelda or sing to Taylor Swift.
We might not all be on the same page and we probably would disagree about a few things if we had to fill out a questionnaire of our political and societal beliefs. But those things never stopped you from loving me well and letting me in. It was a gift, it was never forgotten and it has made all the difference.
God has been kind to me a number of times in my life and on dark days when things feel unsteady and uncertain, sometimes you pop into my head and I am undone. God was so thoughtful to give me you.
I could never Him enough, even if I had another hundred years to write it all down.
I told y’all from the start that this was a messy place for when we haven’t quite figured out this tension of living on this side of Eternity. That I would come here to mention things occasionally. It’s not really a soap-box and I’m obviously not in it for the followers (especially since I work in Marketing and literally haven’t written a blog in two months, so I should know better.)
But I also don’t want to write raw. I don’t want to pull a band-aid off of something that needs to be covered up to heal, but sometimes it comes off for a moment to re-dress the wound. In this case, that’s what I’ve been feeling. Still in the process of healing, but also able to re-dress for a moment while y’all are in the room.
The other evening, I was looking out the window of my house at the green-ness of the backyard at twilight. It’s been stormy lately and it has led me to have a very muddy sort of yard. This is maybe some of my favorite weather because I get to throw on layers and a baseball cap and a rain jacket and my New England boots. I get to feel the water in the air and smell the vapor on the leaves. That is, perhaps, how these days have felt: dark and green.
So first, the Dark. I don’t have to describe it much, just like you don’t need to look at my wound too long. I imagine we’re having a chat by the fire and I get to the actual part of pulling off the old bandage and you look away for a second because it’s a little too real. In life, real things happen and there’s no poetry, or maybe there is but I can’t seem to make it rhyme yet. So here goes.
My grandfather got very sick very suddenly. There’s no way around that.
I went down every weekend to be there. To read with him. To ask him what year he joined the Navy. To help him sit up and comb his hair and watch him fade.
There’s no way around that.
I listened to his breathing rattle and we had a very clear last moment together and he woke up one evening in the presence of Jesus, no longer frail.
There’s no way around that.
You can look again–the most terrible parts are covered up.
These days have been dark as I threw myself into work and into the car and through the hills of Tennessee and across the border to Alabama. I stopped having to GoogleMap the town my grandmother lives in; I memorized her breakfast order. And not a day goes by that I don’t just ache over what has happened.
It was so dark.
My lungs have been acting up from asthma and allergies. And when I cough I hate how clear my lungs sound.
A few days after he passed away, I went to a favorite place of mine so sacred I don’t even want to give it a name in case someone reading wants to make it their own. I am selfish about it. Oh, well.
As I drove down a dirt road in the Nameless Town, it led me to a wildlife preserve. I navigated potholes and wandered further into emptiness and alone-ness. I passed an old flag that hung in the woods, marking a civil war cemetery that has been forgotten for decades. I slowly crawled past a field freshly plowed that smelled fresh and true. And then, a side road caught my eye. It was too muddy to navigate, but I was wearing my boots so I quietly got out of the car. I could hear nothing but my own breathing as I stumbled across an grain field, right in the middle of woods. My fingers reached out to touch the field as if it was, itself, magic. After a fresh rain it was almost sparking there in front of me, so fresh and green.
I thought about that scene from Gladiator where he’s walking in fields of grain. And I thought about my grandfather and how a box of his photos were sitting in my car, ready to turn into a video slideshow for the day we would bury him the following week.
It was so green.
God hasn’t spoken anything over me that connects these experiences in seamless poetry– Awe and Grief. Nothing wraps up nicely. Things feel like tracking in mud on a stormy day; inevitable and something we’ll take care of after we take our boots off.
I can still see him sitting in the chair by the window of that hospital room, watching the sunset as he tells me about flying over the midwest all those years ago as a pilot. I see us there, telling stories, watching the evening come. I’m sitting on the floor of the hospital room in front of him. Far enough to give space, close enough to catch him if he wavers.
And I still see that field in the days after he left. Even now, my eyes wander to a distant place and start to well up. I see the sacredness of standing alone in the woods before a field that hardly anyone knows is growing.
I see the dark and the green.
The struggle and the growth.
The death and the new life.
Things keep moving. We keep commuting through Nashville. I’ll drive to Alabama tomorrow afternoon and I’ll probably cry as I pass those fields. I’ll cry for the ways that growing up is so sweet and hard and powerful and quiet.
He rises to meet us in the sunrise and the with the rainfall. He rises to meet us as we stand graveside in the heat of late afternoon and 21 shots are fired and the flag is folded. He rises to meet us in a mysterious field as the Alabama mud sticks to our boots. He rises to meet us as we catch a vision of the Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
There’s no way around that.
The season of Lent is nearly upon us. A time to pause, reflect, pick things up and set things down. A moment to pray and see and seek and wonder. A season to be reminded that Christ is the focus.
But if I’m being honest? It’s hard to figure out what needs focusing on these days.
So let’s take it back to the start and outline why it is that our shoulders get tense and our stomachs ache and our lungs constrict when we feel that there’s just too much. When I look at the bills or the deadlines or the long list of places to go, something makes my head spin and all I can think is, “This is too much.”
It’s why books like “Boundaries” exist. We are terrible at doing things in moderation. We figure that if a quiet time is better with the Bible and prayer, it’s probably best with journaling and singing songs and blogging and Instagramming. Our ache for abundance gets a little distorted and what’s meant to pull us toward God starts to push us away from Him.
Genesis One: God creates. And He creates. And He creates. Go–pick up a Bible and look it up. He creates the heavens, the earth. The light, the dark. The water, the sky. The land, the seas. The plants, the seeds. The seasons, the stars. The sun, the moon. The birds, the animals. The bugs, the livestock. And then? He made man.
It feels exciting and full. It is abundance and it all points back to the Creator, and it is good. So good, in fact, that at the end of every day, God sees that it is good. And in his authority, He creates man and woman and what does He give us? Authority.
“Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” (Gen 1:26, ESV)
All is abundance. All is good. All is whole.
God tells Adam and Eve to cultivate and keep the earth that He has made. (Gen 2:15)
Cultivate: to work, serve (in this case so that it will grow)
Keep: to guard, protect.
And we know how it goes, right?
Now, the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that God had made.
You had one job: serve and protect.
And just like that, we fall. And when that happened? There was no shrapnel that narrowly missed the opportunity to lodge itself into the flesh of man. No bullet missed its target. No one got away unscathed.
It’s too much.
Those ideas, cultivate and keep, come back to us in Genesis 4.
Only now, when man tries to cultivate the land, it produces thorns. And as they are cast from Eden, they see an Angel at the entrance, put there to Keep.
To make sure they don’t come back.
If that feels ironic and heartbreaking, it should.
Everything is touched by the fall. What once was a gift and a delight is now tedious and angering and hard.
They start a new life. Adam sweats and pulls thorns out of his hands. Eve gives (painful) birth to two children. Brothers. And one day, the older–the one meant to protect the younger–starts to nurture some darkness. The Lord pulls him aside and He says, “sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”
Ruling over things–the original charge. But what happens?
Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him.
That word? To kill? Even as I type this my pulse quickens and my stomach knots.
“To kill, slay: implying ruthless violence, especially private violence”
It is ruthless. It is violent. It is private.
Everything is touched by the fall. It’s too much.
Sometimes, I wonder if we don’t quite understand the lengths at which this influences our lives. Brokenness soaks into our lives like the blood of Abel, crying out to the Lord as it seeps into the ground that produces good plants and thorns alike — cursed.
And I go back to Creation. Abundance. Filling. Teeming. Moving. Living. It’s not too much.
It was so free. A far cry from me trying to schedule in a few moments for space and silence before the Creator. We were made to know nothing but that goodness. But now, our abundance seen through the lens of sin turns dark. It shifts to mindless and needless excess.
It looks a lot like scrolling through the internet, making claims that we don’t know are true about topics we know very little about because we just want to be heard. It looks like stating everything as red-letter because it makes us feel more in control. It shows up as meaningless busyness that we wear as a badge, trying to prove that we are worth something. It reveals itself as perfectionism and one more lap, one more mile, one less meal, one less dress-size.
Here’s the deal: we were made to ache for abundance, but in the Fall, we try to fill ourselves with excess in the hopes that empty things will satisfy us. Every ache we feel is pointing us toward Jesus: companionship, hunger, thirst, nearness, wonder.
This is where the glimmer of hope reveals itself. Not all is lost, for the ache we feel is drawing us nearer to the Holy Horizon of abundance and fulfillment, even if it’s only echo right in this moment. We hear it reverberate when things fall to silence and we have the space to sense how vast He is. When we de-clutter for long enough to stop tripping over all the things.
We often make mention of “all the things.” And it’s meant to be a joke, but what’s causing our tension and our stress and our inability to breathe is, at its core very simple: it’s all the things. It’s the excess. It’s the distraction. It’s the filling of the void with things that will never make a dent.
Sometimes we say “yes.” over and over and over because we think it makes us holier. We commit to too much or we stay up one more hour to write one more draft. We lose vision because we forget to focus. We walk into the living room and stop and ask: what did I come in here for?
May we take the time as we head into Lent to consider the actual state of things: The legacy of brokenness, the violent nature of the sin that seeks to rip us from our Saviour by offering counterfeit fulfillment, but also the tenacity of a God who is abundant and never wears us out. May we recall the long history of our kleptomaniac hearts that hoard for the hope of fulfillment.
And may we steep in the good, hard Word of God and say, “Ah, yes. I remember now. I remember why I came in here.”
I was pulling onto 4th Avenue North in Franklin when my phone lit up.
“What biblical comfort would you give to someone struggling with anxiety/panic attacks?”
My mind flooded with those moments. Weeping on the bed of my hotel last year, fists clenched, doubled over. Pulling my car over in college to try and grab onto normal on wild backroads near my childhood home. Staring into the mirror at bloodshot eyes, whispering through my slow and steady tears, “God. I have nothing left.”
I texted her back, “Can you chat really fast?”
Here’s the thing about the world that we live in: it’s massively broken and that’s our current reality. Sometimes, we pretend that if we just skim the surface of things we’ll always skate on top and we’re never going to fall through the ice into the depths. But this life we lead is terribly deep and no amount of denial is going to change what it is.
So, confession: sometimes, I look at my Bible and I don’t even know where to start. I’ve read it and studied it and even translated parts of it, but I still feel overwhelmed by it. No, that’s not the word–I feel underwhelmed. I feel like I can just hop into some random chapter and follow a few steps and dig out a little gem to put into my pocket. Something simple and vague and easy.
But I don’t think that’s what we’re called to. So a few weeks ago, I asked the Lord to remind me that His Word is a really big deal. And shortly thereafter, I got a crazy idea: translate Genesis One. I sat down and read it and it struck me how insane it is that Moses was wandering in the desert and aging and agonizing and he was the one who had to write out how perfect the world was before sin. And how it would be really tempting to make things seem less awesome than they really were.
It’s like when you date someone and you think that they are amazing and then you break up and you say, “well, they weren’t that great.” But no–Moses leaves no beautiful detail out. Because in order to understand the weightiness of what we’re standing in, we need to know the weightiness of what we’ve left behind–and what we look forward to.
So I dug a little deeper. I busted out my Hebrew. And I opened my books and I parsed verbs (which means a lot of grammatical effort that helps us understand the real meaning of words) and what I found astounded me.
Typically, Genesis 1 starts like this in my head, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth and the earth was formless and void and the spirit was hovering over the waters.” It seems a little strange and precious and once-upon-a-time-ish and maybe even confusing. So let me give you a literal translation.
“In the beginning, created by God, were the heavens and the earth. And the earth was formlessness and emptiness and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of the Lord hovered tremendously on the face of the waters.”
Suddenly, the Spirit of God isn’t a little floating ghost. Rather, it’s hovering with eager anticipation and awareness with power. And “hover” is in the piel tense, which is one of emphasis. It’s what turns “broken” into “shattered,” if you will. So, if this were a movie, it’d be that deep space, low base hum and epic moment of total edge-of-seat anticipation. That word meaning to “hover tremendously” is a loaded gun. It shows up another time in Deuteronomy 32:10-11:
“He found him in a desert land,
And in the howling waste of a wilderness;
He encircled him, He cared for him,
He guarded him as the pupil of His eye.
11 “Like an eagle that stirs up its nest,
That hovers over its young,
He spread His wings and caught them,”
Authoritative and strong and ready. The Spirit of the Lord hovered tremendously on the face of the waters. And that’s just in the first two verses.
You guys. The Bible is bonkers.
This book that we carry around or leave on a shelf tells me just in the opening two sentences that God is massive and powerful and moving and present.
This book that we pretend carries very little actual weight is, in fact, outlining for us the weightiest realities.
You can live all you want on the surface without ever feeling the ice crack beneath you, but one day, it starts to get a little thin. A friend passes away or a child gets sick or your car loses traction. A person you pictured forever with walks away or you choose a few terrible options or your parent walks out the door. An suddenly, the actual state of things starts to show.
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. It starts with Him and it starts with something good and abundant and perfect. And when we get that, and soak it in moment by astounding moment, we almost want to cry out to Eve as she’s walking alone in the garden. As she hears a voice. We want to tell her to stop listening, to not even turn around, to never even consider it.
But she does. And everything breaks.
And when it breaks, it happens in all the worst ways. It ruins families and friends and motives. It seeps into my thoughts and my eyes narrow a little as I make choices that hurt and bruise and distance. And one day, I get a text that asks about anxiety and I think back to the ways the fall has made me afraid and when I get on the phone, I finally spill out everything I just typed and I say this: If we don’t understand that the Bible is really real, we live in a false and made-up world. When we’re anxious, we’re feeling that horrible tension of aching for better and living in broken. Because it’s spelled out pretty clearly how messed up this world is.
Frankly, I worry about people that don’t get anxious from time to time. I wonder if they’re feeling the weight of this world. I sat in my car on that phone call and a smile started to break across my face as I then paused and was reminded of what Jesus has to say about all of this.
And I hear the words of the sweet Saviour so clearly as he grabs me gently by the shoulders and looks me in the eye and says, “In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.”
May we not see the Bible as a series of quick grabs like just-take-one Halloween candy that we hoard and then discard over time. Rather, may we understand that from start to finish it is full and rich and the realest thing we can know. And may the weight of even the moments before creation point us to the reality that He’s always been ready and He’s always made a way.
To the anxious hearts: you are not alone. You’re just feeling the weight. May the weight of the Bible level things out for your heart tonight and may you know that in the world you have tribulation, but take courage; he has overcome the world.
You may not feel it until your feet hit the shores of eternity, but take courage: He is coming. He is for you. And just as He hovered tremendously, He covers you now.
I didn’t even realize what was happening until I was already deep in a can’t-go-back-now sort of way. I was working on a video project at my office and it was getting later and later, and suddenly, it was dark. Granted, that’s not too unusual in the Winter when the sun seems to set at 4pm. And it suddenly hit me: I’m single.
I’ve been totally single for just about four years and it feels like a lifetime and a moment all at once. I usually don’t notice it, to be honest. At least not in negative ways. I have flexibility and extra time here and there. I can go anywhere on a whim and spend hours in the car every week by myself. It doesn’t particularly feel like a curse.
But the last three years or so, I have these moments. Like putting your foot down to touch the bottom of the pool and realizing it’s deeper than you thought, it’s there: alone. It strikes deep in my gut at random moments about every 3-4 months and sometimes it lingers for an hour or so, other times a few minutes. And when it does, I try to write it down.
I have pages in old notebooks, right in the middle of Hebrew vocab or Church history notes, that are scribbled in about this feeling.
This is how it feels right now:
There I was, sitting in the dark, the only one in the office. Everyone home with their spouses and children and the silence suddenly feels a little haunting. On nights like this, I wonder if I’ll ever go home to a spouse or children. I wonder if I can have children. I wonder, if I’m going to get married on this side of eternity, what he’s doing right now. Who he’s with and if he feels right at home with those he is surrounded by. I wonder if he’s going through a phase where he doesn’t feel like reading his Bible, or if he’s been spending long stretches weaving in and out of passages. I wonder what it’s like to go home to a spouse. And then, involuntarily, I remember that season when I loved a boy that I thought I was going to marry.
It hits me: tonight is Friday night and I have no plans.
My roommates will be gone and I’ll go home to empty.
I sent a few emails and I packed my things, locking the door behind me. The air in Franklin tonight smelled like good food and a breeze pushed my bangs into my eyes as I approached my car. I got in, started the engine and heard Ellie Holcomb sing these words:
Here in the middle of the lonely night.
Here in the middle of the losing fight,
You’re here in the middle of the deep regret
Here when the healing hasn’t happened yet.
Here in the middle of the desert place,
Here in the middle where I cannot see your face,
Here in the middle with your outstretched arms
You can see my pain and it breaks your heart.
And I didn’t know I’d find you here, in the middle of my deepest fear
but you were drawing near, you were overwhelming me with peace.
And this is the part where I get really honest: I wish I had this moment of total satisfaction and “contentment in singleness.” But I didn’t. Instead, I kept listening to that song for 35 minutes straight. And I cried. And I ached for marriage. And it became a reminder that Jesus is present, but sometimes we’re still going to long for eternity–and that’s okay.
Here’s the thing: we’re all bound for Marriage. But that might not happen until the Marriage supper of the Lamb after we’ve left this world. And if we don’t ache for it from time to time, I’m not sure we’re really aching after the right things. And so, on nights like this, when I have the ache, I write it down.
Even now, as I sit and get these thoughts out, I feel less alone. I drink some sprite and open mail and I’m coming back to the surface for some air. But I don’t want to forget that as a Christian, I’m called to ache for communion and companionship and, daresay, Marriage. It doesn’t mean it’ll look the way I hope it will, but it does mean that something deep in my soul can’t wait for that moment when the Bridegroom shows up.
No neat bow on this one, friends. Sometimes we just ache for a minute. But hear this: if you’re in this lonely-on-a-Friday-night place, you are not alone. And your aching is not in vain. My prayer for you, and for myself, is that we’ll sit in our singleness with a little tenderness from time to time. Sometimes, I wonder if we pretend we don’t want things that we really want because if we seem aloof Jesus will hand it over to us. Fun fact: he doesn’t work like that. We don’t always have to shrug it off or pretend it never hurts or act like we don’t want to get married.
Take heart, all you who wait for the Bridegroom: He’s coming. Ache for it.
So, if you’re new to my story, I should tell you this: my body won’t retain water. It’s a problem with my brain where it won’t tell my kidneys to keep water in my system to keep me alive. It’s a new-ish sort of thing that showed up about a year ago, but it’s been making me think a lot lately about the Woman at the Well. Probably because she’s eager for a water that would satisfy her thirst. I don’t remember what it’s like to not be thirsty. I drink about 9 liters of water on a moderately cool day. That’s over 3 times the amount I should need. And it never satisfies. I wake up in the morning with headaches or nausea or light-headedness because I’m dehydrated the moment my eyes open to a new day.
The woman at the well knew this feeling in her heart all too well. So when Jesus says he has water that will last for eternity, she’s all in.
Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you hliving water.” 11 The woman saidto him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 iAre you greater than our father Jacob? jHe gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.” 13 Jesus said to her,“Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but kwhoever drinks of the water that I will give him lwill never be thirsty again.2 The water that I will give him will become min him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” 15 The woman said to him, “Sir, ngive me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.”
I’ve heard her story dozens of times. And it is always preached the same way: the woman realizes Jesus is the Messiah and she drops her jar in haste and runs into town and proclaims to the people of Samaria,
29 “Come, see a man jwho told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?”
We tend to stop the story there. The woman is changed and she leaves to tell her story to the world. And while–don’t get me wrong here–her story is really significant because it’s the Story of Redemption in some small manifestation, I’m not so sure that’s the point. In fact, I’m sure it’s not the main point–because there are still 15 more verses to the story.
We live in a world that is all about content. We’re crazy for blogs and tweets and Instagram stories and Snapchat and Netflix. In fact, it seems that one of the ways we feel most connected to others is through these media.
Did you see that article?
Did you hear that podcast?
Did you watch last night’s episode of?
Years from now, they will see what we produced: the albums and the art and the books and the articles. But sometimes, I wonder if it’s all getting a little cluttered. Will they remember the words we spoke and the meals we brought and the less-than-polished stuff-of-life that made up our days?
And will they be able to answer, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that for all of the somethings we were really just about one thing?
The woman tells everyone about the Messiah that she has met and, understandably, their interest is piqued.
39 Many Samaritans wfrom that town believed in him xbecause of ythe woman’s testimony, “He told me all that I ever did.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them, and he stayed there two days. 41 And many more believed zbecause of his word. 42 They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, aand we know that this is indeed bthe Savior cof the world.”
When I read that last verse, I cried for about a week. I could hardly get through the story as I re-read it with a heaviness in my heart. Because here’s the thing: we always make this story about the woman who proclaims, but we forget that the ultimate outcome of her proclamation was others coming into actual contact with the Messiah. For 27 years, I’ve been missing the point of this story.
The Samaritans say to the woman, in essence, “We believed what you said, but it carries barely any weight compared to the Saviour that just experienced for ourselves.”
Again, I feel the need to remind you: your story matters. I’m not at all suggesting what she did by telling her story was insignificant. But we’ve made it the main point of this story and Jesus just seems to just be sitting there in almost a sideline role. Just sort of hanging around, handing salvation out like coupons or raffle tickets. It’s as if I can see Jesus with his fiercely soft eyes watching all of this hustle and bustle, so patiently waiting for us to pause and meet his gaze.
In reality? Jesus is the main thing. Without him, we miss the point.
I worry that we’re so busy producing content that we forget that we hold in our hands–and in our homes (likely in multiple translations!) — the actual Word of God. But do we hold it in our hearts? The story that always points back to Jesus. The message of hope for everything we could possible encounter. This gift is a direct well that gives us our Living Water.
But there are moments when we try to provide for the thirst on our own. And basically, all we do is try to sell straws and sports drinks and fancy cups and we’re missing the point.
I don’t care how good your 20 oz. sports drink is. To someone who just needs constant water to stay alive, it’s not going to cut it for long. It’ll be satisfying for a moment, perhaps, but I can tell you as someone who can’t hydrate: as soon as I finish that last sip, I’m going to get up and need a re-fill.
I’m going to be very honest here; this is a confession as much as a concern.
For someone who jokes about being “off-brand” a lot, I sure do care too much about aesthetics and word arrangements and I’m basically concerning myself with getting a dixie cup of water just the right temperature. Congratulations–we’re still thirsty.
When I proclaim something, do I proclaim to be known or do I proclaim to make Jesus known?
We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to be the Living Water. Something happens in our culture and it seems that everyone has to give their own response. Take one look at social media and you’ll see what I mean. We write so much about how to live a godly life that we take tones that sound awfully authoritative. Because you know, we’ve figured everything out and now we’re all experts. But at the end of the day, if our responses aren’t pointing people to the source of it all, and if our desire is to be heard more than for people to encounter Jesus, we’ve got a problem.
Here’s the good news: there is Living Water. And we get to tell everyone about it and the way we do that really matters–but the motive behind it has to be solid, or we’re back to selling temporary fixes. The point of the story of the woman at the well is that the people heard her story and promptly set it down to take a long draw from the well of Living Water.
May we be a people who produce content that always points back to the One who never wrote a trending blog, never tells a trite story and never leaves us wanting. Only in Him will we be satisfied, no longer longing for something that cannot fill us but finding that our thirst is finally quenched.
I’ve been pacing back and forth in my own heart for months over this. The screen in front of my eyes and the keyboard beneath my fingertips seem to mock me right where I am—stuck.
In the commute through Nashville into Franklin. In line at the grocery store. Taking walks downtown when I need to reset my brain. I seem to be stuck.
This is how it has always been.
A word or phrase crosses my mind in a moment of silence and it slowly simmers and soaks. I tend to it in unexpected ways and through simple conversations. Words start to float to the surface and I skim the froth that carries the richest flavor off of the top.
Writing feels like it comes on fast, but I suspect it takes quite a while.
This project here took me 27 years.
Like the things I manage to scratch down, these days feel pretty fleeting. I recently moved to Nashville, Tennessee. Or that’s the simplest way to put it. But if we’re being accurate—which I hope to be–I moved to Hermitage, Tennessee, just to the east of Nashville and I work in Franklin, Tennessee which was, allegedly, voted the “number one small town in Tennessee.” I’m still getting used to typing Tennessee, hoping that when it’s solidified in the muscle-memory of my fingertips it might feel a little more like a free,deep breath than wearing an oxygen tube that forces air into your lungs. When you move to new place, a lot of things go into survival mode. Eat. Drink Water. Sleep. Stretch. Try to get from Trader Joe’s back home without Apple Maps.
Finding a new church is kind of the worst. Once you’re there and you’re rooted in a community and your roots start to tangle with those near you, it’s a little steadier. But you have to hear a good amount of sermons and smile and explain that you “just moved to Nashville” and sing songs you don’t know first.
I finally managed, by the grace of God, to land at a little church and it seems that, for the first time in weary weeks, my oxygen tube was lowered.
Back in Austin, where I was an intern for a year, I found an Anglican church called Christ Church. It was an alarming change for those who have a less-than-ecumenical view of things. It would also be alarming to the pilgrim ancestors who were fleeing the Church of England in the New World. The jump from Baptist to Anglican is mostly one of practice, but not one of big-picture things. We lean hard into scripture and community and prayer.
In Austin, they became my little life raft as I navigated the turbulent waters of post-Seminary transition. I went from being surrounded by people who got the above pilgrim joke, to being an odd-man-out. It wasn’t all bad, and Christ Church certainly softened the blow. We gathered and joked and told stories and hardly ever felt the impulse to watch YouTube videos or google things, which doesn’t sound like amazing criteria, but it was exactly what I needed. To connect to those who valued one another and the Lord in a way that was real and good. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist other places—the church is global. But Christ Church was a genuinely sound group of people. The kind who fast together and feast together. Who stay away from small group at the sign of a cold because someone’s protecting their immune system after cancer treatment. Who let you lay on the couch and sip water the day after you almost die of dehydration. Who sit on front porches and all coerce the children to look at the camera. Nearly a dozen voices, urging on the little ones.
My last Sunday, I stood in the front during the Benediction and looked them all in the eye. We walked down the aisle during the final song and Father Cliff handed me the mic as I shakily said through tears, “Now go in peace to love and serve the Lord. Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.”
“Thanks be to God!” the congregation replied, “Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia.”
The first friend I met at my church here in Nashville was Lynzy. She really does spell her name that way. We chatted briefly and I made my way out of the building, pretending that I might never come back, even though I knew I certainly would. Like my 2-year-old niece and I winking across the table during dinner prayer, I was half in and half out.
Week two, I sat in the back on the other side of the sanctuary when it hit me like a slow and steady series of waves when you’re standing waist-deep in a lake. I knew it was home, and all of a sudden I felt a tremendous wave of grief and couldn’t keep my balance and went under into the cold, powerful water.
I stepped forward for the Eucharist and as we took communion, the worship leader sang clearly and strongly, “There’s gonna be a great rejoicing.” I took bread and wine and felt my breath catch in my chest as I quietly sang and wept. With every note, it felt like Christ Church was being replaced. Devastating.
Tell me all you want about how they’re in my heart and it’s not over and we’ll always be friends and maybe I’ll move back, but this is the truth: Life is crazy fleeting. And sometimes, we grieve and we move on and it doesn’t mean we don’t keep those friendships, but it does mean I don’t get to cross Austin and pick up Mediterranean food and Cheerios and walk into someone’s living room the way I used to.
Lynzy and I decided we should get dinner the following week. We sat down and talked for hours and just as I started to take that tube out from my nostrils to breathe deeply on my own, she looked and me and said she was about to graduate from nursing school. And she was moving. In about 6 weeks.
A this point, we had a choice. Give up or press in.
We made the most of it. We ate more meals together and told stories and she told me that she believed in this blog and I told her that she was going to be an amazing nurse. About 20 seconds later, we were sitting in her empty apartment, eating the food that still lingered in the pantry, sipping hot chocolate and watching Harry Potter. We started it at 9:30pm on a weeknight and I didn’t get home until 12:30, but it was worth it.
She graduated two days later and I arrived late to church that Sunday. I sat on the other side of the sanctuary from Lynzy and her parents who had come into town.
And that’s when I opened my notebook and wrote out, “these friendships are fleeting and fast and perhaps they make me feel my lack of settledness the most. Things fluctuate from abundance to want so quickly that I’m almost knocked off balance.”
There were plenty of reasons to stay there, on that side of the sanctuary, alone. But suddenly I felt in my gut that I had to soak in all the moments we had. We all stood for the Gospel reading and I stood up to walk across the sanctuary so fast I nearly ran right into the vestry and had to re-route.
From this part of the room, I glanced around. I saw those friendships that were fresh, but not so fleeting.
The rector’s sons, drawing on a clipboard in the first row.
The newlyweds sitting nice and close to one another, his arm on the chair behind her.
The worship leader who turns her attention to her daughter who is a remarkable likeness of her own frame.
Even if I have the honor of their friendship for 50 more years, it’ll still be too quick.
I met Lynzy’s parents during the passing of the peace. We took communion. A baby laughed loud as we sang of Our Deliverer. For the first time, I recited the correct liturgy after weeks of accidentally speaking the words we spoke at Christ Church in Austin.
As the rector whispers to his wife, “This is the body of Christ, the bread of heaven,” he raises his eyebrows as their eyes meet.
The next morning, I drove an hour out of the way to bring donuts to Lynzy and we sat one last time on the floor of her apartment as her dog soaked in the security she offers. Thatcher is a yorkie-poo who has been nervous since the packing began. We prayed and hugged and talked and hugged and avoided the inevitable.
I drove away and I thought of the day before when we were together one last time at that Church. I breathed in deep and remembered that all of these things are framed by eternity as we sat in the longing of Advent.
And this is who I know Him to be: a God who is kind and sees things through and aches for us to know that every ounce of investing in one another is never wasted.
Is it fleeting? Yes.
Should we give up? No.
Do we press in? Absolutely.
And that’s really all I can ask for, and all I can offer. I spend a lot of time with the bump-set-miss. With the deep breath and then a note that’s a little flat. Did I expect to be right where I am? No. Am I good at “making the magic happen?” Not entirely.
Welcome to Camping Out. This mess is just the trip out the door on our way to some kind of adventure! Or maybe, we’ll get to the woods and realize we need to pee. Either way, it doesn’t get much more honest than this. And I can’t think of a better way to start this whole thing than by telling you this:
Sometimes, you go to the perfect place to do something, and nothing magical or profound happens. You’re not alone in that. Don’t overthink it.
Just pack your bags, fold the quilt, look for your car keys for 15 minutes and head back home, knowing that I once did exactly that and I’m still alive.