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Taking hold of hope

 

Advent is a girl in a purple skirt, her face homelike and strange. I knew her once, you think. Maybe she’s the kid who used the live around the corner? Or what about the girl you almost asked to dance that night long ago?

Advent is a girl who never grins or giggles, but her eyes are bright. Nails clipped short, those hands say she works hard, while the line of her mouth–so nearly a smile–makes you want to ask, like a child, that she tell you a story.

You’ve seen her sisters, too: up north they clear snow-blocked sidewalks by night, and sneak into homes where the furnace has gone out, kindling fires to warm the sleepers. Here in Texas, Advent keeps a candle in her pocket, matches ready. Lit, it smells of southernwood and orange rind.

When Advent comes to visit, she will be stern to see your house in disarray, so much dust on the floor. Ashamed, you’ll fumble for the broom, only to see she has it in hand already. Humming, she drives the dirt from your rooms and helps you put the house aright.

After the work, you’ll sit together and she’ll tell tales you haven’t heard in years. If you fret over all that must still be done, she’ll take your hand and say, “Enough,” and call you back with a cup of spiced wine. (Did you even notice, as you cleaned, that she had set it to simmer on your stove?)

You invite her to the Christmas party, and she agrees, but only out of courtesy. The fête is glamorous, tinseled and triumphant, but you lose sight of the girl in the merry bustle. Someone says they saw her outside, candle lit, watching the sunset.

And so you run. Run to the door — can you catch a glimpse of her light? Forget the gaudy gladness inside: run and find that girl, whose name you now recall. Run, along the roads she’s cleared for you, run with a heart made warm by her wine. She’s gone on ahead, but she wants you to come. Run after Advent, take hold of her hand. Take hold of Hope.

 

 

 

 

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life together, marriage

scarce data, abundant stories

Living on a property that has limited electricity and mail delivery that remains sporadic means that subscribing to a normal Internet subscription is not yet an option. Thus, our household web access comes from a “hotspot.” It draws from our family cellular data plan, and so gigabytes have become a scarce resource. Since streaming services eat up the most data, this has meant no Netflix, no Youtube videos, no streaming music, and (worst of all) no Skype dates. Even with these restrictions, we barely make it through a month without going over (and I don’t even have a smartphone). It is definitely, definitely a first-world problem, but it has been one of the hardest aspects of this season. I feel disconnected, sick of all my music playlists, and–since most of my books are packed away in storage–cut off even from the knowledge feeds me.

But the sweetness? By depriving us of any passive forms of entertainment, our data scarcity has reminded me how many stories hang in the air all around us, waiting to be savored. For the last several nights, my husband and I have been reading from a book that a dear friend put in my hands just before the moving truck left Alabama. It’s Roger Lancelyn Green’s tales of Robin Hood, and the stories are enough to make even a grown man’s eyes flash. Enough to make a me feel so close to the friend who gave it to me — closer even than Skype.

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faith, life together, marriage, photography

So hard, so sweet

Hypocrisy is like saccharin: no real sweetness, but mixed into something good, it might fool your tongue into relishing the taste you crave. In my communication with friends, my status updates or Instagram posts, I’ve been veering between hypocrisy and silence lately. I don’t mean to say that what I’ve posted is untrue; merely that, for the first time in many years, the most cheerful updates have been the exception, not the rule, to my general mood.

My intellect keeps insisting that I need to snap out of my sadness, but my spirit knows better than to obey. My spirit knows that change is hard, and that is entirely possible to be full of joy and hope, full of gratitude and awe, but dreadfully homesick at the same time. I know how to share the joy, the hope, the gratitude, but I don’t know how to share the sadness. I don’t want maudlin status updates that sound like pleas for pity. I don’t want anyone to misunderstand my sadness, blame my husband (who is, next to Jesus, the greatest bulwark to my joy right now), and come riding in on a white charger with sword drawn. I simply want to tell the stories of these days: truly and in full color, but tempered and measured according to the truth.

Thus, my September experiment and challenge. Each day I will share a picture of one thing about life right now that feels hard, and one thing that is beautiful and sweet. Some of these glimpses may be profound, others will certainly be silly. Some days I will explain the pictures, other days I won’t. My purpose is not to provoke pity or solicit solutions, but rather to train my own eyes to the truth.

Today’s picture has to do with the world right outside my door. I grew up in a green place, a city of tall trees and green canopies. In Alabama, I owned a house in an old neighborhood, and three enormous live oaks shaded roof. Given my love for green ground and tall trees, it’s been really hard living on the edge of a parking lot, on ground that has been upturned for so much building. I know that once the Village has all its buildings in place, landscaping will begin again, restoring the green. But still, the concrete and the bare dirt are hard for me to love. And the sweet? Just outside, there are a thousand promises of growth and green. Last week my husband brought home a parched soapberry tree. It’s leaves were all scorched from neglect, and we worried it might not flourish. But after a week of watering, its branches have sent forth so many hopeful shoots. Even sweeter? The tree was a gift, serendipitious generosity from the man at the nursery. We were not looking for a tree, but it came to us without striving or seeking. Our tree is, in more ways than one, full of grace, and that grace is very sweet indeed.

What has been hard and sweet for you lately?  Would you your pictures or juxtapositions? You can do so leaving a comment, or by posting photos to Twitter (@bethanyjoy) or Instagram (@bethanyjoyful). Tag your posts #sohardsosweet

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faith, marriage

The body of the bride

“That can’t be me — she’s too beautiful.”

I caught my breath and looked again. The mirror wasn’t lying; the blue eyes and dark hair were mine, but the blue was deeper, the dark curls more smooth, than the tousled head I normally saw in the morning. I felt like Eve, bewildered at her own graceful, unfamiliar reflection in the waters of Eden. The lovely woman in the mirror smiled, then laughed, as I remembered: today was the wedding day, and I was the bride.

In the months leading up to my wedding, I thought a great deal about Paul’s claim in Ephesians 5 that human marriage reveals something of the “profound mystery” of Christ’s love for the Church. As my fiancé and I grew in knowledge, trust, and love for one another, I eagerly watched for signs that our relationship was enacting this mysterious covenant. Before the wedding, these signs were almost entirely invisible, even abstract: as Steven and I learned to forgive one another, or as we dreamed our future together, I thought I was enlarging my intellectual and emotional understanding of Christ’s love for his people.

This kind of mental analogy-hunting was a familiar pastime long before my engagement. Throughout my teens and twenties, some of my friends had a standing joke that I wasn’t real, in a “her feet never touch the ground,” sort of way. As an academic and a dreamer, I did live largely in my head, and only my hound-dog and good theology saved me from a kind of de facto Gnosticism. For much of my life I would rather study than eat, rather finish another page than fix my hair.

A wedding allows for none of that disembodied nonsense: it demands a flesh-and-blood bride, and says she should be beautiful. I began to learn this as I made my wedding dress. Sketching and planning through the fall, I bought my silk and lace as winter fell and began to sew in early spring. With each cut and stitch, I had to attend to my body: its contours, length, height, and breadth. For most of my engagement, sewing was the most concrete, material form our wedding preparations took. Sometimes I thought I might be spending too much time on the dress: surely it would be more prudent to think more about marriage? However, it was through this physical, mundane work that the words of Scripture began to come alive in unexpected ways. I began to catch glimpses of myself in the exultant words of Song of Songs, whose lover writes of his bride, “My dove, my perfect one, is the only one, the only one of her mother, pure to her who bore her (6:9 ESV). The dress was entirely my own, fit just to me, and yet it was also, without a doubt, a bride’s dress. No one from my culture would mistake the signs of white silk and a long veil as anything else. This process was the first of many signs that the deep mystery of Christ and the Church would be revealed in my body as much as my emotions, will, or intellect.

Making the dress was only a foretaste of the wedding itself. Days before, my aunt insisted that I have my nails done. I protested, but nevertheless found myself in a salon chair, with a grown man painting my fingernails and toes. I felt ridiculous, asking my aunt, “How in the world will I wash dishes with my nails so fancy?” “You won’t” she said, almost sternly. “You will let other people take care of you this week.”

And they did take care. When I gasped at my own reflection on the morning of the wedding, I wasn’t marveling at my own handiwork. My hair, eyes, skin, and lips — all had been carefully, tenderly adorned by my bridesmaids, women whose friendship I’ve cherished for years. For an hour they worked, leaning over me, their shoulders grazing my cheek as they tended an errant curl, applied oils, perfumes. It was a quiet hour, a sacred hour, but not without laughter.

I will greatly rejoice in the Lord;

my soul shall exult in my God,

for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation;

he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,

as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress,

and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels

(Isaiah 61:10 ESV)

I had never felt so beautiful, never so free from pride. As I put pearls in my ears and felt my mother’s hands on the dress’s satin buttons, my beauty weighed on me as an unfathomable gift. Not my own creation, not the sign of my power or virtue, but my birthright as a beloved child. Inherited from my parents, revealed by the skilled hands of my friends — my body was teaching me what it means to be full of grace.

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Photo by Katie Crews

Seeing myself so beautiful was poignant, even painful, because I knew it would not last. Mediocrity is easier to bear than unprecedented excellence. Resignation and defeat make more sense than this grace that shines and spears and burns. As I was preparing for feasts and celebrations, friends I loved were reeling from cancer diagnoses, from lost pregnancies, broken bones and other signs of the body’s frailty. Even as I delighted in a bride’s strange beauty, I felt those tremors in my own flesh: the troubling spot the doctor found on the back of my eye, the ache of my monthly cycle, inevitable attrition by sickness and age. What do these harder lessons tell of grace?

I am still a very new bride, but just as I heard the joy of Song of Songs on my wedding day, so also do I hear the thundering hope of Revelation in brokenness of my own body. “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come,’” longing for the return of Christ and the fulfillment of his kingdom (22:17 ESV). As I met my groom at the altar, I wondered if he could feel it in his bones, as I did: the marvel that his love, more than anything else, made me beautiful that day. The mystery is profound.

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education, faith, homelessness, life together, scripture

A pint of misery

“What do you do with a pint of misery?”

When John asked us this question, we were sitting on the sidewalk outside of the ARCH, the downtown homeless shelter in Austin, Texas. The ARCH had closed its doors for the night, and we were among those who would have to find another place to sleep. Behind us, an argument was mounting, finally erupting in a full-blown fight, one combatant kicking the other in the face. The security guard had conveniently vanished. John eyed the brawl warily, then turned back to us. He was in his late forties or early fifties, lean and brown from the sun. As he spoke, he crouched toward us, blue eyes looking directly into our own.

“You go down to that University of Texas, where they know it all, and you ask them.” John swung his arm wide, gesturing to all the men and women crowded on the sidewalk, “These people have known nothing but misery most of their lives. Ask them what to do with it –with even a pint of misery?”

I had no answer for his stark question, and so I looked from John to Steven, my fiancé, who has worked for and with the homeless for years. Steven simply nodded, then, noting John’s frame and posture, asked, “Were you an athlete?” John said yes, he had been a football player in west Texas, years before. Soon, he was telling how he came from Odessa to the streets of Austin.

While they talked, I wondered what I would have said to John had I been alone, had I been there without Steven. I had no answer for this question either. In fact, it occurred to me that without Steven, I wouldn’t be outside the ARCH at all. I would be back in Alabama, tranquilly preparing for a normal week of school. I would be sitting in my office at the university, where the terrible question, “What do you do with a pint of misery?” might remain safely conceptual.

But I was not in my office. I was here, sharing a “street retreat” with Steven and several others from around Austin. Mobile Loaves and Fishes, which employs Steven, hosts the retreat, and the goal is simple: to live on the streets for a day or more, seeking the face of Christ.

I was already footsore and hungry before I began to wonder, “How will I know when I see his face? What sign will reveal that Christ is here?” There are a thousand answers to such a question, but that night, I only needed one. When you look into the face of Jesus, he often asks a question that turns your world upside down. Christ’s baffling queries fill the gospels. When his family comes to see him, he asks, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” radically linking kinship to obedience, rather than to blood (Matthew 12:48). When a man asks how to inherit eternal life, Jesus tells a story that discredits pious prejudices and exalts mercy. “Who of these was a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?…Go then and do likewise” (Luke 10:36). Knowing Simon betrayed him in his hour of need, the risen Christ asks, “Do you love me?” (John 21:17), and then makes this humbled, failed disciple the rock upon which the church is built. None of these questions or answers made sense to the world that crucified Jesus. To many ears, they are still hard sayings, shattering certainties.

And so, I knew I was seeing Christ’s face when I heard John ask a question I could not answer. What do you do with a pint of misery? It haunted me as I fell asleep that night–curled up on the edge of a parking lot–and found me early the next morning. Steven, his friend Alan, and I had risen well before sunrise and found a coffee shop. As we enjoyed the consolation of hot coffee and tea, another homeless man approached us. Perhaps because we carried backpacks and looked far grubbier than the rest of the clientele, he saw us as his people. His face was bandaged but still bleeding, his arms covered in red and black marker like some kind of self-inflicted stigmata. We invited him to sit with us, and for the next half hour he did, spilling words as incoherent as the writing on his arms.

Unlike John, this man had no hard edge or argument. His words were a jumble of pain and fear–a heart condition, demonic temptation, attacks in the night, visions of the end times–and yet, again and again, he would return to the name of Jesus, the only anchor against the tempest of his words.

I had no balm for this man’s agony, and so I did the only thing I could in that moment: I listened. As I strained to catch the mumbled words, I thought about Steven’s talk with John the night before. Steven had not evaded John’s question — what to do with another man’s sorrow–but had asked to see more of it. He had asked John about himself, and his life, returning the man’s challenge with an act of loving curiosity and concern. He listened to John’s story, accepting the glimpses of misery–addiction, depression, divorce–that John was willing to show us. Steven did not turn away.

As our morning guest rose to leave us, he asked me my name. When I said, “Bethany,” he nodded. “I know that place, and I have been like Lazarus–dead and raised again.” With that, he left us.

When I move to Austin, my friends and neighbors will come from these streets. They may be men like John, and they may be men like this latter-day Lazarus from the coffee shop. Most of them have known so much pain, and I, who have known so little, am afraid I will be too stunned, too scared, to know how to love. How can I learn but by looking at the wounded face of Christ?

When we began the retreat, Steven did not say, “We’re going to plot a solution that will answer all these problems. “ Nor did he say, “We’re going to find someone to rescue.” Rather, he told me, “We’re going to seek the face of Christ.” And so we did, and when we found Christ, he asked, as he has asked for two thousand years, if we would take and drink from the cup that is filled with his “blood of the covenant, […] poured out for many for forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:27).

What do you do with a pint of misery? You take it, and you drink.

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life together, marriage

Cradled in Free-Fall

A man, standing on the edge of a cliff, holding a woman in his arms. Their summit is high, so high it’s impossible to see what waits below. He gives her one kiss and then–they leap.

This is the image that races through my dreams: man and woman, loving security and unfathomable risk. We do not  see what happens to the reckless lovers. There is no glimpse of what waits at the bottom, no rubric to measure those depths. Is it death or flight? Suicide or kenosis? One kiss, and then–

Like most amateur intepreters, I gloss the scene as commentary upon my own uncertainties: the delight of a future with him, the terror of leaving so much behind, the fall from prestige and profession and certainty. Counting the costs together, he can only say, “We cannot know God’s will in the ways we’ve known before.” And though I have heard the Spirit say, “I will go ahead of you,” I cannot help crying, “Yes Lord, but the way is still so dark.”

God, let it be not a fall from grace, but a vault into faith, a leap into hope, a descent into love.

***

Listen, and you’ll learn it isn’t just your story that matters. You dream–the man, the woman, the fall–and the next day you hear the words of a martyr. Imprisoned by wicked men, she smuggles letters beyond her prison walls. She dies, but the words ring out: “By God  and by your prayers, I have felt tenderly cradled in free-fall.” (Kayla Mueller).

“Tenderly cradled in free-fall.” With the clarity and authority of one who suffers, she puts words to the baffling, hopeful image of my dreams. Her words are not about me, and yet their consolation reaches farther than her own brave witness. My dream is not about her, yet in that image I see her hope: strong arms and a fall that ends in loving mystery.

For our sins, we do not often see the patterns of God’s words and acts. “He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Eternity is within us, hidden in the rhythms of our time-bound hearts, but we cannot find it out. Only sometimes does it find us. With a still, small voice, it echoes through the dark hour, translates the chronic pain, kisses us at the edge of a cliff.

Only the One who emptied himself, who descended from the heights to the depths, can hold us safe against the terror of falling. Having plunged into flesh for our salvation, it is now he who cradles us, so tenderly, in free-fall.

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faith, homelessness, life together

My Broken Saints

As 2015 begins, I am making my home with two broken saints.

The first was a housewarming gift from my mother. Buying Beth-Haven was one of the loveliest hours during a long season of triumph: completed PhD, wonderful job, and now, a perfect little cottage to call home.  St. Francis was to serve as a token of welcome, a sign of hope for all creatures great and small who might come to share the house with me.

Unfortunately, when we opened the box we found him broken. I had neither the skill nor materials to mend him, but I could not bear to toss him into the trash.  It hurt to look at him, knowing that my mother had wanted to give a perfect gift, and realizing that we had no way to repair him. Broken Francis stood between us, embodying the fractures in every human relationship, even the most loving. What do we do with such signs of pain? Cast them away? Order a newer model?

At first, the best I could do was to station Francis at the front door. He wasn’t pretty enough to set upon the mantle, but he seemed content in his humble place. Sometimes this is the best we can do with painful relationships: sometimes it takes all our strength to keep them in the house, to look at their broken faces each day, to acknowledge that we are still at home together.

A few weeks later, some of my friends’ children taught me an even better way. While the grown-ups talked, they went foraging for azalea blossoms, which cover south Alabama in the springtime. After everyone had gone home I found that they had found my broken saint. Rather than fear or pity him, they played with St. Frank, filling his hands with flowers. My timid fidelity has resigned Francis to a dusty corner, but they had more courage: if they could not mend what was broken, they could find other ways to make him beautiful.

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And so my first broken saint became, after all, a sign of hope, encouraging me not to give up on problems I could not solve, hearts I could not mend. Lesson learned, right? Apparently not.

I had nearly forgotten about my front-door saint when two of my college friends announced the birth of their second child, a daughter. I found a beautifully illustrated version of St. Francis’ “Canticle of the Creatures,” and I decided to make a St. Francis softie to accompany the book. I loved the idea of a little girl growing up to cherish Francis’s reckless love for God’s kingdom and all its creatures.

I bought the fabric from a friend’s Etsy shop, embellished the saint with some simple embroidery, and then stitched and stuffed him. Before I could send him off to his new home, however, my hound-dog decided he must be a gift for her. I came home to find bits of his stuffing all over the dining room floor. The saint himself was missing an arm and he boasted enormous gashes across his face and halo. Distraught, I posted a picture of the carnage and appealed for sympathy. What’s the point of making something, I pouted, if perfect is impossible?

My friends, however, insisted that all was not lost. One of the most compelling comments came from the mother whose baby was to have the toy. “Scars and stretch marks tell a story,” she wrote “especially in the story of mothers and babies.” Several other friends pointed out that Francis himself, a patron to animals, would probably laugh to know that an exuberant hound had taken such joy at his expense.

And so, I scrubbed the dirt away, threaded my needle with gold, and began to stitch the holes. Mending is tedious work, and to fix a jagged tear requires both precision and creativity. As I stitched, I remembered one of the first disagreements my fiancé and I had. We argued about the once-popular praise song that croons, “Brokenness, brokenness is what I long for….” I have hated that song since I was a teenager. I suspect it fools many people into praying a prayer they don’t actually mean. Even knowing that God can use sorrow, I don’t ever yearn for pain. I want to be whole, healed, strong, resurrected. And didn’t Christ, on the night he was betrayed, pray that the cup of sorrow might pass from him?

Yes, and yet he also prayed, “Not my will, but yours, Father.” He didn’t accept pain for its own sake, but as the culmination of his purpose: to reveal God’s saving love to mankind. He was obedient even unto death, and when he rose from the grave, he still carried the scars of his crucifixion. Do the scars point to some limit on God’s mercy or power? Certainly not. God could have raised Christ with each and every cell made perfect.  So why leave the marks? I won’t presume to know the deepest answer to that question, but I can point to at least one of the ways Christ used those wounds: in John 20:24-29, he holds them out to his grieving friend, Thomas. The flesh tells a story, helping Thomas to believe that Christ taught about the new life and the kingdom that is coming.

And so, while I could have ordered a new Francis and scrapped the old one, I chose to mend. I chose to hope that  the baby–who will, no doubt, gnaw on Francis with as much glee as my hound–will grow to love the humble and the broken of the world. That she would learn to treasure God’s saints not only in their glory, but also when they bear the scars of love.

IMG_6998Perhaps I need to pray that prayer for myself. I share my house with two broken saints: one mended, one broken but with flowers in his hands. I am beginning to think that they are not only saints, but prophets. They teach me that our love for another fails daily, but also that, by the grace of God, we can sometimes help one another mend. They also teach me that some wounds are too deep for my hands to repair, but that we can bring flowers, time, casseroles until the wounded hands of Christ come and make all well.

In a few months I will make my home with another Francis. This one isn’t broken, but he is weather-beaten. He watches over a parcel of land that is already precious to me. First, it will soon house a revolutionary ministry to the homeless. (It’s called the Community First! Village, and you can learn more about it here). It will also be the ground where my marriage begins.

IMG_6917I am sure that when I take up this new chapter of my life, I will find myself overwhelmed by all that is broken in my own life, in my husband’s, and in the lives of men and women who have spent years on the streets. Surely, there will be days I want to escape. Already there are days I rail at God for not fixing everything and everyone at once. I still won’t sing “Brokennes is what I long for,” just as I still wish, deep down, that my dog hadn’t mauled St. Francis. However, I will pray and sing for God’s kingdom to come. If that means making my home among so many broken saints, then God give me grace to love them well. If that means being broken upon the altar, then Spirit give me the courage to be thankful for that suffering. Christ, teach me to fill their hands with flowers. Help us ask one another for the stories behind our scars. Use their broken hands to stitch my own wounds up with gold.

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