Rise Up, Let Go

When I was 17 Mrs. Lewis gave me a flowered, lined journal as a graduation gift. She was one of the teachers at my high school, and she was a woman of grace and authority.  She gave it to me and said, “You need to start writing in this, every day.”  The habit of journaling for me had been intermittent since I was barely old enough to write, but Mrs. Lewis’ generosity and intentionality toward me planted a seed in my heart.  Writing has had a significant impact on my prayer life and my creative work.  Mrs. Lewis went to be with Jesus this week and I’ve been thinking about her legacy.  I’m so thankful to have known her. That generative seed has come to bear much fruit.  I wonder how many other students she handed journals to?  I wonder how many occasions we give a gift without knowing the impact it will have on the recipient?

As spring is beginning to emerge, I’m feeling the thrill of the new season in extra measure this year as I’m looking forward to getting married in just a few months.  Lately, I’ve realized that lent is very much like engagement.  As a follower of Jesus, the metaphor of engagement is not lost on me.  We’ve been given a ring and a promise, but the groom is taking his time.  He’s set his love upon us, but we still feel alone sometimes.  In fact, my fiancé lives a few hundred miles away, in a different state.  His daily absence, his voice on the phone reminds me of the “I’m coming back for you,” of the gospel narrative.  And like the gospel narrative, after we have made promises of commitment, some days the wedding feels a long way off.

In seasons of transition, even joyful ones, there’s often a little bit of disorientation as we’re learning a new way to live.  It takes time to get used to a new landscape, and to rediscover who we are given a different set of circumstances.  In the stress of life change, we have two options;  we can either grasp for control, or we can simply and actively let go.   

The life of faith in real-time feels a little bit like floating down a river in a canoe.  Our boat often rushes dangerously close to the edge of the shore.  The water is carrying us swiftly downstream.   It is turbulent and we are scraping unseen rocks below the surface and getting tossed in every direction.  We can try to grab the branches that swipe us from the overgrown banks, or we can lean back and work with the movement of the water.  We can lean into our fear and hold our balance until the water grows calm and steady again.  We regain our bearings, but not quite yet.   While we are tumbling down the river in this boat, the good news is already here. 

This week is the celebration of the cross and resurrection.  We can let go because he let go for us.  He let go. He did not fight.  He submitted himself to the ultimate descent, and he entered into hell.  There is nowhere that we can go in this life that he has not gone already lower. But death could not hold him.  In his descent, he crushed the doorway of descent and rose in triumph. He ascended into the highest place.  And by faith, we are raised to new life with him.  As we have walked through these dark weeks of Lent, of fasting, and of confession; in the letting go we are securely held.  In opening our hands, we are filled to overflowing.  In tracing the slow ascent of these songs, we resound with healing. 

In the gospel, lament is not self-preoccupation.  To pour out our sorrows before the feet of Jesus is not the same as self-pity, or theatrics.  Self-pity leads us to a cycle of emptiness and addiction.  It always needs to create more drama to sustain surface emotions.  But as pastor Tim Keller has said, when you pray your tears you find that true lament leads to healing. There’s strength through the sorrow and onto the other side. 

 “Planting rows of sorrow, waiting for the harvest.  Look and see how far we’ve come from where we started.” 

Psalm 126: 5-6 proclaims this promise, “Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy. Those who go out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy.”  As we prepare our hearts for Easter, let us shoulder our cross daily that we might reap the harvest of hope.

Suggestion for prayer:  Ask God to bring to mind the seeds of sorrow in your life that he wants you to plant.  Ask him to heal them and bring new life in those places.  Where is the place within you where you need to let go?  Pray your tears.  Ask him to remind you of places where sorrow has turned to fruitfulness in your own story.  Know the strength of his provision.

Listen to track 7 from Songs From The Valley, "Letting Go."  

Sing Out Your Song

A couple of years ago, I visited Portugal on a trip with A Rocha International.  We gathered together near the coast for eight days.  This group of scientists, environmentalists and Christians from all around the world helped me to tune my senses to pay attention the world around me, considering what it looks like to participate in the restoration of people and place.  

In my hotel room in Lisbon, the night before my flight home, I sat with my guitar across my knees and the windows open to the courtyard.  I heard some expressive birds calling outside and couldn’t imagine what creatures might be making those songs.  Later that afternoon, I was walking with a friend from the A Rocha team on the city streets and we saw them.  There overhead was a flock of bright green parrots chatting to each other in the trees.  These were the birds I had heard making these intelligent sounds outside my window!

I asked my friend about them, and he told me that they had been domesticated pets years ago, that had been released or had escaped back into wild.  After a few decades of adaptation, these birds not only had learned to survive in this new, urban environment, but they even learned to flourish.  As I heard the story, I found myself cheering them on, celebrating their joyful sounds and pondering the question of identity. 

At different times, we may be placed in different roles; daughter, son, student, wife, husband, sister, friend, teacher or parent.  Sometimes we change our address.  We start new relationships.  We change careers.  In our ever-evolving relational changes, we get to know ourselves from different vantage points.  When our environment changes, we might notice new behaviors and we learn new ways to get our needs met.  Our personality takes shape as we figure out how to survive in a new place.   In all these externals of our habits and affections we get to know our personality, but personality alone is not a full picture of who we truly are. 

Psalm 139 begins with these words, “You have searched me, Lord, and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.”

God has made each of us like the parrots in Portugal.  We have each been born into a particular habitat; some in freedom, some in captivity.  We have each been brought through life circumstances and have had to pass through many changes that are beyond our control.  While the coordinates of our geography may change our habits, yet we each have been given a particular song that God has written on our hearts. 

As we reckon with our true identity, we have the opportunity to come closer to understanding what it means to be loved and known by God not just because of where we live or how we behave, but because of who we are. In the desert or out at sea, in the city or out in forest solitude, God’s provision may take a myriad of different forms.  God provides for us in all situations.

Missing my kids and eager to get home to Tennessee, I came back to my hotel room that night in Lisbon and wrote ‘Parrot In Portugal.’  In it, the emotion of Psalm 139 is coupled with the melody of the parrots outside, resonating the assurance that we are known, heard, called and celebrated for who we are in every changing circumstance of our lives.  

 “Oh I hear you, I hear you in the trees, in the trees…You can fly or you can stay, I’m holding out for you, my love.”

Just a few weeks ago while I was visiting Fuller Seminary near Los Angeles, I visited Huntington Gardens with some friends.  As we were ducking into one of the museum buildings, I looked up and saw, to my surprise, another flock of wild, bright green parrots.  I delighted to see them again; another family of the same species, halfway around the world.  This second, wild-parrot sighting was the same week that “Songs From The Valley" came out, a full-circle reminder that God delights in us the way I delight in those parrots. "Sing out your song, dressed like the meadow at dawn." You. Are. Loved.

Invitation to Prayer:  Make list of some of the most shaping roles you have been assigned in your present and in your past (daughter, son, friend, student, parent etc…)  Ask God to show you a glimpse of your true self beneath those relational roles and responsibilities.  Pray through Psalm 139, asking for God to meet you in the questions.  Ask him to help you to sing your own song.   Ask him to pour out an assurance of his love upon you here as we lean in toward the week of Easter next week.

Listen to track 6 from Songs From The Valley, Parrot In Portugal.  

Kindness That Carries

I was in a creative writing group last week and the facilitator prompted us with the question, “When was the last time you told your story?”   Gathered in a circle with pens and notebooks, we each launched quietly and individually into a time of writing around this question.  I thought of what it means to tell our stories.  I thought of the weight of the words, each one carefully chosen.  I thought of the trust required to speak each of those words.  I thought also of the opportunity for relationship that this sacred sharing affords us.  To know and be known is what we were made for.

Friendship is the way by which we figure out who we are.  This is you.  This is me.  This is where our lives connect.  The song “Kindness” from ‘Songs From The Valley’ is a litany of many small, meaningful intersections of friendship.  It’s not just one person, but the song was written about a whole host of loved ones, woven together in these lyrics into one fabric of friendship and support. 

One afternoon, I had a friend unexpectedly fill my pantry with groceries. Another time there was a flower delivery from a friend just when I had a plumbing leak that had burst through the ceiling of my living room.  A coffee gift card in the mailbox from a long-distance friend.  A ride home from the airport.  These are the ordinary ways of grace, and they carry me.  Once I stood in the rain under an umbrella on a neighbor’s porch.  I had a notebook and a pen in my hand and decided not to knock.  I walked home brimming over with gratitude like the rain pooling into my shoes, and I formed the words of this song. 

One of my favorite scriptures rings out like a cheerleader from the sidelines of community, “Let mutual love continue.”  (Heb 13:1)   Yes and amen. Mutual love is love that goes both ways.  Friendship does not try to make one like the other, it just rests comfortably and separately beside.   Friendship is not transactional nor does it keep score (1 Cor 13).  It is freely given without strings or obligation.  Friendship is the joy of shared life.

If kindness is a force that carries us, where is it taking us?  I think of the story in the gospel of Luke (Lk 5) when several friends carried a sick friend’s mat up onto the roof and down into the crowd, right at the feet of Jesus.  Friendship has carried me there to Jesus for healing, too. 

I think of the ships and the fish and the cargo that follow the rivers curves all the way out into the ocean.  Friendship has carried me long distances and opened my heart up into more vast, unsearchable waters. 

I think of the wind that carries the seeds of the flower, deconstructing the first blossom to plant a dozen more, each in their own new place of reciprocating beauty.  Friendship has been dispersed and multiplied like these seeds in my life, too. 

Kindness is the force that carries us onward in growth.  In the transformation of God’s spirit, we can not stay who we were, because he makes us new again and again.  Kindness does not assert itself as a violent force, though sometimes it feels jarring.  And kindness is not the same as nice-ness.  To be nice is to keep from all disruptions.  With nice-ness, the objective is peace, even if it’s false peace.  But with kindness, the end goal is loyalty and truth.  In kindness, it is the friend herself that matters most.  In true friendship, temporary discomfort is a means of grace.  The wounds of a friend are evidence of faithfulness. (Prov. 27:6)

One of my favorite hymns from the 19th century, by Ellen Goreh sings these lines; “Do you think He ne’er reproves me? What a false friend He would be. If He never, never told me, of the sins which He must see.”  We are shaped by gentle and affectionate correction.  Learning to welcome truth in the safety of a trusted relationship can be a messy practice.

But where love is mutual, as we have all hoped it would be, kindness between friends makes for an increase of beauty in the world.  In this kind of mutuality, each of us can become more glorious in the particulars of who we are.  In sharing our stories with each other we find out our own names and how called uniquely on our journey.  To this end, there is no limit to the inspiration of friendship; teaches, illuminates and delights.  And all the while, by God’s design we are carried to safety by the current of kindness.  

Invitation to prayer: When was the last time I received truth from a friend that I needed to hear (even if it felt like a wound at first)?  Am I tired from specific ways when I been propping up false-peace?  If kindness is the current, where is it taking me?  Ask God to bring to your mind a few specific moments of friendship with another person and with God himself.  Give thanks for these gifts.  Ask God to meet you in friendship.

Listen here to track 5, “Kindness” from the new album, “Songs From The Valley.”

Christ The Lover

I have had a thing for the moon since I was a little girl. One time it burst out in front of me, above the street and the traffic lights on my birthday.  Another time it surprised me as it crested over the bathtub one morning in Florida, just behind the window shade. And in Tennessee in the fall, it shows up so large and red and low above our street, shining stark and mellow like a dim-lit bowling alley lane.  Many restless winter nights, the moon’s reflective light has stayed up with me all night in my upstairs room.  And in Oregon last summer, midnight was as bright as the afternoon.

Every one of these times, and in countless other occasions, the moon has been one sure way that God has captured my attention and my affection.  I have felt the love of God through the surprise of these poetically timed, ever-changing moon scenes.

How is it that God can send gifts to each of us in such unique ways, all around the world, all at the same time?  St. Augustine famously said, “God loves each of us as though there were only one of us.”  The moon is a perpetual reminder of this important idea.

“Like the moon it shall be established forever, a faithful witness in the skies.” (Ps 87:37)

Do you remember the book Harold and the Purple Crayon?  Harold draws himself out of his room one night, into the town, has some adventures, eats some pie, runs into some trouble and tries to draw himself home.  When he gets lost, he finally manages to draw his way home by drawing his window around the moon.  The window frame he draws helps re-orient him so that he can finds his place again; his bed, pillow, his crayon.  On the last page, he drops his purple crayon on the floor beside him as he drops off to sleep.

I’d like to write pages full of songs to express what this single song is trying to express.  It is a thimble full of what I mean to say about how loved I feel by the God who gives me the moon, over and over again.  I cannot get over how he delights to take our breath away with moments of joy and surprise—for each of us in particular ways. He is the Lover of my soul, without a close second.  He is the fulfillment of my truest desire.  And when I am lost, he guides my purple crayon back to the shape of the window around the moon so I can find my way home again.  He leads me home and gives me rest. 

Suggestion for Prayer:  Like the moon, what is the means where you have been most aware of God’s love for you?  Ask him to remind you of times in your story that he’s been close beside you but you’d maybe never thought of it before.  Talk with him like a friend and recount times in your life together with him.  Ask him to help you to feel his love for you.

Listen to song 4, “Lover Of My Soul” from the new album, “Songs From The Valley” HERE. 

Light From Light

I was on a retreat in Texas a few months ago and I woke before dawn.  I noticed a sliver of morning light on a glass bottle on the table beside the window. The tiny curve was caught my attention with its beauty.  There was not a sound.  The moment felt prayerful, like morning and night at the same time.

I watched the light expand from the rim of the glass like a crown of silver.  I waited in the stillness.  A few minutes later, another gentle spotlight appeared a few feet over on the canvas window seat cushion. This new patch was a dewy light. Next, on the leather pillow leaning on its side, the light there looked slick like a puddle of water, growing from faint to fullness. 

The increase of light was expanding my spirit. I didn’t need words to study.  It was a holy display, an invitation to peace.  Soon, I saw the wooden windowsill ledges were illuminated.  And on the wooden sloped arms of the recovered chairs, the paint brushed print of the fabric took shape again after a night’s rest.

After a time, the whole sky outside my window began to give up the darkness.  I could see a thin stripe above the tree line.  Was it a crack in the glass?  Had I not seen it before? Maybe it was my contacts?

Squint. Strain. Eyes open wide.  No, I see it now.

It’s a stripe, a line.  It’s there.  Is it a wire?  I can only see in part.  No, it is sure, it is definitely a wire. I guess I couldn’t see it because it matched the sky so black, but now the sky is lightening.  Now there is contrast.  Now there is vision. 

But wait, is that another cluster of lines?  Smaller ones?  Smaller wires?  One, two, three…yes, even four.

Four more lines appeared in the cloud-covered morning sky.  It grew white like coffee with milk.  Grey on grey, before the color blooms. 

How much slow beauty do we see?  How much does it reveal?  How much does this attention to quiet beauty help us to see and trust that scarcity is not the binding rule? 

Scarcity is not the final word.  It is as fleeting as the shadows.  It has been defeated.

As the sky is above the soil, so are God’s thoughts, his ways, his abundance over us.  Peace to breathe.  Light to see.  Joy to resonate a new day dawning. We are two weeks into this season of Lent, two weeks closer to the feast.  It feels a bit like a wilderness.  Even the ups and downs of the weather pull us forward into the stutter of early spring. 

Sometimes I think about the words of the creed that we say every Sunday afternoon, “God from God, light from light…”

What does it mean that God is light from light?  How can light come from light?  How is it that God was not made, not derivative, and entirely original?  I cannot wrap my mind around this idea.  But I can say the words. 

The title of this song, “O Gracious Light” and the opening line of the refrain is a Latin phrase, ‘Phos Heliron.’  It’s the first line of a prayer from the Book of Common Prayer used for a sunset prayer. ‘O Gracious Light;’ the juxtaposition of those two words stands out to me.  The light is active and kind.  Light is personified as an agent of God, like an angel, or like his arm extending to give us sight and direction where we are often in the dark about what is happening to us.

Invitation to prayer:  I heard a friend say recently; good things grow in the light.  When life feels like a wilderness, how do we walk in the light?  Spend a moment with the light in the room where you are, consider the changes.  Pay attention to the silence and the movement.  In the quiet, ask God to meet you in the dark places of your circumstances.  Ask God to meet you in the shadow places of your heart.  Invite him to show his light there.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.” – Is 9:2

Listen to “O Gracious Light,” track 3 of the new album, “Songs From The Valley.”

Abundance and the Sound of the Shepherd

Kenny Roger’s voice still rings in my ears, circling like the grooves of the old 1970’s record player, “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em.  Know when to fold ‘em. Know when to walk away, and know when to run.”  Song number two on my new album, “Reciprocate” is maybe a loose interpretation of “The Gambler.” 

We don’t talk much about discernment these days.  It’s sort of an old-fashioned virtue.  But being able to discern truth from fiction is an essential survival skill.  Learning to differentiate the trusted voices in our lives is important work.

When I put on one of Sara’s songs, her voice settles like an heirloom blanket wrapped around me.  As I hear her sing, I can believe in spite of whatever circumstances might be swirling around me that everything is gonna be ok. 

When my fiancé leaves me a message at dawn on Sunday morning before church, his voice supports me long-distance like an oak tree, with warmth and strength that holds a thousand rings inside it.  

And I can also remember my Dad’s voice in a moment a few years ago when he patted my shoulder and said, “You’d make one heck of a runner.”

The sound of a trusted voice has the power to speak something substantial into being.  The recognition in a trusted voice is like a song, like a familiar refrain. “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God and the word was God.”  (Jn. 1:1) There’s something mystical and holy about God being the word, speaking the word, and embodying the melodic voice that carries the word into our hearts and leads us on.

A bit later in John’s letter, Jesus tells his friends about the voice of the good Shepherd.  (John 10:10)  The sheep know his voice, they recognize it when he calls and they won’t listen to the voice of another Shepherd.  They are his.  They belong to him.  And by the sound of his voice, the sheep learn ‘when to walk away and when to run.’

When I think about God’s voice, and the power of his invitation to bring his sheep safely in and out of pasture, I think about abundance.  When I think about abundance, I think about this place I visited on a retreat out in Malibu, B.C. If you’ve ever seen the Young Life camp up there, there’s this breathtakingly beautiful mountain landscape stretching out in every direction. In the middle of the water, there’s a small island with pine trees, bald eagles nesting in the tops.  If you throw a rock out there in the water, as hard or as far as you can, it gets swallowed up in the landscape before you can exhale.  It is a picture of abundance. 

Abundance is freedom and beauty so vast that it swallows up any small attempts of sabotage or violence or failure.  And we all know firsthand that the darkness of this world is intense.  But in the landscape of God’s abundance, the darkness is no match for his mighty power.  That darkness is like a rock hurled into the water, it makes a sound but then is quickly forgotten, swallowed up by a greater beauty.  Beauty wins. Love wins. This is the economy of grace. 

In the quiet questions, I’m praying that God would impress upon us the sound of his own voice, that we would become so familiar with it that we could distinguish the smooth talk of the enemy from the rich comforting voice of our Shepherd.

Suggestion for Prayer:  Close your eyes for a second and read this excerpt from John 10 (Message). Imagine the voice of the Shepherd.  What does he sound like?  What words does he say as he invites you out into the pasture in the morning and back in again for safety at the end of the day?  How might you consider the ways his abundance can swallow up the darkness in your life?    

“The gatekeeper opens the gate [and the sheep] recognize his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he gets them all out, he leads them and they follow because they are familiar with his voice. They won’t follow a stranger’s voice but will scatter because they aren’t used to the sound of it.” 

Listen to track 2, Reciprocate, from Sandra’s new album, Songs From The Valley. Available now digitally HERE.

Ashes

To ascend the hill, you have to start at the very bottom. From here, it often feels like what’s ahead is a steep climb.   Today is Ash Wednesday, the day when many followers of Jesus remember that we have come from dust, and to dust we will return. We mark our foreheads with ashes and we pray. 

The people of Israel used to travel annually to the temple to make sacrifices for their sins.  They journeyed up a long climb, a slow ascent toward Jerusalem.  The Psalms of Ascent (beginning with Psalm 120) are the songs they would sing together as they walked.   As I’ve begun to ask questions about some of the ancient traditions of Lent and Easter, I have found unexpected beauty in practices that at first seemed a bit strange to me or even morbid.  

I’ve come to appreciate that the observance of Ash Wednesday can be a compelling demonstration of humility. Many people give something up during the 6 weeks of lent, like sugar or coffee or wine.  These small ways of holding back remind us that we have limitations.  We have hunger.  The hunger is already there, of course.  But when we give something up, we are making the space to feel it.

The ashes of repentance on my forehead help me to remember that I have not always been here on this earth.  And one day I will return to dust.  I am a sinner whose offenses are both known and unknown.  Do I really feel my need for God?  Do I cry out to him?  Or do I just manage to keep busy enough to superficially forget how truly dependent I am upon him for every good thing?

This brings up a theological question.  What’s the difference between penance and practice?   Fasting does not earn us points with God, because if we are in a relationship with Jesus, His love for us is sealed in Jesus’ work on our behalf.  We cannot add or take away a single thing to the finished work of Christ. 

But fasting can be a way to reckon with our spiritual hunger.  When my young children save their allowance money for a special occasion, it’s hard for them to wait.  But restraint and anticipation enlarges their hearts for the celebration.  Fasting opens us up to be able to feast more fully. 

The best part is still ahead, and it’s coming soon.  This is not the end.  This is not the whole story, but the journey starts with ashes.  The way down is the way up.  I am living forward into that light.  I am trusting the promise (from Psalm 23) that the Lord is with us in the valley of the shadow of death.  

Though the details of our stories are varied, the same story has been written on each of our hearts.  Ashes transformed into to beauty is the story of redeeming grace, of light breaking in, of ascending the hill, of singing the songs of ascent so that when we get to the top, we will join in that glorious celebration.  There, we will each find our own seat at the table.  

And along the way, grace happens every time the sun comes up over the horizon;  even when we sleep through it with the shades drawn; even when the sun is hidden by storm clouds; always, it faithfully rises.  May these ashes be a sign-post.  We are walking each other home. 

Suggestion for prayer: Meditate on this verse or read it a few times times slowly, and let the words lead you into conversation with God.  

What does the word death feel like for you when you read this today? The idea might feel far away or it might make you think of physical death or a death of another kind.  What comes to mind for you? Ask God to be with you in the valley of the shadow.  Ask him to walk you home or to shelter you in the valley.  Close your prayer in gratitude.

 “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for you are with me.” –Ps 23

Listen to track 1, Fool’s Gold, from Sandra’s new album, Songs From The Valley.  Available now digitally HERE