No Easter Baskets

Hello, blog; it’s been a while. IMG_0631

A full month, to be exact.

I am always writing in my head. Always, all the time, every hour of the day; I’m scripting something that I am seeing or feeling or doing. My head is chock full of words.

Getting them out is another story.

But here I am, today, at the end of a day that started with a gentle alarm at 4:50AM and then a not-so-gentle rustling from the other side of the bed. It’s Easter Sunday, and that means a long day of service and family and energy and excitement.

Just a short time ago, Easter was a season with a long list of things to do. New outfits for each of the kids (matching, when they were younger); Easter baskets (usually with chocolate and seeds in them, for our cravings and our lesser gardening instincts…). A big family dinner gathering. Those are things I remember from the ‘good old days’ that were a scant 10 years ago; days that seem to have come and gone in the blink of an eye. Now my baby is 17, and he slept in and drove himself to church today in a pair of new dress shorts I bought him for his spring break adventure, a cruise to the Caribbean.

My, how times have changed.

As the traditions have fallen away, I have dug a bit deeper into ‘the TRUE meaning of Easter’, as an full-page ad proclaimed in the Richmond newspaper today. I have an intellectual and academic understanding of the event; raised Christian, I understand the implications of Holy Week and all that happened. Maundy Thursday; Good Friday. Prayer vigils on Saturday, celebration on Sunday. I know what it all signifies, and although my current place of worship shies away from liturgical observation of the church calendar, those days are rooted in my heart. It is a true thing about most of life: When the clutter and noise clears away, the opportunity to understand and appreciate truth widens.

That’s kind of where I am with Easter this year. Not that raising a family was clutter and noise, but let’s be honest, shall we? Five kids add up to a lot of clutter, and no small amount of noise.

Now there is one, and he was gone all week; so I had time to think.

Towards the latter part of Holy Week I ended up claiming a short break – two days away from work, three days away from home. We were in a new place, a higher altitude. We did new things – a float down the Shenandoah in a canoe has long been on my bucket list, and we checked that off Thursday afternoon. Friday evening – Good Friday – found me on the floor of a bedroom behind a closed door, seeking some introverted healing quiet. My beloved husband had brought a couple of guitars along, and I reached for the warm wood of the worn Martin, a small-bodied guitar that holds a resonant history.

Now, I don’t play much guitar; I am a pianist, primarily, and that’s where I focused the hard work to become a proficient instrumentalist. But I am able to work my way around basic chord progressions, and in that quiet room, my raw fingers found the formations for enough chords to string together some music.

Hymns. I love old hymns, the words that I soaked in as a child on a weekly basis; the melodies and harmonies stitched on the staves in the Methodist hymnal, four parts that create the basic chordal structure of pretty much all contemporary music. All that music IMG_0678is buried deep in my soul, and so I found those chords, and I whispered the words towards the thin, hollow wooden door.

My fingers began to ache. When you don’t play guitar for a while, there are no calluses, no worn, familiar ruts in your fingertips. It’s all fresh, thin skin, and the metal strings dig deep. On Good Friday night, the metaphor was not difficult to find.

My thoughts wandered to a new song – new to me, at least – and I searched the guitar for those chords (that come so easily on the piano; it is a good thing to be challenged!) I struggled to find the words, and in the end, I had to do a quick google search; I found the chorus and whisper-sang this song, the one that is currently at the top of the list for my favorites:

What a beautiful name it is; what a beautiful name it is / The name of Jesus Christ my King /  What a beautiful name it is; nothing compares to this / What a beautiful name it is / the name of Jesus

Without the baskets and the shopping and the great compulsion to create holiday memories, I focused on two things during this Holy Week: What I really believe about the Easter story (and why it matters), and the role and responsibility I have as a staff leader at my church. Both areas are packed with changes of which I’ve been unaware; things I’d been missing. With a bit of time and space, and some quiet introspection, I saw more clearly. I paid attention. There were, I dare say, some revelations that bubbled to the surface – both in a spiritual sense, and also in a professional or vocational sense. These are questions and challenges I have been running hard after for some time now.

When the clutter and noise clears away, the opportunity to understand and appreciate truth gets very wide, indeed. From the bends of creation I experienced tangibly as we navigated the Shenandoah, to the deeply personal twists and yaws of the inner depths of my heart, it was a profoundly moving week for me.

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I have friends and family – people I love and respect dearly – for whom the Easter story is little more than a myth. They don’t buy into the commercialism or the spiritual aspect. They don’t believe the resurrection and they generally want no part of organized religion. It is interesting to me – and, as yet, still a great mystery – that as my own spiritual experiences deepen and widen, I find that my respect for those who choose a different path does the same. I wonder if there is some semblance of integrity and love for fellow humans that gets buried under the evangelical mandate to see vast numbers of people saved from destruction and damnation; a love that is freer to bubble to the surface as my own passion, fascination and devotion to Jesus and the creator expands and pushes and pulls from within my soul.

To put it bluntly, the more I know of Jesus, the more I am drawn to the people who aren’t interested in knowing him – but not as projects: as people. This is, undoubtedly, mostly about a change in me and what I believe – and how I am called to live out that belief.

And that’s the thing I am most grateful for, the things that this Easter journey has drawn out of me: I am growing, and changing, and morphing. I am a human being living in the midst of humanity, clinging to an amalgamation  of supernatural, miraculous, historical teaching and people and experiences that are impossible to explain – that yet hold a wondrous attraction for me. The more I am willing to let myself be unmade, the greater the joy set before me.

This is a good thing; this is a measure of grace, and not at all where I expected this writing to end up. But with so much coursing through my brain, it was worth sitting before the blank page and popping the cork.

Happy Easter, y’all.

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That Time I Met Rick Warren

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Seven days ago I was in Southern California. The sun shone, every day. The nights were cool. The attitude, everywhere, was chill. The coffee was exquisite and the avocado toast was mind-blowing. Fish tacos – EXCELLENT. The scenery? Well, there are no words. Every day, the Pacific. Every day, the mountains. Every evening, the sunset.

Every stinking day.

Glorious.

And I met Rick Warren and we had our picture taken together, and in that span of five seconds I was yakking instead of posing.

Typical.

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I traveled to Southern California to attend The Lobby, a conference / networking event sponsored by the Small Group Network, grown out of Saddleback IMG_3845Church. It was unlike any church conference event I’ve ever attended – and there have been multitudes. I can easily say that it was the most productive, profitable investment of time (a scant 45 hours; I left wanting more, but in retrospect, it was just the right amount of information and time) and resources (the fee covered lodging – at the event location – and major meals, which were outstanding) that I’ve experienced in the ministry world.

I could wax poetic about the entire experience. My journal is full of things that are still – a week later – reverberating in my head. Those things will serve me well in weeks to come.

Speaking of journal; they gave us a bona fide mini-Moleskin with the network logo on it. Sweet!

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But I’ll refrain from sharing all my notes. I want to tell you instead about Rick Warren. And I must say first this: that I went in skeptical, jaded from too many encounters with celebrity pastors and a distaste for the culture we’ve created with our spiritual leaders. I was prepared to be unimpressed.

I was wrong.

I took a lot of notes; Warren speaks quickly, tangentially, creatively; every other phrase is powerful. Memorable. Quotable. His passion leaks through in every sentence. He taught some specific content, and he did it well. He is a master wordsmith, and he communicates well.

But what spoke to me most profoundly was his posture as he spoke about the death of his youngest child by suicide. Four years ago, Warren’s 27-year old son Matthew took his life after struggling with mental health issues and deep depression. He spoke openly and with a raw vulnerability about his journey through that time.

His honesty connected deeply; my soul began to leak in empathy and in the reality of the fear and pain in my life, as I have walked through parts of that valley with people I deeply love. In those moments of openness, I experienced something quite unexpected; a connecting and a bonding in a room of 150+people that revealed and reflected the truth of what we were all there to affirm:

We’re better together.

When we share our lives openly, authentically, with hands open and hearts vulnerable; when we take the risk to open ourselves to others, our entire experience of life becomes deeper. Richer. Fuller.

More like who we’re meant to be.

Rick Warren said many things that rang true; I have a long list of his quotable utterances. They were meaningful, and I will not forget them. His honesty – his willingness to talk about his pain, to refrain from preaching and pontificating and instead simply speak his truth and share his pain – gave us a point of connection, as parents whose children suffer. As people who grieve the grip of mental illness on those we love.

But for the purpose of this post, I will share the one that resonates most with me; the one that reminds me of the paradox of faith in Jesus. In many ways, this short sentence is the culmination of so much of what was shared around tables and by the speakers.

It is imperative that I lean into this truth – for myself, for my family, for my team, and for those we serve. Here, in a nutshell, is what I brought back from California:

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In God’s garden of grace, even broken trees bear fruit. 

I learned a lot at The Lobby; I made great connections. There are people I believe I’ll see again, who will make my life and work better.

But this truth; this is what I need to remember. We are surrounded by brokenness; it is within us, it is without us. Everywhere, we see pain – or we see the desperate edges of hidden pain, leaking out beyond the edges of well-kept lives. We see people in pain, we see people causing pain. In the midst of that pain is this truth: Each of us is created by God. Each of us matters. We are called into the mess, to love one another; to live it, to offer ourselves to our neighbors so that they might taste and see that they are loved, that the One who made them is good, that there is redemption and restoration for all. In remembering my own brokenness, I embrace the humility that most resembles the One I follow. In this humility, I can serve with purpose.

Truly, we are better together. We are not just called to believe – we are called to belong. 

Warren said he took pictures of each of us because he would pray for us – by name. I believe he meant it. When I sat beside him, I leaned in and quietly said My daughter is bipolar. I would covet your prayer for her

And I know he heard me.

#DontDoLifeAlone

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Surrender Is Everything

IMG_3806And so I am in southern California.

I am here for work. So far, it’s been an incredibly long day of airports and airplanes and delays and navigating strange places. The alarm went off at 3AM this morning, and 16 hours later there is a conference session to sit through and a lot of networking and small talk.

Nothing would make me happier than to sit in this little room, which smells strongly of furniture polish and disinfectant, and read a book. Or write. Or talk a nap.

But I am in southern California because the vocation to which I have committed myself requires new learning, a new challenge, and a serious commitment on my part. After a little over a decade, there are some parts of my job that I can do with my eyes closed.

Actually, if you consider how I play piano and lead worship, often I do it with my eyes IMG_3819closed. Literally.

But I’m in a new season, and we are examining how our church and the culture is changing, and what it’s like to function in a multi site environment, and what is required of leadership, and so I’m in southern California to learn how to connect people to God and to one another in more effective ways. I’ll spend three days soaking up info and meeting people and taking notes and processing. Then I’ll spend a couple of days with my youngest daughter, who just happens to live an hour from the conference center.

And then I will come home, and I will hit the ground running.

I like to travel. I like seeing new places and discovering new things. Truth be told, I’m very introverted, so sometimes it’s a struggle to all the meeting and greeting and getting-to-know-you.

(Lord, please let there not be any games….)

I’m glad to be here; I’m grateful. It feels very much like a privilege, for sure.

But it also costs something. Time, energy; a week away from my husband and youngest son, a week away from my coworkers in the middle of planning and preparing and launching a new series. This time doesn’t come cheap.

Today’s reading in Bread and Wine is title ‘Surrender Is Everything’.

…at every moment we practice a surrender that has no limits, a surrender that includes all possible methods and degrees of service to God. It is not our business to decide what the ultimate purpose of such submission may be, but our sole duty is to submit ourselves to all God sends us…

The free gifts he asks from us are self-denia, obedience and love. The rest is his business.  Jean-Pierre de Caussade

I know it’s hard to look at a picture like this and think I’m practicing self-denial and surrender. What a gift, to stand in such a place of beauty.

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But perspective and purpose is everything, isn’t it? The wind was whipping, and the air was chilly. The rocks were difficult to stand upon. It is beautiful, for sure – but to actually be present in this place wasn’t free of distraction.

I didn’t stand there long; just long enough to take a few photos and marvel at the beauty.

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There is much asked of me here, both in this place as I learn and grow, and when I return to serve my church. It’s time to head downstairs and meet some people; give up my alone time, defer the nap until later….

If you can use anything, Lord – you can use me…

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You Are The Man

Read about the life of David and it’s as rich as any drama in history. From his humble beginnings to the corruptive power of lust and entitlement and the way it propels him into adultery and murder – it’s a powerful story, and there is a rich resonance to any human, if we look at it in context. The larger arc pulls us into an examination of human relationship with God; forgiveness and favor, repentance and redemption.

But this morning I’m thinking mostly of the moment somebody gave David the last ten percent.

Around my workplace, we use the phrase ‘last ten percent’ to indicate that we’re going to do some truth-telling. The idea, pulled from Patrick Lencioni’s book Five Dysfunctions of a Team (which is fundamental to the DNA of our work culture), is that most folks share the first 90% easily.

You did a great job! Thanks for your hard work! I love this idea! We appreciate you!

It’s the last ten percent that is often left unsaid.

You did a great job! But you missed the deadline.

Thanks for your hard work! Can you tell me why you didn’t do the follow-up tasks we agreed upon?

I love this idea! But it’s just the not the right fit for this project.

We appreciate you! But you’re late to every meeting.

Nobody likes the last ten percent – but it’s essential to have clarity. It’s authentic. And most of all – it builds trust. It is essential to authentic relationships and a healthy workplace, and I have come to believe that it is an important foundational key to our understanding of ourselves at a deep, soul level.

So David, a powerful king, indulges his lust for another man’s wife. He sleeps with her. She gets pregnant. He secretly arranges for her husband to die in battle so that their secret will be safe. He apparently gets away with it all.

And then, as the scripture says, God was not pleased with what David had done, and he sent Nathan to David.

Nathan tells David a long story about a rich man who took obvious advantage of a poor man to indulge his desires. David hears the story, is appropriately indignant, and declares that the rich man ought to be punished.

Nathan gets right up in David’s face and says, YOU ARE THE MAN!

And there’s the last ten percent.

The truth came out. Things went from bad to worse in terms of suffering and pain, but the truth was on the table. David owned his misdeeds, accepted the consequences, and life went on.


This morning I had a ‘YOU ARE THE MAN’ moment with a short four pages of text. To preface: Because of my line of work, and because of my propensity to want to teach and help and encourage pretty much everyone in the world, and – true confession – because I can get a bit judgy at times, when I read things or learn things or discover things, my immediate first response is generally some form of OH HOW CAN I TELL HER THIS? IT’S JUST WHAT SHE NEEDS. HOW CAN I SHARE THIS WITH THE WORLD? THIS WILL BE SO HELPFUL! HE REALLY NEEDS TO HEAR THIS. 

I refrain from being too judgy with my own self, because this is – mostly – a noble response. It’s the teacher in me. But I know that I have to be careful, because too often, in my desire to save the world, I can overlook the message meant for me.

I couldn’t escape today.

To set it up, I must tell you that after a good, strong month of clean eating – #Whole30 – I have loosened the rules for my food intake a bit. It’s a challenge, because what I’ve learned via #Whole30 is that probably 90% of my eating has to do with my brain and my emotions. That’s what the entire process was about for me – discovering just how deep the connection is between the emotional satisfaction I assign to the consumption of food and the lengths to which I will go to not only consume that food, but justify it.

It’s messy.

Anyway, I have loosened the rules, because I am focusing on a few other important things and I need the margin that has been occupied by food vigilance. Plus, my allergies are killing me, and only ice cream makes me feel better (see also: JUSTIFICATION). So, Tuesday night we had Mexican food, and the chips were flying. Thursday I had ice cream. Yesterday, I had a sugary concoction from Starbucks, and that set the synapses in motion. I was craving thick, heavy comfort food all day long.

We decided that date night would be take-out and a movie in; he said, Call Nino’s and order me a chef salad. That’ll be enough for me tonight. So I called, and I ordered him a salad, and I ordered baked penne, and to just cut to the chase, I ate it all.

Every last noodle, every lick of gooey cheese.

And then I sat with two pounds of pasta in my gut and felt horrible; not like I was beating myself up mentally, but seriously – I felt sick to my stomach. And while Hacksaw Ridge cast its violent shadow across our tv screen, I asked myself, Why? Why do you do this? And I knew the answer was simple.

Because I can. 

When we had four kids under the age of five, living on the kids’ dad’s part-time youth minister salary, spending the majority of our grocery budget on diapers – there was no room for indulgence. No such things as, Oh, I feel like pork chops tonight – I’m going to run to the grocery store. No impulsive stops at Dairy Queen for Blizzards. No thought of indulging that taste for Cheetos or bacon or chocolate chip cookies or lime Tostitos.

It wasn’t an option.

Fast forward a quarter century and there is room for indulgence. We are by no means wealthy, but the grocery budget expanded and most any minor whim can be accommodated. And because I can justifies a good many impulsive behaviors. On the surface, not such a bad deal – isn’t that why we work hard?

But on the other hand, there is much going on in the emotional landscape of such indulgences; and a good bit of it causes enough discomfort that I would rather look away.

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Rather than continue to over-explain, I am going to simply post the entirety of today’s reading here. It was my Nathan moment; as I read each paragraph thinking What shall I share of this today? Who needs to hear it?, I felt a slow dissolution of that perspective to the pins and needles of my own personal resonance. Not just about food; about everything. All the things. And me.

By the time I got to the end, it was obvious; but to accentuate the point, four words floated up into my consciousness:

YOU ARE THE MAN. 

Lord, have mercy.


Living Lent

Barbara Cawthorne Crafton

We didn’t even know what moderation was. What it felt like. We didn’t just work: we inhaled our jobs, sucked them in, became them. Stayed late, brought work home – it was never enough, though, no matter how much time we put in.

We didn’t just smoke: we lit up a cigarette, only to realize that we already had one going in the ashtray.

We ordered things we didn’t need from the shiny catalogs the came to our houses; we ordered three times as much as we could use, and then we ordered three times as much as our children could use.

We didn’t just eat: we stuffed ourselves. We had gained only three pounds since the previous year, we told ourselves. Three pounds is not a lot. We had gained about that much in each of the twenty-five years since high school. We did not do the math.

We redid living rooms in which the furniture was not worn out. We threw away clothing that was merely out of style. We drank wine when the label on our prescription said it was dangerous to use alcohol while taking this medication. “They always put that on the label,” we told our children when they asked about this. We saw that they were worried. We knew it was because they loved us and needed us. How innocent they were. We hastened to reassure them: “It doesn’t really hurt if you’re careful.”

We felt that it was important to be good to ourselves, and that this meant that it was dangerous to tell ourselves no. About anything, ever. Repression of one’s desires was an unhealthy thing. I work hard, we told ourselves. I deserve a little treat. We treated ourselves every day.

And if it was dangerous for us to want and not have, it was even more so for our children. They must never know what it is to want something and not have it immediately. It will make them bitter, we told ourselves. So we anticipated their needs and desires. We got them both the doll and the bike. If their grades were good, we got them their own telephones.

There were times, coming into the house from work or waking early when all was quiet, when we felt uneasy about the sense of entitlement that characterized all our days. When we wondered if fevered overwork and excess of appetite were not two sides of the same coin – or rather, two poles between which we madly slalomed. Probably yes, we decided at these times. Suddenly we saw it all clearly: I am driven by my creatures – my schedule, my work, my possessions, my hungers. I do not drive them; they drive me. Probably yes. Certainly yes. This is how it is. We arose and did twenty sit-ups. The next day the moment had passed; we did none.

After moments like that, we were awash in self-contempt. You are weak. Self-indulgent. You are spineless about work and about everything else. You set no limits. You will become ineffective. We bridled at that last bit, drew ourselves up to our full heights, insisted defensively on our competence, on the respect we were due because of all our hard work. We looked for others whose lives were similarly overstuffed; we found them. “This is just the way it is,” we said to one another on the train, in the restaurant. “This is modern life. Maybe some people have time to measure things out by teaspoonfuls.” Our voices dripped contempt for those people who had such time. We felt oddly defensive, though no one had accused us of anything. But not me. Not anyone who has a life. I have a life. I work hard. I play hard. 

When did the collision between our appetites and the needs of our souls happen? Was there a heart attack? Did we get laid off from work, one of the thousands certified as extraneous? Did a beloved child become a bored stranger; a marriage fall silent and cold? Or, by some exquisite working of God’s grace, did we just find the courage to look the truth in the eye and, for once, not blink? How did we come to know that we were dying a slow and unacknowledged death? And that the only way back to life was to set all our packages down and begin again, carrying with us only what we really need?

We travail. We are heavy laden. Refresh us, O homeless, jobless, possession-less Savior. You came naked, and naked you go. And so it is for us. So it is for all of us.

Barbara Hawthorne Crafton – from Bread and Wine

Mirrors Of Dangerous Grace

In today’s reading from Bread and Wine, Walter Wangerin writes of mirrors – those tangible glass and silver ones that show a cropped reflection; and then those that exist more as metaphor and hide nothing. He references relationships as mirrors – when we wrong someone we love and we see our worst selves reflected in their pain.

Wangerin writes of mirrors of dangerous grace and our need for them ipo_2016-04-05-17-26-59n order to heal.

That’s a powerful word picture, and a compelling concept. The unexamined life is not worth living – so said Socrates. For examination, mirrors are required. But the challenge of a reflection that reveals those things we’d rather not see looms large for most of us, who seem destined to secretly wonder if we’re enough in a hundred different categories. An examined life found wanting leads to places we’d sometimes rather not go. Sometimes it’s easier not to look.

But I am. Looking, that is.

And I have found an interesting mirror. It’s a Hulu show called The Path. I’ll say in advance that the F-bomb is tossed about quite freely, so my tacit recommendation of this show is qualified for that reason (I’m still a good bit old-fashioned in that regard). I’m going to defer to Wikipedia to offer a concise overview:

The Path is an American television drama series {which} portrays members of a fictional religion known as Meyerism. Eddie Lane lives in Upstate New York with his wife Sarah and their two children, Hawk and Summer. They are all members of the Meyerist Movement, which combines aspects of New Age philosophy, shamanism, Christian mysticism and Utopianism with a few elements of Sufism, Tibetan Buddhism and Freemasonry ritual. Eddie returns from Peru, where he had undergone a spiritual retreat designed to advance him further up Meyerism’s spiritual ladder. Unbeknownst to his family, while in Peru, Eddie experienced a revelation which causes him to question his faith in Meyerism. Meanwhile, Cal Roberts, a friend of Sarah’s and one of Meyerism’s top leaders, is looking to expand their influence and deal with the imminent death of their founder, Doctor Steven Meyer. – Wikipedia

That’s the gist of it. The characters are very well-developed and the dynamics of both the actual family and the ‘church family’ ring true. I have found it to be incredibly compelling, and on my day off it’s not unusual for me to absorb two or three episodes in a combination of binge watching, laundry, and house cleaning. And as I am prone to do with any good story I encounter, I find myself drawn into the scenes; it’s not difficult to place myself right in the middle of it all, with emotional engagement that goes far beyond entertainment.

With this show, it’s often uncomfortable. I’ve given a tiny bit of thought to some of the personal feelings that bubble to the surface and to the powerful draw I feel towards some of the characters. But mostly, I’ve turned off the screen and looked away. But it stays with me, and the discomfort never completely abates. I have wondered why.

Today, I have a name for this; The Path, for me, is a mirror of dangerous grace.

I see so much of what is deeply familiar to me in this story of people who are passionately the_path_s01_stilldevoted to a belief system, one that is based on goodness and light, on decency and undeniable experiences. There is a powerful commitment to family, a longing to do right by those who are broken and marginalized.

There is, also, an inescapable tinge of evil lurking around the edges. Corruption bubbles up, beckoned by power and lust and desire. Lines are crossed and beliefs challenged and carefully constructed worlds begin to fall apart.

There are so many angles to this for me, past the part that is purely entertainment and a well-crafted television show. The Path as mirror refracts bits and pieces of familiar history to me in the family drama, the fundamentalist all-or-nothing faith, the semi-blind obedience to a charismatic leader. But the reflection that catches my attention most in this current season is the one that suggests something I’m not very comfortable with.

The way I see this story of well-meaning but misled believers in ‘The Light’ might be the very way a large part of the population sees me.

The believers in The Path are a group of people who claim allegiance to a man most have never met, one who says he has seen – and climbed – a ladder in the sky, one that allows believers to connect and communicate with ‘The Light’, which further develops the theory that all people are damaged by their past and their mistakes, and that personal enlightenment and development leads true believers to bring about healing to humanity, the environment, and the entire world. Taken at face value, it’s not difficult to scoff at these nonsensical  and somewhat ridiculous beliefs and naive passions. Of course, it helps that the filmmakers give us enough back story to undermine a good bit of the sincerity of the leaders – but, all the same, the very premise of these people basing their entire lives on a well-meaning but somewhat farcical fairy tale, hanging odd wood carvings of all-seeing eyes in their homes and pledging total allegiance to the movement – well, of course none of that is true. That’s just silly. Obviously.

Isn’t it?


I am a believer, a follower of Jesus. I claim allegiance to a man I have never met, but one whose gathered teachings, passed down through generations, tell of his connection with the all-powerful creator of all things; this man said that by believing in him, followers can live forever. He promised that a mystical spirit would reside within those who believe in him, guiding them to all truth and righteousness. He and his followers firmly believe that a future day is coming when this present world will end and a new kingdom will emerge. He died, but he came back to life, and then essentially disappeared, leaving instructions for his followers to tell everybody about him.

……..

And there it is. Despite years of tradition and institutions and an entire culture – behavioral, artistic, economical – built around the Christ, when you stand back and look at the bare bones of it, one might say, Well, that’s just silly. Obviously. 

That’s a dangerous mirror. It feels dangerous to type the words, even.

But there is truth there – let’s be honest. I know many people, some who may be reading these words even now, who are kind-hearted, good, loving humans – good people who reject this faith that I hold. And for me to bury my head in the sand, condemn them as ‘lost’, see them as ‘other’, draw lines that divide and exclude, or think myself better-than – well, that feels a lot like a refusal to look in the mirror.

And if I refuse to look, I forfeit grace – dangerous though it may be.

As easily as I dismiss the silly notions of nonsensical faith in a supernatural ladder that prompt a group of people to live righteous lives of help and sacrifice – well, how easily do others do the same as they peer into the lives of those of us whose faith and philosophy revolves around Jesus?

If this were a debate, of course, we’d bring in historical accounts and the veracity of the Bible and all sorts of other evidence for God; but comparing apples to apples, I can see it. And considering our current political and cultural climate in America, is it any wonder that people looking at the public, private, political and personal lives of followers of Jesus might feel the same sort of derisive pity that I feel when I watch the followers of The Path in a fictional television show?


I believe. For a variety of reasons, my faith is secure. I am confident in saying that humans need a center from which to operate in society – a moral, ethical compass, a narrative that makes sense of the world. We need a philosophy of life, and if one is not handed to us or adopted from some other source, we’ll come up with something ourselves at some point. I believe that Jesus was real, and I believe that the basic theological doctrine of Christian faith is true. This is the choice I have made.

Interestingly enough, the older I get and the more I let go of binary ways of categorizing everything in life; the more I open myself to an identity and an experience of God that is all-encompassing and ever-present and often unexpected; the more I shift perspectives and freshly read the scriptures; the more I am willing to relinquish what I have been taught that I must believe in order to be safe – as all those things shift within me, the more powerful and solid my faith becomes. The more fullness I feel. And within comes an understanding that a world that would scoff at Christian faith because it can appear at times as baseless and empty as an episodes of a television show is not my enemy.

Mirrors reflect truth – especially relational ones. Accepting, embracing, and then acting in truth requires respect. And I believe it is possible to live in a firm foundation of faith while simultaneously loving and respecting those who do not embrace that faith.

The scriptures tell of an encounter Jesus had with a religious scholar; he asked a somewhat loaded question, because the church leaders who held power and position were interested in derailing Jesus as his influence grew. Hoping to trip him up, the scholar asked, Which command in God’s law is most important? Choose, Jesus. Elevate one over the other; pick a side.

But Jesus refuses to play divisive games. He opts for the high road. The one I follow, the one whose story I believe, the one whom I have experienced in supernatural ways; this Messiah replied with words that I embrace and lean into, a center from which my actions and attitudes ring with truth and reflect what simply must be a basic foundation for any human life:

Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence. This is the most important, the first on any list. But there is a second to set alongside it: Love others as well as you love yourself. These two commands are pegs; everything in God’s Law and the Prophets hangs from them. – Jesus, Matthew 22.37, The Message


Don’t be afraid to take a hard look in a real mirror. Grace is worth it.

The Flood That Drowns

I grew up going to church – a Christian church. I knew the ins and outs of the traditions and the touchstones of faith. I knew that Jesus died on the cross for our sins. I knew the books of the Bible.

I knew a lot about Christianity, or so I thought. In hindsight, I think perhaps I knew a lot about going to church, and social gatherings, and the particular tools and equipment used in our rituals.

A little past the mid-century point of my life, I am less sure about anything I knew, or thought I knew, about how this all works. I stand back and look at the vast amount of information available about different sects and practices and theological positioning and interpretation and style and what it means to follow Jesus, and I think, Lord, have mercy. I’ll never sort this out.

The glut of information available to us via the internet is unfathomable. And it can be confusing; it’s enough to make me throw up my hands and give up.

Or throw up my hands and simply work with what I’ve got.


In spite of the vast possibility of experiences and ideas and information available, in these past few years I have chosen a more reductionist method of understanding the spiritual dimensions of my identity as a Christian. And the ultimate reduction is bringing it to my experiences, my understanding, my truth. In the end, isn’t it all about me?

There’s a great paradox there, because ultimately, yes; it comes down to me – my life, what I can control, choices I make, the reckoning of my behavior. But at the same time, my existence cannot be divorced from my place in the community – my interaction with others, my responsibility to family and friends, my place as part of humanity. And so, our lives – whether lived through a Christian lens, or another faith, or none at all – ebb and flow in constant flux between what works for us personally and what works for the whole of the community.

And these days, that’s where the fascinating, intriguing, wonder-filled understanding of Christianity resides for me. The Bible, as story after story of humanity – and the Creator’s interaction with it. Jesus, the example of a life so crammed fill of wisdom and compassion and in-your-face honesty, wrapped in a supernatural cloak of power and grace. My community, doing life as best we can, connected by moments of grace grown out of desperation and fear, victory and joy.


Yesterday I spent a couple of hours waiting for an iPhone repair. The Apple store is always
filled to the brim with people in various stages of seeking something. It’s always packed, it seems; and everybody is waiting. Everybody presents some form of desire; looking for a new thing, or resolution to some brokenness. We talk to the greeter, we are pointed to the altar, we offer up our shattered phone or failing MacBook, we trust a man or woman with knowledge to guide us.

Usually we get what we want. Sometimes it costs us dearly, but we pay the cost because we trust the company and the brand, and we so desp180serately want what they have to offer.

Alan – my repair guy – told me to return at 2:15. I ventured into the outdoor mall to get a coffee, found a place to park and work on my MacBook, and waited. A storm blew in, and as the rain began in spurts, I dashed back to the store. I was early by about 10 minutes, but I checked on the repair anyway. It wasn’t ready, so I leaned against the counter and started playing with something new, tethered to the table, right next to the greeter.

Another employee started a conversation with him; I gotta get to church tonight. I didn’t go this morning. 

I immediately started eavesdropping.

I’m giving up soda, again.

I did that a few years ago – never got a taste for it after that. 

Yeah? Crazy how that works. I really like Pepsi, but I think I can do it.

They’re bringing Crystal Pepsi back – remember that? 

Yeah! Remember? ‘Oh, it’s clear – it must be good for you!’ Ha!

I jumped in to the conversation; I’m giving up an hour of sleep every day.

And just like that, I was in connected in a moment that held much more weight than the expensive gadgets tied to the tables around us. We talked about what it’s like to wake up early, to feel the quiet, to see the sun come up. It was a mere six minutes of conversation and connection…and then the storm got more intense and I asked him to check on my repair status again.

It was ready.

I got my phone, paid yet another guy in a blue shirt, and headed out into the rain.


My reading this morning, from Bread and Wine, focused on baptism as the beginning of this procession toward Easter. Jesus was baptized; it begins the story of his interaction with his community. He showed up at the river and John the Baptizer, recognizing him,  protested: I’m the one who needs to be baptized, not you! But Jesus insisted.

‘Do it. God’s work, putting things right all these centuries, is coming together right now in this baptism.’ Matthew 3.15

I’m working with what I’ve got; in sorting out this faith journey, standing on what I know will form in me a better self and a better member of this community. In Bread and Wine, William Willimon says The chief biblical analogy for baptism is not the water that washes but the flood that drowns.

Discipleship is more than turning over a new leaf. It is more fitful and disorderly than gradual moral formation. Nothing less than daily, often painful, lifelong death will do.

That doesn’t sound too appealing, does it? But there we have the point of a Lenten discipline, a walk through these 40 days. Without a willingness to lean into the mess – the ‘fitful, disorderly drowning’, I cannot possibly appreciate Easter – or anything else about being part of humanity – fully me, connected by fleeting touch points to others.

What a privilege, this life we are given.

If You Have Too Much To Do

It is early; the house is quiet. Save for the focused hum of the heat pump and the clipped complaints of the cat as he gripes about the fact that no one will let him out of the house (not while it’s still dark), there are no sounds. My husband and my son and the dog are still asleep.

Lent begins today. This year, there will be no  literal ashes for me.

But you can carve out broken, burnt places in your heart, if you take the time. What you discover might not leave a visible mark on your skin, but it’s there just the same. Ashes smudge inside as well as out.

My Lenten practice for this year is to rise, early. To do exactly what I am doing now – to get up before the sun pushes back the night; then to read, to think, to write. I am giving up that extra hour of sleep for these extra moments of contemplation.

Ironically, yesterday I finished the final page of the journal that has held me fast for the past 12 months. It’s a sketchbook, so I filled it with sketches and prayers and doodles and colors, and who could have known that it would follow the liturgical calendar so precisely? So today I sit without an empty page…

…the opening for metaphor looms large…

There is always an empty page.

This morning, it is the open hour I’m offering, staked firmly to my believe that it’s okay to be empty, especially in a season of sacrifice and contemplation. It’s not just an extra hour; it is the bandwidth of my soul, expanded and loosened.

It’s not just empty, it’s expectant.


My boss tweeted early this morning; phone in hand as I carried the first cup of coffee to my little work and study space, I saw only the first phrase flash across the locked screen:

If you have too much to do –

I auto-filled the rest of the phrase myself:

If you have too much to do, maybe you are doing too much.

If you have too much to do, you can’t do what’s important.

if you have too much to do, you’re probably tired all the time.

If you have too much to do, you’ll never see how beautiful the day can be.

If you have too much to do, maybe you’re doing it wrong.

You could complete that phrase a million different ways, and each time you’d have hit on something true. Interestingly enough, it was the perfect title for my day – this first day of sleep-sacrifice (which is a bigger deal for me than you might imagine; I am not fond of giving up a leisurely wake up. The snooze button is my best friend.)

If you have too much to do, maybe you ought to give yourself an extra hour to get some of it done.

That’s the way I’m choosing to see today.


Funny; none of my guesses were correct. The actual tweet looked liked this:

That’s valid.

And here’s the thing: We take the inspiration we are given and run with it.

Or sit with it, as the case may be.

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persist

I am of the opinion that life is going to be painful.

(EDIT: Upon the first re-read, I see that as a ridiculously stupid statement. Of course life is painful. It is nonsense to say that is my ‘opinion’. It is a fact. In spite of the stupidity of the statement, I’m leaving it there and telling you this: What I meant to say was that I am ‘of the mindset’ that life is going to be painful. Which is similar to having an opinion, but different…somehow…. Anyway, let’s get on with what I was attempting to convey here; something about my somewhat fatalistic approach to life…)

I tell myself not to be surprised when challenges come or when ‘bad things’ happen, because life is hard. Things fall apart. People are easily broken, and mostly messy.

That’s not to say that I walk around all doom and gloom; I don’t. I’m generally happy and optimistic and I believe the best about darn nearly everything and everybody. I am often full of joy and mostly content.

But life is life. We are born shrieking, out of pain, and although our trajectory be ragged at times, we are pretty much headed inevitably towards death. So it goes.

I try to keep my expectations realistic. Everybody suffers. I look around and see the pain that friends have endured and understand that there is no comparison, no escape, and no sense in pushing it all away. I consider the hurt I have felt in my own life; I remember. I know that strangers all over the world are suffering in ways I cannot even imagine. The best we can do, mostly, is be present in that reality; to offer aid when we can, and to weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn.


I finished watching ‘The OA’ tonight; a Netflix series that I found quite compelling, very odd, and strangely beautiful. My viewing stretched out over a couple of months, as I ended up contemplating the story carefully in between episodes. I didn’t think about it a lot, but I thought about it some, and I did some reading about the back story and the creators. The dramatic premise (mad scientist, kidnapped laboratory subjects for his experiments, etc.) was a little much at times, but the exploration of life beyond this one – the ‘afterlife’ – was an interesting bit of imagination.  The character development is fascinating and the tale itself is fantastical…and it had me thinking, maybe…just maybe? 

It’s fiction; it’s entertainment. But the best creative work does more than occupy an hour or two; artistic endeavors that leave me mulling life and death and people and relationships and eternity – well, that’s the stuff that’s worth my time. ‘The OA’ didn’t change my theology or alter my beliefs about Life and Death, but it certainly made me think about all of the above – along with the power of our imagination and what’s behind – or in front of – a good story.


I also finished a Wallace Stegner book this week; Crossing to Safety drug me back into the 1940’s and thrust me into the life of two couples and their life-long relationship with one another. Those four people became real to me over the course of this novel, in a way that has tucked them into my memory like some long-lost cousins. It’s uncanny, the power of words to make you believe and understand and care about people who are actually fiction. But they live in my head now, in my heart, in my understanding of humanity.

I am thinking about pain and life and death in the context of these two fictional bits of art and entertainment because it happens to be where I sit on this Friday night. My heart is content, with positive input from all directions: Work, spiritual life, future plans, learning, children, husband, family, friends. There is the sweet sense that all, in this particular moment, is well; that sense is deeply satisfying. And yet I know that this sweet spot will not last. This is not the end-all, be-all for life. This is not what I am striving for.

And that’s the thought that strikes me tonight, brought on by the gift of one daughter’s art and inspiration and the heartfelt words of another. I am soaking in the gentle peace of this moment, this Sabbath evening with my son and his friend slipping into sleep on one side of the house, my beloved husband – my person, as I kept telling him last night – snoring gently on the other. The encouraging words of a friend are in my ear from a late afternoon phone call – words that are leading me into a new field of study and a step of faith-filled risk. In this moment, all is well; and all will be well. I say that, all the while confident that there will be pain and loss and darker days around the corner, but I believe life is meant to be looked upon with expectation and hope, fueled by grace and mercy that is not of our making.

Hence, all will be well.

This is a deeply rooted part of my faith, and I have yet to see which comes first – the chicken or the egg? The faith that mercy is true and good and will appear as needed? Or the mercy that exists as sure and solid as granite, giving birth to faith?

Whichever is primary, they are the bones of my life. And it is in that spirit – as much as it is in the strength of my stance as a strong woman, born of a strong woman, grandmothered by a strong woman, mother of three strong women – that I persist.

Life is hard. Nobody owes you anything. You are loved anyway – deeply, madly, surely. Persist.

Life will be painful, and pain-filled. You will mourn. Your heart will ache. Persist.

You will be shushed and silenced; you will meet resistance. Your joints will stiffen and you will be filled with fear. Persist.

You will live; you will die.

Nevertheless, persist.

For all the moments in between, all the bits and pieces of mercy and grace that will come to you in the open hands and outstretched arms of your brothers and sisters (and yours sons and daughters), persist. For all who will speak healing into your brokenness and comfort to your grief – persist.

And see that all is well, and all will be well.

persisted2
You can purchase a copy of this beautiful print from Moon River Print Co; that’s my daughter. 

This Should Not Be Happening

 

Two people I loved died last week. Both lived in Texas, in or around the Dallas / Fort Worth metroplex, where I went to high school and where my parents lived for over 20 years.

Both deaths were sudden and unexpected. The news came to me, in both cases, via a text message. In both cases, I whispered No. No. No no no no no no no….. I choked and tears flowed.

We push against the news of death, as if our desire to make it not-be-true might actually carry some weight. What else is there to say, but to shout No! To cry out a denial, to protest that This should not be happening?

My nephew by marriage – my kids’ cousin, just a few months older than my son Daniel – passed from this life to the next, the second chapter in a horrific story of loss. His older brother lost his life in a car accident a little over two years ago, and Brendon’s heart never mended. He lost his way, and his efforts to numb the pain led to an ending that broke all our hearts all over again. His twenty-one years were far too short. If you are the praying sort, you might remember his strong mama and his tender-hearted daddy, whose legs have little strength to stand after losing their boys. This should not be happening.

My friend and mentor, Jeff – a ‘door holder’ in my life who received an entire blog post in his honor – fell last weekend, for reasons unknown, and the subsequent injury took his life. Here was almost 70 years of family and love and music and business and travel and pride and joy; but the loss was still shocking and painful. This should not be happening. 

I traveled to Texas to attend both funerals. My head was spinning. There to honor the lives and the families of those who had died, I also encountered other sorts of loss along the way that were personal and deeply felt. I came to understand, as I drove the 90 miles back and forth from Tolar to Grand Prairie, from Dallas to Granbury, just how disjointed and disconnected my life had been. There seemed to be few points of connection between the girl who went to high school smack dab in the middle of the metroplex and the one who moved to a small town to teach K-12 music. While in Grand Prairie, I talked with folks who’d been settled in the area for most of the past 40 years. They stayed home, they stayed connected. While in Tolar at Brendon’s funeral, I talked with men and women who were students there when I was teaching; now grown, with grown children of their own, they were still tied to the community and the town. They stayed home, they stayed connected.

I looked at my own life and realized that there was precious little staying home anywhere. These past 12 years that I have lived in Powhatan consist of my longest tenure anywhere in my life, other than my first 13 years in Pennsylvania (and I’ll pass that record soon). I’ve traded communities and friendships every few years; I’ve planted weak, shallow roots that have often grown quickly faded blooms and then been left to die, abandoned in search of better soil.

I’ve had very little roots, it seems. And yet there is this: I have had a sense of place and I’ve invested in people wherever I have gone; and so going back to Texas brought a certain sense of grounding to my soul in a way I hadn’t experienced in a long time. It was, I think, a recognition of what it meant to come ‘home’ to a place that only bore that title for a limited time, with limited results. And whether or not the streets were familiar, even if I was struck by how much had changed, it was easy to find a few things to cling to, and to take away great gifts of remembrance. Mostly in the people.

There is a family, joined by grief, imperfect and dysfunctional. Mine is not the only divorce that has happened, but most of us gather; we come back, to do what we can to honor loss, to be present. We were family at one time; that counts for something. My kids share the same blood; there is connection there. We sing the songs of sorrow, we listen to the proclamation of hope in eternity, we embrace one another, we follow the ritual. We look and see a bit of our history in each other, glimpsing the passage of time in a more dramatic fashion than that which comes in day-t0-day living. We agree that this should not be happening, and we grieve. The grief washes over us all in waves, and we ride it, unsteady, together.

There is friendship – memories of school days, long ago. There is the history of friendship, mentorship; teaching and learning and a communal passion for music that soars and sings of secrets and mysteries beyond this life. Shared reminders: ‘If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing right’; challenges to ‘Lead, follow, or get out of the way.’ The snarky comments about the soprano section. Music, sung fresh, new, in real time – carrying the weight of a lifetime; nostalgia, notes and rhythms taught and internalized by 17-year-olds who had little idea what a lifetime meant.

The Lord bless you and keep you…the Lord make His face to shine upon you, and give you peace…

I sat through two funerals last week. In one, I played and sang music; in the other, I absorbed music. In both cases, I was fully engaged.

I wore the same black dress to each service. I was the same person, looking at a history of the different person I have been over the half-century of life I have lived. The disparate, disjointed bits and pieces came together in an odd fashion.

I went to two funerals last week. In being present to honor and respect the lives lived – even if, deep within the fault lines of my soul I continued to whisper this should not have happened – I found a small, slight glimmer of truth about my own life. I was present for myself; for my own history, the different places I have been, the different lives I have tried on like costumes in a photo booth. I inhabited all those places and found them filled with grace, for the girl I was, and for the woman I have become.

I found myself thinking this thought as I hovered over my journal this morning, pen in hand:

Out of death comes life.

I am not sure what I mean by that, exactly. But is there any other hope we might hold within our loss? Is there anything else we might strive to catch hold of, as our eyes turn towards the heavens?

 

 

Simple Gospel

I have played piano, essentially, all my life. Lessons began in second grade and I just kept playing. My university degree is in music, and my professional career has revolved around education and performance and music-related ministry.

I teach privately, which is immensely rewarding.

And I love to hear the people sing.

If you know my current vocation and the way in which we do large church gatherings, you might find that hard to believe. Although my focus has been on the pastoral side of ministry over the past several years, I’m still deeply committed to our musical expression each week; and that expression is contemporary, for sure. Our  musical expression is pretty much rock and roll church, and what you usually can’t hear is the people singing.  Modern evangelical, contemporary-Christian leaning in style and music; it suits our model; it reflects our mission, and we try to choose music for our gatherings that has integrity in every way: Missional, theological, spiritual, musical.

But it’s loud. At first glance it might seem performance-oriented – it is not designed to maximize the experience of hearing a crowd of people sing – at least not like in a traditional church setting or a choral venue. Again, it’s a missional thing; over a longer conversation (or in a different blog post), I could unpack our choices. For now, I’ll just acknowledge that what I’m about to share personally doesn’t seem to line up with where I hang my hat vocationally; I admit to some discrepancy.

Where my heart beats loudest in a musical gathering is in those places where there is little amplification, where instrumentation is sparse, and where what matters most is the people, singing. We occasionally have opportunities to stand around the piano and sing; sometimes before Wednesday night small groups, while Christmas caroling, in staff meetings. In those situations, somebody always makes a comment like, Oh, you don’t want to hear ME sing!! or Y’all will cover your ears if I start singing! and I am always quick to say, Oh, no you don’t – don’t say that. EVERYBODY can sing! Everybody can make a joyful noise! 

And I really believe that.

And it’s truly what I love to hear most in music.

My cousin’s daughter recently performed with a Middle School Honor Choir in Nebraska; Facebook videos showed snippets of focused, tuned, passionate, expressive and accurate musical interpretation. It was a beautiful thing, all those kids singing together. I loved it.

When the Cubs were in the World Series, every game held an extra bonus – everybody singing Take Me Out to the Ball Game with gusto and passion and a lack of inhibition. I didn’t watch the games, but I sought out the seventh inning singing segment of each game. I loved it.

Our Christmas Eve service ended with an a cappella version of Silent Night that still stirs my heart, buried in my aural memory. Five hundred of us, singing together.

Beautiful.

That’s the kind of singing that moves me. And that’s the kind of singing we don’t always hear at our church, it seems. Truth be told, we’ve created that environment. We have incredibly talented and gifted musicians facilitating – or “leading” – worship every week. It seems as thought we elevate the talented and set the bar fairly high and expect everybody else to just watch. It’s true that we recognize musical gifts, and we give space for them to be utilized. But maybe we haven’t done a good job reminding everybody else that we all can sing. And we all should sing.

I’m thinking these thoughts because tomorrow, the snow is forcing us to have one combined service, rather than seven spread out over four campuses. I wasn’t scheduled toi-will-rejoice-in-the-simple-gospel-i-will-rejoice-in-you-lord play, but now I’m joining in with the band and I’ve been looking at a new song we have on tap for tomorrow. I ran through the chords and was reminded that it’s an incredibly simple song; the same four chords, in the same order, throughout the entire piece.

And the words are far from complicated; in fact, the song is titled Simple Gospel, and everything about the song is just that. Simple. Some might find it boring.

Which is, of course, the point; the simplicity, the lack of complication (not to be boring!)

I ran through the chords and sang a bit this evening and I found myself coming back to just one thought, time and time again. There’s only one thing I want when we introduce this song tomorrow; in fact, I think there is something representative here about what I want in general, as I contemplate all these changes in our culture, in my job, in our church, in our families.

I want to hear the people sing.

I hope that this song imprints itself quickly upon hearts and minds tomorrow morning – like it did with me the first time I heard it – and that the words fit easily into our mouths and that we find it easy to proclaim.

I want to hear the people sing.

I want to know you, Lord, like I know a friend
I want to know you, Lord

So I’m laying down all my religion
I’m laying down – I want to know you, Lord

I use to think that I could box you in
But I’m laying down – I want to know you, Lord

Lord, I’ve been told to be ashamed
Lord, I’ve been told I don’t measure up
Lord, I’ve been told I’m not good enough
But you’re here with me

I reach out and you find me in the dust
You say no amount of untruths can separate us

I will rejoice in the simple gospel – I will rejoice in you, Lord