Taylor Swift is leading us in lament

“When I stopped trying to block my sadness and let it move me instead, it led me to a bridge with people on the other side.” … I learned that sadness does not sink a person; it is the energy a person spends trying to avoid sadness that does that.”

― Barbara Brown Taylor

I had gone on a solo overnight to Frisco the night that Taylor Swift released her latest album, Midnights. I had planned to drive down early in the morning to get the kids off to school. As a bandwagon fan of Taylor’s work, I naturally found myself listening to her songs just hours after their release, in the dark of early morning driving home from the mountains all alone. 

Sometimes the Holy Spirit uses a song to just hit you over the head, and that happened for me with track 15. I am regularly amazed by how God gives poets and writers of songs the ability to speak to our hearts and move us in a given moment of time. So often they give us what we didn’t even know we needed. Like prophets, they speak to cultural moments in a universal way that is also profoundly personal. Without an ounce of coercive power, an artist can sing to us, and move us, and we change. 

As I listened to “Bigger Than The Whole Sky” I couldn’t help but feel that Taylor Swift is leading us all in lament. She is showing us how to let “salt streams out of my eyes and into my ears.” We have all experienced so much loss, personally and collectively. Yet we have pressed on, pushed through, pivoted. We do what we need to do to survive. We are resilient. But the time comes when you must lament because your body keeps the score. There comes a time when all that grief and ache and loss catches up with you. There comes a time when you need a good cry for all you’ve lost and all you’ve been, and all the friends who were and weren’t and may not be again. There comes a time for lament.

God invites us to lament. The Psalms are filled with lament. Our culture just isn’t always the biggest fan. We like to push sadness underwater like a giant beach ball that inevitably pops up again, hitting us in the face with tears in the grocery aisle at Target. From time to time, God brings us a word, or a song that helps us grieve all that has been lost. I pray you may find yourself in the kingdom of heaven where “blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.” 

Thank you, God, for giving us this song and for giving artists songs that lead us in a worldwide lament. Click here to listen to Taylor Swifts song, “Bigger Than The Whole Sky”.

If you’d like to explore lament in the scriptures, check out these 5 psalms of lament: 

  1. Psalm 130 / Key verse: Psalm 130:1, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice!”
  2. Psalm 6 / Key verse: Psalm 6:3, “My soul is in deep anguish. How long, Lord, how long?”
  3. Psalm 38 / Key verses: Psalm 38:9-11, “All my longings lie open before you, Lord; my sighing is not hidden from you. My heart pounds, my strength fails me; even the light has gone from my eyes. My friends and companions avoid me because of my wounds; my neighbors stay far away.”
  4. Psalm 10 / Key verse: Psalm 10:1, “Why, Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?”
  5. Psalms 42-43 / Key verse: Psalm 42:7, “Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me.”

The leaves are so vulnerable

I am sitting in my chair looking at the trees outside my window. They are bursting with vivid colors, yellow and red and every shade of green and orange. It strikes me that the leaves are so vulnerable. In all their glory they are about to die. Just the slightest breeze and so many come falling down. A big gust and it looks like we will be raking again today. 

These leaves remind me of my own shy soul and the shy souls that I have encountered in every person I have ever known. We are all vulnerable. Despite our best posturing and performance, we are at any moment mere mortals. We are amygdala-dependent humans. When we do not feel safe we will automatically move to fight, flight, freeze or fawn in our response. We are dependent even on our best of days on the next breath as gift from God. 

The wind is blowing strong now and the vulnerable beauty of fall is fluttering to its own death. Consenting to the ground where snow will fall and all will appear dead. Nature will teach us over and over again that death, and winter eventually give way to spring. And so it is with you and I. May the leaves be our teacher today. 

Stay soft — it looks good on you.

We’ve been hosting this group in our home recently. It is made up of people who have been in church groups for decades. They have all experienced change, loss, betrayal, pain, and the sadness that comes when the community does not live up to our expectations of it. They have all been let down, disappointed, hurt. Here is the thing that is amazing to me — they are still showing up anyway. They are showing up open to themselves, to each other, and to God. Sometime back a friend gave me a little note that said, “stay soft, it looks beautiful on you” and I have that note hanging in my office. Yet if I’m honest, I don’t think I’m remaining all that soft lately. My tendency in this post-covid-ish world is to shrink inside of myself like a turtle, I don’t want to risk that pain again. I don’t want to attach to a transient group of people who will likely leave, move, change or die! Most days I feel that I would rather be self-protective. So this little group we have been hosting is saving me in a way. They are saving me by reminding me that showing up even after the inevitable disappointment of the community is worth it. It is worth it because the alternative is to close yourself off and to become isolated and hard. 

C. S. Lewis wrote in The Four Loves, “There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is hell.”

Love means opening ourselves up to pain, loss and sorrow. I hope you will join me in taking the risk to love again. 

Love big. Be well.

Casting Bread Upon the Water

This past week was Rosh Hashanah, a Jewish holiday that kicks off ten days of naming and releasing our sins – both those that we have done and those that have been done to us. I love that there is an entire community worldwide that is pausing to take inventory of their lives, to name their sins and hurts, and to thrust them out of their lives. It is an annual way of cleaning out, of repenting and clearing the slate of our souls before God. I think my favorite parts of this holiday are the embodied practices like the blowing of the shofar and casting bread upon the water to symbolically cast away our sins. So, this week, I told my kids that Jesus was Jewish and we were going to celebrate and practice Rosh Hashanah together. We stood together by our little backyard swimming pool and Russell blew the shofar horn, and we held some bread in our hands. Then we paused to take inventory of things we had done and things we had left undone, ways we have not loved God or our neighbor as ourselves. Then we took our bread crumbs and with a big motion, we threw that bread into the pool. The next day, Tim and I stood alone together by a river in the mountains, and we once again threw our sins symbolically into that flowing river.

It is not any act of my own that brings about repentance and forgiveness, it is only by grace through faith in Christ that these realities become mine. And yet still there is something so very powerful about embodying these internal realities alongside others in visible and earthy ways. I imagine I will keep throwing my bread – that is to say my sins – upon the water in the days to come because those places of unforgiveness keep creeping back up in me and I find I need to name them and release them repeatedly before I am free of them on the inside. Which is why it is especially powerful to me to actually do something with my body rather than only with my mind and heart. Of course I can just do this all silently in prayer, but it is not the same, and this year especially I needed a way to get those impossible feelings out of my body through bodily action. Embodied spiritual practices make what is invisible visible and memorable — this is the value of rituals. To light a candle. To taste the bread and wine. To take myself to a body of water, hold the bread in my hand, throw it, and watch it go away from me. This is a picture of what God is doing for us in Jesus, and it feels good and true to embody it. 

Love big. Be well.

You are the light of the world

Imagine you have just arrived in New York City. You are looking forward to a few days of museums and shows and dining out at some of the world’s best restaurants. You land at the airport, hop an Uber to your hotel, but just as you are pulling up to your hotel something strange happens — the lights go out. You come to find out that the entire city has lost power. It’s not the first time this has happened, you remember reading about the NYC blackout of 1977 and 2003 and 2019 … but you didn’t expect it while you were visiting. So you go into the hotel and they hand you a candle and a flashlight, and you fill out your information on a piece of paper because all the computers are down. And you make your way up the stairs to your room because the elevator isn’t working. It feels a little hot with no AC, so you decide to crack the window.  When you open the window shades you are shocked to see that there is a hotel across the street that is all lit up. You open the window and you hear music! There is a whole lot of joy across the street and you are in a whole lot of darkness. You are baffled, you are wondering, how in the world can there be this much light in the middle of this much darkness? So you decide to make your way downstairs because obviously you’re in the wrong hotel. So you grab your candle and flashlight and make your way back downstairs and across the street in the city that has gone dark. The streetlights are not lit, the houses are not lit, the storefronts are not lit, your hotel is not lit – but this place is all lit up. You walk across the street into an air-conditioned space, and there are TVs all along the walls of the foyer with CNN talking about how dark NY is. You get into a line that is serving food because none of the other places in town can serve food without power. Eventually, you find the manager and you say to her, “I don’t understand, please help me understand, how can there be this much light in the midst of this much darkness?” and she says, “I’ve been getting that question a lot and it’s fairly simple: when we built this hotel we built it with a gas generator. So we are not dependent on what is happening out there to determine what is going on here. We’ve got something in here that because it is not dependent on what is going on out there, gives us in here what out there does not possess. We have something built-in that gives us the ability to transcend the darkness in which we find ourselves.” 

Jesus said to his followers,

You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden” — Matthew 5:14

Jesus is saying: you have something built-in that gives you the ability to transcend the darkness, you’ve got something in here (in your soul and in the community I have given you called the church) that is not dependent on what is happening “out there” in the world. Jesus is talking about how his followers will show up in a society when it is dark, how they will be light, how they will be IN the dark world but not OF the dark world. It is this idea of Christians and culture – how do you follow Jesus when the world has gone mad? How can you let your light shine? 

May you access your God-given resources to shine the light of the world in your corner of the world today. 

Living into community

Have you ever received a phone call that changed the trajectory of your life? 

I bet everybody could tell of a time when a phone call came that changed your world – at least a little bit. Sometimes it is good news, you get a job offer, or receive the news of the birth of a child. But often it’s a crisis. The doctor’s office calls and the news is not good. Or, there was an accident. Or you get a call from the principal’s office or the police station -and it is something that involves your child. Or there is the loss of somebody you love. 

Sometimes a phone call comes that splits your world in two – there is the life you lived before the phone call and the life you lived after the phone call. 

I am sorry to say this but it is true, one day news will rock your world. And when that phone call comes it will find you living in one of two conditions. It will either find you living in mostly isolation, mostly disconnected from other people, largely on your own emotionally, relationally and spiritually. In this condition, you are not sure if there is anybody you can reach out to. Or, it will find you living into community. In this condition, you will be surrounded by some people who know you and love you because you will have eaten together and laughed together and talked together and prayed together and have done life together. And those people, they will hold you up, and strengthen you and support you. They will not be able to make it all better, but they will keep you together as if by an invisible force. That is what community is. Community is like an invisible source of strength, and God says you will not grow without it, you cannot thrive without it. It will not be the words or advice of these people or their ability to fix the situation that will strengthen you. Like you, they will be powerless to change what is real and true. But the source of strength will come nonetheless through connection, through the witness of one soul to another. When a friend can listen without judgment, see the good and call it forth, especially when you can see nothing but confusion and despair – it can change your life. 

May you be found living into community when the phone call comes. 

What steps can you take today to be living into community?

Take a moment now to thank God for the loving relationships you already have and ask God how you might take steps to further live into community today.

Paying attention

When we first adopted our daughter Lyla from China, my son Russell was 3 years old. He was adjusting to having to share his parents with a new sibling. Sometimes he would do this funny thing where I would be reading books with Lyla, and Russell would say, “Can I get some care?” It was his little way of saying “Pay attention to me, Mommy.” And then later, Lyla started doing this thing where if I was on my phone and she wanted my attention she would actually take my face in her hands and move my face until I was looking into her eyes. Again, saying, “Pay attention to me, Mommy!” 

If we had to sum up every parable Jesus told about the kingdom of God perhaps we could simply say this:

these are stories calling us to pay attention.

Jesus says the kingdom of God is like many things: a farmer sowing seed, a man hunting treasure, a woman kneading dough, fishermen casting a net, a landowner being generous. The kingdom is like seed, yeast, pearl, fish, a banquet, a vineyard, a wineskin. It’s so many different things, it’s hard to say it’s any one thing.

It’s seemingly random. It’s hidden. It’s surprising. It’s disruptive. It’s unexpected. It begins small. It’s something you desperately need or passionately want, but it comes mixed with things that you very much dislike and yet can’t seem to rid yourself of until God says so. It’s something you receive and cultivate. It’s something you seek. It’s something you await and stay ready for. It’s something you’re invited to and come prepared for. It’s something of great value and you need to discover it. It’s something that reverses values and expectations, and you need to adjust yourself to it. It’s something an enemy seeks to destroy. 

But this one thing unites all the parables: pay attention. See, the kingdom is always present but often we are absent. So over and over again Jesus says “pay attention.”

May you have eyes to see the kingdom around you and within you today. 

With Anguish

I read a book a few years ago about a woman who served as a police officer. Her job was to visit the home of someone whose loved one had tragically died and deliver that sudden, terrible news to a stranger. She talked about how there was one consistent thing that always happened when a person received devastating news. She said that their bodies would collapse. They could not stand up. They would fall to the ground, or fall into her, or collapse against a wall. When anguish arrives, our bodies cannot stand up to it. We literally crumple.

There is a painting called, “Anguish” at the National Gallery of Victoria, in Melbourne, Australia. Anguish is an 1878 oil painting by August Friedrich Schenck. It depicts an anguished mother sheep standing over the dead body of its lamb, surrounded by a multitude of crows. This is often the image that appears in my mind when I witness anguish. 
Christ experienced the brokenness of our world, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.” (Hebrews 4:15, NIV)

One hymn writer took to this theme with these words:
Man of sorrows what a name
for the Son of God, who came
ruined sinners to reclaim:
Hallelujah, what a Savior!

Bearing shame and scoffing rude,
in my place condemned he stood,
sealed my pardon with his blood:
Hallelujah, what a Savior!

Guilty, helpless, lost were we;
blameless Lamb of God was he,
sacrificed to set us free:
Hallelujah, what a Savior!

He was lifted up to die;
“It is finished” was his cry;
now in heaven exalted high:
Hallelujah, what a Savior!

When he comes, our glorious King,
all his ransomed home to bring,
then anew this song we’ll sing:
Hallelujah, what a Savior! 

I wish for you to never know anguish, but when you do, I pray you might be held when your body cannot stand. 

Learning from the turtle

I was kayaking along when I noticed a turtle basking in the sun. He had his little neck cranked out as far as possible. His greenish-brown face was pointed right towards the warmth of the sun. I stopped paddling to admire him. When I got a little too close he retracted his scared self right back inside his protective shell. I love how God gives us little pictures like this throughout nature. When the turtle is feeling safe and secure he most naturally delights to lift his head towards the sun, but when he feels afraid he retreats back within himself and away from the warm light. 

I wish for you to be like the turtle. I pray that you might find those safe places of dependent trust in the goodness of God’s love and care for you this summer, and to bask in those spots. I hope you can have moments where you freely lift the entirety of your beloved countenance towards the light and warmth of the sun that is God’s eternal love. 

“The LORD bless you and keep you; The LORD make His face shine upon you, And be gracious to you; The LORD lift up His countenance upon you, And give you peace.” ’

— Numbers 6:24-26 NKJV

When the heart breaks

Someone I love is going through a crazy difficult time. Several of us have gathered around her to try to show our love and support. Honestly, before this crisis, none of us were all that close. We used to be, and then over the last few years, so many things came in between us. Something about the pain of this situation though, the sheer desperation in her voice, the feeling of survival-mode kicking in has made us all drop our opinions and differences, and just move towards each other in love, support, and compassion.

On Easter, I shared the story of a wise teacher and his student studying the Hebrew scriptures together. They were discussing the passage that says, “put these words upon your hearts.” The student asked the teacher, why does it say to place these words UPON our hearts and not IN our hearts. The wise teacher said, “All we can do is place these words upon our hearts, and there they stay, until one day when the heart breaks, and these words fall in.” 

When our hearts are breaking, everything changes – with ourselves, with God, with each other. When I am in a comfortable place of confidence and pride, it is easy to be a know-it-all, a fixer, a person who vilifies my perceived enemy. It is easy to see “Us versus Them,” and to get on my high horse about how right I am. But when our hearts break – for ourselves, for each other, for the world – all of that tribe-making, division-seeking seems silly. 

Hearing scripture from the brokenness of your heart changes everything. 

It is no longer about mastering information. 

It is no longer about justifying a battle with a perceived enemy.

It is no longer about winning a culture war.

It is no longer about seeking proof. 

It is more like desperation. 

It is more like survival. 

It is more like thirsting for water in a desert. 

Hearing the stories of scripture with a broken heart humanizes everything. 

It is much more about desperately throwing ourselves upon this grace, this mercy, this way of self-sacrificing love. 

It is much more about transformation than just information.

It is much more about receiving mercy, grace, and love than fighting an enemy or proving a point. 

It is much more about spreading love and seeking the common good than seeking a proof text or researching the evidence that demands a verdict. 

So we place these words upon our hearts — because our hearts are often closed — and there these words stay, until one day when the heart breaks and these words fall in. These are words of life, they are words of resurrection life. These are words of self-sacrificing love. These are words of reality. These are words of nondiscriminatory, revolutionary love. This is what faith expressing itself in love looks like. 

This is resurrection. 

When St. John of the Cross talked about the “dark night of the soul,” that’s in part what he was trying to teach us. There are these moments in life of inconsolable despair, of hitting rock bottom, where we must give up our ego’s plan AND where we must give up even our images of God, give up our illusion of being “better than” another, give up the pursuit of holiness, and then, with those stripped away, God appears. 

That’s what happened with Jesus on the cross. His last words were, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Of course, we know that God had not forsaken him, but Jesus calling out shows us that in that moment of surrender, God became known to Jesus beyond even his own imagination. The God of Resurrection broke through. Jesus’ surrender of his limiting view granted an entirely new inbreaking of the Father’s love. 

So, if your heart is breaking today, may you know the breaking heart of God alongside you, and may you emerge more like Jesus from this pain.