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Sanctuary

yoga mat leggings

A few weeks ago on a chilly Monday night, I was in my usual Monday-night place: lying on my back on a green yoga mat, in a dim, quiet wood-floored studio with early spring dusk coming in through the windows.

We had just finished an hour of yoga practice: warrior poses and sun salutations and deep breaths in downward facing dog. Meredith’s usual class playlist – acoustic guitar and mellow peace-on-earth lyrics mixed with a little rock ‘n’ roll – thrummed through our muscles and our eardrums. As we lay there, breathing in savasana (the final resting pose), a new song came over the speakers, a song I hadn’t heard in years.

Lord, prepare me to be a sanctuary
Pure and holy, tried and true…

The singer’s voice slid over the familiar words, eliding the “l” in “Lord” until the word became a simple “o” sound. I knew what was coming next:

With thanksgiving, I’ll be a living
Sanctuary for you.

We talk a lot in yoga class about being present in our bodies, about making space for breath and peace and good things. About letting go of tension and worry and the unhelpful stories we tell ourselves. I have never heard the word “sanctuary” used explicitly in a yoga context, but the concept is definitely there. I couldn’t help smiling, though: my memories of the song “Sanctuary” come from a very different place.

I was one of those Jesus-freak kids in high school: the ones who wore WWJD bracelets and T-shirts emblazoned with catchy Christianese, who led Bible studies before school and knew all the words to the latest DC Talk and Newsboys albums. In small-town West Texas, this did not make me a total outsider, but it did make me a little odd. And, on Thursdays during lunchtime, it meant that I wolfed down taquitos and Bagel Bites with other students in a church gymnasium down the street from my high school, and then got up on a makeshift stage to lead a few praise songs.

Most people, I realized, came for the free food, instead of the spiritual enrichment offered by a prayer and a handful of worship choruses. The songs with goofy hand motions – “Peace Like a River,” for example – were the most popular. But during my senior year, “Sanctuary” became the sleeper hit. We usually sang a song or two and then took requests, and a few kids I knew slightly from marching band would shout, “Sanctuary! Sanctuary!” from their seats at the back of the room.

Maybe they liked the sound of the word (or were channeling Quasimodo). Maybe they liked the melody, played on guitar – different from the piano or the organ that accompanied the hymns they heard on Sundays when their parents dragged them to church. Maybe they just wanted to see if we’d actually sing the same song every single week. I never asked them, so I don’t know. But I stood up there and sang it every time, hoping that somehow it would bring them a little peace or light or whatever they needed. Because I understood even then that we can sometimes be sanctuary for each other.

I never expected to hear that song in a non-religious yoga studio south of Boston. I don’t know if Meredith, my instructor, is a Christian, or if she came across the song and liked the way it sounded. But that studio, with its leaf-green walls and smooth wood floors, has become a kind of sanctuary for me. And it is true that what we do on our mats – those deep breaths and stretches and difficult-but-empowering poses – prepares us for what we do out in the wider world.

Meredith’s playlist varies from week to week, so I don’t know when “Sanctuary” will come up again. But I like both the word and the idea (not to mention the song’s soothing melody). I like the thought of both finding a safe place for ourselves and being one for those who need it. Because heaven knows we could all use a little sanctuary in our lives.

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darwins chai cup creamer coffee shop cambridge ma

10 a.m.: One medium chai latte, to go.

12:30 p.m.: Half a Longfellow sandwich (ham, cheddar, lettuce, tomato, sliced Granny Smith apples and spicy Dijon mustard) on sourdough. With salt and vinegar chips in a bright turquoise bag, if they’re available.

3:30 p.m.: One chocolate-dipped butter cookie, shaped like a heart, shamrock, Easter egg or autumn leaf, as the season dictates.

These are my usual orders at Darwin’s, the cafe down the street from my office. Sometimes the particulars vary a bit: I’ll add a buttery scone to my morning order, or splurge on a chocolate-glazed peanut butter cookie in the afternoon. If I’m feeling healthy I’ll swap the chips at lunch for a fruit salad, and on frigid days, I’ll often order a bowl of the daily soup, with a hunk of baguette for dipping.

I’ve worked in the same neighborhood for three years, and been an occasional visitor to Darwin’s for most of that time. But over the last year, I’ve become a regular. And it has brought me more pleasure than I could have dreamed.

I’m over at Art House America today waxing rhapsodic about my love for Darwin’s, and what it means to be a regular. Please join me over there to read the rest of my essay.

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night driving synchroblog graphic

It was my junior year of college when everything started to go dark.

I had just returned from a semester abroad in Oxford, a spectacular experience punctuated by weekend trips to Rome, Austria, Barcelona, Paris. I dove headfirst into English culture, picking up new slang words and acquiring a taste for Yorkshire tea. The world opened up for me during those months. I had never felt more alive.

I lived with 35 other American students in a pair of tall Victorian houses in North Oxford. We shared our deepest secrets on late-night train rides and over simple meals in our communal kitchens, and we explored every nook and cranny of our new city. We scattered to our respective homes back in the States for the summer, and we couldn’t wait to reunite in our West Texas college town for our junior year.

And then Cheryl died.

I had seen her just a day or two before, as our group started to gather in Abilene. She was heading back to San Antonio to pick up another carload of stuff for her new apartment. Her boyfriend, Chris, went with her to share the driving. And on the highway outside a tiny town in the Texas Hill Country, she lost control of the car and hit a tree.

That loss was the first sharp, sudden grief I’d ever experienced – the first time death came out of nowhere and tore a jagged hole in my life. I’d lost my beloved Papaw a few years before, but he had cancer and he had suffered deeply, and we knew it was coming for months beforehand. Cheryl’s death kicked me in the chest, and for months afterward, I couldn’t breathe.

I grew up in a church culture that placed a lot of faith in apologetics, in pulling up the right Bible verse, the right doctrine, to find an answer for everything. But Cheryl’s death knocked that framework sideways. I couldn’t believe it had happened for a reason; I didn’t believe God had anything to do with it at all. And I railed against people – even people I loved – who tried to tell me everything would be okay.

I couldn’t tell you how, exactly, I stumbled through those next months. I know there were a lot of tears, a lot of angry prayers thrown at the sky, a lot of hours grieving quietly with my friends, sitting together in our raw bewilderment. That spring, I was thrown backward again by another car accident: this one on a rural Missouri road, the cause of my six-year-old cousin Randen’s death. I didn’t – still don’t – believe God had anything to do with that, either.

More than a decade after those two deaths, I have weathered other storms: more loss, more grief, more disappointment. The challenges of a cross-country move and, recently, the constant, tearing uncertainty of the job hunt. If there’s one thing I know about faith, it’s this: there are no easy answers.

I am not always sure, on any given day, why I still believe in God, why the faith of my childhood (though it looks different these days) still tugs at me. I can’t explain why the story of Jesus strikes a chord within me, somewhere deep in my bones. I only know that I do believe, even with all kinds of doubts.

My friend Addie Zierman’s second book released yesterday. It’s called Night Driving: A Story of Faith in the Dark, and it explores what happens when we reach the ends of our simple answers about how God works. I haven’t read it yet, but I loved Addie’s first book, When We Were on Fire, and I have no doubt this one will be powerful, too.

Addie has invited all of us to share our stories of faith in the dark, and this is mine, or the beginning of mine. Cheryl’s death changed the way I think about God, because it was the first all-consuming darkness I’d ever experienced. It has informed the way I think about loss and grief, and it forced me to make room for doubt and shadows in my journey. I wouldn’t have chosen it, but I can’t go back – even if I sometimes have to walk forward in the dark.

Please feel free to head over to Addie’s blog to share your story of faith in the dark, or to read others’ stories. These experiences can be tender and difficult to share, but they are so important, and I believe that sharing them can help us feel less alone.

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katie bethany coffee shop

Here is one thing I love about deep friendships: you develop a kind of shorthand after a while.

Some of this shorthand is topical: my friend Abi and I love so many of the same books and TV shows, and we can discuss/quote them for hours. Some of it’s geographical: my friend Kristin, a fellow West Texas transplant to Boston, knows exactly what I mean when I talk about missing home and loving the life I have here. (Even better: she knows the particulars of certain Texas cities, and how tough it is to find great Tex-Mex food in Boston.)

I’ve been thinking about another kind of shorthand, though: the kind that comes from knowing each other’s casts of characters.

Pretty much everyone I meet knows I’m married: if my wedding ring doesn’t give it away, a comment about my husband is bound to come up before long.

katie jer beach san diego

I also talk frequently about my parents, sister and two adorable nephews – and I’ll show pictures of those sweet boys to anyone who’s willing to look at them. (Here are Harrison and my sister. Adorable, no?)

betsy harrison

But my good friends (and family) also know about the other important people in my life – even if they don’t know one another personally. I tell stories about Sunday nights spent at Ryan and Amy’s, long talks with Abi (and snuggles with her baby girl), college and post-college adventures with my roommate Bethany. (That’s her at the top of this post.)

I talk about my writer pal Hannah (who runs our occasional book club), my snail-mail pen pal Jaclyn, my work buddies Adam and Anissa, my long-distance lifesaver Laura. And in turn, I get to hear about the supporting casts of my friends’ lives: their parents, spouses, siblings, best friends, the people who help anchor them.

It’s a gift to reach the place in a friendship where you don’t have to explain all of that, where the person who’s listening to you has heard, and remembered, the stories about the people who matter. I love hearing stories about my friends’ loved ones – and it’s even more fun if I get to meet them in person. I feel like I know my friends better after getting to know the people they love, because our people are so much a part of who we are.

Do you have this kind of shorthand with your friends? Who’s in your supporting cast of characters?

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sunflowers

Here we are in the middle of ordinary time, that long stretch of the church year between Pentecost and Advent.

Although the high liturgical seasons – especially Christmas and Easter – tend to steal all the attention, the truth is that ordinary time takes up nearly half of the church calendar. The long sequence of Sundays after Pentecost includes the whole summer and most of the fall. During these Sundays, the weekly lectionary texts prod us to think about how to live.

I go to a tiny, semi-liturgical church that has adopted the lectionary and the church year as a way of ordering our communal life. We are part of a denomination that traditionally resisted such things, but we have come to love the quiet rhythms (weekly and annual) that help give shape and focus to our time together.

Many of us are refugees from big evangelical churches that emphasized emotion over thoughtfulness; others came from church communities that prized rationalism over mystery. The liturgy – the Lord’s Prayer, the communion table, the cycle of the church year – helps us make space for all these things.

Although summer is a set-apart time for many people (especially in a city like Boston, which takes its cues from the academic calendar), it always coincides with deep ordinary time. In the midst of school vacations, travel plans, warm weather and looser schedules, we turn back to the Epistles and the Gospels, asking every Sunday: what kind of people are we going to be?

I like ordinary time as a metaphor for our lives. I have a friend who used to slip up and call it “mundane time.” It can sometimes feel like that, but it’s also where most of us live, most of the time. All of our lives contain high moments of joy and low moments of grief and fear, but we mostly live in between. It’s the same at church: while many of us relish the excitement of various holidays, most of our sermons and services, and the issues we discuss, are linked to our everyday, walking-around lives.

Here, in the longest and quietest (in some ways) season, we are called to live faithfully, to consider our instructions (and the story we find ourselves in), and decide how we are going to live. The altar color of this season is green, for new life and growth. If we are faithful (and sometimes lucky), we can experience growth in ordinary time.

I will always love the anticipation of Advent, the starry-eyed wonder of Christmas, the drama of Holy Week and the bursting joy of Easter. But I am developing an appreciation for ordinary time. The beauty of the everyday is particularly present in these weeks, as spring slides into summer and then summer turns toward fall.

Here in ordinary time, it is our job to pay attention, to do our best to live thoughtfully and wisely, to walk through this world with wisdom and compassion. To make these things ordinary, even while they remain mysterious and full of grace.

May it ever be so.

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Celebrating Easter

palm sunday church

This year, the Easter planning happened on the fly.

I suppose it always does, really. Our tiny church, as I’ve said before, has no dedicated, full-time paid ministry staff. Instead, there are four or five of us who plan services and schedule preachers, print bulletins and fill glass communion cups with Welch’s grape juice, and another half dozen who deal with finances and building issues (our sanctuary ceiling has boasted multiplying cracks for years now).

We rarely all end up in the same room together for any length of time. We parcel out the responsibilities, and then we have to trust that everyone knows what they’re doing.

In true twenty-first-century fashion, a lot of the planning happens over email, my husband and I touching base with the folks who teach children’s classes, read Scripture aloud during service, lead prayers, bring snacks for the coffee hour before worship. But during the days leading up to Palm Sunday and Easter, even J and I couldn’t sit down together for more than ten minutes to talk about the services. Instead, we had those conversations when we could: brushing our teeth elbow to elbow in our tiny bathroom, sitting at the dinner table while he ate reheated leftovers after working late (again), pulling on our pajamas to fall into bed after another long day.

We were doing our best to be thoughtful, not to put off the planning until the last minute. But sometimes, the last minute – or a series of minutes, snatched here and there – is all we have. And inevitably, it makes me worry.

What if we can’t have the Easter egg hunt outside? Will the bulletins get printed with all the correct names on the list of Easter lily honorees? Will Bob remember to bring the flowers and Dan remember to make the coffee? Will the kids be so excited and hopped up on sugar that they can’t sit still? Will we have enough food for the after-church potluck? And – this is the big one – will it really feel like Easter?

Our friend Mason, who preached on Sunday, admitted to dreading Easter sermons. It’s like the Super Bowl for church, he said – a day fraught with high, often conflicting expectations, which no sermon can possibly meet. My own expectations for Easter are less about the sermon than about a few beloved hymns and the feelings they are supposed to engender. But it’s still a day with a lot of anticipation. And inevitably, not everything goes according to plan.

Yesterday, we realized five minutes before starting that we hadn’t asked anyone to give the communion thoughts – so I volunteered. Miraculously, the snow that still blanketed the backyard last week had melted – so we did get to have the Easter egg hunt outside. Bob filled the altar with armloads of lilies and the two deep windowsills along the church’s southern wall with tulips and daffodils and hyacinths. Dan did make the coffee, and we had plenty of snacks for the potluck afterward. We stood around in groups, eating scones and carrot sticks and spinach-artichoke dip with pretzels, catching up joyfully – if a little haphazardly – on each other’s lives.

easter flowers brookline

We sang “Low in the Grave He Lay” and “The Old Rugged Cross” and “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” The older kids gave a presentation on the life of Jesus, standing in a ragged line on the stage, mumbling through their parts or speaking them loud and clear. The little ones were not quiet – they never are – and at times the whole morning felt a bit frenetic, a bit cobbled-together. But this is Easter: a story that takes unexpected turns, right in the middle of our ordinary, messy human lives.

I marvel at it every year, sometimes every week: how the logistics, the details, the words and notes on paper, become a living, breathing thing, a celebration of the story none of us can quite explain, but to which all of us, in our various ways, are clinging. It’s rarely neat and tidy, and it almost never turns out quite the way we plan. But – this week and always – it is beautiful.

If you celebrated Easter (or Passover), I hope you had a wonderful holiday.

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On voting.

voting sticker

Yesterday morning, I left my house a little earlier than usual, walking down the block to a plain, unadorned brick hall that regularly hosts community events ranging from AA meetings to meat raffles. (The latter, apparently, are a real thing here in New England.) I walked through a hallway that smelled of stale coffee, into a large, bare room with two tables of cheerful volunteers and a dozen or so voting booths, standing against the wall in a neat line, balanced on spindly legs.

I gave my name and street address to the women at the first table, in exchange for a ballot and an information booklet. After spending a couple of minutes filling in circles in a booth (no one looking over my shoulder), I fed the ballot into the big gray box next to the second table. The volunteers there gave me a sticker (which, as we all know, is just as exciting for adults as it is for kids). I thanked them and headed out to catch my train to work.

Every time I exercise my right to vote, I marvel at the quiet, peaceful simplicity of the process: register, show up, give your name, make your choice, submit your ballot to be counted. Everyone has a say; no one’s vote carries more or less weight than anyone else’s.

Especially in these midterm elections, when the electoral college does not come into play, the process is beautifully, humbly straightforward: one citizen, one vote. In town halls and libraries and even grocery stores across the country, my fellow citizens – rich and poor, male and female, of every ethnicity and political persuasion – can exercise this fundamental American right. (And receive the stickers to show for it.)

I am as sick of campaign ads as the next person, already bracing myself for the firestorm of political rhetoric that will start long before the 2016 presidential election (and which, some would say, never really ends). I grow weary of the personal attacks, on Facebook and elsewhere, that attempt to reduce a person’s identity and character to the box marked on his or her ballot. I won’t tell you which candidates I chose on Tuesday, and I won’t ask you which ones you chose. That information belongs to each of us and no one else.

But I will say this: I hope you voted.

I hope you voted, because the system of a democracy depends on its citizens’ willingness to participate, to decide for themselves which laws they would like to uphold or repeal, and whom they would like to serve as elected officials. I know democracy is often a complicated thing, shadowed by back-door deals and mutual political favors and the byzantine processes of government. But I believe it still works, and it still matters. As a woman, I am particularly aware that I owe my right to vote to a number of brave women who fought for it – and I have a responsibility to exercise it, to honor their work and their sacrifice.

As Ann Patchett noted recently in the New York Times, “voting is like brickwork – the trick is to keep at it every election season, laying brick after brick.” I am not naive enough to believe that one vote on one day will repair all the problems that plague this (sometimes shaky) edifice of democracy. But I believe the act of showing up, trowel (or pen) in hand, is a worthy start.

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