Beauty will save the world

Empty hands. Full heart.

I just spent a weekend away, making music, creating beauty, and it was rich and glorious and beyond wonderful. I returned home yesterday afternoon, feeling fulfilled in a way that few other experiences can offer.

But the thing about making music is that I have nothing, no product, to bring home and show my husband and my children.

I have nothing to give them – no evidence I can display and say:

“See this beauty, look at this art I created while I was away for three days, while you cared for our children without me, while I spent our hard-earned money, while you missed me and I missed you. This is what I created; isn’t it beautiful?”

Music is a living organism. Unlike a painting or a novel, which is set down on canvas or paper for the viewer to come and experience over and over, the making of music happens once, and then it is over, and afterward it lives only in our memories. We can record it for posterity, but the experience of the music as a living thing will never happen in the exact same way again.

And because of that one singular life, the music becomes all the more precious, not only for those who listen, but also – and perhaps, especially – for those who make the music.

We have become a family, our little choir. We come together in Dallas twice a year, from all over the world, having learned our music on our own. We rehearse and we share meals and we laugh and cry, and we savor the wonder of not only what it is we are attempting to do, but the fact that we are actually doing it.

We are creating beauty, and people are coming to listen to this beauty – paying money to do so – and we have even spent our own time and money to be there. And every one of us believes it is utterly worthwhile. If we didn’t, it wouldn’t be happening.

At one point in the weekend, our beloved director said, “How I wish we could do this every week.” We all nodded our heads longingly in agreement.

And yet I think there is something about the scarcity of our time together that makes it all the more special. If we did it every week, would we really value the enormity and rarity of this gift that we’ve been given?

Near my home here in Austin, a friend of a friend painted the words, “Beauty will save the world” on the backside of their fence, quoting from Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Idiot. The words face out onto a busy arterial street, in a part of the city that struggles with gangs, drugs, and prostitution, full of strip malls, pawn shops, and payday loan offices; in other words, it is the opposite of beauty.

I love this fence. It’s a subversive, guerrilla act of love and faith in the midst of something ugly and broken. We were driving past not long after it went up, and I pointed it out to my daughter Molly, age six.

Ever the literalist, as most children are, Molly screwed up her little face in confusion. “Beauty will not save the world. God will save the world!” she exclaimed.

“Yes, but what is God? Who is God?” I asked slowly, pointedly, mentally willing her to connect the dots.

Her frown faded as her eyes widened in delight, her dimples deepening as though she had just discovered a secret. “God IS beauty,” she said happily, and I smiled. Yes. Yes.

I have nothing to show for my time in Dallas – no product I created, nothing you can quantify or measure. I have only empty hands and a full heart.

But during those two days together, my choir created beauty. The people that came to listen to us participated in that beauty. And whether in large or small ways, every one of us was changed afterward for the better. And that is why we do it. That is why it is utterly worthwhile. Beauty will save the world.

Sing a new song in 2014

Today I am honored to have another post up at The Art of Simple. Here is an excerpt:

It’s January 1, 2014. Happy New Year!

What can be said about the New Year that hasn’t already been said? Resolutions, goals, plans, schemes, and dreams…each year, we arrive at December 31 with tired, weary, or worn-down hearts, and we look at the new year ahead and dream of new starts and fresh beginnings.

There is, admittedly, something very alluring about the idea of a blank year stretched out before us, all fresh and clean, “with no mistakes in it yet.”*

However, like Tsh, I’m not much of a fan of making resolutions. I don’t know about you, but when I look at my life and the year to come, I feel like I need something much bigger than just me and my resolve.

I need a new song.

Read the rest here.

Seeking simplicity at Christmastime through the Church calendar

Our Christmas tree is going up this weekend, but we won’t be decorating it.  All of our autumn decor will come down, but we won’t be replacing it with glittering baubles just yet.  As the rest of the culture around us is diving head-first into the Christmas season, we are merely going to dip our toes in.

We are attempting to seek simplicity this Christmas season by observing the Church calendar.  According to the Church calendar, Advent begins this year on Sunday, December 1 (which is actually the start of the Church’s calendar – Happy New Year!). Christmas doesn’t technically begin until December 25.  It lasts for 12 days, and then it ends on January 6, with Epiphany.

For us, to observe Advent is still sort of a new adventure. It means that we will practice anticipation. The word “advent” comes from the Latin adventus, which means “the approach” or “the arrival”. So, it is a time of preparation for an arrival – for Christ’s arrival, to be specific.

During Lent, we prepare to celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus, and it is a serious time – a time of fasting, introspection, and cleansing.

In contrast, during Advent, we prepare to celebrate the birth of our King. I like to think of it as though I am preparing my home for honored guests. Cleaning house, planning and preparing delicious meals, making our hearts ready, clearing our schedules, awaiting the arrival, and savoring the days ahead with joyful anticipation.

Yet this time of preparation is still separate from the actual visit from the guests. Once the guests arrive, the time of preparation ends and the celebration begins. That is Christmas. That is the true party.

So, when we celebrate Advent, this is how it looks: each Sunday, we will go to worship with our church. We will spend time together in intentional anticipation, contemplating the birth of the Savior who has come and will come again.

Each Sunday evening of Advent, we will host a gathering of friends in our home. We will light a candle together in our Advent wreath, and share in a Scripture reading, a prayer, and a song. We will choose songs that speak of the coming Savior, rather than the Savior who has already come. Then we will share in a potluck meal together – a simple but hearty feast of finger foods, soup or stew, wine, hot cider for the kiddos, and some sweets to finish. Our Advent Gatherings have become a family tradition that we hope to continue for many years.

And finally, every evening before bed, we will look at our Advent calendar together as a family. We have created a Nativity calendar that was inspired by Noel Piper’s Advent calendar. It tells the Nativity story slowly by adding another piece of the picture each day, and finally completing the story with Jesus in the manger on December 25.

Throughout Advent, we will do our best to fix our eyes upon the coming King. This means that we will choose not to fix our eyes on other things. We will slow down our pace, and make space in our schedules, and hopefully in our hearts, too.

And then, on December 24, we will finally decorate our Christmas tree. The bare branches, a visual symbol of our waiting, will be festooned with all the beauty and regalia that is fitting for a King. The songs of longing (O come, o come!) will give way to songs of welcome and joy (Glory to the newborn King!).

We will exchange gifts on December 25, and feast together, and celebrate. And we will continue to celebrate for 12 days! (Yes, in case anyone was wondering: the classic Christmas carol, The 12 Days of Christmas, has its origins in the Church calendar.) So, Christmas is a 12 day celebration, and therefore our tree will stay up at least until January 6, also known as the Feast of Epiphany: the day we celebrate the arrival of the three wise men.

We are really seeking simplicity during this holiday season, and we’ve decided to seek it by aligning our lives with the Church calendar. The craziness of the season can begin even before Thanksgiving, but once we hit December 1, it becomes a true force to be reckoned with. Resisting feels counter-cultural, but we’re going to try and stand firm against the madness by pressing in to the anticipation and waiting and preparation: of our hearts, our homes, our lives.

It won’t be perfect; I’m sure we’ll still have Christmas songs on the radio, early gift exchanges with extended family and friends, and Christmas parties with co-workers, and that’s totally okay. We aren’t trying to make rules that create more stress.

But the unavoidable hubbub gives us all the more reason to press in to this discipline, to seek stillness and quiet gladness, and to cultivate a joyful sense of expectation in our hearts. The Church calendar offers us another way.

Where the rubber meets the road

Okay, so now it’s time to get real. Two posts ago, I wrote about my beliefs and my faith. Yesterday, I wrote about hard times and suffering. And the two are intimately, inextricably intertwined.

“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” – C. S. Lewis

Yes. By it, I see everything else. Through the lens of my faith – not simply in a god, any god, but Jesus Christ, Lord of all – I see this world and its suffering, I see my life and my own suffering and the suffering of those I love, and I can know that this suffering is not in vain. It is not purposeless.

Christ came to redeem us from all of our sin and suffering. He came to bear our burdens and offer us hope. When we suffer – not if, but when – we can be sure that there is a God who knows our suffering, who feels our hurt and our pain, who has experienced His own suffering, and has His own purposes at work – always, always, always undergirded with love.

Do I always understand His purposes? No way. And I have had times of depression and doubt, and I’ve wrestled deeply with whether or not God is good; whether or not He loves me, or cares a flip about my suffering.

But He keeps drawing me back to Him. He keeps drawing me back to His heart, and His love, and His trustworthiness. Time and again He has proven Himself faithful to me. And so I find myself, as when Jesus asked His disciples whether they wanted to leave Him, answering like Peter: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”

Frail ones fainting at the door…

Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears,
While we all sup sorrow with the poor;
There’s a song that will linger forever in our ears;
Oh hard times come again no more.

Tis the song, the sigh of the weary,
Hard times, hard times, come again no more
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door;
Oh hard times come again no more.

This world is a broken place. I know that – I think we all know that. There is so much beauty; there is also so much broken. It threatens to overwhelm me at times.

While we seek mirth and beauty and music light and gay,
There are frail ones fainting at the door;
Though their voices are silent, their pleading looks will say
Oh hard times come again no more.

Tis the song, the sigh of the weary,
Hard times, hard times, come again no more
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door;
Oh hard times come again no more.

Oh how this song has gotten under my skin. It was originally written in 1854 by Stephen Foster, the “father of American folk music,” who also brought us Oh! Susanna and Camptown Races, among others.

It’s been covered by everyone from Johnny Cash and Bruce Springsteen to Emmylou Harris and Iron & Wine. Obviously, there’s something in here that still resonates with us today, more than 150 years after Foster wrote it.

Tis a sigh that is wafted across the troubled wave,
Tis a wail that is heard upon the shore
Tis a dirge that is murmured around the lowly grave
Oh hard times come again no more.

Tis the song, the sigh of the weary,
Hard times, hard times, come again no more
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door;
Oh hard times come again no more.

This song speaks of bearing each other’s burdens. We are all walking wounded in this world. It is a hard place to live, often lonely and even despairing. Let us carry each other’s burdens, let us love each other well; let us be the hands and feet of Christ.

I want my home – and my heart – to be a place where the frail ones fainting at the door can come in and find peace and comfort, rest and hope. A place where we rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn. A place where our brokenness can find healing and joy again.

Here’s a hauntingly beautiful arrangement by Eastmountainsouth. Listen and be blessed.