The creative process is rarely linear. So, too, with the spiritual life. In the final days of 2017, as I began a two-month fast from all social media and news, my friend singer/songwriter Blake Flattley asked me if I’d help him write a liturgy. I had no idea what part of the writing I was supposed to be responsible for. “You mean like hymns?” I said. “Oh, no,” he replied. “I’ll just rearrange some old public domain standards. I just want you to give it shape and vision and write the in-between parts and prayers.” I found myself oddly disappointed. I think I’d already started wondering what it would be like to write a hymn.
During that same stretch of time, a neighbor returned an electronic keyboard we had lent them for piano lessons; it was a hand-me-down from my mom for our own kids, who never played. I found myself gravitating towards those keys, noodling a bit, trying to recall the scales I’d learned in a semester of Piano at SMC a decade earlier. I pondered the problem of an opening hymn for the liturgy Blake and I had decided to call Fear Not!. No old standard said what I thought it needed to say, what I was certain people needed to hear. Then one morning in the shower, there they were: just the right words. They came in the form of a melody, a first verse and chorus.
The seeds of new music had been planted.
That same month, without warning or preparation, I found myself enrolling in a 2-year intensive training program of Christian Formation and Spiritual Direction. We took a field trip to the Getty Museum our first week. My cohort was supposed to be pondering a massive, chaotic painting but the art felt too noisy and not at all what I was in the mood for. I found a warm slab of Travertine outside and lay down to rest in the January sun. It was then I heard the second song: Enter Here. I recorded it on my phone. I sang it with my warbled chant-like voice to the group that night over wine and cheese. For the next two years, I sang Enter Here in my mind and car, certain that somehow, someway, some day—even though I didn’t sing or play an instrument—that I would end up giving birth to it.
I didn’t realize then, but God was already showing me the way back to my very own heart.
You see, ever since I finished my MA in Theology I’d been writing a lot of head stuff. Good head stuff, helpful and much needed, I think. More interesting and fresh than a lot of theological work. But it was not the work of my heart. Last year, I threw myself into a new memoir—hundreds and hundreds and hundred of pages written then excised. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds more, all in search of that heart-voice that ran like a pulse through my first book Baptism by Fire and my first liturgy, The Renaissance Service and Elijah & the SAT and happy are those. But that pulse was not in this memoir. Or maybe it was just buried under the weight of too many moments. Either way, it wasn’t working.
So I put it aside and, once again, I waited prayerfully. Expectantly. Wearily. Trusting that God would not fail to grant me the desires of my heart.
The beginning of our stories begin long before our own earthly lives, but I’m going to mark the start of this one here: it was a perfectly ordinary summer day—July 26, 2019 to be exact. I looked out the window of my little home office and saw Phil Cordaro pulling up across the street from my house. Cordaro, as in “heart.” He was not there to see me; he was there to give one of the kids on our cul-de-sac a piano lesson, just as he’d been doing for 15 years. Without forethought or plan, I found myself leaping out of my desk chair which toppled as I fled the room, through the house, out the door, and across the street to catch him. “Phil,” I said, startling him through the driver’s window. “Do you teach adults? Could you teach me to play, like, simple Taize chants, and maybe enough to do some basic composing? Some theory, I guess, and notation, or whatever I’d need to be able to write a song?”
We started two days later.
By the time I graduated from CFDM with seven other dear souls that fall, I had already wrestled Enter Here onto the page of my new manuscript notebook. Our final graduation gathering was at a retreat center in Santa Barbara. The cohort was asked upon arrival to put on a simple “gathering” in the chapel. Somehow I knew that Enter Here was meant to be an offering back to all those who’d been with me when I first heard it—a coda for our shared journey. I sang it acapella and all my dear spiritual direction friends joined in on the chorus. It was a kairos moment, to be sure. One that would sustain me for the the next several months, which were some of the hardest and most traumatic of my life. Two weeks after that perfect moment in the chapel, my 26-year-old daughter Remy, who developed epilepsy in her late teens, would return to the hospital for an intensive, invasive and prolonged depth-electrode study to prepare for a subsequent brain surgery. Throughout all those long hard days, I began to hear the whispers of a new song about the arc of her life and mine thru the lens of those hospital corridors. It would be called Full Circle Day. More songs came soon after and I began to understand that they were meant to be an album. His album. Seven songs that God had gifted me. I would “birth them” by asking different musician friends who have been important to me in different ways throughout my life each to record one that I would choose especially for them.
And so Life in the Key of God found its voice.
If you never knew just how infinitely creative and life-giving the God of all Creation is, now you do.
Over the past five months or so, I’ve been in something of a transition. First there was an intentional Wadi Cherith season, rooted in the just-rest-and-wait- and-stay-out-of-view example of the prophet Elijah. Then there was the nudge, on Christmas night, to plan a pilrimage to the Isle of Iona, Scotland this Easter. Then there was the gift of music, as my friend Blake Flattley invited me to work on a new liturgy and I—who cannot sing or play an instrument—begin hearing/writing/composing hymns. Then, after a new season of working with a Spiritual Director for the first time, a totally unexpected Call to begin a 2-year program in Christian Formation and Spiritual Direction. This program has already blessed me with the gift of a community of like-minded souls. More pointedly, it forced me to write a 10-page spiritual autobiography on “how I saw God working at every age and stage of my life.” This assignment, which I did grudgingly, led me to the answer I’d been struggling to find over what my next book would be. I longed to write another heart book, a memoir, but could not envision the scope, the framework, the timeline. This assignment gave me just the container I needed and set me back to the steady rhythm of prayer and reflection and writing. My office is now filled with stacks of old treasure–advertising memories, and screenplays, and unsold novels, and datebooks, and journals filled with notes and names and faces and big visions for stories, for the Church, and for speaking to those who don’t want anything to do with the Church. In all that, I unearthed a single DVD from my first big interview when Baptism by Fire was released. As it happens—really, as it happens?—it was filmed 20 years to the day that I will be leaving for Iona. That’s what life is like in the hands of the Master Storyteller.
It was just supposed to be a quick grab and go. Fridays can be tricky at Trader Joe’s, so I was prepared for an aisle or two of three-lane traffic. What I was not prepared for was the gaggle of senior citizens mingling in every entry aisle and passageway as if they’d rented out the bread & muffin section for an octogenarian birthday party.
In the place where impatience usually rises up in me I found myself instead leaning in. Their wizened faces were alight with joy as they chatted in thick accents. “Russian Jews,” I thought to myself. Russian Jews at the end of life telling stories and smiling and entitled in the best possible way to be clogging the aisles of the neighborhood store.
What could they teach me about slowing down? About recognizing that, in the end, when all the suffering is behind you, that there is nothing else but this: to delight in the company of one another.
Just this morning I had read in the Benedictine devotional Always We Begin Again these words: “Every day carries the potential to bring the experience of heaven; have the courage to expect good from it.”
For a moment they were like icons to me: windows into the realm of the sacred, the holy. Although depression, anxiety, and isolation is epidemic in this country, there were no shadows on these faces. Some were in wheelchairs. Others had walkers. By virtue of their advanced ages, all would have known heartache and illness and loss. The fact that they were all together told me that they had arrived that way, likely a field trip from a local senior center. I reached for a loaf of Ezekiel bread.
“What is that?” one of the ladies asked. She was 5′ tops with a cropped shock of red hair. In a brief conversation, she had confirmed that they were, in fact, all Russian Jews from a local day care.
“Oh, it’s very healthy,” I told her. “No flour. See here. Ezekiel 4:9. It’s the same recipe one of your prophets gave us.”
“Ah,” she said, and smiled.
I continued on with my shopping, carrying inside me a new shade of meaning for “the fullness of time” (Galatians 4:4).
I was loading up my trunk when the seniors finally began heading out to a large van. Driving away, I looked in my rearview mirror. On the side of their shared vehicle I saw the words Nazareth House. And smiled.
One of my favorite promises from Jesus is this: “In my father’s house there are many rooms,” (John 14:2). Today I’m grateful to have had a glimpse of this one.
This is a question I get asked more and more lately. Who are you? How did you get here? Why are people listening to you? One retreat director, who—based on multiple recommendations—was engaging me as the lead speaker at a week-long event for 2017, actually spelled out the confusion,” I mean, you’re not a pastor or a professor or a worship leader or a director of Christian Education.” In other words, how did you become a credible figure without any of the traditional credentials?
I get the confusion. In the Lutheran world where God called me to faith (and out of which He has not yet shown any inclination to move me), I am an anomaly. Not of the German Lutheran culture. Not a lifelong Christian. And, perhaps most confounding, a woman who talks about theology and culture—both inside and outside of church walls.
When I was working on my MA thesis, I discovered a non-Lutheran, Luther scholar named Gordon Rupp, who said this about a pivotal season in Luther’s development: “you could almost hear him growing in the night, so plain is the growth in maturity, independence and coherence in a few months.”
This idea that a person’s public writing might reveal the fingerprints of God in her life stayed with me, until I came to see that the answer to the question “who are you?” might be hidden in plain sight, in the blogs, books, and talks I’d written over the past five years.
Soon I will be releasing an e-book that will endeavor to retrace the steps of the Living God in my life over a period of profound transformation. It is my hope that in sharing my story, others will be encouraged to pray, listen, and follow His Spirit with boldness and great joy.
Soli Deo Gloria
If one of these topics is speaking to you, I’d love to bring it to life at your next special event or conference. Reach out asap. I have a feeling it’s going to be a busy year.