Ring upon Ring

The first words that come to mind whenever I sit to write, are ‘I remember.’ This struck today as my fingers found keys. I wondered at this bend inside of me. This pattern of meeting God in the crook of next and was: the remembering is always a part of the becoming.

If you cut down a tree and count the rings, you’ll be counting the years of its life. Wider rings were years of good water and growth. Thin rings tell of dry years and hardly any growth at all. Dark marks and pale blemishes tell stories of injury, perhaps a blade thrown or animal’s pestering. Laying there, one after another, one ring tucks against the last, always building anew. Adding without removal of the old. Growing despite the odds of the seasons.

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Perhaps this is why I am struck on an early winter’s drive. The roads are said to be unsafe for travel yet we, a van eleven bodies full, press onward to Duluth to celebrate the 15th birthday of our oldest son. My husband is behind the wheel, and as we pass the gentle rolling fields of farmers, I notice with quick eyes and unhurried observation - the trees. Not the groups or clusters, but the trees that stand alone. They draw my attention against the blinding white ground and the pale grey sky, whose lines are almost undefinable against one another. Here on this blanket canvass stand the black outlines of a bare elm or maple, branches tall and unhurried. The snow is falling and still she stands. I wonder, does her peace bring anyone else to tears, as it does me?

If you scroll back through the archives of my writing, you can find other times that I’ve written about these northern Minnesota trips. About how each time I stand on the shores of the vast lake, I find that we (I) look different inside and out. First as a family with two children, then three, then six, and now eight. First as a teacher, then a director, and now a pastor. I stand in the remembering of a million waves, and I feel the way back to myself, ever changing.

I’ve noticed that we all are doing this: Changing.

This is not a revolutionary thought. But, I wonder, what are we changing for? Or, perhaps more importantly, are we participating in the way we become changed?

As I press with more and more unafraid abandon into what it means to be a mother/pastor/writer/teacher/human, I have become aware of two things: the breathtaking, beautiful way we all look like God. And, how persistently we are reminded that we have no clue how to find Her. Hear her. Listen to or look like God. We are encouraged to attend churches that tell women they have no authoritative voice, for the sake of learning from someone else how to ‘do christian living well.’ The young are directed to learn more and gain more life experience before speaking. We show up and absorb, looking outward for more, and feeling what within? We, and especially we women, have every conviction questioned. Every nudge inspected. Our callings are spoken for us, and valuable often only when they are first named valuable by someone elder, someone more educated, someone who is published or who has more followers. Someone male.

I have been told and reminded in every space of my life, that the changing is meant for everyone else, and not me. Be selfless, be generous, be giving. Lay down the way you feel and be kind. I have been told how to change, what to change, where to change. I have been told to hush my change, and that listening to the ways God was changing me - calling me to listen in and then out - was self serving.

We must die to ourselves, shouldn’t we? Yes, but how so, if we don’t even know the contents within? Do we prune blindly, or take stock, and hold it all before the One who mends and loves from the inside out? The one who builds us, ring upon ring.

To die to self isn’t to die at all. It’s to come alive the parts of us that sing, unshaken and unashamed.

My voice has been silenced time and again. But God’s never has.

Aren’t the stories of our ancestors, the scriptures we cling to, where we read of standing against the grain? Don’t these ancient texts serve to tell us the stories of the journeyers before us, who found themselves looking different and sounding different than everyone else, but more involved with God than ever? Off the beaten path they roam. We say we’re trying to be different, but why do we keep listening the same? What if we’ve clung to the false safety of the forest, when it’s the still standing tree in the field that catches our breath?

How does the lone tree stand, anyway? What purpose does she serve? The farmer must till around her, and the weather she endures must be much more bitter, alone. The sun will beat her more harshly, and her shadow will be small.

But her standing is more sure, her roots deeper. She has never questioned where the water comes from. The weary birds and creatures find home here, who could find home nowhere else, and the sun becomes her strength. And can’t you see her brilliance, when in autumn and spring, she declares her patient transformation on a backdrop all her own.

I think we are wild on the chase of everything but ourselves. Do you know God in you? Do you know your heart? Do you believe that it is okay to stand alone, and be certain of your worth? Do you remember the ways you’ve listened and endured, to become exactly who you are? The remembering is always a part of the becoming.

I don’t know how to tell you this: that you are enough. That everything within you vibrates with the intimate knowing of God, and that from there we can change the world. And then I realize: I can’t. My words and my voice and heart will not ever be enough. I am my own tree.

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It has to be you. You must return to yourself, hand made my God, to learn the ways you have been formed that make you beautiful, uniquely. Travel the highways and unwalked paths of your heart. Journey there, afraid and unsure. Find the lungs that breathed you into life sang promise and wholeness and enough-ness. No mistake was made. You are on purpose. You are of love.

I believe that the work we do inside determines our work in the world. You cannot show up as anyone but yourself, and so, it’s time to learn. It’s time to listen. It’s time to be small and go inward deeper and more. It’s time to believe that isn’t bad or wrong to see that what is inside of ourselves is holy. To let unforced, gentle grace inform our movements. God is in me. I am of God. And if I cannot start there, where will I ever be able to go?

Like the rings of a tree seal the truths of years passed, I remember. My own rings, some notched others smooth, nest one inside the other. And I press my vulnerability outward against the unpredictable. I feel the stories that I’ve lived are the structure of my heart. These stories that make me. And as I remember, I know God is near. I wonder what this tree-girl will look like, someday.

I know she will be standing.