Author Archives: Bethany

To God be the glory, great things he hath done

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I spent last weekend at the Loretto Motherhouse in Nerinx, Kentucky with a group from school on a silent retreat. This is some of what happened during that time.

After Saturday’s lunch I slipped over to the church. The enormous wooden doors whispered shut behind me and I sank into a back pew. Just me and God and the silence in this gigantic space. My fingers traced the wood grain on the top of the pew in front of me.

I was still restless but starting to quiet down. Rain pattered on the windows. I pulled out my journal and started the long, slow work of detangling. A combination of processing and petitions emerged on the pages. I had more questions than I did answers and for the moment, that was okay.

The door opened again and a woman shuffled in. “Will it bother you if I play the piano?” she asked.

I looked up and smiled. “No, of course not.”

She walked across the sanctuary, pulled the heavy black cover off the instrument, and sat down. The melody that fell from her fingers was that of an ancient hymn. She played many of them. Some I recognized, others I didn’t. I leaned back into the pew and let them sink in.

The next notes she played were the beginning of a hymn I knew well. It was one I did handbells to in kindergarten. It’d been a long time since I’d heard it last but I still remembered every word.

To God be the glory, great things he hath done…

I could still picture what it was like to stand on the stage of that small protestant church playing and singing my heart out. Oh, for faith to feel like that again. There I was, thirteen years later, sitting in a Catholic sanctuary hearing the melody and crying.

This faith, the faith of my fathers and mothers and grandparents, handed down from generation to generation, is shifting under my feet. I am wrestling to make it mine and some days it feels so frail. But still the foundation stands. And through her fingers on the piano keys He whispered, “I am the same in kindergarten and in college and forever.”


These days I am learning to pray a new kind of prayer. It’s a kind of confession, I suppose. Not one about actions but belief. “I don’t trust you with this. I can’t do this. What the heck are you doing?”

In the moments when the rug is pulled out from under me, when I feel lost and I don’t know what’s next, the only prayer I can muster is, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.”

Or sometimes, “Lord, I’m not sure that I believe. Help my unbelief.” Like Jacob and the angel but this time begging, “I don’t know how much longer I can hold on. Please don’t let me go until you bless me.”


We slid into our pew early Sunday morning. Five protestant kids in the back of a Catholic sanctuary. We looked at each other not quite sure what we were doing. Together we stumbled into a liturgy different to many of us but so beautiful. Standing, we sang the Responsorial Psalm, an arrangement of Psalm 23.

Shepherd me O God, beyond my wants,
Beyond my fears, from death into life.

The words were sustenance in the midst of all the questions.


At lunch we talked about the morning. We couldn’t get over the wonder of it. I said, “I grew up in a charismatic United Methodist Church, I currently go to a Nazarene school and a Presbyterian Church, and I attended Mass this morning. Detangle that one for me.”

“Well,” a friend said from across the table, “You’re just an ecumenical movement.”

We laughed and others began telling the stories of their faith and how they spent these years in this place and those years in that place and look where God had brought them now.

Yes, this faith is changing. It is hard and good and right and beautiful. After all, what would it be if it weren’t growing? So today I sit in the questions. I wrestle with the tension of faith and doubt, hope and despair. Still, in all of it He whispers that He is the same yesterday and today and forever.

To God be the glory, great things he hath done.

Restless

On Friday afternoon I boarded a bus with 23 others and headed deep into the heart of Kentucky. Our destination was the Loretto Motherhouse. It was the first true retreat I’d signed up for. I’d been on others, of course, but this was the first one without activities built in. It was time for us to step away from the crazy, practice the discipline of silence, and just be.

We were asked to leave electronics behind. So with phone, ipod, and headphones stowed safely on the bus, I stepped off the bottom step and into the weekend. Within an hour I was questioning what I was even doing there.

I walked from dinner down the gravel road towards a cluster of cabins. I stopped in the little chapel there, walked around that area, walked back towards the main buildings, walked down to the pond in front of our house, walked back up to the cemetery, through one of the buildings, and out back again, this time veering towards the lake. I couldn’t stop moving.

As dusk slipped into dark I went back to the house, brewed a cup of tea, and sat outside for a while. I pulled my knees to my chest, hands formed around the stoneware so familiar to them. And I started to pray.

The silence was overwhelming. I was running from something. From the restlessness. From everything in me that just didn’t feel right, that I didn’t want to deal with. But it was nothing new. It’s the same feeling that I put so much energy into not thinking about. It’s precisely that thing I try to drown out with another episode of whatever it is that I’m watching.

I’ve said before that I want to slow down and quiet some of the noise around me. But for the first time in a long time, this weekend I was truly quiet. It was harder than I thought it would be. It was hard for me to be fully present. After all, how can I be present when that presence is the very thing I spend my days fighting against?

This retreat came on the heels of an especially wearying week. It was, for many of us, exactly what it needed to be. There were some incredible moments, moments that will be shared soon. But not yet. Right now, I just want to learn the freedom to be.

Worn Thin

The wings of the midnight crow beat in high contrast to the deep grey sky. Naked trees stretch bony fingers to the heavens. It’s the day before spring is supposed to arrive and I can’t help but wonder if she’s been left on the platform watching her train snake into the distance. Knives of wind cut through my thin jacket and the air hangs heavy with the last bitter taste of winter herself.

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But still, in spite of the haze and the heaviness, I am drawn outside. Bright magenta buds hang low from the branches of the Magnolia tree. Spring has sent her postcard ahead. I hold my jacket close to guard against the cold and wander to the pavilion. The wooden bench, grey with age, is waiting for me. My feet shuffle along the deck trimmed with mold around to the back. Leaning into the rail, I listen to the creek babbling its way down the rocks.

The bench welcomes me like an old friend. I sink into it, limbs as heavy as my heart, and lean my head back against the rough wooden post. But even here there is work to be done. I muster up every ounce of responsibility I have, pull out my laptop, and set to it.

I am looking down when I notice shadows moving across my arm. Late winter sunlight flirts with the ground. It only finds its way out sometimes, of course, because the clouds still hang heavy. But in the thin places it shines through and shapes flutter.

Thin places—a Celtic phrase for the places where the divine intertwines itself with the ordinary and they dance.

Thin. That’s how my heart feels right now. Like one small pull in the wrong direction could rip it in half. But in the thin places I see the divine. It’s the way she slides the tissue box across her desk because I’m starting to cry in her office and I know why but I don’t really know why. And the way she tells me, not in so many words, of course, that she is on my side. That I am where I need to be. That it will get better.

It’s the sweet note from my best friend sent seven months later than intended but arriving with perfect timing. It’s her words that meet me where I am and sink deep into my heart. It’s the assignment to write a poem that becomes a way to detangle the knot of emotions in the pit of my stomach—a poem that, under different circumstances, would mean very little to me. It’s the words on the internet, written by a complete stranger, that feel like they were penned just for me.

And I see glimpses of the divine. Even when he seems distant, even when I don’t feel him there, he sends me these sightings. He breaks through the thin places to say that what I can see is not all there is. That the clouds will not last forever.

By the time I’m out of class for the day the heavy skies have pulled back like drapes from a window. Red-chested robins flit through the lawn and spring whispers that she’ll be here soon. Wherever there is brown border grass flattened by the weight of winter, persistent yellow daffodils push their way through the death to proclaim life. Winter is not the end. The thin places, the cracks, the glimpses of the sun are just the beginning.

An Invitation

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Last week an email with the subject line You’re invited to Ellie Holcomb’s Kickstarter CD Release Party! showed up in my inbox. It was a surprise to say the least and at first, I figured it was a mistake.

You see, I backed her new album in November after watching her Kickstarter video approximately 67 times because of how much I loved the song she sang in it. I’m a college student, though, so I backed it at the lowest tier—$15 that would get me the new album and a couple extra songs.

Not long after she reached her original goal and added some extra ones. The biggest was a CD Release Party here in Nashville for Tier 3 bakers and above. When they reached that one, I thought, That’s nice. I’m sure they’ll all have a wonderful time.

So when I got that email last week, I knew it had to be a mistake. I was only Tier 1. I opened it so I could figure out how to reply and let her management know that they’d sent it to Tier 1 backers as well.

Then I read the email.

There was no mistake. They’d opened the show to everyone who baked the project.

Even then I almost made my mind up to ignore it. I’d already gotten the album. There was no way the small amount I’d paid should get me tickets to the party. I didn’t deserve it, so I wasn’t going to accept it.

Then I decided to invite my friend Whitney. She knew who Ellie was and I knew she’d enjoy the show. I had, after all, been invited. Once she said yes I started getting excited. Still, I argued with myself.

You know you don’t deserve this.

But I was invited.

Yes, but that doesn’t mean that you should go.

I kept feebly pointing back to the email and the tickets I’d printed off. I’d been invited. Surely I could go. I didn’t believe it, though. I didn’t really think it was for me or that I belonged there. I hadn’t done enough to get me there.

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately unlearning life based on performance. I’m not quite sure where I learned it. I’m sure much of it is leftover from the fall. But it has become part of who I am. If I don’t feel like I’ve earned my place somewhere it’s hard for me to accept it. Even when I’ve been invited.

This time I dared myself to push past that. I invited Whitney and I printed off the tickets. I started really looking forward to it. We went  and we had a blast. It was better than I could have hoped. And we got to meet Ellie at the end.

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If you want to know the truth I still don’t feel like I deserved to be at that party last night. But I was. That’s grace. You don’t have to deserve it when you’ve been invited. You just have to come.

Last night I’m glad I did. So much of what Ellie sings about is this grace. Words that are echoed in actions that echo Jesus. I need to be reminded of it so often, that who I am does not depend on what I do. And it’s true for you, too.

The party’s ready and you’ve been invited. Will you come?

Why we need grief

A few weeks ago I said I was quieting the digital noise. It was about slowing down, I said, and that was true. But it was also about running away.

When we notice harmful patterns in our lives, I think it’s important to ask ourselves why they’re there. So I started wondering why I’ve become so addicted to all this noise. Sometimes it’s purely a desire for entertainment because I feel bored. But often, it’s a way to distract myself from the things I don’t want to deal with.

Some of these things can be personal—conflict in relationships, words I wish I’d said differently, things that worry me. Others are farther outside of me, the unrest and tragedies that are changing the world as we know it. So when I’m faced with these things, I get on Pinterest. It diverts my attention for a while and takes the edge off whatever it is I’m avoiding, but when I close my computer, it’s still there.

In one of my classes we’ve been reading Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination. One of the main jobs of the prophets, he says, was to turn the Israelites from numbness to grief. They’d let themselves become numb to the cries of the people they were oppressing—their very brothers and sisters. The prophets, then, were to grieve for the people and help the people grieve.

The reality is that if we truly let ourselves feel the weight of every single tragedy, it would destroy us. But at the same time, if we never feel anything, we’ll never do anything, either.

I sing songs and pray prayers like, “Break my heart for what breaks yours.” But then when I see tragedy, I find myself looking the other way. I search out distractions so I don’t have to feel the pain of someone else’s loss. I teach myself to be numb.

It is comfortable, yes, but it is not truly living. Because when we numb ourselves to the pain, we also can numb ourselves to hope. And, as Brueggeman says, hope only comes out of grief.

If we are going to be the people of hope that we claim to be—that I claim to be—in the face of darkness, then we have to be people who are willing to grieve. It is the only place we can find hope. Not just for us, but for the world.