Monday, April 14

searching for heaven on earth

The air is thick with a promise of spring tonight, mixed with the smell of turkey burgers that remind me of summer. My family sits in conference in the kitchen, arranged in a semi-circle, with the promise of spring blowing through the window on our backs. The sounds of disagreements and the clinking on forks on the white plates do not make this an extremely restful place, but it’s familiar and safe, which is even better. I savor moments like these like I savor Mama’s sweet tea.

Familiar and safe: two things I needed very badly. I moved back home to Jersey from Brooklyn last week because of an unlivable rooming situation. Now I can enjoy the last month and a half of my internship with Heron with a safe and quiet place to come back to. Other than the bad situation, a big reason I decided to commute from home was that my family will be moving to San Francisco at the end of the summer for my dad’s job. It’s something we’ve been anticipating for a while, and it’s a good and busy time to be able to be with my family, especially since I don’t see myself moving out there long-term with them. (I’m actually thinking and praying pretty hard about moving to a smaller, cheaper city with a large deposit of Grovers.)

My big epiphany from all of this which warrants this post is simple: there is no resting place for me on this earth, and oddly, that revelation’s been very comforting. I was surprised to find that the wealth disparity and the shrinking middle class in New York makes me depressed in a way only someone steeped in the liberal arts can be about such things. I realized that you need to make a lot of money to be safe in New York, and that’s not a life I have the energy for right now or maybe ever.

I have this weird guilt when visiting a church or helping with a volunteer event – I’m afraid to commit when I’m not 100% sure that I’ll be able to follow through. What this spring has taught me more than anything: that’s really not in my control! God asks me to commit myself to him and his will for today only. I am promised no tomorrow and it is not my concern to promise that to anyone else. I don’t dare love others less while I wait for some extraneous circumstances to change that will make me feel better about committing and then having to leave.

I’ve realized I will never feel this hypothetical safe and cozy belonging feeling until I’m gazing into Jesus’s face, so while I live my life until then, I think I’m going to finally be okay with being a traveler on this earth. A certain city won’t fix my extroverted craving for vibrant community. A certain church won’t meet the thirst in my heart for intimate worship. God in his goodness might choose to give me those things anyway, but I don’t think I need to hop from place to place and go through excitement-disillusionment-restlessness-move, constantly searching for a place to rest and call home. Frankly, it’s an old routine, and I’m still very young. So my new routine will look more like trust and giving my whole life to where God has me.

That's what's up.

Monday, March 17

the simple power of gratitude

Today didn’t start out great.

I woke up grumpy. I showered grumpy. I penciled my eyebrows grumpy. (Corrected the smudges grumpy, too.) I squished myself into the train grumpy. Then I sat down at my desk and was grumpy again. I waited for the grumpy to go away. It didn’t.

I don’t do anything halfway. (SURPRISE.) I’m built to contain extreme amounts of feeling, and I’ve accepted that. But I know I wasn’t designed to feel this grumpy, either. So there I was.

My heart's been out of whack all week. In between processing the fact that my family is moving far away and NYC is going to become my permanent home, I confronted friends but just ended up hurting them, was painfully honest with another friend but just ended up getting hurt myself, and generally was scared by the day-to-day physical void where my family and college community used to be and the intimidating prospect of starting over with a brand-new community again. (Not to mention I terrified myself by realizing that I finally hypothetically could be ready to date again. Trust me when I say that I tried my usual remedy and listened to “Ridin’ Solo” like five times in a row at work and it did not help me feel any less hypothetically romantic.)

To avoid suffocating in the grumpy, I had to get outside. I went to the Starbucks around the corner, walking in the sunshine, and got something sweet with the gift card Mrs. Fung randomly sent me. Walking back to the office coffee in hand, I knew something needed to change. But what was the fix? How to heal these big mysteries and insecurities? Bluhhhhh.

And then this radical idea, kudos of the Holy Spirit, finally came to me in the form of this wild idea:
What if instead of focusing on the things I don’t have, I focus on the blessings I’m experiencing right now?

WHAAAT? I know. Anticlimactic. Sorry it’s not actually radical. It’s pretty much the most “duh” spiritual moment a person can have – “golly gosh, if I’m thankful I see everything the way God intended me to experience reality!” YES OF COURSE DUH. Should be simple, right? 

Oh, friends…the immense power of five minutes of thankfulness.

I sat down. Plugged in my headphones and put on a great song. Opened the lid of my coffee and savored it as if it were the first I’d ever had – watched the steam roll over the rim, slurped the foam, let my brownie melt all over my fingers. Then I got out my pen and wrote a list of what I was thankful for today: my family, my friends, this job, my apartment, spring, the cross…

Those five minutes of gratitude transformed me from a scared child into a bold liver-of-life. (I’ve been reading/thinking in French a lot lately, so the stronger word I wanted to use there is tenirje tiens a la vie. A holder-onto or gripper of life.) It is a gift given to me for the living, not for the complaining or the drifting.

I will not waste any more of my precious life fretting for what I do not have. Instead, I’ll hold on thankfully to what I have already been given and let go of my feeble attempts at being okay without the Lord.

The remedy to brokenness is a gentle, healing Jesus.
The remedy for overwhelming darkness is the true light.
So the remedy for grumpiness is gratitude.

Saturday, March 8

make me broader

"You're going to find joy again."

Relief feels like grace feels like joy. Seriously.

I mean, how else would I be able to explain to you what it's like to be showered with undeserved, unexpected, unmerited grace? I began 2014 with the conviction to maximize my circumstances: "if everything around me stayed the same until my life was over, what opportunities would I have wasted, relationships disregarded, moments bypassed?" And then 3 job interviews, 2 craigslist roommates and 1 move changed those circumstances! One very quick month later, and I'm in Brooklyn now (WHAT?) and I work for a nonprofit foundation in their communications department (WHAT?). I could write a longer list of my post-graduate life wishlist just to prove to you how beautiful it is to let go of idols, because sometimes they can come back to you as gifts when you least expect it.

It's been a month of adventures, but mostly a month of feeling like I'm actually where I'm supposed to be for the first time in a very, very long time. Maybe it's having this internship, or maybe it's just New York drawing me back home like a magnet after many years away. It's strange to not have a shadow of melancholy following me around...I'm almost guilty about being so happy! (ALMOST. Mostly just delightfully surprised.) And the loveliest part: knowing God was the same God this month and in the ickiness of last fall. Same love, same guidance, same protection, same fierce jealousy. Same incredible story of creation's redemption and my thread in the tapestry.

I'm thinking of the Limberlost book, where Elnora's mother is overcome with the glory of God and shouts, "Help me to unshackle and expand my soul to the fullest realization of Your wonders. Almighty God, make me bigger, make me broader!” That's what I want this spring, and for the rest of my life: a constant deepening and series of surprises that fill me with wonder. Spilling over and spreading joy to anyone whose lives I touch, not because I can create any patch of light within my own darkness all by myself to share, but because I belong to the one who gives...and gives...and gives...and gives. To share even the tiniest portion of the grace I am given.

I ask him that with both feet planted firmly on love, you’ll be able to take in with all followers of Jesus the extravagant dimensions of Christ’s love. Reach out and experience the breadth! Test its length! Plumb the depths! Rise to the heights! Live full lives, full in the fullness of God.

Make me broader. Amen!

Tuesday, January 21


i have a job.

I got a sweet internship at a sweet nonprofit! I will learn things and do things and work with great people! I can freaking STOP applying to other jobs! HOORRRAYYYYY!

Waitasec, Joanna, you may be thinking. You don't have a job already? No, I did not already have a job.

Oh, sweetie honey baby child. Looks like I have to tell you the whole story.

First: you should know that in a lot of ways, graduating college feels like this:

So in the wake of my new life last summer, I resigned to apply to a bamillion jobs while I worked for my grandma and taught swim lessons.

But it wasn't that easy. It ate up my life and seemed that nothing really went anywhere. So I had a quarter life crisis.

My phone was constantly on. After all, an employer could be calling!

I edited my resume like, every day. And had about 40 different cover letters.

But I kept on hitting dead ends. Not to mention that I didn't even know what I wanted to do with my life (I told you, quarter life crisis!). I had no idea where I wanted to be in 5 years. And that question stressed me out.

This whole job nonsense drove me slowly insane.

So, add it up: failure to ace interviews + failure to get jobs + failure to have a great and well-thought-out plan for my life's direction = extreme shame. I became really private, because I was embarrassed to talk about my failure. Because, naturally, the only reason I didn't get offered each job I applied to was 100% because of some shortcoming or inadequacy on my part. (SARCASM)

Then I had an epiphany. The jobs that I was applying to were jobs that I didn't even want. I was looking for the wrong positions for my experience, so I wasn't really getting anywhere with those! DUH JOANNA.

So I started over, taking inventory of my own experience and what I'd like to professionally grow in. Then I looked for paid internships where I could grow those skills. I started getting more calls back and more in-person second interviews.

I was finally on the right track! Could these interviews be the last ones? Could I finally move on to the next chapter in my life?

I had a couple of false alarms in a row where someone else with more experience was chosen instead of me (which is okay, I understand that). It was still dishearteningly familiar. Throughout those letdowns I learned that I care wayyyy too much about success, and that I need to daily let it go.

And then. AND THEN. Yesterday I returned from a visit with a friend and oh-so-casually opened my email (which I usually am super paranoid about checking and refreshing every second of every day) and found a simple little "You're hired" email. I doubt anyone has been this excited to get an email since the invention of email itself.

So that's the whole story. I'm so, so, so relieved and excited and hopeful and ready to do a different kind of good, hard work. I love hard work. I'm so ready for this. SO FREAKIN EXCITED.


Saturday, January 18

the point of everything: a hypothetical commencement speech for the class of 2014

To my friends at the beginning of their new journeys,

I come here with a heart full of eager anticipation for all of you.

We were freshmen together, but I graduated early with strangers. Now a year later, I wish I could say that I am here talking to you because I have exciting and inspiring tales from the other side of college: success stories of a job, world travel, or even an unpaid internship. Stories that make you confident, make you feel better. That is not why I am here. What I can tell you from the other side is that the easy part of your life ends today, your real work has now begun, and even your great college education can’t have adequately prepared you for the remainder of your existence.

Several of you will begin to study to be pastors and counselors as you privately cope with an addiction. One or two of you will begin, for the first time in your life, to honestly question your sexual orientation and the implications that that will have on your adult life. Some of you will move to Washington to attempt to balance Christian ethics with the tangle of political ambition. And some of you, like me, will wrestle through months of discouraging unemployment while searching for work, bewildered by your failure.

Your character cannot be attributed to the nurturing of this school. It was, and always will be, a matter between you and God and the challenges that are coming your way. This season will be weighty, and how you approach it matters very much. Are you ready?


I am going to tell you a story you’ve heard before, because you helped to invent it. Once upon a time, some friends of mine got married after graduation in 2012. Their wedding was flawless. They fixed up a new house and he started his great engineering job. Then they got pregnant, and came back for homecoming with twinkling eyes and whispered the news to their close friends. Does this sound familiar? It should. It’s the ideal postgraduate narrative we’ve all co-written. However, that isn’t where their story ends at all. I must finish by telling you that they had a miscarriage. It doesn’t match the story. How can I parallel their beautiful wedding, success, and expectation of happiness with the pain and horror of losing a baby – the emotional trauma, physical exhaustion, and bitter disappointment they did their best to bear? 

I wouldn’t dare to lump all five hundred and ninety of you into one way of thinking, but I know enough about a lot of you to suppose that somewhere in your mind is seared a specific success story. This story doesn’t begin with a diploma today. It begins way, way back with the private preschools, violin lessons, Latin and Spanish, choir competitions, debate clubs, robotics tournaments, basketball championships, and the letter that came in the mail to welcome you here. It’s the momentum of success that your parents proudly began, the momentum you carried here. And your story today extends into the future, one you hope will be full of wealth, or fame, or acceptance, or adventure. A success story.

Whatever it is, I’m guessing that you’re clutching on to it today as you sit and sweat and celebrate and worry. Your story will have beauty and adventure, engagements and job offers, sure. But success and happiness is never the point, nor will it constantly be given to you. Your story will have a bewildering amount of confusion, darkness and death, things that can't be confidently posted on Facebook or pridefully summarized in all of the "what are you doing after you graduate" conversations. 

Amid your joys, your story will have its own tragedies of mental illnesses, natural disasters, debt, rebellious children, war, and broken marriages. Your experience here at college has not made you immune in the least. College has only distracted you as it fed the momentum that powered you through it all. Now we are here, and it is right to be afraid. More than celebrating a milestone, today marks the day where you must be responsible for how you respond to the weight of darkness that comes with living on this earth. You cannot do this alone.


A dear friend recently told me a story of a dark and fathomless ocean, with black waves roaring as an infinitely stormy sky churns overheard. In the middle of the ocean is one rock, and on the rock is a person. These brutal waves pound on this rock constantly. If the person were to stand up, they would immediately be swept out into the vast nothingness of the dark ocean, or pummeled to death on the sharp surface of the rock. Their only choice for survival at all it to press their entire body to the rock, gripping onto it in desperation as the cold waves tear at them hungrily. The bleak truth is that they cannot let go or they will certainly die. As she tells it, this is the essence of our human existence.

When I left behind a very hard summer job to move back home after graduating just to wade through underemployment and loneliness, my bitter question was, “why the ocean, Lord?” Why bother creating a fathomless, dark ocean of a world, full of failure, miscarriages and divorce? If life on earth is just a time of clinging to the rock before we die, why would God bother to create anything at all?

I said earlier that success was never the point. I meant it. Whatever you might have been told or told yourself while at this institution, the point is not businesses started, money saved, ideas published, or community cherished. As I cling fiercely to the rock during this season, the answer to my question becomes clear. The only point of the ocean is to draw us closer to the rock. Let me say that again so you really hear me. The only point of the ocean is to draw us closer to the rock. The terrifying waves and fathomless ocean draw us closer to God, to help us see and know, consider and understand together that the hand of the Lord has done this, the Holy One of Israel has created this world. That’s from Isaiah 41. Friends, the point is glorifying God by clinging to him intimately. That is life. That is the point of everything.


My exhortation to you today is simple. Wherever you go, in joy and pain, you will find the Lord there waiting for you. There is an ocean, and only one rock, and there is glory to be given. When you create an app, write a book, wait tables, run a ministry or study plankton, you will find glory there to give back to the Lord. When you battle cancer, lose a grandparent, can’t have children, or struggle with crippling depression, you will find glory there to give back to the Lord.

If you do not choose to draw close to God in the circumstances you are bound to face in your lifetime, some of which are unique to this postgraduate time, I can promise that you will be pulled out into the vast ocean and carried away into the darkness of casual spiritual ambivalence and selfish ambition. You must daily choose either the ocean or the Lord. There is no other way to go through life on earth.

The sector you are going into does not need someone easily discouraged, entitled, stubborn, or addicted to success. We do not need more greedy doctors, lazy teachers, selfish accountants or unethical researchers. The powers of darkness already have plenty of those. The kingdom of God needs your willingness, not your willfulness. I encourage you as you walk across this stage away from your college experience and into the darkness of a fallen world to let go of needing a personal “happily ever after” and instead humbly lay down your life for God’s glory. It will be the most radical thing you will ever do.

My prayer for you all comes from Psalm 131:
O Lord, our hearts are not lifted up; our eyes are not raised too high; we do not occupy ourselves with things too great and too marvelous for us. But we have calmed and quieted our souls, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child are our souls within us. Oh class of 2014, hope in the Lord from this time forth and forevermore.

Thank you, and God bless.

Wednesday, December 18

Advent meditation

Can you be haunted by heaven?

Can it follow you and hang on you until you must sit and ache until you can bear to go about your day again?

Hang your wreath, plug in your lights, yes. Then sit and be weary with me a while. It’s Christmas again and we’re still waiting for our King.

Sufjan Stevens, a man of questionable spiritual and artistic authority, aches with me in this song:

Lord, come with fire
Lord, come with fire
Everyone’s wasting their time
Storing up treasure in vain
Trusting the pleasure it gives here on earth
Oh I see the end
Oh I see the end
Everyone’s waiting for death

Not very cheerful for a Christmas song. But as we drive through a mall parking lot for a space, dizzied by the circular looping search for a space amid hundreds of pleasure-trusters, he might be quite right about this season’s particular storing-up nature. This time wasting business is fruitless. “Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.” (Ecc. 2)


In T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Journey of the Magi,” his wise men are heavy with the reality of Jesus and his kingdom:

were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

My heart is quiet here, caught between chasing the wind and waiting for my Lord. There is nothing to say. I can only hope and wait in the promises I hold on to. Dwell here, because this is the essence of Christmas. He promised he would come, and he did. He promised to return. Now we wait again.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

No sermon today, friends. Just a heavy ache and a heart full of love for the coming King.

Wait and hope with me.

Wednesday, December 4

A heavy set of words.

This is a poem about every person.
The weight of existence presses in on me.
I can push it out with music for a while, but not forever.
To live is to be heavy with humanity.

Grocery list:
A baby is born.
My friend’s grandmother dies.
My brother goes to college.
My father goes to work.
A startup business fails.
A blip pings on a radar.
A leaf falls to the ground in my backyard.
You blink.

Keep moving or die; adapt or go extinct.
You do have a choice. To live is to avoid death by changing.
I applaud the founders of organizations and the inventors of gadgets:
they keep us moving. They keep us from thinking of death.
They build empires so they can crumble. It’s very diverting.
I’ve never cared to build an empire.
It’s much simpler to water grass and watch it die.

The subway churns past the homeless men sleeping in the shadows.
The policeman will come and wake them and make them find new shadows.
This makes him a good policeman.
This makes them bad people.
I wonder where the other shadows are.

I have smelled the perfume of death in New York:
Puffs of secondhand cigarettes from coffee lips,
A brisk chill blowing the stench of metal stained with the urine of schizophrenics.
My friend looks out at the city safely from the 54th floor,
and I ride an elevator down into the world.
A man in the Columbus Circle tunnel is hungry and lonely.
I don’t want to be here anymore.

When I make eye contact with the woman sitting next to me,
I invite her out of the background and into my reality.
A man says “Bless you” when I sneeze.
We are doing very dangerous things here.

To live is to be heavy with existence.
Humanity hangs on you and follows you.
Babies are born. Grandmothers die. That man is still hungry right now.
Don’t think about it too much, or you will suffocate.
Play a game on your phone, get a job, save up, grow old.
It is much easier than thinking about this poem.
Keep moving.

That is all.