Takeaways Revisited

It’s been almost two months since my last blog. I had committed 2020 to be a reconstruction year after the deconstruction of 2019. So I have been quietly working on myself personally, professionally, and spiritually. While I have been doing this work, I haven’t had much to say here, though I had hoped to return once I felt ready. I am still not ready to blog regularly, but in light of the coronavirus pandemic, I am reminded of my takeaways from 2019. If you’ll remember they were “be not afraid” and “accept what is.” I am reflecting on these while living through very scary times.

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I am afraid of getting sick. I have been sick 6 times since October. I’m still on a round of antibiotics now. I work with little ones and they pass on their germs pretty easily. I have been so frustrated with myself for not just accepting the state of things and refusing to give in to fear. I have also had old wounds from last year start to burn again. I have made so much progress personally, and all of this has felt like a setback.

But fear and grief are part of being human. Healing, growth, and progress are not always linear. There are ups and downs, falls and rebounds. It’s all natural to being who we are as people. So I am choosing to have compassion for myself. I am allowed to have complex emotions and still move forward in my journey. I encourage you to have compassion for yourself, too. This is a harrowing moment for the entire world! Don’t panic, don’t be selfish, but allow yourself to feel what is going on in the world around you.

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I truly believe that one of the reasons that we fail each other with compassion and empathy is because we often lack it for ourselves. Self-compassion doesn’t mean we selfishly hoard toilet paper and deny it to others who may need some…

But it does mean we appreciate our whole selves for who we are, acknowledge and validate our emotions and experiences, and give ourselves grace when we need it. When we are full of compassion for ourselves, it overflows to others. I have seen some of this compassion already! Like Italians singing to each other from their windows and Lin-Manuel Miranda releasing a secret Hamilton song to lift our spirits. (For anyone who knows me, Lin-Minuel Miranda is my celebrity crush and I am obsessed with all things Hamilton.)

So be not afraid if you can be, but if you are afraid that’s okay too. Accept the state of things as best you can. Have compassion for yourself and others.

What I am Doing with My Year

I know people go back and forth with resolutions for the new year. Some years I do, some I don’t. This year I am really focusing on the person I want to be after a year of deconstruction. In many ways, this is very exciting. I can really shape who I am, and that will tell me more about where I am going. At first, I was bitter about feeling like I had to start over with so much of my life after working so hard, but I have accepted that this is where I am in my life. I am excited to rediscover parts of myself and reinvent who I am. So here are my goals and resolutions for 2020.

  1. Read more fiction and poetry: Most of my reading for the past… 6? 7? 8? years has been theology and Christian nonfiction. From academic reading to more mainstream authors like Nadia Bolz-Weber and Anne Lamott, I have imbibed literature that centers on my faith and ministry career. I am very tired of the jargon, buzzwords, and church-talk. Eventually, it gets stale and repetitive even with the “new” and “progressive” ideas. So I am going back to fiction and poetry, my first loves, to stimulate my imagination and reframe my view of the world. Speaking of poetry…
  2. 2020 is the year of poetry: I have been writing poetry since I was a child, and now I am going to get serious about it. I am writing poetry and submitting it to literary magazines. I am also collecting some for a book to publish (maybe before the end of the year? Before I turn 30?) I am proud of publishing a book of sermons and 2 articles in 2019, but creative, poetic writing is my heart. I am returning to my heart.
  3. A new career direction: I don’t know where I am headed in ministry. I am not going to try to force anything to happen. I am going to let things unfold the way they need to. I felt pushed and pulled throughout my entire ministry career. I have never had time to just think, heal, discern, and just be. I want my faith to have space to breathe for a minute. This means I cannot wait around for ministry to be my full-time income. I have loans to pay. I want to travel. Ministry may be on hold, or floating, or slowly unfolding, or whatever, but my life must keep moving forward. So I am going to be getting a certification from the University of South Carolina in grant writing. I want to use my research and writing skills with my experience in nonprofit work to take my career in a new direction. This is worthy work and something I will be thrilled to spend my days doing, proposing grants for nonprofits and other organizations that need funding to help others.

So much can change in a year. I am a completely different person now than I was in January 2019. I can’t wait to see who I become at the end of the year as we enter a new decade (and I will be entering a new decade in November!) I wish you well as you embark on a new year full of changes.

My Two Takeaways from 2019

I am not going to focus on the difficulties of this year going into 2020. I’ve spoken at great length about them, and I am ready to move on. Instead, I am going to talk about my two takeaways from this year and how they will be my mantras for the next year. It’s a little heavy, but stay tuned for the end when I talk about the good things that helped me through this year. If you’re not feeling the “serious” lessons I learned, you can skip to the bottom and read about the good things that happened to me in 2019.

 

  1. “Accept what is.” This is something that I have been working on for years but had no choice but to learn this year. The world is unjust. My past pain happened and can never be undone. I cannot force people to be who I want them to be. God is who God is. Suffering happens even when you make the right choices, even when you work hard to avoid it. I have wished, prayed, and worked for things to be different, from my circumstances to the people in my life. But I can only change myself and my response to the world around me. This sounds like a basic thing that most people already understand, but my word, is it almost impossible to truly accept reality. I think this is in large part based on my faith. My faith informs me that the world is not as it ought to be, that I am tasked to work for the Kingdom of God, and that one day God’s Kingdom will be fully realized and all will be made right. I do not have to sacrifice these beliefs to accept the reality of the world. Denying how things are only hurts me in the long run, and hinders my mission. If I accept what is, accept my pain and my past, accept who people truly are, accept that God will be who God is, accept who I am and who I am not, then I can find peace in that while also holding hope for a better world and doing my part in being a force of good.

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  2. “Be not afraid.” This is a tough one because it’s not as comforting as it sounds. In the past when I would think of angels or messengers in the Bible greeting people with “Fear not!” or “Do not be afraid” I took it as a message of, “It’s all going to okay.” I think of the Julian of Norwich quote that gets passed around, “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” Or the hymn It is Well with My Soul. These phrases are used to soothe the anxious soul, but the truth is really terrible stuff happens. And it’s scary to think about when those times come. It’s not always “going to be okay.” It won’t always “work itself out.” I have had experiences completely consume me and change the very core of who I am. And I have come out of the other side. I have been down to rock bottom, and I found a new path out of it. Whatever comes next, I have seen some pretty ugly things, and I am no longer afraid of them. Also, I am no longer afraid of an angry God who is eager to punish, as I was taught to believe. I am not afraid anymore because I have descended into hell so many times, and here I am. So I will not be afraid, not because I know it will all be okay, but because I know that there are many times it will not be okay but I am still here. I can be consumed, survive, and find a new way to move forward.
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So now let’s take a breather and hear about the fun things that happened in 2019! I am so grateful for a wonderful husband who makes life an adventure. We can survive so much together.

In January and February we knew we wouldn’t be spending much more time living in Florida, (where we never wanted to live in the first place) so we took several day trips around the state to Orlando, St. Augustine, Gainesville, Mount Dora, Deland, New Smyrna Beach, and Tampa.

We had been dying to move to North Carolina, and we were able to here in March. My baby nephew was born and I have gotten to love all over him!

I got to go back to the theatre world and stage-manage a production with a local theatre. We took a day trip to Winston-Salem. I began attending a nice church. For our 6th anniversary, Andy and I enjoyed a nice dinner and the Charlotte Symphony. Then we spent a few days in Charleston.

In July we visited historic Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Yorktown. We celebrated Andy’s birthday. We got to see author John Pavlovitz at a PFLAG event. For Halloween, we saw “Then There Were None” at Theatre Charlotte, we enjoyed the two Mint Museum locations to see art, and we spent my birthday at Biltmore in Asheville.

In December I had my holiday concerts with One Voice, we enjoyed Christmas lights in Mount Holly, and saw the Christmas lights in Christmas Town USA (McAdenville, NC).

No matter how difficult things get, Andy and I make time for us and we do special things together.

Here’s to living into the wisdom I have gleaned this year while leaving room for adventures.

 

Christmas Songs Part Two

As the Christmas season continues and the year draws to a close, here are my other three favorite Christmas songs. My very favorite is the last piece.

Infant Holy, Infant Lowly

My favorite verse:

Flocks are sleeping, shepherds keeping
Vigil till the morning new;
Saw the glory, heard the story,
Tidings of a gospel true.
Thus rejoicing, free from sorrow;
Praises voicing, greet the morrow:
Christ the babe was born for you.
Christ the babe was born for you.

This song gives me the same warm fuzzies as “Away in a Manger” but isn’t as over-played/sung. There’s nothing terribly profound, just a simple nativity song. It’s sweet and familiar, but that’s often what we want on Christmas. Preachers are reminded not to get too theological or too cerebral for the Christmas sermon. Just tell the story, preach the Gospel. That’s why the church is packed out; people just want to hear the story of Jesus. This song is an excellent example of sticking to the story and preaching the Gospel.

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Still, Still, Still

My favorite verse:

Dream, dream, dream,
Of the joyous day to come.
While guardian angels without number,
Watch you as you sweetly slumber.
Dream, dream, dream,
Of the joyous day to come.

It’s a lullaby for baby Jesus and a lullaby for us. Sometimes as an adult, we long to be comforted like when we were children. The world hurts, we hurt. We have to be strong and face it. We can’t hide. We are no longer kids. But this song gives us permission to rest in the peace of Christ. It soothes and comforts, making us feel safe and warm, even if just for a moment.

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Before the final song, here are the honorable mentions. Give them a listen, and maybe you’ll fall in love too:

Coventry Carol

Once in Royal David’s City

The Dream Isaiah Saw

 

Finally, we have to round out my favorites:

Child of the Stable’s Secret Birth

My favorite verse:

Child of the stable’s secret birth,
The Father’s gift to a wayward earth,
To drain the cup in a few short years
Of all our sorrows, our sins and tears –
Ours the prize for the road he trod:
Risen with Christ; at peace with God.

Every word of the song is gorgeous. The poetry brings me to tears. This is my absolute very favorite Christmas song. I was introduced to it in my junior year of college while singing in choir, and it has remained with me since. It is a very humanizing song to characterize Jesus, reminding us that Jesus decided not to be in a far off place to observe our suffering, but came down and became one of us. Also, the song’s implication of the “second Advent” that we are in now are profound. We are in the second Advent, awaiting the second coming. This song reminds us that one day all will be reconciled in God, and this first coming of Christ has set in motion the realization of God’s kingdom on earth. Christmas is all about God’s promise fulfilled, and the promise of yet to come. This song is a declaration of faith in what has happened, and what will happen; it is a poetic narrative and creedal statement enrobed in a gorgeous musical arrangement.

A blessed Christmas season to you. I wish you light and love as we approach Epiphany.

Christmas Songs Part One

I have too many favorite Christmas songs, so I am blogging a two-part reflection on my favorite songs. As tough as the year has been, I have felt some hope and peace as the year has wrapped up and Christmas has drawn close. I hope there is a touch of warmth in your heart this season, even if it’s been hard. And if not, if it all hurts, please know that your feelings are valid. Please know that you do not hurt alone.

Here are the Christmas songs that spark joy for me:

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The Holly and the Ivy

My favorite verse:

The holly bears a bark,
As bitter as any gall,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ,
For to redeem us all:

There is something so compelling about the earthy feel of this song. I love how the coming of Christ is compared to all the different parts of the holly: the flower, the berry, the prickle, and the bark. The wintry images are not just for the sake of beauty, but a visual reminder of Christ’s love for us and all that has been created. Christ is God with us, the Creator who has come down to be part of the creation.

In the Bleak Midwinter

My favorite verse:

Our God, heaven cannot hold him, nor earth sustain;
heaven and earth shall flee away when he comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
the Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

This song doesn’t exactly tell one cohesive story, but I love each verse individually. The first verse talks about how the earth and water turn hard as stone and iron in the bleak midwinter, which makes me think about how a cold, hard earth greeted Jesus. The second verse, printed above, speaks of how mighty Jesus is, but how humble he chose to be. The third verse speaks of the majesty of the heavens, and the simplicity of earth. The fourth verse talks about giving Jesus the gift of our hearts. I love how honest this song is, about how cruel the world can be, and how simplicity and humility foster great love. Christ considered us worthy of his love, even if we created a world of coldness and have very little to offer. Just as the baby Jesus was loved in a hard world, Jesus loves us when we have hardness inside of us. This song reminds us that warmth and kindness, goodness and peace are possible.

Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming

My favorite verse:

This Flow’r, whose fragrance tender
With sweetness fills the air,
Dispels with glorious splendor
The darkness everywhere.
True man, yet very God,
From sin and death He saves us,
And lightens every load.

This song is in contrast to many of the harsher images of divine judgment. This is a healing song for me, replacing bloodthirsty images of God with something gentle and inviting. Jesus comes as a rose beautiful and fragrant. This is what dispels the evil, not rage, but beauty. Honestly, it speaks for itself. Christ’s love is not condemnation, but a beautiful rose.

Part two coming next week!

Advent Reflections

As I previously stated, I had planned an Advent series, but I couldn’t quite get the words or the heart to really commit to it. But I decided to create a single post with my Advent theme. I want to share with you two of my favorite Advent hymns and my reflections on them.

The Canticle of Turning

My favorite verse:

From the halls of power to the fortress tower, not a
stone will be left on stone. Let the king beware for your
justice tears ev’ry tyrant from his throne. The
hungry poor shall weep no more, for the
food they can never earn; There are tables spread, ev’ry
mouth be fed, for the world is about to turn.
My heart shall sing of the day you bring. Let the
fires of your justice burn. Wipe away all tears, for the
dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn!

This hymn is based on Mary’s Magnificat in Luke 1:46-55 both of which are defiant, subversive songs that uplift the lowly and bring down the powerful. This song is one that dares to speak hope into a bleak world. When we think of Advent, we remember the waiting for the birth of Christ while acknowledging that we are living in the Advent Christ’s return. This song is relevant to our situation in the here and now, while echoing the truth of the past. Sometimes singing a song captures the hope we have can have trouble believing in. This hymn enlivens the spark of hope that I need for the Advent season.

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Now The Heavens Start to Whisper (the tune is very pretty, however, my favorite tune for this song is “Jefferson” which can be heard here.)

My favorite verse:

Heavy clouds that block the moonlight
Now begin to drift away.
Diamond brilliance through the darkness
Shines the hope of coming day.
Christ, the morning star of splendor,
Gleams within a world grown dim.
Heaven’s ember fans to fullness;
Hearts grow warm to welcome him.

I have always loved night time imagery of stars and the moon, and I am all about beautiful poetry. This Advent hymn is about how all of creation is anticipating Christ’s birth, which builds wonder and excitement. Like the previous hymn, there is also a message of social justice. It feels magical. I was always taught that “magic” was “bad” because it was associated with the “evil of witchcraft”. But I believe in the magical feeling that comes with hope in the holy and sacred. The ideals of goodness, kindness, and justice feel otherworldly, and what makes them so magical is that it is promised to come true when Christ comes again. A real wish upon a star that will happen one day. This hymn captures that holy magic that gets us excited for the coming Christmas season.

I have several Christmas songs to reflect on! There will be two parts. Until then, wait and anticipate in Advent.

Disappointment, Better Headspace

I was going to post an Advent blog series, but my heart is not in it this year. Instead, I am working hard to prepare my heart and mind for healing and a new year. I will have some “New Year” insights on a later date, but for now, I feel myself moving into a better place so I think it’s better to reflect on that.

I have been shocked by how quickly my support from those who checked in on me at the beginning of the year has dried up. When I needed tangible help in spreading the word about Tales of Glory, few people even responded to my cry for help. I also have been getting lots of rejection letters from publishers. I’ve wondered if my ambition has been a dead end. I’ve thought my talents have fizzled out. I’ve contemplated giving up on the dreams that I have worked years and years for. I’ve watched others succeed and cheered them on but wondered if I will ever see the success that they have.

My hope had evaporated.

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I posted in an earlier blog about how I have been singing with One Voice Choir. We worked so hard to memorize our music. I had 2 colds, a sinus infection, and laryngitis, but I worked through them all for the concert. I focused on the music. In the meantime, I kept my head down and did very little socializing. My heart has just been closed for business. I just wanted to sing and survive the day.

I went on autopilot to get through the day. I felt like my dreams were dying, so life stopped flowing in me the way it was supposed to.

This weekend our concert finally arrived. I was terrified that I wouldn’t have a voice, but my vocal cords healed in time. Throughout the week I was with the choir several times and I finally began conversing with other people. I didn’t hide in my phone. I was feeling open. I realized how kind the people around me were, and how others had also been hesitant to socialize until now as well. And then we performed our concert three times to audiences who loved our music. Getting to perform again was magical. I had truly missed choir in my life.

Getting to be a part of the Charlotte arts community has done some healing work. I have hope again. I feel like life has started flowing again.

I am disappointed in the way things have been going for me. I have no idea if my hard work will help me truly fulfill my ambitions. But after this weekend I feel like some healing has finally happened and that I am moving into a better headspace. I can get off of autopilot and realign my vision for the future.

Pushing Through with Queer Eye

I’m carrying a lot these days; this year has been a tough one. The first third of the year was miserable with leaving my toxic ministry and dealing with panic attacks. The middle has been full of rest, healing, and discovery. But this last third has almost undone all of the healing that I worked so hard for.

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I am grateful for those who have encouraged me and shared my ministry with others. Starting a new ministry with Tales of Glory means that I need help, and asking for help can be really hard. But I am also disappointed that I haven’t received as much help as I have needed and asked for. It’s discouraging and lonely.

I have made some tough decisions in regards to setting myself free from abusive situations, how to move forward, and realizing how that might (permanently?) affect my future. I am fighting off another cold (I had one just a month ago!) and we’re coming up one month of living in a hotel after our fire.

It’s hard not to be depressed. It’s hard not to lose my faith. It’s hard not to close myself off from others and completely withdraw within myself. Sometimes I feel as if I only have my husband and myself. Part of that is beyond my control. The other part might be my own doing as I retract from the world that seems to really have it out for me.

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On my sick day, I decided to go back and watch Queer Eye from the beginning. 5 gay men, known as the Fab 5, enter a person’s life to make them over on the outside and makeover their home, but also reach deep to boost their confidence and self-image, work on their relationships, work on their professional lives, and truly bring out the beauty in each one of the “heroes” they work with. It never fails to bring joy and light in my life. But it was extra profound to watch these episodes that hit on so many of the things I am experiencing: loneliness, complicated family situations, struggling to connect to others, struggling with faith and theology, and even the grueling struggle of starting a business.

In one of the most recent episodes where they took Queer Eye to Japan, one of the Fab 5 named Antoni, who specializes in food, was watching some of the footage from one of their makeovers. They always watch footage of how their makeover has helped their “hero.” Antoni was openly weeping when he saw the hero and her friend embracing each other for the first time after decades of friendship, which they said was not common in their culture. He cried out, “Why does kindness always make me cry?!” Through my own tears, I laughed and said, “That’s all of us watching this on every episode!”

I have been knocked off my feet so many times just this year alone that I know there is no way to know what the future holds. I don’t really know how this chapter of life is going to work out for me. I keep scanning the horizon for a sign and coming up empty. What I do know is that Queer Eye is the microcosm of what the kingdom of God should look like. I am going to keep gathering these little pockets of joy and kindness to sustain my soul. Maybe my own faith and my own ministry can grow from there. For today, Queer Eye has kept my faith in God and in the goodness of others alive. Each day looks different, and each day I react differently as I stumble through; but at least for today I am pushing through with the small gift of hope given to me by the Fab 5.

Hard Seasons: Wrestling

Genesis 32:22-31
The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

I have always loved this story. I get it. I think we all do. We’ve all wrestled with our faith, demanding a blessing, desperate for an identity, looking for a victory. Sometimes spiritual enlightenment can feel like an exciting revelation, or like a warm peace, or a lightbulb clicking on. It can be thrilling and affirming. Other times it feels like a battle, or suffering, or like everything you have is being robbed of you, or like parts of you are being burned away. It can be painful and feel like dying. When we learn more about God, ask the hard questions, unlearn certain things, relearn old things, embrace new things, we are growing our faith, even if it feels like an endless wrestling match on a dark night that we come away from limping.

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I have limped my way through the year after facing sexism, ageism, and abuse of power. Just as it felt as if I was healing and moving forward, I was struck and I am limping again. We had a small house fire, and now we are figuring out what will come next. My theology has not survived. I have had to wrestle like Jacob because my lived experience no longer matched the things I believed about God. Why has this happened? Where is God in this? Where is my blessing? Who am I? What is my name? When will I see the daylight again? When is enough, enough? I’m still wrestling. I’m still trying to piece together what my beliefs are now. I don’t have all the answers, but I won’t stop asking the questions.

Faith is mysterious, like this passage. Who was Jacob wrestling with? It says a man, but then Jacob says that he has seen the face of God and prevailed. In the book of Hosea, it says that Jacob wrestled an angel. Some type of divine encounter occurred, and Jacob was brave enough to demand a blessing from it. Jacob did his best to make sense of his encounter, getting what he asked for, but not getting all the clarity to what he experienced. Jacob was permanently blessed and cursed.

This is truly a parable that represents the mystery of faith, God, and life.  I think when we’re wrestling with faith and God, we are surrounded by mystery. We’re asking the questions that may never be answered, and yet we have to keep moving forward. We may come away blessed and cursed. I think the essence of spiritual growth is admitting that we will never have a complete understanding of the divine or the natural world while also being true to our ever-changing beliefs and identity. It’s okay to say, “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand” or “I’m still searching” or “I’m not sure what I believe” or “I’m frustrated” or “I no longer subscribe to this aspect of my faith” or “My beliefs have changed.” Faith is a lifelong process. And we were never commissioned to have it all figured out. And it’s okay to have negative feelings in relation to faith. It’s who we are, and God loves us and tells us it’s okay and to do our best.

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Ultimately, while we are in hard seasons of wrestling that feel like suffering and dying, we are not being erased. We are being remade. I don’t believe that God sends people to bully us or sends house fires to harm us so that God can change us. Instead, I think really terrible things happen because we live in a broken world, but God cares enough to show up. And God is willing to be our wrestling partner while we work through this mess. Somehow, transformation happens in this season. Like Jacob, we may come away scarred, but we may also be renamed and made new. Our sense of identity is important to God because it is important to us. So if, like me, you find yourself wrestling with faith and feeling like your theology is being stripped away, perhaps, whenever you are ready and only if it is helpful, seek this opportunity to engage in a spiritual awakening that leads you to a new identity.

I leave you with these lyrics from the song “24” by Switchfoot:

I want to see miracles, see the world change
Wrestled the angel, for more than a name
For more than a feeling
For more than a cause
I’m singing Spirit take me up in arms with You
And You’re raising the dead in me