When Thanksgiving is More Than Sacrifice

When I wrote this post last November, I was deep in the throes of grief, mourning the loss of my youngest brother. Over the next year, I would find that, sometimes, God’s on a roll. It wasn’t enough for Him to shatter my physical family…He shattered my spiritual family, too.

This year, offering thanksgiving is more than a sacrifice. Offering thanksgiving terrifies me.  

You can’t know all He’s taken this past year because I can’t tell you. But know this…even a young, bright, blossoming tree may be, just under the surface, experiencing the ravages of an unwanted enemy…and if you could open up that tree and look inside, you would find a hollow, empty space that once was full of life and liquid sunshine.

He gives and takes away.

This summer, I was in a meeting where each person was asked to share something for which we were thankful. I figured that if I couldn’t thank God for the crap (Don’t like that word? Here are few alternatives. Feel free to mentally censor.) happening in our lives, I could at least thank Him for food, shelter and, well, air conditioning. So I did. Three days later, our air conditioner died. It’s like He was mocking me.

Thanksgiving doesn’t just hurt. Thanksgiving scares me.

He gives and takes away. And we are left to suffer.

Who is this God I worship? The One who asks for our gratitude and then snatches away the very things we thank Him for? The One who inflicts pain then wants to comfort us for the very pain He’s inflicted? That sounds like abuse, not love.

I can hear my pastor now: “No! God’s not abusive!” (Because he literally preached that last Sunday. I recommend a listen. Especially if reading about my experience is difficult for you or leaves you asking a lot of questions.)

Still I can’t help but ask: What happens when all around you God’s promises go unfulfilled?

We are not the only ones. I watch as friends and family cry out to Him for help, for intervention, for hope, and He is silent. I watch as they ask for bread, but He gives them a stone; as they ask for fish, but He sends the serpent.

Unfortunately, in these trials, even the most well-meaning people place the burden on the broken. “Do this. Say that. Pray more. Worry less. And you’ll see…God will work it out.”  We like that logic because, however subtle, that logic implies we have the power to fix the problem. And if we have the power to fix it, then we are in control. We so desperately want to be in control, that we fool ourselves into imagining God’s omnipotence is subject to our actions. 

I’ve had a lot of time to think about that this year. Now, when someone tells me “Do this. Say that. Pray more. Worry Less.” here’s how I respond:

Anytime God wants to show up, He can. We have prayed. We have begged and pleaded and wept and wailed. We have followed His systems. Trusted His people. Waited on Him to work. And everything He’s provided arrived tainted. Sure, He gave us bread…with stones baked into the dough. Yes, there were fish…stonefish laced with venom. We have asked. And He has answered as He has pleased. We’re waiting. Anytime He wants to restore what’s been plundered, He can. He’s God. It’s on Him.

He can mock me if He wants. Or He can bless me. He can withhold His promises. Or He can fulfill them. He can hand me a fish and watch as the poison leaches into my blood. Or He can bring us living water and food fit for a King. He’s God. He can do whatever He wants. And He will.

That is the black, breath-sucking, untethered truth: He gives and takes away. He is not tame. He is not safe. This is the God we struggle to face. All-powerful and unpredictable. He will not stay inside the lines. He answers to no one.

Last year, I could offer thanksgiving even though every blessing was tinged with pain. This year, I am simply too afraid.

I am no longer the “wounded, angry child” who climbs into her Father’s lap.

I am become the battered, fearful one who hides behind the couch, monitoring her Father’s every move. How can she trust the Father who helped others by causing harm to those she loves? No, she won’t hold out her hand for the gift of shiny gold because she fears the razor blades that lurk beneath the glittering paper.

Don’t judge her too harshly. She fought. A long time. Because she understands her heart…how quickly it slams shut when threatened. So with trembling arms and locked knees and feet slipping, she held back the massive door as it bore down on her. She battled longer than even she thought possible. But it’s a heavy door. And she is so very tired.

Before you blame her, or shame her, or think you know better, remember, He gives and He takes away. He is not tame. He is not safe. But they tell her He is good. And she is waiting.

© Nichole Q Perreault

In the Rubble of Broken Hearts

Even writing hurts. This thing I sometimes love more than life…hurts.

I want to stop. To put it off. To wait until I can write about things that sparkle and bring light to your eyes. I want to wait until I can make you smile, make you laugh, make you remember why we’re even friends.

I don’t want to hurt. And I don’t want to be the girl who’s always hurting. And I don’t want to be the girl you roll your eyes at because she just. Won’t. Stop. Complaining.

I want God to give me shiny, happy words. Because I want to be shiny and happy.

But He’s called me to this: the right now…the ugly and real…the what-you-see-is-what-you-get.

And some days, I hate it. Today is one of those days…

In my last post, I referenced Isaiah 54:10:

“Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken, nor my covenant of peace be removed,” says the Lord who has compassion on you. (NIV)

That was just a few short weeks ago and even then, I couldn’t possibly imagine how much He’d be willing to shake, how much He’d be willing to remove.

My world’s a small world. And I have taken things like love and friendship and kindness and peace for granted.

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No Strings Attached | Why I Stopped Defending God

DONE DEFENDING GOD

I’m done defending God. To family. To friends. To you. To the world. But most of all, I’m done defending God to myself.

I gave it up several weeks ago – cold turkey, as they say – when something masquerading as a gift appeared nearby. Something that for now brings smiles and giddiness and dreams that buzz through skin like the flush of red wine. But like all young things, it carries the seeds of its own potential destruction. Beneath the shiny, crimson skin there lurks a poison. And I lie awake at night wondering which will be the fatal bite: the first, the fifth, the fiftieth?

Enraged would be a mild description of how I feel. Because I see what’s coming. I see a day when this imposter dressed in pretty colors slips off her overcoat to reveal the disappointment, the heartbreak. And I don’t want to watch my people hurt anymore.

What really burns is knowing that God could have prevented this. He could have prevented this. But He didn’t. So here I am. Again. Watching helplessly.

And I am tempted to try to talk myself out of this reality, to try to convince myself that God will do things differently this time…that He has a good reason…a bigger plan…a better plan.

It’s a thing we learn to do as Christians – to tell ourselves who God really is in spite of what the world tells us. As if we know who He really is. As if we can understand what He’s really doing.

RUMORS OF GOD

I know I’m probably freaking some of you out at this point, right? After all, aren’t we supposed to preach the gospel to ourselves, battle the lies with the truth of His word? Aren’t those good things? Yes, they are…until they aren’t.

Until they become just another work of the flesh, another attempt to figure God out, define the boundaries of who He is, carve out features we recognize, features that make us feel safe, or strong or big or small or whatever it is we think we need at the time.

So when confronted with this new circumstance, I was tempted to run and hide myself in the “truth”. I told myself things like “God won’t hurt her” and “If He does, it’s only for her good” and yada, yada, yada. But none of it rang true. Like oil on water, these “truths” refused to sink in. Because they weren’t real. They weren’t actually true.

What evidence do we have that God won’t hurt us? Or if He does, that it’s only for our good? Look at Job, for crying out loud. What did he get out of that hot mess? Nothing. Except, perhaps, a very painful learning experience, which he probably could have done just fine without.

As far as we can tell, God made Job suffer because of a bet He made with Satan.

And when, after immeasurable loss and suffering, Job finally presses God for an explanation, God doesn’t even try to defend himself. He doesn’t say “OK, here’s all the reasons I needed to let you suffer. Here’s why I’m still good. Here’s why you can still trust me.”

Not even close. Rather He turns on His booming master-of-the-universe voice and basically tells Job to suck it.

Where were you when I created the earth?
Tell me, since you know so much!
….Now what do you have to say for yourself?
Are you going to haul me, the Mighty One, into court and press charges? (Job, MSG)

Those are the bookends of a long speech in which God’s singular defense is His own awesomeness. He’s like “Job, shut up. Listen. I’m God. You think you can do the things I do? You think you can understand the things I understand? Well, you can’t. So just stop.”

It’s like the biggest non-answer answer in the history of the world. Jesus often used the same tactic. People asked a question and Jesus answered with a question.

And why shouldn’t He, when we go to Him demanding reasons or explanations that we can cut and measure and stack and cobble into an image of a god we can understand – a god we can shape and mold and fit into our human-sized minds. A god we can handle.

Even answers can become an idol. Even reasons and understanding and explanations can become gods if we want them more than we want God himself.

Job learned that the hard way.

I admit I once lived by rumors of you;
now I have it all firsthand—from my own eyes and ears! (Job, MSG)

Isn’t that what we do? We settle for rumors of God. Because a god whose motives and means we can understand…that’s a god we can control – a predictable god, a safe god, a god we can carry.

Only we’re so busy creating this god we can carry, we forget that what we really need is a God Who can carry us.

So I’m done listening to the rumors – yours, mine, anybody’s – about who God is. And I’m done feeding them to you. Because God doesn’t need defending. He didn’t defend himself to Job. He didn’t defend Himself on Calvary. So I’m pretty sure He’s not waiting on me to defend Him to anyone, including myself.

So from now on, when I look at God and see someone who’s always setting me up for the fall, like Lucy to Charlie Brown, I won’t try to convince myself otherwise.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe that’s not who He is, but if He wants me to know that, He can show me. It’s really up to Him, don’t you think?

NO STRINGS ATTACHED – A VISION

At around the same time that I made the decision to stop defending God, (which by the way is rather freeing) I had a “vision” of sorts. I was praying during worship (on THP, which I figure my daughter would like to know) and I saw this image of thousands and thousands of strings. And each string was attached on one end to God in heaven and on the other end, to a circumstance of my life here on earth. In that moment, I realized that my understanding of the Lord has always been tied to my circumstances, because I let life – the good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly – define Him.

Then I saw giant shears, snipping away at the strings, five, 10, 20 at a time. And I heard God say, “No strings attached. Now, you will get to know me with no strings attached.”

And isn’t that what Job did? Isn’t that what it’s like to follow God with no explanations? No neat and tidy reasons?

I will not tie God to my circumstances anymore. For better or for worse. That means that bad things aren’t evidence of a bad God. And good things aren’t evidence of a good God. And I will just have to wait here to find out who He is.

I said before that it’s freeing – not defending God. It’s also terrifying. Like stepping off the edge of a cliff without a net.

I’m not gonna lie. It’s been painful. Painful. But it’s also real. And real is so much better than rumors.

Because above all else, I want my God to be real. It starts there, don’t you think? Because if He isn’t real, nothing else matters.

So I’ve been waiting. Afraid. Hurting. Angry. Doubtful.

And then one recent Sunday, I had the privilege of helping orchestrate a special communion service focused on the King of Love. While preparing for communion, the congregation reflected on which aspect of God’s love meant the most to them over the last year. People then wrote that word down on a piece of paper and, upon going up for communion, dropped their cards in a basket. During the remainder of worship, I categorized the cards and handed them to a friend who painted the words on a canvas, which our pastor revealed later, during his message about loving our enemies.

Photo by Nichole Q Perreault

Photo by Nichole Q Perreault

The service was powerful. (Listen here if you want!)

But for me, the sweetest moment came as I sat on the floor surrounded by hundreds of cards all proclaiming God’s active love for the person who penned each word.

Some cards shared the same word but each was unique, written by a different hand, a different person, with a different life experience. I read them over and over as the song played on: “You don’t give your heart in pieces…You don’t hide yourself to tease us…Your live is wild…Your love is not ashamed to be seen with me.” (Pieces by Amanda Cook)

There, spread out before me, was evidence of the real God, manifest in the lives of my people. Broken, hurting, joyful, thriving, aching, loving, battling people.

There on a torn carpet, surrounded by bits of paper and ink, He revealed Himself to me.

Strong. Unshakeable. Relentless. Enough. Faithful. Unspeakable. Patient. Long-suffering. Steadfast. Like the spring rain. Merciful. Costly. Perfect.

Photo by Nichole Q Perreault

Photo by Nichole Q Perreault

And I didn’t have to do a thing. I didn’t have to dig Him up or carve Him out or hunt Him down or figure Him out or defend Him to anyone, including myself.

“Here I am, Nichole.” It was as simple as that.

No strings attached.

 

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Waiting for Morning

I often hear people say something like, “Joy is eternal. You can’t always be happy but you can always have joy.”

Lately, I feel the opposite. I can laugh with family and friends, smile to greet someone I know, enjoy a dinner out or a walk through my garden. But those happy moments drift unsupported over a dark abyss. I have no joy.

I want to believe God when He says Joy comes in the morning but there is no joy in this mourning. In this mourning, emptiness reigns, like a void that devours light and robs breath from your lungs.

Even in the midst of blessings, of sunshine and daisies and ice cream at the farm and family movies and just being an American with clean water and shelter and food in the pantry, I can be happy – grateful even – but I have no joy.

Does this make me a bad Christian? Is my faith too small? Am I far from God?

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Crucify Me

Memories have been pecking away at me...creeping in, as real as yesterday. Not the good memories, but the bad – the foolish, humiliating memories, the devastating moments that I long to erase.

Without warning, they rush in like a tidal wave, mocking me, insulting me, threatening to dash me against the rocks, because there’s nowhere to run, no way to escape myself.

Suddenly, I hear my own sharp-edged voice:

I hate myself.

Sometimes it’s merely a thought. Other times, a whisper. Today, I spit the words out loud, just to make it stop. To halt the rising wave, to make the accusing voices Just. Shut. Up. To stop the harassment, the shame, the regret, the pain.

I hate myself. A truth that rises from the churning depths of me, like a bubble of air in thick molten lava…ugly, menacing, then empty…a hollow, shameful ache.

I hate myself. I hold fast to those three little words, with white knuckles and nails digging into flesh. 

I used to think it strange how others cut their flesh with razors or glass, but I…I cut with an invisible blade, carving, slicing, maiming this heart already thick with scars.

And I love the hating, the punishing.

Because if I can’t escape myself, I will hate myself. Consume myself. Destroy myself.

I will crucify myself.

I will take myself to the cross and begin the hammering, the nailing, the piercing. Dismissing His sacrifice and mercy, I try, in my own strength, to crush, to crucify, to bleed out my blood in payment for my failures and yet in this, too, I fail. This one arm is always free – and I can’t complete the job.

The crucified cannot be the crucifier.

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Prayers Like Snowflakes

Do you ever wonder, as you slog through your list of prayers, does this matter? These words – in the form of petitions and praises and pleadings – do they matter?

Do you ever feel overwhelmed? Discouraged? I do.

So much heartache. So many needs. Needs that outnumber my prayers. Needs that outweigh my weightless, colorless, tuneless words.

Discouragement is stronger than gravity and can pull us down with a force that pins us to the lowest places, the cold, hard places so that we can’t even lift our heads to look up. And in comparison, our prayers seem to drift away like vapors in the wind.

One day, not too long ago, as I sat on my bed praying, I felt an emptiness and futility pressing in on me. I found myself asking,

How can these prayers I offer up today – please bring k peace, keep her safe and help her share your love with others today…completely heal and restore c… comfort my friend who misses her mother… save that marriage on the verge of divorce…bring that young man off the streets and into a rehab that will make a difference… – how can these prayers make a difference? How, God? It all seems so pointless. And I just feel like giving up.

And then I thought of snowflakes.

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Out of Darkness, Light | A Christmas Poem

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of being told how to do Christmas better, how to get it right, how to rethink it or turn it upside down or make it count or What. Ever. Not that that those aren’t worthy endeavors, but rather at this point, I just want to enjoy Christmas for what it is. And when it came to writing a Christmas post, I was practically gagging on my own words. That’s when I know it’s bad – when I can’t even stand to listen to myself. So I gave up and wrote a poem. No commentary. No lectures. No exhortation. No opinions. No judgments. No assertions.

Just a poem. A painting, if you will, of words. Merry Christmas.

 

 

Out of Darkness, Light

We walk in darkness
Stumbling, feet slipping
Grasping for something, anything to keep from falling

We scrape our hands on broken branches
Our knees on stony paths
In trying to save ourselves, we are wounded

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On Being a Girl | Late Night Ramblings

Tough. Sharp. Witty. Snarky. Capable. Independent. Powerful. Like super-powerful, machine gun, taser wielding, ninja powerful. In control. Emotionally guarded. Mysterious. Beautiful…in an average-girl-made-alluring-by-her-mystery-and-inaccessibility kind of way. Likes others, even loves others, but doesn’t need anyone.

That’s the girl I want to be: Ziva David, Sydney Bristow, Kate Austen, Veronica Mars.

Today I read an article in Smithsonian magazine about Amazon women, in which the author, Amanda Foreman, suggests that girls don’t want to be girls unless we have powerful, warrior-like heroes and role models, like Wonder Woman. That ruffled my feathers a bit. Maybe some girls want to be girly girls…soft, submissive, sweet, meek. And that’s OK, right?

 

 

Then I sat down and devoured season three of Veronica Mars and realized – I am that article. I want, have always wanted, to be Sydney, Ziva, Kate, Veronica. I mean, I even dressed up as the Black Widow for our Christmas Card for crying out loud:

Photo by nicholeq.wordpress.com

Photo by nicholeq.wordpress.com

So maybe there’s something to this Amazon woman deal after all. Because apparently I want to be Wonder Woman. (With more clothes on, thank you.)

So what’s that about? Power? Control?

Is it bad? Is it wrong to want to be strong and powerful? Maybe not.

But to want to be always in control? (Eve calling….)

To want to be independent? To need no one else?

There is this part of me that wants to shut out the whole world. To keep my heart all to myself. To keep my love for others wrapped up tightly inside, hidden away.

So that all my love is mine. And all my pain is mine. And all my fear is mine. And all my joy is mine. And all my grief is mine. And all my shame is mine. And all my everything….is mine.

And you can’t have it. You can’t see it or touch it or feel it or know it. You can’t have it. Because you can’t have me.

And there it is.

A cursed and wounded heart, frozen by freedom’s great imposter: independence.

But I want it so badly. Today, more than any other day, I feel it – how strong it is, this idol that rules my heart.

And so I ride fences and seek pleasures that harm me. Always wanting what I can’t get. Pawing, stamping the dusty earth along the rails…butting against walls that hold me in, chasing freedom. Freedom from pain and people and expectations and false hope.

But walking through this world alone is its own sort of prison…with transparent, icy walls that deceive me into believing that love is safer when it can’t touch me, that seeing is enough. Will I ever be able to let someone love me? Tell me, Don Henley, when will it be too late?

This idol…this me wanting me all to myself…it has to go. It has to go.

But how? How do I surrender who I am? The only thing I have…me?

But do I even have me or is it just an illusion, a lie? Because who am I anyway? How did I get here and how will I go?

I am not my own. I didn’t make me. I can’t keep me.

Or more astutely:

It is when I turn to Christ, when I give up myself to His personality, then I first begin to have a real personality of my own…There are no real personalities anywhere else. Until you have given yourself to Him you will not have a real self…Your real, new self will not come as long as you are looking for it. It will come when you are looking for Him. – CS Lewis

Oh the futility of my fight. On my own, I am nothing.

And I feel tired. And I don’t want Him to love me or comfort me BECAUSE I AM ANGRY. Angry like a 6 year old girl who just realized that someday she will die. That this life – this awesome, beautiful, terrible, wondrous life – will end. Will be snatched out, like a carpet, from under her feet, knocking her hard on the floor and stealing the breath from her lungs. No more blue sky and green trees and grass to tickle the feet and beaches to wander and dreams to dream and futures to plan.

And she lies there thinking, “Who is this God that gives and takes away?”

And the pain and betrayal run deep. So deep that even nail-scarred hands that gave everything burn. Because this place is raw. And the healing hurts.

And I wonder…who am I? Why did You make me? Why did you make me a girl? What does it even mean? Who should I want to be? How should I want to be? Is it safe to want to be anything? Or will you snatch that out from under me too?

Or will you take this broken, wounded, angry girl…and remake me into something beautiful? Something strong? Something good? Something free?

There are so many things I want to be, but Lord, can You make who I am?

 

When My Best Isn’t Good Enough

I hate being weak. I hate that I am not enough. I want to be more. To do more.

God, so much of what I want to do is for You. Why do You keep holding me down beneath Your mighty hand? You say You will lift me up in due time. When will that be? Can You point to a date on a calendar? Or give me a general idea? If it’s a long way off, my iPhone goes ahead like 20 years. And Due Time has got to be within the next 20 years. Right? God? Are you there?

In Jesus Calling, I’m instructed to rejoice in my weakness which, like a lodestone, draws me ever closer to God. Once upon a time those were encouraging words, but lately they sound a lot like this: blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

What happens when I am aware of my desperate need for the Lord but I don’t feel any closer to Him?

What happens when He doesn’t answer my prayers? When I ask for strength and yet have so little? When I beg to feel Him, plead to hear from Him and yet…nothing?

I go to His word for nourishment but everything tastes like dry grass. Parched, I drag myself across burning sands only to find an empty creek bed. I wrap myself in the love of friends and family but my heart shivers through the sunless night.

And I recollect a truth carved in the walls of my soul…but it’s like recalling the lyrics of a song without remembering the melody.

I know He is with me but I can’t feel Him.

And so I recite the words, even though I can’t remember the tune:

Fear not, for I am with you.
     Be not dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you.
     I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.
Isaiah 41:10

And I believe…even though I don’t feel. And I hope even though I can’t see. And I choose trust instead of fear – trust in the God who promises to uphold me with His right hand.

His right hand – a symbol of strength in the scriptures. Not His left, but His right hand. Because God only gives us His best.

And I keep reading:

For I am the Lord your God
    who takes hold of your right hand
and says to you, Do not fear;
    I will help you. Isaiah 41:13

The Lord my God who takes hold of my right hand. Not my left, but my right hand – my strength. My best.

And I consider what life would be like with God holding my right hand. I imagine cooking without my right hand and typing without my right hand – and the imagining comes pretty easily because with chronic pain and tendonitis, I am sometimes forced to rest my hands, and wow…even in those brief hours, I hate it.

(Did I mention I hate being weak? Because I do. I hate it.)

Honestly, God taking hold of my right hand doesn’t sound particularly helpful. Surely, it would be easier if He held my left hand.

But then…would He even be helping me at all? Or would He just be something I hold onto to make me feel better – like a security blanket or the cross I wear around my neck?

Like an unsteady toddler who cries for help after falling down and then pushes her father away as soon as she’s back on her feet, I want Him to help me do it on my own.

But that’s not quite how it works, is it? God is not raising us to be independent. Rather, He’s calling us back from independence, into the freedom that comes in total dependence on Him.

And that means that sometimes He must take hold of us at our strongest places, limit us, slow us down.

Perhaps it’s the only way He can get me to stop trying to do it all on my own. In taking away the things I rely on – my endurance, my abilities, my intellect, my creativity, my spiritual insight, my energy, my confidence – He reminds me of the one thing that really matters: Him.

And I remember His strength that called light out of darkness, igniting the fire of countless suns and flinging them across space and time.

His strength that hurled the planets into motion with perfect precision, summoned beings out of the earth and rushed the wind of life into man. His strength that bore the crushing weight of humanity’s doom and under it, through it, forged a new way. His strength that ruptured the tight and binding prison of flesh, birthing new life in a dry and barren wasteland.

His strength. Which has always been….will always be…enough.

And so, confused and frustrated, weak and exhausted, I stop tugging and pulling and fighting and trying to wrench my hand away from His.

And in this moment, I surrender my best – which is never enough – so that He can give me His best. Which has always been….will always be…enough.

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The morning after I completed this post, Leroy Case preached about our God the “Star-breather.” His message was incredibly relevant to me, to this post, and at the end he shared a song with us. And now I am sharing it with you.

Already All I Need by Christy Nockels

 

 

Not Quite Lunch Poems 1 & 2

I WANT….

VINES AND ROSES
I want to write beauty
Words that wrap and wind around each other
Like vines and roses
Strong and rich
Living and breathing out air heavy with the fragrance of mystery
Yet light enough to ride along a breeze

STORYTELLERS
I want to tell a story
Not mine but Another’s
Already written yet still being told
This story lives
And I live inside its words – because of its words
They are written on my arms, across my face
Upon my beating heart, drifting on the wind that leaves my lungs
Words unrecognizable
Symbols and signs from another time, another place
Perhaps never spoken but by One
And yet they speak of me
Of you, of all
They are every story
And the only story
One that was and is and will be told
Wont you tell me?
And I will tell you…

Written in response to the WordPress Weekly Writing Challenge
Not exactly written at lunchtime but kept to a limited time without overthinking.