Monday, March 20, 2017

A Shadow of Beauty




I woke in darkness to the jingle of my alarm and the chatter of birds. Perhaps the birds knew it was the first day of Spring and were thus employed with extra jubilation, but my suspicion is that they greet every morning with such exuberance. I listened to their Lauds—their morning prayer-chant—with a slow smile on my sleepy face. Finally pulling myself out of bed as the sky became a deep rose-gold. I never can decide if I like sunrise or sunset better, I'm glad I don't have to—I can simply like them both for their own sakes. 

Being the first day of Spring meant it was my friend-and-co-worker's birthday, and I had offered to make breakfast for the office. As I toasted English muffins and poached eggs in my cast iron skillet, I turned around to rinse my hands and saw a lovely moment: a reflected shadow. The sun coming through my antique windowpanes lit up the tawny dried grasses in the bottle on the sill, but the shadow it cast made them look like fresh wildflowers. I paused my poaching liturgy to snap a photo of the spiritual reality bowing before my eyes. 

There are times in life when all we can see are the dried grasses of our dreams or best laid plans. No matter which way we look at them, they are brittle, dried up, monotone kindling tucked in the corner of the sill. But maybe the problem is that we keep looking at the broken dream or the mislaid plan, whilst God is nudging us to turn around and look at the reflected shadow. When we turn, we see flowers outlined on the wall. We see the contour of each stem and leaf; each pod becomes a glory of its own. The dried grass looks different from this perspective, looks fresh and lovely and renewed. 

Sometimes the shadow is full of beauty, not mere darkness. Sometimes the shadows that fall on our lives are not snuffing out the sun, they are the evidence that there is sunlight. Without light there couldn't be shadows cast, after all. All would be utter darkness, impenetrable, blinding. For darkness, as well as overpowering light, blinds the eyes after time. But shadows are a mix of light and solid things; they are the delicate darkness dappling the wall.

One of the darkest things I have witnessed is my faithful sister being turned out of her home and her marriage. We could only stare at the pieces all around, the shattered lives of those affected, with shock and disbelief and horror. How did this happen? Those pieces looked sharp and irreparable and bleak. In many ways, they are. But when we stop looking at the shards and begin to see the light shine on them, through them, around them, we see the shadow reflected on the wall. We see Beauty and hope springing out of dead things. It isn't the restoration or reconciliation we hoped for, but other good things are germinating. There is Beauty in the shadow, as well as beyond it. There is light high beyond the reach of darkness, as Samwise discovered in Return of the King:
“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”

The Fall and all its evil is but a small and passing thing from God's perspective. There is Light and there is Beauty that evil cannot touch. There is unseen Reality that cannot be destroyed, even when all the seen is turned into so much ash and concrete dust. The truth is that God is Real—He is high and beyond the reach of evil. God is the Light of the world, and it is His light spilling on and through and around us that casts a shadow of Beauty on the wall of life. Many times we get too busy looking at ourselves to see the whole Beauty-filled outline; to see the Light by which we see—but He is there, prodding us to turn around and see what the Light has made new.



Saturday, March 18, 2017

Unbreak My Heart New



Normal life and my normal self died a few years ago. The problem is, I keep expecting my normal self to resurrect—to look out at me from the mirror again, to take up residency in my heart and home. I keep expecting to be who I was. . .and I keep getting surprised when I'm not that person anymore. The carefree, wide-eyed, faithful-to-have-quiet-time, thoughtful person I used to be sustained wounds so deep that she died. That person is buried under a pile of ashes. Cancer. Death. Divorce. Things that weren't supposed to touch my family torched us. Many of my own hopes and dreams have burnt out, adding their ash to the grave of the person I used to be.

i am desperate, 
if nothing else, 
in a holding pattern 
to find myself.

i talk in circles, 
i talk in circles, 
i watch for signals, 
for a clue.

how to feel different. 
how to feel new. 

How do I get out of this dichotomy? I so often behave in a way that I despise. I know the right thing to do, yet shrink from doing it. I want to go back to who I was or forward to feeling—to being—new. . . anything but this horrible stuck feeling, this stagnant 'living' I've been attempting. The holding pattern never becomes a flight plan and I'm getting desperate. Desperation can push us over the edge, can push us to depression, can push us into a rut, can push us into despising who we've become. In my desperation I've made rash decisions—hoping that a change in life-circumstances would change the dull ache, the incessant indifference into incandescent joy. Hoping I could go back to who  was.

[But,] no one can unring this bell, 
unsound this alarm, unbreak my heart new. 
God knows, i am dissonance 
waiting to be swiftly pulled into tune.

The echoes of the Fall reverberate in my heart, my thoughts, my whole life. . .and it can't be unrung. Carefree me has become careworn and careful—careful not to get hurt anymore. The more I try to gather up all the pieces, to hold them and order my own steps, the less disciplined, purposeful, and joy-filled I am. The more I grasp at control, the less of it I have. Life spins at a crazy pace with no stillness. 

I am all dissonance, the wrong sounds at the wrong times. Saying 'no' when I want to say 'yes,' and 'yes' when I should say 'no' has emptied me. I keep running away from the open arms of Jesus, looking for acceptance from just about everyone else. It's never enough from anyone else, though. The more I look for acceptance from others, the less satisfied I am. Their acceptance rings hollow. All I want is for God to pull me into tune, into step with Him. But running my own way, singing my own song, makes it impossible to walk in step with, or be in tune with, God. My life feels like a cacophony in unconnected, chaotic bursts. 

i know the further i go, 
the harder i try, only keeps my eyes closed. 
and somehow i’ve fallen in love 
with this middle ground at the cost of my soul.

C S Lewis once made the observation that “We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road, and in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.” Indeed, I know that the more I run away, the more I 'try harder,' only plunges me further into the darkness of trying to control what only God can. I've fallen in love with mediocrity, inadequacy, and complacency at the cost of my soul. I've chosen indifference so many times that I can no longer feel. . .and I'm terrified of remaining thus.

yet i know, if i stepped aside, 
released the controls, you would open my eyes. 
that somehow, all of this mess 
is just an attempt to know the worth of my life


I want to reach back in time and unmake the mess my life and my soul have become. The more I try to experience meaning and depth, the less I can feel. My desire for control—so I can be free, so nothing else can hurt me—has spilled acid-like onto other people, burning them, hurting them, haunting me. I can't feel pain and empathy to much depth anymore—I've burnt myself out. I'm left with hands full of ashes. The ashes of relationships, the ashes of my emotions—a grey film between me and real life. Is this what being a leper feels like? To not feel. . .to not know I'm being burnt when I'm on fire? 

The more I grasp at life, the more I try to hold onto meaning, the more I want to experience feelings, the more they flee and the less I have. Jesus was right, of course: Whoever loses his life for my sake will save it, but whoever insists on keeping his life will lose it... I keep insisting on life as I think I need it or want it. The more I do, the more enslaved I become. Rather than being satisfied, I am insatiable. Rather than being disciplined I am reckless. Rather than really loving God and others, I run from them and shut them out. Rather than being hurt, wound—and am insensible to the pain I cause. The more I want to feel, the more indifferent I am. Must I remain enslaved to this dichotomy? Where does change come from? Because it certainly does not come from me or from trying harder. 

Change comes like a breath of fresh air into a musty room—it comes from the hovering, order-bringing, healing Holy Spirit Himself. Change – renewal – can only ever come from God. The more I surrender control, the less chaotic life might be. When I submit myself to God, the enemy has to flee from me, and so I am free. This is the the true paradox: that I must submit to be made free, that surrender leads to life. 

I cannot go back to my normal, carefree self. The quivering of the Fall has shaken my life. I have been rent, broken, and buried. But the Resurrection and the Life is at work in me. He has fallen into the ground and died, bearing much fruit—and He calls me, calls us, to do the same. The breath of life will not fill my lungs the same way it did. . .but perhaps the Breath is a person who will expand my breathing, who will give me deeper life—life etched by sorrow and shaped into something more Beautiful than carefree me could have been. 

I'm desperate for new life. To be a string tightened into tune, no longer wanton but free to be in harmony. No. . . Not desperate. I am confident that there is Hope for new life, for retuning and renewal. That Hope is the Anchor for my soul, to keep me from spinning in the circles of a holding pattern. He holds me steady in the storm—and when the time is right, the Anchor is drawn up and the Wind is given full reign to guide the ship. All things have their times and seasons, their proper channels and right order. When the sail submits to the Anchor even in the storm, or to the Wind under the hand of the Captain, it is then the ship is most free.


______

1. Sleeping at Last (Ryan O'Neil), Mercury

2. C.S. Lewis, The Case for Christianity

3. Luke 9:24 TLB (The Living Bible copyright © 1971 by Tyndale House Foundation)


Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Wandering in Wantonness, Yearning for Freedom




Why is it that the more I desire freedom, the less of it I have? 

Am I too irresponsible with the freedom I do have? Do I hold so tightly to my freedom that I crush it, like a child might crush a flower in their hand in their effort to protect it? I know that love can be bruised, and even extinguished, if held too tightly—I have been the constrictor and constricted at different points in my life. Love cannot flourish without freedom. 

So too, freedom cannot be true freedom without boundaries, else it becomes anarchy or licentiousness: "[Freedom] requires efforts, it presupposes mental and moral qualities of a high order to be generally diffused in the society where it exists" said John C Calhoun. Freedom must be tempered with morality, or the free-will of one may suffocate or imprison the will of another. Self-determination can easily become selfishness. When I rejoice in my deliverance rather than my Deliverer, I have made an idol out of a gift. 

My history tutor succeeded in teaching me at least one thing in my eight weeks of Oxford learning: Rights entail responsibilities. According to the Declaration of Independence, freedom is a God-given right. Life is a right. Private ownership of things [not people] is a right. With these rights then, come responsibilities. A right is a moral duty, a rule of conduct; it is a just claim and a privilege. When we want a right without assuming the responsibility it entails, it will crumble. Thus, when I want freedom on my terms, I find what I have called freedom is hollow, crumpled in my grasping hand. When I buck the parameters given because they feel confining, am I asserting freedom of will or willful selfishness? 

I want the bit in my teeth so I can have my head. I want to come and go as I please at work, but I need to be subject to the hours of operation, to be available to my co-workers. All the other hours of the week are my own. If I squander my mornings with sleep, having stayed up too late, is that the fault of my work for being too early, or my own, for being undisciplined? And if I feel stifled at work by having to remain indoors on a lovely day, haven't I chosen a job that is predominantly indoors? I have chosen to be subject to that parameter by choosing this job over another. Have I stifled my freedom to go hiking or to sit on my porch to read or write? By no means. There are certain hours of the day when I have chosen not to pursue those things, but they are still mine to pursue on off days and off hours. Further, I couldn't afford car insurance or gasoline, housing or food if I didn't have a job, so I would be less free to live in a mountainous state to hike in if I didn't have my job. 

Freedom has its framework, keeping it from becoming an amorphous, languid, insipid dissipation. I am only free to communicate in writing if I obey the rules of grammar. I am only free to hike if I have strengthened my muscles; taken care to feed my body the right proteins, fruits, and vegetables; looked up a route and driven to it. I can't hike in Buena Vista if I don't get in my car and drive two hours away in the right direction. Because I live in this place, I necessarily do not live in any other place. Is that somehow not free?

I now come back to love not being true love without freedom. When you feel like you have to love someone back because they care so much about you, is that really love or obligation? By very definition, the word obligation means binding. And while freedom involves duty and staying within morality—like a thought is only free to be expressed and understood when it is bound by proper punctuation—it is not binding, or non-freedom. A thing cannot be itself and its opposite. This is why God gave humans freedom of will. Yes, taken out of its parameters it is turned into anarchy, self-indulgence, and licence—these broken forms being the heartbreak and death of millions and millions throughout history. 

Yet what a difference it is to freely give love, without feeling we have to! If we were obligated to love God because He loves us, rather than being allowed to choose to love Him, that would not be love. It would be duty, it would be bindingly obligatory, it would be dull and colourless. I have tried to cause my heart to love warmly because I was loved and felt I must love in return. I have tried to be friends with people who were so needy for love that they grasped at friendship and affection. These relationships do not work. They frustrate and wound both people. When the Bible says we love because God first loved us, it does not mean that we feel we are expected to love God because He loved us. It means we are overwhelmed, awed by His love for us. We are humbled by His love and we want to return it, we want Him to be loved, too! This real love appears similar to loving out of duty, but the difference is in the heart. We gladly lay down our lives, give of our time and heart with no trace of resentment or drudgery.

Freedom is not unrestrained frolic and revelry, as our culture often thinks. That is the definition of wantonness. In fact, wantonness is said to be, "resistant to control, willful; a discordant sound." I shuddered at this definition, because it so accurately describes my heart. I resist control in my heart and in my words. I am willful and selfish. The older I get, the more I find how self-absorbed I am. That makes for a discordant strain in God's harmony. Like Melchor in The Silmarillion, or the little farandolae in A Wind in the Door, I sing my own song, thinking that it is better to be myself than to be part of the mighty chorus, the rooted, life-giving farandola. I want to do my own thing rather than being confined by doing what others want. And in some ways, that is good. I shouldn't go along with the crowd of our culture. But I am a member of the Body of Christ, not an individual. It is freedom to live with, to serve with, to give myself for Jesus—and He says I do that by being part of His body. I don't lose myself by being part of Him. I do not make music by singing my own song, I make discord. When I sing with the host of heaven and the saints, we shake the universe with the song of Ill├║vitar, the mighty chorus vibrating life and creativity and joy into every atom and galaxy.

All this time I have been grasping at wantonness, lack of restraint. I have not been yearning for freedom after all, I have been craving self indulgence: 
"Where there is no revelation, people cast off restraint; but blessed is the one who heeds wisdom's instruction" (Prov 29:18 NIV).  
Or as the ESV says, "Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint, but blessed is he who keeps the law."  
Prophetic vision and the instruction of wisdom are our parameters; they are the complete thought bound in a sentence, the melody of the symphony. The head of the Body is Christ—the Head has the eyes, and through the brain, the eyes communicate to the rest of the body what it should do. The wisdom and the vision come from Christ through His prophets, apostles, and teachers. I have rarely found these people leading a church, but I have shared many a meal with them around a table, exchanged letters and calls with them, read their books, and lived and worked alongside them. 

Freedom is not unrestraint—that is wantonness. Yet it is not a binding cord, either. Freedom is not a chain, it is a channel. A river that overflows its banks is out of control, damaging property, sometimes killing people. People who cast off restraint are said to run wild, often doing much more harm than a surging river or stampeding [uncontrolled] herd. "That which we restrain we keep within limits; that which we restrict we keep within certain definite limits; that which we repress we try to put out of existence" (Century Dictionary, 1902). When I try to cast off restraint, I am not pursuing freedom. When I seek God's wisdom, it represses sin in me, crucifying my flesh so that I might be fully alive to Christ in my spirit. When I seek God's vision, when I heed wisdom's instruction, then—and only then—am I free. 


Saturday, February 18, 2017

Unless I Die...




Unless a kernel of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone. 
But, if it dies, it will bear much fruit. 
—Jesus



A darkening sky greets the great eye
blinking open its shutter to morn—
o'erhead, coarse comes a rook's cry,
from here dreams appear bleak and forlorn

Here, in my cramped, close cell I hear
the neighbour dog howl a lament—
the dirt and the dark I fear,
they close in and my choice I repent

Buried, buried unseen and deep,
with the dog next door I mourn—
my eyes, dreamless now, can only weep,
trapped in the earth like a kernel of corn

How long must I suffocate,
freedom denied, in this dank tomb?
Life with death I conflate,
Later to find my prison mould a womb

The waiting feels empty and long,
but the Gardener waters the earth
about me, and o'er me raises His song,
stirring my spirit, breathing rebirth 

The confines feeling so like death
are the only means of shedding the husk
of flesh strangling my dreams, my breath,
clouding my eyes by dusk

White rhizome rises, unfurling green,
fresh air floods my chamber, tight,
in my heart awakens a dream
after my soul's dark night.


Saturday, February 4, 2017

Love and War


"If I have learned anything in this long life of mine, it is this: In love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are."
—Kristin Hannah, The Nightingale 

...And that sometimes love turns into war.
—Me

By which above comment I mean: Sometimes when we are loved and inspired to be better than we were, it shapes who we are, even when we are run raw by war.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Thirty-Two


Today I turn thirty-two. Thirty-two years hold a lot of memories, some good, some bad; some incredibly hard and sad. The years hold memories full of laugh-until-you-cry hilarity, of wonder that humbles and hushes one. Some memories are rich with tender sweetness, with glory unspeakable and beauty that can only be felt deep inside.

I marvel at the pressed-down, shaken-together, overflowing gifts I have been given in thirty-two years. They come in a variety of persons and a myriad of heart shapes. They come in funny little packages, wriggling and red all over, crying their first cry. They come in meals and conversations around tables of all sorts and sizes; on dorm-room floors and grassy bowls, under stars and up rocky paths. They come in sacred moments of stillness, in loud hullos and hugs in airports, and in all the vows I've heard spoken before God's altar. They come in overwhelming swells of music that raise one's heart to God, and in unexpected finances taking one across the Ocean. I have been given the gift of two ears and a lot of time to listen to story after story, sigh after sigh, laugh upon laugh, and so many words of truth and encouragement.

To enumerate the gifts, sheer gifts, I have been given would take many trees and all the books they would make. If I look at just one of my family members or friends, I could write pages about all that we have shared, experienced, or thought through together. Each person God has put in my life is a story of their own, and I love that our stories intertwine—even when some of our together-story has had rough parts. God has used even those sharp, painful, unkind things to shape me—and often a repaired relationship is even stronger because we had to work together (under God) to bring about that healing and repair.

Thirty-two has dawned bright with Colorado blue skies. It has dawned with hope—hope that whatever steps God has for me to take this year, they will bring me closer to Him. Whether I stay right where I am and seek to change, or whether the road takes me on a new adventure, change inside is necessary. Ever since my dad had cancer and other unexpected, devastating things have happened in our family, I have been different. But it hasn't been a good different. I have, in fact, been indifferent. Unconcerned. Uncaring. As if all of my joy got eaten up by a different kind of cancer and betrayal.

For a year or two I had friends tell me I was different, not myself, etc. I felt it—felt like I had turned into someone else, someone I didn't like. Someone who didn't have time or energy to be filled with joy, to simply revel in each day. I miss being that person. I miss being full of vivacity. In the process of recovery, I got sidetracked by a couple of relationships that inhibited my healing. I have prolonged my indifference. Because of that, I told a friend the other day how excited I was to turn thirty-two and put the past three or four years behind me. He didn't ask me why, he instead asked me what I loved about the last year. I began jotting down a short list of highlights, which burgeoned into a hefty paragraph or two. Thirty-one was filled with wonderful people, new experiences (cross-country skiing, for one), beautiful views, the weddings of my very best friends, a lot of prayer, growth inside and professionally, lessons learned at great expense, and some really honest moments.

One of those honest times birthed some some healing that is ongoing. It opened my eyes to a truth I didn't know was true about myself—I feel like everyone thinks I am inadequate because I think I'm inadequate. I spent a lot of thirty-one focussing on myself and my needs, because I've been in recovery mode. I still am, but recovery mode doesn't mean focussing on myself. Healing doesn't come from myself. It comes from God. I want to know God and pursue Him single-heartedly, single-mindedly. I have felt warped and drained by passive aggressive people and by work many times in the last year—my mind divided and scattered. I have felt crushed by the mound of paid and unpaid work I had on my plate. I even felt exhausted by my dear friends, when it seemed like every evening was full and I had nothing left to give. My thoughts have been flighty and undisciplined. I have been living without purposefully sought, well-invested margin for far too long. I have been unstructured in my down time because I think I deserve a break.

Freedom doesn't mean a lack of structure or boundaries, however. Freedom means utilising the boundaries I have been given to become more fully who I am. I am created in God's image. How can I be fully myself, or myself well, if I don't know God well? Not knowing more about Him by reading books, per se, but knowing HIM, like I know my family's inside jokes and habits and moods... I want to know God like that, and so much more than that. Socrates said, "Know thyself," and he was right, it is important that we know ourselves. But we cannot possibly know ourselves if we don't know the One whom we image. We image. To say that make the noun a verb. We image. By being, existing, we image God. And yet we image Him even more clearly in certain ways—caring unselfishly, loving what is good, true, and beautiful—and sharing it with others in a variety of ways; by being single-minded, by being truthful and kind.

Thirty-one wasn't horrible. In fact, it wrapped up more perfectly than I could have asked. The week began with dancing, I got to host a couple of dinners with friends, there was a helpful breakfast conversation with my supervisor and co-worker, I caught up all my looming projects, editing is full-but-doable, and I spent last evening in earnest thought and conversation with a friend whose zeal for the Lord and for life breathed fresh insight and life into me. And much tea was drunk yesterday. So. Much. Tea! And all manner of things are well...

And all manner of things shall be made well. Thirty-two is just a number. But I hope and pray it is a number that reminds me of the year in which I became single-minded. The year I began to know God more deeply than I could have dared to ask or dream...and that I get to live the dream.


Sunday, January 1, 2017

Resounding Joy



New Year's Day flames out in peach, pink, and periwinkle. The evening air is full of the scent of snow, woodsmoke, and savoury dinner as I step onto my porch to watch the repose of the day. Inside, candles and fresh tulips nod their cheer as the five o'clock greyness rolls over the foothills.

I love winter and fresh starts. I love being up in the frosty night to greet the new day and year with fireworks. I love bright sun spilling in my window and waking eyes, church bells tumbling me out of bed, and the brisk walk to worship. I love blank pages waiting to be filled and new years feeling hopeful in the face of the unknown. At any other time of year, the unknown has a way of frightening me a bit; but at the beginning of the year, the unknown is exhilarating. My expectations are much more malleable in January than they are in June. In the crisp air I feel awake and ready for what God is going to bring. By the wilting heat of summer, I feel drowsy and resigned. 

At the beginning of things there is life and energy and optimism, and those are needed to propel us into another year. The New Year opens in the midst of Christmastide, when the Candle keeping the dark at bay has come—He is the hope of Easter redemption. Winter is dear to me with its variegated grey clouds, heaps of snow around dried grasses, chipper little birds piping their carols, bare branches stark and striking against the stars; its sharp, pure air breathed out in little puffs, in warm fuzzy slippers, copious pots of tea, stew simmering on the stove, hot bread all flaky from the oven. . .Winter is joyous.

Winter is both the cosiest and the most invigorating season. No wonder our fresh start comes just days after the winter solstice and the "dawn of redeeming grace" of the Incarnation. There is something comforting about God slipping into flesh, becoming vulnerable and subject to want, need, and humanity. Yet there is something enlivening, exciting about it, too. Dawn has pushed back those grey skies with honey-coloured sunlight and sharp air in our lungs. There is hope that the Light—whether of day or of moon and stars—will illuminate our path. That the Light will guide us into His ways. 

As I scrambled out of bed this morning I felt inspired, awake. The bells beckoned me to tread the icy path to the little white church around the bend. There my eyes were greeted by life-sized shepherds, wise men, and the Holy Family. I smiled, glad to see them back, as they had been vandalised a couple of Christmases ago. I sneaked in on the opening hymn, my three-year-old niece's favourite song: Joy to the World! I was totally unprepared for the garlands of greenery, the woodland pine and branches, the red berries, and a huge live tree covered in poinsettias and lights. The clean plaster walls looked merry, as did the gentleman I joined in the pew. My winded voice sang out, "Repeat the sounding joy!" and we did. In the Eucharist, like the angels told the shepherds, and the shepherds told everyone about the baby in the feeding trough, we repeated the resounding, reverberating joy that God became flesh and tabernacled among us—that our redemption is nigh.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Small is Enough




It is the sixth day of Christmas and I am sipping a frothy chai as I settle in to write. I returned home yesterday and took care of some chores, enjoyed a bit of reading and writing, and savoured a few Christmas films: Rick Steves' European Christmas special, The Snowman, and the original Frosty. An odd mix, perhaps, but it was fun to make dinner and soak in some Christmas at a slower pace. 

Last night I decided that I would like to spend Christmas in England sometime, or possibly in Scandinavia. I loved how so many European traditions included choral music, candles, and cathedrals (and amazing food!). It made me miss England, as I am wont to do about this time of year, anyway. Tomorrow marks six years ago that I boarded my first international flight, bound for Oxfordshire. It marks the day I met my best friend. It was the first day in a series of days where I was stretched outside of myself (intellectually and soulishly) in such a great degree. 

Travel does that to you. It opens your ears to accents and manifold languages spoken on street corners, in open air markets, airports, and more. It opens your eyes to the poor, the average man, and the elite more distinctly. Travel can make us dependent on others, it can make us feel united—even across language barriers. So, sometime I want to be abroad for Christmas and have new eyes for the season. To be willing to lay down my traditions and enjoy different ones.

This year has been a bit of a different Christmas—usually I come home as close to New Year's Day as possible in order to get in as many days with my family as I can. But this year, I came home a few days early to ring in the New Year a bit more quietly; to have some quiet space to reflect on the past year and pray over the coming one. What doors will God close and which ones will He open? Where will my feet go this year? Travel feels imminent, but perhaps that's wishful daydreaming or a few too many books and travel films. 

In my quiet return to the Rockies, I was overdue for a grocery run or two. In Sprouts I was selecting red onions (on a great sale!) and found myself near an older couple speaking a language foreign to me. I couldn't catch enough words to make out which language, even, but it sounded European. They made my heart happy—as did all the veggies and fruits I purchased for thirty dollars. I have a bit of New Year's food-making to do for some local folks. Work became too hectic before holiday for me to make anything for my neighbours. 

But I want to walk into the coming year timefully—unhurried. I want to be open-handed and open-hearted, ready to give and to humbly receive. I have been given much, blessed richly by family, friends, strangers...by God Himself. I want to give like that. To give out of whatever I have. Small is enough—whether it is my bank account or time or cupboard. In God's economy, small is enough. . .if it is given wholeheartedly. So, I want to be poured out for the glory of God.


Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Orchard and the Enchantress

Painting by Daniel Gerhartz


Long ago, in a far off land, there lived a noble king. The king and his wife had an extensive orchard full of every fruit one could imagine: pears, plums, apples, peaches, apricots, cherries, and the like. This fruit was picked by the king's servants and made into jellies, jams, and preserves. In accordance to the proportion of this orchard, nearly everyone in the kingdom would enjoy the jellies, jams, or preserves at some point. Everyone but the prince, that is. 

The prince had decided from an early age that he would not eat of the fruit of the orchard. He detested anything but meat and potatoes at meals. The prince also detested people, especially his tutor, who tried diligently to teach the lad his history, geography, affairs of state, geometry, and plain logic. But the prince would only scoff at his tutor as if the learned man knew nothing—when in fact, it was the prince who knew very little, yet believed in his heart that he was too intelligent to bother with studies and learning.

Now the prince had a sister, a rather ordinary girl with an extraordinarily kind heart. She felt so ashamed of her foolish brother that she often sat for the tutor, learning her brother's lessons, as if to make up for his rudeness. So it happened that the princess grew in knowledge and wisdom, as well as in diligence and kindness, while the prince grew petulant, indifferent, and unbearable. 

Many seasons came and went in this way, when one Autumn, a bedraggled old woman came to the castle gate. In her gnarled hands was a large, empty basket. She asked the servant who tended the gate if the king could spare a poor soul some of the tantalising fruit hanging over the orchard walls. The servant took pity on her and led her into the orchard. He said the woman might pick as much fruit as her basket would hold. She did pick as much as her basket could hold, but she did something more. For this woman was an enchantress who held the power to bless and the power to curse. When the gatekeeper had gone back to his post, the wrinkled woman held out her hands and set a blessing over the orchard, whoever ate of its fruit would be wise and kind. Then, she hobbled out of the orchard, her basket well-laden, and went along her way.

The years spun on and the kingdom was more calm and contented than ever. The king and queen, princess and tutor, servants and subjects grew wiser and kinder the more they ate of the fruit of the orchard. But the prince seemed to rot and grow rank. He was the same selfish, indifferent, greedy prince he had always been—in spite of his parents' best efforts to direct him otherwise. 

It happened that the old king died one night, at the prodigious age of one hundred and one. So there was great mourning throughout the land. Men came from far and wide to pay their respects to the wise and gentle king. But the crafty prince took advantage of this outpouring of grief, charging high prices to travellers staying at any lodging on royal land. The king was not even decently entombed before the prince's iron rule was felt. Taxes were raised outrageously. Farmers had to give the new king a half share of their crops, as most of them used royal fields to cultivate their produce. 

During this unhappy time, the princess eloped with the tutor, seeking refuge in another kingdom. In a few years the old queen also died, and the kingdom continued to be hard-pressed by the tyrant king. On the eve of the Great Harvest, a stooped woman, wizened by years, came to the castle gate. In her hands was a large, empty basket. She begged the gatekeeper for some of the aromatic fruit from the castle orchard, for she had given the king every last bit of her small garden's potatoes in tribute. The gatekeeper's expression was sorrowful as he said he could not allow anyone into the royal orchard. Though the king himself never ate the fruit of the trees, neither would he share it, even with his many servants and subjects. He would rather the beautiful fruit rot on the ground or be eaten by birds, than give his treasure to anyone besides himself. 

And so at last, the evil king's doom came. The knobbly old woman went on her way, passing by the orchard as she left. She was indeed the enchantress who had blessed the fruit-trees long, long ago. Now she raised her swaying old arms and spoke a curse over the orchard—that the owner of the trees would die by their fruit. This punishment seemed unlikely to take ever place, given that the king never ate of the orchard. The kingdom began to dwindle over the ensuing years, as many of the tenants sought refuge in other lands. 

After a long while, not even the servants of the castle remained, deeming poverty and exile better than being governed by brutality and foolishness. So the king was left alone. Having never learnt any of his lessons, and rashly thinking he knew everything, the king knew not how to prepare even a simple meal. Though he loathed the fruit of the orchard, he became so hungry once his larder was empty, that he wandered the rows of trees in the garden, seeking the least wretched fruit he could find. He espied a withered plum hanging within easy reach. Perhaps its being dried out would make the flavour more bearable, he thought. He popped the plum into his mouth, chewed once and began to swallow the fruit. But having always refused the fruit and his lessons, he did not know that plums have a pit in their centre. The pit lodged in the king's throat, choking him so that he fell to the ground, gasping for air. He died alone in the middle of his orchard, in the heart of his empty kingdom.

And what became of the gnarled enchantress? They say that she went on to the neighbouring kingdom where the princess and tutor lived. There she blessed the couple's cottage garden, that they might live out their days in satisfying labour and generosity.

Monday, December 26, 2016

There was a Blessed Messiah Born


One of my favourite Christmas carols in the last couple of years is the Wexford Carol. It beautifully proclaims the reason we rejoice at Christmastide. The Loreena McKennitt version is tied for my favourite, but in the one linked below (my other favourite) it is a bit easier to hear the words. Enjoy!



Good people all, this Christmas time, 
Consider well and bear in mind
What our good God for us has done
In sending his beloved son
With Mary holy we should pray,
To God with love this Christmas Day
In Bethlehem upon that morn,
There was a blessed Messiah born. . .