Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Road Goes Ever On and On...

The Road goes ever on and on
   Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
   And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
   Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
   And whither then? I cannot say.

~ J. R. R. Tolkien
We stand on the cusp of a new year, a road winding like a silver ribbon before us. Though the road goes past our safe little Hobbit holes, it is the very same road that runs through Mirkwood forest and the Misty Mountains. It looks unassuming, even beguiling, from where we sit in our cosy armchairs –yet as we follow the path with eager feet, we know not what errands or strangers we may meet. That is how this past year opened before me. Then I wrote of fears and uncertainties, as my family and I passed through the dark waters of Mirkwood (also known as cancer). I did not know then all of the errands I would be privileged to share in –trips to Florida and New Mexico, to Utah and Alaska. I had little idea of the actual mountains I would climb, or of the Smaugs I would encounter in my personal life.

Now I see a bend in the road ahead of me. There are plane tickets and plans. There are the golden gifts of friendships to cherish, and the knowledge that some of my dearest companions's roads will take them far away from me. There are physical goals and challenges I desire to meet. Yet I am sure there will be deeper challenges to face inside of me, and in my relationships with my family, friends, and God. As always, we only see the bit of the path we are on. Sometimes I can see far ahead where the road winds up the mountains, or disappears into a dim forest. Other times I see the shadowy form of the road I have already traversed... But whither then? Like Bilbo and Frodo, I cannot say. And though that risk means I may not be ready for hardships, it also means I cannot foresee all the blessings to come, either.

At the opening of this year I was praying for my Dad's health, afraid that he would be taken from me... But in those same first few days of the year, I also received the sweet blessing of a new friend, who has been a solace to me throughout the year. God knows the larger way our paths will go. Often when the terrors seem the worst, He gives us a companion or two to traverse the road with us, or He walks by us Himself, like the Ranger-King, Aragorn. We may not always recognise Him, but He will not forsake us.

On the brink of a new year, I recall to mind that we have just celebrated the Incarnation, the Word made flesh. This gives me hope that God, Who has made His dwelling among us, has good things in store for me this year. I am thankful for so much from this last year - my Dad's health; a sweet, sound niece; dear friends; long hikes in the stillness of the mountains; the wind in the pines; stars in a crisp sky; long walks and talks around Manitou; coffee and tea with various friends; grey jays and chattering squirrels; poetry and prose that have pierced my heart; and even the sorrow that has led me to press more closely into step with Jesus. It is good. There is hope. And now the rolling road winds into a new year, and I must follow –with eager feet– if I can.

~ Johanna

Monday, December 30, 2013

The Trisagion

Holy God, 
Holy Mighty, 
Holy Immortal One, 
Have mercy on us.

A simple and profound Orthodox prayer rises to my heart and lips this Christmastide. These are the words of the Trisagion. In this prayer we are brought back to God as God. God as Holy and Mighty. God the immortal One. When we spend three lines of a four line prayer looking at who God is, we rightly spend the fourth line asking for mercy, because we suddenly see that we are profane, weak, ephemeral. 

The more we fix our eyes on Jesus, the more we see that the Word made flesh dwelt among us, the more we know the righteousness of God, the more clearly we see ourselves. We cannot pretend that we are good or righteous when we see how far we fall short of God's goodness and righteousness. We can only ask for mercy and continue to set our eyes on the holiness of God. We must know holiness in order to become holy. No, to be made holy in His hands and by the breath of His mouth.

Take less than three minutes to listen to Fernando Ortega's lovely musical rendition of this ancient prayer. Take more than three minutes to reflect on God's holiness, might (throughout the ages and in your life), and immortality... And do not be afraid to spend a few minutes asking for God to have mercy on you. That leads perfectly into the Kyrie Eleison:

Lord have mercy,
Christ have mercy,
Lord have mercy on us.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Myth Became Fact

As we ponder the true story of God coming to earth as a man, yet retaining His deity, I thought it was fitting to post the following excerpts of C. S. Lewis's thoughts on the matter. 

"Now as myth transcends thought, Incarnation transcends myth. The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens—at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. 
We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle."  
~ C. S. Lewis, Myth Became Fact

In a 1931 letter to his friend Arthur Greeves, Lewis hints at the message of the essay referenced above...

"Now what [Hugo] Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: again, that if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself . . . I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it: again, that the idea of the dying and reviving god (Balder, Adonis, Bacchus) similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels. 
The reason was that in Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even tho’ I could not say in cold prose “what it meant.” Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: i.e. the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call “real things.” 
Therefore it is true, not in the sense of being a “description” of God (that no finite mind could take in) but in the sense of being the way in which God chooses to (or can) appear to our faculties. The “doctrines” we get out of the true myth are of courseless true: they are translations into our concepts and ideas of that which God has already expressed in a language more adequate, namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection."

There is so much that I want to say about story, myth particularly, both showing truth and being true... But I would rather let Lewis's words soak into your mind and heart.

~ Johanna

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Holy Innocents

December twenty-eighth, the fourth day of Christmas, is known as the Day of the Holy Innocents –the day commemorating Herod's massacre of the young boys in Judea. 

For today I am sharing a sonnet written by Malcolm Guite regarding this sorrow-filled event. Reprinted below with the author's gracious permission. (If you have not read his blog or books, you should... here. If you click the poem's title, you can hear Malcolm read the sonnet himself –it is beautiful.)

by Malcolm Guite
We think of him as safe beneath the steeple,
Or cosy in a crib beside the font,
But he is with a million displaced people
On the long road of weariness and want.
For even as we sing our final carol
His family is up and on that road,
Fleeing the wrath of someone else’s quarrel,
Glancing behind and shouldering their load.
Whilst Herod rages still from his dark tower
Christ clings to Mary, fingers tightly curled,
The lambs are slaughtered by the men of power,
And death squads spread their curse across the world.
But every Herod dies, and comes alone
To stand before the Lamb upon the throne.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Seasons and Rhythms

Here we are again, tapping the feet of our souls to the rhythm and cycle of the church calendar. We just performed the steps of Advent and now sweep into the Great Dance of Christmastide. All while everyone else is going back to 'life as usual.' We have spent four weeks preparing for Christmas: not one day, but twelve, culminating in Epiphany. All those little candles we lit on Christmas Eve are lit again on Epiphany, to remind us that Christ Jesus came into the world as the light of men... And His light shines through each of us.

Last Christmas season I was captivated by Isaiah chapter nine verse two: the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. This year I have been pondering John chapter one, particularly the opening verses:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him was not any thing made that was made. In Him was Life, and the Life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it
Darkness cannot overcome light, but the light pierces the darkness and drives it away. So Christ, our very life, is the Light of men. He did not merely reflect God the Father, like we ought, but He is the Light, illuminating God the Father. 'And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.' (John 1:14)

So we have light and life, seasons and rhythms. We rise and fall in the steps of the Great Dance, much like an old-fashioned square dance – changing partners, changing directions, changing steps... And then doing it all over, one song leading into the next, the tempo rising, now falling. Holding hands all 'round, spinning free and then coming back to the circle, dancing a waltz, now a jitterbug. One great line, next showcasing individual steps, and now all together - over, under, weaving in and out. The Spirit of life is the music and rhythm, bringing the dancers together in step. No one person dances for himself, but with everyone, even when he is not touching their hands. 

We come back to community, communion, in this image of life being a Great Dance. A dance needs dancers. Life is made for something, someone, to live it. And so we live life, which is only full when it weaves in, out, over, under, and around others, directed by the Spirit Himself. So Christmas is the rhythm of the Dance for this season, and without a break in the music, the tune will spin into Epiphany, then the minor tones will slip in for Lent, and the golden full notes of Easter shine on the horizon... And though the dance rises and falls in the fervour, or solemnity, or the stillness of the season, the steps change each year, so that they never grow old.

Let us who have seen the glory of the only Son reflect His light. Let us who feel the wind of the Spirit move in rhythm to the steps of His Great Dance. 

Let us dance, dance, dance in God's honour. 

Let us yield all of our steps unto the King.

~ Johanna

Thursday, December 26, 2013

On the Second Day of Christmas...

...I remembered how many blessings I had been given this year.

Hikes, challenges met, travels from one end of the country to the other, renewed health for my Dad, good books read, tea, good conversations, new friends and old, and ever so much more - including one very special little niece.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

On the First Day of Christmas...

Sitting around your table
As we did, able
To laugh, argue, share
Bread and wine and companionship, care
About what someone else was saying, even
If we disagreed passionately: Heaven
We're told is not unlike this, the banquet celestial,
Eternal convivium. So this praegustum terrestrium*
Partakes – for me, at least – of sacrament.
(Whereas the devil, ever intent
on competition, created the cocktail party where
One becomes un-named, un-manned, de-personned.) Dare 
We come together, then, vulnerable, open, free?
Yes! Around your table we
Knew the Holy Spirit, come to bless
The food, the host, the hour, the willing guest. 

 *Foretatse of the land {The new earth, perhaps?)
~ The Irrational Season (pp 158-159)

Madeleine L'Engle wrote the above poem at a friend's home one evening... I wish she had written it at my home. Partly because I have learned so much from her over the years, but also because I want my home to be like that. 

I want meals over my table and tea with friends in the living room to be the soul-ish bread and wine that strengthen the inner man. I want my cottage to be a home, not merely a shelter from the rain or biting winds. I want my little 'Hobbit hole' to be cosy and cheery and uplifting as soon as someone steps inside... Because it is comfort, warmth (both literal and figurative), and personal attention that create a safe place to share one's soul, to be vulnerable, open, and free. It is a warm mug of tea and a listening heart that the Holy Spirit uses to bless both the speaker and listener. This is is feeding the hungry – both in body and in spirit. This is hospitality. This is friendship. 

This is the incarnation... Because when God came to us, He sat at table with sinners and tax collectors. He saw the multitudes and had compassion on them. He felt the touch of one desperate woman in a throng of persons. When God became man He spoke to women, had time for children, and built men up in their masculinity. The man who was God became rightly angry over apathy, avarice, and arrogance against God. He cared so much that He flipped over tables in defense of God's Holiness. And He still cares to the point of action. He cares enough to die for us. Enough to walk with us through our sorrows and longings. Enough to chasten those who are His children. Enough to keep reaching out His arms to a stiff-necked and disobedient people - again and again. Enough to let persons taste the consequences of their sins - because redemption's price is high.

We see what God in flesh is like when we turn the leaves of the New Testament, and we have the great gift of knowing the Messiah has come. We have the communion of saints round the table, walking through life together.  

We come together, then, vulnerable, open, free?
Yes! Around your table we
Knew the Holy Spirit, come to bless
The food, the host, the hour, the willing guest.  

May this be said of me, and you, and every other Christian... That we are marked by the Love of God, for the world to see. May the Holy Spirit walk with us and amongst us always, making us more and more like the Son of Man, Jesus Christ.

Merry Christmas!

~ Johanna

Saturday, December 21, 2013

If God is with us, why are we lonely?

"Our two little granddaughters have a sense of community which many adults have lost; people have developed less a sense of community than a loneliness which they attempt to assuage by being with other people constantly, and on a superficial level only... The loneliness, the namelessness of cocktail-party relationships surround us. We meet, but even when we kiss we do not touch. We avoid the responsibility of community."   
       ~ Madeleine L'Engle, The Irrational Season
(pg 182, emphasis mine)

There is a steady song of rain on the eaves, the dimpling of ever-widening puddles in the yard by so many hundreds of thousands of droplets. For me, the grey skies and the heavy rain are a comfort, a friend inviting me to listen to their story, a warm mug of tea in hand. For many, though, the slashing rain and slate-coloured sky are dull and dreary. The dark of night is not a quieting friend, a place to be still and ponder, but an unwelcome enemy: loneliness. 

Loneliness and Christmas go hand-in-hand in our confused culture. Stress, blow-ups, and annual arguments are many persons' only Christmas traditions. If you are honest, you probably find loneliness and stress normal rather than shocking. Our lives do not match up to "Christmas: Hollywood style." When 26 December rolls around, we still live in a draughty house, the scroll-work on the bannister still comes off in our hand, and we are still working at the Bailey Building and Loan Company rather than travelling to Tahiti or going to college. 

Perhaps It's A Wonderful Life, more than any other Christmas film, shows what does make 26 December different, in spite of life circumstances remaining the same: community. George Bailey is given a new perspective to see that the people in his life love him, are willing to give their money --and still more, their prayers-- for him because he is part of their community. George has given his time, his own money, his hopes, his dreams, his whole life to the people of Bedford Falls. At his hour of need his neighbours do not leave him high and dry, they give out of their meagre store. Not only is his community built of those neighbours, there is also a heavenly community that he is part of, too. 

Though 'community' is a buzzword, particularly in churches, our culture knows little of it. That is why loneliness is more familiar to us than community. That is why we can sit at a long table of friends and feel completely isolated. Community is not 'being with other people constantly' - it is being with other people. It is being silent with them or crying with them when loss comes. It is walking with them through the burned out rubble of their home, or the shattered pieces of their marriage. It is feeling awkward and useless when you do not know what to say about a friend's difficult situation, but hugging them anyway. It is making the most of the time you have with a friend who is moving away, seeking to sweeten the loss before it comes. It is giving the shirt off your back, the food out of your fridge, the money out of your bank account to serve another. It is opening your home for dinner, conversation, laughter, hugs, and tears. It is reading together. It is sitting on the floor, huddled by the heater in the arctic cold of winter, just talking. It is receiving help and encouragement whilst climbing a mountain, and turning around to give your hand to that same friend when the rocks at the top are too hard to climb alone. 

That is community, is it not? Not letting someone climb alone. It is instead walking alongside others, being encouraged by those ahead to come "Further up, and further in." It is repeating that cry to your companions, and to those on the path behind you. Community is being responsible for one another - even when it means paying someone else's debt, or bearing their sorrow, or sharing their sweaty, infected smell. And it means receiving love, healing, help, and grace, too. It goes back and forth, constantly.

At the time of year when we remember that Jesus Himself left the community of Heaven to wear our smudge and share our smell, how can we feel alone? Yet we often do. 'The-day-after-Christmas' of our whole life feels devoid of real community, we do not even know where to look for such a thing. All we see is a black gulf of loneliness that never seems to change, no matter how many parties we attend, or evenings a week that we are busy. I speak as one who cannot give easy answers to loneliness. I spent many years as a child and young adult without close friends. I found myself feeling alone at a crowded table recently. But those are moments I have also found that the LORD has not left me. He whispers, sometimes shouts, to me in those moments that I am loved with an everlasting love. And I feel spoiled... Because I often find myself laughing until I cry over games with my adopted 'roommates'. Or laughing with my work friends and neighbours at a gingerbread shack that will not stay together, in spite of much 'gluing' with icing. I find myself blinking back tears of humility at how much I am loved and included by so many others.

You are not alone.

God is with us, Himself...and as He is revealed in His saints. Blesséd, blesséd, blesséd be He!

~ Johanna

Friday, December 20, 2013

Reflection or Merely Recounting?

[Advent Week 1 - Posted a bit late]

The season of "Here is what I did this year" letters is upon us. Yes, most people call them 'Christmas letters' but they are more truly year-in-review letters. I am not guiltless of this practise when replying to long-overdue e-mails or letters, but I try to have the decency of not calling those communications 'Christmas letters' either. A Christmas letter ought to be about Christ, whom we remember became man at one specific point in history. Whether it was in December or April or some other month I really do not care. We pick the busiest time of year for reflection on this point of truth, so I plan to reflect on it. 

Perhaps this time of year is the busiest because the enemy of our souls despises stillness and reflection upon Jesus. If there are more and more Christmas parties and stresses and less and less meditating on Christ, that enemy is accomplishing his underhanded goal: distracting us from setting our eyes where they ought to be. We need to see Christ, not ourselves, our busy lives, or our accomplishments. Paradoxically, the more we set our eyes on Jesus, the Author and Finisher of our faith, the more clear and correct is our view of ourselves. 

Those year-in-review letters that so many of us write focus on our highlights, sometimes our low points, and rather useless information about our corporal man which is passing away. That is all merely recounting. Real reflection is not that at all. Reflection is 'looking back' on the blessing God has given, on the lessons He is teaching, and seeing His strength and hope bringing you through your darkest moments. In short, reflection is seeing the Glory of God shining back to Him through yourself in circumstances and quiet moments. How do we know that reflection if we are not focussed firstly on the real, the true image of God, Jesus Christ?

So, in the busiest season of the year let us strive to make time for stillness and solitude daily. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, who is before (both 'prior to' in history, and 'ahead of' as an example) us. Let us know Him as He IS, so that we might reflect His glory and His image.

~ johanna

Sunday, December 15, 2013

"Words, Words, Words." (To Quote Shakespeare)

[Advent: Week 3]
"When Hugh and I went on a trip to Russia I almost didn't get a visa because our travel agent put down my occupation as writer. Writers think. Writers ask questions. Writers are dangerous. She finally persuaded 'them' that I write only for small children and was not a threat. In any dictatorship writers are among the first to be imprisoned, and vocabulary is quickly diminished and language deteriorates.  Writers, if their vocabulary is not leashed, are quick to see injustice, and rouse the people to do something about it. We need words with which to think; kill words and we won't be able to think and we'll be easier to manipulate."
~ Madeleine L'Engle, The Irrational Season (pg 164)

As I read this section of The Irrational Season today, a chill went through me. Madeleine L'Engle lived through WWII, Viet Nam, and the Cold War. She saw the devastating effects of tyranny, and what methods dictators used to cause them. We see that still, in China, North Korea, parts of the Middle East, and many other places where there is little or no free speech. In such places the oppressed do not know what is going on in the outside world, they are kept in the dark through force and propaganda.

Yet there is a different sort of tyranny running rampant in the 'free' West - the tyranny of disappearing words. We have heard the adage that talk is cheap, yet are still hurt and offended by various sleights, snubs, and insults. Sticks and stones might break our bones, but we all know that words spoken to us in vulnerable moments (childhood especially) may leave lasting scars. Our sneaking enemy bombards us with so many words each day that their meaning and weight is weakened. Advertisements and billboards, e-mails and printed leaflets and newspapers, words flashed on television screens, iPads, iPods, and other electronic devices. We can now communicate quickly with anyone in any part of the world, but our whole world aches with the loss of community. Our Western society is losing the ability to articulate as words like"selfie" are added to the dictionary, but even bright persons no longer know what 'widdershins' means; or they say words like 'impactful' in place of a real word like 'impacting' or 'meaningful.' 

Our insidious enemy, the State, is not removing words from dictionaries as much as they are removing them from circulation and common vernacular. Thus, the minds of the public are weakened. But words are strong. They can augment or crush. Words are the death of us in the throes of an argument. Or words can be life and hope breathed into us in a genuine compliment or observation. If we understand the power of words we can share ideas and ideals, vision and Truth. We can paint the canvas of the mind with vivid sunrises and sublime mountain ranges. Yet we can only do this well if we have the subtle colours provided us via a large vocabulary. Vocabulary is to the writer what the toolbox is the carpenter, or the palette is to the artist. Without the fine chisels or minute brushes, the artisan is unable to inlay the wood or paint delicate subtleties in his work. Without a vast wealth of words, the writer loses clarity and sharpness in his writing. Without a vast array of words, communication is fuzzy at best, muddled and hollow at worst. 

Even when the writer has the word bank needed to clearly communicate, his audience also needs a grasp of language. The reader must possess a desire to look up unfamiliar words in order to receive clarity and insight. He must, even before that, be willing to read. We live in a culture where we are too lazy to even read a blog post if it does not have photos with it; or where a magazine article, sermon, soundbite, or news clip has been made as brief as possible to retain the viewer's or listener's attention. We are sliding into the ground where we begin to lose context and perspective because we have shortened everything. The media overloading our eyes and ears and brains has shortened our attention spans. We can no longer listen to a speech three hours long, or spend the whole 4th of July listening to speeches, recitations, and singing. 

We want more action, more multi-tasking, and the rush of information, because we do not know what to do with silence. But the more information transmitted to us, the less meaningful it is. Sometimes an idea or a word is underlined best by minutes or hours of silence. Sometimes we have to stop reading so fast to look up an unfamiliar word in order to gain greater insight. The goal is not simply to finish a book, it is the be led out of ignorance and into Truth. 

We need words to be alive -- because at one tangible point in History, the Word Himself was made man and dwelt among us. He shrouded Himself in this fleshly body of death to bring us new Life. Words matter vastly in reality. It is by words that God spoke all that we see, smell, hear, sense, and know into existence. It is through the Word enfleshed that we are given the hope of stepping through the portal of death into the really real world of the High Countries. It is that Word that is making us less and less shadow-men, and more and more into solid creatures. Words are life - The Word is Life. The Word is the substance of Hope. That final Word of God is the Prince of Peace. Let us not rush past that Truth into vague and insipid thoughts and 'communication' (i.e. electronic exchanges in place of face-to-face meetings) this Advent. Let us listen to the Word when He says, "This is the way, walk in it." Let us ask questions. Let us live dangerously. Let us live.

~ Johanna

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Man's Smudge and Smell

[Advent: Week 2]

No, there was no Advent: Week 1 post. I think I was a walking dream the first week of Advent, due to lack of sleep. This week I have not caught up much on sleep, but I think I am winding my way back to the cadence of the season. I have been watching the dance from the sidelines and am trying to join in on the right step.

One of my favourite lines from poetry reminds me very much of what Jesus came to do through the Incarnation - to share man's smudge and wear man's smell. God, in Jesus, wore the flesh and bone, the smell of a man. He who knew no sin became the smudge of sin for us. It is these things that the Incarnation reminds my heart. He knows my temptations, trials, hopes, fears, sorrows, and joys, because He, too, is a man.

I have probably posted this poem ad nauseam, but it is worth reading and re-reading. It is worth hearing the soul and spirit of the poem; the soul and spirit of the Holy Ghost breathing life at our brink, into our lungs and into our lives.  

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.