Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Looking Back

This is the time of year that I miss England most of all. I love America, and I am thankful beyond expression that I live here. But there are days when I yearn for England. On this very day four years ago, I flew across a dark ocean to an island shaped like a rabbit. 

That day I also met my best friend, and was reunited with a friend who has since become a brother to me. I was soon to meet another one of my dearest friends, to be challenged and shaped in ways I did not know...I was about to feel the edges of myself and see the face of Christ in unlikely places: from street vendors to homeless folk, in the wrinkles and behind the glasses of my tutors, in the humble and pretentious alike whom I met at college. Little did I know any of this four years ago to the day. All I knew was that I had barely made my flight and that I was grateful to have an empty seat next to me. 

The intervening years have seen much change, regression, and growth in myself and my peers. Who has not fallen back three steps in the taking of one at times? None of us knew the pain and loss these last years would bring—parents divorced, loved ones dying at young ages, cancer, disappointed hopes, and dark nights of the soul. Not one of us quite knew the joys these last years would bring—marriages, children, grad school, world travel, opportunities that refined our skills, reunions, spiritual freedom and progress, and Hope—always Hope—to anchor our souls. 

At this time last year I was looking forward in hope to a better year. I was excited to read over my previous goal letter and witness very specific answered prayers. However, it took very few weeks for me to realise that 2014 would be much more difficult than the preceding year. Some of most cherished hopes were dashed to shards, others blossomed in ways I never expected. 


Hindsight is always bittersweet in this fallen world, and I often pin my hopes on the unwritten days ahead. Learn from the past, live in the now, hope the future will be better. That seems to be my motto. Yet I have been challenged by the writings of G. K. Chesterton not to expect the Fall to come undone in future days and weeks, simply because they are as-of-yet unwritten. 
"The last few decades have been marked by a special cultivation of the romance of the future. We seem to have made up our minds to misunderstand what has happened; and we turn, with a sort of relief, to stating what will happen—which is (apparently) much easier."*
Alas! I am lazy, looking for the easy way out of trials, ache, and loss. I just want all the bad to go away so I can live a beautiful life, where everyone looks out for the interests of others—rather than poking their noses in, unwanted. It is easier to look ahead than to remember the past, because the past is laced with both joy and pain. No one wants to focus on the bitter, unless they are infected with that poison. Still, it is hard to pursue joy—not happiness, but joy. It can be unspeakably difficult to accept with joy loneliness, abandonment, death, or some other loss. Why must we bear the cost of someone else's poor choices? Yet we often do. When we look back at what has gone before, in our lives, in history, we see that turning our face to the Maker in praise—especially in the midst of pain—is where we grow and are made whole.

So, I look back upon this year, glad that is over—and yes, I am hoping and praying that the New Year will be full of good things without any major loss or pain... But I also know that I must accept with joy whatever comes, and I know that is not easy. Easy is not where I struggle for life, it is not where my spiritual muscles are strained and strengthened. I do not ask for hardship to make me grow, but I ask for the grace and humility to walk with Jesus through all hard things with joy. 

Let me be Christ haunted in the coming year—Amen.

_______________

* Chesterton, G. K., "The Fear of the Past" in What's Wrong with the World (Public domain)

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Christmas at the Right Time

A worthwhile snippet of "Preparing for the Twelve Days of Christmas" by Dale Ahlquist at Crisis Magazine...

About a hundred years ago, the usually jolly G.K. Chesterton can be found lamenting two things that are still a problem today: First, that as a writer, he has to write about Christmas long before Christmas in order for it to be published at Christmas. Second, the rest of the world seems to celebrate Christmas long before Christmas and then when Christmas comes, everyone stops celebrating. Should be just the opposite.
Though we love Christmas for the traditions that it entails, we have forgotten one of the most important traditions. For several centuries people waited until Christmas to celebrate Christmas. And then they celebrated it for twelve days. There was a fast leading up to the feast, and then there were many days of feasting... 

__________

...“While Progressives are already looking forward to the New Year, Christians should still be looking back to Christmas. It is all the difference between looking back with enthusiasm to something and looking forward with earnestness to nothing. People praise the future because it is blank and featureless; they are afraid of the past because it is full of real and living things.”

You can read the rest of this article here.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Naked before the Throne


The Holy Innocents (28 December)
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.*



There they are, shuffling their dusty feet—refugees in a long line. Their eyes are wide—tired, scared. Every century, every country has experienced these streams of displaced persons. It is not just a thing that happened "way back when," but is happening around the world even as you read these words. On this day, we remember the Holy Family's flight to Egypt and the death of the innocents left in Judea. 

We recall Herod's vicious, visceral actions to save his tiny kingdom, a kingdom he could not take with him beyond the grave. Every Saddam Hussein, Mao Tse-tung, Benito Mussolini, Joseph Stalin, and  Vladimir Lenin grasp at their kingdoms the same way, not caring whose life it costs to keep their power. Yet every dictator, president, king, senator, and CEO will die one day. Their wealth, power, and 'stuff' will remain and crumble to pieces as they turn to dust in the grave. Their kingdoms and empires will not save them from death, nor the judgement seat. No one else can die for them—and as they stand bare before the throne of God, they will find they are just as much in need of a Saviour as everyone else... But by then it will be too late.

As we remember the Holy Innocents—and the unholy tyrant who desolated "Rachel's children"—let us bear in mind that one day we, too, will die alone to stand stark before God's throne... The refugee who fled to Egypt, returned to Galilee, walked the streets of Jerusalem, died, and rose again is the only one Who can cover our shame and turn it to glory; Who can remove our sin from us "as far as the East is from the West." Let us turn to Him before, like Herod, it is too late.

 ___________________
*Reprinted with the author's gracious permission. If you have not read Malcolm Guite's blog or books, you should do so here. If you click the poem's title, you can hear Malcolm read the sonnet himself—it is beautiful.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Simeon's Prayer


LORD, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace according to Thy word. For mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, Which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people; To be a light to lighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of Thy people Israel. 
Glory be to the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end—Amen.

God fulfills the promises He makes... Sometimes it takes four hundred years of silence. But sometimes we need the silence first to remind us how beautiful the voice of the Lord is.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Remember...

Sometimes special dates slip by, unnoticed in the hustle of other things. Today, even though my family and I spent an enjoyable, full day at the Creation Museum, I knew underneath that what day it was. Today is my grandmother's birthday... The first one we have had without her. She would have been ninety-five if she had not passed away in March. I think it was a hard day for my dad, but he didn't say anything about it; just patiently drove us to and from the museum, treating us to dinner on the way home.

Sometimes I think folks forget that Christmas isn't all joy, peace, and cheer. For many persons, Christmas is a lonely time of year, an angry season, an unmet expectation, or a painful time. We feel more keenly the loss of loved ones, the inability to afford gifts, or the bitterness of disappointed hopes.  

This Christmas in the Midwest feels more like Spring than Winter—with foggy mists, rainy nights, and bearable temperatures. It feels more like a long visit with my family than a holiday. It feels like anything but Christmas. There are a myriad of reasons for this, one of which is the loss of my grandmother. I sat in, or near, her pew by myself on Christmas Eve, holding back tears. Not only was my grandmother's place empty, but my Dad decided not to attend with me this year. I'm glad he didn't, because life has been hard enough for him the last two or three years—he didn't need to be sad on Christmas Eve, too. 

So, I inhaled sorrow co-mingled with the joyous annunciation to the shepherds that a Saviour was born unto them—those rough, smelly, unnoticed men. To them, the ones who lived on the fringes, beneath the lower class, out of the minds of nearly everyone—outcasts. Yet, not cast out by God. He remembered the lowly and forgotten shepherds. He remembers still those on the fringes of society, the edges of church sanctuaries, and the ones separated from everyone else by grief, loneliness, and heartbreak. God remembers. He gently nudges those of us who feel like outcasts, reminding us that all those years ago, the Timeless One stepped into time to be the Saviour of the world. And that is what He is, still. In the midst of the pain and disappointment that separates us from feeling like it's Christmas, God is with us—Emmanuel. 

This Christmas feels more like Spring than Winter—perhaps this is God's physical reminder to us that new life is stirring under the mud and dirt. We must remember that the grave is not the end. Even things that seem dead and buried might be raised to new and beautiful life, like Spring flowers. Perhaps I am naïve, or put too much faith in impressions, but the winds of change seem to be blowing away the ashes of this last year to the four corners of the earth. In the soil of hearts and relationships, the life of the Spirit of God is breathing. He is stirring up the earth 'round the roots of the good seed and bulbs of Truth—life is wriggling beneath the surface of the new year.

New years themselves are the edges of one season blending into another, of one year gracefully giving way to the next in the Great Dance. Sometimes the sadness in our lives slowly fades into joy, without us knowing the moment of transition. And sometimes new life is breathed into dead hearts and relationships. As G. K. Chesterton explains:
"...boundaries are the most beautiful things in the world. To love anything is to love its boundaries; thus children will always play on the edge of anything. They build castles on the edge of the sea, and can only be restrained by public proclamation and private violence from walking on the edge of the grass. For when we have come to the end of a thing we have come to the beginning of it."
Said another way: fringes and edges are where change is occurring. New beginnings are at the boundaries of old endings. The shepherds on Bethlehem's hillside were on the cusp of a new life, of seeing the world turned upside down. Surely they remembered the night that angels rent the heavens with the news of a Saviour in those silent, dark days. So, too, at Christmas we remember the hard, the dark nights, and the loss—but those horizon line is drawing near and we are coming to the first word in the first chapter of a new beginning. Let us remember, and look forward with eager expectation to what Jesus has set before us.


Friday, December 26, 2014

The Word Made Flesh...

"Nails, spear shall pierce Him through
The Cross be borne for me, for you
Hail, hail the Word made flesh
The Babe the Son of Mary"
—What Child is This?


"The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory..." So says Saint John's opening chapter. The Word was made flesh...The Eternal Word was spoken into time, was made into finite man, frail flesh. What did the Son of God gain by this? Insults, rejection, and threats of stoning. Nails, thorns, and a spear thrust into His side. He who was Light and Life was dealt a death-blow. Yet the darkness cannot overcome the light. Death is swallowed up in life. The Word sounding and resounding in time and space does not come back void. That Word is robust, full of Truth and grace.

Many times it seems that "hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth goodwill to men." That God's promises and gifts are puny next to the prince of the power of the air. However, when Paul says that death is swallowed up in life—and John truthfully proclaims that the darkness is expelled by the Light, unable to overcome it—we see that God's gifts are rich and vibrant next to shadowy, gnarled phantoms. We still live like a people sitting in darkness, trapped into thinking there is a monster in the shade...But the Light is dawning—more full of life, rich hues, and Truth than the paltry darkness that seeks to blind our seeing eyes. The Light is real. The promises are solid. The Hope of our souls was made flesh and He tabernacles among us. Now—and forevermore.

Hail, hail the Word made flesh!

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Unexpected Gifts from Saint Nicholas

ONCE upon a time, in a village across the sea, there lived a boy called Johann. He ran through the back alleys with several other urchins, stirring up trouble like dust. When there was enough food for his mother to make dinner, Johann would invariably arrive at that meal with dirt wiped across his face and holes ripped in his threadbare trousers. Very rarely was he in school, because he often got into fights there. So, perhaps it is not surprising that on Christmas morning, Johann did not find bundles of presents in his thin stocking. 

There were two hard lumps in the grey rag Johann had hung by the fire the night before. Saint Nicholas had left him something, at least! Plunging his hand down the sock, Johann's fingers enclosed upon a hard object. He pulled out a block of wood with no special markings, or purpose, it seemed. Disappointed, Johann felt carefully in the toe of his stocking and pulled out a hard, dusty stump of coal. Nothing else dropped out of the shabby sock when he turned it upside down, though a tear dropped out of the corner of his eye. He had not been good enough for Saint Nicholas to give him any gifts. Blocks of wood and chunks of coal were hardly gifts after all. Nevertheless, Johann put the items in his capacious pockets and ran out to play.

After wandering streets filled with puddles and deep ruts, Johann's stomach gave a grunt, then a rumble. He sighed, having nothing to put in that hollow place. Longingly, he eyed the various workmen eating their midday meals. The blacksmith, the candlemaker, the shoemaker, and the carpenter were all supping, at the very least, on bread and cheese. Without realising it, Johann had shuffled closer to these men, if only to fill his nose with the smell of the pottage the carpenter was drinking slowly from his earthen mug.  The man noticed the waif-like boy edging closer and called out in a gruff voice, "Boy! What are ye doing 'round here?"

Johann looked at his feet, not knowing what to say. The rough hand of the woodworker came down, none-too-gently, on his collar; a grey-grizzled face appeared before his downcast eyes. "I asked ye a question; I expect an answer." Johann shifted from one filthy foot to the other and mumbled, "Nothin'," hoping to be let go. "Not sufficient, mischief-maker," the carpenter hissed. "Here!" The big man thrust a broom into Johann's hand and pointed to a pile of shavings and dust. "Sweep that floor until every curl of wood is gone and I'll give ye your own bowl of stew." Johann started at this offer. Cautiously he looked at the bearded man to see if he was serious. The old man looked hard at him, then glanced at the wood chips. Johann began to sweep with more goodwill than he had ever had before. In a quarter of an hour the floor was swept smooth and clean. In a few minutes more, Johann's legs were dangling from a tall bench and he hungrily swallowed the bowl of promised stew.

"How would ye like to sweep my floor every evening after work?" the carpenter asked. Johann thought a moment. "Would I get a cup of soup every night?" The shadow of a smile brushed the woodworker's face. "Well, no. I can't promise tha'. But if I've a bit o' cheese, or bread, mayhap I could give ye that as wage." Johann needed no further convincing. "I'll come," he said. So, every evening before dark, Johann swept clean the carpenter's floor. He liked watching the man's big arms shave long curls of wood off of sleigh runners, cabinets, chairs, and tables. He became curious to know how the corners of cupboards were fitted so exactly together, or how a piece of wood could transform into the arm of a chair, with grooves and scroll work. But the magic Johann liked best of all was when the woodworker took a block of wood and turned it into a ladle, or a candle stick, or a figure of some sort. The animals and men spun from a single chunk of wood held captive Johann's thoughts before he drifted to sleep. He wanted to learn how to make such things, dreamed often that he had the tools and talents to do so.

One day, Johann screwed up his courage and asked the woodcarver, "Could you teach me to find the figure in the wood?" He hadn't meant to ask quite that way, but the very wording made the carver sit back and look at the boy. Yes, he would do. That scruffy, ragged boy knew that the figure was already inside the thick slices of pine and maple and ash. The wood had to speak to one's fingers about what lay inside; the carver couldn't just make the wood turn into a horse, or a man, or a bear. The bearded face slowly moved up and down in a nod. "I will loan ye my tools and answer your questions, but ye must find what lies inside the wood." Johann was delighted—and eager to begin. From his pocket he pulled out a chunk of wood, much-fingered and a bit rounded at the corners. "I have this block of maple that Saint Nicholas gave me at Christmas. Should I use that?" The carpenter nodded thoughtfully, and work began that very day.

In the weeks that followed, whenever Johann wasn't working around the shop—for he now helped the woodworker most of the day by handing him tools, sweeping, oiling tabletops, and polishing finished goods—he watched the woodcarver with rapt attention, or worked on his carving. The block had taken the rough shape of a four-footed animal with a big patch of wood still obscuring the head. Johann felt the edges of the wood and followed the contour of the knots. After much honing and careful whittling, a rough elk or reindeer could be discerned. It was carefully shaved and shaped by Johann's hand, by the strokes taught by the master carver, and by the words used to direct the boy. Near the autumn of the year, Johann sanded his reindeer, rounding off all the sharp, hard edges. Hours and days and weeks'-worth of work had been poured into the small figure. The woodworker nodded his approval, saying little when Johann showed him the finished piece.  

"Do ye have anything else ye can bring to life like tha'?" the older man queried. The boy thought a moment and pulled out his piece of coal, still in one of his enormous pockets. "This?" he offered. "No, tha' will not do. But I will tell ye what you can do with that..." He showed Johann how to gather the right sorts of scraps to make soap, then they broke the coal into smaller pieces and made a little fire. Over that small fire swung the kettle and soap ingredients, needing to be boiled before it could fully become soap. When it was completed, Johann sold the soap to earn a few pence for a Christmas dinner for his family. It was not much money, but he could buy bread, cheese, and a bit of fruit to share. One would have thought Johann had provided a kingly feast the way his family exclaimed and enjoyed that meal.

Before bed, Johann pulled out his treasured reindeer. He knew what he wanted to do with it. Saint Nicholas always gave gifts, but he never seemed to receive any. Carefully, Johann put the deer near his stocking with a crudely lettered tag: For Saint Nicholas. He crawled into bed feeling glad and tired from his day's work and celebrating. 

Early in the morning, Johann slipped out of bed and hurried to his stocking. It lay on the floor, filled with chocolate bits, a coin or two, a pear, some sweet rolls, and a block of wood. A neatly lettered note sat in the place of the reindeer: Dear Johann, it said, thank you for the gift you left me, it is beautiful. I see that you used my gifts from last year very well. If you will continue to work with your hands, use your gifts wisely, and share out of your small profits, you will prosper. Johann carefully stored the chocolate and coins, shared his sweet rolls with his two brothers, and saved the pear for his woodcarving friend. He fingered the block of wood, wondering what lived inside this one. Soon he would know. He set off for the workshop, eager to watch the carpenter work, to smell the fresh wood shavings, and to put his hands and head to the tasks before him. So, Johann grew and prospered, all because Saint Nicholas had given him a block of wood and a lump of coal.

—The End.


Saturday, December 13, 2014

From "The End" to "Once Upon a Time..."

Advent: Week 2

Toward the end of each year I become eager for the next. Perhaps the new year's freshness wafts into my soul, breathing life inside. Maybe I think the current year has been quite long enough—I am ready for new dreams, people, and places. Deeper than than that, though, is the reality that the new church year has already begun. Advent is the new beginning amidst the end. The steps of the Great Dance have come full circle, to be made new in this familiar theme.

For me, Advent, Christmas, and New Year's are the season of both looking back and peering to see ahead. Hindsight is not always as clear as people say it is. Upon reviewing this year, I see a lot of messy, painful life situations for my friends, family, and myself. These things do not wrap up neatly at the end of the year. There is still much question-asking and inability to see God's plan unfolding. In some cases all I can see are the tossing heads of hoary waves, no land in sight. How can anyone survive the turbulence, the repeated buffets, of such conditions with no respite in view? Only by Hope. Hope is the anchor for our souls, to keep us from drifting out to sea and being lost among the crashing, crushing waves. 

Hope. Anchor. Abandonment. Ashes. Fearlessness. Bitterness. Forgiveness. These words have twisted into a thick cord, the thread woven through the tapestry of this year. They have haunted the rising and falling melody of the Great Dance with their dissonance, assonance, and resonance. What words will step into their places this new year? What themes will emerge in the music always over our lives, in the weaving of God's seen-story? 

I do not have answers yet. The above words have been whirling through my thoughts, writing, and reading so much that I had to again spill them upon the page. With these words I go from "The End" toward the unknown "Once upon a time." This next story may be full of ogres, sorrow, and sore loss—but it may be filled with valiant warriors for what is right, with wisdom sought and found. I suspect that it, too, will end with Hope.  

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. 
~ Saint John  1:1-5 (ESVUK) 

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Home: Advent Week 1


“If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him." (John 14:23)

Where is home for you? Maybe it is a place, person, or memory. Perhaps for you home is only a concept or a dream, something intangible and impossible to experience. By definition, home is a residence or world; a place one abides or dwells; something that is inhabited.1 Home, then, seems to be a coalescence of the real and the ideal. It is a place, but not just any place. After all, hotels, prisons, theatres, and alleys are places—and all might house persons—but they are not home

Home speaks of belonging, comfort, security, love. Even if the place is meagre, the persons imperfect, and the security tenuous, the acceptance and sense of belonging make the place rich, the people comfortable, the dwelling a fortress. And so it is—a fortress against the emotional and mental attacks of the world. Home is a place of rest and work; both of quiet and rambunctious clamour; love and even hate, but not of indifference. You may never have experienced home with your family, but perhaps you have with a particular group of friends, or in other friends' houses. A house is just a building, a family may be dysfunctional, a place is merely a location until all are animated with the spirit of home.

If this is so, let us marvel that Jesus left His rightful home to make His dwelling among us, as John says (John 1.14). Why would the Son of God give up the comfort—the acceptance—of home in order to make His dwelling among foolish, smelly, hard-headed humans? Why would Jesus take up residence inside the womb of an unmarried girl? We can only say that our Saviour, who is Love itself, willingly left His home to unite God and man. He became the connection between Heaven and Earth—the ladder to Heaven of Jacob's dream (Gen 28, see verse 12). In one step from Heaven to our little blue planet, Jesus began the process of joining the New Heavens and the New Earth. All because He loves us silly, smelly, heads-hard-as-a-nut humans.

Jesus left His first and best home to make His home here with us humans. In willingly laying down His life for us something unexpected happened: those who received the proclamation that Jesus is their true King were made citizens of Heaven. Heaven was now their world, their home. Step one had happened, but it was nothing so radical—shifting at the root—as the tandem step. Those who received King Jesus were now in fact Christ-haunted, as Flannery O'Connor calls this knowing Jesus. We might say Christ-inhabited, where our very selves—body, soul, and spirit—are the dwelling place of Christ.

Jesus wrapped our frail flesh around Himself in the Incarnation, but He did not stop there. He delved deeper, coming to live in us—through the Holy Spirit—once He returned home. This seems a paradox: Jesus goes home only to make those who believe in Him His home. I cannot pretend to explain holy mysteries like this. I am only now learning a little something about home being Love Himself, where I can be vulnerable and He receives me. Where I can admit how far I have fallen and He shows me that His redemption is deeper still...And when I run away, I can never outrun the One who makes His home in me (John 14:23).  

___________________

1. Online Etymology Dictionary, Home (n.)



Saturday, November 22, 2014

Childlike. . .Wonder

Chill air makes me pull my covers closer just as my alarm buzzes. I roll over, swat my phone, and snuggle back under the blankets. Then I slit open one eye to see what the morning has brought. Suddenly I am all awake: the sky is grey, but the evergreens are shadowy jade, frosted with feather-flakes of snow. Snow! It is early this year, and cold, and...delightful. I can hear sleigh bells in my dreams, and though I am quick, I can never quite catch a glimpse of Jack Frost as he paints my windowpanes—which is a stunning feat, as I have a dozen panes before my desk.

My blood quickens at the thought of wandering out in those downy flakes, listening to the strange hush that snow always brings with it. My body is slower to answer the fairy calls—after all, covers are warm, the air in my house is decidedly not. After a good amount of standing by the heater, I am layered enough to sally forth into a world drenched in cold and quiet. There is wonder in the wintry wind. Magic laces the limbs of Old Man Cottonwood.

I stop on the bridge to watch the morning. Great puffs of snow shake off branches and glide into the stream. They are gone, liquid water once again, what moments before were airy snow-castles. The aching chill in my legs prods me to walk again. Still I watch the morning—the dancing snow, the plump little birds along my path—and I wonder about things. Do other people wonder about "things?" I wonder. I walk on, thinking of how the brown hedge next to me was teeming with living colour this Summer. How I clipped a lavender flower from it to wear in my hair. Do people my age wear flowers in their hair?

I question more and more whether I am an adult, or just a child inside an adult's body. Certainly I have learned some tact since childhood. Wait, is that tact, or have I learned to lie? Have I learned to gloss over something that I obviously see and am curious about? When does snow lose its magic and become merely an obstacle on the road? Do you become a grown-up when you step around a puddle rather than jumping in it? Does progress in years mean regress in seeing details like feathery finch bellies, pale peach against the snow? Does paying bills mean you stop chasing the rainbow's end? Does reality awaken us from our dreams?

The lenses of child-eyes have been mine for quite a long time. I think folks snicker at me sometimes after I walk by, wreathed in flowers or Autumn leaves. People often try to tell me that reality will burst my bubble; outlining various horrors, as if they are reality's servants, sent with sword in hand. One of my neighbours thinks I only appreciate happy endings, that I just pretend the Fall didn't happen, and that I need a dose of darkness to snap me out of fairy tales. Yet I realise that fairy stories have plenty of dark and morbid moments; many end unhappily-ever-after. I know the darkness of the Fall in my own heart and brain; in bitterness, betrayal, and broken bodies. I know Sorrow's shears, clipping off friendships that should have grown; snipping life out of loved ones, far too soon. It is always too soon, too young, too much...The Fall is too much with us.

The Fall is too much with us—should we shrink away in fear? Do we pretend it isn't real? No, that is a childish response, like hiding under the blankets from invisible night-fears. Thin quilts won't turn the blade of the Black Riders. What then is our defence? A heap of philosophy books to explain away the evil in the hearts of men? That is a cheap grown-up trick. Let us then be childlike—not childish—and revel in the fairy snows, walk so that we may see Beauty—rather than to burn calories. Let us know that the Fall happened, but not allow it to be the end of our stories. As Chesterton asserts, "Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey."1 Indeed, I need childlike faith that Smaug can be defeated—I already know that he exists. So for the Fall, I need to know it will one day finally and fully come untrue, because it daily threatens to undo me.

Yes, there is roadkill by the sidewalk, graffiti on the dumpster, and scraggly undergrowth along the river path where I walk. I do not deny these things. But there are majestic trees, glimpses of a snow-capped peak between branches, delightful bridges, and cheery little birds piercing the morning with sweet songs. It is Beauty that leads us to worship. Beauty, that restores sanity to our weathered souls. It is Beauty that turns our focus toward the One who made all things Beautiful in their time.2 That One is trustworthy and true, and He will make everything sad come undone one day...Interweaving myth into a Man and fairy stories into facts. 






  1. Chesterton, G. K., “The Red Angel” in Tremendous Trifles (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1920) 130

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Fearless

Grey trees have barely given up their leaves before dark, swirling skies trace those limbs with white. The rising and falling of the seasons in their steps of the Great Dance have nearly made their circuit. Consequently, my mind is recalled to the beginning of this year, with all its fresh hopes and vague possibilities. Memories step out, one by one, only to be swept back into the dance of time. Grief and Beauty waltz together. Sorrow beats time with Joy. Suffering looks quietly into the eyes of Hope. Bitterness clasps hands with Forgiveness. The motif of the Dance this year seemed strange when originally given to me by the Instructor Himself back in those fresh, first days of January: Fearlessness.

In the nativity of the year I thought being fearless meant meeting obstacles and adventures head on. I had inklings of what some of the hurdles might be, hopes of what the adventures would contain. I little knew how difficult the hardships would be. I did not reckon that adventures were risks that could fail and wound miserably.

Much of the year held such sore trials that it seems to replay in black and white rather than colour. Deaths. Friends and family worn out with the things required of them. Betrayal. Being cast out by loved ones. Uncertainty. Deeply wounded hearts. Bitterness. Prodigal children. Loneliness. Certainly not all of these things visited me, but they have been visited upon such close friends and family that they have affected me very personally. I look back upon this year and see marriages crumbled; dreams burnt up; loved ones buried; relationship turned to cold, dead embers—I see ash.

Woven throughout, like intricate dance steps, are flashes of colour: lime and ochre aspens, glowing in warm sunlight. Dazzling white smiles of friends visiting and visted. Lavender and white cosmos along my walking path. Pink, brown, green, and black ink, flowing with words of hope, cheer, and life. Orange-red sunlight, pouring over the foothills at dawn. Bright blue eyes filled with whimsy. A rain of golden leaves falling like a shower over me and a friend. Sly red foxes on night walks and gift-mugs. Green in every crevice of long-dry mountains and sidewalk cracks. Mottled grey, brown, and red stones, illuminated by liquid sunlight in a chuckling, clear stream. Hazy blue mountains and burnished clouds at sunset on my solitude hikes. The navy velvet of the night sky, pierced by silver stars... All the colour of this year radiates from Beauty, love, and personality.

The Psalmist reminds us to worship the LORD in the Beauty of holiness... It is the Beauty that leads us to worship, that breathes life into dead places. When we see a wildflower in the wilderness, hear a single burst of birdsong on a chilly morning walk, know the love of another, it is then that the breath of life rushes into our souls.

I am tempted to look at the snow out my window and see flying ash. So many dreams and hopes have become but fine dust in my hands this year. Instead, I do the only thing I can: I pour every last handful of ash on God's altar, asking Him to raise a flame of Hope. Not a fragile "thing with feathers" as Emily Dickinson calls hope, but a solid, weighty anchor for my drifting soul. I ask for new, richer dreams; for restoration to rise like a phoenix from these pale ashes.

I am learning that to be fearless does not mean to be foolhardy, but to hope in the midst of burning dreams. To be fearless means to love, because perfect love casts out all fear.

Many months ago I read something about pain and fear... It broke my heart then as it does now—and every time I re-read it. It is the real Hope and Beauty in the midst of sorrow that stares at me from these words:

I wrote in my journal: So here is what I want to remember and never forget: Anxiety is the devil. Fear is a taste of hell because it cuts us off from the ever-offered rest of God’s love. And fear cannot do one damn thing to avert the thing feared. 
Sorrow, on the other hand, is a kind friend, and when it comes, grace comes, too, and all the tender mercies of God. All fear is the fear of loss and death; all love comes with a price tag of pain; all true sorrow has its counterpoint of joy. And it’s real. We’re living it in the most vivid way. 
 And if we’re running along the beach laughing at one moment and weeping over the grief that is coming the next, well then, this is life abundant, the full package. And the joy is more real than the grief because the joy is forever and the pain is for but the passing shadow of this life.
Lanier Ivester, Love Begets 



Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Wild November Choir



Silent morning—and fog like the ghost
Of autumn trees and brush and leaves
Rises up to the skies, a wavering host
Of spirits climbing to clouds, their winter post. Farmers have nearly done gathering sheaves
And stalks stand like sentinels—grave stones—
Encumbered by rooks whose coarse song weaves
Harvest into winter, as Earth her life heaves Into barns and bins. She creaks and groans
From the heavy toil of summer, spent,
To lie buried ‘neath snow as the wind moans,
Settled, silent; to Death her own life loans. Shrugging into the grave, all life lent
To fields and trees, creatures and men,
Surrendering to ice cracked, like garments rent,
Sighing to hear the wind’s bitter lament— Earth sleeps. And though she will again
Awaken, resurrect, quiver then suspire,
For now she goes down with blissful “Amen!”
And spirits ascend from forests and fen In eerie glints of argent fire,
Winging their way toward heaven
Like birdsong, bell-song from distant spire
In harvest chorus—a wild November choir.


Photo by Ruthanne


Monday, October 27, 2014

Afraid of God's Answer...

Be willing to be only a voice that is heard but not seen, or a mirror whose glass the eye cannot see because it is reflecting the brilliant glory of the Son. Be willing to be a breeze that arises just before daylight, saying, "The dawn! The dawn!" and then fades away.*
"What prayer are you praying right now that you're afraid God will answer?" Dark, questioning eyes probed my startled face when my friend asked me this question many summers ago. What was I praying that I wasn't sure I wanted God to answer? In a moment I knew. I blurted out, "I have been praying for humility." My friend nodded. Yes, she had prayed for that before and knew the double-edged piercing of such a request. I looked down, ashamed to realise that I was afraid that God would grant me my request. Humility would mean a tumble from my self-aggrandised opinion-spewing. It would mean learning to listen to conversations, not joining in until asked. Humility would mean crumpling my desires to look intelligent in front of others. 

Confusedly, I assumed that humility inevitably meant humiliation for the asker; as if that were the only way to expunge arrogance. I am slow to learn, and am no great expert in humility, even all these years after the above exchange. However, I have learned that God goes about shaping a humble person differently than I then imagined. Humility is an attitude of the heart, whereas humiliation is a surface blow to our pride. There are still moments when a friend pulls me aside to tell me I'm behaving like a jackwagon. My arrogance is suffocating in the workplace, in various conversations where I assert my opinion as fact, and in my own thoughts. 

Sometimes it stings to be told to knock off certain behaviour, but the pique is usually replaced by gratitude that my friend had the courage to speak up for my good and that of others. Oh, I still resent the remark, chafe against it, and doggedly defend myself until the Holy Spirit's nudges and whispers become seismic shocks and trumpet blasts. It can be hard to get my attention when I am loudly defending myself. That flare of resentment is a reaction to feeling humiliated, taken to task, lowered by someone else. It is the rearing up of my pride that needs to be mortified. The flood of thankfulness at being told of my ugly pride and foolishness is the heart attitude of humility. Humility reminds me that I cannot say that I am an ambassador of Christ—His temple, in fact—if I am walking in the flesh rather than the Spirit. 

Though I am still quick to defend myself when taken to task—by friends and family, or by God—I am learning to pray that I would more rapidly receive the truth with gratitude and humility. It remains a somewhat scary request because there is so much still to be pruned, and the pruning is painful for a time. Yet it is that pruning that is shaping me into the image of Christ, who "made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross."**


_______________

* Cowman, L. B. Streams in the Desert (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008) 87

** Philippians 2:7-8 The Holy Bible, New King James Version Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.




Friday, October 3, 2014

When the Cards All Fold

Imagine Dragons begins their song "Demons" by painting the scene of a hopeless man in the cold, watching the cards fold. The only saints he can see are made of gold rather than flesh and bone. All that is good is extinguished from his life and he can turn nowhere for help because the problem lies with the demons inside... 

But what if the saints were clothed in sinews and skin? What if they had eyes of gold, or even brown, blue, green and every hue between? What if the saints reached out their hands to this flailing man, lost in the sea of deepest darkness? 

What if
you were that saint?

Perhaps you think being a saint sounds farfetched, or too Catholic (or Orthodox), or more holy than you could be. You might be thinking of that egregious line bandied about in many Christians circles, "I'm just a sinner, saved by grace!" Let us set the record straight here and now: if you have been  "saved by grace"—redeemed by Christ—you are no longer a sinner, but a saint. 

The Apostle Paul makes this clear: "We know that our old self was crucified with Him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin."* We are no longer enslaved by sin, no longer defined by sin. We cannot be both sinners and saints, for those are mutually exclusive natures. Not that saints cannot sin, we all live under the curse of the Fall and often allow it to come in to our lives. However, this means we are changed into a new creature now, in this life. We are transformed into hagiosa most holy thing, a saint—because the Spirit of God has made us His dwelling place. Like the Holy of Holies in the temple, our frail flesh is made the house of God.

"So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord."**  We are being made into that holy temple, brick by brick, believer by believer, with Christ as our foundation and cornerstone—by Christ in us.

Christ in us is a now-and-not-yet reality. We are saints 
now—but we are still being sanctified, refined into the perfected likeness of Jesus. Put another way, "God came down and lived in this world as a man. He showed us how to live in this world, subject to its vicissitudes and necessities, that we might be changed, not into angels or storybook princesses, not wafted into another world, but changed into saints in this world."*** 

Do you realise the implications of this? It means that we are in the company of saints—those in history past to the ones yet to come. Those who have come before inspire—breathe life into—us to be like Christ. They were ordinary men and women who had struggles, thorns in the flesh, selfishness to overcome, sorrow, and loss, yet they kept their eyes on the LORD. They chose to lay not only all their sins but also their good works at the foot of the Cross to be sacrificed. 

We have been made saints, holy ones, with the great company of witnesses. We are not gilded and in the grave, we are able to reach out a corporeal hand to those in need, sorrow, or despair. As the dwelling place of God we carry Christ to the world, to one person at a time. Gerard Manley Hopkins eloquently penned it thus:

I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is —
Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.****

___________________

Romans 6:6-7 (ESVUK)

** Ephesians 2:19-21 (ESVUK)

*** Elliot, Elisabeth Be Still My Soul (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Publishing Group, 2003) 57 (emphasis mine)

**** Hopkins, Gerard Manley As Kingfishers Catch Fire Poems and Prose (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books Ltd, 1982) 51

Photo Courtesy of Pintrest

Friday, September 26, 2014

Nurturing the Tree of Friendship (n.)



"Men have no more time to understand anything. They buy things all ready made at the shops. But there is no shop anywhere where one can buy friendship, and so men have no friends any more."  
—The Fox in The Little Prince1
Think for a moment of the most famous friendships in history and literature. What names come to mind? For me it is always King David and Jonathan; Frodo and Samwise; and Anne and Diana. In my own life there are nearly a dozen soul-knit friends, kindred spirits, whom God has seen fit to bring into the dark places when all other lights go out. Usually they come singly, but sometimes in pairs. Always they bring friendship in their hand like a gift
In Western culture we use the word "friend" to mean a number of relationships, from an acquaintance to a friend so close that our souls really do seem knit together, as the Scriptures say of David and Jonathan. My Kasey-friend is vastly more dear to me than my friend John, who happens to be our mailman at work. In a way, I am friends with both, and I am friendly towards both, but one can read my soul, be part of my soul, the other has no idea what the shape of my soul is. Beyond a sliding scale of what friendship means, we have social media influencing our understanding of "friends"—making a noun into a verb, and making you feel like you know a person because they update their status bar every day or every ten minutes. If I know what someone made for breakfast, the song they are listening to, and the quotation they re-posted, I still do not know their essence, their ousia, via their social media site. I know their being by living with them, working with them, arguing with them, getting sick of them, and still wanting to be around that person the very next hour or day. We learn someone's quirks, endearing habits, turns of phrase, and morals by living with them in the daily—at school, work, or home. I cannot "unfriend" my neighbour, I live with her. I cannot decide I only want to be friends when it is convenient, nor would I want my friends to treat me that way. Friendship is time-consuming and takes hard work. It is also gloriously fun, deeply personal, and enriching to one’s soul. Thus, I rebel at the co-opting of the word "friend" in social media, when its etymology is much richer: dear, beloved, to love, to woo.2 A friend is one who walks with us to Mordor, in spite of the deadly peril, believing always that we will return home together...Yet even if they lose hope that we will live beyond Mount Doom, they would never dream of leaving our side, choosing rather to carry us—and die with us if need be. A friend helps us to dream again when all our hopes have crashed to the ground. A real friend speaks truth to us when we are being snippy, selfish, or unrealistic—even at the cost of our annoyance or anger toward them at hearing that truth. We return friendship when we receive rebuke, shine the spotlight on our friend’s accomplishments—rather than seeking our own glory or downplaying theirs—and walk through the valley of the shadow in silence, hope, and companionship with them.
Said more succinctly and wisely, Friendship is an obstetric art; it draws out our richest and deepest resources; it unfolds the wings of our dreams and hidden indeterminate thoughts; it serves as a check on our judgements, tries out our new ideas, keeps up our ardor, and inflames our enthusiasm.”3
Friendship indeed does all these things and more. Surely only a handful of these infinitely valuable and intimate are ever granted in one whole lifetime. In ninety-nine out of one hundred cases I would say that is true; but sometimes that one hundredth person is given extra gifts. I am one who has been given an abundance of these gift-friendships. I could never earn them—and I certainly do not deserve them—but I do cherish them. It is sometimes difficult for me to make enough time to maintain all of these friendships, but none of us seem to mind when there is a gap of time between calls, walks, or letters. We pick up where we left off and begin to share our hearts at some point. This does not leave much room in my life for casual “friends”—whom I would call acquaintances. Yet every now and again, I have dinner or coffee with an acquaintance because they are still a valuable person, even if I cannot invest more time with them.
What I have discerned in our culture is that many persons seem to devote much of their time to their acquaintances, leaving themselves little or no time to invest in one of those Samwise and Frodo friendships. No wonder the most common answer I receive to “How are you?” anymore is not “fine” but “busy.” Work, meetings, coffee dates, and various events—along with films, television, and internet browsing—fill up all of our waking moments until we hide beneath the covers at night.
I purposely have to pick one to two evenings a week where I have no plans, where I am not scheduled to make dinner for anyone besides myself, drive somewhere, or run errands. Mostly I end up washing dishes, writing, reading, or going for walks on these evenings. If I am free, I am able to attend to my neighbour when she has had a bad day; or call one of my friends around the country to hear about their souls. To foster intertwining, deep friendships, we must be available. We will have to attend. We must learn to see beyond the surface, seeking to know not simply “How was your day?” but “What made it good or hard?” and “How are you?” as well. We have to listen to the answer, not merely hear it.

To cultivate rich friendship, like husbanding a vineyard, there are times when we have to cut off sucker shoots. Activities, the number of acquaintances we spend time with weekly or monthly, and having our computer or phone on can be sucker shoots. It is hard work to figure out which friendships one ought to pour into. Goodness knows I have invested heavily in some unwise acquaintanceships and too long ignored some close friends. My real friends have been gracious to receive me back again, even as my heart recovers from overextending myself in short-lived comradeship.

That said, it is worth taking the risk of being friends, being vulnerable, being loyal to someone. You should be able to tell a person’s character fairly early on if you spend much time around them. Likewise, they should be able to tell if you are trustworthy and faithful. Will you keep their secrets, or will you gossip? Will you hold them when they cry? Will you share your hard moments with them? Will you drop by unexpectedly and not care if their hair is a mess and they are in their comfy clothes with holes in them? Will you let them do the same with you? Do they bring strength and beauty into your life? Do you build them up behind their backs, before their peers, and in a whisper for their ear alone? Do they make you live in reality, yet encourage you to dream? Does your soul thrill at their hopes?

Friendship is a give and take, not using someone or smothering them with affection. Friendship is made of mundane things like grocery shopping and folding laundry. It is made of looking at sunsets and stars and sharing hopes and fears. There is camaraderie in drinking tea—or coffee, if you must—and just looking at the world together, not saying much. Friendship is indeed an art, a way of life, a choice, a gift. Like all gardens and fruit trees, some friendships have their seasons and then comes the Autumn. Let them go. Cherish the friendships that are like apple trees, blossoming in Spring, green in Summer, bearing fruit in Autumn, and bare in Winter … Yet blossoming in Spring again. Cultivate those, for friendship is the tree itself. 


~ Johanna

* I am writing above about same gender friendships. Male/female friendships do not work quite the same, unless it is within the bounds or marriage. Then it is even closer and richer than anything I have known or described. It is important to have friends of both sexes, but male/female friendships outside of marriage cannot share in the same depth as male/male or female/female friendships.

** Cross-posted at Conciliar Post

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1. de Saint-Exupery, Antoine The Little Prince (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1971) 67
2. Friend (n.) Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2001-2014 Douglas Harper
3. Sertillanges, A. G. The Intellectual Life (Washington D. C., Catholic University of America Press, 1998) 56