Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Even in the valley of the shadow the stars shine...

Deep red light streaked across my kitchen panes yesterday morning. In the fog of sleepiness I thought of the line, "Red sky in the morning, sailor take warning," then rolled over for a little more precious slumber. 

When evening came, I honestly have no idea what colour the sky was... I only knew that the red dawn was followed by an evening call. "She's gone." Words I had been anticipating for a week. Words I have been dreading to hear. Words one never quite knows how they will receive until they have to. 

Blindly I walked out into the night, feeling the cool Spring air revive my tumbled thoughts. Revive: breathe new life into... How could I have so much life in my lungs when her lungs were empty now? I walked harder, feet pelting toward the mountain. I needed space. Stillness. Steadiness. 

Clambering up the washed out path, I reached a flat place, panting. Stopping in the darkness, my eyes adjusted enough to look up at the mighty beams of light above me. Mighty, yet so distant as to appear but pin pricks in Heaven's canopy. My eyes traced the trio of beacons in Orion's belt. There sat Betelgeuse, a splendid red orb in the hunter's shoulder. Red. Like the morning sky... 

I reeled, seeking for an anchor in the midst of my anguish. Next to me the rush of snow-melt in the stream sang its joyful, gushing tune. Above me the wind swept through the pines and over my sorrow-streaked face. O'erhead the constellations solemnly trod their seasoned steps. How many times has the earth revolved around the sun? And there are the Pleiades every Autumn (in this hemisphere), peeking above the low ridge, beginning their trek across the sky. My eyes will only see them only a little longer before they visit the other half of the world. Then we will see the Summer crown rising in the next season.

Even in the change of seasons there is a constancy, like the river and mountains, trees and stars, and the continual rising and falling of the sun and moon. Even as the wind brings a change in the weather, it is still the same familiar wind we know from every playful Summer caress, or wild Winter dervish. Even as my dear 'snow season' melts into golden and royal purple crocuses, there is a familiarity in the pattern of the year. 

New hope springs up in me. The ebb and flow of life remind me of the Creator's hand holding all things together, ordering the strides of the universe from day to day and night to night. How much more incredible is it that He orders my daily and nightly steps, small as I am? He Who is acquainted with our grief walks with us through the dark valley of the shadow. 

One day, death will stand on its head and everything sad will come untrue. Because He danced the reel of this earth, and died our death for us, and is so full of life that not even death could hold Him... It had to let Him go into abundant life. This is another grappling hook for my soul... Yet the fullness of Life found in Christ does not mean I am cheerful in the face of death. Oh, the face of my own death, maybe. I am not afraid of what is to come, though perhaps that is because I don't know how truly grave and mysterious and real and joyful it will be. 

But in this shadow before the real, this dream before the waking, I feel the rending claws of death. I see it filling its voracious appetite with unborn children and frail grandmothers, with soldiers and civilians, rich and poor. I shudder at its touch on my shoulder, upon my family. "Begone, foul dwimmerlaik, lord of carrion!" cries my soul. I seek refuge under the shadow of the wings of my Father in Heaven. Here I will hide my shredded soul, until the Healer begins –no, continues– His work to remake this fragmented me into something Beautiful. Here I will hide, until a flame rises out of the cold ashes. Here I will mourn, and He will weep with me, even though He knows the end of the story and has told me that all shall be made well. 


Helen Margaret Marie Sophie Byrkett 
27 December 1919 – 17 March 2014



~ Johanna


Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Through Lenten Lands


"Gurgling he went under, and the River closed over his curly head. An exclamation of dismay came from the empty boat. Frodo was just in time to grasp Sam by the hair as he came up, bubbling and struggling. Fear was staring in his round brown eyes. " 
~ J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Gurgling. Spluttering. I come up for air like Samwise, fear staring wide out of my blue-green eyes. The year has surged forward like a massive, unlooked-for wave, knocking me into the eddying current with nothing to cling to but the empty air. Yet like Sam, an invisible hand grasps mine, pulling me out of the swirling abyss of my fears and the rush of time. The Anchor of my soul keeps me from drifting away completely, like Frodo pulling Sam into the boat on the Great River. 

I have most certainly fallen out of the boat, out of the rhythm in the dance known as the church calendar, since Epiphany. I came home and life capsized. One hardship after another has loomed up in the lives of my friends and family - hardships no one ought to have to face. Yet here they are, unexpected, unwonted. The river of time hurls me against the rocks along the bottom. Snap! I hit the end of the slack in the line between me and the Anchor: Ash Wednesday, the commencement of Lent. A rhythm. A season. A kedge. 

Ashes. How strange that a season which begins with ashes ends in resurrection. The Resurrection is the true myth of the Phoenix rising from the ashes. That snags my attention. I crave the hope of new life from the sooty shards of many things: marriages, friendships, cancer, hopes crushed, and the like. I feel the sweeping motion of a cross rubbed on my forehead and the Rector reminds me, "Remember that thou art but dust, and to dust thou shalt return." This reality bites deeply today, as tomorrow I will walk alongside a companion whose mother died on Friday. 

Another Friday in history, death claimed its greatest defeat: the Son of Man, God Himself. But that Friday was followed by Sunday, when the teeth of death were uprooted by the Resurrection and the Life. Our resurrection Sundays are multi-fold, as we are brought further and further into life. The more we die to self, the more we are fully alive. When everything we know is engulfed in raging flames, we are further refined. We are given cleansing and forgiveness through the ashes. 


God offers us an incredible trade, Give Me your ashes and I will give you My Beauty. He always takes the 'losing' side - giving us priceless gifts in return for our brokenness, broken promises, and broken hearts. He promises to take the penalty if we break the covenant, though that is completely unheard of in covenant making. He gives us good gifts when all we have to offer is broken and marred. He clothes us in His Beauty when our grubby hands are full of cinders.


Closing my eyes I feel the cross traced on my forehead. I taste the wafer and the wine. These are more than icons, more than shadows. They are real acts, real elements that remind me of the reality that death has been, IS, defeated. Reminding me that all the burned up dreams, hopes, and relationships we are experiencing, are the ashes from which God's glory will rise. As my very dear friend said last week, "When the breaking is deeper than we think it can be, [God's] redemption must be deeper still." 

~ Johanna