Saturday, June 21, 2014

A Shell Dishabited

The rumble of thunder reverberates off the foothills. Damp pine-scent laces the air. A trio of squirrels seek refuge in the spruce that touches the sky with its tip-top branches. This is the stillness of the very first Summer Saturday–my day of solitude and sleep, of caramel-filled chocolate and endless mugs of PG Tips. It is a fairy sort of daylight, ripe for reading Fantasties or Lord of the Rings. I can see sunlight slanting through the clouds, glancing off the whiskers of one of those squirrels. His dew-bright eyes are full of curiosity and mischief. 

O me! That I get to live in this world, to see with my two green iris-eyes the wonders of this day. To sniff up the fresh sweetness of the earthy pines. To hear the chirrup of birds, the clash between thunder and lightning, and the drip, drip, drop of the rain-song. I am given the gift of a cool breath of air, kissing my neck, swirling my honey-red hair. It is all balm for my soul after this labour-intensive week at work, after hard news. How can anything post-Fall still ring of Truth and Beauty? But it does. How can the creation still shout of God's glory when lives are sticky, shattered, crumpled messes? Yet it does!

My aching limbs are full of tired. My soul is searing-hot with pain of a different sort, for a loved one, and another, and still more. My prayers climb to the heavens, fly beyond the clouds to the ever-listening ears of the Father. No longer is weariness confined to muscles, it sinks its shaft far into my very being. Prayer presses deeper the helpless feeling, the weakness I walk daily. I feel emptier still... And then the rain comes. Splattering on the shingles, splashing on the glossy green leaves. The rain flows down to the thirsty earth, giving itself with joy. The droplets sink lower and lower still, into the dark red earth, into the deep fir roots. Those pines reach higher to brush the skies. The higher cannot stand without the lower,* whispers each drop. The higher cannot stand without the lower!,* sings the spicy fragrance of pine needles, wafting upward. The dark clouds empty themselves of rain, that the dusty earth might be refreshed again.

Is that it, Lord? my heart queries. Must You empty me of all of me so that I might be full of only You? And once I am full of You, will You pour Yourself out on others? Empty. Full. Cracked and broken to spill out the kindness of God, lavishly gifted to me. I cannot hold it in, like the rainclouds cannot hold the rain. I cannot keep it to myself, like a stagnant pool. God's loving-kindness is poured out on undeserving me. To keep it from stagnation, it must flow out from me to others. It is not earned, it is given with joy. It cannot be kept, it cascades down in delight.

A poem comes to mind about this emptying and filling. It reminds me that if I am replete with myself there is no room for God to fill me, no place for Him to overflow in my life: 

If thou could'st empty all thyself of self, 
Like to a shell dishabited, 
Then might He find thee on the ocean shelf, 
And say, 'This is not dead', And fill thee with Himself instead.
But thou art all replete with very thou
And hast such shrewd activity, 
That when He comes, He says, 'This is enow
Unto itself - 'twere better let it be,
It is so small and full, there is no room for me.' **

What if the thunder, full of itself, did not roar the echo of power from the Creator? What if birds decided to sing their own dissonant song and could not communicate with others of their kind? What if squirrels ceased being squirrelly? And what if the ground decided it was too full of tree roots and the firs came crashing down? If nature began to do as it pleased, rather than living by God-given instincts, chaos would ensue. So what do I expect to happen if I am replete with very me? Can God fill me with His loving-kindness if I am already full of self? Will I be able to shower others with His goodness if I cannot receive it? Certainly not! I must be empty so He can fill me. God pays me–pays all of His children–the great compliment of accomplishing His will and work through me–through usif we will let Him. 

I want to be like the rain falling deep into earth's heart; to be a shell dishabited. Going low to make others tall. Overflowing. Empty. Ready to be filled, to let my life be the sweet aroma of Christ in me, the Hope of glory.***

~ Johanna


 * Thomas á Kempis, The Imitation of Christ: Being Thankful for God's Grace
** Sir Thomas Browne, If Thou Could'st Empty All Thyself of Self
*** Colossians 1:27 (NKJV)

Monday, June 16, 2014

New Arrival: The Conciliar Post

I am very pleased to announce the launch of a website called the Conciliar Post. This blog is comprised of persons from various church traditions who have come together to discuss life, death, worship, art, books, personhood, education, work, orthodoxy, and their beliefs about various social and church issues. Several of the authors are personal friends from my Oxford experience. The articles–by and large–are well written, witty, and thoughtful. 

My favourite article to date is a piece by Stephen Sutherland about current trends in worship. He begins his post thus: "Certain modern expressions of Christianity exhibit a knack for appropriating, or producing cheap knockoffs of, current cultural trends. There’s money to be made from “Christian” music, movies, novels, comic books, mints, and others I likely have not heard of yet. Less materialistically (and less cynically) there is an opportunity to redeem various parts of their culture, although how abstract concepts of “art” or “entertainment” can be redeemed, and how fallen man, incapable of redeeming himself, could redeem something else, remains murky."

You may also note on the authors page that I have graciously been included in the council of writers for this venture. Though I feel a bit out of my league, I am grateful to be given the opportunity to write for a wider audience, to share the gift God has given me in a new venue. It is a challenge already for me to stick with a writing schedule, and I fear that writing may begin to feel like work rather than a creative outlet... But writing is work. When I sit down to type, I often look up three paragraphs later and find that an hour has disappeared. By the time the final sentence is in place, two or three hours may have run their course. Then comes the hard part: editing and hunting through the thesaurus to find just the right word for this or that sentence. The challenge is good and will help hone my ability to write–or so I fervently hope!

Back to the CP blog. If you are a word addict like I am, you may be wondering about the definition and etymology of the word 'conciliar'. Well, if you are truly a word addict, you already know these things. I am still a novice addict, so I had to do some research. Here is how founder, Ben Cabe, explains the name of the blog on the about page: 
Conciliar comes from the English word “council” (persons convened for deliberation) and Latin “consilium” (assembly, consultation). Historically, “conciliar” has been used in reference to the great ecumenical councils of the Christian tradition. In everyday language it designates a gathering of Christians for the purpose of serious reflection upon matters of theological importance. The name Conciliar Post designates this site as a place for serious and faithful dialogue about significant issues in our world.

Interested? Please head over the Conciliar Post website to read an article or two. I think you will be pleasantly surprised by the variety of topics, scholarship, and adroit writing presented.

~ Johanna

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Treading the Sea of Darkness

Noisy chatter clutters the lobby. The porch overflows with sound, seeping from every crevice of the hotel, like grapes, crushed. And I? I feel alone. Wearing the mask of a smile, while my soul wrestles with the Fall. I slip out into the rain-cooled air, the cloak of night hiding me from peering eyes and piercing laughter. 

How many times have I sat in a crowd of persons, even those I know, and felt the icy tentacles of loneliness? How often have I painted a smile on my lips, yet my eyes are belied by tears? Can I number the times I have listened to another's excitement while holding in my sorrows? How often have I concealed my joy in the face of someone else's pain? I do not begrudge those emotionally mixed moments. I do not regret that I have the privilege of of weeping and rejoicing with others. Nor am I deeply hurt that only a few look carefully into my honest eyes to see what is inside. Then I wonder, how many times have I not looked closely at bloodshot eyes? How often am I so lost in my own life that I neglect the trials and joys beneath the surface in others? 

This is the Fall–this neglect of others–written large and painted in bold black. The Fall, that locks us within ourselves, isolating us from God and man. The Fall, so murky and deep as to drown us in its depths. It is the Fall that prevents us from seeing life as a whole. We see only bits and pieces of our own lives –of others' lives– and we think those slivers are the whole story. We slosh in the muck of those black-sodden brushstrokes, seeing only a tar-y mess as far as our eye-scope can reach. 'This isn't how the story is supposed to go', we whisper fiercely to ourselves, kicking to stay afloat. 

But how is the story supposed to go? We think we have a decent plot. 'In the end this would bring God praise. Isn't that good? Isn't that the goal?' We do not see that the darkness of sin has been made the paint for the brush, ink for the pen. The viscous stream in which we are drowning is the ink, undried. All the harrowing horrors of the Fall that dig their claws into our hearts, our homes, and our heroes have been ground into charcoal-hued pigment, brushing letters on parchment. Our grandiose plots for how our story should go are so small they invisible upon the page. We swim in the depths of merely one letter, thinking it is our entire story. The Author and Finisher of our faith sees our script from the right perspective, much bigger–yet humbler–than we ever dared to dream or hope. 

Just because God allows us to be free agents in the writing does not mean that we are the author. Though He gives us the intolerable compliment of using our hands, our lips to accomplish His purposes, it does not follow that we know how immense the story, how deep the brokenness–and deeper still the redemption. We do not know how those letters, words, paragraphs, plots and subplots are being woven together to form a far-reaching tale. A true tale, meant for all the world, not only our corner of it, in this place and time.

What about the days when the narrative is dark, when we have tread the turbid waters of the Fall so long that we cannot muster another kick? Will the waves overflow us after all? God forbid! I say this fervently, yet, I am not the one abandoned by my husband. I am not left fatherless. I am not the one cast out by my family for doing the right thing. I do not have to face the long road of loneliness ahead if no reconciliation comes. No, but I can walk alongside my friends in those dark places. When they cannot tread thick waters any longer, I can hold them and swim for them. When I tire, it will be another's turn to support them. This is the body of Jesus, working together toward whole-ness, toward holiness. This one dark letter is not all that is on the page, it is not the whole story, though we or others may stick fast in one place far longer than we thought possible.

I still want to hide the holes in my soul, punctured by the Fall. I want to hide my own sin. I want to run away from the pain that the sins of others have caused me, my family, and my friends. I want life to be full of good things that are delightful and do not wound. But what I need it not to hide, is not isolation. What I need–what we all need–is for 'the light to shine in the darkness, and the darkness not [to] overcome it.' We all need times of solitude, not to forsake others, but times before God in honest conversation, times away to draw us back into the body of believers, toward holiness. Sin separates, it is said. Let us be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ, then. Let us reconcile others to God by walking with them in their darkness - even when the journey is years long and the dawn is far, far off. May the light of Truth shine all over the darkness, making the Author's story–so much bigger than what we planned or imagined–visible to the watching world.

Lost, lost are all our losses;
Love set forever free;
The full life heaves and tosses
Like an eternal sea!
One endless story!
One poem spread abroad!
And the sun of all our glory
Is the countenance of God.*

~ Johanna


* George MacDonald, 5th Hymn to the Night