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 na├»ve, 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).  

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1. Online Etymology Dictionary, Home (n.)