Friday, December 25, 2015

Helen



A silver sycamore stands sentinel,
Watches while my soul drips sore
With grief unwonted, unlooked for;
Ache unmended upended my core
This night, all things but one went well...

The Eve had melted to Holy Day,
When I stood for the last time
This visit, the candlelight sublime
Still burned bright on eye's mind,
As I blinked hard, keeping tears at bay...

Two short years ago I was not alone
This night—I walked down the aisle,
By my side a tiny woman with a smile,
Proud to have her family here a while
Nodded to all around—now she is gone...

Gone from slippery wooden pew,
From the lips and the minds of men,
Who are so quick to carry on again—
But a grandchild starts weeping when
Memories come in waves not a few...

Perhaps Christmas Eve must start
With this wretched, Fall-tainted scar
To remind me of that blazing star
Leading the lowly and wise from afar
To seek the Healer of each man's heart.




Friday, December 18, 2015

Joy, joy, joy!


Somehow it is December, week three. Does it ever seem like you are waiting for it to feel like Christmas? Do you feel wrapped up in work or events or gift-buying, rather than reflective stillness? Do you go through the motions, sing the songs, yet feel far away from the Christ-child? Are you expecting your favourite Christmas records, films, or traditions to make things feel normal or happy?

Traditions—be they family originals or many-centuries long—sometimes lose the breath of life. Liturgy becomes legalism when the Spirit's spark is extinguished and sanctification depends on human effort. So it is with Christmas. The very celebration of Jesus coming near makes Him seem far away. The very events and customs that result from the gladness of Christ's arrival are hollow on their own. Sometimes we must lay aside every tradition and expectation. We must come to Jesus alone.

Expectations kill. If human relationships have taught me anything this last year, it is this. Expectations kill enjoyment when things don't go as planned, even though they go well. Expectations kill relationships when they go unspoken, and so unmet. Expectations rob us of the delight of unexpected gifts. Expectations set us up for disappointment—even in excellent things—when they are not fulfilled.

So, if you were expecting it to feel like Christmas this third week of December and it doesn't, stop. Stop expecting Christmas to feel a certain way. Stop playing that Bing Crosby record hoping to make yourself feel in the mood for Christmas. Stop stressing about gifts you haven't purchased, the packing you have yet to do, the mound of work waiting on your desk before Christmas break. Stop.

Stop, because it is still Advent, the season of waiting. Stop and breathe. Exhale thanks, inhale joy. This third week of Advent churches and families around the world light the joy candle. Joy. In this season of stress and rushing when do we have time for joy? In this world of uncertainties, arguments, abandonment, and terror that pushes people from their homeland, where is joy? In this bleak blackness of night's final watch, it is colder and darker than ever.

The first week of Advent, sunset hour, we may have had the hope associated with those first seven days. There was still a rosy glow on the Western horizon. We may have had refreshing moments of the peace of week two, like nightly repose. But week three is that fitful, wakeful hour when all is darkness, no streak of dawn appears to relieve us. And this—this is when we are supposed to have joy? Yes, joy in the dark. Joy is not happiness or painting a smile over sorrow. Joy, chara, rests itself in the middle of thanksgiving, eucharisteo. In the bleakness we give thanks. In the blackness we take joy that the waiting is not endless.

When we lay aside our expectations, we begin to see the gifts God wants to give. Israel wanted a warrior-king. God gave them a baby. Even when the babe grew into a man, He was not a rebel, though He was revolutionary. He was fierce and gentle. He was just and meek. And He was killed, not freeing Israel from their oppression one bit. What kind of “gift” was that? 

If the Jews had had eyes to see, had laid their expectations on the altar, they would have found that their freedom did not need to be external. They needed internal freedom from a law that had become legalism. They needed hearts of flesh in place of stone. When God became man, He set before every human being the gift of freedom from the curse. This gift was world-wide and history-long—much bigger than the Jews had ever dreamed.

We, too, find our unmet expectations so exceeded by God's gifts that we often fail to recognise that they are gifts. How can we see something vast with eyes so small? We must learn to see. That is what we learn in this third week of Advent, we learn to see joy lurking—leaping—in and out of corners of our lives.

We learn to see both the small and the obvious good things—and our response is thanks to God. It is in those moments that our eyes are able to see the big picture a little better. Our expectations crumble, our feelings are changed, made new. When we ask God to help us know joy and receive His gifts, whatever form they take, we are made new. When we give thanks we know joy as an intimate friend. This gift of God we’ll cherish well, that ever joy our hearts shall fill. Joy, joy, joy! Praise we the Lord in heav’n on high!



Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Perspectives


"Why me?" I hear her moan;
"Why this broken mess?"
"Why am I all alone—
toiling daily, while he's free?"
"Why, why, why, God?"
"Why me?"

"Why me?" I look above;
"Why do You never quit?"
"Why do You love, love,
love me? You never flee,
You take delight...Why, God?"
"Why me?"

"Why me?" I hear her cry;
"Why all of my friends?"
"Why doesn't someone try
to love me in all my debris?"
"Will no man choose me, God?"
"Why me?"

"Why me?" I look around;
"Why his lavish love?"
"It overwhelms, astounds,
builds up, inspires, sets free."
"Why" I whisper, "Why, God?"
"Why me?"

Sunday, December 6, 2015

The Waiting is Not Wasted


Waiting. We do a lot of waiting at this time of year. We queue up to buy gifts—and to mail them. We wait for Amazon orders to arrive in the post. We wait in airports, traffic, and coffee shops. We wait for Christmas break to wrest us from our studies, our work, our loneliness. Sometimes we wait at a tremendous pace, as if filling our days with work or parties or consumer pursuits will make time gain speed.

Waiting...Israel was waiting for a Messiah in the days of Caesar Augustus. Waiting for a Deliverer, like in Egypt long ago. Israel was waiting for freedom. In those same days, a woman named Elisabeth was waiting to deliver her first child, though she was old and infertile. A young, unmarried girl was also waiting quietly and patiently. She was awaiting the promise given to her by an angel of God. Waiting to see what her belovéd would do when she told him she was pregnant. A virgin giving birth to a child, it sounded like a silly sham, a cover up for fornication. Yet the prophecy was there in Isaiah, "Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name [Emmanuel]."1 There they were—Elisabeth, Mary, and all of Israel—waiting.

Nine months of waiting brought forth John. The same length of gestation wrought the King of all creation into a creature Himself. Then came the patient, silent years of growing—like a seed underground, waiting to break into the sunlight. After thirty years of quiet growth, John paved the way for his kinsman, Jesus, and for three years all of Israel waited to see what would become of Mary's son. You know the rest, He was killed and His disciples waited three days in fear of the Romans, in fear of the Jews, in fear that all their hopes had been placed in the wrong man. But their hope was fulfilled. The anticipation was exceeded. The waiting dawned in resurrection.

Awaiting the arrival of the Messiah is what the season of Advent is all about. We have stepped into that waiting period. The fasting before the feasting. The season of darkness is upon us, like it was upon Israel.


In preparation for celebrating the arrival of the Messiah, I began to think about the advent seasons we go through in life at times. Sometimes they are long, unyielding periods. The darkness is thick, we see no light of hope at the end of the tunnel. The Messiah seems far away. We cry out, "How long, O Lord? How long?" with seemingly no answer. Israel sat in crushing darkness, hope draining out of her that the long awaited Messiah would ever come. Nearly all Israel had no inkling that the dark night of their fallen existence—and the agony of waiting—was about to end in dawn. Often we do not sense that the approach—the Advent—of God is near at hand, either. But the truth is that: 
"Because of God’s tender mercy,the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us,to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,and to guide us to the path of peace."2

The light at the end of the tunnel may not come in the form we would like, or hope for, or expect. Jesus did not come as a mighty warrior, He entered Israel as a fragile baby. He did not enter Jerusalem in triumph, riding a white charger, He rode in on a humble donkey colt. So, too, our hope may be realised in ways we didn't foresee: in an encouraging friend walking alongside us through the daily grind; in having a good job—when we didn't expect we would have to be the sole provider for our family; in the welcoming embrace of our parents—rather than a lover; in strength for this day, when we thought we were depleted yesterday. Hope is sometimes realised in a change of heart, change of mind, change of plans that looks like a faithful friend. The dawn comes in shades of colour we never anticipated, sometimes after we have given up looking for the light. The daystar rises at the right time—even when it seems late—because of God's tender mercy, because of His kindness.
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God... In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend [understand or overcome] it."3

Whether you are waiting in line or waiting for something in your life to change, let the longing to be finished with waiting remind you that you are being cultivated. Like a seed underground, like John the Baptist and Jesus in the decades before their life's work began—the waiting produces patience and strength of character. The waiting gives you roots so that you may also grow upward and produce fruit. The waiting is not wasted, it ends in the dawn of resurrection.

_________


1. Isaiah 7:14 (ESV)
2. Luke 1:78-79 (NLT)
3. John 1:1, 4-5 (NKJV)

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Illumine



Spark!
A shock in the dark—
Light
Running along wire,
Along rivers
and spires,
Down city streets
in taillights, headlights,
Reflected in
eyes
of passers-by
Who turn and shine
on the world at large;
the world is large,
and dark,
in need of
Light—
Splaying out from
a single Star,
a single
Man,
A river of bright
running along edges
of hearts, and
reflected in
eyes
gazing on
men afire
with the light
of
Love.



Saturday, November 21, 2015

Cleansing Fire


 What if prayer is a furnace? 
    When we confess, every sin and every evil thing 
       is burnt away into ashes. 

          But every prayer in line with Life and Love
            —stemming from God's Spirit—
                 is refined like gold and silver. 

                   What if that? 

                       And lest we forget, 
                         even ashes are used in making soap...






____

Dedicated to Sarah, Kasey, and Marit

Friday, November 13, 2015

Dark Nights



Serpentine sorrows weave their way through my thoughts tonight. It has been one of those days where things go well, but one person after another lets a little bit of ache show through. I see the hurt, yet the trying to be vulnerable so the heart won't harden. I see broken bodies and broken hearts. Sick bodies and sick souls. I see carnage and horror in the streets of Paris. The pain piles high; the daily struggles of how to move forward after the death of a loved one, the death of a relationship, the death of a dream. 

These are not my sorrows, they live in the lungs and limbs and sore hearts of others. But those 'others' are my people. My friends, my family...My neighbours across the globe. What do we do when the Fall is crushing us? Not in one splat, but slowly pressing down on us, like a heavy stone, like the steadily rising tide, like oppressive darkness... Then what?

Under the pressure of the Fall, I am reminded of the relief of the Incarnation. Sometimes I have wondered why God created mankind if He knew that sin and death would enter the good world He had made. That is because I am inside the story, too close to the events to understand the Author's intent in each minute portion of the story.

 O me! for why is all around us here
  As if some lesser god had made the world,
  But had not force to shape it as he would,
  Till the High God behold it from beyond,
  And enter it, and make it beautiful?
  Or else as if the world were wholly fair,
  But that these eyes of men are dense and dim,
  And have not power to see it as it is:
  Perchance, because we see not to the close;—1

As Tennyson points out, we do not know the close—but God Himself sees the end from the beginning. He knew Eve would succumb to temptation and that Adam would fail to stop her. God knew the price He Himself would have to pay to right the world from the chaos of the Fall. He knew that He would love us and we would spit in His face. That He would forgive us, and we would run into the arms of other gods again and again. He knew He would be vulnerable with us and that we would use His own love and mercy against Him. He knew these things, too, when He created mankind—and He went ahead and made us and loved us and died for us anyway.

The Curse may crush, sin may seek to squeeze the Life out of us, darkness may seem like it is draining the Light out of the world... But the Curse, the darkness, does not know the ending. Life will win. Light will oust darkness forever.
So when the perishable is lost in the imperishable, the mortal lost in the immortal, this saying will come true: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory’ ‘O death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?’ It is sin which gives death its power, and it is the Law which gives sin its strength. All thanks to God, then, who gives us the victory over these things through our Lord Jesus Christ!2
Somehow, God makes the ending better than the beginning, even when dissonance is introduced in His symphony. He weaves it into His strong melody and brings resolution and redemption.

Blesséd, blesséd, blesséd be He!


____________________

1. Lord Tennyson, Alfred "The Passing of King Arthur" Idylls of the King (Public Domain)

2. I Corinthians 15.54-57 (PHILLIPS)




Sunday, November 8, 2015

To Be Fully Known






And I don't want the world to see me...
...I just want you to know who I am1

Omaha, Nebraska. That paragon of culture is precisely where I spent a long weekend with friends. Now, I know that many of you will think of steak, cornfields, and farmers when you hear the word Nebraska, but there is quite a lot to that Plains State aside from plains. The highlights of my weekend were all cultural experiences: from the Joslyn Art Museum, a symphony, and a gourmet dinner, to a tea emporium, exploring the grounds of a mansion, and spending time in prayer at a beautiful Catholic edifice.


Though we spent less than an hour at the Joslyn Art Museum, it was meditative time well invested. Upon exiting the European art section, there was a small room containing a Monet painting and a small bronze statue of Auguste Rodin's Eve. Unlike many portrayals I have seen of Lady Eve, this one was not sensual nor was it sanitised. There she was, naked, with no hand covering her sexuality, no long hair hanging down to hide her womanhood; she hid only her face. Though she was bronze she was not brazen—contorted in remorse and agony for the curse she had unleashed upon mankind. When I gazed upon this mortified Eve, I saw fear and sorrow. I saw vulnerability. I saw humanity in the wake of the Fall. I saw the hope of repentance. I saw myself.


How can human hands take cold metal, making it live in ripples, effulgence, and emotion? How could the artist cast one woman who would resonate with so many of the women who gazed upon her abject form? Yet somehow, in broad strokes, Rodin made just such a woman. Eve in all her remorse and repentance was a woman—she was human. From this bitter moment of knowing sin, a veil was placed between God and man. 


From this time forth, humans began to hide—and we choose to hide behind much more than fig leaves and excuses. We hide behind our accomplishments or our identity, behind our careers, cars, or kids. We hide behind walls that we have built, brick by brick, barb by barb. We hide behind our intellect and our to-do lists, behind styles and having it all together, behind addictions and amusements—we hide because we are afraid. We are afraid that we aren't smart enough, handsome enough, or successful enough. We are afraid to let anyone see our mess, our turmoil, our uncertainties, our weaknesses and inabilities. And when our first emotion isn't fear, it is fear hidden under the guise of pride. We pride ourselves on our achievements or our brutal honesty or some other thing, in order to prove that we are enough, we are strong, we are worthy of love and acceptance, or at least of respect and awe.

What if we were like Eve, not hiding our humanity—for it is our glory, our being what we were made to be. What if we did not try even to turn our eyes away from our Maker in agony and ignominy? What if we recalled Isaiah's words, that our Maker is our Husband and that the Holy One is also our Redeemer (Isaiah 54:3)? What if He turned our faces toward Himself, sought our eyes with His, and called us His belovéd? There is no "what if?" about that—He does exactly that. From the very first He has pursued us. 


Beginning with Adam and Eve, in the cool of the evening the Lord sought them, He called out to them "where are you?" (Genesis 3:9). Adam answers the way I so often do, "...I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself." (Genesis 3:10) "...I was afraid, because I was naked..." I was afraid to come to You, Lord, because You would see through my accolades, accomplishments, and intellect. I felt vulnerable and raw, so I didn't want to come before You. I have sinned and I couldn't wash it off. I want to fix myself before I come to You. Slowly, slowly I am learning that this is when He cups His hand under my chin and searches out my eyes. The searing Love in His own eyes burns away my impurities, illumines my darkness, heals my brokenness, makes me worthy. It isn't that there is no consequence for sin, there is. Yet it remains that the payment was made by the injured party. The One who covenanted with us is the One who paid the redemption price when we broke the covenant. The Holy One is our Redeemer.


Like Eve, I forget the kindness of God that leads to repentance and I can think only of His Holiness. I forget that His wrath is directed toward my sin, not my self, so I hide. I try to be fit enough, smart enough, encouraging enough, anything-else-enough-to-atone-for-myself—except being vulnerable enough, honest enough, and humble enough to come before Him. 


The irony in all my fears, in all my brokenness, is that I deeply want to be known—to have someone know me as I am and not walk away. Those great theologians, 
the Goo Goo Dolls, put it this way: And I don't want the world to see me/'Cause I don't think that they'd understand/When everything's made to be broken/I just want you to know who I am1. They understand the ache of every human being, the desire to be known—but also the fear of being known. We don't want the whole world to see us as we are, just the one person who will know us for ourselves and not run away. It is a scary thing to be vulnerable with another person. What if they betray you? What if they reject you? What if they take what they know about you and use it against you? That is the risk of love. A risk we fear and long to take, all rolled together.


Love is the risk God chose to take on mankind. He chose to create Adam and Eve, though He knew the Fall would happen. He chose to love them, even though He knew they would choose not to trust Him and would break the world He entrusted to them. He chooses to love us, even though we put up walls or try to win approval rather than receiving His gifts of love, reconciliation, and redemption. He chooses to love us, even though we often snatch gifts from His hand, yet run away from Him when we don't get our way. And even when we nail Him to a cross with our manifold sins, piercing Him to His very heart, He still loves us.


Perhaps I see less of myself in Eve after all—at least she stood before her maker in all her nakedness and sorrow. I run from my Maker in those moments, or try to cover myself with the flimsy fig leaves of my accomplishments and intellect. I ache to be known, yet I fear it. I want to be naked and unashamed before my Maker rather than clothing myself in my own attempts at being "enough".



“You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve," said Aslan. "And that is both honour enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth. Be content.2

O my Maker-Husband, let me be content in Your Love. Let me be vulnerable enough to come before You. Make me able to know that You are enough and that You make me worthy.




_______________


1. The Goo Goo Dolls, Iris (Written by John Rzeznik, Warner Bros. 1998)

2. Lewis, C. S., Prince Caspian (Scholastic Inc., New York, 1987) 211-212

All Scripture is taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Refusing to be 'Singled' Out



How Should the Church Treat Singles?

“Another one bites the dust” is the relationship theme song I resonate with lately. I can barely go a month without one of my friends telling me they are dating or engaged. I have been in—or behind the scenes of—quite a few weddings in the last year or two. This is not the first round of this life-season for me. It happened a couple of years after high school, again after my higher education terms, and now that many friends are approaching their late twenties and thirties. There have been quite a few seasons of babies among my friends, too. It is a constant ebb and flow.

None of this is surprising—it is the rhythm of life. It feels new and exciting and surreal when it happens to you or your closest friends, but it sounds pretty normal to everyone else. What might sound abnormal to some is that I am pleased for my friends, but I don’t want to be in their shoes. Oh, I have twinges of unfulfilled hopes when I watch the father-daughter dance at weddings. I am human, I want someone to go through life with—to care about and to be vulnerable with. Sappy songs make me sad every now and then. Sometimes I feel at loose ends, like I should have someone to share something with, but they aren’t there. The longing to be loved is natural, put in our hearts by Divine Love himself.

More often than not, however, I am thankful to be single. Singleness is not synonymous with loneliness. This truth often seems to evade people—especially church people. They ask some strange questions at times, and snarky me replies in my head (well-taught-me answers with much more tact). The one I hear most often rings hollow to me, “About the time I became content with my singleness, I met my spouse.” Strange, I think to myself, I’ve been contentedly, cheerfully, single for many years and ‘Poof!’ I have no husband. Thanks for sharing without caring to enquire whether or not I enjoy being single. Every now and then someone will tell me (none-too-subtly) they would like me to meet their son, though no one has ever followed through on helping such a meeting to take place. Now, I’m not opposed to getting married, it simply isn’t my calling at this point—I am quite satisfied with all that I have and am called to right now.

Words upon words have been written about relationships—both the dating kind and all others (as if those are the only two categories there are). I have heard plenty of married people tell me they wished they had enjoyed their single years while they had them. Many a single friend has told me of their ache to be married. That pain is real, I understand. Usually, I choose not to add my voice to those conversations, as they have been had many times already by people who are wiser than I am.

Rather, I choose to opine about feeling like someone who grew a third head on the spot, or like the Invisible Man at various church gatherings. How should the church treat singles? For starters, it would help not to be pitied or unseen. Singleness isn’t a disease. It would also be great if people wouldn’t ask all those frustrating questions—”Have you tried online dating?”—as if I were dying to get married, or am unaware of how to meet people of the opposite sex. If you are so concerned, invite a few unmarried men and women over for dinner so they can spend time together comfortably. It would be a relief not to be “singled” out—either made an outcast or lumped into groups of other single people. What I am trying to say is that it would be helpful if singles were treated simply as human beings, not as ‘singles’. We are persons, not slices of Kraft cheese.

Churches that don’t have a singles’ group receive my mental applause. The ones that have small groups of mixed ages are hailed with gratitude. How will I ever learn what marriage is if I don’t see it lived out in front of me (in others besides my parents)? Peer groups often feel like the blind leading the blind. I need folks who are older and wiser than I am speaking into my life, telling me their stories, sharing their wisdom and what God is teaching them through Scripture. I have friends in their forties, fifties, and sixties with whom I love spending a long evening—to hear and to share about life and Godliness. I probably need more of these friends. These are the friends who share their homes, their meals, their thoughts on literature and society—the friends who open the Word of God to me.

We are all human beings first. Yes, we are male or female. Married or unmarried. Old or young. Gifted in this or gifted in that. Dichotomies aside, however, we are all in need of Love, of Beauty, of being made Holy as God is Holy. We all need Truth to anchor our lives. We need our family and friends. We need to give and to receive—graciously, humbly. We need stillness and the sounds of life. We need time alone and time in fellowship. We all need Jesus.

Why focus on the things that divide us? Perhaps that is the reason I don’t like being labelled “single”—or “female” or “white” or whatever other label people try to stick on each other. It is not an us-against-them sort of life. Life that truly is life is lived together—and that is much harder than separating off into our little factions or comfortable autonomy, isn’t it?

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Autumn Bicycle Ride


An Autumn Bicycle-Ride

by Owen Barfield

The leaves, grown rusty overhead,
Dropped on the road and made it red.
The air that coldly wrapped me round,
Stained by the glowing of the ground,
Had bathed the world in the cosy gloom
Of a great, red-carpeted, firelit room;
It filled my lungs, as I rode along,
Till they overflowed in a flood of song,
And joy grew truculent in my throat,
Uttering a pompous trombone-note;
For this elegant modern soul of mine
Was warm with old Autumn’s rich red wine.


______________

Re-printed with permission of the Owen Barfield Literary Estate

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Arise, O Morning




Arise, O morning, arise!
The fog comes down
and the praise goes up,
lilting toward the skies
somewhere above, outside
this silver mist, tilting
out of the Maker's cup.

~ Johanna



Saturday, October 3, 2015

Secondhand Stories...


Honey-coloured sunlight pours warm across my shoulders, across the flyleaf of the little book in my hands, where a name is neatly inscribed. The name on the opening page is not my own—no, this little book was purchased used, from a cottage crammed rafters to floorboards with many of the book's kindreds. In such cases, I often wonder what would happen if the owner ever sold out of a stack—or even a single tome in the stack—in a crucial placement. Would the roof cave in, leaving a hole of sky-light rushing through?


Ah, but it was the name on the page that captured my attention, not said book's fascinating location when I came across it. The name was common enough, written in neat penmanship in the right-hand corner: Hunter Swanson. He must have been anxious to prove ownership or have his book returned to him, because he had also crimped the page with a 'From the library of Hunter Swanson' stamp. 

Why, then, is his book amongst my collection? By reason that I had inquired after that particular title in the curious, brimming bookshop. From those copious stacks, the proprietor went straight to a single column, fished out the book from sheer memory, and placed it in my hands. I was so impressed with his knowledge of the book towers that I bought the book on the spot. Granted, as I had entered the shop partly in search of that particular title, it was nearly inevitable that I would purchase it if found. 

Yet again I have strayed from Hunter Swanson and his book lying upon my glass-top table. Who would get rid of a book in which they had both stamped and inked their name? Or perhaps I should ask why? Why would a person give or sell their book to a fellow whose shop is held up by mounds of tomes? Did they despise the writing-style of the memoir? Was the book given to them by a Love, no longer part of their life? Maybe those names we see printed on cover pages have been printed in newspaper ink followed by date of birth and date of death. I do not envy the souls who have to sort, share, and sell a beloved's books upon their death. Or perhaps one has a small cabin which cannot store all of their books, so they give away the ones they have never read or do not plan to read.

There are simply handfuls of reasons why one might give away or sell their library. Still, it seems to me that if you wrote and stamped your name inside the cover of a volume, it must be one you like or would like to have returned to you. Perhaps Hunter Swanson will read this and ask for his book back, which would be a bit sad, because I would like to finish it. But I almost wish Mr Swanson would read this and request his book, because then I could ask him if it really was important and what he liked about it. I could know why this slim book ended up in the tottering piles in the first place. 

Sometimes people are like books in a secondhand store—you wonder how they are in such-and-such a state. Are they like they are because they have loved and lost? What has shaped the story of the person walking by in the airport, on the street, at your church? Where are they going? How will our stories overlap? If Jesus has written His love into our stories, does that love spill into the lives of those we meet? If Jesus has written His name across the cover page of our lives, that means He has claimed us, that He wants us back if ever we are lost. He sees something inside of us that makes us precious to Him—He sees His own signature written on the very first page. We are His, and that makes us valuable.

All these ideas germinated from a name scrawled in a small paperback edition of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. For now, the book lives in a good home, producing much thought—and I have only read the flyleaf.

_____________

* Cross-posted at humanepursuits.com

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Old-Fashioned Virtue amidst Newfangled Technology



Cricket songs in full thrum and twinkling hosts of fireflies—that was the world I lived in as a child, until either the mosquitoes or my mother corralled me into the house. Then there would be stories with Dad, during which I would draw horses or a poor replica of the Dawn Treader—or whatever else happened to be the subject of the story. We had a Saturday night show or two that we would watch as a family; there were stints of Captain Kangaroo, Reading Rainbow, or Disney afternoons, and the occasional film. Yet, by and large, my childhood was spent out-of-doors, riding my bike, playing ‘pioneers’ or ‘office’ with my neighbour girls, drawing, or reading.
Screens entered my daily life in high school, when we obtained our first family desktop computer. I started typing out my stories and editing a magazine for some school fellows. When dial-up internet made it to our home, I stayed up until the wee sma’s instant messaging friends or keeping up long e-mail correspondences with comrades scattered across the country.
Some parts of my imagination were laid to rest about the time I began having a screen in front of me often. Playing ‘pioneers’ with the neighbours was abandoned and I sorely neglected my model horses. I began writing stories instead of acting out the plots I had read or thought up with my friends. This may have been a natural shifting point for my imagination, but natural or not, technology facilitated the change. I had taken a step away from tangible reality, putting up a screen between myself and a first-hand experience of  life.
I was—and admittedly, still am—drawn to that flickering blue light like a moth to a flame. Yet something in me rebels, too. I have tried, in recent years, to take a child-like step backward. Now I often take the screen from betwixt myself and the colourful, sparkling,real world around me. I have a cell phone—a flip phone—that I turn off when I don’t want to be bothered. I read real books and write letters by hand. My upbringing without much ‘screen-time’ resonates all these years later in what feels life-giving. Though work and leisure often involve some form of glowing technology, when I write by hand or take an evening walk, or when I make dinner or fix my car, I feel more alive.
Screens seem to eat away at imagination and ingenuity. Sometimes it frightens me how prevalent screens are—I can’t hide myself or my yet-to-come children from them. But I have learned that there are ways to encounter the tactile world without the screen-barrier. Though we live in a different age than the technologically limited one in which I was raised, when I have children, I still want them to know the smell of a rose before they see one on a tablet. I want them to learn to roller skate and ride their bikes; to love going to the library for good books to read together; to want to colour or draw rather than watch a cartoon; and to know that if they say “But I’m bored!” they can do chores, not watch television.
This does not mean shunning technology; it has its place as a useful tool. The fact that I can call home whenever I want to without long distance charges is wonderful. My computer aids me in all kinds of endeavours—from looking up recipes and getting driving directions, to listening to music or audio books. Still, I want my children to learn how to use a map before they learn to use MapQuest; how to play music as well as listen to it; how to cook by ‘eyeballing it’, as well as by measuring every last thing; and how to read out loud proficiently, by listening to others and by practising the art themselves. I would like to have a big enough piece of the out-of-doors to let my children run around. A place to try to catch a squirrel through their own inventiveness (as I amusingly watched my neighbour children attempt recently).


You see, my desire is that ages and ages hence, my children will send handwritten thank you notes for gifts, and that they will text to let me know they made it somewhere safely. I want to be part of raising inter-dependent adults—persons who can use common sense in taking care of themselves and their possessions, but who know they are part of the Body of Christ, the Communion of Saints. I want them to have ‘old-fashioned’ virtues and to know history as they walk among ‘newfangled’ technology and speak truth into the present.

*This essay originally appeared at HumanePursuits.com

Friday, September 18, 2015

Beauty in Things Not Seen



Would a flower of the field still be Beautiful even if no one saw it? This question has followed me to many swaths of alpine tundra this hiking season. I have gazed on lavender thistles, white marsh marigolds, and tiny forget-me-nots amongst a host of other hearty flowers. My hiking companions often set their sights on the cathedral arc of a mountain range, a sun-dappled emerald lake, or towering waterfalls. Whereas, I am enthralled by daubs of colour in every hue, painting slopes and stream beds as we wind upward, always upward. Tiny tufts of moss delight me; so do mushrooms of various shapes—brown, white, and poisonous red. While my friends want a wide angle view from the top of our climb, I am seeking to catch the golden mead of light in a buttercup.

But, no, the dichotomy is not so stark. My breath is drawn away by the soaring heights of snow powdered rock-rims. My eyes burn salty as I watch the footprints of the wind twinkling on the surface of a mountain lake. My friends bend down to frame their photos with tall clover and clusters of yellow-headed flowers, though they are soon lost in the grandeur again. I am being taught to see the bigger picture, to look up from the detail and see the vast whole—making me feel small and a bit frail. I hope I am helping others to see the details that piece together the whole, to see the points that paint the image we behold.

The mountains and lakes I have seen on my array of hikes have long been landmarks, have long looked as they now look. The minute white and purple flowers dotting the springy turf will only last a few days or weeks. They have bloomed on purpose for this season, this day. After they fade, those specific blossoms will never again be seen. Their children will rise up next summer, but this year's will be gone forever.

On one particular hike, I threaded my way through thickets and early summer snow to see a crop of white marsh marigolds. No other footprints marked the path I took, and I wondered if anyone else would see these lovely little flowers this season. Then I wondered what hordes of flowers existed that no one would see at all this summer. Various wildflowers would bloom in nodding hosts, remote and unseen by human eyes. They would still be beautiful, breathing their fragrance out as an incense of praise to their Creator. They would still dot the land with beauty, even if no eye beheld them. Their beauty would not be wasted, their plant-lives would not be in vain, because they would be blossoming. They would be doing what they were made to do, whether anyone noticed them or not.

Flowers have no cognisance of their purpose, no understanding of being or Beauty. Humans, do, however—we desperately want others to notice our existence, our efforts. Often, we feel like our work—our very selves, even—only have purpose when validated and praised by others. Yet, human beings are worth more than all the flowers covering the surface of the planet. We are valuable before we even start doing anything. Our intellect, looks, and work are not what give us worth or purpose or acceptance. Being fully human, what we were made to be, is our act of praise. Perhaps I should say it is our being of praise to the Creator.

We are given this span of life, ephemeral like the summer's flowers. We are given now—not the past or the future. We may never do something monumental and lasting for the eyes of future  generations to see. 'One day...' may never come when we planned to do this or that, or to be such and such. We have today. We have now. Let us give thanks in this moment. Let us love God now. Let us speak a true word of encouragement, of kindness, today. Not in neglect of the hope of tomorrow and a multitude of tomorrows to come—rather, as a point to live in the present, which builds a foundation for tomorrow and the days to come.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Wanderlust



All those golden autumn days the sky was full of wings. . . The wings and the golden weather and the tang of frost in the mornings made Laura want to go somewhere. She did not know where. She wanted only to go.

"Let's go West," she said one night after supper. "Pa, can't we go West when Uncle Henry does?"

. . . "I know, little Half-pint," said Pa, and his voice was very kind. "You and I want to fly like the birds. . .”1


Wearing long-sleeved flannel shirts and seeing snow geese—all glossy white with black-tipped wings—are among the signs that September has arrived in all her tawny glory. The incense of woodsmoke, the vaulted vibrant blue skies, and the slant of the afternoon sunlight all beckon me to come out and play. “Come West,” they whisper. And I do. I nose my car through fresh winds, snaking over mountain passes until I find a place to get lost in the wild and the beauty. Like little Laura, I ache to go West, to live freely. Free from schedules—the ever-pressing fist of time—and free from others’ expectations.

Familiarity feels like the level ground I need to leave behind on the hunt for paths that climb ever-upward. What is it that I long for, that I can’t get out of my blood no matter how often I hike until the stars wink open? The leaves of my favourite books rustle with the answer. I would never have believed just one of them; but when the overflowing shelves all carry me from an unassuming front door to wild lands, beasts, and men, only to arrive back at home, I take notice.

Home revolves around the familiar, the mundane. It is family and friends going deeper, butting heads, holding hands, reaching out, being still, being vulnerable. Though the familiar and intimate draw things out slowly and graciously, I often find myself like a ruptured seed buried in the earth. I struggle toward the surface, feeling the urge to keep pressing upward, though I don’t know why or what lies ahead.

Often I vacillate, wanting the routine and familiarity of the daily—yet restlessly craving the freedom and thrill of the untamed, the unexplored. I want to run away from all I have known and taste something wild and fresh. Restlessness, however, stems from dissatisfaction—named or unnamed; whilst imagination breathes life and satisfaction into the daily and the anomaly—the level ground and the arduous uphill climb.

How little I have learned from those tales of adventure—everywhere I turn, home is the way things end. Like Chesterton’s farm boy seeking a giant only to find he always lived upon one, or dissatisfied John in Pilgrim’s Regress, I suppose I will have to hike the whole globe ‘round to wind up at my own front doorstep, with my own mountains out the window.

“There are two ways of getting home; and one of them is to stay there. The other is to walk round the whole world till we come back to the same place. . .”2

Tolkien ends both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings with the Hobbits’ return to the Shire. To be sure, the quest challenged and forged those who dared to go on it—fitting them for both the scouring of the Shire and the honest work of rebuilding and guiding it. But it is the cosy hearth fires of home and the minding of one’s own garden that the Hobbits are about for most of their lives. The quest of the Ring made each character wiser, nobler, and deeper—fitting them richly for the quotidian tasks of Shire life. The love of home is worth leaving it and fighting for it, in order that others might have that very home, even if they are unaware of those who have gone to great lengths to keep it free, peaceful, and beautiful.

If our ancestors and those in our military have sacrificed what is most precious to them that we might have a home, why do we often fly from it like so many birds on the wing? It is not the familiar and comfortable that stop my ears and blind my eyes to the gifts I have here and now. It is my own sins that make me “grow old” as Chesterton puts it. Adventure sounds alluring, but the heights are so windy that tears blind us, the ground is rocky and hard to sleep on, the uphill climb makes our lungs and legs burn. Do harshness and denial make us grateful for our everyday gifts of running water and a comfy beds? Does the beauty of a new place resonate in our hearts because it calls to mind that which we first loved, the beauty learned at home?

How do we live on the level ground, the familiar and cosy, whilst still pursuing the upward trek of adventure and all its hardships? We need both. The adventure takes us far enough away to see that what we have been looking for is in our own gardens, as Dorothy says in The Wizard of Oz: “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won't look any further than my own backyard.”3 It took quite the journey for her to gain that perspective.

Some find home by staying there, but others of us must circumnavigate the globe all the way back to our own cosy Hobbit holes. It is a long journey, but perhaps when we land, we will learn to appreciate what we had all along, rather than taking it for granted—to see life abundant in the mundane, and beauty all around. After all, “there’s no place like home.”4



  1. Wilder, Laura Ingalls, By the Shores of Silver Lake (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers) 126, emphasis mine
  2. Chesterton, G. K., The Everlasting Man (Garden City: New York, Doubleday and Company) 11
  3. Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz (Directed by Victor Fleming and George Cukor. 1939 MGM studios)
  4. ibid