The Difference

Yesterday was Orthodox Easter, the celebration of Christ’s resurrection from the dead as commemorated by Eastern Orthodox Christians. Their observance of this most significant Christian holiday is often differentiated from Christians in the West by a week or two as they liturgically follow the Julian calendar rather than the Gregorian. Even so, we remember the same event, the rejuvenation of the body and life of Jesus. We celebrate and hope in our eventual resurrection because of his sacrifice and promise and triumph.

Good Friday is a day of mourning and loss and confession. The world is not what it should be. Our hearts are not what they were meant to be. Saturday is a day of sitting with this loss in uncertainty, learning to grieve before we can experience the joy of Easter. Saturday is painfully remembering Friday, but hopefully looking toward Sunday.

Yesterday I posted these photographs on another social media site. My own backyard demonstrated the process and change the resurrection makes in our lives.

Saturday

As we sit with his mortality and our own, Saturday provides us with flickers of hope and the beauty in his promise. We will not always know death and sickness and pain and sadness. A day is coming when all of creation will be full and new. It will perpetually refresh and bloom, and it will defy the laws of entropy and ennui.

Sunday

Sunday, the day of his resurrection, we fully acknowledge his eternal nature. We are glad because he is alive and has restored life to us. We can now live with the faith that he will perfect us and guide us into the flourishing life he longs for us all.

Happy Easter, happy spring, happy Resurrection day!

He is risen, and he is coming.

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is going to be revealed to us.”
‭‭Romans‬ ‭8:18‬ ‭CSB‬‬

“For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, in the same way, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.”
‭‭1 Thessalonians‬ ‭4:14‬ ‭CSB‬‬

Anna Akhmatova, Palm Sunday and the Quarantine

Many of you are busy, taking full advantage of the vast amounts of free time newly at your disposal due to the Covid-19 quarantine. As we shelter in place, one of my friends cleaned out all of her closets. My brother painted his back bedroom he uses as a studio. The neighbors are organizing their garages. I, on the other hand, have had no such motivations. I have been reading several books and have taken our mini labradoodle on even more walks. In other words, life has not been too different, except I do miss my people. I hope you are all doing well, staying healthy, remaining hopeful and loving.

Yesterday, however, something made me turn to my old friend Anna Akhmatova, the Russian poet who suffered under and survived the Stalinist regime. Yesterday was Palm Sunday, a day both joyous and sobering. As we picture ourselves in the story, we cheer with the crowds while knowing the path leads to death. We feel the triumphant victory of Jesus’ humble entrance into Jerusalem, yet know he will be buried by the end of the week. I feel these conflicting emotions in Akhmatova’s poetic laments. They are only the more beautiful as she uses biblical images and biblically-rooted characters to relate both her grief and her hope.

Born in 1889, Akhmatova survived the Russian Revolution and married fellow poet Nikolai Gumilev with whom she had a son Lev. Nikolai was imprisoned and secretly executed by the Bolsheviks. Many years later, in 1935, their son was arrested as an enemy of the state and Akhmatova virtually lived outside of the prison walls in Leningrad (St. Petersburg today) in hopes of catching a glimpse of him, bringing bread, fighting for his release. Although they were estranged at the time of his death, she had lost a husband to the Soviets. She could not lose a son.

It is as this grief-stricken mother she writes the “Requiem” over the next several years each section a part of a cycle of loss, lament and persistence. In this portion entitled “Crucifix” her lament is both human and holy, a grappling for justice when there seemed to be none. Her identification with the mother of the Christ in the hour of deep sorrow seems so honest.

This portion of the poem is beautiful because of its simplicity. In the original Akhmatova employs spare, clean language with an AB rhyme scheme. There is surely a good translation of this work, but I was not happy with the one I found online. I have produced an average translation mostly for the sense and understanding, not really capturing the style. As we approach nearer to Good Friday, I am thankful we have this poet’s perspective on grief. It reminds us that in Christ’s story no one is forgotten.

Распятие.

“Не рыдай Мене, Мати, во гробе зрящи…”

1

Хор ангелов великий час восславил,

И небеса расплавились в огне.

Отцу сказал: “Почто Меня оставил!”

А Матери: “О, не рыдай Мене…”

2

Магдалина билась и рыдала,

Ученик любимый каменел,

А туда, где молча Мать стояла,

Так никто взглянуть и не посмел

Crucifix

“Weep not for me, Mother, seeing me in the tomb….”

1

A choir of angels glorified the great hour,

and the heavens melted in fire.

To the Father he spoke: “Why have you forsaken me?”

But to his mother: “O, do not weep for Me…”

2

Mary Magdalene writhed and wept.

The beloved disciple turned to stone.

Yet, there, where the Mother stood silent

To cast a glance that way no one even dared.

Tomie

If I were to count up all the hours my boys and I read Strega Nona, or Days of the Blackbird,  or our very favorite Tom, it would span a life time. At least, it would seem so. I cannot think of another author whom we read more than Mr. Tomie de Paola in those preschool and very early elementary years. He absorbed the largest amounts of time, along with perhaps, Beatrix Potter, Laura Ingalls Wilder and Barbara Cooney. This all makes me smile through my sadness, because, well, what great friends I introduced my children to!

 

Tom: dePaola, Tomie: 9780698114487: Amazon.com: Books

 

Tomie de Paola passed away yesterday due to complications from surgery after an injurious fall in his studio. Because of the necessity of isolation during COVID-19 concerns, he apparently died alone in a hospital room. I don’t want to think about this too much. He was not alone. From all I  have read about him, he was a gentle man full of kindness and joy. I know he provided our family with more laughs and hugs than we would have otherwise shared.

Today, we will sit under the willow tree in our backyard. The leaves are just barely returning to bending branches. G has always called it “the Jesus tree,” because the flowing branches waft in breezes as he imagines Jesus’ hair did. We will sit and we will thank Mr. de Paola for Strega Nona, and Big Anthony, for the beautiful Bible story illustrations, for Fin McCoul, for The Night of Las Posadas, but especially for Tom and his poignant and hilarious relationship with his grandfather. And he will be in our thoughts and prayers. He will not be alone.

“Garunga! Garunga!”

 

Strega Nona' author Tomie dePaola is dead at age 85

 

Public Discourse

For those of you who have experienced Christians as hateful, tight-fisted, paranoid, selfish, self-serving, power hungry or callous, I express regret. Here I am referring to politics and to comments on the internet. I am talking about the conversation you overheard in line to buy your coffee, and the relative at the last family event. I hope this impression has never come from me, or the people with whom I am closely connected. If it has, however, I am sorry. Please allow me time to reflect on that and to make the difficult but appropriate changes.

This is not the Christ we follow. Sometimes people professing his name miss the mark or get it wrong. Always, Jesus is better than the people who serve him. This is what we want to be able to do – look to him and model his example of love and service. I know we fail. Our full intention, however is genuinely to emulate him.

We recognize that many of you who are not Christians, or are not religious, are also striving to attain to the ideals you believe in. We know you fail at times, like we do, but we also see diverse people working together to create goodness for thriving communities. I am so grateful when this happens. Please know the hateful speech and the bitter accusations do not reflect the Christ we love.

 

Sighted as not before

Today, I would like to share a Christmas poem with you. It is by one of my favorite contemporary poets, Wendell Berry. I am not sure it is really a Christmas poem in the most traditional sense, for I think part of the poem speaks to the ordinariness of the moment. So much of the time we want Christmas to be extraordinary.

I appreciate authors who remind us of the holiness and the beauty in daily routines. I love when someone can effectively point and say to me, “Look. Don’t forget to notice this. Here is the divine thumbprint right here in the middle of your day.” Berry does this beautifully with his suggestions and anticipations of the holy family appearing in an ordinary barn.

So much of the time I fight against compartmentalizing holy things and ordinary things, spiritual and earthy. But Berry’s poem here showcases what the Gospels also do in extraordinary ways: it points out that we are not unreasonable to think that the most marvelous things can appear on a Tuesday, in the middle of a routine we have encountered countless times before.

Berry’s caution is that we be ready to see the holy.

Remembering that it happened once,

We cannot turn away the thought,

As we go out, cold, to our barns

Toward the long night’s end, that we

Ourselves are living in the world

It happened in when it first happened,

That we ourselves, opening a stall

(A latch thrown open countless times

Before), might find them breathing there,

Foreknown: the Child bedded in straw,

The mother kneeling over Him,

The husband standing in belief

He scarcely can believe, in light

That lights them from no source we see,

An April morning’s light, the air

Around them joyful as a choir.

We stand with one hand on the door,

Looking into another world

That is this world, the pale daylight

Coming just as before, our chores

To do, the cattle all awake,

Our own white frozen breath hanging

In front of us; and we are here

As we have never been before,

Sighted as not before, our place

Holy, although we knew it not.

From Sabbaths VI, 1987

Holding on

You may recognize Garth William’s illustration above from E.B. White’s classic Charlotte’s Web. This is from the portion of the beloved tale of friendship when Fern and Avery spend their summer days hanging around their Uncle Homer’s farm. The brother and sister run from the kitchen after eating blueberry pie to swing on a rope from the barn loft. E.B. White not only seemed to remember childhood and its great sense of wonder, but he also seemed to genuinely respect the people living it.

I suppose I was about seven years old the first time I read this book. It was the first book that made me cry, and not just a few silent tears slipping past my cheeks. You can hardly classify this as realistic fiction, but there is something so poignant and deeply true about White’s thoughts on the importance of the right people in our lives at the right time. It is a story which still speaks to bravery and loyalty and selflessness, even to an audience of six, seven, eight and nine year olds.

As my nine year old and I are re-reading excerpts for our narration and dictation work, I was struck by a passage in a new way. I chose this part of the story specifically because it contained a sentence that had struck my seven-year old self as just and true. But as a much older adult, the application had grown much rounder and more robust.

Mothers for miles around worried about Zuckerman’s swing. They feared some child would fall off. But no child ever did. Children almost always hang onto things tighter than their parents think they will. p. 69

At seven, eight, nine, ten years old I remember the comfortable feeling of stubborn satisfaction I felt at having an adult express my capability. Forty years later, I suspect Mr. White may have subtly been straddling the fence with layered meanings.

Certainly children can climb higher than we think they can, but they also may hold on to swings and siblings’ hands and ideas and values and teaching tighter than parents think they will.

At least, with some emerging adults in my care, I live in hope and faith that this is the case. Although proverbs do not always ring true in every case, I have the comfort of the words of Scripture:

Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.

Proverbs 22:6

Although as I imagine Fern swinging from the old barn rope, I like E.B. White’s way of expressing it as well.

Back to school

With the exception of a few of us homeschooling parents who stubbornly persist in a twentieth century school calendar, all of the teachers here in Indiana are back at school welcoming children, teaching multiplication tables, listening to and reading stories, encouraging learning and helping develop character.

Back to school is also back to the business of loving your neighbor as yourself. Whether your neighbor is an elementary school student, middle schooler, high schooler or even a college student, if you are a Christian your focus is to love the one before you as Christ would love them, as, indeed, he loves them.

Beloved children’s author Katherine Paterson, creator of The Bridge to Terabithia and Jacob Have I Loved, after a speaking engagement was once asked by a teacher for a piece of advice he could share with his class. In her speech, “The Child in the Attic” delivered at The Ohio State University Children’s Literature Festival in February 2000, she gives the following response:

“I’m very biblically oriented,” I said, “and so for me the most important thing is for the word to become flesh. I can write stories for children, and in that sense I can offer them words, but you are the word become flesh in your classroom. Society has taught our children that they are nobodies unless their faces appear on television. But by your caring, by your showing them how important each one of them is, you become the word that I would like to share with each of them. You are that word become flesh.”

Twenty years later, the only difference is that children are tempted to see their value not necessarily by way of television, but by YouTube.

I write these few words to teachers, administrators, custodial staff, bus drivers, counselors and cafeteria workers: your light shines. Your smile matters. Your compassion changes hearts and futures. Your influence may be incalculable.

And, really, this is the charge Christ gives to all of us, whether we are a teacher, student, neighbor, friend, employee, manager or stranger on the street. We are the light of the world. We are his ambassadors for a different life possible. We are his love incarnate. We are that word become flesh. We take on Christ both in the insignificant gestures and the grandiose ones, because they all reflect his movements.

To all to whom this may apply,

Welcome back to school.

Good Friday

Image result for roger wagner artist menorah

The work above entitled Menorah is by the contemporary painter Roger Wagner, a London-born artist about whom I know little. I discovered his work by a happy accident a few months ago, and am drawn in by the pathos of his works. Honestly, I am not sure how I feel about his style of painting, but I am frequently mesmerized by the content. I find myself entering the painting as one of the figures, or as part of the landscape.

I appreciate the way in which Wagner makes use of biblical narratives. He often places the familiar Bible scene in an incongruent modern setting. Other times, he creates the surroundings squarely in the Middle East. I appreciate the way his paintings startle me into examining them and questioning what they might be saying about history, the Bible narrative, and about God. His startling juxtapositions of characters and locales give his works a more poignant punch. He speaks both theologically as well as artistically.

In Menorah we notice the belching smokestacks in the background and the dark figures in mourning in the foreground. Symbols of the Holocaust and of Christ’s crucifixion all take up space here, creating a jarring sense of something not being quite right. It is an interesting painting to reflect upon with Good Friday approaching.

 

Image result for roger wagner dartmoor

Dartmoor crucifixion study 2006

Here is another one of Wagner’s paintings with the crucifixion as the central theme.  Here, however, we are in a bucolic setting with gently sloping hills in the background. Again, the viewer notices the anachronistic setting with modern telephone poles instead of crosses. Sheep punctuate the bottom of the scene while flocks of birds seem to move all across the top. The sky itself even seems to suggest angels’ wings. We are given the impression of a quiet night, outside of town, and it seems Wagner may want us to remember both Jesus’ birth announcement and death simultaneously.

Both of these paintings, I believe, help us realize that although Easter is a joyous holiday, Good Friday was truly a day of mourning, and could only be called “Good”  retroactively.

 

The Church should be like a library

My husband always give me books as presents. He’s good that way. Although I talk with him frequently about my reading interests and maintain an up-to-date GoodReads list, he still might present me with something under the Christmas tree that is completely off my radar. He is good that way, too. This year he surprised me with a book I had never even heard of previously.

The Library Book by Susan Orlean not only details the circumstances surrounding the April 1986 fire which devastated the Los Angeles Central Library, but also chronicles the history of the California library. Orlean has completed painstaking research following Harry Peak, the accused, his life and the years after the fire, while providing juicy tidbits on the early head librarians from the late 1800s onwards, most of whom were women. Her book jumps from a detective whodunnit, to a work of archival history, to an homage on the nobility and malleable nature of the library’s role in society and its identity. The last section gives credit to library and library-inspired innovations like OverDrive, book mobiles, the Biblioburro in Columbia, Little Free Libraries across the world, and more.

However, toward the end of the book something caught my attention. A description of the library as a safe, public place, welcoming to all reminded me of something even more beautiful than a library. When speaking to the issue of homelessness most city libraries face, Orlean writes,

“The library’s commitment to being open to all is an overwhelming challenge. For many people, the library may be the only place they have to be in close quarters with disturbed or profoundly dirty people, and that can be uncomfortable. But a library can’t be the institution we hope for it to be unless it is open to everyone.”

p. 245

As much as I love libraries and all they do for communities, what if this section were instead speaking of the church? Certainly, church buildings can be important places to meet, organize charitable events and gathering places for community outreach. Church buildings have hosted AA meetings. They have held marriage seminars, opened their doors with food pantries, and threw neighborhood block parties. But I am thinking of something more than the building. I read the above quote with a specific eye on the church as the PEOPLE.

What would our communities be like if we, as a church, were open, welcoming? What if we accepted all unconditionally? The public library may be nearly viewed as a sacred space for the very reason that it enfolds the prosaic and unwanted, the lonely, the unemployed, the retired and the graduate student. Even though we all deal with problems in our lives, the church cannot be the people Christ expects for us to be unless we are loving and open to everyone.

Of course, I need to begin with myself.

NEW

New

Jerry destroyed Oval. He ripped his seams wide open and pulled out all his stuffing. Jerry is our miniature labradoodle, and Oval is our eight-year-old’s favorite stuffed animal. He got him when he was about three years old on a trip to IKEA. He named him in the parking lot on the way to the car. He looks like this.

This is not how he looked after we stitched him back up. He was disemboweled beyond repair. This is the new Oval who appeared peeking out of my son’s stocking this Christmas morning. He was purchased via Amazon Prime. I might have thought that he would refuse this new imitation, that he would protest that this wasn’t the real Oval, but he didn’t. He was excited and reintroduced him to all his other stuffed friends. Here’s the thing- although the tiny bear was manufactured with thousands of others by the IKEA corporation, my son actually created him. His imagination is rich enough for him to realize that although his friend was given a new body, his essence, the one he created in his imagination and games and thoughts, was one and the same.

And this is what the Father wants for us. Every morning. Every year. When we are chewed up and destroyed, when we have nothing left to offer, he wants to make us into something new.

“Behold,” asserts the Son, “I am making all things new!” (Revelation 21:5).

And what is so spectacular is that he continues to do it over and over and over, never growing weary of his promise, never tiring of the work of creation, never wavering in his commitment to us and our relationship with him. He loves us and will always reintroduce us to his people.

As G.K. Chesterton notes in Orthodoxy,

“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

He promises us a new heart (Ezekiel 11:19)

He promises us a new vision and purpose (I Peter 2:9-10).

He promises us a new authority, a new master (I Peter 2:16).

He promises us a new allegiance, no longer tied to a political empire nor economic securities. (Galatians 6:14-16).

He promises us we will be a new people, in a new type of place, full of joy (Isaiah 65:17)

He promises us a new home and a place of belonging (Hebrews 10:39)

He promises we will have a new attitude, eager for love and inclusiveness (Colossians 3:12-14, Romans 12:13-16).

He promises us a new attitude of mind and new identity of holiness (Ephesians 4:22-24).

He promises us his very self (Ephesians 1:13).

It will all be new, replenished, a continual renewal, a life lived in constant rejuvenation, not fettered by our fatigue, nor contingent upon our confidence.

When things are new they are shiny. A penny. A new bicycle. Even metaphorically, new things shine- a marriage, a new career. But what happens when the Christmas tree is taken down, or when the ornaments are packed into the basement, or when the marriage has lost its sparkle, or the job has its annoyances? What happens to the beauty of the new? It fades, doesn’t it? It dissipates. It sags and withers. Sometimes it is beyond stitching or repair.

But Christ desires to be there with us. His Spirit whispers and firmly suggests we might be ready now for him to work in us. Then, he hovers and does what he does best: creates something new. He recreates us, reshaping us to look more like his Son, though in his infinite imagination, maintaining our essence.

Happy New Year. May each new day shine forth revealing his glory. Each day is newly created for you. The new year will be just as new and fresh and full of grace in March and September and November as it will be on January first. His mercies are new every morning. They are continually replenished and created anew, because he loves to create. He does not grow weary. It is who he is.