But we were hoping

Hope is the thing with feathers –

That perches in the soul –

And sings the tune without the words –

And never stops – at all –

– opening stanza of poem by Emily Dickinson

“Let us hold on to the confession of our hope without wavering, since he who promised is faithful.” (Hebrews 10:23, CSB)

In my last post we imagined what it might have been like for the women visiting Jesus’ grave early in the morning. Before the world was turned upside down, when death still held irreversible sway, the angels proclaimed a disquieting message. “He is not here.”

Sometime later that day, two different friends, traveling a country road, quietly conversed and struggled through all the “what-could-have-beens.”

Now that same day two of them were on their way to a village called Emmaus, which was about seven miles from Jerusalem. Together they were discussing everything that had taken place. And while they were discussing and arguing, Jesus himself came near and began to walk along with them. But they were prevented from recognizing him. Then he asked them, “What is this dispute that you’re having with each other as you are walking?” And they stopped walking and looked discouraged.

The one named Cleopas answered him, “Are you the only visitor in Jerusalem who doesn’t know the things that happened there in these days?”

“What things?” he asked them.

So they said to him, “The things concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet powerful in action and speech before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they cruciifed him. But we were hoping that he was the one who was about to redeem Israel. Besides all this, it’s the third day since these things happened.” (Luke 24:13-21)

These followers shared loyalty to the Nazarene. Had one of them been healed by Jesus? What did that matter now since he had been executed? Were they awaiting the retaking of Jerusalem, the Roman dispersion? Could a prophet be defeated? Did they belong anywhere anymore? How to make sense of a world in which your hopes had been utterly destroyed?

“But we were hoping…”

We all have disappointments, either personal or collective, either recent or suppressed deep in our past, that have shaken us and our beliefs. On that road to Emmaus, Jesus’ friends were devastated and lacking in confidence. At this point in the narrative they grappled with what to do. Not only had the Passover ended, but their plans for a new future. I wonder how you feel this morning? this evening? Have we lost hope? With so much brokenness and disillusionment around us it is difficult to see where that country road might lead. Obviously things are not happening as we might have expected. The way seems discouraging and we quietly talk with one another (or is it resentfully) about how things were supposed to be different.

Have we forgotten the promises of Jesus, that he will always be with us? Are we tempted to throw away the narrative in exchange for a harsher, grittier, more jaded one? Or can we stick with him to allow the Christ to redefine for us what it means to “redeem Israel?”

Unemployment, COVID, sickness, spiritual and social isolation, political strife, racially-based and economically-based injustices. Our world is hurting and desperate for hope. How could Jesus redeem our situation?

Can we hope in something we don’t understand? We may not be able to retell the story’s climax or predict the resolution, but the reason for our hope has been told to us once before. Two friends on the road to Emmaus held on to a ragged hope. We don’t understand where we are in our story, but we hold firmly onto the one in whom we have placed our hope, our confession, our beautiful inheritance.

Lord, you are my portion

and my cup of blessing;

you hold my future.

The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;

indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance. (Psalm 16:5-6)

Using Parables

“All human nature vigorously rejects grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.”

-Flannery O’Connor

In a time of profound polarization, when we automatically write people off for their looks, or their geography, or their background, when we feel justified for excluding someone or fearing someone, Flannery O’Connor is good for us. In a time when we congratulate ourselves for being American, or Republican, or open-minded, for thinking the label “Christian” can be pasted on at whim to mean morally decent or “nice,” the southern Gothic writer still holds up a relevant mirror for us.

Flannery recommends her stories be read as parables. Narratives full of spiritual depth and earthy grit with shocking conclusions. If we grant her this request, then we might read “Revelation” as we would Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, (Luke 18:9-14) searching through our hearts hoping to find purity, wincing at our hubris and duplicity. This is not to say we take Flannery’s words as the inspired Word of God, but we honor her efforts as she employs similar medium to Christ’s teachings.

Jesus began with the familiar, the typical, the understood, and by the end of his story, his listeners were either hit between the eyes, or deeply offended and scandalized. We, who are religious and well-read, have become comfortable and de-sensitized to the parables of Jesus. Both familiarity with the stories and the strangeness of ancient culture can make them feel somewhat safe. Yet “Good Country People” and “The Displaced Person,” though now already sixty-five years old, are yet modern and relatable to us in startlingly interpretive ways; they slap us across the face so we can ultimately listen to Christ.

Jonathan Rogers, author and host of The Habit blog and podcast, is offering a six week online course, Writing with Flannery O’Connor beginning June 4. Rogers, though now in Nashville, originally hails a short drive from Milledgeville, Georgia, O’Connor’s home town. He has authored The Terrible Speed of Mercy: A Spiritual Biography of Flannery O’Connor.

I signed up. My family and I are currently going through some significant changes, some good, many not. We are dealing with different kinds of losses and sadness. This course comes at a good time for me. A writer whose themes are racism, bigotry and gratuitous violence may not seem an obvious way to extricate myself from emotional upheaval. However, grace is surprsing like that, whether it hits you in the hillsides of Galilee, the deep South or the morally tame Midwest.

There should still be time to sign up if you are interested. Find out more information here.

He threw himself to the ground and with his face against the dirt of the grave, he heard the command, GO WARN THE CHILDREN OF GOD OF THE TERRIBLE SPEED OF MERCY. The words were as silent as seed opening one at a time in his blood.”

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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

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

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.

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.

“Thou art indeed just, Lord,”

Lately, I have been busy, but feel I am accomplishing little. It is the sort of busyness our Western culture strangely seems to value. I could enumerate several tasks I have completed throughout the day, yet the weightier ones, the ones which possess the most significance seem to remain neglected, undone. I have a list of deadlines looming, but even more our family seems unsettled and my own soul is not fully at peace. I am experiencing the disappointment of constant striving but without focus or satisfaction.

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) experienced this, as well. The English poet was increasingly frustrated with his lack of productivity. The depth in his poetry seemed to elude him and though he wrote and wrote, the results disappointed him. He struggled with discouragement, even depression, most of his adult life.

Like the psalmist David, Hopkins begins his poem “Thou Art Indeed Just, Lord” with a lament and complaint.

Why do sinners’ ways prosper? and

why must

Disappointment all I endeavour

end?

This is a cry of theodicy, a questioning of God’s goodness and care in a difficult world that seems far from ideal. He then ends it with a plea for help and a praise-filled recognition of the Lord as the true source of refreshment.

Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I

contend

With thee; but, sir, so what I plead is

just.

Why do sinners’ ways prosper? and

why must

Disappointment all I endeavour

end?

Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend,

How wouldst thou worse, I wonder,

than thou dost

Defeat, thwart me? Oh, the sots and

thralls of lust

Do in spare hours more thrive than I

that spend,

Sir, life upon thy cause. See, banks

and brakes

Now, leaved how thick! laced they

are again

With fretty chervil, look, and fresh

wind shakes

Them; birds build – but not I build;

no, but strain,

Time’s eunuch, and not breed one

work that wakes.

Mine, O thou lord of life, send my

roots rain.

It is somewhat comparable to David’s content in Psalm 13 where the psalmist also confronts his creator on his fairness and justice.

How long, O LORD? Will

you forget me

forever?

How long will you hide

your face from me?

How long must I take

counsel in my soul

and have sorrow in my

heart all the day?…..

Consider and answer

me, O LORD my God…..

But I have trusted in

your steadfast love;

my heart shall rejoice in

your salvation.

I will sing to the LORD,

because he has dealt

bountifully with me.

Psalm 13, A Psalm of David

For weeks I have felt weighted down by my ineptitude as a mom, teacher, peace maker and spirit-filled being. Even if I grow heavy with the feeling of unfruitfulness, I can count on his grace and his refreshing rain like the psalmists rely on, to supply “my roots rain,” for “he has dealt bountifully with me.”