The Journey

Today is Epiphany, the celebration of the travels of the wise men to meet a new kind of king. The true identity of this long-promised baby was revealed to these Easterners. I have always been curious what these foreigners expected from this infant visit. Did they know intuitively, or from their charts, that they were to be included in the promises as well?

It is difficult to focus on a church calendar when the obligations of the world’s calendars force us to turn the page prematurely. Our Christmas decorations are mostly still up in our house, but we started back slowly into our home school schedule yesterday. Depending on the boy, we are turning our attention back to fractions and decimals, Latin, British history, poetry, and Christian worldview studies. My husband is back to work, albeit from his home office. Our friends are in the process of moving, and we are having to say goodbye. My daily Bible reading has pulled me back into Genesis chapter one and Job. We need to make decisions about how to care for my mother-in-law who lives in an assisted living home. My oldest is about to graduate from high school. I don’t feel I have stepped through this year of COVID-19, social and political tensions with the focus and strength required to face 2021. That is, I may have more in common with these dazed magi than I initially might have imagined.

Detailing their thoughts on the return journey would be purely speculative. And yet, speculate is precisely what T.S. Eliot does in his 1927 poem, “Journey of the Magi.” Eliot speaks from the perspective of one of these travelers as they make the long journey homeward. They have experienced a kind of revelation, a conversion of sorts, in witnessing this tiny deity, but Eliot’s description is unsettling. There is an honesty and sobriety in the final lines. There is no jubilant feeling of triumph at a newborn king. There is both salvation and death, however; there is ache and weariness, but newness.

It is a fitting piece for me to read as we enter 2021, turning our backs on a rough year, but with precarious hope, facing a new calendar. As we near the end of Christmastide, listen here to the poet’s own voice as he portrays the world entering the gospel story.

JOURNEY OF THE MAGI

“A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of the year

For a journey, and such a long journey:

The ways deep and the weather sharp,

The very dead of winter.”

And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,

Lying down in the melting snow.

There were times we regretted

The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,

And the silken girls bringing sherbet.

Then the camel men cursing and grumbling

And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,

And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,

And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly

And the villages dirty and charging high prices:

A hard time we had of it.

At the end we preferred to travel all night,

Sleeping in snatches,

With the voices singing in our ears, saying

That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,

Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;

With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,

And three trees on the low sky,

And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.

Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,

Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,

And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.

But there was no information, and so we continued

And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon

Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,

And I would do it again, but set down

This set down

This: were we led all that way for

Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,

We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,

But had thought they were different; this Birth was

Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,

With an alien people clutching their gods.

I should be glad of another death.

  • T.S. Eliot, 1927

How does this wise man’s perspective make you feel? Was it worth pursuing the bright star to now carry this bright sorrow?

New Eyes

I was fourteen, and she was about eight. Initially, I was surprised by her flippancy and matter-of-factness. I was tempted to look around to see if there was an adult to reprimand or correct her. There was none. She held her brother’s forearm as he lay there, seemingly with little thought, and shook it gently. His wrist, as his whole body, was lifeless and limp, and it flopped back and forth with her motion.

“This isn’t really Dale,” she said. “He’s already in heaven. This is just what he left behind.”

I wondered who had given her these words. Had she been taught them by an equally grieving adult in an attempt to comfort her?

Dale, and his big sister Opal, were “bus kids.” Many churches in the 1970s and the 1980s created ministries in their communities by bussing in unchurched children on Sunday mornings. Our moderate-sized congregation drove fourteen buses throughout local neighborhoods every Sunday to pick up over 400 children. My father began on Saturday visiting the kids as they played outside, speaking to any parents nearby, reminding them that the colorful bus would be there to pick them up the next morning. Opal and Dale were two of these kids, and honestly, some of my favorites.

Joy Bus
My brother and I in front of one of the buses about 1978 or 1979.

Opal bounded on the bus most Sundays still munching a piece of toast, hair uncombed. She was full of stories and explanations. Dale was quieter with dark blond hair. Sometimes we called him “Porky,” because he reminded us of the little actor who portrayed Porky in the 1930s Our Gang comedies.

About 1984 six-year-old Dale drowned in a Phoenix canal.

When I learned of his death, I was insistent that I was going to the viewing. It was my first. The room was small and there were few people I recognized.

Opal’s dry eyes and nonchalant way of stroking her brother’s arm or bangs touched me more than an obediently tearful little girl in a corner would have.

That little girl is in her early forties now. The last time I saw her was at her little brother’s wake. I’m not sure if she remembers riding the white bus with Noah’s Ark animals painted across it. I hope so. I don’t know if she remembers any of the bus songs, or me, or even my father, but I do hope she remembers a time when she was loved as a little girl. And I  hope she associates that with Jesus.

I hope her words at the viewing  were her words, and that they have guided her through life. I hope she sees through new eyes. Our old eyes can see only the tragedy and heartbreak, and it is tragic. But it’s not the end.

I don’t know how Opal’s story ends…or Dale’s for that matter.

I hope to see fully, beyond the tragedy and a small room hosting a blond boy’s viewing. I hope to see with new eyes beyond lost time and missed opportunities. I hope in greater things beyond feeble efforts and self-reliance.

Because hope is more that just plaintive wishes. It is assurance that we haven’t yet seen all that there is to see.

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

Hebrews 11:1

On their Behalf

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All written in the mid-twentieth century the following novels, although originally written in varying languages – English, French, and Serbo-Croatian, spanning three continents and even more countries – the United States, France, South Africa and Bosnia, share some important similarities.  The following novels would make terrible summer reading. They are not books with which to relax in the warm sun under the shade of your patio furniture in the backyard, or lightly skim as you dig your toes in the sand on your family vacation.  They are slow-moving, difficult, reflective books requiring readers to digest them slowly.  They are not feel-good reads for a light, breezy day.  Strange that I  find myself reflecting on them at this time of year? Not really.  Once my boys’ history and science, math and grammar are put away for the year, my mind is freer to explore my own thoughts.  And, apparently, this June that means death and priests, philosophy and apartheid.

The following are four novels to compare and contrast. They share some weighty themes and interesting literary emphases.

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Death Comes for the Archbishopop  by the American writer Willa Cather was originally published in 1927. It recounts the tale of two Catholic priests in the hills of New Mexico territory in 1851 who battle arid deserts, ancient customs and their own vices and loneliness.

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The Diary of a Country Priest was written by Georges Bernanos in 1937.  It is an ambitious novel with a seemingly unambitious plot.  A French priest finds himself caring for very mundane, prosaic parishioners in an ordinary French village.  These parishioners are mean gossipers, fault finders and antagonistic. The priest is confronted with the need to forgive and be forgiven, even as he knows he is dying.

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The South African classic Cry, the Beloved Country by the late Alan Paton did not immediately end apartheid when it was published in 1948, but it certainly spurred on the dialog which forged its path. Written primarily from the perspective of an aging Zulu pastor, this novel deals with race-relations, ethnicities, murder, forgiveness, healing and our human dignity before God.

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Published in 1966, in what was then known as Yugoslavia, Mesa Selimovic wrote his best known novel, Death and the Dervish.  It is unfortunate that the Bosnian writer is little known in the United States, as this book not only enlightens the reader to the region’s history and psychology, but also deals in relatable, contemporary themes. Throughout its pages a Moslem dervish from the  eighteenth century is in search of his brother who has been arrested by the Turkish authorities.  Enmeshed in their lies, he begins to question his own purpose and his place in society.

Each of these novels is deeply philosophical, spiritual, and fundamentally asks difficult questions about humanity’s purpose and direction. Each of them uniquely deals with social justice.

We shift our ground again when a black man does achieve something remarkable, and then feel deep pity for a man who is condemned to the loneliness of being remarkable, and decide that it is a Christian kindness not to let black men become remarkable. Thus even our God becomes a confused and inconsistent creature, giving gifts and denying them employment. Is it strange then that our civilization is riddled through and through with dilemma? The truth is that our civilization is not Christian; it is a tragic compound of great ideal and fearful practice, of high assurance and desperate anxiety, of loving charity and fearful clutching of possessions.

from Cry, the Beloved Country, p. 155

 

In each novel someone is intervening in someone else’s behalf. Father for a wayward son, a brother for an estranged brother.  The protagonist is a priest – or in one case a dervish – a spiritual leader who finds himself vulnerable and in need of being led.

Monks suffer for souls, our pain is on behalf of souls. This thought came to me yesterday evening and remained all night long beside my bed, a guardian angel.

from The Diary of a Country Priest, p. 28

Every one of these novels are political in varying degrees.  They do not feature characters inspiring coups, but quietly, desperately searching for a better, more peaceable life, free from foreign rule. 

In each novel there is a struggle with authority. There is a tension between races. There is a grave injustice and there is suffering. Death is a prominent theme in each novel, as well as forgiveness.

I’ve done something bad to him…I needed his friendship, like air, but I was ready to lose it because I couldn’t hide that lie from him. I wanted him to forgive me, but he did even more: he gave me still greater love…Most beautiful is that his love doesn’t even need to be earned. If I’d had to earn it I’d never have received it, or I’d have lost it long ago.

from Death and the Dervish, pp. 271-272

My death is here. A death like any other, and I shall enter into it with the feelings of a very commonplace, very ordinary man. It is even certain that I shall be no better at dying than I am at controlling my life. I shall be just as clumsy and awkward…Dear God, I give you all, willingly. But I don’t know how to give, I just let them take. The best is to remain quiet. Because though I may not know how to give, You know how to take…Yet I would have wished to be, once, just once, magnificently generous to You!

from The Diary of a Country Priest, pp. 279-280

Far away from large cities, these stories are rural, primarily set in villages, far removed from fast-paced, sophisticated worlds.  And so the pace of the novels are slow, sometimes plodding, thoughtful to the point that the plots are frequently moved along by the dialog.

These are novels inextricably tied to land or place, filled with beautiful imagery and lush language.

It was the Indian manner to vanish into the landscape, not to stand out against it. The Hopi villages that were set upon rock mesas were made to look like the rock on which they sat, were imperceptible at a distance.

from Death Comes for the Archbishop, p. 233

There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills.  These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing to it. The road climbs seven miles into them, to Carisbrooke…About you there is grass and bracken and you may hear the forlorn crying of the titihoya, one of the birds of the veld.

from Cry, the Beloved Country, p. 3

 

The geography and time period are characters themselves as significant and pivotal as any others in the novel. They are bound to the soil on which they tread, to the people and languages with which they speak. Bosnia, the American Southwest, bucolic France, and South Africa are more than mere backdrops. They imbue meaning and urgency to these stories. Although each novel is set in a different time period, there is an amazing timelessness in their themes.

These are all spiritual struggles. The Bible and the Koran are liberally referenced and quoted.

A beautiful word is like a tree, its roots are deep in the ground, its branches rise up to the sky.

~from Death and the Dervish, p. 310 quoting The Koran, Sura xiv, 24

On the day of  my death, when they carry my coffin,

do not think that I will feel pain for this world.

Do not cry and say: it is a great loss!

When milk sours, the loss is greater.

I shall not vanish when you see them lay me in the grave.

Do the sun and moon vanish when they set?

This seems like a death to you, but it is a birth…..

What grain does not sprout when it is put into the ground?

So why do you not believe in the grain of men?

~from Death and the Dervish, p. 12, quoted inexactly from several passages in The Koran

-I have ever thought that a Christian would be free from suffering, umfundisi. For our Lord suffered.  And I come to believe that he suffered, not to save us from suffering, but to teach us how to bear suffering. For he knew that there is not life without suffering.

Kumalo looked at his friend with joy. You are a preacher, he said.

His friend held out his rough calloused hands. Do I look like a preacher? he asked.

Kumalo laughed. I look at your heart, not your hands, he said. Thank you for your help, my friend.

from Cry, the Beloved Country, p. 227

 

Our protagonists seek and find their answers not simply in their own experiences, nor in the advice of their compatriots, but through the lens of spiritual truth and vision.

One might almost say that an apparition is human vision corrected by divine love. I do not see you as you really are, Joseph; I see you through my affection for you. The Miracles of the Church seem to me to rest not so much upon faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always.

~from Death Comes for the Archbishop, p. 50

 

 

A Trustworthy Saying

Spring is about renewal, resurrection, the hope of youth, emerging offspring, green vibrancy, rebirth.  It is about rain replenishing nature, warming skin, hearts and minds.  So, what is autumn?  Is it the harbinger of death, and gloom?  Is it chilly days threatening frozen temperatures, the death of leaves and trees?  Is it a symbol of the year’s finality, even the end of our days?

Autumn also represents a kind of hope, a burgeoning glimpse at the reincarnation of nature.

You should not be surprised at my saying, “You must be born again.”  The wind blows wherever it pleases.  You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.

John 3:7-8

I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed.  But if it dies, it produces many seeds.

John 12:24

So, nature applauds rotting plants and biodegrading leaves, and we applaud the sacrament of baptism, a submersible decision to die to self.  Thus, it explains our joy even when we witness the break down of chlorophyll and the slow, steady disappearance of vibrant greens, even when the rusty leaves glow from their branches.  Their branches, bare, protrude awkwardly, reaching out to nothing in particular, haphazardly underlining a gaggle of migrating geese in the October sky.  Even so, we thrill with its beauty.

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And so, it explains a child’s joy, an irrepressible giggle bursting forth as he tumbles and spills across the dead, dried leaves. They serve not so much as evidence of death, but as a reminder of an ever-renewing promise.

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Here is a trustworthy saying:

If we died with him,

we will also live with him;

II Timothy 2:11

Talking FAITH and ETERNAL LIFE to your preschooler

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Several weeks ago S unceremoniously flushed a pet platy down the toilet.  He was fond of the little fish, though, and I could tell he was hoping for a replacement.  At breakast he announced to his brothers that “Mango” had died.  A expressed his disappointment, but G wanted to know when he would be coming back to life.  When we reminded him that when animals or people die they don’t come back to life, he protested.  “But Jesus came back to life.”  As if that settled the matter.  This is when I was reminded of the fact that preschoolers are still trying to make sense of the physical world around them.  Metaphysical issues are not comprehensible if you do not have a firm grounding in the basics.  In other words, to a certain extent, a miracle is not glorious or spectacular or joyful unless you first know the reality of pain and sorrow.

Below I have listed a few ideas on how to share with your preschooler your understanding of death and the afterlife, i.e. life with God. Two caveats before I begin: first, these ideas are shamelessly Christian in nature.  For those who do not believe in God, or in Jesus, specifically, please feel free to share how you comfort and reassure your child.  Second,  these are not meant to address little ones who have suffered real loss or who are experiencing emotional difficulties.  Instead, this is simply meant to describe how G and I (and his brothers) have talked about death, God and heaven at home as it comes up in natural conversation.  As the “Mango” illustration above shows, he hears about death in relation to pets, , insects, through stories, movies, etc. in everyday conversation.

How to talk to preschoolers about death when they “do NOT want to go to heaven.”

All three of my boys experienced this aversion to talking about heaven or living with God during a certain period in their preschool years.  As adults, we might imagine how wonderful such an existence will be.  To a child, however, this may just sound strange and scary.   Here is what we do:

1.  Listen and ask questions.  Their fear of death or heaven may not be a real worry, but more of a curiousity at this stage.  Likewise, it may mask another concern, like having to move to a different neighborhood, or not knowing when they will be able to see a family member from out-of-state.  Make sure you listen for the root of the concern.

2.  Stress happiness and family being together.  They need to know you all plan on being together, and they will not need to be without you.

3.  Speak openly without vague language.  Phrases, such as “when we rest in peace,” or “living in the clouds” will likely only confuse them.  Let them know that you, too, recognize the sadness of someone dying.  We all know someone whom we loved that has died.  Let them know that even though we will be happy to see them one day when we live with God, they will never return IN THIS life.

4.  Ask your child how he imagines heaven to be.  Give them the opportunity to explore the possible answers through their own speech and imagination.  Their theories just might astound you and inform your own theology.

5.  Allow yourself a few “I don’t knows.”  Admitting you are wrong or don’t know an answer may seem counterintuitive, particularly if you are the parent who wants to have all the answers, doesn’t it?  However, by opening up to the possibilities that we just might be living on the same planet in the afterlife with new and improved trees to climb, we are inviting our little ones to look forward excitedly to his promises.  It may even speak to the comfort and reassurance they crave at this stage.

In any case, do any of us have definitive answers?