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?

An Advent Lament

This week we lit the candle of joy for Advent. However, I am fixed in a season of lament. I am not in despair, nor am I enduring any particular suffering personally, but I know many who are. Among family and friends, there are those who have lost loved ones to COVID. Some are dealing with job loss, divorce, and yet more are spiritually discouraged. The political distractions have weighed us down and we are disheartened by the public discourse so full of vitriol. It is a heavy season.

We are isolated.

Lonely.

Deeply discouraged.

Or maybe it’s just me. But I suspect not.

What does it look like to wait for His glorious appearance as His church while not fully in community? What does it mean to remain faithful while at home, sheltering in place?

Does this resemble your home communion? The Eucharist can take on different forms in different places, but during this season of quarantine, I am interested in how individualized and “homey” the forms of Christ’s body and blood have become.

More of our worship times have gone to Zoom with the colder weather and spikes of COVID cases. While our family’s participation in the Eucharist looks like the photo above, I know the truest story is that we are still being lifted up to the heavens week after week as we take in the body and blood of Christ. The heavens and the earth yet rejoice.

Although it is difficult for me to muster the emotion, my faith knows the hope of joy and peace we will one day experience fully.

Therefore, since we have been made right in God’s sight by faith, we have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us. Because of our faith, Christ has brought us into this place of undeserved privilege where we now stand, and we confidently and joyfully look forward to sharing God’s glory.

We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love.

Romans 5:1-5 (NLT)

Does God feel far away as we are in the midst of a pandemic-induced isolation? Does he seem distant from our political and social strife, or personal sadness?

Because our Creator created us for community, it hurts when we are without the physical presence of others. In truth, we are created in his own communal, trinitarian image. We most often experience God through others.

This beautiful commemorative 2020 ornament of the Holy Family is the artwork of Clarey ClayWorks in Carmel, Indiana.

How did Mary, the mother of the Christ, endure? Did she feel God was far away with every sideways glance at her growing belly? She was likely shunned. Her life had changed drastically. And yet, when she may have felt the loneliest, there were Elizabeth and faithful Joseph, and God drawing closer to her, growing inside her, the closest he had ever been.

So he is with us, just as he promised.

He doesn’t necessarily carry us out of our grief and hardships, but sits with us in them. Entangled with our moments of sadness, we also have the joy of hope. We have Christ Himself.

The Lord is close to the brokenhearted;

he rescues those whose spirits are crushed.

Psalms 34:18 (NLT)

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.”

Read more

Morning Habits

Gathering together in the mornings has always been important for me in our home school. On the rare days we skip it, I feel it is hard to reconnect with the older ones particularly. As we come together, I hope we are able to set a tone for our day of rest, an attitude of attentiveness to God and one another.

[Wipes away tears, laughing] Ok, ok, when we both collect ourselves again, I will continue. I mean, I do have three boys, right? Their priorities are not likely the same as mine. Often they begin their day with no greater goal than to hurry up and be done with their work. Even so, we plug away at our morning meetings, because over time the things we do repeatedly, unthinkingly, in mundane ways can form us into better people. This is how God forms us. As we cast our cares on him, or say our meals, as we sweep after dinner or talk with one another late at night, these habits and traditions make us who we are and can transform us into who we will be.

And so each morning, whether my boys care or not, whether they are engaged or not, we gather together for a few moments before we all disperse to our separate corners of the house or living room or kitchen to complete our own work.

Every day our family experiences its own micro-diaspora. Like the early Christians gathered in Jerusalem waiting for instruction after the ascension of Jesus, we gather in our sunroom before being sent out.

Each year our morning time looks slightly different. This year we have my oldest back with us. He put in a few years at a private school, but is now back with us to finish out high school next year. Our road has been up and down with this one, but we are so grateful to have him back home.

We always have Bible readings. Some years we incorporate art appreciation or poetry. Here is what the 2019-2020 has looked like:

B I B L E

This year we read through the book of 2 Samuel as the youth in our church were studying this particular book.

We moved on to Advent readings in the prophets, then 1 John and the Gospel of Mark guiding us through Lent. As we finish out the school year we are choosing selected passages from the Gospel of Luke. My oldest has been choosing these for us. He uses YouVersion Bible app and likes to randomize the translations he reads from. Admittedly, this aggravates the youngest who has more difficulty following along if the words don’t match up just right.

Mostly, we read the passage and pray briefly. Other times we might practice lectio divina, although they are often too impatient to participate in this. They do enjoy periodically practicing imaginative prayer, placing yourself within the story and using your senses to explore the text.

We name things in the story we wonder about.

T H E B I B L E P R O J E C T

Along with our Bible reading we started watching YouTube videos produced by the animators at thebibleproject. This is a crowd-funded group who creates animated videos on the literary themes and stories of the Bible, as well as podcasts and other resource teaching materials. They are impressive for their quality, accessibility and depth. Each book of the Bible has its own 5 – 7 minute video highlighting the setting, genre, structure and message. We are currently up to the book of Jeremiah.

And we follow this all up with the day’s episode of CNN 10 with Carl Azuz. We have watched the ten minute world news report off and on over the last several years. It keeps us just enough informed without the news becoming oppressive in our thoughts. You know what I mean, right? Often, a human interest story or science and technology feature will inspire us (sometimes read, distract) to look something up or ask questions. The nine-year-old usually stops Carl at the end before he starts in on his “cringey” puns. G’s words, not mine.

So what do I hope we gain this year from our morning time together? A few things:

1. I hope we recognize ourselves as a single unit, a unified family with many members functioning together. ( 1 Corinthians 12:12-14)

2. I hope that God’s word seeps into all the cracks of their minds and hearts, and stays. I hope that years later they will remember reading passages in times of need. I hope that this daily Bible reading will become so normal, so habitual that they will do it on their own.

3. I hope they learn how to read the Bible well. I hope they will understand that these ancient documents have personal and eternal significance, but that they also have specific genres and settings and immediate audiences.

4. I hope that in engaging with the text of Scripture in a variety of ways, they will develop an appreciation for it. I hope that through its stories they will learn how to empathize with the characters in it. I hope they grow their biblical imaginations and that it leads them into more profound lives of faith.

5. I hope that by maintaining an awareness of the world,we can maintain a worldview that confirms God’s sovereignty in all things while recognizing our partnership with him as his people. I hope that they love the world.

Next year may look different. We may not include as many things in our time together. My guys may be sick of watching videos. It is difficult to rally 2 teenaged boys out of bed at similar times. But our priorities will always be the same.

Home schoolers, how do you start your mornings? What is your favorite thing you do together?

Other schoolers, how do you develop routines in your family? What has been the most beneficial habit that has stuck?

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.

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.

Faithful

IMG_0536

Your children are certainly a credit to you.”

We have all heard these words of encouragement, either spoken to someone who has carefully parented and trained their children into impressive adults, or perhaps these words were even spoken to you at some point. Mostly they are said with all good intentions, giving honor to whom it is due, recognizing the hard-work and patience that is required in parenting. But it leaves me fearing that the inverse may also be true. What does it mean when your children make poor choices? What if they are not where they should be spiritually? What does it mean if life is hard and we are still in the trenches, losing battle after battle? Then, is the inverse true? Are the parents to be held responsible for rebelliousness or disobedience? Does it mean we are failing?

I don’t believe so. And yet, it doesn’t change my fear and sorrow and worry over my children. I began this blog over five years ago partly due to the encouragement from a friend, and partly out of a desire to record the daily ebb and flow of home schooling, as well as the spiritual struggles of parenting, particularly one on the autism spectrum. In five years they have grown, and not surprisingly, more quickly than I had anticipated. Out of respect for their privacy and to protect their dignity, I have written selectively and sparingly on any specifics regarding our struggles. This blog is likely to be from hereon a place where I come to confess my own shortcomings, to seek answers, and to share any morsels of grace.

In the middle of the trenches you just don’t know how things will turn out. Often, it seems I am failing. What if my children are not a credit to me? What if I am not a credit to them? What if the inverse really is true that I have failed in some way?

But I know this not to be true, even if I fear it. I know life is hard. And it’s not yet over. Christ has not called me to exact change on anyone, but only to be faithful. Most of the time being faithful is as much as I can handle.

The other day a friend, whom I admire more than I know how to write, handed me a piece of paper with a name written on it. It was a suggestion, a place to turn to for help. I think of her and know how faithful she has been, yet not without pain. Her eyes still reflected the same struggle, and reminded me being faithful is all I am called to do.

I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.

Revelation 3:8

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

“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.”