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)

Joy is and is not…

Introverted. Analytical. Curious. Reflective. Prone to loneliness and sadness. These are a few of my personality traits. And joyful? Optimistic? Can they be reconciled with the first group mentioned?

Growing up, I heard how Christians should be joyful people, and not morose. Lately, I have been hearing public theologians like Miroslav Volf and Willie James Jennings, or prolific writers like N.T. Wright discuss the theology of joy. According to them, Christians ought to orient themselves toward joy. Jennings describes a theology of joy as a kind of “resistance against despair and death.” While I agree wholeheartedly, I think it is important to explain what we mean by a theology of joy. What does it mean and not mean to be a joyful people?

To be joyful does not necessarily mean we walk around with smiles on our faces, or laughter and jokes on our lips. This may be default behavior for the light-hearted or for extroverts. This describes more of a personality type rather than a person living out their faith based on conscious decisions and full of hope.

Being joyful does not mean we repress feelings of sadness, depression, nor do we ignore pain and suffering in ourselves or others. Mourning is still practiced appropriately by the joyful, and prayers of lament are comfortably in the vocabulary of a theology of joy.

Jennings’ description of a theology of joy is an antidote to the dystopian films and novels of today, as well as to the postmodern aversion to hopefulness. It is a defiance against despair. It is recognizing God. James, in his letter to the early Christians, claims this as counting it all joy when we meet trials of various kinds, even persecution and calamity (James 1:2-4). Paul reminds us that it is possible, even Christ-like, to rejoice always, even in prison, even in dire need (Philippians 4:4). These are not men oblivious to the plight of others or naive in their positivity. Their joy has a hopefulness for the ultimate future; it relies on the truth that once God promises his presence, it is as good as received (Romans 4:17-18). Joy is inextricably linked with hope. Not wishful thinking, but the hope that depends solely on the character and Word of God.

At times, joy may be paired with fear, as when the shepherds witnessed angelic messengers ripping through our skies and proclaiming beauty in such startling terms (Luke 2:8-18). Surely they raced to Bethlehem both rejoicing and struck by fear. Joy may come only after a night of terror and anxiety as when King Darius paced the palace sleepless and Daniel reclined uncertain with lions’ teeth uncomfortably in sight (Daniel 6).

Joy is not void of troubles. It is not necessarily conditional, but rests on truth. The apostles discovered this, when, threatened by the powers-that-be, they prayed for boldness (Acts 4:29-30). When their prayers were answered, and they were flogged after meeting with the religious legal body, the Sanhedrin, instead of simply mourning, they rejoiced (Acts 5:40-41).Although they suffered, it was because of their greater hope.

Whereas happiness may manifest itself as a visible emotion, joy is quieter, deeper, more constant, steady and fixed. It enjoys a foundation secure, not easily shaken or destroyed. For this reason, Nehemiah bolsters the spirit of the returning remnant with the words, “The joy of the LORD is your strength!” (Nehemiah 8:10). And this, as they were weeping in the face of strife and chaos.

How do we, then, become joyful people? It is through practiced faith and love, by leaning in and acting as if we believed these things. We are both formed by what we believe in, what we consider and think about, and we are even formed by the acting out of these ideas. This partly means in order to become joyful people, we act like joyful people, not in disingenuous ways, but stepping toward God in hope. His Holy Spirit will meet us and guide us the rest of the way.

“There is no suggestion at all that these signs of the world’s darkness will ever be absent. But still, God’s joy can be ours in the midst of it all. It is the joy of belonging to the household of God whose love is stronger than death and who empowers us to be in the world while already belonging to the kingdom of joy.”

– Henri Nouwen in The Return of the Prodigal Son, pp. 116-117

Tiny, cold droplets of joy

Like the tiny, cold droplets of Chinese water torture,

so is yet another negative word from a child’s lips.

I crawl to bed, feeling not so much the physical weariness of a mother with toddlers, but  the emotional paucity of one who has battled with discouragement, and lost…yet again.  I am not sure whether our daily struggles are more related to emerging adolescent grumpiness, or a more serious condition related to A’s Asperger’s, but I am often utterly exhausted.  One can smile through an occasional grouchy day, or lightly sigh through temporary bouts of bad attitude.  Yet the ever present negativity?  It affects me…deeply.  It is wearing me down.  Like tiny, cold droplets.

Nehemiah said,….”This day is holy to our Lord.  Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.

Nehemiah 8:13b

Do not grieve?  There is joy even after every sigh?  In the midst of the constant complaining?  During the meltdowns induced by rigid thinking?  I ache at the evidence that my child seems so unhappy.  So ungrateful.  My anxiety swells as I contemplate his future, and blame myself for his lack of thankfulness and confidence.  How will he rely on God for his strength?  Does he see the beauty around him?  Within him?

When I said, “My foot is slipping,” your unfailing love, Lord, supported me.

When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought me joy.

Psalm 94:18-19

Hold me, LORD.  I cannot sleep reflecting on how many times my foot has slipped.  I have spoken the wrong word.  I have yelled the wrong phrase.  I have used the wrong tone.  A rough hand.  An impatient gesture.  A harsh look.

Anxiousness.  Negativity.  They are creating something ugly in our home.  And my foot is slipping.

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me…He has sent me to…bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.  They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor.

Isaiah 61:1-3

I have read these verses over and over, praying that I will receive an epiphany…or a glimmer of understanding to their significance.  Because, honestly, there are many days like today when I truly have no strength, much less joy.  These are the days when the force of gravity no longer feels like it is pulling me down, but is the only thing holding me up.  There may be a thin line that I cling to in desperation, maintaining my focus.  And I know it is not joy.  It is not even strength, but perhaps the hope of joy, the hope of strength.  I trust it will eventually be mine.  I trust that the joy may one day belong to A.  May I, then, grow and stretch through my sorrow, anxiety, and weariness.  May A one day be an oak.  And may the LORD love his every leaf.

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