Sundays too my father got up early and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold, then with cracked hands that ached from labor in the weekday weather made banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking. When the rooms were warm, he’d call, and slowly I would rise and dress, fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him, who had driven out the cold and polished my good shoes as well. What did I know, what did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices? ~Robert Hayden “Those Winter Sundays”
As a child growing up, I was oblivious to the sacrifices my parents made to keep the house warm, place food on the table, teaching us the importance of being steadfast, to crack the door of opportunity open, so we could walk through to a better life and we did.
It was no small offering to keep dry seasoned fire and stove wood always at the doorstep, to milk the cows twice a day, to grow and preserve fruits and vegetables months in advance, to raise and care for livestock, to read books together every night, to sit with us over homework and drive us to 4H, Cub Scouts and Camp Fire, to music lessons and sports, to sit together for meals, and never miss a Sunday to worship God.
This was their love, so often invisible, too often imperfect, yet its encompassing warmth splintered and broke the grip of cold that can overwhelm and freeze a family’s heart and soul.
What did I know? What did I know? Too little then, so much more now yet still – never enough.
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As once a Child was planted in a womb (and later, erected on a hill, a wooden cross) one year we dug a hole to plant a tree. Our choice, a Cornus Kousa with its fine, pink, four-petaled bracts, each curving lip touched with a red as deep as human blood. It rooted well, and every year it grows more glorious, bursting free in Spring—bud into full flower, flame-colored, flushed as wine. Even the slim sapling’s roughened bark speaks of that tree, nail-pierced and dark. Now, each new year, fresh blossoms shine radiant, and each cross-blessed, as if all love and loveliness has been compressed into a flower’s face, fresh as the Son’s new-born presence, a life only just begun.
The dogwood leaves turn iron red in Fall, their centers fully ripening—into small seeded balls, each one a fruit vivid as Mary’s love, and edible. The sciontree, once sprung from Jesse’s root, speaks pain and life and love compressed and taken in, eye, mouth, heart. Incredible that now all Eucharists in our year suggest the living Jesus is our Christmas guest. ~Luci Shaw “Dogwood Tree” from Eye of the Beholder
God is in the manger, wealth in poverty, light in darkness, succor in abandonment. No evil can befall us; whatever men may do to us, they cannot but serve the God who is secretly revealed as love and rules the world and our lives. — Dietrich Bonhoeffer from God Is in the Manger
I ponder the paradox of Christ, the Son of God, coming to the world through the womb of a woman, born homeless in order to bring us home with Him.
The uncontainable contained the infinite made finite the Deliverer delivered the Eternal dwelling here and now already but not yet.
As only one child of many of the Very God of Very God, (He is and was and always will be) I am cross-blessed to realize my life feels fresh-born – only just begun – yet we all have been known to the Creator from the start of time.
(If you are interested in hearing an old old story about the dogwood tree in song, and you don’t mind old-timey honky-tonk music, there is this….)
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The end of all things is at hand. We all Stand in the balance trembling as we stand; Or if not trembling, tottering to a fall. The end of all things is at hand.
O hearts of men, covet the unending land! O hearts of men, covet the musical, Sweet, never-ending waters of that strand!
While Earth shows poor, a slippery rolling ball, And Hell looms vast, a gulf unplumbed, unspanned, And Heaven flings wide its gates to great and small, The end of all things is at hand. ~Christina Rossetti “Sunday Before Advent”
Dawn was defeating now the last hours sung by night, which fled before it. And far away I recognized the tremblings of the sea. Alone, we walked along the open plain, as though, returning to a path we’d lost, our steps, until we came to that, were vain. Then, at a place in shadow where the dew still fought against the sun and, cooled by breeze, had scarcely yet been sent out into vapor, my master placed the palms of both his hands, spread wide, lightly and gently on the tender grass. And I, aware of what his purpose was, offered my tear-stained cheeks to meet his touch. At which, he made once more entirely clean the color that the dark of Hell had hidden. ~Dante from The Divine Comedy, II Purgatorio,Canto 1 lines 115−29
For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. 2 Corinthians 4: 6
God brings forth Light through His Word, not once but at least three times:
In the beginning, He creates the sun and the moon to penetrate and illuminate the creation of our hearts and our souls.
In the stable He comes to light the world from below as well as from above so our darkened hearts and souls could be saved from self-destruction.
In the tomb, He rolls back the stone, allowing the sun to penetrate the ultimate night – raising His Son from the dead, in an ultimate defeat of darkness.
He flings open the gates of heaven to the likes of me and in response, I fling my heart through, following the Light.
Showered with the cleansing dew of His light, I am lit by the glory of God reflected in the many faces of Jesus: as vulnerable newborn, child teacher, working carpenter, healer, itinerant preacher, unjustly condemned, dying and dead, raised and ascended Son of God.
Let the dark days come as they certainly will. They cannot overwhelm my heart now, as I am lit from within, cleansed inside and out, no matter how deep the darkness that oppresses on the outside.
I know His promise. I know His face. He knows I know.
The seed will grow well, the vine will yield its fruit, the ground will produce its crops, and the heavens will drop their dew. I will give all these things as an inheritance to the remnant of this people. Zechariah 8:12
Listen, you heavens, and I will speak; hear, you earth, the words of my mouth. 2 Let my teaching fall like rain and my words descend like dew, like showers on new grass, like abundant rain on tender plants. Deuteronomy 32:1-2
He hath abolished the old drouth, And rivers run where all was dry, The field is sopp’d with merciful dew. The words are old, the purport new, And taught my lips to quote this word That I shall live, I shall not die… But I shall when the shocks are stored See the salvation of the Lord. ~Gerard Manley Hopkins“He hath abolished the old drouth”
To God’s people, wandering homeless in the desert for years before being allowed to enter the Promised Land, there is great hope in the possibility of words and teaching coming from heaven. The dew of heaven becomes the representation of God’s all-encompassing Spirit and gift of grace in this and other Old Testament scripture passages.
Ultimately, God’s Word descended like dew from heaven in the form of a newborn baby in a manger come to dwell among us.
Like dew, He becomes flesh at no cost to us, to be among us freely, coming in the night, into the darkness, as a gentle covering of all things dry and dying, to refresh, to restore, to soften, to make what was withered fruitful once again.
We live again because this Word of flesh quickens within us.
Drop down ye heavens from above, And let the skies pour down righteousness. Come comfort ye, comfort ye my people; My salvation shall not tarry. I have blotted out as a thick cloud, Thy transgressions: Fear not, for I will save thee; For I am the Lord thy God, The holy one of Israel, thy redeemer.
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I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I put my hope. My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning. Psalm 130: 5-6 from a Song of Ascents
Waiting is essential to the spiritual life. But waiting as a disciple of Jesus is not an empty waiting. It is a waiting with a promise in our hearts that makes already present what we are waiting for.
We wait during Advent for the birth of Jesus. We wait after Easter for the coming of the Spirit, and after the ascension of Jesus we wait for his coming again in glory.
It is this great absence that is like a presence, that compels me to address it without hope of a reply. It is a room I enter
from which someone has just gone, the vestibule for the arrival of one who has not yet come. I modernise the anachronism
of my language, but he is no more here than before. Genes and molecules have no more power to call him up than the incense of the Hebrews
at their altars. My equations fail as my words do. What resources have I other than the emptiness without him of my whole being, a vacuum he may not abhor? ~R.S. Thomas “The Absence”
To wait is hard when we know the value of the gift that awaits us. We know exactly what is in the package since we have watched it being carefully chosen, wrapped and presented to us to open.
We have seen His footprints on our landscape: in the hottest dessert, in the deepest snow, in the meadows and in the forests, in the mud and muck and mire of our lives; we know He has been here and wait for His return.
Not yet though, not quite yet. So we wait, and continue to wait.
Even more so, we wait and hope for what we do not see but know is coming, like a groaning in the labor of childbirth.
The waiting is never easy; it is painful to be patient, staying alert to possibility and hope when we are exhausted, barely able to function. Others won’t understand why we wait, nor do they comprehend what we could possibly be waiting for when it remains unseen, with only the footprints left behind to remind us.
Yet we persevere together, with patience, watching and hoping, like Mary and Joseph, like Elizabeth and Zechariah, like the shepherds, like the Magi of the east, like Simeon and Anna in the temple.
This is the meaning of Advent: we are a community groaning together in sweet anticipation and expectation of the gift of Morning to come.
I pray my soul waits for the Lord My hope is in His word More than the watchman waits for dawn My soul waits for the Lord
1) Out of the depths I cry to You; From darkest places I will call. Incline Your ear to me anew, And hear my cry for mercy, Lord. Were You to count my sinful ways How could I come before Your throne? Yet full forgiveness meets my gaze – I stand redeemed by grace alone.
CHORUS I will wait for You, I will wait for You, On Your word I will rely. I will wait for You, surely wait for You Till my soul is satisfied.
2) So put Your hope in God alone, Take courage in His power to save; Completely and forever won By Christ emerging from the grave.
3) His steadfast love has made a way, And God Himself has paid the price, That all who trust in Him today Find healing in his sacrifice.
I will wait for You, I will wait for You Through the storm and through the night. I will wait for You, surely wait for You, For Your love is my delight.
Wait for the Lord, his day is near Wait for the Lord, be strong take heart Prepare the way for the Lord Make a straight path for Him The Glory of the Lord shall be revealed All the Earth will see the Lord Rejoice in the Lord always He is at Hand Joy and gladness for all who seek the Lord
…the little baby, born in such pitiful humility and cut down as a young man in his prime, commands the allegiance of millions of people all over the world. Although they have never seen him, he has become friend and companion to innumerable people. This undeniable fact is, by any measurement, the most astonishing phenomenon in human history.
That is why … we should not try to escape a sense of awe, almost a sense of fright, at what God has done. We must never allow anything to blind us to the true significance of what happened at Bethlehem so long ago. Nothing can alter the fact that we live on a visited planet.
We shall be celebrating no beautiful myth, no lovely piece of traditional folklore, but a solemn fact. God has been here once historically, but, as millions will testify, he will come again with the same silence and the same devastating humility into any human heart ready to receive him. ~J.B. Phillips from “The Dangers of Advent” inWatch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas.
During this month of advent waiting, I am, once again, humbled by the fact of our God not only “visiting” His children within His created world, but becoming one with us. He committed Himself to far more than a brief visit; He came to rescue us from ourselves. That we are valued enough to warrant this – that our spiritual deterioration necessitates His humble sacrifice – is astonishing.
In Philippians 2:Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross. (2:6-8)
The story of Christ come to earth is the beginning of His earthly life of humility and obedience, to remind us how our story will conclude at the end of time. He calls us to model humility and obedience throughout the Advent season, and until He comes again.
As in the song below:
Dark and cheerless is the morn Till Your love in me is born Joyless is the evening sun ‘till Emmanuel has come
This is no brief visit. The Light has come to stay put and stay on.
Christ whose glory fills the skies Christ the Everlasting Light Son of Righteousness arise Triumph o’er these shades of night
Come Thou long awaited one In the fullness of Your Love Loose this heart bound up by shame And I will never be the same
So here I wait in hope of You, My soul’s longing through and through Dayspring from on high be near Daystar in my heart appear
Dark and cheerless is the morn ‘Till Your love in me is born Joyless is the evening sun ‘till Emmanuel has come
So here I wait in hope of You, My soul’s longing through and through Dayspring from on high be near Daystar in my heart appear So here I wait in hope of You, My soul’s longing through and through Dayspring from on high be near Daystar in my heart appear ~Christy Nockels “Advent Hymn”
Now may the fragrance of His peace Soar through your heart like the dove released Hide in His wings oh weary, distant soul He’ll guide your spirit home And may His love poured from on high Flow to the depths of your deepest sigh Oh come and drink from the only living stream And on His shoulder lean And may the hope that will not deceive Through every pain bring eternal ease There is no night that can steal the promises His coming brings to us So may His joy rush over you Delight in the path He has called you to May all your steps walk in Heaven’s endless light Beyond this Christmas night (Make your sole purpose Christ) ~Keith and Kristyn Getty
The care of the disciples was the care for the day, not for the morrow; the word morrow must stand for any and every point of the future. The next hour, the next moment, is as much beyond our grasp and as much in God’s care, as that a hundred years away. Care for the next minute is just as foolish as care for the morrow, or for a day in the next thousand years– in neither can we do anything, in both God is doing everything. Those claims only of the morrow which have to be prepared to-day are of the duty of to-day; the moment which coincides with work to be done, is the moment to be minded; the next is nowhere till God has made it. ~George McDonald “The Cause of Spiritual Stupidity” from Unspoken Sermons
I come from a long line of worriers, so it comes quite naturally to me to anticipate the cares and concerns not only of this very moment, but every moment to come.
Unfortunately, medical training did little to calm that tendency as every worst-case-scenario is emphasized by every teacher to prepare the doctor-novice for any potential eventuality. Knowing about all the bad things that can happen is essential for disaster-preparedness in order to be ready to leap into action. Hospital rounds focus on the “what-ifs” as much as the “what-is” to be sure that all possible research and due diligence had been done in a particular patient’s case.
So for Jesus to say to His disciples (and us) “Do you not understand?” hits me hard because I’ve spent my life working hard to understand. My training and my human nature tells me to care in advance so I’ll be ready for what is to come; yet, true to form, just as He says, it doesn’t change what will happen.
As I watch the sun rise yet again, watching the fire in the sky light and then slowly fade, I know Who is in control, and it surely is not me. There will be enough for today, enough for tomorrow and enough for all the years to come, because God is enough.
It takes strength to believe that. And that understanding has to be enough.
Thank you to Amy Baik Lee in her essay, which led me to George McDonald’s “Unspoken Sermons” and the song below.
Late nights, long hours Questions are drawn like a thin red line No comfort left over No safe harbor in sight
Really we don’t need much Just strength to believe There’s honey in the rock, There’s more than we see In these patches of joy These stretches of sorrow There’s enough for today There will be enough tomorrow
Upstairs a child is sleeping What a light in our strain and stress We pray without speaking Lord help us wait in kindness
Really we don’t need much Just strength to believe There’s honey in the rock, There’s more than we see In these patches of joy These stretches of sorrow There’s enough for today There will be enough tomorrow Songwriters: Sara Groves / Julie Ann Lee / Sarah Dark
There are names for what binds us: strong forces, weak forces. Look around, you can see them: the skin that forms in a half-empty cup, nails rusting into the places they join, joints dovetailed on their own weight.
The way things stay so solidly whenever they’ve been set down – and gravity, scientists say, is weak.
And see how the flesh grows back across a wound, with a great vehemence, more strong than the simple, untested surface before.
There’s a name for it on horses, when it comes back darker and raised: proud flesh, as all flesh is proud of its wounds, wears them as honors given out after battle, small triumphs pinned to the chest –
And when two people have loved each other, see how it is like a scar between their bodies, stronger, darker, and proud; how the black cord makes of them a single fabric that nothing can tear or mend. ~Jane Hirshfield “For What Binds Us”
Scars come in various sizes and shapes, some hidden, some quite obvious to all. How they are inflicted also varies–some accidental, others therapeutic, and too many intentional.
The most insidious are the ones so deep inside, no one can see or know they are there.
Back in our woodlot stands a sawed off stump of a cedar that was old growth in virgin forest over a hundred years ago. One day clearcut loggers came through and took every tree they could to haul to the local sawmills to become beams and lumber for the growing homesteading population in the region. This cedar once was grand and vast, covering an immense part of the forest floor, providing protection to trillium at its feet and finches’ nests and raptors hunting in its branches. It nurtured its environment until other plans were made, and one day, axes fell on its sides to cut out the notches for the springboards where two loggers stood either side of the proud trunk to man the saw which brought the tree down.
Where the wood went is anyone’s guess. It could be one of the mighty beams supporting our old hay barn roof or it could have become the foundation flooring of a nearby one room school house. It surely had a productive and meaningful life as part of a structure somewhere until rot or carpenter ants or fire brought it once again to its knees.
But this ghost of a stump remains, a tombstone of remembrance of a once grand tree, the notch scars embedded deep in its sides, nursing new seedlings from its center and moss, lichen and ferns from its sides.
I come from logger stock so I don’t begrudge these frontier settlers their hard scrabble living, nor minimize their dangerous work in order to feed themselves and their families. It’s just I’m struck by those scars over one hundred years later — such a visible reminder of what once was a vital living organism toppled for someone’s need and convenience.
Trees are not unique. It happens to people too. Everyday scars are inflicted for reasons hard to justify. Too often I see them self-inflicted in an effort to feel something other than despair. Sometimes they are inflicted by others out of fear or need for control.
Sometimes they are simply the scars of living – on our horses they are a dark tough scar of leathery “proud flesh”. These are the wounds that accumulate on our journey through our numbered days.
None of them are as deep and wide as the scars that were accepted on our behalf, nor as wondrous as the Love that oozed from them, nor as amazing as the Grace that abounds to this day because of the promise they represent.
These are scars from the Word made Flesh, a proud flesh that won’t give way, lasting forever.
In Christ there is no east or west, in him no south or north, but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth.
In Christ shall true hearts everywhere their high communion find; his service is the golden cord close binding humankind.
Join hands, companions in the faith, whate’er your race may be! All children of the living God are surely kin to me.
In Christ now meet both east and west; in him meet south and north, all Christly souls are one in him throughout the whole wide earth. ~William Dunkerley
We Christians are accused of being judgmental and unwilling to consider other points of view. We are usually the first to criticize another Christian of being unfaithful or heretical, not following doctrine and creeds, or being too liberal or too conservative or just too plain stubborn.
I’ve done it myself pretty recently and have received more than my share of mean-spirited, even hateful, messages from Christian brothers and sisters who disagree with my point of view on some issue.
Christians tend to revel in eating their own.
When I’m tempted to judge lest I be judged, I remember who Christ hung out with: the cast offs, the diseased and some of the most undesirable people in society. They were surely more receptive to His message than those who believed they knew better than Him, who questioned His every action and motive, and who plotted against Him behind His back.
It is crucial to be reminded that Christ doesn’t endorse one political party over another, one denomination or faith community over another, one zip code over another, or one racial or ethnic group over another. He seeks true hearts
Christians, east and west, north and south, constitute His body on earth, crucially dwelling in companionship as His image. It is only through His loving Spirit we are brought home where we belong, back to the center from the fraying ends of the earth and fragile edges of our faith.
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In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe and enough shadows to blind those who don’t. ~Blaise Pascal
Be comforted; the world is very old, And generations pass, as they have passed, A troop of shadows moving with the sun; Thousands of times has the old tale been told; The world belongs to those who come the last, They will find hope and strength as we have done. ~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow “A Shadow”
The shadow’s the thing. If I no longer see shadows as “dark marks,” as do the newly sighted, then I see them as making some sort of sense of the light. They give the light distance; they put it in its place. They inform my eyes of my location here, here O Israel, here in the world’s flawed sculpture, here in the flickering shade of the nothingness between me and the light. ~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
I find myself seeking the safety of hiding in the shadows under a rock where lukewarm moderates tend to congregate, especially on Sundays.
Extremist views predominate simply for the sake of staking out one’s claim to one’s political turf. There is no spirit of compromise, negotiation or collaboration – that would be perceived as a sign of weakness. Instead it is “my way or the wrong way.”
I’m ready to say “no way,” as both sides are intolerably intolerant of the other as I watch them volley back and forth over my cowering head. As someone who is currently volunteering oodles of hours to help manage a community’s response to end COVID controlling our lives, I find myself smack dab in the middle of extremes.
The chasm is most gaping when we bring up any discussion of faith and how it influences our response to the pandemic. Religion and politics are already angry neighbors constantly arguing over how high to build the fence between them, what it should be made out of, what color it should be, should there be peek holes, should it be electrified with barbed wire to prevent moving back and forth, should there be a gate with or without a lock and who pays for the labor. Add in a pandemic to argue about and we become stymied and paralyzed.
In a country founded on the principle of freedom of religion, there are more and more who believe our forefathers’ blood was shed for freedom from religion and others feel there can be only one religion here.
Yet others feel we are founded on freedom from science and epidemiological data, because what possibly can those researchers know when the random person on YouTube says something far more palatable?
Give us the right to believe in nothing whatsoever or give us death. Perhaps both actually go together.
And so it goes. We the people bring out the worst in our leadership as facts are distorted, the truth is stretched or completely abandoned, unseemly pandering abounds and curried favors are served for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Enough already. Time for the shadows to abate and the Light to shine.
In the midst of this morass, we who want to believe still choose to believe but won’t force belief on anyone else. It’s called freedom of religion for a reason.
There is just enough Light shining for those who seek it. No need to remain blinded in the shadowlands of unbelief or “my way or the highway.”
I’ll come out from under my rock if you do.
In fact…I think I just did.
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