Tell It to the Dark

Let other mornings honor the miraculous.
Eternity has festivals enough.
This is the feast of our mortality,
The most mundane and human holiday.

The new year always brings us what we want
Simply by bringing us along—to see
A calendar with every day uncrossed,
A field of snow without a single footprint.

~Dana Gioia, “New Year’s” from Interrogations at Noon

The shadow of death
Is long across the land,
And the night comes early
This time of the year.

We have tried to be the light,
But the matches burnt our fingers.
We have made every sacrifice,
But still the solstice came.

So come and sit with me,
In the shadow of death
And let’s tell it to the dark:
Who was, and is, and is to come.

~Mike Bonikowsky “Advent IV: Faith”

No one ever regarded the first of January with indifference. It is that from which all date their time, and count upon what is left. It is the nativity of our common Adam.
~Charles Lamb, 1897

I begin this new year
as naked as dormant branches trembling
in the freezing nights of arctic winds.

Having dropped all my leaves and fruit,
my potential now is mere bud;
I cover up nothing,
unable to hide in shame.

We each celebrate a birthday on New Year’s Day,
a bright beginning after so much darkness,
a still life nativity born in a winter garden,
He who was and is and is to come:
He who gives us another chance to make it right.

Layton DeVries was a music teacher who composed a song now found on YouTube at this link – shortly after, at age 24 he died of injuries sustained in an automobile accident.

O Child of God, Rest assured the Lord is with you.
When you wake up in the morning and the sun is shining down,
The Lord watches every step you take.
When the world has knocked you down, And you don‘t know which way to turn,
Rest assured, the Lord is with you.
O Child of God, Rest assured the Lord is with you.


When your friends have turned against you, And you feel all alone,
The Lord watches over every move you make.
He will always be right there, to protect and love His Child
Rest assured, the Lord is with you.
O Child of God, Rest assured the Lord is with you.


When darkness drifts around you, And your eyes close to sleep,
The Lord watches over every breath you take
And when death comes near to bring you home,

You have no need to fear,
Rest assured, the Lord is with you.
O Child of God, Rest assured, the Lord is with you.
~Layton DeVries

From Barnstorming: a book of beauty in words and photography – available to order here:

The Beginning Shall Remind Us of the End: No Room At All

For outlandish creatures like us,
on our way to a heart, a brain, and courage,
Bethlehem is not the end of our journey but only the beginning – not home but the place through which we must pass
if ever we are to reach home at last.
~Frederick Buechner from The Magnificent Defeat

Into this world, this demented inn,
in which there is absolutely no room for him at all,
Christ has come uninvited.
But because he cannot be at home in it –
because he is out of place in it, and yet must be in it –
his place is with those others who do not belong,
who are rejected because they are regarded as weak…
With those for whom there is no room,
Christ is present in this world.
He is mysteriously present in those for whom
there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst.
~Thomas Merton from Watch for the Light

As a physician, I’ve provided care to many homeless people, but I’ve never known homelessness myself.  However, I have been room-less and those experiences were enough to acquaint me with the dilemma for Joseph and Mary searching for a place to sleep in Bethlehem.

It was my ninth birthday, July 26, 1963, and my family was driving to Washington D.C. for a few days of sightseeing. We had planned to spend the night in a motel somewhere in eastern Ohio or western Pennsylvania but my father, ever the determined traveler, felt we should push on closer to our destination. By the time 11 PM rolled around, we were all tired and not just a little cranky so we started looking for vacancy signs at road-side motels. Most were posted no vacancy by that time of night, and many simply had shut off their lights. We stopped at a few with vacancy still lit, but all they had available would never accommodate a family of five.

We kept driving east, and though I was hungry for sleep, I became ever more anxious that we really would never find a place to lay our heads. My eyes grew wider and I was more awake than ever, having never stayed up beyond 1 AM before and certainly, I’d never had the experience of being awake all night long. It still goes down in my annals as my longest birthday on record.

By 2 AM we arrived in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and my dad had reached his driving limit and my mom had declared we were not traveling another mile. We headed downtown where the brick Harrisburg Hotel stood some 10 stories high, an old structure in a questionable area of town, but the lights were on and there were signs of life inside.

They did have a room that gave us two saggy double beds to share for eight dollars, with sheets and blankets with dubious laundering history, a bare light bulb that turned on with a chain and a bathroom down the hall. I’m surprised my mother even considered laying down on that bed, but she did. I don’t remember getting much sleep that night, but it was a place to rest, and the sirens and shouts out on the street did make for interesting background noise.

Some 12 years later, I had another experience of finding no room to lay my head after arriving late at night in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, with supposed reservations at the local YMCA for myself and my three student friends traveling together on our way to Gombe to study wild chimpanzees. We landed at the airport after midnight after a day long flight from Brussels, managed to make it through customs intact and find a taxi, only to arrive at the Y to find it dark and locked. It took some loud knocking to rouse anyone and with our poor Swahili, we were able to explain our dilemma–we were supposed to have two rooms reserved for the four of us. He said clearly “no room, all rooms taken”.

The host was plainly perplexed at what to do with four Americans in the middle of the night. He decided to parse us out one each to occupied rooms and hope that the occupants were willing to share. He looked at me, a skinny white girl with short hair and decided I was some kind of strange looking guy, and tried to stick me in a room with a rather intoxicated French man and I said absolutely not. Instead my female traveling partner and I ended up sharing a cot (sort of) in a room with a German couple who allowed us into their room, which I thought was an amazing act of generosity at 2 AM in the morning. I didn’t sleep a wink, amazed at the magical sounds and smells of my first dawn in Africa, hearing the morning prayers coming from the mosque across the street, only a few hours later.

So I can relate in a small way to what it must have felt like over 2000 years ago to have traveled over hard roads to arrive in a dirty little town temporarily crammed with too many people, and find there were no rooms anywhere to be had. And to have doors shut abruptly on a young woman in obvious full term pregnancy is another matter altogether. They must have felt a growing sense of panic that there would be no safe and clean place to rest and possibly deliver this Child.

Then there came the offer of an animals’ dwelling, with fodder for bedding and some minimal shelter. A stable and its stone manger became sanctuary for the weary and burdened. We are all invited in to rest there, and I never enter a barn without somehow acknowledging that fact and feeling welcomed.

There are so many ways we continue to refuse access and shut the doors in the faces of those two (plus One) weary travelers, forcing them to look elsewhere to stay. We say “no room” dozens of times every day, not realizing who and what we are shutting out.

With all the material distractions of our age, it is small wonder we pay no attention to who is waiting patiently outside the back door of our lives, where it is inhospitable and cold and dank. Few of us would invite our special company into the barn first and foremost. Yet these travelers don’t seek an invitation to come in the front door, with fancy meals and feather beds and fresh flowers on the cupboard. It is the dark and manure strewn parts of our lives where they are needed most. That is where He was born to dwell amid our messiness, and that is where He remains, in the humblest parts of our being, the parts we do not want to show off, and indeed, most often want to hide.

And that is, of course, a place where there is always plenty of room.

This year’s Barnstorming Advent theme “… the Beginning shall remind us of the End” is taken from the final lines in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”

Jesus, Jesus, rest your head.
You has got a manger bed.
All the evil folk on earth
Sleep in feathers at their birth.
Jesus, Jesus, rest your head.
You has got a manger bed.

1. Have you heard about our Jesus?
Have you heard about his fate?
How his mammy went to the stable
On that Christmas Eve so late?
Winds were blowing, cows were lowing,
Stars were glowing, glowing, glowing. Refrain

2. To the manger came the Wise Men.
Bringing from hin and yon,
For the mother and the father,
And the blessed little Son.
Milkmaids left their fields and flocks
And sat beside the ass and ox. Refrain

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Waiting in Wilderness: So Strange and Wild a Guest

In the dark, a child might ask, What is the world?
just to hear his sister
promise, An unfinished wing of heaven,
just to hear his brother say,
A house inside a house,
but most of all to hear his mother answer,
One more song, then you go to sleep.
How could anyone in that bed guess
the question finds its beginning
in the answer long growing
inside the one who asked, that restless boy,
the night’s darling?
Later, a man lying awake,
he might ask it again,
just to hear the silence
charge him, This night
arching over your sleepless wondering,
this night, the near ground
every reaching-out-to overreaches,
just to remind himself
out of what little earth and duration,
out of what immense good-bye,
each must make a safe place of his heart,
before so strange and wild a guest
as God approaches.
~Li-Young Lee “Nativity”

“What’s wrong with the world?” asked The Times of famous authors.
“Dear Sir,
I am.

Yours, G.K. Chesterton

I’m not ashamed that I still ask the hard questions, just as I did when I was a child, lying in bed, fearful in the dark. Some call it a lack of faith: if I truly believed, I would trust completely, so asking such questions would be “out of the question.”

Yet God throughout scripture encourages questions, listens to lament, isn’t intimidated by uncertainty and weakness. He waits patiently for His people to make their hearts a safe place for Him to dwell – a place of wings and songs and awe and worship – even when resounding with questions.

My heart is a womb where our strange and wild God seeks to reside in this world. “Why me?” I ask, pondering yet another hard question in the dark.
“Why not you?” comes His response: a question for which He awaits my answer.

Turning Darkness into Light: Not of this World

God is not dead, nor does he sleep.
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
from Christmas Bells

Unexpected God, 
your advent alarms us. 
Wake us from drowsy worship, 
from the sleep that neglects love, 
and the sedative of misdirected frenzy. 
Awaken us now to your coming, 
and bend our angers into your peace. 
Amen.
~Revised Common Lectionary First Sunday of Advent

During Advent there are times when I am guilty of blithely invoking the gentle bedtime story of that silent night, the infant napping away in a hay-filled manger, His devoted parents hovering, the humble shepherds peering in the stable door.   All is calm.  All is bright.

I’m dozing if I think that is all there was to it.

The reality is God Himself never sleeps.

This is no gentle bedtime story: a teenage mother giving birth in a smelly stable, with no alternative but to lay her baby in a rough feed trough.
This is no gentle bedtime story: the heavenly host appearing to shepherds – the lowest of the low in society – shouting and singing glories leaving them “sore afraid.” That means: terrified.
This is no gentle bedtime story: Herod’s response to the news that a Messiah had been born–he sought out to kill a legion of male children whose parents undoubtedly begged for mercy, clinging to their children about to be murdered.
This is no gentle bedtime story:  a family’s flight to Egypt as immigrants seeking asylum so their son would not be yet another victim of Herod.
This is no gentle bedtime story:   the life Jesus eventually led during His ministry:  itinerant and homeless, tempted and fasting in the wilderness for forty days, owning nothing, rejected by His own people, betrayed by His disciples, sentenced to death by acclamation before Pilate, tortured, hung on a cross until He gave up his spirit.

Yet Jesus understood He was not of this world; He knew the power that originally brought him to earth as a helpless infant lying in an unforgiving wood trough.

He would be sacrificed on rough unforgiving wood,
He would die and rise again,
He would return again as King of all nations,
He is not of this world yet comes to save this world.

When I hear skeptics scoff at Christianity as a “crutch for the weak”, they underestimate the courage it takes to walk into church each week admitting we are a desperate people seeking rescue.  We cling to the life preserver found in the Word, lashed to our seats and hanging on.  It is only because of grace that we survive the tempests of temptation, shame, guilt and self-doubt to confront the reality of an all-knowing God who is not dead and who never ever sleeps.

This bedtime story is not for the faint of heart — we are “sore afraid” to “bend our anger” into His peace.

Yet be not afraid:
the wrong shall fail
the Right prevail.

The walls of a stable are not worthy of a king.
You come, little one,
borne on the songs of angels,
the echoes of prophets,
and the light of a strange star.
Do not cry, though you must lie
on this rough, unforgiving wood.
You will be wrapped in lengths of linen,
and you will sleep.
Being found in human form,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death,
yes, the death of the cross.
Though you must lie
on this rough, unforgiving wood,
you will be wrapped in lengths of linen,
and you will sleep.
These walls are not worthy of a king, little one,
but your kingdom is not of this world.

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play
And mild and sweet their songs repeat
Of peace on earth good will to men
And the bells are ringing (peace on earth)
Like a choir they’re singing (peace on earth)
In my heart I hear them (peace on earth)
Peace on earth, good will to men
And in despair I bowed my head
There is no peace on earth I said
For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men
But the bells are ringing (peace on earth)
Like a choir singing (peace on earth)
Does anybody hear them? (peace on earth)
Peace on earth, good will to men
Then rang the bells more loud and deep
God is not dead, nor does he sleep (peace on earth, peace on earth)
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace…
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Preparing the Heart: From Creche to Cross

20120329-052504.jpg
Detail from “Descent from the Cross” by Rogier van der Weyden

The whole of Christ’s life was a continual passion;
others die martyrs, but Christ was born a martyr.
He found a Golgotha, where he was crucified,
even in Bethlehem, where he was born;
for to his tenderness then the straws were almost as sharp as the thorns after,
and the manger as uneasy at first as the cross at last.
His birth and his death were but one continual act,
and his Christmas Day and his Good Friday are but
the evening and the morning of one and the same day.
From the creche to the cross is an inseparable line.
Christmas only points forward to Good Friday and Easter.
It can have no meaning apart from that,
where the Son of God displayed his glory by his death.

~John Donne –opening words in his sermon on Christmas Day 1626

barnstorm

snowyappletree

 

It is easy to hear of a baby in a wooden manger laid there by overwhelmed first-time parents far from home, surrounded by soft-eyed farm animals and adoring raggedy shepherds who reported hearing glorious singing angels.

It is not at all easy to hear of the slaughter of innocent children by a paranoid king in response to that baby, knowing in our hearts and feeling in our guts the desperation of the wailing grieving mothers.

It is much harder to fathom this baby, three decades later, as a grown man, flogged and bleeding, hanging from a wooden cross surrounded by mocking soldiers, his weeping mother and friends, and two crucified criminals.  This is much much more than we bargained for — this from a baby asleep in the hay.

Instead of the heavenly host declaring his glory, he himself spoke words of forgiveness and grace with his last breaths, making clear his death, as well as his birth, was no mistake, but one continual act of God’s glorious salvage of his children.

He makes clear a willingness to wear our skin and walk in our sandals, in order to die in our place.   Our own birth and our death are no mistakes either.

He claims us; we shall know his voice when he calls our name.

grassesdec

 

 

Preparing the Heart: Came Down from Heaven

the-nativity-le-nain
The Nativity by Le Nain, Antoine and Louis (d.1648) & Mathieu (1607-77)

The Word became flesh. Ultimate Mystery born with a skull you could crush one-handed. Incarnation. It is not tame. It is not beautiful. It is uninhabitable terror. It is unthinkable darkness riven with unbearable light. Agonized laboring led to it, vast upheavals of intergalactic space, time split apart, a wrenching and tearing of the very sinews of reality itself. You can only cover your eyes and shudder before it, before this: “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God… who for us and for our salvation,” as the Nicene Creed puts it, “came down from heaven.”
Came down. Only then do we dare uncover our eyes and see what we can see. It is the Resurrection and the Life she holds in her arms. It is the bitterness of death he takes at her breast.
~Frederick Buechner from Whistling in the Dark

empty1

Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God,
did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,
 
but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant,
being born in the likeness of men.

And being found in human form,
he humbled himself by becoming obedient
to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Philippians 2: 6-8

20120726-214529.jpg

[The Incarnation is like] a wave of the sea which,
rushing up on the flat beach,
runs out, even thinner and more transparent,
and does not return to its source but sinks into the sand and disappears.
~Hans Urs von Balthasar from Origen: Spirit and Fire

O magnum mysterium,
et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,
jacentem in praesepio!
Beata Virgo,
cujus viscera meruerunt portare Dominum Christum.
Alleluia!

O great mystery and wondrous sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord lying in their Manger!
Blessed is the Virgin
whose womb was worthy to bear the Lord Jesus Christ.
Alleluia!

God Among Us: Opening Heart and Hands

fencepostssunset32

…an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.
Matthew 1:20-22,24

 

I see the hands of Joseph.
Back and forth along bare wood they move.
There is worry in those working hands,
sorting out confusing thoughts with every stroke.
“How can this be, my beautiful Mary now with child?” 
Rough with deep splinters, these hands,
small, painful splinters like tiny crosses
embedded deeply in this choice to stay with her.
He could have closed his hands to her,
said, “No” and let her go to stoning.
But, dear Joseph opened both his heart and hands
to this mother and her child.
Preparing in these days before
with working hands
and wood pressed tight between them.
It is these rough hands that will open
and be the first to hold the Child.
~Catherine Alder from “Advent Hands”

_______________________________

In these weeks of Advent waiting,
we are stretched beyond what we ever thought possible:
to change our plans to God’s plan,
to accept what is unacceptable,
to include the excluded,
to grasp understanding of the incomprehensible,
to open closed heart and hands
and let the Christ Child in
so we can hold Him as Joseph did that night.
If Joseph could do it,
despite all he’d been taught,
despite the derision–
if he could still trust,
and obey,
and believe,
how can we not?
~EPG

 

Go to sleep my Son
This manger for your bed
You have a long road before You
Rest Your little head

Can You feel the weight of Your glory?
Do You understand the price?
Or does the Father guard Your heart for now
So You can sleep tonight?

Go to sleep my Son
Go and chase Your dreams
This world can wait for one more moment
Go and sleep in peace

I believe the glory of Heaven
Is lying in my arms tonight
Lord, I ask that He for just this moment
Simply be my child

Go to sleep my Son
Baby, close Your eyes
Soon enough You’ll save the day
But for now, dear Child of mine
Oh my Jesus, Sleep tight

He was her man, she was his wife
And late one winter night
He knelt by her
As she gave birth
But it wasn’t his child,
It wasn’t his child

Yet still he took him as his own
And as he watched him grow
It brought him joy
But it wasn’t his child
It wasn’t his child

But like a father he was strong and kind
And I believe he did his best
It wasn’t easy for him
But he did all could
His son was different from the rest
It wasn’t his child
It wasn’t his child

And when the boy became a man
He took his father’s hand
And soon the world
Would all know why
It wasn’t his child
It wasn’t his child

But like a father he was strong and kind
And I believe he did his best
It wasn’t easy for him
But he did all could
He grew up with his hands in wood
And he died with his hands in wood
He was God’s child,
He was God’s child

He was her man
She was his wife
And late one night
He knelt by her
As she gave birth
But it wasn’t his child
It was God’s child

 

How could it be
This baby in my arms,
Sleeping now, so peacefully?
“The Son of God,” the angel said,
How could it be?

Lord I know, He’s not my own
Not of my flesh, not of my bone.
Still Father let this baby be
The son of my love.

Chorus
Father show me where I fit into this plan of Yours,
How can a man be father to the Son of God?
Lord, for all my life I’ve been a simple carpenter,
How can I raise a King, How can I raise a King?

He looks so small, His face and hands so fair,
And when He cries the sun just seems to disappear.
But when He laughs, it shines again,
How could it be?
~Michael Card

sunsetedit

The Hand That Hurled the World

The Holy Night by Carlo Maratta
The Holy Night by Carlo Maratta

Now, newborn,
in wide-eyed wonder
he gazes up at his creation.
His hand that hurled the world
holds tight his mother’s finger.
Holy light
spills across her face
and she weeps
silent wondering tears
to know she holds the One
who has so long held her.
~Joan Rae Mills from “Mary” in the Light Upon Light Anthology by Sara Arthur

 

A Canticle for Advent: Sun’s First Dawning Ray

sunrise11272

Oh little child it’s Christmas night
And the sky is filled with glorious light
Lay your soft head so gently down
It’s Christmas night in Bethlehem town.

Chorus:
Alleluia the angels sing
Alleluia to the king
Alleluia the angels sing
Alleluia to the king.

Sleep while the shepherds find their way
As they kneel before you in the golden hay
For they have brought you a woolly lamb
On Christmas night in Bethlehem.

Sleep till you wake at the break of day
With the sun’s first dawning ray
You are the babe, who’ll wear the crown
On Christmas morn in Bethlehem town.

Alleluia
~Lori Pappajohn

A Common Nativity

photo by Nate Gibson
photo by Nate Gibson

No one ever regarded the First of January with indifference.
It is that from which all date their time, and count upon what is left.
It is the nativity of our common Adam.

–  Charles Lamb  

We come to this new year
naked as dormant branches
in the freezing night.

Mere potential is barely budded,
nothing covered up,
no hiding in shame.

A shared and common birthday,
a still life nativity in a winter garden,
another chance to make it right.