A New Definition of Greatness

…if I respond to hate with a reciprocal hate I do nothing but intensify the cleavage in broken community. I can only close the gap in broken community by meeting hate with love. If I meet hate with hate, I become depersonalized, because creation is so designed that my personality can only be fulfilled in the context of community.
Booker T. Washington was right: “Let no man pull you so low as to make you hate him.”

~Martin Luther King, Jr.

As nightfall does not come at once, neither does oppression.
In both instances, there is a twilight when everything remains seemingly unchanged.
And it is in such twilight that we all must be most aware of change in the air
– however slight – lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness.
~William O. Douglas
from The Douglas Letters

Be careful whom you choose to hate.
The small and the vulnerable own a protection great enough,
if you could but see it,
to melt you into jelly.

~Leif Enger from Peace Like a River

We have a new definition of greatness:
it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. 
You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. 
You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. 
You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. 
You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. 
You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. 
You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. 
And you can be that servant.
~Martin Luther King, Jr.  in a February 1968 sermon:  “The Drum Major Instinct” from A Knock At Midnight: Inspiration from the Great Sermons of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. King’s words and wisdom in his sermons spoken over sixty years ago continue to inform us of our shortcomings as we flounder in flaws and brokenness. To often we resist considering others before ourselves, to serve one another out of humility, grace and love.

Today we unite in shared tears:
shed for continued strife and disagreements,
shed for the injustice that results in senseless emotional and physical violence,
shed for our inability to hold up one another as a holy in God’s eyes.

We weep together as the light dawns today, knowing, as Dr. King knew, a new day will come when the Lord God wipes the tears away from the remarkable and beautiful faces of all people — as all are created in His image.

Dawn on our Darkness: Fleeing the Wrath, Shouldering the Load

We think of him as safe beneath the steeple,
Or cosy in a crib beside the font,
But he is with a million displaced people
On the long road of weariness and want.
For even as we sing our final carol
His family is up and on that road,
Fleeing the wrath of someone else’s quarrel,
Glancing behind and shouldering their load.
Whilst Herod rages still from his dark tower
Christ clings to Mary, fingers tightly curled,
The lambs are slaughtered by the men of power,
And death squads spread their curse across the world.
But every Herod dies, and comes alone
To stand before the Lamb upon the throne.

~Malcolm Guite “Refugee”

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

We kill at every step, not only in wars, riots, and executions. We kill when we close our eyes to poverty, suffering, and shame. In the same way all disrespect for life, all hard heartedness, all indifference, and all contempt is nothing else than killing. With just a little witty skepticism we can kill a good deal of the future in a young person. Life is waiting everywhere, the future is flowering every­where, but we only see a small part of it and step on much of it with our feet.
~Hermann Hesse, from Vivos Voco, 1919

For centuries, too many people have had to make the choice of living (and likely dying) oppressed in the midst of conflict and war or they attempt their escape to an uncertain fate on the other side of a border, a fence, or a turbulent sea. Some are given no options and are sold into slavery, taken where their captors wish, or have been rounded up and forced to live far from their ancestral homes.

Some of us descend from people who made the difficult decision to escape war, or hunger, or oppression, or extreme poverty. We live and thrive by the grace and mercy of God to these ancestors.

This God was a refugee Himself, fleeing from a king who sought Him dead. This God knows what it is like to be hated and pursued. He knows the wrath and cruelty of His fellow man.

This God has a name, He has a face and a voice and it is He who ultimately holds our fate in His hands.

This God is not forgotten nor has He forgotten us. He will return to forever banish the darkness surrounding us.

This year’s Advent theme “Dawn on our Darkness” is taken from this 19th century Christmas hymn:

Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
dawn on our darkness and lend us your aid.
Star of the east, the horizon adorning,
guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.
~Reginald Heber -from “Brightest and Best”

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Dawn on our Darkness: It Might Have Been Otherwise

I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.
At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.
~Jane Kenyon “Otherwise”

I watched her cooking, from my chair.
She pressed her lips
Together, reached for kitchenware,
And tasted sauce from her fingertips.

“It’s ready now. Come on,” she said.
“You light the candle.”
We ate, and talked, and went to bed,
And slept. It was a miracle.

~Donald Hall from “Summer Kitchen” in The Selected Poems of Donald Hall.

I tend to get complacent in my daily routines, confident in the knowledge that tomorrow will be very much like yesterday. The distinct blessings of an ordinary day are lost in the rush of moving forward to whatever comes next so that I lose touch with what miracles are happening in the here and now.

The reality is there is nothing ordinary about the events of this day or any other –
it might have been otherwise and some day it will be otherwise.

Advent is an opportunity to stop the rushing, take a look around and actually revel in the quiet moments of daily work, chats, walks, meals, and sleep. Even the current constant of someone in the family being sick with one or more viruses, interrupting plans and schedules, can’t interrupt how remarkable it is to just be here together.

We are granted peace despite the stress of illness.

Jane Kenyon wrote much of her best poetry with the knowledge she was dying of leukemia. Her work reminds me that I don’t need a terminal diagnosis to appreciate the blessings of each ordinary moment. Her poet husband, Donald Hall, wrote verse from his perspective of cherishing the time he had left with his wife, living as if each day were his last day with her.

Like Jane’s “paintings on the walls,” on foggy gray days like today, I can gaze at our landscape paintings by local artist Randy Van Beek depicting an idealized serenity that I only sometimes feel. They depict the blessings just outside my windows.

I simply need to pay attention.

Christ came to earth to remind us to dwell richly in the experience of these moments, those sweet peaches and cream of daily life, while they are happening. God knows, the little miracles are a foretaste of the heaven which is to come.

This year’s Advent theme “Dawn on our Darkness” is taken from this 19th century Christmas hymn:

Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
dawn on our darkness and lend us your aid.
Star of the east, the horizon adorning,
guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.
~Reginald Heber -from “Brightest and Best”

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Just Closing My Eyes For a Bit

I count it as a certainty that in paradise, everyone naps. 
~Tom Hodgkinson

Like a graceful vase, a cat, even when motionless, seems to flow. 
~George F. Will

A slight breeze stirs tree branches
so shadow patterns play on the curtains
like candlelight in a drafty room.

The harvest is over, corn
stubble and weeds in the field. The sky is

soft blue, a few clouds in the distance.

I will close my eyes, nap for
a while. Perhaps when I wake all will seem
the same. Sleep plays tricks in many ways.
~Matthew Spireng “Late August, Lying Down to Nap at Noon”

I believe the world would be a better place if we all could stop in the middle of the day and just rest our eyes for awhile — to look at the inside of our eyelids for a few minutes, to pause, to pray, to purr with contentment…

perchance to dream.   Aye, there’s the rub.

Perhaps, we might wake with a new perspective and an improved attitude. Works like a charm for our grandchildren.

And for me as well…

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The Shadow of the Mercy of Light

How long does it take to make the woods?
As long as it takes to make the world.
The woods is present as the world is, the presence
of all its past, and of all its time to come.
It is always finished, it is always being made, the act
of its making forever greater than the act of its destruction.
It is a part of eternity, for its end and beginning
belong to the end and beginning of all things,
the beginning lost in the end, the end in the beginning.

What is the way to the woods, how do you go there?
By climbing up through the six days’ field,
kept in all the body’s years, the body’s
sorrow, weariness, and joy. By passing through
the narrow gate on the far side of that field
where the pasture grass of the body’s life gives way
to the high, original standing of the trees.
By coming into the shadow, the shadow
of the grace of the strait way’s ending,
the shadow of the mercy of light.

Why must the gate be narrow?
Because you cannot pass beyond it burdened.
To come in among these trees you must leave behind
the six days’ world, all of it, all of its plans and hopes.
You must come without weapon or tool, alone,
expecting nothing, remembering nothing,
into the ease of sight, the brotherhood of eye and leaf.
~Wendell Berry, “Sabbath 1985 V”

We who live in the six day world, walking the six day path to the narrow gate forget too quickly about the seventh day Sabbath. The meaning of our existence is not defined by how much we accomplish in the week, or how capable we are at carrying our burdens.

We are invited to walk through the narrow way, where worries and heavy loads cannot fit the opening.

Passing through shadow is part of reaching the light. The mercy of the shadow is — then we know light exists.

Light beyond shadow, Joy beyond tears,
Love that is greater when darkest our fears;
deeper the Peace when the storm is around,
nearer the Hope to the lost who is found.
Light of the world, ever shining, shining!

Hope in our pain and our dying. in our darkness,
there is Light, in our crying, there is Love,
in the noise of life imparting Peace that passes understanding.

Light beyond shadow, Joy beyond tears,
Love that is greater when darkest our fears;
deeper the Peace when the storm is around,
nearer the Hope to the lost who is found.
-Paul Wigmore

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Astonished

It’s an early summer day, going to be a hot one.
I’m away from home, I’m working; the sky is solidly blue
with just a chalk smear of clouds. So why this melancholy?
Why these blues? Nothing I’ve done seems to matter; I
could leave tomorrow and no one would notice, that’s how
invisible I feel. But look, there’s a pair of cardinals
on the weathered table, pecking at sunflower seeds
which I’ve brought from home. They don’t seem
particularly grateful. Neither does the sky, no matter
how I transcribe it. I wanted to do more in this life,
not the elusive prizes, but poems that astonish. A big flashy jay
lands on the table, scattering seeds and smaller birds.
They regroup, continue to hunt and peck on the lawn.
~Barbara Crooker, “Melancholia” from Some Glad Morning

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the green heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
~Wendell Berry “The Peace of Wild Things” from The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry

I lay awake last night worrying over our son and his family’s ten hour overnight flight from Tokyo. Our two young grandchildren arrive today after 30 months of pandemic separation – to them, we are just faces on a screen.

We go soon to collect them from half-way around the world where they said a sorrowful sayonara to grandparents and family there, arriving here to a new life, new language, new everything, with their worldly belongings in suitcases.

From the largest city in the world to our little corner of the middle of nowhere.

I will watch them discover for themselves
the joys and sorrows of this world.
When I look through their eyes,
I will be reminded there is light beyond the darkness I fear,
there is peace amid the chaos,
there is a smile behind the tears,
there is stillness within the noisiness
there is rest despite my restlessness,
there is grace as old gives way to new.

I do not need to do anything astonishing myself.
Astonishing happens all around me.

I need only notice and cherish it.

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High Light of a Late June Evening

In June’s high light she stood at the sink
            With a glass of wine,
And listened for the bobolink,
And crushed garlic in late sunshine.

I watched her cooking, from my chair.
            She pressed her lips
Together, reached for kitchenware,
And tasted sauce from her fingertips.

“It’s ready now. Come on,” she said.
            “You light the candle.”
We ate, and talked, and went to bed,
And slept. It was a miracle.
~Donald Hall “Summer Kitchen”

Day ends, and before sleep
when the sky dies down, consider
your altered state: has this day
changed you? Are the corners
sharper or rounded off? Did you
live with death? Make decisions
that quieted? Find one clear word
that fit? At the sun’s midpoint
did you notice a pitch of absence,
bewilderment that invites
the possible? What did you learn
from things you dropped and picked up
and dropped again? Did you set a straw
parallel to the river, let the flow
carry you downstream?
~Jeanne Lohmann “Questions Before Dark”

I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer.
You are yourself the answer.
Before your face questions die away.
~C.S. Lewis from Till We Have Faces

When the world seems to be going to hell in a hand basket, what a gift is a wonderful evening meal, conversation at the dinner table and falling asleep with a gentle sigh of contentment. These sweet moments are worth remembering.

It is easy to get swept up in frustration with a plethora of angry public opinions and even angrier societal actions. Yet I find that only leads to indigestion, irritability and insomnia.

I ask myself thoughtful and sometimes troubling questions at the end of the day that too often feel unanswerable — only because I’m not paying attention to the ultimate Answer to all questions. Each day I should be ready to be changed by His call to me to finish well.

I must not take any day for granted. Each is a sweet day to be remembered for some special moment that made me hope it could last forever – whether the high light of late June or the candle light that pierces the darkness of the shortest December day.

Do you put honey in your tea
Do you let it cool gradually,
Do feel the strange wash of time and memory? 
Have you made peace with your worst day,
Kissed in a busy cafe,
Are there things you feel but you still don't know how to say?

Chorus: Brief as the light on wheels of hay,
All that you've kept or given away
Questions that come before dark at the end of a day

Did you lose a lover or friend
Was there a story that just had to end?
Did you finally learn what kept coming around again
Did you work in a bookstore?
Are there things that you don’t do anymore?
Ever watch an oncoming train or gathering storm

Chorus

Did you say yes
Did you say no
Was it true or just wasn't so?
Did you land hard or gracefully
Was it not what you planned? 
But right where you needed to be

Have you ever made a grilled cheese,
Ever prayed down on your knees,
Did you love a place you still had to leave?
Did you walk before you crawled,
Have a dog when you were small,
Did make it through but it was such a close call?

Copyright Carrie Newcomer 2022

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A Lavender Dusk

Twilight fell:
The sky turned to a light, dusky purple littered with tiny silver stars.

~J.K.Rowling from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

How strange this fear of death is!
We are never frightened at a sunset.
~George MacDonald

In our modern world that never seems to rest, a sunrise can feel more daunting than a sunset.  We are unprepared for the day to start:
the ready-set-go of a sunrise can be overwhelming to a tired soul. 

There are mornings when the new light of dawn penetrates right through our closed eyelids, enough to wake the dead, if not the sleeping.  It cannot be ignored in its urgency to rouse us to action.

In contrast, the end of the day requires little preparation.  Sunsets signal a slowing-down and unraveling of tension, a deep cleansing breath, a letting-go of the light for another night.  We hope twilight will ease over us, covering us like a comfortable quilt, tucking us in for the night with a kiss and hug and promise of sweet dreams.

The reason we do not need to fear the sunset is that we know it isn’t all there is. The black nothingness of night would be petrifying if we didn’t understand and trust that the light will return, as startling as it may be in its brightness.  It is the rerunning cycle of the light and dark that reassures.  It is as it was created to be, over and over.

Let the sunset tuck us in.  Let the sunrise prepare us for a new day. 

Now the day is over
night is drawing nigh,
shadows of the evening
steal across the sky.
Jesus, give the weary
calm and sweet repose;
with they tend’rest blessing,
may our eyelids close.

Approach the night with caution
It’s the best that you can do
Move quickly though the darkness
‘Til the daylight is renewed
Approach the night with caution
You will know it’s for the best
Once tomorrow’s morning
Quells the thumping in your chest
For evening is when all things dark can
Slide around with ease
And good things all get shoved in the shadows
By a wicked breeze
Approach the night with caution
No longer shall you roam
When darkness stains the eastern sky
Be sure that you are home
For night is the dividing line that
Blends the right and wrong
Spirits crossing freely over
Can hold you there too long

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Fast Falls the Eventide

Forgive me if I forget
with the birdsong and the day’s
last glow folding into the hands
of the trees, forgive me the few
syllables of the autumn crickets,
the year’s last firefly winking
like a penny in the shoulder’s weeds,
if I forget the hour, if I forget
the day as the evening star
pours out its whiskey over the gravel
and asphalt I’ve walked
for years alone, if I startle
when you put your hand in mine,
if I wonder how long your light
has taken to reach me here.
~Jake Adam York “Abide”

Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me.
~Henry Lyte, from the hymn “Abide with Me”

A Peaceful Day on a Shaded Porch
As a couple dozen Holstein cows
Swaying their great udders march
To the barn behind this house.
We rock in the chairs, drinking tea,
Thinking of the ones who died,
Working this farm before you and me,
Singing, “Fast falls the eventide,”
Thinking of all they must do
Before the end and the deep abyss,
They took great comfort from this view
On just such a peaceful day as this.
     Which says: our time is short, no time to waste.
      Let us improve today before we are replaced.

~Rozel Hunt, “A Peaceful Day on a Shaded Porch.”

On my grayest days,
as transient as life can feel,
I am no more
than a raindrop
on the fingertip of a glass blade.

We walk hand in hand, alongside
~abiding~
in Him whose Light reaches out
even in the depths of our night.

Abide with me, fast falls the eventide,
The darkness deepens Lord, with me abide
When other helpers fail and comforts flee
Help of the helpless, oh, abide with me

Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day
Earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away
Change and decay in all around I see
O Thou who changest not, abide with me

I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness
Where is death’s sting?
Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me

I need thy presence every passing hour.
What but thy grace can foil the tempter’s power?
Who like thyself my guide and strength can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, O abide with me.

Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies
Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee
In life, in death, o Lord, abide with me
Abide with me, abide with me

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The Groaning and Travailing World

…deeds are done which appear so evil to us
and people suffer such terrible evils
that it does not seem as though any good will ever come of them;
and we consider this, sorrowing and grieving over it 

so that we cannot find peace
and this is why:


our reasoning powers are so blind now, so humble and so simple, 
that we cannot know the high, marvelous wisdom, the might 
and the goodness of the Holy Trinity.


And this is what he means where he says, 
“You shall see for yourself that all manner of things shall be well”, 
as if he said, “Pay attention to this now, faithfully and confidently, 
and at the end of time you will truly see it in the fullness of joy.

~Julian of Norwich from Revelations of Divine Love

Christ did not descend from the cross except into the grave. . . . He must forbear to reveal His power and glory by presenting Himself as Himself, and must be present only in the ordinary miracle of the existence of His creatures. Those who wish to see Him must see Him in the poor, the hungry, the hurt, the wordless creatures, the groaning and travailing beautiful world.
~Wendell Berry from Jayber Crow

Once again we read of an inexplicable mass shooting, a racially motivated killing of innocent victims due to incomprehensible evil.

There is no finding of peace in their deaths.  If I were their family member, there could be no peace for me in the ongoing anguish and despair of such an untimely senseless loss.  Only the intervention of the Holy Spirit can possibly change shock, anger and grief to the fullness of joy. It would come as slow and imperceptibly as God’s still small voice.

I pray that those who have been hurt, those who may never fully recover from their physical and emotional injury, and those who continue to feel their very existence is threatened, may understand how it is remotely possible that God could use evil such as this for good.  Christ Himself was murdered and descended to the grave so that we can see God lying alongside the dead and dying. It is hard for our simple blind human reasoning to accept that all manner of things shall be well…

-even now as we groan and weep until we are dry as dust.