Our Ordinary Unmysterious Lives

Definite beliefs are what make the radical mystery
those moments when we suddenly know there is a God
about whom we “know” absolutely nothing –
accessible to us and our ordinary, unmysterious lives.

And more crucially:

definite beliefs enable us to withstand the storms of suffering

that come into every life, and that tend to destroy
any spiritual disposition that does not have deep roots.

~Christian Wiman from My Bright Abyss

photo of Wiser Lake Chapel sanctuary by Barb Hoelle

Does anyone have the foggiest idea
of what sort of power we so blithely invoke?
Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?
The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets,
mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.
It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church;
we should all be wearing crash helmets.
Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares;
they should lash us to our pews.

~Annie Dillard from Teaching a Stone to Talk

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

We are only a few weeks away from the beginning of Advent, a time when I am very guilty of blithely invoking the gentle story of Christmas Eve’s silent night, the sleeping infant away in a manger, the devoted parents hovering, the humble shepherds peering in the stable door.

The reality, I’m confident, was far different.

There was nothing gentle about a teenage mother giving birth in a stable, laying her baby in a feed trough–I’m sure there were times when Mary could have used a life preserver.
There was nothing gentle about the heavenly host appearing to the shepherds, shouting and singing the glories and leaving them “sore afraid.” The shepherds needed crash helmets.
There was nothing gentle about Herod’s response to the news that a Messiah had been born–he swept overboard a legion of male children whose parents undoubtedly begged for mercy, clinging to their children about to be murdered.
There was nothing gentle about a family’s flight to Egypt to flee that fate for their only Son.
There was nothing gentle about 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 and hung on a cross until he took his last breath.

Yet he understood the power that originally brought him to earth and would return him to heaven, and back again someday. 
No signal flares needed there.

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 as a desperate person who will never ever save oneself.   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, guilt and self-doubt to let go of our own anger in order to confront the reality of the radical mystery of God.

It is not for the faint of heart, this finding a “definite belief” within our ordinary unmysterious lives and giving it deep roots to thrive. It is reasonable and necessary to be “sore afraid” and “bend our anger” into His peace.

And not forget our crash helmets.

walking to church in Tokyo


Like Right Now

It could happen any time, tornado,
earthquake, Armageddon. It could happen.


Or sunshine, love, salvation.

It could, you know. That’s why we wake
and look out––no guarantees
in this life.

But some bonuses, like morning,
like right now, like noon,
like evening.
~William Stafford “Yes”
from The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems

Of course there are no guarantees — no matter how selfless we are, how devout our practices, how righteous we appear in others’ eyes.

The natural disaster still happens, the illness progresses, the unexpected still happens because there is no warranty on how things must go while we’re here.

What is guaranteed is our vision of God’s glory as portrayed through His infinite sacrifice, His infinite worth, His infinite value, His infinite presence and transcendence. We glorify him through our enjoyment of Him — right now, right here — the bonus of another morning, another noon, another evening. It is bonus, not anything we are owed.

Guaranteed glorious. Unlimited warranty.

A Bright Sadness: The Branch That Begins to Bloom

What word informs the world,
and moves the worm along in his blind tunnel?

What secret purple wisdom tells the iris edges
to unfold in frills? What juiced and emerald thrill

urges the sap until the bud resolves
its tight riddle? What irresistible command

unfurls this cloud above this greening hill,
or one more wave — its spreading foam and foil —

across the flats of sand? What minor thrust
of energy issues up from humus in a froth

of ferns? Delicate as a laser, it filigrees
the snow, the stars. Listen close — What silver sound

thaws winter into spring? Speaks clamor into singing?
Gives love for loneliness? It is this

un-terrestrial pulse, deep as heaven, that folds you
in its tingling embrace, gongs in your echo heart.
~Luci Shaw “What Secret Purple Wisdom” from
The Green Earth: Poems of Creation 
~

The road that took Him from wooden manger to wooden cross is one we walk in joy and terror through His Word.

He is given to us;
He gives Himself to bring joy to our miserable and dark existence;

He dies for us;
He rises to give us eternal hope of salvation;
He calls us by name and we recognize Him.

This mystery is too much for too many unwilling to accept that such sacrifice is possible. His sacrifice and many parts of His body continue to be oppressed and persecuted every day.  We are blind-hearted to the possibility that this Spirit that cannot be measured, touched, weighed or tracked can stir and overwhelm darkness.  We prefer the safety of remaining tight in the bud, hid in the little room of our hearts rather than risk the joy and terror of full blossom and fruitfulness.

Lord, give us grace in our blindness, having given us Yourself.  Prepare us for embracing your mystery. 

Prepare us for joy.
Prepare us to bloom.

What is the crying at Jordan?
Who hears, O God, the prophecy?
Dark is the season, dark
our hearts and shut to mystery.

Who then shall stir in this darkness
prepare for joy in the winter night?
Mortal in darkness we
lie down, blind-hearted, seeing no light.

Lord, give us grace to awake us,
to see the branch that begins to bloom;
in great humility
is hid all heaven in a little room.

Now comes the day of salvation,
in joy and terror the Word is born!
God gives himself into our lives;
Oh, let salvation dawn!
~Carol Christopher Drake

A Bright Sadness: Merciful Dew


He hath abolished the old drought

and rivers run where all was dry,
The field is sopp’d with merciful dew
He hath put a new song in my mouth
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




When I have no voice left,
He gives me a song I can still sing.
When I run dry, He replenishes.
When I wither, His merciful dew
restores and readies me for a new day.

I am stopped astonished,
sopped and mopping up,
spilling over in His grace.

Are you thirsty
Are you empty
Come and drink these Living Waters
Time unbroken
Peace unspoken
Rest beside these Living Waters
Christ is calling
Find refreshing
At the cross of Living Waters
Lay your life down
On Thee, all come
Rise up in these Living Waters

There’s a river that flows
With mercy and love
Bringing joy to the city of our God
There our hope is secure
Do not fear anymore
Praise the Lord of Living Waters

Spirit moving
Mercy washing
Healing in these living waters
Lead your children to the shore line
Life is in these Living Waters

There’s a river that flows
With mercy and love
Bringing joy to the city of our God
There our hope is secure
Do not fear anymore
Praise the Lord of Living Waters

Like a Feather

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My life is light, waiting for the death wind,
Like a feather on the back of my hand.
Dust in sunlight and memory in corners
Wait for the wind that chills towards the dead land.

Grant us thy peace.
~T.S. Eliot from A Song for Simeon

 

 

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Often we feel heavy, so burdened,
weighted down, waiting for what may never come:
yet truly our life is light as a feather,
only dust and memory,
a mere breath could carry us away in a moment
and will…
and we will know peace.

 

 

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Just That Kind of Day

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If ever there were a spring day so perfect,
so uplifted by a warm intermittent breeze
that it made you want to throw
open all the windows in the house
and unlatch the door to the canary’s cage,
indeed, rip the little door from its jamb,
a day when the cool brick paths
and the garden bursting with peonies
seemed so etched in sunlight
that you felt like taking
a hammer to the glass paperweight
on the living room end table,
releasing the inhabitants
from their snow-covered cottage
so they could walk out,
holding hands and squinting
into this larger dome of blue and white,
well, today is just that kind of day.
~Billy Collins  “Today”
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This is the kind of morning that begs to be admired from dawn’s first moment:  everything emerges from the fog so sharp and vivid bathed in golden light.

It takes away my breath at the same time as it delivers it deep within me.

How can I spring others free as I now have been sprung?
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God Was Here: Wanders Through the Thorn

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…Do not be afraid, though briers and thorns are all around you
Ezekiel 2:6

 

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Christ … is a thorn in the brain. 
Christ is God crying I am here, 
and here not only in what exalts and completes and uplifts you, 
but here in what appalls, offends, and degrades you, 
here in what activates and exacerbates all that you would call not-God. 
To walk through the fog of God 
toward the clarity of Christ is difficult 
because of how unlovely, 
how ungodly that clarity often turns out to be.
~Christian Wiman from Image Journal essay “Varieties of Quiet”

 

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Gardener/author Alphonse Karr in the mid-19th century wrote that even though most people grumble about roses having thorns,  he was grateful that thorns have roses.
After all, there was a time when thorns were not part of our world, when we knew nothing of suffering and death. In desiring more than we were already generously given, we have received more than we bargained for.

We reel under the thorns we have chosen to wander through — indeed every day there is more bloodletting, barricading us from all that is sweet and good and precious. Thorns tear us up, bloody us, make us cry out in pain and grief, deepen our fear that we may never overcome them.

Yet even the most brutal crown of thorns did not stop the loving sacrifice, can never thwart the sweetness of redemption, will not spoil the goodness, nor destroy the promise of salvation to come.

The Lord, our Rose, has mercy upon us.

 

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“the only begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds;
God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God;
begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father,
by whom all things were made”
~from the Nicene Creed

 

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1. Maria walks amid the thorn,
Kyrie eleison.
Maria walks amid the thorn,
Which seven years no leaf has born.
Jesus and Maria.

2. What ‘neath her heart doth Mary bear?
Kyrie eleison.
A little child doth Mary bear,
Beneath her heart He nestles there.
Jesus and Maria.

3. And as the two are passing near,
Kyrie eleison,
Lo! roses on the thorns appear,
Lo! roses on the thorns appear.
Jesus and Maria.

 

 

This Flower, whose fragrance tender with sweetness fills the air,
Dispels with glorious splendor the darkness everywhere;
True Man, yet very God, from sin and death He saves us,
And lightens every load.
~from “Lo! How a Rose”