A Visible Reality

 

“A truth, a doctrine, or a religion needs no space for itself.  They are disembodied entities. They are heard, learned, and apprehended, and that is all.  But, the incarnate Son of God needs not only ears or hearts, but living people who will follow him.  That is why he called his disciples into a literal, bodily following, and thus made his fellowship with them a visible reality.”                                                      Dietrich Bonhoeffer

“The daily practice of incarnation–of being in the body with full confidence that God speaks the language of the flesh–is to discover a pedagogy that is as old as the gospels.  Why else did Jesus spend his last night on earth teaching his disciples to wash feet and share supper?  With all the conceptual truths in the universe at his disposal, he did not give them something to think about together when he was gone.  Instead, he gave them concrete things to do–specific ways of being together in their bodies–that would go on teaching them what they needed to know when he was no longer around to teach them himself.

After he was gone, they would still have God’s Word, but that Word had some new flesh. The disciples were going to need something warm and near that they could bump into on  a regular basis, something so real that they would not be able to intellectualize it and so essentially untidy that there was no way they could ever gain control over it.  So Jesus gave them things they could get their hands on, things that would require them to get close enough to touch one another. In the case of the meal, he gave them things they could smell and taste and swallow and share. In the case of the feet, he gave them things to wash that were attached to real human beings, so that they could not bend over them without being drawn into one another’s lives.”                          Barbara Brown Taylor

“Now you are the body of Christ and each one of you is a part of it.”  Romans 12:27

“Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.  Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.  There is one body.” Ephesians 4:2-4

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Dear Momma

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Dear Momma,

 

You died. A year ago today I was holding your dead hand. For hours I sat with your body as it blanched, as it grew cold. Your fingers were starting to not look like your fingers. I couldn’t stop crying. They came for you, to take you and I wailed. Because I knew I would never see your body again. Never feel the way your skin was so light, so soft, so loosely lovely on you, like petals.   Your hair was still warm where it was nestled in the pillows so I buried my face there for a long time. The panic was rising and I was trying to keep it down but I knew they were on their way, strangers coming to take you.

 

You died. I know you know that. I don’t know what you know, but I can’t keep going unless I think that you know now, know more than you were able to before. You are not here and I miss you. Like an ache, like a bruise, like a break—somewhere in my body, everywhere in my body. Momma, you were my mommy. You were all that a child looks to. You held my hand, you brushed my hair.  You stomped your foot when I did cause it just made you so mad. You listened when I told you I was scared. You held my head in your lap on the night you told me you would die, soon.

When I was 7 you told me to find a picture that made me peaceful and hold that in my mind when the scary thoughts wouldn’t go away. I thought of clouds in the sky floating by and I have always gone back to that place when I am afraid.

You told me your dreams and I told you mine. Once we had an almost identical dream on the same night about violence against someone we knew. Turns out that person was mugged that night. Strange, so strange, but that was us. Both of us knew things before we knew them. That was from you. You grew and you grew and you grew as I grew. You were a different person when I was 37 than when I was 14. I loved you then and now. You made me so mad sometimes. Remember the time I refused to eat dinner with you because you made me so mad? I think I was 20. I was such a ….. I was it all, wasn’t I?

 

You died, momma. You aren’t here. I think I’m just starting to let that sink in. It takes me awhile. It didn’t feel real for a long time. But you aren’t here. I’ve had so many things to tell you. E is doing so good this year. She’s still E but, mom, you would be so proud. She has settled into her little self – we found out more about how her little (big) brain works. It explains a lot. We started listening to her more and she started listening right back. Funny how that happens. And little e, she’s had a harder year. She cries all the time about things not being right, about how she can’t go back in time and make things “true” once they’ve already happened in a way she didn’t want. I am at a loss about this. I don’t know how to help her. She’s strong but she’s also sad sometimes. I know you see her. I know you see her more than I do. They love you so much. They talk about you. They miss you. Both of them cried in Moana when her Grandma comes back to remind Moana of who she really is. Both of them told me that’s what you do. Keep reminding them. Keep reminding them of who they are and always have been. Its hard for me to remember sometimes because they are…well, they are really loud. Remind me too.

 

The girls are like you. I am like you. I’m speaking now more. Using the voice that is so much like yours. I preached at church. Preached. I was so scared that I almost threw up in the car. But then I also loved it.   It’s the weirdest thing. I have no idea where that leaves me, but I get to keep doing it and that’s good. I wish you were there. It was such a big moment for me. Sometimes I felt like you wished you could do the things I got to do – study, talk, help make decisions at church. Do this with me? This preaching thing? This studying, reading, praying, writing, exhorting, teaching, encouraging, pointing in a way that helps clear the fog, maybe, thing. In so many ways it’s a culmination of everything my life has been about so far—its blowing my mind a bit. But then its just preaching – its just talking in front of a small group of people I know about what I know and mostly what I don’t know about Jesus. But I’m a woman. And I’m preaching. I wish you were here. Sometimes I want to stick it to the men who told you to be quiet so bad. But I know I have to move forward past that too – they are just little humans after all. But I’ll keep preaching and pointing beyond myself, out past my own arm, and that will be our answer.

 

We miss you like we would miss our legs, like we would miss our eyes, like we would miss food – there’s never a minute we are not aware of it. Dad misses you. I can’t even speak to that – it hurts on a whole other level. I’ll let Dad write to you. But you were the love of his life. I know you knew that. The whole world saw it. What happens to that kind of love when it’s sawn in two. Where does it go?

 

C misses you. He’s a good brother, he calls me to check in. Oh and guess what? He’s getting married. Him and J got engaged in Greece. You would have been sufficiently jealous and happy, in that way you could be both. Who am I kidding, me too. We love J. She sat with me and you when your body was cooling. She came in, no hesitation and sat across the bed from me and watched you. She’s not afraid of being-with and she’s not selfish and it’s a good thing. She’s good for C. She reads a lot and pushes him and rolls her eyes while laughing in all the right ways at him. Her and B love sci-fi shows and books, not in the nerdy way but in the this-is-actually-deeply-true-way and she’s got it together.   I think C will be fine. Stevie is still the cutest dog.

 

Ok, that reminds me – Henry. He cried all morning, that morning one year ago. We were getting all your stuff ready to go to hospice and Henry was whining all morning and trotting between your bed and us as we moved around the house. Then you left and he knew it. He stayed close. He did growl at Stevie later that day when she came into your room, but we let it go that once. Henry has been good for Dad. Gives him a push to look up maybe. Henry has been good for us. He lets the girls pet him and doesn’t bark at everyone who walks in the door—who would have ever thought?

Oh, and also, we got a bunny. I know, I know! You’re horrified. They don’t smell quite as much as you used to always say. Maybe I’m just used to it….But he’s litter trained! And he jumps so cute! And he’s so incredibly soft and I needed something small to love. I think you’d love him deep down. He’s black with tiny bits of silver – like you! Heh heh heh heh…The whole thing makes me laugh and feel quite pleased with myself.

 

We are all good, even now in the midst of it all. In some ways the roads our lives are on opened up for us. Maybe because living became clearer when death was forced into it. There’s not a lot of room left to dink around and be afraid. What’s the point? Maybe…. Still wish with my whole heart you were here to talk to about it all.

 

 

This past week has felt like I was reliving last year. I was reliving what it was like to hear the news about how radiation didn’t work. Your resignation, dad’s lost and quiet voice. Reliving what it was like to have it suggested that you go to hospice right away. Reliving shifting you in your bed, reliving walking around the oxygen cord. Reliving what it was like to be in the grocery store and have dad call me to come right away – you were in a coma. You were winding down. Your life – all that life you had– closing in on itself, like a flower shuttering for the night. Shuttering down only to be opened by something it didn’t even know could be possible – more than you could even imagine. Reliving the hours of holding your hand, crushing all that morphine into yogurt, reliving holding you in the washroom, reliving you waking up, smiling at me for the last time with your eyes when you couldn’t move anything else. Green, gray – solid eyes. Perfectly sculpted brows I was always jealous of. Lines like living lace around your eyes. Your freckles showing. You were so beautiful and I’m not sure you ever let yourself in on that truth. But you were. And you saw me, one year ago, your girl.

 

I relived it all this week. It made me so tired. I could barely move the day we put the rest of you in the ground on Friday. I hope nobody thought I was rude – I could barely move.

 

And all this has made me so sad about other losses that I would have shrugged off. Grief is good. It makes us actually account for the life in our hands. Friendships that have shifted and are changing are making me cry. Which means they were meaningful, which means I was living, which is what God calls good, right? It hurts though. Sometimes I don’t know how we all keep living, us humans. All this hurt. It doesn’t surprise me all that much that people lash out against other people. I hate it but I’m not surprised any more. You should see what is going on in the world right now. Oh mom, its incredible. The pain is intolerable and we are just making it worse.

But.

But.

And yet….. I’ve taught myself to say.

 

The gift of death, if you choose to call it that, is the woke-ness to life. If you let it be, I suppose. I suppose there is always the choice. But here, in your house, the house of us that you built, momma, there is a woke-ness. We are trying to honor death and what it does to us while at the same time honoring life, living life. Today I wept at your grave, like a baby, lying in the grass. I needed to be close to dirt and earth and what is left of you here. And then I had to go watch little e get her preschool certificate and sing a song about a slippery fish and then we went and ate ikea meatballs and bought organizers and I had more ideas for a piece on truth and public life that I’m working on and now I really need a nap …. Life.

A good life – real and normal and good and called. And death – the ache that remains always. All at the same time.   I’m trying to honor life in what I put out there, what I say, how I say it. I’m trying to let your death be the ground that life comes out of – I’m trying to live out what you always said…

 

“God doesn’t bring anything good out of us, except by love.”

 

My anger, my disappointment, my bitterness – about your death, about losing you and your skin and your eyes, and about so many other things, about so many people and responses and blindnesses – most of all mine—all of that is only answered by love. Ever.

If I read how you taught me to read, if I pay attention the way you taught me to pay attention, if I forgive like you had to teach me through your very being, then all I have left is the answer of love. Not pillows and candles and cutesy mugs love – but forgiving, forbearing, sacrificing, listening, blind corner but believing the best, holding the ache kind of love. I’ve dipped one toe in. I truly have no idea, I know that. And I’m terrified at what embracing THAT kind of love means for the kind of loss I will hold in this body.

 

But. But.

And yet…..I, we, all of us who loved you, we are not alone.

 

Today, one year ago, momma you died. Dad will write to you. C too, I’m sure. The girls made you necklaces yesterday. I can’t stop crying and my head is pounding. Missing you like this is really scary. But I’m living and I’m trying to choose life and trying to raise the living-ness of this bit of world around me. I wish you were here for it, though, I wish you were here.

 

Dear momma, I love you. You made me so much more than you or I could ever even know. Well, maybe you know now. Dad said on Friday that you were so much more than you knew, so much more than the parts of your life.  That’s what you did for so many people. It must be obvious somewhere on that crown of yours….

Oh mom, I want to write more soon but I should go talk to our little e.  She is colouring and jumping on couch cushions and poking the bunny all at once.  But for today, the day you died one year ago, I just need you to know that I just miss you so much.

 

Love, your baby girl,

J

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Community – The Vision and the Call

Its been a fair while since I’ve posted on the blog.  Things have come up!  Unexpectedly, I’ve been preaching more.  So much has come up inside of me because of this process but mostly its been an eye-opening to see the astonishing amount of energy and focus that such a thing requires.  And I’ve loved it.

Here are links to two sermons on Ephesians if anyone is interested.

Ephesians: The Vision Imagined

Ephesians: Living a Life Worthy of the Call

 

Dwelling within these Ephesians words, for me, has everything to do with what we do at church.   As we’ve asked questions on the nature of church within my own community, these words held open a door into a transforming way to enter community for me.  If they hold a door open for you as well, bonus!

This little church I’ve found a home in is changing.  As things tend to do.  Leadership changes, name changes, identity changes rock communities and it takes a lot of maturity and letting go and listening to others to weather them.  And it takes a choice to start to see community for what it is and what it is not.  It is a group of humans, trying to live together.  It is not a product for consumers to pay for.  It is imperfect, because humans are imperfect.  It is a visible expression of the presence of Jesus. It is diverse because the WHOLE of  WHO God is is diverse.  It is not a group of friends and people who all think the same (although it can have elements of that within it, of course) but if that is what you are aiming for, you will never grow into something whole.  Something nice maybe–for the people who fit–but not whole.  It is hard work to build cohesion through difference.  Especially in a culture that idolizes ideology and “the latest, best idea!!!” over a recognition of each other’s messy, changing humanity.   It will require a whole lot of listening and a whole lot of putting your own voice aside for awhile to let another’s come through.   That’s painful sometimes.  It takes a lot of time.

Church is an ongoing discovery, ongoing treasure. Growth is not measurable by numbers in church but in the movement towards health and wholeness of its parts.  Health and wholeness of individuals, of relationships, of persons and a mysteriously present God.  And it requires each person to contribute.  When we strip away the bells and whistles, church community, for it to represent the Person of Christ and for it to feed its own sheep, must require each of us contribute.  Leadership does not sustain community – it stewards it, but if there is someone waiting for community to be given to them, they will not experience it.  Community always is sustained from an inner movement from in to out, not something from outside shaping in.  We have bought a lie that we go to church to be given to.  We go to church because we ARE.  We ARE, by God capturing our hearts, a person who lives out a piece of God’s body in this world.  We go to church to bring who we are.  BEING is the essential truth of church as BEING is the essential truth about a God who says things like “I AM.”

And there will be times for rest, receiving and times for action and contributing.  Like in a family there are times when members of that family are to be cared for, provided for, fed – but they do not exist to be fed by others and others don’t exist to feed them.  They all exist to BE and to contribute their BEING.   There are times for self care, and boundaries are necessary to any body.  But the goal is always the WHOLE BEING, not the triumph of one part at the expense of the others.

There will not be church where there are programs for consuming and customers for appeasing.  It might bring numbers, and I’d even say that it WILL bring numbers, but it will not bring church.  It will not bloom into the living presence of the living Christ.

Community has way more to do with HOW than with WHAT.  HOW do we do life together as opposed to WHAT we stand for as a group is what will bring transformation to groups, transformation that might actually stand up for something in the end, something like a whole humanity.

And not every community is the end for every person.  There are times to move on, times to stay.  Usually depending on where one is in their own cycle of healing and maturing, which is good and necessary and unavoidable.

Community is at once way smaller than we thought, way more ordinary than we thought and also way huger than we can imagine with a truth to it that will blow our minds with its pervasiveness, its comprehensiveness, its wholeness and witness to the work of God in the reconciling of this earth.    It is at once all that even while it is simply eating together and constantly adding more chairs to the table.

 

This little church.  A gift in the laundry pile of real life.  A bunch of normal people with normal issues that are at once life-altering and tedious.  There is nothing magical about a church community.  But in so much as there is an intersection of our deepest, transcendent, best hopes with real, dirty, actual life, there is a power.  A power that comes as a gift into that intentional space.  A power given to us to know love and keep after it even when it defies measuring.   A treasure in jars of clay indeed.  We’ve been sitting with words around community in this summer season and will continue to do so.

If you want to join in examining, contemplating, sitting with community, you are so welcome.  I will post quotes on community for reflection over the summer, ideas and experiences that challenge me and make me move.  And hopefully you have a real live place and real live people that you can put these words into action within.    And if you are looking, you are always, ALWAYS welcome on The Road.

 

 

Risen

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For Easter Day

If you are looking

for a blessing,

do not linger

here.

 

Here

is only

emptiness,

a hollow,

a husk

where a blessing

used to be.

 

This blessing

was not content

in its confinement.

 

It could not abide

its isolation,

the unrelenting silence,

the pressing stench

of death.

 

So if it is

a blessing

you seek,

open your own

mouth.

 

Fill your lungs

with the air

this new

morning brings

 

and then

release it

with a cry.

 

Here how the blessing

breaks forth

in your own voice,

 

how your own lips

form every word

you never dreamed

to say.

 

See how the blessing

circles back again,

wanting you to

repeat it,

but louder,

 

how it draws you,

pulls you,

sends you

to proclaim

its only word.

 

Risen.

Risen.

Risen.

 

By Jan Richardson

 

 

ps….I’m incredibly in love with Jan Richardson’s book of blessings, Circle of Grace.  I want to write every one of them out for everyone to read.

 

 

Lest we forget what God can do with mud

What can God do with brokenness, with everything we wish didn’t happen, couldn’t happen, but does and leaves a huge mess. What possibly could God do.

 

Friends of mine asked me to pray. There’s a conflict. The words they used were “there’s so much brokenness.”       There always is. We try to forget that though.  When we are on a winning streak.

I have been thinking about this poem all week – because what is dirt other than the bits of life that have broken down, packed down and wait under everything we do all day.

He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” John 9:15

Blessing of Mud

Lest we think

The blessing

Is not

In the dirt.

 

Lest we think

The blessing

Is not

In the earth

Beneath our feet.

 

Lest we think

The blessing

Is not

In the dust,

 

Like the dust

That God scooped up at the beginning

And formed

With God’s

Two hands

And breathed into

With God’s own

Breath.

 

Lest we think

The blessing

Is not

In the spit.

 

Lest we think

The blessing

Is not

In the mud.

 

Lest we think

The blessing

Is not

In the mire,

The grime,

The muck.

 

Lest we think

God cannot reach

Deep into the things

Of earth,

Cannot bring forth

The blessing

That shimmers

Within the sludge,

Cannot anoint us

With a tender

And grimy grace.

 

Lest we think

God will not use

The ground

To give us

Life again,

To cleanse us

Of our unseeing,

To open our eyes upon

This ordinary

And stunning world.

 

–Jan Richardson

 

 

When there is brokenness, especially personal, interpersonal brokenness, our instinct is to run. Because brokenness collaterally damages everyone. Shards of ourselves hit those closest to us—when we are broken….broken open.

 

We get angry when things aren’t perfect. Because we need them to be. To accomplish all the important things we have to accomplish, we need things to flow and click and not get stuck and not freeze up and not have issues. We need our leaders to do this. We need our volunteers to do this. We need our systems to do this. We need our spouses to do this, we need our parent to do this, we need our children to do this. We need ourselves to do this.

But they don’t. We don’t. They (and we) can go on for awhile, personally and systemically, and then they (and we)  break. Break down. Break apart. Break open. That’s the nature of time and space and growth and need. That’s the nature of being a human – it stands to reason then, that anything humans create has this inherent within it. Churches, communities, city councils, constitutions, programs, governments—they break.   Breaks happen in our marriages, our friendships, our neighborliness, our parenting.   Breaks happen deep in our own selves. We don’t trust ourselves, we second guess everything. We call ourselves failures—because we break. We call others weak and get so frustrated, because they break.  We aim for doing all the right things, with all the latest ideas, with all the knowledge we have. But that’s not enough. If I do all things perfectly and in line with what I’m supposed to but have not the capacity to love through the broken……its not enough.

 

The curious thing about this faith…the most curious, upside-down thing is that God seems to know this. And  it is, in fact, the prerequisite for understanding anything that He is doing, for understanding anything in that old book.

 

Blessed are the weak, blessed are the broken, blessed are the mourning, the lost, the hungry and those whose voice is lost in the loud, loud world.  Blessed are those who try to make peace amidst all our brokenness. These are the ones who will get THIS, get this KINGDOM thing more than anyone doing all the work, all the right things will ever, ever, ever get. Because they, the broken, have no capacity to make it happen on their own merits……

 

Abraham, (old, so old), Moses (murderer, coward), Naomi (old and irrelevant), David (adulterer, murderer, show-off), Jonah (coward, angry). Peter (arrogant know-it-all with big blind spots), Paul (arrogant know-it-all with big blind spots, then sick, then in prison without any power).

Me (tired, tired, tired, lethargic, tired, in mourning all the time, lazy, angry, judgemental, sensitive, suspicious, needy, tired, tired, tired).

The kingdom of God is like the tiny seed of a weed. The Kingdom of God is like the son who takes all his money and completely blows it in the most selfish of ways. And then comes home and gets all he’s ever wanted. The Kingdom of God is like when the workers who work the most get the same pay as the workers who work the least.

The kingdom of God is when the least deserving and least likable of your community is welcomed and given all that you’ve been working for. The Kingdom of God is when the prisoner doing his deserved time for taking another’s life and voice is visited, honored, heard. The kingdom is when someone who has nothing and definitely nothing to give you in return is brought to the table and given what they need. The kingdom of God is completely not set up in the same way that we would define as the way things should work. But it is completely set up to hold our broken, broken selves.  It is completely set up to hold us in our humanity, to hold within its wholeness our whole brokenness.

 

If you would have new life, you must fall to the ground and die – like a seed, in the dark, in the dirt.

Lest we think that God is not in the mud. The mud, the dirt, the spit, the stuff you scrape off your shoe after the dogpark, that He puts on your eyes, that HE fills your vision with, that he uses to answer the deepest heartache you’ve ever had. This is the way He does it. And boy oh boy, do we, who like to see progress and all things shiny and new and perfect, hate this.

Again, that’s why the broken get it. They know the mud is the truth of the matter and the only way through to the truth of the God who grows everything from the dirt.

 

My pastor talks about God’s signature moves…..I have this sneaking suspicion that this is the signature of signature moves….

 

I’ve got to learn to stop praying for God to show me how HE sees things, to stop praying to be broken for what breaks him, to stop praying for His will to be done. Because it means that the literal shitstorm is about to fly in my face and grow something new, something I’ve always wanted, something I was created to long for, something like the Very presence of the Very God.

But holy effing flip, its messy in the meantime. And the clean up is a bitch.

 

The Active Pose of Reverence

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to be a part of an Inter-faith event at Mount Royal University. The interfaith chaplaincy office invited students of different religious faiths to speak about these faiths, how they personally came to them, how they understood them and what their faith means in their everyday lives. Sikh, Christian and Jewish students spoke to the group. Afterwards, we ate subway and talked in a big circle about any questions anyone had for anyone else.

I loved it. I love hearing people talk about what’s meaningful to them. I love how hearing about the details of what’s important to people from faiths not like mine sounds both foreign and also familiar at the same time. I love hearing about different practices that bring meaning and depth to lives, even when they aren’t completely understood yet.  I love hearing how intertwined one’s childhood, one’s parents, one’s community or lack thereof – all the parts of a life’s story– has everything to do with the shape of one’s faith.

What stood out for me, in all the discussions, was something the young Sikh student said. She stood at the front , hair wrapped in a beautiful peach turban, wearing a Kelly green sweater and talked softly, with a smile the whole time, but unwaveringly about how her faith showed her a way to observe a reverence for every human life. Even her own; even her own as a woman.

It was the word reverence that caught me. Reverence for every life. All life.

Seems like a nice idea. A nice idea we entertain…..sometimes. Until that other life starts getting in the way of our own…..

I was still mulling over reverence and what that looked like in my world when I got back in the car and started driving. The radio came on and I heard the news of Stuart McLean’s death. This made me really, really sad. More sad than I anticipated. Could be because of my own experience this past year but more, I think it had to do with what McLean offered to the world – a way of seeing its quirky truth and being kind and also really funny about it.

The interviewer had one of McLean’s long time producers on the show and asked,

“What was he like to work with?” And in her answer she said,

“What made him such a good performer and such a good storyteller wasn’t that he was naturally like that. He became that way because he was an incredibly good listener. I want to say he was a mirror, and he reflected the stories back to those who told them. But mirror’s not quite right. It’s almost like he was a conduit for other people’s stories. He listened and observed and did this incredible job of just sort of passing the stories along to others.”

I heard that and I immediately thought of the reverence that girl was speaking about again. And reverence went from being a nice idea (that I can sometimes afford others when it doesn’t cost myself too much) to being an action. I thought of reverence being an action, or even just an active posture , that has its dna,its root, its force and importance, in the practice of listening.  The active posture of reverence.

What does listening do for reverence. How would actual listening change the way in which I “revere” someone, the way in which I understand them, understand their importance.  How would the quality of listening change the way real people’s lives are given to the world.  Could this be possible?

About a week after this night, I was off trying to finish my preparations for a 3 day retreat I was leading for the women at church. The theme was “Practicing Prayer.” I was at a local coffee shop, coffee, my laptop, some books and a bottle of water in hand.     I just sat down at the window ledge, where the serious coffee shop work gets done, and before I had a chance to take of my coat, not even fully seated on the raised chair yet, a hand pushed a piece of paper into my view.   The white paper had a drawing of a pipe, with smoke rising from it and in the smoke an eagle, some feathers, a cross and a face.  The drawing was pen, with long, continuous, unhesitant lines.  It was titled “Prayer” and signed at the bottom. I looked up at the paper pusher and saw a man. I was obvious quickly that he was without a home. Ragged with no teeth. A clean sweater and a dirty-in-a-Calgary-chinook-way coat.  His shoes falling apart where the toes met the soles. He had a backpack and a mountain dew in his hands.

In that brief moment, I was annoyed and aware that everyone in the coffee shop was also aware of us. That’s the (unfortunate) nature of these things deep in the suburbs.  I had one day to finish my very-important-prayer-retreat-preparations. I was under the weather and feeling pressed. I didn’t want to be interrupted. But then I read the title of the picture again. I can’t very well ignore that can I?

I looked at the picture and said, “It’s beautiful.   What does it mean?”   He said I could have it for $10. I smiled. “I don’t have any cash on me. But I do really like it. I really like how you did the eagle-its really beautiful. What does it mean to you?”

And he told me. He outlined all the thoughts he had put on that page.  And then he talked.   And then he talked for almost 90 minutes. I didn’t say much at all. He talked. Quietly, sometimes mumbling, sometimes raising his voice. He told me story after story, one story rambling into another. He told stories in conversations–he told the stories all the way through by voicing the different actors in the different conversations that made these stories up. A story about a man trying to give him money on the street. A story about what people say about his pictures. A story about how Jesus talks to him. A story about what atheists say to him when he tells them about Jesus.   A story about when his braids got cut off when he went to jail when he was young. A story about being accosted on the c-train. A story about giving himself a tattoo with a pin. A story about the Blood reserve, where he was from. A story about the RCMP coming to his wife’s home and taking him away after a fight. A story about sleeping last night in the cemetery across the street from the coffee shop we were in. A story about his two daughters. Here he stopped.   He looked outside for a good 10 minutes. I didn’t say anything. We had been there for over an hour by this point. I didn’t have to.   One tear came down from each eye, just wetting the crease beneath his eyelid, travelling down the lines of his face, seeping into the deep lines of his cheeks.   He wiped one away. “I wish I could see them.” he said. “It’s so hard…….I’m really struggling…….it feels very dark……So dark……it’s really hard.”

He was quiet again for a few minutes. Then he started telling me about how God talks to him. How he could almost feel when God directs him. How when last night, he was going to try to break into the cars at the C-train station to see if he could get change for some food but that he felt a hand on his shoulder, almost pushing him to the side. And he turned to see who it was but there was no one there and he knew it was Jesus telling him to wait. And so he waited in the cemetery and heard voices all night – kids voices, he felt eyes looking at him over the fence and he was scared. And in the morning he started walking again and found a 5 dollar bill. And came here to get a mountain dew.   He looked at me at this point and said, “Usually nice people don’t let me talk this long. Its like you’re a priest and I’m in confession.”   I laughed.

I didn’t say much, really, at all.   I affirmed that God was with him. I said I hoped that God was with us all. And that the world did seem pretty dark sometimes. And I nodded at his question “ why do we all have to get so angry?” I didn’t know.

I bought him two sandwiches. I offered my water but he said that I needed it. He could get water. He gave me the picture for free but asked me if I could send it on to France. He heard that the French really like native art.

My friend told me that a man gave her a picture in the parking lot of another coffee shop along a different part of the C-train tracks.   Perhaps it was the same man.   I think about how he might do his days and I think about what today is like for him.   And truly I am praying that its not so dark, not so dark that he can’t see You, God. And I am aware that I have a privilege and responsibility of being able to think through, read well, and devote resources to ways that could, in real life, change the rules that actively do not help him be who He was created to be. So I am doing that too.

But in those fleeting moments when I realized that my day was going to be different than what I had thought, when I realized that I was being approached by someone who makes people, and me, sometimes really uncomfortable, I thought, “What should I do?”   When being faced with someone who doesn’t live, or doesn’t have the chance to live, by the same rules I do, I don’t always know what to do. I asked that question but then an overwhelming feeling of –“wow, that’s so not the right question” came over me. It was not “What should I do” but “How am I to be to this person?” that I needed to be asking that morning.

And the young Sikh girl in her peach turban and green sweater saying the word “reverence” came up. Stuart McLean’s listening so as to be a conduit for people’s stories, for their lives, came up. And I just decided in that moment to not shut it down, not to give him money and be on my way, but to just sit and listen. I knew we were getting stared at. I knew I wouldn’t get the work done I had thought I would do that morning. But the active pose of listening was what the Spirit-that-Draws-Everything-Back-to-Himself was apparently at work with that morning. I don’t always listen to that spirit – in fact, I don’t more often than I do.   But for whatever reason, I was ok with listening that day.  And not listening with half my brain trying to figure out what to say, what to do, what the people working at the coffee shop were thinking, but actually just entering into a real conversation with a real person.  Not listening in such a way as to add this person as a character to the action of my life but listening to hear his life because he was a real person right in front of me.  And that should be enough to make us stop in our tracks.  Reverence.  Listening.  A real life that adds real life to everything around it not because of its net worth, but because of its presence.

I’m glad he pushed that paper in front of me. I hope he wasn’t sorry either.

His name was Bernard. And his life held a lot of stories.

Tennyson and the Bells on New Year’s Day

“Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,

The flying cloud, the frosty light:

The year is dying in the night;

Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind,

For those that here we see no more;

Ring out the feud of rich and poor,

Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,

The faithless coldness of the times;

Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes,

But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,

The civic slander and the spite;

Ring in the love of truth and right,

Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;

Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;

Ring out the thousand wars of old,

Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,

The larger heart, the kindlier hand;

Ring out the darkness of the land,

Ring in the Christ that is to be.

—Taken from Malcolm Guite on Tennyson.

The Magic YES of 2016

 

 

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In the book A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd, a young girl, Felicity, her mother and her sister, are moving to their mother’s Tennessee mountain hometown after a decade of travelling around, rootless. Rumor is that the town has magic, real magic. Felicity’s mom explains to her:

   “The town HAD to stay secret, you see, because the people who lived there had magic in their veins.”

   “Real magic?” I could barely even whisper the word.

Just the thoughts of real magic sent shivers from my nose to my toes. This time it was my heart that answered, a steady drumbeat yes inside my chest.

Yes

            Yes

                        Yes”

 

Throughout the book, when little Felicity hears about magic, the long painted over magic of the town and of the people of her mother, her heart beats Yes Yes YES.   When an old story is about to be told, when someone gets close to talking about someone with magic and destiny, even when its just hinted at, her heart beats :

 Yes

                    Yes

                                                Yes

 

And I get that. I get the Yes Yes Yes when I come across something that hints at the presence of magic, of enchantment. When something points to the story that I long for, have always longed for, and am always looking for. Yes Yes Yes.   There is something in each of us that responds to the magic in this world, to the beauty, to the mystery, to the abundance, to the longing, to the memory built into every cell that says: you are loved and this world is your good home and being with a bunch of other humans in the same room, in a community, is a gift.   We long for magic. We long for God. We long for each other. We long for hope.  We long for the Yes.

 

And this year, a year of sudden tragic loss, a year of dark, even this year held so many moments of

Yes

            Yes

                        Yes.

 

So many moments where my heart beat faster, and I knew to pay attention.   So to close out this last year and to head into the new one, eyes wide open and ready to fight for hope, here are some of the books that turned up on my doorstep and caused my heart to beat faster and louder. Now, they aren’t even the best written books, the most acclaimed or trendy or cool books one could read – but there was something of magic in them that my soul responded to. They were significant to me, they held the touch of God for me in my dark year. And each of them are a sign of the All That He Is, I am convinced. So here is a good news post. Because we are not alone and there is still hope and that’s good to remember.

 

Book 1

The first book I read in 2016 was Wab Kinew’s The Reason You Walk. It’s the story of Kinew’s father, his father’s life in residential schools, the fallout of that in the generation that followed, especially in Kinew’s life. It’s a story of the Indigenous experience in Canada, one that’s finally getting some air and light. Its devastatingly heartbreaking and you will squirm – and yet….And Yet….There is a YES YES YES inside it that I haven’t stopped thinking about.   It’s the story of a son walking towards his father’s death, chronicling both men’s active search and need for forgiveness and for reconciliation. And it was this word—Reconciliation—that kept pounding in my heart YES. Kinew wrote about the reconciliation his father had to make with his own past, and then with his own legacy, with his culture, with the country and the church that built themselves on top of him–in so many ways dependent on his de-humanization for their success. Its about the elder Kinew’s reconciliation with himself and his demons . It’s the reconciliation of an angry, broken son with an angry, broken father, the reconciliation of themselves back to their own hearts and the reconciliation of both of them with their loving Creator.

“When our hearts are broken, we ought to work hard to make them whole again.” writes Kinew and the book is a story about how that wholeness, that made-good-ness, happens within the depths and complications of community. Reconiliation happens within culture and music and dance and all that makes us unique. Its happens in the world of real relationships, of responsibility and light being brought to dark places.   It’s a story that we absolutely have to come to terms with and it carved out a deep spot to start this dark year for me.

My antennae went up with that word Reconciliation – every time we hear it – there will be something of God for us to know—its become a call to pay attention…….It caught me and shaped the rest of the year–especially when it came time to say goodbye and try to wrap my head around my mom’s beautiful life.

 

 Book 2

The second book that marked its YES on me was Emily of New Moon by our beloved L.M. Montgomery.   Believe it or not, I had never read it. Madeleine L’Engle writes about how it shaped her as a young girl, and so I decided I needed it to shape me.   And oh, I loved letting its words roll over me. Like Anne, Emily is an out of place young girl who loves the beautiful world around her and longs to know it, longs to express it, share it, be present in it. Right from the beginning, Emily talks about how she gets the flash. The flash is a constant in this story and its what caught me. The flash (always italicized!) was that moment when the veil was pulled back between the worlds, one of those thin places, where she knew there was something MORE breathing into it all.

“For one glorious, supreme moment, came the flash. Emily called it that, although she felt that the name didn’t exactly describe it. It couldn’t be described—not even to Father, who always seemed a little puzzled by it. Emily never spoke of it to anyone else.

It had always seemed to Emily, ever since she could remember, that she was very, very near to a world of wonderful beauty. Between it and herself hung only a thin curtain, she could never draw the curtain aside—but sometimes, just for a moment, the wind fluttered and it was if she caught a glimpse of the enchanting realm beyond—only a glimpse, and heard a note of unearthly music.

….and always when the flash came, Emily felt that life was a wonderful, mysterious thing of persistent beauty….”

How Montgomery could express things that a suburban mom 100 years later also knew deeply, and needed deeply, meant more to me than I could express, I think. Her book was a flash for me. She named it perfectly too – the flash. We all have those blips of wondrous light, I think, and this book encouraged me deeply to remember that those moments are still SO INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT. And the flash came incomprehensively and with killer clarity this year to me… and to mom and I was lucky enough to see it. In people, in books, in our jaw-dropping mountains, in the trees in my backyard, in the kids and their questions and their unique voices, it was there. In the man I married. In mom’s eyes, and the feel of her skin, there was a thin, thin place. Never in the same way twice, never of my own making, but it’s the stuff of the very grace, the very intention of the goodly created world being brought close by a holy, holy spirit of life. The Flash is grace and this story is too.

 

Book 3

In February, Pastor Heather and I sat down to talk about the women’s retreat and she asked me what I had been catching me about God lately. And what came immediately to mind was the word hospitality.  I had been completely blown off my feet by all the food brought to us after mom’s diagnosis by friends and family but also by the other mom’s at my kids’ school. That I didn’t expect. And it was hospitality when they gave me food and in so doing, created space for me, to help me walk through what I had to walk through. And so we decided to explore this at the retreat. Heather suggested I read Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition by Christine Pohl.   (and just a note–Pastor Heather knows a lot, reads a lot, knits a lot, prays ALL THE TIME and is truthy and kind and perfectly, lightly sarcastic—everyone needs a Pastor Heather).

This book set me loose in the best possible way and gave me a framework from which to understand ( or maybe better, to stand under), even more, this Jesus that keeps haunting me.  In an age where being a Christian seems to mean (if you pay attention to the interwebs) doubling down on black and white, who’s in and who’s not, this book took a previously benign concept to me (hospitality as the purview of middle aged women, committees and Tupperware) and showed the completely subversive, topsy-turvy, upending nature of WHO and mostly HOW Jesus is.  Can you IMAGINE if every one was ACTUALLY welcome in our churches, in our homes, in our hearts and not just the people who looked and thought exactly like you? (she asks herself knowing she is very far from this….)   Can you imagine what making room like that that would do within us? To the fabric of the world? Welcoming the Other, any and all “THE OTHERS,” making room for them, and needing to be welcomed ourselves, THIS is the center, center point of the gospel – good news, indeed.

And this has changed me and changed how I look at church, why we do church and what my role is in this strange, strange group of people who keep meeting together.   This book was a deep fountain of energy for me. And made me SEE those ladies who organize potlucks in a gorgeous, big way.

 

Book 4

Related to Making Room was another book on the church and what we do with it.   Eugene Peterson’s Practicing Resurrection was his lifetime of reflections on Ephesians and I looked it up to help me lead a study for our women’s group. And again, maybe there are more culturally timely, trendy books on church, but THIS one blew something apart in me.   I think because there’s something in Ephesians I can’t look away from and Peterson manages to say it in the exact right way for me to grab a hold of.

And the biggest idea that I keep coming back to from the book is this: Church isn’t something we do – its God’s work. That is, we are God’s work, because we are his body. However God wants to save this world, its going to be done within US, within its people, progressives and conservatives alike—all the community (see hospitality above….).  “I realized that this was my place and work in the church, to be a witness to the truth that dazzles gradually.”

And we can be witnesses to God’s work in the world and we can even participate in it. But we do not start it and we do not end it. We will do it, church, imperfectly. That is, we will participate and be a witness to it imperfectly and this in no way nullifies the actual action going on – which is GOD BRINGING ALL THINGS INTO UNITY (as that Ephesians likes to keep saying). All things into unity—us with our own selves, us with others, us with God.   This grounded my understanding of all we DO as Christians and then also all that we do not need to do. Because it drew me to what those NT writers started to suspect – that God bringing things into unity is his putting back together what was broken. The hospitality piece very much fits here because how else do we respond to “being brought back together” other than by being together.   This has shaped what I understand (or stand under) to be my call as a leader in the church, as a spiritual director and as a writer-y type person. And I am different now.   This book and Ephesians helped give shape to this story that I have lived out alone for so many years and made me love those weird churchy types just so much more…so much that I actually am ok with being one of them. It placed me within a big, big story that I am strangely very excited about.

 

 

Book 5

Those two big theology power books made a deep impact in my spring. And for some reason, this very deep sense of my call being sharpened was happening at the same time as my mom was rapidly dying. And then she passed away.  In the time after, I found George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin (1872) on my dad’s bookshelf. I remember (barely) my dad reading this book to me when I was little and I’ve remembered it in bits and pieces over the last couple years.

When I reread it in the weeks after mom’s death, one chapter stuck out for me.

The Princess’ (magic) Grandmother told her that when she was afraid, she was to reach under her pillow and what she would find there would help her. And one night the princess was afraid so she put her hand under her pillow and found a thread, a nearly invisible thread that she held onto with her thumb and forefinger. It led her out of her room, down the stairs, out of the castle and into the woods. The thread led her into a hole in the ground and then down through the rock into cavern after cavern:

 

“Every moment she kept feeling the thread backwards and forwards, and as she went farther and farther into the darkness of the great hollow mountain, she kept thinking more and more about her grandmother, and all that she had said to her, and how kind she had been and how beautiful she was, and all about her lovely room and the fire of roses, and the great lamp that sent its light through stone walls. And she became more and more sure that the thread could not have gone there of itself, and that her grandmother must have sent it. But it tried her dreadfully when the path went down very steep, and especially when she came to places where she had to go down rough stairs, and even sometimes a ladder. ..in a hundred directions she turned, obedient to the guiding thread…..

“When shall I awake?” She said to herself in agony, but the same moment knew that it was no dream. At length the thought struck her, that at least she could follow the thread backwards and thus get out of the mountain and home. But the instant she tried to feel it backwards, it vanished from her touch. Forwards, it led her hand—backwards it seemed nowhere. “

This spring for us, and all that came after, was one big walk in the dark–One that I couldn’t try to back out of. All of us could only go forwards even though it only led us to darker and harder depths. But in MacDonald’s old story, the thread led the Princess through the mountain in order to save the captured Curdie and then led them both out again. Her fear led her to trust and her trust, even in the dark, saved someone else caught in the dark and they saved each other. Seems easy, like a children’s story…. But I think about this story a lot and I deeply hope its true.

 

 

Book 6

I picked up Tara M Owens’ Embracing the Body: Finding God In Our Flesh and Bone a while back. Part of me didn’t want to read it because it seemed like everything I wanted to write a book about. I was weird and insecure about it. But in the end, it was a book that led to a lot of things falling into place for me and was a big part of the embodiment retreat I led in the fall. How we inhabit our bodies and understand God to be a part of that has become another huge life touchstone for me. And this book helped me dive into it, giving me new questions and ways to explore it. In some ways, it wasn’t a book that opened something new – it was a recapping of all the things I have been living through. It was the next step on my path of pulling the beauty of the Incarnation from up there in the sphere of idea and down into this real life.  And it gave me the courage to start telling the story of my own body as part of The Big Story. The big story of reconciliation, of bringing all things into unity, of doing that through the deep hospitality of real life, incarnational, in-the-flesh living .

These big three – Reconciliation, Hospitality and Incarnation were made very clear to me this year and have become the thread through the darkness that I seem to have to follow no matter where they lead.

“We kneel, we receive, in our bodies, with our bodies, and we open ourselves to the bodies of those around us, filled with the breath of God, formed as they were before time began by the One who chose and called them by name. We begin to make room for the things that don’t seem to fit into the world’s perfect picture (the broken world’s idea of the perfect picture—God’s perfect picture is probably just so amazingly wild)—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed (the bleeding woman, the orphan, the widow, the prisoner, the cold, the refugee just wanting a safe place for their family)—and in making room, we feel the heartbeat of God begin to thrum through us all, a pulse that invites us to create safety, dignity, trust in community. In our bodies, with our bodies, through our bodies, together we are the body of Christ.”

 

 

Book 7

In the fall I picked up Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. A friend posted a picture of it on the Facebook and since I love that friend and want to be as smart as her, I picked it up too.   I read it in three days. Mostly at night with my can’t-sleep-flashlight. I don’t know how I had gotten this far in life without reading it. This book was a balm. It was everything I needed to feel God, feel the enchantment of our good world in my exhausted fall.  It was one big YES YES YES pounding in my ribcage. It’s the writings of an old man to his young son and it’s the story of all the threads one’s life tends to snaggle up. Reconciliation, hospitality, incarnation and all the tanglyness of them were all so present in this story and it was so beautiful. The story, the narration, the images struck a deep chord in me.  It was intensely beautiful to me, the story and the writing, and its beauty was deeply healing.

“There is no justice in love, no proportion in it, and there need not be, because in any specific instance it is only a glimpse or parable of an embracing, incomprehensible reality. It makes no sense at all because it is the eternal breaking in on the temporal. So how could it subordinate itself to cause or consequence?”

Beauty is a sign, I think.

 

Book 8

This year was full of really hard stuff, for me, but for many other people too. It asked a lot of us; us in our groups, our churches, our communities, cities. It asked a lot of our assumptions and our values.  It asked a lot of us and I’m not all that sure we responded in a way that kept the door open to the real lives of other humans.—and when that happens the door is definitely not open to God – and that terrifies me. At least, that’s how I felt reading the headlines, the comment sections and all those lovely fb posts……   But in these last couple months of this year I read Krista Tippett’s Becoming Wise……and friends, she’s amazing and this book gave me a gift that I am holding onto very tightly—hope.   Roll your eyes if you must—I probably would too—and I know it sounds so cheesy but reading her words made me feel like the grass at the bottom of a drain spout—so much water, needed water, poured out and I can’t help but grow stronger and healthier, greener and fuller.

“Mystics and monastics (and I would add artists, prophets, preachers, and school teachers) pray on embodied behalf of those who can’t. In a century of staggering open questions, hope becomes a calling for those of us who can hold it, for the sake of the world. Hope is distinct, in my mind, from optimism or idealism. It has nothing to do with wishing. It references reality at every turn and reveres truth. It lives open eyed and wholehearted with the darkness that is woven ineluctably in the light of light and sometimes seems to overcome it. Hope, like every virtue, is a choice that becomes a practice that becomes spiritual muscle memory. It’s a renewable resource for moving through life as it is not as we wish it to be.”

She also talks about people who know the deeper ways of the world, the ways of God, not as being solutions or even as having all the answers, but how they are signs—signs of the actual truth of our world.  And this struck me as a deep desire. I generally do not trust anyone with all the solutions – but wow, could we be signs of the hope that is the actual fabric of this world? Could somehow this life lived in community, with the deep knowledge of reconciliation, of deeply subversive hospitality, and deeply rooted in God’s model of incarnated, fleshed out, lived-in truth be a sign? Could this happen?

Tippett writes, “Treat the margins as seriously as the noisy center. For change has always happened in the margins, across human history, and its happening there now. Seismic shifts in common life, as in geo-physical reality, begin in spaces and cracks.”

Tracing the thread and following the YES, through these books leads me back to my real life—the life of spaces and cracks, where HOW we choose to live this real life out is always more important than the end product, or the stand we hide behind. I feel deeply hopeful in the process of this real life with my husband and two thunder-strong kids and my dad, my brother, my friends and church and all the rest (oh and the bunny of course….) And I’m exhausted and its hard and my kids have ate more pb and j sandwiches than should be legal…and within all of this year, there have been no solutions but so many, SO MANY signs of His truth of love is love is love is love.   And it’s eternally inviting us to be a part of it.

 

And so yeah….we keep going.   And we keep reading. We keep paying attention to the

YES

            YES

                        YES.

And its a bit magic, I think.

 

 

 

 

Epiphany, 2017

 

 

Advent in the Dark (Or The First Year….)

(These are thoughts that have been rattling around my head and that we are talking about a lot in our church community–thankful for those honest pastors…) 

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Woman with Candle    Casper David Friedrich, 18th century, Germany

When I was about 7, I took swimming lessons at the wave pool. During class the waves were turned off but on the last day of class, they turned the waves on, to give the kids a chance to play in them. I remember one wave crashing over me while I stood in waist deep water, knocking me over. I tried to get up, but for some reason I kept trying to stand up just as the next swell came crashing. I couldn’t get my head above water. I remember starting to panic, completely unfamiliar with the waves, completely doing all I knew to do to try and get up – but it wasn’t working. I couldn’t get to the surface. Suddenly my instructor’s hand reached down and yanked me above water. She had noticed I was struggling. Thank God.

I don’t remember the fallout – I don’t remember what happened after that or if I told my mom or if the instructor did. I do know that I hate wave pools and don’t take my kids there. And I do remember the panic. I remember the sensation of not being able to get to the surface.   And this is the image and the sensation of this season. This is what it feels like, even with all the good and beautiful things, opportunities, people that surround me.   I get panicky after a few minutes, hours, days of disorienting swells of grief that just keep coming.

I don’t even know how to start processing this. This Christmas without a mom. Everyone said the holidays would be hard. And I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I wasn’t expecting this body snatching takeover of grief. I didn’t know to expect that everything would feel hard, sharp, dull, excruciating. The arm-numbing anxiety of last spring is back but harder and worser. I am surprised.

And I am aware, oh boy am I aware, that my grief is occurring within the grief of our world, our broken, hardened world.

And this is where Advent starts. Advent, I’ve said it before, is NOT ONLY the happy, sequined Indigo merchandise you can buy, feel happy about and think all is right with the world. Advent actually won’t let you do that – it wont let you be satisfied with that. Advent is stark. It is longing. It is waiting. It is darkness. Advent dwells in the unknowing dark but it also hears rumors and intimations and has a dim start of hope that where you are is not the end. And this tricky Advent always ends in a greater mystery, not certainty.   It ends with a baby on a dirty floor to an unwed teenager and told of only to the lowest, most overlooked workers and to strange outsiders.   SERIOUSLY, THIS is the door of Christmas we walk through and we should be absolutely gobsmacked by it. It makes no sense, not to the untransformed parts of us anyways. Not to the parts of us that need to WIN.  Not when my momma died and I haven’t talked to her in 6 months and never will again.   Not to the Aleppo’s that happen every day and the extremism of our own views and the unavoidable dehumanizing of anyone who does not prop us up. Through this is what we walk through and towards when we do Advent. And to that crazy story is where we look.

Hold that thought for a bit……

Advent is waiting AND advent is hope. It starts in silence.  Seemingly unfounded hope is the ground from which this season has to grow. Piercing hope for things so completely outrageous, so completely unrealistic.  Hope for things like joy, or peace, or even love. For life reunited and reconciled and as it was meant to be. Advent is stark, it is longing, it is waiting, it is darkness, it is unknowing AND it is also the action of lighting one tiny candle and then after awhile, lighting another one and then after awhile more, we light one more. We both sit and acknowledge the darkness AND we strike a match towards tiny, tiny flames. This is the practice of Advent.

Hope is a word that is sticking to me. “Hope for what?” my cynical mind keeps asking. Hope for a better world, hope for a world with no hurt? I remember two days after mom died, my 4 year old was upset about something, I don’t remember what. And she took it very hard, crying miserably on the floor. Her little, honest, wild heart was broken and I stood there and looked at her and thought, “What is the point?” What is the point of me comforting her, and trying to grow her into a loved, confident, compassionate human. What is the point when people die, things end with such finality, loss is seared into us and our world seems to be choosing death on all sides and nothing actually seems to change. What is the point in choosing to love,  when it doesn’t seem to make a difference to the world we have to keep living into.

And then I got down and held her and kissed her wet cheeks, and wiped her snotty hair. I lay on the floor with her, and with that question, and I know that what drew me to her was stronger than the despair. That was a grace, I know that.

 

What do we hope for when our certainty is stolen from us by tragedy or just by the erosion of years and hard choices.?

A few words from thoughtful people are standing out to me in all of this.  Theologian Cornel West (which a good pastor drew my attention to on Sunday) writes this:

“Hope and optimism are different. Optimism tends to be based on the notion that there’s enough evidence out there to believe things are gonna be better, much more rational,… whereas hope looks at the evidence and says, “It doesn’t look good at all. Doesn’t look good at all. Gonna go beyond the evidence to create new possibilities based on visions that become contagious to allow people to engage in heroic actions always against the odds, no guarantee whatsoever.” That’s hope. I’m a prisoner of hope, though. Gonna die a prisoner of hope.”

Ahhh…..Hope looks “beyond the evidence to CREATE new possibilities based on VISIONS that become CONTAGIOUS that allow people to ENGAGE.”

Those words.

Advent hope is this: the place in which we make room beyond the evidence. It is the dwelling place of the artists and the prophets (and if you’re lucky, the preachers).  In Advent, we actively hope that there is a more true and more real ground of our being where new possibilities, new imaginations, new stories, new ways of envisioning the world stir up, and engender life. Unto us. Unto me. This the methodology of our God—hope. It is for our souls and it is for our bodies. It is for our communities, ideal and actual. It is for His beloved creation, that he is always bringing back to Himself, that is, the creation He is always bringing back to love. And he starts with hope—the hope that envisions something completely crazy—a God quietly hidden and completely with us.   And that vision has caught hold, a downright contagion. It caught hold within Mary, within Elizabeth, within Anna….It called to Mary of Bethany, and took over the woman with no name who reached out beyond the wall of complete and total rejection, just to touch the hem of that dusty robe.  And that envisioning bridges us unto wholeness, unto life.

Krista Tippet, in Becoming Wise writes about hope in a chapter she entitled “Hope. Reimagined.”

“We are flesh and blood and bone. There are those for whom this reality is not a homecoming but a matter of day-to-day survival. Mystics and monastics pray on embodied behalf of those who can’t. In a century of staggering open questions, hope becomes a calling for those of us who can hold it, for the sake of the world. Hope is distinct, in my mind, from optimism or idealism. It has nothing to do with wishing. It references reality at every turn and reveres truth. It lives open eyed and wholehearted with the darkness that is woven ineluctably into the light of life and sometimes seems to over come it. Hope, like every virtue, is a choice that becomes a practice that becomes spiritual muscle memory. It’s a renewable resource for moving through life as it is, not as we with is to be.”

Not idealism, not even optimism, but hope is a choice in the actual truth of the situation, which is more often than not, a choice that has to be made in darkness.   A choice that becomes a practice – which maybe becomes a muscle memory.   Even when I read these words of Tippet’s I understood them. These words gave me hope, that one day I might have hope and even live within it. These words opened up a space to imagine what Hope I could have in this world of my inescapable loss, and the deep loss we all know within our human hearts, frayed and torn as they are when we answer calls from the hospital and open up the news apps on our phones..

And the essence of my hope…..is always this……God with us; presence. In this true and real place of earth and mud and consequences and grace.

Civil rights activist Vincent Harding told Krista Tippett that what what African- Amercian kids were telling him was that they needed “human sign posts.”  She quoted him as saying:

“I’ve always felt that one of the things we do badly in our educational process, especially working with so-called marginalized young people, is that we educate them to figure out how quickly they can get our of the darkness and get into some much more pleasant situation. When what is needed, again and again are more and more people who will stand in that darkness, who will not run away from those deeply hurt communities, and will open up possibilities that other people can’t see in any other way except through human beings who care about them.”

Hope is standing in that darkness, AND lighting that small candle. It is not fleeing, numbing, forgetting.  It is being with the real of what is happening, AND making space to imagine not being alone in it. The light will come, it always does, AND it does so in such a way that it grows within that darkness, that womb, that hidden seed. Remember I said that the mysteriousness of Advent leads to an even greater mystery (tricksy Advent). The promise we look towards this season, at Christmas, always comes rooted, not in some faraway place we have to get ourselves to, but right in the dirt where your foot is right now—in a real life, in a real community, in the slow, dirty work of human life and presence and love.   That is incarnation.  That is the hope He imagines into the darkness and it is the story He crafts which can “shift the world on its axis.”

That is why I stood with my husband in the dark of our messy house on November 27 and lit a candle.   I miss my mom and I miss what can never be now that she’s gone and the swells are so scary and so physically debilitating and nothing I write out could ever actually express what this feels like. I worry about my kids and don’t know what to do other than get down on the floor with them—it doesn’t seem like enough. And truly I do not know how human hearts ever recover from all the hurt we are capable of. But we light the candles, working on our muscle memory. We light the candles in the midst of the dark and we pray out loud,

“Come, imagine in us what could take root even here. More than I could hope or imagine, a small root that will somehow knit us back together, ALL of us here.   I won’t let you forget this promise, and don’t let me forget it either. Open this story in our hearts so that we can become as human sign posts in this darkness. And even as I am not sure I can do that this season, open this story up in me so that I don’t succumb to the darkness.”

Apparently words mean something–and these words and THIS WORD HOPE have meant something to me this season:

Psalm 130:1-2,5-6

We wait for the Lord, all of our whole being waits

And in his word we put our hope.

We wait for the Lord,

More than watchmen wait for the morning

More than watchmen wait for the morning.

 Isaiah 62:6,7

I have posted watchmen on your walls, Jerusalem;

They will never be silent day or night.

You who call on the Lord

Give yourselves no rest,

And give Him no rest till he establishes Jerusalem and makes her the peace of the earth.

John 1:4,5

 In him was life, and that life was the light of all of us.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

Ephesians 1:18

And I pray that the eyes of your heart may be en-LIGHT-ened in order that you may KNOW THE HOPE to which he has called you.

Mary and Elizabeth

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Mary and Elizabeth by Kathe Kollwitz (early 1900’s)–

 

 

Mary stopped short of the gate. The servants’s daughter was in the yard, bending over a puddle of water. Beyond her was the goat’s pen and then, in the shade made by the rough timber beams and long grass bundled and placed atop them, the entrance to the house, she saw her cousin. Older than she, Mary noticed that her body looked bolder, bigger, thicker. Mary had known her cousin was with child. It was talked about. It was a scandal to their relatives, the ones that  they both loved and hated. Elizabeth was old, but God had seen her, so some said. And here she was, bending labourously over her basket of dung, lugging it towards the fire in the yard, talking to someone inside the house. Tears pricked Mary’s eyes. For her cousin, for herself. She felt her tears come easier these days. Everything was changed now, wasn’t it.

She felt her own baby move within her. That churning, that flipping . So close yet so foreign. So known and so strange.   Her baby did not show very much but a little. She hadn’t told her older cousin yet.   She hadn’t told very many people at all.

Mary looked back at the road and then at Elizabeth again. She was hungry.

The servant girl looked up at the woman at the gate, yelled to her mother who pushed past Elizabeth from inside the house. She came to the gate, opening it with great fuss and loud chatter. Elizabeth smiled widely and walked towards them. She swayed like a duck. Mary smiled at this fullness.

The cousins embraced and suddenly Elizabeth stared sharply, eyes narrowing. Her hand fluttered to her own enlarged abdomen. And she knew. She smiled conspiratorily but also smiled a sad smile that hung just around her eyes. She exclaimed quietly, “My son recognizes the life within you! Feel how he jumps! “ She says it happy and she is—joyful even. But there is always the unspoken knowledge of the cost of life. The cost of bringing life. The life required to be shed to bring life. The knowledge of ten thousand years passed down, always at the back of the joy. But the joy is real too. And Elizabeth looked sharply again at her young cousin. The child barely old enough to know about any of this—and yet she knows more, much more, than she lets on, thought Elizabeth.

The older woman did not ask questions. She did not pry. She placed her arm around Mary’s shoulders and shepherded her into the doorway.

“Come in. We will eat together. Our sons are hungry!” She laughed at her joke and brought her young cousin towards the seat closest to the window, closest to the dust-moted light.

Mary smiled and watched her cousin talk to her servant about the bread and she sighed.   “I’m glad you are going first, dear woman.”

Elizabeth did not turn around as she spoke, “For such times as these…..” And then, “You are blessed among woman. That child will set fire to the world.”

Mary looked outside at the little girl in the yard, now poking the brown puddle with a stick. Some water splashed onto her leg and she shook it, sending drops flying.    “My own heart burns first.” She said quietly. And louder she said, “And I am so hungry now. Hungry for everything I can get.”

She waited a beat and then laughed and her cousin laughed with her and handed her some of that morning’s bread and yesterday’s wine.

 

–This is part of a series I’ve been working on  that I’m calling Gospel Incarnated.  I love thinking through these old, truly strange stories.  The story of Mary and Elizabeth has fascinated me for a long time.   I wish I could swirl around in that place with those two women, watching it all unfold, from their view.  Can you imagine….