Thou art the journey

I love this prayer from Boethius, a 6th century Christian:

O Father, give the spirit power to climb
To the fountain of all light, and be purified.
Break through the mists of earth, the weight of the clod,
Shine forth in splendor, Thou that art fair weather,
And quiet resting place for faithful souls.
To see Thee is the end and the beginning,
Thou carriest us, and Thou dost go before,
Thou art the journey, and the journey’s end.

-Boethius, c. 480-524 AD.

(photo found here)

“fear not”

Whether you focus on the spiritual themes of Advent or jump ahead into Christmas celebrations, the weeks leading up to the holidays are full of waiting and excitement. While anticipating Christmas brings joyful hope, patience for other things in life is often very raw, destabilizing and scary. Especially when life is wearisome, the holiday waiting can hit a nerve of underlying or unrecognized fear.  It’s easy to picture happy children marking passed days on the calendar expecting another magical December 25th, but the rest of life isn’t like that. We don’t know what, when, or even if things will happen, and the things that do end up happening might be hard or painful. Depending on the person and their circumstances these contingencies may be especially terrifying, but it’s safe to say we all face this battle in some way. At this time of the year it might feel like the chasm between happy hope and our own gaping wounds is uncrossable. Uncertainty can make celebrations feel so painful for some, and these challenges seem worse with messages all around urging happiness and merriment.

There’s no use hiding these hard feelings, and I’ve been thinking about this because this theme of nagging anxiety has been a theme in so many conversations I’ve had lately. There are varied stories, of course, but most of us respond to all sorts of pain by asking similar questions:
What if I don’t succeed in this new endeavor – grad school, starting a business or job, parenting, paying off debt, leadership responsibilities, moving?

     What if the person I love rejects me and I’ve poured myself out for nothing?
     What if it takes forever to recover after this awful thing?
     What if things don’t get better?
The letters I-F in “what if?” give us a quick way to reveal what I Fear, and I confess a sinking familiarity with this list because I’m asking the same questions on some level every single day. I don’t think these fears are unique to anyone!

It shouldn’t be that surprising to confront growing fear while preparing for Christ’s coming. The Israelites must have mused, Our prophets seemed like they were crazy anyway, we were captured and in exile, and now we’ve had hundreds of years without a messenger from God… What if this is all a joke? Shouldn’t the Messiah be here by now? An angel had to command Joseph not to fear taking Mary as his wife. The shepherds were terrified for one of the most glorious fresh-air Angelic choir concerts of all time. And even today we’re bombarded with skepticism about Jesus’ return: Look at people like Howard Camping! Is it crazy to think this is real? Shouldn’t Jesus be back by now?  Human fear permeates the story of Christmas, so why shouldn’t contemplating the mysteries of Christ’s coming bring our own everyday fears to light as well?

The Christmas story is beautiful here as it validates and releases these fears with  the messages of our Advent contemplations – hope, peace, joy and love.
Weary Israel: This is the branch from Jesse, with the spirit of the fear of the Lord, which remedies all the rest of your fears.
Take courage, Joseph: These crazy and embarrassing circumstances you don’t understand fulfill my promise to bring forth salvation.
Good news, lowly Shepherds:  Salvation comes for all people, including you.
Be not afraid: God is incarnate, dwelling among us that we may behold him.

Reinforcing the truth of scripture, many Christmas carols proclaim the Christ child is the antidote to fear.
Yet in thy dark street shineth the everlasting light!
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.
– “O Little Town of Bethlehem” words by Philip Brooks, 1867.

Saints before the altar bending, watching long in hope and fear,  
Suddenly the Lord descending in His temple shall appear!
– “Angels from the Realms of Glory” words by James Montgomery, 1816.

Come, thou long-expected Jesus, born to set thy people free
From our sins and fears release us, let us find our rest in thee!
– “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” words by Charles Wesley.

(Advent Starry Night by Virginia Wieringa)

And it’s interesting to note what happened after these Christmas story fears were confronted. Joseph woke up from his dream and obeyed the angel’s command.  The shepherds went from their fields to find the stable in obedience to their instructions. They responded to fear by acting on what God had revealed to them, and that’s the same path we can take to push past fear. In yielding any worry, big or small, we encounter the ultimate revelation God has given us – Christ, the Word made flesh.

Be not afraid; say unto the cities of Judah, Behold your God!”   – Isaiah 40, king james version.

[image here]

faith my eyes

slimy!

I was going to wipe off the counters and take some pictures for a look-at-how-far-we’ve-come kitchen project update. Instead, there was an unfortunate food incident and the remodeling tales will wait a bit longer!

With a short window of time to make lunch between an appointment and piano lessons today, I threw a spaghetti squash in the microwave without poking the flesh to release steam while it cooked. The entire squash exploded when I cut it open afterwards and now I have mild burns all over my face, neck, arms and hands. Since my right eyebrow got the worst of the heat, I’m guessing I’d be in the emergency room if I hadn’t been wearing glasses to catch the stuff headed for my eyes!  I’m following my doctor’s orders for treatment and I should heal quickly without permanent damage since it’s more like a blazing sunburn than the “hot curling iron” feel. But it’s a little haunting to think – what if I hadn’t come back into the house for my glasses before that appointment this morning?

Since the kitchen is still carpeted, I’m toying with the idea of ripping it up and going down to the subfloor instead of cleaning the edible war zone. I even found a chunk of squash that flew over the island and into the back hallway. I suppose we should really think about getting a dog for these heavy-duty jobs.

…Keep me responsible, be it a light or heavy load
Keep me guessing, these blessings in disguise
And I’ll walk with grace my feet and faith my eyes.
-Faith My Eyes, Caedmon’s Call

Thou art not so unkind…

first snow of the season, as seen from the front door

Blow, blow, thou winter wind
Thou art not so unkind
As man’s ingratitude;
Thy tooth is not so keen,
Because thou art not seen,
Although thy breath be rude.

Freeze, freeze thou bitter sky,
That does not bite so nigh
As benefits forgot:
Though thou the waters warp,
Thy sting is not so sharp
As a friend remembered not.

-Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind
from “As You Like It” by William Shakespeare.

leaves under the snow

It’s not really that cold or windy right now, but with the excitement of a first snow-that-sticks-for-a-while (why does it always make me feel like I’m five years old?) it’s good to remember that no winter wind matches the coldness of an ungrateful spirit.

Praise the Lord, Oh my soul,
and forget not all His benefits…
…who satisifies you with good…
…he does not deal with us
according to our sins
-Psalm 103, esv.

joyful, joyful

For some reason, I always feel like there is great pressure to just “be joyful” without acknowledging that joy is a fruit of the spirit. It’s something that we receive from God,  not something we need to achieve in order to please Him. Of course, we should be joyful. Scripture clearly tells us to “Shout for joyBe joyful in all things…  Count it all joy…” and it’s undeniable that a heart in union with God is a heart of joy.  The conflict here comes when the rubber hits the road: life is hard and joy is not a natural response in the face of difficulty.

Thankfully, this joy is not at all a burdensome command placed on weary shoulders! It is a gift. God delights to give us gifts, and when joy seems out of reach we can (must!) ask for it with confidence.  I love that the hymn Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee abounds in encouragement. This song points us to God who gives joy instead of demanding something that seems so impossible to achieve on our own.

Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee, God of glory, Lord of love;
Hearts unfold like flowers before Thee, opening to the sun above.
Melt the clouds of sin and sadness; drive the dark of doubt away;
Giver of immortal gladness, fill us with the light of day!

All Thy works with joy surround Thee, earth and heaven reflect Thy rays,
Stars and angels sing around Thee, center of unbroken praise.
Field and forest; vale and mountain; flowery meadow, flashing sea;
Chanting bird and flowing fountain call us to rejoice in Thee.

Thou art giving and forgiving, ever blessing, ever blessed,
Wellspring of the joy of living, ocean depth of happy rest!
Thou our Father, Christ our Brother, all who live in love are Thine;
Teach us how to love each other, lift us to the joy divine.

Mortals, join the mighty chorus, which the morning stars began;
Father love is reigning o’er us, brother love binds man to man.
Ever singing, march we onward, victors in the midst of strife,
Joyful music leads us sunward in the triumph song of life.

-Joyful, Joyful text from Henry Van Dyke in 1907.

only one came back

(this is my first midweek meditation – a little something I’ve been thinking about, shared for your encouragement and edification.)

But now indeed I find, Thy power and thine alone
Can change a leper’s spots and melt this heart of stone.
– Jesus Paid It All, Elvina M. Hall.

A few weeks ago I stood among congregants at church, singing “Jesus Paid It All,” and pondered a verse that talks about changing a leper’s spots. No, not a spotted leopard. A leper; a person who has leprosy. Amid recollections of flannel graph and puppet shows,  most who spent any time in a Sunday School classroom know that this strange disease called leprosy is mentioned often in Bible stories. Some memorable accounts  include Moses’ and Aaron’s sister Miriam, Army commander Naaman from Syria, and the ten men who sought Jesus for healing in the gospels. Now the leprosy mentioned in the Bible was probably a catch-all name for all sorts of infectious skin condition, including (but not limited to) what we now call Hansen’s Disease which destroys the  nerve endings of a person’s skin, particularly the limbs and extremities. So it’s not that this leprosy destroys a victim’s body, it just prevents a person from knowing they’re destroying themself. While a healthy person might step back from hot sand or carefully clean and bind a wound, someone with leprosy can’t feel that they’ve burned the bottom of their feet or that the gash on their hand is infected and septic. A leper doesn’t know they are doing things that are harmful because they are unable to feel their body’s natural warning signal – pain.

Though we probably can’t identify with these stories directly because infectious skin disease is not much of a threat in the comfort of first-world living, there is still a profound lesson for us here. Aren’t our hearts like this? After struggling or disappointment, when we often get to a point where we are at least a little numb? Or amid long battles, where our hearts are so taxed that we don’t feel what we’re supposed to? When we work so hard to avoid a painful situation that we ignore all affliction and don’t recognize our coping methods are actually self-destructive? A leper in ancient days would have been cast out of society to prevent passing the disease to their village. Isn’t that the second step for us with leprous hearts, too? Whether these dysfunctional hearts mean we push others away or they pull back from us, numbness often leads to isolation from the people who should be closest to us in times of difficulty.

So what do we do about this? We see the answer here:

  …He was met by ten lepers, who stood at  a distance and lifted up their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” When he saw them he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went they were cleansed. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks.
-Luke 17:11-16, esv.

These ten lepers had no power by which they might declare themselves healed, and neither do we. I’m not talking here about the kind of emotional pit that calls for drastic lifestyle and medicinal treatments, but of the temptation towards self-pity and putting up “walls” to avoid dealing with things that might hurt. No work of man can cure every ill twist of the heart and facing the reality of a hardened heart can make life seem more frustrating than ever. Yet even if we sense we are at a distance and not close to the Lord, we can shed light on this numbness and cry out  for healing as the ten, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

If we have to be lepers – and indeed we are – let us  be like the one who first called for mercy and then turned back alone with praise and thanks.