Posts by Sarah


First, I Found Splendor…

First, I Found Splendor…


Posted By on Aug 27, 2014

For this, I see now, blessed, You gave me flesh,
The point of sense and muscle’s grip and skin
Was full immersion in this lavish earth,
A world to drench my senses; rough and tender,
Ardent lover, made to meet what reaches
Ever out in me, the whole a gift
To this five-sensed, sentient self; the means
By which I’m rooted in my place, but lifted
Too, in hunger, taught by every atom’s gesture…

Nestled on a knoll of sun-drenched grass, most of the way up one of the Grasmere fells, I scrawled the first of the poem above. For I was in love. And by that I meant in love as a swimmer is in water, drenched in the ardent beauty imagined and formed by the first and primal love “that moved the sun and spheres.” Tasting, touching, breathing a world so brimmed with golden air and undulating hills in carpets of shaggy, velvet green, and flowers in gemmed, wild profusion in old hedges, and ridges dotted with those clumsy innocents, the sheep, that every sense in me quickened, hungered, reached. And was sated by what it found.

I was in the Lake District for three days, a 30th birthday present to myself, a space of time in which I intended mostly to wander, to partake of beauty as if it were bread and I starving for it. A couple of days before I finally boarded the train to Windermere, I scrawled this in my journal: What do I really want while I’m there? I want my little girl heart again. I want that gentle, innocent self, the child, possible to me even now in adulthood if only I will make that inner room of quiet in which she breathes and sings. To work and bear and hurry are native troubles to adulthood in this world. But there is an essential rest that I think is reachable even amidst the whirlwind. A circle of hush in which that “still small voice” hums and speaks. That inner space, and the child who wonders within it, is what I hope to reclaim in my adventure.

And I did. But the wonder was that my guide and teacher was the gentle, gorgeous earth. I knew it afresh as the good gift it was in the beginning, the tale of God’s kindness told in every atom of existence, there for our daily renewal. I found the simple wisdom of the earth, it’s hush and humility, the way it retains and embodies the goodness to which it was called by its Maker, before the fall. But I found its profundity too; heard the low spoken prophecy that thrums in its beauty, it’s vivid, dying beauty, as it waits for the healing that will one day come. I walked and walked, muscles glad in their straining, skin livened by wind and sun and sweat, my whole self restored, returned to its rest by the taste of hedgerow blackberries, the swish of grass, the mad baa of sheep, the windsong, cloudbreath, and green, green laughter of the meadows. To share a bit of the glory here with you is my thanks:

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Taken from the spot where I perched to write my poem. You see, I wasn’t exaggerating.

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 Bank Ground Farm, my home for a couple of days, and also the farmhouse on which Arthur Ransome based his “Holly Howe” in the Swallows and Amazons books.

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 Bank Ground Farm, the day I arrived.

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 Over and over, as I trod the long footpaths and bumped my way between towns on the rickety old buses in their dive down impossibly narrow roads, I struggled to describe the essence of the unspoilt landscape about me. And the word “benevolence” came again and again. This is a generous landscape. The sheer ebullience of vine and flower and color are a welcome in and of themselves, before you even step foot through the low, wooden doors of its houses.

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 What a pleasant sign, yes?

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 One of my favorite things about England: public footpaths. Those little arrows gesture toward countless meadow tracks and forest ways. You might meet a few friendly (or taciturn) cows, scare a sheep, or find yourself in the far corner of an upland field, but the possibilities are endless. Just follow, not the yellow-brick-road, but the little yellow arrows, and you never know where the road might take you.

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 One of the best salads I’ve ever eaten. Found after a long ramble. Please notice the sprig of lavender on top.

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 Salad… followed, of course, by tea, and my ever-favorite walnut cake. Imbibed on a tiny table set on a terrace peering up the cloud-wreathed Coniston water on a blue and white and golden day.

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 Brantwood, the home of John Ruskin. I too could write brilliant tomes on art if this were my home.

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The sheep here are such curious, but suspicious creature. I am helpless in laughter every time they scuttle away from me in terror after I’ve attempted to make friends. Their defiant “maaaaaa”s only worsen my affliction.

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 My first day’s view, the boon of a long hike in the afternoon sun.

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 A good walk should always begin with a hearty tea. Preferably replete with fresh scones and plenty of cream.

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 Or it can begin with a ploughman’s lunch. (Either way, good food is a vital ingredient to the success of epic, Lake District rambles). Another of my favorite English features. Pickled vegetables, chutney, cheeses, salad, and crusty bread… there are few better meals on earth, in my opinion, and few better repasts to set one up for an afternoon of exploration.

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 My view as I ate my ploughman’s feast.

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On the last night, wanting a simple meal and a good long walk, I trekked the two miles into town and got fish ‘n chips, the best kind, from a little chippy shop. They were hot and greasy, spattered with vinegar and salt, bundled in newspaper. And I walked halfway back, to a bench with a view right up the lake. And then, these elegant friends joined me and made my day complete.

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But I have to end with this, with the words I jotted in my notebook at the end of my time: “I have rambled and climbed and crept through giant ferns and scrambled over rocks and walked a streambed up a mountain and scolded sheep and sweated right through my shirt and met the brazen gaze of the sun with courage and I sit, now, by a river, little girl Indian-style with hair a-tangle and the glint of sun pennies flickering in my eye off the running stream.

I am the child I ever was. I’ve arrived back home in myself, at rest in the old, sweet ease that is the mark of a soul at rest. I do not strive. I do not fear. I do not fret. I said that what I wanted to find in coming to this place was little-girl Sarah, the old, enduring innocence that waits to return when I actually obey the Psalm and make myself still, let myself know again whose goodness underlies every bit of the beauty I love.

But this innocence is not a simple nostalgia. There is nothing backward about the return to simplicity. I haven’t dwelt wistfully for a few days in ease, now to return, with a sigh, to a busy, adultish, but ultimately, more practical self. So often in our modern world, childhood and innocence are viewed as simplistic states, almost infantile, a backward state cured by savvy and cynicism and the street sense of the world. If my innocence is a return, it is regression only insofar as it is a retrenchment from an incorrect course. I walk back from the wrong road taken, I regress in the same way that my body returns from disease to a wholeness of health and self that is the only state in which any growth or forward motion can be attained.

Child-heartedness, innocence, simplicity, these are conditions of holiness, that fundamental health to which the soul must ever aspire. Innocence doesn’t mean a separation from care and sin, it means a chosen state of faith. A willed decision toward purity of heart. A state in which wonder is the operative consciousness, in which hope is native to each decision, in which thanks, sometimes simply by way of revelry in what is to be found amidst the ordinary, is the ground of discovery, education, and creativity. It is, I think, a state of grace, that fundamental orientation of self required by belief in a Father God. For to him, we are all, eternally, children. The world is his ceaseless gift, and right action, even in the care and work of adulthood, is formed in the soil of thanks, begun by a seed of wonder.

And now, if only I can keep my grip on this knowledge when I’m wrestling my way through the crowds at Heathrow tomorrow afternoon…”

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My Facebook Solution

My Facebook Solution


Posted By on Aug 20, 2014

After a summer off Facebook, I logged in for a few days to share some big news with friends and decide how to proceed regarding my future Facebook involvement.

The dilemma that became clear over the summer is that I very much want to be able to share small beauties, the little ones that won’t make it into a real blog post; book suggestions, photos, art, quotes, poems. To offer out again the beauties that “stab my soul awake” is one of the underlying goals of this blog and, really, of my life. Also, I want to keep friends updated as I travel and write (and oh, I’m going some interesting places this year, but more on that later). But I am adamant that I do not want to submit myself again to the information stream of the FB world, a deluge of details whose scrambling of my mind I just cannot seem to prevent.

So I’ve thought. Schemed. Dreamed and prayed. And I’ve stumbled upon a solution, one that involves my blog here and any of you readers who care to join me.

Here’s my plan: I’m going to nix my personal page for good. But I’m starting a public page where I can share the beauties I find that it would seem miserly not to offer out again. My Facebook page will basically be a smaller version of this blog, a place where I can post photos, songs, books, quotes, the little gems that come amidst ordinary days like a swift trill of birdsong, or a brief minute of ruby dawn. I won’t be interacting much, just sharing. My goal is for that page to be a source of small wonders, a place for any who visit to find nourishment and perhaps even an instant of quiet amidst the busyness of the day.

Here’s what I figure: if the internet is inescapably present in modern existence, then I’m going to do everything I can to shape it into a conduit for reminders of the ancient ways of earth and art, home and friendship, song and story. I’m going to rule it, as a queen does the realm she has been given. If Facebook there must be, then I will bend its unruly will to my own goal to restore hush, kindle wonder, live thoroughly alive to the vibrant world, the ancient rhythms God made for our daily nourishment. If you want to join me, I’d be delighted. Go here, or just click through the photo below.

And may beauty attend your way this late summer day.

 

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Tell Me into Your Story

Tell Me into Your Story


Posted By on Aug 19, 2014

“Our girl is here!” Gwen says the instant I walk in the door. And Larla, Gwen’s ninety-five year old mother, turns to greet me. Her grey eyes are so crammed now with the past there’s almost no room for the present, but she gives me a questioning smile. “We love her,” Gwen says matter-of-factly, patting her mom’s shoulder as I stoop to give her my arrival kiss. “I love you hon,” she says in the faded voice I know well, and pats my hand in her brisk way. “We’re glad you came to see us.” And finally, with another glance at Gwen, she nods as if she has decided for sure and turns to look me straight in the eye: “You’re our girl.”

Those words are a small miracle to me. I visit Kentucky only twice a year, once when the dogwoods are skirted in pink, and once in the fire of fall. It’s rare I can visit in between, and while Gwen has known me from birth, Larla hasn’t. I’m not, as they say in those Kentucky hills, “kin.” I’m just an occasional visitor. Yet Larla, even with Alzheimer’s disease, has never forgotten me. Each time I come, she knows me afresh. Some part of her retains its hold on who I am and the fact that she loves me.

I was marveling at this again last week during my spring visit and decided one morning to write about it. Larla sat next to me at the breakfast table patting my IMG_0198left hand as I used my right to jot random musings whenever I got the chance. Gwen was in and out with eggs and orange juice and I was in search of the perfect word, my mind working to the rhythmic clatter of frying pans, when Gwen popped out and asked her mom, “have you said good morning to our girl?”

And in that instant, the mystery cleared. Something about having my pen in hand allowed me to see that Larla had always known me because I had been told into her story. Gwen, I abruptly understood, was a narrator. The moment I walked in the door, Gwen began to tell me into the story of her own life and that of her mom’s. Word by word, statement by statement, with comments about “our girl Sarah,” and “how much we love her,” she narrated my presence into her mother’s life. Larla never had a chance to forget me. Gwen sets the scene by helping Larla to greet me, she paints the back story with tales of my visits as a tiny girl, and moves the scene forward with constant affirmations of how lovely a thing it is to have me there. She hugs me in front of Larla, includes me in every detail of her care, and laughs so often that Larla can have no doubt that my visits are gladsome things.

Gwen has used her words to frame me into belonging. This is storytelling at its most real; narrative at its highest power of love. As an author, I am keenly aware of the power of narrative. I struggle so often to get just the right words in place when I attempt to describe a character, because I am profoundly aware of my power as the narrator; that masterful voice tells a reader exactly what to think of any character. A reader’s affection or disgust for a book’s characters is based on the words in which they are framed. Narration is a form of creative power.

What Gwen has helped me to see is that this power is present in the real life, workaday world as well as the novel. Here we are, all of us telling stories about each other every day. I see now how much our relationships are formed by the narrative of our conversations, our spoken affection or disgust, our gossip (or hopefully, lack of it), our love when it spills into speech. In this light, the power of a word like “welcome.” is as good as “once upon a time,” because it opens the possibility of friendship, of laughter, of belonging, What crackling possibility. What creative potential, what worlds await us in the most ordinary of realms.

IMG_1057I love that all people – writers, readers, or not – are made to be storytellers. And I think that all God-lovers are required see themselves in this light. We begin with the understanding that God is the first Storyteller of our lives, the one whose narration in Scripture set the scene of the world, sketched our identity, revealed our parts as heroes, heroines… or villains. But I think we partner with him in narration. Faith is one kind of buoyant of storytelling; we speak what we know is true and cannot see. But so is love. Love is a powerful form of narration. Love chooses to speak what is possible about the people it describes. Love narrates lonely people into families. Love uses every word of its story to tell all people into grace. I have decided that I want the narrative I tell about other people to be a hospitable sort, one that tells people into my life as Gwen told me into hers. I want there to be a fireside feel to conversation, a sort of pull-up-a-chair invitation in my words. I want to say to each person that happens into my days, “come on in, I’m going to tell you into my story.”

And by God’s grace, it’ll be a good one.

This is a repost from 2010. Larla has since passed away, but until the day she died, I was “her girl.” I have been thinking a lot lately about the way in which our words set the stage for the story we live, and for the story into which we invite the people around us. I’ve seen a lot of discord this year. And I know that words can kill off a friendship like a cheap character in a novel, or they can tell a hungry soul into the story of fellowship, the story of love. May we all be narrators like Gwen. 

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Light Eternal in London

Light Eternal in London


Posted By on Aug 15, 2014

photo 2A little over a week ago, Joel and I forayed out into the darkling streets of nine o’clock London to catch a late concert at Royal Albert Hall.

We wanted to stave off the end-of-trip rue attending our last night in London by filling it with music. Solemn, startling music as it happened. When Joel discovered that it was John Tavener’s Ikon of Light we were slated to hear, he was quite enthused. Even I, with a far lesser knowledge of classical or choral music, was glad to find that this was the concert on offer. Oddly enough, I had encountered snippets of Tavener here and there and found his choral music arresting, if not always easily accessible.

We barely made it in time, fairly sprinting from the Tube stop to the doors of the Hall, sinking into our red velvet seats in a summer flush just as a voice summoned us to settle in for the opening of the concert. The lights dimmed a little as the host for the evening, a calm man in a dark suit, took the stage and addressed us with quiet, engaging gravity. I was still breathing hard, trying to collect breath and body into stillness, distracted by the rustle and thump of the fidgety audience. I was only half aware of the introductory comments, but the man on stage seemed almost to reach up and touch me, abruptly, when he spoke these words:

“In tonight’s piece, one must think of the string section’s part as the cry of the soul, its reaching toward the light. And the answering choir, as the voice of the light itself.”

With that command, he stepped off stage, the lights died in the high, echoing space, leaving only the spotlighted stage and the circle of three violinists with the black mass of the choir curved in a half moon behind them. When the last high note of the quick tuning was accomplished, the violinists lifted their bows and for a moment, waited. Arrested by their patient poise, the audience stilled, attention inexorably drawn to the waiting three on stage.

The music began almost before I was aware; a single note thrummed from a single violin. A note of yearning, that gathered insistence as the voice of the second violin joined its plea. But timid. The simple melody was a question, a request presented almost in fear. Soul’s cry into the night.

photo 4And it was met with the mighty, sudden crash of the choir, a startling, almost trenchant declaration of song that answered the wistful violin so robustly one felt the violin might retract in frightened silence.

But into the shocking hush that followed the choral statement came the violin’s renewed plea. The melody was a low request, a strengthened desire, and the voice of the second violin added a note of resolve that made the music something that reached into the darkness with set intent. The taste of that crashing light had strengthened the soul, heightened its longing. And when the light answered, the answer was richer than before.

On it went, back a forth, a conversation of a concert between violin and voice, soul and light, song and silence. And with the introductory words in my mind the music became a story to me, the image of my own soul’s hungry, yearning journey through the long valley of this life under high, cold stars. The music sang my constant inner reach toward the mountains of a future, an eternity, almost unimaginable, sang my ache for that fragile, silver line of dawn I sometimes glimpse to come and set me free from the darkness. Ah, the darkness.

For the shadows were palpable that night. Death stalked the night just outside of the music in the suffering of the wider world, in the secret, very present sorrows of my own heart, and in the memories haunting the concert. For the performance that night was couched in the memory of death, given on the hundredth anniversary of Britain’s entry upon WWI. The music was chosen to usher listeners all over the country (hearing it via the BBC) into a contemplative hour in which people were invited to switch off their lights in memory and tribute to the multitudes who died on the battlefields of the Great War.

The darkness came very close when the music was done. For the host came back on stage and asked those who had been given electric candles to switch them on. For an instant, light reigned as the hall shimmered with hundreds of starlike lights that danced in the hands of those who waved them through the shadows. And then, they were told to switch them off. At once, the stars died. And the loss of them felt like grief, like the dying out of the countless hopes and loves and joys of those whose lives so tragically ended. The hall grew dark and loudly quiet. An actor took the stage then and read the words from the announcement a hundred years before that had plunged the whole country into a time of such sorrow.

And silence reigned. For a few moments, everyone kept their seats. No fidgeting scratched against the quiet now. No quick breath, no tap of foot. As if the utter, unnatural silence of hundreds in one room could offer some tribute to the dead, we kept a steeled hush. And in it, caged in it, I thought of the ongoing march of death through the world. I thought of those soldiers, hundreds of thousands, dead in their prime, now dust. I thought of the fighting in Gaza, the starving of children in Iraq, the wailing of their mothers. I thought, almost with shame, of my own small pains and felt them joined with the wars and famines and fights raging throughout the world at the very moment of our vigil.

A rustle from the stage drew my eye and I realized that the concert had ended. No light came up, no closing word was spoken. The choir and musicians left the stage, and in silence, the audience got to its feet and we left that darkened hall with its fierce echo of music, its record of sorrow begging for the grace of light.

Out into the twilit darkness of late night London we strode. And for a long time, we simply walked. We skipped the first tube stop and walked the deserted dirt paths around the edge of Hyde Park. When the gravity of the silence that closed the concert had worn off a little in the temperate air with the heat of our breath and hard thump of our feet, we began to discuss the music. How it promised so much, those crashing affirmations of hope cried out through the notes of Tavener’s work. But how pervasive, how disturbing was the silence that followed the darkness.

How is hope kept in a night-black world? Funny, isn’t it, how small sorrows can be borne, loneliness and minutiae and the tiny losses and tiny deaths attending every ordinary day. But when they are coupled with the raging griefs of the world, and joined by a tragedy or even a moment of deep loneliness, the sadness can seem almost too much to bear. Even now, a hundred years on from the war that was supposed to end all wars with new battles seeming to spring up every day, we have to ask ourselves what it means for light to come in the darkness. What hope do we have for peace? For safety? What does it mean to live by light, to reach for it, to believe it’s promise when people die and children suffer? How does the promise of light answer our pain? And how do we order our lives, our aching lives, in response?

We rounded a corner, swift in foot and thought, and stopped abruptly in our tracks. The trees around the park drew back and a long vista of city roofs and steeples and high rise apartment buildings stabbed the navy sky. But above them all, stronger, taller, outreaching them by what seemed a mile rose a mighty shaft of light that shot right up toward the stars and bloomed into a blazing orb. The light shaft was like a sword, like a prophet’s staff, clean and bright and unbreakable, searing through dark and mist.

I recalled that someone had told me that a column of light would blaze in London to mark the WWI centenary. I was awed by that light. My eyes held fast to it, marveling at its power, the way the darkness fell back from it. Immediately, the words from the Gospel of John came to my mind, “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.” I have always savored that verse and the presence of that word, “comprehend,” with its different shades of meaning. The darkness neither understands the light, nor can it grasp it, wrap its hands around it, assimilate it into itself. Light, even a pinpoint star of it, will always stand free of shadow.

And abruptly I remembered the last piece of music played at the concert. In the solemn drama of chosen silence and dark, I had forgotten that the high, startling music in Ikon of Light and the similar piece that followed were closed by a short, simple choral arrangement of a poem by William Blake. The song was so gentle, so humble, it slipped almost forgettably in at the end of the musical battle before it. But it grew now in my mind, the rich, woven music and the words like a seed bearing fruit at just the right moment:

Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Gave thee life, and bid thee feed
By the stream and o’er the mead;

Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing, woolly, bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice?

Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee
Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee;

He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb.
He is meek, and he is mild.
He became a little child.

I, a child, and thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
Little lamb, God bless thee!
Little lamb, God bless thee!

I stopped at the corner before the Tube stop, breathing hard. In that instant, the many symbols, the music, the light, the wavering dark that I had witnessed that evening drew together into a blazing truth. And I knew that whoever had planned that concert had chosen the Blake song to be the quiet answer to the darkness that would inevitably attend us out of the hall. As we dispersed into the night, that song was a gift to accompany us, a shepherd in the valley of the shadow teaching us how to hope. For the Light whom the darkness could not overcome was a Lamb. A little lamb, a tiny, wailing babe born in a stable. And he was the Light of the world, and his “life was the light of men.”

He was lifted up, blazing, into the sky of history just like the standard of light stabbing the London horizon. And when He was bound to a crude, hooked, splintery cross, beaten until his brightness faded into blood and pain, it seemed at first that Light could die. Like the millions of others on the battlefields and barren mountaintops. Like the hearts whose light is extinguished by loneliness or desolation. But the darkness could not comprehend Him. He blazed straight out, unconquerable Light splitting open the tomb.

But even better? That conquering Light wasn’t only outside of us, on the horizon of history. The Light indwelt us. By the gift of that fragile, gentle lamb, Light made his home in our hearts. When any soul now truly cries out for the presence of the light, like the violins in their keening desire, the answer isn’t merely a crashing glory outside ourselves, nor even just the promise of Light to one day conquer. Our answer is the voice of Love speaking within us, eternal Light present now, burning in the core room of our hearts. In us, day has dawned.

And by that Light we live. In its strength, we order our days not by the darkness we see, but by the great dawn that indwells us, the ever-present promise of the healing that will one day spill over and remake the broken world. We are driven by Light, shaped by it, mobilized to embody its splendor for the rest still caught in the night.

My breath came quicker. Eyes fixed upon that column of light, that fierce declaration of remembrance proclaiming that the brave and the dead will not be forgotten, I no longer sat passive in the darkness of my doubt. That London memorial came because of the many who chose to live by hope. Who understood that to live by Light is no longer to sit and question the darkness, passive, inert, waiting for light to answer for us. Rather, we wield that light ourselves, craft its beauty, cup it and offer it to those in the shadows, and in so doing, we become the answer to the darkness ourselves. We build, create, sacrifice, love, form homes, make songs, speak out the great stories and fight the great battles. Over and over again, we answer the darkness with our own small flame, kindled in us by the lamb whose Light was could not be vanquished. By setting ablaze our countless small campfires of hope, we gesture to the great, eternal day that will one day come and conquer the night forever.

My mind and body and skin and bones felt suddenly steeled and strong, straight as the sword-like light before me. And a single phrase, learned long ago, ran through my head as I finally ran for my Tube stop.

Vicit agnus noster, eum sequamur. 

Our Lamb has conquered, let us follow.

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Evensong and Sunlight


Posted By on Jul 31, 2014

Below, you will find my favorite picture from these past, swift, richly thoughtful weeks. I snapped it at the closing ceremony: an evensong service with Eucharist celebrated in the matchless beauty King’s College Chapel, Cambridge. There are few places in the world that so strike me silent in wonder. This moment in particular was one of those that Madeleine L’Engle would call “kairos time” – not caught in the usual chronological march of minutes and hours but containing within its beauty a seedlet of eternity.

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The context: late afternoon, the end of the service, the honeyed, summer golden hour. We had taken the Eucharist and sung the closing hymn under the high, solemn splendor of the east windows, portraying the crucified Christ. Tinged in blue with the coming night, the purple and dusky panes of the Passion lent a solemnity to the last minutes of the service, a greater weight to the prayers we spoke and the proclamations we made to live rightly, to love purely, to act in courage and grace.

And then we emerged.

Down the nave, through the gates dividing the chapel, we emerged into the wide, high space of the western window. There, made radiant by the setting sun, colors in a myriad glint, was the western window with the risen Christ, arms out, beckoning our eyes to his face and heart. And beneath him was the door opened wide into the summer world. From the Eucharist, from that inner room of the church where we lived again the story of the God who gave his heart and body and life to redeem ours, we walked out strong. Out, out, to emerge into the world with hearts and blood quickened by the life of the risen Christ. Out into the sun, with eternal light in our hearts. Out into the world to live his love, craft his kingdom, speak his story, sing his song.

For an ending to a conference on living the virtues to the full, it was a triumphant closing moment.

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And now… it’s off to London I go. Cheerio.

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