Space is still filled with the noise of destruction and annihilation, the shouts of self-assurance and arrogance, the weeping of despair and helplessness. But round about the horizon the eternal realities stand silent in their age-old longing. There shines on them already the first mild light of the radiant fulfillment to come. From afar sound the first notes as of pipes and voices, not yet discernable as a song or melody. It is all far off still, and only just announced and foretold. But it is happening, today.
The dawn after the last election found me in much the same place it finds me today.
Curled on the couch in the fragile blue light of a too-early morning, clutching a cup of tea (truly people, it helps). On neither occasion could I sleep. On both occasions, my impulse was to angst. Four years ago, however, my impulse was also eventually to write the post below because in the course of a morning’s Advent devotion, I found a centred place of peace. However fraught and deeply anguished the current election, I find that the conclusions I reached then just don’t change. There’s still a reality beyond the touch of any worldly power and that’s where I have to root today. I’m off to read some Advent poetry (in Haphazard by Starlight).
May you find some peace, my friends, as you rise to to meet the new day and all the changes it brings…
November 8, 2012
The morning after election night came early for me. I sat in the blue dawn darkness on my couch with a cup of strong tea. I needed it after the buzz of the night. My own thoughts and the voices of countless newscasters and friends spun and blazed in my mind, forbidding sleep or peace of thought. The angst and turmoil expressed by so many the night before troubled me as I sat sipping my tea. My open laptop and a slim book sat with me and I turned to them, hoping for insight in sorting out my thoughts.
The computer came first, because, well, it is immediate and blinking and tends to snare my eye before I can resist. I found the online conversation from the night before unabated. Every few seconds another quote or opinion, another post of joy (with numerous exclamation points and capital letters) or deep lament (with grim predictions) at the turn of the evening’s events flashed onto my screen. I scrolled through them until the fury of hope and confusion, fear and faith screamed so loudly in my brain that I felt my very vision was clouded. I shut the computer and when I could see straight, turned to my book instead.
I expected to be calmed, for my reading was a collection of Advent reflections. Odd, and a bit early in the season, I know. But my past year has been one of such constant noise and hurry that I am desperate these days for something to quiet my heart. Advent is about the coming of Christ into the world, about creating space for him – something I deeply need. I was ready to escape into the broad, white northland of contemplative thought. But escape never came. For the Christmas story and Advent thoughts that I found in my book spoke with surprising power to the concerns of after-election morning. Further, as worry released its grip on my heart, an iron conviction took its place.
I realized that election season and Advent are both about the coming of powerful kingdoms. Both have to do with the human cry for the world to be healed and both have to do with rulers who promise to accomplish that desire. The language of holy prophecy and campaign promise are shockingly similar. As I read ancient verses about the grace and healing promised to us through Jesus and his kingdom of heaven, I was struck to realize that the claims of the presidential candidates sound eerily the same. Those two very human leaders have spent a frenzied year convincing us that they are the ones to bring hope and change, peace and prosperity, health, equality, and freedom. Messianic claims, those.
Do we, I wonder, almost believe them? Of course we all know that only God really saves, but maybe we get a little weary at the fallenness of the world and we hunger to see the kingdom of God come with more distinction. The lines between heaven and earth get blurred when we look at the leader of our choice and think that he “gets” the brand of redemption we believe in. If he is elected, we think, then God’s kingdom can come more swiftly, more fully, more tangibly. The right president, we feel, might usher in a bit of peace on earth.
It’s a natural impulse. We are eager to bring God’s life into this troubled, aching world, and it seems logical that God would want us to support leaders who can do his will on a grand, immediate scale. So when the leader we thought was righteous falls and fades before the triumph of a leader we mistrust, our fear is for something more than just the direction of our country. Conversely, the triumph of our chosen man portends more to us than good government. We mourn or rejoice as if the kingdom of heaven itself was in the balance.
But it never is. That’s the truth I realized as I read about the coming of Christ in my Advent book today. There never has been a single king or kingdom on earth that could stop or slow or even speed the coming of Jesus into this world. Herod certainly couldn’t keep the little King from entering his realm, the pharisees couldn’t keep him silent, and Ceaser himself couldn’t stop people from loving Christ enough to die. All the bluster and sputter of rulers down the ages have never halted the coming of Christ and his kingdom and this is why: the kingdom of God comes, not through human governments, but in human hearts.
The story of Advent and the holy day to which it leads us is the tale, not of overcoming power, but of redemptive love. Jesus brings the rule of his kingdom into the world by entering the wrecked house of the human heart and building it into the palace from which he reigns. The kingdom comes when God’s love so completely rules in our hearts that our actions become his own. This kingdom grows not by the influence of government, or the power of any one person, but by Love spreading from heart to heart so that slowly, the kingdom burns in a hundred, then a thousand, then a million hearts. That’s when the rest of the earth begins notice.
In my book today, I read a contemplation on Mary, the first human heart in which the kingdom of God came. Not an ounce of power or influence attended her, she was young, frail, unimportant. She lived in a tiny village in a forgotten, enemy-occupied land. But her heart was spacious and her spirit ready and when God asked her to bear his love and life into the world, her answer was a joyous, obedient yes. And the King and his kingdom came into this world through Mary. The kingdom came in Joseph when he believed Mary’s wild story and let Love rule his own heart and deeds. It came in the disciples as they laid down their own lives and were ruled and healed by Love. And it comes in us as well when we choose God as our king. The only election we need to worry about is the one in our own hearts, the one where we set Love to rule instead of self.
The Kingdom, the real one, has come. It is coming, unstoppably, inexorably, day by day in and through all of us who love God. The kingdom comes in our loving of neighbor and child, it comes through the beauty, the art and song and story we create from the vision within us. It comes through the life we incarnate into every corner of home and habit, the hope we speak, the true story we tell to the world. Yes, we can pray and hope and vote to put good men and women in power. But their reign will not hinder or halt the kingdom of heaven in any way. For our kingdom is eternal, a blazing love that reigns in our hearts, unswayed by this king, or that political party, or this presidential election.
I put down my book and rose to face my day. I didn’t even need a second cup of tea.
Autumn reminds me of St. Paul and his paradoxical Gospel. Who else describes God’s servants as those who are ‘sorrowful yet always rejoicing’, ‘dying’, and yet, ‘we live’, and is there any better picture of that than a fallen autumn leaf? Death and glory in a golden turn, energy and decay, eternal life in crimson, throbbing veins etched as a final word through the brown fabric of death. Ah, autumn. To me it is a yearly, living picture of Christ’s life burning in those who love him, an affirmation that even the dying gloom of the broken world can’t hide.
And yet, there is that gloom, that brown curl of death around the gold. This year, the death stands out very strongly to me.
I mentioned last week that I find the world to be a little louder in its confusion this year. I think my perception is heightened by both marriage and ministry. This is the world, the ‘time’, in which my new husband and I step into a vocation of ministry and service, and it’s the world into which (I know you’re thinking it!) we might bring children. Frankly, I don’t see a safe or stable place.
Last night, Thomas and I sat at dinner in a restaurant where a party of several dozen second-year students played a drinking game, each calling out the most shocking (and let me tell ya, it was an education) actions of their classmates over the past year, forcing the person described to stand up and take a drink. My soul felt seared as I listened to these casually stated acts of real degradation, things that will wound and cripple those people for years to come, a recital met with laughter. That followed an afternoon in which I’d read all manner of political opinion, argument, and extremity (I really don’t like politics), and wrestled with a theological problem that quickly became personal, and confusing.
Confusion. It is a word that defines the world I see right now. I see a world of competing, radically self-oriented ideas in the secular world. I see a world of relational disintegration, of broken families, of wanton sexuality seeking a true love it will never find in itself, of an increasingly impersonal culture in which we are unknown to our neighbours. I see a world of exhaustion, of distracted activity driven by screens and the chase after everything just beyond our reach. And the more theology I study, the more I am aware of confusion in the church too. There are massive, troubling debates ongoing regarding marriage, gender, love, law, all carried out by sincere, precious people, arguments that have massive consequences for the way we love the people around us and witness to Christ’s reality in our time.
Because of this, I see a world marked by fear, a Christian community increasingly driven to a defensiveness that makes legalistic lines, or a lethargy that gives up effort…and hope. What stabs me most these days is the angst I see even in those who love God, the wrestling I find in my own heart. How do we vote? That’s the easiest of my questions. Far more, how do we create strong families, centred churches? Do we fight for moral issues or extend grace? How do we strengthen children to remain hopeful and pure? Is innocence possible anymore? And how in the world can we heal a culture that often just seems to defy grace outright? With Eomer, in my old favourite book, The Lord of the Rings, my own mind has been asking ‘how is a man to judge what is right to do in such a time?’
This morning, I curled into my coffee-shop corner, watching leaves fall, tasting the strong tang of hard questions, confusion, and self-doubt. I wanted a clear answer to my questions, a plain path to walk. Living in tension is not my thing. I found it difficult to tether my thoughts to prayer, or Scripture. But the words of my tutor here at Wycliffe echoed in my mind from the week before. In talking with her through the theological issue I find distressingly unclear, she told me I’d probably have to sit with uncertainty for awhile.
“But that means you must listen all the more,” she said. “In this uncertain season, where your own wisdom fails, listen hard for the Holy Spirit.”
Her words reminded me of what I read of Dietrich Bonhoeffer for one of my essays. In a letters on ethics, penned just before his imprisonment in a Nazi jail, he encouraged his followers not to depend on ethical systems and moral tradition, but rather to live by a minute-to-minute following of Christ. When I first read that, I was indignant. His directive seemed too self-confident, too hard, too radical. Systems help us to follow Christ, I thought. A system is what I think we’re all craving, something by which to easily measure our actions and come out right. But I see now that Bonhoeffer’s words came from just the same kind of confusion that I feel now. He too, lived in a culture marked clearly by disintegration, where confusion left even the church in a state of paralysis. He realized that moral and ethical action was no longer clear cut. He understood that difficult, nuanced, radical decisions would be required of those who loved Christ.
Because of that, only Christ himself would do. His letter was a call to his friends to be faithful even when their systems failed. He was talking to people like me who craved a have framework to know exactly what to do, how to vote, how to believe. But Bonhoeffer saw clearly that the faithful would be made up of those “whose final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, or his virtue” but the person “who is ready to sacrifice all this when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith and in exclusive allegiance to God – the responsible man, who tries to make his whole life an answer to the question and call of God” (from Ten Years On).
With Bonhoeffer’s ringing words in my memory, I managed the “obedient action” of turning to my daily Psalm (31). And there, I found this affirmation: God is my refuge. Thus began a psalm that is a poignant recital of things that should cause despair. ‘Lying lips’, ‘wickedness’, ‘terror’, ‘contempt’. David, the psalmist, does not gloss over the darkness in which he finds himself. Rather, he spells it out with distressed eloquence, putting it bluntly before God. In his litany of distress I found my own angst articulated, my own concern clothed in words.
But…God is my refuge. That is how the Psalm begins, and that is the unshakable framework of faith in which David works out his discouragement, his terror at the wickedness around him. The very act of bringing his fear to God becomes David’s way of journeying back from the wasteland of despair into the ‘secret place of God’s presence’, the reality of which he has discovered afresh toward the end of the Psalm. There, ‘goodness’ is ‘stored up’ for those who take refuge in God. There, God’s face shines on him. There, God shows the wonders of his love, even in the very midst of a ‘besieged city’.
And David’s voice was added to that of Dietrich’s and my tutor’s as my own angst was answered with the clear invitation, not to lethargy or discouragement, but to a belief in the refuge of God’s presence and a daily decision to dwell there in the coming years. I wasn’t expecting a ‘solution’ to my dilemmas, but in that Psalm I found a clear directive. However complicated and subtle the moral dilemmas of this time, however dark the world around me, Christ is in me and God is my refuge. That doesn’t mean I know the answers, way, or solutions to the many dilemmas I see, nor am I given a system by which to eke out the right actions. Rather, I am given God’s presence.
Nothing but Christ will do. And the radical act required in this complex time is actually very simple; just to abide in Him. I don’t find this easy and frankly, I think it will be difficult for all faithful people. Because the easy way is to retreat into legalism or relax into passivity. It’s a difficult balance to live in the tension of faithful confusion. To hold back from judging or despair. To act or speak in faith when the risk is loss of approval. To create and build when the future is uncertain. Further, it’s difficult to push away distraction, to make time for quiet, to cling to Scripture, to reaffirm truth and choose the hope it offers. I want clearer answers on how to ‘fix’ the world and which person to choose to do it and I don’t want complication in my theology.
But the truth is that my hope doesn’t lie in any answer or action I can get my hands on. My hope, and the hope of this whole, dying glory of a world is in Christ. His presence ‘with us’ is the Light invading the darkness, revealing God’s love in the ‘besieged city’ of a dying world. To live consciously in his sweet, holy company, to lean into it, and allow his voice to gently lead me is the daily work to which I must give my restless heart and mind.
This past July, I helped to run a theological conference in Oxford at which a famed ethicist spoke. In the Q&A following his talk on the difficult ethical dilemmas of the modern age, one attendee asked him point blank (and I paraphrase): ‘in a time when the concept of freedom is incredibly individualistic, and we have countless ethical dilemmas and moral choices to make, how do you explain freedom and obedience in a Christian way’?And the good professor, with a calm eye and steady voice answered without halt (again, I paraphrase, I can never capture the perfection of his answer): ‘freedom is to walk so closely with the Holy Spirit that, in the moment of choice, you can perceive the perfect action, the ‘good work’ to which He draws you. Freedom is the choice to step into the place that the Holy Spirit has prepared.’
Oh. May I daily take that step.
I look out my window up an Oxford cobbled street in a swift rain of scattered, golden leaves. The brown arms of the trees show ever barer. But they are not dying. Sap runs quick in their inmost roots and I am reminded of Christ’s command to his disciples at his last supper with them: “abide in me”. I am the vine, you are the branches. And in him, we will not wither. The leaves of our certain assumptions and expectations, even our comfort and ease and certainty may wither away in the cold winds of the world. But in Christ, we live, and the sap of his love burns golden at our core. In this uncertain season, in this autumn of a broken world with the wind rising and the bright leaves dying, I choose afresh to hold hard to Christ, to root deeply in his presence so my growth, my free step forward becomes his glory burning through the darkness.
I’ve always loved the sound of that saying ‘bits and bobs’. It’s the same reason I always savoured opening my stocking at Christmas even more than the ‘real’ presents; there is a keen and peculiar delight in tiny wonders, in penny-sized treasures you can hold in your hand. In the spirit of these ‘small graces’ as Bob Bennet says, may you savour a few of my own tiny and delightful findings this week:
:: R.S. Thomas’ poem, The Bright Field. I led my small group in a psalm and poetry exercise this week and one of the poems we read was this luminescent piece:
I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.
:: Adam Lay Ybounden, a traditional choral piece we are getting in top notch form in the youth choir at my church (with which I sing). I love the many new (though oh so old) songs I am learning. This one’s gorgeous. Go HERE for a King’s College performance of it.
:: This painting by Samuel Palmer ‘The Magic Apple Tree’ – it just captures the startling glory of autumn:
May your weekend be radiant, my friends.
I live to the cadence of church bells now. Elizabeth Goudge called Wells the ‘city of bells’ but it could easily describe Oxford; you can hear a chorus of them striking at the oddest times. Sometimes a single, dramatic toll to mark the hour, sometimes great, waterfall crescendos of them ringing through the streets. Now, though, with my front room window facing the golden brick of a church tower and the bells humming out on the quarter hours from 6:45 to 11 at night, the bells are personal to me, deep old voices warbling a call to prayer, singing my every day into a kind of structured music.
In a way, those bells and the cadence in which they frame my hours are part of the larger rhythm I’ve learned during my time in Oxford as I’ve increasingly (if erratically) adopted the practice of morning and evening prayer and the marking of the year by the seasons of earth and church. There is a clear sense in British culture and in my church here of both time and space as things you mark and claim, realities made sacred by the way you see them, the words with which you frame them, the actions with which you fill them.
I encountered evening prayer my first month in Oxford, and as I began to attend regularly, hearing Scripture and prayer at a set time each day, I found the liturgies forming my thought, comforting me in stressed moments, giving me a cadence of worship in which to live the crazy rounds of my days. Then I found the glory of the church year, with its high days centered on the central events of Christ’s life; not just Christmas and Easter, birth and death, but Ascension and Pentecost, feasts that remind me of Christ’s return to the Father to prepare a place for all who love him, and of the Holy Spirit coming among us. What these prayers and feasts, these liturgies offered me was not only a mind formed by reverence, but a deepened sense of identity, a fuller knowledge of who Christ is and the hope and glory to which he is drawing me.
Two years and many church bells later, I’m deeply thankful for this rootedness because I find myself in dire need of anchors in the midst of a very uncertain world. Is it just me or is the world louder in its confusion and grief these days?
I feel that I have watched the clamour of the world roar to a pitch of late that can unsettle even the calmest soul. Whether by political complications, by questions of God’s presence or will, or simply by the sheer fact of the countless who are suffering and dying in war, even those who love God find life right now to be a disorienting thing. Faithfulness requires us to question: Who are we in the midst of this? What does it mean to do rightly? How do we live out the kingdom in such a fallen world?
Girl’s Club with my mom and sister. A source of much delight and courage.
In the midst of these questions, I’ve reconised afresh the power of tradition – of daily, yearly, regular celebrations – to root me in truth, refresh my sense of identity, and remind me of what is essential. I think the human psyche craves liturgy – we all crave cadence. We all need to daily wake to remember – who we are, what we hope for, what we can trust. As I’ve pondered this reality, reconising what a gift my church life in the past two years has been, I’ve also come to a freshened thanks for the traditions of home, the liturgies of family devotion and bedtime prayer, the feasts of family celebrations that shaped my identity and rooted me in a sense of love.
Before I ever discovered evening prayer at Oxford, I had learned the rhythm of prayer with my mom at bedtime as she tucked me in tight to bed, her goodnight prayers tucking me securely into a sense of God’s presence as well as that of my quilts. Daily prayers with my Dad at the breakfast table, each day something we gave to God, the words framing in all the coming hours with the consciousness of the God who gave them. Special prayers with my siblings, all of us together, holding hands when our family found times of great need or fear.
Before I came to any church feast, I knew the feasts and special days of my family. Our ‘shepherd’s meal’ every Christmas eve, with all the lights off except the candles, bowls of potato soup and bread before us, the Christmas story read aloud from Luke. ‘Family Day’, every summer, when we gathered for cinnamon rolls and then spent a morning listing out all the ways we’d watched God be faithful to us in the past year. Birthday breakfasts of quiche and cinnamon rolls (we do like cinnamon rolls) where each sibling and parent (however shy) had to say what they valued in the birthday child. Afternoon teatimes, and reading by the evening fire, family walks and devotions, from the time I was tiny I lived in the cadence of our family traditions.
What those formed in me was a sense of myself as a lover of God and beloved member of the little fellowship of family my family, as driven by ideals of courage and virtue as the famous fellowship in Middle Earth. Our traditions became the lens through which I understood life: as a wondrous gift, as a story to be lived well, as my chance to bring God’s kingdom into being. That gift of self-understanding is something that gives me courage and roots me even in the present, something continued by the rhythms of worship I’ve now learned in the larger world of the church.
In a world of profound moral confusion and change, the cadences by which we live, the rhythms we choose, the stories we embody, may be the difference between hope and despair. It’s not that a birthday breakfast or half an hour of prayer at a certain time makes everything right in a broken world, or a candle lit makes a space suddenly sacred. Rather, those acts of order and grace allow us to live in awareness of a reality larger than what we can see. We remind ourselves of Eternity by anchoring a couple of our fleeting hours each day in the prayers that allow us to stand in God’s unchanging presence. We remind ourselves of Christ’s redemptive love by giving a little of it to those around us in concrete, daily, visible ways. We teach ourselves to hope for the new heaven and earth by beginning to make a little of it visible in the beauty bring to home, the hospitality we share, the love we weave into each corner of our lives.
At play here, once again, is the incarnational principle that we make visible, daily, what we believe to be true. We live by ‘faith in what we cannot see’, in life beyond death, in beauty beyond pain, in love beyond hatred. The rhythms of word and action, the cadence of prayer and remembrance, that we institute in our homes will remind us of who we are and what we want to be when we are confused, exhausted, and alone. Our traditions form our stories. And home is where they begin.
Breathe In: Rhythms of Prayer
What words frame your day? What are the rhythms of quiet, reflection, and prayer that anchor your experience of the world? I inherited my parents daily habit of Scripture reading and prayer so that even if I can only manage a Psalm or a couple of Gospel verses, I try to open the day with the Bible. But I have loved adding liturgy to my devotion, joining in morning prayer at church, or simply praying some of the daily prayers of the Church on my own. There is a rich, sustaining grace that comes from praying words that have been said through centuries of human heartbreak and hope, sustaining believers in time of war and hardship as well as in times of plenty.
If you don’t know where to begin, you can always use a Book of Common Prayer. I’ve also used Celtic Daily Prayer by the Northumbria Community (my Mom and Joy love this too). You could also use something like George MacDonald’s Diary of an Old Soul – his collection of devotional poems written to last one a day for a year. Or Malcolm Guite’s Sounding the Seasons, a marvelous cycle of Sonnets celebrating the church year.
Whether Scripture, liturgy, or poetry, consider what words frame your experience of the day. What do you wake to? What reminds you of who you are? What words give you hope?
Breath Out: Cadence of Celebration
I think we celebrate what we love, and what we hope. Think about it, Christmas, Easter, birthdays, the 4th of July, all of these holidays (holy days!) are celebrations centered on what we value – the fact that Christ was born, that death will be overcome (something we still hope to see), freedom (and our hope for it to continue). We need to mark these things in order to remember, to reaffirm our hope in all the ‘bad things coming untrue’.
But what about on the level of the ordinary?
What do we mark every day by making it special? One of the greatest gifts I received from my mom was a penchant for marking the beauty of the ordinary. Whether it was a teatime on our favorite china, or a walk in which we marked the changing colors of the season, or lit candles on the dinner table every night (and a well-set table when we could manage), I was taught to encounter the ordinary as a gift, to recognize God’s generosity in the every day. In an impersonal, hurry-up culture of our time, this way of celebration has allowed me to live in what I think is a greater awareness of God’s presence, to remember that He is always ‘at play’ all around us, the beauty of creation constantly speaking hope into our despair.
Girl’s club tea times – my sister and mom and I snatched special moments together whenever we could. Sunday afternoon tea with a book read aloud. Saturday morning walks and coffee together. Those small celebrations linked us to the larger ones of the church, marking the epic story of Christ’s redemption, on the level of the cosmos… and our dining room. What small feasts will you throw?
Reading: The Book of Iona: An Anthology. Joy’s gift when she came for a visit from Scotland, as well as ‘research’ for the paper I’ll be writing on Celtic monastic life. I really hope I get to visit Iona as part of the research process…!
Listening: Jon Foreman. Another great recommendation of my sister. Limbs and Branches.
Eating: 5-Ingredient Brownies. This is an almost painfully simple recipe, but it was approved by our houseful of teenage boys. (Can you tell I’m baking a lot of desserts at the moment? Or puddings, as they call them here in England. I think it’s the autumn damp that makes me want warm, baked things….)
(Crossposted on sallyclarkson.com as part of the Lifegiving Home Series).
I think I’m too haphazard right now to manage the regular theological posts I want. Forgive my frailty!
I can, however, which perhaps is just as much fun, manage one favorite quote from the past week. And maybe that single penny bit o’wonder is the better way to savor words anyway:
‘Brother Mark prayed, not with words, but by somehow igniting a candle-flame within him that burned immensely tall, and sent up the smoke of his entreaty, which was all for the boy before him’. – from The Devil’s Novice by Ellis Peters.
One of the most arresting theological images I found this week was in a mystery novel. Go (joyously) figure.
Bless you all.
Also… autumn is here:
(Crossposted at sallyclarkson.com)
Can a guest post be a repost too? Sure it can (right, Mom?!), especially if what is posted afresh is still true with a quick, living, muscled strength. When I sat down this week to write this post, I knew that what I wanted to write about was the way that life lived well, life lived creatively, in love, in beauty, is just darn hard. In this gorgeous and broken world, wholeness and home and love must be fought for with grit and work and a total givenness of self. The good life is a great life, and a hard one too.
I wrote about this three years ago, and when I recently reread that post, I was struck by the way that I wouldn’t change one thing that I wrote then. Marriage, moving, Oxford, new joys, new griefs, they’ve all transpired in the past three years, but they’ve all happened in the same hard work, the same stubborn love, in which the whole of my history has been forged. This week, in the midst of papers, and a visit from my beloved Joy, and work and challenge I’ve lived afresh in the good, hard work I learned from childhood. May the story encourage you as well:
I write this from 35,000 feet up in the free blue air. A grey quilt of clouds obscures the earth below, but sometimes the cloud down frays and the earth winks up, a brown, wry face patterned with laughter lines and the rutted gullies of old tears. I never get tired of having the window seat on an airplane. My awe at technology is usually spoiled by my suspicion that it might be ruining my imagination, but I still have a tiny girl’s wonder at the fact that we humans can fly. Airplanes feel a little like magic to me. I could sit here, nose pressed against my window, reveling in my rare, eagle’s eye view for hours.
At the moment though, I’m also just glad to be sitting. I can feel the dark circles under my eyes. For the third time in four weeks, I have gotten up far too early to lug a half dozen suitcases and crates to various airplane counters. I have packed and unpacked, washed (and, well, “unwashed”) more loads of laundry in the past months than I care to mention, changed time zones, chased rental car shuttles, and stumbled up, hair awry and eyes slightly wild to quite a few hotel desks. I have a bag of cherry tomatoes in the bottom of my bag, because I couldn’t stand to throw out good produce one more time, but they sit next to a bar of chocolate because travel season wrecks my healthy intentions. My carryon is stuffed with the speech I haven’t yet gotten by heart, the insurance papers I haven’t figured out, and the manuscript I still haven’t edited though the deadline is this weekend. In order even to write this, I must ignore the ten, urgent, unanswered emails sitting on the next tab over.
I tell you all this because in this rare moment of (literally) suspended calm, I find myself contemplating the worth of doing hard things.
Everything in my life of late seems hard. Conference season is hard. It comes as a mix of marathon, disaster, and holiday. Writing is hard. My brain at the end of a working day feels like a mental sponge squeezed dry of every word, and my heart rate spikes at thought of all the work I have yet to do. Integrity is hard. To write about beauty is one thing, to make it amidst exhaustion and laundry with nerves frayed and tongue sharp is harder. Health is hard. To eat good food, to walk long miles, to seek out natural instead of processed food takes time, and thought, and a mighty dose of discipline. (Especially amidst travel.) Even loving God is hard. Turning my mind away from the many lists of things I need to do, the countless desires, the endless distractions in order to sit with my Bible and listen, listen to his whisper in the silence is one of the most difficult habits I have ever undertaken.
Hard, every bit of it. Hard every single day of my life.
Yet undeniably, unequivocally… good.
In the past months I have watched myself complete a manuscript I never thought I could manage, and impossible deadlines were the grace that helped me to do it. I finally managed to articulate my convictions about story because I was forced to spit them out in the last-minute, white heat of speech-writing the hour before I was due on stage. The countless vegetables I’ve chopped, and lettuce I’ve washed for daily salads has paid off in a health I haven’t known for years. The friendships found and renewed in these conference weekends have kindled my heart, deepened my conviction, set me on my feet to work for yet another year. Life burgeons around me, good work flourishes, the soil of my heart is rich with new ideas and I know that the endless work of writing, of health, of love to which I have given myself with freshened vigor this year is worth every bit of what it costs me.
The truth I find is that every good thing I know requires hard work. It requires, not just a dose of effort to get it started, but the grit to hold fast and keep on when the inspiration fails. Day in and day out, a life that is in any way good requires steady labor, something I don’t always factor in when I am dreaming about the lovely things I’ll make and the heroic deeds I’ll accomplish. The good life – here in a fallen world where what was meant to be good was broken – is a hard life. We fight fallenness in every atom of existence. But every bit of the goodness we we make proclaims the someday new heaven and earth. And somehow, brings the kingdom come, even amidst the shadows.
I write this to remind myself to endure, because my idealist self often lags in the midst of all the effort. When I’m tired, as I am today with the hum of the plane around me, I wonder if its all worth it. I write this to shore up my will to endure, to strengthen the conviction that grows feeble when all I really want to do is lounge in my chair and drink five cups of tea.
But I also write this because I’ve been thinking of late about one of the hardest but best creations I have ever experienced: my family.
In conference season, I am always made keenly aware that many people watch my family. The parenting ministry that my mom and dad carry out means that we Clarksons are somewhat in the public eye. We are a family marked by our ideals, and our ministry is, in large part, to hold those ideals forth to the world and challenge others to follow them as well. But I wonder sometimes if the strength with which we state our ideals leads people to the mistaken assumption that we live an ideal life. That goodness comes easily to us, and hard to others. That somehow we were born with harmonious hearts and quiet tempers and curious intellects.
By the time we show up at conferences, feet padding the plush carpet of yet another hotel, we strive to look grown up in our Sunday clothes and polite (if not well-rested) faces. We do, of course, try to have good things to say. We strive to articulate all we believe and present a gracious face to the world. But a whirlwind of hard work and sore shoulders, heartache and heart-searching lies behind us. Imperfect attitudes, impatient words, and discouragement are the shadow side of the inspiration that propels us forward. We struggle, we grapple, we cry. We also laugh and cook and sing. We wash a thousand dishes and cook a thousand good meals and light the candles every evening and play our classical music. Behind every conference we throw or speech we give are countless quiet days of hard work and hard choices. I’m not saying that we live differently than the ideals we hold forth. I’m saying that we fight like wild men to attain them and we have been fighting for as long as I can remember.
These thoughts all began two nights ago when my Mom and I strode out to walk off our adrenaline in a purple and windy dusk. Our talk was of family, that hardest and best of works, and my talk was of the struggle I find to love. We spoke of old frustrations and the grief they still cause. Of quirks and personalities that tax and bless us all at once. We spoke of the arduous decisions required by faith, the tough endurance required by real love, the never-ending forgiveness it demands and the ever-fresh friendship it brings. And when I had finally spit all the struggle out of my mouth in a torrent of irritation, I took a deep breath and listened to my mother teach me once again to love. To open my hands. To open my heart. To endure. And to do it all over again the next time.
As we pounded the last road home, I realized that we Clarksons are who we are – idealistic, fiercely loyal, writers, musicians, tied to each other at the hip and convinced we can help to bring God’s kingdom to bear on earth – because we stayed in the fight when the fight got hard.
Our fantastic relationships were formed in part by fantastic fights and spectacular disagreements, but we endured them all, rode the high, hard winds of strife into the safe harbor of affection. We did not turn back and we did not let go. We did not withdraw from loving when loving got hard, but neither did we let hard things make a large and silent wedge between us. We took issues head on whatever they were and argued them out until they were gone. Jesus said of the woman who washed his feet that “she who is forgiven much, loves much.” And I think that principle is part of what forms the fellowship and ideals of my family. They who fight much, who endure each other’s quirks, who ride out the tempests of difficult circumstances and personalities, who laugh and weep and watch each other’s creation know a comradeship that can only come from the brotherhood of battle. The victory we have, the love that knits us close was only to be forged in struggle.
The truth is that we have wrestled with God over and over again, every one of us, just like Jacob in the wilderness grappling with sin and pain and the strange presence of the Almighty. In striving to create new things, to live our ideals, to keep communion, we wrestled with God in our hearts and we wrestled with God in each other. Every inch of ground we gained in love came with years of hard battle. But we fought forward, knowing that to fight was to hope and even to love, because it was a kind of journey. We were fighting our way back to each other and not away. We were grappling toward beauty and we wrestled until we were blessed. We strove until we overcame.
That, I suppose, it at heart of what I am striving to understand, to tell myself here and as I do, tell you too. If love is to be formed, if families are to stay close, if stories or songs are to be made, if ideals are ever to be kept, hard work is the high and never-ending cost. In a fallen world, where the good that was meant to be was broken, we have to wrestle every day to love God, to do justice, to love mercy, to make beauty. But God wrestles with us. His Spirit incites us to the fight with visions of the good that was meant to be. His Son joins us in the battle, brother and lover who suffers so that we may overcome. And the Father waits at the end of our battle, the “great rewarder of those who seek Him.” In him we live and move and have our being, and in him we fight the great fight, and in him we trust that the good we make here is just the beginning of the kingdom come and a beauty that will never end.
So courage, dear hearts, as Aslan whispered to Lucy. Courage, I whisper to myself as the plane dips its nose under the quilt of clouds and the earth reaches up to grasp me once more. The work is about to begin again, good and hard. I’m ready.
Reading: Daily snippets of Madeleine L’Engle’s Genesis Trilogy. She restores my tired wonder at the lovely world.
Listening: Have you heard the soundtrack to The King’s Speech? It’s lovely and mellow and expressive. It’s been my atmospheric music for the week.
Making: A Sour Cream Coffee Cake that was, apparently, a great success with the men of Thomas’ small group. It was also very easy.
The first engagement gift I received was a basket. A deep oval basket with a sturdy, warm brown weave and a strong, arched handle. ‘Do you go to a weekly market in Oxford?’ asked Phyllis, the giver of the gift. When I said that I did, heading down on Wednesdays to the open air market near my home to cart home paper bags crammed with vivid stacks of fresh fruit and ‘veg’ (as they like to call vegetables here), she smiled in happy satisfaction and leaned toward me, putting her aged, gentle hand over mine.
‘This was my market basket through all the years we lived in Europe. I brought all sorts of good things home in it, fed friends and family. I’m so glad it will go to you. I hope you use it to do the same.’
I worked hard to get that basket tucked in amidst the sweaters and scarves of the boxes I packed for England. It survived the trip beautifully intact, a sturdy, weathered, finely aged gift that sits by the door in my new house. I have indeed used it to cart home apples for warm, spiced desserts, greens for autumn salads, potatoes and carrots for Sunday roasts. It has borne the sweet load of hospitality with me, and companioned my work as I’ve prepared for guests and opened our home to friends.
As I’ve gone, feeling the smoothed wicker of the handle in my palm, I’ve also felt Phyllis’ loved and gentle hand over mine. I’ve walked the cobbles home with the beam of her smile in my mind, her presence around me as I set the table, write a note, cook, arts in which she has been my mentor, my teacher, my friend. The gift of her basket wasn’t merely the gift of a household tool, it was the gift of her own history as a missionary and hostess, her own crafted legacy. That basket was her gift of heritage to me, a token by which I was woven into the fine companionship of hospitable, home-loving women. By giving me that symbol of her long work, she rooted my work in her own story and gave me fresh courage and help in making my own tale of house and hospitality, of meals served as acts of love, of tea poured to balm both soul and bone.
One of the dearest parts of my wedding were gifts like these. My own sweet mom gave me (among countless other gifts of hand and heart) her mother’s set of blue Lenox china, the one with the fruit baskets that so fascinated me as a child, and a silver teapot with a dark wooden handle that sat on the sideboard of my father’s mother throughout my childhood. These gifts of heritage and memory, linking my new home to my childhood memories of Thanksgiving tables and teatimes with Mama, are a tangible history, living gifts that are more than mere things. Every time I reach for that teapot or pour something hot into a Lenox cup, I can hear my mom’s voice saying: ‘drink the cup the Lord has given you, pour out your life for others…’ Her gifts, like Phyllis’ basket, will shape the story my home will tell.
For home is a place of history. Home is a lived narrative, one we receive as well as create. Home is never an isolated outpost in a human story, it is always linked to those before us, the place where we live out the spiritual and physical inheritance of those whose words, actions, and gifts have formed us. Home is also, always, something we give as well, the story we offer to the guests, children, and beloveds who dwell with us. One of Phyllis’ maxims is that hospitality communicates something to a guest about their worth. Every aspect of home is an ongoing narrative about what we believe, who God is, and how we see the people who visit us.
In beginning my marriage and first home, I have realised afresh the extent to which the way I see life and the way I make home are legacies I received from the wise and generous women in my life. Their wedding gifts are tools placed in my hands, but I must now choose wisely how to use them as they must have also chosen in beginning their marriages and homes. I must now plan, work, and dream. In the companionship, then, of these wedding gifts, I am driven to sit down and evaluate : what do I want the heritage of my life and home to be? What gift of legacy will I someday give a new bride? If I have a daughter, what kind of story do I want my home to tell? These are the questions that every maker of home must ask.
Breathe In :: What’s your story?
If you could choose an object, an image, or gift to symbolise the story you were given, what would it be? How have you been taught to see the world? How have you been taught to think about home and the people who dwell there?
One of my final year courses at Wycliffe is a paper on pastoral care in which we are examining what it means to be human, what it means to develop spiritually and emotionally throughout the different phases of life, and what it means to care. One of the first things we learned was that the relational successes, or conversely, the failures, of every phase carry over into the next, affecting our capacity to love, give, and be known. Of course, I recognise the grace of heritage in this reality, but what also deeply struck me was that if the broken and failed parts of our stories are not named and faced, they bear a brooding power to undermine our confidence, discourage us from effort, and destroy our attempts to love.
Not all stories are beautiful. Not all legacies are good. And in speaking of home as a golden gift to be received, I also want to acknowledge that in a fallen world, no gift comes free of pain or imperfection. There are profoundly difficult legacies in my family as well as beautiful. The bright is woven inextricably with the dark and painful. And for many others, I know that there is little brightness at all. For some, there was no story of home, no gifts to offer hope or beauty, no vision of life or personal worth. There is only absence. Or darkness. But that is not the end of the story.
What the Incarnation means is that God is now with us, and where our legacy is of pain or our story is one of absence, he comes with the creative power that spoke all things into being in the first place. The whole concept of home begins with the reality of a Creator God who made humans beings to be placed, relational, and known. In Christ, our stories are always beginning afresh, and if you have no history of home, then ‘do not be afraid’ as the angels were so often saying at the coming of Christ. The Holy Spirit, whispering within your heart and imagination will be the one to form your legacy.
One of my favorite stories is a short one by Wendell Berry called ‘A Jonquil for Mary Penn’ (in Fidelity). Mary is a young farm wife who has absolutely no experience in her new strenuous life of farm work, one close to poverty. Early in her marriage, she wakes up sick one day. Her husband sees this, and quietly leaves for his work, but he manages to tell one old matron in the area. Throughout the day, and the story, Mary is then visited by a bevy of generous, laughing, motherly women who help her with chores, cook, tease, clean, and put her to bed. In the void of her discouragement and inexperience, the love of others comes to create, renew, and begin her story afresh. I loves this story because it is an image of the way that God, in his life and in the love of others, begins our story afresh in a way we could not have made on our own.
To love Christ is to be caught in the forward motion of his incarnate life. There is nothing static, dead, stagnant, or lost in him. As you name the gifts and shape of your legacy, whether bright or dark, the first thing to remember is that we, in the lilting words of Andrew Peterson’s song, are called to ‘look into the darkness and speak’. The story can always begin again.
Breathe Out :: In the beginning…
Let there be light. Let there be love. Let there be music. Those are the concluding lines to the chorus of Andrew’s lovely song, and they are a perfect soundtrack to what we are called to do in creating home. If there is a redemptive, freeing power in naming what is dark or hard in our heritage, there’s wildly creative one when we sit down in the space of life, spirit, and home to bring form, color, growth, and beauty.
The question now becomes… just what do you want to create? This too must be named, must be recognised and chosen because nothing in this world just happens effort free. I’m pretty sure that every good thing I’ve ever done was teeth-grittingly hard (and yes, that includes the countless dishes I learned to wash at the end of Clarkson parties) and wouldn’t have happened if not chosen with iron will and conscious foresight.
What legacy do you want to leave? What story do you want your guests to enter? What is the heritage of your one place on earth? What is the gift you’d give to the bride if you could? I’m just beginning to answer these questions myself. (I’m pretty sure I’d give a set of novels if I could! – Books are definitely one of my legacies.) Thomas and I are just forming the shape of our story. But something I have loved in beginning this task is sitting down to make myself answer these questions of identity and purpose because the answers to those questions will begin to form the story of my home. And I want it to be a good one.
Reading this week: A ‘Brother Cadfael’ mystery by Ellis Peters called The Devil’s Novice. I always keep a story of some sort going even amidst academics, and these mysteries are lively stories with well-crafted prose by an author whose historical fiction and masterful narrative I adored in The Heaventree Trilogy.
Listening this week: Bach’s Requiem. Courtesy of my sister who is a source of all wondrous things.
(If you’re interested in more in the Incarnational theology and how it relates to home, its in Chapter Two of The Lifegiving Home.)
Cross posted at my mom’s blog sallyclarkson.com
Friends, my goal for these Theological Thursdays was to provide you with thoughts and quotes and summary of all I’m learning here in Oxford. I just want so much to share! I find that the learning itself, however, demands an amount of time that keeps me from the long, theological discussions I wish I could post. They’re coming; my deep desire and goal after these 3 years of study is to take the academic theology I’ve learned and tell it afresh in all sorts of imaginative ways.
For now, though, how about a Thursday of quotes culled from the best of my each week’s reading? Comments and discussion are so welcome, perhaps it can become a conversation. (Eventually, I can post bits of my papers here too.) And at the very least I can share a few of the gems I find through the week, the paragraphs that make me look up from reading in a coffee shop or library with eyes that suddenly feel they can see all the way to eternity…
Irenaeus in his treatise ‘Against the Heresies’ where he takes on Gnostic doctrines: In his immeasurable love, He (Christ) became what we are in order to make us what He is.
Michael Lloyd (college principal) on the Gnostic heresy (Gnosticism posits that physical/material reality is ‘bad’, spirit is ‘good’): Orthodox Christian belief insists on the essential goodness of creation – it is a good world that has gone wrong, not a bad world…we respond to the Gnostic challenge theologically by developing a theology that self-consciously insists on the goodness of creation, the Redeemer God as being the Creator God, grace rather than knowledge as saving us, Christ as fully human and fully divine, and a holistic eschatology that insists on the redemption of the cosmos.
Margaret Whipp one of my tutors, explaining the different phases of spiritual growth in human development talked about ‘conjunctive faith’, when a youngish believer moves into a phase of faith (often through suffering or doubt) where he or she must hold things in tension, and learn to live faith in paradox. I find these words so true, and am reminded again that it is often in pain, doubt, discouragement or struggle that we come to maturity: Conjunctive faith describes a move to deeper complexity…a more paradoxical understanding of faith which seeming opposites are held together in loving tension and patient humility. The individual who worked so hard to achieve clarity and autonomy now face up to his limitations, personally and intellectually. Sometimes through bitter experience, the individual must embrace the sacrament of defeat, learning a new receptivity to the goodness and truth of others and a deeper reliance on the mysterious grace of God.
George MacDonald – the long essay I’m doing is on his portrayal and understanding of God’s role in our suffering and how that developed throughout his (very sorrow-filled) life. God’s role, and presence in our suffering is something I’m very keen to study and I love MacDonald because he so powerfully presents God as Father:
If we will but let our God and Father work His will with us, there can be no limit to His enlargement of our existence.
No words can express how much the world owes to sorrow. Most of the Psalms were born in the wilderness. Most of the Epistles were written in a prison. The greatest thoughts of the greatest thinkers have all passed through fire. The greatest poets have “learned in suffering what they taught in song.” In bonds Bunyan lived the allegory that he afterwards wrote, and we may thank Bedford Jail for the Pilgrim’s Progress. Take comfort, afflicted Christian! When God is about to make pre-eminent use of a person, He put them in the fire.
Oh, I believe that there is no away; that no love, no life, goes ever from us; it goes as He went, that it may come again, deeper and closer and surer, and be with us always, even to the end of the world.
That’s all for now, friends. I’m mulling all of these thoughts. Let me know if they startle any insights alive in your hearts as well.