I visited the chapel and house where I worked last year and had a good laugh last week. In the corner of the dining room was a tall and resplendent Christmas tree in green and gold glory. Hung prominently from its top branch however, was a hand-painted sign of large black letters instructing all viewers that this was not a Christmas tree, but an ‘ADVENT TREE’.
The presence of a tree was the concession of the house Principal, who heartily advocates a full observance of the Advent season that includes delaying the decking of halls and bellowing of carols until the actual days of Christmas. While I am annually amused by the good-humoured tug-of-war between him and the chapel interns, I am equally halted and somewhat challenged by this concept of keeping a season of waiting specifically in preparation for what, from childhood, I’ve felt to be the highest day of the year.
Why Advent? Why wait? Why delay fun and colour and good food? Why this season of sobriety and even penitence (if you’re doing it like early Christians) when the whole point is that Christ came to start the party up again and heal the world? It’s my easy and initial response.
But I’ve been studying Lady Mara this week. She’s a character in George MacDonald’s last novel, Lilith. Daughter of Eve, mother of all the living, she embodies the sorrow of the world and the way that grief helps us to honesty – about ourselves and our need. In MacDonald’s story, all people must eventually dwell in her house, tasting the bitterness of their fallen humanity.
But Lady Mara’s is a healing, gracious sorrow and those who dwell with her come to know themselves truly, to understand their need for healing. Her gentle hands, her simple bread, and cold water work as agents to drive away the self-deceptions and lies of pride and envy and sin that blind the human heart, driving it to hatred and destruction. Mara is sorrow, but Mara is healing because the sorrow she nourishes in her guests is that of repentance and that gives way to hope. Her sweet, wise grief teaches her guests the deepest kind of hope because it points them to the Father who can (and will) make them whole.
I begin to think that Advent is a sojourn in Mara’s house, a season in which I let hush and longing teach me once more to yearn for the coming of Christ.
One of the most beautiful things said at my wedding was by a friend who spoke of the waiting for love to come. She described how she had watched me wait for God to bring Thomas for many years, and she spoke of her own longing for love. ‘But I’ve been thinking about waiting,’ she said, ‘and I’ve realised that though Thomas is an incredible gift, you’re still waiting. Because we’re all waiting. We’ll always be waiting for Jesus to return. Now, you have someone to wait with.’
I think that waiting and longing is central to Christian identity. We’re supposed to be the ones who recognise that the party hasn’t quite begun. We’re the ones who know that wealth and ease aren’t the answer to the sorrowing world. We’re the ones who can tell the difference between glitz and grace. We’re the ones who know that no amount of stuff given, or things collected can satisfy the hunger of our hearts to be forgiven, to be redeemed and made one with Love.
But sometimes even we need Advent to remind us of our central identity as those who hunger for Christ, to realise that he alone is the end of every yearning of our hearts. I know I need the sojourn in Mara’s Advent house because I forget this. I long for many other things; friendship and justice for the oppressed and a little more money and that one piece of furniture for the house and healing for my friends whose hearts or bodies are broken. I long for circumstance to change, suffering to end, for all my wants to be granted.
And of course, I live in a world that doesn’t really like to sit much with sorrow. I’ve been so struck by what one of my teachers here calls our modern and total lack of ‘liturgies for death’, rituals by which to navigate bereavement and suffering, because we want to put it off as long as possible and pretend it won’t happen.
But Advent isn’t a season in which we force ourselves to be sad, it’s the season in which we recognise how sad we truly are. In Advent we remember that we are still waiting. Christmas is when we remember that Christ has come to defeat death and ‘overcome the world’. But Advent is when we remember that we are still in that world. We are children of God, inheritors of glory, and we still get cancer, we still fight wars, we still suffer loneliness, and death. Advent is when have the chance to stop running and be still, the season that allows us to recognise our need for Christ’s final coming to right the suffering of children, the loneliness of the poor and forgotten, the grief of the sick, the darkness crouched in our own hearts.
As I sit in Mara’s gentle presence during the Advent season, facing my own yearning for friends to be healed or love to be restored or even just for a little more ease to life, my soul is widened by quiet, stilled by honesty, made spacious with recognition of my need. I become a great dwelling space waiting to be lit by Love. Only in that waiting, that ready hunger, that yearning, can I then receive the gift of Christmas to the full. Christmas, when it does come is then both my joy in the present, my wonder at the Holy Spirit presence of Christ in me, glory glimpsed in the keeping of this feast where all good things begin again. But it is also a foretaste of the triumph, the innocent splendour, the crashing joy of Christ’s final coming when all is renewed. Advent so shapes my heart that at Christmas, I am living eternity in time, glimpsing the new heavens and earth in its beauty.
But the way to that glory is through Mara’s house. I keep it in a quiet way. I still have my candles and some greenery and sweet music for company, and of course, we’ll keep some Christmas festivity amidst the quiet too. But I use this season to reflect. To read the searching of other writer’s hearts. To list my need, and articulate my hope. I let Mara sit with me and I find that her touch is kind. However you keep this Advent season, may Mara’s company, in whatever form, be not bitter, but sweet. Her touch the one that teaches you afresh to hope and readies your heart for the radiant joy of Christmas.
I know this festive day is barely in its middle Stateside, and I can just about smell the cinnamon rolls my mama’s probably making in Colorado. But its already dark here, and I have a good three hours of cooking just behind and an evening of feasting and friends ahead. Let it never be said that Oxford American expats skimped on their Thanksgiving celebrations!
I’ve also just come this afternoon from an hour of Advent poetry reading with several other lovely women at my college. We discussed two poems which describe the way:
‘A certain minor light may still
Out of the kitchen table or chair
As if a celestial burning took
Possession of the most obtuse objects now and then
Thus hallowing an interval
(Sylvia Plath in Black Rook in Rainy Weather)
I think life is full of hallowed, mundane moments. I think God’s goodness gleams into the ordinary in countless, faithful, redeeming ways. I think a ‘celestial burning’ rests on the heads of siblings, parents, spouses, friends, I think our hands burn with it as we craft meals and comfort hearts. I think the stuff of the every day is incandescent with love… if we just have the eyes to see it.
Gratitude is, I’m learning, in large part the shift of conscious attention that helps me to see the miracles in their tiny glory all about me, and then, to praise. So today, oh, with eyes opened and heart quickened, I am so grateful. Today, in poem and cooking, in friendship, in rainy weather, in a text-fest with my precious, scattered family, in the arms of my husband, my ‘sight has been set on fire’ (Plath again!) with the brilliant grace with which God crams the corners of my days.
Happy Thanksgiving, lovely friends. May your own eyes be set on fire with a vision of how loved you are, how surely God’s mercy holds and heals you, how full the world is of his wonder. I am deeply thankful for you all here. For your kind and thoughtful comments, your presence, your conversation. I hope this day is rich and crammed end to end with loveliness for you and those you love.
To savour as you go, one of my favourite passages from one of my favourite novels: Wendell Berry’s Remembering. This is the moment when his own eyes (in that of his protagonist, Andy) are brightened:
“And now above and beyond the birds’ song, Andy hears a more distant singing, whether of voices or instruments, sounds or words, he cannot tell. It is at first faint, and then stronger, filling the sky and touching the ground, and the birds answer it. He understands presently that he is hearing the light; he is hearing the sun, which now has risen, though from the valley it is not yet visible. The light’s music resounds and shines in the air and over the countryside, drawing everything into the infinite, sensed but mysterious pattern of its harmony. From every tree and leaf, grass blade, stone, bird, and beast, it is answered and again answers. The creatures sing back their names. But more than their names. They sing their being. The world sings. The sky sings back. It is one song, the song of the many members of one love, the whole song sung and to be sung, resounding, in each of its moments. And it is light.”
May your day be wondrous.
The days here die down at about 4:30 now. The last gold leaves scatter and star the sidewalks in the early dusk and curtains get drawn tight over the windows on my street. Light, warmth, those elemental needs drive us inward and I have come to a freshened appreciation for the heat of a good radiator to fend off the cold, the flicker of a lit candle to fend off the early darkness, and the succour of Handel’s Messiah and Malcolm Guite’s poems to make fire and gold of the shadows that knock at my soul. Ah friends, the season has come when we must cling to light even as we walk in the darkness. Advent, oh joy, is almost upon us.
I love Advent. In these four weeks my soul goes on a journey that is a small picture of my soul’s great story. Christmas blazes on the horizon, but then, so does heaven, both just beyond my reach, both great gifts that give me hope amidst the shadows. In these four weeks I remember the pilgrim nature of my life here on earth. Advent teaches me to yearn afresh for Christ. To so recognise my need for him that a great waiting space is made for him in my heart. In that readiness I then turn my face to the starblaze of Christ and at Christmas, taste a childlike, wondering bit of what it will be to arrive in the new heavens and the new earth when night will be no more because the daylight of his presence is unending.
Here in England, Advent is a serious thing. Some of my friends (my husband may just be included) would rather not sing a carol or deck the halls till Christmas day (I, however, will definitely be doing some Advent decking of this little house). They wait for these delights, not in a legalistic denial but in a hope that has been ripened by weeks of watching and walking that leads them to truly savour the fulness of Christmas in its wonder, its feasting, its mystery. You need companions for such a journey though, if you ask me. So I offer you my booklist, a wise and merry gathering of bookish and musical companions whose presence has made my Advent way bright for many years:
Watch for the Light
I first found this years back when one of its most arresting passages was quoted in a daily Advent devotional I received by email. Having found these words – 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 – I hungered for more of the same. And my hunt led me back to this collection of stirring Advent contemplations, one a day through Epiphany. For a book that sets you in the strong, clear light of Advent as a season of preparation, even of penitence, this is the best. The readings here aren’t meant to evoke nostalgia or even comfort (yet), but to help a reader come wide awake, to take account, to consider what it is she hopes and what the coming of that hope means to the here and now. For ‘preparing a way for the Lord’ in my heart in this season, this book has long been a brave and resourceful companion.
God with Us, edited by Greg Pennoyer and Gregory Wolfe
This book is a luminous companion, prepared by the faithful and creative minds behind the literary Image Journal. This book offers carefully selected pieces of art, daily Scripture readings and prayers, and daily Advent devotionals, each week written by a different Christian writer or pastor. This is an ideal Advent devotional book as it offers a compact but rich contemplation, short enough for a snatched quiet time, but rich enough in image and idea to shape one’s thoughts for the whole day. It’s a world of a book, a twilit, contemplative, Advent world.
Waiting on the Word, by Malcolm Guite
Poetry, as Owen Barfield insightfully claimed, can bring about ‘a felt change of consciousness’, a process that I think is at the heart of Advent celebrations and one that is masterfully crafted for a reader in this collection of Advent poems by Malcolm Guite. Guite’s Lent collection has been my companion for the past two years, and the Advent one is a new favourite. Guite doesn’t just give you a poem to read, he guides you into the heart of the woven words, words that can truly shift your sight from boredom to wonder, from discontent to thanks, from discouragement to a newly-kindled hope. Combined with his own radiant sonnets, this book is a gift of lyrical beauty and devotional quiet.
Haphazard by Starlight by Janet Morley
This is a similar collection to Guite’s, one I have just discovered. I must admit I have not yet delved deeply into it, but its highly recommended by my tutor here at Oxford, and we are using some of the poems listed within for an Advent poetry discussion group. (More about that later this week.) And, I mean, the title. Splendid thing.
Advent with Evelyn Underhill, compiled and edited by Christopher Webber
I make no secret of my love for Evelyn Underhill. Her confident, motherly voice in writing, not to mention her excellent scholarship on contemplative prayer and Christian mysticism, has shaped my devotional life in countless ways. This collection of daily Advent readings has been culled from her many devotional works. These are short, accessible, powerful readings you could peruse in a spare 5-minutes. I’ve taken this book along to the airport to read in the waiting area and the pithy, wondrous tone always startles my soul awake even in the midst airport craze.
The Nativity, text to Geraldine Eischner, art by Giotto
I grew up with a book very similar to this. From childhood, I was fascinated by Giotto’s cycle of paintings around the Advent and Christmas story, and I have encountered few pieces of art that so capture the ache and wonder, the pain and passion of Christ’s coming into this world. I think that art arrests the mind in a different way than words, allowing our eyes a fixed contemplation in which our imaginations ‘see’ the story of Christ afresh.
I Saw Three Ships by Elizabeth Goudge
I only grow in my love of good short stories. This one, in a simple, tightly woven little tale manages to tug hard at every hopestring in your heart, combine childhood Christmas delight with grown-up yearning, and bring it all to an end that, I must admit, brought tears to my eyes the first time I read it. It’s a gem of a story, an emerald gem, bright with all the life of Christmas if you ask me.
Celtic Christmas Spirit by Caroline Peyton
While this isn’t strictly ‘Advent’ music, I find the haunting quality and some of the more ancient carols in this collection help me stand aside from commercial, contemporary Christmas and engage with Advent. I haven’t found anything quite like this collection of Celtic Christmas music. Granted, my taste for the lilting and haunting runs strong, but there is a wonder and glory in this that I savour.
Behold the Lamb of God, by Andrew Peterson
Ah, this is an excellent journey of music, one that draws you into the high drama of angels and the sweet, low folksy drama of the stable in songs you will find yourself singing under your breath throughout the season. Andrew Peterson’s storytelling in song, his grasp of the storied nature of faith, has made his music among my favourite for many years, but this album, inviting you to ‘behold the Lamb of God’ is one that has enriched my Advent journey in countless ways.
Handel’s Messiah, by, well Handel.
I have listened to this masterpiece on repeat for the past few weeks (I need it!), but this marvelous creation is always an accompaniment to my Advent season. This is a world of a work, an epic of storied music recounting the whole history of Christ’s coming, leading us prophecy by prophecy by promise, in some of the most glorious choral music the world has known, into the hallelujah heart of what Christmas truly means. Listen to this repeatedly, let the story of Scripture soak into your memory and heart and tell me if your mind isn’t formed a little more to wonder each day.
In addition to the faithful companion books and albums listed above, I discovered a few wonderful resources online, as well as a few marevlous single songs that enchant and captivate my mind in this season. Among them are:
Biola’s Advent Project Blog: Daily contemplations with music and art. Highly recommended by my sister.
Hills of the North Rejoice – an Advent hymn I’d never heard until I arrived in England. Listen all the way through. Listen to each verse. It’s marvelous.
This enchanting image of the Annunciation.
And this sweet, folksy, joyous image of Mary and Elizabeth, with the saving secret of God himself leaping up in their wombs.
My hands are still reddish and damp after a morning’s dish washing. I’ve chased every crumb out of my little ship’s kitchen, set lunch in the oven, and plumped myself down at my kitchen table for some contemplation. Coffee steams at my elbow (thank goodness). A book of haunting Advent poems awaits (next post, Advent booklist). My journal sits open in a depth of comforting, white-paged silence, ready to receive the scratch and scramble of my thoughts. But I’m not yet sure what those will be.
The cloth on my table catches my eye. It’s new to me, a wedding gift from a mentor here in England. A large, capacious cloth of aged ivory, it covers my small table with cheerful elegance, the hand-worked flowers of summer gold and September blue sky worked neatly in amidst bright green leaves. This is a sturdy cloth, made not for just for delicacy but for service, for jostled teacups and emptied plates, a thing of workaday beauty that comes with quite a story.
During the second world war, countless British women joined the war effort by nursing. Their work was the kind that breaks both back and heart as they mended wounded bodies at speed and saw the way that violence can shatter a human being, was likely shattering many they loved. Even so, when they sat up in the long, night watches, the threat of another Nazi bomb at the edge of thought and shadow, they were not allowed to be idle.
At least, my mentor’s mother wasn’t.
She and the nurses with her were required to keep their hands at work even when they sat at rest. So during the long, exhausting midnights, amidst chatter and talk and tears, they kept their hands busy and minds taut by working tea cloths and table cloths in vivid, bright rings of small flowers whose beauty was an innocence in the darkness. And now, one of them belongs to me.
I’m aware, this morning, of the way this gift has laid a claim on me, one that stares up at me from the loveliness it brings to my table. I sit in the presence of this beautiful, crafted cloth whose existence bears witness to another woman’s fortitude and I am touched to the heart. How can I receive this heritage of hands that worked through weariness, of a heart that kept a disciplined calm, of beauty brought forth in the darkest of hours and saddest of years… how can I accept this without a sense of the faithfulness it enfleshes passing in challenge to me?
But it is a challenge. I’ll make no secret of the restless angst I could easily set in that waiting journal. The world is a wild place at present and the voices I hear of late all seem at odds. I’m startled by much that has happened in the past week. I wonder what it means for me, living abroad with a European husband, what it means for my family, my home country. I wonder what it means for the church, the face she shows to the world, her bringing of Christ’s kingdom to the hungry and poor and lost. I wonder what part I can play, I wonder, urgently, achingly, what I’m supposed to do.
All I have managed so far is the comforting, but unconstructive work of fretting.
I look at my journal. I look at the cloth. I glance at my Bible. It too sits open on the table, where I’ve been trying to ignore it. I want Advent poetry and angst, I want big answers to impossible questions, but the words that stare up at my again, (oh again, you have no idea how many times this Psalm has reached out with an almost physical insistence to stop me in my brooding steps) are the old ones from Psalm 37:
Do not fret. It leads only to evildoing. Trust in the Lord. Do good.
I am always a little startled at the way that Psalm rebukes my worry. It’s not even a casual, ‘trust God, don’t worry, be happy and smile,’ it’s a smack in the face to the angst that seems so innocent and reasonable and yet will lead, so the Psalmist claims, to ‘evildoing’. I’d pay less attention to this dramatic claim if I wasn’t so convinced of its truth. Angst and fear, they’re poisonous things that seep into sight and conversation, they tinge moments of joy, and steal trust. Fretting leads to suspicion, to insecurity, to shut doors and a shrunken world that keeps at bay any person or thing that may threaten my sense of well-being. Fretting leads to disintegration, of self, of hope, of healing.
I look again at the cloth on my table and think of all that those women had to fret about. Husbands, lovers, sons in the same war that sent soldiers bloodied and broken into their care. Bombs stalking the night air, rubble piled outside, hunger gnawing at stomach and soul. And yet, they, like the Psalmist, did good. Not only professionally, but in the secret moments of the weary night they crafted a beauty that sits, radiant, in my hands today. They filled the shadows with colour, stitched hope into the silence with their worked and woven faith.
And ah, they were very wise women. For if you are working you don’t have time to panic. When you craft and create you cannot so quickly unravel, and so, you become one more thing in the world that will not disintegrate. If you’re working, you’re already a force against the undoing that causes you to fret. I wonder if hope comes a stitch at a time as we put ourselves to the mending of the world. For that’s in the Psalm too. Instead of fretting, we trust and ‘do good’.
I think of all the people I have witnessed this week whose continued, faithful goodness has helped me to participate in a trust I do not feel, a hope that is sometimes hard to grasp. I think of the communion service I went to the day after election, when three different seminaries came together for a termly affirmation of fellowship. I think of the worship we gave, so many different nations and traditions, joined in hearty praise. I think of the sermon I heard the next day, our weekly college ‘exposition’ of a chapter of Proverbs in which our principal taught one of the best sermons I’ve ever heard on marriage, fidelity, and wisdom.
I think of the priest at my church, whom I will find at prayer morning and evening every single day. I think of his lovely wife, whose efforts weave the voices of a rowdy dozen children into a happy harmony of a haphazard choir. I think of Thomas, up to his ears in Greek with one long essay due every week still washing dishes, holding his wife, hosting a youth club with me and sitting for three hours with a couple of teenagers, chatting, laughing, helping them to know they’re seen in a world that feels immensely big and dark so much of the time.
In the good that each of these people does, the world is moved toward wholeness and you see this in the Psalm. This trusting action, offered right in the face of the circumstances that could lead them to fret leads to what the Psalmist describes as a ‘righteousness that shines like the dawn’. That glimmers like embroidered flowers stitching hope and beauty back into a bombed-out world. And those who ‘hoped in the Lord’ (instead of fretting) will ‘inherit the land’. And while I am aware as a student of theology that ‘the land’ here has all sorts of historical meaning in this context, I am also aware as a long-time disciple of Christ that this inheritance is not something we merely receive, but something we participate in making.
When we trust God, we assent to his narrative of the world; that evil will end, that the darkness has not, and will never ‘comprehend the light’, that love will prevail over death, and beauty will conquer destruction. When we trust God, our enacted faithfulness makes us characters in his story, and our actions become the plot of his kingdom unfolding on earth. Stitch by stitch, minute by minute, we tell the tale of redemption in the embodied words of our trusting lives. We do good, because we believe that Goodness is the last word and we live toward that happy ending.
I smile now, though my heart aches with all that needs to be set right. I lightly stroke the flowers stitched in the night shadows of a war-time hospital. I pick up my pen because I’ve left my journal open. But not to fill the pages with fretting. There’s good to be done, and I need to scratch into that welcoming whiteness just how I plan to begin. I need to continue the story told forward by the woman whose faithful stitches reach down through the years with a hope that only gathers in brightness…
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).