Tuesday, December 22, 2015

A Great Light

We are in Madison Square Garden, a place synonymous with this city. This is the site of important athletic, artistic and musical events attracting people not only from this city, but from the whole world. In this place, which represents both the variety and the common interests of so many different people, we have listened to the words: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Is 9:1).

The people who walked – caught up in their activities and routines, amid their successes and failures, their worries and expectations – have seen a great light. The people who walked – with all their joys and hopes, their disappointments and regrets – have seen a great light.

In every age, the People of God are called to contemplate this light. A light for the nations, as the elderly Simeon joyfully expressed it. A light meant to shine on every corner of this city, on our fellow citizens, on every part of our lives.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light”. One special quality of God’s people is their ability to see, to contemplate, even in “moments of darkness”, the light which Christ brings. God’s faithful people can see, discern and contemplate his living presence in the midst of life, in the midst of the city. Together with the prophet Isaiah, we can say: The people who walk, breathe and live in the midst of smog, have seen a great light, have experienced a breath of fresh air.

Living in a big city is not always easy. A multicultural context presents many complex challenges. Yet big cities are a reminder of the hidden riches present in our world: in the diversity of its cultures, traditions and historical experiences. In the variety of its languages, costumes and cuisine. Big cities bring together all the different ways which we human beings have discovered to express the meaning of life, wherever we may be.

But big cities also conceal the faces of all those people who don’t appear to belong, or are second class citizens. In big cities, beneath the roar of traffic, beneath “the rapid pace of change”, so many faces pass by unnoticed because they have no “right” to be there, no right to be part of the city. They are the foreigners, the children who go without schooling, those deprived of medical insurance, the homeless, the forgotten elderly. These people stand at the edges of our great avenues, in our streets, in deafening anonymity. They become part of an urban landscape which is more and more taken for granted, in our eyes, and especially in our hearts.

Knowing that Jesus still walks our streets, that he is part of the lives of his people, that he is involved with us in one vast history of salvation, fills us with hope. A hope which liberates us from the forces pushing us to isolation and lack of concern for the lives of others, for the life of our city. A hope which frees us from empty “connections”, from abstract analyses, or sensationalist routines. A hope which is unafraid of involvement, which acts as a leaven wherever we happen to live and work. A hope which makes us see, even in the midst of smog, the presence of God as he continues to walk the streets of our city.

What is it like, this light traveling through our streets? How do we encounter God, who lives with us amid the smog of our cities? How do we encounter Jesus, alive and at work in the daily life of our multicultural cities?

The prophet Isaiah can guide us in this process of “learning to see”. He presents Jesus to us as “Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace”. In this way, he introduces us to the life of the Son, so that his life can be our life.

Wonderful Counselor. The Gospels tell us how many people came up to Jesus to ask: “Master, what must we do?” The first thing that Jesus does in response is to propose, to encourage, to motivate. He keeps telling his disciples to go, to go out. He urges them to go out and meet others where they really are, not where we think they should be. Go out, again and again, go out without fear, without hesitation. Go out and proclaim this joy which is for all the people.

The Mighty God. In Jesus, God himself became Emmanuel, God-with-us, the God who walks alongside us, who gets involved in our lives, in our homes, in the midst of our “pots and pans”, as Saint Teresa of Jesus liked to say.

The Everlasting Father. No one or anything can separate us from his Love. Go out and proclaim, go out and show that God is in your midst as a merciful Father who himself goes out, morning and evening, to see if his son has returned home and, as soon as he sees him coming, runs out to embrace him. An embrace which wants to take up, purify and elevate the dignity of his children. A Father who, in his embrace, is “glad tidings to the poor, healing to the afflicted, liberty to captives, comfort to those who mourn” (Is 61:1-2).

Prince of Peace. Go out to others and share the good news that God, our Father, walks at our side. He frees us from anonymity, from a life of emptiness and selfishness, and brings us to the school of encounter. He removes us from the fray of competition and self-absorption, and he opens before us the path of peace. That peace which is born of accepting others, that peace which fills our hearts whenever we look upon those in need as our brothers and sisters.

God is living in our cities. The Church is living in our cities, and she wants to be like yeast in the dough. She wants to relate to everyone, to stand at everyone’s side, as she proclaims the marvels of the Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Eternal Father, the Prince of Peace.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light." And we ourselves are witnesses of that light.

--Pope Francis Sermon

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Learning In War Time: CS Lewis

Learning in War-Time 
A sermon preached in the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Oxford,Autumn, 1939  

A University is a society for the pursuit of learning. As students, you will be expected to make yourselves, or to start making yourselves, into what the Middle Ages called clerks: into philosophers, scientists, scholars, critics, or historians. And at first sight this seems to be an odd thing to do during a great war. What is the use of beginning a task which we have so little chance of finishing? Or, even if we ourselves should happen not to be interrupted by death or military service, why should we -- indeed how can we -- continue to take an interest in these placid occupations when the lives of our friends and the liberties of Europe are in the balance? Is it not like fiddling while Rome burns?

Now it seems to me that we shall not be able to answer these questions until we have put them by the side of certain other questions which every Christian ought to have asked himself in peace-time. I spoke just now of fiddling while Rome burns. But to a Christian, the true tragedy of Nero must be not that he fiddles while the city was on fire, but that he fiddles on the brink of hell. You must forgive me for the crude monosyllable. I know that many wiser and better Christians than I in these days do not like to mention heaven and hell, even in a pulpit. I know, too, that nearly all the references to this subject in the New Testament come from a single source. But then that source is Our Lord Himself. People will tell you it is St. Paul, but that is untrue. These overwhelming doctrines are dominical. They are not really removable from the teaching of Christ or of His Church. If we do not believe them, our presence in this church is great tomfoolery. If we do, we must sometime overcome our spiritual prudery and mention them. The moment we do so we can see that every Christian who comes to a university must at all times face a question compared with which the questions raised by the war are relatively unimportant. He must ask himself how it is right, or even psychologically possible, for creatures who are every moment advancing either to heaven or to hell, to spend any fraction of the little time allowed them in this world on such comparative trivialities as literature or art, mathematics or biology. If human culture can stand up to that, it can stand up to anything. 
To admit that we can retain our interest in learning under the shadow of these eternal issues, but not under the shadow of a European war, would be to admit that our ears are closed to the voice of reason and very wide open to the voice of our nerves and our mass emotions.  This indeed is the case with most of us: certainly with me. 

For that reason I think it important to try to see the present calamity in a true perspective: the war creates no absolutely new situation, it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun. 

We are mistaken when we compare war with "normal life". Life has never been normal. Even those periods which we think most tranquil, like the nineteenth century, turn out, on closer inspection, to be full of cries, alarms, difficulties, emergencies. Plausible reasons have never been lacking for putting off all merely cultural activities until some imminent danger has been averted or some crying injustice put right.

But humanity long ago chose to neglect those plausible reasons. They wanted knowledge and beauty now, and would not wait for the suitable moment that never come. Periclean Athens leaves us not only the Parthenon but, significantly, the Funeral Oration. The insects have chosen a different line: they have sought first the material welfare and security of the hive, and presumably they have their reward. Men are different. They propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on scaffold, discuss the last new poem while advancing to the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae. This is not panache; it is our nature.

But since we are fallen creatures, the fact that this is now our nature would not, by itself, prove that it is rational or right. We have to inquire whether there is really any legitimate place for the activities of the scholar in a world such as this. That is, we have always to answer the question: "How can you be so frivolous and selfish as to think about anything but the salvation of human souls?" and we have, at the moment, to answer the additional question, "How can you be so frivolous and selfish as to think of anything but the war?" Now part of our answer will be the same for both questions. The one implies that our life can, and ought, to become exclusively and explicitly religious: the other, that it can and ought to become exclusively national. I believe that our whole life can, and indeed must, become religious in a sense to be explained later. 

But if it is meant that all our activities are to be of the kind that can be recognized as "sacred" and ties are to be of the kind that can be recognized as "sacred" and opposed to "secular" then I would give a single reply to both my imaginary assailants. I would say, "Whether it ought to happen or not, the thing you are recommending is not going to happen." 

Before I became a Christian I do not think I fully realized that one's life, after conversion, would inevitably consist in doing most of the same things one had been doing before: one hopes, in a new spirit, but still the same things. Before I went to the last war, I certainly expected that my life in the trenches would, in some mysterious sense, be all war. In fact, I found that the nearer you got to the front line the less everyone spoke and thought of the allied cause and the progress of the campaign; and I am pleased to find that Tolstoy, in the greatest war book ever written, records the same thing -- and so, in its own way, does the Iliad. Neither conversion nor enlistment in the army is really going to obliterate our human life. Christians and solders are still men: the infidel's idea of a religious life, and the civilian's idea of active service, are fantastic. If you attempted, in either case, to suspend your whole intellectual and aesthetic activity, you would only succeed in substituting a worse cultural life for a better. You are not, in fact, going to read nothing, either in the Church or in the line: if you don't read good books you will read bad ones. If you don't go on thinking rationally, you will think irrationally. If you reject aesthetic satisfactions you will fall into sensual satisfactions. There is therefore this analogy between the claims of our religion and the claims of the war: neither of them for most of us, will simply cancel or remove from the slate the merely human life which we were leading before we entered them. But they will operate in this way for different reasons.

The war will fail to absorb our whole attention because it is a finite object, and therefore intrinsically unfitted to support the whole attention of a human soul. In order to avoid misunderstanding I must here make a few distinctions. I believe our cause to be, as human causes go, very righteous, and I therefore believe it to be a duty to participate in this war. And every duty is a religious duty, and our obligation to perform every duty is therefore absolute. Thus we may have a duty to rescue a drowning man, and perhaps, if we live on a dangerous coast, to learn life-saving so as to be ready for any drowning man when he turns up. It may be our duty to lose our own lives in saving him. But if anyone devoted himself to life-saving in the sense of giving it his total attention --so that he thought and spoke of nothing else and demanded the cessation of all other human activities until everyone had learned to swim -- he would be a monomaniac. The rescue of drowning men is, then a duty worth dying for, but not worth living for. It seems to me that all political duties (among which I include military duties) are of this kind. A man may have to die for our country: but no man must, in any exclusive sense, live for his country. He who surrenders himself without reservation to the temporal claims of a nation, or a party, or a class is rendering to Caesar that which, of all things, most emphatically belongs to God: himself. 

It is for a very different reason that religion cannot occupy the whole of life in the sense of excluding all our natural activities. For, of course, in some sense, it must occupy the whole of life. There is no question of a compromise between the claims of God and the claims of culture, or politics, or anything else. God's claim is infinite and inexorable. You can refuse it: or you can begin to try to grant it. There is no middle way. Yet in spite of this it is clear that Christianity does not exclude any of the ordinary human activities. St. Paul tells people to get on with their jobs. He even assumes that Christians may go to dinner parties, and, what is more, dinner parties given by pagans. Our Lord attends a wedding and provides miraculous wine. Under the aegis of His Church, and in the most Christian ages, learning and the arts flourish. The solution of this paradox is, of course, well known to you. "Whether ye eat or drink or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God." All our merely natural activities will be accepted, if they are offered to God, even the humblest: and all of them, even the noblest, will be sinful if they are not. Christianity does not simply replace our natural life and substitute a new one: it is rather a new organization which exploits, to its own supernatural ends, these natural materials. No doubt, in a given situation, it demands the surrender of some, or all, our merely human pursuits: it is better to be saved with one eye, than, having two, to be cast into Gehanna. But it does this, in a sense, per accidens -- because, in those special circumstances, it has ceased to be possible to practice this or that activity to the glory of God. There is no essential quarrel between the spiritual life and the human activities as such. Thus the omnipresence of obedience to God in a Christian's life is, in a way, analogous to the omnipresence of God in space. God does not fill space as a body fills it, in the sense that parts of Him are in different parts of space, excluding other object from them. Yet He is everywhere -- totally present at every point of space --according to good theologians.  

We are now in a position to answer the view that human culture is an inexcusable frivolity on the part of creatures loaded with such awful responsibilities as we. I reject at once an idea which lingers in the mind of some modern people that cultural activities are in their own right spiritual  and meritorious -- as though scholars and poets were intrinsically more pleasing to God than scavengers and bootblacks. I think it was Matthew Arnold who first used the English word spiritual in the sense of the German geistlich, and so inaugurated this most dangerous and most anti-Christian error. Let us clear it forever from our minds.The work of a Beethoven, and the work of a charwoman, become spiritual on precisely the same condition, that of being offered to God, of being done humbly "as to the Lord". This does not, of course, mean that it is for anyone a mere toss-up whether he should sweep rooms or compose symphonies. A mole must dig to the glory of God and a cock must crow. We are members of one body, but differentiated members, each with his own vocation. A man's upbringing, his talents, his circumstances, are usually a tolerable index of his vocation. If our parents have sent us to Oxford, if our country allows us to remain there, this is prima facie evidence that the life which we, at any rate, can best lead to the glory of God at present is the learned life.  By leading that life to the glory of God I do not, of course, mean any attempt to make our intellectual inquiries work out to edifying conclusions. That would be, as Bacon says, to offer to the author of truth the unclean sacrifice of a lie. I mean the pursuit of knowledge and beauty, in a sense, for their own sake, but in a sense which does not exclude their being for God's sake. An appetite for these things exists in the human mind, and God makes no appetite in vain. We can therefore pursue knowledge as such, and beauty as such, in the sure confidence that by so doing we are either advancing to the vision of God ourselves or indirectly helping others to do so. Humility, no less than the appetite, encourages us to concentrate simply on the knowledge or the beauty, not too much concerning ourselves with their ultimate relevance to the vision of God. That relevance may not be intended for us but for our betters -- for men who come after and find the spiritual significance of what we dug out in blind and humble obedience to our vocation. This is the teleological argument that the existence of the impulse and the faculty prove that they must have a proper function in God's scheme -- the argument by which Thomas Aquinas probes that sexuality would have existed even without the Fall. The soundness of the argument, as regards culture, is proved by experience. The intellectual life is not the only road to God, nor the safest, but we find it to be *a* road, and it may be the appointed road for us. Of course it will be so only so long as we keep the impulse pure and disinterested. That is the great difficulty. As the author of the Theologia Germanicai says, we may come to love knowledge -- our knowing -- more than the thing known: to delight not in the exercise of our talents but in the fact that they are ours, or even in the reputation they bring us. Every success in the scholar's life increases this danger. If it becomes irresistible, he must give up his scholarly work. The time for plucking our the right eye has arrived.  That is the essential nature of the learned life as I see it. But it has indirect values which are especially important to-day. If all the world were Christian, it might not matter if all the world were uneducated. But, as it is, a cultural life will exist outside the Church whether it exists inside or not. To be ignorant and simple now -- not to be able to meet the enemies on their own ground -- would be to throw down our weapons, and to betray our uneducated brethren who have, under God, no defense but us against the intellectual attacks of the heathen. Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered. The cool intellect must work not only against cool intellect on the other side, but against the muddy heathen mysticisms which deny intellect altogether.  Most of all, perhaps we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion. A man who has lived in many place is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune form the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age. 

The learned life then is, for some, a duty. At the moment, it looks as if it were *your* duty. I am well aware that there may seem to be an almost comic discrepancy between the high issues we have been considering and the immediate task you may be set down to, such as Anglo-Saxon sound laws or chemical formulae. But there is a similar shock awaiting us in every vocation -- a young priest finds himself involved in choir treats and a young subaltern in accounting for pots of jam. It is well that it should be so. It weeds out the vain, windy people and keeps in those who are both humble and tough. On that kind of difficulty we need waste no sympathy.  But the peculiar difficulty imposed on you by the war is another matter: and of it I would again repeat, what I have been saying in one form or another ever since I started -- do not let your nerves and emotions lead you into thinking your present predicament more abnormal than it really is.

Perhaps it may be useful to mention the three mental exercises which may serve as defenses against the three enemies which war raises up against the scholar. The first enemy is excitement -- the tendency to think and feel about the war when we had intended to think about our work. The best defense is a recognition that in this, as in everything else, the war has not really raised up a new enemy but only aggravated an old one. There are always plenty of rivals to our work. We are always falling in love or quarreling, looking for jobs or fearing to lose them, getting ill and recovering, following public affairs. If we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other to end before we can really get down to our work. The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavorable. Favourable conditions never come. There are, of course, moments when the pressure of the excitement is so great that any superhuman self-control could not resist it. They come both in war and peace. We must do the best we can. 

The second enemy is frustration -- the feeling that we shall not have time to finish. If I say to you that no one has time to finish, that the longest human life leaves a man, in any branch of learning, a beginner, I shall seem to you to be saying something quite academic and theoretical. You would be surprised if you knew how soon one begins to feel the shortness of the tether: of how many things, even in middle life, we have to say "No time for that", "Too late now", and "Not for me". But Nature herself forbids you to share that experience. A more Christian attitude, which can be attained at any age is that of leaving futurity in God's hands. We may as well, for God will certainly retain it whether we leave it to Him or not. Never, in peace or war, commit your virtue or your happiness to the future. Happy work is best done by the man who take his long-term plans somewhat lightly and woks from moment to moment "as to the Lord". It is only our daily bread that we are encourage to ask for. The present is the only time in which any duty can be done or any grace received. 

The third enemy is fear. War threatens us with death and pain. No man -- and specially no Christian who remembers Gethsemane -- need try to attain a stoic indifference about these things: but we can guard against the illusions of the imagination. We think of the streets of Warsaw and contrast the deaths there suffered with an abstraction called Life. But there is no question of death or life for any of us; only a question of this death or of that -- of a machine gun bullet now or a cancer forty years later. What does war do to death? It certainly does not make it more frequent; 100 per cent of us die, and the percentage cannot be increased. It puts several  deaths earlier; but I hardly suppose that that is what we fear. Certainly when the moment comes, it will make little difference how many years we have behind us. Does it increase our chance of a painful death? I doubt it. As far as I can find out, what we call natural death is usually preceded by suffering; and a battlefield is one of the very few places where one has a reasonable prospect of dying with no pain at all. Does it decrease our chances of dying at peace with God? I cannot believe it. If active service does not persuade a man to prepare for death, what conceivable concatenation of circumstance would? Yet war does do something to death. It forces us to remember it. The only reason why the cancer at sixty or the paralysis at seventy-five do not bother us is that we forget them. War makes death real to us: and that would have been regarded as one of its blessings by most of the great Christians of the past. They thought it good for us to be always aware of our mortality. I am inclined to think they were right.  All the animal life in us, all schemes of happiness that centered in this world, were always doomed to a final frustration. In ordinary times only a wise man can realize it. Now the stupidest of us know. We see unmistakable the sort of universe in which we have all along been living, and must come to terms with it. If we had foolish un-Christian hopes about human culture, they are now shattered. If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon. But if we thought that for some souls, and at some times, the life of learning, humbly offered to God, was, in its own small way, one of the appointed approaches to the Divine reality and the Divine beauty which we hope to enjoy hereafter, we can think so still.

Monday, October 5, 2015

To Autumn

To Autumn
John Keats

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
  Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
  With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
  And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
    To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
  With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
    For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
  Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
  Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
  Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
    Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
  Steady thy laden head across a brook;
  Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
    Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
  Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,--
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
  And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
  Among the river sallows, borne aloft
    Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
  Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
  The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft,
    And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Psalm 32

Blessed is he whose unrighteousness is forgiven, & whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man unto whom the Lord im puteth no sin, and in whose spirit there is no guile.

For while I held my tongue, my bones consumed away through my daily complaining. For thy hand is heavy upon me day and night, and my moisture is like the drought in summer. I will acknowledge my sin unto thee; and mine un righteousness have I not hid. I said, I will confess my sins unto the Lord; and so thou forgavest the wickedness of my sin.

For this shall every one that is godly make his prayer unto thee, in a time when thou mayest be found; but in the great waterfloods they shall not come nigh him. Thou art a place to hide me in; thou shalt preserve me from trouble. Thou shalt compass me about with songs of deliverance.

I will inform thee, and teach thee in the way wherein thou shalt go; and I will guide thee with mine eye. Be ye not like to horse and mule, which have no understanding, whose mouths must be held with bit and bridle, if they will not obey thee. Great plagues remain for the ungodly; but whoso putteth his trust in the Lord, mercy embraceth him on every side.

Be glad, O ye righteous, and rejoice in the Lord; and be joyful, all ye that are true of heart. 

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Sonnets from the Portuguese XXXII

         Sonnet XXXII

The first time that the sun rose on thine oath
To love me, I looked forward to the moon
To slacken all those bonds which seemed too soon
And quickly tied to make a lasting troth.
Quick-loving hearts, I thought, may quickly loathe;
And, looking on myself, I seemed not one
For such man’s love!—more like an out-of-tune
Worn viol, a good singer would be wroth
To spoil his song with, and which, snatched in haste,
Is laid down at the first ill-sounding note.
I did not wrong myself so, but I placed
A wrong on thee.  For perfect strains may float
’Neath master-hands, from instruments defaced,—
And great souls, at one stroke, may do and doat.

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Way of Sorrow

"But we all with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord."

Where is the Lord's glory revealed...this glory into which we are being changed?  Not in displays of power and might and authority.  Not in miracles.  Not in acts of usurpation.  None of these are the means by which the glory of God is made known to us.  He shows his true self on the cross.  In his suffering and death...in taking upon himself the burden of all our sin...in absorbing all the wrath our rebellion deserves...in laying down his life that we might live...in THIS the fullness of his glory is made manifest.  As we look upon him there, we begin to understand that for us too, this is the path by which we are transformed from one degree of glory to the next, until his glory - the Imago Dei - is made manifest in us.

This is a hard saying.  We are not inclined to choose suffering.  Who wouldn't rather rest in the garden of ease than trudge the way of grief?  Yet the place of ease is not the place where we learn patience, long-suffering, and abiding love.  These virtues are formed in us as we enter hard places of fear and uncertainty...as we walk in sorrow and absorb the hurts that others inflict on us...as we grieve over the pain we have imposed on others...as we encounter disappointment, loss, injustice, loneliness, sickness, failure, and death.  

He sends us into the wilderness "to test us, to prove us, and to show us what is in our hearts."  It is his unrelenting love, his commitment to capture our hearts, his determination to see us re-made, that compels him to lead us down the "via dolorosa."  Suffering is the mirror that reveals our hearts: our loves, our motivations, our commitments.  When light reaches and exposes those dark corners, we can no longer hide from others or ourselves.  Our tendencies to escape, to fight, to protect or justify ourselves, to trust in our own strength and our own schemes more than in our Saviour...these all rise to the surface where we are forced to confront the truth about ourselves.  This then brings us face to face with  the truth about the God who not only sends US into the wilderness to be transformed, but who entered the wilderness HIMSELF so that he might transform our mortal lives into glorious - weighty and beautiful - reflections of his own self-giving love.

He is making good on his promises, not in spite of, but by way of our grief.  He remembers us.  He loves us enough not to abandon us to our own shallow peace in a garden of ease.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015


Poetic, lyrical, luminous. These are the words that repeatedly came to mind while reading Marilynne Robinson's Gilead.  That is, when I wasn't too overwhelmed with the emotions her writing evokes to overlay them with thought.

She artfully holds a mirror nearer and nearer the heart, forcing us to encounter head-on the universal, internal struggle to reconcile the pain and the beauty of life, while attempting to live out our deeply held beliefs in both individual and community relationships.  

This intensely personal, yet mostly unremarkable, struggle is undertaken alongside others whose own internal struggles are similar yet disparate - even antithetical - to our own and yet, for them, carry the same profundity, mystery, and power that our own do.  

For Reverend Ames, ordinary life is a continuous self-dialogue that seeks to make sense of all these internal and external enigmas.  Sometimes the conclusion we seek - love for another - requires an extended and steady pursuit.  When it finally blossoms, it is a lasting and peace-inducing treasure.

If you read Gilead, don't stop there.  Home, though written subsequently, chronicles the same timeframe in the same town with the same families, as seen through the eyes of characters other than Ames.  Surely this has been done before, but no instances come to mind.  It is pure brilliance.  

Monday, March 2, 2015

Life with Ms. Julie

My phone rang in the middle of the work day.  

"Julie" my screen announced.  

My initial "Oi-vay" was quickly followed by, "Gosh, I hope she's OK."  

She IS ok, but it's been a bad day for Ms. Julie.  Though she began the conversation with, "My toilet is stopped up!" she went on to enumerate a day filled with trials.  A dead battery (AAA rescued her...and the gentlemen happened to recognize her as his 3rd grade teacher: "I know you...you're Ms. Clark!")  A fender bender in the Walgreens parking lot, which she fears will cause her license to be revoked.  A stopped up toilet, which is pretty much the bane of her existence.  And a landlord who dared to retrieve rent checks from the hallway without taking her garbage to the dumpster...which BY THE WAY is overflowing and THEY AREN'T PICKING UP UNTIL THURSDAY (kind of like every other week...?).  

If I didn't absolutely adore her...well, I do...so it's all good.  All I had to do was promise to dispose of her garbage and check out her toilet when I got home...AND reveal the hiding spot for my apartment key so she could use my bathroom.

Following through on my promises earned me a set of wings...AAAAAND...my very own Sound of Music sing-a-long to commemorate its 60th anniversary.  Ms. Julie tickled the ivory on her baby grand and I, of course, killed on vocals...while Julie Andrews herself looked on almost-approvingly from the signed photograph on top of the piano.  She's famous like that, Ms. Julie.  Her apartment is filled with momentos from the world of Broadway and its stars, all addressing their personal devotion to her.

Sure, I "miraculously" unstopped her perfectly-working toilet (earning me the appellation of "my very own Roto Rooter"!),  I found room for her garbage in the overflowing (70% full!) dumpster, I carried her empty reusable grocery bags down to her trunk, and gave my very professional evaluation of the nearly-invisible scratch on her bumper...AND I spent a sweltering 30 minutes in her 90 degree apartment!  But while she thinks I'm the one blessing her...and I suppose I am...SHE is so full of spunk (and worry) and joy (and worry) and fascinating life stories (and worry), that I'm pretty sure I derive the most pleasure from our encounters.   

I fear I shall be a mite lonely when she's gone.  Long live Ms. Julie!!

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Blessing

"The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace."

I no longer lift my hands to receive that blessing with even the slightest bit of indifference.   Having experienced the loss and extended absence of each of those blessings, the restoration of them is dear and precious.  To have them spoken over me each Sunday is powerful.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Music Monday: Dynamic Duos

Luke Winslow King & Esther Rose

Corey Chisel & Adriel Danae

Over the Rhine - Linford Detweiler & Karen Bergquist

Whitehorse - Luke Doucet & Melissa McClelland

Jay Ungar & Molly Mason

Civil Wars: Joy Williams & John Paul White

Shovels & Rope

Jason Isbell & Amanda Shires

Monday, February 9, 2015

Music Monday: A Communion Hymn

Thomas Aquinas

 Godhead here in hiding, whom I do adore,
Masked by these bare shadows, shape and nothing more,
See, Lord, at thy service low lies here a heart
Lost, all lost in wonder at the God thou art.

Seeing, touching, tasting are in thee deceived:
How says trusty hearing? that shall be believed;
What God's Son has told me, take for truth I do;
Truth himself speaks truly or there's nothing true.

On the cross thy godhead made no sign to men,
Here thy very manhood steals from human ken:
 Both are my confession, both are my belief,
And I pray the prayer of the dying thief.

I am not like Thomas, wounds I cannot see,
But can plainly call thee Lord and God as he;
Let me to a deeper faith daily nearer move,
Daily make me harder hope and dearer love.

O thou our reminder of Christ crucified,
Living Bread, the life of us for whom he died,
Lend this life to me then: feed and feast my mind,
There be thou the sweetness man was meant to find.

Bring the tender tale true of the Pelican;
Bathe me, Jesu Lord, in what thy bosom ran---
Blood whereof a single drop has power to win
All the world forgiveness of its world of sin.

Jesu, whom I look at shrouded here below,
I beseech thee send me what I thirst for so,
Some day to gaze on thee face to face in light
And be blest for ever with thy glory's sight. Amen.

(translation of Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.)

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Idol of Obedience

"All the way...right away...with a good attitude...every day."

What an absolutely wretched paradigm for parenting.

Unless, of course, our aim is to create either perfectionistic, self-righteous little Pharisees, or defeated, self-loathing little prodigals.

This is NOT Christian parenting!  This is gospel-denying, moralistic striving that engenders smug self-satisfaction in those inclined toward obedience and cynical disregard in those inclined toward rebellion.  Neither of these are fruits of righteousness.  Both are antithetical to living in the Good News that Jesus has rescued ALL of us from ourselves...the obedient and disobedient alike.  BOTH need him because neither can save himself!!

I regret parenting under this paradigm.  Even though I thought it was *right* at the time, I now see that underneath it was my own moralistic striving to prove myself worthy of the appellation "Christian parent."  Make that GOOD...or better yet..."EXCEPTIONAL Christian parent."  Obedient, moral children would prove that my own faith and life were genuine.  What a burdensome way of life, not only for me, but for my sons.

In reality, this is simple proof that I am in as much need of the gracious gospel of Jesus as my sons were/are.  Because of the mercy of God in Christ, I don't have to despair of my parenting failures.  I have confessed my sins and errors to my sons and though I hope they have heard and responded, my hope for them does not lie in my ability to adequately confess or right my wrongs.  My confidence is that HE is fully capable of bringing them to himself and healing any hurt, damage, or distorted beliefs they have as a result of my parenting, whether through or apart from my acknowledgement.

Bottom line: even if I had parented as perfectly as humanly possible...even if I had more accurately taught and displayed the Good News, in the end, the ONLY thing that will save them...or ME...is the work of Jesus Christ, who loves us and delivers us and draws us near even when we don't obey all the way...right away...with a good attitude...every day. 

Our father is forever faithful, he knows our frame, he gives us eyes to see ourselves when we're ready, and he grants us repentance and life.  And we can trust him to do the same for our children.  Thanks be to God.

NOTE: This is not about self-flagellation, nor am I seeking accolades for my parenting, nor is it an indictment of my sons!  I dearly loved my boys and tried - in the best way I knew how at the time - to shower them with love, to train their hearts to love God, and to allow them joy in the process.  I did some things right along the way.  BUT...as I grow and change and experience The Good News in new ways in my own life, my perspective changes and I see my parenting differently.   I hope to challenge/encourage young parents or to-be parents (such as my own sons...) to formulate their expectations for obedience from a more gracious stance and with a view to their children's AND THEIR OWN ongoing need for Jesus.

Monday, February 2, 2015


I drove nearly 1000 miles this weekend to watch my boy play basketball.  

No...he isn't spoiled.  And no...I am not an obsessed, overly-involved mother who can't let go.  But this is kind of a big deal.

This Man-Child of mine arrived at this place by a long, circuitous route.  He wanted to attend Covenant College since he was about 13, but for various reasons, it was never an option until this year, and he had to overcome some fairly large obstacles.  It's true that some very caring souls stuck out their necks to assist him, but ultimately the risk and the work to shed the burdens that haunted him, required commitment and perseverance on his part. 

Every mile was worth it because it allowed me to participate in the joy of a son who has cast off his past and is pursuing his passions.  His dreams are simple: Teach.  Coach.  Love kids.  He is on the path to fulfilling those dreams and for me to be on the sideline cheering him on, is the fulfillment of mine. 

Music Monday: Norah

Friday, January 30, 2015

Gender & Grace

I finally finished VanLeeuwen's book.  She asks all of the questions I have been asking for years regarding Christian assumptions  and conclusions about gender and sexuality, and she attempts to answer them according to her knowledge of science and consistent hermeneutical principles applied to Scripture.   I believe she succeeds, offering Christians a solid biblical approach to a host of questions that plague us.  For those of you who panic at the very thought of placing our gender views under the microscope, perhaps (*perhaps*) the closing paragraph of the book might put you at ease:

"When all is said and done, the struggle for Christian freedom is not between men and women, nor even between feminists and traditionalists.  The struggle is within each one of us, male and female, between the old person and the new person, between the flesh and the Spirit, between the impulse to be first among all and the call to become the servant of many.  Debates about sex and gender will be around for a long time to come, both in the community of the church and the community of social science.  But long after our current questions have been settled or forgotten, the radical words of Jesus to his followers, both women and men, will ring down through history from the Gospel of John: 'Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it cannot bear fruit.'  And this is a saying which will rightly continue to offend us all." 

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

STL: The Best Baseball Town

I know many unknowingly accuse St. Louis of naming THEMSELVES as the Best Fans in Baseball, but I can assure you that isn't the case.  St. Louis is a relatively humble town.  We LOVE our baseball team and are proud of their history and proven performance year after year, and we enjoy some of the names that have been applied to us, but trust me when I say, they are NOT self-assignations!   Imported players and TV commentators are the primary source for the "high-praise" that comes to Cardinals' fans, and now we can officially add The Commissioner to that list of those who recognize something special about the relationship between St. Louis and baseball.  

Maybe one day I'll write about that connection, but for now, I'll leave you with Mr. Selig's contribution to the conversation: 

"With world championships, perennial contention, a pipeline of homegrown players, [a] beautiful ballpark [and] continuity on and off the field, the Redbirds embody the blueprint for every team, not only in baseball, but in sports. I commend [owner Bill DeWitt Jr.] and his entire organization for building an era of Cardinal baseball that is a fair reward for the St. Louis fans, whose unwavering support continues to amaze. I really -- I wanna say this. I go to all 30 cities, obviously there’s supposed to be a neutrality, but I’ve said this many times and I’ll say it again: You are the best baseball town in America, and there is no doubt about it."  

--Bud Selig, January 2015

Saturday, January 10, 2015

When We Two Parted

by: George Gordon (Lord) Byron (1788-1824)

When we two parted
In silence and tears,
Half broken-hearted
To sever for years,
Pale grew thy cheek and cold,
Colder thy kiss;
Truly that hour foretold
Sorrow to this.

The dew of the morning
Sunk chill on my brow--
It felt like the warning
Of what I feel now.
Thy vows are all broken,
And light is thy fame:
I hear thy name spoken,
And share in its shame.

They name thee before me,
A knell to mine ear;
A shudder comes o'er me--
Why wert thou so dear?
They know not I knew thee,
Who knew thee too well:
Long, long shall I rue thee,
Too deeply to tell.

In secret we met--
In silence I grieve,
That thy heart could forget,
Thy spirit deceive.
If I should meet thee
After long years,
How should I greet thee?
With silence and tears.

I'm Fine -- How Are You?

At the end of recent visit with my Grandma Waggoner, she gave me this piece of paper and had me read it out loud to her.  She gave me the copy, which I treasure because it is in her handwriting!

I'm Fine -- How Are You?

There's nothing the matter with me,

I'm just as healthy as can be.
I have arthritis in both knees,
and when I talk, I talk with a wheeze.
My pulse is weak, my blood is thin,
but I'm awfully well for the shape I'm in.

My memory's failing, my head's in a spin,
But I'm awfully well for the shape I'm in.
Old age is golden -- I've heard it said,
But I sometimes wonder as I go to bed.  
With my ears in a  drawer, my teeth in a cup,
and my glasses on a shelf until I get up.
And when sleep dims my eyes, I say to myself,
Is there anything else I should lay on the shelf?

The reason I know my youth has been spent,
Is my get-up-and-go has got-up-and-went!
But really I don't mind, when I think with a grin,
Of all the places my get-up has been.

The moral of this as the tale unfolds,
Is that for you and me who are growing old,
It is better to say, "I"m fine" with a grin,
Than to let people know the shape we are in!

From the Sea

From the Sea
by Sara Teasdale

All beauty calls you to me, and you seem,

Past twice a thousand miles of shifting sea
To reach me.  You are as the wind I breathe
Here on the ship's sun-smitten topmost deck,
With only light between the heavens and me.
I feel your spirit and I close my eyes,
Knowing the bright hair blowing in the sun,
The eager whisper and the searching eyes.

Listen, I love you.  Do not turn your face

Nor touch me.  Only stand and watch a while 
The blue unbroken circle of the sea.
Look far away and let me ease my heart
Of words that beat in it with broken wing.
Look far away, and if I say too much,
Forget that I am speaking.  Only watch,
how like a gull that sparkling sinks to rest,
The foam-crest drifts along a happy wave
Toward the bright verge, the boundary of the world.

I am so weak a thing, praise me for this,

That in some strange way I was strong enough
To keep my love unuttered and to stand
Altho' I longed to kneel to you that night
You looked at me with ever-calling eyes.
Was I not calm?  And if you guessed my love
You thought it something delicate and free,
Soft as the sound of fir-trees in the wind
Fleeting as the phosphorescent stars in foam.
Yet in my heart there was a beating storm
Bending my thoughts before it, and I strove
To say too little lest I say too much,
And from my eyes to drive love's happy shame.
It seemed like other names to me, and I
Was all unconscious, as a dreaming river
That nears at last its long predestined sea;
And when you spoke to me, I did not know
That to my life's high altar came its priest.
But now I know between my God and me 
You stand forever, nearer God than I,
And in your hand with faith and utter joy
I would that I could lay my woman's soul.

Oh, my love

To whom I cannot come with any gift 
Of body or of soul, I pass and go.
But sometimes when you hear blown back to you
My wistful, far-off singing touched with tears,
Know that I sang for you alone to hear,
And that I wondered if the wind would bring
To him who tuned my heart its distant song.
So might a woman who in loneliness
Had borne a child, dreaming of days to come,
Wonder if it would please its father's eyes.
But long before I ever heard your name,
Always the undertone's unchanging note
In all my singing had prefigured you,
Foretold you as a spark foretells a flame.
Yet I was free as an untethered cloud
In the great space between the sky and sea,
And might have blown before the wind of joy
Like a bright banner woven by the sun.
I did not know the longing in the night--
You who have waked me cannot give me sleep.
All things in the world can rest, but I,
Even the smooth brief respite of a wave
When it gives up its broken crown of foam,
Even that little rest I may not have.
And yet all quiet loves of friends, all joy
In all the piercing beauty of the world
I would give up--go blind forevermore,
Rather than have God blot out from my soul
Remembrance of your voice that said my name.

For us no starlight stilled the April fields,

No birds awoke in darkling trees for us,
Yet where we walked the city's street that night
Felt in our feet the singing fire of spring,
And in our path we left a trail of light
Soft as the phosphorescence of the sea
When night submerges in the vessel's wake
A heaven of unborn evanescent stars.