Somebody at Oxford

This morning I had a nice stroll through C.S. Lewis’ garden and this afternoon I oggled Jane Austen’s handwritten stories.  Really.  I am sitting in a café next to . . . who knows?  Professors, students, travelers like me, here from the four corners of the world, perched above a street that a hundred heroes have walked — Lewis Carroll, J.R.R. Tolkein, the martyrs Latimer and Ridley, the bonnie king of England.  Oxford seems a lucky place, but I suppose it’s much like anywhere else.  It is the birthplace (or the death place) of people great and grimy, whose ghosts, the tour guides promise, moan about the narrow streets at night.

I felt a little sheepish admitting on my tour of The Kilns this morning that not only was I happily paying out pounds to see Lewis’ home (we stood in the room where he died; a new tour guide perched on his bed to take notes as we listened) — but I had in fact visited another Lewis shrine at Wheaton College earlier this year.  At what point am I truly a Narnia groupie?

Why are our favorite famous people so fascinating?

What makes some people extraordinary?

They say at every breath you inhale a little oxygen once breathed out by Julius Caesar, that everyone with European roots is related to Charlemagne.  That tattered and rat-eaten Magna Carta I saw in the building next door was reportedly signed by one of my husband’s ancestors, and probably, I imagine, by one of mine.  (Might even be the same person.  You know, if you go back a ways, every human being on the planet is related — 50th cousins, so they say.)  And yet some of those cousins beguile and bewitch us.  If you happen to bump into a famous Somebody at the airport, you’ll no doubt come home chirping about it to anyone who’ll listen (I’ve seen a few myself if you are dying to hear the stories).

In The Great Divorce (one of my favorites), Lewis writes about Napoleon pacing back and forth in hell, muttering about whose fault it was.  But while this man of importance and glory frets his eternity away, the narrator spots a woman in Heaven, radiant in splendor.

‘Is it?… is it?’ I whispered to my guide.

‘Not at all,’ said he.  ‘It’s someone ye’ll never have heard of.  Her name on earth was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green.’

‘She seems to be… well, a person of particular importance?’

‘Aye.  She is one of the great ones.  Ye have heard that fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things…. already there is joy enough in the little finger of a great saint such as yonder lady to waken all the dead things of the universe into life.’

Hmm.  A life illuminated by joy.  That changes the equation, doesn’t it?  Who’s really special after all?

They say if everyone is special then no one really is.  Give trophies to all the Little Leaguers and none of them really shine.  All those helicopter moms doting on mediocrity… I agree, it’s gross.  But at least the pandering doesn’t last forever.  All that excess of praise peters out at some point as the little rascals grow out of their cuteness.  Unfortunately we don’t outgrow lavishing undeserved worship on lackluster performances, we just focus it on a few shiny people.  There’s no fairness in it — celebrities without a shred of talent, best-sellers without a speck of charm, truly wonderful people who are beloved one year and forgotten the next.  Maybe that quiet fellow behind me in line at the grocery store is the next C.S. Lewis, but I can’t peel my eyes away from People Magazine.

And what of C.S. Lewis?  The words that poured out of that man’s pen are some of the best things ever put to paper (he never typed, did you know that?  Always a fountain pen.  Said it helped him think.)  And yet the man had some serious quirks, some character flaws that would drive you crazy in a brother, or a friend.  I wonder as he wrote about Sarah Smith from Golders Green if he chuckled to think of the people lining up outside his driveway, shoving to get a glimpse.  In Heaven, he might have speculated, he’d be somewhere at the bottom of the heap.lewis-profound

Still, Lewis was a person who did what he did best with unbelievable skill, a person whose words inspire us all to do a little better.  That’s something.

The best and brightest students come here to Oxford, brilliant, dazzling in their accomplishments.  How proud their parents must be!  How proud would I?

How many out of all of them will outshine Sarah Smith of Golders Green?

In an upside-down Kingdom, the top-heavy world will topple (not may, or might, but will).  All that’s up top will tumble down, and all that’s on bottom will tumble up.  Maybe we should all teach our children not to strive for the top but to dive low.

In the words of our good friend Clive Staples Lewis, “Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call ‘humble’ nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody.  Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him.  If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.”

My favorite Somebody at Oxford has long since been overshadowed (and overjoyed) by a better Somebody.  Someday we’ll get to meet them both.

20170921_114115
The pond behind C.S. Lewis’ home — the pond between worlds?

Ordinary Work

It’s Labor Day.  Break out the cooler, splash some mud, kick back.  Summer slid by in a sticky blur — are you ready for fall?  Today we celebrate the end of vacation, gear up for another year of vocation.  We are back to work — ordinary, beautiful, work.

Today we play, tomorrow we ply our trades.  Remember when you dreamed of what you would be when you grew up?  And now you’re there — astronaut, detective, author, lawyer, president, ditch digger, teacher, missionary to the gypsies.  (That was my childhood list.  I’m two for seven.  You?)  Chances are you’ve never been to the moon or slept in the White House.  But do you still dream?

What will I be when I wake up?

A baker, frosting cupcakes for a friend; a singer, blasting the radio in my car; a nurse, patching up skinned knees with Band-aids and love; a counselor, asking good questions over coffee; a taxi driver, shuttling someone to the airport.

Ordinary work for a lifetime of ordinary, extraordinary days.

In our work, we create, we design, and we reflect our designer, creator God.  Every day stretches before us with untold opportunities to try new things or do old things in new ways.  Every day we can choose imagination over stagnation.  So often we don’t; we settle for stuck when we could soar.  We are like waddling geese when we could flap those wings a little and take flight.

In our work, we serve, reflecting the humble, sacrificial service of Christ.  Ordinary work becomes an avenue for extraordinary love.  We don’t give because we like parting with stuff, or serve because we have excessive time and energy.  We give because someone once gave to us — heaped up, pressed down, running over.  We are the re-gifters.

In our work, we shine, bringing light into forgotten corners of culture.  Into tense boardrooms, we bring peace, into stressed offices, we bring unexpected laughter.  With excellence we may make one perfect product, then another, then another, each a chip of mirror reflecting in its tiny way something far more valuable.

What will you be when you wake up?

I hope that we will be ordinary.  Each of us an ordinary, beautiful piece of the mosaic that would be missing something essential without our little part.

Happy Labor Day!

“And on the seventh day you shall have a holy convocation. You shall not do any ordinary work.”  –Numbers 28:25

Photo via Visual Hunt

Life is Vapor, Week 12

We wrapped it up last night, our study of Ecclesiastes.  The Preacher has taken us one by one down a maze of dead-end roads, pushing us past our pat answers.  As Derek Kidner says, “The searching questions he has asked are those that life itself puts to us, if we will only listen.  He can afford to ask them, because in the final chapters he has good news for us, once we can stop pretending that what is mortal is enough for us, who have been given a capacity for the eternal.”

Last night we asked, in light of all that is vanity, all that is better, and that which is best — how shall we then live?  How can we make the most of time, we who are small and fleeting?

From time to time, when you need to reset your heart, when your soul grows impatient with this forever waiting (that isn’t so long, really, after all), listen to David.  Let him remind you to still your mind from all this fretting life and lift your eyes again to things outside of time.  Remember, we are heading Home.

Psalm 103, Of David.

Bless the Lord, O my soul,
    and all that is within me,
    bless his holy name!
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
    and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity,
    who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit,
    who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
    so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

The Lord works righteousness
    and justice for all who are oppressed.
He made known his ways to Moses,
    his acts to the people of Israel.
The Lord is merciful and gracious,
    slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide,
    nor will he keep his anger forever.
10 He does not deal with us according to our sins,
    nor repay us according to our iniquities.
11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
    so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
12 as far as the east is from the west,
    so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
13 As a father shows compassion to his children,
    so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.
14 For he knows our frame;
    he remembers that we are dust.

15 As for man, his days are like grass;
    he flourishes like a flower of the field;
16 for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
    and its place knows it no more.
17 But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him,
    and his righteousness to children’s children,
18 to those who keep his covenant
    and remember to do his commandments.
19 The Lord has established his throne in the heavens,
    and his kingdom rules over all.

20 Bless the Lord, O you his angels,
    you mighty ones who do his word,
    obeying the voice of his word!
21 Bless the Lord, all his hosts,
    his ministers, who do his will!
22 Bless the Lord, all his works,
    in all places of his dominion.
Bless the Lord, O my soul!

 

In a World Dry as Kindling

Dear Kids,

As you might have noticed, we were born in America.  We come from families with a long history of working hard to beat the odds, of excelling in all kinds of jobs—or not, as the case may be.  We have drinkers and pirates and politicians and scalawags, artists, creators, teachers, and pastors lining up in our DNA.  Some were noble.  Some were despicable.  Some were heroes and some victims (like as not, those two qualities combined.)  They are the stuff of legend.

As for our family, we’ve enjoyed a modest happiness, sheltered from much harm, sleepy with blessings and hopeful with dreams.  We’ve visited wide sandy beaches, rocky cliffs, fields full of sunflowers, mountains that scrape the sky.  We have sung around campfires and feasted on turkey every Thanksgiving.  We are no one special, except that by the grace of God, we are loved.

We are not special.  We are loved.

There are in this wide country a great many people who tell a different story.  Oh, their families, too, have high points and low, moments of love, moments of hate.  Maybe they don’t expect breakfast most mornings, maybe they’ve never seen much beyond a boarded-up window.  But people are people, dreamers and drifters, lovers and loved.  We all laugh easy when we go to bed warm and full, when we wake up hopeful.  We all come into the world wired for friendship and meaningful days.

It isn’t too hard to see where hate starts, where, if you were bent on it, you could rip a flag along fraying seams.  Envy, mostly, pride, or thoughts of revenge, fulcrums that pivot us toward dark places.  We all want justice for our enemies and mercy for ourselves.  We all die a little with the death of a dream or a door slammed.  It’s easier to be hard than tender.  It’s certainly easier to hold a grudge than forgive.  Sustain enough injuries, and scar tissue grows up, cording thick around our hearts, squeezing out grace.

A long enough drought and it only takes a spark to burn a million acres.

Our country is dry right now, really dry.  Hearts are hard from hurts and words spark angry like flint striking stone.  There is no logic than can forestall a forest fire.  Only water, only love.

I pray for you.  You scamper through dry woods, while clouds thick with static gather overhead.

What if?

What will come?

I want to immunize you against the taking sides, the never-ending, unforgiving duels.  Capulets and Montagues fling arrows, bruised and outraged egos bristle back, cycles claim another generation.

But, love.

Here child, fill your bucket, pour it down over your own head.  Fill it, fill it, let it run in streams around you, a circle of safety, damp with tears.  Turn your anger into weeping, turn your eyes to heaven, turn your bruised and fragile cheek.  Bend your sword into a shovel, dig up your unplowed ground, plant thickets of mercy.

Let justice roll down like mighty waters.

It is easier to despair some days than hope, easier to choose apathy than passion.  And hope that lands in disappointment can risk your heart.  The whisper, Where is God? becomes a scream.  Your faith must be as strong as your ego is vulnerable.

I remember a poem I learned years ago, a word for the misery of our times.  It’s “Dover Beach,” by Matthew Arnold, melancholy, wistful, the sound of losing faith.  And yet he ends with hope—albeit a battered and a mournful one.  You are yet too young to grasp these words, I think, but someday when your heart is low, maybe you will hear them.  They are partly true.

The sea is calm tonight.

The tide is full, the moon lies fair

Upon the straits; on the French coast the light

Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,

Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.

Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!

Only, from the long line of spray

Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,

Listen! you hear the grating roar

Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,

At their return, up the high strand,

Begin, and cease, and then again begin,

With tremulous cadence slow, and bring

The eternal note of sadness in.

 

Sophocles long ago

Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought

Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow

Of human misery; we

Find also in the sound a thought,

Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

 

The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating, to the breath

Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear

And naked shingles of the world.

 

Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! for the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.

I wish I could sit down with Matthew Arnold, ask him if he’d lost faith or only lamented the general loss of faith in the world.  I, too, lament, but there we part.  I stake my life on this: where all is lost and broken, there is hope, hope in the person of One who bled to water the thirsty ground, hope in the One who watched hate win, only to rise again above it, triumph of meekness over might.

If this bone-dry world, sweet kids, is all there is, then we are “here as on a darkling plain”—Charlottesville, Hitler, and slavery is all there is.  Hate wins.  But if this world is just the hard-cracked shell of a seed that must first break to burst out again in life, well, then, we wait.

I pray for you to hold fast to faith.  Take courage.  Risk everything you have to love.  And drive your roots down deep, so that on a scorching day you won’t dry out.

Yours while we wait,

Mom

“He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.” –Jeremiah 17:8

in the waiting,faith

Life is Vapor, Week 11

“Most of the things we need to be most fully alive never come in busyness. They grow in rest.”
Mark Buchanan

“Sabbath observance invites us to stop. It invites us to rest. It asks us to notice that while we rest, the world continues without our help. It invites us to delight in the world’s beauty and abundance.”
Wendell Berry

This week we talked about work, and rest, about slowing down, and breathing deep, and trust.  We talked about why our work matters, really matters, in a place where nothing much seems to matter, and how, ultimately, everything matters–from our tedious chores to our grand accomplishments.

Join us?  And let us know–what would the long term effect be, year after year, if you learned the secret of real rest?  How would it change you?  How would it change your family?

Life is Vapor, Week 10

What can we do when we’re lost in the dark?  How can we confront the absurdities of life on a fallen planet?  What does it mean to choose light?

Last night we talked about this idea of choosing light, setting our hearts on things above, consciously turning away from darkness that could swallow us whole.  We talked at our tables about those moments when darkness has a strong pull, and choosing joy takes all of our strength.  “If you have no words to give thanks,” I’d written, “borrow some.”  Here, then, are a few words I frequently borrow to keep my soul lit up.

From Isaiah 43,

Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
    I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
    and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
    and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
    the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
I give Egypt as your ransom,
    Cush and Seba in exchange for you.
Because you are precious in my eyes,
    and honored, and I love you,
I give men in return for you,
    peoples in exchange for your life.
Fear not, for I am with you….”

Here’s Erika sharing her heart with us once more!

Photo via VisualHunt.com

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