Thankful.

thankfulness hymn

for the small things: light on water, shaded forest, laughter ringing
clear my mind to see your beauty
make me thankful, Lord
for the moments gone forever, conversations, love so fleeting,
give me power to remember,
make me thankful, Lord

all the gifts declare your kindness,
joyful Father, loving Friend,
make me long for you, my portion
sweeter, higher, without end

for the shocking incarnation, setting glory to the side,
Jesus, King come as a baby
make me thankful, Lord
for the shocking death you suffered, love propelling Love to die,
Jesus, King killed as a pauper
make me thankful, Lord

all the gifts declare your goodness,
humble Savior, loving Friend,
make me long for you, Redeemer,
sweeter, higher, without end

for the breath of God upon me, blowing through me, to renew me
in my weakness, grace unstinting,
make me thankful, Lord
for the suffering, give me vision of your purpose, of your wisdom
tease out meaning, comfort me
make me thankful, Lord

all the gifts declare your mercy,
tender Spirit, loving Friend
make me taste your kind compassion,
sweeter, higher, without end

for the final destination, journey ending, sailing home
rest and healing, joy and beauty,
make us hopeful, Lord
for the moment we will see you, hear you calling, “welcome home!”
feel your arms in love surround us,
make us hopeful, Lord

all the gifts declare your brightness,
glimpses in the dreams you send,
make us thankful for a future
sweeter, higher, without end

A beggar at Christmas.

English: Old Beggar, 1916, by Louis Dewis, pai...
English: Old Beggar, 1916, by Louis Dewis, painted just outside his clothing store in Bordeaux (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If I have calculated correctly, Christmas is 8 days away. (I was an English major; you do the math!) So maybe, like me, you are watching old movies and pulling out favorite Christmas stories for an annual read-through. Last year, we discovered a story new to our family, a beautiful little old-fashioned tale called “The Family Under The Bridge” by Natalie Savage Carlson. It is the story of a recently homeless family in Paris and the ragged old hobo who pledges to find for them a new home. It’s great.

Armand is the old beggar who reluctantly finds himself helping the three shell-shocked children, the little “starlings,” he calls them. And despite their mother’s disdain and revulsion for the old man, the family is soon inextricably linked with him (isn’t it always the case when we let the walls down — gah! Inconvenient love!) Armand promises Suzy a real, honest-to-goodness house for Christmas, a promise he can’t possibly keep, of course. Christmas Eve rolls around…

“Then the crowd of hoboes and their ladies and friends sang Christmas carols to the accordion music. Most of their voices were cracked and off key, but they sounded beautiful to themselves.

“Armand was ready to go by midnight. He clung to the big carton that had been given him at the tent as a gift. He knew it was full of jam, fruit and cigarettes. It would be his Christmas present to the gypsies.

“But Madame Calcet wouldn’t think of going straight back. ‘We must go to the midnight mass on the quay,’ she said. ‘The girl told me about it.’

“An altar had been set up on the Tournelle quay right out in the open. The priest in his bright vestments, followed by his altar boys, had just approached the altar by the time Armand and the Calcets arrived. Many of the hoboes stayed for the mass.

“Evelyne fell asleep in her mother’s arms. Jojo was quiet and respectful although it was the first time he had ever been to church.

“Armand swayed from one foot to the other uneasily. It had been so long since he had gone to mass. Lucky this one was out here on the quay. They never would have pulled him into one of those great fancy churches.

“The hobo had other things to make him uneasy. The plight of this family. Just how had he got himself so tied up with them? How had he blundered into such a trap? It was the way those starlings had begged hi to stay with them. That is how they had stolen his heart. No one had ever made him feel needed before. And now he’d lied to them. There wasn’t any house growing out of the ground — not for them.

“In his misery he raised his eyes high over the altar — up to the stars in the Paris sky. ‘Please, God,’ he said, moving his lips soundlessly, ‘I’ve forgotten how to pray. All I know now is how to beg. So I’m begging you to find a roof for this homeless family.’

“Then he was ashamed to notice that he was holding his beret up in his usual begging way. He quickly pulled it over his head.”

What do you pray for, so earnestly that you would beg, hat in hand under the starry December sky? Aren’t we all beggars, no better off than poor old Armand? It’s only when we forget what ragamuffins we are that our prayers get stale and ugly. May we all remember the state of our beggar souls, cry out in earnest to the only one who can do the impossible. Then watch and see if the miracles don’t begin to unfold.

In the meantime, sip that eggnog latte and remember, there are those in our midst who will spend Christmas on the concrete. A little compassion goes a long way.

Ah, books.

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“It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.”
― Oscar Wilde

I was just thinking about bookstores and how I love them so and how I wish I owned one so that I had an excuse for being there all day. Growing up, my favorite was an independent children’s-books-only place in Greensboro, NC — I wonder if it is still there? I would save all of my allowance to spend there; the boxes of mildewed books that my mother kept in the attic all these years could stack to the moon and back. The shop was called B. Dolphin, and I think I could still spend my allowance there. To this day I adore the kids’ section of any bookstore best, and the books I foist on my children I want to read myself.

Besides B. Dolphin, there was Atticus Books, which I am fairly sure was crushed by the mighty Barnes and Noble, and the Tattered Cover here in Denver, which is hanging in there somehow. Now even B &N is in danger due to the Kindle revolution. And though I don’t mind my e-books, the real tragedy of paperbacks’ extinction is the death of the bookstore, the experience of swimming in books up to the eyeball, stumbling across unknown authors and being snagged by a book of an unfamiliar genre. Somehow the virtual reality world just can’t compete.

And while I’m at it, I have to mention Signs of Life in Lawrence, KS, which is a paradise of books and art and coffee. There’s a bookstore with the wisdom not to categorize based on the faith or lack of faith of the publisher, knowing the importance of the reaching and the wrestling, not just the arriving.

So today as I finish my Christmas shopping in a bookstore, three cheers for books! Maybe if we all buy as many paper-and-ink tomes as we do plastic-and-metal toys this December, the bookstore itself will be around another year, for another 52 excuses to wander among deep thoughts, big laughs, and beautiful art. Ah, books.

A carol for Sunday.

The Annunciation to the Shepherds (ca. 1640)
The Annunciation to the Shepherds (ca. 1640) (Photo credit: lito)

It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth,
To touch their harps of gold;
“Peace on the earth, good will to men,
From Heaven’s all gracious King.”
The world in solemn stillness lay,
To hear the angels sing.

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife
And hear the angels sing.

And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing!

Homesick

Hourglass
Hourglass (Photo credit: John-Morgan)

“No one has yet believed in God and the kingdom of God, no one has yet heard about the realm of the resurrected, and not been homesick from that hour, waiting and looking forward joyfully to being released from bodily existence.”
― Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Well, I wrote a few days ago about the end of the world, and then it came. For a town in Connecticut, it was here, and we were all unaware. It takes my breath away to think of the shock of that pain. And it is what I have been writing about all year, in my journal, in my work-in-progress, but it still knocks the wind out of me. Life is so, so short. And I am homesick.

I have felt it since I was a child. I do not belong here. I am an alien, a sojourner. This place is foreign to me, and though sometimes it reminds me of home, more often it is slightly toxic. I am ET, breathing strange fumes. I need to phone home.

But here I am, here we all are, stranded on this hostile planet, waiting. Longing. And although the waiting seems interminable, there are reminders that in truth, our lives are short. Sometimes the reminders shock.

Without Christ,

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

(William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act 5, scene 5, 19–28)

Ah, but with Christ, everything has changed. Out of disorder, he teases beauty, and even out of tragedy, he orchestrates grace, though it is hard to see. The never-ending waiting of life on earth is charged with purpose, urgency, even. Time is short. We are going home.

In the meantime, we are undeniably stuck here. “Under the sun,” says Solomon, cynic of scripture, “life is really lousy.” As various translations put it, life is meaningless, vanity, vainglory, futility, vapor, emptiness, falsity, smoke. Under the sun there is toil and heartache and devastation and bitter, angry days on end. So how is it that Christ, unflinching, proclaims, “I came that they might have life and have it abundantly”? Is he speaking of earth-bound souls?

Under the sun — under the slippery, deceptive rulers and authorities, thrones and principalities of a fallen earth, well, there, “futility of futilities!” life is without purpose. It’s reminiscent of creation un-breathed upon: “formless and void,” dark. Oh, but then! The world did not remain untouched; the Word said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.

Light, shining on confusion, suddenly spotlights God’s sovereignty, and in a blink, chaos becomes meaningful. Delay becomes opportunity, tragedy is transformed into triumph, and along the way, snivelling, petty humans acquire the dazzling likeness of Christ.

“Patience,” says Oswald Chambers, is critical here under the sun, where suffering seems to linger forever. It’s “more than endurance. A saint’s life is in the hands of God like a bow and arrow in the hands of an archer. God is aiming at something the saint cannot see, and He stretches and strains, and every now and again the saint says–‘I cannot stand anymore.’ God does not heed, He goes on stretching till His purpose is in sight, then He lets fly. Trust yourself in God’s hands. Maintain your relationship to Jesus Christ by the patience of faith. ‘Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him.’”

Patience I have in short supply. Perhaps that is exactly why I am asked to wait so often — how else will I learn? He stretches, I strain, the longing becomes so loud a roar in my ears that I cry out. Home! Take me home! And he will; one day, ordinary in the beginning, will by close of day be my homecoming, and looking over my shoulder I will see there is no going back.

How do we spend the days granted us? How do we live abundantly, fully, richly, deeply satisfied before the sand in the hourglass is gone?

Worship wholeheartedly.

Walk purposefully.

Care passionately.

Give generously.

See eternally.

Hold loosely.

Love deeply.

Stand firm.

Choose light.

While I struggle with things petty and small, a town in Connecticut positively staggers under the weight of something monstrous. I pray for them light today, a glimpse of grace even in the midst of this. I pray for them the hope of homecoming. It is never as far off as we might think it is.

The End is all kinds of nigh.

Well, it’s 12/12/12, and I’m still here. I assume you are, too? I wonder what all those people with the one-way tickets to the Riviera are going to do?

All of the end-of-the-world hoopla this week reminded me of one of my all-time favorite bathroom reading books, “Pocket Guide to the Apocalypse” by Jason Boyett. It is an extremely helpful survival manual that also causes the spewing of hot drinks due to unexpected guffaws. Read carefully in public. Especially the “Know your potential Anti-Christ” bit.20121212-212244.jpg

Turns out LOTS of people have confidently predicted the end of things, sold their baseball card collections, and headed for the rooftop to wait for the trumpet call. Which is really funny when you read the particulars, and also kinda sad.

It reminds me, too, of something Anne Lamott said in “Bird by Bird.”

“I remind myself nearly every day of something that a doctor told me six months before my friend Pammy died. This was a doctor who always gave me straight answers. When I called on this particular night, I was hoping she could put a positive slant on some distressing developments. She couldn’t, but she said something that changed my life. ‘Watch her carefully right now,’ she said, ‘because she’s teaching you how to live.'”

Seems the end IS all kinds of nigh, if not in the way the Mayans might have thought, at least in the usual, slow way. So how do you spend the days you have? What do you do with the tick-tock?

Stacking the odds.

“Best part?” he asks every night at supper. And the kids shout out, especially the happy ones,

“Playing with Legos and building a Star Wars/Lord of the Rings/Velociraptor!”

“Eating doughnuts for breakfast!”

“Being here with you, Dad.” That one makes a regular appearance, equal parts delightful and deliberate.

But some days the kids are grouchy, ungrateful, little fists holding their grudges tight. And some days you wake up to gray skies and the dread in the stomach, and the hours stretch in front of you scary. There isn’t liable to be a best part those days.

So what happens if you stack your odds? Make a moment that will make the list, on purpose. Gonna be a crummy day? Let’s have pancakes for breakfast. Pancakes are good. Or I’m not going to get it all done anyway, so let’s take 30 minutes to head to the park. That’s worth a smile. Light a candle, play an 80s song, eat chocolate, wear the funny socks, send a card… And what if you don’t save the best for last, but grab the best first?

I am learning, day after homeschooling day, that being stingy with rewards — the nice thing will come after I get the desired results — is usually frustrating. I am rewarding something that’s not really good enough, or withholding a reward that someone self-righteously feels they deserve, holding the stick and carrot high all the day, wheedling. Why not give big first — this is grace — reap the smiles, sail into the hard things with a breeze at your back and the sun on your face?

I learned this first as a writer from Annie Dillard. In The Writing Life, she says: “One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

So wise. The manna hoarded for the next morning turned to rot. The laugh withheld turns to sighs. Might as well start your day happy, and who knows? Maybe that will change the whole day.

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