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!
“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.
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,
(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?
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.
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.
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?
“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.
So tomorrow is the Christmas Tea, our church’s annual ladies’ event. Guess who’s speaking?
Tonight we set things up, the miles of garland, enough lights to reach from Colorado to California, plates enough to stack to the moon, all things glittering, all things white, all things shiny. We worked, and worked, and all the while staring down at us was the podium where tomorrow I will have an asthma attack and try to say the right words.
Every place is set for some woman unknown to me to sit, and lightly laugh, eat scones, sip coffee. Every chair is waiting for a story I don’t know. And I am tangled in ribbon and plasticware and ornaments, details — I am so bad at details — swamping me, a thousand things to forget.
I want to forget, really, want to let go of the to-do list and focus on what matters — those women with their stories, pausing for a moment to look up at me — what will I tell them? And I want my words to soar like O Holy Night, so that by the end, we all fall on our knees in wonder.
What do you say about Christmas that hasn’t been said? None of it is new. And all of it is new. Because the ancient and the sacred and the well-remembered will still collide with new people in a new place on a new day. And the woman who just slammed the phone down, mad, will hear the old story in a way she’s never heard it before. Long lay the world in sin and error pining… And she’s pining at that moment like never before. The woman who just found out she’s expecting — that baby in a drafty barn will sound different to her new-mother ears than ever before. O Holy Night.
So maybe I can breathe deep and say the familiar words and not worry about being shiny or new. Maybe Christmas is shiny enough all on its own.
Aspen trees are practically synonymous with Colorado, but I can’t for the life of me get one to grow in my backyard. Stubborn trees, they grow where they will, and they flourish in the scarred and broken places. Try and put one in a nice sunny spot with lots of water and specialty garden soil, and no roots sink deep, no branches stretch high. But in the wild places, where fire has swept through and destroyed everything, or miners have stripped the earth and left it forsaken, aspen thrive. They grow up like a white-robed throng of angels, undeterred and unstoppable.
Seems to me aspen have a lot in common with good characters. If you want a compelling story, with people whose voices are strong and clear, you can’t tend them too carefully. You have to let them go where they will. And they will put down deep roots and grow tall only in the scarred and broken places. Let the fire sweep through, and what remains is what will last.
Life is like that, too. Though we would keep the drama out, when the heartache has passed, what fills the empty place is stronger, more beautiful. Something to keep in mind on bad days… Let the storm come, let it rage. Then, wait for the aspen. They will come.