Waiting, waiting, waiting…

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The North Sea at the edge of dawn…

The Coming
By: R.S. Thomas
And God held in his hand
A small globe. Look, he said.
The son looked. Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour. The light burned
There; crusted buildings
Cast their shadows; a bright
Serpent, a river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
With slime.
                 On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky. Many people
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed 
Boughs. The son watched
Them. Let me go there, he said.
***

So much of this old life is waiting.

Waiting for dinner at a restaurant.

Waiting for books to arrive in the mail from Amazon.

Waiting for Christmas break.

We all have our own waiting identities.

The expecting mother, filled up with life, waiting to hold her baby in her arms.

The patient dreamer, with all the bittersweetness of a vision of what life could be, waiting for the open door, or window, to a full life.

The sufferer, waiting for the day when breathing will not be such a burden, and when wrong shall not be called right.

We wait to receive good things…

A lover that sees and knows who you are at the deep down, barrel scratching bottom, and still says “yes. It’s you I want.”

The job where what your great love meets the world’s great need.

The adventure you’ve always longed for.

We wait for the bad things to end…

You wait for the day that breathing doesn’t seem like a difficult task, when every moment isn’t coloured by the sorrow you bear.

We wait for injustice to end, for violent men to be struck down, for the poor and helpless to be vindicated.

We wait for healing, for the day sickness and cancer will no longer rule the roost, when sickness doesn’t steal from us anymore.

We wait and wait and wait and wait. 

And we long for all these things.

Sometimes all of life feels like waiting.

Advent is all about waiting. 

Advent is the time of year set aside by the church for longing. It is when we reflect on all that we wish were true and good in the world. Echoing the words of the prophets, we articulate our desperate desire for God to intervene in the seeming chaos, to make it right and to make us right. We tremble a little when we think of what it might mean for us to be made right. Advent is a time when it is right to say “the world isn’t as it should be, and I long for God to make it right.”

I need advent this year. 

It’s been such a full year. So much good. So many waited for things have happened. And yet there’s still aches. And the world is still not right. Sometimes I am washed with a sense that the world is more full of weeping, and yet of generous jubilation, than we can ever understand. All of it, the good and the bad, fills me with a longing for the final goodness, for all that is wrong to be made right, for all that is good to be made full. St Paul said it well…

For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. (Romans 8:22).

We are told, in this season, to sit with our longings, to look at them, and to offer them to God. When we do this, we find at the bottom of all our longings and desires for things to be put right a source. And our faith tells us that this source came, miraculously, absurdly, to our little world to make full all these longings inside us. The God of the stars and the sea and of DNA came wailing out as a baby, wrapping himself in this funny skin of ours. He assumed all that he could heal all. What a strange miracle it is.

And so I need advent.

The church needs advent.

The world needs advent.

I pray for you, as I pray for myself, that this season will be one in which God meets you in your longings. And I pray that our hearts will be prepared for Christ’s coming, that great fulfilment of all the good aches in our hearts.

Peace.

Joyness.

PS: If you’re looking for advent devotionals, I highly recommend Biola’s Advent Project. Each day they upload a new reading, reflection, piece of art and music. It will fill your soul. It surely does mine.

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First Frost and Creature Comforts

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I thrust my un-mittened hands deep in the pockets of my wool coat.

An abiding chill has settled in Saint Andrews. Though I can hear water crashing on the rocks bellow, the moisture in the air has settled itself in a million minute crystals of frost on the ground. Each blade of grass is sheathed in a delicate white jacket. The veins of each fallen leaf are intricately etched, a pile of masterpieces beneath every shivering tree.

The pavement is best of all.

The cobbles and concrete look as though they are the subject of snowfall, being covered, as they are, by a translucent blanket of white. This is not, however, the garment of snow but of misty winds blown off the North sea and shattered into a great host of frozen diamonds.

Shimmering. Sparkling. Dazzling.

How could one begin to describe them?

With each slight movement of the head, one catches a wave of many coloured reflections shining from the untrodden frost. The beauty is decadent. Never was any hollywood diva garbed so extravagantly as this path behind the cathedral at night.

It’s not too late, but the sky is a deep navy, barely lit by a waning moon. Very few are out to walk this evening. None watch the tide come in but the resolute cathedral tower. I spy a couple walk by, mittened hand in mittened hand, quietly laughing, pausing to hear the waves crash and to whisper things into each other’s ears. It’s funny they whisper, for there’s no one hear them except me and I’m a far way off. But, I think whispering is an especially satisfying way to communicate; it makes everything feel special and like a secret. Perhaps I should whisper more often.

I pass by the fork in the path. Both lead down to the sea, one past the fisherman’s boats, and one past the “Auld Hoose” where many students live. I follow neither, marching straight down the middle instead, leaving footprints in the crunchy, frosted, grass carpet.

I find myself at last at the crest of the hill, next to the ruins of an old watch tower. I like it there because it overlooks East and West sands, as well as the port. And there are no lampposts here, so the stars are not obscured by light pollution.

In the darkness, I gaze up and out. A great expanse of darkness meets my eyes… and a great cloud of starry hosts.

I am thankful for these spots without artificial light. They are rare.

Living life in the technological age is like living beneath the penetrating light of one of those lamps they use when interrogating people in detective films. Screens, lightbulbs, speakers scream and shine at us, asking questions we have no answers to.

I long for silence. And darkness. And stars.

I draw a deep breath.

I suddenly feel astonishly awake. Aware of the darkness, and all that I cannot see, I am alert for foreign noises. A feeling like fear and exhilaration ceases my stomach. As my eyes adjust, I gaze upon an ocean of stars swimming to the edge of the horizon of the North sea. I am amazed that all this beauty lays hidden beneath each blue skied day, and we walk under the mystery unaware. I shiver, from a mixture of cold and excitement. It aids the numinous effect.

There is a comfort as I gaze into this lovely lonely sky: the glory and orderliness of creation has gone before me for untold days, and whatever joys, sorrows, and catastrophes come to me and this old world, the stars will go on being glorious.

For all this, nature is never spent.

There lives the dearest freshness, deep down things.

Gerard Manley Hopkins said that over a century ago, and it is as true now as it was then.

Thank goodness for poets.

I begin to amble back to my warm room, following my feathered footprints in the sparkling carpet.

I think fleetingly of how much I miss my dog.

The world and all its absurd and sad news feels far less catastrophic with an animal in your lap.

In a moment of startling serendipity, I hear a faint jingle headed in my direction. Out of the shadows of the shoreline wall, a fluffy form saunters out: a cat. I squat to pet it, and to my great surprise, it hops into my lap. I pet it for a moment, but transgress its feline ways, accidentally patting its belly. It hops off my knees, and casts a reproach glance over its shoulder, shifting weight on its elegant haunches. Gathering my coat beneath me, I sit in the frost. In this humble position, the cat glances back at me, hesitating momentarily before crawling once again into my lap. It kneads my coat with its paws, and then situates itself in compact repose, its tail wrapped neatly around its front paws.

We sit together like this for a while. I pet the cat, and it purrs with extreme satisfaction. As I run my chilled fingers over its warm fur, I am filled with something like sheer delight and comfort.

The cat departs as swiftly as it arrived. Detecting a new faint jingling, my fickle feline friend leaps from my lap, running to the cathedral wall, disappearing into a chink in the stone.

The new jingler comes bounding around the corner, this time accompanied by a human.

It is a poodle, and it wastes no time in bounding up to me, pressing its warm, wet nose between my knees. I bend to pet its tight curls. It preens, and deigns to endure my affection.

“Her name is Sunshine. Isn’t she a lovely animal?” Says the accompanying human, a woman of at least seven decades, effervescent curls hidden beneath a wool scarf.

“She’s beautiful!” I reply.

“She’s not mine, but I watch her.” replies the lady.

We exchange a few more words, and then at last I find myself homeward bound again.

I laugh to myself. How funny to meet a dog called “sunshine” in the navy dark of this wintery evening.

I am back from my walk now, my knees tucked against my chest, with the cosiest of blankets around my shoulders. I find that the world makes more sense to me than it did before. And I make more sense in it.

To say my hour long encounter with the natural world was “therapeutic” seems incorrect. Encountering the wildness of a Scottish winter night isn’t good because it makes me feel better, but because there is something about coming into contact with nature that is good, right, ordered. It’s not about my feelings, but about the essential richness of my relation to the world in that state. Something in encountering the wild, untamed and creaturely that draws me back into a deeper reality than the anxious world of screens can offer me.

I have remembered, for a time, who I, and we all, are meant to be: gardeners. We are meant to be at home resting in the grace of given things, cultivating the willing earth, marvelling at the celestial hosts as they dance over us each day. Tasting, touching, smelling the love of the Great Gardener.

In this weary world, it seems we will never experience the fullness of this calling. But in the midst of our struggling world, let us not take for granted these creature comforts, the beauty of a midnight walk, the satisfied purr of a rested kitten, the smile of a stranger. It is my naive and persistent belief that such comforts drawn us back to the givenness of our being, and cause us to live humbler, holier lives.

They remind us that we are small and creaturely.

Perhaps that is the best place to start.

I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

– Wendell Berry, “Peace of Wild Things.”

Time, Faith and Deathless Legacies

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Our days on earth are like grass;

 like wildflowers, we bloom and die.

The wind blows, and we are gone—

  as though we had never been here.

(Psalm 103:15-16)

I think about time and legacies a lot lately.

St. Andrews has a way of marking the passage of time. Lately the sun goes down at around 4:00 PM, heralding the shift towards winter. All the leaves on my favourite tree in the cathedral ground have fallen, its naked twigs stretch towards heaven waiting to be clothed by spring. The great ruined cathedral itself stands as a relic of ancient life haunting our frantic modernity.

And then there are the more practical reminders of time. I have one year here in Scotland. One month before I fly home for Christmas. I’ve got a paper due in exactly one week. Eek.

I’m constantly reminded of how quickly time is passing. It fills me with a sort of vague urgency. To live well? To make the most of my time? To enjoy every sea side walk?

As I walk by the crumbling cathedral, I wonder what my short days in St. Andrews will make of me, and what I’ll make of them.

And I think about my short days on earth.

And I wonder how in the world to live them well.

Last week felt like it would last forever. 

I wonder how the next four years will feel.

I wonder what they will make of my country, and what my country will make of them.

I wonder how in the world to live them well.

A comforting thing about witnessing this year’s election cycle in St. Andrews is that it reminds me of the fleetingness of time.  Being so constantly reminded of  the on and on-ness of history is both comforting and alarming; our little lives on this earth are but blips on the radar… and yet, the enormous impact of one generation can hardly be calculated. I am reminded of the great paradoxical truths: our lives are fleeting, but our lives mean something.

I think legacies are baptised by death.

I mean by this that the true legacy of a person, a generation, or a nation is revealed when its time has passed. What remains of a legacy when the legacy maker no longer remains? I think of Martin Luther King Junior, whose life was cut short, but whose legacy lives on far beyond death because his vision reached beyond the immediate confines of his years on this planet. He made decisions according to his convictions that ultimately cost him his life, because he had a dream that was worth more than immediate comfort.

I think that to live well, to live wisely, and to live righteously is to live with a vision aware of and beyond your own mortality. 

This means to make ethical decisions though it may seem to destroy your chances at an easy or pleasant life in the present, because a future made by unethical decisions is worse than a current discomfort. It means to live with a wild hope, investing your life, work, and words in a vision you may not see come to fruition in your lifetime.

Wendell Berry put it well:

Ask the questions that have no answers.

Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.

Say that your main crop is the forest

that you did not plant,

that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested

when they have rotted into the mold.

Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

(Manifesto: The Mad Farmer’s Liberation Front).

A good legacy is a prophetic legacy: one that looks to the future.

All decisions are eschatological. All ways of living declare what they believe to be true about the future: if your goal is only to survive as long as possible you will not live a life of courageous courage like Martin Luther King Junior. If you believe there is something beyond your life, whether that is future generations or the life of the world to come, you will live differently.

I think our greatest mistakes are when we live short sightedly: when we sacrifice what we know is good, for what is presently expedient, comforting, pleasant, or safe. I certainly know this to be true in my own life. The decisions I most regret are ones I made out of short sightedness for the future; out of fear for survival, of boredom with the present, of impatience with pain.

The writer of Hebrews believed the life well lived was one lived in faith. A person who lives by faith is one who dedicates their life to what is true and good though the consequences may not be seen in their life time; they live in the faith that their faithfulness matters. Hebrews 11 paints a vivid picture of all the women and men in the Old Testament who lived with a vision beyond their own lives…

“All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.” (Hebrews 11:13-16).

In the chapel of St. Salvators here in St Andrews, there is a strange and ominous piece of architecture. Surrounded by an otherwise light and lovely medieval chapel, there stands in the north east corner what can only be construed to be a 20 foot statue of a ruined city. Curious about this statue, one of my classmates researched it. Apparently, it was meant to be the burial place of one of the old church leaders. Years before his death, he set out to make the most glorious grave possible, so that after his death, people would always look upon it and remember what a great man he was. He paid an inordinate amount of money for its construction (upwards of hundreds of thousands of dollars in present day currency). It was intricate, covered tiny figurines, guided in gold and gem stones.

And now, it is an eerie grey monument to a man no one remembers.

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The memorial in St. Salvators

Time can be cruel.

As I looked at it yesterday, I was reminded of Jesus’ words:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:19-21).

I don’t anything about the man for which this monumented is raised other than that he wanted to be remembered. Now the monument stands as a mighty, ironic visual representation of Jesus’ words. In its decrepit, crumbling silence it reminds me that wealth, security, and fame will never leave a deathless legacy. Such treasures betray their seekers. The monument warns and challenges me.

These are strange and difficult times we live in. But I am thankful for St. Andrews making me attentive to time. When I am discouraged, I look to the old cathedral whose weathered stones have seen a thousand seasons come and go. They see will see these next four, eight, and one hundred years come and go. They remind me that legacies are baptised by death, they renew my conviction to live for a vision beyond my own life, to see my main crop as the harvest I don’t gather. They ask me daily: what do you treasure?

Oh, Lord. Teach me to number my days that I may present to you a heart of wisdom.

All Saints’ Day…

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I sit beneath a tree in the cathedral grounds and wait for lunch. 

The leaves of this long-planted tree droop dryly, soon to fall and wait, as I wait, for Spring.

Trees are not all that is planted here. People are planted here too.

The stones markers stand like tabs in a spring garden that say, “carrots” or “lettuce,” proclaiming remarkably that from the ash black soil, tender life will soon shoot up.

But people are planted here.

John. Mary. Peter. And a thousand others with Scottish names.

As I look on, I am conscious of many histories that lie sleeping in this church yard. Souls, stories, personalities. Undrinkable oceans of thoughts and choices and value. In quietness they speak to me…

Do not disturb these beds.

We’re waiting for the spring. 

And a church is planted here. Its monument pierced through, perhaps so the others can see the sea and the sunrise.

We’re all waiting.

This tree, this garden, this church, me.

For lunch, for Spring, for sunrise.

And some Easter day, the waiting will be filled.

The sun will rise over the old sea, warming the frozen ground.

And all the planted people will wake up, rise from their wintered beds, stretch their limbs and yawn. They will kiss and embrace their long lost beloveds. They will laugh because all their tears are spent.

And the old stone giant will gather together all her hewn stoneage and do what she has longed to do all these years: Dance.

And this  old tree above me will shake its spring green, shaggy head and sing…

“This is what I’ve been saying all these seasons!”

And the first planted of the souls will come laughing over the glittering waters, waking up all who were planted in Him.

Spring will come true at last. 

But today, the leaves still fall and the spring seeds still sleep in the freezing ground.

And I am still waiting for lunch.

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. (John 12:24)