Sin and Death

ash

Yesterday, I went to an ash Wednesday service.

The little chapel overlooking the sea was stuffed to the gills. Literally ever seat was taken. People packed into the back standing without elbow room. Children piled on parent’s laps. Strangers shared hymnals. My friend and I were jostled upstairs, and ended standing with the choir overlooking the hundreds of people that had come for the evening service.

You have to understand this: St. Andrews is a very small town. And this was one of three services. University life is often ruled by a secular sort of dogmatism. To see a chapel overflowing with every age, nationality, and race was its own sort of miracle.

And what did they all come for?

A simple hymn is sung.

And then readings, none of them very cheerful.

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17. In it, the prophet calls for a day of mourning. He calls for all people to meet together and weep over their sins. The leaders, the families, the children, even.

Isaiah 58:1-12. A chastisement from God for the half hearted, hypocritical praise of his people. He calls them to learn justice. To become clean.

Psalm 51:1-7. A prayer of penitence.

2 Corinthians 5:20. A call to be reconciled to God.

Matthew 6:1-6. Jesus’ call to humble piety, and quiet right living.

As I listened, I thought how un-userfriendly these readings are. On Ash Wednesday, there is no simple “Have faith, be nice, God loves you.” It is an acknowledgement of sin, an acceptance of death, a mighty call to righteousness. This seems rather out of style these days.

And then, everyone goes to receive ashes. In sombre lines, they all go up. Young, old, professional, academic, teenagers, mothers, fathers, lipsticked, frazzled…

“From dust you came, and to dust you will return.”

These words are spoken over you, as your forehead is etched with an ashen cross.

A few prayers are then spoken, and everyone leaves.

As I walked home with my friend under and azure sky, I couldn’t help but wonder: why does this service draw so many? In a world of light, and medicine, and power, and distraction… why do so many gather to be told that they are sinful and they will die?

It is, I think, because we know it is true. Because we long for someone to say it out loud. And we long for a hope to overcome it.

To me, sin and death have always seemed the most self evident of doctrines.

It seems whether you are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, agnostic, etc. we share at least two beliefs in common.

  1. We will all die.
  2. Something is wrong with the world, and with us. Though we have a desire for goodness, wholeness, and uprightness, we experience the opposite in the world and in ourselves. Things tend towards disorder.

Of course, different creeds approach the explanations for these most basic experiences diversely. Perhaps some creeds are embarrassed to call this tendency to moral imperfection “sin.” The Christian says sin or this tendency to go wrong comes from a fallen nature. The communist says it comes from an oppressive bourgeoisie. The evolutionist says it comes from biological tendencies gone awry. But the fact remains that we can agree on these basic facts: we shall die, and there’s something wrong in the world and in us.

The world is not all as it ought to be.

But there is hope even in this acknowledgement of sin and death. To say the world is not as it ought to be is to admit that somewhere the in shadows of our minds, we are conscious of a way the world ought to be. Why are we so bothered by death if this is just the way things are? Why haven’t we, after all these generations, grown used to this tendency toward decay? Why has evolution not made us immune to the crippling fear of death? To feelings of guilt? Why do we grieve for a world we’ve never known?

Staring these realities in the face, reveals an anguish that points to hope. We grieve because we feel we aren’t meant to grieve. We feel guilty for doing wrong, because we were formed to do right.

Lent acknowledges these tensions, and it invites us into them. Through fasting, weather its sugar or coffee or Facebook, we take away from ourselves the distractions that so often cloud our vision. But, Lent ought not to be an exercise in gloominess. Rather, it is an acknowledgement of the way things are, and an inviting into these tensions of our lives.

I think perhaps so many people flock to Ash Wednesday services because they tell the truth about the world and ourselves: we do wrong, we will die, we long for salvation. These are hushed truths in this silicon world of ours, but they are deeper than the distractions we can muster. In Lent, we acknowledge our need, we long to be good, we long for life to the fullest.

So, we groan.

We groan with all creation, but perhaps these are not the groanings of death, but of birth.

 

 

22We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. (Romans 8:22-25)

Imagine: God Became Man

SONY DSC

    The God of power, as He did ride

     In His majestic robes of glory,

     Reserved to light; and so one day

He did descend, undressing all the way.

-George Herbert, “The Bag”

Suspend for a moment your disbelief.

Imagine that God became man.

Of course, first we must imagine a few other things to be true. Firstly, that God exists. That somehow or another, this God cast the stars into this universe. And miraculously, that this God made us, humankind, in all our glorious, vulnerable oddity. That this God stamped his very image on our soul. That this God loves us.

Imagine all that we might have been. We were made to live in full hearted satisfaction, to be connected and at peace with God, with creation, and with each other. The life we were given was the Great Gift. We were given noses to smell; salt-water, roses, fresh rising bread. Ears to hear; baby laughter, tumbling mountain streams, soaring music. Tongues to taste; summer berries, cheese potatoes, hot tea. Eyes to behold; sunrises, books, the Ocean. Fingers to touch; to cup the face of the one we love, to feel the warm fur of a beloved pet, to dig into spring-soft soil.

Oh, imagine a world where we danced, and sang, and did math calculations without a hint of shadow.

And we do.

Sometimes.

Imagine something went wrong.

And this is not so difficult to imagine.

Something so often falls short. Loving people is hard.  The heart-rushing experience leaves us aching for more. The job is finished and that brief sense of meaning evaporates. We strain and grasp for truth and justice, and it slips through our fingers like water. We long for harmony, but there is discord.

Are we stuck?

Remember, though, that loving God. Could that loving God abandon us to misery? Would he put it all right?

Imagine, then, how such a God might go about saving us. Making everything right again.

Could he zap us all, so we all did what was rightSo we couldn’t hurt ourselves anymore?

But then we would be deprived of that one thing that makes us like God: the ability to choose.

Could God simply give us a list of rules by which to live? 

But rules have never made us right. And how could we in our puny attempts at goodness, ever recover the unsoiled glory we vaguely remember we possess?

No. God cannot zap us. And we cannot try hard enough. Something else must be done.

So, imagine that God came. 

The God of the universe, whose image we bear, came to live the perfect life we could not. To walk with us and teach us how things were meant to be. To wrap our injured flesh around Him and make it new. To cast out the darkness through the glory of light.

And imagine how this God might come.

In power? A might king descending from the heavens?

In wisdom? A Socrates of a man with scores of adoring academics?

In wealth? To impress the powerful, and cast pennies at the least of these?

But, no.

God didn’t come that way.

Imagine God came as a baby. Easily overpowered and crushed. Foolish and inaudible, full of baby squawks. To a backwater corner of the world, to a young girl who was full of passion and wisdom, but invisible to the world that didn’t care about her as a woman. And when he grew, his followers were not the holy looking crowd, but a motley crew: commercial fisherman, IRS workers, quietly wealthy women, the sick, the prostitutes, the questioning priest. A colourful crowd who hungered and thirsted for the wholeness they could imagine but couldn’t grasp.

Imagine these were God’s people. 

And what would God do?

Die. Just like you and I will, only on a cross. For a crime he didn’t commit. Only to burst forth in resurrection with the most unlikely of witnesses.

What sort of God is this?

When I imagine such a God, I am aghast.

It is perhaps no wonder that the Apostle Paul wrote that the Jews were offended by this story of God, and the Greeks found it utterly ridiculous.

The incarnation is the most magical of doctrines.

If I were to invent a religion, I think I’d do it differently. But I didn’t invent this story. And thank goodness. It’s oddity bears the mark of reality. As I look at the great cavernous desires I bear, I think nothing but this marvellous, strange, unexpected story could be enough to explain the wildness and wonder of life.

So I shall imagine upon this story till the day I die.

And I shall wonder at this great love God has shown.

May you know this love too.

Merry Christmas!

Love and Peace,

Joyness

 

 

Christmas Cheer!

Ah, home!

After a lengthy and tumultuous trip home (1 delayed flight + 1 missed flight + 3 standby lines + 2 connecting flight = 29 hours of travelling), I was greeted by hold-your-breath subzero weather and the familiar warmth of hugs from my beloveds. Oh, it’s good to be home, sleeping in my very own bed, covered in the hair of my very own absurd golden retriever.

On Saturday, the negative value of the thermostat exactly matched the inches of snow piled in our front yard, necessitating a cozy snow day. My mom, brother and I took the opportunity to stock the larder, as it were, for the remaining incoming Clark-people who are to arrive in the next few days.

What lovely smells and sounds have filled our kitchen!

The comforting, earthy smell of rising bread…

The wholesome, hearty bubbling of lentil soup…

The wafting sweetness of sugary treats galore…

The constant soundtrack of favourite Christmas albums…

The whole atmosphere is charged with a cheerful anticipation. My chest is filled with a feeling like comfort, and delight, and sparkling gold. Yes, I am being theatrical, but somehow the season and the sparkling lights on the tree demand it.

Perhaps this is what they call Christmas Spirit.

Christmas has, from time to time, gotten a bad rap. Companies and corporations have seized upon the perceived potency of the season with clever effectiveness, squeezing pockets dry in the name of holiday generosity. On the dusty shelves of department stores, Christmas spirit becomes a ghost, haunting piles of things we don’t need, and that distant family member won’t want (but we’ll buy anyway).

But, let us call the Christmas fraud for what it is. I think the true Christmas spirit is tucked in a deeper magic, and a truer generosity.

I find my philosophy with Scrooge’s nephew Fred in the Christmas Carol.

“I have always thought of Christmastime, when it has come around— apart from the veneration due its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that— as a good time, a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as though they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And, therefore uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good. and I say, God bless it!” 

As Fred notes, Christmas is first and foremost a celebration of that most magical of the Christian doctrines: the incarnation, God becoming man, to dwell among us.The story is infused with wonder and delivers the most wondrous news of all: God’s heart is one of love and redemption and He would do anything to be with us.

No wonder Christmas is such a merry celebration! 

But the joy of Christmas tumbles beyond the explicitly religious. Many who do not hold to the Christian faith still revel in this exuberant season, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. In a world devoid of traditions, I think the Christmas season is one which unites all who are open to it in a spirit of generosity, thankfulness, openness and celebration.

Therefore, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good, and I say, God bless it!

All this to say, I’m very in favour of spreading Christmas cheer.

As such, I have taken a great deal of delight in compiling some of my Christmas favourites for this blog post. Find below some of my favourite musical, culinary, cinematic, and party traditions.

And tell me your own!

And a very merry (almost) Christmas to you all!

Favourite Christmas Movies:

Oh, goodness. There are many Christmas movies I love, but I’ll try to narrow it down to my (current) top five.

1. Muppet Christmas Carol

I know what you’re thinking… But, listen! This is one of the most delightful, hilarious, thoughtful, and charming Christmas movies. If I had to only watch on Christmas movie, it would probably be this one.

the-muppet-christmas-carol

2. White Christmas

This is a classic. And it happens to be the first film in colour, which is pretty fun. And what could be more festive than Bing Crosby crooning to you in a Santa outfit from a hotel in Vermont.

white_chrismas_film

3. It’s a Wonderful Life

Merry Christmas, you old Building and Loan! Need I really say more?

unknown

4. Miracle on 34 Street (1994)

New York in December. Innocence. Santa Claus. This movie is somehow emblematic of my childhood Christmas ethos, and will always hold a special place in my heart.

miracle

5. Evelyn

This one will break your heart and put it back together. This movie tells the tale of a father in Ireland who would not give up his children to an unfair custody system. This is not specifically a Christmas movie, but I recommend it highly.

evelyn_movie-pierce_brosnan-aidan_quinn-julianna_marguilies

Favourite Christmas Cookies:

1. Hello Dollies

These are the most decadent cookies and also win the award for the most adorable name. I use the recipe below, but I substitute white chocolate chips for butterscotch chocolate chips, and pecans for walnuts.

http://allrecipes.com/recipe/235142/hello-dolly-bars/

2. Snow Balls (Russian Tea-cakes)

The only downfall of these cookies is that you too will look like a snowball after consumption. A tip for extra delicious cookies is to roll them in powdered sugar twice. The first time you do it the powdered sugar melts on, so a second dip does well.

http://www.food.com/recipe/russian-tea-cakes-57011

3. Sugar Cookies

But really, what is Christmas without sugar cookies? I strongly advocate for many cookie cutters and overly complex decorations.

http://allrecipes.com/recipe/9870/easy-sugar-cookies/

Books:

There are quite a few books I could include in this list, but for the purposes of this blog post I’m limiting myself to three…

1. The Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens

christmas-carol

For as long as I can remember now, I’ve tried to read this every Christmas. It is delightful, convicting, haunting and hopeful. I am just a sucker for Dickens’ prose, and I am confident this book will never disappoint in putting its reader into a generous holiday mood.

2. On the Incarnation – Athanasius 

Written in the 4th century, this small but dense book of theology is a beautiful explication of the Incarnation: what it means for God to come to humanity. Despite its rich theological content, it is a fairly easy read. As I’ve been reading it this year, I’ve been struck by the vividness with which Athanasius writes about God’s love.

3. Annika’s Secret Wish – Beverly Lewis

annika

I grew up flipping through the pages of this beautifully illustrated book. It’s depiction of a traditional Scandinavian Christmas makes me wish I were Scandinavian myself! It is also a gentle and lovely story that captures the true, humble generosity of Christmas.

http://www.copticchurch.net/topics/theology/incarnation_st_athanasius.pdf

Favourite Christmas Music:

1. White Winter Hymnal – Pentatonix

I suppose this one isn’t even technically a Christmas song, but I always listen to it when December rolls around. There is something so addicting about this song in its rhythms, melody and harmonies.

 

2. What Child is This? – Andrea Bocelli and Mary J. Blige

I think what I love best about this song is its blending of classical and soul. Bocelli’s and Bliges voice surprisingly work so well together. And I love the triumphant declaration of who this child is… it captures the mystery and beauty of the Christmas story!

3. I’ll Be Home for Christmas – Josh Groban

Cut to my mom and I crying in the car while listening to this on the way to the grocery store. This is a tear jerker for sure, but also a precious reminder of those who are apart from their families this Christmas year.

4. Wexford Carol – Yo-Yo Ma and Alison Krauss

The Wexford carol is one of the less well known, but has quickly become a favourite of mine. I love the haunting melody and inviting lyrics. And Yo-Yo Ma and Alison Krauss? How could you get any better?

5. Mary Did you Know – Pentatonix

Pentatonic does Christmas music particularly well, and this version of Mary Did You Know is beautiful. And to all of you who are quick to say “Yes! Mary did know. Omg”… Yes she probably had some idea, but this is a song that stands as an imaginative proposal not a theological statement. Let it be that and enjoy the grandeur.

 

6. Welcome to Our World – Michael W. Smith

In my opinion, this is one of the simplest and loveliest meditations on the incarnation.

 

Favourite Christmas Episodes of West Wing:

I was going to pick my favourite TV episodes, and then I realised that pretty much all my favourite TV Christmas episodes were in the West Wing. So I just gave in…

1. In Excelsis Deo – Season One, Episode Ten

This episode is a perfect example of Aaron Sorkin’s ability to weave together multiple story lines into a unified message. And this episode’s is one which dignifies all people and keeps in mind the griefs that remain coexistent with the celebration of Christmas. It reminds us to be gentle with each other.

2. Holy Night – Season Four, Episode Eleven

The appearance of Yale’s choral group Whiffenpoofs make this episode particularly festive. But the episode also explores themes of forgiveness and hope.

3. Noël – Season Two, Episode Ten

This episode can’t be watched out of context… if you haven’t seen West Wing, don’t start cold on this episode. But it is a powerful episode that deals with trauma.

Favourite Charities:

It is strange sometimes to sit in my comfortable little home when so many are not comfortable. I think this discomfort should lead us to generosity. This time of year is one which should be marked by openness of heart and wallet. When giving, I try to think of three ways to give: locally, nationally, and internationally. I encourage you to do the same.

1. Local: Mary’s Home

This wonderful charity is a residential program for homeless mothers. Residents at Mary’s home may stay from 1-4 years, where they will receive counselling, financial assistance, job training and spiritual guidance. I love their long term vision for helping people thrive. And what better a place to give on Christmas than somewhere named “Mary’s Home?”

http://dreamcenters.com/maryshome/

2. Nationally: Whole Heart Ministries

It is a good feeling to support the ministry of my parents. I have grown up through the years watching their ministry touch, help, and empower parents across the country and world to take responsibility for the hearts and minds of their children from parenting, to education, to providing a beautiful home.

https://wholeheart.org

3. Internationally: Preemptive Love

The crisis in Syria has reached a boiling point in these last weeks, resulting in the displacement of thousands of families. The plight of fleeing family’s feels particularly keen when I consider that Jesus was just such a child… fleeing from the tyranny of a violent government. While I often feel powerless to help, I am thankful for charities like Preemptive love that provide real, practical, and loving support to those fleeing for safety.

http://www.preemptivelove.org

So, there are a few ways I engage in and spread Christmas cheer.

What are yours? 

And as Tiny Tim would say…

God bless us… everyone!

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.

First Frost and Creature Comforts

moon

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)

Decide to live…

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Sometimes living is hard.

Decide to live today.

Decide to let a deep breath fill your lungs, and call it a good thing. To breath. To be alive.

Decide to eat. Notice how foods feel and taste. Notice the cracking in your ears when you swallow. Think about how often you have to eat, and what a strange thing eating is. Laugh at your own creatureliness.

Decide to speak to someone. Notice how their face changes as you talk. Think about what strange and wonderful things humans are. How bizarre speech is; these sound waves we make with our little pink mouths, meaning something to the people across from us. Perhaps even meaning something kind.

Decide to see something beautiful, and acknowledge it for its loveliness. Be thankful that for all the ugly in the world, this beautiful thing exists… and you get to see it!

Decide to work on something today. Clean a kitchen. Pull a weed. Make a pot of soup. Marvel at your own productivity; well done, you! Your work can make things happen. What a marvel! What a gift. Remind yourself that you are valuable and able to shape your world.

Decide to think today. Chew on an imponderable idea in your little mind. Chase its syllogisms, muse on its images. Stand back and applaud your intellect, because its your gift. Acknowledge it as a mystery, and know its limits. Thank God you have a mind.

Decide to pray today. Embrace your finitude. Lift your eyes and your heart to that, and whom, you don’t understand. Be quiet. Ramble. Take off your shoes. Bow your head. Lift your eyes. Say, “not my will, but yours,” and release all that you have, the good and the bad, into hands more capable than yours.

Decide to love today. Pick one person. Be glad they exist. Think about what is good and lovely in them; tell them. Wish the best for them. Bless them.

Living this old life can be hard. But good. And beautiful. And above all, meaningful.

But it is our gift.

So, decide to live.

Today and every day.

Peace from Bonnie ole’ Scotland,
Joyness

 

Little thoughts on integrity and fear

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The real grief of this election will be people compromising their integrity out of fear.

The world sometimes feels wild and out of our control.

And the truth of the matter is that most of the world is out of our control. Much to my chagrin I cannot control the world, the weather, the election, or my next door neighbour. And sometimes it is very frightening. When I don’t turn my face away, I can see the unfolding future of a world I can’t control, no matter who we elect. And fear bubbles up.

We fear what we cannot control.   

But I am in control of my integrity, my choices, my love. The choices I make will shape my world, as small as it may be. And they will shape me. And your choices will shape you. Each individual’s choices shape their world, creating ripples that will become waves that will become culture that will become history.

So I will guard my integrity fiercely because it is the one thing I can control. It is one thing a candidate can neither give nor take away from me.

My admonition to you, as to myself is this: do not live (or vote!) out of the fear of what you can’t control, but out of the integrity of your heart that you can.

So, there are my little thoughts.

Peace,
Joy

The Stories We Tell…

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St. Andrews Cathedral graveyard just outside my front door… So many stories are represented here.

I went to a seminar last week on the long lost memoir of Warnie Lewis (C.S. Lewis’ brother).

It was very informative

The lecturer rifled through a fat book of their personal letters, coming to well reasoned conclusions about the life and legacy of the brothers. She reminds us that Warnie was an author in his own right. She told us the story of Warnie’s conversion.

The questions began. What was Jack’s personal devotional life like? Warnie’s? What were theological beliefs the Lewises held but didn’t express publicly? The fellow in the green shirt in the corner questions the nature of Jack’s relationship with Mrs. Moore…was Warnie jealous? There is conjecture about whether their crazy school master was nicer to Warnie or Jack. It was Jack. Definitely Jack.

And then there was Warnie’s alcoholism. What was the cause? Was it the war? His mother’s early death? His natural temperament? Mrs. Moore? His relationship with his father? Wearily, we piece through the unearthed tapestry of their story, trying to follow faded threads.

But there were lovely bits too. The cheerful letter Jack sent to one of his Goddaughters on the day of her confirmation, and the playful jab at sending her the only kind of magic he seemed able to wield… a five pound note.

I walked home alone after that seminar. As the wind with its new autumn chill numbed my nose and tossed my hair, I wondered what the brother’s Lewis would have thought of all of us, sitting around with scholarly faces, engaging in the dialectic method about every detail of their bachelor lives. Did Jack ever feel, in the living of it, the weight his own life story would carry?

What a strange and wonderful thing to see a life laid out like a story at its end. 

And then it struck me, like the blast of wind from the north sea I walked along:

My story has already begun. 

Some of the ink on the pages of my life is already dry.

My story won’t begin someday in the future. 

It won’t begin tomorrow.

It didn’t begin yesterday.

It began in a day I can’t remember, and stretches out before me till days I can’t see.

What story am I telling with one life of mine?

I wonder, in a hundred years, what a room of scholars bent over my journals, letters, and Facebook messages would come to think of me. If I’m honest, that’s actually a sort of horrifying thought. But I do not feel tethered by the opinions of such hypothetical people, and it is unlikely that not one will study my life like that. But, I think of the children I hope to have some day.  I think of being old with my siblings, and looking back on life. I think of meeting God. And I wonder… what story will I have told with these few earthly days of mine?

The stories we tell with our lives matter. 

We need look no further than the news cycles of the past week to confirm that theory.

Decisions.

Habits.

Attitudes.

Secrets.

Sins.

Words.

They compound over the years, and give your story a colour, a shape, a taste. An aroma. A stench.

Choices have real impacts that cannot be wiped out with flippancy, forgetfulness, or bluster.

As my mentor often told me… God forgives, but wisdom doesn’t.

The repercussions of our decisions, good or bad, echo into our lives, and the lives we touch.

This election season has played out like a morbid, almost comic, depressing moral story. It’s really quite distressing to dwell on. It is a wreaking mess of poorly told stories, and people trying to shake or ignore the sin that has shaped the story of most of their adult life. Sin that chases you down even after 10 years.

As I’ve contemplated the sorry affair we find ourselves in, I’ve come to this: I alone can’t fix the government, the candidates, the country, the state of global affairs, this school, the Church. I am limited in my scope of influence, but this I can determine: the faithful telling of my own story.

The reform I see as necessary in my country, and indeed in my world, is a reformation of character. Policies, spin, social reform, none of it will make a difference if each individual is not living a well told story, doing what is right though it hurts, renouncing evil and perversion, celebrating kindness, goodness, and justice. Real change only comes through repentance; the turning away from the Bad, and towards the Good. The plot must shift, the characters must decide. The story must be told in years lived, not in hasty words said.

And so, with each decision I make, habit develop, attitude I allow, secret I keep, word I say, vote I cast, I hope to be telling a story of faithfulness and humility. One that I will be proud to tell my children, and reminisce about with my dearest friends. One I hope is honouring to the Jesus I follow.

It was strange and wonderful to see the Lewis brothers’ lives laid out like a story at its end.

But it was a good story they told. 

And, Lord have mercy, may I tell a good one too.

So teach us to number our days, That we may present to You a heart of wisdom.

(Psalm 90:12)