December 23rd

We’ve known this day was coming.

The anniversary.

And now it’s here.

One year ago today, my day started quietly. David had left for work. The kids, still weary from end-of-semester tests and sugar-saturated Christmas parties, were sleeping well into mid-morning. Rather than wake them, I decided to let them rest. I lit a candle, poured a hot cup of coffee, and sat down with my computer. Thoughts that had been tugging at me, like a toddler demanding attention, had tightened their grip. Thoughts that would only be satisfied when proper attention was given – which meant wrestling through and sorting out on paper. Words tumbled out and landed in their proper place. It was an exercise I’d been through countless times. An hour later, I clicked “Save”, closed the computer, and turned my attention to the final details of Christmas preparations. I’d been writing about imagination and fear. Sometimes, what seem to be our most routine mundane moments are, in reality, the most significant.

At 10pm that evening, our world changed forever.

After coming home from a typical workday, David took the dog on a walk – in the rain in the dark, through the trails in our neighborhood. Only minutes after coming back home, he started getting ready for bed. He turned toward me, eyes wide and glazed. He knew immediately. Strangely, so did I. After helping him stumble over to the bed, I called 911 and our family’s journey took a sharp turn from the path we’d been walking the past two decades. The new territory awaiting us was more arduous and less predictable than any we’d dared to imagine.

I’ve watched others encounter similar tragedies. I’ve prayed for their families and hoped for the best. Yet I’m embarrassed to admit that along with my concern, I’d breathe a secret sigh of relief. It didn’t happen to us. I couldn’t imagine enduring the despair and uncertainty. I couldn’t imagine my children having to walk through the darkness. A few seconds of consideration was all I could bear.

But on December 23, 2015, it did happen to us.

The unimaginable became our flesh-and-blood reality.

The circumstances were dire. His physical condition was tenuous and no doctor could provide assurance. David did, indeed, walk through the valley of the shadow of death. In the dark quiet room of the neuro-ICU, we all waited – hoping that he’d pass through and come back to us.

Our Christmas morning in the neuro-ICU. Unthinkable. Full of beauty and hope.

A harrowing January wasn’t the end of our journey. At some point in the following months, we realized it was just the beginning.

David’s road to recovery had blind curves and steep hills. The same was true for our recovering family. We’re exploring the same territory, yet we each navigate in very different ways. Recovery from trauma happens in inches, not miles. Little by little we push forward. There’s still a long road ahead.

As we pause to reflect on what the past year has held, I return to same ritual that began last December 23rd. On the small brown couch in our library, Christmas tree peeking out from the adjacent room, coffee dutifully beside me, and computer glowing on lap. Distilling the vastness of the past year seems impossible. Yet one truth is tugging, demanding to be heard.

Last year, I wrote about the dark side of imagination, which is fertile ground for fear.

Throughout this year, we’ve learned a twin truth: Imagination has limitations. We can only see – and can only imagine – a finite slice of the reality in which we live.

There’s so much more:

Comfort that can cover and soothe the most gaping of wounds.

Provision for every specific need. Creative in form and often from an unexpected source.

Joy and tears-rolling-down-cheeks laughter to be found in the most unlikely places. Like the neuro-ICU.

Hope that’s more powerful than the darkest fear imaginable.

– – –

That’s the miracle of our year.

That’s the miracle of Christmas.

We were in desperate need. Love came down. He saved us.

From our family to yours, we wish you a very Merry Christmas.

– – –

“He hoped the people saw him in church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant for them upon Christmas Day to remember who made lame beggars walk and blind men see.” Dickens (of Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol)



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He is Going Before You

“Is Daddy going to be ok?”

At 10:30 p.m. on December 23, one of my children was brave enough to utter the burning question that I didn’t have the courage to ask. I was scrambling to get out of our house and follow the ambulance to the emergency room. Only minutes earlier, my healthy, strong, full-of-life husband had suffered a stroke. I had no idea what the next hours and days would hold. But the question demanded an answer.

How does a parent offer hope and comfort when the reality of circumstance is a dangerously wild animal—unpredictable and threatening to destroy more than we could bear to imagine?

We plan and read parenting articles and labor over decisions that we think will define our kids’ lives, but the truest tests of parenting (and of life) arrive unannounced and unanticipated. Pop quizzes turn out to be final exams, revealing the truest truths about what we believe.

Every fiber of my momma-being wanted to reassure my children that everything would be ok. That they had nothing to worry about. I wanted that same reassurance for myself. But somehow, we all would have known that I was offering a shiny pink band-aid to cover the gaping wound inflicted by the children in the Garden.

“I don’t know,” I responded. “But we’ll pray that he’ll be ok, and no matter what happens, the Lord loves us and will provide what we need.”

In the days and weeks that followed, my hopeful declaration proved to be true. The Christ we’ve read about and talked about and sung about is, indeed, alive and with us. He loves us and provides, even in the most unthinkable circumstances, all that we need.

The Gospel of Mark assures that “He has risen…he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you” (16:6-7 ESV).

Eugene Peterson offers a tangible, real-life application:

In every visit, every meeting I attend, every appointment I keep, I have been anticipated. The risen Christ got there ahead of me. The risen Christ is in that room already. What is he doing? What is he saying? What is going on?. . . I have taken to quoting before every visit or meeting: ‘He is risen. . . he is going before you to 1020 Emmorton Road; there you will see him as he told you.’ Later in the day it will be: ‘He is risen . . . he is going before you to St. John’s hospital; there you will see him, as he told you.’ When I arrive and enter the room, I am not so much wondering what I am going to do or say that will be pastoral as I am alert and observant for what the risen Christ has been doing that is making a gospel story out of this life.

The promise is true.

“He is risen. . . he is going to the bonus room before you, where you’ll tell your children goodbye and answer hard, hard questions.”

“He is risen. . . he is going before you to the emergency room.”

“He is risen. . . he is going before you to the neuro-intensive care unit.”

“He is risen. . . he is going into your children’s bedrooms, steeped with fear and tears on behalf of their beloved daddy, before you.”

“He is risen. . . he is going before you to every speech therapy and cardiologist and neurologist appointment.”

“He is risen. . . he is going before you to all the places where you’ll be faced with unknowns—about health and work and life in the future.”

It’s the answer to all the pop quizzes that life will spring upon you and upon me:

He is risen.

And he is going before you.

Tell it out with joyful voice:

He has burst His three days’ prison;

Let the whole wide earth rejoice:

Death is conquered, we are free,

Christ has won the victory.

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New Year’s Eve 2015. May we never forget.

_ _ _

Given all that has transpired in our family through these past months, I haven’t written anything since before Christmas. It was my great honor to write this piece in collaboration with other artists from my church community as part of an Easter devotional series, Out of the Depths. Take a few minutes to listen to Christ is Risen. Words by Cecil F. Alexander. Music by my friend, Stewart Fenters.

Said the Angel, He is Risen (Lyric Video) from Church at Charlotte on Vimeo.



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Fear Not

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I wrote this post the morning before Christmas Eve. At 10pm that night, my husband had a stroke. Changes in circumstance can’t change what is True. We were, are, and continue to be grateful.

– – –

A vivid imagination can be a heavy burden to bear.

My daughter has a mind that doesn’t stop. Her creativity is a joy – and a mess – to behold. This Christmas season, she concocted a new tradition: Crafting ‘til Christmas. She researched and planned a list of daily crafts for us to make together. Despite my inner “I don’t have time for this” pining, I chose to partake. Our dates, marked by hot glue and tissue paper (and the occasional emergency run to Michael’s craft store for reinforcements), have filled my soul. To say that I’m in awe of her creativity is an understatement. Her vision for transforming raw materials into something beautiful inspires me.

But there’s a downside to having a robust imagination. Particularly when the world around us is flooded with news of mass shootings and threat indexes and refugee children freezing to death. My daughter has entered the twilight of adulthood. She’s just waking up from her little girl slumber, where all is well, to discover the harsh realities of the grown-up world. It’s a shocking awakening.

When talking about the hardest things with our kids, we balance our conversations on the head of a pin. Tip too far to one side, and we’re unfairly (and unwisely) sheltering them. Tip too far to the other side, and we’re prematurely introducing them to the depths of human depravity.

Parenting from a posture of wisdom is an ongoing struggle: we want to balance truth with discretion. My daughter needs to know much. She doesn’t need the gory details. But sometimes, the gory details have a way of finding the cracks in our carefully constructed parental presentations and seeping into her great big beautiful imagination. Snapshots from a television screen or bits of overheard adult conversation become seeds, quickly planted, in her fertile mind. The same rich soil that produces beauty and craftiness and endless ideas is also the ideal environment for growing unspeakable images and haunting nightmares. A vibrant imagination can be a heavy burden to bear.

I’ve struggled with how to handle my daughter’s fears. Perhaps that’s because I’ve struggled with how to handle my own.

God is good. But life can be unspeakably hard. Both statements are true.

“The world is rated R, and no one is checking IDs. Do not try to make it G by imagining the shadows away. Do not try to hide your children from the world forever, but do not try to pretend there is no danger. Train them. Give them sharp eyes and bellies full of laughter. Make them dangerous. Make them yeast, and when they’ve grown, they will pollute the shadows.” N.D. Wilson

At some point, we all wake up to discover the world is rated R: through images of mass shootings and stranded refugees, unexpected diagnoses and failing bodies, and relationships crippled (or broken or shattered) through betrayal or neglect. Our minds provide fertile soil for grown-up nightmares. We learn to deny the pain, or too often, we begin to believe the lie that it will never end.

Yet there is Christmas.

Light comes into the darkness. Hope is born. Promises are fulfilled.

When we experience the bleak circumstances in the world, in our homes, and even in the darkness of our own hearts, we are tempted to believe that those snapshots define reality. As if starting to read in the middle of a book, we don’t have a larger context for the events that are taking place. Our vision and our understanding are limited.

Christmas tells the fuller (truer) story.

It reminds us that we have an anchor as ancient as “In the beginning.”

It guarantees hope for the future when He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. It promises us that He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall their be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.

So this Christmas, and every day to come, let’s remind each other of what’s True. Since the children in the garden, the world’s suffered brokenness, violence, despair and loss. But darkness will not win. The battle is over. The war was waged and won by the baby in a manger.

The stories are true.

Fear not.

“… And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.’” Luke 2:9-11

 

– – –

If you would like to get an update on his progress, feel free to visit David’s Caring Bridge page. 

 



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Ambition: An Invitation to Read, Consider, and Discuss

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Are you ambitious?

What’s your gut response to that question?

Mine is conflicted.

Ambition – Derived from the Latin word ambitio, from ambio, to go about, or to seek by making interest . . .This word had its origin in the practice of Roman candidates for office, who went about the city to solicit votes.

 

A desire of preferment, or of honor; a desire of excellence or superiority. It is used in a good sense; as, emulation may spring from a laudable ambition. It denotes also an inordinate desire for power, or eminence, often accompanied with illegal means to obtain the object.

– Webster’s 1828 Dictionary

 

We can be quick to denounce ambition as a character flaw. One that leads to pride, greed, and the discounting of others. Perhaps I can be too ambitious – for security, for comfort, status, or on behalf of my children.

Or, we can esteem ambition as the fuel that propels us toward fulfilling our potential. It sustains, motivates, and inspires. Perhaps I’m not ambitious enough – to believe that my gifting (and brokenness) can benefit others, or to commit to the hard work and inconvenience that a life marked by stewardship requires.

Both views are true. Both views are incomplete. The truest truth of ambition is found in its nuance. When I’m willing to sift through and examine the layers of nuance, I begin to catch  glimpses of the truest truths about me.

How would you define ambition?

The (many and varied) answers to that question reflect that which we value most. It’s a question worth exploring. A question that’s complex and multi-faceted and best approached from a number of different vantage points.

Please consider joining a group of folks as we read and discuss Ambition, a collection of essays written by members of the Chrysostom Society. You’ll hear from a variety of writers including Luci Shaw and Eugene Peterson, each looking at the topic of ambition from a slightly different angle. You can purchase your book here. If you order now, you should receive the book in time to begin reading with us. The reading schedule (which is subject to and most probably will change) is as follows:

November 9: Essays 1,2
November 16: Essays 3,4
November 23: Essays 5,6
November 30: Essays 7-9

– – –

Consider asking a few friends to read along and discuss together. If you’re on Facebook, request to Greener Trees Reads and you’ll be added to the group. Greener Trees Reads was born in 2011, when a group of friends wanted to dig deeper into The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers. We quickly found that reading together helped us:

1) Read more carefully 
2) View the text from different perspectives (therefore seeing them more fully) 
3) Get to know one another along the way (an accidental, but wonderful, byproduct).

In the last few years, the books we’ve read together have included: Refractions by Makoto Fujimura, The Art of T.S. Eliot by Helen Gardner, So Brave, Young, and Handsome by Leif Enger (our conversation took place over at The Rabbit Room), Through a Screen Darkly by Jeffrey Overstreet, The Supper of the Lamb by Robert Capone, Breath for the Bones by Luci Shaw, and Silence by Shusaku Endo. We’d love for you to join us.

 



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The Lingering Scent

A few weeks ago, our family read the story of Mary who, in an act of extravagant love, anointed Jesus with expensive perfume. In Behold the King of Glory, Russ Ramsey writes, “As the scent electrified the senses of everyone present, Jesus called it beautiful. Creation testified to a Maker who delighted in beauty for beauty’s sake… Jesus said to Mary’s critics, ‘She has given me this gift because she is preparing me for my burial, and history will never forget her act of beauty.’”

Our reading left me wondering. What would Mary’s beautiful act look like in our current culture?

Within days, I was given an answer.

* * *

Later that week, we had friends visiting from out of town. They were only here for a few days, and most of that time they spent exploring and enjoying the city. At the end of their trip, we were grateful to have them join us for church. As we sat side by side, I was conflicted. I love these friends and was delighted to have them step into our community for a few hours. But during the service, I was distracted. As the guitar strummed and the room swelled with song, I scanned the rows of chairs and saw not flesh and blood, but rather story after story. We’ve walked and crawled and danced among this community for twenty-one years. We’ve witnessed devastation and miracle. Heartbreak and redemption. I wanted to lean over to my friend and whisper hints of those holy narratives. For her to catch a glimpse of the beautiful, messy, struggling, transformed saints covered in flesh and cloaked in their Sunday best. I wanted her to hear the significant ways in which God had touched and changed lives. For the Father to reach down from above and kiss her forehead through the stories of his people.

The service ended and the spell was broken. We moved from the worship service to our adult Sunday school class. The leader announced that we’d be taking a break from our current teaching series, as we did once every month, in order for members of the class to come up and share a bit of their journey. The couple who took the seats up front had been acquaintances for years, but we hadn’t known them well. They were engaging and honest as they shared about coming from very different backgrounds, struggling to reconcile creative calling to the realities of limited job opportunities, and growing to find God’s provision in the most unexpected places. Yet in the span of the forty minutes they’d been given to talk, there was one particular moment on which the eternal and the temporal hinged.

The wife had been recounting the arduous journey of adopting from Liberia. After more than a year of preparing for and growing to love two children as their own, they learned that one, their new son, wouldn’t be able to return to America with them. In an honest moment of desperation, the mother cried out to God. A God who she trusted to be both good and sovereign. How could their situation possibly be His best?

While journaling her thoughts during the flight headed to Africa, something in her heart shifted. Or perhaps it was awakened. Just as her heart was gripped with anguish on behalf of her son, the Father of all aches – even more deeply – for every last one of his children. Through her excruciating pain, a young mother had been given a glimpse of the beautiful heart of God.

My friend soaked up the mother’s words, said her goodbyes, and returned to Tennessee to resume life as normal. Only something was churning inside her. The Lord’s faithfulness in the midst of unspeakable pain had purpose. It was a reminder that she needed, and that we all need, to hear. Being true to her beautiful, gracious, creative nature, she began to scratch lyrics to the song sung from the heart of an aching parent. She called upon her friends – world-renowned musicians, whose immense talent is surpassed by their humility and devotion to the Creator. Within days and across hundreds of miles, they had composed and recorded a song. My friend, who had never met the mother, had poured out her talents in response to the glimpse of Glory she’d been given. She quietly offered the final product, a video containing the lyrics, as a gift. It was an extravagant, spontaneous act of worship like few others I’ve experienced.

“Art, like Jesus’ tears and Mary’s nard, spreads in our lives, providing useless beauty for those willing to ponder. Many consider the arts to be the “extra” of our lives, an embellishment that is mere leisure. Yet how many hours of sacrifice go into being able to play a sonata by Chopin? Or a dancer’s flight on stage at the Lincoln Center? What many consider extra, and even wasteful, may come to define our humanity. That evening at Bethany, in that aroma that Mary spilled, there were Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings and Johann Sebastian Bach’s cantatas floating in the air as well (thanks to James Elaine, curator and artist, for this observation). Every act of creativity is, directly or indirectly, an intuitive response to offer to God what He has given to us.” Makoto Fujimura

 

To God Be the Glory.

 



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Books for Lent

The season of Lent begins this Wednesday, February 18th.

If you’re looking for resources for personal reflection or family devotion, I thought I’d share what we’ll be reading:

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Behold the King of Glory by Russ Ramsey

This book’s companion Advent devotional, Behold the Lamb of God, has become a staple in our home. Ramsey’s writing is rich with imagery and steeped in sound theology. He invites, challenges, reveals and inspires – all while drawing us more deeply into the Greatest of Stories. For more about the heart behind and content found in Behold the King of Glory, you can read Ramsey’s recent interview with Barnabas Piper.

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The Word in the Wilderness: A Poem a Day for Lent and Easter by Malcolm Guite

Last year during Lent, our family read through the corresponding sonnets from Malcolm Guite’s Sounding of the Seasons together. In response, the children illuminated a few of the readings that were particularly meaningful to them. Although a stretch for all of us, Guite’s poetry played a significant part in preparing our hearts for Easter. The Word in the Wilderness includes poetry and meditative prose from Guite as well as a number of poems from classical and contemporary poets.

If you’re looking for something to read with younger children:

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Vinegar Boy by Alberta Hawse

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Amon’s Adventure Arnold Ytreeide

Both Amon’s Adventure* and Vinegar Boy transport the reader back in time to experience the culture, social climate, political dynamics leading up to the crucifixion through the eyes of one who was there. Either would be an excellent choice for families with children of all ages.

*Amon’s Adventure is a companion book to the Jotham’s Journey Advent series by Ytreeide.

* * *

Do you have any recommendations for reading during the Lenten season?



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Foreshadowing

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Merry Christmas  from the Silanders – 2014

Every year, the onset of Advent brings with it a small degree of (self-imposed) pressure to make the most of the season. We’ll never have another Christmas when the children are their current ages. I want them to remember. To capture smells of peppermint cookies and fresh pine, sights of white lights and red bows on the trees, and sounds of Yo-Yo Ma, Sufjan Stevens, and Andrew Peterson’s Christmas music. To tuck away their experience in an emotional time capsule – one that can be excavated when life down the road gets hard and they need to remember.

We may not have another Christmas when we’re all in good health. Or in our current home. The list of what could, and probably will, change in the next twelve months is longer than Santa’s scroll filled with names. Once the season slips by, it’s gone forever. I want to live fully in the moment – in the story unfolding before me – but I can’t help grieving the little (and big) lost opportunities.

This year, we won’t be sending out Christmas cards. I just couldn’t pull it together to get a reasonably good family picture taken, much less to order color-coordinated cards, then address, stamp, and get them in the mail. It’s a small thing, really. But there will never be another Christmas 2014 – the last one with a ten-year-old in the house, and the last one before our eldest son gets married. And I missed capturing it in a glossy 4×6. The calendar flips and the children grow up and we say goodbye to a season that’s gone forever.

It’s hard not to look back.

Among the many decisions to be made each Advent is, no surprise, is what we’ll be reading. This year, it will be a lesser-known Christmas story by Charles Dickens and a re-read of This Way to Christmas by Ruth Sawyer. But of particular importance is the choosing of an Advent devotional. We’ve accumulated quite a selection. Personally, I keep returning to God is in the Manger by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And for the family, despite the countless options available, we keep returning to the Jesus Storybook Bible by Sally Lloyd-Jones.

Our children are hardly wide-eyed little ones anymore. There will be no baby doll paraphernalia or Rescue Hero action figures found under our tree. Rather than spending these days reading (and rereading) cherished Christmas picture books, we’ve been wrapping up school projects and tweaking papers. Much to my enjoyment, my thirteen-year-old has been taking a Literary Analysis class from which much of our daily dialogue flows. Words like “protagonist, conflict, and foreshadowing” pepper our conversation. I miss the fair-haired little boy sitting on my lap while we read, but I’m sure having fun with the larger version’s rascally smile and quick sense of wit.

Earlier this week, in order to catch up with the reading schedule (yes, running chronically behind), we read a few chapters out of the Jesus Storybook Bible. Then we read a few more. Here’s how they ended:

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As we closed the book, my boy turned his face toward me, and rather pleased with himself, proclaimed, “Foreshadowing.”

This year, he has learned a new word that represents a much more complex concept. Through months of example, analysis, and practice, my son has developed the skill of reading words on a page – then looking beyond what is seen to anticipate what is to come.

Perhaps that’s the purpose of the Advent season: to prepare the eyes of our heart to look beyond what we can see. To anticipate the coming of the One who makes all things new.

If it’s been a hard year, take heart. Advent is for you.

For you, friend, who feels the pressure of having to get it right. In your relationships, your career, your parenting, your choices. In the million minor daily details like creating and sustaining holiday traditions.

For you, friend, who’s grown weary of longing. Who feels paralyzed in the twilight between hope and despair. Who flirts with the temptation named numbness, which protects from pain, but suffocates joy.

For you, friend, who is fighting for your marriage. The marriage that felt so solid to you and looked ideal to others. The one that is gasping for life in an atmosphere running dangerously short on oxygen.

For you, friend, who received the diagnosis. The diagnosis that’s only supposed to be delivered to “other people.” The one that brought life to a screeching halt and has permanently rerouted your plans for the future. The one that terrifies to the core and steals dreams.

For you, friend, who is broken and wounded. Who feels too tired to move forward. Who is weary and losing hope, because life isn’t what you’d thought it would be. Who lives in regret of lost dreams and what could-have-beens.

It’s hard not to look back and remain tethered to the past. It’s hard to believe that life is more than the joy, sorrow, hope, fear, delight, regret, love, and loneliness we experience.

But Advent is here. Readjust your eyes. The text is pointing to a Truer Truth than the sum of what we can see.

Foreshadowing.

Light will drink up darkness.
Hope will snuff out despair.
Love has already won.

The stories are true. 

He’s been whispering them since the beginning of time.

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Of Maps and Shadows

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Many thanks to my friend (and partner in crime), Carrie Givens, for wrapping up our reading of Breath for the Bones by Luci Shaw. Carolyn Clare Givens works in Communications at Church at Charlotte in North Carolina and does freelance writing and editing. A displaced Northerner now exploring the foreign ways of the south, she has previously bumped around the world, both as a missionary kid and as an adult. She revels in good stories, good music, and wrestles with the intersection of faith, art, vocation, and culture. Online, she hangs out at her website, carolyncgivens.com, on Twitter, and at her page on Facebook.

I once had a haphazard, twenty-minute lesson in orienteering. I’d never seen an orienteering compass, so I asked my friend Ben to show me how it worked. He began to demonstrate, lifting the compass to eye level, finding a mountain peak through the trees, and turning the map into alignment.

One of my pastors, Dave Huber, was recently teaching about the concept of wisdom in Scripture. He noted that the Bible doesn’t give us a map for life, but rather teaches us the fixed points of truth and trusts us to navigate life based on them.

As I stood in the woods with Ben and the orienteering compass, I quickly learned the value of fixed points. Three more steps to the left and we wouldn’t have been able to see that mountain peak. Without that fixed point, it would have been easy to be overwhelmed by the darkness of the trees, the confusing paths between them. Even with our map, without the fixed points, we may not have been able to find our way home.

Walking through life, there have been plenty of moments when I’ve been more surrounded by the trees than in sight of the fixed points of truth. Sometimes God, and His truth, seems invisible. Luci Shaw, in her book Breath for the Bones, writes of this feeling:

The God who is not there. Or, the God who is there but not here, except for occasional momentary visitations. I have often felt, in reflective moments as well as at the raw edge of experience, that I have a now-you-see-him, now-you-don’t God, a chiaroscuro God, some of whose features are highlighted in the manner of the Italian renaissance painters who employed that technique, but whose being exhibits such mystery, such inscrutability, such otherness, that it can only be represented by deep shadow, which might as well signify absence as obscurity, it is so unknowable. (p. 151)

It often feels that we have more shadows than light in our story. We wander in the woods with the lengthening darkness and we cannot glimpse the mountains.

In Breath for the Bones, Shaw speaks of the role of art in these times, and of the difficulty Christians often encounter when faced with the shadows. Not only is there the tension of authenticity—presenting through our art the struggles as well as the joys and peace of life—but as Christians, we strive to speak truth in our art. Unfortunately, as Shaw points out, truth isn’t always perfectly clear, nor is it always pleasant to face. She writes,

Christians who practice art must not always feel bound to produce sweetness and light. We have to recognize the darkness and shadow as well as the light, and realize that God allows shadows into our lives. God is not dark and evil, but he embodies mystery. (p. 161)

She goes on to say that the contrast between darkness and light is valuable—for you cannot see one without the other. “Contrast highlights, as it were; it allows meaning to be seen and experienced” (p. 161). The part of the journey lost among the trees may be dark and frightening, but we would not fully understand what it means to be lost unless we also had some understanding of having the fixed point in our sights and navigating toward it. But to get through the trees, we must sometimes walk through areas where we cannot see the mountain peak. And to do so, to step onto the confusing paths among the trees and away from the glimpse of alpenglow, requires a certain faith. “All mystery feels like a fog,” Shaw writes. “It presents hiddenness. It demands strong faith to walk into it believing that one day it will be demystified” (p. 162).

And this, I think, is the moment where the Christian artist comes into his own. I had a professor who used to say, “The writer is the one who points and says, ‘See.’” She knew the power of art to help navigate the darkness. It’s a wild and dangerous profession, one that the artist shares with the men and women through the ages whom God called to speak the truth. To do so, He asked them to lay on their side for a year, to marry a whore, to be sawn in two. It’s never been an easy life. “Christian poets stand with the seer and prophet,” says Shaw, “one foot in heaven, one on earth, perpetually torn by that duality of focus as the divine dream is channeled through their human voice or pen” (p. 164). We glimpse the light on the mountaintop and we point to it as we walk through the darkness.

Another pastor at my church, Jim Kallam, spoke recently about the final words of Jesus in Scripture—not His words to His disciples before He ascended, but His words in the twenty-second chapter of Revelation. Jesus describes Himself one final time in that chapter, saying, “I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star” (Rev. 22:17 ESV). Jimmy said, “The morning star appears in the night sky when the night has reached its greatest degree of darkness…and what that signifies simply to me is this: though it may still be dark, it will never again be totally dark.”

Andy Gullahorn, in his song “Grand Canyon,” sings,

I can’t sleep
There’s too much weighing on my mind
But there’s a bird out there
Still singing in the dead of night
Like it knows there’s a season
when the sun’s gonna set
But the story isn’t over yet

The artist, the poet, the writer is the one who points and says “See.” The faithful artist is the one who navigates the dark, shadowy mystery by the Bright Morning Star, and is singing with the bird in the dead of night, saying that though we can’t see them through the trees, the mountaintops are still there, awaiting our approach to a break in the branches when we can lift up our orienteering compass to eye level and continue to find our way forward.

– – –

This post was written in response to reading Breath for the Bones by Luci Shaw. You can catch up here:

Graffiti Art and Repentance (Intro, Chp 1-2)
Tell Me a Story (Chp 3-5)
Pressing Into the Quiet (Chp 6-7)
A Musing on Divine Love (Chp 8-10)
Of Maps and Shadows (Chp 11-12)



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A Musing on Divine Love

appolo

I’m grateful to introduce you to Jennifer Kennedy, our guest writer for the day. It took a bit of urging for Jennifer to share her thoughts with you. I’m so very glad she did.

I’m quite ambivalent about posting this – so uncomfortable that I searched for another poem about which to write. I looked in three other collections. There were many evocative and beautiful verses.  But no other shook me as this one has. Four days after I read the poem, I saw this passage from Chapter 9 in Breath for the Bones:

“Tame it, make it predictable and palatable, overlay it with a veneer of orthodox respectability, eradicate its irony and wit, control its passion and force, and maybe, maybe, it will be allowed to slip inside the sanctuary and be shown into a back pew. The sterility of such a domesticated art shows us the dire results of ultimate control.”

So I find myself without defense or reason for withholding it from this forum – save my discomfort in doing so. And the level to which it has disturbed me has no bearing upon the truth of it.

I was thumbing through a collection of Shaw poetry, Listen to the Green, and came across this one. I read it once. Then again. And yet again.

Bride

The thin smooth eggshell of her
rigid , indrawn by a private gravity –
her convex surface
offers no toe-hold for analysis.
But perhaps the perfect smile –
the self-assured sheen –
her insularity’s bright
white carapace that shuns another’s touch
ask of you:
Is it her coolness or her cowardice
(or are they one) that closes in –
ward on itself
denying entrance?
The probes of God’s sharp grace
his bruising mouth (and yours)
threaten to broach her brittleness.
And heaven’s breath, hot,
see how she shrinks from it
on her ice palace
as from all passion that seeks
center
in her hidden hollowness.

Not knowing she’s destined for shell
shock
vainly she shields her vulnerable vacuum –
postpones the breaking and entering –
love’s emptying of
her chilly emptiness.

-Luci Shaw

After the first reading – I guessed it was a metaphor for Christ and the Church – and perhaps it is. But I also saw that irrepressible, irresistible Grace – the one that compelled the “kicking, struggling” Lewis to his knees, the Hound of Heaven pursuing an individual soul.  But, now – here, in the most (I cannot this of a more discreet way to put this) sexually charged images. I held my breath and my face burned.  I hastily flipped the book over to the back cover – the one with all the testimonials – looking for some validation, wanting to ask someone, “Is it ok to read this?” Somewhere amid the words from Christianity Today and Madeleine L’Engle was this: “There are some poems that make you catch your breath. This happens over and over when I read [Luci Shaw’s] poetry. – Ruth Bell Graham.” If Mrs. Graham could find herself breathless and keep reading, then I felt I was in good company.

As I pondered the verse, my mind seized upon an image of Bernini’s sculpture Apollo and Daphne. I suppose it was my psyche’s way of finding some comfort zone – an image of passion I could look upon without dying of embarrassment. It’s such a magnificent work – emotion and energy and mythical magic captured in a moment. I imagine it’s what that bride feels beneath her cool immaculate exterior – fleeing in terror at the real possibility of being possessed and wholly claimed. She’d rather be wrapped forever in a column of wood, unmoved and unmoving but for her waving branches and the fluttering of her green and shining tresses – safe from the consuming and consummating love of a god.

I had a chance to actually see this statue – almost. I was in Rome with a small group of humanities students from Milligan. We walked up to the Galleria Borghese – and were stunned to find it closed indefinitely for a sweeping renovation. My art teacher kicked the corrugated steel barricade in frustration and then said some words I cannot repeat.  The object of our desire was within, and we were hopelessly without.

I still cannot read this poem without feeling unsettled. It’s sometimes frightening to see the God you worship in a startling way you never considered before. To be honest, I will never view the expression “the God-shaped void in your soul” the same again. But I have this strange idea that divine love is very different from what we mortals can perceive. It comes to us in fractals – split into components we can comprehend – storge, eros, phileo, agape – love in different hues. But within its Source they combine and flame with the white-hot intensity of a star – a passion that no steel barricade or bright white carapace can shield – a Love to overcome and complete us. I cannot adequately explain this, but I do believe this – that He loves and desires us THAT much.

But my cheeks are still burning. Maybe yours are, too. If so, I’m sorry to have disturbed you. But you’re in good company.

Jennifer Kennedy finds interest in just about everything in the wide world (except perhaps vector calculus and heavy metal music.) But she claims expertise only as a motherfluffer, baby wrangler, and lactation diva in the wee hours. When she’s not pishing in the hedgerows or practicing Bach cantatas on YouTube to annoy the three men in her life, she loves reading and writing about such wonders as skink tails, elven folk, winged horses, and canoeing in the lost forests of the Lord God bird.

– – –

This post was written in response to reading Breath for the Bones by Luci Shaw. You can catch up with what we’ve read here:

Graffiti Art and Repentance (Intro, Chp 1-2)
Tell Me a Story (Chp 3-5)
Pressing Into the Quiet (Chp 6-7)
A Musing on Divine Love (Chp 8-10)
Week of October 6: Chp 11-12



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Pressing Into the Quiet

quietThe following guest post was written by Kelly Keller. Kelly is a transplanted Massachusetts native who this year celebrates a full decade living in Charlotte, NC. When she’s not homeschooling her five kids (four boys, one girl), Kelly enjoys live music, baseball, writing, reading great books, and traveling with her best friend and husband, David. If you don’t want to hear her blathering on about her upcoming trip to the UK this fall, you should probably just avoid her from now on.

I live a loud life.

It’s not loud in the sense of enthusiasm or passion. There are things I am quite passionate about — just ask me — but I don’t wear flashy clothing or make thunderous, sweeping statements about politics or other issues.

It’s just loud here. In our home we have five active children between the ages of 6 and 13. They learn, they fight, they make explosion sounds, and my name is the one they call most often. This position is a privilege, I am aware.

But when we’re discussing reflection, quiet, and what Luci Shaw in Breath for the Bones calls “active readiness,” I immediately view it as a fight. When there are needs to be addressed at every turn, it’s difficult to cultivate meditative thinking.

No matter what the “noise” is in your life, that sentence right there may be the understatement of the century. It’s difficult to cultivate meditative thinking when the roommate insists on the twenty-four hour news channel….when the boss demands long hours in a drab office…when people fill your schedule for all good, but all time-consuming and noisy, needs.

But “cultivate” is exactly what we must do. Like tilling the soil, cultivation of quiet is sometimes a hard-won battle. We must exert ourselves to break through the unyielding soil. It requires more than a little effort in a culture that wants to fill our days with sound.

The culture. Yes, it is true, the culture is at fault. But so are we — after all, we make the culture. As Ms. Shaw rightly points out:

“But so many are afraid of silence and of being alone. They wonder, What if nothing happens? What if God ignores me? Or what if he isn’t there? But, in gradual steps, and given some simple tools, people can begin to experience contemplation for themselves and discover that it is transformative. And this transformation (as well as the waiting) also informs — always — the place where our creative work is done. For artists, this combination of discipline and listening-receiving is a true cornerstone.” (p.79)

Shaw later says,

“…passivity has no place in the life of art or of Christian spirituality.” (81)

She uses the term “active readiness” to describe the role of an artist or individual in a waiting time. The phrase rang a bell in me, because it reminded me of Charlotte Mason’s concept of “masterly inactivity.” As a teacher, sometimes I press into a child to gain knowledge, but other times I must retreat and allow time and the Holy Spirit to enlighten. This retreat is not passive, but active. The teacher is backing away consciously. Always the Spirit-led result is better than a reckless, human straining towards mastery.

It doesn’t need to be in quiet solitude that these moments happen — although those moments help the process. It is a cultivation of our minds and spirits to recognize God’s work in our lives and how He is unfolding our days before us. That realization happens just as often in the noise of my family as it does in a solitary place. It’s a matter of my heart and the effort I’m taking to listen.

But like I said before, the quiet times certainly help. We are finite creatures. We can’t clear our heads and come to good perspective if we are immersed in the bedlam our culture makes available to us twenty-four hours a day.

This perspective that this is an exercise is a helpful one. While the world often wants to look at time of quiet as leisure, Shaw casts that time for Christians, and artists in particular, in a light of important effort and discipline.

Perhaps I would more passionately pursue it if I saw it that way. A little less rolling over for a few more minutes of sleep. A little less media. A little more quiet.

– – –

This post was written in response to reading Breath for the Bones by Luci Shaw. If you’d like to read along, the schedule is as follows:

Week 1: Graffiti Art and Repentance (Intro, Chp 1-2)
Week 2: Tell Me a Story (Chp 3-5)
This week: Chp 6-7
Sept 22: Catch up (or read ahead)
Sept 29: Chp 8-10
Oct 6: Chp 11-12



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