Saturday, December 29, 2007

Beauty and Grace

Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.
—Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Toys with lots of pieces are a mother’s curse. They never stay in the box they are supposed to, they seem to be in the places most likely to be stepped on, and the most important piece is always the one that is missing. But recently my son has been playing with a set of pattern blocks and causing me to re-think all that I hate about multi-pieced toys.

The beauty of pattern blocks is that it doesn’t matter if one is missing; you can always make some kind of design no matter which seemingly random assortment you have in front of you. In the chaos after our move, I imagine there is something soothing for my son about sitting quietly in his room on the floor, adding one piece and then another and another until all are used up. And where once was a jumbled pile of colored shapes, there is instead something orderly and beautiful. It is a small way of setting things right.

My daughter had her own way of setting things right when she was younger. As a toddler, she would sit inside a pop-up tent and narrate stories that always included elements of surprise that she would re-live over and over, usually in the unexpected but delightful arrival of her friend Elmo. And over and over she would exclaim with joy that he had come to see her, that he could laugh so nicely, that he was such a good friend.

This holiday as I have enjoyed family reunions and rooms full of kids, the thing that stays with me is how they are able to simply be there, as Annie Dillard would say. They are able to see patterns and meaning where I see incompleteness and missing pieces. They are able to find joy in the ever-recurring presence of those they love most. They are alive to beauty and grace. And my new year’s wish is that somehow, like them, I will learn to simply be there.

Friday, December 21, 2007


“The time is coming when I will keep the promise I made.”
—Jeremiah 33:14 (The Message)

“It’s exactly what he promised, beginning with Abraham and right up to now.”
—Luke 1:26 (The Message)
From the time she was born Mary’s parents were so proud. “She is full of promise,” they told themselves and their friends and Mary, too, as she grew: “You are so full of promise.” Believing it, would she be filled with plans, anticipating all the ways she would accomplish the dreams of those she loved? Or fearing it, would she be nervously calculating the balance sheet of her life to see if in the end, all the hoped-for promise paid off. But when the angel came to her and asked, she was open enough to be willing: “Be it unto me…” even though in this case being willing seemed to mean the certain death of the promise entrusted to her. “She was so full of promise, then this happened…” Mary, full of promise, ends up pregnant. And then, to the surprise of everyone who thought that was the end of Mary’s bright future, she is at last (and completely in the way God meant) full of promise.

In the space between “the time is coming” and “exactly what he promised,” there is a long and silent wait. Does delay of a promise intensify desire of its coming? Or does it cause us bit by bit to die to its light? When we are “full of promise,” does that mean we have more-than-the-average share of gifts and talents? Or it is to be so broken with waiting we have nothing left but promise to fill us up. We are so full of promise. We break promises and we keep them, and in the end they keep us. Keep us from falling apart, from falling into the worst of ourselves, from falling so far we are beyond the call of anyone to save us. And in that moment when “exactly as he promised” is fulfilled, it happens.

On the eve of a promise kept, a word to answer the silent prayers of the ages, a gift given over and over as many times as we remember. From that gift—now and ever, the call: To the ones who break promises, from the one who never does. Calling through noise, through time, through pain, through the silent places of the strongest heart. Calling, till there is nothing left but to take it up: A promise as rich and bright as the Indian sun. A promise hidden in the deep, dark eyes of a baby boy whose tiny hand never stops holding the hope of a world made new.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007


There have been times I’ve felt abandoned by God. Sometimes I think it’s just him dissing me and other times I think maybe it’s a “for-my-own-good” kind of thing. But as a friend pointed out at lunch today, it’s an odd way to think about God. You wouldn’t do that to your own kid—leave them so they learn to love you more. Good point. And then another friend commented, “That’s the one thing God does promise—his presence.” I have been thinking about that a lot. On some deep level I know it is true, but I definitely don’t understand it.

The very essence of Christmas—Immanuel, God with us—announces God’s presence with humanity. But do I know how to recognize God? If he never abandons me but it feels like he has, it must be that I don’t know how to see him, or I’m looking for the wrong thing. Maybe we don’t see God himself, but we see him through his provisions, like manna in the wilderness. Do we know God has not abandoned us because we have enough to eat, because we have friends, because we have _______ (fill in the blank)? Then what about people who are literally dying from hunger or loneliness or lack of some other thing? Where do those people find evidence of God’s presence? I think any one of them would smack me upside the head for implying it is their fault that they don’t see God or feel his presence or get full from the invisible spiritual manna all around their feet. And rightly so.

Just as I need to be dis-illusioned of the Christ that I am expecting, so I need to be dis-illusioned of the manna I am expecting. I have these things set in my mind: this is what it looks like when God is near, and this is what it looks like when he feeds his people. But I am drowning in wrong ideas about God, and there are so many things I totally miss because I don’t know what I’m looking for. In spite of all this, God comes, holds out his hands to me again, and says, “This is my body, broken for you.” And when I even come close to the edges of knowing what that means, it is no problem for me to believe that there is bread enough for us all and that the one who offers it will help us see him when he comes.

Sunday, December 16, 2007


In church today, the scripture came from the words of John the Baptist as he is in prison, wondering if Jesus is truly the Messiah: “Are you the one who was to come, or are we to expect someone else?” (Matthew 11:3). You’d think all of his trumpeting “Prepare the way of the Lord!” would have convinced John as it did others that this was, in fact, the hoped-for one. But the sermon today talked about our need to be dis-illusioned of the Christ we expect in order that we can discover the Christ who is here.

And for me, this was a very meaningful contrast. I long for the Christ who rides in to rescue and heal all the wounded ones, who brings justice to the oppressed ones, who brings peace to my own disordered heart and sets my feet forever on a path of purpose and joy. But that is not the Christ who comes. The Christ who comes is not interested in saving me in the ways I expect to be saved. He is not interested in reinforcing my small-minded ideas of how he should work in this world. In the end, what he is interested in, is me.

And he tells me to save my life, I have to lose it. He says that healing my life might mean breaking it to pieces. He calls me to quiet all the noise of my own expectations and listen, quietly, patiently, not all at once, but over the long haul, for the steady sounds of his mercy pulsing into my life and the call of his grace that never ends. And what I hear when I listen is so simple: I am love, love, love.

Sunday, December 9, 2007


“I have stilled and quieted my soul.” (Psalm 131:2)
“For you O Lord, my soul in stillness waits. Truly my hope is in you.”
There is a new kind of cold that I have experienced since we moved to Edmonton. It is a deep, dry cold and when the sky is dark, it is the kind of cold that could make you forget anything warm you ever knew. But it is also a cold that forces quiet in you because it literally takes your breath away.

“I have stilled my soul” usually means something like quieting anxious thoughts, waiting with a certain amount of patience and calm. I have stilled my soul. But still may not only describe the method of waiting, but also the length of waiting. I wait with a soul that is still. And though the waiting is long, I wait still.

Maybe I can also “still” my soul by convincing it that in the dark of a windless night, there is still reason to hope. Still, my soul, there is reason to hope still. A reason that pierces through the darkness and cold in which we wait without breath. Still, we wait. Still.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Don't Stop

I saw this sign in a park here in Edmonton. While I’m sure it has something to do with parking or not idling by the curb in your car, all I can see when I look at it is a somewhat desperate plea: “DON’T STOP!”

This past week, I have enjoyed an evening of music, a laughter-filled dinner with friends, the bright sun, soup and spiritual reflection, and the life-giving energy of students. And in the midst of all of the things I’ve been writing about darkness and tears, I want to also write about food, music, and friends, and the place of light within me that wants to shout “Don’t stop!” to all those good gifts. Because they are the ones that call me back from the edges where I wander to the place within me where God dwells.

Henri Nouwen describes the journey of the prodigal son as one “so disconnected from what gives life—family, friends, community, acquaintances, and even food—that he realized that death would be the natural next step” (The Prodigal Son, 48). The unstated correlation here is: isolation = death. But when I hear music, when I sing, when I eat with others, when I listen to stories and put myself in places where these things happen, I put myself also in the path of life because I am no longer alone.

I do not doubt that I will fall in and out of seasons of darkness for the rest of my life. But what I hope is that the more times I see them end, the more patient I can be within them, the more trusting that they are, in fact, only a season. The more I can make the conscious choice to wait them out, to socialize and be with people even when I don’t think I want to, the more I will begin to remember and believe, as Nouwen reminds me, that God has never stopped stretching out his hands waiting for me to return.