Friday, June 15, 2012


Wednesday, June 13, 2012

One Year Ago Today

*The black-haired baby with the ruddy complexion is Evangeline, the day I brought her home from the hospital. Olivia is beside her.
Last night we walked to the Bunny Bench, the name Audrey and Evangeline have given to the bench that sits at the tip of the golf course near our home. The sun had disappeared behind a low ribbon of mountain peaks along the northwestern horizon, but the light had not quite gone out of the sky.

We rounded the corner past the Bunny Bench, and up the winding, starlit path. We could smell the sweet, fresh earthy smell of grass, so recently watered; and in the distance came the “chh-chh-chh-chh” of sprinklers wetting some distant part of the green. In the brooding silver-gray moments before the sky blackened utterly, I watched as the focal point of beauty changed from colored clouds to flickering city lights. In an instant, in no time at all, a thick canopy had been erected above our heads and the black dome that was the sky was filled with stars that shone all the brighter for the blackness of the night. 

Ahead of us the path was flanked with the wiry, almost sinister silhouettes of cottonwoods, their sleek dark trunks shining in the starlight, and above us one star shone brighter than all the others; so bright it compelled me to exclaim, “Wow! Girls, do you think that’s a star or a planet?” The girls looked up quizzically from where they sat, side by side, in the stroller, and studied the star a moment quietly, their awed faces reflecting the silver-blue light of the moon.  

“I think it’s the star what God put up when Jesus was born,” Audrey said solemnly, then paused.  “Or maybe it’s the Olivia Star.”

Suddenly Evie gave a deep, anguished cry, as if in pain. “Oh!” she moaned. “Oh, my friend! I miss my friend Olivia!”

“I know, Evie,” I said.

But Evie kept on: “She died! Oh! Olivia died!”

I was dumb-founded. Evie was two years old when Olivia died. How could she remember her enough to express genuine grief? At last, my voice nearly swallowed by chokes and gasps, I said, “You're right, Evie. Olivia is with Jesus. Did you know that? Did you know He is holding her in His arms?”

“Oh!” she moaned. “But I want to play with huh! I really whoosh I could play with huh.”

I glanced over at Dutch to gauge the depth of his astonishment. “I’m sorry, Evie," I said again, groping for words. "You will be able to play with her someday. When we see her again in Heaven.”

“But I want to play with huh now!” Evie persisted, and started to cry.

The part of me which a moment before had suggested that perhaps these were false cries, full of affectation, was now utterly silenced, replaced by the sounds of a child's lamentations for her departed friend: “Oooooh! I miss Olivia. I miss my friend!”

Audrey, who had been observing this scene in silence, gallantly leaned over and kissed her sister on the knee. “Oh, Evie,” she said reassuringly, patting Evie's leg now. “Don’t worry! Just look at the star! You have to stay looking at the star. It will remind you about Olivia. It will say that you would be okay…” Then -- right there, in the darkness and quiet -- Audrey began to sing: 

“O, please! O please! Shine the moon for me! 
  O, please! O, please! Shine the star for me! 
  Jesus, please, check on Livia for us
  Make sure that she’s okay… 
  Tell her that we want to play with her another day Heaven.”

I looked again at the star, shining more radiantly than all the Jesus, our Bright Morning Star. The One for whom we stand and wait; the One who says, “Do not be discouraged! Be not afraid! Do not dismay. I am the Living One. My work is finished. I am coming quickly, and I will make all things new!"

Without Jesus, words of consolation, so often given, like, "She will live on forever in your hearts" or "Her spirit will never be forgotten" are just... words. Whimsical, empty words. Without a whit of truth to justify or ground them. Memories fade; and, for all we can see, life ends when the body does. "But that Christ on His cross did rise / and fall, / Sin had eternally benighted all" (John Donne). It is only because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that we dare to hope - to believe with confidence - that Olivia now experiences that blessed state which, Paul says, is “better by far” than life on this earth: union with Jesus. We will see her again. In the place of "No More Tears."
 *Audrey drew this picture of Olivia and Jesus on May 25th, the day that Olivia would have turned three.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Notes On a Wilderness Prophet

“And Moses was content to dwell with the man…” ~Exodus 2.15-21

Moses is commonly regarded as the greatest prophet of the Old Testament. Yet he started out as a flop. From a temporal standpoint, his role as mediator, deliverer and rescuer ended before it began, like the burgeoning ingénue whose much-anticipated debut onstage ends with boos and jeers, instead of applause.

"Moses was forty years old when it came into his heart to visit his brothers, the children of Israel” (Acts 7.23). But who can say how long he had nursed this hidden dream – that of saving his people from the cruel bondage of his adoptive grandfather? Was the impulse to visit them sudden and spontaneous? Or painstakingly planned - perhaps from the first moment he discovered his true origins? We cannot know.

What is clear is that Moses's decision to visit his people reflected his desire to identify with them. Perhaps he nurtured a vague hope that his kinsman might recognize in this decision his desire to defend and help them. Perhaps they would recognize him as the deliverer for which they had long hoped, and would confer upon him their confidence as a would-be leader.

But whatever his expectations might have been, Moses could not have prepared himself for what he actually saw - the cruelty and injustice, the misery and filth; nor could he anticipate the effect such realities would have on his conduct. For when he saw an Egyptian guard mistreating an Israelite slave - his brother! - Moses could not restrain himself: he got between the men, “struck down” the Egyptian, and killed him, thus sealing his own fate, and forcing himself to flee into the wilderness of Midian.

"He supposed that his brothers would understand that God was giving them salvation by his hand, but they did not understand" (Acts 7.25). Ironically, as so often happens in today's world, the very act Moses imagined would secure his reputation was the self-same one that undid it: for the Israelites did not want this kind of attention; nor had they asked him for any such help. 

The book of Hebrews affirms the idea that Moses's ex-patriation was an act of his own will and not the product of haphazard circumstance - "[B]y faith...he refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter" (Heb. 11.24). Yet those truths which are presented so clearly and cleanly in Scripture have to be worked out in the messiness of time: for even if Moses had counted the cost before putting himself in such a jeopardizing position, even if he chose "rather to endure ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin" (Heb. 11.25), he did not know the future. Nor could he have anticipated, precisely, what this step of faith would mean for him in practical terms. Could it be that this outcome was worse than his worst imaginings? 

For in choosing to be identified with the Israelite people Moses not only forfeited his status as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, he made himself an outcast in both the Egyptian and Hebrew culture. There could be no going back – not to the old life, not in the old way. That Moses had died with the Egyptian. Now he was alone, in the wilderness – all at once, and irrevocably, an exile and a criminal, a stranger in yet another strange land. In a single act, he had burned all his bridges. He had flung himself into the unknown, into the arms of God.

Can you imagine the shock and horror he must have felt during that frenzied flight out of Egypt? No doubt Moses sat down beside Midian's well, dizzy and confused, his mind pulsing with questions: What had just happened? -- and how? Then – all at once – a group of seven shepherdesses arrived and began to water their father’s flock. Such pretty women, he might have thought, and yet - so strange! The Midianite culture was as alien to him as, presumably, the Israelite culture was to them. But these thoughts were interrupted when a band of shepherds appeared and began to drive the women away. Despite his exhaustion, his bewilderment and despair, Moses roused himself and did the first thing that came into his mind to do: “[He] stood up and saved them, and watered their flock.”

There is a kind of teleological inevitability to Moses’s actions here… One gets the impression that he simply could not help himself. Like the acorn that cannot but become the tree, or the compass needle pointing irresistibly north, Moses could not but intervene and deliver the women from the hands of the unjust shepherds. In so doing, he offered a tiny hint of proof - if not to himself, then to God, to Creation, the sun, moon, and stars - that he was, in fact, born to rescue.

Like that greatest Deliverer, Jesus, whom his ministry foretold, God had woven it into the fabric of Moses's being to be a deliverer, and deliver he would, in whatever circumstances God provided. This is, perhaps, the point at which Moses’s remarkable humility first presents itself: for Moses was content to do what God put before him, without insisting for work more “worthy” of his talent. If his circumstances would change, God would change them; and it was not for him to try to engineer an alternative.

For saving the women, Moses – whom the shepherdesses identify simply as “an Egyptian ” (Ex. 2.15) – is invited into the home of their father, Jethro, a shepherd and Midian’s priest. Moses is offered bread, shelter, and a wife, Zipporah, one of the seven whom he had rescued. Nevertheless, it would have been only natural -  axiomatic, expected - for Moses to have any number of highly unfavorable reactions to this turn of events. Yet Scripture tells us “…Moses was content to dwell with the man (Ex. 2.21, italics mine).

Think of it! Moses, the Egyptian, raised in the household of Pharaoh, in the culture of Egypt, was content to dwell with a Midianite shepherd, an occupation which was considered an abomination to the Egyptians (Ex. 46.34). Likewise, Moses, the Israelite, born into the priestly tribe of the Levites, was content to live with a non-Israelite priest, and marry a non-Israelite woman, facts which, by themselves, would have destroyed any hope Moses might have nurtured of somehow re-entering either society. This, I imagine, was precisely God’s intent.

For how else but as an outcast of earthly society could Moses have become the most humble man who ever lived, "considering the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt" (Heb. 11.26)? How, if God had not hollowed him of every inclination to “seek great things for himself,” could Moses have had the meekness to serve as God’s spokesman? How, if God had not kept him for forty years as a kind of wilderness captive could Moses have been prepared to lead God’s people through the wilderness for yet another forty? Most importantly, how, if he had not been emptied of every atom of self-reliance, self-effort, and self-assurance, could he have served as the vessel through which God’s great wonders would be made manifest? 

Yes, it's true. Astonishing as it might seem, Moses was content -- for forty years! - to do humble shepherd's work. And when these forty years were expired there appeared to him in the wilderness an angel of the Lord in a flame, in a burning bush:  “When Moses saw it, he was amazed at the sight, and as he drew near to look, there came the voice of the Lord: 'I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob.' And Moses trembled and did not dare to look. Then the Lord said to him, 'Take off the sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground” (Acts 7.30-34).

"This Moses, whom they rejected, saying, 'Who made you a ruler and a judge?'--this man God sent as both ruler and redeemer…” (Acts 7.33). This Moses. The one who had acted presumptuously all those years before now responded to God with incredulity. “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” Gone was the young, impetuous and self-assured man; in his place was a man of brokenness and humility. “Who am I…?” Moses no longer entertained illusions that he possessed within himself the qualities required to free the people from their cruel bondage. He knew that, if they would be delivered, God would deliver them, not by the might or power of any man, but by His Spirit. Paradoxically, God was calling Moses to be, at once, Deliverer and Not-deliver: He would be the ship; God the wind to make it move. He the instrument; God the skilled player. He the empty vessel; God the water, filling it and bringing life to many.
“A saint’s life is in the hands of God like a bow and arrow in the hands of an archer. God is aiming at something the saint cannot see, and He stretches and strains, and very now and again the saint says – ‘I cannot stand any more.’ God does not heed, He goes on stretching till His purpose is in sight, then He lets fly.” ~Oswald Chambers

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Easter Blooms

On days like these, full of endless messes, runny noses, and wilted flowers, I glory in the thought that one day we will all be as fresh and pure and untouched by the blights of sin and decay as my girls appear in these pictures. In Christ, we can; in Christ, we are; in Christ, we will be.

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Price of Peace

"The motto was 'Pax,' but the word was set in a circle of thorns. Pax: peace, but what a strange peace, made of unremitting toil and effort, seldom with a seen result; subject to constant interruptions, unexpected demands, short sleep at nights, little comfort, sometimes scant food; beset with disappointments and usually misunderstood; yet peace all the same, undeviating, filled with joy and gratitude and love. 'It is my own peace I give unto you.' Not, notice, the world's peace."

These are the opening words of Rumer Godden's novel, In This House of Brede, which chronicles the life of a 42-year-old woman who leaves a thriving career, "her flat in London overlooking a garden square, its rooms so finished and exquisite, with Persian rugs, furniture, pictures," to become a nun in a cloistered Benedictine community. I read them last night, sitting up in bed, unable to sleep. They seem worth repeating on this Good Friday as we reflect upon the price that Jesus paid to win for us victory over Hell and death, and to give us, in their place, unending life and peace - His peace, which surpasses understanding, and abides with us through every sorrow, gale and storm.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

We’ll Always Have Paris

“There are only two places in the world where we can live happy: at home and in Paris.” ~Ernest Hemingway

“These things…are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.” ~CS Lewis, The Weight of Glory

What woman doesn’t dream of going to Paris?

In this regard, I am not unique. I had the chance to go once, when I was a student in Rome, but – being very young and very, very romantic – I decided to forego the opportunity in the hope of seeing it first with the man I loved.

That was eleven years ago.

Thus you can imagine my elation when, in early December, Dutch asked whether I’d like to spend New Year’s Eve with him there.

We left Christmas Day, after the girls had opened their presents, and returned a week later: in all we spent six exquisite days, without interruption, walking the streets of Paris, exploring approximately twelve of its twenty arrondissements. We saw the Royal Ballet - a dream of mine - at the Opera Garnier; we heard a gospel choir in the St. Germaine Chapel; and happened on a Christmas concert in La Madeleine where I wept through operatic performances of Silent Night in German, O Holy Night in French, and Ave Maria in Italian; and even managed a vespers service at Notre Dame Cathedral. We visited the world's most extraordinary museums, the Louvre, Musee D’Orsay, and the Jacque-Mart, which just "happened" to be exhibiting some newly restored tryptics by my favorite Late Medieval painter, Fra Angelico. I drank a glass of champagne in the library of the hotel where Oscar Wilde expired; and walked the elegant Vosgues Square, where Victor Hugo lived and wrote Les Miserables; we even sampled Hemingway’s signature cocktail in the bar that bears his name, located inside the glittering Paris Ritz.

After a few days walking the city I started to joke that in Paris everything can be cleanly divided into two categories: boutiques (for merchandise) and salons (for services). It truly is a city for gourmands.

I’ll never forget my visit to Laduree, the world’s most elegant patisserie or "tea salon." After paying 5 euro – approximately 7 US dollars – for an éclair au chocolat a smartly dressed, pinch-faced clerk handed me a mint green bag with the words Laduree wreathed in a garland of gold across the front. I stepped out of the shop onto the street, with all the excitement of Charlie after he’s been handed that winning Willy Wonka bar. Breathlessly, I pulled a rectangular pastry box out of the bag, and broke its golden seal: there, beneath a sheet of shimmering tissue paper, lay the most exquisite chocolate eclair I had ever seen!

It was a quintessential culinary experience, the kind you might hear described in scintillating detail by Julia Child or MK Fisher. The eclair was a perfect oblong shape; the texture, soft and chewy, without a hint of dryness; and the cream inside was cool and refreshing without being too sweet.

And that is Paris. Beauty of form. The cult of the senses. Artistry down to the detail. These qualities form the essence of a city whose culture revolves around the worship of beauty – beautiful buildings, beautiful parks, beautiful art, beautiful furnishings, beautiful food, beautiful clothes. To quote a line from Keats, in Paris “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, - that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Yet if I had to choose one word to describe my visit to Paris it would probably be iconoclastic. And I mean this literally; for the word itself means: “image breaking.”

With each day that passed, the ideal - or should I say idyll - of Paris, as it is so often represented by artists and writers, began to crack and splinter; by large and small degrees, reality began to burst in: there were the sidewalks crowded with sad faces, the homeless people on the steps of a bakery near our hotel, rattling Haagen Daaz cups full of change, the graffiti on old buildings, vomit in the Metro, trash in the streets.

On our last day in Paris, on a street near the Bastille, all those cracked pieces finally came loose and the ideal image shattered. It was New Year’s Eve and we’d just been to Bleu Sucre, one of the city’s most celebrated boulangeries. Our stomachs were full; our pockets, empty; and as we teetered along, without thought or care of anything save where to go for dinner, I tore into a warm baguette which the man in line ahead of me had insisted would change my life.

We rounded a corner and the sidewalk emptied into a kind of round-about. Not more than ten feet away, a mother and her three children – two toddlers and a baby – were camped out in a glass phone booth. They sat on a mound of tattered blankets and stared, vacant-eyed, at passersby. One of them - the youngest toddler - was guzzling Coke from an enormous plastic bottle.

A stab of something like agony pierced my heart. My mouth went dry and the morsel of bread I was chewing became a dead, tasteless thing, like ash. Disgusted with myself, and with the world, I felt a sudden urge to go home – home and away from here; home to a place unlike any home I’ve ever visited. Home to Heaven.

As shameful as it sounds, I think I’d have been more willing to “accept” the sight of this poor family as a representation of the brokenness of this world on the streets of almost any other city in the world. In LA or New York it would have been distressing, but not in the same way surprising. But in Paris, France? On a day so close to Christmas? In a street still dressed up with Christmas garlands and New Year’s streamers and twinkling displays of chocolate letters declaring "Joyeux Noel!" and "Bon Anee!" in every shop window? No. This wasn’t right at all. Not at all.

And this brings me to the heart of the matter or, should I say, the matter of my own heart – for in the almost tragicomic absurdity of that unbearable moment I saw the idols of my own heart exposed, clanging into one another like a shocking pair of brass cymbals. I realized, I had been drinking the kool-aid! I had been entertaining the false notion that there is somewhere in this world, some little pocket of perfection where - with enough money, enough beauty and talent and opportunity - it is possible to find lasting happiness.

But as CS Lewis would say, this is a cheat: Paris may be the city of lights; but it is hardly Paradise.

Another cheat today and, I think, especially for women, comes in the form of images. Images – like the ones in this post - which represent the world in an idealized way, and thus try to trick us into thinking not only that the ideal can be reality, but that it is achievable, if only for an elite few. Even now, as I look back at many of my pictures, a part of me doubts the veracity of my own observations. How truly astonishing and ridiculous! I was there; I took the pictures; I know that the moment captured was a real moment – full of ragged edges. Yet the desire to idolize it – to make it an idol – is intrinsic, tempting us to spend our energies running after God’s shadows, rather than looking to God Himself.

There is something quite liberating about seeing our romantic illusions shattered because the shattering frees us to enjoy the beauties of this world for what they are without turning them into idols. This is, I think, what Blake was getting at when he said, “He who binds to himself a joy / Does the winged life destroy / But he who kisses the joy as it flies / Lives in eternity’s sunrise.” God created us to enjoy the joys of being alive - but without setting our hope on them. When we try to “bind them to us” we not only destroy "the "winged life," the life of the soul as it pants for eternity, we destroy the joys that are chiefly meant to serve as their signposts. We become enslaved to the gifts rather than letting them lead us back to the Giver.

My conclusion, therefore, upon returning home to the desert on January 1st: never trust anything that doesn't have seams. Put another way, the beauties of this world should only be trusted to the degree that they lead us to Christ; to the degree that they awaken and undergird and magnify our appetite for Heaven. The woman who learns to practice this art - this art which is also a discipline - she is the one who "lives in eternity's sunrise," who has glimpsed, if only faintly, and from far off, a true vision of reality.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Little Bird

We trimmed the palm tree out beside the vegetable garden and found a nest with one egg inside, perfectly preserved in a crevice near the trunk. The mother appeared to have abandoned it - driven away, I'm sure, by the awful noise and exposure. After hours of pleading, the girls were granted permission to adopt it, egg and all. This meant, of course, creating a new perch for the nest, on a chair beside the bed so that they could blow it kisses and make sure it was safe from Daddy - whom you never could trust when it came to eggs since he was liable to boil it and eat it for breakfast.

When I went in for the second time to kiss Evie goodnight I found her sitting up in bed, holding the bowl that held the nest in her two hands. She was examining it with such concentration I didn't have the heart to scold her. "Are you looking at your nest?" I asked finally. She looked up at me and nodded vigorously, and smiled her rueful, dragon-slaying smile: "It's im-pressive!" she exclaimed. I couldn't but be drawn into the mystery of the moment - and for several seconds we bent our heads down and studied the nest together quietly. I noticed that in addition to countless small twigs, the mother bird had salvaged some tiny uprooted carrots from our garden, and woven them into her nest. I had pulled them up weeks before and left them in a tattered pile beside the planter. Too small to use, I'd thought. But in fact the carrot tops - so long and leafy and green - were put to perfect use; and the tiny shriveled carrots brought a reassuring touch of color to the scheme.

I looked up at Evie, who was still studying the nest with care. "Evie," I said, "you're impressive. You know that?" She looked at me and laughed uproariously as if I had made the most unorthodox suggestion. "No, you're impressive!" she challenged. "Oh, alright," I said. "You win." And I knew with sudden irrevocable conviction that I had been outmatched.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Fifth Position

Audrey is 5!

Saturday, March 17, 2012

March Teen

We didn't find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow -no, I wouldn't go so far as to say that - but we did play Pin the Tail on the Donkey and Duck, Duck, Goose, and Round and Round it Goes. And then there was the business - the inestimably serious business - of the piñata. A very, very large piñata in the shape of a white pony with hearts on its hind legs and a rainbow-colored mane. So. No leprechauns. And no pot of gold. But lots of silver platters piled high with powdered donuts and miniature red velvet cupcakes and laughing children and a dining room full of red balloons. I don't know about other people, but that is as good as a pot of gold to me.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Life with Accessories

We can't help making life complicated.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

March Teen only four days away. We're getting ready to party - to Pinata Party, to be exact. And pin the tail on the donkey. I ordered red wax lips for all the girls, black mustaches for the boys, and I plan on singing a few Irish tunes while I snap photographs.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

A New Day

“Holiness is not an attainment at all… He makes holy, He sanctifies, He does it all. All I have to do is come as a spiritual pauper, not ashamed to beg… It is never, ‘Do, do and you’ll be’ with the Lord, but ‘Be, be, and I will do through you.’” ~Oswald Chambers

It seems ages since I've posted anything... so long it's almost paralyzing. When I look around at all the other artful blogs showcasing the wit and whimsy of so many talented women, I cannot but be daunted. Why add another voice to the cacophony of other voices? And what exactly are my motives for doing so? These are impossible questions to answer because they require a degree of self-knowledge which not even Paul the Apostle presumed to possess. No answer is satisfactory save, "I write because I must."

Someone told me once that only one thing gives a writer credibility: and that is words on a page. I'm not sure I agree entirely. That is, I think there are certain other 'irreducible minimums' which are prerequisite to the title - a point of view, for example, and something hardly definable, called style. But the immediate goal of any writer is always a kind of exorcism - suspending the faculty of criticism long enough to 'get the thing out,' and then molding it into something which - even if it fails to nourish the hearts and minds of others, though of course one always hopes for that - at least succeeds in nourishing the soul that gave it birth.

I do not entertain illusions regarding originality. I believe very firmly that there is nothing new under the sun; and in many ways most of what is written in books is simply a re-articulation of what has been written before. Time lurches forward but the problems of mankind remain the same. We have been languishing under the same disease for eons; and there remains but one Cure.

And yet - while no new colors have been added to the rainbow - the number of configurations which can be created out of what has been made are infinite. God - the Great Master Artist - is always in a state of creative movement, always speaking - in a Voice without words, splashed across the colors of the sky, and in words, through the voices of ordinary men and women.

In this way, writing is really little more than listening: "I will stand at my post. I will station myself on the ramparts, and I will wait and see what He will speak to me..." Yes, writing is listening; and listening – with God’s help - is hearing; and in hearing, one cannot but be changed. As I work to gather words and mold them into something beautiful, which builds and rises like a wave until it crests before crashing back down to earth, I apprehend vaguely, and often only in retrospect, that He is molding me. That is the really remarkable thing... and the reason I must keep on: I may never "write for a living" but I do write to live; I write to grab hold of Him.

Many writers write about 'the terror of the blank page' and the angst that often accompanies artistic creation; and my recent silence proves I am not immune to such afflictions. But I take great comfort in the knowledge that one day all my blank pages will finally be filled. I will no longer strain to see Him through a glass dimly; I will see Him face to face. Against the backdrop of this indefatigable and unsinkable hope, the threat of graceless prose, of grammatical imperfections and logical incongruities, is emptied of its power to paralyze; in spite of trembling lips and fingers that falter and fumble to say what they mean, I know that it is He who is writing something in me. "He who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it," says Paul, and to carry it through to its telos, its perfection.

O Love that will not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee;
I give thee back the life I owe,
That in thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.

O Light that followest all my way,
I yield my flickering torch to thee;
My heart restores its borrowed ray,
That in thy sunshine’s blaze its day
May brighter, fairer be.

O Joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain,
That morn shall tearless be.

O Cross that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from thee;
I lay in dust life’s glory dead,
And from the ground there blossoms red
Life that shall endless be.
~George Mattheson

Friday, January 6, 2012

What is Christmas?

It was a cold winter morning. Cold for Arizona. When I awoke and looked out the window a low blanket of gray clouds hovered just above the still-waking city. Cold, and delectably happy in my winter hat and galoshes, I went outside to pull the sheets off the lemon trees. They alone had been protected from the glistening frost, which clung now like thin panes of glass to the rosemary and salvia, the winter lettuces and Lamb’s Ear which huddled together like lost children trying to keep warm. Relishing the sight of my breath, I thudded clumsily up the stairs, entered the chilly living room and flipped on the gas fire. The girls filled the house with Christmas music while I heated hot chocolate on the stove; we used wooden skewers to roast marshmallows on the open flame, and pressed them between two squares of graham cracker. Then we sprawled out on the rug and played puzzles all morning long.

By noon the frost had melted; the canopy of clouds had burned off and the sun shone high in a sky that was empty of everything save a few lingering clouds.

The girls became restless… so we put on our winter coats and trekked down to the zoo.

Twin topiaries, tied with red ribbon, proudly flanked the entrance to the park. Inside, all the trees were dripping with colored lights and Christmas garlands. Several Greek houses, the fire department and the local library, had decorated certain sections of the grounds in honor of their favorite charities – even the local origami club had filled an eight-foot fir with ostriches, monkeys, and giraffes, each intricately folded out of colored paper.

We wound over wooden bridges and paved walkways, hesitating now and then to admire the decorations. But it wasn’t until we arrived at the very last section of the zoo, beside a pen of black pigs, tucked under a low awning, that I saw them: countless paper ornaments, quavering in the breeze like so many autumn leaves: A Savior is Born! they announced: Glory to God in the Highest! The grandeur of the message was thrown into high relief by the fact that each ornament had clearly been made by a child. Shepherds with wooden staffs crouched beside rudely colored wise men, all of them focused attentively toward the contents of a clumsily drawn manger, from which a tiny head and two infant feet poked out.

I looked at the pigs – black, dirty, rasping things – and wondered to think that the greatest master artist, the One who painted the sky with all its colors, who spoke the stars into place, and whose very Word set the planets spinning into orbit – this God, whose power knows no limit, made Himself “an infant small” and came into the world on a bed of old straw, to a stable full of dirty, grunting animals (Blake, On Another’s Sorrow).

There, beside the pigpen, I broke down and began to cry. This, I realized - this pronouncement that God has come to be with us - was the news I had been longing to hear; the news of which I never tire of being reminded: “A Savior is born in Bethlehem!” “The virgin has brought forth a son, whose name is Jesus, for He shall save his people from their sins!” It is the only really good news that has ever come to mankind – without which I have only cause to despair.

He did not command an orchestral greeting when He came. Did not – as would have been right – thunder through the clouds in a chariot leading throngs of angels, and an army, strong. The mountains and the hills did not break forth in song; the trees did not clap their hands. Neither did the stones cry out in worship. Instead, as Sally Lloyd-Jones’s describes, “the earth held its breath. As silent as snow falling, he came in. And when no one was looking, in the darkness, he came” (The Jesus Storybook Bible).

The all-powerful, omniscient, and everywhere present God willfully constrained His powers and became part of the order which He Himself created, and which He sustains by the Word of His power. At the moment of His birth, the infinite became - for the first time to human eyes - something finite. Think of it! In the weeks before Christmas, our pastor made a great point of this, challenging his audience to consider the truly astonishing fact that “the God who begot all things became anything.”

Yet He did. He became a man. Limited by time and space, with flesh and bones, a beard, perhaps, and warm breath flowing in and out of his lungs; a man who was hungry and thirsty and who grew up, like any child, to learn things – a language and culture, for example, and the craft of carpentry.

Misunderstood by His family; cast out by His home town; in turns celebrated and rejected by the masses; betrayed by His closest friends. This Jesus, “with nothing in his physical appearance to recommend Him,” came to earth, and for one reason only: “…He came to save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1.21).

This is the miracle we celebrate each Christmas… And without Jesus the gifts that we give, and the gifts we receive, are no gifts at all - without Him, they are like little doses of elixir with a great inebriating power to blunt all our faculties of self-reflection and convince us that, in fact, we have all we need without Jesus.

I shudder at the thought.