This is the Day

exploring the soul's quest for joy

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Come, O Light, Come

 

A heavy blanket of darkness envelops our world on this the darkest night of the year. For those of us living in the northern hemisphere, this winter solstice, this stopping of the sun, heralds the end of the disappearance of light and the beginning of its return.

 

But all we notice is the dark.

 

Today in Philadelphia, we will turn our faces upward to catch a slim 8 hours and 20 minutes of light. Barely enough, but far more than our Alaskan compatriots who will wait to see a mere 3 or 4 hours of sunlight this day. During the deep midwinter, most of us long for greater illumination from this most-treasured of celestial orbs.

 

Most of us don’t typically like the dark.

 

Unless we are dining by candlelight in the cocoon of darkened walls, enhancing the glow on friends’ faces, on fine china, on elegant crystal. Unless we are nestled around a roaring fire, whose radiance takes the chill out of a winter night laden with stars.

 

In the dark we are always searching for the light.

 

The darkness awakens in us a sense of foreboding. It disquiets our soul and awakens in us the knowledge that we are no longer fully in control. In the dark we realize how much we walk by sight, taking steps forward only when we can see the road ahead. The dark swallows up our assurance, leaving us with a choice to make.

 

Stay still, or begin to walk by faith.

 

O come thou Day-Spring,

Come and cheer

Our spirits by thine advent here

Disperse the gloomy clouds of night

And death’s dark shadows put to flight

 

How we long for the light. This third stanza from the haunting Christmas carol, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel reminds us that it will not always be night. As surely as the dawn follows the dark, we can be assured that the true Light will spring forth like a new day.

 

Like a light into all of our darkness.

 

And so we wait. But like the awakening of a new dawn, it may take time. At times we too live in a bleak midwinter season, where our own piece of earth stands hard as iron, water like a stone, and we struggle to glimpse any beam of light at all.

 

What is your present darkness that you are plodding through in hopes of making your way forward to the light?

 

This time last year I had no way of knowing I would bury my father in one month and my mother in two. This time last year I had no way of knowing the new medical challenges that would stalk my family this year. I lost count at 66 medical appointments for two of my kids and me this year. You can do the math. That’s more than one medical appointment per week; that’s a high number.

 

But to me, it’s more than a number.

 

The number represents loss. A loss of time. Time scheduling appointments. Time researching options. Time driving. Time waiting. Time conferring with doctors. Time paying bills. Okay, let’s just say it…time worrying. And at the end of all this time, when there is still little resolution to some of these concerns, it all feels a bit like I’ve been wandering around in the dark, bumping into unseen obstacles in my path, and wondering when the light will break through and show me the way forward.

 

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great Light.

 

Perhaps I’ve been looking for the wrong light. Perhaps I’ve been confusing resolution to long-prayed prayers with moving forward. Could there be a journey in the dark whose worth far exceeds any journey we take in the light? It is in the dark that I must yield my need for control to the practice of trust.

 

Trust not that I’ll get the answers but that God is the answer.

 

This is the kind of trust that makes room for hope, and hope always welcomes the Light and prepares it a way.

 

Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, o Israel

 

We can choose to move forward in the dark, in steadied hope that the light will indeed come. Waiting in the literal dark of this Advent reminds us that no matter how dark a season of life may seem, light will always break through, for the Light has surely come. When we wait in faith, we can catch glimmers of light before the dawn, before the Day-Spring, that invite us to step further into the light.

 

The world lays still tonight in darkness, but things will not always be thus. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it!

 

Advent Hope

 

I’m wrestling with Advent this year.

 

I desperately wanted this Advent to be a season of peaceful reflection and soul gripping hope, but to be honest, hope feels especially far beyond my grasp this year. All the Advent talk of desire and anticipation, of waiting and watching, of hoping and dreaming has seemed to shine a spotlight on all that I am still waiting for.

 

On all that I have just about given up hope for.

 

I didn’t grow up in a tradition of marking time through a church calendar. For me the month of December meant one thing and one thing only – Christmas! Christmas and all that went with it – the lists, the gift buying and giving, the lights, the cooking and eating, the carols, the laughter, time spent with those we love, and most of all, the Nativity. The birth of Immanuel, God with us.

 

There’s nothing wrong with this approach to December and Christmas. But for me, it was almost as though December was about my getting ready for everything I had to do, and then on Christmas Eve I would prepare my heart for the coming of the King.

 

When your heart is as prone to wandering as mine is, perhaps 48 hours just isn’t enough time to prepare for the arrival of the King of Kings.

 

For the past several years I have been worshiping at a church that celebrates the liturgical calendar, and with it, Advent. And because of that, I now have a slow four weeks to prepare my heart and mind for the coming of the King.

 

In the Advent scriptures and devotionals, I keep reading about hope. And that despite all the turmoil we see around us hope still wins because our hope is to be anchored in Christ’s having come and in his coming again. And while I believe all that to be true, this year my heart whispers, but what about all my hopes for today? For this one life you’ve given me to live today? Am I not to feel the least bit sad when the same hoped for, prayed for desires still go unfulfilled at the end of another year? Am I allowed to even voice that kind of disappointment in the presence of the King come as a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes?

 

It’s not that everything in my life has gone wrong this year. I don’t want to give that impression. There have been plenty of joy spots this year. But the deepest desires remain unfulfilled.

 

Where in the Advent story of optimistic waiting and watching and hoping is there room for my still unfulfilled hopes for unanswered prayers? Does Jesus really say that because Advent contains the promise that he will return one day, that I have no business feeling sad about my unanswered prayers?

 

I don’t think so.

 

Jesus’ ancestor, the wise King Solomon, declares in Proverbs 13:12 – “Hope deferred makes the heart sick; but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.”

 

Can I just be brutally honest with where I am right now? Saying my hope is in Jesus’ return and therefore that should make everything else okay just won’t cut it for me this year. It’s another year of waiting for healing. Waiting for direction. Waiting for a doctor to have an idea. Waiting for release. Waiting for real hope. Waiting for human dignity to be restored. Waiting for some semblance of peace on earth. My hope has been deferred again and my heart is, well, frankly it’s sick. I love Jesus with everything within me, but waiting thru Advent with only the certain hope of his return just isn’t enough hope for me. Not this year.

 

Is there a remedy for this sick heart of mine? This sick heart that cries out for real answers to hard prayers. For fulfilled longings? This year all the talk of waiting and watching and hoping has fallen flat. I want to experience hope fulfilled.

 

Come desire of nations come.

 

 

I long to have the deepest desires of this earthbound journey met. I long to have my sharpest hungers satisfied. Could there be another hope for me this year? A different type of hope? A hope that comes not from the satisfaction of an earthly desire, or the knowledge that Jesus will return, but from the assurance that Jesus has never left me?

 

I stop dead in my tracks. Right there in those first six words from Proverbs, hope deferred makes the heart sick, the God of the universe, the God of Advent has given me permission to feel the full weight of all my deferred hopes.

 

Yes. They make me feel sick. Sick at heart.

 

And they make him sick at heart too.

 

But because he is the God of resurrection and redemption, and because he is in the business of bringing new life out of dead things, he doesn’t want me to remain stuck in the dead place of deferred hope. His promise is his name, Immanuel, the God who stays with me. And he draws me deeper into his name, deeper into his promise.

 

A new hope emerges – a hope that even in all the mess, God is still at work. Even in all the sorrow and pain, nothing is ever wasted. Not one tear. Not one more disappointing doctor visit. Not one more dead end. Nothing is ever wasted. It may not all work out good, but God is still working good thru my unanswered hopes.

 

The baby born in the manger, this Immanuel, God with us, is the very tangible reminder that I do not walk through the pain of deferred hope alone. This God with me sees the sick of my heart and promises that none of my pain is in vain, none of it is wasted when I offer it back to him, trusting that even these ashes he can transform into beauty.

 

This is not an easy offering to make. This is the hard work of offering a sacrifice of praise when I would rather utter a howl of complaint. Offering God my unanswered hopes can only be made from a posture of trust. Trust in the God whose name is Good. Trust in the God who promises to do all things well. Trust in the God who took on flesh so that he would know my pain, because his name is Love.

 

 

 

 

Carolina on My Mind

 

The beauty of the South Carolina sunset took me by surprise. Low and warm and welcoming, I turned my face toward its glow and felt the chill in my northern bones begin to melt away. The farther we journeyed toward my sister-in-law’s home, the more majestic the sky became. The hot oranges and golds turned pink, then violet, before engulfing the entire sky in the deepest of purple hues.

 

This visit was not what you might have expected it to be, given that it was the weekend before Thanksgiving. It was not the long planned for family gathering around a giant turkey and all the trimmings. This was a trip made in haste and I had prepared myself that the visit might be hard. My brother-in-law had suddenly taken ill and we were traveling south to encourage him and to support my sister-in-law.

 

When you love someone, you take seriously the responsibility of being an encouragement to that dear one. To encourage means literally to fill with courage. It is an awesome responsibility to encourage and bless someone you love who is hurting.

 

And so my mind was filled with thoughts of what I would say that would be helpful. What I could do that would be useful.

 

The magnificent sunset should have been my first clue that it was I
who would be blessed by the visit.

 

 

Our planned gathering of two siblings and their spouses had quickly grown to include parents and a grown daughter, until we numbered seven, and spanned three generations. It had been far too long since we had all been together; years upon years have separated us. And during that time we have all known hardship – illness, death of loved ones, broken relationships, financial challenges. But we have all seen much joy during those years as well – new marriages, new life, restored faith.

 

We did what all families do who haven’t seen one another in far too long – we talked and we listened. We shared our stories until we were satisfied that we had truly communed with one another. And at the end of our whirlwind 24 hours, we longed for more time together.

 

We are entering the season that brims with family – beginning at Thanksgiving, moving through the Advent season and on to Christmas, and culminating in New Years. We feast, we celebrate, and we fill our time enjoying those we hold most dear in our hearts.

 

But the eve of Thanksgiving can herald the beginning of a tough time for many people. For many of us there is discord within our families that prevents real celebration from being possible. We have known seasons in both my husband’s and my extended families when we were not as close as we are today. Where we have allowed misunderstanding to block our way to true love and peace within our families.

 

I am thankful to those members of my family who have taught me that love’s way always trumps discord’s way. And that family is always worth fighting for.

 

 

I wasn’t expecting this impromptu family gathering, just days before Thanksgiving, but I will forever be grateful for it. While our celebration did not include a turkey and all the trimmings, it was one of the truest celebrations of thanks I have ever experienced.

 

And so, with a full heart, I offer these words of thanks that whispered to me through the great southern pines, and I pray they will be your words of thanks this Thanksgiving season as well.

 

I thank God for the gift of family,

For the gift of music,

For laughter,

For family memories made long ago and cherished in the secret ways of old family folklore.

 

I thank God for new beginnings,

For warmth and hospitality and generosity of heart,

For good food shared in a home brimming with love and service to one another.

 

I am thankful for the reckless love of God, who never stops pursuing us,

For the desire he placed within human hearts to go over the river and through the woods to be with the ones we love.

I am thankful that the Great Reconciler shows us the way to truly love one another.

 

In Search of Perfect

 

It’s quite possible that fall is everyone’s favorite season. Not too hot, not to cool – in the immortal words of Goldilocks, it’s just right. Never mind that the calendar year begins in January, instinctively we all consider fall to mark the real beginning of the year. Inscribed in our minds from our deepest childhood memories of new teachers, new classmates, and the latest back to school fashions, fall will forever mark the beginning of the new year. Following the rest and renewal of summer, fall is a time for new beginnings and new possibilities.

 

Fall is a time of harvest when we celebrate the work that our hands have accomplished in prior seasons. Winter may have its blanket of soft white, spring its explosion of every pastel hue available to the finest impressionist painter, and summer every shade of green and the brilliance of a hot ball of fire to light our days. But fall…oh fall. In you we savor the final explosion of the Creator’s paintbrush before the whole earth goes silent and hibernates in its covering of grey and white.

 

My soul longs to imagine that this is the perfect season. My critical eye scans the landscape as I walk, when I drive, seeking out a flawless grove of trees where no barren limbs can be seen and all of summer’s green has turned into a blaze of reds and oranges and yellows. I hunt for it as though, once found, I could gulp it down and hold it locked within me to warm me forever.

 

This is the season I feel I must protect. I fret that the color show hasn’t begun on time. I fret that the trees won’t turn brilliant in a tidy and orderly fashion. I fret that an untimely storm may come and wash it all away before I’ve had my fill of its splendor. And I fret about the new season that will replace this one when all this beauty is but a distant memory.

 

I imagine perfection is to be found tangled in the beauty before me. And so, my mind’s eye erases what it does not want to see. If I squint just a little bit, the reds and oranges come into relief and the bare branches recede into obscurity. But the camera tells a different story.

 

This has been an unusual fall for us in the Northeast. With temperatures still in the 60s most days, fall emerges for a day or two and then retreats again under the cover of lush greenery. Impatient, many trees have dropped their leaves before others have even begun their annual autumnal show. Our locust trees have long ago shed their lacey golden crown. Most of the sycamore and English plane trees have suffered blight this year that has singed their leaves brown, causing them to curl inward, dry and decaying before their inevitable descent to the ground. Their grand trunks, clothed in mottled white and army fatigue gray bark, stand sentry, bare, with no blanket of golden yellow to shelter them. And all the while, the proud maples stand tall and green refusing to let a few cooler nights coax them into revealing their majestic hues of crimson, burgundy and pure fire.

 

The trees have not turned brilliant in a tidy and orderly fashion this year.

 

 

My search for perfection is not limited to my visual appreciation for autumnal splendor. If truth be told, I seek perfection in the seasons of my own life. My heart longs to discover perfect moments, perfect days, perfect seasons and settle right in, imagining that all will go according to my tidy organized plan, and that no storms will come to wash away the splendor of that perfect season of my life.

 

I seek out moments when all of my children are healthy and content, where marriage is sweet and friendships are honest and life-giving. Where work is fulfilling and we can taste the financial security that comes from a job well rewarded. Where academic pursuits are enriching and doctor visits are few. Where our cars run smoothly, the hot water heater hasn’t exploded, and there are no sudden trips to the ER.

 

I seek out these moments as if by capturing them I could hold onto them like so many lightening bugs captured in a glass jar. But perfect moments can’t be frozen in time any more than lightening bugs can light up the night forever. Their glow only lasts so long before it flickers out and all we’re left with is a bug in a jar.

 

Is there a lesson for me in the perfectly imperfect autumn display of 2017?

 

The natural world tells us that nothing is perfect, that beauty and decay co-exist side by side in every landscape, in every season. I would do well to learn from nature’s example and not to keep seeking out that one perfect season. Every season of our lives is filled with joy and pain, light and dark, growth and decay, ascent and descent.[1]

 

It is in accepting the decay that I am better able to see the beauty.

 

Fall may be my favorite season, but it is not a perfect one. How could it be? No one season, no one event, no one person is capable of containing all the fullness of perfection. Only God can do that, for God alone is pure and lovely, perfect and filled with light.

 

And so I open wide my half-slit eyes and gaze in wonder that any of this beauty is mine to behold at all. And I see it all for perhaps the first time. The mops of green remind me of the sweetness of what was, while the bare branches prepare me to accept what will be. And in the reds and oranges and yellows I am thankful for the joy that comes in appreciating what is.

 

[1] With special thanks to my friend, William Butler, whose painting series Ascension has helped me better grasp that all of life involves simultaneous ascent and descent.

Lessons From the Gorge, Part 2

 

I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to turn the page on this calendar year and put an end to 2017. It has been an awfully painful year, hasn’t it? Five terror attacks in the UK. The Barcelona bombing. Mass shootings, car bombs, and suicide bombs in Istanbul, Baghdad, Kabul, Somalia, Pakistan, Syria and many other locations around the world. Hurricane Harvey. Hurricane Irma. Hurricane Maria. Hurricane Nate. Two earthquakes in Mexico. And the Las Vegas massacre.

 

None of us is immune to the horror of these senseless acts of violence and destruction. We are stunned and grieved. Shattered. We all feel the anguish of what was lost, even if our lives were not personally affected by any one of these events. All of humanity shares in the pain and in the longing for recovery.

 

And we weep for those who have lost so much more than we have.

 

There are those who have suffered excruciating loss from the gut-wrenching events of this year. Some have lost loved ones. Others have lost homes. Some have found themselves suddenly alone in the world with no possessions and no family to depend on.

 

I cannot fathom their pain. It is bigger, more incomprehensible than the pain I have experienced in my life.

 

None of us is immune to suffering. We all experience our own private heartache and loss, smaller in scope for sure, but no less painful in our individual experience.

 

This year I lost my father. Then one month later, my mother followed her husband of 64 years. My daughter tore her meniscus, ultimately requiring knee surgery and months of rehab. My son’s health concerns have necessitated a leave of absence from college. And just this week we discovered a new problem in his eye related to his diabetes.

 

Years like this one are enough to make me just want to raise up my hands in surrender. Surrender to the bully holding me down. During years like this one, I long to shout UNCLE! to the forces in the universe that threaten to undo me. I have grown tired of the fight. Tired of reading of man’s depravity. I am unable to conceive of such hatred perpetrated against another human being. I have grown weary of the onslaught of medical crises. And my heart aches at each announcement of yet another natural disaster.

 

My heart cries out, Enough!

 

Maybe surrender is exactly what I need. Not surrender to the forces of evil that swirl and rage around me, flashing their jagged teeth poised to rip me asunder. Perhaps what I need most right now is to surrender to the creator God who is the force behind all that is good and pure and right in this world.

 

What might it look like if I opened my heart wide enough to consider that even amidst all the horror, God is still who he says he is – the God of love? Can I accept that even though horrors and tragedies surge unabated all around us, he is still enthroned over all the earth? What might it look like if amidst the firestorms of this year I would choose to look for the hand of God, still at work in his creation, still bringing new life where all had seemed hopeless?

 

 

I stand still before the mighty gorge. Quietly I observe all it has to teach me. The waters rage with great force tumbling over the solid granite slab. All is pounding. All is in motion. The water is relentless as it spills over the rock walls.

 

I catch my breath at the beauty and the majesty of the gorge. All I hear is the thunderous sound of the destructive water, powerful enough to move mountains and forever change landscapes.

 

Science teaches us that erosion continues in the gorge, not at the cataclysmic rate that was witnessed during the great ice ages, but at a slower pace that changes the landscape in less perceptible ways. Nevertheless, whether dramatic or imperceptible, forceful erosion is always a part of the experience of the gorge.

 

There is never a place of having fully arrived, where the gorge remains forever the same, forever placid, forever free of the forces that threaten to be its undoing.

 

At the gorge, the pounding of the relentless flow of water carries on undeterred.

 

And yet, even in the pounding flow of destructive forces, there are places of respite where new life can be found. Look closely. There settled in the cleft of the rock, new life does its own inexorable work of springing forth.

 

In our trials there comes a moment of surrender. Not the lifted hands that signal a giving up, but the lifted hands that declare, even in this, I will trust you, God. And in the surrender, we see new life.

 

In the atrocities of this year, I see new life when I observe the hand of love. I see the image of God alive in humanity in the kindness of strangers risking their lives to help and shield those fleeing a firestorm of bullets.

 

I see the face of God in those who give of their savings and their vacation to travel to help strangers rebuild their lives when disaster strikes.

 

I see the hand of God in those who log a ridiculous number of miles on foot or on the seat of their bikes to raise money to find a cure for type 1 diabetes, MS, and all types of cancers. There are warriors of love all around us, sheltering us, giving us much needed respite in the storms of life.

 

 

This is the place of new life. This is the place of hope.

 

And in this place, I am reminded that the promises of God still stand. Despite the evil all around, God is still love. Despite the chaos all around, God is still enthroned above the heavens.

 

And one day, he will make all things new.

 

Behold, I am doing a new thing;

now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

I will make a way in the wilderness

and rivers in the desert. (Isaiah 43:19)

 

 

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