A Downy Epiphany

I awakened this morning—on Epiphany—with my lower back in full spasm. This has never happened to me before, so in ignorance I did not let it slow me down. The more I moved, the better it seemed, I convinced myself. I stretched and massaged and applied heat. I hauled baskets of laundry from the upstairs to the down. There was snow on the ground for the first time this season so I took my camera outside and snapped some pictures in the cold.

As I stood in my pajamas and boots in the snow, a downy woodpecker kept fussing at me from the Maple tree. She was trying to make a meal of the suet brick I had hung there weeks ago, but the thing was frozen solid. I watched as she pecked furiously with her short, sharp beak, to no avail. I went back inside and lugged the large bin of sunflower seeds out to fill the feeders, hoping she would indulge. I took to moving about stiffly, like a robot, and thought I was doing fine until I moved a certain way and the pain of it caused the whole of me to lock up.

I talked to my doctor and he ordered me to take it easy. Take some ibuprofen, he said. No lifting or vacuuming. I sat at the kitchen table watching the cardinals and snowbirds dip in and out of the feeders, trying to ignore the mountain of boxes stacked neatly at the bottom of the stairs—all the Christmas decorations waiting to be carried back up to the attic.

Epiphany. It means, “a sudden insight into the reality or meaning of something”. Its significance for the church is that God revealed the identity of Jesus as Messiah to those Gentile magi, instead of someone of prestige in the Jewish nation. We believe this was God’s way of showing that Jesus came for all—not just for one people—and really, this is the meaning of Epiphany—that the Lord of Lords reveals himself to each one of us in a unique and personal way.

The story of Epiphany is the story of us all—each on our own long journey through life. So this morning it seemed perfectly fitting that I should be down-in-the-back on this holy day. Forced into immobility, I was faced with the vulnerability and weakness of this body, my humanity—the very thing that Christ took on himself when he came into this world and lived among us. He came as a babe—weak and frail, vulnerable in every way. The wonder of it all fell fresh over me like the light of a new star in the sky, like the fresh-fallen snow in the back yard.

I sat at the table and I wondered and my back ached and I watched as the little downy female clung to the side of the feeder and filled her beak full of sunflowers.

 

West Virginia Morning: Advent Devotion

This morning there is no sun. The white sky fills with young light but there is no warmth. The thermometer tells me it’s seventeen degrees. I go out to fill my bird feeders dressed for a blizzard. When I come back in, I light all the candles and kindle the Christmas lights. Then I sit, beside the tree, with Bonnie wedged in the chair beside me. She is a good companion for the listening, and this is what we do—close our eyes and strain hearts to hear something, anything—that still, small voice.

Then I try to do some reading. Have I mentioned I’m having trouble reading lately? My hands ache to be busy and my body begins to feel squirmy and soon my mind wanders and the words float before me like alphabet soup. I keep trying, though, and this morning I gathered some of my Advent devotionals and read a little from Scott Cairns, who is one of my favorite poets. Then I read some Wendell Berry poems out loud to Bonnie, who was rapt and appreciative. But this Advent, this season of Light, I mostly have been practicing listening.

Early on in the Advent season I told a dear friend about my struggles with reading and she made some wise suggestions. “I think you need to not read any books at all,” she said. “I think maybe you need to listen.” She went on to suggest music, or poetry, or the Psalms. And then later, she gave me a tremendous gift. Every day she reads to me a chapter from one of her favorite Advent devotionals on Voxer. I listen to her readings each morning as I drive to work. The book is quickly becoming one of my favorites too. My friend told me she is reading for herself as well as for me, but as I listen to her rich voice give me words and stories, I feel treasured. I feel loved.

I spent so many years reading aloud to my sons. It was an act of love, a sacrifice. The gift of time is enough, but the gift of story? Nothing feeds my soul more. How good it is to be cared for this way.

After my Advent listening, I wash my son’s bedclothes and put clean sheets on his bed. Tomorrow I will drive all day to bring him home for winter break. There is rain in the forecast, possible icy conditions, but the thought of his company on the way back home warms me from the inside out.

These are small things but Christmas first came to us in the small, did it not? That swaddling babe wrapped in rags, sleeping in the manger. I am finding hope in the small moments this year, cherishing my small life. And I am learning that this is no small thing.

If You’ve Ever Been Disappointed

 

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One morning last week as I did my early reading and light spilled over the frosted earth like a glass of yellowed buttermilk, two yearling does visited the meadow behind our house. The girls were wary, and when I moved to the window to watch them nibble the frozen grass along the fence line, they lifted their heads in tandem to study me—tails twitching behind. They soon surmised I was no threat and resumed their brunching, content. It was cold outside, below freezing, and I noted the thickness of their fur, wondered how it would feel to the touch.

Since then, I moon expectantly around the window as often as I can, hoping to catch another glimpse the little girls’ doe-eyed beauty.

I am a hopeless sentimentalist—a hopeless hoper; always believing the best is yet to come, always holding out for a glimpse of wonder. I study the night sky patiently for shooting stars, search the clover patch diligently for the elusive four-leaf, linger long on the balcony by the ocean for a glimpse of the dolphin’s rounded nose to poke up out of the waves.

I’ve been disappointed too many times to name and yet, my spirit still gets its hopes up when waiting. I never seem to learn my lesson, often diving straight into hope from possibility without a second thought. God has almost cured me of wanting anything at all through the repeated blows of disappointment I have experienced over the years.

But not quite.

Recently, I suffered another disappointment and I’m having a hard time shaking this one. Even though I know there’s no simple answer, I’ve been asking myself “why?” a lot. I’ve caught myself wishing I wasn’t so full of hope. I’ve been asking God what I’m doing wrong, what I’m supposed to learn from this grief, and why does he always make me take the hard path? I tear up at the strangest times and find myself without words during my prayer time. I’ve been sitting in silence a lot. It’s quiet here, inside the walls of me. I have been touching the moments gently—feeling around inside my heart.

Romans 5:5 tells me, “… hope does not disappoint …” but I’ve been complaining to God about what I feel is a lack of truth in this statement. I’ve been identifying with God’s name for his people in Zachariah 9:12: “prisoners of hope.”

And still, I hope. I hope this disappointment was a mistake. That this thing longed for will be replaced by something of greater joy. That the reason for this “no” would be clear to me and I would feel grateful to be saved from whatever certain perils a “yes” would have brought.

Christmas is coming and this year my advent waiting feels almost desperate at times. For, lately it feels I am always waiting for a good that never arrives. This is what the word “advent” means, after all: arrival.

After some sleuthing around in the dictionary, I discovered that the words “advent” and “adventure” come from the same Latin root, advenire. But “advent” comes from the past participle stem of advenire, while “adventure” comes from the future participle.

I’ve always thought of Advent as a waiting for, but this startling etymology reminds me that this arrival we wait for is already past. Yes, we wait for the return of our Savior, but he has already come. He has already done the hard work that fills our hearts with longing—that fills our hearts with hope. He has arrived and dwells within our hearts, abiding and keeping company and strengthening us for the journey. Because even though he has arrived, we still wait for that day when all will be made right and his arrival will announce a new order of things. And it is the promise of future adventure that keeps our waiting so expectant, so alive with joy.

This is why hope does not disappoint. This is why my heart’s hopefulness cannot be quashed: Our hope is in more than earthly desires. Our hope is a person. His name is Jesus. There is much that can be said about this broken world we live in and how our lives are being made new by faith—minute by minute—how disappointment is a real and human thing … but I don’t have all the right words to say that just now.

This is the mystery of Advent, this already-but-not-yet our hearts understand better than our heads. I don’t quite understand it either, my mind almost grasps it but then it slips away as quickly as the light fades from the winter sky.

But the shimmer—this glimmer—of truth stays inside of me. This morning I touch it gently with my thoughts as I move to the window once more. I watch through the glass, my feet planted in warm, as the two yearling sisters emerge from the brush and sniff the remains of my fall pumpkin, broken open and discarded in the meadow.

The house glows soft with twinkling light and my heart floods with hope once again.

 

 

The Hallowed Corners of Life

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(a reprint from deep in the archives today. Because I needed a reminder.)

There are temples all over this place.

The dining room table, the kitchen sink, underneath the pear tree, the halls I walk at the hospital where I work…no tall arches or stained glass, no austere organ music or deep mahogany. Just these hands, this body, these people I weave in and out of every day.

I remind myself of this each day—each ordinary day: the ground I walk on is holy.

On this ordinary day, my two boys are home from school on a long weekend. I’ve taken the day off of work for their well-visits with the pediatrician. Here I learn we are behind on vaccines. And my eldest still has those big holes in the top of each eardrum. And today we find out his vision is impaired too.

The doctor shakes his head. And then he starts talking about surgery for the boy’s ears. Six shots and two flu mists later, we leave, armed with an order for blood work and a referral to a local optometrist.

We get home in the late afternoon and I do laundry, try to write a little, someone has stopped up the toilet, and I’ve promised a friend to stop by with dinner for a chance to hold her beautiful new baby.

These are ordinary things. Nothing particularly compelling in the going through them. They barely warrant a mention, let alone an essay. They are the stuff of life. Ordinary. And if I am not careful, that word ordinary can trip me up—give me excuse to assign little value to these passing moments.

But here the church gives me a good model of how to view time. The liturgical year is divided into the seasons of Lent/Easter, Advent/Christmas, and Ordinary Time. In this case the term “ordinary” does not mean “usual or average.” We get the term from the Latin word ordinalis, which means to be numbered in series. Therefore, Ordinary Time is called “ordinary” simply because the weeks are numbered.

But here’s the thing: in Ordinary Time, we are not focused on a specific aspect of Christ (such as the Nativity or the Passion). Instead, we celebrate the mystery of Christ as a whole—his life, ministry, miracles, and teachings. These days are no less holy, no less important for this lack—rather, they remind us to view all of life through the lens of holy. When God took on flesh and became one of us, didn’t he elevate the dignity of human nature for us all?

We are still in Ordinary Time now, but soon, Advent will be here. I turn a sock right-side-out on this dreary afternoon and think of this: that even in the high holy seasons, the moments of my life resonate ordinary. Doesn’t Jesus touch these ordinary moments too?

… Listen to your life,” Frederick Buechner tells me. “See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.” (Buechner, Now and Then)

Life itself is grace. How else could we handle the news of the pediatrician? How else are we to handle the sick parents, the loss of that job, the dream left unrealized, or the plodding through of the same?

There is holy in the everyday moments; there is worship in the hallowed corners of my life. And there is nothing ordinary about that.

A variation of this article originally appeared at The High Calling.

The Sabbath of Sabbaths (and a winner!)

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Last night at sundown, Jews around the world ushered in Yom Kippur—the Day of Atonement. In Leviticus 16:29, God mandated this holy day on the tenth day of the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar as the day of atonement for sins. Yom Kippur is called the Sabbath of Sabbaths because Leviticus 23:27 decrees it as a strict day of rest.

When I realized the significance of the day, I called one of my Jewish friends and asked if he would take me to Temple with him. “Oh, Laura,” he said. “You don’t want to go to that service. It’s soo long. And it’s all in Hebrew. You’ll be bored to tears.”

So I started reading more about Yom Kippur, falling down so many happy little rabbit trails, delighting in feeding an endless curiosity about the roots of my faith. Jewish traditions are fascinating.

I learned that, according to Jewish tradition, on Rosh Hashanah, which is the first day of the seventh month on the Hebrew calendar and considered the start of the Jewish New Year, God writes names into the Book of Life and waits until Yom Kippur to “seal” a fate of life or death. There is a ten-day period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, known as The Days of Awe, in which individuals seek forgiveness for wrongs done against God and people, and try to influence the sealing of their fate. This is done through prayer (of repentance), fasting, and giving to charity.

The span of the twenty-five hours of Yom Kippur, from sundown on Tuesday to Sundown on Wednesday, are set aside for public and private petitions and confessions of guilt. At the end of Yom Kippur, one hopes that they have been forgiven by God.

As I read about the traditions of Yom Kippur, I couldn’t let go of the idea of attending the service. I found a reformed Jewish congregation nearby and called their office (surely this service would be in English?). I told the nice man who answered the phone that I was interested in attending their Yom Kippur service that evening but I am not Jewish. Is that something he would recommend?

“I want to say that anyone is welcome to come to any service at any time,” he said, and I heard a cautionary note in his voice. “But generally we recommend to people who are visiting to come to our Friday Shabbat services. A Rosh Hashanah or a Yom Kippur service would tend to run very long and could be a bit overwhelming. But you are welcome to come any time.”

I acceded defeat.

So I finished up my workday and drove on home, where I read more about the traditions associated with Yom Kippur.

  1. No eating or drinking
  2. No wearing leather shoes
  3. No bathing or washing
  4. No perfumes or lotions
  5. No marital relations

It is customary to wear white on Yom Kippur, which symbolizes purity and reminds that our sins shall be made as white as snow. Some people wear a kittel, the white robe in which the dead are buried.

I could go on and on.

I spent some time in prayer, repenting personally and for my community. And when my husband came home from work, we took a long walk in the last receding light of day. The falling sun bathed everything in amber and I felt my soul shift into a holy place. I imagined Jesus in the synagogue with his family—Jesus the boy, Jesus the young man, Jesus my Lord—ushering in Yom Kippur with prayer and song. I felt a rush of gratitude that my salvation rests in his hands, not my own. I felt a rush of gratitude that all these rules have been replaced by grace.

And this morning when I awakened, still flush with the love of this high holy day, even though I couldn’t make this a strict day of rest, I felt rest in my heart. And I remembered what Mark Buchanan said in a panel discussion with Ann Voskamp and Dr. Bruce Hindmarsh: Sabbath is a heart attitude.

And this makes me smile.

Shelly Miller’s new book Rhythms of Rest is all about how Sabbath is a heart attitude. I’m glad to give a copy of her lovely book (along with a couple others in the bundle) to:  Sharon O.! Yay! Congratulations, Sharon. You can email me your snail at laraj@suddenlink.net and I’ll get these out to you ASAP!

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