Be Still My Soul

Be still, my soul, though dearest friends depart
And all is darkened in the vale of tears;
Then shalt thou better know His love, His heart,
Who comes to soothe thy sorrows and they fears.
Be still, my soul, thy Jesus can repay
From His own fullness all He takes away.

From His own fullness all He takes away.

The hymn Be Still My Soul has long haunted me. Something of the melody, Jean Sibelius’ “Finlandia.” I don’t know enough of music to name it, but it strikes me as mournfully hopeful. As intimately grieving. It’s one of those hymns that hurts with echoes of remembered and looked for joy.

Last night, Good Friday, the line “Thy Jesus can repay/From His own fullness all He takes away” brought tears. This past year, I’ve struggled with loss. From the outside, my life has lost little. Indeed, I suppose it has gained much. I’ve been part of a school merger, helping to lead and shape and direct and support. I’ve grown in depth of love with my wife and daughters. I’ve seen new graces, I know.

What I’ve lost has been the hidden things, but as with all of life, the hidden are what give life to the seen. I’ve lost the sense of myself. I’ve lost my past, or the past I thought I knew. I’ve come to know, with a profound sense of loss, the great weight of years lost, to see past decades as years when I wandered and did not even know I was lost. I have become a man awakening from a dream only to find that the dream was perhaps more preferable to the waking.

Perhaps most painful is to know the loss and that in this short span of life, I cannot regain. The years past are past years; I cannot relive them and cannot redeem them. And their loss leaves me with shame and guilt untold. I find myself that man awakened from a dream of who he was and what he could do surrounded by those who believe him still to be the dreamed of man, only he knowing the truth. I feel myself T.S. Eliot’s “Hollow Man.” Or perhaps as Bilbo says, I feel thin, like butter spread over too little toast. But unlike those literary figures, I cannot be as Bilbo and journey to Rivendell; unlike Eliot’s “Hollow Man,” I cannot find some hope even in the poetic expression of my own loss.

I hope, or I yearn to hope, that what I feel is not that of a man awakening from a dream, but a man being newly born, raw and with senses that burn with the new light and new sound and new touch and new all. I hope that the pain will give way to joy. I hope, though it hurts to hope, that Jesus, out of His fullness, can repay those lost years, for He has an eternity out of which to repay. Oh God, I hope.

I have lost, and bow to sweep, the neglected corners of my mind, and there hope to find, what I have lost.—TW

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Suffering and Abuse

I’ve been thinking much about how all suffering is a form of abuse.  I do not here mean to minimize or ill-define the term abuse, as I believe strongly that it has a proper and right place in our vocabulary for a range of hurts, ills, and crimes.

However, a passage I read in a counseling work has stuck with me and seems applicable in so many situations.  Abuse victims struggle with an ability to make sense of the past and so an inability to plan for the future.  It’s certainly understandable–an unpredictable situation, never knowing when abuse will be perpetrated, an inability to understand the why, and an inability then to know the “what next” would produce just such conditions.

I’ve thought about this much as I’ve processed my own past hurts, those done to and by me.

But I’ve also seen it with my bipolar.  I can’t always know when a depressive episode will strike.  So no matter how I plan, no matter the degree of preparation, all my plans can be undone, or I can find myself incapable of carrying them out.

I’ve seen this in those struggling with chronic pain.  Not knowing when the next episode will strike leaves them unable to plan for the future.

I recently heard a similar dynamic in those struggling in poverty.  Their stress rises and actually decreases measurable intelligence, specifically the ability to make plans for the future.  All is the immediate, which is why so many in poverty cannot plan or save; it is less about a monetary amount and more about an ingrained mindset.

In that sense, all suffering is abuse, and all suffering requires a remedy far more than any program or project.  Teaching me to plan doesn’t forestall the depression.  Pain medication doesn’t forestall the episodes of crippling anguish.  Personal finance classes, debt relief, winning the lottery do not produce monetary soundness.

In that sense, all are abused, and all need the only remedy for abuse–the God who owns and takes on Himself suffering.

Because the inability to make sense of the past and the inability to plan for the future is another way to say that we cannot make sense of our story.  And without knowing our story, we can’t possibly plan for the future.  Without knowing who we are, which ultimately means knowing who we are as our Father has written the story and Jesus redeemed it as He, the elder brother, pursues us to bring us to Himself and to the Father, to impart the Spirit to seal and save us.  Without knowing, experiencing, the Triune love of God poured out in our hearts.  Without knowing how that makes peace of our past and gives peace for the future, we are all truly lost.

So on those days when I suffer, which in reality is all days, as in reality all of us suffer all days, I am reminded that God holds us in the ever-present NOW of His knowledge.  I pray for myself and others that God gives us such grace, not to remain where we are, nor to somehow think all is right now, but as a song we sing at church says, “All must be well.”

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Shall We Laugh?

The first time I’ve posted poetry publicly.

Shall We Laugh?

Our laughter is so oft
not comedy
but despair,
cynicism of those who believe
themselves weary of hope,
distraught of joy,
we laugh where
there should be grief,
scoffing grief for those
who rightly rejoice;
fearing to be found fools
that we had falsely hoped,
we become the fools we feared,
weeping no untimely tears,
bereft of truth.

 

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September 21, 2013

September 21, 2013

I have two children. But in my quieter moments, I have three, one of whom I cannot reach.

On this day four years ago, we were in the Norman Regional Hospital for the birth of Esther. Our daughter. Not of our bodies, but our daughter. Just as our elder, Anna Ruth, was not of our bodies, but our daughter.

September 22. Released from the hospital. We had not planned on meeting the birth mother-her choice-but just before Esther’s release, she asked to meet us. Young, beautiful, kind. Giving what she had borne and born to us.

We went home. Just before her (and our) nap, I changed the first of what I was sure would be many dirty diapers. It was a curious bonding, I suppose, but at that moment, in some sense in my heart, she was mine. My daughter. So we lay down with her and rested, weary from the excitement, from the joy.

Awakening, we received the call. Our lawyer telling us that the birth mother had called her, crying. Her mom, our daughter’s birth grandmother, told her she could not let that girl go. So we would have to meet our lawyer, hand over Esther, and never see her again.

We drove across town, a blur of grief, confusion, pain, tears. Our lawyer was devastated, mouthing apologies on behalf of others, wishing for different outcomes. In that moment, I knew something of insanity. As we sat only moments before, I knew that if we were only years earlier, without a network of police stations and tracking information, I’d be tempted-I was tempted-to take our girls and run.

We didn’t run. We returned to a now-much-emptier house. A now-much-emptier future.

Our church was full of grace. Meals that had been planned for us as we adjusted to a new child were still delivered for us, now in our grief. One of our elders and his small group came, stood at the door, and sang hymns of hope and grace for us.

And we saw so much grace. I wasn’t angry at God for what He had done; I did grow angry for a time at the grief and pain it caused Rebecca.

Two songs were special grace to me; God spoke through Christian radio. Although there is much music lacking in true beauty (and sometimes truth) in such a venue, these two were the truth I needed and remain powerful.

The first, one I had heard before, was Jeremy Camp’s “There Will Be A Day.”

There will be a day with no more tears
No more pain, and no more fears
There will be a day when the burdens of this place
Will be no more, we’ll see Jesus face to face
But until that day, we’ll hold on to you always

Hope. There will be a day without the tears I shed. And strangely, it freed me to cry those tears I might not otherwise. As is said in “The Shadowlands,” the pain now is a part of the joy then.

The other, one new to me in that season, was “Beautiful Ending” by Barlow Girl.

So tell me what is our ending
Will it be beautiful
So beautiful
Will my life find me by your side
Your love is beautiful
So beautiful

At the end of it all I wanna be in your arms.

The question is really the only one for me, the one that is central to the problem of evil, the answer to which silences even the question. Will the end be beautiful? Will God bring that day with no more tears? Will we, as the song asks, find ourselves in His arms?

This alone is my hope. I suppose this tale could be misread, as though I judge Esther’s birthmother. I don’t. I can’t imagine the pain and confusion, the pressure from family, the pain and confusion of the family who did not know of the granddaughter until after her birth.

Nor do I mean to assert that Esther is somehow ours and not the daughter of her birthmother. As though there is some ongoing injustice. She is that woman’s daughter, and I hope that their life together is full of joy and peace.

No, I do not judge. I hope. I hope that the prayers we prayed for Esther before her birth, over her birth, as we brought her home, in that moment of communion she had with us, were and are heard. I hope one day I will meet her in the New Heaves and New Earth, not that she will feel she owes us anything or that we were any specific grace in her life, but to meet her as the woman God brings her to be. To embrace her, in one sense as a father, I suppose, but I suppose more simply as one who has loved her and will rejoice to be rejoined with her, even then to dance with her and all those who have grown and raised her.

I can’t reach her now. But I hope she is even now held in His arms and we will together find the end beautiful.

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Educating into Eternity

C.S. Lewis writes powerfully in The Great Divorce of the weight of glory he pictures from his sermon of the same title, the text taken from 2 Corinthians 4:17. In The Great Divorce, he pictures for us the heavenly country. There, souls first coming from the gray town are light. They have no weight. The grass blades slice, or would slice, but the souls have no substance. It is only as they grow, as they undertake the journey to the mountains, the journey to God Himself as the source of glory, that they gain weight and shape and form. The souls which return from there, only seeking other souls to take on the journey, are larger, more solid. The most solid, those most imbued with the glory of God, are shining, bright to sight, thunderous in voice.

In The Weight of Glory, Lewis writes, “The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. . . There are no ordinary people. . .But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.”

It is Douglas Wilson, I believe, who has offered that teachers, just as pastors, parents, and others who find themselves entrusted with the care of the younger in our midst, must be ever mindful of the truth. As a teacher, those whom I find in my class, I find because it is God who has ordered their being there, and I find as I enter myself in the company of other eternal beings, others who are not and may not ever be neutral, but only on one of two paths.

Certainly, the inescapably moral dimension of education becomes apparent. Education as more than fact or figure, more than logic or rhetoric, is obvious. As the mission statement of The Academy states, “shaping students’ affections” is that with which we have to do.

It is a helpful corrective to remember that to desire to shape students into lifelong learners is, itself, a moral task. For the lifelong learner, to truly be learning, must have an end. There are many who seek knowledge, even truth, perhaps, but who find themselves never satisfied, never satiated. They may seem to be “lifelong learners,” those equipped to learn and who pursue it passionately.

But if we so see, we have far too short a view of life. The lifelong learner does not cease with death. Life is not defined between the two termini of birth and death. Life continues into eternity.

Perhaps the better vision is a Lifelong learner. For it is only those whose thirst has been first awakened by a taste at the Wellspring of Life who will pursue learning to its right end here, the pursuit in all of the Giver of Life, the one who created thirst and gave the eternal water poured from His side to slake it.

And it is only they who will learn in light of what must be true: As we step from this world to the New Heavens and New Earth, we will find ourselves in the presence of the One who is Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, the One who has imbued all His creation so that we might spend eternity learning, seeking, growing in worshipful appreciation of His manifold works and words.

Imitators of Him, image bearers now no longer marred by the Fall, we, too, will create. Unhindered by our hesitations, we will ever learn the glories of our limitations as children of God in the wonder of His immanent transcendent perfection.

For then we shall be ever satisfied with the search—partaking of an eternal thirst for Him that drinks deeply at the well of His presence yet finds no end to the desire for greater depths and heights and horizons.

Any else is too small a vision, too small a task, for it is too small, too poor, too light an appreciation for what God has wrought in His creation of man and His ordination of learning—seeking to find in all the slight echoes and images that must awaken the weighty desire only for Him.

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Tradition, Routine or Rehearsal

Ours is a culture ever seeking the new, ever anew seeking the new, each generation believing that they, for the first time, are seeking while the past are encumbered and encased in the traditions which were, to them, perhaps new, but now have been revealed to be but the same repetition of the old routines reenacted again, but not afresh.

Dull drudgery is certainly an evil if it is indeed dull and drudgery. But how often do we desire to cast off the old and cast our vision and efforts towards the horizon not because of any inherent or inherited dullness or drudgery but because our expectations have shaped our experiences? How often do we miss the newness of the old, only to find the new nothing but the same weariness of ages?

Consider those bright new horizons. Horizons are in one sense real. They are the terminus of our senses. We cannot see beyond them, so afar is the realm of our imaginations. But progression towards the horizon reveals a regression of the same. The horizon ceases to be the horizon the moment we approach. There is always a new horizon. And a new. And a new. And a new. An old, tired cycle.

Nor is our experience, jaded as it may become, new, though each generation of counter-culture trends believes it to be, each disaffected soul believing in his individuality to possess the only realization, the new realization, of this fact.

Yet Solomon (and not Solomon alone) foresaw and foreswore this. “There is nothing new under the sun. . .The sun rises, and it also sets, and it returns again to the place of its rising.” The pattern of the sun becomes the image of futility. “What has been is what will be.” Man strives after the wind. Days and seasons, youth and age, growth and change, all reveal but the changeless progression of nothing.

So all is drudgery, all is dullness. Or all is life. For Solomon may have lamented to cycles and seasons. The Father exults in them. He calls them as witness, He creates them as witness, to His unchanging purposes and unfailing love. He declares that as long as the seasons endure, Springtime and harvest, so long will his love and his faithfulness endure. G.K. Chesterton writes that perhaps “we have grown old, and our Father is younger than we,” that it is not the earth or the universe that has worn out, but us. Were we but to have the childlike endurance and exultation in monotony of our Father, all would be ever new.

All very philosophical. But what practical. I’ve thought about this both considering the exodus of youths from traditional churches and the new attraction and conversion to the same by many young evangelicals. Why do the first leave? They have the traditions, the liturgies, the inhabiting of space and time and the tempo of the church calendar. Why has it become dull? Because it is dull, or because they have ceased to see each church day as one which is not routine, but rehearsal? Rehearsal of what is past, rehearsal of the long years and generations now gone, but in the ceremony now present, and rehearsal of the future, of the coming King and the being-established kingdom. Each word, each gesture both old and new, meaningful not in the moment because of the moment but because in the moment they participate in a timelessness. And to the second, it is precisely this timelessness that has been so lacking in their experience. It is they who find each week, each day, each prayer, anew in recitation, in rehearsal, each day, each week, each moment.

And what of marriage? We hear, and perhaps we experience, marriage and family life becoming that dull drudgery, now just not our own experience, but yoked to another, plowing a field and reaping only weeds or worse, a barren expanse. It is not that romance is not needed, new infusions of passion. But why are those often absent? Because we forget. We forget so easily that each day, I rehearse my marriage vows, rehearsing back to what I proclaimed that day and what was proclaimed over me in injunction and benediction and rehearsing ahead to the great marriage supper of the Lamb. I miss that doing the laundry participates in the service of Christ to the church in ages past, in ages forward, in eternity.

And even our vows. Unlike many today, our vows were not our choice, although we chose to have a traditional service. Our vows, unlike many of my friends, were not those we wrote or those we chose from an internet site listing various ones. Ours were those in the Episcopal tradition, ones which, as I said them, resonated with men having said them for hundreds, and some form of them, for thousands of years, ones which partook and partake of the original ordination of man and woman in the garden. Power rested in knowing that the vows I took, I took in the company of men who had lived their truth, loving their wives in sickness and health and all circumstances, dying to self daily and perhaps dying mortally to protect and preserve their families. Power rested in knowing that, God willing, many more generations will proclaim the same, and I am bound to pass on that same witness.

The rhythms of life matter, both those we find ourselves bound to—eating and sleeping, rising and working—and those to which we bind ourselves—familial, church, school, national. These matter because we are creatures of rhythm, creatures who may strive to create new rhythms but find that all we can and must and may due is to live in, enliven and be enlivened by, our participation, individually as members of a humanity extensive throughout time and space, filling the Earth with the glory of God, as the waters cover the seas.

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By What Right Do You Judge

All religions, in one form or another, assert a judgment, whether a direct judgment by a personal God who divides those good from those evil, or a cosmic judgment of reincarnation, a cyclical judgment never ending, or at least with a somewhat unknown end.

This, all religions accept. And this, most nonreligious mark a cruelty.

By what right, though, does a god, any god, any deity, any transcendent being or force, have the right to judge? I suppose the easy answer would be that of Romans 9, “Who are you, O man, to answer back to God?” Certainly, there is an element of truth. But there may also be a false piety; if God himself has given an answer, not asking and not seeking His answer are no holiness.

I think we can frame the question as this: if the divine is transcendent, then by what right can he or she or it judge the creation? Of course, it is his or hers or its creation, and therefore his or hers or its to do with as pleased. In that sense, indeed, the clay has no right to answer back to the potter.

But in another sense, the question has merit. In the act of creation, the divine created something separate, something other, people who live and move and have their being, perhaps, at his or her or its pleasure and prerogative, but which remain separate, other. The offenses, the sins, may indeed perhaps be in one sense against the divine, but only in an abstract, distant, and impersonal fashion, for they cannot be directly, physically, and therefore in the full reality of the creation, against the divine. In creating the external, the divine loses somewhat of the right to have a personal affront at an action outside of his or hers or its own self-existent reality.

So, then, what right has the divine? For me, as a Christian, what right has God?

The answer is striking, hidden in a verse I’ve read so many times but glossed over. In the famous Romans 8 passage, oft quoted for its assurance to the believer of God’s working all things to good, Paul builds to that point by exploring the Christian’s freedom from condemnation. In articulating the reason for our freedom, he recounts the Incarnation, Christ’s suffering in the flesh as an offering for sin. This much I’d always known, always seen.

But what of this phrasing: “By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh?” The logic here appears to be that the condemnation of sin in the flesh comes by God sending His Son in the flesh. Or in another viewing, that sin’s full condemnation was not complete, not just, perhaps, until the Incarnation. For in the Incarnation, in God taking the weight of the sin of His people, He is personally, physically, humanly affronted. He is cast out, spit upon, reviled, crucified. God Himself receives the offense of His creation, separate no longer. And in that eternal Godhead, temporally living, breathing, dying, He has the right to claim all sins against Himself and, as all are against Himself, to forgive those of some and hold account for those of others.

Am I then saying that God would not have been just to judge had Christ not come? Perhaps. Perhaps I’m willing to go that far, not because I wish to, but because Christ is the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world. His coming was always and ever the plan, the goal to unite all things in Heaven and Earth under Himself and to offer them to the Father. If this is how God made the world, how the Son spoke it into existence, and if God in His word thus reveals His judgment in view of, as a condition of, and to bring about His gracious work, then who am I to answer back to God?

For the full sentence in Romans reads, “By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” So God condemns sin in the flesh by sending His Son in order that we might find peace. Mercy and judgment kissing, being made one.

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