God Was Here: What He Has Done

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“‘We would have healed Babylon,
but she cannot be healed;
let us leave her and each go to our own land,
for her judgment reaches to the skies,
it rises as high as the heavens.’

10 “‘The Lord has vindicated us;
come, let us tell in Zion
what the Lord our God has done.’
Jeremiah 51: 9-10

 

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Does anyone have the foggiest idea of what sort of power we so blithely invoke?
Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?

The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets,
mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.

It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church;
we should all be wearing crash helmets.
Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares;

they should lash us to our pews.
~Annie Dillard from Teaching a Stone to Talk

 

 

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During Advent there are times when I am very guilty of blithely invoking the gentle story of that silent night, the sleeping infant away in a manger, the devoted parents hovering, the humble shepherds peering in the stable door.

The reality, I’m confident, was far different.

There was nothing gentle about a teenage mother giving birth in a stable, laying her baby in a feed trough.

I’m sure there were times when Mary could have used a life preserver.

There was nothing gentle about the heavenly host appearing to the shepherds, shouting and singing the glories and leaving them “sore afraid.”

The shepherds needed crash helmets.

There was nothing gentle about Herod’s response to the news that a Messiah had been born–he swept overboard a legion of male children whose parents undoubtedly begged for mercy, trying to cling to their children about to be murdered.

There was nothing gentle about a family’s flight to Egypt to flee that fate for their only Son.

There was nothing gentle about the life Jesus eventually led during his ministry: itinerant and homeless, tempted and fasting in the wilderness for forty days, owning nothing, rejected by his own people, betrayed by his disciples, sentenced to death by acclamation before Pilate.

Yet he understood the power that originally brought him to earth and would return him to heaven.

No signal flares needed there.

When I hear skeptics scoff at Christianity as a “crutch for the weak”, they underestimate the courage it takes to walk into church each week as a desperate person who can never ever save oneself. We cling to the life preserver found in the Word, lashed to our seats and hanging on. It is only because of grace that we survive the tempests of temptation, self-doubt, guilt to confront the reality of the wrath of God.

It is not for the faint of heart. There are times it is reasonable and necessary to be “sore afraid.”

And not forget our crash helmets.

 

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photo by Julie Garrett

 

Good people all, this Christmas time,
Consider well and bear in mind
What our good God for us has done
In sending his beloved son
With Mary holy we should pray,
To God with love this Christmas Day
In Bethlehem upon that morn,
There was a blessed Messiah born
The night before that happy tide
The noble Virgin and her guide
Were long time seeking up and down
To find a lodging in the town
But mark right well what came to pass
From every door repelled, alas
As was foretold, their refuge all
Was but a humble ox’s stall
Near Bethlehem did shepherds keep
Their flocks of lambs and feeding sheep
To whom God’s angel did appear
Which put the shepherds in great fear
Arise and go, the angels said
To Bethlehem, be not afraid
For there you’ll find, this happy morn
A princely babe, sweet Jesus, born
With thankful heart and joyful mind
The shepherds went the babe to find
And as God’s angel had foretold
They did our Saviour Christ behold
Within a manger he was laid
And by his side a virgin maid
Attending on the Lord of Life
Who came on earth to end all strife
There were three wise men from afar
Directed by a glorious star
And on they wandered night and day
Until they came where Jesus lay
And when they came unto that place
Where our beloved Messiah lay
They humbly cast them at his feet
With gifts of gold and incense sweet.
~Traditional Irish — the Wexford Carol 12th century

 

God Was Here: Till Breaking of Dawn

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I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
    and in his word I put my hope.
 My soul waits for the Lord
    more than watchmen wait for the morning,
    more than watchmen wait for the morning.
Psalm 130: 5-6 from a Song of Ascents

 To wait is a hard sweet paradox in the Christian life.  It is hard not yet having what we know will be coming.  But it is sweet to have certainty it is coming because of what we have already been given.  Like the labor of childbirth, we groan knowing what it will take to get there, and we are full to brimming already.

The waiting won’t be easy; it will often be painful to be patient, staying alert to possibility and hope when we are exhausted, barely able to function.  Others won’t understand why we wait, nor do they comprehend what we could possibly be waiting for.  We must not wait like Herod waits, with dread and suspicion, willing to destroy what he cannot control.

Yet we persevere together, with patience, watching and hoping, like Mary and Joseph, like Elizabeth and Zechariah, like the shepherds, like the Magi of the east, like Simeon and Anna in the temple.

This is the meaning of Advent: we are a community groaning together in sweet expectation of the breaking dawn of morning.

For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.
Romans 8:24-25

 

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How do you capture the wind on the water?
How do you count all the stars in the sky?
How do you measure the love of a mother
Or how can you write down a baby’s first cry?

Chorus: Candlelight, angel light, firelight and star-glow
Shine on his cradle till breaking of dawn
Silent night, holy night, all is calm and all is bright
Angels are singing; the Christ child is born

Shepherds and wise men will kneel and adore him
Seraphim round him their vigil will keep
Nations proclaim him their Lord and their Saviour
But Mary will hold him and sing him to sleep

Chorus

Find him at Bethlehem laid in a manger
Christ our Redeemer asleep in the hay
Godhead incarnate and hope of salvation
A child with his mother that first Christmas Day

Chorus
~John Rutter “Candlelight Carol”

 

 

 

God Was Here: Visited

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Annunciation by Bartolome Esteban Perez Murillo

 

…we should not try to escape a sense of awe, almost a sense of fright, at what God has done. . . . Nothing can alter the fact that we live on a visited planet. We shall be celebrating no beautiful myth, no lovely piece of traditional folklore, but a solemn fact. God has been here once historically, but, as millions will testify, he will come again with the same silence and the same devastating humility into any human heart ready to receive him.
~J.B. Phillips  from Watch for the Light

 

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Angels Announcing the Birth of Christ by Govert Flinck

 

I want to be like Mary, awed yet accepting, as the angel interrupts her daily routine with an incredible announcement.

I want to be like the shepherds, silenced and aghast, flattened with so much fear that I need to be reminded “do not be afraid.”

I want to be like Joseph whose life is never to be the same again, as my self-sufficiency and sense of “how things should be” is shot through and leaking dry.

Only then my heart will be ready to receive this visitor.  Only then.

 

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The Dream of Saint Joseph by Anton Raphael Mengs, 1773

1. This is the truth sent from above,
The truth of God, the God of love;
Therefore don’t turn me from your door,
But hearken all both rich and poor.

2. The first thing which I do relate,
Is That God did man create
The next thing which to you I tell,
Woman was made with man to dwell.

3. Then after this was God’s own choice
To place them both in Paradise,
There to remain from evil free
Except they eat of such a tree.

4. But they did eat, which was a sin,
And thus their ruin did begin —
Ruin’d themselves, both you and me,
And all of their posterity.

5. Thus we were as heirs to endless woes,
Till God the Lord did interpose
And so a promise soon did run
That He would redeem us by His Son.
~the Herefordshire Carol

Collected by E. M. Williams from 
Mr. W. Jenkins, Kings Pyon, Herefordshire, July, 1909. Music Noted by R. Vaughan William

 

 

 

Be Obscure Clearly

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A wind has blown the rain away
and blown the sky away
and all the leaves away,
and the trees stand.
I think, I too,
have known autumn too long.
~e.e. cummings

 

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Be obscure clearly.
~E. B. White

 

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As a family doctor in the autumn of a forty year career, I work at clarifying obscurity about the human condition daily, dependent on my patients to communicate the information I need to make a sound diagnosis and treatment recommendation.  That is hard work for my patients, especially when they are depressed and anxious on top of whatever they are experiencing physically.

There is still much unknown and difficult to understand about psychology, physiology and anatomy.  Then throw in a disease process or two or three to complicate what appears to be “normal”, and further consider the side effects and complications of various treatments — even evidence-based decision making isn’t equipped to reflect perfectly the best and only solution to a problem.  Sometimes the solution is very muddy, not pristine and clear.

Let’s face the lack of facts.  A physician’s clinical work is obscure even on the best of days when everything goes well.  We hope our patients can communicate their concerns as clearly as possible, reflecting accurately what is happening with their health.  In a typical clinic day we see things we’ve never seen before, must expect the unexpected, learn things we never thought we’d need to know, attempt to make the better choice between competing treatment alternatives, unlearn things we thought were gospel truth but have just been disproved by the latest double blind controlled study which may later be reversed by a newer study.   Our footing is quicksand much of the time even though our patients trust we are giving them rock-solid advice based on a foundation of truth learned over years of education and training.   Add in medical decision-making that is driven by cultural, political or financial outcomes rather than what works best for the individual, and our clinical clarity becomes even further obscured.

Forty years of doctoring in the midst of the mystery of medicine: learning, unlearning, listening, discerning, explaining, guessing, hoping,  along with a little silent praying — has taught me the humility that any good clinician must have when making decisions with and about patients.  What works well for one patient may not be at all appropriate for another despite what the evidence says or what an insurance company or the government is willing to pay for.  Each person we work with deserves the clarity of a fresh look and perspective, to be “known” and understood for their unique circumstances rather than treated by cook-book algorithm.  The complex reality of health care reform may dictate something quite different.

The future of medicine is dependent on finding clarifying solutions to help unmuddy the health care decisions our patients face. We have entered a time of information technology that is unparalleled in bringing improved communication between clinicians and patients because of more easily shared electronic records.  The pitfall of not knowing what work up was previously done can be a thing of the past.  The risk and cost of redundant procedures can be avoided.  The time has come for the patient to share responsibility for maintenance of their medical records and assist the diagnostic process by providing online symptom and outcomes follow up documentation.

The benefit of this shared record is not that all the muddiness in medicine is eliminated, but that an enhanced transparent partnership between clinician and patient develops,  reflecting a relationship able to transcend the unknowns.

So we can be obscure with clarity.  Our lives depend on it.

 

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Not Burdock’s Blame But Mine

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A Burdock — clawed my Gown —
Not Burdock’s — blame —
But mine —
Who went too near
The Burdock’s Den —
~Emily Dickinson

 

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One day in 1948, an amateur Swiss mountaineer and naturalist, George de Mestral, went on a nature walk with his dog through a field of hitchhiking bur plants. He and his dog returned home covered with burs. With an intense curiosity, Mestral went to his microscope and inspected one of the many burs stuck to his pants. He saw numerous small hooks that enabled the seed-bearing bur to cling so tenaciously to the tiny loops in the fabric of his pants. George de Mestral raised his head from the microscope and smiled thinking, “I will design a unique, two-sided fastener, one side with stiff hooks like the burs and the other side with soft loops like the fabric of my pants. I will call my invention Velcro® a combination of the words velour and crochet. It will rival the zipper in it’s ability to fasten.”
From: The Mining Company (Feature 09/12/97)

 

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One moment you were just fine running ahead to the barn as I walked leisurely down hill to my chores – then I find you panting and miserable, immobilized on the ground, unable to get up or walk.

What could have happened to you in only a few short minutes?

I bent down expecting to discover the worst: I check your back and neck, your joints, your head for injuries. Instead I discover one front and one back leg glued to your body bound as if tied fast —  by dozens of sticky burdock.  You had taken a short cut through the weeds and the hooky plants hitchhiked onto your long flowing hair.  The more you moved the more bound up your fur became until you had painful prickle masses poking your armpit and groin.

You were only doing your farm dog duties and the burdock seeds were doing what they do: velcroing on to you to be carried to another place to germinate and make more prickles balls.

It took fifteen minutes of you lying upside down, with a barn cat warming herself on your chest to do scissor surgery to your fur to free you of the torture.   No longer immobilized, you ran free with your favorite cat in hot pursuit, and I noticed you gave wide berth to the burdock patch in the weeds.

Perhaps we all might be so quickly freed from our prickly immobilizing burdens when we wander too far into the weeds of life.

If only a mere hair cut could trim away all the troubles with which we are afflicted.

I know, in fact, our Rescuer is near at hand and I’m suspect when He needs to,  He wears muck boots.

 

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Be On My Best Behavior

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Find a quiet rain.  Then a green spruce tree.  You will notice that nearly every needle has been decorated with a tiny raindrop ornament.  Look closely inside the drop and there you are. In color. Upside down. Raindrops have been collecting snapshots since objects and people were placed, to their surprise, here and there on earth.

…even if we are only on display for a moment in a water drop as it clings to a pine needle, it is expected that we be on our best behavior, hair combed, jacket buttoned, no vulgar language.  Smiling is not necessary, but a pleasant attitude is helpful, and would be, I think, appreciated.
~Tom Hennen from “Outdoor Photos”

 

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… We are, as we have always been, dangerous creatures, the enemies of our own happiness. But the only help we have ever found for this, the only melioration, is in mutual reverence. God’s grace comes to us unmerited, the theologians say. But the grace we could extend to one another we consider it best to withhold in very many cases, presumptively, or in the absence of what we consider true or sufficient merit (we being more particular than God), or because few gracious acts, if they really deserve the name, would stand up to a cost-benefit analysis. This is not the consequence of a new atheism, or a systemic materialism that afflicts our age more than others. It is good old human meanness, which finds its terms and pretexts in every age. The best argument against human grandeur is the meagerness of our response to it, paradoxically enough.

And yet, the beautiful persists, and so do eloquence and depth of thought, and they belong to all of us because they are the most pregnant evidence we can have of what is possible in us.
~ Marilynne Robinson from “What Are We Doing Here?”

 

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Some days I choose to trudge along dry and cranky — each step an effort, each thought a burden, each moment an opportunity to grump about myself and my fellow man.  It is good to be reminded I am preserved, as is, for an instant, in the camera eye of the raindrops I pass, each snapping an instagram photo of my attitude.

It wouldn’t hurt me to smile out of a sense of grace and forgiveness, even if the events of the day may not call for it.  At least those smiles, reflected in the lens of each raindrop, will soak the soil at the moment it is let go to fall earthward.

There is no better place for the gift of grace to bloom and grow, ready for a new day.

 

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I Keep Looking Within

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Dawn comes later and later now,
and I, who only a month ago
could sit with coffee every morning
watching the light walk down the hill
to the edge of the pond and place
a doe there, shyly drinking,

then see the light step out upon
the water, sowing reflections
to either side — a garden
of trees that grew as if by magic —
now see no more than my face,
mirrored by darkness, pale and odd,

startled by time. While I slept,
night in its thick winder jacket
bridled the doe with a twist
of wet leaves and led her away,
then brought its black horse with harness
that creaked like a cricket, and turned

the water garden under. I woke,
and at the waiting window found
the curtains open to my open face;
beyond me, darkness. And I,
who only wished to keep looking out,
must now keep looking in.
~Ted Kooser “A Letter in October”

 

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God knows I miss the light
these autumn mornings,
especially when a storm blows
wet and wild in the dark
beyond the window pane.
I can only see myself
peering into the darkness;
I want to look beyond me.

God knows I need the light.

 

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