An Advent Paradox: Glory in the Darkest Place

 

 

O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer
our spirits by thine advent here;
dispel the shadows of the night,
and turn our darkness into light.
~from O Come O Come Emmanuel

 

 

 

Moonless darkness stands between.
Past, O Past, no more be seen!
But the Bethlehem star may lead me
To the sight of Him who freed me
From the self that I have been.
Make me pure, Lord: Thou art holy;
Make me meek, Lord: Thou wert lowly;
Now beginning, and alway:
Now begin, on Christmas day.
~Gerard Manley Hopkins

 

 

 

 

I leave home in darkness to go to work and come home in darkness in the late afternoon.  It seems for days on end the sun never shines as I’m tucked away with patients in clinic consult rooms hearing their own struggle against the darkness.

Where is the light that I promise to each of them if I can’t feel it myself?

Yet Glory is present in the darkest place and the Light has come.

I will remember His promise.
Even in the darkness I know His face.
He knows I know.

 

 

 

[Verse 1]
Out of the depths of silent night
Immanuel, come hear our cry
Our grief is strong, our burdens great
The night is long and hope is faint

[Verse 2]
You came to set the captives free
A Morning Star of joy and peace
Why does this darkness feel so deep?
Why can’t our weary spirits see?

[Chorus]
Glory, glory
Glory in the darkest place
Glory, glory
Glory, let Your mercy reign

[Verse 3]
Out of the depths of silent night
A Savior born, a mother’s sigh
The darkness trembled at this Star
A beam of hope for troubled hearts

[Verse 4]
You came to make Your blessings known
And bear our curse of death alone
You came to share our suffering
So in our sorrow, we could sing

[Chorus]
Glory, glory
Glory in the darkest place
Glory, glory
Glory, let Your mercy reign
Glory, glory
Glory in the darkest place
Glory, glory
Glory, let Your mercy reign
Brittany Hope

An Advent Paradox: From Filth to Flowers

 

The poor, old stable of Christ’s old, poor country is only four rough walls, a dirty pavement, a roof of beams and slate. It is dark, reeking. The only clean thing in it is the manger where the owner piles the hay and fodder.

Fresh in the clear morning, waving in the wind, sunny, lush, sweet-scented, the spring meadow was mown. The green grass, the long, slim blades, were cut down by the scythe; and with the grass the beautiful flowers in full bloom – white, red, yellow, blue. They withered and dried and took on the one dull color of hay. Oxen dragged back to the barn the dead plunder of May and June. And now that grass has become dry hay and those flowers, still smelling sweet, are there in the manger to feed the slaves of man.

The animals take it slowly with their great black lips, and later the flowering fields, changed into moist dung, return to light on the litter which serves as bedding.

This is the real stable where Jesus was born. The filthiest place in the world was the first room of the only pure man ever born of woman. The Son of Man, who was to be devoured by wild beasts calling themselves men, had as his first cradle the manger where the animals chewed the cud of the miraculous flowers of spring.
~Giovanni Papini from “The Real Stable”

 

 

 

 

As is my routine on Saturdays, I spent the day in the barn, breaking ice and refilling water buckets, then going from stall to stall to clean out the manure and wet spots, and finally adding fresh bedding. Then I climbed high in the hay stack in the barn and rolled hay bales down to load into the wheel barrow to push into the stable for Sunday Sabbath, a day of rest. There are always chores to do every day, but they can be abbreviated on Sunday thanks to the work accomplished the previous day. This is the nature of farming– preparing and readying for what is to come.

Farmers, by nature, are a hopeful lot. We plan ahead, plot out our next year’s crop, choose our seed in advance and plant it with anticipation. We prune and we plow and we store up mountains of feed far in advance. We evaluate pedigrees and scrutinize genetics carefully. And we wait patiently. As I clean their stalls, I watch my mares’ bellies roll with the movement of their unborn foals and I picture the new life in my mind’s eye. There is a harvest of hope in those bellies.

Unlike many modern horse barns, our decades old stable is a particularly plain and humble place with dirt floors, and as the support beams have settled over the years the door hinges don’t hang balanced and true any longer, so the stall doors are sticky and sometimes hard to open in the winter weather. Despite the lack of fancy design though, I haven’t heard the horses complain–their meals taste as good, they are warm and dry in the cold windy weather and cool in the hot weather. Their needs are met there and amazingly, so are mine.

Christmas began in a stable–probably a dark cave that served the purpose of housing animals. It most assuredly was plain and humble, smelling of manure and urine, and animal fur. Yet it also would have smelled of the sweetness of stored forage, and there would have been the reassuring sounds of animals chewing and breathing deeply. It was truly the only place a group of scruffy shepherds could have felt welcomed without being tossed out as unsuitable visitors– they undoubtedly arrived at the threshold in bad need of a bath, smelly, dirty and terrified and yet left transformed, returning to their fields full of praise and wonder, telling all they met what they had seen. No bath could scrub so clean as the sight of what that stable contained.

There could not have been a more suitable place for this birth that was to change the world: the promise of cleansing hope and peace in the midst of our knee deep filth. Despite our sorry state, we are welcomed into the sanctuary of the stable, sown, grown, pruned and harvested to become seed and food for others.

If even the shepherds became a harvest of hope, the flowers of the future,  then surely so can we.

 

 

 Jesus our brother, kind and good
Was humbly born in a stable rude
And the friendly beasts around Him stood,
Jesus our brother, kind and good.

Thus every beast by some good spell,
In the stable dark was glad to tell
Of the gift he gave Immanuel,
The gift he gave Immanuel.

 

An Advent Paradox: A Baby Sleeps But God Does Not

God is not dead, nor does he sleep.
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Unexpected God, 
your advent alarms us. 
Wake us from drowsy worship, 
from the sleep that neglects love, 
and the sedative of misdirected frenzy. 
Awaken us now to your coming, 
and bend our angers into your peace. 
Amen.
~Revised Common Lectionary First Sunday of Advent
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

 

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

I’m dozing if I think that is all there was to it.

The reality is God Himself never sleeps.

This is no gentle bedtime story: 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.
This is no gentle bedtime story: the heavenly host appearing to the shepherds, shouting and singing the glories and leaving them “sore afraid.” The shepherds needed crash helmets.
This is no gentle bedtime story: 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, clinging to their children about to be murdered.
This is no gentle bedtime story:  a family’s flight to Egypt, immigrants seeking asylum,  fleeing that fate for their only Son.
This is no gentle bedtime story:   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, tortured, hung on a cross until he gave up his spirit.

Yet he understood the power that originally brought him to earth as a helpless infant to be sacrificed, to die and rise again, to return again as King of all nations.  No signal flares needed.

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 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, guilt and self-doubt to let go of our own anger in order to confront the reality of the wrath of God who is not dead and never sleeps.

This bedtime story is not for the faint of heart — we are “sore afraid” and should “bend our anger” into His peace.

And not forget our crash helmets.

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play
And mild and sweet their songs repeat
Of peace on earth good will to men
And the bells are ringing (peace on earth)
Like a choir they’re singing (peace on earth)
In my heart I hear them (peace on earth)
Peace on earth, good will to men
And in despair I bowed my head
There is no peace on earth I said
For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men
But the bells are ringing (peace on earth)
Like a choir singing (peace on earth)
Does anybody hear them? (peace on earth)
Peace on earth, good will to men
Then rang the bells more loud and deep
God is not dead, nor does he sleep (peace on earth, peace on earth)
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

O day of peace that dimly shines
through all our hopes and prayers and dreams,
guide us to justice, truth, and love,
delivered from our selfish schemes.
May the swords of hate fall from our hands,
our hearts from envy find release,
till by God’s grace our warring world
shall see Christ’s promised reign of peace.

Then shall the wolf dwell with the lamb,
nor shall the fierce devour the small;
as beasts and cattle calmly graze,
a little child shall lead them all.
Then enemies shall learn to love,
all creatures find their true accord;
the hope of peace shall be fulfilled,
for all the earth shall know the Lord.
Words: Carl P. Daw, Jr.

A Clinging Mist

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My Sorrow, when she’s here with me,
     Thinks these dark days of autumn rain
Are beautiful as days can be;
She loves the bare, the withered tree;
     She walks the sodden pasture lane.

Her pleasure will not let me stay.
     She talks and I am fain to list:
She’s glad the birds are gone away,
She’s glad her simple worsted gray
     Is silver now with clinging mist.

The desolate, deserted trees,
     The faded earth, the heavy sky,
The beauties she so truly sees,
She thinks I have no eye for these,
     And vexes me for reason why.

Not yesterday I learned to know
     The love of bare November days
Before the coming of the snow,
But it were vain to tell her so,
     And they are better for her praise.
~Robert Frost “My November Guest”

 

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November,
this month of deepening darkening,
transforms itself
to a recounting of gratitude
of daily thanksgiving and blessings~~

it is good to dwell on our gifts,
even so,
it is right to invite Sorrow
to sit in silence with us,
her tears blending with ours.

These dark-dwelled days
of bare stripped branches
feed our growing need
for the covering grace,
the shrouding
of His coming Light.

 

 

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The Frost of Adversity

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There is an arid Pleasure –
As different from Joy –
As Frost is different from Dew –
Like Element – are they –

Yet one – rejoices Flowers –
And one – the Flowers abhor –
The finest Honey – curdled –
Is worthless – to the Bee –
~Emily Dickinson

 

 

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Remember the goodness of God in the frost of adversity.
~Charles Spurgeon

 

 

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Hard times leave us frozen solid,
completely immobilized
and too cold to touch,
yet there is hope and healing,
remembering the immensity and goodness of God.

Even when life’s chill leaves us aching,
longing for relief,
the coming thaw is real
because God is good.
Even when we’re flattened,
stepped on, broken into fragments —
the pieces left are the beginning
of who we will become,
made whole again
because God is good.

The frost lasts not forever.
The sun makes us glisten and glitter
as ice melts down to droplets.
We become the goodness of God,
His eyes and ears,
heart and soul,
hands and feet.
Even more so,
we are His tears.

 

 

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Hope Beats with Strong Wings

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Now we must look about us. Near at hand
cloud like a fist has closed on all the hills
and by this meager daylight on our land
we see just this, and this, and not beyond.

The sodden trees emerge and stand revealed;
we must acknowledge each one as it is,
stripped and stark, its basic structure clear,
the last leaves fallen, summer’s season dead.

And day on day the soft mist softly falls
as the long rain drives across the field
and all the while what we had seen beyond
is lost and shut as if it never were.

And we look closely at each other now,
the bleak roots, black grass, and the muddy road,
the litter that we never cleared away,
the broken flowers from a summer’s day –

Oh, stark and clearly we must look within
to weigh at last our purity and sin.

Oh, lovely hills in sunlight far away,
Oh, curving valley where the river sings!
Remembering, we live this discipline,
and hope still beats about us with strong wings.
~Jane Tyson Clement “November Rain” from No One Can Stem The Tide.

 

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Stripped and stark — if fall and winter were the ending of all things, there would be no hope.
There would be no sun shining on the hills far beyond me to reflect back what is coming, and what has been.

When I am down to the bare and broken essentials — so bleak and muddy and the too-early dark — I seek the strength of the wings whooshing through air above me, alive, vibrant, purposeful.
I know this resting pause is not the end.  Never has been.  Never will be.

 

 

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The Turmoil of Thinking

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Flee for a while from your tasks,
hide yourself for a little space from the turmoil of your thoughts.
Come, cast aside your burdensome cares,
and put aside your laborious  pursuits.
For a little while give your time to God,
and rest in him for a little while.
Enter into the inner chamber of your mind,
shut out all things save God
and whatever may aid you in seeking God;
and having barred the door of your chamber, seek him.
~Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works

 

 

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Yesterday I needed to leave work early;
near tears, physically spent, too fried
to keep listening, problem solving, comforting.

I needed to feel something other than needed.
I needed neediness myself —  a sorry place to be.

It’s happened before, many times:
middle of the night mothering a vomiting child,
middle of the night mothering a frail mother,
middle of the night worried about the world.

Yet morning comes because God never left,
maybe not bright and shining and wondrous
maybe a weeping rock,
but if I gently close the door to all that is not God,
I will find Him looking for me.

 

 

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