An Advent Paradox: Kindling a Fire That Never Dies Away

(Jesus said) I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!
Luke 12:49

 

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
and every common bush afire with God
~Elizabeth Barrett Browning from “Aurora Leigh”

 

It is difficult to undo our own damage…
It is hard to desecrate a grove and change your mind.
The very holy mountains are keeping mum.
We doused the burning bush and cannot rekindle it;
we are lighting matches in vain under every green tree. 

~Annie Dillard from Teaching a Stone to Talk

 

 

 

I need to turn aside and look,
to see, as if for the first and last time,
the kindled fire that illuminates even the darkest day and never dies away.

We are invited, by no less than God Himself,
through the original burning bush that is never consumed
to shed our shoes, to walk barefoot and vulnerable,
and approach the bright and burning dawn,
even when it is the darkest midnight,
even when it is a babe in a manger who lights a fire in each one of us.

Only then, only then
can I say:
“Here I am! Consume me!”

 

 

 

 

Within our darkest night,
you kindle the fire
that never dies away,
that never dies away.
Within our darkest night,
you kindle the fire
that never dies away,
that never dies away.
~Taize

 

 

Like Thunder Follows Lightening

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Grace and gratitude belong together like heaven and earth.
Grace evokes gratitude like the voice an echo.
Gratitude follows grace as thunder follows lightening.
~Karl Barth

 

 

 

 

 

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Nothing separates our thankfulness
from the gifts we’ve been granted.
We have been given life, certainly.
But that is not all,
though more than plenty.

Beyond imagining,
we are given forgiveness.
Offered a new life,
undeserved.
An opportunity to
make things right again
by His forgiving
the unforgivable.

It is possible to be grateful every day
without knowing grace.
Many voices raised today
speak of thankfulness.

But to know the gift of grace–
experience its resounding clarifying brightness,
its gentle, compassionate merciful touch
every day, every hour, every moment
every breath,

we must respond, thundering
our gratitude at the lightening spark of God,
echoing unending thanks
in our every breath.

 

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Both Stone and Star

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Slowly the west reaches for clothes of new colors
which it passes to a row of ancient trees.
You look, and soon these two worlds both leave you
one part climbs toward heaven, one sinks to earth.

leaving you, not really belonging to either,
not so hopelessly dark as that house that is silent,
not so unswervingly given to the eternal as that thing
that turns to a star each night and climbs–

leaving you (it is impossible to untangle the threads)
your own life, timid and standing high and growing,
so that, sometimes blocked in, sometimes reaching out,
one moment your life is a stone in you, and the next, a star.
~Rainer Maria Rilke  “Sunset” (Trans. by Robert Bly) from The Soul is Here for Its Own Joy

 

 

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We are born with one hand still grasping tight to the star-studded heaven from which we came, still dusty from creation.  The other hand grabs hold of whatever it finds here on earth and won’t let go, whether the riches of relationship or the coldness of stone.

It can take decades, but our firm hold on heaven loosens so that we forget the dusty origins of our miraculous being.  We forget Who made us and why.

We can’t decide, tangled up in the threads of life:  dust of earth, stone heart?  Or dust of stars, child of Heaven?

We are daily reminded by the Light which clothes us in new colors – early in the morning as it crests the eastern hills and late as it descends in the west.  Heaven still reaches down once again to grasp our hand, making sure we know the way home.

 

 

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Just Passing Through

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All through August and September
            thousands, maybe
tens of thousands, of feathered
            creatures pass through
this place and I almost never see
            a single one. The fall
wood warbler migration goes by here
            every year, all of them,
myriad species, all looking sort of like
            each other, yellow, brown, gray,
all muted versions of their summer selves,
            almost indistinguishable
from each other, at least to me, although
            definitely not to each other, 
all flying by, mostly at night, calling to each
            other as they go to keep
the flock together, saying: chip, zeet,
            buzz, smack, zip, squeak—
            those
sounds reassuring that we are
            all here together and
heading south, all of us just passing
            through, just passing
through, just passing through, just
            passing through.
~David Budbill “Invisible Visitors”

 

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Some feathered travelers slip past us unseen and unheard.  They may stop for a drink in the pond or a bite to eat in the field and woods, but we never know they are there – simply passing through.

Others are compelled to announce their journey with great fanfare, usually heard before seen.  The drama of migration becomes bantering conversation from bird to bird, bird to earth, bird to sun, moon and stars, with unseen magnetic forces pointing the way.

When not using voices, their wings sing the air with rhythmic beat and whoosh.

We’re all together here — altogether — even when our voices are raised sharply, our silences brooding, our hurts magnified, our sorrows deep, so our route of travel becomes a matter of debate.

Our destination is not in dispute however.  We’re all heading to the same place no matter how we get there.

We’re all just passing through, just passing through, just passing through.

 

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Dusty

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God – the God who made the dust,
who made the stars,
who made the elements of which we are composed –
that same God chooses from the beginning to make his dwelling among us,
to live for all time like us, as a servant of the soil.

I am the dust of the earth,
but God declares that he is not too good,
not too proud,
for my dustiness.

~Daniel J. Stulac from Plough Quarterly No. 4: Earth

 

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What a piece of work is a man!
And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?” 
~ William Shakespeare in Hamlet’s monologue 

 

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This dust left of man:
earth, air, water and fire
prove inadequate
to quell its significance.

Only the transcendent hope
of eternal life restored
can breathe glory
into the plainest of ash.

And I am plainest of the plain.

 

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A Threshold Between Earth and Heaven

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I know for a while again,
the health of self-forgetfulness,
looking out at the sky through
a notch in the valley side,
the black woods wintry on
the hills, small clouds at sunset
passing across. And I know
that this is one of the thresholds
between Earth and Heaven,
from which I may even step
forth from myself and be free.
~ Wendell Berry, Sabbaths 2000

 

 

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I was told once by someone I respected that my writing reflected “sacramental” living —  touching and tasting the holiness of everyday moments, as if they are the cup and bread that sustains us daily.

I have allowed that feedback to sit warmly beside me, like a welcome companion during the many hours I struggle with what to share here.

It is now apparent to me it is all too tempting to emphasize sacrament over the sacrifice it represents.  As much as I love the world and the beauty in the moments I find here, my search should be for the entrance to the “thin places” between heaven and earth, by forgetting self and stepping forth through a holy threshold into something far greater.

There is a scary freedom in the sacrificial life, a wonderful terrifying illuminating freedom, still far beyond my grasp.

I may even step
forth from myself and be free.

 

 

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The Clouds That Veil

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Heaven and earth are only three feet apart,
but in the thin places that distance is even smaller.
A thin place is where the veil that separates heaven and earth is lifted
and one is able to glimpse the glory of God.
~Celtic saying

 

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For as a cloud received Him from their sight,
So with a cloud will He return ere long:
Therefore they stand on guard by day, by night,
Strenuous and strong.

They do, they dare, they beyond seven times seven
Forgive, they cry God’s mighty word aloud:
Yet sometimes haply lift tired eyes to Heaven—
“Is that His cloud?”
~Christina Rossetti from “Ascension Day”

 

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Stretching Himself as if again,
through downpress of dust
upward, soul giving way
to thread of white, that reaches
for daylight, to open as green
leaf that it is…
Can Ascension
not have been
arduous, almost,
as the return
from Sheol, and
back through the tomb
into breath?
Matter reanimate
now must reliquish
itself, its
human cells,
molecules, five
senses, linear
vision endured
as Man –
the sole
all-encompassing gaze
resumed now,
Eye of Eternity.
Relinquished, earth’s
broken Eden.
Expulsion,
liberation,
last
self-enjoined task
of Incarnation.
He again
Fathering Himself.
Seed-case splitting.
He again
Mothering His birth:
torture and bliss.
~Denise Levertov  “Ascension”

 

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We saw his light break through the cloud of glory
Whilst we were rooted still in time and place
As earth became a part of Heaven’s story
And heaven opened to his human face.
We saw him go and yet we were not parted
He took us with him to the heart of things
The heart that broke for all the broken-hearted
Is whole and Heaven-centred now, and sings,
Sings in the strength that rises out of weakness,
Sings through the clouds that veil him from our sight,
Whilst we our selves become his clouds of witness
And sing the waning darkness into light,
His light in us, and ours in him concealed,
Which all creation waits to see revealed .
~Malcolm Guite “Ascension”

 

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Heidelberg Catechism Question and Answer 49

Q. How does Christ’s ascension to heaven
benefit us?

A. First, he is our advocate
in heaven
in the presence of his Father.

Second, we have our own flesh in heaven
as a sure pledge that Christ our head
will also take us, his members,
up to himself.

Third, he sends his Spirit to us on earth
as a corresponding pledge.

By the Spirit’s power
we seek not earthly things
but the things above, where Christ is,
sitting at God’s right hand.

 

 

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It doesn’t matter what you have been or what you have done. It doesn’t matter how flawed and foolish you are.

When the eyes of God the Father look at you, they see the ascended Jesus; when they listen to you, they hear him.

When God looks and listens to you, he sees and hears infinite beauty . . . He sees Jesus not sitting at the right hand but standing on his behalf, advocating for him.
~Tim Keller

 

Jesus is not on sabbatical from His earthly flesh; this day of observance of His ascension to heaven forty days after His Resurrection reminds us He remains flesh, just like our flesh,  while sitting at the right hand of God the Father – our representative, our interceder, our advocate.

The clouds that veil that thin line between earth and heaven still can’t help but shine with His glory.   We remain directly connected by our flesh/His flesh to God in heaven.

 

 

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