The Secret of Who I Am

You never know what may cause them. The sight of the ocean can do it, or a piece of music, or a face you’ve never seen before. A pair of somebody’s old shoes can do it. Almost any movie made before the great sadness that came over the world after the Second World War, a horse cantering across a meadow…

You can never be sure. But of this you can be sure. Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention.  They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go next.
~Frederick Buechner from
 Whistling in the Dark

photo by Emily Vander Haak

I’m not paying close enough attention to the meaning of my leaking eyes if I’m constantly looking for kleenex to stem the flow.  During the holidays it seems I have more than ample opportunity to find out the secret of who I am, where I have come from and where I am to be next.

So I keep my pockets loaded with kleenex.

It mostly has to do with welcoming family members back home for the holidays to become a full-out noisy messy chaotic household again, with puzzles and games and music and laughter and laundry and meal preparation.  It is about singing grace together before a meal in five-part harmony and choking on precious words of gratitude.  It is about remembering the drama of our youngest’s birthday twenty six years ago today, when she was saved by a snowstorm.

It certainly has to do with bidding farewell again as we will this weekend, gathering them all in for that final hug and then letting go.

We urge and encourage them to go where their hearts are telling them they are needed and called to be, even if that means thousands of miles away from their one-time home on the farm.

I too was let go once and though I would try to look back, too often in tears, I set my face toward the future.  It led me here, to this marriage, this family, this farm, this work, our church, to more tears, to more letting go if I’m granted more years to weep again and again with gusto and grace.

This is the secret of me: to love so much and so deeply that letting go is so hard that tears are no longer unexpected or a mystery to me or my children and grandchildren.   They are the spill-over of fullness that can no longer be contained: God’s still small voice spills down my cheeks drop by drop like wax from a burning candle.

No kleenex are needed with these tears.

Let them flow as I let them go.

An Advent Paradox: Very God of Very God Came Down

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The Word became flesh. Ultimate Mystery born with a skull you could crush one-handed. Incarnation.
It is not tame.
It is not beautiful.
It is uninhabitable terror.
It is unthinkable darkness riven with unbearable light.
Agonized laboring led to it, vast upheavals of intergalactic space, time split apart, a wrenching and tearing of the very sinews of reality itself.

You can only cover your eyes and shudder before it, before this:
“God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God… who for us and for our salvation,”
as the Nicene Creed puts it, “came down from heaven.”  

Came down.

Only then do we dare uncover our eyes and see what we can see.
It is the Resurrection and the Life she holds in her arms.
It is the bitterness of death he takes at her breast.

~Frederick Buechner from Whistling in the Dark: A Doubter’s Dictionary

 

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[The Incarnation is like] a wave of the sea which, 
rushing up on the flat beach, 
runs out, even thinner and more transparent, 
and does not return to its source but sinks into the sand and disappears.
~Hans Urs von Balthasar from Origen: Spirit and Fire

 

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He appeared in the flesh,
    was vindicated by the Spirit,
was seen by angels,
    was preached among the nations,
was believed on in the world,
    was taken up in glory. 
1Timothy 3:16

 

Perhaps it is the mystery of the thing that brings us back,
again and again, to read the story of how God came down and disappeared into us.

How can this be?
God appearing on earth first to animals, then the most humble of humans.

How can He be?
Through the will of the Father and the breath of the Spirit,
the Son was, and is and yet to be.

O great mystery beyond all understanding.

 

 

 

 

O magnum mysterium,
et admirabile sacramentum.
Ut animalia viderent
Dominum natum, iacentem in
praesepio: Beata Virgo,
cujus viscera meruerunt portare
Dominum Christum
Alleluia

 

O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear
the Lord, Jesus Christ.
Alleluia!

 

Only Partly Alive

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You who believe,
and you who sometimes believe and sometimes don’t believe much of anything,
and you who would give almost anything to believe if only you could.

You happy ones and you who can hardly remember what it was like once to be happy.

You who know where you’re going and how to get there
and you who much of the time aren’t sure you’re getting anywhere.

“Get up,” he says, all of you – all of you! –
and the power that is in him is the power to give life not just to the dead like the child,

but to those who are only partly alive,
which is to say to people like you and me

who much of the time live with our lives closed to the wild beauty and miracle of things, including the wild beauty and miracle of every day we live

and even of ourselves.

~Frederick Buechner -Originally published in Secrets in the Dark

 

 

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May I never just be partly alive…

To be fully alive to the wild beauty and miracle of every day,
I also must know disappointment and discouragement
and death.

It is part of the package:
the shadows as well as the brilliance.

I heed the call to “get up!” no matter what.

And believe
~truly believe~
I am called to be alive this day.

 

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A Bleeding Heart

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Love your neighbor as yourself is part of the great commandment.

The other way to say it is, ‘Love yourself as your neighbor.’ Love yourself not in some egocentric, self-serving sense but love yourself the way you would love your friend in the sense of taking care of yourself, nourishing yourself, trying to understand, comfort, strengthen yourself.

Ministers in particular, people in the caring professions in general, are famous for neglecting their selves with the result that they are apt to become in their own way as helpless and crippled as the people they are trying to care for and thus no longer selves who can be of much use to anybody. 

It means pay mind to your own life, your own health and wholeness, both for your own sake and ultimately for the sake of those you love too. Take care of yourself so you can take care of them.

A bleeding heart is of no help to anybody if it bleeds to death.
~Frederick Buechner from Telling Secrets

 

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We are reminded every time we hear safety instructions on an airplane before a flight takes off: “in the event of a sudden pressure change in the cabin, oxygen masks will appear – remember to put your own on before helping others with their masks.”   

If we aren’t able to breathe ourselves, we won’t last long enough to be of assistance to anyone around us.  Too often,  sacrificing self-care threatens others’ well-being.

A headline appeared in my email from the American Psychiatric Association this morning: “Physicians Experience the Highest Suicide Rate of Any Profession” – there is rampant depression and burn-out among those who should know best how to recognize and respond to the danger signs — for women physicians, nearly 1 out of 5 are afflicted.   Yet the work load only seems to increase, not diminish, the legal and moral responsibility weighs more heavily, and the hours available for sleep and respite shrink.  In forty years of practicing medicine (my father liked to remind me “when are you going to stop ‘practicing’ and actually ‘do’ it?”),  the work has never gotten easier, only harder and heavier.

I see suicidal patients all day and am immensely grateful I’ve never been suicidal, thank God, but anxiety is embedded deep in my DNA from my non-physician fretful farmer ancestors.  Anxiety becomes the fuel and driver of the relentless physician journey on long lonely roads, spurring us to stay awake too many hours and travel too far when we should be closing our eyes and taking a break to breathe, just breathe.

However, we are trained to respond to anxiety from the first day in anatomy class:
“and while you, Miss Polis, are trying to think of the name of that blood vessel, your patient is exsanguinating in front of you– drip, drip, drip….”

Terror-stricken at the thought I was inadequate to the task of saving a life, it took years for me to realize the name of the vessel didn’t bloody matter as long as I knew instinctively to clamp it, compress it, or by the love of the Living God, transfuse my own blood from my bleeding heart into my patient’s.

I learned well those many years ago:

To save a life, I must preserve my own.

 

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You Shall Be a Peculiar Treasure

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Imagine yourself in a big city in a crowd of people.  What it would be like to see all the people in the crowd like Jesus does — an anonymous crowd with old ones and young one, fat ones and thin ones, attractive ones and ugly ones—think what it would be like to love them.  If our faith is true, if there is a God, and if God loves, he loves each one of those.  Try to see them as loved.  And then try to see them, these faces, as loved by you.  What would it be like to love these people, to love these faces — the lovable faces, the kind faces, gentle compassionate faces?  That’s not so hard.  But there are lots of other faces — disagreeable faces, frightening faces, frightened faces, cruel faces, closed faces. …they are all peculiar treasures.  In Exodus, God said to Israel, “You shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people.”  God meant it for all of us.
~Frederick Buechner from The Remarkable Ordinary

 

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It doesn’t take long for us to be overwhelmed by humanity when we visit our family in Tokyo.  The airport is a shock of weaving lines of weary people and crying children, the trains are packed with people standing like sardines for an hour or more on their commute, the stations are a sea of bobbing heads flowing out onto the streets where the cross walks become a mass hive of activity whenever the light changes.

Yet we’ve been struck by the effort some locals make to help us foreigners who look lost, or who simply look different.  There is outreach at times that is spontaneous, genuine and completely unexpected.  Those are easy faces to love and we do.  What is much much harder to is love those hundreds of thousands who pass by us on their way to work, to shop, to return home.  How can I even begin to have the capacity?

What greeted Jesus as he entered the city in that final week was not friendly faces.  He loved them all any way, every single one of them peculiar treasures to him, forgiven and redeemed.

I realize I’m not very friendly too much of the time.  Yet he still loves me too, flaws and all, as his redeeming grace is meant for one such as me.  Because of his love, I can become the real thing, not just a reflection of what I think I should be.

 

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God Was Here: Snowbound Snowblind Longing

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What keeps the wild hope of Christmas alive year after year in a world notorious for dashing all hopes is the haunting dream that the child who was born that day may yet be born again even in us and our own snowbound, snowblind longing for him.
~Frederick Buechner

 

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Within this day of early winter
is disappearance of the familiar world,
of all that grows and thrives,
of color and freshness,
of hope in survival.
Then there comes a moment of softness amid the bleak,
a gift of grace and beauty,
a glance of sunlight on a snowy hillside,
a covering of low cloud puffs in the valley,
a moon lit landscape,
and I know the known world is still within my grasp
because you have hold of me.

 

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In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,
Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.

Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give Him my heart.
~Christina Rossetti 1872

 

The Only Day There Is

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It is a moment of light surrounded on all sides by darkness and oblivion. In the entire history of the universe, let alone in your own history, there has never been another just like it and there will never be another just like it again. It is the point to which all your yesterdays have been leading since the hour of your birth. It is the point from which all your tomorrows will proceed until the hour of your death. If you were aware of how precious it is, you could hardly live through it. Unless you are aware of how precious it is, you can hardly be said to be living at all. 

“This is the day which the Lord has made,” says the 118th Psalm. “Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Or weep and be sad in it for that matter. The point is to see it for what it is because it will be gone before you know it. If you waste it, it is your life that you’re wasting. If you look the other way, it may be the moment you’ve been waiting for always that you’re missing. 

All other days have either disappeared into darkness and oblivion or not yet emerged from them. Today is the only day there is.
~Frederick Buechner from Whistling in the Dark

 

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Last night our church held our annual Chapel “talent” show — now renamed “Show and Tell” for those who who don’t feel they have a talent to share.  It was a great evening of infinite variety including a ventriloquism act, hand made quilts, watercolor paintings, a primer on Latin from a 12 year old, a tutorial on Bonsai trees, detailed nautical drawings, embroidery, stories from a kindergarten teacher, a story of a life from the Livestock Journal, kids singing the answers to Heidelberg Catechism questions, a teenager teaching the American Sign Language alphabet, a “don’t quit” testimony from a man who served prison time for homicide and other convictions, wonderful fiddle and guitar music and wrapping up with a bagpipe finale.

It was a delightful sharing of people’s daily lives — how they spend their precious moments and hours and what is important to them.

It reminds me how I “show and tell” each precious day right here, before it disappears into darkness and oblivion. I want to capture and harvest each moment, every moment, and this moment.

You’re welcome.

 

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