A Far Way On To Dawn

The winter solstice is upon us, and tonight will officially be the longest night of the year. And, brother, if there ever was a year that demanded a dark night, 2016 is it. I won’t belabor the point by listing many of the challenging and disheartening things that have taken place since this January 1st, and I won’t try to ameliorate them by pointing out the many bright spots the year offered either. To do that is to dwell in the temporal, and relying on the things of this world for our emotional equilibrium is foolish at best.

However, as I stand on the edge of 40, I must admit that the darkness is a little harder to shake off than it used to be. It’s not because I’m growing cynical (though that has happened to some degree) or because I feel lost. On the contrary, I understand myself and my purpose in this life better than ever before.

I think it has something to do with perspective. With a few decades behind me, it’s easier to see things as they are. In middle age, we recognize that time (for us at least) isn’t infinite, some endless skein of hours that spools itself out into perpetuity. The scissors come, the thread is severed, and there is an end to things as we know them. Losing my grandfather to Alzheimer’s Disease, praying for a friend who, though only 42 and the mother of two young girls, learned she has lymphoma, watching marriages end in divorce and death all impressed the same inescapable fact on me—nothing in this life is guaranteed.

In this hard year of bitterness and animosity, with thoughts of mortality in mind, I came across this page in Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and it stopped me cold.

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The character having these heavy thoughts, Charles Holloway, is a 54-year-old amateur philosopher and library janitor who bemoans the loss of his youth and potential. (Though — slight spoiler alert — there’s a great moment of redemption for him in the book.) As someone who has been awake at 3:00 AM several times this year, I concur that it is a hard hour, a sharp and lonely sliver of time. With the house sleeping around you and the world outside the window quiet and still, it’s easy to believe you’re the only soul left and that all else is darkness.

But unlike Mr. Bradbury, who considered himself a “delicatessen religionist,” I believe in “Immortal, invisible, God only wise, in light inaccessible hid from our eyes. Most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days.” I take comfort in the words of Paul who tells us, “We do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Cor. 4:16-18).

This year, our family used an Advent wreath at home for the first time, and I have found that the intentional lighting of candles, of discussing what they mean, and allowing them to focus my attention on Jesus has been restorative. Yes, there is darkness, but there is also hope. There is love. There is joy. There is peace. Why? Because there is Christ, the center of our celebration. He is where our hearts must dwell, and he is the only source of true comfort in a world that seems to have skidded sideways.

On this, the longest night of the year, and every night of my life, I will not stare at the darkness. Instead, I look to the white candle in the center of that wreath, the one that represents Jesus—the God-man who came to redeem and will return to rescue. I sing the last three verses of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” in expectation, knowing that my waiting will not be in vain, for the Dayspring is coming.

Oh, come, O Key of David, come,
And open wide our heav’nly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

Oh, come, our Dayspring from on high,
And cheer us by your drawing nigh,
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

Oh, come, Desire of nations, bind
In one the hearts of all mankind;
Oh, bid our sad divisions cease,
And be yourself our King of Peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

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And You Will Have Done Enough

It’s been two weeks since Donald J. Trump was declared president-elect of the United States, and while things have calmed down slightly, we’re still a far piece from that “perfect union” our Founding Fathers envisioned.

The night after the election, the hubs and I went on a date. (Yes, on a Wednesday. And we paid for it the next day. Oh brother, did we pay for it.) Why put ourselves in such a spot? Because when Madeleine Peyroux is playing City Winery, you go regardless of what day it is. (If you’ve never heard of her, are you in for a treat. I’ve included one of my favorites below to get you started. You can thank me later.)

During the fifth or sixth song in her opening set, the woman sitting in front of me—a striking older beauty in a cream colored sweater and smart cloche hat—nearly knocked her glass of merlot over. Without thinking, I reached over and caught it. (Old waitress reflexes never die apparently.) Smiling, she whispered her thanks, and I leaned in to tell her it was my pleasure. I suppose that little act of kindness unlocked something in her because, without warning, she turned to me and said in a much louder voice, “I don’t know what to do about this election. I don’t understand it! I’m worried about our safety and the economy and immigrants….”

I tried for the better part of sixteen bars to get her to speak more softly, all to no avail. People began looking at us, shooting very polite darts in our direction. The more she talked, the more overwrought she became, so I went for the obvious. “Darlin,” I told her, “there are worries out there to be sure. But for now, you have lovely music, the company of friends, and a glass of wine in your hand. Leave the rest outside for an hour or so.”

She smiled at me—soothed by those words—patted my hand, and turned back to the music. We didn’t speak again until the end of the show, but before I left, I put a hand on her shoulder and gave her the only truth I knew: “The person in the White House, whoever it is, doesn’t impact you all that much really. You can still love your neighbor. You can still show kindness to others. Nothing can stop you from trying to impact your world for the better.” I could tell it helped her to hear someone say it, and truth be told, it lightened my spirits to give the thought voice. It’s been hard for me to deal with this election, even knowing what I know as a Christian—that this world doesn’t get the final say and that, praise God, there’s a better one coming. As believers, we play the long game. But that doesn’t stop us from losing sight of the truth…or from losing our good sense once in awhile.

I’m sure this is somehow a steal from Wendell Berry (who has already said most of the good things worth saying), but I’m of the belief that we aren’t meant to solve all the world’s problems. It’s our job to faithfully tend the little corner of earth assigned to us and nothing more. We are to love and aid those around us, to care for the parts of the world we call home, and if we all pitch in and do our bit, all the little corners will get tended. That’s what I was trying to tell her—the woman who was my neighbor for the briefest of moments—that it’s all going to be okay.

In Life TogetherDietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “It may be that the times which by human standards are the times of collapse are for [God] the great times of construction. It may be that the times which from a human point are great times for the church are times when it’s pulled down. It is a great comfort which Jesus gives to his church. You confess, preach, bear witness to me, and I alone will build where it pleases me. Do not meddle in what is not your providence. Do what is given to you, and do it well, and you will have done enough…. Live together in the forgiveness of your sins. Forgive each other every day from the bottom of your hearts.”

Read that last bit again, “Do what is given to you, and do it well, and you will have done enough.” Mercy, I can do that. I can try. That gives me a little room to breathe and puts things back in the right perspective. From that point of view, the world doesn’t seem quite so dire. A thought like that pushes the bleakness back.

The next morning as I drove to work, bleary-eyed and droopy from a night spent gadding around like a college kid, I saw something out of the corner of my eye that gave me even greater cause for hope. It was dark, so I couldn’t be quite sure of what I saw. But it gave me something to think on and daydream about all day. That afternoon, I beat the same worth path home, excited to find out if what I’d seen had been real or some kind of mirage, one created by wishful thinking rather than thirst. And much to my surprise and delight, I saw it was real.

 

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Some lovely soul took the time to make a sign that simply said “Love People and Be Kind” in chunky black marker. Someone else had thought the matter over, come to the same conclusion as I, and had taken the first step by posting this advice on a busy Atlanta road. I look for it every day now, and it never fails to bring me joy.

There is a way to not just to survive the hot mess that is 2016 but to thrive in it. And the solution has nothing to do with a non-profit initiative, a protest march, or a government program. Each of us is called to do those two simple things. If we do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God, there’s precious little else that needs doing because, well, we will have done enough.

Selah.

 

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Real Hope & Change

I have a love/hate relationship with change. The thrill of self-discovery comes with it, but more often than not, change brings uncertainty and difficulty. For me, the last two weeks have been a combination of the two extremes, both mentally and spiritually.

Several months ago, I began looking for a new place of employment, one where my talents could be put to use in a new field. I came across a posting for the Woodruff Arts Center titled “Director of Educational Outreach” or some such hyperbolic nonsense. Essentially, the job involved working with the Atlanta Youth Symphony Orchestra as a coordinator and public relations specialist. They needed someone with people skills, a good grasp of the English language and written/oral communication, experience working with professionals, parents, and students, and a background in instrumental music among other things. I looked down the laundry list of required qualifications muttering, Check, check, double check, double plus check, to myself, wrote a perfectly tailored cover letter to accompany my curriculum vitae, and sent it in.

For weeks, nothing happened. The job remained on the center’s page, and no one contacted me for further information or to set up an interview. To date, they still haven’t. In all likelihood, they never will.

Needless to say, I was more than a bit nonplussed by this. The only thing that could have put this job more firmly in the perfect category for me would have been if the phrases “must love baseball,” “must be willing to bring pets to work,” and “must be able to perfectly quote films old and new” were listed as preferred qualifications.  So why no call? Like the true resting place of Jimmy Hoffa, the depth of the Masons’ influence over the founding of the United States, or even the true name of the man who put the “bomp” in the “bomp-shoo-bomp-shoo-bomp,” it’s something I’ll never know.

Fast forward a month or so.

I get daily emails from job websites offering me part time blogging gigs for websites like the Examiner or technical writing gigs that I’m missing one qualification for, and I often delete them without exploring the full posting, wasting time that could be spent keeping my head above water in the job I currently have. However, one came through two weeks ago advertising for a copy writing position with In Touch Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia. For those of you who don’t know the name, In Touch is the printing and publishing ministry of Dr. Charles Stanley, the head pastor of First Baptist Church Atlanta. They manage a massive website, publish a monthly magazine, and, in essence, create all the printed matter needed to translate and transmit Dr. Stanley’s message to people around the world.

I read the qualifications for the position and knew that I had to apply. This was why the orchestra gig hadn’t panned out. I desired change, but my first attempt at it had been aimed in the wrong direction. I need to be using my talents not to enlarge myself, but rather to magnify Him. Well, unlike the symphony, In Touch did call, and an interview has taken place. It was a wonderful time for me, to be able to share my testimony and my desire to be used in a way that will allow me to fulfill my ministry, whatever it might be.

Now, I’m being tested. I’m being asked to be patient, something I don’t do very well. (Although, praise God, I’m markedly more patient than I was just a few years ago.) A week has passed, and the elation that came with the thought of moving into a new field in a place where my faith can be nourished and my talents used and honed has been tempered with a cold, hard week of silent days. I’ve carried my phone with me in hopes that I’ll receive the call that beings with the phrase, “Jamie, it’s my pleasure to tell you that….,” but it hasn’t happened yet. I’ve prayed daily asking God that His will be done in this matter if this place is where He wishes me to go next. If not, I’ve also prayed for Him to help me understand why His perfect plan might not include it. The answer will come when He wills it, not a moment before, and as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers once sagaciously stated it, “The waiting is the hardest part.”

In past years, I would have been tempted to say “God is cruel” or “God doesn’t understand my problems,” but that is so far from the truth that I’m embarrassed to say that I actually once thought it. The truth is that God knows the desires of my heart; He knows me even better than I know myself. Seeking to understand the silence, I went to the book of Psalms.

David’s songs to the Chief Musician vary in subject matter—some praise His mighty works, others beseech him for deliverance from enemies both outside his kingdom and within it, and many celebrate His divine judgments, praising them for their righteousness, mercy, and grace. Portions of three of these divine songs speak peace to my situation and help to settle my soul.

The first is Psalm 144:3-10, which reads:

 LORD, what is man, that You take knowledge of him? Or the son of man, that You are mindful of him? Man is like a breath;
His days are like a passing shadow. Bow down Your heavens, O LORD, and come down; touch the mountains, and they shall smoke. Flash forth lightning and scatter them; shoot out Your arrows and destroy them. Stretch out Your hand from above; rescue me and deliver me out of great waters, from the hand of foreigners, whose mouth speaks lying words, and whose right hand is a right hand of falsehood. I will sing a new song to You, O God; On a harp of ten strings I will sing praises to You, the One who gives salvation to kings, who delivers David His servant from the deadly sword.

This has always been one of my favorite psalms because of verses three and four. David asks an often overlooked, but essential, question—Who is man that You even concern yourself with him and his piddly problems?  In the scope of His creation, we are tiny, a finite speck in the scope of God’s infinity. However, we are also the beings He came down to make. Unlike the heavens and the earth, the sky and sea, and the birds and beasts and creeping things He created, He came down to craft us with His own hands from a lump of lifeless clay and made us in His own image. It is His breath that fills us with life and makes us living souls. He created us for fellowship, and that is why He is mindful of us. It still amazes me that the God who created the universe and the beautiful planet we call home knows of my struggles and seeks to direct my life. I am hardly worthy of such attention, yet He loves me enough to give it. That alone is cause for celebration. This possible new job, so small in the scope of eternity, falls under His purview as well. There’s no cause for concern on my part. He will handle it as surely as He does the changing of the seasons or the conflicts between nations.

David then lists the mighty powers that are God’s, powers that know no limits. It is He who can move a mountain, separate waters, and scatter a seemingly insurmountable foe before His servant. It is God who “gives salvation to kings” and keeps them in His hand. No matter how great our power may be here on Earth, it pales in comparison to that of the Most High. David recognizes it and celebrates it because it frees him from worry, and this why he sings this new song to God.

Psalm 37: 3-8 is focused on trusting God in all things, not only with those things that seem impossible. It reads:

3 Trust in the LORD, and do good;
Dwell in the land, and feed on His faithfulness.
4 Delight yourself also in the LORD,
And He shall give you the desires of your heart.
5 Commit your way to the LORD,
Trust also in Him,
And He shall bring it to pass.
6 He shall bring forth your righteousness as the light,
And your justice as the noonday.
7 Rest in the LORD, and wait patiently for Him;
Do not fret because of him who prospers in his way,
Because of the man who brings wicked schemes to pass.
8 Cease from anger, and forsake wrath;
Do not fret—it only causes harm.

The message David seeks to transmit with this psalm is one of trust and patience. He asserts that we should dwell always in Him, speak to Him about the desires of our hearts, and maintain a constant fellowship with Him. If we give all that we are, our “way” to Him, He will “bring it to pass” in His time. We are not meant to worry or to compare ourselves with those who “profit in [their] way,” which is wicked. I may never be as wealthy or as powerful as those who scheme and who get ahead in this world under their own steam, and that, I’m coming to find, is the best way to be. After all, if I spend all my time and energy worrying about what others have or what I don’t, I run the risk of falling into anger, wrath, and worry—all of which damage my fellowship with Him. I must always delight in His judgments and His righteousness, even if I don’t yet understand them.

Also, if I worry and try to solve this problem on my own, that is as good as admitting my lack of trust in His power. It is me saying, “God, you aren’t strong enough or wise enough to manage this situation, so I’ll handle it.” This kind of change tests my faith, refines it in fire, and makes it all the stronger, but I have to be willing to undergo the forging. This is why I must always remember the words of the sacred song, “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus” to keep my heart and mind focused on the right thing. After all, if I can “Look full in His wonderful face, …the things of Earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.”

The same message is contained in Psalm 40: 1—5.

 1 I waited patiently for the LORD;
And He inclined to me,
And heard my cry.
2 He also brought me up out of a horrible pit,
Out of the miry clay,
And set my feet upon a rock,
And established my steps.
3 He has put a new song in my mouth—
Praise to our God;
Many will see it and fear,
And will trust in the LORD.
4 Blessed is that man who makes the LORD his trust,
And does not respect the proud, nor such as turn aside to lies.
5 Many, O LORD my God, are Your wonderful works
Which You have done;
And Your thoughts toward us
Cannot be recounted to You in order;
If I would declare and speak of them,
They are more than can be numbered.

However, unlike the previous psalm that claims the certainty of a future blessing, this one states the message in the past tense. “I waited patiently,” he begins. As a result, God “inclined” to him, “heard” his cry, and “brought” him up from the mire clay in which he was trapped. David is praising a blessing received in this song; he is not simply claiming “God will.” Instead, he is telling us “God does.” It is a song of a promise made manifest. He sings of the amazing blessings from God, and insists that the praise from his mouth, his testimony, will bring others to a lasting trust in God. And David asserts that his are not the only prayers answered or the only blessings given. Instead, David asserts, “Many, O Lord my God, are Your wonderful works” and that “Your thoughts towards us Cannot be recounted to You in order” because “They are more than can be numbered.”

What do I learn from these three passages? Simply this—I matter to God. God promises. God delivers. It’s as simple as that. He does so in a way that is necessary for us and, more importantly, brings Him glory.

Change, as I asserted earlier, is hard. It requires us to step outside our comfort zone and trust in His will for our lives, knowing full well that His will may not coincide with our desires. However, His will is perfect and His judgments righteous. I will continue to pray for His will to be done in His time safe in the knowledge that I am His child and that He guides me rightly.