It was an interesting thing to flow straight from Thanksgiving into the first Sunday of advent this year. I know Thanksgiving as a holiday is a creation of our secular history, not the church, but I find its timing appropriate. Maybe I’ve never seen it as closely linked as this year, when the seasons practically overlapped. When, still full from turkey and giving thanks, all of a sudden we were at church and lighting the first advent candle. The candle of hope. It seems appropriate, in an intentional season of waiting, to begin with hope. And it seems appropriate, though I never thought of it before, to give thanks for it. To give thanks for the reminders of waiting.
Echoing in my expressed longing for stillness on here a few weeks ago was a chord that has been resounding in my life for a while: the idea of simplicity. And then, by natural connection, the idea of busyness. The two can be enemies, but they don’t have to be. The reality is, though, that the number of filled physical hours in my life recently has forced me into a new search for stillness and simplicity within and surrounding those hours. To characterize all I do, I hope. I’ve been challenged by scriptures that call me to different definitions of simplicity and rest. I’ve been moved by songs that speak into this reality. I’ve been reading books focused around these themes, some without even realizing it. And I’ve found myself seeking out relationships and resources that push and encourage me in these pursuits. Because honestly, stillness is not something we’re very good at. Not in our society, not in our churches, not in our hearts.
Be still my soul: the Lord is on thy side
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain
Leave to thy God to order and provide
In every change, He faithful will remain
Be still my soul: thy best, thy heavenly friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end
I remember distinctly the first time I heard these words. I was a freshman in college, it was the Sunday evening at the end of October break, and I had just returned from my first epic, independent, adult adventure with three friends. We borrowed my dad’s forest green CRV and drove up into the mountains of Vermont, where the first backpacking trip I ever planned and led went wrong from the start as we obliviously and joyfully hiked off the wrong side of the road and down the trail in the wrong direction. Needless to say, campsites not being in the location they were supposed to be made our mistake quickly evident in the approaching darkness. Unfettered, we made camp on the side of the trail, piled four girls into a two man tent because there was no space for another one, and decided to embrace the moment and keep walking in the wrong direction the next day to see what we found. Two days later we tumbled out of the woods and descended on a hotel in Burlington which we had to talk our way into because I had made the reservation and was only 17. But this is all another story…
The rope loops down, through the harness and up to re-trace its path through the knot. Up. Right. Down. Left. Up again, parallel to the rope hanging off the rock. Pull it tight, dress it right. My hands weave through motion almost without thought, as repetition has trained them to do. If only other areas of my life were trained so, by repetition, until I always knew the right way to go without conscious thought. So sure of each motion, like this knot. It holds my life, this knot. But I never doubt it. Not because of my ability in tying, but because I trust whomever, much wiser than I, knew this was the knot I would need to tie. And so my hands are free in following this pattern in a way they could never be without it.
The rope isn’t heavy lifted in sections, but it carries the weight of responsibility. It feels rough, passing through my fingers, solid and strong. With eyes trained above, I don’t watch the rope, but I feel every pull and lift and bend with my neck, my shoulder, my arms, my hands, all the way down to my fingertips. They open slightly, slide, tighten, pull. Like familiar moves of a dance you love. And all the while, my right hand never leaves the rope. Not until the climber I hold is safe, attached to another anchor. Only then does every muscle loosen. I look down and open cramped hands to see the blackness the rope has left as it passed through. Not heavy, but I bear its weight.
We dangle off the side of the rock, a hundred feet below and a hundred feet above. No way to get where we are, no way to get where we’re going, except to climb and depend. My feet push off the wall in front of me, the purple webbing that holds me to the rock taut as a bowstring. I crane my neck to gaze at where the ropes above us disappear over a ledge and into an expanse of sky. Somewhere beyond the ledge he is climbing, and I belay, without words, without sight. Just a rope through which to communicate, and a constant readiness to hear him with it, and if he needs it, respond. As I hang in trust off his anchor, he trusts my hands, guiding the ropes and dropping them into the expanse below us.
I will ask much of my hands today. If not holding rope, they are gripping the rock. Sometimes my fingers wrap around a hold, steady in its solidness, while other times I am holding on barely by tips, clinging desperately, every tendon screaming. They may give at any moment, callouses scraping off the rock. My arms may fail, unable to pull my weight as high as I ask them to. My toe may slip off the tiny crack it’s wedged into. But you don’t think about falling, you think about climbing. And more often than not, that tiny crack and fingertip hold prove more than adequate if I trust them instead of my strength.
My hands reach back to the chalk bag, more routine than necessity sometimes. The fine dust sifts through the air, marks my path up the rock, and adds its white stain to the indelible imprint of the day. Broken nails and dirt, scraped and bloody knuckles, white powder caught in every crevice. They’re not pretty, but that’s because they were useful. I will gladly bear the scars of usefulness.
I may not fall, you know. I may never need the rope. But I could not climb without it. Its hold gives me freedom. Its knowledge, confidence. I need the hands that hold the rope. They free my hands to trust the holds provided by the Rock for this climb.
I try one last climb, and she steps in to belay. I am tired. I can’t give what I need to win this fight. Not today. Again and again I fall, dangling from the rope, looking up at the move I cannot make. As I fall, she catches me. As I swing in the air, she holds me. So intent on the climb, I am not even conscious of the rope. I have no fear, and no doubts. It isn’t until returning to the ground, actually, that I turn, look, and really see. She’s loosening the rope, un-clenching her hands. And I am thankful.
We take the ropes down. I coil one in loops, feeling the reality of its weight as it is concentrated entirely on my shoulders. Dusk is falling and in the shadows the day is beginning to blend into memory with the rock face behind us. My hands are tired. My body is tired. Life is often heavy. But in this reminder of simplicity, my heart feels light. We climb and we belay. We succeed and we fall. We hold each other’s ropes in our hands. The climb continues.
Again, if two lie down together, they will keep warm;
But how can one be warm alone?
Though one may be overpowered by another, two can withstand him.
And a threefold cord is not quickly broken.
Ecclesiastes 4: 11-12
Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.
The effective, fervant prayer of a righteous man avails much.
Joy is communion and friendship and grace…
phone conversations with sweet friends, and the ache that is missing so many others. Being sharpened and edified and challenged and encouraged and loved.
Joy is understanding a fraction of what Paul meant when he said, “I thank my God every time I remember you, always in every prayer of mine making request for you all with joy, for your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now…”
Joy is the common love of Christ, and in that finds its source, its fuel, its meaning.
Thank you. To all who fill my life with such joy.
I cannot claim these words, but find them resonating in my heart as to the joy that is sharing in the nature of true friendship:
“Look up, friend! The world is too beautiful for my eyes alone.”
(Jer Clifton – http://www.jerclifton.com – a college friend.)
Sometimes it is evident, Lord, that the wandering and unfaithfulness and adultery of Israel all throughout the Old Testament is less about the general sin nature of man (though I know that is part of it) and more about the preserving and record of an example for us as generations to come – so we could look and see and realize how and who we are through a tangible example. No one else was ever going to serve as, and be written down as, this example, because no one else has had the words and knowledge of God describing their inner hearts in a way even they don’t know. We’re just not often that honest with ourselves, to see ourselves as the people of Israel are described, much less to preserve that portrayal of ourselves in historical form so that generations to come can learn and see themselves in us, and in our example. But we are Israel, or at least just like Israel, in modern day equivalents. I am like Israel.
I keep telling myself that this is just a season: the busyness, and reflective silence on here. Hopefully it’s true, or at least I will try to make it such!
It’s a good busyness though. A busyness of learning: I’ve spent the past few months immersed in learning about this new journey the Lord has me on. Learning everything from the history of my organization; what they believe and their goals and vision; to more detailed specifics of how to work in college ministry, how to teach the Word to students, how to make a schedule and practice Sabbath. But more than any of the specific topics, what I love about learning is that it’s always connected, if we’re open to see it, to life. The Lord reveals Himself in ways obvious and subtle, and all of a sudden learning about something like time management is saturated with spiritual significance. Studying communication becomes a means to better reflect Christ in relationship. Learning about the lenses through which we perceive the world allows us to further honor Him in our emotions. Listening to the history of higher education allows for reflection on how culture shapes our faith, and when faith must rise above it. Looking at results of a personality test sheds greater light on weaknesses and desired growth.
I’m reading a little book right now that doesn’t have a copyright page or date, but the inscription on the inside cover (to a Mrs. Keziah Parr – a name you still hear everyday!) is dated March 8, 1905. I know it’s nothing special; not even really that antique in the grand scheme of things; but there’s something about holding a book in my hands that was held and read over a hundred years ago that makes me feel connected to a picture and world much bigger than my current one. Then, as I begin to read, this becomes even more true. The book is a collection of poems from great Christian writers of the past titled “Gems of Christian Poetry.” The words of familiar hymns, many originally poems, weave their way through the pages, surrounded by numerous pieces I had never read before, and which I doubt remain in too many a number of books (though not for lack of quality). Among the authors’ names is practically a who’s who of Christian poetry and hymn writing greats: George Herbert, Christina Rosetti, Spurgeon, Isaac Watts, Milton, John Newton, Whitefield. But then there are other poems labeled with names such as ‘Mrs. Browning,’ or simply ‘Pope,’ and many more with no name at all, in itself an interesting tribute to the memory of the innumerable saints of old whose names may be remembered by no one, but who have deeply affected our current lives and faith.
I’ve been helping out with the youth group at my church for the past six months or so, and recently a lot of the kids participated in a big week-long youth event called Flower City Work Camp. At youth group the week following the event, we had a chance for the kids to share things God taught them, experiences, favorite part of the week, etc. It was a great evening of sharing and then right at the end, with a courage that astounded me, one girl who hadn’t attended the camp but had been listening to her peers the whole night, stood up and point blank asked us all, “How do you believe this?” She had felt God in the past, but not for a while, and presently couldn’t claim any level of faith at all. I don’t know her or her story well, and I don’t know the journey her faith or life will take, but as we all gathered around and prayed for her that night, and as I came home and continued to reflect on that time of being surrounded once again with the faith of young people, with its highs and lows, beauties and stumbling blocks, my heart went out to her, and many others I’ve interacted with over the past few months.
It’s been silent here for a while. Not for lack of activity in life, I promise, but perhaps from a struggle to translate activity into word. Which is okay sometimes. The past few weeks have had a range of thoughts, emotions, and prayers – some high highs and some low lows. Some moments of feeling very sure and some moments of feeling very lost. That’s life to some extent, although I don’t believe we’re to be blown to extremes by every wind of change or emotion, and I don’t often experience quite this much gusting in such a short period of time. But we sure do have those times when, as the disciples, we cry out in the midst of the raging storm that Jesus, sleeping in the bow, couldn’t possibly care, or why would he be allowing this? Only to feel quite foolish and small indeed when Jesus stands up, rebukes our faith, and creates instant peace from reigning chaos. Which of course He knew lay in wait all along.