how faint a whisper

glimpses of God in a heaven-crammed earth




I missed an exit and hit the steering wheel in frustration. The irony of that moment was not quickly lost: on my way to a personal, silent retreat for the weekend I was painfully demonstrating my need of it. The past week had personified freneticism, with calendar events and responsibilities running over and into each other to the point where my brain couldn’t stop whirling through the future long enough to attend to the present moment. And attentiveness is so crucial for meaning, so days ended without feeling like I had done anything, much less done it well.

As I drove I simultaneously processed through my frustration with the fact that I had scheduled this retreat so late in the semester and my incredible gratefulness for that fact, knowing this was precisely the moment it was most needed. Knowing it is for these moments that discipline exists. Knowing that my clench on my self-sufficient abilities to get it all done was becoming dangerously tight, and I needed to release control.

Silence and solitude, especially in our modern day culture, is so much about control. How will it get done if I’m not doing it? How is this remotely productive?  Does this experience mean anything (in a culture of meaning via affirmation) if I’m not sharing it? And, when we dig a bit deeper: what if God doesn’t show up? What am I without words, without roles, without relationships, without external purpose? What if, in the removal of distractions I lose not only my ability to control my world but my ability to control my own emotions? What might I feel in the slowness, and what might it cause me to say to God?

As I got further from the city, even the very landscape submitted to the decrease of control. Six lanes became four, then two, then shoulders disappeared and double yellows became more like suggestions on curves, hemmed in by mountain and field. I drove through dusk and the lights got less and less frequent, but more striking. The combination of the earliness of winter darkness and the coming of Christmas made for lit up houses around bends, light spilling softly from living rooms and Christmas trees in windows, or not as softly from giant inflatable santas. I had Christmas music playing in the background of my slowly unraveling thoughts, a word or phrase of familiar songs inserting itself into the landscape’s reminders. I pulled into the driveway of the tiny house I had rented for the weekend and, as promised, the owner had left a light on: the only light in view, breaking through the darkness.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Isaiah’s words have been dear to me at Christmas for several years now. As I carried my bags in from the car, set things in order, turned on the fake “fireplace” heater, and settled down into the one chair in this simple, 10×20 space, the word came almost instantly: Incarnation. Simple, common, almost expected at this time of year, it was like I was hearing it for the first time. The light breaking through darkness of Isaiah’s words was metaphorical and spiritual, but it was also concrete, physical, and desperate. Christ’s birth is not just the fuzzy, warm light of ethereal hope stirring hearts, but the life-saving lighthouse or lantern to the utterly lost and despairing. The light became real and entered the world. Christ became man. Incarnation.

The Incarnation is the greatest meaning-maker this world has ever known. God came: Into this stuff, into this mess, into this food and sand and sore muscles and star-filled nights and children’s laughter and hay in a manger. He came: not with disgust, and not with resignation, but with zeal. With joy! With light bursting through cracks that cannot hold it back. And in that He proclaimed that this life matters so much I’m going to live it. I’m going to taste it and feel it and walk it and live it…thirty three years of it in twenty-four hour days, just like you do. Learning to wait, just like you must. Learning to pay attention, just like you must. Living open to the world so I could die for you who are made of it. He could have done it another way. He could have saved us and taken us out, but He doesn’t. What does that say about the meaning and the wonder of the stuff our lives?

God’s abundance does not come through His gifts, it comes through His life, and it is made known in the transformation of the ordinary stuff of our lives and our world. Five loaves feed five thousand. Water becomes wine. “The ordinary stuff in all its scarcity” (Walter Brueggemann) becomes enough. Becomes more than enough. Think of the miracles of God: so many of them are scarcity to abundance miracles. The manna came. The widow’s flour and oil did not run out. The people ate and were filled. And Pentecost: one of the greatest miracles of abundance, when His presence descended to dwell with each of his children. To be with us always, even to the end of the age. This incarnate God, still in our life, is everyday transforming its scarcity.

I sat in the quiet and the dim and let the questions roll with the tears. It is hard sometimes, in the scarcity of the not yet to believe that the abundance of the already is also here. Sometimes I am afraid it will never feel like enough. But the Incarnation means that God Himself redeemed human anxiety in the garden and human longing in His tears. He does not condemn my longings. He is not afraid of my fears. He knows. He lived the scarcity that sometimes is our human lives. To know Him better, I do not need to escape this life. I need to see its ordinary abundance.

The next morning I climbed a mile up the dirt road beside the cabin. At the top of the hill I turned to face the field in front of me, sloping down to trees and rising to larger hills beyond. I stopped and stood, the quiet nearly ringing in my ears. A bird called, tires crunched on gravel somewhere far down in the valley, some sort of machine rumbled to life on the farm I had just passed. But mostly, it was quiet. A tear slipped down my cheek with no concrete source or explanation, almost as if it was squeezed out simply by the weight of that silence. The wind blew cold on the wetness on my cheek, but I didn’t brush it away. I looked closer to the field in front of me. Tumbles of grass mixed with dried up flowers. The goldenrod and the Queen Anne’s lace stood straight up from it all, brittle and dry. At first glance they were simply dead, but in a longer gaze, still fifty different shades of brown for which there are no names. The wind blew gently and they made no resistance and no noise, just quiet bending response. How often, I wondered, does the Spirit blow in my life as He has in these few days, but I miss it because I am not still enough to hear? Am I willing to bend in response, the slightest of movements evidencing my release of control?

I stood there until I got too cold to linger more. I don’t know how long it was. All it cost was time, which for once wasn’t my measure. It was long enough, though, that when I started walking again, my stiff muscles cried in protest. But the remedy for stiff muscles is to use them – to gently work them back into remembrance of action and discipline long known; of what they were created for. So I pushed further on, then down the hill, in physical rhythm affirming that the Lord had spoken in the stillness, and I wanted to work it into remembrance throughout this Advent season. I want the reality of His Incarnation to change not simply one day, or one season, but the whole of my life. If I believe in Christ’s companionship and abundance in the longings of scarcity, how does that profoundly change my waiting? If I truly believe that my God embodied full and perfect humanity, how does that change the honor and attentiveness and wonder I want to give this life that He has given me?

Two simple, quiet days in December at a tiny cabin in the woods framed the whole of Advent for me this year. And finally, we are here. This night where we remember the whole of earth poised to host the Poem. We remember doors thrown open to light and meaning and hope, to the presence of God in every astounding, intimate detail of our lives. Christ came and in that gave meaning to working muscles and tears, to dairy farms and wind and goldenrod and Queen Anne’s lace; to words and anxieties and longings. This Advent I needed to be reminded to quiet my life enough to see. Only then can the ordinary astound with wonder. And wonder proclaims glory, and glory ushers in shalom.

The people who live in darkness have seen a great light…
For unto us a Child is born.

He came. No scarcity can diminish that abundance. He came. And He is still here.


Walter Brueggemann’s Advent devotional, Celebrating Abundance, and Christopher Armstrong’s Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians, both read during this Advent, have greatly influenced and shaped my extended meditation on the Incarnation and this capturing of it.

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the waiting dim of advent felt especially dark this year.
the valley of the shadow of death was oh too real – some gone. some going. all of us not as strong as we think we are.
the world, and its news, felt weary. relentless.
and its Babel sounds, Babel grasping, Babel pride…exhaustively deafening.

our aching watchman-for-the-morning eyes, straining in the dark for that first glimpse of that first ray, felt like they could not stay open one moment more.
that pregnant pause as the conductor raises his baton, then holds it, hovering in anticipation, felt unbearably long and impossibly silent.


“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them a light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation and increased its joy;
…You have broken the yoke of his burden and the staff of his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor…
For every warrior’s sandal from the noisy battle, and garments rolled in blood,
Will be used for burning and fuel of fire.
FOR unto us a Child is born,
Unto us a Son is given;
And the government shall be upon His shoulder.
And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of His government and peace
There will be no end…
To order it and establish it with judgment and justice
From that time forward, even forever.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.”

The baton drops. The triumphant concerto rushes through the room. The glowing orb of sun breaks the horizon line like the tension releasing last drop of water that pushes it all over the edge. God, Incarnate, floods the world with light.

There it is: hope.
the weary world rejoices.

The Word of the Lord. The Word, the Lord. Thanks be to God.

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the waiting joy of Christmas

We stood tonight in the dimmed light, candles flickering in our hands, and the organ soft, just enough to guide our voices. The familiar words washed over like comfort, one of my favorite moments of Christmas each year, and always I want the song to last longer than it does. There’s something about that space and remembrance that makes me realize how infrequently life is, in fact, silent, or all is calm. There’s an ache in the peace.

Sometimes I forget the wonder that is the colliding truths of Christmas. There’s a section in Lauren Winner’s book, Girl Meets God, where she talks about the words of the old liturgy that led into the Lord’s prayer with “we are bold to say…” We lose something in the loss of those words, she says. We lose an understanding of how bold it all really is. To say He is our Father, even though He is in heaven. To say He is a King, and a Savior, even though He was a baby.

One of my favorite Christmas hymns, What Child is This?, in a portion of the second verse that is too often left off, tries to capture this:

Nails, spear shall pierce Him through,
The cross be born for me, for you
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.

How strange it all is, that He came as a baby. How incredible that from that first moment, helpless and weak, He was already the silent Word pleading, every breath of His existence a reminder, a cry out to His Father, “You must save them! Because I am here, doing this.”  The nails and spear and cross were there, in the very fact of the Word made flesh. Yet how instructive it is that, even as He was living to die, He still somehow saw the meaning in every moment of life, living it in a fullness we still only dream of.

I wonder if it was to teach us to wait.

I was talking with a friend recently about the period of time right before Jesus’ birth. For four hundred years, God was silent. No prophets, no Messiah. Four hundred years. Generations lived and died and in every moment of it, waited. And waited in a way we never have, those born after Christ, with the living and active word and the gift of the Spirit. They waited in silence…and then He was born, and for one night, for one night for those few who knew, I wonder if it truly felt that all was silent, and holy, and calm, and right in the world. But then of course, He was a baby, and they knew that still, they must live. They must wait. I imagine there was an ache in the joy.

What is this season but a reflection of the whole of our lives? The Lord knew we would need reminding, and so built into each year this waiting and hoping and rejoicing, this living out, in four short weeks, what we continue to live every day beyond it. We know the end, but we must wait for it. We are healed and we are whole and we are redeemed and Christ came. Yet we are here, and we are broken, and we are weary, and we sin, and we ache. And Christ is coming again. So all of our aching is woven to this truth: that the world is not as it should be. Our relationships are not as they should be; we are not as we should be. Not as we will be. And we ache not for ourselves or our own comfort, but for the way we know, and carry, the redemption of Christ in an unredeemed world.

On no day is there more joy than remembering the miracle that Christ came. But perhaps also on no night is there more ache than remembering that we wait, even though it is finished. The one contains the other, for we wait with assurance, a waiting fraught with eternal hope. Perhaps nothing could be more terrifying than having nothing left to ache for. And for this as well, the Lord knows we need Christmas. We need to remember that because of this miraculous day, and every one of the year that follows it, year after year…as Andrew Peterson so poignantly illustrates, “the aching may remain, but the breaking does not.

So strengthen the weak hands,
And make firm the feeble knees…
For waters shall burst forth in the wilderness,
And streams in the desert,
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
And come to Zion with singing,
With everlasting joy on their heads,
They shall obtain joy and gladness,
And sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
Isaiah 35

Merry Christmas, indeed.

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true repentance

I was reading in a book of Christian poetry this morning the words to several poems that have been set to music and become popular Christmas songs, as is the case with many hymns. And as is often also the case, one poem contained a verse I have never sung, or even heard before, and its message is beautiful. The poem, originally by James Montgomery and first published in Scotland in 1816, is called Nativity, but the hymn title is drawn from its first line, “Angels, from the realms of glory.”

I have to admit, its never been a Christmas song I’ve noticed much. Continue reading

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IMG_4227A word, and a theme, that runs its way through a number of Christmas songs is that of peace. It’s a popular word, really, and one that even those without faith in our society can latch onto, especially at Christmas-time, and proclaim as a good thing. And true peace is a good thing, undoubtedly, though what society means by proclaiming peace at this season, and what Christians mean, are two very different things. Peace is not synonymous with happiness. It is not having no difficulty in life. It is also not simply getting along with your neighbors and passing out cookies and speaking to long lost relatives again. The reason we as Christians talk about peace at Christmas time specifically is because it’s a promise. It’s a promise that is not yet fully realized, but which the birth of Christ was the beginning of fulfilling. Isaiah chapter nine’s familiar prophecy is one of the passages that makes this connection most clearly,

For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end… Continue reading

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christmas words

I’m just starting to get involved with helping lead a youth group. It’s a pretty cool thing, one I’m excited about for a number of reasons. But more about that will have to wait for another post. Maybe. We’ll see.

But anyway…the youth leader of this group just recently began a teaching series called “Christmas words.” Now, what he means by this is taking words we hear at church around Christmastime that are not exactly in widespread circulation through the average high school hallways. Last week’s word, for example, was incarnation, and as part of pointing out where this word shows up he had us sing a couple verses of Hark the Harold Angels Sing, focusing in on the line “Hail the Incarnate Deity!” Continue reading