Pilgrim Notes

Reflections along the way.

Advent Blues

Image by Chris Lim (used by permission via Creative Commons).

The darkness closes in. Sadness, grief, loss, or some unspeakable sense of emptiness paralyzes. Each step feels like walking against the tide, pressing against of wall of nothingness. It seems easier to close the blinds. Turn over in bed. Lay in the dark. Continue reading

Advent – Collapse and Hope

Image by Manchester Fire (used by permission via Creative Commons).

Sun and moon turned dark. Stars falling from skies. Smoke and fire in the sky. Everything is quaking.

Welcome to Advent…The beginning of the end of all things.

Advent breaks into our world like a thunderclap or a meteor crashing down from the skies and reverberating across the land. Who can sleep when the world is tumbling into cataclysm?

Advent comes like a crisis, like a wildfire, like an explosion that shatters our comfortable worlds.

The culture is filling the air with songs of holly and jolly, with heart-warming commercials of gifts given and relationships forged afresh.

The Scripture readings at the start of Advent focus on families falling apart, nations battling nations, children rising against parents. The texts look a bit closer to our present reality. In Mark 13, all that is holy has been desecrated and made desolate. The places of refuge are crumbling war zones where security is nowhere to be found. Continue reading

Advent Resources

Here are a few Advent meditations that have blessed me. One of the earliest books I read on Advent, was a selection of poems from Ann Weems. Her conversational poems speak to our human longing and struggle to pause before the mystery of God’s coming. Alfred Delp and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s sermons were written from Nazi prisons and carry the weight of a soul waiting human judgment while looking for the coming of God in Christ. There are some paintings from across the ages that explore the nativity. One quick way to get started is by looking at Nativity on Wikiart (some pictures are not relevant but most are). Continue reading

Advent Invitation

We stand at the threshold of a new year: a new cycle of remembrance and reflection. This coming Sunday marks the beginning of the Advent season and the beginning of the church year. For over 20 years, I’ve tried to write occasional meditations during this season of anticipation. For over 1500 years, the church has observed the Advent season as a time of watching and waiting for the coming of the Lord. Each year, I discover something new from this ancient well of church writings, music, art, and prayers.

As we watch and wait together, we learn afresh the meaning, the hope, the arrival of our Lord in all his glory. We learn from those saints who have gone before us, and we learn from one another as we journey together, share stories and watch for His sudden appearing. I invite you to walk with me and others in this season of watchful prayer. May we exhort one another all the more as we see the day approaching.

How do we practice Advent watching and waiting? Continue reading

Simple Thanks

Image by Stacy (used by permission via Creative Commons).

This morning I woke up early and decided to start preparing a salad for a family gathering at lunch today. As I sliced the cucumber, a mild aroma refreshed the room like a cool breeze. This simple act reminded me that I am alive and grateful. As I write these words, I am aware of the humor in pausing while cutting a cucumber and lifting up hands in thanks. Simple thanks seems a bit odd in a world of cool cynicism. The overwhelming abundance of our age can blind us to the giftedness of each moment.

I learn and relearn the art of simple thanks from people who have known lack and from times when I suffered loss. Earlier in my life, I had the privilege to serve in a mixed race Pentecostal church among many people who lived at the very edge of survival. I have never been around such joyous, raucous worship. Their joy carried me through a battle of dark depression that threatened to smother me. When I stepped into the services, I felt their delight overwhelm me, and I was jumping and spinning and dancing. I say dancing but I mean tottering. My height and size made me look more like a big drunk bear stumbling around and always on the verge of tipping over.

When I sit with those who have known great suffering, I have been surprised by the simple joy and thanksgiving. Almost twenty years ago, an older man walked into my life as he was entering the twilight of his life. He had lived a hermit life for many years, escaping the pain of his losses from earlier in life. He came to a retreat I hosted on Holy Play and was so excited when we did a finger-painting exercise. At 68 years old, he had never finger-painted. In the years ahead, he entered a second childhood and immersed himself in coloring, music, friendships, and laughter in a way that brought joy to me and all those around us.

I also think of those who have known deep, unshakable suffering like Richard Wurmbrand and Rabia Al Basri. Imprisoned and tortured for his faith under Romanian Communism, Wurmbrand discovered the grace of God at the place where he was weakest and failing. He tells the story of a torturer who started singing. Though in pain, he gave thanks for he had not heard music in years. His descent into the forsaken depths of a dark prison became an entrance into the halls of worship. In the despair of pain and loss, he found the joy of the Lord and love for those who hated him.

Like Wurmbrand, Rabia also knew great pain at the human hands. After her father’s death, she fell into the hands of robbers and was sold as a slave. Years of hardship and suffering gave way to a love for God. This Persian poet and mystic spent her life of suffering and eventual freedom in prayer and thanksgiving. Everywhere she turned, she found the love of God.

Finally, I think of Jane Kenyon. A poet who suffered from depression all her life, Kenyon also gave words to the absolute wonder of being alive. In the darkness of her own pains, she still discovered grace. On this day of giving thanks, may her words inspire afresh that every moment, every breath is gift.

Otherwise

By Jane Kenyon

I got out of bed

on two strong legs.

It might have been

otherwise. I ate

cereal, sweet

milk, ripe, flawless

peach. It might

have been otherwise.

I took the dog uphill

to the birch wood.

All morning I did

the work I love.

At noon I lay down

with my mate. It might

have been otherwise.

We ate dinner together

at a table with silver

candlesticks. It might

have been otherwise.

I slept in a bed

in a room with paintings

on the walls, and

planned another day

just like this day.

But one day, I know,

it will be otherwise.

– Jane Kenyon
from Otherwise: New and Selected Poems (Graywolf Press, 1996)

The Future is Created through Sacrifice

Image by Vinoth Chandar (used by permission via Creative Commons).

Jeremiah sees a vision of hope, a vision of restoration. He sees a time when, “Jerusalem will become a name of joy and praise and pride for all the nations on earth to see; when they hear of all the prosperity that I shall give, they will be seized with fear and trembling at all the prosperity and the peace that I provide for it.” (Je 33:9)

His words bear witness to God’s promise that the people of God will be restored and that the promises of God will be fulfilled. He declares this word of hope while be held captive in the court of the guard. He will soon be brutally thrown down into a well and left for dead. Rescued from the well, he will behold the fall of his beloved homeland and the destruction of Jerusalem. Eventually, he will be driven away from his home and into Egypt where he will die.

Jeremiah’s vision of hope is not for himself. It is given to future generations, to us and to others. He will live through the full brunt of God’s judgment on a faithless nation though he has been God’s servant, declaring the Word of the Lord to the people. Many faithful people, like Jeremiah, laid the foundation for a future world and sacrificed the satisfaction of their lives for a future hope, for a world yet to be born.

As I reflect on Jeremiah’s story, I hear the words from Hebrews, “And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, “since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.” (Heb 11:39–40)

These saints laid down their lives in response to God’s call but also for those who would come after them. They played a role in creating the future. Jesus comes as the perfect sacrifice, whose life poured out death and taken up in resurrection becomes our redemption, our hope, our life. Paul tells us that we should “look not only to our own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” (Php 2:4–7)

We may not suffer the loss and abandonment of Jeremiah, and yet we learn through him that the future is created through sacrifice. I fear that we live in an age that tends to ignore the past and abandon the future. Even our spiritual reflections often focus on personal goals, personal achievement, and personal fulfillment. We must not live only for self-fulfillment, for our own interests. We also are called to lay down our lives. After the great chapter on saints of faith, the writer of Hebrews calls us to “run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Heb 12:1–2)

As we follow the Lord, may our lives be poured out for those around us, those behind us, and even those yet to come.

The Lord Remembers

Two psalms linger in my heart long after the morning prayers: one asking God to remember and one trusting in His provision.

Psalm 9 reminds me of the long memory of the Lord. The Creator and Judge of the world hears and remembers the cry of the oppressed.

For the needy shall not always be forgotten 
and the hope of the poor shall not perish forever. (Psalm 9:18)

Then in 147, the psalmist juxtaposes the image of the Lord numbering and naming each star alongside the image of the Lord gathering the brokenhearted and satisfying their desire.

As I enter the morning traffic, I hear these ancient songs continuing to plead before the Lord. Over millennia after these prayers were composed and uttered during the worship of God’s people, the cry still ascends. The prayers echo in the hearts and mouths of people from age to age and across the families and languages of the world.

I am haunted by voices I cannot hear and the faces of those I cannot see who suffer in the dark, outside the public eye both in my community and in our world. Recent headlines remind us that people suffer abuse and fear at all levels of society. Cries of desperation or moans of anguish lift up from the crumbling neighborhoods and the gated subdivisions.

As my imagination lingers over the prayer of remembrance, I see the enslaved, the lonely, the hungry, the sick, and the imprisoned. I think of the aging waitress who works long days with little to show for her efforts. I also hear afresh Richard Wurmbrand’s description of political prisoners who suffer extreme cold and extreme heat and often work themselves to death. I know there are untold numbers of people held in prisons unjustly, suffering, forgotten, and dying alone.

The Psalmist proclaims that the Lord hears these cries. The Lord hears and remembers. The same Creator who spoke every star into being knows each of these dear ones intimately, and he will not abandon them. He remembers and will gather them unto himself. He will satisfy their needs.

As I think about His faithfulness, I am aware of my lack, my unfaithfulness. How does this pray take shape in my hands? Once again, I think about how these ancient prayers come to life in each age, in each person, in each act. How the move toward justice in the people of God has grown out of prayer and not in opposition to prayer.

May my actions carry this prayer for the oppressed into this world of hurt. May I live toward the hope of His redeeming purpose in this world with ears to listen to the stories of downtrodden, eyes ready to behold the forsaken, hands offered to serve and give to the weak and worn-down, and feet walking into the injustices of this world with peace, goodness, and mercy.

I join my voice and heart with this cry from the Daily Prayers:

Compassionate God,
as you know each star you have created,
so you know the secrets of every heart;
in your loving mercy bring to your table
all who are fearful and broken,
all who are wounded and needy,
that our hungers may be satisfied
in the city of your peace;
through Christ who is our peace.

Image by Neil Moralee (used by permission via Creative Commons).

Breathing

Elder Meditating His Life Watch The WaterThe whole world seems out of breath, gasping between the frenzied moments. The darkness of night crackles, buzzes, beeps and blinks. Compulsive news binging. Emergencies from every corner of the globe pulse through our minds. Currents of chaos fill the waking hours. I cannot remember why I got up. I cannot remember who got up.

One argument gives way to another argument gives way to another protest gives way to teeth set on edge. Hands clenched. Backs arched. Joy banished: thrown down into a dry well. Heart pulsing to the drums of doom, more doom, and a little more doom.

I cannot hear the whispers. I cannot hear the sound of music in shuddering silence.

Pause. Watch. Wait. Listen

In the gentle susurration of breathing, I return to the simplicity of prayer. Inhaling, “Lord.” Exhaling, “Mercy.” Lord. Mercy. Lord. Mercy. Lord. Mercy.

Stilling heart and mind before the All. The Holy. The Word who fills His forms with breath, life.

Teach me, Lord, to speak one true word, one seed swirling in light and not a thousand pounds of crushing concrete.

Or simply let me breathe.

The steady hum of remote cars
like waves upon the shore.
It is afternoon
and a certain stillness lulls
the day through siesta.
Breeze creeps silently
across the lawn
like a child waking from nap.
Distant birdsongs drift through air
Soft echoes from the morning uproar.
I feel the gentleness across my skin, my neck.
Ever so briefly,
I breathe in the never-ending symphony
Of heaven and earth
Then return to rush of traffic.

Our songs take flight like fireflies
Disrupting dark skies
With flashes of joy.
Just beyond the wall
Of blackness
Glory.

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