faith


Advent is a season in the church year, a time when Christians wait in anticipation both for the celebration of Christ’s birth and for his return to earth at the end of time. It’s common to read daily devotional messages during the season. I was asked to write such a devotional message, and I chose to reflect on a passage from the book of Ecclesiastes describing a posture of openness and receptivity. I’ve put the devotional below.

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Better is a handful with quiet than two handfuls with toil, and a chasing after wind. (Ecclesiastes 4:6)

The Teacher of Ecclesiastes asks, “What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? (Ecc. 2:22) What payoff do we get from all our striving to acquire more money, power, recognition, or appreciation? We may, as the text states, manage to acquire “two handfuls” of whatever it is that we are working for. But is what we gain in this way truly what is best for us? The Teacher thinks not. He warns against laziness (Ecc. 4:5), but also rejects the opposite, overexertion. Rather than using both hands to grasp for all we can get, he suggests that we are better off if we quiet ourselves, turning one hand up to receive what God has for us.

In this Advent season of waiting and reflection, I sometimes consider my stance regarding striving versus receiving. I have to admit that I’m often inclined to be grasping for what I think will satisfy me rather than waiting in peace and stillness for the blessings God has for me. I’m prone to restlessness; perhaps I think that I can get more of what I want through my toil than I can by waiting for God’s good gifts. But what I want is not necessarily what I most need, and it is God, not me, who does best at supplying what I truly need. In the New Testament, Martha epitomizes the life of constant striving. In his mercy, Jesus pointed out that her way of doing things led to worry and distraction. What she really needed was what her sister Mary had already gained by sitting and listening to Jesus: one handful received in quiet rather than the two handfuls that Martha was seeking “by her many tasks.” (Luke 10:40,42)

What Mary received is what I need and you need this Advent season. Peace. Calm. Rest. Awe. Wonder. And most of all, Christ, for he is the ultimate gift that God provides to those who humbly stretch out a hand to receive.

Prayer: Forgive us, Lord, for our tendency to turn from you in order to strive for that which doesn’t satisfy. Help us to wait in stillness for the good gifts you have for us, especially the gift of your Son.

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This was my first poem of the year, written in early January while reflecting on the year past and the year to come. It’s main image comes from Isaiah 40:8–“Grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of God endures forever.” It seems appropriate both in regard to the start of Lent and the present turmoil in the world.

Grass withers and the flower fades
winter comes to take away
whatever lacks abiding root
whatever lacks tenacious truth.

For metal rusts, the moth consumes;
the wealth that promised to accrue
gives little help when health erodes
thus proving a deceptive hope.

But we are blessed, not cursed by rust
for it discourages false loves
and losing is a discipline
that lights the way when dreams have dimmed.

Grass dies and human strength erodes
the word of God continues whole--
his grace and goodness are the hinge:
he opens and we enter in. 

	
	

Here is the Brief Rule of St. Romuald, who founded the Camaldolese Order in Italy a little over a thousand years ago. The rule is taken from https://camaldolesedownunder.com/st-romualds-brief-rule/ this website of an Australian Camaldolese monestary:

Sit in your cell as in paradise;
put the whole world behind you and forget it;
like a skilled angler on the lookout for a catch, keep a careful eye on your thoughts.

The path you must follow is in the psalms – don’t leave it. If you’ve come with a novice’s enthusiasm and can’t accomplish everything you want, take every chance you can find to sing the psalms in your heart and to understand them in your head; if your mind wanders as you read, don’t give up but hurry back and try again.

Above all realize that you are in God’s presence, like a little chick tasting and eating nothing but what its mother brings.

Reflecting on this rule a year ago during the time of isolation imposed by covid19, I wrote the following:

This room has become the cell sustaining me,
with its bed and chair and desk,
its wallpaper looking just a bit like burlap,
a calendar that usually lags a month or two behind,
and stacks of unread books and magazines.
Art hung here and there tells me of the world
beyond these walls—a field in Idaho,
a lake spread like smooth flooring 
beneath clouds plastered softly to the sky,
a quaint European street,
and a room somewhere that’s always sunlit
even during these cloudy winter days.

Wanderlust reaches out of the frames to tug
at me, but I isolate in place,
fishing just among my thoughts,
freshened by the sunlight streaming
from the psalms that my heart sings.
I peck gratefully at whatever seeds
my mother-God supplies.
Contentment visits and
my cell expands to paradise.

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Advent comes, I wait, and know
that all of life is waiting.

I wait for the particular,
what I’m sure will happen—
school to start, graduation to occur,
guests to arrive, Christmas Day to come.
Waiting is faith.

But I mostly feel the weight of my wait
when I’ve left my certainty for contingency;
I check my watch more often when unsure
the train will come on time.
Waiting is doubt.

I wait not in completeness, but in lack—
no Invictus here for me, but need, 
for I am not enough. Other souls
and the mangered God must come
to fill me where I’m incomplete.
Waiting is emptiness.

And emptiness is such discomfort
that I seek some substitute,
some easy way. Yet all the while,
the One for whom I wait
waits steadfastly for me in hope 
that I will disavow distraction
and give myself to him.

Waiting is surrender. 





It is summer yet, but barely—
some days already suitable for sweaters.
Light’s vast expanse is shrunk, 
tailored ever tighter, as if the year
became obese but has been dieting
and will with winter shrink 
to skeletal. 

After eight, my dog and I go out 
and find the yard is deep in darkness.
I thought to take a flashlight
to help us find our way, but discovered 
that the scant rags of light left over
from the day’s rich finery 
are enough for us. 

Wendell Berry writes about a hunter
so exasperated by his temperamental
lantern that he tossed it down a hollow,
then proceeded better than before. 

Perhaps I’ve huddled
close to lamps and lanterns overmuch. 
The darkness has more light 
than I imagined, and in it 
I can see the stars. 

The sun inhabits Lent’s lengthened days.
Snow sheets first were dappled
like metal pounded lightly by a hammer.
The melt then crept down roads,
disappearing into drains.
Eventually snow skirts pulled back
from houses’ knees.
Now there’s just a snowplowed pile or two,
memories of disappeared abundance.

The uncovered ground still sleeps,
her dreams not even tickled yet by daffodils.
Unbudded trees hope dauntlessly for leaves.

Seasons pass away;
there must always be a death
before a resurrection.

The spectral grave clothes are gone
and sunray fingers knead dirt,
the heart’s about to beat again.

This poem is a meditation on Psalm 77, a lament that seems suitable for the current moment. At the end I reference Marta C. Gonzalez, an Alzheimer’s patient who still retained a memory of her days as a ballerina. At the bottom of the page I link to a video of her that went viral.

Troubles fill the day
and spill into night.
My unresting hands reach out,
refusing sleep’s deficient comfort.

It’s not me, God, who wants
to prop my eyes ajar,
so it must be you.
I remember my night songs,
doves fluttering with hope,
and wonder where they’ve flown to.

“God, will you always be like this?
Did your unending love
reach its end?
Favor, mercy, sympathy—
have they all been chewed to pieces
by your angry jaws?”

Sometimes, I think it to be so,
but stubbornly my mind
recalls your deeds, the wonders
that my eyes have seen,
my ears have heard.

Even if I forget all else,
may your music and your dance
be so implanted in my heart
that I could be like
Marta C. Gonzalez.

She,
though wheelchaired and demented,
became again a ballerina,
filled with grace and light,
when she heard the song.

“Sermon on the Mount” by Aurel Naray. Image: http://www.hungarianartmastergallery.com

Blessed are the destitute, the desperate,
the bankrupt and impoverished,
the penniless, insolvent and exhausted,
all those who know they lack.

Blessed are those who bleed,
cut by the knives of race and class;
blessed are the aberrant,
eccentric, odd, and offbeat,
peculiar, queer, or freakish.

What, though, of the stiff and solid,
punctilious and diligent,
respected and presentable;
what of those who sit on
straight-backed chairs counting silver,
stashing it in sacks?

Which group will be welcomed
into the coming kingdom of rejoicing seas,
elated fields, and delighted, singing trees?
In the teeter-totter world
where the lowly are uplifted
and the pompous are pushed down,
open my hermetic seal to let
the pressured air of pride hiss out.
In emptiness alone
can I be filled.

Here is a meditation on Ecclesiastes 11:1-6, written after I had been hiking on wooded trails in Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore.

I walk among the fallen trees
recumbent on a mat of leaves;
no matter that they once reached high,
they’ve yielded life, surrendered pride.

One day I’ll join them, lying down
and, north or south, it’s still the ground
that will receive my tired limbs
consumed by rot, or felled by wind.

Until that day I’ve no complaint;
I’ll watch the clouds, receive the rain
divide my share by spilling seed
to sprout out from the teeming peat.

I’ve cast my bread, and it’s come back
in countless ways; it’s only apt
that God be praised, for it is he
who planted, nurtured, treasured me.

Here is a reflection on Ecclesiastes 9:11 as it played out one night:

I rush, intending to be finished early—
wash the floor and vacuum,
fold up clothes and fix tomorrow’s lunch.
I’m hoping to have time to sit
out on the porch and read a bit.
All goes well until
it quickly doesn’t.

The sink is the first to balk;
the disposal chokes on a chunk of metal
dislodged from its innards.
Water spills into the space below,
soaking boxes and bottles and jugs,
a variety of oddities. Everything
needs to dry. A plumber
will have to come. Oh, boy.

Meanwhile, it’s started raining
I had left some stuff—a mask,
a paper napkin, and a music player—
on the car trunk. Soaked. Toss
the napkin, dry the mask,
will the music play?

The chair on the porch is wet as well.
No reading there tonight.
The shower curtain falls as,
too quickly, I snatch a towel
to absorb disordered water.

Swiftness does not win the race,
nor strength the fight or smarts the cash;
welcome time and chance
and watch tranquility dissolve.
Remember, Bob, that you are dust
and give to God your trust.

 

 

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