The Christian Plummet

After Prayer Book CoverDown into the icy depths you plunge,
The cold dark undertow of your depression,
Even your memories of light made strange,
As you fall further from all comprehension.
You feel as though they’ve thrown you overboard,
Your fellow Christians on the sunlit deck,
A stone-cold Jonah on whom scorn is poured,
A sacrifice to save them from the wreck.

But someone has their hands on your long line,
You sound for them the depths they sail above,
One who takes Jonah as his only sign
Sinks lower still to hold you in his love,
And though you cannot see, or speak, or breathe,
The everlasting arms are underneath.

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What Shall We Pack?

‘I do really wish to destroy it!’ cried Frodo. ‘Or, well, to have it destroyed. I am not made for perilous quests…. Why did it come to me? Why was I chosen?’

—J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

We have begun our journey. The tales of the joys and perils of our fellow travelers make for wonderful stories shared around the hearth, but now the reality of our own pilgrimage is at hand. How shall we prepare? Weaponry, food, and proper clothing of course. (Perhaps a little box of salt for the taters.) But what we carry in our heart and head is more important than what we heft onto our shoulders. Every journey holds the possibility to challenge and teach us something, but when the road becomes truly grueling we will need more than the physical basics.

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Zen Is Not Enough

Ernest Hemingway defined courage as “grace under pressure”, but I don’t think that goes far enough. It’s insufficient to achieve zen-like tranquility of inner equilibrium in the midst of outer chaos. For that, a lobotomy will do just fine. Being able to stay calm only gets you so far.

The church celebrates the Confession of St Peter on this day, January 18th as a remembrance of Peter’s bold statement to Jesus “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:15).  It’s important to remember that much was still ahead of Peter.  It was fear that later caused him to deny Christ and remorse consumed him afterward, but it was his love for Jesus that led him to a life of bold leadership, ultimately resulting in his martyrdom.

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The Road To Character by David Brooks

9780812993257Who will officiate your funeral?  If you died today, is there someone on the planet who actually knows you well enough to describe not only the biographical you, but the real you – or more so, the best you?  In his masterful book, The Road to Character, David Brooks describes these as eulogy virtues.  We all want to be better people, but what does that mean?

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Battling The Devil

It has never been easy to be a teenager. Crossing the border from childhood to adulthood comes with an assortment of demons and when you are thirteen-year-old Michelangelo, the experience comes out in paint. That’s right, he was thirteen when he painted The Torment of Saint Anthony.

The church celebrates Saint Anthony today (January 17) and his life was instructive. He inherited wealth from his parents at age twenty but gave it all away to live in simplicity and solitude, devoting himself to contemplation and prayer. He is known for being the father of monasticism and for his ability to battle the devil against temptations of every stripe.

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Speaking in Silence

Susan Sontag was born on this day, January 16th in 1933. In her book The Aesthetics of Silence she said

Every era has to reinvent the project of “spirituality” for itself (Spirituality = plans, terminologies, ideas of deportment aimed at the resolution of painful structural contradictions inherent in the human situation, at the completion of human consciousness, at transcendence.) In the modern era, one of the most active metaphors for the spiritual project is “art.” …The art of our time is noisy with appeals for silence. A coquettish, even cheerful nihilism. One recognizes the imperative of silence but goes on speaking anyway.

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Quartet For The End Of Time

On this day, January 15th in 1941, something of a miracle took place.  Olivier Messiaen was a prisoner of war under Nazi Germany and was held in Stalag 8A at Görlitz in Silesia, about fifty miles east of Dresden. Here he suffered extremes of cold and hunger, but here also his musical imagination was fired, and a masterpiece born.

As Jeremy Begbie describes in his book Resounding Truth:

In the camp with him were a violinist, a clarinetist, and a cellist—all highly competent and experienced players. The first rehearsal of an emerging quartet took place in one of the barrack washrooms, where in the absence of a piano, they could play only through a movement for violin, clarinet, and cello. The first performance of the complete Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time) on January 15, 1941, is one of the great stories of modern music: for nearly an hour, hundreds of prisoners and soldiers sat in Barrack 27B in the depths of a subzero winter, the wounded lying on stretchers at the front of the audience. They listened to the four performers, the composer in wooden clogs struggling with a run-down, out-of-tune upright piano. As one of the players later recalled, the music seemed to transfigure the misery of Stalag 8A “into something sublime.” The composer himself remarked that he had “never … been listened to with such consideration and understanding.”

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Distortions Of Meaning

The master of wordplay, Lewis Carroll died on this day, January 14th in 1898. He introduced us to Wonderland and it seems we are now a bit lost in it. As with Carroll’s tale, communication, and our collective conversation is today handicapped by the discounting and rebranding of words.  When “spiritual” is good but “religious” is bad, we might think it sick or dope, and we might be right. No wait, that’s wrong. What?

“‎You’re not the same as you were before,” he said. You were much more… muchier… you’ve lost your muchness.”

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Making the World Comprehensible

As I was making my way home from another long business trip, God snuck-up on me again. Sitting half-asleep in an empty train car, my rest was interrupted by an elderly couple from a foreign country who boarded at a random stop. Both were rather poor in appearance and spoke a language I could not have recognized even if they weren’t shouting. The old gentleman must have been nearly deaf.

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Heart In Pilgrimage

After Prayer Book CoverI start with Dante in a darkened wood
Well past the middle of my mazy way,
My beating heart sustains this flesh and blood,

A sounding drum that will not let me stay
Stuck in the sluggishness of middle age.
For here are April showers and a new day,

As Chaucer joins me in my pilgrimage;
The mottled glory of his company,
With all their tales to tell, gives me new courage.

And now a Bedford tinker comes to me
And sings: Here little, and hereafter bliss,
Death where’s thy sting, where grave thy victory?

So, pilgrim heart, keep beating, fierce and free,
Your last beat brings me where I long to be.

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