Monday, 29 February 2016

John Donne's "Batter My Heart"

Just popping in to share this poem from Malcolm Guite's The Word in the Wilderness: A Poem a Day for Lent and Easter. I've been enjoying this anthology which includes a wide selection of poets (and Guite's insightful commentary on their works), as well as some of Guite's own poetry.

This poem by John Donne, written four hundred years ago, leapt off the page as a poem kindred to my own soul. It speaks the language of Jacob's midnight wrestling, of Paul's living sacrifice, the kernel of desire at the heart of Lent's journey. It is a prayer of raw beauty and power.

Batter My Heart

Batter my heart, three-person'd God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp'd town to another due,
Labour to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv'd, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov'd fain,
But am bethroth'd unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.


Sunday, 21 February 2016

Swan Joy

Joy is a longing,
a passageway with the white wingbeat of swans overhead,
and the silent current of a spring river beneath.
You cannot live in water or air, and yet they push and lift you into realms of beauty and desire,
so much the more powerful for their being out of reach.

Joy is this pulling of the soul right out of the body and onto the swan's back,
a dreamscape more alive than your waking vision.
It is forever captured in your mind's eye,
a trumpet call from a far country,
which even now sets your feet dancing on the rippled water,
dazzled by the bright sun toward which you run.

Joy is the elemental force you cannot contain,
yet which defines your every movement,
now from beneath, now from above,
the wave that buoys,
the wind that breathes,
the holy, humbling wild of spring unleashed.

This poetic reflection draws on C.S. Lewis's understanding of joy as desire, and is formed by memories of canoeing down the Salt River with my father one spring. In an afternoon I will never forget, we set up a tarp sail and the wind carried us downstream toward hundreds of white tundra swans that had returned to the river. As we neared, they rose up by the dozens and dozens, and flew overhead to resettle behind us. We were surrounded. I look back on that day as a gift of beatific vision. 


Wednesday, 17 February 2016

The return of the birds

The blue jays arrived first. They still startle me with their plumage. I didn't grow up with blue jays, and they've always seemed rather foreign to me, like creatures out of a jungle picture book. They are colourful and noisy and somewhat obnoxious, rather like children. They crowded around the feeders, calling to each other with their piercing cries, alerting the bird world to their discovery.

The chickadees came next. They are the bravest of the little birds, willing to dart in between the bossy jays for their share of sunflower seeds. With their black caps on, they seem game for anything. These are the birds which landed on my head last winter when I stood out in the cold for half an hour with seeds on my toque, pretending to be a statue. It was one of those childhood dreams fulfilled. I had tried many times as a kid to stand still enough, for long enough, in our backyard in Fort Smith for the chickadees to land, but they never did. Perhaps I've gained some patience as a "grown-up." Or perhaps this variety is a little less wild. Either way, they braved my humanity long enough to settle and snatch what they were after, and left me grinning like a fool.

Later in the morning I came back to the window and the snowy ground was spread with juncos. I cannot say why these in particular should captivate me. Perhaps it is the distinction between their smoky grey backs and white breasts, or the way their eyes gleam like shiny coals through the smoke. It might sound silly, but I think it's the way they look at me. They prefer to forage on the ground, picking out what has scattered from more careless birds above. And that's why we make sure to scatter a few handfuls of seed just for them.

And up among the chickadees, a downy woodpecker, alternating between feeder and branches, gripping bark with its four-toed feet, always head up. How is the grub finding in February,  I wonder? It is smaller than its hairy cousin, though just as persistent. It must pick and drill for its food, if easier pickings are not to be found. "If any would not work, neither shall he eat." I admire its determination, and the way its thrusts its whole upper body beak-first into the search.  On Ash Wednesday morning, I woke to the sound of one of these, knocking on doors in the sky.

"Ask and it shall be given unto you. Seek and ye shall find. Knock and the door shall be opened unto you." This was the message I heard on the day we consider and mark our frailty.

Such little creatures all, with only a feather's breadth between them and starvation. Fragility like this cannot afford complacency. And so I am happy to spread this small banquet in a sparser season. Sometimes you just need a table prepared. 

When you are tired of drilling and foraging through a crust of ice, there is this grace that arrives like manna. In  the deep winter, a hand stretches out, offering seed for the sower and bread for the eater.

Be brave, little bird, and come closer!

The search never ends, but neither does the provision. There is always food enough for the journey.


Saturday, 13 February 2016

Lent Is For the Birds

Winter is truly here with a respectable -22 C morning. The snow is crunchy and crystalline, and the river shivers under its growing skin. Life stirs house by house, as first one plume of smoke and then another rises out of the neighbours' chimneys. All seems still, silenced by the cold, except for the birds of winter.

I've neglected the birdfeeder lately. The odd chickadee hops over to investigate their previous source of food, then flies off to search for other, more generous backyards. I miss them. I miss the chatter and flutter and closeness of small life.

I miss the messages they carry from another kingdom. Over the years, they have been to me heaven's carrier pigeons. (For God's voice is woven and wafted throughout all creation.) A year ago, a bird was somehow tied up with the beginning of this journey of a life of prayer.

Lent is a time for fasting. But it's also a time for feeding the soul.

This Lent, I've decided to feed the birds. 

Junco - Carrier of secrets, she knows where to find the hidden seed. She knows the song of the wind.

(Give me ears to hear!)

Chickadee - Cheerful herald through winter's cold, constant companion of woods and windowsill, bright bringer of joy.

(Give me a heart of joy!)

Sparrow - Common beauty building her nest, crafting a refuge of kindness out of bits and pieces, gathering nature's scraps into a soft bed for her young.

(Give me wings of kindness!) 

We will go out into the cold and fill up the feeder, scatter the seeds, and send our invitation. We will watch and wait for the birds to come back. We will listen, and learn, and lean close. We will feed the hunger of winter.

We will wait for the return of the birds . . .


Thursday, 11 February 2016

The Heart of Lent

I've been practicing Lent, in some fashion or other, for about the last decade. Lent is the forty day period (excluding Sundays) from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday. It is part of the recurring rhythm of the church calendar, another way to mark time by following in the footsteps of Jesus.

It is a time of fasting and prayer. It is a penitential, preparatory season. During Lent we focus on the life and teachings of Jesus, all the while preparing to embrace the terrible beauty of his death and resurrection. For me it is a much-needed shift in perspective.

At its heart, Lent is about hunger and humility.

Hunger - Where would we be without the recognition of our lack? We live in a supersaturated society, where desires are gratified smoothly at our fingertips, and our stomachs growl right along with the ceaseless roar of consumerism. Through fasting, through denial, and self-sacrifice, we acknowledge that we have needs we alone cannot satisfy. We don't fast to gain brownie points with God. We fast to remember our great need of Him. And in mercy He fills the empty places.

Humility - Where would we be without this unpopular position? With our noses so high in the air that God becomes merely a stumbling stone to our vain ambition, when He wants to build us a sanctuary (Isaiah 8:11-15). The only way in is through a fearfully narrow gate, and we must crawl on prayerful knees. But once inside, we find a fortress of shelter and strength, a sacred dwelling. And in mercy He gives us the ability to receive.

Hunger and humility soften our hearts. They make us search after our upside-down King as he makes his way from the Sermon on the Mount to the Mount of Olives. They make us strain to hear his whispers and climb trees to see his wonders.

Lent is an invitation to a forty day journey with Jesus. A journey of hunger, humility, and honesty. A journey to His heart.


Tuesday, 9 February 2016

afternoon prayer :: abiding joy

There’s an intrinsic connection between abiding in the true Vine and true Joy (John 15). If I’m feeling my joy waning as the day wears on, it’s a sign I need to reach and root into the source of my life. Mid-afternoon is the perfect time to pause and become grounded.

It’s as simple as closing my eyes and taking a few deep breaths, imagining my inner life as the flow of sap between a vine and a branch, picturing the vital connection I have to love, beauty, strength, joy, and fruitfulness. It’s breathing His name – Jesus – as prayer, as petition, as practicing the presence of God. It’s drinking this aqua vitae from a well I have not dug. There is a peace that flows in, a moment of waiting, and then the strength begins to rise.

His life in mine, and mine in His, and ours together breathing and becoming one – ah yes – His joy becomes mine and mine becomes full. 


Saturday, 6 February 2016

Letter to a Little One

Little one,

You are growing, pushing, expanding my borders of love. I feel it already, your feet stomping out new territory, a land about to be lived in. Already, you are staking a claim to heart and home, and we welcome your flags with joy. Already your sister and brother are circling you with their arms and knowing love to enlarge with the ever-widening space you occupy.

You are getting in under my ribs, as if under my skin wasn't enough - flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone. You are step dancing on my heart, and though I have yet to know your name, I know your rhythm. I know your hiccups. My blood knows your heartbeat.

I can't deny there is some trepidation at the thought of your coming. New life has a way of turning kingdoms on their heads. But headfirst is the best way to break into the new world, and we might as well plunge headlong if we are going to fall at all. You will turn me inside out, of this I am sure, and I will be put back together a new person.

New because of you. New because of pain, and new because of joy. New because your name will be on my lips, and your smile will be in my arms, and my heart will be on my sleeve. New because of love, the wonder of its wide expanse and rough terrain and matchless beauty, a kingdom delivered through the eye of a needle and led by a little child.

You, little one, are a herald from heaven. You run with the good news, and I am a mountain waiting to kiss your toes.


Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Single-Handed Theology: The Piper in the Striped Pajamas

Little boy blue, come play your pipe -
Enchanting with every step
and sound from your lips.
You pull me out of bed by your tousled  head,
catch my eye with a flutter of thick lashes,
warm me to the morning in your cotton striped pajamas.

I'm a little bit in love,
and it's a good way to begin a day.
You don't even know your magic,
and it was not yours to begin with,
but the fruit of a multiplication of love.
And now the proof is in the pudding -
you are filling my earth with the blessing of old,
and I see the blush of the Tree of Life upon your cheeks.

I did not know that such a song could stir me out of myself,
out of my sleep, and into a shining new creation.
You, little seed, are crushing my darkness.
In the chestnut-gloss of your eye
I see us all as we were meant to be.

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