“…And He Shall Purify”

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.  (Malachi 3:1-4)

              Despite the bass solo from Handel’s “The Messiah” running on a loop in my mind, I’m taking a closer look at this text from Malachi today.  In the past, I have glossed over this passage as a prophecy about the Day of the LORD. But could it not also be about Jesus’incarnation?  His “sudden” coming was not as many anticipated, but instead he arrived as a poor baby.

              I have seen poor babies.  Their vulnerability touches the deepest part of me.  They stir compassion but also a connection with my own vulnerability.  It seems to me that this is actually a refining, purifying process. 

              Seeing any baby, from any background, is arresting. They remind me that everyone begins his or her life this way.  Babies often remind me what really matters,and other concerns can seem petty when I am captivated by a baby’s smallness and innocence.  Maybe this is a reason the nativity of Jesus draws us in. God!  Like this?  Wow. 

              In the non-Advent/Christmas months, time spent in intentional awareness of God’s presence often conjures images of Jesus engaged various moments of ministry: healing,teaching, debating, showing compassion, feeding people, or just being himself.  The more I learn of him—learn from him—the more my ambitions, greed, and pettiness are put in their place or redeemed to become “offerings of righteousness” (or “right offerings”) for him.  The process involves not only repentance and purging, but also the cultivation of loving desires and a compassionate heart.

              This takes time, and I am often impatient.  But I am realizing that much of my spiritual growth these days comes not from conscious self-examination or intentional changes that I control. Instead, the changes happen mysteriously, almost passively, from exposing myself as openly as possible to God’s loving presence.  And at this time of year, it happens when gazing at the Holy Child.  “He shall purify”simply by letting me come close.    

Addressing Your PESD*

This post was originally written for the November 9, 2018 edition of the Spencer Daily Reporter.   

Today you might be experiencing a syndrome many of us had two years ago, after the 2016 presidential election: *Post-Election Stress Disorder.

The first thing I did when I got up the morning after mid-term elections was to look up the results for Iowa online.  After that I checked a few races around the country.  What was striking was how close so many of the races were.  As encouraging as the turnout was, it revealed more clearly than ever how much we are divided about the way we think our political life should be conducted.

For many, the election was a referendum on protecting an “American way of life.”  Yet we are not united in what we think that is.  Does it mean bigger government or more local autonomy?  Does it mean protecting our borders with a wall and firepower or a more liberal immigration policy?  Does it mean centralized health care or more individual choice?

For followers of Jesus Christ, there is a way of life we profess that does not necessarily align with what is touted as the American way.  In fact there is a sharp contrast between the two.  The compulsion in our culture to attain more and more possessions is not supported by Jesus.  He urges us to be free of materialism and instead share with the poor to the point of self-sacrifice.  The temptation to wield power over other people is also counter to Jesus’ teaching of servanthood and submission.  These are only two examples that distinguish between the American way and Jesus’ way, which the gospels call the kingdom of God.

Whether you are disappointed with the results of this week’s election or not, you may still be disheartened by the divisiveness that pervades the United States right now.  This is felt most keenly in personal relationships.  With the holidays approaching, you might be dreading the tension around the Thanksgiving table, or planning to avoid it altogether.

How can we find a new level of charity in our relationships with one another?  It won’t happen through legislation or political rallies.  We cannot elect a leader with enough wisdom and influence to cultivate the peace among us we all crave.  It feels out of our control.

Yet Jesus taught by words and example that we always have control over the way we move through the world.  In every situation we have a choice about what we say and do, and how we might restrain ourselves in an effort to understand and care for one another.  One of his teachings is, to me, critical for our times.

He said “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”  (Mk 10.14b-15) Then he let them onto his lap and blessed each one.

How striking that Jesus talks about receiving the kingdom of God in this instance.  He asks us to accept God’s way as our way instead of expecting him to endorse the way we order our lives.  He recommends openness instead of pushiness.

Rydia

What is it like to be a child?  Think of it.  Children’s needs are so obvious, and relentless.  They need love.  They crave attention.  They need protection, and food, and guidance.  They are often confused and naïve.  Afraid sometimes.  And it’s tough being a kid, because everybody is always telling you no.  You can’t do this or that, you can’t go there.  Shame is practically a daily occurrence.  Children are not allowed many choices.  If you hang around children very much, you know that one of the things they want most is for someone to listen to them, to acknowledge them.

But aren’t we all a little like that?  We want to be loved and valued, taken seriously.  We just don’t wear it on our sleeves as kids do.  We get confused too.  We feel left out sometimes, and we worry about having what we need.  Shame and fear drive our behavior more than we want to admit.  Scratch the surface, and there is a child in all of us.  Maybe Jesus is simply asking us to own up to that.  To admit that we don’t have it all together, that life is confusing and disappointing and sometimes downright unbearable.  Confess that we have acted shamefully at times because we felt lost or threatened.

In Matthew 18:4 Jesus tells us to put ourselves in the position of a child in order to  participate in the kingdom of God—the way we are created to live together: “to such belongs the kingdom of God.”

How might we approach each other intentionally as children then?  Some possibilities: See the child in one another: the desire to be loved, the disappointments of life, the fears.  Play together sometimes instead of arguing.  Find a common cause to support so we can all practice love together, and remember what we like about each other.  Practice saying “please” and “thank you” as our mothers taught us.  And listen.  Just listen, even if we disagree.  We don’t have to approve or agree in order to listen well.  Be curious—like a child—instead of arguing.  Let someone else have the last word, just once.  Or even twice.

We do not have to be stressed.  Truly we don’t.  Like children, we can trust that Someone loves us and will always be with us.  We can make mistakes and listen to each other.  We can resolve to love fiercely instead of defaulting to hatred.  We can do the hard work of compromise that reflects the basic values we share.  We can work together to care for those who are suffering.

We always have control over this one thing: We can love.

Big Small Things, Like Voting

Ballot

It’s mid-term election season.  Also known as do-not-answer-your-phone season.  Or my-yard-signs-cancel-your-yard-signs season.

This year promises to be another ‘voting against’ year, like the 2016 presidential election, when everyone I know was voting against a candidate and not for someone they really respected.   At this point I know a lot of people, maybe including me–not sure yet–who are voting with the hope of creating a critical mass in state or national legislatures, enough to move things along in another direction, or to maintain the current policies.

Even if your “side” won both contests, you know the danger of bringing up politics at Thanksgiving dinner this year.  The gridlock in Washington right now has everyone distressed.  We used to think that if we can just get more of our side elected, sanity might return to our system.  But it hasn’t proven true, not at all.

It’s enough to make you throw up your hands in despair.

Don’t.

Your vote might not count that much in most elections, but voting accomplishes more than selecting leaders for public office.  We have stop thinking that unless we can do something substantial or measurable, we might as well do nothing.

What does that felt-tip pen in your hand at the voting booth accomplish besides filling in little ovals that seem to disappear into a giant hopper of abstraction?

I could remind you that it is an action worth dying for, as in our military fighting for freedoms such as this.  I could wax eloquent about the democratic form of government.

This time I want you to think of what it does for you.

Voting makes a statement that you not only exist as a name on a voter registration list.  You inhabit a body that needs care, whether the way you are treated comes through Affordable Care or is maddeningly controlled by third party payers (insurance companies).

You have opinions about the candidates because you grew up in a particular place and time, in your family, in your circumstances.  You read and pay attention. You have experience that affects the way you perceive people.  You know what kind of people you trust as leaders.  Voting is a statement that you matter.  Sometimes you have to do things to remind yourself that you care.

Deep down, you know that small things—like your single vote—matter.  You know how to hunt because your dad got up early on fall mornings and not only took you along, he asked you what kind of sandwich you wanted him to pack.  You love to read because Mom read to you , at least when she wasn’t too exhausted from work.  You hunt mushrooms every year because a friend asked you to try one just once.  You have brown eyes because of a tiny gene contained in an embryo that grew into the person reading this.

Link and Wyatt Raking

Do you want your vote to matter more?  Back it up with more votes you get to make every day.  Smile at the young person who puts the groceries in your trunk.  Write a check to support your church.  Pick up your neighbor’s branches when you’re in the yard working anyway.  Make the choice for restraint instead of reacting once or twice today.  Listen to your cantankerous uncle—be curious—instead of arguing, just this once.

The little ovals we fill in on the ballot (the format where I live) are as small as seeds.  But seeds grow into life-giving plants that actually bear fruit.  It is remarkable what comes from such a small thing.

 

 

The Existence of Other Things

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Art by Candice Hartsough McDonald. Used by permission.

I am Deborah.

Named after a woman who lived

thousands of years ago.

Sage, prophet, tribal mother.

Her tale anomalous,

her voice a string Yahweh strummed

undeniably in desperate times.

The impending story unfurled before her

as familiar as the line on her palm,

insistent as the blood of afterbirth.

She was not your typical judge.

 

Deborah means “little bee”

and “seeking one.”

Some bees are social,

form hives, assign tasks,

share the burden of re-creating the world,

flower by flower,

tree by tree,

driven by hidden forces

to seek the sweetness of many kinds and

participating in the alchemy

of a deeper, richer sweetness

that blesses the world.

 

The bees I was not taught to admire

or even honor

are solitary,

burrowing deep for dwelling,

free of the hive,

bound to the quest,

independent in the

interdependence that

sustains everything.

 

There are many kinds of transformation.

 

I used to settle for nectar

from the closest blooms.

It was sweet enough,

and everyone was happy with

the abundance I labored to offer.

But as I made my flighty patrol

I often caught sight of

flashes of color beyond.

I could feel the low hum

of kindred seekers

and I wondered at the

wideness of the fields

the profile of the horizon

the existence of other things.

 

One day the wind caught me unawares

and I was buffeted

not unwillingly

to another meadow where

there were new colors

and the old ones too

and although I have a bee’s sensible

sense of direction

I lost the way back anyway.

 

This nectar, this sweetness has an edge

that cuts through the newfound wonder

to something more earthy and elemental.

I find myself manufacturing less while harvesting

more, at least for now,

noticing what is underneath and unblooming

and reliable, what has died to give new life,

what has been killed and is only loss.

 

My other namesake is calling me with

her sage fierceness, her stage whisper,

her tragic warrior spirit.

She has turned my gaze to others

living parallel questions,

producing a collective, insistent hum.

They are not hive bees either.

The Time It Takes

The longer I watch him

Clarissa cross
Painting by Clarissa

the more I wonder

whether the Cross of Jesus

was not the only moment

our saving happened,

as if such cruelty could solve

an inevitable, deadly equation.

Perhaps it was only the

penultimate moment

to resurrection’s triumph—

though unheralded,

un-choired—

the sealing of

love’s new first word.

 

But even then it

would be hollow

without all those

other interruptions:

the divine impulse

making food blossom

in their hands

on a hillside,

a girl’s lifeless eyes

fluttering open,

Lazarus leaning into

the muffled announcement

that even time must step aside

for love’s insistent force.

 

The shape of all the saving—

all the loving—

required the alignment

of his arms.

 

He extended them

in one terrible

timeless moment

into which he gathered

all the other moments

and offers all of it

time after time

resisting confinement,

elusive as spirit,

expectant.

Constant.

 

Be still and see

there he goes again.

 

 

 

 

I Wish You This

“Family reunion.”  Most people have a reaction to the phrase, good or bad.  For us, it is very good.  Every other year my five siblings and I—the Janssen clan—gather from the East coast and the Midwest for several days of catching up and simply enjoying each other’s company.  We make connections from time to time in between, but this is our traditional touch point, highly anticipated and treated as sacred.

This year we met in Hendersonville, North Carolina, where we enjoyed southern food, the farmer’s market, hiking, and of course Biltmore.  It was our biggest shindig yet, with 28 present at one point, three generations playing games, swapping stories, laughing and crying, and comparing symptoms of growing older.  It was glorious.  Two poems came from it, the first about the resident dog, and the second upon reflection a few weeks later.  I hope you enjoy them, and even more, I wish you the kind of love we share—have shared—through thick and thin, all these years.

Reunion 2018Chester

Chester was skittish at first.

All these strangers,

too many smells

invading the comfort

of the home he has come to know

as safe, with human caretakers

letting love do its slow work.

 

He feels himself returning

to his earnest self

curious, tentative master

of his doable domain

couch, floor, grass,

ground-level patrol

providing a purpose.

 

He resigned himself to

the presence of these strangers

while the mothers reassured,

holding his questions safe,

their hands lowering the same dish,

saying his name again like

the comforting refrain

he learned that first day.

 

These strangers

seem to hold one another

in the same way,

allowing each other

enough space to be

their true selves,

reassuring one another

with the same mellow refrain

as always.

Their laughter is life.

Their tears caress and heal.

 

Chester knows:

these humans are safe.

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The Why

 At the turn of the year—

every even-numbered one—

we begin to feel the pull

of the family reunion.

 

The hows and whens and wheres

are passed back and forth

weighed, tested, settled.

 

The why is left unsaid,

unquestioned, assumed

bearing its own shape and heft

exerting its gravitational force

stronger, steadier

as the biennial circuit turns,

and the dream promises

to materialize

again.

 

It draws us

on our pilgrimages

to the convergence,

the day when

two and

one and

four and another

appear,

happily helpless against

the fierce

soft attraction,

careless in the wild explosion of

recognition

re-union

re-vival.

 

It settles and breathes

holds

listens

calls the dance of

memory and mourning and

bears witness to what

it keeps creating.

 

Into each ear it whispers

of wonder and resilience,

of time’s sweet endowments

and healing

as it reclines underneath the stories,

the shared history remembered six ways,

lazily tracing lines

of inevitable, invisible connection

on our skin.

 

And then

it offers its benediction as

it colors each embrace

for vivid remembrance,

claims its authority

in each gaze.

Lingers in the air,

in the blood as

each one turns away

released into its larger

orbit, until

next time.

 

Gettysburg

In July my husband and I took a side trip to Philadelphia and Gettysburg before meeting my family in North Carolina for our biennial reunion.  He has enjoyed reading about the Civil War, so we were excited to have the chance to stay in Gettysburg itself (right next to the house where Abraham Lincoln polished his famous address!).  We hired a personal guide who took us chronologically through the fields and ridges of those three fateful days.

It was sobering, of course.  The next morning I penned a couple of poems about my thoughts.

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Gettysburg I

On a tour of the battlefield

the chess moves of Meade and Lee

were described, the relentless

volley of bullets and mortar

faintly sounding, letting up

in periods of advance and retreat.

 

The thud of our sons’ shattered bodies

meeting the soil of planted acres

assaults any noble thought of

war’s elusive aspirations.

 

The ends cannot justify any means.

They are one and the same.

Ends of lives and hope,

meanness exposed

after the smoke clears.

It is hard to justify what is no longer there.

Little Round Top
Little Round Top

Gettysburg II

There is endless analysis

of the strategies and circumstances

of a battle waged on ordinary hills.

 

What I will remember is

our guide explaining such simple factors

with enormous consequences:

the assumption that guns were loaded

when they weren’t, the lighting of

cannon fuses that were defective,

the failure to send a message.

Mostly the refusal of a handful of leaders to quit.

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