“Let Evening Come” by Jane Kenyon

9781555971311Jane Kenyon is the rare poet who shared her Christian faith and was still recognized as a critically important poet. Perhaps it is because her faith avoids any syrupy raptures, instead, providing a different glimpse into everyday life. Still, even an excellent site like the Poetry Foundation can ignore her faith when writing about her life.The literary world is not comfortable with faith, even with “one of their own.”

Anyone reading the collection “Let Evening Come,” will see Kenyon’s faith clearly. It is present in her everyday mentions of her work at church or in one of her daily walks with her dog. In “At the Winter Solstice,” we get a glimpse of a Christmas Eve pageant in a small church:

“At the village church last night
the boys–shepherds and wisemen–
pressed close to the manger in obedience,
wishing only for time to pass;
but the girl dressed as Mary trembled
as she leaned over the pungent hay,
and like the mother of Christ

wondered why she had been chosen.”

But it is a faith of honesty. While she often finds comfort, she also struggles — as do most jane-kenyonpeople. Kenyon suffered from depression, wrestling with it for most of her short life (she died from leukemia at age 47 in 1995). Struggling to reconcile it with her beliefs, she is left short of answers. In “Now Where?” she opens with verses that can reflect depression or grief:

“It wakes when I wake, walks
when I walk, turns back when I

turn back, beating me to the door.

It spoils my food and steals
my sleep, and mocks me, saying,

‘Where is your God now?'”

Most of her poetry celebrates the rural and rustic found around her New Hampshire farm, although she was born and raised in Ann Arbor, Michigan, not leaving until she married the poet Donald Hall after finishing her Masters degree at the University of Michigan. Kenyon sees much in the simple actions of the day. In her poem, “Father and Son,” she writes how the neighbor keeps cutting wood with his chainsaw as his son helps. He does it on Sunday afternoons and she comes to “mind the noise.”  But the neighbor is:

“intent on getting wood for winter, the last,

as it happened, of their life together.”

So, she takes from this everyday scene which can even be annoying and gives us pause to think about these moments when either the father or son (she hints it is the father) dies before the next season. The importance of the present moment is never lost on Kenyon. She often sees in others the stories they carry with them, revealed in tiny glimpses. She does the same with seasons as they come and go. She tends to embrace each season. In, “Dark Morning: Snow”:

“It falls on the vole, nosing somewhere
through weeds, and on the open
eye of the pond. It makes the mail

come late.

The nuthatch spirals head first

down the tree.

I’m sleepy and benign in the dark.

There nothing I want…”

Kenyon appeals to me and others because she reveals how many of us feel. As a Christian, I can relate to her moments of comfort and her moments of despair. She does not need to go far to find her inspiration — it is the farm she lives on, the people surrounding her, her faith, her dog, and her friends. We benefit from how her eyes often see more than we do. The present does not slip by her. Instead, she lives in the moment with an eye on eternity.

The collection ends with the title poem, and it is one that is often reprinted. In fact, it has been set to music by several composers  with my favorite being by  M. L. P. Badarak.

It is a beautiful poem, so I’ll let it end this post
.

Let Evening Come

 

Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving

up the bales as the sun moves down.

Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles

and her yarn. Let evening come.

Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in long grass. Let the stars appear

and moon disclose her silver horn.

Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed

go black inside. Let evening come.

To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung

let evening come.

Let it come, as it will, and don’t
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.
Advertisements

Rejoicing in Lament by J. Todd Billings

[A full disclaimer is needed at the outset. Todd Billings is a friend and neighbor. In fact, at the time of his diagnosis he was our next door neighbor. It was a diagnosis that hit us hard, as at that time our youngest son was in the midst of treatment for the cancer that would eventually end his life. It is my son, Oliver, that Todd refers to at one point in the book. While this relationship would incline one to think I’ll find favor with the book, it actually creates more risk for me to be hurt by what he writes. If that had happened, I would have remained silent. Instead, I offer my reflections on a book that helps me to wrestle with the loss in my life.]

rejoicing in lamentI’ve read many books and articles dealing with loss and the Christian faith. While some of these have addressed core questions, most offer glib advice and cliches. A notable exception is Jerry Sittser’s A Grace Revealed, which combines his own grief with his faith in a way that is both authentic and enlightening. Add to the list of essential works on grief and our faith, Todd Billings’ new book, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ. Billings uses the Psalms as the basis for exploring his own diagnosis of multiple myeloma at the age of 39, and the result is a call to believers to embrace lament as part of their faith. Well, it says much more than that. Still, finding someone who shows how scripture gives us permission to mourn, rage, cry, and beg to our God, in the midst of the covenant relationship, is inspiring.

I’m not a theologian, so I’ll leave the deep theological arguments to those better equipped for such a discussion. I approach the book as a Christian father who lost the youngest of his four children to neuroblastoma cancer. A father who watched helplessly for nearly three years as the disease killed his little boy; a father seemingly helpless to help a family move forward after losing their son. Billings has my attention early on as he addresses the question of evil in the world. So much of what we think revolves around the question, how could this happen? How could God allow my little boy to die? How could God allow a young father to develop an incurable cancer? Any explanation of this that I have seen falls dreadfully short of a satisfactory answer. Personally, I expect no answer and have to come to see my lack of understanding as my inability to comprehend God.  Billings, I was thrilled to see, agrees.

“…in my view the biblical ‘answer’ to the speculative problem of evil is this (drum roll, please): we don’t have an answer. It’s not that the Bible hasn’t addressed the question so that we as humans are left with a shoulder-shrugging ‘I don’t know.’ The Bible has addressed the question, and God’s response–as in the book of Job–is that humans don’t have an answer to the problem of evil, and we shouldn’t claim that we have one. It should remain an open question, one that we continue to ask in prayer and in our lives in response to the world’s suffering”(21). [Although I will not go into detail here, Billing’s exploration of Job in Chap. 2 should not be missed].

Billings sees this question laid bare at my son’s funeral. Our priest, Billings writes, repeatedly said “God has called Oliver to himself,” and “God has chosen to call Oliver at this time.” Billings response to this is honest and insightful. “Wow. A part of my heart cried, ‘Surely not!’ …The priest was confessing that God is sovereign King even in the suffering and death of Oliver. There was sting to this–implicating God in the struggle with Oliver’s cancer and his death at a young age–but also a reassurance. The sting is the theodicy question as an open question. It hurts. The death of a child is not the way things are supposed to be–why did God allow this to happen? Yet the reassurance is that Oliver did not just slip through God’s fingers. In life and death, Oliver was in God’s hands…We trust in the goodness and power of the Almighty, even though the reasons for the suffering are beyond human wisdom”(66).

Note that Billings does not say we should joyfully accept it as “God’s will” or just say “trust in God.” Instead, he challenges us to continue to bring the question to God in prayer. We must not ignore the question, but faithfully approach God for understanding in the midst of suffering. Billings refuses to let us retreat to a fatalistic approach to life. “We protest, lament, and act with compassion even when we are overwhelmed with the magnitude of the problem”(76). We are called to compassionate action in the midst of an evil world. We do this not because we can change the world, but because our faith calls for action in the midst of evil. “As our lips say ‘They kingdom come,’ we pray–and act–as revolutionaries who protest against the darkness in this ‘present evil age’ (Gal. 1:4)”(76).

Of course, such prayer may not touch those in crisis. How do we respond to people who face evil, indeed horror, when tragedy strikes their family? Billings points us back to scripture.
“Be merciful to me, Lord, for I am in distress;
        my eyes grow weak with sorrow,
        my soul and body with grief.
My life is consumed by anguish
        and my years by groaning;
        my strength fails because of my affliction,

        and my bones grow weak” (Ps. 31:9-10)

Billings says that since his diagnosis, “I’ve found that my Christians know how to rejoice about answered prayer and also how to petition God for help, but many don’t know what to do when I express sorrow and loss or talk about death”(41). This is difficult for people in general, but as Christians it shows the limits of our faith. Are we afraid to acknowledge our inability to respond to grief with anything but lament? As someone who struggled through his son’s illness and death,  I didn’t want assurances of his happiness in Heaven or God’s love. It is preciously because I love and worship God that I can cry out to him, and I want others to join me in that lament. That is difficult to do, and prior to my son’s illness, I failed others in that area.

This is not a pessimistic theology. Billings wants us to celebrate all that God has given us through praise and rejoicing. The Psalmists balance their laments with songs of praise. But they still lament. “A theology of the cross is not a joyless path but one with tears of joy and celebration as well as tears of lament” (177). In a wonderful passage, Billings shows how his moments of joy (his wedding, the arrival of a child) sometimes highlight times of lament. “You need to live as a mortal” (93). In doing so, we more fully recognize God’s sovereignty in all areas of our life.

Billings also explores the power of prayer in the midst of tragedy. He recalls that the prayers of healing for my young son were not granted. How could God allow this?

Again, this brings us back to the theodicy question, and Billings points us to Jesus’ prayer at Gethsemane. Jesus prays for the cup of suffering to be taken away. “Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death”(Heb. 5:7). God could save Jesus, and he chooses not to. God could have saved my son’s life, but he did not. God could cure Todd, but still he suffers. What does this mean? “The problem is not God’s lack of power, nor a deficiency in God’s love. The denial of Jesus’ petition does not arise from a failure to ask for another way than the cross or a lack of faith in the God of power and love. Jesus presents his heart to the Father in Gethsemane as a way to bring his will into alignment with the God of power and love who wills and works in mysterious, hidden ways: through the cross” (127).

Those seeing God as a vending machine — insert the prayer and get what you paid for, are at a loss when their prayers are not answered as expected. Billings says such an approach misses the understanding of Christ crucified. “we can open our hearts before our loving Father in prayer, but as we pray, we pray on a path toward a particular end: ‘Thy will be done,’ like our Lord did in the garden”(128).

This book is important for many reasons, but what strikes me most is Billings call for an understanding of lament in our Christian faith. “Lamenting with the psalmists is a practice that is counter to our consumer culture. Lament fixes our eye’s on God’s promises and brings the cries of confusion and pain–our own and those of others–before the covenant Lord” (177). What Billings has given us here is the ability to cry out to God in lament, and know that we do so with the voices of all those before us. The psalmists show a people groaning in pain, but doing so with an understanding of God’s promise.

If you want to learn more about this important book, visit this blog and watch the video below.

Makoto Fujimura’s “Refractions: A Journey of Faith, Art, and Culture”

Refractions_coverE-380x570Makoto Fujimura is one of those rare animals — a Christian and an artist thriving in the secular world while holding firm to his faith. Born in Boston and trained in the United States, he received his MFA from Tokyo National University as a scholar in Nihonga, a Japanese-style of painting. His excellent work there earned him a chance to be the first non-Japanese citizen to take part in their lineage program. While studying, he became a committed Christian, which changed his direction in life and art.makoto fujimura

This book is a collection of essays, mainly culled from his “Saturday morning essays.” As with any collection of essays, some will strike the reader more than others. In addition, many are stronger within their cultural context, while others escape such limitations. Nevertheless, all of them raise questions and offer insight which will challenge the reader to re-see the world.

One of Fujimura’s greatest strengths is seen in an essay such as “Dances for Life,” in which he makes an impassioned argument for the importance of dance. Although a visual artist, Fujimura clearly loves art of all genres. “There is something primal about dance that transcends all of the conventional concerns. Dancers embody the very ideal of the arts and fuse the spirit with the body. In other words, dance incarnates, and dancers bring this fusion into their bodies.” Many Christians are uncomfortable with dance companies and dance as an art form (and I say this as someone who has booked many dance companies in our Christian community), and Fujimura challenges them. “Christians should be the first in line to see and applaud this fusion of body and soul. Christ is not an ideology, a sentiment, or a mental image, but a fusion of body and Spirit.”

From his "Grace" series

From his “Grace” series

A natural educator, Fujimura also sees art teaching us how to live daily. In “Surfacing Dolphins,” he talks about visiting art students at a college, and their reluctance to share their art. When he asks for works they are not proud of, they bring out plenty of examples. “We live in a culture of perfection, or at least in the superficial resemblance of things perfect….Failures teach us more than successes.” As he does in all these essays, Fujimura relates his experiences to his faith, and with failure ties in the idea of repentance. “I have learned from Scripture to pay attention to works in my life of which I am not proud. They speak to teach me. I have learned that what the ancients called ‘repentence’ is a journey of coming home to a place where all our wretched works rest, but also where that our wretchedness is overcome by light.”

four quartets a

From his “Four Quartets” series

Perhaps Fujimura’s commitment to art is summarized best in a speech he gave in 2005, published here as “Why Art?” “By continuing to create and imagine a better world, we live. We have no alternative today. The path of apathy, the path of cynicism, and the path of terrorists have incarnated their realities in our backyards. To have hope is no longer an optimist’s escapism–it is the only path to the future.”

A reader will find a range of topics, including many essays on the visual arts, in these 23 essays. After reading these (or before) visit his excellent website at http://www.makotofujimura.com/  and watch his 6 minute video on his latest work (which also gives you some background on him).

As is clear, this is a book I highly recommend. It is refreshing to see Christian faith and art seen as supporting one another. Side note: Having just finished Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev, I’m curious if Fujimura has read the book (and if so, his thoughts on it). The struggle to balance faith and art are essential to that novel.

 

 

 

The Will of God as a Way of Life

the will of god Jerry Sittser has a remarkable gift for taking complex theology and applying it to everyday life. Many people are good at telling you how to live a Christian life, but  their theology may be weak. Sittser is a theologian, and he supports his points with numerous scripture references. In his book, The Will of God as a Way of Life: How to Make Every Decision with Peace and Confidence, the only thing not to like is the title. The subtitle makes it sound like a self-help book. While you will walk away with a new insight, this is no simple, “follow these three steps to better decisions” book.

Instead, Sittser dives head on into the theological issues surrounding the will of God. God’s sovereignty, our free will, calling, and the role of suffering in our lives, all get ample attention.
But what grabs me the most is his opening conversation about God’s will for our life. What do we mean we say “it is God’s will?” And how about following God’s will. What if we make the wrong decision and head down a different path? Sittser explores these questions, and provides an answer.
“As I struggled with the issue of discovering God’s will, I came to a startling conclusion. The will of God concerns the present more than the future; it deals with our motives as well as our actions; it focuses on the little decisions we make every day even more than the big decision we make about the future. The only time we really have both to know and to do God’s will is the present moment. We are to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and we are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. These are the basic responsibilities Jesus challenges us to pay attention to.”
In other words, that job we are deciding on, that relationship we are struggling with, that question about our direction in life, are missing the point. Following God’s will is reflected in how we live now, not in what the future holds for us. “We can, in good conscience, choose from among any number of reasonable alternatives and continue to do the will of God.”
And just as how this no simple self-help book, Sittser encourages us to seek God’s direction in scripture, but not as as how-to book. “The Bible does not tell us what to do in every situation. It establishes guidelines and principles, not a long list of rules. It sets the overall direction.”
I should also note his strong work in the area of suffering and God’s will. I reviewed his book, A Grace Revealed, which explores this topic in depth. He also deals with it in A Grace Disguised. Sittser’s entire family was in the car when it was hit by a drunk driver, and he lost his mother, his wife, and a daughter, in an instant. He understands suffering.
He sees God’s story in our lives as a story of redemption. Like reading a novel, the author knows the plot, but the characters are learning as they go. But here, the characters know the ending, and it is a good ending. “Sinfulness and tragedies and suffering and everything else never have the final word. God has the final word. The cross is irrefutable proof that God’s hidden will, mysterious and unfathomable at times, is real and redemptive.”
Sittser never dismisses suffering, but he recognizes our limited viewpoint. It is a humble viewpoint, and thus better focused on living God’s will in the present, confident in the future.

A Grace Revealed: How God Redeems the Story of Your Life

Jerry Sittser understands a grace revealedpain. He understands loss. He understands grief. But more importantly, he understands that our life is a story of redemption, of connection to the person of Christ. While we cannot forget, nor should we forget, our painful times in life, we need to know that the God’s story for our life is not over.

This is no mere glib, theological chatter. Sittser’s family was in a car hit by a drunk driver nearly 20 years ago. In an instant, his mother, his wife, and one of his daughters, was gone. Three generations of women gone all at once, and Sittsler suddenly finds himself the single father of two daughters and a son — all young.

Sittser wrote about the incident four years after it happened, in “A Grace Disguised.” He now returns with more distance from the event. But what makes this work so powerful, is that Sittser is not writing a memoir, but using his story to tell the story of God’s working out our redemption. “This book will not tell a sweet and simple story about tragedy leading to triumph. Still, I hope it will tell a redemptive story.”

And it does. Sittser is inspirational not in that he, twenty years later, he is “handling” the tragedy well. Instead, he inspirational in how he seems himself in the context of a larger story, and he trusts God’s authorship. This is not a self-help book, it is not called, “Using God to Feel Better About How Bad Life Is.” It is about redemption. “Redemption involves the story of how God reclaims and restores us into a living relationship with himself so that we can become the people that God has always intended us to be.”

Sittser organizes the book in way which focuses on redemption as a story. Chapters are about characters, “Scene and Setting,” “Plot,” “Author,” and other story devices. The Bible itself is explored as a story, and in six of the most amazing pages I’ve ever read, he summarizes the entire Bible by relating it as a story. Sittser focuses on scripture for what he explores, and he quotes scripture (often at length) to show the story of redemption. So many books today, including Christian books, spend more time quoting other authors than returning to the source, which makes this book so strong, theologically speaking.

This is not surprising. Sittser is a professor of Theology at Whitworth College (and, I was pleased to learn, a fellow alum from Hope College). He has a unique gift for be theologically grounded, but clearly able to write for the layperson. And his unfortunate credentials in suffering create an authentic voice.

On a very personal note, this was a profoundly moving book for me. Myself a father of four, I am also the parent of a six-year-old who has been battling cancer for nearly three years. There is no longer much hope that this will be cured, and we have wrestled with this reality. I have written openly and honestly about this process since the outset, and many people have said, you should write a book. Well, Sittser has written the book I would want to write, and done it far better than I could ever do.

I knew at the outset that his voice would be one I understand. “God has written and played the key role in the story of salvation, which promises to redeem our stories….This glorious story of redemption turns on the work of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and Savior of the world, who came into this world to make us new, which he accomplished through his life, death, and resurrection. It is all his doing, a gift of pure grace. But we must receive this gift and make it our own, like children growing into adults.”

That last line challenges us to not feel sorry for ourselves, but to accept God’s grace and trust in his story. How many of us have wasted our lives, filling it with bitterness over real and imagined tragedies, instead of recognizing that God is not done writing our story. But we need to accept that gift, and accepting gifts requires humility. Some people are blessed with a natural humility, others learn it the hard way, but those who never see themselves in a larger context, who center their world around themselves instead of God — well, there is the true tragedy in life. A stepping out of the story God is writing.

Sittser shares the story of a woman who, after many years of struggling, decides to meet the man who murdered her brother. And she tells him as she leaves, God wants him to know that “It is not too late to become the man that God designed you to be.” Our stories are not over.

Who Is This Man?: The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus

who is this manThe essential premise of John Ortberg’s Who Is This Man? The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus, is that Christianity has had a great impact on society. Hardly earth shattering news. Somehow, Ortberg seems to think this legitimizes Jesus for the world, but, of course, it does not. A Christian will not point to the lived out faith as proof that Jesus was Christ, but instead focus on Jesus. Ortberg does show ways the influence of Christianity has spread, but he tends to focus on the all the good ways, instead of the evil. He gives passing mention to some errors, but if you want to focus on the role of Christianity in the world, you have to address the Inquisitions, Christian support for slavery, Christian countries warring, and countless examples of individual misuses of Christ’s teachings.
One thinks of Gandhi’s reply to why he rejects Christ.  “Oh, I don’t reject your Christ. I love your Christ. It is just that so many of you Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Which is one of the few quotes in the world which does not make it into this book. Ortberg strings quote after quote after quote together, quite often from four or five unrelated sources, on a single page. Sometimes they relate, sometimes they do not, but you want to hear more from Ortberg and less from everyone else. These are broken up by some very bad, classic “preacher” jokes which are often forced into the text.
Clearly, I found this all annoying. What he does have to say of value is what you would pick up in any history of Christianity class or text. Now, let it be known that I’m in the minority here. This is book is very popular and has spawned many study groups. If it succeeds in getting people talking about their faith, there is something going right. And many may argue that I get Ortberg’s goal wrong. An arguable point, so feel free to disagree in the comments.
And just when it seems that all hope is lost for the book, I do find some saving grace (pun intended) as  Ortberg turns his attention at the end to the three essential days in Christianity: Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. Here we get a glimpse of what Ortberg has to share if he quits quoting others and writes his own thoughts. His reflections on each of these days are simple, but strong. Especially interesting are his thoughts on the Saturday, when no hope existed. If you are looking for devotional reading for Easter Weekend, use these three chapters. As for the rest, spend time instead with a good history of Christianity. And never confuse Christians with Christianity — we are stumbling lot seeking the perfection of Christ, but always falling short.

A Gift of Love

a gift of loveMartin Luther King, Jr is well known for so many reasons. A civil rights leader, great orator, great Christian, great pacifist. It is no surprise to find all those elements in “A Gift of Love: Sermons from ‘Strength to Love’ and Other Preachings.” As sermons, they are rooted in the Christian faith. But his call for civil rights, his call for a non-violent struggle, are prominent throughout. King was a preacher of the moment, responding to the needs of his congregation and beyond through the lens of his faith. And his strong oration style can be heard even in reading the sermons, as he brings home his points with a cadence which cannot be missed.

The weaknesses in the sermons are more a matter of their context rather than their thinking. Some of them slip toward self-help language, but they reflect the growing awareness of psychology in one’s thinking. Some of the world political issues are now a moot point, and some of what he sought we have reached.

But that our world has not reached the racial integration he sought is clear, and shameful, 50 years after some of these sermons were preached. What does come through in reading these sermons is King’s faith. He was a Christian, and he interprets what he sees through those eyes. These sermons will not allow him to become a secular hero. The civil rights movement was an expression of his Christian faith. His pacifist viewpoint, which was strengthened by the example of Gandhi, was rooted in his Christian faith.

I will not attempt a break down of each sermon. I read this over a long period and was more interested in their impact on my own faith than that of a book review. His sermon, “Antidotes for Fear,” was given to me by a doctor treating my son, who has been battling cancer for over two years. He is not likely to survive another year, and King’s words spoke to my condition. What stronger testament is there to one’s power as a writer or thinker that 50 years later, they still reach people where needed.