"As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; / [ . . . ] Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves -- goes itself; 'myself' it speaks and spells, / Crying 'What I do is me; for that I came'." --Gerard Manley Hopkins

29 April 2018

Gratitude


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We proclaim Him . . . teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ (Col. 1:25).

I was never going to teach.  It was not even at the bottom of a list of possible paying vocations I’d ever considered.  But when the time came that circumstances forced me into the workforce to support our family, it was the quickest way to that end – so here I am, some 35 years later, about to grade my last projects, my last finals, and I cannot imagine any work that would have been better.

There is so much to be grateful for:  my own teachers who prepared me so well for such a time; the literature itself which shaped me, grew me, even at times saved me;  my colleagues over the years who have taught, challenged, and encouraged me; my students who have so graciously allowed me to be part of their lives in and out of the classroom. 

Still, so often through the years, discouragement would strike, and many were the days I dragged myself home wondering if I’d ever done anyone any good, if the work had been worthwhile that day or ever.  And so today I want to give a special thanks to those who went to great lengths to show me, in this final semester, that my work has in fact not been in vain, that this “Jack, joke, poor potsherd, | patch, matchwood” has, in Him and Him alone, done the only work I ever hoped to do.

The Academic Office put on a reception for the two of us retiring this year (the other being the matchless, beloved drama teacher/director “Mr. B” – Bernie Belisle).  My thanks to Kevin, Rhonda, Audrey for your work in arranging the event (including AJ and the luscious cake and excellent catering service).  Your thoughtful gift to me is one I will always treasure – the beautiful leather journal and the silver pen inscribed with the Bryan motto, “Christ Above All.”  Thank you to all of you, to President Livesay and the Board and the rest of our administration, for all the years of encouragement, assistance, and loving friendship.  You have always made me feel at home in a place where Christ is indeed held above all.


My peerless colleagues in the English Department – Ray, Whit, Daniel – made the week all the more special with a personal gift of Victorian-themed embroidery tools (scissors, needle-holder, etc.).  You have come to know me well, not just as a colleague but as a friend, and so you know my various plans and loves and I appreciate your showing your love for me in this sweet way.  You are my friends and my brothers, and I thank you for all you have meant to me over the years, all the prayers and  laughter, and the shared tears and sorrows as well.  You are the best.


But they did so much more.  Ray arranged an opportunity for our students and alums to shower me with appreciation, gathering cards and printing off emails from them to fill a lovely handcrafted keepsake box.  Dozens of the precious ones I have taught over the years took the time to send such kind and humbling words; thank you, my dear colleagues, for arranging such a special gift.


To those who wrote (and those who have written at other times with similar words, whose letters and emails will also go into this box):  how can I ever thank you.  You were always the reason that even on the darkest days I could find a smile and see the beauty both in the work itself and in your eager eyes.  The specific conversations and classes and even off-hand comments you remember show me the power of our Lord to work – through literature, through writing, through a mere teacher trying to do her best by all three – to work His truth, His beauty, His goodness into all our lives.  Thank you for that gift.

And thanks, too, for a candy tree growing out of unicorn mug, for a lovely hand-crafted necklace, for an adorable crocheted pet, for a stunningly crafted blown-glass kingfisher which will catch fire in my eastern window, and for the endless hours of shared laughter, tears, failures, and victories, conversations silly and serious about literature, about writing, about life.  You are God’s blessings to me.


I deserve none of this and no credit:  all is His work and His glory.  Live for that, dear ones.  Act in God’s eye what you are:  “Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places, / Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his  / To the Father through the features of men's faces.”  And know always that you live in my heart as ones who have shown Him to me.

28 July 2017

Goldfinches and Echinacea





The echinacea are dying, but the goldfinches have arrived to harvest their seeds and offer sunbursts of color to replace the fading purple.  The ladies, too, in their dusky yellow dresses create a lovely complement to their mates.  As we stood watching from the window, one flew like an arrow through the echinacea across the yard and straight up to the glass as if to say hello.  How sweet she looked, how bright her mate on the flowers, on this drab rainy day.  Beauty everywhere if we only pause to look.


13 May 2017

A Mother's Day Letter




Four generations . . . 












{The letter I wrote to Mother last year (2016) for Mother’s Day}

Dear Mother,

It takes no special occasion to say “I love you” and we both know how much that’s true both ways.  But today I just want to say it this way.

I’m sorry for the reason you are here in Tennessee already, but every day I thank God you are here.  I love being able to see you and to talk and laugh and cry and gripe with you, to know how human we both are and yet to see – shot through it all – God’s love and grace.

Thank you for your wisdom – all the more precious because you don’t pretend it isn’t hard to live it, hard to win it.  For all the grief I gave you when younger, you were always the Orion leading me back to the Lord you serve and love.

Thank you for your example of loving – family, friends, church, community.  You have given and given and given – and you still are, though you find it harder to see just now.  The staff there [at the assisted living home] love you, the people who come to visit you are blessed by your smile and your humor and the love that shines through you.  I want to be like you when I grow up!

Thank you for your love for Daddy.  You two showed me every day what love is – the ability to care for another more than for yourself, to set aside self to serve another, all that the Scripture tells us love is.  Not holding on to little irritations, but leaving them behind, working together to make a life of oneness.  I know you miss that so terribly, and knowing you will be with Daddy again will make it easier for me when it’s time to let you go.

Thank you for your good humor, and showing me how to be honest about difficulties with those close to you without losing the bigger perspective of God’s love, in it all, even in the hardest of it.

I have friends who have walked life with me, who have loved me and prayed for me, and I am grateful for them all.  But, Mother, you are the one who will always hold a place that no one else could fill – your love has shown me how to love, and your love will always be the most important guide on earth to me.  All that is good in me has come through you and Daddy and the One you have always pointed me to.


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Thank you, I love you, and happy Mother’s Day!



Mother and Daddy's wedding photo.









Children and Children-in-law and Grandchildren and Great-Grandchildren . . . (and missing a fair number of them, too!)                                          

16 March 2017

Retirement

 I recall a number of years ago when a sweet 18-year-old wrote a paper explaining how saving for retirement, even thinking about retirement, is sin.  We must use all our resources for the gospel and never consider stopping work before we die.  Anything we save for the future is utterly selfish and taking away from God’s kingdom, and laziness could be the only possible reason a Christian would want to retire from full-time employment.

I was, by that time, beginning to feel some of the chronic pain and exhaustion that has increased over the years, and I found her reasoning to be, shall we say, youthful, as well as non-biblical.  I’ve heard iterations of it since, some just as extreme, and mostly from folk who are either young or have physical constitutions stronger than some of the rest of us.  And I call foul.

Of course, part of the problem is the cultural vision of retirement displayed all around us:  make lots of money so you can fulfill all your hedonistic dreams for as many years as possible, without responsibility to anyone but yourself or anything but your desire for ease and pleasure.  However, retirement need not mean this, not at all.  In fact, this vision of retirement is the one that leads to discontent, boredom, restlessness, and even, for many, early death.

In fact, retirement can simply mean the ability to serve God and others in different ways – and perhaps in better health because it is easier to pace yourself, to rest sufficiently, to say no when necessary.  The problem with modern retirement is not the saving of resources or the withdrawing from full-time paid work: it is a lack of purpose beyond ourselves for the time it gives us.

We are, certainly, to give generously to God’s work from what we earn.  We are also to save for the future so as not to be a burden on others unnecessarily.  How each of us balances this tension must be left between us and God, not mandated at some special rate.  I may give now and find that others cannot give later because they must meet the needs I failed to prepare for; I may save now and find myself tempted to waste my overabundant resources later.  Because there is no formula here, we must learn to walk in the Spirit and cultivate our desire to serve God with our resources, listening to His voice day by day. 

We have a responsibility to provide for family; in a one-income family, if the working spouse dies, it is no bad thing if the other is not thrown into penury.  And for those of us with children, it is a delight to be able to assist them now and know that if there are resources left after our deaths, these can benefit those we love, to help them be more secure and able to serve more freely.  Parents are supposed to do this when they can.

To work until one dies is simply not possible for many.  The physical realities of aging can make it imperative to slow down and do less.  If I am not capable of doing my job well, it is not loving service to cling to it; love recognizes it’s time for someone else to do it better.  And no one can depend on dying in the middle of a workday; many people decline in physical and/or mental health to the point where work is impossible and being cared for is imperative.

But slowing down before that point is not by definition stopping one’s service to God.  There is always service to be done, and ways to use the wisdom we have – we hope – accumulated over the years, even if it is “only” to be an Anna praying faithfully in the temple.  She, after all, was rewarded to see the Messiah enter the world and to have her praise and prophecy recorded for all time. 

Some may retire with strength and be able to do much active service in the church, the community, the mission field.  Some may retire with lesser strength and find a place in quieter and more isolated service – writing, mentoring an individual or two, being involved in the lives of extended family.  Again, kinds of service cannot be mandated, nor can they be measured and compared.  The invalid who prays faithfully may be doing more for the kingdom of God than the elderly Martha who insists on heading every activity in the church. 

What, anyway, are we called to do?  Love God and our neighbor.  In every act we take, every thought we think, every word we speak or write, we are to love God and our neighbor.  This call never varies and never ends, to the moment of our death.  My career is not my life; it is only one small part of my life, however much time it may take of my day.  I am teacher, yes, but I am also wife and mother and grandmother, daughter and sister, friend, neighbor, citizen of a community, a state, a country – and above all and permeating all, a believer in the Christ, in whose service all these things are to be lived. 

Am I excusing myself here for the decision we have made that I will retire after one more year of teaching?  I don’t believe so.  It has become clear in many ways that I cannot continue full-time work much longer and do it well.  I am grateful for the way in which God has allowed me to do what was required – to be the necessary sole financial support for my family – by being immersed in teaching the literature and the writing skills that I so love.  And now it is time to withdraw from that work and move toward other works of service.  I don’t know yet what that may look like – writing some of the pieces that have burdened me for years, I hope; serving the home school community in some way, perhaps; more energy to give to family, surely; who knows what may come my way?  


But I know I desire one thing above all else, however imperfectly I live it, and that is to serve Him and honor Him to the day of my death, as I have been privileged to see my parents and others before me do.  I will appreciate the prayers of my friends as we begin thinking through all the implications of this decision over the next year, and most of all that we will be good listeners to His Spirit, letting His voice guide us in it all.

04 February 2017

Gratefulness

My wonderful mother lived at the Veranda (assisted living home) in Dayton after she moved to TN last year. (It's part of the Life Care facility north of town.) From the day she moved in we never had a doubt that it was a wonderful place for her. I can honestly say that we have had no significant complaint at any time, only praise.

The facility itself is beautiful, and is extremely well kept up. It's refreshing and calming just walking into it. I saw a number of the rooms, and the residents have furnished and decorated them with pride; it was so much fun to visit them to see and hear about a bit of their lives.

The nurses and aides and all the rest of the staff -- from receptionists to housekeepers -- didn't just do their jobs with excellence, they did them with love. My mother made friends with the other residents, certainly, but the staff became her friends too. They love the residents like family, making time for conversation and encouraging them every day. Every time I arrived to visit, before I could get to Mother's room I was met with stories of something she had said or done that had made others laugh or encouraged them, and when I got to her room, it was to hear stories of how they had made her laugh and encouraged her.

When Mother returned to the Veranda after a short hospitalization for her fall, the staff greeted her like a family member who'd been gone for months. Each one made her way to her room as soon as possible to let her know she was *home*. They told me they had hoped and prayed she would be able to spend her last days under their care because they had come to love her so much. I am convinced that hearing their familiar, loving voices made those days much more bearable -- not to mention the constant prayer with which they bathed her.

And they give that same love to the families of the residents; I am known by sight and name to many whose names even now I am unsure of, staff members I've only seen a few times. Their loving concern has been for me in these days as well as for Mother, and I have benefited so much from them. As I sat with her, they brought me meals, ice water, anything they could think of; they never left the room after caring for her without asking if they could do anything for me as well. They gave me hugs; they prayed for and with me. They cried with me when she was gone.

If you or someone you love has to have assisted living care someday, pray that you find a place with half the love and expertise of the Veranda and you will be in good hands.

10 December 2016

All Flame


Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, "Abba, as far as I can, I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace, and, as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?" Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands toward heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, "If you will, you can become all flame."

Sayings of the Desert Fathers



08 October 2016

Worm Theology

Worms normally come to my attention in one of two ways – I’m teaching Blake’s “The Sick Rose” to my students, or it’s raining. The literal worm evoked in Blake’s poem is likely to appear first to be one of those tiny green caterpillar-like creatures (actually the larva of the sawfly) which eats into the heart of a rose and destroys it; then, when the worm is said to “fly through the night,” it’s likely to evoke the image of a dragon. These creatures leave only ruin in their path, and they work in the poem metaphorically to lead us to see the destruction caused by the “dark secret love” that is lust. I have no sympathy for such worms, literal or figurative.

Earthworms, on the other hand, stay underground eating dirt, decently out of sight and mind, until it rains, when they appear in multitudes on the sidewalks. I hate walking to class in the rain because of these pale grayish snaky little creatures; invariably there are so many I can’t avoid the disgusting squish of several beneath my shoes before reaching my destination. And when the sun returns, the shriveled corpses of those who waited too long to return home continue to unpleasantly litter the walk until the groundskeepers’ leaf blowers scatter them into the grass. Living or dead, they seem of no particular value, worthy only of being crushed beneath our shoes as we go about our important business.

It’s earthworms, in fact, that give us the phrase "worm theology," the image suggesting that we human beings, too, are just wretched worthless worms in the dirt, deserving nothing more than to be ground under God’s foot. I have always rejected this conception of human worth. We are indeed desperately fallen, but we were created by God Himself – whose creation was, by His own affirmation, "very good" – and are redeemed by the sacrifice of His Son: and that means we were and are not wretched worms (even if we foolishly choose to live in the dirt sometimes). We were originally destined for glory and eternal life with God, and we may still receive that destiny in Christ, who loves us even in our fallenness and delights in us when we become His brothers. As C. S. Lewis puts it, we would tremble before the least and worst human being if we truly understood that each of us is an immortal soul.

Lately, however, I've been doing some thinking about worms. I remember the topsoil my daddy used to sift through, knowing by its dark, rich texture where he would find earthworms to bait his hook to catch trout for our table, where they had done their job well so that our garden would grow a rich harvest. And now, after a bit of research, I’ve decided that worm theology is not just unfair to man, it's unfair to worms. In fact, earthworms are greatly slandered if we think of them as wretched, useless creatures deserving of no regard. Rather, they are a lovely example of true servanthood.


The earthworm, a simple, blind, not especially appealing creature, lives underground and is seldom seen (and greatly abused by bird and man when he is). He goes quietly, and mostly unremarked, about his job of improving our lives by aerating our soil so it will allow the roots of plants to grow deep and strong and more readily receive the nourishing rain. He eats dirt and organic matter, both dead and living, increasing the earth’s fertility by mixing these elements and thereby enriching the soil with his waste and, ultimately, with his very body. He may not look like much, his work may seem mundane and even disgusting, but our lives would be far different and more difficult without him.

He is indeed a picture of serving at its best: fulfilling one's purpose, whatever God has made it to be, without complaint, without show, without striving after prestige or reward; giving one's life solely for the benefit of others. Of course, the worm does this without thinking about it, without agonizing over the temptation of sin and trying to rationalize his duty away. He simply does what he was created to do; he “selves himself,” lives the inscape poured into him by the Creator.

“Worm theology,” as it’s usually intended, indeed fails to capture man’s dignity as a creature made in God’s image; but real worm theology shows us the excellent way: to live out that image in daily, unassuming service that glorifies God without regard to self.

Followers