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Poetry Offers Space for those Sheltering in Place

In a time when possibilities, once seemingly limitless in our nation, have suddenly become far more limited, poetry offers perspective and possibility while refreshing place.

I have long believed that poetry would make an eventual come-back in our culture, but now I see a window of actual opportunity for such a thing to happen. In a culture awash with words, often empty words from the unrealistic promises of advertisements, the economy of words in poetry forces meditation and musing. Each word packed with levels of meaning, each phrase stretchy enough to become a space and place all its own.

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Take it from American poet Emily Dickinson who spent the majority of her life in a chosen quarantine without COVID-19. While she was particularly quirky, she knew a thing or two about limits and possibilities. In her poem I Dwell in Possibility, she expresses the freedom that the poetic form offers as compared to prose.

I Dwell in Possibility  (466) by Emily Dickinson

I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –

Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –

Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –

While we are cramped in similar places and limited in our movement, poetry offers movement and imaginative space. It frees us from a merely pragmatic existence and imbues meaning into the seemingly monotonous. 

Scottish writer and poet George MacDonald had the gift of expressing himself through a world of words. In the following excerpt from his book of poetry entitled The Diary of An Old Soul, he puts into words what so many of us have experienced in the recent weeks.

“Therefore, O Lord, when all things common seem,
When all is dust, and self the centre clod,
When grandeur is a hopeless, foolish dream,
And anxious care more reasonable than God,-
Out of the ashes I will call to thee-
In spite of dead distrust call earnestly; –
Oh thou who livest, call, then answer dying me.

We are a shadow and a shining, we!
One moment nothing seems but we see,
Nor aught to rule but common  circumstance-
Nought is to seek but praise, to shun but chance;
A moment more, and God is all in all,
And a sparrow from its nest can fall
But from the ground its chirp goes up into his hall.”

As I have processed with family, college friends, and women from our church, the shared sentiment is a sudden swinging between the poles of levity and gravity, fear and distrust, belief and unbelief, peace and anxiety. One minute we are trusting the Lord and enjoying his purchased peace in the midst of the storm, but then the next, for no apparent reason, we are cowering in fear, hoarding toilet paper, and doubting God’s wisdom and goodness.

I love the phrase, “We are a shadow and a shining, we!”  as it poetically captures the distinctly Christian paradox of humanity which holds both brokenness and beauty, sin and sonship.

Two weeks ago, all seemed normal as circumstances and schedules ruled our lives. We had baseball and soccer practices that called us, coffee dates that consoled us, and work and home to divide our time. Then, as if out of nowhere, COVID-19 changed the filter. Suddenly, the things we took for granted became great gifts: hugs, toilet paper, work and paychecks. Suddenly, the God who had all but fallen into the background came again to the forefront, and the sovereignty of God that our self-assured and self-reliant culture tried to shrug off became a prized reality. The Heidelberg catechism went from a dusty old creed to an anchor line of hope nearly overnight.

MacDonald’s twin phrases, “When grandeur is a hopeless, foolish dream/
And anxious care more reasonable than God,” perfectly captures the feelings many of us have right now. Anxiety seems more reasonable than faith right now, but, as believers, we cry out to the living God to save us.

More poetry which creates space and perspective to come in the coming days of quarantine. Until then, rest in the reality that while we are both shadow and shining, our God is sovereign and good.

Exposed & Covered

Naked and exposed. Not literally, thankfully, although there have definitely been some shirtless homeschool days for one of my boys who is not afraid to enjoy the few perks of sudden homeschooling.

Stripped of busyness and the false sense of significance and insulation it provides, my soul has felt more exposed and vulnerable this past few weeks (which have felt much longer than a few weeks).  I cannot run to the coffee shop or walk around my favorite thrift stores. I cannot plan my weeks with face-to-face meetings with women at church for my job. I detest the phone and am a late adapter with technology, which means that I feel a bit like a fish out of water in our new virtual world.

In this sudden (and much-needed) soul exposure, I have found myself tempted to quickly find new cloaks to throw over myself. The perfect homeschool schedule: that fell apart ten minutes into Quarantine Academy. Household productivity: another quick failed attempt, as our mountain of unfolded laundry will attest. Continue reading

The Squeeze and the Savior

While I have never been diagnosed with textbook claustrophobia, I hate tight places. Elevators, tunnels and all other small spaces make my heart race and my palms sweat. I can rescue a child from the Chick-fil-A playplace blackhole like the best of them, but other than that, I try my hardest to avoid squishy, smushy places in the external world.

Similarly, my soul hates tight, restricting places and situations. With the exception of contortionists, I believe that most humans share my sentiments to varying degrees of intensity. Humans try to avoid being squeezed. Continue reading

Leaning in to Lament

Today the tears of fear, disappointment, and the unique tiredness that comes from trying to be tough for your kids welled up from within me.

We have been doing the workouts, reading together, and making the most of things. We tried to make Phin’s birthday two days ago feel as festive as possible. He tried to be grateful and act like it was the perfect day. But it wasn’t. He did not get to have his party. He misses his friends. Today it culminated in him being sad and disappointed that life looks like this right now.  When his honest tears started flowing, mine joined him, and we made a little river.

I don’t think I realized how much the dust of disappointment has been gathering in my heart and in their little hearts. Continue reading

Dayenu in Dire Days

I cried today. Partly because I am tired. Partly because it is a strange birthday for our youngest son. Partly because we are reading Pax, a beautifully written but sad book aloud for our temporary homeschool arrangement. Partly because I have been watching our housemate and his fiancee decide what to do about  their wedding next Saturday, a wedding they have been planning for half a year. Partly because my friends in the healthcare sector are tired and exposed to a disease that shows no signs of relenting in the near future.  All the partly’s make for a whole lot of emotion churning in my heart and the hearts of my little ones.

In the midst of the list of real emotions, the Holy Spirit was gracious to bring one word to heart and mind: dayenu which means “it would have been sufficient.” Continue reading

The Magnifying Glass of Motherhood

Aleksandr Solzhneitsyn said of his prison cell in the Russian gulag that it taught him how to run a magnifying glass over life.

Not the perspective one would expect from a man falsely-imprisoned in one of the most cruel prison systems in history.

“Bless you prison, bless you for being in my life. For there, lying upon the rotting prison straw, I came to realize that the object of life is not prosperity as we are made
to believe, but the maturity of the human soul.” Continue reading

How the Local Church Can Shine in a Global Pandemic

As I sat down this morning with extra time on my hands from cancelled meetings and appointments, I found my soul stalled out. It seems the incredible amount of statistical information and news stories have left me (and most people, I would presume) paralyzed.

Graphs of flattening curves and comparisons between countries who have responded well or poorly to COVID-19 kept flashing to the forefront of my mind. As such, I was having a hard time knowing how to pray. Continue reading

Fully Opened

As the Spring breaths its new life over a weary, wintered earth, things begin to open. Buds bravely begin the process of opening themselves from being tightly bound, exposing themselves to the outside air.

But buds are not the only tightly bound things. Hearts, hands, and souls are also bound and closed. Exposure to the brokenness of the world constricts the soul. Fears tend to tighten hearts in reflexive self-protection; however, exposure to Christ opens the soul in hope, eager expectation, and even a vulnerable love. Continue reading

How Our Holidays Reveal Our Hearts

What began as a silly way to make a long drive feel shorter quickly became a source of exposure and sadness.

My youngest son happens to have been born on St. Patrick’s Day which is a source of great pride for him. As a joke, my other sons began looking up what holidays might fall on the rest of the birthdays of our family members. Somewhere, in the laughter and silliness of hearing about Taco Day, Cat Lover Day, and Donut Day, my heart became heavy. Continue reading

Spring-loaded Discipleship

Time binding. I have been reading about time-binding. Lest you write me off as a sci-fi person (which I most certainly am not, though I seem to be raising children who are… never say never), allow me to explain myself.

Time binding is not time bending or some other time-space continuum talk which is well above my pay grade. Rather, it is a concept studied by Alfred Korzbyski which I came across in Present Shock, the most fascinating book I have read in a while.

Korzybski noticed that in addition to storing energy (like plants storing energy photosynthesized during sunlight for darkness and winter) and storing space (like a squirrel gathering nuts from all over and placing them into its niche),  humans also store or bind time.

While time-binding might sound like something only an Avenger could do, it is something we all do regularly.  Douglas Rushkoff wrote the following explaining Korzybski’s concept.

We can take the experiences of one generation and pass it on to the next generation through language and symbols. We can still teach our children things  like hunting or fishing in real time, but our lessons can also be compressed into stories, instructions, and diagrams. The information  acquired by one generation can be passed on more efficiently than if each subsequent generation needed to learn everything through experience. 

Rushkoff describes this action as spring-loading time: if time were a spring, we compress ages of learning and information, passing it on in shorter period of time. This concept of spring-loaded time helped me understand the significant activity that happens within Christian discipleship in a new light.

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Discipleship as Time-binding

Passing on information is nothing new. In fact, the passing on both the theological tenants of the gospel along with its practical implications on life within the context of an intentional relationship is as old as the Christian church.

In his last letter to his young protege Timothy, the Apostle Paul perfectly captures the heart of discipleship with its time binding properties.

You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you  have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will  be able to teach other’s also. 2 Timothy 2: 1-2

Paul had spent countless years of his life doing life with the young Timothy. In addition to knowing the gospel, they knew each other’s strengths, weaknesses, quirks, and stories of upbringing. Timothy knew Paul’s preaching style, the lines he used to transition surface-level conversations with those around them into significant conversations that might move toward spiritual things. Timothy learned from Paul’s experience how to suffer well, how to fight against living for the approval of man, and how to persevere even in the presence of mounting pressure and hostilities.

Knowing he was nearing the end of his life on this earth (which he welcomed… for to live is Christ and to die is gain. Philippians 1:21), he urged Timothy to pass this eternally critical information on to the next generation.

Timothy was to live his life faithfully, binding the lessons he learned as he walked with  God through the Spirit and the Word and compressing them to pass them along to the next spiritual iteration.

This exponentially multiplicative process has been ongoing since Christ ascended back to His father, leaving the Spirit to guide his rag-tag crew of disciples in the continued advance of God’s kingdom.

We stand on the shoulders of giants. We have so much to learn from the spiritual successes and failures of the generations of saints who have gone before us, binding the lessons they learned and spring-loading us for the future. And the coming iterations of the kingdom of God will use the information bound by us and spring-loaded into their lives through our discipleship of them.

Spring-loaded lives

As I was reading about and mulling over these concepts, the Lord was gracious to bring two real life examples into my life, one to our kitchen table and the other to my office.

A friend came over to catch up and enjoy a meal with our family. He shared about his parent’s marriage and how God had enabled him to speak into their relationship at a very critical juncture. With tears of relief in his eyes, he shared about how all the years of training and discipleship he received during his college days had spring-loaded him for that very moment in their marriage. The countless workout sessions with a mentor, the weekly Bible studies, the seasonal retreats, the silly outings… all had been compressed into the wisdom he would need to help his parents reconcile.

Then, just yesterday, I sat down with a retired woman from my church. She was begging for ways invest all the time-binding she had been doing for a lifetime in the lives of the next generation. She said, “I am not getting any younger. I want to get to work passing along these things to new believers.”

Oh, that we might not only carefully number and invest the time we have been given but also bind it to pass it along to the coming generations. May we spring load the spiritual springs of the future that the gospel and its implications might continue its work until Christ returns.