In preparation for preaching

“I looked up and saw the very last thing I expected: a huge lion coming slowly toward me. And one queer thing was that there was no moon last night, but there was moonlight where the lion was. So it came nearer and nearer. I was terribly afraid of it. You may think that, being a dragon, I could have knocked any lion out easily enough. But it wasn’t that kind of fear. I wasn’t afraid of it eating me, I was just afraid of it — if you can understand. Well, it came close up to me and looked straight into my eyes. And I shut my eyes tight. But that wasn’t any good because it told me to follow it.”

“You mean it spoke?”140225

“I don’t know. Now that you mention it, I don’t think it did. But it told me all the same. And I knew I’d have to do what it told me, so I got up and followed it. And it led me a long way into the mountains. And there was always this moonlight over and round the lion wherever we went. So at last we came to the top of a mountain I’d never seen before and on the top of this mountain there was a garden — trees and fruit and everything. In the middle of it there was a well.

“I knew it was a well because you could see the water bubbling up from the bottom of it: but it was a lot bigger than most wells — like a very big, round bath with marble steps going down into it. The water was as clear as anything and I thought if I could get in there and bathe it would ease the pain in my leg. But the lion told me I must undress first. Mind you, I don’t know if he said any words out loud or not.

“I was going to say that I couldn’t undress because I hadn’t any clothes on when I suddenly thought that dragons are snaky sort of things and snakes can cast their skins. Oh, of course, thought I, that’s what the lion means. So I started scratching myself and my scales began coming off all over the place. And then I scratched a little deeper and, instead of just scales coming off here and there, my whole skin started peeling off beautifully, like it does after an illness, of as if I was a banana. In a minute or two I just stepped out of it. I could see it lying there beside me, looking rather nasty. It was a most lovely feeling. So I started to go down into the well for my bathe.

“But just as I was going to put my feet into the water I looked down and saw that they were all hard and rough and wrinkled and scaly just as they had been before. Oh, that’s all right, said I, it only means I had another smaller suit on underneath the first one, and I’ll have to get out of it too. So I scratched and tore again and this underskin peeled off beautifully and out I stepped and left it lying beside the other one and went down to the well for my bathe.

“Well, exactly the same thing happened again. And I thought to myself, oh dear, how ever many skins have I got to take off? For I was longing to bathe my leg. So I scratched away for the third time and got off a third skin, just like the two others, and stepped out of it. But as soon as I looked at myself in the water, I knew it had been no good.

“Then the lion said —  but I don’t know if it spoke — ‘You will have to let me undress you.’ — I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it.

“The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’d ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff pull off. You know — if you’ve ever picked the scab off a sore place. It hurts like billy-oh but it is such fun to see it coming away…

“Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off — just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt — and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been. And there was I as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me — I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on — and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again…

“After a bit the lion took me out and dressed me–”

“Dressed you. With his paws?”

“Well, I don’t exactly remember that bit. But he did somehow or other: in new clothes — the same I’ve got on now, as a matter of fact. And then suddenly I was back here. Which is what makes me think it must have been a dream.”

“No. It wasn’t a dream,” said Edmund.

“Why not?”

“Well, there are the clothes, for one thing. And you have been — well, un-dragoned, for another.”

“What do you think it was, then?” asked Eustace.

“I think you’ve seen Aslan,” said Edmund.

“Aslan!” said Eustace.

~ from The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, by C. S. Lewis

Lent 4: Bearing Lent with Patience

TERRIBLE SONNET (IV): “Patience, Hard Thing,” by Gerard Manley Hopkins

PATIENCE, HARD THING! the hard thing but to pray,
But bid for, Patience is! Patience who asks
Wants war, wants wounds; weary his times, his tasks;
To do without, take tosses, and obey.

Rare patience roots in these, and, these away,
Nowhere. Natural heart’s ivy, Patience masks
Our ruins of wrecked past purpose. There she basks
Purple eyes and seas of liquid leaves all day.

We hear our hearts grate on themselves: it kills
To bruise them dearer. Yet the rebellious wills
Of us we do bid God bend to him even so.

And where is he who more and more distils
Delicious kindness?—He is patient. Patience fills
His crisp combs, and that comes those ways we know.

Poetry isn’t for everyone, I get it. Especially Hopkins, who sort of invented his own “odd” meter. Let me see if I can passably rephrase Hopkins for us.

How hard it is to ask for Patience! Patience lacks (“wants”) excitement and drama. His ways are difficult: to go without, to take beatings, to obey.

These ways are where Patience grows, nowhere else. Like ivy, Patience slowly covers the ruins of our ambitions, and there She* rests.

We groan to hear about Patience, because we have none; and yet we ask God to change us.

Because it is so sweet to be with That Patient Person, and because we know how hard it was for Him to be Patient.

Hopefully that helps? Without ruining all of Hopkins’ artful language, that is.

*It is interesting to me that Hopkins’ refers to Patience as both male and female, and I think it’s insightful that he does.

I will say only this to tie the poem into Lent: substitute “Jesus” in for “Patience,” and the poem is transformed. Read the paraphrase again.

Jesus’ call to the cross is a “Hard Thing!” to bear, because then we must “do without, take tosses, and obey.” It is here that Christlikeness grows, and because Jesus did these things for us, our sins are forgiven. We may feel guilt, and yet God is working to change us, to transform us into Christians — “little Christs” — who, like him, “distil Delicious kindness” for the world.

Paul says the same thing this way:

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

~ Romans 5:1-11, NRSV

I read the following posts to help me read Hopkins well:


Samwise Gamgee, on the Great Tales

This week I was struck by Tolkien’s genius. He puts a great bit of lenten wisdom in the mouth of Samwise Gamgee, for our comfort and encouragement at this point in Lent’s long, wearying, thankless wandering.

“I don’t like anything here at all,” said Frodo, “step or stone, breath or bone. Earth, air and water all seem accursed. But so our path is laid.”

“Yes, that’s so,” said Sam. “And we shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seems to have been just landed in them, usually — their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on — and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and finding things all right, though not quite the same — like old Mr. Bilbo. But those aren’t always the best tales to hear, though they maybe the best tales to get landed in!

“I wonder,” said Frodo. “But I don’t know. And that’s the way of a real tale. Take any one that you’re fond of. You may know, or guess, what kind of a tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don’t know. And you don’t want them to.”

“No, sir, of course not. Beren now, he never thought he was going to get that Silmaril from the Iron Crown in Thangorodrim, and yet he did, and that was a worse place and a blacker danger than ours. But that’s a long tale, of course, and goes on past the happiness and into grief and beyond it — and the Silmaril went on to Earandil. And why, sir, I never thought of that before! We’ve got — you’ve got some of the light of it in that star-glass that the Lady gave you! Why, to think of it, we’re in the same tale still! It’s going on. Don’t the great tales never end?”

“No, they never end as tales,” said Frodo. “But the people in them come, and go when their part’s ended. Our part will end later — or sooner.”

“And then we can have some rest and some sleep,” said Sam.

~ from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, by J. R. R. Tolkien

Lent 3: Leaving Comfort “Root-Room”

It’s officially week 2 (following the second Sunday) of Lent, and I’ve been posting each Wednesday one of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Terrible Sonnets.” Depending on who you read, Hopkins is either exhibiting severe psychological depression or profound spiritual desolation, a “Dark Night of the Soul.” I tend towards the latter reading, but either way, these sonnets get pretty dark.

Looking over the 6 sonnets, written in no particular order, I found myself getting more and more depressed by them, overwhelmed by Hopkins’ grating and groaning tone. These are a valuable collection of poetry for our Lenten reflections, because like Lent, the journey leads us through “the valley of the shadow of death” on our way to Good Friday’s cross. But then I read this.

TERRIBLE SONNET (III): “My Own Heart,” by Gerard Manley Hopkins

MY OWN HEART let me more have pity on; let
Me live to my sad self hereafter kind,
Charitable; not live this tormented mind
With this tormented mind tormenting yet.

I cast for comfort I can no more get
By groping round my comfortless, than blind
Eyes in their dark can day or thirst can find
Thirst’s all-in-all in all a world of wet.

Soul, self; come, poor Jackself, I do advise
You, jaded, let be; call off thoughts awhile
Elsewhere; leave comfort root-room; let joy size

At God knows when to God knows what; whose smile
’s not wrung, see you; unforeseen times rather—as skies
Betweenpie mountains—lights a lovely mile.

In her article for Biola’s Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care, Jessica Brown writes,

The distance between who we are and who we want to be often registers in how we talk to ourselves. . . . Examining our self-talk in the gentle brightness of biblical light can help us realize how such self-talk could be hindering spiritual formation by drowning out the honest warmth of the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, moving toward more gracious self-talk can correspond with the Spirit’s work, guiding us to tend our hearts by following God’s tending care.

Maybe thinking about how you talk to yourself — or about yourself — and whether its kind or harsh is new to you. It kind of is to me. As it turns out, I say some pretty nasty things to myself, pretty often. I wager most of us do. Hopkins’ poem instructs me to stop myself mid-chiding, and instead, “My own heart, let me more have pity on; let me live to my sad self hereafter kind, charitable.”

In a recent blog post at Conversations, Jan Johnson has also explored the importance for speaking to ourselves as God speaks to us. Richard Rohr, in his book Breathing Under Watercoaches us how.

Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve StepsJust watch yourself objectively, calmly, and compassionately. You will be able to do this from your new viewing platform and perspective as a grounded child of God. “The Spirit will help you in your weakness” (Romans 8:26). From this most positive and dignified position you can let go of, and easily “admit your wrongs.” You are being held so strongly and so deeply that you can stop holding onto, or defending, yourself. God forever sees and loves Christ in you; it is only you who doubt our divine identity as children of God.

We now have an implanted position and power whereby we can see ourselves calmly and compassionately without endless digging, labeling, judging, or the rancor that we usually have toward our own imperfection. Don’t judge, just look can be our motto — and now with the very eyes of God.

~ from Breathing Under Water, by Fr. Richard Rohr.

Last year I entered an intense season of what Richard Rohr playfully refers to as “shadow boxing;” however, I did not then have his instructions for doing it constructively, or for exiting it fruitfully. Gracious self-talk is essential to drawing the benefits from shadow boxing, and for emerging from it with those benefits. Thankfully, I have those instructions now, and see the benefit of regularly practicing shadow boxing. Now I also have Hopkins’ warnings: “leave comfort root-room,” room to take root and grow and flourish in the midst of the harsh “goop” I discover within myself.