Poems for Advent (II)

by Sarah Crowley Chestnut

 

Love Speaks to Nicodemus

     “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world,

      but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17).

 

Here’s the thing, he whispered

through the darkness, words bright

like sun on a steel blade. Love

is like a fallen seed, held tight

as it breaks and bleeds. I am

that small seed come to bleed.

Go down to the dirt with me,

where darkness cracks you open,

fills your lungs with a quiet musk—

you will raise a birth-cry the color of rust.

This is the work of being born

again: cracked seed, water, soil, sun,

Spirit holding you in red hands

laid open, gentle, like a fan.

 

Always I have been leaning low,

ear pressed to hear the stones,

dropped limbs, spent leaves,

upward cry of lowly things—

for you ache upward, too, like dew,

have known that downward pull since the womb,

beginning that is an end, end that makes you sing:

the world is lovely because he loves it,

love reaches for the light, breaks open from the deep.

Poems for Advent (I)

By Sarah Crowley Chestnut

Back in October I had the privilege of attending a poetry workshop at OQ Farm in Vermont with a dear poet friend of mine. It jump-started what was feeling like a stalled-out writing life, and since the workshop, I have found writerly camaraderie springing up both close to home (Liz, in the other wing of this big, old house) and afar (Anna and Hilary at Swiss L’Abri, and Andy and Lindsey in Greatham). There are many reasons I love poetry and believe people should include poetry in the pile of books on their bedside table—it hones my vocabulary, it schools me in image and metaphor, it makes me a more perceptive reader on the whole, and this: it slows me down and helps me pay attention to life and language.

Yesterday we marked the beginning of Advent, the start of the liturgical year, and the season of watching and waiting—for the celebration of the birth of Jesus, and for his anticipated Second Coming. To keep watch expectantly requires that we slow down and pay attention in a season when most of us are racing to check things off our lists (the gift list, the party grocery list, the cleaning-before-family-arrives list, the winterizing list, the decorating list). But to what—or whom—are we meant to pay attention? In his Gospel, Matthew answers this question in the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight…” This Advent, we are invited to slow down and pay attention to Jesus, the one who proclaims justice to the nations, the one who does not shout out about himself, the one who is gentle with the bruised reed, the one who tends to a smoldering wick. The one in whom the nations put their hope.

And so, in hope that it might help you slow down and pay attention to Jesus this week, I offer you this poem. If all goes well, there will be one for each week of Advent.

 

Hope     (Matt. 12:15-21)

because we were hungry

because sunlight was thick on the fields

because his hands were at home

brushing the tops of golden wheat

because at his touch

the grain fell heavy

because we were hungry

warm kernels rolled like hope

over our tongues, seed of bread

ground like mercy between our teeth

because we were hungry

as hungry as a bent reed, hungry

like a flickering wick—

he whispered mercy, hauled up hope

cold and wet, bleating like some frightened sheep

(some say hope has feathers—

let us say it has a woolen fleece)

but because we only saw what we could see

because even eyes can want to feed,

we dreamed of grinding him like wheat,

pinning down those reaching hands—

the flour sack dropped—dust on everything—

dust on the Sabbath, he made dust on the Sabbath

but still we trailed him for healing,

laid hope wheeled in like the harvest at his quiet feet,

saw the traceable trail he tracked

through the dust on everything

because we were hungry, it was hope that fell

into our dust-covered hands, silent like a seed.

BEING A DISCIPLE…

by Joshua Chestnut

Matthew 10:1-4 – And he called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction. The names of the twelve apostles are these: first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.

 

So the votes are in and we have a new president-elect.  In an election season as divisive, antagonistic and downright juvenile as this last one, many of us, myself included have not been immune from breathing it’s toxins in.  Yet, now that the votes are counted, that the winner has been declared, it would be naive to hope that these months and months of angry slander and polarizing rhetoric will just dissipate and we’ll all happily move on together.  The common refrain that I have read and heard since election night is that we just didn’t realize how fragmented and angry the American people actually are, and from where I stand it seems as though these divisions are as real in the church as they are in wider culture.

What has been instructive for me these last months is to consider why in the gospel of Matthew the only disciples whose names are followed by a title are Matthew “the tax collector” and Simon “the Zealot.”  Now, in most cases, if you’re a reader like me when you come upon any list of people in the bible (this one included) your mind jumps into skim mode, zooming over at a thousand feet so you can get back to the matters at hand.  Yet upon slowing down and taking a second look at this list, and these two titles of “tax-collector” and “zealot” in particular, I wonder if Matthew, in a rather subtle and indirect way, wants to teach us something important about the type of community that Jesus has both called to himself and sent back into the world.

In Jesus’ day a zealot was about as far removed ideologically, socially and politically from a tax-collector as a Marxist guerilla is from a conservative radio pundit.  The political differences between a progressive Democrat and an anti-establishment Republican might in fact pale in comparison to these radically conflicting political alignments.  Commenting on this in his hefty but profoundly helpful two volume commentary on Matthew, Frederick Dale-Bruner writes “… that a “leftist” Zealot and a “rightist” tax collector would now find themselves in Jesus’ apostolate suggests the power of Jesus.  He is able to take both liberal and conservative mentalities, both Left and Right, and, by uniting them to himself, unite them to each other in a cause higher than either Left or Right.”

There is something instructive here for Christians on either side of the political divide living in a splintering democracy like ours.  At a minimum, Matthew’s list of the disciples with its striking juxtaposition of a former freedom-fighter now working alongside a one-time traitorous collaborator with the Empire shows us that Jesus’ mission is undertaken by sinners transformed by grace rather than saints without pasts.  This should instill in us a grace and hospitality towards those who differ from us on weighty and important political matters.  But even more so, this list evidences the power of the gospel to create a community of radically different people whose political and ideological differences have been put in subjection to Jesus’ greater call of being his disciple.

To be clear, I do believe there are lots of political and cultural matters that are worth disagreeing about, even getting upset about, and I am not intending to downplay these in the some sort of watered-down call to “just get along.”  Nor am I saying we should overlook unacceptable behavior or dangerous policy proposals, but how we deal with that is a matter for another blog post.  Many of us are justifiably upset at the way this whole process went down, and frightened by the picture of the nation it has given us.   It is here, in this place of disillusionment, fragmentation and polarization that the church of Jesus in North America needs to remember that Jesus calls his disciples from across the political spectrum to himself and his call eclipses, transforms and subverts our prior political affiliations uniting us to a higher cause.

 

 

Pumpkin Apple Autumn Gold, and Understanding Soup

By Sarah Crowley Chestnut

soup

Soup and I go way back. On fall nights during high school, when I returned home at dinner time after volleyball practice, the welcoming aroma of my mother’s chicken noodle or her beef stew met me on the short, brick walk way to our front steps. And there were biscuits on the table, too, nestled in a basket, tucked in with a cloth napkin to keep them warm.

In my second year of college I had mono for a month, and my mother brought me her chicken noodle in a quart-sized mason jar when she and my father were in town on business. I knew that I was loved.

In the years after college when I lived in Prague, teaching English to students bright as a lit wick, I taught myself how to make a creamy potato soup, studded with the bright half-circles of carrots I bought at the vegetable market in the small plaza at the mouth of the metro. There was celery, too, and white wine. I learned how to make a roux.

One afternoon a Czech co-worker took me on a walk through the heart of the old town, and we stopped “for refreshment” in a small tavern, tucked (like those warm biscuits), in a thick medieval wall. We sat at a table that was small and round. The waiter brought us a rendition of borscht that seared itself into my memory. It was chunky: beets, carrots, potatoes, tomatoes. There was sausage that made it smokey. And the pigment of the broth!

During my years at Regent College I ate soup every Tuesday, with the rest of the school, from a white bowl balanced on my knees, and a Portuguese bun spread with peanut butter and raspberry jam leaving a dusting of flour over everything. In time, I was the one who made that Tuesday soup with the help of many hands. I learned to extract garlic from its skin properly: trim the root end, set it on your board, lay the flat of your knife on the cloves and let the heel of our hand fall hard on the smooth steel. Pluck the crushed clove from its husk. Repeat. There was roasted butternut squash. There was vegetable barley. During Lent, even nettle and potato to remind us of the sting of thorns.

It is fall—deep fall—in New England; the air snaps hungry jaws and what it wants is soup. At L’Abri we make soup by the gallons: Ben’s Corn Chowder, Mary Frances’s Tortellini Spinach, Liz’s Potato Leek. Or this past Monday, because it was Halloween, my Pumpkin Apple Autumn Gold. I am told there was always soup at the Schaeffer’s table. And when I was a Helper here in Southborough, trying to recreate that Prague borscht from my tastebud’s memory, word got back to me that Joe Morrell had told Joshua, “Your wife understands soup.” I really can’t think of a better compliment one could pay me. It amounts to this: soup is as simple as sunbeams, and as complex as the light they make.

So join us at the table. Pumpkin Apple Autumn Gold is hot, and warm biscuits are tucked and waiting.

Recommended Reading and Cooking:

The Supper of the Lamb, Robert Farrar Capon (especially the chapter, “Living Water”)

Twelve Months of Monastery Soup, Brother Victor-Antoine d’Avila Latourrette

The Moosewood Cookbooks—any of them—for great vegetarian soup recipes.

 

Pumpkin Apple Autumn Gold (adapted from Moosewood Cooks for a Crowd)

This recipe makes 25 12-oz. Servings. Invite your neighbors over and plan to freeze some, too. Or halve the recipe.

Ingredients

16 cups / 7 lbs Cooked pulp of pumpkin or other winter squash (I used a mixture of sugar pie pumpkin, kabocha and butternut squash)

10 cups / 2 lbs.8oz. Onions, chopped

½ cup Olive oil

1 tsp Dried thyme

3 TBS Fresh sage, chopped (optional)

1tsp Ground nutmeg

1-2 tsp Ground cinnamon

1 thumb-size piece Fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped (optional)

8 Bay leaves

2 generous pinches Kosher salt

Several cranks Fresh ground pepper

4 cups / 1 lb. 4 oz. Carrots, chopped

6-8 cups / 2 lbs. Celery, chopped

1 cup White wine (optional)

3 qts. Chicken or vegetable stock

1 qt. Apple juice

1 qt. Orange juice

more salt and pepper to taste

Plain yogurt and toasted pumpkin seeds to garnish

  1. Halve and seed the pumpkin/squash, rub lightly with olive oil and bake, covered with foil, at 400F for about an hour, or until very soft. Set aside and then scrape out the pulp when it is cool enough to handle. Meanwhile…
  2. Heat oil in a large pot, add onions, herbs, spices, salt, pepper and bay leaves and saute until onions begin to soften.
  3. Add the carrots, celery and white wine, stir and cover, cooking on medium heat for 10-15 minutes. Stir occasionally.
  4. Add the stock and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook, covered, until the vegetables are very soft. Remove the bay leaves as best as you can.
  5. In a blender, puree the squash, juices and rest of the soup in batches until smooth. Taste for salt and pepper and season to taste. Reheat gently.
  6. Garnish with a swirl of yogurt and a sprinkle of pumpkin seeds.

REVIEW OF PETER LEITHART’S THE END OF PROTESTANTISM: PURSUING UNITY IN A FRAGMENTED CHURCH

By Joshua Chestnut

The good people over at Brazos Press were generous enough to give us a free copy of Peter Leithart’s new book, The End of Protestantism: Pursuing Unity in a Fragmented Church in exchange for an honest review.  This is a fascinating book and certainly recommended for anyone interested in discussions around Christian ecumenism (i.e. the promoting of unity between churches).  That said, Leithart’s intended audience are those who are usually not interested in ecumenism (which includes Leithart’s own PCA denomination).  It is a provocative read with many helpful insights, but leaves me with some significant reservations.

I quite enjoy Leithart’s distinctly theological ways into this discussion.  First, he takes with utter seriousness Jesus’ prayer in John 17 where Jesus prays that all of his disciples would be one, as he and the Father are one — a prayer that Leithart repeatedly insists is one that the Father will not leave unanswered.  Second, in the book’s “intermezzo” entitled “From Glory to Glory” Leithart offers a rich and stimulating reflection on a Biblical pattern to history — briskly and capably moving through the Biblical story and summarizing the pattern as “God makes worlds, dismantles them, and rebuilds” (p. 101).  God creates and calls, his people fall away, he judges but doesn’t give up — after death there is resurrection.  Where this all gets somewhat provocative is when he insists that 1.) much (if not all) of our current denominational structure actively works to delay the fulfillment of Jesus’s prayer and 2.) that while the Reformers themselves are not to blame for the current fragmentation of the church (pp.38-51) it is still undeniably part of their legacy and part of the church’s “dismantling.”  Yet, Leithart insists — where God dismantles he always rebuilds, and so Leithart looks a future church.

This future church, which he calls a Reformational Catholicism would hopefully mean the “end” of Protestantism.  By this Leithart plays with the double meaning of the word “end” — it would be the end, as in the death, of the type of antagonism and tribalism which characterizes far too much of American denominationalism (i.e. to be a part of this tribe means to not be a part of some other tribe; my tribe has the best and only way to be, etc).  But it would also further us towards the end, as in purpose, of the reformers who longed for the reformation of the entire church, not the endless formation of entirely new and separate churches.  Here I must raise a complaint.  While I think there is some legitimacy in connecting the proliferation of schismatic, tribalistic churches to the unintended fall-out of the Reformation, it seems all together unfair to lay the origins of schismatics and tribal mentalities at the feet of the Reformation.  Schism and fragmentation were no doubt part of the church’s life long before the Reformation (See 1 Corinthians 1; see Galatians; see the Great Schism of 1054; see the Western Schism of 1378 to 1417 to start with).  I know Leithart is aware of all of this, but it is not mentioned and so I find the implied picture of the pre-Reformation church to be border-line irresponsible.  Leithart would have done well to acknowledge this more.

While much of Leithart’s agenda is driven by theological concerns, I appreciated when his criticism of denominationalism moved out of the theological and into the sociological — highlighting how denominational divisions often mirror divisions in our broader culture which do not necessarily arise out of theological commitments but rather out of what he calls Americanism.  While Leithart highlighted racial division and a pervasive distrust of Roman Catholicism (especially in early America), I was disappointed that he overlooked the way in which current day partisan political divisions in many parts of the American church simply mirror the polarization of our wider culture.  Seemed like the perfect place to address this.

So what then is the unity that Leithart is after?  If denominationalism’s tribalism is not the end to which the Protestant Reformation was after, what exactly then must come to an end?  Leithart”s answer is in some ways quite simple and beautiful.  It is not merely an organizational or bureaucratic unity (though that would be nice), nor is it an ecumenism which waters down the importance of theological distinctives.  Nor is he calling for anyone to simply transfer their membership to one church in particular.  For example, he strongly warns disenchanted evangelicals from jumping ship and simply joining the Roman Catholic Church just because it’s bigger and has an older tradition.  This would only increases the tribalistic mentality of denominationalism because it implies denying the legitimacy of one’s previous church’s existence.

For Leithart, this future church must be Catholic — i.e. “a recognition of our brotherhood in baptism and a practice of table fellowship” (p. 21), but it also must include continual Reformation and the commitment “to work through differences in a context of communion and prayerful friendship” (p. 181)  Leithart sees something inspiring (if not programmatic) for the churches of North America in the church of South India where “Anglicans, Methodists and Presbyterians in India stripped away their denominational identities to become the church of South India” (p. 25).

While there are certainly details of Leithart’s own presentation that are less than satisfying, on the whole this is a well-informed, thoughtful and theologically rich book even where one disagrees.  I closed the book scandalized by how un-scandalized I am by the fragmentation and tribalism which often characterizes my own tribe.  Though not convinced that Leithart has given us a real way forward,  his directness and candor pricked my own conscious in unexpected ways, and has spurred me to pray for God’s church to be one as the Father and the Son are.  That said, on the whole this book reads more like the beautiful and admirable hopes of a pastor/theologian than an actual plan on how to join God in how he create his future church.

 

 

 

 

“DRINK TEA AND READ BOOKS”

by Liz Snell

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A package recently arrived for me from a L’Abri friend in London. Inside, a wooden pin instructed: “Drink tea and read books”. She understands. We drink so much tea around here I had to give up taking sugar in it. We drink tea and we read books, often at the same time. Students have three hours a day to read; they settle on couches by the Tile Room’s French doors or bend their heads over tables in the wood-paneled library or, as the air cools, sit around the wood stoves toasting their backs. I get to my own bulging stack of books when I can.

My lit major parents gifted their children with a love of reading early on. My mom read aloud every afternoon, slurring her words as she dozed off and slipped away from Narnia or Middle Earth. My dad introduced us to To Kill a Mockingbird, assigned us parts in Romeo and Juliet, and read us Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” on a road trip. We ransacked the library, weekly filling three laundry baskets with books. As an adult I followed the paper trail into my own lit and writing classes. But it seemed so rare to find Christians who also liked books with beautiful language and believable characters, poems and novels that don’t slash the obvious across their pages. Then I stepped into L’Abri.

At L’Abri, we read theology and Christian living books – nothing wrong with a clear message per se. But we also love good literature. Sometimes, a novel or a poem arrives at just the right time and does more to draw us to God’s truth than all the well-intentioned theology we could burrow inside. It makes room for mystery and for the “faint whisper” of God, who gives us the ability to communicate and create. When we read literature, we must be willing to walk into a new world with our pockets full of both wonder and wits. Things aren’t so obvious here, but they ring with the unseen.

A parent can tell a child what to do, but this is hollow if they don’t also show a child how to live. Literature shows us how to live, and often, how not to live. It shows, not tells, the beauty of goodness and the ugliness of evil. My mind returns to Atticus Finch or Frodo as I try to act rightly; more than I want of me reflects Bob Ewell’s prejudice and Saruman’s temptation to control. Darkness is real in these books, but so is hope.

So at L’Abri, we pass around our favorite stories, pressing them into each others’ hands, saying, “You’ll love this.” Ben reads aloud from The Magician’s Nephew; we cozy up to laugh at Diggory and Polly’s bickering and gasp at the mysterious ruins of Charn. We’re not too old for this. Never too old. We even write our own stories, poems, raps, and nonfiction: we invite each other into our lives. We warm our hands around mugs of fragrant tea, we drink in warm and fragrant words, and we share what we find at the bottom of the cup that’s beautiful, good, and true.