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.

 

 

“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.

RECENT L’ABRI LECTURES AT COVENANT COLLEGE…

Hello again dear blogreaders!  Even though things have been as quiet as a church mouse on this blog for the last few months please don’t think things here in Southborough have been!   In the business of the last few months this blog has sadly fallen by the wayside – though we do hope we can start posting more regularly again.

To start back into things, it seemed only appropriate to post the audio from a recent day of lectures hosted Covenant College called the L’Abri lectures.  The line-up included a current L’Abri worker (our own Mary Frances Giles), a former worker with the British branch (Andrew Fellows) as well as philosophy prof from Covenant (Bill Davis) who is an admirer of L’Abri.

Mary Frances’ lecture is a wonderful weaving together of themes, ideas and practices which characterize much of our work here in Southborough and serves as a great introduction as to what L’Abri is.

 

“ART AND HOMEMAKING” with Dot Vile

Dot Vile is a sculpture/installation artist from Philadelphia who recently spent a few weeks here with us in Southborough and was kind enough to share some photos of her work as well as a short reflection on her time at L’Abri.

I read Edith Schaeffer’s book Hidden Art on whim in art school.  I knew the book was about homemaking but didn’t foresee it to have any impact on my work.  At the time, I had already been thinking about the relation between a human body and a house.  I was looking for physical similarities in their inwardness, outwardness, strengths and weaknesses.  My suspicions were affirmed when I read the last chapter titled Environment.  Edith says, “We are an environment, each one of us … People who come across us or walk into our presence become involved.”  That stopped me in my tracks and pin-pointed what I began to believe about homemaking.  It goes beyond physical walls.  A relationship can become a home.  I had no idea what L’Abri was while I read the book and was pretty stunned when I found out the word meant shelter.

In much of my work, I play with both construction site and homemaking material – like cement, curtains and steel nails.  I set up interactions between the material to show their strengths and weaknesses.  Human interactions are so alike in that way too.  Direct interactions, especially through tension, can quickly show how strong or weak a relationship is.  Many of the pieces I make become physical metaphors for this idea.

While I was at L’Abri for the beginning of the summer term, I learned “hospitality” means loving the stranger.  Upon hearing that, the environment I give off suddenly became more of a responsibility and something to hone.  The more I believe that I am an environment, a temple and a dwelling place, the more empathetic I feel towards both people and run-down houses.  I observe and enter construction and demolition sites wherever I can.  If we really are “glorious ruins” (as Francis Schaeffer says) than that empathy does not seem strange but somehow inborn.

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You can find more of Dot’s work on her website or Tumblr page.

 

 

 

 

BOOK RECOMMENDATION: “You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit” by James K.A. Smith

 

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James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit.  Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016.  224 pgs.

If James K.A. Smith’s recently released book You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit is correct in its general thrust, then reading this accessible, insightful and well-informed book will decidedly not change your life.  Let me explain.

You Are What You Love is Smith’s ‘user-friendly’ presentation of a thesis he has been arguing over the last few years in more academically inclined books (if you’re interested see here and here).  Central to this larger project of Smith’s is an attempt to expand how contemporary Christians understand what it means to be human and how this effects our discipleship.  In short, Smith wants to re-situate our head with our heart, our thinking with our desiring, and our rationality with our imagination.  Smith believes that all too often the church has bought into an Enlightenment picture of the human person as primarily a ‘thinking thing,’ and with this reduced picture of the human person in hand, models of discipleship have also been reduced to mere data input: learn the right doctrine, read the right books, go to right conference, download the right podcast.  All of these are good and helpful things in our discipleship, but if discipleship is only aimed at the filling our heads the broader culture will be more than happy to captivate the heart, woo the imagination and form our desires.

Taking his cues from both St. Augustine and the biblical witness, Smith wants to enlarge our picture of the human person and in so doing questions the discipleship-as-data-input model.  Early in the book Smith puts it this way, “Jesus is a teacher who doesn’t just inform our intellect but forms our very loves. He isn’t content to simply deposit new ideas into your mind; he is after nothing less than your wants, your loves, your longings.”  Smith gives many pointed examples throughout the book about the limitations of data input discipleship, showing how human action often flows out of deeper places than our rational deliberation (a favorite example of mine was Smith’s retelling of enthusiastically devouring the anti-industrial food writings of Wendell Berry while at the same time devouring a hot-dog in a Costco food court).  Smith wants to say that discipleship is a much richer, deeper, and often more time-consuming process of both having our minds renewed but also having our loves transformed and reoriented towards God through the power of grace-filled habits.

This is central to Smith’s project: if humans are more than merely thinking things, and are instead driven by our loves, then discipleship has to include the reorientation of our loves through the creation of habits.  Smith is constantly touching down into the seemingly mundane routines that characterizes daily life, showing how they can become opportunities to shape and reorient the things we love.  Smith talks about habits of worship, marriage, educating your kids, and going to work. Unlike his previous books that primarily remain on the level of philosophical and theological reflection, this book orbits around day-in and day-out living, making it much less intimidating to wade into than his earlier works.

So if discipleship is not only learning certain things, but actively working to create habits which shape our deepest longings and loves, then reading Smith’s book by itself won’t change your life.  At best it might change the way you think — something of high significance! — but if that is all it does, then in a real way Smith has not accomplished what he hopes to through this book.  Along with changing the way you think, Smith wants  you to face the truth that your habits might reveal that the things you love can often be in contradiction to the things you think you love.  The resulting vision for Christian discipleship seeks to create new habits that can re-orient our loves towards God and his Kingdom, so that our thinking and our loving work in unity.  This book comes highly recommended.

POETRY BY OUR OWN SARAH CHESTNUT…

While this blog seems to have fallen into something of an online hibernation over the long, cold New England winter months, now that the weather is warming and summer is making its way to Southborough it seems to be an appropriate time to bring some new life back to this space.

So to start with we’ll pass on a link to two recently published poems by our in-house poet Sarah Chestnut.  One of these poems, Neighbours, appeared in the Spring 2016 Edition of Regent College‘s journal of Christian Thought, Crux, while the other poem On A Wire appears in the most recent edition of Regent World – the college’s alumni publication.  You can read both of them online here as well as find other interesting resources related to Regent College.