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I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord; “plans for good and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”

the CULTIVATING

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Endlessly Enfolded: A prayer for the stranded this Christmas

December 8, 2018



 

Our Beautiful Destiny

The Trinity’s life of seeing and being seen in love – a weaving in and out of call and response – is the bedrock on which all of created reality is established. Before anything was made, there was the eternal, intimate knowing and loving of the Three-Personed-God. Christmas is the opening of a new chapter in the grand story, and here we discover that God’s glorious intention is to enfold humanity into God’s own life in a way we never could have imagined. Astonishingly, we find the second person of the Godhead uniting himself to us at the Incarnation that we might be raised up into the beautiful life of the Trinity to dwell together endlessly as real family members.

It is the most beautiful of destinies, friends.  No matter what happens in the meantime, our Lord has promised that this is where we will end up; belonging in God is the final word. But what about the here and now? Discovering ways to kindle community this Christmas is a good challenge. I’m praying that, for those of us who do not have a spouse or children or whose families are too broken, the Lord would make a good place for us to be enfolded among friends.

 

Getting Creative

I got a text from Natalie and Erik inviting me to dinner at their home within a few days of getting back from being on the road for four months straight. So, I drove over to their house and we cooked Thai food together from scratch. I burned the tip of my tongue testing the raw hot peppers before we tossed them into the coconut milk. We heard their hitherto napping twenty-month-old son, Robin, peep a “Yoo hoo?” from his room in the back of the house; his mother echoed back to him, “Yoo hoo!”  Robin’s call was a question; his mother’s voice was the answer. We know ourselves when we are known.

“Call us when you get stuck and need to be with people, ok?” Natalie said, as I got up from the chair to put on my coat.  

“I will,” I said. Then added, “The truth is, when I actually get to that place of need is when it’s hardest to call.”

Simply learning that about myself has been helpful, since it’s taught me that I need to make a planned pattern to create connections with people before I get to the point of paralysis. If you’re married, have housemates, or work in an office you’ve got some of those patterns automatically built into your life. You didn’t have to come up with them yourself. But, if you’re single, live alone, or work from home you will have to get creative and invent routines, structures, and repeating points of contact.

If that sounds intimidating, that’s ok. It may be initially, but I think that it’s an opportunity to get creative. You might invent some new gathering tradition that feeds your soul with friendship and offers the healing of hospitality to others who had been stuck stranded too.

 

Braving the Barrenness and the Unbearable

This week I read a very brave and graceful post from a young single woman about the reality of life’s disappointments. She spoke of her many childhood dreams of family and of motherhood that she has begun to accept may never come to be. What a brave thing to voice! She went on to say that she was learning to see ways in which the Lord is making a place for her nonetheless; she prays for the many children she knows and families she loves. An opportunity for barrenness and bitterness to take hold is instead being turned toward prayer and a compassionate reaching out to others. I can’t help but be amazed at such a graceful response.

My friend Bubba and I used to go walking every week or so. Once he told me about the time his father was on life support and it was left up to Bubba to make the call whether or not to pull the plug. I can’t imagine carrying that decision, and he was overwhelmed. He decided to ask one of his old Bible professors, whom he deeply respected, for prayer and advice. “Bubba, we live in an age where choices that should never have to be faced fall to us. The world doesn’t work like it’s supposed to work. No one should ever have to make a decision like this.”

Loneliness is just as much an intruder in this world as death; we were never meant to face life stranded from the fabric of family. It is not good. But a core truth at the heart of this Christmas chapter in our story we reread each year is that God is not a God far off, but a God who is very near. Emmanuel’s ‘withness’ is to be the new normal. This is a twist too good to be true, and the Lord is just getting warmed up! Who can guess what good thing he’s got in mind? So, whatever lie of finality my loneliness crows into my ear, it cannot be ultimately true.

“I will not say, ‘do not weep’, for not all tears are an evil,” Gandalf tells the four hobbits as they grieve the departure of Frodo at the Grey Havens. (I can’t write a piece without quoting Tolkien, apparently.) I will not say, ‘dismiss your feelings of loneliness’, for they are likely setting ablaze the beacon of legitimate need. But I will say do not allow despair, shame, or fear to change the name on your birth certificate: you were sent forth into existence, Beloved – borne out from the hand of the Lord, and Jesus has opened his arms wide at the end of the race to enfold you in his embrace again. Even now, he holds you, along with all things, together in love. His eyes are ever on you.

 

The One Who Sees

“If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” So goes the famous conundrum. Friends, that’s the question that terrifies every human heart. If no one hears us when we call out, were we really even there at all? If we remain unseen, will we disappear? Though it may feel like it, we do not disappear. There is One who sees.     

It is true, in fact, that Jesus is, this very moment, at work weaving our disparate threads into a fabric: yes. He knows every unheard story. Every tree, every leaf in the forest that cries out as it falls (or cannot for want of breath), he hears. He sees every invisible one. It’s also true, that Jesus is himself a forgotten one, an unheard one, one from whom all the world has looked away, scorned and unbeautiful. Jesus is one with so much love to give, such a heart that longs to find in his people the responsive voice of loving acknowledgement and so rarely does. This wholly Ignored One is leaning forward in tender attentiveness, perhaps silently nodding in compassion toward those who know, in their loneliness, what he too knows of the sad strandedness of humanity.  

Still, life, in many ways, is so much better than I ever could have imagined possible! When I stand in the grace of Jesus, and resist the temptation to despair of belonging or escape into sad, destructive substitutes, I find that there are people willing to meet me where I am.

I’ve found myself deeply welcomed into rich membership in several families. Like the brave young woman who chose grace over bitterness earlier, I have been surprised again and again by God’s provision for me of more ‘mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, and children in this life’. In fact, some of the best friends I have right now, I didn’t even know existed three or four years ago! New friendships are always likely right around the corner, it seems.

Another thing that comes to mind that has helped me is what Lewis called ‘the Law of Undulation’ in Screwtape Letters. Senior devil Screwtape advises his apprentice and nephew Wormtongue:

“As long as he lives on earth periods of emotional and bodily richness and liveliness will alternate with periods of numbness and poverty. The dryness and dullness through which your patient is now going are not, as you fondly suppose, your workmanship; they are merely a natural phenomenon which will do us no good unless you make a good use of it.” (The Screwtape Letters, Chapter 8)

In other words, highs and lows are perfectly normal. Some days, even in the best of circumstances, we dip into numbness; other days, even in the worst of times, a glimmering of joy may prick the seeming veil. Even Jesus came down from the Mount of Transfiguration.

 

The Craft of Friendship

Chesterton said that he’d always felt that life was a story, and that, if it is a story, then there must be a Storyteller. You and me and the people we interact with are not the only active characters in our stories; God is alive and acting too. Our Lord is making real decisions in relationship. In other words, we have One who loves us more than we can imagine, who is at work in the world to help us find a place of belonging in his family and in his story.  

One way I’ve begun to notice this lately is that particular people seem to keep showing up in the book of my life. There are certain, sometimes surprising, recurring characters. Conversely, there are characters I thought would be a big deal in my story that haven’t stuck around. That’s worth paying attention to, I think. Who keeps showing up? What recurring characters and oddly thickening subplots show potential for development? Which plotlines and characters did I expect to be a big deal that have instead receded and dwindled?  While writing The Lord the of the Rings, Tolkien said that when he got to Bree and Strider showed up, he had no clue who this guy was! Often the people who wind up being the most dear friends come as a surprise to us, and I suspect the King himself is, in fact, journeying along with us in lowly guise.

Perhaps maintaining friendships that will keep us alive, grounded in reality, and remembering our belovedness is not unlike growing in a craft. It takes practice, learning new skills, the wise counseling of other practitioners, a willingness to fail, false starts, and faith. We have real creative opportunity to bring about good things in the world, especially since God is here pouring out his powerful care. Who keeps showing up for me? Who might I choose to show up for?

 

Real Grief, Real Hope

Let me say that I’m sorry if you’re having a hard time finding a place to belong, to make friends, or feel seen and loved. That is a real grief. God himself says that it is not good for a human to be alone, and that’s certainly not exclusively (maybe not even primarily) a statement about marriage. He ‘sets the lonely in families’ doesn’t always mean human matrimony, though it does ultimately mean the Heavenly Matrimony of Christ and the Church, which begins here and now. You might say that the Church is a friend worth showing up for; she’s one who has shown up for me again and again. But the church is more than a friend, the church is ultimately the family we are born (again) into, and like our biological family, we are a part of it whether or not we feel (or like) it to be the case. Philip Yancy has said,

“We often surround ourselves with the people we most want to live with, thus forming a club or clique, not a community. Anyone can form a club; it takes grace, shared vision, and hard work to form a community.”

As an aside, I’m not talking about ‘singles groups’. Actually, I’ve never been to one. There’s no magic program or procedure that will cure loneliness. There is wisdom that can help: we shouldn’t segregate age groups or assume singles and families can’t be a blessing to one another. Marriage is a sacrament offered to the Body of Christ; it’s worth marking that unmarried folks have a unique sacral offering as well. Married people need single friends as much as single friends need married friends. Similarly, young and old need each other. I’m so thankful for dear friends that I meet with regularly who are twenty, thirty, forty years older than me.

A friend of mine mentioned just the other night that what kept her from finding the love she needed was looking for it, for so long, only in the places or ways that matched her expectations. “I will accept love only if it looks like this or that, or comes from this or that person.” That rigidity sustained a kind of tunnel vision that excluded the full spectrum of available connection. Anxiety is melting away for her as she discovers a much more varied and rich tapestry of care around her. It had lain so long unlooked-for.

This is our inheritance, now and in the world to come, as members of Jesus’s Body: contextualization in an eternal family. We have a heritage and an inheritance; we have come from somewhere, and we are going somewhere. The Law of Undulation says we can reasonably expect our confidence about our place in God’s Family and Story to wax and wane, but take heart, our belonging has been secured.

 

The Lamb’s Book of Life

In writing this, I’m offering a measly couple of fish and a few bits of bread. I realized after posting online about the difficulty of writing this piece that this topic is a deeply felt pain by many more folks than I had imagined. We live in an age in which a massive and complex set of circumstances that have developed over centuries (not to mention the basics of a fallen creation) interact to resist all the good God dreams of for us. Things just don’t work the way they’re supposed to, friends.  

If it seems bizarrely difficult to cultivate the kind of belonging you long for, you’re not crazy! The whole fallen world is conspiring against the beautiful ways of God. It’s hard to get home when all the road signs have been switched. So, yes, in this world you will have trouble, but let’s not let fear write our stories, for Jesus has overcome the world.

The very fact that Jesus saw it as necessary to warn his followers of these inevitable troubles alongside the  seemingly suspended truth of his having defeated them, means that he understands where we are. Our vision is clouded, our hope muscles sore and exhausted. It also means that he knows a joyful secret: he sees where we really are in him. Jesus is never dismissive of our pain. “What he has not assumed, he has not healed”, and he has taken us fully into himself pain and all.

We are never permitted to settle for seeing ourselves stranded in the sad tale of our loneliness. Some stories, however believable, are, in fact, a lie. And some stories, however unbelievable, are, in reality, the truth.  

In the end, the Lamb’s Book of Life may not be a dry list of names, but a branching family tree – the living account of the life of Jesus and those who have been knitted together in him. It is a tale being written this very moment. We are being told into that tale, friends – enfolded into that Holy Family. Now and forever.

 

 

A Prayer From Where We Are…

 

O Great Teller of our Tale,

Sew into our severed selves

The salve of touch and loving look

From those who speak our hidden names

With tones of care and tenderness.

 

For we have lost the storied thread,

Raveled from the ravaged cloth,

Stranded from the textile’s text

And fear we will remain unread –

Unlooked-for by another’s touch.

 

Wake in us a loving hope –

A multi-woven climbing rope,

And lift us from our wishing well

To stand amidst the light of day

And drink from eyes that meet us there.

 

And where you turn the pages, see:

The withered bones are trembling!

Touch them, Lord, and they will sing!

To see themselves sung round in love,

Each knit into your family.

 



The image “Christmas Candles” is (c) of Lancia E. Smith. 

Thank you to Hannah Holman for giving us permission to link to her beautiful post “Hope Deferred”. 

Matthew recommends this recording from Mars Hill Audio: Wandering toward the Altar: The Decline of American Courtship



 

Matthew Clark

comments

  1. Melody Leeper

    December 9th, 2018 at 7:14 am

    Matthew, your gift with words is so deep and humble and moving. Keep writing, keep pouring out your heart, keep singing! You are a blessing.

  2. Jordan Durbin

    December 10th, 2018 at 5:06 am

    Matthew, thank you for honestly telling such a raw emotion by baptizing it in hopeful, glorious truth and crowning it with eloquent language. And Tolkien.

  3. Amy Baik Lee

    December 10th, 2018 at 9:08 am

    Matthew, I’ve only read through this piece once, but there are so many (cohesive) layers to remember and consider that I know I’m going to revisit it — even though I do have a husband and children. It was very good for me to be reminded of the Law of Undulation, and I particularly love how you closed this essay.

    Something that made me laugh: “(I can’t write a piece without quoting Tolkien, apparently)” is a sentence I think about including every time I write a post. And the surprise appearance of Strider in Bree is what keeps me going every time I sit down to write fiction — there’s hope yet for this oft-daunted narrator! It was so much fun to see these kindred threads appear here.

  4. Matthew Clark

    December 19th, 2018 at 10:54 am

    Melody, Thank you for your kind words and encouragement to keep writing!

  5. Matthew Clark

    December 19th, 2018 at 10:56 am

    Jordan,

    And Tolkien. HA!

    Thanks for reading! This was a challenging piece to finish. I was glad to have Lancia nudging me onward.

    Thanks!

  6. Matthew Clark

    December 19th, 2018 at 10:57 am

    Amy!

    Thanks for reading and commenting! I’m so happy that you found something good here.

    I’m also excited to hear that you’re working on some fiction. Very curious to read that one day… I love your writing!

    Thanks!

  7. Amy Baik Lee

    December 29th, 2018 at 10:23 pm

    Matthew — your comment above has been deeply heartening to me in these past few days. Thank you! It means a great deal particularly because I know you rejoice in many of the same kingdom themes (and *tones,* if that makes sense, as in Tolkien’s “stories of a certain tone and air”) that I hold very dear. For the same reason, if I succeed in getting this story down, I’d value your opinion on it.

    Also for the same reason — I’m truly looking forward to hearing and reading the fruits of your thoughtful and creative labor in the new year!

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