In the Bleak Midwinter

For as long as I can remember, I have lived in places between 37º and 44º N latitude.  That means that Christmas has always been accompanied by cold temperatures, and usually snow.  I savor the change of seasons and I especially like having white Christmases.

It's no secret that Jesus probably was not born in December, and there almost certainly wasn't any snow falling that night in Bethlehem.  But there's something so apropos about celebrating Christmas "in the bleak midwinter" because it reflects mankind's condition.  It is not the weather that was bleak when Christ was born, but our hearts.  Cold, hopeless, lonely, miserable.  Into this bleakness Life and Light came!

But Christina Rossetti said it far better than I.  Her poem came to mind as I took a chilly Christmas Eve jog with this in view:

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago. 
Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty,
Jesus Christ. 
Enough for Him, whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk,
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore. 
Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air -
But only His mother
In her maiden bliss
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss. 
What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man
I would do my part;
Yet what I can, I give Him -
Give my heart.


Shocker (an Advent Rumination)

"It's official," a friend posted online yesterday, "Dick Cheney is evil."

He linked to an article titled, "Dick Cheney Defends the Torture of Innocents" about interrogation techniques used by the CIA.  I didn't read the article.  I just sighed at the shocking-but-not-so-shocking mention of more accusations and inhumanity.  And then I closed my laptop and climbed the stairs for bed.

For some reason I awoke at 4:34 AM, and those six words sprang to mind again: It's official.  Dick Cheney is evil.

Only this time, it was not a sigh that followed but the memory of a jarring indictment from Jeremiah 17:9, "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked."  Then John 3:19, "Men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil."  And Psalm 53, "Together they have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one."

All of a sudden I was wide awake and forced to admit it: I am Dick Cheney.  My friend could have just as well broadcast to the world, "It's official.  Karisa Clark is evil."  And it would have been true.  Utterly, undeniably true.

The shocker in all of this is not that man is evil.  A thirty-second dose of any evening news show is proof enough.  Wars, greed, degrading speech, the careless snuffing out of human life.

The shocker is not even that I am (and you are) evil.  Probe the corners of your heart with even a small measure of honesty and you'll be forced to admit with me that the dark stuff of sin is, on an individual level, very, very real.

No, the shocker is not the darkness around us or the darkness inside us.  The real shocker is the Light.

It is this: "The Light shines in the darkness" (John 1:5).

And it is this: "While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:8).

And it is gloriously this: "God sent forth his Son... so that he might redeem" (Gal. 4:4-5).

This Redeemer did not leave us without hope, caught in the reverseless spiral down into our own wretchedness.  He did not wait for us to come to him, for we could not.  He came to us.

He who is holy, he who is wholly Other, emptied himself of his glory and took the form of a servant.  He dwelled with us, he died for us, and he raised us with himself.  This is what should stagger us.

If you do not shake your head in utter disbelief at least once every Christmas, I'm afraid you are missing the whole point.
I wonder as I wander out under the sky,
How Jesus the Savior did come for to die
For poor, ornery people like you and like I?
This Christmas, I wish peace for the world; I wish goodwill and compassion to replace accusations and inhumanity.  But for you, my friend, I wish you most of all: complete astonishment at Jesus, Emmanuel.


Veterans Day

One year ago tomorrow, my favorite veteran lost his final battle with cancer.

My grandpa, Charles Clark, enlisted in the Army Air Force in 1941 and served four years, stationed in Guam and Alaska.  He was active in the American Legion for 69 years, always proud to be a WWII vet.  When I was a child, our Memorial Day tradition was watching Grandpa march in the Chatfield, Minnesota parade.

Like most of that greatest generation, Grandpa rarely spoke about his military service.  A modest man, he never sought recognition for that or any other successes.  Back in 1945, he was content to quietly return home, marry my grandma, settle into a career of managing grain elevators in North Dakota, and raise five children.

Last Veterans Day, two servicemen came to Grandpa's room at the hospice house in Rochester.  They presented him with a small gift and saluted him as he lay alert but unable to respond.  Looking at photographs from that ceremony is acutely moving to me tonight.  For all that is wretched and broken about 21st-century America, here is a moment that shines of our country's pride and virtue.  An honorable gesture for an honorable man.

The roses in the above picture are from the flower arrangement on Grandpa's casket, and the shell is from the honor guard's salute at the graveside ceremony.  It rests in plain sight in my living room, a daily reminder of sacrifice, honor—and a precious future reunion in our Savior's presence.


Everyone's Looking for Something

For years now, I have frequented a nearby trail for jogging or walking.  Something about the fresh air and the whispering cottonwoods and the comforting familiarity of the place sparks a certain je ne sais quoi for me.  It seems there are always interesting people and happenings on the trail—or maybe my mind is just sharper to observe detail and think creatively there.  Either way, little things like the following result.
_ _ _

"Have you seen some slippers?"
I was startled out of reverie
as I walked along the river
by this young mother's question.
She was astride a green bicycle;
behind her, a child with sorrowful eyes,
whose Mickey Mouse slippers had fallen off
somewhere along the path.

The next evening another stranger
blurted out a different inquiry:
"Have you seen any ducks?"
His toddler son was on his shoulders,
clutching a bag of bread crumbs.

Everyone's looking for something.

I myself am tempted to ask the next passerby:
"Excuse me, sir, but did you notice
a pile of patience beside the path back there?
I seem to have lost it along the way."

I imagine a little cove on the river,
cleverly hidden from our sight,
where mallard ducks take turns
trying on small Mickey Mouse slippers
and admiring their reflection in the water.
And when one of them takes too long,
the next in line does not quack
his annoyance or stamp his webbed foot,
but calmly helps himself
to another portion of my patience.


The Sketch Book

A year ago, I started keeping a sketch book with my Bible and journal.  There's also a pouch full of assorted pens and markers close by.  (The pouch has "Ford" inscribed on the front; it used to hold a car owner's manual and is the only remnant I have of my beloved Bubbles.)

Here's my one rule for the sketch book: Bible verses or passages only.  No doodles, no poetry, no Origami.  (A blank page of paper holds so much possibility!)

I have found my quiet times to be so enriched by the creative, kinesthetic practice of writing out bits of Scripture.  It makes each word soak into my mind in a way that simply reading doesn't do.  Even more importantly, it's an act of worship.  A verse may strike me with such poignancy that I can't help but copy it down and add some color and flourish, as if to say, Look, Father!  Look at this beautiful thing You have said!  What a magnificent Book You have written.

Have your daily quiet times gone a little stale?  Try adding an element of creativity.  You will be blessed; even better, the Lord will be blessed.


See the Conqueror

Let us eat, drink, and be merry, for yesterday we were dead.
- Russell Moore

- - -

I woke up with this hymn running through my head.  Here's wishing you a joyous Resurrection Day, full of praise to the Death-Conqueror.


An Open Letter to Ellie Holcomb

Dear Ellie,

I have a few bones to pick with you.

1.  You make my mascara run.
To start off your CD release concert on Sunday, you stepped to the mic and recited parts of Hosea 6 and Lamentations 3.  It wrecked me.  In the future, please take a cue from any number of other Christian artists and stick to trite comments and humorous anecdotes when you're up in front of people.  Quoting beautiful passages of holy Scripture is an unfair advantage over those of us who prefer to keep our Avon intact.

2.  You are an enemy of the forests.
Conservation, Ellie.  Conservation.  You have caused me to blubber into more tissues than your fair share.  Maybe if you sang with less sweetness, if you spoke with less conviction and wrote songs with less vulnerability and joy—maybe then I could have kept the shrinkwrap on this three-pack of Kleenex and preserved an innocent pine.

3.  You made me miss my exit.
In October I took a week's retreat to Colorado.  Your EP, With You Now, found its way into my car's CD player and remained there the whole eight days.  It was a time of release and renewal for me, and your music was the soundtrack.  I would have been grateful, except that you caused me to lapse into such introspection and prayer that I missed my exit on I-70 three different times.  The same exit, Ellie: missed three times in a row by a woman who prides herself on level-headedness.  Neil Diamond has never made me miss an exit.  Neither has Alison Krauss or even Johnny Cash himself.  Your manager should have received my bill for 92 cents of gasoline.

4.  You do not live in Utah.
Sure, you do a number on my eye makeup; you make me expend fistfuls of tissues and drive like a clueless person. Still, I would be willing to set all this aside and strike up a friendship if only you lived 1,635 miles closer to me.  The truth is, with my (ahem) unrivaled humility and your delightful music, hilarious stories, authenticity, and love of Jesus—we could be very good friends indeed.  Is it really too much to ask that you leave the hub of American music and come to the Christian musician's flyover state?  In a burst of generosity, I hereby waive the 92-cent tab if you give just one concert here.

It is for these reasons, Ellie, that I am imploring all three of my blog readers and all seven of my Key Radio listeners to not watch your concert online for free, or download some of your captivating music for a tip of their choice, or purchase your new album which I Kickstarted in a moment of temporary insanity.

Yours with tongue in cheek,