Saturday, April 19, 2014

Tolkien, Easter, and Eucatastrophe

Once upon a time, I read the essay "On Fairy Stories,"  by the late Professor J.R.R. Tolkien (better known today as the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings).  Towards the end of the essay, he discusses "the Consolation of the Happy Ending" as "the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function" (22).

The climax of a tragedy would be the catastrophe, the pivotal point in the story when everything falls apart for the hero.  For fairy-tale, Professor Tolkien coins a new word, "eucatastrope," for "the sudden joyous 'turn'" of events.  (The "eu-" means "good" and sounds like the word "you.")  This would describe the moment when Luke Skywalker destroys the Death Star, when the prince kisses Snow White to awaken her, when the Velveteen Rabbit discovers he has become real. In Tolkien's own work, eucatastrophe occurs when Aragorn and his army fight valiantly in the shadow of Mount Mordor though all hope for Middle Earth appears lost, and suddenly Sauron and his empire disintegrate when the Ring is destroyed.

Tolkien says that this quality is not an attempt to escape the world's sorrows.  On the other hand, he writes,
. . . it is a sudden and miraculous grace, never to be counted on to recur.  It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophy [tragic ending], of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium [good news, gospel], giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.
It is the mark of a good fairy-story. . . that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the 'turn' comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art (22-23, emphasis and additions mine).
If I'm understanding the professor correctly, we love and value happily-ever-after endings because they point towards the Happy Ending, the triumph of Christ over sin, death, and all the other brokenness of the world.

The Bible itself is one grand, unified, beautiful, true story as well as a collection of smaller ones.  In this overarching Genesis-to-Revelation narrative (or metanarrative), Easter is the eucatastrophe and best understood in that context.  On Good Friday, all the disciples' hopes for God's kingdom seem dashed as Jesus Messiah is dead and entombed.  The rolled-away stone and resurrection turn that despair on its head on the third day.

Easter is the great Happy Ending from which all others proceed, the eucatastrophe not only of a fairy story but of all history.  The empty tomb looks dyscatastrophe in the eye and triumphs over it.  What's more, in many ways Easter is not an end but a beginning of a new era, a new story for all who believe in the risen Christ; as Professor Tolkien writes, "there is no true end to any fairy-tale" (22).  As Paul says it, "Therefore if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; old things have passed away, and look, new things have come" (2 Corinthians 5:17, HCSB).

"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  According to His great mercy,  He has given us a new birth into a living hope  through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead" (1 Peter 1:3, HCSB).  May you walk in the reality of this joyous living hope today.

Christ is risen; the Lord is risen indeed.  Hallelujah!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

A Testimony Through Two Lenses

For we too were once foolish, disobedient, deceived,
enslaved by various passions and pleasures,
living in malice and envy, hateful, detesting one another.
But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love
for mankind appeared,
He saved us—
not by works of righteousness that we had done,
but according to His mercy,
through the washing of regeneration
and renewal by the Holy Spirit.
He poured out this Spirit on us abundantly
through Jesus Christ our Savior,
so that having been justified by His grace,
we may become heirs with the hope of eternal life.
Titus 3:3-7, HCSB

The Prose Lens:

My silver anniversary with the Lord, which sparked the poem below, arrived two years ago. Hallmark says 27 years is the music anniversary. Fitting, since it was my first vocal solo, for the Good Friday tenebrae service, which my God and Father used to bring me to the end of myself and show me how crooked my straightest line was compared to the straight-edge of Christ. (There are many variations on the tenebrae service. In the church of my youth, a dozen or so Scripture readings from the Last Supper through the Crucifixion alternated with choral music. During the service, candles and lights were gradually extinguished until we left the church in silence, in near darkness.)

Until that point, I thought participating in every available church activity and believing facts about God from the Apostles' Creed meant I was a Christian. Surely doing the BSF home lessons my mom shared earned me extra credit. To my shame, I remember one lesson specifically, on the Beatitudes, which asked me to assess myself on the various characteristics, and in my eyes I was really doing quite well, thank you very much.

Being the type-A perfectionist oldest child that I am, when I found out the lyrics of my song came from the account of Jesus at the Garden of Gethsemane, I spent the weeks before the service immersing myself in the Gospel passages describing it. When the day of the solo arrived, stage fright overtook me and I told my mom, who was working on something in the kitchen, that I couldn't sing this and we'd just have to call the music pastor and tell him to choose someone else. Exasperated with me, she said, "What's the name of the song again?"

"Um, 'Thy Will Be Done.'"

"Well, then, go to your room, get on your knees, and just tell God that."

I did, and the Lord opened my heart to understand the passages I'd been reading. He showed me my sin; He showed me my Savior. I trusted Him, trusted that Jesus Christ died for the forgiveness of my sins. His love swept me off my feet. By His grace, He led me that day from knowing some things about God to knowing God, or beginning to.

From that day, I began rising early to pray and read my Bible because I loved it, because I loved Him. The hymns came alive as my sung prayers. The communion liturgy expressed my unworthiness and gratitude for Christ's work on my behalf. The Lord made me hungry for Christian books and music and graciously led me to the good and protected me from the false.

I have no memory of anyone ever "sharing the gospel" with me, calling me to repent and trust Christ, or telling me of my need to be converted. My church didn't do that, but that's another story for another time. It took several years and a change of churches before I began to have language for what had happened on that Good Friday which changed everything for me. It will take the rest of my life and then forever to understand that salvation as fully as a girl like me can. I am so grateful. So, so grateful. Blessed be the name of the Lord.

If you know Him, too, perhaps this will take you back to the memorial stones of your own salvation? If you don't and want to, I pray the Lord would use this to show you His holiness, your sin, and the sufficiency of Christ's death; I pray you would trust Jesus as your own personal Savior and embark on the journey of knowing God today. {If you do, please let me know in the comments or by e-mail at crumbsfromhistable at gmail dot com?}

The Poetry Lens: Silver

(a work in progress)

It was on Good Friday it happened.

My parents had raised me in church:
Sunday service,
Sunday school,
choir and handbells,
learning a creed, a Psalm, a prayer,
a commandment or ten,
confirming vows with my classmates,
and I thought doing those things made me a Christian.
(I even read my Bible on my own at night for extra credit, to round out my resume.)

I was firstborn, perfectionist, eager to please parents and teachers,
a "good girl," except when I snuck change off my dad's dresser
or lied to avoid punishment or amaze and amuse my friends.
My "good" was good enough for the grown-ups,
so I thought it was good enough for God.

On that Good Friday twenty-five years back,
I didn't know I was lost, but
He found me,
there on my knees beside the bed,
fretting over possible embarrassment in singing alone for the first time.
He gave me new eyes,
better than first glasses,
and suddenly I saw what I had not seen:
that perfectionism wasn't perfection,
that only perfect was good enough for God,
that only Jesus was the good enough,
that the Good Enough sweated life's blood and died for sins not His own,
for my sins, all my own.

My resume was rubbish,
my Sunday best smeared and tattered,
and I was as dead as an armadillo on the interstate.
I saw this,
and it took my breath away,
and He breathed in His,
His pneuma-breath-Spirit,
and I lived again for the very first time.

Singing was my birth cry,
"Thy will be done."
The trumpets that Easter rejoiced for me,
and I went to Sunday service,
Sunday school,
choir and handbells.
I said the creed, prayed the prayers, sang the hymns,
and they lived with His presence.
How had I missed Him there all these years?
I even read the Bible in the mornings,
for joy,
for sustenance,
for He was there.

I couldn't get enough of Him,
yet found enough in Him,
my Lord Jesus Christ.

That Good Friday was my Good Friday too,
and my Easter, all in one,
when I was crucified with Christ,
when my tomb was emptied
and my life hidden with Christ in God.

By grace I have been saved.

Because some may ask, here is a more recent recording of the anthem that night, with a young tenor singing the solo {If you are reading this by e-mail or RSS feed, you may need to view it on the actual blog here:

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Anointing {from the archives}

If right now the Lord seems to be asking everything of you, if you sense the call to leave all your precious things on the altar, to relinquish, to entrust into His hands not knowing whether you will receive your "Isaac" back for burial or in resurrection--

If that is where you find yourself today, dear crumble, let us remember this: we cannot outgive God. Whatever we relinquish today is a small sacrifice compared with what He has already given in His Son who lived love by dying for the sins of His enemies. Whatever dream we empty at His feet drains out only to make room for the fullness of Himself.

He is the LORD, who brought us up from the land of Egypt. Let us open our mouths wide, wider, as wide as we can, that He may fill (Psalm 81:10).

Broken, Rabboni?
The brightness of this alabaster dream
Shattered into fragments at Your feet?
What preciousness deserves so great a price?
This is My body, crushed to give for you.

Emptied, too?
Not one sweet drop remaining for myself?
Bereft of fragrance brightening my days?
What gain can justify such costly waste?
This is My blood, poured out for your forgiveness.

Broken, emptied.
Shattered into fragments at His feet.
Not one drop spared, the fragrance fills the house.
The poverty of all my all is dust
Beneath Your feet, O worthy, precious Lord.
Your sins have been forgiven; go in peace.
                                              {from Luke 7:36-50}

sharing with Bonnie's community on the theme of brokenness today:

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Shortest Way to All Happiness

"Would you know who is the greatest saint in the world?
It is not he who prays most or fasts most;
it is not he who gives most alms or is most eminent for temperance, chastity, or justice;
who wills everything that God willeth,
who receives everything as an instance of God's goodness
and has a heart always ready to praise God for it.

". . .If anyone would tell you the shortest, surest way
to all happiness and all perfection,
he must tell you to make it a rule for yourself
For it is certain that whatever seeming calamity happens to you,
if you thank and praise God for it,
you turn it into a blessing.
Could you therefore work miracles,
you could not do more for yourself than by this thankful spirit,
for it heals with a word speaking,
and turns all that it touches into happiness.

". . .though it be the noblest sacrifice that the greatest Saint can offer unto God,
yet is it not tied to any time, or place, or great occasion
but is always in your power and may be the exercise of every day.
For the common events of every day are sufficient to discover and exercise this temper
and may plainly show you how far you are governed in all your actions by this thankful spirit."

~William Law (1686-1761), A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life [formatting mine]

Thank You, Father,
for Your Word,
for Your goodness,
for fellowship with saints of former days through their words,
for wise men and women who point me toward You,

for completion of To Live Is Christ Bible study,
for celebrations of Amore's and my dad's birthdays,
for an extra blessing in visiting the Perot Museum with my parents, Terza, and her boys,
for boys turning Aunt T's wheelchair-for-the-day into a highlight and adventure,
for giving that young lady quick reflexes (think Neo in The Matrixto get out of our way when Lightning pushed a little too fast,
for Rocky, age 4, sitting in my lap because he was too little for a turn at pushing,
for laughter together,
for opportunity to tell the twins how I helped their mommy when they were just tiny babes,
for celebrating a Bible study friend's international adoption with a shower,
for plans to celebrate Amore's parents' sixtieth wedding anniversary this weekend,
for a visit from Olivia next door, whose birthday is today,

for not fainting during an uncomfortable lab test,
for clear results showing the cause of my shoulder pain,
for another surgery on the horizon,
for husband, family, and friends ready to help again with the things I won't be able to do,
for the hope of a whole, imperishable resurrection body,

for disappointing job news for one sister,
for good job news for the other,
for Amore's hard work and skill at his job,
for his innate leadership gifts that come to the fore wherever he goes,

for the greening of my little world despite drought conditions,
for a few goldfinches stopping at our feeder on their way north,
for a pair of actual geese honking a few meters above us before stopping off at our pond,
for the first bluebonnet sighting,
for nearly an inch of rain yesterday,
for sunrise and sunset attesting to God's faithfulness.
(2014 gifts journal #962-991)

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Gift of Thorns {Remix}

 So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Cor. 12:7-10, ESV).

Twice here Paul states the purpose of his thorn: “to keep me from becoming conceited” (v.7, ESV). Granted, the affliction also came from Satan to harass and torment, but even that harassment proved a gift to pierce his pride.

More than a decade of living with chronic illnesses, including the last four years of ever-multiplying areas of chronic pain,  has acquainted me with weakness and feeling harassed. Few days pass now without the slow hiss of punctured pride. I hear it every time it pains me to say, “I can’t do this. Will you please help me?” My private tantrums over unattainable desires, petty or substantial, reveal my addictions to control and comfort. My discombobulation at God’s refusals exposes the areas of life where I still want my kingdom, not His.

Perhaps some people grow accustomed to this weakness, truly "content" as Paul was. I have not yet arrived at that place. As soon as I think I have, some new pain or health problem ambushes me (but not God), increasing the level of difficulty beyond my strength so that I plead with the Lord again for the removal of the thorn that carves out more and more space in me for the power of Christ to dwell.

At this writing I look ahead to surgical repair on torn cartilage in my shoulder and my flesh quails from the thought of several weeks with my dominant arm in a sling, several weeks of the constant litany of asking for help, of utter dependence on others to assist with basic needs. It's so much more comfortable to give help rather than always to need it. More comfortable for my pride, at least.

Every life experiences thorns, none of which are easy or pleasant. Paul’s threefold prayer for the removal of Satan’s tormenting angel indicates his realistic assessment of the pain. This passage challenges our perspective on suffering because Paul does not stop at pleading for relief but opens himself to receive the blessings in the thorn:
  •      Purging the pride that sets us in opposition to God (v.7; James 4:6).
  •      Staging the perfect display of God’s sufficient grace (v.9).
  •      Opening the way through weakness for Christ’s power to reside in him (v.9).
Paul so esteems these blessings that he boasts for Christ’s sake about the tough stuff of life rather than in his heavenly vision.

Lord, thank You for the gift of thorns. We don’t like them and will be pleased for You to remove them as soon as they have accomplished Your work in us. Until then, they are a gift from You, our loving Father. By faith, we thank You and ask that Your grace and power would shine all the more because of them. Amen.


Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Meditation of My Heart

Ranunculus blooms cheering our kitchen table
That morning I had turned to Psalm 19 in search of words to express the treasure of the Word of God, words to lift to Him in praise for that precious gift, and words to remind myself of all its benefits to me. These words I found, but verse 14 surprised me, even after untold readings.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
Be acceptable in Your sight,
O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
"Meditation." It says "meditation." Not "thoughts," but "meditation." Sometimes a passage is so familiar that I see what I expected to see instead of what is actually there. Such had apparently been the case here, so that the truth splashed me awake.

Christian meditation makes little of how empty the mind is and much of what fills it. The Hebrew words translated "meditate, meditation" convey the idea of muttering, mumbling, musing, or talking to oneself. The meditation of my heart is the mental rut worn deep by repeated travel, the pattern of thought I steep in my soul until I take on its character as my own. Meditation resembles a child kneading a piece of chewing gum with teeth and tongue until every last flavor particle is extracted. The proper objects of Christian meditation are the truth of God in Scripture (Psalm 1:2, also many places in Psalm 119), the work of God (Psalm 77:12), and the revealed character of God (Psalm 63:6).

The Spirit wielded this sword-word to slash away my habitual mask, so much a part of me that it even accompanies me to my times alone with God. It exposed the thoughts and intentions of my heart and took my breath away as I suddenly realized how much of my meditation concerned the wrong things.

When stress rises, my guard slips and old habits creep back into my thoughts without my noticing. I begin to meditate on the sorrows of loved ones, on recalcitrant tendons that won't respond to treatment as expected, on the relentless pace of medical expenses, on worries about some tricky scheduling decisions over the next two months. I meditate on how I might fix this or that situation, how I might ease this one's burden, how I might reduce tomorrow's anxieties by fretting over them today. (No, that doesn't work very well.) And then the curtain falls on the day and I realize I neglected to work on my memory verses. I had been telling myself I had been running out of time, but the truth is that my heart was too full of meditation on the wrong things.

Thanks be to God for His gentle rebuke and invitation to wear new, better ruts in my heart. All thanks to Him for His Word, for His saving work in even my life, and for His unfailing love.

Change is a slow process, but I will begin this new week with meditation on good things, on God's good gifts to me and mine. Thank You, Father:
for worshiping in community this morning,
for Your songs in my heart's ears more often this week,
for time to sit outside almost daily to listen to the birds and the breeze,
for a spur-of-the-moment drive with my parents to see my sister and her boys,
for laughter at her youngest's portrait of me later in the week,
for more chuckles at the gold star awarded to our recycling cart by the city (really),
for a successful surgery for Amore's father,
for fragrant yellow roses on my table,
for strength to do the grocery shopping myself,
for the surprise blessing of being featured on a reader's site,
and for many opportunities to depend desperately on You.
(2014 gratitude journal #746-760)


Monday, March 3, 2014

A Trustworthy Refuge {One Word 2014}

My soul, wait in silence for God only,
For my hope is from Him.
He only is my rock and my salvation,
My stronghold; I shall not be shaken.
On God my salvation and my glory rest;
The rock of my strength, my refuge is in God.
Trust in Him at all times, O people;
Pour out y’all’s heart before Him;
God is a refuge for us. Selah.
Psalm 62:5-8, NASB with "Texan Bible" Chrome app edit

In context, David is under attack when he pens these words. As enemies surround him, (see vss 3-4), he encourages himself in God by focusing his gaze on His character. The assailants are living a lie, and under their attack he feels "Like a leaning wall, like a tottering fence" (vs 3).

Although he may feel he is tottering or on the verge of collapse, he talks to himself. "My soul," he says, "wait in silence for God only." He tells himself to hush in the midst of the lies the enemies spout and to wait for God and God only. As he waits, he remembers the many ways God is the provision of his needs in this battle.

The God for whom he waits is:
  • his source of hope (5);
  • his stability (his rock, in whom he will not be shaken or "upended," NET, vs 6);
  • his salvation, his rescue, his deliverance (6);
  • his security (stronghold, 6);
  • his support (his salvation rests on God, 7);
  • his significance (glory, 7);
  • his strength (rock of my strength, 7);
  • and his shelter (my word for 2014, "refuge," 7 and 8).
In short, David finds in his God everything he needs at that moment, in that trial.

He makes the application clear in verse 8. He has been talking to himself, but now he talks to us:

Trust in Him at all times, O people;
Pour out y’all’s heart before Him;
God is a refuge for us.

He exhorts us to trust this safe, strong, stable, sure refuge at all times. He summons us to pour out our heart in "earnest prayer" (ESV Study Bible note, s.v. 8) before the Lord. He invites us to make his refuge our refuge, too.

Meditating on these words has blessed me this morning, friends, and I pray the Lord makes them a word of sustenance to some weary reader, too (Isaiah 50:4). The Lord is our hope, our stability, our salvation, our security, our support, our significance, our strength, and our refuge. Let's trust Him and pour out every sorrow and joy in our hearts to Him today.

Thanks be to God for His good gifts this past week:
His living Word,
the freedom in Christ to dump the junk drawer of my heart out before the Father without fear,
my sure refuge in Him,
those who minister to the congregation in song Sunday mornings,
the adjustment process to my new orthotics,
an interview scheduled for a loved one in need of employment,
profession of faith in Christ by my nephew Thunder,
a beautiful, warm March 1 for Mezzo's birthday,
much laughter, food, and encouragement at her tea with friends, Terza, Mom, and me,
more laughter and lots of hugs from the after-party with family only,
my whole immediate family together to celebrate,
another upper respiratory infection,
Bradford pear trees beginning to bloom out,
shelter from yesterday's ice storm and "thundersleet,"
& freedom to stay cozy at home today.
(#626-640 on 2014's 1,000 gifts count)