The folds of time col­lapse accor­dion-like as I make my month­ly pil­grim­age. Three and a half hours away, down a long grav­el dri­ve­way, is the house I grew up in where my par­ents still live.

As I park my car and turn off the engine, I can hear my par­ents in the music room. Mom dou­ble-picks the melody on her man­dolin while Dad on gui­tar strums the beat: O my dar­ling Nel­lie Gray, they have tak­en her away.”

I flash back about six­ty years. I’m a lit­tle kid shar­ing a bed with my sis­ter, lis­ten­ing in the soft dark­ness while Mom’s strong alto car­ries Dad’s soft tenor up the stairs. Sleep curls eas­i­ly around us. God’s in His heav­en, all’s right with the world.

Savor­ing the all-right­ness in real time, I unpack a bag of gro­ceries and an overnight bag into the kitchen while they move onto Five foot two,” and Count your bless­ings.” After warm­ing up, they rehearse their set for Sun­day morn­ing; it’s their turn to lead the con­gre­ga­tion in praise and wor­ship. Mom, age nine­ty-two, plays more than she sings now. At nine­ty, Dad’s fin­gers don’t move as nim­bly and his one good eye labors to fol­low the line of words that form the vers­es. But he sings strong on the cho­rus and the vers­es he knows by heart. I know them too.

The old hymns that Dad select­ed are all future focused — his future: When the Role is called up Yon­der I’ll be there… Pass me not O Gen­tle Sav­ior… Because He lives, I can face tomorrow…. 

My par­ents may not have many tomor­rows left. And the todays they do have are now bent and slowed by chron­ic pain. Still, Mom cooks and bakes and irons Dad’s Sun­day shirt. Dad cleans up and car­ries her things to her in her chair: cof­fee, glass­es, meals, slippers.

There is a pal­pa­ble sub­stance present in them. The folks in the pews singing along with them that Sun­day, I noticed, were also blessed. Jesus said to his dis­ci­ples, I have food you know noth­ing about.”1 I see this here, with my par­ents, how they are kept alive in their bod­ies by the man­na that is ser­vice to each oth­er and to others.

Cyn­thia Borgeault tells the sto­ry of monks sus­tained by their chant­i­ng the Psalms togeth­er. In 1967, when a new edict had stopped the monks’ dai­ly prac­tice of Gre­go­ri­an chant­i­ng, their health declined. Dr. Alfred Toma­tis real­ized that their almost silent world had deprived them of crit­i­cal ner­vous sys­tem and brain stim­u­la­tion. Once the chant­i­ng was resumed, the monks were restored to health. Bourgeault writes:

Unbe­known to all, the Gre­go­ri­an chant, per­fect­ly cap­tured by the acoustics of the monas­tic chapel, was an ener­gy direct­ly feed­ing not only their souls but also their bod­ies.2

My par­ents are sus­tained in their bod­ies by the folk songs, love songs, hymns, and the well-prac­ticed har­mo­ny that their life togeth­er has become over sev­en­ty-three years. Their morn­ing habit of read­ing a page” togeth­er and pray­ing the Lord’s Prayer at night, the rhythms and devo­tions that they have kept, now keeps them. What com­forts, eas­es, and heals their bod­ies and fuels well-being are the graces of for­giv­ing and let­ting storms pass, the pres­ence each offers the oth­er. The mys­tic, St. Isaac of Syr­ia, noticed this: 

Blessed is the per­son who has eat­en of the bread of love, which is Jesus. Who­ev­er is sus­tained on love is sus­tained by Christ who is God over all.3

I know that I have wit­nessed this in my par­ents’ life togeth­er and I am grate­ful for con­tin­u­ing in their school of faith­ful­ness. It is not some­thing they would claim they specif­i­cal­ly set out to do or be. I think from the begin­ning they were drawn by their own needs and desires, one for the oth­er. They had to grow in their faith, cir­cum­stance by cir­cum­stance, joy by joy, sor­row by sor­row. As their bod­ies fade, love is more vis­i­ble: humil­i­ty, gen­eros­i­ty, kind­ness; the essence of who they are togeth­er enflesh­es the move­ments of Trini­tar­i­an Love.

Their use of hymns, ser­vice through music, keep­ing Sun­day and the sea­sons, tithing — these are the sacra­men­tals of their dai­ly life. I remem­ber each morn­ing their lin­ger­ing off-to-work kiss. Love enfleshed has been before me all my life.

Eve­lyn Under­hill, in her essay, Sacra­ment and Sac­ri­fice, affirms the daili­ness of sacra­men­tal life:

Chris­t­ian tra­di­tion is jus­ti­fied in cre­at­ing a class of sacra­men­tals”, which are more than sym­bols and less than sacra­ments: effi­ca­cious signs, which when tak­en into the atmos­phere of wor­ship become means by which the suc­ces­sive crea­ture lays hold on the Unchang­ing. Indeed, many of the com­mon things and acts of dai­ly exis­tence can be giv­en such sacra­men­tal qual­i­ty, by the God­ward inten­tion of those who are accus­tomed to seek and find the Eter­nal in the tem­po­ral.4

I am grate­ful for the oth­er sacra­men­tals of faith that became rou­tine. Meals togeth­er were always prayed over before a bite was tak­en and so blessed us twice, first in the pray­ing and then in the eat­ing. The work week and Sun­day church cre­at­ed a sacra­men­tal rhythm. Of course, in that lit­tle Pres­by­ter­ian church there were cor­po­rate rit­u­als as well — hymns and con­fes­sions and prayers— each of them faith­ful­ly observed, even duti­ful­ly at times, decent­ly and in order, week­ly, month­ly, sea­son­al­ly. It gave life rhythm and mean­ing. And right­ness. It’s what made the Invis­i­ble One vis­i­ble, seen and touched and expe­ri­enced.5

While the prayer of J.P. Newell directs me toward the Pres­ence of God,

to the home of Peace
to the field of Love
to the land where for­give­ness
and right rela­tion­ship meet. 6

these words also describe how I now expe­ri­ence my parent’s home — as a home of peace, as a field of love, as a land where for­give­ness and right rela­tion­ship meet. Per­fect? No. But very good, and true, and beau­ti­ful and all the more as they serve each oth­er with faith­ful­ness and affection.

As Decem­ber arrives, I know that Mom will box up and then Dad will haul away the Fall dec­o­ra­tions that came out for Octo­ber and November’s Thanks­giv­ing. Christ­mas box­es will be opened. Mom will bring out the Nativ­i­ty crèche, and just as she has for as long as I can remem­ber, she will place it emp­ty on the low table by the front win­dow near their Christ­mas tree. Week by week, she will add to the scene the char­ac­ters from the sto­ry. A prophet, the angel and Mary with Joseph stand­ing by, ani­mals, shep­herds, and trav­el­ing from one end of the liv­ing room to the manger, the three wise men. My mother’s hands now crip­pled with arthri­tis, will rev­er­ent­ly unwrap that Baby Jesus, and make it ready for its arrival Christ­mas Eve.

These are sacred objects to her, and to me. And the Real­i­ty these objects point to fuels my hope:

The Word was first,
the Word present to God,
God present to the Word.
The Word was God,
in readi­ness for God from day one.
Every­thing was cre­at­ed through him;
noth­ing — not one thing! —
came into being with­out him.7

The pro­logue of John’s gospel starts with first things first, The Word. Then, I imag­ine the evan­ge­list mak­ing a broad sweep­ing arm ges­ture, he says,

Every­thing, Every­thing
Everything’s a mir­a­cle.8

With won­der, author Bieke Van­dek­er­ck­hove exclaims:

Does what is essen­tial not shine through every­where? in east and west, north and south, through me, through you?9

John’s pro­logue wasn’t writ­ten to ring in a hol­i­day sea­son but to alert us to Real­i­ty, that God is come in the flesh as light to the world, as light to live by.

What came into exis­tence was Life,
and the Life was Light to live by.
The Life-Light blazed out of the dark­ness;
the dark­ness couldn’t put it out.10

The uncre­at­ed light shin­ing in the dark­ness, how­ev­er hum­ble, unnam­able, and mis­un­der­stood, is some­how rec­og­nized amongst human beings. In a chap­ter titled light with­out form, Bieke declares

The most impor­tant dis­cov­ery in this life lives every­where. Who­ev­er has touched this Light with­out form rec­og­nizes it imme­di­ate­ly, regard­less of the man­ner in which it’s described or put into song.11

Jesus seemed insis­tent that this Life-Light was also for the rest of us to become, like him, crea­tures in whom the full­ness of God was pleased to dwell. For tra­di­tion­al Chris­tian­i­ty, as Eve­lyn Under­hill would teach, Incar­na­tion is syn­ony­mous with the earth­ly life of Christ and is also a per­pet­u­al and per­son­al process….in the uni­verse and also in the indi­vid­ual ascend­ing soul.”12

We are incar­nat­ing ves­sels; it isn’t if we will incar­nate but what. And we get to choose. Either we bring forth in our flesh­ly forms some­thing of the Life-Light of God that is true and beau­ti­ful, just and com­pas­sion­ate, wise and lov­ing. Or we bring forth some­thing else.

Dur­ing his tri­al recount­ed in the book of Acts, Stephen incar­nat­ed that Light — His face was like the face of an angel.” 13 In con­trast, the crowd of Stephen’s kin became a peo­ple full of rage, arro­gance, vio­lence, and ulti­mate­ly mur­der. Dark­ness also has sub­stance and wan­ders through the earth wher­ev­er the ves­sels of Light have grown dim. 

Bieke iden­ti­fies that our think­ing and our act­ing are dri­ven by dif­fer­ent moti­vat­ing forces, that right think­ing doesn’t guar­an­tee right action. She sees our uncon­scious con­di­tion­ing for self-preser­va­tion and toward fear — no mat­ter how exalt­ed our thoughts or nation­al his­to­ry may be. She, like Stephen, chal­lenges us to see the face of the oth­er while at the same time shows us our own true face:

All great tra­di­tions show us ways to grow into real human beings by going against that force of grav­i­ty…. You don’t con­trol for­tune or mis­for­tune. It hap­pens to you. But the art lies in learn­ing to receive hap­pi­ness or to bear sor­row in such a way that you are still mind­ful of the oth­er.14

I am for­tu­nate to still have in my life my par­ents, and friends like them, who have found a way of grow­ing into real human beings, who lev­i­tate a lit­tle against that force of grav­i­ty that Bieke describes, who have learned to bear in their minds and bod­ies the oth­er—who­ev­er that oth­er may be.

The world that had its for­ma­tion­al influ­ence on my par­ents nine­ty years ago has passed into human his­to­ry. Our cur­rent media dri­ven tech­no­log­i­cal world is now the cru­cible for human souls. I won­der what my gen­er­a­tion and its off­spring will incar­nate. Are our neigh­bor­hoods and nations form­ing homes of peace, fields of love, where for­give­ness and right rela­tion­ship prevail?

Now our first task — our great task, our cen­tral task,” wrote Richard Fos­ter, is incarnational:

incar­nat­ing this real­i­ty of a with-God life into the dai­ly expe­ri­ence of our peo­ple right where they live and work and cry and pray and curse the dark­ness. If we do not make sub­stan­tial progress for­ward here, all our oth­er efforts will sim­ply dry up and blow away. The actu­al sub­stance of our lives needs to be so dra­mat­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent — trans­formed at the deep­est sub­ter­ranean lev­el — that every­one can see the dif­fer­ence and glo­ri­fy God, who has caused the dif­fer­ence.15

That dif­fer­ence-caus­ing God is the Real­i­ty that the Nativ­i­ty crèche humbly wel­comes and through prophets pro­claimed to a world full of ter­ror and vio­lence and fear:

The peo­ple who walked in dark­ness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep dark­ness—
on them light has shined.16

How might we — in our home life and com­mu­ni­ty life, with our work and with our wal­lets — incar­nate that shin­ing light of Christ? I see my par­ents’ lived exam­ple of sim­ple ser­vice to oth­ers, open­hand­ed sur­ren­der to God, and stead­fast faith­ful­ness to each oth­er. I recall my mother’s recent advice to a young bride: Say thank you. Say please. Say I’m sor­ry. And when you can’t say I’m sor­ry you can still say I love you.

There are sev­en­ty-three years of prac­tice fold­ed into that advice, and Light enough to live by.

Related Podcast

[1] John 4:32 NRSV. The New Revised Stan­dard Ver­sion Bible. c 1989, Divi­sion of Chris­t­ian Edu­ca­tion of the Nation­al Coun­cil of the Church­es of Christ in the Unit­ed States of America.

[2] Cyn­thia Bourgeault, The Wis­dom Way of Know­ing: Reclaim­ing an Ancient Tra­di­tion to Awak­en the Heart (San Fran­cis­co: Jossey-Bass, 2003), Kin­dle Loca­tions 602 – 608

[3] Sebas­t­ian Brock, trans., Dai­ly Read­ings with Isaac of Syr­ia (Spring­field IL,Templegate, 1990), 25.

[4] Eve­lyn Under­hill, Sacra­ment and Sac­ri­fice,” in Wor­ship. (Eugene OR, Stock Pub., 2002), 42.

[5] 1 John 1:1, Scrip­ture tak­en from The Mes­sage. Copy­right © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by per­mis­sion of Nav­Press Pub­lish­ing Group.

[6] John Phillip Newell, Pray­ing with the Earth, Prayer Book for Peace (Nor­wich UK, Can­ter­bury Press 2011), 50

[7] John 1:1 – 3 The Message

[8] Peter May­er. Every­thing is Holy Now on Mil­lion Year Mind album 1999 Peter May­er © 1999 Blue Boat Records

[9] Bieke Van­dek­er­ck­hove, De smaak van stilte (2010). Trans­lat­ed from the Dutch by Rudolf V. Van Puym­broeck as The Taste of Silence: How I Came to Be at Home with Myself ( Col­legeville, MN, Litur­gi­cal Press, 2015), 31.

[10] John 1: 4 – 5 The Message

[11] Bieke Van­dek­er­ck­hove, 22

[12] Eve­lyn Under­hill, Mys­ti­cism: A Study in the Nature and Devel­op­ment of Spir­i­tu­al Con­scious­ness (New York, E.P.Dutton & Co.,1912), 118

[13] Acts 6:15; 7:54 – 81NRSV

[14] Bieke Van­dek­er­ck­hove, 75

[15] Richard Fos­ter, © 2019 Richard J. Fos­ter, L.L.C. (George Fox Uni­ver­si­ty Pastor’s Con­fer­ence, June 2018)

[16] Isa­iah 9:2 NRSV

Text First Published December 2019

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

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