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 creche, 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 creche 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