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Those who are old enough (or young enough) know of the "Choose Your Own Adventure" stories which were popular at one time. I think I probably read all there were, though I definitely consider some to be far better than others. I didn't care much for those that seemed to have wimpy, or overly-moralizing story lines. Something I also did as a child was play imaginative games with my siblings. I say "games" but often these were imaginary adventures where I would talk about what I was doing, or what was happening, and my younger siblings would listen transfixed. Really, it was story telling under a slightly different guise.

These two different examples both fall into the category of emergent stories. The idea of emergent storytelling is that the story arch is not fixed in advance--rather it emerges dynamically while it is being read or experienced. The "Choose Your Own Adventure" novelettes of my youth fall on the more static end of this category spectrum (while there were multiple story possibilities and endings but it was all printed up and fixed in advance), while the adventuring I did with my siblings came in on the far more dynamic end, seeing as I was making up things on the fly.

Since those heydays of my childhood I have moved on to the staid respectability of writing polished stories. The narrative I present is crafted, and re-crafted until it is smooth and without disjoint. But I have never entirely forgotten about the story telling adventures of my childhood. While sloppy in their form, the participatory adventures I told to my younger siblings had their own particular thrill. There is a total disregard for critical analysis as a child (maybe with an exception for my older brother Teman, who came out of the womb with critical analysis) and with that disregard comes a certain wild abandon in embracing a story. I have since wondered how it would be if I revisited that method of story telling as an adult. Is it possible to return to Neverland?

My presumption has been that an adult surely could tell such emergent stories to children (I think plenty of parents do it all the time) but I wondered how well an adult might tell such an emergent story to other adults. Is it possible? I have suspected that it is--by at least some people. I think that was often the root of many stories told in ancient times around fires. But could I tell an emergent story that others might be amused to partake in?

So I decided to give it a try.

Now, admittedly this is not a serious narrative effort. It is more along the lines of an experiment to see if I am still able, in my stuffy old age, to string together a coherent and passably engaging narrative. The depth is no more than one might find in a light adventure story. Call it a choose your own adventure for adults. It isn't quite as dynamic as telling a story live to your younger siblings. The mechanic for the "emergent" part of the narrative is that at the end of every section the readers get to vote on what will happen next, among several possible choices. I don't think this is as engaging as interacting with an audience in person, but it is the balance I am trying to use with technology. We'll see what happens.

If you want to read (and play) along, head over to http://adventure.creative-vapors.com/2014/09/10/awakening-cry/ and read through to the most recent entry. On the most recent entry voting is typically open from Tuesday until Friday. After that voting closes and I write the next installment, it is posted, and the process repeats.

Currently the story is in the early stages but it is starting to take shape. If you check it out I'd be curious to know what you think.

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Fire in the stove

Flammable Paradox

I see men walking
like trees
upon whom the Cursed hung.

Judgment redeemed
set afire
for purified ingots.

One morning this week found me sitting in the dining room, empty breakfast bowl in front of me as I stared at the wood stove fire. I guess my line of thought started with pondering why many people (myself included) find a strange beauty in fire. There is a fearsome and awesome thing to fire, and beauty too. It is a sublime combination, and as I thought I wondered why this was so.

Why did God make it so that we naturally are drawn to fire's mysterious beauty? Fire is destruction and on first reflection why should we find beauty in destruction, whether it be the immolation of wood in a fireplace or a star expending itself. And yet we do find powerful beauty in fire, in light. All light comes from some sort of fire, the rending of something torn asunder whether it be the inferno of wood molecules or the dissolution of countless stars. Without those countless dyings creation would be a cold dark death. It is only in the dying of something that light and life exists.

The most common Biblical use of the imagery of fire specifically is for judgment. As we see things in the natural world readily destroyed by the awesome power of fire this is an analogy that we readily understand. But there is a tension too, for if in fire there is only the truth of God's wrath why are we so drawn to it, and why has God used fire with its light and warmth to demonstrate it as the source of life?

How can judgment bring forth life?

As I sat in my chair, milk damp bowl forgotten as I watched the flames, I kept thinking about how the Bible uses fire. Given fire's common use as a symbol for God's judgment, it is quite remarkable that on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended on the followers of Jesus it came as tongues of flame settling on them. When the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus at his baptism it came in the appearance of a dove. Fire is quite a different matter, and most certainly there is a reason for this differing imagery.

We gain some understanding of the choice of fire for the Spirit's coming on the disciples if we look closer at the use of fire in the Bible. There are places in the Bible where fire carries a purely punitive conception--such as the fires of hell. But often in the prophetic literature fire is used in terms of a redemptive, restorative, judgment. One example is found in Zechariah 13:7-9 where we read:

“Awake, sword, against my shepherd,
against the man who is close to me!”
declares the Lord Almighty.
“Strike the shepherd,
and the sheep will be scattered,
and I will turn my hand against the little ones.
In the whole land,” declares the Lord,
“two-thirds will be struck down and perish;
yet one-third will be left in it.
This third I will put into the fire;
I will refine them like silver
and test them like gold.
They will call on my name
and I will answer them;
I will say, ‘They are my people,’
and they will say, ‘The Lord is our God.’”

In this passage fire is the very thing which makes the people pure and perfect (removing the bad and leaving only the good) and restores their relationship with God. It is this idea which informs our understanding of the fire descending on the disciples at Pentecost. It was the sign of their purification. And the imagery struck me; if to a man with not yet full seeing eyes we can appear as trees walking, than how much more do we appear to earth-dimmed eyes like logs set on fire by God. We burn oh so brightly, gloriously, and in our passing only ash remains.

The line of thinking quickly brought me back to the paradox of the cross. For it is in that great act that we see death, destruction, and judgment bring forth life, restoration, and deliverance. Metaphorically, on that cross Jesus was alight with the fire judgment of God as he became cursed for us. It was an ugly demonstration of the consequences of sin, and it was a beautiful demonstration of the reality of love. It was the consummation of death, and the seed of life. The death of Jesus Christ was both, and it is a paradox that no natural mind can explain. It is a beautiful paradox, and in looking at that little fire on the stove I saw how it existed as an example paradox of that paradox--a sun blazing light in its fiery death, giving life to this world, right down to the logs in my fire warming the house. We are transfixed by the beauty of fire because in it we are given a dim recognition of the beautiful mystery found in redemption--that in God the judgment of death brings revelation, redemption, and restoration. It seems impossible, and yet it is. How fitting then that God would give us fire, a sign of judgment which shines forth the mysterious beauty

It is not that in spite of death God saves, for the death of Jesus was not merely an obstacle that had to be overcome. Rather, it is through death that God saves, for the death and resurrection of Jesus was the very means by which God saved. This paradox is not happenstance. Yes, the cross of Jesus shows the mystery of God. But more than that it shows the power of God in that by His hand the negative becomes positive, defeat the greatest victory, and we can delight in the hope this teaches us about God's ability to thwart every intention of evil.

When Satan enticed Man and Woman into sin in the Garden of Eden, judgment was their just due (and how Satan took pleasure in that). But for all Satan thought he had thwarted God, it was that very judgment of separation, the very fire of wrath, that God used to reconcile the lost back to Himself. The greatest blow Satan could think to strike against God--whether it be the Garden of Eden or the Cross of Jesus--was used by God to bring the greatest glory to His name. Not only are we saved from judgment, but that very salvation was purchased by means of judgment.

We look at a fire and if we have eyes to see it tells us of the mystery of what God has done--and what only God can do. For the fire in the hearth will soon go cold, and only dead ashes remain. And if this creation continued long enough the stars too would burn out. The fires of this universe are a picture, and they are beautiful, but their ashes remind us still that for all the beauty of ephemeral flames we are looking for the blazing glory that will never end.

Fire in the stove
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Grandma's house

The past, fickle thing, refuses to remain in place. What stories it tells, who can hear? Time unspools, always moving further away, further behind. Memory too, like time, runs from us, but the ghosts of our minds have their own different pace. In that tapestry some recollections remain fresh years later while others fade quickly. History gone cannot be called again to present as it was once, but walking again in places where long past yesterdays were written does bring a reflection different from merely traveling the mind's backward fleeing path.

Almost four months ago Grandma's last day slipped away. Her house emptied, possessions dispersed with the efficiency of rats fleeing a fast sinking ship. The empty shell was prettied and put up for sale. From there the process slowed, a waiting and a plodding through the process of divestiture. Into the limbo I returned on occasion to mow the lawn and stir the inner soup of past and present. So summer waned and autumn slipped through. This week I made what may be my last trip, if the sale finalizes as it should. Then no more to a place where the ribbons of memory lie unraveled in heaps, draped across the rooms in a collection only the mind's eye can see.

The physical act of walking up the steps triggers a sense almost like walking back in time. For that flickering moment it is as if I am returning as I did so many times before to a house of sickness, brokenness, and my own rut routine. Then the emptiness greets me, the past winks out, and I am here in the present with the barren places. The carpet in my old bedroom still carries the impression of my desk, fresh and unfaded, much like the imprints on my mind. The ghosts of the past are young here, and hover at the edge of eye and mind.

Someone might ask what I feel walking through the empty places, marked from eight years of my life. The answer is that I feel more and less than one might expect. I'm still learning about emotions, but one thing I have learned is that they are more sublime, deeper, and nuanced than the rush of tears or joy we so readily identify. Emotions do not come only in primary colors, and the pictures painted can be more muddy, complex, or more unclear than we might like. The mix of hue and shade embody profound things, things in us we yet do not understand.

The texture of what I feel walking through that empty mausoleum of modern construction is like the whisper of a thousand voices in cacophony, or the intermingled scent of disparate aromas. I would tell you I felt nothing. But then in the open space of aloneness there is a stirring, the tremor given by deep things I can't yet interpret.

Perhaps it is a song of sorrow, the notes of loss, regret, and hurt playing their faint tune. Is that why I hear? A bit of fondness, maybe, too, for not all things in that place were ugly in their time. All of it, good or ill, carries the weight of years. The taste of memories defies the apish parody of simple words seeking to mark in clear boundaries on that which truly plunge in deeper wells. Like a melody the things felt flows through heart and soul, near and yet beyond words.

I feel nothing, and yet everything--but so faint as to miss it. But there is a reason we feel it, and find it a riddle of things not easily untied. Life is the learning of what we have been taught and yet do not understand, and those are a wave tossed sea in our soul, highlighted in crest by the foam which emotions wrought. So in empty spaces are we taught. And so too from the empty places would come the eye opening we seek, if only we would listen. I hope that I am listening.

The empty places
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Alone each to his own

We all have those songs which move us, giving words to something deep inside. A song which gave words to something I didn't think could be made so simple and clear is "Come Close Now" by Christa Wells. In one video1 she tells the story of how the song came about. The spark for the song sprung from a book by Dan Walser called To Make a Life. Christa says that Dan writes in his book about grief describing it this way; "Being in this room upstairs in a house that is burning down and I'm strapped in a chair. And outside this house there are all these people running around with fire hoses and ladders and sirens and they are trying to fix it and make it better but I'm still alone up in this room. Eventually one, maybe two, people just quietly make there way up the front walk and they open the front door of the house and they walk up to this room that I'm in and they pull up a chair beside me and they sit down and they just sit in the burn with me." The picture is a powerful metaphor for grief. As one who has both seen grief first hand, and experienced it in my own measure, I can say it rings very true.

Christa takes this picture of grief and puts it to song in "Come Close Now." The words are lyrical, poetic, and beautifully sung. For me the song is deeply moving. But as I listen to the song part of what moves me are the many layers of truth wrapped up in the song. First, there is the truth the song shares about the perspective of a grieving person. The song captures very well the feelings of alienation and helplessness that swallow a grieving person. Speaking for myself, I found in grief a profound sense of being terribly alone. It felt like no one could understand the place I was in, or the feelings I struggled with. More than that, it felt like there was no purpose in speaking, or attempting to share, because perhaps the only thing more dreadful than the feeling of aloneness in grief is someone attempting to "fix" the situation. Grief cannot be fixed til death is destroyed, and anyone who tries to fix grief with pat platitudes or comfortable bromide only shows more painfully to the hurting that the imagined helper doesn't understand how deep and wide runs the stream of sorrow. True understanding, and true healing, does not come from people running around trying to fix a hurt that stretches more vast than any human healing. In poetic words the song gives shape to the conflagration which is grief.

Second, the song equally expresses the place of someone outside the grieving--a place I have also been. There is a unique hurt a heart feels when it sees someone in grief and realizes there is nothing, absolutely nothing, you can do to make the grief go away. You cannot banish the hurt or heal the wound. In those moments we feel the heart weighing, heart rending, unutterable burden of the sentence, "From dust to dust." In that moment of complete helplessness there is a strong urge to walk away. No, to run back to some place where the world seems fixable. As the lyrics sing, "I'm afraid of the space where you suffer . . . I can't handle the choke or the danger / Of my own foolish, inadequate words." How so very true. The song goes on:

What can I bring to your fire?
Shall I sing while the roof is coming down
Can I hold you while the flames grow higher
Shall I brave the heat and come close with you now
Can I come close now?

This refrain captures the paradox of being succor for the grieving. At first in folly we might think to sprinkle water on the bonfire in an attempt to put it out. But if we gain the grace to realize how foolish our attempts to fix the grief of another, it then leaves the question, "What can I bring to your fire?" Which leads to the realization of how unhelpful our attempts at helping, "Shall I sing while the roof is coming down?" It is absurd--you don't sing while the roof is coming down. And yet, in the paradox of being comfort to the grieving the answer is yes. Not ladders and hoses on the outside--singing right there in the middle. If you are going to be true help to those in the throes of grief, you can't be safe. You can't stay outside the fire. You can't put out the fire. You must do the insane and go into the fire, hold them in the flames, and sing while the roof is coming down. In this rather lose metaphor those running around outside with ladders and fire hoses and sirens are people trying to give "things" to help the grieving. To sing is to give of yourself in a very personal way. To ask to come close is to request to partake with the person in their pain, even as one would join in flames. What good does it do to sing while the roof is coming down, what good does it do to come close in the flames? Logically, it does no good at all. And that is the point--in the depths of grief people don't need cold logic, they need nearness. However useless it might seem, in truth it does far more good than we can imagine.

More than once I have had the privilege of being with those in the midst of deep, devastating, grief. My own powerlessness in the presence of their profound hurt made those times some of the most trying I have experienced. It felt like I was doing nothing good, and I wanted desperately to find something to fix. And yet, somehow, I dimly, haltingly, perceived that my act of simply being there, of being still and with them, was the most profoundly comforting thing I could possibly do. We cannot fix grief. That we cannot do. But being with the grieving in their grief--that is the only thing we can do.

But having meditated on this truth I came to realize it was not the end of the matter. The truth so sharply on display in the sphere of grief applies also to the rest of life. When someone is going through a difficult event what they need is not for us to slap band-aide "solutions" on their struggle but for us to come close and join with them in the struggle. An illustration from my own life is the years I spent caring for my grandfather as he died from Alzheimer's. It was no help at all, and could be very harmful, for people distant from the struggle to offer "solutions" and advice. The only thing that was helpful was if someone came close and--having shared in the grueling experience--offered something from that shared experience. This insight caused me to realize two things: This idea of "coming close" articulated exactly how I wanted to share my own Alzheimer's experience with other people to help them. I wanted to come close, to (as it were) sing while the roofing was coming down. Whatever exactly that would entail in literal acts, I knew that the idea poetically captured what I wanted to do. But also when I hear "Come Close Now" I am reminded that I must be very careful when offering advice, fixes, or opinions on the struggle of someone else's life--no matter what the struggle. In a way for each of us our life is the story of our own house burning down. The rest of the world is running around telling us how to fix it but really what we need are the people who will come close even though our lives are burning down.

This brought me to another sharp reminder: Christians need to be very careful how we minister to the world. Especially in the corporate church of America there is a strong push for social justice, poverty alleviation, and similar causes. We want to heal the sick, fix the broken, and set the captives free. All are good desires, but what so often happens is we throw a lot of money, expertise, and energy at the problems we see in the world--and end up becoming those people outside the burning house running around with our sirens, ladders, and fire hoses. Money, expertise, and energy aren't the solution to grief, and neither are they, ultimately, the solutions for the rest of the brokenness in the world either. The poor man in Africa may do more to heal the hurting than a thousand rich people in America with all their money because the poor man is the one who knows what it means to come close. May we flee the snare of thinking that all our planning, organizing, and money can take the place of coming close and entering into the pain and suffering of those we seek to serve.

If that warning applies to the church as a corporate whole, it applies equally to us as Christian individuals. If we are bringing the light of the gospel to the people around us, may we be careful to bring it not as people running around with ladders and sirens and fire hoses outside the burning house, but let us enter the burning houses of others, after we have asked, "Can I come close now?" and there in the smoke and the burn share with them as one who truly sees.

And this brings us to the most profound and deeply comforting truth I found in Christa's song. The idea of "Come close" is so true for grief, for life, for the church, and for us as individuals because it is ultimately a truth that God Himself has demonstrated. The world is a house burning down. Our lives are houses burning down. And God has not stood outside running around with sirens, ladders, and hoses shouting advice to us. No, God came close in the most amazing way. He became incarnated, Immanuel, God with us. Jesus Christ came into the smoke and fire and burn. He came close and held us in the fire and sang the song of deliverance we needed to hear. Jesus came close historically when he was born in human flesh, lived, ministered, died and rose again. He came into the fire, and in holding us near he saved us from the fire. He took our place in the fire so that we might go free. But it is good to remember that not only did he do this once for all when he came to walk on this earth, but also when he enters into our lives individually he does the very same. The world right now is running around in circles outside the burning house of our lives while we sit inside bound to a chair, and what we need is someone to come in. And it is Jesus who does. It is he who comes in, who sings us the song of deliverance, and wraps us in his arms so that even in the smoke and the burn we are safe, we are preserved.

That is the heart of what it means to come close, and that is why we are called to come close now.

______

1. In this live performance of the song on Youtube Christa Wells gives a lengthy introduction explaining the song: http://youtu.be/gLDUO_mVYb4

2. The song, without introduction and with full lyrics included in the notes, is also available on Youtube here: http://youtu.be/jIYdZPuqjnY

Coming close
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I stumbled upon the short film “Happy Pills” tonight, and it touched a raw spot with me. Watching it, I was struck by how I was bringing feelings to the video which hardly anyone else would bring. It was all on slant, and yet hit so close to home. It wasn’t my story, but it was like someone knew, really knew, the dark place from which my story, and those like it, come. The sign of very good artistic insight, if not down right personal experience. Other people watch this and see the video the author created, which is plenty and enough. I see a rippled reflection of my own past. In the words of the man I hear an echo of things I’ve heard for eight years, an uncanny amalgamation of all the bad in two people I tended. In the ladies tight movements and misery and hesitation I saw a shadow of myself. I didn’t play deceit on Grandma, but in the end I did have to let her do what she would however self destructive her choices.

The short is incredibly well acted. Watch it, and see what you will.

http://vimeo.com/12535235

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Brother Justin made this for brother Arlan for his birthday. Hilarious, and you can participate too! http://play.textadventures.co.uk/Play.aspx?id=gtxjdch6oucvafaxfcfmfg (Make sure you try out at least a few different paths. The dedicated try to do them all.)

I’m not sure if all the humor translates to general audiences. There are many inside family jokes. But the entire thing is a bit of a peek into family humor.

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What are the odds of you randomly showing up in a movie theater and being shot? But maybe it isn’t about statistical odds at all. What if the low points and the high points of life–the seeming improbable good and improbable bad, have nothing to do with chance? Is that freeing or terrifying? This video is probably too long and too sappy for some, but I was really struck by one comment that comes almost at the very end: “A life of self renouncing love is liberty.” That answers the question about how we ought to live life and understand both love and liberty: Wildflower / A Proposal.

This second video is a song that caught my interest. I like it. In a way it carries on the theme a bit about love found in the previous video; ‘Never Any Good’ by Martin Simpson.

Hope you enjoy this brief interlude!

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Country road to the sky

It may seem an oxymoron, but I usually find bike rides relaxing. Riding over country hills is a way to release stress and let my mind wander. A bike ride is a brief period of time when I feel free from the obligations and responsibilities of life. By some trick of the mind, I live in the moment. During the years I cared for Grandpa and Grandma my weekly bike rides were a brief escape. Those years have ended, and as I biked through this summer I noticed a greater sense of freedom--I no longer had to escape a dark cloud. In that lightness I have felt thankfulness, deep in my bones.

Then I look a little closer at myself. Feeling thankful is pleasant, far better than feeling bitter or any such ugly sensation. But I consider how fleeting thankfulness so often is in our lives. When are we thankful, and why? Is what we so often call thankfulness true thankfulness?

Coming through a difficult time can spur thankfulness. I remember how after Grandpa died I was deeply thankful for God's preserving hand. I recognized the many answered prayers, I saw grace even in Grandpa's sickness and passing. But that thankfulness later gave way to bleakness and bitterness--perhaps even a black brew of exhaustion, depression, and despair. Is thankfulness really so fickle and passing, or does this mercurial presence reveal something I still need to learn about a thankful heart? In ancient days when Israel was freed from slavery in Egypt the people were very thankful--until they gave way to grumbling. What God gave wasn't enough and instead they wanted what they had in misery. It seems a far too common pattern in the human heart, a madness for misery and a blindness to grace.

Remembering how I have walked that circuit from gladness to gloom, and finding myself at present feeling thankful, I consider what all of this means. What is the reality of true thankfulness? What is my thankfulness, what is it not, and what ought it be? Jacob met God and piled up stones. I pile up words.

Dead end sign

Surviving a bad relational experience gives a sharp contrast for good relationships, their worth, and their meaning. It is a worn cliché to hear, "I am thankful for my family," but beyond vague sentiment what is meant by that? Perhaps for some the statement goes little beyond warm fuzzy feelings, but I am thankful for what my family has been both past and present. Being is teaching by deeds, a learning that is inscribe on our hearts in ways lectures never can. As I have grown older I have grown experientially aware of the spiritual, emotional, mental, and relational foundations that came to me through my family. What I experienced in my formative years laid the foundation for my understand of, and attitude toward, relationships. Like peering into a dirty mirror and seeing a reflection dimly, so I see faintly the person I could have been if I had grown up in a family filled with avarice, bitterness, envy, or hatred. My parents, and my siblings, are far from perfect, but there are many burdens of wounded emotions and thinking that I do not carry--which many people do carry in life--all because of the shaping brought through family during my childhood.

Eight years spent caring for Grandma and Grandpa gave me a personal peak into what family meant for other people. It is one thing to hear or see such things from a distance, a different thing entirely when your faced is pressed up against the reality in all its messiness. Over the course of those years I learned something about what "family" meant in the formative experience for both Grandma and Grandpa. That exposure birthed a deeper reflection on my part about how those personal experiences shaped their views, and then the vision of "family" they went on to create for their own children. Picking at the tangled vines of family history gave me a greater sensitivity to how every person's formative years greatly contributes to the loads they carry in life, and how they view people. This impacted how I consider everyone; their story is fuller than just who they are today--they are more than job, education, amusements, and social status.

In coming to a deeper appreciation for how wounds and broken thinking fester within damaged relationships, and especially damaged family relationships, I have come to a richer appreciation, and thankfulness, for the family I have been given. This family has made me a far more stable, mature, capable, and thoughtful person than I would otherwise be. What I am able to do, and be, for others springs from what has been done for me.

And the impact of my family continues. Another great gift brought through family, wrought in the sublimity of grace, is this: the ability to live in peace. Again, eight years ago I might have been able to say that without understanding it so personally as I do now. My family has never been a blissful family--we have our measure of scraps and disagreements, and generally you won't find us all dancing around holding hands and singing "Kumbaya"--and so I never particularly thought about my family in terms of peace. But having spent eight years living in a different climate I understand better. The presence of disagreements says far less about peace than people might think. There can be more peace in a house of sometimes heated disagreement than in a house where a cold silence dwells. Living in peace is the absence of bitterness, demanding, begrudging, measuring, justifying. The list could go on, but the point is that being able to live in peace with people requires having peace with them. This does not mean agreeing with them on everything but it does mean harboring no resentment in any of its forms. To live without hounding resentments from other people gives a real liberty, a freedom to live, breathe, and relate, unencumbered.

So I'm not just thankful for bike rides with no burdens to pick up on the return. I am thankful for a sound body, and a sound mind--two things I have seen vividly stripped away. I am thankful for the opportunity to do and to be, to go and to say, to live and to strive, and most of all to rest. I'm thankful for the ability to neaten and the option of being messy. I'm grateful for a large house I could not have imagined, and for a house being large and yet still full. I'm thankful for the car I could not afford and yet have at no cost, the bed and the sleep with no agitated nights. I am thankful that I have been taught, I am being taught, and will never be alone. And, yes, right now I am very thankful for family.

But if that is a quick survey of thankfulness it only makes sharper the question of why our hearts become so weighed down by the cares of life so that our eyes become dim and our hearts thankless. If I can see all this goodness now, and it was true before, why has it seemed so far away in the past and might yet again in the future? If true thankfulness is but a vapid emotion, here today and gone tomorrow when stiffer winds come, then isn't it meaningless? And if true thankfulness is more than that, what does it say that I find it so fickle?

True thankfulness is more than shallow emotion, but understanding that requires plumbing the depths of what we call thankful to find the source of thanksgiving, and thus from whence flows our stream of praise. If we are thankful for what we can quantify, a list of things however ephemeral or solid, and the measure of our thankfulness can then be marked by the amount of our quantity--then even in uttering thanks for our list we have swallowed the bitter pill of thanklessness.

How so? Because things come and go, they are simply the means of communicating deeper truth. If our thanks comes to rest on the things rather than the truth conveyed by them then we have turned the situation on its head and by dint of such a feast becomes emptiness while the true food passes by. This, at the heart, is why so much thankfulness becomes vapor under scrutiny. You are thankful for family? A family given can be taken away. You are thankful for your able mind? Knowledge gained can be lost, strength fail, health crumble. Cars break, pain robs nights of rest, money fails, destitution comes. I paint a picture of calamity, but the point is this: if we are ultimately quantifying our thankfulness in the discrete things, then so also we can quantify what we have not (or have lost). Thankfulness then becomes a judging, a weighing on our scales, and in that view what is to say that a sufficiency of things for thankfulness today is sufficient for tomorrow? If what we ultimately see are things then in the end our eyes will come to see that all things pass away, we haven't enough, and the thankless spirit will return.

We must learn the lesson found in the Israelites who came out of slavery in Egypt. They were delivered out of bondage, they saw God's mighty acts, they walked through the Red Sea, they heard God speak in audible voice, ate the bread He provided from heaven, and saw Him go daily before them in a pillar of fire and smoke. Yet in all that they became thankless and complained, "Oh that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic [...]" (Numbers 11:4-5). They kept a good list. They knew well all the things they had lost, and all the things they didn't have. What good was God, so present as the pillar of fire, if they didn't have cucumbers? They valued a good meal, but not God being with them.

They were blind to God.

That same blindness is at the root of our own fast fading thankfulness. Are we looking at the pillar of fire before us, or the things clutched in our hands and tasted in our mouths? Israel rejoiced greatly when they were first delivered from slavery, but it faded quickly in the want for cucumbers. So also we can rejoice greatly in the things God does for us, and gives us, but it fades quickly if our eyes are fixed on the things and not the Giver. If you are thankful for the Giver then you are thankful for who is with you, not how much you have from Him. The heart of a true thankfulness does not sum up in the length of the list but rather in the person of the giver. If thankfulness rests on who your family is rather than who gave you that family--or health, house, life, freedom, or any thing--then such thankfulness will turn to dust. Each of these, and many more, come and go. It is only in being truly thankful for who the Giver is can we really have any enduring thankfulness for the things given. Otherwise what we think is thankfulness is only pleased greed which will soon hunger for more. It is such a heart that values cucumbers over God, and His bread from heaven.

It is right to be thankful for all we are given, if all of it is known as words of divine love given shape, and the heart responds with thankful praise to the giver. Emptiness follows where thankfulness is nothing more than sweaty hands greedy grasping that which we horde--even if we call it not such. Only when we truly mean the words, "Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you" (Psalm 73:25) are we truly thankful. If thankfulness fails or fades it is because we have desired more, and so less, than the One in whom is summed up all we can truly be thankful for.

Fields of corn
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Part of the poem

What comes now? The earth awaits
What fierce wonder from the skies?
Thunder, trampling through the night?
Morning, with illustrious eyes?
Morning, from the springs of light:
Thunder, round Heaven’s opening gates.

“July” by Lionel Johnson

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Autumn leaves against the sky

On Leaves

******

We are the leaves
of Eden's fall.
Our lives a brevity
of bright color.
The fragrance of changing
brought on the wind
leaves to rest.

Eden's death tree drops
leaves of shock flame.
But there is another tree
of life.
The shoot of Jesse's stump,
Root with branch, the stock of promise
limbs grafted, twelve crop fruit unfailing.

We are the leaves
of Eden's spring.
The tree bears
us, bringing healing to the nations.

Autumn leaves against the sky
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