The Last Word

 

 

March, according to the folklore, comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb – a particularly apt image right now, given that I'm in Wales, the land of Aslanic revivals, the country of 33 million sheep. But this March did the opposite: came in like a lamb – meek, mewling, soft-footed, timid – and left like a lion, roaring and leaping and shaking its great gold mane. Or even more, it flew off like a Welsh dragon: glittering, awesome, breathing fire.           

The last week of March was a piece of high summer. It was day upon day of unmarred blue and balmy breezes. It was tannig weather, t-shirt weather, beach weather – of which we took full advantage, visiting in four days no less than four strips of local coastline, each postcard beautiful. It's not hard to love Wales even in the rain, but this sunshine has knocked us head-over-heals.

And it's jumpstarted spring. When we arrived here, all was barren: ground and tree and hedge. All sat death-like beneath gray cold sky. But not now. Now earth awakens, unfolds, spills over. It's a swirl of color. It's a dance of bees. It's a chorus of birds.

I suppose we all have our ways of knowing when we are ready for heaven, when the valley of the shadow of death sits so heavy on us that we pine to dwell in the house of the Lord forever. My touchstone is spring. When the day comes that it fails to stir me, I'll know I'm not long for this world. When the day arrives that spring's first crocus or daffodil, its first cherry blossom or uncurled leaf, does not jolt me fresh with hope, I'll know I'm ready to head for the wild blue yonder.

But that day hasn't come yet. I relish every last little sign of spring (well, maybe not the pollen-thick air, which wreaks havoc on Cheryl's allergies). And I see why God chose resurrection, of all ways, to announce Christ's triumph and our salvation. He could have, in his infinite power, simply extended to humans the gift of deathlessness: that faith in Christ short-circuited our death entirely, that is was our get-out-of-jail free and proceed-directly-to-Go card. But he chose instead the way of death and resurrection. He chose to let the seed fall into the ground first, and then to conjure it up a hundred-fold.

It's a more decisive way to be done with death: to beat it at its own game. To submit it to it only to subvert it. To get buried in it, only to go bury it. To make it seem to have the last word, and then let life speak the last word instead.

I know that spring is not the same as resurrection. But it bears certain striking similarities. Among them, maybe foremost, is this: spring, like resurrection, reignites hope in a heart that's nearly stopped. For spring, like resurrection, declare that death never gets the last word.

 

Behold the Lamb

On my (mostly) daily walks in the hills and dales of this green country, I usually stop and chat with the sheep, which are everywhere. They have three primary responses to my attempt to strike up conversation. A few are aloof. They go on eating as though I am no more than a crow squawking at the roadside. A few stand stalk still and stare at me, puzzled, perturbed, indignant, bleating complaint. I don't speak sheep, but their message transcends the language barrier: Go away. Now. Don't make me bite you. And most bolt straight away, running as fast as their twiggy legs can carry them, bleating panic. 
 
It's worrisome. It's like I'm the stranger that Jesus warns about, whose voice the sheep don't recognize and so flee from (John 10:4-5). That's only a slight improvement on the hireling whom Jesus also warns about, who, first sign of trouble, flees the sheep (John 10:11-13). These sheep won't let me get near enough to even test that scenario.
 
Except yesterday. Yesterday, we three – Cheryl, Nicola and I – took a new trail, down a wooded path atop a berm between two sheep fields. It terminates at a slow bend of the Teifi river. So at river's edge we clambered down the berm and came up at the end of one of the fields. A dozen or so ewes grazed. Alongside them, huddling close, were flocks of lambs, their wool pilled in short tufts, their legs still slightly wobbly. 
 
And then one did a most wonderful thing: he ran toward us, bleating welcome, and licked my hand. I wouldn't have be more honored than if royalty had spoken to me. 
 
Actually, it was better than that: God spoke to me. That lamb, he said, has not yet learned one life's earliest lessons. It's a lesson every parent, human or ovine or bovine or canine, or whatever, passes on to its offspring: be wary. 
 
Trust no one. 
 
Believe the worst.
 
It's a needful lesson in a fallen world. Lambs and babies and calves and puppies – all are vulnerable, and naivete can be lethal.
 
But that lamb was an icon of trust. His pure instinct, unladen with any sheeplore about wolves and poachers, was to welcome us. 
 
Be trusting.
 
Believe the best
 
Then he noticed no one else joined his pageant of greeting. He saw his mother's stern worried look, bleating anxiety. And he got the message. He learned the lesson. He beat a retreat.
 
I've learned the lesson, over and over, to the point I apply it beyond what is needed: be wary. 
 
Trust no one. 
 
Believe the worst.
 
I know the tragedy, as well as the necessity, of the lesson. Welcoming is sometimes folly. Trust is sometimes disastrous. Believing the best is sometimes ruinous.
 
But the kiss of that lamb tingled for a long time on my fingers, bearing its own lesson: would it really hurt you, would it hurt anyone, to be a little more lamb-like?
 

Seeking the Truth On My Knees

 

 
I've been hunkered down two weeks now in my hidey-hole in Wales, this replica of Narnia. Have I changed? My breathing, I think, has slowed to match the easy rhythms of the land around me, and maybe I've lost a few pounds. But I've not improved my Yahtzee skills at all, though I play it most nights. And I almost lapsed into paganism: I had a moment of Wall-Street hubris, of all-consuming corporate greed, when I fought back from near bankruptcy to entirely crush my rivals – Cheryl and Nicola – in a sprawling take-no-prisoners game of Monopoly that spanned three nights. But I recovered from that, and once again am humbly content with the simple life. I do not need a hotel on Park Lane to be happy.
 
Honest.
 
I am, all told, deeply content but otherwise ordinary. I am recognizably myself: a tad impatient, a little fretful, easily distracted, given to spells of brooding. I keep waiting for some epiphany, some startling dazzling insight, to break in on this magnificent solitude, and change me in a twinkling. And then I remind myself that such things are rare, and come mostly unbidden, unexpected, undeserved. You bend one day to fetch a stick of wood, or step out of the shower and reach for a towel, or spy the shape of a face in the clouds, and then suddenly it's on you, flooding in from nowhere and everywhere, turning you inside out. 
 
I haven't had that yet.
 
And most change takes work.
 
A line from a book I've been reading has been working me over hard. The book is called A Diary of Revival, documenting, mostly from the personal correspondences and diary entries of eyewitnesses and key figures, the events and personalities that marked the 1904 Welsh Revival. One of the most prominent figures of that revival, the one whose name is most associated with it, is Evan Roberts. Roberts was a coal miner before he was a preacher (indeed, he fulfilled a prophecy that God was going to raise up a man from the mine or the farm, not the seminary, to bring revival). 
 
As a teenager, Roberts  was marked by a hunger for God's word, and he read and pondered the Scriptures at every opportunity. He kept a Bible in the mine shafts, to read on his breaks, and one day, when he was absent, an explosion in the mine burnt his Bible and strewed its pages every which way. Roberts went searching for its remnants, crawling through the rubble, digging for the torn and scattered pages. He described it this way: "I had to go out and seek the truth on my knees."
 
That's the line that's working me over: I had to go out and seek the truth on my knees.
 
The story that is most often told about the anointing for revival that God placed on Roberts happened on September 29, 1904, at a church gathering in Blaenannerch (not far from where I'm staying). Roberts, in a sudden fit of zeal that stunned those who witnessed it, prayed for God to "bend" him. It was an act of surrender. It was throwing himself utterly on the mercy of God and giving himself wholly to the purposes of God. He was asking to be bent to the divine will, conformed to Christ. It was like Isaiah saying "Here I am, send me." It was like Christ saying, "Not my will, but yours be done."
 
It's was an amazing moment – an epiphany. I don't doubt, as historians claim, it was the turning point, the spark that lit Revival in Wales and then sent it around the world. 
 
But I think this other moment – a young man, prepared to serve the rest of his days in manual labor if that was God's bidding, stooped and clambering in the dark and mess of a collapsed mine to find one more page, and another, and another, of the book he loved – I think this is significant, too. This is the precursor to being bent, to being sent.
 
I have been praying two things here: "Lord, bend me." And, "Lord, may I go out to seek the truth on my knees."
 
I commend these prayers to everyone. But particularly, I believe at least one young man or woman will read this and hear these prayers as God's personal assignment. God's intimate call.
 
All God needs to start the fire is someone hungry enough, desperate enough, broken enough, available enough, to seek the truth on their knees, and to let God bend them.
 
Is it you?

The Lord is My Shepherd

 

 
I'd never paid sheep much mind until I came to Wales. Here, they're impossible to ignore: they bleat outside the window, and stare, curious or indignant, as you walk past, and polka dot most every green hill with puffs of white. When you call to them, they fling their heads up with a jerk and fix you with a look, annoyed or disturbed. They seem variously skittish or aggressive or befuddled. The ewes walk in a slow stately manner, like they're trying to hide their bulging girth with a show of decorum. The rams walk in a kind of defiant stride, like they're trying to compensate for their fear or impress the lady folk. And the babies – of which there are many just now – run and romp and leap, oblivious to it all. Sometimes, a group of sheep – as many as 20 – will gather in a knot on some knoll of a hill or bend of a river, looking like they're hatching a conspiracy to take over the farm, but mostly they just mill about aimlessly, eating and eating, pooping and pooping.
 
I'm a bit insulted. This is what Jesus compared us to. 
 
We're sheep. 
 
I don't think he was trying to flatter us. He was just telling the truth. At first, it hardly seems a truth to set us free. 
 
If I were to pick an animal to represent me, sheep is the last one I'd pick. I'd sooner be a newt. But given my druthers, I'd take lion, or bull, or war horse, or even komodo dragon. I'd even take gibbon or gazelle, something lithe and agile, master of forest or grassland. There's something in any of those creatures to dignify my sense of self.
 
But sheep?
 
They need to be herded, guarded, tended. They can barely think for themselves. They are fearful and, it seems me, testy. They appear to want the nearness of other sheep, but not their closeness: the comfort of the crowd without the burden of a neighbour. They want to do their own thing, just like everyone else. They conform but never unite. They never seem full. They're easily spooked, easily distracted, easily disrupted. They appear to love comfort, and when it's taken, to complain loudly.
 
I'm probably missing a lot here – I'm sure some Welsh sheep farmer, before my sojourn ends, will pull me aside and set me straight – but I think I've captured the general idea.
 
Which was what Jesus was saying. As much as I want to think more highly of myself – to portray myself to others and to myself as some noble, nimble, powerful, daring thing, to be admired and feared, the unadorned reality is I'm a sheep.
 
As are you.
 
We need God, simply put. We are not nearly as smart or independent or amiable as we think. We are not as unique, or brave, or venturesome as we want others to think. We are, instead, sheep: needy, stubborn, complacent, complaining, ravenous, easily upset, wandering about with our heads down, paying little attention to where our appetites are leading us. Not knowing our way home.
 
We need God, simply put. Thank God that Jesus did away with flattery and told us the hard truth. And thank God that, telling us that truth, he told us one thing more: he is not too proud to be called our shepherd. 
 
Is he trying to lead you someplace that you're resisting to go, thinking you know best? Will you accept truth – you're a sheep – and believe the greater truth, he's a good shepherd? 
 

Sojourn in Wales

View from our Bedroom.

 

We arrived Wednesday night, exhausted and disoriented, at our temporary home in Wales, and awoke Thursday morning to a panorama of jaw-dropping beauty: a paradise of woods and streams and patchwork fields rolling down deep folds of hills. In the pasture above us a half-dozen horses, muddy and shaggy in their winter coats, nicker and clomp, and all around us sheep, waddling fat in their winter wool, bleat and graze. The house looks down upon a valley, vibrantly green and cut by the silvery currents of the Teifi river, and across to the tidy tiny village of Pentre-Cwrt. It's as if we've been transported into a rustic shire somewhere in Middle-Earth, and any moment Gandalf will rap on the door with urgent and secret business.

            But I think few visitors, wizard or otherwise, venture this far. It is so rural that the house doesn't have a street address – it's simply called Murmur Teifi, named thus because one can hear from this flank of the hill, if the wind is right and the water's running high, a thin whisper of the river's voice.

            It's here we'll stay for the next 4 months. The plan is for Cheryl to complete 2 of her courses toward a masters degree in Spiritual Formation, Nicola to finish her grade 11 course work online, and me to write a novel. And we will explore, and read, and ponder, and pray, and walk, and talk. We will make new friends, and visit a few old ones. We will play more board games then we have in the past decade. I will cook more meals, and wash more dishes, than I have in my lifetime. And we will become still, and quiet, and attentive.

            It's a sojourn. I've always liked that word, though I think this is the first time I've ever written it. It's a good biblical word, at least in the language of the King James: that version is thick with sojourns and sojourners. Sojourn means, literally, to rest a day (just as journey means to travel a day), but more colloquially it means to stay a while. 4 months qualifies for a while.

            I've travelled a lot, but never really sojourned, never really stayed a while – at most, I think, I've hunkered down 2 weeks in a single place. I've never abided elsewhere long enough for the place to feel like home, to become part of me. A sojourn is different: it's time enough to match your internal rhythms to the world you inhabit, time enough to learn some of the quirks of that world's language and gesture and ways (though Welsh is a mouthful, thick as a barley loaf, with long snarls of impossible combinations of consonants sprinkled with the occasional vowel, and I'll be lucky to pick up more than the odd word).

A sojourn is time enough to change.

            I guess that's what I'm hoping. I'm hoping to change. I want to be more thoughtful and less reactionary, more prayerful and less judging. I want to see further and deeper, and be more filled with wonder and thankfulness. I want to be quicker to listen and slower to speak. I want to laugh more, and play more, and take much longer to become angry or anxious. I want to take more risks, but be less reckless. I want to soak in word and Spirit, and the company of others.

            It's a bit embarrassing that I need 4 months and a refuge in the Welsh hillsides to accomplish this, and perhaps I don't. But it's what I've been given – a fact I'm deeply grateful for – and so be it.

            Sojourns are rare these days. I embrace this one with joy and thanks, and resolve to make the most of it.

            Keep posted.

 

Shalom

 

Mark