I hope you have a happy Christmas, or a merry Christmas if you say it that way, and a happy New Year. I hope your celebrations this month are trouble-free and full of joy, and I hope 2023 is better for you than 2022. Of course there’s probably nothing I can do to actually make that happen for most of you, but I hope it for you anyway. We don’t know what’s around the next corner, so we might as well be optimistic about it.
I’ve always been an optimist. I’ve got so much optimism I can be an optimist for you as well, if you want me to. I can believe all the best things about your future and mine. It comes naturally for me, so it’s no trouble. The only trouble with the whole thing is the trouble that keeps popping up and spoiling my optimistic outlooks. Sometimes everything doesn’t work out. Sometimes it’s not ok. Sometimes it’s not grand, it’s not good, and it’s not even fine. As much as I hate to admit it, sometimes my optimism is just plain wrong. So I still hope you have a happy Christmas, but I’m also painfully aware that my positive thoughts won’t be able to make that happen for you.
There’s a small square of earth behind our house that belongs to us. Which is strange, because it was here a long time before we were and will be here a long time after we’re gone. But there’s a deed in an office somewhere that has our names on it, so the ground is ours. And with that ground comes the responsibility to care for it—a responsibility that didn’t come from an office, but from Heaven.
We do our best. And when I say “we”, I really mean my wife, Jessica. She’s the one who does most of the caring and tending and planting. I made the raised beds around the edges of the garden, but she’s the one that filled them with roses and blueberries, mint and strawberries, pineapple sage and climbing jasmine and passion flowers. This year, she brought home packets of seeds for dahlias, zinnias, and cornflowers as well, because she wants to have flowers to cut for our dinner table throughout the spring, summer, and autumn. She sowed the seeds in trays of compost and found the perfect spot inside our glass door where our seedlings could have ideal conditions: plenty of sun (by Irish standards), warmth inside the house, protection from cold and storms and slugs, and regular watering. We babied our little baby plants, and we were delighted to see them grow, and grow fast. In fact they grew so fast that their stems became long and thin and too weak to hold up their own new leaves. One by one me they began to fall over. What went wrong? How could our seedlings be so weak when we protected them from every difficulty and obstacle? What more could we do for them?
We’ve been working our way through Romans in our local Bible study group, and last week we talked about the part in chapter 8 where Paul writes this:
“We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.”
As I’ve read the news this week, I have thought about these verses often. I feel it in my own heart: I am groaning inwardly. The whole world is groaning in pain. But the beauty of this passage is not in its realism, although the realism is important. We dare not downplay the pain. It is too real, too horrible, too heavy. In a global moment like this, we simply cannot ignore the brokenness of our world, or pretend that everything is fine. It’s not fine. At all. And yet, we see in these verses that although reality includes pain and groaning right now, reality is more than those things—there is a hope that is just as real—even more so. That’s what I tried to capture in this poem:
Today marks the second St. Patrick’s Day in a row without celebrations in Ireland, St. Patrick’s country, which is perhaps more appropriate than it sounds. Patrick would understand the experience of having plans upended. The only reason we think of Ireland as his homeland today is because his life did not go to plan. At all. Growing up in Wales (probably), he never thought that his future would be in Ireland, and he didn’t much care for God, either. Then, disaster struck. He tells us in his autobiography: “I was taken prisoner. I was about sixteen at the time. At that time, I did not know the true God. I was taken into captivity in Ireland, along with thousands of others.”
From a prison cell in Rome, the Apostle Paul wrote a letter to the believers in the city of Colossae, and shared with them a prayer that, at first glance, seems underwhelming. After praying that they would know God more and live lives worthy of him, he goes on to ask that they would be “…strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience.”
Strength. I need it. I can get behind a request for power and glorious might. Yes! Give me that! And with the glorious power of God himself give me…
Great endurance and patience.
Is that all, Paul? Couldn’t we pray for a stunning victory over all obstacles and opposition, all trials and troubles? Isn’t God’s glorious might enough to ask for more than just patience?
Evidently I don’t have a strong stomach, because the last time I went fishing at sea I got sick. I know fishing trips are famous for being exaggerated, but I’ll be honest with you: there was no storm. It was a normal day, with normal waves, and we didn’t even go far out to sea. Still, as the boat continually shifted, my insides rebelled against me in slow motion. It was getting harder and harder to focus on my fishing line or the conversation going on around me. I felt bad. All I wanted was for the floor to stop moving—was that so much to ask? Thankfully, I was with an experienced fisherman who gave me helpful advice: “Look at the shore,” he said, “it will give you a reference point, and help you be able to roll with the waves.” I could tell he knew what he was talking about, because he had no trouble at all moving confidently around the constantly rocking boat.
A few weeks ago, I posted a poem about an oak tree. In the poem, and in my mind, oak trees are big, spreading trees with thick trunks and impressive reach. They are a picture of solid stability, untouched by passing storms. Which sounds nice, doesn’t it? With Ireland now entering another full lockdown for at least the next six weeks, the ability of oak trees to stand unshaken in a turbulent world is enviable. Right now things look awfully unsteady, from where I’m sitting.
Some things are worth saying over and over again. I’m sure that’s been said before, but it’s worth repeating. At our house, we said “sit down” and “eat your food” so often that my wife started saying those phrases in Irish, just to break the monotony. Still, we knew that saying it over and over again was the only way to get to the point of not having to say it over and over again.
But there are some things we’ll never get to that point with. There are some things that will need to be said as long as there are people on Earth. The reason for this is that us humans tend to forget basic truths almost as soon as we remember them. We work and fight and kill each other to right some horrible wrong like genocide, oppression, or slavery, then turn around and create new ways of doing the exact same things, like abortion, police brutality, or human trafficking. Each victory bleeds into a new battle, where we have to say the same old truths all over again, like “all people are valuable” and “all men are created equal”.