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George MacDonald, from the HogsHead.orgThis past year, I’ve been using C.S. Lewis’ anthology of selections from the writings of George MacDonald as my morning devotion. Mom gave me a copy of this book years ago, and this is probably the third time I’ve read through it. Here is a link that tells about MacDonald and his influence on Lewis.

Yesterday it happened that I read selection 305:

Difficulties

It often seems to those in earnest about the right as if all things conspired to prevent their progress.

This, of course, is but an appearance, arising in part from this, that the pilgrim must be headed back from the side-paths into which he is constantly wandering.

There is a core thing I am learning (the hard way) about living on God’s path:

Pay attention, both outwardly and inwardly,
acknowledge when, in either realm,
I observe something which seems not as it ought to be,
and then center down
and wait for clearness
about what is the next thing to do.
Not the whole solution,
just the next thing.

It is a scary approach to life. It feels as if it runs counter to our biologically hard-wired instincts of self-protection.

In fact, though, it is a way to freedom.

What human consciousness adds to our inbred animal wisdom is the ability to imagine and plan—yet it also adds, on the dark side, the ability to worry and despair.

Animals just do the next thing. God has created them to do the best next thing instinctively.

God has created us the same way as well. Our added gift of consciousness enables us to avoid anticipated dangers and to redirect our paths toward promise. Yet consciousness also distracts us from what God would show us, were we attending.

Human animals are no different than other animals in one sense: we can only put one foot on the path at a time.

My sense is that MacDonald is writing about how, very frequently, we get distracted onto these side-paths and need to stop, center down, remember that God is present with us, and wait until we once again see the light we were following and take another step in that direction.

The New Testament Greek word which is usually translated as “sin” is ἁμαρτία (hamartía). Is is more accurately translated as “missing the mark,” as one does in archery when one’s aim is distracted.

Ever since I learned this in early 1970s, I have made that substitution in my own thinking. Rather than obsess over “sin” as a moral failure, I challenge myself to note as soon as possible—sometimes just with chagrin, and sometimes with shame, repentance and amends-making—whenever I have “missed the mark,” either through inattention and distraction, or through willfully looking toward the wrong target.

Timucuan path, by Mike Shell
Difficulties call my attention to my missing of the mark.

They don’t necessarily show me how to aim correctly. Resuming MacDonald’s metaphor, they don’t necessarily show me the easiest way back to the path.

Yet if it becomes my habit to stop, center down, remember that God is present, and wait, it usually happens that I notice God’s light shining on the next step.

And so it is.

Blessèd Be,
Michael

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Coyotes
by Mark Jarman

Is this world truly fallen? They say no.
For there’s the new moon, there’s the Milky Way,
There’s the rattler with a wren’s egg in its mouth,
And there’s the panting rabbit they will eat.
They sing their wild hymn on the dark slope,
Reading the stars like notes of hilarious music.
Is this a fallen world? How could it be?

And yet we’re crying over the stars again,
And over the uncertainty of death,
Which we suspect will divide us all forever.
I’m tired of those who broadcast their certainties,
Constantly on their cell phones to their redeemer.
Is this a fallen world? For them it is.
But there’s that starlit burst of animal laughter.

Coyote, by Cal Poly Land

The day has sent its fires scattering.
The night has risen from its burning bed.
Our tears are proof that love is meant for life
And for the living. And this chorus of praise,
Which the pet dogs of the neighborhood are answering
Nostalgically, invites our answer, too.
Is this a fallen world? How could it be?


Originally published in The Atlantic, May, 2003

Jim and I sat with Mom for the last couple hours of her life last night.

Before sunrise on Wednesday, I had awoken from a powerful dream, in which the vibrant, out-going Mom whom I haven’t seen in several years was holding everyone’s attention at a party with her three brother and other family and friends.

Later that morning, when I visited her at St. Catherine Labouré Manor, I found her in her recliner in the sunny hallway outside her room, her head pillowed against the hand rail since she could no longer sit up straight. As often happened, when she awoke and saw me, she lit up.

I told her briefly about the dream, and she smiled and nodded. We sat for a while. Once I saw that she was drifting off to sleep again, I said, “I love you.” She mouthed the words back to me.

Last night, the nurse phoned us to say that Mom had labored breathing and very low blood oxygen. We sat with her as her breaths became slower and shallower, until she stopped breathing around 10:17 PM.

We are grateful for the time and love she has given so many of us.

Mom, August 2010

1924 – 2011

And so it is.

Blessèd Be,
Michael

He shall feed his flock

It’s been a bittersweet year for us here in Jacksonville.

In April, my mother could still walk with a walker, feed herself and converse with relative normality. Due to Alzheimer’s, she has declined in rapid stages since then.

She no longer remembers how to walk or do self-care, and she rarely speaks—perhaps a few words, if she just speaks before trying to think out what she wants to say. She sleeps much of the time.

In August, my brother came from Massachusetts. We took Mom to the Cummer Museum, where she enjoys the gardens and the massive live oak, and we cooked dinner for her at our house.

One rainy afternoon, watching the St. John’s River, she said to my brother and me: “Someday we’ll all remember sitting together on this day.”

My sister and her husband came from Pensacola in November. Mom was speaking much less, yet we had several sweet visits.

My sister told Mom that hearing the hymn “Beautiful Savior” was the first thing she remembers from childhood. She sang all the verses, and Mom watched her intently.

Jim’s sister stayed with us for Thanksgiving. We brought Mom to the house so she could watch Chef Jim in the kitchen. I fed Mom, and, though she wasn’t speaking, she was clearly enjoying the dinner.

Jim’s sister said how much she had wanted to visit. Mom looked her in the eye and said, “Thank you.”

The sweet side of the bittersweet, then, is that Mom still recognizes us. When we speak to her and hold her hand, she gives us very clear eye contact and smiles.

We have never believed that mortality is a punishment—painful as it is. In some ways, the heart of the salvation God brings to us is this news:

I am taking on your mortality so that you will know it is not a punishment. I love you and will carry the burden along with you.”

Mom at Cummer Museum, by M.C. Shell

And so it is.

Blessèd Be.

Bearded Iris

For my mother, recovered from hospital yet confused and afraid as Alzheimer’s steals her memory.

For my partner, since she is his mother, too.

For my brother and sister and their families.

For my father, whose last, eldest sibling has died.

For my friend whose mother has just died.

For my friend whose father is failing.

For my friend whose husband has a recurrence of cancer.

For my friend and her husband, both wrestling with chronic health issues.

For so many others.

I have no words.

Stephen Jay Gould

Our mind works largely by metaphor and comparison, not always (or even often) by relentless logic. When we are caught in conceptual traps, the best exit is often a change in metaphor—not because the new guideline will be truer to nature...but because we need a shift to more fruitful perspectives, and metaphor is often the best agent for conceptual transition. (264)

Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History

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