Thoroughly Alive

We must hunger after the beautiful and the good...



I think I've eaten more Thanksgiving dinners in England than I usually do at home. I'm certainly not complaining. Having reached Saturday morning after a week crammed with cooking and as much study as I could muster in between, I find myself slowing, just for a few moments, to speak out and savor the many gifts that kindle my heart to a true, and hearty thanks. I have great cause for praise this year. And wonder.

Two days ago, Thanksgiving morning, when I sat at my desk for a brief devotional before the making of creamed spinach, I glanced at my journal from this time last year. I found an entry written in a jet-lagged hour in the wee sma's on the day before Thanksgiving, just after my return from the Lewis dedication in Poet's Corner in England.

I instantly recognized angst in my handwriting; the swift, scrawled tilt of my words as I struggled over hope for my future. I remember that morning clearly, the way I rose in the darkness and planned to be thoroughly depressed. I remember how, with a clarity I have rarely experienced, I felt a challenge from the Holy Spirit to trust, and to enact my trust in action and attitude. I remember the Psalm I read, Psalm 37, one that has walked with me so many years I almost tire of its tireless refrain: dwell in the land, cultivate faithfulness, do good, do not fret... 

In one swift immersion in memory, I recalled the rest of that morning, the way that each line had come to me with a specific directive: trust in the Lord (or to be precise, do not have a nervous breakdown today nor bewail your fate), dwell in the land (stay put and don't panic about your future), do good (good work, which at that time, meant writing and local ministry), delight yourself in the Lord (use this transient time to learn prayer), and he will give you the desires of your heart.

I stopped at that one. Because my desires in that early morning were so specific. Having just been in England, surrounded by the kinds of thinkers and writers I longed to become, having had the words of Lewis and the high beauty of Westminster as feast for my heart, I knew exactly what I wanted. I wanted to return to England. I wanted to form a life there in which thought, writing, story, and word became my rhythms of work, creativity, and generosity. England is a place I have always flourished, and I wanted the chance to live amidst the beauty I knew there. I wanted to claim as my own the cadence of church, the fellowship of like minds reaching toward God through reason and imagination in countless fields of study, the wonder of international friendship, and even the city life of walking and local community.

Dared I write that in my Bible? Because at that moment, I saw no prospect for real return. As a visitor, certainly. Even a visiting scholar on a tourist's visa. But not in any long-term capacity. Life circumstances, finances, obligations, limitations, all were against me. And to write that desire in my Bible, to put it as the hope I trusted to God, seemed almost to ask for disappointment, to set God up to fail, and myself to doubt. And yet. How could I live all the things God asked of me if I didn't trust "that he is the rewarder of those who seek him."

I wrote it down. You can see it in a faint, pen-scratched note. "November 2013, England." And then I put it from me. Even, I think, consciously forgot it, living forward so that I would not fear. I mustered courage. I wrote, worked, trusted. I planned for the future, and for much of the year, never thought I would get to be in England. A great deal of struggle was with me this year. Crisis over identity and self. Fear over my future. Many months in which I couldn't see the way ahead. For much of this year, I had no idea where I'd be come the end of 2014.

And then, in a series of events nearly miraculous, I found this course at Wycliffe. I threw in an application three months late. They interviewed me despite the fact that there was no place. I was told multiple times that it was highly unlikely I would be accepted. And then? The acceptance came through. A place opened up. A room was found. Old connections found me, new opportunities opened, provision was made. And one year on from that Thanksgiving morn of angsty prayer, I, my friends, am living in England.

If you ever wonder if God answers prayer, even the prayers you feel you ought not to ask, the lavish ones you can't imagine he'd consider, let me assure you from my desk in Oxford, with Saturday sunlight streaming over my hands, that he does. He sees the inmost desires, the dreams, the hopes. Sometimes we wait many years for answers to those desires, and let me tell you, my past decade has certainly been a long course in the fine art of learning to wait. But it has culminated in my life here in England; in a course of study that richly renews my faith, a life in this city I love, rhythms of worship and learning that will shape the rest of my life.

Trust in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart. 

Truly, he does.

Yesterday, I sat with a gathering of Wycliffe friends from various programs and nations. We had all pitched in to cook a Thanksgiving feast, and ah, it was a wonder. From eight in the morning, till three in the afternoon, we ran between the three kitchens in their various buildings and the lecture room in the main hall, basting turkeys, mashing potatoes, trying to figure out which oven would actually cook the apple pies, and stringing lights from the old, oak rafters and over the stone fireplace.

Finally, exhausted, I dropped into my seat at the long table, with its make-do decorations of juice glasses crammed with chrysanthemums ranged between a merry jumble of candles fat and thin (stolen from every available corner in the house), and I marveled at the splendor of the low lit room. I savored the beauty of it, the table groaning behind us with three (yes, three!) turkeys, the music wafting to the high old ceilings, and all of us decked in our finest, a last minute flush on our faces. I marveled at the friends, savored the laughter. I marveled at the happiness tangible in that place.

And I marveled at God. Our host stood and announced that he had asked representatives from each nation present to say a prayer in their native language. A hush came over us then, a kind of charged quiet electrified with our joy in each other and in the God who bound us together in celebration as we heard God thanked in Latin, Russian, Spanish, Afrikaans, an Indian dialect, and to close, Swedish. Amidst the last words of a prayer spoken in a tangible joy (however little I could understand), I managed to recognize the words before the amen:

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.

"You ended with the Gloria Patri," I enthused as my Swedish friend sat down.

"Why, yes I did. You caught that?"

I did. Ah, with every fibre of my being and atom of my soul, I did, for its what I want to sing. Glory and thanks forever.



Sarah Clarkson14 Comments