Thoroughly Alive

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



flourish ::ˈflʌrɪʃ/  :: verb
(of a living organism) grow or develop in a healthy or vigorous way, especially as the result of a particularly congenial environment.

Two years ago, the day before I left for my new adventure in Oxford, my dear friend Lancia gave me a parting gift. It was a bracelet made up of letters that formed the word 'flourish'. The gift of that word was a benediction as I forayed into the wild territories of life overseas, of study, of finding myself after several years of holy floundering. But it was also a word to gird me, like Aslan's whisper in Lucy's ear when she was close to despair, 'courage, dear heart'. I looked at that bracelet and knew I must be bold enough to hope, to walk forward after some very hard years in the expectation, not of more failure, but of unexpected grace.

13407055_10154360496302203_1852960022226741555_nI could not have known how richly that word would come to fruition in my life. Engagement to a man whose friendship, wisdom, and tenderness is beyond what I could have known to hope. Community, rootedness, in a church and spiritual fellowship I have hungered to find for countless years. Friendships. New growth in my writing. Marriage just ahead, with ministry and three more years in England. And yes, oh yes oh yes, an English cottage with a garden for my first home. It has roses, my friends, roses out my kitchen window!

I have entered a time like that described in the Song of Solomon; 'a season of singing has come'. This is a time for joy, a season for glad-eyed, childlike exultation in the sheer grace of many good gifts. I ramble round Oxford in these blustery summer days and I am full of wonder. I smile to myself on street corners. I daydream as I tromp to the store for groceries and pound the cobbles back (with maybe a stop at the flower stall in the market as I dream about my kitchen-table-to-come). My mouth and fingers pulse with a gratefulness that must be given word and tongue - for here, in the hand of my beloved, in the ramble round my new home, in the church where I'm planning my wedding, I can 'taste and see', literally, that the Lord is good. 

But joy is such a fragile thing. This morning I woke to the laments and startlements of many friends here in England. I heard grievous news from one friend. I learned of the secret sorrow of another. I passed a homeless man on the street that I've known for two years and saw the exhaustion in his eyes as things get worse again. And I was keenly aware that what many feel today is a withering of hope. I sat with them in thought and looked back at the sorrows of my own past years, looked down the line at the unknown future, and I knew that even my own joy was, in this world, inescapably twinned with sorrow. I found, abruptly, that happiness can make one profoundly afraid. A gift like that, you know, can be frightening to accept. It might break, or age, or get stolen.

But I read Psalm 1 this morning. Even as I sat on the couch with the half formed cloud of fear at the back of my eyes, wondering what hard things might come, fearing to lose my joy, I found these verses describing the one who 'delights in the Lord' and they burned in my mind:

he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water that bringeth forth his fruit in his season his leaf also shall not wither...

My life is in season right now, but it's been out of season before. I've walked the season of weeping as well as of song.  I've known the absence of what felt like any good thing - relationship, friendship, success (I won't tell you how many universities, publishers, and employers turned me down before my feet worked themselves onto the Oxford road). I've known months when it seemed honestly beyond my capability to believe that God would ever grant 'the desire of my heart' (Psalm 37).

But my life has never withered. The truth of Psalm 1 is the secret strength of all my years. Throughout loneliness and struggle, years of feeling lost, sickness, confusion, months of grief and the slow loss of many things, I have yet been a 'tree planted by rivers of water', sucking up the deep streams of God's goodness so that a sap of hope poured through my inmost self even in the hardest days. Scripture, the call of a friend, the dance of the wind in the pines, a strain of music, a word in a book, a prayer in church, a joy that has no reason but its own radiant presence... with David I can say that 'I have seen the goodness of the Lord in a besieged city'.

The truth of Psalm 1 is that in God's love, I flourish. At all times. There is a joy whose root reaches deeper than circumstance, and in its grace, I am nourished, not just now in the joyous blossom of love and ease, but even when my branches are stripped with loneliness, when they feel bare and brittle with struggle. The flowering of this exuberant time isn't the fickle gift of a whimsical God. The grace has always been there. For however wintry the weather of life, the sap at core of my rooted being does not cease and that sap is the love of the God in whom all good things have their origin, in whose given life all good things are coming again.

I write this in part because I know that one person's joy is another's secret sorrow. If someone had told me two years ago that all the wild joy of my life right now would be piled in my astonished hands, I might have... well. Let's be honest. I would have smiled, assuming they wanted to encourage me, to help me be peppy and godly and I would have halfway assented while doubting that such goodness would ever come.

But it does, my friend. Whether you can see the lavish blossoms of grace, or whether they lie in the green, quickened hope of a life rooted in trust of God, joy does come. Goodness grows, sometimes achingly, in the dark places of the soul, a slow-rising sap, sometimes in a summer flourish of exquisite joy. But God's love is a river that flows beneath the surface of the everyday and in its ceaseless torrent, we flourish. His life ever accessible, his grace at our command. I get to see it tangibly in this season of my life, as you will to, I know, my friends. But its always there, the 'inward and invisible' grace of love.

When Lancia gave me that bracelet and spoke the word 'flourish' into my future, it was a word given in hope that I would fully taste God's delightfulness. But what I see now is its equal invitation to stand, blessed, in the present. To flourish because my life is rooted in Love. And I am ever green.