Alleluia Verse

What follows is a guest post from Claire Nieman, a good friend of mine from Seattle Pacific and church. In it she reflects on birth, death, and Advent. Thanks to her for the beautiful piece and thanks to you for reading. -sdje

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This: were we led all that way for

Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly

We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,

But had thought they were different

(from Journey of the Magi, T. S. Eliot)

 

I was at work on the postpartum unit when the Marysville shooting happened. It was all anyone could talk about at the nurses’ station. I feebly tried to change the subject a couple times, but the topic persisted. And how could it not? We talk about terrible things to attempt to fit them into the framework of what we know.

 

For unto us a child is born; unto us a son is given

 

That afternoon, one of my teenage patients wanted to go to the cafeteria and I had some extra time, so I brought her baby into the nursery. As the endless talk of violence continued, I picked up the baby and held him while I sat in a rocking chair. “What are we doing here, my tiny friend?” I asked him. “How are we going to live?” Newborns have no ready answer for much of anything.

“He has set eternity in the human heart,” says Ecclesiastes, “yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” Some of my baby patients withdraw so violently from the drugs their mothers have taken that they need morphine to relax at all. They are born wounded and yet they, too, hold eternity in their trembling hearts.

 

And his name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God

 

On Sunday, the First Sunday of Advent, I will be the cantor at my church. One of the liturgical anthems the cantor leads is the Alleluia, sung before the Gospel reading. The Alleluia we sing during Advent is different from the one used in Ordinary Time. It is in a minor key, a strangely solemn take on a song of praise. In the middle of a season of spectacular vestments and tidings of comfort and joy is a paradoxical song of lament. Advent marks the beginning of a new church year, and even within the rhetoric of hope we are called to remember why we are waiting at all.

This year I know lament. I sing my minor-key Alleluia in a world where mercy seems to be in short supply, a world where we hold active-shooter drills in hospitals. I sing Alleluia for innocent human beings murdered by people who take an oath to “protect and serve,” who make me bow my head at the audacity of Isaiah’s promise that of the greatness of his government and peace there shall be no end. I sing Alleluia for the person who collapsed and died on the floor of my hospital lobby last week. I sing Alleluia for the children in my hospital’s NICU born so fragile they can only be touched every six hours. I sing the Alleluia for the boys of 5th West Ashton, who brought their mattresses out to the elevator so they would be there if Paul Lee returned to his room on that Thursday night. I sing Alleluia for Jim Mitre, a pediatric psych nurse who dedicated his life to showing kids that maybe something out there is worth waiting for. I sing Alleluia to remind myself of the eternity set in my own heart, what Miroslav Volf calls “our solace and our agony.”

But in the same anthem I also sing of the promises of John 1, the life that was the light for all people. It echoes what we will sing in April, when the world slowly shifts from gray to green. Alleluia, Christ is risen, death has been swallowed up in victory. I can hardly wait.

 

Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

ebb and flow

A year ago around this time I wrote a little summary of my life so far.  I posted it on my tumblr account, which I have since deleted.  I’d like to write about my previous year at Seattle Pacific and my hopes for next year.  This is a little exposition.


He woke up for the first time, covered in goop, and opened his eyes to bravely examine his surroundings.  “This will certainly do.”  He gave his thanks to the white-clad women and men surrounding him, took the hands of the people who brought him and walked out of the building with them to breath the cool air and climb into the yellow automobile awaiting the newcomer.

“It really is great of you to take me in like this,” he told the people in the front seat.  The woman looked back, gave the kind of smile where her eyes didn’t, and proclaimed, “He’s trying to talk!”

“Trying?” the little person hazarded his first question.  In response the woman just laughed and grabbed his left foot between her forefinger and thumb and shook it gently.  “Your sister will love you!” she said after a minute of this.

“This is going to be a long childhood,” the baby groaned inwardly.  He began to cry.

But it wasn’t a long childhood at all.  Before he could grasp the concept of a year, several had passed.  He could not only walk, but bounce and run and hop.  His parents, sister, and most other people could now understand his speech.  Music would float into his room on many days, and it was through music that he learned how to use his ears.  He listened, and — when ready — grabbed a few notes and tried them on.  They fit awkwardly, like the clothes his sister shoved him into sometimes and giggled so much at.

When he began to feel like he had a grasp on how to go about doing things, his world widened.  His parents, who he had trusted up to this point, brought him to an unfamiliar woman in an unfamiliar building and left him there.  He felt betrayed.

“This is going to be a terrible way to spend my time,” the toddler thought bitterly.  He began to cry.

But he realized this new place wasn’t as terrible as he thought it would be.  The others, for there were other small people who found themselves in the same place, they all seemed to be generally decent playmates.  He played and laughed with them for years, but also listened whenever the tall woman felt like saying something.  He counted, he read, he wrote.  But in the end he always went home to be with his parents and sister, who he discovered had already learned whatever he had.  Sometimes his sister poked fun at him, but she also helped him understand whatever happened.  He learned how to clumsily make music with an instrument instead of his voice.  His favorite thing was when his dad patiently played along.

When he began to feel at peace with these new rhythms, the song changed.  His house rejected his family, and he had to cut off the friendships he spent years building and prepare to find new ones.  His parents told him they were going on a grand adventure to a land surrounded by water, but he didn’t really care for this plan.  The choice wasn’t his.  So he packed everything up like the rest of them and got into the red van, which was awaiting the long voyage.

“Life is going to end,” the kid thought with the melodramatic certainty that can come easily to a small person facing a large change.  He began to cry, but felt stupid for it.

Of course, life continued after the three-day journey.  Their home had followed them in the move, even if it did take them some time to unpack it.  There was a new building here where he went to learn new things and build new friendships.  The music also followed them, so he used it to plug into new places.  He realized that his parents had known all along that he would like it there.  He shifted around and became comfortable and happy.

Time kindly slowed down so he could take his time living in it.  He matured a bit in this new home and began to grapple with faith.  He loved the church they attended and spent a good deal of time there.  It welcomed them as if they were family.

The years began to feel cyclical.   Music, laughter, family, church, sadness, love, school, all of them swirled him around in an intricate dance.   He learned from the rhythms of time and attempted to prepare himself for the next inevitable change.  He packed his bags calmly to let himself know that he could.  He said ‘goodbye’ to the big building and the teachers in it.  ‘Goodbye’ to his church.  ‘Goodbye’ to his friends.  ‘Goodbye’ to his home.

He woke up.  The day had come.  The only thing he was scared of was his own sense of readiness.  He hugged and thanked his parents, sent a kiss to his sister who had moved out before him, let a tear fall, and bravely boarded the grey plane that was awaiting him.

“This is going to be—“ the young man began.  But he thought better of it and decided to let time speak for itself.

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