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.

these dated words

I finished reading For the Time Being by Annie Dillard. In the “Author’s Note” preceding the text Dillard lists some questions that the book contemplates. “Does God cause natural calamity? What might be the relationship of the Absolute to a lost schoolgirl in a plaid skirt? Given things as they are, how shall one individual live?” The prose is split under recurring headings: birth, sand, China, clouds, numbers, Israel, encounters, thinker, evil, and now. Each heading carries different narratives that are picked up, dropped off, and later revisited. Further into the book the narratives blur, tiptoeing into each other’s headings.

While all of the themes and characters Dillard writes about are captivating and well worth further study—birth defects, the paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin, quantifying human mortality, interactions with strangers, Baal Shem Tov, etc.—something that stayed with me from its first occurrence in the first chapter was Dillard’s writing on clouds, found on page 20. The “clouds” section of each chapter is typically the shortest. In each section Dillard unearths someone’s observations of clouds, noting that interest in the big white fluffy things in the sky is fairly universal. She draws on the writings and drawings of clouds by John Constable, “one oblique bluish cloud riding high and messy over a wan sun;” John Muir, “‘a solitary white mountain… enriched with sunshine and shade;'” Gerard Manley Hopkins, “‘One great stack in particular over Pendle was knoppled all over in fine snowy tufts and pencilled with bloom-shadow;'” Jorge Borges’ character Ireneo Funes, who “could compare the clouds’ shapes to a pattern in marbled endpapers;” Athenian men and women in January of 1942, when the United States entered Athens, “‘an undercloud, floating like a detached lining;'” biologist Archie Carr, “‘little round wind clouds’ … and ‘towering pearly land clouds;'” the Baltimore News-American, “‘a cloud of sand blown thousands of miles westward from the Sahara;'” and painter Jacqueline Gourevitch, who “drew in graphite seven clouds above Middleton, Connecticut. The largest cloud tumbled out of rank.” We like to look at clouds. Sometimes we like to paint them, find animals in them, or write about them. But why? Continue reading

notes from Frontier 846 SEA-DEN

These are a few thought-remnants from the first leg of my flight to Michigan last week.

a.

You never see car commercials with the car driving luxuriously through the suburbs. Mountain passes are great, as are roads curving through hills, the occasional Gotham-esque city street, and long stretches of straight-and-narrow country roads, but never the suburbs with their cul-de-sacs, kachunk kechunk kachank kachink architecture, and general aura of futility. They could use a sports car or two tearing up their asphalt.

b.

I’ve been in Seattle long enough to feel ignorant and slightly inferior in a nice café but also like I’m really stooping if I go to a Starbucks. A good way to distract myself from these sister emotions is by checking in on Foursquare—and for the check-in picture, instead of taking an aerial picture of my drink’s latte art with a fancy filter, I take an up-close, unfocused “still life” of absolutely anything. This can include the table supporting my beverage, the socket that my laptop’s charger will soon be filling, or the side of the mug. We might as well let the content follow the ridiculous form.

c.

Death walked onto the plane carrying a long tube, the kind architects use to carry blueprints. He was an old white man wearing a white polo tucked into his jeans. His eyes were once blue, but they had long since fogged over. His pupils occasionally peeked out from behind the grey swirls contained by his eyelids.

holy roller

The 1997 Toyota Corolla has never failed me. I believe in that car like I believe in breakfast. It has been faithful to me, enabling me to flee, find, and roam since my junior year of high school. It often pops up in my personal essays and short stories as an instrument of freedom. I wouldn’t say driving it is a sacrament, but through it I do experience a kind of grace that says you did not design me, build me, buy me nor pay for the gas that is inside of me, but I will go because you say “go” and I will stop because you say “stop” and I will heat you when you are cold and cool you when you are hot, bring you news when you are detached from the world and sing to you when you are sad. The word “love” means many things in the English language. I think it would accurately describe the appreciation I have for the Corolla.

The neighbors across the street love their cars, too. When my family moved to Michigan, we were quite impressed by the intimacy our neighbors share with their automobiles. They know everything about their cars’ inner workings and how to fix them when they fail. I, on the other hand, know nothing about what goes on inside the Corolla. I know how to put gas in it, which is more than I can say for most of my friends from Oregon, and I know how to pop open the hood—what the British call the “brassiere,” according to one of my middle school teachers. (I had to google “brassiere” in order to spell it properly. Lord have mercy.) Once the brassiere has been popped open, I know how to stare at its contents while looking completely lost and confused. I’m an English major.

It was this car that I drove to my orthodontist appointment yesterday. The lovely ortho people sent me a postcard last summer telling me that I really should come in just to make sure that my mouth hadn’t imploded or something since my last checkup. I didn’t go. But a month and a half ago, while in Seattle, one of my permanent retainers popped off. I figured I should have it looked at.
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