Fed By Angels – Excerpt from “God For Us”

Fed By Angels
By Ronald Rolheiser, OMI
Excerpt from God For Us

Celebration is a paradoxical thing. It lives within the tension between anticipation and fulfillment, longing and consummation, the ordinary and the special, work and play.

Seasons of play are sweeter when they follow seasons of work, seasons of consummation are heightened by seasons of longing, and seasons of intimacy grow out of seasons of solitude.

Presence depends upon absence, intimacy upon solitude, play upon work.

In liturgical terms, we fast before we feast.

In our time, we struggle with such paradoxes. Many of our feasts fall flat because there has not been a previous fast. In times past, there was generally a long fast leading up to a feast, and then a joyous celebration afterward.

Today, we have reversed that: there is a long celebration leading up to the feast and a fast afterward.

Take Christmas, for example. The season of Advent, in effect, kicks off the Christmas celebrations. The parties start, the decorations and lights go up, and the Christmas music begins to play. When Christmas finally arrives, we are already saturated and satiated with the delights of the season—we’re ready to move on. By Christmas Day, we are ready to go back to ordinary life. The Christmas season used to last until February. Now, realistically, it is over on December 25.

Celebration survives on contradiction. To feast, we must first fast. To come to real consummation, we must first live in longing. To taste specialness, we must first have a sense of what is ordinary.

When fasting, unfulfilled longing, and the ordinary rhythm of life are short-circuited, fatigue of the spirit, boredom, and disappointment invariably replace celebration and we are left with an empty feeling which asks: “Is that all?” But that is because we have short-circuited a process.

I am old enough to have known another time. Like our own, that time too had its faults, but it also had some strengths. One of its strengths was its belief—a lived belief—that feasting depends upon prior fasting.

I have clear memories of the Lenten seasons of my childhood. How strict that season was then! Fast and renunciation: no weddings, no dances, no parties, drinks and desserts only on Sundays, and generally less of everything that constitutes specialness and celebration. Churches were draped in purple. The colors were dark and the mood was penitential, but the feast that followed, Easter, was indeed special.

Lent. We know it is a season within which we are meant to fast, to intensify our longing, and to raise our spiritual temperatures, all through the crucible of non-fulfillment.

But how do we understand Lent?

Sometimes the etymology of a word can be helpful. Lent is derived from an old English word meaning springtime. In Latin, lente means slowly. Therefore, Lent points to the coming of spring, and it invites us to slow down our lives so as to be able to take stock of ourselves. While that captures some of the traditional meaning of Lent, the popular mindset generally has a different focus, looking at Lent mostly as a season within which we are asked to refrain from certain normal, healthy pleasures so as to better ready ourselves for the feast of Easter.

To further our understanding, perhaps the foremost image for this is the biblical idea of the desert. Jesus, we are told, in order to prepare for his public ministry, went voluntarily into the desert for forty days and forty nights, during which time he took no food, and, as the Gospel of Mark tells us, was put to the test by Satan, was with the wild animals, and was looked after by the angels.

Clearly this text is not to be taken literally to mean that for forty days Jesus took no food, but that he deprived himself of all the normal supports that protected him from feeling, full-force, his vulnerability, dependence, and need to surrender in deeper trust to God the Father. And in doing this, we are told, he found himself hungry and consequently vulnerable to temptations from the devil; but also, by that same token, he was more open to the Father.

Lent has for the most part been understood as a time of us to imitate this, to metaphorically spend forty days in the desert like Jesus, unprotected by normal nourishment so as to have to face “Satan” and the “wild animals” and see whether the “angels” will indeed come and look after us when we reach that point where we can no longer look after ourselves.

For us, Satan and wild animals refer particularly to the chaos inside of us that normally we either deny or simply refuse to face: our paranoia, our anger, our jealousies, our distance from others, our fantasies, our grandiosity, our addictions, our unresolved hurts, our sexual complexity, our incapacity to really pray, our faith doubts, and our dark secrets.

The normal “food” that we eat (distractions, busyness, entertainment, ordinary life) works to shield us from the deeper chaos that lurks beneath the surface of our lives.

Lent invites us to stop eating, so to speak, whatever protects us from having to face the desert that is inside of us. It invites us to feel our smallness, to feel our vulnerability, to feel our fears, and to open ourselves to the chaos of the desert so that we can finally give the angels a chance to feed us.

That is a rich biblical image for Lent, but human experience, anthropology, and our ancient myths offer their own testimony. For example, in every culture, there are ancient stories and myths that teach that all of us, at times, have to sit in the ashes. We all know, for example, the story of Cinderella. The name itself literally means, the little girl (puella) who sits in the ashes (cinders). The moral of the story is clear: before you get to be beautiful, before you get to marry the prince or princess, before you get to go to the great feast, you must first spend some lonely time in the ashes, humbled, smudged, tending to duty, unglamorous, waiting.

Lent is that season, a time to sit in the ashes. It is not incidental that many of us begin Lent by marking our foreheads with ashes.

There is also the rich image, found in some ancient mythologies, of letting our tears reconnect us with the flow of the water of life and of letting our tears reconnect us to the origins of life. Tears, as we know, are saltwater. That is not without deep significance. The oceans too are saltwater and, as we know too, all life takes its origins there.

And so we have the mystical and poetic idea that tears reconnect us to the origins of life, that tears regenerate us, that tears cleanse us in a life-giving way, and that tears deepen the soul by letting it literally taste the origins of life.

Given the truth of that (and we have all experienced that truth), tears too are a desert to be entered into as a Lenten practice, a vehicle to reach new depths of soul.

Lent. It is a season to slowly prepare our souls. It is a time to open ourselves to the presence of God in our lives and let the angels feed us. It is a time to sit among the ashes, confident that love will abound in due time. It is a time to be washed by our tears into the water of new life, to come to real transformation and newness ready to celebrate the feast that is given us at Easter. Read More.

Celebrating the one year anniversary of Billy Graham’s death

Just in time for the first anniversary of Billy Graham’s death, Allison’s reflection on the life and work of America’s pastor is now available in paperback.

This week’s blog feature the new preface by the author, new to this edition.

Surprise, surprise, surprise.

Between the time my biography of Billy Graham first appeared in April of 2018 and now, as we are preparing to release the paperback version, I’ve been more than a little surprised at how many people have Billy Graham stories on the tip of their tongues. Many, many people have shared their stories with me. In almost every case, a story includes the storyteller’s surprise that they felt as if Billy were a brother or a friend to them. The common denominator in the stories seems to be his kindness, his graciousness, his easy familiarity. Mr. Graham, or Bill as he preferred being called, made friends everywhere. This aspect of his personality comes through in my book, I hope, but I choose to emphasize it in this preface because it’s an uncommon trait in CEOs of large nonprofits and corporations.

Billy was the founder, CEO, and Chairman of the Board of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association throughout eight decades of active ministry. Such leaders are usually noted for their vision and focus on the goals of the organizations they lead. They are usually no-nonsense, organization-first people. They have appropriate interpersonal intelligence, as well. But they aren’t generally friendly in the sense of seeming to genuinely care for the people they meet or who work for them. My read on Mr. Graham through the testimony of many, and my own story of knowing and working with him, was that he was an exception to the stereotype. People were not afraid to work for him and alongside him; they did not fear his criticism. Rather, they worked for him because he honestly seemed to care about their well-being. This created a loyalty, not only in his organization, but with hundreds of other Christian groups with whom he partnered. It is appropriate to suggest Billy led not only his own ministry but the rise of Evangelicalism for decades because of his affection as well as his vision.

A caring leader creates a contagion of caring and loyalty. I found the same level of friendliness and genuine care in his closest friends and co-laborers. Cliff Barrows, Sterling Huston, David Bruce, Tom Phillips, and a host of others within the Billy Graham organization displayed such care for me when I was first brought into the Association orbit in late 1998. Those friendships still exist, except where my old colleagues and friends have passed on to glory. I watched them do the same with scores and hundreds of other people. Like leader, like team. It was a rare and beautiful part of Billy Graham, and he passed it on to others.

When I was stepping aside from leading the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College in late 2013, I received a call that said Mr. Graham wanted to see me. He was ninety-four at the time and living a somewhat reclusive life in his home in Black Mountain, North Carolina. His health was deteriorating and his faculties were declining. I flew in from Chicago, and under the guidance of David Bruce, Billy’s executive staff leader, I went to visit Billy one last time. I wasn’t sure he’d remember or recognize me since my fifteen years of work was done outside of his headquarters a thousand miles away. When I sat down in a chair next to him in his wheelchair he said something to the effect of, “Lon, I wanted to see you one more time and say thank you for your leadership at the Graham Center.” I remember responding, “Mr. Graham, I’m sorry I didn’t do more, I’m sorry. . . .” He cut me off mid-sentence. Then, with eyes looking directly into mine no more than three feet away, he said, “No, I have followed your ministry and know what you’ve done and I thank you.” I’ll take that encouragement with me to heaven.

Mr. Graham would not wish me to end this thought about his genuine affection and appreciation of people without saying that anything he was that was beautiful and memorable was because of Jesus Christ, his Lord. Jesus is a friend of sinners, quick to forgive and abounding in love for all. Billy mirrored that a bit because God’s Spirit dwelt within him. He would also say that Jesus is ready at every moment to receive all who call on him to become their friend, forgiver, and Lord forever. If you’ve not done that, my prayer is that this book will convince you to do so.

I conclude this preface by thanking several people who were instrumental in helping with this book. David Bruce and Tom Phillips from the Graham organization were multidecade eye witnesses of the work and life of Billy Graham. They were gracious to support this effort and give me guidance and stories. I also want to thank my writing group, the Mead Men, who listened, suggested, and corrected the manuscript. Wheaton Bible Church graciously gave me the time to do the work. Finally, my deep thanks to the Publisher of Paraclete Press, Jon Sweeney, who became a devoted and tireless editor and helper of the project. In the final month of research and writing I was diagnosed with liver cancer. Jon’s prayers and encouraging words, and the graciousness and hard work of his staff will never be forgotten.

—LON ALLISON, West Chicago, Illinois

The Miracle of Awakening

This blog is excerpted from the Introduction to Sarah Arthur’s Between Midnight and Dawn: A Literary Guide to Prayer for Lent, Holy Week, and Eastertide. 

We arrive at Lent, those forty days (not including Sundays) leading up to Easter. It’s that time when the church—and the soul—faces the tomb, aware of its own mortality, seeking the promise of light on the other side. It’s a journey we make alone, yet not alone, surrounded as we are by those who have caught a glimpse of sunrise. And we need them.

Whoever has lain awake during moonless hours between midnight and dawn knows this: the darkness is final. It owns the earth utterly. It takes hold in the tick of the clock and the stillness of the woods and the shallow breath of your own mute body. Anyone taking notes during those hours would be convinced there is nothing more: no further turning of the earth, no future flourishing of existence under a warm star, no life recalled from the tomb. It is the last and definitive night.

But then, by some magic that cannot be quantified, it is not. The earth stirs, inhales, stretches. A bird pipes in a forsythia, as if talking in its sleep, startled awake by its own daring. Light, where there was no light, makes visible: first the outline of a window, then the edge of the bed, your own hand, a book open on the covers.

There’s no saying precisely when the turn happens. But it does. Every morning. From the beginning of the world.

It’s the same miracle of awakening that happens when winter changes to spring. The earth, frozen in a silence that will not break, the days brief and brutal, our own cold selves making their grim way through the dark . . . and then . . . and then . . . something shifts. Light in the east, earlier than we remembered; a lift in the air, like a warm updraft; a patch of mud that grows and grows as the snow recedes.

It’s the same turning as when the church, emptied of vestments and cold as a crypt, lights one candle. When the community finds itself, against all odds, redeemed. Lenten sorrow makes way for Easter joy, and nothing—nothing—will quench the dawn.

And it’s the same shift that happens when the soul, alone in grief or guilt or illness or isolation, finds company in the life-giving words of another. During the midnight hours we shelter our guttering faith, and by its light we read poetry and prose that transcend centuries, hemispheres. Words from poets whose battles with God do not lead to victory but to a kind of grumpy determination. Stories from novelists who have tumbled into the abyss of their own undoing— of everyone’s undoing—and found Someone there already, holding the bottom rung of the rescue ladder. Raise your eyes, these voices say. Look to the east. Do you not see it? There. The dawn. 

In this collection you will find such voices. And their words are not always easy. Lent is, after all, the season of repentance, of soul-searching, of Christ’s lonely journey to the Cross. We start in darkness together, naming its various shades, uncertain, even, that morning will come. And the night deepens, if possible, during Holy Week, when the crowds that once celebrated hope’s arrival now spurn it with venom, taking all of humanity down in the process. The stone is rolled across the cold tomb; and there we are, buried with Jesus, left with nothing but a body wound in a white sheet, destined for dust.

But take heart, these voices say. There is a power here in the bowels of the earth, a “deeper magic,” as C. S. Lewis called it.1 Death is not given the final word. In the night of the tomb, our Lord sits up, shakes off the sheet, swings his feet down onto the cold stone floor. He steps out from the crypt into the cool of a damp garden, inhales, smiles. Christ doesn’t need to turn east to greet the sunrise: he is himself the Dawn by whose “light we see light” (Psalm 36:9). The sun will not set again. That was our last night. Ever.

So, at last, we enter the season of Eastertide, which runs from Easter Monday to Pentecost. We step into the morning of a new day. These poets and novelists remind us that the sunrise is undeserved, but here we are. Our battles are ongoing but just skirmishes, really, the last desperate attempts of the losing side to go down fighting. The war itself is over. When it’s our time to physically enter the tomb of our own mortality, we know that if we have been buried with Christ, we will rise with Christ. We’ll ride on his coattails, so to speak. And what we’ll see then won’t be simply light at the end of a tunnel, but light at the end of all things, the final and permanent morning.

So let it begin. Read More

Happy marriages don’t just happen.

It’s National Marriage Week! And we are celebrating with a $1.99 Kindle special (available here!) of Jerry and Claudia Root’s and Jeremy Rios’ book, Naked and Unashamed: a guide to the necessary work of Christian marriage. Enjoy the authors’ preface to their practical and inspiring guide.

Preface: The Purpose of this Book

This book exists because, despite the abundance of magazines, articles, and self-help volumes available, people continue to struggle with marriage.

On the one hand, the cottage industry of wedding planners, consultants, Pinterest pages, and independent bloggers has shaped young hearts to dream and plan for the biggest day of their lives. The day is everything, and they will plan each element with precision, from flowers to cake decorations to party favors. Acting on this crafted desire, couples will spend an enormous amount of time and money preparing for the wedding. Ironically, they will spend little to no time or money in preparation for their marriage itself. The investment into the perfect day is all out of proportion with the investment into life together after the day. At times it even seems as if people are more interested in getting married than they are in staying married. This book exists to help couples prepare for the rest of their life together.

On the other hand, it seems that too few couples comprehend the degree of work required to make a marriage successful. Divorce rates are clear evidence of this, but so also are the many married people who are in dire need of counseling and care, who persist in loneliness and difficulty, feeling ill-equipped to navigate the unforeseen difficulties of marriage. Many people hope one day to get married; few people seem to know what it really means to be married. The truth of the matter is that happy marriages rarely just happen. In fact, the majority of the time they will require at least as much energy and preparation as is directed toward the grand celebration on the wedding day. This book exists to coach couples through strategies that will assist them to succeed.

On the wedding day, a bride and groom will make a promise before God and the witness of their friends and family—a promise to have and hold one another, in sickness and health, in wealth or poverty, until death. Sometimes these promises are uttered in a rush of devoted emotion, at the same time sometimes their demands are glibly considered; yet no couple (we trust!) sets out intentionally to fail. While no book can promise perfect success, the best we can do—and this we hope to do—is to offer hope and guidance to couples in preparation for marriage, to couples struggling in marriage, and possibly encouragement to couples thriving in marriage. Marriage, in point of fact, is a living, growing thing, and a resource such as this one hopes simply to provide a plumb to what is bent, a balm to what is broken, and an enrichment to what is thriving.

If marriage is so difficult, and if the risks are so high, then it might be tempting to conclude that it is not worth bothering about. This is unsatisfying, chiefly because we are convinced that marriage—with all its difficulties—remains one of the best hopes for human happiness and fulfillment. A successful marriage is a thing of unprecedented and radiant beauty, and as G. K. Chesterton (a great believer in marriage) said “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.”[i] This book is targeted for any person who wishes, given the liabilities of marriage, to attempt to maximize its benefits and experience the fullness of its joys.

Billy Bray, Welsh preacher and evangelist, hearing once about other people’s trials of faith stood and exclaimed, “Well, friends, I have been taking vinegar and honey, but, praise the Lord, I’ve had the vinegar with a spoon, and the honey with a ladle.”[ii] Many couples may feel that in marriage they’ve had honey by the teaspoon and vinegar by the ladle. As we said, no book can promise success, and yet the couple that commits to reading together, to learning together, to discussing together, to developing good habits together—that couple will gain a significant advantage in the management and enjoyment of their common life. All marriages ought to begin with the best possible foundation. All existing marriages ought to have the courage to reexamine and correct their foundation as necessary. And, by God’s grace, the honey will outweigh the vinegar beyond measure.

[i] G. K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World (London: Cassell and Company, Limited: 1910), 254.

[ii] Billy Bray, The King’s Son (London: Bible Christian Book-Room, 1874), 29.

New Year’s Resolution—be more like your dogs!

Author of Faithfully Yours for Kids, Peggy Frezon, shares her New Year’s Resolution—to be more like her dogs.

If we’re smart, we can learn a lot from our dogs. Following their example, we can learn to play with gusto, eat heartily, and nap often. We can learn how to forgive others and love unconditionally. We can also discover lessons to apply to our spiritual lives.

Keep Daily Quiet Time—My golden retriever Ernest’s quiet time consists of stretching out in a patch of sunlight streaming in through the window, resting his head on his paws, and closing his eyes. I can see his muscles relax and his expression fill with contented peace. Following his example, I curl up on my big green chair, relax my body, close my eyes and allow God to enter my mind. Allowing Him to direct my path fills me with contented peace.

Wait Faithfully—When we first rescued our senior dog Ike, he used to cry whenever I left the house. I could hear his heart-wrenching whines, even outside in the driveway as I was climbing into the car. After a while, Ike began to trust that I’d always return. He stopped crying when I left. He waited for me faithfully, in comfort that he’d be okay while I was gone. We are never truly separated from God, but when times are tough and it seems like He is far away, I can trust that He is always there. If I wait faithfully, I will hear Him and feel His loving touch again.

 Love thy Neighbor— My dogs live for walks around the neighborhood. They think everyone they meet is their friend. I love the way Ernest approaches little children so gently. And how Petey wags and pulls me toward everyone he meets. Their open and accepting approach to people warms my heart. Sometimes I find myself too busy with my own life to pay attention to others. Or I make judgments about others’ interests and feelings. But if I act more like my dogs, I’ll greet others wholeheartedly without judgment or reservation.

Devour Enthusiastically—Ernest and Petey don’t pick at their food. They gobble it up heartily, wasting no time in consuming every last morsel. God is the nourishment for my soul. I want to receive Him eagerly and joyfully, and be filled with the Bread of Life. Just like Ernest and Petey, I will not hunger or thirst!

So this year, I’m going to try to be more like my dogs.

 Adapted from Pawprints on my Heart by Peggy Frezon, Guideposts.com Jan. 2015