Having Decided To Stay

The official website of Bryana Joy Johnson

The Little Drummer Boy: A Love Story

StarI learned to love Jesus at Christmas-time. I mean the kind of loving where your heart dances right over some of its beats. Where you become the sort of fool who sings in the grocery store and the parking lot on just ordinary days because you don’t know what to do with all that happiness.

This was three years ago and it wasn’t like beforehand I wasn’t trying. But there’s a difference, says an uncle of mine, between loving Jesus and loving the idea of loving Jesus. And when I heard it, I was a little uneasy, a little afraid that was me. Because in the US of A it’s not hard to spend all your days with a label on your forehead that doesn’t match your labor and your living. It’s not hard to take possession of the form of godliness and forget about the fire altogether.

nativity2011 was the year of weighty drought and the summer that droned into November. Come December, I was low and just getting through my checklist. One grey day I heard a sappy song I’d heard every other year, and suddenly it made me hungry and grieved because “Baby Jesu, says the little drummer boy, “I am a poor boy too.” And,

I have no gift to bring
that’s fit to give a king.

I felt I was hearing a deeper lament than I could comprehend, a cry of deficiency welling up from an encounter with a glory I didn’t know about. I didn’t know what it was to be all wrapped up in this intense need to have something to give. And to be blocked out of this understanding was like being a homeless tramp locked out of a house full of lights and supper-steam and packages. I didn’t know about this kind of love.

Then, a few hours later, I did.

I had a late night writing a column and packing suitcases for the Christmas trip kicking off in the morning. When I fell into bed, it was already tomorrow and only a few sleeping-hours were left – but in those hours, how many things changed!

Because in a dream I was on my knees at the feet of the Desire of Nations, and time was utterly still and I wanted to never move an inch through all the eons ahead of us. Also, there was something else I hadn’t expected – there was this crying need to have something worth offering, to be something worth offering. And I wasn’t.

The words of the prophet seemed suddenly sensible:

Woe is me, for I am undone!
Because I am a man of unclean lips,
And I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips;
For my eyes have seen the King,
The Lord of hosts
.

You can’t explain this agony of insufficiency to the unacquainted, just as no one could ever explain it to me but my own two eyes. You can’t explain how it’s at one time brilliant and terrifying, woeful and wildly glad, how when you meet the Pearl at the heart of the planet and it’s everything you are not, you’re at once so reassured and so regretful that you can’t be sure if you should laugh or cry.

When I woke out of this moment and was startled into my own humdrum house, the first thing to come was bleak disappointment. “Just lost when I was saved!” says Emily Dickinson of this kind of waking:

Just felt the world go by!
Just girt me for the onset with eternity,
When breath blew back,
And on the other side
I heard recede the disappointed tide!

Little Lamb scan esizeAfterwards, though, something else came – relief that there was time still left, days unwritten that could be sunk into the pursuit of a gift I wouldn’t be ashamed to pull out at the manger.

so to honor him
when we come

This is the hallmark of love – that it changes things because it changes us.

This year, in memory of this awakening of adoration, I put together a little poem, which if you read it I hope will drive you to remember the highest place of homage in your history — and get back to it as fast as you can.

THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY

I am a poor boy too, I said
my knuckles are gnawed and split
but the black sky is split with song and I
can’t keep from hearing it.

No, to the keepers of the sheep,
go on your merry way,
if I should see the baby, I
should never know what to say.

If I should see the baby and
his hair should be full of light,
I should go poorer than I came,
back to the ceaseless night.

I should go smitten with poverty,
– I who was never full –
emptied because found empty
in the face of the beautiful.

What if I sit at the cradle and
gnaw on my knuckles and weep?
Weep for the emptiness of my hands,
the hours, the waste and the sleep?

Over the hills and far away,
how can I block out the bells?
They are threading the paths like rivers
and the ribbon of music swells.

Suppose I should creep to the manger,
put my knees in the dirt for awhile,
and suppose the baby should look at me
and suppose the baby should smile

On Rubber Bands and Rejoicing, Dark Though It Is

Rubber BandsSo the rubber band that you wear to make you stop speaking useless words? – I can’t keep it on the same wrist for half an hour. I always wondered about that – why it’s so easy to tear things down and so much harder to stack them up. Why are the grim words the ones that draw laughter and why do we flock about the funny instead of crowding in around the kind? Why does mutual irritation bring strangers together when we all know it’s this very bitterness that’s bound to take us apart?

With all the other poor choices I and my kind make, I guess it’s no surprise that we keep getting this thing dead wrong too. But when we come down to it, the creed we hold to isn’t ambiguous or muddied enough to let us make up our own minds. Do everything without complaining and without arguing, it says.

This isn’t the first time I’ve tried for the twenty-one days. There’s this idea that words don’t only spill what’s inside but shape it as well – and someone who started thinking about this decided they had better start shaping up their talk. Because to be honest, on a given day a whole lot of us sound something like this:

Oh, me too. And someone who didn’t want to be a fountain of whining said something had to change. (We say it too. Again I will say it: rejoice.) So he put a rubber band on a wrist and every time he caught himself complaining moved it to the other. I moved mine ten times on my road trip Tuesday, driving home to celebrate the dawning of the happiest portion of the year. The goal is to bring that interval up to twenty-one days. Yeah.

I can’t deny that people can be cruel in a pinch or even on the other side of all your kindness. Yes, the highways are clogged with folks who shouldn’t be allowed off of their own driveways. And yes, the times are nightfall and the world riven right through. But don’t we believe that the Sunrise from on high has come to visit us? Don’t we believe in the sky split wide open with light and chorale?

Or do we? Because if we do, won’t it change things? And won’t it make wild sense to talk about this more than we talk about the sorry insufficiency of what’s around? I’m just asking because I wonder. And I guess I’m not the only one.

Three thousand years back in our history, our greatest songwriter said let the redeemed say so, talk about it. We still sing it. Because if everything else falls away, we still have this. And in the bleak world that Immanuel inhabits, can’t we be saying thank you and waving, dark though it is?
Boys-WavingDarkThoughItIs - Copy

THANKS (by W.S. Merwin)

Listen
with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
smiling by the windows looking out
in our directions

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is

On Sudden Celebration and Making Ready for Advent

???????????We were in the library when it happened. We had come over the crisp and dusky concrete walks in our overcoats and our hats and converged there under the lights. We were buried in our books, in calculus problems and those long research papers that all professors decide to assign at exactly the same time, so that class schedules are as inefficient as they can be.

The school library is a happy, wide place, riven with windows, as I think every home of books ought to be (because the words should mean something out in the real world, and I want to keep looking up and checking to make sure they do). No matter that all you can see is drab houses on the bad side of town, and the landfill.

A couple came in from the other side of the glass with cold red faces and let the frigid air into the room. They came like the bearers of an open secret and told it to the air in general. “It’s snowing!” they said, their mouths full of laughing. We got up so fast we left our coats and our hats hanging over the egg chairs and banged through the exit bars.

The library spilled its inhabitants in a mild frenzy of celebration. My sister went running out over the lawns and the bridge just to see the campus in its fairytale mode and on the porch we stood and laughed at her and laughed at each other and laughed with strangers and snapped pictures and shook snow out of our hair and put out our tongues to catch the white feathers. It was as though something we’d all been waiting for without knowing it had suddenly arrived.

I wondered about that. I wondered why when we went away to supper with the wet ice-scraper on the floorboards and our fingers crowded at the vents of the heater the world felt so jubilant and so laced with perfection.

And I thought of something. I thought about the time when the lame and sorry world was infused with song and a sudden radiance came into everything. It’s a story I know far too well for my own good, because it grows ordinary sometimes, when every thought of it ought to be like an annunciation – it’s snowing! – ought to drive us together into little groups of laughter and send us out to make triumphant music in every public place.

There is a time set aside for us to do those things. There is a space in the calendar when it’s even acceptable to sing in the street and tell the wondrous story in every venue we can find. It’s not time to deck the halls yet or play the music of proclamation. It’s not even Advent, the time of waiting. But so soon it will be and then it will be passed – and how many times is Christmas going to come around and go around and how shall I enter into the significance of it and abide there?

I’m just asking: what are we going to do to join the party?

SnowLampsBecause this is bigger than a sudden snowfall in the south and calls for heaps of exultation. And the time doesn’t have to be cleared of deadlines, and it’s OK if we’re living a long tragedy. After all, the story of God-With-Us is about the Fullness of Glory arriving to inhabit the Not Yetness of Things. So I’m thinking about a philosophy of stopping where I am and doing a whole list of celebratory actions. Are you going to take starwalks and sing carols on the sidewalks and in the stores and give money you don’t feel like you have to those who truly don’t have it?

I think I am going to make me a list.

Because the midst of the earth is a raging mirth. And the heart of the earth a star.

Sometimes

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While I’m adjusting to a new schedule and a new city, and all out of time, here are some words by someone else, that underscore the music in the world, that left me a little breathless here. May it happen for you.

SOMETIMES
Sometimes things don’t go, after all,
from bad to worse.  Some years, muscatel
faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don’t fail,
sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.

A people sometimes will step back from war;
elect an honest man, decide they care
enough, that they can’t leave some stranger poor.
Some men become what they were born for.

Sometimes our best efforts do not go
amiss, sometimes we do as we meant to.
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
that seemed hard frozen:  may it happen for you.

[Sheenagh Pugh]

On Recent Adventures and Remembering the Bread

P1000235 - Copy
I’m going away from my home now, like a bird leaving the old nest, and I’m fond of home. This room with its four plain walls has opened out into Heaven. Here have I drunk in God, here have I prayed, here have I wept, here have I worked, here have I agonized, and now, Farewell home!”

So wrote Oswald Chambers when, at the age of twenty-one, he packed his bags and went out without knowing.

It’s astonishing how you can be at one time gladder than you’ve ever been and also laboring under a sorrow as wide as loneliness, a grief that’s past mending. No one told me it would be like this: that triumph and desolation walk side by side, that life is so fast and so dangerous.

I’m in my first home away from home, where some things are missing: such as the narrow green stairs and the big picture windows over the pond and the pastures. Such as paychecks and darkwalks and checking the rain gauge. Such as family games and supper-table politics, and my little brother coming into my room to say goodnight each and every day of my life.

And some new things have come about, which have never been: such as big happy lunches at tables crammed with acquaintances, and cycles of cards in the lobbies and frisbee on the lawns. Such as sunset over the bleachers, and the printer humming ceaselessly, and the silent camaraderie of the library. Such as our faces lighting up when we recognize each other across the streets. Such as my little brother’s letters in the mail, sealed with rubbery wax.

Everyone says you learn so much away from home, and I don’t know about that, but in my short two weeks away, I can say I’ve learned one thing: out in the big world, what matters most isn’t education, experience, classification or credits, but kindness and the people who put the courage back into you. That isn’t what I expected, really. But it’s what I’ve found.

Because you can have every qualification in the book, and be far from qualified to do life. You can possess much valuable knowledge and yet be worthless in the scheme of things. Because what counts is to have your eyes open, to look outward and be awake, to smile at the evident and dormant beauty of people, to get out from behind the tyrannical lens of I, to see the world for what it is instead of for my place in it.

And if I have not love, I am nothing.

In the midst of all the changes and the new things, some kind people have made time for me, and last week invited me to a service where I heard something which particularly spoke to this condition of unsettledness. The pastor went to the grocery store to get just one thing that his wife asked for – bread. He got oreos and ice cream and fruit juice and chocolate milk, and filled a cart with good things and purely out of absentmindedness and distraction, he went home with no bread.

Abandoned_City__Matte_Painting_by_MarcoBucciIn the world I come from, there are altogether too many choices, too many possibilities of delight, too many potential disappointments to fret about. And something happens to obscure single-heartedness and urgency. It’s all too easy to find ourselves startled by things going wrong, and personally offended by the realization that we can’t have it all. (Me too, me too!) We talk about life like it’s a war, but seventy years can feel like a truce pretty quickly, a break in which the barracks become a premature party.

I wonder, though: what if I only had four?

Because after all my years of waiting for a next step, it’s finally come to me, and I’ve stepped out into it, and it’s only a four-year road, beyond which is a whole forest of darkness. So I’m asking, what if four years were all that was left and beyond that nothing?

loaves-of-breadI’m not sure about you, but I think I’d do them like they mattered, those skimpy four years. Not cramming in experiences, not mourning their conclusion, but busied with matters of consequence, with witness and with work.

So if we can’t have it all – if this is a battle-ship and not a pleasure-cruise, and we are going down with all hands, I guess what matters isn’t the next port, but the lifeboats.

And oh, my soul, don’t forget the Bread.

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