Take heart

For Spiritual Journey Thursday

As it’s February, the word heart came to mind when I prepared to write for Spiritual Journey Thursday (the first Thursday of each month).

No doubt Valentine’s Day conjured the word. Still feels a bit early for that, although I saw grocery shelves being stocked for it back before Christmas.

I began thinking more along the lines of taking heart. As in courage, which derives from Latin cor, meaning heart, and encourage, from Old French encoragier, to make strong, or to hearten.

One of my favorite images of courage and being encouraged is a scene from the Chronicles of Narnia. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, young Prince Caspian’s ship has sailed into a mysterious, enchanted darkness where nightmares come true. Lucy prays to Aslan, the Narnian lion-god: “Aslan, Aslan, if ever you loved us, send us help now.” The darkness doesn’t change but Lucy senses an inner change. She sees a speck of white materializing above. It comes closer and closer. An albatross, which whispers in her ear as it sweeps past: “Courage, Dear Heart.” And it leads the vessel through the infernal, terrifying darkness to the light just ahead.

We are nearing the year mark of nightmarish things come true. The COVID-19 pandemic rages on. Numbers are still high. New and more virulent strains are developing before vaccines can be obtained. Schools closed last spring and are still in various stages of reopening. There’s been turbulence in the streets, at the Capitol, a heavy toll taken on people’s lives, livelihoods, psyches, and souls…a long, long darkness.

Yet there is faith. And prayer.

Even when it seems eternal
Night cannot last forever.
Courage, dear hearts
One guides you onward
Until the morning comes.
Remember you are never
Alone.
God Himself walks alongside you
Every step of the way
.

While the darkness may not have lifted, we can always sense the light.

There are, after all, the children.

They are unique encouragers. At the end of some of my remote learning sessions, students have signed off by holding up “heart hands.” My own heart lightens as I give heart hands back. While our church was closed, kids mailed handmade cards covered with crayoned hearts to my husband and me: “Pastor Bill and Miss Fran, we miss you!” Years ago, long before I entered the education profession, my oldest son, around the age of five, spent his own money to buy me a little piece of artwork bearing this quote on encouragement: A teacher in wisdom and kindness helps children learn to do exactly what they thought could not be done.

That is true. For it is exactly what the Teacher did for His students, otherwise known as the disciples, just before the the darkest days they’d ever experience. They could hardly have imagined the light ahead. Nor, I imagine, can we. But the heart, it senses. And clings to that hope.

I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world. —John 16:33

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The unplanned baby

Banjo 8 weeks

Banjo, 8 weeks old

He was born on a Sunday in early November, during the first freeze. For some reason, his mother didn’t seek shelter. She delivered nine puppies out in the open on that bitter night; before they were discovered, five of them died.

Getting a puppy was not even a thought when my husband and I stayed with his sister on her Virginia farm near the turn of the year. Our minds were consumed by the purpose of our trip: consulting with a surgeon on my husband’s rare form of eye disease. Following the appointment, burdened with the confirmation that my husband would soon lose his eye, my sister-in-law drove us by the old hay barn where her son was working:

“Let me know if you hear of anyone who wants a puppy. They’re pure Labs but this litter was unplanned, the second this year. I just want them to go to good homes.”

I was halfway paying attention from the back seat of the Suburban when she rolled the window down and called out: “Go get the big one.”

My nephew slipped into the barn. He returned momentarily with a fuzzy yellow ball, walked around to the passenger side, and placed it in my husband’s arms.

Two sky-blue, baby eyes looked round at me from a face that seemed a hundred years old.

He came home with us, of course, this unplanned baby that cried at the top of his surprisingly powerful lungs the entire three-hour journey back to North Carolina. We’re insane, I thought. We have a surgery to contend with and the surgeon said recuperation would be rough. We don’t even know what the long-term prognosis will be. There’s no puppy stuff at home, he’s going to shed like crazy, a big dog in the house, there’s the whole ordeal of housebreaking, we already HAVE a dog, that’s really enough, dear Lord, listen to this crying, we will never sleep another night…

Our college student/musician son was waiting at the door when we pulled up. He nestled the puppy against his heart and named him Banjo, not after the instrument, but the video game he loved as a child, Banjo Kazooie.  Baby Banjo slept in the bed with him and, incredibly, never made a peep that night or any night thereafter.

It was our darkest winter. Through snow, ice storms, surgery to remove my husband’s eye and his painful recovery, Banjo was the bright spot, an endearing and comical diversion, exactly what we needed. He radiated life, healing, and joy; he drove the bleakness away. His very presence represented survival. Turns out that instead of coming at the worst possible time, the unplanned baby came at the best time of all.

In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis, the characters sail into a darkness where nightmares come true, with no obvious means of escape. Just as the nightmares begin, Lucy whispers, “Aslan, Aslan, if ever you loved us at all, send us help now.” An albatross appears in the darkness, circles Lucy, and whispers to her in Aslan’s voice: “Courage, dear heart.” Within minutes, the darkness begins to lift; the characters find their way out.

For the record, Banjo looked so like a lion cub that we briefly thought about renaming him Aslan, until we decided that it would be utterly impossible ever to reprimand a creature with that name.

Reflect: When has your life or work been interrupted by something unplanned? Where in that experience might there be an unexpected gift? What chances are you willing to take to find it?

If you’d like to read more about Banjo: Making adjustments.

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Update: A condensed version of “The Unplanned Baby” is published in the 2017-2018 North Carolina Reading Association’s Young Authors Project anthology, on the theme of “Show Your Strength!”