A Christmas Eve Update from the Clemmons, on Mission
Ambiguous New Year | Godwilling Halfway | Quick Hits | AutumnalScenes
Dear friends and family,
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Ever since I started observing the seasons of the church calendar, there’s grown in me an ambiguous sense of when exactly the New Year begins. Technically, the cycle of the liturgical year begins again on Advent 1. And since that Sunday’s date isn’t fixed, the “New Year” is a moveable feast. Except it’s not a feast, really, it’s a fast—Advent being that dark, cold season where we’re encouraged to lament sin and suffering and to long for its final rectification. The year begins in darkness, huddling close to the kept flame of hope, searching the early night for the bright star in the East.
But by the time I entered Advent, I’d already worn the grooves of January 1 as the Official Year Turnover. I’m old now, so I go to bed early, but I can still remember the youthful adrenaline sustaining me until midnight, watching strange eating competitions on now-defunct tv networks, dancing with my brothers, the fireworks sparking humbly over a quiet Pikes Peak. I remember as a teenager almost-superstitiously choosing the (appropriately melancholy) Last Song I Listened to That Year and then timing the perfect song to jumpstart the new year. So I’m still a bit romantic for NYE, somewhere in my secular heart.
Either way, whether the Annus Domini Novus begins on November 28th or December 3rd or January 1st, the whole approximate season has that feeling of culmination and release, sorrow and hope, darkness and light. Even the hypothetical American Christmas Villain—the non-stop-go-getting-avaricious-consumer-brained-work-work-work-buy-buy-buy fool—is going to pause at some point and have at least a moment of, What Is It All For? and What Does It All Mean?
One of the reasons I’m grateful for Advent is that it guarantees we have that moment, many times over, and gives that reflection shape over a needful length of time. In Scripture and, in the Anglican tradition, in an absolutely top notch set of prayers called “collects,” we encounter wild-eyed prophets and angelic armies, suffering exiles and a humble young woman, a Savior who comes and will come again. By design, we meditate on the theological virtues—Hope, Faith, Joy, Love—but also on the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell.
This year, though no piety of my own, I have lived an appropriately solemn Advent. I have struggled through protracted illness, dwelled with melancholy and fear, traded victories and losses with my own acedia, prayed alongside the sufferings of others. I don’t mean to be melodramatic. This is simply life; we’re usually insulated from countless struggles by the grace of God, until, sometimes, God sees fit to test our faith and thereby draw us nearer to him, make us to long for his final advent.
I don’t have a nice bow to put on this season, or my own mild sufferings in it. It’s not for me to make the meaning of my life, anymore than I make its length and breadth. Fortunately, this new year comes built-in with an unquenchable hope: Christ has come, God is with us, Christ will come again.
O God, you have caused this holy night to shine with the brightness of the true Light: Grant that we, who have known the mystery of that Light on earth, may also enjoy him perfectly in heaven; where with you and the Holy Spirit he lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
Peace of Christ,
God Willing Halfway
Just under two weeks ago, in the usual rush of papers and exams, I closed out Semester III of my seminary education. Since I’m racing through the M.Div. in 3 years flat, that should put me, Deo volente, halfway. This is probably the time I should do some reflecting on the road traveled thus far, the meaning of it all, but it was a pretty discouraging semester in a lot of ways, so I’m leaning I’m leaning away from rumination and leaning toward deep rest and building momentum for J-Term and the Spring.
I should probably unpack that a little. The semester was not discouraging in the sense of vocational doubt. I’m more confident now than a year ago that our family is called to live a missional life in and around my own pastoral vocation. And I’ve seen glimpses of what that can look like—how the formation of our children and Erin’s vocation as an artist and my own as a minister in the church can mesh in mutual support.
It was discouraging in that it felt like a wasted semester. Which, again, I’m being melodramatic. I had a truly excellent class on the Cappadocian Fathers, and did some good reading and thinking and learning in all my classes. But the more time I spend actually serving in the church, preaching and teaching and praying and meeting and planning, the more vital I see this season of preparation being. I have so much to learn, and I like everyone need a community to exhort me unto diligence and joy in the labor of the gospel. And to waste time—which I felt like I was doing every time at least two of my classes met, and in the dozens of hours I spent each week reading required but uninspired course texts—feels like a real squandering.
And I know, in any given ‘line of work,’ there are tasks that just have to get done, boxes that just need checking, degrees you just have to acquire. Not everything gets to be transcendent and transporting and life-changing. Not everything needs to be, or could be. But I also remain keenly aware that this seminary season is unique—it’s important, and I pray and believe it will be fruitful, and I and my family and many of you have sacrificed to make it happen. And I take my responsibility to use this time well seriously, even as I wrestle against my own vices of sloth and vanity. And I will yet.
Also discouraging: I found myself sick, as mentioned above, from about November on. I usually like a little seasonal illness—it reminds me of my mortality and my selfishness, that, in my usual anxious rush to accomplish or complete or impress, people are suffering in body and mind all around me in quiet or hidden ways, and that attending to them is almost always more important than whatever Important Thing I think I have to do.
But this time, it wasn’t the familiar symptoms. I didn’t have the annoying tickle in the throat or evening headfog. I’d rather not get into the symptoms if it’s all the same, but they were new to me, which was disconcerting, and they lingered. They were painful, and limiting, but mostly they were worrying.
And worry I have, in crescendoing questions—am I chronically sick? terminally ill? will I make it through the night? what happens to my family if I die so young? I haven’t had a full-on panic attack since college, but I could feel the descending sense of doom and tightness of the chest poking at the borders of my body and mind, testing my defenses for a way in.
Then there’s the incandescent joy of navigating our health system and insurance… but that’s for another time.
Suffice it to say the tests have returned… nothing. Which is good, in a way. Very Bad Possibilities have been basically ruled out. And my self-prescribed regimen of post-semester rest has eased most of my symptoms and their attendant anxiety, for the time being. I’ve been trying to discern what God has intended for me in it all, and I can’t say I have conclusive or clear results. But I do know that death has been much on my mind, and death has its way of setting life in high relief, and driving the soul to God. I have had to shelter myself in my Lord’s death, in which I share by baptism, in a more immediate and pressing way. I have had to exercise my huffing-puffing faith, that because Jesus has suffered death and conquered it, the death of the Christian is that of a seed planted in the ground, that though it die, it will yet bear a rich and wonderful fruit.
Anyway, that’s more than enough about me.
Nuts and bolts of our past two months:
Eleanor, Ames, & Virgil have continued to enjoy “school” (i.e. Hunter Street Day School) a few days a week. It’s been good for them socially, and in (gradually) building their public confidence.
It’s also meant our house is newly a haven for every virus (except, curiously, SARS-CoV-2) in the Hoover Metro area. Sorry, melodrama. We’ve have various colds make their way through our family on basically a two-week loop (I think we’ve all been sick 3 times, for a week or more at a time). Perhaps no kids are, but ours are definitely not good at being sick.
I attended my first synod—the Anglican Diocese of the South’s annual gathering in Loganville, GA. Besides some struggle with illness while there, it was excellent, and, again, confirmation that I’m pursuing the Lord’s call.
The Hall of Men continues apace, with great convivia on St. Basil & Imagination, and St. Athanasius & Courage.
For Thanksgiving, we traveled to Edisto, SC, to stay with my family on the beach. It was a much needed week of (mostly) quiet days, good food and conversation, and lots of time spent contemplating the ocean.
Erin has been doing some amazing work in and out of the studio of late, and I'm proud of her hard work and uncompromising craftsmanship. In early November she had her first in-person Alabama sale, the two-day Moss Rock Festival, just a few minutes from our home.
In early December, we hosted a neighborhood pottery sale, which went exceptionally well! We were able to meet a bunch of neighbors we hadn’t previously, which was a big part of the motivation.
She also set up a new website: clemmonsstudio.com.
Perhaps most significantly, though, Erin spoke a local women’s shelter about a sculpture she made, inspired by the story of the woman at the well, and I’d exhort you to give her talk a read here.
Scenes from Birmingham, AL and Edisto, SC, November-December 2021.
Reading: Part of my post-semester rest program has been lots of fiction. George Saunders’ manic stories always help me jumpstart when my reading life’s battery is run down. But the book Erin and I would actually recommend is Ross Douthat’s recent The Deep Places, a memoir of his own experience of chronic illness. We listened to it on our Thanksgiving drive to and from South Carolina, and it was moving, thought-provoking, exactly what I needed to read in the midst of my own disorienting experience of illness.
Listening: One of my favorite guitarists, Phil Cook, just released an album of piano music, All These Years. It’s calm, evocative, a down-home-feeling in a 30-minute spin. Like if Nils Frahm lived in the Appalachians.
Watching: The movie poster put me off for too long, but, unsurprisingly, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After Life (1998) turned out to be a patient, pretty meditation on death and life.
Food & Drink: A kind and generous couple from Faith Anglican, who know what it’s like to be young parents, gave us a gift and earmarked it specifically such that Erin and I had to use part of it for a meal out, just the two of us. So we had some excellent NC Trout at a little restaurant in South Carolina while my family watched the children.
The best way to support us is to join with the Son in remembering us before the Father. If you’d like to pray with and for us, here are some things you can remember:
health, for all of us. that Zack’s lingering symptoms would cease and that we’d be freed from constantcolds so we might have the energy and will to serve as we should.
that health insurance would sort itself in 2022
for a rich semester for Zack, that he would be enlivened by the Scriptures and encouraged to proclaim the gospel of God
that Erin and Zack would have patience in parenting, and that Eleanor, Ames, and Virgil would receive both encouragement and discipline with thankful hearts
that God would go before us to begin preparing our post-seminary ministry
We’d also like to pray with and for you! If you’re reading this, you’re probably already in our prayers, but we’d love to know more specifically what we can pray for. You can text us, of course, or you can email us prayer requests at firstname.lastname@example.org
We’re the Clemmons family–-Zack, Erin, Eleanor, Ames & Virgil–-living & studying & working in Birmingham, Alabama for sake of God’s Kingdom.
If you’d like, you can support us financially as we navigate this season on mission, with part-time income.
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