Unless the Heart Catch Fire

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
~Gerard Manley Hopkins “God’s Grandeur”

…the sudden angel affrighted me––light effacing
my feeble beam,
a forest of torches, feathers of flame, sparks upflying:
…as that hand of fire
touched my lips and scorched by tongue
and pulled by voice
into the ring of the dance.
~Denise Levertov from “Caedmon” in Breathing the Water

Unless the eye catch fire,
Then God will not be seen.
Unless the ear catch fire
Then God will not be heard.
Unless the tongue catch fire
Then God will not be named.
Unless the heart catch fire,
Then God will not be loved.
Unless the mind catch fire,
Then God will not be known.
~William Blake from “Pentecost”

Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
Yours are the only hands with which he can do his work.
yours are the only feet with which he can go about the world.
Yours are the only eyes through which his compassion
can shine forth upon a troubled world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
~Teresa of Avila

Today,
when we feel we are without hope,
when the bent world reels with a troubled sickness of
shedding blood and spreading violence,
when faith feels frail,
when love seems distant,
we wait, stilled,
for the moment we ourselves – not our cities –
are lit afire ~
when the Living God is
seen, heard, named, loved, known
forever burning in our hearts deep down,
brooded over by His bright wings~
we are His dearest, His freshest deep down things,
in this moment
and for eternity.

Living Under the Penetrating Gaze of God

To live coram Deo is to live one’s entire life in the presence of God, under the authority of God, to the glory of God. 

To live in the presence of God is to understand

that whatever we are doing and wherever we are doing it,
we are acting under the gaze of God.

There is no place so remote that we can escape His penetrating gaze.

To live all of life coram Deo is to live a life of integrity.
It is a life of wholeness that finds its unity and coherency

in the majesty of God.

Our lives are to be living sacrifices,
oblations offered in a spirit of adoration and gratitude.

A fragmented life is a life of disintegration.
It is marked by inconsistency, disharmony, confusion,
conflict, contradiction, and chaos.

Coram Deo … before the face of God.

…a life that is open before God.
…a life in which all that is done is done as to the Lord.
…a life lived by principle, not expediency; by humility before God,

not defiance.

~R.C. Sproul
from “What Does “coram Deo” mean?”

We cannot escape His gaze. Why is that?

We…all of us, all colors, shapes and sizes…
are created in His image, imago dei, so He looks at us as His reflections in the mirror of the world.

And what would He see this week?
Surely nothing that reflects the heart or face of God.

I cringe to think. I want to hide from His gaze.
All I see around me and within me is:
inconsistency, disharmony, confusion,
conflict, contradiction, and chaos.
And most of all:
defiance.

Surely, surely I know best.

I’m not alone: so many others also each know best, calling hypocrisy on one another, holding fast to moral high ground when the reality is:
we drown together in the mud of our mutual guilt and lack of humility.

It is past time for us to be on our knees pleading for mercy, certainly not on our knees leaning upon the neck of another imago dei, squeezing out their very life breath and right to exist.

We are miserable reflections, each and every one of us, surely not coram Deo.

All that we have done, we have done onto God Himself.
Kind of takes one’s breath away.


Things Unknown But Longed For

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
    When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
    But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,   
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—
I know why the caged bird sings!

~Paul Dunbar from “Sympathy”

…the goldfinch comes, with a twitching chirrup
A suddenness, a startlement,at a branch end
Then sleek as a lizard, and alert and abrupt,
She enters the thickness,and a machine starts up
Of chitterings, and of tremor of wings, and trillings –
The whole tree trembles and thrills
It is the engine of her family.
She stokes it full, then flirts out to a branch-end
Showing her barred face identity mask

Then with eerie delicate whistle-chirrup whisperings
She launches away, towards the infinite

~Ted Hughes from “The Laburnum Top”

The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn
and he names the sky his own.

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

~Maya Angelou from “Caged bird”

The 4 AM moment of this waning night
before the first bird awakes to sing –
a solemn silence holds its breath
till broken by chitters and tweets.

Like a full breast tingles
with readiness to flow until emptied –
this wave of quiet builds before toppling forward
in barely contained abundance, saturating our ears.

The Conductor’s baton rises to ready
the multi-voiced chorus –
awaking voices, pleading, spill from
a thousand thousand perches.

My anticipation rises for
for such a prayer uncaged and free –
cascading from overnight stillness
into an explosive unmistakeable dawn.

photo by Harry Rodenberger

Casting All Your Cares

Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. 1Peter 5:7

In late May, on our farm,  there is only a brief period of utter silence during the dark of the night.  Up until about 2 AM, the spring peepers are croaking and chorusing vigorously in our ponds and wetlands, and around 4 AM the diverse bird song begins in the many tall trees surrounding the house and barnyard.

In between those bookend symphonies is stillness–usually.

I woke too early this morning aware of something being unstill.  It was an intermittent banging, coming from the barn.  I lay in bed, trying to discern the middle of the night noise that could be a sign of a major problem, like a horse stuck up against a stall wall or “cast” in horseman’s parlance,  or simply one of my water-bucket-banging geldings who enjoys nocturnal percussion.

This was not sounding like a bucket drum set.  It was emphatic hooves frantically banging against metal walls.

Throwing on sweats and boots, I head out the back door into the mere light of pre-dawn, dewy, with the birds just starting to rouse from sleep, the floral perfume of lingering apple blossoms heavy in the air.  Entering the barn, I throw on the lights and start to count the noses I can see in the stalls as I walk down the aisle~all present and accounted for until I get to the very end of the row.  No nose.   Down in the corner is one of our older mares on her side, too close to the wall, her feet askew up against the boards and metal siding.  She nickered low to me, and my entering the stall sent her into a renewed effort to right herself, but all she could do was scrabble against the wall, digging an even bigger hole beneath her body.

This has happened infrequently over our 35 years of owning horses, usually when a horse is rolling to scratch their back and rolls too close to the wall, and becomes lodged there.  Haflingers, who have a fairly round conformation, are a bit prone to being cast.  Our older barn,  with dirt floors, is particularly likely to having this happen, as depressions in the floor where horses have been digging end up becoming deeper and trap a hapless horse that was nonchalantly rolling.  The horse literally is trapped like a turtle on its back.

Righting a 1000 lb. horse that is frantically flailing and struggling is not a particularly easy or safe task.  Thankfully Haflingers tend to be pretty sensible in this situation and will calm when spoken to and be reassured we’re trying to help.  Carefully, I threw and looped a rope around each lower leg, and with help from the man of the house, we were able to pull her back over, and then jump out of her way quickly.  She got up, shook herself off and immediately asked for breakfast–a good sign this was not a horse in distress or colicking with abdominal pain.

So our day started early.

I hope when I find myself trapped in a hole of my own making, when I’ve been careless about watching where I’m heading and find myself helpless and hopeless with no where and no way to turn, someone will hear my struggles and come rescue me.  I promise not to kick out or bite,  but to wait patiently, in gratitude, for such gracious liberation.  

My cares will be cast upon my rescuer.

And then please, offer me breakfast.

John 21: 12 – Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.”

Known and Unknown

As a fond mother, when the day is o’er,
   Leads by the hand her little child to bed,
   Half willing, half reluctant to be led,
   And leave his broken playthings on the floor,
Still gazing at them through the open door,
   Nor wholly reassured and comforted
   By promises of others in their stead,
   Which, though more splendid, may not please him more;
So Nature deals with us, and takes away
   Our playthings one by one, and by the hand
   Leads us to rest so gently, that we go
Scarce knowing if we wish to go or stay,
   Being too full of sleep to understand
   How far the unknown transcends the what we know.
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow “Nature”

I remember being reluctant to go to bed as a child; I could miss something important that the adults waited to do until after I was asleep, or I wasn’t sure that I wanted to turn myself over to my dreams.

I had a period of time when I was in third grade (during the Cuban missile crisis) when I really was terrified to go to sleep, and ended up reading comic books during the night hours, trying to keep myself distracted from whatever fears I harbored. My mother, frantic for sleep herself during this worrisome time, consulted my pediatrician who prescribed orange juice with a tablespoon of brandy – for me, not for her. She was outraged at the thought, being a teetotaler, so bought no brandy for me (or for herself). I eventually got over my sleep issues, but not my worried heart.

The unknown is always more frightening than the known, and the older I got, the more I learned during 24 years of formal education and training, the more I realized I didn’t know. There would be no end to it. Even though I still spend several hours a week reading for required and non-required continuing medical education, I don’t crack the surface of everything that is news in my profession. There is a whole lot that I need to un-learn because it is now proven that it is no longer valid as it originally was over four decades of medical practice.

During the last three months of COVID-19, it is like drinking from several firehoses at once, as data on this previously unknown virus comes piecemeal from countless sources: the studies are rushed and sample sizes are small, conclusions are tentative, often barely peer-reviewed and sometimes disproven the next week by another study. What was considered “fact” a month ago may no longer be so.

So I know I must settle into the reality that there will always be plenty of unknowns, particularly as I reluctantly let go of life’s playthings one by one.

The unknown will always transcend the known on this side of the veil so I appreciate that I am gently led, in faith, to that long-awaited sleep that was so elusive before.

Muddied But Whole

The crow’s voice filtered through the walls of the farmhouse
makes sounds of a rusty car engine turning over. Clouds on a
north wind that whistles softly and cold. Spruce trees planted
in a line on the south side of the house weave and scrape at the
air. I’ve walked to a far field to a fence line of rocks where I am
surprised to see soft mud this raw day. No new tracks in the
mud, only desiccated grass among the rocks, a bare grove of
trees in the distance, a blue sky thin as an eggshell with a crack
of dark geese running through it, their voices faint and almost
troubled as they disappear in a wedge that has opened at last
the cold heart of winter.

~Tom Hennen, “Early Spring in the Field” from Darkness Sticks to Everything: Collected and New Poems

I shouldn’t be turning on the heat in the house on a late May morning but there is still an undeniable chill, even at this point in spring. The flowers outside are lush, but we’re still two or three weeks behind our usual bloom schedule.

We’re all impatient to be done with the coldness of a winter that has driven a wedge between people and politics, families and friends, well and ill.

We seek warmth and renewal and hugs and handshakes.

Instead we are asked for patience, to continue to practice the art of waiting for a safe reentry to spring and summer. No one wants to be tossed brutally back to the winter we just crawled away from.

May we emerge together, muddied but whole, ready to face whatever comes next.

Giving Life’s Best

In great deeds, something abides. 
On great fields, something stays. 
Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; 
but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls. 
And reverent men and women from afar, 
and generations that know us not and that we know not of, 
heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field, 
to ponder and dream; and lo!

the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, 
and the power of the vision pass into their souls. 
This is the great reward of service. 
To live, far out and on, in the life of others;
this is the mystery of the Christ,

–to give life’s best for such high sake
that it shall be found again unto life eternal.

~Major-General Joshua Chamberlain, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania 1889

A box of over 700 letters, exchanged between my parents from late 1941 to mid-1945, sat unopened for decades until last year. I started reading.

My parents barely knew each other before marrying quickly on Christmas Eve 1942 – the haste due to the uncertain future for a newly trained Second Lieutenant in the Marine Corps. They only had a few weeks together before she returned home to her rural teaching position and he readied himself to be shipped out for the island battles to come.

They had no idea they would not see each other for another 30+ months or even see each other again at all. They had no idea their marriage would fall apart 35 years later and they would reunite a decade after the divorce for five more years together.

The letters do contain the long-gone but still-familiar voices of my parents, but they are the words and worries of youngsters of 20 and 21, barely prepared for the horrors to come from war and interminable waiting. When he was fighting battles on Tarawa, Saipan, and Tinian, no letters or news would be received for a month or more, otherwise they tried to write each other daily, though with minimal news to share due to military censorship. They speak mostly of their desire for a normal life together rather than a routine centered on mailbox, pen and paper and waiting, lots and lots of waiting.

I’m not sure what I hoped to find in these letters. Perhaps I hoped for flowery romantic whisperings and the poetry of longing and loneliness. Instead I am reading plain spoken words from two people who somehow made it through those awful years to make my sister and brother and myself possible.

Our inheritance is contained in this musty box of words bereft of poetry. But decades later my heart is moved by these letters – I carefully refold them back into their envelopes and replace them gently back in order. A six cent airmail stamp – in fact hundreds and hundreds of them – was a worthwhile investment in the future, not only for themselves and their family to come, but for generations of U.S. citizens who tend to take their freedom for granted.

Thank you, Dad and Mom, for what you gave up to make today possible.

I hear the mountain birds
The sound of rivers singing
A song I’ve often heard
It flows through me now
So clear and so loud
I stand where I am
And forever I’m dreaming of home
I feel so alone, I’m dreaming of home

It’s carried in the air
The breeze of early morning
I see the land so fair
My heart opens wide
There’s sadness inside
I stand where I am
And forever I’m dreaming of home
I feel so alone, I’m dreaming of home

This is no foreign sky
I see no foreign light
But far away am I
From some peaceful land
I’m longing to stand
A hand in my hand
…forever I’m dreaming of home
I feel so alone, I’m dreaming of home
~Lori Barth and Philippe Rombi “I’m Dreaming of Home”