Turning Darkness into Light: Inheriting a Season Under Stress

We have inherited “a season under stress” shaped by darkness and light, dread and hope, judgment and grace, second and first comings, terror and promise, end and beginning.
~J. Neil Alexander “A Sacred Time in Tension”
based on writings by Professor Richard Hoefler

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,”
has shone in our hearts
to give the light of the knowledge
of the glory of God
in the face of Jesus Christ.
2 Corinthians 4: 6

The love that descended to Bethlehem is not the easy sympathy of an avuncular God, but a burning fire whose light chases away every shadow, floods every corner, and turns midnight into noon.  This love reveals sin and overcomes it.  It conquers darkness with such forcefulness and intensity that it scatters the proud, humbles the mighty, feeds the hungry, and sends the rich away empty-handed (Luke 1:51-53).
~from the editors’ introduction in Watch for the Light

Claiming this day as the start of the Christian Advent observance is not really accurate. According to theologian Karl Barth: “what other time or season can or will the Church ever have but that of Advent?.”

We as Christians must continually wait, watch and prepare for Who is to come. That does not end with the birth of our Jesus Christ on Christmas day; it is merely the beginning of His rescue mission for humanity.

As a result, we live in the “already” – Christ has come to earth to redeem His people in a time of fear and brokenness – and here we dwell “in between.” There remains the “not yet” of the future day He returns in glory.

This is a stressful tension and no more so than this year when nothing feels quite regular or routine.

We have always been an impatient people. We don’t like waiting, particularly when we are in the middle of a mess of our own making. What we tend to forget is how much this wait is worth as we already know our salvation is in His hands. We must live out our life in that tension.

So we prepare for this God who became man: this incarnate God of endless might and everlasting Light.

A tender shoot has started up from a root of grace,
as ancient seers imparted from Jesse’s holy race:
It blooms without a blight, blooms in the cold bleak winter,
turning our darkness into light.

This shoot Isaiah taught us, from Jesse’s root should spring;
The Virgin Mary brought us the branch of which we sing;
Our God of endless might gave her this child to save us,
Thus turning darkness into light.

A Garland of Melancholy

The melon shades of leaves
will soon rust and fall gently
to layers of rest and forgetting,
like sunken poems, unusual love,
and grave silence after the crows.


The black walnut tree trembles down
its mysterious spheres to sleep darkly,
to pulse with memory of heartwood.


Old roses are paling with grace
in this air of ruining tomorrows.
Autumn again, and all the years
twisting a garland of melancholy.

~Tim Buck, “Autumn” from VerseWrights Journal

The beauty around me is dying. It becomes harder to find vibrance and life in my surroundings in the volatility of deep autumn: a high wind warning is on the horizon in a few hours and we face a long winter as the uncontrolled pandemic continues unabated.

Those facts alone are enough to make me wander about the farm feeling melancholic. Even more than the loss of mere leaves and the fading of blooms is the reality of so many afflicted and infected people whose season for dying will come too soon.

Woe to us who are more concerned about our inconvenience and discomfort today than the months of ruined tomorrows for millions.

Lest it be forgotten in our bitterness – the promise of healing and renewal is also on the horizon.

May I listen for the pulse deep within the heartwood of each person with whom I have differences; my love for them must not fade nor wither but grow more graceful, more forgiving, more vibrant and beautiful by the day.

Some Missing One

All winter
the blue heron
slept among the horses.
I do not know
the custom of herons,
do not know
if the solitary habit
is their way,
or if he listened for
some missing one—
not knowing even
that was what he did—
in the blowing
sounds in the dark,
I know that
hope is the hardest
love we carry.
He slept
with his long neck
folded, like a letter
put away.
~Jane Hirshfield “Hope and Love” from The Lives of the Heart

I know what it is like to feel out of step with those around me, an alien in my own land. At times I wonder if I belong at all as I watch the choices others make. I grew up this way, missing a connection that I could not find, never quite fitting in, a solitary kid becoming a solitary adult. The aloneness bothered me, but not in a “I’ve-got-to-become-like-them” kind of way.

I went my own way, never losing hope.

Somehow misfits find each other. Through the grace and acceptance of others, I found a soul mate and community. Even so, there are times when the old feeling of not-quite-belonging creeps in and I wonder whether I’ll be a misfit all the way to the cemetery, placed in the wrong plot in the wrong graveyard.

We disparate creatures are made for connection of some kind, with those who look and think and act like us, or with those who are something completely different. I’ll keep on the lookout for my fellow misfits, just in case there is another one out there looking for company along this journey.

How is Your Life?

Today, when I could do nothing,
I saved an ant.

It must have come in with the morning paper,
still being delivered
to those who shelter in place.

A morning paper is still an essential service.

I am not an essential service.

I have coffee and books,
time,
a garden,
silence enough to fill cisterns.

It must have first walked
the morning paper, as if loosened ink
taking the shape of an ant.

Then across the laptop computer — warm —
then onto the back of a cushion.


Small black ant, alone,
crossing a navy cushion,
moving steadily because that is what it could do.

Set outside in the sun,
it could not have found again its nest.
What then did I save?


It did not move as if it was frightened,
even while walking my hand,
which moved it through swiftness and air.


Ant, alone, without companions,
whose ant-heart I could not fathom—
how is your life, I wanted to ask.


I lifted it, took it outside.

This first day when I could do nothing,
contribute nothing
beyond staying distant from my own kind,
I did this.

~Jane Hirschfield “Today When I Could Do Nothing”

Nine months into social distancing one from another, with COVID spreading wider and faster than ever, I feel helpless to be a helper without the virus becoming a potentially deadly attachment to my efforts.

So I look for little ways to try to make a difference, as inadequate as they seem. I can no serve meals after evening church service. I can’t visit vulnerable people in their homes so have to be satisfied with screen visits. I can’t go where I wish when I wish because, by definition of age and medical risk, I am one of the vulnerable too.

So I look for words to express that may bring you a smile or maybe a knowing tear. I look for images to share that remind you of something from your past experience. I look for ways to make sense of the senseless when there can be so much disagreement and anger and bitterness. I look for where our common ground exists: how can we deepen and broaden our connection to one another in this time of painful and empty separation?

I want to ask and I want to hear: how is your life?

When we feel we can do nothing, we can do this: rescuing one another from isolation and loneliness. It will be the most important thing we do today.

Please tell me how you are.

Packed Up and Gone Home

On the fire escape, one
stupid petunia still blooms,
purple trumpet blowing
high notes at the sky long
after the rest of the band
has packed up
and gone home.
~Sarah Frehligh “December” from Sad Math

Despite two killing frosts,
heavy melting rains
and blowing gusts of 45mph,
some of us still remain standing.

Despite all that comes at us,
whether expected or unexpected,
we’re still here
even when everyone else has packed up
and headed home.

We’re still blooming,
still breathing,
still shouting
at the top of our lungs:

~life is pretty good~

so as not to forget
blooming out of season beats giving up.

The List

Last night we ended up on the couch
trying to remember
all of the friends who had died so far,

and this morning I wrote them down
in alphabetical order
on the flip side of a shopping list
you had left on the kitchen table.

So many of them had been swept away
as if by a hand from the sky,
it was good to recall them,
I was thinking
under the cold lights of a supermarket
as I guided a cart with a wobbly wheel
up and down the long strident aisles.

I was on the lookout for blueberries,
English muffins, linguini, heavy cream,
light bulbs, apples, Canadian bacon,
and whatever else was on the list,
which I managed to keep grocery side up,

until I had passed through the electric doors,
where I stopped to realize,
as I turned the list over,
that I had forgotten Terry O’Shea
as well as the bananas and the bread.

It was pouring by then,
spilling, as they say in Ireland,
people splashing across the lot to their cars.
And that is when I set out,
walking slowly and precisely,
a soaking-wet man
bearing bags of groceries,
walking as if in a procession honoring the dead.

I felt I owed this to Terry,
who was such a strong painter,
for almost forgetting him
and to all the others who had formed
a circle around him on the screen in my head.

I was walking more slowly now
in the presence of the compassion
the dead were extending to a comrade,

plus I was in no hurry to return
to the kitchen, where I would have to tell you
all about Terry and the bananas and the bread.

~Billy Collins “Downpour”

Since the count began, the list of those who have died expands every day in media headlines and increases by the hour on websites dedicated to COVID tracking – –

–only there are no names. We don’t list the names of those who have been lost.

Maybe if there were names of over one million people around the globe that the virus has hastened to take from us, somehow it would matter more. Maybe if we witnessed the suffering that accompanied each case, we would understand this is more than “just like the flu.”

I’ve seen the flu kill the young and healthy, so hearing that comparison doesn’t comfort me or cause me to wave this off as something that will pass as soon as the election results are tallied. Even some health care workers are remarkably nonchalant and dismissive of the virus. I simply don’t understand: after decades of pandemic planning in my work as a medical director/health officer, this is the situation we all dreaded could happen, but knew we needed to be ready for.

I don’t want to see anyone else added to a list that is far longer than it ever should have been and growing by the day. Yet the tallies rise because our very own behavior, modeled from the very top of government, is responsible.

Will anyone someday build a monument listing the names of those who died in this pandemic? No, because there is nothing noble about dying of a virus and the list would be far too long. There is nothing noble about failing to protect others in the name of protecting my own individual liberty and civil rights.

So I wear the mask and so should you. It just might keep me or you or someone we love from being just another number on the list.

Caught in Our Own Careless Wreckage

I believed only air
stretched between the dogwood

and the barberry: another
thoughtless human assumption

sidetracking the best story
this furrow spider knew to spin.

And, trying to get the sticky
filament off my face, I must look,

to the neighbors, like someone
being attacked by his own nervous

system, a man conducting an orchestra
of bees. Or maybe it’s only the dance

of human history I’m reenacting:
caught in his own careless wreckage,

a man trying to extricate himself,
afraid to open his eyes.
~Jeff Worley from Lucky Talk

It was an uneasy feeling opening my eyes this morning, waking up to a world where the election results are still uncertain. We are suspended in a sticky web of our own making and will be for some time, dangling…

Twenty years ago, I woke up not feeling well after a long night of waiting for election results to come in. I thought it was from the tension of not knowing when the outcome would be finalized but no… It ended up being appendicitis that day — my 2000 post-election surgical solution to take my mind off Bush vs Gore. It worked. I simply ceased to care about anything but my own healing, my priorities clarified by post-op recovery.

I’m not looking to resort to that remedy today in Trump vs Biden. I’d like to keep myself out of the ER and the OR and just go about my clinic day as usual. Yet in the dance of human history we badly want to determine who our leaders will be in a clear-cut and clean-cut process, something this campaign season has lacked. So why we would expect clarity now?

Instead, we are covered in a sticky-wickety web, spread all over our faces, unwilling to open our eyes to the reality of our divisive messiness, and attacked by our own nervous systems.

Today, I will open my eyes, take a few deep breaths and I hope you will too. And tomorrow and the next day. And avoid radical surgery if we can.

Maybe the dance is something we can do together — coordinated, cooperative, choreographed, and united — rather than flailing about in our careless wreckage of human history.

The Nation-healing Tree of Life

Sometimes, hard-trying,
it seems I cannot pray–
For doubt, and pain,

and anger, and all strife.

Yet some poor half-fledged prayer-bird from the nest
May fall, flit, fly, perch–crouch in the bowery breast
Of the large, nation-healing tree of life;–


Moveless there sit

through all the burning day,
And on my heart at night

a fresh leaf cooling lay.
~George MacDonald from Diary of an Old Soul

I suspect I’m not the only U.S. citizen who slept fitfully last night, anxious about the election and how our nation’s peoples will accept and move on with life once official results are reported.

There can be no response but to bow in earnest prayer, waiting for a long-needed hatching of healing peace for our diverse beliefs and opinions.

Our lives are half-fledged, not yet fully delivered nor understood, doubt and distrust burns into our flesh like thorns on fire. 

We have become a seething-angry and moaning-sore nation — today we will be further divided between those who win and those who lose.  The moral high ground will go to the graceful loser who concedes defeat in a spirit of unity without stoking the fires of discontent. A gloating winner would bloat us all beyond recognition.

May our prayers for peace rise like a dove from hearts in turmoil,  once again to soar on the wings of eagles.

Peace, come quickly.
Be moved within us; no longer immobile.
Cool our angry words.
Take us to higher ground.
Plow deep our hearts.

Trying Their Wings

The moon drops one or two feathers into the field.   
The dark wheat listens.
Be still.
Now.
There they are, the moon’s young, trying
Their wings.

I stand alone by an elder tree, I do not dare breathe
Or move.
I listen.
The wheat leans back toward its own darkness,
And I lean toward mine.

~James Wright from “Beginning” from Above the River: The Complete Poems and Selected Prose.

I am holding my breath today,
trying to be still
and wait.
It is time to listen, watching.

Light spills iridescence:
its fragments dot the surface of this bleak earth,
illuminating the darkness.

I can reflect the Light or remain in the dark.
Having been chosen,
I can try my wings.

Shadows Move with the Sun

The shadow’s the thing. 
If I no longer see shadows as “dark marks,”
as do the newly sighted,
then I see them as making some sort of sense of the light.
They give the light distance;
they put it in its place.
They inform my eyes of my location here, here O Israel,
here in the world’s flawed sculpture,

here in the flickering shade of the nothingness
between me and the light.
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Be comforted; the world is very old,
  And generations pass, as they have passed,
  A troop of shadows moving with the sun;
Thousands of times has the old tale been told;
  The world belongs to those who come the last,
  They will find hope and strength as we have done.
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow “A Shadow”

A shadow is hard to seize by the throat and dash to the ground.
~Victor Hugo from Les Miserables

We are dealing and dueling with shadows,
our flawed imperfect darkness
rather than one another.
We write things on a screen that we would never
say to another’s face.
We assume motives, predict behavior, ponder reactions
but all is smoke and mirrors.

Such is the cost of feeling fear and distrust.

As the sun moves and time passes,
the shadows shift and play with the Light
from a different angle,
so shall we shift and pray.

Rather than holding the Light at a distance
while trying to wrestle shadows to the ground,
we’ll embrace it and make sense of it,
yearning for the illuminating hugs
we’ve been denied for so long.