Fixing Eyes on the Unseen – In Sorrow, Scraped and Torn

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf,

“and so do all who live to see such times.
But that is not for them to decide.
All we have to decide
is what to do with the time that is given us.”

The world is indeed full of peril,
and in it there are many dark places;
but still there is much that is fair,
and though in all lands
love is now mingled with grief,
it grows perhaps the greater.
― J.R.R. Tolkien, from The Fellowship of the Ring

God is not only the God of the sufferers but the God who suffers. … It is said of God that no one can behold his face and live. I always thought this meant that no one could see his splendor and live. A friend said perhaps it meant that no one could see his sorrow and live. Or perhaps his sorrow is splendor. …

Instead of explaining our suffering God shares it.

How is faith to endure, O God, when you allow all this scraping and tearing on us? You have allowed rivers of blood to flow, mountains of suffering to pile up, sobs to become humanity’s song–all without lifting a finger that we could see. You have allowed bonds of love beyond number to be painfully snapped. If you have not abandoned us, explain yourself.

We strain to hear. But instead of hearing an answer we catch sight of God himself scraped and torn. Through our tears we see the tears of God.
~Nicholas Wolterstorff  in Lament for a Son

“My God, My God,” goes the Psalm 22, “hear me, why have you forsaken me?”  This is the anguish all we of Godforsaken heart know well. But hear the revelation to which Christ directs us, further in the same psalm:

For He has not despised nor scorned the beggar’s supplication,
Nor has He turned away His face from me;
And when I cried out to Him, He heard me.

He hears us, and he knows, because he has suffered as one Godforsaken. Which means that you and I, even in our darkest hours, are not forsaken. Though we may hear nothing, feel nothing, believe nothing, we are not forsaken, and so we need not despair. And that is everything. That is Good Friday and it is hope, it is life in this darkened age, and it is the life of the world to come.
~Tony Woodlief from “We are Not Forsaken”

Scratch the surface of a human being and the demons of hate and revenge … and sheer destructiveness break forth.

    Again and again we read the stories of violence in our daily papers, of the mass murders and ethnic wars still occurring in numerous parts of our world. But how often do we say to ourselves: “What seizes people like that, even young people, to make them forget family and friends, and suddenly kill other human beings?” We don’t always ask the question in that manner. Sometimes we are likely to think, almost smugly: “How different those horrible creatures are from the rest of us. How fortunate I am that I could never kill or hurt other people like they did.”

    I do not like to stop and, in the silence, look within, but when I do I hear a pounding on the floor of my soul. When I open the trap door into the deep darkness I see the monsters emerge for me to deal with. How painful it is to bear all this, but it is there to bear in all of us. Freud called it the death wish, Jung the demonic darkness. If I do not deal with it, it deals with me. The cross reminds me of all this.

    This inhumanity of human to human is tamed most of the time by law and order in most of our communities, but there are not laws strong enough to make men and women simply cease their cruelty and bitterness. This destructiveness within us can seldom be transformed until we squarely face it in ourselves. This confrontation often leads us into the pit. The empty cross is planted there to remind us that suffering is real but not the end, that victory still is possible…
~Morton Kelsey from “The Cross and the Cellar”

I’m depending on others’ words right now. The maelstrom of emotions following this week’s latest school shooting silences everything but my tears.

Have mercy, Holy God, on your people.

This year’s Lenten theme:
So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
2 Corinthians 4: 18

Fixing Eyes on the Unseen – Where to Look for the Good Parts

Once, in the cool blue middle of a lake,
up to my neck in that most precious element of all,

I found a pale-gray, curled-upwards pigeon feather
floating on the tension of the water

at the very instant when a dragonfly,
like a blue-green iridescent bobby pin,

hovered over it, then lit, and rested.
That’s all.

I mention this in the same way
that I fold the corner of a page

in certain library books,
so that the next reader will know

where to look for the good parts.
~Tony Hoagland “Field Guide” from Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty.

dragonfly wings photo by Josh Scholten
from The Reason for God by Tim Keller

We do not want merely to see beauty…
we want something else which can hardly be put into words-
to be united with the beauty we see,
to pass into it,
to receive it into ourselves,
to bathe in it,
to become part of it.

We discern the freshness and purity of morning,
but they do not make us fresh and pure.
We cannot mingle with the splendours we see.


But all the leaves of the New Testament
are rustling with the rumour
that it will not always be so.


Someday, God willing, we shall get in.

~C.S. Lewis from The Weight of Glory

Part of the joy of beauty
is the realization that it is part of a larger whole,
most of which appears to be just out of sight. 
We are drawn forward toward something…
and left waiting, wondering.
~N.T. Wright from Life, God and Other Small Topics

Each day brings headlines that tear at us, pull us down and rub us with mud.  We are grimy by association, sullied and smeared.

Still, in our state of disgrace, Beauty is offered up to us, sometimes out of the blue, unexpected but so welcome.

In His last act with those He loved, Jesus shared Himself through a communal meal,
then washed and toweled their dirty feet clean, immersing them, despite their protests,  in all that is beautiful and clean. He made the ugly beautiful.

He took on and wore their grime on a towel around His waist.

It is now our turn to help wash away the dirt from whoever is in need.  He showed us how to help others look for the good parts.

This year’s Lenten theme:
So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
2 Corinthians 4: 18

Fixing Eyes on the Unseen – A Greening Glory

Be still, and know that I am God…
Psalm 46:10

Be still and know that I am God.
Be still and know that I am.
Be still and know.
Be still.
Be.

Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.
~St. Patrick

Six years a slave, and then you slipped the yoke,
Till Christ recalled you, through your captors cries!
Patrick, you had the courage to turn back,
With open love to your old enemies,
Serving them now in Christ, not in their chains,
Bringing the freedom He gave you to share.
You heard the voice of Ireland, in your veins
Her passion and compassion burned like fire.

Now you rejoice amidst the three-in-one,
Refreshed in love and blessing all you knew,
Look back on us and bless us, Ireland’s son,
And plant the staff of prayer in all we do:
A gospel seed that flowers in belief,
A greening glory, coming into leaf.
~Malcolm Guite  — A St. Patrick Sonnet

St. Patrick is little remembered for his selfless missionary work in Ireland in the fifth century, but rather has become a caricature of all the drunken silliness of this day.  Visiting his grave in Downpatrick, Ireland, just a humble stone on a hill top overlooking the sea, I wondered what he would make of the modern March 17.

He would advise us to be still and know.

He would plant his staff in us and all we do; we would respond by flowering up from the green.

St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Downpatrick, Northern Ireland
St. Patrick’s grave marker

This year’s Lenten theme:
So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
2 Corinthians 4: 18

Fixing Eyes on the Unseen – A Ministry of Presence

More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes, sit on their doorsteps, play ball, throw water, and be known as someone who wants to live with them.

It is a privilege to have the time to practice this simple ministry of presence. Still, it is not as simple as it seems.

My own desire to be useful, to do something significant, or to be part of some impressive project is so strong that soon my time is taken up by meetings, conferences, study groups, and workshops that prevent me from walking the streets. It is difficult not to have plans, not to organize people around an urgent cause, and not to feel that you are working directly for social progress.

But I wonder more and more if the first thing shouldn’t be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own, and to let them know with words, handshakes, and hugs that you do not simply like them, but truly love them.
~Henri Nouwen from The Practice of the Presence of God

For too many years, I was wrapped up in the trappings of the “useful” life – meetings, committees, schedules, strategic priorities – and I forgot there is so much living usefully that I neglected to do.

There needs to be more potlucks, more “oh, by the way” conversations, more connections “just because,” more showing up when extra hands are needed.

If only I could invite you all over for breakfast. We’d have a wonderful chin wag…

Actually, now that I think of it —
you ARE invited for breakfast – Sunday, April 9, 2023 at 7 AM.
Dress warmly. Wear boots. Come hungry and thirsty for the Word and ready for hugs.
Easter Sunrise on our hill.

photo by Joel De Waard

This year’s Lenten theme:
So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
2 Corinthians 4: 18

Fixing Eyes on the Unseen – An Exaltation of Purple

Here in purgatory bare ground
is visible, except in shady places
where snow prevails.

Still, each day sees
the restoration of another animal:
a sparrow, just now a sleepy wasp;
and, at twilight, the skunk
pokes out of the den,
anxious for mates and meals. . . .

On the floor of the woodshed
the coldest imaginable ooze,
and soon the first shoots
of asparagus will rise,
the fingers of Lazarus. . . .

Earth’s open wounds — where the plow
gouged the ground last November —
must be smoothed; some sown
with seed, and all forgotten.

Now the nuthatch spurns the suet,
resuming its diet of flies, and the mesh
bag limp and greasy, might be taken
down.

Beside the porch step
the crocus prepares an exaltation
of purple, but for the moment
holds its tongue. . . .
~Jane Kenyon, “Mud Season” from Collected Poems.

photo by http://www.positivebloom.com

Walking, I drew my hand over the lumpy
bloom of a spray of purple; I stripped away
my fingers, stained purple; put it to my nose,

the minty honey, a perfume so aggressively
pleasant—I gave it to you to smell,
my daughter, and you pulled away as if

I was giving you a palm full of wasps,
deceptions: “Smell the way the air
changes because of purple and green.”

This is the promise I make to you:
I will never give you a fist full of wasps,
just the surprise of purple and the scent of rain.
~Kwame Dawes “Purple”

I have always identified more with the bland plainness of mud season as squishy brown ground is underfoot. I tend to dress myself in browns and never in elegant purples. It’s not that I don’t like purple – I do. I just have never felt worthy to be adorned in it like the sky and flowers and fruit.

Perhaps my reluctance to wear purple is that it represents the those who are regal and royal … yet also those who are bruised and battered … all at once.

I know One who was both, who took a beating for me in my place.

This year’s Lenten theme:
So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
2 Corinthians 4: 18

Fixing Eyes on the Unseen: Because the Sun Has Risen

I believe in God as I believe that the Sun has risen,
not only because I see it,
but because by it I see everything else.
~C.S. Lewis from “They Asked For A Paper,” in Is Theology Poetry?

I see your world in light that shines behind me,
Lit by a sun whose rays I cannot see,
The smallest gleam of light still seems to find me
Or find the child who’s hiding deep inside me.
I see your light reflected in the water,
Or kindled suddenly in someone’s eyes,
It shimmers through the living leaves of summer,
Or spills from silver veins in leaden skies,
It gathers in the candles at our vespers
It concentrates in tiny drops of dew
At times it sings for joy, at times it whispers,
But all the time it calls me back to you.
I follow you upstream through this dark night
My saviour, source, and spring, my life and light.
~Malcolm Guite “I am the Light of the World”

Without God’s Light that comes reliably every morning, I would be hopelessly casting about in the dark, stumbling and fumbling my way without the benefit of His illumination.

It feels like a fresh gift each time, whether brilliantly painted, or much of the time, a sullen and sodden gray.

I fix my eyes on the unseen, as it is lit in the Lord.
And then:
was blind, but now I see…

This year’s Lenten theme:
So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
2 Corinthians 4: 18

Fixing Eyes on the Unseen: A Most Important Day

“Choose the least important day in your life. It will be important enough.”          
Mrs. Gibbs to Emily in Our Town

We are ages away
from our high school class
where first we walked
the streets of Grover’s Corners
and have lived decades and
decades of important days
writing our own scenes
along the way. In this theater
we meet again the lives of people
as ordinary and extraordinary
as we are and find ourselves
smiling and weeping watching
a play we first encountered as teens.
In our 70’s Our Town brings us joy
and also breaks our hearts.
Now we know.
~
Edwin Romond Seeing “Our Town” in Our 70’s”

We don’t have time to look at one another.
I didn’t realize.
All that was going on in life and we never noticed.

Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you. 
Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?

– every, every minute? 
~Thornton Wilder, from Emily’s monologue in Our Town

He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. 12 I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; 13 also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man. 14 I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it.
Ecclesiastes 3: 11-14


One of our very special friends from church got married today to a high school classmate she knew over sixty-some years ago. Both had recently lost spouses and found their way to each other to join together for the rest of their days. Today became a most important day in their lives, a day they could not have imagined as teenagers so long ago.

The post-ceremony reception was joyous, full of other high school classmates who recognized how extraordinary it was for two lives to come full circle after all the ordinary “least important” days of high school. Observing this tight-knit community celebrating together reminds me of Grover’s Corners of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” where even those in the cemetery under the ground continue to engage in conversation and commentary about their family and friends, sometimes wistful, sometimes full of regrets.

There is so much we miss while we are living out our ordinary days because our capacity for seeing what is truly important is so limited – if we paid attention to it all, we would be overwhelmed and exhausted.

Yet God’s unlimited vision has a plan for each of us, even if we cannot see it in the moment – His divine gift to us, right from our very beginning, until the moment we take our last breath.

This year’s Barnstorming Lenten theme is taken from 2 Corinthians 4: 18:
So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

The Cold Dark Undertow

Down into the icy depths you plunge,
The cold dark undertow of your depression,
Even your memories of light made strange,
As you fall further from all comprehension.
You feel as though they’ve thrown you overboard,
Your fellow Christians on the sunlit deck,
A stone cold Jonah on whom scorn is poured,
A sacrifice to save them from the wreck.

But someone has their hands on your long line,
You sound for them the depths they sail above,
One who takes Jonah as his only sign
Sinks lower still to hold you in his love,
And though you cannot see, or speak, or breathe,
The everlasting arms are underneath.
~Malcolm Guite “The Christian Plummet”

Christians, like biblical Jonah, often struggle with living in obedience to God’s Word and plan. We become discouraged and depressed, filled with misgivings and a lack of understanding. This is complicated by our need to “put a good face on it,” especially among other Christians who seem to not feel the brokenness of the dark undertow.

Christ Himself becomes the sacrifice thrown overboard, as Jonah was, to plumb the depths and allow us to rise beyond peril and danger. He struggled too, He became discouraged and overwhelmed with the responsibility placed upon Him, but He remained obedient to His Father’s will.

We cannot fall lower than where He descended; He is there to lift us up. He knows how deep we might sink and He knows exactly what it takes to push us back up to the light.

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Taking Time to Talk

Farmer with a pitchfork by Winslow Homer

When a friend calls to me from the road
And slows his horse to a meaning walk,
I don’t stand still and look around
On all the hills I haven’t hoed,
And shout from where I am, ‘What is it?’
No, not as there is a time to talk.
I thrust my hoe in the mellow ground,
Blade-end up and five feet tall,
And plod: I go up to the stone wall
For a friendly visit.

~Robert Frost “A Time to Talk” from The Poetry of Robert Frost.

Conversations these days often take place asynchronously – text messages back and forth, voicemails, instant messages, emails – all composed and sent when most convenient so not necessarily as time-responsive as they could be.

Chatting over a fence, or on a front porch or even over the phone just doesn’t happen easily any more, especially during the pandemic years of avoiding face-to-face encounters.

Even more unusual is taking time during the work day to talk. Interruptions leading to setting aside the computer mouse or the stethoscope or the hoe can be challenging when there are only so many hours in the day.

I’m really terrible at conversation because I’ve always been shy and awkward at small talk. It’s all good when it is part of my work in an exam room, but to be honest, I don’t make time to go out to coffee with someone, or meet over a meal, or even enjoy a spontaneous visit while out for a walk or the grocery store. I’d rather be washing dishes at our weekly church potlucks.

And I’m missing out on an opportunity to love and be loved. Forgive me, friends, for my reticent nature.

The next time someone shouts at me “Howdy!” – I won’t just wave and keep on with whatever business I’m doing. I’ll stop, set aside my work tools and come over to chat. Putting two heads together in conversation is what our life and language is all about

Howdy back at you!

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An Unexpected January Light

Today is one of those excellent January partly cloudies
in which light chooses an unexpected part of the landscape
to trick out in gilt, and then the shadow sweeps it away.
You know you’re alive.
You take huge steps,
trying to feel the planet’s roundness arc between your feet.
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

It was like a church to me.
I entered it on soft foot,
Breath held like a cap in the hand.
It was quiet.
What God there was made himself felt,
Not listened to, in clean colours
That brought a moistening of the eye,
In a movement of the wind over grass.

There were no prayers said. But stillness
Of the heart’s passions – that was praise
Enough; and the mind’s cession
Of its kingdom. I walked on,
Simple and poor, while the air crumbled
And broke on me generously as bread.
~R.S. Thomas “The Moor”

After years of rarely paying attention,
too busy with whatever household,
work-place, or barnyard task needed doing,
I realized there are only a finite number
of sunrises and sunsets left to me.

Now I stop, take a deep breath,
sense the earth’s roundness
and feel lucky to be alive,
a witness to a moment of manna
falling from the sky.

Sometimes it is as plain and gray
as I am, but at times,
a fire is lit from above and beneath,
igniting the sky, overwhelming me.

I am swept away by light and shadow,
transfixed and transformed,
forever grateful to be fed
by heavenly bread broken over my head.

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