Fixing Eyes on the Unseen – Like a Pair of Wings

The clouds had given their all –
two days of rain and then a break
in which we walked,

the waterlogged earth
gulping for breath at our feet
as we skirted the lake, silent and apart,

until the swans came and stopped us
with a show of tipping in unison.
As if rolling weights down their bodies to their heads

they halved themselves in the dark water,
icebergs of white feather, paused before returning again
like boats righting in rough weather.

‘They mate for life’ you said as they left,
porcelain over the stilling water. I didn’t reply
but as we moved on through the afternoon light,

slow-stepping in the lake’s shingle and sand,
I noticed our hands, that had, somehow,
swum the distance between us

and folded, one over the other,
like a pair of wings settling after flight.
~Owen Sheers “Winter Swans”

We are created to be folded together to one another – bound to our God and Savior.

We belong here in tandem, even when there is temptation to fly –
away from what is painful and difficult
away from the cold, the dark, the storm

We are called home
folding our fingers and wings together
as a kept promise of unity
not just for now, but for ever.

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 – 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 – Imaged in God’s Eye

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

~Gerard Manley Hopkins “As kingfishers catch fire”

photo by Josh Scholten

We are far more than a simple flash of wing or a clarion ring of stone or bell ~
We who are imaged in God’s eye, first imagined, then brought to life.

We are His retina’s reflection of who walks in His creation,
ten thousand times ten thousand.

We are created lovely, meant to be lovely in His eyes,
so much more than light and sound~

We are inscaped in Christ, steeped
in His holy justice and sanctity~

We who keep all his goings graces,
for that He came down,
for that He indwells,
for that He was sacrificed.

We cannot help but be changed.

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 – Living in a Prayer

Here in the time between snow
and the bud of the rhododendron,
we watch the robins, look into

the gray, and narrow our view
to the patches of wild grasses
coming green. The pile of ashes

in the fireplace, haphazard sticks
on the paths and gardens, leaves
tangled in the ivy and periwinkle

lie in wait against our will. This
drawing near of renewal, of stems
and blossoms, the hesitant return

of the anarchy of mud and seed
says not yet to the blood’s crawl.
When the deer along the stream

look back at us, we know again
we have left them. We pull
a blanket over us when we sleep.

As if living in a prayer, we say
amen to the late arrival of red,
the stun of green, the muted yellow

at the end of every twig. We will
lift up our eyes unto the trees hoping
to discover a gnarled nest within

the branches’ negative space. And
we will watch for a fox sparrow
rustling in the dead leaves underneath.
~Jack Ridl, “Here in Time Between” from Practicing to Walk Like a Heron.

“Do you remember the Shire, Mr. Frodo? It’ll be spring soon. And the orchards will be in blossom. And the birds will be nesting in the hazel thicket. And they’ll be sowing the summer barley in the lower fields… and eating the first of the strawberries with cream. Do you remember the taste of strawberries?”
―  J.R.R. Tolkien

In our despairing and wintery moments,
we recollect and hold on to memories most precious to us, like a prayer,
recalling what makes each moment, indeed life itself, special and worthwhile. 

Something so seemingly simple becomes most cherished and retrievable:
the aroma of cinnamon in a warm kitchen,
the splash of new buds forming on orchard branches,
the cooing of mourning doves as spring light begins to dawn,
the velvety softness of a newborn foal’s fur,
the taste of sweet berries in late spring.

Renewal is happening around us –
and if we dig deep in our longing hearts,
renewal happens within as well.

Death will not have the final word.

Amen and again, Amen.

Do you remember the Shire, Mr. Frodo?  Do you remember?

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 – We Need More Cowbells

We come across a ridge and hear
a cowbell in the cove beyond,
a tinkle sweetening the air
with vague rubato as the breeze
erases tones and then the notes
resume like echoes from the past
or from a cave inside the cliff,
a still, calm voice in dialect
and keeping its own company,
both out of time and long as time,
both here and from a higher sphere,
as if the voice of history
were intimate as memory.

~Robert Morgan “Cowbell”

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,   
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.   
Down the ravine behind the empty house,   
The cowbells follow one another   
Into the distances of the afternoon.   
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,   
The droppings of last year’s horses   
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.   
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.
~James Wright “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota”

photo by Kate Steensma from Steensma Creamery

One of the lullabies I remember hearing as a youngster were cowbells in the pasture outside my bedroom window on our family farm. Each of our three milking Guernsey cows wore a bell on her neck so my dad could tell where they were in our wooded field. He’d whistle and call “Come Bossy!” and they would walk single file into the barn, ringing and tinkling with each step, for their twice daily grain and hand-milking.

When I was old enough, I liked to perch on top of their bony backs while my dad leaned his head into their flank, whistling a tune while he milked them, the steaming stream of milk hitting the metal bucket with a high-pitched whine. The bells on their necks still chimed as the cows chewed, moving their heads up and down to finish their meal.

This was divine music that soothed and reassured me. All was right with the world, thanks to the cows and their intrinsic tunes created by their movements, as if they were created to charm their keepers. There are moments when I believe we are hearing what heaven must sound like.

Now, sixty five years later, the soft harmony of cowbells has been replaced by the random chords of wind chimes hanging outside our house. The memory of cowbell music remains a reminder: I have not wasted my life if I can taste heaven through such simple things and magical moments.

But I still need more cowbell…

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

and because there is always a need for more cowbell…

Fixing Eyes on the Unseen: Your Fire of Truth

When without hope, without aim,
we find ourselves turning and turning
on the outermost rim
of the circumstances of our own lives ––

When our hearts are cold, our minds
no longer open to the conviction
of the unseen
or to the sources of that conviction ––

When words which were fiery
once, electrifying the mind and heart,
now seem but a mimicry of
flame, a dazzle of frozen sparks,

burn us with your fire of truth,
with your flame of love.
~Paul Murray “O Merciful One”
from Poetry Ireland Review #112

God is the fire my feet are held to.
~Charles Wright, from “Ars Poetica II” in Appalachia

If I think I’m going to get off easy in this life
because I do what I’m told to do:
keeping the Sabbath
and my nose clean,
saying what I ought to say
when I should say it
and keeping my mouth shut when
it is best to say nothing at all.

If I think good deeds
and a relative lack of bad deeds will save me,
I have another think coming
and a lot of explaining to do.

We walk through fire
because nothing about God’s glory
is easy. We are hidden in the cleft
because He is too much for our eyes to behold.
We remove our sandals
to feel the hot coals of holy ground.
He burns without being consumed
as our hearts scorch in His presence.

Yet His feet are blistered too.
He knows exactly how this feels.

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 – Break Through to Bright Air

Oh let me fall as grain to the good earth
And die away from all dry separation,
Die to my sole self, and find new birth
Within that very death, a dark fruition,
Deep in this crowded underground, to learn
The earthy otherness of every other,
To know that nothing is achieved alone
But only where these other fallen gather.

If I bear fruit and break through to bright air,
Then fall upon me with your freeing flail
To shuck this husk and leave me sheer and clear
As heaven-handled Hopkins, that my fall
May be more fruitful and my autumn still
A golden evening where your barns are full.

~Malcolm Guite “Unless a Grain of Wheat Falls Into the Ground and Dies”

…new life starts in the dark.
Whether it is a seed in the ground,
a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb,
it starts in the dark.
~Barbara Brown Taylor from Learning to Walk in the Dark

The ground is slowly coming to life again;
snowdrops, crocus, and daffodils are surfacing from months of dormancy,
buds are swelling, the spring chorus frogs have come from the mud to sing again
and birds now greet the lazy dawn.

The seed shakes off the darkness surrounding it as growth begins.

I too began a mere seed, plain and simple, lying dormant
in the darkness of my mother’s body.

Just as the spring murmurs life to the seed in the ground,
so the Word calls a human seed of life to stir and swell,
becoming at once both an animate and intimate reflection of Himself.

I was awakened in the dark to sprout, bloom and fruit, 
to reach as far as my tethered roots allow,
aiming beyond earthly bounds to touch the light.

Everything, everyone, so hidden;
His touch calls us back to life.
Love is come again
to the fallow fields of our hearts.

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 Safe and Kindly Light

Send me your light and your faithful care,
    let them lead me;
let them bring me to your holy mountain,
    to the place where you dwell.

Psalm 43:3

Lead, kindly light, amidst the grey and gloom
The night is long and I am far from home
Here in the dark, I do not ask to see
The path ahead–one step enough for me
Lead on, lead on, kindly light.

I was not ever willing to be led
I could have stayed, but I ran instead
In spite of fear, I followed my pride
My eyes could see, but my heart was blind
Lead on, lead on, kindly light.

And in the night, when I was afraid
Your feet beside my own on the way
Each stumbling step where other men have trod
shortens the road leading home to my God
Lead on, lead on,
my God, my God,
lead on, lead on, kindly light.
~Audrey Assad
inspired by Ven. John Henry Cardinal Newman’s poem “Lead Kindly Light”

Once in awhile, I awake in a windstorm-tossed night,
in pitch blackness with no flashlight within reach.

The familiar path to bathroom and kitchen
becomes obstacle course,
full of places to trip
and stub my toes
and bump my head.

Illumination for just the next step
is all I need.

A small circle of light that shows
where to safely put my foot.

You, Lord, come alongside
You, Lord, make the dark less fearsome
You, Lord, are that safe and kindly light
that shows me where to step next.
One step at a time, one again, and then another…

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 – Not Yet Not

For in this hope we were saved.
But hope that is seen is no hope at all.
Who hopes for what they already have?
But if we hope for what we do not yet have,
we wait for it patiently.

Romans 8:24-25

Morning of buttered toast;
of coffee, sweetened, with milk.

Out the window,
snow-spruces step from their cobwebs.
Flurry of chickadees, feeding then gone.
A single cardinal stipples an empty branch—
one maple leaf lifted back.

I turn my blessings like photographs into the light;
over my shoulder the god of Not-Yet looks on:

Not-yet-dead, not-yet-lost, not-yet-taken.
Not-yet-shattered, not-yet-sectioned,

Ample litany, sparing nothing I hate or love,
not-yet-silenced, not-yet-fractured; not-yet-


I move my ear a little closer to that humming figure,
I ask him only to stay.
~Jane Hirshfield “Not Yet”
from The Lives of the Heart.

To wait for the “not yet” is a hard sweet tension.

There is tension in knowing that something profound is happening – a vernal equinox, a brilliant sunrise, a fading sunset, a new life growing, but the transformation is not yet complete, and I’m unsure when it will be.

I am still unfinished business and so is everyone else.

In less than three weeks I will be reminded of what is yet to come. I will know the shock of the empty tomb. My heart will burn within me as more is revealed, through the simple act of bread breaking.

Waiting is never easy;
it can be painful to be patient,
staying alert to possibility and hope.
Others won’t understand why I wait,
nor do they comprehend what I could possibly be waiting for.

I’m all-ready, not-yet-finished, not-yet-not.

By waiting and by calm you shall be saved,
In quiet and in trust your strength lies.
~Isaiah 30:15

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