This Gift of Struggle

All morning, doing the hard, root-wrestling
work of turning a yard from the wild
to a gardener’s will, I heard a bird singing
from a hidden, though not distant, perch;
a song of swift, syncopated syllables sounding
like, Can you believe this, believe this, believe?
Can you believe this, believe this, believe?
And all morning, I did believe. All morning,
between break-even bouts with the unwanted,
I wanted to see that bird, and looked up so
I might later recognize it in a guide, and know
and call its name, but even more, I wanted
to join its church. For all morning, and many
a time in my life, I have wondered who, beyond
this plot I work, has called the order of being,
that givers of food are deemed lesser
than are the receivers. All morning,
muscling my will against that of the wild,
to claim a place in the bounty of earth,
seed, root, sun and rain, I offered my labor
as a kind of grace, and gave thanks even
for the aching in my body, which reached
beyond this work and this gift of struggle.
~Richard Levine “Believe This” from That Country’s Soul

North Brooklin, Maine
30 March 1973

Dear Mr. Nadeau:
As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time. I shall get up in the morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.

Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society—things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.

Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.
Sincerely,
[Signed, ‘E. B. White’] from Letters of Note

Today yet another era begins and another ends. However, the struggle continues: there is anguish on one side and relief on the other– just the reverse of four years ago.

I want to believe things will be different and the messes cleaned up without creating new messes. I realize, thanks to human nature, that is a futile hope.

I want to believe that goodness and compassion will thrive again.

So I will pull out the weeds that have taken over in my on back yard and clear the ground for a clean start. I will rewind the clock to help create order out of chaos and experience steadfastness instead of uncertainty.

May we hang on to hope that our dis-united states may once again survive a leader with many human flaws and failings, just as we’ve survived countless other imperfect leaders.

It is up to we the people to keep our own yards weed-free, and not allow them to take over — ever again.

Every Inch Numb

Thank God for grace,
Ye who weep only! —look up! those tears will run
Soon in long rivers down the lifted face,
And leave the vision clear for stars and sun.
~Elizabeth Barrett Browning from “Tears”

Grief
is a river you wade in until you get to the other side.
But I am here, stuck in the middle, water parting
around my ankles, moving downstream
over the flat rocks. I’m not able to lift a foot,
move on. Instead, I’m going to stay here
in the shallows with my sorrow…
It’s mine.
…I’m going to stand here,
growing colder, until every inch
of my skin is numb. I can’t cross over.
Then you really will be gone. 
~Barbara Crooker from “Grief”

A river of tears flows with the untimely loss of a young person, a child of our church. Sorrow at such a loss fills a chasm so deep and dark that it is a fearsome thing to even peer from the edge, as I do.  The family is numb, swallowed up by their grief.

We can never understand why such infinite sadness should befall good and gracious people. We are once again reminded – there can be profound darkness that descends into the human heart, stealing away lives too soon.

Be assured you do not weep alone.  Your grief is so familiar to a suffering God who too wept at the death of a friend, a God who cried out when asked to endure the unendurable.

There is comfort in knowing He understands and overcomes all peril to come to the rescue when we become stuck fast in the middle of our grief, too numb to move on. He will fill the hole left behind as only He can.

You who grieve: you are not abandoned.
Your sadness is His, your sorrow is ours.
You are loved with a love
so deep and high and broad,
it will somehow carry you through.

We are Sharers in the Guilt

…if I respond to hate with a reciprocal hate
I do nothing but intensify the cleavage in broken community.
I can only close the gap in broken community
by meeting hate with love.
If I meet hate with hate, I become depersonalized,
because creation is so designed that my personality
can only be fulfilled in the context of community.
Booker T. Washington was right:

“Let no man pull you so low as to make you hate him.”
~Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. from Stride Toward Freedom

Do you know why this world is as bad as it is?
It is because people think only about their own business, 
and won’t trouble themselves to stand up for the oppressed, 
nor bring the wrong-doers to light. 
My doctrine is this: 
that if we see cruelty or wrong
that we have the power to stop, 
and do nothing,
we make ourselves sharers in the guilt.

~Anna Sewell from Black Beauty

As nightfall does not come at once, neither does oppression.
In both instances, there is a twilight

when everything remains seemingly unchanged.
And it is in such twilight that we all must be most aware

of change in the air
– however slight –
lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness.
~William O. Douglas
in a 1976 letter to Young Lawyers of the Washington State Bar Association

We live in a time where the groaning need
and dividedness of humankind
is especially to be felt and recognized.
Countless people are subjected to hatred,
violence and oppression which go unchecked.
The injustice and corruption which exist today
are causing many voices to be raised to protest
and cry out that something be done.
Many men and women are being moved to sacrifice much
in the struggle for justice, freedom, and peace.
There is a movement afoot in our time,
a movement which is growing, awakening.

We must recognize that we as individuals are to blame
for every social injustice,
every oppression,
the downgrading of others
and the injury that man does to man,
whether personal or on a broader plane.…
God must intervene with his spirit and his justice and his truth.
The present misery, need, and decay must pass away
and the new day of the Son of Man must dawn.
This is the advent of God’s coming.
~Dwight Blough from the introduction to When the Time was Fulfilled (1965)

No matter how big a nation is, it is no stronger that its weakest people, and as long as you keep a person down, some part of you has to be down there to hold him down, so it means you cannot soar as you might otherwise.
~Marian Anderson, American opera singer at two presidential inaugurals, Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient and US State Dept. Goodwill Ambassador

We have a new definition of greatness:
it means that everybody can be great,
because everybody can serve. 
You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. 
You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. 
You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. 
You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. 
You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics
in physics to serve. 

You only need a heart full of grace,
a soul generated by love. 
And you can be that servant.
~Martin Luther King, Jr.  in a February 1968 sermon:  “The Drum Major Instinct”, A Knock At Midnight: Inspiration from the Great Sermons of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. King’s words and wisdom in his sermons and letters written over fifty years ago continue to inform us of our shortcomings as a society.

We flounder in our flaws and brokenness, persisting in our resistance to serve one another out of humility, grace and love.

Perhaps this week, we can be forgiven and start afresh.

Instead of spewing lies, profanity and hatred,
can we unite despite our fear of one another?
-to no longer be divided by strife and disagreements,
-to no longer support actions that result in senseless killings,
whether in the streets or in the womb,
-to finally be able to hold up one another,
born and unborn,
as a holy and equal in God’s eyes.

May we join together as the light dawns on this day knowing, as Dr. King knew, a new day will come when the Lord God wipes tears away from all faces, all colors, all people, created in His image.

An Austere Love

Sundays too my father got up early
And put his clothes on in the blueback cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices? 
–  Robert HaydenThose Winter Sundays

As a child growing up,
I was oblivious
to the sacrifices my parents made
to keep the house warm,
place food on the table,
to teach us the importance of faith and belief,
to crack the door of opportunity open,
so we could walk through
to a better life.

It was no small offering
to keep dry seasoned fire and stove wood always at the doorstep,
to milk the cows twice a day,
to grow and preserve fruits and vegetables months in advance,
to raise and butcher meat animals,
to read books together every night,
to sit with us over homework
and drive us to 4H, Cub Scouts and Camp Fire,
to music lessons and sports,
to sit together, never missing a Sunday morning,
to worship God.

This was their love,
so often invisible,
too often imperfect,
even when they were angry with one another–
yet its encompassing warmth
splintered and broke
the grip of cold and loneliness
that too often
overwhelms and freezes
a child’s heart and soul.

What did I know?
Too little then,
maybe a little more now.

A January Partly Cloudy

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”

There are January days
when I am surrounded
by mist and fog and partly cloudies-
a brief gift of blue sky
and gilt light.

God is felt on days like this,
neither seen or heard,
His stilling presence
overtaking me
with each breath I draw,
following the path of each glistening tear,
becoming the arcing ground
reaching to meet my foot
with each bold step I take.

Pleading To Be Let Out

Though the barn is so warm
that the oats in his manger,
the straw in his bed
seem to give off smoke—

though the wind is so cold,
the snow in the pasture
so deep he’d fall down
and freeze in an hour—

the eleven-month-old
palomino stallion
has gone almost crazy
fighting and pleading
to be let out.
~Alden Nowlan “The Palomino Stallion” from Selected Poems.

photo by Emily Vander Haak

Inside the barn the sheep were standing, pushed close to one
another. Some were dozing, some had eyes wide open listening
in the dark. Some had no doubt heard of wolves. They looked
weary with all the burdens they had to carry, like being thought
of as stupid and cowardly, disliked by cowboys for the way they
eat grass about an inch into the dirt, the silly look they have
just after shearing, of being one of the symbols of the Christian
religion. In the darkness of the barn their woolly backs were
full of light gathered on summer pastures. Above them their
white breath was suspended, while far off in the pine woods,
night was deep in silence. The owl and rabbit were wondering,
along with the trees, if the air would soon fill with snowflakes,
but the power that moves through the world and makes our
hair stand on end was keeping the answer to itself.
~Tom Hennen “Sheep in the Winter Night” from Darkness Sticks to Everything. 

We all feel pretty locked in right now – not able to go where we want, when we want, or how we want. We are kicking at the walls and pummeling each other in our frustration at the limitations imposed by a blizzard of virus swirling outside, swallowing up another person every couple minutes.

It is hard to think of quarantine as a necessary time of security and safety. Even our horses are confined to their barn stalls in the worst of winter weather with all the comforts of home provided to them, yet somehow they believe it is better “out there” than inside. However, once they are “out there,” they take one look around and turn back to come in where there isn’t knee deep mud or bitter northeast winds or pounding drenching rain. It isn’t a bit friendly out there.

In this part of the world, we can continue to have harsh winter weather for another month or so and then we can start allowing our critters more freedom. There is no chance the viral storm will settle that soon so the rest of us will hunker down for a while longer.

I’ll try not to bite if you promise not to kick.

Hold Life Like a Face

The thing is
to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.
~Ellen Bass, “The Thing Is” from Mules of Love

There is so much grief these days
so much loss of life
so much weeping.

How can we withstand this?
How can we know, now,
when we are barely able to breathe
that we might know – at some point –
we might love life again?

The Thirsty One

God has a use for you.

I am the vessel.
The draught is God’s.

And God is the thirsty one.
Not I.  But God in me.

Do not seek death.
Death will find you.
But seek the road which makes death a fulfillment.

The road, You shall follow it.
The cup, You shall empty it.
The pain, You shall conceal it.
The truth, You shall be told it.

The end, You shall endure it.
~Dag Hammarskjöld in writings from his 1953 journal

Today,
after the wind storm of yesterday,
when rain fell in unrelenting
torrents from heaven,
we are caught in a rising current so swift
we must cling fast
or be swept away.

Drenched
beyond capacity to absorb any more,
we are ready, Lord,
to empty ourselves into
your thirstiness
so we are useful for your purposes.

The Swarm Fell on His Back

Painting “Plowing the Field” by Joyce Lapp

When the plowblade struck   
An old stump hiding under   
The soil like a beggar’s   
Rotten tooth, they swarmed up   
& Mister Jackson left the plow   
Wedged like a whaler’s harpoon.   
The horse was midnight   
Against dusk, tethered to somebody’s   
Pocketwatch.  He shivered, but not   
The way women shook their heads   
Before mirrors at the five   
& dime—a deeper connection   
To the low field’s evening star.   
He stood there, in tracechains,   
Lathered in froth, just   
Stopped by a great, goofy   
Calmness. He whinnied   
Once, & then the whole   
Beautiful, blue-black sky   
Fell on his back.
~Yusuf Komunyakaa “Yellow Jackets” from Pleasure Dome

Horse Team by Edvard Munch

Death by a thousand stings.

This poem is twenty years old, yet shattering to read by the light of the events of this past week and this past year. Written by a Pulitzer Prize winning Black poet and Vietnam War veteran, it is a stark description of a teamster and plow horse going about their routine work when a hive of yellow jackets is disturbed.

The farmer saves himself.

The abandoned work horse remains harnessed and chained to the immobilized plow, eventually falling crushed beneath the swarm on his back.

How many times recently have we witnessed this stark reality of the power of the angry swarm – whether the target is someone set upon and killed by law enforcement gone rogue, or last week, a man in blue defending the U.S. Capitol, beaten and crushed by rioters who pummeled him senseless with the pole of the American flag?

A poetic metaphor about an enslaved worker dying in chains expands to include us all:

-we are the farmer who panics and runs for his life in the midst of crisis
-we are the harnessed plowhorse obediently and calmly doing his job, becoming the sacrifice for the sake of the farmer
-we are the angry swarm whose well being and security is threatened so all hell breaks loose
-we are the poet whose words try to make sense of the senseless.

Ultimately, the Writer of the Word is our rescuer: rather than abandoning us to our fate, He saves us by becoming the sacrifice Himself.

He allowed the swarm to fall on His back rather than on us.

This One Life is a Gift

When I can no longer say thank you
for this new day and the waking into it,
for the cold scrape of the kitchen chair
and the ticking of the space heater glowing
orange as it warms the floor near my feet,
I know it is because I’ve been fooled again
by the selfish, unruly man who lives in me
and believes he deserves only safety
and comfort. But if I pause as I do now,
and watch the streetlights outside winking
off one by one like old men closing their
cloudy eyes, if I listen to my tired neighbors
slamming car doors hard against the morning
and see the steaming coffee in their mugs
kissing their chapped lips as they sip and
exhale each of their worries white into
the icy air around their faces—then I can
remember this one life is a gift each of us
was handed and told to open: Untie the bow
and tear off the paper, look inside
and be grateful for whatever you find
even if it is only the scent of a tangerine
that lingers on the fingers long after
you’ve finished eating it.

~James Crews, “Winter Morning” from How to Love the World: Poems of Gratitude and Hope

I close my eyes, savor a wafer of
sacred cake on my tongue and
try to taste my mother, to discern
the message she baked in these loaves
when she was too ill to eat them:

I love you.
It will end.
Leave something of sweetness
and substance
in the mouth of the world.
~Anna Belle Kaufman “Cold Solace”

Each day, even now,
brings something new and special to my life,
for which I am so grateful;
I peel it carefully
to find what hides inside,
all the while inhaling its fragrance
then carefully, slowly, gently
lifting it to my mouth to
savor it, knowing
only love,
only loving,
only the gift of sacrifice
could taste this sweet.