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.

When Darkness Dazzles


Deep midwinter, the dark center of the year,
Wake, O earth, awake,
Out of the hills a star appears,
Here lies the way for pilgrim kings,
Three magi on an ancient path,
Black hours begin their journeyings.

Their star has risen in our hearts,
Empty thrones, abandoning fears,
Out on the hills their journey starts,
In dazzling darkness God appears.
~Judith Bingham “Epiphany”

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…the scent of frankincense
and myrrh
arrives on the wind,
and I long
to breathe deeply,
to divine its trail.
But I know their uses
and cannot bring myself
to breathe deeply enough
to know
whether what comes
is the fragrant welcoming
of birth
or simply covers the stench of death.
These hands
coming toward me,
is it swaddling they carry
or shroud?
~Jan Richardson from Night Visions –searching the shadows of Advent and Christmas

birchgold

Unclench your fists
Hold out your hands.
Take mine.
Let us hold each other.
Thus is his Glory Manifest.
~Madeleine L’Engle “Epiphany”

newyearsice2

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.


…I should be glad of another death.
~T.S. Eliot from “Journey of the Magi”

futuremapletree3

Imagine the Lord, for the first time,
from darkness, and stranded
Immensely in distance,

recognizing Himself in the Son
Of Man:

His homelessness plain to him now in a homeless one.
~Joseph Brodsky from “Nativity Poem” translated from Russian by Seamus Heaney

In the cold season, in a locality accustomed to heat more than
to cold, to horizontality more than to a mountain,
a child was born in a cave in order to save the world;
it blew as only in deserts in winter it blows, athwart.

To Him, all things seemed enormous: His mother’s breast, the steam
out of the ox’s nostrils, Caspar, Balthazar, Melchior—the team
of Magi, their presents heaped by the door, ajar.
He was but a dot, and a dot was the star.

Keenly, without blinking, through pallid, stray
clouds, upon the child in the manger, from far away—
from the depth of the universe, from its opposite end—the star
was looking into the cave.

And that was the Father’s stare.
~Joseph Brodsky “Star of the Nativity”

“The Eye of God” Nebula

The Christmas season is now a wrap,
the lights put away for another year.
Yet our hearts are not so easily packed and stored.

Our troubles and concerns go on;
the pandemic numbers soar,
our frailty a daily reality.
We can be distracted with holidays for a few weeks,
but our time here slips away ever more quickly.

The Christmas story is not just about
light and birth and joy to the world,
magi following a star
to discover they are reborn in Light themselves.

It is about how His swaddling clothes
became a shroud that wrapped Him tight
for only three days.
There is not a birth without His death;
even when we try to store Him away,
neatly wrapped to pull out in another year.

Christ does not stay on the closet shelf.

God came to be with and among us;
Delivered so He could deliver.
Planted on and in the earth.
Born so He could die in our place
and leave the linen strips behind, neatly folded.

Advent: an interminable wait in the darkness
Christmas:  an unwrapping of the ultimate gift of life
Epiphany: the Father watches us from afar
to see how the Seed He sent takes root in our hearts,
dazzling our darkness.

bakersteaming

The Snow of Home

You wake up on a winter morning and pull up the shade, and what lay there the evening before is no longer there–
the sodden gray yard, the dog droppings, the tire tracks in the frozen mud, the broken lawn chair you forgot to take in last fall.
All this has disappeared overnight, and what you look out on is not the snow of Narnia but the snow of home,
which is no less shimmering and white as it falls.


The earth is covered with it, and it is falling still in silence so deep that you can hear its silence.
It is snow to be shoveled, to make driving even worse than usual, snow to be joked about and cursed at,
but unless the child in you is entirely dead,
it is snow, too, that can make the heart beat faster when it catches you by surprise that way,
before your defenses are up.


It is snow that can awaken memories of things more wonderful than anything you ever knew or dreamed.
~Frederick Buechner “Sudden Snow”

There will be rest, and sure stars shining
     Over the roof-tops crowned with snow,
A reign of rest, serene forgetting,
     The music of stillness holy and low.

I will make this world of my devising
     Out of a dream in my lonely mind.
I shall find the crystal of peace, – above me
     Stars I shall find.

~Sara Teasdale “There Will Be Rest”

We had a surprise snowfall on the first day of winter last week.

In the Pacific Northwest, snow is often a once-a-winter event and usually doesn’t stay long. Here in the upper NW corner close to the Canadian border, it is accompanied by frigid northeast winds, blowing and drifting and making us all frankly miserable.

Yet this fresh-into-winter snowfall came down gently for several hours, without wind or drifts. It covered a multitude of messes that had accumulated over the previous year, making all things shimmer with newness. It made magic where before previously there had been drudgery.

And it silently lingered, like a long-lost memory I wanted to cling to, rolling it over and over in my mind like a snow ball that grows with each turn.

After a night of warm rain, it vanished and all was back to as it was.
Yet I am better for having been visited by an unexpected snow, reminding me how my memories and dreams are not buried so deep that they are lost forever.

Because They Are No More…

A voice is heard in Ramah,
    mourning and great weeping,

Rachel weeping for her children
    and refusing to be comforted,
    because they are no more.
Matthew 2:18 and Jeremiah 31:15

We think of him as safe beneath the steeple,
Or cosy in a crib beside the font,
But he is with a million displaced people|
On the long road of weariness and want.
For even as we sing our final carol
His family is up and on that road,
Fleeing the wrath of someone else’s quarrel,
Glancing behind and shouldering their load.

Whilst Herod rages still from his dark tower
Christ clings to Mary, fingers tightly curled,|
The lambs are slaughtered by the men of power,
And death squads spread their curse across the world.
But every Herod dies, and comes alone
To stand before the Lamb upon the throne.
~Malcolm Guite from Waiting on the Word

 …as you sit beneath your beautifully decorated tree, eat the rich food of celebration, and laugh with your loved ones, you must not let yourself forget the horror and violence at the beginning and end of the Christmas story. The story begins with the horrible slaughter of children and ends with the violent murder of the Son of God. The slaughter depicts how much the earth needs grace. The murder is the moment when that grace is given.

Look into that manger representing a new life and see the One who came to die. Hear the angels’ celebratory song and remember that sad death would be the only way that peace would be given. Look at your tree and remember another tree – one not decorated with shining ornaments, but stained with the blood of God.

As you celebrate, remember that the pathway to your celebration was the death of the One you celebrate, and be thankful.
~Paul Tripp

There can be no consolation;
only mourning and great weeping,
sobbing that wrings dry
every human cell,
leaving dust behind–
dust, only dust
which is beginning
and end.

He came to us
for times such as this,
born of
the dust of woman and
the breath of Spirit,
God who bent down to
lie in barn dust,
walk on roads of dust,
die and be laid to rest as dust
in order to conquer
such evil as this
that could terrify masses
and massacre innocents.

He became dust to be
like us
He began a mere speck in a womb
like us,
so easily washed away
as unexpected, unneeded, unwanted.

Lord, You are long expected.
You are needed
You are wanted.

Your heart beat
like ours
breathing each breath
like ours
until a fearful fallen world
took Your
and our breath
away.

You shine through
the shadows of death
to guide our stumbling uncertain feet.
Your tender mercies flow freely
when there is no consolation
when there is no comfort.

You hear our cries
as You cry too.
You know our tears
as You weep too.
You know our mourning
as You mourned too.
You know our dying
as You died too.

God weeps
as tragedy happens.
Evil comes not from God
yet humankind embraces it.
Sin is a choice
we made from the beginning,
a choice we continue to make.

Only God can glue together
what evil has shattered.
He just asks us to hand Him
the pieces of our broken hearts.

We will know His peace
when He comes
to bring us home,
our tears will finally be dried,
our cells no longer
just dust,
never only dust
as we are glued together
by the breath of God
forevermore.

the tender mercy of our God,
    by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness
    and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.
Luke 1: 78-79

Came Down

The Word became flesh. Ultimate Mystery born with a skull you could crush one-handed. Incarnation.
It is not tame.
It is not beautiful.
It is uninhabitable terror.
It is unthinkable darkness riven with unbearable light.
Agonized laboring led to it, vast upheavals of intergalactic space, time split apart, a wrenching and tearing of the very sinews of reality itself.

You can only cover your eyes and shudder before it, before this:
“God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God… who for us and for our salvation,”
as the Nicene Creed puts it, “came down from heaven.”  

Came down.

Only then do we dare uncover our eyes and see what we can see.
It is the Resurrection and the Life she holds in her arms.
It is the bitterness of death he takes at her breast.

~Frederick Buechner from Whistling in the Dark: A Doubter’s Dictionary

Down he came from up,
and in from out,
and here from there.
A long leap,
an incandescent fall
from magnificent
to naked, frail, small,
through space,
between stars,
into our chill night air,
shrunk, in infant grace,
to our damp, cramped
earthy place
among all
the shivering sheep.

And now, after all,
there he lies,
fast asleep.
~Luci Shaw “Descent” from Accompanied By Angels

[The Incarnation is like] a wave of the sea which, 
rushing up on the flat beach, 
runs out, even thinner and more transparent, 
and does not return to its source but sinks into the sand and disappears.
~Hans Urs von Balthasar from Origen: Spirit and Fire

Perhaps it is the mystery of the thing that brings us back,
again and again, to read the story of 
how God came down and disappeared into us.

How can this be?
God appearing on earth first to animals, then the most humble of humans.

How can He be?
Through the will of the Father and the breath of the Spirit,
the Son was, and is and yet to be.

O great mystery beyond all understanding.

O magnum mysterium,
et admirabile sacramentum.
Ut animalia viderent
Dominum natum, iacentem in
praesepio: Beata Virgo,
cujus viscera meruerunt portare
Dominum Christum
Alleluia

Turning Darkness Into Light: And Is It True?

The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.
John 1:9-10

There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.

Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his master’s, ceased to trouble him. He crawled back into the brambles and laid himself by Frodo’s side, and putting away all fear he cast himself into a deep untroubled sleep.

“Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?”
“A great Shadow has departed…”

~J.R.R Tolkien from The Return of the King

And is it true? And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me ?


And is it true?
For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,


No love that in a family dwells,
No caroling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.
~John Betjeman from “Christmas”

O come, O come, and be our God-with-us
O long-sought With-ness for a world without,
O secret seed, O hidden spring of light.
Come to us Wisdom, come unspoken Name
Come Root, and Key, and King, and holy Flame,
O quickened little wick so tightly curled,
Be folded with us into time and place,
Unfold for us the mystery of grace
And make a womb of all this wounded world.
O heart of heaven beating in the earth,
O tiny hope within our hopelessness
Come to be born, to bear us to our birth,
To touch a dying world with new-made hands
And make these rags of time our swaddling bands.
~Malcolm Guite “O Emmanuel”

The holiest of all holidays are those
    Kept by ourselves in silence and apart;
    The secret anniversaries of the heart,
    When the full river of feeling overflows;—
The happy days unclouded to their close;
    The sudden joys that out of darkness start
    As flames from ashes; swift desires that dart
    Like swallows singing down each wind that blows!
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow from “Holidays”

And is it true?

Is it possible the darkness is set aside by His Light?

His flame springs from ashes, His wick quickened, the shadows banished.

It is true. It is true. The full river of grace overflows.

He is the Truth.

One for the star in the sky over Bethlehem
Two for the hands that will rock him to sleep
Three for the kings bringing gold, brining myrrh, bringing incense
Four for the angels that watch over his bedside
Blue for the robe of the sweet Virgin Mary
White for the dawn of the first Christmas day
Red for the blood that he shed for us all on Good Friday
Black for the tomb where he rested ‘till Easter

Lullaby, see Jesus asleep.
Angels and shepherds their watch on him keep
Lullaby he soon will awake
for the oxen are stirring and morning with break

One for the star in the sky over Bethlehem
Two for the hands that will rock him to sleep
Three for the kings bringing gold, brining myrrh, bringing incense
Four for the angels that watch over his bedside
And one for the heart, one for the heart,
One for the heart that I give as my offering to Jesus!

Turning Darkness Into Light: He Holds On to Us

The angel said there would be no end
to his kingdom. So for three hundred days
I carried rivers and cedars and mountains.
Stars spilled in my belly when he turned.
Now I can’t stop touching his hands,
the pink pebbles of his knuckles,

the soft wrinkle of flesh
between his forefinger and thumb.
I rub his fingernails as we drift
in and out of sleep. They are small
and smooth, like almond petals.

Forever, I will need nothing but these.

But all night, the visitors crowd
around us. I press his palms to my lips
in silence. They look down in anticipation,
as if they expect him to suddenly
spill coins from his hands
or raise a gold scepter
and turn swine into angels.

Isn’t this wonder enough
that yesterday he was inside me,
and now he nuzzles next to my heart?

That he wraps his hand around
my finger and holds on?
~Tania Runyan “Mary” from Nativity Suite

Now, newborn,
in wide-eyed wonder
he gazes up at his creation.
His hand that hurled the world
holds tight his mother’s finger.
Holy light
spills across her face
and she weeps
silent wondering tears
to know she holds the One
who has so long held her.
~Joan Rae Mills from “Mary” in the Light Upon Light Anthology by Sara Arthur

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The grip of the newborn is, in fact, superhuman. It is one of the tests of natural infant reflexes that are checked medically to confirm an intact nervous system in the newborn. A new baby can hold their own weight with the power of their hand hold, and Jesus would have been no different, except in one aspect: He also held the world in His infant hands.

We have been held from the very Beginning, and have not been let go. Try as we might to wiggle free to go our own way, He keeps a powerful grip on us.

We know the strength of the Lord whose hands “hurled the world” into being.

This is what our good God has done for us… He hangs on tight.

Good people all, this Christmas time
Consider well and bear in mind
What our good God for us has done
In sending his beloved son

With Mary holy we should pray
To God with love this Christmas Day
In Bethlehem upon that morn
There was a blessed Messiah born

Near Bethlehem did shepherds keep
Their flocks of lambs and feeding sheep
To whom God’s angels did appear
Which put the shepherds in great fear’

Prepare and go, ‘ the angels said
‘To Bethlehem, be not afraid
For there you’ll find, this happy morn
A princely babe, sweet Jesus born

With thankful heart and joyful mind
The shepherds went, this babe to find
And as God’s angel had foretold
They did our saviour Christ behold

Within a manger he was laid
And by his side the virgin maid
Attending on the Lord of life
Who came on earth to end all strife

Good people all, this Christmas time
Consider well and bear in mind
What our good God for us has done
In sending his beloved Son

With Mary holy we should pray
To God with love this Christmas day
In Bethlehem upon that morn
There was a blessed Messiah born

Turning Darkness Into Light: A Safe Place in My Heart

In the dark, a child might ask, What is the world?
just to hear his sister
promise, An unfinished wing of heaven,
just to hear his brother say,
A house inside a house,
but most of all to hear his mother answer,
One more song, then you go to sleep.


How could anyone in that bed guess
the question finds its beginning
in the answer long growing
inside the one who asked, that restless boy,
the night’s darling?


Later, a man lying awake,
he might ask it again,
just to hear the silence
charge him, This night
arching over your sleepless wondering,

this night, the near ground
every reaching-out-to overreaches,

just to remind himself
out of what little earth and duration,
out of what immense good-bye,


each must make a safe place of his heart,
before so strange and wild a guest
as God approaches.

~Li Young Lee “Nativity Poem”

As alone as we may feel during this odd time
without the comfort of ones we love now near,
as separate as it is without shared meals and laughter,
there is one thing a virus can’t take from us:

we are the shelter for God comes newborn
we are the womb He seeks
we are the safe place hidden from the storms of the world
and He grows here in our hearts –
invited and wild and strange –
so nurtured and so nurturing.


No presents, no candy, no treat
No stockings hung by the fire
No parties, no family to greet
No angel’s heavenly choirs

Bells are ringing all over the world
Bells are ringing calling the light
Bells are ringing all over the world
All over the world tonight

No doorways, no windows, no walls
No shelter here on the ground
No standing and no safe place to fall
Just the promise of this distant sound

Bells are ringing all over the world
Bells are ringing calling the light
Bells are ringing all over the world
All over the world tonight

Wherever you’re walking tonight
Whoever you’re waiting for
Somehow by the stable’s faint light
Peace in your heart is restored

Bells are ringing all over the world
Bells are ringing calling the light
Bells are ringing all over the world
All over the world

Bells are ringing all over the world
Bells are ringing calling the light
Bells are ringing all over the world
All over the world tonight
~Mary Chapin Carpenter

Turning Darkness Into Light: Nothing Can Be Ordinary Now


Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.
~George Herbert “Prayer”

~Heaven in Ordinary~
Because high heaven made itself so low
That I might glimpse it through a stable door,
Or hear it bless me through a hammer blow,
And call me through the voices of the poor,
Unbidden now, its hidden light breaks through
Amidst the clutter of the every day,
Illuminating things I thought I knew,
Whose dark glass brightens, even as I pray.
Then this world’s walls no longer stay my eyes,
A veil is lifted likewise from my heart,
The moment holds me in its strange surprise,
The gates of paradise are drawn apart,
I see his tree, with blossom on its bough,
And nothing can be ordinary now.

~Malcolm Guite from “After Prayer”

We live in a world of theophanies.
Holiness comes wrapped in the ordinary.
There are burning bushes all around you.
Every tree is full of angels.
Hidden beauty is waiting in every crumb.
Life wants to lead you from crumbs to angels,
but this can happen only if you are willing
to unwrap the ordinary by staying with it long enough
to harvest its treasure.
~Macrina Wiederkehr from A Tree Full of Angels

I follow the crumb trail most days;
my problem,
like so many others I know,
is to realize the crumbs satisfy more
than any seven course meal.
It may take longer to get full,
but I need the exercise,
and the hungrier I get,
the better the crumbs taste.

Considering the distance between us and God,
seemingly insurmountable to overcome,
yet He leaves us the crumb trail to follow.
How amazing it only takes a few words to Him,
our gratitude and praise,
our pleas and pain,
our breath hot in His ear~
unhesitating
He plummets to us;
then we are lifted to Him.

Heaven dwells in the ordinary crumbs,
fills us in our plainness,
dresses us up,
prepares us to be loved,
prepares us to be accepted and understood
prepares us to be transformed
by no less than our very Creator.

So~
let nothing you dismay.

Turning Darkness Into Light: Promise of a New Dawn

…Christmas will come once again.
The great transformation will once again happen.
God would have it so.
Out of the waiting, hoping, longing world,
a world will come in which the promise is given.
All crying will be stilled.
No tears shall flow.
No lonely sorrow shall afflict us anymore, or threaten.
~Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a sermon to a church in Havana, Cuba December 21, 1930

when
this blessing comes,
take its hand.
Get up.
Set out on the road
you cannot see.

This is the night
when you can trust
that any direction
you go,
you will be walking
toward the dawn.
— Jan Richardson (author of Circle of Grace)

“Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead! Is everything sad going to come untrue?”
~J.R.R. Tolkien from The Lord of the Rings when Samwise Gamgee wakes to find his friends all around him

“The answer is yes. And the answer of the Bible is yes. If the resurrection is true, then the answer is yes. Everything sad is going to come untrue.”
~Pastor Tim Keller’s response in a sermon given in an ecumenical prayer service memorial in Lower Manhattan on the fifth anniversary of Sept. 11.

In our minds, we want to rewind and replay the events of a tragedy in a way that would prevent it from happening in the first place.   We want to bring the dead and injured back to health again.  The pandemic virus fizzles out on its own, the devastating earthquake becomes a mere tremor, the flooding tsunami is only one foot, not thirty feet tall, the terrorist hijackers are prevented from ever boarding a plane, the shooter changes his mind at the last minute, lays down his arms, disables his booby trap bombs and calls someone for help with his distress and anger.

We want so badly for it all to be untrue, especially the events of this year.  The bitter reality of horrendous suffering and sadness daily all over the earth is too much for us to absorb.   We plead for relief, beg for a better day.

Our minds may play mental tricks like this, but God does not play tricks.  He knows and feels what we do.  He too wants to see it rewound and replayed differently.  He has known grief and sadness, He has wept, He has suffered, He too died.  And because of this, because of a God who came to dwell with us, was broken, died and then rose again whole and holy, we are assured, in His time, everything sad is going to come untrue.

Our tears will be dried, our grief turned to joy, our pain nonexistent, not even a memory.  It will be a new day, a better day–as it is written, trustworthy and true.

May it come.

Quickly.

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.  Revelation 21: 4-5