I knew you were not poisonous when I saw you in the side garden; even your name—milk snake— sounds harmless, and yet your pattern of copper splotches outlined in black frightened me, and the way you were curled in loops; and it offended me that you were so close to the house and clearly living underneath it if not inside, in the cellar, where I have found your torn shed skins.
You must have been frightened too when I caught you in the webbing of the lacrosse stick and flung you into the woods, where you landed dangling from a vine-covered branch, shamelessly twisted. Now I am the one who is ashamed, unable to untangle my feelings, braided into my DNA or buried deep in the part of my brain that is most like yours. ~Jeffrey Harrison “To a Snake” from Into Daylight.
Cast off on a sunny spring day onto a warm manure pile, a wriggled-free fresh snakeskin, almost covered by my fresh load~ lay blended with old hay, horse hair, shavings, tucked among what is already digested, dumped and discarded.
This, an intact hollowed shadow of a still living creature who has moved on: I too need to leave my old self shrugged off onto the manure pile, shed when it no longer fits the ways I’ve grown more hallowed, a fitting remembrance of my entangled feelings about who I once was, yet now left behind.
Just down the road… around the bend, Stands an old empty barn; nearing the end. It has sheltered no animals for many years; No dairy cows, no horses, no sheep, no steers. The neigh of a horse; the low of a cow; Those sounds have been absent for some time now. There was a time when the loft was full of hay, And the resounding echoes of children at play. At one time the paint was a bold shade of red; Gradually faded by weather and the sun overhead. The doors swing in the wind… the hinges are loose, Windows and siding have taken a lot of abuse. The fork, rope and pulleys lifted hay to the mow, A task that always brought sweat to the brow. But those good days are gone; forever it seems, And that old barn now stands with sagging beams. It is now home to pigeons, rats and mice; The interior is tattered and doesn’t look very nice. Old, abandoned barns have become a trend, Just down the road… around the bend. ~Vance Oliphant “Old Barn”
There is something very lonely about a barn completely empty of its hay stores. Our old barn has stood empty for several years; we and our neighbors who have used it for years to house a winter hay supply have found other more convenient places to put our hay. The winter winds have worn away its majesty: missing shingles have torn away holes in the roof, the mighty beams providing foundational support were sinking and rotting in the ground, a gap opened in the sagging roof crest, and most devastating of all, two walls collapsed in a particularly harsh blow.
The old barn was in death throes after over one hundred years of history. Its hollow interior echoes with a century of farmers’ voices: soothing an upset cow during a difficult milking, uncovering a litter of kittens high in a hay loft, shouting orders to a steady workhorse, singing a soft hymn while cleaning stalls, startling out loud as a barn owl or bat flies low overhead. Dust motes lazily drift by in the twilight, seemingly forever suspended above the straw covered wood floor, floating protected from the cooling evening breezes.
There was no heart beat left in this dying barn. It was in full arrest, all life blood drained out, vital signs flat lined. I could hardly bear to go inside much less take pictures of its deteriorating shell.
We had people show up at our front door offering to demolish it for the lumber, now all the fad for expensive modern “vintage” look in new house construction. A photo of our barn showed up in local media declaring “another grand old barn in the county has met its end.” That stung. Meanwhile we were saving our money, waiting until we could afford to bring our old red barn back to life.
It started with one strong young man digging out the support posts to locate the rot. Then another remarkable young man was able to jack up the posts one by one, putting in reinforcing steel and concrete and straightening the gaping sagging roof line, providing the old barn its first ever foundation.
And over the last two weeks a crew of two men have replaced the damaged roof and absent walls with metal siding. The barn is looking whole again.
There is a lot of clean up left to do inside: decades of old hay build up and damaged lumber and untold numbers of abandoned mouse nests and scattered barn owl pellets.
Soon, the barn will be shocked back to a pulse, with the throb of voices, music blaring, dust and pollen flying chaotically, the rattle of the electric “elevator” hauling bales from wagon to loft, the grunts and groans of the crew as they heft and heave the bales into place in the stack. It will go on late into the night, the barn ablaze with lights, the barnyard buzzing with excitement and activity.
It will once again serve as the back up sanctuary on Easter morning when we are rained out up on the hill for Sunrise Service.
Now vital signs measurable, rhythm restored, volume depletion reversed, prognosis good for another 100 years.
Another old barn is resuscitated back to life when so many are left to die. It is revived and breathing on its own again. Its floor will creak with the weight of the hay bales and walls will groan with the pressure of stacks.
I must remember there is always hope for the shattered and weary among us. If an old barn can be saved, then so can we.
Lined with light the twigs are stubby arrows. A gilded trunk writhes Upward from the roots, from the pit of the black tentacles.
In the book of spring a bare-limbed torso is the first illustration.
Light teaches the tree to beget leaves, to embroider itself all over with green reality, until summer becomes its steady portrait and birds bring their lifetime to the boughs.
Then even the corpse light copies from below may shimmer, dreaming it feels the cheeks of blossom. ~May Swenson “April Light”
This April we are surrounded by corpse light: the threat of untimely death, so we distance ourselves one from the other, awaiting the “all clear” which may be a long time coming ~
We have already forgotten the unprecedented illumination that walked from the tomb on a bright Sabbath morning to guarantee that we people, we who are no more than bare twigs and stubs, we who feel hardly alive, are now begotten green, ready to burst into blossom, our cheeks pink with life, promising future fruitfulness.
I go my way, and my left foot says ‘Glory,’ and my right foot says ‘Amen’: in and out of Shadow Creek, upstream and down, exultant, in a daze, dancing, to the twin silver trumpets of praise. ~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
This fevers me, this sun on green, On grass glowing, this young spring. The secret hallowing is come, Regenerate sudden incarnation, Mystery made visible In growth, yet subtly veiled in all, Ununderstandable in grass, In flowers, and in the human heart, This lyric mortal loveliness, The earth breathing, and the sun… ~Richard Eberhart from “This Fevers Me”
Every day should be a day of dancing and loveliness and breathing deeply, of celebrating the fact we woke afresh, a new start.
If I’m honest, I don’t always feel like dancing, my feet each going their own way and my head barely attached to my neck.
As I stumble about in my morning daze, readying myself for the onslaught to come, I step out and mumble “Glory” and then blink a few times and murmur “Amen” and breathe it out again a little louder until I really feel it and believe the ununderstandable and know it in my bones.
A little praise never hurt anyone. A little worship goes a long way. It’s the only way mystery becomes visible, tangible, touchable and tastable.
And God held in his hand A small globe. Look, he said. The son looked. Far off, As through water, he saw A scorched land of fierce Colour. The light burned There; crusted buildings Cast their shadows; a bright Serpent, a river Uncoiled itself, radiant With slime. On a bare Hill a bare tree saddened The sky. Many people Held out their thin arms To it, as though waiting For a vanished April To return to its crossed Boughs. The son watched Them. Let me go there, he said. ~R.S. Thomas “The Coming”
“Let me go there”
And He did. Knowing what awaited Him.
As a result, we are forever changed.
Fifty weeks of dirt rows Plain and unnoticed. Could be corn, could be beans Could be anything; Drive-by fly-over dull.
Yet April ignites an explosion: Dazzling retinal hues Singed and scorched, crying Grateful tears for such as this Grounded rainbow on Earth
Transient, incandescent Brilliance hoped for. Remembered in dreams, Promises realized, Housed in crystal before shattering.
Sometimes as an antidote To fear of death, I eat the stars
Those nights, lying on my back, I suck them from the quenching dark Til they are all, all inside me, Pepper hot and sharp.
Sometimes, instead, I stir myself Into a universe still young, Still warm as blood:
No outer space, just space, The light of all the not yet stars Drifting like a bright mist, And all of us, and everything Already there But unconstrained by form.
And sometime it’s enough To lie down here on earth Beside our long ancestral bones:
To walk across the cobble fields Of our discarded skulls, Each like a treasure, like a chrysalis, Thinking: whatever left these husks Flew off on bright wings. ~Rebecca Elson “Antidotes to Fear of Death”
We live out our earthly lives within these shells we call bodies, aware we were made intentionally and uniquely by our Creator in His image. Every part of us has purpose and meaning, down to the smallest corpuscle and the longest bone. We are His treasure, so much so He came to walk with us to preserve us by looking like, feeling like and suffering like us.
Yet we weaken over time, as this is temporal housing only. Even a small packet of viral RNA can cause us to fade and become dry husks.
Easter means it isn’t over. Death is overcome, the tethers of earth are broken, these husks become bright wings that soar as treasures lit from within.
…nature is never spent; There lives the dearest freshness deep down things; And though the last lights off the black West went Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs — Because the Holy Ghost over the bent World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings. ~Gerard Manley Hopkins from “God’s Grandeur”
There is a fragrance in the air, a certain passage of a song, an old photograph falling out from the pages of a book, the sound of somebody’s voice in the hall that makes your heart leap and fills your eyes with tears. Who can say when or how it will be that something easters up out of the dimness to remind us of a time before we were born and after we will die?
God himself does not give answers. He gives himself. ~Frederick Buechner from Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale
“Let Him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us, be a crimson-cresseted east.” ― Gerard Manley Hopkinsfrom “The Wreck of the Deutschland”
All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born. ~William Butler Yeats from “Easter, 1916”
It has been a slow coming of spring this year, seeming in no hurry whatsoever as we all shelter in place, isolated and lonesome for one another.
Snow remains in the foothills and the greening of the fields has only begun. The flowering plum and cherry trees finally have burst into bloom despite a continued chill. It feels like winter at night yet the perfumed air of spring now permeates the day.
Such extreme variability is disorienting when we are desperate for something – anything – that feels routine and normal. It is almost like standing blinded in a spotlight in a darkened room.
This is exactly what eastering is like. It is awakening out of a restless sleep, opening a door to let in fresh air, and the stone that locked us in the dark rolled back.
Overnight all has changed, changed utterly. We, who have been wintering and weathered, weary and withered, are transformed by the Light.
“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen!” Luke 24: 5-6
Since this moment (the resurrection), the universe is no longer what it was; nature has received another meaning; history is transformed and you and I are no more, and should not be anymore, what we were before.
Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted.” ~Paul Tillich, American theologian
So what do I believe actually happened that morning on the third day after he died? …I speak very plainly here…
He got up. He said, “Don’t be afraid.”
Love is the victor. Death is not the end. The end is life. His life and our lives through him, in him.
Existence has greater depths of beauty, mystery, and benediction than the wildest visionary has ever dared to dream.
Make no mistake: if He rose at all it was as His body; if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the moleculesreknit, the amino acids rekindle, the Church will fall…
It was not as the flowers, each soft Spring recurrent; it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the eleven apostles; it was as His Flesh: ours. ~John Updike from “Seven Stanzas at Easter”
From the far star points of his pinned extremities, cold inched in—black ice and squid ink— till the hung flesh was empty. Lonely in that void even for pain, he missed his splintered feet, the human stare buried in his face. He ached for two hands made of meat he could reach to the end of. In the corpse’s core, the stone fist of his heart began to bang on the stiff chest’s door, and breath spilled back into that battered shape. Now
Our flesh is so weak, so temporary, as ephemeral as a dew drop on a petal yet with our earthly vision it is all we know of ourselves and it is what we trust knowing of Him.
He was born as our flesh, from our flesh. He walked and hungered and thirsted and slept as our flesh. He died, His/our flesh hanging in tatters, blood spilling freely breath fading to nought, speaking those last Words our ears can never forget.
Then He got up, to walk and hunger and thirst alongside us –flesh of His flesh– here among us He is risen –flesh of our flesh– married forever as the Church: a fragile, flawed and everlasting body that will rise, once again, as He did.
“Everything is made to perish; the wonder of anything at all is that it has not already done so. No, he thought. The wonder of anything is that it was made in the first place. What persists beyond this cataclysm of making and unmaking?” ~Paul Hardingfrom Tinkers
Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! 5 This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. 6 I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’”
7 So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. 8 I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.
9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.
11 Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’” Ezekiel 7: 1-11,14
And what persists?
There are times when all appears to perish, especially in a time of pandemic and earthquakes, wind storms and tsunamis, wild fires and flooding. The obituary pages predominate in the paper, bringing home the local stories of loss and grief.
All appears to be perish with no relief or hope.
But we are told in His word hopelessness is temporary and inevitably helpless; darkness can never overcome the light of all things made.
Life persists in the midst of perishing because of the cataclysm of a loving and bleeding God dying as sacrifice, breathing His Spirit into us so that we may build back muscle and sinew, reconnect ourselves bone to bone, person to person, thrive in the church rattling and singing. We are alive, living with Him forever.
Nothing, nothing can ever be the same; God does not leave us where we are now – dryest of bones.
“God goes where God has never gone before.” ~ Kathleen Mulhern in Dry Bones
This year’s Barnstorming theme for the season of Lent:
God sees us as we are, loves us as we are, and accepts us as we are. But by His grace, He does not leave us where we are. ~Tim Keller