Waiting in Wilderness: In the Interstices

As the deer pants for the water so my soul pants for you, God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
As with a deadly wound in my bones,
my adversaries taunt me,
while they say to me all the day long,
“Where is your God?”
from Psalm 42

Why no! I never thought other than
That God is that great absence
In our lives, the empty silence
Within, the place where we go
Seeking, not in hope to
Arrive or find. He keeps the interstices
In our knowledge, the darkness
Between stars. His are the echoes
We follow, the footprints he has just
Left. We put our hands in
His side hoping to find
It warm. We look at people
And places as though he had looked
At them, too; but miss the reflection.

~R.S. Thomas “Via Negativa”

We are treated as impostors, and yet are true;
as unknown, and yet well known;
as dying, and behold, we live;
as punished, and yet not killed;
as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing;
as poor, yet making many rich;
as having nothing, yet possessing everything.
2 Corinthians 6: 8b-10

The way of negation (via negativa) – describing who God is by describing who He is not — is like describing the interstitial spaces between our cells rather than the cells themselves, or the blackness between stars rather than the light that emanates from them.

It is impossible to understand God unless we absorb what He says about Himself. Yet we are too finite and He is too infinite to grasp fully.

So, like a deer panting for water, we thirst for Him, seeking more than a reflection of water for our real thirst. We want Him tangible and warm before us like Thomas thrusting his hand into Jesus’ wound, crying “My Lord and My God!”

The mystery of God is how He is so much more than mere reflection and the spaces in between what we see and feel in this existence. He is all things, all at once.

So we continue to seek Him, thirsting.

Waiting in Wilderness: A Personal Invitation

Are Job’s successes — even his holy successes — his treasure?
Or is God his treasure?
That’s the question everyone of us must ask.
And there is no reason to believe
that God will not test any one of us just as he did Job.
When he takes it all away, will we love him more than things,
more than health, more than family, and more than life?
That’s the question.
That’s the warning.
That’s the wonderful invitation.
~John Piper in “I Was Warned By Job This Morning”

For I know that my Redeemer lives,
    and at the last he will stand upon the earth.
 And after my skin has been thus destroyed,
    yet in my flesh I shall see God.
Job 19: 25-26

The warning of the Book of Job is that it could happen to us too -– everything we have strived for, cared about, loved and valued — taken away. If we are stripped bare naked, nothing left but our love for God and His sovereign power over our lives, will we still worship His Name, inhale His Word like air itself, submit ourselves to His plan over our plan?

I know I have fallen far short of the mark. It takes only small obstacles or losses to trip me up so I stagger in my faith, trying futilely to not lose my balance, falling flat-faced and immobilized.

This past year, in particular, I’ve seen people lose almost everything in the pandemic: their health, their loved ones, their financial security, their home, their worship community. I’ve looked hard at myself and asked if I could sustain such loss in my life and still turn myself over to the will of God. I would surely plead for reprieve and ask the horribly desperate question, “why me?”, girding myself for the response: “and why not you?”

The invitation, scary and radical as it is, is from God straight to my heart, asking that I trust His plan for my life and death, no matter what happens, no matter how much suffering, no matter how much, like Christ in the garden, I plead that it work out differently, that it be closer to something I would choose to do, somehow that it not hurt so much.

His plan for my life was written before I was born, personally carried to me via His Son, and placed in my hands. It is up to me to open it, read it carefully, and with deep gratitude, respond with an emphatic RSVP:
“I’ll be there! Nothing could keep me away from your invitation to me.”

Or I could leave it unopened, hesitant and fearful to reveal its contents.
Or even toss it away altogether, believing it really wasn’t meant for me.

Even if, in my heart, I absolutely know it is meant for me.

There are only two kinds of people in the end:
those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’
and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’
~C. S. Lewis from The Great Divorce

Waiting in Wilderness: Swallowed with All Hope

Measure the walls. Count the ribs. Notch the long days.
Look up for blue sky through the spout. Make small fires
with the broken hulls of fishing boats. Practice smoke signals.
Call old friends, and listen for echoes of distant voices.
Organize your calendar. Dream of the beach. Look each way
for the dim glow of light. Work on your reports. Review
each of your life’s ten million choices. Endure moments
of self-loathing. Find the evidence of those before you.
Destroy it. Try to be very quiet, and listen for the sound
of gears and moving water. Listen for the sound of your heart.
Be thankful that you are here, swallowed with all hope,
where you can rest and wait. Be nostalgic. Think of all
the things you did and could have done. Remember
treading water in the center of the still night sea, your toes
pointing again and again down, down into the black depths.
~Dan Albergotti “Things to Do in the Belly of the Whale” from The Boatloads.

But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
Jonah 4:4

Most of us feel as though we were swallowed into the belly of the whale a year ago. We are treading water in the dark, disoriented and not just a little angry. All we can see of the outside world is a bit of blue sky through a tiny hole above us.

We try to imagine what life was like before the pandemic swallowed up our light and hope but if you are like me, you are grumpy.

Yet the belly of the whale is not forever. It is a time of contemplation with little distraction other than our own emotions. We’ll soon be regurgitated back onto the shore of our trivial pursuits and busyness where suddenly it will feel too noisy with too many demands.

This quiet time is meant to teach something to each of us, even if it is just to count the ribs, gaze into our own darkness and contemplate how we were trying to escape when God asked something of us.

I think of all the things I did and could have done, but resisted when the Lord asked me.
It is time that I stop being angry and start to listen.

1. Courage, my soul, and let us journey on,
Tho’ the night is dark, it won’t be very long.
Thanks be to God, the morning light appears,
And the storm is passing over, Hallelujah!

Chorus: Hallelujah! Hallelujah! The storm is passing over, Hallelujah!

2. Billows rolling high, and thunder shakes the ground,
Lightnings flash, and tempest all around,
Jesus walks the sea and calms the angry waves,
And the storm is passing over, Hallelujah!

[Chorus]

3. The stars have disappeared, and distant lights are dim,
My soul is filled with fears, the seas are breaking in.
I hear the Master cry, “Be not afraid, ’tis I,”
And the storm is passing over, Hallelujah!

[Chorus]

4. Soon we shall reach the distant shining shore,
Free from all the storms, we’ll rest forevermore.
Safe within the veil, we’ll furl the riven sail,
And the storm will all be over, Hallelujah!

Waiting in Wilderness: Moving Mountains Closer

I tell you the truth,
if you have faith as small as a mustard seed,
you can say to this mountain,
`Move from here to there’ and it will move.
Nothing will be impossible for you.
Matthew 17:20

How pale is the sky that brings forth the rain
As the changing of seasons prepares me again
For the long bitter nights and the wild winter’s day
My heart has grown cold, my love stored away
My heart has grown cold, my love stored away

I’ve been to the mountain, left my tracks in the snow
Where souls have been lost and the walking wounded go
I’ve taken the pain, no girl should endure
But faith can move mountains of that I am sure
Faith can move mountains of that I am sure

Just get me through December
A promise I’ll remember
Get me through December
So I can start again

No divine purpose brings freedom from sin
And peace is a gift that must come from within
And I’ve looked for the love that will bring me to rest
Feeding this hunger beating strong in my chest
Feeding this hunger beating strong in my chest

~Gordie Sampson & Fred Lavery

It is winter in Narnia… and has been for ever so long
…. always winter, but never Christmas.
~C. S. Lewis from The Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe

We’ve been traveling through a wilderness of the pandemic for nearly a year, even as the calendar has changed from spring to summer to autumn and in December back to winter. In this winter wilderness, we struggle with the chill of isolation from each other and from God, the endless discouragement and fatigue, and the hot cold of resentment and anger.

We are called in the gospel of Matthew to leave behind our helplessness when overwhelmed by pervasive wilderness. He tells us to believe, even if it is only the tiniest grain of faith. Our cold hearts love and hunger for God.

So if we can’t make it to the mountain in the distance, our faith can move the mountain closer. God hears our plea and brings His peace to us by bringing Himself as close as the beating heart in our chest. There will be a Christmas again and there will be Easter.

Waiting in Wilderness: Rain on a Dusty Road

Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears,
for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts.
I was better after I had cried, than before–
more sorry, more aware of my own ingratitude, more gentle.
~Charles Dickens as “Pip” in Great Expectations

Jesus wept.
~John 11:35

Today, Ash Wednesday, is the beginning of Lent (an old English word for “lengthening”).

This six week observance humbles the hardest of hearts by readying us to walk through the dusty wilderness of our sin and brokenness. 

Over the coming weeks, I learn again of Christ’s traveling the parched road to the cross. His tears become a cleansing rain — tears of sorrow and sacrifice meant to renew and restore the earthly dust beneath His feet – the dust from which His Father formed us and to which we will return.

This journey leads us through the ashes of our bitterness, pride, and ingratitude. We follow this difficult and arduous wilderness road, fitting our foot to each tear-stained print He left behind, knowing where ultimately it must take us.

VERSE 1 
It is Ash Wednesday’s early morn. 
The old, the young, the newly born 
Await the mark of Adam’s dust 
To seal their wills in Jesus’ trust. 

VERSE 2 
Prepared to walk the Lenten trail 
They face death’s dark and shadowed vale. 
Rememb’ring Christ who led the way 
They bravely march beneath his sway. 

VERSE 3 
You came from dust and dust would be 
Without the Great Son’s victory. 
The gift is free yet must be claimed 
By goodness lived and evil tamed. 

VERSE 4 
It is Ash Wednesday’s early morn. 
The old, the young, the newly born 
Await the mark of Adam’s dust 
To seal their wills in Jesus’ trust.

from Lent, released February 1, 2019 
Written by Nelson Koscheski (BMI), Ryan Flanigan (BMI); © 2018 

Pause for the Parable

Every happening, great and small,
is a parable whereby God speaks to us,
and the art of life is to get the message.
~Malcolm Muggeridge

Every day is filled with storied moments
though I feel too rushed to listen.

If I take time to be changed
by what I see or feel or hear,
when I pause
for the parable,
it makes all the difference:

A steaming manure pile
becomes the crucible for my failings
transformed into something useful,
a fertilizer to be spread
to grow what it touches.

An iced-over water barrel
reflects distant clouds
above me as I peer inside,
its frozen blue eye focused
past my brokenness
to mirror a beauty
far beyond.

An old barn roof with gaps torn by fierce winds,
is repaired and renewed,
no longer allowing rain and snow
and invading vines inside;
once again safe and secure,
a sanctuary protected from storms.

I am looking.
I am listening.
Feeling in desperate need of repair
before I topple over:
to be transformed,
and forever changed.

Kicking on the Furnace

When the cold air comes on in,
it kicks the furnace on,
and the furnace overwhelms the cold.
As the sorrow comes into the heart of a Christian,
it kicks on more of the joy.
It gets you closer to him,
it helps you dig down deeper into him,
and the joy kicks up, you might say, like a furnace,
and overwhelms the sorrow.
That is a picture of a solid Christian.
Not a sorrow-less person who is
happy, happy, happy, all the time.
That’s not the picture.
A picture of a real Christian
is a person who has a furnace of joy in there
that kicks up as the sorrow comes in
and overwhelms the sorrow.
But the sorrow is there.
It is there.
~Pastor Tim Keller (1990)
, now in treatment for pancreatic cancer

The Cross is the blazing fire at which the flame of our love is kindled, but we have to get near enough for its sparks to fall on us.
~John Stott

I have listened to criticism at times in my faith life that I don’t exhibit enough joy and happiness in my Christian walk. It is true that I tend toward lamenting the state of the world and the state of my own soul. I could use more balance in my expressions of gratitude. So what I hear from others is fair feedback.

My faith furnace thermostat is now set so high that it rarely kicks on and I dwell too much in the cold.

Especially in the last year of COVID-time, I have been especially feeling the chill as I watch so many dealing with immense sorrow and loss. So much has changed, particularly in how we can safely gather and worship together, resulting in finger pointing among Christians about who is showing more righteous dedication to the Word of God.

So the nit-picking begins.

If we don’t sing together in worship as commanded by our Lord but temporarily restricted by state regulations, do we lack conviction in our faith, allowing fear and earthly authorities to rule over us? If we sing outside, even in the cold dark rain and snow, is that sufficient compromise and does it truly “turn on” the furnace of our joy?

Or wearing a mask shows fear and a lack of faith that God is ultimately in charge as only He determines how many days we dwell on this earth. Yet by wearing a mask at all times when together we are showing compassion for others by loving them enough to try to protect them from any infection we may unknowingly harbor.

These feel like irreconcilable differences in perspective among people who purportedly love one another in the name of Christ. So we all end up in the cold, waiting on the furnace of our love and joy to kick on.

In my self-absorption, I tend to forget that the fire has always been there, lit by Christ’s sacrifice, despite His own mortal fear and hesitation and tears, yet fueled solely by His divine desire to save His children. I need to come closer to feel the heat of His love, and feel those sparks landing on my earthly skin to remind me there can be no love without pain.

Amen to that.

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.

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.

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”

sunset12172

…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