Waiting in Wilderness: Heaven and I Wept Together

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And so you have a life that you are living only now,
now and now and now,
gone before you can speak of it,
and you must be thankful for living day by day,
moment by moment …
a life in the breath and pulse and living light of the present…

~Wendell Berry from Hannah Coulter

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~Lustravit lampade terras~
(He has illumined the world with a lamp)
The weather and my mood have little connection.
I have my foggy and my fine days within me;
my prosperity or misfortune has little to do with the matter.
– Blaise Pascal from “Miscellaneous Writings”

foggyfield
photo by Nate Gibson

I laughed in the morning’s eyes.
I triumphed and I saddened with all weather,
Heaven and I wept together,
and its sweet tears were salt with mortal mine.
Against the red throb of its sunset heart,
I laid my own to beat
And share commingling heat.

Rise, clasp my hand, and come.
Halts by me that Footfall.
Is my gloom, after all,
Shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly?
Ah, Fondest, Blindest, Weakest,
I am He whom thou seekest.
Thou dravest Love from thee who dravest Me.

~Francis Thompson from “The Hound of Heaven”

supermoonbarn

My days are filled with anxious and sad patients,
one after another after another. 
They sit in front of their screen
and I in front of mine,
so close yet so far from each another –
a wilderness of unexpressed emotions.

They struggle to hold back the flood from brimming eyes.  
Each moment, each breath, each heart beat overwhelmed by questions: 
How to take yet another painful breath of this sad life?  must there be another breath?  
Must things go on like this in fear of what the next moment will bring?

The only thing more frightening than the unknown is the knowledge
that the next moment will be just like the last or perhaps worse. 
There is no recognition of a moment just passed
that can never be retrieved and relived.  
There is only fear of the next and the next
so that now and now and now is lost forever.

Worry and sorrow and angst are more contagious than any viral pandemic.
I mask up and wash my hands of it throughout the day.
I wish there was a vaccine to protect us all from our unnamed fears in the wilderness.

I want to say to them and myself:
Stop this moment in time.
Stop and stop and stop.
Stop expecting this feeling must be “fixed.”
Stop wanting to be numb to all discomfort.
Stop resenting the gift of each breath.
Just stop.
Instead, simply be
in the now and now and now.

I want to say:
this moment, foggy or fine, is yours alone,
this moment of weeping and sharing
and breath and pulse and light.
Shout for joy in it.
Celebrate it.
Be thankful for tears that can flow over grateful lips
and stop holding them back.

Stop me before I write,
out of my own anxiety over you,
yet another prescription
you don’t really need.

Just be–
and be blessed–
in the now and now and now.

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This Notable Thing

Chunky and noisy,
but with stars in their black feathers,
they spring from the telephone wire
and instantly

they are acrobats
in the freezing wind.
And now, in the theater of air,
they swing over buildings,

dipping and rising;
they float like one stippled star
that opens,
becomes for a moment fragmented,

then closes again;
and you watch
and you try
but you simply can’t imagine

how they do it
with no articulated instruction, no pause,
only the silent confirmation
that they are this notable thing,

this wheel of many parts, that can rise and spin
over and over again,
full of gorgeous life.

Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us,
even in the leafless winter,
even in the ashy city.
I am thinking now
of grief, and of getting past it;

I feel my boots
trying to leave the ground,
I feel my heart
pumping hard. I want

to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings.
~Mary Oliver “Starlings in Winter” from Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays

Out of the dimming sky a speck appeared,
then another, and another.
It was the starlings going to roost. 
They gathered deep in the distance,  flock sifting into flock,
and strayed towards me, transparent and whirling, like smoke.
They seemed to unravel as they flew,
lengthening in curves, like a loosened skein. 
I didn’t move; they flew directly over my head for half an hour. 

Each individual bird bobbed and knitted up and down
in the flight at apparent random, for no known reason except
that that’s how starlings fly, yet all remained perfectly spaced.
The flocks each tapered at either end

from a rounded middle, like an eye.
Overhead I heard a sound of beaten air,

like a million shook rugs, a muffled whuff.
Into the woods they sifted without shifting a twig,
right through the crowns of trees, intricate and rushing, like wind.

Could tiny birds be sifting through me right now,
birds winging through the gaps between my cells,
touching nothing, but quickening in my tissues, fleet?
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

…yesterday I heard a new sound above my head
a rustling, ruffling quietness in the spring air

and when I turned my face upward
I saw a flock of blackbirds
rounding a curve I didn’t know was there
and the sound was simply all those wings,
all those feathers against air, against gravity
and such a beautiful winning:
the whole flock taking a long, wide turn
as if of one body and one mind.

How do they do that?

If we lived only in human society
what a puny existence that would be

but instead we live and move and have our being
here, in this curving and soaring world
that is not our own
so when mercy and tenderness triumph in our lives
and when, even more rarely, we unite and move together
toward a common good,

we can think to ourselves:

ah yes, this is how it’s meant to be.
~Julie Cadwallader Staub from “Blackbirds” from Wing Over Wing

Watching a winter starlings’ murmuration is a visceral experience – my heart leaps to see it happen above me.  I can get queasy following its looping amoebic folding and unfolding path.

Thousands of individual birds move in sync with one another to form one massive organism existing solely because each tiny component anticipates and cooperates to avoid mid-air collisions.  It could explode into chaos but it doesn’t.  It could result in massive casualties but it doesn’t.  They could avoid each other altogether but they don’t – they come together with a purpose and reasoning beyond our imagining. Even the silence of their movement has a discernible sound.

We humans are made up of just such cooperating component parts, that which is deep in our tissues, programmed in our DNA.  Yet we don’t exercise such unity from our designed and carefully constructed building blocks.  We are frighteningly disparate and independent creatures, going our own way bumping and crashing without care, leaving so much body and spiritual wreckage behind.

To where has flown our mercy and tenderness?
We have corporately lost our internal moral compass.

We figuratively and literally shoot each other in the back, trampling over and suffocating one another, in a reach for justice that seems right in our own eyes. 

We even watch the daily death count rise in ever-increasing numbers, and still some resist doing what it takes to protect themselves and one another.

The sound of silence is muffled weeping.

There comes a time in every fall
before the leaves begin to turn
when blackbirds group and flock and gather
choosing a tree, a branch, together
to click and call and chorus and clamor
announcing the season has come for travel.

Then comes a time when all those birds
without a sound or backward glance
pour from every branch and limb
into the air, as if on a whim
but it’s a dynamic, choreographed mass
a swoop, a swerve, a mystery, a dance

and now the tree stands breathless, amazed
at how it was chosen, how it was changed.

~Julie Cadwallader Staub “Turning” from Wing Over Wing

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.

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.

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.

Love Mingled With Grief

“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

Not a single one of us chose this – living and working and schooling and worshiping with restrictions — unable to easily share meals with friends and family, feeling estranged from those who have previously been a support during trials in the past.

Yet here it is:

We can’t simply wish these hard times away.
It is up to us what we do in response.

Do we puddle and want to disappear?
Do we get angry and look for someone/anyone to blame?
Do we leave it up to God and quietly wait for His plans to unfold?
Do we grab hold of this unprecedented opportunity to reconnect in unique ways and so expand, rather than contract, our community?

Yes. All of those. Sometimes all in the same day.

We are all in different places about how to manage this.
On the days I want to hide, someone is trying to pull me out into the light. On the days I feel angry, no one will listen to my rant.
On the days I have a “bright” idea to try something new that I’m sure everyone else will endorse, God tells me to just sit back and wait on Him.

The waiting for normalcy feels interminable. And normal won’t ever be the same again.

It is overwhelming to be tasked with loving one another while grieving the loss of what once was. Love no longer is cheap or superficial: a Sunday handshake and sideways hug. We can’t even see each other’s smiles behind our masks. We have to actually talk to and listen to one another. It is now the hard work of true fellowship, listening compassionately to the complaints of others even when we don’t agree and can’t possibly empathize.

We all know the grieving process takes its own time – it can’t be rushed nor can it be wished away. It takes us on a path we never wanted to travel to a destination we never wanted to visit. And so it is with the losses we are feeling now. We don’t know where we’re heading, or how far we must go, or who will travel with us and who is bailing out now or who will die before we get there. But for those who decide it is best to journey together, we can pick each other up when another falters.

This is love in the time of COVID,
love in the time of grief,
love in the time of political divisiveness,
love in the time of pleading with God to change things.

And He has. We have become the change.

Wherever you are, my love will keep you safe
My heart will build a bridge of love across both time and space
Wherever you are, our hearts still beat as one
I hold you in my dreams each night until your task is done
Light up the darkness my wondrous star
Our hopes and dreams, my heart and yours, forever shining far
Light up the darkness my prince of peace
May the stars shine all around you
May your courage never cease

Wherever I am, I will love you day by day
I will keep you safe, cling on to faith, along the dark dark way
Wherever I am, I will hold on through the night
I will pray each day, a safe return, will look now through the light
Light up the darkness my wondrous star
Our hopes and dreams, my heart and yours, forever shining far
Light up the darkness my prince of peace
May the stars shine all around you
May your courage never cease
Courage never cease

Balancing Upon a Broken World

This afternoon was the colour of water falling through sunlight;
The trees glittered with the tumbling of leaves;
The sidewalks shone like alleys of dropped maple leaves,
And the houses ran along them laughing out of square, open windows.
Under a tree in the park,
Two little boys, lying flat on their faces,
Were carefully gathering red berries
To put in a pasteboard box.
Some day there will be no war,
Then I shall take out this afternoon
And turn it in my fingers,
And remark the sweet taste of it upon my palate,
And note the crisp variety of its flights of leaves.
To-day I can only gather it
And put it into my lunch-box,
For I have time for nothing
But the endeavour to balance myself
Upon a broken world.

~Amy Lowell, “September, 1918” from The Complete Poetical Works of Amy Lowell

Am I the only one who awakes this morning with a prayer
asking that today be the start of healing
rather than conflict and hostility and pain,
that the barbaric destruction of yesterday
transform to reconciliation and understanding–

no more angry mobs,
no more inciting speeches,
no more windows bashed,
no more doors breached,
no more explosives hidden away,
no more conspiracies hatched,
no more untruths believed as gospel…

no more rising infection counts
no more overflowing ICUs
no more mounting deaths…

Am I the only one who awakes this morning with a prayer
to seek only
to celebrate the sunrise
to watch the clouds glide past
to praise God in His heaven
to watch His Light slowly replenish itself
after weeks – no, months – no, years – no, decades
of darkness,

to take out this one day and taste it
and find that it is good,
especially in the midst of deprivation
then put it away for self-keeping
to share when and if I find someone else
as hungry for grace and mercy as I am,

so as to balance myself somehow
in the beauty of this world while
teetering on its brokenness?

I am not the only one.

I know I am not.

Take Her Hand

She wakes to gray.
No words to guide the way
toward son. His unfamiliar face seems kind
enough. She nods hello. Just yesterday
she knew his eyes, but now?

This morning’s mind
welcomes the past but not the day. She was
someone: woman who woke at 3:00 to sing
her restless son to sleep, his calm her cause
for celebration. Today the dawn brings

no clarity, yet still the stranger comes
and draws her curtains wide. She thinks outside
is where she left her life: daughters, a son
who meet sunrise without her. Look, the light

is brighter now. The kind man helps her stand.
To see the morning sun, she takes his hand.
~Marjorie Maddox “Alzheimer Aubade”

Lying still, your mouth gapes open as
I wonder if you breathe your last.
Your hair a white cloud
Your skin baby soft
No washing, digging, planting gardens
Or raising children
Anymore.

Where do your dreams take you?
At times you wake in your childhood home of
Rolling wheat fields, boundless days of freedom.
Other naps take you to your student and teaching days
Grammar and drama, speech and essays.
Yesterday you were a young mother again
Juggling babies, farm and your wistful dreams.

Today you looked about your empty nest
Disguised as hospital bed,
Wondering aloud about
Children grown, flown.
You still control through worry
and tell me:
Travel safely
Get a good night’s sleep
Take time to eat
Call me when you get there

I dress you as you dressed me
I clean you as you cleaned me
I love you as you loved me
You try my patience as I tried yours.
I wonder if I have the strength to
Mother my mother
For as long as she needs.

When I tell you the truth
Your brow furrows as it used to do
When I disappointed you~
This cannot be
A bed in a room in a sterile place
Waiting for death
Waiting for heaven
Waiting

And I tell you:
Travel safely
Eat, please eat
Sleep well
Call me when you get there.

Each Sunrise Sees a New Soul Born

The object of a new year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul.
– G.K. Chesterton

… we can make a house called tomorrow.
What we bring, finally, into the new day, every day,

Is ourselves.  And that’s all we need
To start.  That’s everything we require to keep going.
 

Look back only for as long as you must,
Then go forward into the history you will make.

Be good, then better.  Write books.  Cure disease.
Make us proud.  Make yourself proud.

And those who came before you?  When you hear thunder,
Hear it as their applause.

~Albert Rios from “A House Called Tomorrow”

All days are sacred days to wake
New gladness in the sunny air.
Only a night from old to new;
Only a sleep from night to morn.
The new is but the old come true;
Each sunrise sees a new year born.
~Helen Hunt Jackson from “New Year’s Morning”

Let other mornings honor the miraculous.
Eternity has festivals enough.
This is the feast of our mortality,
The most mundane and human holiday.

The new year always brings us what we want
Simply by bringing us along—to see
A calendar with every day uncrossed,
A field of snow without a single footprint.

~Dana Gioia, “New Year’s” from Interrogations at Noon

Now that all the Advent anticipation is spent and New Year’s Day 2021 is here, I find my energy waning just as the work of Christmas must begin.

Instead of the Twelve Days of Christmas it should be the Twelve Weeks, or better yet, Twelve Months of Christmas – maybe the lights should stay up until St. Patrick’s Day at least, just to keep us out of the shadows, inertia and doldrums of this pandemic winter – anything to push aside the dark.

As I swept up the last of the fir needles left on the floor from the Christmas tree, I realized I too have been drying up. I feel helpless in sweeping up the pandemic of suffering of the past year: the grief and loss, homelessness, hunger, disease, conflict, addictions, depression and pain.

It is overwhelming.

As a broken part of this broken world, I am called to the year-long work of Christmas begun by an infant in a manger, being swaddled into a new soul and a new life in Him.

Amen.