Leaving the Wilderness: The Worst We Can Do

In a daring and beautiful creative reversal,
God takes the worse we can do to Him
and turns it into the very best He can do for us.
~Malcolm Guite from The Word in the Wilderness

See, my servant will act wisely;
    he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.
14 Just as there were many who were appalled at him—
    his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being
    and his form marred beyond human likeness—
15 so he will sprinkle many nations,
    and kings will shut their mouths because of him.
For what they were not told, they will see,
    and what they have not heard, they will understand.
Isaiah 52: 13-15

When I was wounded
whether by God, the devil, or myself
—I don’t know yet which—
it was seeing the sparrows again
and clumps of clover, after three days,
that told me I hadn’t died.
When I was young,
all it took were those sparrows,
those lush little leaves,
for me to sing praises,
dedicate operas to the Lord.
But a dog who’s been beaten
is slow to go back to barking
and making a fuss over his owner
—an animal, not a person
like me who can ask:
Why do you beat me?
Which is why, despite the sparrows and the clover,
a subtle shadow still hovers over my spirit.
May whoever hurt me, forgive me.
~Adelia Prado “Divine Wrath” translated from Brazilian Portuguese by Ellen Doré Watson

Emmet Till’s mother
speaking over the radio

She tells in a comforting voice
what it was like to touch her dead boy’s face,

how she’d lingered and traced
the broken jaw, the crushed eyes–

the face that badly beaten, disfigured—
before confirming his identity.

And then she compares his face to
the face of Jesus, dying on the cross.

This mother says no, she’d not recognize
her Lord, for he was beaten far, far worse

than the son she loved with all her heart.
For, she said, she could still discern her son’s curved earlobe,

but the face of Christ
was beaten to death by the whole world.
~Richard Jones “The Face” from Between Midnight and Dawn

Too many people today continue to be crushed, disfigured, beaten and left for dead–

for taking a stand, or being the wrong color, the wrong faith, the wrong tribe, or simply being different enough to trigger distrust and hatred.

And so it was with our Lord. He walked into the hornet’s nest of Jerusalem fully knowing such an overwhelming attack was coming.

Crushed, broken and delivered into His Father’s arms as His mother wept over Him.

Yet He took the worst that could be done to Him and turned it into the best that He could do for us. We are stung forever by His Love.

Waiting in Wilderness: Don’t Ever Let Go of the Thread

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
~William Stafford, “The Way It Is” From Ask Me: 100 Essential Poems. 

I had been told how the old-time weavers, all the while they were making their beautiful and intricate patterns, saw no more than the backs of their shawls. Nothing was visible to them but a tangle of colored threads. They never saw the design they were creating until they took the finished fabric from their looms.

The parallel to the mortal lot is plain. Human experience appears to us – as the shawls did to the weavers – to be no more than incomprehensible tangles of colored threads, whereas in fact life represents the ordered threads in a great design – the design being woven daily on the loom of eternity.
~Ernest Gordon from Miracle on the River Kwai

Although the threads of my life have often seemed knotted,
I know, by faith, that on the other side of the embroidery there is a crown.
~Corrie Ten Boom in My Heart Sings

What does it say about me that I’ve covered the backs of countless embroidery projects so the tangles are no longer visible? 

There is a sense of shame in the need to hide the messy and too often painful side of existence, not wanting to admit how really chaotic and tragic life is at times.

Yet out of the incomprehensible comes beauty. 
Out of the mess comes order and harmony.
What appears knotted and tangled and makes no sense
is turned right side up to become grace on our heads, like a crown.

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.

We Shall All Be Changed

Cloud-puffball, torn tufts, tossed pillows | flaunt forth, then chevy on an air-
Built thoroughfare: heaven-roysterers, in gay-gangs | they throng; they glitter in marches.
Down roughcast, down dazzling whitewash, | wherever an elm arches,
Shivelights and shadowtackle ín long | lashes lace, lance, and pair.
Delightfully the bright wind boisterous | ropes, wrestles, beats earth bare
Of yestertempest’s creases; | in pool and rut peel parches
Squandering ooze to squeezed | dough, crust, dust; stanches, starches
Squadroned masks and manmarks | treadmire toil there
Footfretted in it. Million-fuelèd, | nature’s bonfire burns on.
But quench her bonniest, dearest | to her, her clearest-selvèd spark
Man, how fast his firedint, | his mark on mind, is gone!
Both are in an unfathomable, all is in an enormous dark
Drowned. O pity and indig | nation! Manshape, that shone
Sheer off, disseveral, a star, | death blots black out; nor mark
                            Is any of him at all so stark
But vastness blurs and time | beats level. Enough! the Resurrection,
A heart’s-clarion! Away grief’s gasping, | joyless days, dejection.
                            Across my foundering deck shone
A beacon, an eternal beam. | Flesh fade, and mortal trash
Fall to the residuary worm; | world’s wildfire, leave but ash:
                            In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, | since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, | patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
                            Is immortal diamond.
~Gerard Manley Hopkins “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection”

Behold, I show you a mystery;
We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed,
In a moment, in a twinkling of an eye;
at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound,
and the dead shall be raised incorruptible,
and we shall be changed,
For this corruptible must put on immortality

1Corinthians 15:51-53

In a matter of minutes this morning,
mere clouds changed above the rising sun;
its fire started low, sparked into dazzling flames,
then became a beacon, lit from within and without
and all around thus transformed.

So we are spared from our destiny with ashes
by such Light.

So Christ, becoming man
and rising — as He did,
and risen as He is,
changes us forever,
in a moment, in a twinkling of an eye.



His True Beauty

People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.
~ Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

stained glass from Meyers Studio, Munich 1899

A farmer died yesterday yet his harvest will live on.

Arnie and his wife Gretchen hadn’t farmed in a few years, if you consider farming only as the raising of dairy heifers and the milking of cows. But farming is so much more if you consider their other harvest work: sharing the produce from a beautiful garden, his volunteering in the community bringing Meals on Wheels to the home bound, transporting people to church who would never make it otherwise, and an unfailing smile and greeting at church when paying special attention to anyone he had never seen before. He wanted them to know how welcome they were.

When he wasn’t running a dairy farm, Arnie harvested people. He exchanged his tractor for an SUV which made it easy to fold up and stow a wheelchair whenever needed. He traded in his hoe for a handshake, his farmer’s cap for a promise to show up to do whatever no one else would do.

He looked for those who were struggling to keep going, who had run out of fuel and were discouraged, their hope being battered by the storms of life. Arnie searched for the light hidden within and became a reigniting fire himself, even when his own illness overwhelmed him. He helped push back darkness with a sparkle and shine reflected from the Light he kept illuminated deep within himself.

His walk with God was a thing of true beauty, like multi-colored windows of faith that reflect our Savior. Arnie became a sanctuary bathed in the glow of a powerful inner light.

A farmer has gone home, but his harvest left behind is bountiful beyond imagining. It sparkles and shines; we’ll miss that welcoming smile until that day he greets us once again at heaven’s gates.

This Field, This Sky, This Tree

What words or harder gift
does the light require of me
carving from the dark
this difficult tree?

What place or farther peace
do I almost see
emerging from the night
and heart of me?

The sky whitens, goes on and on.
Fields wrinkle into rows
of cotton, go on and on.
Night like a fling of crows
disperses and is gone.

What song, what home,
what calm or one clarity
can I not quite come to,
never quite see:
this field, this sky, this tree.

~Christian Wiman, “Hard Night”

Even the darkest night has a sliver of light left,
if only in our memories.
We remember how it was and how it can be —
the promise of better to come.

While the ever-changing sky swirls as a backdrop,
a tree on a hill became the focal point, as it must,
like a black hole swallowing up all pain, all suffering,
all evil threatening to consume our world.

What clarity, what calm,
what peace can be found at the foot of that tree,
where our hearts can rest in this knowledge:
our sin died there, once and for all
and our names are carved into its roots for all time.

The Same Unchangeableness

Spend your life trying to understand it, and you will lose your mind; but deny it and you will lose your soul.
~St. Augustine in his work “On the Trinity”

Here are two mysteries for the price of one — the plurality of persons within the unity of God, and the union of Godhead and manhood in the person of Jesus. . . . Nothing in fiction is so fantastic as is this truth of the Incarnation.
~J. L. Packer from Knowing God

photo by Josh Scholten

The story goes that Augustine of Hippo was walking on the beach contemplating the mystery of the Trinity.  Then he saw a boy in front of him who had dug a hole in the sand and was going out to the sea again and again and bringing some water to pour into the hole.

Augustine asked him, “What are you doing?”
“I’m going to pour the entire ocean into this hole.”
“That is impossible, the whole ocean will not fit in the hole you have made” said Augustine.
The boy replied, “And you cannot fit the Trinity in your tiny little brain.”

I accept that my tiny brain, ever so much tinier than St. Augustine’s,  cannot possibly absorb or explain the Trinity–I will not try to put the entire ocean in that small hole.  The many analogies used to help human understanding of the Trinity are dangerously limited in scope:
three candles, one light
vapor, water, ice
shell, yolk, albumin
height, width, depth
apple peel, flesh, core
past, present, future.

It is sufficient for me to know, as expressed by the 19th century Anglican pastor J.C. Ryle:  It was the whole Trinity, which at the beginning of creation said, “Let us make man”. It was the whole Trinity again, which at the beginning of the Gospel seemed to say, “Let us save man”.

All one, equal, harmonious, unchangeable, bound to save us from ourselves.


“It is not easy to find a name that will suitably express so great an excellence, unless it is better to speak in this way:
the Trinity, one God, of whom are all things, through whom are all things, in whom are all things. 
Thus the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and each of these by Himself, is God,
and at the same time they are all one God;
and each of them by Himself is a complete substance, and yet they are all one substance.

The Father is not the Son nor the Holy Spirit;
the Son is not the Father nor the Holy Spirit;
the Holy Spirit is not the Father nor the Son:
but the Father is only Father,
the Son is only Son,
and the Holy Spirit is only Holy Spirit.

To all three belong the same eternity, the same unchangeableness, the same majesty, the same power.
In the Father is unity, in the Son equality, in the Holy Spirit the harmony of unity and equality.

And these three attributes are all one because of the Father, all equal because of the Son, and all harmonious because of the Holy Spirit.”
–Augustine of Hippo, On Christian Doctrine, I.V.5.

Beauty, Mystery and Benediction

“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. 

Christ our Lord has risen.
~Frederick Buechner from The Magnificent Defeat

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse,
the molecules reknit, 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 

it’s your limbs he comes to fill, as warm water shatters at birth, rivering every way.
~Mary Karr “Descending Theology: The Resurrection”

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.

The Moment You Forgot

It was like the moment when a bird decides not to eat
from your hand,
and flies, just before it flies, the moment the rivers seem
to still
and stop because a storm is coming, but there is no
storm, as when
a hundred starlings lift and bank together before they
wheel and drop,
very much like the moment, driving on bad ice, when it
occurs to you
your car could spin, just before it slowly begins to spin,
like
the moment just before you forgot what it was you were
about to say,
it was like that, and after that, it was still like that, only
all the time.

~Marie Howe “Part of Eve’s Discussion”

We all know how vulnerable we are to temptation; we know our failings and weaknesses yet how quickly we can go from knowing to forgetting.

There is a stillness, a suspension of time, in that moment of knowing – there is constant internal debate about the choices we face and what to do with that knowledge.

How many of us, knowing well the consequences, still do what we ought not to do? How many of us, having been previously told, having learned from history, having already experienced our own banishment, still make the wrong decision?

All of us, all the time, that’s how many. We are helpless despite our knowledge of good and evil. We forget, over and over.

Thank God for His grace in the face of our poor memories. Thank God He still feeds us wholly from His loving hands.

There is No East or West

1. In Christ there is no east or west,
in him no south or north,
but one great fellowship of love
throughout the whole wide earth.

2. In Christ shall true hearts everywhere
their high communion find;
his service is the golden cord
close binding humankind.

3. Join hands, companions in the faith,
whate’er your race may be!
Who loves and serves the one in him,
throughout the whole wide earth.

4. In Christ now meet both east and west;
in him meet south and north,
all Christly souls are one in him
throughout the whole wide earth.
~William Dunkerley

We Christians are often rightfully accused of being judgmental and unwilling to consider other points of view. We can be the first to criticize another Christian of being unfaithful or heretical, not following doctrine and creeds, or being too liberal or too conservative or just too plain stubborn.

I’ve done it myself (doing it now in this post!) and have received more than my share of mean-spirited, even hateful, messages from Christian brothers and sisters who disagree with my point of view on some issue.
Christians can tend to revel in eating their own.

When I’m tempted to judge lest I be judged, I remember who Christ hung out with: the cast offs and most undesirable people in society. They were surely more receptive to His message than those who believed they knew better than Him, who questioned His actions and motives, and who plotted against Him behind His back.

We need reminding that Christ isn’t more present in one political party over another, one denomination or faith community over another, one zip code over another, or in one racial or ethnic group over another.

We, east and west, north and south, constitute His body on earth, we dwell fully in His image just as we were created to be. It is only through His loving Spirit we are brought home where we belong, back to the center from the fraying edges of our faith.