Here You Are, Alive

And that is just the point… how the world, moist and beautiful, calls to each of us to make a new and serious response. That’s the big question, the one the world throws at you every morning. “Here you are, alive. Would you like to make a comment?

~Mary Oliver

I’d like to make a comment this morning. Here we are, alive.

Too much time is spent trudging through the hours, unaware of the privilege of each breath.

The just-born and the nearly-dying know the preciousness of each moment. The rest of us need regular reminders each day- being alive is the responsibility to not waste a single minute.

As I look in the eyes of this new little soul, I am struck dumb and all my senses wrung dry: we are like bells pealing our witness of Glory. We are meant to respond.

Struck and wrung. Struck and ringing.

Sabbath Morning

The Old Church leans nearby a well worn road 
upon a hill that has no grass or tree 
The winds from off the prairie now unload 
the dust they bring around it fitfully 
The path that leads up to the open door 
is worn and grayed by many toiling feet 
of us who listen to the Bible lore 
and once again the old time hymns repeat.
And every Sabbath Morning we are still 
returning to the altar standing there; 
a hush, a prayer, a pause, and voices 
fill the Master’s House with a triumphant air.
The old church leans awry and looks quite odd,
But it is beautiful to us, and God.

~Stephen Paulus “The Old Church”

…when I experienced the warm, unpretentious reception of those who have nothing to boast about, and experienced a loving embrace from people who didn’t ask any questions, I began to discover that a true spiritual homecoming means a return to the poor in spirit to whom the kingdom of heaven belongs.
~Henri Nouwen from The Return of the Prodigal Son

Our family had driven past the boxy building countless times hurrying on our way to other places, barely giving it a second glance. It had a classic design, but showed its age with peeling paint,  a few missing shingles, an old fashioned square flat roofed belfry, and arched windows. The hand lettered sign spelling out “Wiser Lake Chapel” by the road constituted a humble invitation of sorts, simply by listing the times of the services.

On a blustery December Sunday evening in 1990, we had no place else to be for a change.  Instead of driving past, we stopped, welcomed by the yellow glow pouring from the windows and an almost full parking lot. Our young family climbed the steps to the big double doors, and inside were immediately greeted by a large balding man with a huge grin and encompassing handshake. He pointed us to one of the few open spots still available in the old wooden pews.

The sanctuary was a warm and open space with a high lofted ceiling, dark wood trim accents matching the ancient pews, and a plain wooden cross above the pulpit in front. There was a pungent smell from fir bough garlands strung along high wainscoting, and a circle of candles standing lit on a small altar table. Apple pie was baking in the kitchen oven, blending with the aroma of good coffee and hot cocoa.

The service was a Sunday School Christmas program, with thirty some children of all ages and skin colors standing up front in bathrobes and white sheet angel gowns, wearing gold foil halos, tinfoil crowns and dish towels wrapped with string around their heads. They were prompted by their teachers through carols and readings of the Christmas story. The final song was Silent Night, sung by candle light, with each child and member of the congregation holding a lit candle. There was a moment of excitement when one girl’s long hair briefly caught fire, but after that was quickly extinguished, the evening ended in darkness, with the soft glow of candlelight illuminating faces of the young and old, some in tears streaming over their smiles.

It felt like home. We had found our church.

We’ve never left and every Sabbath day finds us back there.

Over the past 103 years, this old building has seen a few thousand people come and go, has had peeling paint and missing shingles, a basement that flooded when the rain comes down hard, toilets that didn’t always flush, and though it smells heavenly on potluck days, there are times when it can be just a bit out of sorts and musty. It really isn’t anything to boast about.

It is humble and unpretentious yet envelops its people in its loving and imperfect embrace, with warmth, character and a uniqueness that is unforgettable.

It really is not so different from the folks who have gathered there over the years.

We know we belong,
such as we are,
just as we are,
blessed by God with a place to join together.

Here and Now

Unless the eye catch fire,
Then God will not be seen.
Unless the ear catch fire
Then God will not be heard.
Unless the tongue catch fire
Then God will not be named.
Unless the heart catch fire,
Then God will not be loved.
Unless the mind catch fire,
Then God will not be known.
~William Blake from “Pentecost”

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.

Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
the world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment

Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
~T.S. Eliot from “East Coker”

Today, if we feel we are without hope,
if faith feels frail,
if love seems distant,
we must wait, stilled,
for the moment we are lit afire~
when the Living God is
seen, heard, named, loved, known,
forever burning in our hearts
in this moment, for a lifetime
and for eternity.
Here and now ceases to matter.

Here There Be Dragons

St. Cyril of Jerusalem, in instructing catechumens, wrote:
“The dragon sits by the side of the road, watching those who pass.
Beware lest he devour you. We go to the Father of Souls,
but it is necessary to pass by the dragon.”


No matter what form the dragon may take,
it is of this mysterious passage past him, or into his jaws,
that stories of any depth will always be concerned to tell,
and this being the case, it requires considerable courage
at any time, in any country, not to turn away from the storyteller.

~Flannery O’Connor from “Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose”

But a dragon lies in ambush for the traveler;
take care he does not bite you and inject you his poison of unbelief.
Seeing this numerous company winning salvation,
he selects and stalks his prey.
In your journey to the Father of souls,
your way lies past that dragon.
How shall you pass him?
You must have “your feet stoutly with the gospel of peace,”
so that, even if he does bite you,
he may not hurt you.
~St. Cyril of Jerusalem

with your feet fitted with the readiness of the gospel of peace.
Ephesians 6:15

<Here there be dragons>
was any place on the ancient maps
that was unknown and unexplored-
a place to avoid at all costs~
or for the daring and carefree,
pointing to exactly the place to explore.

Here there be dragons
marks the remainder of our days
that dwell at the edge of life’s roadmap
~ unknown and unexplored ~
and often full of peril.

So many dragons to pass
ready to swallow us whole if we make a wrong turn,
or singe our britches if we stray beyond the known borders of the map.

So many dark valleys to pass through
so many mysteries remain unsolved,
so many stories of fateful journeys told.

We pull on our stoutest shoes,
ready to trek where ever we are sent,
not straying from the well-worn path of the faithful
who have stayed out of the jaws of the dragons
to tell the story.

A Bright Sadness: Take Your Shoes Off

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God:
But only he who sees takes off his shoes.
~Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Over the next eight days, the body of Christian believers will be traversing once again the holy ground of Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection.

Indeed, our children, happy to be barefoot most of the time, are more apt than the grown ups to follow the instruction of the Lord when He told Moses:

Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.

There have long been cultures where shoes are to be removed before touching the surface of the floor inside a residence or temple in an intentional act of leaving the dirt of the world at the door to preserve the sanctity and cleanliness of the inner life.

Yet we as Christians wear shoes into church every Sunday, having walked in muck and mire of one sort or another all week. We try our best to clean up for Sunday, but we track in the detritus of our lives when we come to sit in the pews. Rather than leave it at the door, it comes right in with us, not exactly hidden and sometimes downright stinky. That is when we are in obvious need for a good washing, shoes, feet, soul and all, and that is exactly why we  need to worship together as a church family in need of cleansing, whether indoors or outdoors.

Jesus Himself demonstrated our need for a wash-up on the last night of His life, soaking the dusty feet of His disciples.

And then there is what God said. He asked that holy ground be respected by the removal of our sandals. We must remove any barrier that prevents us from entering fully into His presence, whether it be our attitude, our stubbornness, our unbelief, or our constant centering on self rather than other.

No separation, even a thin layer of leather, is desirable when encountering God.

We trample roughshod over holy ground all the time, blind to where our feet land and the impact they leave behind. Perhaps by shedding the covering of our eyes, our minds, and our feet, we would see earth crammed with heaven and God on fire everywhere, in every common bush and in every common heart.

So we may see.
So we may listen.
So we may feast together.
So we may weep at what we have done, yet stand forgiven.
So we may celebrate as our Risen Lord startles us by calling our name.
So we remove our sandals so our bare feet may touch His holy ground.

A Bright Sadness: Let Him Easter in Us

Let Him easter in us,
be a dayspring to the dimness of us,
be a crimson-cresseted east.
~Gerard Manley Hopkin

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

Traditionally, Lent does not include the five Sundays before Easter as every Sabbath is a celebration of Christ’s resurrection. We should let Him Easter in us every week!

So this is my first of six Easter reflections on Barnstorming during the next few weeks. We wait for the glorious day when we can meet as Christ’s body on April 21, first on our farm’s hill at dawn, and then later inside our church’s sanctuary to feel the full impact of “He is Risen!”

It is a slow coming of spring this year, seeming in no hurry whatsoever.  Snow remains in residual drifts around the farm from the storms of a month ago, the foothills are still white and the greening of the fields has yet to begin. The flowering plum and cherry trees remain dormant in the continued chill. 

Like Narnia, winter still has its terrible grip on us.

We wait, frozen in a darkened world, for a sun that shines and actually warms us from our dormancy.

This is exactly what eastering is.  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 will be changed, changed utterly.

He is not only risen.  He is given indeed.


An Advent Paradox: Filled Because I’m Emptied

horsehairvase

 

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be as you have said.”
Luke 1: 38

 

…to bear in her womb
Infinite weight and lightness; to carry
in hidden, finite inwardness,
nine months of Eternity; to contain
in slender vase of being,
the sum of power –
in narrow flesh,
the sum of light.

Then bring to birth,
push out into air, a Man-child
needing, like any other,
milk and love –

but who was God.
~Denise Levertov, from “Annunciation”

 

annunciation
The Annunciation by Henry Tanner, Philadelphia Museum of Art

 

I want it to be the way I want it:
my plans, my timing, my hopes and dreams first and foremost.

And then life happens and suddenly nothing looks the way it was supposed to be. I feel abandoned and completely emptied.

Yet only then, as an empty vessel, can I be filled. How am I to respond to such a paradox?

In my work in a University Health Center, I see this struggle in the lives of young adults: a tremendous lack of resiliency, an inability to ride the waves that crash and overwhelm. One of the most common responses to the unexpected is to panic, facing uncontrollable anxiety that interferes with eating, sleeping, working, studying. A common response to anxiety is to self-medicate in any way easily accessible: alcohol, marijuana, nicotine, sex, a friend’s prescription drugs. A little isn’t working so a lot might be better. The anxiety is compounded and descends into deepening depression.

The sadness and hopelessness, even anger –is a discouragement stemming from the lack of control of circumstances, feeling there is no way out, being unable to find another path to a different future. This leads too frequently to thoughts of ending one’s life as it seems too painful and pointless to continue, and more rarely, taking others’ lives at the same time in an attempt to make sure everyone else knows the depth of the pain.

There is an epidemic of hopelessness among our society’s young people that I’ve never before seen to this extent in my forty years of clinical work. To them, their debts seem too great, their reserves too limited, their foundations too shaky, their hope nonexistent, their future too dim. They cannot ride the waves without feeling they are drowning. So they look for any way out.

In the annunciation of the angel approaching a young woman out of the blue, Mary’s response to this overwhelming circumstance is a model for us all when we are hit by a wave we didn’t expect and had not prepared for.

She is prepared; she has studied and knows God’s Word and His promise to His people, even in the midst of trouble. She is able to articulate it beautifully in the song she sings as her response. She gives up her so-carefully-planned-out life to give life to God within her.

Her resilience sings through the ages and to each one of us in our troubles:
may it be to me as you say.

May it be.
Your plans, Your purpose, Your promise.
Let it be.
Even if it may pierce my soul as with a sword so that I leak out to empty.
You are there to plug the bleeding hole and fill me.

So I sing through my fear, through my weariness, through my tears.

 

“Like Mary, we have no way of knowing… We can ask for courage, however, and trust that God has not led us into this new land only to abandon us there.”
~Kathleen Norris from God With Us

 

Matthias-Stomer-Annunciation-Painting
Matthias Stomer’s Annunciation

 

 

 

Everything inside me cries for order
Everything inside me wants to hide
Is this shadow an angel or a warrior?
If God is pleased with me, why am I so terrified?
Someone tell me I am only dreaming
Somehow help me see with Heaven’s eyes
And before my head agrees,
My heart is on its knees
Holy is He. Blessed am I.

Be born in me
Be born in me
Trembling heart, somehow I believe
That You chose me
I’ll hold you in the beginning
You will hold me in the end
Every moment in the middle,
Make my heart your Bethlehem
Be born in me

All this time we’ve waited for the promise
All this time You’ve waited for my arms
Did You wrap yourself inside the unexpected
So we might know that Love would go that far?

Be born in me
Be born in me
Trembling heart, somehow I believe
That You chose me
I’ll hold you in the beginning
You will hold me in the end
Every moment in the middle,
Make my heart your Bethlehem
Be born in me

I am not brave
I’ll never be
The only thing my heart can offer is a vacancy
I’m just a girl
Nothing more
But I am willing, I am Yours
Be born in me
Be born in me
Trembling heart, somehow I believe
That You chose me
I’ll hold you in the beginning
You will hold me in the end
Every moment in the middle,
Make my heart your Bethlehem
Be born in me

Francesca Battistelli