The Swarm Fell on His Back

Painting “Plowing the Field” by Joyce Lapp

When the plowblade struck   
An old stump hiding under   
The soil like a beggar’s   
Rotten tooth, they swarmed up   
& Mister Jackson left the plow   
Wedged like a whaler’s harpoon.   
The horse was midnight   
Against dusk, tethered to somebody’s   
Pocketwatch.  He shivered, but not   
The way women shook their heads   
Before mirrors at the five   
& dime—a deeper connection   
To the low field’s evening star.   
He stood there, in tracechains,   
Lathered in froth, just   
Stopped by a great, goofy   
Calmness. He whinnied   
Once, & then the whole   
Beautiful, blue-black sky   
Fell on his back.
~Yusuf Komunyakaa “Yellow Jackets” from Pleasure Dome

Horse Team by Edvard Munch

Death by a thousand stings.

This poem is twenty years old, yet shattering to read by the light of the events of this past week and this past year. Written by a Pulitzer Prize winning Black poet and Vietnam War veteran, it is a stark description of a teamster and plow horse going about their routine work when a hive of yellow jackets is disturbed.

The farmer saves himself.

The abandoned work horse remains harnessed and chained to the immobilized plow, eventually falling crushed beneath the swarm on his back.

How many times recently have we witnessed this stark reality of the power of the angry swarm – whether the target is someone set upon and killed by law enforcement gone rogue, or last week, a man in blue defending the U.S. Capitol, beaten and crushed by rioters who pummeled him senseless with the pole of the American flag?

A poetic metaphor about an enslaved worker dying in chains expands to include us all:

-we are the farmer who panics and runs for his life in the midst of crisis
-we are the harnessed plowhorse obediently and calmly doing his job, becoming the sacrifice for the sake of the farmer
-we are the angry swarm whose well being and security is threatened so all hell breaks loose
-we are the poet whose words try to make sense of the senseless.

Ultimately, the Writer of the Word is our rescuer: rather than abandoning us to our fate, He saves us by becoming the sacrifice Himself.

He allowed the swarm to fall on His back rather than on us.

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.

Turning Darkness into Light: Infinite Weight and Lightness

“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

We know the scene: the room, variously furnished,

almost always a lectern, a book; always
the tall lily.
Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,
the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,
whom she acknowledges, a guest.

But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions
courage.
The engendering Spirit
did not enter her without consent.
God waited.

She was free
to accept or to refuse, choice
integral to humanness.

____________________________

Aren’t there annunciations
of one sort or another
in most lives?
Some unwillingly
undertake great destinies,
enact them in sullen pride,
uncomprehending.
More often
those moments
when roads of light and storm
open from darkness in a man or woman,
are turned away from
in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair
and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.
God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.

______________________________

She had been a child who played, ate, slept
like any other child – but unlike others,
wept only for pity, laughed
in joy not triumph.
Compassion and intelligence
fused in her, indivisible.

Called to a destiny more momentous
than any in all of Time,
she did not quail,
only asked
a simple, ‘How can this be?’
and gravely, courteously,
took to heart the angel’s reply,
perceiving instantly
the astounding ministry she was offered:

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.

This was the moment no one speaks of,
when she could still refuse.

A breath unbreathed,
                                Spirit,
                                          suspended,
                                                            waiting.

______________________________

She did not cry, ‘I cannot. I am not worthy,’
Nor, ‘I have not the strength.’
She did not submit with gritted teeth,
                                                       raging, coerced.
Bravest of all humans,
                                  consent illumined her.
The room filled with its light,
the lily glowed in it,
                               and the iridescent wings.
Consent,
              courage unparalleled,
opened her utterly.
~Denise Levertov “The Annunciation”

Like most people living in 2020,
I want things to be the way I want them:
my plans, my timing, my hopes and dreams first and foremost.

And then the unexpected happens and suddenly nothing looks the way it was supposed to be. There is infinite weight within infinite emptiness.

Only then, as an emptied vessel, can I be filled.

In my forty years of clinical work, I’ve never before seen such an epidemic of hopelessness. Debts seem too great, reserves too limited, foundations too shaky, plans dashed, the future too uncertain.

In the annunciation of the angel approaching a young woman out of the blue, Mary’s response to this overwhelming event is a model for us all when we are hit by the unexpected.

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 reverberates through the ages and to each one of us in our own multi-faceted and overwhelming troubles:
may it be to me as you say.

May it be.
Your plans, Your purpose, Your promise – all embodied within me.

Let it be.

Even if it pierces my soul as with a sword so that I leak out to empty;
you are there to plug the bleeding hole, filling me with your infinite light.

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

Now Let’s Eat


Here we sit as evening falls
Like old horses in their stalls.
Thank you, Father, that you bless
Us with food and an address
And the comfort of your hand
In this great and blessed land.
Look around at each dear face,
Keep each one in your good grace.
We think of those who went before,
And wish we could have loved them more.
Grant to us a cheerful heart,
Knowing we must soon depart
To that far land to be with them.
And now let’s eat. Praise God. Amen.
~Gary Johnson “Table Grace”

The world begins at a kitchen table. No Matter what, we must eat to live.

The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.

We chase chickens or dogs away from it. Babies teethe at the corners. They scrape their knees under it.

It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.

At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers.

Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children. They laugh with us at our poor falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together once again at the table.

This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.

We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here.

Wars have begun and ended at this table. It is a place to hide in the shadow of terror. A place to celebrate the terrible victory.

At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.

Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.
~Joy Harjo “Perhaps the World Ends Here”

Our life revolves around the table, whether at home or at church.

This is where we hang out late into the evening,
and begin the day before dawn.

This is where prayers happen,
the meals happen,
the arguments happen.
This is where we listen to, understand and love each other.

This is where we share what we have and eat and are fed and
this is where God provides for us daily.

One of the hardest parts of the pandemic
is that the virus finds people who sing and talk together around a table,
and who take off their masks to eat together.
Truly this Enemy has found a way to keep people away from one another,
caring for one another and being nourished together.

We think of those who went before
and wish that we could have loved them more.

Let us love one another now, while we can, when we can,
and we shall feast together later.

Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.

Amen and Amen.

Only the Strength We Have

The heart’s reasons
seen clearly,
even the hardest
will carry
its whip-marks and sadness
and must be forgiven.

As the drought-starved
eland forgives
the drought-starved lion
who finally takes her,
enters willingly then
the life she cannot refuse,
and is lion, is fed,
and does not remember the other.

So few grains of happiness
measured against all the dark
and still the scales balance.

The world asks of us
only the strength we have and we give it.
Then it asks more, and we give it.

~Jane Hirshfield “The Weighing” from The Beauty

So many right now feel they have no more left to give;
so much has been asked, so much sacrificed,
the scale feels broken, forever out of balance.

Yet more strength is needed, more requested,
and somehow in some way,
the scale steadies, rebalances
because of that extra effort.

We can’t give up now.
We need each other to give a little more
try a little harder
go a little farther
smile behind the mask
while showing our smile above the mask.

It only takes a little love
to balance out all the rest.

from “Feats of Strength” by Tom Otterness at Western Washington University

The Clarity of Light

On the day when
The weight deadens
On your shoulders
And you stumble,
May the clay dance
To balance you.

And when your eyes
Freeze behind

The gray window
And the ghost of loss
Gets in to you,
May a flock of colors,
Indigo, red, green
And azure blue,
Come to awaken in you
A meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.

And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

~John O’Donohue “Beannacht”

So many of us grieve the loss of the way things were
and the loss of the people we loved.

There seems no light at all in the world,
only heaviness of burden, of clouds and sickness.

May God bring back the lightness to our days,
the color back to the gray,
the clarity of purpose throughout generations.

May God be real to us now, cleansing us
from our doubts, our frustrations,
our anger and our impatience
with one another
and with Him.

May God love us
in the midst of our weeping,
cloaked in His Word and His arms.

Mystery Becomes Visible

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.

Amen
and Amen again.

He Sees Us As We Are: Coming Together

This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.
Ephesians 3:6

photo by Barb Hoelle

The journey begins when Christians leave their homes and beds. They leave, indeed, their life in this present and concrete world, and whether they have to drive 15 miles or walk a few blocks, a sacramental act is already taking place…

For they are now on their way to constitute the Church, or to be more exact, to be transformed into the Church of God. They have been individuals, some white, some black, some poor, some rich, they have been the ‘natural’ world and a natural community. And now they have been called to “come together in one place,” to bring their lives, their very world with them and to be more than what they were: a new community with a new life.

We are already far beyond the categories of common worship and prayer. The purpose of this ‘coming together’ is not simply to add a religious dimension to the natural community, to make it ‘better’ – more responsible, more Christian. The purpose is to fulfill the Church, and that means to make present the One in whom all things are at their end, and all things are at their beginning.
~ Father Alexander Schmemann from For the Life of the World

Human beings by their very nature are worshipers. Worship is not something we do; it defines who we are.
You cannot divide human beings into those who worship and those who don’t.
Everybody worships; it’s just a matter of what, or whom, we serve.

~Paul Tripp

Back in the early days of Whatcom County,  the little church on Wiser Lake had been constructed through “contributions of the people” in a rural neighborhood only a few miles from where we now live.  $600 in lumber was provided by a local farmer whose trees were cut and milled and brought by horse drawn wagon to a building site adjacent to a one room school house along a corrugated plank road. The total property was “valued at $1800, but of even more value to the community.” The dedication ceremony was held on Sunday, August 27, 1916 followed by “a basket dinner—come with well filled baskets for a common table, under the direction of the Ladies Aid”. This was to be followed by a “Fellowship Meeting, special music and fraternal addresses” and the day ended at 8 PM with a Young People’s Meeting.  So began the long history of the “Wiser Lake Church”.

For reasons unrecorded in the history of the church, the original denomination closed its doors thirty years later, and for awhile the building was empty and in need of a congregation. By the fifties, it became a mission church of the local Christian Reformed Churches and launched a Sunday School program for migrant farm and Native American children in the surrounding rural neighborhood.  No formal church services started until the sixties. By the time the building was sixty years old, so many children were arriving for Sunday School, there was not enough room so the building was hoisted up on jacks to allow a hole to be dug underneath for a basement full of classrooms. Over the course of a summer, the floor space doubled, and the church settled back into place, allowed to rest again on its foundation.

Over seventy years after its dedication ceremony, our family drove 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.

It felt like home. We had found our church. We’ve never left. Over 30 years it has had peeling paint and missing shingles, a basement that floods when the rain comes down hard, toilets that don’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 also has a warmth and character and uniqueness that is unforgettable.

It’s really not so different from the folks who gather there.  We know we belong there, even if we too are musty, a bit out of sorts, yet still warm and loving and welcoming — no matter what, every Sabbath we are called to come together to be very clear about Who we worship.

This year’s Lenten theme on Barnstorming:

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

He Sees Us As We Are: Substitution Allowed

For the essence of sin is
man substituting himself for God,
while the essence of salvation is
God substituting Himself for man.

Man asserts himself against God and puts himself
where only God deserves to be;
God sacrifices Himself for man and puts Himself
where only man deserves to be.

Man claims prerogatives that belong to God alone;
God accepts penalties that belong to man alone.
~John Stott, The Cross of Christ

Our struggle,
from God’s first breath into our nostrils,
is wanting to forget
we are made from dust,
molded from mud,
and will return to the ground,
no matter what.

We make a poor substitute for God.

Between the womb and the tomb
we can act as though we own the earth
and somehow the earth owes us.

Instead we must tread lightly,
knowing each breath, each morsel, each day
is an undeserved gift given
by Him having taken our place,
becoming our substitution.

When we acknowledge we broke His heart on earth,
He bled so our hearts continue to beat,
so we may laugh, cry, love and worship.

Only then we are right with God,
instead of insisting we be God.

His heart broken so we are made whole;
God, the perfect substitution for man,
made manifest both in heaven
and on earth.

Legalistic remorse says, “I broke God’s rules,”
while real repentance says, “I broke God’s heart.”
~Tim Keller

This year’s Lenten theme on Barnstorming:

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

Stillness of the Heart

It was like a church to me.
I entered it on soft foot,
Breath held like a cap in the hand.
It was quiet.
What God there was made himself felt,
Not listened to, in clean colours
That brought a moistening of the eye,
In a movement of the wind over grass.

There were no prayers said. But stillness
Of the heart’s passions – that was praise
Enough; and the mind’s cession
Of its kingdom. I walked on,
Simple and poor, while the air crumbled
And broke on me generously as bread.
~R.S. Thomas “The Moor” Collected Poems: R. S. Thomas

This is a Sabbath morning
when I’m surrounded by His stilling presence~
when God is felt,
neither seen or heard,
overtaking me
within each breath taken,
following the path of each glistening tear,
feeding me manna from sky and body,
becoming the ground reaching to meet my foot
with each step I take.