The Shade of Unexpected Grace

Holy as a day is spent
Holy is the dish and drain
The soap and sink, and the cup and plate
And the warm wool socks, and the cold white tile
Shower heads and good dry towels
And frying eggs sound like psalms
With bits of salt measured in my palm
It’s all a part of a sacrament
As holy as a day is spent


Holy is the busy street
And cars that boom with passion’s beat
And the check out girl, counting change
And the hands that shook my hands today
And hymns of geese fly overhead
And spread their wings like their parents did
Blessed be the dog that runs in her sleep
To chase some wild and elusive thing


Holy is the familiar room
And quiet moments in the afternoon
And folding sheets like folding hands
To pray as only laundry can
I’m letting go of all my fear
Like autumn leaves made of earth and air
For the summer came and the summer went
As holy as a day is spent


Holy is the place I stand
To give whatever small good I can

And the empty page, and the open book
Redemption everywhere I look
Unknowingly we slow our pace
In the shade of unexpected grace
And with grateful smiles and sad lament
As holy as a day is spent
And morning light sings ‘providence’
As holy as a day is spent

~Carrie Newcomer “Holy as a Day is Spent”

We are in the middle of an unprecedented heat wave in the Pacific Northwest, predicted to hit 110 degrees F over the next two days. This part of the world is sorely unprepared for these temperatures – air conditioning is unusual in residences and some workplaces so we grit our teeth, mop our brows and search for the blessing of shade and relief.

There is barely a breeze. The weathervanes are standing stock-still without a hint of swivel, cooking in the sun just as thoroughly as the rest of us. Our barn has a beautiful Haflinger horse weather vane – a precious gift from Amish country given to us by treasured friends over thirty years ago.

However, the standard weather vane is a rooster, found on a neighbor’s barn about a mile from our farm. The traditional rooster vane (“weathercock”) has a long history dating back to the ninth century when Pope Gregory declared all churches were to be crowned with a rooster as a suitable Christian emblem. This was to immortalize St. Peter’s three betrayals, predicted by Christ to take place before the rooster crows in the morning on the day of His crucifixion.

So roosters began to appear on the weathervanes of churches in Europe, blowing this way and that with the wind, just as Peter found himself carried by the wind of opinion on that fateful day. We are to be reminded of our own tendency to shift and swivel with the forces that push us around when we are uncertain or fearful, forgetting our foundational faith and beliefs.

Yet Christ forgave Peter, not once or twice, but three times for each betrayal. He delivers an unexpected grace and gift of redemption to a man who had turned away from Him. Christ’s instruction to Peter was to “feed my sheep.”
Our response to the grace shown to us is to nurture and show grace to all we meet.

As our weathervanes remain unmoving in this heat, we stand firm in the shade of our Lord’s forgiveness of our betrayal of Him – all that is just and holy.

Amen and Amen.

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Standing Ajar

It is enough to enter

the templar
halls of museums, for

example, or
the chambers of churches,

and admire
no more than the beauty

there, or
remember the graveness

of stone, or
whatever. You don’t

have to do any
better. You don’t have to

understand
the liturgy or know history

to feel holy
in a gallery or presbytery.

It is enough
to have come just so far.

You need
not be opened any more

than does
a door, standing ajar.
~Todd Boss “It is Enough to Enter”

photo by Barb Hoelle

It is enough to be open.

It is enough to have come this far.

I don’t need to have my questions answered.

I don’t need to have places to be, things to do, people to see.

It is enough to stand ajar like an unlocked door, looking in and wondering what or who might pass through.

Who knows what might happen next?

the wardrobe from C.S. Lewis’ childhood home built by his grandfather, later to serve as his inspiration for “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” from his home “The Kilns” at Oxford. Now at the Marion Wade Center at Wheaton College, Illinois

A new book from Barnstorming available to order here:

Feathers of Flame

Come, Holy Spirit,
bending or not bending the grasses,
appearing or not above our heads in a tongue of flame,
at hay harvest or when they plough in the orchards or when snow
covers crippled firs…
~Czeslaw Milosz from “Veni Creator” in Selected and Last Poems

The cows
munched or stirred or were still. I
was at home and lonely,
both in good measure. Until
the sudden angel affrighted me––light effacing
my feeble beam,
a forest of torches, feathers of flame, sparks upflying:
but the cows as before
were calm, and nothing was burning,
nothing but I, as that hand of fire
touched my lips and scorched my tongue
and pulled my voice
into the ring of the dance.
~Denise Levertov from “Caedmon” in Breathing the Water

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
~Gerard Manley Hopkins from “God’s Grandeur”

Today, when I feel at times without hope,
as mute and dumb as cattle chewing the cud,
as the bent world reels with illness, blood and violence,
I remain in hiding: my faith feels frail, love seems distant.

I wait, stilled
for the moment I am lit afire ~
when the Living God is
seen, heard, named, loved, known
forever burning in my heart deep down,
brooded over by His bright wings: His dearest
in this moment
and for eternity.

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Starved for Hope

I know what you planned, what you meant to do, teaching me
to love the world, making it impossible
to turn away completely, to shut it out completely ever again –
it is everywhere; when I close my eyes,
birdsong, scent of lilac in early spring, scent of summer roses:
you mean to take it away, each flower, each connection with earth –
why would you wound me, why would you want me
desolate in the end, unless you wanted me so starved for hope
I would refuse to see that finally
nothing was left to me, and would believe instead
in the end you were left to me.
~Louise Glück “Vespers”
(one of ten Vespers poems)

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
    and in his word I hope;
~Psalm 130:5

Mid-spring days like this:
bright, so promising with potential, birdsong constantly in the air, scent of orchard blossoms, lilacs, early roses and a flush of color everywhere…

how can I not love the world so much I never want to leave it?

Yet I must hold this loosely. It is but a tiny show of the glories to come, of what You have waiting for me next.

I am wounded with the realization that I must eventually let this go.

I hold onto the hope that won’t be found in all this beauty and lushness, the fulfilling hope that can only be found in my relationship with You as my Father and Creator.

You provide only a taste here so that I know what I starve for, starved with hope for what You have in store.

I will wait for you
I will wait for you
in the end You were left for me.

Amen and Amen.

A new book is available from Barnstorming!
More information on ordering here

Waiting in Wilderness: What is Expected

Look at the birds 1
Consider the lilies 2
Drink ye all of it 3

Ask 4
Seek
Knock
Enter by the narrow gate 5

Do not be anxious 6
Judge not; 7 do not give dogs what is holy 8

Go: be it done for you 9
Do not be afraid 10
Maiden, arise 11
Young man, I say, arise 12

Stretch out your hand 13
Stand up, 14 be still 15
Rise, let us be going … 16

Love 17
Forgive 18
Remember me 19
~Kathleen Norris Imperatives, from
Journey: New and Selected Poems/ Mysteries of the Incarnation

These are the essentials of what Jesus asks.
Basic, simple, gentle, emphatic, encouraging.
So why don’t I follow through?
Why do I hand myself over to anxiety and fear?
Why do I fail at what should be so simple?
He knows I need reminders. He knows I am weak.
So He says it again: don’t forget this.
Remember me.
I will remember. I will remember You.

1 Matthew 6:26. See also Luke 12:24, “Consider the ravens.”
2 Matthew 6:28; Luke 12:27.
3 “Drink from it, all of you” (Matthew 26:27). Norris uses the King James translation here.
4 This stanza is a series of Jesus’s commands from the Sermon on the Mount: “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you” (Matthew 7:7, King James; also Luke 11:9).
5 Matthew 7:13-14; also Luke 13:23-24.
6 Matthew 6:25, 31; Luke 12:22, 29.
7 Matthew 7:1; Mark 4:24; Luke 6:37-38.
8 Matthew 7:6.
9 Matthew 8:13.
10 “Do not be afraid” – a frequent command by Jesus; for example, Matthew 10:31; 14:27; 17:7; 28:10.
11 The healing of Jairus’s daughter: “Little girl, get up!” (Mark 5:41; also Luke 8:54).
12 The healing the widow’s only son; Luke 7:14.
13 The healing of the man with the withered hand: Matthew 12:13; Mark 3:1-6; Luke 6:6-11.
14 Jesus’s healing the paralyzed man: Matthew 9:2-8; Mark 2:1-12; Luke 5:17-26.
15 Jesus’s command to the ocean: Mark 5:39; also Matthew 8:26; Luke 8:24.
16 Jesus to his disciples in Gethsemane: “Rise, let us be going: behold, he is at hand that doth betray me” (Matthew 26:46; Mark 14:42).
17Jesus’s two great commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. … You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39; also Mark 12:28-31; Luke 10:25-28).
18 Matthew 18:21-22; Luke 17:4.

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