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.

An Austere Love

Sundays too my father got up early
And put his clothes on in the blueback cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices? 
–  Robert HaydenThose Winter Sundays

As a child growing up,
I was oblivious
to the sacrifices my parents made
to keep the house warm,
place food on the table,
to teach us the importance of faith and belief,
to crack the door of opportunity open,
so we could walk through
to a better life.

It was no small offering
to keep dry seasoned fire and stove wood always at the doorstep,
to milk the cows twice a day,
to grow and preserve fruits and vegetables months in advance,
to raise and butcher meat animals,
to read books together every night,
to sit with us over homework
and drive us to 4H, Cub Scouts and Camp Fire,
to music lessons and sports,
to sit together, never missing a Sunday morning,
to worship God.

This was their love,
so often invisible,
too often imperfect,
even when they were angry with one another–
yet its encompassing warmth
splintered and broke
the grip of cold and loneliness
that too often
overwhelms and freezes
a child’s heart and soul.

What did I know?
Too little then,
maybe a little more now.

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.

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.

A Hammer and a Nail

I’d rather be a hammer than a nail
Yes, I would, if I could, I surely would…
~Simon and Garfunkel from “El Condor Pasa”

If I had a hammer,
I’d hammer in the morning,
I’d hammer in the evening,
All over this land,
I’d hammer out danger,
I’d hammer out a warning,
I’d hammer out love between,
My brothers and my sisters,
All over this land.
~Lee Hays, Pete Seeger

Strangely enough~
it is the pointed and piercing nail,
rather than our blunt hammer,
that binds together,
forming the strength,
the safety,
the permanence
of corners, foundation,
walls and roof
until the battering winds
threaten to pull them apart.

Yet the nail is useless
without the hammer.

The hammer
pounds the nail in
where it is most needed
where it won’t be forgotten
where, if ever removed,
the hole it leaves behind
is a forever reminder
of what our hammers have wrought
and how we are forgiven.

abandoned schoolhouse near Rapalje, Montana

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.

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.

Because They Are No More…

A voice is heard in Ramah,
    mourning and great weeping,

Rachel weeping for her children
    and refusing to be comforted,
    because they are no more.
Matthew 2:18 and Jeremiah 31:15

We think of him as safe beneath the steeple,
Or cosy in a crib beside the font,
But he is with a million displaced people|
On the long road of weariness and want.
For even as we sing our final carol
His family is up and on that road,
Fleeing the wrath of someone else’s quarrel,
Glancing behind and shouldering their load.

Whilst Herod rages still from his dark tower
Christ clings to Mary, fingers tightly curled,|
The lambs are slaughtered by the men of power,
And death squads spread their curse across the world.
But every Herod dies, and comes alone
To stand before the Lamb upon the throne.
~Malcolm Guite from Waiting on the Word

 …as you sit beneath your beautifully decorated tree, eat the rich food of celebration, and laugh with your loved ones, you must not let yourself forget the horror and violence at the beginning and end of the Christmas story. The story begins with the horrible slaughter of children and ends with the violent murder of the Son of God. The slaughter depicts how much the earth needs grace. The murder is the moment when that grace is given.

Look into that manger representing a new life and see the One who came to die. Hear the angels’ celebratory song and remember that sad death would be the only way that peace would be given. Look at your tree and remember another tree – one not decorated with shining ornaments, but stained with the blood of God.

As you celebrate, remember that the pathway to your celebration was the death of the One you celebrate, and be thankful.
~Paul Tripp

There can be no consolation;
only mourning and great weeping,
sobbing that wrings dry
every human cell,
leaving dust behind–
dust, only dust
which is beginning
and end.

He came to us
for times such as this,
born of
the dust of woman and
the breath of Spirit,
God who bent down to
lie in barn dust,
walk on roads of dust,
die and be laid to rest as dust
in order to conquer
such evil as this
that could terrify masses
and massacre innocents.

He became dust to be
like us
He began a mere speck in a womb
like us,
so easily washed away
as unexpected, unneeded, unwanted.

Lord, You are long expected.
You are needed
You are wanted.

Your heart beat
like ours
breathing each breath
like ours
until a fearful fallen world
took Your
and our breath
away.

You shine through
the shadows of death
to guide our stumbling uncertain feet.
Your tender mercies flow freely
when there is no consolation
when there is no comfort.

You hear our cries
as You cry too.
You know our tears
as You weep too.
You know our mourning
as You mourned too.
You know our dying
as You died too.

God weeps
as tragedy happens.
Evil comes not from God
yet humankind embraces it.
Sin is a choice
we made from the beginning,
a choice we continue to make.

Only God can glue together
what evil has shattered.
He just asks us to hand Him
the pieces of our broken hearts.

We will know His peace
when He comes
to bring us home,
our tears will finally be dried,
our cells no longer
just dust,
never only dust
as we are glued together
by the breath of God
forevermore.

the tender mercy of our God,
    by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness
    and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.
Luke 1: 78-79