He Does Not Leave Us Where We Are: Between Heaven and Earth

Slowly the west reaches for clothes of new colors
which it passes to a row of ancient trees.
You look, and soon these two worlds both leave you
one part climbs toward heaven, one sinks to earth.

leaving you, not really belonging to either,
not so hopelessly dark as that house that is silent,
not so unswervingly given to the eternal as that thing
that turns to a star each night and climbs–

leaving you (it is impossible to untangle the threads)
your own life, timid and standing high and growing,
so that, sometimes blocked in, sometimes reaching out,
one moment your life is a stone in you, and the next, a star.
~Rainer Maria Rilke “Sunset” (Trans. by Robert Bly) from The Soul is Here for Its Own Joy


We, frail people that we are, live out our lives between heaven and earth, sometimes in an uneasy tug-of-war between the two. We feel not quite ready for heaven as our roots go deep here, yet the challenges of daily life on this soil can seem overwhelmingly difficult and we seek relief, begging for mercy.

As we struggle to stay healthy during a spreading pandemic, it is frightening to watch others suffer as death tolls rise. We pray for safety for ourselves and those we love, knowing we are living “in between” where we are now and where we soon will be.

Shall we remain stones on the ground, still and lifeless, or are we destined to become a star glistening in the firmament?

Or are we like a tree stretching between soil and sky trying to touch both and remain standing while buffeted by forces beyond our control?

Christ the Son, on earth and in heaven, maintains an eternal connection to above and below. In His hands and under His protection, we are safe no matter where we are and where He takes us.

We can be mere stones no more.

This year’s Barnstorming theme for the season of Lent:

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 Accepts Us As We Are: Hiding Nothing

You can hide nothing from God.
The mask you wear before men will do you no good before Him.
He wants to see you as you are,
He wants to be gracious to you.
You do not have to go on lying to yourself and your brothers,
as if you were without sin;
you can dare to be a sinner.

~Dietrich Bonhoeffer from Life Together


In your hands

The dog, the donkey, surely they know
They are alive.
Who would argue otherwise?


But now, after years of consideration,
I am getting beyond that.
What about the sunflowers? What about
The tulips, and the pines?


Listen, all you have to do is start and
There’ll be no stopping.
What about mountains? What about water
Slipping over rocks?


And speaking of stones, what about
The little ones you can
Hold in your hands, their heartbeats
So secret, so hidden it may take years


Before, finally, you hear them?
~Mary Oliver from
Swan: Prose and Poems

When I myself go to the doctor, I am to trust I’m seeing someone who is meant to know me thoroughly enough that he or she will help me move out of illness into better health. This is how acceptance feels: trusting someone enough to come out of hiding.

As a physician myself, I am reminded by the amount of “noticing” I need to do in the course of my work.  Each patient, and there are so many,  deserves my full attention for the few minutes we are together.  I start my clinical evaluation the minute we sit down together and I begin taking in all the complex verbal and non-verbal clues offered up, sometimes unwittingly, by another human being.

Now, during the COVID19 pandemic, my interactions with patients are all “virtual” so I don’t have the ability to observe as I usually do, so I need them to tell me outright what is going on in their lives, their minds and their hearts in spoken or written words. I can’t ‘see’ them, even on a screen, in the same way.

How might someone call out to me when their faces are hidden?

I can’t witness first hand the trembling hands, their sweatiness, the scars of self injury.  Still, I am their audience and a witness to their struggle; even more, I must understand it in order to best assist them.  My brain must rise to the occasion of taking in another person, accepting them for who they are, offering them the gift of compassion and simply be there for them, just them, right now.

God doesn’t struggle in His Holy work as I do in my clinical duties. He knows us thoroughly because He made us; He knows our thoughts before we put them into words. There is no point in staying hidden from Him.

He holds us, little pebbles that we are, in His Hand, and He discerns our secret heartbeats.

We, the hidden, are His.

This year’s Lenten theme for 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

I will search in the silence for your hiding place.
In the quiet, Lord, I seek your face.
Where can I discover the wellsprings of your love?
Is my search and seeking in vain?
How can I recover the beauty of your word?
In the silence I call out your name.
Where can I find shelter to shield me from the storm?
To find comfort, though dark be the night?
For I know that my welfare is ever in your sight.
In the shadows I long for your light.
Lead me in your footsteps along your ancient way.
Let me walk in the love of the Lord.
Your wisdom is my heart’s wealth, a blessing all our days.
In the silence I long for Your world.
~Liam Lawton

He Accepts Us As We Are: Going to Pieces

Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.
~Martin Luther

There is big excitement in C block today.
On the window sill,
in a plastic ice cream cup
a little plant is growing.
This is all the men want to talk about:
how an apple seed germinated
in a crack of damp concrete;
how they tore open tea bags
to collect the leaves, leached them
in water, then laid the sprout onto the bed
made of Lipton. How this finger of spring
dug one delicate root down
into the dark fannings and now
two small sleeves of green
are pushing out from the emerging tip.
The men are tipsy with this miracle.
Each morning, one by one,
they go to the window and check
the progress of the struggling plant.
All through the day they return
to stand over the seedling
and whisper.
~Nancy Miller Gomez “Growing Apples”

As a child I was fascinated by the early 1800’s story of John Chapman (aka Johnny Appleseed) who traveled on foot around the eastern United States creating nurseries of apple trees.  When our family traveled in Ohio and Pennsylvania in the 1960s, we visited places that claimed to have apple trees planted by John Chapman.  I marveled at how one little seed planted in such confident faith had the potential to produce decades of fruit and hope for generations of folk.

My two childhood farms had old apple trees–gravensteins and transparent varieties–good for climbing in and always great as scratching branches and shady snoozing spots for the horses and cows.  One had a platform fort where I spent hours sitting munching on apple cores, surveying the fields and enjoying watching the animals standing beneath me, relaxed, napping, chewing cud and swatting flies.

When we bought our farm here in Whatcom County over thirty years ago, there were left a few antique variety apple trees of a once vital orchard.  They were aging, with bent and broken branches and hollowed trunks, but still continued to produce fruit, great for baking, sauce, cider and winter storage. We’ve lost a few of the old trees over the years to the wind and elements,  though now nearly a century old, the survivors keep providing.

It seems God has accepted I follow my own appleseed trail, so no matter what may happen in my own life, if I’ve planted a seed that takes root, there will be fruit and hope for the future. The Lord Himself continues to plant seeds and words in the midst of a world going to pieces. 

Some day fifty years from now, a kid sitting high up in the branches of an apple tree,  contemplating life and its meaning,  will have an apple to munch and words to chew.

“O the Lord is good to me
and so I thank the Lord
for giving me the things I need-
the sun, the rain, and my appleseeds-
the Lord is good to me!”

This year’s Lenten theme for 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

The tree of life my soul hath seen,
Laden with fruit and always green:
The trees of nature fruitless be
Compared with Christ the apple tree.

His beauty doth all things excel:
By faith I know, but ne’er can tell
The glory which I now can see
In Jesus Christ the apple tree.

For happiness I long have sought,
And pleasure dearly I have bought:
I missed of all; but now I see
Tis found in Christ the apple tree.

I’m weary with my former toil,
Here I will sit and rest awhile:
Under the shadow I will be,
Of Jesus Christ the apple tree.

This fruit doth make my soul to thrive,
It keeps my dying faith alive;
Which makes my soul in haste to be
With Jesus Christ the apple tree.

Let Me Go to the Window

…leave me a little love,
A voice to speak to me in the day end,
A hand to touch me in the dark room
Breaking the long loneliness.
In the dusk of day-shapes
Blurring the sunset,
One little wandering, western star
Thrust out from the changing shores of shadow.
Let me go to the window,
Watch there the day-shapes of dusk
And wait and know the coming
Of a little love.
~Carl Sandburg from “At a Window”

Now close the windows and hush all the fields;
If the trees must, let them silently toss;
No bird is singing now, and if there is,
Be it my loss.

I will be long ere the marshes resume,
It will be long ere the earliest bird:
So close the windows and not hear the wind,
But see all wind-stirred.
~Robert Frost “Now Close the Windows”

Everything looks a little different framed by a window. We are set apart, looking out, rather than immersed within the landscape ourselves.

It is not unlike being in an art museum, walking past masterpieces that offer a framed view into another time and place, with people we don’t know and will never meet.

Let me go to the windows, moving through the house and peering out at the glory that awaits beyond the frame. But rather than simply admire the view, protected from the chill wind, I’ll walk out the door into the life that pulses continually beyond the glass.

A Tumultuous Privacy of Storm

Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,
Arrives the snow, and, driving o’er the fields,
Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air
Hides hills and woods, the river, and the heaven,
And veils the farm-house at the garden’s end.
The sled and traveller stopped, the courier’s feet
Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed
In a tumultuous privacy of storm.

Come see the north wind’s masonry.
Out of an unseen quarry evermore
Furnished with tile, the fierce artificer
Curves his white bastions with projected roof
Round every windward stake, or tree, or door.

Built in an age, the mad wind’s night-work,
The frolic architecture of the snow.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson from “The Snow-Storm”

The barn bears the weight
of the first heavy snow
without complaint.

White breath of cows
rises in the tie-up, a man
wearing a frayed winter jacket
reaches for his milking stool
in the dark.

The cows have gone into the ground,
and the man,
his wife beside him now.

A nuthatch drops
to the ground, feeding
on sunflower seed and bits of bread
I scattered on the snow.

The cats doze near the stove.
They lift their heads
as the plow goes down the road,
making the house
tremble as it passes.
~Jane Kenyon “This Morning”

We’ve seen harsher northeast winds, we’ve seen heavier snow. Yet there is something refreshingly disruptive about the once or twice a year overnight snow storm: it transforms, transcends and transfigures.

So we stay home when the weather and farms demand we do, to feed and water ourselves and our animals and the wild ones around us. It is a quiet and private and tumultuous time, a time to be attuned to one another.

The ultimate snow day, when all is atremble.

My First Step Toward Not Returning

I was cold and leaned against the big oak tree
as if it were my mother wearing a rough apron
of bark, her upraised arms warning of danger.
Through those boughs and leaves I saw
dark patches of sky…
I looked to the roof of mom and dad’s house
and wondered if the paisley couch patterns
would change during the day. My brother peeked
from a window and waved. When the bus came,
I pawed away from the trunk, fumbled,
and took my first step toward not returning.
~Dante Di Stefano from “With a Coat”

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
~T.S. Eliot from “Little Gidding”

I remember the restlessness of my late teens when I learned homesickness was not a terminal condition.  There was a world out there to be explored and I knew I was meant to be a designated explorer,  seeking out the extraordinary.

Ordinary simply wouldn’t do.  Ordinary was plentiful at home on a small farm with a predictable routine, a garden to be weeded and daily chores to be done, with middle-aged parents tight with tension in a struggling marriage.

On a whim at age nineteen, I applied for wild chimpanzee research study in Africa, and much to my shock, was accepted.  A year of academic and physical preparation as well as Swahili language study was required, so this was no impulsive adventure.   I had plenty of time to back out, reconsider and be ordinary again.

It was an adventure, far beyond what I had anticipated and trained for.  When I had to decide between more exploration, without clear purpose or funding, or returning home, I opted to return to the place I started, seeing home differently, as if for the first time,  after having been away.

Ordinary is a state of mind, not a place.  I can choose to be deeply rooted in the mundane, or I can seek the extraordinary in attentive exploration of my everyday world.

Returning back where I started – knowing the place for the first time.

We Bring Ourselves

… 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”

We awake glad this morning,
breathing deeply of the sacred that
glistens in the light of a soft sunrise.
Each day is a fresh start,
a gift from those who have gone before.
We bring ourselves to His table,
renewing our covenant
with God and each other.
And the trees of the field will clap their hands…