Fixing Eyes on the Unseen – A Safe and Kindly Light

Send me your light and your faithful care,
    let them lead me;
let them bring me to your holy mountain,
    to the place where you dwell.

Psalm 43:3

Lead, kindly light, amidst the grey and gloom
The night is long and I am far from home
Here in the dark, I do not ask to see
The path ahead–one step enough for me
Lead on, lead on, kindly light.

I was not ever willing to be led
I could have stayed, but I ran instead
In spite of fear, I followed my pride
My eyes could see, but my heart was blind
Lead on, lead on, kindly light.

And in the night, when I was afraid
Your feet beside my own on the way
Each stumbling step where other men have trod
shortens the road leading home to my God
Lead on, lead on,
my God, my God,
lead on, lead on, kindly light.
~Audrey Assad
inspired by Ven. John Henry Cardinal Newman’s poem “Lead Kindly Light”

Once in awhile, I awake in a windstorm-tossed night,
in pitch blackness with no flashlight within reach.

The familiar path to bathroom and kitchen
becomes obstacle course,
full of places to trip
and stub my toes
and bump my head.

Illumination for just the next step
is all I need.

A small circle of light that shows
where to safely put my foot.

You, Lord, come alongside
You, Lord, make the dark less fearsome
You, Lord, are that safe and kindly light
that shows me where to step next.
One step at a time, one again, and then another…

This year’s Lenten theme:
So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
2 Corinthians 4: 18

Fixing Eyes on the Unseen – Leave the Rest to God

I think there is no suffering greater than
what is caused by the doubts of those who want to believe. 

I know what torment this is, but I can only see it, 
in myself anyway, as the process by which faith is deepened. 
What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. 
They think faith is a big electric blanket, 
when of course it is the cross. 

It is much harder to believe than not to believe. 
If you feel you can’t believe, you must at least do this: 
keep an open mind. 
Keep it open toward faith, 
keep wanting it, 
keep asking for it, 
and leave the rest to God.
~Flannery O’Connor from The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor

And those are called blessed who make the effort to remain open-hearted. 

Nothing that comes from God,
even the greatest miracle, can be proven like 2 x 2 = 4.
It touches one;
it is only seen and grasped when the heart is open and the spirit purged of self.
Then it awakens faith. 

… the heart is not overcome by faith,
there is no force or violence there, compelling belief by rigid certitudes. 
What comes from God
touches gently,
comes quietly;
does not disturb freedom;
leads to quiet, profound, peaceful resolve within the heart.
~Romano Guardini from The Living God

On my doubting days, when my faith is weak,
I remember the risen Christ reaching out
to place Thomas’s hand in His very real wounds,
guiding the doubter to believe
His painful sacrifice is reality.

His open wounds call out to my mind and heart-
Christ’s flesh and blood fortifies my faith
by such a gentle guiding touch.

This year’s Lenten theme:
So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
2 Corinthians 4: 18

What will be left when I’ve drawn my last breath
Besides the folks I’ve met and the folks who know me
Will I discover a soul saving love or
Just the dirt above and below me?

I’m a doubting Thomas
I took a promise
I do not feel safe
O’ me of little faith

Sometimes I pray for a slap in the face
Then I beg to be spared cause I’m a coward
If there’s a master of death I bet he’s holding his breath
Cause I show the blind and tell the deaf
About his power

I’m a doubting Thomas
I can’t keep my promises
Cause I don’t know what’s safe
O’ me of little faith

Can I be used to help others find truth
When I’m scared that I’ll find proof that it’s a lie
Can I be led down a trail dropping bread crumbs
To prove I’m not ready to die

Please give me time to decipher the signs
Please forgive me for time that I’ve wasted

I’m a doubting Thomas
I’ll take your promise
Though I know nothing’s safe
O’ me of little faith
O’ me of little faith
~Chris Thile

Fixing Eyes on the Unseen – Don’t Worry, You’ll Make It

To the shepherd herding his flock
through the gorge below, it must appear as if I walk
on the sky. I feel that too: so little between me

and The Fall. But this is how faith works its craft.
One foot set in front of the other, while the wind
rattles the cage of the living and the rocks down there

cheer every wobble, your threads keep
this braided business almost intact saying: Don’t worry.
I’ve been here a long time. You’ll make it across.
~Matthew Olzmann “Letter to a Bridge Made of Rope”

I have never walked a rope bridge though I’ve seen one from a distance in Northern Ireland. It swayed far above a rocky gorge, hanging almost miraculously in the air as walkers trekked blithely across.

Not for me, I said.

I feel disoriented and dizzy when the surface beneath my feet sways and moves with the wind and due to my own movement. I make my own wobbling worse with my fear. The rocks below seem menacing; I don’t trust my own ability to navigate over and through them.

Oh, me of little faith. So little between me and The Fall.

Simply crossing a narrow wooden bridge built over a fallen large old-growth tree trunk takes all my courage. I try to focus on my feet taking each step, testing the solid wood beneath me rather than looking down at the rushing water and sharp rocks below.

In the course of life, I have to take steps that feel uncertain and unsupported. I freeze in place, afraid to move forward, reluctant to leave the security of where I am to do what it takes to get safely to the other side.

Yet I need to trust what holds firm for others will hold firm for me.

Christ is the bridge for those like me who fear, who don’t trust their own feet, who can’t stop seeing the taunting and daunting rocks below. He has braided Himself around me to keep me safe, no matter what and no matter where. He’s been here a long time and will always be.

I can step out in that confidence.

This year’s Lenten theme:
So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
2 Corinthians 4: 18

Loving shepherd of Thy sheep,
Keep Thy lamb, in safety keep;
Nothing can Thy power withstand,
None can pluck me from Thy hand.

I will praise Thee everyday,
Gladly Thy all will obey;
Like Thy ones blessed above,
Happy in Thy presence love.

Loving shepherd, ever near,
Teach Thy lamb Thy voice to hear;
Suffer not my steps to stray,
From the straight and narrow way.

Where Thou leadest I would go,
Walking in Thy steps below;
Till before my Father’s throne,
I shall know as I am known.

Fixing Eyes on the Unseen – A Hard Gift to Keep

To pull the metal splinter from my palm
my father recited a story in a low voice.
I watched his lovely face and not the blade.
Before the story ended, he’d removed
the iron sliver I thought I’d die from.

I can’t remember the tale,
but hear his voice still, a well
of dark water, a prayer.
And I recall his hands,
two measures of tenderness
he laid against my face,
the flames of discipline
he raised above my head.

Had you entered that afternoon
you would have thought you saw a man
planting something in a boy’s palm,
a silver tear, a tiny flame.
Had you followed that boy
you would have arrived here,
where I bend over my wife’s right hand.

Look how I shave her thumbnail down
so carefully she feels no pain.
Watch as I lift the splinter out.
I was seven when my father
took my hand like this,
and I did not hold that shard
between my fingers and think,
Metal that will bury me,
christen it Little Assassin,
Ore Going Deep for My Heart.

And I did not lift up my wound and cry,
Death visited here!
I did what a child does
when he’s given something to keep.
I kissed my father.
~Li-Young Lee, “The Gift” from Rose

I did, without ever wanting to, remove my child’s splinter, lance a boil, immobilize a broken arm, pull together sliced skin, clean many dirty wounds. It felt like I crossed the line between mommy and doctor.  But someone had to do it, and a four hour wait in the emergency room didn’t seem warranted.

My own children learned to cope with hurt made worse by someone they trusted to be comforter. I dealt with inflicting pain, temporary though it may be, to flesh that arose from my flesh. It hurt as much as if it were my own wound needing cleansing, not theirs.

And so, in the similar way, our wounds are His – He is constantly feeling our pain as He performs healing surgeries in our lives, not because He wants to but because He must, to save us from our own self-destruction. Too often we yell and kick and protest in our distress, making it all that much more difficult for both of us.

If only we can come to acknowledge His intervention is our salvage:
our tears to flow in relief, not anguish,
we cling to His protection rather than pushing Him away,
we kiss Him in gratitude as we are restored again and yet again.

This year’s Lenten theme:
So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
2 Corinthians 4: 18

Fixing Eyes on the Unseen – Face to the Sky

As swimmers dare
to lie face to the sky
and water bears them,
as hawks rest upon air
and air sustains them,
so would I learn to attain
free fall, and float
into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,
knowing no effort earns
that all-surrounding grace.

~Denise Levertov “The Avowal”

photo by Josh Scholten

I don’t like flying – at all. Human beings weren’t made with wings and I simply don’t think I belong up there. Then too is the feeling of the sudden drop which can happen with severe turbulence, the kind that leaves your stomach in your throat.

It is very much like the free-falling feeling that wakes you from a dream with an abrupt thud landing upon your pillow, your heart beating fast and your breath coming short, wondering what just happened.

It is good to know there is Someone there to hold me safely since I was born with no wings and own no parachute. There is nothing to be done but accept all-encompassing, all-embracing, all-surrounding grace that is pure gift. Such a rescue is not a reward, certainly not earned, nor does it arise out of my own skill or ingenuity.

God is simply there, ready to catch me as I fall.

This year’s Lenten theme:
So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
2 Corinthians 4: 18

Fixing Eyes on the Unseen – Let Nothing Trouble You

Let nothing disturb you,
nothing frighten you,
all things are passing.

God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
Whoever has God lacks nothing.
God is enough.
~The Prayer of St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582)

Occasionally I have sleepless nights when the worries of my waking hours weigh heavily on my mind. Almost anything can feel more overwhelming at night, as I struggle to see clarity in the dark through my tears. Even in broad daylight, the puzzle pieces of my life may well seem scattered, making no logical pattern or sense. I can feel as random as pebbles shifting and tossed by waves on a beach.

In those helpless moments, I must remember if I have God, I lack nothing. This too shall pass. God does not change, even as I brace against the waves of life which turn me over and over, end for end, smoothing my rough edges, often leaving me somewhere new.

Patience, patience.

He is enough for now, for today, for tonight, for tomorrow, for ever.

photo by Josh Scholten

This year’s Lenten theme:
So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.2 Corinthians 4: 18

Let nothing trouble you,
Let nothing frighten you,
Everything is fleeting,
God alone is unchanging,
Patience can obtain everything,
The one who possesses God wants for nothing:
God alone suffices

Fixing Eyes on the Unseen: Following the Map

Antique maps, with curlicues of ink
As borders, framing what we know, like pages
From a book of travelers’ tales: look,
Here in the margin, tiny ships at sail.
No-nonsense maps from family trips: each state
Traced out in color-coded numbered highways,
A web of roads with labeled city-dots
Punctuating the route and its slow stories.
Now GPS puts me right at the centre,
A Ptolemaic shift in my perspective.
Pinned where I am, right now, somewhere, I turn
And turn to orient myself. I have
Directions calculated, maps at hand:
Hopelessly lost till I look up at last.

~Holly Ordway “Maps” from Apologetics and the Christian Imagination

I heard an old man speak once,
someone who had been sober for fifty years,
a very prominent doctor.
He said that he’d finally figured out a few years ago
that his profound sense of control,
in the world and over his life,
is another addiction and a total illusion.
He said that when he sees little kids sitting in the back seat of cars,
in those car seats that have steering wheels,
with grim expressions of concentration on their faces,
clearly convinced that their efforts are causing the car
to do whatever it is doing,
he thinks of himself
and his relationship with God:
God who drives along silently,
gently amused,
in the real driver’s seat.

~Anne Lamott from Operating Instructions

We want to steer life in the way we want it to go:
our plans, our timing, our chosen destination,
our hopes and dreams matter first and foremost.

And then life happens and suddenly the road ceases to look familiar and we don’t seem to be going the direction we intended.

Who is doing the driving anyway while we are concentrating intently on the map?
We are under the illusion that we are in control:

Sadness and hopelessness, frustration and anger stem from discouragement over not knowing where we are headed. We feel there is no turning back, unable to see the road signs to another path to a different future.

There is an epidemic of hopelessness and helplessness especially among children and young adults – their path is murky, their debts too great, their reserves too limited, their foundations too shaky, their hope nonexistent, their future too dim.

Relinquishing control by giving up the driver’s seat is not in our nature. We want to be seen as competent and feel as though we are prepared to be the captain of our fate. Instead we need to turn over our carefully mapped-out life to the God who created us.

It’s time to look up from the map and turn over the steering wheel.
Your direction, Your destination, Your purpose, Your promise.

If you steer, I will focus on the horizon and see the way ahead.

This year’s Lenten theme:
So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
2 Corinthians 4: 18

Fixing Eyes on the Unseen: The Eyes of My Regret

Always at dusk, the same tearless experience,
The same dragging of feet up the same well-worn path
To the same well-worn rock;
The same crimson or gold dropping away of the sun
The same tints—rose, saffron, violet, lavender, grey
Meeting, mingling, mixing mistily;
Before me the same blue black cedar rising jaggedly to a point;
Over it, the same slow unlidding of twin stars,
Two eyes, unfathomable, soul-searing,
Watching, watching—watching me;
The same two eyes that draw me forth, against my will dusk after dusk;
The same two eyes that keep me sitting late into the night, chin on knees
Keep me there lonely, rigid, tearless, numbly miserable,
       —The eyes of my Regret.

~Angelina Weld Grimké “The Eyes of My Regret”

How granular they feel—grief and regret, arriving, as they do,
in the sharp particularities of distress. Inserting themselves—
cunning, intricate, subversive—into our discourse.

In the long night, grievances seem to multiply. Old dreams
mingling with new. Disappointment and regret bludgeon
the soul, your best imaginings bruised, your hopes ragged.

Yet wait, watch. From the skylight the room is filling with
soft early sun, slowly sifting its light on the bed, on your head,
a shower of fine particles. How welcome. And how reliable.

~Luci Shaw “Sorrow”

It’s now been a interminably long three years: millions of people sickened by a virus that could kill within days or simply be spread by those unwitting and asymptomatic. We’ve lived through shut down of businesses and schools, hospitals and clinics being overwhelmed, and hoarding behavior resulting in shortages of products addressing basic needs.

Now that I can look back with a bit more perspective, I know my first reaction was fear for myself and those I love. My words flew out too quickly, my anxiety mixed with frustration and anger, my tears spilling too easily. Like so many others, my work life forever changed.

I ended up lying awake many nights with regrets, wondering if I should be doing more than just telemedicine from home, yet wanting to hide myself and my M.D. degree under a rock until the unending viral scourge blew over.

Yet amazingly, miracles of grace in many places:
generous people full of courage made a difference in small and large ways all around the world. Some took enormous personal risks to take care of strangers and loved ones. Some worked endless hours and when they came home, they remained isolated to avoid infecting their families.

Such grace happens when hardship is confronted head on by the brilliant light of sacrifice. I am deeply grateful to those who have worked tirelessly providing care and compassion to the ill. Their work is never done.

We know, in His humanity, Jesus wept, in frustration, in worry for His people, in grief.
His tears still light the sky with a promise of salvation as He assures He won’t leave us alone in darkness – our regret dissipates with the dawn.

This year’s Barnstorming Lenten theme is taken from 2 Corinthians 4: 18:
So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

The Light of a Dawn Rain

All day the stars watch from long ago
my mother said I am going now
when you are alone you will be all right
whether or not you know you will know
look at the old house in the dawn rain
all the flowers are forms of water
the sun reminds them through a white cloud
touches the patchwork spread on the hill
the washed colors of the afterlife
that lived there long before you were born
see how they wake without a question
even though the whole world is burning

~W.S. Merwin “Rain Light”

My childhood fear was that my parents might die young and leave me alone to fend for myself. This fear was certainly fed by nuclear threats, bomb drills at school and the Cuban missile crisis. It felt as though the world was so uncertain that even the most routine day felt fraught with the potential of a tragic ending. As an overly-sensitive eight year old, I struggled to go to school because I was certain I would not see my mother again if bombs dropped and the world ended in fire. That prospect was more terrifying than my own life ending.

It took time, and my mother’s constant reassurance, for me to settle into the reality that life is an uncertain business. Whether or not I would know what may happen that day, I would know to look for beauty and peace and renewal. Many days started with morning rain, a quiet washing away of the night’s worries and frets.

Decades later, I would be okay when she left, which she did, at dawn. I came to sit beside her for a short time, knowing she was gone, knowing I would be all right, and knowing she had given me the tools to look each uncertain day in the eye and accept it for what it was going to be.

Now, for nearly seventy years, I wake and look out at these uncertain dawns. Even though I do not know what will come next, I have been given the gift of reassurance that I will be all right.

And so will you.


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Breaking the Lock

And yes it is necessary to admit
walking in the forest
the heart is a lock

it has inviolable chambers
like the woods, fallen trees
that block

access to the river
snowdrops surprising its edges
moss crystalline with frost

What I thought I wanted what I have tried to be
was the slender instrument that opened

a key: presence moving deeper into the forest
that releases the birds from the trees
and sends them   ascends them
to sky   by definition

but now there is nothing left to be solved like a riddle

this time the lock must be broken
what’s left has to be seized

because God only loves the strong thief
I mean the man who breaks his heart for God
~Jennifer Grotz, “Locked” from Window Left Open

All my life I wanted to be an effective key, unlocking life’s mysteries and opening up the world to those who are hopeless, stifled and trapped. Doctor training gave me a few locksmith tools. I found my patients taught me far more about their pain and suffering than my professors did.

Yet profound mysteries remain: some illnesses are rare or unique enough to defy diagnosis, some just don’t respond to available tools, while illnesses as well understood and treatable as depression or COVID infection still kill and incapacitate with abandon. The keys I may have accumulated don’t fit every lock. They don’t necessarily open the doors to freedom from fear or worry.

At times I feel aimless, wondering what tools I still have and if I remember how to use them. Simple knowledge is only one key, while brute force – breaking and entering – may be necessary to break the hardest lock of all – access to the troubled heart and soul.

God wants in, to pick up our broken pieces and put us back together. He doesn’t need a key to enter what He Himself has built from scratch. He owns the place.


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