Waiting in Wilderness: A Time of Treading Life

This is the wilderness time,
when every path is obscure
and thorns have grown around the words of hope.

This is the time of stone, not bread,
when even the sunrise feels uncertain
and everything tastes of bitterness.

This is the time of ashes and dust,
when darkness clothes our dreams
and no star shines a guiding light.

This is the time of treading life,
waiting for the swells to subside and for the chaos to clear.

Be the wings of our strength, O God,
in this time of wilderness waiting.
– Keri Wehlander from “600 Blessings and Prayers from around the world” compiled by Geoffrey Duncan

He will cover you with his feathers,
    and under his wings you will find refuge;
    his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.
Psalm 91:4

To be commanded to love God at all, let alone in the wilderness,
is like being commanded to be well when we are sick,
to sing for joy when we are dying of thirst,
to run when our legs are broken.
But this is the first and great commandment nonetheless.
Even in the wilderness- especially in the wilderness – you shall love him.   
~Frederick Buechner from A Room Called Remember:Uncollected Pieces

I usually think of wilderness as a distant peak far removed from anything or anyone.  From my farmhouse window on a clear day, I can see a number of distant peaks if the cloud cover moves away to reveal them.

Or perhaps the wilderness is a desolate plain that extends for miles without relief in sight.

Wilderness is also found in an isolated corner of my human heart. I keep it far removed from anything and anyone. During my televisit computer work,  I witness this wilderness in others, many times every day.

A diagnosis of “wilderness of the heart” doesn’t require a psychiatric manual: 
there is despair, discouragement, disappointment, lack of gratitude, lack of hope. 
One possible treatment to tame that wilderness is a covenantal obedience to God and others. It reaches so deep no corner is left untouched.

There come times in one’s life, and this past year especially, when loving God as commanded seems impossible. We are too broken, too frightened, too ill and too wary to trust God with faith and devotion.  We are treading life simply to stay afloat.

During this second Lenten pandemic, God’s love becomes respite and rescue from the wilderness of my own making. He is the sweet cure for a bitter and broken heart.

Waiting in Wilderness: An Impossible Womb

God called Abram to leave the familiar and go,
go on a road he would make by going,
to a place he would know by finding.

Jesus led Nicodemus to the threshold of a birth,
a newness he could only know by going through it.

Only what’s behind us, not ahead, keeps us from going on,
from entering the impossible womb of starting new.

The stones of disappointment in your pockets,
the grave marker of the old life, they can’t come with you.

The path is not a test. It’s our freedom.
Many a prisoner has looked into the tunnel,
the Beloved waiting in the light, and said no.

Where is the Spirit calling you, the wind blowing?
Where is the thin place between your habits and a new birth?

These pangs, this heavy breathing:
the Beloved is trying to birth you.

Let it happen.
~Steve Garnaass-Holmes “A new birth”

Like most people, I cling fast to the safe and familiar, sometimes wishing to retreat back to what feels most secure and safest. Yet, it is an impossible womb that would allow me back – it is clear I am meant to be fully launched, for better or worse. So carrying my checkered history stuffed deeply in my pockets, I embark on this life’s journey led by the Spirit and blown by His breath, uncertain where it will take me or how long it takes to get there.

There is an unsurpassed freedom in the path from womb to tomb; if I let His breath carry me, I’ll go so far beyond the place where my bones someday are laid.

Breaking Through Ice

Walking in February
A warm day after a long freeze
On an old logging road
Below Sumas Mountain
Cut a walking stick of alder,
Looked down through clouds
On wet fields of the Nooksack—
And stepped on the ice
Of a frozen pool across the road.
It creaked
The white air under
Sprang away, long cracks
Shot out in the black,
My cleated mountain boots
Slipped on the hard slick
—like thin ice—the sudden
Feel of an old phrase made real—
Instant of frozen leaf,
Icewater, and staff in hand.
“Like walking on thin ice—”
I yelled back to a friend,
It broke and I dropped
Eight inches in
~Gary Snyder “Thin Ice”

We have witnessed an unprecedented year of spreading infection. Not only have we been outwitted by a wily virus that mutates as needed to further its domination of its hosts and the world, but we stand on a frozen lake pandemic of daily discouragement and ice-cracking political division, not sure where we may safely take our next step.

Viruses depend on us harboring them without us dying promptly so we might infect as many others as possible as quickly as possible. The better we feel while contagious, the better it is for the virus to wreak potential havoc on those around us.

A mask on you and a mask on me helps to block my virus from entering your (as yet) uninfected nose. Similarly, we can both don “masks” to impede the intentional spread of our insistence that one of us is right and the other is wrong. If we don’t attempt to muzzle our disagreements, we’re creating cracks in the tenuous ice beneath our feet.

The trouble with overheated debates in the middle of winter is that we all end up walking on too-thin ice, breaking through and doused by the chilly waters below.

Lord, have mercy on us,
help us see and hear the cracks forming beneath our feet.
Put us on our knees before you, you alone,
humble and aware
of the contagious cracks we perpetuate.

The Terrible Clarity

Romantic love is blind to everything
except what is lovable and lovely,

but Christ’s love sees us
with terrible clarity and sees us whole.


Christ’s love so wishes our joy
that it is ruthless against everything in us
that diminishes our joy.


The worst sentence Love can pass is that

we behold the suffering which Love has endured for our sake,
and that is also our acquittal.


The justice and mercy of the judge
are ultimately one.

~Frederick Buechner

As we prepare for the season of Lent to begin this week:

We see with terrible clarity
the Love and forgiveness shown to the guilty,
the Love given freely to the undeserving,
the Love paying our ransom in full,
the Love that endures suffering
to release us from our bondage.

This Judge convicts by meting out justice upon His own head,
then serves the whole sentence Himself:
He sets us free
to feel and know and see and share with one another
the Love we are shown.

Think of the Frost

It’s easy to love a deer
But try to care about bugs and scrawny trees
Love the puddle of lukewarm water
From last week’s rain.
Leave the mountains alone for now.
Also the clear lakes surrounded by pines.
People are lined up to admire them.
Get close to the things that slide away in the dark.
Be grateful even for the boredom
That sometimes seems to involve the whole world.
Think of the frost
That will crack our bones eventually.
~Tom Hennen “Love for Other Things” from Darkness Sticks To Everything: Collected and New Poems

Some people complain that this constricted life — due to pandemic COVID limitations and the restrictions placed upon us — is boring.

Nothing to do, no places to go, no people to see.

Yet I haven’t been bored – not even for a minute. There is so much to see and do right in my own backyard which I rarely had time to observe and appreciate previously. Rather than spending 6-8 hours a week in my car commuting, I’m gifted that time to work at my desk, do chores on the farm, walk with the dogs, and muse about how things have changed.

One person’s boredom is another person’s liberating freedom.

But we have it easy compared to those whose jobs can’t be done from home. We can grow our own food here, but that isn’t an option for those living in a high rise. We can isolate and still maintain our connections virtually with our friends and family. I know I am blessed with options.

This COVID-tide will end eventually and our stack of responsibilities will resume, but I’m wiser than I was before. I don’t need to live life at break-neck speed. I don’t need constant entertainment and novel experiences. No longer do I need to feel indispensable because it is so completely obvious that I’m not.

I didn’t need this virus to remind me of my mortality and my shortening days on earth, yet it has.

Our time here is too brief to waste even a minute. So I live each moment to the fullest, knowing it will never come again.

This Notable Thing

Chunky and noisy,
but with stars in their black feathers,
they spring from the telephone wire
and instantly

they are acrobats
in the freezing wind.
And now, in the theater of air,
they swing over buildings,

dipping and rising;
they float like one stippled star
that opens,
becomes for a moment fragmented,

then closes again;
and you watch
and you try
but you simply can’t imagine

how they do it
with no articulated instruction, no pause,
only the silent confirmation
that they are this notable thing,

this wheel of many parts, that can rise and spin
over and over again,
full of gorgeous life.

Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us,
even in the leafless winter,
even in the ashy city.
I am thinking now
of grief, and of getting past it;

I feel my boots
trying to leave the ground,
I feel my heart
pumping hard. I want

to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings.
~Mary Oliver “Starlings in Winter” from Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays

Out of the dimming sky a speck appeared,
then another, and another.
It was the starlings going to roost. 
They gathered deep in the distance,  flock sifting into flock,
and strayed towards me, transparent and whirling, like smoke.
They seemed to unravel as they flew,
lengthening in curves, like a loosened skein. 
I didn’t move; they flew directly over my head for half an hour. 

Each individual bird bobbed and knitted up and down
in the flight at apparent random, for no known reason except
that that’s how starlings fly, yet all remained perfectly spaced.
The flocks each tapered at either end

from a rounded middle, like an eye.
Overhead I heard a sound of beaten air,

like a million shook rugs, a muffled whuff.
Into the woods they sifted without shifting a twig,
right through the crowns of trees, intricate and rushing, like wind.

Could tiny birds be sifting through me right now,
birds winging through the gaps between my cells,
touching nothing, but quickening in my tissues, fleet?
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

…yesterday I heard a new sound above my head
a rustling, ruffling quietness in the spring air

and when I turned my face upward
I saw a flock of blackbirds
rounding a curve I didn’t know was there
and the sound was simply all those wings,
all those feathers against air, against gravity
and such a beautiful winning:
the whole flock taking a long, wide turn
as if of one body and one mind.

How do they do that?

If we lived only in human society
what a puny existence that would be

but instead we live and move and have our being
here, in this curving and soaring world
that is not our own
so when mercy and tenderness triumph in our lives
and when, even more rarely, we unite and move together
toward a common good,

we can think to ourselves:

ah yes, this is how it’s meant to be.
~Julie Cadwallader Staub from “Blackbirds” from Wing Over Wing

Watching a winter starlings’ murmuration is a visceral experience – my heart leaps to see it happen above me.  I can get queasy following its looping amoebic folding and unfolding path.

Thousands of individual birds move in sync with one another to form one massive organism existing solely because each tiny component anticipates and cooperates to avoid mid-air collisions.  It could explode into chaos but it doesn’t.  It could result in massive casualties but it doesn’t.  They could avoid each other altogether but they don’t – they come together with a purpose and reasoning beyond our imagining. Even the silence of their movement has a discernible sound.

We humans are made up of just such cooperating component parts, that which is deep in our tissues, programmed in our DNA.  Yet we don’t exercise such unity from our designed and carefully constructed building blocks.  We are frighteningly disparate and independent creatures, going our own way bumping and crashing without care, leaving so much body and spiritual wreckage behind.

To where has flown our mercy and tenderness?
We have corporately lost our internal moral compass.

We figuratively and literally shoot each other in the back, trampling over and suffocating one another, in a reach for justice that seems right in our own eyes. 

We even watch the daily death count rise in ever-increasing numbers, and still some resist doing what it takes to protect themselves and one another.

The sound of silence is muffled weeping.

There comes a time in every fall
before the leaves begin to turn
when blackbirds group and flock and gather
choosing a tree, a branch, together
to click and call and chorus and clamor
announcing the season has come for travel.

Then comes a time when all those birds
without a sound or backward glance
pour from every branch and limb
into the air, as if on a whim
but it’s a dynamic, choreographed mass
a swoop, a swerve, a mystery, a dance

and now the tree stands breathless, amazed
at how it was chosen, how it was changed.

~Julie Cadwallader Staub “Turning” from Wing Over Wing

Permission to Breathe Again

We are waiting for snow
the way we might wait for a train
to arrive with its cold cargo—
it is late already, but surely
it will come.
We are waiting for snow
the way we might wait
for permission
to breathe again.


For only the snow
will release us, only the snow
will be a letting go, a blind falling
towards the body of earth
and towards each other.


And while we wait at this window
whose sheer transparency
is clouded already
with our mutual breath,


it is as if our whole lives depended
on the freezing color
of the sky, on the white
soon to be fractured
gaze of winter.
~Linda Pastan “Interlude” from Queen of a Rainy Country

This poem by Linda Pastan was published in 2008 — it wasn’t written about waiting our turn for the new COVID vaccine, but it could have been.

Most of us are waiting for the vaccine like we wait for the relief of a winter snow storm. It’s as if we are all stuck inside, watching at the window, our noses pressed to the glass, our breath fogging the pane, gazing at the sky and trying to predict when and if the snow will come. We long to see the world clean and smooth and magical again with all its messy, grimy, muddy parts covered up, at least for awhile.

We want to play again and go where our heart wishes and be together with our friends and family. We want permission to breathe deeply, to show off our smiles and sing with gusto.

This second winter of COVID is crueler than the first because we know more now than a year ago: we know what we could have done and should have done but didn’t. We know we’ve lost far more lives than we should have and thousands more struggle to recover.

In order to fracture this COVID winter, to break open this frozen sky of our suspended lives, we seek the vaccine to arrive like the snow, covering all, protecting all, inviting all.

Our lives depend on it.

(I get my first dose today)

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.

We are Sharers in the Guilt

…if I respond to hate with a reciprocal hate
I do nothing but intensify the cleavage in broken community.
I can only close the gap in broken community
by meeting hate with love.
If I meet hate with hate, I become depersonalized,
because creation is so designed that my personality
can only be fulfilled in the context of community.
Booker T. Washington was right:

“Let no man pull you so low as to make you hate him.”
~Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. from Stride Toward Freedom

Do you know why this world is as bad as it is?
It is because people think only about their own business, 
and won’t trouble themselves to stand up for the oppressed, 
nor bring the wrong-doers to light. 
My doctrine is this: 
that if we see cruelty or wrong
that we have the power to stop, 
and do nothing,
we make ourselves sharers in the guilt.

~Anna Sewell from Black Beauty

As nightfall does not come at once, neither does oppression.
In both instances, there is a twilight

when everything remains seemingly unchanged.
And it is in such twilight that we all must be most aware

of change in the air
– however slight –
lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness.
~William O. Douglas
in a 1976 letter to Young Lawyers of the Washington State Bar Association

We live in a time where the groaning need
and dividedness of humankind
is especially to be felt and recognized.
Countless people are subjected to hatred,
violence and oppression which go unchecked.
The injustice and corruption which exist today
are causing many voices to be raised to protest
and cry out that something be done.
Many men and women are being moved to sacrifice much
in the struggle for justice, freedom, and peace.
There is a movement afoot in our time,
a movement which is growing, awakening.

We must recognize that we as individuals are to blame
for every social injustice,
every oppression,
the downgrading of others
and the injury that man does to man,
whether personal or on a broader plane.…
God must intervene with his spirit and his justice and his truth.
The present misery, need, and decay must pass away
and the new day of the Son of Man must dawn.
This is the advent of God’s coming.
~Dwight Blough from the introduction to When the Time was Fulfilled (1965)

No matter how big a nation is, it is no stronger that its weakest people, and as long as you keep a person down, some part of you has to be down there to hold him down, so it means you cannot soar as you might otherwise.
~Marian Anderson, American opera singer at two presidential inaugurals, Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient and US State Dept. Goodwill Ambassador

We have a new definition of greatness:
it means that everybody can be great,
because everybody can serve. 
You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. 
You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. 
You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. 
You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. 
You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics
in physics to serve. 

You only need a heart full of grace,
a soul generated by love. 
And you can be that servant.
~Martin Luther King, Jr.  in a February 1968 sermon:  “The Drum Major Instinct”, A Knock At Midnight: Inspiration from the Great Sermons of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. King’s words and wisdom in his sermons and letters written over fifty years ago continue to inform us of our shortcomings as a society.

We flounder in our flaws and brokenness, persisting in our resistance to serve one another out of humility, grace and love.

Perhaps this week, we can be forgiven and start afresh.

Instead of spewing lies, profanity and hatred,
can we unite despite our fear of one another?
-to no longer be divided by strife and disagreements,
-to no longer support actions that result in senseless killings,
whether in the streets or in the womb,
-to finally be able to hold up one another,
born and unborn,
as a holy and equal in God’s eyes.

May we join together as the light dawns on this day knowing, as Dr. King knew, a new day will come when the Lord God wipes tears away from all faces, all colors, all people, created in His image.

Pleading To Be Let Out

Though the barn is so warm
that the oats in his manger,
the straw in his bed
seem to give off smoke—

though the wind is so cold,
the snow in the pasture
so deep he’d fall down
and freeze in an hour—

the eleven-month-old
palomino stallion
has gone almost crazy
fighting and pleading
to be let out.
~Alden Nowlan “The Palomino Stallion” from Selected Poems.

photo by Emily Vander Haak

Inside the barn the sheep were standing, pushed close to one
another. Some were dozing, some had eyes wide open listening
in the dark. Some had no doubt heard of wolves. They looked
weary with all the burdens they had to carry, like being thought
of as stupid and cowardly, disliked by cowboys for the way they
eat grass about an inch into the dirt, the silly look they have
just after shearing, of being one of the symbols of the Christian
religion. In the darkness of the barn their woolly backs were
full of light gathered on summer pastures. Above them their
white breath was suspended, while far off in the pine woods,
night was deep in silence. The owl and rabbit were wondering,
along with the trees, if the air would soon fill with snowflakes,
but the power that moves through the world and makes our
hair stand on end was keeping the answer to itself.
~Tom Hennen “Sheep in the Winter Night” from Darkness Sticks to Everything. 

We all feel pretty locked in right now – not able to go where we want, when we want, or how we want. We are kicking at the walls and pummeling each other in our frustration at the limitations imposed by a blizzard of virus swirling outside, swallowing up another person every couple minutes.

It is hard to think of quarantine as a necessary time of security and safety. Even our horses are confined to their barn stalls in the worst of winter weather with all the comforts of home provided to them, yet somehow they believe it is better “out there” than inside. However, once they are “out there,” they take one look around and turn back to come in where there isn’t knee deep mud or bitter northeast winds or pounding drenching rain. It isn’t a bit friendly out there.

In this part of the world, we can continue to have harsh winter weather for another month or so and then we can start allowing our critters more freedom. There is no chance the viral storm will settle that soon so the rest of us will hunker down for a while longer.

I’ll try not to bite if you promise not to kick.