Dawn on our Darkness: Split Open to the Light

What next, she wonders,
with the angel disappearing, and her room
suddenly gone dark.

The loneliness of her news
possesses her. She ponders
how to tell her mother.

Still, the secret at her heart burns like
a sun rising. How to hold it in—
that which cannot be contained.

She nestles into herself, half-convinced
it was some kind of good dream,
she its visionary.

But then, part dazzled, part prescient—
she hugs her body, a pod with a seed
that will split her.
~Luci Shaw “Mary Considers Her Situation”

Ere by the spheres time was created thou
Wast in His mind, who is thy Son, and Brother;
Whom thou conceivest, conceived; yea, thou art now
Thy Maker’s maker, and thy Father’s mother,
Thou hast light in dark, and shutt’st in little room
Immensity, cloister’d in thy dear womb.
~John Donne “Annunciation”


For Light to illuminate
where darkness thrives in me,
there must be a wounding,
a splitting open;
a crack exists in everything,
cleaving me so joy can infiltrate and heal
where I hurt the most,
celebrating
as I say yes.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
~Leonard Cohen from “Anthem”

This year’s Advent theme “Dawn on our Darkness” is taken from this 19th century Christmas hymn.

Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
dawn on our darkness and lend us your aid.
Star of the east, the horizon adorning,
guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.
~Reginald Heber -from “Brightest and Best”

When time sweeps yesterday away,
It leaves behind an empty heart,
Weeping through the night so dark and long.
When words are lost among the tears,
When sadness steals another day,
God hears our cries and turns our sighs into a song.

Sing to the One who mends our broken hearts with music.
Sing to the One who fills our empty hearts with love.
Sing to the One who gives us light to step into the darkest night.
Sing to the God who turns our sighs into a song.

From heaven falls a mercy sweet,
The time for weeping now is gone;
God hears our sighs and gives us His eternal song.

Sing to the One who mends our broken hearts with music.
Sing to the One who fills our empty hearts with love.
Sing to the One who gives us light to step into the darkest night.
Sing to the God who turns our sighs into a song.

Sing to the One who mends our broken hearts with music.
Sing to the One who fills our empty hearts with love.
Sing to the One who gives us light to step into the darkest night.
Sing to the God who turns our sighs into a song.
~Susan Boersma

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Dawn on Our Darkness: A Seed in the Ground

…new life starts in the dark.
Whether it is a seed in the ground,
a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb,
it starts in the dark.
~Barbara Brown Taylor from Learning to Walk in the Dark

If seeds in the black earth can turn into such beautiful roses, what might not the heart of man become in its long journey toward the stars?
G.K. Chesterton

The seed is the word of God.
Luke 8:11b

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
John 1:1-5

I began a mere seed lying dormant in the darkness of my mother’s body, plain and simple.

Just as the spring murmurs life to the seed in the ground, so the Word calls a human seed of life to stir and swell, becoming at once both an animate and intimate reflection of Himself.

The seed shakes off the darkness as growth begins.

I was awakened from quiescence to sprout, bloom and fruit. I reach as far as my tethered roots allow, aiming beyond earthly bounds to touch the light and be touched.

These days of Advent seed renew hope in my heart, ready and waiting to unfurl. A precious fragrance will linger, long after my last petal has withered, loosened, and fallen to freedom.

I began in the dark and dawn is calling me to reach for the heavens.

This year’s Advent theme “Dawn on our Darkness” is taken from this 19th century Christmas hymn.

Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
dawn on our darkness and lend us your aid.
Star of the east, the horizon adorning,
guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.
~Reginald Heber -from “Brightest and Best”

Christmas comes anew, O let us sing Noel!
Glory to God! Now let your praises swell!
Sing we Noel for Christ, the newborn King,4
Christmas comes anew, O let us sing Noel!

Angels did say, “O shepherds come and see,
Born in Bethlehem, a blessed Lamb for thee.”
Sing we Noel for Christ, the newborn King,
Christmas comes anew, O let us sing Noel!

In the manger bed, the shepherds found the child;
Joseph was there, and the Mother Mary mild.
Sing we Noel for Christ, the newborn King,
Christmas comes anew, O let us sing Noel!

Soon came the kings from following the star,
Bearing costly gifts from Eastern lands afar.
Sing we Noel for Christ, the newborn King,
Christmas comes anew, O let us sing Noel!

Brought to Him gold and incense of great price;
Then the stable bare resembled Paradise.
Sing we Noel for Christ, the newborn King,
Christmas comes anew, O let us sing Noel!

Now the green blade rises from the buried grain,
Wheat that in the dark earth many years has lain;
Love lives again, that with the dead has been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.

In the grave they laid Him, Love Whom we had slain,
Thinking that He’d never wake to life again,
Laid in the earth like grain that sleeps unseen:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.

Up He sprang at Easter, like the risen grain,
He that for three days in the grave had lain;
Up from the dead my risen Lord is seen:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.

When our hearts are saddened, grieving or in pain,
By Your touch You call us back to life again;
Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.

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Simply to Be is a Blessing

Before the adults we call our children arrive with their children in tow
  for Thanksgiving,

we take our morning walk down the lane of oaks and hemlocks, mist
  a smell of rain by nightfall—underfoot,

the crunch of leathery leaves released by yesterday’s big wind.

You’re ahead of me, striding into the arch of oaks that opens onto the fields
  and stone walls of the road—

as a V of geese honk a path overhead, and you stop—

in an instant, without thought, raising your arms toward sky, your hands
  flapping from the wrists,

and I can read in the echo your body makes of these wild geese going
  where they must,

such joy, such wordless unity and delight, you are once again the child
  who knows by instinct, by birthright,

just to be is a blessing. In a fictional present, I write the moment down.
  You embodied it. 
~Margaret Gibson “Moment” 

On this day,
this giving-thanks day,
I know families who surround loved ones fighting for life in ICU beds,
others struggling to find gratitude in their pierced hearts
when their child/brother/sister/spouse is gunned down in mass shootings,
or too many tragically lost every day to overwhelming depression,
as well as those lost in a devastating three year pandemic.

It is the measure of us – we created ones –
to kneel in gratitude while facing the terrible
and still feel touched, held, loved and blessed,
to sincerely believe how wide and long and high and deep is His love for us —
even when we weep, even when we mourn,
even when our pain makes no sense.

God chose to come alongside us and suffer,
rather than fly away.
He knew being alive
~just to be like us at all~
was His blessing to last an eternity.

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A Tree with Happy Leaves

Last night
the rain
spoke to me
slowly, saying,
what joy
to come falling
out of the brisk cloud,
to be happy again
in a new way
on the Earth!

That’s what it said
as it dropped,
smelling of iron,
and vanished
like a dream of the ocean
into the branches
and the grass below.

Then it was over.
The sky cleared.
I was standing
under a tree
with happy leaves,
and I was myself,


and there were stars in the sky
that were also themselves
at the moment
my right hand
was holding my left hand
which was holding the tree
which was filled with stars
and the soft rain–

imagine! imagine!
the long and wondrous journeys
still to be ours.
~Mary Oliver “Last Night the Rain Spoke to Me”

I’m walking under the trees
walking in and out of their shadows
walking step by step under the trees
so the leaves on their lowest branches
graze my bare head
as I walk slowly under the trees
so close to me they could have
their arms around my shoulders,
walking under the guardian trees.

I’m walking under the trees
plucking a leaf
and putting it in my pocket
so I won’t forget walking
under the cloak of these trees
thinking of nothing else
but the trees and me walking
under all their leaves and branches
walking all morning under the trees.
~Billy Collins “Walking Under the Trees”

I’m fortunate to have grown up in the land of trees, here in the Evergreen State of Washington. I spent hours and hours just walking or riding my horse in the woods of my childhood home. When I moved away to a state without many trees, I felt abandoned and lonesome. I had to find my way back.

Sometimes the woods can feel claustrophobic and I need to see a horizon to be aware of the comings and goings of the sun. Fortunately, on this farm where we raised our children, we can move easily from one to the other.

Each day, I’m reminded of the wondrous journey I am on. As a child, I always imagined living in a place of happy leaves. Growing up, I looked until I found it.

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The Child I Was Calls Out to Me

It’s in the perilous boughs of the tree   
out of blue sky    the wind   
sings loudest surrounding me.


And solitude,   a wild solitude
’s reveald,   fearfully,   high     I’d climb   
into the shaking uncertainties,

part out of longing,   part     daring my self,
part to see that
widening of the world,   part

to find my own, my secret
hiding sense and place, where from afar   
all voices and scenes come back

—the barking of a dog,   autumnal burnings,
far calls,   close calls—   the boy I was
calls out to me

here the man where I am   “Look!
I’ve been where you


most fear to be.”
~Robert Duncan “Childhood’s Retreat”

And this is where we went, I thought,
Now here, now there, upon the grass
Some forty years ago.

The days being short now, simply I had come
To gaze and look and stare upon
The thought of that once endless maze of afternoons.
But most of all I wished to find the places where I ran

What’s happened to our boys that they no longer race
And stand them still to contemplate Christ’s handiwork:
His clear blood bled in syrups from the lovely wounded trees?
Why only bees and blackbird winds and bending grass?
No matter. Walk. Walk, look, and sweet recall.

I came upon an oak where once when I was twelve
I had climbed up and screamed for Skip to get me down.
It was a thousand miles to earth. I shut my eyes and yelled.
My brother, richly compelled to mirth, gave shouts of laughter
And scaled up to rescue me.
“What were you doing there?” he said.
I did not tell. Rather drop me dead.
But I was there to place a note within a squirrel nest
On which I’d written some old secret thing now long forgot.

{Now} I lay upon the limb a long while, thinking.
I drank in all the leaves and clouds and weathers
Going by as mindless
As the days.
What, what, what if? I thought. But no. Some forty years beyond!

I brought forth:
The note.

I opened it. For now I had to know.
I opened it, and wept. I clung then to the tree
And let the tears flow out and down my chin.
Dear boy, strange child, who must have known the years
And reckoned time and smelled sweet death from flowers
In the far churchyard.
It was a message to the future, to myself.
Knowing one day I must arrive, come, seek, return.
From the young one to the old. From the me that was small
And fresh to the me that was large and no longer new.
What did it say that made me weep?

I remember you.
I remember you.
~Ray Bradbury from “Remembrance”

Not long ago, we drove the country roads where I grew up,
over sixty years later,
and though some trees are taller, and others cut down –
it looked just as I remembered.
The scattered houses on farms still standing, a bit more worn,
the fields open and flowing as always,
the turns and bends, the ups and downs of the asphalt lanes unchanged
where once I tread with bicycle tires and sneakered feet.

My own childhood home a different color
but so familiar as we drive slowly by,
full of memories of laughter and games,
long winter days and longer summer evenings
full of its share of angry words and tears
and eventual forgiveness.

I too left notes to my future self, in old barns, and lofts,
and yes, in trees,
but won’t go back to retrieve them.
I remember what I wrote.
My young heart tried to imagine itself decades hence,
with so much to fear – bomb drills and shelters in the ground,
such anxiety and joy would pass through me like pumping blood,
wondering what wounds would I bear and bleed,
what love and tears would trace my aging face?

I have not forgotten that I wish to be remembered.

No, I have never forgotten
that I remember that child:
this is me,
as I was, and, deep down, still am.

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The Sidewalks of Life

The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I’m coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light-
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.

You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.

This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.

But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.

It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.

~Billy Collins “On Turning Ten”

Dear Ben,

You were born thirty-four years ago today on a gray and drizzly mid-November day.

November is often like that–there are times during this darkening month when we’re never really certain we’ll see the sun again.  The sky is gray, the mountain is all but invisible behind the clouds, the air hangs heavy with mist. The woods and fields are all shadowy.  Morning light starts late and the evening takes over early.

You changed November for us that day. You brought sunshine to our lives as if you were born with light under your skin. You smiled almost from the first day, always responding, always watching, ready to engage with your new family. You were a delight from that first moment we saw you and have been a light in our lives and so many other lives ever since, no matter where you have gone and what you have done over these four decades.

Then you married another bright light and now you shine together, raising your precious sons in God’s Light.

We know you discovered long ago, even before you turned ten, that when you fall on the sidewalks of life, you bleed. And you know sadness and have wounds aplenty. Yet you love others like no one else, and keep going in hope, with longing for our Lord. Even your scars shine with intention.

Gray and drizzle is your favorite kind of weather because you were born to it–you’ve always loved the misty fog, the chill winds, the hunkering down and waiting for brighter days to come even though you now live where the sun shines almost every day.

November 15 was and still is, a brighter day because of you.

Love,

Mom and Dad

To Recover the Lost

The songs of small birds fade away
into the bushes after sundown,
the air dry, sweet with goldenrod.
Beside the path, suddenly, bright asters
flare in the dusk. The aged voices
of a few crickets thread the silence.
It is a quiet I love, though my life
too often drives me through it deaf.
Busy with costs and losses, I waste
the time I have to be here—a time
blessed beyond my deserts, as I know,
if only I would keep aware. The leaves
rest in the air, perfectly still.
I would like them to rest in my mind
as still, as simply spaced. As I approach,
the sorrel filly looks up from her grazing,
poised there, light on the slope
as a young apple tree. A week ago
I took her away to sell, and failed
to get my price, and brought her home
again. Now in the quiet I stand
and look at her a long time, glad
to have recovered what is lost
in the exchange of something for money.
~Wendell Berry “The Sorrel Filly”

I am reminded at the end of a week
of dark and wet and cold
with chores not done yet,
and horses waiting to be fed,
of the value of decades of moments spent
with long-lashed eyes, wind-swept manes, and velvet muzzles.

True, it appears to others to be time and money wasted.
But for a farmer like me, sometimes deaf and blind
to what is in front of me every day,
not all valuables are preserved in a lock box.

Golden treasure can have
four hooves, a tail, with a rumbling greeting
asking if I’d somehow gotten lost
since I’m a little later than usual
and they were a bit concerned I’d forgotten them.

Only then I remember where my home is
and how easy it is to wander from the path
that somehow always leads me back here.

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Even Darkness Must Pass

“It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo.
The ones that really mattered.
Full of darkness and danger they were.
And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end…
because how could the end be happy?
How could the world go back to the way it was
when so much bad had happened?
But in the end, it’s only a passing thing… this shadow.
Even darkness must pass.”
~J.R.R.Tolkien
speaking through SamWise Gamgee in The Two Towers

shadow of the lone fir cast upon the woods at sunset

Of course, in life there are moments of darkness.
There are periods of discouragement.
There are times when we lose sight of the beauty of the sky for all the clouds.
You may have to bear severe sickness,
or deal with tremendous pain,
or you may be disappointed in this or that.
But remember, whatever difficulty you have to face,
it will not last.
It is only a cloud.
For God has made each of us with a purpose.

We are made for joy.
But this joy can never be fully experienced here on earth.
God’s joy is ultimately realized in eternity.
To be a Christian is to understand that the cross,
and the suffering of the cross, has meaning,
and that suffering is part of our state on this earth.
Don’t expect paradise on earth.
Don’t.
But there is meaning,
and this meaning is the love of God
and gratitude for life on this earth.
Whatever your state,
whatever your situation,
whatever your purpose,
always remember that you are made for joy.

~Alice Von Hildebrand “Made for Joy”

When I feel overwhelmed and discouraged,
when it seems all is in shadow,
I know we are part of a great story
and the plot progression is a mystery.

We are promised light and joy at the end.
We emerge through the shadows,
the clouds clear away
and the darkness passes over,
under and through us,
never to return,
never to surround us again.

Save me from all oppression, conspiracy, and rebellion; from violence, battle, and murder; and from dying suddenly and unprepared.
~The Book of Common Prayer

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Passing Through

Wild geese fly south, creaking like anguished hinges; along the riverbank the candles of the sumacs burn dull red.
It’s the first week of October.
Season of woolen garments taken out of mothballs;
of nocturnal mists and dew
and slippery front steps, and late-blooming slugs;
of snapdragons having one last fling;
of those frilly ornamental pink-and-purple cabbages that never used to exist, but are all over everywhere now.
~Margaret Atwood
from The Blind Assassin

But it was no good trying to tell about the beauty. It was just that life was beautiful beyond belief, and that is a kind of joy which has to be lived.

Sometimes, when they came down from the cirrus levels to catch a better wind, they would find themselves among the flocks of cumulus: huge towers of modeled vapor, looking as white as Monday’s washing and as solid as meringues. Perhaps one of these piled-up blossoms of the sky, these snow-white droppings of a gigantic Pegasus, would lie before them several miles away. They would set their course toward it, seeing it grow bigger silently and imperceptibly, a motionless growth; and then, when they were at it, when they were about to bang their noses with a shock against its seeming solid mass, the sun would dim. Wraiths of mist suddenly moving like serpents of the air would coil about them for a second. Grey damp would be around them, and the sun, a copper penny, would fade away. The wings next to their own wings would shade into vacancy, until each bird was a lonely sound in cold annihilation, a presence after uncreation. And there they would hang in chartless nothing, seemingly without speed or left or right or top or bottom, until as suddenly as ever the copper penny glowed and the serpents writhed. Then, in a moment of time, they would be in the jeweled world once more: a sea under them like turquoise and all the gorgeous palaces of heaven new created, with the dew of Eden not yet dry.
~T.H. White from The Once and Future King

Each day this first week of October, feathered travelers have slipped past us unseen and unheard.  They may stop for a drink in the pond or a bite to eat in the field and woods, but we never know they are there – they are simply passing through.

Others are compelled to announce their journey with great fanfare, usually heard before seen.  The drama of migration becomes bantering conversation from bird to bird, bird to earth, bird to sun, moon and stars, with unseen magnetic forces pointing the way.

When not using voices, their wings sing the air with rhythmic beat and whoosh, like the creaking of rusty hinges.

It reminds me how we are all together here — altogether — even when our voices are raised sharply, our silences brooding, our hurts magnified, our sorrows deep. How we spend our days becomes a matter of debate.

Our destination is not in dispute however.  We’re all heading to the same end to the human story of creation/fall/redemption, no matter how we manage to get there.

It is just that life is beautiful beyond belief, and that is a kind of joy which has to be lived.

So let’s unite our wings and voices in joy: we are just passing through, just passing through, just passing through.

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Letting My Heart Go Forth

The season of sunset as it draws a veil over the day,
befits that repose of the soul when earthborn cares

yield to the joys of heavenly communion.
The glory of the setting sun excites our wonder,
and the solemnity of approaching night awakens our awe.


If the business of this day will permit it, it will be well, dear reader,
if you can spare an hour to walk in the field at eventide,
but if not, the Lord is in the town too, and will meet with you

in your chamber or in the crowded street.

Let your heart go forth to meet Him.

~Charles Spurgeon from Morning and Evening Devotionals

During my forty years in medical practice, I saw many patients who struggled to sleep at night. Their minds raced, they couldn’t stop worrying, their bodies were tight with tension.

I would have preferred to prescribe walking an hour with God at sunset but that was not permissible at a public institution owned by the government.

Instead, I prescribed sleep hygiene habit, over the counter herbals, prescription medications or talk therapy, wrote documentation for emotional support animals, or suggested yoga or “meditation” or even a labyrinth walk.

I find what is most effective in my own life is allowing my heart to go forth and meet God’s invitation to communion with Him.

Spurgeon, in his own anxiety and depression, knew the healing power of a walk with God at sunset or a meal together in His memory. Even when we are hungry, thirsty, exhausted with worry — by throwing the cares of our heart out to Him, He will catch and hold them tight, raising us up alongside Him on the last day.

I am the bread of life.
He who comes to me shall not hunger;
he who believes in me shall not thirst.
No one can come to me
unless the Father draw him.

And I will raise him up,
and I will raise him up,
and I will raise him up on the last day.

The bread that I will give
is my flesh for the life of the world,
and he who eats of this bread,
he shall live for ever,
he shall live for ever.

And I will raise him up,
and I will raise him up,
and I will raise him up on the last day.

Unless you eat
of the flesh of the Son of Man
and drink of his blood,
and drink of his blood,
you shall not have life within you.

And I will raise him up,
and I will raise him up,
and I will raise him up on the last day.

I am the resurrection,
I am the life.
He who believes in me
even if he die,
he shall live for ever.

And I will raise him up,
and I will raise him up,
and I will raise him up on the last day.

Yes, Lord, I believe
that you are the Christ,
the Son of God,
who has come
into the world.

And I will raise him up,
and I will raise him up,
and I will raise him up on the last day.

Sr. Suzanne Toolan

Original Barnstorming artwork note cards available as a gift to you with a $50 donation to support Barnstorming – information here