Our Ordinary Unmysterious Lives

Definite beliefs are what make the radical mystery
those moments when we suddenly know there is a God
about whom we “know” absolutely nothing –
accessible to us and our ordinary, unmysterious lives.

And more crucially:

definite beliefs enable us to withstand the storms of suffering

that come into every life, and that tend to destroy
any spiritual disposition that does not have deep roots.

~Christian Wiman from My Bright Abyss

photo of Wiser Lake Chapel sanctuary by Barb Hoelle

Does anyone have the foggiest idea
of what sort of power we so blithely invoke?
Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?
The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets,
mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.
It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church;
we should all be wearing crash helmets.
Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares;
they should lash us to our pews.

~Annie Dillard from Teaching a Stone to Talk

Unexpected God,
your advent alarms us.
Wake us from drowsy worship,
from the sleep that neglects love,
and the sedative of misdirected frenzy.
Awaken us now to your coming,
and bend our angers into your peace.
Amen.
~Revised Common Lectionary First Sunday of Advent

We are only a few weeks away from the beginning of Advent, a time when I am very guilty of blithely invoking the gentle story of Christmas Eve’s silent night, the sleeping infant away in a manger, the devoted parents hovering, the humble shepherds peering in the stable door.

The reality, I’m confident, was far different.

There was nothing gentle about a teenage mother giving birth in a stable, laying her baby in a feed trough–I’m sure there were times when Mary could have used a life preserver.
There was nothing gentle about the heavenly host appearing to the shepherds, shouting and singing the glories and leaving them “sore afraid.” The shepherds needed crash helmets.
There was nothing gentle about Herod’s response to the news that a Messiah had been born–he swept overboard a legion of male children whose parents undoubtedly begged for mercy, clinging to their children about to be murdered.
There was nothing gentle about a family’s flight to Egypt to flee that fate for their only Son.
There was nothing gentle about the life Jesus eventually led during his ministry:  itinerant and homeless, tempted and fasting in the wilderness for forty days,  owning nothing, rejected by his own people, betrayed by his disciples,  sentenced to death by acclamation before Pilate, tortured and hung on a cross until he took his last breath.

Yet he understood the power that originally brought him to earth and would return him to heaven, and back again someday. 
No signal flares needed there.

When I hear skeptics scoff at Christianity as a “crutch for the weak”, they underestimate the courage it takes to walk into church each week as a desperate person who will never ever save oneself.   We cling to the life preserver found in the Word, lashed to our seats and hanging on.  It is only because of grace that we survive the tempests of temptation, guilt and self-doubt to let go of our own anger in order to confront the reality of the radical mystery of God.

It is not for the faint of heart, this finding a “definite belief” within our ordinary unmysterious lives and giving it deep roots to thrive. It is reasonable and necessary to be “sore afraid” and “bend our anger” into His peace.

And not forget our crash helmets.

walking to church in Tokyo


Reading This For Life

Starting here, what do you want to remember?
How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?
What scent of old wood hovers, what softened
sound from outside fills the air?

Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect that you carry
wherever you go right now? Are you waiting
for time to show you some better thoughts?

When you turn around, starting here, lift this
new glimpse that you found; carry into evening
all that you want from this day. This interval you spent
reading or hearing this, keep it for life –

What can anyone give you greater than now,
starting here, right in this room, when you turn around?
~William Stafford, “You Reading This, Be Ready” from Ask Me

Nearly ten years of daily writing here in this spot:

I have met many people who I will never meet face to face but who share with me
their love of the land,
their family,
their animals
and most of all —
our Lord.

What do I want to remember?

Mostly, I want to remember your light and love as it finds its way through the darkest and thorniest corners of my life:

a kind word, a silent tear, a crooked smile, a whispered prayer.

What do I want you to remember having visited here?

I want you to remember
there is warmth in these words
and colors in these photos
that don’t come close to what it is like for real.

Mostly, I want you to know that each morning,
I send out this love to hundreds I’ll never meet,
but who are nevertheless my Barnstorming brothers and sisters.

Carry me with you and pass the light forward.
You never know where it might end up.

Flung and Strewn

Open your hands, lift them.—William Stafford, “Today”

The parking space beside the store when you
were late. The man who showed up just in time
to hold the door when you were juggling five
big packages. The spider plant that grew—
though you forgot to water it. The new
nest in the tree outside your window. Chime
of distant church bells when you’re lonely. Rhyme
of friendship. Apples. Sky a trove of blue.

And who’s to say these miracles are less
significant than burning bushes, loaves
and fishes, steps on water. We are blessed
by marvels wearing ordinary clothes—
how easily we’re fooled by simple dress—
Oranges. Water. Leaves. Bread. Crows.
~Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer, “But You Thought You Knew What a Sign Looked Like” from  Naked for Tea

It was a dark and stormy night. Leaves were strewn everywhere this morning, but more cling tightly to branches, waiting for another night, another storm to come, knowing it will be sooner rather than later.

I feel a bit strewn myself, bits and pieces of me flung here and there, while the rest of me remains clinging, hanging on for dear life, wondering what comes next.

Can I weather the weather of life, tossed and drenched?

Truly, marvels and miracles abound wherever I look, sometimes dressed so plainly I miss them first time around. In fact, they are so glorious, I am blinded by them. To see these signs, to know their significance, I must simply open my hands, lift up my eyes, quiet my troubled heart and be content.

When the time comes to let go, I’ll be ready.

The Farm Goes On

A hill, a farm,
A forest, and a valley.
Half a hill plowed, half woods.
A forest valley and a valley field.

Sun passes over;
Two solstices a year
Cow in the pasture
Sometimes deer

A farmhouse built of wood.
A forest built on bones.
The high field, hawks
The low field, crows

Wren in the brambles
Frogs in the creek
Hot in summer
Cold in snow

The woods fade and pass.
The farm goes on.
The farm quits and fails
The woods creep down

Stocks fall you can’t sell corn
Big frost and tree-mice starve
Who wins who cares?
The woods have time.
The farmer has heirs.

~“Map” by Gary Snyder from Left Out in the Rain.

We have now passed from the season when our farm is brilliant, verdant and delicious to behold.  In June, the cherry orchard blossoms yield to fruit and the pastures are knee high with grass.  During the summer months, the daylight starts creeping over the eastern foothills at 4 AM and the last glimpse of sun disappears at nearly 10 PM.   So many hours of light to work with! 

I yearn for the coming dark rainy days to hide inside with a book. 

Instead the lawnmower and weed whacker call our names, and the fish pond needs cleaning and the garden must be prepared for winter.  It’s not that things don’t happen on the farm during months like this.  It’s just that nothing we do is enough.  Blackberry brambles have taken over everything, grass grows faster than we can keep it mowed down, the manure piles grow exponentially.  The fences always need fixing. 

Suddenly our farm dream seems not nearly so compelling.

We spent many years dreaming about the farm as we hoped it would be.  We imagined the pastures managed perfectly with fencing that was both functional and beautiful.  Our barns and buildings would be tidy and leak-proof, and the stalls secure and safe.  We’d have a really nice pick up truck with low miles on it, not a 35 year old hand me down truck with almost 200,000 miles. We would have trees pruned expertly and we’d have flower beds blooming as well as a vegetable garden yielding 9 months of the year.  Our hay would never be rained on. We would have dogs that wouldn’t run off and cats that would take care of all the rodents.  We wouldn’t have any moles, thistles, dandelions or buttercup.  The pheasant, deer, coyotes, raccoons, and wild rabbits would only stroll through the yard for our amusement and not disturb anything.  We’d have livestock with the best bloodlines we could afford and a steady demand from customers to purchase their offspring at reasonable prices so that not a dime of our off-farm income would be necessary to pay farm expenses.   Our animals (and we) would never get sick or injured.

And our house would always stay clean.

Dream on.  Farms are often back-breaking, morale-eroding, expensive sinkholes.   I know ours is.  Yet here we be and here we stay.

It’s home.  We’ve raised three wonderful children here.  We’ve bred and grown good horses and great garden and orchard crops and tons of hay from our own fields.  We breathe clean air and hear dozens of different bird songs and look out at some of the best scenery this side of heaven.  Eagles land in the trees in our front yard. It’s all enough for us even if we are not enough for the farm.  I know there will come a time when the farm will need to be a fond memory and not a daily reality.  Until then we will keep pursuing our dream as we and the farm grow older.   Dreams age and mature and I know now what I dreamed of when I was younger was not the important stuff.

We have been blessed with one another, with the sunrises and the sunsets and everything in between.  This is the stuff of which the best dreams are made.

Sepia September Light

Wheat Field with Sheaves -Vincent Van Gogh

This far north, the harvest happens late.
Rooks go clattering over the sycamores
whose shadows yawn after them, down to the river.
Uncut wheat staggers under its own weight.

Summer is leaving too, exchanging its gold
for brass and copper. It is not so strange
to feel nostalgia for the present; already
this September evening is as old

as a photograph of itself. The light, the shadows
on the field, are sepia, as if this were
some other evening in September, some other
harvest that went ungathered years ago.
~Dorothy Lawrenson “September” from Painted, spoken, 22

Sheaves of Wheat in a Field –Vincent Van Gogh

September/remember naturally go together in every rhyming autumnal poem and song.

For me, the nostalgia of this season is for the look and feel of the landscape as it browns out with aging – gilded, burnt and rusted, almost glistening in its dying.

I gather up and store these images, like sheaves of wheat stacked in the field. I’ll need them again someday, when I’m hungry, starving for the memory of what once was, and, when the light is just right, how it could be again someday.

Summer ends now; now, barbarous in beauty, the stooks rise
⁠Around; up above, what wind-walks! what lovely behaviour
⁠Of silk-sack clouds! has wilder, wilful-wavier
Meal-drift moulded ever and melted across skies?

I walk, I lift up, I lift up heart, eyes,
⁠Down all that glory in the heavens to glean our Saviour;
⁠And, éyes, heárt, what looks, what lips yet gave you a
Rapturous love’s greeting of realer, of rounder replies?

And the azurous hung hills are his world-wielding shoulder
⁠Majestic—as a stallion stalwart, very-violet-sweet!—
These things, these things were here and but the beholder
⁠Wanting; which two when they once meet,
The heart rears wings bold and bolder
⁠And hurls for him, O half hurls earth for him off under his feet.

~Gerard Manley Hopkins “Hurrahing for Harvest”

Hayfield–oil painting by Scott Prior http://www.scottpriorart.com

It Goes By Too Fast

Being too warm the old lady said to me
is better than being too cold I think now
in between is the best because you never
give it a thought but it goes by too fast
I remember the winter how cold it got
I could never get warm wherever I was
but I don’t remember the summer heat like that
only the long days the breathing of the trees
the evenings with the hens still talking in the lane
and the light getting longer in the valley
the sound of a bell from down there somewhere
I can sit here now still listening to it
~W.S. Merwin “Remembering Summer” from Garden Time

Yet another transition between seasons
and adapting to the demands of a new day ~
there is good reason things don’t stay the same.

Air and light and colors change,
as do I,
as I must.

That perfect tipping point balance
is only a moment in time;
gone by too fast
and I scramble to adjust yet again,
holding out hope I can
walk carefully, cautiously along the center line.


Putting My Attention Elsewhere

It is not that
the sun comes up
or the earth goes around
or that the plants sprout
and take up rain
and flower and set seed
or that our hearts pound
five thousand times an hour –
It’s that we don’t have
to go out with tethers
to make the heavenly bodies
move correctly around
or caress the ground
and tease the stems upright
and separate the petals
or tap our chests
continually with little hammers
and we can put
our attention elsewhere.

~Michael Goldman, “The Miracle” from Unified Light Theory

So much we’ve been told we must care for:

our babies
our elders
our animals
our gardens
our water
our air
ourselves

and so much more for which we are mere witness.

If we don’t take notice,
we lose out on the miracle
of knowing every breath, every heartbeat
is sheer miracle.