But By His Grace: Let Love Be Heard

The world is indeed full of peril and in it there are many dark places.
But still there is much that is fair. And though in all lands, love is now mingled with grief, it still grows, perhaps, the greater.
— J. R. R. Tolkien from The Fellowship of the Ring

Worldwide. a tsunami of tears overflows in households and communities as COVID-19 wreaks physical and economic havoc in hundreds of thousands of lives. We experience deep sadness and grief when older folks with health conditions are taken by a virulent pneumonia within a matter of days, often dying without a familiar face nearby. And there is no end to our distress when up to 40% of hospitalizations are for younger victims of the virus, most of whom survive, but too many don’t and won’t.

Our sorrow fills a chasm so deep and dark that it is a fearsome thing to even peer from the edge, as so many of us do, praying for far-flung family and friends to remain healthy and unable to be of any direct assistance even if they become ill.  We join the helplessness of countless people in human history who have lived through times that seem unendurable.

We don’t understand why inexplicable tragedy befalls good and gracious people, taking them when they are not yet finished with their work on earth.  From quakes that topple buildings burying people, to waves that wipe out whole cities and sweep away thousands of people, to a pathogen too swift and powerful for all the weapons of modern medicine,  we are reminded every day – we live on perilous ground and our time here has always been finite. We don’t have control over the amount of time, but we do have control over how our love is heard and spread.

There is assurance in knowing we do not weep alone; Our Lord is acquainted with grief.  Our grieving is so familiar to a suffering God who too wept at the death of a beloved friend, and who cried out when He was tasked with enduring the unendurable.

There is comfort in knowing He too peered into the chasm of darkness;
He willingly entered its depths to come to our rescue with His incomparable capacity for Light and Love.

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

Angels, where you soar
Up to God’s own light
Take my own lost bird
On your hearts tonight;
And as grief once more
Mounts to heaven and sings
Let my love be heard
Whispering in your wings
~Alfred Noyes

He Accepts Us As We Are: Mere Wayfarers

The settled happiness and security which we all desire,
God withholds from us by the very nature of the world:
but joy, pleasure, and merriment, he has scattered broadcast.
We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy.
It is not hard to see why.

The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world
and oppose an obstacle to our return to God:
a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony,
a merry meeting with our friends, a bath
or a football match, have no such tendency.

Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns,
but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.
~C.S. Lewis from The Problem of Pain

I am reminded every day, with every headline shouting bad news:
this is not our home; we are mere wayfarers.

We tend to lose focus on the “why” of our journey on this troubled earth:
so much of our time and energy is understandably spent seeking out safety and security, striving for a road filled with happiness, joy and contentment, as if that should be our ultimate destination and purpose.

Yet the nature of a fallen world leads us down boulder-strewn paths filled with potholes and sheer cliffs. Suddenly nowhere feels safe or secure.

We are now confronted with thousands of ill and hurting people world-wide, some dying before their time, their travels on earth ending abruptly. We wonder who may be next.

Will it be someone I love? Will it be me? He accepts our fear of the unknown destination, as He knows what lies ahead on our journey.

God in His mercy never leaves us homeless or without hope. We are called to be the gift to others who are hurting.

…just as He gifted Himself to us.

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat,
I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,
I was a stranger and you invited me in,

 I needed clothes and you clothed me,
I was sick and you looked after me,
I was in prison and you came to visit me.
~Matthew 25:35-6

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

1. What is the crying at Jordan?
Who hears, O God, the prophecy?
Dark is the season, dark our hearts
and shut to mystery.

2. Who then shall stir in this darkness,
prepare for joy in the winter night.
Mortal in darkness we lie down blindhearted,
seeing no light.

3. Lord, give us grace to awake us,
to see the branch that begins to bloom;
in great humility is hid all heaven
in a little room.

4. Now comes the day of salvation,
in joy and terror the Word is born!
God comes as gift into our lives;
oh let salvation dawn!

He Loves Us As We Are: Our Unquenchable Need

The point is not that this world is too sad to love or too glad not to love; the point is that when you do love a thing, its gladness is a reason for loving it, and its sadness a reason for loving it more.
~G.K. Chesterton from Orthodoxy

…the Father himself loves you because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God.
John 16:27

God has come to us, not because of the gladness of our earthly existence, but because we are falling apart, and only He is the glue.
We have unquenchable need, profound brokenness and at times, unbearable sadness. 
We are loved that much: when we are done with earthly things, there then will be nothing but gladness — no longer will clouds of our sorrow obscure His glory.

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

There’s a wall inside my heart
Can’t get around it
Keeps the two of us apart
Can’t get over it

But under my skin is where you begin
And your kindness leads me now

Oh mercy, Jesus Son of God
Oh mercy, shine your light on us

When you took your broken heart
And fed the world with it
You gave us all a brand new start
I can’t get over it

And under my skin, forgiveness sets in
And your kindness leads me now

Oh mercy, Jesus Son of God
Oh mercy, shine your light on us

And under my skin your spirit within
Is leading me home

Oh mercy, Jesus Son of God
Oh mercy, shine your light on us

He Sees Us As We Are: Called to Transformation

…difficulties are magnified out of all proportion simply by fear and anxiety. From the moment we wake until we fall asleep we must commend other people wholly and unreservedly to God and leave them in his hands, and transform our anxiety for them into prayers on their behalf: 
With sorrow and with grief…
God will not be distracted.
~Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Letters from Prison

.…you mustn’t be frightened … if a sadness rises in front of you, larger than any you have ever seen; if an anxiety, like light and cloud-shadows, moves over your hands and over everything you do. You must realize that something is happening to you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand and will not let you fall. Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since after all you don’t know what work these conditions are doing inside you?
~Rainer Maria Rilke from Letters to a Young Poet

Every day I see young adult patients who are so consumed by anxiety they become immobilized in their ability to move forward through the midst of life’s inevitable obstacles and difficulties.  They become so mired in their own overwhelming feelings, so distracted by their symptoms, they can’t sleep or eat or think clearly.  They self-medicate, self-injure and self-hate.  Being unable to nurture themselves or others, they wither like a young tree without roots deep enough to reach the vast reservoir that lies untapped beneath them. 

In epidemic numbers, some decide to die, even before life really has fully begun for them.

I grieve for them in their distress, my heart breaks daily.   My role is to help find healing solutions, whether it is counseling therapy, a break from academic and work pressures, or a medicine that may give some form of relief.  Yet I know all too well the ultimate answer is not as simple as the right prescription.

We who are anxious must depend upon a Creator who does not suffer from attention deficit disorder and who is not distracted from His care for us even when we turn away in worry and sorrow.  We magnify our difficult circumstances by staying so tightly into ourselves, unable to look beyond our own eyelashes.  We are called to be transformed, to reach higher and deeper, through prayer, through service to others, through acknowledging there exists a power greater than ourselves.

So we are called to pray for ourselves and for others,  and in doing so, we disable anxiety and fear as they meld into gratitude and grace.  

No longer withering, we drink deeply of the well, finally able to thrive.

This year’s Lenten theme on 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

It feels like falling.
It feels like rain.
Like losing my balance
Again and again.
It once was so easy;
Breathe in, breathe out.
But at the foot of this mountain,
I only see clouds.

I feel out of focus,
Or at least indisposed
As this strange weather pattern
Inside me takes hold.
Each brave step forward,
I take three steps behind.
It’s mind over matter –
Matter over mind.

Slowly, then all at once.
A single loose thread
And it all comes undone.

Where there is light,
A shadow appears.
The cause and effect
When life interferes.
The same rule applies
To goodness and grief;
For in our great sorrow
We learn what joy means.

I don’t want to fight, I don’t want to fight it.
I don’t want to fight, I don’t want to fight it.
I don’t want to fight, I don’t want to fight it.
But I will learn to fight, I will learn to fight,
‘Til this pendulum finds equilibrium.

Slowly, then all at once.
The dark clouds depart,
And the damage is done.
So pardon the dust
While this all settles in.
With a broken heart,
Transformation begins.
~Ryan O’Neal – Sleeping at Last “Sorrow”

He Sees Us As We Are: Tending the Sick

Keep watch, dear Lord,
with those who work, or watch, or weep this night,
and give your angels charge over those who sleep.
Tend the sick, Lord Christ;
give rest to the weary,
bless the dying,
soothe the suffering,
pity the afflicted,
shield the joyous;
and all for your love’s sake.
Amen.
~Common Book of Prayer

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
1Corinthians 12:27

Christ has no body now but yours.
No hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world.
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.
Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands,
yours are the feet,
yours are the eyes,
you are his body.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
~Teresa of Avila

The whole mass of Christians
are the physical organism through which Christ acts—
that we are his fingers and muscles,
the cells of His body
.
~C.S. Lewis

Thousands are working around the clock
to tend to those who are ill and hurting,
~even at their own peril~
just as those who love the body of Christ
have done through centuries
of plagues and pandemics.

They know,
despite their own weariness,
each one who suffers,
each dear one,
is part of His body,
part of Our body.

We are the cells of His Being
still walking, weeping, loving
on this trembling earth.

This year’s Lenten theme on 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


From the love of my own comfort
From the fear of having nothing
From a life of worldly passions
Deliver me O God

From the need to be understood
From the need to be accepted
From the fear of being lonely
Deliver me O God Deliver me O God

And I shall not want,
I shall not want when I taste Your goodness
I shall not want when I taste Your goodness
I shall not want
From the fear of serving others
From the fear of death or trial
From the fear of humility
Deliver me O God Deliver me O God
~Audrey Assad “I Shall Not Want”

Little Life Safe

He calls the honeybees his girls although
he tells me they’re ungendered workers
who never produce offspring. Some hour drops,
the bees shut off. In the long, cool slant of sun,
spent flowers fold into cups. He asks me if I’ve ever
seen a Solitary Bee where it sleeps. I say I’ve not.
The nearest bud’s a long-throated peach hollyhock.
He cradles it in his palm, holds it up so I spy
the intimacy of the sleeping bee. Little life safe in a petal,
little girl, your few furious buzzings as you stir
stay with me all winter, remind me of my work undone.
~Heid E. Erdrich, from “Intimate Detail” from The Mother’s Tongue

The barn’s brown gable, the vine by the door,—    
Nothing changed but the hives of bees. 
Before them, under the garden wall,    
Forward and back, 
Went drearily singing the chore-girl small,    
Draping each hive with a shred of black. 
Trembling, I listened: the summer sun    
Had the chill of snow; 
For I knew she was telling the bees of one    
Gone on the journey we all must go! 
~John Greenleaf Whittier from “Telling the Bees”

An old Celtic tradition necessitates sharing any news from the household with the farm’s bee hives, whether cheery like a new birth or a wedding celebration or sad like a family death.  This ensures the hives’ well-being and continued connection to home and community – the bees are kept in the loop, so to speak, so they stay at home, not swarm and move on to a more hospitable place.

Each little life safe at home, each little life with work undone.

Good news seems always easy to share; we tend to keep bad news to ourselves so this tradition helps remind us that what affects one of us, affects us all.

These days, with instant news at our fingertips at any moment, bad news is constantly bombarding us. Like the bees in the hives of the field, we want to flee from it and find a more hospitable home.

I hope the Beekeeper, our Creator, comes personally to each of us to say:
“Here is what has happened. All will be well, dear one. We will navigate your little life together.”

Something Went Wrong

age nine

The time is ripe for looking back over the day, the week, the year, and trying to figure out where we have come from and where we are going to, for sifting through the things we have done and the things we have left undone for a clue to who we are and who, for better or worse, we are becoming. We cling to the present out of wariness of the past. But there is a deeper need yet, I think, and that is the need—not all the time, surely, but from time to time—to enter that still room within us all where the past lives on as a part of the present, where the dead are alive again, where we are most alive ourselves to turnings and to where our journeys have brought us. The name of the room is Remember—the room where with patience, with charity, with quietness of heart, we remember consciously to remember the lives we have lived.” 
~Frederick Buechner from A Room Called Remember

He was a big man, says the size of his shoes
on a pile of broken dishes by the house;
a tall man too, says the length of the bed
in an upstairs room; and a good, God-fearing man,
says the Bible with a broken back
on the floor below the window, dusty with sun;
but not a man for farming, say the fields
cluttered with boulders and the leaky barn.

A woman lived with him, says the bedroom wall
papered with lilacs and the kitchen shelves
covered with oilcloth, and they had a child,
says the sandbox made from a tractor tire.
Money was scarce, say the jars of plum preserves
and canned tomatoes sealed in the cellar hole.
And the winters cold, say the rags in the window frames.
It was lonely here, says the narrow country road.

Something went wrong, says the empty house
in the weed-choked yard. Stones in the fields
say he was not a farmer; the still-sealed jars
in the cellar say she left in a nervous haste.
And the child? Its toys are strewn in the yard
like branches after a storm—a rubber cow,
a rusty tractor with a broken plow,
a doll in overalls. Something went wrong, they say.

~Ted Kooser, “Abandoned Farmhouse” from Sure Signs: New and Selected Poems. 

In 1959, when I was five years old, my father left his high school agriculture teaching position for a new supervisor position with the state.
I didn’t understand at the time the reasons for his leaving his job after 13 years.

Our family moved from a large 3 story farm house in a rural community to a 1950’s newer rambler style home just outside the city limits of the state capitol.  It was a big adjustment to move to a much smaller house without a basement or upper story, no garage, and no large haybarn nor chicken coop.  It meant most things we owned didn’t make the move with us.

The rambler had two side by side mirror image rooms as the primary central living space between the kitchen on one side and the hallway to the bedrooms on the other.  The living room could only be entered through the front door and the family room was accessed through the back door with a shared sandstone hearth in the center, containing a fireplace in each room.  The only opening between the rooms had a folding door shut most of the year.  In December, the door was opened to accommodate a Christmas tree, so it sat partially in the living room and depending on its generous width, spilled over into the family room.  That way it was visible from both rooms, and didn’t take up too much floor space.

The living room, because it contained the only carpeting in the house, and our “best” furniture,  was strictly off-limits. In order to keep our two matching sectional knobby gray fabric sofas,  a green upholstered chair and gold crushed velvet covered love seat in pristine condition, the room was to be avoided unless we had company. The carpet was never to develop a traffic pattern, there would be no food, beverage, or pet ever allowed in that room, and the front door was not to be used unless a visitor arrived.  The hearth never saw a fire lit on that side because of the potential of messy ashes or smoke smell. This was not a room for laughter, arguments or games and certainly not for toys. The chiming clock next to the hearth, wound with weighted cones on the end of chains, called out the hours without an audience.

One week before Christmas, a tree was chosen to fit in the space where it could overflow into the family room.  I particularly enjoyed decorating the “family room” side of the tree, using all my favorite ornaments that were less likely to break if they fell on the linoleum floor on that side of the door.

It was as if the Christmas tree became divided, with a “formal” side in the living room and a “real life” face on the other side where the living (and hurting) was actually taking place.

The tree straddled more than just two rooms.  Every year that tree’s branches reached out to shelter a family that was slowly, almost imperceptibly, falling apart, like the fir needles dropping to the floor to be swept away. Something was going wrong.

Each year since, the Christmas tree bearing those old ornaments from my childhood reminds me of a still room of mixed memories within me.  I am no longer wary of the past, and when I sweep up the fir needles that inevitably drop, I no longer weep.