Acknowledging the Abyss

The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for.
~Vladimir Nabokov from Speak Memory

I think Nabokov had it wrong. This is the abyss.
That’s why babies howl at birth,
and why the dying so often reach
for something only they can apprehend.

At the end they don’t want their hands
to be under the covers, and if you should put
your hand on theirs in a tentative gesture
of solidarity, they’ll pull the hand free;
and you must honor that desire,
and let them pull it free.

~Jane Kenyon from “Reading Aloud to My Father”

Great Grandma Emma, granddaughter Andrea, great-grandson Zealand – photo by Andrea Nipges

Great Grandpa Harry holding baby Emerson, photo by mama Abby Mobley
Great-Grandma Elna and Noah

And once, for no special reason,
I rode in the back of the pickup, leaning against the cab.
Everything familiar was receding fast…

Whatever I saw
I had already passed…
(This must be what life is like
at the moment of leaving it.)
~Jane Kenyon from “What It’s Like”

The farther I am down the road, everything familiar seems to be receding fast. What I see on my journey, I have already passed by as I watch it disappear into the horizon.

I too often mistake this world, this existence,  as the only light there is,  a mere beam of illumination in the surrounding night of eternity, the only relief from overwhelming darkness.  If we stand looking up from the bottom, we might erroneously assume we are the source of the light, we are all there is.

Yet looking at this world from a different perspective, gazing down into the abyss from above, it is clear the light does not come from below –it is from beyond us.

The newborn and the dying know this.  They signal their transition into and out of this world with their hands.  An infant holds tightly to whatever their fist finds,  grasping and clinging to not be lost to this darkness they have entered.  The dying instead loosen their grip on this world, reaching up and picking the air on their climb back to heaven.

We hold babies tightly so they won’t lose their way in the dark.  We loosen our grip on the dying to honor their outreach to the light that leads to something greater.

In the intervening years, we struggle in our blindness to climb out of the abyss to see vistas of great beauty and grace as we pass through the shadows of our lives.  Only then we acknowledge, with great calm and serenity, where we are headed.

Ben packaged in a paper bag by Grandpa Hank
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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: This Fearful Fallen Place

Whatever’s the matter
Whatever’s been done

I will be your home
In this fearful fallen place
~Michael Card


Through the bright darkness of Lent,
as He himself hangs dying, suffering on our behalf,
this is Christ’s message to each of us who asks:
when we want to be remembered,
when we truly and wholly ask for forgiveness
for whatever is the matter,
for whatever we have done,
we find our only hope and comfort is in Him.
He brings us home from this fearful fallen place.
Homeless no longer, lost no longer, forgotten no longer.

Home.

This year’s Lenten theme for Barnstorming is a daily selection from songs and hymns about Christ’s profound sacrifice on our behalf.

If we remain silent about Him, the stones themselves will shout out and start to sing (Luke 19:40).

In His name, may we sing…

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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: Guide Me Through the Gloom

Death shall not destroy my comfort,
Christ shall guide me thro’ the gloom;
Down he’ll send some heav’nly convoy,
To escort my spirit home.
~American Folk Hymn

Our neighbor Linda died yesterday after being cared for in hospice for the past several days. Her life journey was sadly shortened by the gloom and toll of early-onset dementia.

Even as her memory developed enlarging gaps and holes over the past few years, Jesus was always her refuge when she was lost in her confusion. Linda never lost her awe of God’s goodness, and never forgot His love for her. Even when fearful of the unknown or unremembered, she was held fast by Jesus.

Worshipping weekly with her husband Steve and extended family members brought her immense joy and comfort. She smiled broadly, singing faithfully the hymns she had known for decades.

Her call home is bittersweet for Steve, along with her family and friends who have supported her remaining at home during her last few vulnerable years. There is a toll and gloom in watching a beloved person slowly fade from this life, like a wave retreating from this shore to crest on some other far-off place.

What we who mourn know is that Linda was greeted on that other shore by those who have gone before her, assuring her she no longer would wonder where she was or be worried about what comes next.

She will forever know the joy of worship and the assurance of belonging. After all, there is no gloom in heaven, only the light of holy love.

This year’s Lenten theme for Barnstorming is a daily selection from songs and hymns about Christ’s profound sacrifice on our behalf.

If we remain silent about Him, the stones themselves will shout out and start to sing (Luke 19:40).

In His name, may we sing…

Death shall not destroy my comfort,
Christ shall guide me thro’ the gloom;
Down he’ll send some heav’nly convoy,
To escort my spirit home.

(Refrain):
Oh, hallelujah! How I Love my Savior,
Oh, hallelujah! That I Do.
Oh, Hallelujah! How I love my Savior!
Mourners, you may love him too.

Jordan’s stream shall not o’erflow me,
While my Savior’s by my side;
Canaan, Canaan lies before me!
Soon I’ll cross the swelling tide.

See the happy spirits waiting,
On the banks beyond the stream!
Sweet responses still repeating,
“Jesus! Jesus!” is their theme.

The Air is Charged With Blessing

I thought of happiness, how it is woven
Out of the silence in the empty house each day
And how it is not sudden and it is not given
But is creation itself like the growth of a tree.
No one has seen it happen, but inside the bark
Another circle is growing in the expanding ring.
No one has heard the root go deeper in the dark,
But the tree is lifted by this inward work
And its plumes shine, and its leaves are glittering.

For what is happiness but growth in peace,
And as the air moves, so the old dreams stir
The shining leaves of present happiness?
No one has heard thought or listened to a mind,
But where people have lived in inwardness
The air is charged with blessing and does bless;
Windows look out on mountains and the walls are kind.
~ May Sarton, from “The Work of Happiness”  in  Collected Poems, 1930-1993

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, as every headline shouts bad news:
this is not our home.

I am only a wayfarer seeking out air charged with blessings to soak up like a dry sponge.

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

Yet the nature of a fallen world filled with faltering souls such as myself leads me down boulder-strewn paths filled with potholes and sheer cliffs.

At times nowhere feels safe or secure and I overthink my next step.

God acknowledges my fear of the unknown destination, as only He can know what lies ahead on anyone’s journey.

God in His mercy never leaves any of us homeless or without hope. He charges the very air we breathe with blessing. Yet He knows even our need for air to survive is simply not enough to sustain us for eternity.

He gifts Himself and I can breathe in Him. Only He will last forever.

We pray for blessings, we pray for peace
Comfort for family, protection while we sleep
We pray for healing, for prosperity
We pray for Your mighty hand to ease our suffering
And all the while, You hear each spoken need
Yet love us way too much to give us lesser things

‘Cause what if Your blessings come through raindrops
What if Your healing comes through tears
What if a thousand sleepless nights
are what it takes to know You’re near
What if trials of this life are Your mercies in disguise .

We pray for wisdom, Your voice to hear
We cry in anger when we cannot feel You near
We doubt Your goodness, we doubt Your love
As if every promise from Your word is not enough
And all the while, You hear each desperate plea
And long that we’d have faith to believe .

When friends betray us
When darkness seems to win
We know the pain reminds this heart
That this is not
This is not our home .
It’s not our home .
~Laura Story

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A Peaceable Kingdom

She seems to hide all looks that have ever fallen
into her, so that, like an audience,
she can look them over, menacing and sullen,
and curl to sleep with them. But all at once

as if awakened, she turns her face to yours;
and with a shock, you see yourself, tiny,
inside the golden amber of her eyeballs
suspended, like a prehistoric fly.
~Ranier Maria Rilke from “Black Cat”

Pangur Bán and I at work,
Adepts, equals, cat and clerk:
His whole instinct is to hunt,
Mine to free the meaning pent.

All the while, his round bright eye
Fixes on the wall, while I
Focus my less piercing gaze
On the challenge of the page.

With his unsheathed, perfect nails
Pangur springs, exults and kills.
When the longed-for, difficult
Answers come, I too exult.

So it goes. To each his own.
No vying. No vexation.
Taking pleasure, taking pains,
Kindred spirits, veterans.

Day and night, soft purr, soft pad,
Pangur Bán has learned his trade.
Day and night, my own hard work
Solves the cruxes, makes a mark.
~Anonymous Irish monk from “Pangur Bán”
, translated by Seamus Heaney

Cally, our first adopted calico cat, was quite elderly and fading fast. Winter is always a tough time for barn cats, even with snug shelter, plentiful food and water. We had lost our 16+ year old tuxedo kitty just a couple months previously, and now Cally, not much younger,  was not going to last much longer. She still got up to eat and potty, and still licked her front paws clean, but couldn’t manage much else.  Her frame was thin and frail, her coat dull and matted in places, she had been deaf for some time and her eyes were rheumy.  She spent her days and nights in a nest of hay on the floor of our horse barn, watching the comings and goings of horse hooves and people rolling by with wheelbarrows full of manure.  One evening she allowed me to bring her a little rug to give her a bit more cushion and protection from drafts, as I wouldn’t be surprised to find her permanently curled up there the next morning.  Her time was soon to come.

Cally was one of a litter raised in the mid-90’s by good friends, the VanderHaaks, on their acreage a few miles from here. When they had to make a move to a city on the east coast, their Cally and an orange colored kitty were in need of a new home. On arrival, the orange cat immediately ran into the woods, only rarely to be spotted at a distance for a few months and then completely disappeared, possibly a victim of the local coyote pack.  Cally strolled onto our farm and decreed it satisfactory.  She moved right in, immediately at home with the cows, horses, chickens, our aging dog Tango (who loved cats) and our other cats. In no time, she became the undisputed leader, with great nobility and elegance. There was no one who would dare to question her authority.

We knew Cally was unusual from the start. Tango initially approached her somewhat warily, given the reaction Tango elicited from our other cats (typically a hair raising hiss, scratch and spit). Instead, Cally marched right up, rubbed noses with Tango, and they became fast friends, cuddling together on our front porch whenever it was time to take a nap. They were best pals. Tango surely loved anyone who would snuggle up to her belly and keep her warm and Cally was the perfect belly warmer (as Garrison Keillor says, “a heater cat”).

Our free range rooster seriously questioned this dog/cat relationship.  He was a bit indignant about a front porch communal naptime and would strut up the sidewalk, walk up and down the porch and perch on the railing,  muttering to himself about how improper it was, and at times getting quite loud and insistent about it. They completely ignored him, which obviously bugged him, proud and haughty bird that he was.

One fall morning, as I opened the front door to go down the driveway to get the newspaper in the pre-dawn mist, I was astonished to see not just a cat and dog snuggled together on the porch mat, but the rooster as well, tucked up next to Tango’s tail. As usual,  Tango and Cally didn’t move a muscle when I appeared, as was their habit–I always had to step over them to get to where I needed to go. The rooster, however, was very startled to see me,  almost embarrassed.  He stood up quickly, flapped his wings a few times, and swaggered off crowing, just to prove he hadn’t compromised his cock-sure raison d’etre.

No, I didn’t have my camera with me and I never found them all together ever again. The reader will have to just take it on faith.

After Tango died, Cally rebounded by taking on the training of our new corgi pup and making sure he understood her regal authority in all things, and demanding, in her silent way, his respect and servitude.  He would happily chase other cats, but never Cally. They would touch noses, she would rub against his fur, and tickle his chin with her tail and all he could think to do was smile and wag at her.

So I figure a dog, a cat and a rooster sleeping together was our little farm’s version of the lion and lamb lying down together.  We can learn something from the peaceable kingdom right outside our front door,  a harbinger of what is possible for the rest of us.  Despite claws, sharp teeth, and talons and too many inflexible opinions, it is possible to snuggle together in harmony and mutual need for warmth and comfort.

Our special Cally made it happen here on earth. Up in heaven, I suspect she has met up with Tango, and one rooster with attitude, for a nice nap on the other side.

The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the goat; and the calf and the young lion and the yearling together; and a little child shall lead them.
Isaiah 11:6

Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks, The Met

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The Beginning Shall Remind Us of the End: Kindled and Consumed

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
and every common bush afire with God
~Elizabeth Barrett Browning from “Aurora Leigh”

(Jesus said) I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!
Luke 12:49

It is difficult to undo our own damage…
It is hard to desecrate a grove and change your mind.
The very holy mountains are keeping mum.
We doused the burning bush and cannot rekindle it;
we are lighting matches in vain under every green tree. 

~Annie Dillard from Teaching a Stone to Talk

When I drink in the stars and upward sink
into the theater your words have wrought,
I touch unfelt immensity and think—
like Grandma used to pause in patient thought
before an ordinary flower, awed
by intricacies hidden in plain view,
then say, You didn’t have to do that, God!—
Surely a smaller universe would do!

But you have walled us in with open seas
unconquerable, wild with distant shores
whose raging dawns are but your filigree
across our vaulted skies. This art of yours,
what Grandma held and I behold, these flames,
frame truth which awes us more: You know our names.

~Michael Stalcup “The Shallows”

I need to turn aside and look,
to see, as if for the first and last time,
the kindled fire that illuminates
even the darkest day and never dies away.

We are invited by name,
by no less than God Himself,
through the burning bush that is never consumed
to shed our shoes, to walk barefoot and vulnerable,
and approach the bright and burning dawn,
even when it is the darkest midnight,
even when it is a babe in a manger
lighting a fire in each one of us.

Only then,
only then
can I say:
“Here I am! Consume me!”

This year’s Barnstorming Advent theme “… the Beginning shall remind us of the End” is taken from the final lines in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”

Within our darkest night,
you kindle the fire
that never dies away,
that never dies away.
Within our darkest night,
you kindle the fire
that never dies away,
that never dies away.
~Taize

I sit beside the fire and think of all that I have seen
of meadow-flowers and butterflies in summers that have been;
Of yellow leaves and gossamer in autumns that there were,
with morning mist and silver sun and wind upon my hair.
I sit beside the fire and think of how the world will be
when winter comes without a spring that I shall ever see.
For still there are so many things that I have never seen:
in every wood in every spring there is a different green.
I sit beside the fire and think of people long ago
and people who will see a world that I shall never know.
But all the while I sit and think of times there were before,
I listen for returning feet and voices at the door.
~J.R.R. Tolkien

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The Beginning Shall Remind Us of the End: The Heavens Will Drop Their Dew

The seed will grow well,
the vine will yield its fruit,
the ground will produce its crops,
and the heavens will drop their dew.
I will give all these things as an inheritance
to the remnant of this people.
Zechariah 8:12

Listen, you heavens, and I will speak;
    hear, you earth, the words of my mouth.
Let my teaching fall like rain
    and my words descend like dew,
like showers on new grass,
    like abundant rain on tender plants.
Deuteronomy 32:1-2

He hath abolished the old drouth,
And rivers run where all was dry,
The field is sopp’d with merciful dew.
The words are old, the purport new,
And taught my lips to quote this word
That I shall live, I shall not die

But I shall when the shocks are stored
See the salvation of the Lord.

~Gerard Manley Hopkins “He hath abolished the old drouth”

To God’s people, wandering homeless in the desert for years before being allowed to enter the Promised Land, there is great hope in the possibility of words and teaching coming from heaven.  The dew of heaven becomes the representation of God’s all-encompassing Spirit and gift of grace in this and other Old Testament scripture passages.

Ultimately, God’s Word descended like dew from heaven in the form of a newborn baby in a manger come to dwell among us. 

Like dew, He becomes flesh
at no cost to us,
to be among us freely,
coming in the night,
into the darkness,
as a gentle covering of all things dry and dying,
to refresh,
to restore,
to soften,
to make what was withered fruitful once again. 

We live again because this Word of flesh quickens within us. 

This year’s Barnstorming Advent theme “… the Beginning shall remind us of the End” is taken from the final lines in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”

Drop down ye heavens from above,
And let the skies pour down righteousness.
Come comfort ye, comfort ye my people;
My salvation shall not tarry.
I have blotted out as a thick cloud,
Thy transgressions:
Fear not, for I will save thee;
For I am the Lord thy God,
The holy one of Israel, thy redeemer.

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The River of Light

So we found the end of our journey,
So we stood alive in the river of light,
Among the creatures of light, creatures of light.

~Ted Hughes from the end of his poem “That Morning” from River

One river gives
Its journey to the next.

We give because someone gave to us.
We give because nobody gave to us.

We give because giving has changed us.
We give because giving could have changed us.

We have been better for it,
We have been wounded by it—

Giving has many faces: It is loud and quiet,
Big, though small, diamond in wood-nails.

Its story is old, the plot worn and the pages too,
But we read this book, anyway, over and again:

Giving is, first and every time, hand to hand,
Mine to yours, yours to mine.

You gave me blue and I gave you yellow.
Together we are simple green. You gave me

What you did not have, and I gave you
What I had to give—together, we made

Something greater from the difference.
~Alberto Rios “When Giving is All We Have”

We were created as creatures of light invited to walk alongside our Creator – joyfully made in His image and gifted with managing a productive and beautiful world.

Yet even this wasn’t enough for us, this garden of wonders. We were free to do what was right in our own eyes rather than live in gratitude, faith and obedience, and made our choice at tremendous cost.

Now we struggle with the reality of daily life in a fallen world, experiencing conflict, disorder, illness and tragedy. Hurricanes bear down on vulnerable people, tornados rip apart towns, fires ravage homes, earthquakes level and destroy, tsunamis flood and overwhelm, pandemics kill indiscriminately.

Yet God has not abandoned us as we deserve. He has gifted Himself to His Created yet again, coming from heaven in a river of light to wash us clean, to invite us once again to walk beside Him, die with Him, live with Him.

What we are asked for in return is simple belief – by acknowledging a God who is greater than anything or anyone, admitting we are thirsty and filthy, in dire need of cleansing.

He is our river of light and life, glorious and ever-flowing.

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Riding at Dusk

At dusk, everything blurs and softens…

The horse bears me along, like grace,
making me better than what I am,
and what I think or say or see
is whole in these moments, is neither
small nor broken.  Who then
is better made to say be well, be glad,

or who to long that we, as one,
might course over the entire valley,
over all valleys, as a bird in a great embrace
of flight, who presses against her breast,
in grief and tenderness,
the whole weeping body of the world?
~Linda McCarriston from “Riding Out At Evening”

“Last Light” photo of Twin Sisters at dusk by Joel de Waard

We all need to remember transcendent moments in our lives, those brief times when all was well, our worries left behind in the dust.

Wounds healed, hearts full, senses filled with wonder, feeling whole rather than broken.

The summer evening rides of my younger years were just such a time: lifted by such powerful grace and transported to another time and place. It can feel like flying but mostly it feels like an embrace, one creature with another, exploring the world together.

All these years later, I am held fast by the memories and in remembering, I weep.

Surely, someday,
heaven will be something like this.

Sure on this shining night
Of star made shadows round,
Kindness must watch for me
This side the ground.
The late year lies down the north.
All is healed, all is health.
High summer holds the earth.
Hearts all whole.
Sure on this shining night I weep for wonder wand’ring far
alone
Of shadows on the stars.

~James Agee

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An Exquisite View

How often do we miss the fainter note
Or fail to see the more exquisite hue,
Blind to the tiny streamlet at our feet,
Eyes fixed upon some other, further view.
What chimes of harmonies escape our ears,
How many rainbows must elude our sight,
We see a field but do not see the grass,
Each blade a miracle of shade and light.
How then to keep the greater end in eye
And watch the sunlight on the distant peak,
And yet not tread on any leaf of love,
Nor miss a word the eager children speak?
Ah, what demand upon the narrow heart,
To seek the whole, yet not ignore the part.
~Philip Britts  “Sonnet 1

I saw the lovely arch
    Of Rainbow span the sky,
The gold sun burning
    As the rain swept by.

In bright-ringed solitude
    The showery foliage shone
One lovely moment,
    And the Bow was gone.
~Walter De La Mare “The Rainbow”

We are born nearly blinded, focused solely on our emptiness – a hunger to be filled and our need to be held.  As we grow, our focus sharpens to fall in love with those who feed and nurture us.

Eventually we discover, challenge and worship He who made us.

This world is often too much for us to take in as a whole — our exquisite view of shadow and light, color and gray, loneliness and embrace, sorrow and joy.

With more years and a broader vision, we scan for the finer details within the whole before it disappears with the changing light.  Time’s a wasting (and so are we) as we try to capture it all with the lenses of our eyes and hearts.

The end of life comes too soon, when once again our vision blurs and the world fades away from view.

We hunger yet again to be filled and held.

And then heaven itself will seem almost too much to take in – our hearts full to bursting with light and promise for the rest of eternity.

A new book is available from Barnstorming – maybe you know someone who would enjoy a gift of light and color and insightful words? Order here: