Now All Breathless

 

Two days of an icy prairie fog
and every blade of grass, and twig,
and branch, and every stretch
of wire, barb, post and staple,
is a knot or a threat in a lace
of the purest white. To walk
is like finding your way through a wedding dress, the sky
inside it cold and satiny; 
no past, no future, just the now
all breathless. Then a red bird,
like a pinprick, changes everything.
~ Ted Kooser, “Hoarfrost” in Kindest Regards: New and Selected Poems 

 

zipperbuttons

When the landscape emerges in the morning light frost-bitten, all iced up and white-crisp, I yearn for color, any color, to reappear with the day’s thawing out. My breath hangs like a cloud in the dry air as I crunch my way to the barn, living proof that I breathe for another day even though too many others right now can not.

We are a breathless people, wondering what comes next, feeling frozen and suspended in a pandemic and smoke-filled burning world.

We are a breathless people, wondering who or what will choke our life from us.

We are a breathless people, dressed as a bride in frosted satin, waiting at the altar for the Groom who bleeds red to save us from our fate.

And that alone changes everything.

The Surprise of Purple

Walking, I drew my hand over the lumpy
bloom of a spray of purple; I stripped away
my fingers, stained purple; put it to my nose,

the minty honey, a perfume so aggressively
pleasant—I gave it to you to smell,
my daughter, and you pulled away as if

I was giving you a palm full of wasps,
deceptions: “Smell the way the air
changes because of purple and green.”

This is the promise I make to you:
I will never give you a fist full of wasps,
just the surprise of purple and the scent of rain.
~Kwame Dawes “Purple”

But maybe I ought to practise a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.

~Jenny Joseph from “Warning”

Blazing in Gold and quenching in Purple
Leaping like Leopards to the Sky
Then at the feet of the old Horizon
Laying her spotted Face to die
Stooping as low as the Otter’s Window
Touching the Roof and tinting the Barn
Kissing her Bonnet to the Meadow
And the Juggler of Day is gone

~Emily Dickinson “228”

I haven’t anything purple to wear – never have. It’s not that I don’t like purple – I do. I just have never felt worthy to be adorned in it like the sky and flowers and fruit.

Perhaps my reluctance to wear purple is that it represents the rich and royal … yet also the bruised and battered … all at once. I know One who was both and took a beating for me in place of me.

A surprise in His gift of purple to us all.

What If…

What if you slept
And what if
In your sleep
You dreamed
And what if
In your dream
You went to heaven
And there plucked a strange and beautiful flower
And what if
When you awoke
You had that flower in your hand
Ah, what then?
~Samuel Taylor Coleridge “What if you slept…”

What do our dreams tell us of heaven?

The last few nights I have dreamed of those with whom I once had a warm friendship but no longer do. My dreams were of grace and reconciliation, of walking and talking together and rediscovering our common goals and beliefs rather than dwelling on estrangement and sadness as we’ve gone our separate ways.

Upon waking, I wonder what vision of heaven this could be: finding the lost treasure of connection that I allowed to let go. Restoring a friendship is a strange and beautiful flower plucked in a dream. I must hold it gently in my hand as the precious gem it is.

What then is possible? And what now?

The Rain Comes Down

The world is changed.
I feel it in the water.
I feel it in the earth.
I smell it in the air.
Much that once was, is lost

For none now live who remember it.
~J.R.R. Tolkien Galadriel’s prologue to The Fellowship of the Rings

There trudges one to a merry-making
      With a sturdy swing,
   On whom the rain comes down.

To fetch the saving medicament
      Is another bent,
   On whom the rain comes down.

One slowly drives his herd to the stall
      Ere ill befall,
   On whom the rain comes down.

This bears his missives of life and death
      With quickening breath,
   On whom the rain comes down.

One watches for signals of wreck or war
      From the hill afar,
   On whom the rain comes down.

No care if he gain a shelter or none,
      Unhired moves on,
   On whom the rain comes down.

And another knows nought of its chilling fall
      Upon him at all,
   On whom the rain comes down.

~Thomas Hardy “An Autumn Rain-scene”(1904)

The rain has returned, now six months into a changed world. The rain blows, raging against the windows and puddling in the low spots, sparing nothing and no one.

It drenches all and everyone – none of us immune from the cleansing: whether missing the joy of sweet fellowship, whether bearing urgent messages or administering badly needed medication, whether trudging through the day’s chores, whether unemployed and praying for work, whether bearing witness to ongoing divisive conflict and tragedy, or whether the rain falls chill upon those newly lying still and silent beneath the soil.

In our universal soaking, may we look at one another with a renewed compassion. Each one of us deserves a warm and comforting toweling off, being buffed and fluffed so we’re ready to face what comes next.

You first.

Fragrance of the Promises

O gather up the brokenness
And bring it to me now
The fragrance of those promises
You never dared to vow

The splinters that you carry
The cross you left behind
Come healing of the body
Come healing of the mind

And let the heavens hear it
The penitential hymn
Come healing of the spirit
Come healing of the limb

Behold the gates of mercy
In arbitrary space
And none of us deserving
The cruelty or the grace

O solitude of longing
Where love has been confined
Come healing of the body
Come healing of the mind

O see the darkness yielding
That tore the light apart
Come healing of the reason
Come healing of the heart

O troubled dust concealing
An undivided love
The heart beneath is teaching
To the broken heart above

Let the heavens falter
Let the earth proclaim
Come healing of the altar
Come healing of the name

O longing of the branches
To lift the little bud
O longing of the arteries
To purify the blood

And let the heavens hear it
The penitential hymn
Come healing of the spirit
Come healing of the limb
~Leonard Cohen “Come healing”

We are all in need of healing, none more so than those who have been affected by the pandemic, either dealing themselves with the illness and its long-lasting effects, or grieving the untimely loss of family and friends.

There is need for healing in relationships, either because of too much proximity or not nearly enough due to quarantine.

There is need for a sense of purpose without a schedule of regular employment or schooling to occupy our days.

There is need for healing for the wrongs we do, intentionally or unintentionally.

Our hardships are meager compared to the plagues of the past but they are nevertheless real and undeserved, so we pray for relief, we pray for grace and mercy, we pray for healing of mind, body and spirit.

Even a tiny blue forget-me-not blossom reminds us: we need to seek the fragrance of promises made and harvest the fruit of promises kept.

God does not make promises to please us, like a politician in an election year. He keeps promises because He knows we need to believe they will happen according to His plan— He forgets-us-not because we are the troubled dust upon which He has blown sweet and fragrant breath.

Fighting a Harder Battle

Mostly, I want to be kind.
And nobody, of course, is kind,
or mean,
for a simple reason.

~Mary Oliver from “Dogfish”

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.
~Plato

Our mare Belinda has a two decade history of fighting the hard battle of being consistently on the bottom of the mare hierarchy. She is unusually shy, very submissive and never one to stir up trouble in the herd. Most of the time she simply wants to disappear so the other mares can’t see her to bully her.

I’ve watched her over the years to learn how she copes day in and day out with her low status. She is clearly more clever than the higher-ranking mares who lord it over her, reminding her of their rank.

In the mornings when the mares are turned out to pasture from their individual stalls, I always open Belinda’s door first so she has the option to walk out to pasture ahead of the others if she chooses. Instead, she’ll stand waiting at the open door, watching the other mares leave their stalls and pass by, then follow behind them out to pasture keeping a safe distance between them and herself.

Once outside, she’ll stand at the water barrel just inside the pasture gate, and pretend to drink water for several minutes (I’m convinced she doesn’t actually drink a drop) while the other mares wander into the field to find their preferred grazing spot.

Once the others are clearly settled, she joins them at a safe distance. Then the worst bully will approach her, just as Belinda has started to eat, and will start to groom Belinda’s withers with her teeth. This is a clear invitation to be scratched back, so despite being hungry and clearly fearful, Belinda mutually chews/scratches for at least ten minutes with her mortal enemy. I’d like to think this is their brief truce in the battle for status every day; one clearly has a need and wants Belinda to comply. Belinda is more than willing to set aside her own needs if it means keeping peace in the herd.

At the end of the day, Belinda stays up in the field until the other mares have returned to the barn and are back in their stalls with the doors latched. I know she counts the number of doors she hears closing because she will refuse to come in from outside and return to her stall until she hears the last door closing, knowing it is then safe to some into the barn.

The first thing she does returning to her stall is to drop a pile of manure right inside her door. It is her claim of “mine” – no other horse here does that, since they would have to walk through manure to leave the stall, but for Belinda, it is a way of saying if for some reason the closed door isn’t enough to keep her secure, the pile of manure at least marks her territory.

She does not always have a peaceful night alone in her stall as I would expect. Her stall floor is churned and messy in the morning, as if she continues to be on the move even in the darkness, or perhaps she is a mare having nightmares.

I know her long life has been one of constant worry and vigilance despite always having access to plenty of food, a safe place to rest at night and always being part of a community, though not one that has supported her.

She reminds me that everyone, especially the lowest on the totem pole, deserves kindness because I cannot possibly understand the battles they are fighting, both day and night.

And they deserve respect: to simply survive, they are much smarter than I am.

 

A Ceaseless Blessing

When I saw the figure on the crown of the hill,
high above the city, standing perfectly still

against a sky so saturated with the late-
afternoon, late-summer Pacific light

that granules of it seemed to have come out
of solution, like a fine precipitate

of crystals hanging in the brightened air,
I thought whoever it was standing up there

must be experiencing some heightened state
of being, or thinking—or its opposite,

thoughtlessly enraptured by the view.
Or maybe, looking again, it was a statue

of Jesus or a saint, placed there to bestow
a ceaseless blessing on the city below.

Only after a good five minutes did I see
that the figure was actually a tree—

some kind of cypress, probably, or cedar.
I was both amused and let down by my error.

Not only had I made the tree a person,
but I’d also given it a vision,

which seemed to linger in the light-charged air
around the tree’s green flame, then disappear.

~Jeffrey Harrison, “The Figure on the Hill” from Into Daylight.

A tree on our hill broods over us
through the decades,
day and night,
standing firm through sunrises and sunsets,
snow and wind and rain and blistering sun.

It isn’t mistaken for a person or statue
yet stands in steadfast silence
amid the ever-changing backdrop
and drama of uncertain times.

May these ceaseless blessings ever flow,
bestowed unimpeded
of a Love that hung
from the limbs of a tree on the hill.






The Bent World

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.   
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;   
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;   
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;   
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;   
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went   
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent   
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
~Gerard Manley Hopkins “God’s Grandeur”

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.
Luke 13:34

for him to see me mended,
I must see him torn…
~Luci Shaw
from “Mary’s Song”

Today marks the crushing of Christ in the Garden of the Oil Press, Gethsemane. 

“Gethsemane” means “oil press” –a place of olive trees treasured for the fine oil delivered from their fruit. And so, on this Thursday night, the pressure is turned up high on the disciples, not just on Jesus.

The disciples are expected, indeed commanded, to keep watch alongside the Master, to be filled with prayer, to avoid the temptation of the weakened flesh thrown at them at every turn.

But they fail pressure testing and fall apart. 

Like them, I am easily lulled by complacency, by my over-indulged satiety for material comforts that do not truly fill hunger or quench thirst,  by my expectation that being called a follower of Jesus is enough.

It is not enough.
I fail the pressure test as well.

I fall asleep through His anguish.
I dream, oblivious, while He sweats blood.
I might even deny I know Him when pressed hard.

Yet, the moment of betrayal becomes the moment He is glorified,
thereby God is glorified. 

Crushed, bleeding,  poured out over the world
— from wings that brood and cover us —
He becomes the sacrifice that anoints us.

Incredibly,
indeed miraculously,
He loves us, bent as we are, anyway.

VERSE 1
Let us praise Jesus, the Washer of Feet;
Jesus, the Lordly who gave up his Seat;
Jesus, the Maker of all that there is;
Jesus, the Servant to all who are his.

REFRAIN
We praise Jesus
We praise Jesus

VERSE 2
Let us praise Jesus, the Blesser of Bread;
Jesus, the Off’ring who suffered and bled;
Jesus, the Royal who knelt in the dust;
Jesus, the Priest in whose Blessing we trust.

VERSE 3
Let us praise Jesus, the Shepherd alone;
Jesus, the Lover who gathers His own;
Jesus, the Wounded who died for us all;
Jesus, the Christ on whose goodness we call.

VERSE 4
Let us praise Jesus, the Savior adored;
Jesus, the Sonnet of praise to our Lord;
Jesus, the Gracious whose own life He gave;
Jesus, the Lowly who came down to save.

Why Me? Why Not Me?

When he takes it all away,
will we love him more than things,
more than health,
more than family,
and more than life?
That’s the question.
That’s the warning.
That’s the wonderful invitation.
John Piper in “I Was Warned By Job This Morning”

Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and you will delight in the richest of fare. Give ear and come to me; listen, that you may live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you…
Isaiah 55:1

We are suddenly living in a time when the freedoms we have taken for granted – our jobs, our corporate worship, seeing our extended family and friends, our desire to go where we wish when we wish – is no longer possible due to the threat of a packet of viral RNA invading our bodies and wreaking havoc.

The Book of Job is a warning about losing everything – what we have strived for, cared about, loved and valued suddenly taken away. If we are stripped bare naked, nothing left but our love for God and His sovereign power over our lives, will we still worship His Name, inhale His Word like air itself, submit ourselves to His plan over our plan?

I know I fall far short of the mark. It takes only small obstacles or losses to trip me up so I stagger in my faith, trying futilely to not lose my balance, and fall flat-faced and immobilized.

When I’ve seen people lose almost everything, either in a disaster, or an accident, or devastating illness like cancer or COVID-19, I’ve looked hard at myself and asked if I could sustain such loss in my life and still turn myself over to the will of God.

I would surely plead for reprieve and ask the horribly desperate question, “why me?”,
girding myself for the response:
“and why not you?”

The invitation, scary and radical as it is, is from God straight to my heart, asking that I trust His plan for my life and death, no matter what happens, no matter how much suffering, no matter how much, like Christ in the garden, I plead that it work out differently, and not hurt so much.

The invitation to His plan for my life has been written, personally carried to me by His Son, and lies ready in my hands, although it has remained untouched for years. It is now up to me to open it, read it carefully, and with deep gratitude that I am even included, respond with an RSVP that says emphatically, “I’ll be there! Nothing could keep me away.”

Or I could leave it untouched and unread, fearing it is too scary to open. Or even toss it away altogether, thinking it really wasn’t meant for me.

Even if, in my heart, I knew it was.

Mine are days that God has numbered
I was made to walk with Him
Yet I look for worldly treasure
And forsake the King of kings
But mine is hope in my Redeemer
Though I fall, his love is sure
For Christ has paid for every failing
I am His forevermore


Mine are tears in times of sorrow
Darkness not yet understood
Through the valley I must travel
Where I see no earthly good
But mine is peace that flows from heaven
And the strength in times of need
I know my pain will not be wasted
Christ completes his work in me


Mine are days here as a stranger
Pilgrim on a narrow way
One with Christ I will encounter
Harm and hatred for his name
But mine is armour for this battle
Strong enough to last the war
And he has said he will deliver
Safely to the golden shore

And mine are keys to Zion city
Where beside the King I walk
For there my heart has found its treasure
Christ is mine forevermore


Come rejoice now, O my soul
For his love is my reward
Fear is gone and hope is sure
Christ is mine forevermore!


And mine are keys to Zion city
Where beside the King I walk
For there my heart has found its treasure
Christ is mine forevermore
Christ is mine forevermore
Christ is mine forevermore

Did You Cry?

To pull the metal splinter from my palm
my father recited a story in a low voice.
I watched his lovely face and not the blade.
Before the story ended, he’d removed
the iron sliver I thought I’d die from.

I can’t remember the tale,
but hear his voice still, a well
of dark water, a prayer.
And I recall his hands,
two measures of tenderness
he laid against my face,
the flames of discipline
he raised above my head.

Had you entered that afternoon
you would have thought you saw a man
planting something in a boy’s palm,
a silver tear, a tiny flame.
Had you followed that boy
you would have arrived here,
where I bend over my wife’s right hand.

Look how I shave her thumbnail down
so carefully she feels no pain.
Watch as I lift the splinter out.
I was seven when my father
took my hand like this,
and I did not hold that shard
between my fingers and think,
Metal that will bury me,
christen it Little Assassin,
Ore Going Deep for My Heart.
And I did not lift up my wound and cry,
Death visited here!
I did what a child does
when he’s given something to keep.
I kissed my father.
~Li-Young Lee, “The Gift”

Your father enters the poem
early,
storying past
the metal splinter
in your palm.

I set your paternity
—and the poem—
aside,
to reach back for my mother
and try to remember

what kind of day it was
when I played by the barn
where, it is said,
my own father raised pigs
(I do not remember this).

And what kind of day it was
when I found the barn,
door open,
silent

and tried to pluck silver lines
from silver webs
long-left,
then tendered my hand
on noiseless silvered wood

until my palms
were rife with the evidence
of my trying,

and mother
spent the night
with a silver tweezer,
counting as she went…
ninety-eight
ninety-nine
one hundred—

a ritual for my
tears.

And now I wonder,
Li-Young—did you cry,
and who was in the story,
and how many times
have you counted it since,
to forget,
and to remember.

~L. L. Barkat, “Li-Young Lee’s Splinter” from  Love, Etc.

I did, without ever wanting to, remove my child’s splinter, lance a boil, immobilize a broken arm, pull together sliced skin, clean many dirty wounds. It felt like I was always crossing the line between mommy and doctor.  But someone had to do it, and a four hour wait in the emergency room didn’t seem warranted.

My own child learned to cope with hurt made worse by someone they trusted to be comforter. I dealt with inflicting pain, temporary though it may be, to flesh that arose from my own flesh.  It hurt as much as if it were my own wound needing cleansing, not theirs.

Our wounds are His – He is constantly feeling our pain as He performs healing surgeries in our lives, not because He wants to but because He must, to save us from our own destruction.

Too often we yell and kick and protest in our distress, wanting it our way, not His way, making it all that much more difficult for both of us.

If only we can come to acknowledge His intervention is our salvage:
our tears to flow in relief, not anguish, we cling to His protection rather than pushing Him away, we kiss Him in gratitude as we are restored again and yet again.