August Burns Low

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Further in Summer than the Birds
Pathetic from the Grass
A minor Nation celebrates
Its unobtrusive Mass.

No Ordinance be seen
So gradual the Grace
A pensive Custom it becomes
Enlarging Loneliness.

Antiquest felt at Noon
When August burning low
Arise this spectral Canticle
Repose to typify

Remit as yet no Grace
No Furrow on the Glow
Yet a Druidic Difference
Enhances Nature now 
~Emily Dickinson

“…one of the great poems of American literature. The statement of the poem is profound; it remarks the absolute separation between man and nature at a precise moment in time.  The poet looks as far as she can into the natural world, but what she sees at last is her isolation from that world.  She perceives, that is, the limits of her own perception. But that, we reason, is enough. This poem of just more than sixty words comprehends the human condition in relation to the universe:

So gradual the Grace
A pensive Custom it becomes
Enlarging Loneliness.

But this is a divine loneliness, the loneliness of a species evolved far beyond all others. The poem bespeaks a state of grace. In its precision, perception and eloquence it establishes the place of words within that state.  Words are indivisible with the highest realization of human being.”
~N. Scott Momaday from The Man Made of Words

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On the first day I took his class on Native American Mythology and Lore in 1974 at Stanford, N.Scott Momaday strolled to the front, wrote the 60 words of this Dickinson poem on the blackboard.  He told us we would spend at least a week working out the meaning of what he considered the greatest poem written — this in a class devoted to Native American writing and oral tradition.  In his resonant bass, he read the poem to us many times, rolling the words around his mouth as if to extract their sweetness. This man of the plains, a member of the Kiowa tribe, loved this poem put together by a white New England recluse poet — someone as culturally distant from him and his people as possible.

But grace works to unite us, no matter our differences, and Scott knew this as he led us, mostly white students, through this poem.  What on the surface appears a paean to late summer cricket song doomed to extinction by oncoming winter, is a statement of the transcendence of man beyond our understanding of nature and the world in which we, its creatures, find ourselves.

As summer begins its descent into the dark death of winter, we, unlike the crickets, become all too aware we too are descending. Not only are the skies are filled with smoke from uncontrolled wildfires, but the streets are filled with protesters and counter-protesters who loot and shoot rather than meet to ask questions, and our future is filled with the uncertain timeline of ongoing pandemic destruction as nature has the upper hand yet again. 

There is no one as lonely as an individual facing their mortality and no one as lonely as a poet facing the empty page, in search of words to describe the sacrament of sacrifice and perishing.

Yet the Word brings Grace unlike any other, even when the cricket song, pathetic and transient as it is, is gone.  The Word brings Grace, like no other, to pathetic and transient man who shall emerge transformed.

There is no furrow on the glow.  There is no need to plow and seed our salvaged souls, already lovingly planted and nurtured by our Creator God, yielding a fruited plain.

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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.

 

So Shall It Be

Still, still with Thee,
when purple morning breaketh,  
When the bird waketh and the shadows flee;
Fairer than morning, lovelier than the daylight,  
Dawns the sweet consciousness, I am with Thee!


When sinks the soul,
subdued by toil, to slumber,  
Its closing eye looks up to Thee in prayer;
Sweet the repose beneath the wings o’ershading,  
But sweeter still to wake and find Thee there.


So shall it be at last,
in that bright morning  
When the soul waketh and life’s shadows flee;
O in that hour, fairer than daylight dawning,  
Shall rise the glorious thought, I am with Thee!

~Harriet Beecher Stowe “Still With Thee”

Never abandoned,
never alone,
never overwhelmed,
never without hope.

I wake knowing
even when the shadows are deep
and darkness threatens the light,
You are still with me.

And so shall it be at last.
So shall it be.

Just As I Left It

The cat calls for her dinner.
On the porch I bend and pour
brown soy stars into her bowl,
stroke her dark fur.
It’s not quite night.
Pinpricks of light in the eastern sky.
Above my neighbor’s roof, a transparent
moon, a pink rag of cloud.
Inside my house are those who love me.
My daughter dusts biscuit dough.
And there’s a man who will lift my hair
in his hands, brush it
until it throws sparks.
Everything is just as I’ve left it.
Dinner simmers on the stove.
Glass bowls wait to be filled
with gold broth. Sprigs of parsley
on the cutting board.
I want to smell this rich soup, the air
around me going dark, as stars press
their simple shapes into the sky.
I want to stay on the back porch
while the world tilts
toward sleep, until what I love
misses me, and calls me in.
~Dorianne Laux “On the Back Porch” from Awake

If just for a moment,
when the world feels like it is tilting so far
I just might fall off,
there is a need to pause
to look at where I’ve been
and get my feet back under me.

The porch is a good place to start:
a bridge to what exists beyond
without completely leaving the safety of inside.

I am outside looking square at uncertainty
and still hear and smell and taste
the love that dwells just inside these walls.

What do any of us want more
than to be missed if we were to step away
or be taken from this life?

Our voice, our words, our heart, our touch
never to be replaced,
its absence a hole impossible to fill?

When we are called back inside to the Love
that made us who we are,
may we leave behind the outside world
more beautiful because we were part of it.

This Field, This Sky, This Tree

What words or harder gift
does the light require of me
carving from the dark
this difficult tree?

What place or farther peace
do I almost see
emerging from the night
and heart of me?

The sky whitens, goes on and on.
Fields wrinkle into rows
of cotton, go on and on.
Night like a fling of crows
disperses and is gone.

What song, what home,
what calm or one clarity
can I not quite come to,
never quite see:
this field, this sky, this tree.

~Christian Wiman, “Hard Night”

Even the darkest night has a sliver of light left,
if only in our memories.
We remember how it was and how it can be —
the promise of better to come.

While the ever-changing sky swirls as a backdrop,
a tree on a hill became the focal point, as it must,
like a black hole swallowing up all pain, all suffering,
all evil threatening to consume our world.

What clarity, what calm,
what peace can be found at the foot of that tree,
where our hearts can rest in this knowledge:
our sin died there, once and for all
and our names are carved into its roots for all time.

All Things Glad and Flourishing

Spring flew swiftly by, and summer came;
and if the village had been beautiful at first,
it was now in the full glow and luxuriance of its richness.
The great trees, which had looked shrunken and bare in the earlier months, had now burst into strong life and health;
and stretching forth their green arms over the thirsty ground,
converted open and naked spots into choice nooks,
where was a deep and pleasant shade
from which to look upon the wide prospect,
steeped in sunshine, which lay stretched out beyond.
The earth had donned her mantle of brightest green;
and shed her richest perfumes abroad.
It was the prime and vigour of the year;
all things were glad and flourishing.”
~ Charles Dickens from Oliver Twist 

Despite a pandemic,
despite economic hardship,
despite racial tensions and in-the-street protests,
despite political maneuvering and posturing:

life is green and flourishing and vigorous
even when we feel gray and withered and weakened.

May we not forget why we are here.
May we never forget our calling and purpose
to steward the earth and care for one another.

Between the Lashes of Your Eyes

This is what you shall do:
Love the earth and sun and the animals,
despise riches,
give alms to everyone that asks,
devote your income and labor to others,
hate tyrants,
argue not concerning God,
have patience and indulgence toward the people,
and your very flesh shall be a great poem,
and have the richest fluency, not only in its words,
but in the silent lines of its lips and face,
and between the lashes of your eyes,
and in every motion and joint of your body.
~Walt Whitman from his preface to “Leaves of Grass”

Time, in so many ways, has been standing still for us over the last few months, fueled by an unprecedented quarantine and social isolation. We anticipate “when things return to normal” but the reality is there will be no “normal” for those who have lost jobs and businesses and family members or their own robust health since February.

And now society finds itself in the midst of anger and argument, marching and shouting to defend those who have lived for generations with injustice and oppression, and continue to face that reality every day, and the majority of us were oblivious.

“Normal” holds no appeal when “normal” is living under a tyrant’s thumb or dying under a knee.

So how do we approach a change in seasons as we ourselves are irrevocably changed?

What shall we do?

We are our flesh: all colors, flawed and fragile. We must look beyond the lashes of our eyes to see and understand the fluency of the poetry found in our bodies. We, each one of us, deserve the patience of being heard.

This summer will stand on its own in all its extravagant abundance of light and warmth and growth and color stretching deep within the rising and setting horizons. Each long day will feel like it must last forever, never ending, yet, like the unpredictable length of our fleshy days on earth, it will eventually wind down, spin itself out, darkening gradually into shadow.

That is the “normal” of our existence because summer always, always ends.

Yet another will reappear, somehow, somewhere, someday. The very poetry of our flesh, the very survival of our souls, depends on it. We will then see beyond our own eyelashes.

Surely a never-ending summer is what heaven itself will be. We shall all be changed, in the twinkling of an eye…

Upheld from Falling

I had grasped God’s garment in the void 
but my hand slipped on the rich silk of it. 

The ‘everlasting arms’ my sister loved to remember 
must have upheld my leaden weight from falling, even so, 

for though I claw at empty air and feel nothing, no embrace, 
I have not plummetted.
~Denise Levertov “Suspended”

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for? 
~Robert Browning from “Andrea Del Sarto”

As richly dressed as the world is this time of year,
beauty abounds everywhere I look,
it slips through my fingers when I try to capture it and hold on,
I cannot save myself by my own grasp.

Yet I’m not allowed to plummet
despite my flailing panic
as the bottom drops out beneath my feet

The air around me is not empty~
it is full of His breath
and where God breathes,
He suspends the fallen.

When Burdens Weigh Us Down

God of our life,
there are days when the burdens we carry
chafe our shoulders and weigh us down;
when the road seems dreary and endless,
the skies grey and threatening;
when our lives have no music in them,
and our hearts are lonely,
and our souls have lost their courage.

Flood the path with light,
run our eyes to where the skies are full of promise;
tune our hearts to brave music;
give us the sense of comradeship with heroes and saints of every age;
and so quicken our spirits
that we may be able to encourage the souls of all
who journey with us on the road of life,
to Your honour and glory.
~Augustine of Hippo

The broken alabaster of your heart
Revealed to Him alone a hidden door,
Into a garden where the fountain sealed,
Could flow at last for him in healing tears…
~Malcolm Guite from “Mary Magdelene: A Sonnet”

She has done what she could…
~Mark 14:8

Those final few days of His life may have been like this:
the sky oppressive with storm clouds,
the shouldered burden too painful,
His soul weighed down, discouraged, disheartened.
Each step brought Him closer
to a desperate loneliness borne of betrayal and rejection.

But the end of that dark walk was just the beginning
of a journey into new covenant:

He is anointed from the broken jar,
His aching joints covered in perfume
by one who believes
and wants to help bear His burden.

Instead of rain, the clouds bear light,
flooding the pathway so we too can come together to lift the load.
Instead of loneliness, now arises a community like no other.
Instead of stillness, there is declaration of His glory to the heavens.
Instead of discouragement, He embodies hope for all hearts.

His promise fulfilled spills over our path, our feet, our heads.
We too are drenched in gratitude, flooded with grace.

Come out of sadness
From wherever you’ve been
Come broken hearted
Let rescue begin
Come find your mercy
Oh sinner come kneel
Earth has no sorrow
That heaven can’t heal
Earth has no sorrow
That heaven can’t healSo lay down your burdens
Lay down your shame
All who are broken
Lift up your face
Oh wanderer come home
You’re not too far
So lay down your hurt
Lay down your heart
Come as you areThere’s hope for the hopeless
And all those who’ve strayed
Come sit at the table
Come taste the grace
There’s rest for the weary
Rest that endures
Earth has no sorrow
That heaven can’t cureSo lay down your burdens
Lay down your shame
All who are broken
Lift up your face
Oh wanderer come home
You’re not too far
Lay down your hurt lay down your heart
Come as you are
Come as you are
Fall in his arms
Come as you are
There’s joy for the morning
Oh sinner be still
Earth has no sorrow
That heaven can’t heal
Earth has no sorrow
That heaven can’t healSo lay down your burdens
Lay down your shame
All who are broken
Lift up your face
Oh wanderer come home
You’re not too far
So lay down your hurt
Lay down your heart
Come as you are
Come as you are
Come as you are
Come as you are
~David Crowder

He Accepts Us As We Are: Resisting Sleep

When I meet my little one at the crib’s rail,
   he sways like a
rocking chair
   that has just been left.

Outside, warm snow cozies
   down the drowsy spines of gray
jonagolds, kissing
   the sleepy bangs of grass.

Finger brushing his cheek, I say
    Time to sleep, but he keeps
looking at me with eyes slowly sweeping
   over my face.

The faithful wind shushes
   sleepy boughs,
lays them down and
   covers them with deep, easy breath.

My boy and I both
   yawn. Trust how close I feel.
He curls into his blanket,
 Okay, I will.

~Matthew Miller “I Will Miss Winter Nights”

The children have gone to bed.
We are so tired we could fold ourselves neatly
behind our eyes and sleep mid-word, sleep standing
warm among the creatures in the barn, lean together
and sleep, forgetting each other completely in the velvet,
the forgiveness of that sleep.

Then the one small cry:
one strike of the match-head of sound:
one child’s voice:
and the hundred names of love are lit
as we rise and walk down the hall.

One hundred nights we wake like this,
wake out of our nowhere
to kneel by small beds in darkness.
One hundred flowers open in our hands,
a name for love written in each one.
~Annie Lighthart “The Hundred Names of Love”

Each of many nights comforting a child resisting sleep,
each of many moments rocking them in the dark,
lulling them into the trusting soft velvet of dreams~
I feel the budding of blossomed love
that our God must feel for each of us,
unfurling until there is no inner spiral left,
and each petal of me, one by one, opens wide,
grateful.

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


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.

Izhe kheruvimy tayno, tayno obrazuyushche, obrazuyushche,
I zhivotvoryashchey Troytsye,
trisvyatuyu pyesn’, trisvyatuyu pyesn’ pripyevashche, pripyevashche, trisvyatuyu pyesn’ pripyevashche.
Vsyakoye nynye, nynye zhityeskoye otlozhim popyecheniye, otlozhim, otlozhim, otlozhim, popyecheniye.
Amin’.
Yako da Tsarya vsyekh podymyem,
Yako da Tsarya vsyekh podymyem, vsyekh podymem!
Angelskimi nyevidimo dorinosima chinmi,
dorinosima chinmi, alleluia!


Let us represent the cherubim in mystic harmony, mystic harmony,
praise the Father, Son and Spirit,
raise our three-fold song, raise our three-fold song,
praise the Trinity, praise the Trinity,
Praise our three-fold song to the Trinity,
Let us now cast aside, cast aside, let us cast aside all this earthly life,
cast aside, cast aside, cast aside, all this earthly life.
Amen.
King of all, we may receive God the King, we may receive Him!
He who in glory enters in with mighty hosts of angels,
with mighty hosts of angels. Alleluia!