Fixing Eyes on the Unseen – Expecting the Impossible

…to break through earth and stone of the faithless world
back to the cold sepulchre, tearstained
stifling shroud; to break from them
back into breath and heartbeat, and walk
the world again, closed into days and weeks again,
wounds of His anguish open, and Spirit
streaming through every cell of flesh
so that if mortal sight could bear
to perceive it, it would be seen
His mortal flesh was lit from within, now,
and aching for home. He must return,
first, In Divine patience, and know
hunger again, and give
to humble friends the joy
of giving Him food – fish and a honeycomb.
~Denise Levertov “Ikon: The Harrowing of Hell” from A Door in the Hive

The Holy Saturday of our life must be the preparation for Easter,
the persistent hope for the final glory of God. 

The virtue of our daily life is the hope which does what is possible
and expects God to do the impossible. 

To express it somewhat paradoxically, but nevertheless seriously: 
the worst has actually already happened; 
we exist,
and even death cannot deprive us of this. 

Now is the Holy Saturday of our ordinary life, 
but there will also be Easter, our true and eternal life. 
~Karl Rahner “Holy Saturday” in The Great Church Year

This is the day in between when nothing makes sense
 we are lost, hopeless, grieving, aching.

We are brought to our senses by this one Death, this premeditated killing, this senseless act that darkened the skies, shook the earth and tore down the curtained barriers to the Living Eternal God.

The worst has already happened, despite how horrific are the constant tragic events filling our headlines.

Today, this Holy Saturday we are in between, stumbling in the darkness but aware of hints of light, of buds, of life, of promised fruit to come.

The best has already happened; it happened even as we remained oblivious to its impossibility.

We move through this Saturday, doing what is possible even when it feels senseless, even as we feel split apart, torn and sundered.

Tomorrow it will all make sense: our hope brings us face to face with our God who is and was and does the impossible.

This year’s Lenten theme:
So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
2 Corinthians 4: 18

Fixing Eyes on the Unseen – One Fierce Sweet Hour

photo by Anna Blake

On the outskirts of Jerusalem
the donkey waited.
Not especially brave, or filled with understanding,
he stood and waited.

How horses, turned out into the meadow,
   leap with delight!
How doves, released from their cages,
   clatter away, splashed with sunlight.

But the donkey, tied to a tree as usual, waited.
Then he let himself be led away.
Then he let the stranger mount.

Never had he seen such crowds!
And I wonder if he at all imagined what was to happen.
Still, he was what he had always been: small, dark, obedient.

I hope, finally, he felt brave.
I hope, finally, he loved the man who rode so lightly upon him,
as he lifted one dusty hoof and stepped, as he had to, forward.
~Mary Oliver “The Poet thinks about the donkey” from her book Thirst.

photo by Anna Blake, Infinity Farm

With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings…

The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.
G. K. Chesterton from “The Donkey”

Palm Sunday is a day of dissonance and dichotomy in the church year, very much like the donkey who figured as a central character that day. 

Sadly, a donkey gets no respect, then or now – for his plain and awkward hairy looks, for his loud and inharmonious voice, for his apparent lack of strength — yet he was the chosen mode of transportation for a King riding to His death.

There was a motley parade to Jerusalem: cloaks and palms laid at the feet of the donkey bearing the Son of God, disorderly shouts of adoration and blessings, the rebuke of the Pharisees to quiet the people, His response that “even the stones will cry out” knowing what is to come.

But the welcoming crowd waving palm branches, shouting sweet hosannas and laying down their cloaks did not understand the fierce transformation to come, did not know within days they would be a mob shouting words of derision and rejection and condemnation.

The donkey knew because he had been derided, rejected and condemned himself, yet still kept serving. Just as he was given voice and understanding centuries before to protect Balaam from going the wrong way, he could have opened his mouth to tell them, suffering beatings for his effort. Instead, just as he bore the unborn Jesus to Bethlehem and stood over Him sleeping in the manger, just as he bore a mother and child all the way to Egypt to hide from Herod, the donkey would keep his secret well.  

Who, after all, would ever listen to a mere donkey?

We would do well to pay attention to this braying wisdom. 

The donkey knows – he’s a believer.

He bears the burden we have shirked. He treads with heavy heart over the palms and cloaks we lay down as meaningless symbols of honor. He is the ultimate servant to the Servant.

A day of dichotomy —
of honor and glory laid underfoot only to be stepped on, 
of blessings and praise turning to curses,
of the beginning of the end becoming a new beginning for us all.

And so He wept, knowing all this. I suspect the donkey bearing Him wept as well, in his own simple, plain and honest way, and I’m quite sure he kept it as his special secret.

This year’s Lenten theme:
So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
2 Corinthians 4: 18

and just for fun on April 1st, I can’t resist sharing this one ….

Fixing Eyes on the Unseen – Everything Sad is Going to Come Untrue

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.  Revelation 21: 4-5

“Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead! Is everything sad going to come untrue?”
~J.R.R. Tolkien as Samwise Gamgee wakes to find his friends all around him in The Lord of the Rings

“The answer is yes. And the answer of the Bible is yes. If the resurrection is true, then the answer is yes. Everything sad is going to come untrue.”
~Pastor Tim Keller’s response in a sermon given in an ecumenical prayer service memorial in Lower Manhattan on the fifth anniversary of Sept. 11.

photo by Joel De Waard

In our minds, we want to rewind and replay the sad events of this week in a way that would prevent them from happening in the first place.

We want those in a broken relationship to come back together, hug and forgive. The devastating diagnosis would be proven an error and, in reality, only a transient illness. When a terrible tragedy happens, we want the dead and injured to rise up again. The destructive earthquake becomes a mere tremor, the flooding tsunami is only one foot, not over thirty feet tall, the hijackers are prevented from ever boarding a plane, the shooter changes her mind at the last minute and lays down her arms, the terrorist disables his suicide bombs and walks away from his training and misguided mission.

We want so badly for it all to be untrue. The bitter reality of horrendous suffering and sadness daily all over the earth is too much for us to absorb. We plead for relief and beg for a better day.

Our minds may play mental tricks like this, but God does not play tricks. He knows and feels what we do. He too wants to see it rewound and replayed differently. He has known grief and sadness, He has wept, He has suffered, He too has died in terrible humiliating and painful circumstances. 

And because of this, because of a God who came to dwell with us, was broken, died and then rose again whole and holy, we are assured, in His time, everything sad is going to come untrue.

Our tears will be dried, our grief turned to joy, our pain nonexistent, not even a memory.  It will be a new day, a better day–as it is written, trustworthy and true.

May it come.

Quickly.

photo by Nate Gibson

This year’s Lenten theme:
So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
2 Corinthians 4: 18

Fixing Eyes on the Unseen – In Sorrow, Scraped and Torn

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf,

“and so do all who live to see such times.
But that is not for them to decide.
All we have to decide
is what to do with the time that is given us.”

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 grows perhaps the greater.
― J.R.R. Tolkien, from The Fellowship of the Ring

God is not only the God of the sufferers but the God who suffers. … It is said of God that no one can behold his face and live. I always thought this meant that no one could see his splendor and live. A friend said perhaps it meant that no one could see his sorrow and live. Or perhaps his sorrow is splendor. …

Instead of explaining our suffering God shares it.

How is faith to endure, O God, when you allow all this scraping and tearing on us? You have allowed rivers of blood to flow, mountains of suffering to pile up, sobs to become humanity’s song–all without lifting a finger that we could see. You have allowed bonds of love beyond number to be painfully snapped. If you have not abandoned us, explain yourself.

We strain to hear. But instead of hearing an answer we catch sight of God himself scraped and torn. Through our tears we see the tears of God.
~Nicholas Wolterstorff  in Lament for a Son

“My God, My God,” goes the Psalm 22, “hear me, why have you forsaken me?”  This is the anguish all we of Godforsaken heart know well. But hear the revelation to which Christ directs us, further in the same psalm:

For He has not despised nor scorned the beggar’s supplication,
Nor has He turned away His face from me;
And when I cried out to Him, He heard me.

He hears us, and he knows, because he has suffered as one Godforsaken. Which means that you and I, even in our darkest hours, are not forsaken. Though we may hear nothing, feel nothing, believe nothing, we are not forsaken, and so we need not despair. And that is everything. That is Good Friday and it is hope, it is life in this darkened age, and it is the life of the world to come.
~Tony Woodlief from “We are Not Forsaken”

Scratch the surface of a human being and the demons of hate and revenge … and sheer destructiveness break forth.

    Again and again we read the stories of violence in our daily papers, of the mass murders and ethnic wars still occurring in numerous parts of our world. But how often do we say to ourselves: “What seizes people like that, even young people, to make them forget family and friends, and suddenly kill other human beings?” We don’t always ask the question in that manner. Sometimes we are likely to think, almost smugly: “How different those horrible creatures are from the rest of us. How fortunate I am that I could never kill or hurt other people like they did.”

    I do not like to stop and, in the silence, look within, but when I do I hear a pounding on the floor of my soul. When I open the trap door into the deep darkness I see the monsters emerge for me to deal with. How painful it is to bear all this, but it is there to bear in all of us. Freud called it the death wish, Jung the demonic darkness. If I do not deal with it, it deals with me. The cross reminds me of all this.

    This inhumanity of human to human is tamed most of the time by law and order in most of our communities, but there are not laws strong enough to make men and women simply cease their cruelty and bitterness. This destructiveness within us can seldom be transformed until we squarely face it in ourselves. This confrontation often leads us into the pit. The empty cross is planted there to remind us that suffering is real but not the end, that victory still is possible…
~Morton Kelsey from “The Cross and the Cellar”

I’m depending on others’ words right now. The maelstrom of emotions following this week’s latest school shooting silences everything but my tears.

Have mercy, Holy God, on your people.

This year’s Lenten theme:
So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
2 Corinthians 4: 18

The Cold Dark Undertow

Down into the icy depths you plunge,
The cold dark undertow of your depression,
Even your memories of light made strange,
As you fall further from all comprehension.
You feel as though they’ve thrown you overboard,
Your fellow Christians on the sunlit deck,
A stone cold Jonah on whom scorn is poured,
A sacrifice to save them from the wreck.

But someone has their hands on your long line,
You sound for them the depths they sail above,
One who takes Jonah as his only sign
Sinks lower still to hold you in his love,
And though you cannot see, or speak, or breathe,
The everlasting arms are underneath.
~Malcolm Guite “The Christian Plummet”

Christians, like biblical Jonah, often struggle with living in obedience to God’s Word and plan. We become discouraged and depressed, filled with misgivings and a lack of understanding. This is complicated by our need to “put a good face on it,” especially among other Christians who seem to not feel the brokenness of the dark undertow.

Christ Himself becomes the sacrifice thrown overboard, as Jonah was, to plumb the depths and allow us to rise beyond peril and danger. He struggled too, He became discouraged and overwhelmed with the responsibility placed upon Him, but He remained obedient to His Father’s will.

We cannot fall lower than where He descended; He is there to lift us up. He knows how deep we might sink and He knows exactly what it takes to push us back up to the light.

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A Green Sprouting Thing

Now wind torments the field,
turning the white surface back
on itself, back and back on itself,
like an animal licking a wound.

Nothing but white–the air, the light;
only one brown milkweed pod
bobbing in the gully, smallest
brown boat on the immense tide.

A single green sprouting thing
would restore me . . .

Then think of the tall delphinium,
swaying, or the bee when it comes
to the tongue of the burgundy lily.
~Jane Kenyon “February: Thinking of Flowers”

Turning the page on the calendar last week or watching for groundhog predictions didn’t magically bring spring.  We’ve had more arctic wind and southerly blows as well. The sun has kept its face hidden behind its gray veil.

By this time of winter, I’m like a dog tormented by my own open and raw flesh, trying my best to lick it healed, unable to think of anything or anyone else, going over it again and again – how weary I feel, how bruised I am by the wind, how uprooted I feel, how impossibly long it will be until I feel warm again.

Then I see the photos from Turkey and Syria after the recent devastating series of building-shattering earthquakes leaving many dead, injured and homeless in mid-winter. I realize I truly have no idea how deep wounds can be…

Despite it all, green sprouts are trying to push up even while frozen by snow and ice. Soon fresh blooms will once again grace the barnyard and with that renewal of life and hope, I just might be distracted from my own wound-licking.

photo by Nate Gibson
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We Couldn’t Do Anything


Yesterday our children, playing
in a tree, watched as the tiniest bird
fell from above them,
where it belonged,
to land below them,
where it did not.
The dog, animal and eager,
stepped on the bird, then
lowered his head. Our daughter
screamed, hauled him back,
then cupped her trembling hands
around the trembling bird,
Its one wing stretched and bent.
Our son ran inside, obedient
to our daughter’s instructions.
I was in the shower, useless.
You found a shoebox, sheltered the bird,
helped our children find leaves and twigs,
perched the box in the tree. At supper,
we prayed for the bird while its mother
visited the shoebox,
her beak full. She fretted
and fluttered. She couldn’t do anything,
and we couldn’t do anything,
and after supper, we found the trowel.
Dust to dust,
I said.
O how I longed to gather you,
you said, as a mother hen gathers
her young beneath her wings.
Our son pushed a stick into the soft earth.
Our daughter told him not to push too far.

~Shea Tuttle “After reading our daughter’s poem” from Image Journal

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

~Emily Dickinson

I have known the helplessness of watching life ebb away from a living creature and not be able to do a thing to change what is happening.

As a teenage nurse aide in a rest home for the elderly, I saw much of dying over those years before going to medical school – some deaths were anticipated and some unexpected. What was most apparent to me in that setting is that my primary role was to be a caring witness and comforter. I could not change what was happening but I could be there, not leaving my patients to die alone. I hoped that I was useful in some way.

Later, when I worked as a physician in a hospital, there were certainly things we would do to respond to a sudden cardiac event, and it was very dramatic to see someone’s pulse restored and stabilized due to our intervention. But more often than not, what we could do wouldn’t change the reality – dying still happened and we were gathered to witness the end. We often left the bedside feeling useless.

Now I have grandchildren who are learning about death through observing the natural cycles of animals living and dying on our farm. They discover a dead bird or vole on the ground; they were aware one of our elderly horses recently died. They are aware our beloved farm dogs are aging and so are grandma and grandpa.

Children naturally ask “why?” and we do our best to explain there is always hope and comfort, even when physical bodies are dust in the ground, marked by a stick or stone or only a memory.

It is “Hope” that sings alive within us, even when we’re naked and featherless, even if we fall far from the nest we were born to. We are caught and safe under our Savior’s wings for the rest of eternity, never to be “just dust” again.

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Ragged Hopes

How granular they feel—grief and regret, arriving, as they do,
in the sharp particularities of distress. Inserting themselves—
cunning, intricate, subversive—into our discourse.

In the long night, grievances seem to multiply. Old dreams
mingling with new. Disappointment and regret bludgeon
the soul, your best imaginings bruised, your hopes ragged.

Yet wait, watch. From the skylight the room is filling with
soft early sun, slowly sifting its light on the bed, on your head,
a shower of fine particles. How welcome. And how reliable.

~Luci Shaw “Sorrow”

(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)

Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.

~ Mary Oliver “The Uses of Sorrow” from Thirst

We are given a box full of darkness
by someone who loves us,
and we can’t help but open it
and weep.

It takes a lifetime to understand,
if we ever do,
we will inevitably hand off
this gift to others whom we love.

Opening the box
allows the Light in
where none existed before.
Light pours into our brokenness.

Sorrow ends up shining through our tears:
we reach out from a deep well of need.
Because we are loved so thoroughly,
we too love deeply beyond ourselves.

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A New Definition of Greatness

…if I respond to hate with a reciprocal hate I do nothing but intensify the cleavage in broken community. I can only close the gap in broken community by meeting hate with love. If I meet hate with hate, I become depersonalized, because creation is so designed that my personality can only be fulfilled in the context of community.
Booker T. Washington was right: “Let no man pull you so low as to make you hate him.”

~Martin Luther King, Jr.

As nightfall does not come at once, neither does oppression.
In both instances, there is a twilight when everything remains seemingly unchanged.
And it is in such twilight that we all must be most aware of change in the air
– however slight – lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness.
~William O. Douglas
from The Douglas Letters

Be careful whom you choose to hate.
The small and the vulnerable own a protection great enough,
if you could but see it,
to melt you into jelly.

~Leif Enger from Peace Like a River

We have a new definition of greatness:
it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. 
You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. 
You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. 
You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. 
You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. 
You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. 
You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. 
And you can be that servant.
~Martin Luther King, Jr.  in a February 1968 sermon:  “The Drum Major Instinct” from A Knock At Midnight: Inspiration from the Great Sermons of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. King’s words and wisdom in his sermons spoken over sixty years ago continue to inform us of our shortcomings as we flounder in flaws and brokenness. To often we resist considering others before ourselves, to serve one another out of humility, grace and love.

Today we unite in shared tears:
shed for continued strife and disagreements,
shed for the injustice that results in senseless emotional and physical violence,
shed for our inability to hold up one another as a holy in God’s eyes.

We weep together as the light dawns today, knowing, as Dr. King knew, a new day will come when the Lord God wipes the tears away from the remarkable and beautiful faces of all people — as all are created in His image.

Naming Your Hopelessness

Instead of depression,
try calling it hibernation.
Imagine the darkness is a cave
in which you will be nurtured
by doing absolutely nothing.
Hibernating animals don’t even dream.
It’s okay if you can’t imagine
Spring. Sleep through the alarm
of the world. Name your hopelessness
a quiet hollow, a place you go
to heal, a den you dug,
Sweetheart, instead
of a grave.
~Andrea Gibson “Instead of Depression” from You Better Be Lightning

We didn’t say fireflies
but lightning bugs.
We didn’t say carousel
but merry-go-round.
Not seesaw,
teeter-totter
not lollipop,
sucker.
We didn’t say pasta, but
spaghetti, macaroni, noodles:
the three kinds.
We didn’t get angry:
we got mad.
And we never felt depressed
dismayed, disappointed
disheartened, discouraged
disillusioned or anything,
even unhappy:
just sad.
~Sally Fisher “Where I Come From”  from Good Question.

…if you could distinguish finer meanings within “Awesome” (happy, content, thrilled, relaxed, joyful, hopeful, inspired, prideful, adoring, grateful, blissful.. .), and fifty shades of “Crappy” (angry, aggravated, alarmed, spiteful, grumpy, remorseful, gloomy, mortified, uneasy, dread-ridden, resentful, afraid, envious, woeful, melancholy.. .), your brain would have many more options for predicting, categorizing, and perceiving emotion, providing you with the tools for more flexible and functional responses.
~Lisa Feldman Barrett from How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain

Our own experience with loneliness, depression, and fear can become a gift for others, especially when we have received good care. As long as our wounds are open and bleeding, we scare others away. But after someone has carefully tended to our wounds, they no longer frighten us or others….
We have to trust that our own bandaged wounds will allow us to listen to others with our whole being. That is healing.
— Henri Nouwen from Bread for the Journey

If there is anything I came to understand over the decades I served as a primary care physician, it is that every person experiences painful emotions that make them miserable, making it even more difficult to share with others. Sometimes those feelings build up such pressure that they leak out of our cells as physical symptoms: headaches, muscle tightness, stomach upset, hypertension. Other times they are so overwhelming we can no longer function in a day to day way – described clinically as rage, panic, mood disorder, depression, self-destructive, suicidal.

Somehow we’ve lost permission to be sad.
Just sad. Sometimes unbearably, hopelessly sad.
 
Sadness happens to us all, some longer than others, some worse than others, some deeper than others. What makes sadness more real and more manageable is if we can say it out loud — whatever ‘sad’ means to us on a given day and if we describe our feelings in detail, explaining to others who can understand because they’ve been there too, then they can listen and help.

Painful emotions don’t always need a “fix” in the short term, particularly chemical, but that is why I was usually consulted. Alcohol, marijuana and other self-administered drugs tend to be the temporary anesthesia that people seek to stop feeling anything at all but it can erupt even stronger later.

Sometimes an overwhelming feeling just needs an outlet so it no longer is locked up, unspoken and silent, threatening to leak out in ways that tear us up and pull us apart.

Sometimes we need a healing respite/hibernation, with permission to sleep through the world’s alarms for a time. At times, medical management with antidepressants can be incredibly helpful along with talk therapy.

It helps to find words to express how things felt before this sadness, where you are now in the midst of it and where you wish you could be rather than being swallowed by sorrow. Healing takes time and like anything else that is broken, it hurts as it repairs. Armed with that self-knowledge and some gentle compassion, tomorrow and the next day and the next might feel a little less hopeless and overwhelming.

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