Only To Do What He Could

No taste of food, no feel of water, no sound of wind, no memory of tree or grass or flower, no image of moon or star are left to me. I am naked in the dark, Sam, and there is no veil between me and the wheel of fire. I begin to see it even with my waking eyes, and all else fades.
~J.R.R. Tolkien The Lord of the Rings

Frodo is a study of a hobbit broken by a burden of fear and horror— broken down, and in the end made into something quite different. Frodo undertook his quest out of love– to save the world he knew from disaster at his own expense, if he could; and also in complete humility, acknowledging that he was wholly inadequate to the task His real contract was only to do what he could, to try to find a way, and to go as far on the road as his strength of mind and body allowed. He did that.
~J.R.R. Tolkien

We are regularly called to do more than we feel capable of accomplishing. Whether we are in the midst of a crisis of confidence, feeling beaten down, physically and emotionally vulnerable, or just plain scared – it is tempting to shrink away from doing what is needed.

Our call to obedience may not be quite as dramatic as Frodo’s monumental task of saving the world from destruction by evil forces — it may simply be getting out of bed and facing the day despite pain and overwhelming sorrow — but it takes no less courage and strength.

We are equipped by the intimacy of the Word of God speaking to each of us individually, instructing us on how to live these days we are given.

Like Frodo, we are to do what we can, to find a way through darkness and fire and threat, and to go down that road as far as our minds and bodies allow. We are inadequate by ourselves, but we are bolstered by the constancy of God alongside. We never travel alone.

Life Steps Almost Straight

We grow accustomed to the Dark —
When Light is put away —
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Good bye —

A Moment — We Uncertain step
For newness of the night —
Then — fit our Vision to the Dark —
And meet the Road — erect —

And so of larger — Darknesses —
Those Evenings of the Brain —
When not a Moon disclose a sign —
Or Star — come out — within —

The Bravest — grope a little —
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead —
But as they learn to see —

Either the Darkness alters —
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight —
And Life steps almost straight.

~Emily Dickinson

So few grains of happiness
measured against all the dark
and still the scales balance.

The world asks of us
only the strength we have and we give it.
Then it asks more, and we give it.

~Jane Hirschfield from “The Weighing”

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question
the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies.
On the one hand, we are called to play the good Samaritan

on life’s roadside;
but that will be only an initial act.
One day the whole Jericho road must be transformed
so that men and women will not be beaten and robbed
as they make their journey through life.
True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar;
it understands that an edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring.
America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world,
can well lead the way in this revolution of values.
There is nothing, except a tragic death wish,
to prevent us from reordering our priorities…

~Martin Luther King, Jr. from a speech April 4, 1967

We live in a time where the groaning need
and dividedness of humankind
is especially to be felt and recognized.
Countless people are subjected to hatred,
violence and oppression which go unchecked.
The injustice and corruption which exist today
are causing many voices to be raised to protest
and cry out that something be done.
Many men and women are being moved to sacrifice much
in the struggle for justice, freedom, and peace.
There is a movement afoot in our time,
a movement which is growing, awakening.

We must recognize that we as individuals are to blame
for every social injustice, every oppression,
the downgrading of others
and the injury that man does to man,
whether personal or on a broader plane.…
God must intervene with his spirit and his justice and his truth.
The present misery, need, and decay must pass away
and the new day of the Son of Man must dawn.
This is the advent of God’s coming.
~Dwight Blough from the introduction to When the Time was Fulfilled (1965)

I weep to see such bitter divisions still exist in our country,
an echo of over fifty years ago
as we fail again and again to learn from past errors.

Here we are, groaning divided once more,
walking this Jericho Road together.
We cannot pass by our brother, our sister, our child~
anyone who lies dying in the ditch.
We must stop and help.

The world asks only for the strength we have
and so we give it,
but then we are asked to give more
and so we will.

We must illuminate the advance of darkness
even when, blinded as we are,
we run forehead-first into the Tree
which has always been there
and always will be
because of who we are and Who loves us.

It could be you or me bleeding, beaten, abandoned, dying
until Someone takes our place
so we can get up, free and forgiven,
and walk Home.

Maranatha.

Stitched Up Whole Again

 Sometimes, I am startled out of myself,
like this morning, when the wild geese came squawking,
flapping their rusty hinges, and something about their trek
across the sky made me think about my life, the places
of brokenness, the places of sorrow, the places where grief
has strung me out to dry. And then the geese come calling,
the leader falling back when tired, another taking her place.
Hope is borne on wings. Look at the trees. They turn to gold
for a brief while, then lose it all each November.
Through the cold months, they stand, take the worst
weather has to offer. And still, they put out shy green leaves
come April, come May. The geese glide over the cornfields,
land on the pond with its sedges and reeds.
You do not have to be wise. Even a goose knows how to find
shelter, where the corn still lies in the stubble and dried stalks.
All we do is pass through here, the best way we can.
They stitch up the sky, and it is whole again.

~Barbara Crooker, from Radiance

We’ve lived long enough – now over three decades – in one place so things here on the farm are starting to break and fall apart, or stop working and simply give up. Over the last several weeks we’ve been busy fixing everything from barns to lawnmowers and old pick up trucks to leaking comfy air mattresses, not to mention various appliances threatening to give up the ghost.

We wonder what will break next, or whether all this is just preparing us for our own turn to fall apart, so I’m looking around with a renewed perspective of running out of time.

Like most people who have been stuck at home over the last several months, quarantine has been a good opportunity to clean up around here, including untouched boxes of things moved from our parents’ homes when they had to move into extended care before their deaths. We’ve packed up outdated possessions and no-longer-fitting clothing, scads of magazines and books never read and not-likely-to-be, and anything else that simply isn’t needed any longer.

The older I get, the more I feel I am merely passing through. No one else should have to pick up my messes after me.

Though this will be the summer of the purge of the old and used up, some things are always fixable, and that includes me. Like a seam with missing thread or a broken zipper or a dangling button, it is possible to be carefully stitched back into place once again and thus remain, forever, hopeful and whole.

You Never Know

What shall I say, because talk I must?
That I have found a cure
for the sick?
I have found no cure
for the sick

but this crooked flower
which only to look upon
all men
are cured. This
is that flower
for which all men
sing secretly their hymns
of praise! This
is that sacred
flower!
~William Carlos Williams from “The Yellow Flower”

The nail of each big toe was the horn of a goat.  Thick as a thumb and curved, it projected down over the tip of the toe to the underside.  With each step, the nail would scrape painfully against the ground and be pressed into his flesh.  There was dried blood on each big toe. 

It took an hour to do each big toe.  The nails were too thick even for my nail cutters.  They had to be chewed away little by little, then flattened out with the rasp, washed each toe, dried him off, and put his shoes and socks back on.  He stood up and took a few steps, like someone who is testing the fit of a new pair of shoes. 

“How is it?”

“It don’t hurt,” he said, and gave me a smile that I shall keep in my safety deposit box at the bank until the day I die.

I never go to the library on Wednesday afternoon without my nail clippers in my briefcase.
You just never know.

~Richard Selzer from “Toenails” from Letters to a Young Doctor

I know for a while again
the health of self-forgetfulness,
looking out at the sky through
a notch in the valleyside,
the black woods wintry on
the hills, small clouds at sunset
passing across. And I know
that this is one of the thresholds
between Earth and Heaven,
from which even I may step
forth and be free.
– Wendell Berry from “Sabbath Poems”

Whenever I lose perspective about what I’m trained to do
and who I am meant to serve,
when I wallow in the mud of self-importance
rather than in the health of self-forgetfulness~

I wash out a plug of wax from a deaf ear
and restore hearing
or remove a painful thorn in a thumb
or clip someone’s crippling toenails
so they can step forth in freedom
or I simply sit still as someone
cries out their heart’s pain.

I cling to the crooked flower
of healing and forgiveness I was handed
over forty years ago in order to share
its sacred sweetness.

I’ve been given these tools for a reason
so need to continue to use them.

You just never know.

From Cut and From Tumble…

God keep my jewel this day from danger;
From tinker and pooka and bad-hearted stranger.
From harm of the water, from hurt of the fire.
From the horns of the cows going home to the byre.
From the sight of the fairies that maybe might change her.
From teasing the ass when he’s tied to the manger.
From stones that would bruise her, from thorns of the briar.
From evil red berries that wake her desire.
From hunting the gander and vexing the goat.
From the depths o’ sea water by Danny’s old boat.
From cut and from tumble, from sickness and weeping;
May God have my jewel this day in his keeping.
~Winifred Lett (1882-1973) Prayer for a Child

This prayer has hung in our home for almost three decades, purchased when I was pregnant with our first child.  When I first saw it with its drawing of the praying mother watching her toddler leave the safety of the home to explore the wide world, I knew it addressed most of my worries as a new mother, in language that helped me smile at my often irrational fears.  I would glance at it dozens of time a day, and it would remind me of God’s care for our children through every scary thing, real or imagined.

And I continue to pray for our grown children, their spouses, and now for three precious grandchildren who live far from us. I do this because I can’t help myself but do it, and because I’m helpless without the care and compassion of our sovereign God.

Right now, this week, I pray for all children who are growing up in an increasingly divisive and conflicted world, who cannot understand why skin color should make a difference to one’s hopes and dreams and freedom to walk anywhere without feeling threatened.

May I be changed in my prayers.
May we all be changed, in a twinkling of an eye.

I pray because I can’t help myself.
I pray because I’m helpless.
I pray because the need flows out of me all the time

— waking and sleeping.
It doesn’t change God — it changes me.

~C.S. Lewis

Unless the Heart Catch Fire

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”

…the sudden angel affrighted me––light effacing
my feeble beam,
a forest of torches, feathers of flame, sparks upflying:
…as that hand of fire
touched my lips and scorched by tongue
and pulled by voice
into the ring of the dance.
~Denise Levertov from “Caedmon” in Breathing the Water

Unless the eye catch fire,
Then God will not be seen.
Unless the ear catch fire
Then God will not be heard.
Unless the tongue catch fire
Then God will not be named.
Unless the heart catch fire,
Then God will not be loved.
Unless the mind catch fire,
Then God will not be known.
~William Blake from “Pentecost”

Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
Yours are the only hands with which he can do his work.
yours are the only feet with which he can go about the world.
Yours are the only eyes through which his compassion
can shine forth upon a troubled world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
~Teresa of Avila

Today,
when we feel we are without hope,
when the bent world reels with a troubled sickness of
shedding blood and spreading violence,
when faith feels frail,
when love seems distant,
we wait, stilled,
for the moment we ourselves – not our cities –
are lit afire ~
when the Living God is
seen, heard, named, loved, known
forever burning in our hearts deep down,
brooded over by His bright wings~
we are His dearest, His freshest deep down things,
in this moment
and for eternity.

Living Under the Penetrating Gaze of God

To live coram Deo is to live one’s entire life in the presence of God, under the authority of God, to the glory of God. 

To live in the presence of God is to understand

that whatever we are doing and wherever we are doing it,
we are acting under the gaze of God.

There is no place so remote that we can escape His penetrating gaze.

To live all of life coram Deo is to live a life of integrity.
It is a life of wholeness that finds its unity and coherency

in the majesty of God.

Our lives are to be living sacrifices,
oblations offered in a spirit of adoration and gratitude.

A fragmented life is a life of disintegration.
It is marked by inconsistency, disharmony, confusion,
conflict, contradiction, and chaos.

Coram Deo … before the face of God.

…a life that is open before God.
…a life in which all that is done is done as to the Lord.
…a life lived by principle, not expediency; by humility before God,

not defiance.

~R.C. Sproul
from “What Does “coram Deo” mean?”

We cannot escape His gaze. Why is that?

We…all of us, all colors, shapes and sizes…
are created in His image, imago dei, so He looks at us as His reflections in the mirror of the world.

And what would He see this week?
Surely nothing that reflects the heart or face of God.

I cringe to think. I want to hide from His gaze.
All I see around me and within me is:
inconsistency, disharmony, confusion,
conflict, contradiction, and chaos.
And most of all:
defiance.

Surely, surely I know best.

I’m not alone: so many others also each know best, calling hypocrisy on one another, holding fast to moral high ground when the reality is:
we drown together in the mud of our mutual guilt and lack of humility.

It is past time for us to be on our knees pleading for mercy, certainly not on our knees leaning upon the neck of another imago dei, squeezing out their very life breath and right to exist.

We are miserable reflections, each and every one of us, surely not coram Deo.

All that we have done, we have done onto God Himself.
Kind of takes one’s breath away.


Giving Life’s Best

In great deeds, something abides. 
On great fields, something stays. 
Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; 
but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls. 
And reverent men and women from afar, 
and generations that know us not and that we know not of, 
heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field, 
to ponder and dream; and lo!

the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, 
and the power of the vision pass into their souls. 
This is the great reward of service. 
To live, far out and on, in the life of others;
this is the mystery of the Christ,

–to give life’s best for such high sake
that it shall be found again unto life eternal.

~Major-General Joshua Chamberlain, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania 1889

A box of over 700 letters, exchanged between my parents from late 1941 to mid-1945, sat unopened for decades until last year. I started reading.

My parents barely knew each other before marrying quickly on Christmas Eve 1942 – the haste due to the uncertain future for a newly trained Second Lieutenant in the Marine Corps. They only had a few weeks together before she returned home to her rural teaching position and he readied himself to be shipped out for the island battles to come.

They had no idea they would not see each other for another 30+ months or even see each other again at all. They had no idea their marriage would fall apart 35 years later and they would reunite a decade after the divorce for five more years together.

The letters do contain the long-gone but still-familiar voices of my parents, but they are the words and worries of youngsters of 20 and 21, barely prepared for the horrors to come from war and interminable waiting. When he was fighting battles on Tarawa, Saipan, and Tinian, no letters or news would be received for a month or more, otherwise they tried to write each other daily, though with minimal news to share due to military censorship. They speak mostly of their desire for a normal life together rather than a routine centered on mailbox, pen and paper and waiting, lots and lots of waiting.

I’m not sure what I hoped to find in these letters. Perhaps I hoped for flowery romantic whisperings and the poetry of longing and loneliness. Instead I am reading plain spoken words from two people who somehow made it through those awful years to make my sister and brother and myself possible.

Our inheritance is contained in this musty box of words bereft of poetry. But decades later my heart is moved by these letters – I carefully refold them back into their envelopes and replace them gently back in order. A six cent airmail stamp – in fact hundreds and hundreds of them – was a worthwhile investment in the future, not only for themselves and their family to come, but for generations of U.S. citizens who tend to take their freedom for granted.

Thank you, Dad and Mom, for what you gave up to make today possible.

I hear the mountain birds
The sound of rivers singing
A song I’ve often heard
It flows through me now
So clear and so loud
I stand where I am
And forever I’m dreaming of home
I feel so alone, I’m dreaming of home

It’s carried in the air
The breeze of early morning
I see the land so fair
My heart opens wide
There’s sadness inside
I stand where I am
And forever I’m dreaming of home
I feel so alone, I’m dreaming of home

This is no foreign sky
I see no foreign light
But far away am I
From some peaceful land
I’m longing to stand
A hand in my hand
…forever I’m dreaming of home
I feel so alone, I’m dreaming of home
~Lori Barth and Philippe Rombi “I’m Dreaming of Home”

Groaning Too Deep for Words

What stood will stand, though all be fallen,
The good return that time has stolen.
Though creatures groan in misery,
Their flesh prefigures liberty
To end travail and bring to birth
Their new perfection in new earth.
At word of that enlivening
Let the trees of the woods all sing
And every field rejoice, let praise
Rise up out of the ground like grass.
What stood, whole in every piecemeal
Thing that stood, will stand though all
Fall–field and woods and all in them
Rejoin the primal Sabbath’s hymn.
~Wendell Berry, from “Sabbaths” (North Point Press, 1987)
.

We live in a time where the groaning need and dividedness of humankind is especially to be felt and recognized…

Yet this terrific human need and burden of the times causes us to see how weak and powerless we are to change this. Then we must see that if we are to advocate change, we must start with ourselves. We must recognize that we as individuals are to blame for social injustice, oppression, and the downgrading of others, whether personal or on a broader plane. We must see that a revolution must take place against all that destroys life. This revolution must become a revolution different from any the world has ever seen. God must intervene and lead such a revolution with his Spirit and his justice and his truth.
~Dwight Blough from the introduction to When the Time was Fulfilled (1965)

22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.
Romans 8: 22-26

We are groaning in anticipation of what might come next – so many ill, so many lost. What can we make of this, how can we make sense of it?

We could groan together in the hard labor of birthing a newly unified people all facing the same viral enemy. Instead we groan angry and bitter, irritable with one another, wanting to find someone else, anything to blame for our misery.

God willingly pulls our groanings onto Himself and out of us.
He understands even when we are too inarticulate to form the words we want Him to hear.

We must cling tenaciously to the mystery of God’s magnetism
for our weakness and suffering and allow His healing us to begin.

By His Spirit
we will be forever changed
and our groanings will be no more.

It’s All Right Now

How should I not be glad to contemplate
the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window
and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?
There will be dying, there will be dying,
but there is no need to go into that.
The poems flow from the hand unbidden
and the hidden source is the watchful heart.
The sun rises in spite of everything
and the far cities are beautiful and bright.
I lie here in a riot of sunlight
watching the day break and the clouds flying.
Everything is going to be all right.
~Derek Mahon,”Everything is Going to be All Right” from Selected Poems

It’s tough to find reassurance these days; in a mere five months, things have gone from “doing okay” to outright disastrous. There is no expert anywhere with a crystal ball who can tell us what things will be like in another five months. We simply have to live it out as best we can.

I regularly remind myself: history has a way of repeating itself, and yes, the world has been in this place before. We’ve fought back against global pandemics and economic depressions and devastating world conflicts and we somehow manage to come out the other side.

It takes time and patience and prayer and groaning and a fair amount of teeth gritting.

So the sun rises in spite of everything. The clouds still fly by above us. We still love one another even when it takes a little work. So let’s give ourselves a little break from the bad news and just love, oh Lord above, in the glory of now.

Everything is going to be all right. Let your heart be watchful and untroubled.

Truly.