Reading Over My Shoulder

Ten more miles, it is South Dakota.
Somehow, the roads there turn blue,
When no one walks down them.
One more night of walking, and I could have become
A horse, a blue horse, dancing
Down a road, alone.

I have got this far. It is almost noon. But never mind time:
That is all over.
It is still Minnesota.
Among a few dead cornstalks, the starving shadow
Of a crow leaps to his death.
At least, it is green here,
Although between my body and the elder trees
A savage hornet strains at the wire screen.
He can’t get in yet.

It is so still now, I hear the horse
Clear his nostrils.
He has crept out of the green places behind me.
Patient and affectionate, he reads over my shoulder
These words I have written.
He has lived a long time, and he loves to pretend
No one can see him.
Last night I paused at the edge of darkness,
And slept with green dew, alone.
I have come a long way, to surrender my shadow
To the shadow of a horse.

~James Wright “Sitting in a small screenhouse on a summer morning”

I have a sense of someone reading over my shoulder as I write. It keeps me honest to feel that breath on my hair, that green smell reminding me who I am.

I should not try to be anyone else.

When my words don’t say exactly what I hope, I feel forgiveness from the shadow beside me.

It’s all softness. It’s all okay even when it’s not.

Waiting in Wilderness: An Impossible Womb

God called Abram to leave the familiar and go,
go on a road he would make by going,
to a place he would know by finding.

Jesus led Nicodemus to the threshold of a birth,
a newness he could only know by going through it.

Only what’s behind us, not ahead, keeps us from going on,
from entering the impossible womb of starting new.

The stones of disappointment in your pockets,
the grave marker of the old life, they can’t come with you.

The path is not a test. It’s our freedom.
Many a prisoner has looked into the tunnel,
the Beloved waiting in the light, and said no.

Where is the Spirit calling you, the wind blowing?
Where is the thin place between your habits and a new birth?

These pangs, this heavy breathing:
the Beloved is trying to birth you.

Let it happen.
~Steve Garnaass-Holmes “A new birth”

Like most people, I cling fast to the safe and familiar, sometimes wishing to retreat back to what feels most secure and safest. Yet, it is an impossible womb that would allow me back – it is clear I am meant to be fully launched, for better or worse. So carrying my checkered history stuffed deeply in my pockets, I embark on this life’s journey led by the Spirit and blown by His breath, uncertain where it will take me or how long it takes to get there.

There is an unsurpassed freedom in the path from womb to tomb; if I let His breath carry me, I’ll go so far beyond the place where my bones someday are laid.

Turning Darkness Into Light: Nothing Can Be Ordinary Now


Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.
~George Herbert “Prayer”

~Heaven in Ordinary~
Because high heaven made itself so low
That I might glimpse it through a stable door,
Or hear it bless me through a hammer blow,
And call me through the voices of the poor,
Unbidden now, its hidden light breaks through
Amidst the clutter of the every day,
Illuminating things I thought I knew,
Whose dark glass brightens, even as I pray.
Then this world’s walls no longer stay my eyes,
A veil is lifted likewise from my heart,
The moment holds me in its strange surprise,
The gates of paradise are drawn apart,
I see his tree, with blossom on its bough,
And nothing can be ordinary now.

~Malcolm Guite from “After Prayer”

We live in a world of theophanies.
Holiness comes wrapped in the ordinary.
There are burning bushes all around you.
Every tree is full of angels.
Hidden beauty is waiting in every crumb.
Life wants to lead you from crumbs to angels,
but this can happen only if you are willing
to unwrap the ordinary by staying with it long enough
to harvest its treasure.
~Macrina Wiederkehr from A Tree Full of Angels

I follow the crumb trail most days;
my problem,
like so many others I know,
is to realize the crumbs satisfy more
than any seven course meal.
It may take longer to get full,
but I need the exercise,
and the hungrier I get,
the better the crumbs taste.

Considering the distance between us and God,
seemingly insurmountable to overcome,
yet He leaves us the crumb trail to follow.
How amazing it only takes a few words to Him,
our gratitude and praise,
our pleas and pain,
our breath hot in His ear~
unhesitating
He plummets to us;
then we are lifted to Him.

Heaven dwells in the ordinary crumbs,
fills us in our plainness,
dresses us up,
prepares us to be loved,
prepares us to be accepted and understood
prepares us to be transformed
by no less than our very Creator.

So~
let nothing you dismay.

The Nation-healing Tree of Life

Sometimes, hard-trying,
it seems I cannot pray–
For doubt, and pain,

and anger, and all strife.

Yet some poor half-fledged prayer-bird from the nest
May fall, flit, fly, perch–crouch in the bowery breast
Of the large, nation-healing tree of life;–


Moveless there sit

through all the burning day,
And on my heart at night

a fresh leaf cooling lay.
~George MacDonald from Diary of an Old Soul

I suspect I’m not the only U.S. citizen who slept fitfully last night, anxious about the election and how our nation’s peoples will accept and move on with life once official results are reported.

There can be no response but to bow in earnest prayer, waiting for a long-needed hatching of healing peace for our diverse beliefs and opinions.

Our lives are half-fledged, not yet fully delivered nor understood, doubt and distrust burns into our flesh like thorns on fire. 

We have become a seething-angry and moaning-sore nation — today we will be further divided between those who win and those who lose.  The moral high ground will go to the graceful loser who concedes defeat in a spirit of unity without stoking the fires of discontent. A gloating winner would bloat us all beyond recognition.

May our prayers for peace rise like a dove from hearts in turmoil,  once again to soar on the wings of eagles.

Peace, come quickly.
Be moved within us; no longer immobile.
Cool our angry words.
Take us to higher ground.
Plow deep our hearts.

The Back Pew

There’s coffee and pie
with a widow from the church.
Why do you sit
in the back pew? she asks.
I’m close enough, I say.
Can I sit back there with you?
I’ve always sat there, I tell her,
with my same two friends,
and their clicking oxygen pumps.
One sat next to me for years,
called herself my church girlfriend,
who metastasized, telling me she was
tired of waiting to die.
Now, there’s just my 88-year-old friend,
his pump echoing in the sanctuary,
and there’s that empty
space between us.
I’d like to invite the widow to sit there,
but I miss my dead friend’s laugh,
her loving stories about her husband,
and how we were always
glad to see one another.
I tell the widow all this.
What if I just sat there? she asks.
It’s a free country, I tell her,
and she smiles.
~Bruce Pemberton “Autumn 2017” from Third Wednesday, (Vol. XI, no. 2, 2018)

We used to occupy the back pew with our young family, figuring a wiggly child would be less disruptive if we stayed in the back. Our children would sing loud, draw pictures on index cards, take notes on the sermon and sometimes fall asleep under the bench. As they got older, we slowly made our way to the middle benches, and even sat in the very front when we walked into church late.

Sometimes we go sit in the back again for old times sake and find the most interesting group holding down those pews.

There is a fellow over ninety years old who still drives himself to church and he prefers the back because he can see everyone else who is in church without having to turn around. He decided the back was the place to be after seeing a 16 year old girl who always sat in the back pew bring her baby daughter to church for the first time, and how she was the center of a swarm of church ladies who came to oooh and aaah over the baby at the conclusion of the worship service. He told me he knew there was special grace and acceptance in that back bench.

It’s a loving and safe place to be. Everyone should try it sometime.

photo by Barb Hoelle

Grace Disguised

If grace is so wonderful, why do we have such difficulty recognizing and accepting it?

Maybe it’s because grace is not gentle or made-to-order.

It often comes disguised as loss, or failure, or unwelcome change.
For grace to be grace, it must give us things we didn’t know we needed
and take us places where we didn’t know we didn’t want to go.
~Kathleen Norris from Acedia and Me

I’ve been salvaged when I didn’t even know I needed saving.
I’ve been given what I didn’t think I needed so never had asked.
I’ve been taken places I never planned to be when I was sure things were fine right where I was.

Grace is not about giving me what I think I want;
it is not a reward for good behavior. 

It is giving me exactly what I need when I deserve nothing.

It is the thorny landing that catches me when I fall.
It is the tiny drop that spares me in drought.
It is scars formed as proof that healing happens to the deepest wounds.
It is being scattered when I planned to remain whole.

I am grateful, so very grateful, for what I didn’t know.
I am grateful, so very grateful, for grace disguised.

To Be Interruptible

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We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God.
― Dietrich Bonhoeffer

 

 

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I’ve worked hard in my professional life to be easily interruptible;  my patients, colleagues and staff need to be able to stop my momentum at any time to ask a question, get an opinion or redirect my attention to something more important than what I’m doing at that time.  As a physician, it is crucial that I remain prioritized from outside my field of vision as I don’t always realize where I’m needed most until someone grabs me.

In my personal life, I struggle with interruptions happening outside my control.  I feel imposed upon when things don’t flow as I hoped or planned– after all,  this is MY life.

Yet God interrupts.  God interferes.  God intervenes.  God intrudes.  God intercedes.

As He must.

I must be ready, accepting, answering His grace with my grace.

It is HIS life living within me, His plan, His timing, His priorities, His story playing out in such a way that it becomes my story.

I can’t skip ahead to see what happens on the last page, but I hope it is one of those stories I don’t want to see end when the last word is written.

 

 

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We Cannot Find Peace

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…deeds are done which appear so evil to us
and people suffer such terrible evils
that it does not seem as though any good will ever come of them;
and we consider this, sorrowing and grieving over it 

so that we cannot find peace in the blessed contemplation of God as we should do; 
and this is why:

our reasoning powers are so blind now, so humble and so simple, 
that we cannot know the high, marvelous wisdom, the might 
and the goodness of the Holy Trinity.

And this is what he means where he says, 
“You shall see for yourself that all manner of things shall be well”, 
as if he said, “Pay attention to this now, faithfully and confidently, 
and at the end of time you will truly see it in the fullness of joy.

~Julian of Norwich from Revelations of Divine Love

 

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Today in the newspaper a whole page is devoted to the photos, names and ages of those cut down a week ago in the latest mass shooting, all victims of an unexplainable evil.

I cannot find peace in their deaths.  If I were their family member, there could be no peace for me in the ongoing anguish and despair of untimely senseless loss.  Only the intervention of the Holy Spirit can possibly change anger and grief to the fullness of joy. It can come as slow and imperceptibly as the still small voice.

I pray that those who have been hurt, who may never fully recover from their physical and emotional injury,  may come to understand how such evil may be used for good.  It is the hardest of all for our simple blind human reasoning to accept.

All manner of things shall be well – even as we weep until we are dry.

 

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Preparing the Heart: Swollen with the Breath of God

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Pierced by the light of God
Mary Virgin,
drenched in the speech of God,
your body bloomed,

swelling with the breath of God.

But in wonder within you
you hid an untainted
child of God’s mind
and God’s Son blossomed in your body.

~Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) from “Antiphon for the Virgin”
translation by Barbara Newman

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It must have been extraordinary for a young woman to be told by an angel she was to bear the Son of God.  She is troubled despite his reassurance, completely perplexed about what it all meant.  She asks because she needs to know: how will this happen?

We too are puzzled when God intervenes in our lives in ways that are completely unexpected and sometimes downright inconvenient. We are touched in ways we have never been touched before, as His power “overshadows” us so deeply that we can never possibly be the same. A transformation takes place, we are swollen with the breath of God and new life begins to grow in us.

We are all virgins before God touches our lives, filling us with the light and the Words of His spirit, despite our being sullied by the mire of the world.   What makes Mary unique is her complete and total surrender to His will for her life:  “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.”

Let it be for us as well.  May our hearts be made ready to bloom.

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God Among Us: Opening Heart and Hands

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…an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.
Matthew 1:20-22,24

 

I see the hands of Joseph.
Back and forth along bare wood they move.
There is worry in those working hands,
sorting out confusing thoughts with every stroke.
“How can this be, my beautiful Mary now with child?” 
Rough with deep splinters, these hands,
small, painful splinters like tiny crosses
embedded deeply in this choice to stay with her.
He could have closed his hands to her,
said, “No” and let her go to stoning.
But, dear Joseph opened both his heart and hands
to this mother and her child.
Preparing in these days before
with working hands
and wood pressed tight between them.
It is these rough hands that will open
and be the first to hold the Child.
~Catherine Alder from “Advent Hands”

_______________________________

In these weeks of Advent waiting,
we are stretched beyond what we ever thought possible:
to change our plans to God’s plan,
to accept what is unacceptable,
to include the excluded,
to grasp understanding of the incomprehensible,
to open closed heart and hands
and let the Christ Child in
so we can hold Him as Joseph did that night.
If Joseph could do it,
despite all he’d been taught,
despite the derision–
if he could still trust,
and obey,
and believe,
how can we not?
~EPG

 

Go to sleep my Son
This manger for your bed
You have a long road before You
Rest Your little head

Can You feel the weight of Your glory?
Do You understand the price?
Or does the Father guard Your heart for now
So You can sleep tonight?

Go to sleep my Son
Go and chase Your dreams
This world can wait for one more moment
Go and sleep in peace

I believe the glory of Heaven
Is lying in my arms tonight
Lord, I ask that He for just this moment
Simply be my child

Go to sleep my Son
Baby, close Your eyes
Soon enough You’ll save the day
But for now, dear Child of mine
Oh my Jesus, Sleep tight

He was her man, she was his wife
And late one winter night
He knelt by her
As she gave birth
But it wasn’t his child,
It wasn’t his child

Yet still he took him as his own
And as he watched him grow
It brought him joy
But it wasn’t his child
It wasn’t his child

But like a father he was strong and kind
And I believe he did his best
It wasn’t easy for him
But he did all could
His son was different from the rest
It wasn’t his child
It wasn’t his child

And when the boy became a man
He took his father’s hand
And soon the world
Would all know why
It wasn’t his child
It wasn’t his child

But like a father he was strong and kind
And I believe he did his best
It wasn’t easy for him
But he did all could
He grew up with his hands in wood
And he died with his hands in wood
He was God’s child,
He was God’s child

He was her man
She was his wife
And late one night
He knelt by her
As she gave birth
But it wasn’t his child
It was God’s child

 

How could it be
This baby in my arms,
Sleeping now, so peacefully?
“The Son of God,” the angel said,
How could it be?

Lord I know, He’s not my own
Not of my flesh, not of my bone.
Still Father let this baby be
The son of my love.

Chorus
Father show me where I fit into this plan of Yours,
How can a man be father to the Son of God?
Lord, for all my life I’ve been a simple carpenter,
How can I raise a King, How can I raise a King?

He looks so small, His face and hands so fair,
And when He cries the sun just seems to disappear.
But when He laughs, it shines again,
How could it be?
~Michael Card

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