The Beginning Shall Remind us of the End: The Worst Our Kind Can Do

It’s when we face for a moment
the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know
the taint in our own selves, that awe
cracks the mind’s shell and enters the heart:
not to a flower, not to a dolphin,
to no innocent form
but to this creature vainly sure
it and no other is god-like, God
(out of compassion for our ugly
failure to evolve) entrusts,
as guest, as brother,
the Word.
~Denise Levertov “The Mystery of the Incarnation”

In the Christmas story, God … takes the risk of incarnation. The flesh God chooses is not that of a warrior but of a vulnerable baby, a claim that brought me tears of wonderment when I was young. But my adult knowledge of that infant’s fate — a fate shared by so many who have devoted their lives to love, truth, and justice — brings tears of anger and grief, along with a primal fear of what might happen if I followed suit.

…I know I’m called to share in the risk of incarnation. Amid the world’s dangers, I’m asked to embody my values and beliefs, my identity and integrity, to allow good words to take flesh in me. Constrained by fear, I often fall short — yet I still aspire to incarnate words of life, however imperfectly.

What good words wait to be born in us, and how can we love one another in ways that midwife their incarnation?
~Parker Palmer from “The Risk of Incarnation”

I, like you, am entrusted to care for the Word in its earthly incarnation: born into impoverished, humble, and homeless circumstances, He has no where to dwell except within me and within you.

And that is no small price for Him to pay, as my human heart can be inhospitable, hardened, cold and cracked. I am capable of the worst our kind can do.

So it is up to me to embody the Word in what I say and do, even if it means rejection as He suffered, even knowing that is the risk I must take. For me, it feels as vulnerable as if I were a bare tree standing naked in the chill winter wind. I’m fearful I might break or topple over.
Yet if I’m created to harbor the incarnated Word, I must reach my roots deep, stand tall and find others who will stand alongside me.

This Advent, Iet us midwife the Word here on earth, to deliver it straight to receptive, warm, and loving hearts.


Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
Such a Way, as gives us breath:
Such a Truth, as ends all strife:
Such a Life, as killeth death.

Come, My Light, my Feast, my Strength:
Such a Light, as shows a feast:
Such a Feast, as mends in length:
Such a Strength, as makes his guest.

Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
Such a Joy, as none can move:
Such a Love, as none can part:
Such a Heart, as joys in love.
~George Herbert “The Call”

1.Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly-minded,
For with blessing in his hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
Our full homage to demand.

2.King of kings, yet born of Mary,
As of old on earth he stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture,
In the body and the blood;
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.

3.At his feet the six-winged seraph,
Cherubim, with sleepless eye,
Veil their faces to the presence,
As with ceaseless voice they cry:
Alleluia, Alleluia,
Alleluia, Lord Most High!

This year’s Barnstorming Advent theme “… the Beginning shall remind us of the End” is taken from the final lines in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”

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Remaining As I Was

Our final dogwood leans
over the forest floor

offering berries
to the birds, the squirrels.

It’s a relic
of the days when dogwoods

flourished—creamy lace in April,
spilled milk in May—

their beauty delicate
but commonplace.

When I took for granted
that the world would remain

as it was, and I
would remain with it.
~Linda Pastan “Elegy”

The inevitable change of the seasons, as portrayed by the branches of our aging pink dogwood tree, is a reminder nothing stays the same.

Like this old tree, I lean over more, I have a few bare branches with no leaves, I have my share of broken limbs, I have my share of blight and curl.

Yet each stage and transition has its own beauty: 
a breathtaking depth of color flourishes on what once was bare.

Nothing is to be taken for granted.  Nothing remains as it was.

Especially me. Oh, especially me.

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But Right Now

Maybe night is about to come
calling, but right now
the sun is still high in the sky.

It’s half-past October, the woods
are on fire, blue skies stretch
all the way to heaven. Of course,
we know that winter is coming, its thin
winding sheets and its hard narrow bed.

But right now, the season’s fermented
to fullness, so slip into something
light, like your skeleton; while these old
bones are still working, my darling,
let’s dance.
~Barbara Crooker, “Reel” from The Book of Kells

I’ve never been much of a dancer; we were taught square dancing in grade school when we were kids so I could do-si-do with the best of them.

The non-descript dancing of the sixties and seventies never appealed to me – it was kind of like writhing in place, sometimes alone, sometimes in parallel with another body.

Our church used to hold once a year square dances in November along with a harvest dinner, gathered in a school gymnasium, so my husband and I learned to Virginia Reel up and back and be sore the next day. Those were the days…

But right now, we watch our trees dance this time of year, getting more naked with each passing day and breeze. They sway and bow and join limbs, their bare bones grasping one another in preparation for their cold and narrow winter bed, wrapped in the shroud that will give way, yet again to the green leaves of spring, only a few months away.

A book of beauty in words and photography, available to order here:

What Falling Leaves Disclose

And Is it not enough that every year
A richly laden autumn should unfold
And shimmer into being leaf by leaf,
It’s scattered ochres mirrored everywhere
In hints and glints of hidden red and gold
Threaded like memory through loss and grief,
When dusk descends, when branches are unveiled,
When roots reach deeper than our minds can feel
And ready us for winter with strange calm,
That I should see the inner tree revealed
And know its beauty as the bright leaves fall
And feel its truth within me as I am?

It is not yet enough. So I must try,
In my poor turn, to help you see it too,
As though these leaves could be as rich as those,
That red and gold might glimmer in your eye,
That autumn might unfold again in you,
Feeling with me what falling leaves disclose.

~Malcolm Guite from “And is it Not Enough?”

As the rains return,
and the leaves turn and fall,
we shelter together,
blessed by years and miles,
our unknown becoming known,
our understanding of nakedness
breathed in silence.

Though we be gray as the clouds above,
our hearts beat in synchrony
each pulsing moment
more sacred than our last.

More beauty in words and photography in this book, available to order here:

Almost Forgot

   I almost forgot
To hang up an autumn moon
      Over the mountain
~Richard Wright “Haiku”

Lyric night of the lingering Indian Summer,
Shadowy fields that are scentless but full of singing,
Never a bird, but the passionless chant of insects,
       Ceaseless, insistent. 

  
The grasshopper’s horn, and far-off, high in the maples,
The wheel of a locust leisurely grinding the silence
Under a moon waning and worn, broken,      
Tired with summer. 
  

Let me remember you, voices of little insects,
Weeds in the moonlight, fields that are tangled with asters,
Let me remember, soon will the winter be on us,      
Snow-hushed and heavy.   

Over my soul murmur your mute benediction,
While I gaze, O fields that rest after harvest,
As those who part look long in the eyes they lean to,      
Lest they forget them.
~Sara Teasdale, “September Midnight”

photo by Josh Scholten

I will not forget, dear harvest moon,
to tuck you away where I can find you months from now,
tangled up in the weary trees of autumn.
Once the leaves fall, modest branches will be illuminated
in their embarrassed nakedness.

When I too need your warm light
on some cold dark night,
I’ll know exactly where to find you
because I’ve memorized your round face
and where you are waiting for me.
I’ll not forget because you never forget.

This book of beauty in words and photography is available to order here:

Losing Foliage

In the shallows of the river
After one o’clock in the afternoon
Ice still
An eighth of an inch thick.
Night never disappears completely
But moves among the shadows
On the bank
Like a glimpse of fur.
Meanwhile
Trees
Grass
Flies and spiderwebs
Appear alone in the flat air.
The naked aspens stand like children
Waiting to be baptized
And the goldenrod too is stripped down
To its bare stalk
In the cold
Even my thoughts
Have lost their foliage.
~Tom Hennen
“At the Beginning of Winter”, from Looking Into The Weather.

My thoughts are stripped bare these days,
no flowers or flourishing foliage left behind-
just stark rows of naked branches, waiting,
orderly and plain.

It is the nature of winter
to think only of the essentials
when night is always creeping
around the edges of midday.

There is silence outside
and echoing in my head,
while waiting for something,
~anything~
remarkable to bud out
and bloom.

Promises Promises

The flown, the fallen,
the golden ones,
the deciduous dead, all gone
to ground, to dust, to sand,
borne on the shoulders of the wind.

Listen! They are whispering…

Look at the trees!

Every leaf-scar is a bud
expecting a future.
The earth speaks in parables.
The burning bush. The rainbow.
Promises. Promises.
~Gillian Clarke from “The Year’s Midnight” From Selected Poems

Having turned the ragged corner into a new year,
I search for any signs of recovery from
what was fallen and flown from last year.
Instead there is rain upon rain and water levels rise.

I step cautiously upon the sponge of soaked leaves underfoot,
recalling their crisp vibrancy when still attached
to branches that are now picked clean
to bare bones, all flesh devoured.

Yet, as I examine those skeletal remains,
I see their scars swelling with potential,
even now, even in early winter there is expectancy.

These bushes will not burn to ashes;
this rain will cease to flood.
This sky, these trees will light up once again
with promises made
and promises kept.

Unimaginable Promises

Whatever harm I may have done
In all my life in all your wide creation
If I cannot repair it
I beg you to repair it,

And then there are all the wounded
The poor the deaf the lonely and the old
Whom I have roughly dismissed
As if I were not one of them.
Where I have wronged them by it
And cannot make amends
I ask you
To comfort them to overflowing,

And where there are lives I may have withered around me,
Or lives of strangers far or near
That I’ve destroyed in blind complicity,
And if I cannot find them
Or have no way to serve them,

Remember them. I beg you to remember them

When winter is over
And all your unimaginable promises
Burst into song on death’s bare branches.
~Anne Porter “A Short Testament” from Living Things.

When the night’s darkness lingers,
beginning too early and lasting too late,
I dwell within my own persistent winter,
knowing I too often fail to do
what is needed
when it is needed.

How I look inward
when I need to focus beyond myself.
How I muffle my ears
to unhear supplicating voices.
How I turn away
rather than meet a stranger’s gaze.

The wintry soul
is a cold and empty place.

I appeal to God
who dwells not only within my darkness,
but unimaginably promises
His buds of hope and warmth
and color and fruit
will indeed arise from my bare winter branches.
He will bring me out of the night.

Edging Closer for Company

The trees are coming into their winter bareness,
the only green is the lichen on their branches.
Against the hemlocks, the rain is falling in dim, straight lines…
This is the time of year when all the houses have come out of the woods, edging closer to the roads as if for company.
~Verlyn Klinkenborg “The Rain It Raineth”

The deciduous trees in our part of the country have all been stripped bare, having come through rain and gusty winds in the last week.  It forces typically leaf-hidden homes out of camouflage and I’m once again startled at the actual proximity of our neighbors.  It isn’t as obvious in the summer given the tree buffer everyone has carefully planted.  Now we’re reminded once again we are not alone and actually never have been.

Even the mountains that surround us from the northwest to the southeast seem closer when the trees are bare and new snow has settled on their steep shoulders.

We think we have autonomy all wrapped up but it takes the storms of autumn to remind us we are unwrapped and vulnerable, stark naked, in desperate need of company when darkness comes early, the snow flies and the lights are flickering.

photo by Nate Gibson

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A Bright Sadness: A Twig of Evidence

 

This World is not Conclusion.
A Species stands beyond –
Invisible, as Music –
But positive, as Sound –
It beckons, and it baffles –
Philosophy, don’t know –
And through a Riddle, at the last –
Sagacity, must go –

To guess it, puzzles scholars –
To gain it, Men have borne
Contempt of Generations
And Crucifixion, shown –
Faith slips – and laughs, and rallies –
Blushes, if any see –
Plucks at a twig of Evidence –
And asks a Vane, the way –
Much Gesture, from the Pulpit –
Strong Hallelujahs roll –
Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the soul –
~Emily Dickinson

Doubt can feel like the bare branches of winter – plenty of bleak bark, and nothing that feels alive or real or even meaningful.

Yet spring ushers in such profound intervention that doubt is ushered out with little ceremony. What was mere potential is now bud and bloom. What was mere twig is now glorious.

And so, with the resurrection, are we.