I must go in; the fog is rising… ~Emily Dickinson, her last words
I have watched the dying in their last hours: often through the fog of waning breaths, they see what I cannot, they listen to what I do not hear, stretching their arms overhead as their fingers extend and grasp to touch what is, as yet, far beyond my reach.
I watch and wonder how it is to reverse the journey that brought me here from the fog of my amnion.
The mist of living lifts.
I will enter a place unsurpassed in brilliance and clarity; the mystery of what lies beyond solved only by going in to it, welcomed back to where I started.
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The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for. ~Vladimir Nabokov from Speak Memory
I think Nabokov had it wrong. This is the abyss. That’s why babies howl at birth, and why the dying so often reach for something only they can apprehend.
At the end they don’t want their hands to be under the covers, and if you should put your hand on theirs in a tentative gesture of solidarity, they’ll pull the hand free; and you must honor that desire, and let them pull it free. ~Jane Kenyon from “Reading Aloud to My Father”
And once, for no special reason, I rode in the back of the pickup, leaning against the cab. Everything familiar was receding fast…
Whatever I saw I had already passed… (This must be what life is like at the moment of leaving it.) ~Jane Kenyon from “What It’s Like”
The farther I am down the road, everything familiar seems to be receding fast. What I see on my journey, I have already passed by as I watch it disappear into the horizon.
I too often mistake this world, this existence, as the only light there is, a mere beam of illumination in the surrounding night of eternity, the only relief from overwhelming darkness. If we stand looking up from the bottom, we might erroneously assume we are the source of the light, we are all there is.
Yet looking at this world from a different perspective, gazing down into the abyss from above, it is clear the light does not come from below –it is from beyond us.
The newborn and the dying know this. They signal their transition into and out of this world with their hands. An infant holds tightly to whatever their fist finds, grasping and clinging to not be lost to this darkness they have entered. The dying instead loosen their grip on this world, reaching up and picking the air on their climb back to heaven.
We hold babies tightly so they won’t lose their way in the dark. We loosen our grip on the dying to honor their outreach to the light that leads to something greater.
In the intervening years, we struggle in our blindness to climb out of the abyss to see vistas of great beauty and grace as we pass through the shadows of our lives. Only then we acknowledge, with great calm and serenity, where we are headed.
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Underground is where life begins My heart will rejoice in the hiddenness Beyond the burial there’s a resurrection ~Kristene DiMarco
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law,to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption… Galatians 4: 4-5
“In the fullness of time” is one of my favorite expressions to remind myself that God’s timing is not linear so much as it is spherical – we find ourselves in the midst of His plans, surrounded by Him rather than journeying from point A to point B.
The sowing of the seed, its hidden growth underground, its taking root and sprouting, its dependency on the soil and water and sun to rise up, its development and maturation and fruition, its harvest and completion to feed and become seed yet again.
It is a circle, not a line.
I must rise boldly when He calls me forth from the darkness.
This year’s Lenten theme for Barnstorming is a daily selection from songs and hymns about Christ’s profound sacrifice on our behalf.
If we remain silent about Him, the stones themselves will shout out and start to sing (Luke 19:40).
In His name, may we sing…
In the quiet of the morning When no one knows and no one needs to know You speak to me, You give me strength There’s nothing like the secret place
Underground is where life begins My heart will rejoice in the hiddenness Beyond the burial there’s a resurrection Your will be done in me In the stillness all around You are working all the details out What’s in me will grow someday I trust Your timing and Your ways
Underground is where life begins My heart will rejoice in the hiddenness Beyond the burial there’s a resurrection
Your will be done in me Oh let my roots go deep I will rise, I will rise He holds the time that I will rise I will rise, I will rise He holds the time that I will rise I will rise, I will rise God through my life be lifted high I will rise, I will rise God through my life be lifted high Let Jesus rise, Jesus rise God through my life be glorified
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I watch the great clear twilight Veiling the ice-bowed trees; Their branches tinkle faintly With crystal melodies.
The larches bend their silver Over the hush of snow; One star is lighted in the west, Two in the zenith glow.
For a moment I have forgotten Wars and women who mourn, I think of the mother who bore me And thank her that I was born. ~Sara Teasdale “Winter Dusk” from The Collected Poems of Sara Teasdale
The towering tree spreads his greening canopy — A veil between the soil and sky— Not in selfish vanity, But the gentle thrush to shade and shelter.
So it is with love.
For when we love, Simply love, Even as we are loved, Our weary world can be transformed.
The busy thrush builds her nest below — A fortnight’s work to weave and set— Not for herself alone, But her tender brood to shield and cherish.
And so it is with love.
For when we love, Simply love, Even as we are loved, Our weary world can be transformed Into the Kingdom of God! ~Charles Silvestri “When We Love”
We are in the midst of a week-long late winter arctic blast of cold wind bending and breaking trees, even taking down an old apple tree in our orchard last night. Our seed feeders are swinging back and forth so violently that hungry wild birds struggle to hang on for their breakfast – they have to fight the northeast winds for their food.
The news headlines also freeze my heart, bringing back memories of old “cold war” threats and posturing of 60 years ago. In this more modern time of global communication, Ukrainian citizens directly in the line of fire become very real on our screens – people with work lives and families and views from their windows shared with the world as they anxiously wait for Russia’s shoe to drop upon them.
I freeze at the knowledge that my commitment to feed the birds in my backyard can’t begin to compare with the weary and war-torn world’s inability to keep starving children alive around the globe – in Afghanistan, South Sudan, Yemen and other unstable places.
I cannot forget our helplessness to love, cherish and protect the young when they are casualties of the destructive web of politics and power.
May God’s love transform our world, turn our political platitudes to prayer, bring about a thaw to build bridges, rather than gulfs, between old enemies.
May love thrive in the nests and homes of parents who commit to love, cherish and sustain their offspring no matter where they live on the globe.
May I start right here, in my own frozen back yard, caring for the young and vulnerable within my reach, and hope my reach may stretch far beyond my grasp.
“I have noticed,” she said slowly, “that time does not really exist for mothers, with regard to their children. It does not matter greatly how old the child is – in the blink of an eye, the mother can see the child again as she was when she was born, when she learned to walk, as she was at any age — at any time, even when the child is fully grown….” ~Diana Gabaldon from Voyager
May the wind always be in her hair May the sky always be wide with hope above her And may all the hills be an exhilaration the trials but a trail, all the stones but stairs to God.
May she be bread and feed many with her life and her laughter May she be thread and mend brokenness and knit hearts… ~Ann Voskamp from “A Prayer for a Daughter”
Your rolling and stretching had grown quieter that stormy winter night twenty nine years ago, but still no labor came as it should. Already a week overdue post-Christmas, you clung to amnion and womb, not yet ready. Then as the wind blew more wicked and snow flew sideways, landing in piling drifts, the roads became more impassable, nearly impossible to traverse.
So your dad and I tried, concerned about your stillness and my advanced age, worried about being stranded on the farm far from town. So a neighbor came to stay with your brothers overnight, we headed down the road and our car got stuck in a snowpile in the deep darkness, our tires spinning, whining against the snow. Another neighbor’s earth mover dug us out to freedom.
You floated silent and still, knowing your time was not yet.
Creeping slowly through the dark night blizzard, we arrived to the warm glow of the hospital, your heartbeat checked out steady, all seemed fine.
I slept not at all.
The morning’s sun glistened off sculptured snow as your heart ominously slowed. You and I were jostled, turned, oxygenated, but nothing changed. You beat even more slowly, threatening to let loose your tenuous grip on life.
The nurses’ eyes told me we had trouble. The doctor, grim faced, announced delivery must happen quickly, taking you now, hoping we were not too late. I was rolled, numbed, stunned, clasping your father’s hand, closing my eyes, not wanting to see the bustle around me, trying not to hear the shouted orders, the tension in the voices, the quiet at the moment of opening when it was unknown what would be found.
And then you cried. A hearty healthy husky cry, a welcomed song of life uninterrupted. Perturbed and disturbed from the warmth of womb, to the cold shock of a bright lit operating room, your first vocal solo brought applause from the surrounding audience who admired your purplish pink skin, your shock of damp red hair, your blue eyes squeezed tight, then blinking open, wondering and wondrous, emerging and saved from a storm within and without.
You were brought wrapped for me to see and touch before you were whisked away to be checked over thoroughly, your father trailing behind the parade to the nursery. I closed my eyes, swirling in a brain blizzard of what-ifs.
If no snow storm had come, you would have fallen asleep forever within my womb, no longer nurtured by my aging and failing placenta, cut off from what you needed to stay alive. There would have been only our soft weeping, knowing what could have been if we had only known, if God had provided a sign to go for help.
So you were saved by a providential storm and dug out from a drift: I celebrate when I hear your voice singing, and when your students love you as their teacher, knowing you are a thread born to knit and mend hearts, all because of blowing snow.
My annual retelling of the most remarkable day of my life when our daughter Eleanor (“Lea”) Sarah Gibson was born, hale and hearty because the good Lord sent a snow and wind storm to blow us into the hospital in time to save her. She is now married to her true love Brian who is another gift sent from the Lord; someday their hope for parenthood will come true for them as well.
For outlandish creatures like us, on our way to a heart, a brain, and courage, Bethlehem is not the end of our journey but only the beginning – not home but the place through which we must pass if ever we are to reach home at last. ~Frederick Buechner from The Magnificent Defeat
Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because he cannot be at home in it – because he is out of place in it, and yet must be in it – his place is with those others who do not belong, who are rejected because they are regarded as weak… With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world. He is mysteriously present in those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst. ~Thomas Merton from Watch for the Light
As a physician, I’ve provided care to many homeless people, but I’ve never known homelessness myself. However, I have been room-less and those experiences were enough to acquaint me with the dilemma for Joseph and Mary searching for a place to sleep in Bethlehem.
It was my ninth birthday, July 26, 1963, and my family was driving to Washington D.C. for a few days of sightseeing. We had planned to spend the night in a motel somewhere in eastern Ohio or western Pennsylvania but my father, ever the determined traveler, felt we should push on closer to our destination. By the time 11 PM rolled around, we were all tired and not just a little cranky so we started looking for vacancy signs at road-side motels. Most were posted no vacancy by that time of night, and many simply had shut off their lights. We stopped at a few with vacancy still lit, but all they had available would never accommodate a family of five.
We kept driving east, and though I was hungry for sleep, I became ever more anxious that we really would never find a place to lay our heads. My eyes grew wider and I was more awake than ever, having never stayed up beyond 1 AM before and certainly, I’d never had the experience of being awake all night long. It still goes down in my annals as my longest birthday on record.
By 2 AM we arrived in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and my dad had reached his driving limit and my mom had declared we were not traveling another mile. We headed downtown where the brick Harrisburg Hotel stood some 10 stories high, an old structure in a questionable area of town, but the lights were on and there were signs of life inside.
They did have a room that gave us two saggy double beds to share for eight dollars, with sheets and blankets with dubious laundering history, a bare light bulb that turned on with a chain and a bathroom down the hall. I’m surprised my mother even considered laying down on that bed, but she did. I don’t remember getting much sleep that night, but it was a place to rest, and the sirens and shouts out on the street did make for interesting background noise.
Some 12 years later, I had another experience of finding no room to lay my head after arriving late at night in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, with supposed reservations at the local YMCA for myself and my three student friends traveling together on our way to Gombe to study wild chimpanzees. We landed at the airport after midnight after a day long flight from Brussels, managed to make it through customs intact and find a taxi, only to arrive at the Y to find it dark and locked. It took some loud knocking to rouse anyone and with our poor Swahili, we were able to explain our dilemma–we were supposed to have two rooms reserved for the four of us. He said clearly “no room, all rooms taken”.
The host was plainly perplexed at what to do with four Americans in the middle of the night. He decided to parse us out one each to occupied rooms and hope that the occupants were willing to share. He looked at me, a skinny white girl with short hair and decided I was some kind of strange looking guy, and tried to stick me in a room with a rather intoxicated French man and I said absolutely not. Instead my female traveling partner and I ended up sharing a cot (sort of) in a room with a German couple who allowed us into their room, which I thought was an amazing act of generosity at 2 AM in the morning. I didn’t sleep a wink, amazed at the magical sounds and smells of my first dawn in Africa, hearing the morning prayers coming from the mosque across the street, only a few hours later.
So I can relate in a small way to what it must have felt like over 2000 years ago to have traveled over hard roads to arrive in a dirty little town temporarily crammed with too many people, and find there were no rooms anywhere to be had. And to have doors shut abruptly on a young woman in obvious full term pregnancy is another matter altogether. They must have felt a growing sense of panic that there would be no safe and clean place to rest and possibly deliver this Child.
Then there came the offer of an animals’ dwelling, with fodder for bedding and some minimal shelter. A stable and its stone manger became sanctuary for the weary and burdened. We are all invited in to rest there, and I never enter a barn without somehow acknowledging that fact and feeling welcomed.
There are so many ways we continue to refuse access and shut the doors in the faces of those two (plus One) weary travelers, forcing them to look elsewhere to stay. We say “no room” dozens of times every day, not realizing who and what we are shutting out.
With all the material distractions of our age, it is small wonder we pay no attention to who is waiting patiently outside the back door of our lives, where it is inhospitable and cold and dank. Few of us would invite our special company into the barn first and foremost. Yet these travelers don’t seek an invitation to come in the front door, with fancy meals and feather beds and fresh flowers on the cupboard. It is the dark and manure strewn parts of our lives where they are needed most. That is where He was born to dwell amid our messiness, and that is where He remains, in the humblest parts of our being, the parts we do not want to show off, and indeed, most often want to hide.
And that is, of course, a place where there is always plenty of room.
Jesus, Jesus, rest your head. You has got a manger bed. All the evil folk on earth Sleep in feathers at their birth. Jesus, Jesus, rest your head. You has got a manger bed.
1. Have you heard about our Jesus? Have you heard about his fate? How his mammy went to the stable On that Christmas Eve so late? Winds were blowing, cows were lowing, Stars were glowing, glowing, glowing. Refrain
2. To the manger came the Wise Men. Bringing from hin and yon, For the mother and the father, And the blessed little Son. Milkmaids left their fields and flocks And sat beside the ass and ox. Refrain
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Something has descended like feathered prophecy. Someone has offered the world a bowl of frozen tears,
has traced the veins and edges of leaves with furred ink. The grass is stiff as the strings of a lute.
And, day by day, the tiny windows crack their cardboard frames seizing the frail light. The sun, moving through
these waxy squares, undiminished as a word passing from mind to speech. Every breath a birth,
a stir of floating limbs within me. I stay up late and waken early to feel beneath my feet the silence coming. ~Anya Silver “Advent, First Frost”
When I am weary, putting one foot in front of the other in the humble chores of the barn, feeling so cold at times, I no longer remember this was once sweaty summer work ~ now my hands ache in an arctic wind that shows no mercy.
Yet I know respite will come, refuge is near, salvation is imminent. Each breath I breathe a cloud of hope.
I will remember what our good God has prepared for us in such a place as this, what He has done to come down to dwell with us, melting our frozen tears, aching in silence alongside us.
Good people all, this Christmas time, Consider well and bear in mind What our good God for us has done In sending his beloved son With Mary holy we should pray, To God with love this Christmas Day
In Bethlehem upon that morn, There was a blessed Messiah born The night before that happy tide The noble Virgin and her guide Were long time seeking up and down To find a lodging in the town
But mark right well what came to pass From every door repelled, alas As was foretold, their refuge all Was but a humble ox’s stall Near Bethlehem did shepherds keep Their flocks of lambs and feeding sheep
To whom God’s angel did appear Which put the shepherds in great fear Arise and go, the angels said To Bethlehem, be not afraid For there you’ll find, this happy morn A princely babe, sweet Jesus, born With thankful heart and joyful mind
The shepherds went the babe to find And as God’s angel had foretold They did our Saviour Christ behold Within a manger he was laid And by his side a virgin maid
Attending on the Lord of Life Who came on earth to end all strife There were three wise men from afar Directed by a glorious star And on they wandered night and day
Until they came where Jesus lay And when they came unto that place Where our beloved Messiah lay They humbly cast them at his feet With gifts of gold and incense sweet. ~Traditional Irish — the Wexford Carol 12th century
[The Incarnation is like] a wave of the sea which, rushing up on the flat beach, runs out, even thinner and more transparent, and does not return to its source but sinks into the sand and disappears. ~Hans Urs von Balthasar from Origen: Spirit and Fire
The Word became flesh. Ultimate Mystery born with a skull you could crush one-handed. Incarnation. It is not tame. It is not beautiful. It is uninhabitable terror. It is unthinkable darkness riven with unbearable light.
Agonized laboring led to it, vast upheavals of intergalactic space, time split apart, a wrenching and tearing of the very sinews of reality itself. You can only cover your eyes and shudder before it, before this: “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God… who for us and for our salvation,” as the Nicene Creed puts it, “came down from heaven.” Came down. Only then do we dare uncover our eyes and see what we can see. It is the Resurrection and the Life she holds in her arms. It is the bitterness of death he takes at her breast. ~Frederick Buechner from Whistling in the Dark
Down he came from up, and in from out, and here from there. A long leap, an incandescent fall from magnificent to naked, frail, small, through space, between stars, into our chill night air, shrunk, in infant grace, to our damp, cramped earthy place among all the shivering sheep.
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I put my hope. My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning. Psalm 130: 5-6 from a Song of Ascents
Waiting is essential to the spiritual life. But waiting as a disciple of Jesus is not an empty waiting. It is a waiting with a promise in our hearts that makes already present what we are waiting for.
We wait during Advent for the birth of Jesus. We wait after Easter for the coming of the Spirit, and after the ascension of Jesus we wait for his coming again in glory.
It is this great absence that is like a presence, that compels me to address it without hope of a reply. It is a room I enter
from which someone has just gone, the vestibule for the arrival of one who has not yet come. I modernise the anachronism
of my language, but he is no more here than before. Genes and molecules have no more power to call him up than the incense of the Hebrews
at their altars. My equations fail as my words do. What resources have I other than the emptiness without him of my whole being, a vacuum he may not abhor? ~R.S. Thomas “The Absence”
To wait is hard when we know the value of the gift that awaits us. We know exactly what is in the package since we have watched it being carefully chosen, wrapped and presented to us to open.
We have seen His footprints on our landscape: in the hottest dessert, in the deepest snow, in the meadows and in the forests, in the mud and muck and mire of our lives; we know He has been here and wait for His return.
Not yet though, not quite yet. So we wait, and continue to wait.
Even more so, we wait and hope for what we do not see but know is coming, like a groaning in the labor of childbirth.
The waiting is never easy; it is painful to be patient, staying alert to possibility and hope when we are exhausted, barely able to function. Others won’t understand why we wait, nor do they comprehend what we could possibly be waiting for when it remains unseen, with only the footprints left behind to remind us.
Yet we persevere together, with patience, watching and hoping, like Mary and Joseph, like Elizabeth and Zechariah, like the shepherds, like the Magi of the east, like Simeon and Anna in the temple.
This is the meaning of Advent: we are a community groaning together in sweet anticipation and expectation of the gift of Morning to come.
I pray my soul waits for the Lord My hope is in His word More than the watchman waits for dawn My soul waits for the Lord
1) Out of the depths I cry to You; From darkest places I will call. Incline Your ear to me anew, And hear my cry for mercy, Lord. Were You to count my sinful ways How could I come before Your throne? Yet full forgiveness meets my gaze – I stand redeemed by grace alone.
CHORUS I will wait for You, I will wait for You, On Your word I will rely. I will wait for You, surely wait for You Till my soul is satisfied.
2) So put Your hope in God alone, Take courage in His power to save; Completely and forever won By Christ emerging from the grave.
3) His steadfast love has made a way, And God Himself has paid the price, That all who trust in Him today Find healing in his sacrifice.
I will wait for You, I will wait for You Through the storm and through the night. I will wait for You, surely wait for You, For Your love is my delight.
Wait for the Lord, his day is near Wait for the Lord, be strong take heart Prepare the way for the Lord Make a straight path for Him The Glory of the Lord shall be revealed All the Earth will see the Lord Rejoice in the Lord always He is at Hand Joy and gladness for all who seek the Lord
Here is a meeting made of hidden joys Of lightenings cloistered in a narrow place, From quiet hearts the sudden flame of praise, And in the womb the quickening kick of grace.
Two women on the very edge of things Unnoticed and unknown to men of power, But in their flesh the hidden Spirit sings And in their lives the buds of blessing flower.
And Mary stands with all we call ‘too young,’ Elizabeth with all called ‘past their prime.’ They sing today for all the great unsung Women who turned eternity to time,
Favoured of heaven, outcast on the earth, Prophets who bring the best in us to birth. ~Malcolm Guite “The Visitation”
41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!” Luke 1: 41-45 (Song of Elizabeth)
This scene in Luke is remarkable for its portrayal of the interconnected relationship of four individuals, not just two. Here are two cousins who become mothers despite utter impossibility — one too elderly and one virginal — present on this day with their unborn sons — one who is harbinger and one who is God.
These unborn babies are not just passively “hidden within” here. They have changed their mothers in profound ways, as all pregnancies tend to do, but especially these pregnancies. As any mother who first experiences the “quickening” of her unborn child can relate, there is an awesome and frightening awareness of a completely dependent but active “other” living inside.
She is aware she is no longer alone in her shell and what happens to her, happens to this other life as well. This is deeply personal, yet deeply communal at the same time – as we witnessed in the arguments about maternal vs. fetal rights that took place in the hallowed halls of the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday.
The moment Elizabeth hears Mary’s voice, she and the baby in her womb are overwhelmed, filled with the Spirit from Mary’s unborn. They leap, figuratively and literally. Her voice leaps up, louder in her exclamation of welcome; John leaps in the womb in acknowledgement of being in the presence of God Himself.
How can our hearts not leap as well at God’s Word to us, at His hope and plan for each of us, at His gift of life from the moment of our conception.
After all, He once was unborn too, completely dependent on the willingness of His mother to bear Him to birth, completely alive because of the overshadowing Spirit of His Father.