Dawn on our Darkness: Snowbound Snowblind Longing

The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.
John 3:8

To look at the last great self-portraits of Rembrandt or to read Pascal or hear Bach’s B-minor Mass is to know beyond the need for further evidence that if God is anywhere, he is with them, as he is also with the man behind the meat counter, the woman who scrubs floors at Roosevelt Memorial, the high-school math teacher who explains fractions to the bewildered child. And the step from “God with them” to Emmanuel, “God with us,” may not be as great as it seems.

What keeps the wild hope of Christmas alive year after year in a world notorious for dashing all hopes is the haunting dream that the child who was born that day may yet be born again even in us and our own snowbound, snowblind longing for him.
~Frederick Buechner from A Room Called Remember

God gave us all a garden once
and walked with us at eve
that we might know him face to face
with no need to believe.

But we denied and hid from Him,
concealing our own shame,
yet still He came and looked for us,
and called us each by name.

He found us when we hid from Him,
He clothed us with His grace.
But still we turned our backs on Him
and would not see His face.

So now, He comes to us again,
not as a Lord most high,
but weak and helpless as we are,
that we might hear Him cry.

And He who clothed us in our need,
lies naked in the straw,
that we might wrap Him in our rags
when once we fled in awe.

The strongest comes in weakness now,
a stranger to our door,
the King forsakes His palaces
and dwells among the poor.

And where we hurt, He hurts with us,
and when we weep, He cries.
He knows the heart of all our hurts,
the inside of our sighs.

He does not look down from up above,
but gazes up at us,
that we might take Him in our arms,
He always cradles us.

And if we welcome Him again,
with open hands and heart,
He’ll plant His garden deep in us,
the end from which we start.


And in that garden, there’s a tomb,
whose stone is rolled away,
where we and everything we’ve loved
are lowered in the clay.

But lo! the tomb is empty now,
and clothed in living light,
His ransomed people walk with One
who came on Christmas night.

So come, Lord Jesus, find in me
the child you came to save,
stoop tenderly with wounded hands
and lift me from my grave.


Be with us all, Emmanuel,
and keep us close and true,
be with us till that kingdom comes
where we will be with You.

~Malcolm Guite“A Tale of Two Gardens”

Heaven could not hold God. 

Even though He is worshiped by angels, it is enough for Him to be held in His mother’s arms, His face kissed, His tummy full, to be bedded in a manger in lantern light.

It is enough for Him, as He is enough for us — even born as one of us, poor as we are — snowbound and ice-locked in our longing for something – anything – more. Our empty hearts fill with Him who came down when heaven could not hold Him any longer.

Imagine that. It is enough to melt us to readiness.

This year’s Advent theme “Dawn on our Darkness” is taken from this 19th century Christmas hymn:

Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
dawn on our darkness and lend us your aid.
Star of the east, the horizon adorning,
guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.
~Reginald Heber -from “Brightest and Best”

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Is There Anybody There?

‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller,
   Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grasses
   Of the forest’s ferny floor:
And a bird flew up out of the turret,
   Above the Traveller’s head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
   ‘Is there anybody there?’ he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;
   No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,
   Where he stood perplexed and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners
   That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
   To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
   That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
   By the lonely Traveller’s call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
   Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
   ’Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
   Louder, and lifted his head:—
‘Tell them I came, and no one answered,
   That I kept my word,’ he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
   Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
   From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
   And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
   When the plunging hoofs were gone.

~Walter de la Mare “The Listeners”

Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.
Revelation 3:20

This poetic tale of a mysterious traveller, knocking but getting no response from a house of silent apparitions, has been cited as an appropriate ghost story for Halloween. This is a day of trick or treat knocks on doors everywhere.

I read the poem differently: to me this describes the return of Christ to retrieve us on the final day, just as He said He would.

If we are the phantom listeners, ignoring His knocks on our door despite hearing His announcement of arrival, we have lost the opportunity to open the door and welcome Him in.

Is anybody there?

It isn’t enough to be just a listener. We must respond and answer the door, welcoming the Son of Man who is doing exactly as He promised.

Let Him in. There can be no better treat.

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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: Under Your Wing

For you have been the help of my life;
you take and keep me under your wing…
~from Psalm 63

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”

Next week we read of the crushing of Christ in the Garden of the Oil Press, Gethsemane. 

Even there, the moment of betrayal is the moment He is glorified, as He glorifies God.  Crushed, bleeding, pouring out over the world — He becomes the wings that brood and cover us.

Jesus is the sacrifice that anoints us.

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…

1 O God eternal, you are my God!
for you I long in body and soul;
as in a dry and waterless land
I search, I thirst, I faint for you.

2 On holy ground your glory I saw;
your steadfast love is better than life;
I'll bless your name as long as I live
and lift my hands to you in prayer.

3 You feed my soul as if with a feast
I sing your praise with jubilant lips;
upon my bed I call you to mind
and meditate on you at night.

4 For you have been the help of my life;
you take and keep me under your wing;
I cling to you, and find your support;
O God my joy, you are my God!
~Christopher Idle

Oh God, you are my God
Earnestly I seek you
My Soul thirsts for you,
My flesh yearns for you
In a dry and weary land
Where there is no water

I remember you at night
Through the watches of the night in the shadow of your wings
I sing because you helped me
My soul clings to you
And your hand upholds me
You alone

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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: When It’s All Been Said and Done

When it’s all been said and done
There is just one thing that matters
Did I do my best to live for truth?
Did I live my life for you?

~James Cowan

We don’t know when we will be done with this world – some have a bit of warning and others disappear unexpectedly in the course of an ordinary day like any other.

We all should consider ourselves warned. When it’s all been said and done, have we spent our time on what is truly meaningful or are we determined to accumulate stuff and status?

Christ lived His life for us. He was “all in” from the beginning and knew His destiny. We are called to live like Him.

When it all is said and done, what matters is love for His truth.

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…

When it’s all been said and done
There is just one thing that matters
Did I do my best to live for truth
Did I live my life for you

When it’s all been said and done
All my treasures will mean nothing
Only what I’ve done for love’s reward
Will stand the test of time

Lord your mercy is so great
That you look beyond our weakness
And find purest gold in miry clay
Making sinners into saints

I will always sing your praise
Here on earth and ever after
For you’ve shown me Heaven’s my true home
When it’s all been said and done
You’re my life when life is gone

When it’s all been said and done
There is just one thing that matters
Did I do my best to live for truth
Did I live my life for you
Lord I’ll live my life for you

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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: Guide Me Through the Gloom

Death shall not destroy my comfort,
Christ shall guide me thro’ the gloom;
Down he’ll send some heav’nly convoy,
To escort my spirit home.
~American Folk Hymn

Our neighbor Linda died yesterday after being cared for in hospice for the past several days. Her life journey was sadly shortened by the gloom and toll of early-onset dementia.

Even as her memory developed enlarging gaps and holes over the past few years, Jesus was always her refuge when she was lost in her confusion. Linda never lost her awe of God’s goodness, and never forgot His love for her. Even when fearful of the unknown or unremembered, she was held fast by Jesus.

Worshipping weekly with her husband Steve and extended family members brought her immense joy and comfort. She smiled broadly, singing faithfully the hymns she had known for decades.

Her call home is bittersweet for Steve, along with her family and friends who have supported her remaining at home during her last few vulnerable years. There is a toll and gloom in watching a beloved person slowly fade from this life, like a wave retreating from this shore to crest on some other far-off place.

What we who mourn know is that Linda was greeted on that other shore by those who have gone before her, assuring her she no longer would wonder where she was or be worried about what comes next.

She will forever know the joy of worship and the assurance of belonging. After all, there is no gloom in heaven, only the light of holy love.

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…

Death shall not destroy my comfort,
Christ shall guide me thro’ the gloom;
Down he’ll send some heav’nly convoy,
To escort my spirit home.

(Refrain):
Oh, hallelujah! How I Love my Savior,
Oh, hallelujah! That I Do.
Oh, Hallelujah! How I love my Savior!
Mourners, you may love him too.

Jordan’s stream shall not o’erflow me,
While my Savior’s by my side;
Canaan, Canaan lies before me!
Soon I’ll cross the swelling tide.

See the happy spirits waiting,
On the banks beyond the stream!
Sweet responses still repeating,
“Jesus! Jesus!” is their theme.

The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: Sometimes I Feel Discouraged

Sometimes I feel discouraged and think my work’s in vain,
but then the holy spirit revives my soul again.

~ African-American Spiritual “There is a Balm in Gilead”

Since my people are crushed, I am crushed;
    I mourn, and horror grips me.
 Is there no balm in Gilead?
    Is there no physician there?
Why then is there no healing
    for the wound of my people?

Jeremiah 8:21-22

At the edge of the woods on our farm stands a stately black cottonwood tree, also known by locals as a “Balm of Gilead” tree in our region. The leaf buds this time of year have a sticky fragrant resin that native peoples prepared as a salve ointment to treat various wounds and skin conditions.

We never have tried harvesting any of the cottonwood resin, but I’ve found the presence of this grand tree in the field seems balm enough when I find myself discouraged. The tall tree adapts so dramatically over the course of the seasons, remaining a fixture of stability and beauty whether golden in the autumn, blowing cottony seeds in the spring, bare with snow in the winter or flourishing with summer leaves.
It is steadfast and reassuring.

Discouragement is so familiar to us, a constant pandemic companion, and certainly is rampant over the past week with images of war filling our screens. No tree resin is capable of fighting a virus or stopping a war but the balm of Gilead in Jeremiah has the power of the Holy Spirit, able to heal our sin sick souls.

The love of our Savior is the balm for us, the wounded.
We will become whole again.

cottonwood seeds
cottonwood seed

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…

There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.
There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul.

Sometimes I feel discouraged and think my works in vain,
but then the holy spirit revives my soul again.

There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.
There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul.

Don’t ever feel discouraged for Jesus is your friend
and if you lack for knowledge he’ll ne’er refuse to lend.

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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: It Is My Treason

Who was the guilty?
Who brought this upon you?

It is my treason,
Lord, that has undone you.

’Twas I, Lord Jesus,
I it was denied you;
I crucified you.

~Oh Holy Jesus, How Have You Offended?

Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?
~Robert Frost from “Reluctance”

We share in the guilt, you and I, turning away from Love freely given.

We are the treasonous souls who betrayed a suffering dying Savior, allowing Him to take on Himself the punishment we deserved ourselves.

It is we who abandoned Him as He loved us to death.

Still now, even knowing His sacrifice, we accept the drift of things in our daily lives, setting aside our responsibility to care for one another.

We yield when there is pressure threatening to knock us over.
We bow and falter when our or others’ burdens become too much.

It just feels easier to not get involved.

Over this past week we are witnessing the profound cost of love:
the citizens of Ukraine will not accept, yield or bow to evil. They are willingly becoming sacrifices by resisting enormous forces bent on their destruction. Ukraine is teaching the world what it means to stand up to a bully — to take the shots for what is right and good and pure, not assuming someone else will do it for them.

Anything less would be acting treasonous to Love:
loving the heart of man and revering the face of God.

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…

Ah, holy Jesus, how hast thou offended,
That we to judge thee have in hate pretended?
By foes derided, by thine own rejected,
O most afflicted!

Who was the guilty?
Who brought this upon thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee!
Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee;
I crucified thee.

Lo, the Good Shepherd for the sheep is offered;
The slave hath sinned, and the Son hath suffered.
For our atonement, while we nothing heeded,
God interceded.

For me, kind Jesus, was thy incarnation,
Thy mortal sorrow, and thy life’s oblation;
Thy death of anguish and thy bitter passion,
For my salvation.

Therefore, kind Jesus, since I cannot pay thee,
I do adore thee, and will ever pray thee,
Think on thy pity and thy love unswerving,
Not my deserving.

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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: We Came From Dust

You came from dust and dust would be 
Without the Great Son’s victory. 
The gift is free yet must be claimed 
By goodness lived and evil tamed. 

Prepared to walk this Lenten trail 
They face death’s dark and shadowed vale. 
Rememb’ring Christ who led the way 
They bravely march beneath his sway. 

~Ash Wednesday’s Early Morn

And so the light runs laughing from the town,
Pulling the sun with him along the roads
That shed their muddy rivers as he goads
Each blade of grass the ice had flattened down.
At every empty bush he stops to fling
Handfuls of birds with green and yellow throats;
While even the hens, uncertain of their notes,
Stir rusty vowels in attempts to sing.

He daubs the chestnut-tips with sudden reds
And throws an olive blush on naked hills
That hoped, somehow, to keep themselves in white.
Who calls for sackcloth now? He leaps and spreads
A carnival of color, gladly spills
His blood: the resurrection—and the light.

~Louis Untermeyer from “Ash Wednesday”

May the light shine on our dusty darkness.
May we be stilled,
stunned to silence
by the knowledge of the Lord,
who sees us as we are,
knows us as we are,
and loves us anyway.

O people,
we who are His loved children,
who too often turn away from Him
so only our ashes remain.
His touch ignites
us to light again,
His blood has been
spilled across the sky.

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…

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No Before or After

Now in the blessed days of more and less
when the news about time is that each day
there is less of it I know none of that
as I walk out through the early garden
only the day and I are here with no
before or after and the dew looks up
without a number or a present age
~W. S. Merwin “Dew Light” from The Moon Before Morning

Dear March—Come in—
How glad I am—
I hoped for you before—
Put down your Hat—
You must have walked—
How out of Breath you are—

~Emily Dickinson

I measure time by calendar page turns…

there is less left of time each day
as I look to the sky to see the sun come and the sun go

I greet the new month as the old one passes
reminding myself there won’t be another like it

The morning dew light fades without a before or after
only a moment of blessing
now.

How can this not be the way of things?

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How Else Can We Live?

“Not again,” echoes forth 
as she wails silently 
searching, eyes wide 
in disbelief.

How does a heart 
withstand such pain?
“It cannot,” she sings out
from the deepest place.  

He cries from the corners 
of his eyes, a river of loss 
falling into the cavern of his mouth, 
a brook run backwards 
toward its beginning.

“Where do I put it?” she demands, 
“Where can I put the ache?
I need a shelf where
no one can touch it,”
hitting the highest note.

“I put it in a box covered over 
by life’s wanderings,” he recalls, 
in a remorseful way
in between breaths.

To put it out in the open, 
“audacious at best,”

in unison.

And yet – how else can we live?  

She reaches up to the shelf, 
taking it down, hope and doubt, 
unlocking the door 
to the abandoned house, 

bellowing out, bellowing out.

If Christ is not risen, count 
us the greatest of fools.
~Katie Setterberg “Choir Practice”

There are times when lifting our voices in song is the only way to express what our hearts are feeling, especially now as we witness the distress of the Ukrainian people who are relying on their cultural bonds, their spiritual faith and their trust that good people of the world will support their defense of their culture and their government.

May our voices be raised along with them, today and whenever freedom is threatened in the future. How else can we live?

photo by Jim Randall

One small town
Containing more churches than banks,

A one hundred year old choral society
With a Christmas tradition of singing Handel’s Messiah,

Sixty-some enthusiastic singers recruited without auditions
Through church bulletin announcements

Farmers, store clerks, machinists, students
Middle schoolers to senior citizens

Gather in an unheated church for six weeks of rehearsal
To perform one man’s great gift to sacred music.

Handel, given a libretto, commissioned to compose,
Isolated himself for 24 days, barely ate or slept

Believed himself confronted by all heaven itself
To see the face of God,

And so created overture, symphony, arias, oratorios
Soaring, interwoven themes repeating, resounding

With despair, mourning, anticipation
Renewal, redemption, restoration, triumph.

Delicate appoggiaturas and melismata
Of astounding complexity and intricacy.

A tapestry of sound and sensation unparalleled
To be shouted from the soul, wrung from the heart.

This group of rural people gathers to join voices
Honoring faith foretold, realized, proclaimed.

Ably led by a forgiving director with a sense of humor
And a nimble organist with flying feet and fingers.

The lilting sopranos with angel song,
The altos provide steadfast support,

The tenors echo plaintive prophecy
The base voices full and resonant.

A violinist paints heaven-sent refrain
In parallel duet of counterpoint melody.

The audience sits, eyes closed
As if in oft repeated familiar prayer.

The sanctuary overflows
With thankfulness:

Glory to God! For unto us a Child is born
And all the people, whether singers or listeners, are comforted.

One way to support the people of Ukraine in this crisis is through the
International Red Cross