I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve. ~ J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
To love means loving the unlovable. To forgive means pardoning the unpardonable. Faith means believing the unbelievable. Hope means hoping when everything seems hopeless. ~G.K. Chesterton
I can grumble along with the best of the them, especially over the last year of nothing being as it was. There can be camaraderie in shared grumbling, as well as an exponential increase in dissatisfaction. Everyone shares their frustrations over how we have come to this — how people we thought we knew, and thought we loved, can be so obstinate and hard-headed.
You undoubtedly feel the same about me.
And I know better. I’ve seen where grousing and grumbling leads. It aches in my bones when I’m steeped in it. The sky is grayer, the clouds are thicker, the night is darker – on and on to an overwhelming suffocating conclusion that hey, life sucks.
Turning away from the vacuum of discouragement, I am reminded:
I have been loved even when unlovable. I have been forgiven even when I’ve done the unforgivable.
I have the privilege to choose hope and joy, turning away from being bleak and disgruntled and simply seek and bathe in the warmth and wonder of each new day.
This is not putting on a “happy face” — instead — in a true welcoming hospitality, joy finds me, adopts me, holds me close in the tough times and won’t abandon me.
Joy is always within my reach because hope has chosen me despite my hopelessness. How welcoming is that?
There’s a certain Slant of light On winter afternoons — That oppresses, like the Heft of cathedral tunes. When it comes, the Landscape listens — Shadows hold their breath — When it goes, ’tis like the Distance On the look of Death. ~Emily Dickinson
How valuable it is in these short days, threading through empty maple branches, the lacy-needled sugar pines.
Its glint off sheets of ice tells the story of Death’s brightness, her bitter cold.
We can make do with so little, just the hint of warmth, the slanted light... ~Molly Fisk, “Winter Sun” from The More Difficult Beauty
Tell all the truth but tell it slant — Success in Circuit lies Too bright for our infirm Delight The Truth’s superb surprise As Lightning to the Children eased With explanation kind The Truth must dazzle gradually Or every man be blind — ~Emily Dickinson
I like the slants of light; I’m a collector. That’s a good one, I say… ~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
During our northwest winters, there is usually so little sunlight on gray cloudy days that I routinely turn on the two light bulbs in the big hay barn any time I need to fetch hay bales for the horses. This is so I avoid falling into the holes that inevitably develop in the hay stack between bales. Winter murky lighting tends to hide the dark shadows of the leg-swallowing pits among the bales, something that is particularly hazardous when carrying a 60 pound hay bale.
Yesterday when I went to grab hay bales for the horses at sunset, before I flipped the light switch, I could see light already blazing in the big barn. The last of the day’s sun rays were at a precise winter slant, streaming through the barn slat openings, ricocheting off the roof timbers onto the bales, casting an almost fiery glow onto the hay. The barn was ignited and ablaze without fire and smoke — the last things one would even want in a hay barn.
I scrambled among the bales without worry.
In my life outside the barn I’ve been falling into more than my share of dark holes lately. Even when I know where they lie and how deep they are, some days I will manage to step right in anyway. Each time it knocks the breath out of me, makes me cry out, makes me want to quit trying to lift the heavy loads. It leaves me fearful to venture where the footing is uncertain.
Then, on the darkest of days, light comes from the most unexpected of places, blazing a trail to help me see where to step, what to avoid, how to navigate the hazards to avoid collapsing on my face. I’m redirected, inspired anew, granted grace, gratefully calmed and comforted amid my fears. Even though the light fades, and the darkness descends again, it is only until tomorrow. Then it reignites again.
Although I favor the open mind, I certainly do not advocate that the mind should be so open that the brains fall out. ~Arthur Hays Sulzberger (among others) — New York Times publisher from 1935-1961 from “Freedom of Information”
I tell you this to break your heart, by which I mean only that it break open and never close again to the rest of the world. — Mary Oliver from New and Selected Poems, Volume Two
Few things are as condemning in this day and age than being accused of being closed-minded. In religion and politics, the most zealous liberals and hard-core conservatives are the least likely to see another point of view, much less tolerate it. They are more than willing to “cancel” anyone who might be bold enough to express another perspective.
On the one hand, when unwilling to consider a differing opinion or world view, it becomes impossible to admit one could be a little bit misinformed or just plain wrong. Some hard-heads are locked so tight because they have intentionally lost the key to ever risk being open.
On the other hand, I know those who are so open-minded, there is nothing left but blank space because common sense has spilled out — whatever feels right, anything goes, no judgment, no boundaries, no barriers, all doors and windows flung ajar with “liberating” breezes coming and going.
It is a terribly empty void to behold when one’s brains have fallen out.
As for me, moderate middle-of-the-road person that I am, I tend to keep a protective helmet on but listen for the knock on the door of my convictions and opinions to see who or what may be there, remaining receptive to some possibility other than what I think I know.
All in all, we should prefer open-hearted over open- or closed-minded. Although far costlier, Love spilled from a broken Incarnate Heart and flooded the world with undeserved Grace. It will never be closed again.
Chunky and noisy, but with stars in their black feathers, they spring from the telephone wire and instantly
they are acrobats in the freezing wind. And now, in the theater of air, they swing over buildings,
dipping and rising; they float like one stippled star that opens, becomes for a moment fragmented,
then closes again; and you watch and you try but you simply can’t imagine
how they do it with no articulated instruction, no pause, only the silent confirmation that they are this notable thing,
this wheel of many parts, that can rise and spin over and over again, full of gorgeous life.
Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us, even in the leafless winter, even in the ashy city. I am thinking now of grief, and of getting past it;
I feel my boots trying to leave the ground, I feel my heart pumping hard. I want
to think again of dangerous and noble things. I want to be light and frolicsome. I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing, as though I had wings. ~Mary Oliver “Starlings in Winter” from Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays
Out of the dimming sky a speck appeared, then another, and another. It was the starlings going to roost. They gathered deep in the distance, flock sifting into flock, and strayed towards me, transparent and whirling, like smoke. They seemed to unravel as they flew, lengthening in curves, like a loosened skein. I didn’t move;they flew directly over my head for half an hour.
Each individual bird bobbed and knitted up and down in the flight at apparent random, for no known reason except that that’s how starlings fly, yet all remained perfectly spaced. The flocks each tapered at either end from a rounded middle, like an eye. Overhead I heard a sound of beaten air, like a million shook rugs, a muffled whuff. Into the woods they sifted without shifting a twig, right through the crowns of trees, intricate and rushing, like wind.
Could tiny birds be sifting through me right now, birds winging through the gaps between my cells, touching nothing, but quickening in my tissues, fleet? ~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
…yesterday I heard a new sound above my head a rustling, ruffling quietness in the spring air
and when I turned my face upward I saw a flock of blackbirds rounding a curve I didn’t know was there and the sound was simply all those wings, all those feathers against air, against gravity and such a beautiful winning: the whole flock taking a long, wide turn as if of one body and one mind.
How do they do that?
If we lived only in human society what a puny existence that would be
but instead we live and move and have our being here, in this curving and soaring world that is not our own so when mercy and tenderness triumph in our lives and when, even more rarely, we unite and move together toward a common good,
we can think to ourselves:
ah yes, this is how it’s meant to be. ~Julie Cadwallader Staub from “Blackbirds” from Wing Over Wing
Watching a winter starlings’ murmuration is a visceral experience – my heart leaps to see it happen above me. I can get queasy following its looping amoebic folding and unfolding path.
Thousands of individual birds move in sync with one another to form one massive organism existing solely because each tiny component anticipates and cooperates to avoid mid-air collisions. It could explode into chaos but it doesn’t. It could result in massive casualties but it doesn’t. They could avoid each other altogether but they don’t – they come together with a purpose and reasoning beyond our imagining. Even the silence of their movement has a discernible sound.
We humans are made up of just such cooperating component parts, that which is deep in our tissues, programmed in our DNA. Yet we don’t exercise such unity from our designed and carefully constructed building blocks. We are frighteningly disparate and independent creatures, going our own way bumping and crashing without care, leaving so much body and spiritual wreckage behind.
To where has flown our mercy and tenderness? We have corporately lost our internal moral compass.
We figuratively and literally shoot each other in the back, trampling over and suffocating one another, in a reach for justice that seems right in our own eyes.
We even watch the daily death count rise in ever-increasing numbers, and still some resist doing what it takes to protect themselves and one another.
The sound of silence is muffled weeping.
There comes a time in every fall before the leaves begin to turn when blackbirds group and flock and gather choosing a tree, a branch, together to click and call and chorus and clamor announcing the season has come for travel.
Then comes a time when all those birds without a sound or backward glance pour from every branch and limb into the air, as if on a whim but it’s a dynamic, choreographed mass a swoop, a swerve, a mystery, a dance
and now the tree stands breathless, amazed at how it was chosen, how it was changed. ~Julie Cadwallader Staub “Turning” from Wing Over Wing
Today is one of those excellent January partly cloudies in which light chooses an unexpected part of the landscape to trick out in gilt, and then the shadow sweeps it away.
You know you’re alive. You take huge steps, trying to feel the planet’s roundness arc between your feet. ~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
It was like a church to me. I entered it on soft foot, Breath held like a cap in the hand. It was quiet. What God there was made himself felt, Not listened to, in clean colours That brought a moistening of the eye, In a movement of the wind over grass.
There were no prayers said. But stillness Of the heart’s passions – that was praise Enough; and the mind’s cession Of its kingdom. I walked on, Simple and poor, while the air crumbled And broke on me generously as bread. ~R.S. Thomas “The Moor”
There are January days when I am surrounded by mist and fog and partly cloudies- a brief gift of blue sky and gilt light.
God is felt on days like this, neither seen or heard, His stilling presence overtaking me with each breath I draw, following the path of each glistening tear, becoming the arcing ground reaching to meet my foot with each bold step I take.
Though the barn is so warm that the oats in his manger, the straw in his bed seem to give off smoke—
though the wind is so cold, the snow in the pasture so deep he’d fall down and freeze in an hour—
the eleven-month-old palomino stallion has gone almost crazy fighting and pleading to be let out. ~Alden Nowlan “The Palomino Stallion” from Selected Poems.
Inside the barn the sheep were standing, pushed close to one another. Some were dozing, some had eyes wide open listening in the dark. Some had no doubt heard of wolves. They looked weary with all the burdens they had to carry, like being thought of as stupid and cowardly, disliked by cowboys for the way they eat grass about an inch into the dirt, the silly look they have just after shearing, of being one of the symbols of the Christian religion. In the darkness of the barn their woolly backs were full of light gathered on summer pastures. Above them their white breath was suspended, while far off in the pine woods, night was deep in silence. The owl and rabbit were wondering, along with the trees, if the air would soon fill with snowflakes, but the power that moves through the world and makes our hair stand on end was keeping the answer to itself. ~Tom Hennen “Sheep in the Winter Night” from Darkness Sticks to Everything.
We all feel pretty locked in right now – not able to go where we want, when we want, or how we want. We are kicking at the walls and pummeling each other in our frustration at the limitations imposed by a blizzard of virus swirling outside, swallowing up another person every couple minutes.
It is hard to think of quarantine as a necessary time of security and safety. Even our horses are confined to their barn stalls in the worst of winter weather with all the comforts of home provided to them, yet somehow they believe it is better “out there” than inside. However, once they are “out there,” they take one look around and turn back to come in where there isn’t knee deep mud or bitter northeast winds or pounding drenching rain. It isn’t a bit friendly out there.
In this part of the world, we can continue to have harsh winter weather for another month or so and then we can start allowing our critters more freedom. There is no chance the viral storm will settle that soon so the rest of us will hunker down for a while longer.
She wakes to gray. No words to guide the way toward son. His unfamiliar face seems kind enough. She nods hello. Just yesterday she knew his eyes, but now?
This morning’s mind welcomes the past but not the day. She was someone: woman who woke at 3:00 to sing her restless son to sleep, his calm her cause for celebration. Today the dawn brings
no clarity, yet still the stranger comes and draws her curtains wide. She thinks outside is where she left her life: daughters, a son who meet sunrise without her. Look, the light
is brighter now. The kind man helps her stand. To see the morning sun, she takes his hand. ~Marjorie Maddox “Alzheimer Aubade”
Lying still, your mouth gapes open as I wonder if you breathe your last. Your hair a white cloud Your skin baby soft No washing, digging, planting gardens Or raising children Anymore.
Where do your dreams take you? At times you wake in your childhood home of Rolling wheat fields, boundless days of freedom. Other naps take you to your student and teaching days Grammar and drama, speech and essays. Yesterday you were a young mother again Juggling babies, farm and your wistful dreams.
Today you looked about your empty nest Disguised as hospital bed, Wondering aloud about Children grown, flown. You still control through worry and tell me: Travel safely Get a good night’s sleep Take time to eat Call me when you get there
I dress you as you dressed me I clean you as you cleaned me I love you as you loved me You try my patience as I tried yours. I wonder if I have the strength to Mother my mother For as long as she needs.
When I tell you the truth Your brow furrows as it used to do When I disappointed you~ This cannot be A bed in a room in a sterile place Waiting for death Waiting for heaven Waiting
And I tell you: Travel safely Eat, please eat Sleep well Call me when you get there.
Let us step outside for a moment As the sun breaks through clouds And shines on wet new fallen snow, And breathe the new air. So much has died that had to die this year. We are dying away from things. It is a necessity—we have to do it Or we shall be buried under the magazines, The too many clothes, the too much food.
Let us step outside for a moment Among ocean, clouds, a white field, Islands floating in the distance. They have always been there. But we have not been there.
Already there are signs. Young people plant gardens. Fathers change their babies’ diapers And are learning to cook.
Let us step outside for a moment. It is all there Only we have been slow to arrive At a way of seeing it. Unless the gentle inherit the earth There will be no earth. ~May Sarton from “New Year Poem”
Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention. They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go next. ~Frederick Buechnerfrom Beyond Words
This year I have been paying close attention to what makes me weep. During 2020, I have had more than ample opportunity to find out — from my tears — the secret of who I am, where I have come from, and for the salvation of my soul, where I am to be next.
My pockets contain hand sanitizer and kleenex, stowed right next to my mask.
In previous years, my tears flowed while spending time with far-flung children and grandchildren for the holidays — reading books and doing puzzles together and reminiscing about what has been and what could be. It was about singing grace together before a meal and my voice breaking with precious words of gratitude. My tears certainly had to do with bidding farewell until we meet again — gathering them in for that final hug and then that difficult letting-go and waving goodbye as they round the corner and disappear.
This year, that had to happen on a screen or from behind masks. No hugs hello or goodbye. None of the usual ways we celebrate together. I feel bereft as have countless other families around the globe. Some never had opportunity to say their final goodbye – too much has died this year.
As our children grew up, we encouraged them to go where their hearts told them they were needed and called to go, even if thousands of miles away from their one-time home on this farm. And so they went.
I too was let go once and though I would try to look back, too often in tears, I learned to set my face toward the future, seeking how the sun might break through the clouds in my life. It led me to this marriage, this family, this farm, this work, this church, to more tears and heartbreak, to more letting go. And it will continue if I’m granted more years to weep again and again with gusto and grace.
This year my tears flow for what could not be. For too many families, their tears flow for who now is missing and will never return. My tears flow for the pain and sadness of disagreement and angry words.
Spreading faster than COVID is the viral expansion of toxic misinformation and conspiracy theories sowing doubt and distrust. Masks are useless to protect people exposed to a deficiency of simple common sense.
So this is where I must go next: to love so much and so deeply that my tears might make a small difference to those around me, like the sun breaking through the clouds.
A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more. Matthew 2:18 and Jeremiah 31:15
We think of him as safe beneath the steeple, Or cosy in a crib beside the font, But he is with a million displaced people| On the long road of weariness and want. For even as we sing our final carol His family is up and on that road, Fleeing the wrath of someone else’s quarrel, Glancing behind and shouldering their load.
Whilst Herod rages still from his dark tower Christ clings to Mary, fingers tightly curled,| The lambs are slaughtered by the men of power, And death squads spread their curse across the world. But every Herod dies, and comes alone To stand before the Lamb upon the throne. ~Malcolm Guite from Waiting on the Word
…as you sit beneath your beautifully decorated tree, eat the rich food of celebration, and laugh with your loved ones, you must not let yourself forget the horror and violence at the beginning and end of the Christmas story. The story begins with the horrible slaughter of children and ends with the violent murder of the Son of God. The slaughter depicts how much the earth needs grace. The murder is the moment when that grace is given.
Look into that manger representing a new life and see the One who came to die. Hear the angels’ celebratory song and remember that sad death would be the only way that peace would be given. Look at your tree and remember another tree – one not decorated with shining ornaments, but stained with the blood of God.
As you celebrate, remember that the pathway to your celebration was the death of the One you celebrate, and be thankful. ~Paul Tripp
There can be no consolation; only mourning and great weeping, sobbing that wrings dry every human cell, leaving dust behind– dust, only dust which is beginning and end.
He came to us for times such as this, born of the dust of woman and the breath of Spirit, God who bent down to lie in barn dust, walk on roads of dust, die and be laid to rest as dust in order to conquer such evil as this that could terrify masses and massacre innocents.
He became dust to be like us He began a mere speck in a womb like us, so easily washed away as unexpected, unneeded, unwanted.
Lord, You are long expected. You are needed You are wanted.
Your heart beat like ours breathing each breath like ours until a fearful fallen world took Your and our breath away.
You shine through the shadows of death to guide our stumbling uncertain feet. Your tender mercies flow freely when there is no consolation when there is no comfort.
You hear our cries as You cry too. You know our tears as You weep too. You know our mourning as You mourned too. You know our dying as You died too.
God weeps as tragedy happens. Evil comes not from God yet humankind embraces it. Sin is a choice we made from the beginning, a choice we continue to make.
Only God can glue together what evil has shattered. He just asks us to hand Him the pieces of our broken hearts.
We will know His peace when He comes to bring us home, our tears will finally be dried, our cells no longer just dust, never only dust as we are glued together by the breath of God forevermore.
the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace. Luke 1: 78-79
The way a crow Shook down on me The dust of snow From a hemlock tree
Has given my heart A change of mood And saved some part Of a day I had rued. ~Robert Frost “Dust of Snow”
All those with whom I speak these days wish things could be different~ nothing feels right, rights feel like nothing, everyone sadly angry and angrily sad.
Friends no longer speaking to friends, families divided, opinions expressed and dismissed.
This virus is doing more damage than it was ever designed to do. It simply wants to replicate itself, yet along with its RNA, we have allowed it to sow discord, distrust, discouragement into our cells as well.
There is no vaccine for the stubbornness of heart ailing us now; we resist protective measures, act as if all is normal when a quarter million are dead and more are dying.
This infection of the spirit will far outlast the virus by spreading through the generations, eroding relationships, splitting human bonds, and withering our love for one another.