An Unexpected January Light

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”

After years of rarely paying attention,
too busy with whatever household,
work-place, or barnyard task needed doing,
I realized there are only a finite number
of sunrises and sunsets left to me.

Now I stop, take a deep breath,
sense the earth’s roundness
and feel lucky to be alive,
a witness to a moment of manna
falling from the sky.

Sometimes it is as plain and gray
as I am, but at times,
a fire is lit from above and beneath,
igniting the sky, overwhelming me.

I am swept away by light and shadow,
transfixed and transformed,
forever grateful to be fed
by heavenly bread broken over my head.

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Here Under This Sky

I stop

and look at the sky. Suddenly: orange, red, pink, blue,
green, purple, yellow, gray, all at once and everywhere.

I pause in this moment at the beginning of my old age
and I say a prayer of gratitude for getting to this evening

a prayer for being here, today, now, alive
in this life, in this evening, under this sky.
~David Budbill from Winter: Tonight: Sunset

Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case.
~Annie Dillard from “Write Till You Drop”

At its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace.

It is handed to you, but only if you look for it. You search, you break your fists, your back, your brain, and then – and only then – it is handed to you. From the corner of your eye you see motion. Something is moving through the air and headed your way. It is a parcel bound in ribbons and bows; it has two white wings.

It flies directly at you; you can read your name on it. If it were a baseball, you would hit it out of the park. It is that one pitch in a thousand you see in slow motion; its wings beat slowly as a hawk’s.
~Annie Dillard from “Write Till You Drop”

I began to write regularly after September 11, 2001 because that day it became obvious to me I was dying too, though more slowly than the thousands who vanished in fire and ash, their voices obliterated with their bodies.   So, nearly each day since, while I still have voice and a new dawn to greet, I speak through my fingers to others dying around me.

We are, after all, terminal patients, some of us more prepared than others to move on, as if our readiness has anything to do with the timing.  Once, when our small church lost one of its most senior members to metastatic cancer, he announced his readiness once the doctor gave him the dire news (he liked to say he never bought green bananas as he wasn’t sure he’d be around to use them), but God had different plans and kept him among us for several years beyond his diagnosis.

Each day I too get a little closer to the end, but I write in order to feel a little more ready.  Each day I detach just a little bit, leaving a trace of my voice behind.  Eventually, through unmerited grace, so much of me will be left on the page there won’t be anything or anyone left to do the typing. I will be far out of the park, far beyond here.

Not a moment, not a sunrise, not a sunset, and not a word to waste.

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Lifted From the Water

I couldn’t let it drown. I ripped off a piece
of my sandwich bag, lifted it to safety.
Its little legs reached behind its back
to stroke its wings dry.
I, too, have stretched my legs
in strange positions. Is this a leap?
What did you expect? For me to let the bug
just be a bug. To leave it alone
when it already planned on dying.
To reach out and not imagine myself the God
I wish would lift me from the water.
~Daniella Toosie-Watson “The Bug”

You are not your own; you were bought at a price.
1 Corinthians 6: 19b-20a

There is a well known story with a number of variations, all involving a scorpion that stings a good-souled frog/turtle/crocodile/person who tries to rescue it from drowning. Since the sting dooms the rescuer and as a result the scorpion as well, the scorpion explains “to sting is in my nature”. In one version, the rescuer tries again and again to help the scorpion, repeatedly getting stung, only to explain before he dies “it may be in your nature to sting but it is in my nature to save.”

This is actually a story originating from Eastern religion and thought, the purpose of which is to illustrate the “dharma”, or orderly nature of things. The story ends perfectly for the Eastern religions believer even though both scorpion and the rescuer die in the end, as the dharma of the scorpion and of the rescuer is realized, no matter what the outcome. Things are what they are, without judgment, and actualization of that nature is the whole point.

However, this story only resonates for the Christian if the nature of the scorpion is forever transformed by the sacrifice of the rescuer on its behalf. The scorpion is no longer its own so no longer slave to its “nature” – no longer just a scorpion with a need and desire to sting whatever it sees. It has been “bought” through the sacrifice of the Rescuer. It no longer is “just” a bug, planning on drowning.

So we too are no longer our own,
no longer the helpless victim of our nature
no longer the stinger
no longer the stung
no longer who we used to be before we were rescued.

We are bought at a price beyond imagining.

And our nature to hurt, to punish, to sting, even to die – shall be no more.

Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?
1 Corinthians 15: 55

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Welcome Back, Trees

I go by a field where once
I cultivated a few poor crops.
It is now covered with young trees,
for the forest that belongs here
has come back and reclaimed its own.
And I think of all the effort
I have wasted and all the time,
and of how much joy I took
in that failed work and how much
it taught me. For in so failing
I learned something of my place,
something of myself, and now
I welcome back the trees.
~Wendell Berry, “IX” from Leavings.

As we both grow older, we watch our some of our farm’s fields slowly fill in with young trees, despite our efforts over the years to keep pulling out saplings to preserve pasture. Yet the trees are more determined to fill in the gaps than we are to remove them. The cottonwoods, alders and maples are returning to what once was their soil.

After all, this land was forested over a century ago and yielded to determined loggers and farmers as the old growth firs and cedars fell to the axe and the deciduous trees became firewood and furniture. We now find ourselves yielding back what we can, acknowledging what this land and these patient trees have to teach us about our transience. A few decades are a short stay to those who send roots and branches deep and wide in their effort to stay put.

Welcome back, trees. You have kindly waited for your turn to own the ground again.

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An Eternal Ultimate Eye

Silence and darkness grow apace, broken only by the crack of a hunter’s gun in the woods.  Songbirds abandon us so gradually that, until the day when we hear no birdsong at all but the scolding of the jay, we haven’t fully realized that we are bereft — as after a death.  Even the sun has gone off somewhere…

Now we all come in, having put the garden to bed, and we wait for winter to pull a chilly sheet over its head.  
~Jane Kenyon
from “Season of Change and Loss” in Winter: A Spiritual Biography

The tree, and its haunting bird,
Are the loves of my heart;
But where is the word, the word,
Oh where is the art,

To say, or even to see,
For a moment of time,
What the Tree and the Bird must be
In the true sublime?

They shine, listening to the soul,
And the soul replies;
But the inner love is not whole,
and the moment dies.

Oh give me before I die
The grace to see
With eternal, ultimate eye,
The Bird and the Tree.

The song in the living Green,
The Tree and the Bird –
Oh have they ever been seen,
Ever been heard?
~Ruth Pitter “The Bird in the Tree”

Every day now we hear hunters firing in the woods and the wetlands around our farm, most likely aiming for the few ducks that have stayed in the marshes through the winter, or possibly a Canadian goose or a deer to bring home for the freezer.   The usual day-long serenade of birdsong is replaced by shotguns popping, hawks and eagle screams and chittering from the treetops, the occasional dog barking, woodpeckers hammering at tree bark with the bluejays and squirrels arguing over the last of the filbert nuts.

In the clear cold evenings, when coyotes aren’t howling in the moonlight, the owls hoot to each other across the fields from one patch of woods to another, their gentle resonant conversation echoing back and forth. Our horses, confined to their stalls in the barns, snort and blow as they bury their noses in flakes of summer-bound hay.

But there are no longer birdsong arias; I’m left bereft of their blending musical tapestry that wakes me at 4 AM in the spring.

And no peeper orchestra tuning up in the swamps in the evenings, rising and falling on the breeze.

It is way too quiet – clearly a time of bereavement. The chilly silence of the darkened days, interrupted by gunshot percussion, is like a baton raised in anticipation after rapping the podium to bring us all to attention. I wait and listen for the downbeat of spring — the return of birds and frogs tuning their throats, preparing their symphony.

Oh, give me the grace to see and hear the Bird in the Tree with an eternal ultimate eye and ear.

Like a bird on a tree
I’m just sitting here
I get time
It’s clear to see
From up here
The world seems small
We can seat together
It’s so beautiful
You and me
We meant to be
In the great outdoors
Forever free
Sometimes you need to go
And take a step back
To see the truth around you
From a distance you can tell
You and me
We meant to be
In the great outdoors
Forever free
~Eldar Kedem

Between the March and April line—
That magical frontier
Beyond which summer hesitates,
Almost too heavenly near.
The saddest noise, the sweetest noise,
The maddest noise that grows and grows,—
The birds, they make it in the spring,
At night’s delicious close.
The saddest noise I know.
It makes us think of all the dead
That sauntered with us here,
By separation’s sorcery
Made cruelly more dear.
It makes us think of what we had,
And what we now deplore.
We almost wish those siren throats
Would go and sing no more.
An ear can break a human heart
As quickly as a spear,
We wish the ear had not a heart
So dangerously near.
~Lyrics adapted from an Emily Dickinson poem

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If You Must…

My hand, my arm,
make sweeping circles.
Dust climbs the ladder of light.
For this infernal, endless chore,
for these eternal seeds of rain:
Thank you. For dust.

~Marilyn Nelson from “Dusting” from Magnificat

It comes equally to us all,
and makes us all equal when it comes.

The ashes of an oak in the chimney
are no epitaph of that oak,

to tell me how high or how large that was;
it tells me not what flocks it sheltered while it stood,
nor what men it hurt when it fell †
and when a whirlwind hath blown
the dust of the churchyard into the church,
and the man sweeps out
the dust of the church into the churchyard,
who will undertake
to sift those dusts again

~John Donne from “The Equality of Death”

Dust if you must, but wouldn’t it be better
To paint a picture, or write a letter,
Bake a cake, or plant a seed;
Ponder the difference between want and need?

Dust if you must, but there’s not much time,
With rivers to swim, and mountains to climb;
Music to hear, and books to read;
Friends to cherish, and life to lead.

Dust if you must, but the world’s out there
With the sun in your eyes, and the wind in your hair;
A flutter of snow, a shower of rain,
This day will not come around again.

Dust if you must, but bear in mind,
Old age will come and it’s not kind.
And when you go (and go you must)
You, yourself, will make more dust.
~Rose Milligan “Dust If You Must”

…we all look the same in our beginning
and again when the end comes…
we are sifted through His hands,
blown on with His breath,
bled on in His sacrifice–

As varied as we are now in life,
our bodies in death melt to a dustiness
made manifest in His image:
dust motes sprung to life forever.

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Make Me Like You

Make me like one of your leaves
  Thirsty for light

Make me like one of your rocks
   Quiet to the core

Make me like one of your raindrops
      Joining the river

Make me like one of your feathers
      Floating in uncertainty

Make me like one of your stars
      Shining through darkness

Make me like You
     Able to love.

~Spence Pfleiderer “A Simple Morning Prayer”

Tonight at sunset walking on the snowy road,
my shoes crunching on the frozen gravel, first

through the woods, then out into the open fields
past a couple of trailers and some pickup trucks, I stop

and look at the sky. Suddenly: orange, red, pink, blue,
green, purple, yellow, gray, all at once and everywhere.

I pause in this moment at the beginning of my old age
and I say a prayer of gratitude for getting to this evening

a prayer for being here, today, now, alive
in this life, in this evening, under this sky.
~David Budbill “Winter: Tonight: Sunset”
 from While We’ve Still Got Feet

I thank you God for most this amazing day
For the leaping greenly spirits of trees
And a blue true dream of sky
And for everything that is natural, which is infinite, which is yes
I who have died am alive again today
And this is the sun’s birthday
This is the birth day of life and of love and wings
And of the gay great happening illimitably earth
How should tasting, touching, hearing, seeing, breathing any
Lifted from the no of all nothing
Human merely being doubt unimaginable You?
Now the ears of my ears awake
And now the eyes of my eyes are opened
~E. E. Cummings~

Each day,
no matter how things feel,
no matter how tired or distracted I am,
no matter how empty or discouraged,
no matter how worried, or fearful or heartsick:

it is up to me to distill my very existence down
to this moment of beauty that will never come again;
I’m given the unimaginable opportunity to be loving
with every cell of my being.

One breath, one blink, one pause, one whispered word again and again:
thanks, thanks, thanks be to God.

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An End-of-the-Year Wintry Soul

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.

While this end of the year’s darkness lingers,
beginning too early and lasting too late,
I find myself hiding in my own wintry soul,
knowing I have too often failed to do
what is needed
when it is needed.

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

I appeal to God
who knows my darkness needs His Light,
who unimaginably promises
buds of hope and warmth
and color and fruit
will arise from my barest branches.

He brings me forth out of hiding,
to be impossibly transformed.

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Here We All Are…

There’s nothing romantic about the Christmas story. If anything, it offers a slice of a brutal world in which a child is born on the street, so to speak, with next to nothing in the way of rights and security, and not even a home.

He whose birthday we celebrate at Christmas said, even as a grown man, “I have nothing. I am nowhere at home. Even at night, I have no place to rest or lay my head”.…But now this man from Nazareth comes to us and invites us to mirror God’s image, and shows us how. He says: you too can become light, as God is light. Because what is all around you is not hell, but rather a world waiting to be filled with hope and faith.
~Jörg Zink, from Türen zum Fest.

The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory,
And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware
Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought
Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now
Be very far off. But, for the time being, here we all are…

~W.H.Auden from “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio”

As we drove down the freeway through Seattle yesterday for a Christmas gathering of far-flung family members, I couldn’t help but flinch seeing the stark reality of ramshackle shelters and tents perched in the most precarious places along the roadside. This has been a week of freezing rain and ice, wind and snow for most of our country; here are people trying to survive in the lowliest of places through the worst of conditions. Surely, if this is not hell on earth, it is close to it. A merry Christmas indeed.

Suffering is never far off from where we are, whether we are confronted with homelessness, or it finds its way into our own lives, unbidden and overwhelming. In few weeks we begin the observance of Lent to remember the sacrifice and suffering of the Man born as a homeless baby into loving arms, having come from Loving Arms to rescue the lost.

So recently filled with Christmas feasting and cheer, I’m reminded of the struggle to find home, warmth, love and nurture in a world that can be so cruel, dark and cold.

The Babe has come to quake the gates of hell – here we all are, feeling the ground shaking…


This little Babe so few days old 
is come to rifle Satan's fold;
all hell doth at his presence quake 
though he himself for cold do shake;
for in this weak unarmèd wise 
the gates of hell he will surprise.

With tears he fights and wins the field, 
his naked breast stands for a shield;
his battering shot are babish cries, 
his arrows looks of weeping eyes,
his martial ensigns Cold and Need 
and feeble Flesh his warrior's steed.

His camp is pitchèd in a stall, 
his bulwark but a broken wall;
the crib his trench, haystacks his stakes; 
of shepherds he his muster makes;
and thus, as sure his foe to wound,
the angels' trump alarum sound.

My soul, with Christ join thou in fight, 
stick to the tents that he hath pight.
Within his crib is surest ward, 
this little Babe will be thy guard.
If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy, 
then flit not from this heavenly Boy.

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A Fading Fire

Some candle clear burns somewhere I come by.
I muse at how its being puts blissful back
With yellowy moisture mild night’s blear-all black,
Or to-fro tender trambeams truckle at the eye.
By that window what task what fingers ply,
I plod wondering, a-wanting, just for lack
Of answer the eagerer a-wanting Jessy or Jack
There God to aggrándise, God to glorify.—

Come you indoors, come home; your fading fire
Mend first and vital candle in close heart’s vault:
You there are master, do your own desire;
What hinders? Are you beam-blind, yet to a fault
In a neighbour deft-handed? Are you that liar
And, cast by conscience out, spendsavour salt?

~Gerard Manley Hopkins “The Candle Indoors”

Sometimes a lantern moves along the night, 
That interests our eyes. And who goes there? 
I think; where from and bound, I wonder, where, 
With, all down darkness wide, his wading light? 

Men go by me whom either beauty bright
In mould or mind or what not else makes rare: 
They rain against our much-thick and marsh air
Rich beams, till death or distance buys them quite. 

Death or distance soon consumes them: wind
What most I may eye after, be in at the end
I cannot, and out of sight is out of mind. 

Christ minds: Christ’s interest, what to avow or amend
There, éyes them, heart wánts, care haúnts, foot fóllows kínd,
Their ránsom, théir rescue, ánd first, fást, last friénd.

~Gerard Manley Hopkins “The Lantern Out of Doors

photo by Josh Scholten

Now burn, new born to the world,
Doubled-naturèd name,
The heaven-flung, heart-fleshed, maiden-furled
Miracle-in-Mary-of-flame,
Mid-numbered he in three of the thunder-throne!

Not a dooms-day dazzle in his coming nor dark as he came;
Kind, but royally reclaiming his own;
A released shower, let flash to the shire,
not a lightning of fíre hard-hurled.

Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us,
be a crimson-cresseted east…
~Gerard Manley Hopkins from “The Wreck of the Deutschland”

In three days, we have gone from a sub-zero wind chill ice storm from the north to a balmy 60 degree storm from the south, both winds taking out our power and plunging us into a deeper darker night.

Rather than resort to generator power immediately, I break the darkness with candle light. It is only a brief respite as candles burn down, batteries die, and we’re back in darkness again until the power lines are patched and the transformers restored.

Sometimes the Advent and Christmas season can feel like that: a recharge for my faith that has gone dark and cold, a fire lit under me to banish creeping doubt and discouragement. I need more than Advent rituals and Christmas traditions to keep the darkness in its place beyond today.

God doesn’t need beeswax or batteries to keep His Light on.
He just needs us: our trust, our love, our desire for understanding, our need for Him.

We are the candles that shine forth in the world to light the way for those around us who are floundering in the dark.

And that, Charlie Brown, is what Christmas is all about…

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