Waiting in the Wilderness: This Quintessence of Dust

What a piece of work is a man!
And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?
~ William Shakespeare in Hamlet’s monologue 

God –
the God who made the dust,
who made the stars,
who made the elements of which we are composed –
that same God chooses from the beginning to make his dwelling among us,

to live for all time like us,
as a servant of the soil.
I am the dust of the earth,
but God declares that he is not too good,
not too proud,
for my dustiness.
~Daniel Stulac from
 Plough Quarterly No. 4: Earth

What I know for sure is this:
We come from mystery and we return to mystery.
I arrived here with no bad memories of wherever I’d come from,
so I have no good reason to fear the place to which I’ll return.
And I know this, too:

Standing closer to the reality of death awakens my awe at the gift of life.
~Parker Palmer “On the Brink of Everything

This dust left of man:
earth, air, water and fire
prove inadequate
to quell the significance
of how, in the beginning,
this dust became us, and
how, forevermore,
this is the dust we leave behind.

Only now,
the transcendent hope
of eternal life restored by faith
can breathe glory
into us,
the plainest of ash.

All this pain
I wonder if I’ll ever find my way
I wonder if my life could really change, at all
All this earth
Could all that is lost ever be found?
Could a garden come out from this ground, at all?

You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of usAll around,
Hope is springing up from this old ground
Out of chaos life is being found, in you

You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of us
Oh, you make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of us

You make me new,
You are making me new
You make me new,
You are making me new
(Making me new)

You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of us
Oh, you make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of us

You make me new,
You are making me new
You make me new,
You are making me new

Songwriters: Lisa Gungor / Michael Gungor

A Hand on the Forehead

The bud
stands for all things,
even for those things that don’t flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;   
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on its brow
of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing;   
as Saint Francis
put his hand on the creased forehead
of the sow, and told her in words and in touch   
blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow   
began remembering all down her thick length,   
from the earthen snout all the way
through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail,   
from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine   
down through the great broken heart
to the sheer blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering   
from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and blowing beneath them:
the long, perfect loveliness of sow.
~Galway Kinnell, “Saint Francis and the Sow” from Three Books.

We all need such a blessing – a gentle hand on our forehead to remind us of our budding loveliness. Without that affirmation, we become convinced we will never flower and fruit, that we are worthless to the world.

Due to cruel comparisons on social media and elsewhere, our young people (and too many older adults) remain crippled buds, feeling criticized and bullied into believing they don’t measure up and can never be crucially beautiful in the world.

And so I must ask: compared to what and whom?
What is more glorious than blooming just as we were created –
serving the very purpose for which we were intended?
Why wish for something or someone else?

There is nothing more wonderful than exactly how God knitted us together for His own purpose and in His own image — imperfectly perfect.

Celebrate your lifelong loveliness, whoever you are!

Turning Darkness into Light: Dust Made Manifest

Nobody in the hospital
Could tell the age 
Of the old woman who
Was called Susanna

Because she had no visitors
I would stop by to see her
But she was always sleeping

One day I was beside her
When she woke up
Opening small dark eyes
Of a surprising clearness

She looked at me and said
You want to know the truth?
I answered Yes

She said it’s something that 
My mother told me

There’s not a single inch
Of our whole body
That the Lord does not love

She then went back to sleep.
~Anne Porter  from “Susanna”

photo by Andrea Nipges

So many people lie in a hospital bed these days, all alone
and fearful, wondering what could happen next,
waiting for the tide to turn and move them back to the shore
or sweep them out into the arms of their Creator forever.

We tend to forget the love of the One who made us,
including our funny looking feet, our anxieties,
the crooked teeth, the wrinkles, the scars, the split ends —

We see only our imperfections and frailty
when our Creator sees dust made manifest
in His image.

He loves us even when we do not love ourselves,
as we hide our flaws and cover up our vulnerable nakedness.

He loves every inch
because we are His opus,
a masterpiece,
so He became one of us.

He knew exactly what He was doing
and even now,
in the midst of our loneliness,
He knows exactly what He is doing
with the dust that still swirls around us.

Turning Darkness into Light: The Trees Tremble

After all the false dawns,
who is this who unerringly paints
the first rays in their true colours?
We have kept vigil with owls
when the occult noises of the night
fell tauntingly silent
and a breeze got up
as if for morning.
This time the trees tremble.
Is it with a kind of reckless joy
at the gentle light
lapping their leaves
like the very first turn of a tide?
Timid creatures creep out of burrows
sensing kindness
and the old crow on the cattle-shed roof
folds his wings and dreams.
~Richard Bauckham “First Light”

Who is this who has come to change everything in my life and everything within my heart?

Who is this who paints the skies to speak to me from His creation?

Who is this who wraps me firmly within His grasp and holds me tenderly when I am trembling afraid?

There will be no more false dawns.
He brings the sun with Him
and I am here, a witness,
standing before Him.

If I am alive this time next year
Will I have arrived in time to share?
And mine is about as good this far
And I’m still applied to what you are

And I am joining all my thoughts to you
And I’m preparing every part for you

And I heard from the trees a great parade
And I heard from the hills a band was made
And will I be invited to the sound?
And will I be a part of what you’ve made?

And I am throwing all my thoughts away
And I’m destroying every bet I’ve made
And I am joining all my thoughts to you
And I’m preparing every part for you
For you

~Sufjan Stevens

Some Missing One

All winter
the blue heron
slept among the horses.
I do not know
the custom of herons,
do not know
if the solitary habit
is their way,
or if he listened for
some missing one—
not knowing even
that was what he did—
in the blowing
sounds in the dark,
I know that
hope is the hardest
love we carry.
He slept
with his long neck
folded, like a letter
put away.
~Jane Hirshfield “Hope and Love” from The Lives of the Heart

I know what it is like to feel out of step with those around me, an alien in my own land. At times I wonder if I belong at all as I watch the choices others make. I grew up this way, missing a connection that I could not find, never quite fitting in, a solitary kid becoming a solitary adult. The aloneness bothered me, but not in a “I’ve-got-to-become-like-them” kind of way.

I went my own way, never losing hope.

Somehow misfits find each other. Through the grace and acceptance of others, I found a soul mate and community. Even so, there are times when the old feeling of not-quite-belonging creeps in and I wonder whether I’ll be a misfit all the way to the cemetery, placed in the wrong plot in the wrong graveyard.

We disparate creatures are made for connection of some kind, with those who look and think and act like us, or with those who are something completely different. I’ll keep on the lookout for my fellow misfits, just in case there is another one out there looking for company along this journey.

Born Out of Nothing

Look at the birds. Even flying
is born

out of nothing. The first sky
is inside you, open

at either end of day.
The work of wings
was always freedom, fastening
one heart to every falling thing.
~Li-Young Lee “One Heart”

I.
What banged?

II.
Before banging
How did it get there?

III.
When it got there
Where was it?
~Wendell Berry “On the Theory of the Big Bang as the Origin of the Universe” from Leavings

Creation ex nihilo is a way of saying that although we are nothing, in our natural capabilities, God might yet make something of us…
~Dr. Nathan Chambers from Reconsidering Creation Ex Nihilo in Genesis 1

“In the beginning, God…”

We came, out of nothing, from Him, not randomly, not by chance, not a cosmic accident but an intentional act.

That first day -“and there was evening and there was morning, the first day” – is built within our very DNA. We are created with everything we need to support our freedom, our wings bearing our hearts aloft.

Our choice to fall is ours alone; it was not what God intended for us.

From nothing, God might yet make something of us – let our wings bear our hearts to Him who made us.

And He will raise you up on eagles’ wings
Bear you on the breath of dawn
Make you to shine like the sun
And hold you in the palm of His hand

~Michael Joncas

Exists to be Lost

How swiftly the strained honey
of afternoon light
flows into darkness

and the closed bud shrugs off
its special mystery
in order to break into blossom:

as if what exists, exists
so that it can be lost
and become precious.
~Lisel Mueller “In Passing” from Alive Together

Each one of us is like a swelling bud hanging heavy and waiting on the stem — already but not quite yet.

Such is the late afternoon light of an October day.
There is an air of mystery in a honeyed moment of illumination
knowing something more is coming.

Not just the inevitable darkness when we all must sleep.
Not just opening wide to what we cannot yet understand.
No more peering through a glass darkly.

Breaking into blossom means losing what exists now,
this momentary glow of full ripeness,
to become part of the light itself.

Meant to Be Sweet

Who could need more proof than honey—

How the bees with such skill and purpose
enter flower after flower
sing their way home
to create and cap the new honey
just to get through the flowerless winter.

And how the bear with intention and cunning
raids the hive
shovels pawful after pawful into his happy mouth
bats away indignant bees
stumbles off in a stupor of satiation and stickiness.

And how we humans can’t resist its viscosity
its taste of clover and wind
its metaphorical power:
don’t we yearn for a land of milk and honey?
don’t we call our loved ones “honey?”

all because bees just do, over and over again, what they were made to do.

Oh, who could need more proof than honey
to know that our world
was meant to be

and

was meant to be
sweet?
~Julie Cadwallader Staub “Joy” from Face to Face

Our dependency on the lowly bee
-to pollinate all the fruits and vegetables we need to thrive-
is lost in the threat of bee viruses and giant killer hornets and chemical sprays.

Our dependency on the bee
models how we are to be…

We too were placed here to service the created world
and make it sweeter and more fruitful.

Instead, always greedy, we demand more than the world can give
and we now wring our hands at our fate.

We were created from a profound spirit of sweetness
and still, and yet, and in grace,
we are forgiven for settling for sullen sourness.

The Mountains are Home

Mountains are giant, restful, absorbent. You can heave your spirit into a mountain and the mountain will keep it, folded, and not throw it back as some creeks will. The creeks are the world with all its stimulus and beauty; I live there. But the mountains are home.
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

He found himself wondering at times, especially in the autumn, about the wild lands, and strange visions of mountains that he had never seen came into his dreams.

He loved mountains, or he has loved the thought of them marching on the edge of stories brought from far away; but now he was borne down by the insupportable weight of Middle-earth. He longed to shut out the immensity in a quiet room by a fire.
~J.R.R. Tolkien
from The Lord of the Rings

Yesterday afternoon we drove up the highway an hour or so to be witness to grander things than our own worries or the chaos of election season.

There is always that moment when we turn the bend into Heather Meadows and Mount Shuksan suddenly appears, overwhelming the landscape and everything and everyone else. There is simply nothing else to look at so I stand there gawking, forgetting to breathe.

Then I realize that I have become more self-conscious rather than less: here am I at the foot of this incredible creation, wondering at how blessed I am to be there, and that moment becomes all about me. The mountain has been here for eons and will continue to be here for eons, and I’m merely a momentary witness.

We had left behind all the divisiveness and drama and talking heads: up in the mountains there was such sheer stillness all around us – nary a breeze or a bird call or even a bug making ripples on the lakes to spoil the perfect reflection.

I brought these images back with me to remember my moment of awestruck witness. The photographic image isn’t the real mountain, it isn’t even the pristine perfect reflection. Yet it means I was privileged to watch the mountain watching me back, welcoming me home.

The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing — to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from — my country, the place where I ought to have been born. Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back.
~ C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces

Embraced By Life

After dinner, I try to digest
kale and cauliflower in my longing
to live longer, and a root-beer float
in case my world ends tomorrow.


I play the gamble game with exercise
and diet, reminded daily by obituaries
featuring people younger than me:
the impossible becoming likely.


I want to go out full, embraced by my life,
the grand quilt of being here. Yet memories
are remnants, and come one patch at a time.
And like moments, most fade unnoticed.


After a storm, I take a walk.
At the jasmine vine by my front door,
a raindrop, suspended on a stem, stops me.
What I want, what I can have, merge.

~Jeanie Greensfelder “What I Want and What I Can Have”  from I Got What I Came For

My life looks like a quilt of patches and patterns, sometimes with no discernible plan or design, sometimes with distinct colors and borders and purpose.

I easily get lost in a maze of moments and memories searching for what I want, missing the point of embracing all the senses I have, so generously given to me at the Beginning.

Seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, touching: each is still available to me. What I have – miraculously – can become what I want.

May it always be so.