Ah, What If?

What if you slept
And what if
In your sleep
You dreamed
And what if
In your dream
You went to heaven
And there plucked a strange and beautiful flower
And what if
When you awoke
You had that flower in your hand
Ah, what then?
~Samuel Coleridge  “What if you slept”

This mountain, this strange and beautiful Shuksan flower that appears suddenly as we round a corner on the hour drive up the Mt. Baker Highway:  this mountain has one foot on earth and one foot in heaven – a thin place if there ever was one.

The only way to approach is in awed silence, as if entering the door of a grand cathedral.  Those who are there speak in hushed tones if they speak at all.

Mt. Shuksan wears autumn lightly about its shoulders as a multi-faceted cloak, barely anticipating the heavy snow coat to descend in the next few weeks.

I hold this mountain tight in my fist, wanting to turn it this way and that, breathe in its fragrance, bring it home with me and never let go.

Ah, what then?

Home is not nearly big enough for heaven to dwell.  I must content myself with this visit to the thin edge, peering through the open door, waiting until invited to come inside.

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The Need to Praise

A blue horse turns into
a streak of lightning,
then the sun —
relating the difference between sadness
and the need to praise
that which makes us joyful,
I can’t calculate
how the earth tips hungrily
toward the sun – then soaks up rain —
or the density
of this unbearable need
to be next to you. It’s a palpable thing —
this earth philosophy
and familiar in the dark
like your skin under my hand.
We are a small earth. It’s no
simple thing. Eventually
we will be dust together;
can be used to make a house,
to stop a flood or grow food
for those who will never remember
who we were, or know
that we loved fiercely.
Laughter and sadness eventually become
the same song turning us
toward the nearest star —
a star constructed of eternity
and elements of dust barely visible
in the twilight as you travel
east. I run with the blue horses
of electricity who surround
the heart
and imagine a promise made
when no promise was possible.

~Joy Harjo “Promise of Blue Horses” from How We Became Human

Birds embody the shapes of my heart
these days


holding the warmth of a hug
in their feathers


the gleam of a kiss in
their eyes


building a home for my love
in their beaks


and spreading, with their song,
the promise of blue horses.

 

“A blue horse turns into a streak of lightning,
then the sun—
relating the difference between sadness
and the need to praise
that which makes us joyful.”
~Marjorie Moorhead, “That Which Makes Us Joyful” from Literary North

Even when my heart isn’t feeling it, especially when I’m blue (along with much of the rest of the world on this September 11 anniversary), I need to remember to whisper hymns of praise to the Creator of all that is blue as well as every other color.

I’m reminded of the goodness of a God who provides me with the words to sing and a voice to sing them out loud.

That reality alone makes me joyful. That alone is reason to worship Him. That alone is enough to turn blue days, blue horses and blue hearts gold again.

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Earth’s Secrets

I

A shaded lamp and a waving blind,
And the beat of a clock from a distant floor:
On this scene enter—winged, horned, and spined—
A longlegs, a moth, and a dumbledore;
While 'mid my page there idly stands
A sleepy fly, that rubs its hands...

II

Thus meet we five, in this still place,
At this point of time, at this point in space.
—My guests besmear my new-penned line,
Or bang at the lamp and fall supine.
"God's humblest, they!" I muse. Yet why?
They know Earth-secrets that know not I.
~Thomas Hardy "An August Midnight"


There are so many more of them than us.  Yes, insects appear where we don’t expect them, they sting and bite and crawl and fly in our mouths and are generally annoying.  But without God’s humblest knowing the secrets of the inner workings of the soil, the pollinator and the blossom, we’d have no fruit, no seeds, no earth as we know it.

Even more humble are our microscopic live-in neighbors — the biome of our skin and gut affecting, managing and raising havoc with our internal chemistry and physiology in ways we are only beginning to understand.

God created us all, each and every one, from the turning and cycles of smallest of atoms and microbes to the expanding swirl of galaxies far beyond us.

Perhaps the humblest of all, found smack-dab in the middle of this astounding creation, would be us: the intended Imago Dei.

Two legs not six or eight, two eyes not many, no wings with which we might fly away, no antennae, no stinger.

Just us with our one fragile and loving heart.

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The Unanswerable Questions

When I lay these questions before God I get no answer.
But a rather special sort of “No answer.”

It is not the locked door.
It is more like a silent,
certainly not uncompassionate, gaze.

As though he shook his head not in refusal but waiving the question. Like, “Peace, child; you don’t understand.”

Can a mortal ask questions which God finds unanswerable?
Quite easily, I should think.
All nonsense questions are unanswerable.

How many hours are there in a mile?
Is yellow square or round?

Probably half the questions we ask –
half our great theological and metaphysical problems –
are like that.

~C.S. Lewis from  A Grief Observed

I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. 
You are yourself the answer.
Before your face questions die away.
~C.S. Lewis from Till We Have Faces

And now brothers, 
I will ask you a terrible question, 
and God knows I ask it also of myself. 
Is the truth beyond all truths, 
beyond the stars, just this: 
that to live without him is the real death, 
that to die with him the only life?
~Frederick Buechner from The Magnificent Defeat

God will only give you what you would have asked for if you knew everything he knows.
~Tim Keller

And that is just the point… how the world, moist and beautiful, calls to each of us to make a new and serious response. That’s the big question, the one the world throws at you every morning. “Here you are, alive. Would you like to make a comment?
~Mary Oliver from Long Life

An hour later, the fog has lifted

This morning, it is impossible to stay a silent observer of the world.  I have to say something; I seek out answers to the unanswerable.

Overnight, our farm was covered with a freezing fog resembling a massive sponge soaking up all the light. A chill has returned: both in the air and in ongoing events in the headlines.

There can be no complacency in witnessing this life in progress.
It blusters, rips, drenches, swallows up, buries.
Nothing remains as it was.

Yet here I am, alive.
Awed, a witness to another day.
Called to ask questions and make a comment.
Dying to hear a response.

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No Forwarding Address

Body is something you need in order to stay
on this planet and you only get one.
And no matter which one you get, it will not
be satisfactory. It will not be beautiful
enough, it will not be fast enough, it will
not keep on for days at a time, but will
pull you down into a sleepy swamp and
demand apples and coffee and chocolate cake.

Body is a thing you have to carry
from one day into the next. Always the
same eyebrows over the same eyes in the same
skin when you look in the mirror, and the
same creaky knee when you get up from the
floor and the same wrist under the watchband.
The changes you can make are small and
costly—better to leave it as it is.

Body is a thing that you have to leave
eventually. You know that because you have
seen others do it, others who were once like you,
living inside their pile of bones and
flesh, smiling at you, loving you,
leaning in the doorway, talking to you
for hours and then one day they
are gone. No forwarding address.

~Joyce Sutphen, “Living in the Body” from Coming Back to the Body.

All bodies are fragile vessels, right from the beginning. I know this because I live inside an aging one and experience its limitations daily. Yet it is the only one I’ll ever have, though an imperfect reflection of my Creator – like it or not. Frankly, I greatly respect it having kept me going for 68 years so far and hoping for a few more.

I grieve for the young and strong who are often dissatisfied with the body they are given, spending immense time and resources to change what they can and agonizing over what is unchangeable.

What is unchangeable is that we’ll leave this empty husk behind at some point when we move on, leaving no forwarding address other than @heavenabove. We have watched it happen to those we love who have died too young because of system failure from an impossible-to-survive insult, and it happens to those who simply ran out of breaths after multiple decades of functioning heart and lungs.

My imperfect body doesn’t define me as it didn’t define those who have left before me. It isn’t who I was when I came to be, and it isn’t who I will be after I depart. But it deserves my ongoing admiration, awe and honor, along with my commitment to keep it in running order as long as I am able.

And I’ll try to confirm a forwarding address before I go.

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A Life Only Just Begun

As once a Child was planted in a womb
(and later, erected on a hill, a wooden cross)
one year we dug a hole to plant a tree.
Our choice, a Cornus Kousa with its fine,
pink, four-petaled bracts, each curving lip
touched with a red as deep as human blood.
It rooted well, and every year it grows
more glorious, bursting free in Spring—bud
into full flower, flame-colored, flushed as wine.
Even the slim sapling’s roughened bark
speaks of that tree, nail-pierced and dark.
Now, each new year, fresh blossoms shine
radiant, and each cross-blessed,
as if all love and loveliness has been compressed
into a flower’s face, fresh as the Son’s
new-born presence, a life only just begun.

The dogwood leaves turn iron red in Fall,
their centers fully ripening—into small seeded balls,
each one a fruit vivid as Mary’s love, and edible.
The sciontree, once sprung from Jesse’s root,
speaks pain and life and love compressed
and taken in, eye, mouth, heart. Incredible
that now all Eucharists in our year suggest
the living Jesus is our Christmas guest.
~Luci Shaw “Dogwood Tree” from Eye of the Beholder

God is in the manger, wealth in poverty,
light in darkness, succor in abandonment.
No evil can befall us;

whatever men may do to us,
they cannot but serve the God
who is secretly revealed as love
and rules the world and our lives.
— Dietrich Bonhoeffer from God Is in the Manger

I ponder the paradox of Christ, the Son of God,
coming to the world through the womb of a woman,
born homeless in order to bring us home with Him.

The uncontainable contained
the infinite made finite
the Deliverer delivered
the Eternal dwelling here and now
already but not yet.

As only one child of many of the
Very God of Very God,
(He is and was and always will be)
I am cross-blessed to realize
my life feels fresh-born – only just begun –
yet we all have been known to the Creator
from the start of time.

(If you are interested in hearing an old old story about the dogwood tree in song, and you don’t mind old-timey honky-tonk music, there is this….)

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The Beginning Shall Remind Us of the End: Gradually Unfolding

…like dandelion seeds the Child
will blow across His room,
this sentence with its riverbed of stars,
this sentence that carries you too
the way a leaf is pulled downstream, because this
you begin to realize, is not the song of a seed
fallen on stone, not some light scorched 
into the dunes of the sky, but a phrase
whose wings fill the room, and you,––
you are that word which had remained
unnoticed in this sentence, and you begin
to speak with that light that quivers
like a branch, your own lips slightly moving
like a petal the bee has just left,
and you begin to realize you have lived
your whole life in this sentence
gradually unfolding towards its end,
the way the moon now ploys the sky, 
the way what you once thought was a mere star
now turns out to be a galaxy. 
~Richard Jackson “Annunciation” from Tidings in Poems of Devotion

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.  In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
John 1: 1-5

I tend to forget that in the beginning,
God is Word first,
speaking the world into being,
speaking Himself into being from the darkness of a womb,
born to speak the Word until His moment of death,
then rising so His being and Words are borne as Light
within the darkness of my heart.

God as Word gradually unfolds within us
until He utters His Last Word:
He is the Alpha and Omega,
HIs sentences announce the Beginning and the End.

Let the stable still astonish:
Straw-dirt floor, dull eyes,
Dusty flanks of donkeys, oxen;
Crumbling, crooked walls;
No bed to carry that pain,
And then, the child, rag-wrapped laid to cry
In a trough.
Who would have chosen this?
Who would have said:
“Yes, Let the God of Heaven and Earth be born in this place.”

Who but the same God
Who stands in the darker, fouler rooms of our hearts
And says,
“Yes, let the God of Heaven and Earth be born in THIS place.”
~Leslie Leyland Fields – “Let the Stable Still Astonish”

This year’s Barnstorming Advent theme “… the Beginning shall remind us of the End” is taken from the final lines in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”

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The Beginning Shall Remind Us of the End: Tenderness Begins to Form

This is the honest grace of her body:
that she is afraid, and in this moment does not
hide her fear...
Until in the cave of her body
she might feel without willing it a tenderness
begin to form. Like the small, ghostly
clover of the meadow; the deer hidden
in the hills. A tenderness like mourning.
The source of love, she thinks, is mourning.
…the child that will soon form
inside her body, this loss by which we come
to bend before the given, its arms that open
unexplained, and take us in.
~Laurie Sheck from “The Annunciation”

Like Mary, we have no way of knowing… We can ask for courage, however, and trust that God has not led us into this new land only to abandon us there.
~Kathleen Norris from God With Us

As if until that moment
nothing real
had happened since Creation

As if outside the world were empty
so that she and he were all
there was — he mover, she moved upon

As if her submission were the most
dynamic of all works: as if
no one had ever said Yes like that

As if one day the sun had no place
in all the universe to pour its gold
but her small room
~Luci Shaw “Virgin”

Like most people, I want my life to be the way I want it:
my plans, my timing, my hopes and dreams first and foremost.

And then stuff happens and suddenly nothing looks the way it was supposed to be. I feel emptied of the future I had envisioned.

Yet only then, as an empty vessel, can I be filled.

In the annunciation of the angel, Mary’s response to this overwhelming circumstance is a model for us all when we are hit by a wave of circumstances we didn’t expect and had not prepared for.

She is prepared; she has studied and knows God’s Word and His promise to His people, even in the midst of trouble. She is able to articulate it beautifully in the song she sings as her response. She gives up her so-carefully-planned-out life to give life to God within her.

Her resilience sings through the ages and to each one of us in our troubles:
may it be to me as you say.

May it be.
Your plans, Your purpose, Your promise.
Let it be.
Even if it may pierce my soul as with a sword.
You are there with your exquisite tenderness to stem the bleeding so I sing through my fear, through my weariness, and through my tears.

The angel Gabriel from heaven came
His wings as drifted snow his eyes as flame
“All hail” said he “thou lowly maiden
Mary, Most highly favored lady,” Gloria!

“For known a blessed mother thou shalt be,
All generations laud and honor thee,
Thy Son shall be Emanuel, by seers foretold
Most highly favored lady,” Gloria!

Then gentle Mary meekly bowed her head
“To me be as it pleaseth God,” she said,
“My soul shall laud and magnify his holy name.”
Most highly favored lady. Gloria!

Of her, Emmanuel, the Christ was born
In Bethlehem, all on a Christmas morn
And Christian folk throughout the world will ever say:
“Most highly favored lady,” Gloria!

This year’s Barnstorming Advent theme “… the Beginning shall remind us of the End” is taken from the final lines in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”

Things I Did Not Say or Do

IV  My fiftieth year had come and gone,
I sat, a solitary man,
In a crowded London shop,
An open book and empty cup
On the marble table-top.

While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless.


V  Although the summer Sunlight gild
Cloudy leafage of the sky,
Or wintry moonlight sink the field
In storm-scattered intricacy,
I cannot look thereon,
Responsibility so weighs me down.

Things said or done long years ago,
Or things I did not do or say
But thought that I might say or do,
Weigh me down, and not a day
But something is recalled,
My conscience or my vanity appalled.
~William Butler Yeats,Vacillation Parts IV and V


In this, the last trimester of my life, I find myself dwelling on how I continue to grow and change, as if I was gestating all over again, 68 years later. It is a time or preparation for what comes next, while not wanting to miss a moment of what is – right now.

I have plenty of opportunity to replay the many moments I’ve regretted what I said or did, or what I could have said or did….and didn’t. Recalling remorse is far easier and stickier than replaying joy that seems so fleeting in my memory.

There are times when I feel both weighed down by memories and freed at the same time. It almost always happens while sitting in worship in church, while silently confessing how I have wronged those around me or turned my face from God, yet in the next moment, I feel the embrace of a Creator who never forgets but still forgives. It is an overwhelming knowledge that brings me to tears every time.

It is in that moment that my joy no longer is fleeting; it lives deeply in my cells since I, like all around me, am created in His image.

And God saw what He had made, and it was, and still is, good.
He made us for joy, not out of regret.

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A Moment of Marvel

On this first day of November
it is cold as a cave,
the sky the color
of neutral third parties.
I am cutting carrots
for the chicken soup.
Knife against carrot
again and again
sends a plop of pennies
into the pan.
These cents,
when held to the gray light,
hold no noble president,
only stills
of some kaleidoscope
caught being pensive…
and beautiful,
in the eye of this beholder,
who did not expect
this moment of marvel
while making an early supper
for the hungry children.

~Cindy Gregg, “Monday” from Suddenly Autumn.

I wasn’t prepared for November to begin on this chilly Monday morning.

Throwing on my barn coat and boots, I pulled up some of the last carrots from the garden, cut them up, added some already harvested beans, peas and corn from the freezer, threw in some baby potatoes to make a crockpot of beef bone soup.

When we return home hungry from our community work tonight, we will be tired but well fed.

There is a moment of marvel in preparing a meal from one’s own garden bounty, remembering the small seeds put in the ground 6 months ago, and now washed and cut and simmering in a pot in our kitchen.

The start of November isn’t so chilly after all. We are warmed by the work done through the spring and summer, the sun and rain that grew these vegetables, and the Creator God who provides, even in the cold and dark months of the year.

We’ll make it through this first Monday of November, anticipating the marvels to come.

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