A Darkened Path

We grow accustomed to the Dark —
When Light is put away —
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Good bye —

A Moment — We Uncertain step
For newness of the night —
Then — fit our Vision to the Dark —
And meet the Road — erect —

And so of larger — Darknesses —
Those Evenings of the Brain —
When not a Moon disclose a sign —
Or Star — come out — within —

The Bravest — grope a little —
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead —
But as they learn to see —

Either the Darkness alters —
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight —
And Life steps almost straight.

~Emily Dickinson

photo by Bob Tjoelker

So few grains of happiness
measured against all the dark
and still the scales balance.

The world asks of us
only the strength we have and we give it.
Then it asks more, and we give it.

~Jane Hirschfield from “The Weighing”

I admit that I’m stumbling about in the dark right now,
bearing the bruises and scrapes of
random collisions with objects hidden in the night.

My eyes must slowly adjust to such bare illumination,
as the Lamp has been carried away.
I must feel my way through this time of life.

I suspect there are fellow darkness travelers
who also have lost their way and their Light,
giving what they can and sometimes more.

And so, blinded as we each are,
we run forehead-first into the Tree
which has always been there and always will be.

Because of who we are and Who loves us,
we, now free and forgiven,
follow a darkened road nearly straight, all the way Home.

May you see God’s light on the path ahead
when the road you walk is dark.
May you always hear even in your hour of sorrow
the gentle singing of the lark.
When times are hard
may hardness never turn your heart to stone.
May you always remember when the shadows fall–
You do not walk alone.

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The Beginning Shall Remind Us of the End: Wake Us From Drowsy Worship

A little aside from the main road,
becalmed in a last-century greyness,
there is the chapel, ugly, without the appeal
to the tourist to stop his car
and visit it. The traffic goes by,
and the river goes by, and quick shadows
of clouds, too, and the chapel settles
a little deeper into the grass.

But here once on an evening like this,
in the darkness that was about
his hearers, a preacher caught fire
and burned steadily before them
with a strange light, so that they saw
the splendour of the barren mountains
about them and sang their amens
fiercely, narrow but saved
in a way that men are not now.
~R.S. Thomas “The Chapel”

The journey begins when Christians leave their homes and beds. They leave, indeed, their life in this present and concrete world, and whether they have to drive 15 miles or walk a few blocks, a sacramental act is already taking place…

For they are now on their way to constitute the Church, or to be more exact, to be transformed into the Church of God. They have been individuals, some white, some black, some poor, some rich, they have been the ‘natural’ world and a natural community. And now they have been called to “come together in one place,” to bring their lives, their very world with them and to be more than what they were: a new community with a new life.

We are already far beyond the categories of common worship and prayer. The purpose of this ‘coming together’ is not simply to add a religious dimension to the natural community, to make it ‘better’ – more responsible, more Christian. The purpose is to fulfill the Church, and that means to make present the One in whom all things are at their end, and all things are at their beginning.
~ Father Alexander Schmemann from For the Life of the World

Unexpected God,
your coming advent alarms us.
Wake us from drowsy worship,
from the sleep that neglects love,
and the sedative of misdirected frenzy.
Awaken us now to your coming,
and bend our angers into your peace.
Amen.
~Revised Common Lectionary

Sometimes the very walls of our churches
separate us from God
and each other.


In our various naves and sanctuaries
we are safely separated from those outside,
from other denominations, other religions,
separated from the poor, the ugly, the dying.…


The house of God is not a safe place.
It is a cross where time and eternity meet,
and where we are – or should be –
challenged to live more vulnerably,
more interdependently.
~Madeleine L’Engle, from  A Stone for a Pillow

Does anyone have the foggiest idea
of what sort of power we so blithely invoke?
Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?
The churches are
children playing
on the floor with their chemistry sets,
mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.
It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church;
we should all be wearing crash helmets.
Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares;
they should lash us to our pews.

~Annie Dillard from Teaching a Stone to Talk

Being a Christian during a pandemic is nothing new in the history of the world. We’ve been through this again and again, on the frontlines caring for others during the Black Death, dying while serving unselfishly through plague after plague, and most recently during the killing influenza of the early 20th century.

Somehow the last two years of COVID-time feel different …

No one is happy that congregational singing takes place through masks. There are fewer handshakes and hugs and some of us feel safer worshiping while streaming a live feed on a screen. Some are flat out angry at having to worship with any restrictions and opt to stay away or move to churches with no such rules. Yet Christians are called to come together to raise our voices corporately in praise, prayer and thanksgiving despite potential health risks and physical inconvenience.

We are to love one another when we are most unloveable.

We tend to forget that walking into church on any Sabbath, not just during a pandemic, takes courage and commitment as we automatically become emotionally and spiritually vulnerable to one another. What one of us says and does can bless or hurt us all. This can be no drowsy worship: we are the poor, the ugly and the dying.

When I hear the secular folks in society scoff at attending church as a “crutch for the weak”, they underestimate what it means to admit a desperate need for salvation and grace that can only be found inside those doors. We who sit in a pew in the sanctuary cling to the life preserver found in the Word. We are lashed to our seats and must hang on.  It is only because of God’s grace that we survive the tempests of temptation, guilt and self-doubt in order to let go of our own anger at the state of the world and the state of our own souls.

Exposing ourselves to the radical mystery and immense power of the living God is not for the faint of heart, yet all of us on the verge of heart failure need God’s deep roots to thrive and grow in our rocky soul soil.

So we must not forget our crash helmets… or our masks.

photo by Barb Hoelle

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: Let Me Go There

photo from NASA

And God held in his hand
A small globe.  Look he said.
The son looked.  Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour.  The light burned
There; crusted buildings
Cast their shadows: a bright
Serpent, A river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
With slime.
               On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky.  many People
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs.  The son watched
Them.  Let me go there, he said.
~R.S. Thomas “The Coming”

You have answered
us with the image of yourself
on a hewn tree, suffering
injustice, pardoning it;
pointing as though in either
direction; horrifying us
with the possibility of dislocation.
Ah, love, with your arms out
wide, tell us how much more
they must still be stretched
to embrace a universe drawing
away from us at the speed of light.
~R.S.Thomas “Tell Us”

Ah, Love~
You the Incarnate,
stretched and fettered to a tree

arms out wide
embracing us
who try to grasp
a heaven which eludes us.

This heaven, Your heaven
You brought down to us
knowing our pain and weakness.

You wanted to come here,
knowing all this.

Holding us firmly
within your wounded grip,
You the Son
handed us heaven.

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”

O living Word
Please come and dwell in us
Lord wipe away these tears
O ancient Son, so long foretold
We’re desperate souls, draw near

And we will stand
Securely in the strength of the Lord
Every heart will surely come and adore
The Great I Am

O our Shepherd King
Please come and dwell with us
To fields of grace
Lead on

We need You now
Break our chains by Your glory and power
Make us captive to a holy desire
Come to us O Lord
Come to us O Lord

Prince of Peace, Emmanuel
Lord draw us close, unto Thyself
King of kings, God’s chosen One
We need you now, to Thee we run

We need You now
Break our chains by Your glory and power
Make us captive to a holy desire
Come to us O Lord
Come to us O Lord
Songwriter: Eric Marshall

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The Scar of Proud Flesh

There are names for what binds us:
strong forces, weak forces.
Look around, you can see them:
the skin that forms in a half-empty cup,
nails rusting into the places they join,
joints dovetailed on their own weight.

The way things stay so solidly whenever they’ve been set down –
and gravity, scientists say, is weak.

And see how the flesh grows back across a wound, with a great vehemence,
more strong than the simple, untested surface before.

There’s a name for it on horses, when it comes back darker and raised:
proud flesh, as all flesh is proud of its wounds,
wears them as honors given out after battle,
small triumphs pinned to the chest –

And when two people have loved each other,
see how it is like a scar between their bodies,
stronger, darker, and proud;
how the black cord makes of them a single fabric
that nothing can tear or mend.
~Jane Hirshfield  “For What Binds Us”

Scars come in various sizes and shapes, some hidden, some quite obvious to all.  How they are inflicted also varies–some accidental, others therapeutic, and too many intentional. 

The most insidious are the ones so deep inside,  no one can see or know they are there.

Back in our woodlot stands a sawed off stump of a cedar that was old growth in virgin forest over a hundred years ago.  One day clearcut loggers came through and took every tree they could to haul to the local sawmills to become beams and lumber for the growing homesteading population in the region.  This cedar once was grand and vast, covering an immense part of the forest floor, providing protection to trillium at its feet and finches’ nests and raptors hunting in its branches.   It nurtured its environment until other plans were made, and one day, axes fell on its sides to cut out the notches for the springboards where two loggers stood either side of the proud trunk to man the saw which brought the tree down. 

Where the wood went is anyone’s guess.  It could be one of the mighty beams supporting our old hay barn roof or it could have become the foundation flooring of a nearby one room school house.  It surely had a productive and meaningful life as part of a structure somewhere until rot or carpenter ants or fire brought it once again to its knees.

But this ghost of a stump remains, a tombstone of remembrance of a once grand tree, the notch scars embedded deep in its sides, nursing new seedlings from its center and moss, lichen and ferns from its sides.

I come from logger stock so I don’t begrudge these frontier settlers their hard scrabble living, nor minimize their dangerous work in order to feed themselves and their families.  It’s just I’m struck by those scars over one hundred years later — such a visible reminder of what once was a vital living organism toppled for someone’s need and convenience.

Trees are not unique.  It happens to people too.  Everyday scars are inflicted for reasons hard to justify.  Too often I see them self-inflicted in an effort to feel something other than despair.  Sometimes they are inflicted by others out of fear or need for control.

Sometimes they are simply the scars of living – on our horses they are a dark tough scar of leathery “proud flesh”. These are the wounds that accumulate on our journey through our numbered days.

None of them are as deep and wide as the scars that were accepted on our behalf, nor as wondrous as the Love that oozed from them, nor as amazing as the Grace that abounds to this day because of the promise they represent. 

These are scars from the Word made Flesh, a proud flesh that won’t give way, lasting forever.

As a result, that Tree lives, and so do we.

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Thorns that Thwart Sweetness

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full,
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.

We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d ke
ep, knew they would not.
~Seamus Heaney “Blackberry Picking”

…Do not be afraid, though briers and thorns are all around you
Ezekiel 2:6

In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? He laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death.
~John Stott
from The Cross

Today I will make wild blackberry cobbler, facing down the brambles and briers that thwart my reach for the elusive fruit – in this heat, it is important to harvest blackberries before they shrivel up and rot on the vine. I aim to gather more berries than scratches to prove that thorns and rot must never win and I will not yield to them.

Painful thorns and decay have always been part of life. They barricade us from all that is sweet and good and precious. They tear us up, bloody us, make us cry out in pain and grief, cause a stink, and deepen our fear that we may never overcome such a sorrowful destiny.

Yet even the most brutal crown of thorns or the rot of the grave did not stop the loving sacrifice, can never thwart the sweetness of redemption, will not spoil the goodness, nor destroy the promise of salvation to come.

We simply wait to be fed the loving gift that comes only from bloodied hands.

Flesh will fail and bones will break
thieves will steal, the earth will shake
Night will fall, the light will fade
The Lord will give and take away

Put no trust in the earth
in the sod you stand upon
Flowers fade into dust
The Lord will make a place for us

Because of His great Love
We are not overcome
Because of His great Love
We are not overcome

Have no fear for your life
Turn your cheek, turn your cheek
Bear the yoke of love and death
The Lord will give all life and breath

Because of His great Love
We are not overcome
Because of His great Love
We are not overcome

(from Bifrost Arts)

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To Embrace a Universe

Love, we are in God’s hand.
How strange now, looks the life he makes us lead;
So free we seem, so fettered fast we are!

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for? 

~Robert Browning from “Andrea del Sarto”

We have had names for you:
The Thunderer, the Almighty
Hunter, Lord of the snowflake
and the sabre-toothed tiger.
One name we have held back
unable to reconcile it
with the mosquito, the tidal wave,
the black hole into which
time will fall. You have answered
us with the image of yourself
on a hewn tree, suffering
injustice, pardoning it;
pointing as though in either
direction; horrifying us
with the possibility of dislocation.
Ah, love, with your arms out
wide, tell us how much more
they must still be stretched
to embrace a universe drawing
away from us at the speed of light.
~R.S.Thomas “Tell Us”

photo by our next door neighbor Bob Tjoelker

Ah, Love
You the Incarnate,
stretched and fettered to a tree

arms out wide
embracing us
who try to grasp
a heaven which eludes us

this heaven, Your heaven
brought down to us
within your wounded grip
and simply handed over.

Scratching the Surface

How is faith to endure, O God,
when you allow all this scraping and tearing on us?
You have allowed rivers of blood to flow,
mountains of suffering to pile up,
sobs to become humanity’s song–
all without lifting a finger that we could see.
You have allowed bonds of love beyond number to be painfully snapped.
If you have not abandoned us, explain yourself.

Instead of explaining our suffering God shares it.

We strain to hear.
But instead of hearing an answer
we catch sight of God himself scraped and torn.
Through our tears we see the tears of God.
~Nicholas Wolterstorff  in Lament for a Son

“My God, My God,” goes the Psalm 22, “hear me, why have you forsaken me?”  

This is the anguish all we of Godforsaken heart know well.
But hear the revelation to which Christ directs us, further in the same psalm:

For He has not despised nor scorned the beggar’s supplication,
Nor has He turned away His face from me;
And when I cried out to Him, He heard me.

He hears us, and he knows, because he has suffered as one Godforsaken.
Which means that you and I, even in our darkest hours, are not forsaken.
Though we may hear nothing, feel nothing, believe nothing, we are not forsaken, and so we need not despair.

And that is everything.
That is Good Friday and it is hope,
it is life in this darkened age,
and it is the life of the world to come.
~Tony Woodlief from “We are Not Forsaken”

Scratch the surface of a human being and the demons of hate and revenge …
and sheer destructiveness break forth.

The cross stands before us to remind us of this depth of ourselves so that we can never forget.

Again and again we read the stories of violence in our daily papers, of the mass murders and ethnic wars still occurring in numerous parts of our world. But how often do we say to ourselves: “What seizes people like that, even young people, to make them forget family and friends, and suddenly kill other human beings?” We don’t always ask the question in that manner. Sometimes we are likely to think, almost smugly: “How different those horrible creatures are from the rest of us. How fortunate I am that I could never kill or hurt other people like they did.”

 I do not like to stop and, in the silence, look within, but when I do I hear a pounding on the floor of my soul. When I open the trap door into the deep darkness I see the monsters emerge for me to deal with. How painful it is to bear all this, but it is there to bear in all of us. If I do not deal with it, it deals with me. The cross reminds me of all this.

This inhumanity of human to human is tamed most of the time by law and order in most of our communities, but there are not laws strong enough to make men and women simply cease their cruelty and bitterness. This destructiveness within us can seldom be transformed until we squarely face it in ourselves. This confrontation often leads us into the pit.

The empty cross is planted there to remind us:
suffering is real but not the end,
victory still is possible…
~Morton Kelsey from “The Cross and the Cellar”

The whole of Christ’s life was a continual passion;
others die martyrs, but Christ was born a martyr.
He found a Golgotha, where he was crucified, even in Bethlehem, where he was born;
for to his tenderness then the straws were almost as sharp as the thorns after,
and the manger as uneasy at first as the cross at last.

His birth and his death were but one continual act,
and his Christmas Day and his Good Friday are
but the evening and the morning of one and the same day.
From the creche to the cross is an inseparable line.
Christmas only points forward to Good Friday and Easter.
It can have no meaning apart from that, where the Son of God displayed his glory by his death.
~John Donne
his opening words in his sermon on Christmas Day 1626

Anytime we assume God in heaven could not possibly understand
the loneliness and rejection we feel
the pain and discouragement we endure
the hatred that taints our communities
the suffering that is part of living inside these frail vessels, our bodies.
Surely, we think — if there was a God, He would do something about it:

He reminds us today
of all days
He was scraped and torn – no scratching the surface, but gouged deep.
He knows exactly what we endure
because He wasn’t spared.

He took it all on Himself — our affliction became His.

Paid in full.

Turning Darkness into Light: Not of this World

God is not dead, nor does he sleep.
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
from Christmas Bells

Unexpected God, 
your advent alarms us. 
Wake us from drowsy worship, 
from the sleep that neglects love, 
and the sedative of misdirected frenzy. 
Awaken us now to your coming, 
and bend our angers into your peace. 
Amen.
~Revised Common Lectionary First Sunday of Advent

During Advent there are times when I am guilty of blithely invoking the gentle bedtime story of that silent night, the infant napping away in a hay-filled manger, His devoted parents hovering, the humble shepherds peering in the stable door.   All is calm.  All is bright.

I’m dozing if I think that is all there was to it.

The reality is God Himself never sleeps.

This is no gentle bedtime story: a teenage mother giving birth in a smelly stable, with no alternative but to lay her baby in a rough feed trough.
This is no gentle bedtime story: the heavenly host appearing to shepherds – the lowest of the low in society – shouting and singing glories leaving them “sore afraid.” That means: terrified.
This is no gentle bedtime story: Herod’s response to the news that a Messiah had been born–he sought out to kill a legion of male children whose parents undoubtedly begged for mercy, clinging to their children about to be murdered.
This is no gentle bedtime story:  a family’s flight to Egypt as immigrants seeking asylum so their son would not be yet another victim of Herod.
This is no gentle bedtime story:   the life Jesus eventually led during His ministry:  itinerant and homeless, tempted and fasting in the wilderness for forty days, owning nothing, rejected by His own people, betrayed by His disciples, sentenced to death by acclamation before Pilate, tortured, hung on a cross until He gave up his spirit.

Yet Jesus understood He was not of this world; He knew the power that originally brought him to earth as a helpless infant lying in an unforgiving wood trough.

He would be sacrificed on rough unforgiving wood,
He would die and rise again,
He would return again as King of all nations,
He is not of this world yet comes to save this world.

When I hear skeptics scoff at Christianity as a “crutch for the weak”, they underestimate the courage it takes to walk into church each week admitting we are a desperate people seeking rescue.  We cling to the life preserver found in the Word, lashed to our seats and hanging on.  It is only because of grace that we survive the tempests of temptation, shame, guilt and self-doubt to confront the reality of an all-knowing God who is not dead and who never ever sleeps.

This bedtime story is not for the faint of heart — we are “sore afraid” to “bend our anger” into His peace.

Yet be not afraid:
the wrong shall fail
the Right prevail.

The walls of a stable are not worthy of a king.
You come, little one,
borne on the songs of angels,
the echoes of prophets,
and the light of a strange star.
Do not cry, though you must lie
on this rough, unforgiving wood.
You will be wrapped in lengths of linen,
and you will sleep.
Being found in human form,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death,
yes, the death of the cross.
Though you must lie
on this rough, unforgiving wood,
you will be wrapped in lengths of linen,
and you will sleep.
These walls are not worthy of a king, little one,
but your kingdom is not of this world.

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play
And mild and sweet their songs repeat
Of peace on earth good will to men
And the bells are ringing (peace on earth)
Like a choir they’re singing (peace on earth)
In my heart I hear them (peace on earth)
Peace on earth, good will to men
And in despair I bowed my head
There is no peace on earth I said
For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men
But the bells are ringing (peace on earth)
Like a choir singing (peace on earth)
Does anybody hear them? (peace on earth)
Peace on earth, good will to men
Then rang the bells more loud and deep
God is not dead, nor does he sleep (peace on earth, peace on earth)
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace…
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

This Field, This Sky, This Tree

What words or harder gift
does the light require of me
carving from the dark
this difficult tree?

What place or farther peace
do I almost see
emerging from the night
and heart of me?

The sky whitens, goes on and on.
Fields wrinkle into rows
of cotton, go on and on.
Night like a fling of crows
disperses and is gone.

What song, what home,
what calm or one clarity
can I not quite come to,
never quite see:
this field, this sky, this tree.

~Christian Wiman, “Hard Night”

Even the darkest night has a sliver of light left,
if only in our memories.
We remember how it was and how it can be —
the promise of better to come.

While the ever-changing sky swirls as a backdrop,
a tree on a hill became the focal point, as it must,
like a black hole swallowing up all pain, all suffering,
all evil threatening to consume our world.

What clarity, what calm,
what peace can be found at the foot of that tree,
where our hearts can rest in this knowledge:
our sin died there, once and for all
and our names are carved into its roots for all time.

A Ceaseless Blessing

When I saw the figure on the crown of the hill,
high above the city, standing perfectly still

against a sky so saturated with the late-
afternoon, late-summer Pacific light

that granules of it seemed to have come out
of solution, like a fine precipitate

of crystals hanging in the brightened air,
I thought whoever it was standing up there

must be experiencing some heightened state
of being, or thinking—or its opposite,

thoughtlessly enraptured by the view.
Or maybe, looking again, it was a statue

of Jesus or a saint, placed there to bestow
a ceaseless blessing on the city below.

Only after a good five minutes did I see
that the figure was actually a tree—

some kind of cypress, probably, or cedar.
I was both amused and let down by my error.

Not only had I made the tree a person,
but I’d also given it a vision,

which seemed to linger in the light-charged air
around the tree’s green flame, then disappear.

~Jeffrey Harrison, “The Figure on the Hill” from Into Daylight.

A tree on our hill broods over us
through the decades,
day and night,
standing firm through sunrises and sunsets,
snow and wind and rain and blistering sun.

It isn’t mistaken for a person or statue
yet stands in steadfast silence
amid the ever-changing backdrop
and drama of uncertain times.

May these ceaseless blessings ever flow,
bestowed unimpeded
of a Love that hung
from the limbs of a tree on the hill.