In the dark, a child might ask, What is the world? just to hear his sister promise, An unfinished wing of heaven, just to hear his brother say, A house inside a house, but most of all to hear his mother answer, One more song, then you go to sleep. How could anyone in that bed guess the question finds its beginning in the answer long growing inside the one who asked, that restless boy, the night’s darling? Later, a man lying awake, he might ask it again, just to hear the silence charge him, This night arching over your sleepless wondering, this night, the near ground every reaching-out-to overreaches, just to remind himself out of what little earth and duration, out of what immense good-bye, each must make a safe place of his heart, before so strange and wild a guest as God approaches. ~Li-Young Lee “Nativity”
“What’s wrong with the world?” asked The Times of famous authors. “Dear Sir, I am. “ Yours, G.K. Chesterton
I’m not ashamed that I still ask the hard questions, just as I did when I was a child, lying in bed, fearful in the dark. Some call it a lack of faith: if I truly believed, I would trust completely, so asking such questions would be “out of the question.”
Yet God throughout scripture encourages questions, listens to lament, isn’t intimidated by uncertainty and weakness. He waits patiently for His people to make their hearts a safe place for Him to dwell – a place of wings and songs and awe and worship – even when resounding with questions.
My heart is a womb where our strange and wild God seeks to reside in this world. “Why me?” I ask, pondering yet another hard question in the dark. “Why not you?” comes His response: a question for which He awaits my answer.
The world is indeed full of peril and in it there are many dark places. But still there is much that is fair. And though in all lands, love is now mingled with grief, it still grows, perhaps, the greater. — J. R. R. Tolkien from The Fellowship of the Ring
Worldwide. a tsunami of tears overflows in households and communities as COVID-19 wreaks physical and economic havoc in hundreds of thousands of lives. We experience deep sadness and grief when older folks with health conditions are taken by a virulent pneumonia within a matter of days, often dying without a familiar face nearby. And there is no end to our distress when up to 40% of hospitalizations are for younger victims of the virus, most of whom survive, but too many don’t and won’t.
Our sorrow fills a chasm so deep and dark that it is a fearsome thing to even peer from the edge, as so many of us do, praying for far-flung family and friends to remain healthy and unable to be of any direct assistance even if they become ill. We join the helplessness of countless people in human history who have lived through times that seem unendurable.
We don’t understand why inexplicable tragedy befalls good and gracious people, taking them when they are not yet finished with their work on earth. From quakes that topple buildings burying people, to waves that wipe out whole cities and sweep away thousands of people, to a pathogen too swift and powerful for all the weapons of modern medicine, we are reminded every day – we live on perilous ground and our time here has always been finite. We don’t have control over the amount of time, but we do have control over how our love is heard and spread.
There is assurance in knowing we do not weep alone; Our Lord is acquainted with grief. Our grieving is so familiar to a suffering God who too wept at the death of a beloved friend, and who cried out when He was tasked with enduring the unendurable.
There is comfort in knowing He too peered into the chasm of darkness; He willingly entered its depths to come to our rescue with His incomparable capacity for Light and Love.
This year’s Lenten theme for Barnstorming:
God sees us as we are, loves us as we are, and accepts us as we are. But by His grace, He does not leave us where we are. ~Tim Keller
Angels, where you soar Up to God’s own light Take my own lost bird On your hearts tonight; And as grief once more Mounts to heaven and sings Let my love be heard Whispering in your wings ~Alfred Noyes
It appears now that there is only one age and it knows nothing of age as the flying birds know nothing of the air they are flying through or of the day that bears them up through themselves and I am a child before there are words arms are holding me up in a shadow voices murmur in a shadow as I watch one patch of sunlight moving across the green carpet in a building gone long ago and all the voices silent and each word they said in that time silent now while I go on seeing that patch of sunlight ~W.S. Merwin, “Still Morning” from The Shadow of Sirius
Our memories can play tricks. A whiff of a fragrance can trigger an experience of another time and place, a song can transport us to a decade long ago, a momentary sensation will remind us of a past experience long forgotten.
We dwell inside a different age as the years go by, in a body that no longer looks or feels exactly the same, yet our memories take us powerfully back to a special moment that happened before. For those who struggle with post-trauma recollections, this is a curse to be overcome. For those whose memories bring joy and comfort, they seek to nurture and cherish what has been as if it is still here and now.
We must remember the light, just as the poet W.S. Merwin in this poem “Still Morning” remembers the moment of his baptism in a church long gone and whose voices are long-stilled. The Light of that day remains, as fresh today as it was when it moved toward him.
Our memories aren’t tricks. They are as powerfully a part of us as the here and now: a moving patch light touching us here from back then.
We’re not always sure we’re on the right road, are we? Too often we’re struggling to find our way in the dark.
Suddenly things are under water, the bridge is washed out, there are potholes everywhere, the fog line disappears in the mist, a mudslide covers both lanes – the road seems impossibly impassable.
Yet we set out on this road for a reason and a purpose; this is not wasted effort. If we can’t see where we are going, fearing we may plunge off an unseen cliff, we pause, waiting until the light is enough to take the next step.
So the light will come. I believe it will. I know it will as it always has.
The sun came up chased by dogs Across a field of snow. As they passed the pile of broken logs Frost fluttered in the air Between the birch trees Standing in that spot exactly Where the ridge becomes a hill.
The sun goes in animal delight Over the farthest edge of earth Not far ahead of night And jumps into the dark pool With a last great splash of light. ~Tom Hennen from “Winter, Thirty Below with Sundogs” from Darkness Sticks to Everything.
Winter reduces me to my elements: light/dark chilled/warm hungry/sated empty/filled sleep/awake gray/gray.
It is a holding pattern of endurance, awaiting a sun that will linger longer, arrive earlier, and actually be felt, not just apparent in the distance.
I pray for a dawn or twilight splashed with color. Lord, any imaginable splash of color will do.
We are partly tuber, partly bear. Inside our warmth we fold ourselves in the dark and its cold – around us, outside us, safely away from us; we tuck ourselves up in the long sleep and comfort of cold’s opposite, warming ourselves by thought of the cold, lighting ourselves by darkness’s idea. ~Donald Hall from “Seasons at Eagle Pond”
Being too warm the old lady said to me is better than being too cold I think now in between is the best because you never give it a thought but it goes by too fast I remember the winter how cold it got I could never get warm wherever I was but I don’t remember the summer heat like that only the long days the breathing of the trees the evenings with the hens still talking in the lane and the light getting longer in the valley the sound of a bell from down there somewhere I can sit here now still listening to it ~W.S. Merwin “Remembering Summer”
I confess loving the dark and cold as much as light and warmth. Drawn without alarm clock away from my pillow, I awake early covered in inky blackness of these unlit January mornings.
An uncharted day before sunrise, so raw with ripening, belongs to no one else until the light comes to force me forth. Only from darkness can I sprout so boldly.
The day is cold, and dark, and dreary It rains, and the wind is never weary; The vine still clings to the mouldering wall, But at every gust the dead leaves fall, And the day is dark and dreary.
My life is cold, and dark, and dreary; It rains, and the wind is never weary; My thoughts still cling to the mouldering Past, But the hopes of youth fall thick in the blast, And the days are dark and dreary.
Be still, sad heart! and cease repining; Behind the clouds is the sun still shining; Thy fate is the common fate of all, Into each life some rain must fall, Some days must be dark and dreary. ~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow “The Rainy Day”
People who grow up in the Pacific Northwest suffer from peculiar climate-related disorders unique to only to us. This deserves a page in the next version of the DSM — the diagnostic psychiatric manual: we in the PNW don’t feel 100% normal unless it is raining. We love weather like we’re having right now – full on gray and full on wet with threats of northeast winds and snow.
In fact, we born and bred web-footers can feel downright depressed when it is sunny all the time. We groan inwardly when yet another day dawns bright instead of gray, we start to look longingly at accumulating clouds, and we get positively giddy when morning starts with a drizzly mist.
It’s difficult to say what exactly is at work in brain chemistry in cases like this. It is the opposite effect of classically described Seasonal Affective Disorder diagnosed especially in those transplants from more southerly climates who get sadder and slowed down with darker days and longer nights. In people like me, born a stone’s throw from Puget Sound, the more sunlight there is, the more doldrums I feel: desolaration (desolation from too much solar exposure). The grayer the day, the wetter the sky–> a lightening of the heart and the spirit: precipilicity (felicity arising from precipitation).
Like most northwesterners, I have low Vitamin D levels even in the summer. It just isn’t seemly to expose all that skin to UV light.
So I celebrate the profound relief of a rainy day, thank you. There would be no internal conflict about feeling compelled to go outside to work up a sweat and soak up the elusive sun rays. There would only be the cozy invitation to stay inside to read and write and sleep.
I know I’m not alone in this disorder. Many of us are closet sufferers but would never admit it in polite company. To complain about sunny days is perceived as meteorologically, spiritually and poetically incorrect. It is time to acknowledge that many of us are in this wet boat rowing together.
Robert Frost (definitely not a northwesterner) confessed his own case of desolaration in the first stanza of his poem November Guest:
My Sorrow, when she’s here with me, Thinks these dark days of autumn rain Are beautiful as days can be; She loves the bare, the withered tree; She walks the sodden pasture lane.
And Jack Handey, the satirist, summarizes the real reason for the guilty pleasure of the northwest native in liking rain:
“If a kid asks where rain comes from, I think a cute thing to tell him is ‘God is crying.’ And if he asks why God is crying, another cute thing to tell him is ‘Probably because of something you did.”
Okay, okay, I guess we’ve been really naughty to have so much rainfall in the last month. We should repent for our misbehavior and eventually God’s tears will dry up and the sun would shine again.
Then again, maybe God likes a good rain and a good cry as much as we do.
As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time. I shall get up Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.
Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society — things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.
Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.
I have walked through many lives, some of them my own, and I am not who I was, though some principle of being abides, from which I struggle not to stray. When I look behind, as I am compelled to look before I can gather strength to proceed on my journey, I see the milestones dwindling toward the horizon
Yet I turn, I turn, exulting somewhat, with my will intact to go wherever I need to go, and every stone on the road precious to me.
…we become whole by having the courage to revisit and embrace all the layers of our lives, denying none of them, so that we’re finally able to say, “Yes, all of this is me, and all of this has helped make me who I am.”
When we get to that point, amazingly, we can look at all the layers together and see the beauty of the whole. ~Parker Palmer from “Embracing All the Layers of Your Life” in On Being
My favorite scenes are ones where there are several “layers” to study, whether it is a still life of petals or a deep landscape with a foreground, middle and backdrop. The challenge is to decide where to look first, what to draw into sharp focus, or whether to absorb it all as a whole. In fact, if I only see one aspect, I miss the entire point of the composition. It is wonderfully multi-faceted and multi-layered because that is how life is – complex with subtle nuance and shadings.
If I try to suppress some darker part of my own life I wish to forget and blur out, I ignore the beauty of the contrast with the light that illuminates the rest.
The layers reflect who I was created to be as an image-bearer – complex, nuanced, illuminated in the presence of dark.