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.

Waiting in Wilderness: Impossible Blossom

There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.
~Li-Young Lee, “From Blossoms” from Rose

In the midst of this past dying year, when too many have been lost to virus, to loneliness, to despair, to violence…

I seek the fragrance of the ultimate Bloom,
this true man yet very God

to be reminded of the Life and Light He brings to the darkness where we all dwell;
this impossible God sharing the load of man,
the sweetness of His glorious splendor

given to the undeserving
with joy and love
without reservation
without hesitation
from joy to joy to joy.

O Flow’r, whose fragrance tender
With sweetness fills the air,
Dispels in glorious splendor
The darkness ev’rywhere;
True man, yet very God,
From sin and death now saves us,
And shares our ev’ry load.

Waiting in Wilderness: There is a Crack in Everything

The birds they sang
At the break of day
Start again
I heard them say
Don’t dwell on what
Has passed away
Or what is yet to be

Ah the wars they will
Be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
Bought and sold
And bought again
The dove is never free

You can add up the parts
but you won’t have the sum
You can strike up the march,
there is no drum
Every heart, every heart
to love will come
but like a refugee.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
~Leonard Cohen from “Anthem”

The flaw is no more
noticeable, even to me,
than a new moth-hole
in my sweater, or
a very bald spot
on the fabric of
my velvet vest.

Yet when
I hold the cloth
up to the window
the sunlight
bleeds through.
~Luci Shaw “Defect”

My many cracks seem to expand with age:
do they not heal as quickly
or am I more brittle than before?

I know how my eyes leak,
my heart feels more porous.
The events of the day break me open even wider.

Yet the Light pours in
to illuminate my wounds old and new.
Let the world know
that after the hurt comes healing.

May I become the perfect offering.

Waiting in Wilderness: Night Flees Before Dawn

Dawn was defeating now the last hours sung
by night, which fled before it. And far away
I recognized the tremblings of the sea.
Alone, we walked along the open plain,
as though, returning to a path we’d lost,
our steps, until we came to that, were vain.
Then, at a place in shadow where the dew
still fought against the sun and, cooled by breeze,
had scarcely yet been sent out into vapor,
my master placed the palms of both his hands,
spread wide, lightly and gently on the tender grass.
And I, aware of what his purpose was,
offered my tear-stained cheeks to meet his touch.
At which, he made once more entirely clean
the color that the dark of Hell had hidden.
~Dante from The Divine Comedy, II Purgatorio,Canto 1 lines 115−29

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
2 Corinthians 4: 6

This morning after turning our clocks ahead an hour, I eagerly looked out the window seeking a reprieve from interminable darkness.  I seek the promise of being led back into the light that is suddenly an hour delayed. It is the simple knowledge that as things change, they may get lighter and brighter.

So I harvest hope.

God made light through His Word, not once but at least three times. 
In the beginning, He created the sun and the moon to penetrate and illuminate the creation of our hearts and our souls. 
In the stable He came to light the world from below as well as from above so those hearts and souls could be saved from self-destruction.
In the tomb, He rolled back the stone and raised His Son from the dead, the ultimate defeat of darkness.

I am showered with the cleansing dew of His light,  lit from the glory of God reflected in the many faces of Jesus: as newborn, child teacher, working carpenter, healer, itinerant preacher, unjustly condemned, dying and dead, raised and ascended Son of God. 

Let the dark days come as they certainly will. They cannot overwhelm me now,  lit from within, cleansed inside and out, no matter how deeply the darkness oppresses.

I know His promise.
I know His face.
He knows I know.

Waiting in Wilderness: Weary Worn and Sad

Here dies another day
During which I have had eyes, ears, hands
And the great world round me;
And with tomorrow begins another.
Why am I allowed two?
~G.K. Chesterton

Any number of times a day
I ask a patient who is weary worn and sad:
can tell me about your thoughts about ending your life?

Most days I’m amazed
I’m allowed
another day to continue
to be present and listening.
I pray as this day dies
there will come yet another
so I might help the weary worn and sad
find gladness:
they too are given the gift
to live another day.

I heard the voice of Jesus say,
“Come unto Me and rest;
Lay down, thou weary one, lay down
Thy head upon My breast.”

I came to Jesus as I was,
Weary and worn and sad;
I found in Him a resting place,
And He has made me glad.

  1. I heard the voice of Jesus say,
    “Behold, I freely give
    The living water; thirsty one,
    Stoop down, and drink, and live.”
    I came to Jesus, and I drank
    Of that life-giving stream;
    My thirst was quenched, my soul revived,
    And now I live in Him.
  2. I heard the voice of Jesus say,
    “I am this dark world’s Light;
    Look unto Me, thy morn shall rise,
    And all thy day be bright.”
    I looked to Jesus, and I found
    In Him my Star, my Sun;
    And in that light of life I’ll walk,
    Till trav’ling days are done.
  3. I heard the voice of Jesus say,
    “My Father’s house above
    Has many mansions; I’ve a place
    Prepared for you in love.”
    I trust in Jesus—in that house,
    According to His word,
    Redeemed by grace, my soul shall live
    Forever with the Lord.
    ~Horatius Bonar

Waiting in Wilderness: A Time of Treading Life

This is the wilderness time,
when every path is obscure
and thorns have grown around the words of hope.

This is the time of stone, not bread,
when even the sunrise feels uncertain
and everything tastes of bitterness.

This is the time of ashes and dust,
when darkness clothes our dreams
and no star shines a guiding light.

This is the time of treading life,
waiting for the swells to subside and for the chaos to clear.

Be the wings of our strength, O God,
in this time of wilderness waiting.
– Keri Wehlander from “600 Blessings and Prayers from around the world” compiled by Geoffrey Duncan

He will cover you with his feathers,
    and under his wings you will find refuge;
    his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.
Psalm 91:4

To be commanded to love God at all, let alone in the wilderness,
is like being commanded to be well when we are sick,
to sing for joy when we are dying of thirst,
to run when our legs are broken.
But this is the first and great commandment nonetheless.
Even in the wilderness- especially in the wilderness – you shall love him.   
~Frederick Buechner from A Room Called Remember:Uncollected Pieces

I usually think of wilderness as a distant peak far removed from anything or anyone.  From my farmhouse window on a clear day, I can see a number of distant peaks if the cloud cover moves away to reveal them.

Or perhaps the wilderness is a desolate plain that extends for miles without relief in sight.

Wilderness is also found in an isolated corner of my human heart. I keep it far removed from anything and anyone. During my televisit computer work,  I witness this wilderness in others, many times every day.

A diagnosis of “wilderness of the heart” doesn’t require a psychiatric manual: 
there is despair, discouragement, disappointment, lack of gratitude, lack of hope. 
One possible treatment to tame that wilderness is a covenantal obedience to God and others. It reaches so deep no corner is left untouched.

There come times in one’s life, and this past year especially, when loving God as commanded seems impossible. We are too broken, too frightened, too ill and too wary to trust God with faith and devotion.  We are treading life simply to stay afloat.

During this second Lenten pandemic, God’s love becomes respite and rescue from the wilderness of my own making. He is the sweet cure for a bitter and broken heart.

Waiting in Wilderness: Swallowed with All Hope

Measure the walls. Count the ribs. Notch the long days.
Look up for blue sky through the spout. Make small fires
with the broken hulls of fishing boats. Practice smoke signals.
Call old friends, and listen for echoes of distant voices.
Organize your calendar. Dream of the beach. Look each way
for the dim glow of light. Work on your reports. Review
each of your life’s ten million choices. Endure moments
of self-loathing. Find the evidence of those before you.
Destroy it. Try to be very quiet, and listen for the sound
of gears and moving water. Listen for the sound of your heart.
Be thankful that you are here, swallowed with all hope,
where you can rest and wait. Be nostalgic. Think of all
the things you did and could have done. Remember
treading water in the center of the still night sea, your toes
pointing again and again down, down into the black depths.
~Dan Albergotti “Things to Do in the Belly of the Whale” from The Boatloads.

But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
Jonah 4:4

Most of us feel as though we were swallowed into the belly of the whale a year ago. We are treading water in the dark, disoriented and not just a little angry. All we can see of the outside world is a bit of blue sky through a tiny hole above us.

We try to imagine what life was like before the pandemic swallowed up our light and hope but if you are like me, you are grumpy.

Yet the belly of the whale is not forever. It is a time of contemplation with little distraction other than our own emotions. We’ll soon be regurgitated back onto the shore of our trivial pursuits and busyness where suddenly it will feel too noisy with too many demands.

This quiet time is meant to teach something to each of us, even if it is just to count the ribs, gaze into our own darkness and contemplate how we were trying to escape when God asked something of us.

I think of all the things I did and could have done, but resisted when the Lord asked me.
It is time that I stop being angry and start to listen.

1. Courage, my soul, and let us journey on,
Tho’ the night is dark, it won’t be very long.
Thanks be to God, the morning light appears,
And the storm is passing over, Hallelujah!

Chorus: Hallelujah! Hallelujah! The storm is passing over, Hallelujah!

2. Billows rolling high, and thunder shakes the ground,
Lightnings flash, and tempest all around,
Jesus walks the sea and calms the angry waves,
And the storm is passing over, Hallelujah!

[Chorus]

3. The stars have disappeared, and distant lights are dim,
My soul is filled with fears, the seas are breaking in.
I hear the Master cry, “Be not afraid, ’tis I,”
And the storm is passing over, Hallelujah!

[Chorus]

4. Soon we shall reach the distant shining shore,
Free from all the storms, we’ll rest forevermore.
Safe within the veil, we’ll furl the riven sail,
And the storm will all be over, Hallelujah!

Loving the Unlovable

I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like;
and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.
~ J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

To love means loving the unlovable.
To forgive means pardoning the unpardonable.
Faith means believing the unbelievable.
Hope means hoping when everything seems hopeless.
~G.K. Chesterton

I can grumble along with the best of the them, especially over the last year of nothing being as it was. There can be camaraderie in shared grumbling, as well as an exponential increase in dissatisfaction. Everyone shares their frustrations over how we have come to this — how people we thought we knew, and thought we loved, can be so obstinate and hard-headed.

You undoubtedly feel the same about me.

And I know better. I’ve seen where grousing and grumbling leads. It aches in my bones when I’m steeped in it. The sky is grayer, the clouds are thicker, the night is darker – on and on to an overwhelming suffocating conclusion that hey, life sucks.

Turning away from the vacuum of discouragement, I am reminded:

I have been loved even when unlovable.
I have been forgiven even when I’ve done the unforgivable.

I have the privilege to choose hope and joy, turning away from being bleak and disgruntled and simply seek and bathe in the warmth and wonder of each new day.

This is not putting on a “happy face” — instead — in a true welcoming hospitality, joy finds me, adopts me, holds me close in the tough times and won’t abandon me.

Joy is always within my reach because
hope has chosen me despite my hopelessness.
How welcoming is that?

photo by Nate Gibson

The Slanted Light

There’s a certain Slant of light
On winter afternoons —
That oppresses, like the Heft
of cathedral tunes.
When it comes, the Landscape listens —
Shadows hold their breath —
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death.
~Emily Dickinson

How valuable it is in these short days,
threading through empty maple branches,
the lacy-needled sugar pines.

 
Its glint off sheets of ice tells the story
of Death’s brightness, her bitter cold.

 
We can make do with so little, just the hint
of warmth, the slanted light.
..
~Molly Fisk, “Winter Sun” from 
The More Difficult Beauty

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
~Emily Dickinson

I like the slants of light; I’m a collector.
That’s a good one, I say…
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

During our northwest winters, there is usually so little sunlight on gray cloudy days that I routinely turn on the two light bulbs in the big hay barn any time I need to fetch hay bales for the horses. This is so I avoid falling into the holes that inevitably develop in the hay stack between bales. Winter murky lighting tends to hide the dark shadows of the leg-swallowing pits among the bales, something that is particularly hazardous when carrying a 60 pound hay bale.

Yesterday when I went to grab hay bales for the horses at sunset, before I flipped the light switch, I could see light already blazing in the big barn. The last of the day’s sun rays were at a precise winter slant, streaming through the barn slat openings, ricocheting off the roof timbers onto the bales, casting an almost fiery glow onto the hay. The barn was ignited and ablaze without fire and smoke — the last things one would even want in a hay barn.

I scrambled among the bales without worry.

In my life outside the barn I’ve been falling into more than my share of dark holes lately. Even when I know where they lie and how deep they are, some days I will manage to step right in anyway. Each time it knocks the breath out of me, makes me cry out, makes me want to quit trying to lift the heavy loads. It leaves me fearful to venture where the footing is uncertain.

Then, on the darkest of days, light comes from the most unexpected of places, blazing a trail to help me see where to step, what to avoid, how to navigate the hazards to avoid collapsing on my face. I’m redirected, inspired anew, granted grace, gratefully calmed and comforted amid my fears. Even though the light fades, and the darkness descends again, it is only until tomorrow. Then it reignites again.

The Light returns and so will I.

A Hesitation To Go This Way

It is necessary to die, but nobody wants to;
you don’t want to,
but you are going to, willy-nilly.
A hard necessity that is,
not to want something which cannot be avoided.
If it could be managed, we would much rather not die;
we would like to become like the angels
by some other means than death.

We want to reach the kingdom of God,
but we don’t want to travel by way of death.
And yet there stands Necessity saying:
“This way, please.”

Do you hesitate to go this way,

when this is the way that God came to you? 
~St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), “Exposition II, Sermon I on Psalm 30” in Expositions on the Book of Psalms,

January’s naked and merciless dark
yields to light.

Our God leads us through, pointing the way.

We too easily forget
we are not asked to bear more
than God has already endured on our behalf:
our bare and tender feet follow the path of His bloody footprints.