Waiting in Wilderness: So Strange and Wild a Guest

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.

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

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.

This Notable Thing

Chunky and noisy,
but with stars in their black feathers,
they spring from the telephone wire
and instantly

they are acrobats
in the freezing wind.
And now, in the theater of air,
they swing over buildings,

dipping and rising;
they float like one stippled star
that opens,
becomes for a moment fragmented,

then closes again;
and you watch
and you try
but you simply can’t imagine

how they do it
with no articulated instruction, no pause,
only the silent confirmation
that they are this notable thing,

this wheel of many parts, that can rise and spin
over and over again,
full of gorgeous life.

Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us,
even in the leafless winter,
even in the ashy city.
I am thinking now
of grief, and of getting past it;

I feel my boots
trying to leave the ground,
I feel my heart
pumping hard. I want

to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings.
~Mary Oliver “Starlings in Winter” from Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays

Out of the dimming sky a speck appeared,
then another, and another.
It was the starlings going to roost. 
They gathered deep in the distance,  flock sifting into flock,
and strayed towards me, transparent and whirling, like smoke.
They seemed to unravel as they flew,
lengthening in curves, like a loosened skein. 
I didn’t move; they flew directly over my head for half an hour. 

Each individual bird bobbed and knitted up and down
in the flight at apparent random, for no known reason except
that that’s how starlings fly, yet all remained perfectly spaced.
The flocks each tapered at either end

from a rounded middle, like an eye.
Overhead I heard a sound of beaten air,

like a million shook rugs, a muffled whuff.
Into the woods they sifted without shifting a twig,
right through the crowns of trees, intricate and rushing, like wind.

Could tiny birds be sifting through me right now,
birds winging through the gaps between my cells,
touching nothing, but quickening in my tissues, fleet?
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

…yesterday I heard a new sound above my head
a rustling, ruffling quietness in the spring air

and when I turned my face upward
I saw a flock of blackbirds
rounding a curve I didn’t know was there
and the sound was simply all those wings,
all those feathers against air, against gravity
and such a beautiful winning:
the whole flock taking a long, wide turn
as if of one body and one mind.

How do they do that?

If we lived only in human society
what a puny existence that would be

but instead we live and move and have our being
here, in this curving and soaring world
that is not our own
so when mercy and tenderness triumph in our lives
and when, even more rarely, we unite and move together
toward a common good,

we can think to ourselves:

ah yes, this is how it’s meant to be.
~Julie Cadwallader Staub from “Blackbirds” from Wing Over Wing

Watching a winter starlings’ murmuration is a visceral experience – my heart leaps to see it happen above me.  I can get queasy following its looping amoebic folding and unfolding path.

Thousands of individual birds move in sync with one another to form one massive organism existing solely because each tiny component anticipates and cooperates to avoid mid-air collisions.  It could explode into chaos but it doesn’t.  It could result in massive casualties but it doesn’t.  They could avoid each other altogether but they don’t – they come together with a purpose and reasoning beyond our imagining. Even the silence of their movement has a discernible sound.

We humans are made up of just such cooperating component parts, that which is deep in our tissues, programmed in our DNA.  Yet we don’t exercise such unity from our designed and carefully constructed building blocks.  We are frighteningly disparate and independent creatures, going our own way bumping and crashing without care, leaving so much body and spiritual wreckage behind.

To where has flown our mercy and tenderness?
We have corporately lost our internal moral compass.

We figuratively and literally shoot each other in the back, trampling over and suffocating one another, in a reach for justice that seems right in our own eyes. 

We even watch the daily death count rise in ever-increasing numbers, and still some resist doing what it takes to protect themselves and one another.

The sound of silence is muffled weeping.

There comes a time in every fall
before the leaves begin to turn
when blackbirds group and flock and gather
choosing a tree, a branch, together
to click and call and chorus and clamor
announcing the season has come for travel.

Then comes a time when all those birds
without a sound or backward glance
pour from every branch and limb
into the air, as if on a whim
but it’s a dynamic, choreographed mass
a swoop, a swerve, a mystery, a dance

and now the tree stands breathless, amazed
at how it was chosen, how it was changed.

~Julie Cadwallader Staub “Turning” from Wing Over Wing

Every Inch Numb

Thank God for grace,
Ye who weep only! —look up! those tears will run
Soon in long rivers down the lifted face,
And leave the vision clear for stars and sun.
~Elizabeth Barrett Browning from “Tears”

Grief
is a river you wade in until you get to the other side.
But I am here, stuck in the middle, water parting
around my ankles, moving downstream
over the flat rocks. I’m not able to lift a foot,
move on. Instead, I’m going to stay here
in the shallows with my sorrow…
It’s mine.
…I’m going to stand here,
growing colder, until every inch
of my skin is numb. I can’t cross over.
Then you really will be gone. 
~Barbara Crooker from “Grief”

A river of tears flows with the untimely loss of a young person, a child of our church. Sorrow at such a loss fills a chasm so deep and dark that it is a fearsome thing to even peer from the edge, as I do.  The family is numb, swallowed up by their grief.

We can never understand why such infinite sadness should befall good and gracious people. We are once again reminded – there can be profound darkness that descends into the human heart, stealing away lives too soon.

Be assured you do not weep alone.  Your grief is so familiar to a suffering God who too wept at the death of a friend, a God who cried out when asked to endure the unendurable.

There is comfort in knowing He understands and overcomes all peril to come to the rescue when we become stuck fast in the middle of our grief, too numb to move on. He will fill the hole left behind as only He can.

You who grieve: you are not abandoned.
Your sadness is His, your sorrow is ours.
You are loved with a love
so deep and high and broad,
it will somehow carry you through.

Hold Life Like a Face

The thing is
to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.
~Ellen Bass, “The Thing Is” from Mules of Love

There is so much grief these days
so much loss of life
so much weeping.

How can we withstand this?
How can we know, now,
when we are barely able to breathe
that we might know – at some point –
we might love life again?

The Thirsty One

God has a use for you.

I am the vessel.
The draught is God’s.

And God is the thirsty one.
Not I.  But God in me.

Do not seek death.
Death will find you.
But seek the road which makes death a fulfillment.

The road, You shall follow it.
The cup, You shall empty it.
The pain, You shall conceal it.
The truth, You shall be told it.

The end, You shall endure it.
~Dag Hammarskjöld in writings from his 1953 journal

Today,
after the wind storm of yesterday,
when rain fell in unrelenting
torrents from heaven,
we are caught in a rising current so swift
we must cling fast
or be swept away.

Drenched
beyond capacity to absorb any more,
we are ready, Lord,
to empty ourselves into
your thirstiness
so we are useful for your purposes.

The Swarm Fell on His Back

Painting “Plowing the Field” by Joyce Lapp

When the plowblade struck   
An old stump hiding under   
The soil like a beggar’s   
Rotten tooth, they swarmed up   
& Mister Jackson left the plow   
Wedged like a whaler’s harpoon.   
The horse was midnight   
Against dusk, tethered to somebody’s   
Pocketwatch.  He shivered, but not   
The way women shook their heads   
Before mirrors at the five   
& dime—a deeper connection   
To the low field’s evening star.   
He stood there, in tracechains,   
Lathered in froth, just   
Stopped by a great, goofy   
Calmness. He whinnied   
Once, & then the whole   
Beautiful, blue-black sky   
Fell on his back.
~Yusuf Komunyakaa “Yellow Jackets” from Pleasure Dome

Horse Team by Edvard Munch

Death by a thousand stings.

This poem is twenty years old, yet shattering to read by the light of the events of this past week and this past year. Written by a Pulitzer Prize winning Black poet and Vietnam War veteran, it is a stark description of a teamster and plow horse going about their routine work when a hive of yellow jackets is disturbed.

The farmer saves himself.

The abandoned work horse remains harnessed and chained to the immobilized plow, eventually falling crushed beneath the swarm on his back.

How many times recently have we witnessed this stark reality of the power of the angry swarm – whether the target is someone set upon and killed by law enforcement gone rogue, or last week, a man in blue defending the U.S. Capitol, beaten and crushed by rioters who pummeled him senseless with the pole of the American flag?

A poetic metaphor about an enslaved worker dying in chains expands to include us all:

-we are the farmer who panics and runs for his life in the midst of crisis
-we are the harnessed plowhorse obediently and calmly doing his job, becoming the sacrifice for the sake of the farmer
-we are the angry swarm whose well being and security is threatened so all hell breaks loose
-we are the poet whose words try to make sense of the senseless.

Ultimately, the Writer of the Word is our rescuer: rather than abandoning us to our fate, He saves us by becoming the sacrifice Himself.

He allowed the swarm to fall on His back rather than on us.

When Darkness Dazzles


Deep midwinter, the dark center of the year,
Wake, O earth, awake,
Out of the hills a star appears,
Here lies the way for pilgrim kings,
Three magi on an ancient path,
Black hours begin their journeyings.

Their star has risen in our hearts,
Empty thrones, abandoning fears,
Out on the hills their journey starts,
In dazzling darkness God appears.
~Judith Bingham “Epiphany”

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…the scent of frankincense
and myrrh
arrives on the wind,
and I long
to breathe deeply,
to divine its trail.
But I know their uses
and cannot bring myself
to breathe deeply enough
to know
whether what comes
is the fragrant welcoming
of birth
or simply covers the stench of death.
These hands
coming toward me,
is it swaddling they carry
or shroud?
~Jan Richardson from Night Visions –searching the shadows of Advent and Christmas

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Unclench your fists
Hold out your hands.
Take mine.
Let us hold each other.
Thus is his Glory Manifest.
~Madeleine L’Engle “Epiphany”

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All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.


…I should be glad of another death.
~T.S. Eliot from “Journey of the Magi”

futuremapletree3

Imagine the Lord, for the first time,
from darkness, and stranded
Immensely in distance,

recognizing Himself in the Son
Of Man:

His homelessness plain to him now in a homeless one.
~Joseph Brodsky from “Nativity Poem” translated from Russian by Seamus Heaney

In the cold season, in a locality accustomed to heat more than
to cold, to horizontality more than to a mountain,
a child was born in a cave in order to save the world;
it blew as only in deserts in winter it blows, athwart.

To Him, all things seemed enormous: His mother’s breast, the steam
out of the ox’s nostrils, Caspar, Balthazar, Melchior—the team
of Magi, their presents heaped by the door, ajar.
He was but a dot, and a dot was the star.

Keenly, without blinking, through pallid, stray
clouds, upon the child in the manger, from far away—
from the depth of the universe, from its opposite end—the star
was looking into the cave.

And that was the Father’s stare.
~Joseph Brodsky “Star of the Nativity”

“The Eye of God” Nebula

The Christmas season is now a wrap,
the lights put away for another year.
Yet our hearts are not so easily packed and stored.

Our troubles and concerns go on;
the pandemic numbers soar,
our frailty a daily reality.
We can be distracted with holidays for a few weeks,
but our time here slips away ever more quickly.

The Christmas story is not just about
light and birth and joy to the world,
magi following a star
to discover they are reborn in Light themselves.

It is about how His swaddling clothes
became a shroud that wrapped Him tight
for only three days.
There is not a birth without His death;
even when we try to store Him away,
neatly wrapped to pull out in another year.

Christ does not stay on the closet shelf.

God came to be with and among us;
Delivered so He could deliver.
Planted on and in the earth.
Born so He could die in our place
and leave the linen strips behind, neatly folded.

Advent: an interminable wait in the darkness
Christmas:  an unwrapping of the ultimate gift of life
Epiphany: the Father watches us from afar
to see how the Seed He sent takes root in our hearts,
dazzling our darkness.

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