I didn’t stay for the closing hymns and prayers. I felt out of sorts, so I left.
Someone was before me at the door: a child, gazing at a spot on her wrist.
She said, “Can you help me?” “What is it?” “A ladybug,” she said.
So I opened the door, and she said, “It jumped off.” We stood looking around.
“It’ll be all right,” I said. She went in, and I left, taking care where I stepped. ~Louis Simpson “At the Church Door” from The Owner of the House.
Maker of All Things, including appetite, including stealth, including the fear that makes all of us, sometime or other, flee for the sake of our small and precious lives, let me abide in your shadow— let me hold on to the edge of your robe as you determine what you must let be lost and what will be saved.
I will try. I will step from the house to see what I see and hear and I will praise it…
But this too, I believe, is a place where God is keeping watch until we rise, and step forth again… ~Mary Oliver from “Red Bird”
Even when I am out of sorts, even though my mind is already out the door and the rest of me not far behind, even though I am supposed to have a smile on my face and encouraging words on my lips, even though I should be focusing on who needs my help rather than my own helplessness.
Then, somehow, there is solace.
I am plucked out of my doldrums and given a chance to reset and start over – God intervenes in the least likely way so that I see things differently, by watching where I am stepping to protect the defenseless rather than plunge, lurch, stumble, crush my way back to the world.
I am a rescuer rescued, encouraged by encouragement, ready to step forth in compassion.
God is keeping watch over the mere lady bug and merest me.
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Yesterday, running slowly in the gravel I saw a tiny bird feathered pulsating globe of white and gray on its back black pinprick eyes pointing up to the sky. I stooped down closely to peer. We stared at one another— creature to creature— for a small eternity. I scooped him into my hands and placed him gently an offering upright onto the grass whispering a prayer to the One who sees and knows each one every sparrow and every sorrow. ~Karen Swallow Prior “Creature to Creature”
Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows. Luke 12: 6-7
Typically, I hear sparrows more than see them most of the year. They are shy little birds and fly away any time I approach them. But during the winter months when the northeast arctic winds are blowing, they cling to the rose bushes beneath my bird feeders, fluffed up to try to stay warm, buffeted about by the breeze, just trying to stay alive. Singing is the last thing on their little minds.
This is when we need each other the most; the sparrow is hanging on the best it can to make it to spring and so am I, seeking to nurture some small part of Creation in order to keep simmering my hope for the future. Although there is no sparrows’ song lilting in the air during the coldest months, I know it will return.
So I sing for them.
I sing because I’m happy. I sing because I’m free. His eye is on the sparrow and I know He watches me.
Why should I feel discouraged, Why should the shadows come, Why should my heart be lonely, And long for Heav’n and home, When Jesus is my portion? My constant friend is He: His eye is on the sparrow, And I know He watches me; His eye is on the sparrow, And I know He watches me.
I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free, For His eye is on the sparrow, And I know He watches me.
Let not your heart be troubled, His tender word I hear, And resting on His goodness, I lose my doubts and fears; Though by the path He leadeth, But one step I may see; His eye is on the sparrow, And I know He watches me; His eye is on the sparrow, And I know He watches me.
Whenever I am tempted, Whenever clouds arise, When songs give place to sighing, When hope within me dies, I draw the closer to Him, From care He sets me free; His eye is on the sparrow, And I know He watches me; His eye is on the sparrow, And I know He watches me.
Lyrics by Civilla Martin
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Cold morning. November, taking a walk, when up ahead, suddenly, the trees unleave, and thousands of starlings lift off, an immense river of noise; they braid and unbraid themselves over my head, the gray silk sky embroidered with black kisses, the whoosh of their wings, their chattering clatter, patterns broken/formed/ reformed, a scarf of ragged ribbons. Dumb- struck, mouth open, I say holy and I say moley, And then, they’re gone. ~Barbara Crooker, “Murmuration” from Some Glad Morning.
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
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
…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 the starlings’ murmuration is a visceral experience – my heart leaps to see it happen above me. I feel 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 of air rushing past wings.
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 learn from our designed and carefully constructed building blocks. We have become frighteningly disparate and independent creatures, each going our own way bumping and crashing without care.
We have lost our internal moral compass for how it is meant to be.
The rustling ruffling quiet of wings in the air is like muffled weeping.
Out walking in the frozen swamp one gray day, I paused and said, ‘I will turn back from here. No, I will go on farther—and we shall see.’ The hard snow held me, save where now and then One foot went through. The view was all in lines Straight up and down of tall slim trees Too much alike to mark or name a place by So as to say for certain I was here Or somewhere else: I was just far from home. A small bird flew before me. He was careful To put a tree between us when he lighted, And say no word to tell me who he was Who was so foolish as to think what he thought. He thought that I was after him for a feather— The white one in his tail; like one who takes Everything said as personal to himself. One flight out sideways would have undeceived him. And then there was a pile of wood for which I forgot him and let his little fear Carry him off the way I might have gone, Without so much as wishing him good-night. He went behind it to make his last stand. It was a cord of maple, cut and split And piled—and measured, four by four by eight. And not another like it could I see. No runner tracks in this year’s snow looped near it. And it was older sure than this year’s cutting, Or even last year’s or the year’s before. The wood was gray and the bark warping off it And the pile somewhat sunken. Clematis Had wound strings round and round it like a bundle. What held it though on one side was a tree Still growing, and on one a stake and prop, These latter about to fall. I thought that only Someone who lived in turning to fresh tasks Could so forget his handiwork on which He spent himself, the labor of his ax, And leave it there far from a useful fireplace To warm the frozen swamp as best it could With the slow smokeless burning of decay. ~Robert Frost, “The Wood-pile” from North of Boston
My labor is usually done with fervor and purpose, but there are times when I do not experience the fruits of my labor. It is left to smolder slowly to decay rather than provide the intended warmth and nurture of a fresh hearthfire.
I might have chosen a different way to go if I had known.
Perhaps I will simply follow the birds instead…
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Fair Summer droops, droop men and beasts therefore: So fair a summer look for never more. All good things vanish less than in a day, Peace, plenty, pleasure, suddenly decay. Go not yet away, bright soul of the sad year; The earth is hell when thou leavest to appear….
What, shall those flowers that decked thy garland erst, Upon thy grave be wastefully dispersed? O trees, consume your sap in sorrow’s course, Streams, turn to tears your tributary course. Go not yet hence, bright soul of the sad year; The earth is hell when thou leav’st to appear.
Ah, who shall hide us from the winter’s face? Cold doth increase, the sickness will not cease, And here we lie, God knows, with little ease. From winter, plague, & pestilence, good Lord, deliver us. ~Thomas Nashe from “Summer’s Last Will and Testament”(from a stage play performed in 1592)
Summer 2021 so far has been hell for much of the world and we still have nearly a month left of more Summer to endure: the fall of Afghanistan, another earthquake in Haiti, floods in Europe and central U.S., storms in the east with drought and fires in the west, and last but certainly not least, the explosion of the Delta COVID variant everywhere.
COVID has demonstrated that plague and pestilence clearly isn’t limited to cold weather and winter. This virus enjoys easy transmission among those who continue to live without any defenses – the unmasked and those who remain unvaccinated either by choice or lack of access to vaccine. We, through our behavior, have invited an opportunistic virus to spread among us through this “bright soul” of the year which ordinarily should be “plague-free.”
Will we continue to roll out the red carpet for COVID, welcoming it into ours and other’s homes, noses and lungs, even as summer itself dies away along with thousands of more pandemic victims?
Deliver us, O Lord, from our own reluctance to accept that viruses care not whom they infect, particularly those with little defense.
Deliver us, O Lord, from our preference for our own self-determination over a concern for the needs and vulnerability of others.
Deliver us, O Lord, from our continued blindness – doing what is right in our own eyes without seeing what is best for all.
Go not yet away, fair Summer, as here we lie, God knows, with little ease.
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It is a sultry day; the sun has drunk The dew that lay upon the morning grass; There is no rustling in the lofty elm That canopies my dwelling, and its shade Scarce cools me. All is silent, save the faint And interrupted murmur of the bee, Settling on the sick flowers, and then again Instantly on the wing. The plants around Feel the too potent fervors: the tall maize Rolls up its long green leaves; the clover droops Its tender foliage, and declines its blooms. But far in the fierce sunshine tower the hills, With all their growth of woods, silent and stern, As if the scorching heat and dazzling light Were but an element they loved.
…I woo the wind That still delays his coming. Why so slow, Gentle and voluble spirit of the air? Oh, come and breathe upon the fainting earth Coolness and life! Is it that in his caves He hears me? See, on yonder woody ridge, The pine is bending his proud top, and now Among the nearer groves, chestnut and oak Are tossing their green boughs about. He comes; Lo, where the grassy meadow runs in waves! The deep distressful silence of the scene Breaks up with mingling of unnumbered sounds And universal motion. He is come, Shaking a shower of blossoms from the shrubs, And bearing on their fragrance; and he brings Music of birds, and rustling of young boughs, And sound of swaying branches, and the voice Of distant waterfalls. All the green herbs Are stirring in his breath; a thousand flowers, By the road-side and the borders of the brook, Nod gayly to each other; glossy leaves Are twinkling in the sun, as if the dew Were on them yet, and silver waters break Into small waves and sparkle as he comes. ~William Cullen Bryant from “Summer Wind”
In the Pacific Northwest, we are going through another string of hot dry days with smoky landscapes and horizons. This is becoming all too familiar: the temperatures are rising each year, the forests are burning, our usual pristine air quality deteriorating.
Even the birds are silent in this weather. The bees, discouraged by the wilting blooms, don’t linger. Our animals covered with fur are listlessly seeking shade and anything green in the pasture.
So I pray for relief – any breeze to move this humid air – something, anything that can break this cycle of sweatiness.
Yesterday, in the midst of 102 degree temperatures, out of nowhere came a northeast wind – as strong and determined as our northeast midwinter arctic blasts – but hot. It was so disorienting to be blown about by furnace heat. Branches and leaves fell from bewildered and already stressed trees. Plants withered as the moisture was sucked from leaves and blossoms. The garden sagged.
As suddenly as it came, it was gone again. And all around me – me included – wondered what had just hit us.
I am reminded to be careful what I pray for, knowing that my petition may well be heard and heeded. Perhaps the answer to prayer won’t be quite what I hoped for or expected, but it is nonetheless an answer.
I only need to listen…
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To the shepherd herding his flock through the gorge below, it must appear as if I walk on the sky. I feel that too: so little between me
and The Fall. But this is how faith works its craft. One foot set in front of the other, while the wind rattles the cage of the living and the rocks down there
cheer every wobble, your threads keep this braided business almost intact saying: Don’t worry. I’ve been here a long time. You’ll make it across. ~Matthew Olzmann “Letter to a Bridge Made of Rope”
I have never walked a rope bridge though I’ve seen one from a distance in Northern Ireland. It swayed far above a rocky gorge, hanging almost miraculously in the air as walkers trekked blithely across.
Not for me, I said.
I feel disoriented and dizzy when the surface beneath my feet sways and moves with the wind and due to my own movement. I make my own wobbling worse with my fear. The rocks below seem menacing; I don’t trust my own ability to navigate over and through them.
Oh, me of little faith. So little between me and The Fall.
Simply crossing a narrow wooden bridge built over a fallen large old-growth tree trunk takes all my courage. I try to focus on my feet taking each step, testing the solid wood beneath me rather than looking down at the rushing water and sharp rocks below.
In the course of life, I have to take steps that feel uncertain and unsupported. I freeze in place, afraid to move forward, reluctant to leave the security of where I am to do what it takes to get safely to the other side.
Yet I need to trust what holds firm for others will hold firm for me.
Christ is the bridge for those like me who fear, who don’t trust their own feet, who can’t stop looking at the taunting and daunting rocks below. He has braided Himself around me to keep me safe, no matter what and no matter where. He’s been here a long time and will always be.
I can step out in that confidence.
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God called Abram to leave the familiar and go, go on a road he would make by going, to a place he would know by finding.
Jesus led Nicodemus to the threshold of a birth, a newness he could only know by going through it.
Only what’s behind us, not ahead, keeps us from going on, from entering the impossible womb of starting new.
The stones of disappointment in your pockets, the grave marker of the old life, they can’t come with you.
The path is not a test. It’s our freedom. Many a prisoner has looked into the tunnel, the Beloved waiting in the light, and said no.
Where is the Spirit calling you, the wind blowing? Where is the thin place between your habits and a new birth?
These pangs, this heavy breathing: the Beloved is trying to birth you. Let it happen. ~Steve Garnaass-Holmes “A new birth”
Like most people, I cling fast to the safe and familiar, sometimes wishing to retreat back to what feels most secure and safest. Yet, it is an impossible womb that would allow me back – it is clear I am meant to be fully launched, for better or worse. So carrying my checkered history stuffed deeply in my pockets, I embark on this life’s journey led by the Spirit and blown by His breath, uncertain where it will take me or how long it takes to get there.
There is an unsurpassed freedom in the path from womb to tomb; if I let His breath carry me, I’ll go so far beyond the place where my bones someday are laid.
I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, `Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you. Matthew 17:20
How pale is the sky that brings forth the rain As the changing of seasons prepares me again For the long bitter nights and the wild winter’s day My heart has grown cold, my love stored away My heart has grown cold, my love stored away
I’ve been to the mountain, left my tracks in the snow Where souls have been lost and the walking wounded go I’ve taken the pain, no girl should endure But faith can move mountains of that I am sure Faith can move mountains of that I am sure
Just get me through December A promise I’ll remember Get me through December So I can start again
No divine purpose brings freedom from sin And peace is a gift that must come from within And I’ve looked for the love that will bring me to rest Feeding this hunger beating strong in my chest Feeding this hunger beating strong in my chest ~Gordie Sampson & Fred Lavery
It is winter in Narnia… and has been for ever so long …. always winter, but never Christmas. ~C. S. Lewis from The Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe
We’ve been traveling through a wilderness of the pandemic for nearly a year, even as the calendar has changed from spring to summer to autumn and in December back to winter. In this winter wilderness, we struggle with the chill of isolation from each other and from God, the endless discouragement and fatigue, and the hot cold of resentment and anger.
We are called in the gospel of Matthew to leave behind our helplessness when overwhelmed by pervasive wilderness. He tells us to believe, even if it is only the tiniest grain of faith. Our cold hearts love and hunger for God.
So if we can’t make it to the mountain in the distance, our faith can move the mountain closer. God hears our plea and brings His peace to us by bringing Himself as close as the beating heart in our chest. There will be a Christmas again and there will be Easter.