Kneeling for Courage

You want to know how I spend my time?
I walk the front lawn, pretending
to be weeding. You ought to know
I’m never weeding, on my knees, pulling
clumps of clover from the flower beds: in fact
I’m looking for courage, for some evidence
my life will change, though
it takes forever, checking
each clump for the symbolic
leaf, and soon the summer is ending, already
the leaves turning, always the sick trees
going first, the dying turning
brilliant yellow, while a few dark birds perform
their curfew of music. You want to see my hands?
As empty now as at the first note.
Or was the point always
to continue without a sign?
~Louise Glück  “Matins V”

I have never been a brave person. In fact, I can be as fearful of the headlines of world events as the next person – a downright lily-livered chicken-heart. People like me may engage in lots of magical thinking, hoping I just might change through hard work and a large measure of good luck.

But what has luck got to do with it? Nothing whatsoever.

The reality is, many people work hard and still face insurmountable struggles that regularly force them to their knees. Courage is asking God for the grit to keep going no matter what confronts you because that is exactly what He did for us: even when his knees hurt from kneeling, his voice was hoarse with prayer, his eyes full of tears, his efforts unacknowledged and unappreciated, his heart broken.

Even when I come up empty-handed, I take courage and take heart. His heart.

Take heart, my friend, we’ll go together
This uncertain road that lies ahead
Our faithful God has always gone before us
And He will lead the way once again

Take heart, my friend, we can walk together
And if our burdens become too great
We can hold up and help one other
In God’s love and God’s grace

Take heart my friend, the Lord is with us
As He has been all the days of our lives
Our assurance every morning
Our defender in the night

If we should falter when trouble surrounds us
When the wind and the waves are wild and high
We will look away to Him who ruled the waters
Who spoke His peace into the angry tide

He is our comfort, our sustainer
He is our help in time of need
When we wander, He is our Shepherd
He who watches over us never sleeps

Take heart my friend the Lord is with us
As He has been all the days of our lives
Our assurance every morning
Our defender in the night

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The Beginning Shall Remind Us of the End: Tenderness Begins to Form

This is the honest grace of her body:
that she is afraid, and in this moment does not
hide her fear...
Until in the cave of her body
she might feel without willing it a tenderness
begin to form. Like the small, ghostly
clover of the meadow; the deer hidden
in the hills. A tenderness like mourning.
The source of love, she thinks, is mourning.
…the child that will soon form
inside her body, this loss by which we come
to bend before the given, its arms that open
unexplained, and take us in.
~Laurie Sheck from “The Annunciation”

Like Mary, we have no way of knowing… We can ask for courage, however, and trust that God has not led us into this new land only to abandon us there.
~Kathleen Norris from God With Us

As if until that moment
nothing real
had happened since Creation

As if outside the world were empty
so that she and he were all
there was — he mover, she moved upon

As if her submission were the most
dynamic of all works: as if
no one had ever said Yes like that

As if one day the sun had no place
in all the universe to pour its gold
but her small room
~Luci Shaw “Virgin”

Like most people, I want my life to be the way I want it:
my plans, my timing, my hopes and dreams first and foremost.

And then stuff happens and suddenly nothing looks the way it was supposed to be. I feel emptied of the future I had envisioned.

Yet only then, as an empty vessel, can I be filled.

In the annunciation of the angel, Mary’s response to this overwhelming circumstance is a model for us all when we are hit by a wave of circumstances we didn’t expect and had not prepared for.

She is prepared; she has studied and knows God’s Word and His promise to His people, even in the midst of trouble. She is able to articulate it beautifully in the song she sings as her response. She gives up her so-carefully-planned-out life to give life to God within her.

Her resilience sings through the ages and to each one of us in our troubles:
may it be to me as you say.

May it be.
Your plans, Your purpose, Your promise.
Let it be.
Even if it may pierce my soul as with a sword.
You are there with your exquisite tenderness to stem the bleeding so I sing through my fear, through my weariness, and through my tears.

The angel Gabriel from heaven came
His wings as drifted snow his eyes as flame
“All hail” said he “thou lowly maiden
Mary, Most highly favored lady,” Gloria!

“For known a blessed mother thou shalt be,
All generations laud and honor thee,
Thy Son shall be Emanuel, by seers foretold
Most highly favored lady,” Gloria!

Then gentle Mary meekly bowed her head
“To me be as it pleaseth God,” she said,
“My soul shall laud and magnify his holy name.”
Most highly favored lady. Gloria!

Of her, Emmanuel, the Christ was born
In Bethlehem, all on a Christmas morn
And Christian folk throughout the world will ever say:
“Most highly favored lady,” Gloria!

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”

Born Broken

Man is born broken.
He lives by mending.
The grace of God is glue.
~Eugene O’Neill
from Act 4, Scene 1 – The Great God Brown

None of us can “mend” another person’s life, no matter how much the other may need it, no matter how much we may want to do it.

Mending is inner work that everyone must do for him or herself. When we fail to embrace that truth the result is heartbreak for all concerned.

What we can do is walk alongside the people we care about, offering simple companionship and compassion. And if we want to do that, we must save the only life we can save, our own.
~Parker Palmer writing about Mary Oliver’s poem “The Journey”

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting

their bad advice – – –
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
‘Mend my life!’
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.

You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations – – –
though their melancholy
was terrible. It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.

But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice,
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do – –

– determined to save
the only life you could save.
~Mary Oliver “The Journey”

We are born hollering and suddenly alone,
already aware of our emptiness
from the first breath,
each tiny air sac bursting
with the air of our fallen world~
air that is never enough.

The rest of our days are spent
filling up our empty spaces
whether alveoli
or stomach
or synapses starving for understanding,
still hollering in our loneliness
and heart
broken.

So we mend ourselves
through our walk with others
also broken,
we patch up our gaps
by knitting the scraggly fragments
of lives lived together.
We become the crucial glue
boiled from gifted Grace,
all our holes
somehow made holy.

A book of beauty in words and photography, available for order here:

Generous Indefatigable Love

And what if I never get it right,
this loving, this giving of the self
to the other? And what if I die


before learning how to offer
my everything? What if, though
I say I want this generous,


indefatigable love, what if
I forever find a way to hold
some corner back? I don’t want


to find out the answer
to that. I want to be the sun
that gives and gives until it burns out,


the sea that kisses the shore
and only moves away so that
it might rush up to kiss it again.
~ Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer, “And Again” from Hush

The beach at Tohoku, Japan where the tsunami hit in 2011

What is it about us
that always holds something back
when loving others,
keeping in reserve
some little piece of ourselves
that we can’t quite let go?

Even so, we ourselves want to be loved
wholly, fully, completely, unconditionally
yet something in us doesn’t trust
it could be true –
we know how undeserving we are.

When we are offered such
generous indefatigable love,
we hold back part of ourselves
because we are afraid
we’ll be left desolate, never to be filled again –
a sun burned out and darkened,
a shore left high and dry.

Once we experience our Creator’s love
as wholly generous,
completely tireless and persistent,
unconditionally grace-filled,
we can stop fearing our emptiness.

He pours more than enough love into us
without holding back,
filling us so full that we might spill over to others,
again and again and again,
with our light and heart and spirit unbound.

A new book from Barnstorming is available to order here:

Turning Darkness into Light: An Absence Compels Me

It is this great absence
that is like a presence, that compels
me to address it without hope
of a reply. It is a room I enter

from which someone has just
gone, the vestibule for the arrival
of one who has not yet come. 
I modernise the anachronism

of my language, but he is no more here
than before. Genes and molecules
have no more power to call
him up than the incense of the Hebrews

at their altars. My equations fail
as my words do. What resources have I
other than the emptiness without him of my whole
being, a vacuum he may not abhor?

~R.S. Thomas “The Absence”

Advent is designed to show that
the meaning of Christmas is diminished to the vanishing point
if we are not willing to take a fearless inventory of the darkness.
~Fleming Rutledge from Advent- The Once & Future Coming of Jesus Christ

There is no light in the incarnation
without witnessing the empty darkness
that precedes His arrival;
His reason for entering our world
is to fill our increasing spiritual void,
our hollow hearts,
our growing deficit of hope and faith.

God abhors a vacuum.

We find our God most when
we keenly feel His absence,
hearing no reply to our prayers,
our faith shaken, not knowing if such
unanswered prayers are heard.

In response, He has answered.
He comes to walk beside us.
He comes to be present among us,
to ransom us from our self-captivity
by offering up Himself instead.

He fills the vacuum completely and forever.

O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant!
O come ye, O come ye, to Bethlehem
Come and behold Him
Born the King of Angels
O come, let us adore Him
O come, let us adore Him
O come, let us adore Him
Christ the Lord!

God of God, Light of Light
Lo, He abhors not the Virgin’s womb
Very God
Begotten, not created
O come, let us adore Him
O come, let us adore Him
O come, let us adore Him
Christ the Lord!

Sing, choirs of angels, sing in exultation
Sing, all ye citizens of heaven above!
Glory to God
All glory in the highest
O come, let us adore Him
O come, let us adore Him
O come, let us adore Him
Christ the Lord!

Yea, Lord, we greet Thee, born this happy morning
Jesus, to Thee be glory given
Word of the Father
Now in flesh appearing
O come, let us adore Him
O come, let us adore Him
O come, let us adore Him
Christ the Lord!

The Autumn Sun

The way the trees empty themselves of leaves,
let drop their ponderous fruit,
the way the turtle abandons the sun-warmed log,
the way even the late-blooming aster
succumbs to the power of frost—


this is not a new story.
Still, on this morning, the hollowness
of the season startles, filling
the rooms of your house, filling the world
with impossible light, improbable hope.


And so, what else can you do
but let yourself be broken
and emptied? What else is there
but waiting in the autumn sun?

~Carolyn Locke “What Else?” from The Place We Become

So this is how our life goes:

we are sowed, set down roots, bud and grow and flower and bloom and fruit and flourish,

then dry and change and wither and empty and break away to be carried off beyond this air and water and soil.

We thrived where we were planted, did what we could with a little nurture, to transcend the here and now.

So may we plant the next generation in healthy soil.
May we weed and water and feed as needed.
May we never overshadow the sun but step aside so its light fully shines.

Fitting Exactly Where Needed

The river is famous to the fish.
The loud voice is famous to silence,   
which knew it would inherit the earth   
before anybody said so.   

The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds   
watching him from the birdhouse.   
The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.   
The idea you carry close to your bosom   
is famous to your bosom.  
 

The boot is famous to the earth,   
more famous than the dress shoe,   
which is famous only to floors.
The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it   
and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.   

I want to be famous to shuffling men   
who smile while crossing streets,   
sticky children in grocery lines,   
famous as the one who smiled back.

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,   
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,   
but because it never forgot what it could do.
~Naomi Shihab Nye “Famous” from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems

Detail from “Descent from the Cross” by Rogier van der Weyden

Here’s the truth of it:
no one really wants to be famous
but seeks a life of meaning and purpose
rather than one empty of significance.

The button alone is
pure window-dressing,
a flash in the pan,
a bauble ready to loosen and fall off,
easy to go missing.

A button hole by itself
without a button to latch around
is plain and gaping and lonely and allows in drafts,
blending into the background,
silently waiting for its moment of usefulness.

We cannot forget who we’re meant to be
and what we’re meant to do –
we fit the task for which we’re made.

Send me a button and I’ll make sure it is secured.

Grazing and Feasting

Just past dawn, the sun stands
with its heavy red head
in a black stanchion of trees,
waiting for someone to come
with his bucket
for the foamy white light,
and then a long day in the pasture.
I too spend my days grazing,
feasting on every green moment
till darkness calls,
and with the others
I walk away into the night,
swinging the little tin bell
of my name.
~Ted Kooser “A Birthday Poem”

This is not a usual summer,
lacking boisterous gatherings of family and friends,
missing our endless July outdoor meals~
instead staying in place,
quietly feasting upon each gifted moment
while close-crop grazing
’til I’m full up and spilling over,
ready to someday again share all I have
until empty.


He Accepts Us As We Are: Restless and Full of Longing

How often we look upon God as our last and feeblest resource!
We go to Him because we have nowhere else to go.
And then we learn that the storms of life have driven us,
not upon the rocks,
but into the desired haven.
~George MacDonald

photo by Nate Gibson

Everlasting God,
in whom we live and move and have our being:
You have made us for yourself,
so that our hearts are restless
until they rest in you.

There is a different kind of prayer without ceasing;
it is longing.
Whatever you may be doing,
if you long for the day of everlasting rest
do not cease praying.
If you do not wish to cease praying,
then do not cease your longing.
Your persistent longing is your persistent voice.
But when love grows cold, the heart grows silent.
If you are filled with longing all the time,
you will keep crying out,
and if your love perseveres,
your cry will be heard without fail.
~Augustine of Hippo from  Augustine’s Expositions of the Psalms

C.S. Lewis writes of his “inconsolable longing, almost like a heartbreak” experiencing grief after losing his wife to cancer. He describes “the stab, the pang” of such longing, a visceral sense of being emptied completely and hungering to be refilled.

God accepts our yearning restless emptiness as a prayer for restoration. He hears our ceaseless cry and He too weeps with us.

May we continue to long for the refuge, the safe haven, that only can be found in Him.

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

I’m running in circles
It’s a steep hill to climb
My own understanding won’t cut it this time
I’m feeling the pressure
Believing the lies
But I want to believe this life is not mine

I’m left undone
By the seas You have split
My fear-waging a battle, I’m left more equipped
It’s like we’re face to face
This heaven on land
Even when I fight, it’s from the palm of Your hand

Here’s my mountain
Now break down my walls
I am confident Your hand’s in every rise
And every fall

You shattered my scares
And drowned me in peace
I’m not tethered to fear, in Your presence they cease
My heart, it is won
You alone are enough
I am done with my searching, it’s You that I want

Here’s my mountain
Now break down my walls
I am confident Your hand’s in every rise
And every fall

I hear You in the whispers
And in the sonnets of the waves
How I love the One who carries
How I love the One who saves
I see You in my trial
When my pain turns into song
How I love the One who tells me
Not to stray but I belong

And just like the tides
It’s highs and it’s lows
I know You’re my constant,

You won’t waver or go
~Olivia Kieffer

A Last Great Splash of Light

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.