Lifted From the Water

I couldn’t let it drown. I ripped off a piece
of my sandwich bag, lifted it to safety.
Its little legs reached behind its back
to stroke its wings dry.
I, too, have stretched my legs
in strange positions. Is this a leap?
What did you expect? For me to let the bug
just be a bug. To leave it alone
when it already planned on dying.
To reach out and not imagine myself the God
I wish would lift me from the water.
~Daniella Toosie-Watson “The Bug”

You are not your own; you were bought at a price.
1 Corinthians 6: 19b-20a

There is a well known story with a number of variations, all involving a scorpion that stings a good-souled frog/turtle/crocodile/person who tries to rescue it from drowning. Since the sting dooms the rescuer and as a result the scorpion as well, the scorpion explains “to sting is in my nature”. In one version, the rescuer tries again and again to help the scorpion, repeatedly getting stung, only to explain before he dies “it may be in your nature to sting but it is in my nature to save.”

This is actually a story originating from Eastern religion and thought, the purpose of which is to illustrate the “dharma”, or orderly nature of things. The story ends perfectly for the Eastern religions believer even though both scorpion and the rescuer die in the end, as the dharma of the scorpion and of the rescuer is realized, no matter what the outcome. Things are what they are, without judgment, and actualization of that nature is the whole point.

However, this story only resonates for the Christian if the nature of the scorpion is forever transformed by the sacrifice of the rescuer on its behalf. The scorpion is no longer its own so no longer slave to its “nature” – no longer just a scorpion with a need and desire to sting whatever it sees. It has been “bought” through the sacrifice of the Rescuer. It no longer is “just” a bug, planning on drowning.

So we too are no longer our own,
no longer the helpless victim of our nature
no longer the stinger
no longer the stung
no longer who we used to be before we were rescued.

We are bought at a price beyond imagining.

And our nature to hurt, to punish, to sting, even to die – shall be no more.

Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?
1 Corinthians 15: 55

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An End-of-the-Year Wintry Soul

Whatever harm I may have done
In all my life in all your wide creation
If I cannot repair it
I beg you to repair it,

And then there are all the wounded
The poor the deaf the lonely and the old
Whom I have roughly dismissed
As if I were not one of them.
Where I have wronged them by it
And cannot make amends
I ask you
To comfort them to overflowing,

And where there are lives I may have withered around me,
Or lives of strangers far or near
That I’ve destroyed in blind complicity,
And if I cannot find them
Or have no way to serve them,

Remember them. I beg you to remember them

When winter is over
And all your unimaginable promises
Burst into song on death’s bare branches.
~Anne Porter “A Short Testament” from Living Things.

While this end of the year’s darkness lingers,
beginning too early and lasting too late,
I find myself hiding in my own wintry soul,
knowing I have too often failed to do
what is needed
when it is needed.

I tend to look inward
when I need to focus outside myself.
I muffle my ears
to unhear supplicating voices.
I turn away
rather than meet a stranger’s gaze.

I appeal to God
who knows my darkness needs His Light,
who unimaginably promises
buds of hope and warmth
and color and fruit
will arise from my barest branches.

He brings me forth out of hiding,
to be impossibly transformed.

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Dawn on our Darkness: Snowbound Snowblind Longing

The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.
John 3:8

To look at the last great self-portraits of Rembrandt or to read Pascal or hear Bach’s B-minor Mass is to know beyond the need for further evidence that if God is anywhere, he is with them, as he is also with the man behind the meat counter, the woman who scrubs floors at Roosevelt Memorial, the high-school math teacher who explains fractions to the bewildered child. And the step from “God with them” to Emmanuel, “God with us,” may not be as great as it seems.

What keeps the wild hope of Christmas alive year after year in a world notorious for dashing all hopes is the haunting dream that the child who was born that day may yet be born again even in us and our own snowbound, snowblind longing for him.
~Frederick Buechner from A Room Called Remember

God gave us all a garden once
and walked with us at eve
that we might know him face to face
with no need to believe.

But we denied and hid from Him,
concealing our own shame,
yet still He came and looked for us,
and called us each by name.

He found us when we hid from Him,
He clothed us with His grace.
But still we turned our backs on Him
and would not see His face.

So now, He comes to us again,
not as a Lord most high,
but weak and helpless as we are,
that we might hear Him cry.

And He who clothed us in our need,
lies naked in the straw,
that we might wrap Him in our rags
when once we fled in awe.

The strongest comes in weakness now,
a stranger to our door,
the King forsakes His palaces
and dwells among the poor.

And where we hurt, He hurts with us,
and when we weep, He cries.
He knows the heart of all our hurts,
the inside of our sighs.

He does not look down from up above,
but gazes up at us,
that we might take Him in our arms,
He always cradles us.

And if we welcome Him again,
with open hands and heart,
He’ll plant His garden deep in us,
the end from which we start.


And in that garden, there’s a tomb,
whose stone is rolled away,
where we and everything we’ve loved
are lowered in the clay.

But lo! the tomb is empty now,
and clothed in living light,
His ransomed people walk with One
who came on Christmas night.

So come, Lord Jesus, find in me
the child you came to save,
stoop tenderly with wounded hands
and lift me from my grave.


Be with us all, Emmanuel,
and keep us close and true,
be with us till that kingdom comes
where we will be with You.

~Malcolm Guite“A Tale of Two Gardens”

Heaven could not hold God. 

Even though He is worshiped by angels, it is enough for Him to be held in His mother’s arms, His face kissed, His tummy full, to be bedded in a manger in lantern light.

It is enough for Him, as He is enough for us — even born as one of us, poor as we are — snowbound and ice-locked in our longing for something – anything – more. Our empty hearts fill with Him who came down when heaven could not hold Him any longer.

Imagine that. It is enough to melt us to readiness.

This year’s Advent theme “Dawn on our Darkness” is taken from this 19th century Christmas hymn:

Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
dawn on our darkness and lend us your aid.
Star of the east, the horizon adorning,
guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.
~Reginald Heber -from “Brightest and Best”

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Dawn to our Darkness: Someone is Looking Out for Us

The congregation sang off key.
The priest was rambling.
The paint was peeling in the Sacristy.


A wayward pigeon, trapped in the church,
flew wildly around for a while and then
flew toward a stained glass window,

but it didn’t look like reality.

The ushers yawned, the dollar bills
drifted lazily out of the collection baskets
and a child in the front row began to cry.


Suddenly, the pigeon flew down low,
swooping over the heads of the faithful
like the Holy Ghost descending at Pentecost


Everyone took it to be a sign,
Everyone wants so badly to believe.
You can survive anything if you know
that someone is looking out for you,


but the sky outside the stained glass window,
doesn’t it look like home?
~June Beisch, “Holy Ghost” from 
Fatherless Women.

A little aside from the main road,
becalmed in a last-century greyness,
there is the chapel, ugly, without the appeal
to the tourist to stop his car
and visit it. The traffic goes by,
and the river goes by, and quick shadows
of clouds, too, and the chapel settles
a little deeper into the grass.

But here once on an evening like this,
in the darkness that was about
his hearers, a preacher caught fire
and burned steadily before them
with a strange light, so that they saw
the splendour of the barren mountains
about them and sang their amens
fiercely, narrow but saved
in a way that men are not now.
~R.S. Thomas “The Chapel”

The church knelt heavy
above us as we attended Sunday School,
circled by age group and hunkered
on little wood folding chairs
where we gave our nickels, said
our verses, heard the stories, sang
the solid, swinging songs.

It could have been God above
in the pews, His restless love sifting
with dust from the joists. We little
seeds swelled in the stone cellar, bursting
to grow toward the light
.

Maybe it was that I liked how, upstairs, outside,
an avid sun stormed down, burning the sharp-
edged shadows back to their buildings, or
how the winter air knifed
after the dreamy basement.

Maybe the day we learned whatever
would have kept me believing
I was just watching light
poke from the high, small window
and tilt to the floor where I could make it
a gold strap on my shoe, wrap
my ankle, embrace
any part of me.
~Maureen Ash “Church Basement”

There is much wrong with churches overall,
comprised as they are of fallen people
with broken wings and fractured faith.
We seem odd, keen to find flaws in one another
as we crack open and spill our own.

Yet what is right with the church is
who we pray to, why we sing, feast together
and share His Word.
We are visible people joined together
as a body bloodied and bruised.
Someone is looking out for us
despite our thoroughly motley messiness.

Our Lord of Heaven and Earth
rains down His restless love upon our heads,
no matter how humble a building we worship in,
or how we look or feel today.

The dove descends upon us.

We are simply grateful to be alive,
to raise our hands together, to sing and kneel and bow
in a house, indeed a home that God calls His own.

This year’s Advent theme “Dawn on our Darkness” is taken from this 19th century Christmas hymn.

Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
dawn on our darkness and lend us your aid.
Star of the east, the horizon adorning,
guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.
~Reginald Heber -from “Brightest and Best”

The old church leans nearby a well-worn road,
Upon a hill that has no grass or tree,
The winds from off the prairie now unload
The dust they bring around it fitfully.

The path that leads up to the open door
Is worn and grayed by many toiling feet
Of us who listen to the Bible lore
And once again the old-time hymns repeat.

And ev’ry Sabbath morning we are still
Returning to the altar waiting there.
A hush, a prayer, a pause, and voices fill
The Master’s House with a triumphant air.

The old church leans awry and looks quite odd,
But it is beautiful to us and God.
~Stephen Paulus

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Dawn on Our Darkness: Taking an Uncertain Step

We grow accustomed to the Dark —
When Light is put away —
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Good bye —

A Moment — We Uncertain step
For newness of the night —
Then — fit our Vision to the Dark —
And meet the Road — erect —

And so of larger — Darknesses —
Those Evenings of the Brain —
When not a Moon disclose a sign —
Or Star — come out — within —

The Bravest — grope a little —
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead —
But as they learn to see —

Either the Darkness alters —
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight —
And Life steps almost straight.

~Emily Dickinson

photo by Bob Tjoelker

So few grains of happiness
measured against all the dark
and still the scales balance.

The world asks of us
only the strength we have and we give it.
Then it asks more, and we give it.

~Jane Hirschfield from “The Weighing”

I admit that I’m stumbling about in the dark right now,
bearing the bruises and scrapes of
random collisions with objects hidden by the night.

My eyes must slowly adjust to such bare illumination,
as the Lamp has been carried away.

I’m feeling my way through this time of life.

I suspect there are fellow darkness travelers
who also have lost their way and their Light,
giving what they can and sometimes more.

And so, blinded as we each are,
we run forehead-first into the Tree
which has always been there and always will be,
the symbol of our salvation.

Because of who we are and Who loves us,
we, now free and forgiven,
safely follow a darkened road made nearly straight,
all the way Home.

This year’s Advent theme “Dawn on our Darkness” is taken from this 19th century Christmas hymn.

Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
dawn on our darkness and lend us your aid.
Star of the east, the horizon adorning,
guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.
~Reginald Heber -from “Brightest and Best”

May you see God’s light on the path ahead
when the road you walk is dark.
May you always hear even in your hour of sorrow
the gentle singing of the lark.
When times are hard
may hardness never turn your heart to stone.
May you always remember when the shadows fall–
You do not walk alone.

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Dawn on our Darkness: Emptiness of My Whole Being

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.

This year’s Advent theme “Dawn on our Darkness” is taken from this 19th century Christmas hymn.

Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
dawn on our darkness and lend us your aid.
Star of the east, the horizon adorning,
guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.
~Reginald Heber -from “Brightest and Best”

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Dawn on Our Darkness: A Seed in the Ground

…new life starts in the dark.
Whether it is a seed in the ground,
a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb,
it starts in the dark.
~Barbara Brown Taylor from Learning to Walk in the Dark

If seeds in the black earth can turn into such beautiful roses, what might not the heart of man become in its long journey toward the stars?
G.K. Chesterton

The seed is the word of God.
Luke 8:11b

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
John 1:1-5

I began a mere seed lying dormant in the darkness of my mother’s body, plain and simple.

Just as the spring murmurs life to the seed in the ground, so the Word calls a human seed of life to stir and swell, becoming at once both an animate and intimate reflection of Himself.

The seed shakes off the darkness as growth begins.

I was awakened from quiescence to sprout, bloom and fruit. I reach as far as my tethered roots allow, aiming beyond earthly bounds to touch the light and be touched.

These days of Advent seed renew hope in my heart, ready and waiting to unfurl. A precious fragrance will linger, long after my last petal has withered, loosened, and fallen to freedom.

I began in the dark and dawn is calling me to reach for the heavens.

This year’s Advent theme “Dawn on our Darkness” is taken from this 19th century Christmas hymn.

Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
dawn on our darkness and lend us your aid.
Star of the east, the horizon adorning,
guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.
~Reginald Heber -from “Brightest and Best”

Christmas comes anew, O let us sing Noel!
Glory to God! Now let your praises swell!
Sing we Noel for Christ, the newborn King,4
Christmas comes anew, O let us sing Noel!

Angels did say, “O shepherds come and see,
Born in Bethlehem, a blessed Lamb for thee.”
Sing we Noel for Christ, the newborn King,
Christmas comes anew, O let us sing Noel!

In the manger bed, the shepherds found the child;
Joseph was there, and the Mother Mary mild.
Sing we Noel for Christ, the newborn King,
Christmas comes anew, O let us sing Noel!

Soon came the kings from following the star,
Bearing costly gifts from Eastern lands afar.
Sing we Noel for Christ, the newborn King,
Christmas comes anew, O let us sing Noel!

Brought to Him gold and incense of great price;
Then the stable bare resembled Paradise.
Sing we Noel for Christ, the newborn King,
Christmas comes anew, O let us sing Noel!

Now the green blade rises from the buried grain,
Wheat that in the dark earth many years has lain;
Love lives again, that with the dead has been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.

In the grave they laid Him, Love Whom we had slain,
Thinking that He’d never wake to life again,
Laid in the earth like grain that sleeps unseen:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.

Up He sprang at Easter, like the risen grain,
He that for three days in the grave had lain;
Up from the dead my risen Lord is seen:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.

When our hearts are saddened, grieving or in pain,
By Your touch You call us back to life again;
Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.

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The Sidewalks of Life

The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I’m coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light-
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.

You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.

This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.

But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.

It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.

~Billy Collins “On Turning Ten”

Dear Ben,

You were born thirty-four years ago today on a gray and drizzly mid-November day.

November is often like that–there are times during this darkening month when we’re never really certain we’ll see the sun again.  The sky is gray, the mountain is all but invisible behind the clouds, the air hangs heavy with mist. The woods and fields are all shadowy.  Morning light starts late and the evening takes over early.

You changed November for us that day. You brought sunshine to our lives as if you were born with light under your skin. You smiled almost from the first day, always responding, always watching, ready to engage with your new family. You were a delight from that first moment we saw you and have been a light in our lives and so many other lives ever since, no matter where you have gone and what you have done over these four decades.

Then you married another bright light and now you shine together, raising your precious sons in God’s Light.

We know you discovered long ago, even before you turned ten, that when you fall on the sidewalks of life, you bleed. And you know sadness and have wounds aplenty. Yet you love others like no one else, and keep going in hope, with longing for our Lord. Even your scars shine with intention.

Gray and drizzle is your favorite kind of weather because you were born to it–you’ve always loved the misty fog, the chill winds, the hunkering down and waiting for brighter days to come even though you now live where the sun shines almost every day.

November 15 was and still is, a brighter day because of you.

Love,

Mom and Dad

Moving from Loneliness to Love

It’s the immemorial feelings
I like the best: hunger, thirst,
their satisfaction; work-weariness,
earned rest; the falling again
from loneliness to love;
the green growth the mind takes
from the pastures in March;
the gayety in the stride 
of a good team of Belgian mares
that seems to shudder from me
through all my ancestry.
~Wendell Berry “Goods”

photo by Joel De Waard
photo by Joel De Waard

It seems unlikely anyone would say
I didn’t work hard enough all those years.
After all, I come from a long line of human work-horses
and I know it takes sweat and tears, and sometimes bleeding.

Even so, I know I could have done more all those years.

I could have thrown myself more fully into the pull on the tugs,
could have shouldered the yoke with more enthusiasm,
could have bent down low with unbroken determination.

You might say somewhere I lost the gayety in my stride,
and you would be right — I ended up trudging through my day,
bruised from running into too many submerged rocks,
bumping into immoveable tree stumps and tripping on hidden roots,
falling into deep furrows of long and lonely post-midnight hours.

You might even say eventually the knowledge of a job well-done
seemed to lay deeper than my plow could ever reach.

When it came time for me to shrug out of the yoke
and shake off the harness,
I knew others die in their harness,
never to rest easy on this earth.

I am unsure what to do next with the seasons I have left.
Even so, I love the wondering and wandering,
almost as much as I love the feel of the sun on my unyoked withers.


photo by Joel De Waard
photo by Joel De Waard
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Fingers Crimson With Applause

Oh, feed me this day, Holy Spirit, with
the fragrance of the fields and the
freshness of the oceans which you have
made, and help me to hear and to hold
in all dearness those exacting and wonderful
words of our Lord Jesus Christ, saying:
Follow me.
~Mary Oliver from “Six Recognitions of the Lord

A full year passed (the seasons keep me honest)
since I last noticed this same commotion.   
Who knew God was an abstract expressionist?
I’m asking myself—the very question   
I asked last year, staring out at this array of racing colors-
the out-of-control Virginia creeper   
my friends say I should do something about,
whose vermilion went at least a full shade deeper…

…God’s not nonexistent; He’s just been waylaid
by a host of what no one could’ve foreseen.   

He’s got plans for you: this red-gold-green parade
is actually a fairly detailed outline.  

…it’s true that my Virginia creeper praises Him,   
its palms and fingers crimson with applause, 
that the local breeze is weaving Him a diadem…
~Jacqueline Osherow from “Autumn Psalm”


The crimson leaves creep over the brow of our ancient garage in growing streaks and flowing streams, crawling alongside to reach new destinations.

This old building was once a small church at the turn of the 20th century, moved just a few hundred yards from the intersection of two country roads to this raised knoll.

It is fitting that every fall this little cedar-paneled church,
emptied of sermons and worship,
weeps red.

Every autumn these bloodied fingers reach out
to touch and bless,
clasp and envelope:
Do not despair.
He’s got plans for us all.
Plans that give hope.

I must follow.

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