Taking Time to Talk

Farmer with a pitchfork by Winslow Homer

When a friend calls to me from the road
And slows his horse to a meaning walk,
I don’t stand still and look around
On all the hills I haven’t hoed,
And shout from where I am, ‘What is it?’
No, not as there is a time to talk.
I thrust my hoe in the mellow ground,
Blade-end up and five feet tall,
And plod: I go up to the stone wall
For a friendly visit.

~Robert Frost “A Time to Talk” from The Poetry of Robert Frost.

Conversations these days often take place asynchronously – text messages back and forth, voicemails, instant messages, emails – all composed and sent when most convenient so not necessarily as time-responsive as they could be.

Chatting over a fence, or on a front porch or even over the phone just doesn’t happen easily any more, especially during the pandemic years of avoiding face-to-face encounters.

Even more unusual is taking time during the work day to talk. Interruptions leading to setting aside the computer mouse or the stethoscope or the hoe can be challenging when there are only so many hours in the day.

I’m really terrible at conversation because I’ve always been shy and awkward at small talk. It’s all good when it is part of my work in an exam room, but to be honest, I don’t make time to go out to coffee with someone, or meet over a meal, or even enjoy a spontaneous visit while out for a walk or the grocery store. I’d rather be washing dishes at our weekly church potlucks.

And I’m missing out on an opportunity to love and be loved. Forgive me, friends, for my reticent nature.

The next time someone shouts at me “Howdy!” – I won’t just wave and keep on with whatever business I’m doing. I’ll stop, set aside my work tools and come over to chat. Putting two heads together in conversation is what our life and language is all about

Howdy back at you!

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Dawn on our Darkness: Fleeing the Wrath, Shouldering the Load

We think of him as safe beneath the steeple,
Or cosy in a crib beside the font,
But he is with a million displaced people
On the long road of weariness and want.
For even as we sing our final carol
His family is up and on that road,
Fleeing the wrath of someone else’s quarrel,
Glancing behind and shouldering their load.
Whilst Herod rages still from his dark tower
Christ clings to Mary, fingers tightly curled,
The lambs are slaughtered by the men of power,
And death squads spread their curse across the world.
But every Herod dies, and comes alone
To stand before the Lamb upon the throne.

~Malcolm Guite “Refugee”

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

We kill at every step, not only in wars, riots, and executions. We kill when we close our eyes to poverty, suffering, and shame. In the same way all disrespect for life, all hard heartedness, all indifference, and all contempt is nothing else than killing. With just a little witty skepticism we can kill a good deal of the future in a young person. Life is waiting everywhere, the future is flowering every­where, but we only see a small part of it and step on much of it with our feet.
~Hermann Hesse, from Vivos Voco, 1919

For centuries, too many people have had to make the choice of living (and likely dying) oppressed in the midst of conflict and war or they attempt their escape to an uncertain fate on the other side of a border, a fence, or a turbulent sea. Some are given no options and are sold into slavery, taken where their captors wish, or have been rounded up and forced to live far from their ancestral homes.

Some of us descend from people who made the difficult decision to escape war, or hunger, or oppression, or extreme poverty. We live and thrive by the grace and mercy of God to these ancestors.

This God was a refugee Himself, fleeing from a king who sought Him dead. This God knows what it is like to be hated and pursued. He knows the wrath and cruelty of His fellow man.

This God has a name, He has a face and a voice and it is He who ultimately holds our fate in His hands.

This God is not forgotten nor has He forgotten us. He will return to forever banish the darkness surrounding us.

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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Forgive Me

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

~William Carlos Williams “This is Just to Say…”

Who needs forgiveness
when more plums
hang heavy
in the orchard

dotted with dew
glistening
in the spare pink light
of dawn

so ripe
and so inviting as
their golden flesh
warms with the risen sun.

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Soaked and Muddy

Wet things smell stronger,
and I suppose his main regret is that
he can sniff just one at a time.
In a frenzy of delight
he runs way up the sandy road—
scored by freshets after five days
of rain. Every pebble gleams, every leaf.

When I whistle he halts abruptly
and steps in a circle,
swings his extravagant tail.
Then he rolls and rubs his muzzle
in a particular place, while the drizzle
falls without cease, and Queen Anne’s lace
and Goldenrod bend low.

The top of the logging road stands open
and light. Another day, before
hunting starts, we’ll see how far it goes,
leaving word first at home.
The footing is ambiguous.

Soaked and muddy, the dog drops,
panting, and looks up with what amounts
to a grin. It’s so good to be uphill with him,
nicely winded, and looking down on the pond.

A sound commences in my left ear
like the sound of the sea in a shell;
a downward, vertiginous drag comes with it.
Time to head home. I wait
until we’re nearly out to the main road
to put him back on the leash, and he
—the designated optimist—
imagines to the end that he is free.

~Jane Kenyon “After an Illness, Walking the Dog”

A dog can never tell you what she knows from the
smells of the world, but you know, watching her,
that you know almost nothing.
~Mary Oliver, Dog Songs

As I’ve written elsewhere, I spend over an hour a day dealing with the excrement of my farm critters. This is therapeutic time for me as I have deep respect for the necessity to clean up and compost what is smelly/stinky/yucky and biblically objectionable. (Deuteronomy 23:12-14) None of us, including God, want to take a walk having to pick our way around poop.

As I’m busy picking up manure, I watch our dogs seek out the smelliest, most vile things they can find in the barn or field (preferably dead) and roll themselves around in it one after another until they are just as stinky as the stuff they found. They are clearly joyous about it, especially when they do it together. It is curious throw-back behavior that I’ve assumed, wearing my animal behaviorist hat, was about a wild predator covering up their scent in order to stalk and capture prey more effectively without being detected – except they are really truly so smelly that any prey could sense them coming from a mile away and would learn quickly that a moving creature that smells like poop or a dead carcass is bad news and to be avoided.

This is the main reason our farm dogs live full time outdoors. We prefer to avoid stinky dirty creatures too. So I’ve tried to understand this behavior for what adaptive purpose it may have.

Here are some interesting theories at this link.

What makes the most sense to me is the “pack mentality” that suggests that once one dog/wolf rolls in something objectionable, that the rest of the pack does too. This is a unifying theme for anxious individuals – they aren’t really on their own if they smell and blend in with the rest of the pack. So they spread the “wealth”, so to speak. Stink up one, stink up all. Like team spirit, it seems to improve morale – until it doesn’t anymore.

I’ve been feeling covered with stink myself. There are so many divisive opinions right now about a variety of current issues; vile nonsense has been flying right and left on social media as well as face to face. The theory is if all of us stink the same from rolling in piles of misinformation, we are then no longer alone.

Yet our destiny does not have to include believing, sharing and “flinging” the stuff that stinks to see who it will stick to.

Time for a bath.
Time for soap and cleansing and some serious self-examination.
Time to stop joyously rolling around in it.
Time to bury the excrement so we’re not picking our way around the piles and can actually hold our heads up to see where we’re heading.

That’s true freedom.

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Go Help Your Dad

It was hard work, dying, harder
than anything he’d ever done.

Whatever brutal, bruising, back-
Breaking chore he’d forced himself

to endure—it was nothing
compared to this. And it took

so long. When would the job
be over? Who would call him

home for supper? And it was
hard for us (his children)—

all of our lives we’d heard
my mother telling us to go out,

help your father, but this
was work we could not do.

He was way out beyond us,
in a field we could not reach.

~Joyce Sutphen, “My Father, Dying” from Carrying Water to the Field: New and Selected Poems.

We will grieve not, rather find                     
Strength in what remains behind;                     
In the primal sympathy                     
Which having been must ever be;  
                   

Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.
~William Wordsworth from “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”

Pouring the sidewalk by hand
Grouting the tile perimeter
In the very bottom, installing a drain
The best dive ever…

Nearly twenty-seven years ago
we watched at your bedside as you labored,
readying yourself to die and we could not help
except to be there while we watched you
move farther away from us.

This dying, the hardest work you had ever done:

harder than handling the plow behind a team of draft horses,
harder than confronting a broken, alcoholic and abusive father,
harder than slashing brambles and branches to clear the woods,
harder than digging out stumps, cementing foundations, building roofs,
harder than shipping out, leaving behind a new wife after only a week of marriage,
harder than leading a battalion of men to battle on Saipan, Tinian and Tarawa,
harder than returning home so changed there were no words,
harder than returning to school, working long hours to support family,
harder than running a farm with only muscle and will power,
harder than coping with an ill wife, infertility, job conflict, discontent,
harder than building your own pool, your own garage, your own house,
harder than your marriage ending, a second wife dying of cancer,
and returning home asking for forgiveness.

Dying was the hardest of all
as no amount of muscle or smarts or determination
could stop it crushing you,
taking away the strength you relied on for 73 years.

So as you lay helpless, moaning, struggling to breathe,
we knew your hard work was complete
and what you left undone was up to us
to finish for you.

Ben packaged in a paper bag by Grandpa Hank
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The Groaning and Travailing World

…deeds are done which appear so evil to us
and people suffer such terrible evils
that it does not seem as though any good will ever come of them;
and we consider this, sorrowing and grieving over it 

so that we cannot find peace
and this is why:


our reasoning powers are so blind now, so humble and so simple, 
that we cannot know the high, marvelous wisdom, the might 
and the goodness of the Holy Trinity.


And this is what he means where he says, 
“You shall see for yourself that all manner of things shall be well”, 
as if he said, “Pay attention to this now, faithfully and confidently, 
and at the end of time you will truly see it in the fullness of joy.

~Julian of Norwich from Revelations of Divine Love

Christ did not descend from the cross except into the grave. . . . He must forbear to reveal His power and glory by presenting Himself as Himself, and must be present only in the ordinary miracle of the existence of His creatures. Those who wish to see Him must see Him in the poor, the hungry, the hurt, the wordless creatures, the groaning and travailing beautiful world.
~Wendell Berry from Jayber Crow

Once again we read of an inexplicable mass shooting, a racially motivated killing of innocent victims due to incomprehensible evil.

There is no finding of peace in their deaths.  If I were their family member, there could be no peace for me in the ongoing anguish and despair of such an untimely senseless loss.  Only the intervention of the Holy Spirit can possibly change shock, anger and grief to the fullness of joy. It would come as slow and imperceptibly as God’s still small voice.

I pray that those who have been hurt, those who may never fully recover from their physical and emotional injury, and those who continue to feel their very existence is threatened, may understand how it is remotely possible that God could use evil such as this for good.  Christ Himself was murdered and descended to the grave so that we can see God lying alongside the dead and dying. It is hard for our simple blind human reasoning to accept that all manner of things shall be well…

-even now as we groan and weep until we are dry as dust.

Making Us Even

And this, then,
is the vision of that Heaven of which
we have heard, where those who love
each other have forgiven each other,

where, for that, the leaves are green,
the light a music in the air,
and all is unentangled,
and all is undismayed.
~Wendell Berry “To My Mother”

I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.

Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.
Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.

And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift—not the worn truth
that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.
~Billy Collins from “The Lanyard”

...I want to thank you
truly for the wry smile you set
on my lips, a smile as mild as your own;
it has saved me pain and grief.
And if now I shed a tear for you,
and all who wait like you and do not know
what they wait for, it does not matter.
O gentle death, do not touch the hands, the heart of the old.
Goodbye, dear one, farewell,

my sweet mother.
~Salvatore Quasimodo from “Letter to My Mother”

Mother love is life and light
beginning in the dark, as a special secret,
until you know without a doubt
you will never be just yourself again,
tethered forever to another.

~this sacrificial love is a haven of abundant grace~

the tangles we make of our lives
unravel, straighten and smooth,
no dismay over mistakes made

I was created within you –
to love my own children fully, fervently,
forever and forever –
as I was loved by you.

Now they, in turn, are known by their love.

The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: Through Our Tears

In a daring and beautiful creative reversal, 
God takes the worse we can do to Him
and turns it into the very best He can do for us.
~Malcolm Guite from The Word in the Wilderness

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

What I envy in the open eyes
of the dead deer hanging down
from the rafters, its eyes
still wet and glassy, but locked now
into a vision of another life,
is the way it seems to be
staring at the moment when
it died. The blue light
falling through the window
into this smoke-filled room
is the same color as the mist
coming down off the mountain
that morning: the deer sees
men with guns
but also sees, beyond them,
the endless mountains.
~Richard Jones “Life After Death”

Emmett Till’s mother
speaking over the radio

She tells in a comforting voice
what it was like to touch her dead boy’s face,

how she’d lingered and traced
the broken jaw, the crushed eyes —

the face that badly beaten, disfigured —
before confirming his identity.

And then she compares his face
to the face of Jesus, dying on the cross.

This mother says, no, she’d not recognize
her Lord, for he was beaten far, far worse

than the son she loved with all her heart.
For, she said, she could still discern her son’s curved earlobe,

but the face of Christ
was beaten to death by the whole world.
~Richard Jones “The Face” from Between Midnight and Dawn

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 in the opening words of his Christmas Day sermon 1626

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

May we remember today – Good Friday – , of all days,
the worst that can happen became the best that can happen.

We tussle and haggle over the price of what this cost us, but realizing He paid all for us makes an impossible loss possible.

We are paid in full, no longer debtors. 

From now on, we recognize His face even when He is beaten unrecognizable: the worst became the best because He loves us over all else.

This year’s Lenten theme for Barnstorming is a daily selection from songs and hymns about Christ’s profound sacrifice on our behalf.

If we remain silent about Him, the stones themselves will shout out and start to sing (Luke 19:40).

In His name, may we sing…

The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: This Fearful Fallen Place

Whatever’s the matter
Whatever’s been done

I will be your home
In this fearful fallen place
~Michael Card


Through the bright darkness of Lent,
as He himself hangs dying, suffering on our behalf,
this is Christ’s message to each of us who asks:
when we want to be remembered,
when we truly and wholly ask for forgiveness
for whatever is the matter,
for whatever we have done,
we find our only hope and comfort is in Him.
He brings us home from this fearful fallen place.
Homeless no longer, lost no longer, forgotten no longer.

Home.

This year’s Lenten theme for Barnstorming is a daily selection from songs and hymns about Christ’s profound sacrifice on our behalf.

If we remain silent about Him, the stones themselves will shout out and start to sing (Luke 19:40).

In His name, may we sing…

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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: Guide Me Through the Gloom

Death shall not destroy my comfort,
Christ shall guide me thro’ the gloom;
Down he’ll send some heav’nly convoy,
To escort my spirit home.
~American Folk Hymn

Our neighbor Linda died yesterday after being cared for in hospice for the past several days. Her life journey was sadly shortened by the gloom and toll of early-onset dementia.

Even as her memory developed enlarging gaps and holes over the past few years, Jesus was always her refuge when she was lost in her confusion. Linda never lost her awe of God’s goodness, and never forgot His love for her. Even when fearful of the unknown or unremembered, she was held fast by Jesus.

Worshipping weekly with her husband Steve and extended family members brought her immense joy and comfort. She smiled broadly, singing faithfully the hymns she had known for decades.

Her call home is bittersweet for Steve, along with her family and friends who have supported her remaining at home during her last few vulnerable years. There is a toll and gloom in watching a beloved person slowly fade from this life, like a wave retreating from this shore to crest on some other far-off place.

What we who mourn know is that Linda was greeted on that other shore by those who have gone before her, assuring her she no longer would wonder where she was or be worried about what comes next.

She will forever know the joy of worship and the assurance of belonging. After all, there is no gloom in heaven, only the light of holy love.

This year’s Lenten theme for Barnstorming is a daily selection from songs and hymns about Christ’s profound sacrifice on our behalf.

If we remain silent about Him, the stones themselves will shout out and start to sing (Luke 19:40).

In His name, may we sing…

Death shall not destroy my comfort,
Christ shall guide me thro’ the gloom;
Down he’ll send some heav’nly convoy,
To escort my spirit home.

(Refrain):
Oh, hallelujah! How I Love my Savior,
Oh, hallelujah! That I Do.
Oh, Hallelujah! How I love my Savior!
Mourners, you may love him too.

Jordan’s stream shall not o’erflow me,
While my Savior’s by my side;
Canaan, Canaan lies before me!
Soon I’ll cross the swelling tide.

See the happy spirits waiting,
On the banks beyond the stream!
Sweet responses still repeating,
“Jesus! Jesus!” is their theme.