The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: Following Footsteps

Then as I follow in His way,
My path ahead will brightly shine,
For in His path of guiding light,
I find His footsteps first,
Then mine.
~Craig Courtney from “Footsteps”

Waiting is essential to the spiritual life.
But waiting as a disciple of Jesus is not an empty waiting.
It is a waiting with a promise in our hearts
that makes already present what we are waiting for.

We are always waiting,
but it is a waiting in the conviction that
we have already seen God’s footsteps.
— Henri Nouwen from Bread For The Journey: A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith

My assurance that I’m taking the path God laid out before me is that His hand guides me to follow His footprints. Left to my own decision-making, I might choose a path through life that will lead me astray. I may get terribly lost, I may walk alone for long stretches, I may end up crushed and bleeding in the ditch.

God Himself walked a very arduous and dangerous road, leaving His footprints behind for us to follow. I trust His path is the one I must take, no matter what. I then leave my own footprints behind, creating a trail to follow for Him to follow should I lose my way.

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…

I see His footsteps in the way,
And follow them through darkest night,
Unafraid, I stumble not,
In the glow of perfect light,
I see.

I walk in footsteps of His love,
And find His light leads on before,
Then He gently turns to me,
Softly whispers, “trust Me more,”
I walk.

Then as I follow in His way,
My path ahead will brightly shine,
For in His path of guiding light,
I find His footsteps first,
Then mine.
~Craig Courtney

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A World Without a Sky

Heaven-invading hills are drowned
In wide moving waves of mist,
Phlox before my door are wound
In dripping wreaths of amethyst.

Ten feet away the solid earth
Changes into melting cloud,
There is a hush of pain and mirth,
No bird has heart to speak aloud.

Here in a world without a sky,
Without the ground, without the sea,
The one unchanging thing is I,
Myself remains to comfort me.
~Sara Teasdale “White Fog”

We’ve had all-day fog up and down Puget Sound over the past few days, atypical for a Pacific Northwest winter. This is fog that literally drips from the trees and soaks like rain, swallowing up visible landscape, hushing bird song, erasing all color by homogenizing everything.

When not barn-bound in the winter, a foggy day means our horses are literally sucked up into the morning mist as I send them out one by one to the field from the barn. Stopping at the barn door, they sniff the wet air, hesitant to be turned out into the grey sea surrounding them. What could there be to eat out in this murk? Each one, when turned loose, would wander into the soup, disappearing, as if never to be seen again. One by one they wander out to look for their buddies, seeing nothing, hearing nothing, smelling nothing. They are lost and alone and bewildered until somehow they meet up out in the pasture, forming a pod of Haflingers.

I muse at their initial confusion and then their utter conviction there must be “something out there” worth finding. They are dependent on the usual cues–visual, auditory, olfactory–all limited in the fog. Instead they rely on some inner sonar to find each other and bunch together in a protective knot, drops of fog dew clinging to their manes, their eyelashes and their muzzle whiskers. As day wears on, the fog usually dissipates, their coats drying under a warming sun, and the colors of the fields and trees and chestnut horses emerge from the cocoon of haze.

This winter, I have felt lost in fog too. I’m disconnected from a regular work schedule since retiring as a physician, so am helping as a volunteer in a variety of service opportunities. I am still feeling afloat and circling somewhat aimlessly, searching for a touch point of purpose and direction. Every so often I bump into a fellow fog wanderer and we’ll knot together for a bit, relieved to be connected to something solid and familiar.

My isolation is likely a combination of pandemic limitations and my own self-absorbed state of mind, sucking me in deep, separating me from others, distancing me from joy. At times, I feel soaked, dripping and shivering. If I only had the faith shown by my horses in the mist, I’d charge into the fog fearlessly, knowing there are others out there ready to band together for company, comfort and support, awaiting the sun. When warming and rejuvenation do come, I hope it will be enough to dry my whiskers, put color back in my cheeks and refresh my hopes and dreams.

Most importantly, I am reminded yet again — no fog is forever.

An absolute
patience.
Trees stand
up to their knees in
fog. The fog
slowly flows
uphill.
White
cobwebs, the grass
leaning where deer
have looked for apples.
The woods
from brook to where
the top of the hill looks
over the fog, send up
not one bird.
So absolute, it is
no other than
happiness itself, a breathing
too quiet to hear.

~Denise Levertov “The Breathing”

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Heed No Nightly Noises

There was a fire in the wide hearth before them, and it was burning with a sweet smell, as if it were built of apple-wood. When everything was set in order, all the lights in the room were put out, except one lamp and a pair of candles at each end of the chimney-shelf. Then Goldberry came and stood before them, holding a candle; and she wished them each a good night and deep sleep.

“Have peace now,” she said, “until the morning! Heed no nightly noises! For nothing passes door and window here save moonlight and starlight and the wind off the hill-top. Good night!” She passed out of the room with a glimmer and a rustle. The sound of her footsteps was like a stream falling gently away downhill over cool stones in the quiet of night.

Tom sat on a while beside them in silence, while each of them tried to muster the courage to ask one of the many questions he had meant to ask at supper. Sleep gathered on their eyelids. At last Frodo spoke: “Did you hear me calling, Master, or was it just chance that brought you at that moment?”

Tom stirred like a man shaken out of a pleasant dream. ‘Eh, what?’ said he. ‘Did I hear you calling? Nay, I did not hear: I was busy singing. Just chance brought me then, if chance you call it. It was no plan of mine, though I was waiting for you. We heard news of you, and learned that you were wandering.”
~J.R.R. Tolkien from The Lord of the Rings

We wander through this life, sometimes with a destination in mind, but too often lost and surrounded by a darkness threatening to swallow us whole.

It isn’t by chance that we have been rescued and brought to safety.

Our Savior has been waiting for us, hearing us call out for help. Our rescue begins again tomorrow with the Advent of the Light that comes into pitch dark to illuminate our way to becoming un-lost.

No longer do we need to fear the noises of the night or where we take our next step. We are reassured we have been found, as T.S. Eliot wrote of Advent: “the beginning shall remind us of the end and the first coming of the second coming.”

May the coming weeks be a time of peace and reflection:
For nothing passes door and window here save moonlight and starlight and the wind off the hill-top

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Will I Open the Door?

Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.
Revelation 3:20

…we are faced with the shocking reality:
Jesus stands at the door and knocks, in complete reality.
He asks you for help in the form of a beggar,
in the form of a ruined human being in torn clothing.
He confronts you in every person that you meet.
Christ walks on the earth as your neighbor as long as there are people.
He walks on the earth as the one through whom
God calls you, speaks to you and makes his demands.
That is the greatest seriousness
and the greatest blessedness of <His> message.
Christ stands at the door.
Will you keep the door locked or open it to him?
~Dietrich Bonhoeffer from an Advent Sermon “The Coming of Jesus into our Midst”

photo by Nate Gibson

Sam does barn chores with me, always has.  He runs up and down the aisles as I fill buckets, throw hay, and he’ll explore the manure pile out back and the compost pile and have stand offs with the barn cats (which he always loses).  We have our routine.  When I get done with chores, I whistle for him and we head to the house. 

We head back home together.

Except this morning.  I whistled when I was done and his furry little fox face didn’t appear as usual.  I walked back through both barns calling his name, whistling, no signs of Sam.  I walked to the fields, I walked back to the dog yard, I walked the road (where he never ever goes), I scanned the pond (yikes), I went back to the barn and glanced inside every stall, I went in the hay barn where he likes to jump up and down on stacked bales, looking for a bale avalanche he might be trapped under, or a hole he couldn’t climb out of.  Nothing.

Passing through the barn again, I heard a little faint scratching inside one Haflinger’s stall, which I had just glanced in 10 minutes before.  The mare was peacefully eating hay.  Sam was standing with his feet up against the door as if asking what took me so long.  He must have scooted in when I filled up her water bucket, and I closed the door not knowing he was inside, and it was dark enough that I didn’t see him when I checked.  He and his good horse friend kept it their secret.

He made not a whimper nor did he bark when I called out his name, passing that stall at least 10 times looking for him. He just patiently waited for me to finally open the door I had previously locked tight.

It wasn’t Sam who was lost. Sam lost me. He patiently waited until I realized he was waiting for me for me to come around and open the door.

He was ready to accompany me back home. 

Though you are homeless
Though you’re alone
I will be your home
Whatever’s the matter
Whatever’s been done
I will be your home
I will be your home
I will be your home
In this fearful fallen place
I will be your home
When time reaches fullness
When I move my hand
I will bring you home
Home to your own place
In a beautiful land
I will bring you home
I will bring you home
I will bring you home
From this fearful fallen place
I will bring you home
I will bring you home
~Michael Card

Tell Your Story

Go into the woods
and tell your story
to the trees.
They are wise
standing in their folds of silence
among white crystals of rock
and dying limbs.
And they have time.
Time for the swaying of leaves,
the floating down,
the dust.
They have time for gathering
and holding the earth about their feet.
Do this.
It is something I have learned.
How they will bend down to you
so softly.
They will bend down to you
and listen.

~Laura Foley, “The Quiet Listeners” from Syringa

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.
Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”
~Mary Oliver “When I am Among the Trees”

It seems I’m perpetually wandering
in the figurative forest of my days on this earth,
unsure where I’m heading,
struggling to figure out where I’ve been.
The trees want to hear my story and like few others,
they listen.

I follow a path laid out before me,
keeping my head down to make sure
I don’t trip over a root or stumble on a rock,
when around and above me are the clues
to who and where I am and where I’m going.

So I stop,
stand still,
breathe deeply of this life,
looking up at these trees who urge me to shine
no matter where I am.

I was lost, and now am found.

photo by Emily Gibson

Waiting in Wilderness: I Seem to be Lost

My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think that I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always,
though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

Amen.
~Thomas Merton “Prayer” from Thoughts in Solitude

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kyrie eleison, have mercy,
christe eleison, have mercy.

We are all alike in this one way
when we can barely agree about anything else –
We are all lost,
wandering weeping wretched

It is when I am shown mercy
that I become mercy,
loving where others show hate
giving where others take away
building up where others tear down.

We are found:
we become Christ where we live
because He renews in us through His sacrifice
a new life in Him.

Reflecting Stars

Two whistles, one for each,
and familiar sounds draw close in darkness—
cadence of hoof on hardened bottomland,
twinned blowing of air through nostrils curious, flared.
They come deepened and muscular movements
conjured out of sleep: each small noise and scent
heavy with earth, simple beyond communion…

…and in the night, their mares’ eyes shine, reflecting stars,
the entire, outer light of the world here. 
~Jane Hirschfield from “After Work”

It’s tempting to fall headfirst into their fathomless well –
Their eyes are what rivet me as they search my own,
This retinal magnet drawing me into
Such incalculable depths.

Yet I’m merely reflected like starlight;
Only dancing on this mirrored surface
When I long to dive deep to understand what they see in me:
To be so lost I must be found.

Kitten Who Lost Her Way

I sometimes think the PussyWillows grey
Are Angel Kittens who have lost their way,
And every Bulrush on the river bank
A Cat-Tail from some lovely Cat astray.
~Oliver Herford, from The Rubaiyat of a Persian Kitten

Our little calico Nala has the bravado of a cat many times her size and age. She climbs the tallest trees, dangles over the house roof eaves to stare eyeball-to-eyeball with the birds picking at seeds in the feeders. She takes no guff from the dogs or from her bigger brother Simba.

One day last summer, a visitor to our farm knocked early in the morning on our front door to say our kitty was struggling to walk, dragging her hind legs behind her. I hurriedly dressed to go find her, thinking I needed to somehow gather her up in a blanket to take to the vet, but she was no where to be found. I looked everywhere in the bushes and the hidden-away spots I knew she enjoyed, but she had vanished. I put out bowls of food to entice her but no luck – after three days, I figured she had crawled away to die alone, as cats are wont to do. Even her brother didn’t seem to know where she had gone as I followed him on his farm excursions.

I tried to theorize what might had happened – had she fallen from a roof or tree and become paralyzed? Surely she could not survive such a devastating injury.

Nine days later, long after I assumed she had died of her injuries or starvation, she appeared on the front porch when I opened the door. She was thin, weak, with her hind legs moving and holding up her weight. She was hungry and extremely vocal and not just a little perturbed that there was an empty cat food bowl on the porch.

On closer inspection, she had healing wounds along either side of her spine, matching closely with what I assume were eagle talon marks that had grasped her, if only briefly, as a raptor tried to carry her away. I suspect, feisty as she was, she fought her predator so fiercely that she was dropped from a bit of a height, bruising her spine. For an eagle, in this land of plenty of prey, dining on a calico is never worth such aggravation and hassle.

What a cat – now minus at least one, if not more lives. Only eight to go.

She is indeed resurrected; completely healed up, her spine is working fine and the only marks left on her back are white patches of new hair growth over her former wounds.

We thought she was lost forever, but she had not lost her way back to us, only way-laid for a bit. Our angel kitten is now resident on the front porch and back to her farm life climbing trees and torturing little birds.

Beware any big raptor who tries to take her on.

Finding My Way Home

Bees do have a smell, you know,
and if they don’t they should,
for their feet are dusted with spices
from a million flowers.”
~Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine


I studied bees, who were able
to convey messages through dancing
and could find their ways
home to their hives
even if someone put up a blockade of sheets
and boards and wire.
Bees had radar in their wings and brains
that humans could barely understand.
I wrote a paper proclaiming
their brilliance and superiority
and revised it at a small café
featuring wooden hive-shaped honey-dippers
in silver honeypots
at every table.
~Naomi Shihab Nye from “Bees Were Better”

Suddenly a bee, big as a blackberry,
bumbles against my window, knocking
for attention. Rolling in azalea cups all morning,
she weaves in slow motion then hovers
like a helicopter, humming
to herself. The key, C major.
No black notes, no sharps, no flats.
Only naturals—the fan of her own wings,
the bliss of her own buzz.

She doesn’t practice.
She doesn’t have to. She knows.
To make honey, you follow the dance.
~Alice Friman  from “The Key”

I wish I had a homing device in my body that would bring me home no matter where I wander. I simply turn my face to the sun and my wings take me back there, even if I wasn’t paying attention to the dance of others and I’m off kilter or too stubborn to admit home is where I need to be.

After a summer of watching thousands of bees making a “bee-line” to home at night as if they are on a superhighway to their very own hive and honey cell, I need to be just as determined, just as committed, just as confident that I’m heading to where I belong.

The rest are waiting for me and have left the light on.


Composting

Nature teaches nothing is lost.
It’s transmuted.

Spread between rows of beans,
last year’s rusty leaves tamp down weeds.
Coffee grounds and banana peels
foster rose blooms. Bread crumbs
scattered for birds become song.
Leftovers offered to chickens come back
as eggs, yolks sunrise orange.
Broccoli stems and bruised apples
fed to cows return as milk steaming in the pail,
as patties steaming in the pasture.

Surely our shame and sorrow
also return,
composted by years
into something generative as wisdom.

~Laura Grace Weldon, “Compost Happens” from Blackbird

As a farmer, I spend over an hour a day cleaning my barn, and wheel heavy loads of organic material to a large pile in our barnyard which composts year round.  Piling up all that messy stuff that is no longer needed is crucial to the process: it heats up quickly to the point of steaming, and within months, it becomes rich fertilizer, ready to help the fields to grow grass, or the garden to produce vegetables, or the fragrant blooms in the flower beds.  It becomes something far greater and more productive than what it was to begin with. 

That’s what my past clinical work in detox and treatment of addictions was like.

As a physician, I helped patients “clean up” the parts of their lives they can’t manage any longer, that are causing problems with their health, their families and jobs, and most of all, their relationship with their Creator.  There isn’t a soul walking this earth who doesn’t struggle in some way with things that take over our lives, whether it is work,  computer use, food, gambling, you name it.  For the chemically dependent, it comes in the form of smoke, a powder, a bottle, a syringe or a pill.  There is nothing that has proven more effective than “piling up together” learning what it takes to walk the road to health and healing, “heating up”, so to speak, in an organic process of transformation that is, for lack of any better description, primarily a spiritual treatment process. 

When a support group becomes a crucible for the “refiner’s fire”,  it does its best work melting people down to rid the impurities before they can be built back up again, stronger than ever.  They become compost, productive, with the wisdom and readiness to grow others.

This work with a spectrum of individuals of all races, professional and blue collar, rich and homeless,  coming from all over the state for help,  was transforming for me.  I worked with incredibly gifted nursing and counseling staff, some recovering themselves, who dedicated their careers to this work.

As Jesus says in Matthew 25: 40–‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

Nature teaches that nothing is lost.

God teaches we seek out the lost until they are found and then and only then, the work of transformation begins.