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 on our Darkness: Where We Dwell

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

~Wendell Berry “To Know the Dark” from Soul Food – Nourishing Poems for Starved Minds

What is coming upon the world is the Light of the World.
It is Christ.
That is the comfort of it.

The challenge of it is that it has not come yet.
Only the hope for it has come, only the longing for it.
In the meantime we are in the dark,
and the dark, God knows, is also in us.

We watch and wait for a holiness to heal us and hallow us,
to liberate us from the dark.
Advent is like the hush in a theater just before the curtain rises.
It is like the hazy ring around the winter moon
that means the coming of snow which will turn the night to silver.

Soon.
But for the time being, our time, darkness is where we are. 
~Frederick Buechner from The Clown in the Belfry

We enter Advent immersed in darkness; it exists both outside us and within.
Somehow we must withstand it until the Light comes.
It is where we are.

We are promised this in the Word: “and night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light… Revelation 22:5.

The Word in the beginning set a dark universe in motion.
The Word became both flesh and Savior to a world dwelling in darkness.
The Word as Spirit thrives eternally to enlighten our hearts, our minds and hands.

Advent is a time of quiet stillness, awaiting the Light brought by His Word;
He is a flint struck to our wick – the darkness abolished by His illuminating glow.

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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The Pain of the Empty Nest

If you notice anything
it leads you to notice
more
and more.

And anyway
I was so full of energy.
I was always running around, looking
at this and that.

If I stopped
the pain
was unbearable
.

If I stopped and thought, maybe
the world can’t be saved,
the pain
was unbearable.
~Mary Oliver from “The Moths” from Dream Work

Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention.

They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go next.
~Frederick Buechner from A Crazy Holy Grace

It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for a bird to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.
~C.S. Lewis from Mere Christianity

For the past eight days of August on our farm, we have heard loud cries from the sky, starting soon after sunrise and becoming more frequent before sunset. Every few minutes from one high tree top or another, we hear a shrill “kree” which sometimes sounds angry, too often mournful and full of pain.

These cries come from a young red-tailed hawk whose nest is emptied and whose parents have left it to fend for itself. Old enough to hunt, but not ready for that heady responsibility.

This is one unhappy bird, a fellow creature in distress, feeling abandoned in a confusing and often hostile world. I understand the distress; I felt it as well when I was young and still feel it at times now when the world feels hopelessly lost.

My new overly-vocal hawk neighbor will eventually find a home and its destiny in a new nest. Its wings and voice remain strong and are strengthening daily with constant exercise. And I will stop noticing the sting of tears in my eyes every time I hear its voice calling out its loneliness to me.

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The Unanswerable Questions

When I lay these questions before God I get no answer.
But a rather special sort of “No answer.”

It is not the locked door.
It is more like a silent,
certainly not uncompassionate, gaze.

As though he shook his head not in refusal but waiving the question. Like, “Peace, child; you don’t understand.”

Can a mortal ask questions which God finds unanswerable?
Quite easily, I should think.
All nonsense questions are unanswerable.

How many hours are there in a mile?
Is yellow square or round?

Probably half the questions we ask –
half our great theological and metaphysical problems –
are like that.

~C.S. Lewis from  A Grief Observed

I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. 
You are yourself the answer.
Before your face questions die away.
~C.S. Lewis from Till We Have Faces

And now brothers, 
I will ask you a terrible question, 
and God knows I ask it also of myself. 
Is the truth beyond all truths, 
beyond the stars, just this: 
that to live without him is the real death, 
that to die with him the only life?
~Frederick Buechner from The Magnificent Defeat

God will only give you what you would have asked for if you knew everything he knows.
~Tim Keller

And that is just the point… how the world, moist and beautiful, calls to each of us to make a new and serious response. That’s the big question, the one the world throws at you every morning. “Here you are, alive. Would you like to make a comment?
~Mary Oliver from Long Life

An hour later, the fog has lifted

This morning, it is impossible to stay a silent observer of the world.  I have to say something; I seek out answers to the unanswerable.

Overnight, our farm was covered with a freezing fog resembling a massive sponge soaking up all the light. A chill has returned: both in the air and in ongoing events in the headlines.

There can be no complacency in witnessing this life in progress.
It blusters, rips, drenches, swallows up, buries.
Nothing remains as it was.

Yet here I am, alive.
Awed, a witness to another day.
Called to ask questions and make a comment.
Dying to hear a response.

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The Beginning Shall Remind Us of the End: Came Down and Disappeared Into Us

[The Incarnation is like] a wave of the sea which,
rushing up on the flat beach,
runs out, even thinner and more transparent,
and does not return to its source but sinks into the sand and disappears.
~Hans Urs von Balthasar from Origen: Spirit and Fire

The Word became flesh.
Ultimate Mystery born with a skull you could crush one-handed.

Incarnation.
It is not tame.
It is not beautiful.
It is uninhabitable terror.
It is unthinkable darkness riven with unbearable light.


Agonized laboring led to it,
vast upheavals of intergalactic space,

time split apart,
a wrenching and tearing of the very sinews of reality itself.
You can only cover your eyes and shudder before it, before this:
“God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God… who for us and for our salvation,” as the Nicene Creed puts it, “came down from heaven.”

Came down.

Only then do we dare uncover our eyes and see what we can see.
It is the Resurrection and the Life she holds in her arms.
It is the bitterness of death he takes at her breast.
~Frederick Buechner from Whistling in the Dark

Down he came from up,
and in from out,
and here from there.
A long leap,
an incandescent fall
from magnificent
to naked, frail, small,
through space,
between stars,
into our chill night air,
shrunk, in infant grace,
to our damp, cramped
earthy place
among all
the shivering sheep.

And now, after all,
there he lies,
fast asleep.
~Luci Shaw “Descent” from Accompanied By Angels

Perhaps it is the mystery of the thing that brings us back,
again and again, to read the story of 
how God came down and disappeared into us.

How can this be?
God appearing on earth first to animals,
then the most humble of humans.

How can He be?
Through the will of the Father and the breath of the Spirit,
the Son was, and is and yet to be.

O great mystery beyond all understanding.

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”

O magnum mysterium,
et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,
jacentem in praesepio!
Beata Virgo,
cujus viscera meruerunt portare Dominum Christum.
Alleluia!

O great mystery and wondrous sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord lying in their Manger!
Blessed is the Virgin
whose womb was worthy to bear the Lord Jesus Christ.
Alleluia!

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Mostly Dead

There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead.
Mostly dead is slightly alive. With all dead, well,

with all dead there’s usually only one thing you can do –
Go through his clothes and look for loose change.
~William Goldman – the wisdom of Miracle Max in The Princess Bride

You who believe,
and you who sometimes believe

and sometimes don’t believe much of anything,
and you who would give almost anything to believe if only you could.

You happy ones
and you who can hardly remember what it was like once to be happy.

You who know where you’re going and how to get there
and you who much of the time aren’t sure you’re getting anywhere.

“Get up,” he says, all of you – all of you! –
and the power that is in him

is the power to give life not just to the dead like the child,

but to those who are only partly alive,
which is to say to people like you and me

who much of the time live with our lives
closed to the wild beauty and miracle of things,
including the wild beauty and miracle of every day we live
and even of ourselves.
~Frederick Buechner -Originally published in Secrets in the Dark

May I not settle for being slightly alive or mostly dead –

I want to be fully alive
to the wild beauty and miracle of things,
to the wild beauty and miracle of every day,
and even the wild beauty and miracle of myself~~

I have known what it is to doubt,
to be discouraged, defeated, and grieved.

It is part of the package:
shadows appear when the Sun is the brightest and hottest.
I have no doubt the Sun exists, especially after the last few days.

So I must “get up!” even if I don’t know where to go next.

And then I will believe
~truly believe~
I am created to be mostly and absolutely alive this day and every day.

A new book from Barnstorming is available for order here:

Waiting in Wilderness: A Shining Garment

There is no event so commonplace
but that God is present within it,
always hiddenly,
always leaving you room to recognize Him
or not…

Listen to your life.
See it for the
fathomless mystery that it is.

In the boredom and pain of it no less
than in the excitement and gladness:
touch, taste, smell your way to the
holy and hidden art of it
because in the last analysis
all moments are key moments…..

and Life itself is Grace.
~Frederick Buechner from Now and Then- Listening to Your Life

The locus of the human mystery is perception of this world.
From it proceeds every thought, every art.
I like Calvin’s metaphor—nature is a shining garment in which God is revealed and concealed.
~Marilynne Robinson from her “Reclaiming a Sense of the Sacred” essay

Perhaps it is the mystery of His life that brings us back,
again and again, to read His story, familiar as it is,
at first wrapped in the shining garment of swaddling clothes,
then a plain robe to be gambled away beneath His nailed feet
and finally a shroud left carefully folded and empty.

How can this mystery be?
God appearing on earth,
hidden in the commonplace,
rendering it sacred and holy
by His spilled blood.

How can it be?
Through the will of the Father
and the breath of the Spirit,
this Son was born, died, then rose again
and still is,
and yet to be,
forever and ever.

O greatest mystery beyond all understanding.

Waiting in Wilderness: A Time of Treading Life

This is the wilderness time,
when every path is obscure
and thorns have grown around the words of hope.

This is the time of stone, not bread,
when even the sunrise feels uncertain
and everything tastes of bitterness.

This is the time of ashes and dust,
when darkness clothes our dreams
and no star shines a guiding light.

This is the time of treading life,
waiting for the swells to subside and for the chaos to clear.

Be the wings of our strength, O God,
in this time of wilderness waiting.
– Keri Wehlander from “600 Blessings and Prayers from around the world” compiled by Geoffrey Duncan

He will cover you with his feathers,
    and under his wings you will find refuge;
    his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.
Psalm 91:4

To be commanded to love God at all, let alone in the wilderness,
is like being commanded to be well when we are sick,
to sing for joy when we are dying of thirst,
to run when our legs are broken.
But this is the first and great commandment nonetheless.
Even in the wilderness- especially in the wilderness – you shall love him.   
~Frederick Buechner from A Room Called Remember:Uncollected Pieces

I usually think of wilderness as a distant peak far removed from anything or anyone.  From my farmhouse window on a clear day, I can see a number of distant peaks if the cloud cover moves away to reveal them.

Or perhaps the wilderness is a desolate plain that extends for miles without relief in sight.

Wilderness is also found in an isolated corner of my human heart. I keep it far removed from anything and anyone. During my televisit computer work,  I witness this wilderness in others, many times every day.

A diagnosis of “wilderness of the heart” doesn’t require a psychiatric manual: 
there is despair, discouragement, disappointment, lack of gratitude, lack of hope. 
One possible treatment to tame that wilderness is a covenantal obedience to God and others. It reaches so deep no corner is left untouched.

There come times in one’s life, and this past year especially, when loving God as commanded seems impossible. We are too broken, too frightened, too ill and too wary to trust God with faith and devotion.  We are treading life simply to stay afloat.

During this second Lenten pandemic, God’s love becomes respite and rescue from the wilderness of my own making. He is the sweet cure for a bitter and broken heart.

The Terrible Clarity

Romantic love is blind to everything
except what is lovable and lovely,

but Christ’s love sees us
with terrible clarity and sees us whole.


Christ’s love so wishes our joy
that it is ruthless against everything in us
that diminishes our joy.


The worst sentence Love can pass is that

we behold the suffering which Love has endured for our sake,
and that is also our acquittal.


The justice and mercy of the judge
are ultimately one.

~Frederick Buechner

As we prepare for the season of Lent to begin this week:

We see with terrible clarity
the Love and forgiveness shown to the guilty,
the Love given freely to the undeserving,
the Love paying our ransom in full,
the Love that endures suffering
to release us from our bondage.

This Judge convicts by meting out justice upon His own head,
then serves the whole sentence Himself:
He sets us free
to feel and know and see and share with one another
the Love we are shown.

As the Sun Breaks Through Clouds

Let us step outside for a moment
As the sun breaks through clouds
And shines on wet new fallen snow,
And breathe the new air.


So much has died that had to die this year.

We are dying away from things.

It is a necessity—we have to do it
Or we shall be buried under the magazines,
The too many clothes, the too much food.

Let us step outside for a moment
Among ocean, clouds, a white field,
Islands floating in the distance.
They have always been there.
But we have not been there.

Already there are signs.
Young people plant gardens.
Fathers change their babies’ diapers
And are learning to cook.

Let us step outside for a moment.
It is all there
Only we have been slow to arrive
At a way of seeing it.
Unless the gentle inherit the earth
There will be no earth.
~May Sarton from “New Year Poem”

Whenever you find tears in your eyes,
especially unexpected tears,
it is well to pay the closest attention. 
They are not only telling you something
about the secret of who you are,
but more often than not God is speaking to you through them
of the mystery of where you have come from
and is summoning you to where,
if your soul is to be saved,
you should go next.
~Frederick Buechner
 from Beyond Words

This year I have been paying close attention to what makes me weep.  During 2020, I have had more than ample opportunity to find out — from my tears — the secret of who I am, where I have come from, and for the salvation of my soul, where I am to be next.

My pockets contain hand sanitizer and kleenex, stowed right next to my mask.

In previous years, my tears flowed while spending time with far-flung children and grandchildren for the holidays — reading books and doing puzzles together and reminiscing about what has been and what could be. It was about singing grace together before a meal and my voice breaking with precious words of gratitude.  My tears certainly had to do with bidding farewell until we meet again — gathering them in for that final hug and then that difficult letting-go and waving goodbye as they round the corner and disappear.

This year, that had to happen on a screen or from behind masks.
No hugs hello or goodbye.
None of the usual ways we celebrate together.
I feel bereft as have countless other families around the globe. Some never had opportunity to say their final goodbye – too much has died this year.

As our children grew up, we encouraged them to go where their hearts told them they were needed and called to go, even if thousands of miles away from their one-time home on this farm. And so they went.

I too was let go once and though I would try to look back, too often in tears, I learned to set my face toward the future, seeking how the sun might break through the clouds in my life.  It led me to this marriage, this family, this farm, this work, this church, to more tears and heartbreak, to more letting go. And it will continue if I’m granted more years to weep again and again with gusto and grace.

This year my tears flow for what could not be. For too many families, their tears flow for who now is missing and will never return. My tears flow for the pain and sadness of disagreement and angry words.

Spreading faster than COVID is the viral expansion of toxic misinformation and conspiracy theories sowing doubt and distrust. Masks are useless to protect people exposed to a deficiency of simple common sense.

So this is where I must go next: to love so much and so deeply that my tears might make a small difference to those around me, like the sun breaking through the clouds.

A wise and precious friend once told me that “our tears are God’s tears; to be bereft is the only way to become one with God.

So I’ll let my tears flow where they may. And maybe someday I can leave my mask in my pocket.