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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Simply to Be is a Blessing

Before the adults we call our children arrive with their children in tow
  for Thanksgiving,

we take our morning walk down the lane of oaks and hemlocks, mist
  a smell of rain by nightfall—underfoot,

the crunch of leathery leaves released by yesterday’s big wind.

You’re ahead of me, striding into the arch of oaks that opens onto the fields
  and stone walls of the road—

as a V of geese honk a path overhead, and you stop—

in an instant, without thought, raising your arms toward sky, your hands
  flapping from the wrists,

and I can read in the echo your body makes of these wild geese going
  where they must,

such joy, such wordless unity and delight, you are once again the child
  who knows by instinct, by birthright,

just to be is a blessing. In a fictional present, I write the moment down.
  You embodied it. 
~Margaret Gibson “Moment” 

On this day,
this giving-thanks day,
I know families who surround loved ones fighting for life in ICU beds,
others struggling to find gratitude in their pierced hearts
when their child/brother/sister/spouse is gunned down in mass shootings,
or too many tragically lost every day to overwhelming depression,
as well as those lost in a devastating three year pandemic.

It is the measure of us – we created ones –
to kneel in gratitude while facing the terrible
and still feel touched, held, loved and blessed,
to sincerely believe how wide and long and high and deep is His love for us —
even when we weep, even when we mourn,
even when our pain makes no sense.

God chose to come alongside us and suffer,
rather than fly away.
He knew being alive
~just to be like us at all~
was His blessing to last an eternity.

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Sustained by Mystery

Days pass when I forget the mystery.
Problems insoluble and problems offering
their own ignored solutions
jostle for my attention, they crowd its antechamber
along with a host of diversions, my courtiers, wearing
their colored clothes; cap and bells.
                                                        And then
once more the quiet mystery
is present to me, the throng’s clamor
recedes: the mystery
that there is anything, anything at all,
let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything,
rather than void: and that, O Lord,
Creator, Hallowed One, You still,
hour by hour sustain it.
~Denise Levertov  “Primary Wonder” from Selected Poems

Here is the mystery, the secret, one might almost say the cunning, of the deep love of God: that it is bound to draw upon itself the hatred and pain and shame and anger and bitterness and rejection of the world, but to draw all those things on to itself is precisely the means chosen from all eternity by the generous, loving God, by which to rid his world of the evils which have resulted from human abuse of God-given freedom.
~N.T.Wright from The Crown and The Fire

When I’m embittered and overwhelmed by the bad news of the world and I am buried in my own troubles such as COVID visiting our household, I cling to the mystery of God’s magnetism for my weaknesses and flaws.

He willingly pulls evil onto Himself, out of each of us. Hatred and pain and shame and anger disappear into the vortex of His love and beauty, the mucky corners of my heart vacuumed spotless.

We are let in on a secret: God is not sullied by absorbing the dirty messes of our lives as He came here to do just that. God leaves no void behind; He fills all emptiness with Himself.

Created in His image, we are sustained and saved through Him, thus bound to reflect His glory – how can we not be transformed and healed by His Love?

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The Silence of a Dying God

November pierces with its bleak remembrance
Of all the bitterness and waste of war.
Our silence tries but fails to make a semblance
Of that lost peace they thought worth fighting for.
Our silence seethes instead with wraiths and whispers,
And all the restless rumour of new wars,
The shells are falling all around our vespers,
No moment is unscarred, there is no pause,
In every instant bloodied innocence
Falls to the weary earth ,and whilst we stand
Quiescence ends again in acquiescence,
And Abel’s blood still cries in every land
One silence only might redeem that blood
Only the silence of a dying God.
~Malcolm Guite “Silence: a Sonnet for Remembrance Day”

So, when old hopes that earth was bettering slowly
Were dead and damned, there sounded ‘War is done!’
One morrow. Said the bereft, and meek, and lowly,
‘Will men some day be given to grace? yea, wholly,
And in good sooth, as our dreams used to run?

Aye; all was hushed. The about-to-fire fired not,
The aimed-at moved away in trance-lipped song.

Calm fell. From Heaven distilled a clemency;
There was peace on earth, and silence in the sky;

Some could, some could not, shake off misery

~Thomas Hardy from “And There Was a Great Calm” 

(On the Signing of the Armistice, 11 Nov. 1918)

When you go home tell them of us and say –
“For your tomorrow we gave our today”
~John Maxwell Edmonds from “The Kohima Epitaph” 

I’m unsure why the United States does not call November 11 Remembrance Day as the Commonwealth nations did 99 years ago at the Armistice. This is a day that demands so much more than the more passive name Veterans’ Day represents.

This day calls all citizens who appreciate their freedoms to stop what they are doing and disrupt the routine rhythm of their lives. We are to remember in humble thankfulness the generations of military veterans who sacrificed time, resources, sometimes health and well being, and too often their lives in answering the call to defend their countries.

Remembrance means
~never forgetting what it costs to defend freedom.
~acknowledging the millions who have given of themselves and continue to do so on our behalf.
~never ceasing to care.
~a commitment to provide resources needed for the military to remain strong and supported.
~unending prayers for safe return home to family.
~we hold these men and women close in our hearts, always teaching the next generation about the sacrifices they made.

Most of all,
it means being willing ourselves to become the sacrifice when called.

Too Many Missing Pieces

Adrift in the liberating, late light
of August, delicate, frivolous,
they make their way to my front porch
and flutter near the glassed-in bulb,
translucent as a thought suddenly
wondered aloud, illumining the air
that’s thick with honeysuckle and dusk.
You and I are doing our best
at conversation, keeping it light, steering clear
of what we’d like to say.
You leave, and the night becomes
cluttered with moths, some tattered,
their dumbly curious filaments
startling against my cheek. How quickly,
instinctively, I brush them away.
Dazed, they cling to the outer darkness
like pale reminders of ourselves.
Others seem to want so desperately
to get inside. Months later, I’ll find
the woolens, snug in their resting places,
full of missing pieces.

~Jennifer O’Grady “Moths” from White.

The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.
~John Stuart Mill from On Liberty

I recently discovered my favorite wool sweater has several holes thanks to a past moth invasion. The moths were feasting while I was simmering in frustration at the state of the world.

It is just human nature to want others to think and believe as I do and when they don’t, I’m befuddled, flummoxed and can feel downright pissy about it. I’m trying to rehabilitate myself but some days I suffer a set-back.

I read an article in the New York Times today that I found infuriating in its conclusion that maternal instinct is only a myth created by men. The headline was so offensive to me that I initially couldn’t finish the article. I just got angrier the second time through. I was like a moth to a flame shining bright: I found the article so irresistible to read because I disagreed so strongly. There were holes everywhere in the writer’s arguments claiming mothering is a male-self serving myth – like so many other hot button issues today, this was an opportunity for “woke” points to be made and non-woke points (like mine) being gaslit.

Unfortunately, this has become the way of modern discourse.

On further reflection, I realize my own point of view also is chock-full of moth-eaten holes if submitted to the scrutiny of irritable New York Times readers with a different life experience and world view. Instead, I wish there could be an opportunity for a sit-on-the-front-porch-in-waning-August discussion about what really matters in this life, leaving the porch light on for disoriented and misguided moths of public opinion to beat themselves silly. We could commit ourselves to ongoing relationship despite our disagreements, rather than an insistence controversial topics should be avoided between consenting adults.

Yet my energy for argument has ebbed as I age while the general public penchant for cruelty grows.

My holey sweater will never be the same, nor is my peace with seeking truth among the opinions of the world.

In retrospect, the moths who found my sweater had the better meal.

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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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Walking Over the Threshold

I know for a while again,
the health of self-forgetfulness,
looking out at the sky through
a notch in the valley side,
the black woods wintry on
the hills, small clouds at sunset
passing across. And I know
that this is one of the thresholds
between Earth and Heaven,
from which I may even step
forth from myself and be free.
~ Wendell Berry, Sabbaths 2000

John O’Donohue gave voice to the connection between beauty and those edges of life — thresholds was the word he loved—
where the fullness of reality becomes more stark and more clear.

If you go back to the etymology of the word “threshold,” it comes from “threshing,” which is to separate the grain from the husk. So the threshold, in a way, is a place where you move into more critical and challenging and worthy fullness.

There are huge thresholds in every life.

You know that, for instance, if you are in the middle of your life in a busy evening, fifty things to do and you get a phone call that somebody you love is suddenly dying, it takes ten seconds to communicate that information.

But when you put the phone down, you are already standing in a different world. Suddenly everything that seems so important before is all gone and now you are thinking of this. So the given world that we think is there and the solid ground we are on is so tentative.

And a threshold is a line which separates two territories of spirit, and very often how we cross is the key thing.

When we cross a new threshold worthily, what we do is we heal the patterns of repetition that were in us that had us caught somewhere.
~John O’Donohue from an “On Being” interview with Krista Tippett on “Becoming Wise”

A decade ago, someone I respected told me that my writing reflects a “sacramental” life —  touching and tasting the holiness of everyday moments, as if they are the cup and bread that sustains me as God’s eternal grace and gift.

I allow that feedback to sit warmly beside me, like a welcome companion during the many hours I struggle with what to write here.

It is all too tempting to emphasize the sacrament over the sacrifice it represents.  As much as I love the world and the beauty in the moments I share here, my search should be for the entrance to the “thin places” between heaven and earth, through forgetting self and stepping forth through a holy threshold into something far greater.

I feel so unworthy — in fact, threshed to pieces most days, incapable of thinking of anything but how I feel reduced to fragments. Perhaps those fragments can be like the droplets coming from a farm sprinkler at sunset, sparkling and golden despite waning light, bringing something essential to anyone feeling dry, parched and dusty.

I may even step
forth from myself and be free
.

Only then we can walk each other home.

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A Corner Post

If you stand here you can see the barn.
You can see it from every point on these two hundred acres,
but this spot is the closest.

Here’s a fence post–use your imagination–
that used to be a corner post
for all the fences on this farm.
~Curtis Bauer from “Imaginary Homecoming”
from Fence Line

Brushy fencerows are in a sense a gift from man to nature —
at least if, after the posts are dug in and the fence stapled to the posts, nature is given some free reign. Birds sitting on the fence and posts will pass undigested seeds in their droppings. Some of these seeds of blackberry, wild cherry, elderberry, bittersweet, sassafras, mulberry, and unfortunately, in some areas, multiflora rose, will take root in the loose soil around the posts and later in soil dug up by woodchucks. Chipmunks scurrying along the fence will bring and bury acorns and hickory nuts, while the wind will deliver dandelion, milkweed, and thistle seeds — all ingredients for a healthy fencerow.
~David Kline from Great Possessions

Standing in certain spots on our farm,
at certain times of day
and certain times of year

I think I can see and be seen
into forever,
the expanse of sky unending,
touching shadowy hilltop silhouettes.

I look for the Corner Post from which
all boundaries extend,
fencing in the known and unknown from this spot.
I see the sanctuary which is safe haven to all that need to find rest,
a hub for our homecoming.

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Freedom: Being Easy in the Harness

photo by Joel DeWaard
Photo by Joel DeWaard
photo by Joel DeWaard

I find my greatest freedom on the farm.
I can be a bad farmer or a lazy farmer and it’s my own business.
What is my definition of freedom?
It’s being easy in your harness.

~Robert Frost in 1954, at a news conference on the eve of his 80th birthday

photo by Joel DeWaard
photo by Joel DeWaard

Little soul,
you and I will become
the memory
of a memory of a memory.
A horse
released of the traces
forgets the weight of the wagon.
~Jane Hirshfield “Harness”

photo by Joel DeWaard
photo by Joel DeWaard
photo by Joel DeWaard

The past was faded like a dream; 
There come the jingling of a team, 
A ploughman’s voice, a clink of chain, 
Slow hoofs, and harness under strain. 
Up the slow slope a team came bowing

O wet red swathe of earth laid bare,
O truth, O strength, O gleaming share,
O patient eyes that watch the goal,
O ploughman of the sinner’s soul.
O Jesus, drive the coulter deep
To plough my living man from sleep…


That Christ was standing there with me, 
That Christ had taught me what to be, 
That I should plough, and as I ploughed 
My Saviour Christ would sing aloud, 
And as I drove the clods apart 
Christ would be ploughing in my heart, 
Through rest-harrow and bitter roots, 
Through all my bad life’s rotten fruits.

Lo, all my heart’s field red and torn,
And Thou wilt bring the young green corn,
And when the field is fresh and fair
Thy blessed feet shall glitter there,
And we will walk the weeded field,
And tell the golden harvest’s yield,
The corn that makes the holy bread
By which the soul of man is fed,
The holy bread, the food unpriced,
Thy everlasting mercy, Christ.
~John Masefield from The Everlasting Mercy

photo by Joel DeWaard
photo by Joel DeWaard
photo by Joel DeWaard

We historically have shouldered much burden
in our pursuit of happiness and freedom;
it’s worth every ounce of sweat,
every sore muscle,
every drop of blood,
every tear.

We forget the weight of the plow
as it turns over the earth
where someday we will rest as dust.

The soil of our hearts is well-tilled,
yielding to the plowshare
digging deep with the pull of the harness.
The furrow straight and narrow.

Although we are tread upon
yet do we bloom;
though we are turned upside down
yet we produce bread.

Plowing brings freshness to the surface,
a new face upturned to the cleansing dew,
knots of worms making our simple dust fertile.

Plow deep our hearts this day
of celebrating freedom in You, Dear Lord.
Let us remember to worship You, and not ourselves.

May we plow, sow, grow,
gather and harvest what is needed
to feed your vast and hungry children
everywhere.

photo by Joel DeWaard
photo by Joel DeWaard

Thank you once again to Joel DeWaard, local farmer, craftsman and photographer, who graciously shares his photos of the Annual International Lynden (Washington) Plowing Match

Whatcha gonna do when the plowin’s done?
Workin’ all day in the heat of the sun
The game’s been caught; the bread’s been won
Whatcha gonna do when the plowin’s done?

What I’m gonna do when the plowin’s done
Is take some time just to have some fun
Say the barn-dance just begun
That’s where I’m goin’ when the plowin’s done

Whatcha gonna do when the daylight’s gone
Twilight settles and the shade grows long
The whippoorwill sings his favorite song
Whatcha gonna do when the daylight’s gone?

What I’m gonna do when the daylight’s gone
Is take you to the dance if you’ll come along
The down-home past time can’t go wrong
That’s what I’m doing when the daylight’s gone

Whatcha gonna do when the moonlight’s gone
And dewdrops settle on the farmer’s lawn
I’m gonna stay right here and dance till dawn
That’s what I’m doing when the moonlight’s gone

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A Good Place For Us All to Live

This country will not be a good place for any of us to live in unless we make it a good place for all of us to live in.
~ Theodore Roosevelt

What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected, now shines on the stream:
Tis the star-spangled banner…
~Francis Scott Key – excerpt from the rarely sung second verse

I grew up with a flag pole in our front yard; the American flag was raised every morning by my WWII veteran father and lowered at dusk every evening. This was far more than a ritual for my father; he saw it as his obligation and privilege after the three years he spent as a Marine officer in the South Pacific. He had the freedom, as well as the necessity, to declare our hard-won liberty to any who passed by. The flag was his reminder, a tangible symbol of having fought beneath it, watching others shed blood and die for it.

My father was not one to weep – ever. But his eyes filled up when we visited the original The Star-Spangled banner in its display at the Smithsonian Institute in the 1960s, and again as we stood before the Iwo Jima Memorial Marine flag-raising sculpture. The fact the flag meant so much to him is impressed and imprinted upon me.

He would have been horrified at how the flag is currently misused as a symbol of “my patriotism is more true and pure than yours” — it was displayed like a talisman by the rioters who stormed the Capitol building on January 6, 2021. The American flag has been through many tough times since it was designed – during my lifetime it was burned as an expression of free speech and ignored when people are asked to recite “The Pledge of Allegiance.”

The flag now seems to be Exhibit A representing our deep divisions rather than our unity.

June 14 (Flag Day) no longer has the impact that it had over a century ago when it was first declared, observing the day in 1777 the Second Continental Congress passed a resolution to create a flag for the new United States. My mother, growing up in the isolation of the Palouse wheat farms in eastern Washington state, would reminisce about Depression-era Flag Day parades, picnics and celebrations in the small farming communities of Waverly and Fairfield. It was a mere warm up for the all-out patriotic gatherings planned for July 4 – indeed a community on display.

As I place our flag out on our porch today, I am honoring it as a symbol of a country which values the freedoms of all people.

May this banner fly proudly for many generations to come.
Here is the proof, through all the dark and contentious nights of our country’s history, that our flag is still here.

Let’s ensure this is a good place for all of us to live in.

The Star Spangled Banner – Smithsonian Institute
Iwo Jima monument – Arlington Cemetery

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