To Embrace a Universe

Love, we are in God’s hand.
How strange now, looks the life he makes us lead;
So free we seem, so fettered fast we are!

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for? 

~Robert Browning from “Andrea del Sarto”

We have had names for you:
The Thunderer, the Almighty
Hunter, Lord of the snowflake
and the sabre-toothed tiger.
One name we have held back
unable to reconcile it
with the mosquito, the tidal wave,
the black hole into which
time will fall. You have answered
us with the image of yourself
on a hewn tree, suffering
injustice, pardoning it;
pointing as though in either
direction; horrifying us
with the possibility of dislocation.
Ah, love, with your arms out
wide, tell us how much more
they must still be stretched
to embrace a universe drawing
away from us at the speed of light.
~R.S.Thomas “Tell Us”

photo by our next door neighbor Bob Tjoelker

Ah, Love
You the Incarnate,
stretched and fettered to a tree

arms out wide
embracing us
who try to grasp
a heaven which eludes us

this heaven, Your heaven
brought down to us
within your wounded grip
and simply handed over.

To Reach Beyond Ourselves

I lived in the first century of world wars.
Most mornings I would be more or less insane,
The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,
The news would pour out of various devices
Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.
I would call my friends on other devices;
They would be more or less mad for similar reasons.
Slowly I would get to pen and paper,
Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.
In the day I would be reminded of those men and women,
Brave, setting up signals across vast distances,
Considering a nameless way of living, of almost unimagined values.
As the lights darkened, as the lights of night brightened,
We would try to imagine them, try to find each other,
To construct peace, to make love, to reconcile
Waking with sleeping, ourselves with each other,
Ourselves with ourselves. We would try by any means
To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves,
To let go the means, to wake.

I lived in the first century of these wars.
~Muriel Rukeyser “Poem” written in 1968

Juries can’t raise the dead...
…a just God governs the universe, and for that reason, none of our efforts are in vain ...God is not limited by our insufficiency, but perhaps might even be glorified through using limited human instruments for his purposes.
~Esau McCaulley, New Testament Wheaton College professor in his Opinion piece today “How I’m talking to my kids about the Derek Chauvin verdict”

How to reconcile ourselves with each other?
Indeed – ourselves with ourselves?

How will a single verdict make a difference in the battles fought for centuries between people all made in the image of God but fallen so far from Him?

Juries call us to the truth about ourselves.
The rest is up to us: what we tell our children about how to live and love.

What poems do we write to the unseen and the unborn so they do not repeat our mistakes.

And so, now we reconcile ourselves, heeding the call to live out His purposes.

Human Merely Being

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any–lifted from the no
of all nothing–human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)
~e.e. cummings

This human merely being
is leaning, threatening to fall over,
nearly broken.

You have created this amazing day
to show Your Face
to hear Your voice.

My ears awake
and my eyes open
to the unimaginable You,
O God.



The Earth’s Sweet Being

Nothing is so beautiful as Spring –         
   When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;         
   Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush         
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring         
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
   The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush         
   The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush         
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.   
      

What is all this juice and all this joy?         
   A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden. – Have, get, before it cloy,         
   Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,         
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,         
   Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning. 

~Gerard Manley Hopkins “Spring”

Once, we were innocent,
now, no longer.
Cloyed and clouded by sin.
Given a choice,
we chose sour over the sweetness we were born to,
giving up walks together in the cool of the day
to feed our appetite that could never be sated.

God made a choice to win us back with His own blood
as if we are worthy of Him.
He says we are.
He dies to prove it.
Every day I try to believe
our earth can be sweet and beautiful again.

An Infinite Capacity

God loves each of us as if there were only one of us to love.
~Saint Augustine

When I am only one,
there can be nothing special
to attract attention
or affection

When I blend into the background
among a multitude of others,
indistinct and plain,
as common as grains of sand

There is nothing to hold me up
as rare, unique,
or exceptional.

Yet it is not about my worth,
my work, my words,
none worthy enough to deserve His love;

it is about His infinite capacity
to love whoever He has formed

by the touch of His vast hand,
by the contraction of His immense heart,
by the boundlessness of His breath
reaching me
as if
as if
as if
I were the only one.

Scratching the Surface

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

“My God, My God,” goes the Psalm 22, “hear me, why have you forsaken me?”  

This is the anguish all we of Godforsaken heart know well.
But hear the revelation to which Christ directs us, further in the same psalm:

For He has not despised nor scorned the beggar’s supplication,
Nor has He turned away His face from me;
And when I cried out to Him, He heard me.

He hears us, and he knows, because he has suffered as one Godforsaken.
Which means that you and I, even in our darkest hours, are not forsaken.
Though we may hear nothing, feel nothing, believe nothing, we are not forsaken, and so we need not despair.

And that is everything.
That is Good Friday and it is hope,
it is life in this darkened age,
and it is the life of the world to come.
~Tony Woodlief from “We are Not Forsaken”

Scratch the surface of a human being and the demons of hate and revenge …
and sheer destructiveness break forth.

The cross stands before us to remind us of this depth of ourselves so that we can never forget.

Again and again we read the stories of violence in our daily papers, of the mass murders and ethnic wars still occurring in numerous parts of our world. But how often do we say to ourselves: “What seizes people like that, even young people, to make them forget family and friends, and suddenly kill other human beings?” We don’t always ask the question in that manner. Sometimes we are likely to think, almost smugly: “How different those horrible creatures are from the rest of us. How fortunate I am that I could never kill or hurt other people like they did.”

 I do not like to stop and, in the silence, look within, but when I do I hear a pounding on the floor of my soul. When I open the trap door into the deep darkness I see the monsters emerge for me to deal with. How painful it is to bear all this, but it is there to bear in all of us. If I do not deal with it, it deals with me. The cross reminds me of all this.

This inhumanity of human to human is tamed most of the time by law and order in most of our communities, but there are not laws strong enough to make men and women simply cease their cruelty and bitterness. This destructiveness within us can seldom be transformed until we squarely face it in ourselves. This confrontation often leads us into the pit.

The empty cross is planted there to remind us:
suffering is real but not the end,
victory still is possible…
~Morton Kelsey from “The Cross and the Cellar”

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
his opening words in his sermon on Christmas Day 1626

Anytime we assume God in heaven could not possibly understand
the loneliness and rejection we feel
the pain and discouragement we endure
the hatred that taints our communities
the suffering that is part of living inside these frail vessels, our bodies.
Surely, we think — if there was a God, He would do something about it:

He reminds us today
of all days
He was scraped and torn – no scratching the surface, but gouged deep.
He knows exactly what we endure
because He wasn’t spared.

He took it all on Himself — our affliction became His.

Paid in full.

Waiting in Wilderness: The Known and the Unknown

Though I have never caught the word
Of God from any calling bird,
I hear all that the ancients heard. 
Though I have seen no deity
Enter or leave a twilit tree,
I see all that the seers see. 


A common stone can still reveal
Something not stone, not seen, yet real.
What may a common stone conceal? 


Nothing is far that once was near.
Nothing is hid that once was clear.
Nothing was God that is not here. 


Here is the bird, the tree, the stone.
Here in the sun I sit alone
Between the known and the unknown.
~Robert Francis, “Nothing Is Far” from Collected Poems, 1936-1976

We live out our lives between heaven and earth, sometimes in an uneasy tug-of-war between the two. We feel not quite ready for heaven as our roots go deep here, yet the challenges of daily life on this soil can seem overwhelmingly difficult and we often seek relief, begging for mercy.

We are living “in between” where we are now and where we soon will be, between the “known” of the birds and trees and stones of this world and the “unknown” of what comes next.

Christ, incarnate as the Son on earth and still King in heaven, maintains an eternal connection to above and below. Nothing was God that is not still here on earth. In His hands and under His protection, we are safe no matter where we are and where He takes us.

We, His children, have stony hearts no more. We are known to Him.

Castlerigg Stone Circle in Cumbria

This child through David’s city
   Shall ride in triumph by;
      The palm shall strew its branches,
   And every stone shall cry.
   And every stone shall cry,
      Though heavy, dull, and dumb,
         And lie within the roadway
   To pave his kingdom come.

 Yet he shall be forsaken,
   And yielded up to die;
      The sky shall groan and darken,
   And every stone shall cry.
   And every stone shall cry
      For stony hearts of men:
         God’s blood upon the spearhead,
   God’s love refused again.
~Richard Wilbur from “A Christmas Hymn”

Waiting in Wilderness: Dialogue with God

Coffee in one hand
leaning in to share, listen:
How I talk to God.

“Momma, you’re special.”
Three-year-old touches my cheek.
How God talks to me.

While driving I make
lists: done, do, hope, love, hate, try.
How I talk to God.

Above the highway
hawk: high, alone, free, focused.
How God talks to me.

Rash, impetuous
chatter, followed by silence:
How I talk to God.

First, second, third, fourth
chance to hear, then another:
How God talks to me.

Fetal position
under flannel sheets, weeping
How I talk to God.

Moonlight on pillow
tending to my open wounds
How God talks to me.

Pulling from my heap
of words, the ones that mean yes:
How I talk to God.

Infinite connects
with finite, without words:
How God talks to me.
~Kelly Belmonte “How I Talk to God”

I don’t always realize I am constantly in a dialogue with God, but He knows and He hears. He talks back to me but I’m not always hearing Him.

Whenever I’m occupied with the daily-ness of life and am thinking “if only” this or that could be different, I’m telling God I know better. He lets me know in subtle and not-so-subtle ways that He made the world, He knows what comes next and I don’t.

If I get impatient or irritable rather than grateful and awed, I’m talking like a petulant child wanting my way. When God gifts me with a moment of color in the sky or a golden light across the landscape, I need to pause, waiting in my personal wilderness, and remain wordless.

The Infinite is trying to talk to the finite. I am only asked to listen.

You heard my voice, I came out of the woods by choice
Shelter also gave their shade
But in the dark I have no name
So leave that click in my head
And I will remember the words that you said
Left a clouded mind and a heavy heart
But I am sure we could see a new start
So when your hopes on fire
But you know your desire
Don’t hold a glass over the flame
Don’t let your heart grow cold
I will call you by name
I will share your road
But hold me fast, hold me fast
‘Cause I’m a hopeless wanderer
And hold me fast, hold me fast
‘Cause I’m a hopeless wanderer
I wrestled long with my youth
We tried so hard to live in the truth
But do not tell me all is fine
When I lose my head, I lose my spine
So leave that click in my head
And I won’t remember the words that you said
You brought me out from the cold
Now, how I long, how I long to grow old
So when your hope’s on fire
But you know your desire
Don’t hold a glass over the flame
Don’t let your heart grow cold
I will call you by name
I will share your road
But hold me fast, hold me fast
‘Cause I’m a hopeless wanderer
And hold me fast, hold me fast
‘Cause I’m a hopeless wanderer
I will learn, I will learn to love the skies I’m under
And I will learn, I will learn to love the skies I’m under
The skies I’m under
Source: LyricFindSongwriters: Benjamin Walter David Lovett / Edward James Milton Dwane / Marcus Oliver Johnstone Mumford / Winston Aubrey Aladar Marshall

Waiting in Wilderness: In the Interstices

As the deer pants for the water so my soul pants for you, God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
As with a deadly wound in my bones,
my adversaries taunt me,
while they say to me all the day long,
“Where is your God?”
from Psalm 42

Why no! I never thought other than
That God is that great absence
In our lives, the empty silence
Within, the place where we go
Seeking, not in hope to
Arrive or find. He keeps the interstices
In our knowledge, the darkness
Between stars. His are the echoes
We follow, the footprints he has just
Left. We put our hands in
His side hoping to find
It warm. We look at people
And places as though he had looked
At them, too; but miss the reflection.

~R.S. Thomas “Via Negativa”

We are treated as impostors, and yet are true;
as unknown, and yet well known;
as dying, and behold, we live;
as punished, and yet not killed;
as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing;
as poor, yet making many rich;
as having nothing, yet possessing everything.
2 Corinthians 6: 8b-10

The way of negation (via negativa) – describing who God is by describing who He is not — is like describing the interstitial spaces between my cells rather than the cells themselves, or the blackness between stars rather than the light that emanates from them.

It is impossible to understand God unless I absorb what He says about Himself. Yet I am too finite and He is too infinite to grasp fully.

So, like a deer panting for water, I thirst for Him, seeking more than a reflection of water for my real thirst. I want Him tangible and warm before me like Thomas thrusting his hand into Jesus’ wound, crying “My Lord and My God!”

The mystery of God is how He is so much more than mere reflection and the spaces in between what I see and feel in this existence. He is all things, all at once.

So I continue to seek Him, thirsting.

Waiting in Wilderness: A Personal Invitation

Are Job’s successes — even his holy successes — his treasure?
Or is God his treasure?
That’s the question everyone of us must ask.
And there is no reason to believe
that God will not test any one of us just as he did Job.
When he takes it all away, will we love him more than things,
more than health, more than family, and more than life?
That’s the question.
That’s the warning.
That’s the wonderful invitation.
~John Piper in “I Was Warned By Job This Morning”

For I know that my Redeemer lives,
    and at the last he will stand upon the earth.
 And after my skin has been thus destroyed,
    yet in my flesh I shall see God.
Job 19: 25-26

The warning of the Book of Job is that it could happen to us too -– everything we have strived for, cared about, loved and valued — taken away. If we are stripped bare naked, nothing left but our love for God and His sovereign power over our lives, will we still worship His Name, inhale His Word like air itself, submit ourselves to His plan over our plan?

I know I have fallen far short of the mark. It takes only small obstacles or losses to trip me up so I stagger in my faith, trying futilely to not lose my balance, falling flat-faced and immobilized.

This past year, in particular, I’ve seen people lose almost everything in the pandemic: their health, their loved ones, their financial security, their home, their worship community. I’ve looked hard at myself and asked if I could sustain such loss in my life and still turn myself over to the will of God. I would surely plead for reprieve and ask the horribly desperate question, “why me?”, girding myself for the response: “and why not you?”

The invitation, scary and radical as it is, is from God straight to my heart, asking that I trust His plan for my life and death, no matter what happens, no matter how much suffering, no matter how much, like Christ in the garden, I plead that it work out differently, that it be closer to something I would choose to do, somehow that it not hurt so much.

His plan for my life was written before I was born, personally carried to me via His Son, and placed in my hands. It is up to me to open it, read it carefully, and with deep gratitude, respond with an emphatic RSVP:
“I’ll be there! Nothing could keep me away from your invitation to me.”

Or I could leave it unopened, hesitant and fearful to reveal its contents.
Or even toss it away altogether, believing it really wasn’t meant for me.

Even if, in my heart, I absolutely know it is meant for me.

There are only two kinds of people in the end:
those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’
and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’
~C. S. Lewis from The Great Divorce