A Shimmering Evening Light

Lined with light
the twigs are stubby arrows.
A gilded trunk writhes
Upward from the roots,
from the pit of the black tentacles.

In the book of spring
a bare-limbed torso
is the first illustration.

Light teaches the tree
to beget leaves,
to embroider itself all over
with green reality,
until summer becomes
its steady portrait
and birds bring their lifetime
to the boughs.

Then even the corpse
light copies from below
may shimmer, dreaming it feels
the cheeks of blossom.
~May Swenson “April Light”

For over two years, we have been surrounded
by a shimmering corpse light hovering close,
masked and wary when we needed each other most.

Even so, the world is not defeated by death.

An unprecedented illumination
emerged from the tomb on a bright Sabbath morning
to guarantee that
we struggling people,
we who became no more than bare twigs and stubs,
we who feel at times hardly alive,
are now begetting green,
ready to burst into blossom,
our glowing cheeks pink with life,
a picture of our future fruitfulness.

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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: Flesh Lit From Within

…to break through earth and stone of the faithless world
back to the cold sepulchre, tearstained
stifling shroud; to break from them
back into breath and heartbeat, and walk
the world again, closed into days and weeks again,
wounds of His anguish open, and Spirit
streaming through every cell of flesh
so that if mortal sight could bear
to perceive it, it would be seen
His mortal flesh was lit from within, now,
and aching for home. He must return,
first, In Divine patience, and know
hunger again, and give
to humble friends the joy
of giving Him food – fish and a honeycomb.
~Denise Levertov “Ikon: The Harrowing of Hell” from A Door in the Hive

The Holy Saturday of our life must be the preparation for Easter,
the persistent hope for the final glory of God.

The virtue of our daily life is the hope which does what is possible
and expects God to do the impossible.

To express it somewhat paradoxically, but nevertheless seriously:
the worst has actually already happened;
we exist, and even death cannot deprive us of this.
Now is the Holy Saturday of our ordinary life,
but there will also be Easter, our true and eternal life.
~Karl Rahner “Holy Saturday” in The Great Church Year

This in-between day
after all had gone so wrong:
the rejection, the denials,
the trumped-up charges,
the beatings, the burden,
the jeering, the mocking,
the thorns, the nails,
the thirst, the suffocation,
the despair of being forsaken.

This already but not yet day
before all will go so right:
the forgiveness and compassion,
the grace and sacrifice,
the debt paid in full,
mortal flesh lit from within,
an immovable stone rolled away,
our names on His lips,
our hearts burning
to hear His words.

What does it take to move such a stone?
When it is an effort to till the untillable,
creating a place where simple seed
can drop, be covered and sprout and thrive,
thanks to muscle and sweat and blisters and tears.

What does it take to move the stone?
When it is a day when no one will speak out of fear,
the silent will be moved to cry out
the truth, heard and known and never forgotten.

What does it take to move the stone?
When it is a day when all had given up,
gone behind locked doors in grief.
When two came to tend the dead,
there would be no dead to tend.

Only a gaping hole left
Only an empty tomb
Only a weeping weary silence
broken by Love calling our name
and we turn to greet Him
as if hearing it for the first time.

We cannot imagine what is to come
at dawn tomorrow as
the stone lifted and rolled,
giving way so our separation is bridged,
darkness overwhelmed by light,
dead flesh lit and warmed and animated,
the crushed and broken rising to dance,
and inexplicably,
from the waiting stillness He stirs
and we, finding death emptied,
greet Him with trembling…
We are forever moved
and we cry out, singing,
like an immovable stone that cannot remain silent.

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…

They have been saying all our plans are empty.
They have been saying “Where is their God now?”
Roll away the stone see the Glory of God. Roll away the stone.

They have been saying no one will remember.
They have been saying Power rules the world.
Roll away the stone see the Glory of God. Roll away the stone.

They have been saying no one hears the singing.
They have been saying all our strength is gone.
Roll away the stone see the Glory of God. Roll away the stone.

They have been saying “All of us are dying.”
They have been saying “All of us are dead.”
Roll away the stone see the Glory of God. Roll away the stone.
~Tom Conry

I see his blood upon the rose
And in the stars the glory of his eyes,
His body gleams amid eternal snows,
His tears fall from the skies.

I see his face in every flower;
The thunder and the singing of the birds
Are but his voice-and carven by his power
Rocks are his written words.

All pathways by his feet are worn,
His strong heart stirs the ever-beating sea,
His crown of thorns is twined with every thorn,
His cross is every tree.

~Joseph Plunkett “I See His Blood Upon the Rose”

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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: The Falling Tear

When Jesus wept, the falling tear
in mercy flowed beyond all bound;
when Jesus groaned, a trembling fear
seized all the guilty world around.
~William Billings

And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace!
But now they are hidden from your eyes. 
~Luke 19:41-42

Facing this week of remembrance,
knowing that right now thousands are displaced by war,
some in graves, some grieving their losses,
some wondering what comes next.

On this journey, we face our own fears of vulnerability and mortality,
a week where thorns overwhelm the emerging blossoms~~

To acknowledge what He did this week long ago,
to conquer the shroud and the stone,
to defy death,
makes all the difference for us here and now.

Indeed Jesus wept and groaned for us.

To be known for who we are
by a God who weeps for us
and groans with pain we caused:
we can know
no greater love.

This week ends our living for self, only to die,
and begins our dying to self, in order to live.

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: Carry On

Weary traveler
Beat down from the storms that you have weathered
Feels like this road just might go on forever
Carry on
~Jordan St. Cyr

There are so many who are weary right now:
-refugees who have walked for miles to reach safety, with no idea where to go next.
-hopeful immigrants who seek a new life and a new start, but bogged down in government process and paperwork
-those who are struggling to stay alive in the midst of debilitating illness, both physical and mental
-those who have given of themselves to care for those who struggle
-those who have lived many years and now feel ready to be taken home, yet wake again to a new day
-those whose faith feels beaten down by the loss of community and congregational consolation during two years of pandemic anger and disagreement
-those who mourn deeply for those they have lost.

God knows our grief. God knows our weary bodies and minds need rest and restoration. God knows the struggle as He too walked this weary road, too often alone.

Yet He carried on then and carries on today and will be there alongside us tomorrow.

Carry on. Someday we will make it 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…

Weary traveler
Beat down from the storms that you have weathered
Feels like this road just might go on forever
Carry on

You keep on giving
But every day this world just keeps on taking
Your tired heart is on the edge of breaking
Carry on

Weary traveler, restless soul
You were never meant to walk this road alone
It’ll all be worth it so just hold on

Weary traveler
You won’t be weary long
No more searching

Heaven’s healing’s gonna find where all the hurt is
When Jesus calls we’ll lay down all our heavy burdens
Carry on
Someday soon we’re gonna make it home

Neon lights flickering
Outside the cafe
Ice on the windshield
Stars in a black sea
On a winter road
Flurries of snow
I’m ready to go

Past farmhouse and pasture
Our voices together
Rise to the drumming
Of big-rigs and trailers
Long hours to daylight
A rumbling bus
Our bed and our board

Heavenly Father
Remember the traveler
Bring us safely home
Heavenly Father
Remember the traveler
Bring us safely home
Safely home

In the towns off this highway
The people are kind
They welcome us in
I sing in their church halls
Old hymns and prayer songs
With lifted hearts
We rejoice in the Lord

I long for my family
And friends to remind me
Of where I have been
And where I am going
And where I come from

Heavenly Father
Remember the traveler
Bring us safely home
Heavenly Father
Remember the traveler
Bring us safely home
Safely home

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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: I’ll Not Stumble or Fall

For you have delivered me from death
    and my feet from stumbling,
that I may walk before God
    in the light of life.
Psalm 56:13

God alone can deliver a soul from its death,
lift a life from a wasteland of need.
God alone can replenish with blessings untold
until into His light we are freed we are freed.
~Susan Boersma from
“Father of Light

Wait, for now.
Distrust everything, if you have to.
But trust the hours. Haven’t they
carried you everywhere, up to now?
Personal events will become interesting again.
Hair will become interesting.
Pain will become interesting.
Buds that open out of season will become lovely again.
Second-hand gloves will become lovely again,
their memories are what give them
the need for other hands. And the desolation
of lovers is the same: that enormous emptiness
carved out of such tiny beings as we are
asks to be filled; the need
for the new love is faithfulness to the old.

Wait.
Don’t go too early.
You’re tired. But everyone’s tired.
But no one is tired enough.
Only wait a while and listen.
Music of hair,
Music of pain,
music of looms weaving all our loves again.
Be there to hear it, it will be the only time,
most of all to hear,
the flute of your whole existence,
rehearsed by the sorrows, play itself into total exhaustion.
~Galway Kinnell “Wait”
 from A New Selected Poems 

If everyone abandons you and even drives you away by force,
then when you are left alone
fall on the earth and kiss it,
water it with your tears,
and it will bring forth fruit
even though no one has seen or heard you in your solitude.
Believe to the end, even if all people went astray
and you were left the only one faithful;
bring your offering even then and praise God in your loneliness. 
~Fyodor Dostoyevsky from The Brothers Karamazov

Suicide rates of teenagers in the United States increased well over 30% since 2009. Their voices echo loudly:

“It would be easier if I were dead”
“No one cares if I live or die”
“The world would be better off without me”
“It’s too painful to continue”
“I’m not worthy to be here”
“It is my right and no one can stop me”

Let us protect our holiness as created in the image of God
even though weak and frail and prone to helpless hopelessness. We will be restored. In His Light, He will not let us stumble and fall.

Dear ones,
please wait a little longer, only a little longer:
don’t go too early – your bud will soon bloom in His Light.

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…

From the comments on this video:
Written by Susan Boersma and based loosely on Psalm 56, this piece was commissioned by the Sanctuary Choir of Third Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Virginia, in memory of Jonathan Richard White, the son of its music director John Stone White. Jonathan was a teenager who struggled with long-term depression and who, despite his persistent faith in God, in the end took his own life. In the aftermath of this tragedy, Jonathan’s family came to more deeply appreciate the magnitude of his struggle, as witnessed by what he wrote in his journal and Bible, and they noted that he returned frequently to the Psalms to find comfort in his distress. In contrast to the sadness surrounding this young man’s death, Craig Courtney’s writing in this piece is uniformly strong and triumphant. “Father of Light” opens with a vocal solo—indicative perhaps of a personal statement of faith—expressing confidence in God’s leading and protection. This solo is followed by unison singing in the lower voices which echoes the sentiments of the soloist. As the piece progresses, more parts are added and the harmonies become richer, until at last the music moves into a higher key, the piano drops out, and all the voices reiterate the words of the opening solo at a loud dynamic. A final entry of the soloist brings this work to its close and reminds the listener that God is sovereign in all things—even great suffering.

All praise to the name of the Father of Light
One Who listens and hears when I call
Ev’ry step He ordains, I shall walk without fear in His light
I’ll not stumble or fall In His light
I’ll not stumble or fall


What can mortal man do while I’m safe in His hand?
He is God on His word
I rely in the midst of my fear
I will trust in His name for I know He will hear when I cry
He knows all of my feelings,
the depths of despair all the limits my soul can endure.
I will trust in His name,
I have nothing to lose, for in Him all my hopes are secure.


All praise to the name of the Father of Light
One Who listens and hears when I call
Ev’ry step He ordains, I shall walk without fear
In His light I’ll not stumble or fall
In His light I’ll not stumble or fall

God alone can deliver a soul from its death,
lift a life from a wasteland of need.
God alone can replenish with blessings untold
until into His light we are freed we are freed.


All praise to the name of the Father of Light
One Who listens and hears when I call
Ev’ry step He ordains, I shall walk without fear
In His light I’ll not stumble or fall In His light
I’ll not stumble or fall
Ev’ry step He ordains, I shall walk without fear
In His light I’ll not stumble or fall

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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.

The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: God of the Sparrow

God of the sparrow, care for us,
Speak in our sorrow, Lord of grief.
Sing us Your music, lift our hearts,
Pour out Your mercy, send relief.
~Craig Courtney

Through the winter, I feed the sparrows, the woodpeckers and chickadees, the juncos and finches, and yes — even the starlings. They would be fine without my daily contribution to their well-being, but in return for my provision of seeds, I am able to enjoy their spirited liveliness and their gracious ability to share the bounty with one another.

These birds give back to me simply by showing up, without ever realizing what their presence means to me.

How much more does God lay out for me on a daily basis to sustain me so I show up for Him? How oblivious am I to His gracious and profound gifts? How willingly do I share these gifts with others?

Unlike the birds, I could never survive on my own without His watchful care.

When life feels overwhelming, when I am filled with worries, sorrow, regrets and pain, I seek out this God who cares even for sparrows. He knows how to quiet my troubles and strengthen my faith and perseverance, a comfort that extends far beyond sunflower seeds.

photo by Harry Rodenberger

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…


God of the sparrow, sing through us
Songs of deliv’rance, songs of peace.
Helpless we seek You, God our joy,
Quiet our troubles, bid them cease,
Quiet our troubles, bid them cease.
Alleluia.

God of the sparrow, God of hope,
Tenderly guide us, be our song,
God of affliction, pain and hurt,
Comfort Your children, make us strong,
Comfort Your children, make us strong.
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

God of the sparrow, care for us,
Speak in our sorrow, Lord of grief.
Sing us Your music, lift our hearts,
Pour out Your mercy, send relief.

God, like the sparrow, we abide In
Your protection, love and grace.
Just as the sparrow in Your care,
May Your love keep us all our days,
May Your love keep us all our days. Amen.
~Craig Courtney

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A Voice in My Ear

when my father had been dead a week
I woke
with his voice in my ear
                                           I sat up in bed
and held my breath
and stared at the pale closed door

white apples and the taste of stone

if he called again
I would put on my coat and galoshes
~Donald Hall “White Apples”

She skimmed the yellow water like a moth,
Trailing her feet across the shallow stream;
She saw the berries, paused and sampled them
Where a slight spider cleaned his narrow tooth.
Light in the air, she fluttered up the path,
So delicate to shun the leaves and damp,
Like some young wife, holding a slender lamp
To find her stray child, or the moon, or both.
Even before she reached the empty house,
She beat her wings ever so lightly, rose,
Followed a bee where apples blew like snow;
And then, forgetting what she wanted there,
Too full of blossom and green light to care,
She hurried to the ground, and slipped below.
~James Wright “My Grandmother’s Ghost from Above the River: The Complete Poems 

I saw my grandma’s ghost once.

She was my only grandparent I actually knew and who actually knew me — the others were lost before I was born or too young to realize what I had lost.

She had lived a hard life: losing her mother when she was 12, taking over the household duties for her father and younger brother while leaving school forever. She married too young to an abusive alcoholic, lost her first child to lymphoma at age 8 before treatment was possible and took her three remaining children to safety away from their father for a year to live above a seedy restaurant where she cooked seven days a week to make ends meet.

But there was grace too. The marriage somehow got patched together after Grandpa found God and sobriety – after his sudden death sitting in church, Grandma’s faith never wavered. Her garden soil yielded beautiful flowers she planted and nurtured and picked to sell, her children and grandchildren welcomed her many open armed visits and hugs.

She was busy planning her first overseas trip of a lifetime at age 72 when we noticed her eyes looked yellow. Only two weeks later she was bed-bound in unrelenting pain due to pancreatic cancer, gazing heaven-ward instead of Europe-bound. Her dreams had been dashed so quickly, she barely realized her itinerary and destination had changed.

I was 16 at the time, too absorbed in my own teenage cares and concerns to really notice how quickly she was fading and failing like a wilted flower. Instead I was picking fights with my stressed parents, worrying over taking my driver’s license driving test, distracted by all the typical social pressures of high school life.

Her funeral was unbearable as I had never really said goodbye – only one brief hospital visit when she was hardly recognizable in her anguish and jaundice. I didn’t even get to hold her hand.

Soon after she had been lowered into the ground next to her husband and young daughter, she came back to me in a dream.

I was asleep when my bedroom door opened into the dark, wakening me as the bright hallway light pushed its way via a shimmering beam to my bed. Grandma Kittie stood in my bedroom doorway, backlit by the light surrounding her silhouette. She silently stood there, just looking at me.

Startled, I sat up in my bed and said to her, “Grandma, why are you here? You died and we buried you!”

She nodded and smiled. And then she said to me:

“I want you to know I’m okay and always will be. You will be too.”

She gave a little wave, turned and left, closing the door behind her. I woke suddenly with a gasp in my darkened bedroom and knew I had just been visited.

She hadn’t come to say goodbye or to tell me she loved me — that I knew already.

She had come to shine with her light blossoming around her, mending my broken heart by planting it with peace.

Grandma Kittie and Grandpa Leslie in their courting days

You’re in a better place
I’ve heard a thousand times
And at least a thousand times
I’ve rejoiced for you

But the reason why I’m broken
The reason why I cry
Is how long must I wait to be with you

I close my eyes and I see your face
If home’s where my heart is then I’m out of place
Lord, won’t you give me strength
To make it through somehow
I’ve never been more homesick than now

Help me Lord cause I don’t understand your ways
The reason why I wonder if I’ll ever know
But, even if you showed me
The hurt would be the same
Cause I’m still here so far away from home

In Christ, there are no goodbyes
And in Christ, there is no end

So I’ll hold onto Jesus
With all that I have
To see you again
To see you again

And I close my eyes and I see your face
If home’s where my heart is then I’m out of place
Lord, won’t you give me strength
To make it through somehow

Won’t you give me strength
To make it through somehow
Won’t you give me strength
To make it through somehow
I’ve never been more homesick than now
~Millard Bart Marshall

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My Mourning Bench

…we all suffer.
For we all prize and love;
and in this present existence of ours,
prizing and loving yield suffering.
Love in our world is suffering love.
Some do not suffer much, though,
for they do not love much.
Suffering is for the loving.
This, said Jesus, is the command of the Holy One:
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
In commanding us to love, God invites us to suffer.

Over there, you are of no help.
What I need to hear from you is that you recognize how painful it is.
I need to hear from you that you are with me in my desperation.
To comfort me, you have to come close.
Come sit beside me on my mourning bench.
~Nicholas Wolterstorff from Lament for a Son

Spring 1980

I wondered if 8:30 AM was too early to call my friend and mentor Margy. As a sleep-deprived fourth year medical student, I selfishly needed to hear her voice. I wanted to know how she was doing; she was not sleeping well either these days. She was wearing a new halo brace—a metal contraption that wrapped around her head like a scaffolding to secure her degenerating cervical spine from collapsing from metastatic breast cancer growth in her bones. When she was fitted into the brace, she named the two large screw-like fasteners anchored into her frontal skull her “Frankenstein bolts”.  I had reassured her that with a proper white veil draped around the metal halo, she would be more suited to be Frankenstein’s bride.

Each patient I had seen the previous 24 hours while working in the Emergency Room benefited from the interviewing skills Margy had taught each one of us medical students. She reminded us that each patient had an important story to tell, and no matter how pressured our time, we needed to ask questions that gave permission for that story to be told. As a former nun now married with two teenage children, Margy had become our de facto counselor, and insisted physicians-in-training remember the soul thriving inside the broken and hurting body.

“Just let the patient know with certainty, through your eyes, your body language, your words, that you want to hear what they have to say. You can heal so much hurt simply by sitting beside them and caring enough to listen…”

Now with her recent diagnosis of metastatic cancer, Margy herself had become the broken vessel who needed the glue of a good listener.   She continued to teach, often from her bed at home and I regularly visited, in need of her wisdom and she still needed her students.

That night I had felt uneasy about her all during my ER shift and felt compelled to visit her and her husband and daughter that day, maybe help out by cleaning their house, fixing them a meal or taking her for a drive as a diversion.

Her phone rang only once after I dialed her number. There was a long pause; I could hear a clearing of her throat. A deep dam of tears welled behind a muffled “Hello?” Something was deeply wrong.

Her voice shattered like glass into fragments, strangling on words that struggled to form. She sobbed out the words that their college son, Gordon, was dead. Earlier that morning, a police officer had knocked loudly on their door, awakening her and her husband with the news of a tragic highway accident.

I sat in stunned silence, listening to her sobs, completely unequipped to know how to respond. None of this made sense although I knew her son was on college spring break, heading to Mexico for a missions trip.

She paused and took in a shuddering breath.

“Gordy died as they were driving through the night. He was sleeping in the camper as they drove. They think he sleepwalked right out of the back of the moving camper, fell onto the highway and was hit by another car.“

I felt strangled by her words and could only imagine how difficult it was for her to keep breathing enough to say them.

“They’ll bring him home to us, won’t they? I need to know I can see him again. I need to tell him how much I love him.”

I assured Margy she would see him again, both in his broken body and, some day yet to be determined, whole.

Up until then, I knew in my head this life was full of sorrow, but I had been spared the full heart impact of grief until I witnessed such intensity of an acute unbelievable loss – how loving one so deeply meant suffering immeasurably.

I understood, for the first but surely not the last time, how it is the only way to love.

During the remaining few months of Margy’s life as she waited to join her son, she continued to teach me about how to come close in to the suffering and grief of others, and also how to sit together, even in silence, on that too-often lonesome mourning bench.

…for the Jude Veltkamp family who lost their teenage son, grandson, nephew, brother this week to a relentless cancer.

But our God is even more relentless in His love and comfort for His mourning children…

I knew this life was full of sorrow
But still I believed
That good times would follow
That the evil would falter
And true hearts would rise
True hearts would rise
That simple dream ended
On the night that you died

And even the sound of a whistle fading
Brings back the longing
And stirs up the aching
Peaceful companion that grounded my soul
You grounded my soul
The world spins without meaning
Now that you’re gone

Sometimes I still think
I will see you in New York
And we will meet on the platform of the train
And with your great leaning stride
You’ll cross back to my side
And my old life
Will be my life again

You were quiet as a winter sky
Where planets turn
And the North Star rides
My sweet brother, so reasoned, so calm
My brother, my own
The world spins without meaning
Now that you’re gone
~Fernando Ortega

When Mortal Life Shall Cease

(Fourteen years ago this week, a healthy young college student came to our university health clinic ill with seasonal influenza complicated by pneumonia. His family gave permission for his story to be told. I share this again to honor the patients, young and old, who have fallen victim to the even more devastating COVID-19 pandemic over the past two years, as well as their families who have not had the same privilege of being at their bedside as they die. And honoring the health care workers who have witnessed so many preventable deaths over and over and will never truly recover from that experience.)

Nothing was helping.  Everything had been tried for a week of the most intensive critical care possible.  A twenty year old man – completely healthy only two weeks previously – was dying and nothing could stop it.

The battle against a sudden MRSA (Methicillin Resistant Staph Aureus) pneumonia precipitated by a routine seasonal influenza infection had been lost. Despite aggressive hemodynamic, antibiotic, antiviral and ventilator management, he was becoming more hypoxic and his renal function was deteriorating.  He was no longer responsive to stimuli.

The intensivist looked weary and defeated. The nurses were staring at their laps, unable to look up, their eyes tearing. The hospital chaplain reached out to hold this young man’s mother’s shaking hands.

After a week of heroic effort and treatment, there was now clarity about the next step.

Two hours later, a group gathered in the waiting room outside the ICU doors. The average age was about 21; they assisted each other in tying on the gowns over their clothing, distributed gloves and masks. Together, holding each other up, they waited for the signal to gather in his room after the ventilator had been removed and he was breathing without assistance. They entered and gathered around his bed.

He was ravaged by this sudden illness, his strong body beaten and giving up. His breathing was now ragged and irregular, sedation preventing response but not necessarily preventing awareness. He was surrounded by silence as each individual who had known and loved him struggled with the knowledge that this was the final goodbye.

His father approached the head of the bed and put his hands on his boy’s forehead and cheek.  He held this young man’s face tenderly, bowing in silent prayer and then murmuring words of comfort:

It is okay to let go. It is okay to leave us now.
We will see you again. We’ll meet again.
We’ll know where you will be.

His mother stood alongside, rubbing her son’s arms, gazing into his face as he slowly slowly slipped away. His father began humming, indistinguishable notes initially, just low sounds coming from a deep well of anguish and loss.

As the son’s breaths spaced farther apart, his dad’s hummed song became recognizable as the hymn of praise by John Newton, Amazing Grace.  The words started to form around the notes. At first his dad was singing alone, giving this gift to his son as he passed, and then his mom joined in as well. His sisters wept. His friends didn’t know all the words but tried to sing through their tears. The chaplain helped when we stumbled, not knowing if we were getting it right, not ever having done anything like this before.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far
and Grace will lead me home.

Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

When we’ve been here ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun.
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’ve first begun.

And he left us.

His mom hugged each sobbing person there–the young friends, the nurses, the doctors humbled by powerful pathogens. She thanked each one for being present for his death, for their vigil kept through the week in the hospital as his flesh and heart had failed.

This young man, now lost to this mortal life, had profoundly touched people in a way he could not have ever predicted or expected. His parents’ grief, so gracious and giving to the young people who had never confronted death before, remains unforgettable.

This was their sacred gift to their son so Grace could lead him home.