Watching Ensanguining Skies

Ensanguining the skies
How heavily it dies
  Into the west away;
Past touch and sight and sound
Not further to be found,
How hopeless under ground
  Falls the remorseful day.
~A.E. Houseman from “How Clear, How Lovely Bright”

O’er me, like a regal tent,
Cloudy-ribbed, the sunset bent,
Purple-curtained, fringed with gold,
Looped in many a wind-swung fold…

~John Greenleaf Whittier from “The Barefoot Boy”

Once I saw a chimpanzee gaze at a particularly beautiful sunset for a full 15 minutes, watching the changing colors [and then] retire to the forest without picking a pawpaw for supper.
~Adriaan Krotlandt, Dutch ethologist in Scientific American (1962)

It was like a church to me.
I entered it on soft foot,
Breath held like a cap in the hand.
It was quiet.
What God there was made himself felt,
Not listened to, in clean colours
That brought a moistening of the eye,
In a movement of the wind over grass.
There were no prayers said. But stillness
Of the heart’s passions — that was praise
Enough; and the mind’s cession
Of its kingdom. I walked on,
Simple and poor, while the air crumbled
And broke on me generously as bread.
R.S. Thomas “The Moor”

How can I feel so warm   
Here in the dead center of January? I can   
Scarcely believe it, and yet I have to, this is   
The only life I have. 
~James Wright from “A Winter Daybreak Above Vence”

Last night was a once a year sunset experience in the dead center of January, following a full day of pouring-rain gray-skies monochrome nothingness.

For twenty minutes our region was blissed to witness an evolving array of crimson and purple color and patterns, streaks and swirls, gradation and gradual decline.

It all took place in silence.  No bird song, no wind, no spoken prayer.
Yet a communion took place – the air broke and fed us like manna from heaven. And so filled to the brim…

May I squander my life no more and instead treasure each moment.

May I vow to cherish God, church, family, friends, and those in my community who are strangers to me.

May I never forget my witness this winter day of the bleeding of the last light of day.

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Promises to Keep

Whose woods these are I think I know.   
His house is in the village though;   
He will not see me stopping here   
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
   

My little horse must think it queer   
To stop without a farmhouse near   
Between the woods and frozen lake   
The darkest evening of the year.   

He gives his harness bells a shake   
To ask if there is some mistake.   
The only other sound’s the sweep   
Of easy wind and downy flake.   

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,   
But I have promises to keep,   
And miles to go before I sleep,   
And miles to go before I sleep.

~Robert Frost, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” from The Poetry of Robert Frost

I wish one
could press snowflakes
in a book
like flowers.
~James Schuyler from “February 13, 1975

When a January night lingers long,
beginning too early and lasting too late,
I find myself in my own insistent winter,
wanting to hide away from trouble
deep in a peaceful snowy woods,
knowing I choose to avoid doing
what is needed
when it is needed.

I look inward
when I must focus outside myself.
I muffle my ears
to deafen voices crying in need.
I turn away
rather than meet a stranger’s gaze.

A wintry soul
is a cold and empty place,
not lovely, dark and deep.

I appeal to my Creator
who knows my darkness.
He expects me to keep my promises
because He keeps His promises.
His buds of hope and warmth
and color and fruit
will arise from my bare branches.

He brings me out of the night
to finish what He brought me here to do.

A book from Barnstorming combining the beauty of Lois Edstrom’s words and Barnstorming photography, available for order here:

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The Tenacity of Nature

By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast — a cold wind. Beyond, the
waste of broad, muddy fields
brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen

patches of standing water
the scattering of tall trees

All along the road the reddish
purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy
stuff of bushes and small trees
with dead, brown leaves under them
leafless vines —

Lifeless in appearance, sluggish
dazed spring approaches —

They enter the new world naked,
cold, uncertain of all
save that they enter. All about them
the cold, familiar wind —

Now the grass, tomorrow
the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf

One by one objects are defined —
It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf

But now the stark dignity of
entrance — Still, the profound change
has come upon them: rooted they
grip down and begin to awaken
~William Carlos Williams “Spring and All”

I ask your doctor
of infectious disease if she’s
read Williams   he cured
sick babies I tell her and
begin describing spring
and all   she’s looking at the wall
now the floor   now your chart
now the door   never
heard of him she says
but I can’t stop explaining
how important this is
I need to know your doctor
believes in the tenacity of nature
to endure   I’m past his heart
attack   his strokes   and now as if
etching the tombstone myself   I find
I can’t remember the date
he died or even
the year   of what now
are we the pure products   and what
does that even mean   pure   isn’t it
obvious   we are each our own culture
alive with the virus that’s waiting
to unmake us
~Brian Russell, “The Year of What Now”

It is the third January of a pandemic
of a virus far more tenacious than
we have proven to be,
it continues to unmake us,
able to mutate spike proteins seemingly overnight
while too many of us stubbornly
remain unchanged by this,
clinging to our “faith over fear”
and “my body, my choice”
and “lions, not sheep”
and “never comply” —
because self-determination must trump
compassion for the unfortunate fate of vulnerable millions.

We defend the freedom to choose
to be vectors of a contagion
that may not sicken us yet fills
clinics, hospitals and morgues.

William Carlos Williams, the early 20th century physician,
would be astonished at the clinical tools we have now
to fight this scourge.
William Carlos Williams, last centuries’ imagist poet,
would recognize our deadly erosion of cooperation
when faced with a worthy viral opponent.

So what happens now?

Starting with this third pandemic winter,
with our souls in another deep freeze,
covered in snow and ice and bitter wind chill,
a tenuous hope of restoration could awaken –
tender buds swelling,
bulbs breaking through soil,
being called forth from long burial
in a dark and cold and heartless earth.

Like a mother who holds
the mystery of her quickening belly,
knowing we nurture other lives with our own body,
we too can be hopeful and marveling
at who we are created to be.

She, and we, know soon and very soon
there will be spring.

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The Beginning Shall Remind Us of the End: Heaven Flings Wide Its Gates

The end of all things is at hand. We all
Stand in the balance trembling as we stand;
Or if not trembling, tottering to a fall.
The end of all things is at hand.

O hearts of men, covet the unending land!
O hearts of men, covet the musical,
Sweet, never-ending waters of that strand!

While Earth shows poor, a slippery rolling ball,
And Hell looms vast, a gulf unplumbed, unspanned,
And Heaven flings wide its gates to great and small,
The end of all things is at hand.
~Christina Rossetti “Sunday Before Advent”

Dawn was defeating now the last hours sung
by night, which fled before it. And far away
I recognized the tremblings of the sea.
Alone, we walked along the open plain,
as though, returning to a path we’d lost,
our steps, until we came to that, were vain.
Then, at a place in shadow where the dew
still fought against the sun and, cooled by breeze,
had scarcely yet been sent out into vapor,
my master placed the palms of both his hands,
spread wide, lightly and gently on the tender grass.
And I, aware of what his purpose was,
offered my tear-stained cheeks to meet his touch.
At which, he made once more entirely clean
the color that the dark of Hell had hidden.
~Dante from The Divine Comedy, II Purgatorio,Canto 1 lines 115−29

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
2 Corinthians 4: 6

God brings forth Light through His Word, not once but at least three times:
 
In the beginning, He creates the sun and the moon to penetrate and illuminate the creation of our hearts and our souls. 

In the stable He comes to light the world from below as well as from above so our darkened hearts and souls could be saved from self-destruction.

In the tomb, He rolls back the stone, allowing the sun to penetrate the ultimate night – raising His Son from the dead, in an ultimate defeat of darkness.

He flings open the gates of heaven to the likes of me and in response, I fling my heart through, following the Light.

Showered with the cleansing dew of His light,  I am lit by the glory of God reflected in the many faces of Jesus: as vulnerable newborn, child teacher, working carpenter, healer, itinerant preacher, unjustly condemned, dying and dead, raised and ascended Son of God. 

Let the dark days come as they certainly will. They cannot overwhelm my heart now,  as I am lit from within, cleansed inside and out, no matter how deep the darkness that oppresses on the outside.

I know His promise.
I know His face.
He knows I know.

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”

1. Hail the blest morn! when the great Mediator
Down from the mansions of glory descends;
Shepherds, go worship the babe in the manger,
Lo! for his guard the bright angels attend.

Chorus:
Brightest and best of the sons of the morning.

Dawn on our darkness, and lend us thine aid;
Star in the east, the horizon adorning,
Guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.

2. Cold on his cradle the dew-drops are shining;
Low lies his head with the beasts of the stall:
Angels adore him, in slumbers reclining;
Wise men and shepherds before him do fall. Chorus

3. Say, shall we yield him, in costly devotion,
Odors of Edom, and offerings divine,
Gems from the mountains, and pearls from the ocean,
Myrrh from the forest, and gold from the mine? Chorus

4. Vainly we offer each ample oblation,
Vainly with gifts would his favor secure;
Richer by far is the heart’s adoration,
Dearer to God are the prayers of the poor. Chorus

How do you capture the wind on the water?
How do you count all the stars in the sky?
How do you measure the love of a mother
Or how can you write down a baby’s first cry?

Chorus: Candlelight, angel light, firelight and star-glow
Shine on his cradle till breaking of dawn
Silent night, holy night, all is calm and all is bright
Angels are singing; the Christ child is born

Shepherds and wise men will kneel and adore him
Seraphim round him their vigil will keep
Nations proclaim him their Lord and their Saviour
But Mary will hold him and sing him to sleep

Chorus

Find him at Bethlehem laid in a manger
Christ our Redeemer asleep in the hay
Godhead incarnate and hope of salvation
A child with his mother that first Christmas Day

Chorus
~John Rutter “Candlelight Carol”

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The Beginning Shall Remind Us of the End: The Growing Grey

Autumn
Was certainly not winter, scholars say,
When holy habitation broke the chill
Of hearth-felt separation, icy still,
The love of life in man that Christmas day.
Was autumn, rather, if seasons speak true;
When green retreats from sight’s still ling’ring gaze,
And creeping cold numbs sense in sundry ways,
While settling silence speaks of solitude.
Hope happens when conditions are as these; 
Comes finally lock-armed with death and sin,
When deep’ning dark demands its full display.
Then fallen nature driven to her knees
Flames russet, auburn, orange fierce from within,
And brush burns brighter for the growing grey.
~David Baird “Autumn”

We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us. We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us. The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience.
~Dietrich Bonhoeffer from Watch for the Light

The shepherds were sore afraid.   So why aren’t we?

The scholars say Christ was most likely born in the autumn of the year ~ so fitting, as our reds and oranges fade fast to grey as we descend into this wintering world crying out for resuscitation. 

Murderous frosts and falling snow have wilted down all that was flush with life and we become desperate for hope for renewal in the midst of the dying.

And so this babe has come like a refiner’s fire to lay claim to us and we who have gotten too comfortable will feel the heat of His embrace – in the middle of the chill, in the middle of our dying – no matter what time of year.

Hope happens when conditions are as these…

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”

1. Father, enthroned on high—―Holy, holy!
Ancient eternal Light—hear our prayer.

REFRAIN
Come, O Redeemer, come;
grant us mercy.
Come, O Redeemer, come;
grant us peace.

2. Lord, save us from the dark of our striving,
faithless, troubled hearts weighed down. REFRAIN

3. Look now upon our need; Lord, be with us.
Heal us and make us free from our sin. REFRAIN

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The Beginning Shall Remind Us of the End: A Bowl of Frozen Tears

Something has descended
like feathered prophecy.
Someone has offered the world
a bowl of frozen tears,

has traced the veins and edges
of leaves with furred ink.
The grass is stiff as the strings
of a lute.

And, day by day, the tiny windows
crack their cardboard frames
seizing the frail light. The sun,
moving through

these waxy squares, undiminished
as a word passing
from mind to speech.
Every breath a birth,

a stir of floating limbs within me.
I stay up late and waken early
to feel beneath my feet
the silence coming.
~Anya Silver “Advent, First Frost”

When I am weary,
putting one foot in front of the other
in the humble chores of the barn,
feeling so cold at times, I no longer
remember this was
once sweaty summer work ~
now my hands ache in an arctic wind
that shows no mercy.

Yet I know respite will come,
refuge is near, salvation is imminent.
Each breath I breathe a cloud of hope.

I will remember what our good God
has prepared for us in such a place as this,
what He has done to come down to dwell with us,
melting our frozen tears,
aching in silence alongside us.

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”

Good people all, this Christmas time,
Consider well and bear in mind
What our good God for us has done
In sending his beloved son
With Mary holy we should pray,
To God with love this Christmas Day

In Bethlehem upon that morn,
There was a blessed Messiah born
The night before that happy tide
The noble Virgin and her guide
Were long time seeking up and down
To find a lodging in the town

But mark right well what came to pass
From every door repelled, alas
As was foretold, their refuge all
Was but a humble ox’s stall
Near Bethlehem did shepherds keep
Their flocks of lambs and feeding sheep

To whom God’s angel did appear
Which put the shepherds in great fear
Arise and go, the angels said
To Bethlehem, be not afraid
For there you’ll find, this happy morn
A princely babe, sweet Jesus, born
With thankful heart and joyful mind

The shepherds went the babe to find
And as God’s angel had foretold
They did our Saviour Christ behold
Within a manger he was laid
And by his side a virgin maid

Attending on the Lord of Life
Who came on earth to end all strife
There were three wise men from afar
Directed by a glorious star
And on they wandered night and day

Until they came where Jesus lay
And when they came unto that place
Where our beloved Messiah lay
They humbly cast them at his feet
With gifts of gold and incense sweet.
~Traditional Irish — the Wexford Carol 12th century

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The Beginning That Reminds Us of the End: Open Wide Then

What next, she wonders,
with the angel disappearing, and her room
suddenly gone dark.

The loneliness of her news
possesses her. She ponders
how to tell her mother.

Still, the secret at her heart burns like
a sun rising. How to hold it in—
that which cannot be contained.

She nestles into herself, half-convinced
it was some kind of good dream,
she its visionary.

But then, part dazzled, part prescient—
she hugs her body, a pod with a seed
that will split her.
~Luci Shaw “Mary Considers Her Situation”

What matters is what occurs occurs
Between them, not to them. It’s only that
The angel doesn’t matter, nor the virgin.
A blade of light scissors the air

Between them. To them it’s only that:
A glancing blow, or a kind of cleaving,
A blade of light. Scissor the air
Wide open, then it happens:

A glance, a blow, error a kind of cleaving—
Of? Or to? So something else can enter.
Open wide then. It happens
Those two forget themselves, not knowing—

What, or who?—so something else can enter
And, in entering, replace them.
We can’t forget ourselves. Knowing
Carelessness has brought us to the point

Where in entering we replace them.
The angel doesn’t matter, nor the virgin.
Carelessness has brought us to the point.
What is matters. What occurs occurs.
~Katherine Coles “Annunciation”

Sometimes
for the light to illuminate
where darkness thrives,
there must be wounding,
that tears us open;
there is a crack in everything,
cleaving us so joy can infiltrate and heal
where we hurt the most.

When time sweeps yesterday away,
It leaves behind an empty heart,
Weeping through the night so dark and long.
When words are lost among the tears,
When sadness steals another day,
God hears our cries and turns our sighs into a song.

Sing to the One who mends our broken hearts with music.
Sing to the One who fills our empty hearts with love.
Sing to the One who gives us light to step into the darkest night.
Sing to the God who turns our sighs into a song.

From heaven falls a mercy sweet,
The time for weeping now is gone;
God hears our sighs and gives us His eternal song.

Sing to the One who mends our broken hearts with music.
Sing to the One who fills our empty hearts with love.
Sing to the One who gives us light to step into the darkest night.
Sing to the God who turns our sighs into a song.

Sing to the One who mends our broken hearts with music.
Sing to the One who fills our empty hearts with love.
Sing to the One who gives us light to step into the darkest night.
Sing to the God who turns our sighs into a song.
~Susan Boersma

The birds they sang
At the break of day
Start again
I heard them say
Don’t dwell on what
Has passed away
Or what is yet to be

Ah the wars they will
Be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
Bought and sold
And bought again
The dove is never free

You can add up the parts
but you won’t have the sum
You can strike up the march,
there is no drum
Every heart, every heart
to love will come
but like a refugee.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
~Leonard Cohen from “Anthem”

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”

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Heed No Nightly Noises

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A book of beauty in words and photography, available to order here:

We Were All Beautiful Once

Everything in the garden is dead, killed by a sudden hard
freeze, the beans, the tomatoes, fruit still clinging to the
branches. It’s all heaped up ready to go to the compost
pile: rhubarb leaves, nasturtiums, pea vines, even the
geraniums. It’s too bad. The garden was so beautiful,
green and fresh, but then we were all beautiful once.
Everything dies, we understand. But the mind of the
observer, which cannot imagine not imagining, goes on.
The dynasties are cut down like the generations of grass,
the bodies blacken and turn into coal. The waters rise and
cover the earth and the mind broods on the face of the
deep, and learns nothing.
~Louis Jenkins, “Freeze” from Where Your House is Near: New and Selected Poems

This week was our first hard freeze of autumn, following on the heels of the worst flooding in a half century in our county. The land and all that grows here experienced a one-two punch – when the waters pulled back into the streams and rivers, what was left behind looked frozen, soaked and miserable. The people whose homes were devastated are so much more than miserable; they are mudding out by removing everything down to the studs to try to begin again. With hundreds of volunteers and disaster teams helping, there are piles of kitchen appliances, dry wall, carpet and every household item along the main streets of nearby towns, waiting to be hauled off.

Surveying our dying garden is small potatoes in comparison to a flooded town only a few miles away. The memories of how beautiful our garden was a 2-3 months ago is nothing in contrast to the families who lost their stored heirlooms and cherished memories to the muck and mire of deep waters.

But we are a resilient community. We are people of persistence and creativity and there will eventually be beauty again here. Driving on a newly opened road beside the still-surging river where a few days ago several feet of water covered a cornfield, I spotted a trumpeter swan, standing in glorious spotless white, picking her way through the mud-stained cornstalks, hoping to find something of value left behind in the devastation.

There is still hope; it did not wash away. We only need to use our imagination to find it.

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Things I Did Not Say or Do

IV  My fiftieth year had come and gone,
I sat, a solitary man,
In a crowded London shop,
An open book and empty cup
On the marble table-top.

While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless.


V  Although the summer Sunlight gild
Cloudy leafage of the sky,
Or wintry moonlight sink the field
In storm-scattered intricacy,
I cannot look thereon,
Responsibility so weighs me down.

Things said or done long years ago,
Or things I did not do or say
But thought that I might say or do,
Weigh me down, and not a day
But something is recalled,
My conscience or my vanity appalled.
~William Butler Yeats,Vacillation Parts IV and V


In this, the last trimester of my life, I find myself dwelling on how I continue to grow and change, as if I was gestating all over again, 68 years later. It is a time or preparation for what comes next, while not wanting to miss a moment of what is – right now.

I have plenty of opportunity to replay the many moments I’ve regretted what I said or did, or what I could have said or did….and didn’t. Recalling remorse is far easier and stickier than replaying joy that seems so fleeting in my memory.

There are times when I feel both weighed down by memories and freed at the same time. It almost always happens while sitting in worship in church, while silently confessing how I have wronged those around me or turned my face from God, yet in the next moment, I feel the embrace of a Creator who never forgets but still forgives. It is an overwhelming knowledge that brings me to tears every time.

It is in that moment that my joy no longer is fleeting; it lives deeply in my cells since I, like all around me, am created in His image.

And God saw what He had made, and it was, and still is, good.
He made us for joy, not out of regret.

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