We Are No Longer Alone: To Wedge a Path of Light

 When trees have lost remembrance of the leaves
 that spring bequeaths to summer, autumn weaves
 and loosens mournfully — this dirge, to whom
 does it belong — who treads the hidden loom?
 
 When peaks are overwhelmed with snow and ice,
 and clouds with crepe bedeck and shroud the skies — 
 nor any sun or moon or star, it seems,
 can wedge a path of light through such black dreams — 
  
 All motion cold, and dead all traces thereof:
 What sudden shock below, or spark above,
 starts torrents raging down till rivers surge — 
 that aid the first small crocus to emerge?
 
 The earth will turn and spin and fairly soar,
 that couldn't move a tortoise-foot before — 
 and planets permeate the atmosphere
 till misery depart and mystery clear! — 
 
 Who gave it the endurance so to brave
 such elements? — shove winter down a grave? — 
 and then lead on again the universe?
 ~Alfred Kreymborg from "Crocus" 

To be sure, it feels wintry enough still: but often in the very early spring it feels like that. Two thousand years are only a day or two by this [God’s] scale. A man really ought to say, ‘The Resurrection happened two thousand years ago’ in the same spirit in which he says, ‘I saw a crocus yesterday.’ Because we know what is coming behind the crocus. The spring comes slowly down this way; but the great thing is that the corner has been turned. . . It remains with us to follow or not, to die in this winter, or to go on into that spring and that summer.
~C.S. Lewis from God in the Dock

Whether late winter or autumn
the ground yields unexpected crocus,
surprising even to the observant.

Hidden beneath the surface,
their incubation readily triggered
by advancing or retreating light from above.

Waiting with temerity,
to be called forth from earthly grime
and granted reprieve from indefinite interment.

A luminous gift of hope and beauty
borne from a humble bulb
adorned with dirt.

Summoned, the harbinger rises
from sleeping dormant ground in February
or spent topsoil, exhausted by October.

These bold blossoms do not pause
for snow and ice nor hesitate to pierce through
a musty carpet of fallen leaves.

They break free to surge skyward
cloaked in tightly bound brilliance,
deployed against the darkness.

Slowly unfurling, the petals peel to reveal golden crowns,
royally renouncing the chill of winter’s beginning and end,
staying brazenly alive when little else is.

In the end,  they wilt, deeply bruised purple
a reflection of Light made manifest;
returning defeated, inglorious, fallen, to dust.

Yet like the Sun, we know
they will rise yet again.

We Are No Longer Alone: That Extraordinary Moment

The house lights go off and the footlights come on. Even the chattiest stop chattering as they wait in darkness for the curtain to rise. In the orchestra pit, the violin bows are poised. The conductor has raised his baton.

In the silence of a midwinter dusk, there is far off in the deeps of it somewhere a sound so faint that for all you can tell it may be only the sound of the silence itself.

You hold your breath to listen.

You are aware of the beating of your heart…

The extraordinary thing that is about to happen is matched only by the extraordinary moment just before it happens.

Advent is the name of that moment.
~Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark

Too often we stand on a lonely edge of life, waiting, wondering what comes next. Advent is our time to come together in anticipation of the extraordinary moment in human history.

The moment of silent expectation suspended between what we anticipate will happen and when it happens is one of sweetest tension and longing.  Many find Christmas to be an anticlimax to the build up beforehand.  In the true spirit of Advent, that can never be the case.  The preparation for His coming foreshadows the joy we feel when we find ourselves never home alone again.

We are able to hold Him close, see His face, hear His Word – Christ as God in flesh. He is with us, He is in us and our hearts, jubilant, beat like His, our lungs breathe like His. 

Precious anticipation overcomes our fear;
loneliness — flee away!

God makes us happy as only children can be happy.
God wants to always be with us, wherever we may be –
in our sin, in our suffering and death.
We are no longer alone;
God is with us.
We are no longer homeless;
a bit of the eternal home itself has moved unto us. 
~Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Winding the Clock

As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time. I shall get up Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.

Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society — things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.

Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.

Sincerely,

E. B. White ~from Letters of Note: Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience compiled by Shaun Usher

We can’t stop time but time can stop for us.
So we keep winding the clock, every day,
to keep track of where it is going
and hoping tomorrow will come,
again and again.

We hang onto our hats
rather than bear the brunt of wind and rain
on our bare heads
trying to weather the weather.

We can’t claw our way out of
the mess we’ve made of things;
it takes Someone
to dig us out of the hole,
brush us off,
clean us up,
and breathe fresh breath into our nostrils.

We can only hope
hope will be as contagious
as the worst virus imaginable.

We can only hope
and grab hold tightly
when His hand reaches down
to pick us up out of the dirt
after we have fallen.

The Pain I Feel

The pain I feel now is the happiness I had before. That’s the deal.
~C.S. Lewis
from A Grief Observed

I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.  ~James A. Baldwin

We pay for hate with our lives, and that’s too big a price to pay.
~Brené Brown from Braving the Wilderness

We live in a world of hurt. We are consumed with hatred for all that is unjust and unfair yet underneath it all we are people who are in fear and in pain.

We get angry at what we don’t like or don’t understand
and that includes God.

We are a people struggling with a profound irritability of the spirit. We give no one the benefit of the doubt any more,
and that includes God.

We ask God why He doesn’t do something about the suffering we see everywhere, or the terrible hurt we feel ourselves. We want answers, now, and that includes answers from God.

Instead He asks us the same question right back. What are we doing about the suffering of others? What are we doing about our own misery?

God knows suffering and hurt.
He knows fear.
He knows what it is to be hated, far more than we do.
He took it all on Himself,
loving us so much because His pain was part of the deal
He made with us to rescue us.

With that realization,
we trade our pain for hope,
our fear for trust,
and our hatred gives way to His sacrificial love.
Only then are we ready to respond to His call.

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear..
1 John 4:18a

Renouncing fear
We stand in your glorious grace.

When the oceans rise and thunders roar
I will soar with you above the storm
Father, You are King over the flood
I will be still and know You are God

from “Still” Hillsong

Freed into the Wider World

photo by Nate Gibson

When the wall
between the worlds
is too firm,
too close.

When it seems
all solidity
and sharp edges.

When every morning
you wake as if
flattened against it,
its forbidding presence
fairly pressing the breath
from you
all over again.

Then may you be given
a glimpse
of how weak the wall

and how strong what stirs
on the other side,

breathing with you
and blessing you
still,
forever bound to you
but freeing you
into this living,
into this world
so much wider
than you ever knew.
~Jan Richardson from The Cure for Sorrow: A Book of Blessings for Times of Grief

On Halloween day in 1985, I packed up my clothes, a roll up mattress,  grabbed one lonely pumpkin from our small garden, locked our rental house door for the last time, climbed in my car and headed north out of Seattle. I never looked back in the rear view mirror at the skyline after nine years living in the city. My husband had moved to Whatcom County two months earlier to start his new job. I had stayed behind to wrap up my Group Health family practice in the Rainier Valley of Seattle, now leaving the city for a new rural home and a very uncertain professional future.

Never before had I felt such exhilaration at breaking through one wall to discover the unknown that lay on the other side.

I knew two things for sure:
I was finally several months pregnant after a miscarriage and two years of infertility, so our family had begun.
We were going to actually live in our own house, not just a rental, complete with a few acres and a barn.

A real (sort of) starter farm.

Since no farm can be complete without animals, I stopped at the first pet store I drove past and found two tortoise shell calico kitten sisters peering up at me,  just waiting for new adventures in farmland. Their box was packed into the one spot left beside me in my little Mazda. With that admittedly impulsive commitment to raise and nurture those kittens, life seemed brand new.

I will never forget the feeling of freedom on that drive north out of the traffic congestion of the city. The highway seemed more open, the fall colors more vibrant, the wind more brisk, our baby happily kicking my belly, the kittens plaintively mewing from their box. There seemed to be so much potential even though I had just left behind the greatest job that could be found in any urban setting (the most diverse zip code in the United States): an ideal family practice with patients from all over the world: Muslims from the Middle East and Indonesia, Orthodox Jews, Italian Catholics, African Americans, Cambodians, Laotians, Vietnamese. I would never know so much variety of background and perspective again and if I could have packed them all into the Mazda and driven them north with me, I would have.

We started our farm with those kittens dubbed Nutmeg and Oregano, soon adding an ethnic diversity of farm animals:  Belgian Tervuren dog Tango, Haflinger horse Greta, Toggenburg goats Tamsen and her kids, a few Toulouse geese, Araucana chickens, Fiona the Scottish Highland cow, then another Haflinger Hans and another, Tamara. I worked as a fill in locums doctor in four different clinics before our first baby, Nate, was born. We soon added little brother Ben and seven years later,  sister Lea. We settled happily into parenthood, our church community, serving on school and community boards, gardening, and enduring the loss of our parents one by one.

Thirty four years later our children have long ago grown and gone to new homes of their own, off to their own adventures beyond the farm.  Our sons married wonderful women, moving far away from home, our daughter teaches a fourth grade classroom a few hours away and we have two grandchildren with the third expected any moment.

A few cats, two Cardigan Corgi dogs, and a hand full of ponies remain at the farm with us. We are now both gray and move a bit more slowly, enjoy our naps and the quiet of the nights and weekends.  My work has evolved from four small jobs to two decades of two part time jobs to one more than full time job that fit me like a well worn sweater 24 hours a day for thirty years. With retirement looming, I’m trying out a three day a week schedule and the old sweater doesn’t fit quite so comfortably.

My happily retired husband finds he is busier than ever:  volunteering, serving on boards and being a full time farmer on our larger 20 acre place of fields and woods. 

That rainy Halloween day over three decades ago I was freed into a wider world. I would no longer sit captive in freeway rush hour bumper to bumper traffic jams.  Instead I celebrate my daily commute through farm fields, watching eagles fly, and new calves licked by their mamas. I am part of a broader community in a way I never could manage in the city, stopping to visit with friends at the grocery store, playing piano and teaching at church. Our home sits in the midst of woods and corn fields, with deer strolling through the fields at dawn, coyotes howling at night, Canadian and snow geese and trumpeter swans calling from overhead and salmon becoming more prolific every year in nearby streams. The snowy Cascades greet us in the morning and the sunset over Puget Sound bids us good night.

It all started October 31, 1985 with two orange and black kittens and a pumpkin sitting beside me in a little Mazda, my husband waiting for my homecoming 100 miles north. Now, thirty four years and three grown children and three (almost) grandchildren later, we celebrate this Halloween transition anniversary together. We’re still pregnant with the possibility that a wide world is waiting, just on the other side of the wall.

Not Alone in the Dark

“If there were no God, there would be no atheists.”
—G.K. Chesterton

shuksan622194

It’s the season of grace coming out of the void
Where a man is saved by a voice in the distance
It’s the season of possible miracle cures
Where hope is currency and death is not the last unknown
Where time begins to fade
And age is welcome home

It’s the season of eyes meeting over the noise
And holding fast with sharp realization
It’s the season of cold making warmth a divine intervention
You are safe here you know now

Don’t forget
Don’t forget I love
I love
I love you

It’s the season of scars and of wounds in the heart
Of feeling the full weight of our burdens
It’s the season of bowing our heads in the wind
And knowing we are not alone in fear
Not alone in the dark

Don’t forget
Don’t forget I love
I love
I love you
~Vienna Teng “The Atheist Christmas Carol”

shuksanhiding

I have heard the same message
from several patients:
they feel so alone
so in the dark,
so afraid
and weighted down
they would rather
choose to end their life~

yet not believing
in God means
jumping from
the pain of living
into
…nothing at all…

(feeling nothing
being the 
point
of ceasing
to be)

Perhaps they can’t imagine
this God who loves
doubters too sore afraid
of His caring enough to die
to assure
no one ever
becomes
nothing.

It Doesn’t Matter a Hill of Beans

I spent this morning adjusting to this change in season by occupying myself with the familiar task of moving manure.  Cleaning barn is a comforting chore, allowing me to transform tangible benefit from something objectionable and just plain stinky to the nurturing fertilizer of the future. It feels like I’ve actually accomplished something.

As I scooped and pushed the wheelbarrow, I remembered another barn cleaning twenty years ago, when I was one of three or four friends left cleaning over ninety stalls after a Haflinger horse event that I had organized at our local fairgrounds. Some people had brought their horses from over 1000 miles away to participate for several days.  Whenever horse people gather, there were personality clashes and harsh words among some participants along with criticism directed at me that I had taken very personally.  As I struggled with the umpteenth wheelbarrow load of manure, tears stung my eyes and my heart.  I was miserable with regrets.   After going without sleep and making personal sacrifices over many months planning and preparing for the benefit of our group,  my work felt like it had not been acknowledged or appreciated.

My friend Jenny had stayed behind with her family to help clean up the large facility and she could see I was struggling to keep my composure.  Jenny put herself right in front of my wheelbarrow and looked me in the eye, insisting I stop for a moment and listen.

“You know,  none of these troubles and conflicts will amount to a hill of beans years from now.  People will remember a fun event in a beautiful part of the country,  a wonderful time with their horses, their friends and family, and they’ll be all nostalgic about it, not giving a thought to the infighting or the sour attitudes or who said what to whom.   So don’t make this about you and whether you did or didn’t make everyone happy.  You loved us all enough to make it possible to meet here and the rest was up to us.  So quit being upset about what you can’t change.  There’s too much you can still do for us.”

During tough times which still come often in my professional life,  Jenny’s advice replays, reminding me to stop seeking appreciation from others, or feeling hurt when harsh words come my way.   She was right about the balm found in the tincture of time and she was right about giving up the upset in order to die to self and self absorption, and keep focusing outward.

Jenny, I have remembered what you said even though sometimes I emotionally relapse and forget.

Jenny herself spent the next six years literally dying, while vigorously living her life every day, fighting a relentless cancer that was initially helpless in the face of her faith and intense drive to live.    She became a rusting leaf, fading imperceptibly over time, crumbling at the edges until she finally let go.   Her dying did not flash brilliance, nor draw attention at the end.  Her intense focus during the years of her illness had always been outward to others, to her family and friends, to the healers she spent so much time with in medical offices, to her belief in the plan God had written for her and others.

Despite her intense love for her husband and young children, she had to let go her hold on life here.   And we all had to let her go.  

Brilliance cloaks her as her focus is now on things eternal.

You were so right, Jenny.  No conflicts from twenty years ago amounted to a hill of beans; all is remembered fondly by those who were part of the gathering. I especially treasure the words you wisely spoke to me.

And I’m no longer upset that I can’t change the fact that you have left us. There is still so much you do for us, alive in our memories.

I know we’ll catch up later.

Jenny R –photo by Ginger Kathleen Coombs