Known and Unknown

As a fond mother, when the day is o’er,
   Leads by the hand her little child to bed,
   Half willing, half reluctant to be led,
   And leave his broken playthings on the floor,
Still gazing at them through the open door,
   Nor wholly reassured and comforted
   By promises of others in their stead,
   Which, though more splendid, may not please him more;
So Nature deals with us, and takes away
   Our playthings one by one, and by the hand
   Leads us to rest so gently, that we go
Scarce knowing if we wish to go or stay,
   Being too full of sleep to understand
   How far the unknown transcends the what we know.
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow “Nature”

I remember being reluctant to go to bed as a child; I could miss something important that the adults waited to do until after I was asleep, or I wasn’t sure that I wanted to turn myself over to my dreams.

I had a period of time when I was in third grade (during the Cuban missile crisis) when I really was terrified to go to sleep, and ended up reading comic books during the night hours, trying to keep myself distracted from whatever fears I harbored. My mother, frantic for sleep herself during this worrisome time, consulted my pediatrician who prescribed orange juice with a tablespoon of brandy – for me, not for her. She was outraged at the thought, being a teetotaler, so bought no brandy for me (or for herself). I eventually got over my sleep issues, but not my worried heart.

The unknown is always more frightening than the known, and the older I got, the more I learned during 24 years of formal education and training, the more I realized I didn’t know. There would be no end to it. Even though I still spend several hours a week reading for required and non-required continuing medical education, I don’t crack the surface of everything that is news in my profession. There is a whole lot that I need to un-learn because it is now proven that it is no longer valid as it originally was over four decades of medical practice.

During the last three months of COVID-19, it is like drinking from several firehoses at once, as data on this previously unknown virus comes piecemeal from countless sources: the studies are rushed and sample sizes are small, conclusions are tentative, often barely peer-reviewed and sometimes disproven the next week by another study. What was considered “fact” a month ago may no longer be so.

So I know I must settle into the reality that there will always be plenty of unknowns, particularly as I reluctantly let go of life’s playthings one by one.

The unknown will always transcend the known on this side of the veil so I appreciate that I am gently led, in faith, to that long-awaited sleep that was so elusive before.

Muddied But Whole

The crow’s voice filtered through the walls of the farmhouse
makes sounds of a rusty car engine turning over. Clouds on a
north wind that whistles softly and cold. Spruce trees planted
in a line on the south side of the house weave and scrape at the
air. I’ve walked to a far field to a fence line of rocks where I am
surprised to see soft mud this raw day. No new tracks in the
mud, only desiccated grass among the rocks, a bare grove of
trees in the distance, a blue sky thin as an eggshell with a crack
of dark geese running through it, their voices faint and almost
troubled as they disappear in a wedge that has opened at last
the cold heart of winter.

~Tom Hennen, “Early Spring in the Field” from Darkness Sticks to Everything: Collected and New Poems

I shouldn’t be turning on the heat in the house on a late May morning but there is still an undeniable chill, even at this point in spring. The flowers outside are lush, but we’re still two or three weeks behind our usual bloom schedule.

We’re all impatient to be done with the coldness of a winter that has driven a wedge between people and politics, families and friends, well and ill.

We seek warmth and renewal and hugs and handshakes.

Instead we are asked for patience, to continue to practice the art of waiting for a safe reentry to spring and summer. No one wants to be tossed brutally back to the winter we just crawled away from.

May we emerge together, muddied but whole, ready to face whatever comes next.

Groaning Too Deep for Words

What stood will stand, though all be fallen,
The good return that time has stolen.
Though creatures groan in misery,
Their flesh prefigures liberty
To end travail and bring to birth
Their new perfection in new earth.
At word of that enlivening
Let the trees of the woods all sing
And every field rejoice, let praise
Rise up out of the ground like grass.
What stood, whole in every piecemeal
Thing that stood, will stand though all
Fall–field and woods and all in them
Rejoin the primal Sabbath’s hymn.
~Wendell Berry, from “Sabbaths” (North Point Press, 1987)
.

We live in a time where the groaning need and dividedness of humankind is especially to be felt and recognized…

Yet this terrific human need and burden of the times causes us to see how weak and powerless we are to change this. Then we must see that if we are to advocate change, we must start with ourselves. We must recognize that we as individuals are to blame for social injustice, oppression, and the downgrading of others, whether personal or on a broader plane. We must see that a revolution must take place against all that destroys life. This revolution must become a revolution different from any the world has ever seen. God must intervene and lead such a revolution with his Spirit and his justice and his truth.
~Dwight Blough from the introduction to When the Time was Fulfilled (1965)

22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.
Romans 8: 22-26

We are groaning in anticipation of what might come next – so many ill, so many lost. What can we make of this, how can we make sense of it?

We could groan together in the hard labor of birthing a newly unified people all facing the same viral enemy. Instead we groan angry and bitter, irritable with one another, wanting to find someone else, anything to blame for our misery.

God willingly pulls our groanings onto Himself and out of us.
He understands even when we are too inarticulate to form the words we want Him to hear.

We must cling tenaciously to the mystery of God’s magnetism
for our weakness and suffering and allow His healing us to begin.

By His Spirit
we will be forever changed
and our groanings will be no more.

Flat Affect

I used to think the land
had something to say to us,
back when wildflowers
would come right up to your hand
as if they were tame.

Sooner or later, I thought,
the wind would begin to make sense
if I listened hard
and took notes religiously.
That was spring.

Now I’m not so sure:
the cloudless sky has a flat affect
and the fields plowed down after harvest
seem so expressionless,
keeping their own counsel.

This afternoon, nut tree leaves
blow across them
as if autumn had written us a long letter,
changed its mind,
and tore it into little scraps.
~Don Thompson October

photo by Nate Gibson
photo by Nate Gibson

We’re in a time of seasonal abundance but our emotions are spent from containment through lock-down, shelter-in, social distancing, zoom-in and zoom-out.

As I meet with my patients via a televisit, I try to read their faces and find that along with the flatness of our screens, our emotions are flat too. My usual gentle humor to lighten things up becomes pointless – it is hard to elicit smiles these days. On the other hand, there no longer is a need for abundant tissues for tearful conversations because no one will weep on screen. There may be a hint of emotion in a catch in a voice, but I have yet to see anyone actually cry in two months of telehealth conversations. That would be too vulnerable – somehow being on camera suggests we need to put the actor-mask on, be expression-less, strong and invulnerable. And somehow my patient knows I can’t reach out as I would in an exam room, literally and verbally, to reassure them I’m present and listening. I’m not really present on a screen even though I’m listening.

And while out in society, we must literally hide ourselves behind a mask that conceals our smiles as well as our grim-faced frowns.

So our social and clinical interactions are as flat as the screens they play out on.

We need some unchecked tears about now, as well as endless belly laughs. Perhaps there will be a reawakening to the range of emotions we have taken for granted before finding ourselves in this time of restraint and restriction.

As we reintegrate and reunite, slowly, carefully and compassionately, let us re-experience in 3-D what we have been missing in our virtual meetings: tears that accompany joyous reunion as well as the lament of all we’re lost during this time.

Please pass the tissues.

Blooming Impossibly

There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.

~Li-Young Lee, last stanza of “From Blossoms” from Rose.

… it seemed as if the tiniest seed of belief had finally flowered in me, or, more accurately, as if I had happened upon some rare flower deep in the desert and had known, though I was just then discovering it, that it had been blooming impossibly year after parched year in me, surviving all the seasons of my unbelief.
~Christian Wiman from My Bright Abyss

To live as if
death were nowhere in the background:
that is impossible right now
when death is in every headline
and everyone knows someone
who has been lost to the virus.

Yet, to still emerge and blossom,
despite the dryness and drought of pandemic~
this is Christ’s call to us.
 
We are not dying,
but alive in Him,
an amazing impossible flowering.

So I allow my eye to peer through
a dying time such as this,
needing a flotation device
and depth finder
as I’m likely to get lost,
sweeping and swooning
through the inner space
of life’s deep tunnels,
canyons and corners,
coming up for air and diving in again
to journey into exotic locales
draped in silken hues
~this fairy land on a stem~
to immerse and emerge
in the possibilities
of such an impossible blossom.

The Soul Confined

 
It’s frail, this spring snow, it’s pot cheese
packing down underfoot. It flies out of the trees
at sunrise like a flock of migrant birds.
It slips in clumps off the barn roof,
wingless angels dropped by parachute.
Inside, I hear the horses knocking
aimlessly in their warm brown lockup,
testing the four known sides of the box
as the soul must, confined under the breastbone.
Horses blowing their noses, coming awake,
shaking the sawdust bedding out of their coats.
They do not know what has fallen
out of the sky, colder than apple bloom,
since last night’s hay and oats.
They do not know how satisfactory
they look, set loose in the April sun,
nor what handsprings are turned under
my ribs with winter gone.
~Maxine Kumin “Late Snow” from Selected Poems: 1960 – 1990

photo of spring snow by Paul Dorpat

This past weekend we had it all: sun, rain, windstorm, hail, and some local areas even reported a late April snowfall. It is indeed disorienting to have one foot still in winter and the other firmly on grass that needs mowing.

It is also disorienting to look at pandemic data and hear varying experts’ interpretations about what is happening, what they predict and what strategies are recommended.

It may be time to loosen the tight grip on social distancing yet many are reticent to emerge from their confinement, for good reason.

Just last week, we released the Haflingers from their winter lock-in back onto the fields – their winter-creaky barn-confined joints stretched as they joyfully ran the perimeter of the fields before settling their noses into fresh clover. Their ribs sprung with the fragrance of the apple blossom perfume of the orchard and it lifted my sagging spirit to see them gallop. But even the horses are not ready for complete freedom either – I whistled them in after two hours, not wanting them to eat themselves sick with too much spring grass. Their time on the outside will be tightly controlled until it is safe for them to be out unrestricted.

Surprisingly, the horses come in willingly to settle back into their stalls and their confinement routine.

I’m not so different. I long to be set loose in the April sun and the freedom to go when and where I wish. But the new reality means winter is not entirely gone yet and may not be for some time. There are still tragic and untimely losses of life, still plenty of weeping and lament from the grief-stricken who have been robbed prematurely of loved ones due to a virus that is circulating indiscriminately.

So we must ease out slowly, carefully and cautiously, with one ear cocked and ready to be whistled back in when we are called to return to safety.

Lest They Sicken

Tell the bees. They require news of the house;
they must know, lest they sicken
from the gap between their ignorance and our grief.
Speak in a whisper. Tie a black swatch
to a stick and attach the stick to their hive.
From the fortress of casseroles and desserts
built in the kitchen these past few weeks
as though hunger were the enemy, remove
a slice of cake and lay it where they can
slowly draw it in, making a mournful sound.

And tell the fly that has knocked on the window all day.
Tell the redbird that rammed the glass from outside
and stands too dazed to go. Tell the grass,
though it’s already guessed, and the ground clenched in furrows;
tell the water you spill on the ground,
then all the water will know.
And the last shrunken pearl of snow in its hiding place.

Tell the blighted elms, and the young oaks we plant instead.
The water bug, while it scribbles
a hundred lines that dissolve behind it.
The lichen, while it etches deeper
its single rune. The boulders, letting their fissures widen,
the pebbles, which have no more to lose,
the hills—they will be slightly smaller, as always,

when the bees fly out tomorrow to look for sweetness
and find their way
because nothing else has changed.
~Sarah Lindsay “Tell the Bees”

So many around the globe are grieving their losses, their reality forever changed by a virus. Yet the world churns on, oblivious to the sorrows of individuals.

The tradition of telling the bees is that it matters to the community of hives how people who care for them are faring: is there a wedding coming up? a baby due? an overwhelming illness? a death of a loved one? If a hive is kept in ignorance, the cloud of grief will sicken them or drive them away. Shared grief is a nurturing spirit that allows the community to thrive and move on in sweetness.

Nothing happens without an impact down the line; the butterfly effect is also the bee effect. We speak softly of our desolation and suffering so our tears water thirsty ground.

Let the bees know, let them hear; the bees will go about their work and they will turn our sorrow to honey.

Wept Over

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 ahead to
a week of knowing thousands
are ill, grieving, dying,
a week facing my own fears of vulnerability and mortality,
a week where thorns overwhelm the blossoms~~

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

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 Barnstorming theme for the season of Lent:

God sees us as we are,
loves us as we are,
and accepts us as we are.
But by His grace,
He does not leave us where we are.
~Tim Keller

Seems the sorrow untold, as you look down the road
At the clamoring crowd drawing near
Feel the heat of the day, as you look down the way
Hear the shouts of Hosanna the King

Chorus
Oh, daughter of Zion your time’s drawing near
Don’t forsake Him, oh don’t pass it by
On the foal of a donkey as the prophets had said
Passing by you, He rides on to die

Come now little foal, though you’re not very old
Come and bear your first burden bravely
Walk so softly upon all the coats and the palms
Bare the One on your back oh so gently

Midst the shouting so loud and the joy of the crowd
There is One who is riding in silence
For He knows the ones here will be fleeing in fear
When their shepherd is taken away

Soon the thorn cursed ground will bring forth a crown
And this Jesus will seem to be beaten
But He’ll conquer alone both the shroud and the stone
And the prophesies will be completed
On the foal of a donkey as the prophets had said
Passing by you He rides on to die
~Michael Card

He Does Not Leave Us Where We Are: Between Heaven and Earth

Slowly the west reaches for clothes of new colors
which it passes to a row of ancient trees.
You look, and soon these two worlds both leave you
one part climbs toward heaven, one sinks to earth.

leaving you, not really belonging to either,
not so hopelessly dark as that house that is silent,
not so unswervingly given to the eternal as that thing
that turns to a star each night and climbs–

leaving you (it is impossible to untangle the threads)
your own life, timid and standing high and growing,
so that, sometimes blocked in, sometimes reaching out,
one moment your life is a stone in you, and the next, a star.
~Rainer Maria Rilke “Sunset” (Trans. by Robert Bly) from The Soul is Here for Its Own Joy


We, frail people that we are, 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 seek relief, begging for mercy.

As we struggle to stay healthy during a spreading pandemic, it is frightening to watch others suffer as death tolls rise. We pray for safety for ourselves and those we love, knowing we are living “in between” where we are now and where we soon will be.

Shall we remain stones on the ground, still and lifeless, or are we destined to become a star glistening in the firmament?

Or are we like a tree stretching between soil and sky trying to touch both and remain standing while buffeted by forces beyond our control?

Christ the Son, on earth and in heaven, maintains an eternal connection to above and below. In His hands and under His protection, we are safe no matter where we are and where He takes us.

We can be mere stones no more.

This year’s Barnstorming theme for the season of Lent:

God sees us as we are,
loves us as we are,
and accepts us as we are.
But by His grace,
He does not leave us where we are.
~Tim Keller

He Does Not Leave Us Where We Are: The Storm Within

Beneath our clothes, our reputations, our pretensions,
beneath our religion or lack of it,
we are all vulnerable both to the storm without
and to the storm within.
~Frederick Buechner – from Telling the Truth

This past month’s storms have been tumultuous on the outside:
heavy winds toppling a large tree into our friends’ bed room at midnight narrowing missing the bed in which they slept, unexpected regional snowfall, torrential showers, dark threatening clouds on the horizon.

Yet March’s storms are not limited to just the weather:
hundreds of thousands of people sickened by a virus that can kill within days or simply be spread by unwitting asymptomatic people, businesses shut down, hospitals and clinics overwhelmed, hoarding behavior resulting in shortages of products addressing basic needs.

And storms inside my cranium:
at times I feel fearful for myself and my extended family living far away, my words fly out too quickly, my anxiety mixes with frustration, my tears spill too easily, I am immobilized by limitations on where I can go and who I can visit.

This past month and the months to come may well be filled with continued hardship, but I won’t blame the calendar for what has happened. I am not so easily excused from responsibility.  I end up lying awake at night with regrets, wondering if I should be doing more than just telemedicine from home, yet wanting to hide myself and my M.D. degree under a rock until this unending storm blows over.

While the storm rages on, a miracle of grace is happening in many places:
generous people are making a difference in small and large ways all around the world. Some take enormous personal risks to take care of strangers and loved ones. Some work endless hours and when they come home, they remain isolated to avoid contaminating their families.

Such grace only happens when the storm is confronted head on by the brilliant light of sacrifice, when the heaviest most threatening clouds begin to weep from illumination that creates a rainbow dropped from heaven.

So we know God cries too. 
His wept tears light the sky in a promise of salvation.
He assures us of this because He won’t leave us in the darkness:
His Light will prevail and this storm too shall pass.

God sees us as we are,
loves us as we are,
and accepts us as we are.
But by His grace,
He does not leave us where we are.
~Tim Keller