To a Heaven of Impermanence

In heaven it is always autumn.
~John Donne

The leaves are always near to falling there
but never fall, and pairs of souls out walking
heaven’s paths no longer feel the weight of years upon them.
Safe in heaven’s calm, they take each other’s arm,
the light shining through them, all joy and terror gone.
But we are far from heaven here, in a garden ragged and unkept
as Eden would be with the walls knocked down,
    the paths littered
with the unswept leaves of many years, bright keepsakes
for children of the Fall. The light is gold, the sun pulling
the long shadow soul out of each thing, disclosing an outcome.
The last roses of the year nod their frail heads,
like listeners listening to all that’s said, to ask,
What brought us here? What seed? What rain? What light?
What forced us upward through dark earth? What made us bloom?
What wind shall take us soon, sweeping the garden bare?
Their voiceless voices hang there, as ours might,
if we were roses, too. Their beds are blanketed with leaves,
tended by an absent gardener whose life is elsewhere.
It is the last of many last days. Is it enough?
To rest in this moment? To turn our faces to the sun?
To watch the lineaments of a world passing?
To feel the metal of a black iron chair, cool and eternal,
press against our skin? To apprehend a chill as clouds
pass overhead, turning us to shivering shade and shadow?
And then to be restored, small miracle, the sun
    shining brightly

as before? We go on, you leading the way, a figure
leaning on a cane that leaves its mark on the earth.
My friend, you have led me farther than I have ever been.
To a garden in autumn. To a heaven of impermanence
where the final falling off is slow, a slow and radiant happening.
The light is gold. And while we’re here, I think it must
    be heaven.
~Elizabeth Spires “In Heaven It Is Always Autumn” from Now the Green Blade Rises

I wander the autumn garden mystified at the passing of the weeks since the seed was first sown, weeds pulled, peapods picked. It could not possibly be done so soon–this patch of productivity and beauty, now wilted and brown, vines crushed to the ground, no longer fruitful.

The root cellar is filling up, the freezer is packed.  The work of putting away is almost done.

So why do I go back to the now barren soil we so carefully worked, numb in the knowledge I will pick no more this season, nor feel the burst of a cherry tomato exploding in my mouth or the green freshness of a bean or peapod straight off the vine?

Because for a few fertile weeks, only a few weeks, the garden was a bit of heaven on earth, impermanent but a real taste nonetheless.   We may have once mistaken our Lord for the gardener when He appeared to us radiant, suddenly unfamiliar, but it was He who offered us the care of the garden, to bring in the sheaves, to share the forever mercies in the form of daily bread grown right here and now.

When He says my name, then I will know Him. 
He will lead me farther than I have ever been.

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

To Float Above This Difficult World

Every year
the lilies
are so perfect
I can hardly believe

their lapped light crowding
the black,
mid-summer ponds.
Nobody could count all of them —

the muskrats swimming
among the pads and the grasses
can reach out
their muscular arms and touch

only so many, they are that
rife and wild.
But what in this world
is perfect?

I bend closer and see
how this one is clearly lopsided —
and that one wears an orange blight —
and this one is a glossy cheek

half nibbled away —
and that one is a slumped purse
full of its own
unstoppable decay.

Still, what I want in my life
is to be willing
to be dazzled —
to cast aside the weight of facts

and maybe even
to float a little
above this difficult world.
I want to believe I am looking

into the white fire of a great mystery.
I want to believe that the imperfections are nothing —
that the light is everything — that it is more than the sum
of each flawed blossom rising and fading. And I do.
~Mary Oliver “The Ponds

Born as we are into a fallen world, this place originally
meant to be pristine, without decay –
we focus on the imperfection around us
rather than the flaws in ourselves.

The mystery is: I know how incomplete,
half chewed up and sinking in mire I am,
yet I was created in the image of God
and He looks at me as though I am whole and beautiful.

He made us in His mold that we promptly fractured,
so He came to salvage His broken people.
He made sure our flaws became nothing;
His Light and glue and love are everything.

I believe it is so, dazzled that it is true.

A book of beautiful words and photography – click for link to order

Madly in Love

How is it they live for eons in such harmony
– the billions of stars –
when most men can barely go a minute
without declaring war in their mind

against someone they know.

There are wars where no one marches with a flag,

though that does not keep casualties from mounting.

Our hearts irrigate this earth. 
We are fields before each other.
How can we live in harmony?


First we need to know 

we are all madly in love
with the same God.

O Lord my God, make me
submissive without protest,

poor without discouragement,
chaste without regret,
patient without complaint,
humble without posturing,
cheerful without frivolity,
mature without gloom,
and quick-witted without flippancy.


Grant that I may know
what You require me to do.
Bestow upon me
the power to accomplish Your will,
as is necessary and fitting
for the salvation of my soul.

~St. Thomas Aquinas

I look at headline news through my fingers, cringing.  

Amid the centuries of posturing between governments and every imaginable tribe and faction, the names and faces change but the nature of hatred of the “other” doesn’t.

We’ve seen this all before, over and over through history.  Over 150 years ago it was in the Gettysburg fields that blood of rival armies intermingled and irrigated U.S. soil.  Though now we stand side by side with Germany and Japan, our bitter adversaries a mere eighty years ago, our world continually brews new enemies and ignites new conflicts.

We can barely go a minute without declaring war in our minds even against our neighbor, even those we consider friends and family. There is yelling from the streets in angry protest and screaming at school board meetings. Casualties mount in our bitterness toward one another.

And who am I to point fingers or squint through them at the news of the day?
I am as prone to this as anyone.

Am I myself capable of submission without protest, remaining patient and uncomplaining even when I disagree? Can I embody humility without having a hidden agenda? Can I remain selfless when my true nature is wholly selfish?

How can there ever be harmony? 
How can I overcome my own rancorous heart?

As critical as it seems, It is not love for one another that comes first.
I must first know, love and trust the only God who has loved the unloveable so much He became one with us, overpowering our tendency to hate one another by taking it all upon Himself.

Jesus found us dying in a world desperately drying up; His bleeding heart poured itself out onto our thirsting soil. We have been handed salvation.

It is, in fact, God who is madly in love with us and though we’ve done nothing to deserve it, it is our turn to show love to one another.

A book from Barnstorming is available for order here:

Standing Guard, Waiting

For as a cloud received Him from their sight,
So with a cloud will He return ere long:
Therefore they stand on guard by day, by night,
Strenuous and strong.

They do, they dare, they beyond seven times seven
Forgive, they cry God’s mighty word aloud:
Yet sometimes haply lift tired eyes to Heaven–
“Is that His cloud?”
~Christina Rossetti from “Ascension Day”

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
    and in his word I put my hope.
My soul waits for the Lord
    more than watchmen wait for the morning,
    more than watchmen wait for the morning.

Psalm 130: 5-6 from a Song of Ascents

Waiting is essential to the spiritual life.
But waiting as a disciple of Jesus is not an empty waiting.
It is a waiting with a promise in our hearts
that makes already present what we are waiting for.
We wait during Advent for the birth of Jesus.
We wait after Easter for the coming of the Spirit,
and after the ascension of Jesus
we wait for his coming again in glory.
We are always waiting,
but it is a waiting in the conviction that
we have already seen God’s footsteps.
— Henri Nouwen from Bread For The Journey: A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith

To wait is a hard sweet paradox in the Christian life.  It is hard not yet having what we know will be coming.  But it is sweet to have certainty it is coming because of the footprints we have seen: He has been here among us. 

Like the labor of childbirth, we groan knowing what it will take to get there, and we are full to brimming already.

The waiting won’t be easy; it will often be painful to be patient, staying alert to possibility and hope when we are exhausted, barely able to function.  Others won’t understand why we wait, nor do they comprehend what we could possibly be waiting for. 

We persevere together, with patience, watching and hoping; we are a community groaning together in sweet expectation of the morning.

A new book from Barnstorming available to order here

To Embrace a Universe

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

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

~Robert Browning from “Andrea del Sarto”

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

photo by our next door neighbor Bob Tjoelker

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

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

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

Will I Open the Door?

Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.
Revelation 3:20

…we are faced with the shocking reality:
Jesus stands at the door and knocks, in complete reality.
He asks you for help in the form of a beggar,
in the form of a ruined human being in torn clothing.
He confronts you in every person that you meet.
Christ walks on the earth as your neighbor as long as there are people.
He walks on the earth as the one through whom
God calls you, speaks to you and makes his demands.
That is the greatest seriousness
and the greatest blessedness of <His> message.
Christ stands at the door.
Will you keep the door locked or open it to him?
~Dietrich Bonhoeffer from an Advent Sermon “The Coming of Jesus into our Midst”

photo by Nate Gibson

Sam does barn chores with me, always has.  He runs up and down the aisles as I fill buckets, throw hay, and he’ll explore the manure pile out back and the compost pile and have stand offs with the barn cats (which he always loses).  We have our routine.  When I get done with chores, I whistle for him and we head to the house. 

We head back home together.

Except this morning.  I whistled when I was done and his furry little fox face didn’t appear as usual.  I walked back through both barns calling his name, whistling, no signs of Sam.  I walked to the fields, I walked back to the dog yard, I walked the road (where he never ever goes), I scanned the pond (yikes), I went back to the barn and glanced inside every stall, I went in the hay barn where he likes to jump up and down on stacked bales, looking for a bale avalanche he might be trapped under, or a hole he couldn’t climb out of.  Nothing.

Passing through the barn again, I heard a little faint scratching inside one Haflinger’s stall, which I had just glanced in 10 minutes before.  The mare was peacefully eating hay.  Sam was standing with his feet up against the door as if asking what took me so long.  He must have scooted in when I filled up her water bucket, and I closed the door not knowing he was inside, and it was dark enough that I didn’t see him when I checked.  He and his good horse friend kept it their secret.

He made not a whimper nor did he bark when I called out his name, passing that stall at least 10 times looking for him. He just patiently waited for me to finally open the door I had previously locked tight.

It wasn’t Sam who was lost. Sam lost me. He patiently waited until I realized he was waiting for me for me to come around and open the door.

He was ready to accompany me back home. 

Though you are homeless
Though you’re alone
I will be your home
Whatever’s the matter
Whatever’s been done
I will be your home
I will be your home
I will be your home
In this fearful fallen place
I will be your home
When time reaches fullness
When I move my hand
I will bring you home
Home to your own place
In a beautiful land
I will bring you home
I will bring you home
I will bring you home
From this fearful fallen place
I will bring you home
I will bring you home
~Michael Card

The Ache in Your Heart

Your cold mornings are filled
with the heartache about the fact that although
we are not at ease in this world, it is all we have,
that it is ours but that it is full of strife,
so that all we can call our own is strife;
but even that is better than nothing at all, isn’t it?

…rejoice that your uncertainty is God’s will
and His grace toward you and that that is beautiful,
and part of a greater certainty…

be comforted in the fact that the ache in your heart
and the confusion in your soul means that you are still alive,
still human, and still open to the beauty of the world,
even though you have done nothing to deserve it.
~Paul Harding in Tinkers

Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord.
John 21:12

It is so easy to let go of Easter —
slide back into the work-a-day routine,
and continue to merely survive each day with gritted teeth as we did before.

God knows this about us. 

So, in our anguish and oblivion, He feeds us after He is risen, an astonishingly tangible and meaningful act of nourishing us in our most basic human needs though we’ve done nothing to deserve the gift:

Sharing a meal and breaking bread in Emmaus to open the eyes and hearts of the blinded.

Cooking up fish over a charcoal fire on a beach at dawn and inviting us to join Him.

Reminding us again and again and again – if we love Him as we say we do, we will feed His sheep.

When He offers me a meal,  I will accept it with newly opened eyes of gratitude, knowing the gift He hands me is nothing less than Himself.

Waiting in Wilderness: An Awful Thing

It was in the Spring
The Passover had come.
There was feasting in the streets and joy.
But an awful thing
Happened in the Spring –
Men who knew not what they did
Killed Mary’s Boy.
He was Mary’s Son,
And the Son of God was He –
Sent to bring the whole world joy.
There were some who could not hear,
And some were filled with fear –
So they built a cross
For Mary’s Boy
~Langston Hughes “The Ballad of Mary’s Boy”
from The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes

We have had several days of southerly winds trying to break us loose from the vise grip of a tired and dying winter. Yet we are held tightly by our frailties.

Despite the warming trend, I find my strength still waning at the end of a long day. I slipped in the mud trying to gain traction unloading a couple hundred pounds of manure from the wheelbarrow.  Landing on my backside, my pants muddied thoroughly, I can choose to laugh or cry.

The baptism of mud is a sacrament of the present moment,  reminding me of my need for cleansing grace. So I both laugh and cry.

God is revealed in the awful and glorious moments of my being covered in the soil of earth and the waste of its creatures. He knows I need reminding that I too am dust and to dust shall return.

He knows I am too often wasteful and a failed steward,
so need reminding by landing me in the middle of it.

He knows I need to laugh at myself,
so lands me right on my backside.

He knows I need to cry,
so allows me to feel sore and sorrow.

To be known for who I am
by a God who laughs with me, weeps for me
and groans with the pain I have caused;
I will know
no greater love.

God, as Mary’s boy, conquered the shroud and the rolled away stone,
ending my living for myself, only to die,
and began my dying to self, in order to live.
and that has made all the difference.

When Jesus wept, the falling tear
In mercy flowed beyond all bound.
When Jesus groaned, a trembling fear
Seized all the guilty world around.

Waiting in Wilderness: An Impossible Womb

God called Abram to leave the familiar and go,
go on a road he would make by going,
to a place he would know by finding.

Jesus led Nicodemus to the threshold of a birth,
a newness he could only know by going through it.

Only what’s behind us, not ahead, keeps us from going on,
from entering the impossible womb of starting new.

The stones of disappointment in your pockets,
the grave marker of the old life, they can’t come with you.

The path is not a test. It’s our freedom.
Many a prisoner has looked into the tunnel,
the Beloved waiting in the light, and said no.

Where is the Spirit calling you, the wind blowing?
Where is the thin place between your habits and a new birth?

These pangs, this heavy breathing:
the Beloved is trying to birth you.

Let it happen.
~Steve Garnaass-Holmes “A new birth”

Like most people, I cling fast to the safe and familiar, sometimes wishing to retreat back to what feels most secure and safest. Yet, it is an impossible womb that would allow me back – it is clear I am meant to be fully launched, for better or worse. So carrying my checkered history stuffed deeply in my pockets, I embark on this life’s journey led by the Spirit and blown by His breath, uncertain where it will take me or how long it takes to get there.

There is an unsurpassed freedom in the path from womb to tomb; if I let His breath carry me, I’ll go so far beyond the place where my bones someday are laid.

Every Inch Numb

Thank God for grace,
Ye who weep only! —look up! those tears will run
Soon in long rivers down the lifted face,
And leave the vision clear for stars and sun.
~Elizabeth Barrett Browning from “Tears”

Grief
is a river you wade in until you get to the other side.
But I am here, stuck in the middle, water parting
around my ankles, moving downstream
over the flat rocks. I’m not able to lift a foot,
move on. Instead, I’m going to stay here
in the shallows with my sorrow…
It’s mine.
…I’m going to stand here,
growing colder, until every inch
of my skin is numb. I can’t cross over.
Then you really will be gone. 
~Barbara Crooker from “Grief”

A river of tears flows with the untimely loss of a young person, a child of our church. Sorrow at such a loss fills a chasm so deep and dark that it is a fearsome thing to even peer from the edge, as I do.  The family is numb, swallowed up by their grief.

We can never understand why such infinite sadness should befall good and gracious people. We are once again reminded – there can be profound darkness that descends into the human heart, stealing away lives too soon.

Be assured you do not weep alone.  Your grief is so familiar to a suffering God who too wept at the death of a friend, a God who cried out when asked to endure the unendurable.

There is comfort in knowing He understands and overcomes all peril to come to the rescue when we become stuck fast in the middle of our grief, too numb to move on. He will fill the hole left behind as only He can.

You who grieve: you are not abandoned.
Your sadness is His, your sorrow is ours.
You are loved with a love
so deep and high and broad,
it will somehow carry you through.