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.

The Swarm Fell on His Back

Painting “Plowing the Field” by Joyce Lapp

When the plowblade struck   
An old stump hiding under   
The soil like a beggar’s   
Rotten tooth, they swarmed up   
& Mister Jackson left the plow   
Wedged like a whaler’s harpoon.   
The horse was midnight   
Against dusk, tethered to somebody’s   
Pocketwatch.  He shivered, but not   
The way women shook their heads   
Before mirrors at the five   
& dime—a deeper connection   
To the low field’s evening star.   
He stood there, in tracechains,   
Lathered in froth, just   
Stopped by a great, goofy   
Calmness. He whinnied   
Once, & then the whole   
Beautiful, blue-black sky   
Fell on his back.
~Yusuf Komunyakaa “Yellow Jackets” from Pleasure Dome

Horse Team by Edvard Munch

Death by a thousand stings.

This poem is twenty years old, yet shattering to read by the light of the events of this past week and this past year. Written by a Pulitzer Prize winning Black poet and Vietnam War veteran, it is a stark description of a teamster and plow horse going about their routine work when a hive of yellow jackets is disturbed.

The farmer saves himself.

The abandoned work horse remains harnessed and chained to the immobilized plow, eventually falling crushed beneath the swarm on his back.

How many times recently have we witnessed this stark reality of the power of the angry swarm – whether the target is someone set upon and killed by law enforcement gone rogue, or last week, a man in blue defending the U.S. Capitol, beaten and crushed by rioters who pummeled him senseless with the pole of the American flag?

A poetic metaphor about an enslaved worker dying in chains expands to include us all:

-we are the farmer who panics and runs for his life in the midst of crisis
-we are the harnessed plowhorse obediently and calmly doing his job, becoming the sacrifice for the sake of the farmer
-we are the angry swarm whose well being and security is threatened so all hell breaks loose
-we are the poet whose words try to make sense of the senseless.

Ultimately, the Writer of the Word is our rescuer: rather than abandoning us to our fate, He saves us by becoming the sacrifice Himself.

He allowed the swarm to fall on His back rather than on us.

Turning Darkness Into Light: He Holds On to Us

The angel said there would be no end
to his kingdom. So for three hundred days
I carried rivers and cedars and mountains.
Stars spilled in my belly when he turned.
Now I can’t stop touching his hands,
the pink pebbles of his knuckles,

the soft wrinkle of flesh
between his forefinger and thumb.
I rub his fingernails as we drift
in and out of sleep. They are small
and smooth, like almond petals.

Forever, I will need nothing but these.

But all night, the visitors crowd
around us. I press his palms to my lips
in silence. They look down in anticipation,
as if they expect him to suddenly
spill coins from his hands
or raise a gold scepter
and turn swine into angels.

Isn’t this wonder enough
that yesterday he was inside me,
and now he nuzzles next to my heart?

That he wraps his hand around
my finger and holds on?
~Tania Runyan “Mary” from Nativity Suite

Now, newborn,
in wide-eyed wonder
he gazes up at his creation.
His hand that hurled the world
holds tight his mother’s finger.
Holy light
spills across her face
and she weeps
silent wondering tears
to know she holds the One
who has so long held her.
~Joan Rae Mills from “Mary” in the Light Upon Light Anthology by Sara Arthur

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The grip of the newborn is, in fact, superhuman. It is one of the tests of natural infant reflexes that are checked medically to confirm an intact nervous system in the newborn. A new baby can hold their own weight with the power of their hand hold, and Jesus would have been no different, except in one aspect: He also held the world in His infant hands.

We have been held from the very Beginning, and have not been let go. Try as we might to wiggle free to go our own way, He keeps a powerful grip on us.

We know the strength of the Lord whose hands “hurled the world” into being.

This is what our good God has done for us… He hangs on tight.

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

Near Bethlehem did shepherds keep
Their flocks of lambs and feeding sheep
To whom God’s angels did appear
Which put the shepherds in great fear’

Prepare 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, this 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 the virgin maid
Attending on the Lord of life
Who came on earth to end all strife

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

Turning Darkness Into Light: Nothing Can Be Ordinary Now


Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.
~George Herbert “Prayer”

~Heaven in Ordinary~
Because high heaven made itself so low
That I might glimpse it through a stable door,
Or hear it bless me through a hammer blow,
And call me through the voices of the poor,
Unbidden now, its hidden light breaks through
Amidst the clutter of the every day,
Illuminating things I thought I knew,
Whose dark glass brightens, even as I pray.
Then this world’s walls no longer stay my eyes,
A veil is lifted likewise from my heart,
The moment holds me in its strange surprise,
The gates of paradise are drawn apart,
I see his tree, with blossom on its bough,
And nothing can be ordinary now.

~Malcolm Guite from “After Prayer”

We live in a world of theophanies.
Holiness comes wrapped in the ordinary.
There are burning bushes all around you.
Every tree is full of angels.
Hidden beauty is waiting in every crumb.
Life wants to lead you from crumbs to angels,
but this can happen only if you are willing
to unwrap the ordinary by staying with it long enough
to harvest its treasure.
~Macrina Wiederkehr from A Tree Full of Angels

I follow the crumb trail most days;
my problem,
like so many others I know,
is to realize the crumbs satisfy more
than any seven course meal.
It may take longer to get full,
but I need the exercise,
and the hungrier I get,
the better the crumbs taste.

Considering the distance between us and God,
seemingly insurmountable to overcome,
yet He leaves us the crumb trail to follow.
How amazing it only takes a few words to Him,
our gratitude and praise,
our pleas and pain,
our breath hot in His ear~
unhesitating
He plummets to us;
then we are lifted to Him.

Heaven dwells in the ordinary crumbs,
fills us in our plainness,
dresses us up,
prepares us to be loved,
prepares us to be accepted and understood
prepares us to be transformed
by no less than our very Creator.

So~
let nothing you dismay.

Turning Darkness Into Light: Shadows Flee Away

There is nothing I can give you that you do not already have,
but there is much, very much, that, while I cannot give it, you can take.

No heaven can come to us
Unless our hearts find rest in it today.
Take heaven.

No peace lies in the future
Which is not hidden in this present instant.
Take peace.

The gloom of the world is but a shadow;
Behind it, yet within reach, is joy.
Take joy.

And so, at this Christmastime,
I greet you with the prayer that for you,
Now and forever,
The day breaks and the shadows flee away.
– Fra Giovanni Giocondo letter to Countess Allagia Aldobrandeschi, Christmas Eve 1513

We are reminded in hundreds of self-help books, both secular and faith-based, to count our blessings in order to find happiness in our daily existence. The point is to peer out from under the shadow of gloom and grumbles to where light and hope is unimpeded.

It’s good advice as old as the Psalms, even if some folks don’t want to associate gratitude and blessings with Someone who actually bestows them.

There are some days when the shadows overpower all feelings of thanksgiving: seeing the tent and box cities of the homeless expanding, watching the numbers of sick and dying rise exponentially, witnessing the suffering of the lonely and isolated among us. How is it possible for us to grasp heaven or feel peace when all seems so bleak?

That is exactly why the Babe was born so many years ago, bringing with Him the Light and Hope so sorely needed by the world then and the world now. With His dawning, shadows flee away; we only need to take the joy and peace He offers.

Alleluia!

Oh little child it’s Christmas night
And the sky is filled with glorious light
Lay your soft head so gently down
It’s Christmas night in Bethlehem town.

Chorus: Alleluia the angels sing
Alleluia to the king
Alleluia the angels sing
Alleluia to the king.

Sleep while the shepherds find their way
As they kneel before you in the golden hay
For they have brought you a woolly lamb
On Christmas night in Bethlehem.
Chorus

Sleep till you wake at the break of day
With the sun’s first dawning ray
You are the babe, who’ll wear the crown
On Christmas morn in Bethlehem town.
Chorus

Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia. Alleluia

Turning Darkness Into Light: He Who Made the Lamb

When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

~William Blake from “The Tyger”

His birth was attended by tears:
The stars wept, knowing what gift had been given
Shepherds wept, hearing the heavenly host proclaim,
His mother and father wept, knowing Who lay innocent in the manger,
they to be entrusted to raise Him to save the world.

A meek Lamb
becomes both protector and sacrifice,
forgiving the hand that wields the knife that slays Him.

The Lamb shares His name with us
so we answer His call ~
we are His sheep
we are His flock

He who made the Lamb made us
and we answer weeping, knowing the cost.

Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Gave thee life, and bid thee feed,
By the stream and o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing woolly, bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice?
Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?

Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee,
Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee:
He is callèd by thy name,
For He calls Himself a Lamb.
He is meek, and He is mild:
He became a little child.
I a child, and thou a lamb,
We are callèd by His name.
Little Lamb, God bless thee!
Little Lamb, God bless thee

~William Blake “Little Lamb”

Photo by Paul Seling on Pexels.com

Turning Darkness into Light: Dust Made Manifest

Nobody in the hospital
Could tell the age 
Of the old woman who
Was called Susanna

Because she had no visitors
I would stop by to see her
But she was always sleeping

One day I was beside her
When she woke up
Opening small dark eyes
Of a surprising clearness

She looked at me and said
You want to know the truth?
I answered Yes

She said it’s something that 
My mother told me

There’s not a single inch
Of our whole body
That the Lord does not love

She then went back to sleep.
~Anne Porter  from “Susanna”

photo by Andrea Nipges

So many people lie in a hospital bed these days, all alone
and fearful, wondering what could happen next,
waiting for the tide to turn and move them back to the shore
or sweep them out into the arms of their Creator forever.

We tend to forget the love of the One who made us,
including our funny looking feet, our anxieties,
the crooked teeth, the wrinkles, the scars, the split ends —

We see only our imperfections and frailty
when our Creator sees dust made manifest
in His image.

He loves us even when we do not love ourselves,
as we hide our flaws and cover up our vulnerable nakedness.

He loves every inch
because we are His opus,
a masterpiece,
so He became one of us.

He knew exactly what He was doing
and even now,
in the midst of our loneliness,
He knows exactly what He is doing
with the dust that still swirls around us.

Turning Darkness into Light: Cloistered Immensity

Salvation to all that will is nigh;
That All, which always is all everywhere,
Which cannot sin, and yet all sins must bear,
Which cannot die, yet cannot choose but die,
Lo! faithful Virgin, yields Himself to lie
In prison, in thy womb; and though He there
Can take no sin, nor thou give, yet He’ll wear,
Taken from thence, flesh, which death’s force may try.

Ere by the spheres time was created thou
Wast in His mind, who is thy Son, and Brother;
Whom thou conceivest, conceived; yea, thou art now
Thy Maker’s maker, and thy Father’s mother,
Thou hast light in dark, and shutt’st in little room
Immensity, cloister’d in thy dear womb.
~John Donne “Annunciation”

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”

Sometimes
for the light to replace
where darkness thrives,
there must be a wounding
that tears us open,
cleaving us enough so joy can enter into
where we hurt the most.

Turning Darkness into Light: The Trees Tremble

After all the false dawns,
who is this who unerringly paints
the first rays in their true colours?
We have kept vigil with owls
when the occult noises of the night
fell tauntingly silent
and a breeze got up
as if for morning.
This time the trees tremble.
Is it with a kind of reckless joy
at the gentle light
lapping their leaves
like the very first turn of a tide?
Timid creatures creep out of burrows
sensing kindness
and the old crow on the cattle-shed roof
folds his wings and dreams.
~Richard Bauckham “First Light”

Who is this who has come to change everything in my life and everything within my heart?

Who is this who paints the skies to speak to me from His creation?

Who is this who wraps me firmly within His grasp and holds me tenderly when I am trembling afraid?

There will be no more false dawns.
He brings the sun with Him
and I am here, a witness,
standing before Him.

If I am alive this time next year
Will I have arrived in time to share?
And mine is about as good this far
And I’m still applied to what you are

And I am joining all my thoughts to you
And I’m preparing every part for you

And I heard from the trees a great parade
And I heard from the hills a band was made
And will I be invited to the sound?
And will I be a part of what you’ve made?

And I am throwing all my thoughts away
And I’m destroying every bet I’ve made
And I am joining all my thoughts to you
And I’m preparing every part for you
For you

~Sufjan Stevens