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.

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.