The Light Turned On

On Epiphany day,
     we are still the people walking.
     We are still people in the dark,
          and the darkness looms large around us,
          beset as we are by fear,
                                        anxiety,
                                        brutality,
                                        violence,
                                        loss —
          a dozen alienations that we cannot manage.

We are — we could be — people of your light.
     So we pray for the light of your glorious presence
          as we wait for your appearing;
     we pray for the light of your wondrous grace
          as we exhaust our coping capacity;
     we pray for your gift of newness that
          will override our weariness;
     we pray that we may see and know and hear and trust
          in your good rule.

That we may have energy, courage, and freedom to enact
         your rule through the demands of this day.
         We submit our day to you and to your rule, with deep joy and high hope.
~Walter Brueggemann from  Prayers for a Privileged People 

photo by Nate Gibson

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
~T.S. Eliot from “Journey of the Magi”

…the scent of frankincense
and myrrh
arrives on the wind,
and I long
to breathe deeply,
to divine its trail.
But I know their uses
and cannot bring myself
to breathe deeply enough
to know
whether what comes
is the fragrant welcoming
of birth
or simply covers the stench of death.
These hands
coming toward me,
is it swaddling they carry
or shroud?
~Jan Richardson from Night Visions –searching the shadows of Advent and

The Christmas season is a wrap, put away for another year.
However, our hearts are not so easily boxed up and stored as the decorations and ornaments of the season.

Our troubles and concerns go on; our frailty and failures a daily reality.
We can be distracted with holidays for a few weeks, but our time here slips away ever more quickly.

The Christmas story is not just about light and birth and joy to the world.
It is about how swaddling clothes became a shroud that wrapped Him tight,
yet He broke free to liberate us.
There is no swaddling without the shroud.

God came to be with us;
Delivered so He could deliver.
Planted on and in the earth.
Born so He could die in our place
To leave the linen strips behind, neatly folded.

Christmas: the swaddled unwrapped, freeing us forever from the shroud.
Epiphany: His Light illuminates the Seed taking root in our hearts.

The Light is turned on, as if a switch has been flipped.

Translation:
Light, warm and heavy as pure gold and angels sing softly to the new-born babe.

Through love to light!
Oh, wonderful the way
That leads from darkness to the perfect day!
From darkness and from sorrow of the night
To morning that comes singing o’er the sea.
Through love to light!
Through light, O God, to thee,
Who art the love of love, the eternal light of light!
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Dawn on our Darkness: Snowbound Snowblind Longing

The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.
John 3:8

To look at the last great self-portraits of Rembrandt or to read Pascal or hear Bach’s B-minor Mass is to know beyond the need for further evidence that if God is anywhere, he is with them, as he is also with the man behind the meat counter, the woman who scrubs floors at Roosevelt Memorial, the high-school math teacher who explains fractions to the bewildered child. And the step from “God with them” to Emmanuel, “God with us,” may not be as great as it seems.

What keeps the wild hope of Christmas alive year after year in a world notorious for dashing all hopes is the haunting dream that the child who was born that day may yet be born again even in us and our own snowbound, snowblind longing for him.
~Frederick Buechner from A Room Called Remember

God gave us all a garden once
and walked with us at eve
that we might know him face to face
with no need to believe.

But we denied and hid from Him,
concealing our own shame,
yet still He came and looked for us,
and called us each by name.

He found us when we hid from Him,
He clothed us with His grace.
But still we turned our backs on Him
and would not see His face.

So now, He comes to us again,
not as a Lord most high,
but weak and helpless as we are,
that we might hear Him cry.

And He who clothed us in our need,
lies naked in the straw,
that we might wrap Him in our rags
when once we fled in awe.

The strongest comes in weakness now,
a stranger to our door,
the King forsakes His palaces
and dwells among the poor.

And where we hurt, He hurts with us,
and when we weep, He cries.
He knows the heart of all our hurts,
the inside of our sighs.

He does not look down from up above,
but gazes up at us,
that we might take Him in our arms,
He always cradles us.

And if we welcome Him again,
with open hands and heart,
He’ll plant His garden deep in us,
the end from which we start.


And in that garden, there’s a tomb,
whose stone is rolled away,
where we and everything we’ve loved
are lowered in the clay.

But lo! the tomb is empty now,
and clothed in living light,
His ransomed people walk with One
who came on Christmas night.

So come, Lord Jesus, find in me
the child you came to save,
stoop tenderly with wounded hands
and lift me from my grave.


Be with us all, Emmanuel,
and keep us close and true,
be with us till that kingdom comes
where we will be with You.

~Malcolm Guite“A Tale of Two Gardens”

Heaven could not hold God. 

Even though He is worshiped by angels, it is enough for Him to be held in His mother’s arms, His face kissed, His tummy full, to be bedded in a manger in lantern light.

It is enough for Him, as He is enough for us — even born as one of us, poor as we are — snowbound and ice-locked in our longing for something – anything – more. Our empty hearts fill with Him who came down when heaven could not hold Him any longer.

Imagine that. It is enough to melt us to readiness.

This year’s Advent theme “Dawn on our Darkness” is taken from this 19th century Christmas hymn:

Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
dawn on our darkness and lend us your aid.
Star of the east, the horizon adorning,
guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.
~Reginald Heber -from “Brightest and Best”

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Dawn on our Darkness: Split Open to the Light

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”

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”


For Light to illuminate
where darkness thrives in me,
there must be a wounding,
a splitting open;
a crack exists in everything,
cleaving me so joy can infiltrate and heal
where I hurt the most,
celebrating
as I say yes.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
~Leonard Cohen from “Anthem”

This year’s Advent theme “Dawn on our Darkness” is taken from this 19th century Christmas hymn.

Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
dawn on our darkness and lend us your aid.
Star of the east, the horizon adorning,
guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.
~Reginald Heber -from “Brightest and Best”

When time sweeps yesterday away,
It leaves behind an empty heart,
Weeping through the night so dark and long.
When words are lost among the tears,
When sadness steals another day,
God hears our cries and turns our sighs into a song.

Sing to the One who mends our broken hearts with music.
Sing to the One who fills our empty hearts with love.
Sing to the One who gives us light to step into the darkest night.
Sing to the God who turns our sighs into a song.

From heaven falls a mercy sweet,
The time for weeping now is gone;
God hears our sighs and gives us His eternal song.

Sing to the One who mends our broken hearts with music.
Sing to the One who fills our empty hearts with love.
Sing to the One who gives us light to step into the darkest night.
Sing to the God who turns our sighs into a song.

Sing to the One who mends our broken hearts with music.
Sing to the One who fills our empty hearts with love.
Sing to the One who gives us light to step into the darkest night.
Sing to the God who turns our sighs into a song.
~Susan Boersma

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The Child I Was Calls Out to Me

It’s in the perilous boughs of the tree   
out of blue sky    the wind   
sings loudest surrounding me.


And solitude,   a wild solitude
’s reveald,   fearfully,   high     I’d climb   
into the shaking uncertainties,

part out of longing,   part     daring my self,
part to see that
widening of the world,   part

to find my own, my secret
hiding sense and place, where from afar   
all voices and scenes come back

—the barking of a dog,   autumnal burnings,
far calls,   close calls—   the boy I was
calls out to me

here the man where I am   “Look!
I’ve been where you


most fear to be.”
~Robert Duncan “Childhood’s Retreat”

And this is where we went, I thought,
Now here, now there, upon the grass
Some forty years ago.

The days being short now, simply I had come
To gaze and look and stare upon
The thought of that once endless maze of afternoons.
But most of all I wished to find the places where I ran

What’s happened to our boys that they no longer race
And stand them still to contemplate Christ’s handiwork:
His clear blood bled in syrups from the lovely wounded trees?
Why only bees and blackbird winds and bending grass?
No matter. Walk. Walk, look, and sweet recall.

I came upon an oak where once when I was twelve
I had climbed up and screamed for Skip to get me down.
It was a thousand miles to earth. I shut my eyes and yelled.
My brother, richly compelled to mirth, gave shouts of laughter
And scaled up to rescue me.
“What were you doing there?” he said.
I did not tell. Rather drop me dead.
But I was there to place a note within a squirrel nest
On which I’d written some old secret thing now long forgot.

{Now} I lay upon the limb a long while, thinking.
I drank in all the leaves and clouds and weathers
Going by as mindless
As the days.
What, what, what if? I thought. But no. Some forty years beyond!

I brought forth:
The note.

I opened it. For now I had to know.
I opened it, and wept. I clung then to the tree
And let the tears flow out and down my chin.
Dear boy, strange child, who must have known the years
And reckoned time and smelled sweet death from flowers
In the far churchyard.
It was a message to the future, to myself.
Knowing one day I must arrive, come, seek, return.
From the young one to the old. From the me that was small
And fresh to the me that was large and no longer new.
What did it say that made me weep?

I remember you.
I remember you.
~Ray Bradbury from “Remembrance”

Not long ago, we drove the country roads where I grew up,
over sixty years later,
and though some trees are taller, and others cut down –
it looked just as I remembered.
The scattered houses on farms still standing, a bit more worn,
the fields open and flowing as always,
the turns and bends, the ups and downs of the asphalt lanes unchanged
where once I tread with bicycle tires and sneakered feet.

My own childhood home a different color
but so familiar as we drive slowly by,
full of memories of laughter and games,
long winter days and longer summer evenings
full of its share of angry words and tears
and eventual forgiveness.

I too left notes to my future self, in old barns, and lofts,
and yes, in trees,
but won’t go back to retrieve them.
I remember what I wrote.
My young heart tried to imagine itself decades hence,
with so much to fear – bomb drills and shelters in the ground,
such anxiety and joy would pass through me like pumping blood,
wondering what wounds would I bear and bleed,
what love and tears would trace my aging face?

I have not forgotten that I wish to be remembered.

No, I have never forgotten
that I remember that child:
this is me,
as I was, and, deep down, still am.

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Every Leaf Speaks Bliss

Fall, leaves, fall; die, flowers, away;
Lengthen night and shorten day;
Every leaf speaks bliss to me
Fluttering from the autumn tree.

~Emily Brontë, from Fall, Leaves, Fall

A steely torn silver, rusted along the edges;
the faint acidic yellow, like the backwash
of a polluted pond; earth-spatter

and gold spot in blotchy shallows;
grays the purpling of drenched slate;
and a pooling crimson with the false

bonhomie of the maraschino cherry –
all that unnecessary life turning to tinder.
The shadows were fragile-fertile

beyond the shocks of grimy hay in a spent field.
The India-ink, closeted blacks –
why choose the easeful darks?

Not that anything lay hidden there.
Was it only the spilled-over, abandoned life
and, from the wastage, the broken buds?

~William Logan “Leaf Color”

I too was once ablaze, alive, vibrant,
burning with color and passion,
blending hues together
in a blissful rainbow medley
before letting go to fly to my winter rest.

It is never wasteful to flame up
for an exuberant goodbye.
Broken beauty spills over to glory.

Autumn is never the end of my story.
Nor yours.

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Even Darkness Must Pass

“It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo.
The ones that really mattered.
Full of darkness and danger they were.
And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end…
because how could the end be happy?
How could the world go back to the way it was
when so much bad had happened?
But in the end, it’s only a passing thing… this shadow.
Even darkness must pass.”
~J.R.R.Tolkien
speaking through SamWise Gamgee in The Two Towers

shadow of the lone fir cast upon the woods at sunset

Of course, in life there are moments of darkness.
There are periods of discouragement.
There are times when we lose sight of the beauty of the sky for all the clouds.
You may have to bear severe sickness,
or deal with tremendous pain,
or you may be disappointed in this or that.
But remember, whatever difficulty you have to face,
it will not last.
It is only a cloud.
For God has made each of us with a purpose.

We are made for joy.
But this joy can never be fully experienced here on earth.
God’s joy is ultimately realized in eternity.
To be a Christian is to understand that the cross,
and the suffering of the cross, has meaning,
and that suffering is part of our state on this earth.
Don’t expect paradise on earth.
Don’t.
But there is meaning,
and this meaning is the love of God
and gratitude for life on this earth.
Whatever your state,
whatever your situation,
whatever your purpose,
always remember that you are made for joy.

~Alice Von Hildebrand “Made for Joy”

When I feel overwhelmed and discouraged,
when it seems all is in shadow,
I know we are part of a great story
and the plot progression is a mystery.

We are promised light and joy at the end.
We emerge through the shadows,
the clouds clear away
and the darkness passes over,
under and through us,
never to return,
never to surround us again.

Save me from all oppression, conspiracy, and rebellion; from violence, battle, and murder; and from dying suddenly and unprepared.
~The Book of Common Prayer

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Life Goes Too Fast

Sometimes you don’t get a chance
To pause and rest
Even to just take it all in
Sometimes life just goes too fast
And if you halt, even for a moment
You could get rolled over
By the momentum of existence
So, push yourself and keep going
Because once you stop
You may not get started again
And if you need a breather
Do it after the big stuff is done –
I guarantee you the view
Will be a whole lot better
~Eric Nixon “The Momentum of Existence” from Equidistant

The weather app on my phone tells me precisely when sunrise and sunset will happen every day, but I’m often too distracted to be present to witness them. I miss some great shows because I don’t get up early enough or don’t return home in time or simply don’t bother to look out the window or pay attention.

These are brilliant light and shadow shows that are free for the having if only I pause, take a breather, and watch.

The view from our hill keeps getting better the older I get. The momentum of daily life slows enough to allow me, breathless, to take in the best art show around.

No charge for admission and the Artist’s exhibit rotates daily.

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The Need to Praise

A blue horse turns into
a streak of lightning,
then the sun —
relating the difference between sadness
and the need to praise
that which makes us joyful,
I can’t calculate
how the earth tips hungrily
toward the sun – then soaks up rain —
or the density
of this unbearable need
to be next to you. It’s a palpable thing —
this earth philosophy
and familiar in the dark
like your skin under my hand.
We are a small earth. It’s no
simple thing. Eventually
we will be dust together;
can be used to make a house,
to stop a flood or grow food
for those who will never remember
who we were, or know
that we loved fiercely.
Laughter and sadness eventually become
the same song turning us
toward the nearest star —
a star constructed of eternity
and elements of dust barely visible
in the twilight as you travel
east. I run with the blue horses
of electricity who surround
the heart
and imagine a promise made
when no promise was possible.

~Joy Harjo “Promise of Blue Horses” from How We Became Human

Birds embody the shapes of my heart
these days


holding the warmth of a hug
in their feathers


the gleam of a kiss in
their eyes


building a home for my love
in their beaks


and spreading, with their song,
the promise of blue horses.

 

“A blue horse turns into a streak of lightning,
then the sun—
relating the difference between sadness
and the need to praise
that which makes us joyful.”
~Marjorie Moorhead, “That Which Makes Us Joyful” from Literary North

Even when my heart isn’t feeling it, especially when I’m blue (along with much of the rest of the world on this September 11 anniversary), I need to remember to whisper hymns of praise to the Creator of all that is blue as well as every other color.

I’m reminded of the goodness of a God who provides me with the words to sing and a voice to sing them out loud.

That reality alone makes me joyful. That alone is reason to worship Him. That alone is enough to turn blue days, blue horses and blue hearts gold again.

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A Voice Like No Other

More than once I’ve seen a dog
waiting for its owner outside a café
practically implode with worry. “Oh, God,
what if she doesn’t come back this time?
What will I do? Who will take care of me?
I loved her so much and now she’s gone
and I’m tied to a post surrounded by people
who don’t look or smell or sound like her at all.”
And when she does come, what a flurry
of commotion, what a chorus of yelping
and cooing and leaps straight up into the air!
It’s almost unbearable, this sudden
fullness after such total loss, to see
the world made whole again by a hand
on the shoulder and a voice like no other.

~John Brehm from “If Feeling Isn’t In It”

photo by Brandon Dieleman

We all need to know love like this:
so binding, so complete, so profoundly filling:
its loss empties our world of all meaning
as our flowing tears run dry.

So abandoned, we woeful wait,
longing for the return of
the gentle voice, the familiar smile,
the tender touch and encompassing embrace.

With unexpected restoration
when we’ve done nothing whatsoever to deserve it-
we leap and shout with unsurpassed joy,
this world without form and void is made whole again.

photo by Nate Gibson

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The Salt Water Cure

The cure for anything is salt water–sweat, tears or the sea.
~Isak Dinesen

I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall —
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.
~Mary Oliver “I Go Down to the Shore”

photo by Nate Gibson

…when he looked at the ocean,
he caught a glimpse of the One he was praying to.

Maybe what made him weep was
how vast and overwhelming it was

and yet at the same time as near
as the breath of it in his nostrils,
as salty as his own tears.

~Frederick Buechner writing about Paul Tillich in Beyond Words

I grew up an easy crier.  Actually growing up hasn’t cured it, nor has getting older.  I’m still an easy crier – a hard thing to admit especially when my tears flow at an inopportune time in a public place. These days, it is most often in church, while singing favorite hymns, but I can cry just about anywhere.

These days, simply reading the headlines warrants weeping.

It might have had something to do with being a middle child, bombarded from both directions by siblings who recognized how little aggravation it took to make me cry, or it may have been my hypersensitive feelings about …. everything.  I felt really alone in my tearful travails until my formidable grandmother, another easy weepy, explained that my strong/tall/tough/nothing-rocks-him former WWII Marine father had been a very weepy little boy.  She despaired that he would ever get past being awash in tears at every turn.  His alcoholic father tormented him about it, wondering if he would ever learn to “man up.”

So this is a congenital condition – my only excuse and I’m sticking to that story.

A few years ago I read about how different kinds of tears (tears of joy, tears of pain, tears of grief, tears of frustration, tears of irritated eyes, tears of onion cutting) all look different and remarkably apt, when dried and pictured under the microscope.  This is more than mere salt water leaking from our eyes — this is our heart and soul and hormonal barometer streaming down our faces – a visible litmus test of our deepest feelings.

I witnessed many tears every day in my clinical practice, usually not tears of joy.  These were tears borne of pain and loss and rejection and failure, of hopelessness and helplessness, loneliness and anguish.  Often my patients would describe having a “break down” by which they meant uncontrollable crying.  It was one of the first-mentioned symptoms they wanted relief from.

Tears do come less frequently as depression lifts and anxiety lessens but I let my patients know (and I remind myself) that tears are a transparent palette for painting the desires and concerns of our heart.  Dry up the tears and one dries up emotions that express who we are and who we strive to be.

When I’m able, I celebrate the salt water squeezing from my eyes, knowing it means I’m so fully human that I leak my humanity everywhere I go.  Even God wept while dwelling among us on earth, and what’s good enough for Him is certainly good enough for me.

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