He Does Not Leave Us Where We Are: 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.
A new day will come.
And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer.
Those were the stories that stayed with you.
That meant something,
even if you were too small to understand why.
But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand.
I know now.
Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back,
only they didn’t.
They kept going, because they were holding on to something.
That there is some good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for.”
~J.R.Tolkien
from The Two Towers

photo of the lone fir and rainbow by Bob Tjoelker

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

It used to be that people feared a sudden, unprepared death,
because they feared meeting God sudden and unprepared.
Now, we only fear death —

because we don’t fear God.
Turn on any street corner, walk through any airport, sit on the edge of any hospital bed, and you can see the glorious wonder of it:
All the faces of humanity carry the image of God.
~Ann Voskamp from “A Holy Experience”

What is man that He is mindful of us – no matter who we are, where we are – we are His reflection.

His face is mirrored in ours: the old and dried up and wrinkled beyond recognition, or the mere floating conceptus, yet to implant and thrive.

When we are overwhelmed by the events of the world, when it seems all is in shadow, we must remember, whether old and feeble or as yet unborn, we are part of a great story and our plot progression is a mystery. We keep going because we are holding on to something better than any treasure.  

We are promised light and joy at the end, no question about it.  We will pass through the shadows and through His grace, the darkness will pass right through us, never to dwell within or surround us again.

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

But By His Grace: Let Love Be Heard

The world is indeed full of peril and in it there are many dark places.
But still there is much that is fair. And though in all lands, love is now mingled with grief, it still grows, perhaps, the greater.
— J. R. R. Tolkien from The Fellowship of the Ring

Worldwide. a tsunami of tears overflows in households and communities as COVID-19 wreaks physical and economic havoc in hundreds of thousands of lives. We experience deep sadness and grief when older folks with health conditions are taken by a virulent pneumonia within a matter of days, often dying without a familiar face nearby. And there is no end to our distress when up to 40% of hospitalizations are for younger victims of the virus, most of whom survive, but too many don’t and won’t.

Our sorrow fills a chasm so deep and dark that it is a fearsome thing to even peer from the edge, as so many of us do, praying for far-flung family and friends to remain healthy and unable to be of any direct assistance even if they become ill.  We join the helplessness of countless people in human history who have lived through times that seem unendurable.

We don’t understand why inexplicable tragedy befalls good and gracious people, taking them when they are not yet finished with their work on earth.  From quakes that topple buildings burying people, to waves that wipe out whole cities and sweep away thousands of people, to a pathogen too swift and powerful for all the weapons of modern medicine,  we are reminded every day – we live on perilous ground and our time here has always been finite. We don’t have control over the amount of time, but we do have control over how our love is heard and spread.

There is assurance in knowing we do not weep alone; Our Lord is acquainted with grief.  Our grieving is so familiar to a suffering God who too wept at the death of a beloved friend, and who cried out when He was tasked with enduring the unendurable.

There is comfort in knowing He too peered into the chasm of darkness;
He willingly entered its depths to come to our rescue with His incomparable capacity for Light and Love.

This year’s Lenten theme for Barnstorming:

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

Angels, where you soar
Up to God’s own light
Take my own lost bird
On your hearts tonight;
And as grief once more
Mounts to heaven and sings
Let my love be heard
Whispering in your wings
~Alfred Noyes

He Sees Us As We Are: Shut to Mystery

What is the crying at Jordan?
Who hears, O God, the prophecy?
Dark is the season, dark
our hearts and shut to mystery.

Who then shall stir in this darkness
prepare for joy in the winter night?
Mortal in darkness we
lie down, blind-hearted, seeing no light.

Lord, give us grace to awake us,
to see the branch that begins to bloom;
in great humility
is hid all heaven in a little room.

Now comes the day of salvation,
in joy and terror the Word is born!
God gives himself into our lives;
Oh, let salvation dawn!
~Carol Christopher Drake

We, His people, move from joy at the wooden manger to despair at the wooden cross; God sees us as we stumble along, blind-hearted.

We are bound up tight as a bud reluctant to bloom.

He gives Himself to us;
He brings joy to our miserable and dark existence;
He dies for us;
He rises to give us eternal hope of salvation;
He calls us by name so we’ll open up and recognize Him.

This mystery is too much for those unwilling to accept that such sacrifice is possible. We are blind to the possibility that His Spirit cannot be measured, touched, weighed or tracked, yet has the power to stir and overwhelm darkness.  We prefer the safety of remaining tight as an unopened bud, hid in the little room of our hearts rather than risk the transition to full blossom and fruitfulness.

Yet God sees us as we are: budding potential.

Lord, give us grace in our blindness, having given us Yourself. 
Prepare us for embracing your mystery. 
Prepare us for joy.
Prepare us to bloom.

This year’s Lenten theme on Barnstorming:

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

An Opened Palm of Offering

These woods
on the edges of a lake
are settling now
to winter darkness.
Whatever was going to die
is gone —
crickets, ferns, swampgrass.
Bare earth fills long spaces of a field.
But look:
a single oak leaf
brown and shining
like a leather purse.
See what it so delicately offers
lying upturned on the path.
See how it reflects in its opened palm
a cup of deep, unending sky.
~ Laura Foley, “The Offering” from Why I Never Finished My Dissertation

Winter still has us in its chilly grasp for another four weeks. We feel caught up in its wintry web as viruses continue to swirl among us despite efforts to monitor and quarantine, and we wonder when our own turn will come.

The natural world, its joys and its threats, has always had the upper hand. We are dumbfounded, never quick enough to catch on to its tricks and sly mutations, unprepared to respond in the moment.

Like a withering leaf soon to become dust, we offer up what we can when we can: our reflection of the light, our hope of better things to come, our gift of beauty back to a despairing world.

Winter never has the last word.

That Patch of Sunlight

It appears now that there is only one
age and it knows
nothing of age as the flying birds know
nothing of the air they are flying through
or of the day that bears them up
through themselves
and I am a child before there are words
arms are holding me up in a shadow
voices murmur in a shadow
as I watch one patch of sunlight moving
across the green carpet
in a building
gone long ago and all the voices
silent and each word they said in that time
silent now
while I go on seeing that patch of sunlight

~W.S. Merwin, “Still Morning” from The Shadow of Sirius

photo by Barbara Hoelle

Our memories can play tricks. A whiff of a fragrance can trigger an experience of another time and place, a song can transport us to a decade long ago, a momentary sensation will remind us of a past experience long forgotten.

We dwell inside a different age as the years go by, in a body that no longer looks or feels exactly the same, yet our memories take us powerfully back to a special moment that happened before. For those who struggle with post-trauma recollections, this is a curse to be overcome. For those whose memories bring joy and comfort, they seek to nurture and cherish what has been as if it is still here and now.

We must remember the light, just as the poet W.S. Merwin in this poem “Still Morning” remembers the moment of his baptism in a church long gone and whose voices are long-stilled. The Light of that day remains, as fresh today as it was when it moved toward him.

Our memories aren’t tricks. They are as powerfully a part of us as the here and now: a moving patch light touching us here from back then.

Rise Up in Weediness

Like animals moving daily
through the same open field,
it should be easier to distinguish
light from dark, fabrications

from memory, rain on a sliver
of grass from dew appearing
overnight. In these moments
of desperation, a sentence

serves as a halo, the moon
hidden so the stars eclipse
our daily becoming. You think
it should be easier to define

one’s path, but with the clouds
gathering around our feet,
there’s no sense in retracing
where we’ve been or where

your tired body will carry you.
Eventually the birds become
confused and inevitable. Even our
infinite knowledge of the forecast

might make us more vulnerable
than we would be in drawn-out
ignorance. To the sun
all weeds eventually rise up.

~Adam Clay “Our Daily Becoming”

I can choose to fight the inevitable march of time with sighs and sorrows,
thus arm myself with regret for what is no more,

or pull myself through light to dark each day with soul-sucking fatigue, uncertain if I have what it takes to power through,

or I can flow passively for as long as I can stay afloat, apart and remote,
barely aware of the passage of all around me,

or I can smile at awakening each morning, no matter what is forecast,
reaching up to the sun I know is there, though hidden behind mist, fog and clouds,

grateful I’m given another day to work to get it right:
my opportunity to be fruitful, despite my weediness.