I hope my life was penned in such a way that when time comes to write my epitaph someone might think to say not that I was good so much as kind and that I wrote quite well beyond my means because it was the wind of grace blown down that gave me words and moved my sluggish hands, and that I always sought to know the unseen things and though I loved the breadth of language for my art, my heart always seemed fixed on a day when all the sound and words would fall away, and that I was quite hopeful to the last if anyone would choose one line to inscribe my memory in stone it surely should be the simple supposition I know right: there merely is no synonym for light. ~Margaret Ingraham “Epitaph” from Exploring This Terrain
The world can feel like a fearsome place with endless stories of tragedy and loss, so much pain and suffering, blinding me in darkness so I fail to see the light all around me.
How to describe a Light that transforms all that is bleak?
With these Words:
Be not afraid Come have breakfast Touch and see Follow me Do you love me? Feed my sheep Peace be with you
As I am mere breath and bone, a wisp in a moment of time, His truth anchors my heart and illuminates my soul: I am called forth into His Light.
When he takes it all away, will we love him more than things, more than health, more than family, and more than life? That’s the question. That’s the warning. That’s the wonderful invitation. John Piper in “I Was Warned By Job This Morning”
Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and you will delight in the richest of fare. Give ear and come to me; listen, that you may live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you… Isaiah 55:1
We are suddenly living in a time when the freedoms we have taken for granted – our jobs, our corporate worship, seeing our extended family and friends, our desire to go where we wish when we wish – is no longer possible due to the threat of a packet of viral RNA invading our bodies and wreaking havoc.
The Book of Job is a warning about losing everything – what we have strived for, cared about, loved and valued suddenly taken away. If we are stripped bare naked, nothing left but our love for God and His sovereign power over our lives, will we still worship His Name, inhale His Word like air itself, submit ourselves to His plan over our plan?
I know I fall far short of the mark. It takes only small obstacles or losses to trip me up so I stagger in my faith, trying futilely to not lose my balance, and fall flat-faced and immobilized.
When I’ve seen people lose almost everything, either in a disaster, or an accident, or devastating illness like cancer or COVID-19, I’ve looked hard at myself and asked if I could sustain such loss in my life and still turn myself over to the will of God.
I would surely plead for reprieve and ask the horribly desperate question, “why me?”, girding myself for the response: “and why not you?”
The invitation, scary and radical as it is, is from God straight to my heart, asking that I trust His plan for my life and death, no matter what happens, no matter how much suffering, no matter how much, like Christ in the garden, I plead that it work out differently, and not hurt so much.
The invitation to His plan for my life has been written, personally carried to me by His Son, and lies ready in my hands, although it has remained untouched for years. It is now up to me to open it, read it carefully, and with deep gratitude that I am even included, respond with an RSVP that says emphatically, “I’ll be there! Nothing could keep me away.”
Or I could leave it untouched and unread, fearing it is too scary to open. Or even toss it away altogether, thinking it really wasn’t meant for me.
Even if, in my heart, I knew it was.
Mine are days that God has numbered I was made to walk with Him Yet I look for worldly treasure And forsake the King of kings But mine is hope in my Redeemer Though I fall, his love is sure For Christ has paid for every failing I am His forevermore
Mine are tears in times of sorrow Darkness not yet understood Through the valley I must travel Where I see no earthly good But mine is peace that flows from heaven And the strength in times of need I know my pain will not be wasted Christ completes his work in me
Mine are days here as a stranger Pilgrim on a narrow way One with Christ I will encounter Harm and hatred for his name But mine is armour for this battle Strong enough to last the war And he has said he will deliver Safely to the golden shore
And mine are keys to Zion city Where beside the King I walk For there my heart has found its treasure Christ is mine forevermore
Come rejoice now, O my soul For his love is my reward Fear is gone and hope is sure Christ is mine forevermore!
And mine are keys to Zion city Where beside the King I walk For there my heart has found its treasure Christ is mine forevermore Christ is mine forevermore Christ is mine forevermore
Then summer fades and passes and October comes and goes. We’ll smell smoke then, and feel an unexpected sharpness, a thrill of nervousness, swift elation, a sense of sadness and departure. ~ Thomas Wolfe
November begins bittersweet, heralding the inevitable slow down to winter stillness.
The garden is put to bed, lawnmowers put away, pruning shears not yet readied for the work of refinement and shaping.
The air sparkles, sharp-edged in the lungs.
I am never ready for this crush of dark hours descending so quickly. Yet it comes with the promise of the light to come.
And so we wait on the known and patiently ponder the unknown.
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”
We all need to love like this: so binding, so complete, so profoundly filling: its loss empties our world of all meaning as our 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 to deserve it- we leap and shout with unsurpassed joy, the world without form and void made whole again.
All winter your brute shoulders strained against collars, padding and steerhide over the ash hames, to haul sledges of cordwood for drying through spring and summer, for the Glenwood stove next winter, and for the simmering range.
In April you pulled cartloads of manure to spread on the fields, dark manure of Holsteins, and knobs of your own clustered with oats. All summer you mowed the grass in meadow and hayfield, the mowing machine clacketing beside you, while the sun walked high in the morning;
and after noon’s heat, you pulled a clawed rake through the same acres, gathering stacks, and dragged the wagon from stack to stack, and the built hayrack back, uphill to the chaffy barn, three loads of hay a day from standing grass in the morning.
Sundays you trotted the two miles to church with the light load a leather quartertop buggy, and grazed in the sound of hymns. Generation on generation, your neck rubbed the windowsill of the stall, smoothing the wood as the sea smooths glass.
When you were old and lame, when your shoulders hurt bending to graze, one October the man, who fed you and kept you, and harnessed you every morning, led you through corn stubble to sandy ground above Eagle Pond, and dug a hole beside you where you stood shuddering in your skin,
and lay the shotgun’s muzzle in the boneless hollow behind your ear, and fired the slug into your brain, and felled you into your grave, shoveling sand to cover you, setting goldenrod upright above you, where by next summer a dent in the ground made your monument.
For a hundred and fifty years, in the Pasture of dead horses, roots of pine trees pushed through the pale curves of your ribs, yellow blossoms flourished above you in autumn, and in winter frost heaved your bones in the ground – old toilers, soil makers:
O Roger, Mackerel, Riley, Ned, Nellie, Chester, Lady Ghost.
~Donald Hall, “Names of Horses”
As a child, I regularly visited the horse grave dug by hand by my father in 1965 in an open clearing of our woods where our little chestnut mare, Dolly, rested in the ground.
She was felled by a vet’s bullet to the head after an agonizing bout with colic. I had returned to the house, unable to watch, but could not help but hear the gunshot as if it had gone through me as well.
At first her grave was a place to cry where no one but the trees and wild flowers could see.
When my tears dried up, it was a place to sing loudly where no one but chipmunks and my dog could hear.
Later it became the sanctuary where I retreated to talk to God when my church no longer was.
Her bones lie there still and no one but me knows where. The dent in the ground will always betray the spot.
God is not only the God of the sufferers but the God who suffers. … It is said of God that no one can behold his face and live. I always thought this meant that no one could see his splendor and live. A friend said perhaps it meant that no one could see his sorrow and live. Or perhaps his sorrow is splendor. … Instead of explaining our suffering God shares it.
How is faith to endure, O God, when you allow all this scraping and tearing on us? You have allowed rivers of blood to flow, mountains of suffering to pile up, sobs to become humanity’s song–all without lifting a finger that we could see. You have allowed bonds of love beyond number to be painfully snapped. If you have not abandoned us, explain yourself.
We strain to hear. But instead of hearing an answer we catch sight of God himself scraped and torn. Through our tears we see the tears of God. ~Nicholas Wolterstorffin Lament for a Son
“My God, My God,” goes the Psalm 22, “hear me, why have you forsaken me?” This is the anguish all we of Godforsaken heart know well. But hear the revelation to which Christ directs us, further in the same psalm:
For He has not despised nor scorned the beggar’s supplication, Nor has He turned away His face from me; And when I cried out to Him, He heard me.
He hears us, and he knows, because he has suffered as one Godforsaken. Which means that you and I, even in our darkest hours, are not forsaken. Though we may hear nothing, feel nothing, believe nothing, we are not forsaken, and so we need not despair. And that is everything. That is Good Friday and it is hope, it is life in this darkened age, and it is the life of the world to come. ~Tony Woodlief from “We are Not Forsaken”
Scratch the surface of a human being and the demons of hate and revenge … and sheer destructiveness break forth.
The cross stands before us to remind us of this depth of ourselves so that we can never forget. These forces continue to break forth in many parts of the world now, and many of us would like to forget how in some places in the United States we treat a person whose skin is black.
Again and again we read the stories of violence in our daily papers, of the mass murders and ethnic wars still occurring in numerous parts of our world. But how often do we say to ourselves: “What seizes people like that, even young people, to make them forget family and friends, and suddenly kill other human beings?” We don’t always ask the question in that manner. Sometimes we are likely to think, almost smugly: “How different those horrible creatures are from the rest of us. How fortunate I am that I could never kill or hurt other people like they did.”
I do not like to stop and, in the silence, look within, but when I do I hear a pounding on the floor of my soul. When I open the trap door into the deep darkness I see the monsters emerge for me to deal with. How painful it is to bear all this, but it is there to bear in all of us. Freud called it the death wish, Jung the demonic darkness. If I do not deal with it, it deals with me. The cross reminds me of all this.
This inhumanity of human to human is tamed most of the time by law and order in most of our communities, but there are not laws strong enough to make men and women simply cease their cruelty and bitterness. This destructiveness within us can seldom be transformed until we squarely face it in ourselves. This confrontation often leads us into the pit. The empty cross is planted there to remind us that suffering is real but not the end, that victory still is possible…
~Morton Kelsey from “The Cross and the Cellar”
In a daring and beautiful creative reversal, God takes the worse we can do to Him
and turns it into the very best He can do for us.
~Malcolm Guite from The Word in the Wilderness
May we remember today, of all days, the worst that can happen becomes the best that can happen.
We tussle and haggle over the price of what this will cost us, but realizing it has been paid for us makes an impossible loss possible.
We are paid in full, no longer debtors. From now on, we are freed from worry: the worst became the best.
Her body is not so white as anemone petals nor so smooth—nor so remote a thing. It is a field of the wild carrot taking the field by force; the grass does not raise above it. Here is no question of whiteness, white as can be, with a purple mole at the center of each flower.
Each flower is a hand’s span
of her whiteness. Wherever
his hand has lain there is
a tiny purple blemish. Each part
is a blossom under his touch
to which the fibres of her being
stem one by one, each to its end,
until the whole field is a
white desire, empty, a single stem,
a cluster, flower by flower,
a pious wish to whiteness gone over —
or nothing. ~William Carlos Williams — “Queen Anne’s Lace” (1919)
We all arise from a single stem, branching off in countless directions, a thousand million hues and shapes and types. We reflect the sunlight and we reflect the Light of the Son.
There can be no question of whiteness nor a pious wish for purity – we are all blemished right at the heart.
We are, each one of us, all colors and we are, each one of us, bruised purple at the core. We bleed together, my friends, as He did for us. We bleed together.
Near dusk, near a path, near a brook, we stopped, I in disquiet and dismay for the suffering of someone I loved, the doe in her always incipient alarm.
All that moved was her pivoting ear the reddening sun was shining through transformed to a color I’d only seen in a photo of a new child in a womb.
Nothing else stirred, not a leaf, not the air, but she startled and bolted away from me into the crackling brush.
The part of my pain which sometimes releases me from it fled with her, the rest, in the rake of the late light, stayed. ~C. K. Williams “The Doe”
Oh little one
to have been born this week in June
thirty four years ago~
but lost too soon
gone as swiftly in a clot of red
as a doe disappearing in a thicket:
a memory that makes me question
if you were real,
but you were
and you are
I’ll know you when I see you
and curious about who I am,
you won’t flee,
but stay to find out.
Outside, the north wind, coming and passing, swelling and dying, lifts the frozen sand drives it a-rattle against the lidless windows and we may dear sit stroking the cat stroking the cat and smiling sleepily, prrrr. ~William Carlos Williams
José is our front porch cat. That is as opposed to our garage cat, our upper barn cat, our lower barn cats and those that come and go on the farm because we’re a hospitable place where food is always on the table.
But he is the king of the farm cats. No one questions him (usually) and no one occupies his front porch bench without his express permission. His Majesty shows mercy to any who show proper submission, and every once in awhile, that includes the dogs. He’s trained every pup here over the years.
He is the official front porch farm greeter, rising from his pillowy bench throne to investigate any newcomer up the sidewalk, mewing his cheerful little “chirp” of a meow in welcome. Then he turns around and returns to his perch.
José also is a performance cat, having been trained in his younger years to ride on a bareback pad on our Haflingers, walk, trot and over jumps (sorry, no pictures). This once again proved his ability to get any creature, large or small, to submit to his will.
The love of his life is our daughter, Lea. José arrived on our farm 13+ years ago from a city home where he had been adopted as a stray of indeterminate age, and was too intimidating to the other resident cats. José needed his own kingdom and his own queen so he set his eyes on her and decided he was exactly what she needed. They have had many happy snuggles together over the years whenever she returns home, including only a month ago during the holidays.
The winter weather was brutal over the past month with weeks of bitter northeast wind blowing right over José’s front porch bed. Usually during northeasters he picks up and moves to another of our farm buildings until the storm is done, and then reclaims his favorite spot when he deems it cozy enough to be worthy of him.
Only this time, when the wind went away, José didn’t return.
I’ve looked, I’ve called, I’ve left goodies out. But no José. No chirpy meow, no yellow eyed gaze, no black velvet fur to stroke, no rumbly purr to vibrate in my lap.
I fear he has left for warmer quarters far far away from here as the north wind was dying this winter.
I think he was dying too, and somewhere on the farm — I just haven’t found it yet — there is a black coat that he left behind.