A Decent Little Cottage

Imagine yourself as a living house. 
God comes in to rebuild that house. 
At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. 
He is getting the drains right
and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; 

you knew that those jobs needed doing
and so you are not surprised. 

But presently He starts
knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably 

and does not seem to make any sense. 
What on earth is He up to? 
The explanation is that He is building
quite a different house from the one you thought of – 

throwing out a new wing here, 
putting on an extra floor there, 
running up towers, 
making courtyards. 
You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: 
but He is building a palace. 
He intends to come and live in it Himself.
~C.S. Lewis from Mere Christianity

Whether bunker or cottage or palace,
when I seek shelter, safety or simplicity,
it is not enough.
I am not a dwelling for God
until His remodel project is finished~

He puts down His chisel, hammer and saw,
sees what He has salvaged from the junk heap,
looks me over
and declares it good.

My father’s treehouse is twenty seven years old this summer, lonesome and empty high up in the black walnut tree in our front yard. It remains a constant reminder of my father’s own abandoned Swiss Family Robinson dreams.

Over the years, it has been the setting for a local children’s TV show, laser tag wars, sleep overs and tea parties, even my writer’s retreat with a deck side view of the Cascades to the east, the Canadian Coastal Range to the north and Puget Sound to the west. Now it is a sad shell no longer considered safe to visit, as the support branches in its century-old tree are weakening with age and time. It is on our list of farm restoration projects, but other falling down buildings must be prioritized first.

My father’s dream began in February 1995 when our sons were 8 and 6 years old and our daughter just 2. We had plenty of recycled lumber on our old farm and an idea about what to build. My dad, retired from his desk job and having recently survived a lymphoma diagnosis and treatment, had many previous daunting building projects to his credit, and a few in his mind that he was yet to get to. He was eager to see what he could construct for his grandkids by spring time. He doodled out some sketches of what might work in the tree, and contemplated the physics of a 73 year old man scaling a tree vs. building it on the ground and hoisting it up mostly completed. I got more nervous the more I thought about it and hoped we could consider a project less risky, and praying the weather wouldn’t clear enough for construction to start any time soon.

The weather did clear just as my father’s health faded. His cancer relapsed and he was sidelined with a series of doctor’s appointments, hospitalizations and treatment courses. He hung on to that hope of getting the treehouse going by summer, still thinking it through in his mind, still evaluating what he would need to buy to supplement the materials already gathered and piled beneath the tree. In the mean time he lost physical strength day by day.

I decided his dream needed to proceed as he fought his battle, so I borrowed library books on treehouses, and hired two college age brothers who lived down the road to get things started. I figured if my dad got well enough to build again, at least the risky stuff could be already done by the young guys. These brothers took their job very seriously. They pored over the books, took my dad’s plans, worked through the details and started in. They shinnied up the tree, put up pulleys on the high branches and placed the beams, hoisting them by pulling on the ropes with their car bumper. It was working great until the car bumper came off.

I kept my dad updated with photos and stories. It was a diversion for him, but the far off look in his eye told me he wasn’t going to be building anything in this world ever again. He was gone by July. The treehouse was completed a month later. It was everything my dad had dreamed of, and more. It had a deck surrounded by a protective railing, a trap door, and staircase up the trunk. We had an open tree celebration and had 15 friends and neighbors up there at once. I’m sure dad was sipping lemonade with us as well, enjoying the view.

Now all these years later, the treehouse is tilting on its foundation as the main weight-bearing branch is weakening with age. We’ve declared it condemned, not wanting to risk an accident.  As I look out my front window, it remains a daily reminder of past dreams fulfilled and those yet unfulfilled. Much like my father’s body, the old walnut tree is weakening, hanging on by the roots, but its muscle strength is failing. It will, inevitably come down in one of our frequent fierce windstorms, just as its nearby partner did a few years ago.

The treehouse dream branched out in another way. One of the construction team brothers decided to try building his own as a place to live in his woods, using a Douglas Fir tree as the center support and creating an octagon, two stories, 30 feet off the ground. He worked on it for two years and moved in, later marrying someone who decided a treehouse was just fine with her, and for 20+ years, they’ve been raising five children there.  The treehouse kids are old enough to come work for me on our farm, a full circle feeling for me.  This next generation is carrying on a Swiss Family Robinson dream that began in my father’s mind and our front yard.

I still have a whole list full of dreams myself, some realized and some deferred by time, resources and the limits of my imagination. I feel the clock ticking too, knowing that the years and the seasons slip by me faster and faster as I near the age my father was when he first learned he had cancer. It would be a blessing to me to see others live out the dreams I have held so close.

Like my father, I will some day teeter in the wind like our old tree, barely hanging on. When ready to fall to the ground, I’ll reach out with my branches and hand off my dreams too. The time will have come to let them go. Thank you, Dad, for handing me yours.

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Making Us Even

And this, then,
is the vision of that Heaven of which
we have heard, where those who love
each other have forgiven each other,

where, for that, the leaves are green,
the light a music in the air,
and all is unentangled,
and all is undismayed.
~Wendell Berry “To My Mother”

I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.

Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.
Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.

And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift—not the worn truth
that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.
~Billy Collins from “The Lanyard”

...I want to thank you
truly for the wry smile you set
on my lips, a smile as mild as your own;
it has saved me pain and grief.
And if now I shed a tear for you,
and all who wait like you and do not know
what they wait for, it does not matter.
O gentle death, do not touch the hands, the heart of the old.
Goodbye, dear one, farewell,

my sweet mother.
~Salvatore Quasimodo from “Letter to My Mother”

Mother love is life and light
beginning in the dark, as a special secret,
until you know without a doubt
you will never be just yourself again,
tethered forever to another.

~this sacrificial love is a haven of abundant grace~

the tangles we make of our lives
unravel, straighten and smooth,
no dismay over mistakes made

I was created within you –
to love my own children fully, fervently,
forever and forever –
as I was loved by you.

Now they, in turn, are known by their love.

Secrets Brought to Light

You won’t remember it—the apple orchard
We wandered through one April afternoon,
Climbing the hill behind the empty farm.

A city boy, I’d never seen a grove
Burst in full flower or breathed the bittersweet
Perfume of blossoms mingled with the dust.

A quarter mile of trees in fragrant rows
Arching above us. We walked the aisle,
Alone in spring’s ephemeral cathedral.

We had the luck, if you can call it that,
Of having been in love but never lovers—
The bright flame burning, fed by pure desire.

Nothing consumed, such secrets brought to light!
There was a moment when I stood behind you,
Reached out to spin you toward me…but I stopped.

What more could I have wanted from that day?
Everything, of course. Perhaps that was the point—
To learn that what we will not grasp is lost.
~Dana Gioia “The Apple Orchard”

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

As I walk down the blooming aisleways
of Spring’s ephemeral cathedral,
it doesn’t help to regret what could have been
– if only –
long ago I had reached out
to hold what remained free of my grasp.
Perhaps it is forever lost to me…

I am overwhelmed by all the potential surrounding me –
the trees are literally bursting with blossom and leaf,
an undulating green carpeting covering every rolling hill,
exuberant new life bouncing and bucking in the pastures.

I wonder, at this age and stage of my life,
whatever potential is left to me?

If I give up my dreams
if I don’t try to hold on to what seems out of reach
if I don’t remember what it feels like to want everything from life,
I would wilt and wither without forming fruit.

Ah Love – I am in God’s Hand.
Or what’s a heaven for?

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A Restless Sabbath Love

The old church leans awry and looks quite odd,
But it is beautiful to us, and God.

~Stephen Paulus “The Old Church”

A little aside from the main road,
becalmed in a last-century greyness,
there is the chapel, ugly, without the appeal
to the tourist to stop his car
and visit it. The traffic goes by,
and the river goes by, and quick shadows
of clouds, too, and the chapel settles
a little deeper into the grass.

But here once on an evening like this,
in the darkness that was about
his hearers, a preacher caught fire
and burned steadily before them
with a strange light, so that they saw
the splendour of the barren mountains
about them and sang their amens
fiercely, narrow but saved
in a way that men are not now.
~R.S. Thomas “The Chapel”

It’s just a boarded-up shack with a tower
Under the blazing summer sky
On a back road seldom traveled
Where the shadows of tall trees
Graze peacefully like a row of gallows…

The congregation may still be at prayer.
Farm folk from flyspecked photos
Standing in rows with their heads bowed
As if listening to your approaching steps.
So slow they are, you must be asking yourself
How come we are here one minute
And in the very next gone forever?
Try the locked door, then knock once.

High above you, there is the leaning spire
Still feeling the blow of the last storm.
And then the silence of the afternoon . . .
Even the unbeliever must feel its force.

~Charles Simic, from “Wooden Church” from The Voice at 3:00 A.M.

The church knelt heavy
above us as we attended Sunday School,
circled by age group and hunkered
on little wood folding chairs
where we gave our nickels, said
our verses, heard the stories, sang
the solid, swinging songs.

It could have been God above
in the pews, His restless love sifting
with dust from the joists. We little
seeds swelled in the stone cellar, bursting
to grow toward the light
.

Maybe it was that I liked how, upstairs, outside,
an avid sun stormed down, burning the sharp-
edged shadows back to their buildings, or
how the winter air knifed
after the dreamy basement.

Maybe the day we learned whatever
would have kept me believing
I was just watching light
poke from the high, small window
and tilt to the floor where I could make it
a gold strap on my shoe, wrap
my ankle, embrace
any part of me.
~Maureen Ash “Church Basement”

Mom,
You raised your hands while we sang this morning
like I’ve never known you to,
but I guess until recently I’ve never really known you in a church that let you feel alive.

Were you tired of hiding,
or just tired?

Thank you for letting yourself be seen.

Thank you, Lord, for her.
~Griffin Messer from “An Analysis of Worship Today”

There is so much wrong with churches overall,
comprised as they are of fallen people
with broken wings and fractured faith,
we who look odd and lean awry,
so keen to find flaws in one another
when we are cracked open and spilling with our own.

Yet what is right with the church is
who we pray to, why we sing and absorb the Word-
we are visible people joined together as a body
so bloodied, bruised, being healed
despite our thoroughly motley messiness.

Our Lord of Heaven and Earth
rains down His restless love upon our heads
no matter how humble a building we worship in,
or how we look or feel today.

We are simply grateful to be alive,
to raise our hands, to kneel and bow
in a house God calls His own.

The old church leans nearby a well-worn road,
Upon a hill that has no grass or tree,
The winds from off the prairie now unload
The dust they bring around it fitfully.

The path that leads up to the open door
Is worn and grayed by many toiling feet
Of us who listen to the Bible lore
And once again the old-time hymns repeat.

And ev’ry Sabbath morning we are still
Returning to the altar waiting there.
A hush, a prayer, a pause, and voices fill
The Master’s House with a triumphant air.

The old church leans awry and looks quite odd,
But it is beautiful to us and God.
~Stephen Paulus

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Raise Your Hands in Wonder

Here, where this present
darkness presses in, pushes
down, imprisons you in
ice and stone to wall you up
alive or crush you into dust,
even here, the gold glimmers
through a crack in the rock, splits
the stones as it flames up
in the ruby hue of a tulip
bursting into bloom, droops
down in the blushing pink
of a cherry blossom fluttering
in the breeze, sings in the
trilling call of a finch,
shines in dewdrops sparkling
on a spider’s web. Oh the gold
pulsing in graced moments
of camaraderie and laughter,
in the warmth of gentle hands
caressing a cold brow, in quiet
words of love that brim
the hearer’s eyes with tears.
And the gold that rises up
like incense when you raise your
eyes, your heart, your hands
in wonder, thanks, and praise.
All this golden glory! Light
and love. And life. And life. And life!

~E.M. MacDonald “The Double Strand”

It feels as if everything is emerging from the darkness:
birdsong is earlier and louder,
grass squeaks with growth,
buds unfurling with vigor,
light glowing with promise.

There is much momentum
running pellmell into longer days;
so much glory bursting all at once.

As showers blow in
from clouds gray and thick with menace,
we are stilled and quieted in the drenching,
waiting, arms raised, for a shaft of light
to break through again,
turning everything from gray to golden.

photo by Natalia Burke

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Catching a Small Glimpse of Holy

Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.
~Mary Oliver, “The Uses of Sorrow”

surprising as unplanned kisses, all you haven’t deserved
of days and solitude, your body’s immoderate good health
that lets you work in many kinds of weather. Praise

talk with just about anyone. And quiet intervals, books
that are your food and your hunger; nightfall and walks
before sleep. Praising these for practice, perhaps

you will come at last to praise grief and the wrongs
you never intended. At the end there may be no answers
and only a few very simple questions: did I love,

finish my task in the world? Learn at least one
of the many names of God? At the intersections,
the boundaries where one life began and another

ended, the jumping-off places between fear and
possibility, at the ragged edges of pain,
did I catch the smallest glimpse of the holy?

~Jeanne Lohmann “Praise What Comes” from The Light Invisible Bodies”

The ragged edge of sadness and sorrow
is a box full of darkness handed to me
by Someone who knows my name.

It takes a lifetime to understand,
if I ever do,
this gift with which I am entrusted
is meant to be passed on
to another and another
whom I love just as deeply.

He cracked open the box of shadows
to allow His light in
where none dwelled before,
seeping into my brokenness
from a deep well of holiness,
giving me a glimpse of all Love can do.

Another sleepless night
I’m turning in my bed
Long before the red sun rises

In these early hours
I’m falling again
Into the river of my worries

When the river runs away
I find a shelter in your name


Jesus, only light on the shore
Only hope in the storm
Jesus, let me fly to your side
There I would hide, Jesus


Hear my anxious prayer
The beating of my heart
The pulse and the measure of my unbelief
Speak your words to me
Before I come apart
Help me believe in what I cannot see
Before the river runs away
I will call upon your name


Jesus, only light on the shore
Only hope in the storm
Jesus, let me fly to your side
There I would hide, Jesus
~Elaine Rubenstein, Fernando Ortega

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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: We Are Not Overcome

Put no trust in the earth
in the sod you stand upon
Flowers fade into the dust
The Lord will make a place for us
Because of His great Love
We are not overcome

~Robert Heiskell/Rachel Briggs

In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?
~John Stott from “Cross”

With all that happens daily in this disordered world, in order to even walk out the door in the morning, we fall back on what we are told, each and every day, in 365 different verses in God’s Word itself:

Fear not.

Do not be overwhelmed with evil but overcome evil with good.

And so – we must overcome — despite evil and our fear of each other.

As demonstrated by the anointing of Jesus’ feet by Mary of Bethany on Wednesday of Holy Week, we must do what we can to sacrifice for others, to live in such a way that death cannot erase the meaning and significance of a life.  We are called to give up our selfish agendas in order to consider the dignity of others and their greater good.

It is crystal clear from Christ’s example as we observe His journey to the cross this week: we are to cherish life, all lives, born and unborn, even unto death. If Christ Himself forgave those who hated and murdered Him, He will forgive us as well.

Our only defense against the evil we witness is God’s offense through His Love. Only God can lead us to Tolkien’s “where everything sad will come untrue”, where we shall live in peace, walk hand in hand, no longer alone, no longer afraid, no longer shedding tears of grief and sorrow, but tears of relief and joy.

No longer overcome by evil but overcome with goodness, all to God’s glory.

This year’s Lenten theme for Barnstorming is a daily selection from songs and hymns about Christ’s profound sacrifice on our behalf.

If we remain silent about Him, the stones themselves will shout out and start to sing (Luke 19:40).

In His name, may we sing…

The Lord our God is good
The Lord our God is good
Full of kindness and compassion
Merciful and just
The Lord our God is good

Who else knows our deepest pain
Bears it as his own
Finds us in our naked shame,
Clothes and brings us home
Who takes his inheritance
And gives it all away
Welcomes guests to feast with him
Who never can repay

Flesh will fail and bones will break
thieves will steal, the earth will shake
Night will fall, the light will fade
The Lord will give and take away

Because of His great Love
We are not overcome
Because of His great Love
We are not overcome

Put no trust in the earth
in the sod you stand upon
Flowers fade into the dust
The Lord will make a place for us

Because of His great Love
We are not overcome
Because of His great Love
We are not overcome

Offer up your shoes and shirt
Turn your cheek, turn your cheek
Bear the yoke of love and death
The Lord will give all life and breath

Because of His great Love
We are not overcome
Because of His great Love
We are not overcome

We shall overcome

We shall live in peace

We’ll walk hand in hand

We shall all be free

We are not afraid

We are not alone

God will see us through

We shall overcome

Oh, deep in my heart
I do believe
We shall overcome some day

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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: A Word Waiting to be Spoken

I dream a flock of birds flying through the night
Like silent stars on wings of everlasting light.
I dream a flowing river, deep as a thousand years,
Its fish are frozen sorrow, its water bitter tears.

I dream a tree so green, branches wide and long,
And ev’ry leaf and ev’ry voice a song.
I dream of a babe who sleeps, a life that’s just begun.
A word that waits to be spoken.
The promise of a world to come.
~Bob Chilcott

We prepare to walk together through the final days of Lent, the Holy Week of Jesus’ suffering and passion, culminating in His death and Resurrection.

He was born for this, preparing for the necessity of it. His knowledge of our needs and helplessness came from being one among us. How else could the divine understand the mundane details of our every day existence?

We dream of the world He entered and how it changed as a result. The Word we waited for has come. His promise now lives and breathes among us. These next few days are a reminder we are never to give up hope in the baby in the manger destined to die on the cross so we may share eternity with Him.

This year’s Lenten theme for Barnstorming is a daily selection from songs and hymns about Christ’s profound sacrifice on our behalf.

If we remain silent about Him, the stones themselves will shout out and start to sing (Luke 19:40).

In His name, may we sing…

Sleeping child, I wonder, have you a dream to share?
May I see the things you see as you slumber there?
I dream a wind that speaks, like music as it blows
As if it were the breath of everything that grows.

I dream a flock of birds flying through the night
Like silent stars on wings of everlasting light.
I dream a flowing river, deep as a thousand years,
Its fish are frozen sorrow, its water bitter tears.

I dream a tree so green, branches wide and long,
And ev’ry leaf and ev’ry voice a song.
I dream of a babe who sleeps, a life that’s just begun.
A word that waits to be spoken.
The promise of a world to come.

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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: Under Your Wing

For you have been the help of my life;
you take and keep me under your wing…
~from Psalm 63

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
~Gerard Manley Hopkins “God’s Grandeur”

Next week we read of the crushing of Christ in the Garden of the Oil Press, Gethsemane. 

Even there, the moment of betrayal is the moment He is glorified, as He glorifies God.  Crushed, bleeding, pouring out over the world — He becomes the wings that brood and cover us.

Jesus is the sacrifice that anoints us.

This year’s Lenten theme for Barnstorming is a daily selection from songs and hymns about Christ’s profound sacrifice on our behalf.

If we remain silent about Him, the stones themselves will shout out and start to sing (Luke 19:40).

In His name, may we sing…

1 O God eternal, you are my God!
for you I long in body and soul;
as in a dry and waterless land
I search, I thirst, I faint for you.

2 On holy ground your glory I saw;
your steadfast love is better than life;
I'll bless your name as long as I live
and lift my hands to you in prayer.

3 You feed my soul as if with a feast
I sing your praise with jubilant lips;
upon my bed I call you to mind
and meditate on you at night.

4 For you have been the help of my life;
you take and keep me under your wing;
I cling to you, and find your support;
O God my joy, you are my God!
~Christopher Idle

Oh God, you are my God
Earnestly I seek you
My Soul thirsts for you,
My flesh yearns for you
In a dry and weary land
Where there is no water

I remember you at night
Through the watches of the night in the shadow of your wings
I sing because you helped me
My soul clings to you
And your hand upholds me
You alone

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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: The Wondrous Mystery

Come behold the wondrous mystery
In the dawning of the King,
He the theme of heaven’s praises
Robed in frail humanity.

(First line of “Come Behold the Wondrous Mystery”)

Here is the mystery, the secret, one might almost say the cunning, of the deep love of God: that it is bound to draw on to itself the hatred and pain and shame and anger and bitterness and rejection of the world, but to draw all those things on to itself is precisely the means, chosen from all eternity by the generous, loving God, by which to rid his world of the evils which have resulted from human abuse of God-given freedom.
~N.T. Wright from The Crown and the Fire

Inundated by ongoing and overwhelmingly bad news of the world,
blasted 24/7 from our screens, we seek respite anywhere we may find it. I have found I must cling to the mystery of God’s magnetism for my weaknesses and flaws.

He willingly pulls our sin onto Himself and out of us.
Hatred and pain and shame and anger and bitterness
disappear into the vortex of His love and beauty,
the dusty corners of our hearts vacuumed spotless.

We are let in on a secret – His mystery revealed:
His frail humanity is unsullied by absorbing the dirty messes of our lives. Instead, once we are safely within His mysterious divine depths,
we are brought to glory by “grace unmeasured, love untold.”

This year’s Lenten theme for Barnstorming is a daily selection from songs and hymns about Christ’s profound sacrifice on our behalf.

If we remain silent about Him, the stones themselves will shout out and start to sing (Luke 19:40).

In His name, may we sing…

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