Acknowledging the Abyss

The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for.
~Vladimir Nabokov from Speak Memory

I think Nabokov had it wrong. This is the abyss.
That’s why babies howl at birth,
and why the dying so often reach
for something only they can apprehend.

At the end they don’t want their hands
to be under the covers, and if you should put
your hand on theirs in a tentative gesture
of solidarity, they’ll pull the hand free;
and you must honor that desire,
and let them pull it free.

~Jane Kenyon from “Reading Aloud to My Father”

Great Grandma Emma, granddaughter Andrea, great-grandson Zealand – photo by Andrea Nipges

Great Grandpa Harry holding baby Emerson, photo by mama Abby Mobley
Great-Grandma Elna and Noah

And once, for no special reason,
I rode in the back of the pickup, leaning against the cab.
Everything familiar was receding fast…

Whatever I saw
I had already passed…
(This must be what life is like
at the moment of leaving it.)
~Jane Kenyon from “What It’s Like”

The farther I am down the road, everything familiar seems to be receding fast. What I see on my journey, I have already passed by as I watch it disappear into the horizon.

I too often mistake this world, this existence,  as the only light there is,  a mere beam of illumination in the surrounding night of eternity, the only relief from overwhelming darkness.  If we stand looking up from the bottom, we might erroneously assume we are the source of the light, we are all there is.

Yet looking at this world from a different perspective, gazing down into the abyss from above, it is clear the light does not come from below –it is from beyond us.

The newborn and the dying know this.  They signal their transition into and out of this world with their hands.  An infant holds tightly to whatever their fist finds,  grasping and clinging to not be lost to this darkness they have entered.  The dying instead loosen their grip on this world, reaching up and picking the air on their climb back to heaven.

We hold babies tightly so they won’t lose their way in the dark.  We loosen our grip on the dying to honor their outreach to the light that leads to something greater.

In the intervening years, we struggle in our blindness to climb out of the abyss to see vistas of great beauty and grace as we pass through the shadows of our lives.  Only then we acknowledge, with great calm and serenity, where we are headed.

Ben packaged in a paper bag by Grandpa Hank
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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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Like Wild Animals

…the real problem of the Christian life comes where people do not usually look for it. It comes the very moment you wake up each morning.

All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals.

And the first job each morning consists in shoving them all back;
in listening to that other voice,
taking that other point of view,
letting that other, larger, stronger life come flowing in.

And so on, all day.
~C.S. Lewis
from Mere Christianity

When I feel my faith wavering and doubts begin to overwhelm,
it takes determination to keep those wild animals at bay;
they leap and snarl and roar with hungry expectation and entitlement,
yet I seek only prayerful calm and quiet.

Rather than throw myself recklessly to the lions and tigers,
feeding their relentless appetites,
I step back, take a deep breath,
and watch them purr as they nap.

photo by Tomomi Gibson

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A Dusk of Morning Visitation

Just as the night was fading
Into the dusk of morning
When the air was cool as water
When the town was quiet
And I could hear the sea

I caught sight of the moon
No higher than the roof-tops
Our neighbor the moon

An hour before the sunrise
She glowed with her own sunrise
Gold in the grey of morning

World without town or forest
Without wars or sorrows
She paused between two trees

And it was as if in secret
Not wanting to be seen
She chose to visit us
So early in the morning.

~Anne Porter, “Getting Up Early” from An All Together Different Language. 

And who has seen the moon, who has not seen
Her rise from out the chamber of the deep,
Flushed and grand and naked, as from the chamber
Of finished bridegroom, seen her rise and throw
Confession of delight upon the wave,
Littering the waves with her own superscription
Of bliss, till all her lambent beauty shakes towards us
Spread out and known at last, and we are sure
That beauty is a thing beyond the grave,
That perfect, bright experience never falls
To nothingness, and time will dim the moon
Sooner than our full consummation here
In this odd life will tarnish or pass away.
~D.H. Lawrence “Moonrise”

I could not sleep last night,
tossing in turmoil
while wrestling with my worries,
concerned I’ve dropped the ball.

As a beacon of calm,
the moon shone bright
onto our bed covers before sunrise.

This glowing ball is never dropped,
this holy sphere of the night
remains aloft, sailing the skies,
to rise again and again to light our darkest nights.

Its lambent reflection of His Love and Peace is balm;
I am covered in its beauty.

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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: Through Our Tears

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

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.

Instead of explaining our suffering God shares it.

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 Wolterstorff  in Lament for a Son

What I envy in the open eyes
of the dead deer hanging down
from the rafters, its eyes
still wet and glassy, but locked now
into a vision of another life,
is the way it seems to be
staring at the moment when
it died. The blue light
falling through the window
into this smoke-filled room
is the same color as the mist
coming down off the mountain
that morning: the deer sees
men with guns
but also sees, beyond them,
the endless mountains.
~Richard Jones “Life After Death”

Emmett Till’s mother
speaking over the radio

She tells in a comforting voice
what it was like to touch her dead boy’s face,

how she’d lingered and traced
the broken jaw, the crushed eyes —

the face that badly beaten, disfigured —
before confirming his identity.

And then she compares his face
to the face of Jesus, dying on the cross.

This mother says, no, she’d not recognize
her Lord, for he was beaten far, far worse

than the son she loved with all her heart.
For, she said, she could still discern her son’s curved earlobe,

but the face of Christ
was beaten to death by the whole world.
~Richard Jones “The Face” from Between Midnight and Dawn

The whole of Christ’s life was a continual passion; others die martyrs, but Christ was born a martyr. He found a Golgotha, where he was crucified, even in Bethlehem, where he was born; for to his tenderness then the straws were almost as sharp as the thorns after, and the manger as uneasy at first as the cross at last. His birth and his death were but one continual act, and his Christmas Day and his Good Friday are but the evening and the morning of one and the same day. From the creche to the cross is an inseparable line. Christmas only points forward to Good Friday and Easter. It can have no meaning apart from that, where the Son of God displayed his glory by his death.
~John Donne in the opening words of his Christmas Day sermon 1626

Detail from “Descent from the Cross” by Rogier van der Weyden

May we remember today – Good Friday – , of all days,
the worst that can happen became the best that can happen.

We tussle and haggle over the price of what this cost us, but realizing He paid all for us makes an impossible loss possible.

We are paid in full, no longer debtors. 

From now on, we recognize His face even when He is beaten unrecognizable: the worst became the best because He loves us over all else.

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 Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: Crushed and Oozing

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.
~Gerard Manley Hopkins from “God’s Grandeur”

What took Him to this wretched place
What kept Him on this road?

~Stuart Townend and Keith Getty from “Gethesemane”

photo by Bob Tjoelker


Jesus said, wait with me. But the disciples slept.
Jesus said, wait with me. And maybe the stars did,
maybe the wind wound itself into a silver tree, and didn’t move, maybe
the lake far away, where once he walked as on a
blue pavement,
lay still and waited, wild awake.
Oh the dear bodies, slumped and eye-shut, that could not
keep that vigil, how they must have wept,
so utterly human, knowing this too
must be a part of the story.

~Mary Oliver from “Gethsemane”

You could not watch one hour with me–James Tissot

Today marks the crushing of Christ in the Garden of the Oil Press: Gethsemane -a place of olive trees treasured for the fine oil delivered from their fruit. And so, on this night, the pressure is turned up high on the disciples, not just on Jesus.

The disciples are expected, indeed commanded, to keep watch alongside the Master, to be filled with prayer, to avoid the temptation of their weakened flesh at every turn.

But they fail pressure testing and fall apart. 

Like them, I am easily lulled by complacency, by my over-indulged satiety for material comforts that do not truly fill hunger or quench thirst,  by my expectation that being called a follower of Jesus is somehow enough.

It is not enough.
I fail the pressure test as well.

I fall asleep through His anguish.
I dream, oblivious, while He sweats blood.
I give Him up with a kiss.
I might even deny I know Him when I’m pressed hard.

Yet, the moment of His betrayal becomes the moment He is glorified,
thereby God is glorified and we are saved. 

Crushed, bleeding, poured out over the world –
He becomes the sacrifice that anoints us.

Incredibly,
mysteriously,
indeed miraculously,
He loves us anyway, broken as we are,
because He knows broken like no other.

Van Gogh – Olive Grove 1889

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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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: The Angry Tide

If we should falter when trouble surrounds us
When the wind and the waves are wild and high
We will look away to Him who rules the waters;
Who speaks His Peace into the angry tide.

~Fernando Ortega

Sweet Jesus, talking 
   his melancholy madness, 
     stood up in the boat 
       and the sea lay down,

silky and sorry. 
   So everybody was saved 
      that night… 

       
         Nobody knows what the soul is.

It comes and goes 
   like the wind over the water — 
      sometimes, for days, 
        you don’t think of it.

 Maybe, after the sermon, 
   after the multitude was fed, 
     one or two of them felt 
       the soul slip forth

like a tremor of pure sunlight 
   before exhaustion, 
      that wants to swallow everything, 
         gripped their bones and left them

miserable and sleepy, 
    as they are now, forgetting 
       how the wind tore at the sails 
          before he rose and talked to it —

tender and luminous and demanding 
   as he always was — 
      a thousand times more frightening 
         than the killer storm.
~Mary Oliver from “Maybe”

Could it be?

Could it be that I am more frightened of the power of Christ to say “Peace be still!” to the storm threatening to drown us all (and it heeds His command!) than I am of the waves themselves?

I sleep through my diminishing days, not nearly focused enough on each passing moment that never is to come again.  Those moments crash to shore and then pull back to be lost forever.

I tend to be blinded to what is inevitably coming, how I have tumbled over the years like waves, overcome by their passage.

He is tender and luminous and demanding as He talks to my heart, not just to the relentless stormy destructive sea.

Peace be still!

And so I obey, forgiven, and am saved by grace,
so silky and sorry.

Take heart, my friend. The Lord is with 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…

Take heart, my Friend, we’ll go together
This uncertain road that lies ahead
Our faithful God has always gone before us
And He will lead the Way once again.

Take heart, my Friend, we can walk together
And if our burdens become too great
We can hold up and help one another
In God’s LOVE, in God’s Grace.

Take heart my Friend, the Lord is with us
As He has been all the days of our lives
Our assurance every morning
Our Defender in the Night.

If we should falter when trouble surrounds us
When the wind and the waves are wild and high
We will look away to HIM who rules the waters;
Who speaks His Peace into the angry tide.

He is our Comfort, our Sustainer
He is our Help in time of need
When we wander, He is our Shepherd
He who watches over us NEVER sleeps.

Take heart my friend, the Lord is with us
As He has been all the days of our lives
Our Assurance every morning
Our Defender every night.

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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: If I Tarry

Come, ye weary, heavy laden,
Lost and ruined by the fall;
If you tarry till you’re better,
You will never come at all.

When I am comfortable,
well fed,
not immersed in longing~
I am slow to respond to the call,
tending to tarry in my satiety.

It is in my times of need
and soreness
and worry
and hunger and thirst
that I reach out, frightened,
to find it is then
I am most fit to be welcomed
into His comforting arms.

If I tarry till I’m better,
I might never come at all.

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…

I will arise and go to Jesus,
He will embrace me in His arms;
In the arms of my dear Savior,
O there are ten thousand charms.

Come, ye thirsty, come, and welcome,
God’s free bounty glorify;
True belief and true repentance,
Every grace that brings you nigh.

Come, ye weary, heavy laden,
Lost and ruined by the fall;
If you tarry till you’re better,
You will never come at all.

View Him prostrate in the garden;
On the ground your Maker lies.
On the bloody tree behold Him;
Sinner, will this not suffice?

Lo! th’incarnate God ascended,
Pleads the merit of His blood:
Venture on Him, venture wholly,
Let no other trust intrude.

Let not conscience make you linger,
Not of fitness fondly dream;
All the fitness He requireth
Is to feel your need of Him.
~Joseph Hart

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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: When I Am Alone


When I am alone, give me Jesus
Give me Jesus,
You can have all this world,
But give me Jesus
~Jeremy Camp

God wants to always be with us, wherever we may be –
in our sin, in our suffering and death.
We are no longer alone;
God is with us.
We are no longer homeless;
a bit of the eternal home itself has moved unto us. 
~Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I have found, over the years, I don’t do alone well.  Never have.  I’ve always preferred plenty of activity around me, planning gatherings and communal meals, and filling up my days to the brim with all manner of socializing. 

I don’t prefer my own company. There is no glossing over my flaws nor distracting myself from where I fall short.  Alone is an unforgiving mirror reflecting back what I keep myself too busy to see.

Most people around the world have experienced unprecedented aloneness during the last two years of social isolation. As we tentatively emerge from our COVID cocoons due to dropping case rates, “being together” can still feel somewhat risky and unfamiliar, especially when reading headlines of new variant surges on the horizon.

Despite this, despite two years of isolation, worry and concern:
I have never been truly alone.

I need not fear all this world with its unending troubles:

Give me Jesus.
God is with 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…

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