Only To Do What He Could

No taste of food, no feel of water, no sound of wind, no memory of tree or grass or flower, no image of moon or star are left to me. I am naked in the dark, Sam, and there is no veil between me and the wheel of fire. I begin to see it even with my waking eyes, and all else fades.
~J.R.R. Tolkien The Lord of the Rings

Frodo is a study of a hobbit broken by a burden of fear and horror— broken down, and in the end made into something quite different. Frodo undertook his quest out of love– to save the world he knew from disaster at his own expense, if he could; and also in complete humility, acknowledging that he was wholly inadequate to the task His real contract was only to do what he could, to try to find a way, and to go as far on the road as his strength of mind and body allowed. He did that.
~J.R.R. Tolkien

We are regularly called to do more than we feel capable of accomplishing. Whether we are in the midst of a crisis of confidence, feeling beaten down, physically and emotionally vulnerable, or just plain scared – it is tempting to shrink away from doing what is needed.

Our call to obedience may not be quite as dramatic as Frodo’s monumental task of saving the world from destruction by evil forces — it may simply be getting out of bed and facing the day despite pain and overwhelming sorrow — but it takes no less courage and strength.

We are equipped by the intimacy of the Word of God speaking to each of us individually, instructing us on how to live these days we are given.

Like Frodo, we are to do what we can, to find a way through darkness and fire and threat, and to go down that road as far as our minds and bodies allow. We are inadequate by ourselves, but we are bolstered by the constancy of God alongside. We never travel alone.

An Unchanging Flower


 
Like the small soft unchanging flower
     The words in silence speak;
Obedient to their ancient power
     The tear stands on my cheek.

 
Though our world burns, the small dim words
     Stand here in steadfast grace,
And sing, like the indifferent birds,
     About a ruined place.

 
Though the tower fall, the day be done,
     The night be drawing near,
Yet still the tearless tune pipes on,
     And still evokes the tear.

 
The tearless tune, wiser than we,
     As weak and strong as grass
Or the wild bracken-fern we see
     Spring where the palace was.

~Ruth Pitter “On an Old Poem” from Poems 1926-1966

When I write
a poem, sometimes, there is a kind of daze
that lifts, and I can see
what I couldn’t before, as if my mind
was in a fog, a cloud,
and only wanted

a poem to lift it out. I wanted
the rhythm, just the right
word, the crescendo from whisper to loud
celebration, and found them in the days
of trying poems. And I don’t mind
telling you: poetry has brought complacency

to a (wanted) end, turned upside-down days
aright, settled my unquiet mind,
and allowed me to clearly see.

~Monica Sharman from What Poetry Can Do”

When the world is topsy-turvy
and all seems immersed in fog and cobwebs,
it helps to put down images and words
to clarify and highlight.

Daily I need reminding to stay centered,
daily I acknowledge what makes me weep
and what is worth celebration.

It is a new day to illustrate with words and pictures
what is unchanging in my life:
thank God for a new day,
everyday.

The Sun Reaches Out

Have you ever seen
anything
in your life
more wonderful

than the way the sun,
every evening,
relaxed and easy,
floats toward the horizon

and into the clouds or the hills,
or the rumpled sea,
and is gone–
and how it slides again

out of the blackness,
every morning,
on the other side of the world,
like a red flower

streaming upward on its heavenly oils,
say, on a morning in early summer,

at its perfect imperial distance–
and have you ever felt for anything
such wild love–
do you think there is anywhere, in any language,
a word billowing enough
for the pleasure

that fills you,
as the sun
reaches out,
as it warms you

as you stand there,
empty-handed–
or have you too
turned from this world–

or have you too
gone crazy
for power,
for things?
~Mary Oliver “The Sun”

Today we stand, wavering,
on the cusp of light and shadow~
this knowledge of what’s to come
rests deep in our bones.

We’ve been here before,
empty-handed,
bidding the sun to return.

We can not forget:
as darkness begins to claim our days again,
lest we be swallowed up by our hunger
for power and things.

We must remember:
He promised to never let darkness
overwhelm us again
and it won’t.

Life Steps Almost Straight

We grow accustomed to the Dark —
When Light is put away —
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Good bye —

A Moment — We Uncertain step
For newness of the night —
Then — fit our Vision to the Dark —
And meet the Road — erect —

And so of larger — Darknesses —
Those Evenings of the Brain —
When not a Moon disclose a sign —
Or Star — come out — within —

The Bravest — grope a little —
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead —
But as they learn to see —

Either the Darkness alters —
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight —
And Life steps almost straight.

~Emily Dickinson

So few grains of happiness
measured against all the dark
and still the scales balance.

The world asks of us
only the strength we have and we give it.
Then it asks more, and we give it.

~Jane Hirschfield from “The Weighing”

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question
the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies.
On the one hand, we are called to play the good Samaritan

on life’s roadside;
but that will be only an initial act.
One day the whole Jericho road must be transformed
so that men and women will not be beaten and robbed
as they make their journey through life.
True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar;
it understands that an edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring.
America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world,
can well lead the way in this revolution of values.
There is nothing, except a tragic death wish,
to prevent us from reordering our priorities…

~Martin Luther King, Jr. from a speech April 4, 1967

We live in a time where the groaning need
and dividedness of humankind
is especially to be felt and recognized.
Countless people are subjected to hatred,
violence and oppression which go unchecked.
The injustice and corruption which exist today
are causing many voices to be raised to protest
and cry out that something be done.
Many men and women are being moved to sacrifice much
in the struggle for justice, freedom, and peace.
There is a movement afoot in our time,
a movement which is growing, awakening.

We must recognize that we as individuals are to blame
for every social injustice, every oppression,
the downgrading of others
and the injury that man does to man,
whether personal or on a broader plane.…
God must intervene with his spirit and his justice and his truth.
The present misery, need, and decay must pass away
and the new day of the Son of Man must dawn.
This is the advent of God’s coming.
~Dwight Blough from the introduction to When the Time was Fulfilled (1965)

I weep to see such bitter divisions still exist in our country,
an echo of over fifty years ago
as we fail again and again to learn from past errors.

Here we are, groaning divided once more,
walking this Jericho Road together.
We cannot pass by our brother, our sister, our child~
anyone who lies dying in the ditch.
We must stop and help.

The world asks only for the strength we have
and so we give it,
but then we are asked to give more
and so we will.

We must illuminate the advance of darkness
even when, blinded as we are,
we run forehead-first into the Tree
which has always been there
and always will be
because of who we are and Who loves us.

It could be you or me bleeding, beaten, abandoned, dying
until Someone takes our place
so we can get up, free and forgiven,
and walk Home.

Maranatha.

A Ceaseless Blessing

When I saw the figure on the crown of the hill,
high above the city, standing perfectly still

against a sky so saturated with the late-
afternoon, late-summer Pacific light

that granules of it seemed to have come out
of solution, like a fine precipitate

of crystals hanging in the brightened air,
I thought whoever it was standing up there

must be experiencing some heightened state
of being, or thinking—or its opposite,

thoughtlessly enraptured by the view.
Or maybe, looking again, it was a statue

of Jesus or a saint, placed there to bestow
a ceaseless blessing on the city below.

Only after a good five minutes did I see
that the figure was actually a tree—

some kind of cypress, probably, or cedar.
I was both amused and let down by my error.

Not only had I made the tree a person,
but I’d also given it a vision,

which seemed to linger in the light-charged air
around the tree’s green flame, then disappear.

~Jeffrey Harrison, “The Figure on the Hill” from Into Daylight.

A tree on our hill broods over us
through the decades,
day and night,
standing firm through sunrises and sunsets,
snow and wind and rain and blistering sun.

It isn’t mistaken for a person or statue
yet stands in steadfast silence
amid the ever-changing backdrop
and drama of uncertain times.

May these ceaseless blessings ever flow,
bestowed unimpeded
of a Love that hung
from the limbs of a tree on the hill.






Untangling My Feelings

I knew you were not poisonous
when I saw you in the side garden;
even your name—milk snake—
sounds harmless, and yet your pattern
of copper splotches outlined in black
frightened me, and the way you were
curled in loops; and it offended me
that you were so close to the house
and clearly living underneath it
if not inside, in the cellar, where I
have found your torn shed skins.

You must have been frightened too
when I caught you in the webbing
of the lacrosse stick and flung you
into the woods, where you landed
dangling from a vine-covered branch,
shamelessly twisted. Now I
am the one who is ashamed, unable
to untangle my feelings,
braided into my DNA or buried
deep in the part of my brain
that is most like yours.

~Jeffrey Harrison “To a Snake” from Into Daylight.

Cast off on a sunny spring day
onto a warm manure pile,
a wriggled-free fresh snakeskin,
almost covered by my fresh load~
lay blended with old hay, horse hair, shavings,
tucked among what is already digested,
dumped and discarded.

This, an intact hollowed shadow
of a still living creature
who has moved on:
I too need to leave my old self
shrugged off onto the manure pile,
shed when it no longer fits
the ways I’ve grown more hallowed,
a fitting remembrance of
my entangled feelings about
who I once was,
yet now left behind.

Living Under the Penetrating Gaze of God

To live coram Deo is to live one’s entire life in the presence of God, under the authority of God, to the glory of God. 

To live in the presence of God is to understand

that whatever we are doing and wherever we are doing it,
we are acting under the gaze of God.

There is no place so remote that we can escape His penetrating gaze.

To live all of life coram Deo is to live a life of integrity.
It is a life of wholeness that finds its unity and coherency

in the majesty of God.

Our lives are to be living sacrifices,
oblations offered in a spirit of adoration and gratitude.

A fragmented life is a life of disintegration.
It is marked by inconsistency, disharmony, confusion,
conflict, contradiction, and chaos.

Coram Deo … before the face of God.

…a life that is open before God.
…a life in which all that is done is done as to the Lord.
…a life lived by principle, not expediency; by humility before God,

not defiance.

~R.C. Sproul
from “What Does “coram Deo” mean?”

We cannot escape His gaze. Why is that?

We…all of us, all colors, shapes and sizes…
are created in His image, imago dei, so He looks at us as His reflections in the mirror of the world.

And what would He see this week?
Surely nothing that reflects the heart or face of God.

I cringe to think. I want to hide from His gaze.
All I see around me and within me is:
inconsistency, disharmony, confusion,
conflict, contradiction, and chaos.
And most of all:
defiance.

Surely, surely I know best.

I’m not alone: so many others also each know best, calling hypocrisy on one another, holding fast to moral high ground when the reality is:
we drown together in the mud of our mutual guilt and lack of humility.

It is past time for us to be on our knees pleading for mercy, certainly not on our knees leaning upon the neck of another imago dei, squeezing out their very life breath and right to exist.

We are miserable reflections, each and every one of us, surely not coram Deo.

All that we have done, we have done onto God Himself.
Kind of takes one’s breath away.


It’s All Right Now

How should I not be glad to contemplate
the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window
and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?
There will be dying, there will be dying,
but there is no need to go into that.
The poems flow from the hand unbidden
and the hidden source is the watchful heart.
The sun rises in spite of everything
and the far cities are beautiful and bright.
I lie here in a riot of sunlight
watching the day break and the clouds flying.
Everything is going to be all right.
~Derek Mahon,”Everything is Going to be All Right” from Selected Poems

It’s tough to find reassurance these days; in a mere five months, things have gone from “doing okay” to outright disastrous. There is no expert anywhere with a crystal ball who can tell us what things will be like in another five months. We simply have to live it out as best we can.

I regularly remind myself: history has a way of repeating itself, and yes, the world has been in this place before. We’ve fought back against global pandemics and economic depressions and devastating world conflicts and we somehow manage to come out the other side.

It takes time and patience and prayer and groaning and a fair amount of teeth gritting.

So the sun rises in spite of everything. The clouds still fly by above us. We still love one another even when it takes a little work. So let’s give ourselves a little break from the bad news and just love, oh Lord above, in the glory of now.

Everything is going to be all right. Let your heart be watchful and untroubled.

Truly.

Why Me? Why Not Me?

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

He Does Not Leave Us Where We Are: Between Heaven and Earth

Slowly the west reaches for clothes of new colors
which it passes to a row of ancient trees.
You look, and soon these two worlds both leave you
one part climbs toward heaven, one sinks to earth.

leaving you, not really belonging to either,
not so hopelessly dark as that house that is silent,
not so unswervingly given to the eternal as that thing
that turns to a star each night and climbs–

leaving you (it is impossible to untangle the threads)
your own life, timid and standing high and growing,
so that, sometimes blocked in, sometimes reaching out,
one moment your life is a stone in you, and the next, a star.
~Rainer Maria Rilke “Sunset” (Trans. by Robert Bly) from The Soul is Here for Its Own Joy


We, frail people that we are, live out our lives between heaven and earth, sometimes in an uneasy tug-of-war between the two. We feel not quite ready for heaven as our roots go deep here, yet the challenges of daily life on this soil can seem overwhelmingly difficult and we seek relief, begging for mercy.

As we struggle to stay healthy during a spreading pandemic, it is frightening to watch others suffer as death tolls rise. We pray for safety for ourselves and those we love, knowing we are living “in between” where we are now and where we soon will be.

Shall we remain stones on the ground, still and lifeless, or are we destined to become a star glistening in the firmament?

Or are we like a tree stretching between soil and sky trying to touch both and remain standing while buffeted by forces beyond our control?

Christ the Son, on earth and in heaven, maintains an eternal connection to above and below. In His hands and under His protection, we are safe no matter where we are and where He takes us.

We can be mere stones no more.

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