Waiting in Wilderness: In the Interstices

As the deer pants for the water so my soul pants for you, God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
As with a deadly wound in my bones,
my adversaries taunt me,
while they say to me all the day long,
“Where is your God?”
from Psalm 42

Why no! I never thought other than
That God is that great absence
In our lives, the empty silence
Within, the place where we go
Seeking, not in hope to
Arrive or find. He keeps the interstices
In our knowledge, the darkness
Between stars. His are the echoes
We follow, the footprints he has just
Left. We put our hands in
His side hoping to find
It warm. We look at people
And places as though he had looked
At them, too; but miss the reflection.

~R.S. Thomas “Via Negativa”

We are treated as impostors, and yet are true;
as unknown, and yet well known;
as dying, and behold, we live;
as punished, and yet not killed;
as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing;
as poor, yet making many rich;
as having nothing, yet possessing everything.
2 Corinthians 6: 8b-10

The way of negation (via negativa) – describing who God is by describing who He is not — is like describing the interstitial spaces between my cells rather than the cells themselves, or the blackness between stars rather than the light that emanates from them.

It is impossible to understand God unless I absorb what He says about Himself. Yet I am too finite and He is too infinite to grasp fully.

So, like a deer panting for water, I thirst for Him, seeking more than a reflection of water for my real thirst. I want Him tangible and warm before me like Thomas thrusting his hand into Jesus’ wound, crying “My Lord and My God!”

The mystery of God is how He is so much more than mere reflection and the spaces in between what I see and feel in this existence. He is all things, all at once.

So I continue to seek Him, thirsting.

The Smell of Water

At the soft place in the snowbank
Warmed to dripping by the sun
There is the smell of water.
On the western wind the hint of glacier.
A cottonwood tree warmed by the same sun
On the same day,
My back against its rough bark
Same west wind mild in my face.
A piece of spring
Pierced me with love for this empty place
Where a prairie creek runs
Under its cover of clear ice
And the sound it makes,
Mysterious as a heartbeat,
New as a lamb.
~Tom Hennen, “In the Late Season” from Darkness Sticks to Everything: Collected and New Poems. 

While walking the sloping hillside of our farm,
if I listen carefully,
I can hear trickling under the snow.
I can’t see it but I can hear and feel and smell the water;
as a hidden and mysterious melt happens.
Thawing under my feet-
as winter drains away,
spring is on the move.

I witness that which I have no control over,
this subtle softening of frozen ground-
unseen, yet as evident as the steady beating of my heart
as I too begin to thaw and melt
through the miracle of flowing grace
into whatever comes next.


Came Down

The Word became flesh. Ultimate Mystery born with a skull you could crush one-handed. Incarnation.
It is not tame.
It is not beautiful.
It is uninhabitable terror.
It is unthinkable darkness riven with unbearable light.
Agonized laboring led to it, vast upheavals of intergalactic space, time split apart, a wrenching and tearing of the very sinews of reality itself.

You can only cover your eyes and shudder before it, before this:
“God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God… who for us and for our salvation,”
as the Nicene Creed puts it, “came down from heaven.”  

Came down.

Only then do we dare uncover our eyes and see what we can see.
It is the Resurrection and the Life she holds in her arms.
It is the bitterness of death he takes at her breast.

~Frederick Buechner from Whistling in the Dark: A Doubter’s Dictionary

Down he came from up,
and in from out,
and here from there.
A long leap,
an incandescent fall
from magnificent
to naked, frail, small,
through space,
between stars,
into our chill night air,
shrunk, in infant grace,
to our damp, cramped
earthy place
among all
the shivering sheep.

And now, after all,
there he lies,
fast asleep.
~Luci Shaw “Descent” from Accompanied By Angels

[The Incarnation is like] a wave of the sea which, 
rushing up on the flat beach, 
runs out, even thinner and more transparent, 
and does not return to its source but sinks into the sand and disappears.
~Hans Urs von Balthasar from Origen: Spirit and Fire

Perhaps it is the mystery of the thing that brings us back,
again and again, to read the story of 
how God came down and disappeared into us.

How can this be?
God appearing on earth first to animals, then the most humble of humans.

How can He be?
Through the will of the Father and the breath of the Spirit,
the Son was, and is and yet to be.

O great mystery beyond all understanding.

O magnum mysterium,
et admirabile sacramentum.
Ut animalia viderent
Dominum natum, iacentem in
praesepio: Beata Virgo,
cujus viscera meruerunt portare
Dominum Christum
Alleluia

As If What Exists

How swiftly the strained honey
of afternoon light
flows into darkness


and the closed bud shrugs off
its special mystery
in order to break into blossom


as if what exists, exists
so that it can be lost
and become precious
~Lisel Mueller
“In Passing” from Alive Together: New and Selected Poems

We lose light so quickly by mid to late afternoon these days. There is no wistful lingering within the descent of evening; the curtain is pulled closed and it is dark — just like that.

I don’t know about you, but I’m having more difficulty adjusting to the loss of daylight this year than any year previously. This is perplexing as the change of seasons is no mystery to me. Somehow I’m feeling a new deprivation beyond the fact that shorter days are simply a part of the annual autumnal routine.

As if –
something precious has been stolen away

as if –
I had any claim to the light to begin with

as if –
I exist only to notice what ceases to exist.

I’m ready for more than just feeling loss.
I’m ready to break into blossom;
to be the light instead of grumbling in the dark.

Exists to be Lost

How swiftly the strained honey
of afternoon light
flows into darkness

and the closed bud shrugs off
its special mystery
in order to break into blossom:

as if what exists, exists
so that it can be lost
and become precious.
~Lisel Mueller “In Passing” from Alive Together

Each one of us is like a swelling bud hanging heavy and waiting on the stem — already but not quite yet.

Such is the late afternoon light of an October day.
There is an air of mystery in a honeyed moment of illumination
knowing something more is coming.

Not just the inevitable darkness when we all must sleep.
Not just opening wide to what we cannot yet understand.
No more peering through a glass darkly.

Breaking into blossom means losing what exists now,
this momentary glow of full ripeness,
to become part of the light itself.

Life is The Mystery

All men die. Not all men really live.
~William Wallace

Life — the temptation is always to reduce it to size. A bowl of cherries. A rat race. Amino acids. Even to call it a mystery smacks of reductionism. It is THE mystery.

After lecturing learnedly on miracles, a great theologian was asked to give a specific example of one. ‘There is only one miracle,’ he answered. “It is life.”

Have you wept at anything during the past year?
Has your heart beat faster at the sight of young beauty?
Have you thought seriously about the fact
that someday you are going to die?

More often than not,
do you really listen when people are speaking to you,
instead of just waiting for your turn to speak?


Is there anybody you know in whose place,
if one of you had to suffer great pain,
you would volunteer yourself?


If your answer to all or most of these questions is no,
the chances are that you’re dead.

~Frederick Buechner from  Listen to Your Life

I like mysteries if they are neatly solved between two book covers or contained within 90 minutes on a TV show.

Mysteries that don’t neatly resolve? Not so much. The uncertainty and unknowns can be paralyzing.

I am gifted the opportunity to witness miracles every day and the mystery is that I don’t often recognize them. I’m too “in my own head” to see.

If I weep, which I do more often than is comfortable to admit, am I weeping for something other than myself? If I listen, which I like to think I do well in my profession, but not as well in my personal life, do I really hear the perspective from another life and world view? If I become aware of someone’s suffering, am I willing to become uncomfortable myself to ease another’s pain?

I am being tested in these days of disrupted routines and potential threats to my health and well-being. Do I hunker down defensively or reach out unselfishly to make the best of the days that are left to me?

The mystery of when I will die can’t be solved until that moment comes, and I can’t be paralyzed by that unknown. But the everyday miracles of life are large and small and grand and plentiful and hidden in plain sight. I want to live every moment as their witness.

We Shall All Be Changed

Cloud-puffball, torn tufts, tossed pillows | flaunt forth, then chevy on an air-
Built thoroughfare: heaven-roysterers, in gay-gangs | they throng; they glitter in marches.
Down roughcast, down dazzling whitewash, | wherever an elm arches,
Shivelights and shadowtackle ín long | lashes lace, lance, and pair.
Delightfully the bright wind boisterous | ropes, wrestles, beats earth bare
Of yestertempest’s creases; | in pool and rut peel parches
Squandering ooze to squeezed | dough, crust, dust; stanches, starches
Squadroned masks and manmarks | treadmire toil there
Footfretted in it. Million-fuelèd, | nature’s bonfire burns on.
But quench her bonniest, dearest | to her, her clearest-selvèd spark
Man, how fast his firedint, | his mark on mind, is gone!
Both are in an unfathomable, all is in an enormous dark
Drowned. O pity and indig | nation! Manshape, that shone
Sheer off, disseveral, a star, | death blots black out; nor mark
                            Is any of him at all so stark
But vastness blurs and time | beats level. Enough! the Resurrection,
A heart’s-clarion! Away grief’s gasping, | joyless days, dejection.
                            Across my foundering deck shone
A beacon, an eternal beam. | Flesh fade, and mortal trash
Fall to the residuary worm; | world’s wildfire, leave but ash:
                            In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, | since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, | patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
                            Is immortal diamond.
~Gerard Manley Hopkins “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection”

Behold, I show you a mystery;
We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed,
In a moment, in a twinkling of an eye;
at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound,
and the dead shall be raised incorruptible,
and we shall be changed,
For this corruptible must put on immortality

1Corinthians 15:51-53

In a matter of minutes this morning,
mere clouds changed above the rising sun;
its fire started low, sparked into dazzling flames,
then became a beacon, lit from within and without
and all around thus transformed.

So we are spared from our destiny with ashes
by such Light.

So Christ, becoming man
and rising — as He did,
and risen as He is,
changes us forever,
in a moment, in a twinkling of an eye.



Where Time and Eternity Meet

Unexpected God,
your coming advent alarms us.
Wake us from drowsy worship,
from the sleep that neglects love,
and the sedative of misdirected frenzy.
Awaken us now to your coming,
and bend our angers into your peace.
Amen.
~Revised Common Lectionary

photo by Julie Garrett

Sometimes the very walls of our churches
separate us from God
and each other.


In our various naves and sanctuaries
we are safely separated from those outside,
from other denominations, other religions,
separated from the poor, the ugly, the dying.…


The house of God is not a safe place.
It is a cross where time and eternity meet,
and where we are – or should be –
challenged to live more vulnerably,
more interdependently.
~Madeleine L’Engle, from  A Stone for a Pillow

Does anyone have the foggiest idea
of what sort of power we so blithely invoke?
Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?
The churches are

children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets,
mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.
It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church;
we should all be wearing crash helmets.
Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares;
they should lash us to our pews.

~Annie Dillard from Teaching a Stone to Talk

Today, after weeks of worshipping outdoors, we move back inside for fall and winter, all wearing masks while separated into four different spaces with social distancing. It may be this way well into next year: nobody knows.

No one is happy that the singing will be limited, there will be no handshakes or hugs and some of us will be watching a live feed on a screen. Some are flat out angry at having to worship this way and will opt to stay away. Yet we are called to come together, to raise our voices corporately in praise, prayer and thanksgiving, despite the risks and unfamiliarity of how these changes look and feel while we try to protect one another from infection.

We tend to forget that walking into church on any Sabbath, not just during a pandemic, takes courage and commitment as we automatically become vulnerable to one another. What one of us says and does can bless or hurt us all. This can be no drowsy worship: we are the poor, the ugly and the dying.

When I hear the secular folks in society scoff at attending church as a “crutch for the weak”, they underestimate what it means to admit a desperate need for salvation and grace that can only be found inside those doors. We who sit in a pew in the sanctuary cling to the life preserver found in the Word. We are lashed to our seats and must hang on.  It is only because of God’s grace that we survive the tempests of temptation, guilt and self-doubt in order to let go of our own anger at the state of the world and the state of our own souls.

Exposing ourselves to the radical mystery and immense power of the living God is not for the faint of heart, yet all of us on the verge of heart failure need God’s deep roots to thrive and grow in our rocky soul soil.

So today, and every day, we must not forget our crash helmets… or our masks.

This Flood of Stillness

I know this happiness
is provisional:

the looming presences –
great suffering, great fear –

withdraw only
into peripheral vision:

but ineluctable this shimmering
of wind in the blue leaves:

this flood of stillness
widening the lake of sky:

this need to dance,
this need to kneel:

this mystery:
~Denise Levertov “Of Being” from The Stream and the Sapphire

Try as I might to hold fear and suffering
to the periphery of my vision,
it is difficult to keep them there;
like a morning fog clutching at the ground,
bad news creeps out and covers everything,
distorting truth and color and light,
yet so seductive by softening the rough edges
until reality hits.

Maybe I can turn away
Maybe it won’t reach me
Maybe it is all mirage, someone’s imagining.

Still, I can no longer be mere audience to the events of the day,
too weak in the knees to do anything.
The trouble that lies beyond this hill
touches us all.

I kneel in silent witness:
to wait, to listen, to pray for a flood of stillness
to cover us.

All is inescapable mystery,
yet to be clarified.



Everything Dies Too Soon

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

~Mary Oliver from “A Summer Day”

It doesn’t take much to remind me
what a mayfly I am,
what a soap bubble floating over the children’s party.

Standing under the bones of a dinosaur
in a museum does the trick every time
or confronting in a vitrine a rock from the moon…

And the realization that no one
who ever breasted the waters of time
has figured out a way to avoid dying

always pulls me up by the reins and settles me down
by a roadside, grateful for the sweet weeds
and the mouthfuls of colorful wild flowers.

~Billy Collins from “Memento Mori“

I’m reminded daily of how short our time on earth is – the evidence is everywhere. Yesterday it was the stark finality of discovering a beetle-cleaned bighorn sheep skull in the woods, in addition to the bold reality of a black bear paw print on the car sitting next to our cabin.

Each day I receive an email from the local hospital where I’ve had clinical privileges for 35 years – it innumerates the number of admitted COVID-19 cases and deaths, the number of ICU beds filled and the number of ventilators in use. Reading those numbers is like scanning the obituaries for names and ages and causes of death in the newspaper, the only consistent thing I read in the paper anymore. The deaths are reported dispassionately, as if they are inevitable, which they are, yet each happens too soon.

Much too soon.

So the admonition is to pay attention to each living thing and witness each moment, falling onto the grass in worship of this “wild and precious life” I’ve been given rather than dwell on the future when I’ll be buried under the grass.

I shall celebrate being a consumer of this precious life, overjoyed by these sweet weeds and colorful wildflowers. There is still much that awaits me on this earth before, inevitably, I too become the consumed.