Heaven Itself

It is possible, I suppose that sometime
we will learn everything
there is to learn: what the world is, for example,
and what it means. I think this as I am crossing
from one field to another…


At my feet the white-petalled daisies display
the small suns of their center piece, their – if you don’t
mind my saying so – their hearts. Of course
I could be wrong, perhaps their hearts are pale and
narrow and hidden in the roots. What do I know?


But this: it is heaven itself to take what is given,
to see what is plain; what the sun lights up willingly;
for example – I think this
as I reach down, not to pick but merely to touch –
the suitability of the field for the daisies, and the
daisies for the field.

~Mary Oliver from “Daisies”

I am content realizing I won’t understand what this world means, (and why any of us matter when we are all made up of the same atoms as everything else in existence);

No, I will remain in the dark until I cross from this field to the next. I have to wait for heaven itself to see how the Sun illuminates what matters.

It is all mystery in the meantime, and sometimes a mean and joyless mystery – with pain and heartbreak and suffering, but just enough loving sacrifice to make it worthwhile.

How are our atoms different from that stone, or that tree or that daisy?

We are breathed on. As God’s breath surges within us, we laugh out loud, weep mightily and sing out His Words – struggling to be suitable for this field, so often trampled and broken, but with plans to flourish plentiful in the Sun of heaven.

The Same Unchangeableness

Spend your life trying to understand it, and you will lose your mind; but deny it and you will lose your soul.
~St. Augustine in his work “On the Trinity”

Here are two mysteries for the price of one — the plurality of persons within the unity of God, and the union of Godhead and manhood in the person of Jesus. . . . Nothing in fiction is so fantastic as is this truth of the Incarnation.
~J. L. Packer from Knowing God

photo by Josh Scholten

The story goes that Augustine of Hippo was walking on the beach contemplating the mystery of the Trinity.  Then he saw a boy in front of him who had dug a hole in the sand and was going out to the sea again and again and bringing some water to pour into the hole.

Augustine asked him, “What are you doing?”
“I’m going to pour the entire ocean into this hole.”
“That is impossible, the whole ocean will not fit in the hole you have made” said Augustine.
The boy replied, “And you cannot fit the Trinity in your tiny little brain.”

I accept that my tiny brain, ever so much tinier than St. Augustine’s,  cannot possibly absorb or explain the Trinity–I will not try to put the entire ocean in that small hole.  The many analogies used to help human understanding of the Trinity are dangerously limited in scope:
three candles, one light
vapor, water, ice
shell, yolk, albumin
height, width, depth
apple peel, flesh, core
past, present, future.

It is sufficient for me to know, as expressed by the 19th century Anglican pastor J.C. Ryle:  It was the whole Trinity, which at the beginning of creation said, “Let us make man”. It was the whole Trinity again, which at the beginning of the Gospel seemed to say, “Let us save man”.

All one, equal, harmonious, unchangeable, bound to save us from ourselves.


“It is not easy to find a name that will suitably express so great an excellence, unless it is better to speak in this way:
the Trinity, one God, of whom are all things, through whom are all things, in whom are all things. 
Thus the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and each of these by Himself, is God,
and at the same time they are all one God;
and each of them by Himself is a complete substance, and yet they are all one substance.

The Father is not the Son nor the Holy Spirit;
the Son is not the Father nor the Holy Spirit;
the Holy Spirit is not the Father nor the Son:
but the Father is only Father,
the Son is only Son,
and the Holy Spirit is only Holy Spirit.

To all three belong the same eternity, the same unchangeableness, the same majesty, the same power.
In the Father is unity, in the Son equality, in the Holy Spirit the harmony of unity and equality.

And these three attributes are all one because of the Father, all equal because of the Son, and all harmonious because of the Holy Spirit.”
–Augustine of Hippo, On Christian Doctrine, I.V.5.

Mystery Becomes Visible

I go my way,
and my left foot says ‘Glory,’
and my right foot says ‘Amen’:
in and out of Shadow Creek,
upstream and down,
exultant,
in a daze, dancing,
to the twin silver trumpets of praise.

~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

This fevers me, this sun on green,
On grass glowing, this young spring.
The secret hallowing is come,
Regenerate sudden incarnation,
Mystery made visible
In growth, yet subtly veiled in all,
Ununderstandable in grass,
In flowers, and in the human heart,
This lyric mortal loveliness,
The earth breathing, and the sun…

~Richard Eberhart from “This Fevers Me”

Every day should be a day of dancing
and loveliness and breathing deeply,
of celebrating the fact we woke afresh,
a new start.

If I’m honest, I don’t always feel like dancing,
my feet each going their own way
and my head barely attached to my neck.

As I stumble about in my morning daze,
readying myself for the onslaught to come,
I step out and mumble “Glory”
and then blink a few times and murmur “Amen”
and breathe it out again a little louder
until I really feel it
and believe the ununderstandable
and know it in my bones.

A little praise never hurt anyone.
A little worship goes a long way.
It’s the only way mystery becomes visible,
tangible, touchable and tastable.

Amen
and Amen again.

Beauty, Mystery and Benediction

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here; he has risen!”
Luke 24: 5-6

Since this moment (the resurrection), the universe is no longer what it was;  nature has received another meaning; history is transformed and you and I are no more, and should not be anymore, what we were before.

Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted.”
~Paul Tillich, American theologian

So what do I believe actually happened that morning on the third day after he died?
…I speak very plainly here…

He got up.  He said, “Don’t be afraid.”

Love is the victor.  Death is not the end.  The end is life.  His life and our lives through him, in him.

Existence has greater depths of beauty, mystery, and benediction than the wildest visionary has ever dared to dream. 

Christ our Lord has risen.
~Frederick Buechner from The Magnificent Defeat

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse,
the molecules reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall…

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His Flesh: ours.
~John Updike from “Seven Stanzas at Easter”

From the far star points of his pinned extremities, 
cold inched in—black ice and squid ink— 
till the hung flesh was empty. 
Lonely in that void even for pain, 
he missed his splintered feet, 
the human stare buried in his face. 
He ached for two hands made of meat 
he could reach to the end of. 
In the corpse’s core, the stone fist 
of his heart began to bang 
on the stiff chest’s door, and breath spilled 
back into that battered shape. Now 

it’s your limbs he comes to fill, as warm water shatters at birth, rivering every way.
~Mary Karr “Descending Theology: The Resurrection”

Our flesh is so weak, so temporary,
as ephemeral as a dew drop on a petal
yet with our earthly vision
it is all we know of ourselves
and it is what we trust knowing
of Him.

He was born as our flesh, from our flesh.
He walked and hungered and thirsted and slept
as our flesh.
He died, His/our flesh hanging in tatters,
blood spilling freely
breath fading to nought,
speaking those last Words
our ears can never forget.

Then He got up,
to walk and hunger and thirst alongside us
–flesh of His flesh–
here among us He is risen
–flesh of our flesh–
married forever
as the Church:
a fragile, flawed
and everlasting body
that will rise, once again, as He did.

But By His Grace: Paying Attention

For grace to be grace, it must give us things we didn’t know we needed and take us places where we didn’t know we didn’t want to go. As we stumble through the crazily altered landscape of our lives, we find that God is enjoying our attention as never before. 
~Kathleen Norris from Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life

My grace is sufficient for you,
for my power is made perfect in weakness. 
Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses,

so that Christ’s power may rest on me.  
That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.
For when I am weak, then I am strong.
2 Corinthians 12: 9-10

Inundated moment by moment
by overwhelmingly bad news of a pandemic world,
highlighted in rapidly changing headlines,
blasted from cable news 24/7,
tweeted real time from every nook and cranny,
I stumble in my frailty to find something, anything,
to hold me up.

I cling to the mystery of His magnetism for my weakness.

God now has my full attention:
He willingly pulls despair out of me onto Himself
and replaces it with strength I didn’t know
I would need nor would have ever wanted.

Two months ago,
not one of us knew we were to go where
we never expected to go:
by His grace, we have always had
God’s full attention.


This year’s Lenten theme for Barnstorming:

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

He Sees Us As We Are: Shut to Mystery

What is the crying at Jordan?
Who hears, O God, the prophecy?
Dark is the season, dark
our hearts and shut to mystery.

Who then shall stir in this darkness
prepare for joy in the winter night?
Mortal in darkness we
lie down, blind-hearted, seeing no light.

Lord, give us grace to awake us,
to see the branch that begins to bloom;
in great humility
is hid all heaven in a little room.

Now comes the day of salvation,
in joy and terror the Word is born!
God gives himself into our lives;
Oh, let salvation dawn!
~Carol Christopher Drake

We, His people, move from joy at the wooden manger to despair at the wooden cross; God sees us as we stumble along, blind-hearted.

We are bound up tight as a bud reluctant to bloom.

He gives Himself to us;
He brings joy to our miserable and dark existence;
He dies for us;
He rises to give us eternal hope of salvation;
He calls us by name so we’ll open up and recognize Him.

This mystery is too much for those unwilling to accept that such sacrifice is possible. We are blind to the possibility that His Spirit cannot be measured, touched, weighed or tracked, yet has the power to stir and overwhelm darkness.  We prefer the safety of remaining tight as an unopened bud, hid in the little room of our hearts rather than risk the transition to full blossom and fruitfulness.

Yet God sees us as we are: budding potential.

Lord, give us grace in our blindness, having given us Yourself. 
Prepare us for embracing your mystery. 
Prepare us for joy.
Prepare us to bloom.

This year’s Lenten theme on Barnstorming:

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

Anything Rather Than Void

Days pass when I forget the mystery.
Problems insoluble and problems offering
their own ignored solutions
jostle for my attention…
            And then
once more the quiet mystery
is present to me, the throng’s clamor
recedes: the mystery
that there is anything, anything at all,
let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything,
rather than void: and that, O Lord,
Creator, Hallowed one, You still,
hour by hour sustain it.
~Denise Levertov from “Primary Wonder” from Sands of the Well

Here is the mystery, the secret,
one might almost say the cunning,
of the deep love of God:
that it is bound to draw upon 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 the constantly bad news of the world, I must cling to the mystery of His magnetism for my own weaknesses and flaws, my bitterness. He willingly pulls evil onto Himself, out of us. Hatred and pain and shame and anger disappear into the vortex of His love and beauty, the mucky corners of my heart vacuumed spotless.

We are let in on a secret: He is not sullied by absorbing the dirty messes of our lives. He is sustaining us; we are anything rather than void.

Created in His image, sustained and loved, thus reflecting Him,
we are washed forever clean.

We Are No Longer Alone: Traveling Too Fast Over False Ground

When the rhythm of the heart becomes hectic,
Time takes on the strain until it breaks;
Then all the unattended stress falls in
On the mind like an endless, increasing weight,

The light in the mind becomes dim.
Things you could take in your stride before
Now become laboursome events of will.

You have been forced to enter empty time.
The desire that drove you has relinquished.
There is nothing else to do now but rest
And patiently learn to receive the self
You have forsaken for the race of days.

You have travelled too fast over false ground;
Now your soul has come to take you back.

Take refuge in your senses, open up
To all the small miracles you rushed through.

Become inclined to watch the way of rain
When it falls slow and free.

Imitate the habit of twilight,
Taking time to open the well of colour
That fostered the brightness of day.

Gradually, you will return to yourself,
Having learned a new respect for your heart
And the joy that dwells far within slow time.
~John O’Donohue from “For One Who Is Exhausted, A Blessing”

26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.
27 And I will put my Spirit in you…
Ezekiel 36:26-27

We are divided people; not just liberal and conservative, believer or not, capitalist or socialist.

Believers are also a divided people; we cannot agree about much of anything, so sure we alone have the best understanding of who God is and what He expects of us.

We forget that there is much that is still mystery, unknowable for God’s good reasons. Yet He does not leave us directionless. He has given us a roadmap.

Instead we travel too fast over false ground, expecting it will take us to the right destination as we ignore God’s signposts along the way telling us about the bumps ahead, or when to reduce speed, or to turn around as the road is washed out.


Instead of heeding the signs, we set out heedless, our hearts hardened in self-protection; so many tears, so many harsh words, so many sleepless nights when we face daily conflict and division.


Yet this is exactly what we must give up to Him: He became flesh so that we no longer cling to our heart of stone. Our priorities are changed.


We become full with God, our heart of flesh delivered safely to our Deliverer.

We Are No Longer Alone: He Walks With Us

God came to us because he wanted to join us on the road, to listen to our story, and to help us realize that we are not walking in circles but moving toward the house of peace and joy. This is the great mystery of Christmas that continues to give us comfort and consolation: we are not alone on our journey. The God of love who gave us life sent his only Son to be with us at all times and in all places, so that we never have to feel lost in our struggles but always can trust that he walks with us.

The challenge is to let God be who he wants to be. A part of us clings to our aloneness and does not allow God to touch us where we are most in pain. Often we hide from him precisely those places in ourselves where we feel guilty, ashamed, confused, and lost. Thus we do not give him a chance to be with us where we feel most alone.

Christmas is the renewed invitation not to be afraid and to let him—whose love is greater than our own hearts and minds can comprehend—be our companion.
~Henri Nouwen from Gracias!

Like so many, I tend to walk through life blinded to what is really important, essential and necessary.  I am self-absorbed,  immersed in my own troubles and concerns, staring at my own feet as I walk each step, rather than looking forward at the road ahead, listening to the companion who has always walked beside me.

We were joined by this living breathing walking God on the road to Emmaus as He fed us from His word. I hunger for even more, my heart burning within me.   Jesus makes plain how He Himself addresses my most basic needs:

He is the bread of life so I am fed.

He is the living water so I no longer thirst.

He is the light so I am never left in darkness.

He shares my yoke so my burden is easier.

He clothes me with righteousness so I am never naked.

He cleanses me when I am at my most soiled and repugnant.

He is the open door–always welcoming, with a room prepared for me, even me, the poor ornery person I am.

So when I encounter Him along the road of my life,  I need to be ready to recognize him, listen, invite Him in to stay, share whatever I have with Him.    When He breaks bread and hands me my piece, I want to accept it with open eyes of gratitude, knowing the gift He hands me is nothing less than Himself, the Companion we were blessed with Christmas morning.

A Harmony in Autumn

Like hues and harmonies of evening,               
Like clouds in starlight widely spread,               
Like memory of music fled,               
Like aught that for its grace may be
Dear, and yet dearer for its mystery.


The day becomes more solemn and serene         
When noon is past; there is a harmony         
In autumn, and a lustre in its sky,
Which through the summer is not heard or seen,
As if it could not be, as if it had not been!
~Percy Bysshe Shelley
from “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty”


Noon has passed here;
our spring long spent
and now we come upon
a time of subtle beauty,
of hue and harmony~
a solemn serenity
no longer overwhelmed
by the clamor of summer.

The evening of autumn thus descends,
its lustrous limn-light
a curtain of grace
cloaking and comforting,
readying us for winter.