Dawn on our Darkness: O Great Mystery

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.


We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come; see the oxen kneel,


“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.
~Thomas Hardy “The Oxen”

Says a country legend told every year:
Go to the barn on Christmas Eve and see
what the creatures do as that long night tips over.
Down on their knees they will go, the fire
of an old memory whistling through their minds!

So I went. Wrapped to my eyes against the cold
I creaked back the barn door and peered in.
From town the church bells spilled their midnight music,
and the beasts listened – yet they lay in their stalls like stone.

Oh the heretics!
Not to remember Bethlehem,
or the star as bright as a sun,
or the child born on a bed of straw!
To know only of the dissolving Now!

Still they drowsed on –
citizens of the pure, the physical world,
they loomed in the dark: powerful
of body, peaceful of mind, innocent of history.

Brothers! I whispered. It is Christmas!
And you are no heretics, but a miracle,
immaculate still as when you thundered forth
on the morning of creation!


As for Bethlehem, that blazing star

still sailed the dark, but only looked for me.
Caught in its light, listening again to its story,
I curled against some sleepy beast, who nuzzled
my hair as though I were a child, and warmed me
the best it could all night.

~Mary Oliver “Christmas Poem” from Goodness and Light

The winds were scornful,
Passing by;
And gathering Angels
Wondered why

A burdened Mother
Did not mind
That only animals
Were kind.

For who in all the world
Could guess
That God would search out
Loneliness.
~Sr. M. Chrysostom, O.S.B.  “The Stable”

Growing up on my childhood farm,
remembering the magic of Christmas eve night,
I bundled myself up to stay warm
in our barn, to witness an unbelievable sight.

At midnight we knew the animals knelt down,
speaking words we could all understand,
to worship a Child born in Bethlehem town,
in a barn, long ago in a far away land.

They were there that night, to see and to hear,
the blessings that came from the sky.
They patiently stood watch at the manger near,
in a barn, while shepherds and kings stopped by.

My trips to the barn were always too late,
our cows would be chewing, our chickens asleep,
our horses breathing softly, cats climbing the gate,
in our barn, there was never a neigh, moo or peep.

But I knew they had done it, I just missed it again!
They were plainly so calm, well-fed and at peace
in the sweet smelling straw, all snug in their pens,
in a barn, a mystery, once more, took place.

Even now, I still bundle to go out Christmas eve,
in the hope I’ll catch them just once more this time.
Though I’m older and grayer, I still firmly believe
in the barn, a Birth happened amid cobwebs and grime.

Our horses sigh low as they hear me come near,
that tells me the time I hope for is now,
they will drop to their knees without any fear
in our barn, as worship, all living things bow.

I wonder anew at God’s immense trust
for His creatures so sheltered that darkening night –
the mystery of why of all places, His Son must
begin life in a barn: a welcoming most holy and right.
~ “In the Barn” (written Christmas Eve 1999)

Latin text
O magnum mysterium,
et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,
iacentem in praesepio!
Beata Virgo, cujus viscera
meruerunt portare
Dominum Iesum Christum.
Alleluia!

English translation
O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the newborn Lord,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear
the Lord, Jesus Christ.
Alleluia!

Jesus our brother, strong and good
Was humbly born in a stable rude
And the friendly beasts around him stood
Jesus our brother, strong and good
“I, ” said the donkey, shaggy and brown
“I carried his mother up hill and down
I carried his mother to Bethlehem town”
“I, ” said the donkey, shaggy and brown
“I, ” said the cow, all white and red
“I gave him my manger for his bed
I gave him my hay to pillow his head”
“I, ” said the cow, all white and red
“I, ” said the sheep with curly horn
“I gave him my wool for his blanket warm
He wore my coat on Christmas morn”
“I, ” said the sheep with curly horn
“I, ” said the dove from the rafters high
“I cooed him to sleep so he would not cry
We cooed him to sleep, my mate and I”
“I, ” said the dove from rafters high
Thus every beast by some good spell
In the stable dark was glad to tell
Of the gifts they gave Emmanuel
Of the gifts they gave Emmanuel

Sustained by Mystery

Days pass when I forget the mystery.
Problems insoluble and problems offering
their own ignored solutions
jostle for my attention, they crowd its antechamber
along with a host of diversions, my courtiers, wearing
their colored clothes; cap and bells.
                                                        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  “Primary Wonder” from Selected Poems

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

When I’m embittered and overwhelmed by the bad news of the world and I am buried in my own troubles such as COVID visiting our household, I cling to the mystery of God’s magnetism for my weaknesses and flaws.

He willingly pulls evil onto Himself, out of each 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: God is not sullied by absorbing the dirty messes of our lives as He came here to do just that. God leaves no void behind; He fills all emptiness with Himself.

Created in His image, we are sustained and saved through Him, thus bound to reflect His glory – how can we not be transformed and healed by His Love?

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The Misty Mountains Cold

Far over the misty mountains cold
To dungeons deep and caverns old
We must away, ere break of day,
To find our long-forgotten gold.

~J.R.R. Tolkien from “Far over the misty mountains” in The Hobbit

The breeze—the breath of God—is still—
And the mist upon the hill,
Shadowy—shadowy—yet unbroken,
Is a symbol and a token—
How it hangs upon the trees,
A mystery of mysteries!
~Edgar Allen Poe from Spirits of the Dead

Photo above by Joel De Waard

Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow.
What is your life?
You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.
James 4:14

I pray that the breath of God would blow away the veils of mist and mystery in my life. The reality is – so much is hidden from me, I must proceed on faith alone without always seeing where I am going.

God has made it clear, we perceive Him through a glass darkly, a dim reflection. The mists of mystery are transient and shall be pulled back in the fullness of time. In the meantime, I gaze in wonder at what appears now only in shadow, waiting for that amazing moment when all shall be revealed.

photo above by Joel De Waard

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Heart Sore

The trees are in their autumn beauty,   
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water   
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones   
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me   
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings  
Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,   
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,   
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,   
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;   
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,   
Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water,   
Mysterious, beautiful;   
Among what rushes will they build
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day   
To find they have flown away?
~William Butler Yeats “The Wild Swans at Coole”

All is changing
yet even though
my pace has slowed
from younger days,
my heart aches
to know I finally behold
this mysterious beauty,
a witness now because I no longer
choose to hurry headlong through life.

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A Morning Luminous with Mystery and Pain

Heart,
I implore you,
it’s time to come back
from the dark,
it’s morning,
the hills are pink
and the roses
whatever they felt

in the valley of night
are opening now
their soft dresses,
their leaves

are shining.
Why are you laggard?
Sure you have seen this
a thousand times,

which isn’t half enough.
Let the world
have its way with you,
luminous as it is

with mystery
and pain–
graced as it is
with the ordinary.

~Mary Oliver “Summer Morning”

I love to stay in bed
All morning,
Covers thrown off, naked,
Eyes closed, listening.

There’s a smell of damp hay,
Of horses, laziness,
Summer sky and eternal life.

I know all the dark places
Where the sun hasn’t reached yet,
Where the last cricket
Has just hushed; anthills

Where it sounds like it’s raining,
Slumbering spiders spinning wedding dresses.

The good tree with its voice
Of a mountain stream
Knows my steps.
It, too, hushes.

I stop and listen:
Somewhere close by
A stone cracks a knuckle,
Another turns over in its sleep.

I hear a butterfly stirring
Inside a caterpillar.
I hear the dust talking
Of last night’s storm.

Farther ahead, someone
Even more silent
Passes over the grass
Without bending it.

And all of a sudden
In the midst of that quiet,
It seems possible
To live simply on this earth.

~Charles Simic from “Summer Morning”

Reading headlines about yet more unimaginable losses and grieving people is extraordinarily painful on a summer morning when all should be luminous and lighthearted. My heart isn’t feeling the light at all; I struggle to leave behind those dark places where the sun hasn’t reached yet.

Yet if I’m still and quiet, I can hear life going on all around me. My sadness doesn’t change the mystery of a world God created in beauty and peace, now overshadowed by our fall into darkness, yet redeemed by a sacrificial Love we cannot possibly comprehend.

What a summer morning revelation. It’s as extraordinarily ordinary and simple as that.

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The Hope for Meaningfulness

Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed?

Can the writer isolate and vivify all in experience that most deeply engages our intellects and our hearts?

Why are we reading, if not in hope that the writer will magnify and dramatize our days, will illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage and the hope of meaningfulness, and press upon our minds the deepest mysteries, so we may feel again their majesty and power?

What do we ever know that is higher than that power which, from time to time, seizes our lives, and which reveals us startlingly to ourselves as creatures set down here bewildered?

Why does death so catch us by surprise, and why love?

We still and always want waking.
~Annie Dillard from “Write Till You Drop”

…today, the unseen was everything. The unknown, the only real fact of life.
~Kenneth Grahame from Wind in the Willow

To find your voice you must forget about finding it,
and trust that if you pay sufficient attention to life
you will be found to have something to say

which no one else can say.
~Denise Levertov

We search for the unseen, hoping to find meaning in the unknown.

I am bewildered by life much of the time. Anyone looking at these online postings can see the struggle as I wake each day to seek out what I’m called to do and how to make this sad and suffering world a little bit better place.

I have little to offer a reader other than my own wrestling match with the mysteries we all face.

When a light does shine out through darkness,  I am not surprised. I simply needed to pay attention. Illumination was there all the time, but I needed the eyes to see its beauty laid bare, peering through the cracks of darkness.

Light beyond shadow,
Joy beyond tears,
Love that is greater when darkest our fears;
deeper the Peace when the storm is around,
nearer the Hope to the lost who is found.
Light of the world, ever shining, shining!
Hope in our pain and our dying.
in our darkness, there is Light, in our crying,
there is Love, in the noise of life imparting
Peace that passes understanding.
Light beyond shadow,
Joy beyond tears,
Love that is greater when darkest our fears;
deeper the Peace when the storm is around,
nearer the Hope to the lost who is found.
-Paul Wigmore

Light after darkness, gain after loss,
Strength after weakness, crown after cross;
Sweet after bitter, hope after fears,
Home after wandering, praise after tears.
Alpha and Omega, beginning and the end,
He is making all things new.
Springs of living water shall wash away each tear,
He is making all things new. ​
Sight after mystery, sun after rain,
Joy after sorrow, peace after pain;
Near after distant, gleam after gloom,
Love after wandering, life after tomb.
~Frances Havergal

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Unchangeable Harmony

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

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.

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 together to save us from ourselves.

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Bowing Low to Wind and Rain

Light and wind are running
over the headed grass
as though the hill had
melted and now flowed.
~Wendell Berry “June Wind” from New Collected Poems

The rain to the wind said,
‘You push and I’ll pelt.’
They so smote the garden bed
That the flowers actually knelt,
And lay lodged–though not dead.
I know how the flowers felt.
~Robert Frost “Lodged”

All that I serve will die, all my delights,
the flesh kindled from my flesh, garden and field,
the silent lilies standing in the woods,
the woods, the hill, the whole earth, all
will burn in man’s evil, or dwindle
in its own age. Let the world bring on me
the sleep of darkness without stars, so I may know
my little light taken from me into the seed
of the beginning and the end, so I may bow
to mystery, and take my stand on the earth
like a tree in a field, passing without haste
or regret toward what will be, my life
a patient willing descent into the grass.
~Wendell Berry “The Wish to be Generous” from Collected Poems

The abundant grasses in the surrounding hay fields were hit hard with heavy rainfall and wind yesterday, collapsing under the weight of the pelting moisture.  Countless four foot tall tender stems are now lodged and flattened in undulating bent-over waves of green, embracing the earth from which they arose.  If the rain continues as predicted over the next several days, the grass may not recover, unable to dry out enough to stand upright again, nor are the fields dry enough to bring tractors and equipment to the rescue. 

It is ironic to lose a crop from too much of a good thing– lush growth demands, but often cannot withstand, quenching rains.  It has matured too fast, rising up too lush, too overcome with itself so that it can no longer stand. The grass keels over in community, broken and crumpled, likely now unsuitable for cutting or baling into hay, and unless chopped quickly into silage to ferment for winter cattle feed, it must melt back into the soil again.

However–if there are dry spells amid the showers over the next few days, with a breeze to lift the soaked heads and squeeze out the wet sponge created by layered forage–the lodged crop may survive and rise back up. It may be raised and lifted again, pushing up to meet the sun, its stems strengthening and straightening.

What once was so heavy laden and down-trodden might lighten;
what was silent could once again move and sing and wave with the wind.

The hill pasture, an open place among the trees,
tilts into the valley. The clovers and tall grasses
are in bloom. Along the foot of the hill
dark floodwater moves down the river.
The sun sets. Ahead of nightfall the birds sing.
I have climbed up to water the horses
and now sit and rest, high on the hillside,
letting the day gather and pass. Below me
cattle graze out across the wide fields of the bottomlands,
slow and preoccupied as stars. In this world
men are making plans, wearing themselves out,
spending their lives, in order to kill each other.

~Wendell Berry “In This World” from Farming: A Handbook

What stood will stand, though all be fallen,
The good return that time has stolen.
Though creatures groan in misery,
Their flesh prefigures liberty
To end travail and bring to birth
Their new perfection in new earth.
At word of that enlivening
Let the trees of the woods all sing
And every field rejoice, let praise
Rise up out of the ground like grass.
What stood, whole in every piecemeal
Thing that stood, will stand though all
Fall–field and woods and all in them
Rejoin the primal Sabbath’s hymn.
~Wendell Berry, from “Sabbaths” (North Point Press, 1987)
.

From The Nicene Creed

Et expecto resurrectionem motuorum.
Et vitam venturi saeculi. Amen. Alleluia. 

And I look for the resurrection of the dead,
And the life of the world to come. Amen. Alleluia

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What Is It I’m Trying to Say?

Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world,
and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar.

~Percy Bysshe Shelley from “A Defence of Poetry

Poetry may make us from time to time
a little more aware of the deeper, unnamed feelings
which form the substratum of our being,
to which we rarely penetrate;
for our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves.
—T.S. Eliot from The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism

Would anyone care to join me
in flicking a few pebbles in the direction
of teachers who are fond of asking the question:
“What is the poet trying to say?”

as if Thomas Hardy and Emily Dickinson
had struggled but ultimately failed in their efforts—
inarticulate wretches that they were,
biting their pens and staring out the window for a clue.

Yes, it seems that Whitman, Amy Lowell
and the rest could only try and fail
but we in Mrs. Parker’s third-period English class
here at Springfield High will succeed

with the help of these study questions
in saying what the poor poet could not,
and we will get all this done before
that orgy of egg salad and tuna fish known as lunch.

Tonight, however, I am the one trying
to say what it is this absence means,
the two of us sleeping and waking under different roofs.
The image of this vase of cut flowers,

not from our garden, is no help.
And the same goes for the single plate,
the solitary lamp, and the weather that presses its face
against these new windows–the drizzle and the
morning frost.

So I will leave it up to Mrs. Parker,
who is tapping a piece of chalk against the blackboard,
and her students—a few with their hands up,
others slouching with their caps on backwards—

to figure out what it is I am trying to say
about this place where I find myself
and to do it before the noon bell rings
and that whirlwind of meatloaf is unleashed.

~Billy Collins, “The Effort” from Ballistics.

Jan Davidsz de Heem. Vase of Flowers, 1660 National Gallery of ARt
photo by Josh Scholten

Poetry is the opening and closing of a door,
leaving those who look through to guess
about what is seen during the moment.
~Carl Sandburg

I am bewildered by life most of the time. Anyone looking at these online pages can see the struggle as I wake each day to seek out what I’m called to and how to make this sad and suffering world a bit better place.

I have so little wisdom to offer anyone with my own words, whether poetic or not. Instead, I describe my own wrestling match with the mysteries we all face.

When a light does somehow shine out through the murkiness,  I am not surprised.  It was there all the time, but by the grace of God I simply needed the eyes to see such beauty laid bare.

Only then I describe it as best I can.

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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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