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.
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
“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.
Make no mistake: if He rose at all it was as His body; if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the moleculesreknit, 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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.