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.

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.