The Beginning Shall Remind Us of the End: A Rare Radiant Descent

On the stiff twig up there
Hunches a wet black rook
Arranging and rearranging its feathers in the rain.
I do not expect a miracle
Or an accident

To set the sight on fire
In my eye, nor seek
Any more in the desultory weather some design,
But let spotted leaves fall as they fall,
Without ceremony, or portent.

Although, I admit, I desire,
Occasionally, some backtalk
From the mute sky, I can’t honestly complain:
A certain minor light may still
Lean incandescent

Out of kitchen table or chair
As if a celestial burning took
Possession of the most obtuse objects now and then —
Thus hallowing an interval
Otherwise inconsequent

By bestowing largesse, honor,
One might say love. At any rate, I now walk
Wary (for it could happen
Even in this dull, ruinous landscape); skeptical,
Yet politic; ignorant

Of whatever angel may choose to flare
Suddenly at my elbow. I only know that a rook
Ordering its black feathers can so shine
As to seize my senses, haul
My eyelids up, and grant

A brief respite from fear
Of total neutrality. With luck,
Trekking stubborn through this season
Of fatigue, I shall
Patch together a content

Of sorts. Miracles occur,
If you care to call those spasmodic
Tricks of radiance miracles. The wait’s begun again,
The long wait for the angel,
For that rare, random descent.
~Sylvia Plath “Black Rook in Rainy Weather”

Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this?
Luke 1:18

“How will this be?” Mary asked the angel…
Luke 1:34

Zechariah asks:
How can I be sure of what I’m told?
How can I trust this is true
even when it doesn’t make sense in my every day world?
How can the mundane be made divine?
How can I trust God to accomplish this?

These are not the questions to be asked
– this lack of trust for God’s sovereignty –
so he was struck mute,
speechless until immersed in the miracle of impossibility
and only then assured by the Lord and released from silence,
he sang loudly with praise for God’s tender mercy.

Instead, we should ask, like Mary:
How can this be?
How am I worthy?
How am I to be calm comprehending
this ineffable mystery?
How will I be different than I was before?

It is when we are most naked,
in our most vulnerable and emptiest circumstance –
then we are clothed and filled with God’s glorious assurance.
We do not need to know the details
to accept the moment of radiance He has brought upon us.
We just need willingness to be…
changed.

This year’s Barnstorming Advent theme “… the Beginning shall remind us of the End” is taken from the final lines in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”

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The Beginning Shall Remind Us of the End: Tenderness Begins to Form

This is the honest grace of her body:
that she is afraid, and in this moment does not
hide her fear...
Until in the cave of her body
she might feel without willing it a tenderness
begin to form. Like the small, ghostly
clover of the meadow; the deer hidden
in the hills. A tenderness like mourning.
The source of love, she thinks, is mourning.
…the child that will soon form
inside her body, this loss by which we come
to bend before the given, its arms that open
unexplained, and take us in.
~Laurie Sheck from “The Annunciation”

Like Mary, we have no way of knowing… We can ask for courage, however, and trust that God has not led us into this new land only to abandon us there.
~Kathleen Norris from God With Us

As if until that moment
nothing real
had happened since Creation

As if outside the world were empty
so that she and he were all
there was — he mover, she moved upon

As if her submission were the most
dynamic of all works: as if
no one had ever said Yes like that

As if one day the sun had no place
in all the universe to pour its gold
but her small room
~Luci Shaw “Virgin”

Like most people, I want my life to be the way I want it:
my plans, my timing, my hopes and dreams first and foremost.

And then stuff happens and suddenly nothing looks the way it was supposed to be. I feel emptied of the future I had envisioned.

Yet only then, as an empty vessel, can I be filled.

In the annunciation of the angel, Mary’s response to this overwhelming circumstance is a model for us all when we are hit by a wave of circumstances we didn’t expect and had not prepared for.

She is prepared; she has studied and knows God’s Word and His promise to His people, even in the midst of trouble. She is able to articulate it beautifully in the song she sings as her response. She gives up her so-carefully-planned-out life to give life to God within her.

Her resilience sings through the ages and to each one of us in our troubles:
may it be to me as you say.

May it be.
Your plans, Your purpose, Your promise.
Let it be.
Even if it may pierce my soul as with a sword.
You are there with your exquisite tenderness to stem the bleeding so I sing through my fear, through my weariness, and through my tears.

The angel Gabriel from heaven came
His wings as drifted snow his eyes as flame
“All hail” said he “thou lowly maiden
Mary, Most highly favored lady,” Gloria!

“For known a blessed mother thou shalt be,
All generations laud and honor thee,
Thy Son shall be Emanuel, by seers foretold
Most highly favored lady,” Gloria!

Then gentle Mary meekly bowed her head
“To me be as it pleaseth God,” she said,
“My soul shall laud and magnify his holy name.”
Most highly favored lady. Gloria!

Of her, Emmanuel, the Christ was born
In Bethlehem, all on a Christmas morn
And Christian folk throughout the world will ever say:
“Most highly favored lady,” Gloria!

This year’s Barnstorming Advent theme “… the Beginning shall remind us of the End” is taken from the final lines in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”

The Beginning Shall Remind Us of the End: This Visited Planet

…the little baby, born in such pitiful humility and cut down as a young man in his prime, commands the allegiance of millions of people all over the world. Although they have never seen him, he has become friend and companion to innumerable people. This undeniable fact is, by any measurement, the most astonishing phenomenon in human history.

That is why … we should not try to escape a sense of awe, almost a sense of fright, at what God has done. We must never allow anything to blind us to the true significance of what happened at Bethlehem so long ago. Nothing can alter the fact that we live on a visited planet.

We shall be celebrating no beautiful myth, no lovely piece of traditional folklore, but a solemn fact. God has been here once historically, but, as millions will testify, he will come again with the same silence and the same devastating humility into any human heart ready to receive him.
~J.B. Phillips from “The Dangers of Advent” in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas.

During this month of advent waiting, I am, once again, humbled by the fact of our God not only “visiting” His children within His created world, but becoming one with us. He committed Himself to far more than a brief visit; He came to rescue us from ourselves. That we are valued enough to warrant this – that our spiritual deterioration necessitates His humble sacrifice – is astonishing.

In Philippians 2: Though he was God,
      he did not think of equality with God
      as something to cling to.
  Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
      he took the humble position of a slave
      and was born as a human being.
  When he appeared in human form,
       he humbled himself in obedience to God
      and died a criminal’s death on a cross. (2:6-8)

The story of Christ come to earth is the beginning of His earthly life of humility and obedience, to remind us how our story will conclude at the end of time. He calls us to model humility and obedience throughout the Advent season, and until He comes again.

As in the song below:

Dark and cheerless is the morn
Till Your love in me is born
Joyless is the evening sun
‘till Emmanuel has come

This is no brief visit. The Light has come to stay put and stay on.

Christ whose glory fills the skies
Christ the Everlasting Light
Son of Righteousness arise
Triumph o’er these shades of night

Come Thou long awaited one
In the fullness of Your Love
Loose this heart bound up by shame
And I will never be the same

So here I wait in hope of You,
My soul’s longing through and through
Dayspring from on high be near
Daystar in my heart appear

Dark and cheerless is the morn
‘Till Your love in me is born
Joyless is the evening sun
‘till Emmanuel has come

So here I wait in hope of You,
My soul’s longing through and through
Dayspring from on high be near
Daystar in my heart appear
So here I wait in hope of You,
My soul’s longing through and through
Dayspring from on high be near
Daystar in my heart appear
~Christy Nockels “Advent Hymn”

Now may the fragrance of His peace
Soar through your heart like the dove released
Hide in His wings oh weary, distant soul
He’ll guide your spirit home
And may His love poured from on high
Flow to the depths of your deepest sigh
Oh come and drink from the only living stream
And on His shoulder lean
And may the hope that will not deceive
Through every pain bring eternal ease
There is no night that can steal the promises
His coming brings to us
So may His joy rush over you
Delight in the path He has called you to
May all your steps walk in
Heaven’s endless light
Beyond this Christmas night (Make your sole purpose Christ)
~Keith and Kristyn Getty

This year’s Barnstorming Advent theme “… the Beginning shall remind us of the End” is taken from the final lines in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”

Full of Mystery

It’s strange to be here. The mystery never leaves you. 
~John O’Donohue from Anam Cara

We must learn to acknowledge
that the creation is full of mystery;
we will never entirely understand it.
We must abandon arrogance
and stand in awe.
We must recover the sense
of the majesty of creation,
and the ability to be worshipful in its presence.
For I do not doubt that it is only
on the condition of humility and reverence before the world
that our species will be able to remain in it.
~Wendell Berry from  The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays

How did we come here and how is it we remain?

Even when the wind blows mightily,
the waters rise,
the earth shakes,
the fires rage,
the pandemic persists…

~we are here, granted another day to get it right. And will we?

It is strange to be here,
marveling at the mystery around us –
recognizing we are the ultimate mystery of creation,
placed here as its witnesses,
worshiping in humility, with reverence and obedience.

We don’t own what we see;
we only own our awe.

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Waiting in Wilderness: What is Expected

Look at the birds 1
Consider the lilies 2
Drink ye all of it 3

Ask 4
Seek
Knock
Enter by the narrow gate 5

Do not be anxious 6
Judge not; 7 do not give dogs what is holy 8

Go: be it done for you 9
Do not be afraid 10
Maiden, arise 11
Young man, I say, arise 12

Stretch out your hand 13
Stand up, 14 be still 15
Rise, let us be going … 16

Love 17
Forgive 18
Remember me 19
~Kathleen Norris Imperatives, from
Journey: New and Selected Poems/ Mysteries of the Incarnation

These are the essentials of what Jesus asks.
Basic, simple, gentle, emphatic, encouraging.
So why don’t I follow through?
Why do I hand myself over to anxiety and fear?
Why do I fail at what should be so simple?
He knows I need reminders. He knows I am weak.
So He says it again: don’t forget this.
Remember me.
I will remember. I will remember You.

1 Matthew 6:26. See also Luke 12:24, “Consider the ravens.”
2 Matthew 6:28; Luke 12:27.
3 “Drink from it, all of you” (Matthew 26:27). Norris uses the King James translation here.
4 This stanza is a series of Jesus’s commands from the Sermon on the Mount: “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you” (Matthew 7:7, King James; also Luke 11:9).
5 Matthew 7:13-14; also Luke 13:23-24.
6 Matthew 6:25, 31; Luke 12:22, 29.
7 Matthew 7:1; Mark 4:24; Luke 6:37-38.
8 Matthew 7:6.
9 Matthew 8:13.
10 “Do not be afraid” – a frequent command by Jesus; for example, Matthew 10:31; 14:27; 17:7; 28:10.
11 The healing of Jairus’s daughter: “Little girl, get up!” (Mark 5:41; also Luke 8:54).
12 The healing the widow’s only son; Luke 7:14.
13 The healing of the man with the withered hand: Matthew 12:13; Mark 3:1-6; Luke 6:6-11.
14 Jesus’s healing the paralyzed man: Matthew 9:2-8; Mark 2:1-12; Luke 5:17-26.
15 Jesus’s command to the ocean: Mark 5:39; also Matthew 8:26; Luke 8:24.
16 Jesus to his disciples in Gethsemane: “Rise, let us be going: behold, he is at hand that doth betray me” (Matthew 26:46; Mark 14:42).
17Jesus’s two great commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. … You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39; also Mark 12:28-31; Luke 10:25-28).
18 Matthew 18:21-22; Luke 17:4.

Only To Do What He Could

No taste of food, no feel of water, no sound of wind, no memory of tree or grass or flower, no image of moon or star are left to me. I am naked in the dark, Sam, and there is no veil between me and the wheel of fire. I begin to see it even with my waking eyes, and all else fades.
~J.R.R. Tolkien The Lord of the Rings

Frodo is a study of a hobbit broken by a burden of fear and horror— broken down, and in the end made into something quite different. Frodo undertook his quest out of love– to save the world he knew from disaster at his own expense, if he could; and also in complete humility, acknowledging that he was wholly inadequate to the task His real contract was only to do what he could, to try to find a way, and to go as far on the road as his strength of mind and body allowed. He did that.
~J.R.R. Tolkien

We are regularly called to do more than we feel capable of accomplishing. Whether we are in the midst of a crisis of confidence, feeling beaten down, physically and emotionally vulnerable, or just plain scared – it is tempting to shrink away from doing what is needed.

Our call to obedience may not be quite as dramatic as Frodo’s monumental task of saving the world from destruction by evil forces — it may simply be getting out of bed and facing the day despite pain and overwhelming sorrow — but it takes no less courage and strength.

We are equipped by the intimacy of the Word of God speaking to each of us individually, instructing us on how to live these days we are given.

Like Frodo, we are to do what we can, to find a way through darkness and fire and threat, and to go down that road as far as our minds and bodies allow. We are inadequate by ourselves, but we are bolstered by the constancy of God alongside. We never travel alone.

Like Right Now

It could happen any time, tornado,
earthquake, Armageddon. It could happen.


Or sunshine, love, salvation.

It could, you know. That’s why we wake
and look out––no guarantees
in this life.

But some bonuses, like morning,
like right now, like noon,
like evening.
~William Stafford “Yes”
from The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems

Of course there are no guarantees — no matter how selfless we are, how devout our practices, how righteous we appear in others’ eyes.

The natural disaster still happens, the illness progresses, the unexpected still happens because there is no warranty on how things must go while we’re here.

What is guaranteed is our vision of God’s glory as portrayed through His infinite sacrifice, His infinite worth, His infinite value, His infinite presence and transcendence. We glorify him through our enjoyment of Him — right now, right here — the bonus of another morning, another noon, another evening. It is bonus, not anything we are owed.

Guaranteed glorious. Unlimited warranty.

Go This Way

paths

 

We want to reach the kingdom of God,
but we don’t want to travel by way of death.
And yet there stands Necessity saying:
‘This way, please.’
Do not hesitate to go this way,
when this is the way that God came to you.
~ Augustine

 

fogdriveway2

 

 

We too easily forget;
we are not asked to bear more
than God endured for us.
We follow a well-worn path
bearing the footprints of Him
who has come to lead us home.

 

 

beechtrail

 

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Waiting for Seven Ducks in a Muddy Pond

duckchelan2

 

Perhaps it was his plain talk about the Word of God. Perhaps it was his folksy stories tying that Word to our lives. Perhaps it was because he was, like the rest of us, so fully a flawed and forgiven human being. Pastor Bruce Hemple ministered to thousands over his lifetime of service, yet the simple act of climbing the steps up to the pulpit at Wiser Lake Chapel was nearly impossible for him.

Bruce had one leg. The other was lost to an above the knee amputation due to severe diabetes. He wore an ill-fitting prosthetic leg that never allowed a normal stride and certainly proved a challenge when ascending stairs. He would come early to the sanctuary to climb the several steps to the chair behind the pulpit so he would not have to struggle in front of the congregation at the start of the service. As we would enter to find our pew seats, he would be deep in thought and prayer, already seated by the pulpit.

He often said he knew he was a difficult person to live with because of his constant pain and health problems. His family confirmed that was indeed true, but what crankiness he exhibited through much of the week evaporated once he was at the pulpit. Standing there balanced on his good leg with his prosthesis acting as a brace, he was transformed and blessed with clarity of thought and expression. His pain was left behind.

He came to our church after many years of military chaplaincy, having served in Korea and Vietnam and a number of stateside assignments. He liked to say he “learned to meet people where they were” rather than where he thought they needed to be. His work brought him face to face with thousands of soldiers from diverse faiths and backgrounds, or in many cases, no faith at all, yet he ministered to each one in the way that was needed at that moment. He helped some as they lay dying and others who suffered so profoundly they wished they would die. He was there for them all and he was there for us.

One of his memorable sermons came from 2Kings 5: 1-19 about the healing of the great warrior Naaman who was afflicted with leprosy. Pastor Bruce clearly identified with Naaman and emphasized the message of obedience to God as the key to Naaman’s healing. Like Naaman, no one would desire “Seven Ducks in a Muddy Pond” but once Naaman was obedient despite his pride and doubts, he was cured of the incurable by bathing in the muddy Jordan River.

Even upon his retirement, Bruce continued to preach when churches needed a fill in pastor, and he took a part time job managing a community food and clothing bank, connecting with people who needed his words of encouragement. He was called regularly to officiate at weddings and funerals, especially for those without a church. He would oblige as his time and health allowed.

His last sermon was delivered on a freezing windy December day at a graveside service for a young suicide victim he had never known personally. Pastor Bruce was standing at the head of the casket and having concluded his message, he bowed his head to pray, continued to bend forward, appeared to embrace the casket and breathed his last. He was gone, just like that.

He was not standing up high at the pulpit the day he died. He was obediently getting muddy in the muck and mess of life, and waiting, as we all are, for the moment he’d be washed clean.

 

chelanduck2

Epiphany

sunset15165

 

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
~T.S. Eliot from “Journey of the Magi”

 

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Unclench your fists
Hold out your hands.
Take mine.
Let us hold each other.
Thus is his Glory Manifest.
~Madeleine L’Engle “Epiphany”

Venus & Mercury
Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. 
The beauty of it smote his heart,
as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. 
For like a shaft, clear and cold,
the thought pierced him that in the end
the Shadow was only a small and passing thing:
there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.
~J.R.R. Tolikien, The Return of the King

________________________________

 

Epiphany is the day of acknowledging God’s glory revealed in our lives, illuminating the darkness that surrounds us. With infinite heaviness and lightness we accept our new role as weak and crumbling vessels become beautiful as God is made manifest within us.

It is not the easy path to accept the ultimate freedom that requires our true sacrifice of self, just as it was not easy for the visiting magi traveling far from home — or for Mary saying yes to God even as her own heart is pierced by what that means for her.

Today we too shall say yes, trusting Him as we take His offered hand.

 

“Like Mary, we have no way of knowing… We can ask for courage, however, and trust that God has not led us into this new land only to abandon us there.”
~Kathleen Norris from God With Us

 

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