He Does Not Leave Us Where We Are: Between Heaven and Earth

Slowly the west reaches for clothes of new colors
which it passes to a row of ancient trees.
You look, and soon these two worlds both leave you
one part climbs toward heaven, one sinks to earth.

leaving you, not really belonging to either,
not so hopelessly dark as that house that is silent,
not so unswervingly given to the eternal as that thing
that turns to a star each night and climbs–

leaving you (it is impossible to untangle the threads)
your own life, timid and standing high and growing,
so that, sometimes blocked in, sometimes reaching out,
one moment your life is a stone in you, and the next, a star.
~Rainer Maria Rilke “Sunset” (Trans. by Robert Bly) from The Soul is Here for Its Own Joy


We, frail people that we are, live out our lives between heaven and earth, sometimes in an uneasy tug-of-war between the two. We feel not quite ready for heaven as our roots go deep here, yet the challenges of daily life on this soil can seem overwhelmingly difficult and we seek relief, begging for mercy.

As we struggle to stay healthy during a spreading pandemic, it is frightening to watch others suffer as death tolls rise. We pray for safety for ourselves and those we love, knowing we are living “in between” where we are now and where we soon will be.

Shall we remain stones on the ground, still and lifeless, or are we destined to become a star glistening in the firmament?

Or are we like a tree stretching between soil and sky trying to touch both and remain standing while buffeted by forces beyond our control?

Christ the Son, on earth and in heaven, maintains an eternal connection to above and below. In His hands and under His protection, we are safe no matter where we are and where He takes us.

We can be mere stones no more.

This year’s Barnstorming theme for the season of Lent:

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 Does Not Leave Us Where We Are: Living is Not Delicate

From other
angles the
fibers look
fragile, but
not from the
spider’s, always
hauling coarse
ropes, hitching
lines to the
best posts
possible. It’s
heavy work
everyplace,
fighting sag,
winching up
give. It
isn’t ever
delicate
to live.

~Kay Ryan “Spiderweb” (2010)

Despite His fragility as a newborn baby, we know the Son of God was equipped with the toughness needed for a life that started out homeless, then becoming a refugee with displaced parents seeking safety in a foreign land.

He grew up in a dusty little town, learning a trade with His hands. He knew what it took to make something strong enough to be worthy. He knew how much it would take to make us, His children, sturdy and worthy.

His Word tells us clearly there is nothing delicate about the life of Jesus; we know it took a strong mother to feed him and care for him, a loving and steadfast father to raise and teach him, and without both, he would not have survived. Once He began His preaching, He gathered about Him disciples who were hard-working people, toughened by the necessity of survival day-to-day. There was nothing delicate about living a homeless life on the road, sleeping on the ground, depending on the good will of others.

There was nothing delicate about becoming the foundational sacrifice for us, His suffering making possible our new Home.

Jesus asks us, His beautiful creation, to choose to cling to Him instead of earthly things. He does not sag or tear under pressure. He doesn’t leave us dangling. Life in Jesus is never delicate – it takes toughness, foresight, strength and the persistence to repair and restore when things are torn.

And this new Home is beautiful. There is nothing else more beautiful.

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 Does Not Leave Us Where We Are: A Bud on Dead Wood

I am a breath
Of fresh air for you, a change
By and by.

Black March I call him
Because of his eyes
Being like March raindrops
On black twigs.

But this friend
Whatever new names I give him
Is an old friend. He says:

Whatever names you give me
I am
A breath of fresh air,
A change for you.
~Stevie Smith from “Black March”

Suddenly, in the last week, buds are forming everywhere.

From seemingly dead wood
that stands cold and dormant in late March,
comes new life, returning like an old friend.

Transforming what seems lifeless,
as if fresh air has been breathed into a corpse.

What could be more lifeless than a cross piece of timbers
built specifically for execution?

Yet life sprung from that death tree,
an unexpected and glorious bud,
ready to burst into most fragrant blossom.

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

O Deus, ego amo te,
O God I love Thee for Thyself
Nec amo te ut salves me,
and not that I may heaven gain
Nec quod qui te non diligent,
nor yet that they who love Thee not
Æterno igne pereunt.
must suffer hell’s eternal pain.

Ex cruces lingo germinat,
Out of the bud of the wood of the Cross
Qui pectus amor occupant,
wherefore hearts’ love embraces
Ex pansis unde brachiis,
whence out of extended arms
Ad te amandum arripes. Amen.
you lovingly take us. Amen.
~Prayer of St. Francis Xavier  “O Deus Ego Amo Te” 18th Century Traditional

But By His Grace: Waiting Patiently

For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.
Romans 8:24-25

An absolute
patience.
Trees stand
up to their knees in
fog. The fog
slowly flows
uphill.
White
cobwebs, the grass
leaning where deer
have looked for apples.
The woods
from brook to where
the top of the hill looks
over the fog, send up
not one bird.
So absolute, it is
no other than
happiness itself, a breathing
too quiet to hear.
~Denise Levertov “The Breathing”

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
    and in his word I put my hope.
My soul waits for the Lord
    more than watchmen wait for the morning,
    more than watchmen wait for the morning.
Psalm 130: 5-6 from a Song of Ascents

Waiting is essential to the spiritual life. But waiting as a disciple of Jesus is not an empty waiting. It is a waiting with a promise in our hearts that makes already present what we are waiting for. We wait during Advent for the birth of Jesus. We wait after Easter for the coming of the Spirit, and after the ascension of Jesus we wait for his coming again in glory. We are always waiting, but it is a waiting in the conviction that we have already seen God’s footsteps.
— Henri Nouwen from Bread For The Journey: A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith

The world’s people wait impatiently: sheltering at home, watching jobs and savings dissipate, feeling wholly isolated, praying this plague will bypass our doorsteps and fade away. 

The hard part is not knowing how long we must wait for life to feel safe and normal again (as if it ever was!). We want our reprieve, our salvation now.

Yet we can have certainty that eventually all will be well. We have seen His footprints beside us and His Word is spoken with a quiet breath.

He is here among us. 

So shall we persevere together, with patience, watching and hoping –
a community groaning together in sweet expectation of the morning.

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

But By His Grace: In Solitudes of Peace

Now a red, sleepy sun above the rim
Of twilight stares along the quiet weald,
And the kind, simple country shines revealed
In solitudes of peace, no longer dim.
The old horse lifts his face and thanks the light,
Then stretches down his head to crop the green.
All things that he has loved are in his sight;
The places where his happiness has been
Are in his eyes, his heart, and they are good.
~Siegfried Sassoon from “Break of Day”

When we are at war,
whether deep in the foxhole
hiding from the enemy,
or fighting against a wily pathogen
which makes its hidden way, person to person,
we sing our battle hymn without ceasing.

Amid the suffering
we dream of better days
and an untroubled past,
when the hunter and hunted was merely a game,
not real life and even more real death.

This is war against a contagious disease,
not against one another.

Move away from reading 24 hour headlines.
Avoid being crushed in the numbers of viral dead and dying;
ignore the politics of power
or by those frantically salvaging shredded investments
or hoarding the last from bare shelves.

Do not forget
how the means of peace was
sent to earth
directly from God
by one Man walking among us.

So stay home, giving the enemy no fresh place to invade.
Pray for those who sacrifice much to care for the ill.

A new day breaks fresh each morning
and folds gently and quietly each evening.
Be glad to live another day
with all those things you love within your sight:
so glad, so grateful, such glory
to be reminded how rich we all are.

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

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord
You are speaking truth to power, you are laying down our swords
Replanting every vineyard ’til a brand new wine is poured
Your peace will make us one

I’ve seen you in our home fires burning with a quiet light
You are mothering and feeding in the wee hours of the night
Your gentle love is patient, you will never fade or tire
Your peace will make us one

Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Your peace will make us one

In the beauty of the lilies, you were born across the sea
With a glory in your bosom that is still transfiguring
Dismantling our empires ’til each one of us is free
Your peace will make us one

Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Your peace will make us one

He Accepts Us As We Are: In Rock’s Fixity

I rise today
in the power’s strength, invoking the Trinity
believing in threeness,
confessing the oneness,
of creation’s Creator.

I rise today
in heaven’s might,
in sun’s brightness,
in moon’s radiance,
in fire’s glory,
in lightning’s quickness,
in wind’s swiftness,
in sea’s depth,
in earth’s stability,
in rock’s fixity.

I rise today
with the power of God to pilot me,
God’s strength to sustain me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look ahead for me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to protect me,
God’s way before me,
God’s shield to defend me,
God’s host to deliver me,
from snares of devils,
from evil temptations,
from nature’s failings,
from all who wish to harm me,
far or near,
alone and in a crowd.

Around me I gather today all these powers
against every cruel and merciless force
to attack my body and soul.

May Christ protect me today
against poison and burning,
against drowning and wounding,
so that I may have abundant reward;
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me;
Christ within me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me;
Christ to the right of me, Christ to the left of me;
Christ in my lying, Christ in my sitting, Christ in my rising;
Christ in the heart of all who think of me,
Christ on the tongue of all who speak to me,
Christ in the eye of all who see me,
Christ in the ear of all who hear me.

For to the Lord belongs
salvation,
and to the Lord belongs salvation
and to Christ belongs salvation.
May your salvation, Lord, be with us always.

—”Saint Patrick’s Breastplate,”
Old Irish, eighth-century prayer.

St. Patrick’s grave marker

Every year on March 17, St. Patrick is little remembered for his selfless missionary work in Ireland in the fifth century. When we visited his grave in Ireland – a humble stone fixed upon on a hill top next to a cathedral overlooking the sea – I wondered what he would make of how this day, dubbed with his name, is celebrated now.

Perhaps Patrick would observe that this year, March 17 is much quieter and more contemplative than typical. Worldwide we are considering our frail and fragile physical and economic vulnerabilities due to the pandemic viral outbreak.

Patrick, in his prayer, urges us to rise up to meet God’s power of salvation in our lives, even in the toughest scariest times.

God is our Rock and our Redeemer. We are fixed upon Him.

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

May the strength of God pilot us,
May the wisdom of God instruct us,
May the hand of God protect us,
May the word of God direct us.
Be always ours this day and for evermore.

He Accepts Us As We Are: Going to Pieces

Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.
~Martin Luther

There is big excitement in C block today.
On the window sill,
in a plastic ice cream cup
a little plant is growing.
This is all the men want to talk about:
how an apple seed germinated
in a crack of damp concrete;
how they tore open tea bags
to collect the leaves, leached them
in water, then laid the sprout onto the bed
made of Lipton. How this finger of spring
dug one delicate root down
into the dark fannings and now
two small sleeves of green
are pushing out from the emerging tip.
The men are tipsy with this miracle.
Each morning, one by one,
they go to the window and check
the progress of the struggling plant.
All through the day they return
to stand over the seedling
and whisper.
~Nancy Miller Gomez “Growing Apples”

As a child I was fascinated by the early 1800’s story of John Chapman (aka Johnny Appleseed) who traveled on foot around the eastern United States creating nurseries of apple trees.  When our family traveled in Ohio and Pennsylvania in the 1960s, we visited places that claimed to have apple trees planted by John Chapman.  I marveled at how one little seed planted in such confident faith had the potential to produce decades of fruit and hope for generations of folk.

My two childhood farms had old apple trees–gravensteins and transparent varieties–good for climbing in and always great as scratching branches and shady snoozing spots for the horses and cows.  One had a platform fort where I spent hours sitting munching on apple cores, surveying the fields and enjoying watching the animals standing beneath me, relaxed, napping, chewing cud and swatting flies.

When we bought our farm here in Whatcom County over thirty years ago, there were left a few antique variety apple trees of a once vital orchard.  They were aging, with bent and broken branches and hollowed trunks, but still continued to produce fruit, great for baking, sauce, cider and winter storage. We’ve lost a few of the old trees over the years to the wind and elements,  though now nearly a century old, the survivors keep providing.

It seems God has accepted I follow my own appleseed trail, so no matter what may happen in my own life, if I’ve planted a seed that takes root, there will be fruit and hope for the future. The Lord Himself continues to plant seeds and words in the midst of a world going to pieces. 

Some day fifty years from now, a kid sitting high up in the branches of an apple tree,  contemplating life and its meaning,  will have an apple to munch and words to chew.

“O the Lord is good to me
and so I thank the Lord
for giving me the things I need-
the sun, the rain, and my appleseeds-
the Lord is good to me!”

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

The tree of life my soul hath seen,
Laden with fruit and always green:
The trees of nature fruitless be
Compared with Christ the apple tree.

His beauty doth all things excel:
By faith I know, but ne’er can tell
The glory which I now can see
In Jesus Christ the apple tree.

For happiness I long have sought,
And pleasure dearly I have bought:
I missed of all; but now I see
Tis found in Christ the apple tree.

I’m weary with my former toil,
Here I will sit and rest awhile:
Under the shadow I will be,
Of Jesus Christ the apple tree.

This fruit doth make my soul to thrive,
It keeps my dying faith alive;
Which makes my soul in haste to be
With Jesus Christ the apple tree.