Dawn on our Darkness: Fleeing the Wrath, Shouldering the Load

We think of him as safe beneath the steeple,
Or cosy in a crib beside the font,
But he is with a million displaced people
On the long road of weariness and want.
For even as we sing our final carol
His family is up and on that road,
Fleeing the wrath of someone else’s quarrel,
Glancing behind and shouldering their load.
Whilst Herod rages still from his dark tower
Christ clings to Mary, fingers tightly curled,
The lambs are slaughtered by the men of power,
And death squads spread their curse across the world.
But every Herod dies, and comes alone
To stand before the Lamb upon the throne.

~Malcolm Guite “Refugee”

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

We kill at every step, not only in wars, riots, and executions. We kill when we close our eyes to poverty, suffering, and shame. In the same way all disrespect for life, all hard heartedness, all indifference, and all contempt is nothing else than killing. With just a little witty skepticism we can kill a good deal of the future in a young person. Life is waiting everywhere, the future is flowering every­where, but we only see a small part of it and step on much of it with our feet.
~Hermann Hesse, from Vivos Voco, 1919

For centuries, too many people have had to make the choice of living (and likely dying) oppressed in the midst of conflict and war or they attempt their escape to an uncertain fate on the other side of a border, a fence, or a turbulent sea. Some are given no options and are sold into slavery, taken where their captors wish, or have been rounded up and forced to live far from their ancestral homes.

Some of us descend from people who made the difficult decision to escape war, or hunger, or oppression, or extreme poverty. We live and thrive by the grace and mercy of God to these ancestors.

This God was a refugee Himself, fleeing from a king who sought Him dead. This God knows what it is like to be hated and pursued. He knows the wrath and cruelty of His fellow man.

This God has a name, He has a face and a voice and it is He who ultimately holds our fate in His hands.

This God is not forgotten nor has He forgotten us. He will return to forever banish the darkness surrounding us.

This year’s Advent theme “Dawn on our Darkness” is taken from this 19th century Christmas hymn:

Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
dawn on our darkness and lend us your aid.
Star of the east, the horizon adorning,
guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.
~Reginald Heber -from “Brightest and Best”

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Being in the Driver’s Seat

I heard an old man speak once,
someone who had been sober for fifty years,
a very prominent doctor.
He said that he’d finally figured out a few years ago
that his profound sense of control,
in the world and over his life,
is another addiction and a total illusion.
He said that when he sees little kids sitting in the back seat of cars,
in those car seats that have steering wheels,
with grim expressions of concentration on their faces,
clearly convinced that their efforts are causing the car
to do whatever it is doing,
he thinks of himself
and his relationship with God:
God who drives along silently,
gently amused,
in the real driver’s seat.

~Anne Lamott from Operating Instructions

We want to steer life in the way we want it to go:
our plans, our timing, our chosen destination,
our hopes and dreams matter first and foremost.

And then life happens and suddenly the road ceases to look familiar and we don’t seem to be going the direction we intended.

Who is doing the driving anyway?

We are under the illusion that we are in control:

Sadness and hopelessness, frustration and anger stem from discouragement over our lack of control over where we are headed. We feel there is no turning back, unable to see the road signs to another path to a different future.

There is an epidemic of hopelessness and helplessness especially among children and young adults – their path is murky, their debts too great, their reserves too limited, their foundations too shaky, their hope nonexistent, their future too dim.

Relinquishing control by giving up the driver’s seat is not in our nature. We want to be seen as competent and feel as though we are prepared to be the captain of our fate.

Instead we need to give up our carefully planned-out life to the God who created us and has it all planned for us.

We turn over the steering wheel saying: 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 to plug the bleeding hole.

And I will follow wherever you steer me.

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A Power That Moves Through the World

Usually, after turning out that forgotten barn light, I sit on the edge of the tractor bucket for a few minutes and let my eyes adjust to the night outside. City people always notice the darkness here, but it’s never very dark if you wait till your eyes owl out a little….

I’m always glad to have to walk down to the barn in the night, and I always forget that it makes me glad. I heave on my coat, stomp into my barn boots and trudge down toward the barn light, muttering at myself. But then I sit in the dark, and I remember this gladness, and I walk back up to the gleaming house, listening for the horses.
~Verlyn Klinkenborg from A Light in the Barn

Inside the barn the sheep were standing, pushed close to one
another. Some were dozing, some had eyes wide open listening
in the dark. Some had no doubt heard of wolves. They looked
weary with all the burdens they had to carry, like being thought
of as stupid and cowardly, disliked by cowboys for the way they
eat grass about an inch into the dirt, the silly look they have
just after shearing, of being one of the symbols of the Christian
religion. In the darkness of the barn their woolly backs were
full of light gathered on summer pastures. Above them their
white breath was suspended, while far off in the pine woods,
night was deep in silence. The owl and rabbit were wondering,
along with the trees, if the air would soon fill with snowflakes,
but the power that moves through the world and makes our
hair stand on end was keeping the answer to itself.
~Tom Hennen “Sheep in the Winter Night” from Darkness Sticks to Everything: Collected and New Poems.

There is so much about this world I don’t understand – headline news of each day seems to cause more questions and a sense of even deeper mystery. There are times when I feel all my hairs rising in gooseflesh at my privilege of being alive witnessing history as it plays out now, and wondering where it will lead to.

I don’t have to have answers now to appreciate the mystery of the gift given to me each day.

Half a lifetime ago, I was far more confident of the extent of my learned knowledge after so many years in school and training; now I am far more content about knowing there is much I will never understand.

All shall be revealed in the fullness of time.
And time is getting fuller by the minute.

I want to know why too many are taken from us too young, why there is persisting darkness and evil causing us fear and suffering, why we stumble and fall and fail before we can ever consider flying. I want to know why we can’t trust one another or trust God when there are simply things that can’t be known yet.

Most of all I need faith that God has my life and your life in His hands. His power moving through our hearts is real and true and trustworthy even if we don’t know all the answers to our questions yet.

So like sheep, huddled and frightened, we wait for our Shepherd’s voice to tell us what comes next. He leaves the light on for us when we are overwhelmed by the darkness.

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As Quiet As a Feather

Today I’m flying low and I’m
not saying a word.

…I’m taking the day off.
Quiet as a feather.
I hardly move though really I’m traveling
a terrific distance.

Stillness. One of the doors
into the temple.
~Mary Oliver from “Today” from A Thousand Mornings

Some days warrant stillness.
On this Sabbath day of rest,
seek to be quiet as a feather,
silently in place, listening.

Maybe, hear each other again.
Surely, hear the Word of God.

A funny thing about feathers:
alone, each one is merely fluff and air.
Together — feathers become lift and power,
with strength and will to soar
beyond the tether of gravity’s
pull on our flawed humanity back to dust.

As quiet as a feather,
joined and united, one overlapping another,
rise above and fly
as far as your life and breath can take you.

May peace be still.

Thank you, once again, to the chickens displayed at the NW Washington Fair in Lynden last week, who struggled to be still in their cages for these close-up feather photos….

More Barnstorming photos and poems from Lois Edstrom are available in this book from Barnstorming. Order here:


Standing on Holy Ground

I am still skeptical about the reasons some seek spirituality in the land,
for the spirituality the land offers is anything but easy.

It is the spirituality of a God who would, with lightening and earthquakes, sneeze away the bland moralism preached in many pulpits,
a wildly free, undomesticated divinity,
the same God who demands of Moses from a burning bush,
“Remove your shoes,
for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”

When God appears to Job, the comforting sentiments we might expect to feel are absent because such sentiments
are at most God’s trappings, not the infinite himself.
The God who speaks to Job from the whirlwind reminds him that, comforting or terrifying, he alone is God.  
To be satisfied with anything less
would be the spiritual catastrophe the Old Testament calls idolatry.

Some of our idols shatter in the West’s rugged vastness, others remain.

Perhaps God leaves exposed the land’s brokenness –
the scars of forest fires,
the fossils of extinct biospheres,
rifts showing ancient continents now scattered like puzzle pieces –
to remind us that he is greater than the icon, too.

The heavens and earth will wear out like a garment, the Psalmist says, like clothes that are changed.

“But You neither change, nor have an end.”
Psalm 102:27
~Anthony Lusvardi from “Nature is Your Church?”

We are now 45 days into a hotter dry spell this summer with a slight possibility of some rain next week. Everything here in the Pacific Northwest is looking as it would in late August with the snow melt in the Cascades much accelerated from its usual timeline. With the fires already happening for weeks on the eastern side of the state, as well as to the north of us in British Columbia and south in Oregon and California, we are looking at a withering August of smoke and ash.

Dan and I headed up the Mt. Baker Highway yesterday evening to see how bare Baker and Shuksan look up close. We wonder what snow will be left before our typical precipitation begins in earnest in early October. These seemingly unchanging monoliths are being stripped of their usual garments, now naked and vulnerable. They are subject to God’s transforming power just as surely as we are.

When I stand at the foot of these peaks, I never fail to be awed to a whisper, as if I were inside an immense cathedral. God reminds us to remove our shoes out of respect for His holy ground. Yet I worship not the mountains nor the awe-inspiring landscape they are placed in, but worship their Creator whose strength and love is greater than all.

I tread lightly. I speak softly. I remove my shoes. I witness the fading light.

God, the eternal, the unchangeable, takes my breath away, as only He can..

Here is an opportunity to own a Barnstorming book of more photos like these along with poems written for each poem by Lois Edstrom. It is available to order here:

What Makes Things the Same

At first we just say flower. How
thrilling it is to name. Then it’s
aster. Begonia. Chrysanthemum.

We spend our childhood learning
to separate one thing from another.
Daffodil. Edelweiss. Fern. We learn

which have five petals, which have six.
We say, “This is a gladiolus, this hyacinth.”
And we fracture the world into separate

identities. Iris. Jasmine. Lavender.
Divorcing the world into singular bits.
And then, when we know how to tell

one thing from another, perhaps
at last we feel the tug to see not
what makes things different, but

what makes things the same. Perhaps
we feel the pleasure that comes
when we start to blur the lines—and once again everything
is flower, and by everything,
I mean everything.
~Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer, “Where We are Headed” from Hush

Somehow we find reassurance in naming things each according to its own kind – after all, we were given that task by God Himself in the Garden. We take our work seriously at lining up labels and categories based on all the differences we observe — we want to organize and define, separate and segregate, to do our best to create order out of a jumble, even if we are too young to have words for what we are doing.

Yet when we emphasize differences, we fail to appreciate all that is shared among us and end up fracturing rather than joining together. We look for what keeps us apart rather than find the common ground that blurs the lines, creating a healing bond between us.

Everything has a common origin, and I mean everything.

Flowers: each needs soil, sun and some water no matter how differently they flourish and bloom.

People who cherish an identity: we are all human.
We were all created from dust and rib.
We share the same Creator.
We bloom, all in our own unique and precious way,
but what matters most
is where we put down roots and how freely we share our fruit.

And that is why we’re put here.

This Gift of Struggle

All morning, doing the hard, root-wrestling
work of turning a yard from the wild
to a gardener’s will, I heard a bird singing
from a hidden, though not distant, perch;
a song of swift, syncopated syllables sounding
like, Can you believe this, believe this, believe?
Can you believe this, believe this, believe?
And all morning, I did believe. All morning,
between break-even bouts with the unwanted,
I wanted to see that bird, and looked up so
I might later recognize it in a guide, and know
and call its name, but even more, I wanted
to join its church. For all morning, and many
a time in my life, I have wondered who, beyond
this plot I work, has called the order of being,
that givers of food are deemed lesser
than are the receivers. All morning,
muscling my will against that of the wild,
to claim a place in the bounty of earth,
seed, root, sun and rain, I offered my labor
as a kind of grace, and gave thanks even
for the aching in my body, which reached
beyond this work and this gift of struggle.
~Richard Levine “Believe This” from That Country’s Soul

North Brooklin, Maine
30 March 1973

Dear Mr. Nadeau:
As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time. I shall get up in the morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.

Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society—things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.

Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.
Sincerely,
[Signed, ‘E. B. White’] from Letters of Note

Today yet another era begins and another ends. However, the struggle continues: there is anguish on one side and relief on the other– just the reverse of four years ago.

I want to believe things will be different and the messes cleaned up without creating new messes. I realize, thanks to human nature, that is a futile hope.

I want to believe that goodness and compassion will thrive again.

So I will pull out the weeds that have taken over in my on back yard and clear the ground for a clean start. I will rewind the clock to help create order out of chaos and experience steadfastness instead of uncertainty.

May we hang on to hope that our dis-united states may once again survive a leader with many human flaws and failings, just as we’ve survived countless other imperfect leaders.

It is up to we the people to keep our own yards weed-free, and not allow them to take over — ever again.

Turning Darkness into Light: Make All Things New

In our secret yearnings
we wait for your coming,
and in our grinding despair
we doubt that you will.

And in this privileged place
we are surrounded by witnesses who yearn more than do we
and by those who despair more deeply than do we.

Look upon your church and its pastors
in this season of hope
which runs so quickly to fatigue
and in this season of yearning
which becomes so easily quarrelsome.

Give us the grace and the impatience
to wait for your coming to the bottom of our toes,
to the edges of our fingertips.

Come in your power
and come in your weakness in any case
and make all things new.
Amen.
Walter Brueggemann, Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth

We simply have to wait and wait.
The celebration of Advent is possible only to those troubled in soul,
who know themselves to be poor and imperfect,
and who look forward to something greater to come.
~Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!
Psalm 27:14

These are troubling times and yes, I’m troubled. It can feel like things will never change. It can feel like I will never adapt to how the world is darker right now, how people are more bitter and angry, how each day brings more bad news, how tired we all are of wearing our real and figurative masks.

I know better than this;
I’ve seen dark times before that have taken time to resolve.
So why does this time seem different?
Why have doubts become four-dimensional realities?

So I remember:
we were created for this waiting in-between.
We were created to keep watching for when all things will be made new.
From the bottoms of our toes to the tips of our fingers,
we marvel at the power shown by our God
choosing weakness
as the vessel that saves us.

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning.
Psalm 130: 5-6

INTRO

Lord, from the depths I call to You

Lord, hear me from on high

And give attention to my voice

When I for mercy cry

Out of the depths I cry to You

In darkest places I will call

Incline Your ear to me anew

And hear my cry for mercy, Lord

Were You to count my sinful ways

How could I come before Your throne

Yet full forgiveness meets my gaze

I stand redeemed by grace alone

CHORUS

I will wait for You

I will wait for You

On Your word, I will rely

I will wait for You

Surely wait for You

Till my soul is satisfied

So put your hope in God alone

Take courage in His power to save

Completely and forever won

By Christ emerging from the grave

CHORUS

Now He has come to make a way

And God Himself has paid the price

That all who trust in Him today

Find healing in His sacrifice

CHORUS

I will wait for You

I will wait for You

Through the storm and through the night

I will wait for You

Surely wait for You

For Your love is my delight

OUTRO

I pray my soul waits for the Lord

My hope is in His word

More than the watchman waits for dawn

My soul waits for the Lord

©2018 Getty Music Publishing (BMI)

Caught in Our Own Careless Wreckage

I believed only air
stretched between the dogwood

and the barberry: another
thoughtless human assumption

sidetracking the best story
this furrow spider knew to spin.

And, trying to get the sticky
filament off my face, I must look,

to the neighbors, like someone
being attacked by his own nervous

system, a man conducting an orchestra
of bees. Or maybe it’s only the dance

of human history I’m reenacting:
caught in his own careless wreckage,

a man trying to extricate himself,
afraid to open his eyes.
~Jeff Worley from Lucky Talk

It was an uneasy feeling opening my eyes this morning, waking up to a world where the election results are still uncertain. We are suspended in a sticky web of our own making and will be for some time, dangling…

Twenty years ago, I woke up not feeling well after a long night of waiting for election results to come in. I thought it was from the tension of not knowing when the outcome would be finalized but no… It ended up being appendicitis that day — my 2000 post-election surgical solution to take my mind off Bush vs Gore. It worked. I simply ceased to care about anything but my own healing, my priorities clarified by post-op recovery.

I’m not looking to resort to that remedy today in Trump vs Biden. I’d like to keep myself out of the ER and the OR and just go about my clinic day as usual. Yet in the dance of human history we badly want to determine who our leaders will be in a clear-cut and clean-cut process, something this campaign season has lacked. So why we would expect clarity now?

Instead, we are covered in a sticky-wickety web, spread all over our faces, unwilling to open our eyes to the reality of our divisive messiness, and attacked by our own nervous systems.

Today, I will open my eyes, take a few deep breaths and I hope you will too. And tomorrow and the next day. And avoid radical surgery if we can.

Maybe the dance is something we can do together — coordinated, cooperative, choreographed, and united — rather than flailing about in our careless wreckage of human history.

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.