Only the Strength We Have

The heart’s reasons
seen clearly,
even the hardest
will carry
its whip-marks and sadness
and must be forgiven.

As the drought-starved
eland forgives
the drought-starved lion
who finally takes her,
enters willingly then
the life she cannot refuse,
and is lion, is fed,
and does not remember the other.

So few grains of happiness
measured against all the dark
and still the scales balance.

The world asks of us
only the strength we have and we give it.
Then it asks more, and we give it.

~Jane Hirshfield “The Weighing” from The Beauty

So many right now feel they have no more left to give;
so much has been asked, so much sacrificed,
the scale feels broken, forever out of balance.

Yet more strength is needed, more requested,
and somehow in some way,
the scale steadies, rebalances
because of that extra effort.

We can’t give up now.
We need each other to give a little more
try a little harder
go a little farther
smile behind the mask
while showing our smile above the mask.

It only takes a little love
to balance out all the rest.

from “Feats of Strength” by Tom Otterness at Western Washington University

August Burns Low

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Further in Summer than the Birds
Pathetic from the Grass
A minor Nation celebrates
Its unobtrusive Mass.

No Ordinance be seen
So gradual the Grace
A pensive Custom it becomes
Enlarging Loneliness.

Antiquest felt at Noon
When August burning low
Arise this spectral Canticle
Repose to typify

Remit as yet no Grace
No Furrow on the Glow
Yet a Druidic Difference
Enhances Nature now 
~Emily Dickinson

“…one of the great poems of American literature. The statement of the poem is profound; it remarks the absolute separation between man and nature at a precise moment in time.  The poet looks as far as she can into the natural world, but what she sees at last is her isolation from that world.  She perceives, that is, the limits of her own perception. But that, we reason, is enough. This poem of just more than sixty words comprehends the human condition in relation to the universe:

So gradual the Grace
A pensive Custom it becomes
Enlarging Loneliness.

But this is a divine loneliness, the loneliness of a species evolved far beyond all others. The poem bespeaks a state of grace. In its precision, perception and eloquence it establishes the place of words within that state.  Words are indivisible with the highest realization of human being.”
~N. Scott Momaday from The Man Made of Words

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On the first day I took his class on Native American Mythology and Lore in 1974 at Stanford, N.Scott Momaday strolled to the front, wrote the 60 words of this Dickinson poem on the blackboard.  He told us we would spend at least a week working out the meaning of what he considered the greatest poem written — this in a class devoted to Native American writing and oral tradition.  In his resonant bass, he read the poem to us many times, rolling the words around his mouth as if to extract their sweetness. This man of the plains, a member of the Kiowa tribe, loved this poem put together by a white New England recluse poet — someone as culturally distant from him and his people as possible.

But grace works to unite us, no matter our differences, and Scott knew this as he led us, mostly white students, through this poem.  What on the surface appears a paean to late summer cricket song doomed to extinction by oncoming winter, is a statement of the transcendence of man beyond our understanding of nature and the world in which we, its creatures, find ourselves.

As summer begins its descent into the dark death of winter, we, unlike the crickets, become all too aware we too are descending. Not only are the skies are filled with smoke from uncontrolled wildfires, but the streets are filled with protesters and counter-protesters who loot and shoot rather than meet to ask questions, and our future is filled with the uncertain timeline of ongoing pandemic destruction as nature has the upper hand yet again. 

There is no one as lonely as an individual facing their mortality and no one as lonely as a poet facing the empty page, in search of words to describe the sacrament of sacrifice and perishing.

Yet the Word brings Grace unlike any other, even when the cricket song, pathetic and transient as it is, is gone.  The Word brings Grace, like no other, to pathetic and transient man who shall emerge transformed.

There is no furrow on the glow.  There is no need to plow and seed our salvaged souls, already lovingly planted and nurtured by our Creator God, yielding a fruited plain.

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Fighting a Harder Battle

Mostly, I want to be kind.
And nobody, of course, is kind,
or mean,
for a simple reason.

~Mary Oliver from “Dogfish”

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.
~Plato

Our mare Belinda has a two decade history of fighting the hard battle of being consistently on the bottom of the mare hierarchy. She is unusually shy, very submissive and never one to stir up trouble in the herd. Most of the time she simply wants to disappear so the other mares can’t see her to bully her.

I’ve watched her over the years to learn how she copes day in and day out with her low status. She is clearly more clever than the higher-ranking mares who lord it over her, reminding her of their rank.

In the mornings when the mares are turned out to pasture from their individual stalls, I always open Belinda’s door first so she has the option to walk out to pasture ahead of the others if she chooses. Instead, she’ll stand waiting at the open door, watching the other mares leave their stalls and pass by, then follow behind them out to pasture keeping a safe distance between them and herself.

Once outside, she’ll stand at the water barrel just inside the pasture gate, and pretend to drink water for several minutes (I’m convinced she doesn’t actually drink a drop) while the other mares wander into the field to find their preferred grazing spot.

Once the others are clearly settled, she joins them at a safe distance. Then the worst bully will approach her, just as Belinda has started to eat, and will start to groom Belinda’s withers with her teeth. This is a clear invitation to be scratched back, so despite being hungry and clearly fearful, Belinda mutually chews/scratches for at least ten minutes with her mortal enemy. I’d like to think this is their brief truce in the battle for status every day; one clearly has a need and wants Belinda to comply. Belinda is more than willing to set aside her own needs if it means keeping peace in the herd.

At the end of the day, Belinda stays up in the field until the other mares have returned to the barn and are back in their stalls with the doors latched. I know she counts the number of doors she hears closing because she will refuse to come in from outside and return to her stall until she hears the last door closing, knowing it is then safe to some into the barn.

The first thing she does returning to her stall is to drop a pile of manure right inside her door. It is her claim of “mine” – no other horse here does that, since they would have to walk through manure to leave the stall, but for Belinda, it is a way of saying if for some reason the closed door isn’t enough to keep her secure, the pile of manure at least marks her territory.

She does not always have a peaceful night alone in her stall as I would expect. Her stall floor is churned and messy in the morning, as if she continues to be on the move even in the darkness, or perhaps she is a mare having nightmares.

I know her long life has been one of constant worry and vigilance despite always having access to plenty of food, a safe place to rest at night and always being part of a community, though not one that has supported her.

She reminds me that everyone, especially the lowest on the totem pole, deserves kindness because I cannot possibly understand the battles they are fighting, both day and night.

And they deserve respect: to simply survive, they are much smarter than I am.

 

In This Short Life…

In this short Life that only lasts an hour
How much – how little – is within our power
~Emily Dickinson (1292)

We think we can control so much in our short lives, but one novel virus tells us how little power we have.

May we turn over our need for control and instead relish the moment. It only comes once — blink and miss it. So don’t blink!

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

With great power there must also come great responsibility
~The “Peter Parker Principle” from Spiderman Comics (1962)

From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.
Luke 12:48
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This line, the final conclusion to the parable of the wise and faithful servant has become a modern mantra – thanks to Spiderman, the Supreme Court, Winston Churchill, President Obama and Bill and Melinda Gates.

Yet no one actually quotes the entire New Testament parable itself that ends with this very concept.

The story Jesus tells in Luke 12: 42-48 makes us wince, just as it is meant to:

42 The Lord answered, “Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom the master puts in charge of his servants to give them their food allowance at the proper time? 43 It will be good for that servant whom the master finds doing so when he returns. 44 Truly I tell you, he will put him in charge of all his possessions.45 But suppose the servant says to himself, ‘My master is taking a long time in coming,’ and he then begins to beat the other servants, both men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk. 46 The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the unbelievers.4“The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. 48 But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.

The same story as told in the gospel of Matthew ends with “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Somehow that part is left out of Spiderman’s story and is a bit too close to home for those in power and those with immense wealth — like Peter Parker, we know all too well the reality of just how fragile and weak we really are despite our perceived Spidey powers.

We don’t have a choice in the matter if we want to live in Him as Christians, identifying by name with the Son of God who gave up everything for us.

We owe much when to us much has been given. U.S. Presidents can learn from the wisdom of Spiderman, remembering Who actually spoke it first.

Like Current Through a Wire

What courage we had,
our infantry stretched across the yard,
no shields, no swords,
no cavalry assembled behind us
calming their nervous mounts.
We had the strength of our arms,
the speed of our legs.
We had our friends and our convictions.
Opposite us, the undulating line
of children drew suddenly straight.
It was early on a summer day
but the larks fell silent.
A high voice
invoked the name Red Rover;
we could not say who said it first.
But righteousness passed through us
like current through a wire.
Or like an inaugural sip of wine
burning in our chests,
something father gave us
over our mother’s earnest
protestations.
~Connie Wanek, “Red Rover” from Rival Gardens

… if you ran, time ran. You yelled and screamed and raced and rolled and tumbled and all of a sudden the sun was gone and the whistle was blowing and you were on your long way home to supper. When you weren’t looking, the sun got around behind you! The only way to keep things slow was to watch everything and do nothing! You could stretch a day to three days, sure, just by watching!
~Ray Bradbury from Dandelion Wine

I was a kid born without the necessary courage to enjoy playground games and sports – I was always chosen last as I didn’t have good coordination, I wasn’t fast or strong and I wasn’t physically aggressive. Games like dodge ball and Red Rover were too intimidating as I inevitably got battered and bruised by the other kids.

In Red Rover, that impenetrable line-up of kids found a weak link in me. I could feel the electricity like a current through the linked arms in the line, until it came to me. I became the off switch. Kids knew to choose my arm to break through because I tended to let go rather than have my arm bashed and bruised by some big kid running straight into it.

How have my years of work felt similar? Now well into my seventh decade, I can recall a few times when I’ve chosen to “let go” rather than get bruised. I’ve tried to be strong enough to stand up to the battering that comes with leadership positions and taking unpopular stands. It takes its toll and I regret I’m not strong enough at times. However, there is relief in no longer being connected to the electric current of these times.

What I always liked best about the playground was to simply run and jump and holler and hoot from the joy of being alive, or to just stand and watch what was going on around me without having to be in the center of things. Now decades later, I find myself again standing apart, just watching, grateful I’m no longer part of the line up about to get bashed.

We Are No Longer Alone: Look By Your Side For Who Needs Your Help

There are many who are enkindled with dreamy devotion, and when they hear of the poverty of Christ, they are almost angry with the citizens of Bethlehem. They denounce their blindness and ingratitude, and think, if they had been there, they would have shown the Lord and his mother a more kindly service and would not have permitted them to be treated so miserably.

But they do not look by their side to see how many of their fellow humans need their help, and which they ignore in their misery. Where is there upon earth that has no poor, miserable, sick, erring ones around him? Why does he not exercise his love to those? Why does he not do to them as Christ has done to him?

~Martin Luther from Watch for the Light

The Christmas spirit does not shine out in the Christian snob. For the Christmas spirit is the spirit of those who, like their Master, live their whole lives on the principle of making themselves poor—spending and being spent—to enrich their fellow humans, giving time, trouble, care and concern, to do good to others—and not just their own friends—in whatever way there seems need.

~J.I. Packer from Knowing God

No one wants to admit being in need of help so the helpless tend to remain invisible. We are called to seek out the hungry, the thirsty, the ill, and the homeless as they tend to stay well-hidden unless we look specifically for them.

When fed, hydrated, healthy, clothed and safe in our homes, we cannot be considered “poor” in the conventional sense. Yet if we don’t reach out to those more desperate around us, we are ultimately bereft and spiritually impoverished.

God arrived on earth in poverty, homeless, and certainly under threat of murder by simply being born. If He arrived in such circumstances today, who among us would reach out to Him and His parents out of respect for their humanity, not just for His divinity?

God wants us to notice the desperation around us. God wants us to give ourselves away. God wants us to give up our impoverished spirit to open the way to His everlasting abundance.

A Bright Sadness: Ignore It or See

Divinity is not playful.
The universe was not made in jest
but in solemn incomprehensible earnest.
By a power that is unfathomably secret,
and holy,
and fleet.
There is nothing to be done about it,
but ignore it,
or see. 

~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—
his eternal power and divine nature—
have been clearly seen,
being understood from what has been made,
so that people are without excuse.
Romans 1:20


We weren’t conceived by random happenstance,
including so many millions not welcomed
but wished or washed away before taking a breath.

We are here because we were earnestly needed and wanted,
by a power and divinity beyond comprehension
with a capacity for love and compassion
beyond anything in our earthly experience.

We aren’t a cosmic joke,
or random couplings of DNA.
We aren’t pawns in the universe’s chess game.

We may look silly as we intentionally loll about in the smelly stuff of life,
or we may think what we say or do doesn’t matter a hill of beans,
but we are created to clearly see God for who He is,
and in whose image He made us.

He won’t be ignored;
we have no more excuses.
It is time to open our eyes,
to come and see.

An Advent Paradox: Power Abandoned to Powerlessness

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Was there a moment, known only to God, when all the stars held their breath,
when the galaxies paused in their dance for a fraction of a second,
and the Word, who had called it all into being,
went with all his love into the womb of a young girl,
and the universe started to breathe again,and the ancient harmonies resumed their song,
and the angels clapped their hands for joy?

Power. Greater power than we can imagine,
abandoned, as the Word knew the powerlessness of the unborn child,
still unformed, taking up almost no space in the great ocean of amniotic fluid,
unseeing, unhearing, unknowing.
Slowly growing, as any human embryo grows, arms and legs and a head, eyes, mouth, nose,
slowly swimming into life until the ocean in the womb is no longer large enough,
and it is time for birth.

Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity,
Christ, the Maker of the universe or perhaps many universes,
willingly and lovingly leaving all that power
and coming to this poor, sin-filled planet to live with us for a few years
to show us what we ought to be and could be.
Christ came to us as Jesus of Nazareth, wholly human and wholly divine,
to show us what it means to be made in God’s image.
~Madeline L’Engle from Bright Evening Star

 

 

 

It’s the season of grace coming out of the void
Where a man is saved by a voice in the distance
It’s the season of possible miracle cures
Where hope is currency and death is not the last unknown
Where time begins to fade
And age is welcome home

It’s the season of eyes meeting over the noise
And holding fast with sharp realization
It’s the season of cold making warmth a divine intervention
You are safe here you know now

Don’t forget
Don’t forget I love
I love
I love you

It’s the season of scars and of wounds in the heart
Of feeling the full weight of our burdens
It’s the season of bowing our heads in the wind
And knowing we are not alone in fear
Not alone in the dark

Don’t forget
Don’t forget I love
I love
I love you
~Vienna Teng “The Atheist Christmas Carol”

 

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There is no longer a void or darkness upon the face of the deep.  The stars need no longer to hold their breath.

There is unfathomed power in the powerlessness of this gift to us.

Grace has come in the face of Jesus the Son, through God the Father who moves among us, His Spirit changing everything, now and always.

Do not be afraid.
You are not alone in the dark
though wounded, though scarred.
You are loved, never forgotten.
Don’t forget.

 

 

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An Advent Paradox: Waiting For What We Cannot See

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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

 

 

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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

 

 

 

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To wait is hard when we know the value of the gift that awaits us. We know exactly what is in the package since we have watched it being carefully chosen, wrapped and presented to us to open.

Not yet though, not quite yet.  So we wait.

Even more so, we wait and hope for what we do not see but know is coming, like a groaning in the labor of childbirth.

The waiting is never easy; it is painful to be patient, staying alert to possibility and hope when we are exhausted, barely able to function.  Others won’t understand why we wait,  nor do they comprehend what we could possibly be waiting for when it remains unseen.

Yet we persevere together, with patience, watching and hoping, like Mary and Joseph, like Elizabeth and Zechariah, like the shepherds, like the Magi of the east, like Simeon and Anna in the temple.

This is the meaning of Advent:
we are a community groaning together in sweet anticipation and expectation of the gift of Morning to come.

 

 

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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

 

 

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We are waiting, we are trusting
We are longing for Your blessings,
Lord And our faith is firmly anchored
On Your never-changing Word

Spirit fall down, fill our souls now 


Lord, we gather in Your name
Your power
All Your promises we claim
Together bind us with grace
The body of Christ
All for Your presence we wait

We are waiting we are trusting
We are longing,
Lord descend
Let a flame of love be kindled
While before Your throne we bend
Spirit fall down, fill our souls now

Lord, we gather in Your name Your power
All Your promises we claim
Together bind us with grace
The body of Christ
All for Your presence we wait

We are waiting, we are trusting
We are longing,
Lord revive
Death is fading, hope is rising
In Your Spirit we’re alive

Lord, we gather in Your name Your power
All Your promises we claim
Together bind us with grace
The body of Christ
All for Your presence we wait

Lord, we gather in Your name Your power
All Your promises we claim
Together bind us with grace
The body of Christ

All for Your presence we wait
All for Your presence we wait
All for Your presence we wait
~All Sons & Daughters