This Field, This Sky, This Tree

What words or harder gift
does the light require of me
carving from the dark
this difficult tree?

What place or farther peace
do I almost see
emerging from the night
and heart of me?

The sky whitens, goes on and on.
Fields wrinkle into rows
of cotton, go on and on.
Night like a fling of crows
disperses and is gone.

What song, what home,
what calm or one clarity
can I not quite come to,
never quite see:
this field, this sky, this tree.

~Christian Wiman, “Hard Night”

Even the darkest night has a sliver of light left,
if only in our memories.
We remember how it was and how it can be —
the promise of better to come.

While the ever-changing sky swirls as a backdrop,
a tree on a hill became the focal point, as it must,
like a black hole swallowing up all pain, all suffering,
all evil threatening to consume our world.

What clarity, what calm,
what peace can be found at the foot of that tree,
where our hearts can rest in this knowledge:
our sin died there, once and for all
and our names are carved into its roots for all time.

Bathed in Beauty

We do not want merely to see beauty…
we want something else which can hardly be put into words-
to be united with the beauty we see,
to pass into it,
to receive it into ourselves,
to bathe in it,
to become part of it.


We discern the freshness and purity of morning,
but they do not make us fresh and pure.
We cannot mingle with the splendours we see.


But all the leaves of the New Testament
are rustling with the rumour
that it will not always be so.


Someday, God willing, we shall get in.

~C.S. Lewis from The Weight of Glory

We are wounded by the grime of this world, no question about it. Just one look at the headlines shows how tainted and sullied we’ve become, so long separated from the beauty and perfection for which we were created.

The wounds we bear are from beauty banished when we desperately wish to bathe in it. We’re offered just such a cleansing when we offer up our soiled selves.

Come on in, the water is fine.

A Scorched Land of Fierce Color

And God held in his hand
A small globe. Look, he said.
The son looked. Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour. The light burned
There; crusted buildings
Cast their shadows; a bright
Serpent, a river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
With slime.

                        On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky. Many people
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs. The son watched
Them. Let me go there, he said.
~R.S. Thomas “The Coming”

“Let me go there”

And He did. Knowing what awaited Him.

As a result, we are forever changed.

Fifty weeks of dirt rows
Plain and unnoticed.
Could be corn, could be beans
Could be anything;
Drive-by fly-over dull.

Yet April ignites an explosion:
Dazzling retinal hues
Singed and scorched, crying
Grateful tears for such as this
Grounded rainbow on Earth

Transient, incandescent
Brilliance hoped for.
Remembered in dreams,
Promises realized,
Housed in crystal before shattering.

God Himself Scraped and Torn

How is faith to endure, O God, when you allow all this scraping and tearing on us? You have allowed rivers of blood to flow, mountains of suffering to pile up, sobs to become humanity’s song–all without lifting a finger that we could see. You have allowed bonds of love beyond number to be painfully snapped. If you have not abandoned us, explain yourself.

Instead of explaining our suffering God shares it.

We strain to hear. But instead of hearing an answer we catch sight of God himself scraped and torn. Through our tears we see the tears of God.
~Nicholas Wolterstorff  in Lament for a Son

In a daring and beautiful creative reversal, 
God takes the worse we can do to Him
and turns it into the very best He can do for us.
~Malcolm Guite from The Word in the Wilderness

“My God, My God,” goes the Psalm 22, “hear me, why have you forsaken me?”  

This is the anguish all we of Godforsaken heart know well. But hear the revelation to which Christ directs us, further in the same psalm:

For He has not despised nor scorned the beggar’s supplication,
Nor has He turned away His face from me;
And when I cried out to Him, He heard me.

He hears us, and he knows, because he has suffered as one Godforsaken. Which means that you and I, even in our darkest hours, are not forsaken. Though we may hear nothing, feel nothing, believe nothing, we are not forsaken, and so we need not despair. And that is everything. That is Good Friday and it is hope, it is life in this darkened age, and it is the life of the world to come.
~Tony Woodlief from “We are Not Forsaken”

We aren’t even capable of truly wanting Jesus
without his help.

Tim Keller

May we remember today, of all days,
the worst that can happen becomes the best that can happen.
We tussle and haggle over the price of what this will cost us, but realizing it has been paid for us makes an impossible loss possible.

We are paid in full, no longer debtors. 

From now on, we are freed from worry: the worst became the best because now we want Him over all else…



Leading a Lost One Home

I appear at the kitchen door,
spiritual equivalent
of a wet dog from a storm,
tail tucked, trembling.
You open your lives, this life,
provide prayerful provision,
a vigorous toweling down,
a large bowl of kibbles.
I curl up and sleep safe on the rug by your heart,
the chapel that warms His,
and so, restored, return
to the weary world rejoicing,
perhaps to provide
a bracing swig from the fiery word,
perhaps to lead a lost one home.
~Bonnie Thurston “Strays” from O Taste and See

How many times have I shown up
muddy, cold, hungry
and you invited me in,
dried me off,
offered me your supper,
let me sleep warmed and safe?

How many times
did I go back out into the world
with every good intention
of doing the same for other strays
and yet get lost again myself?

You call me back,
whistle me in,
open the door
to let me know
no matter how much of a mess I’m in
your hearth,
your heart
await my return.

Moving at Summer’s Pace

mowingfield

 

Cut grass lies frail:
Brief is the breath
Mown stalks exhale.
Long, long the death

It dies in the white hours
Of young-leafed June
With chestnut flowers,
With hedges snowlike strewn,

White lilac bowed,
Lost lanes of Queen Anne’s lace,
And that high-builded cloud
Moving at summer’s pace.~
~Philip Larkin “Cut Grass” from The Complete Poems

Light and wind are running
over the headed grass
as though the hill had 
melted and now flowed.
~Wendell Berry “June Wind”

The uncut field grass is growing heavier, falling over, lodged before it can be cut; the undulations of summer breezes urge it back upright.  It has matured too fast, rising up too lush, too overcome with itself so that it can no longer stand unsupported.  We must work fast to save it and more rain is on the way.

Light and wind work magic on a field of melting tall grass.  The blades of the mower will come to lay it to the ground in green streams that flow up and down the slopes.  It will lie comfortless in its stoneless cemetery rows, until tossed about by the tedder into random piles to dry, then raked back into a semblance of order in mounded lines flowing over the landscape.

It will be crushed and bound together for transport to the barn,
no longer bending but bent,
no longer flowing but flown,
no longer growing but grown

We move at summer’s pace to ensure the grasses become fodder for the beasts of the farm during the cold nights when the wind beats at the doors. It will melt in their mouths, as it was meant to be.  

Flowers Preach

Flowers preach to us if we will hear:
The rose saith in the dewy morn:
I am most fair;
Yet all my loveliness is born
Upon a thorn.
The poppy saith amid the corn:
Let but my scarlet head appear
And I am held in scorn;
Yet juice of subtle virtue lies
Within my cup of curious dyes.
The lilies say: Behold how we
Preach without words of purity.
The violets whisper from the shade
Which their own leaves have made:
Men scent our fragrance on the air,
Yet take no heed
Of humble lessons we would read.
But not alone the fairest flowers:
The merest grass
Along the roadside where we pass,
Lichen and moss and sturdy weed,
Tell of His love who sends the dew,
The rain and sunshine too,
To nourish one small seed.
~Christina Rossetti from Goblin Market, The Prince’s Progress, and Other Poems

Some sermons are written bold with color, illustrated with powerful gospel stories of righteousness and redemption in the face of our sin.

Some sermon passages are fragrant with the scent of grace and forgiveness, lingering long after the words are spoken.

Some sermon stories remain subtle and hidden, cryptic messages like the blooms that grow close to the ground, barely visible.

We need to hear them all preached, but most of all we need those every day plain-to-the-bone sermons which are trampled and tread upon, springing back up to guide our feet to the best pathway home. No color, no fragrance, no hiding: just celebrating the ubiquitous lichens, mosses and grasses and weeds which exist solely to help cushion our inevitable fall and help us rise up again.

Tenderness Brushing Tenderness

Abandon entouré d’abandon, tendresse touchant aux tendresses…
C’est ton intérieur qui sans cesse se caresse, dirait-on;
se caresse en soi-même, par son propre reflet éclairé.
Ainsi tu inventes le thème du Narcisse exaucé.
~Rainer Maria Rilke “Dirait-on” from his French Poetry collection ‘Les chansons de la rose’

Translation:

Abandon enveloping abandon, Tenderness brushing
tendernesses,
Who you are sustains you eternally, so they say;
Your very being is nourished by its own enlightened
reflection;
So you reveal to us the theme of Narcissus redeemed.

So like the Valentine sunrise brushing the sky this morning:

There is nothing so tender as love in full bloom–
no longer an enclosed bud with potential
but opened fully
petal unfolding upon petal
in caressing abandon.

An Advent Paradox: Not Only Glad Tidings

lane112918

 

baker121518

 

Was certainly not winter, scholars say,
When holy habitation broke the chill
Of hearth-felt separation, icy still,
The love of life in man that Christmas day.
Was autumn, rather, if seasons speak true;
When green retreats from sight’s still ling’ring gaze,
And creeping cold numbs sense in sundry ways,
While settling silence speaks of solitude.
Hope happens when conditions are as these; 
Comes finally lock-armed with death and sin,
When deep’ning dark demands its full display.
Then fallen nature driven to her knees
Flames russet, auburn, orange fierce from within,
And brush burns brighter for the growing grey.
~David Baird “Autumn”

 

Decembenorth

 

 

We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us. We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us. The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience.
~Dietrich Bonhoeffer from Watch for the Light

 

 

frrezechard2

 

The shepherds were sore afraid.   Why aren’t we?
The reds and oranges of autumn are fading fast as we descend into winter this week.  Murderous frosts have wilted down all that was flush with life.

The babe has come like a refiner’s fire and we who have gotten too comfortable will feel the heat in the middle of the chill.

Hope happens when conditions are as these…

 

 

sparks2

 

 

 

Deep in the cold of winter,
Darkness and silence were eve’rywhere;
Softly and clearly, there came through the stillness a wonderful sound,
A wonderful sound to hear.

All bells in paradise I heard them ring,
Sounding in majesty the news that they bring;
All bells in paradise I heard them ring,
Welcoming our Saviour, born on earth, a heavenly King.
All bells in paradise, I heard them ring,
‘Glory to God on high’ the angel voices sing.

Lost in awe and wonder,
Doubting I asked what this sign may be;
Christ, our Messiah, revealed in a stable,
A marvelous sight, a marvelous sight to see.

Chorus

He comes down in peace,
A child in humility,
The keys to his kingdom belong to the poor;
Before him shall kneel the kings with their treasures,
Gold, incense, and myrrh.

Chorus
~John Rutter “All Bells in Paradise”

An Advent Paradox: From Filth to Flowers

 

The poor, old stable of Christ’s old, poor country is only four rough walls, a dirty pavement, a roof of beams and slate. It is dark, reeking. The only clean thing in it is the manger where the owner piles the hay and fodder.

Fresh in the clear morning, waving in the wind, sunny, lush, sweet-scented, the spring meadow was mown. The green grass, the long, slim blades, were cut down by the scythe; and with the grass the beautiful flowers in full bloom – white, red, yellow, blue. They withered and dried and took on the one dull color of hay. Oxen dragged back to the barn the dead plunder of May and June. And now that grass has become dry hay and those flowers, still smelling sweet, are there in the manger to feed the slaves of man.

The animals take it slowly with their great black lips, and later the flowering fields, changed into moist dung, return to light on the litter which serves as bedding.

This is the real stable where Jesus was born. The filthiest place in the world was the first room of the only pure man ever born of woman. The Son of Man, who was to be devoured by wild beasts calling themselves men, had as his first cradle the manger where the animals chewed the cud of the miraculous flowers of spring.
~Giovanni Papini from “The Real Stable”

 

 

 

 

As is my routine on Saturdays, I spent the day in the barn, breaking ice and refilling water buckets, then going from stall to stall to clean out the manure and wet spots, and finally adding fresh bedding. Then I climbed high in the hay stack in the barn and rolled hay bales down to load into the wheel barrow to push into the stable for Sunday Sabbath, a day of rest. There are always chores to do every day, but they can be abbreviated on Sunday thanks to the work accomplished the previous day. This is the nature of farming– preparing and readying for what is to come.

Farmers, by nature, are a hopeful lot. We plan ahead, plot out our next year’s crop, choose our seed in advance and plant it with anticipation. We prune and we plow and we store up mountains of feed far in advance. We evaluate pedigrees and scrutinize genetics carefully. And we wait patiently. As I clean their stalls, I watch my mares’ bellies roll with the movement of their unborn foals and I picture the new life in my mind’s eye. There is a harvest of hope in those bellies.

Unlike many modern horse barns, our decades old stable is a particularly plain and humble place with dirt floors, and as the support beams have settled over the years the door hinges don’t hang balanced and true any longer, so the stall doors are sticky and sometimes hard to open in the winter weather. Despite the lack of fancy design though, I haven’t heard the horses complain–their meals taste as good, they are warm and dry in the cold windy weather and cool in the hot weather. Their needs are met there and amazingly, so are mine.

Christmas began in a stable–probably a dark cave that served the purpose of housing animals. It most assuredly was plain and humble, smelling of manure and urine, and animal fur. Yet it also would have smelled of the sweetness of stored forage, and there would have been the reassuring sounds of animals chewing and breathing deeply. It was truly the only place a group of scruffy shepherds could have felt welcomed without being tossed out as unsuitable visitors– they undoubtedly arrived at the threshold in bad need of a bath, smelly, dirty and terrified and yet left transformed, returning to their fields full of praise and wonder, telling all they met what they had seen. No bath could scrub so clean as the sight of what that stable contained.

There could not have been a more suitable place for this birth that was to change the world: the promise of cleansing hope and peace in the midst of our knee deep filth. Despite our sorry state, we are welcomed into the sanctuary of the stable, sown, grown, pruned and harvested to become seed and food for others.

If even the shepherds became a harvest of hope, the flowers of the future,  then surely so can we.

 

 

 Jesus our brother, kind and good
Was humbly born in a stable rude
And the friendly beasts around Him stood,
Jesus our brother, kind and good.

Thus every beast by some good spell,
In the stable dark was glad to tell
Of the gift he gave Immanuel,
The gift he gave Immanuel.