Where the Joy Came In

Incurable and unbelieving
in any truth but the truth of grieving,
I saw a tree inside a tree
rise kaleidoscopically
as if the leaves had livelier ghosts.

I pressed my face as close
to the pane as I could get
to watch that fitful, fluent spirit
that seemed a single being undefined
or countless beings of one mind
haul its strange cohesion
beyond the limits of my vision
over the house heavenwards.

Of course I knew those leaves were birds.

Of course that old tree stood
exactly as it had and would
(but why should it seem fuller now?)
and though a man’s mind might endow
even a tree with some excess
of life to which a man seems witness,
that life is not the life of men.
And that is where the joy came in.
~Christian Wiman, “From a Window” from Every Riven Thing. 

Coming to Christianity is like color slowly aching into things, the world becoming brilliantly, abradingly alive. “Joy is the overflowing consciousness of reality,” Simone Weil writes, and that’s what I had, a joy that was at once so overflowing that it enlarged existence, and yet so rooted in actual things that, again for the first time, that’s what I began to feel: rootedness.
~Christian Wiman “Gazing Into the Abyss”

Nothing is to be taken for granted.  Nothing remains as it was.

Like this old pink dogwood tree, I now lean over more,
I have a few bare branches with no leaves,
I have my share of broken limbs,
I have my share of blight and curl.

Yet each stage and transition of life has its own beauty: 
bursting forth with leaves and blooms
after a long winter of nakedness adorned
only by feathered friends destined to fly away.

Color has literally seeped in overnight,
resulting in a riot of joy.

Yet what matters most is what grows unseen,
underground, in a network that feeds and thrives
no matter what happens above ground,
steadfast roots of faith remain a reason to believe.

Nothing is to be taken for granted.  Nothing remains as it was.
Especially me. Oh, and especially me.

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Making Us Even

And this, then,
is the vision of that Heaven of which
we have heard, where those who love
each other have forgiven each other,

where, for that, the leaves are green,
the light a music in the air,
and all is unentangled,
and all is undismayed.
~Wendell Berry “To My Mother”

I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.

Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.
Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.

And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift—not the worn truth
that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.
~Billy Collins from “The Lanyard”

...I want to thank you
truly for the wry smile you set
on my lips, a smile as mild as your own;
it has saved me pain and grief.
And if now I shed a tear for you,
and all who wait like you and do not know
what they wait for, it does not matter.
O gentle death, do not touch the hands, the heart of the old.
Goodbye, dear one, farewell,

my sweet mother.
~Salvatore Quasimodo from “Letter to My Mother”

Mother love is life and light
beginning in the dark, as a special secret,
until you know without a doubt
you will never be just yourself again,
tethered forever to another.

~this sacrificial love is a haven of abundant grace~

the tangles we make of our lives
unravel, straighten and smooth,
no dismay over mistakes made

I was created within you –
to love my own children fully, fervently,
forever and forever –
as I was loved by you.

Now they, in turn, are known by their love.

A Restless Sabbath Love

The old church leans awry and looks quite odd,
But it is beautiful to us, and God.

~Stephen Paulus “The Old Church”

A little aside from the main road,
becalmed in a last-century greyness,
there is the chapel, ugly, without the appeal
to the tourist to stop his car
and visit it. The traffic goes by,
and the river goes by, and quick shadows
of clouds, too, and the chapel settles
a little deeper into the grass.

But here once on an evening like this,
in the darkness that was about
his hearers, a preacher caught fire
and burned steadily before them
with a strange light, so that they saw
the splendour of the barren mountains
about them and sang their amens
fiercely, narrow but saved
in a way that men are not now.
~R.S. Thomas “The Chapel”

It’s just a boarded-up shack with a tower
Under the blazing summer sky
On a back road seldom traveled
Where the shadows of tall trees
Graze peacefully like a row of gallows…

The congregation may still be at prayer.
Farm folk from flyspecked photos
Standing in rows with their heads bowed
As if listening to your approaching steps.
So slow they are, you must be asking yourself
How come we are here one minute
And in the very next gone forever?
Try the locked door, then knock once.

High above you, there is the leaning spire
Still feeling the blow of the last storm.
And then the silence of the afternoon . . .
Even the unbeliever must feel its force.

~Charles Simic, from “Wooden Church” from The Voice at 3:00 A.M.

The church knelt heavy
above us as we attended Sunday School,
circled by age group and hunkered
on little wood folding chairs
where we gave our nickels, said
our verses, heard the stories, sang
the solid, swinging songs.

It could have been God above
in the pews, His restless love sifting
with dust from the joists. We little
seeds swelled in the stone cellar, bursting
to grow toward the light
.

Maybe it was that I liked how, upstairs, outside,
an avid sun stormed down, burning the sharp-
edged shadows back to their buildings, or
how the winter air knifed
after the dreamy basement.

Maybe the day we learned whatever
would have kept me believing
I was just watching light
poke from the high, small window
and tilt to the floor where I could make it
a gold strap on my shoe, wrap
my ankle, embrace
any part of me.
~Maureen Ash “Church Basement”

Mom,
You raised your hands while we sang this morning
like I’ve never known you to,
but I guess until recently I’ve never really known you in a church that let you feel alive.

Were you tired of hiding,
or just tired?

Thank you for letting yourself be seen.

Thank you, Lord, for her.
~Griffin Messer from “An Analysis of Worship Today”

There is so much wrong with churches overall,
comprised as they are of fallen people
with broken wings and fractured faith,
we who look odd and lean awry,
so keen to find flaws in one another
when we are cracked open and spilling with our own.

Yet what is right with the church is
who we pray to, why we sing and absorb the Word-
we are visible people joined together as a body
so bloodied, bruised, being healed
despite our thoroughly motley messiness.

Our Lord of Heaven and Earth
rains down His restless love upon our heads
no matter how humble a building we worship in,
or how we look or feel today.

We are simply grateful to be alive,
to raise our hands, to kneel and bow
in a house God calls His own.

The old church leans nearby a well-worn road,
Upon a hill that has no grass or tree,
The winds from off the prairie now unload
The dust they bring around it fitfully.

The path that leads up to the open door
Is worn and grayed by many toiling feet
Of us who listen to the Bible lore
And once again the old-time hymns repeat.

And ev’ry Sabbath morning we are still
Returning to the altar waiting there.
A hush, a prayer, a pause, and voices fill
The Master’s House with a triumphant air.

The old church leans awry and looks quite odd,
But it is beautiful to us and God.
~Stephen Paulus

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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: If I Tarry

Come, ye weary, heavy laden,
Lost and ruined by the fall;
If you tarry till you’re better,
You will never come at all.

When I am comfortable,
well fed,
not immersed in longing~
I am slow to respond to the call,
tending to tarry in my satiety.

It is in my times of need
and soreness
and worry
and hunger and thirst
that I reach out, frightened,
to find it is then
I am most fit to be welcomed
into His comforting arms.

If I tarry till I’m better,
I might never come at all.

This year’s Lenten theme for Barnstorming is a daily selection from songs and hymns about Christ’s profound sacrifice on our behalf.

If we remain silent about Him, the stones themselves will shout out and start to sing (Luke 19:40).

In His name, may we sing…

I will arise and go to Jesus,
He will embrace me in His arms;
In the arms of my dear Savior,
O there are ten thousand charms.

Come, ye thirsty, come, and welcome,
God’s free bounty glorify;
True belief and true repentance,
Every grace that brings you nigh.

Come, ye weary, heavy laden,
Lost and ruined by the fall;
If you tarry till you’re better,
You will never come at all.

View Him prostrate in the garden;
On the ground your Maker lies.
On the bloody tree behold Him;
Sinner, will this not suffice?

Lo! th’incarnate God ascended,
Pleads the merit of His blood:
Venture on Him, venture wholly,
Let no other trust intrude.

Let not conscience make you linger,
Not of fitness fondly dream;
All the fitness He requireth
Is to feel your need of Him.
~Joseph Hart

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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: Who Was, and Is, and Is to Come

Sing holy, holy to our Lord
The Lord almighty God
Who was, and is, and is to come
Sing holy, holy Lord.

~Paul Manz

Whether in a grand cathedral that is centuries old, or in a humble turn-of-the-twentieth-century wooden chapel, we are called to worship our Creator with our presence and our voices on the Sabbath.

He shares a meal of bread and wine with us.

On this day of rest and restoration, we rejoice here on earth to honor the Lord our God above, who was and is and is to come…

photo of Wiser Lake Chapel sanctuary by Barb Hoelle

This year’s Lenten theme for Barnstorming is a daily selection from songs and hymns about Christ’s profound sacrifice on our behalf.

If we remain silent about Him, the stones themselves will shout out and start to sing (Luke 19:40).

In His name, may we sing…

Peace be to you and grace from Him
Who freed us from our sin
Who loved us all, and shed his blood
That we might saved be.

Sing holy, holy to our Lord
The Lord almighty God
Who was and is, and is to come
Sing holy, holy Lord.

Rejoice in heaven, all ye that dwell therein
Rejoice on earth, ye saints below
For Christ is coming,

Is coming soon
For Christ is coming soon.

E’en so Lord Jesus quickly come
And night shall be no more
They need no light, no lamp, nor sun
For Christ will be their All!
~Paul Manz

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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: This Mountain Shall Be Moved

By faith this mountain shall be moved
And the power of the gospel shall prevail
For we know in Christ all things are possible
For all who call upon His name
~Keith and Kristyn Getty

Canadian Coastal Range
Mt. Shuksan, North Cascades
Mt. Baker, North Cascades

At a certain point you say to the woods, to the sea, to the mountains, the world, now I am ready. Now I will stop and be wholly attentive. You empty yourself and wait, listening. After a time you hear it: there is nothing there. There is nothing but those things only, those created objects, discrete, growing or holding, or swaying, being rained on or raining, held, flooding or ebbing, standing, or spread. You feel the world’s word as a tension, a hum, a single chorused note everywhere the same. This is it: this hum in the silence…

The silence is all there is. It is the alpha and the omega. It is God’s brooding over the face of the waters. Pray without ceasing.
~Annie Dillard from Teaching a Stone to Talk

Banff Provincial Park
Mourne Mountains, Northern Ireland

I tell you the truth, 
if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, 
you can say to this mountain, 
`Move from here to there’ and it will move. 
Nothing will be impossible for you. 
Matthew 17:20

We are called in the gospel of Matthew to leave behind our helplessness when overwhelmed by life’s pervasive wilderness. He tells us to believe, even if it is only the tiniest grain of faith.

Our troubled hearts hunger for God and want to move closer to Him. 

So if we can’t make it to the mountain in the distance, our faith can move the mountain closer. God hears our plea and brings His peace to us by bringing Himself as close as the beating heart in our chest.

With such faith, with mountains moving and our hearts renewed, there will always be another Easter.

Revelstoke
Mt. Baker

This year’s Lenten theme for Barnstorming is a daily selection from songs and hymns about Christ’s profound sacrifice on our behalf.

If we remain silent about Him, the stones themselves will shout out and start to sing (Luke 19:40).

In His name, may we sing…

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Lost and Precious

How swiftly the strained honey
of afternoon light
flows into darkness

and the closed bud shrugs off
its special mystery
in order to break into blossom

as if what exists, exists
so that it can be lost
and become precious
~Lisel Mueller “In Passing”

None of us will remain as we are now.

For some, that is a source of deep regret as outer beauty fades, hair is lost or graying, skin wrinkles and strength weakens. Pulled along time’s ever-rolling stream to something new and eternal, we will become something far more precious than what our frail bodies could ever yield.

It is a special mystery with which God surrounds us: a thousand years is like an evening gone to Him. He guards us through our troubles now like irreplaceable treasures, even when we feel hopelessly lost.

We are mere buds now, waiting to open wide to a world far more glorious.

A thousand ages in thy sight
Are like an evening gone;
Short as the watch that ends the night
Before the rising sun.

The busy tribes of flesh and blood,
With all their lives and cares,
Are carried downwards by thy flood,
And lost in following years.

Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.

Like flowery fields the nations stand,
Pleased with the morning light;
The flowers beneath the mower’s hand
Lie withering e’er ’tis night.

Our God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Be thou our guard while troubles last,
And our eternal home.

~Isaac Watts

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To Make Truth

What is beauty for—
sunset searing my soul
without thought or plan?

Dawn green beauty, bee hum honey,
stone in hand so silky the long sea
worked centuries to ravish?

And what for pain—thorn
in heart for my hurt child,
dumb ache for my brother gone

thirty years, slow burn of disgrace
when I fail at what I am to do: to see
my country bruised and torn?

So, to make good things—
a song, a kind act, a friendship—
feed on beauty at every turn.

And to make truth, feed on sorrows,
gnash their salty structures,
bite the bitter rind.

~Kim Stafford, “Advice from a Raindrop” from Singer Come From Afar

Beauty is always right outside my back door, whether it is growing in the soil, as ephemeral as a raindrop, unfurling in a frosty dawn or settling into an early twilight serenade. 

The truth of beauty heals me after an imperfect day and an imperfect night’s sleep.

Today I want to be different. I will strive to be a steward for serenity, striving to find beauty in all things and all people, aiding their growth and helping them flourish.

Never perfect but I’m not giving up on the truth. 
Never perfect but serene with the responsibility of always trying, always wanting to be different than I am
and change what I can in this little part of the world.

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The Unanswerable Questions

When I lay these questions before God I get no answer.
But a rather special sort of “No answer.”

It is not the locked door.
It is more like a silent,
certainly not uncompassionate, gaze.

As though he shook his head not in refusal but waiving the question. Like, “Peace, child; you don’t understand.”

Can a mortal ask questions which God finds unanswerable?
Quite easily, I should think.
All nonsense questions are unanswerable.

How many hours are there in a mile?
Is yellow square or round?

Probably half the questions we ask –
half our great theological and metaphysical problems –
are like that.

~C.S. Lewis from  A Grief Observed

I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. 
You are yourself the answer.
Before your face questions die away.
~C.S. Lewis from Till We Have Faces

And now brothers, 
I will ask you a terrible question, 
and God knows I ask it also of myself. 
Is the truth beyond all truths, 
beyond the stars, just this: 
that to live without him is the real death, 
that to die with him the only life?
~Frederick Buechner from The Magnificent Defeat

God will only give you what you would have asked for if you knew everything he knows.
~Tim Keller

And that is just the point… how the world, moist and beautiful, calls to each of us to make a new and serious response. That’s the big question, the one the world throws at you every morning. “Here you are, alive. Would you like to make a comment?
~Mary Oliver from Long Life

An hour later, the fog has lifted

This morning, it is impossible to stay a silent observer of the world.  I have to say something; I seek out answers to the unanswerable.

Overnight, our farm was covered with a freezing fog resembling a massive sponge soaking up all the light. A chill has returned: both in the air and in ongoing events in the headlines.

There can be no complacency in witnessing this life in progress.
It blusters, rips, drenches, swallows up, buries.
Nothing remains as it was.

Yet here I am, alive.
Awed, a witness to another day.
Called to ask questions and make a comment.
Dying to hear a response.

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A Cache of Love

January’s drop-down menu
leaves everything to the imagination:
splotch the ice, splice the light,
remake the spirit…

Just get on with it,
doing what you have to do
with the gray palette that lies
to hand. The sun’s coming soon.

A future, then, of warmth and runoff,
and old faces surprised to see us.
A cache of love, I’d call it,
opened up, vernal, refreshed.
~Sidney Burris “Runoff”

When I reach the end of January in all its grayest pallor, it is hard to imagine another six weeks of winter ahead. It can feel like nature offers only a few options, take your pick: a soupy foggy morning, a drizzly mid-day, a crisp northeast wind, an unexpected snow flurry, a soggy evening.

Every once in awhile the January drop-down menu will add a special surprise: icy spikes on grass blades, frozen droplets on birch branches, hair ice on wood, crystallized weeds like jewelry in the sun, a pink flannel blanket sunrise, an ocean-of-orange sunset.

Then I realize January’s gray palette is merely preparation for what has been hidden from me the whole time. There is Love cached away, and as it is revealed, it will not let me go.

photo of hair ice in King County, Washington taken by Laura Reifel

O Love that will not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee;
I give thee back the life I owe,
That in thy ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.

O Joy that seeks me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain,
That morn shall tearless be.

~George Matheson

(“O Love” was inspired by the words of Scottish minister, George Matheson in 1882. Blinded at the age of nineteen, his fiancé called off their engagement and his sister cared for him as he endured new challenges.  Years later, on the eve of his sister’s wedding, he faced the painful reminder of his own heartache and loss as he penned the words to this hymn.) from ElaineHagenborg.com

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