A Morning Luminous with Mystery and Pain

Heart,
I implore you,
it’s time to come back
from the dark,
it’s morning,
the hills are pink
and the roses
whatever they felt

in the valley of night
are opening now
their soft dresses,
their leaves

are shining.
Why are you laggard?
Sure you have seen this
a thousand times,

which isn’t half enough.
Let the world
have its way with you,
luminous as it is

with mystery
and pain–
graced as it is
with the ordinary.

~Mary Oliver “Summer Morning”

I love to stay in bed
All morning,
Covers thrown off, naked,
Eyes closed, listening.

There’s a smell of damp hay,
Of horses, laziness,
Summer sky and eternal life.

I know all the dark places
Where the sun hasn’t reached yet,
Where the last cricket
Has just hushed; anthills

Where it sounds like it’s raining,
Slumbering spiders spinning wedding dresses.

The good tree with its voice
Of a mountain stream
Knows my steps.
It, too, hushes.

I stop and listen:
Somewhere close by
A stone cracks a knuckle,
Another turns over in its sleep.

I hear a butterfly stirring
Inside a caterpillar.
I hear the dust talking
Of last night’s storm.

Farther ahead, someone
Even more silent
Passes over the grass
Without bending it.

And all of a sudden
In the midst of that quiet,
It seems possible
To live simply on this earth.

~Charles Simic from “Summer Morning”

Reading headlines about yet more unimaginable losses and grieving people is extraordinarily painful on a summer morning when all should be luminous and lighthearted. My heart isn’t feeling the light at all; I struggle to leave behind those dark places where the sun hasn’t reached yet.

Yet if I’m still and quiet, I can hear life going on all around me. My sadness doesn’t change the mystery of a world God created in beauty and peace, now overshadowed by our fall into darkness, yet redeemed by a sacrificial Love we cannot possibly comprehend.

What a summer morning revelation. It’s as extraordinarily ordinary and simple as that.

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Roaming Soft About the Slope

The mare roamed soft about the slope,
Her rump was like a dancing girl’s.
Gentle beneath the apple trees
She pulled the grass and shook the flies,
Her forelocks hung in tawny curls,
She had a woman’s limpid eyes,
A woman’s patient stare that grieves.
And when she moved among the trees,
The dappled trees, her look was shy,
She hid her nakedness in leaves.
A delicate though weighted dance
She stepped while flocks of finches flew
From tree to tree and shot the leaves
With songs of golden twittering;
How admirable her tender stance.
And then the apple trees were new,
And she was new, and we were new,
And in the barns the stallions stamped
And shook the hills with trumpeting.
~Ruth Stone, “The Orchard” from What Love Comes To

Our retired mares are aging, the oldest now thirty and the others only a few years younger. Born on this land, they have served us well over the decades, birthing us their foals and working when asked. They deserve this easy life on pasture for as long as their legs and feet will carry them up and down the slopes of our hilly farm – they are more and more resembling our ancient crooked crippled orchard trees, some of which have already toppled in the winter winds..

I’m thinking we are close to the end of these loyal mares’ long lives; hard decisions must be made at some point and I don’t feel quite prepared to determine when they are no longer enjoying their time under the sun but I don’t want them to topple over like an old hollow tree in the wind. I listen for their nickers as I come into the barn each morning and still see their eagerness to be set free to the fields. I look in their eyes when they come in at night to discern what they have to say about how their day went out on the grass.

Perhaps I too identify a bit much with the stiffness as they move and their need for frequent napping times in the field, swishing at flies while they dream of younger days of flirting with stallions, nursing babies, having suppler joints and a wild gallop at twilight.

I’ve been singing a sad lullaby to myself and them as I work about the barn with slow deliberation, knowing there is somber sorrow when life eventually must come to its inevitable end.

Ah, all the pretty little horses…

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Go Help Your Dad

It was hard work, dying, harder
than anything he’d ever done.

Whatever brutal, bruising, back-
Breaking chore he’d forced himself

to endure—it was nothing
compared to this. And it took

so long. When would the job
be over? Who would call him

home for supper? And it was
hard for us (his children)—

all of our lives we’d heard
my mother telling us to go out,

help your father, but this
was work we could not do.

He was way out beyond us,
in a field we could not reach.

~Joyce Sutphen, “My Father, Dying” from Carrying Water to the Field: New and Selected Poems.

We will grieve not, rather find                     
Strength in what remains behind;                     
In the primal sympathy                     
Which having been must ever be;  
                   

Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.
~William Wordsworth from “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”

Pouring the sidewalk by hand
Grouting the tile perimeter
In the very bottom, installing a drain
The best dive ever…

Nearly twenty-seven years ago
we watched at your bedside as you labored,
readying yourself to die and we could not help
except to be there while we watched you
move farther away from us.

This dying, the hardest work you had ever done:

harder than handling the plow behind a team of draft horses,
harder than confronting a broken, alcoholic and abusive father,
harder than slashing brambles and branches to clear the woods,
harder than digging out stumps, cementing foundations, building roofs,
harder than shipping out, leaving behind a new wife after only a week of marriage,
harder than leading a battalion of men to battle on Saipan, Tinian and Tarawa,
harder than returning home so changed there were no words,
harder than returning to school, working long hours to support family,
harder than running a farm with only muscle and will power,
harder than coping with an ill wife, infertility, job conflict, discontent,
harder than building your own pool, your own garage, your own house,
harder than your marriage ending, a second wife dying of cancer,
and returning home asking for forgiveness.

Dying was the hardest of all
as no amount of muscle or smarts or determination
could stop it crushing you,
taking away the strength you relied on for 73 years.

So as you lay helpless, moaning, struggling to breathe,
we knew your hard work was complete
and what you left undone was up to us
to finish for you.

Ben packaged in a paper bag by Grandpa Hank
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Seeing It Through

I wanted you to see what real courage is,
instead of getting the idea
that courage is a man
with a gun in his hand.
It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin,
but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.

~Harper Lee from To Kill A Mockingbird

I know. It’s all wrong.
By rights we shouldn’t even be here.
But we are.

It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end.

Because how could the end be happy?
How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow.

Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why.

But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going, because they were holding on to something. That there is some good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for.
~J.R.R. Tolkien – Samwise Gamgee to Frodo in The Two Towers

Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. 
It means a strong desire to live
taking the form of a readiness to die.
~ G.K. Chesterton from “The Paradoxes of Christianity” in Orthodoxy

This is another day, O Lord…
If I am to stand up, help me to stand bravely.
If I am to sit still, help me to sit quietly.
If I am to lie low, help me to do it patiently.
And if I am to do nothing, let me do it gallantly.
— Kathleen Norris citing the Book of Common Prayer

What courage it takes to step out one’s front door these days.

I never know where I might be swept off to
or what I might be swept into.

When I feel overwhelmed and discouraged,
when it seems the world is cast in nothing but shadow,
I am reminded I too am part of a great story
and the plot progression is, by necessity, a mystery.

While the darkness seems to never end,
I will pass through shadows and feel great fear,
I will be asked to do things that threaten my well-being
because it is the right thing to do for another.

Yet we are promised Light and Joy at the end of this epic story.
There is still good in the world and it is worth fighting for.

It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door. You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off too.
~J.R.R. Tolkien – Bilbo to Frodo in Fellowship of the Rings

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The Presence of Absence

The sunlight now lay over the valley perfectly still. I went over to the graveyard beside the church and found them under the old cedars… I am finding it a little hard to say that I felt them resting there, but I did… I saw that, for me, this country would always be populated with presences and absences, presences of absences, the living and the dead. The world as it is would always be a reminder of the world that was, and of the world that is to come.
Wendell Berry in Jayber Crow

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
~Mary Oliver from “When Death Comes”

Today, as always over the last weekend of May, we have a family reunion where most turn up missing.  A handful of the living come together for lunch and then a slew of the no-longer-living, some of whom have been caught napping for a century or more, are no-shows.

It is always on this day of cemetery visiting that I feel keenly the presence of their absence: the great greats I never knew, a great aunt who kept so many secrets, an alcoholic grandfather I barely remember, my grandmother whose inherent messiness I inherited, an aunt who died of lymphoma as a young child, my parents who separated and divorced for ten years late in life, yet reunited long enough for their ashes to rest together for eternity.

It is good, as one of the still-for-now living, to approach these plots of grass with a wary weariness of the aging.  But for the grace of God, there will I be sooner than I wish to be.  There, thanks to the grace of God, will I one day be an absent presence for my children and grandchildren to ponder.

The world as it is remembers the world that was.  The world to come calls us home in its time, where we all will be present and accounted for — our reunion celebration.

All in good time.

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A Decent Little Cottage

Imagine yourself as a living house. 
God comes in to rebuild that house. 
At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. 
He is getting the drains right
and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; 

you knew that those jobs needed doing
and so you are not surprised. 

But presently He starts
knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably 

and does not seem to make any sense. 
What on earth is He up to? 
The explanation is that He is building
quite a different house from the one you thought of – 

throwing out a new wing here, 
putting on an extra floor there, 
running up towers, 
making courtyards. 
You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: 
but He is building a palace. 
He intends to come and live in it Himself.
~C.S. Lewis from Mere Christianity

Whether bunker or cottage or palace,
when I seek shelter, safety or simplicity,
it is not enough.
I am not a dwelling for God
until His remodel project is finished~

He puts down His chisel, hammer and saw,
sees what He has salvaged from the junk heap,
looks me over
and declares it good.

My father’s treehouse is twenty seven years old this summer, lonesome and empty high up in the black walnut tree in our front yard. It remains a constant reminder of my father’s own abandoned Swiss Family Robinson dreams.

Over the years, it has been the setting for a local children’s TV show, laser tag wars, sleep overs and tea parties, even my writer’s retreat with a deck side view of the Cascades to the east, the Canadian Coastal Range to the north and Puget Sound to the west. Now it is a sad shell no longer considered safe to visit, as the support branches in its century-old tree are weakening with age and time. It is on our list of farm restoration projects, but other falling down buildings must be prioritized first.

My father’s dream began in February 1995 when our sons were 8 and 6 years old and our daughter just 2. We had plenty of recycled lumber on our old farm and an idea about what to build. My dad, retired from his desk job and having recently survived a lymphoma diagnosis and treatment, had many previous daunting building projects to his credit, and a few in his mind that he was yet to get to. He was eager to see what he could construct for his grandkids by spring time. He doodled out some sketches of what might work in the tree, and contemplated the physics of a 73 year old man scaling a tree vs. building it on the ground and hoisting it up mostly completed. I got more nervous the more I thought about it and hoped we could consider a project less risky, and praying the weather wouldn’t clear enough for construction to start any time soon.

The weather did clear just as my father’s health faded. His cancer relapsed and he was sidelined with a series of doctor’s appointments, hospitalizations and treatment courses. He hung on to that hope of getting the treehouse going by summer, still thinking it through in his mind, still evaluating what he would need to buy to supplement the materials already gathered and piled beneath the tree. In the mean time he lost physical strength day by day.

I decided his dream needed to proceed as he fought his battle, so I borrowed library books on treehouses, and hired two college age brothers who lived down the road to get things started. I figured if my dad got well enough to build again, at least the risky stuff could be already done by the young guys. These brothers took their job very seriously. They pored over the books, took my dad’s plans, worked through the details and started in. They shinnied up the tree, put up pulleys on the high branches and placed the beams, hoisting them by pulling on the ropes with their car bumper. It was working great until the car bumper came off.

I kept my dad updated with photos and stories. It was a diversion for him, but the far off look in his eye told me he wasn’t going to be building anything in this world ever again. He was gone by July. The treehouse was completed a month later. It was everything my dad had dreamed of, and more. It had a deck surrounded by a protective railing, a trap door, and staircase up the trunk. We had an open tree celebration and had 15 friends and neighbors up there at once. I’m sure dad was sipping lemonade with us as well, enjoying the view.

Now all these years later, the treehouse is tilting on its foundation as the main weight-bearing branch is weakening with age. We’ve declared it condemned, not wanting to risk an accident.  As I look out my front window, it remains a daily reminder of past dreams fulfilled and those yet unfulfilled. Much like my father’s body, the old walnut tree is weakening, hanging on by the roots, but its muscle strength is failing. It will, inevitably come down in one of our frequent fierce windstorms, just as its nearby partner did a few years ago.

The treehouse dream branched out in another way. One of the construction team brothers decided to try building his own as a place to live in his woods, using a Douglas Fir tree as the center support and creating an octagon, two stories, 30 feet off the ground. He worked on it for two years and moved in, later marrying someone who decided a treehouse was just fine with her, and for 20+ years, they’ve been raising five children there.  The treehouse kids are old enough to come work for me on our farm, a full circle feeling for me.  This next generation is carrying on a Swiss Family Robinson dream that began in my father’s mind and our front yard.

I still have a whole list full of dreams myself, some realized and some deferred by time, resources and the limits of my imagination. I feel the clock ticking too, knowing that the years and the seasons slip by me faster and faster as I near the age my father was when he first learned he had cancer. It would be a blessing to me to see others live out the dreams I have held so close.

Like my father, I will some day teeter in the wind like our old tree, barely hanging on. When ready to fall to the ground, I’ll reach out with my branches and hand off my dreams too. The time will have come to let them go. Thank you, Dad, for handing me yours.

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Learning to Fish for Happiness

If winter is a house then summer is a window
in the bedroom of that house. Sorrow is a river
behind the house and happiness is the name

of a fish who swims downstream. The unborn child
who plays in the fragrant garden is named Mavis:
her red hair is made of future and her sleek feet

are wet with dreams. The cat who naps
in the bedroom has his paws in the sun of summer
and his tail in the moonlight of change. You and I

spend years walking up and down the dusty stairs
of the house. Sometimes we stand in the bedroom
and the cat walks towards us like a message.

Sometimes we pick dandelions from the garden
and watch the white heads blow open
in our hands. We are learning to fish in the river

of sorrow; we are undressing for a swim.
~Faith Shearin, “The Name of a Fish” from The Owl Question

We can be swallowed by our sorrow,
flowing past our feet, threatening to sweep us away.
Yet we might pull off our shoes and wade right in
looking for what happiness we might catch,
or simply watch it swim by, taking comfort in knowing
it still swirls around us.

It is possible to feel sadness and to rejoice all at once,
to hold infinity gently in the palm of my hand,
ready to disperse from a casual breeze
or intentional breath.

This sacrifice of One is only the beginning. 
A Breath started it all and ends it all.

How can it be when nothing is left, everything is gained?

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the Palm of your Hand,
and Eternity in an Hour.

When the Soul Slept in Beams of Light 
God Appears & God is Light
To those poor Souls who dwell in Night 
But does a Human Form Display
To those who Dwell in Realms of day
~William Blake from “Auguries of Innocence”

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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: The Falling Tear

When Jesus wept, the falling tear
in mercy flowed beyond all bound;
when Jesus groaned, a trembling fear
seized all the guilty world around.
~William Billings

And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace!
But now they are hidden from your eyes. 
~Luke 19:41-42

Facing this week of remembrance,
knowing that right now thousands are displaced by war,
some in graves, some grieving their losses,
some wondering what comes next.

On this journey, we face our own fears of vulnerability and mortality,
a week where thorns overwhelm the emerging blossoms~~

To acknowledge what He did this week long ago,
to conquer the shroud and the stone,
to defy death,
makes all the difference for us here and now.

Indeed Jesus wept and groaned for us.

To be known for who we are
by a God who weeps for us
and groans with pain we caused:
we can know
no greater love.

This week ends our living for self, only to die,
and begins our dying to self, in order to live.

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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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: Turn Sighs Into Songs

Sing to the God who turns our sighs into a song.
Sing to the One who mends our broken hearts with music.
Sing to the One who fills our empty hearts with love.
Sing to the One who gives us light to step into the darkest night.
Sing to the God who turns our sighs into a song.

~Susan Boersma

Sixty-seven years, oh Lord, to look at the clouds,
the trees in deep, moist summer,

daisies and morning glories
opening every morning

their small, ecstatic faces—
Or maybe I should just say

how I wish I had a voice
like the meadowlark’s,

sweet, clear, and reliably
slurring all day long

from the fencepost, or the long grass
where it lives

in a tiny but adequate grass hut
beside the mullein and the everlasting,

the faint-pink roses
that have never been improved, but come to bud

then open like little soft sighs
under the meadowlark’s whistle, its breath-praise,

its thrill-song, its anthem, its thanks, its
alleluia. Alleluia, oh Lord.

~Mary Oliver “While I Am Writing A Poem to Celebrate Summer, the Meadowlark Begins to Sing”

Each day opens to new possibility
with a sigh, a breath and thankfulness-

once in awhile tears, sometimes heartbreak,
and flat out fear of what comes next.

Even so,
through it all
I sing a song of praise, an alleluia
that reminds me why I am
and who I live for.

All is well,
it is well with my soul.

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…

When time sweeps yesterday away,
It leaves behind an empty heart,
Weeping through the night so dark and long.
When words are lost among the tears,
When sadness steals another day,
God hears our cries and turns our sighs into a song.

Sing to the One who mends our broken hearts with music.
Sing to the One who fills our empty hearts with love.
Sing to the One who gives us light to step into the darkest night.
Sing to the God who turns our sighs into a song.

From heaven falls a mercy sweet,
The time for weeping now is gone;
God hears our sighs and gives us His eternal song.
Sing to the One who mends our broken hearts with music.
Sing to the One who fills our empty hearts with love.

Translation:
Lord, protect Ukraine. Give us strength, faith, and hope, our Father. Amen

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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: Carry On

Weary traveler
Beat down from the storms that you have weathered
Feels like this road just might go on forever
Carry on
~Jordan St. Cyr

There are so many who are weary right now:
-refugees who have walked for miles to reach safety, with no idea where to go next.
-hopeful immigrants who seek a new life and a new start, but bogged down in government process and paperwork
-those who are struggling to stay alive in the midst of debilitating illness, both physical and mental
-those who have given of themselves to care for those who struggle
-those who have lived many years and now feel ready to be taken home, yet wake again to a new day
-those whose faith feels beaten down by the loss of community and congregational consolation during two years of pandemic anger and disagreement
-those who mourn deeply for those they have lost.

God knows our grief. God knows our weary bodies and minds need rest and restoration. God knows the struggle as He too walked this weary road, too often alone.

Yet He carried on then and carries on today and will be there alongside us tomorrow.

Carry on. Someday we will make it home.

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…

Weary traveler
Beat down from the storms that you have weathered
Feels like this road just might go on forever
Carry on

You keep on giving
But every day this world just keeps on taking
Your tired heart is on the edge of breaking
Carry on

Weary traveler, restless soul
You were never meant to walk this road alone
It’ll all be worth it so just hold on

Weary traveler
You won’t be weary long
No more searching

Heaven’s healing’s gonna find where all the hurt is
When Jesus calls we’ll lay down all our heavy burdens
Carry on
Someday soon we’re gonna make it home

Neon lights flickering
Outside the cafe
Ice on the windshield
Stars in a black sea
On a winter road
Flurries of snow
I’m ready to go

Past farmhouse and pasture
Our voices together
Rise to the drumming
Of big-rigs and trailers
Long hours to daylight
A rumbling bus
Our bed and our board

Heavenly Father
Remember the traveler
Bring us safely home
Heavenly Father
Remember the traveler
Bring us safely home
Safely home

In the towns off this highway
The people are kind
They welcome us in
I sing in their church halls
Old hymns and prayer songs
With lifted hearts
We rejoice in the Lord

I long for my family
And friends to remind me
Of where I have been
And where I am going
And where I come from

Heavenly Father
Remember the traveler
Bring us safely home
Heavenly Father
Remember the traveler
Bring us safely home
Safely home

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