Pleading To Be Let Out

Though the barn is so warm
that the oats in his manger,
the straw in his bed
seem to give off smoke—

though the wind is so cold,
the snow in the pasture
so deep he’d fall down
and freeze in an hour—

the eleven-month-old
palomino stallion
has gone almost crazy
fighting and pleading
to be let out.
~Alden Nowlan “The Palomino Stallion” from Selected Poems.

photo by Emily Vander Haak

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. 

We all feel pretty locked in right now – not able to go where we want, when we want, or how we want. We are kicking at the walls and pummeling each other in our frustration at the limitations imposed by a blizzard of virus swirling outside, swallowing up another person every couple minutes.

It is hard to think of quarantine as a necessary time of security and safety. Even our horses are confined to their barn stalls in the worst of winter weather with all the comforts of home provided to them, yet somehow they believe it is better “out there” than inside. However, once they are “out there,” they take one look around and turn back to come in where there isn’t knee deep mud or bitter northeast winds or pounding drenching rain. It isn’t a bit friendly out there.

In this part of the world, we can continue to have harsh winter weather for another month or so and then we can start allowing our critters more freedom. There is no chance the viral storm will settle that soon so the rest of us will hunker down for a while longer.

I’ll try not to bite if you promise not to kick.

Turning Darkness Into Light: A Safe Place in My Heart

In the dark, a child might ask, What is the world?
just to hear his sister
promise, An unfinished wing of heaven,
just to hear his brother say,
A house inside a house,
but most of all to hear his mother answer,
One more song, then you go to sleep.


How could anyone in that bed guess
the question finds its beginning
in the answer long growing
inside the one who asked, that restless boy,
the night’s darling?


Later, a man lying awake,
he might ask it again,
just to hear the silence
charge him, This night
arching over your sleepless wondering,

this night, the near ground
every reaching-out-to overreaches,

just to remind himself
out of what little earth and duration,
out of what immense good-bye,


each must make a safe place of his heart,
before so strange and wild a guest
as God approaches.

~Li Young Lee “Nativity Poem”

As alone as we may feel during this odd time
without the comfort of ones we love now near,
as separate as it is without shared meals and laughter,
there is one thing a virus can’t take from us:

we are the shelter for God comes newborn
we are the womb He seeks
we are the safe place hidden from the storms of the world
and He grows here in our hearts –
invited and wild and strange –
so nurtured and so nurturing.


No presents, no candy, no treat
No stockings hung by the fire
No parties, no family to greet
No angel’s heavenly choirs

Bells are ringing all over the world
Bells are ringing calling the light
Bells are ringing all over the world
All over the world tonight

No doorways, no windows, no walls
No shelter here on the ground
No standing and no safe place to fall
Just the promise of this distant sound

Bells are ringing all over the world
Bells are ringing calling the light
Bells are ringing all over the world
All over the world tonight

Wherever you’re walking tonight
Whoever you’re waiting for
Somehow by the stable’s faint light
Peace in your heart is restored

Bells are ringing all over the world
Bells are ringing calling the light
Bells are ringing all over the world
All over the world

Bells are ringing all over the world
Bells are ringing calling the light
Bells are ringing all over the world
All over the world tonight
~Mary Chapin Carpenter

Shadows Move with the Sun

The shadow’s the thing. 
If I no longer see shadows as “dark marks,”
as do the newly sighted,
then I see them as making some sort of sense of the light.
They give the light distance;
they put it in its place.
They inform my eyes of my location here, here O Israel,
here in the world’s flawed sculpture,

here in the flickering shade of the nothingness
between me and the light.
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Be comforted; the world is very old,
  And generations pass, as they have passed,
  A troop of shadows moving with the sun;
Thousands of times has the old tale been told;
  The world belongs to those who come the last,
  They will find hope and strength as we have done.
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow “A Shadow”

A shadow is hard to seize by the throat and dash to the ground.
~Victor Hugo from Les Miserables

We are dealing and dueling with shadows,
our flawed imperfect darkness
rather than one another.
We write things on a screen that we would never
say to another’s face.
We assume motives, predict behavior, ponder reactions
but all is smoke and mirrors.

Such is the cost of feeling fear and distrust.

As the sun moves and time passes,
the shadows shift and play with the Light
from a different angle,
so shall we shift and pray.

Rather than holding the Light at a distance
while trying to wrestle shadows to the ground,
we’ll embrace it and make sense of it,
yearning for the illuminating hugs
we’ve been denied for so long.

From Cut and From Tumble…

God keep my jewel this day from danger;
From tinker and pooka and bad-hearted stranger.
From harm of the water, from hurt of the fire.
From the horns of the cows going home to the byre.
From the sight of the fairies that maybe might change her.
From teasing the ass when he’s tied to the manger.
From stones that would bruise her, from thorns of the briar.
From evil red berries that wake her desire.
From hunting the gander and vexing the goat.
From the depths o’ sea water by Danny’s old boat.
From cut and from tumble, from sickness and weeping;
May God have my jewel this day in his keeping.
~Winifred Lett (1882-1973) Prayer for a Child

This prayer has hung in our home for almost three decades, purchased when I was pregnant with our first child.  When I first saw it with its drawing of the praying mother watching her toddler leave the safety of the home to explore the wide world, I knew it addressed most of my worries as a new mother, in language that helped me smile at my often irrational fears.  I would glance at it dozens of time a day, and it would remind me of God’s care for our children through every scary thing, real or imagined.

And I continue to pray for our grown children, their spouses, and now for three precious grandchildren who live far from us. I do this because I can’t help myself but do it, and because I’m helpless without the care and compassion of our sovereign God.

Right now, this week, I pray for all children who are growing up in an increasingly divisive and conflicted world, who cannot understand why skin color should make a difference to one’s hopes and dreams and freedom to walk anywhere without feeling threatened.

May I be changed in my prayers.
May we all be changed, in a twinkling of an eye.

I pray because I can’t help myself.
I pray because I’m helpless.
I pray because the need flows out of me all the time

— waking and sleeping.
It doesn’t change God — it changes me.

~C.S. Lewis

Send Me Dreams

Still and calm,
In purple robes of kings,
The low-lying mountains
sleep at the edge of the world.
The forests cover them like mantles;
Day and night
Rise and fall over them
like the wash of waves. 
Asleep, they reign.
Silent, they say all.
Hush me, O slumbering mountains –
Send me dreams.

~Harriet Monroe “The Blue Ridge”

I live where the surrounding hills circle like wagons,
strong shoulders promising protection,
lying steadfast day after day,
while the palette of sky changes with the season.

These are friends in whose shadows I sleep;
they will be here long after I take my rest,
but I will remember, even in my dreams,
I will long remember
how light emerges hopeful over the crest
at the breaking of dawn.

He Accepts Us As We Are: Mere Wayfarers

The settled happiness and security which we all desire,
God withholds from us by the very nature of the world:
but joy, pleasure, and merriment, he has scattered broadcast.
We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy.
It is not hard to see why.

The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world
and oppose an obstacle to our return to God:
a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony,
a merry meeting with our friends, a bath
or a football match, have no such tendency.

Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns,
but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.
~C.S. Lewis from The Problem of Pain

I am reminded every day, with every headline shouting bad news:
this is not our home; we are mere wayfarers.

We tend to lose focus on the “why” of our journey on this troubled earth:
so much of our time and energy is understandably spent seeking out safety and security, striving for a road filled with happiness, joy and contentment, as if that should be our ultimate destination and purpose.

Yet the nature of a fallen world leads us down boulder-strewn paths filled with potholes and sheer cliffs. Suddenly nowhere feels safe or secure.

We are now confronted with thousands of ill and hurting people world-wide, some dying before their time, their travels on earth ending abruptly. We wonder who may be next.

Will it be someone I love? Will it be me? He accepts our fear of the unknown destination, as He knows what lies ahead on our journey.

God in His mercy never leaves us homeless or without hope. We are called to be the gift to others who are hurting.

…just as He gifted Himself to us.

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat,
I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,
I was a stranger and you invited me in,

 I needed clothes and you clothed me,
I was sick and you looked after me,
I was in prison and you came to visit me.
~Matthew 25:35-6

This year’s Lenten theme for Barnstorming:

God sees us as we are,
loves us as we are,
and accepts us as we are.
But by His grace,
He does not leave us where we are.
~Tim Keller

1. What is the crying at Jordan?
Who hears, O God, the prophecy?
Dark is the season, dark our hearts
and shut to mystery.

2. Who then shall stir in this darkness,
prepare for joy in the winter night.
Mortal in darkness we lie down blindhearted,
seeing no light.

3. Lord, give us grace to awake us,
to see the branch that begins to bloom;
in great humility is hid all heaven
in a little room.

4. Now comes the day of salvation,
in joy and terror the Word is born!
God comes as gift into our lives;
oh let salvation dawn!

Embraced By God’s Restless Love

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

~Stephen Paulus “The Old Church”

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”

There could be so much wrong with the church overall,
comprised as it is
with fallen people
with broken wings,
looking odd and leaning awry,
determined to find flaws in each other’s
doctrine, rituals, tradition, beliefs.

What is right with the church:
who we pray to, why we sing,
whose body we comprise
so bloodied, fractured, yet healed
despite our thoroughly motley messiness~
Our Lord of Heaven and Earth
rains down His restless love upon our heads.

The Back Pew

There’s coffee and pie
with a widow from the church.
Why do you sit
in the back pew? she asks.
I’m close enough, I say.
Can I sit back there with you?
I’ve always sat there, I tell her,
with my same two friends,
and their clicking oxygen pumps.
One sat next to me for years,
called herself my church girlfriend,
who metastasized, telling me she was
tired of waiting to die.
Now, there’s just my 88-year-old friend,
his pump echoing in the sanctuary,
and there’s that empty
space between us.
I’d like to invite the widow to sit there,
but I miss my dead friend’s laugh,
her loving stories about her husband,
and how we were always
glad to see one another.
I tell the widow all this.
What if I just sat there? she asks.
It’s a free country, I tell her,
and she smiles.
~Bruce Pemberton “Autumn 2017” from Third Wednesday, (Vol. XI, no. 2, 2018)

We used to occupy the back pew with our young family, figuring a wiggly child would be less disruptive if we stayed in the back. Our children would sing loud, draw pictures on index cards, take notes on the sermon and sometimes fall asleep under the bench. As they got older, we slowly made our way to the middle benches, and even sat in the very front when we walked into church late.

Sometimes we go sit in the back again for old times sake and find the most interesting group holding down those pews.

There is a fellow over ninety years old who still drives himself to church and he prefers the back because he can see everyone else who is in church without having to turn around. He decided the back was the place to be after seeing a 16 year old girl who always sat in the back pew bring her baby daughter to church for the first time, and how she was the center of a swarm of church ladies who came to oooh and aaah over the baby at the conclusion of the worship service. He told me he knew there was special grace and acceptance in that back bench.

It’s a loving and safe place to be. Everyone should try it sometime.

photo by Barb Hoelle

Not Alone in the Dark

“If there were no God, there would be no atheists.”
—G.K. Chesterton

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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”

shuksanhiding

I have heard the same message
from several patients:
they feel so alone
so in the dark,
so afraid
and weighted down
they would rather
choose to end their life~

yet not believing
in God means
jumping from
the pain of living
into
…nothing at all…

(feeling nothing
being the 
point
of ceasing
to be)

Perhaps they can’t imagine
this God who loves
doubters too sore afraid
of His caring enough to die
to assure
no one ever
becomes
nothing.

A Wink of Eyes and Hoof Prints

The neighbor’s horses idle
under the roof
of their three-sided shelter,
looking out at the rain.

Sometimes
one or another
will fade into the shadows
in the corner, maybe
to eat, or drink.

Still, the others stand,
blowing out their warm
breaths. Rain rattles
on the metal roof.

Their hoof prints
in the corral
open gray eyes to the sky,
and wink each time
another drop falls in.
~Jennifer Gray

The September rains have returned and will stay awhile. We, especially the horses, sigh with relief, as flies no longer crawl over their faces all day seeking a watery eye to drink from. With no flies around, there are also no longer birds tickling pony backs looking for a meal.

Our Haflingers prefer to graze under open gray skies not bothering to seek cover during the day; their mountain coats provide adequate insulation in a rain squall. Darkness descends earlier and earlier so I go out in the evening to find them standing waiting at the gate, ready for an invitation to come into the barn.

Their eyes are heavy, blinking with sleep; outside their muddy hoofprints fill with rain overnight.

It is a peaceful time for us no-longer-young ponies and farmers. We wink and nod together, ready for rain, ready for the night.