All Here is Well…

Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving   
up the bales as the sun moves down.

Let it come, as it will, and don’t   
be afraid. God does not leave us 
comfortless, so let evening come.

~Jane Kenyon “Let Evening Come”

And into nights when bats were on the wing
Over the rafters of sleep, where bright eyes stared
From piles of grain in corners, fierce, unblinking.
The dark gulfed like a roof-space. 

~Seamus Heaney from “The Barn”

The barn is awake,
There is no mistake,
Something wonderful is happening here.
Yellow panes glowing, it begins snowing.
Over rafters a hoot owl takes flight.
A safe place to dwell—all here is well— when we’re in the barn at night.
~Michelle Houts from “Barn at Night”

Usually, after turning out that forgotten barn light, I sit on the edge of the tractor bucket for a few minutes and let my eyes adjust to the night outside. City people always notice the darkness here, but it’s never very dark if you wait till your eyes owl out a little….

I’m always glad to have to walk down to the barn in the night, and I always forget that it makes me glad. I heave on my coat, stomp into my barn boots and trudge down toward the barn light, muttering at myself. But then I sit in the dark, and I remember this gladness, and I walk back up to the gleaming house, listening for the horses.
~Verlyn Klinkenborg from A Light in the Barn

Above us, stars. Beneath us, constellations.
Five billion miles away, a galaxy dies
like a snowflake falling on water. Below us,
some farmer, feeling the chill of that distant death,
snaps on his yard light, drawing his sheds and barn
back into the little system of his care.
All night, the cities, like shimmering novas,
tug with bright streets at lonely lights like his.

~Ted Kooser “Flying at Night”

The night barn is a type of beacon as darkness falls.
Light falls through the cracks to guide our footsteps.
It becomes protection from wind and rain and snow.
It provides creatures comfort so their keepers can sleep soundly.
It is safe and warm – full of steaming breath and overall contentment.
It is a kind of sanctuary: a cathedral sans stained glass grandeur or organ hymns.

Yet the only true sanctuary isn’t found in a weather-beaten barn of rough-hewn old growth timbers vulnerable to the winds of life.

An illuminated night barn happens within me, in the depths of my soul, comforted by the encompassing and salvaging arms of God. There I am held, transformed and restored, grateful beyond measure: all is well here.

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Summer Nap

In the afternoon of summer, sounds
come through the window: a tractor
muttering to itself as it

Pivots at the corner of the
hay field, stalled for a moment
as the green row feeds into the baler.

The wind slips a whisper behind
an ear; the noise of the highway
is like the dark green stem of a rose.

From the kitchen the blunt banging
of cupboard doors and wooden chairs
makes a lonely echo in the floor.

Somewhere, between the breeze
and the faraway sound of a train,
comes a line of birdsong, lightly
threading the heavy cloth of dream.

~Joyce Sutphen, “Soundings” from Naming the Stars

As a young child, I remember waking from my summer afternoon naps to the sights and sounds of our rural community. I could hear tractors working fields in the distance, farm trucks rumbling by on the road, the cows and horses in the fields, a train whistle in the distance and the ever-present birdsong from dawn to dusk.

These were the sounds of contentment and productivity, both together. Surely this is how heaven must be: always a sense of something wonderful happening, always a reason to celebrate, always a profound sense of respite and sanctuary.

Even now, there is that moment of awakening of my heart and soul from a summer nap when I try to listen for the chorus of angels outside my open window.

photo by Harry Rodenberger

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The Power of Fluff

As the days warm and lengthen, the grass
is getting happy almost overnight.
Under my window the first star of spring
opens its eye on the front lawn. Yellow
as butter, it is only one. But it is one,
and in the nature of things, and like
the multiple asterisks seeding the night sky,
it will flourish and take over every
grassy bank in town. I long to be prolific
as the dandelion, spinning pale parachutes
of words, claiming new territory by
the power of fluff. The stars in their courses
have bloomed an unending glory
across the heavens, but here in my yard
a local constellation prepares to launch
multiple, short-lived, radiant coronas
to proclaim the new-sprung season.
~Luci Shaw “Dandelion”

How I loved those spiky suns,   
rooted stubborn as childhood   
in the grass, tough as the farmer’s   
big-headed children—the mats   
of yellow hair, the bowl-cut fringe.   
How sturdy they were and how   
slowly they turned themselves   
into galaxies, domes of ghost stars   
barely visible by day, pale   
cerebrums clinging to life   
on tough green stems.   
Like you.   
Like you, in the end.   
If you were here,   
I’d pluck this trembling globe to show   
how beautiful a thing can be   
a breath will tear away.  
~Jean Nordhaus “A Dandelion for My Mother”

We harbor a dandelion sanctuary,
a safe haven from herbicides and trowels.

The lawn is filled with them now
yellow spots in carpeted green
which close tight at night,
then open each morning
as miniature reflections
of the real dawn.

As a kid, I was paid a nickel
to dig up each long dandelion root,
restoring the blemished green yard
to pristine perfection;
no more yellow splotches,
unruly stems,
trembling transparent globes
releasing scores of
seedy offspring.

But it didn’t last.

The perfect lawn,
like the perfect life
~unbesmirched~
is a myth.

A host of opportunistic seeds
float innocently on the breeze
or lie hidden deep in our soil
ready to spring up again overnight.

Those spunky spiky suns
and ghostly stars of fluff
overwhelm my heart with joy:
they take my breath away
as my breath, in turn,
blows them away.


Where Time and Eternity Meet

Unexpected God,
your coming advent alarms us.
Wake us from drowsy worship,
from the sleep that neglects love,
and the sedative of misdirected frenzy.
Awaken us now to your coming,
and bend our angers into your peace.
Amen.
~Revised Common Lectionary

photo by Julie Garrett

Sometimes the very walls of our churches
separate us from God
and each other.


In our various naves and sanctuaries
we are safely separated from those outside,
from other denominations, other religions,
separated from the poor, the ugly, the dying.…


The house of God is not a safe place.
It is a cross where time and eternity meet,
and where we are – or should be –
challenged to live more vulnerably,
more interdependently.
~Madeleine L’Engle, from  A Stone for a Pillow

Does anyone have the foggiest idea
of what sort of power we so blithely invoke?
Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?
The churches are

children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets,
mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.
It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church;
we should all be wearing crash helmets.
Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares;
they should lash us to our pews.

~Annie Dillard from Teaching a Stone to Talk

Today, after weeks of worshipping outdoors, we move back inside for fall and winter, all wearing masks while separated into four different spaces with social distancing. It may be this way well into next year: nobody knows.

No one is happy that the singing will be limited, there will be no handshakes or hugs and some of us will be watching a live feed on a screen. Some are flat out angry at having to worship this way and will opt to stay away. Yet we are called to come together, to raise our voices corporately in praise, prayer and thanksgiving, despite the risks and unfamiliarity of how these changes look and feel while we try to protect one another from infection.

We tend to forget that walking into church on any Sabbath, not just during a pandemic, takes courage and commitment as we automatically become vulnerable to one another. What one of us says and does can bless or hurt us all. This can be no drowsy worship: we are the poor, the ugly and the dying.

When I hear the secular folks in society scoff at attending church as a “crutch for the weak”, they underestimate what it means to admit a desperate need for salvation and grace that can only be found inside those doors. We who sit in a pew in the sanctuary cling to the life preserver found in the Word. We are lashed to our seats and must hang on.  It is only because of God’s grace that we survive the tempests of temptation, guilt and self-doubt in order to let go of our own anger at the state of the world and the state of our own souls.

Exposing ourselves to the radical mystery and immense power of the living God is not for the faint of heart, yet all of us on the verge of heart failure need God’s deep roots to thrive and grow in our rocky soul soil.

So today, and every day, we must not forget our crash helmets… or our masks.

Stillness of the Heart

It was like a church to me.
I entered it on soft foot,
Breath held like a cap in the hand.
It was quiet.
What God there was made himself felt,
Not listened to, in clean colours
That brought a moistening of the eye,
In a movement of the wind over grass.

There were no prayers said. But stillness
Of the heart’s passions – that was praise
Enough; and the mind’s cession
Of its kingdom. I walked on,
Simple and poor, while the air crumbled
And broke on me generously as bread.
~R.S. Thomas “The Moor” Collected Poems: R. S. Thomas

This is a Sabbath morning
when I’m surrounded by His stilling presence~
when God is felt,
neither seen or heard,
overtaking me
within each breath taken,
following the path of each glistening tear,
feeding me manna from sky and body,
becoming the ground reaching to meet my foot
with each step I take.

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

The Ordinary Stuff of Earth Manifest

Passing down this story of Christ’s life, death, resurrection and ascension is not merely, or mainly, an exercise in cognition. Nor is it a divinely inspired game of telephone, where we simply whisper a message to the next generation through the ages.

Inevitably the story comes to us through ordinary people over dinner tables, at work, in songs, through worship, conflict, failure, repentance, ritual, liturgy, art, work and family. Christianity is something we believe, but it is also a practice. Central to our practice is what Christians call sacraments, where the mysteries of faith are manifest through the ordinary stuff of earth—water and skin, bread and teeth.

~Tish Harrison Warren from “True Story”

photo of Wiser Lake Chapel by Barbara Hoelle

schizomeno—meaning in Greek “ripped open.” It occurs twice in the Gospels: once when the temple veil is torn the day of Christ’s crucifixion. The other is when “the heavens opened” upon Christ’s baptism. But they didn’t just “open.” They were ripped open. God broke into history with a voice and an act of salvation unlike any other. 

To study the Bible with people of faith is to see it not only as an object of academic or antiquarian interest but also as a living word, a source of intellectual challenge, inspiration, comfort, uncomfortable ambiguities, and endless insights for people who gather in willingness to accept what seems to be God’s invitation: Wrestle with this. Healthy churches wrestle, working out their salvation over coffee and concordances, knowing there is nothing pat or simple about the living Word, but that it invites us into subtle, supple, resilient relationship with the Word made flesh who dwells, still, among us.
~Marilyn McEntyre from “Choosing Church”

Ripped open to allow access – that is what God has done to enter into this ordinary stuff of earth, and giving us access to Him.

I enter the church sanctuary every Sunday to be reminded of this wrestling match we have with ourselves, with each other, with the every day ordinary stuff, with the living Word of God. None of this is easy and it isn’t meant to be. We must work for understanding and struggle for contentment.

I keep going back – gladly, knowing my guilt, eager to be transformed – not only because I choose to be in church, but because He chose to invite me there.

Sabbath Morning

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 every Sabbath Morning we are still 
returning to the altar standing 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 “The Old Church”

…when I experienced the warm, unpretentious reception of those who have nothing to boast about, and experienced a loving embrace from people who didn’t ask any questions, I began to discover that a true spiritual homecoming means a return to the poor in spirit to whom the kingdom of heaven belongs.
~Henri Nouwen from The Return of the Prodigal Son

Our family had driven past the boxy building countless times hurrying on our way to other places, barely giving it a second glance. It had a classic design, but showed its age with peeling paint,  a few missing shingles, an old fashioned square flat roofed belfry, and arched windows. The hand lettered sign spelling out “Wiser Lake Chapel” by the road constituted a humble invitation of sorts, simply by listing the times of the services.

On a blustery December Sunday evening in 1990, we had no place else to be for a change.  Instead of driving past, we stopped, welcomed by the yellow glow pouring from the windows and an almost full parking lot. Our young family climbed the steps to the big double doors, and inside were immediately greeted by a large balding man with a huge grin and encompassing handshake. He pointed us to one of the few open spots still available in the old wooden pews.

The sanctuary was a warm and open space with a high lofted ceiling, dark wood trim accents matching the ancient pews, and a plain wooden cross above the pulpit in front. There was a pungent smell from fir bough garlands strung along high wainscoting, and a circle of candles standing lit on a small altar table. Apple pie was baking in the kitchen oven, blending with the aroma of good coffee and hot cocoa.

The service was a Sunday School Christmas program, with thirty some children of all ages and skin colors standing up front in bathrobes and white sheet angel gowns, wearing gold foil halos, tinfoil crowns and dish towels wrapped with string around their heads. They were prompted by their teachers through carols and readings of the Christmas story. The final song was Silent Night, sung by candle light, with each child and member of the congregation holding a lit candle. There was a moment of excitement when one girl’s long hair briefly caught fire, but after that was quickly extinguished, the evening ended in darkness, with the soft glow of candlelight illuminating faces of the young and old, some in tears streaming over their smiles.

It felt like home. We had found our church.

We’ve never left and every Sabbath day finds us back there.

Over the past 103 years, this old building has seen a few thousand people come and go, has had peeling paint and missing shingles, a basement that flooded when the rain comes down hard, toilets that didn’t always flush, and though it smells heavenly on potluck days, there are times when it can be just a bit out of sorts and musty. It really isn’t anything to boast about.

It is humble and unpretentious yet envelops its people in its loving and imperfect embrace, with warmth, character and a uniqueness that is unforgettable.

It really is not so different from the folks who have gathered there over the years.

We know we belong,
such as we are,
just as we are,
blessed by God with a place to join together.

One Kind of Lullaby

chewing

 

…let me live
in a small room
up the narrow stairs from the stalls,
the horse shifting comfortably below,
browsing and chewing sweet hay.
A single bed with blanket the color
of factory-sweepings will suffice,
each day shaped to the same arc, 
because days can only end when
the lock slides free on the stall’s
Dutch door, and I lead the horse in,
then muscle the corroded bolt shut.
That’s what days are for: I cannot rest
until the horse comes home.
~Julie Bruck from “To Bring the Horse Home”

 

 

 

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The best moment in the barn is in the evening just following the hay feeding, as the animals are settling down to some serious chewing. I linger in the center aisle, listening to the rhythmic sounds coming from six stalls. It is a most soothing contented cadence, first their lips picking up the grass, then the chew chew chew chew and a pause and it starts again. It’s even better in the dark, with the lights off.

I’ve enjoyed listening to the eating sounds at night from the remote vantage point of my bedroom TV monitor system set up to watch my very pregnant mares before foaling. A peculiar lullaby of sorts, strange as that seems, but when all my farm animals are chewing and happy, I am at peace and sleep better.

It reminds me of those dark deep nights of feeding my own newborns, rocking back and forth with the rhythm of their sucking. It is a moment of being completely present and peaceful, and knowing at that moment, nothing else matters–nothing else at all.

If I am very fortunate, each day I live has a rhythm that is reassuring and steady, like the sounds of hay chewing, or rocking a baby. I awake thinking about where my next step will bring me,  and then the next, like each chew of sweet hay. I try to live in each moment fully, without distraction by the worry of the unknown.

But the reality is:
life’s rhythms are often out of sync,
the cadence is jarring,
the sounds are discordant,
sometimes I’m the one being chewed on, so pain replaces peacefulness.

Maybe that is why this lullaby in the barn~~this sanctuary~~is so treasured. It brings me home to that doubting center of myself that needs reminding that pain is fleeting, and peace, however elusive now, is forever. I always know where to find it for a few minutes at the end of every day, in a pastoral symphony of sorts.

Someday my hope for heaven will be angel choruses of glorious praise, augmenting a hay-chewing lullaby.

So simple yet so grand.

 

 

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