A Cottonwood Dream

Stand near the river with your feet
slightly apart. Push your toes down
beyond the mud, below the water.
Stretch your arms and head back
deliberately, until straight lines
no longer matter—until the sky
from any angle is your desire.
Let the skin go grey and split open.
If you die a little somewhere
the wind will carve the branches back
into an alphabet
someone will try to remember
how to read. Stay this way
half a century or more, turning leaves
in the half-note tides of the air.
Inside, with that blood so slow
no one hears it, set buds for spring
by each late October. November,
December, dream what it means
being owl…or star.
~Kathleen Cain, “What This Means, Being Cottonwood” from Times of Sorrow, Times of Grace

According to old Morton Lawrence, the original owner of this farm, this particular cottonwood was a special tree. He called it the “Balm of Gilead” tree for the sticky resin that exudes from its spring buds, which he liked to rub into his dry cracked hands. The scent is memorable, both sweet and green, and invokes the smell of spring ground awakening from a long winter.

The big tree stands apart from the rest of the forest, always a sentinel of the seasons, blowing cotton fluff in the late spring and heart-shaped leaves in the fall, covering the surrounding fields.

The buds may well have healing properties, as described in the Book of Jeremiah in the Old Testament, but it is this tree that I depend upon for its unblinking steadiness through the worst wind storms, the driest summers and our iced-over winters. The cottonwood, in its multi-armed reach to the skies, is balm to my eyes, no matter when I look at it — a dream of the healing I’ll find someday in heaven for all that ails me.

It Was Like That

It was like the moment when a bird decides not to eat
from your hand,
and flies, just before it flies, the moment the rivers seem
to still
and stop because a storm is coming, but there is no
storm, as when
a hundred starlings lift and bank together before they
wheel and drop,
very much like the moment, driving on bad ice, when it
occurs to you
your car could spin, just before it slowly begins to spin,
like
the moment just before you forgot what it was you were
about to say,
it was like that, and after that, it was still like that, only
all the time.
~Marie Howe “Part of Eve’s Discussion” from The Good Thief. 

Sometimes my mind’s eye will assume what is about to happen before it does, and I can see it play out before it does – yet sometimes it doesn’t.

Sometimes I teeter on the cusp of a new thought, a revelation that will change things completely — yet it never forms beyond that initial seed.

Sometimes I believe I can do whatever is right in my own eyes because it feels right – yet I don’t consider what that means forever.

I reach for the fruit because I want it and I’m hungry and it is hanging there waiting for someone, anyone – yet if I hesitate for a moment and consider the worm hole before I take a bite, it just might spare the world so much sorrow and heartache.

Decomposing Standards

I’ve banked nothing, or everything.
Every day

the chores need doing again.
Early in the morning,

I clean the horse barn with a manure fork.
Every morning,

it feels as though it could be
the day before or a year ago
or a year before that.

With every pass, I give the fork one final upward flick
to keep the manure from falling out,
and every day I remember

where I learned to do that and from whom.

Time all but stops.

But then I dump the cart on the compost pile.
I bring out the tractor and turn the pile,

once every three or four days.
The bucket bites and lifts, and steam comes billowing out of the heap.
It’s my assurance that time is really moving forward,
decomposing us all in the process.
~Verlyn Klinkenborg from More Scenes from the Rural Life

I’ve written about horse manure before in a variety of contexts as it is a daily chore here to keep it picked up, wheeled to the pile, wait for it to compost and then use it to fertilize garden or fields. It is one of the crops on our farm and we take our manure management seriously.

I have not written before about our dogs’ coprophagous grins (look it up). This is a family-friendly blog so I’m not using the colloquial term that might be used while we’re out in the barn. But grinning they are, with a muzzle full of manure.

Dogs love to eat horse poop (among other things). No one has figured out why except that decomposing things – fecal, rotting or decaying- just simply smell good to a dog and what smells good must taste good. It does not smell good on their breath or, when they happily roll in it, on their fur. But they don’t seem to mind stinking to high heaven as long as it is their choice. What consenting dogs do should not concern us, right?
Right – until the stink reaches the threshold of the house or man’s best friend wants to plant a slobbery kiss on your cheek.

There is a lesson here in the manure pile.
There must be a pony buried here somewhere.
And there is.

We human beings, proper as we may appear on the surface, like to roll around in the figurative decomposing stuff too. Especially individuals in the news this week and in the recent past who proclaim strict Christian values and are leaders in preaching standards of morality have found themselves up to their eyeballs in the stink of their own choices, surrounding themselves with it. Jobs have been lost and reputations ruined.

We almost lost a farm dog because he inadvertently overdosed on ivermectin horse wormer that may have been in ingested manure or dripped nearby. What may appear benign, no big deal and may not hurt anyone, could in fact be lethal.

So I tell the dogs to wipe that coprophagous grin off their faces and clean up their act. If I wanted to hang out with the stink of decomposition, I’d go picnic next to a nice steaming warm compost pile.

At least I know in the case of the compost pile, the manure eventually becomes something far more wholesome, thereby ultimately redeemed.

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.

Living Under the Penetrating Gaze of God

To live coram Deo is to live one’s entire life in the presence of God, under the authority of God, to the glory of God. 

To live in the presence of God is to understand

that whatever we are doing and wherever we are doing it,
we are acting under the gaze of God.

There is no place so remote that we can escape His penetrating gaze.

To live all of life coram Deo is to live a life of integrity.
It is a life of wholeness that finds its unity and coherency

in the majesty of God.

Our lives are to be living sacrifices,
oblations offered in a spirit of adoration and gratitude.

A fragmented life is a life of disintegration.
It is marked by inconsistency, disharmony, confusion,
conflict, contradiction, and chaos.

Coram Deo … before the face of God.

…a life that is open before God.
…a life in which all that is done is done as to the Lord.
…a life lived by principle, not expediency; by humility before God,

not defiance.

~R.C. Sproul
from “What Does “coram Deo” mean?”

We cannot escape His gaze. Why is that?

We…all of us, all colors, shapes and sizes…
are created in His image, imago dei, so He looks at us as His reflections in the mirror of the world.

And what would He see this week?
Surely nothing that reflects the heart or face of God.

I cringe to think. I want to hide from His gaze.
All I see around me and within me is:
inconsistency, disharmony, confusion,
conflict, contradiction, and chaos.
And most of all:
defiance.

Surely, surely I know best.

I’m not alone: so many others also each know best, calling hypocrisy on one another, holding fast to moral high ground when the reality is:
we drown together in the mud of our mutual guilt and lack of humility.

It is past time for us to be on our knees pleading for mercy, certainly not on our knees leaning upon the neck of another imago dei, squeezing out their very life breath and right to exist.

We are miserable reflections, each and every one of us, surely not coram Deo.

All that we have done, we have done onto God Himself.
Kind of takes one’s breath away.


Cleansing Tears

We human beings do real harm.
History could make a stone weep.
~Marilynne Robinson from Gilead

As humankind was created with the freedom to choose our own way, we tend to opt for the path of least resistance with the highest return.

Hey, after all, we’re human and that’s our excuse and we’re sticking to it.

No road less traveled on for most of us–instead we blindly head down the superhighway of what’s best for #1, no matter what the means of transportation, what it costs to get there, how seedy the billboards or how many warning signs appear, or where the ultimate destination takes us.

History is full of the piled-high wrecking yards of demolition remnants from crashes along the way.

It’s enough to make a stone weep.

Certainly God wept.

And He wept even after creating man in His own image, emphatically declaring our creation good, even knowing how everything was going to turn out.

Despite the harm we continue to cause, despite our suffering too many crashes along the way, we are declared good only because His breath remains full within us while His tears never fail to wash us clean.

He Sees Us As We Are: Substitution Allowed

For the essence of sin is
man substituting himself for God,
while the essence of salvation is
God substituting Himself for man.

Man asserts himself against God and puts himself
where only God deserves to be;
God sacrifices Himself for man and puts Himself
where only man deserves to be.

Man claims prerogatives that belong to God alone;
God accepts penalties that belong to man alone.
~John Stott, The Cross of Christ

Our struggle,
from God’s first breath into our nostrils,
is wanting to forget
we are made from dust,
molded from mud,
and will return to the ground,
no matter what.

We make a poor substitute for God.

Between the womb and the tomb
we can act as though we own the earth
and somehow the earth owes us.

Instead we must tread lightly,
knowing each breath, each morsel, each day
is an undeserved gift given
by Him having taken our place,
becoming our substitution.

When we acknowledge we broke His heart on earth,
He bled so our hearts continue to beat,
so we may laugh, cry, love and worship.

Only then we are right with God,
instead of insisting we be God.

His heart broken so we are made whole;
God, the perfect substitution for man,
made manifest both in heaven
and on earth.

Legalistic remorse says, “I broke God’s rules,”
while real repentance says, “I broke God’s heart.”
~Tim Keller

This year’s Lenten theme on 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

The Moment You Forgot

It was like the moment when a bird decides not to eat
from your hand,
and flies, just before it flies, the moment the rivers seem
to still
and stop because a storm is coming, but there is no
storm, as when
a hundred starlings lift and bank together before they
wheel and drop,
very much like the moment, driving on bad ice, when it
occurs to you
your car could spin, just before it slowly begins to spin,
like
the moment just before you forgot what it was you were
about to say,
it was like that, and after that, it was still like that, only
all the time.

~Marie Howe “Part of Eve’s Discussion”

We all know how vulnerable we are to temptation; we know our failings and weaknesses yet how quickly we can go from knowing to forgetting.

There is a stillness, a suspension of time, in that moment of knowing – there is constant internal debate about the choices we face and what to do with that knowledge.

How many of us, knowing well the consequences, still do what we ought not to do? How many of us, having been previously told, having learned from history, having already experienced our own banishment, still make the wrong decision?

All of us, all the time, that’s how many. We are helpless despite our knowledge of good and evil. We forget, over and over.

Thank God for His grace in the face of our poor memories. Thank God He still feeds us wholly from His loving hands.

We Are No Longer Alone: Freed From the Self that I Have Been

Moonless darkness stands between.
Past, O Past, no more be seen!
But the Bethlehem star may lead me
To the sight of Him who freed me
From the self that I have been.
Make me pure, Lord: Thou art holy;
Make me meek, Lord: Thou wert lowly;
Now beginning, and alway:
Now begin, on Christmas day.
~Gerard Manley Hopkins

Between the darkness and the illumination of the star is the beginning of who we were created to be. 

We are led away from the past to the hope of a new self – pure and meek and loved and freed through forgiveness. 

Christmas is the day we all begin again.

Sing this night, for a boy is born in Bethlehem,
Christ our Lord in a lowly manger lies;
Bring your gifts, come and worship at his cradle,
Hurry to Bethlehem and see the son of Mary!

See his star shining bright
In the sky this Christmas night!
Follow me joyfully;
Hurry to Bethlehem and see the son of Mary!

Angels bright, come from heaven’s highest glory,
Bear the news with its message of good cheer:
“Sing, rejoice, for a King is come to save us,
Hurry to Bethlehem to see the son of Mary!”

See, he lies in his mother’s tender keeping;
Jesus Christ in her loving arms asleep.
Shepherds poor, come to worship and adore him,
Offer their humble gifts before the son of Mary.

Let us all pay our homage at the manger,
Sing his praise on this joyful Christmas Night;
Christ is come, bringing promise of salvation;
Hurry to Bethlehem and see the son of Mary!

Words and music by John Rutter


The Knowing

We thought we were the perfect family—
loyal, stable, a brick wall you couldn’t topple
with a wrecking ball. Parents dependable
as the frozen Minute Maid juice
we squeezed from cardboard cans and drank
mornings, reconstituted.

We’d come to this place just to be together.
October in Ogunquit, record heat,
no need for the sweaters we’d packed.
Dad had died but Mom, in her 80s, sat
pouring green tea, our wicker chairs
on the small porch, six sets
of knees touching.

She didn’t mean to mention
Dad’s first wife.

To our collective what?
she sputtered lasted a year, before the war,
her name: Phyllis.
Remember that chest in the basement?
It was hers.

Some moments passed, then mutely
we agreed to let it go.
Radium glowed green in our brains
but didn’t burn. The knowing, a relief:
We didn’t have to be perfect.

The August-warm wind felt pleasant
and odd. We sat on that porch,
orange leaves pinwheeling down the street.
~Karen Paul Holmes “Rental Cottage, Maine” from No Such Thing as Distance

Surfacing to the street from a thirty two hour hospital shift usually means my eyes blink mole-like, adjusting to searing daylight after being too long in darkened windowless halls.  This particular day is different.   As the doors open, I am immersed in a subdued gray Seattle afternoon, with horizontal rain soaking my scrubs.

Finally remembering where I had parked my car in pre-dawn dark the day before, I start the ignition, putting the windshield wipers on full speed.  I merge onto the freeway, pinching myself to stay awake long enough to reach my apartment and my pillow.

The freeway is a flowing river current of head and tail lights.  Semitrucks toss up tsunami waves cleared briefly by my wipers frantically whacking back and forth.

Just ahead in the lane to my right, a car catches my eye — it looks just like my Dad’s new Buick.  I blink to clear my eyes and my mind, switching lanes to get behind.  The license plate confirms it is indeed my Dad, oddly 100 miles from home in the middle of the week.  I smiled, realizing he and Mom, the best parents ever, have probably planned to surprise me by taking me out for dinner.

I decide to surprise them first, switching lanes to their left and accelerating up alongside.  As our cars travel side by side in the downpour,  I glance over to my right to see if I can catch my Dad’s eye through streaming side windows.  He is looking away to the right at that moment, obviously in conversation.  It is then I realize something is amiss.  When my Dad looks back at the road, he is smiling in a way I have never seen before.  There are arms wrapped around his neck and shoulder, and a woman’s auburn head is snuggled into his chest.

My mother’s hair is gray.

My initial confusion turns instantly to fury.  Despite the rivers of rain obscuring their view, I desperately want them to see me.  I think about honking,  I think about pulling in front of them so my father would know I have seen and I know.  I think about ramming them with my car so that we’d perish, unrecognizable, in an explosive storm-soaked mangle.

At that moment, my father glances over at me and our eyes meet across the white line separating us.  His face is a mask of betrayal, bewilderment and then shock, and as he tenses, she straightens up and looks at me quizzically.

I can’t bear to look any longer.

I leave them behind, speeding beyond, splashing them with my wake.  Every breath burns my lungs and pierces my heart.  I can not distinguish whether the rivers obscuring my view are from my eyes or my windshield.

Somehow I made it home to my apartment, my heart still pounding in my ears.  The phone rings and remains unanswered.

I throw myself on my bed, bury my wet face in my pillow and pray —
for a sleep
without dreams,
without secrets,
without lies,
without the burden of knowing the truth
I alone now knew
and wished I didn’t.