The One Who Sees and Knows

Yesterday,
running slowly
in the gravel
I saw
a tiny bird
feathered pulsating globe
of white and gray
on its back
black pinprick eyes
pointing up to the sky.
I stooped down
closely
to peer.
We stared at one another—
creature to creature—
for a small eternity.
I scooped him
into my hands
and placed him gently
an offering
upright
onto the grass
whispering
a prayer to the One
who sees
and knows
each one
every sparrow
and every sorrow.
~Karen Swallow Prior “Creature to Creature”

photo by Harry Rodenberger

Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God.  Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.
Luke 12: 6-7

Typically, I hear sparrows more than see them most of the year. They are shy little birds and fly away any time I approach them. But during the winter months when the northeast arctic winds are blowing, they cling to the rose bushes beneath my bird feeders, fluffed up to try to stay warm, buffeted about by the breeze, just trying to stay alive. Singing is the last thing on their little minds.

This is when we need each other the most; the sparrow is hanging on the best it can to make it to spring and so am I, seeking to nurture some small part of Creation in order to keep simmering my hope for the future. Although there is no sparrows’ song lilting in the air during the coldest months, I know it will return.

So I sing for them.

I sing because I’m happy.
I sing because I’m free.
His eye is on the sparrow and I know He watches me.

Why should I feel discouraged,
Why should the shadows come,
Why should my heart be lonely,
And long for Heav’n and home,
When Jesus is my portion?
My constant friend is He:
His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know He watches me.

Refrain

I sing because I’m happy,
I sing because I’m free,
For His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know He watches me.

Let not your heart be troubled,
His tender word I hear,
And resting on His goodness,
I lose my doubts and fears;
Though by the path He leadeth,
But one step I may see;
His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know He watches me.

Whenever I am tempted,
Whenever clouds arise,
When songs give place to sighing,
When hope within me dies,
I draw the closer to Him,
From care He sets me free;
His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know He watches me.

Lyrics by Civilla Martin

ot one sparrow is forgotten,
E’en the raven God will feed;
And the lily of the valley
From His bounty hath its need.
Then shall I not trust Thee, Father,
In Thy mercy have a share?
And through faith and prayer, my Mother,
Merit Thy protecting care?

                Shaker Hymn (Canterbury Shakers Hymnal, 1908)
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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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Hour of Dawn

The rising sun had crowned the hills,
            And added beauty to the plain;
O grand and wondrous spectacle!
            That only nature could explain.

I stood within a leafy grove,
            And gazed around in blissful awe;
The sky appeared one mass of blue,
            That seemed to spread from sea to shore.

Far as the human eye could see,
            Were stretched the fields of waving corn.
Soft on my ear the warbling birds
            Were heralding the birth of morn.

While here and there a cottage quaint
            Seemed to repose in quiet ease
Amid the trees, whose leaflets waved
            And fluttered in the passing breeze.

O morning hour! so dear thy joy,
            And how I longed for thee to last;
But e’en thy fading into day
            Brought me an echo of the past.

 ‘Twas this,—how fair my life began;
            How pleasant was its hour of dawn;
But, merging into sorrow’s day,
            Then beauty faded with the morn.

~Olivia Ward Bush-Banks “Morning on Shinnecock”

The heart of a woman goes forth with the dawn,
As a lone bird, soft winging, so restlessly on,
Afar o’er life’s turrets and vales does it roam
In the wake of those echoes the heart calls home.
~Georgia Douglas Johnson from 
The Heart of a Woman and Other Poems

For what human ill does not dawn seem to be an alleviation?
~Thornton Wilder
from The Bridge of San Luis Rey

There are some days, as I look at what tasks lie ahead, when I must fling my heart out ahead of me in the hope before the sun goes down, I might catch up and retrieve it back home to me.

I wonder if anyone else might find it first or even notices it fluttering and stuttering its way through the day.

Perhaps, once flung with the dawn, my heart will wing its way home and I’ll find it patiently waiting for me when I return, readying itself for another journey tomorrow.

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A Day Well Spent

If you sit down at set of sun
And count the acts that you have done,
And, counting, find
One self-denying deed, one word
That eased the heart of him who heard,
One glance most kind
That fell like sunshine where it went —
Then you may count that day well spent.

But if, through all the livelong day,
You’ve cheered no heart, by yea or nay —
If, through it all
You’ve nothing done that you can trace
That brought the sunshine to one face —
No act most small
That helped some soul and nothing cost —
Then count that day as worse than lost.
~George Eliot “Count That Day Lost”

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

~Naomi Shihab Nye from “Kindness”

I tend to forget – in my own self-absorption – the privilege I have to help make the world a better place for someone else each day — to share a drop of sunshine in some way. Each morning I’m given another chance to treat the day like the gift that it is and hand it off to someone else in a continual “pay it forward” act of kindness.

Only kindness makes sense in this fallen world. We have been steeped in sorrow for so long. I don’t want to lose one more day to anything less than a depth of kindness and comfort that never leaves my side, still present as the sun goes down into darkness.

Only such Loving Kindness will raise the sun again in the morning.

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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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They Are No More…


    …mourning and great weeping,
weeping for her children
    and refusing to be comforted,
    because they are no more.
from Matthew 2:18 and Jeremiah 31:15

Newtown, CT December 2012
There are the fields we’ll walk across
In the snow lightly falling.
In the snow lightly falling,
There are the fields we’ll walk across.

There are the houses we’ll walk toward
In the snow lightly falling.
In the snow lightly falling,
There are the houses we’ll walk toward.

There are the faces we once kissed
In the snow lightly falling.
In the snow lightly falling,
There are the faces we once kissed.

Incredible how we laughed and cried
In the snow lightly falling.
In the snow lightly falling,
Incredible how we laughed and cried.

Incredible how we’ll meet again
In the snow lightly falling.
In the snow lightly falling,
Incredible how we’ll meet again.

No small hand will go unheld
In the snow lightly falling.
In the snow lightly falling,
No small hand will go unheld.

No voice once heard is ever lost
In the snow lightly falling.
In the snow lightly falling,
No voice once heard is ever lost.

~Dick Allen “Solace”

In mourning for the families of Uvalde, Texas

There is no comfort for these families.
Their arms ache with emptiness,
their childrens’ beds and pillows cold tonight,
dolls and stuffed animals awaiting all night hugs
that will never come again.

There is no earthly consolation;
only mourning and great weeping,
sobbing that wrings dry
every human cell,
leaving only dust behind,
which is our beginning
and our end.

Christ came to us
for times such as this,
born of the dust of woman and
the breath of Spirit.
God bent down to
be cradled in barn dust,
walk on roads of dust,
die and be laid to rest as dust
to conquer such evil as this –
the slaughter and massacre of innocents.

He became dust to be
like us
He began a mere speck in a womb
like us
His heart beat
like ours
breathing each breath
like ours
until a fearful fallen world
took His
and our breath
away.

He shines His Light through
the darkness of tragic deaths
to guide our stumbling uncertain feet.
His tender mercies flow freely
when there is no consolation,
when there is no comfort.

He hears our cries
as He cried too.
He knows our tears
as He wept too.
He knows our mourning
as He mourned too.
He knows our dying
as He died too.

God wept as this happened yesterday.
Evil comes not from God
yet humankind embraces it.
Sin is our ongoing choice,
a decision made from our beginning,
but we can choose to end it now.

Only God can glue together
what evil has shattered.
He asks us to hand Him
the pieces of our broken hearts,
abandon our evil ways
and sin no more.

We will know His peace
when He comes
to bring us home,
our tears finally dried,
our cells no longer just dust,
as we are glued together
by the word and breath and voice
of God forevermore.

the tender mercy of our God,
    by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness
    and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.
Luke 1: 78-79

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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A Refuge in Briars and Brambles

What’s incomplete in me seeks refuge
in blackberry bramble and beech trees,
where creatures live without dogma
and water moves in patterns
more ancient than philosophy.
I stand still, child eavesdropping on her elders.
I don’t speak the language
but my body translates best it can,
wakening skin and gut, summoning
the long kinship we share with everything.
~Laura Grace Weldon, “Common Ground” from  Blackbird

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
~Wendell Berry “The Peace of Wild Things”

Nearly thirty months of pandemic separation and
I long to share our farm with our far-flung grandchildren
who live across the ocean, to watch them discover
the joys and sorrows of this place we inhabit.
I will tell them there is light beyond this darkness,
there is refuge amid the brambles,
there is kinship with what surrounds us,
there is peace amid the chaos,
there is a smile behind the tears,
there is stillness within the noisiness,
there is rescue when all seems hopeless,
there is grace as the old gives way to new.

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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: Through Our Tears

In a daring and beautiful creative reversal, 
God takes the worse we can do to Him
and turns it into the very best He can do for us.
~Malcolm Guite from The Word in the Wilderness

How is faith to endure, O God, when you allow all this scraping and tearing on us? You have allowed rivers of blood to flow, mountains of suffering to pile up, sobs to become humanity’s song–all without lifting a finger that we could see. You have allowed bonds of love beyond number to be painfully snapped. If you have not abandoned us, explain yourself.

Instead of explaining our suffering God shares it.

We strain to hear. But instead of hearing an answer we catch sight of God himself scraped and torn. Through our tears we see the tears of God.
~Nicholas Wolterstorff  in Lament for a Son

What I envy in the open eyes
of the dead deer hanging down
from the rafters, its eyes
still wet and glassy, but locked now
into a vision of another life,
is the way it seems to be
staring at the moment when
it died. The blue light
falling through the window
into this smoke-filled room
is the same color as the mist
coming down off the mountain
that morning: the deer sees
men with guns
but also sees, beyond them,
the endless mountains.
~Richard Jones “Life After Death”

Emmett Till’s mother
speaking over the radio

She tells in a comforting voice
what it was like to touch her dead boy’s face,

how she’d lingered and traced
the broken jaw, the crushed eyes —

the face that badly beaten, disfigured —
before confirming his identity.

And then she compares his face
to the face of Jesus, dying on the cross.

This mother says, no, she’d not recognize
her Lord, for he was beaten far, far worse

than the son she loved with all her heart.
For, she said, she could still discern her son’s curved earlobe,

but the face of Christ
was beaten to death by the whole world.
~Richard Jones “The Face” from Between Midnight and Dawn

The whole of Christ’s life was a continual passion; others die martyrs, but Christ was born a martyr. He found a Golgotha, where he was crucified, even in Bethlehem, where he was born; for to his tenderness then the straws were almost as sharp as the thorns after, and the manger as uneasy at first as the cross at last. His birth and his death were but one continual act, and his Christmas Day and his Good Friday are but the evening and the morning of one and the same day. From the creche to the cross is an inseparable line. Christmas only points forward to Good Friday and Easter. It can have no meaning apart from that, where the Son of God displayed his glory by his death.
~John Donne in the opening words of his Christmas Day sermon 1626

Detail from “Descent from the Cross” by Rogier van der Weyden

May we remember today – Good Friday – , of all days,
the worst that can happen became the best that can happen.

We tussle and haggle over the price of what this cost us, but realizing He paid all for us makes an impossible loss possible.

We are paid in full, no longer debtors. 

From now on, we recognize His face even when He is beaten unrecognizable: the worst became the best because He loves us over all else.

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…