He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart. Psalm 91:4
To be commanded to love God at all, let alone in the wilderness, is like being commanded to be well when we are sick, to sing for joy when we are dying of thirst, to run when our legs are broken. But this is the first and great commandment nonetheless. Even in the wilderness- especially in the wilderness – you shall love him. ~Frederick Buechner from A Room Called Remember:Uncollected Pieces
I usually think of wilderness as a distant peak far removed from anything or anyone. From my farmhouse window on a clear day, I can see a number of distant peaks if the cloud cover moves away to reveal them.
Or perhaps the wilderness is a desolate plain that extends for miles without relief in sight.
Wilderness is also found in an isolated corner of my human heart. I keep it far removed from anything and anyone. During my televisit computer work, I witness this wilderness in others, many times every day.
A diagnosis of “wilderness of the heart” doesn’t require a psychiatric manual: there is despair, discouragement, disappointment, lack of gratitude, lack of hope. One possible treatment to tame that wilderness is a covenantal obedience to God and others. It reaches so deep no corner is left untouched.
There come times in one’s life, and this past year especially, when loving God as commanded seems impossible. We are too broken, too frightened, too ill and too wary to trust God with faith and devotion. We are treading life simply to stay afloat.
During this second Lenten pandemic, God’s love becomes respite and rescue from the wilderness of my own making. He is the sweet cure for a bitter and broken heart.
Today is one of those excellent January partly cloudies in which light chooses an unexpected part of the landscape to trick out in gilt, and then the shadow sweeps it away.
You know you’re alive. You take huge steps, trying to feel the planet’s roundness arc between your feet. ~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
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”
There are January days when I am surrounded by mist and fog and partly cloudies- a brief gift of blue sky and gilt light.
God is felt on days like this, neither seen or heard, His stilling presence overtaking me with each breath I draw, following the path of each glistening tear, becoming the arcing ground reaching to meet my foot with each bold step I take.
The angel said there would be no end to his kingdom. So for three hundred days I carried rivers and cedars and mountains. Stars spilled in my belly when he turned. Now I can’t stop touching his hands, the pink pebbles of his knuckles, the soft wrinkle of flesh between his forefinger and thumb. I rub his fingernails as we drift in and out of sleep. They are small and smooth, like almond petals. Forever, I will need nothing but these.
But all night, the visitors crowd around us. I press his palms to my lips in silence. They look down in anticipation, as if they expect him to suddenly spill coins from his hands or raise a gold scepter and turn swine into angels.
Isn’t this wonder enough that yesterday he was inside me, and now he nuzzles next to my heart? That he wraps his hand around my finger and holds on? ~Tania Runyan “Mary” from Nativity Suite
Now, newborn, in wide-eyed wonder he gazes up at his creation. His hand that hurled the world holds tight his mother’s finger. Holy light spills across her face and she weeps silent wondering tears to know she holds the One who has so long held her. ~Joan Rae Mills from “Mary”in the Light Upon Light Anthology by Sara Arthur
The grip of the newborn is, in fact, superhuman. It is one of the tests of natural infant reflexes that are checked medically to confirm an intact nervous system in the newborn. A new baby can hold their own weight with the power of their hand hold, and Jesus would have been no different, except in one aspect: He also held the world in His infant hands.
We have been held from the very Beginning, and have not been let go. Try as we might to wiggle free to go our own way, He keeps a powerful grip on us.
We know the strength of the Lord whose hands “hurled the world” into being.
This is what our good God has done for us… He hangs on tight.
Good people all, this Christmas time Consider well and bear in mind What our good God for us has done In sending his beloved son
With Mary holy we should pray To God with love this Christmas Day In Bethlehem upon that morn There was a blessed Messiah born
Near Bethlehem did shepherds keep Their flocks of lambs and feeding sheep To whom God’s angels did appear Which put the shepherds in great fear’
Prepare and go, ‘ the angels said ‘To Bethlehem, be not afraid For there you’ll find, this happy morn A princely babe, sweet Jesus born
With thankful heart and joyful mind The shepherds went, this babe to find And as God’s angel had foretold They did our saviour Christ behold
Within a manger he was laid And by his side the virgin maid Attending on the Lord of life Who came on earth to end all strife
Good people all, this Christmas time Consider well and bear in mind What our good God for us has done In sending his beloved Son
With Mary holy we should pray To God with love this Christmas day In Bethlehem upon that morn There was a blessed Messiah born
In our secret yearnings we wait for your coming, and in our grinding despair we doubt that you will.
And in this privileged place we are surrounded by witnesses who yearn more than do we and by those who despair more deeply than do we.
Look upon your church and its pastors in this season of hope which runs so quickly to fatigue and in this season of yearning which becomes so easily quarrelsome.
Give us the grace and the impatience to wait for your coming to the bottom of our toes, to the edges of our fingertips.
Come in your power and come in your weakness in any case and make all things new. Amen. ~ Walter Brueggemann, Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth
We simply have to wait and wait. The celebration of Advent is possible only to those troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come. ~Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord! Psalm 27:14
These are troubling times and yes, I’m troubled. It can feel like things will never change. It can feel like I will never adapt to how the world is darker right now, how people are more bitter and angry, how each day brings more bad news, how tired we all are of wearing our real and figurative masks.
I know better than this; I’ve seen dark times before that have taken time to resolve. So why does this time seem different? Why have doubts become four-dimensional realities?
So I remember: we were created for this waiting in-between. We were created to keep watching for when all things will be made new. From the bottoms of our toes to the tips of our fingers, we marvel at the power shown by our God choosing weakness as the vessel that saves us.
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning. Psalm 130: 5-6
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here, And you must treat it as a powerful stranger, Must ask permission to know it and be known. The forest breathes. Listen. It answers, I have made this place around you. If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here. No two trees are the same to Raven. No two branches are the same to Wren. If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you, You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows Where you are. You must let it find you. ~David Wagoner “Lost”
I’m frequently lost in the figurative forest of my days on this earth, unsure where I’m heading and struggling to figure out where I’ve been. It seems I have been following a path laid out before me, keeping my head down to make sure I don’t trip over a root or stumble on a rock, when around and above me are the clues to where I am and where I’m going.
So I stand still and breathe deeply of the forest and let it tell me where I am. It can tell when my focus is misdirected.
My father climbs into the silo. He has come, rung by rung, up the wooden trail that scales that tall belly of cement.
It’s winter, twenty below zero, He can hear the wind overhead. The silage beneath his boots is so frozen it has no smell.
My father takes up a pick-ax and chops away a layer of silage. He works neatly, counter-clockwise under a yellow light,
then lifts the chunks with a pitchfork and throws them down the chute. They break as they fall and rattle far below.
His breath comes out in clouds, his fingers begin to ache, but he skims off another layer where the frost is forming
and begins to sing, “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.” ~Joyce Sutphen, “Silo Solo” from First Words
Farmers gotta be tough. There is no taking a day off from chores. The critters need to eat and their beds cleaned even during the coldest and hottest days. Farmers rise before the sun and go to bed long after the sun sets.
I come from a long line of farmers on both sides – my mother was the daughter of wheat farmers and my father was the son of subsistence stump farmers who had to supplement their income with outside jobs as a cook and in lumber mills. Both my parents went to college; their parents wanted something better for them than they had. Both my parents had professions but still chose to live on a farm – daily milkings, crops in the garden and fields, raising animals for meat.
My husband’s story is similar, though his parents didn’t graduate from college. Dan milked cows with his dad and as a before-school job in the mornings.
We still chose to live on a farm to raise our children and commit to the daily work, no matter the weather, on sunlit days and blowing snow days and gray muddy days. And now, when our grandchildren visit, we introduce them to the routine and rhythms of farm life, the good and the bad, the joys and the sorrows, and through it all, we are grateful for the values that follow through the generations of farming people.
And our favorite song to sing to our grandchildren is “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine” as it is the sun that sustains our days and its promise of return that sustains our nights.
You’ll never know, dears, how much we love you. Please don’t take our sunshine away.
In Sleeping Beauty’s castle the clock strikes one hundred years and the girl in the tower returns to the world. So do the servants in the kitchen, who don’t even rub their eyes. The cook’s right hand, lifted an exact century ago, completes its downward arc to the kitchen boy’s left ear; the boy’s tensed vocal cords finally let go the trapped, enduring whimper, and the fly, arrested mid-plunge above the strawberry pie, fulfills its abiding mission and dives into the sweet, red glaze.
As a child I had a book with a picture of that scene. I was too young to notice how fear persists, and how the anger that causes fear persists, that its trajectory can’t be changed or broken, only interrupted. My attention was on the fly; that this slight body with its transparent wings and lifespan of one human day still craved its particular share of sweetness, a century later. ~Lisel Mueller “Immortality” from Alive Together
Little fly, Thy summer’s play My thoughtless hand Has brushed away.
Am not I A fly like thee? Or art not thou A man like me?
For I dance And drink and sing, Till some blind hand Shall brush my wing.
If thought is life And strength and breath, And the want Of thought is death,
Then am I A happy fly, If I live, Or if I die. ~William Blake “The Fly”
I heard a Fly buzz – when I died – The Stillness in the Room Was like the Stillness in the Air – Between the Heaves of Storm –…. ~Emily Dickinson
A fly made the news this past week. It became more important than the issues being discussed in the room in which it buzzed and landed. Maybe it has come to symbolize our helplessness in the face of our anger toward one another, which has become just another way for our fear to express itself.
There is nothing more humbling than a wayward fly buzzing in the room or landing uninvited on my head. No matter whether I live in a slum or a castle, a fly will find its way to me, just because it can. I must learn to coexist with what I can’t control; this is no time for frustration nor fear nor anger to raise my hand, ready to kill the offender.
When I’m feeling bugged, which happens all too often these days, the buzzing may overwhelm my stillness but I won’t let it overwhelm me. I will put down the swatter. I will breathe deeply and admire the ingenuity of such a brief life powered miraculously by two transparent wings.
At almost four in the afternoon, the wind picks up and sifts through the golden woods.
The tree trunks bronze and redden, branches on fire in the heavy sky that flickers
with the disappearing sun. I wonder what I owe the fading day, why I keep
my place at this dark desk by the window measuring the force of the wind, gauging
how long a certain cloud will hold that pink edge that even now has slipped into gray?
Quickly the lights are appearing, a lamp in every window and nests of stars
on the rooftops. Ladders lean against the hills and people climb, rung by rung, into the night. ~Joyce Sutphen “On the Shortest Days” from Modern Love & Other Myths.
While spending my day at my desk talking to faces on a screen, as I will today and every day, the names and stories and symptoms change every half hour. I sometimes glance up and out my window to the world beyond, concerned not to break eye contact.
I want to say: don’t you know this darkness surrounding you won’t last, while this day is fading you can turn on the light that you were given to find your way out of this.
I wonder if I owe it to you to tell you when I was young and afraid and away from home I didn’t believe the light was there either, or it wouldn’t turn on, or it burned out so I I felt swallowed by the darkness.
Then someone gave me a ladder to climb out and lit my light so I could see where I was going.
Here I am now, handing you a working light and a sturdy ladder and telling you how to use them.