Unanswerable Questions

Under the harvest moon,
When the soft silver
Drips shimmering over the garden nights,
Death, the gray mocker,
Comes and whispers to you
As a beautiful friend
Who remembers.

Under the summer roses
When the flagrant crimson
Lurks in the dusk
Of the wild red leaves,
Love, with little hands,
Comes and touches you
With a thousand memories,
And asks you
Beautiful, unanswerable questions.
~Carl Sandburg, “Under the Harvest Moon”

As we enter the season
of all that is lush and lovely
which starts to wither and decay before our eyes,
we know the flowers and trees aren’t alone.
Death, whispering within its gray night’s cloak,
has been stealing the young and old since time began,
but never as boldly as during a pandemic.
Millions of family members are left
with nothing but bittersweet memories
of their loved ones now buried deep.

The harvest moon – not nearly bright enough,
as a poor reflection of the sun –
mocks us who covet light
during a rampage of contagious illness and death.

As we endure the searing beauty of yet another dying season,
let us treasure those we protect through our care and concern.
Let us cherish the memories of those we’ve lost.
There can be only one answer to the unanswerable questions:
Love itself died to become Salvation,
an ever-sufficient Light that leads us home.

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Thorns that Thwart Sweetness

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full,
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.

We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d ke
ep, knew they would not.
~Seamus Heaney “Blackberry Picking”

…Do not be afraid, though briers and thorns are all around you
Ezekiel 2:6

In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? He laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death.
~John Stott
from The Cross

Today I will make wild blackberry cobbler, facing down the brambles and briers that thwart my reach for the elusive fruit – in this heat, it is important to harvest blackberries before they shrivel up and rot on the vine. I aim to gather more berries than scratches to prove that thorns and rot must never win and I will not yield to them.

Painful thorns and decay have always been part of life. They barricade us from all that is sweet and good and precious. They tear us up, bloody us, make us cry out in pain and grief, cause a stink, and deepen our fear that we may never overcome such a sorrowful destiny.

Yet even the most brutal crown of thorns or the rot of the grave did not stop the loving sacrifice, can never thwart the sweetness of redemption, will not spoil the goodness, nor destroy the promise of salvation to come.

We simply wait to be fed the loving gift that comes only from bloodied hands.

Flesh will fail and bones will break
thieves will steal, the earth will shake
Night will fall, the light will fade
The Lord will give and take away

Put no trust in the earth
in the sod you stand upon
Flowers fade into dust
The Lord will make a place for us

Because of His great Love
We are not overcome
Because of His great Love
We are not overcome

Have no fear for your life
Turn your cheek, turn your cheek
Bear the yoke of love and death
The Lord will give all life and breath

Because of His great Love
We are not overcome
Because of His great Love
We are not overcome

(from Bifrost Arts)

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It Needn’t Have Been So…

You are alive.
It needn’t have been so.
It wasn’t so once, and will not be forever.
But it is so now.

And what is it like:
to be alive in this one place of all places anywhere where life is?
Live a day of it and see.
Take any day and LIVE IT.
Nobody claims that it will be entirely painless, but no matter.

It is your birthday and there are many presents to open. 
The world is to be opened.
It is the first day because it has never been before
and the last day because it will never be again.

BE ALIVE.
~Frederick Buechner from The Alphabet of Grace

When I was very young, I would trace my finger over the long scar that curved along the front of my mother’s neck and ask her what happened. She would tell me her thyroid gland had been overworking so she had to have it removed before I was born. That’s all she had to say about that and I never thought to ask more. Somehow I knew, just as my knowing my father would not talk about his experience as a Marine in WWII, my mother was hiding more than her big scar under high collars or a pearl necklace.

Hers was a deeper scar I couldn’t see or touch.

However, my older sister – about five at the time – remembers my mother’s illness. Mom was a little over thirty when her hands began to tremble, her pulse raced and she was irritable with trouble sleeping. My parents were hoping for a second child, but unable to get pregnant. Once her doctor diagnosed thyrotoxicosis , Mom had the option to try a new medication that had been recently developed – propylthiouracil – meant to suppress the function of overactive thyroid glands.

It didn’t work for her and she felt worse. It caused more side effects and my mother’s symptoms grew so severe, she was unable to leave her bedroom due to severe anxiety and paranoia made worse by insomnia. My paternal grandmother came to help since my father needed to continue to work to support the family but there was little that could be done other than sedation to ease my mother’s symptoms. My sister recalls not seeing Mom for days, unnerved by the wailing she heard from the bedroom. From her description, I now wonder if Mom was experiencing the beginning of thyroid “storm” (extremely high thyroid levels) which is potentially life-threatening with severe physical and emotional side effects.

After Mom was hospitalized and her entire thyroid was removed, she was placed on thyroid hormone supplements to take daily for the rest of her life. It took months for her to recover and feel somewhat normal again. Her eventual hormonal stability resolved her infertility as well as most of her other symptoms. She remained chronically anxious and had heart palpitations and insomnia the rest of her life, like a residual stain on her sense of well-being, although she lived another 55 years. The trauma of how her illness affected my dad and sister was never fully resolved. They all suffered. I can understand why those months remained as hidden as my mom’s surgical scar.

I was born about two years later – the second baby they never expected could happen. My brother was born 20 months after me.

From my family’s suffering came the solace of new life.

So I nearly wasn’t.

I’m reminded on each birthday:
I needn’t have been here yet by the grace of God I am.
I need to BE ALIVE and LIVE THIS DAY because it will never be again.

This is a truth for us all to cling to.

Each day is a gift to be opened and savored.
Each day a first day, a last day, a great day – a birthday of amazing grace.

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To Live One More Day

What a slow way to eat, the butterfly
is given by Nature, sipping nectar
one tiny blue flower at a time. Though
a Monarch in name, she’s made to scavenge
like the poorest of the poor, a morsel
here, a morsel there. A flutter of ink-
splattered orange wings. We don’t want to see
the struggle that undergirds the grace: the
ballerina’s sweat, or her ruined feet
hidden by tights and toe-shoes. She knows her
career will be as brief as it was hard
to achieve. Pollinated, the tiny
blue flowers are sated. The butterfly
flits away, hoping to live one more day.

~Barbara Quick, “The Struggle That Undergirds the Grace.”

You have been my friend. That in itself is a tremendous thing.
I wove my webs for you because I liked you.
After all, what’s a life, anyway?
We’re born, we live a little while, we die.
A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess,
with all this trapping and eating flies.
By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle.
Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.
~E. B. White, Charlotte’s Web



And when the sun rises we are afraid
it might not remain

when the sun sets we are afraid
it might not rise in the morning
when our stomachs are full we are afraid
of indigestion
when our stomachs are empty we are afraid
we may never eat again
when we are loved we are afraid
love will vanish
when we are alone we are afraid
love will never return
and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
nor welcomed
but when we are silent
we are still afraid


So it is better to speak
remembering
we were never meant to survive.
~Audre Lorde from “A Litany for Survival”

We are here so briefly.
We were never designed to survive forever on this earth
yet we try to run the clock out as long as we can.

Just one day more.

We are here because of struggle –
the pain of our birth, whether the cry of our laboring mother,
or our own wrestling free of the cocoon or the shell,
our daily work to find food
to feed ourselves and our young,
the upkeep and maintenance of our frail and failing bodies,
our ongoing fear we’ll be taken
before we can make a difference in another’s life.

If there is a reason for all this (and there is):
our struggle forms the grace of another’s salvation.
The flowers bloom to feed the butterfly,
the butterfly pollinates the flower,
ensuring the next generations of both.
The silent and weakened find their voice
so that the next generation can thrive.

Heaven knows,
anyone’s life can stand a little of that.

Just one day more, Lord. Please – one day more.

Tomorrow we’ll discover
What our God in Heaven has in store
One more dawn
One more day
One day more

~from Les Miserable

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The Delicate Sadness of Dusk

The talkative guest has gone,
and we sit in the yard
saying nothing. The slender moon
comes over the peak of the barn.

The air is damp, and dense
with the scent of honeysuckle. . . .
The last clever story has been told
and answered with laughter.

With my sleeping self I met
my obligations, but now I am aware
of the silence, and your affection,
and the delicate sadness of dusk.
~Jane Kenyon, “The Visit” from Collected Poems

As we slowly adapt to evenings spent with family and friends again, taking off our masks to actually witness the emotion on a familiar, now unveiled, face:

There are smiles and laughter again. We are trying to remember how to be ourselves outside the fearfulness that contagion wrought. More important: there are tears again. And wistfulness. And regret. And longing.

This delicate sadness happened – even to those of us who were never directly touched by sickness. We will never be the same, never so light of heart again, remembering what this past year has cost.

It is a slow transition to dusk. We sit together now and watch it come.

Scratching the Surface

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

“My God, My God,” goes the Psalm 22, “hear me, why have you forsaken me?”  

This is the anguish all we of Godforsaken heart know well.
But hear the revelation to which Christ directs us, further in the same psalm:

For He has not despised nor scorned the beggar’s supplication,
Nor has He turned away His face from me;
And when I cried out to Him, He heard me.

He hears us, and he knows, because he has suffered as one Godforsaken.
Which means that you and I, even in our darkest hours, are not forsaken.
Though we may hear nothing, feel nothing, believe nothing, we are not forsaken, and so we need not despair.

And that is everything.
That is Good Friday and it is hope,
it is life in this darkened age,
and it is the life of the world to come.
~Tony Woodlief from “We are Not Forsaken”

Scratch the surface of a human being and the demons of hate and revenge …
and sheer destructiveness break forth.

The cross stands before us to remind us of this depth of ourselves so that we can never forget.

Again and again we read the stories of violence in our daily papers, of the mass murders and ethnic wars still occurring in numerous parts of our world. But how often do we say to ourselves: “What seizes people like that, even young people, to make them forget family and friends, and suddenly kill other human beings?” We don’t always ask the question in that manner. Sometimes we are likely to think, almost smugly: “How different those horrible creatures are from the rest of us. How fortunate I am that I could never kill or hurt other people like they did.”

 I do not like to stop and, in the silence, look within, but when I do I hear a pounding on the floor of my soul. When I open the trap door into the deep darkness I see the monsters emerge for me to deal with. How painful it is to bear all this, but it is there to bear in all of us. If I do not deal with it, it deals with me. The cross reminds me of all this.

This inhumanity of human to human is tamed most of the time by law and order in most of our communities, but there are not laws strong enough to make men and women simply cease their cruelty and bitterness. This destructiveness within us can seldom be transformed until we squarely face it in ourselves. This confrontation often leads us into the pit.

The empty cross is planted there to remind us:
suffering is real but not the end,
victory still is possible…
~Morton Kelsey from “The Cross and the Cellar”

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
his opening words in his sermon on Christmas Day 1626

Anytime we assume God in heaven could not possibly understand
the loneliness and rejection we feel
the pain and discouragement we endure
the hatred that taints our communities
the suffering that is part of living inside these frail vessels, our bodies.
Surely, we think — if there was a God, He would do something about it:

He reminds us today
of all days
He was scraped and torn – no scratching the surface, but gouged deep.
He knows exactly what we endure
because He wasn’t spared.

He took it all on Himself — our affliction became His.

Paid in full.

Leaving the Wilderness: For Love of Our Love

May the power of your love, Lord Christ, 
fiery and sweet as honey, 
so absorb our hearts 
as to withdraw them 
from all that is under heaven. 
Grant that we may be ready to die 
for love of your love, 
as you died for love of our love. 
~St. Francis of Assisi

Maundy Thursday is a day of letting go while still holding on.

If I am to see Jesus and know the power of His love,
I must let go of this life and walk with Him with every step to the cross.
I have only a tenuous grip on this world, utterly dependent on the Lord taking care of me.

This day, I am reminded of a few basics:
No arguing over who is best.
No hiding my dirty feet.
No holding back on the most precious of gifts.
No falling asleep.
No selling out.
No turning and running away.
No covering my face in denial.
No looking back.
No clinging to the comforts of the world.

But of course I fail again and again.
My heart resists leaving behind what I know.

Plucked from the crowd,
I must grasp and carry His load (which is, of course, my load) alongside Him.
Now is my turn to hold on and not let go, as if life depends on it.
Which it does — requiring no nails.

The fire of His love leaves my sin in ashes.
The food of His body nurtures my soul.
From that soul and ashes rises new life.
Love of His love of our love.

Leaving the Wilderness: The Worst We Can Do

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

See, my servant will act wisely;
    he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.
14 Just as there were many who were appalled at him—
    his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being
    and his form marred beyond human likeness—
15 so he will sprinkle many nations,
    and kings will shut their mouths because of him.
For what they were not told, they will see,
    and what they have not heard, they will understand.
Isaiah 52: 13-15

When I was wounded
whether by God, the devil, or myself
—I don’t know yet which—
it was seeing the sparrows again
and clumps of clover, after three days,
that told me I hadn’t died.
When I was young,
all it took were those sparrows,
those lush little leaves,
for me to sing praises,
dedicate operas to the Lord.
But a dog who’s been beaten
is slow to go back to barking
and making a fuss over his owner
—an animal, not a person
like me who can ask:
Why do you beat me?
Which is why, despite the sparrows and the clover,
a subtle shadow still hovers over my spirit.
May whoever hurt me, forgive me.
~Adelia Prado “Divine Wrath” translated from Brazilian Portuguese by Ellen Doré Watson

Emmet 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

Too many people today continue to be crushed, disfigured, beaten and left for dead–

for taking a stand, or being the wrong color, the wrong faith, the wrong tribe, or simply being different enough to trigger distrust and hatred.

And so it was with our Lord. He walked into the hornet’s nest of Jerusalem fully knowing such an overwhelming attack was coming.

Crushed, broken and delivered into His Father’s arms as His mother wept over Him.

Yet He took the worst that could be done to Him and turned it into the best that He could do for us. We are stung forever by His Love.

Leaving the Wilderness: Blown Away

A brief and unexpected Palm Sunday storm blew through yesterday afternoon with gusts of southerly winds, horizontal rain and noisy hale. I had left the north/south center aisle doors wide open after morning chores, so the storm also blew through the barn. Hay, empty buckets, horse halters and cat food were strewn about. The Haflinger horses stood wide-eyed and fretful in their stalls as the hail on the metal roof hammered away.

Once I got the doors closed and secured, all was soon made right. The horses relaxed and got back to their meals and things felt normal again.

Today, Holy Monday morning, all seems calm. The barn is still there, the roof still on, the horses where they belong and all seems to be as it was before the barnstorming wind. Or so it might appear.

This wind heralds another storm beginning this week that hits with such force that I’m knocked off my feet, blown away, and left bruised and breathless. No latches, locks, or barricades are strong enough to protect me from what will come over the next few days.

Yesterday he rode in on a donkey softly, humbly, and wept at what he knew must come.

Today, he overturns the tables in his fury.

Tomorrow he describes the destruction that is to happen, yet no one understands.

Wednesday, a woman boldly anoints him with precious oil, as preparation.

On Thursday, he kneels before his friends, pours water over their dusty feet, presides over a simple meal, and later, abandoned, sweats blood in agonized prayer.

By Friday, all culminates in a most perfect storm, transforming everything in its path, leaving nothing untouched, the curtain torn, the veil removed.

The silence on Saturday is deafening.

Next Sunday, the Son rises, sheds his shroud and neatly folds was is no longer needed. He is nearly unrecognizable in his glory.

He calls my name, my heart burns within me at his words and I can never be the same again.

I am, once again, barnstormed to the depths of my soul. Doors flung open wide, my roof pulled off, everything of no consequence blown away and now replaced, renewed and reconciled.

May it be done this week as he has said, again and yet again, year after year, life after life.

1. Courage, my soul, and let us journey on,
Tho’ the night is dark, it won’t be very long.
Thanks be to God, the morning light appears,
And the storm is passing over, Hallelujah!

Chorus: Hallelujah! Hallelujah! The storm is passing over, Hallelujah!

2. Billows rolling high, and thunder shakes the ground,
Lightnings flash, and tempest all around,
Jesus walks the sea and calms the angry waves,
And the storm is passing over, Hallelujah! [Chorus]

3. The stars have disappeared, and distant lights are dim,
My soul is filled with fears, the seas are breaking in.
I hear the Master cry, “Be not afraid, ’tis I,”
And the storm is passing over, Hallelujah!
[Chorus]

4. Soon we shall reach the distant shining shore,
Free from all the storms, we’ll rest forevermore.
Safe within the veil, we’ll furl the riven sail,
And the storm will all be over, Hallelujah! [Chorus]

Leaving the Wilderness: Stepping Forward

rescue donkey photo from Infinity Farm, Colorado http://www.annablake.com

On the outskirts of Jerusalem
the donkey waited.
Not especially brave, or filled with understanding,
he stood and waited.

How horses, turned out into the meadow,
   leap with delight!
How doves, released from their cages,
   clatter away, splashed with sunlight.

But the donkey, tied to a tree as usual, waited.
Then he let himself be led away.
Then he let the stranger mount.

Never had he seen such crowds!
And I wonder if he at all imagined what was to happen.
Still, he was what he had always been: small, dark, obedient.

I hope, finally, he felt brave.
I hope, finally, he loved the man who rode so lightly upon him,
as he lifted one dusty hoof and stepped, as he had to, forward.
~Mary Oliver “The Poet thinks about the donkey” from her book Thirst.

photo of Edgar Rice Burro by Anna Blake, Infinity Farm http://www.annablake.com

With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings…

The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.
G. K. Chesterton from “The Donkey”

Palm Sunday is a day of dissonance and dichotomy in the church year, very much like the donkey who figured as a central character that day. Sadly, a donkey gets no respect, then or now – for his plain and awkward looks, for his loud and inharmonious voice, for his apparent lack of strength — yet he was the chosen mode of transportation for a King riding to His death.

There was a motley parade to Jerusalem: cloaks and palms laid at the feet of the donkey bearing the Son of God, disorderly shouts of adoration and blessings, the rebuke of the Pharisees to quiet the people, His response that “even the stones will cry out” knowing what is to come.

But the welcoming crowd waving palm branches, shouting sweet hosannas and laying down their cloaks did not understand the fierce transformation to come, did not know within days they would be a mob shouting words of derision and rejection and condemnation.

The donkey knew because he had been derided, rejected and condemned himself, yet still kept serving. Just as he was given voice and understanding centuries before to protect Balaam from going the wrong way, he could have opened his mouth to tell them, suffering beatings for his effort. Instead, just as he bore the unborn Jesus to Bethlehem and stood over Him sleeping in the manger, just as he bore a mother and child all the way to Egypt to hide from Herod, the donkey would keep his secret well.  

Who, after all, would ever listen to a mere donkey?

We would do well to pay attention to this braying wisdom. 

The donkey knows.

He bears the burden we have shirked. He treads with heavy heart over the palms and cloaks we lay down as meaningless symbols of honor. He is the ultimate servant to the Servant.

A day of dichotomy —
of honor and glory laid underfoot only to be stepped on 
of blessings and praise turning to curses 
of the beginning of the end becoming a new beginning for us all.

And so He wept, knowing all this. I suspect the donkey bearing Him wept as well, in his own simple, plain and honest way, and I’m quite sure he kept it as his special secret.

Take heart, my Friend, we’ll go together
This uncertain road that lies ahead
Our faithful God has always gone before us
And He will lead the Way once again.
Take heart, my Friend, we can walk together
And if our burdens become too great
We can hold up and help one another
In God’s LOVE, in God’s Grace.
Take heart my Friend, the Lord is with us
As He has been all the days of our lives
Our assurance every morning
Our Defender in the Night.
If we should falter when trouble surrounds us
When the wind and the waves are wild and high
We will look away to HIM who rules the waters;
Who speaks His Peace into the angry tide.
He is our Comfort, our Sustainer
He is our Help in time of need
When we wander, He is our Shepherd
He who watches over us NEVER sleeps.
Take heart my friend, the Lord is with us
As He has been all the days of our lives
Our Assurance every morning Our Defender every night. Amen. 🙂

Humble King
You chose the road that led to suffering
Nothing was spared to prove
Your love for me
Oh, the mystery
That Your final breath became eternity
What we had lost forever You redeemed, mmm

Hosanna, Hosanna In the highest forever
Hosanna, Hosanna Hallelujah forever

Triumphant King
The Lamb who was slain who rose in majesty
There’s never a heart beyond Your victory
You are the one that we are welcoming
You are the one that we are welcoming, oh

Hosanna, Hosanna In the highest forever
Hosanna, Hosanna Hallelujah forever
Hosanna, Hosanna In the highest forever
Hosanna, Hosanna Hallelujah forever

Ooh, forever We worship You forever, forever
It’s all about You
Blessed is He, blessed is He
Who comes in the name of the Lord
Oh, join now and sing, Jesus is King
He reigns