Trust that there is a tiger, muscular Tasmanian, and sly, which has never been seen and never will be seen by any human eye. Trust that thirty thousand sword- fish will never near a ship, that far from cameras or cars elephant herds live long elephant lives. Believe that bees by the billions find unidentified flowers on unmapped marshes and mountains. Safe in caves of contentment, bears sleep. Through vast canyons, horses run while slowly snakes stretch beyond their skins in the sun. I must trust all this to be true, though the few birds at my feeder watch the window with small flutters of fear, so like my own. ~Susan Kinsolving “Trust”
When I stand at the window watching the flickers, sparrows, finches, chickadees, and red-winged blackbirds come and go from the feeders, I wonder who is watching who. They remain wary of me, fluttering away quickly if I approach. They fear capture, even within a camera. They have a life to be lived without my witness or participation. So much happens that I never see or know about; it would be overwhelming to absorb it all.
I understand: I fear being captured too.
Even if only for a moment as an image preserved forever, I know it doesn’t represent all I am, all I’ve done, all I feel, all my moments put together. The birds are, and I am, so much more than one moment.
Only God sees me fully in every moment that I exist, witness to my freedom and captivity, my loneliness and grief, my joy and tears, knowing my very best and my very worst.
And He is not overwhelmed by what He sees of me. He knows me so well, in Him I must trust.
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How exactly good it is to know myself in the solitude of winter, my body containing its own warmth, divided from all by the cold; and to go separate and sure among the trees cleanly divided, thinking of you perfect too in your solitude, your life withdrawn into your own keeping –to be clear, poised in perfect self-suspension toward you, as though frozen. And having known fully the goodness of that, it will be good also to melt. ~Wendell Berry “The Cold” from New Collected Poems
It is too easy to find comfort in solitude in yet another waning pandemic winter, with trust and friendship eroded, to stay protected one from another by screens and windows and masks.
Standing apart can no longer be an option as we long for reconnection; the time has come for the melt, for a re-blending of moments full of meals and singing and hugs.
We’ll find our way out of the cold. We’ll find our way to trust. We’ll find our way back to one another.
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So slim and flexible I could have rung my fingers round that skinny trunk. Oh, you are built to survive a vernal storm. Listen to me, though—
endure the wind’s force without resistance. Lean with the fury.
When you’re nearly bowed over think broad trunk think sturdy bark. Someday you won’t bend nearly so—
and to that scared little girl the one I saw yesterday in the department store
hiding under the dress rack enduring a mother’s torrent—
I’m sorry. You won’t bend nearly so after you’re grown. ~Christine Bodine, “late apology to the scared little girl in the department store” from Souvenirs of Myself
I know a psychiatrist colleague, soon to be 80 years old and still seeing patients, who recommends people should aim to be more like a willow than a chestnut tree. His long clinical practice has given him a perspective of who survives and who becomes irretrievably broken when the forces of life hit hard.
I know I am not one to freely yield to the wind or ice storm. More chestnut than willow or birch, I can tend toward inflexibility rather than suppleness.
This means I easily break when anger and fury abound in the world around me, rather than leaning and bending. What’s left is broken pieces awaiting salvage, feeding the flames of the brush pile with all the rest of the rigid and unyielding.
Yea, if I don’t bow like a willow, I fall broken upon the rock.
I will bow and be simple, I will bow and be free, I will bow and be humble, Yea, bow like the willow tree.
I will bow, this is the token, I will wear the easy yoke, I will bow and will be broken, Yea, I’ll fall upon the rock. Shaker melody
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Heaven-invading hills are drowned In wide moving waves of mist, Phlox before my door are wound In dripping wreaths of amethyst.
Ten feet away the solid earth Changes into melting cloud, There is a hush of pain and mirth, No bird has heart to speak aloud.
Here in a world without a sky, Without the ground, without the sea, The one unchanging thing is I, Myself remains to comfort me. ~Sara Teasdale “White Fog”
We’ve had all-day fog up and down Puget Sound over the past few days, atypical for a Pacific Northwest winter. This is fog that literally drips from the trees and soaks like rain, swallowing up visible landscape, hushing bird song, erasing all color by homogenizing everything.
When not barn-bound in the winter, a foggy day means our horses are literally sucked up into the morning mist as I send them out one by one to the field from the barn. Stopping at the barn door, they sniff the wet air, hesitant to be turned out into the grey sea surrounding them. What could there be to eat out in this murk? Each one, when turned loose, would wander into the soup, disappearing, as if never to be seen again. One by one they wander out to look for their buddies, seeing nothing, hearing nothing, smelling nothing. They are lost and alone and bewildered until somehow they meet up out in the pasture, forming a pod of Haflingers.
I muse at their initial confusion and then their utter conviction there must be “something out there” worth finding. They are dependent on the usual cues–visual, auditory, olfactory–all limited in the fog. Instead they rely on some inner sonar to find each other and bunch together in a protective knot, drops of fog dew clinging to their manes, their eyelashes and their muzzle whiskers. As day wears on, the fog usually dissipates, their coats drying under a warming sun, and the colors of the fields and trees and chestnut horses emerge from the cocoon of haze.
This winter, I have felt lost in fog too. I’m disconnected from a regular work schedule since retiring as a physician, so am helping as a volunteer in a variety of service opportunities. I am still feeling afloat and circling somewhat aimlessly, searching for a touch point of purpose and direction. Every so often I bump into a fellow fog wanderer and we’ll knot together for a bit, relieved to be connected to something solid and familiar.
My isolation is likely a combination of pandemic limitations and my own self-absorbed state of mind, sucking me in deep, separating me from others, distancing me from joy. At times, I feel soaked, dripping and shivering. If I only had the faith shown by my horses in the mist, I’d charge into the fog fearlessly, knowing there are others out there ready to band together for company, comfort and support, awaiting the sun. When warming and rejuvenation do come, I hope it will be enough to dry my whiskers, put color back in my cheeks and refresh my hopes and dreams.
Most importantly, I am reminded yet again — no fog is forever.
An absolute patience. Trees stand up to their knees in fog. The fog slowly flows uphill. White cobwebs, the grass leaning where deer have looked for apples. The woods from brook to where the top of the hill looks over the fog, send up not one bird. So absolute, it is no other than happiness itself, a breathing too quiet to hear. ~Denise Levertov “The Breathing”
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Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock. “Now they are all on their knees,” An elder said as we sat in a flock By the embers in hearthside ease.
We pictured the meek mild creatures where They dwelt in their strawy pen, Nor did it occur to one of us there To doubt they were kneeling then. So fair a fancy few would weave In these years!
Yet, I feel,If someone said on Christmas Eve, “Come; see the oxen kneel,“ In the lonely barton by yonder coomb Our childhood used to know, ”I should go with him in the gloom, Hoping it might be so.“ ~Thomas Hardy “The Oxen”
Says a country legend told every year: Go to the barn on Christmas Eve and see what the creatures do as that long night tips over. Down on their knees they will go, the fire of an old memory whistling through their minds!
So I went. Wrapped to my eyes against the cold I creaked back the barn door and peered in. From town the church bells spilled their midnight music, and the beasts listened – yet they lay in their stalls like stone.
Oh the heretics! Not to remember Bethlehem, or the star as bright as a sun, or the child born on a bed of straw! To know only of the dissolving Now!
Still they drowsed on – citizens of the pure, the physical world, they loomed in the dark: powerful of body, peaceful of mind, innocent of history.
Brothers! I whispered. It is Christmas! And you are no heretics, but a miracle, immaculate still as when you thundered forth on the morning of creation! As for Bethlehem, that blazing star
still sailed the dark, but only looked for me. Caught in its light, listening again to its story, I curled against some sleepy beast, who nuzzled my hair as though I were a child, and warmed me the best it could all night. ~Mary Oliver “Christmas Poem”from Goodness and Light
The winds were scornful, Passing by; And gathering Angels Wondered why
A burdened Mother Did not mind That only animals Were kind.
For who in all the world Could guess That God would search out Loneliness. ~Sr. M. Chrysostom, O.S.B. “The Stable”
Beholding his glory is only half our job. In our souls too the mysteries must be brought forth; we are not really Christians till that has been done. A mystic says human nature is like a stable inhabited by the ox of passion and the ass of prejudice— animals which take up a lot of room and which I suppose most of us are feeding on the quiet. And it is there between them, pushing them out, that Christ must be born and in their very manger he must be laid— and they will be the first to fall on their knees before him. Sometimes Christians seem far nearer to those animals than to Christ in his simple poverty, self-abandoned to God. ~Evelyn Underhill“Light of the World” from Watch for the Light
Growing up on my childhood farm, remembering the magic of Christmas eve night, I bundled myself up to stay warm in our barn, to witness an unbelievable sight.
At midnight we knew the animals knelt down, speaking words we could all understand, to worship a Child born in Bethlehem town, in a barn, long ago in a far away land.
They were there that night, to see and to hear, the blessings that came from the sky. They patiently stood watch at the manger near, in a barn, while shepherds and kings stopped by.
My trips to the barn were always too late, our cows would be chewing, our chickens asleep, our horses breathing softly, cats climbing the gate, in our barn, there was never a neigh, moo or peep.
But I knew they had done it, I just missed it again! They were plainly so calm, well-fed and at peace in the sweet smelling straw, all snug in their pens, in a barn, a mystery, once more, took place.
Even now, I still bundle to go out Christmas eve, in the hope I’ll catch them just once more this time. Though I’m older and grayer, I still firmly believe in the barn, a Birth happened amid cobwebs and grime.
Our horses sigh low as they hear me come near, that tells me the time I hope for is now, they will drop to their knees without any fear in our barn, as worship, all living things bow.
I wonder anew at God’s immense trust for His creatures so sheltered that darkening night – the mystery of why of all places, His Son must begin life in a barn: a welcoming most holy and right. ~Emily Gibson “In the Barn” (written Christmas Eve 1999)
Let it come, as it will, and don’t be afraid. God does not leave us comfortless, so let evening come. ~Jane Kenyon, from “Let Evening Come”
Latin text O magnum mysterium, et admirabile sacramentum, ut animalia viderent Dominum natum, iacentem in praesepio! Beata Virgo, cujus viscera meruerunt portare Dominum Iesum Christum. Alleluia!
English translation O great mystery, and wonderful sacrament, that animals should see the newborn Lord, lying in a manger! Blessed is the virgin whose womb was worthy to bear the Lord, Jesus Christ. Alleluia!
Sing O the wild wood, the green holly, The silent river and barren tree; The humble creatures that no man sees: Sing O the wild wood.
A weary journey one winter’s night; No hope of shelter, no rest in sight. Who was the creature that bore Mary? A simple donkey.
And when they came into Beth’lem Town They found a stable to lay them down; For their companions that Christmas night, An ox and an ass.
And then an angel came down to earth To bear the news of the Saviour’s birth; The first to marvel were shepherds poor, And sheep with their lambs.
Sing O the wild wood, the green holly, The silent river and barren tree; The humble creatures that no man sees: Sing O the wild wood. John Rutter
Jesus our brother, strong and good Was humbly born in a stable rude And the friendly beasts around him stood Jesus our brother, strong and good “I, ” said the donkey, shaggy and brown “I carried his mother up hill and down I carried his mother to Bethlehem town” “I, ” said the donkey, shaggy and brown “I, ” said the cow, all white and red “I gave him my manger for his bed I gave him my hay to pillow his head” “I, ” said the cow, all white and red “I, ” said the sheep with curly horn “I gave him my wool for his blanket warm He wore my coat on Christmas morn” “I, ” said the sheep with curly horn “I, ” said the dove from the rafters high “I cooed him to sleep so he would not cry We cooed him to sleep, my mate and I” “I, ” said the dove from rafters high Thus every beast by some good spell In the stable dark was glad to tell Of the gifts they gave Emmanuel Of the gifts they gave Emmanuel
On the stiff twig up there Hunches a wet black rook Arranging and rearranging its feathers in the rain. I do not expect a miracle Or an accident
To set the sight on fire In my eye, nor seek Any more in the desultory weather some design, But let spotted leaves fall as they fall, Without ceremony, or portent.
Although, I admit, I desire, Occasionally, some backtalk From the mute sky, I can’t honestly complain: A certain minor light may still Lean incandescent
Out of kitchen table or chair As if a celestial burning took Possession of the most obtuse objects now and then — Thus hallowing an interval Otherwise inconsequent
By bestowing largesse, honor, One might say love. At any rate, I now walk Wary (for it could happen Even in this dull, ruinous landscape); skeptical, Yet politic; ignorant
Of whatever angel may choose to flare Suddenly at my elbow. I only know that a rook Ordering its black feathers can so shine As to seize my senses, haul My eyelids up, and grant
A brief respite from fear Of total neutrality. With luck, Trekking stubborn through this season Of fatigue, I shall Patch together a content
Of sorts. Miracles occur, If you care to call those spasmodic Tricks of radiance miracles. The wait’s begun again, The long wait for the angel, For that rare, random descent. ~Sylvia Plath “Black Rook in Rainy Weather”
Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? Luke 1:18
“How will this be?” Mary asked the angel… Luke 1:34
Zechariah asks: How can I be sure of what I’m told? How can I trust this is true even when it doesn’t make sense in my every day world? How can the mundane be made divine? How can I trust God to accomplish this?
These are not the questions to be asked – this lack of trust for God’s sovereignty – so he was struck mute, speechless until immersed in the miracle of impossibility and only then assured by the Lord and released from silence, he sang loudly with praise for God’s tender mercy.
Instead, we should ask, like Mary: How can this be? How am I worthy? How am I to be calm comprehending this ineffable mystery? How will I be different than I was before?
It is when we are most naked, in our most vulnerable and emptiest circumstance – then we are clothed and filled with God’s glorious assurance. We do not need to know the details to accept the moment of radiance He has brought upon us. We just need willingness to be… changed.
This is the honest grace of her body: that she is afraid, and in this moment does not hide her fear... Until in the cave of her body she might feel without willing it a tenderness begin to form. Like the small, ghostly clover of the meadow; the deer hidden in the hills. A tenderness like mourning. The source of love, she thinks, is mourning. …the child that will soon form inside her body, this loss by which we come to bend before the given, its arms that open unexplained, and take us in. ~Laurie Sheck from “The Annunciation”
Like Mary, we have no way of knowing… We can ask for courage, however, and trust that God has not led us into this new land only to abandon us there. ~Kathleen Norrisfrom God With Us
As if until that moment nothing real had happened since Creation
As if outside the world were empty so that she and he were all there was — he mover, she moved upon
As if her submission were the most dynamic of all works: as if no one had ever said Yes like that
As if one day the sun had no place in all the universe to pour its gold but her small room ~Luci Shaw“Virgin”
Like most people, I want my life to be the way I want it: my plans, my timing, my hopes and dreams first and foremost.
And then stuff happens and suddenly nothing looks the way it was supposed to be. I feel emptied of the future I had envisioned.
Yet only then, as an empty vessel, can I be filled.
In the annunciation of the angel, Mary’s response to this overwhelming circumstance is a model for us all when we are hit by a wave of circumstances we didn’t expect and had not prepared for.
She is prepared; she has studied and knows God’s Word and His promise to His people, even in the midst of trouble. She is able to articulate it beautifully in the song she sings as her response. She gives up her so-carefully-planned-out life to give life to God within her.
Her resilience sings through the ages and to each one of us in our troubles: may it be to me as you say.
May it be. Your plans, Your purpose, Your promise. Let it be. Even if it may pierce my soul as with a sword. You are there with your exquisite tenderness to stem the bleeding so I sing through my fear, through my weariness, and through my tears.
The angel Gabriel from heaven came His wings as drifted snow his eyes as flame “All hail” said he “thou lowly maiden Mary, Most highly favored lady,” Gloria!
“For known a blessed mother thou shalt be, All generations laud and honor thee, Thy Son shall be Emanuel, by seers foretold Most highly favored lady,” Gloria!
Then gentle Mary meekly bowed her head “To me be as it pleaseth God,” she said, “My soul shall laud and magnify his holy name.” Most highly favored lady. Gloria!
Of her, Emmanuel, the Christ was born In Bethlehem, all on a Christmas morn And Christian folk throughout the world will ever say: “Most highly favored lady,” Gloria!
The care of the disciples was the care for the day, not for the morrow; the word morrow must stand for any and every point of the future. The next hour, the next moment, is as much beyond our grasp and as much in God’s care, as that a hundred years away. Care for the next minute is just as foolish as care for the morrow, or for a day in the next thousand years– in neither can we do anything, in both God is doing everything. Those claims only of the morrow which have to be prepared to-day are of the duty of to-day; the moment which coincides with work to be done, is the moment to be minded; the next is nowhere till God has made it. ~George McDonald “The Cause of Spiritual Stupidity” from Unspoken Sermons
I come from a long line of worriers, so it comes quite naturally to me to anticipate the cares and concerns not only of this very moment, but every moment to come.
Unfortunately, medical training did little to calm that tendency as every worst-case-scenario is emphasized by every teacher to prepare the doctor-novice for any potential eventuality. Knowing about all the bad things that can happen is essential for disaster-preparedness in order to be ready to leap into action. Hospital rounds focus on the “what-ifs” as much as the “what-is” to be sure that all possible research and due diligence had been done in a particular patient’s case.
So for Jesus to say to His disciples (and us) “Do you not understand?” hits me hard because I’ve spent my life working hard to understand. My training and my human nature tells me to care in advance so I’ll be ready for what is to come; yet, true to form, just as He says, it doesn’t change what will happen.
As I watch the sun rise yet again, watching the fire in the sky light and then slowly fade, I know Who is in control, and it surely is not me. There will be enough for today, enough for tomorrow and enough for all the years to come, because God is enough.
It takes strength to believe that. And that understanding has to be enough.
Thank you to Amy Baik Lee in her essay, which led me to George McDonald’s “Unspoken Sermons” and the song below.
Late nights, long hours Questions are drawn like a thin red line No comfort left over No safe harbor in sight
Really we don’t need much Just strength to believe There’s honey in the rock, There’s more than we see In these patches of joy These stretches of sorrow There’s enough for today There will be enough tomorrow
Upstairs a child is sleeping What a light in our strain and stress We pray without speaking Lord help us wait in kindness
Really we don’t need much Just strength to believe There’s honey in the rock, There’s more than we see In these patches of joy These stretches of sorrow There’s enough for today There will be enough tomorrow Songwriters: Sara Groves / Julie Ann Lee / Sarah Dark
I do remember darkness, how it snaked through the alders, their ashen flanks in our high-beams the color of stone. That hollow slap as floodwater hit the sides of the car. Was the radio on? Had I been asleep? Sometimes you have to tell a story your entire life to get it right.
Twenty-two and terrified, I had married you but barely knew you. And for forty years I’ve told this story wrong. In my memory you drove right through it, the river already rising on the road behind us, no turning around. But since your illness I recall it differently. Now that I know it’s possible to lose you, I’m finally remembering it right. That night, you threw that car in reverse, and gunned it. You found us another way home. ~Emily Ransdell, “Everywhere a River,” from New Letters
When life gets scary, we long for rescue as the world threatens to overwhelm us. And eventually it is true, this world will overwhelm us, and we’ll wonder how we will escape.
Where does our help come from?
It doesn’t always come from the direction we expect. Most often, we keep staring ahead, hoping somehow salvation lies just around the corner.
But salvation has been behind us all the while. We were created saved but need to believe it, live it out, share it with anyone open to listen.
We all need to trust in the Rescuer when we are stuck and flooded with life. It takes courage, faith and grace to be led home, either straight ahead or back the way we came.
Heidelberg Catechism Question and Answer 1:
What is your only comfort in life and death?
That I am not my own, 1 but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, 2to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. 3He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, 4and has set me free from all the power of the devil. 5He also preserves me in such a way 6that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; 7indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. 8Therefore, by his Holy Spirit he also assures me of eternal life 9and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for him
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And what if I never get it right, this loving, this giving of the self to the other? And what if I die
before learning how to offer my everything? What if, though I say I want this generous,
indefatigable love, what if I forever find a way to hold some corner back? I don’t want
to find out the answer to that. I want to be the sun that gives and gives until it burns out,
the sea that kisses the shore and only moves away so that it might rush up to kiss it again. ~ Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer, “And Again” from Hush
What is it about us that always holds something back when loving others, keeping in reserve some little piece of ourselves that we can’t quite let go?
Even so, we ourselves want to be loved wholly, fully, completely, unconditionally yet something in us doesn’t trust it could be true – we know how undeserving we are.
When we are offered such generous indefatigable love, we hold back part of ourselves because we are afraid we’ll be left desolate, never to be filled again – a sun burned out and darkened, a shore left high and dry.
Once we experience our Creator’s love as wholly generous, completely tireless and persistent, unconditionally grace-filled, we can stop fearing our emptiness.
He pours more than enough love into us without holding back, filling us so full that we might spill over to others, again and again and again, with our light and heart and spirit unbound.
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