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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They Call It Easing the Spring

“Vixi duellis nuper idoneus
Et militavi non sine glori”

(translation)
Recently I lived suitable for warfare,
and I soldiered not without glory.

Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And tomorrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But today,
Today we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighboring gardens,
   And today we have naming of parts.

This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
   Which in our case we have not got.

This is the safety-catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easily
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
   Any of them using their finger.

And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:
   They call it easing the Spring.

They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
   For today we have naming of parts.
~Henry Reed “Naming of Parts”
(1942)

“Naming of Parts” was a well-known British anti-war poem I memorized for debate class in high school in 1970, reciting it for interpretive reading competitions.

Below is a portion of a 1944 letter sent home to my mother from my father as he served as a Marine company officer in the South Pacific from January 1943 – fall 1945. After he returned home, physically uninjured, I had never seen him with a gun in his hands, and wasn’t aware he even had kept a gun after leaving the Marines. One day, in the early 1970’s, one of our farm’s beef animals was injured so my father, for the first time in thirty years, pulled out a gun from its hiding place to put down the suffering animal. I never saw the gun again and believe my father disposed of it soon after – firing that gun after so many years was too much for him.

“You mentioned a story of Navy landing craft taking the Marines into Tarawa.  It reminded me of something which impressed me a great deal and something I’m sure I’ll never forget. 

So you’ll understand what I mean I’ll try to start with an explanation.  In training – close order drill- etc.  there is a command that is given always when the men form in the morning – various times during the day– after firing– and always before a formation is dismissed.  The command is INSPECTION – ARMS.  On the command of EXECUTION- ARMS each man opens the bolt of his rifle.  It is supposed to be done in unison so you hear just one sound as the bolts are opened.  Usually it is pretty good and sounds O.K.

Just to show you how the morale of the men going to the <Tarawa> beach was – and how much it impressed me — we were on our way in – I was forward, watching the beach thru a little slit in the ramp – the men were crouched in the bottom of the boat, just waiting.  You see- we enter the landing boats with unloaded rifles and wait till it’s advisable before loading.  When we got about to the right distance in my estimation I turned around and said – LOAD and LOCK – I didn’t realize it, but every man had been crouching with his hand on the operating handle and when I said that — SLAM! — every bolt was open at once – I’ve never heard it done better – and those men meant business when they loaded those rifles. 

A man couldn’t be afraid with men like that behind him.
~ Marine Captain Henry Polis (age 22) in a 1944 letter home about the Battle of Tarawa (November 1943)

Henry Polis 1943

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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: The Falling Tear

When Jesus wept, the falling tear
in mercy flowed beyond all bound;
when Jesus groaned, a trembling fear
seized all the guilty world around.
~William Billings

And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace!
But now they are hidden from your eyes. 
~Luke 19:41-42

Facing this week of remembrance,
knowing that right now thousands are displaced by war,
some in graves, some grieving their losses,
some wondering what comes next.

On this journey, we face our own fears of vulnerability and mortality,
a week where thorns overwhelm the emerging blossoms~~

To acknowledge what He did this week long ago,
to conquer the shroud and the stone,
to defy death,
makes all the difference for us here and now.

Indeed Jesus wept and groaned for us.

To be known for who we are
by a God who weeps for us
and groans with pain we caused:
we can know
no greater love.

This week ends our living for self, only to die,
and begins our dying to self, in order to live.

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…

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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: Against Every Cruel, Merciless Power

I arise today through the strength of heaven
Light of sun, radiance of moon
Splendor of fire, speed of lightning
Swiftness of wind, depth of the sea
Stability of earth, firmness of rock

I arise today through God’s strength to pilot me
God’s eye to look before me
God’s wisdom to guide me
God’s way to lie before me
God’s shield to protect me

From all who shall wish me ill
Afar and a-near
Alone and in a multitude
Against every cruel, merciless power
That may oppose my body and soul

~from “The Deer’s Cry”

photo by Bob Tjoelker

A cruel and merciless dictator dominates the headlines, not because he is unique in the course of world history, but because the toll of his actions are witnessed by the world in real time. We flinch and cringe at every directed missile hit and explosion of citizens’ property and lives to dust and ash.

What makes this evolving war so compelling to those of us who watch from a distance is the powerful resistance of the Ukrainian leader and his brave countrymen who will not submit to cruelty and destruction.

“…even if you destroy all our cathedrals and churches, you will not destroy our sincere faith in God, in Ukraine. Faith in people. We will restore every house, every street, every city. And we say to Russia: …you will repay everything you did against Ukraine. In full. And we will not forget those who perished, and God won’t…
~President Volodymyr Zelensky (March 2022)

St. Patrick, in the fifth century, returned to Ireland to face merciless cruelty and violence in defense of his Christian faith. His story lives on centuries later while those who persecuted him are relegated to the ash heap of history.

History repeats itself; there always will be cruel men who seek merciless power over others.

Yet God is, was, and always will be. So we sing:

God’s eye to look before me
God’s wisdom to guide me
God’s way to lie before me
God’s shield to protect me

~from St. Patrick’s breastplate prayer

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…

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down,
Christ in me, Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me, Christ with me.
Text from Saint Patrick’s Breastplate

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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: When Times Are Hard

May you see God’s light on the path ahead
when the road you walk is dark.
May you always hear even in your hour of sorrow,
the gentle singing of the lark.
When times are hard
may hardness never turn your heart to stone.
May you always remember when the shadows fall–
You do not walk alone.
Irish Blessing

God wants to always be with us, wherever we may be –
in our sin, in our suffering and death.
We are no longer alone;
God is with us.
We are no longer homeless;
a bit of the eternal home itself has moved unto us. 
~Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Over the years I have found I don’t do alone well.  Never have.  I’ve always preferred plenty of activity around me, planning gatherings and communal meals, and filling up my days to the brim with all manner of socializing.  

Typically I don’t prefer my own company.  There is no glossing over my flaws nor distracting myself from where I fall short.  Alone is an unforgiving mirror reflecting back what I have kept myself too overly busy to see.

I’ve never even lived alone except for short times when Dan is traveling. 

I didn’t like that either.

Now that we all are breaking free of our two years of COVID semi-isolation, we know we were not alone in our continued concern over the hard times happening in the troubled world around us. The headlines buzz on our phones; there is no ignoring the suffering too many are enduring.

So I remind myself of the certainty that I know is the truth:

We need not be afraid.
We are not alone in the darkness of trouble.
We are loved, especially when times are hard.
And I won’t forget –
God is with us always,
even through this.

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…

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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: The Hope of Peace

Then enemies shall learn to love,
All creatures find their true accord;
The hope of peace shall be fulfilled,
For all the earth shall know the Lord.
~Carl Daw, Jr.

Can enemies ever learn to love one another? Sometimes they live under the same roof, not always across armored yet porous political borders.

Can hatred be redeemed to grace and acceptance and peace?
What are we teaching children who are kept in barracks as unwelcome interlopers at our own border, or who sleep with their coats as pillows in basements in Ukraine as bombs rain around them?

They learn so young they are unwanted.
They learn so young to fear.
They learn so young to hate.

It is a little Child who will lead them to peace – a child sought out to be murdered by an earthly king who took thousands of innocent lives in the process. He survived in order to give His life for ours – an act He chose – rather than be slaughtered by a paranoid leader.

May this enemy lay down their swords and learn the sacrifice of love.
May the whole earth know the hope for peace through Christ our Lord.

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…

O day of peace that dimly shines
Through all our hopes and prayers and dreams,
Guide us to justice, truth, and love,
Delivered from our selfish schemes.

May swords of hate fall from our hands,
Our hearts from envy find release,
Till by God’s grace our warring world
Shall see Christ’s promised reign of peace.

Then shall the wolf dwell with the lamb,
Nor shall the fierce devour the small;
As beasts and cattle calmly graze
A little child shall lead them all.

Then enemies shall learn to love,
All creatures find their true accord;
The hope of peace shall be fulfilled,
For all the earth shall know the Lord.
~Carl Daw

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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: Sometimes I Feel Discouraged

Sometimes I feel discouraged and think my work’s in vain,
but then the holy spirit revives my soul again.

~ African-American Spiritual “There is a Balm in Gilead”

Since my people are crushed, I am crushed;
    I mourn, and horror grips me.
 Is there no balm in Gilead?
    Is there no physician there?
Why then is there no healing
    for the wound of my people?

Jeremiah 8:21-22

At the edge of the woods on our farm stands a stately black cottonwood tree, also known by locals as a “Balm of Gilead” tree in our region. The leaf buds this time of year have a sticky fragrant resin that native peoples prepared as a salve ointment to treat various wounds and skin conditions.

We never have tried harvesting any of the cottonwood resin, but I’ve found the presence of this grand tree in the field seems balm enough when I find myself discouraged. The tall tree adapts so dramatically over the course of the seasons, remaining a fixture of stability and beauty whether golden in the autumn, blowing cottony seeds in the spring, bare with snow in the winter or flourishing with summer leaves.
It is steadfast and reassuring.

Discouragement is so familiar to us, a constant pandemic companion, and certainly is rampant over the past week with images of war filling our screens. No tree resin is capable of fighting a virus or stopping a war but the balm of Gilead in Jeremiah has the power of the Holy Spirit, able to heal our sin sick souls.

The love of our Savior is the balm for us, the wounded.
We will become whole again.

cottonwood seeds
cottonwood seed

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…

There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.
There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul.

Sometimes I feel discouraged and think my works in vain,
but then the holy spirit revives my soul again.

There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.
There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul.

Don’t ever feel discouraged for Jesus is your friend
and if you lack for knowledge he’ll ne’er refuse to lend.

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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: It Is My Treason

Who was the guilty?
Who brought this upon you?

It is my treason,
Lord, that has undone you.

’Twas I, Lord Jesus,
I it was denied you;
I crucified you.

~Oh Holy Jesus, How Have You Offended?

Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?
~Robert Frost from “Reluctance”

We share in the guilt, you and I, turning away from Love freely given.

We are the treasonous souls who betrayed a suffering dying Savior, allowing Him to take on Himself the punishment we deserved ourselves.

It is we who abandoned Him as He loved us to death.

Still now, even knowing His sacrifice, we accept the drift of things in our daily lives, setting aside our responsibility to care for one another.

We yield when there is pressure threatening to knock us over.
We bow and falter when our or others’ burdens become too much.

It just feels easier to not get involved.

Over this past week we are witnessing the profound cost of love:
the citizens of Ukraine will not accept, yield or bow to evil. They are willingly becoming sacrifices by resisting enormous forces bent on their destruction. Ukraine is teaching the world what it means to stand up to a bully — to take the shots for what is right and good and pure, not assuming someone else will do it for them.

Anything less would be acting treasonous to Love:
loving the heart of man and revering the face of God.

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…

Ah, holy Jesus, how hast thou offended,
That we to judge thee have in hate pretended?
By foes derided, by thine own rejected,
O most afflicted!

Who was the guilty?
Who brought this upon thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee!
Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee;
I crucified thee.

Lo, the Good Shepherd for the sheep is offered;
The slave hath sinned, and the Son hath suffered.
For our atonement, while we nothing heeded,
God interceded.

For me, kind Jesus, was thy incarnation,
Thy mortal sorrow, and thy life’s oblation;
Thy death of anguish and thy bitter passion,
For my salvation.

Therefore, kind Jesus, since I cannot pay thee,
I do adore thee, and will ever pray thee,
Think on thy pity and thy love unswerving,
Not my deserving.

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How Else Can We Live?

“Not again,” echoes forth 
as she wails silently 
searching, eyes wide 
in disbelief.

How does a heart 
withstand such pain?
“It cannot,” she sings out
from the deepest place.  

He cries from the corners 
of his eyes, a river of loss 
falling into the cavern of his mouth, 
a brook run backwards 
toward its beginning.

“Where do I put it?” she demands, 
“Where can I put the ache?
I need a shelf where
no one can touch it,”
hitting the highest note.

“I put it in a box covered over 
by life’s wanderings,” he recalls, 
in a remorseful way
in between breaths.

To put it out in the open, 
“audacious at best,”

in unison.

And yet – how else can we live?  

She reaches up to the shelf, 
taking it down, hope and doubt, 
unlocking the door 
to the abandoned house, 

bellowing out, bellowing out.

If Christ is not risen, count 
us the greatest of fools.
~Katie Setterberg “Choir Practice”

There are times when lifting our voices in song is the only way to express what our hearts are feeling, especially now as we witness the distress of the Ukrainian people who are relying on their cultural bonds, their spiritual faith and their trust that good people of the world will support their defense of their culture and their government.

May our voices be raised along with them, today and whenever freedom is threatened in the future. How else can we live?

photo by Jim Randall

One small town
Containing more churches than banks,

A one hundred year old choral society
With a Christmas tradition of singing Handel’s Messiah,

Sixty-some enthusiastic singers recruited without auditions
Through church bulletin announcements

Farmers, store clerks, machinists, students
Middle schoolers to senior citizens

Gather in an unheated church for six weeks of rehearsal
To perform one man’s great gift to sacred music.

Handel, given a libretto, commissioned to compose,
Isolated himself for 24 days, barely ate or slept

Believed himself confronted by all heaven itself
To see the face of God,

And so created overture, symphony, arias, oratorios
Soaring, interwoven themes repeating, resounding

With despair, mourning, anticipation
Renewal, redemption, restoration, triumph.

Delicate appoggiaturas and melismata
Of astounding complexity and intricacy.

A tapestry of sound and sensation unparalleled
To be shouted from the soul, wrung from the heart.

This group of rural people gathers to join voices
Honoring faith foretold, realized, proclaimed.

Ably led by a forgiving director with a sense of humor
And a nimble organist with flying feet and fingers.

The lilting sopranos with angel song,
The altos provide steadfast support,

The tenors echo plaintive prophecy
The base voices full and resonant.

A violinist paints heaven-sent refrain
In parallel duet of counterpoint melody.

The audience sits, eyes closed
As if in oft repeated familiar prayer.

The sanctuary overflows
With thankfulness:

Glory to God! For unto us a Child is born
And all the people, whether singers or listeners, are comforted.

One way to support the people of Ukraine in this crisis is through the
International Red Cross

Forgive Me For Forgetting

Please forgive me for forgetting.
I wanted to go outside and look for you.
I was told this was impossible.

 
I was instructed to stay indoors.
But my words for you need sun.
My heart needs air.

 
I love you Spring.
I miss your warmth.
Come unlock my door.

~Ethelbert Miller “Beloved”

I love you, Spring.
But where are you? Nearly a week of chill winds and freezing temperatures put me back inside the house wanting to hide under the covers. Water buckets in the barn were frozen again, walkways were slick with ice, once friendly breezes threatened to knock me over with their force. This is not the Spring promised.

Come unlock my door, Spring.
When our old apple tree toppled over in the northeast blow earlier this week, I identified a bit too much. The wind took advantage of a hollowed out rotten core the tree had been hiding for years. What might I be hiding inside that makes me just as vulnerable to forces knocking on me, even though I bear fruit as usual?

Please forgive me for forgetting:
this world is at war with evil – families hiding in basements, subways filling with refugees, apartment buildings bombed. Now is when we are most fragile, exposed and wounded. Our lumpy exteriors are on full display waiting for spring to renew and cover us up.

I wanted to go look for you:
Our farm cat decided the old apple tree lying on its side was a new perfect perch to keep surveillance for curious (and irritating) farm dogs without having to climb up high. There he sat on the fallen trunk, far enough above a corgi dog’s head to be essentially invisible although Homer could absolutely smell there was a cat with threatening claws nearby … somewhere. Just where that cat could be remained a mystery to a dog who is distinctly height-challenged.

Like my cat, I wait now in late winter — seeking the sun for my words and fresh air for my heart. And like my dog, I sense something potentially threatening is near, but because of my own limitations of perception, I have no idea just how close.

I was told this was impossible:
may we weather the storms together
may there be peace and warmth for all people
may we find harmony as winter melts into spring.

cat hiding in plain sight, Homer too short to figure it out

This is my song, O God of all the nations,
A song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is,
Here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine.
But other hearts in other lands are beating,
With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.
My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
And sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine.
But other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
And skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
This is my song, O God of all the nations,
A song of peace for their land and for mine.
So let us raise this melody together,
Beneath the stars that guide us through the night;
If we choose love, each storm we’ll learn to weather,
Until true peace and harmony we find,
This is our song, a hymn we raise together;
A dream of peace, uniting humankind.
~Lloyd Stone and Blake Morgan

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