Turn Aside and Look: First and Last Breaths

During these Lenten days, (and every day),
we are reminded of the gift of our first Breath
and the invitation in our last Breath.
We are asked to stop living for self,
which can only lead to death,
and instead die to self,
so that we may live.

For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for My sake,
he is the one who will save it.
Luke 9:24

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First breath can come
Before even fully delivered
Encased and swaddled tight
Nose bubbling, mouth gaping, swallowing hungrily
Building up to a moist initial gasp~
Air-filled and sliding free
Hands clenched, then fingers spread,
Ready to grasp and hold on tight to life,
Arms reaching out to stop the fall.

A lifetime then spent holding fast,
Eventually toppling frail and
Slowly adrift, floating unmoored
Reaching for unseen fruit no longer needed
Breath comes ragged, at times silenced
Then gulp and sigh, ready to
Loosen grasp as anchor is lifted, and with
Last soft breath,
Delivered gently into the hand of God.

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photo by Andrea Nipges

Turn Aside and Look: Worlds Forming in My Heart

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All creatures are doing their best
to help God in His birth
of Himself.

Enough talk for the night.
He is laboring in me;

I need to be silent 
for a while,

worlds are forming
in my heart.    
~Meister Eckhart from “Expands His Being”

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The first day of spring is a traditional celebration of the rebirth of nature’s seasonal rhythms, and God’s inner renewal of our hearts.

I know some new spring mornings are pitch black with blustering winds and rain, looking and feeling like the bleakest of October mornings about to plunge into the death spiral of deep autumn and winter all over again.

No self-respecting God would birth Himself into something like this: a dawn as dark as night.

But this God would.

He labors in our darkest of hearts for good reason.  We are unformed and unready to meet Him in the light, clinging as we do to our dark ways and thoughts.  Though we are called to celebrate the renewal of springtime, it is just so much talk until we accept the change of being transformed ourselves.

We are silenced as He prepares us, as He prepares Himself for birth within us.   The labor pains are His, not ours;  we become awed witnesses to His first and last breath when He makes all things, including us, new again.

The world is reborn — even where dark reigned before, even where it is bleakest, especially inside our broken hearts now healing.

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Sending the Light

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I want you to read this some day, 恵真
our new little Emma Sophia:
as you took your first breath in the dark of the night
so far away from this farm where your father grew up,
we bid farewell to the sun here
so God could bring it glowing to your first day in Japan,
that misty island where your mother grew up.

Your birth blesses so many all over this earth
and proves that war from two generations ago
exists only in history books now,
now love digs so deep in the genes
it overcomes what has come before.

You have sent the sun back today to us,
brand new grandparents,
to rise pink over this snowy morning,
and we will send it back to you tonight
to wake you for your second day
resting calm in the arms of your loving family.

Each day from now on
may we always return the Light you sent
and send it forth to shine on you.

 

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Preparing the Heart: From Creche to Cross

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

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 –opening words in his sermon on Christmas Day 1626

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It is easy to hear of a baby in a wooden manger laid there by overwhelmed first-time parents far from home, surrounded by soft-eyed farm animals and adoring raggedy shepherds who reported hearing glorious singing angels.

It is not at all easy to hear of the slaughter of innocent children by a paranoid king in response to that baby, knowing in our hearts and feeling in our guts the desperation of the wailing grieving mothers.

It is much harder to fathom this baby, three decades later, as a grown man, flogged and bleeding, hanging from a wooden cross surrounded by mocking soldiers, his weeping mother and friends, and two crucified criminals.  This is much much more than we bargained for — this from a baby asleep in the hay.

Instead of the heavenly host declaring his glory, he himself spoke words of forgiveness and grace with his last breaths, making clear his death, as well as his birth, was no mistake, but one continual act of God’s glorious salvage of his children.

He makes clear a willingness to wear our skin and walk in our sandals, in order to die in our place.   Our own birth and our death are no mistakes either.

He claims us; we shall know his voice when he calls our name.

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Preparing the Heart: Faith and Paradox

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The shepherds sing; and shall I silent be?
My God, no hymn for Thee?
My soul’s a shepherd too; a flock it feeds
Of thoughts, and words, and deeds.

The pasture is Thy word: the streams, Thy grace
Enriching all the place.
Shepherd and flock shall sing, and all my powers
Outsing the daylight hours.
Then will we chide the sun for letting night
Take up his place and right:
We sing one common Lord; wherefore he should
Himself the candle hold.
I will go searching, till I find a sun
Shall stay, till we have done;
A willing shiner, that shall shine as gladly,
As frost-nipped suns look sadly.
Then will we sing, and shine all our own day,
And one another pay:
His beams shall cheer my breast, and both so twine,
Till ev’n His beams sing, and my music shine.
~George Herbert “Christmas II”

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A mass of legend and literature, which increases and will never end, has repeated and rung the changes on that single paradox; that the hands that had made the sun and stars were too small to reach the huge heads of the cattle. Upon this paradox, we might almost say upon this jest, all the literature of our faith is founded…

I mean that all the eyes of wonder and worship which had been turned outwards to the largest thing were now turned inward to the smallest…

It is true that the spiritual spiral henceforward works inwards instead of outwards, and in that sense is centripetal and not centrifugal. The faith becomes, in more ways than one, a religion of little things.
~ G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man

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Adoration of the Shepherds by Nicolaes Maes

It’s when we face for a moment
the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know
the taint in our own selves, that awe
cracks the mind’s shell and enters the heart:
not to a flower, not to a dolphin,
to no innocent form
but to this creature vainly sure
it and no other is god-like, God
(out of compassion for our ugly
failure to evolve) entrusts,
as guest, as brother,
the Word.
~Denise Levertov “The Mystery of the Incarnation”

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“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.
~Emily Dickinson

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Preparing the Heart: A Quickening Spirit

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So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a quickening spirit.
~1Corinthians 15:45

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All around us we observe a pregnant creation. The difficult times of pain throughout the world are simply birth pangs. But it’s not only around us; it’s within us. The Spirit of God is arousing us within. We’re also feeling the birth pangs. These sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance. That is why waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother. We are enlarged in the waiting. We, of course, don’t see what is enlarging us. But the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy.

Meanwhile, the moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God.
~Romans 8:22-28 from The Message by Eugene Petersen

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…like Mary, I believe that we too can become pregnant with God.
~Luci Shaw

There is a distinct and memorable moment in pregnancy, around 16 weeks, when there is an undeniable awareness of movement within the womb–initially a fluttery feeling, but then over the next few days, there are tickly sensations, then rolling, then pushes. It is referred to clinically as “quickening”–an emphatic evidence of life within–and there is a profound acknowledgment that one’s life is no longer one’s own. It is now shared.

Jesus is called the “second Adam” through his death and resurrection, a quickening spirit now shared with us, so much more than the simple life and breath of the first Adam. The spirit lives and breathes within us, fluttering and rolling, pushing us from inside, creating in us more than we ever could become on our own. We are startled by its presence, amazed by its touch, forever transformed, pregnant with possibility and never, never to be the same again.

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Preparing the Heart: A Wretched World Blurred Soft

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In time,
the sons of men filled the earth
with their evil deeds.
And God beheld the desolate wastes
the soiled streets
the bitter brown of barren fields
and the sin of the world
cut him to the heart.

“I will blot from the earth
the memory of these things.
Behold, I will make all things new!”
So he gathered up clouds
from the four corners of the sky,
billows pregnant with promise.
He gathered them in great, dark piles
on the horizon of hills
while the weathermen watched
grandmothers gazed
schoolchildren pressed their noses against the glass.

And God said,
“Let there be snow.”

First, small white flakes
like lace, drifting.

Then—wind
driving snow before it, a blizzard
hiding hills from view
(and the tops of church steeples
and street lights, too).

 For forty days
the land was covered in white,
the wretched lines of a wretched world
blurred soft overnight—
buried, forgotten
as God birthed grace upon the earth.
~Sara Arthur “Advent in Michigan”

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I wish one
could press snowflakes
in a book
like flowers.
~James Schuyler from “February 13, 1975”

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…Then how his muffled armies move in all night
And we wake and every road is blockaded
Every hill taken and every farm occupied
And the white glare of his tents is on the ceiling.
And all that dull blue day and on into the gloaming
We have to watch more coming.

Then everything in the rubbish-heaped world
Is a bridesmaid at her miracle.
Dunghills and crumbly dark old barns are bowed in the chapel of her sparkle.
The gruesome boggy cellars of the wood
Are a wedding of lace
Now taking place.
~Ted Hughes from “Snow and Snow”

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Out of the bosom of the Air,
      Out of the cloud-folds of her garments shaken,
Over the woodlands brown and bare,
      Over the harvest-fields forsaken,
            Silent, and soft, and slow
            Descends the snow.
         The troubled sky reveals
         The grief it feels…
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow from “Snow-flakes”

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I’m roused by faint glow
between closed slats
of window blinds
at midnight

The bedroom suffused
in ethereal light
from a moonless sky
as a million tiny stars fall silent

The snow lights all that is broken,
settling gently while
tucking in the downy corners
of a snowflake comforter

as heaven comes down to
plump the pillows,
cushion the landscape,
soften the wretched,
illuminate the heart.

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