An Advent Paradox: Kindling a Fire That Never Dies Away

(Jesus said) I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!
Luke 12:49

 

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
and every common bush afire with God
~Elizabeth Barrett Browning from “Aurora Leigh”

 

It is difficult to undo our own damage…
It is hard to desecrate a grove and change your mind.
The very holy mountains are keeping mum.
We doused the burning bush and cannot rekindle it;
we are lighting matches in vain under every green tree. 

~Annie Dillard from Teaching a Stone to Talk

 

 

 

I need to turn aside and look,
to see, as if for the first and last time,
the kindled fire that illuminates even the darkest day and never dies away.

We are invited, by no less than God Himself,
through the original burning bush that is never consumed
to shed our shoes, to walk barefoot and vulnerable,
and approach the bright and burning dawn,
even when it is the darkest midnight,
even when it is a babe in a manger who lights a fire in each one of us.

Only then, only then
can I say:
“Here I am! Consume me!”

 

 

 

 

Within our darkest night,
you kindle the fire
that never dies away,
that never dies away.
Within our darkest night,
you kindle the fire
that never dies away,
that never dies away.
~Taize

 

 

A Bleak Remembrance

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 November pierces with its bleak remembrance
Of all the bitterness and waste of war.
Our silence tries but fails to make a semblance
Of that lost peace they thought worth fighting for.
Our silence seethes instead with wraiths and whispers,
And all the restless rumour of new wars,
The shells are falling all around our vespers,
No moment is unscarred, there is no pause,
In every instant bloodied innocence
Falls to the weary earth, and whilst we stand
Quiescence ends again in acquiescence,
And Abel’s blood still cries in every land
One silence only might redeem that blood
Only the silence of a dying God.
~Malcolm Guite “Silence”
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So, when old hopes that earth was bettering slowly
Were dead and damned, there sounded ‘War is done!’
One morrow. Said the bereft, and meek, and lowly,
‘Will men some day be given to grace? yea, wholly,

And in good sooth, as our dreams used to run?’

 

Calm fell. From Heaven distilled a clemency;
There was peace on earth, and silence in the sky;
Some could, some could not, shake off misery:
~Thomas Hardy from “And There Was a Great Calm” (On the Signing of the Armistice, 11 Nov. 1918)
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When you go home tell them of us and say –
“For your tomorrow we gave our today”
~John Maxwell Edmonds from “The Kohima Epitaph” 
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I’m unsure why the United States does not call November 11 Remembrance Day as the Commonwealth nations did 99 years ago at the Armistice. This is a day that demands much more than the more passive name Veterans’ Day represents.

This day calls all citizens who appreciate their freedoms to stop what they are doing and disrupt the routine rhythm of their lives. We are to remember in humble thankfulness the generations of military veterans who sacrificed time, resources, sometimes health and well being, and too often their lives in answering the call to defend their countries.

Remembrance means
~never forgetting what it costs to defend freedom.
~acknowledging the millions who have given of themselves and continue to do so on our behalf.
~never ceasing to care.
~a commitment to provide resources needed for the military to remain strong and supported.
~unending prayers for safe return home to family.
~we hold these men and women close in our hearts, always teaching the next generation about the sacrifices they made.

Most of all,
it means being willing ourselves to become the sacrifice when called.

 

 

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The World Too Beautiful

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O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!
Thy winds, thy wide grey skies!
Thy mists, that roll and rise!
Thy woods, this autumn day, that ache and sag
And all but cry with color! That gaunt crag
To crush! To lift the lean of that black bluff!
World, World, I cannot get thee close enough!

Long have I known a glory in it all,
But never knew I this;
Here such a passion is
As stretcheth me apart,– Lord, I do fear
Thou’st made the world too beautiful this year;
My soul is all but out of me,– let fall
No burning leaf; prithee, let no bird call.
~Edna St. Vincent Millay “God’s World”

 

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Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you. 
Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? – every, every minute? 
I’m ready to go back. I should have listened to you. That’s all human beings are!
Just blind people.
~Thornton Wilder, from Emily’s monologue in Our Town

 

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Let me not wear blinders through my days.
Let me see and hear and feel it all even when it seems too much to bear.

Lord,  prepare me to be so whelmed at your world, that
Heaven itself will be familiar, and not that far,
Just round the corner.

 

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Even the Winds and Sea Obey

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And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. A gale arose on the lake, so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. And they went and woke him up, saying, ‘Lord, save us! We are perishing!’ And he said to them, ‘Why are you afraid, you of little faith?’ Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm. They were amazed, saying, ‘What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?’
Matthew 8:23-27

 

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Sweet Jesus, talking 
   his melancholy madness, 
     stood up in the boat 
       and the sea lay down,

silky and sorry. 
   So everybody was saved 
      that night… 
       
         Nobody knows what the soul is.

It comes and goes 
   like the wind over the water — 
      sometimes, for days, 
        you don’t think of it.

 Maybe, after the sermon, 
   after the multitude was fed, 
     one or two of them felt 
       the soul slip forth

like a tremor of pure sunlight 
   before exhaustion, 
      that wants to swallow everything, 
         gripped their bones and left them

miserable and sleepy, 
    as they are now, forgetting 
       how the wind tore at the sails 
          before he rose and talked to it —

tender and luminous and demanding 
   as he always was — 
      a thousand times more frightening 
         than the killer storm.
~Mary Oliver from “Maybe”

 

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I sleep through my diminishing days even more than I sleep through the nights, not nearly focused enough on each passing moment that never is to come again.  Those moments crash to shore and then pull back to be lost forever.

There is a blindness in us all about what is inevitably coming, how we are tumbled over the years like waves, overcome by their passage.

He is tender and luminous and demanding and He talks to us, not just the relentless stormy destructive sea.

Peace be still!

And so I obey, forgiven, and am saved by grace,
so silky and sorry.

 

The Heavens Boiling

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Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
that the mountains would tremble before you!
As when fire sets twigs ablaze
and causes water to boil…
~Isaiah 64:1-2

 

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And this, then,
is the vision of that Heaven of which 
we have heard, where those who love
each other have forgiven each other,

where, for that, the leaves are green,
the light a music in the air,
and all is unentangled,
and all is undismayed.
-Wendell Berry “To My Mother”

 

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Something woke me at 4:45 AM:  perhaps the orange glow bathing my face. Never one to miss a light show, I heeded the call and obeyed.

Once outside, I watched clouds boiling –  shifting and swirling in unrest as if something or someone may emerge momentarily.

No trumpets.
Just early morning bird song oblivious to the turmoil.

Within a minute, the heavens settled and so did I, no longer entangled and dismayed.

Yet for a moment this morning, I did wonder what might become of us all.

 

 

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My Father’s Treehouse

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photo by Dan Gibson

 

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My father’s treehouse is twenty three years old, lonesome and empty in our front yard, a constant reminder of his own abandoned Swiss Family Robinson dreams. Over the years, it has been the setting for a local children’s TV show, laser tag wars, sleep overs and tea parties, even my writer’s retreat with a deck side view of the Cascades to the east, the Canadian Coastal Range to the north and Puget Sound to the west. Now it is a sad shell no longer considered safe, as the support branches in our 100+ year old walnut tree are weakening with age and time.

The dream began in February 1995 when our sons were 8 and 6 years old and our daughter just 2. We had plenty of recycled lumber on our old farm and an idea about what to build. My father, retired from his desk job and having recently survived a lymphoma diagnosis and treatment, had many previous daunting building projects to his credit, and a few in his mind that he was yet to get to. He was eager to see what he could construct for his grandkids by spring time. He doodled out some sketches of what might work in the tree, and contemplated the physics of a 73 year old man scaling a tree vs. building on the ground and hoisting it up mostly completed. I got more nervous the more I thought about it and hoped we could consider a project less risky, and hoping the weather wouldn’t clear enough for construction to start any time soon.

The weather cleared as simultaneously my father’s health faded. His cancer relapsed and he was sidelined with a series of doctor’s appointments, hospitalizations and treatment courses. He hung on to that hope of getting the treehouse going by summer, still thinking it through in his mind, still evaluating what he would need to buy to supplement the materials already gathered and piled beneath the tree. In the mean time he lost physical strength day by day.

His dream needed to proceed as he fought his battle, so I borrowed library books on treehouses, and hired two college age brothers who lived down the road to get things started. I figured if my dad got well enough to build again, at least the risky stuff could be already done by the young guys. These brothers took their job very seriously. They pored over the books, took my dad’s plans, worked through the details and started in. They shinnied up the tree, put up pulleys on the high branches and placed the beams, hoisting them by pulling on the ropes with their car bumper. It was working great until the car bumper came off.

I kept my dad updated long distance with photos and stories. It was a diversion for him, but the far off look in his eye told me he wasn’t going to be building anything in this world ever again. He was gone by July. The treehouse was done a month later. It was everything my dad had dreamed of, and more. It had a deck, a protective railing, a trap door, a staircase. We had a open tree celebration and had 15 neighbors up there at once. I’m sure dad was sipping lemonade with us as well, enjoying the view.

Now all these years later, the treehouse is tilting on its foundation as a main weight bearing branch is weakening. We’ve declared it condemned, not wanting to risk an accident.  It remains a daily reminder of past dreams fulfilled and unfulfilled as I look out my window. Much like my father’s body, the old walnut tree is weakening, hanging on by the roots, but its muscle strength is failing. It will, sometime, come down in one of our frequent fierce windstorms, just as its nearby partner did a few years ago.

The treehouse dream branched out in another way. One of the construction team brothers decided to try building his own as a place to live in his woods, using a Douglas Fir tree as the center support and creating an octagon, two stories, 30 feet off the ground. He worked on it for two years and moved in, later marrying someone who decided a treehouse was just fine with her, and for 16 years, they’ve raised five children there.  The treehouse kids are old enough to come work for me on our farm, a full circle feeling for me.  This next generation is carrying on a Swiss Family Robinson dream that began in my father’s mind and our front yard.

I still have a whole list full of dreams myself, some realized and some deferred by time, resources and the limits of my imagination. I feel the clock ticking too, knowing that the years and the seasons slip by me faster and faster. It would be a blessing to me to see others live out the dreams I have held so close.

Like my father, I will some day teeter in the wind like our old tree, barely hanging on. When ready to fall to the ground, I’ll reach out with my branches and hand off my dreams too. The time will have come to let them go.

 

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We Are Not Comfortless

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Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving   
up the bales as the sun moves down.
Let the cricket take up chafing   
as a woman takes up her needles   
and her yarn. Let evening come.
Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned   
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.
Let the fox go back to its sandy den.   
Let the wind die down. Let the shed   
go black inside. Let evening come.
To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop   
in the oats, to air in the lung   
let evening come.
Let it come, as it will, and don’t   
be afraid. God does not leave us   
comfortless, so let evening come.
~Jane Kenyon “Let Evening Come”
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So much of our living is preparing for rest and here we are, fighting it every step of the way.

We resist it mightily: the toddler fussing about taking a nap, the youngster devoted to their screen time and unwilling to surrender to darkness, or the parent trying to eke out the last bit of daylight to get the chores done.  We are comforted by activity.

We are created in the image of One who remembered to rest.  So must we be “evened” by Him.
The evening comes – there is no stopping it – and we are to settle into it, close our eyes and drift on the comfort it brings.
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