Turn Aside and Look: Piercing What is Dead

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I saw that a yellow crocus bud had pierced
a dead oak leaf, then opened wide. How strong
its appetite for the luxury of the sun!
~Jane Kenyon from Otherwise: New and Selected Poems

 

Our appetite is strong for light and warmth.  Our desire is to defeat death, to pierce through the decay and flourish among the living, opening wide our face to the luxury of grace freely given.

We need only follow the pathway out of darkness.  We need only follow the Son as he leads the way.

Turn Aside and Look: To Laugh and To Cry

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It is in these afflictions, which succeed one another each moment,
that God, veiled and obscured, reveals himself,
mysteriously bestowing his grace in a manner
quite unrecognized by the souls
who feel only weakness in bearing their cross…

~Jean Pierre du Caussade from The Sacrament of the Present Moment

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The past few mornings have been unveiled in snow flurries, mist and fog, tentative spring dawns of freezing air and warming soil trying to break loose from the vise grip of a tired and dying winter.

I am struggling under the load of 14 hour days working with despairing and suicidal people,  in addition to keeping a barn clean and animals and humans fed.  Even sleep is not restful when there is so little time to quiet myself in reflection and gratitude.

I am keenly reminded of my weakness as my strength wanes at the end of a long day, having slipped in the mud while trying to gain traction unloading a couple hundred pounds of manure from the wheelbarrow.  Landing on my backside, my pants soaking through,  I can choose to laugh or cry.

I choose to see the baptism of mud as a sacrament of the present moment,  reminding me of my need for a cleansing grace.

I laugh and cry.

Though obscured from view, God is nevertheless revealed in these moments of being covered in the soil of earth and the waste of its creatures.

He knows I need reminding that I too am dust and to dust shall return.

He knows I am too often wasteful and a failed steward,
so need reminding by landing me amidst it.

He knows I need to laugh at myself,
so puts me right on my backside.

He knows I need to cry,
so sends me those with the saddest stories and greatest needs.

He knows I need Him, always and ever more,
to restore a sacrament of grace evident in the present moment
and every moment to come.

To be known for who I am
by a God who laughs with me,
weeps for me
and groans with pain I have caused~
I will know
no greater love.

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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

 

Turn Aside and Look: No Longer Your Own

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You are not your own; you were bought at a price.
1 Corinthians 6: 19b-20a

 

There is a well known story with a number of variations, all involving a scorpion that stings a good-souled frog/turtle/crocodile/person who tries to rescue it from drowning. Since the sting dooms the rescuer and as a result the scorpion as well, the scorpion explains “to sting is in my nature”. In one version, the rescuer tries again and again to help the scorpion, repeatedly getting stung, only to explain before he dies “it may be in your nature to sting but it is in my nature to save.”

This is actually a story originating from Eastern religion and thought, the purpose of which is to illustrate the “dharma”, or orderly nature of things. The story ends perfectly for the Eastern religions believer even though both scorpion and the rescuer die in the end, as the dharma of the scorpion and of the rescuer is realized, no matter what the outcome. Things are what they are, without judgment, and actualization of that nature is the whole point.

However, this story only resonates for the Christian if the nature of the scorpion is forever transformed by the sacrifice of the rescuer on its behalf. The scorpion is no longer its own so no longer slave to its “nature”. It is no longer just a scorpion with a need and desire to sting whatever it sees. It has been “bought” through the sacrifice of the Rescuer.

So we too are no longer our own,
no longer the stinger
no longer the stung:
no longer who we used to be before we were rescued.

We are bought at a price beyond imagining.

And our nature to hurt, to punish, to sting shall be no more.

Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?
1 Corinthians 15: 55

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There at the table
With my head in my hands
A column of numbers
I just could not understand
You said “Add these together
Carry the two
Now you.”

You can do this hard thing
You can do this hard thing
It’s not easy I know
But I believe that it’s so
You can do this hard thing

At a cold winter station
Breathing into our gloves
This would change me forever
Leaving for God knows what
You carried my bags
You said “I’ll wait
For you.”

You can do this hard thing
You can do this hard thing
It’s not easy I know
But I believe that it’s so
You can do this hard thing

Late at night I called
And you answered the phone
The worst it had happened
And I did not want to be alone
You quietly listened
You said “We’ll see this thru.”

You can do this hard thing
You can do this hard thing
It’s not easy I know
But I believe that it’s so
You can do this hard thing

Here we stand breathless
And pressed in hard times
Hearts hung like laundry
On backyard clothes lines
Impossible just takes
A little more time

From the muddy ground
Comes a green volunteer
In a place we thought barren
New life appears
Morning will come whistling
Some comforting tune
For you

You can do this hard thing
You can do this hard thing
It’s not easy I know
But I believe that it’s so
You can do this hard thing
~Carrie Newcomer

 

Turn Aside and Look: In the Wilderness Time

 

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This is the wilderness time,
when every path is obscure
and thorns have grown around the words of hope.

This is the time of stone, not bread,
when even the sunrise feels uncertain
and everything tastes of bitterness.

This is the time of ashes and dust,
when darkness clothes our dreams
and no star shines a guiding light.

This is the time of treading life,
waiting for the swells to subside and for the chaos to clear.

Be the wings of our strength, O God,
in this time of wilderness waiting.
– Keri Wehlander from “600 Blessings and Prayers from around the world” compiled by Geoffrey Duncan

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He will cover you with his feathers,
    and under his wings you will find refuge;
    his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.
Psalm 91:4

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To be commanded to love God at all, let alone in the wilderness , is like being commanded to be well when we are sick, to sing for joy when we are dying of thirst, to run when our legs are broken. But this is the first and great commandment nonetheless. Even in the wilderness- especially in the wilderness – you shall love him.   
~Frederick Buechner

The wilderness can be a distant peak far removed from anything or anyone.  The wilderness can also be found in an isolated corner of the human heart kept far away from anything and anyone.   From my window on a clear day, I am fortunate to see the first if the cloud cover moves away.  From my perch on a round stool at work,  I am sometimes given access to the other many times every day.

There are times in one’s life when loving God as commanded seems impossible.  We are too broken, too frightened, too wary to trust God with our love and devotion.  Recognizing a diagnosis of wilderness of the heart is straight forward:  despair, discouragement, disappointment, lack of gratitude, lack of hope.  The treatment is to tame the wilderness with a covenantal obedience that reaches so deep there is no corner left untouched.   We must do as we are asked, even when it seems impossible, when it hurts, and when it means we may become even more profoundly isolated.

To be asked by God to turn aside from our worries and face Him is the invitation we were created for.   To be loved by Him is our rescue from the wilderness of the most distant peak, as well as from the most bitter and broken heart that beats within.

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In the beginning, you hovered over the water
You broke an unbroken silence
You spoke light into darkness
And there was light

In the beginning, we were made in your image
And we were naked without shame
Till we fell for the darkness
And there was night

Chorus: Your mercies are new
Your mercies are new
New every morning
Your mercies are new
Your mercies are new
New every morning

In the beginning, there was the Word and he was God
And the Word was with God
And he dwelt among us
And there was life

Oh, in the beginning, the Lamb of God was broken
And his blood was poured out
For the sins of the world
And there was life

Chorus

At the cross, at the cross
Where I first saw your light
At the cross, at the cross
I received my sight
At the cross, at the cross
Where you laid down your life

Chorus

~Audrey Assad -“New Every Morning”

The Mountain Called Her By Name

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Devi and father Willi
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Nanda Devi courtesy of Stanford Alpine Club

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The ripple effect from Nanda Devi Unsoeld’s arrival as a new junior in Olympia High School in 1970 reached me within minutes, as I felt the impact of her presence on campus immediately.  One of my friends elbowed me, pointing out a new girl being escorted down the hall by the assistant principal.  Students stared at the wake she left behind: Devi had wildly flowing wavy long blonde hair, a friendly smile and bold curious eyes greeting everyone she met.

From the neck up, she fit right in with the standard appearance at the time:  as the younger sisters of the 60’s generation of free thinking flower children, we tried to emulate them in our dress and style, going braless and choosing bright colors and usually skirts that were too short and tight.   There was the pretense we didn’t really care how we looked, but of course we did care very much, with hours spent daily preparing the “casual carefree” look that would perfectly express our freedom from fashion trends amid our feminist longings. Practicing careful nonconformity perfectly fit our peers’ expectations and aggravated our parents.

But Devi never looked like she cared what anyone else thought of her.  The high school girls honestly weren’t sure what to make of her, speculating together whether she was “for real” and viewed her somewhat suspiciously, as if she was putting on an act.

The boys were mesmerized.

She preferred baggy torn khaki shorts or peasant skirts with uneven hems, loose fitting faded T shirts and ripped tennis shoes without shoelaces.  Her legs were covered with long blonde hair, as were her armpits which she showed off while wearing tank tops.   She pulled whole cucumbers from her backpack in class and ate them like cobs of corn, rind and all.  She smelled like she had been camping without a shower for three days, but then riding her bike to school from her home 8 miles away in all kinds of weather accounted for that.   One memorable day she arrived a bit late to school, pushing her bike through 6 inches of snow in soaking tennis shoes, wearing her usual broad smile of satisfaction.

As a daughter of two Peace Corps workers who had just moved back to the U.S. after years of service in Nepal, Devi had lived very little of her life in the United States.  Her father Willi Unsoeld, one of the first American climbers to reach the summit of Mt. Everest up the difficult west face, had recently accepted a professorship in comparative religion at a local college.  He moved his wife and family back to the northwest to be near his beloved snowy peaks,  suddenly immersing four children in an affluent culture that seemed foreign and wasteful.

Devi recycled before there was a word for it simply by never buying anything new and never throwing anything useful away, involved herself in social justice issues before anyone had coined the phrase, and was an activist behind the scenes more often than a leader, facilitating and encouraging others to speak out at anti-war rallies, organizing sit-ins for world hunger and volunteering in the local soup kitchen.  She mentored adolescent peers to get beyond their self-consciousness and self-absorption to explore the world beyond the security of high school walls.

Regretfully, few of us followed her lead.  We preferred the relative security and camaraderie of hanging out at the local drive-in to taking a shift at the local 24 hour crisis line.  We showed up for our graduation ceremony in caps and gowns while the rumor was that Devi stood at the top of Mt. Rainier with her father that day.

I never saw Devi after high school but heard of her plans in 1976 to climb with an expedition to the summit of Nanda Devi,  the peak in India for which she was named.  She never returned, dying in her father’s arms as she suffered severe abdominal pain and irreversible high altitude sickness just below the summit.  She lies forever buried in the ice on that faraway peak in India.  Her father died in an avalanche only a few years later, as he led an expedition of college students on a climb on Mt. Rainier, only 60 miles from home.

Had Devi lived these last 40 years, I have no doubt she would have led our generation with her combination of charismatic boldness and excitement about each day’s new adventure.  She lived without pretense, without hiding behind a mask of fad and fashion and conformity and without the desire for wealth or comfort.

I wish I had learned what she had to teach me when she sat beside me in class, encouraging me by her example to become someone more than the dictates of societal expectations. I secretly admired the freedom she embodied in not being concerned in the least about fitting in.   Instead, I still mourn her loss all these years later, having to be content with the legacy she has now left behind on a snowy mountain peak that called her by name.

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To Feel the Hem of Heaven

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Your days are short here; this is the last of your springs.
And now in the serenity and quiet of this lovely place,
touch the depths of truth, feel the hem of Heaven.
You will go away with old, good friends.
And don’t forget when you leave why you came.

~Adlai Stevenson, to the Class of ’54 Princeton University

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I was eight years old in June 1963 when the Readers’ Digest arrived in the mail inside its little brown paper wrapper. As usual, I sat down in my favorite overstuffed chair with my skinny legs dangling over the side arm and started at the beginning,  reading the jokes, the short articles and stories on harrowing adventures and rescues, pets that had been lost and found their way home, and then toward the back came to the book excerpt: “The Triumph of Janis Babson” by Lawrence Elliott.

Something about the little girl’s picture at the start of the story captured me right away–she had such friendly eyes with a sunny smile that partially hid buck teeth.  This Canadian child, Janis Babson, was diagnosed with leukemia when she was only ten, and despite all efforts to stop the illness, she died in 1961.  The story was written about her determination to donate her eyes after her death, and her courage facing death was astounding.  Being nearly the same age, I was captivated and petrified at the story, amazed at Janis’ straight forward approach to her death, her family’s incredible support of her wishes, and especially her final moments, when (as I recall 54 years later) Janis looked as if she were beholding some splendor, her smile radiant.

”Is this Heaven?” she asked.   She looked directly at her father and mother and called to them:  “Mommy… Daddy !… come… quick !”

And then she was gone.  I cried buckets of tears, reading and rereading that death scene.  My mom finally had to take the magazine away from me and shooed me outside to go run off my grief.  How could I run and play when Janis no longer could?  It was a devastating realization that a child my age could get sick and die, and that God allowed it to happen.

Yet this story was more than just a tear-jerker for the readers.  Janis’ final wish was granted –those eyes that had seen the angels were donated after her death so that they would help another person see.  Janis  had hoped never to be forgotten.  Amazingly, she influenced thousands of people who read her story to consider and commit to organ donation, most of whom remember her vividly through that book excerpt in Readers’ Digest.  I know I could not sleep the night after I read her story and determined to do something significant with my life, no matter how long or short it was.  Her story influenced my eventual decision to become a physician.  She made me think about death at a very young age as that little girl’s tragic story could have been mine and I was certain I could never have been so brave and so confident in my dying moments.

Janis persevered with a unique sense of purpose and mission for one so young.  As a ten year old, she developed character that some people never develop in a much longer lifetime.  Her faith and her deep respect for the gift she was capable of giving through her death brought hope and light to scores of people who still remember her to this day.

Out of the recesses of my memory, I recalled Janis’ story a few years ago when I learned of a local child who had been diagnosed with a serious cancer.  I could not recall Janis’ name, but in googling “Readers’  Digest girl cancer story”,  by the miracle of the internet I rediscovered her name, the name of the book and a discussion forum that included posts of people who were children in the sixties, like me,  who had been incredibly touched by Janis when they read this same story as a child.  Many were inspired to become health care providers like myself and some became professionals working with organ donation.

Janis and family, may you know the gift you gave so many people through your courage in the midst of suffering, and the resulting hope in the glory of the Lord.  Your days were short here, but you touched the depth of truth and touched the hem of heaven.
~~the angels are coming indeed.

We who have been your old good friends,  because of your story,  have not forgotten how you left us and why you came in the first place.

For excerpts from “The Triumph of Janis Babson”, click here

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Another Day

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moon rise to the east

Here dies another day
During which I have had eyes, ears, hands
And the great world round me;
And with tomorrow begins another.
Why am I allowed two?
~G.K. Chesterton

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Even on a Saturday,
usually catch-up on
everything I didn’t get done at work this week,
or cleaning house or barn at home,
instead today is spent
in state-mandated training
on suicide assessment and care.

Even though twenty times every day
I ask someone:
can tell me about your thoughts about ending your life?

Even so~~
there is more to learn
and to teach others.

I’ve been allowed
another day
to do my best
to be present
and maybe as this day dies
there will come
another
when I can help someone
choose to live another day.

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