Turn Aside and Look: An Apparition of Petals

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All flesh is as grass,
And all the glory of man as the flower of the grass.
The grass withers,
And its flower falls away,
But the word of the Lord endures forever.
1Peter 1:24-25

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The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
~Ezra Pound “In a Station of the Metro”

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During our visit here in Japan, particularly at the train stations, we are met by a sea of faces — each man, woman and child with a place to go to work or school, a place to return home to, a bed to rest upon. It can be overwhelming to think of the millions who pass through the same place in a day and to wonder at how each person, each hair on their head, is cared for and counted by God.

Yet, like the transience of flowers, we are mortal, each of us, except in our clinging like petals to a wet bough –the word of the Lord, our Creator. Only then we become more than apparition.  We bloom where we are planted.

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Woman Admiring Plum Blossoms at Night, Suzuki Harunobu, 18th century
(the print that inspired Ezra Pound’s poem)

 

Turn Aside and Look: What Shall I Cry?

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“I alternate between thinking of the planet as home
– dear and familiar stone hearth and garden –
and as a hard land of exile in which we are all sojourners.”
~Annie Dillard from Teaching a Stone To Talk

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A voice says, “Cry out.”
    And I said, “What shall I cry?”

“All people are like grass,
    and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
    because the breath of the Lord blows on them.
    Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
    but the word of our God endures forever.”
~Isaiah 40:6-8

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And what shall I cry?

I find it very difficult to admit I am as temporary as a rain drop a flower, a mere mirrored reflection of this incredible place where I dwell.  I want so badly for it to last, I want it etched in stone, I want to be remembered beyond the next generation, I want not to be lost to the ether.

Yet I, like everyone, am sojourner only, not settled and certainly not lasting.   As a garden flourishes and then dies back, so will I.  This is exile in the wilderness until I am led back home.

Home.  Really home. No longer fading and withering.

Forever etched on His heart, held fast in His Hand,
His Word enduring far beyond my flesh.

 

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All flesh is like the grass
The grass withers and fades away.
All flesh is like the grass
The grass withers and fades away.
The glory of man like a flower
That shrivels in the sun and falls.
The glory of man like a flower
That shrivels in the sun and falls.
But the Word of the Lord
Endures forever.
~Fernando Ortega

Turn Aside and Look: To Anticipate a Thaw

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March. I am beginning
to anticipate a thaw. Early mornings
the earth, old unbeliever, is still crusted with frost
where the moles have nosed up their
cold castings, and the ground cover
in shadow under the cedars hasn’t softened
for months, fogs layering their slow, complicated ice
around foliage and stem
night by night,

but as the light lengthens, preacher
of good news, evangelizing leaves and branches,
his large gestures beckon green
out of gray. Pinpricks of coral bursting
from the cotoneasters. A single bee
finding the white heather. Eager lemon-yellow
aconites glowing, low to the ground like
little uplifted faces. A crocus shooting up
a purple hand here, there, as I stand
on my doorstep, my own face drinking in heat
and light like a bud welcoming resurrection,
and my hand up, too, ready to sign on
for conversion.
~Luci Shaw “Revival” from What the Light was Like

 

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These frozen days anticipate what is to come,
beg us to turn aside from the distractions of this age~
to see the fire that burns but does not consume,
listen to the voice that beckons us heed,
feel the revival of our spirits that have been dead too long.

The thaw is at hand; a new day is dawning.

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Fernando Ortega — Revive Me Again

Turn Aside and Look: Earth’s Crammed with Heaven

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The theme for this year’s Lenten series on Barnstorming is “Turn Aside and Look” — we are invited to stand, barefoot and awed, on holy ground as we prepare for the sacrifice of the Savior on our behalf, and His Resurrection.

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Now Moses was pasturing the flock of Jethro His father-in-law, the priest of Midian; and He led the flock to the west side of the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.

And the Angel of the Lord appeared to him in a blazing fire from the midst of a bush; and He looked, and behold, the bush was burning with fire, yet the bush was not consumed.

So Moses said, “I must turn aside now, and see this marvelous sight, why the bush is not burned up.”  When the Lord saw that he turned aside to look, God called to him from the midst of the bush, and said, “Moses, Moses!” And Moses said, “Here I am.”  Then God said, “Do not come near here; remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.
~Exodus 3: 1-5

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Earth’s crammed with heaven,
and every common bush afire with God;
but only he who sees, takes off his shoes —
the rest sit around it and pluck blackberries.
~Elizabeth Barrett Browning from “Aurora Leigh”

 

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I need to turn aside and look,
to see, as if for the first and last time,
a Brightness that illuminates even the darkest day.

We are invited, by no less than God Himself,
to shed our shoes, to walk barefoot and vulnerable,
and approach the dawn, even when it is midnight.

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

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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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The Angles of Winter

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Long yellow rushes bending
above the white snow patches;
purple and gold ribbon
of the distant wood:
what an angle
you make with each other as
you lie there in contemplation.
–  William Carlos Williams, January Morning – XII

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For the past eleven days, millions of us wake reluctant to contemplate the headlines:

At what cross purposes are we now?
What right and left angles have been sharpened in the night?
What blowing snow covers a multitude of sins, hiding what we know lies beneath?

And when, O God,  will a naked and merciless January yield to the more welcoming light of Your spring?

 

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Perfectly and Completely Rotten

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O lovely apple!
beautifully and completely
                 rotten
hardly a contour marred–

                 perhaps a little
shrivelled at the top but that
                 aside perfect
in every detail! O lovely

                 apple! what a
deep and suffusing brown
                 mantles that
unspoiled surface! No one

                 has moved you
since I placed you on the porch
                 rail a month ago
to ripen.

                 No one. No one!
~William Carlos Williams “Perfection”

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“When a newspaper posed the question, ‘What’s Wrong with the World?’ the Catholic thinker G. K. Chesterton reputedly wrote a brief letter in response:

‘Dear Sirs:
I am.
Sincerely Yours,
G. K. Chesterton.’

That is the attitude of someone who has grasped the message of Jesus.”
~Timothy Keller, The Prodigal God (New York: Dutton, 2008)

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No one of us escapes the rottenness that lies not-so-deep beneath our shiny surface.  We are full of wormholes allowing the world inside to eat us alive.

We are the problem and the problem is us. That is why we need rescue by a Savior who is the one good apple among a barrel of contagiously bad apples. We are so tainted, it takes Someone who truly is Perfect to transform us from the inside out.

We’ve elected someone who is emphatically a reflection of who we are — bad and rotten and more than willing to spoil the barrel with his history of immoral and unethical behavior, his contentious and profane words, his complete lack of humility and his unwillingness to admit his flaws.

May we hang on to hope that our dis-united states will once again survive an imperfect leader, just as we’ve survived the other rotten apples we’ve placed over us.

We get exactly what we deserve in a President and no one should be celebrating that today.

May we fall to our knees, weeping and grateful, that Christ, who is the Leader of all in His Kingdom, will grant us a grace and sanctuary we emphatically don’t deserve.

Now that would be reason to celebrate.

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North Brooklin, Maine
30 March 1973

Dear Mr. Nadeau:
As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time. I shall get up Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.

Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society—things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.

Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.
Sincerely,
[Signed, ‘E. B. White’] from Letters of Note