A Bright Sadness: Take Your Shoes Off

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God:
But only he who sees takes off his shoes.
~Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Over the next eight days, the body of Christian believers will be traversing once again the holy ground of Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection.

Indeed, our children, happy to be barefoot most of the time, are more apt than the grown ups to follow the instruction of the Lord when He told Moses:

Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.

There have long been cultures where shoes are to be removed before touching the surface of the floor inside a residence or temple in an intentional act of leaving the dirt of the world at the door to preserve the sanctity and cleanliness of the inner life.

Yet we as Christians wear shoes into church every Sunday, having walked in muck and mire of one sort or another all week. We try our best to clean up for Sunday, but we track in the detritus of our lives when we come to sit in the pews. Rather than leave it at the door, it comes right in with us, not exactly hidden and sometimes downright stinky. That is when we are in obvious need for a good washing, shoes, feet, soul and all, and that is exactly why we  need to worship together as a church family in need of cleansing, whether indoors or outdoors.

Jesus Himself demonstrated our need for a wash-up on the last night of His life, soaking the dusty feet of His disciples.

And then there is what God said. He asked that holy ground be respected by the removal of our sandals. We must remove any barrier that prevents us from entering fully into His presence, whether it be our attitude, our stubbornness, our unbelief, or our constant centering on self rather than other.

No separation, even a thin layer of leather, is desirable when encountering God.

We trample roughshod over holy ground all the time, blind to where our feet land and the impact they leave behind. Perhaps by shedding the covering of our eyes, our minds, and our feet, we would see earth crammed with heaven and God on fire everywhere, in every common bush and in every common heart.

So we may see.
So we may listen.
So we may feast together.
So we may weep at what we have done, yet stand forgiven.
So we may celebrate as our Risen Lord startles us by calling our name.
So we remove our sandals so our bare feet may touch His holy ground.

A Bright Sadness: Let Him Easter in Us

Let Him easter in us,
be a dayspring to the dimness of us,
be a crimson-cresseted east.
~Gerard Manley Hopkin

There is a fragrance in the air, 
a certain passage of a song, 
an old photograph falling out from the pages of a book, 
the sound of somebody’s voice in the hall 
that makes your heart leap and fills your eyes with tears. 
Who can say when or how it will be 
that something easters up out of the dimness 
to remind us of a time before we were born and after we will die?
God himself does not give answers. He gives himself.
~Frederick Buechner from Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale

Traditionally, Lent does not include the five Sundays before Easter as every Sabbath is a celebration of Christ’s resurrection. We should let Him Easter in us every week!

So this is my first of six Easter reflections on Barnstorming during the next few weeks. We wait for the glorious day when we can meet as Christ’s body on April 21, first on our farm’s hill at dawn, and then later inside our church’s sanctuary to feel the full impact of “He is Risen!”

It is a slow coming of spring this year, seeming in no hurry whatsoever.  Snow remains in residual drifts around the farm from the storms of a month ago, the foothills are still white and the greening of the fields has yet to begin. The flowering plum and cherry trees remain dormant in the continued chill. 

Like Narnia, winter still has its terrible grip on us.

We wait, frozen in a darkened world, for a sun that shines and actually warms us from our dormancy.

This is exactly what eastering is.  It is awakening out of a restless sleep, opening a door to let in fresh air, and the stone that locked us in the dark rolled back.

Overnight all will be changed, changed utterly.

He is not only risen.  He is given indeed.


An Advent Paradox: Filled Because I’m Emptied

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“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be as you have said.”
Luke 1: 38

 

…to bear in her womb
Infinite weight and lightness; to carry
in hidden, finite inwardness,
nine months of Eternity; to contain
in slender vase of being,
the sum of power –
in narrow flesh,
the sum of light.

Then bring to birth,
push out into air, a Man-child
needing, like any other,
milk and love –

but who was God.
~Denise Levertov, from “Annunciation”

 

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The Annunciation by Henry Tanner, Philadelphia Museum of Art

 

I want it to be the way I want it:
my plans, my timing, my hopes and dreams first and foremost.

And then life happens and suddenly nothing looks the way it was supposed to be. I feel abandoned and completely emptied.

Yet only then, as an empty vessel, can I be filled. How am I to respond to such a paradox?

In my work in a University Health Center, I see this struggle in the lives of young adults: a tremendous lack of resiliency, an inability to ride the waves that crash and overwhelm. One of the most common responses to the unexpected is to panic, facing uncontrollable anxiety that interferes with eating, sleeping, working, studying. A common response to anxiety is to self-medicate in any way easily accessible: alcohol, marijuana, nicotine, sex, a friend’s prescription drugs. A little isn’t working so a lot might be better. The anxiety is compounded and descends into deepening depression.

The sadness and hopelessness, even anger –is a discouragement stemming from the lack of control of circumstances, feeling there is no way out, being unable to find another path to a different future. This leads too frequently to thoughts of ending one’s life as it seems too painful and pointless to continue, and more rarely, taking others’ lives at the same time in an attempt to make sure everyone else knows the depth of the pain.

There is an epidemic of hopelessness among our society’s young people that I’ve never before seen to this extent in my forty years of clinical work. To them, their debts seem too great, their reserves too limited, their foundations too shaky, their hope nonexistent, their future too dim. They cannot ride the waves without feeling they are drowning. So they look for any way out.

In the annunciation of the angel approaching a young woman out of the blue, Mary’s response to this overwhelming circumstance is a model for us all when we are hit by a wave we didn’t expect and had not prepared for.

She is prepared; she has studied and knows God’s Word and His promise to His people, even in the midst of trouble. She is able to articulate it beautifully in the song she sings as her response. She gives up her so-carefully-planned-out life to give life to God within her.

Her resilience sings through the ages and to each one of us in our troubles:
may it be to me as you say.

May it be.
Your plans, Your purpose, Your promise.
Let it be.
Even if it may pierce my soul as with a sword so that I leak out to empty.
You are there to plug the bleeding hole and fill me.

So I sing through my fear, through my weariness, through my tears.

 

“Like Mary, we have no way of knowing… We can ask for courage, however, and trust that God has not led us into this new land only to abandon us there.”
~Kathleen Norris from God With Us

 

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Matthias Stomer’s Annunciation

 

 

 

Everything inside me cries for order
Everything inside me wants to hide
Is this shadow an angel or a warrior?
If God is pleased with me, why am I so terrified?
Someone tell me I am only dreaming
Somehow help me see with Heaven’s eyes
And before my head agrees,
My heart is on its knees
Holy is He. Blessed am I.

Be born in me
Be born in me
Trembling heart, somehow I believe
That You chose me
I’ll hold you in the beginning
You will hold me in the end
Every moment in the middle,
Make my heart your Bethlehem
Be born in me

All this time we’ve waited for the promise
All this time You’ve waited for my arms
Did You wrap yourself inside the unexpected
So we might know that Love would go that far?

Be born in me
Be born in me
Trembling heart, somehow I believe
That You chose me
I’ll hold you in the beginning
You will hold me in the end
Every moment in the middle,
Make my heart your Bethlehem
Be born in me

I am not brave
I’ll never be
The only thing my heart can offer is a vacancy
I’m just a girl
Nothing more
But I am willing, I am Yours
Be born in me
Be born in me
Trembling heart, somehow I believe
That You chose me
I’ll hold you in the beginning
You will hold me in the end
Every moment in the middle,
Make my heart your Bethlehem
Be born in me

Francesca Battistelli

An Advent Paradox: Hands Too Small

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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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As the universe expands around us,  our faith, in response, spirals inward.
The Hands that flung the stars and planets into their places now reach inside us to grip and hold our hearts.

It’s the little things that feed our faith:
there are so many to remember during this month of waiting.

And it begins with the paradox of small Hands.

 

 

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We Interrupt This Life

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We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God. God will be constantly crossing our paths and canceling our plans by sending us people with claims and petitions. We may pass them by, preoccupied with our more important tasks. . . . 
~Dietrich Bonhoeffer from Life Together

 

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So I’m slogging my way through life, keeping nose to the grindstone, doing what I think I’m called to do and suddenly whammo! I’m clobbered by a cold wave that knocks me off my feet, chills me to the bone and stops me in my tracks wondering what just hit me and why.

It can feel like drowning.

I feel rudely interrupted because I was ill prepared to change course, alter expectations, or be transformed by life’s sudden cold shower.

I can’t think of many situations where an interruption initially is welcome.  It shocks because it is unexpected yet I have chosen to be someone who must be rudely interrupted in order to change direction.

God doesn’t just soak me to the bone–He made my bones and heals my fractures.

He doesn’t just knock me to my feet–He offers His hand to pull me up again.

He doesn’t let me drown–He is a life preserver I choose to grab and hold on to.

Then He wraps me in His warm embrace like a huge towel to remind me where I come from and where I’m heading.

We interrupt this life for a message from our sponsor. 

Okay. Okay.
I’m ready to pay attention.

 

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Praise the Shadows

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Praise the wet snow
       falling early.
Praise the shadow
       my neighbor’s chimney casts on the tile roof
even this gray October day that should, they say,
have been golden.
               Praise
the invisible sun burning beyond
      the white cold sky, giving us 
light and the chimney’s shadow.
Praise
god or the gods, the unknown,
that which imagined us, which stays
our hand,
our murderous hand,
                   and gives us
still,
in the shadow of death,
           our daily life,
           and the dream still
of goodwill, of peace on earth.
Praise
flow and change, night and
the pulse of day.
~Denise Levertov from “Gloria”, an excerpt from Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus

 

 

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Yes. It is true.
Our murderous hand
is not stayed nearly enough.

We continue to witness the deaths of innocents,
so many homeless cast aside,
and what to do for refugees seeking sanctuary
who may not believe as we do,
who do not look or talk or act like
us.

We are not them.  They are not us.
But all image bearers.

Yet shadows are cast on the grayest of days
only because there is light still there,
hidden though it may be.
Be illuminated by mercy without the shadow cast.
Be mercy.
Be stilled by the pulse of life in others who are not us.

 

 

 

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A Groaning Need For Change

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A voice is heard in Ramah,    
mourning and great weeping,
Rachel weeping for her children     
and refusing to be comforted,     
because they are no more.
~Jeremiah 31:15

 

 

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We live in a time where the groaning need and dividedness of humankind is especially to be felt and recognized. Countless people are subjected to hatred, violence and oppression which go unchecked. The injustice and corruption which exist today are causing many voices to be raised to protest and cry out that something be done. Many men and women are being moved to sacrifice much in the struggle for justice, freedom, and peace. There is a movement afoot in our time, a movement which is growing, awakening.

Yet this terrific human need and burden of the times causes us to see how weak and powerless we are to change this. Then we must see that if we are to advocate change, we must start with ourselves. We must recognize that we as individuals are to blame for social injustice, oppression, and the downgrading of others, whether personal or on a broader plane. We must see that a revolution must take place against all that destroys life. This revolution must become a revolution different from any the world has ever seen. God must intervene and lead such a revolution with his Spirit and his justice and his truth.
~Dwight Blough from the introduction to When the Time was Fulfilled (1965)

 

 

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Here is the mystery, the secret, one might almost say the cunning, of the deep love of God: that it is bound to draw on to itself the hatred and pain and shame and anger and bitterness and rejection of the world, but to draw all those things on to itself is precisely the means, chosen from all eternity by the generous, loving God, by which to rid his world of the evils which have resulted from human abuse of God-given freedom.
~N.T. Wright from The Crown and the Fire

 

 

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Inundated by more news of deaths of innocents,
unending violence and division and blood-letting,
we have groaning need for transformation:

We cling to the mystery of His magnetism
for our weaknesses and flaws.

He willingly pulls our evil onto Himself and out of us.
Hatred and pain and shame and anger and bitterness
disappear into the vortex of His love and beauty as
the grungiest corners of our hearts are vacuumed spotless.

We are let in on a secret,
His mystery revealed:

He is not sullied by absorbing the dirty messes
we’ve made of our lives
so that our hatred is nullified.

Instead, by His Spirit
we are forever changed
and will groan no more.

 

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