God Was Here: Come to Set Us Free

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“Be patient and without bitterness, and realize that the least we can do is to make coming into existence no more difficult for Him than the earth does for spring when it wants to come.”
~Rainier Marie Rilke

Like the birds of the air flying free, we too were created to sing.  Yet too often we choose to be grounded — grousing and grumbling.

Many of us know nothing of anticipation of the coming of Christ, some of us might care if we knew, but plenty of us are ready for the whole Christmas thing to be over yesterday.

Whether we care or not does not alter that Christ dwells with us, just as the coming of spring is not stopped by a slumbering disinterested earth.

Like Mary, we say: “Let it be”, not “no, not me, not now.”

We are set free to fly and sing!
He has come on our behalf: a simple, but oh so difficult faith, like the shoot that must break through the crust of frozen earth to reach the sun, in order to bloom.

 

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A star rose in the sky
and glory from on high
did fill the night with splendor.
Came birds with joyful voice
to carol and rejoice with
songs so sweet and tender.

The eagle then did rise,
went flying through the skies,
to tell the wondrous story,
sang: Jesus, born is he,
who comes to set us free,
he brings us joy and glory.

The sparrow with delight
said: This is Christmas night,
our happiness revealing.
The sky with praises rang,
as finch and robin sang
their songs of glad rejoicing.

The lark upon the wing
said: Now it seems like spring,
no more is winter pressing;
for now a flower is born
whose fragrance on this morn
to earth brings heaven’s blessing.

Sang magpie, thrush, and jay,
It seems the month of May
in answer to our yearning.
The trees again are green
and blossoms now are seen,
it is the spring returning!

The cuckoo sang: Come, come,
And celebrate the dawn
this glorious aurora.
The raven from his throat
then trilled a festive note
to the unexcelled Señora.

The partridge then confessed,
I want to build my nest
beneath that very gable
where I may see the Child
and watch whene’er he smiles
with Mary in that stable.
~translation from Catalonian of “Carol of the Birds”

 

 

 

 

Whence comes this rush of wings afar
Following straight the Noel star
Birds from the woods in wondrous flight
Bethlehem seek this holy night

Tell us, ye birds, why come ye here?
Into this stable, poor and drear?
Hasting to see the new born King
And all our sweetest musics bring

Hark! How the winged finch bears his part
Philomel, too with tender heart:
Chants from her leafy dark retreat,
“Re, me, fa, sol” in accents sweet

Angels, and shepherds, birds of the sky
Come where the Son of God doth lie
Christ from the earth and man doth dwell
Come join in the shout, “Noel, Noel, Noel.”
~Carol of the Birds (traditional Catalonian carol)

 

We Shall Not Sleep Though Poppies Grow

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3rpoppies

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
    That mark our place; and in the sky
    The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
    Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
        In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
    The torch; be yours to hold it high.
    If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
        In Flanders fields.
~Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae “In Flanders Fields”
chelanpoppies

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
~Lawrence Binyonfrom “For the Fallen” (1914)

 

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Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. 
It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die.
~ G.K. Chesterton 
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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”
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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To our U.S. veterans–with deep appreciation and gratitude–for the freedoms you have defended on behalf of us all:

My father was one of the fortunate ones who came home, returning to a quiet farm life after three years serving in the Pacific with the Marines Corp from 1942 to 1945.  Hundreds of thousands of his colleagues didn’t come home, dying on beaches and battlefields.  Tens of thousands more came home forever marked, through physical or psychological injury, by the experience of war.

No matter how one views subsequent wars that our nation has fought and currently is fighting, we must support and care for the men and women who have made the commitment to be on the front line for freedom’s sake and for our sake.

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. It means acknowledging the millions who have given of themselves and continue to do so on our behalf. It means never ceasing to care. It means a commitment to provide resources needed for the military to remain strong and supported. It means unending prayers for safe return home to family. It means 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.

To you from failing hands we throw
    The torch; be yours to hold it high.
    If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow…
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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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A Full Circle Remembrance Day

weddingMy parents Henry and Elna Polis on their wedding day,
Dec. 24, 1942, Quantico, Virginia
He shipped out to the South Pacific front one week later,
not to return until June 1945

 

Sometimes, as a child,  when I was bored, I’d grab a step ladder, pull it into our hallway, climb half way up and carefully lift the plywood hatch that was the portal to our unlit attic.  It took some effort to climb up into the attic from the ladder, juggling a flashlight at the same time, but once seated safely on the beams above our ceiling, being careful not to put my foot through the carpet of insulation, I could explore what was stowed and normally inaccessible to me.

All the usual attic-type things were put up there:  Christmas ornaments and lights,  baby cribs and high chairs,  lamps and toys no longer used.  Secrets to my parents’ past were stored away there too.  It was difficult imagining them as young children growing up on opposite sides of the state of Washington, in very different circumstances, or as attractive college students who met at a dance, or as young marrieds unencumbered by the daily responsibilities of a family.  The attic held those images and memories like a three dimensional photo album.

My father’s dark green Marine Corps cargo trunk was up there, the one that followed him from Officer Training in Quantico, Virginia, to beach and mountain battles on Tarawa, Tinian and Saipan in the South Pacific, and three years later back home again.  It had his name and rank stenciled on the side in dark black lettering.  The buckles were stiff but could be opened with effort, and in the dark attic, there was always the thrill of unlatching the lid, and shining the flashlight across the contents.  His Marine Corps dress uniform lay inside underneath his stiff brimmed cap.  There were books about protocol, and a photo album which contained pictures of “his men” that he led in his battalion, and the collection of photos my mother sent of herself as she worked as a high school teacher back home.

Most fascinating was a folded Japanese flag inside a small drawstring bag, made of thin white see-through cloth with the bold red sun in the middle.  Surrounding the red sun were the delicate inked characters of many Japanese hands as if painted by artists, each wishing a soldier well in his fight for the empire.  Yet there it was, a symbol of that soldier’s demise, itself buried in an American attic, being gently and curiously held by an American daughter of a Marine Corps captain.  It would occur to me in the 1960s that some of the people who wrote on this flag might still be living, and certainly members of the soldier’s family would still be living.  I asked my father once about how he obtained the flag, and he, protecting me and himself, waved me away, saying he couldn’t remember.  I know better now.  He knew but could not possibly tell me the truth.

These flags, charms of good luck for the departing Japanese soldier as he left his neighborhood or village for war, are called Hinomaru Yosegaki (日の丸寄せ書き).  Tens of thousands of these flags came home with American soldiers; it is clear they were not the talisman hoped for.  A few of these flags are now finding their way back to their home country, to the original villages, to descendants of the lost soldiers.  My brother, who now has the flag, has returned it as well to its rightful owners.

Seventy some years ago doesn’t seem that long, a mere drop in the river of time.  There is more than mere mementos that have flowed from the broken dam of WWII, flooding subsequent generations of Americans, Japanese, Europeans with memories that are now lost as the oldest surviving soldiers in their 90’s pass, hundreds of them daily, taking their stories of pain and loss and heroism with them.   My father could never talk with a person of Asian descent, Japanese or not, without stiffening his spine and a grim set to his jaw.  He never could be at ease or turn his back.  As a child, I saw and felt this from him, but heard little from his mouth.

When he was twenty two years old,  pressed flat against the rocks of Tarawa, trying to melt into the ground to become invisible to the bullets whizzing overhead, he could not have conceived that sixty five years later his twenty two year old grandson would disembark from a jumbo jet at Narita in Tokyo, making his way to an international school in that city to teach Japanese children.  My father would have been shocked that his grandson would settle happily into a culture so foreign, so seemingly threatening, so apparently abhorrent.   Yet this irony is the direct result of the horrors of that too-long horrible bloody war of devastation: Americans and Japanese, despite so many differences, have become the strongest of allies, happily exchanging the grandchildren of those bitterly warring soldiers back and forth across the Pacific.  I care for Japanese exchange students daily in my University clinic, peering intently into their open faces and never once have seen the enemy that my father knew.

More than seventy years later, my son still teaches, with deep admiration and appreciation for each of his students, those grandchildren and greatgrandchildren of the soldiers my father hated and likely killed.  Not only does my son teach, but he married a granddaughter of those my father fought.  Their daughter is the perfect amalgam of once warring, yet now peaceful, cultures; symbol of blended and blending peoples overcoming the hatred of past generations.

In coming to the land of the red sun, in coming full circle, my father’s descendant, the teacher and missionary,  redeems my father, the warrior.

It is, on this Remembrance Day,  as it was meant to be.

 

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The Shadow’s the Thing

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Be comforted; the world is very old,
  And generations pass, as they have passed,
  A troop of shadows moving with the sun;
Thousands of times has the old tale been told;
  The world belongs to those who come the last,
  They will find hope and strength as we have done.
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow “A Shadow”

 

 

sunriseshadow

 

The shadow’s the thing. 
If I no longer see shadows as “dark marks,” 
as do the newly sighted,
then I see them as making some sort of sense of the light.
They give the light distance;
they put it in its place.
They inform my eyes of my location here, here O Israel,
here in the world’s flawed sculpture,
here in the flickering shade of the nothingness
between me and the light.
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

 

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A shadow is hard to seize by the throat and dash to the ground.
~Victor Hugo from Les Miserables

 

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In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe and enough shadows to blind those who don’t.
~Blaise Pascal

 

These days I find myself seeking safety hiding in the shadows under a rock where lukewarm moderates tend to congregate.

Extremist views predominate simply for the sake of differentiating one’s political turf from the opposition.  There is no discussion of compromise, negotiation or collaboration as that would be perceived as a sign of weakness.  Instead it is “my way or the wrong way.”

I’m ready to say “no way,” as both sides are intolerably intolerant of the other.

The chasm is most gaping in any discussion of faith issues.  Religion and politics have become angry neighbors constantly arguing over how high to build the fence between them, what it should be made out of, what color it should be, should there be peek holes, should it be electrified with barbed wire to prevent moving back and forth, should there be a gate with or without a lock and who pays for the labor.   In a country founded on the principle of freedom of religion, there are more and more who believe our forefathers’ blood was shed for freedom from religion.

Give us the right to believe in nothing whatsoever or give us death. Perhaps both actually go together.

And so it goes.  We bring out the worst in our leadership as facts are distorted, the truth is stretched or completely abandoned, unseemly pandering abounds and curried favors are served for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Enough already.

In the midst of this morass, we who want to believe still choose to believe.

There is just enough Light for those who seek it.  No need to remain blinded in the shadowlands of unbelief.

I’ll come out from under my rock if you do.

In fact…I think I just did.

 

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An Abstract Expressionist

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A full year passed (the seasons keep me honest)
since I last noticed this same commotion.   
Who knew God was an abstract expressionist?
I’m asking myself—the very question   
I asked last year, staring out at this array   

of racing colors-the out-of-control Virginia creeper   

my friends say I should do something about,
whose vermilion went at least a full shade deeper…
~Jacqueline Osherow from “Autumn Psalm”
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It gets out of hand — the Virginia Creeper — traveling surreptitiously from one building to the next, up trees and poles and down holes.  We don’t know every place it has gone until it turns crimson in October, shouting loudly in technicolor from the most hidden spots.  It cannot hide.
Our efforts at creeper control are meager in comparison to the Artist’s effort to brighten our world on a sullen autumn morning. What is stripped away one year reappears reinvigorated somewhere else.
The farm has become gallery, the buildings and grounds a canvas, the Artist busy painting free-form, and the audience, (yes those of us with eyes to see), stand breathless as mere witness.
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Apples Plummet Like Rain

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And then there is that day when all around,
all around you hear the dropping of the apples, one
by one, from the trees. At first it is one here and one there,
and then it is three and then it is four and then nine and
twenty, until the apples plummet like rain, fall like horse hoofs 
in the soft, darkening grass, and you are the last apple on the
tree; and you wait for the wind to work you slowly free from 
your hold upon the sky, and drop you down and down. Long 
before you hit the grass you will have forgotten there ever 
was a tree, or other apples, or a summer, or green grass below,
You will fall in darkness…
~Ray Bradbury from Dandelion Wine

 

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We are in the midst of our annual October storms complete with pelleting sheets of rain and gusty breezes.  Along with power outages and an ever-present risk of flooding, these storms facilitate the annual “falling of the fruit” from our trees.  It is risky to walk in the orchard this time of year – one could stroll about enjoying the brisk temperatures and autumn colors and be unexpectedly bonked on the head and knocked out cold.

The apples thud like horse hooves in the grass as our Haflingers race about in the cool wet weather enjoying the last bit of freedom before the winter lock up.  Apples thud like over large rain drops but without the splatter.  Apples thud after gradually loosening their hold on the sky and plummeting to come to rest on a soft carpet of green.

I recognize this call to let go,  although clinging tenaciously when buffeted, my strength waning.  Thought I fret and worry, the time must come for the pulled-forth fall.  I may land a bit bruised, but will glisten golden from the journey.

 

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Writing With Quiet Hands

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daisybuds

 

I want to make poems that say right out, plainly,
what I mean, that don’t go looking for the
laces of elaboration, puffed sleeves. I want to
keep close and use often words like
heavy, heart, joy, soon, and to cherish
the question mark and her bold sister

the dash. I want to write with quiet hands. I
want to write while crossing the fields that are
fresh with daisies and everlasting and the
ordinary grass. I want to make poems while thinking of
the bread of heaven and the
cup of astonishment; let them be

songs in which nothing is neglected,
not a hope, not a promise. I want to make poems
that look into the earth and the heavens
and see the unseeable. I want them to honor
both the heart of faith, and the light of the world;
the gladness that says, without any words, everything.
~Mary Oliver “Everything”

 

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Writing and riding with quiet hands –
a wonderful metaphor for moving forward
in gladness and astonishment
without trying to steer unnecessarily.
To feel connected without controlling,
to have faith in the unknowable
yet understand without a doubt, that it is good.

 

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photo by Joel DeWaard

 

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photo by Brandon Dieleman

 

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photo by Emily Dieleman

 

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