A Bright Sadness: The Wonderful Invitation We Leave Unopened

When he takes it all away,
will we love him more than things,
more than health,
more than family,
and more than life?

That’s the question.
That’s the warning.
That’s the wonderful invitation.
John Piper in “I Was Warned By Job This Morning”

The warning of the Book of Job is that it could happen to us too:
everything we have strived for, cared about, loved and valued taken away.

If we are stripped bare naked, nothing left to us but our love for God and His sovereign power over our lives, will we still worship His Name, inhale His Word like air itself, submit ourselves to His plan over our plan?

I know I fall far short of the mark. It takes only small obstacles or losses to trip me up so I stagger in my faith, trying futilely to not lose my balance, falling flat-faced and immobilized.

When I’ve seen people lose almost everything, either in a disaster, or an accident, or devastating illness, I’ve looked hard at myself and asked if I could sustain such loss in my life and still turn myself over to the will of God.

I would surely plead for reprieve and ask the horribly desperate question, “why me?”, girding myself for the response: “and why not you?”

The invitation that I most don’t want to receive, scary and radical as it is, is from God straight to my heart. He invites me closer, asking that I trust His plan for my life and death, no matter what happens, no matter how much suffering, no matter how much, like Christ in the garden, I plead that it work out differently, more my own choosing that it not hurt so much.

The invitation to His plan for my life has been written, personally carried to me by His Son, and lies ready in my hands, although it has remained untouched for years. It is now up to me to open it, read it carefully, and with deep gratitude that I am even included, respond with an RSVP that says emphatically, “I’ll be there! Nothing could keep me away.”

Or I could leave it untouched, fearing it is too scary to open. Or even toss it away altogether, thinking it really wasn’t meant for me.

Even if, in my heart, I knew it was.

There are only two kinds of people in the end:
those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’
and those to whom God says, in the end,
‘Thy will be done.’
~C. S. Lewis

A Bright Sadness: A Box Full of Darkness

Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.
~Mary Oliver, “The Uses of Sorrow”

The bright sadness of Lent
is a box full of darkness
given to us by Someone who loves us.

It takes a lifetime to understand,
if we ever do,
this gift with which we are entrusted
is meant to
hand off to another and another
whom we love just as well.

Opening the box
allows light in
where none was before.
Light pouring through our brokenness.

Sorrow shines bright
reaching up
from the deep well
of our loving
and being loved.

Another sleepless night
I’m turning in my bed
Long before the red sun rises

In these early hours
I’m falling again
Into the river of my worries

When the river runs away
I find a shelter in your name


Jesus, only light on the shore
Only hope in the storm
Jesus, let me fly to your side
There I would hide, Jesus


Hear my anxious prayer
The beating of my heart
The pulse and the measure of my unbelief
Speak your words to me
Before I come apart
Help me believe in what I cannot see
Before the river runs away
I will call upon your name


Jesus, only light on the shore
Only hope in the storm
Jesus, let me fly to your side
There I would hide, Jesus
~Elaine Rubenstein, Fernando Ortega

Something Way Down Deep

We all know that something is eternal. 
And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, 
and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars 
. . . everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, 
and that something has to do with human beings. 
All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that 
for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised 
how people are always losing hold of it. 
There’s something way down deep 
that’s eternal about every human being.
~Thornton Wilder, from “Our Town”

Write as if you were dying.
At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients.
That is, after all, the case.
~Annie Dillard from “Write Till You Drop”

I began to write regularly after September 11, 2001 because more than on any previous day, it became obvious to me I was dying, though more slowly than the thousands who vanished that day in fire and ash, their voices obliterated with their bodies into eternity.  

Nearly each day since, while I still have voice and a new dawn to greet, I speak through my fingers to others dying with and around me.

We are, after all, terminal patients — some of us more prepared than others to move on — as if our readiness had anything to do with the timing.

Each day I get a little closer to the eternal, but I write in order to feel a little more ready.  Each day I want to detach just a little bit, leaving a trace of my voice behind.  Eventually, through unmerited grace, so much of me will be left on the page there won’t be anything or anyone left to do the typing.

There is no time or word to waste.

A February Face

“Why, what’s the matter, 
That you have such a February face, 
So full of frost, of storm and cloudiness?” 
–  William Shakespeare,  Much Ado About Nothing

February never fails to be seductive,  teasing of spring on a bright sunny day and the next day all hope is dashed by a frosty wind cutting through layers of clothing.  There is a hint of green in the pastures but the deepening mud is sucking at our boots.  The snowdrops and crocus are up and blooming, but the brown leaves from last summer still cling tenaciously to oak branches, appearing as if they will never ever let go to make room for a new leaf crop.

A February face is tear-streaked and weepy, winter weary and spring hungry.  Thank goodness it is a short month or we’d never survive the glumminess of a month that can’t quite decide whether it is done with us or not.

So much ado.
So much nothing.
So much anything that becomes everything.

Completely and Deceptively Rotten

“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 

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”

I am what’s wrong with the world and so are you.

Not one of us escapes the rottenness that lies not-so-deep beneath our shiny surface.  We are full of wormholes, inviting the worms of the world to eat us alive.

One look at the news headlines of the day is enough mar the most perfect surface. No one moves to save us from our over-ripening fate; we sit untouched, withering and shriveling.

We are the problem and the problem is us.

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, from worm-holes back to wholeness and on to holiness.

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.

May He pick us before the worms do. We are in this together.


Baling Twine Beatitudes

My hands are torn 
by baling twine, not nails, and my side is pierced
by my ulcer, not a lance.
~Hayden Carruth from “Emergency Haying”

Blessed are the
miles of baling twine encircling
tons of hay in our barn,
twice daily cut loose,
freed of grasses
and hung up to reuse again
in myriad ways:

~~tighten a sagging fence
latch a swinging gate
tie shut a gaping door
replace a broken handle
hang a water bucket
suspend a sagging overalls
fix a broken halter
entertain a bored barn cat
snug a horse blanket belt~~

Blessed be this duct tape of the barn
when even duct tape won’t work;
a fix-all handy in every farmer’s pocket
made beautiful
by a morning fog’s weeping.

The Secret of Who I Am

You never know what may cause them. The sight of the ocean can do it, or a piece of music, or a face you’ve never seen before. A pair of somebody’s old shoes can do it. Almost any movie made before the great sadness that came over the world after the Second World War, a horse cantering across a meadow…

You can never be sure. But of this you can be sure. Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention.  They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go next.
~Frederick Buechner from
 Whistling in the Dark

photo by Emily Vander Haak

I’m not paying close enough attention to the meaning of my leaking eyes if I’m constantly looking for kleenex to stem the flow.  During the holidays it seems I have more than ample opportunity to find out the secret of who I am, where I have come from and where I am to be next.

So I keep my pockets loaded with kleenex.

It mostly has to do with welcoming family members back home for the holidays to become a full-out noisy messy chaotic household again, with puzzles and games and music and laughter and laundry and meal preparation.  It is about singing grace together before a meal in five-part harmony and choking on precious words of gratitude.  It is about remembering the drama of our youngest’s birthday twenty six years ago today, when she was saved by a snowstorm.

It certainly has to do with bidding farewell again as we will this weekend, gathering them all in for that final hug and then letting go.

We urge and encourage them to go where their hearts are telling them they are needed and called to be, even if that means thousands of miles away from their one-time home on the farm.

I too was let go once and though I would try to look back, too often in tears, I set my face toward the future.  It led me here, to this marriage, this family, this farm, this work, our church, to more tears, to more letting go if I’m granted more years to weep again and again with gusto and grace.

This is the secret of me: to love so much and so deeply that letting go is so hard that tears are no longer unexpected or a mystery to me or my children and grandchildren.   They are the spill-over of fullness that can no longer be contained: God’s still small voice spills down my cheeks drop by drop like wax from a burning candle.

No kleenex are needed with these tears.

Let them flow as I let them go.