When the Work of Christmas Begins

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When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.
~Howard Thurman from The Mood of Christmas & Other Celebrations

 

 

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All the Advent anticipation is spent, Christmas and New Years are past and I find my energy waning just as the work of Christmas is beginning.

Instead of the Twelve Days of Christmas it should be the Twelve Weeks, or better yet, Twelve Months– maybe the lights should stay up until St. Patrick’s Day at least, just to keep us out of the shadows, inertia and doldrums of winter.

As I sweep up the last of the fir needles that dropped to the floor from this lovely tree that I watered faithfully in the house for over two weeks, I too have been drying up, parts of me left behind for others to sweep up.   There has been the excitement of family brought together from far away,  friends gathering for meals and games,  special church services, but now, some quiet time is sorely needed.   The party simply can’t be sustained.  The lights have to go off and be pulled down, and the eyes have to close.

The real work of Christmas lasts year-long — often very hard intensive work, not always the fun stuff of the last month, but badly needed in this broken world with its homelessness, hunger, disease, conflict, addictions, depression and pain.

I walk into a winter replete with the startling splash of orange red that paints the skies in the evenings, the stark and gorgeous snow covered peaks surrounding us during the day,  the grace of bald eagles and trumpeter swans flying overhead,  the heavenly lights that twinkle every night,  the shining globe that circles full above us, and the loving support of the Hand that rocks us to sleep when we are wailing loud and need it.

And I am readied to do the real work of Christmas, acknowledging the stark reality of the labor to salvage this world begun by an infant in a manger.

We don’t need full stockings on the hearth, Christmas villages on the side table, or a blinking star on the top of the tree to know the comfort of His care and the astounding beauty of His creation, available for us without batteries, electrical plug ins, or the need of a ladder.

As I take down lights and ornaments, the memory of Christmas pulls me up from the doldrums, alive to the possibility that even I can make a difference, in His name, all year.

Every day. Twelve months. Life long.

And I’m ready.

 

 

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How Do We Know?

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How do you know, deep underground,
Hid in your bed from sight and sound,
Without a turn in temperature,
With weather life can scarce endure,
That light has won a fraction’s strength,
And day put on some moments’ length,
Whereof in merest rote will come,
Weeks hence, mild airs that do not numb;
     O crocus root, how do you know,
          How do you know?
~Thomas Hardy, from Thomas Hardy: The Complete Poems

 

 

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This is why I believe that God really has dived down into the bottom of creation, and has come up bringing the whole redeemed nature on His shoulders. The miracles that have already happened are, of course, as Scripture so often says, the first fruits of that cosmic summer which is presently coming on. Christ has risen, and so we shall rise.

…To be sure, it feels wintry enough still: but often in the very early spring it feels like that.  Two thousand years are only a day or two by this scale.  A man really ought to say, ‘The Resurrection happened two thousand years ago’  in the same spirit in which he says ‘I saw a crocus yesterday.’

Because we know what is coming behind the crocus.

The spring comes slowly down the way, but the great thing is that the corner has been turned.  There is, of course, this difference that in the natural spring the crocus cannot choose whether it will respond or not.

We can. 

We have the power either of withstanding the spring, and sinking back into the cosmic winter, or of going on…to which He is calling us.

It remains with us whether to follow or not, to die in this winter, or to go on into that spring and that summer.
~C. S. Lewis from “God in the Dock”

 

 

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If there’s fire on the mountain
Or lightning and storm
And a god speaks from the sky

That means someone is hearing
The outcry and the birth-cry
Of new life at its term.
~Seamus Heaney from “The Cure at Troy”

 

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We are mere seed lying dormant, plain and simple, with nothing to distinguish us one from the other until the murmurs of spring begin, so soft, so subtle.  The soil shakes loose frosty crust as the thawing warmth begins.   Sunlight makes new life stir and swell, no longer frozen but animate and intimate.

We will soon wake with a “birth-cry” from our quiescence to sprout, bloom and fruit.  We will reach as far as our tethered roots will allow, beyond earthly bounds to touch the light and be touched.

How do we know when the time has come?

We are ready and waiting to unfurl, in response to the fire in the sky:
called by the voice and breath of God.

 

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The Long Road of Weariness and Want

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The snow is melting
and the village is flooded
     with children.
~Kobayashi Issa (translated by Robert Haas)

 

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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.
Matthew 2:18 and Jeremiah 31:15

 

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Rachel weeping – Salvador Dali

 

We think of him as safe beneath the steeple,
Or cosy in a crib beside the font,
But he is with a million displaced people|
On the long road of weariness and want.
For even as we sing our final carol
His family is up and on that road,
Fleeing the wrath of someone else’s quarrel,
Glancing behind and shouldering their load.

Whilst Herod rages still from his dark tower
Christ clings to Mary, fingers tightly curled,|
The lambs are slaughtered by the men of power,
And death squads spread their curse across the world.
But every Herod dies, and comes alone
To stand before the Lamb upon the throne.
~Malcolm Guite from Waiting on the Word

 

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And the slaughter of innocents and weary road for refugees continues unabated-
In observance of The Feast Day of the Holy Innocents:

 

There is no consolation for the families of those lost:
Their arms ache with emptiness tonight,
beds and pillows lie cold and unused,
blankets and cuddlies await all night hugs
that never come again.

There can be no consolation;
only mourning and great weeping,
sobbing that wrings dry
every human cell,
leaving dust behind,
dust, only dust
which is beginning
and end.

He came to us
for times such as this,
born of
the dust of woman and
the breath of Spirit,
God who bent down to
lie in manger dust,
walk on roads of dust,
die and be laid to rest as dust
in order to conquer
such evil as this
that could displace masses
and massacre innocents.

He became dust to be
like us
He began a mere speck in a womb
like us
so often washed away from life
as unwanted.

His heart beat
like ours
breathing each breath
like ours
until a fearful fallen world
took His
and our breath
away.

He shines through
the shadows of death
to guide our stumbling uncertain feet.
His tender mercies flow freely
when there is no consolation
when there is no comfort.

He hears our cries
as He cried too.
He knows our tears
as He wept too.
He knows our mourning
as He mourned too.
He knows our dying
as He died too.

God wept
as this happened.
Evil comes not from God
yet humankind embraces it.
Sin is a choice
we made from the beginning,
a choice we continue to make.

Only God can glue together
what evil has shattered.
He just asks us to hand Him
the pieces of our broken hearts.

We will know His peace
when He comes
to bring us home,
our tears will finally be dried,
our cells no longer
just dust,
never only dust
as we are glued together
by the breath of God
forevermore.

 

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the tender mercy of our God,
    by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness
    and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.
Luke 1: 78-79

 

 

Finding a Peace Together

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wedding

Seventy five years ago, my parents were married on Christmas Eve. It was not a conventional wedding day but a date of necessity, only because a justice of the peace was available to marry a score of war-time couples in Quantico, Virginia, shortly before the newly trained Marine officers were shipped out to the South Pacific to fight in WWII.

When I look at my parents’ young faces in their only wedding portrait, I see a hint of the impulsive decision that led to that wedding just a week before my father left for 30 months. They had known each other at college for over a year, had talked about a future together, but with my mother starting a teaching job, and the war potentially impacting all young men’s lives very directly, they had not set a date.

My father had to put his college education on hold to enlist, knowing that would give him some options he wouldn’t have if drafted, so they went their separate ways as he headed east to Virginia for his Marine officer training, and Mom started her high school teaching career as a speech and drama teacher in rural Colville in Eastern Washington. One day in early December, he called her and said, “If we’re going to get married, it’ll need to be before the end of the year. I’m shipping out the first week in January.” Mom went to her high school principal, asked for a two week leave of absence which was granted, told her astonished parents, bought a dress, and headed east on the train with a friend who had received a similar call from her boyfriend. This was a completely uncharacteristic thing for my overly cautious mother to do so … it must have been love.

They were married in a brief civil ceremony with another couple as the witnesses. They stayed in Virginia only a couple days and took the train back to San Diego, and my father was shipped out. Just like that. Mom returned to her teaching position and the first three years of their married life was composed of letter correspondence only, with gaps of up to a month during certain island battles when no mail could be delivered or posted.

As I sorted through my mother’s things following her death I kept their war-time letters to each other, stacked neatly and tied together in a box that I walk past every day. I have not yet opened them but will when I’m ready. What I will find there will be words written by two young people who could not have foretold the struggles that lay ahead for them during and after the war but who both depended on faith and trust to persevere despite the unknowns. The War itself seemed struggle enough for the millions of couples who endured the separation, the losses and grieving, as well as the eventual injuries–both physical and psychological.  It did not seem possible that beyond those harsh and horrible realities, things could go sour after reuniting.

The hope and expectation of happiness and bliss must have been overwhelming, and real life doesn’t often deliver.  After raising three children, their 35 year marriage fell apart with traumatic finality.  When my father returned (again) over a decade later, asking for forgiveness, they remarried and had five more years together before my father died.

Christmas is a time of joy, a celebration of new beginnings and new life when God became man, humble, vulnerable and tender. But it also gives us a foretaste for the profound sacrifice made in giving up this earthly life, not always so gently.

As I peer at my father’s and mother’s faces in their wedding photo, I remember those eyes, then so trusting and unaware of what was to come.  I find peace in knowing they now behold the light, the salvation and the glory~~the ultimate Christmas~~in His presence.

 

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God Is Here: The Day Breaks and Shadows Flee Away

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…the point is that God is with us,
not beyond us,
in suffering.
Christ’s suffering shatters the iron walls
around individual human suffering,
that Christ’s compassion
makes extreme human compassion
—to the point of death even—possible.
Human love can reach right into death,
then, but not if it is merely human love.

~Christian Wiman

 

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There is nothing I can give you
Which you have not;
But there is much that,
While I cannot give, you can take.

No heaven can come to us
Unless our hearts find rest in it today.
Take heaven.

No peace lies in the future
Which is not hidden in this present instant.
Take peace.

The gloom of the world is but a shadow;
Behind it, yet within reach, is joy.
Take joy.

And so, at this Christmastime,
I greet you with the prayer that for you,
Now and forever,
The day breaks and the shadows flee away.
– Fra Giovanni Giocondo letter to Countess Allagia Aldobrandeschi, Christmas Eve 1513

 

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photo by Nate Gibson of Mt Baker in December

 

Merry Christmas Day to one and all from our hilltop farm at BriarCroft

May all be well for you and yours.

 

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I make all things well,
and I can make all things well,
and I shall make all things well,
and I will make all things well;
and you will see for yourself
that every kind of thing will be well.

…And in these words God wishes us
to be enclosed in rest and peace.
~Julian of Norwich

 

Christmas Eve at BriarCroft

For years, before the birth of this Barnstorming blog, I would sit down Christmas Eve to write a (sort of) rhyming farm poem — here are several from 15-18 years ago

 

Growing up as a child on our farm,
I remember the magic of Christmas eve night,
Bundling up in layers to stay warm,
To the barn to witness an unbelievable sight.

At midnight we knew the animals knelt down,
And spoke in words we could all understand.
They worshiped a Child born in a tiny town,
In a barn such as theirs held in God’s hand.

They were there that night, to see and to hear,
The blessings that came from the sky.
They patiently stood watch at the manger near,
In a barn, while shepherds and kings came by.

Yet my childhood trips to the barn were always too late,
Our cows would be chewing, our chickens fast asleep,
Our horse breathing softly, our cat climbing the gate,
In the barn there was never a peep.

But I knew they had done it, just too quick to see!
They were plainly so happy and at peace.
In the sweet smelling hay, and no longer hungry,
In our barn, though so humble, a miracle had taken place.

I still bundle to go out each Christmas eve,
In the hope I’ll catch them this time.
Though I’m older now I still must believe
In the barn, birth happened amid cobwebs and grime.

Yet our horses nicker as I come near,
They tell me the time is now!
They drop to their knees without any fear
In our barn, all living things bow.

Imagine the wonder of God’s immense trust
For the loving creatures who were there that night.
Now I know why this special Child must
Be born in a barn, it was only right.
(written Christmas Eve 1999)

 

 

 

Sometimes it seems time flies too fast
Amid our daily work and play
We want to make each moment last
and value in every day.

A place we’ve found that time slows
Is the Haflinger barn on our farm.
As we listen to the chewing among the stall rows
We know each horse is safe and loved and warm.

Years ago, such peace was found
In a Baby lying in a manger.
Sung a lullaby of animals’ sounds
Sleeping protected from earthly danger.

We can know that peace apart
From the rest of our worldly care
The Baby’s found within our heart
A knowledge we gladly share.

(written 2000 Christmas Eve)

 

 

 

 

I walk to the barn tonight as I do each year,
Counting my blessings, knowing my flaws,
Praying for family and friends so dear,
And for each precious creature with hooves or paws.

Each horse is content and a witness to peace,
And I wish every person could know,
Sadness and worry for a moment can cease,
While patting noses down a stall row.

For once I see the sky is clear
And stars are shining bright
The northeast wind is coming near
And briskly chills this special night.

For weeks stars hid behind a cloud
Of doubt, of fear, of weeping rain,
Explosions at once so horrid and loud
The whole world instantly felt the pain.

Like stars that glow through blackest dark
Good overwhelms bad with barely left trace
All owed to a Child who left His mark
By giving Himself in infinite grace.

(written Christmas Eve 2001)

 

 

 

On a night long ago
The two traveled far
After days on the road
Sought rest beneath a brightening star.

Yet no room was found
As they asked all they could
Instead they were bound
for a cave in the wood.

In a barn dry and warm
Farm animals welcomed them
Safely sheltered from harm
And the closed doors of Bethlehem.

Where else can the birth be
But deep in a cave?
Where the heart is set free
Our lives and souls saved.

My barn, like my heart
Should always have “room”
For the Word had its start
In a manger assumed.

As your Haflingers welcome you
To their barn home today
A heart is shown what it must do–
Always give Love and Peace a place to stay.

(written Christmas Eve 2002)

 

 

 

God Was Here: Light Upon Light

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…my eyes have seen your salvation
that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.

And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. 
And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother,
“Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel,
and for a sign that is opposed
(and a sword will pierce through your own soul also),
so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.

~Luke 2: 30-35 from the Song of Simeon

 

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The Song of Simeon by Rembrandt

 

…Grant us thy peace.
Before the stations of the mountain of desolation,
Before the certain hour of maternal sorrow,
Now at this birth season of decease,
Let the Infant, the still unspeaking and unspoken Word,
Grant Israel’s consolation
To one who has eighty years and no to-morrow. According to thy word.
They shall praise Thee and suffer in every generation
With glory and derision,
Light upon light, mounting the saints’ stair.
Not for me the martyrdom, the ecstasy of thought and prayer,
Not for me the ultimate vision.
Grant me thy peace.
(And a sword shall pierce thy heart,
Thine also).
~T.S. Eliot from “A Song for Simeon”

 

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Simeon had waited and waited for this promised moment of meeting the Son of God face to face, not knowing when or how, not knowing he would be able to hold him fast in his arms, not knowing he would be able to personally bless the parents of this holy child.

He certainly could not know this child would be the cause of so much joy and sorrow for all those who love Him deeply.

That sword of painful truth pierces into our soul, opening us with the precision of a surgeon under high beam lights in the operating room where nothing is left unilluminated.  We are, by the birth of Jesus, bared completely, our darkness thrust into dawn, our hearts revealed as never before, no matter who we are, our place of origin, our faith or lack thereof.  This is an equal opportunity surgery.

It is terrifying, this mountain of desolation, all cracks and crevices thrust into the light.   And it should be, given what we are, every one of us.

Yet God is who we wait for, longing and hungry for peace.  We are tired, too tired to continue to hide within the darkness and conflict of our sin.  We, like Simeon, are desperate for the peace of His appearance among us, dwelling with us, when we can gather Him into our arms, when all becomes known and understood and forgiven.

His birth is the end of our death, the beginning of the outward radiance of His peace, and wide open to all who open themselves to Him.

Light upon Light.