When Flesh and Heart Shall Fail

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(Ten years ago this week, this healthy young college student came to our clinic stricken with seasonal influenza complicated by pneumonia.  His family gave permission for his story to be told.)

 

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Nothing was helping.  Everything had been tried for a week of the most intensive critical care possible.  A twenty year old man, completely healthy only two weeks previously, was dying and nothing could stop it.

The battle against a sudden MRSA pneumonia precipitated by a routine seasonal influenza had been lost.   Despite aggressive hemodynamic, antibiotic, antiviral and ventilator management, he was becoming more hypoxic and his renal function was deteriorating.  He had been unresponsive for most of the week.

The intensivist looked weary and defeated. The nurses were staring at their laps, unable to look up, their eyes tearing. The hospital chaplain reached out to hold this young man’s mother’s shaking hands.

After a week of heroic effort and treatment, there was now clarity about the next step.

Two hours later, a group gathered in the waiting room outside the ICU doors. The average age was about 21; they assisted each other in tying on the gowns over their clothing, distributed gloves and masks. Together, holding each other up, they waited for the signal to gather in his room after the ventilator had been removed and he was breathing without assistance. They entered and gathered around his bed.

He was ravaged by this sudden illness, his strong body beaten and giving up. His breathing was now ragged and irregular, sedation preventing response but not necessarily preventing awareness. He was surrounded by silence as each individual who had known and loved him struggled with the knowledge that this was the final goodbye.

His father approached the head of the bed and put his hands on his boy’s forehead and cheek.  He held this young man’s face tenderly, bowing in silent prayer and then murmuring words of comfort:

It is okay to let go. It is okay to leave us now.
We will see you again. We’ll meet again.
We’ll know where you will be.

His mother stood alongside, rubbing her son’s arms, gazing into his face as he slowly slowly slipped away. His father began humming, indistinguishable notes initially, just low sounds coming from a deep well of anguish and loss.

As the son’s breaths spaced farther apart, his dad’s hummed song became recognizable as the hymn of praise by John Newton, Amazing Grace.  The words started to form around the notes. At first his dad was singing alone, giving this gift to his son as he passed, and then his mom joined in as well. His sisters wept. His friends didn’t know all the words but tried to sing through their tears. The chaplain helped when we stumbled, not knowing if we were getting it right, not ever having done anything like this before.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far
and Grace will lead me home.

Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

When we’ve been here ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun.
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’ve first begun.

And he left us.

His mom hugged each sobbing person there–the young friends, the nurses, the doctors humbled by powerful pathogens. She thanked each one for being present for his death, for their vigil kept through the week in the hospital.

This young man, now lost to this life, had profoundly touched people in a way he could not have ever predicted or expected. His parents’ grief, so gracious and giving to the young people who had never confronted death before, remains unforgettable.

This was their sacred gift to their son so Grace will lead us home.

 

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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

 

 

We Shall Not Sleep Though Poppies Grow

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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”
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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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We Cannot Find Peace

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…deeds are done which appear so evil to us
and people suffer such terrible evils
that it does not seem as though any good will ever come of them;
and we consider this, sorrowing and grieving over it 

so that we cannot find peace in the blessed contemplation of God as we should do; 
and this is why:

our reasoning powers are so blind now, so humble and so simple, 
that we cannot know the high, marvelous wisdom, the might 
and the goodness of the Holy Trinity.

And this is what he means where he says, 
“You shall see for yourself that all manner of things shall be well”, 
as if he said, “Pay attention to this now, faithfully and confidently, 
and at the end of time you will truly see it in the fullness of joy.

~Julian of Norwich from Revelations of Divine Love

 

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Today in the newspaper a whole page is devoted to the photos, names and ages of those cut down a week ago in the latest mass shooting, all victims of an unexplainable evil.

I cannot find peace in their deaths.  If I were their family member, there could be no peace for me in the ongoing anguish and despair of untimely senseless loss.  Only the intervention of the Holy Spirit can possibly change anger and grief to the fullness of joy. It can come as slow and imperceptibly as the still small voice.

I pray that those who have been hurt, who may never fully recover from their physical and emotional injury,  may come to understand how such evil may be used for good.  It is the hardest of all for our simple blind human reasoning to accept.

All manner of things shall be well – even as we weep until we are dry.

 

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A Secret Heart Broken

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…And I think
They know my strength,
Can gauge
The danger of their work:
One blow could crush them
And their nest; and I am not their friend.

And yet they seem
Too deeply and too fiercely occupied
To bother to attend.
Perhaps they sense
I’ll never deal the blow,
For, though I am not in nor of them,
Still I think I know
What it is like to live
In an alien and gigantic universe, a stranger,
Building the fragile citadels of love
On the edge of danger.
~James Rosenberg from “The Wasps’ Nest”

 

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Anger is as a stone cast into a wasp’s nest.
~Pope Paul VI

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The nest was hanging like the richest fruit
against the sun. I took the nest
and with it came the heart, and in my hand
the kingdom and the queen, frail surfaces,
rested for a moment. Then the drones
awoke and did their painful business.
I let the city drop upon the stones.

It split to its deep palaces and combs.

The secret heart was broken suddenly.
~Michael Schmidt — “Wasps’ Nest”
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It hung undisturbed the past few months as its busy citizens visited our picnics, greedily buzzed our compost bin, shot bullet-like out of the garbage can when I lifted the lid.  In short, their threat of using their weaponry controlled all our moves this summer.

This nest is their nighttime respite for a few more weeks before a freeze renders them weak and paralyzed in slow motion.  A thing of beauty outside harbors danger inside. I must not touch this tissue paper football nest with its beating buzzing hornet heart.

Let winter deal the devastating blow. As I am not in or of them, I cannot cast the first stone.

In a few short weeks, as they sleep, the north winds will tear it free from its tight hold,
bear it aloft in its lightness of being, and it will fall, crushed, broken, its secret heart revealed and all that stings will be let go.

 

 

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An Unimaginable Zero Summer

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At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.
The inner freedom from the practical desire,
The release from action and suffering, release from the inner
And the outer compulsion, yet surrounded
By a grace of sense, a white light still and moving…
{Burnt Norton}

Than that of summer, neither budding nor fading,
Not in the scheme of generation.
Where is the summer, the unimaginable
Zero summer?
{Little Gidding}

~T.S. Eliot, from Four Quartets

 

ZeroSummerE-471x630Zero Summer by Makoto Fujimura

 

“Zero Summer” imagines the unimaginable horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and yet points to epiphanic awakening that transcend human imagination at the same time. T.S. Eliot, who coined this term in his “Four Quartets,” longed for that eternal summer, birthed out of the “still point,” where imagination is met with grace and truth.
~Makoto Fujimura

 

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As a grade school child in November 1963, I learned the import of the U.S. flag being lowered to half mast in response to the shocking and violent death of our President. The lowering of the flag was so rare when I was growing up, it had dramatic effect on all who passed by — something very sad had happened to our country, warranting our silence and our stillness.

Since 9/11/01, our flag has spent significant time at half mast, so much so that I’m befuddled instead of contemplative, puzzling over what the latest loss might be as there are so many, sometimes all happening in the same time frame.  We no longer are silenced by this gesture of honor and respect and we certainly are not stilled, personally and corporately instigating and suffering the same mistakes against humanity over and over again.

Eliot wrote the prescient words of the Four Quartets in the midst of the WWII German bombing raids that destroyed people and neighborhoods. Perhaps he sensed the destruction he witnessed would not be the last time in history that evil visits the innocent, leaving them in ashes. There would be so many more losses to come, as Makoto Fujimura illustrates in his artistic depiction of the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki transcending to an epiphany of the human imagination.  And then the horror of 9/11/01.

There remains so much more sadness to be borne, such abundance of grief that our world has become overwhelmed and stricken and it seems we’ve lost all imagination for “a grace of sense”.

Eliot was right: we have yet to live in a Zero summer of endless hope and fruitfulness, of spiritual awakening and understanding.  Where is it indeed?

We must return, as people of faith, as Eliot did, as Fujimura has, to that still point to which we are called on a day such as today.  We must be stilled; we must be silenced. We must grieve the losses of this turning world and pray for release from the suffering we cause and we endure.  Only in the asking, only in the kneeling down and pleading, are we surrounded by grace.   A flag half lowered may have lost its power to punch our gut, but we are illuminated by the Light,  a grace of senses on the move in our lives.

 

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“There Are No Words” written on 9/11/2001
by Kitty Donohoe

there are no words there is no song
is there a balm that can heal these wounds that will last a lifetime long
and when the stars have burned to dust
hand in hand we still will stand because we must

in one single hour in one single day
we were changed forever something taken away
and there is no fire that can melt this heavy stone
that can bring back the voices and the spirits of our own

all the brothers, sisters and lovers all the friends that are gone
all the chairs that will be empty in the lives that will go on
can we ever forgive though we never will forget
can we believe in the milk of human goodness yet

we were forged in freedom we were born in liberty
we came here to stop the twisted arrows cast by tyranny
and we won’t bow down we are strong of heart
we are a chain together that won’t be pulled apart

 

Let the Face of God Shine Through

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photo by Joel DeWaard
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photo by Joel DeWaard

 

 

All I could see from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood;
I turned and looked another way,
And saw three islands in a bay.
So with my eyes I traced the line 
Of the horizon, thin and fine,
Straight around till I was come
Back to where I’d started from; 
And all I saw from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood.
 
Over these things I could not see;
These were the things that bounded me;
And I could touch them with my hand,
Almost, I thought, from where I stand.
And all at once things seemed so small
My breath came short, and scarce at all.
 
The world stands out on either side
No wider than the heart is wide;
Above the world is stretched the sky,—
No higher than the soul is high.
The heart can push the sea and land
Farther away on either hand;
The soul can split the sky in two,
And let the face of God shine through.
But East and West will pinch the heart
That can not keep them pushed apart;
And he whose soul is flat—the sky
Will cave in on him by and by. 
~Edna St. Vincent Millay – the first two and last stanzas of “Renascence”, written when she was twenty
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photo by Joel DeWaard

 

Hurricane Irma, a record Category 5 storm, is seen approaching Puerto Rico in this NASA GOES-16 satellite image taken at about 3:15 p.m. Eastern on September 6, 2017.

 

 

Millions of people have left their homes and possessions behind this weekend to find safe haven – a churning swirling monster hurricane closes in, mowing down whatever it touches, rendering sea and land indistinguishable, pinching East and West together and flattening hearts and souls as the sky caves in.  As with any natural disaster – the earthquake, the tsunami, the wildfire, the flood – we are reminded of our sheer helplessness before power that existed before us and will persist beyond us.

We are bounded and limited.
God is unbound and unlimited.

Our only hope is reviving our dormant faith, our renascence – cracking open heart and soul to let the face of God shine through us.
We are lifted up, not flattened.
We reach out to Him, grab hold and hang on.

 

 

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photo by Joel DeWaard

 

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