Turn Aside and Look: Full of Darkness

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photo by Josh Scholten

 

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”

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

Turn Aside and Look: Piercing What is Dead

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I saw that a yellow crocus bud had pierced
a dead oak leaf, then opened wide. How strong
its appetite for the luxury of the sun!
~Jane Kenyon from Otherwise: New and Selected Poems

 

Our appetite is strong for light and warmth.  Our desire is to defeat death, to pierce through the decay and flourish among the living, opening wide our face to the luxury of grace freely given.

We need only follow the pathway out of darkness.  We need only follow the Son as he leads the way.

Turn Aside and Look: Wounds Undressed

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Out into the sun,
After the frightful operation.
She lies back, wounds undressed to the sun,
To be healed,
Sheltered from the sneapy chill creeping North wind,
Leans back, eyes closed, exhausted, smiling
Into the sun. Perhaps dozing a little.
While we sit, and smile, and wait, and know
She is not going to die.
~Ted Hughes from “March Morning Unlike Others”

Winter, that dying to self, is last summer’s fruit lying rotted when once it was sweet and firm. There seems no hope, no chance of life renewed, only gaping wounds covered and festering.

Mysterious and unexpected, the sun breaks through the clouds, the breezes hint of warmth and blossom scent, the birds dare to sing, the stone rolls back a crack, allowing the light to flood in where darkness once reigned.

We wait and know our wounds will be opened, cleaned and healed; there is no death this day, only beginnings, no more death forever, only life everlasting.

Turn Aside and Look: To Raise Our Voices

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The Pacific Northwest is a part of North America where the seasons are more subtle than other regions experience. We go from frozen to thawed to frozen to thawed all in the course of a few weeks as winter transitions to spring. Right now we have day time temperatures rising to the 50s but freezing at night with thick frost in the mornings.

This must be tough on the plants and animals that are trying to decide just which way the seasons are going. I know that my daffodil and tulip bulbs pushed their stems hurriedly from the ground a few weeks ago during a warm spell, but then as we fell back to colder days, they stood still, not gaining any height, probably reconsidering their hasty growth as they were nipped by frost. Our Haflingers started blowing coat too, but then needed it badly over the last few nights, probably wishing I’d glue those clumps of hair back on their bodies rather than piling it outside for the birds to grab for nesting material.

A long awaited yet familiar sound greeted me last night as I headed to the barn to do chores on a particularly balmy evening. The echo song of the Pacific Chorus Frogs filled the air, rising from the woods and wetlands that surround our farm. I stood still for a moment to soak up that first song that heralds spring–a certainty that the muddy marshes were thawed enough to invite the frogs out of their sleep and start their courting rituals. Winter cannot return anytime soon with any seriousness now. A frog’s version of Handel’s Messiah in the swamp–Hallelujah!

In the early mornings when I go to do chores I’m hearing bird song that has been absent for months. It used to be the only sound from the air were the Canadian geese and trumpeter swans honking as they’d fly over head, and occasionally a flock of seagulls flying inland for the day to feed in the old cornfields. Now there is an orchestra of songs from all around–Vivaldi in birdsong.

I know all the behaviorist theories about frog chorus and bird song being all about territoriality –the “I’m here and you’re not” view of the animal kingdom’s staking their claims. Knowing that theory somehow distorts the cheer I feel when I hear these songs. I want the frogs and birds to be singing out of the sheer joy of living and instead they are singing to defend their piece of earth.

Then I remember, that’s not so different from people. Our voices tend to be loudest when we are insistently territorial: our point of view above all others. I’m not sure anyone enjoys that cacophony in the same way I enjoy listening to the chorus of frogs at night or birdsong in the morning.

People are most harmonic when we choose to listen. Instead of sounding off, we should soak up. Instead of shouting “stay away–this is mine~”, we should sit expectant and grateful.

Perhaps that is why the most beloved human choruses are derived from prayers and praise. Singing out in joy rather than in warning others away.

I’ll try to remember this when I get into my “territorial” mode. I don’t bring joy to the listener nor to myself. When it comes right down to it, all that noise I make is nothing more than croaking in a smelly mucky swamp.

I hope we can all raise our voices above the mud, with clarity and hope. Then we’ll truly celebrate that new life has begun.

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Turn Aside and Look: Cleaning Up the Mess

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It is not only prayer that gives God glory,
but work.
Smiting on an anvil, sawing a beam,
whitewashing a wall, driving horses,
sweeping, scouring,
everything gives God some glory
if being in his grace you do it as your duty.
To lift up the hands in prayer gives God glory,
but a man with a dungfork in his hand,
a woman with a slop pail,
give Him glory, too.
God is so great
that all things give Him glory
if you mean that they should.
~Gerard Manley Hopkins

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Thanks in large part to how messy we humans are, this world is a grimy place.   As an act of worship, we keep cleaning up after ourselves.  The hands that clean the toilets, scrub the floors, carry the bedpans, pick up the garbage might as well be clasped in prayer–it is in such mundane tasks God is glorified.

I spend an hour every day carrying dirty buckets and wielding a pitchfork because it is my way of restoring order to the disorder inherent in human life.  It is with gratitude that I’m able to pick up one little corner of my world, making stall beds tidier for our farm animals by mucking up their messes and in so doing, I’m cleaning up a piece of me at the same time.

I never want to forget the mess I’m in and the mess I am.  I never want to forget to clean up after myself.  I never want to feel it is a mere and mundane chore to worship with dungfork and slop pail in hand.

It is my privilege to work.  It is His gift to me.

It is Grace who has come alongside me, pitching the muck and carrying the slop when I am too weary, and most amazing of all, cleans me up as well.

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Farmer with a pitchfork by Winslow Homer
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Photo of Aaron Janicki haying with his Oberlander team in Skagit County courtesy of Tayler Rae

 

Turn Aside and Look: To Move a Stone

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I owned a slope full of stones.
Like buried pianos they lay in the ground…

What bond have I made with the earth,
having worn myself against it? It is a fatal singing
I have carried with me out of that day.
The stones have given me music
that figures for me their holes in the earth
and their long lying in them dark.
They have taught me the weariness that loves the ground,
and I must prepare a fitting silence.
~Wendell Berry from “The Stones”

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What does it take to move a stone?
When it is an effort to till the untillable,
creating a place where simple seed can drop,
be covered and sprout and thrive,
it takes muscle and sweat and blisters and tears.

What does it take to move a stone?
When it is a day when no one speaks out of fear,
the silent will be moved to cry out the truth,
heard and known and never forgotten.

What does it take to move a stone?
When all had given up,
gone behind locked doors in grief,
and two came to tend the dead,
but there was no dead to tend.

Only a gaping hole left
Only an empty tomb
Only a weeping weary silence
broken by Love calling us
and we turn aside to greet Him
as if hearing our name for the first time.

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a stone pinecone, environmental art by Andy Goldsworthy, rural Scotland

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Turn Aside and Look: Fields of Our Hearts

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Now the green blade rises from the buried grain,
Wheat that in the dark earth many years has lain;
Love lives again, that with the dead has been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.

When our hearts are saddened, grieving or in pain,
By Your touch You call us back to life again;
Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.
~John Crum from The Oxford Book of Carols

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Over the last several weeks, roots have become shoots and their green blades are rising chaotically, uneven and awkward like a bad haircut.  And like a bad haircut, another two weeks will make all the difference — sprouts will cover all the bare earth, breaking through crusted mud to create a smooth carpet of green.

There is nothing more hopeful than the barren made fruitful, the ugly made beautiful, the dead made alive.

The fields of our broken hearts recover; love is come again.

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