Turn Aside and Look: What Shall I Cry?

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“I alternate between thinking of the planet as home
– dear and familiar stone hearth and garden –
and as a hard land of exile in which we are all sojourners.”
~Annie Dillard from Teaching a Stone To Talk

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A voice says, “Cry out.”
    And I said, “What shall I cry?”

“All people are like grass,
    and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
    because the breath of the Lord blows on them.
    Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
    but the word of our God endures forever.”
~Isaiah 40:6-8

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And what shall I cry?

I find it very difficult to admit I am as temporary as a rain drop a flower, a mere mirrored reflection of this incredible place where I dwell.  I want so badly for it to last, I want it etched in stone, I want to be remembered beyond the next generation, I want not to be lost to the ether.

Yet I, like everyone, am sojourner only, not settled and certainly not lasting.   As a garden flourishes and then dies back, so will I.  This is exile in the wilderness until I am led back home.

Home.  Really home. No longer fading and withering.

Forever etched on His heart, held fast in His Hand,
His Word enduring far beyond my flesh.

 

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All flesh is like the grass
The grass withers and fades away.
All flesh is like the grass
The grass withers and fades away.
The glory of man like a flower
That shrivels in the sun and falls.
The glory of man like a flower
That shrivels in the sun and falls.
But the Word of the Lord
Endures forever.
~Fernando Ortega

Empty and Hollow

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Experiencing the present purely is being emptied and hollow;
you catch grace as a man fills his cup under a waterfall.
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

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I am often unprepared for the rush of challenges each clinic day brings and lately far into the night.

Each call, each message, each tug on my arm, each box of kleenex handed over, each look of hopelessness  —  I empty continuously throughout the day to try to fill the deep well of need around me.   If I’m down and dry, hollowed to the core with no more left to give, I pray for more than I could possibly deserve.

And so it pours over me, torrential and flooding, and I only have a mere cup to hold out for filling.  There is far more cascading grace than I can even conceive of, far more love descending than this cup of mine could ever hold, far more hope ascending from the mist and mystery of doctoring,  over and over again.

I am never left empty for long.  The hollow is hallowed, filled to the brim and spilling over.

 

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To Last Forever

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“Last forever!” Who hasn’t prayed that prayer? You were lucky to get it in the first place. The present is a freely given canvas. That it is constantly being ripped apart and washed downstream goes without saying.
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

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For too much of my life I have been future-focused,  bypassing the present moment.  There is always a goal to achieve,  a conclusion becoming commencement of the next phase, a sunset turning right around in a few hours to become sunrise.

There are indeed precious times when the present is so overwhelming, so riveting, so tenderly full of life, I must grab hold with all my strength to try and secret it away and keep it forever.   But it will melt and slip away from me, elusive and evasive, torn to bits by the unrelenting movement of time.

Even if I was able to take a photo to lock it to a page or screen, it is not enough.  No matter how I choose to preserve the canvas of the present, it has passed, ebbing away never to return.   I can only wonder at the present by dwelling less on the foreshortening future.

So I write to harvest those times to help them last a little bit longer.  Maybe not forever; they are too soon lost downstream into the ether of unread words.

Even unread, I am learning that words, which had the power in the beginning to create life, can bring poignancy and meaning back to my life.   How blessed to live the gift twice: not just in the moment itself but in writing the words that preserve and treasure it all up.

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Preparing the Heart: Bend Our Angers

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…the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light;
Romans 13:12

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Does anyone have the foggiest idea of what sort of power we so blithely invoke?
Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?
The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets,
mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.
It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church;
we should all be wearing crash helmets.
Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares;
they should lash us to our pews.
~Annie Dillard from Teaching a Stone to Talk

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Unexpected God,
your advent alarms us.
Wake us from drowsy worship,
from the sleep that neglects love,
and the sedative of misdirected frenzy.
Awaken us now to your coming,
and bend our angers into your peace.
Amen.
~Revised Common Lectionary First Sunday of Advent

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photo by Nate Gibson

During Advent there are times when I am very guilty of blithely invoking the gentle story of that silent night, the sleeping infant away in a manger, the devoted parents hovering, the humble shepherds peering in the stable door.

The reality, I’m confident, was far different.

There was nothing gentle about a teenage mother giving birth in a stable, laying her baby in a feed trough–I’m sure there were times when Mary could have used a life preserver.
There was nothing gentle about the heavenly host appearing to the shepherds, shouting and singing the glories and leaving them “sore afraid.” The shepherds needed crash helmets.
There was nothing gentle about Herod’s response to the news that a Messiah had been born–he swept overboard a legion of male children whose parents undoubtedly begged for mercy, clinging to their children about to be murdered.
There was nothing gentle about a family’s flight to Egypt to flee that fate for their only Son.
There was nothing gentle about the life Jesus eventually led during his ministry:  itinerant and homeless, tempted and fasting in the wilderness for forty days,  owning nothing, rejected by his own people, betrayed by his disciples,  sentenced to death by acclamation before Pilate.

Yet he understood the power that originally brought him to earth and would return him to heaven.  No signal flares needed there.

When I hear skeptics scoff at Christianity as a “crutch for the weak”, they underestimate the courage it takes to walk into church each week as a desperate person who can never ever save oneself.   We cling to the life preserver found in the Word, lashed to our seats and hanging on.  It is only because of grace that we survive the tempests of temptation, guilt and self-doubt to let go of our own anger in order to confront the reality of the wrath of God.

It is not for the faint of heart.

There are times it is reasonable and necessary to be “sore afraid” and “bend our anger” into His peace.

And not forget our crash helmets.

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O day of peace that dimly shines
through all our hopes and prayers and dreams,
guide us to justice, truth, and love,
delivered from our selfish schemes.
May the swords of hate fall from our hands,
our hearts from envy find release,
till by God’s grace our warring world
shall see Christ’s promised reign of peace.

Then shall the wolf dwell with the lamb,
nor shall the fierce devour the small;
as beasts and cattle calmly graze,
a little child shall lead them all.
Then enemies shall learn to love,
all creatures find their true accord;
the hope of peace shall be fulfilled,
for all the earth shall know the Lord.
Words: Carl P. Daw, Jr.

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Mt. Baker at Sunrise

Preparing the Heart: Ignite the Burning Bush

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Then the Lord said to him, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”
Exodus 3:5

When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.”
Exodus 20: 18-19

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It is difficult to undo our own damage, and to recall to our presence that which we have asked to leave. It is hard to desecrate a grove and change your mind. The very holy mountains are keeping mum. We doused the burning bush and cannot rekindle it; we are lighting matches in vain under every green tree. Did the wind use to cry and the hills sing forth praise?
~Annie Dillard from Teaching a Stone to Talk

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We have pushed God away, not wanting to see His fire, nor smell the smoke of His burning branches, nor feel the singe of our own eyelashes by His heat. In our fear and discomfort, we fail to listen to His voice coming from the fire. So we try to douse it by quenching our longing for Him.  We fear submitting to Him when we may be burned to a crisp.

Yet we live empty lives without Him. We cannot relight the smoldering bush ourselves; it is rekindled only by His ignition through His incarnation — God With Us invites us back to His mountain to remove our shoes on Holy Ground and face Him, trembling.

He asks that our feet and hearts be naked and vulnerable.

Only then can we can hear the wind cry and the hills sing forth praise — the  voice of God Himself is heard in the cry of an Infant.

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A Frayed and Beautiful Land

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Here is a new light on the intricate texture of things in the world…: the way we the living are nibbled and nibbling — not held aloft on a cloud in the air but bumbling pitted and scarred and broken through a frayed and beautiful land.
~Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

 

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The weather is getting brisker so the outdoor critters, some invited, some not,  are starting to move inside.  The cats scoot between our legs as we open the front door, heading straight for the fireplace to bask in the warmth rather than a cold wind.  The corgis come in from the yard for a nightly snack and chew bone, and stretch out on the rug, acting every bit like pieces of furry furniture.  And today there was another mouse in the trap under the sink.  I almost thought we were mouse-free with three weeks of none sighted and none trapped, but there he was waiting for me when I got home from work, well fed and quite dead.  He became an opportune meal for a cat too lazy to go get himself a living breathing mouse.

From nibbling to nibbled.  It is a tough world, inside and out.

Our most numerous and ambitious visitors from outside are the spiders, appearing miraculously crawling futilely up the sides in the bathtub, or scurrying across the kitchen floor, or webbing themselves into a corner of the ceiling with little hope of catching anything but a stray house moth or two this time of year.   Arachnids are certainly determined yet stationary predators, rebuilding their sticky traps as needed to ensure their victims won’t rip away, thereby destroying the web.

I don’t really mind sharing living quarters with another of God’s creatures, but I do prefer the ones that are officially invited into our space and not surprise guests.  The rest are interlopers that I tolerate with grudging admiration for their instinctive ingenuity.  I admit I’m much too inept and bumbling to find my way into someone else’s abode through a barely perceptible crack, and I’m certainly incapable of weaving the intricate beauty of a symmetrical web placed just so in a high corner.

After all, I am just another creature in the same boat.  There is something quite humbling about being actually invited into this frayed and beautiful, this complex and broken world, “pitted and scarred” as I am.    I’m grateful I’ve so far escaped capture in the various insidious traps of life,  not just the spring-loaded kind and the sticky filament kind.

So it is okay that I’m settled in, cozy in front of the fireplace, just a piece of the furniture.  Just so long as I don’t startle anyone or nibble too much of what I shouldn’t, I just might be invited to stay awhile.

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A Calling Out

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A psalm of geese
labours overland

cajoling each other
near half…

The din grew immense.
No need to look up.

All you had to do
was sit in the sound

and put it down
as best you could…

It’s not a lonesome sound
but a panic,

a calling out to the others
to see if they’re there;
~Dermot Healy from A Fool’s Errand

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We are here to witness the creation and abet it. We are here to notice each thing so each thing gets noticed. Together we notice not only each mountain shadow and each stone on the beach but, especially, we notice the beautiful faces and complex natures of each other. We are here to bring to consciousness the beauty and power that are around us and to praise the people who are here with us. We witness our generation and our times. We watch the weather. Otherwise, creation would be playing to an empty house.
~Annie Dillard from The Meaning of Life
edited by David Friend

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By the time Saturday rolls around, I am overwhelmed by the amount of “noticing” I needed to do in the course of my work that week.  Each patient, and there are so many,  deserves my full attention for the few minutes we are together.  I start my clinical evaluation the minute I walk in the exam room and begin taking in all the complex verbal and non-verbal clues sometimes offered by another human being.

How are they calling out to me?

What someone tells me about what they are feeling may not always match what I notice:  the trembling hands, the pale skin color, the deep sigh, the scars of self injury.  I am their audience and a witness to their struggle; even more, I must understand it in order to best assist them.  My brain must rise to the occasion of taking in another person, offering them the gift of being noticed and being there for them, just them.

This work I do is distinctly a form of praise: the patient is the universe for a few moments and I’m grateful to be watching and listening. When my patient calls out to me, may they never feel they are playing to an empty house.

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