So Very Sublime

In a dry wind like this, snow and ice can pass directly into the air as a gas without having first melted to water.  This process is called sublimation; tonight the snow in the yard and the ice in the creek sublime.  A breeze buffets my palm held a foot from the wall.  A wind like this does my breathing for me: it engenders something quick and kicking in my lungs.  Pliny believed the mares of the Portuguese used to raise their tails to the wind, ‘and turn them full against it, and so conceive that genital air instead of natural seed; in such sort, as they become great withal, and quicken in their time, and bring forth foals as swift as the wind…’.

A single cell quivers at a windy embrace; it swells and splits, it bubbles into a raspberry; a dark clot starts to throb.  Soon something perfect is born. Something wholly new rides the wind, something fleet and fleeting I’m likely to miss.
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Whenever we have a blowing northeaster, I assumed that our snow simply blew southwest and we were left with nothing but a skiff of white here. But I was wrong. The snow and ice are sublimated, disappearing into the air as vapor.

I wish I could be so transformed, blown into something wholly new and free, not tethered and earth-bound.

Our Creator God does just that: we are so very sublime through the power of His breath.

Inexhaustible

As a bird cannot exhaust the air in the sky nor a fish exhaust the
water in the sea, neither can we exhaust the grace of the God.

~Charles Spurgeon

photo by Nate Gibson

It has always been a happy thought to me that the creek runs on all night, new every minute, whether I wish it or know it or care, as a closed book on a shelf continues to whisper to itself its own inexhaustible tale. So many things have been shown so to me on these banks, so much light has illumined me by reflection here where the water comes down, that I can hardly believe that this grace never flags, that the pouring from ever-renewable sources is endless, impartial, and free. 
Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

photo by Chris Lovegren

This grace never flags, never exhausts itself, flows free and endlessly.
And that is so– yet free comes at great cost.  Freedom can never be free.
Snow and ice melt, clouds deplete, emptying out their weight,
transfigured into something other.
There is sacrifice upstream and from the heavens.
It could and has run red, it is so costly.
Quenching our every thirst,  we no longer lie panting and parched.
Revived, renewed, transformed, grateful,
Forever changed.
Amazed and amazing, we are purchased and paid in full.

photo by Josh Scholten

Partly Cloudy

Today is one of those excellent January partly cloudies
in which light chooses an unexpected part of the landscape to trick out in gilt,
and then the shadow sweeps it away.
You know you’re alive.
You take huge steps,
trying to feel the planet’s roundness arc between your feet.

~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

After years of rarely paying attention,
too busy with whatever household or clinic or barnyard task needed doing,
I realized there are only a finite number of sunrises and sunsets left to me
and I don’t want to miss them, so now I stop, take a deep breath
and feel lucky to be alive, a witness to that moment.

Sometimes they are plain and gray
just as I am,
but there are days that are lit from above and beneath
with a fire that ignites across the sky.
I too am engulfed for a moment or two,
until sun or shadow sweeps me away,
transfixed and transformed, forever grateful for the light.

Keeping Your Face Hidden

 

 

 

 

 

Vast whisp-whisp of wingbeats
awakens me and I look up
at a minute-long string of black geese’
following low past the moon the white
course of the snow-covered river and
by the way thank You for
keeping Your face hidden, I
can hardly bear the beauty of this world
~Franz Wright from “Cloudless Snowfall”

 

 

 

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;

it’s not the lung-full thrust of the prong of arrival
in late October;
not the slow togetherness

of the shape they take
on the empty land
on the days before Christmas:

this is different, this is a broken family,
the young go the wrong way,

then at daybreak, rise up and follow their elders
again filled with dread,
at the returning sound of the journey ahead.
~Dermot Healy from A Fool’s Errand 

 

 

 

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

 

 

I am overwhelmed by the amount of “noticing” I need to do in the course of my work.  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 offered by another human being.

How are they calling out to me as they keep their faces hidden?

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. May I always look for the beauty in their hidden faces.

An Advent Paradox: Kindling a Fire That Never Dies Away

(Jesus said) I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!
Luke 12:49

 

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
and every common bush afire with God
~Elizabeth Barrett Browning from “Aurora Leigh”

 

It is difficult to undo our own damage…
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. 

~Annie Dillard from Teaching a Stone to Talk

 

 

 

I need to turn aside and look,
to see, as if for the first and last time,
the kindled fire that illuminates even the darkest day and never dies away.

We are invited, by no less than God Himself,
through the original burning bush that is never consumed
to shed our shoes, to walk barefoot and vulnerable,
and approach the bright and burning dawn,
even when it is the darkest midnight,
even when it is a babe in a manger who lights a fire in each one of us.

Only then, only then
can I say:
“Here I am! Consume me!”

 

 

 

 

Within our darkest night,
you kindle the fire
that never dies away,
that never dies away.
Within our darkest night,
you kindle the fire
that never dies away,
that never dies away.
~Taize

 

 

An Advent Paradox: A Baby Sleeps But God Does Not

God is not dead, nor does he sleep.
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
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
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

 

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

I’m dozing if I think that is all there was to it.

The reality is God Himself never sleeps.

This is no gentle bedtime story: 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.
This is no gentle bedtime story: the heavenly host appearing to the shepherds, shouting and singing the glories and leaving them “sore afraid.” The shepherds needed crash helmets.
This is no gentle bedtime story: 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.
This is no gentle bedtime story:  a family’s flight to Egypt, immigrants seeking asylum,  fleeing that fate for their only Son.
This is no gentle bedtime story:   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, tortured, hung on a cross until he gave up his spirit.

Yet he understood the power that originally brought him to earth as a helpless infant to be sacrificed, to die and rise again, to return again as King of all nations.  No signal flares needed.

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 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 who is not dead and never sleeps.

This bedtime story is not for the faint of heart — we are “sore afraid” and should “bend our anger” into His peace.

And not forget our crash helmets.

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play
And mild and sweet their songs repeat
Of peace on earth good will to men
And the bells are ringing (peace on earth)
Like a choir they’re singing (peace on earth)
In my heart I hear them (peace on earth)
Peace on earth, good will to men
And in despair I bowed my head
There is no peace on earth I said
For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men
But the bells are ringing (peace on earth)
Like a choir singing (peace on earth)
Does anybody hear them? (peace on earth)
Peace on earth, good will to men
Then rang the bells more loud and deep
God is not dead, nor does he sleep (peace on earth, peace on earth)
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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.

Dust Specks of Eden

 

 

 

photo by Josh Scholten

 

Skin was earth; it was soil.
I could see, even on my own skin,
the joined trapezoids of dust specks God had wetted and stuck with his spit
the morning he made Adam from dirt.
Now, all these generations later,
we people could still see on our skin
the inherited prints of the dust specks of Eden.

~Annie Dillard from An American Childhood

 

magnified landscape of human skin

 

 

A goodly portion of my work as a physician is spent looking at my patients’ skin.  Most of the time, it is a quick assessment of color, moisture and texture before I go on to concentrate on the chief complaint that brought the patient in.  However, skin concerns frequently are the chief complaint — perhaps as straight forward as an abrasion or laceration, or a puzzling bump, an oozing sore, a total body itch, or an ominous pigmented lesion.

I feel like Sherlock Holmes when I focus on a patient’s outer covering in magnified detail.  I assume the identity of detective, inspector and archeologist all at once, trying to discern what is taking place on or beneath a piece of dermatologic geography.

No matter what the diagnosis or the treatment plan, I’m continually awestruck by the topography of skin.  This supple landscape is made up of trapezoidal specks connected one to another, just like the soil upon which I tread.   Skin cells are in a state of constant renewal, the dead and discarded falling off to rejoin the dust from which it came.

This elaborate matrix of collagen and keratin is the foundation for our scaffolding and our shroud.

His spit provides the superglue: the rivets, the bolts and the nails that bind us together for a lifetime, creating us to be far more than a mere pile of random dust specks.