God Was Here: What He Has Done

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“‘We would have healed Babylon,
but she cannot be healed;
let us leave her and each go to our own land,
for her judgment reaches to the skies,
it rises as high as the heavens.’

10 “‘The Lord has vindicated us;
come, let us tell in Zion
what the Lord our God has done.’
Jeremiah 51: 9-10

 

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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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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, trying to cling 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, self-doubt, guilt 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 not forget our crash helmets.

 

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photo by Julie Garrett

 

Good people all, this Christmas time,
Consider well and bear in mind
What our good God for us has done
In sending his beloved son
With Mary holy we should pray,
To God with love this Christmas Day
In Bethlehem upon that morn,
There was a blessed Messiah born
The night before that happy tide
The noble Virgin and her guide
Were long time seeking up and down
To find a lodging in the town
But mark right well what came to pass
From every door repelled, alas
As was foretold, their refuge all
Was but a humble ox’s stall
Near Bethlehem did shepherds keep
Their flocks of lambs and feeding sheep
To whom God’s angel did appear
Which put the shepherds in great fear
Arise and go, the angels said
To Bethlehem, be not afraid
For there you’ll find, this happy morn
A princely babe, sweet Jesus, born
With thankful heart and joyful mind
The shepherds went the babe to find
And as God’s angel had foretold
They did our Saviour Christ behold
Within a manger he was laid
And by his side a virgin maid
Attending on the Lord of Life
Who came on earth to end all strife
There were three wise men from afar
Directed by a glorious star
And on they wandered night and day
Until they came where Jesus lay
And when they came unto that place
Where our beloved Messiah lay
They humbly cast them at his feet
With gifts of gold and incense sweet.
~Traditional Irish — the Wexford Carol 12th century

 

Empties Like a Cloud

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God empties himself
into the earth like a cloud.
God takes the substance, contours
of a man, and keeps them,
dying, rising, walking,
and still walking
wherever there is motion.
Annie Dillard from “Feast Days” in Tickets for a Prayer Wheel

 

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We soon will enter the season of Advent, an opportunity to reflect on a God who “takes the substance, contours of a man”, as He “empties himself into the earth like a cloud.”  Like drought-stricken parched ground, we prepare to respond to the drenching of the Spirit, ready to spring up with growth anew.

He walked among us before His dying, and then rising up, He walked among us again, appearing where least expected, sharing a meal, burning our hearts within us, inviting us to touch and know Him.

His invitation remains open-ended.

I think of that every time the clouds open and empty.   He freely falls to earth, soaking us completely, through and through and through.

 

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A Muffled Whuff

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Out of the dimming sky a speck appeared,
then another, and another.
It was the starlings going to roost. 
They gathered deep in the distance,  flock sifting into flock,
and strayed towards me, transparent and whirling, like smoke.
They seemed to unravel as they flew,
lengthening in curves, like a loosened skein. 
I didn’t move;
they flew directly over my head for half an hour. 

Each individual bird bobbed and knitted up and down
in the flight at apparent random, for no known reason except
that that’s how starlings fly, yet all remained perfectly spaced.
The flocks each tapered at either end from a rounded middle, like an eye.
Overhead I heard a sound of beaten air, like a million shook rugs, a muffled whuff.
Into the woods they sifted without shifting a twig,
right through the crowns of trees, intricate and rushing, like wind.

Could tiny birds be sifting through me right now,
birds winging through the gaps between my cells,
touching nothing, but quickening in my tissues, fleet?
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

 

 

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Watching the starlings’ murmuration is a visceral experience – my heart leaps to see it happen above me.  I feel queasy following its looping amoebic folding and unfolding path.

Thousands of individual birds move in sync with one another to form one massive organism existing solely because each tiny component anticipates and cooperates to avoid mid-air collisions.  It could explode into chaos but it doesn’t.  It could result in massive casualties but it doesn’t.  They could avoid each other altogether but they don’t – they come together with a purpose and reasoning beyond our imagining. Even the silence of their movement has a discernible sound.

We humans are made up of just such cooperating component parts, that which is deep in our tissues, programmed in our DNA.  Yet we don’t learn from our designed and carefully constructed building blocks.  We have become frighteningly disparate and independent creatures, going our own way bumping and crashing without care.

We have lost our internal moral compass.

We shoot each other in the backs, even during school lessons or listening to music or engaging in acts of worship.  We watch each other bleed and die.

And do nothing yet again.

The sound of silence is muffled weeping.

 

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Playing to an Empty House

 

photo by Joel DeWaarda Mt. Baker photo by Joel DeWaard

 

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The Old Testament book of Micah answers the question of why we are here with another: 
“What doth the Lord require of thee but to do justly, 
and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”

We are here to abet creation and to witness it, 
to notice each thing so each thing gets noticed. 
Together we notice not only each mountain shadow 
and each stone on the beach 
but we notice each other’s beautiful face 
and complex nature 
so that creation need not play to an empty house.
~Annie Dillard from Life Magazine’s “The Meaning of Life”

 

 

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I started out a noticer,
a child who crawled on the ground
to follow winding ant trails from their hills,
then watched nests bloom with birds,
and sat still as a lizard sunning himself on a rock.

Next I was a student researcher of great apes,
following wild chimpanzees deep into an exotic forest
to observe their life in a community so much like our own.

Then came a profession and parenting and daughtering,
with mounting responsibilities and worries and cares,
and I stopped noticing any more,
too much inside the drama
to witness it from outside.

Creation played to an empty house
and the empty house was me.

Slowly now,
I’ve returned to noticing again~
buying my ticket, finding my seat,
smiling and nodding
applauding
hooting and hollering
begging for an encore.

It’s a non-stop show of the miraculous
where I’m less a player of parts
transformed to an appreciative audience
preparing to write a great review.

 

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The Pearl of Great Price

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The secret of seeing is, then the pearl of great price. 
If I thought he could teach me to find it and keep it forever 
I would stagger barefoot across a hundred deserts after any lunatic at all. 
But although the pearl may be found, it may not be sought.

The literature of illumination reveals this above all: 
although it comes to those who wait for it, 
it is always, even to the most practiced and adept, 
a gift and a total surprise.

I return from one walk 
knowing where the killdeer nests in the field by the creek and the hour the laurel blooms. 
I return from the same walk a day later scarcely knowing my own name.

Litanies hum in my ears; 
my tongue flaps in my mouth. 
Ailinon, alleluia!
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

 

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Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to.
You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see
and my self is the earth’s shadow
that keeps me from seeing all the moon.
The crescent is very beautiful
and perhaps that is all one like I am should or could see;
but what I am afraid of, dear God,
is that my self shadow will grow so large
that it blocks the whole moon,
and that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing.

I do not know You God
because I am in the way.
Please help me to push myself aside.
~Flannery O’Connor from A Prayer Journal

 

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Sometimes the hardest thing is to step out of the way so that my own shadow no longer obscures what provides illumination.  I am regularly so blinded by busyness and distraction that I lose sight of God Himself.

Surprise me, dear Lord.  Though I regularly lament in the shadows, help me lift my voice in praise and gratitude for your gift, the pearl of great price you hold out for me to take each day.

 

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As the Light Went Out

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The second before the sun went out we saw a wall of dark shadow come speeding at us. We no sooner saw it than it was upon us, like thunder. It roared up the valley. It slammed our hill and knocked us out. It was the monstrous swift shadow cone of the moon. I have since read that this wave of shadow moves 1,800 miles an hour. Language can give no sense of this sort of speed—1,800 miles an hour. It was 195 miles wide. No end was in sight—you saw only the edge. It rolled at you across the land at 1,800 miles an hour, hauling darkness like plague behind it. Seeing it, and knowing it was coming straight for you, was like feeling a slug of anesthetic shoot up your arm. If you think very fast, you may have time to think, “Soon it will hit my brain.” You can feel the deadness race up your arm; you can feel the appalling, inhuman speed of your own blood. We saw the wall of shadow coming, and screamed before it hit.

This was the universe about which we have read so much and never before felt: the universe as a clockwork of loose spheres flung at stupefying, unauthorized speeds. How could anything moving so fast not crash, not veer from its orbit amok like a car out of control on a turn?

Less than two minutes later, when the sun emerged, the trailing edge of the shadow cone sped away. It coursed down our hill and raced eastward over the plain, faster than the eye could believe; it swept over the plain and dropped over the planet’s rim in a twinkling. It had clobbered us, and now it roared away. We blinked in the light. It was as though an enormous, loping god in the sky had reached down and slapped the Earth’s face.

When the sun appeared as a blinding bead on the ring’s side, the eclipse was over. The black lens cover appeared again, back-lighted, and slid away. At once the yellow light made the sky blue again; the black lid dissolved and vanished. The real world began there. I remember now: We all hurried away.

We never looked back. It was a general vamoose … but enough is enough. One turns at last even from glory itself with a sigh of relief. From the depths of mystery, and even from the heights of splendor, we bounce back and hurry for the latitudes of home.
~Annie Dillard from her essay  “Total Eclipse” in The Atlantic about the February 1979 eclipse in Washington State

 

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In February 1979, I was working as a medical student on an inpatient psychiatric unit in a large hospital in Seattle, less than a hundred miles from the band of total eclipse Annie Dillard describes above happening just to the south.

Our clinical team tried to prepare our mostly psychotic and paranoid schizophrenic patients for what was about to happen outside that morning.

Our patients were clearly more anxious than usual, pacing and wringing their hands as the light outside slowly faded, with high noon transformed gradually to an oddly shadowy dusk. The street lights turned on automatically and cars moved about with headlights shining.

We all stood at the windows in the hospital perched high on a hill, watching the city become dark as night in the middle of the day. Our unstable patients were sure the world was ending and certain they had caused it to happen.  Extra doses of medication were dispensed as needed while the light faded away and then slowly returned to the streets outside. Within an hour the sunlight was fully back, and most of the patients were napping soundly.

We all breathed a sigh of relief, having witnessed such glory from the heavens, acknowledging we did not cause it but a power far greater did.  The eclipse swept, with its racing shadow followed by restoration of light, the edge of our sanity to accept that our light can indeed be taken away.  For some, they live their whole lives consumed by shadow.

Miraculously, the Light has been returned to us.  We may not be able to look if in the Face —  too blinding — but we need never dwell in darkness again.

 

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My Voice, Unsought

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To find your voice you must forget about finding it,
and trust that if you pay sufficient attention to life
you will be found to have something to say which no one else can say.

…that will be your voice, unsought,
singing out from you of itself.
~Denise Levertov from The Discovery of Voice

 

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At its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace. It is handed to you, but only if you look for it. You search, you break your fists, your back, your brain, and then – and only then -it is handed to you.

From the corner of your eye you see motion. Something is moving through the air and headed your way. It is a parcel bound in ribbons and bows; it has two white wings. It flies directly at you; you can read your name on it. If it were a baseball, you would hit it out of the park. It is that one pitch in a thousand you see in slow motion; its wings beat slowly as a hawk’s.
~Annie Dillard from “Write Till You Drop”

 

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Some days my voice feels weak,
as if I have said too much
and grown hoarse
choking on the smoky haze surrounding me.
I take a swing and miss,
always listening, looking, living
for that connection
that only words can make.

 

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