How Incomprehensible

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Where you have absolute solutions,
you have no need of faith.
Faith is what you have in the absence of knowledge.
The reason this clash doesn’t bother me any longer
is because I have got, over the years,
a sense of the immense sweep of creation,
of the evolutionary process in everything,
of how incomprehensible God must necessarily be
to be the God of heaven and earth.
You can’t fit the Almighty into your intellectual categories.
~Flannery O’Connor from The Habit of Being

 

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It’s when we face for a moment
the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know
the taint in our own selves, that awe
cracks the mind’s shell and enters the heart:
not to a flower, not to a dolphin,
to no innocent form
but to this creature vainly sure
it and no other is god-like, God
(out of compassion for our ugly
failure to evolve) entrusts,
as guest, as brother,
the Word.
~Denise Levertov “The Mystery of the Incarnation”

 

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We want God to fit into the holes of our comprehension exactly like a puzzle piece falls into place in the space meant just for it.

But He doesn’t.  He won’t.  The holes aren’t God-shaped.  They are ragged and changing moment by moment.

The holes of our understanding gape so large that only God knows it takes the glue of faith to bridge the gap.

Perhaps that is what “holy” is all about.

 

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Who Are These People?

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photo by Kate Steensma

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The snow piles in dark places are gone.
Pools by the railroad tracks shine clear.
The gravel of all shallow places shines.
A white pigeon reels and somersaults.

Frogs plutter and squdge—and frogs beat the air with a recurring thin steel sliver of melody.
Crows go in fives and tens; they march their black feathers past a blue pool; they celebrate an old festival.
A spider is trying his webs, a pink bug sits on my hand washing his forelegs.
I might ask: Who are these people?
~Carl Sandburg “Just Before April Came”

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There are no creatures you cannot love.
A frog calling at God
From the moon-filled ditch
As you stand on the country road in the June night.
The sound is enough to make the stars weep
With happiness.
In the morning the landscape green
Is lifted off the ground by the scent of grass.
The day is carried across its hours
Without any effort by the shining insects
That are living their secret lives.
The space between the prairie horizons
Makes us ache with its beauty.
Cottonwood leaves click in an ancient tongue
To the farthest cold dark in the universe.
The cottonwood also talks to you
Of breeze and speckled sunlight.
You are at home in these
great empty places
along with red-wing blackbirds and sloughs.
You are comfortable in this spot
so full of grace and being
that it sparkles like jewels
spilled on water.
~Tom Hennen “A Country Overlooked”

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It is simply too easy to think of others as “those people” — they are not like me, they don’t dress like me, they don’t look like me, they don’t talk like me, they don’t love like me, they don’t act like me, they just aren’t me in any recognizable way.

Yet I’m the blinded one who cannot see how similar we are.

Whether I have eight legs or two, whether I have wings or arms, whether I “plutter and squdge” or sing arias,  whether I am green or brown or speckled, there is no creature I cannot love as brother or sister.

Instead of wondering “who are these people?” I will be comfortable in this spot in the spectrum of life I’m been given, in an act so full of grace and being.

 

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The Plainest of Ash

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What a piece of work is a man!
And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?”
~ William Shakespeare in Hamlet’s monologue 

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This dust left of man:

earth, air, water and fire
prove inadequate
to quell the significance
of how we were made of dust
and the dust we will leave behind.

Only the transcendent hope
of eternal life restored
can breathe glory
into this, us,
the plainest of ash.

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We therefore commit his body to the ground;
earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust;

in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life,
through our Lord Jesus Christ;

who shall change our vile body,
that it may be like unto his glorious body…

~Committal service from The Common Book of Prayer

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What I know for sure is this: We come from mystery and we return to mystery. I arrived here with no bad memories of wherever I’d come from, so I have no good reason to fear the place to which I’ll return.

And I know this, too: Standing closer to the reality of death awakens my awe at the gift of life.
~Parker Palmer “On the Brink of Everything

 

A Faint Tracing on the Surface of Mystery

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“Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery, like the idle curved tunnels of leaf miners on the face of a leaf. We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here. Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise.”
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

 

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We are meant to be more than mere blemish,
more than a sullied spot or gaping hole on the surface, imperfect and inconvenient.
We are created as air and water and flesh and bones,
from the covering of skin to our deeper darkened cavities that fill and empty.
We are created out of Word and Silence.

We are created to weep and praise, praise and weep.

We are meant to be mystery, perfect in our imperfection.
Blemish made beautiful.

 

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Preparing the Heart: The First Song

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“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
…while the morning stars sang together
    and all the angels shouted for joy?”
~Job 38 4a, 7

God Himself tells Job the first song was sung in celebration of the beginning of all things.  We weren’t there to hear it because we were not — yet.  A joyous celestial community of stars and angels sang as the world was pieced and sewn together bit by bit.  Man was the last stitch God made in the tapestry.

As the coda of the created world, we tend to take all this for granted as it was already here when we arrived on the scene: the soil we tread, the water we drink, the plants and creatures that are subject to us.  Yet this creation was already so worthy it warranted a glorious anthem, right from the beginning, before man.  We were not yet the inspiration for singing.

We missed the first song but we were there to hear it reprised a second time, and this time it really was about us–peace on earth, good will to men.  The shepherds, the most lowly and humble of us, those who would be surely voted least likely to witness such glory,  were chosen to hear singing from the heavens the night Christ was born.    They were flattened by it, amazed and afraid.  It drove them right off the job, out of the fields and into town to seek out what warranted such celebration.

Surely once again this song will ring out as it did in the beginning and as it did on those hills above Bethlehem.

The trumpet will sound.
In a twinkling of an eye we will all be changed.
And we will be able to sing along.
Hallelujah!
Amen and Amen.

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photo by Josh Scholten

 

Praising God That I Can

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the mystery of the sea

What’s enough? Countless times I’ve watched the sun rise like God’s tender mercy to gently lift the dark blanket from the earth, and countless more times I’ve watched the sun set in such a splendiferous farewell that it must reflect the fringe on God’s robe. I’ve seen the sky define blue and endless. I’ve watched rivers run to the sea, full as life runs to God. I’ve felt the sea roll in on the eternal note of mystery and assurance.

I’ve scratched the ears of dogs, laughed at the ballet of cats. I’ve heard the cry and gurgle of the newborn, played with children, rocked with grandmothers, learned from hundreds of teachers, some of them homeless, poor, and uneducated. 

I’ve been loved and forgiven beyond all deserving, and all breath to tell of it, by family and friends and God.

I’ve been shaken, changed, and blessed a thousand times — and still — by the prophets, and by Christ. I’ve felt the touch of God, each time before I realized that’s what it was. I’ve shared in the cantankerous yet remarkable family of faith called the church. I’m conscious of being conscious and alive. And all that’s just for starters.

How much does it take to praise God? I have a couple of trips around the Milky Way past enough for that, no matter if I never receive another thing. So I best get on with it . . . and praise God that I can.
— Ted Loder from The Haunt of Grace

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photo of new great-nephew Samuel Oliver by Mieke L.

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We forget, in our ever-inward focus, we were created for praise and to give all glory to God.  We are given mouths to sing, hands to clasp, eyes to witness His wonders, forgiveness to try once again to get it right.

Even so, we don’t even recognize the touch of God.

May we, the flawed and broken, meet together today in His church as a family of faith to praise God that we are able to praise Him.

What greater reason is there to exist?

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August Burning Low

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Further in Summer than the Birds
Pathetic from the Grass
A minor Nation celebrates
Its unobtrusive Mass.

No Ordinance be seen
So gradual the Grace
A pensive Custom it becomes
Enlarging Loneliness.

Antiquest felt at Noon
When August burning low
Arise this spectral Canticle
Repose to typify

Remit as yet no Grace
No Furrow on the Glow
Yet a Druidic Difference
Enhances Nature now
~Emily Dickinson

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“…one of the great poems of American literature. The statement of the poem is profound; it remarks the absolute separation between man and nature at a precise moment in time.  The poet looks as far as she can into the natural world, but what she sees at last is her isolation from that world.  She perceives, that is, the limits of her own perception. But that, we reason, is enough. This poem of just more than sixty words comprehends the human condition in relation to the universe:

So gradual the Grace
A pensive Custom it becomes
Enlarging Loneliness.

But this is a divine loneliness, the loneliness of a species evolved far beyond all others. The poem bespeaks a state of grace. In its precision, perception and eloquence it establishes the place of words within that state.  Words are indivisible with the highest realization of human being.”
~N. Scott Momaday from “The Man Made of Words”

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On the first day I took his class on Native American Mythology and Lore in 1974 at Stanford, N.Scott Momaday strolled to the front, wrote the 60 words of this Dickinson poem on the blackboard.  He told us we would spend at least a week working out the meaning of what he considered the greatest poem written — this in a class devoted to Native American writing and oral tradition.  In his resonant bass, he read the poem to us many times, rolling the words around his mouth as if to extract their sweetness. This man of the plains, a member of the Kiowa tribe, loved this poem put together by a New England recluse poet — someone as culturally distant from him and his people as possible.

But grace works to unite us, no matter our differences, and Scott knew this as he led us, mostly white students, through this poem.  What on the surface appears a paean to late summer cricket song doomed to extinction by oncoming winter, is a statement of the transcendence of man beyond our understanding of nature and the world in which we, its creatures, find ourselves. As summer begins its descent into the dark death of winter, we, unlike the crickets, become all too aware we too are descending.  There is no one as lonely as an individual facing their mortality and no one as lonely as a poet facing the empty page, in search of words to describe the sacrament of sacrifice and perishing.

Yet the Word brings Grace unlike any other, even when the cricket song, pathetic and transient as it is, is gone.  The Word brings Grace, like no other, to pathetic and transient man who will emerge transformed.

There is no furrow on the glow.  There is no need to plow and seed our salvaged souls, already lovingly planted by our Creator God, yielding a fruited plain.

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