A Handful of Dust

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April is the cruelest month, breeding
lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
memory and desire, stirring
dull roots with spring rain…

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

~T.S.Eliot from “The Wasteland”

 

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We do not want to think of ourselves as the dust we were and the dust we will become.  We are living fully right now; we cast shadows before and behind us depending on the time of day and time of life, mere ephemeral reflections of our presence on earth.

Yet the dust we were and the dust we become is as fearful a thing as our transient shadow.

Dust so cruel~
it reminds us
of what could have been,
how life once rose miraculous
from the dead.

We are nothing but a handful of dust…
until the Creator lifts us up in the palm of His hand, and blows on us.
We breathe and pulse and weep and bleed.

We become more than mere shadow.

We are His, part of his Hand, breath of His breath.

 

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We Haste Away So Soon

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Fair Daffodils, we weep to see
You haste away so soon;
As yet the early-rising sun
Has not attain’d his noon.
Stay, stay,
Until the hasting day
Has run
But to the even-song;
And, having pray’d together, we
Will go with you along.
 
We have short time to stay, as you,
We have as short a spring;
As quick a growth to meet decay,
As you, or anything.
We die
As your hours do, and dry
Away,
Like to the summer’s rain;
Or as the pearls of morning’s dew,
Ne’er to be found again.
~Robert Herrick “To Daffodils”
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So short a spring:
today some parts of this land are in the throes of winter with blizzards, ice storms and snow drifts keeping them home-bound on the Sabbath.  There is little hope for the brave bulbs that tried to surface from the ground over the last several weeks.
Here in the northwest, we are springing late as well, with chill winds and unending rain. The daffodils have melted on the stem unable to sustain the battering while hordes of slugs luxuriate with unending voracious appetites for their petals.
We ourselves aren’t much different than these tender blooms – though we hope not to be chewed to death, we are, after all,  here today, gone tomorrow.  When bud bursts to blossom, we flame hearty with such exuberant joy, then wither until we are no more.
We are, for our brief days, a reflection of the Sun itself, just as we should be.
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His Flesh and Ours

 

 

Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.
For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him.

The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.

In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Romans 6: 8-10

 

 

 

 

 

So what do I believe actually happened that morning on the third day after he died?
…I speak very plainly here…

He got up.  He said, “Don’t be afraid.”

Love is the victor.  Death is not the end.  The end is life.  His life and our lives through him, in him.

Existence has greater depths of beauty, mystery, and benediction than the wildest visionary has ever dared to dream. 

Christ our Lord has risen.
~Frederick Buechner from The Magnificent Defeat

 

 

 

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall…

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His Flesh: ours.
~John Updike from “Seven Stanzas at Easter”

 

 

Since this moment (the resurrection), the universe is no longer what it was;  nature has received another meaning; history is transformed and you and I are no more, and should not be anymore, what we were before.
~Paul Tillich

 

 

 

 

Our flesh is so weak, so temporary,
as ephemeral as a dew drop on a petal
yet with our earthly vision
it is all we know of ourselves
and it is what we trust knowing
of Him.

He was born as our flesh, from our flesh.
He walked and hungered and thirsted and slept
as our flesh.
He died, His flesh hanging in tatters,
blood spilling freely
breath fading
to nought
speaking Words
our ears can never forget.

And He got up,
to walk and hunger and thirst alongside us
and here on this hill we meet together,
–flesh of His flesh–
here among us He is risen
–flesh of our flesh–
married forever
as the Church:
a fragile, flawed
and everlasting body.

 

 

The Darkness is Wisdom’s Way to Light

 

By these three days all the world is called to attention.
Everything that is and ever was and ever will be,
the macro and the micro,
the galaxies beyond number and the microbes beyond notice –
everything is mysteriously entangled with what happened,
with what happens, in these days.…
Every human life,
conceived from eternity and destined to eternity,
here finds its story truly told.
In this killing that some call senseless
we are brought to our senses.
Here we find out who we most truly are because
here is the One who is what we are called to be.
The derelict cries, “Come, follow me.”
Follow him there?
We recoil.
We close our ears.
We hurry on to Easter.
But we will not know what to do with Easter’s light
if we shun the friendship of the darkness that is wisdom’s way to light.
~Richard Neuhaus from Death on a Friday Afternoon

 

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So many recent killings of innocents — needless, heartbreaking death at the hands of others — people abruptly wrenched from their routine lives, their families left with empty arms and eyes filling, spilling endlessly with tears.

Such senseless tragedies, we say, recoiling and withdrawing as if we can close our ears to more bad news.  Some take to the streets to march in protest.

How to make sense of deaths that arise from the darkness found in every soul?

This is the day in between when nothing makes sensewe are lost, hopeless, grieving.

Yet we are brought to our senses by this one Death, this premeditated killing, this senseless act that darkened the skies, shook the earth and tore down the curtained barriers to the Living Eternal God.

The worst has already happened, no matter how horrific the events that fill our headlines.

This Holy Saturday we are in between, stumbling in the darkness but aware of hints of light, of buds, of life, of promised fruit to come.

The best has already happened. Happening now even when we are oblivious to its impossibility.

We move through this Saturday, doing what is possible even when it feels senseless.

Tomorrow it will all make sense: our hope brings us face to face with our God who does the impossible.

 

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The Holy Saturday of our life must be the preparation for Easter,
the persistent hope for the final glory of God. 

The virtue of our daily life is the hope which does what is possible
and expects God to do the impossible. 

To express it somewhat paradoxically, but nevertheless seriously: 
the worst has actually already happened; 
we exist,
and even death cannot deprive us of this. 

Now is the Holy Saturday of our ordinary life, 
but there will also be Easter, our true and eternal life. 
~Karl Rahner “Holy Saturday” in The Great Church Year

 

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God Scraped and Torn

 

God is not only the God of the sufferers but the God who suffers. … It is said of God that no one can behold his face and live. I always thought this meant that no one could see his splendor and live. A friend said perhaps it meant that no one could see his sorrow and live. Or perhaps his sorrow is splendor. … Instead of explaining our suffering God shares it.

How is faith to endure, O God, when you allow all this scraping and tearing on us? You have allowed rivers of blood to flow, mountains of suffering to pile up, sobs to become humanity’s song–all without lifting a finger that we could see. You have allowed bonds of love beyond number to be painfully snapped. If you have not abandoned us, explain yourself.

We strain to hear. But instead of hearing an answer we catch sight of God himself scraped and torn. Through our tears we see the tears of God.
~Nicholas Wolterstorff  in Lament for a Son

 

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“My God, My God,” goes the Psalm 22, “hear me, why have you forsaken me?”  This is the anguish all we of Godforsaken heart know well. But hear the revelation to which Christ directs us, further in the same psalm:

For He has not despised nor scorned the beggar’s supplication,
Nor has He turned away His face from me;
And when I cried out to Him, He heard me.

He hears us, and he knows, because he has suffered as one Godforsaken. Which means that you and I, even in our darkest hours, are not forsaken. Though we may hear nothing, feel nothing, believe nothing, we are not forsaken, and so we need not despair. And that is everything. That is Good Friday and it is hope, it is life in this darkened age, and it is the life of the world to come.
~Tony Woodlief from “We are Not Forsaken”

 

 

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Scratch the surface of a human being and the demons of hate and revenge … and sheer destructiveness break forth.

    The cross stands before us to remind us of this depth of ourselves so that we can never forget. These forces continue to break forth in many parts of the world now, and many of us would like to forget how in some places in the United States we treat a person whose skin is black.

    Again and again we read the stories of violence in our daily papers, of the mass murders and ethnic wars still occurring in numerous parts of our world. But how often do we say to ourselves: “What seizes people like that, even young people, to make them forget family and friends, and suddenly kill other human beings?” We don’t always ask the question in that manner. Sometimes we are likely to think, almost smugly: “How different those horrible creatures are from the rest of us. How fortunate I am that I could never kill or hurt other people like they did.”

    I do not like to stop and, in the silence, look within, but when I do I hear a pounding on the floor of my soul. When I open the trap door into the deep darkness I see the monsters emerge for me to deal with. How painful it is to bear all this, but it is there to bear in all of us. Freud called it the death wish, Jung the demonic darkness. If I do not deal with it, it deals with me. The cross reminds me of all this.

    This inhumanity of human to human is tamed most of the time by law and order in most of our communities, but there are not laws strong enough to make men and women simply cease their cruelty and bitterness. This destructiveness within us can seldom be transformed until we squarely face it in ourselves. This confrontation often leads us into the pit. The empty cross is planted there to remind us that suffering is real but not the end, that victory still is possible…
~Morton Kelsey from “The Cross and the Cellar”

 

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In a daring and beautiful creative reversal, 
God takes the worse we can do to Him
and turns it into the very best He can do for us.
~Malcolm Guite from The Word in the Wilderness

 

 

May we remember today, of all days, the worst that can happen becomes the best that can happen.
We tussle and haggle over the price of what this will cost us, but realizing it has been paid for us makes an impossible loss possible.

We are paid in full, no longer debtors.  From now on, we are freed from worry: the worst became the best.

 

 

When Flesh and Heart Shall Fail

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(Ten years ago this week, this healthy young college student came to our clinic stricken with seasonal influenza complicated by pneumonia.  His family gave permission for his story to be told.)

 

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Nothing was helping.  Everything had been tried for a week of the most intensive critical care possible.  A twenty year old man, completely healthy only two weeks previously, was dying and nothing could stop it.

The battle against a sudden MRSA pneumonia precipitated by a routine seasonal influenza had been lost.   Despite aggressive hemodynamic, antibiotic, antiviral and ventilator management, he was becoming more hypoxic and his renal function was deteriorating.  He had been unresponsive for most of the week.

The intensivist looked weary and defeated. The nurses were staring at their laps, unable to look up, their eyes tearing. The hospital chaplain reached out to hold this young man’s mother’s shaking hands.

After a week of heroic effort and treatment, there was now clarity about the next step.

Two hours later, a group gathered in the waiting room outside the ICU doors. The average age was about 21; they assisted each other in tying on the gowns over their clothing, distributed gloves and masks. Together, holding each other up, they waited for the signal to gather in his room after the ventilator had been removed and he was breathing without assistance. They entered and gathered around his bed.

He was ravaged by this sudden illness, his strong body beaten and giving up. His breathing was now ragged and irregular, sedation preventing response but not necessarily preventing awareness. He was surrounded by silence as each individual who had known and loved him struggled with the knowledge that this was the final goodbye.

His father approached the head of the bed and put his hands on his boy’s forehead and cheek.  He held this young man’s face tenderly, bowing in silent prayer and then murmuring words of comfort:

It is okay to let go. It is okay to leave us now.
We will see you again. We’ll meet again.
We’ll know where you will be.

His mother stood alongside, rubbing her son’s arms, gazing into his face as he slowly slowly slipped away. His father began humming, indistinguishable notes initially, just low sounds coming from a deep well of anguish and loss.

As the son’s breaths spaced farther apart, his dad’s hummed song became recognizable as the hymn of praise by John Newton, Amazing Grace.  The words started to form around the notes. At first his dad was singing alone, giving this gift to his son as he passed, and then his mom joined in as well. His sisters wept. His friends didn’t know all the words but tried to sing through their tears. The chaplain helped when we stumbled, not knowing if we were getting it right, not ever having done anything like this before.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far
and Grace will lead me home.

Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

When we’ve been here ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun.
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’ve first begun.

And he left us.

His mom hugged each sobbing person there–the young friends, the nurses, the doctors humbled by powerful pathogens. She thanked each one for being present for his death, for their vigil kept through the week in the hospital.

This young man, now lost to this life, had profoundly touched people in a way he could not have ever predicted or expected. His parents’ grief, so gracious and giving to the young people who had never confronted death before, remains unforgettable.

This was their sacred gift to their son so Grace will lead us home.

 

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Go This Way

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We want to reach the kingdom of God,
but we don’t want to travel by way of death.
And yet there stands Necessity saying:
‘This way, please.’
Do not hesitate to go this way,
when this is the way that God came to you.
~ Augustine

 

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We too easily forget;
we are not asked to bear more
than God endured for us.
We follow a well-worn path
bearing the footprints of Him
who has come to lead us home.

 

 

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