Turn Aside and Look: Heaven in Ordinary

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God sees us as we are,
loves us as we are,
and accepts us as we are.
But by his grace,
he does not leave us as we are.
~Tim Keller

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Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.
~George Herbert “Prayer”
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Considering the distance between us and God,
seemingly insurmountable to overcome,
how amazing it only takes a few words to Him,
our gratitude and praise,
our pleas and pain,
our breath hot in His ear~
unhesitating
He plummets to us;
then we are lifted to Him.Heaven dwells in the ordinary,
in our plainness,
dresses us up,
prepares us to be loved,
prepares us to be accepted and understood
prepares us to be transformed
by no less than our very Creator.
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Turn Aside and Look: Earth’s Crammed with Heaven

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The theme for this year’s Lenten series on Barnstorming is “Turn Aside and Look” — we are invited to stand, barefoot and awed, on holy ground as we prepare for the sacrifice of the Savior on our behalf, and His Resurrection.

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Now Moses was pasturing the flock of Jethro His father-in-law, the priest of Midian; and He led the flock to the west side of the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.

And the Angel of the Lord appeared to him in a blazing fire from the midst of a bush; and He looked, and behold, the bush was burning with fire, yet the bush was not consumed.

So Moses said, “I must turn aside now, and see this marvelous sight, why the bush is not burned up.”  When the Lord saw that he turned aside to look, God called to him from the midst of the bush, and said, “Moses, Moses!” And Moses said, “Here I am.”  Then God said, “Do not come near here; remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.
~Exodus 3: 1-5

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Earth’s crammed with heaven,
and every common bush afire with God;
but only he who sees, takes off his shoes —
the rest sit around it and pluck blackberries.
~Elizabeth Barrett Browning from “Aurora Leigh”

 

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I need to turn aside and look,
to see, as if for the first and last time,
a Brightness that illuminates even the darkest day.

We are invited, by no less than God Himself,
to shed our shoes, to walk barefoot and vulnerable,
and approach the dawn, even when it is midnight.

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

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To Feel the Hem of Heaven

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Your days are short here; this is the last of your springs.
And now in the serenity and quiet of this lovely place,
touch the depths of truth, feel the hem of Heaven.
You will go away with old, good friends.
And don’t forget when you leave why you came.

~Adlai Stevenson, to the Class of ’54 Princeton University

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I was eight years old in June 1963 when the Readers’ Digest arrived in the mail inside its little brown paper wrapper. As usual, I sat down in my favorite overstuffed chair with my skinny legs dangling over the side arm and started at the beginning,  reading the jokes, the short articles and stories on harrowing adventures and rescues, pets that had been lost and found their way home, and then toward the back came to the book excerpt: “The Triumph of Janis Babson” by Lawrence Elliott.

Something about the little girl’s picture at the start of the story captured me right away–she had such friendly eyes with a sunny smile that partially hid buck teeth.  This Canadian child, Janis Babson, was diagnosed with leukemia when she was only ten, and despite all efforts to stop the illness, she died in 1961.  The story was written about her determination to donate her eyes after her death, and her courage facing death was astounding.  Being nearly the same age, I was captivated and petrified at the story, amazed at Janis’ straight forward approach to her death, her family’s incredible support of her wishes, and especially her final moments, when (as I recall 54 years later) Janis looked as if she were beholding some splendor, her smile radiant.

”Is this Heaven?” she asked.   She looked directly at her father and mother and called to them:  “Mommy… Daddy !… come… quick !”

And then she was gone.  I cried buckets of tears, reading and rereading that death scene.  My mom finally had to take the magazine away from me and shooed me outside to go run off my grief.  How could I run and play when Janis no longer could?  It was a devastating realization that a child my age could get sick and die, and that God allowed it to happen.

Yet this story was more than just a tear-jerker for the readers.  Janis’ final wish was granted –those eyes that had seen the angels were donated after her death so that they would help another person see.  Janis  had hoped never to be forgotten.  Amazingly, she influenced thousands of people who read her story to consider and commit to organ donation, most of whom remember her vividly through that book excerpt in Readers’ Digest.  I know I could not sleep the night after I read her story and determined to do something significant with my life, no matter how long or short it was.  Her story influenced my eventual decision to become a physician.  She made me think about death at a very young age as that little girl’s tragic story could have been mine and I was certain I could never have been so brave and so confident in my dying moments.

Janis persevered with a unique sense of purpose and mission for one so young.  As a ten year old, she developed character that some people never develop in a much longer lifetime.  Her faith and her deep respect for the gift she was capable of giving through her death brought hope and light to scores of people who still remember her to this day.

Out of the recesses of my memory, I recalled Janis’ story a few years ago when I learned of a local child who had been diagnosed with a serious cancer.  I could not recall Janis’ name, but in googling “Readers’  Digest girl cancer story”,  by the miracle of the internet I rediscovered her name, the name of the book and a discussion forum that included posts of people who were children in the sixties, like me,  who had been incredibly touched by Janis when they read this same story as a child.  Many were inspired to become health care providers like myself and some became professionals working with organ donation.

Janis and family, may you know the gift you gave so many people through your courage in the midst of suffering, and the resulting hope in the glory of the Lord.  Your days were short here, but you touched the depth of truth and touched the hem of heaven.
~~the angels are coming indeed.

We who have been your old good friends,  because of your story,  have not forgotten how you left us and why you came in the first place.

For excerpts from “The Triumph of Janis Babson”, click here

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See You Soon Enough

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Echo of the clocktower, footstep
in the alleyway, sweep
of the wind sifting the leaves.
 
Jeweller of the spiderweb, connoisseur
of autumn’s opulence, blade of lightning
harvesting the sky.
 
Keeper of the small gate, choreographer
of entrances and exits, midnight
whisper travelling the wires.
 
Seducer, healer, deity, or thief,
I will see you soon enough–
in the shadow of the rainfall,
 
in the brief violet darkening a sunset —
but until then I pray watch over him
as a mountain guards its covert ore
 
and the harsh falcon its flightless young.
~Dana Gioia “The Prayer” (written in memory of his infant son who died of SIDS)
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When we think of those who wait for us on the other side,
and who we will wait for when it comes our time,
I know there is One who watches over all these reunions,
knowing the moment when our fractured hearts
heal whole once again.
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Preparing the Heart: A Wretched World Blurred Soft

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In time,
the sons of men filled the earth
with their evil deeds.
And God beheld the desolate wastes
the soiled streets
the bitter brown of barren fields
and the sin of the world
cut him to the heart.

“I will blot from the earth
the memory of these things.
Behold, I will make all things new!”
So he gathered up clouds
from the four corners of the sky,
billows pregnant with promise.
He gathered them in great, dark piles
on the horizon of hills
while the weathermen watched
grandmothers gazed
schoolchildren pressed their noses against the glass.

And God said,
“Let there be snow.”

First, small white flakes
like lace, drifting.

Then—wind
driving snow before it, a blizzard
hiding hills from view
(and the tops of church steeples
and street lights, too).

 For forty days
the land was covered in white,
the wretched lines of a wretched world
blurred soft overnight—
buried, forgotten
as God birthed grace upon the earth.
~Sara Arthur “Advent in Michigan”

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I wish one
could press snowflakes
in a book
like flowers.
~James Schuyler from “February 13, 1975”

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…Then how his muffled armies move in all night
And we wake and every road is blockaded
Every hill taken and every farm occupied
And the white glare of his tents is on the ceiling.
And all that dull blue day and on into the gloaming
We have to watch more coming.

Then everything in the rubbish-heaped world
Is a bridesmaid at her miracle.
Dunghills and crumbly dark old barns are bowed in the chapel of her sparkle.
The gruesome boggy cellars of the wood
Are a wedding of lace
Now taking place.
~Ted Hughes from “Snow and Snow”

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Out of the bosom of the Air,
      Out of the cloud-folds of her garments shaken,
Over the woodlands brown and bare,
      Over the harvest-fields forsaken,
            Silent, and soft, and slow
            Descends the snow.
         The troubled sky reveals
         The grief it feels…
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow from “Snow-flakes”

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I’m roused by faint glow
between closed slats
of window blinds
at midnight

The bedroom suffused
in ethereal light
from a moonless sky
as a million tiny stars fall silent

The snow lights all that is broken,
settling gently while
tucking in the downy corners
of a snowflake comforter

as heaven comes down to
plump the pillows,
cushion the landscape,
soften the wretched,
illuminate the heart.

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Tattered and Tumbling

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The rain and the wind, the wind and the rain —
They are with us like a disease:
They worry the heart,
they work the brain,
As they shoulder and clutch at the shrieking pane,
And savage the helpless trees.
What does it profit a man to know
These tattered and tumbling skies
A million stately stars will show,
And the ruining grace of the after-glow
And the rush of the wild sunrise?
~William Ernest Henley from “The Rain and the Wind”
 
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Yesterday a heavy rain
darkened a sodden gray dawn
when unbidden, a sudden gust
ripped loose remaining leaves
and sent them spinning,
swirling earthbound
in yellow clouds.

The battering of rain and wind
left no doubt
summer is done for good —
the past is past.

I hunker through the turbulence,
tattered and tumbling,
and await a clear night for
heaven to empty itself into
a fragile crystalline dawn.

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Between Known and Unknown

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photo by Harry Rodenberger

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Though I have never caught the word
Of God from any calling bird,
I hear all that the ancients heard.
 
Though I have seen no deity
Enter or leave a twilit tree,
I see all that the seers see.
 
A common stone can still reveal
Something not stone, not seen, yet real.
What may a common stone conceal?
 
Nothing is far that once was near.
Nothing is hid that once was clear.
Nothing was God that is not here.
 
Here is the bird, the tree, the stone.
Here in the sun I sit alone
Between the known and the unknown.
~Robert Francis “Nothing is Far”
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Heaven and earth are only three feet apart,
but in the thin places that distance is even smaller.
A thin place is where the veil that separates heaven and earth is lifted
and one is able to receive a glimpse of the glory of God.
~Celtic saying
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A few times
in a few places
I have felt like I can almost reach out
and touch heaven
~His glory is that close~
but too soon I pull back,
put my hand back in my pocket,
rock back on my heels,
balancing barely
between the known
and the unknown.
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