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

 

 

Choosing the Right Side

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God is going to invade, all right:
but what is the good of saying you are on His side then,
when you see the whole natural universe melting away like a dream
and something else –
something it never entered your head to conceive – comes crashing in;

something so beautiful to some of us
and so terrible to others that

none of us will have any choice left?

For this time it will be God without disguise;
something so overwhelming that it will strike
either irresistible love or irresistible horror into every creature.

It will be too late then to choose your side.

There is no use saying you choose to lie down
when it has become impossible to stand up.
That will not be the time for choosing:
it will be the time when we discover which side we really have chosen,
whether we realized it before or not.

Now, today, this moment, is our chance to choose the right side.

~C.S. Lewis  – from  Mere Christianity

 

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Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.”

19 And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. 20 But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”

21 Then the Lord said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock.22 When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. 23 Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.”
~Exodus 33:19-23

 

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How can we choose the right side when God shows us only His backside?  We cannot see His face as He covers us with His mighty hand – to protect us – but to see God from the back is enough to choose His right side.

For He chooses us… our fronts, our backs and everything in between.

 

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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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The Lit Bush

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I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the
pearl of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

~R.S. Thomas “A Bright Field”

 

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God:
But only he who sees takes off his shoes.
~Elizabeth Barrett Browning

 

The barefoot movement is seeing a recent resurgence. There are people who believe it is healthier and more natural to walk about outside without foot coverings, despite increased risk of cuts and embedded thorns and frostbite in the winter. These feet are callous-crusted, leathery and perpetually grimy, arguably spread out wider with less toe deformities and bunion problems. The idea is to walk lightly on surfaces, with less impact, more sensitivity, vulnerability and authenticity, thus removing the barrier between the foot and nature.

In a somewhat opposing philosophy, there have long been cultures where shoes must be removed before touching the surface of the floor inside a residence or temple, in an overt act of leaving the dirt of the world at the door thereby preserving the sanctity and cleanliness of the inner life.

And then there is what God said. He asked Moses to respect holy ground by removing his sandals. Similarly, I must remove any barrier that prevents me from entering fully into His presence, whether it be my attitude, my stubbornness, my unbelief, my centering on self rather than other. No separation, even a thin layer of leather, is desirable when encountering God.

Instead I trample roughshod over holy ground all the time, blind to where my foot lands and the impact it has, hurrying on to a receding future, hankering after an imagined past. If I might shed the covering of my eyes, my mind, my feet, I would see earth crammed with heaven and God on fire everywhere, in every common bush and in every common heart. Even mine.

Burning and burning, never consuming, ever illuminating — a bright field of immeasurable treasure.

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God Among Us: Drop Down Dew

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The seed will grow well, the vine will yield its fruit, the ground will produce its crops, and the heavens will drop their dew. I will give all these things as an inheritance to the remnant of this people.
Zechariah 8:12

Listen, you heavens, and I will speak;
    hear, you earth, the words of my mouth.
Let my teaching fall like rain
    and my words descend like dew,
like showers on new grass,
    like abundant rain on tender plants.
Deuteronomy 32:1-2

 

He hath abolished the old drouth,
And rivers run where all was dry,
The field is sopp’d with merciful dew.
The words are old, the purport new,
And taught my lips to quote this word
That I shall live, I shall not die…
~Gerard Manley Hopkins

 

We are God’s people, wandering homeless in the desert for years before being allowed to enter the Promised Land.  To us, there is great hope in the possibility of moisture coming from heaven as the bountiful gift Moses describes in an analogy for his words and teaching.   The dew of heaven becomes the representation of God’s all-encompassing Spirit and gift of grace in this and other Old Testament scripture passages.

Ultimately, God’s Word descended like dew from heaven in the form of a newborn baby in a manger come to dwell among us.   Like dew, He becomes flesh at no cost to us, to be among us freely, coming in the night, into the darkness, as a gentle covering of all things dry and dying, to refresh, to restore, to soften, to make what was withered fruitful once again.  We live again because of this Word of flesh quickening within us.  EPG

 

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Drop down dew, ye heavens, from above, and let the clouds rain the Just One.

Latin lyrics:

Rorate caeli desuper, et nubes pluant iustum.

Taking Off My Shoes

photo by Josh Scholten

Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God: But only he who sees takes off his shoes.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning

The barefoot movement is seeing a recent resurgence. There are people who believe it is healthier and more natural to walk about outside without foot coverings, despite increased risk of cuts and embedded thorns and frostbite in the winter. These feet are callous-crusted, leathery and perpetually grimy, arguably spread out wider with less toe deformities and bunion problems. The idea is to walk lightly on surfaces, with less impact, more sensitivity, vulnerability and authenticity, thus removing the barrier between the foot and nature.

In a somewhat opposing philosophy, there have long been cultures where shoes must be removed before touching the surface of the floor inside a residence or temple, in an overt act of leaving the dirt of the world at the door thereby preserving the sanctity and cleanliness of the inner life.

And then there is what God said. He asked that holy ground be respected by the removal of Moses’ sandals. There is no need to be protected from my skin touching holy ground–I must remove any barrier that prevents me from entering fully into His presence, whether it be my attitude, my stubbornness, my unbelief, my centering on self rather than other. No separation, even a thin layer of leather, is desirable when encountering God.

Instead I trample roughshod over holy ground all the time, blind to where my foot lands and the impact it has. If I might shed the covering of my eyes, my mind, my feet, I would see earth crammed with heaven and God on fire everywhere, in every common bush and in every common heart. Even mine.

Burning and burning, never consuming, ever illuminating.

Be Still

There is a basic lesson that all young horses must learn (and a fewer older horses must relearn) on our farm. It is to stand still when asked and move only when asked. This does not come naturally to a young horse–they tend to be impatient and fidgety and fretful and full of energy. If they are hungry, they want food now and if they are bored, they want something different to do and if they are fearful, they want to be outta there.

Teaching a horse to be still is actually a greater lesson in persistence and consistency for the human handler, which means I don’t always do well in teaching this to my horses and they (and I) lapse frequently–wiggly pushy horses and a weary frustrated handler. It means correcting each little transgression the horse makes, asking them to move back to their original spot, even if there is hay waiting just beyond their nose, asking them to focus not on their hunger, their boredom, their fear, but asking them to focus only on me and where they are in relationship to me. It means they must forget about themselves and recognize something outside of themselves that is in control–even if I move away from them to do other things. The greatest trust is when I can stand a horse in one spot, ask them to be still, walk away from them, briefly go out of sight, and return to find them as I left them, still focused on me even when I was not visible.

I was reminded of this during our pastor’s sermon on the book of Exodus when he preached on the moments before Moses parted the Red Sea, allowing the Hebrews an escape route away from Pharoah and the Egyptian chariots and soldiers. In those moments beforehand, the Hebrews were pressed up against the Sea with the Egyptians bearing down on them and they lamented they should never have left Egypt in the first place, and that generations of bondage in slavery would have been preferable to dying in the desert at the hands of the soldiers or
drowning in the Sea.

Moses told them to “be still”. Or as our pastor said, he told them to “shut up”. Stay focused, be obedient, trust in the Lord’s plan. And the next thing that happened was the Sea opened up. Then the Hebrews rejoiced in thanksgiving for their freedom.

Thanksgiving, as it has developed over the years from the first historical observance of a meal shared jointly between the Pilgrims and their Native American hosts, is just such a moment to “be still and know” about the gifts from our God. Yet in our hurried and harried culture, Thanksgiving is about buying the best bargain turkey (or this year the most free range heritage turkey costing close to $100!), creating the most memorable recipes, decorating in perfect Martha Stewart style, eating together in Norman Rockwell style extended family gatherings, watching football and parades on the biggest flat screen TV, while preparing for the mad dash out the door the next day to start the Christmas shopping season.

Instead–be still.

Like my horses, I need correction when I start to agitate out of “hunger”–wanting to literally stuff myself full, or out of my boredom–seeking the latest in entertainment or satisfaction, or out of my fear–feeling the threats that surround us all in the world today. I need to be reminded continually that my focus must be outside myself and my perceived needs, and to be still long enough to know God is with us though we cannot see Him every moment. I do not do well at this. My horses learn much faster than I. I am restless, rarely taking the time to be still and acknowledge God who watches, waiting for me to settle down and focus on Him.

May this Thanksgiving remind me of my need for God, and my gratitude for His patient persistence in moving me back into place when I wiggle and fret and feed myself even when I’m really not hungry. May I remember that to be still and know God is the greatest gift I can give and that I can receive.

Happy Thanksgiving to you all.