A Time to Take Off Your Shoes

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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.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning

 

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Yesterday, on a beautiful Sabbath evening, some fifty folks spent a few hours here on our farm for worship and potluck for this summer’s first of our Wiser Lake Chapel’s long-running “outdoor church” tradition at various farms in our county.   Over the many years we have hosted this wonderful gathering of our church body, we have met up on our farm’s hill pasture and also under the shade of our front yard walnut trees.  As lovely as it is to meet on the hill with so many vistas and views, there are many manure piles and mole hills lying in wait to sully the bare toes of our active church kids.

Indeed, our children are more apt than the grown ups to follow the instruction of the Lord when He told Moses:

Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.

There have long been cultures where shoes are to be removed before touching the surface of the floor inside a residence or temple in an intentional act of leaving the dirt of the world at the door to preserve the sanctity and cleanliness of the inner life.

Yet we as Christians wear shoes into church every Sunday, having walked in muck and mire of one sort or another all week. We try our best to clean up for Sunday, but we track in the detritus of our lives when we come to sit in the pews. Rather than leave it at the door, it comes right in with us, not exactly hidden and sometimes downright stinky. That is when we are in obvious need for a good washing, shoes, feet, soul and all, and that is exactly why we  need to worship together as a church family in need of cleansing, whether indoors or outdoors.

Jesus Himself demonstrated our need for a wash-up on the last night of His life, soaking the dusty feet of His disciples.

And then there is what God said. He asked that holy ground be respected by the removal of our sandals. We must remove any barrier that prevents us from entering fully into His presence, whether it be our attitude, our stubbornness, our unbelief, or our constant centering on self rather than other.

No separation, even a thin layer of leather, is desirable when encountering God.

We trample roughshod over holy ground all the time, blind to where our feet land and the impact they leave behind. Perhaps by shedding the covering of our eyes, our minds, and our feet, we would see earth crammed with heaven and God on fire everywhere, in every common bush and in every common heart.

So we may see.
So we may listen.
So we may feast together.
So we remove our sandals so our bare feet may touch His holy ground.

 

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Thank you to Bette Vander Haak and Kerry Garrett for sharing their pictures of outdoor church on our farm.

 

 

Shortcake With Soul

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A cobbler is shortcake with a soul…
~Edna Ferber

 

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Just when it has seemed I couldn’t bear
one more friend
waking with a tumor, one more maniac

with a perfect reason, often a sweetness
has come
and changed nothing in the world

except the way I stumbled through it,
for a while lost
in the ignorance of loving

someone or something, the world shrunk
to mouth-size,
hand-size, and never seeming small.

I acknowledge there is no sweetness
that doesn’t leave a stain,
no sweetness that’s ever sufficiently sweet.

Often a sweetness comes
as if on loan, stays just long enough

to make sense of what it means to be alive,
then returns to its dark
source. As for me, I don’t care

where it’s been, or what bitter road
it’s traveled
to come so far, to taste so good.
~Stephen Dunn from “Sweetness”

 

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Even when the softness of sunset lingers long
with residual stains of dappled cobbler clouds
lasting long to the sweetness of next day’s dawn,
I’m reminded to “remember this, this moment, this feeling”~

I realize that it will be lost, slipping away from me
in mere moments, a sacramental fading with time.
I can barely remember the sweetness of its taste,
so what’s left is the mere stain of its loss.

Walking this life’s cobbled path,
only guessing where it leads,
I ponder the messy sweetness
of today’s helping of soulful shortcake,
treasure it up, stains and all,
knowing I could never miss it
if I didn’t taste and savor it to begin with.

 

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Yelling for Joy

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Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
~Gerard Manley Hopkins from “God’s Grandeur”
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– let me yell for joy at what I have been given,
at the blessedness that I have been afforded,
at the long seasons of grace
you have spun out for me
in a great summer taffy of a life.

~A.G. Harmon from patheos.com

 

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What is all this juice and all this joy?
~Gerard Manley Hopkins from “Spring”

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These summer mornings I awake in a Gerard Manley Hopkins landscape~
the young poet priest combined words in suspended rhythm,
recreating the world found outside our windows
entirely in our minds even when our eyes are closed.

What is this taffy-stretched joy I feel when witnessing
what must have moved him to write?
What can be more powerful
than words that awaken in us dawn’s redeeming light?

 

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Lift the Farm Like a Lid

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Straws like tame lightnings lie about the grass
And hang zigzag on hedges. Green as glass
The water in the horse-trough shines.
Nine ducks go wobbling by in two straight lines.

A hen stares at nothing with one eye,
Then picks it up. Out of an empty sky
A swallow falls and, flickering through
The barn, dives up again into the dizzy blue.

I lie, not thinking, in the cool, soft grass,
Afraid of where a thought might take me – as
This grasshopper with plated face
Unfolds his legs and finds himself in space.

Self under self, a pile of selves I stand
Threaded on time, and with metaphysic hand
Lift the farm like a lid and see
Farm within farm, and in the centre, me.
~Norman MacCaig “Summer Farm”

 

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photo by Bette Vander Haak

 

Most of my life, a barn has stood a few dozen yards from my back door. As a small child, I learned to ride a tricycle on the wooden planks of the chicken coop, sat on the bony back of a Guernsey cow while my father milked by hand, found new litters of kittens in cobweb-filled hideaways, and leaped with abandon into stacks of loose hay in a massive loft.

As a young girl, I preferred to clean stalls rather than my bedroom. The acoustics in the barn were first rate for singing loud and the horses and cows never covered their ears, although the dog would usually howl. A hay loft was the perfect spot for hiding a writing journal and reading books. It was a place for quiet contemplation and sometimes fervent prayer when I was worried: a sanctuary for turbulent adolescence.

Through college and medical training, I managed to live over twelve years in the city without access to a barn or the critters that lived inside. I searched for plenty of surrogate retreats: the library stacks, empty chapels within the hospitals I worked, even a remote mountainous wildlife refuge in central Africa.

It is hard to ignore one’s genetic destiny to struggle as a steward of the land through the challenges of economics and weather. My blood runs with DNA of wheat and lentil growers, loggers, cattle ranchers, dairy farmers, work horse teamsters, and flower and vegetable gardeners. A farm eventually called me to come back home and so I heeded over thirty years ago, along with a husband from a dairy farming background himself, and eventually there followed three children, now grown and flown far from the farm.

Like a once sturdily built barn now sagging and leaning, I too am buffeted by the gales of mid-life. My doors have been flung open wide, my roof/lid lifted and pulled off, at times leaving me reeling. More and more now I need restoration, renewal and reconciliation. And so I set to work to fix up my life with all the skill I can muster: setting things right where they’ve been upended, painting a fresh coat where chipped and dulled, shoring up rotted foundations.

If only I can get it done well enough, with sufficient perseverance, I surely can recover from the latest blow. But my hard work and determination is not enough. It is never enough. I am never finished.

The only true sanctuary isn’t found in a weather-beaten barn of rough-hewn old growth timbers vulnerable to the winds of life.

The barnstorming must happen within me, in the depths of my soul, comforted only by the encompassing and salvaging arms of God.

There I am held, transformed and restored, grateful beyond measure.

 

 

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To Dwell in Sovereign Barns

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photo by Nate Gibson

 

The grass so little has to do,—    
A sphere of simple green,   
With only butterflies to brood,
And bees to entertain, 
    
And stir all day to pretty tunes        
The breezes fetch along,
And hold the sunshine in its lap   
And bow to everything; 
    
And thread the dews all night, like pearls,
And make itself so fine,—            
A duchess were too common 
For such a noticing.   
    
And even when it dies, to pass    
In odors so divine,    
As lowly spices gone to sleep,        
Or amulets of pine.    
    
And then to dwell in sovereign barns,    
And dream the days away,— 
The grass so little has to do,
I wish I were a hay!
~Emily Dickinson

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This is the week of the year our barn is at its emptiest, right before it fills up again. There is something very lonely about a barn completely empty of its hay stores.

Its hollow interior echoes with a century of farmers’ voices:
soothing an upset cow during a difficult milking,
uncovering a litter of kittens high in a hay loft,
shouting orders to a steady workhorse,
singing a soft hymn while cleaning stalls,
startling out loud as a barn owl or bat flies low overhead.

The dust motes lazily drift by in the twilight, seemingly forever suspended above the straw covered wood floor, floating protected from the cooling evening breezes.

There is no heart beat left in an empty barn. It is in full arrest, all life blood drained out, vital signs flat lined. I can hardly bear to go inside.

The weather is cooperating so the grass was cut two days ago.  Today it will be tossed about on the field to dry in a process called “tedding”, then tomorrow raked into windrows and baled for pick up by our “family and friends” hay crew.

Suddenly, the barn is shocked back to a pulse, with the throb of voices, music blaring, dust and pollen flying chaotically, the rattle of the electric “elevator” hauling bales from wagon to loft, the grunts and groans of the crew as they heft and heave the bales into place in the stack. This often goes on late into the night, the barn ablaze with lights, the barnyard buzzing with excitement and activity. It almost looks as if it is on fire.

Vital signs measurable, rhythm restored, volume depletion reversed, prognosis good for another year.

A healthy rhythm is elusive in this modern age of full time jobs off the farm, necessitating careful coordination with the schedule of the farmer who cuts and bales for many neighbors all within the same window of good weather. The farmer races his equipment from field to field, swooping around with a goliath tractor taking 12 foot swaths, raising dust clouds, and then on to the next job. It is so unlike the rhythm of a century ago when a horse drawn mower cut the tall grass in a gentle four foot swath, with a pulsing shh shh shh shh shh shh tempo that could be heard stretching across the fields. It is an unfamiliar sound today, the almost-silence of no motor at all, just the jingle of the harness and the mower blades slicing back and forth as the team pulls the equipment down the field. We’ve lost the peacefulness of a team of horses at work, necessitating a slower pace and the need to stop at the end of a row for a breather.

The old barn will be resuscitated once again. Its floor will creak with the weight of the hay bales, the walls will groan with the pressure of stacks. The missing shingles on the roof will be replaced and the doors locked tight against the winter winds. But it will be breathing on its own, having needed only a short rest these last few weeks.

Inside, once again, filled to the brim, life is held tight by twine, just waiting to be released.

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Photo of Aaron Janicki raking hay with his Oberlander team in Skagit County courtesy of Tayler Rae

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A Patch of God Light

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Any patch of sunlight in a wood will show you something about the sun which you could never get from reading books on astronomy.
These pure and spontaneous pleasures are ‘patches of Godlight’ in the woods of our experience.

~C.S. Lewis

 

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A solstice moment
when light replaces
where darkness thrives:
there is a wounding
that tears us open,
cleaving us,
so joy can enter the cracks
that hurt the most.

 

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A Twittering World

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Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning…

…Not here
Not here the darkness, in this twittering world.
~T. S Eliot from Burnt Norton (1936) part of Four Quartets

 

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Eliot didn’t have birds or future tweets of the 21st century in mind when he wrote Burnt Norton in 1936.  He was far more concerned about the concept of time and redemption, using the analogies of a garden, a graveyard, and most disturbingly, a subway train of empty-souled people traveling under London in the dark.  Only the present matters as the past cannot be changed and the future remains unknown, trusting the reassurance and salvation of Logos, the source of  the natural and creative order of all things.   Only God Himself remains outside of the constraints of time and place.

Perhaps Eliot predicted the unknowable future.  It now is a “twittering world” in a way that Eliot, critical of dehumanizing technology of his time,  somehow was prescient enough to foresee.

When birdsong begins on our farm in mid-June at 4 AM in the apple, cherry, chestnut, and walnut trees outside our bedroom windows, I am brought face to face, eyes and ears wide open, with the immediate present, distracted from the distraction of my dreams by the distraction of wakening to music of the created order among the branches,  amid dew-laden blooms and cool morning air.

Once the birds settle into routine conversation after twenty minutes of their loudly tweeted greetings of the day,  I sit down bleary-eyed at my computer to enter the twittering world of technology, too often filled with fancies, or meanness, or completely empty of meaning.

Yet, I’m determined.  Not here will darkness be found on this page, if I can keep it at bay.

No darkness here.

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photo by Harry Rodenberger