TRAPPED!

(for all who live with chronic illness or difficult life circumstances)

This maple leaf became trapped in shrubbery just outside my window last fall.

She remained there as a rather strange and comforting companion each day

throughout the entire winter and early spring.

These haikus have sprung from our frequent silent dialogue over my morning tea.

***

trapped all winter long

chronic state of suspension

my world hangs with you

*

icy days, dark nights

in God’s mother-hands we rest

I am quieted

*

 roller-coaster days

learning equanimity

accepting what is

*

our world is shrunken

but in the stillness there are

wider horizons

*

broken, but still here

catching sunshine rays of hope

bow to mystery

Easter Triumph

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, The Magnificent Defeat

Bell Choir of Tiny Pine Cones

Lenten days,

and days of war,

our hallelujahs stilled;

yet, in spite of this somber time,

tiny opened pine cones,

bells dangling in my front yard,

ring out for me a silent praise;

praise for the holy Mystery of all that is

and all that is to be

amidst fragility of life

in troubled times;

praise for Love that formed

and holds these so-small cones,

holds me, and holds

our world as well.

*

Praise pours from the silent ringing

of these cones, and while I cannot

sing an alleluia in this dark

and dire time, I grateful bow before

the Love that, like these tiny cones,

dangled once upon a tree

and held within his opened arms

the seeds of a new life, gift

for all the little hours

of our so-belovèd lives, both

in this world and beyond.

Advent Limbo

limbo—not some other-worldly space or time

but here, right now, in the shushing

of the winter wind through fallen

leaves, the shortened days

*

we’re weary

waiting for relief

from countless sorrows

that afflict our troubled world

and our upside-down-turned lives

with hopes and plans all tentative, unsure   

the fragile walls that hold our lives

our nation, and our world, all crumbling

amid untruths and ugly disrespect

amid storms and droughts and floods

amid the rampant virus variants

*

we’re weary…and we’re also wondering,

wondering where is God

in all this limbo time?

has God forgotten that he once

so loved our world?

has he turned his face from us?

is this our punishment

to be endured until we learn

new ways of truth, learn love for

all, learn love for our good earth?

*

we ponder Mary in these days,

one who lived through her own limbo

of an unexpected pregnancy

birth in a crowded stable

flight to a foreign land

a Golgotha cross for her son

*

we pray to believe, beyond our sight

that she is with us still

as is her son

her God-with-us child

who swaddled himself in human flesh

to walk with us through our

Advent limbo-ed days

beneath the Christmas star

that continues to shine

through all our weariness

and wondering

(picture from “Independent.co.uk)

The Silence of Eternity

(The phrases in quotation marks are from John Greenleaf Whittier’s 1872 hymn “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind.”   The full text of the hymn can be read following the poem.)

The “silence of eternity” holds

all the questions of my tiny life;

who am I? what’s to come?

and who are you, and why?

*

Sweet potato vine lolls

nonchalant across my deck; 

such calm; no questions there,

no concerns about the meaning of her life,

no empty silence in the

stillness of her nights.

*

I envy her.

Yet now and then,

amidst the many questions of my life,

amidst the “strain and stress” of chronic ills,

amidst “my [often] foolish ways,”

amidst sudden “earthquake, wind, and fire,”

yes, now and then,

in words that leap from sacred page,

in star-burst beauty of a flowering weed,

I hear a “still small voice of calm,”

a voice of Love “interpreting” for me

the silence that surrounds,

enabling me, for moments brief,

to know the “beauty of God’s peace,”

a peace that holds the answers…

always just beyond my grasp.

***

Lyrics to Whittier’s hymn (1872)

Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
forgive our foolish ways;
reclothe us in our rightful mind,
in purer lives thy service find,
in deeper reverence, praise.

In simple trust like theirs who heard
beside the Syrian sea
the gracious calling of the Lord,
let us, like them, without a word
rise up and follow thee.

O Sabbath rest by Galilee,
O calm of hills above,
where Jesus knelt to share with thee
the silence of eternity,
interpreted by love!

Drop thy still dews of quietness,
till all our strivings cease;
take from our souls the strain and stress,
and let our ordered lives confess
the beauty of thy peace.

Breathe through the heats of our desire
thy coolness and thy balm;
let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm!

Singing in the Darkness–Ephrem of Edessa

How do we sing God’s songs in times of darkness?   We’ve lived through a very dark time in our country in the last few years.  The past two years have seen the spread of the corona virus seep into so many corners of our lives, and masked, distanced, and often isolated from friends and family, we’ve faced the tragic darkness of so many lives lost, of so many lives shattered by losing businesses, jobs, or shelter.  We’ve also shuddered in the darkness as temperatures continue to rise around the world, creating heat waves, massive floods, storms, and devastating droughts and wildfires.  Violence and wars around the world headline our news every day.  And we have also witnessed the darkness of a violent assault on our country’s Capitol, on our democratic values, on truth itself, as lies have festered in attempts to rewrite the history of an insurrection, and to distort the facts surrounding the outcome of an election. 

Can we still sing of God with us?  Can we still believe and sing of God’s care and concern, of God’s presence in the midst of such darkness?  Perhaps we can learn something about singing in the darkness from a little known saint of the 4th century, Ephrem of Edessa (306-373).  Ephrem was a deacon and teacher for many years in the Syrian church of Nisibis (currently Nuysabin in southeastern Turkey), then later in the church of Edessa (currently Urfa in southeastern Turkey).  He was deeply devoted to Christ and to his Church, but he lived in a time when elemental truths of the Christian faith were under attack from a variety of sources.  In addition to watching the distortions of his beloved faith, Ephrem also lived through many years when his beloved city of Nisibis was under siege by forces seeking to wrest it from the Romans.  Further, when after several sieges, Nisibis was overwhelmed by enemy forces and abandoned by the Roman army, he and all the Christians of Nisibis were forced to leave their beloved city.   Ephrem and his Christian friends became refugees, roaming from place to place until, eventually, they were able to settle in Edessa.   Not long after their settlement in Edessa, however, the city’s population was decimated by a plague.  Ephrem did all he could to alleviate the suffering but eventually he, too, became sick and died from the plague, probably alone in the cave that he had made his home.

How did Ephrem respond to all of the darkness around him—the erosion of truth, the violent assaults on his beloved hometown, the perils of being a refugee, and then the plague?  Ephrem responded by SINGING.  He wrote poetic sermons and a myriad of hymns (400 of them are still in print today!), and then he set his hymn-poems to the music of Syriac folk tunes.   These theologically poetic tunes he would teach to all-female choirs in his church, giving the women of his day, who often had little opportunity to speak in church circles, a voice to join him in singing out against all the darkness around them. 

Can we do the same today?  Certainly not an easy task, but I do believe we can.  In spite of all the darkness of our times, I do believe that we can still sing the poetic Psalms that acknowledge our pain and sorrow but also proclaim the majesty, mystery, and power of a God committed to justice and mercy and truth.  That we can still sing the hymns of the Church that echo the New Testament’s claim of God’s steadfast and profound love for our world.  That we can still sing St. John’s dream on the island of Patmos, a dream of God’s  somehow, someday, renewal of the heavens and of the earth.

Perhaps our singing will lead us to more sustained prayer for God’s light to shine in our darkness.  Will lead to action to help those in need.  Will lead to constructive protest against the powers that distort truth and disdain justice.  Will lead us to persistent hope in the brightness of the One of whom Ephrem sang in his hymn De Nativitate—a brightness no darkness can ever overcome.

The Lord entered her [the Virgin Mary] and became a servant; the Word entered her and became silent within her; thunder entered her, and his voice was still; the Shepherd of all entered her; he became a Lamb in her and came forth bleating. The belly of your Mother changed the order of things, O you who order all! Rich he went in, he came out poor: the High One went into her, he came out lowly. Brightness went into her and clothed himself and came forth a despised form. … He that gives food to all went in and knew hunger. He who gives drink to all went in and knew thirst. Naked and bare came forth from her the Clother of all things.
 

Berkshire Cabin Memories in Haiku

thunderstorm beauty

towering above my world

holy shock and awe

***

juvie cardinal

nestled in these wooded hills

sing me to your rest

***

ancient wisdom here

buried deep within these scarred rocks

beauty shining forth

***

hear the whispering

in sumac, vines, gentle breeze

breath of the divine

No Sweetness Lost

(picture by Daughter Karla on her hike of the Pacific Crest Trail)

Full many a flow’r is born to blush unseen,

And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

Thomas Gray, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”

Fragile wildflower, so tiny

in the cosmic scope of life;

her blushing seen by few, if any,

yet she glows beneath the sun,

blue sweetness of the day,

Venus in the evening sky;

rooted in the dark,

rich soil of God’s very soul,

she sings a brilliant aria 

in the majestic music of the spheres.

*

Wasted on the desert air?

Mr. Gray, I disagree.

Seen or unseen, quivering

in the morning breeze,

her roots wee pieces

of a puzzle, vast beyond

our comprehension,

her stems fine threads

in tapestry woven with the stars,

her petals vital pointillistic

dots to make complete the endless

canvas of the Whole;

her sweetness necessary,

never wasted in this wild,

astounding universe

we call our home.

Christmas Vulnerability

The Newborn Child (also known as The Nativity)

Georges de La Tour (17th century)

I know.  At the Council of Ephesus in 431, I was declared Theotokos, Mother of God, and in the centuries that followed, many followers of my Son called me the Queen of Heaven.  But I can assure you that I felt far from queenly on the night that I gave birth to Jesus.

Georges de La Tour has captured so much of what I really experienced after giving birth to the Christ child.  Wonder and awe, certainly.  But also vulnerability and uncertainty, questions—oh, so many, and an abundance of fears.

My downcast eyes and my tentative hands in his painting speak to all that shadowed this momentous birth for me.  Who was it, really, whom I held in my hands, wrapped in those swaddling cloths that almost mirrored a shroud?

There had been such expectancy about this birth.  Such grand preparations in my hometown of Nazareth among those with whom Joseph and I had shared the news of my unexpected pregnancy.  But then the edict came from Rome for a universal registration, and Joseph and I were forced to travel to Bethlehem in the late days of my pregnancy.  Not easy.  But surely, we thought, God would find for us a safe and comfortable place for me to give birth to this special child.  Not.  As you know so well, we ended our weary journey in a cold, dark cattle shed, and that was where I gave birth.

What had gone wrong?  What had I misunderstood?  Surely, if everything the angel had told me was really true, this birth should have happened in some grand place, with trumpets blaring the good news to all the world.  Or, if not that, at least in my own home, with friends and relatives and our own rabbi there to support and reassure.

But a cattle shed?  God seemed so distant the night of my birthing.  So oblivious to all that I was going through.  Had that angel visit been merely a strange dream I had?  Was the joy I felt when I visited my cousin Elizabeth and sang my song of joy simply a false hope? Where, oh where, was that angel now?

Of course, I felt all the fears most new mothers have.  How will I care for this tiny, fragile being?  How will I cut his tiny finger nails without injuring him?  How will I know when to feed him, when to put him to sleep?  But I also felt the additional fear of caring for this child if he really was, as the angel had said, “the Son of the Most High,” “the Son of God!”  How could I possibly handle this responsibility?  “God, where are you?” my soul cried out.  “I simply can’t find you here in this miserable stable!”

I know that many people in this difficult time in the world are feeling as alone and as vulnerable as I felt after delivering my first born.  God seems so distant in these thorny days, so oblivious to the trials and tragedies so many are experiencing.  A pandemic has swept across the globe, claiming the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.   Fragile democratic governments teeter on the brink of becoming authoritarian autocracies, with leaders putting themselves above the law.  Poverty and hunger are on the rise as economies collapse and people lose their jobs, their businesses, sometimes their homes.  “God, where are you?”  I hear the cries from every corner of the globe.

I didn’t get any clear answer from the skies when I asked where God was on the night I gave birth.  No angel re-appeared to assure me all was well.  I did receive the strange consolation of shepherds who came to worship my baby boy.  Also the comfort of wise strangers from afar, foreigners who bent the knee before my child and offered gifts fit for a prince.  I would have preferred another angel, but I pondered what I was given.

So to all of you who are crying out, “God, where are you?” I hope you’ll step into La Tour’s painting with me.  Know that I am feeling with you all the vulnerability and uncertainty that you are feeling, even as I hold the Christ child in my tentative hands.  Listen with me for those who have heard the song of angels in their lives.  Learn from wise friends who have seen a star you may have not noticed. 

Listen.  Learn.  And even in the midst of all of your questions, fears, uncertainties, sense with me the holy wonder of this child.  Believe with me, that in this child, the God who seems so absent at times is indeed at work to scatter the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, to bring down the powerful from their thrones, to lift up the lowly, to fill the hungry with good things, to send the rich away empty.*

*paraphrase from Mary’s Manificat, Luke 1:46-55