A Puzzle!

          It’s a beautiful lighthouse picture.  At least it will be a beautiful picture someday when my husband and I put in the last piece.  But filling in the remaining pieces of this puzzle is going to be a challenge.  And I do mean a challenge.  Here you can see the reason:

          All the remaining pieces—and there are a lot of them—are a light gray/blue.  We struggle together over each piece, and I have to admit that every now and again we look at each other and say, “Shall we just pack it away?  Is it just too difficult?”  We shrug our shoulders.  Walk away for a bit.  Come back and suddenly our house resounds with the joyful sound, “I got another piece!”

          Searching for yet another piece this morning, I found myself thinking about the puzzle our country is dealing with and trying to piece together.  Where are those missing pieces that would resolve the covid-19 pandemic with all its loss of lives and livelihoods?  Those missing pieces that would fill in the gaps of injustice in our country?  Those missing pieces that would resolve the systemic racism that has haunted our country since the first slave was brought to our shores?

          Finding these pieces is not going to be easy.  There will not be a cure-all congressional bill that will fill in all the gaps.  There will not be an “I have a solution” speech from either presidential candidate that will pull all the missing pieces together.  There will not be a triumphant protest march that will carry all the right placards to all the right places.  At times it can all feel like a gray/blue muddle, and we’d like to just walk away and forget it all—just get on with our lives.

          But as a people of faith in a God who calls us to let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream, we really cannot just walk away.  Nor can we walk away as citizens whose country is founded on the majestic picture painted in the words of our Declaration of Independence:  We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

          This beautiful picture, of course, waits yet to be “completed.”  It certainly wasn’t complete when the Declaration of Independence was written, as some of its signers themselves, as owners of slaves, were saying with their lives that all are not created equal.  There were challenges then, and there are new challenges now.  But keep the faith we must.  Hold on to the hope of justice and equality for all.  Support the protests that call for justice for all who live in our country and for all who seek to find haven among us.  Support legislation to eliminate racial bias in our systems of law and education and business.  Support a leader this November who will reach out, not only to a select few, but to every piece, to every person who is a part of the great American puzzle.  Let the cries continue to ring out across our country, “I found another piece!”

To a Small Twisted Tree

 

How did this happen? 

So twisted, warped,

this strange corkscrew;

did some malevolent force grasp

and mangle your trunk in its tender days?

did a virus creep beneath your bark

and eat away your strength, your straightness,

forcing you to curl in upon yourself? 

did some genetic code go weirdly

awry in your funky DNA?  

or was it playful angels, perhaps (the kind

who love to dance on the head of a pin),

who lightheartedly tangoed with you

on a cool spring night, heedless of any pain

or harm that they might leave behind?

*

A mystery, like every other mystery

that hovers in our yards and living rooms

these days, in hospitals filled with the broken,

in empty streets and empty stores, life distorted,

twisted, bent out of its usual shape.

But there you stand,

a swirl of art, a colonnade

of courage, strength, persistence,

beauty shining through your

dark and rough contorted bark; the rugged

landscape of your life a testament

of endurance, a spiral psalm that spells

a paean of praise and a song of lament

amid the questions twisting and winding

through our masks, our tangled lives.

The Cross Outside My Window Redux: a Message to Covid-19

April 22, 2020

(the original “The Cross Outside My Window: a Poem for These Troubled Times” was posted with this picture on March 15, 2020)

 

To Covid Monster-19:

Day by day your fetidness surrounds

the maskedness of our lives.

You wall us in.

You distance us from family and friends.

You erase the normals of our lives.

You wipe out all our certainties.

You smirk at our plans, our hopes, our dreams.

Greedily you swallow our beloveds.

***

Yes, Covid-19, you have brought us to our knees,

but we do not kneel to you.

We kneel instead before the cross outside my window,

before the cross of the wounded God

who is ever with us in this darkened time,

before the cross of the Easter God,

new life unfurling after winter death.

We kneel in sorrowful joy,

rich in faith that’s prayed and sung

within us and beyond.

We kneel in sudden wonder at the radiance

of a beloved’s smile, in person or on Zoom.

We kneel in gratitude for simple things—

a book, a bit of yarn, a billowing breeze.  

We kneel in new awareness of our need

for others, for their labor, for their love.

We kneel in awe of all who work

to rescue those within your vicious grasp.

We kneel in sorrow for brothers, sisters

who have crossed beyond our reach.

We kneel in reverence, trembling

as we stand in this thin space between

this life and life beyond, a space

of honesty and opened eyes, a space

of mystery and quest, a space

of trust that “we belong–

body and soul, in life and in death–

to our faithful Saviour Jesus Christ.”*

***

*from Question #1 of the Heidelberg Catechism (1563)

 

Slow Leafing Miracle

Outside my window,

despite corona on the loose,

rampant and devouring

the familiars of our lives,

tiny sprigs of green open

into the tainted air, insisting on

new life beyond this pestilence

that shrouds our wearied world;

slow leafing miracle of hope,

life forever rising,

life to come again.

A Prayer for the President

I have struggled to know how to pray for the man who is currently the President of our United States.  In my discouragement and dismay at his lack of respect for the truth, his treatment of other people, and his policies which seem to undermine the long-held goal of our nation to offer “liberty and justice for all,” my prayer has been a simple, “God, please stop him.”  And then I usually add a rather vague prayer for his body, mind, and soul.  

Last evening, I came across this blessing/prayer from John O’Donohue’s To Bless the Space Between Us.”  It is a prayer which I will pray often in the days ahead, especially as we as a nation confront the pandemic that has stretched across our world.  I hope you will find this prayer helpful as well.

FOR A LEADER

May you have the grace and wisdom
To act kindly, learning
To distinguish between what is
Personal and what is not.
May you be hospitable to criticism.
May you never put yourself at the center of things.
May you act not from arrogance but out of service.
May you work on yourself,
Building up and refining the ways of your mind.
May those who work for you know
You see and respect them.
May you learn to cultivate the art of presence
In order to engage with those who meet you.
When someone fails or disappoints you,
May the graciousness with which you engage
Be their stairway to renewal and refinement.
May you treasure the gifts of the mind
Through reading and creative thinking
So that you continue as a servant of the frontier
Where the new will draw its enrichment from the old,
And you never become a functionary.
May you know the wisdom of deep listening,
The healing of wholesome words,
The encouragement of the appreciative gaze,
The decorum of held dignity,
The springtime edge of the bleak question.
May you have a mind that loves frontiers
So that you can evoke the bright fields
That lie beyond the view of the regular eye.
May you have good friends
To mirror your blind spots.
May leadership be for you
A true adventure of growth.

 

The Cross Outside My Window: a Poem for These Troubled Times

 

Springing from a tangle of barren twigs,

the  arms of a small desolate tree

stretch through my Lenten days

to form a cross, its emptiness stark;

it’s not an Easter “hallelujah, risen”

emptiness; this is Good Friday emptiness,

a wounded God-with-us emptiness,

an emptied God-with us who bears our griefs

and carries our sorrows,

who holds our cries, and cries with us,

“my God, my God, but why?”

who with us, waits in darkness,

eclipse of all that’s sunned our lives,

waits for the thundering silence

of God’s voice to roll away the stones

that hold us cold and rigid in the

shadows of our fears.

A Clarity in Gray: a Poem for Ash Wednesday

Gray winter day, and the shapes

and contours of my world, my life,

so vague and undefined.

*

Yet, among the trees,

a certain clarity in all the gray;

each undressed branch, each twig,

often overlooked in shimmer

of a winter sun, shining now in stark

relief against this leaden sky.

*

Ash Wednesday, and my soul undressed

beneath the thumb that marks an ashy

cross upon my brow,

ash that tells me I am dust,

to dust I will return,

alone.

*

I kneel and do the only thing I know to do,

entrust my dustiness to arms of mercy stark

and stretched so long ago upon a barren tree

on a day as gray, as gray

as any day has ever been;

alone, but not alone;

there is a clarity in gray.

 

 

My Turn: the Prodigal’s Older Brother Speaks

The Return of the Prodigal Son

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669)

(Please note: if you are receiving this notification via e-mail and wish to see a larger image of the painting above, please click on the title of this post, and that will take you to my blog, where the image may be larger or clearer.)

***

          Okay.  My turn to speak.   I know.  I know.  The story Jesus told is primarily about my father and my kid brother.  But I’m a part of the story too.  Rembrandt knew that, and he painted me standing there off to the right.  Besides, the story does begin, after all, with the sentence “There was a man who had two sons.”   So I’d like you to hear my side of the story.  I’d like you to know something of what led to my anger about the Big Party.  And I’d also like you to know something of what I learned about myself and about my father when I spewed my anger all over him.    

          I won’t try to defend my anger and my refusal to attend the over-the-top celebration my father gave my wayward little brother.  It wasn’t my grandest moment, I’ll grant you that.  But it was real and not entirely unreasonable.

          We brothers had never really been close.  We were just so different.  The kid was a happy-go-lucky sort of kid, while I was always the cautious and careful one.  The proper and respectable one.  The hard and conscientious worker.  The one who often had to finish the kid’s chores, as he was always so eager to be off having some fun.  So I can’t say I was really unhappy when my little brother decided to leave us and explore the world on his own.  It actually felt rather good to see our household become more orderly, and I didn’t miss hearing his tales of fun and revelry every night when he’d sneak back into the house after Dad had gone to bed.

          I did notice that my father wasn’t quite the same without the pesky kid around.   That faraway look in his eye.  His eagerness to be the first to check the mail, a job he had usually left up to me.  I guess I, too, missed my brother a bit, but I was really basking in having Dad’s full attention as I updated him each evening on progress in the fields and pastures of our holdings.  I could almost see his opinion of my work growing by the minute as he saw all that I was doing for him.  And long and hard as my days were without my kid brother’s help (such as it had been), I was quite certain that I was earning more and more of my father’s love and affection.  Quite certain that at some point he would reward me grandly for all of my goodness.

          And then the kid returned.  I had been working in a far field that day, but as I approached the house for my evening meal, I could tell something really special was going on.  Music and dancing!   I grinned.  Here at last was the big party Dad was throwing to express his love and thanks to me.  

          I checked with one of our slaves.  After all, if this was a big party for me, I wanted to be sure I had a chance to change out of my grubby work clothes and into something a little more dignified.  But no!  The slave told me this music and dancing was for my kid brother who had now returned. Not possible!  Of course I knew that if my little brother ever did return, our father would be happy, but never in a hundred years would I have predicted the insane lavishness with which Dad welcomed the kid back home.  

          I would have no part in such nonsense.  Yes, I was angry.  I was furious!  I stalked away.  Never wanted to see any of my family again.  Ever! 

          And then my father came looking for me.  Yes, you heard me correctly.  My father came looking for me!  As I stormed through the back hallways of our home, my father actually took himself away from the Big Celebration of his younger son’s return and searched the house in order to find me.  And once he found me, after urging me to come to the party, my father simply stood there and listened.  Listened to my diatribe against him as I spat out my anger, shaking my fist in his face.  “How dare you treat the kid like this when you’ve never even given me enough to have a party with my friends?!  Me, who has always done everything you asked.  Me, who has never disobeyed you.  Me, the almost perfect son.  Me, who has more than earned your love with all my hard work.  Why, oh why don’t you love me the way you so obviously love him?”

          Maybe it was the tear that rolled down my father’s cheek as he listened to my rant.  Maybe it was simply his listening to me without even the hint of a rebuke.  I’m not sure, but at some point I realized, realized with every fiber of my being, that my father did love me.  Really, really loved me.  That my father loved me so much, in fact, that even when he knew I was off angrily pouting over my brother’s party, he left that party in order to find me.  Not to berate me for my anger and jealousy. But simply to listen to me.  Simply to be with me.  Simply to accept me just as I was. He really didn’t even need to speak the words he spoke—“always with me,” “all that is mine is yours.”  I knew before he spoke. 

          It would be nice if I could say that after that I happily went to the party, welcomed my brother home with open arms, and we became the best of friends.  I can’t.  I did go to the party. Briefly.  I did say “welcome home, brother,” and we did begin to spend a bit more time together after that day, but we were still just so different.  A close friendship would have been far too difficult for either of us.  But we did talk now and then about our astonishing father and the depth of his love for both of us. 

          “I’ve learned there’s nothing bad that I might do,” he would say, “that would ever be able to make our father love me any less than he does.” 

          And I would add, a bit sheepishly, to be sure, “And I have learned that there is nothing good that I might do that would ever be able to make our father love me any more than he already does.” 

          I think that’s  good place to end my story.  Thanks for listening.

***

Luke 15:11-32

11 Then Jesus[a] said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with[b] the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ 20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21 Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’[c] 22 But the father said to his slaves,‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. 

          25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31 Then the father[d] said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”

 

Winter Oak Leaves

Like little dishrags, damp and limp they hang,

these winter leaves forlorn outside my window;

color faded from their so-brief lives,

they droop and wait for winter wind

to carry them away and bury

them beneath the white of snow.

The sun today plays hide and seek,

but now and then it glimmers bright

upon those leaves, and sudden

turns their drab to momentary

shower of almost gold; a glimmering

that hints of wonder

lying just beyond the shadow

of this valley we call death.

*

And then the sun is gone,  

but the game goes on, mostly hide

for sun and mostly seek

for the leaves, and for us, dangling

through this winter of our discontent,

praying against the earthquakes,

the wildfires, the hatred, storms, and fears,

the absence of concern from leaders who deny

earth’s warming and refuse to care for truth,

for masses hanging by a border fence

that blots out all their sun.

*

We shake our heads and shudder our despair;

we seek, but only now and then we find;

only now and then the shining

of that glimmer from beyond,

that sudden ray of justice, truth,

that momentary hope

to strengthen our resolve,

remind us we are not alone

in this valley of the dark

where all that’s wrong so grimly

seems to overshadow all that’s right.

 

Stepping into Halo-ed Light

“The Nativity”

Rembrandt van Rijn (1654)

          Please come and sit with me awhile in Rembrandt’s magnificent etching.  I’ve been sitting here for a bit almost every morning during the days of Advent and Christmas.  My place has been over in the right hand corner, right behind the overturned wheelbarrow from which Joseph is rising to greet the shepherds who have come to see the baby of the angels’ song. 

          I’ve enjoyed watching these shepherds and all they bring to this stable scene.  The clear delight of that young shepherd child.  The solemn adoration of the shepherd right beside him.  The shepherd who doffs his hat, humbled and awed by this birth.  And that tall, older shepherd, hands reverently folded together, crowding in as much as he dares, needing to be as close as possible to the One for whom he has waited his entire life.  The two behind the others, patiently waiting their turn for a glimpse of this wondrous sight.  I wonder what each is thinking. What each is hoping.  What each one fears.

          And then that circle of light surrounding Mary, Joseph, and the baby.    The tiny lamp that burns just above Mary’s head is definitely too small to be the source of the brilliance that radiates throughout almost the entire scene, creating an immense halo of light.  This light clearly radiates from that tiny body wrapped in swaddling cloths.  This is the light that has been shining from the dawn of time.  This is the light that no darkness can ever overcome.

          I sit and bathe myself in this halo of light.  And I note that it’s not just Mary and Joseph and the Christ child who are “halo-ed” by the light in this etching.  The shepherds, cold and dirty and smelly, are also halo-ed by this light.  Even the oxen and the hay are caught up in this wondrous light.  All of life, it seems, is hallowed by the brilliance of this circle of light. 

          How we all long for Rembrandt’s circle of light in the darkness of our own lives and in the darkness of our world today.  Anglican Priest Tish Harrison Warren writes of a “cosmic ache: our deep, wordless desire for things to be made right and the incompleteness we find in the meantime.”*  We are all well aware that there is far too much violence and misery in our world today.  Hatred and cruelty darken our political landscapes.  Storms and fires are destroying our planet.  Illness, death, financial worries, and troubled relationships shroud our lives.  We long for Rembrandt’s immense halo of light, and we ask again and again and again, “Is there any hope for us?  Any glimmer of light for today and for tomorrow?  Or is Rembrandt’s light a mere mirage that lives only in his etching but not in the real world?”

          Rembrandt knew something of darkness in his own life.  In spite of his fame and early riches, by the time of this etching, he had buried his wife Saskia and three of their children who had died as infants.  Fifteen years later he himself would die a pauper and be buried in an unmarked grave in Amsterdam’s Westerkerk.

         But in the midst of his darkness, Rembrandt experienced and lifted up, for himself and for all who live in darkness, the radiant hope of God’s light.  The hope of God’s light that long ago permeated the darkness of a shabby stable where a young, frightened, pregnant woman, far from home, huddled in the cold darkness and gave birth to the One who was in the beginning with God, the One through whom all things came into being, the One in whom was life, life that was the light of all people.

          As we begin the days of a new year, Rembrandt’s powerful light can perhaps help us to renew our hope in the promises of God’s light wrapped in the body of that tiny Christ child.  “Train yourself in godliness,” we are admonished in the first epistle to Timothy.  Good words, perhaps, for the start of a new year.  But “training ourselves” sounds like so much work, sounds like treadmills of prayer and marathons of duty and penance.  But maybe training can be something as simple as sitting here in Rembrandt’s stable, again and again and again.  Letting the light of the Christ child bathe us, even as it bathed the holy family along with the shepherds, the oxen, and the hay.

          So again, I invite you to sit with me awhile in this etching.  Step closer to this child.  Peer with the shepherds as they worship the baby “born to give us second birth.”  Step into this halo-ed light.  And as we sit together, may our hearts be opened by faith to see, here-and-there, now-and-then, glimmers of Rembrandt’s halo-ed light still shining even in all the darkness within us and around us. 

***

*Tish Harrison Warren, The New York Times “Week in Review,” 11/30/2019