As I awoke from sleep one morning, these words came distinctly to my mind: The long, cold stare of January.
I don’t know where those words came from. But they came clear and definite and stayed with me. I wrote that phrase in my journal, thought about it a while, looked outside at the wintry landscape, then composed the (above) poem.
I live in northern Colorado. January is our coldest month. And it is a long month, 31 days. The cold, short days and long nights can make one feel captive. It is a season when people, those who can afford it, like to travel to places like Mexico, Florida, or Spain. Other people may dream of warm beaches during January. But the weather often keeps us indoors and isolated. One can feel captive.
One can also feel captive in an uncomfortable way when people stare at them. Cold stares are especially disconcerting.
Feeling trapped, fearful, impatient with your situation can make your outlook seem hard and gray. But, truly, there is beauty in every season. Opening our hearts to “see” that beauty can turn those cold, gray eyes to a silver gaze.
Contemplatives speak of the “gaze” of the face of Christ that holds, sees deeply, and can draw out the inner radiance of one’s true self.
Recently I was reading a story that described the “silver” eyes of some Scottish Highland folk. I had never heard eye color described as silver before. Polished silver is not necessarily a cold-looking metal. A warmth seems to gleam from deep inside.
Hidden in every hard place is hope. If we look for it with eyes to see, it will eventually gleam forth; and then, rather than be captives we may become captivated by the presence of love and even joy.
I wasn’t just crying, I was wailing. I had traveled five-thousand miles to see my father and I missed him by a few hours. He had gone where there are no more tears and I was left to mourn and cry buckets of them in the days and weeks that followed that fateful day years ago. That the Father called him home suddenly, that he passed peacefully and at the ripe old age of eighty five, persuades me to agree with the British journalist Julie Burchill when she says, “Tears are sometimes an inappropriate response to death. When a life has been lived completely honestly, completely successfully or just completely, the correct response to death’s perfect punctuation mark is a smile.”
The smiles came later.
But how glad I am for the sweet release of crying, the catharsis that tears provide, and the commonality of the experience to all of us. At times, our lives seem to float on an ocean of tears and sometimes we feel that we are drowning in their salty sea. I got to thinking about those drops of fluid that flow from our eyes and what volumes they speak of the condition of the human heart. What is this curious creation, what are the causes, the kinds and the cultural connotations of crying?
The dictionary definition calls a tear a drop of clear, salty liquid that is secreted by the lachrymal gland to lubricate the surface of the eyeball and wash away irritants. This marvelous process goes on continuously and it is only when emotion triggers a profusion of the fluid that we are aware of the phenomenon known as crying. In the Russian language, there are seven distinct words to describe the various properties of tears. There is a word for large ones, one for clear tears, and another two for both hot tears and salty ones. Yet other selections describe the abundant as well as the sparse and a word that specifically depicts tears falling rapidly one after another. Many of us will have shed some of these and some of us, all of the above.
Various emotions evoke tears. Generally known as more negative, the emotions of anger, frustration, self-pity and manipulation certainly cause crying. Then tears are expected and accepted when we experience sadness, grief, joy or compassion. Perhaps there is a mix of these emotions in all of our tears. I suspect so, for even in the sorrow over my father’s death there was certainly self-pity at the prospect of life without his presence. Hence the inability to smile. Sorrow would have turned to celebration if I could have cast my thoughts heavenward. Perhaps compassion commands the purest of tears. Yet, there is an undeniable element of anger even as we are moved to deep weeping over an abused or starving child, for example. We are angry and frustrated over the inexplicable inequities of life even though we tenderly suffer with the victim. No matter what their etiology, tears are therapeutic and God-designed. Through the voice of Mr. Bumble in Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens declares, “It opens the lungs, washes the countenance, exercises the eyes and softens down the temper; so cry away.”
When my sons were small, I encouraged them to “cry away.” I told them, “God gave you the same apparatus as he gave girls when he installed lachrymal glands in your eyes.” So they learned what to this day they still unashamedly do, they let the tears fall when they or others around them hurt. Back then it was scraped knees when they fell on the playground, now it is the bitter bruises of dreams dashed in the playing field of adulthood. I am saddened to see little boys fight back the tears just because society still generally deems it sissy to cry. I witnessed such a little fellow at an airport recently as he said good bye to his Dad. He bravely stifled his sobs and wiped away the telltale tears with his sleeve while his sister, of similar age, cried loudly and lustily.
I had learned from my father that the dignity and beauty of tears is as much the domain of men as of women. Although raised as a stoic Scotsman, he could never get through telling the story of Abraham offering up Isaac without crying. Still less the account of Calvary and the suffering of the Savior he loved. Christ Jesus, who was both God and the man of all men who wept. The brief account in John 11:33-36 often provokes debate as to why he was crying. I like to think that he simply felt the pain of those around him who mourned the loss of Lazarus.
The scriptures are not shy to tell us tales of tears. Not surprisingly, Job is recorded crying. In chapter 16 and verse 20 he says, “My friends scorn me: but mine eye poureth tears unto God.” Friends and family may grow weary of our crying and they may consider it attention getting, weakness or histrionics. However, we will always have the caress and the uncritical, caring attention of our Father. Jeremiah the weeping prophet, so named for his proclivity to tears, wails, “Oh that my head were waters, and mine eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people!” (Jer. 9:1). He, in common with us, experienced the place where the tears have dried up but the sorrow is still unstaunched. Mothers can relate to Rachel weeping for her children who were no longer there (Jer. 31:15). Some of the deepest grief must undoubtedly come from the loss of a child to untimely death, estrangement or to the land of the prodigal. However, the Lord exhorted Rachel to stop for there is hope in the end.
From the pen of David who wept through the gamut of human emotions, comes these wonderful words “Thou tellest my wanderings: put my tears into thy bottle: are they not in thy book?” (Psalm 56:8). Here David is alluding to the ancient burial custom of collecting the tears of mourners in a bottle and putting them in the tomb of the departed. Greater than the reference to the grave, is what we glean of the tender care of our Father. He cares about and counts our tears as he does the number of hairs on our head and records the most mundane and intimate of our hearts’ experiences. He noted that little boy at the airport!
But, like Rachel, we know there is an end to our tears. They belong only to this frame of time and space. That great and glorious promise beckons us beyond the present picture when we read “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away” (Rev. 21:4). At the very same time that I wept over the aching loss of my father, our heavenly Father was gently wiping away my Dad’s tears, whispering that the promise had come true. “My beloved child; your crying days are over.” Smile indeed. Smile forevermore.
The grip of grief has slackened its shackles
Hope, the thin, unbroken thread stretches
to permit a spring in the step
Hope, the harbinger of happy
highlights bright color and contrast
Though life is air brushed in sadness,
though tears still wait willingly in the wings,
They serve now to baptize a reluctant convert
into a new and different life
Hope springs eternal…
Sometimes the simplest moments are the most profound. On a quarantined breezy morning last week, as I watched the branches of our front-yard tree waving in the wind, these lines of verse came to me:
On a bright blossomy breezy day
my fears and sorrows blew away;
And in their place gentle hopes
of fresh tomorrows came to stay.
Five weeks ago I wrote (in this post) that I had both caught a virus and a virus had caught me.
Now (as I have recovered), I’m thinking that sometimes it feels as if the peace of God is caught much like a virus is caught. Though perhaps I wouldn’t say God “catches” us the way a virus “catches” us, yet I will say that…
We are both found by God and we find God.
We are both taken hold of by God and we take hold of God.
We are both accepted by God and we accept God.
We are both embraced by God and we embrace God.
It is being said that anyone exposed to this new Corona Virus will “get” it, whether they show symptoms of Covid 19 or not, because we humans have no resistance to it yet. On the other hand, we humans are adept at resisting God’s pursuit.
A virus seems to pursue us, intent on invading. It can kill. On the other hand, God, out of love, pursues and woos every person he has created, desiring to rescue and save and give life.
As long as we resist God’s pursuit and wooing, we are filled with spiritual death, as if a virus has invaded and found receptors in our vital “spiritual organs.” But as we turn to God, he envelops us in his arms of love. I don’t want to say God invades us like a virus, but he freely enters our being, fills us with the spiritual life of his presence. Then Death is swallowed up in Victory.
O Breath of Life, breathe on us. Let your Wind blow through us and fill us anew with your healing Spirit, that we may resist both spiritual and physical disease. Give renewed life and vigor to our bodies’ very cells that we may resist and defeat viral attacks. Thank you that even the final death has been swallowed up in victory by the death and life of Jesus Christ our Lord.
I took this photo of a sign erected at a viewpoint in Rocky Mountain National Park. I have visited the park during all seasons. In spring and summer the melodies of birds, squirrels, chipmunks, etc. rise and fall on the air. In late summer and early fall, elk calls bugle through the park. Then, on many winter days a soft, white, silent layer of snow breathlessly quiets the scene. Would you think of this “utter, complete silence” as a sound, as Andre Kostelantez did—even “one of the greatest sounds of them all”?
This brings questions to my mind:
Where/how do we find silence?
Why is silence important/needed?
What can we learn in silence?
Do we tend to avoid—maybe even fear—silence?
My curiosity piqued, I looked up Andre Kostelantez and learned that he was a Jewish/Russian immigrant to America who became one of the most successful conductors and arrangers of music in history. Among many accomplishments, he conducted the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.
I personally knew an orchestra musician who spoke of silence as if it were a sound: my daughter’s violin teacher. She drilled into my daughter the concept that a “rest” in the music was an “important nothing.”
Music rests, seasons of silence, “important nothings”; these provide natural, satisfying rhythms to music and to our lives. This is a principle that God seems to have woven into creation. As physical, emotional, and spiritual beings, we need times of silence that can become “the greatest sound of all” to us.
Nancy Swiharthas learned to embrace this life-enhancing principle. In her memoir,On Kitten Creek, she describes the times of silence on Kitten Creek farm that have become to her, as Kostelantez expressed it, one of the greatest sounds of them all:
“On prayer walks I do most of the listening,” writes Nancy. “Up here in this sky-drenched pasture a comforting solitude is one of the greatest gifts the farm has provided—placing my body, soul, and spirit into the presence of God without distraction.”
Nancy has learned to seek and relish these important-nothing rest times that give meaning and lilt to the music of her life.
Have you found ways to incorporate regular seasons of silence into the flow of your days?
Ah, Christmas! Bright lights, hustle and bustle, joyous music and celebrations….
Yet, hidden behind all the glitter, many people feel the pangs of sadness and loneliness more acutely during the Christmas season. If you have ever experienced a great loss at Christmastime, the holiday season awakens that grief again each year.
I know. My mother died on December 19, many years ago. My father was the pastor of a loving church at the time, and the people were sweet to us, though they also grieved the death of their beloved pastor’s wife. Our family found comfort in togetherness—my husband and I with our two toddlers, my sister, and our dad. After the funeral, we stayed and spent Christmas in our parents’ home, with everything around us to remind us of Mother. … But no mother/wife/grandmother. She simply and permanently was not here.
At a time when we celebrated the birth of Jesus who brought new life, we learned first-hand the awful separation and finality of death. The first night after she died, I lay awake in the guest bedroom listening to Daddy sobbing his heart out in the next room.
She was too young to die—in her forties. But she was gone.
On Christmas Eve, my husband and I wanted our toddler children to have fun, not just sadness, so we borrowed little sleds and took them out to play in the snowy woods. In the fresh, crisp air, laughter came as a wonderful relief, and was exactly what Mother would want for us. Maybe she saw us and smiled with joy.
Mother had a way of infusing Christmas with music, anticipation, beauty, delicious tastes and scents, warmth and surprises. She loved decorating the house and the church, preparing special music and programs for Christmas Sunday, often sewing new dresses for my sister and me, baking cookies, and taking us Christmas shopping.
I love Christmas, too; but even after many years, the bright lights, the biting scent of pine, the taste of cinnamon and cider, the making of fudge and fruitcake, the singing of carols, the ringing of Christmas bells, the decorating of the tree, the excitement of gift giving—all is sweet sorrow.
I wonder: Did sadness mix with joy for Mary, the mother of Jesus, when she carried her baby to the temple and heard Simeon prophesy her child’s death? He said, “A sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:35). Mary didn’t understand yet that Jesus’ death as well as his life would bring eternal joy in the heavens and cause celebrations of his birth for centuries to come. But she would certainly experience heart-piercing sorrow and separation.
Years later, as Mary watched Jesus die a tragic, painful death, did she despair? Or did the memory of the miracles surrounding his birth and life give her hope? Life won out. His death brought our spiritual birth.
Now we know, because of his birth, life and death, we can live—and celebrate Christmas—in the certain hope that death will not have the final victory.
That one Christmas—the year my vibrant, young Mother died—has influenced every one of my Christmases since. Our bereaved family celebrated together that year with gifts and festive food. Then we drove up a snowy hillside to a fresh, flower-covered grave site. The contrast of the red roses and holly-covered grave against the icy, brown hills spoke to my warring emotions.
There, feeling the pain of death’s separation, I looked up into the evening sky and noticed the first star twinkling, and I smiled through my tears. Her physical presence is gone from us here. But someday we may be with her “there.” The realities of pain, suffering, and death are inescapable. But the hope of Christmas lives!
It seems God created this world with the capacity for healing built into it.
I remember Kiki, my pediatrician friend, saying that she almost enjoyed it when she got a cut or other minor injury on a finger, because watching it heal was such a wonder. I took this statement from Kiki with a grain of salt. She, of course, doesn’t desire the hurts that come from random accidents and afflictions of this life.
When the hail storm hit in July, I did not enjoy seeing the near-golf ball size hail bombard our home and trees and gardens. In late July, when our gardens were at their lushest—when trees throughout town, flowers in front yards, fruits and vegetables in gardens, crops in the fields were flourishing—came a hard-hitting, hurling from the sky, storm of hail that broke, battered, tore, ripped. It only lasted a few minutes. But it left roofs with holes, windows cracked, siding pocked, bee hives panicked, birds injured, crops destroyed, gardens sad-looking.
Our gardens give us (my husband and me) pleasure. We love to share their beauty and bounty with others. So, in my disappointment over the storm’s devastation, for a few days emotional storm clouds threatened to descend into my soul.
Why, God? What’s the use of planting and tending and making beauty, if destruction can hit any time?
I know people who have weathered many storms—both storms of nature and stormy relationships. Some have given up or have chosen to play it safe in one way or another. Cut down the trees in their yard. Take out gardens and put in rocks. Choose to distance themselves from family and friends. And I’m sometimes tempted to react this way to life’s troubles and conflicts.
But I have been learning more and more to know God as Love. He doesn’t cause evil or bad things. He is not up there somewhere, angry and vindictive, choosing to send hail on some people and gentle showers on others, then watching to see our reactions.
I recently read the book, Does God Always Get What God Wants? by Tim Reddish. He writes: “The whole Godhead suffers to bring shalom to all of creation… To love our suffering sinful world is to suffer…. The one who does not see God’s suffering does not see his love. God is suffering love…. [However,] God doesn’t let suffering have the last word. Instead, God responds to every situation in ways that promote growth and healing.”
God is, always and everywhere, with us, rejoicing with us and suffering with us.
With that truth on my mind, I took advantage of a quiet morning to spend time in contemplative prayer. And there I regained a sense of help and hope.
I have found that contemplation often clears the way to action.
I put on my sun hat and garden gloves, took clippers and went out into my corner flower garden. I began cleaning up, clipping away broken, spent, bent branches and knocked-down leaves, twigs, and flowers. And as I did, with each clip, I said, “I choose hope.” “I choose love.” “I choose beauty.” “I choose to suffer with.” I choose to enter into even the suffering of nature. (We are in this life together, after all.) I choose to cooperate with God to bring order and beauty out of brokenness and chaos, to encourage hope, light, and healing. To expect renewal and new possibilities. I decided to try rooting some of the broken plant parts. I deadheaded to encourage new blooms. I noticed the bees were making the best of things, too, extracting juice from hail-broken rhubarb stalks. Perhaps they would process it into honey.
I will join nature in its response to our God’s ever-creating and re-creating presence. I will stay engaged, by God’s grace, open to His constant working to bring beauty and goodness and newness out of pain and loss and scars…to increase Shalom.
I grieve the losses, the hurts, the scars; but like my friend Kiki, amazed at watching her finger heal, I choose to embrace hopeful wonder.
A photo I took on one of my walks on the river trail not far from my office.
Stressed, working hard to prepare books for publication in the midst of several life adjustments, one morning I knew I had to attend to my soul. For me, soul care and renewal involve reading, meditating, praying / releasing, and experiencing nature / creation.
First I drank my coffee and read a devotional article that said: “Am I willing to continue yielding my life wholly to God? If so, there is power for me…. God promises help to accomplish the task toward which His Spirit points me.”
I wrote a list of the things on my heart that had become burdens, prayed over them and gave them to God, again.
Then I read: “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all that we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever!” (Eph.3:20-21,NIV) I prayed this scripture, inserting my name and then the names of our family members. Assurance came.
Then, for the solace and renewal of nature, I drove down to the nearby river trail. There my senses were immediately overwhelmed and filled with the sights and sounds and smells and textures of that lush spot where grassy farmland meets the river that has flowed down from the Rocky Mountains. There, nature burgeons with life.
One thing my husband and I are learning as we live in this high place of Colorado where every season happens in every season—We are learning to appreciate and “seize” the moment. If we don’t come down to the river trail for a couple of weeks, we hardly recognize the place next time. All summer, layer upon layer of grasses and flowering plants keep coming up, replacing the previous layer, each a little higher than the last, reaching for the intense sunshine which often gives way to evening thunder clouds. In the early summer, wild roses were blooming under the giant cottonwoods. Later they had dried up and purple thistle had risen 5 to 6 feet tall, bright and stately. You might think them renegade weeds in your garden, but out here, they’re royalty. Clouds of foamy yellow flower heads grow here and there, and every shade of foliage.
Bird songs abound! I recognize the sounds of killdeer, red-winged blackbirds, and others. I see the orchard oriole that was here last time, and the bullock’s oriole, the eastern kingbird, and many others. A rabbit hops near the river’s edge. Farmers are irrigating today, obviously, because the wet river banks and shallow water indicate most of the river’s flow here has been diverted to the canals. I watch several huge river-bottom fish, and their backs often rise above the water’s surface and I can see the golden eye high on their foreheads. They glisten in the sunshine and are too big for the six snowy egrets nearby to tackle. But if a bald eagle happened by, they’d be easy prey, so visible in the shallow waters. In a clearing on the other side I see prairie dogs with their young. They stand up straight above their holes and suckle their little ones who then lick their mothers faces. They’re cute. And they supply food for the many hawks and owls around here.
In the shady places under the heavy cottonwoods, myriads of butterflies float and flutter. I see one group that fly this way and that and round and round in sync as if propelled by a little twister wind. How do they synchronize their flight in milliseconds like that? The hot sun intensifies the scents of grasses mingled with damp river smells. Several cyclists ride by me, calling out “on your left.” Two lark sparrows perch on the fence and stay there watching me, showing off their harlequin faces, feathers glowing like polished bronze in the sun.
I’m thankful for this day, and this place, and God’s glory all around.
Back at my car, I give thanks to God. As I walk into the house, a CD is playing and I hear the words of a gospel song, “Morning by morning new mercies I see….Great is thy faithfulness.” Tears smart my eyes. I “seize the moment” and find joy in it, and in knowing God is in it!
Under the blanket of smoke in this NASA photo, and right by one of those red dots, was our home for 30 years and the place where we took the humble first steps of founding Cladach Publishing. Many roots and memories. Many beloved people and places. Much trauma and loss this week.
It all happened so fast. My sister was awakened at 1:00 Sunday night and told to get out immediately. She grabbed her dog, purse, a few clothes and ran out to her vehicle. Smoke everywhere. A wall of fire on the hill above her neighborhood. She drove out to the highway and sat in her vehicle dazed, not knowing what to do. She decided to drive to a friend’s house. With all the cars trying to get out of the area, it took her 1 1/2 hours to drive about 5 miles. Soon after she arrived there, her friend was also evacuated. They fled to the friend’s brother’s home in another town west of there. My sister, grateful for a home to stay in, has been there all week, sleeping on the living room couch, and doesn’t know when she’ll be allowed back into her home. Though the fire devastated—wiped out—the entire neighborhood just two streets away from her home … her house and street have remained intact. Several of our friends in Sonoma County have lost their homes.
But how beautiful to see people set aside their differences and come together in the face of a common enemy, to support and help and encourage each other.
One Cladach author, Dean Davis*, lives in Sonoma County. When the fire hit, he was recovering from surgery just three days prior. His wife, Linda, shared this encouraging update on Facebook. I share her words here with her permission:
Today, Friday Oct. 13, is a new day. Old things are passed away. I don’t think we’ll ever be the same.
The Santa Rosa fires have died down and though they still flame up here and there, we believe the worst is over. There is no wind this morning. The area is just filled with firefighters, police, national guard, and volunteers (and smoke!). People are tender and in shock…. This is such a season for reflection.
On the first day of the fire, I went through the house asking myself what I really needed to take with us. There was very little. Photos, tax records, and our cat. And even when the evacuation came, I had to leave the cat. Now that the danger has passed (at least for the moment) we will move ahead with a new perspective of what is really important.
God was very good to provide volunteers to come get our horses the first day. To have them safe and away allowed me to focus on keeping Dad safe and healthy. God knows the little things that show us his kindness and mercy. We are all back at the house (except for the horses) and we feel we will most likely be able to stay put.
We have been told to wait another 36 hours before resuming life as usual because high winds are expected again tonight and everything could change again.
We are numb. But at peace.
A week before the fire a little scripture put to tune came to me every day, all day. “Thou will keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on Thee, because he trusteth in Thee.” I couldn’t get these words out of my mind. Little did I know they were preparing me for these days. I think this experience has taught us to take nothing for granted. We have no rights, just mercy and grace. The only ‘right’ we have is our righteousness through Christ, who has given it as His free gift…. We feel vulnerable yet under the shadow of His wings at the same time. We are reminded that this life and this world are just temporary yet very important. Each day is a gift because He is with us. And our gift back to Him is a life of service, faith and gratitude. God is good…all the time!
Thank you, Linda. God protect you and yours. We pray for your safety and for continued peace… and for Dean’s full recovery.
The one good thing about these horrendous trials is that we become more acutely aware—though often not until after the crisis—that God Is With Us … always, even in the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
Even under an ominous cloud of smoke with erratic fires erupting all around.
*Dean Davis is the author of The Dangerous Journey of Sherman the Sheep. (My ten-year-old grandson loves the story of Sherman who encountered many trials on his dangerous journey and finally learned that the Good Shepherd was always with him.)
Photo: NASA MODIS Rapid Response Team, Jeff Schmaltz