a bit of help

a path in the woods

I sit on a fallen tree trunk, which lies across the entrance to the path into the woods which flank the meadow. The day is bright and crisp and carries the cool promise of coming fall. It is a pleasant morning. Just rousing itself in the songs of the birds and in the rustle of leaves. The day stretches itself and yawns in the early breeze.

I’d like to sit and glean the tiny bit of warmth from the sunshine of the morning but my work calls to me from inside the woods. I stretch and, reluctantly, looking back toward the meadow, I prepare to start down the path.

As I rise, it is as if the branches of each tree reach out to grab me for the task they hold. They are all competing demands for action and for attention. I am taken aback by the way the pleasant morning has now become a barrage. Instead of stepping forward, I a compelled to step back and I almost stumble as I fall back upon the log. My projects greet me like a slap in the face, though individually they are things I really want to do.

Too much, continually too much, it is a burden. It saps the energy I brought to the morning. Each time I think I have begun to get a handle on my tasks, I turn and find them grasping me instead. This is not the abundant life, this is the life of — of what? I want to say over-abundance, because it seems to fit the flow of the sentence… yet I don’t feel rich, I feel robbed – of all energy and resolve, of all hope of quality in my endeavors. Too much leaves not enough….not enough of me.

A few desperate tears catch the corner of my eye and burn my cheek. I look at my life and see myself trying to tape dried fruit on barren branches.

I need a moment’s rest, and yet, even at the start of the day, I am exhausted. When I push away the burdens, they only scream at me louder on my return. Their voices echo even in my moments of attempted rest. Yet I cannot abandon them. They are obligations that I have owned, that I have taken on with my friends, and if I put them down, I make the burdens of my friends that much greater.

The priorities that I face now, I have taken on months ago, when my calendar looked empty and the breath of their urgency seemed far away. Now they breathe down my neck and sap my strength, leaving me with discouragement as an additional load to carry through my day.

“Help me,” I whisper. “Help me carry the burden of my day. Help me move this heap of effort forward. Help me gather the sticks of a thousand chores and carry them in my two arms one more day’s journey down the path.” I ask the impossible. I might as well ask for another set of arms to do my work.

Then beside me stands a little man, a Narnian dwarf not any taller than myself, but obviously strong and wiry, with a full beard and kind eyes. He nods his head and waits. I look up, look around me, unsure of what I should do. The dwarf smiles and touches me on the shoulder. “I am here to help you,” he says. “I have come come to provide that extra set of arms you asked him for.”

“How can you help?” I ask. “What among my load can you carry? They are chores which I have taken up and which require my effort.”

“There are some burdens I am very able to help with,” he says. “You must indeed carry your daily tasks, but I will carry other burdens. I can take your fear, your discouragement, and your frantic desperation. I will bring along the liquid joy of humor to strengthen you as we walk, and I will keep you company. Draw from my strength and the strength of those around you. We will make it through today. That much we can do.”

I start to rise, but with one small gesture, he bids me wait just one more moment. “Don’t forget your manna,” he says, and pulls out of his pocket a napkin which holds two pieces of the smooth, sweet bread. He spreads it on the ground and offers a brief prayer. We each take a loaf and eat. The bread, the company and the ceremony give me strength.

As we we turn to leave, he begins to hum a brisk walking tune. It cheers us on our way as we step over the log and begin the journey of the day. The dwarf smiles at me. I smile at him and I can actually reach to respond  to the branches which dip to demand my actions.

Today. We can do today.

 

[photo by benefit of hindsight per cc 2.0]

the donkey

gentle donkeyI am back on the floor of the canyon and see the path as before. I begin, again, to walk the path, not sure where it is leading. I walk and walk, but I seem to make no progress. The scenery around me is so much the same, from step to step.

This sense of futile movement only increases as I enter a bank of fog. Indeed, I worry that I might inadvertently step off the edge of the trail and fall into a ravine. A sense of fear joins my sense of futility and I am tempted to stop altogether.

But then, I am joined on the path by a wise and gentle donkey, who just appears beside me, as I walk. His step is sure and he seems to know this path well. His presence strengthens me and quells my fear. It is good to have this bit of companionship. Occasionally I reach out to touch him; resting my hand upon his back as we walk; steadying my step.

I continue to doubt that I am making progress, but there is really nothing else I know to do but walk. And so we do. At last the donkey takes me to an overlook, where we can catch a larger view. To my surprise, we have actually progressed quite a long way from the floor of the canyon.

Later we stop to rest. I ask the donkey who he is – he is so wise and benevolent. His name, he says, is Jesus – and, indeed, he is.

I am mortified that my meditation has cast him as a donkey. But he only smiles: that is the best I can do right now, and he does not despise the role. He is willing to lead me through the canyon and carry my burdens. Someday I will grow to the point where he is no longer a donkey.

4/28/82

[photo by Laura Wolf per cc 2.0]

The Gray Wolf and the Wind

gray wolf advancing“I COMMAND YOUR DAY,” he growls, that gray wolf of late assignments and neglected duties. “I will eat your life, will consume your energy, will wear you out for no gain.” He relishes his role. “I don’t even care if you succeed in your tasks. It’s your soul, your spirit I am after. I can throw you crumbs of accomplishment and you will eat them eagerly and still you will starve.”

I am beaten. I slump against a fallen log and sit with hollow resignation, waiting for his teeth to tear my heart. I can fight no longer. I have nothing left to throw up in my defense. He circles the tree, my form, with gritty pleasure. He licks his chops and chomps his teeth in anticipation.   I wait.

My heart faintly whispers a plea, helpless and with no faith to send it upward, it hangs upon my lips and drops to the ground. I am defeated.

“But I am not.” An angel has seated herself beside me on the fallen log. She removes her cloak and wraps it round my shoulders. It is warm and smells of adventure. It wraps my soul. Then she stands and plants her staff in the ground. She draws a circle in the dirt, surrounding me, surrounding the log, surrounding herself.   “This place is claimed as holy,” she proclaims.

The wolf is pacing now, angry, suspicious and with glaring eye. He charges at the circle, but at the last moment diverts his steps. He growls and throws his anger at the circle, at the two of us within it. He rails against the barrier and gnashes his teeth. “Why do come you to rescue this pitiful soul?” he demands of the angel. “Why waste your effort on one who has nothing to give, not even a whimper of resistance. This one is of no value to you. Leave her and let me finish my feast, it is no loss to you.”

“If she is insignificant, why do you want her so?” The angel asks.

“I gain pleasure in defeat… she is giving me what I desire.” The wolf replies.

“You want to extend your kingdom beyond its current boundaries, but she belongs to another kingdom, exists within another’s realm. You cannot claim her soul. You see, it is you that have been defeated already. Eating at her only feeds your fantasy that you can regain what you have already lost.”   The angel is calm and measured in her reply, but it is clear that she is on her guard. Confrontation with a wolf is not to be taken lightly.

“Fool, fool!” The wolf shrieks and paces. “You think your words can put me off, you think that you have strength against me when it is obvious that I have the power of this world. You cannot resist me.”

He cannot contain himself in his anger. But instead of charging the circle, as it seemed to me that he would do, he turns and charges off into the woods.

When we are alone, the angel turns to me and helps me to my feet. Her cloak is still wrapped around my shoulders. She grasps my shoulders in her hands and gazes into my eyes. “Do not give in to despair. The great wolf’s only power is deceit. Do not give in.” Her voice both pleads and commands. “Take this cloak, this staff and claim your ground as holy. Do not let him enter.”

As the angel turns to go, she slips a leather belt from her waist and hands me a pouch that was hanging from it. “Do not forget to eat.” She says, quietly. “Feed your soul on truth, on the words of hope, on relationship.” Then she is gone.

I sit upon the log, wrap the cloak around me and open the pouch. I eat the manna with a grateful heart. Around my heart I draw a circle with the staff. “I claim this as holy ground,” I whisper and hold the staff tightly in my hands.

My heart whispers a prayer of its own, “Save me from the wolf’s breath.”

The wind answers. “I will save.”

 10-20-95

[image cropped from photo by Kurt Bauschardt per cc 2.0]

rabbit’s question

rabbitOne day, there was a rabbit that came to the Master with a question. Being a rabbit, she really didn’t have words to ask, but she came close and thumped her back feet and looked into the eyes of the Master in a way that he understood. He reached down and brought the rabbit close and whispered in the rabbit’s long and very sensitive ears.

“I do love you,” the Master whispered. “I always do.”

And the rabbit, after realizing that was indeed the answer to her question, curled up beside the Master and went to sleep. And this was the rabbit’s dream:

She was in a rough country, stormy and dark, very little grass, no gardens. She wondered why she should be journeying in such a place and whether any good could come of it.

And the master whispered through the dream, “I love you, always.”

And the rabbit began to hop along the path that appeared before her, stopping, on occasion, to eat a lonely sprig of grass beside the dusty path. She hopped on, unsure of why and where she was going, only sure that the path was there in front of her.

She kept hopping along for quite a while, until finally, she noticed that the grass was a bit more abundant, the sun a bit brighter, and there was small stream beside the now-less-dusty path. She stopped for a drink and to eat her fill. There was a hollow log beside the trail, so she snuggled in for a nap.

And she dreamed within her dream that she was again beside the Master, that he held her close and whispered in her long and sensitive ears, “I love you.” And she realized this was still the question that she most desired to ask, and the answer she was seeking. This was the reason she kept hopping along the trail, and this was the destination.

And she slept on, with a rabbit-smile in her heart.

[photo by Robert Allen per cc 2.0]

Can These Bones Live?

dry bones

Ezekiel 37: 1-3

The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord, and set me down in the midst of the valley; it was full of dry bones. And he led me round among them; and behold, there were very many in the valley; and lo, they were very, very dry.

And he said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?”

And I answered him, “No way!”

And he said to me, “Whatever you say.” And he walked away.

And I was left with the bones and my faithlessness.

Many days later, he returns to me and he asks again, “Can these bones live?”

And I answer him, “I wish they could.”

He sits down beside me and asks, quietly, “Where do you send those wishes? How do they find substance?”

I kick at the dirt and reply, “My wishes have no substance. They appear before me like a wisp of smoke and then they are whipped away by the wind. If I try to grasp them or shield them from the wind, my own movements make them dissipate. The bones are very, very dry.”

Do you know the difference between wishes and hope?”

I look at him blankly and shrug.

He waits a moment longer, and then he answers for me. “Wishes have no anchor. Hope is anchored by faith. It springs from desires that I have planted within you and rises to my listening ears. It is a call for us to work together to bring righteousness to life.”

I look up at him. “How can I work to bring righteousness? I am nothing but dry bones. There is no righteousness in me.”

“I bring the righteousness.” He smiles at me. “You bring the bones.”

I start to grin. “I can do that.”

So he asks me again, “Can these bones live?”

“Lets see.” I reply.

“Yes, lets do.”

4/7/00

[photo by kaelin per cc 2.0]

Uncle Zach (again)

Zachariah

In this Advent season, I am reposting this piece.  You can listen to a wonderful  audio version of this story, narrated by Boyd Barrett, a dear friend.  You may also want to explore his other podcasts – you’ll be glad you did.

 

“Tell me again, Uncle Zach, tell me the story of the angel, when you were in the temple.” Jesus is staying over for a few days and is helping his uncle with his work.

John rolls his eyes and looks at his cousin. Not again. John is intimidated by the story. It is his father’s story, but the weight of it rests on him. ‘The spirit and power of Elijah’ the angel had said. Sometimes, in the quiet, John felt inside himself for the stirrings of this prophecy, fingering his own soul, looking for signs of Elijah or of any real power at all. Nothing. So, he hides a secret fear that he will fail the prophecy. Hearing the story only makes it worse.

Jesus and John are eleven, old enough to know that their stories are both unique, not old enough to understand what that difference may yet mean.

Zechariah begins the story and Jesus settles in beside him. John is across the room, finishing up his chores so he can leave as quickly as possible. They have both heard the story before, but not often. It is hard on a family to hold the weight of such a story and Jesus’ siblings aren’t very fond of it, or of the other story that follows. But today it is just Zechariah and Jesus and John inside, so the time seems right to tell it again, in detail.

Zechariah takes a deep breath and begins. When he starts the story he is looking straight at Jesus. “You know how it works,” he says. “When it is time for my division to bring the incense into the Holy Place, we draw lots. It is our way of letting God pick the servant. It is an honor for the lot to fall to you. And when I was chosen, I felt, as I always do, a slight rush of pleasure that I am the one that God wants this day. God’s call to the priestly tribe is a precious gift. God’s call to a single one . . . to me . . . or to you . . . is . . . a wonder.”

By now Zechariah is no longer looking at the boys. John and Jesus are both listening, pulled by what he is saying, by its echo in their hearts. There is deep quiet in the room. “I went into the Holy Place, into that place that God has chosen to be present. You think you are prepared when you go in – but the Presence hits you and, every time, you know that there is no way that you will ever really be ready for that place. It always takes me a moment. Like letting your eyes adjust to the darkness when you enter a cave on a bright day – or more – how your eyes adjust when you go back into daylight from the cave. So, I wait at the doorway for my soul to catch its breath. And then, when I find my legs again, when I can move, I take the incense to the altar.”

“The Presence is most strong that day. It is as if I am not the only one touching the Presence. The Presence is always magnified in my heart when someone next to me is touching it, as well. It was that sense, but more, that day. As I approach the altar, I suddenly know why. There is an angel standing there. Once he appears, he is powerfully real . . . as if I were the vision and he the substance . . . but even more, he is touching the Presence so powerfully that I am overcome.   I start to tremble, almost to fall. He reaches out and catches my arm. He takes the incense from my hand and places it on a bench next to the altar and tells me not to be afraid. I wonder why he says that . . . it’s not fear that I feel. In fact, I hardly am aware of myself enough to feel anything at all. But his words draw my attention back to myself and I can see that I am trembling.”

“We sit together on the bench, with the incense between us. He looks me in the eye and waits till I have calmed myself a bit. Then he speaks to me, ‘Don’t be afraid, Zechariah.’

“He says my name. My name. He was waiting there specifically for me. Now I do start to feel the fear. He sees my eyes widen and he takes my hand, “Zechariah, your prayer has been heard.”

“Now, boys, you have to know that I had not really been praying when I came into the temple. I had been too busy with the preparation, with the responsibility. I was sitting there, wondering what prayer he was talking about.”

“‘Your wife, Elizabeth, will bear you a son,’ he says, quietly, waiting for the words to sink in.”

“My heart shakes itself. Oh, that prayer! The prayer that was on my lips for so many years, but had slowly, with age, become just an echo in the deep recesses of my heart.” Here Zechariah stops and looks at John, saying, without words, how much the boy had been their prayer. John looks away, feeling the weight of one more burden, one more way to disappoint.

“And then,” Zechariah continues, still looking at John “then the angel smiles. ‘You will have joy and gladness and many will rejoice at his birth.’ The angel bends forward. There is a joyous urgency to his manner. ‘Your son will be great in the sight of the Lord. He will drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb, and he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. He will go forth in the spirit and power of Elijah to turn the hearts of fathers toward children and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous, to prepare a people fit for the Lord.’ By this time the words are feeling triumphant.”

“My own heart is on a double track. Part of it surges with new hope, eager to receive this news and take it to Elizabeth; thrilled to think that the power of the prophets might return to our poor land. The other part, well, I’m not sure. How can I be a part of such a plan? We both are old. And Elizabeth . . . oh, my . . . if I were wrong, and raised this hope to dash it once again . . . I’m not sure she – or I – could bear it. So, I yearn for the promise while I fumble in fear that it just cannot be so. ‘Are you sure?’ I grasp the angel’s sleeve. ‘I’m not . . . Elizabeth is not . . . we are both too old.’”

“The angel pulls away, looking suddenly stern. ‘Am I sure? Am I sure? I AM is sure, is giving you this promise! How can you doubt the word of God?’”

“I am looking at my hands. ‘It’s not that I doubt God; it’s that I cannot trust myself. I know, too well, my frailty.’”

“Gently now, the angel takes my hands. ‘It is that very frailty that reveals the power of God. Can you not see? It is the barren womb that shows God’s power most clearly. Will you fail to go to your wife? Will she fail to conceive? Will the baby refuse to be born, to grow? Do what you can do. God will do the rest. Your very frailty will show God’s presence in this gift. You were not chosen at random, but carefully nurtured into your role. And now, because you need to see how frailty speaks, you will be mute until his birth.’”

“Some thought it was a punishment for my lack of faith, that I was mute. But really, boys, there were no words to capture what I’d seen. Who would have believed me, anyway? My loss of words told them I had seen a vision, yet it let me save my secret for Elizabeth. We savored that time alone with the secret of God’s power, till it could be hidden no longer.”

“Your circumcision, John, released my tongue, released the story into your life. I know you feel its weight. But do not fear. It’s like the angel said, frailty does not matter. God requires nothing but our obedience. You do what you can do. Then, you wait to see what happens. You let God shine through your frailty. And you rejoice.”

Zechariah is smiling. John comes round the table to stand for just a moment beside his father. Then he pokes Jesus in the arm and chases him out the door. They shake off the quiet and melt back into their eleven-year-old lives.

 12 5 03

[photo cropped from ‘the Rabbi’ by Rafal Kiermacz under cc 2.0 ]

a different view

overwhelmedI am feeling overwhelmed and lost in the stacks of things to do. My day is pressing down upon me and in response I am deeply tired. I cannot find the energy to dig myself out of this hole, so that I can even begin my day.

I come to my meadow discouraged. Too much to do, to late to even hope to do it well. Now, all I seem to have left is the fear of total embarrassment to keep me going. The best I can do is barely enough. I wander down the hill, scrubbing my toes in the short grass, which is dried and brown. My sweater is drawn up around my shoulders, more to find comfort in its bulk than as a reaction to the cool of the day.

I find a smooth, round stone by the edge of the stream and sit down, dropping my head into my hands. I sigh deeply and shake my head. I’d like to curl up in a fetal position and sleep away the day, the chores, the responsibilities before me. But I cannot. They will not go away.

Slowly the sound of the brook fights its way into my consciousness and the crisp brown reality of the winter grass shows itself to me in intricate patterns at my feet. There are things beyond me in this world, though I don’t always raise my eyes to see, so self-absorbed am I.

So I settle in upon that rock and try to broaden my vision of the meadow, try to move my focus beyond my self pity. As I do so, tiny signs of life become evident. A field mouse runs across the path and finds a discarded shaft of grain to carry home. A tiny grass flower has forgotten its seasons and struggles to grow in a sunny spot beside the stream. Small signs of life. I am grateful for these signs of hope, yet my heart has not been lifted from its sigh.

I sit a while longer and an angel appears beside me to guide me to the well. The angel is a child, younger, more timid, than the angels I have encountered before. Even his robe does not fit right. It’s sleeves dangle over his fingers and the shoulders droop.   He pulls up the robe to keep from tripping over it on the way back to the well and scruffy tennis shoes can be seen beneath its hem.

No so intimidated by this angel, I reach and take his hand We walk together to the well. As we approach, I can see that Jesus is seated on the side of the well. He is facing off to one side and is ministering to the crowd which surrounds him. There is a whole variety of life before him and around the well.   Older men and younger travelers, men and women, who have stopped to renew themselves for their journey. Families sit together at the well, children leaning on their parent’s arms, swinging their feet absently to pass the time.

My escort stops a good distance from the well and takes off the robe. Its reminds me of a child from a nativity play, taking off his father’s bathrobe. The boy is wearing a wrinkled tee-shirt and jeans. He smiles at me and goes off to find his seat in the crowd. I pick up the robe and put it on, tying the sash around my waist. It doesn’t fit me very well either.

I walk toward the well and take a seat on a stone bench at the edge of the circle. Jesus continues to talk to the crowd, to touch the heads of small children as they wander up to the well and play in the open space at his feet.

His words do not sound urgent or hurried, but they are captivating. It is as if he speaks and the reality of this world becomes just a bit clearer. His words are not begging words of should and ought and urgent supplication, but being words of the reality which we seldom see. He reveals the parts of heaven which brush into our days and which we can take hold of and weave into the picture of who we are. He speaks his own spirit into our hearts and we feel an echo there, an answer which whispers a fervent “yes” to what he says we can be.

I am fed slowly by the words, each a drop of strength in the reservoir which was so empty. They fall onto my ears, into my soul.

Then he rises to go and looks around for his outer robe. It’s not on the well beside him, where he had placed it. The child who guided me here sneaks a look at me and wrinkles up his face in a silly grin, shrugging his shoulders. The robe I wrapped around me belongs to the Lord. Quickly I take it off and fold it over my arm. Tentatively, I make my way to the well and offer it to Jesus. He chuckles and takes the robe from my hands. Then he swings the robe up, as if to place it around his shoulders, but instead it envelopes the whole crowd. His robe wraps us all in warmth and hugs us in a collective union to himself.

Wrapped in his love, I think I can find the strength to enter my day. I do not feel triumphant, not even sure that I can accomplish what I have placed before myself to do. But I know that his word is slowly feeding my soul and bringing pieces of a different reality into my world of desires and fears.  So I am grateful, almost content, as I return to my office and my tasks.

1 24 95

[image modified from photo by amenclinicsphotos ac per cc 2.0]