Since my last poem, “October Fire,” I encountered “The Bright Field” by R. S. Thomas, a Welsh poet and Anglican priest of the last century. It’s theme of illumination is so allied to mine (though its poetic genius far eclipses mine) that I’d like to share it with you, that it might enflame and brighten your heart with hope. We are living in times that make us distrust the very leaders and experts that vie for our trust, and suspect the motives of those who claim to speak for the general welfare, for the sick, the poor and the oppressed. Our hopes have been misplaced if they have been placed on men and women. In the days leading up to our national election, let us pray that many will turn to the only true source of hope, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and reach out again to their neighbor on every street and every corner with grace and love.
The newly sprung Black-Eyed Susans, the weighty towers of St. Paul’s,
Touch the sky equally, centuried grandiose the one, the other idly,
Like the newborn in her pram reaching talcumed arms to a light blue
Or the redoubtable keen-eyed woman, confined within, searching clouds,
Hope-stretched each, bodies strung diversely, each her own,
Stalwart with suffering and age, supple green in yearning:
My God, not to touch the sky, but that You would touch our faces
And by that material touch, transfigure space and time to glory, joy unspeakable.
2 Corinthians 3:18 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
Revelation 22:20 He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
I lift up my eyes
one day’s dawn closer
Love’s banners streaming
nail-scarred grace unrelenting
boundless praise flowing
a radiant crescendo
jeweled vision before me —
Psalm 84: 5-7 NIV
Blessed are those whose strength is in you, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage. As they pass through the valley of Baka, they make it a place of springs; the autumn rains also cover it with pools. They go from strength to strength, till each appears before God in Zion.
“He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11)
It’s not time that drips so slow
through the coffee grinds of the past
that percolates in the heat of memory
now distilling the sweet and bitter
into a narcotic pool of the half-remembered.
It’s not space that encroaches
into visions that come in the night
to shake the weary from slumber
and snap the mind to stark awakening
in the light of the inexorable coming.
It’s eternity placed in the center of being
robbing the world of its threatening specters
carcasses of vanity parading through cheap confetti
chained to open graves of corruption and pride
rotting corpses in that day’s foretold light.
Oh You who call me from realms free of time
where space recedes to glorious expanse of a new dawn
who cautions me in apostolic prophecy,
who stations in my heart the outpost of your dominion,
Oh, now greet me, now descend anew with thy holy kiss!
See my sisters’ blood and my brothers’
in my church in Egypt, in Sri Lanka, India,
and Pakistan, in South Sudan, in Nashville,
and Indonesia, China, Iraq and Louisiana,
Nigeria, North Korea, Iran, Syria
Somalia, Yemen, Eritrea.
Children dead for their faith
in One who died upon the cross
and rose on Easter morn.
The way I take You know, O Lord:
The stony path, the cheerless track —
No glory here, no crowds to say
How well you ran through pain, through tears.
But cheerless whispers resound at dusk
When silence falls and fears draw near
A crowd of strangers along the way
Their dirgeish voices battering faith.
The way I take You know, O Lord:
I cannot see around the bend —
When nights put flight diminishing days,
I reach for stars and gather dark;
I reach for You and though You’re there
My inward light burns low for sight.
Still I can hear Your Shepherd’s voice
The words You speak like strengthening rays
Of life, of health, of love, of grace.
The way I take You know, O Lord:
It leads me to my Father’s home —
Still while I’m here let this race be won
Not for my name but Yours alone!
My blessing in Your promise fulfilled,
Your Name borne high, Your word shown true;
I wait on You, Thy glory craving,
Your will to see, My will subdued,
Till that day You lift me up
And bear me high to shouts of joy
As in Your victory, mine abounds.
nota bene, 12/19/2018: A couple of weeks after writing this, I read these powerful lines from the pen of that master poet/hymn writer John Newton (Olney Hymns, 1779):
Though sometimes unperceived by sense,
Faith sees Him always near;
A Guide, a Glory, a Defence,
Then what have you to fear?
As surely as He overcame,
And triumphed once for you;
So surely you, that love His name,
Shall triumph in him too.
If you live in the world long enough, you will go through hard and painful times when, as the Psalmist writes, darkness seems your closest friend. The atheist and the Christian alike cry out, “Why?” Yet even when you know the answer is the fallen world in which we live, there is no satisfaction but what we most desire: help, release, escape from our anguish and circumstance, those things easily cried out for but often bitterly delayed.
As with Job, there seems no shortage of counsel to be got from trusted sources. “Offer your sufferings to God,” says one. But what does that mean? “Our hope lies in heaven, think on that,” says another. But does God then deny us help on this side of heaven? “The real miracle today is faith; the miracles of the New Testament have ceased and were for the early church.” But is that scriptural? Then the counsel most often given: “Pray and believe in the promises of the Bible.” But which ones, whose interpretation, and to what extent?
It’s the last piece of wisdom that troubles the most. If you are one of those least prone to truncate scriptural promises by rationalization, prepared to be as a child looking to the father, this one should give unmitigated hope:
The prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up; if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is very powerful in its effect. — James 5:15-16 (CSB)
But prayer, when uttered in the darkness, feels hopeless after many a cry and many a month or year has gone by:
I am like a man without strength,
abandoned among the dead.
I am like the slain lying in the grave,
whom you no longer remember,
and who are cut off from your care.
You have put me in the lowest part of the Pit,
in the darkest places, in the depths.
… But I call to you for help, Lord;
in the morning my prayer meets you.
Lord, why do you reject me?
Why do you hide your face from me?
— Psalms 88:4-6, 13-14 (CSB)
Faith, even as it’s being tested, seems too feeble to do the job. The very struggle seems designed to undermine what little there is so that, like the man who came to Jesus pleading for his son’s deliverance, we are even inclined to doubt out Lord’s willingness or even power. We judge His resources, His compassion, by ours which lag behind to an infinite degree.
But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.”
Jesus said to him, “ ‘If you can’? Everything is possible for the one who believes.”
Immediately the father of the boy cried out, “I do believe; help my unbelief! ”
— Mark 9:22-24 (CSB)
So where does that leave us? Not with the unwise words of comforters who say “yes & no” to the imperishable faith in God’s very present help. Not with words at all. After all, the last words of that most bleak psalm are, “Darkness is my only friend” (88:18). Yet the sense of hopelessness, even in the psalmist, is deceiving. There is hope. A glorious one.
The man who cried, “Help my unbelief!” was helped because he was looking straight into the face of Jesus. So too must we look not at ourselves or at the unwise words of our counselors who muddy up the waters of scripture according to their own doubts and fears, but to One who is the Light in our darkness.
As God is faithful, our message to you is not “Yes and no.” For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you … did not become “Yes and no.” On the contrary, in him it is always “Yes.” For every one of God’s promises is “Yes” in him. Therefore, through him we also say “Amen” to the glory of God.
— 2 Corinthians 1:18-20 (CSB)
Blessed is the one who endures trials, because when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.
— James 1:12 (CSB)
This morning I read chapters 12 through 14 in the book of Job, the words of a man alternately addressing God and his deluded comforters in the midst of his suffering. Immediately after, I read the first chapter of Luke. The juxtaposition of the two readings left a strange sensation, a net of chiaroscuro, light and shadow, the sunrise of salvation and the nihilism of pain.
Oddly, there came to my mind, Agatha Christie’s psychological novel, Absent in the Spring, and Shakespeare’s sonnet from which it drew its title.
From you have I been absent in the spring,
When proud-pied April, dressed in all his trim,
Hath put a spirit of youth in everything,
That heavy Saturn laughed and leaped with him,
Yet nor the lays of birds, nor the sweet smell
Of different flowers in odor and in hue,
Could make me any summer’s story tell,
Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew.
Nor did I wonder at the lily’s white,
Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose;
They were but sweet, but figures of delight,
Drawn after you, you pattern of all those.
Yet seemed it winter still, and, you away,
As with your shadow I with these did play.
Caught in the pain of loss, the poet’s world is colored by it. What used to penetrate his senses with beauty now sharpens the knife’s edge of absence. Everything is a shadow of what it once was or ought to be and he is deeply aware of it.
Not so the narrator of the psychological Christie novel. She is absent to her own loss, that is, she doesn’t know what she’s missing. For a brief time an awareness of her loss, her failure to “be there” for those she claims to love, all of life that she’s failed to see and missed, cuts into her consciousness. Her grief is almost unendurable and she is overwhelmed by regret. She determines to change and make amends. But the moment passes like a mirage in the desert heat. She returns to her narcissistic life “absent” once again, oblivious to the misery of those who need her the most.
The pain of loss absorbs Job’s consciousness. But he engages with God through it all. While his “comforters” try to justify his suffering, Job goes straight to the One who can get him though it. He will not “curse God and die” as his wife advises. He will not absent himself to his suffering. He will neither deny it nor flee from it. Instead, in his suffering he looks for God. He remembers who God is. He knows that whatever the season, the summer of abundance or the winter of loss, God is unchanging, steadfast in love and faithfulness and sovereign in power. This knowledge emboldens Job and shores up his hope so that he doesn’t fall into the despair with which Satan tempts us during hard times.
It is the first chapter of Luke that puts it all in perspective. This is where Christ’s birth is announced. Zechariah breaks into a joyful song of expectation and Mary bursts into a paean of praise as her spirit rejoices in God her Savior. Jesus’s birth breaks into history, the history of the world and our own personal history. His birth is pivotal to our understanding of temporal loss because His birth is the moment in time when the eternal becomes more real, more true, more present than absence caused by loss, whether the loss of health or loss through death.
His presence overtakes the absence. His reality in history, in the flesh, through His death and resurrection, overshadows everything. Eternity trumps the temporal. And by the word of God through the Holy Spirit we glean it daily as God who suffered here on earth suffers yet with us, making more real to us the glory that awaits us when we see Him face to face.
Praise God for that day!
Job 19: 25 (NASB)
“As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives, And at the last He will take His stand on the earth.”
2 Corinthians 4:17-18 (ESV)
For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
Hebrews 2: 14-15 (ESV)
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.