the winter hill: God speaks in seasons

Every year I try to love winter. A little bit, at least, as much as a Midwesterner ought. I usually fail, flounder by February with dramatic declarations about how much I hate snow and sub-zero temps and skin cracked so dry it bleeds.

But this year I’m trying to be humbled by the cold dark, trying to see what I can learn from stark outlines of bare trees against white skies.

Maybe it’s because I have new views from windows to notice this year, or because the winter has been (mostly) light on snow. But I find myself drawn to the dark lines of the landscape around me, the hills that slowly emerged as leaves blew away last fall.

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When we moved here in the spring, the homes around us were hidden behind green trees and lush grass and rows of shrubs. Our new house was tucked into a corner of a hill with woods behind, and I marveled at the soft roll of the land as we walked through the neighborhood. But until winter stripped the yards bare, I didn’t realize how dramatic the hills leapt up around us, how many more I could spy from our upstairs window than I ever imagined when they were hidden in summer’s lush leaves.

At first I felt silly about discovering the hills six months after we moved in. What had I thought was underneath the rising sweep of trees around the road’s bend? But I couldn’t follow the fullness of the line until it was traced white with snow, the hills rolling higher and reaching further than my summer eyes could see.

Every morning now I rise to watch the hills, still surprised to them wrapping around me in this new place I call home.

. . .

I notice God in seasons. The surprise of springtime buds after the long winter, promised and delivered. The lush drench of summer green, fertile and waiting. The burst of autumn leaves, brilliant and fleeting. The hushed blanket of winter snow, stilling and silencing.

I find that God speaks differently as the seasons turn. However I feel or see or hear God at the time, whether in whispers or in silence, in laughter or in wind, it seems amplified by the world outside and echoed in the land around me. Like the shimmer of a summer lake in the brightness of morning or the cold blue dark of white stars scattered in fall’s night sky. God’s voice becomes warmer or colder, soaked or dry, brightly colored or drabbed in grey.

If I open my eyes, if I pause to look around, I am surprised every single time to find God there, outside as well as within, fuller than I expected.

. . .

Lately as I watch the hills, the words of Wendell Berry sift through my mind:

The hill is like an old woman, all her human obligations met, who sits at work day after day, in a kind of rapt leisure, at an intricate embroidery. She has time for all things. Because she does not expect ever to be finished, she is endlessly patient with details. She perfects flower and leaf, feather and song, adorning the briefest life in great beauty as though it were meant to last forever.

(from MaryAnn McKibben Dana’s Sabbath blog)

I love the image of God as the hill – the old woman resting in pure delight of her craft. Working and waiting. Patient and at peace. Resting in the beauty of the moment around her.

When the world presses in with its frantic whirling, I find stillness and strength in this image of the hills: God’s steady, quiet witness to our lives rolling on around the strong, silent center.

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She has time for all things. I wonder if this is what draws my eyes to the hills this winter: a longing for more time, deeper time, fuller time. For a God whose strong silence stills the racing worry of my own heart and mind.

For a God whose depth and width and breadth I can only start to trace when the world around me grows cold and dark.

God of the hosting

On this mountain, the Lord of hosts will make for all people a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear.

Isaiah 25:6

Let’s see. Days’ handful still
to go and so
much left here to be done.
The gathering of food and drink,
the trimming up of yard and home,
final invites, last sweep and mop of floor.
Making ready for a feast always demands
all that I have to give
and more, late nights spent
making lists, too many turns around dark kitchen
puttering and putting house to rest
only to rise again with to-do on my mind.

Endless preparation — do they ever guess
the time it takes,
those I welcome at the door,
embrace with kiss and laugh
and can-I-take-your-coat?
Behind the scenes is where the spread
takes life: the quiet rolling of the silverware
in napkins and the careful press of linen
wrinkles smoothed by iron’s steam.

Sometimes I wish that I could be the guest:
the ones arriving eager, ignorant
of sweat and hours poured into the party,
those who taste and savor,
do not spy undusted shelves
or frown at pie that browned too long.
I envy innocence
of answering and not inviting.

But over years hosting became a life,
the way to keep heart widened
like door creaked open in the winter cold,
wet snow stamped in
on boots piled high to dry
while party swells and spills
into the basement, front porch,
following wherever wine and laughter flow.

I love a crowd, the jostle
welcoming unlikely crew –
friends and in-laws, uninvited 
stragglers perched on couches
balancing full plates on napkinned knees,
squeals of children weaving between legs
of grown-ups clustered in the kitchen,
heart where warmth and good smells always grow.

Right here’s the rub that hosting brings
each year when holidays ring round again:
the joy of drawing close, of living for a night
the way we ought to love all year –
with beauty, generosity,
all energy on evening, no worry of tomorrow.
Just the small sweet joy
of many underneath one roof,
tired satisfaction sharing
all the good my life can give.

God of the gathering

How often have I desired to gather your children together

as a hen gathers her brood under her wings…

Matthew 13:37

Of course I love the days when they come back.
When dark drive floods with headlights,
tired travelers droop to baggage claim
and I leap up to greet them
bright-eyed, arms as wide as grin.
Soft tears springing right behind: You’re home!
I reach to pull them near and laugh
a muffled welcome into collars,
fall into the hug I’ve held in dreams,
remembering panged when phone would ring
from far away, quick update between worlds
and then goodbye, talk soon, take care –
empty that gnaws and grows
each time they leave.

When they were young, my wings
arched wide enough to hold them,
stretch around their needs, protect, provide,
make home.
But then they grew. I wanted
them to scurry off and run into the world
just as I hoped. And yet 
I never thought they’d drift so far.

Years went by when they did not return,
work or duty called, and travel hassles
at the holidays. I know
it’s life, I understand.
Still, one big brood under my roof is best:
Clucking, ruffling feathers (family after all)
the way I always dream.
Warmth of close reminding
love resides in flesh and bone.

Gathering is work. You’d never guess
the squeezing of the schedule
to make time and space for cooking, cleaning, 
organizing and awaiting, readying return.
And stretching of the heart, too 
wide enough to let back in.

Last night as I tucked blankets
into corners, smoothed the sheets for
now-guests in their childhood beds,
I thought of birds who pluck their feathers
to line soft their babies’ nest.
Always it is myself I give
to draw them home,
my loves that wander wide
then circle back to tell me
wisdom of the world
I’ve always known.

God of the baking

And again he said, “To what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

Luke 13:20-21

Here’s why I love to bake:
You start with nothing –
an idea, ingredients
of possibility, a plan and hope.
You slowly start to mix
measure and pour,
the transformation stirring with your spoon.
And suddenly it starts to look
and smell and taste alive –
creation sticky in my hands,
smeared between my fingers,
streaked across my hair.

The baker’s art takes patience,
planning, careful watch of
oven’s heat, directions’ time.
Forgiveness, too –
for cake that falls, deflated;
recipes that failed to rise.

Baking’s best as company affair:
Sometimes I cook with children –
grabbing cups and spoons to spill,
enthusiasm trumped only by sugar.
I sit and watch the wise work, too –
laughing, telling stories while they bake
with wrinkled hands,
forearms strong from years of kneading dough.

I ought to say that sharing is the best part –
breaking loaf and offering steaming slice in love.
But secretly I like to chew in silence:
taste alone the crunch of crust,
sink of teeth in softer middle’s heart.
Because creation’s sweetest in still morning
before the rest wake round me
greeting day with yawn and groan.
I love to feed their bellies,
but I need to rise alone.

God of the dishes

Wash away all my guilt; from my sin cleanse me.

Cleanse me with hyssop, that I may be pure;

wash me, make me whiter than snow.

A clean heart create for me, God; renew in me a steadfast spirit.

Psalm 51: 4, 9, 12

Dirty dishes stacked so high,
porcelain towers on my right and left.
I take the sponge in hand,
wring out the water, squeeze on soap,
and crank the faucet hot.
Steam rises as the stream heats, steady
I plunge plates and cups
into the bubbles swirled below.
Swish, wash, rinse, repeat;
the stack grows smaller as I go,
plates now neat and nestled
drying silent in the rack.
My hands turn pink and bright in sink's hot bath;
my fingers pruned and white by end of night.

Long ago I ate alone:
the solitary rinse of single
spoon and knife and fork.
These days I’m elbow deep in pans,
scrubbing steel pots ringed
thick with soup, browned casseroles
of dinners passed with family, friends
all those who gather for my meals.

Cynics see the stubborn cycle
of the grimy, gooey junk
caked hard on dishes left to sit too long
(pardon my love of lingering one last glass)
as dirty proof of life’s depressing rut:
the endless drag of meals and mouths to feed,
a plate’s only escape the break
that sends it swiftly to the bin.

But I delight in dishes,
love the dirty and the clean:
how they slide in slippery hands
before I scrub in circles swift,
how they flash with water’s drip
each time I lift them up to rise,
inspecting both sides slick and sheen,
then dry them satisfied.

For dishes prove that someone shared the meal,
that there was food to pass,
safe time to spare.
Companions, plenty and a pause
are no small good
in world of loneliness, 
want, rush and fear.
And if I'd none to wash,
that would mean no one took the cup.
What a tidy, terrible mistake
that empty would have been.

God of the sweeping

Or what woman having ten coins and losing one would not light a lamp and sweep the house, searching carefully until she finds it? And when she does find it, she calls together her friends and neighbors and says to them, “Rejoice with me because I have found the coin that I lost.” In just the same way, I tell you, there will be rejoicing among the angels of God over one sinner who repents.

Luke 15: 8-10

Every night I take the broom in hand,
both of us worn and tired
but still working.
As I stretch out arms
to reach the bristles’ brush,
the steady rhythm comes back easy,
drag of dirt across familiar floor.

Every day it slides the same:
crumbs, hair, dust, food 
all piled into tidy heaps
left waiting for the bin.
One swift dump, then goodbye.
But making clean is holy work –
refreshing for another day,
forgiving what is past and gone.
To gather, to release 
and then repeat
makes way, always
for one day more.

I know the time it takes,
the pattern of the pulling
corners into center,
how to turn and switch
the broom’s direction when the grit is stubborn.
Sometimes I even do my sweeping in the dark
when all the world’s asleep.

Only when I lose the precious
slipped under couch,
rolled into corner dark
or simply disappeared –
then only do I blaze the lights,
look steady as I clean, search
focused on the finding,
knowing work that will not fail.

But if I did not sweep each day,
memorize these floors,
their stains and scuffs,
then I could not seek what’s lost
when it’s the coin that matters most.
So thus it was and always must it be:
pull creaky closet door to find old broom,
swish brush, brush swish
reach pull, pull reach
and then again to rest.