-English poet, John Donne
Yesterday, I was returning home from Rice Lake, a weekly drive I have made hundreds of times over the past dozen years. Time and repetition have created familiarity. For all its seasonal changes, the contours of the landscape have become a part of me. Just north of Chippewa Falls, I always look at a certain field, a shallow bowl protected on two sides by a ridge of mixed hardwoods. I once saw a black bear sitting in that field eating corn. I have hoped to see him again, though I never have.
Further north, a horse farm is nestled in the hills. I often wonder, how many horses do they have? I have never been able to count, but each season, new foals join the group. They chase the older ones through the large pasture, sparsely dotted with large round bails.
I cross three rivers. Typically calm and unassuming, when bitter winter air presses down upon the water, they breathe blankets of fog into the atmosphere. Though a visible reminder of the cold, these low clouds are welcomed beauty.
Although I have come to love each of these scenes, they have been casual companions. Not so this barn; she has been a true friend. Whether driving north or south, I have always looked at her. On the rare occasion I have had others ride along with me, I have always pointed her out with fondness. My office wall features a watercolor I made of this barn. Though I never shared this with my wife, I once toyed with the idea of finding out if this homestead was for sale. Okay, more than once.
Yesterday, as I drove home, I saw a pillar of gray smoke rising through the raindrops. I suspected it was the burn pile that is often smoking in the afternoons. Yet, as I rounded a curve on 53 South, I saw what was left of the barn–my barn–smoldering on the ground. I knew it was coming. The house has been gone for several months, yet I was filled with sadness and a sense of loss. My old friend was no longer.
How does one develop a particular affection for something inanimate? Why had this barn, a skeleton really, had such a hold on me? Why this farm, and not another? I cannot truly say. Partly, I believe, it projected wisdom, strength, and beauty. It represented for me a lifelong love of farms, but more importantly, for the farmers I have known and loved–my grandfather Wilfred, my uncle Paul, my uncle John–many of them, like this barn, now passed on.
We don’t love generalities, we love specifics. We cannot love creation without recognizing that we live in a specific place. We cannot love humankind without loving particular people. We are embedded in specific families, communities, and cultures at a particular time in history. This farm has been a part of my story over the last dozen years and has been imprinted upon my heart. Other people and other places, some known only briefly and some known for a lifetime, also exist there. They are a part of me.
And so I say goodbye, old friend. Thank you for being an important part of my life.
Beauty, is above all, a manifestation of grace, of abundance and generosity. It’s the reason why God placed flowers on the earth: to have little voices calling to us constantly about grace.-Dallas Willard
From my book, Soil of the Divine
Morning breaks forth after cool night,
like a child from the womb
sometimes with barely a sound
but always in beauty.
Whether coiffured clouds
or baldheaded sun,
the morning’s emerging light
and blanket of dew
remind of God’s mercies
each morning made new.
From the womb of the morning,
the dew of your youth will be yours.
If we cultivate the art of inner quiet and develop habits to nurture the mind’s green fields, we will hear the melodies of heaven. – Suzanne Rhodes
Omniscient Creator, willing Redeemer, ever-present Sustainer,
the glory of goodness and the vastness of beauty
flow unendingly from your throne.
You attend to every detail
upholding the cosmos
moment by moment
breath by breath
and yet I fail to see.
I dull my senses
living in the mundane
failing to notice your manifold works
the pervasiveness of your beauty.
My interest is lukewarm.
I neglect your presence in the sensate world.
Teach me, O Spirit, to attend with wonder
to the expansiveness of your creation
remembering that you, O LORD,
are present in all things beautiful.
Awe came upon every soul–Acts 2:43a
I awoke at four. My internal timekeeper has recently decided the day begins then, even when I have the day off. After a shower, coffee, and some time with Jesus, I looked at my schedule for the day. I smiled at the words “Jason Off.” My only other responsibility for the day was to transport my dear brother and sister-in-law to the Ice Age Trail. They were beginning a three day, 26 mile hike.
At about 8:30, Derrick called and we agreed to meet in Cornell, a small town northeast of Eau Claire. They would leave their vehicle sit and I would transport them to New Auburn where they would begin their eastward journey. As the oldest sibling, I could not resist parenting them once more. “The heat index is going to be 110 degrees. Are you sure?” “Yes,” came the confident reply.
We loaded their gear into my non-air-conditioned F250 and caught up some. We talked about tattoos as they celebrated my recent acquisition, and we talked about kids, and art, and bed-making. I explained that research demonstrates that unmade beds are healthier, because they are not incubators for cooties. Bridget wasn’t buying it.
We also talked of gratitude, a virtue many of us fail to practice regularly. It is easy to devolve into a rhythm of complaint. Our lives become minor chord progressions that never seem to resolve. Negativity becomes what it hates. Thoughts continually focused upon what is bad give way to depression.
Yet, there is so much for which we can be grateful if we are willing to open our eyes. As I drove the country road north into Cornell, fields mostly of green surrounded me. I passed by one field still dressed in brown and I wondered whether the farmer chose to leave it fallow for the year. At full sprint, a well-muscle coyote darted in front of my truck. It seemed on mission, though I saw no roadrunner.
When I dropped Derrick and Bridget off at the trail head, we stood in a grassy field. There were purple flowers, and white, but the orange ones stood out. Only a single plant, flaming brightly like a campfire in the midst of a large clearing. I hugged them goodbye and began the trip home.
Along the way, I saw a thrift store and yard sale sharing the same parking lot. I had already driven past when it captured my attention, so I reversed course. Selling out of the back of an old trailer was an even older gentleman. His kindness was palpable. He frequents estate sales, but he only likes the ones that are handled by the family. I learned that when companies run them, they are too expensive. Although several tables held treasures untold, only one item captured my attention: a nondescript 12-string guitar. Its only marking was a small green tag, which read
I looked again to be sure. I hadn’t mistaken the price. Together with its brand new soft-sided case, I didn’t even hesitate. The man had never seen a guitar with twelve strings and he wondered if I played. I told him, “Yes. A bit, but not as well as my son.” I had no desire to barter, but he said to me, “how ’bout an even 35?” I smiled and handed him three crisp bills, eager to share my find with my family.
As I drove the 30 minutes home, I was reminded of God’s goodness. He is everywhere present–in the generosity of an octogenarian, in a blossom’s flame, in the speed of a coyote, and in the embrace of a brother.
If we were willing to pay attention and stay present to the moment, we could fill a notebook each day with the things for which we are grateful.
How about you? What are you grateful for today?
In 1991, a man wielding a hammer beneath his jacket attacked Michelangelo’s David, one of the most recognizable pieces of art in the world. In 1972, Michelangelo’s Pieta–in my opinion the most beautiful sculpture in existence–was also attacked and disfigured.
Michelangelo crafted the Pieta in the late 1400s and David in the early 1500s, wielding a hammer and chisels. In the case of David, he was faced with a giant block of marble that had stood rejected by other artists for 40 years. Yet in that shapeless piece of stone, he saw beauty. He released David. Removing rock and shaping limbs, he released the hero, revealing beauty.
Each of us are given daily choices. We can use the tools we have been given to highlight and reveal beauty, or we can use them to destroy. So much of what I see on social media is disintegrating and destructive. People seek to press their opinions without seeking to embody love. Yet divisiveness isn’t limited to social media. How we speak with our families can also prove destructive rather than encouraging and upbuilding. Our judgmental glances, looks, and words toward those who are different from us are destructive.
Each day, we are given choices to seek peace or conflict; to live beautifully or cruelly; to seek commonality or promote division.
What are you doing with your tools?
In the spring of the year
they rise from their slumber,
slender stalks supporting
their bright composure
punctuating the cool green;
yet they are transient.
Bright blonde giving way to
until a breeze blows upon it
and it’s gone.
But God is a forget-me-not.
His steadfast love never ceases,
though He plucks and blows
upon the flower,
He spreads the seeds
upon the wind…
His breath carries life abundant
where many see death.
A reflection on Psalm 103 from my book Soil of the Divine.