Sermon: “The Worst/Best of Times” (Mt. 21:1-11) PALM SUNDAY [4/5/2020]

In a meeting with one of my clergy groups this week, we talked a lot about the “both-and-ness” of the times we’re living in.

The number of Covid cases in our country has topped 300,000.  There have been 8,400 deaths.  The need for ventilators and Personal Protective Equipment for healthcare workers is critical.  (Many thanks to those of you who are sewing masks!)  At least ten million people have lost their jobs.  The economy is taking a nose-dive.  The most basic human activity–meeting together for work, or play, or worship–is gone.  These are, indeed, the worst of times.

And, yet.  They’re also the best of times.  It’s like the whole world has been given a Sabbath.  We’re told to stay home, get plenty of rest, spend time with our families.

We aren’t able to meet in person, but Zoom is giving us the chance to stay connected.  I know it’s not the same as being together in person, but there are some real gifts of Zoom meetings…like, there’s no smell-o-vision on Zoom!  Nobody cares if we don’t shower every day.  Seriously, I’ve heard from many of you how grateful you are that we can meet.

 

Image may contain: plant, flower, nature and outdoor

(Photo credit:  Bev Reddick)

 

And Spring is here!  One of my colleagues on Thursday said, “I keep feeling awful…then I go outside and Spring is here!”  Yes!  Spring is here.  And it’s healing places inside us.

That’s another huge gift of the pandemic protocols–Earth is experiencing tremendous healing right now…and not just from lack of daily showering.  I’m doing my part for the world’s water supply.  “Scientists have seen how quickly the climate, and nature far and wide, is already revitalizing and recovering from human climate change damage.”

Yes, these are the worst of times and the best of times.  Inhabiting both times simultaneously is uncomfortable.  Yet, that is our reality right now.  In this time of pandemic, we’re having to live with both death and hope.

That pretty much describes the Palm Sunday story.  Like Jesus was mounted on both a donkey and a colt, the Palm Sunday story saddles us up to both death and hope.

Last week, we got a glimpse of the death part.  Jesus’ friend, Lazarus, becomes ill.  When Jesus proposes going to see Lazarus, his disciples say, “Whoa!  There are people in Jerusalem who want to kill you!  Why do you want to go there?”  When he sees that Jesus is determined to go, Thomas says, “Let us go and die with him.”

By the time they arrive, Lazarus is dead.  Jesus raises Lazarus…which spawns hope.  But death is still very much present.

So, when Jesus hops on the donkey and the colt, all this death hops on with him.  The narrative has been leading him to Jerusalem, which for him, means death.  Death is real.  Things have been happening that can’t be undone.  Curves don’t flatten magically by themselves.

And yet, co-existing with the death reality in this story is the hopeful reality demonstrated by all the people gathered to see Jesus enter Jerusalem.  He had done so much for them.  He had given so much to them.  He had healed so much in them.

Because of all he’d said and done, he’d become the people’s savior, their sovereign.  Their gratitude for who he was and everything he’d done for them poured out.  It was their gratitude that compelled them to throw down the cloaks and to cut branches from nearby trees to make a way for their Sovereign.

Death and hope…both drive the Palm Sunday narrative.  Death is all around.  Jesus has been telling the disciples for several chapters of Matthew that he will die in Jerusalem.  But hope is there, too…in the heartfelt joy being expressed by the people for their savior.  If we are to take this Palm Study story seriously, we have to embrace both the death and the hope.

If we are to take the times in which we’re living seriously, we’ll also have to embrace both the death and the hope.  It’s easy to see death as the only reality guiding the pandemic, especially when the numbers keep going up so fast.  And yet, hope is just as real in these worst/ best times.  We see that in the ways people are working together and helping each other.

What is needed in these difficult times, what is needed if we are to emerge from this experience stronger and more whole, is to be fully present to both realities: death and hope.

So, how do we do that?  How can we be fully present to death and to hope?

I’m sure there are lots of ways.  We can watch the news, but not too much.  We can spend time on Facebook, but not too much.  We can clean our houses, but not too much.

We can pray for the dead and dying…and for the loved ones they’re leaving behind, like our own Carol A, who lost her brother, Rev. Dr. Allen Janssen, to Covid on Friday night.  We can offer help, like sewing face masks, or contributing to the Battery Park food mission.  We can be brave and learn how to use Zoom, so we can attend the gatherings we’re having there.

When I think about holding both death and hope together in our minds and hearts, the first thing that comes to mind is last Thursday’s deacons meeting.

Here’s how it went.  We spent the first ten minutes just trying to get everybody fully present to the meeting.  We’d hear people’s voices, but not see their faces.  Then we’d see people’s face, but not hear their voices.  Then poor lighting made some people appear like the blob in that old science fiction movie.

Once we got settled in, we started checking-in, just to see how everyone was.  We learned that Carol A wouldn’t attend the meeting because her family was having to decide whether or not to take her brother off life-support.  We also heard about significant restrictions some people are under in their communities.  We shared feelings of isolation and frustration.  At the beginning of the meeting, we opened ourselves to the reality of death in the pandemic.

As the meeting continued, we shared other things…what folks had learned from checking in with their flocks.  What folks had learned from their flocks about connecting with worship online.  How we might create more groups in the church so that more people can get involved and stay connected with the FCUCC community.

By the end, we got a little punchy.  That’s when the laughter started.  Soft snickers soon turned into deep belly laughs.  Our tears had turned to joy!  We had created room for both death and hope.  I’m beginning to think it was making room for death that made it possible to experience joy and hopefulness.

I’m also convinced that it was our togetherness that made the difference.  Our togetherness made it possible to face the reality of the death all around us.  Our togetherness made it possible to give ourselves over to silly joy.  Our togetherness on Thursday afternoon planted and nurtured seeds of hope within us.

How can we be fully present to both death and hope in these worst/best times?  There are many ways.  The most effective ways of doing it, though–if Thursday’s deacons meeting is any indication–involve community.  How will we muster the strength to experience fully this pandemic, all the death AND all the hope?  We’ll do it by finding companions for the journey.

We sang this next hymn at Wednesday’s prayer service.  Allen and I also had it sung at our wedding.  It speaks directly to what is most important in a community.

 

 

 

 

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Meditation: “Long Hairs” (4/1/2020)

Anybody need a haircut?   I hate getting haircuts, but I’d give my eyeteeth for one right now.  I did see a video where a hairdresser tried to cut someone’s hair from six feet away.  I think a broom might have been involved.

As the shelter-in-place order goes on, we’re all slipping back into our natural hair.  Without a trim, my hair is getting unruly. My cowlicks are out of control. Any additional gray you might see is new.  I don’t color my hair. I’ve worked hard for this gray! Not that there’s anything wrong with coloring one’s hair. I did see on Facebook that one of our members–I won’t say who–rejoiced when their “Gray Away” arrived in the mail.

Not being able to get our hair done…it’s one of the hard things about the quarantine… 

As I was obsessing about my own lengthening hair, I wondered if there might be a story in the Bible about hair.  That’s when I remembered Samson.

In the book of Judges, you’ll find the story of Samson, dedicated by his parents at his birth to be a Nazorean.  For reference, John the Baptist also was a Nazorean. Living in the wilderness. Rough clothes and demeanor. Hair that never was cut.

Samson’s calling was defending the Israelites against the Philistines.  Mostly, he used his strength to do violence to the Philistines.  

Finally, the Philistines had had enough.  They bribed Samson’s girlfriend, Delilah, to discover the source of his strength.  The first time Delilah asked Samson the source of his strength, Samson told her if he was tied up with bowstrings, he’d become weak.  That night, Delilah tied Samson up with bowstrings. When the Philistines came to capture Samson, he easily burst out of them.

The next night when Delilah’s question came, he told her that if he was tied with brand new rope, he’d become weak.  She tied him up with new rope. Again, when the Philistines came, he burst through it.

The third night, Samson got really creative.  He told Delilah he’d become weak if 7 locks of his hair were woven into the fabric of a loom and fastened with a peg.  That night, she did exactly what he’d described. When the Philistines came, Samson again broke away.

By the fourth night, Samson had grown weary of Delilah’s nagging.  Finally he told her that his strength came from his uncut hair. He would become just like any other person if his head were shaved.  That night, the Philistines came and shaved his head and took Samson prisoner.

One of the gifts of this time of quarantine is reflecting on what precisely are our strengths.  Samson presented several sources for his strength to Delilah–bowstrings, rope, that thing with the loom.  But where did Samson’s strength really lie? In his long hair.

Before the pandemic, we also were presented with several possible sources of our strength–money, status, a good job.  But–maybe this is a stretch, or maybe not–but I think we’re discovering that our strength, too, lies in longer hair.

Our longer locks visibly demonstrate that we are following the pandemic protocols.  Why are we doing that? Because each of us wants to do our part to flatten the curve, to keep as many people as possible safe.  Our locks signify our compassion, our connection to others, our understanding that we’re all in this together, we’re all the same.  Talk about the great equalizer! Covid doesn’t care how much money you have, or where you live, or how good a job you have (or had).  Covid attacks all humans equally.

Our longer locks are one sign that we love all humans equally.  That is the greatest source of our strength–that we love all people equally.  That we treat all people equally. That we do what we can to help all people know, down to the marrow in their bones, that they are as worthy as any other human being.  

On Sunday, as I preached, with dismay I saw on my phone’s screen that one of my cowlicks was misbehaving.  It stuck straight up from the middle of the top of my head. I tried a couple of times to fix it, but, as you know, cowlicks are unfixable.  So…I had to preach with the cowlick. Such are the times we live in.

After spending some time with Samson, though, I’ve decided to take some pride in my longer hair, no matter what it looks like.  Don’t get me wrong. When this thing is over, I’m heading straight to the salon! For now, though, I’m learning to see longer hair as a sign of strength.

It’s something we all can do.  Whenever you’re Facetiming or Zooming with someone and notice their, perhaps, shaggy appearance, just think– “That is one strong person.  That is someone who loves all people equally. That person is kind, compassionate, and connected to others. That’s someone who gets the fact that we’re all in this together.”

And may that be our mantra as the pandemic and our hair continue to lengthen–we’re all in this thing together.

 

We’re all in this thing together, walking the line between faith and fear.

This life don’t last forever.  When you cry, I taste the salt in your tears.  (Ketch Secor)

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Bulletin: Wednesday Prayer (4/1/2020)

Wednesday Prayer (4/1/2020)

 

Welcome

 

Silence

 

Poem:  “Wild Geese,” by Mary Oliver

 

Hymn            Won’t You Let Me Be Your Servant? BEACH SPRING

 

Won’t you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you.

Pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant, too.

We are pilgrims on a journey, we are travelers on the road;

We are here to help each other go the mile and bear the load.

 

I will hold the Christ-light for you in the shadow of your fear;

I will hold my hand out to you, speak the peace you long to hear.

I will weep when you are weeping; when you laugh, I’ll laugh with you.

I will share your joy and sorrow till we’ve seen this journey through.

 

When we sing to God in heaven we shall find such harmony,

Born of all we’ve known together of Christ’s love and agony.

Won’t you let me be your servant, let me be as Chrsti to you?

Pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant, too.

 

Confession:  Telling God how it is with us today.

 

Silence

 

Assurance of Grace

One fact remains that does not change:  God has loved you, loves you now, and will 

always love you.  This is the good news that brings us new life.  Thanks be to God!

 

Song                   Give Peace                Taize

 

Give peace to every heart.  Give Peace to every heart.

Give peace, God.  Give peace.

 

Meditation                   Long Hairs                                              Kim Buchanan

 

Song We’re All in this Thing Together        Ketch Secor and Willie Watson

 

We’re all in this thing together, walking the line between faith and fear.

This life don’t last forever.  When you cry, I taste the salt in your tears.

 

 

 

Joys, Concerns, and Hopes

This is my prayer to God.  Your prayer is now our prayer.

 

Prayers

God, in your mercy, Hear our prayer.

 

Prayer of Jesus

Our Mother and Father in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kindom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.  And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kindom, the power, and the glory forever. Amen. 

 

Benediction  All Shall Be Well Kim Buchanan

All shall be well.  All shall be well.

Even in the darkest night, All shall be well.

 

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Sermon: “Rushing Resurrection” (John 11:1-45) [3/29/2020]

March 17th, I got a text from Dennis, our flower guru, asking if we should cancel our order for Easter lilies.  Together, we decided that, yes, we probably needed to cancel the order.  The next morning, this poem emerged.

Today,

we canceled

the Easter lilies–

 

signs of life

emerging

after traumatic death.

 

Symbols of rebirth,

resurrection.

 

Canceled.

 

Certainly,

Easter–

scheduled long ago–

will come,

like always.

 

We’ll say the words.

We’ll sing the songs.

We’ll hear the familiar story…

 

But will we experience

resurrection?

 

Will we respond to Jesus’ voice

and cast off our death clothes?

 

Will we emerge

from our Covid tombs

ready to live?

 

Despite what the president says, we won’t be worshiping together in our sanctuary on Easter Sunday.  We’ll do our best to tell the resurrection story online, but it won’t be the same.  We’ll say the words and sing the songs, but Easter’s going to feel pretty different this year.

I confess, I’ve been pretty angry about our president’s stated hope that all of this shelter-in-place thing will be over in time to have packed churches on Easter Sunday.  NO medical expert has suggested that would be wise, even in places with few Covid cases.

Once I worked through my anger, I saw the president’s stated wish as a sign of anxiety.  In his anxiety about the economy and getting re-elected, our president has tried to schedule resurrection.  But, the joke’s on him.  Resurrection is un-schedule-able.  Resurrection comes in its own time.  Try as we might, we can’t rush resurrection.

Timing, bad timing, is the star in today’s story about Lazarus.  First, this resurrection story comes two weeks before Jesus’ resurrection, which is, of course, this seaon’s main event.

Then you’ve got the weirdness of Jesus staying where he is when he gets word that Lazarus is dying, instead of going to his friend.

In addition to that, there’s the awkward timing of Lazarus having been dead four days when Jesus finally arrives.  Martha–who, I’m happy to report, tested negative for Covid-19–said, “Um, Jesus, there’s going to be a stench.”  No loss of the sense of smell for Martha!

By the time we get to the moment when Jesus weeps over his friend’s death, it seems like a thousand opportunities have been missed.  And maybe they had been.  But maybe, too, things were going so fast–like they are now with Covid–maybe circumstances were changing so fast that it just wasn’t possible to get everything coordinated.  Maybe there was nothing else that could have been done.  Maybe there was no way to avoid Lazarus’ death.  Maybe that’s why Jesus weeps.

Maybe Jesus weeps because, sometimes, circumstances simply are what they are.  Sometimes, there literally is NOTHING we can do to alleviate suffering.  Sometimes, people experience horrible things on our watch.  Sometimes, people die on our watch.

Perhaps the hardest thing for many of us to deal with right now, is being so limited in our ability to help those who are in need.  If I’ve learned anything in my two years as your pastor, it’s that this congregation–as a matter of faith, as a matter of justice, as a matter of acting the world into wellbeing in Jesus’ name–this congregation helps people.  We go where people are hurting.  We stand with people who are experiencing injustice.  We feed the hungry and visit the imprisoned.

But now?  We can do very few of the things… that are like breathing for us.  How grateful we’ve been for the crew that’s been providing lunches at Battery Park.  With the new restrictions, we’re now having to limit that work.  We’re having to limit just about everything we want to do to help others.  Is anybody else feeling disempowered by that?

There’s so much uncertainty right now.  So much anxiety.  So much death.  I wouldn’t mind if resurrection came early this year.  But, as the president soon will learn, you can’t rush resurrection.  As much as we might like to, we can’t force resurrection to happen.  What we can do, though, is to prepare ourselves to receive resurrection when it does come.

When Jesus tells Martha that Lazarus will rise again, she says, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”  Jesus says to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ She tells him, ‘Yes, I believe that you are the Messiah.’

The belief Martha professes–an unwavering faith in Jesus, even in the face of profound uncertainty—Martha’s belief in Jesus makes it possible for her to experience resurrection.  Resurrection probably was the last thing she expected that morning when she woke up.  But resurrection happened… and it happened because she was open to it happening.

So, the question becomes, not, what can we do to make resurrection happen?  The question in these uncertain times is, How might we open ourselves to experiencing resurrection, so that we don’t miss it when it does come?

Friday afternoon, I participated in a conference call with other clergy and “Fletcher Tove, Buncombe County Emergency Preparedness Director.  Fletch told us that epidemiological models suggest this first round of the virus will last into the Fall.

That doesn’t mean we’ll be on lockdown until the Fall.  They’re calling our response to the virus “the hammer and the dance.”  When there’s a spike in Covid cases, we’ll go into shelter-in-place orders, like we’re in now.  That’s the “hammer” part.  When the curve flattens and the number of Covid cases goes down, restrictions will be eased and we’ll go back to some semblance of normal.  That’s the “dance.”  When cases spike again, we’ll move back into the hammer response for a few weeks, then, when the number of new cases drops, we’ll go back to dance mode.  We’ll be in this pattern of response until a vaccine for the virus is developed.

Today’s service, with all its references to dancing, already was planned before I learned about the hammer and the dance.  When I heard Fletcher describe it, though, I realized that it’s a great description of how to prepare for resurrection.  Right now, we’re under the hammer…or, maybe, in the cave.  But if we are vigilant, if we keep our eyes open, if we take the reality we’re living in seriously, if we stay open to it, we’ll be prepared to experience resurrection whenever it chooses come.  One more poem.

Once, the leader of

a troubled nation

tried to schedule

resurrection.

 

He did not know that

a scheduled resurrection

is no resurrection at all.

 

Resurrection

can’t

be

rushed.

 

Resurrection comes

when our hope for it has died.

 

Resurrection comes

when we have faced death

and accepted it.

 

Resurrection comes

when we let go of our need

to control

and open ourselves

to all the world offers–

joy and pain

grace and struggle

life and death

 

Resurrection comes to

the humble

the realistic

the compassionate

the creative

the kind.

 

Resurrection comes

when we least expect it.

 

Resurrection comes

when we most need it.

 

It’s also true that

resurrection doesn’t come

every time.

Sometimes, death is 

the last word.

 

But if we remain open–

our hearts

our minds

our spirits…

 

If we remain open…

If resurrection comes–

–whenever it comes

Then, resurrection

will come to us.

 

And then,

we’ll dance!

Dance lessons and social dancing around the Sound - Greater ...

(Cue:  “I Feel Good”)

 

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Bulletin: FCUCC Worship (3/29/2020)

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Reflection: Wednesday prayer (3/25/2020)

Gospel Lesson   MATTHEW 6:25-34

‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your Abba God feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will God not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 

Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?”  Those without faith strive for all these things. God knows everything you need. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.’  

*****************

Anybody else having trouble sleeping?  I fell asleep quickly last night, but then woke up about 1:00 and worried until I drifted back asleep at 3:00… wondering if and when the shelter-in-place order would come… and trying to figure out what that will mean for Allen, Mom, and me, for our congregation, for the seniors at Battery Park, for people without homes, for children who now are home with their families 24/7, some in homes that aren’t safe.  

I also worried about what we would do in this prayer service.  I worried about the technology. I worried about excluding folks who aren’t on Facebook.  I worried about, as one meme put it, how not to look like I’m in a hostage video while leading the service.  Have I mentioned that I have a spiritual gift for worry?

Somewhere between 1 and 3 this morning, the verses I just read came to me:  “Do not worry about your life.” Sometimes, God’s not so subtle. But surely, it’s okay to worry now, right?  If ever there was a time for worry, this is it, right?

Some other words came to me in the wee hours this morning–a line spoken frequently by Patel, owner of a dilapidated hotel in India called The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.  In a movie of the same name, several elders from England have come to stay in the hotel.  Every time a guest complains–no phone service, no water–Patel tells them, “Everything will be all right in the end.  If it’s not all right, it is not yet the end.”

I find comfort in Jesus’ words in Matthew.  I also find comfort in Patel’s words. They remind us that things might be uncomfortable, inconvenient–and worse–in the coming days and weeks.  But where we are today need not be where we end up on the far side of this pandemic. If we keep working, if we keep looking to the ways God provides for even the smallest creature, if we re-engage with creation, as Jesus’ words invite us to do…if we do these things, then, perhaps, just maybe, we can create an ending in which everything IS all right.

A week ago, I got a note with the subject line:  “All is well????” I’m not sure, but it might have been in response to the sermon where I told the story of Julian of Norwich, who in the midst of the Black Death, had a vision of God saying, “All shall be well, all shall be well, all manner of thing shall be well.”

Julian’s line was a 14th century precursor to Patel’s.  To say that all shall be well is not to say all is well now…not at all.  But saying the words, “All shall be well,” especially when things aren’t well, is a way of saying, We’re still working on it, we’re still hopeful about where this journey might lead, we’re still alive.

So…all might not be well now.  Right now, all might be chaotic and frustrating and downright scary.  But, if we keep working on it, if we continue reaching out to nature, if we keep reaching out to each other, if we keep remembering that God knows our every need and is with us every minute of every day…if we do these things, then it just might be that everything will come out all right in the end.

All shall be well.  All shall be well.

Even in the darkest night, All shall be well.

 

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Bulletin: Wednesday Worship (3/25/2020)

Wednesday Prayer (3/25/2020)

Welcome

Silence

Poem:  “The Peace of Wild Things,” by Wendell Berry

Song                   Give Peace                Taize

Give peace to every heart.  Give Peace to every heart.

Give peace.  Give peace.

 

Confession:  Telling God how it is with us today.

 

Silence

 

Assurance of Grace

One fact remains that does not change:  God has loved you, loves you now, and will 

always love you.  This is the good news that brings us new life.  Thanks be to God!

 

Hymn            It Is Well with My Soul

When peace like a river attendeth my way

When sorrows like sea billows roll

Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say

It is well, it is well with my soul.

 

It is well, with my soul.

It is well, it is well with my soul.

 

Gospel Lesson   MATTHEW 6:25-34

If you respond to these words, then for you, they have become the word of the still-speaking God.  Thanks be to God!

 

Song                      God’s Eye Is on the Sparrow                               Charles H. Gabriel

 

Meditation                   Don’t Worry?                                                     Kim Buchanan

 

Song All Shall Be Well Kim Buchanan

All shall be well.  All shall be well.

Even in the darkest night, All shall be well.

 

Joys, Concerns, and Hopes

This is my prayer to God.  Your prayer is now our prayer.

 

Prayers

God, in your mercy, Hear our prayer.

 

Prayer of Jesus

Our Mother and Father in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kindom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.  And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kindom, the power, and the glory forever. Amen. 

 

Hymn            It Is Well with My Soul

When peace like a river attendeth my way

When sorrows like sea billows roll

Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say

It is well, it is well with my soul.

 

It is well, with my soul.

It is well, it is well with my soul.

 

Benediction:  Poem: “The Peace of Wild Things,” by Wendell Berry

 

When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

 

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