When I step into these dark nights, I admire how Orion throws a thigh over the barn roof, our place dark but all around a ring of lights, neighbors I know and don’t. Headlights along the two roads to the west. Sometimes I watch the freight train’s headlamp move through the darkness, it’s horn blowing at each crossing and the rumble of hundreds of steel wheels rolling over steel, the weight of them, filling the night. These nights we don’t hear coyotes howling in protest. Twice now when Bruce and I crossed the tracks, almost home, we’ve seen the headlamp burning bright, coming faster than it looks because it’s coming at us, and I want Bruce to stop so I can take a picture, but not really, and he drives on.
I feel like I’m swimming in darkness just this side of Solstice. When I walk the dogs around the house my feet have a hard time finding level ground. I feel lame. I don’t use a flashlight, following the dog’s nose, saying Go Potty, to make sure she focuses. These clear nights I don’t see as well as I do when the night sky is covered, maybe because the buffered light from towns throws enough light to see. Often the moon throws shadows that are nearly bright as day and beautiful.
When it’s cold Bruce will take the dogs, a kindness when I’ve been asleep on the couch, my favorite show not interesting enough to keep my eyes open, and I am so woozy I need to sit down before I head upstairs. On clear lights I get one last look at Orion, who has slung his legs into the sky over the tree when I walk out for final chores. I watch how the clouds spread across the sky and maybe catch a few minutes to just be, to sink into my senses and offer thanks for what I see, feel, taste, touch, smell even though it’s bitter or damp to the bones cold.
When I still lived at home in New York, I walked out our mile long road, the cats following me. I left the house when the news came on. And walked past the giant white pines with their low notes when the wind caught them. They met at right angles leaving a gap for the road. Then I turned a corner and walked down the hill past a low spot, so wet, cattails grew there and past the final row of white pines that set the border between our property and the Genovesi’s property.
Sometimes dairy cows grazed alongside and kept the hills and valleys mowed down to grasslands. My goodness those valleys were magnificent and ran nearly to Slingerlands, a nearly clear ride on horseback to Mosher’s airstrip and my aunt and uncle’s house. Now it’s all grown up, the two pear trees at the last hill down before I walked up to the crossroads having seeded the valley.
I knew that road, the long hill up and then a dip and then a straightaway to the final hill down and up to the crossroads that lead out to Font Grove and back to the dairy barn and white Victorian farmhouse. I knew where the potholes formed after the county covered them with sharp bluestone and my parents cars broke it down to fine gravel. Snow plows scraped and softened things too.
I walked my prayers and told God all about it, not unlike I do now when I walk the dogs. Prayer was and still is praying for people. I also asked for help on exams and papers because I was so blocked I had to rewrite sentences until I found what I was going to say. Those days I begged God bring my classmates to him. We’d studied “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” by Jonathan Edwards—people like spiders dangling over the consuming fire of eternal conscious torment which impressed me with terror for my friends, especially the boys for whom I carried a crush. I didn’t know what else to do with my feelings but pray. I was assured of my salvation, convinced with tears if I was the only one who’d sinned Jesus would have died for me.
But I worried about my friends at school. (I don’t doubt that sermon convinced some to be atheists.) I was raised on hell and damnation, hearing preachers warn of eternal separation from God. Even though I was weeping and gnashing my teeth and in outer darkness, they thundered this was sinners destiny forever and ever if people didn’t say the words Jesus I repent of my sins and accept you into my heart. The preachers told story after story how they lead reprobates to Jesus. But that didn’t happen when I told my friends about Jesus.
Our youth group leader announced we weren’t Christians if we didn’t lead someone to Christ on a regular basis and I wept more. Until Tom Little, missionary to Afghanistan, said it’s more important to be faithful than to be successful. He knew what he was talking about because he was helping the Afghani people who weren’t going to make a decision for Jesus, but it was important to use his gifts as an optometrist to help them see better.
I figured I was the person who set the plow in the ground, softening it, but those seeds were a long ways from harvest. I used to sing the Sunday School chorus, “Give me oil in my lamp, keep me plowing, plowing, plowing” when I cleaned out the barn. (You’re supposed to sing “keep me burning, burning, burning”, in reference to the virgins waiting for the bridegroom to come.) I was comforted by the words, “They that sow in tears shall reap in joy.”
Those nightly walks, the wrenching tears, were the beginning of falling into how deep, and wide and broad God’s love and mercy are. I realized that pushing people to know Jesus was none of my business. Sure I could say the good news, but unlike the common saying that “we might be the only Bible someone might see,” I saw that a person’s actual turning to Jesus was His work, not mine. In Exodus he told the children of Israel to wait, to see God’s hand delivering them and so I leaned into waiting and taking out my list on rainy days and praying. The more I walked, and wept, the more I leaned into that verse where Moses told the frightened children of Isreal, “Fear not, stand firm and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today. For the Eygptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you only have to be silent” (Ex 14: 13 – 14).
My sense of God’s wrath began to shift toward what Maggie Ross says in The Fountain and the Furnace, “But the vision of God’s wrath as the relentless pursuit of sorrowing love is much harder to bear than the punishment I deserve and can therefore justify. To find myself standing in that Light is much more dreadful. It is not a legal understanding of justice that brings together my fracture, faulted self, but rather the anointing of tears-that-are-fire that flow from the eyes of God, and drop on the stone of my heart” (174).
Those years I had the gift of tears, but didn’t know this was a spiritual gift until recently. My mother had no clue, calling me a masochist because I leaned into the bittersweetness of knowing my sin before God, and being homesick even though I was home and aching for the lost world. Maggie Ross writes, “As early as infancy work begins to train the weeping out of us or to distort it to support delusion, lest our crying disturb the seemingly tranquil veneer of life around us. Perhaps the weeping of a child is too disturbing to adults, awakens too many haunted memories” (19). One of my earliest memories was crying by the kitchen door, sitting in the wet of people’s boots coming in from the snow. My father said, “If you don’t stop crying I’ll give you something to cry about.” He didn’t. I thought he had a new toy.
The day I graduated from high school I wept because I figured I wouldn’t see most of those people again, especially the young men I was in love with, that I prayed would know Jesus.
But my tears persisted through high school but faded when I went to college. They came back when Bruce’s mother died and we renovated our house and there was a shooting at my university. Then eased again. I envy people who cry. Ross says, “To yield ourselves, to hand ourselves over to the way of tears even as Jesus handed himself over in the Garden of Gethsemane to pain and suffering inflicted by human wickedness and mortality can lead only to resurrection” (40).
Funny thing about those young men, brothers, because years later they showed up at our house on their way from Utah to Maine. Their parents became second parents to Bruce and I and patiently listened to my pain as I cut the final ties to my childhood farm.
And some of those classmates on that list are walking with God now. I think that’s what Jesus means by casting crowns at his feet at the end of time, the only crowns I want to offer him are the crowns on the people I’ve loved through my life.
There were some nights that welcomed me, the moon casting white light in the fields. And there were other nights that frightened me so hard I bolted home, like something wild and cruel was roaming those wonderful valleys. Looking back I wonder how my parents stood it—my walking by myself out a lonely road late at night. But I had my loyal dog and a passle of cats who followed me all the way out to the crossroads, the mama cat jumping on my back. I held my hand on my back and balanced her. I had no idea what a gift those cats gave me until now, until I watch our feral cats scatter when I walk into the barn.
Oh and I prayed for God to send me a man as I looked at Sagittarius between the two rows of pines. And that prayer too was answered but that’s a story for another day.
So I’m back to those words, “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord” (Ps 27: 14 ESV) because it might well take years to see the “goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” (Ps 27:13 ESV). I say to you take heart, keep praying, keep walking, see what God does.
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