When Darkness Fears Its Own Shadow

By Ken Woodley

There was darkness all around.
I closed my eyes as tightly as I could to keep from seeing it, but I could hear the darkness breathing.
I felt its touch.
The darkness spoke my name.
My tongue and lips trembled in search of a prayer: an army, please, Lord, with swords raised, spears held high to push back against all of this darkness.
But no thundering hoofbeats came.
There was no clatter of metal weapons.
I was completely on my own.
Totally vulnerable to the darkness that, I felt certain, would soon have its way with me.
I was as helpless as the day I’d been born and reached frantically for the only thing I saw—even with my eyes closed—in a flash of flickering light beside me:
A small shoot had come out from the stump of Jesse.
A branch was growing out of his roots.
I opened one eye to take a peek.
Outside my window, a corner of the dark horizon was turning gray.
The spirit of the Lord began to call, like a single bird on a lonely limb of the last tree standing.
Darkness picked up its chainsaw to finish the job of clearcutting all hope but it was already too late.
A spirit of wisdom and understanding, of counsel and might began to brushstroke traces of pink and orange in the sky.
There was more to the world, after all, than the darkness that had surrounded me.
Shapes began to emerge in the gathering light.
And, even with one eye closed, I saw miracles.
I saw a leaf on a tree.
I saw my own wrinkles and veins.
I saw, as the theologian Henri Nouwen wrote in The Inner Voice of Love, my wolf lying down with my lamb.
My lion was eating straw like the ox.
And a little child was leading them.
A little child coming from Bethlehem.
No army to the rescue.
No swords and spears.
Just this little child.
And—what amazing grace—I knew his name.
“Jesus,” I called out to him.
And the darkness understood then that it had met its match.
Darkness knew the game was over.
Darkness knew the final score was set in stone for all eternity.
I opened both eyes as wide as I could and there was suddenly light all around. The little child had brought the light that never sets.
A light that could not and would not be extinguished.
A light that hope can trust.
A light that also shines inside us toward others waiting in the darkness.
I could hear the light breathing.
I felt its touch.
The light spoke my name.
My tongue and lips trembled with “Amen.”
And then I cried out, “Hallelujah!”
It’s echo became a refrain, and the darkness, itself, had turned to light.

When All The Leaves Have Fallen

By Ken Woodley
At the top of this hill
the world is
falling
all around me.
Leaves drop—red-gold and ember-brown—
like autumn snowflakes.
I hear the gentle pattering of their descent
as they brush against
other leaves still clinging to trees and branches.
I see the gravity of their shadows
on the ground
and upon my skin
and sometimes mistake these dark reflections for birds
or butterflies flying southward
before winter can catch them
and keep them here
at the top of this hill,
the world falling all around me.
I hear the leaves touch down gently upon the leaves
that have fallen before them.
I feel one leaf, then another, brush against my cheek,
nudging me to join them
and in that moment I feel myself falling
away with them in the breeze
toward a creek at the bottom this hillside.
When I was a child, I watched my grandfather
carefully construct a small, balsa wood waterwheel
which he placed in the stream for me
so that I could watch it spin with the current and listen to the sound
of its splashing magic.
I feel the touch of his hand now after all these years.
He’s come from heaven, surely.
I turn and look but, no,
it is simply another leaf, instead,
brushing against my outstretched hand,
nudging me.
Then another leaf, and, suddenly,
they are all around me now,
breeze-blown spirits
from the top of the hill.
So, I walk on, determined,
listening to my footsteps in the fallen leaves
and the sound of water flowing with a smiling splash beside me
like a prayer
answered:
When all the leaves have fallen, I’ll still see them on the trees.

Electric

By Ken Woodley
I feel so totally, completely, eternally, irrevocably, money-back-guaranteed, fail-safe, locked-in, buzzer-beating-swish plugged into the warm light of God’s love for all time, for ever and ever amen.
Until life seems to pull me out of the wall.
And I go all dark.
And everything goes all dark around me.
And cold, oh, so cold.
The freezing chill decants me as if I don’t matter and never did matter, and I feel like I suddenly am zero minus infinity to the infinity power.
Until there is nothing left, it seems, but to surrender, surrender so much that I even surrender my surrender flag because there is nothing more to live for.
Nothing more to die for.
And I feel already dead.
And already buried.
And already gone.
Until….
I.
Am.
Not!!!
Because….
…. You are there, Jesus.
The power cord in your hand.
The outlet in your eyes.
The transmission lines in your heart and in your soul that touched me with the warm light of God’s love that you gave me by the Sea of Galilee.
Gave me forever and ever.
Until not even death do us part.
Not even then.
Because in your rising…
In your resurrection…
I am risen.
I am resurrected.
I am plugged in.
Eternally electric.
Firmament exploding the darkness in an aurora borealis of the soul
that cascades me,
and everyone,
into the rainbow effervescence of your love
after the storming flood of never-lasting darkness.
You plugged us into God and shone the light that grows up from our winters into the spring that is planted so deep inside us that the darkest, coldest day on Earth can never really find it.
The darkness only wants us to believe that we have been unplugged.
But this is the truth: Your love knows no outage.

Somewhere Under The Sky

By Ken Woodley

A bird sang in the darkness outside my window
somewhere under the sky but where I could
not touch the light of the sun or the stars
even though I tried
and where the sun and the stars could
not touch me with their light
even though they tried.
And I felt my soul spread the wings of that bird and fly
from my room up towards heaven,
asking why I cannot touch the sun and the stars
when I am wrapped in darkness
and why they cannot touch me with their light
even though the effort by us all feels desperate and everlasting.
And the bird began to sing
and in its song my soul heard an answer:
that God had been singing to me
outside my window somewhere under the sky
hoping I would reach out to the reaching out of God
—instead of reaching for the sun and the stars—
and find my wings and believe in my song
that God was singing outside my window somewhere under the sky
and far closer to me than the light of the sun and the stars ever could be.
So, with my wings I fly now,
singing the song that God gave me somewhere under the sky
but content to have the sun and the stars above me,
wanting only for all of us to reach out toward each other
and bathe each other with the light we share
—instead of with the darkness—
and shine together night and day
somewhere under the sky
upon this all-too-vulnerable Earth
where we can be brighter than the sun by day
and brighter than the stars by night
for each other
when we reach out to one another with God’s hands
and allow God to reach out to others with ours
like the song of a bird just outside every window,
singing about their wings to those who do not believe they can fly,
and about their light to those who do not believe they can shine,
just as God did for me
in the flightless wilds of my darkened wilderness,
spreading the wings of Jesus into light
somewhere under the sky
all around me.
Somewhere under the sky around us all.

God’s Love Is Not A Season

By Ken Woodley

Walking down the trails crossing the meadows and forests at Appomattox Court House National Historical Park, I see the seasons playing jazz again.
There are red notes ringing out from green. Orange and yellow notes trumpeting too.
The world around us is singing a new song to the Lord.
And we have the chance to join in with notes of our own.
Sometimes, of course, the weather here in Virginia seems to have no idea what season it is. One day feels like summer. The next feels like fall. The third day resembles a spring day in March.
Every day can feel like a different season and there are literally some days that feel like three, or even four, seasons in one. In fact, we may now have about 27 seasons instead of just four: all of them hybrids.
I can relate because, like any human being, I have seasons of my own and sometimes they are just as mixed up. In the morning, I may have a summer mood, especially as the caffeine kicks in. But then something may happen to make my happy enthusiasm begin to freeze and snow. Or I might suddenly feel all of my leaves start to fall from their limbs.
So, looking at the world around me as I follow the curving undulations of the land, and see what is fast-becoming one giant stained-glass window of leaf color, I recognize myself in this turn of the season.
The good, the bad, and the ugly.
Some tree limbs are already bare, as if all of their notes have already been played and they are ready to leave the stage for winter.
That’s a sad and pessimistic thought, but not so fast. Bare limbs silhouetted against the sky can play some of the most resonant seasonal notes of all. Let us each learn the lesson of the trees, with our without leaves. We’ve all got a song to sing. Our own particular notes. The unique melody that God has given us to play.
That never stops. Summer, fall, winter and spring. And then round and round the seasons again, all mixed up and maybe all at the same time.
With all due respect to classical composers, the interplay and passage of the seasons—as with the passage of our lives—seems far too improvised to be anything but jazz: play what you feel when you feel it within the basic structure of life’s song.
Certainly, there are specific times when seasons officially begin. That organizational structure does, yes, have a classical ring to it because the seasons can be likened to symphonic movements. But, within those prescribed months when the four seasons are each individually and officially recognized, there is a wide latitude for what the season will actually look and feel like to us and the creatures that share the world with us.
So, the reality is entirely jazz.
On a recent morning before we had all this rain, the drought had one small bird so desperate that I saw it drinking the dew from the roof of my car. I’d never seen that before and it illustrated, even more than the burned-out yards and fields, how dry things had become. So, I decided to rain—that is, I filled a pitcher of water and poured it in the birdbath.
I was able to end the drought, for one small creature and for that brief moment.
Then, yesterday I walked in the late afternoon. The slanting of the sun’s setting rays shone through the leaves of a maple tree. The beauty was compelling. Each leaf was a crown jewel.
The lesson for me was: no matter what season is in the world, or what season I feel on any given day, if I let God shine through my leaves, or on my bare limbs, then I am giving the world the best that I have to give.
Only with God can I do so. Even when I think it’s only me. Even in a drought, God can make me rain for someone somewhere. Just as God as done for me, through others, during my own droughts.
God bringing me summer in the depths of winter. Turning darkness into light because God has transformed someone’s heart into a saxophone and inspired them to play jazz in my life until my season changes.
The grace of it all becomes multiplied when I remember some of their most powerful notes and join them with my own when I next play during a moment of silent winter for someone else, filling them with the blooms of spring.
I’ve learned this to be the truth:
We’re all stained-glass waiting for the sun. Have faith. It will shine through us and for us. God’s love is not a season.

The Intimacy of True Love

A candle-lit dinner with God.
A quiet sunset walk with Jesus.
Whispering your deepest thoughts and needs to the Holy Spirit.
Intimacy, in other words, over exhibitionism.
That is one of the messages Jesus emphasized throughout his ministry.
In a particularly instructive parable, Jesus contrasts the praying of a Pharisee, who stands up in the synagogue by himself—to stand out—and a tax collector standing, Jesus tells us, “far off.”
All who “exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted,” Jesus declares of those who use religion to heap praise and power to themselves.
The Pharisee wasn’t seeking an intimate encounter with God.
There was no conversation.
It was all monologue: “Look at me! How great I art!” He was engaged in self-glorification.
The tax collector, on the other hand, was quietly, intimately asking God for mercy.
There’s no doubt to whom God would have been able to get close to at that moment.
Nobody says I love you as if it were a stage performance unless it’s all an act.
The Pharisee was performing as if an Oscar were at stake.
The tax collector, on the other hand, was quietly off in the corner becoming intimate with God. And that is what God so desires from us: an intimate relationship.
Love is exchanged through intimacy.
Grace is freely given and received by candlelight at a table for two.
Just God and you.
Jesus makes this most clear in the Gospel of Matthew when he tells us not to be like the hypocrites who loudly pray on street corners and in synagogues. Instead, Jesus says, “when you pray, go into your inner room, shut your door, and pray to your Father, who is unseen. And your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you….”
What wonderful phrasing:
Go into your inner room and shut your door.
Yes, that is where we say “I do” to God.
And where God says “I do, too” to us.
We all have our own inner room deep inside us. To get there, we find some quiet place to meditate and pray.
Jesus routinely went off, the New Testament tells us, “to a lonely place” when he prayed to God. There is no instance in the Bible of Jesus making a prayer spectacle of himself.
Jesus understood, and wants us to understand, that we can most honestly be ourselves with God—and so God can be most intimately there with us—when we are in some quiet corner together.
Not on stage.
But backstage, where no make-up is necessary.
No costume needed.
No scriptwriter required.
No director, no producer, and no studio audience.
Just us and God.
True love from true love, begotten, not made.

Rising Above The Crowded World

The story of Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector, in the Gospel of Luke is one of my favorites. This man of short physical stature climbs a sycamore tree to rise above the crowd so that he can see Jesus.
There are days when I feel just like Zacchaeus. Days when the world seems so much taller than me, blocking my view of Jesus, and my sense of Christ’s presence in my life is swept away, as if by a crowd.
When we were children, we could raise our arms and ask a loving parent or grandparent to pick us up and put us on their shoulders. From there, if we had been in the crowd with Zacchaeus that day, we could have seen Jesus quite clearly.
In truth, however, Zacchaeus was looking for something more than a glimpse of Jesus’ face as he passed by. Luke’s choice of words is fascinating: “He was trying to see who Jesus was.”
Not just trying to see Jesus. But trying to see who Jesus was.
Zacchaeus wasn’t there simply to be able to say “I saw him.” Something was drawing Zacchaeus deeper than that. He wanted to see who Jesus was, which would have involved closely observing how Jesus interacted with people, and how people interacted with him.
He would have watched intently to see the expression in Jesus’ eyes as he spoke to someone, and the look in the eyes of those to whom Jesus spoke. He would have been looking to see if Jesus had touched their heart and soul. To see if Jesus was full of himself, or emptying himself for others.
Zacchaeus clearly felt the answers to his questions in a very personal way. The Gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus looked up at Zacchaeus and told him, “Hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” Of all the people around him, Jesus picks Zaachaeus, the chief tax collector, a bad guy and sinner in the eyes of many, who despised the oftentimes corrupt tax collecting system in those days.
Naturally, everybody else begins to grumble discontentedly. But, in mid-grumble, they witness a transformation. By striving to see who Jesus truly was, Christ helps Zacchaeus see more deeply into himself. And that vision transforms him.
Zacchaeus pledges to give half of his wealth to the poor and, furthermore, declares that if he has defrauded anyone he will pay them back four times over.
Climbing that sycamore tree was the best thing Zacchaeus ever did.
I try to remember this story when the world has crowded me away from a sense of Christ’s presence in my life. No, I don’t climb a sycamore tree. But I do find a quiet place and ask the Holy Spirit to lift me up on its “shoulders” so that I can find Jesus.
From there, especially when I really need it—and when I open myself in complete vulnerability—I can feel that soft and quiet presence within me and the peace it brings.
I feel it telling me that I am lovable and loved.
And, if only for that moment, I am transformed and able to walk a few more miles further down a road that feels far less daunting than it did seconds before.
But, of course, that transformation is not meant to be hidden away and hoarded for myself. Nor is the road down which I travel mine alone. I see so many others looking and praying for a sycamore tree. Just like me.
So many yearning to see who Jesus really is. Just like me.
Countless people who, no matter their tough, self-sufficient exterior, desperately want to hear Jesus tell them that they are lovable and loved in the eyes of God. Just like me.
I’m not a sycamore tree but, here, climb up on my shoulders and see what you might find. I promise to hold tightly. You’ll know when that soft, quiet presence of our Good Shepherd begins to bring you peace….
….Yes, there it is, brimming up from the bottom of your heart now and streaming down your cheeks.
Don’t be embarrassed. I’m crying too.
Last week, remember, it was you who invited me to climb up on your shoulders.

Comfort Food

Life so often discomforts us. It just really does on some days. There is so much discombobulation all around, and periodically in our own lives. There’s no getting away from it.
Thank goodness, then, for comfort food.
No, not meat loaf and mashed potatoes. That sort of comfort food offers but a brief respite. We enjoy the meal but its comforting effect soon wears off. Clouds re-gather to cover that spoonful of mental sunshine.
Thankfully, the Bible offers comfort food that provides transcendent sustenance to help us on our journey.
I’ve marked my New International Version Bible with yellow highlights throughout its pages, helping me find my spiritual comfort food right away. Bright yellow, like the sun shining through on a dark day. Like the persevering beam from a lighthouse above the rocky, wave-crashing shoal. Like a candle left burning on a window sill for a midnight traveler.
I’ve got these words highlighted in the first chapter of Joshua:
“Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”
Of course, Psalm 23 is there, highlighted in its entirety. And all of Psalm 121, as well:
“The Lord watches over you—the Lord is your shade at your right hand;
the sun will not harm you by day,
nor the moon at night.
The Lord will keep you from all harm—
he will watch over your life;
the Lord will watch over your coming
and going
both now and forevermore.”
I love the word “forevermore.” The thought of the Lord watching over me for more than forever provides great comfort. I feel that right now as I type the words.
The entire 35th chapter of Isaiah is brightly lit in my bible, too:
“The burning sand will become a pool,
the thirsty ground bubbling springs.
In the haunts where jackals once lay,
grass and reeds and papyrus will grow.
And a highway will be there;
it will be called the Way of Holiness…
…Gladness and joy will overtake them,
and sorrow and sighing will flee away.”
And this from the 66th chapter:
“As a mother comforts her child,
so I will comfort you.”
I could eat all of the comfort food from every grocery store and not feel half as much comfort as those words provide me.
The New Testament, obviously, is also fully stocked with tremendous spiritual comfort food.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus tells us at the outset of the 14th chapter of the Gospel of John, “Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.”
Jesus knows all about our human needs because he felt them deeply. That’s why, in his own hour of desperate suffering, he taught us to break bread and drink wine in remembrance of him.
Finally, I find it beautifully compelling that the last resurrection appearance account in John’s Gospel describes Jesus cooking breakfast on the beach for his disciples—unbeknownst to them—while they were out night fishing. The disciples, still feeling lost without Jesus, undoubtedly received even greater sustenance from his actual presence when they returned to shore.
Comfort food for them, but also for us today. The comfort of his presence. All we can eat. To our soul’s content.

The Asylum Of God’s Love

On his way to heaven, Jesus was walking through this land, where he found us desperately seeking asylum in a world that would not grant it. All of us were lepers in some way, or viewed as lepers by the key-holders, moneychangers, and other powers-that-be.
We cried out to him: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” and we ran to him as he began walking toward us.
We immediately felt the radiance of his love and, astonishingly, there was no border separating us from Jesus and that love.
There was no wall.
No barbed wire to keep us away.
No cages to lock us inside if we got too close.
His arms were spread wide, but not so wide as the healing love we felt coming from within his heart and soul.
We fell prostrate at his feet, incredulous at this generosity of spirit.
“Get up and go on your way,” Jesus told us with a smile. “Your faith has made you well.”
All of us were healed by this love: the Samaritans, the Guatemalans and Hondurans, and the Americans, too. All of us lepers no more. Even if some people continued to treat us as lepers, we were not lepers to each other.
Touched by love and grace, we went out into the world to touch others with that same grace and love.
Without exception, and telling the truth.
There is no more explicit message in the ministry of Jesus than the inclusion of everyone in the asylum of God’s loving embrace.
Even Samaritans. Even us.
And there is only one way to feel about that borderless love: joyful gratitude.
Being grateful for all of our joys, both great and small, increases their resonance within us. Gratitude for blessings deepens the blessing, keeps the ripples of the blessing widening out in ever greater circles across the still waters of our soul.
Being grateful takes us beneath the surface down into the deep well of joy that offers to quench our longing for something more. Gratitude keeps the blessing alive and by our side. Gratitude keeps us closer to Jesus and to God because we are more able to recognize the presence of their Holy Spirit.
And that lesson of gratitude can be applied to the very smallest of blessings, sharpening our senses so that blessing follows blessing.
We will become more sensitive, and so more alive to small miracles that may no longer feel like blessings because they happen so frequently. The blessings that have become routine, perhaps even redundant or—ironically—invisible because we see and experience them every day.
The smell of bread in a toaster.
The sound of a bird.
The touch of a raindrop on our cheek.
Shade on a hot day.
Sunshine on our skin when the day is cool.
Clouds painted by the rising sun, then brush-stroked again as the sun drops behind a line of trees.
The moon seen between the limbs of fluttering leaves.
The voice of someone you love, someone who loves you, too.
A child wrapping their hand around one of your fingers.
Words upon a page.
Three notes becoming a song.
The single bloom of just one flower.
The spreading colors of autumn in a single leaf.
We are surrounded by miracles and they were meant for us all to share as children of God.
As brothers and sisters of Jesus, who was, himself, born a foreigner to us on the other side of the world but who walks by our side every day that we ask him to.
On his way to heaven.
On our way with him.
Asylum granted to us all.

When The Blues Try To Play Us

As the mid-August birdsong around us begins to thin with the first wings of migration south for the coming winter, it’s worth noting that the Bible is full of music that never flies away. The book of Lamentations, for example, plays the blues. And I’ve been hearing the blues, feeling the blues, since my favorite summer sound—the fluted notes of the wood thrush—flew away.

“How lonely sits the city
that once was full of people!
How like a widow she has become …
She weeps bitterly in the night
with tears on her cheeks …
Her pursuers have all overtaken her
in the midst of her distress …
All her gates are desolate …”

“Lamentation” is defined as “the passionate expression of grief or sorrow.”
To lament something is to fall into the deep end of sadness and sink toward the bottom. Lamentation knows no shallow end. We are in over our heads.
There are times in our lives when we feel grief and sorrow with such passion that it nearly tears us apart inside. At such times it is wise to remember that it is not an act of faithlessness to feel and express such sorrow. The passionate expression of grief is not contrary to having faith in God.
Indeed, the act of lamentation may be considered an act of great faith.
The Bible is full of lamentations. The Book of Lamentations is far from the only chapter of pages where we will find them. There are as many psalms that cry out to God in despair as there are those which shout Hallelujah.
Playing the blues in our lives helps us feel and express our sorrow and, therefore, find a way to transcend the sadness.
Nor must we do so alone.
Another verse from Lamentations illustrates the point:

“The thought of my affliction and my homelessness
is wormwood and gall!
My soul continually thinks of it
and is bowed down within me ….”

But that soul—like our own—has not been abandoned by God.
The very next verse declares:

“But this I call to mind,
and therefore have hope:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
they grow every morning;
great is their faithfulness.”

And then the soul itself speaks:

“‘The Lord is my portion,’” says my soul,
“‘therefore I will hope in him.’”

The speaker then ends the lamentation with this consoling wisdom:

“The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
to the soul that seeks him.
It is good that one should wait quietly
for the salvation of the Lord.”

Embracing our moments of sorrow is an act of faithfulness because we may do so with the full knowledge that the love of God will get us through any journey of lamentation. That love is by our side.
The bottom line is that when we play our blues our blues cannot play us and God will keep us in tune. The melody will give us wings.