By Ken Woodley
yearns for starlight
to flicker in the darkness
of my solitude.
I am frozen by suns of mourning,
praying only to melt
into your earth
and that place
where the ice of this despair
cannot find me,
where I could still feel child-painted,
as you showed me,
and see the living colors
so outrageously miraculous
and snowing all around me
like a shimmering aurora borealis
wind-blown from the sky
so that I can
again and again and again
into your footsteps,
and perhaps one day
to bloom, somehow,
in the eternal gardens.
By Ken Woodley
What would happen if we walked away from everything we’ve ever known in life because we believed God told us to?
Suppose God said: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you….”
That’s exactly what God did tell Abraham in Genesis.
What a terribly frightening decision. Yet, Abraham and—let’s be honest here—his wife, Sarah, both had the courage and faith to make the God-led choice. Abraham traditionally receives all of the faith kudos but half the credit surely must go to Sarah.
Abraham’s country, kindred and father’s house were everything to him. His known universe. His life orbited constantly among his kindred, in and out of his father’s house, forever in his own country. His place of comfort, safety and love.
But God told him—told them—to leave all of that behind.
Every day of his life, Abraham had awoken in his own country, among his kindred and his father’s house. He worked there. Laughed and cried there. He planted roots so deep that one can hardly imagine the effort required to pull them up and plant them somewhere else. Or, if the roots stayed put, the courage necessary to turn and leave them all behind.
But that is exactly what Abraham did, with Sarah, who must have had some definite say in the matter, patriarchal society or not. For too long we’ve given Abraham all of the credit for this leap of faith into an uprooting journey of faith. Sarah’s role needs equal emphasis because anytime one spouse faces an extreme God-led decision, the other spouse faces it too.
We all know that to be true.
Few of us will ever have to endure the completely uprooting experience of Abraham and Sarah but there are times in our lives when it might have felt as if we’d left what had become our known universe behind. When we move to another community, or another state, when we change jobs, or feel God telling us to leave a job. There are many life experiences that are leaps of faith, that find us leaving our known universe and journeying to a totally new way of life. In effect, a new country.
Leaps of faith aren’t straightforward journeys because they don’t come with roadmaps. We can’t Google or ask Siri for directions. We leap into the unknown.
Fortunately, however, we are hardly ever asked to make such leaps alone. Sarah journeyed with Abraham. I can totally relate, having made life journeys into the unknown with my wife, Kim, just as I have journeyed by her side.
But she has not been my only companion, nor I hers.
As all of us journey from one known universe to another, there may come a time when we question our ability to persevere. There surely must have been occasions when Abraham and Sarah thought to themselves—or spoke aloud—“Okay, God, you told us to leave everything behind: our country, our kindred and our father’s house. We obeyed but now we feel lost. Where are you?”
Asking that question is no sin, nor is it a lack of faith. Asking a question allows God to answer. Asking a question demonstrates faith that God will answer.
The key to everything that happens next on the journey is the direction taken by our eyes—which means our mind, heart and soul—after we ask for help. Where do we look? If we look down all that we see is the mud and the rocky ground. But if, as described in Psalm 121, we raise them to the hills—that is, if we incline our mind and heart and soul to a new horizon—then we more clearly feel the presence of God by our side.
When we look with hope through the eyes of God’s promise, ripples of light spread out into the darkness. We notice something we didn’t sense before: God has been there the whole time.
“… The Lord himself watches over you;” Psalm 121 assures us.
the Lord is your shade at your right hand,
So that the sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night….
The Lord shall watch over your coming out and your coming in,
from this time forth for evermore.”
When we keep faith with God, God is able to keep faith with us. God is able to bless us and, crucially, make us a blessing to others. That was God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah. That is God’s promise to us. When we make a leap of a faith in response to God’s call, a faithful landing awaits.
And when we get there, those who truly love us will have remained by our side. Just as we have remained by theirs.
By Ken Woodley
If I had a dime for every time I’ve thought a squirrel scampering through dry leaves in the woods was a bear, my pockets would sound like a tambourine.
The leaves of long gone autumns amplify the sound of a squirrel until it takes on Jurassic Park-like qualities. Especially if you’re deep in the woods, alone with your thoughts and the sound of birds tuning their violins and violas. The sudden “eruption” of a happy squirrel hoping to hide a nut from its friends can cause whiplash.
Eventually, however, one learns to smile, or perhaps even chortle. Nope, not falling for the old squirrel-in-the-leaves again. That’s no bear. Hahahaha.
Until, one day, it is.
That happened to me last summer. There I was, coming to the end of a hike. There was the highly-traveled two-lane highway going past Appomattox Courthouse National Historical Park. I could see it through the trees. There was the parking lot. I could see it through the trees. There was my car in the parking lot. I could see it through the trees. And there was the bear. I could see it, skidded to a halt 40 feet away from me, through the trees.
We stood staring at each other. I’m not sure which one of us was more surprised.
I’d read in a newspaper once that if you don’t project fear and panic and, instead, make yourself loud and large, a bear will leave you alone.
Loud and large? My fear was loud and large. Don’t project panic? I was almost projectile vomiting panic.
There was only one thing to do and I admit, on the purely musical level, it wasn’t the best choice: I began singing “Jimmy Crack Corn And I Don’t Care” and waving my hiking stick in the air as I walked away. (To this day, I have no idea why that song came into my head).
As I emerged from the trees, two people were just getting out of a car. They must have thought me insane. There I was almost screaming “Jimmy Crack Corn And I Don’t Care” and waving a large stick around as if I was being attacked by bees. Or was John the Baptist on a particularly “Oh-you-brood-of-vipers” day.
They backed away, dread showing in their eyes. The man reached for his wallet and I think the woman was about to dial 9-1-1. I tried explaining the whole bear situation. I am certain they did not believe me.
I share this story because all of us find ourselves, like Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson, in the wilderness from time to time. Unlike Jesus, we don’t directly encounter the devil but we do run into “bears.” And I am not speaking of the animals with four legs.
Things happen to us that can provoke an initial “in the wilderness” reaction of fear, perhaps even panic—whether it’s a health issue, job related or a personal relationship. We are tempted to give into our fears and worries and allow them to morph into panic. Then, like Jesus, we need to hold on tightly to our faith in God. We need to let our souls be loud and large—even if that means singing “Jimmy Crack Corn And I Don’t Care” at the top of our lungs. When we do, we realize that, whatever song we choose to help us journey through our wilderness of fear, God is singing harmony. The angel of his presence is with us.
And sometimes in the wilderness—not always, but occasionally—we discover that it was only a squirrel scampering through the leaves.
By Ken Woodley
What a transcendent moment it was for us on a day toward the ending of winter. The holy silence was dotted with birdsong and our own labored breathing as Jesus led me and James and Peter up to the top of a high mountain. Looking down, we felt like birds, ourselves, gazing upon the world below. A world where we our soles had just been standing.
Suddenly Jesus was transfigured, right before our eyes. His face shone like the sun and his clothes were a dazzling white. The chorus of birds rose like a choir and there were notes we’d never heard before and butterflies everywhere that we had supposed were only the blooms of flowers just a moment before. Perhaps they had been. Perhaps we had been, too. I don’t know. It was so like a dream. Even I felt wings I couldn’t see.
Then Moses and Elijah appeared and we next heard the voice of God. I swear this is the truth. And it still is true. That’s what we tried to explain to the other disciples left below and to everyone else when Jesus sent us off to spread the Good News.
We hoped to make it clear to them that transcendent moments also await everyone upon their own “holy mountain”—the places where they feel most connected to God’s holy spirit. Where they experience a spiritual understanding or revelation, an answer to prayer.
Nurturing and cultivating these moments is essential. Peter, James and I still try to re-capture our mountaintop moment. Sometimes we come close, but close is still amazing. By regularly and consistently setting aside time for God—quieting yourself with prayerful meditation—you offer an invitation that has already been accepted.
The three of us re-learn that lesson every day. It takes discipline and faith.
Don’t assume that God is distant. I used to. We all did. But Jesus changed that. So, expect God to be there beside you. Talk to God—silently or aloud. I promise a moment will come when you sense the Holy Spirit telling you something. You’ll feel a nudge in your soul or, as Peter describes it, “the morning star” rising in your heart. I loved it when Peter came up with that description. It’s the peace that passes all understanding.
No, it is not always the answer that we expect or, perhaps, even want. But there are bends in the road around which only God knows what is waiting. God is with us on the way to that bend in the road, and God will remain with us after that bend has become the next straight stretch of our lives.
You know what? Come on. Right now. Join us. We’re not really only a dozen disciples, you know. On some days there are so many people following along that there isn’t enough food to go around. That’s when Jesus gathers the loaves and fishes one more time. And one more time after that. There’s enough Holy Spirit to feed us all. I promise.
So, let’s go climb a “holy mountain” together with Jesus and see what we find there, discover what happens. Right now. Seriously. The truth is that we don’t need to go anywhere because the “holy mountain” most worth climbing is the one deep inside us, that special place in our soul where we are revealed as our deepest, child-of-God selves.
There, with Christ, we are transfigured. I’ll never forget Mary Magdalene telling me about the moment of her own transfiguration with Jesus. She told me it had felt like the sun was rising and setting inside her at the same time. She felt a sky of great beauty in her soul, and where there had only been darkness before.
No, your face may not shine like the sun. Mine didn’t. And your clothes probably won’t become dazzlingly white. Mine never look that clean. But you will feel the voice of God telling you that you, too, are beloved. And that love transfigures our inner landscape, transforms the topography of our soul.
The feeling that we have heard God’s answering voice, and the spirit of Jesus, may only last a second, but the echoes go on and on and on…
By Ken Woodley
The darkness is turning into light all around me.
Silhouettes of trees appear along the eastern horizon.
The watercolor of dawn is being painted before my eyes.
Rain had fallen all day yesterday in an unrelenting downpour but the clouds today are white flecks of canvas waiting for the brushstrokes of sunrise.
I look up at the sky and see it all unfolding.
Then, I look down into a large puddle by the side of the road and, rather than muddy water, I still see the sky putting on the day.
In that reflection, I think of God.
I feel the tide of Christ rising with the sun because down is often up, with Jesus, instead of down and out.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth….”
Yes, down is somehow up.
The poor in spirit ascend.
Those who mourn are lifted.
The meek rise.
Swords become plowshares.
Cheeks are turned.
Two cloaks are given when one is sought.
A mustard seed can dream big and mighty dreams and those big and mighty dreams won’t maybe come true. Those big and mighty dreams certainly will come true in the way God knows is best.
God turns things inside out and upside down. Jesus did that all the time with his parables and the guiding light of his words, such as the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount.
One of the greatest speeches of all time wasn’t delivered, as one might expect, on a grand stage that raised the speaker above everyone else.
On the contrary, the Sermon on the Mount was delivered sitting down. Jesus goes up a mountain, but instead of standing on the summit, lording himself over everyone else, he sits down to teach, in the rabbinical tradition.
And then he tells the people to look down into the puddled tears of their lives and discern their own reflections.
But discern something else there, too.
The sky—the Kingdom of Heaven—is right over their shoulder.
Right over our shoulder, too.
Down is very up.
And the Sea of Galilee is whatever color the sun and clouds are painting it as we gather around Jesus and feel his words wash like a wave across the beaches of our soul.
Anything is possible—everything is possible—through God. The established order of things means nothing.
God is not bound by the way things used to be.
Neither, thankfully, are we, if we are wise enough to be foolish for God.
Poor enough in spirit to receive the Kingdom of Heaven and share it with others.
Comforted enough to mourn.
Meek enough to inherit the earth.
Let’s sit down with Jesus and see what happens next.
By Ken Woodley
Blessed are the winter trees, for they shall see leaves.
Blessed are the fallow fields, for the harvest is theirs.
Blessed are the empty skies, for they shall be given wings.
Blessed are the darkened days, for the light is coming toward them.
Each of us has winter trees inside us, even if they are rooted in the past.
At some point, everyone feels like a fallow field.
And very lucky indeed is the human being who hasn’t felt a moment of desolation beneath a sky that seemed too empty for words.
Sometimes a sharp spearpoint of pain stabs us out of the blue, turning azure into obsidian.
Something of deep sadness happens that we just didn’t see coming and we don’t simply cry inside, or with tears streaming down our cheeks.
There are days when we rain, our sadness erupting like a cloudburst, drenching us in mourning for what we have lost.
We are not alone.
“Blessed are those who mourn,” Jesus said, “for they will be comforted.”
That is one of our most common English translations of that famous line from the Beatitudes. But a French translation of the New Testament that I have doesn’t employ the word “mourn.” Instead, it uses a word that is a form, to my mind, of the word “rain.”
“Blessed are those who rain…” Whether that is literally an accurate translation, or my own interpretation, it speaks a profound truth.
Those who have truly mourned will immediately relate to “rain.” If we “rain” we aren’t simply crying. When we are so inundated by sadness that we “rain” then we are like a cloud that is capable of one thing and one thing only: rain.
We have become the rain—we have become sadness—itself.
But Jesus doesn’t make an idle promise. Those who rain will be blessed because they will be comforted.
In such moments of desolation our guard is down and we are utterly vulnerable. Completely vulnerable to the darkness surrounding us, yes, but also totally vulnerable to the promised light of comfort and consolation.
Even the darkest days that surround us are a blessing, in their own way, because they do set the stage and draw back the curtain for the promised light.
It is darkness, after all, that illuminates light.
True, when the light comes we will see our own shadows. But we mustn’t act like spiritual groundhogs and run back into our holes of hurt and sadness because that will only bring us six more weeks—or longer—of whatever is wintering our souls.
Our shadows, when the light comes, are only shadows.
They testify to the darkness which has fled and the light which now embraces us.
But reaching that “now” doesn’t happen all at once. It takes time. One step, one moment, one day, and then one week, at a time.
Like the slow but inexorable approach of spring.
Winter is still all around us but the days are growing a little bit longer and the longest night is slowly receding.
Just as our “rain” gradually clears into sunshine.
The inner journey takes time but our spiritual footsteps don’t represent the only movement. We can take heart, knowing the “light” of comfort and consolation is on an intersecting journey toward us.
Our rain is not in vain. It summons the sun.
By Ken Woodley
The crescent moon was brilliantly visible in the low horizon early Tuesday morning, more than an hour before dawn. The perspective was unlike I’d ever seen before. The shining sliver of moon resembled a boat floating just above, and in the middle of, the road in front of our house.
As I walked our dog, Pugsley, in the freezing darkness, the moon seemed to be lighting the way. Giving me direction and encouragement. Offering a path.
I could not help but think about Jesus.
What an astonishing “light” it must have been to encounter Jesus in person.
Not exactly like the crescent moon I saw this week, but just as real.
This must have been a light that one felt inside. Surely there was a “lightness” about Jesus that was acutely perceptible to those of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke:
“Land of Zebulun and Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
light has dawned.”
What a light. We get a clue to its brightness through the actions of the two brothers, Simon and Andrew, Jesus encountered at the beginning of his ministry. Their lives depended on the ability to catch enough fish, and then sell them, to make ends meet.
Fishing was all they knew. The Sea of Galilee was full of fishing boats. Boats floating in darkness. Fishermen hearing, not seeing, the lapping waves on the sides of their fishing boats.
That is the world that Peter and Simon knew—fishing in the darkness. Casting their nets when the sun was gone because that is when fishing was done on the Sea of Galilee. At night.
What a sight it must have been on nights when the moon was blooming into fullness, its light dancing across the water like words of love whispered in the darkness.
But then Peter and Andrew saw Jesus and they experienced a different kind of light altogether.
What else could have led them—without warning, thought, debate, or consideration for the consequences—to abandon their careers and all hope of any means to assure their daily bread?
They simply dropped their nets. Left their boat on the shoreline. And followed Jesus.
Just like that.
“Follow me,” Jesus told them, “and I will make you fish for people.”
“Immediately,” the Gospel of Matthew tells us, “they left their nets and followed him.”
What a light they must have felt exuding from the spirit of Jesus. They could feel it within the look in his eyes, hear it in the sound of his voice. It was just there. This light simply was.
A light that did not rise and did not set.
A light the clouds could do nothing to obscure.
A light that makes the shadows flee from the region of death.
And I thank God for those two men. I owe those simple fishermen my life.
Had they not dropped their nets and followed Jesus, I might never have felt this light myself. I might still be sitting in darkness, waiting in Zebulun and Naphtali. And so might you.
In making them fishers of people, Jesus enabled Peter and Andrew—and others who followed him and spread his Good News of God’s love and grace—to catch us gently in their nets and bring us to the shore where Jesus stands, waiting.
Lighting the way.
By Ken Woodley
“You are to be called Cephas,” Jesus told Simon. And thus Peter was “christened” in the most extraordinary way—by Christ. What better “Christener” could there be?
Peter means “rock” in Greek, of course, and Cephas is the Aramaic translation of “rock.” Peter would have had no idea why Jesus suddenly christened him. But Jesus knew Peter would become a rock upon which the Good News of God’s love and grace would survive and then flourish. Traveling all the way to us today.
Nicknames have a long history, but Peter “The Rock” is not the first nickname one encounters in the New Testament. John the Baptist probably has that honor.
I would not be surprised at all if our Good Shepherd—there’s a nickname, too—had an affectionate name for all of his sheep. I wonder what the Lord calls each of us in his heart of hearts?
When I was a very small child my mother read aloud to me and she began calling me “Inkwell” because a story involving an inkwell became one of my early favorites. Pretty prophetic, as it turns out, with over 36 years of journalism, this blog, Forward Day By Day writings and a published book under my belt, among other word-gatherings. I thank God that there is one thing in this world I know how to do with some degree of competency, and it is something I love.
If Jesus called me Inkwell it would probably be because were I writing with an old-fashioned pen I’d certainly have ink all over me and probably most of the furniture.
Jesus barely knew Simon when he changed his name to Peter. Simon’s brother Andrew had spent the day with Jesus, leaving at four o’clock in the afternoon to go find Simon and take him to see the Messiah for himself.
“He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said … ‘You are Peter.”
There was no preliminary conversation. No chitchat. Jesus didn’t engage in small talk. Not then or ever. Everything Jesus said was BIG. With just one look Jesus knew Simon’s heart and what Simon would mean to the world. Just as Jesus knows what we mean to the world, and to each other. And how that can continue to grow and grow.
Jesus’s instant reaction to Peter shows just how quickly he falls in love with us. It is always love at first sight. Jesus holds nothing back. He doesn’t play it cool or coy. He gives his love in an instant and keeps loving us forever.
And at our deepest level—warts and all.
While I wouldn’t be surprised if Jesus has special names for each of us, I am certain there is one affectionate nickname we all share in the heart of Christ: “Beloved.”
There could be no better nickname in all of the world.
That nickname is our light in the darkness.
A nickname that forever shines from the heart of Jesus into the depths of our journeying souls.
If only all of us—all over the nation and the world—could see each other as Jesus does:
The christening waters from the baptismal font soon dry upon the forehead of every child.
The living water of God’s love never does, and it can never be wiped away.
Even though some people try.
The world would have fewer swords and far more plowshares if we christened and re-christened each other with with that word—beloved.
On every heart-beating corner of this earth.
Every single day.
By Ken Woodley
What a compelling reaction by Mary in Luke’s birth narrative.
She and Joseph are with Jesus in the manger when shepherds arrive, fresh from an encounter with angels. We can imagine them nearly falling over each other to tell Mary and Joseph everything the angels had said about the couple’s son.
“Do not be afraid,” the angels told the shepherds, because this is “good news for all people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.”
The shepherds were then told to go to the manger to see for themselves.
Those listening to the shepherds’ story, Luke tells us, “were amazed.”
But what about Mary? Her reaction, more than the others, deserves our attention. Hers was a deep, silent and thoughtful response.
She “treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”
And so the mother of Jesus became the first contemplative Christian. She was clearly beginning a meditative journey of contemplation over the meaning of the birth of her son.
Oh, certainly, she had a pretty good idea.
The angel Gabriel, after all, had visited her in Nazareth nine months earlier. You will give birth to a son, Gabriel had told her, conceived by the Holy Spirit, a son to be called Jesus.
“He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David,” Gabriel had further explained, “and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will have no end.”
Mary’s reaction had often left me perplexed. Why did she need to ponder the shepherd’s words? I thought the angel Gabriel had made things clear to her. But then I reconsidered Gabriel’s words to Mary. I realized it was just possible that Mary might have done a good deal of wondering during the nine months of her pregnancy. Anybody would be awash in wondering about an encounter with an angel.
“The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever….”
Might not that have meant her son would some day become an earthly king, sitting upon an earthly throne?
The throne of David, after all, was very much an earthly throne and David was an earthly king.
Mary must have wondered about the precise meaning of those words.
People have been wondering about them ever since.
The earliest disciples and apostles wondered who, or what, precisely had that babe in the manger become.
It is so ironic. The question followed Jesus all of his life.
From the very first hours of his life to the final hours before his death—when Pilate asked him “Are you king of the Jews?”—people have wondered about the true meaning and message of that birth.
In the end, each of us will decide for ourselves what that birth in the manger means to us, who this Jesus is in our lives and how that answer influences they way we see the world, what we see in each other, and how we see ourselves.
We can choose to treasure the answering of that question in our hearts, and ponder it for a lifetime, joining Mary in a contemplative journey.
The nuances and subtleties of our answer will develop in different ways during our lifetimes. A spiritual journey is organic, not static. There will be layers of understanding, flashes of clear insight—as if they were spoken to us by an angel—that may, at times, seem like an uncertain mirage or a dream when our daily lives intrude, pushing them to the side. We may also find that we return to previous understandings, but with deeper insight into them.
But if we treasure this and ponder it in our hearts, as Mary did, it will become both sustenance and light for our journey when we need it most.
By Ken Woodley
’Twas the eve before Christmas, when all through the night
not a creature was stirring in fear or in fright.
The stockings were hung in a world full of cheer,
knowing that peace and that love could be here.
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
no nightmare vision haunting their heads.
Their mothers and fathers were safely inside
and no reason at all for any to hide.
When up on the hillside there arose such a noise,
of angels and shepherds all singing of joys.
Away toward that manger we walked through the snow
as if there was no place that we’d rather go.
The moon hung like a stocking high up in the sky
but a star shone far brighter and seemed so nearby.
There were swords turned to plowshares just waiting for spring
as we drew ever nearer a bell-sounding ring.
The chime, we discovered, was deep in our heart,
a carol of music that never would part.
For as long as we wished, we knew it would stay
if we made it a place deep inside us to play.
Closer we came to the manger scene now,
immune to the cold in some way and somehow.
There wasn’t a wise man, no, nowhere in sight,
just ordinary folks feeling love’s holy might.
There was no barn and no stable, no building at all,
but the child still within us did answer the call.
The babe in the manger would find shelter there,
in our hearts, in our souls whenever we care
For others who hurt, for others in pain
and give of ourselves, with nothing to gain
But a turning of cheeks when the anguish is ours
and a field full of thorns then blossoms with flowers.
No room at the inn but room inside we
who give birth to the message and meaning we see
In the love Jesus promised God has for us all,
whether we stand or whether we fall.
Angels we have heard on high
and angels we have felt so nigh.
There is goodwill at this season to cover the Earth
as a present at Christmas for this sacred birth.
But a gift to keep giving across the whole year
would be deeper than cups or bowls of good cheer.
Away in that manger, no crib for a bed,
but born every day in our footsteps, instead.