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.
By Ken Woodley
Christmas is still two weeks away, but oh, what a blessed gift it is to be a fool and yet still loved and saved by God.
What a blessed, blessed gift for us to unwrap.
I read the 35th chapter of the book of Isaiah (New International Version) nearly every morning before sunrise because, in typical Isaiah fashion, everything will be made right:
“The Wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
… Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy …
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water….”
How wondrously miraculous for us because there are individual, highly personal “wildernesses” through which we all must travel, times when we feel blind, unable to speak or hear, and our hearts weary and broken to the point of lameness.
Sometimes the difficulty is just making it to the starting line through another cold, gray, dark morning that seems to dawn without any promise of a true sunrise.
But that is not all we are left with. That is never all there is, where God is concerned. There is a light that always shines, through any weather and every season—even shining in the seasons deep within other seasons.
How do we journey through our times of great trouble—or minor rough patches—into that spiritual “promised land” where even the driest deserts are turned inside out?
There is a highway, Isaiah assures us, the Holy Way, the way for God’s people, and on that Holy Way none of life’s “ravenous beasts” can stop us unless we let them.
That assurance is wonderful in its own right but the truly glorious thing is this:
“No traveler, not even fools, shall go astray,” we are told by God through the prophet Isaiah in the New Revised Standard Version.
Of that fact I rejoice and cheer until I go hoarse. Even in my most foolish moments—and God knows I’ve had several thousand—God has not let me go truly astray. God’s love and grace have kept me on that Holy Way. Or led back on that path after I’d wandered off.
God knows humanity and understands that all of us will act foolishly at times. Sometimes it’s simply the foolishness of putting our own words into God’s mouth, framing our own expectations as if they were the word of God, and then becoming disheartened when those expectations aren’t met.
I’ve had to remind myself that, with the best of intentions, I put those words in God’s mouth. There is a huge difference between a genuine communication from the Holy Spirit and my own wishful thinking.
If, when that happens, I don’t realize that what I’ve done is perform a ventriloquist act—putting my voice in God’s mouth—then I am the real dummy in the performance.
Ironically, another opportunity for human foolishness is ignoring the voice of God when it does speak to our soul—when it is not us putting words in God’s mouth but actually the Holy Spirit of God communicating with us directly.
Especially when God is recommending a course correction in our lives to keep us on the Holy Way.
But God is ever-forgiving and ever-encouraging, even in the midst of our most foolish moments. God is always with us, speaking ceaselessly through the Holy Spirit until we listen, God promising that our deserts shall rejoice and blossom if we would only follow God’s signposts on the Holy Way.
There will be desert moments in our lives—we cannot avoid them—but, if we persevere, God promises that our troubled hearts shall some day leap like a deer.
Leap like the heart of a little child on Christmas Day.
Leap like a heart that understands the greatest gift of all is far too large to wrap.
Because that gift itself is wrapped around the whole, wide world:
If we’d only all open it together.
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.
By Ken Woodley
At the top of this hill
the world is
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,
Then another leaf, and, suddenly,
they are all around me now,
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
When all the leaves have fallen, I’ll still see them on the trees.
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.
…. 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.
Firmament exploding the darkness in an aurora borealis of the soul
that cascades me,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.