The Blacksmith’s Garden

**Note: This piece first appeared as a guest blog via the kindness and generosity of Zack Hunt on his blog at  http://zackhunt.net/2013/11/26/the-blacksmiths-garden-by-preetamdas-kirtana/  Zack is rather amazing: great heart and humor and lover of Jesus and neighbor (an uncommon & wonderful combination!) You should really do yourself a favor and check out his blog. Just subscribe. You’ll be glad you did. I post this, as I recover from some health challenges and, honestly, it remains a piece that still ministers to me. I hope you find some meaning and blessing here also**

 

The Blacksmith’s Garden – By Preetamdas Kirtana

(H/T)

When I was a child growing up in Pentecostal churches the phrase “turn or burn” meant mouthing a panicked sinner’s prayer or burning eternally in the Monster God’s hellfire. Today as my heart breaks again for my friend, Jerry, that phrase unexpectedly returned to my mind. Less than a month ago Jerry lost his beloved brother suddenly in an accident. Today, just minutes ago, Jerry emailed me that his sister, the remaining half of his spiritual arsenal; his shield that had worked in conjunction with the sword that his brother had been, has received another diagnosis of cancer. And what can I say? “My God,” is absolutely all I can think as the tears well up and trace the paths of their countless predecessors: tears of pain and joy, of loss and gratitude, tears of questions with no answer whatsoever, tears when there are no words left at all. I weep. I cry silently and then I notice a peculiar emptiness.

I don’t know what to do except pray, even if it’s only these simple, desperate words, “My God.” I don’t know what to say, so I say nothing and that’s where the emptiness is – right there: right where a loud, accusatory, and raging “WHY?!” would have been before. I don’t know what to do, but what I’m not doing at least right now, in just this moment, is not asking why. This leaves this space vacant, empty; this space where previously tough resentment, hard obstacles, and heart-high walls have been hammered into fine, glistening, repellent fashion by a blacksmith of isolation whose every challenge and loss blew like bellows into the toxic fire of “whys” and bitter “One day…” threats. Oh, the smoke from the noxious flames always sent signals of alarm and distressed calls for rescue, but without fail anyone, anyone, even God, who cared enough to get close enough to help, also got close enough to get burned. But now, now a cool wind blows through the blacksmith’s darkened shop and the anvil looks more like an altar. Without the the echo of the hammer and the crackle and spit of the fire I hear “turn or burn,” which, frankly, with it’s brimstone baggage seems like damn cold comfort. But on the next breeze that stirs old ash, also comes a fresh understanding in this hallowed out space. If we can, through resistance and ritual, with white knuckles and bended knee, through sometimes saltine-dry prayers and sobbing surrender, if we can just empty the space, if we can just turn from any and all questions of “why?” even for a moment, lay down the bellows, douse the fire, take off the apron and sit, we sometimes notice, perhaps in the cooler corner opposite the old furnace, a tiny green sprouting intruder of trust. It’s a strange and welcome sight, though more than a little perplexing as all I’ve really known is blacksmithing. I don’t know nothing about gardening.

I’ve grown skilled in burning offenses, glowing hot resentments, cauterized wounds, and throwing relationships like kindling. I know nothing of growing something new and tender green. The wonder of the tiny sprig of trust with it’s reaching roots and the wonder of my own unknowing amid the smell of soot and ash lights this new understanding of “turn or burn.” I can burn with questions of why. I can be consumed by the fires of needing reasons and in believing that in each denial and in every loss that my answers are gone or I can turn toward my complete unknowing, my complete lack of questions and also toward this love that has been likened to a great, Good Shepherd, this gentle, determined Gardner, who asks me, as He asked Mary, with the tomb behind her and the garden before her,

“Why are you crying?”

“They’ve taken my answers and even my questions,” I reply.

But then, in the stillness of the glory of this single seedling of trust, hardly a garden, He speaks my name.

He speaks my name and, like Mary, the Knowing of His Spirit within me springs forth and answers,

“Rabboni! Teacher!”

My Pentecostal training of “turn or burn” left my soul’s only option for vocation as blacksmith but my not knowing is, with bleeding hands and soiled knees, preparing me to be, finally, a Gardner’s apprentice, a Rabbi’s ragamuffin disciple, a faltering, failed, trembling, and faithful child of God.

But without answers and without even questions, how does that help Jerry? What does that leave me to offer my frightened and grieving friend? What it leaves is something better than answers that never helped even when they came. It leaves me brokenhearted, but faithful and willing to weep and wait in the garden outside empty tombs with the brokenhearted and weeping and waiting and to listen for the Gardner, ready to recognize the Teacher, to sit together in our unknowing until Daybreak dries our tears and we feel That Which We Felt Was Lost rise up within us and we know resurrection.

That’s all we have: brokenness, hope, and glory.

– See more at: http://zackhunt.net/2013/11/26/the-blacksmiths-garden-by-preetamdas-kirtana/#sthash.WxURtDn9.dpuf

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Desert Ledge

Desert Ledge

I’m here teetering again as I have so often been, on the very edge of falling or flying.

Each time I fall.

Each time I grasp and clutch and climb again to the edge of falling or flying. The struggle back up each time in itself can be said to be inspiring, but it’s not liberation, not the trust I long to live in. It’s not “life more abundantly”. The climb back up each time is certainly grace, but not necessarily growth. To finally maintain my gaze aligned with my center position of God’s gaze and to fly, even a few yards, even to the next ledge, this is the growth of faith I long for. This is the necessary and completely illogical trust in God’s goodness, the complete abandonment of myself to total dependence on grace, goodness, and guidance. This is the beginning of life more abundantly, not my life my way more abundantly, but Life in faithful, trusting relationship more abundantly. I have a hunch that in our illusion of possessing life, we diminish life and we fall. It must be that only in learning to share, to be part of abundant life, not have abundant life, that we might catch the current.

It’s a harsh bit of self-knowledge, the realization that I act so rarely out of trust and love that it’s memorable when I do. I find that I need God and need God desperately, not only because of a theory of “original sin”, but because I simply do not know how to love fully, if at all. I’m not sure that sin and not knowing how to love aren’t close to the same thing. I’d say there’s a clear correlation. What I know is that every time I haven’t acted from love, when I haven’t acted from knowing that I’m loved, that I’ve created a promising environment, created the perfect circumstance for missing the mark. It’s pretty much guaranteed. Far too consistently I find myself living in the B.C., that is “before Christ” in my own personal timeline, still living like an orphan long after adoption. All of our seeking and brokenness, all of our healing and hope is so that we might, even incrementally, live in the resurrection, in it’s life, in risen-ness, in it’s promise and purpose, and through an evolution of the heart – sometimes called salvation – stop living in the past, in the B.C. Yes, God was there then, but He’s not there now. God is ever present. The “I Am” is always here now, yes, empowered to act upon and redeem both, the past and the future, but always from the vantage point of the present. If we can just allow the pruning of what is dead and the dropping away of what is by now cumbersome, our skill at burrowing might be left behind as a sturdy trust and tender wings emerge. We might finally begin to “use the past as a reference point rather than a residence”. Even while we’re in the desert we might stop remembering Egypt in fondness or fear long enough to forward our mail to Canaan, to that promised place of the milk of loving acceptance and the honey of loving community.

My own backward glancing fondness for Egypt, for the reassuring internment of the empire of retribution, the domination of withholding, and the suffering of scarcity but guaranteed crumbs, fuels my hearts’ fear of all of these; my heart that still somewhere in a creviced memory of belonging believes in the promise of freedom, in the hope of reconciliation. Now, here again, in the desert moment between falling and flying, between turning back and pressing on, I see that I’m not impeded by what held me down so much as by what I try to hold down. My obstacles are more often the misdirection of my own sight. I am blocked and burdened by trepidation born of too many years being a captive of fear, a refugee of exclusion. This is a cup of confession that I’d much rather pass on, but I can’t afford to forgo it’s potential healing anymore. Refusing treatment is to accept this as terminal. My soul is as sick as it can be. In my rush to be jailer instead of jailed, the place where I house my prisoners of offense stinks of fetid resentment and overcrowding. All of my prayers for help, all of the Master’s words of admonition and promise, all of my earnest and incessant reading about forgiveness (while still clutching the cell block keys) has left me prayerful, well read, and still resentful; still prepared to be offended, still ready to be judge, jury, jailer, and slave driver; most often offering punishment rather than pardon. Finally it becomes apparent that we cannot travel the path of freedom or walk in the abundant life of the Spirit while leading a chain gang of those that we hold in the bondage of unforgiveness. Weary enough, sick and tired enough, we begin to see that the struggle is to stop holding our fellow humans’ humanity against them if there is to be any hope of us knowing the free will offering of God’s love. Finally, if warily, we take the shackles off God too and allow Him to move to the front of the line and we fall in step behind, bound now through loving surrender, rather than steel-toed, jack-booted condemnation.

But even when our necks are released from under the heel of external oppression and we trudge forward, too often the damaging soul impression and our history of scrap survival darkens our promised hopeful exodus. When we are certain, buried somewhere deep inside, that “the other shoe” is always about to drop, then even the brightest rays of sunlight are filtered through ominous clouds whose underbellies are tense and swung low with tattered high-top trainers, golf cleats, heavy-soled work boots, and countless, inevitable other shoes of impending disaster, despair, and abandonment. This is how I came to spend most of a lifetime never really exhaling completely, never really able to unpack much more than a toothbrush and a weathered copy of “Leaves of Grass”. This is how I’ve spent nearly a lifetime moving from one shelter to the next: from crawlspaces and bedroom closets to an orphanage, from a decaying YMCA to loitering in the two a.m. darkened backstreet doorways desperately willing to exchange a little perfunctory sex for the shelter of a man’s touch and maybe a pack of cigarettes. Girlfriends and boyfriends, friends and lovers, faithful dogs, a healing horse, and God in all Her many splendid and downright grimy forms have given me shelter; panting, emergency, temporary shelter. Some shelter roofs were thatched, some tin, but none of them ever sturdy enough to withstand the storms of my dark history-hued expectations. When we’re sure the other shoe is gonna drop, then God is a maniacal cobbler with a strong pitching arm. We’re His target and His aim is sure and mean. When we’re sure the other shoe is gonna drop, it always does, but so does sufficient grace again.

With each moment of startling grace, with every unexpected welcome, with each exoneration and pardon of ourselves and each other we slowly learn to expect the manna of provision, the faithfulness of love; rather than the pummeling of the next dropping shoe. Slowly we realize in our running and in our looking back that the chariots of doubt and dread and any Pharaohs of fear have vanished out of sight behind us and are now only echos in our head, only shadows in our vision, not on our path. Finally we see that our freedom now and our greater freedom ahead is contingent on our freeing those that have bound us, and ourselves, from the double yoke of retribution, the double-shackled chain of unforgiveness.

And yes, we measure the risk still, we balance ourselves precariously, teetering here on the edge, as I do again.

And we often still fall.

But whether we’re face down spitting sand or climbing back up to the ledge again, whether in our fleeting moments of airborne elation or in times of forgetful desperation, we are more aware of a constant light; a light that we reflect back by design; the light that we recognize as the flashpoint of knowing ourselves to always and ever to be in the center of God’s loving gaze. In this searing, molten love our belonging and peace are assured, all pardons are granted, and in our trembling gratitude we give unfettered, shameless witness to Wendell Berry’s words that “even falling raises, in praise of light.”

– PreetamDas Kirtana

“An Epiphany of Angels”

An Epiphany of Angels

“I’ll decide, In a moments time, To turn away, Leave it all behind.

So we climb, So we’re all told the line, The crowd is home, The treasure found.

So let it go, Wake up, Wake up, Wake up, We’re almost home . . . ” -Moby ft. Damien Jurado

After showering this evening I walk to the bedroom and lie down. The scent of cedar and myrrh rises from the body that carries me but that was never really mine. Lying here, what I can see framed by the bedroom doorway looks like a living still from a familiar movie, a screen that I could walk through and again be in a completely different world, like the children in the C.S. Lewis books, passing into another grand and terrifying world behind all of the woolen coats in the back of that old wardrobe. The doorway is itself a keyhole; a keyhole that we unlock by walking through. Resting here in dusk light and stillness, the soft, warm blanket of believing in safety for just a few minutes again, I only observe, free of any temptation to enter. To leave this space, to unlock the door by my entrance is to again enter the world of grace and brutality. To cross this threshold, in crossing every threshold and passing every portal is the magnificent, routine epiphany of birth and baptism. We are born of the Spirit, birthed from the womb of illusion and isolation, only to be born again of the Spirit.

Every doorway entered, every hand extended, every risk to speak and to listen, is certainly a kind of baptism, a happy funeral, the burial and resurrection that baptism represents. In all of these monumental, minute ways we are baptised: when we enter and close the door behind us instead of in front of us – we are burying isolation so that we can rise in community; when we cleanse ourselves of our need for protection to reveal the grace, to instead of being safe, being willing to risk love again; when we make an Exodus from the bondage of fear and self-obsession to the promised land of a loving God and neighbor-love, when we immerse our ‘no’ and it comes up out of the waters a ‘Yes’; a breathless, trembling, astonished ‘Yes’ perhaps, but distinctly a ‘Yes’.

To leave the banks of the river and step into the waters, to leave the bed, to step out the door, to leave the house and risk the first chance of eye contact again today is to trust the forgiveness we’ve received and given; and the forgiveness still in progress. It’s to invest in hope despite all of the backing from the deep pockets of despair, it is to face fear again each time for a moment as we brush by it on our way out. It’s a disappointing realization, the incredible shelf life of fear compared to that of hope. If fear has the shelf life of say, canned beans; hope is the local organic dairy product and seems to need to be restocked constantly. This is why some wise teachers counsel us to not believe in hope as an emotion, but as something much deeper, something unchanging, something solid. Take a shovel to the surface and it’s hard to tell what you’ll find, but once we hit the foundation, there’s only Rock, only unyielding firmness. This is not just “where hope lives”, this, down here, underneath, this is Hope itself. This is hope that propels us out of the safety of our solitude and into relationships in this world where fear seems to be always in the spotlight and has a longer shelf life and shame sells better. This is an insidious hope that sends us daily into our world where grace is more abundant than grief, but rarely reported, rarely celebrated. This hope is the assurance of those not blind since birth; those that walk in our world where we are so rarely seen that it is unsettling when we finally are. This is our world, populated with what Hafiz called “thirsty fish swimming in the Ocean”, and yet these waters are the hope of Life that move through us. Parched for communion, desperate to be heard, to be seen and to belong, we look past each other and then complain that we can’t find God. But if our “searching for God” leads us past each other, past ‘Jesus in all His disguises’ on the corner, at the check-out lane, the pride parade, in the shelter, and in our enemy, not only have we passed God, we’ve stopped looking for God and have simply resumed our regularly scheduled self-seeking. Chances are good that we’re trying again to “protect our heart by acting like we don’t have one” to quote an unforgettable Facebook meme. I loved that. Boy does that fit. I loved it more of course, before quickly realizing how often and how well it describes…me. I mean why on earth would we Not be scared? Why on earth would we not be guarding our hearts?

Too often another driver’s bad decision can change our lives in a moment, shaking our core so deeply, that like i did, we find ourselves vomiting weeks later. Too often she says that she Never did, when your whole life has been built around believing that she always had. Too often he says that he did, when everything in you needs to hear and believe his Denial Not his confession. Too often the doctor says, “Stage 4, cancer”. Too often people are hungry and shamed rather than fed. Too often the test is positive, the funds have been cut, the medication unaffordable. Too often we recycle paper, plastic, and glass but treat each other as disposable. Too often there’s still no work, there’s still no sleep, still no relief to be seen. Too often they don’t call back, we don’t apologize; too often there isn’t another chance. Too often our isolation is finally no longer a choice. “He just couldn’t live by himself anymore.” “People will look after her there.” Too often we never saw it coming. Too often we knew it all along, but there’s still nothing we can do about it. We can’t even attempt to weigh these without being weighted by them. When I take a measure I find ample reason to be scared and abundant reason to guard our hearts except for this prior situation, this pre-existing condition, the condition of my being included; all of us being included. There’s that more ancient epiphany: that the gift of the Magi was not the gifts that they brought, but the gifts of invitation and calling and acceptance that they received – the first Gentiles to witness the birth arrival of God as man, signaling that all of us are now included in every “Don’t be afraid”, in all of the “glad tidings”, in every bit of the Good News to come. This is for everyone, no exceptions. “Peace be still” is for this storm. “Still waters” and “green pastures” will calm this mind this very night. Because we are accepted, we cannot ever really be alone; never really despairing. We are born of community to be in community. We’ve been accepted. We’ve been included and there’s no way to un-include ourselves. Of course, we can turn in exactly the opposite direction, but that only changes our position, not our inclusion. Because we too, have been invited, called, and accepted, we slowly learn to be less afraid, to guard our hearts less vigilantly, less often. Because we bear the family name of “Accepted”, of “Reconciled”, of “beloved Child of God”, we hold fast to the words of the prophet Isaiah even when the storm is raging or the drought unending:

“Don’t be afraid, I’ve redeemed you.
I’ve called your name. Your Mine.
When you’re in over your head, I will be there with you.
When you’re in rough waters, you will not go down.
When you’re between a rock and hard place, it won’t be a dead end –
Because I am God, your personal God, your Savior.
Forget about what’s happened; don’t keep going over old history.
Be alert. Be present. I’m about to do something brand-new! It’s bursting out!
I’m making a road through the desert, rivers in the badlands.

Strengthen the feeble hands, the weak-in-the-knees, say to those with fearful hearts,
‘Be strong, don’t be afraid. God is here, right here to put things right. Blind eyes will open,
deaf ears unstopped, lame men and women will leap like dear,
the voiceless will break into song. Water will gush in the wilderness
and streams flow in the desert. Gladness will overtake you
and all sorrow and sighs will flee away.”

(Isaiah 43:1-4,16-21/ 35:3-6)

Perhaps because we’ve been a witness to the voiceless breaking into song, we also believe in the hope of water in our personal wilderness; in streams flowing in our intimate desert experience. Perhaps because we’ve had a moment, at least, of being overtaken with gladness, even if we only dreamed it so vividly or the life of the vision was so tangible, it was still, however fleetingly, very real and because we know the reality of this, we also trust in the possibility of “all sorrows and sighs fleeing away.” Perhaps because I’ve lost so much; because we lose so much, because I’ve been so lost so often; because we all find ourselves so often lost, I’m reminded of how much it’s all about being lost and found; of losing and finding again. In “the gospel of the Gospel”, Luke 15, everything is lost. Those three parables that encapsulate the gospel: the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son. But everything is risked by the shepherd, the woman, and the prodigals’ father and everything is found; everything is reconciled and all of it is celebrated. If it or they can be loved, it says, we can be reconciled. And so we hang on to hope, the hope beneath our feet, filling our lungs; the hope that is both, the beating and the opening of our hearts. A chorus becomes more clear now from a song heard faintly long ago. In our longing search for hope the song’s words I can finally begin to hear:

“Where is hope you ask?
Where can hope be found?
Look beneath your feet my child,
You’re standing on hope-full ground.

Remove your shoes and Look to the Hills;
For hope rides the wind as well –
Never departing AND always arriving,
My Hope will never fail.”

In our crisis and grief, in trials and in isolation, in physical pain and emotional distress we cling to that foundation; we go that Rock. We are a cruciform arrangement of surrender, sacrifice, and acceptance as we prostrate ourselves toe to toe, palm to palm, face to face, face down in our foundation. In our chronic state of recovery, our healing always “in-progress”, we move to the banks of the river. We inch toward the water’s edge, the open door, the pregnant pause, the moment of commitment. In our baptism, as Christ did in His, we choose Presence over protection, person hood and kinship over individuality, community at any price over ‘our way no matter what the cost’, and we commit ourselves to the mire of grace over stainless self-righteousness. And we hang on to hope, but not like a teddy bear, no, we hang on to hope like the Mother Bear she is. We hang on to the the hope of love and acceptance, the hope of lullabies singing comforting truths to us; we hang on to the hope of angels.

I remember my birth mother. In an effort to calm my night time fears she would come to my bedroom and sit on the edge of my bed. She’d sit there on my bedspread with the astronauts on it that I had pressed wrinkle-free around me, where with my three-foot stuffed Snoopy, Charlie Brown, and the pair of teddy bears, she would sing; not sweetly, but lovingly. She couldn’t sing “sweetly” any more than I can, but her heart for me was in every word as she sang,

“All night, all day, angels watching over me, my Lord. All night, all day angels watching over me.”

I hope that she was right about this one good thing. I hope that angels do come. Angels that leave behind our tears and trials, our failing bodies and slipping minds and carry our broken and longing spirits across that next threshold. There in that first wordless, holy moment of darshan, of seeing and being seen by God, each in our fullness, I will forgive God and God will still forgive me and, in mercy, understand that even though I failed, I was still, against all odds a man who still loved, who still occasionally stumbled into grace and shared the hope of that ever after.

– PreetamDas Kirtana