from Chapter 10, Finding God Beyond Harvard: the Quest for Veritas (IVP)
by Kelly Monroe Kullberg
“The Red Barn Run,” an excerpt
…. After a decade in Cambridge, I moved to a pine cabin, in the woods, on Boston’s North Shore. Stretches of beach and small islands served as sanctuaries for artists as well as piping plovers. In a vast expanse of estuary and ocean, summers were full of wildflowers, bumbling bees, and tidal currents that challenged my sea kayaking skills. During fiery autumns and frozen winters, hikes, books, and the scent of wood smoke spoke to me, “Breathe and rest.”
Life on that boundary of land and water began for me as an escape—from exhaustion, and from the city with its omnipresent reminders of a lost love in the Age of the Almost-Marriage. Though much in love for several years, we became distracted, frustrated, and called it quits. When I returned home from a long trip, I saw his car not in my driveway but in the driveway of my neighbor, who wasn’t distracted. They eventually, uh, married. And so it was in this cabin that I questioned, often with anguish, my past choices and failures. I faced the fact of wasted time: I had postponed marriage and children while caring for the children of others, and while hoping and working in small ways to change the world. I questioned my frail faith in God’s sovereignty.
In that season of doubt and bitterness I often went for hikes in the snowy salt marsh at low tide. One day the sunlight was getting away from me, and I thought I’d catch the last of it. I threw on some Gore-Tex and hiking boots, and was off on what I remember as “the red barn run.” I had a routine for these outings: put some wood in the stove for heat that night, either bring or hug the dogs, go down through the woods, pass the neighbor’s chicken barn, greet the sheep, skirt the big red barn, hike into the marsh to the tide’s edge, and be back home in under an hour.
Tonight was different. A shining planet rose like a jewel beneath the crescent moon. Stars slowly emerged as members in the choir. Songbirds in their snowy pine trees became a timbered chorus of complex and lilting harmonies. The ocean tide slowly rose to the occasion. Earth and sky became the colors of bread and wine, flesh and blood. The setting sun turned the barn to orange and, later, to crimson.
Something about it seemed too good to be false.
I felt inklings of a symphony behind which might be a score and a conductor.
I sensed a story with a wooing author. I felt something like Tolkien’s enchanted vision, but here the rightful owner of the one ring was the lord of light, not of darkness. The bearer of that ring to rule the spheres was some sort of wild and relentless lover, who could find me anywhere.
Moon and tides danced together. Creatures were changing shifts. Some were off to sleep, and others waking. It struck me that, in fact, this happens everywhere, every day, every year. We live on a life-giving planet, in a vast solar system, which is just one member of a still more vast and finely-tuned universe. And we have minds and hearts which are free to reject or to receive the gift and the giver of it all—to join the dance, or to wait it out.
In that hour there was too much beauty to be comfortable, to pay the weak compliment of aesthetic pleasure. It all seemed orchestrated, conspicuous, too overtly fine-tuned for me to do anything but be still and silent. I felt it all as con-spir-acy—a breathing together—inviting me.
But without me. What stopped and then sickened me that night, beneath that starry host, was the feeling that I could not participate. Except for me, all creation seemed to be joining in a cosmic chorus, an exquisite dance. The more I listened and watched, the more it seemed like worship. And yet of all God’s creatures, I was on the outside, wanting in and yet standing against it in rebellion.
Beauty can be painful to bear alone. But I was the one who had chosen aloneness, the one who had run away after a great loss. The universe could sing and dance the night away for all I cared. My own story seemed flat and cold, the midwinter indeed bleak and unending.
How could I enter back into God’s presence, with this enchanted symphony of the creation around me? How could I trust the One behind it all? The answer came unbidden and clear: I was to choose life, to join the dance, by forgiving. Only by doing so could I enter into that abundant reality which I really did desire.
I had been dismembered from life by my unwillingness to forgive. I was now invited to be re-membered to life to by choosing forgiveness.
Whether I bent my knees, or my legs were broken for me, I don’t know. I fell to the wet earth, forehead down in mud and snow, fighting nausea, reminding myself to breathe. I was my own inquisitor: In what story had I been living? Was it the story of life in the Garden before the Fall, or after? Was it a story which accepted, even expected, the epic movements of creation, fall, and redemption? Was it a story with time-depth and future hope, or was I stuck in the too-small cell of self and the moment?
I began by asking for mercy for myself, and even asking for the gift to see my own desperate need of mercy. I began to forgive a betrayal that felt like a primal wound.
Bitterness is like saltwater at high tide, forcing us to shrink back, to retreat into safe places and sorrow, but that evening on the ocean, someone changed the tides in me. He welcomed me back in. I slowly rose and joined that symphony of worship, of gratitude, of life.
When his light and love floods us, it shifts the boundaries of our being. Our hearts get bigger. Our minds begin to heal. I was grafted into the tree of life, brought into the land of the living.
Sometimes, when the sun itself sinks low enough, when the glow of crimson captures my attention, I behold its light, its glory, if you will—its face.
On the hike out to the tide that night I saw the world in the warm light of the sun setting behind me. On the way home, I saw the sun itself.
Soggy and content, before entering the dark woods and then the warm cabin, I looked back across that sanctuary. And the red barn was lit from within.
For reflection and discussion:
Can you relate to this sense of loss and bitterness in any way? If so, how does it effect you?
Does anything block you from “joining the chorus” worshipping God?
Do you ever feel like an outsider, looking in, when it comes to worship?
God longs to draw us in. What one or two motions could you make to draw near to God today? To join the dance?