Seeing the Goodness of the Lord

Wild flower in field

It’s my birthday. I had planned to celebrate with a slice of key lime pie, a farewell salute to summer, but instead I’m traveling to Wyoming for a funeral. I need to hug my people and be near them as we lay to rest a 33-year-old mother of four. In our pain, we will seek the goodness of the Lord here in the land of the living.

I like to keep a poetry book on my nightstand. Poetry has a way of smoothing the rough edges off the day, helping me wind down and let slip any troubles lingering in the corners of my mind. Lately, I’ve been savoring the selected poems of Leslie Anne Bustard in The Goodness of the Lord in the Land of the Living. That wonderful title comes from Psalm 27:13, which the New King James version translates “I would have lost heart unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.”

Leslie had a reason for choosing that title — she was living with metastatic cancer when she penned these poems. She left the land of the living just a few months after I discovered her book.

In a world of pain and disease and rampant meanness, how do we live with the confidence of God’s goodness? Leslie’s poetry gives us clues. I’m grateful to her husband, Ned, for granting me permission to share a few of them with you.

Feel the rain

The first thing I noticed about Leslie’s book was how few of the poems deal directly with her cancer. It’s there, of course, but she follows Emily Dickinson’s advice to “tell all the truth, but tell it slant.” We see her yearning and sadness indirectly, and the very next breath is one of gratitude and wonder. Here are two examples.

Beach Day

A large storm off the southern coast is 
churning water, and pushing it up the beach,
straight for our towels and chairs. 
After a few times pulling up and moving back, 
we finally skip the day's surprising tide. 
 
And isn't this our life? 
We have staked our place,
only to see, out on the horizon,
the path of trouble leads to us. 
Tonsure

Like me, with my skin
and scar exposed, did newly-
vowed monks think of rain 
and wind on their bare heads as
reminders of Christ with them?

I’m guessing here, but it seems that Leslie went looking for the goodness of the Lord in the midst of her pain, not outside of it. In other words, she wasn’t looking for God’s goodness in everything except the cancer, as if denying its existence. Instead, she acknowledged the very real effects of the cancer and chose to experience the wind and rain on her bare head as a reminder of Christ’s presence.

Again, I’m guessing (I really wish I had known Leslie), but I suspect this attitude was less the result of a chronically sunny disposition and more the fruit of long-cultured spiritual discipline. Or what Eugene Peterson might say comes from walking “a long obedience in the same direction.”

Touch Grass

One reason Leslie’s poems resonated with me is her love of nature. She sought the goodness of the Lord in the world He created. I do, too. She gave her attention to the smallest gifts — an acorn, a sparrow outside her window, a shaft of light landing in her garden — and let her pen turn them to praise.

Light I

As when it finds its way down around
a maze of hydrangea leaves -- 
   almost unseen and
landing soft on my garden bed floor; 

Or when the last of the morning dew
glistens quietly in a patch of our yard
as the sun reveals itself through 
topmost branches of our neighbor's tree, 
brightening green maple leaves
above my head...

a reminder that sometimes a light surprises. 

Sometimes the world is just too much, even if you don’t have cancer. The everyday rancor of a fallen world wears us to a nub. Nothing revives me quite like taking a break from the digital world and giving my full attention to the natural world. Touch grass. It does wonders for the body, mind and spirit.

Love local

When Leslie went looking for the goodness of the Lord, she didn’t have to look far. She found it all around her in the many small acts of kindness from those who loved her. I have no doubt she had also made a lifetime of giving those same acts of generosity.

Unhistoric Acts

Like many prayers that are said for the sick,
and thoughtful meals given after a baby is born. 
Or when friends come to paint old walls
and fix broken steps. 

As in listening ears and encouraging words. 
Cards and flowers sent on hard days.
Trucks for moving furniture. 

The grandmother who watches her daughter's 
children, sharing her days with them. 
And all those who mow their neighbors' lawns
and drive them to the pharmacy...

The goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. 

In the face of another’s suffering, we often feel helpless. We don’t know what to say. Maybe “I’m praying for you,” and “You were on my mind today” are wise and eloquent enough. Or maybe words aren’t necessary at all. If you have a snow shovel or a lawnmower, let them do the talking. A loose paraphrase of Galatians 6:2 might read “Carry one another’s burdens, and in this way you display the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.”

Lift open hands

In hard times, it’s tempting to hunker down. Without even realizing it, we find ourselves with clenched fists, bracing for the next blow. I saw in Leslie’s poems a very intentional act of standing tall, hands open and lifted in faith. That’s what I see in this poem, my very favorite in the book.

To Make Visible 

To make visible, 
glory;
for a moment
see the mystery of eternity
in our ordinary. 
To long for the light
and to let it sweep
through shadowed windows,
waiting hearts. 
To listen.
To say yes,
let it be as you say it will be.
To wait till the word breaks in,
revealing grace
upon grace upon grace. 

Sometimes a book finds you at just the right time. Leslie’s poetry was a healing balm after I lost my dear friend, Heather, to cancer this summer. She was only 46. As I read Leslie’s poetry, I kept thinking, “Oh, Heather would love this.” It sounded just like her, and I wanted to share it with her. I’m confident Leslie and Heather have found each other by now, and the thought makes me smile.

My thanks again to Ned for graciously letting me share Leslie’s work. Ned, we’d love it if you have anything you’d like to tell us about Leslie in the comments. We want to know her better. The light of her presence remains, and I’m so glad I found her book.

On second thought, I’m going to have that slice of key lime pie for my birthday. This, too, is the goodness of the Lord. When I gather with my family this weekend, there will be many tears for the empty chair at our table. But we will not lose heart. Like Leslie, we will lift open hands, praying for eyes to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.

ComeOnAileen

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10 Comments

  1. Happy Birthday! Thank you for sharing these poems from my lovely wife. She would’ve been so happy to read this post and would’ve reached out immediately to thank you. Leslie did walk “a long obedience in the same direction,” and I believe that that was what prepared her to walk in the Valley of the Shadow of Death—but she also was famous for her smiles that would warm up a room.

    For those of you who want to read more of Leslie’s poetry, I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that “The Goodness of the Lord in the Land of the Living” is all sold out. The good news is that I’m making a new book that collects the majority of those poems and many of her essays and puts them all together in one volume. It will come out in time for HER birthday in February of 2024. You can read more about it here: https://www.squarehalobooks.com/#/tiny-thoughts/

  2. What a joy to see Leslie’s words popping up in new places like little yellow crocus faithfully reminding of beauty in the now and hope to come. I appreciated your reflection, Aileen. I can imagine Leslie’s smile upon reading it as well.

  3. Tears threaten to spill over the rims of my eyes as I read your thoughts this morning on Leslie’s poetry. Leslie was my best friend all the way back to middle school, so I deeply feel for you in the loss of your dear friend. I know the healing is not quick. Leslie would have been overwhelmed by your gratitude for her words as she was tremendously humble. She indeed had “long-cultured spiritual discipline” but she also had a “chronically sunny disposition,” which the cancer could have destroyed if not for the former. As we are coming up on her birthday this week, I’ll be settling into some reading of her work to comfort my soul. I hope you continue to find that which soothes yours as well.

    1. Lynette,
      How fortunate you are to have had such a long friendship with Leslie! I wish I could have known her. We celebrate the loves on our journey even as we mourn the loss. I’m confident you carry a little piece of Leslie in you, so her light is still reflected. Bless you, and thank you for sharing!
      Xoxo,
      Aileen

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