The Ordinary Stuff of Earth Manifest

Passing down this story of Christ’s life, death, resurrection and ascension is not merely, or mainly, an exercise in cognition. Nor is it a divinely inspired game of telephone, where we simply whisper a message to the next generation through the ages.

Inevitably the story comes to us through ordinary people over dinner tables, at work, in songs, through worship, conflict, failure, repentance, ritual, liturgy, art, work and family. Christianity is something we believe, but it is also a practice. Central to our practice is what Christians call sacraments, where the mysteries of faith are manifest through the ordinary stuff of earth—water and skin, bread and teeth.

~Tish Harrison Warren from “True Story”

photo of Wiser Lake Chapel by Barbara Hoelle

schizomeno—meaning in Greek “ripped open.” It occurs twice in the Gospels: once when the temple veil is torn the day of Christ’s crucifixion. The other is when “the heavens opened” upon Christ’s baptism. But they didn’t just “open.” They were ripped open. God broke into history with a voice and an act of salvation unlike any other. 

To study the Bible with people of faith is to see it not only as an object of academic or antiquarian interest but also as a living word, a source of intellectual challenge, inspiration, comfort, uncomfortable ambiguities, and endless insights for people who gather in willingness to accept what seems to be God’s invitation: Wrestle with this. Healthy churches wrestle, working out their salvation over coffee and concordances, knowing there is nothing pat or simple about the living Word, but that it invites us into subtle, supple, resilient relationship with the Word made flesh who dwells, still, among us.
~Marilyn McEntyre from “Choosing Church”

Ripped open to allow access – that is what God has done to enter into this ordinary stuff of earth, and giving us access to Him.

I enter the church sanctuary every Sunday to be reminded of this wrestling match we have with ourselves, with each other, with the every day ordinary stuff, with the living Word of God. None of this is easy and it isn’t meant to be. We must work for understanding and struggle for contentment.

I keep going back – gladly, knowing my guilt, eager to be transformed – not only because I choose to be in church, but because He chose to invite me there.

Heaven-Sent Maize

A dim veil hangs over the landscape and flood,
And the hills are all mellowed in haze,
While Fall, creeping on like a monk ‘neath his hood,
Plucks the thick-rustling wealth of the maize.

And long for this manna that springs from the sod
Shall we gratefully give Him the praise,
The source of all bounty, our Father and God,
Who sent us from heaven the maize!
~William Fosdick “The Maize”

The autumn garden can feel like a treasure hunt as we pull out and sort through the dead and dying vines and stalks: the giant zucchini growing undetected under leaves, the cucumber hanging from a cornstalk, the fat hollowed beans ready to burst with seed.

Yet the greatest Easter Egg of all hidden away in husk and cornsilk is this glass gem corn, a maize variety Dan planted in the spring. We’ve never experimented with it before and it grew listlessly, almost half-hearted, with stunted stalks and few apparent ears, pitiful next to our robust sweet corn crop.

It fooled us; this corn is pure gold in a kaleidoscope display. The ears are meager but glowing like stained glass, colorful quilt patches on a stalk. We gathered it up for “Show and Tell” at church last night, showing our Chapel friends what God can do with His unending palette of heaven-sent color and imagination. People come in all colors too, thanks to His artistry, but not nearly so varied as this kernels of colored glass.

Our Ordinary Unmysterious Lives

Definite beliefs are what make the radical mystery
those moments when we suddenly know there is a God
about whom we “know” absolutely nothing –
accessible to us and our ordinary, unmysterious lives.

And more crucially:

definite beliefs enable us to withstand the storms of suffering

that come into every life, and that tend to destroy
any spiritual disposition that does not have deep roots.

~Christian Wiman from My Bright Abyss

photo of Wiser Lake Chapel sanctuary by Barb Hoelle

Does anyone have the foggiest idea
of what sort of power we so blithely invoke?
Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?
The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets,
mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.
It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church;
we should all be wearing crash helmets.
Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares;
they should lash us to our pews.

~Annie Dillard from Teaching a Stone to Talk

Unexpected God,
your advent alarms us.
Wake us from drowsy worship,
from the sleep that neglects love,
and the sedative of misdirected frenzy.
Awaken us now to your coming,
and bend our angers into your peace.
Amen.
~Revised Common Lectionary First Sunday of Advent

We are only a few weeks away from the beginning of Advent, a time when I am very guilty of blithely invoking the gentle story of Christmas Eve’s silent night, the sleeping infant away in a manger, the devoted parents hovering, the humble shepherds peering in the stable door.

The reality, I’m confident, was far different.

There was nothing gentle about a teenage mother giving birth in a stable, laying her baby in a feed trough–I’m sure there were times when Mary could have used a life preserver.
There was nothing gentle about the heavenly host appearing to the shepherds, shouting and singing the glories and leaving them “sore afraid.” The shepherds needed crash helmets.
There was nothing gentle about Herod’s response to the news that a Messiah had been born–he swept overboard a legion of male children whose parents undoubtedly begged for mercy, clinging to their children about to be murdered.
There was nothing gentle about a family’s flight to Egypt to flee that fate for their only Son.
There was nothing gentle about the life Jesus eventually led during his ministry:  itinerant and homeless, tempted and fasting in the wilderness for forty days,  owning nothing, rejected by his own people, betrayed by his disciples,  sentenced to death by acclamation before Pilate, tortured and hung on a cross until he took his last breath.

Yet he understood the power that originally brought him to earth and would return him to heaven, and back again someday. 
No signal flares needed there.

When I hear skeptics scoff at Christianity as a “crutch for the weak”, they underestimate the courage it takes to walk into church each week as a desperate person who will never ever save oneself.   We cling to the life preserver found in the Word, lashed to our seats and hanging on.  It is only because of grace that we survive the tempests of temptation, guilt and self-doubt to let go of our own anger in order to confront the reality of the radical mystery of God.

It is not for the faint of heart, this finding a “definite belief” within our ordinary unmysterious lives and giving it deep roots to thrive. It is reasonable and necessary to be “sore afraid” and “bend our anger” into His peace.

And not forget our crash helmets.

walking to church in Tokyo


Kitchen Table

The world begins at a kitchen table. No Matter what, we must eat to live.

The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.

We chase chickens or dogs away from it. Babies teethe at the corners. They scrape their knees under it.

It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.

At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers.

Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children. They laugh with us at our poor falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together once again at the table.

This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.

We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here.

Wars have begun and ended at this table. It is a place to hide in the shadow of terror. A place to celebrate the terrible victory.

At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.

Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.
~Joy Harjo “Perhaps the World Ends Here”

Our life revolves around this table. This is where we hang out late into the evening, and begin the day before dawn. This is where the prayers happen, the meals happen, the arguments happen. This is where we understand each other.

This is where we are fed and daily God provides.

Amen, and be it ever so.

A World of Crowded Cups to Fill

sphere of pillowed sky
one faceless gathering of blue.
..

… I’m tethered, and devoted
to your raw and lonely bloom

my lavish need to drink
your world of crowded cups to fill.
~Tara Bray “hydrangea” from Image Journal

Like in old cans of paint the last green hue,
these leaves are sere and rough and dull-complected
behind the blossom clusters in which blue
is not so much displayed as it’s reflected;

They do reflect it imprecise and teary,
as though they’d rather have it go away,
and just like faded, once blue stationery,
they’re tinged with yellow, violet and gray;

As in an often laundered children’s smock,
cast off, its usefulness now all but over,
one senses running down a small life’s clock.

Yet suddenly the blue revives, it seems,
and in among these clusters one discovers
a tender blue rejoicing in the green.
~Rainer Maria Rilke “Blue Hydrangea” Translation by Bernhard Frank

Dwelling within a mosaic of dying colors,
these petals fold and collapse
under the weight of the sky’s tears.

This hydrangea bears a rainbow of hues,
once-vibrant promises of blue
now fading to rusts and grays.

I know what this is like:
the running out of the clock,
feeling the limits of vitality.

Withering and drying,
I’m drawn, thirsty for the beauty,
to this waning artist’s palette.

To quench my thirst:
from an open cup, an invitation,
an everlasting visual sacrament.

Holding My Feet to the Fire

God is the fire my feet are held to.
~Charles Wright, from “Ars Poetica II” in Appalachia

If we think we’re going to get off easy in this life
because we do what we’re told to do:
keeping the Sabbath
and our noses clean,
saying what we ought to say
when we should say it
and keeping our mouths shut when
it is best to say nothing at all.

If we think our good deeds
and relative lack of bad deeds will save us,
we have another think coming
and a lot of explaining to do.

We walk through fire
because nothing about God’s glory
is easy. We are hidden in the cleft because He is too much for our eyes to behold.
We remove our sandals
to feel the hot coals of holy ground.
He burns without being consumed
so our hearts are scorched in His presence.

Yet His feet are blistered too.
He knows exactly how this feels.





Bread Broken

The bus releases you beside the bakery
at 5 AM. His light’s on. You can smell
the secret life of bread– the russet brawny
shoulders rising in the pan, yeast swelling
yearning toward croissants, pretzels, braided
curls of challah.
You give the baker money,
he gives you a loaf. Neither of you can say
the mystery you share like lovers. You shyly nod
and bear your loneliness to work
in helpless hands. Whatever it is, you can
not explain the one thing that matters.
You break
his bread at noon and fling it toward frozen
ducks on the millpond and you awaken
from what you’ve been.
You want to be bread broken.
~ Jeanne Murray Walker “Baker” from Pilgrim, You Find Your Path By Walking


We all harbor mystery; oftentimes we can’t even decipher what is in our hearts, much less communicate it to another. Breaking open may be the only way to reveal it but that can be too much for even the strongest of us.

We are not a mystery to God. We are transparent as shattered glass to Him when we are opaque to ourselves and others.

He knows our comings and goings, where our cracks are and where the glue continues to hold in what has already been repaired.

Most of all, He knows Himself what it means to be broken to feed others – flung and woke — even for those who turn their backs to a meal to freedom.