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.
Tell me, where is the road I can call my own, That I left, that I lost So long ago? All these years I have wandered, Oh when will I know There’s a way, there’s a road That will lead me home?
After wind, after rain, When the dark is done, As I wake from a dream In the gold of day, Through the air there’s a calling From far away, There’s a voice I can hear That will lead me home.
Rise up, follow me, Come away, is the call, With the love in your heart As the only song; There is no such beauty As where you belong; Rise up, follow me, I will lead you home. ~Stephen Paulus “The Road Home”
we who are wanderers–
who take wrong turns never ask for directions stumble over the rough roads find ourselves in the ditch get distracted by sightseeing and forget our ultimate destination
we are ready to heed the call that leads us home
nothing we’ve seen thus far no song we’ve heard no goal achieved compares to the beauty that awaits us
The Old Church leans nearby a well worn road upon a hill that has no grass or tree The winds from off the prairie now unload the dust they bring around it fitfully The path that leads up to the open door is worn and grayed by many toiling feet of us who listen to the Bible lore and once again the old time hymns repeat. And every Sabbath Morning we are still returning to the altar standing there; a hush, a prayer, a pause, and voices fill the Master’s House with a triumphant air. The old church leans awry and looks quite odd, But it is beautiful to us, and God. ~Stephen Paulus “The Old Church”
…when I experienced the warm, unpretentious reception of those who have nothing to boast about, and experienced a loving embrace from people who didn’t ask any questions, I began to discover that a true spiritual homecoming means a return to the poor in spirit to whom the kingdom of heaven belongs. ~Henri Nouwen from The Return of the Prodigal Son
Our family had driven past the boxy building countless times hurrying on our way to other places, barely giving it a second glance. It had a classic design, but showed its age with peeling paint, a few missing shingles, an old fashioned square flat roofed belfry, and arched windows. The hand lettered sign spelling out “Wiser Lake Chapel” by the road constituted a humble invitation of sorts, simply by listing the times of the services.
On a blustery December Sunday evening in 1990, we had no place else to be for a change. Instead of driving past, we stopped, welcomed by the yellow glow pouring from the windows and an almost full parking lot. Our young family climbed the steps to the big double doors, and inside were immediately greeted by a large balding man with a huge grin and encompassing handshake. He pointed us to one of the few open spots still available in the old wooden pews.
The sanctuary was a warm and open space with a high lofted ceiling, dark wood trim accents matching the ancient pews, and a plain wooden cross above the pulpit in front. There was a pungent smell from fir bough garlands strung along high wainscoting, and a circle of candles standing lit on a small altar table. Apple pie was baking in the kitchen oven, blending with the aroma of good coffee and hot cocoa.
The service was a Sunday School Christmas program, with thirty some children of all ages and skin colors standing up front in bathrobes and white sheet angel gowns, wearing gold foil halos, tinfoil crowns and dish towels wrapped with string around their heads. They were prompted by their teachers through carols and readings of the Christmas story. The final song was Silent Night, sung by candle light, with each child and member of the congregation holding a lit candle. There was a moment of excitement when one girl’s long hair briefly caught fire, but after that was quickly extinguished, the evening ended in darkness, with the soft glow of candlelight illuminating faces of the young and old, some in tears streaming over their smiles.
It felt like home. We had found our church.
We’ve never left and every Sabbath day finds us back there.
Over the past 103 years, this old building has seen a few thousand people come and go, has had peeling paint and missing shingles, a basement that flooded when the rain comes down hard, toilets that didn’t always flush, and though it smells heavenly on potluck days, there are times when it can be just a bit out of sorts and musty. It really isn’t anything to boast about.
It is humble and unpretentious yet envelops its people in its loving and imperfect embrace, with warmth, character and a uniqueness that is unforgettable.
It really is not so different from the folks who have gathered there over the years.
We know we belong, such as we are, just as we are, blessed by God with a place to join together.
In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea, With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me. As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free, While God is marching on.
He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave, He is Wisdom to the mighty, He is Succour to the brave, So the world shall be His footstool, and the soul of Time His slave, Our God is marching on.
(Chorus) Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah! While God is marching on. ~Julia Ward Howe — final original verses of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”
We are Your lilies, the glory of this Sabbath morning. Consider us, Oh Lord, Consider us the tears borne of love from Your eyes, So brief and so beautiful.
My father would lift me to the ceiling in his big hands and ask, How’s the weather up there? And it was good, the weather of being in his hands, his breath of scotch and cigarettes, his face smiling from the world below. O daddy, was the lullaby I sang back down to him as he stood on earth, my great, white-shirted father, home from work, his gold wristwatch and wedding band gleaming as he held me above him for as long as he could, before his strength failed down there in the world I find myself standing in tonight, my little boy looking down from his flight below the ceiling, cradled in my hands, his eyes wide and already staring into the distance beyond the man asking him again and again, How’s the weather up there? ~George Bilgere “Weather”.
It was hard work, dying, harder than anything he’d ever done.
Whatever brutal, bruising, back- breaking chore he’d forced himself
to endure—it was nothing compared to this. And it took
so long. When would the job be over? Who would call him
home for supper? And it was hard for us (his children)—
all of our lives we’d heard my mother telling us to go out,
help your father, but this was work we could not do.
He was way out beyond us, in a field we could not reach. ~Joyce Sutphen “My Father, Dying”
Deep in one of our closets is an old film reel of me about 16 months old sitting securely held by my father on his shoulders. I am bursting out with giggles as he repeatedly bends forward, dipping this head and shoulders down. I tip forward, looking like I am about to fall off, and when he stands back up straight, my mouth becomes a large O and I can almost remember the tummy tickle I feel. I want him to do it again and again, taking me to the edge of falling off and then bringing me back from the brink.
My father was a tall man, so being swept up onto his shoulders felt a bit like I was touching heaven.
It was as he was dying 24 years ago this week that I realized again how tall he was — his feet kept hitting the foot panel of the hospital bed my mother had requested for their home. We cushioned his feet with padding so he wouldn’t get abrasions even though he would never stand on them again, no longer towering over us.
His helplessness in dying was startling – this man who could build anything and accomplish whatever he set his mind to was unable to subdue his cancer. Our father, who was so self-sufficient he rarely asked for help, did not know how to ask for help now.
So we did what we could when we could tell he was uncomfortable, which wasn’t often. He didn’t say much, even though there was much we could have been saying. We didn’t reminisce. We didn’t laugh and joke together. We just were there, taking shifts catching naps on the couch so we could be available if he called out, which he never did.
This man: who had grown up dirt poor, fought hard with his alcoholic father left abruptly to go to college – the first in his family – then called to war for three years in the South Pacific.
This man: who had raised a family on a small farm while he was a teacher, then a supervisor, then a desk worker.
This man: who left our family to marry another woman but returned after a decade to ask forgiveness.
This man: who died in a house he had built completely himself, without assistance, from the ground up.
He didn’t need our help – he who had held tightly to us and brought us back from the brink when we went too far – he had been on the brink himself and was rescued, coming back humbled.
No question the weather is fine for him up there. I have no doubt.
It was the face of spring, it was the face of summer, it was the warmness of clover breath. ~Ray Bradbury from Dandelion Wine
However you may come, You’ll see it suddenly Lie open to the light Amid the woods: a farm Little enough to see Or call across—cornfield, Hayfield, and pasture, clear As if remembered, dreamed And yearned for long ago, Neat as a blossom now With all the pastures mowed And the dew fresh upon it, Bird music all around. That is the vision, seen As on a Sabbath walk: The possibility Of human life whose terms Are Heaven’s and this earth’s.
The land must have its Sabbath Or take it when we starve. The ground is mellow now, Friable and porous: rich. Mid-August is the time To sow this field in clover And grass, to cut for hay Two years, pasture a while, And then return to corn.
This way you come to know That something moves in time That time does not contain. For by this timely work You keep yourself alive As you came into time, And as you’ll leave: God’s dust, God’s breath, a little Light. ~Wendell Berry from The Farm
Farming is daily work outside of time – the labor of this day is the care for the eternal. There is a timelessness about summer: about preparing and planting and preserving, this cycle of living and dying repeating through generations. We, as our many great great grandparents did, must become God’s dust yet again.
So I’m reminded, walking through the pasture’s clover patch, of all the ways to become seed and soil for the next generation. For a blossom that appears so plain and goes so unnoticed during its life, it dies back, enfolding upon itself, with character and color and drama, each a bit differently from its neighbor.
Just like us.
Perhaps it is the breath of clover we should remember at the last; God’s own breath comes to us disguised in so many ways as we walk this ground. Inhale deeply of Him and remember we too are made fruits of His eternal labor.
It is possible, I suppose that sometime we will learn everything there is to learn: what the world is, for example, and what it means. I think this as I am crossing from one field to another, in summer, and the mockingbird is mocking me, as one who either knows enough already or knows enough to be perfectly content not knowing. Song being born of quest he knows this: he must turn silent were he suddenly assaulted with answers. Instead oh hear his wild, caustic, tender warbling ceaselessly unanswered. At my feet the white-petalled daisies display the small suns of their center piece, their – if you don’t mind my saying so – their hearts. Of course I could be wrong, perhaps their hearts are pale and narrow and hidden in the roots. What do I know? But this: it is heaven itself to take what is given, to see what is plain; what the sun lights up willingly; for example – I think this as I reach down, not to pick but merely to touch – the suitability of the field for the daisies, and the daisies for the field. ~Mary Oliver “Daisies”
I spend much of my time acknowledging I don’t know what I wish I knew. Aging means becoming content with the mystery and ceasing to strive so much for what is not yet illuminated, but will soon be.
I don’t fight my dark ignorance like I used to — no longer cry out in frustration about what I don’t understand and stomp angrily through each bewildering day.
Instead I am grateful for what insight is given freely and willingly, what is plainly illuminated, to be touched without being picked and destroyed.
I realize, if only I open up just enough to the Sun, it is my own heart that is alit and ripening. That is how heaven must be and I remain content to stay planted where I am until I’m picked.