The Back Pew

There’s coffee and pie
with a widow from the church.
Why do you sit
in the back pew? she asks.
I’m close enough, I say.
Can I sit back there with you?
I’ve always sat there, I tell her,
with my same two friends,
and their clicking oxygen pumps.
One sat next to me for years,
called herself my church girlfriend,
who metastasized, telling me she was
tired of waiting to die.
Now, there’s just my 88-year-old friend,
his pump echoing in the sanctuary,
and there’s that empty
space between us.
I’d like to invite the widow to sit there,
but I miss my dead friend’s laugh,
her loving stories about her husband,
and how we were always
glad to see one another.
I tell the widow all this.
What if I just sat there? she asks.
It’s a free country, I tell her,
and she smiles.
~Bruce Pemberton “Autumn 2017” from Third Wednesday, (Vol. XI, no. 2, 2018)

We used to occupy the back pew with our young family, figuring a wiggly child would be less disruptive if we stayed in the back. Our children would sing loud, draw pictures on index cards, take notes on the sermon and sometimes fall asleep under the bench. As they got older, we slowly made our way to the middle benches, and even sat in the very front when we walked into church late.

Sometimes we go sit in the back again for old times sake and find the most interesting group holding down those pews.

There is a fellow over ninety years old who still drives himself to church and he prefers the back because he can see everyone else who is in church without having to turn around. He decided the back was the place to be after seeing a 16 year old girl who always sat in the back pew bring her baby daughter to church for the first time, and how she was the center of a swarm of church ladies who came to oooh and aaah over the baby at the conclusion of the worship service. He told me he knew there was special grace and acceptance in that back bench.

It’s a loving and safe place to be. Everyone should try it sometime.

photo by Barb Hoelle

In the Blink of an Eye

May the wind always be in her hair
May the sky always be wide with hope above her
And may all the hills be an exhilaration
the trials but a trail,
all the stones but stairs to God.

May she be bread and feed many with her life and her laughter
May she be thread and mend brokenness and knit hearts…
~Ann Voskamp from “A Prayer for a Daughter”

“I have noticed,” she said slowly, “that time does not really exist for mothers, with regard to their children. It does not matter greatly how old the child is – in the blink of an eye, the mother can see the child again as she was when she was born, when she learned to walk, as she was at any age — at any time, even when the child is fully grown….”
~Diana Gabaldon from Voyager

Just checking to see if she is real…

Your rolling and stretching had grown quieter that stormy winter night
twenty seven years ago, but no labor came as it should.
A week overdue post-Christmas,
you clung to amnion and womb, not yet ready.
Then the wind blew more wicked
and snow flew sideways, landing in piling drifts,
the roads becoming impassable, nearly impossible to traverse.

So your dad and I tried,
worried about being stranded on the farm far from town.
Our little car got stuck in a snowpile in the deep darkness,
our tires spinning, whining against the snow.
A nearby neighbor’s bulldozer dug us out to freedom.
You floated silent and still, knowing your time was not yet.

Creeping slowly through the dark night blizzard,
we arrived to the warm glow of the hospital.
You slept.
I, not at all.

Morning sun glistened off sculptured snow outside our window,
and your heart had ominously slowed in the night.
We both were jostled, turned, oxygenated, but nothing changed.
You beat even more slowly, letting loose your tenuous grip on life.

The nurses’ eyes told me we had trouble.
The doctor, grim faced, announced
delivery must happen quickly,
taking you now, hoping we were not too late.
I was rolled, numbed, stunned,
clasping your father’s hand, closing my eyes,
not wanting to see the bustle around me,
trying not to hear the shouted orders,
the tension in the voices,
the quiet at the moment of opening
when it was unknown what would be found.

And then you cried. A hearty healthy husky cry, a welcomed song.
Perturbed and disturbed from the warmth of womb,
to the cold shock of a bright lit operating room,
your first vocal solo brought applause
from the surrounding audience who admired your pink skin,
your shock of damp red hair, your blue eyes squeezed tight,
then blinking open, wondering and wondrous,
emerging saved from the storm within and without.

You were brought wrapped for me to see and touch
before you were whisked away to be checked over thoroughly,
your father trailing behind the parade to the nursery.
I closed my eyes, swirling in a brain blizzard of what-ifs.

If no snow storm had come,
you would have fallen asleep forever within my womb,
no longer nurtured by my aging placenta,
cut off from what you needed to stay alive.
There would have been only our soft weeping,
knowing what could have been if we had only known,
if God provided a sign to go for help.

Saved by a storm and dug out from a drift:
I celebrate each time I hear your voice singing,
knowing you are a thread born to knit and mend hearts.

my annual January 5 “happy birthday” to our daughter Lea, a 4th grade school teacher, soon to be married

What Gift Shall I Bring?

Seven-thirty. Driving northwest out of town,
the snowscape dusky, sky tinted smoky peach.

In the rear view mirror, a bright orange glow
suffuses the stubbly treeline. Suddenly a column
of brightness shoots from the horizon,
a pillar of fire! One eye on the road,
I watch behind me the head of a golden
child begin to push up between the black knees
of the hills. Two weeks out from Solstice, the sun
so near winter it seems to rise in the south.
A fiery angel stands over his cradle of branches.
And what strange travelers come to honor him?
And what gift will I bring to him this day?
~Thomas Smith “Advent Dawn” from The Glory

In trees still dripping night some nameless birds
Woke, shook out their arrowy wings, and sang,
Slowly, like finches sifting through a dream.
The pink sun fell, like glass, into the fields.

Two chestnuts, and a dapple gray,
Their shoulders wet with light, their dark hair streaming,
Climbed the hill. The last mist fell away.

And under the trees, beyond time’s brittle drift,
I stood like Adam in his lonely garden
On that first morning, shaken out of sleep,
Rubbing his eyes, listening, parting the leaves,
Like tissue on some vast, incredible gift.

~ Mary Oliver – “Morning In a New Land”

I want to wake each morning as if it were my first look at the world: to be astonished at the slow advance of the light and how the detail of the landscape begins to emerge from the mist of darkness.

As it is, I emerge from night covering my eyes, barely willing to look through my fingers to see what the day may hold. It is not the my first look at morning after all; I’m too aware there is heavy baggage to carry from the day before, and the day before that. The freshness of a new start is fermented by my history.

What gift can I bring to each new day? What gift can I bring to the God who came down to dwell in this weedy garden alongside me, help me carry my baggage and shoulder my load – indeed to carry me to my rest?

I will open my eyes and take in the morning, unwrapping it like the precious gift it is.

The best gift we can give to God is to receive the gift of Him with the astonishment it deserves.

We Are No Longer Alone: God Gives All of Himself

Do you think you could contain Niagara Falls in a teacup?
Don’t come with a thimble

when God has nothing less to give you
than the ocean of himself.
~Brennan Manning
from The Ragamuffin Gospel: Good News for the Bedraggled, Beat-Up, and Burnt Out

We stood on the hills, Lady,
Our day’s work done,
Watching the frosted meadows
That winter had won.

The evening was calm, Lady,
The air so still,
Silence more lovely than music
Folded the hill.

There was a star, Lady,
Shone in the night,
Larger than Venus it was
And bright, so bright.

Oh, a voice from the sky, Lady,
It seemed to us then
Telling of God being born
In the world of men.

And so we have come, Lady,
Our day’s work done,
Our love, our hopes, ourselves,
We give to your son.
~Bob Chillcott “The Shepherd’s Carol”

We harbor low expectations in our self-protection against disappointment and discouragement. We are a chronically underwhelmed humanity created by Our Maker to be anything but. Yet here we are, holding out thimbles and teacups as His loving dam of grace breaks wide open.

Our capacity for awe is restored at Advent, eyes wide, jaws dropped, hearts overflowing. God has given His all; we are overcome.

We Are No Longer Alone: In Spite of Darkness, It Was Day

Gloomy night embraced the place
Where the Noble Infant lay;
The Babe looked up and showed his face,
In spite of darkness, it was day.
It was thy day, Sweet! and did rise

Not from the east, but from thine eyes.

Welcome, all wonders in one sight!
Eternity shut in a span;
Summer in winter; day in night;
Heaven in earth, and God in man.
Great little one, whose all-embracing birth
Lifts earth to heaven, stoops heaven to earth.

~Richard Crashaw from “In the Holy Nativity of Our Lord”

“…Christmas will come once again. The great transformation will once again happen. God would have it so. Out of the waiting, hoping, longing world, a world will come in which the promise is given. All crying will be stilled. No tears shall flow. No lonely sorrow shall afflict us anymore, or threaten.
~Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a sermon to a church in Havana, Cuba December 21, 1930

when
this blessing comes,
take its hand.
Get up.
Set out on the road
you cannot see.

This is the night
when you can trust
that any direction
you go,
you will be walking
toward the dawn.
Jan Richardson (author of Circle of Grace)

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
2 Corinthians 4: 6

On this longest night of the year, I look out the window eagerly hoping for a post-solstice reprieve from interminable darkness. I seek that promise of being led back into the light, even if it will take months to get there. It is a promise that keeps me going even if I can barely perceive the few minutes of extra daylight today. It is from the simple knowledge that things are changing, getting lighter and brighter, that I harvest hope.

God made light through His Word, not once but twice.  In the beginning, He created the sun and the moon to penetrate and illuminate the creation of our hearts and our souls.  In the stable He came to light the world from below as well as from above so those hearts and souls could be saved from self-destruction.

I am showered with His light even on the longest night of the year and forever more, lit from the glory of God reflected in the many faces of Jesus: as newborn, refugee seeking sanctuary, child teacher, working carpenter, healer, itinerant preacher, unjustly condemned, dying and dead, raised and ascended Son of God.

Let the dark days come as they certainly will. They cannot overwhelm me now that I’m lit from within, no matter how deeply the darkness oppresses.

I know His promise.
I know His face.
He knows I know.

We Are No Longer Alone: Nature Full of Wonder

Rejoice, Rejoice!
Christ is born
Of the virgin Mary,
Rejoice!

It is now the time of grace
That we have desired;
Let us sing songs of joy,
Let us give devotion.

God was made man,
And nature full of wonder;
The world was renewed
By Christ who is King.

~Gaudete hymn

The world will never starve for want of wonders, but for want of wonder.
~G. K. Chesterton

Perhaps it is the nature of what I do, but I never lack for wonder. Every day, whether it is on the farm, within my family or in my doctoring, I witness wonders that bring me to my knees.

I am awed by the extraordinary in the ordinary, whether it is a full harvest moon, a well-timed hug, or a patient’s worry over a nagging headache.

Maybe I’m easily engrossed in what’s around me, but I know that’s not so because I can be as oblivious as the next person when too busy and distracted.

Maybe I’m just plain simple, even if those who know me don’t think so.

Maybe it’s because I try to wake each day feeling immense gratitude for whatever the day will bring so must stay alert to what is hurtling at me.

Maybe I just don’t want to miss a moment, even the miserable ones.…the world deserves more wonder than it gets.

I’m simply doing my part.

We Are No Longer Alone: Confronted by a Marvelous Truth

Marvelous Truth,
confront us at every turn
in every guise…

Thrust close your smile
that we know you, terrible joy.
~Denise Levertov from “Matins”

A child is born,
crowned in blood, and we lighten up.
Sure, we see it every day, and yet
this day, tradition says, is unlike any,
which is true. It has never happened,
and never will again, over and over
the will to be reborn, to gasp and cry
forgiveness, that is, like birth, difficult,
scared, insurgent, brave with the stranger,
the winter child, that blossoms through the wound.
~Bruce Bond from “Advent”

In sleep his infant mouth works in and out.
He is so new, his silk skin has not yet
been roughed by plane and wooden beam
nor, so far, has he had to deal with human doubt.

 He is in a dream of nipple found,
of blue-white milk, of curving skin
and, pulsing in his ear, the inner throb
of a warm heart’s repeated sound.

His only memories float from fluid space.
So new he has not pounded nails, hung a door,
broken bread, felt rebuff, bent to the lash,
wept for the sad heart of the human race.
~Luci Shaw “Kenosis”

To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.
~G.K. Chesterton from “The House of Christmas” (1915)

To think that the original Breath stirring the dust of man led to this?

This mystery of God becoming man, growing within woman, fed from her breast, wounded and bleeding to save her who delivered him, emptied himself completely to then deliver all of us as newborns, sliding slippery into our new life.

And we gasp for breath, our nostrils no longer breathing dust, but filled by the fragrance of forgiveness and grace.

We blossom through his wounds, bursting into bloom.