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

The Long Road of Weariness and Want

We think of him as safe beneath the steeple,
Or cosy in a crib beside the font,
But he is with a million displaced people
On the long road of weariness and want.
For even as we sing our final carol
His family is up and on that road,

Fleeing the wrath of someone else’s quarrel,
Glancing behind and shouldering their load.
Whilst Herod rages still from his dark tower
Christ clings to Mary, fingers tightly curled,
The lambs are slaughtered by the men of power,
And death squads spread their curse across the world.
But every Herod dies, and comes alone
To stand before the Lamb upon the throne.
~Malcolm Guite “Refugee”

…as you sit beneath your beautifully decorated tree, eat the rich food of celebration, and laugh with your loved ones, you must not let yourself forget the horror and violence at the beginning and end of the Christmas story. The story begins with the horrible slaughter of children and ends with the violent murder of the Son of God. The slaughter depicts how much the earth needs grace. The murder is the moment when that grace is given.

Look into that manger representing a new life and see the One who came to die. Hear the angels’ celebratory song and remember that sad death would be the only way that peace would be given. Look at your tree and remember another tree – one not decorated with shining ornaments, but stained with the blood of God.

As you celebrate, remember that the pathway to your celebration was the death of the One you celebrate, and be thankful.
~Paul Tripp

There can be no consolation;
only mourning and great weeping,
sobbing that wrings dry
every human cell,
leaving dust behind,
dust, only dust
which is beginning
and end.

He came to us
for times such as this,
born of
the dust of woman and
the breath of Spirit,
God who bent down to
lie in barn dust,
walk on roads of dust,
die and be laid to rest as dust
in order to conquer
such evil as this
that could terrify masses
and massacre innocents.

He became dust to be
like us
He began a mere speck in a womb
like us,
so easily washed away
as unexpected, unneeded, unwanted.

Lord, You are long expected.
You are needed
You are wanted.

Your heart beat
like ours
breathing each breath
like ours
until a fearful fallen world
took Your
and our breath
away.

You shine through
the shadows of death
to guide our stumbling uncertain feet.
Your tender mercies flow freely
when there is no consolation
when there is no comfort.

You hear our cries
as You cry too.
You know our tears
as You weep too.
You know our mourning
as You mourned too.
You know our dying
as You died too.

Only God can glue together
what evil has shattered.

We will know His peace
when He comes
to bring us home,
our tears finally dried,
our cells no longer
just dust,
as we are glued together
by the breath of God
forevermore.

the tender mercy of our God,
    by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness
    and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.
Luke 1: 78-79

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: It is Time to Awaken From Sleep

If we want Advent to transform us
– our homes and hearts, and even nations –
then the great question for us is whether
we will come out of the convulsions of our time with this determination:
Yes, arise!
It is time to awaken from sleep.
A waking up must begin somewhere.
It is time to put things back where God intended them.
~Alfred Delp from When the Time Was Fulfilled

Isaiah 60:1
“Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the LORD rises upon you and his glory appears over you.”

Light and dark are part of the interwoven tapestry of advent. 

We stumble in the dark, groping for a foot and hand hold to keep ourselves from falling off the abyss.

Then His glory lifts us, illuminates, covers and surrounds us so we can find our path and walk with confidence.

Startling, wondrous magnificence beyond imagination. Grace that brings us to our knees, especially when we are mired in trouble.

Drink deeply of this.

Hold it, savor it and know that to witness His Light is to see the face of God.

Our Light has come, unexpected, shining in an infant’s smile, from the depths of darkness within a manger.

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.

We Are No Longer Alone: Witness to Such Majesty

photo of Mt Baker reflected in Wiser Lake by Joel DeWaard

Alone in the night
On a dark hill
With pines around me
Spicy and still,

And a heaven full of stars
Over my head,
White and topaz
And misty red;

Myriads with beating
Hearts of fire
That aeons
Cannot vex or tire;

Up the dome of heaven
Like a great hill,
I watch them marching
Stately and still,

And I know that I
Am honoured to be
Witness
Of such majesty.

~Sara Teasdale “Stars”

photo by Josh Scholten

“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
…while the morning stars sang together
    and all the angels shouted for joy?”
Job 38 4a, 7


God Himself tells Job the first song was sung in celebration of the beginning of all things.  We weren’t there to hear it because we were not — yet.  A joyous celestial community of stars and angels sang as the world was pieced and sewn together bit by bit. 

Man was the last stitch God made in the tapestry.

As the coda of the created world, we tend to take all this for granted as it was already here when we arrived on the scene: the soil we tread, the water we drink, the plants and creatures that are subject to us.  Yet this creation was already so worthy it warranted a glorious anthem, right from the beginning, before man.  We were not yet the inspiration for singing.

We missed the first song but we were there to hear it reprised a second time, and this time it really was about us–peace on earth, good will to men.  The shepherds, the most lowly and humble of us, those who would be surely voted least likely to witness such glory,  were chosen to hear singing from the heavens the night Christ was born.    They were flattened by it, amazed and afraid.  It drove them right off the job, out of the fields and into town to seek out what warranted such celebration.

Surely once again this song will ring out as it did in the beginning and as it did on those hills above Bethlehem.
The trumpet will sound.
In a twinkling of an eye we will all be changed.
And we will be able to sing along.
Hallelujah!
Amen and Amen.