The old church leans awry and looks quite odd, But it is beautiful to us, and God. ~Stephen Paulus “The Old Church”
The church knelt heavy above us as we attended Sunday School, circled by age group and hunkered on little wood folding chairs where we gave our nickels, said our verses, heard the stories, sang the solid, swinging songs.
It could have been God above in the pews, His restless love sifting with dust from the joists. We little seeds swelled in the stone cellar, bursting to grow toward the light.
Maybe it was that I liked how, upstairs, outside, an avid sun stormed down, burning the sharp- edged shadows back to their buildings, or how the winter air knifed after the dreamy basement.
Maybe the day we learned whatever would have kept me believing I was just watching light poke from the high, small window and tilt to the floor where I could make it a gold strap on my shoe, wrap my ankle, embrace any part of me. ~Maureen Ash “Church Basement”
There could be so much wrong with the church overall, comprised as it is with fallen people with broken wings, looking odd and leaning awry, determined to find flaws in each other’s doctrine, rituals, tradition, beliefs.
What is right with the church: who we pray to, why we sing, whose body we comprise so bloodied, fractured, yet healed despite our thoroughly motley messiness~ Our Lord of Heaven and Earth rains down His restless love upon our heads.
The time is ripe for looking back over the day, the week, the year, and trying to figure out where we have come from and where we are going to, for sifting through the things we have done and the things we have left undone for a clue to who we are and who, for better or worse, we are becoming. We cling to the present out of wariness of the past. But there is a deeper need yet, I think, and that is the need—not all the time, surely, but from time to time—to enter that still room within us all where the past lives on as a part of the present, where the dead are alive again, where we are most alive ourselves to turnings and to where our journeys have brought us. The name of the room is Remember—the room where with patience, with charity, with quietness of heart, we remember consciously to remember the lives we have lived.” ~Frederick Buechner from A Room Called Remember
He was a big man, says the size of his shoes on a pile of broken dishes by the house; a tall man too, says the length of the bed in an upstairs room; and a good, God-fearing man, says the Bible with a broken back on the floor below the window, dusty with sun; but not a man for farming, say the fields cluttered with boulders and the leaky barn.
A woman lived with him, says the bedroom wall papered with lilacs and the kitchen shelves covered with oilcloth, and they had a child, says the sandbox made from a tractor tire. Money was scarce, say the jars of plum preserves and canned tomatoes sealed in the cellar hole. And the winters cold, say the rags in the window frames. It was lonely here, says the narrow country road.
Something went wrong, says the empty house in the weed-choked yard. Stones in the fields say he was not a farmer; the still-sealed jars in the cellar say she left in a nervous haste. And the child? Its toys are strewn in the yard like branches after a storm—a rubber cow, a rusty tractor with a broken plow, a doll in overalls. Something went wrong, they say. ~Ted Kooser, “Abandoned Farmhouse” from Sure Signs: New and Selected Poems.
In 1959, when I was five years old, my father left his high school agriculture teaching position for a new supervisor position with the state. I didn’t understand at the time the reasons for his leaving his job after 13 years.
Our family moved from a large 3 story farm house in a rural community to a 1950’s newer rambler style home just outside the city limits of the state capitol. It was a big adjustment to move to a much smaller house without a basement or upper story, no garage, and no large haybarn nor chicken coop. It meant most things we owned didn’t make the move with us.
The rambler had two side by side mirror image rooms as the primary central living space between the kitchen on one side and the hallway to the bedrooms on the other. The living room could only be entered through the front door and the family room was accessed through the back door with a shared sandstone hearth in the center, containing a fireplace in each room. The only opening between the rooms had a folding door shut most of the year. In December, the door was opened to accommodate a Christmas tree, so it sat partially in the living room and depending on its generous width, spilled over into the family room. That way it was visible from both rooms, and didn’t take up too much floor space.
The living room, because it contained the only carpeting in the house, and our “best” furniture, was strictly off-limits. In order to keep our two matching sectional knobby gray fabric sofas, a green upholstered chair and gold crushed velvet covered love seat in pristine condition, the room was to be avoided unless we had company. The carpet was never to develop a traffic pattern, there would be no food, beverage, or pet ever allowed in that room, and the front door was not to be used unless a visitor arrived. The hearth never saw a fire lit on that side because of the potential of messy ashes or smoke smell. This was not a room for laughter, arguments or games and certainly not for toys. The chiming clock next to the hearth, wound with weighted cones on the end of chains, called out the hours without an audience.
One week before Christmas, a tree was chosen to fit in the space where it could overflow into the family room. I particularly enjoyed decorating the “family room” side of the tree, using all my favorite ornaments that were less likely to break if they fell on the linoleum floor on that side of the door.
It was as if the Christmas tree became divided, with a “formal” side in the living room and a “real life” face on the other side where the living (and hurting) was actually taking place.
The tree straddled more than just two rooms. Every year that tree’s branches reached out to shelter a family that was slowly, almost imperceptibly, falling apart, like the fir needles dropping to the floor to be swept away. Something was going wrong.
Each year since, the Christmas tree bearing those old ornaments from my childhood reminds me of a still room of mixed memories within me. I am no longer wary of the past, and when I sweep up the fir needles that inevitably drop, I no longer weep.
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.
On Epiphany day, we are still the people walking. We are still people in the dark, and the darkness looms large around us, beset as we are by fear, anxiety, brutality, violence, loss — a dozen alienations that we cannot manage.
We are — we could be — people of your light. So we pray for the light of your glorious presence as we wait for your appearing; we pray for the light of your wondrous grace as we exhaust our coping capacity; we pray for your gift of newness that will override our weariness; we pray that we may see and know and hear and trust in your good rule.
That we may have energy, courage, and freedom to enact your rule through the demands of this day. We submit our day to you and to your rule, with deep joy and high hope. ~Walter Brueggemann from Prayers for a Privileged People
Unclench your fists Hold out your hands. Take mine. Let us hold each other. Thus is his Glory Manifest. ~Madeleine L’Engle “Epiphany”
“Like Mary, we have no way of knowing… We can ask for courage, however, and trust that God has not led us into this new land only to abandon us there.” ~Kathleen Norrisfrom God With Us
Today is celebrated the Feast of Epiphany (His Glory revealed and made manifest in all lives).
Even as weak and crumbling vessels, God is made manifest within us. It is not the easy path to say yes to God: it means sacrifice, abandoning our will for His will so His glory is illuminated by His Light, not ours.
And so, we, like Mary, shall say yes. His Seed shall take root in our hearts.
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.
“…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.
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.
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”
“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.