The porch swing hangs fixed in a morning sun that bleaches its gray slats, its flowered cushion whose flowers have faded, like those of summer, and a small brown spider has hung out her web on a line between porch post and chain so that no one may swing without breaking it. She is saying it’s time that the swinging were done with, time that the creaking and pinging and popping that sang through the ceiling were past, time now for the soft vibrations of moths, the wasp tapping each board for an entrance, the cool dewdrops to brush from her work every morning, one world at a time. ~Ted Kooser “Porch Swing in September” from Flying at Night
It is hard to just let go and let life move on, as it will do on this day’s transition to autumn, whether with us or without us.
We build our little lives so carefully; we plan and choreograph and anticipate, and all it takes is a creaky swing (or a measly little virus) to pull it to shreds.
So we rebuild, strand by strand, in the conviction that we still belong here even when everything around us is changing and will pay no attention to how we’re left hanging.
We keep trying. We keep believing. We keep wanting to make the world a little more beautiful.
Unexpected God, your coming 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
Sometimes the very walls of our churches separate us from God and each other. In our various naves and sanctuaries we are safely separated from those outside, from other denominations, other religions, separated from the poor, the ugly, the dying.… The house of God is not a safe place. It is a cross where time and eternity meet, and where we are – or should be – challenged to live more vulnerably, more interdependently. ~Madeleine L’Engle, from A Stone for a Pillow
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
Today, after weeks of worshipping outdoors, we move back inside for fall and winter, all wearing masks while separated into four different spaces with social distancing. It may be this way well into next year: nobody knows.
No one is happy that the singing will be limited, there will be no handshakes or hugs and some of us will be watching a live feed on a screen. Some are flat out angry at having to worship this way and will opt to stay away. Yet we are called to come together, to raise our voices corporately in praise, prayer and thanksgiving, despite the risks and unfamiliarity of how these changes look and feel while we try to protect one another from infection.
We tend to forget that walking into church on any Sabbath, not just during a pandemic, takes courage and commitment as we automatically become vulnerable to one another. What one of us says and does can bless or hurt us all. This can be no drowsy worship: we are the poor, the ugly and the dying.
When I hear the secular folks in society scoff at attending church as a “crutch for the weak”, they underestimate what it means to admit a desperate need for salvation and grace that can only be found inside those doors. We who sit in a pew in the sanctuary cling to the life preserver found in the Word. We are lashed to our seats and must hang on. It is only because of God’s grace that we survive the tempests of temptation, guilt and self-doubt in order to let go of our own anger at the state of the world and the state of our own souls.
Exposing ourselves to the radical mystery and immense power of the living God is not for the faint of heart, yet all of us on the verge of heart failure need God’s deep roots to thrive and grow in our rocky soul soil.
So today, and every day, we must not forget our crash helmets… or our masks.
Sometimes our life reminds me of a forest in which there is a graceful clearing and in that opening a house, an orchard and garden, comfortable shades, and flowers red and yellow in the sun, a pattern made in the light for the light to return to. The forest is mostly dark, its ways to be made anew day after day, the dark richer than the light and more blessed, provided we stay brave enough to keep on going in. ~Wendell Berry from “The Country of Marriage”
I want to remember us this way— late September sun streaming through the window, bread loaves and golden bunches of grapes on the table, spoonfuls of hot soup rising to our lips, filling us with what endures. ~Peter Pereira from “A Pot of Red Lentils”
Lovers must not live for themselves alone. They must finally turn their gaze at one another back toward the community. If they had only themselves to consider, lovers would not need to marry, but they must think of others and of other things. They say their vows to the community as much as to one another, and the community gathers around them to hear and to wish them well, on their behalf and on its own.
It gathers around them because it understands how necessary, how joyful, and how fearful this joining is. These lovers, pledging themselves to one another “until death,” are giving themselves away… Lovers, then, “die” into their union with one another as a soul “dies” into its union with God.
And so, here, at the very heart of community life, we find … this momentous giving. If the community cannot protect this giving, it can protect nothing—and our time is proving that this is so. ~Wendell Berry fromSex, Economy, Freedom & Community
Before God and this gathering, I vow from my heart and spirit that I will be your wife/husband for as long as we both shall live.
I will love you with faithfulness, knowing its importance in sustaining us through good times and bad.
I will love you with respect, serving your greatest good and supporting your continued growth.
I will love you with compassion, knowing the strength and power of forgiveness.
I will love you with hope, remembering our shared belief in the grace of God and His guidance of our marriage.
“And at home, by the fire, whenever you look up, there I shall be–and whenever I look up, there will be you.”
(wedding vows written during a lunch break on the roof of Group Health on Capitol Hill, Seattle Washington in July 1981 before our September 19, 1981 wedding at First Seattle Christian Reformed Church)
*the last line is adapted from Thomas Hardy’s “Far From the Madding Crowd”
The trees are undressing, and fling in many places— On the gray road, the roof, the window-sill— Their radiant robes and ribbons and yellow laces; A leaf each second so is flung at will, Here, there, another and another, still and still.
A spider’s web has caught one while downcoming, That stays there dangling when the rest pass on; Like a suspended criminal hangs he, mumming In golden garb, while one yet green, high yon, Trembles, as fearing such a fate for himself anon. ~Thomas Hardy “Last Week in October”
We too are flung into the unknown, trembling tethered in the breezes, unready to let go of what sustains us, fated to be tossed wherever the wind blows us.
If caught up by a silken thread, left to dangle, suspended by faith, we await the hope of rescue, alone and together, another and another, still and still.
Everything is made to perish; the wonder of anything at all is that it has not already done so. No, he thought. The wonder of anything is that it was made in the first place. What persists beyond this cataclysm of making and unmaking? ~Paul Hardingfrom Tinkers
What persists indeed?
There are times when all appears to be perishing, especially in this dying time of year when the world is drying and burning up around us, blowing smoke hundreds of miles like a giant overhead dust storm soiling the air.
Each breath reminds us that we are mere ashes.
The obituary pages predominate in the paper, accompanying an overload of ongoing cases of contagious illness, bad news, riots and a pandemic of angry rhetoric.
All appears to be perishing with no relief or hope.
Waning light and shortening days color my view like the haze in the sky painting a sunset blood red. This darkness is temporary and inevitably is helpless; it can never overcome the Light of all things made.
Life persists in the midst of perishing because of the cataclysm of a loving and bleeding God dying as sacrifice on our behalf.
Nothing, nothing can ever be the same – He remains here with us through this. We only need to call His name.
God goes where God has never gone before. ~ Kathleen Mulhern in Dry Bones
The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. ~Frederick Buechner in Wishful Thinking in Beyond Words
What is it that goes on within the soul, that it takes greater delight if things it loves are found or restored to it than if it had always possessed them? …The storm tosses seafarers about and threatens them with shipwreck: they all grow pale at their coming death. Then the sky and the sea become calm, and they exult exceedingly, just as they had feared exceedingly. Or a dear friend is ill.… All those who long to see him in good health are in mind sick along with him. He gets well again, and although he does not yet walk with his former vigor, there is joy such as did not obtain before when he walked well and strong.…everywhere a great joy is preceded by a greater suffering. ~Augustine of Hippo from Confessions
The ghosts swarm. They speak as one person. Each loves you. Each has left something undone.
Today’s edges are so sharp they might cut anything that moved. ~Rae Armantrout from “Unbidden”
(written 19 years ago today on the evening of 9/11/01 – with the ongoing events of this year, I find I need to remind myself yet again)
Tonight was a moment of epiphany in my life as a mother and farmer. This world suddenly feels so uncertain after the horrific and tragic events today, yet simple moments of grace-filled routine offer themselves up unexpectedly. I know the Lord is beside us no matter what has happened.
For me, the routine is tucking the horses into bed, almost as important to me as tucking our children into bed. In fact, my family knows I cannot sit down to dinner until the job is done out in the barn–so human dinner waits until the horses are fed and their beds prepared.
My work schedule is usually such that I must take the horses out to their paddocks from their cozy box stalls while the sky is still dark, and then bring them back in later in the day after the sun goes down. We have quite a long driveway from barn to the paddocks which are strategically placed by the road so the horses are exposed to all manner of road noise, vehicles, logging, milk and hay trucks, school buses, and never blink when these zip past their noses. They must learn from weanling stage on to walk politely and respectfully alongside me as I make that trek from the barn in the morning and back to the barn in the evening.
Bringing the horses in tonight was a particular joy because I was a little earlier than usual and not needing to rush: the sun was setting golden orange, the world had a glow, the poplar, chestnut and maple leaves carpeting the driveway and each horse walked with me without challenge, no rushing, pushing, or pulling–just walking alongside me like the partner they have been taught to be.
I enjoy putting each into their own box stall bed at night, with fresh fluffed shavings, a pile of sweet smelling hay and fresh water. I see them breathe a big sigh of relief that they have their own space for the night–no jostling for position or feed, no hierarchy for 12 hours, and then it is back out the next morning to the herd, with all the conflict that can come from coping with other individuals in the same space. My horses love their stalls, because that is their safe sanctuary where peace and calm is restored, that is where they get special scratching and hugs, and visits from a little red haired girl who loves them and sings them songs.
Then comes my own restoration of returning to the sanctuary of our house, feeding my human family and tucking three precious children into bed, even though two are now taller than me. The world feels momentarily predictable within our walls, comforting us in the midst of devastation and tragedy elsewhere. Hugging a favorite pillow and wrapping up in a familiar soft blanket, there is warmth and safety in being tucked in.
I’ll continue to search for these moments of restoration whenever I’m frightened, hurting and unable to cope. I need a quiet routine to help remind me how blessed we are to be here to wake each morning to regroup, renew and restore when it seems even the ground has given way.
Our toes, our noses Take hold on the loam, Acquire the air.
Nobody sees us, Stops us, betrays us; The small grains make room.
Soft fists insist on Heaving the needles, The leafy bedding,
Even the paving. Our hammers, our rams, Earless and eyeless,
Perfectly voiceless, Widen the crannies, Shoulder through holes. We
Diet on water, On crumbs of shadow, Bland-mannered, asking
Little or nothing. So many of us! So many of us!
We are shelves, we are Tables, we are meek, We are edible,
Nudgers and shovers In spite of ourselves Our kind multiplies
We shall by morning Inherit the earth. Our foot’s in the door. ~Sylvia Plath from “Mushroom”
This overnight overture into the light, a parturition of “ink caps” after a shower. As if seed had been sprinkled on the manure pile, they sprout three inch stalks still stretching at dawn, topped by dew-catching caps and umbrellas.
Nearly translucent as glass, already curling at the edges in the morning light, by noon melting into ooze by evening complete deliquescence, withered and curling back into the humus which birthed them hours before.
It shall be repeated again and again, this birth from unworthy soil, this brief and shining life in the sun, this folding, curling and collapse to die back to dust and dung.
Inedible, yet so Chrisincredible, they rise beautiful and worthy as is the way of things that never give up once a foot’s in the door.
Silk-thin silver strings woven cleverly into a lair, An intricate entwining of divinest thread… Like strands of magic worked upon the air, The spider spins his enchanted web – His home so eerily, spiraling spreads.
His gossamer so rigid, yet lighter than mist, And like an eight-legged sorcerer – a wizard blest, His lace, like a spell, he conjures and knits; I witnessed such wild ingenuity wrought and finessed, Watching the spider weave a dream from his web. ~Jonathan Platt“A Spider’s Web”
Not everyone is taking a holiday today on Labor Day. Some are busier than ever, creating a masterpiece nightly, then waiting in hope for that labor to be rewarded.
I too spin elaborate dreams at night: some remembered, some bare fragments, some shattered, some potentially yield a meal.
We work because we are hungry. We work because someone we love is hungry and needs feeding.
Yet the best work is the work of weaving dreams ~out of thin air and gossamer strands~ where nothing existed before, not as a trap or lure or lair but as a work of beauty- a gift as welcome as a breath of fresh air.
The river is famous to the fish. The loud voice is famous to silence, which knew it would inherit the earth before anybody said so.
The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds watching him from the birdhouse. The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek. The idea you carry close to your bosom is famous to your bosom.
The boot is famous to the earth, more famous than the dress shoe, which is famous only to floors. The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.
I want to be famous to shuffling men who smile while crossing streets, sticky children in grocery lines, famous as the one who smiled back.
I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous, or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular, but because it never forgot what it could do. ~Naomi Shihab Nye “Famous” from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems
Here’s the truth of it: no one really wants to be famous but seeks a life of meaning and purpose rather than one empty of significance.
The button alone is pure window-dressing, a flash in the pan, a bauble ready to loosen and fall off, easy to go missing.
A button hole by itself without a button to latch around is plain and gaping and lonely and allows in drafts, blending into the background, silently waiting for its moment of usefulness.
We cannot forget who we’re meant to be and what we’re meant to do – we fit the task for which we’re made.
Send me a button and I’ll make sure it is secured.
Try as I might to hold fear and suffering to the periphery of my vision, it is difficult to keep them there; like a morning fog clutching at the ground, bad news creeps out and covers everything, distorting truth and color and light, yet so seductive by softening the rough edges until reality hits.
Maybe I can turn away Maybe it won’t reach me Maybe it is all mirage, someone’s imagining.
Still, I can no longer be mere audience to the events of the day, too weak in the knees to do anything. The trouble that lies beyond this hill touches us all.
I kneel in silent witness: to wait, to listen, to pray for a flood of stillness to cover us.