Sabbath Morning

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.

Here and Now

Unless the eye catch fire,
Then God will not be seen.
Unless the ear catch fire
Then God will not be heard.
Unless the tongue catch fire
Then God will not be named.
Unless the heart catch fire,
Then God will not be loved.
Unless the mind catch fire,
Then God will not be known.
~William Blake from “Pentecost”

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.

Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
the world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment

Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
~T.S. Eliot from “East Coker”

Today, if we feel we are without hope,
if faith feels frail,
if love seems distant,
we must wait, stilled,
for the moment we are lit afire~
when the Living God is
seen, heard, named, loved, known,
forever burning in our hearts
in this moment, for a lifetime
and for eternity.
Here and now ceases to matter.

A Bright Sadness: Take Your Shoes Off

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God:
But only he who sees takes off his shoes.
~Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Over the next eight days, the body of Christian believers will be traversing once again the holy ground of Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection.

Indeed, our children, happy to be barefoot most of the time, are more apt than the grown ups to follow the instruction of the Lord when He told Moses:

Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.

There have long been cultures where shoes are to be removed before touching the surface of the floor inside a residence or temple in an intentional act of leaving the dirt of the world at the door to preserve the sanctity and cleanliness of the inner life.

Yet we as Christians wear shoes into church every Sunday, having walked in muck and mire of one sort or another all week. We try our best to clean up for Sunday, but we track in the detritus of our lives when we come to sit in the pews. Rather than leave it at the door, it comes right in with us, not exactly hidden and sometimes downright stinky. That is when we are in obvious need for a good washing, shoes, feet, soul and all, and that is exactly why we  need to worship together as a church family in need of cleansing, whether indoors or outdoors.

Jesus Himself demonstrated our need for a wash-up on the last night of His life, soaking the dusty feet of His disciples.

And then there is what God said. He asked that holy ground be respected by the removal of our sandals. We must remove any barrier that prevents us from entering fully into His presence, whether it be our attitude, our stubbornness, our unbelief, or our constant centering on self rather than other.

No separation, even a thin layer of leather, is desirable when encountering God.

We trample roughshod over holy ground all the time, blind to where our feet land and the impact they leave behind. Perhaps by shedding the covering of our eyes, our minds, and our feet, we would see earth crammed with heaven and God on fire everywhere, in every common bush and in every common heart.

So we may see.
So we may listen.
So we may feast together.
So we may weep at what we have done, yet stand forgiven.
So we may celebrate as our Risen Lord startles us by calling our name.
So we remove our sandals so our bare feet may touch His holy ground.

A Bright Sadness: Let Him Easter in Us

Let Him easter in us,
be a dayspring to the dimness of us,
be a crimson-cresseted east.
~Gerard Manley Hopkin

There is a fragrance in the air, 
a certain passage of a song, 
an old photograph falling out from the pages of a book, 
the sound of somebody’s voice in the hall 
that makes your heart leap and fills your eyes with tears. 
Who can say when or how it will be 
that something easters up out of the dimness 
to remind us of a time before we were born and after we will die?
God himself does not give answers. He gives himself.
~Frederick Buechner from Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale

Traditionally, Lent does not include the five Sundays before Easter as every Sabbath is a celebration of Christ’s resurrection. We should let Him Easter in us every week!

So this is my first of six Easter reflections on Barnstorming during the next few weeks. We wait for the glorious day when we can meet as Christ’s body on April 21, first on our farm’s hill at dawn, and then later inside our church’s sanctuary to feel the full impact of “He is Risen!”

It is a slow coming of spring this year, seeming in no hurry whatsoever.  Snow remains in residual drifts around the farm from the storms of a month ago, the foothills are still white and the greening of the fields has yet to begin. The flowering plum and cherry trees remain dormant in the continued chill. 

Like Narnia, winter still has its terrible grip on us.

We wait, frozen in a darkened world, for a sun that shines and actually warms us from our dormancy.

This is exactly what eastering is.  It is awakening out of a restless sleep, opening a door to let in fresh air, and the stone that locked us in the dark rolled back.

Overnight all will be changed, changed utterly.

He is not only risen.  He is given indeed.


The Paradox of Already But Not Yet

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If ever you find yourself in the midst of paradox,
you can be sure you stand on the edge of truth.

~Diana Gabaldon from An Echo in the Bone

 

 

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Tomorrow we begin the season of Advent: the greatest time of year for great mystery and paradox.

One who never left us, came to us, did not leave us hopeless,  yet will come again.
Already, but not yet.

This is the ultimate paradox of our times:
Our Creator God pierces through the veil of humankind to become us, His Image Man;
He comes to live among us to live in us and for us and through us,
to die for us and rise to life again so that we may not die but live.

He has come, He never left, yet He will come again.

When we feel ourselves in the midst of paradox, we find we are on the verge of Truth.
Perhaps enough paradox for one day — standing on the edge of Truth feels a tad overwhelming.

More to come…

 

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When They Were Young

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On the green hill with the river beyond it
long ago and my father there
and my grandmother standing in her faded clothes
wrinkled high-laced black shoes in the spring grass
among the few gravestones inside their low fence
by the small white wooden church
the clear panes of its windows
letting the scene through from the windows
on the other side of the empty room
and a view of the trees over there
my grandmother hardly turned her head
staring like a cloud at the empty air
not looking at the green glass gravestone
with the name on it of the man to whom
she had been married and who had been
my father’s father she went on saying nothing
her eyes wandering above the trees
that hid the river from where we were
a place where she had stood with him one time
when they were young and the bell kept ringing
~W.S. Merwin “Windnoon” from The Moon Before Morning

 

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Visiting the graves of those who lived and loved for decades,
now mere dust lying side by side,
their spirits risen and flown~
we realize we were young once and now
feel the weight of change and passage of the years
despite our effort to grab and hold them still.

The bells of time keep ringing in our memories.

 

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Brooding Over the Bent World

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 I will show wonders in the heavens above
    and signs on the earth below,
    blood and fire and billows of smoke.
The sun will be turned to darkness
    and the moon to blood
    before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.
And everyone who calls
    on the name of the Lord will be saved.
~Acts 2:19-21 The Holy Spirit Comes At Pentecost

 

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Come, Holy Spirit,
bending or not bending the grasses,
appearing or not above our heads in a tongue of flame,
at hay harvest or when they plough in the orchards or when snow
covers crippled firs…
~Czeslaw Milosz from “Veni Creator” in Selected and Last Poems

 

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The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
~Gerard Manley Hopkins from “God’s Grandeur”

 

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The cows
munched or stirred or were still. I
was at home and lonely,
both in good measure. Until
the sudden angel affrighted me––light effacing
my feeble beam,
a forest of torches, feathers of flame, sparks upflying:
but the cows as before
were calm, and nothing was burning,
nothing but I, as that hand of fire
touched my lips and scorched by tongue
and pulled by voice
into the ring of the dance.
~Denise Levertov from “Caedmon” in Breathing the Water

 

 

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Today, when we feel we are without hope,
as mute and dumb as cattle chewing our cud,
when the bent world reels in blood and violence,
as we remain in hiding:

when faith feels frail,
when love seems distant:

We wait too stilled
for the moment we are lit afire ~
when the Living God is
seen, heard, named, loved, known
forever burning in our hearts deep down,
brooded over by His bright wings

We are His dearest, freshest
in this moment
and for eternity.

 

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