Stained Glass Windows

Because my parents had denied
me comic books as sordid and
salacious, I would sneak a look
at those of friends, the bold and bright
slick covers, pages rough as news
and inked in pinks and greens and blues
as cowboys shouted in balloons
and Indian yells were printed on
the clouds. I borrowed books and hid
them in the crib and under shoes
and under bed. The glories of
those hyperbolic zaps and screams
were my illuminated texts,
the chapbook prophets of forbidden
and secret art, the narratives
of quest and conquest in the West,
of Superman and Lash Larue.
The print and pictures cruder than
the catalog were sweeter than
the cake at Bible School. I crouched
in almost dark and swilled the words
that soared in their balloons and bulbs
of grainy breath into my pulse,
into the stratosphere of my
imagination, reaching Mach
and orbit speed, escape velocity
just at the edge of Sputnik’s age,
in stained glass windows of the page.
~Robert Morgan “Funny Books” from The Strange Attractor: New and Selected Poems

I learned to read at age four by spending hours poring over the stained glass panels of innumerable 10 cent comic books. One was sent weekly to us kids by our grandfather who only saw us twice a year so we took turns reading that comic over and over until we had the pictures and the content of the dialogue balloons completely memorized before the next one arrived.

My personal favorites were Superman and Archie and Little Lulu but I didn’t discriminate – I’d read anything with colorful pictures and thought bubbles, which probably explains my persisting penchant for Life magazines and National Geographics.

It also explains this blog being 2/3 photos and 1/3 text. I need pictures to get me through most reading material. Medical school was a breeze thanks to so many pictures in the text books. A good thing I’m not an attorney – no pictures in those texts.

I eventually graduated in my cynical pre-teen years to Mad Magazine and (when my parents weren’t paying attention — Cracked) and finally gave up comics altogether by high school.

So whatever happened to a collection of 762 comic books that had accumulated over years of Grandpa’s mailings, as well as my own purchases, spending my hard-earned allowance on comics throughout the 60’s?

As an industrious (and bored) nine year old in the summer of 1964, I decided to open a neighborhood comic book library for kids who wanted to borrow them so I catalogued each and every one on notebook paper and then created a card system taped into each one inside, just like at the real library. If a local kid borrowed a comic, I kept the card showing the date it was borrowed and when it was “due” back and who the borrower was. I don’t remember having many library visitors, as we lived in a rural part of the community, but I did have few friends who would take home several comics (a limit of 3!) and return them the following week.

Eventually the comics were put to rest in a trunk that was stored in our barn and forgotten until my mother had to sell the farm and get everything moved out after my parents’ divorce. My brother and I both thought the other sibling had managed to grab the comic collection but when we talked about it years later, realized that neither of us had possession of them. This became a bit of an issue when we realized that well-cared-for vintage comic books were selling for significant prices in today’s market and we estimated that our collection may have been worth a few thousand dollars.

But oh well.

I hope they ended up in someone’s worthy hands, complete with their kid-made library cards taped to the inside and very well-thumbed pages.

The irony is that to this day, I can’t look at stained glass windows in church without wondering about the silent thought balloons rising above the heads of the people around me. I suspect they would make a great story.

Cleansing Tears

We human beings do real harm.
History could make a stone weep.
~Marilynne Robinson from Gilead

As humankind was created with the freedom to choose our own way, we tend to opt for the path of least resistance with the highest return.

Hey, after all, we’re human and that’s our excuse and we’re sticking to it.

No road less traveled on for most of us–instead we blindly head down the superhighway of what’s best for #1, no matter what the means of transportation, what it costs to get there, how seedy the billboards or how many warning signs appear, or where the ultimate destination takes us.

History is full of the piled-high wrecking yards of demolition remnants from crashes along the way.

It’s enough to make a stone weep.

Certainly God wept.

And He wept even after creating man in His own image, emphatically declaring our creation good, even knowing how everything was going to turn out.

Despite the harm we continue to cause, despite our suffering too many crashes along the way, we are declared good only because His breath remains full within us while His tears never fail to wash us clean.

As If

God loves each of us as if there were only one of us to love.
~Saint Augustine

When I am one of billions
there can be nothing special
to attract attention
or affection

When I blend into the background
among so many others
indistinct and plain,
common as grains of sand

There is nothing to hold me up
as rare, unique,
or exceptional,
worthy of extra effort.

Yet it is not about my worth,
my work, my words;
it is about His infinite capacity
to love anything formed

by the touch of His vast hand,
the contraction of His immense heart,
the boundlessness of His breath reaching me
as if
as if
as if
I were the only one.

Mystery Becomes Visible

I go my way,
and my left foot says ‘Glory,’
and my right foot says ‘Amen’:
in and out of Shadow Creek,
upstream and down,
exultant,
in a daze, dancing,
to the twin silver trumpets of praise.

~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

This fevers me, this sun on green,
On grass glowing, this young spring.
The secret hallowing is come,
Regenerate sudden incarnation,
Mystery made visible
In growth, yet subtly veiled in all,
Ununderstandable in grass,
In flowers, and in the human heart,
This lyric mortal loveliness,
The earth breathing, and the sun…

~Richard Eberhart from “This Fevers Me”

Every day should be a day of dancing
and loveliness and breathing deeply,
of celebrating the fact we woke afresh,
a new start.

If I’m honest, I don’t always feel like dancing,
my feet each going their own way
and my head barely attached to my neck.

As I stumble about in my morning daze,
readying myself for the onslaught to come,
I step out and mumble “Glory”
and then blink a few times and murmur “Amen”
and breathe it out again a little louder
until I really feel it
and believe the ununderstandable
and know it in my bones.

A little praise never hurt anyone.
A little worship goes a long way.
It’s the only way mystery becomes visible,
tangible, touchable and tastable.

Amen
and Amen again.

Something Easters Up

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

“Let Him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us, be a crimson-cresseted east.”
― Gerard Manley Hopkins
from “The Wreck of the Deutschland”

All changed, changed utterly:   
A terrible beauty is born.
~William Butler Yeats from “Easter, 1916”

It has been a slow coming of spring this year, seeming in no hurry whatsoever as we all shelter in place, isolated and lonesome for one another.

Snow remains in the foothills and the greening of the fields has only begun. The flowering plum and cherry trees finally have burst into bloom despite a continued chill.  It feels like winter at night yet the perfumed air of spring now permeates the day.

Such extreme variability is disorienting when we are desperate for something – anything – that feels routine and normal. It is almost like standing blinded in a spotlight in a darkened room.

This is exactly what eastering is like.  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 has changed, changed utterly. We, who have been wintering and weathered, weary and withered, are transformed by the Light.

He is not only risen.  He is given indeed.

Beauty, Mystery and Benediction

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here; he has risen!”
Luke 24: 5-6

Since this moment (the resurrection), the universe is no longer what it was;  nature has received another meaning; history is transformed and you and I are no more, and should not be anymore, what we were before.

Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted.”
~Paul Tillich, American theologian

So what do I believe actually happened that morning on the third day after he died?
…I speak very plainly here…

He got up.  He said, “Don’t be afraid.”

Love is the victor.  Death is not the end.  The end is life.  His life and our lives through him, in him.

Existence has greater depths of beauty, mystery, and benediction than the wildest visionary has ever dared to dream. 

Christ our Lord has risen.
~Frederick Buechner from The Magnificent Defeat

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse,
the molecules reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall…

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His Flesh: ours.
~John Updike from “Seven Stanzas at Easter”

From the far star points of his pinned extremities, 
cold inched in—black ice and squid ink— 
till the hung flesh was empty. 
Lonely in that void even for pain, 
he missed his splintered feet, 
the human stare buried in his face. 
He ached for two hands made of meat 
he could reach to the end of. 
In the corpse’s core, the stone fist 
of his heart began to bang 
on the stiff chest’s door, and breath spilled 
back into that battered shape. Now 

it’s your limbs he comes to fill, as warm water shatters at birth, rivering every way.
~Mary Karr “Descending Theology: The Resurrection”

Our flesh is so weak, so temporary,
as ephemeral as a dew drop on a petal
yet with our earthly vision
it is all we know of ourselves
and it is what we trust knowing
of Him.

He was born as our flesh, from our flesh.
He walked and hungered and thirsted and slept
as our flesh.
He died, His/our flesh hanging in tatters,
blood spilling freely
breath fading to nought,
speaking those last Words
our ears can never forget.

Then He got up,
to walk and hunger and thirst alongside us
–flesh of His flesh–
here among us He is risen
–flesh of our flesh–
married forever
as the Church:
a fragile, flawed
and everlasting body
that will rise, once again, as He did.

He Sees Us As We Are: Coming Together

This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.
Ephesians 3:6

photo by Barb Hoelle

The journey begins when Christians leave their homes and beds. They leave, indeed, their life in this present and concrete world, and whether they have to drive 15 miles or walk a few blocks, a sacramental act is already taking place…

For they are now on their way to constitute the Church, or to be more exact, to be transformed into the Church of God. They have been individuals, some white, some black, some poor, some rich, they have been the ‘natural’ world and a natural community. And now they have been called to “come together in one place,” to bring their lives, their very world with them and to be more than what they were: a new community with a new life.

We are already far beyond the categories of common worship and prayer. The purpose of this ‘coming together’ is not simply to add a religious dimension to the natural community, to make it ‘better’ – more responsible, more Christian. The purpose is to fulfill the Church, and that means to make present the One in whom all things are at their end, and all things are at their beginning.
~ Father Alexander Schmemann from For the Life of the World

Human beings by their very nature are worshipers. Worship is not something we do; it defines who we are.
You cannot divide human beings into those who worship and those who don’t.
Everybody worships; it’s just a matter of what, or whom, we serve.

~Paul Tripp

Back in the early days of Whatcom County,  the little church on Wiser Lake had been constructed through “contributions of the people” in a rural neighborhood only a few miles from where we now live.  $600 in lumber was provided by a local farmer whose trees were cut and milled and brought by horse drawn wagon to a building site adjacent to a one room school house along a corrugated plank road. The total property was “valued at $1800, but of even more value to the community.” The dedication ceremony was held on Sunday, August 27, 1916 followed by “a basket dinner—come with well filled baskets for a common table, under the direction of the Ladies Aid”. This was to be followed by a “Fellowship Meeting, special music and fraternal addresses” and the day ended at 8 PM with a Young People’s Meeting.  So began the long history of the “Wiser Lake Church”.

For reasons unrecorded in the history of the church, the original denomination closed its doors thirty years later, and for awhile the building was empty and in need of a congregation. By the fifties, it became a mission church of the local Christian Reformed Churches and launched a Sunday School program for migrant farm and Native American children in the surrounding rural neighborhood.  No formal church services started until the sixties. By the time the building was sixty years old, so many children were arriving for Sunday School, there was not enough room so the building was hoisted up on jacks to allow a hole to be dug underneath for a basement full of classrooms. Over the course of a summer, the floor space doubled, and the church settled back into place, allowed to rest again on its foundation.

Over seventy years after its dedication ceremony, our family drove 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.

It felt like home. We had found our church. We’ve never left. Over 30 years it has had peeling paint and missing shingles, a basement that floods when the rain comes down hard, toilets that don’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 also has a warmth and character and uniqueness that is unforgettable.

It’s really not so different from the folks who gather there.  We know we belong there, even if we too are musty, a bit out of sorts, yet still warm and loving and welcoming — no matter what, every Sabbath we are called to come together to be very clear about Who we worship.

This year’s Lenten theme on Barnstorming:

God sees us as we are,
loves us as we are,
and accepts us as we are.
But by His grace,
He does not leave us where we are.
~Tim Keller

So Then, Live

It is not only prayer that gives God glory but work.
Smiting on an anvil,
sawing a beam,
whitewashing a wall,
driving horses,
sweeping,
scouring,
everything gives God some glory
if being in his grace you do it as your duty.
To go to communion worthily gives God great glory,
but to take food in thankfulness and temperance
gives him glory too.
To lift up the hands in prayer gives God glory,
but a man with a dungfork in his hand,
a woman with a slop pail,
gives him glory too.
He is so great that all things give him glory
if you mean they should.
So then, my brethren, live.
~Gerard Manley Hopkins – Poems and Prose of Gerard Manley Hopkins

Photo of Aaron Janicki haying with his Oberlander team in Skagit County courtesy of Tayler Rae
photo by Tayler Rae

Thanks in large part to how messily we humans live, this world is a grimy place.  

As an act of worship, we work at cleaning up after ourselves.  Hands that clean toilets, scrub floors, carry bedpans, pick up garbage might as well be clasped in prayer–it is in such mundane tasks God is glorified.

I spend time every day carrying buckets and wielding a pitchfork because it is my way of restoring order to the disorder inherent in human life.  It is with gratitude that I’m able to pick up one little corner of my world, making stall beds tidier for our farm animals by mucking up their messes and in so doing, I’m cleaning up a piece of me at the same time.

I never want to forget the mess I’m in and the mess I am.  I never want to forget to clean up after myself.  I never want to feel it is a mere and mundane chore to worship with dungfork and slop pail.

It is my privilege.  It is His gift to me.
It is Grace that comes alongside me, to keep pitching the muck and carrying the slop when I am too weary to do it myself.

That Patch of Sunlight

It appears now that there is only one
age and it knows
nothing of age as the flying birds know
nothing of the air they are flying through
or of the day that bears them up
through themselves
and I am a child before there are words
arms are holding me up in a shadow
voices murmur in a shadow
as I watch one patch of sunlight moving
across the green carpet
in a building
gone long ago and all the voices
silent and each word they said in that time
silent now
while I go on seeing that patch of sunlight

~W.S. Merwin, “Still Morning” from The Shadow of Sirius

photo by Barbara Hoelle

Our memories can play tricks. A whiff of a fragrance can trigger an experience of another time and place, a song can transport us to a decade long ago, a momentary sensation will remind us of a past experience long forgotten.

We dwell inside a different age as the years go by, in a body that no longer looks or feels exactly the same, yet our memories take us powerfully back to a special moment that happened before. For those who struggle with post-trauma recollections, this is a curse to be overcome. For those whose memories bring joy and comfort, they seek to nurture and cherish what has been as if it is still here and now.

We must remember the light, just as the poet W.S. Merwin in this poem “Still Morning” remembers the moment of his baptism in a church long gone and whose voices are long-stilled. The Light of that day remains, as fresh today as it was when it moved toward him.

Our memories aren’t tricks. They are as powerfully a part of us as the here and now: a moving patch light touching us here from back then.

Stillness of the Heart

It was like a church to me.
I entered it on soft foot,
Breath held like a cap in the hand.
It was quiet.
What God there was made himself felt,
Not listened to, in clean colours
That brought a moistening of the eye,
In a movement of the wind over grass.

There were no prayers said. But stillness
Of the heart’s passions – that was praise
Enough; and the mind’s cession
Of its kingdom. I walked on,
Simple and poor, while the air crumbled
And broke on me generously as bread.
~R.S. Thomas “The Moor” Collected Poems: R. S. Thomas

This is a Sabbath morning
when I’m surrounded by His stilling presence~
when God is felt,
neither seen or heard,
overtaking me
within each breath taken,
following the path of each glistening tear,
feeding me manna from sky and body,
becoming the ground reaching to meet my foot
with each step I take.