Embraced By God's Restless Love

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 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

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.

Never an End to What’s Left Behind

“There’s never an end to dust
and dusting,” my aunt would say
as her rag, like a thunderhead,
scudded across the yellow oak
of her little house. There she lived
seventy years with a ball
of compulsion closed in her fist,
and an elbow that creaked and popped
like a branch in a storm. Now dust
is her hands and dust her heart.
There’s never an end to it.
~Ted Kooser “Carrie” from Flying at Night: Poems 1965-1985

My Great Aunt Marion was considered odd, no question about it.  She usually dressed in somber woolens, smelling faintly of mothballs and incense. Her straight gray hair was bobbed with bangs,  unfashionable for the wavy permanents of the fifties and the beehives of the sixties.  Aunt Marion was a second grade teacher all her life, never marrying,  and she lived for over 50 years in a spotless tiny apartment until the day she died in 1975.    She bequeathed what little she had to the church she had faithfully attended a few blocks away and was buried in the family plot on a windswept hill overlooking Puget Sound.

I was overseas when she died, and to my knowledge, none of the extended family attended her funeral.  In her retirement years she had become reclusive and remote.  It was clear visitors weren’t welcome so visits to her became rare.  In an effort to counteract that, I have annually visited her gravesite for the past 30+ years, paying homage to this aunt who remained an enigma in life and became even more mysterious in death.

She grew up in the early 20th century in an impoverished German immigrant family who relocated from Wisconsin to the northwest. Her father was gone most of the year running steamboats up the Yukon, leaving her mother to make do as a some time school teacher and full time mother. Her older brother dropped schooling early for the rough and ready life of the local logging camps but Marion finished teachers’ college at the Western Washington Normal School on the hill in Bellingham. She began her life’s work teaching 2nd grade a few miles away at Geneva Elementary School, and became the primary caretaker in her mother’s declining years.

Her shock over her brother’s marriage to a much younger teenage girl in 1917 created foment within an already fractious family that persisted down through the generations.  As the offspring of that union, my father tried to prove his worth to his judgmental aunt.  She was had a spiky and thorny personality, stern and unforgiving, but politely tolerated his existence though would never acknowledge his mother.  Family gatherings weren’t possible due to the ongoing bitter conflict between the two strong-willed ladies.

Though Marion was childless, her heart belonged to her many students as well as a number of children she sponsored through relief organizations in developing countries around the world.  Her most visible  joy came from her annual summer trip to one of those exotic countries to meet first hand the child she was sponsoring.  It seemed to fuel her until the next trip could be planned.  She visited Asia and India numerous times, as well as Central and South America.  It  provided the purpose that was missing in the daily routine of her life at home.

I moved to my great aunt’s community over three decades ago, 10 years after she had died.  I’d occasionally think of her as I drove past her old apartment building or the Methodist church she attended.  Several years ago, I noticed a new wing on the old church, modern, spacious and airy.  I commented on it to a co-worker who I knew attended that church.

He said the old church building had undergone significant remodeling over the years to update the wiring and plumbing, to create a more welcome sanctuary for worship and most recently to add a new educational wing for Sunday School and after school programs during the weekdays. As one of the council members in the church’s leadership, he commented that he was fortunate to attend a church equipped with financial resources to provide programs such as this in a struggling neighborhood that had more than its share of latch-key kids and single parents barely making do.   He mentioned an endowment from a bequest given over 40 years ago by a spinster schoolteacher in her will.  This lady had attended the church faithfully for years, and was somewhat legendary for her silent weekly presence in the same pew and that she rarely spoke to others in the church.  She arrived, sat in the same spot, and left right after the service, barely interacting.  Upon her death, she left her entire estate to the church, well over $1 million in addition to the deed to an oil well in Texas which has continued to flow and prosper over the past several decades.  The new wing was dedicated to her memory as it represented her expressed desire for her neighborhood.

I asked if her name was Marion and he stared at me baffled.  Yes, I knew her, I said.  Yes, she was a remarkable woman.  Yes, how proud she would be to see her legacy – what she had worked so hard for and then left behind — come to fruition.

There were times as I was growing up I wondered if my Great Aunt Marion had a secret lover somewhere, or if she led a double life as her life at home seemed so lonely and painful.  I know now that she did have a secret life.  She loved the children she had made her own and she lived plainly and simply in order to provide for others who had little.  Her extended family is better off having never inherited that money or an oil well.  It could have torn an already conflicted family apart and Marion knew, estranged from her only blood relatives,  her money would hurt us more than it would help.

Her full story has died with her.  Even so, I mourn her anew, marveling at what became of the dust of her, the legacy she chose to leave. 

Of this, I am deeply proud.

There is No East or West

1. In Christ there is no east or west,
in him no south or north,
but one great fellowship of love
throughout the whole wide earth.

2. In Christ shall true hearts everywhere
their high communion find;
his service is the golden cord
close binding humankind.

3. Join hands, companions in the faith,
whate’er your race may be!
Who loves and serves the one in him,
throughout the whole wide earth.

4. In Christ now meet both east and west;
in him meet south and north,
all Christly souls are one in him
throughout the whole wide earth.
~William Dunkerley

We Christians are often rightfully accused of being judgmental and unwilling to consider other points of view. We can be the first to criticize another Christian of being unfaithful or heretical, not following doctrine and creeds, or being too liberal or too conservative or just too plain stubborn.

I’ve done it myself (doing it now in this post!) and have received more than my share of mean-spirited, even hateful, messages from Christian brothers and sisters who disagree with my point of view on some issue.
Christians can tend to revel in eating their own.

When I’m tempted to judge lest I be judged, I remember who Christ hung out with: the cast offs and most undesirable people in society. They were surely more receptive to His message than those who believed they knew better than Him, who questioned His actions and motives, and who plotted against Him behind His back.

We need reminding that Christ isn’t more present in one political party over another, one denomination or faith community over another, one zip code over another, or in one racial or ethnic group over another.

We, east and west, north and south, constitute His body on earth, we dwell fully in His image just as we were created to be. It is only through His loving Spirit we are brought home where we belong, back to the center from the fraying edges of our faith.

The Ordinary Stuff of Earth Manifest

Passing down this story of Christ’s life, death, resurrection and ascension is not merely, or mainly, an exercise in cognition. Nor is it a divinely inspired game of telephone, where we simply whisper a message to the next generation through the ages.

Inevitably the story comes to us through ordinary people over dinner tables, at work, in songs, through worship, conflict, failure, repentance, ritual, liturgy, art, work and family. Christianity is something we believe, but it is also a practice. Central to our practice is what Christians call sacraments, where the mysteries of faith are manifest through the ordinary stuff of earth—water and skin, bread and teeth.

~Tish Harrison Warren from “True Story”

photo of Wiser Lake Chapel by Barbara Hoelle

schizomeno—meaning in Greek “ripped open.” It occurs twice in the Gospels: once when the temple veil is torn the day of Christ’s crucifixion. The other is when “the heavens opened” upon Christ’s baptism. But they didn’t just “open.” They were ripped open. God broke into history with a voice and an act of salvation unlike any other. 

To study the Bible with people of faith is to see it not only as an object of academic or antiquarian interest but also as a living word, a source of intellectual challenge, inspiration, comfort, uncomfortable ambiguities, and endless insights for people who gather in willingness to accept what seems to be God’s invitation: Wrestle with this. Healthy churches wrestle, working out their salvation over coffee and concordances, knowing there is nothing pat or simple about the living Word, but that it invites us into subtle, supple, resilient relationship with the Word made flesh who dwells, still, among us.
~Marilyn McEntyre from “Choosing Church”

Ripped open to allow access – that is what God has done to enter into this ordinary stuff of earth, and giving us access to Him.

I enter the church sanctuary every Sunday to be reminded of this wrestling match we have with ourselves, with each other, with the every day ordinary stuff, with the living Word of God. None of this is easy and it isn’t meant to be. We must work for understanding and struggle for contentment.

I keep going back – gladly, knowing my guilt, eager to be transformed – not only because I choose to be in church, but because He chose to invite me there.

Stop What I Am Doing Right Now

Sometimes
if you move carefully
through the forest,

breathing
like the ones
in the old stories,

who could cross
a dry bed of leaves  
without a sound,

you come
to a place
whose only task

is to trouble you
with tiny
but frightening requests,

conceived out of nowhere,
but in this place
beginning to lead everywhere.

Requests to stop what
you are doing right now,
and

to stop what you
are becoming
while you do it,

questions
that can make

or unmake
a life,

questions
that have patiently
waited for you,

questions
that have no right
to go away.

~David Whyte, from River Flow: New & Selected Poems

I remind myself how brief this all is.

How fleeting are the years when I look in the mirror and realize how much is past and how much remains – who knows how little?

How many questions remain unanswered but even more unasked?

This morning, as every Sabbath,
I sit silent in a pew of worship,
humbled and overwhelmed by the question
“what is my only comfort?”
but even more so by the answer:

I am not my own
but belong body and soul
to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ
.

A question and answer that can make or unmake a life
that patiently waits for me
and will never go away.

photo by Barb Hoelle