Definite beliefs are what make the radical mystery — those moments when we suddenly know there is a God about whom we “know” absolutely nothing –– accessible to us and our ordinary, unmysterious lives.
And more crucially: definite beliefs enable us to withstand the storms of suffering that come into every life, and that tend to destroy any spiritual disposition that does not have deep roots. ~Christian Wiman from My Bright Abyss
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
Unexpected God, your 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 First Sunday of Advent
We are only a few weeks away from the beginning of Advent, a time when I am very guilty of blithely invoking the gentle story of Christmas Eve’s silent night, the sleeping infant away in a manger, the devoted parents hovering, the humble shepherds peering in the stable door.
The reality, I’m confident, was far different.
There was nothing gentle about a teenage mother giving birth in a stable, laying her baby in a feed trough–I’m sure there were times when Mary could have used a life preserver. There was nothing gentle about the heavenly host appearing to the shepherds, shouting and singing the glories and leaving them “sore afraid.” The shepherds needed crash helmets. There was nothing gentle about Herod’s response to the news that a Messiah had been born–he swept overboard a legion of male children whose parents undoubtedly begged for mercy, clinging to their children about to be murdered. There was nothing gentle about a family’s flight to Egypt to flee that fate for their only Son. There was nothing gentle about the life Jesus eventually led during his ministry: itinerant and homeless, tempted and fasting in the wilderness for forty days, owning nothing, rejected by his own people, betrayed by his disciples, sentenced to death by acclamation before Pilate, tortured and hung on a cross until he took his last breath.
Yet he understood the power that originally brought him to earth and would return him to heaven, and back again someday. No signal flares needed there.
When I hear skeptics scoff at Christianity as a “crutch for the weak”, they underestimate the courage it takes to walk into church each week as a desperate person who will never ever save oneself. We cling to the life preserver found in the Word, lashed to our seats and hanging on. It is only because of grace that we survive the tempests of temptation, guilt and self-doubt to let go of our own anger in order to confront the reality of the radical mystery of God.
It is not for the faint of heart, this finding a “definite belief” within our ordinary unmysterious lives and giving it deep roots to thrive. It is reasonable and necessary to be “sore afraid” and “bend our anger” into His peace.
To be amazed by love is not to be blinded but to let the flare of wonder fill you like air filling a sail.
Isn’t this the voice of God at work?
Even his silence breathes life into you, a golden sigh as fresh as Eden. To love someone is not to lose anything, but to gain it in giving it all away. ~Luci Shaw from “Amazed by Love” in Water Lines
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.”
(our wedding vows for our September 19, 1981 wedding at First Seattle Christian Reformed Church — the last line adapted from Thomas Hardy’s “Far From the Madding Crowd”)
Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there.
It doesn’t matter what you do, he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching, he said. The lawn-cutter might just as well not have been there at all; the gardener will be there a lifetime. ~Ray Bradbury from Fahrenheit 451
At last the entire family stood, like people seeing someone off at the rail station, waiting in the room.
“Well,” said Great-grandma, “there I am, I’m not humble, so it’s nice seeing you standing around my bed. Now next week there’s late gardening and closet-cleaning and clothes-buying for the children to do. And since that part of me is called, for convenience, Great-grandma, won’t be here to step it along, those other parts of me called Uncle Bert and Leo and Tom and Douglas, and all the other names, will have to take over, each to his own.”
Somewhere a door closed quietly.
… she saw it shaping in her mind quietly, and with serenity like a sea moving along and endless and self-refreshing shore.
Downstairs, she thought, they are polishing the silver, and rummaging the cellar, and dusting in the halls. She could hear them living all through the house.
“It’s all right,” whispered Great-grandma, as the dream floated her. “Like everything else in this life, it’s fitting.”
And the sea moved her back down the shore. ~Ray Bradbury “Great-Grandmother” from Dandelion Wine
Esther learned young how to work and she never forgot, still working up until the last few days of her long life.
Today she is sweeping up, wiping down counters and washing the dishes in a corner of heaven, after baking cookies and putting a soup on to simmer, to be sure everyone up there is well-fed and feels welcome.
She grew up on a remote farm in South Dakota where survival meant the whole family pitched in to help. When she married Pete and headed west to Washington, the work never let up: six sons, a small farm, a construction business to help manage, working as a caretaker privately and in a nursing home, taking on the mission of coordinating a large Sunday School ministry in our small church back over fifty years ago and never leaving.
Esther touched everything and everyone in this life, leaving a bit of herself behind in all of us. She’ll stay plenty busy in the next life.
She wasWiser Lake Chapel for over half her life, along with her husband Pete who passed from chronic leukemia over a decade ago. Their son Wes took on many of Pete’s carpentry and building maintenance duties at church, but then he too lost a fight with acute leukemia.
Esther persevered despite these heartbreaking losses, a tenacious testament to the power of the Spirit in one woman’s life. She had more artificial joints in her body than her own joints, some replaced twice. Her heart tried to fail any number of times, most recently after a trip to Europe she made earlier this year, by herself, to visit her missionary son. She never stopped driving. She never stopped walking even though every step took immense effort paid in pain. She came to every church service, morning and night and mid-week, usually with something fresh-baked in her hand. If soup was needed for a meal on short notice, she could make it happen in an hour from what she stored away in her freezer. She was a self-appointed clean-up crew, wheeling her walker from table to sink to counter to trash can and back again.
Every new great-grandbaby and every new Chapel baby had a hand-made Esther quilt, complete with her hand-painted pictures and the details of the birthday and birthweight printed on it. She made hundreds over her lifetime.
Esther’s family is a large exuberant and glory-filled group of sons and daughter-in-laws and grands and great-grands who reflect who she and Pete were to them, to our church and the greater community. They are a legacy left on earth, to keep up the good work and gratitude-filled worship, to never ever give up, no matter how tough life can be.
Thank you, Esther, for changing us all so profoundly we won’t ever be the same as we were before you touched us; you left us all so much better than before. Now I believe we all are just a little bit like you.
And most of all, thanks for 90-plus years of your loving labor on the Lord’s behalf. The soup is on the stove in memory of you.
Bees do have a smell, you know, and if they don’t they should, for their feet are dusted with spices from a million flowers.” ~Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine
I studied bees, who were able to convey messages through dancing and could find their ways home to their hives even if someone put up a blockade of sheets and boards and wire. Bees had radar in their wings and brains that humans could barely understand. I wrote a paper proclaiming their brilliance and superiority and revised it at a small café featuring wooden hive-shaped honey-dippers in silver honeypots at every table. ~Naomi Shihab Nye from “Bees Were Better”
Suddenly a bee, big as a blackberry, bumbles against my window, knocking for attention. Rolling in azalea cups all morning, she weaves in slow motion then hovers like a helicopter, humming to herself. The key, C major. No black notes, no sharps, no flats. Only naturals—the fan of her own wings, the bliss of her own buzz.
She doesn’t practice. She doesn’t have to. She knows. To make honey, you follow the dance. ~Alice Friman from “The Key”
I wish I had a homing device in my body that would bring me home no matter where I wander. I simply turn my face to the sun and my wings take me back there, even if I wasn’t paying attention to the dance of others and I’m off kilter or too stubborn to admit home is where I need to be.
After a summer of watching thousands of bees making a “bee-line” to home at night as if they are on a superhighway to their very own hive and honey cell, I need to be just as determined, just as committed, just as confident that I’m heading to where I belong.
The rest are waiting for me and have left the light on.
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.