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.

Packed and Unpacked

Holes in the shape of stars
punched in gray tin, dented,
cheap, beaten by each
of her children with a wooden spoon.

Noodle catcher, spaghetti stopper,
pouring cloudy rain into the sink,
swirling counter clockwise
down the drain, starch slime
on the backside, caught
in the piercings.

Scrubbed for sixty years, packed
and unpacked, the baby’s
helmet during the cold war,
a sinking ship in the bathtub,
little boat of holes.

Dirt scooped in with a plastic
shovel, sifted to make cakes
and castles. Wrestled
from each other’s hands,
its tin feet bent and re-bent.

Bowl daylight fell through
onto freckled faces, noon stars
on the pavement, the universe
we circled aiming jagged stones,
rung bells it caught and held.

~Dorianne Laux “My Mother’s Colander”from Only As the Day is Long: New and Selected Poems.

Many of my mother’s kitchen things, some over seventy years old, are still packed away in boxes that I haven’t had the time or the emotional wherewithal to open. They sit waiting for me to sort and purge and save and weep.

But this kitchen item, her old dented metal colander, she gave to me when I moved into my first apartment some 40 years ago – she had purchased a bright green plastic colander at a Tupperware party so the old metal one seemed somehow outdated, overworked and plain. It had held hundreds of pounds of rinsed garden vegetables during my childhood, had drained umpteen pasta noodles, had served as a sifter in our sandbox, and a helmet for many a pretend rocket launch to infinity and beyond.

It still works fine, thank you very much, for all intended and some unintended purposes. It does make me wonder what other treasures may surprise me when I finally decide to open up my mother’s boxes. She died ten years ago, but her things remain, as if in suspended animation, to be rediscovered when I’m ready. They wait patiently to be useful to someone again, touched lovingly and with distinct purpose as they once were, and be remembered for the part they played in one woman’s long and faith-filled life.

Maybe, just maybe, it will feel like I’ve unpacked Mom once again as well.

To infinity and beyond…

Way Out Beyond Us

My father would lift me
to the ceiling in his big hands
and ask, 
How’s the weather up there?
And it was good, the weather
of being in his hands, his breath
of scotch and cigarettes, his face
smiling from the world below.
O daddy, was the lullaby I sang
back down to him as he stood on earth,
my great, white-shirted father, home
from work, his gold wristwatch
and wedding band gleaming
as he held me above him
for as long as he could,
before his strength failed
down there in the world I find myself
standing in tonight, my little boy
looking down from his flight
below the ceiling, cradled in my hands,
his eyes wide and already staring
into the distance beyond the man
asking him again and again,
How’s the weather up there?
~George Bilgere “Weather”.

It was hard work, dying, harder
than anything he’d ever done.

Whatever brutal, bruising, back-
breaking chore he’d forced himself

to endure—it was nothing
compared to this. And it took

so long. When would the job
be over? Who would call him

home for supper? And it was
hard for us (his children)—

all of our lives we’d heard
my mother telling us to go out,

help your father, but this
was work we could not do.

He was way out beyond us,
in a field we could not reach.

~Joyce Sutphen “My Father, Dying”

Deep in one of our closets is an old film reel of me about 16 months old sitting securely held by my father on his shoulders. I am bursting out with giggles as he repeatedly bends forward, dipping this head and shoulders down. I tip forward, looking like I am about to fall off, and when he stands back up straight, my mouth becomes a large O and I can almost remember the tummy tickle I feel. I want him to do it again and again, taking me to the edge of falling off and then bringing me back from the brink.

My father was a tall man, so being swept up onto his shoulders felt a bit like I was touching heaven.

It was as he was dying 24 years ago this week that I realized again how tall he was — his feet kept hitting the foot panel of the hospital bed my mother had requested for their home. We cushioned his feet with padding so he wouldn’t get abrasions even though he would never stand on them again, no longer towering over us.

His helplessness in dying was startling – this man who could build anything and accomplish whatever he set his mind to was unable to subdue his cancer. Our father, who was so self-sufficient he rarely asked for help, did not know how to ask for help now.

So we did what we could when we could tell he was uncomfortable, which wasn’t often. He didn’t say much, even though there was much we could have been saying. We didn’t reminisce. We didn’t laugh and joke together. We just were there, taking shifts catching naps on the couch so we could be available if he called out, which he never did.

This man:
who had grown up dirt poor,
fought hard with his alcoholic father
left abruptly to go to college – the first in his family –
then called to war for three years in the South Pacific.

This man:
who had raised a family on a small farm while he was a teacher,
then a supervisor, then a desk worker.

This man:
who left our family to marry another woman
but returned after a decade to ask forgiveness.

This man:
who died in a house he had built completely himself,
without assistance, from the ground up.

He didn’t need our help – he who had held tightly to us and brought us back from the brink when we went too far – he had been on the brink himself and was rescued, coming back humbled.

No question the weather is fine for him up there. I have no doubt.

The Vine That Tendrils Out Alone

A certain kind of Eden holds us thrall.
Even the one vine that tendrils out alone
in time turns on its own impulse,
twisting back down its upward course
a strong and then a stronger rope,
the greenest saddest strongest
kind of hope.
~Kay Ryan from “A Certain Kind of Eden”
from Flamingo Watching

This is the season for entwining enchantment.

Simply walking out in the garden in the morning, the tendrils are reaching out and grabbing onto my shirt and my jeans. If I stood still for an hour, they would be wrapping up my legs and clinging to my arms. There I would be, held hostage by these insistent vines for the duration of the season.

There are worse fates: a verdant Garden is exactly where we were placed to begin with.

The vines that don’t find a grab-hold, end up bending back onto themselves, curling back down the ladder they just created, sometimes knotting themselves into a nest. They wind up and down in nothingness and sadly cannot hold fast enough to be fruitful except creeping along the ground itself.

May there always be Someone Solid to cling to, to wrap around, to hold fast. May we once again know the glories of His Garden.

Don’t Go Too Early

Wait, for now.
Distrust everything, if you have to.
But trust the hours. Haven’t they
carried you everywhere, up to now?
Personal events will become interesting again.
Hair will become interesting.
Pain will become interesting.
Buds that open out of season will become lovely again.
Second-hand gloves will become lovely again,
their memories are what give them
the need for other hands. And the desolation
of lovers is the same: that enormous emptiness
carved out of such tiny beings as we are
asks to be filled; the need
for the new love is faithfulness to the old.

Wait.
Don’t go too early.
You’re tired. But everyone’s tired.
But no one is tired enough.
Only wait a while and listen.
Music of hair,
Music of pain,
music of looms weaving all our loves again.
Be there to hear it, it will be the only time,
most of all to hear,
the flute of your whole existence,
rehearsed by the sorrows, play itself into total exhaustion.
~Galway Kinnell “Wait”
from A New Selected Poems 

If everyone abandons you and even drives you away by force,
then when you are left alone
fall on the earth and kiss it,
water it with your tears,
and it will bring forth fruit
even though no one has seen or heard you in your solitude.
Believe to the end, even if all people went astray
and you were left the only one faithful;
bring your offering even then and praise God in your loneliness. 
~Fyodor Dostoyevsky from The Brothers Karamazov

Suicide rates of teenagers in the United States have increased well over 30% since 2009. It is a national epidemic and tragedy.

Based on the anguish of the patients I see every day,
one after another and another,
over and over again I hear
a too-easy contemplation of suicide,
from “It would be easier if I were dead”
or “no one cares if I live or die”,
or “the world would be better off without me”,
or “I’m not worthy to be here”
to “that is my plan, it is my right and no one can stop me”.

Without us all pledging an oath to live life no matter what,
willing to lay ourselves down for one another,
to bridge the sorrow and lead the troubled to the light,
there will be no slowing of this trend.

…when there is no loyalty to life, as stressful and messy as it can be,
…when there is no honoring of the holiness of each created being as weak and frail and prone to helpless hopelessness as we are,
…when there is no resistance to the buffeting winds of life~

please just wait a little longer, only a little longer:
don’t go too early

That Witnessing Presence

Sometimes the mountain
is hidden from me in veils
of cloud, sometimes
I am hidden from the mountain
in veils of inattention, apathy, fatigue,
when I forget or refuse to go
down to the shore or a few yards
up the road, on a clear day,
to reconfirm
that witnessing presence.

~Denise Levertov “Witness”

Even on the days when the mountain is hidden behind a veil of clouds, I have every confidence it is there.  In the off-chance that it might be visible if we took the time to drive up the highway to the foot of it, we did just that last night, risking seeing nothing but pea soup clouds at the higher elevation. Mount Baker remained behind its impenetrable veil, unseen.

A bit lower, at the foot of Mount Shuksan, initially massive clouds obscured it completely – invisible to us except the knowledge that we knew it was there as we had been in that exact spot before and witnessed it first hand. Yet due to powerful winds that blow in the Cascades, over the course of a few minutes Shuksan was exposed before our eyes in all its glory, first in shadowy profile and then crystal clear reality: it was there, movingly unmoved, a revelation of constancy.

No, it had not vanished overnight, gone to another county, blown up or melted down.  My vision isn’t always penetrating enough to see it through cloud cover, but it is still there. 

I know this and have faith it is true even when, within a few minutes, the clouds blew back over the mountain’s face and veiled it completely again.

Some days I simply don’t bother to look for the mountains, so preoccupied I walk right past their obvious grandeur and presence. Then they reach out to me and call me back.  There are times when I turn a corner on the farm and glance up, and there Baker is, a silent and overwhelming witness to beauty and steadfastness.  I literally gasp at not noticing before, at not remembering how I’m blessed by it being there even at the times I can’t be bothered.

The mountains confirm my lack of witness and still stay put to hold me fast yet another day.  And so I keep coming back to gaze, sometimes just at clouds, yearning to lift the veil, and lift my own veil, just one more time.

The Bird That Feels the Light


Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark.
~Rabindranath Tagore

...then came a sound even more delicious than the sound of water. Close beside the path they were following, a bird suddenly chirped from the branch of a tree. It was answered by the chuckle of another bird a little further off. And then, as if that had been a signal, there was chattering and chirruping in every direction, and then a moment of full song, and within five minutes the whole wood was ringing with birds’ music, and wherever Edmund’s eyes turned he saw birds alighting on branches, or sailing overhead or chasing one another or having their little quarrels or tidying up their feathers with their beaks.
~C.S. Lewis from The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe

Every spring
I hear the thrush singing
in the glowing woods
he is only passing through.
His voice is deep,
then he lifts it until it seems
to fall from the sky.
I am thrilled.
I am grateful.

Then, by the end of morning,
he’s gone, nothing but silence
out of the tree
where he rested for a night.
And this I find acceptable.
Not enough is a poor life.
But too much is, well, too much.
Imagine Verdi or Mahler
every day, all day.
It would exhaust anyone. 
~Mary OliverA Thousand Mornings

photo by Harry Rodenberger

Their song reminds me of a child’s neighborhood rallying cry—ee-ock-ee—with a heartfelt warble at the end. But it is their call that is especially endearing. The towhee has the brass and grace to call, simply and clearly, “tweet”. I know of no other bird that stoops to literal tweeting. 
~Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

I hope you love birds too. It is economical. It saves going to heaven.
~Emily Dickinson in an 1885 letter to Miss Eugenia Hall

What does it say about me that in the darkness of December mornings, I yearn for the early sunrises of June but once I’m firmly into the June calendar, it no longer is so compelling?  It confirms my suspicion that I’m incapable of reveling in the moment at hand, something that would likely take years of therapy to undo.  I’m sure there is some deep seated issue here, but I’m too sleep deprived to pursue it.

My eyes popped open this morning at 4:17 AM, spurred by vigorous birdsong in the trees surrounding our farm house.  There was daylight sneaking through the venetian blinds at that unseemly hour as well.  Once the bird chorus starts, with one lone chirpy voice in the apple tree by our bedroom window, it rapidly becomes a full frontal onslaught symphony orchestra from the plum, cherry, poplar, walnut, fir and chestnut.   Sleep is irretrievable.

This might be something I would ordinarily appreciate but last night nearby pastures roared past midnight with the house-shaking rumble of heavy tractors and trucks chopping and hauling fresh green grass destined for silage.

Only a few months ago I remember wishing for early morning birdsong when it seemed the sun would never rise and the oppressive silence would never lift.  I conveniently forget those mornings years ago when we had a dozen young roosters who magically found their voices very early in the morning a mere 10 weeks after hatching.  Nothing before or since could match their alarm clock expertise after 4 AM.  No barbecue before or since has tasted as sweet.

So I remind myself how bad it can really be and today’s backyard birdsong is a veritable symphony in comparison.

Even so, I already need a nap, yet a full day of clinic awaits. Ah, first world problems of a farmer/doctor/sleep-deprived human.