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 time is ripe for looking back over the day, the week, the year, and trying to figure out where we have come from and where we are going to, for sifting through the things we have done and the things we have left undone for a clue to who we are and who, for better or worse, we are becoming. We cling to the present out of wariness of the past. But there is a deeper need yet, I think, and that is the need—not all the time, surely, but from time to time—to enter that still room within us all where the past lives on as a part of the present, where the dead are alive again, where we are most alive ourselves to turnings and to where our journeys have brought us. The name of the room is Remember—the room where with patience, with charity, with quietness of heart, we remember consciously to remember the lives we have lived.” ~Frederick Buechner from A Room Called Remember
He was a big man, says the size of his shoes on a pile of broken dishes by the house; a tall man too, says the length of the bed in an upstairs room; and a good, God-fearing man, says the Bible with a broken back on the floor below the window, dusty with sun; but not a man for farming, say the fields cluttered with boulders and the leaky barn.
A woman lived with him, says the bedroom wall papered with lilacs and the kitchen shelves covered with oilcloth, and they had a child, says the sandbox made from a tractor tire. Money was scarce, say the jars of plum preserves and canned tomatoes sealed in the cellar hole. And the winters cold, say the rags in the window frames. It was lonely here, says the narrow country road.
Something went wrong, says the empty house in the weed-choked yard. Stones in the fields say he was not a farmer; the still-sealed jars in the cellar say she left in a nervous haste. And the child? Its toys are strewn in the yard like branches after a storm—a rubber cow, a rusty tractor with a broken plow, a doll in overalls. Something went wrong, they say. ~Ted Kooser, “Abandoned Farmhouse” from Sure Signs: New and Selected Poems.
In 1959, when I was five years old, my father left his high school agriculture teaching position for a new supervisor position with the state. I didn’t understand at the time the reasons for his leaving his job after 13 years.
Our family moved from a large 3 story farm house in a rural community to a 1950’s newer rambler style home just outside the city limits of the state capitol. It was a big adjustment to move to a much smaller house without a basement or upper story, no garage, and no large haybarn nor chicken coop. It meant most things we owned didn’t make the move with us.
The rambler had two side by side mirror image rooms as the primary central living space between the kitchen on one side and the hallway to the bedrooms on the other. The living room could only be entered through the front door and the family room was accessed through the back door with a shared sandstone hearth in the center, containing a fireplace in each room. The only opening between the rooms had a folding door shut most of the year. In December, the door was opened to accommodate a Christmas tree, so it sat partially in the living room and depending on its generous width, spilled over into the family room. That way it was visible from both rooms, and didn’t take up too much floor space.
The living room, because it contained the only carpeting in the house, and our “best” furniture, was strictly off-limits. In order to keep our two matching sectional knobby gray fabric sofas, a green upholstered chair and gold crushed velvet covered love seat in pristine condition, the room was to be avoided unless we had company. The carpet was never to develop a traffic pattern, there would be no food, beverage, or pet ever allowed in that room, and the front door was not to be used unless a visitor arrived. The hearth never saw a fire lit on that side because of the potential of messy ashes or smoke smell. This was not a room for laughter, arguments or games and certainly not for toys. The chiming clock next to the hearth, wound with weighted cones on the end of chains, called out the hours without an audience.
One week before Christmas, a tree was chosen to fit in the space where it could overflow into the family room. I particularly enjoyed decorating the “family room” side of the tree, using all my favorite ornaments that were less likely to break if they fell on the linoleum floor on that side of the door.
It was as if the Christmas tree became divided, with a “formal” side in the living room and a “real life” face on the other side where the living (and hurting) was actually taking place.
The tree straddled more than just two rooms. Every year that tree’s branches reached out to shelter a family that was slowly, almost imperceptibly, falling apart, like the fir needles dropping to the floor to be swept away. Something was going wrong.
Each year since, the Christmas tree bearing those old ornaments from my childhood reminds me of a still room of mixed memories within me. I am no longer wary of the past, and when I sweep up the fir needles that inevitably drop, I no longer weep.
The night’s drifts Pile up below me and behind my back, Slide down the hill, rise again, and build Eerie little dunes on the roof of the house.
The moon and the stars Suddenly flicker out, and the whole mountain Appears, pale as a shell.
Look, the sea has not fallen and broken Our heads. How can I feel so warm Here in the dead center of January? I can Scarcely believe it, and yet I have to, this is The only life I have. I get up from the stone. My body mumbles something unseemly And follows me. Now we are all sitting here strangely On top of the sunlight. ~James Wright, “A Winter Daybreak Above Vence” from Above the River: The Complete Poems and Selected Prose.
This is our fourth day of house arrest with roads icy and drifted and temperatures sub-freezing – a windchill below zero. What sun has appeared is ineffective, as if it were fake news on a winter day.
The prediction is for a dramatic turn-around in the next couple hours with temperatures rising 16 degrees with the advent of southerly “pineapple express” breezes.
I’ll believe it when I feel it. In the past, the drama of a south wind breaking the curse of the icy cold happens so rapidly, we could hear it before we felt it. The sound of ice and snow falling, taking branches with them in the woods was like the rat-a-tat of target shooting. None of us were ready for it and the trees were literally breaking in response to the warming winds.
We can grumble and mumble (and do) but this is the only life we have in the dead center of a January snow and wind storm. We’ll just sit tight braced against the cold, like the hungry birds that flock by the dozens at our feeders, waiting for the warming winds to carry us right into February, preferably unbroken.
It can happen like that: meeting at the market, buying tires amid the smell of rubber, the grating sound of jack hammers and drills, anywhere we share stories, and grace flows between us.
The tire center waiting room becomes a healing place as one speaks of her husband’s heart valve replacement, bedsores from complications. A man speaks of multiple surgeries, notes his false appearance as strong and healthy.
I share my sister’s death from breast cancer, her youngest only seven. A woman rises, gives her name, Mrs. Henry, then takes my hand. Suddenly an ordinary day becomes holy ground. ~ Stella Nesanovich, “Everyday Grace,” from Third Wednesday
The only use of a knowledge of the past is to equip us for the present. The present contains all that there is. It is holy ground; for it is the past, and it is the future. ~Alfred North Whitehead
It matters less what has happened or what will happen. What matters is happening right this very moment – in the tire center waiting room, the grocery store check out line, the exam room of the doctor’s office. Are we living fully in the present and paying attention?
We are sentient creatures with a proclivity to bypass the present to dwell on the past or fret about the future. This has been true of humans since our creation. Those observing Buddhist tradition and New Age believers of the “Eternal Now” call our attention to the present moment through the teaching of “mindfulness” to bring a sense of peacefulness and fulfillment.
Mindfulness is all well and good but I don’t believe the present is about our minds. It is not about us at all.
The present is an ordinary day transformed to holy ground where we are allowed to tread:
We are asked to remove our shoes in an attitude of respect to a loving God who gives us life. We are to approach each other and each sacred moment with humility. We turn aside from the dailiness of our lives to look at what He has promised. We are connected to one another through our Maker.
There can be no other moment just like this one, so this is no time to waste. There may be no other beyond this one. Right now, this moment sorely barefoot, I am simply grateful to be here and connected to each of you.
On Epiphany day, we are still the people walking. We are still people in the dark, and the darkness looms large around us, beset as we are by fear, anxiety, brutality, violence, loss — a dozen alienations that we cannot manage.
We are — we could be — people of your light. So we pray for the light of your glorious presence as we wait for your appearing; we pray for the light of your wondrous grace as we exhaust our coping capacity; we pray for your gift of newness that will override our weariness; we pray that we may see and know and hear and trust in your good rule.
That we may have energy, courage, and freedom to enact your rule through the demands of this day. We submit our day to you and to your rule, with deep joy and high hope. ~Walter Brueggemann from Prayers for a Privileged People
Unclench your fists Hold out your hands. Take mine. Let us hold each other. Thus is his Glory Manifest. ~Madeleine L’Engle “Epiphany”
“Like Mary, we have no way of knowing… We can ask for courage, however, and trust that God has not led us into this new land only to abandon us there.” ~Kathleen Norrisfrom God With Us
Today is celebrated the Feast of Epiphany (His Glory revealed and made manifest in all lives).
Even as weak and crumbling vessels, God is made manifest within us. It is not the easy path to say yes to God: it means sacrifice, abandoning our will for His will so His glory is illuminated by His Light, not ours.
And so, we, like Mary, shall say yes. His Seed shall take root in our hearts.
Let us step outside for a moment As the sun breaks through clouds And shines on wet new fallen snow, And breathe the new air. So much has died that had to die this year.
Let us step outside for a moment. It is all there Only we have been slow to arrive At a way of seeing it. Unless the gentle inherit the earth There will be no earth. ~May Sarton from “New Year Poem”
Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention. They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go next. ~Frederick Buechnerfrom Beyond Words
I don’t pay close enough attention to the meaning of my leaking eyes when I’m constantly looking for kleenex to stem the flow. During the holidays it seems I have more than ample opportunity to find out from my tears the secret of who I am, where I have come from, and where I am to be next, so I keep my pockets loaded with kleenex.
It mostly has to do with spending time with far-flung children and grandchildren for the holidays. It is about reading books and doing puzzles together and reminiscing about what has been and what could be. It is about singing grace together before a meal and choking on precious words of gratitude. It certainly has to do with bidding farewell until we meet again — gathering them in for that final hug and then that letting-go part.
We urged and encouraged our children to go where their hearts told them they are needed and called to be, even if thousands of miles away from their one-time home on this farm.
I too was let go once and though I would try to look back, too often in tears, I learned to set my face toward the future. It led me here, to this marriage, this family, this farm, this work, our church, to more tears, to more letting go, as it will continue if I’m granted the years to weep again and again with gusto and grace.
This is where I must go next: to love so much and so deeply that letting go is so hard that tears are no longer unexpected or a mystery to me or my children and grandchildren. They release a fullness that can no longer be contained: God’s still small voice spills down my cheeks drop by drop like wax from a burning candle.
The moon drops one or two feathers into the field.
The dark wheat listens.
There they are, the moon’s young, trying
I stand alone by an elder tree, I do not dare breathe
The wheat leans back toward its own darkness,
And I lean toward mine.
~James Wright, from “Beginning” from Above the River: The Complete Poems and Selected Prose.
And the light shone in darkness and Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled About the centre of the silent Word. ~T.S. Eliot from “Ash Wednesday”
In my beginning is my end. Now the light falls… I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope. ~T.S. Eliot from “East Coker”
As we spend time with our young grandchildren, learning what it means to be a grandparent, we watch them discover the many joys and unending sorrows of this world. We must remember to remind them: there is light beyond the darkness, there is peace amid the chaos, there is a smile behind the tears, there is stillness within the noisiness, there is grace and mercy as old gives way to new.