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

Becoming Holy Ground

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.

Day After Day

So long as that woman from the Rijksmuseum 
in painted quiet and concentration
keeps pouring milk day after day
from the pitcher to the bowl
the World hasn’t earned
the world’s end.
~Wisława Szymborska “Vermeer”
trans. Clare Cavanagh & Stanisław Barańczak

I am struck by the expression of so much widespread hopelessness: the earth is being destroyed by humanity. Our continued existence is causing the world’s end.

This certainly isn’t the first time we’ve felt such desperation about our relationship with the world. It happened long ago when we chose to eat the fruit of the one forbidden tree and as a result were banned from the Garden. It happened with the plague when careless exposures wiped out entire villages. It happened when our wars left behind no living thing, leaving the ground itself cinders. It happened with the threat of imminent nuclear holocaust as missiles remain pointed at each other.

Still the sun rises and the sun sets, day after day. We don’t know for how much longer. Only God knows as God put us here with a plan.

So we continue to pour the milk as a sacrament: quietly, with great concentration, as that is the work we do, day after day. We still milk the cows and raise the wheat for bread and conceive children and raise them up as best we can. As long as we continue to do the work of the Garden, even while we dwell outside it, we are not causing the apocalypse. It is God’s world, after all, and all that is in it.

So we keep milking and keep pouring.

We Bring Ourselves

… we can make a house called tomorrow.
What we bring, finally, into the new day, every day,

Is ourselves.  And that’s all we need
To start.  That’s everything we require to keep going.
 

Look back only for as long as you must,
Then go forward into the history you will make.

Be good, then better.  Write books.  Cure disease.
Make us proud.  Make yourself proud.

And those who came before you?  When you hear thunder,
Hear it as their applause.

~Albert Rios from “A House Called Tomorrow”

All days are sacred days to wake
New gladness in the sunny air.
Only a night from old to new;
Only a sleep from night to morn.
The new is but the old come true;
Each sunrise sees a new year born.
~Helen Hunt Jackson from “New Year’s Morning”

We awake glad this morning,
breathing deeply of the sacred that
glistens in the light of a soft sunrise.
Each day is a fresh start,
a gift from those who have gone before.
We bring ourselves to His table,
renewing our covenant
with God and each other.
And the trees of the field will clap their hands…

We Are No Longer Alone: The Word That Takes On Flesh

 

Praise be that this thin mark, this sound
Can form the word that takes on flesh
To enter where no flesh can go
To fill each other’s emptiness.
To words and how they live between us
To us and how we live between the worth

And in between the sound of words
I hear your silent, sounding soul
Where one abides in solitude
Who keeps us one when speech shall go
~Carrie Newcomer and Parker Palmer “Two Toasts”

In the quiet of a room they sigh.
In candle’s glow they live under
An icon’s shadow and an unheard cry
And the Truth-bearing words that thunder–
Those Sacred Silences who
tenderly await the soul.

They speak of His coming, not delayed, but near
for etched in unknown depths, they say,
the same Image of the One whose patient tear
slays the heart and gives all away–
In those Sacred Silences who
tenderly await the soul.

Let saving truth’s grammar unbound
Those lips thirsting for syllables of love
To drink deep the wisdom in whose font resound
Those words below of the Word above:
As enveloped in great silences
The soul awaits His coming.

~Anthony Lilles

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
John 1: 1-5

Somewhere between the Word in the beginning and the Word that becomes flesh and the Word that now exists in our hearts and hands, there is the sacred silence of God.

Advent is a time of quiet stillness, awaiting the Light brought by the Word; a flint is struck to our wick, the Darkness abolished in the eternal glow of His illuminating Word.

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
and with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded,

For with blessing is His hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
Our full homage to demand.
King of kings, Yet born of Mary,
As of old earth He stood, Lord of lords,
In human vesture, In the body and the blood;
He will give to all the faithful.

His own self for heavenly food.
Rank on rank the host of heaven
spreads its vanguard on the way,
As Light of light descendeth
from the realms of endless day,
That the powers of hell may vanish
as the darkness clears away.
At His feet the six-winged seraph,
Cherubim, With sleepless eye,
Veil their faces to His presence
as with ceaseless voice they cry:
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Lord Most High!

We Lean Lest We Fall

Today we both fell.

Eventually balance moves
out of us into the world;
it’s the pull of rabbits
grazing on the lawn
as we talk, the slow talk
of where and when,
determining what
and who we will become
as we age.

We admire the new plants
and the rings of mulch you made,
we praise the rabbits eating

the weeds’ sweet yellow flowers.

Behind our words the days
serve each other as mother,
father, cook, builder, and fixer;
these float like the clouds
beyond the trees.

It is a simple life, now,
children grown, our living made
and saved, our years our own,
husband and wife,

but in our daily stride, the one
that rises with the sun,
the chosen pride,
we lean on our other selves,
lest we fall
into a consuming fire
and lose it all.
~Richard Maxson, “Otherwise” from  Searching for Arkansas

Our days are slower now, less rush, more reading and writing, walking and sitting, taking it all in and wondering what comes next.

I slowly adapt to not hurrying to work every other day, looking to you to see how I should parcel out each moment. Should I stay busy cleaning, sorting, giving away, simplifying our possessions so our children someday won’t have to? Or should I find some other kind of service off the farm to feel worthy of each new day, each new breath?

It is an unfamiliar phase, this facing a day with no agenda and no appointments. What comes next is uncertain, as it always has been but I didn’t pay attention before.

So I lean lest I fall. I breathe lest I forget how.

Finding a Penny

There was an entire aspect to my life that I had been blind to
— the small, good things that came in abundance.

~Mary Karr

If you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity,
so that finding a penny will literally make your day,
then,
since the world is in fact planted in pennies,
you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days.

—Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Planted pennies
on days like today
are like raindrops,
just as plain and more than plentiful.

When I’m feeling dry and withered
I only need to look up into gray skies turning amber
and all the drops fill my overdrawn bank account,
hydrating my soul, lost in wilderness.

The desert flows, my thirst is quenched
by something so simple, so underwhelming,
so enriching
as pennies and raindrops.