It was like a church to me. I entered it on soft foot, Breath held like a cap in the hand. It was quiet. What God there was made himself felt, Not listened to, in clean colours That brought a moistening of the eye, In a movement of the wind over grass.
There were no prayers said. But stillness Of the heart’s passions – that was praise Enough; and the mind’s cession Of its kingdom. I walked on, Simple and poor, while the air crumbled And broke on me generously as bread. ~R.S. Thomas “The Moor” Collected Poems: R. S. Thomas
This is a Sabbath morning when I’m surrounded by His stilling presence~ when God is felt, neither seen or heard, overtaking me within each breath taken, following the path of each glistening tear, feeding me manna from sky and body, becoming the ground reaching to meet my foot with each step I take.
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.
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.
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”
…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.
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.
…let me live in a small room up the narrow stairs from the stalls, the horse shifting comfortably below, browsing and chewing sweet hay. A single bed with blanket the color of factory-sweepings will suffice, each day shaped to the same arc, because days can only end when the lock slides free on the stall’s Dutch door, and I lead the horse in, then muscle the corroded bolt shut. That’s what days are for: I cannot rest until the horse comes home. ~Julie Bruck from “To Bring the Horse Home”
The best moment in the barn is in the evening just following the hay feeding, as the animals are settling down to some serious chewing. I linger in the center aisle, listening to the rhythmic sounds coming from six stalls. It is a most soothing contented cadence, first their lips picking up the grass, then the chew chew chew chew and a pause and it starts again. It’s even better in the dark, with the lights off.
I’ve enjoyed listening to the eating sounds at night from the remote vantage point of my bedroom TV monitor system set up to watch my very pregnant mares before foaling. A peculiar lullaby of sorts, strange as that seems, but when all my farm animals are chewing and happy, I am at peace and sleep better.
It reminds me of those dark deep nights of feeding my own newborns, rocking back and forth with the rhythm of their sucking. It is a moment of being completely present and peaceful, and knowing at that moment, nothing else matters–nothing else at all.
If I am very fortunate, each day I live has a rhythm that is reassuring and steady, like the sounds of hay chewing, or rocking a baby. I awake thinking about where my next step will bring me, and then the next, like each chew of sweet hay. I try to live in each moment fully, without distraction by the worry of the unknown.
But the reality is:
life’s rhythms are often out of sync,
the cadence is jarring,
the sounds are discordant,
sometimes I’m the one being chewed on, so pain replaces peacefulness.
Maybe that is why this lullaby in the barn~~this sanctuary~~is so treasured. It brings me home to that doubting center of myself that needs reminding that pain is fleeting, and peace, however elusive now, is forever. I always know where to find it for a few minutes at the end of every day, in a pastoral symphony of sorts.
Someday my hope for heaven will be angel choruses of glorious praise, augmenting a hay-chewing lullaby.
It started with a one hundred year old congregation moving into a new church building after an earthquake destroyed the old one. These weren’t people of great wealth or prestige so the new building, by necessity, was a simple rectangular design, the sanctuary paneled in light birchwood, the high windows with clear textured glass allowing floods of muted natural light to stream in even on cloudy days. It was a pleasant enough place to worship, well-lit and airy.
Then a new pastor arrived–a man well-traveled, well-read with a keen artist’s eye and a mind able to mix together a palette of history, colors and words. He could see what others had not in the empty canvas of the huge space. What he envisioned for the sanctuary was to enhance the worship experience through the illustration of Life’s passage, of people growing and changing in God’s glory. Any worshipper entering the sanctuary would become part of the woven tapestry of color cast by a series of stained glass windows.
Six large symmetrical panels of divided narrow vertical windows lined both upper outer walls leading up to the altar. In our pastor’s design, these were to become stained glass representations of the various stages of life from young to old. Our pastor recruited would-be artisans from the congregation to be the primary stained glass workers, teaching them how to precisely cut and fit the glass pieces. Each church member had an opportunity to choose and place a pane matching his or her stage of life, to become a permanent part of the portrait of this diverse church family. The new windows were constructed from back to front over the course of a year, all by volunteer effort, until the transformation was complete from simple functional space of wood and light to an encompassing work of art, inclusive for all who entered. Mosaics of colored sections represented the transition through life, moving from childhood in the windows at the entrance, on to adolescence, then to young adulthood, moving to middle age, and then finally to the elder years nearest the altar.
Rainbows of color crisscrossed the pews and aisles, starting with pale and barely defined green and yellow at the outset, blending into a blossom of blue, then becoming a startling fervor of red, fading into a tranquil purple past the center, and lastly immersed in the warmth of orange as one approached the brown of the wood paneled altar. Depending on where one chose to sit, the light bearing a particular color combination was cast on open pages of scripture, or favorite hymns, or on the skin and clothing of the people, reflecting the essence of that life phase. Included in the design was the seemingly random but intentional scattering of all of the colors in each panel. Gold and orange panes were sprinkled in the “youth” window predicting the wisdom to come, and a smattering of some greens, blues and reds were found throughout the “orange” window of old age, just like the “spark” of younger years so often seen in the eyes of the our eldest citizens.
The colored windows reflected the truth of God’s plan for our lives. There was the certainty of the unrelenting passage of time; there was no turning back or turning away from what was to come. Although each stage shone with its own unique beauty, none was as warm and welcoming as the orange glow of the autumn of life. Those final windows focused their brilliance on the plain wood of the cross above the altar.
Beyond the stained glass, as life fades from the richest of colors to the brownest of dust, the light will continue to shine, glorious.
photos thanks to the Facebook page of First United Methodist Church – Olympia