Not Just Any Drunk

I remember my grandfather as a somber quiet man who used to slowly rock in a wooden chair that now sits empty in our house.

Not too long before, my Grandpa drank heavily but he wasn’t just any drunk.  He was a mean drunk.  Surly, cursing, prone to throwing things and people, especially at home.

Grandma used to say he learned to drink in the logging camps and I suspect that is true.  He started working as a logger before he was fully grown, dropping out of school, leaving home around age sixteen and heading up to the hills where real money could be made.  He learned more than how to cut down huge old growth Douglas Fir trees, skid them down the hills using a team of horses, and then roll them onto waiting wagons to be hauled to the mills.  He learned how to live with a group of men who surfaced once or twice a month from the hills to take a bath and maybe go to church with their womenfolk. Mostly he learned how to curse and drink.

He headed home to the  farm with muscles and attitude a few years later, and started the process of felling trees there, creating a “stump farm” that was a challenge to work because huge stumps dotted the fields and hills.  He slowly worked at blasting them out of the ground so the land could be tilled.  It proved more than he had strength and motivation to do, so his fields were never very fruitful, mostly growing hay for his own animals.  He went to work in the local saw mill to make ends meet.

He cleaned up some when he met my grandmother, who at eighteen was twelve years younger, and eager to escape her role as chief cook and bottle washer for her widowed father and younger brother.   She was devout, lively and full of energy and talked constantly while he, especially when sober, preferred to let others do the talking.  It was an unusual match but he liked her cooking and she was ready to escape the drudgery of her father’s household and be wooed.

They settled on the stump farm and began raising a family, trying to eke out what living they could from the land, from the sporadic work he found at the saw mill, and every Sunday, took the wagon a mile down the road to the Bible Church where they both sang with gusto.

He still drank when he had the money, blowing his pay in the local tavern, and stumbling in the back door roaring and burping, falling into bed with his shoes on.  Grandma was a teetotaler and yelled into his ruddy face about the wrath of God anytime he drank, their four children hiding when the dishes started to fly, and when he would whip off his belt to hit anyone who looked sideways at him.

When their eldest daughter took sick and died quickly of lymphoma at age eight despite the little doctoring that was available, Grandpa got sober for awhile.  He saw it as punishment from God, or at least that is what Grandma told him through her sobs as she struggled to cope with her loss.

Over the years, he relapsed many times, losing fingers in his work at the mill, and losing the respect of his wife, his children and the people in the community.  Grandma left with the kids for several months to cook in a boarding house in a neighboring town, simply to be able to feed her family while Grandpa squandered what he had on drink.   Reconciled over and over again, Grandma would come back to him, sending their growing son to fetch him from the tavern for the night.  My Dad would bicycle to that dark and smoky place,  stand Grandpa up and guide him staggering out to their truck for the weaving drive home on country roads.  On more than one occasion, Grandpa, belligerent as ever, would resist leaving and throw a punch at his boy, usually missing by a mile.

But once the boy grew taller and strong enough to fight back, managing to knock Grandpa to the ground in self-defense, the punching and resistance stopped.   The boozing didn’t.

Grandpa sobered up for good while his boy fought in the war overseas in the forties, striking a bargain with God that his boy would come home safe as long as Grandpa left alcohol alone.  It stuck and he stayed sober.  His boy came home.  Grandpa saw it as a promise kept and became an elder in his Bible Church, taught Sunday School and gave his extra cash to the church rather than the tavern.

Sitting in a Christmas Sunday School program one Christmas Eve, Grandpa leaned toward Grandma and she noticed his face broken out in sweat, his face ashen.

“It’s hot in here, “ he said and collapsed in her lap.    He was gone, just like that, and he left the rest of his family behind while sitting in church, sober as can be,  on the day before Christmas.

Finally everlastingly forgiven, he headed one more time, not weaving or swerving but on the straight and narrow,  home.

We Are No Longer Alone: No One is Too Unimportant

…wealth and cleverness were nothing to God — no one is too unimportant to be His friend.
~Dorothy Sayers from “The Man Born to Be King”

No one can celebrate a genuine Christmas without being truly poor. The self-sufficient, the proud, those who, because they have everything, look Down on others, those who have no need even of God – for them there will be no Christmas.
Only the poor, the hungry, those who need someone to come on their behalf, will have that someone. That someone is God, Emmanuel, God-with-us. Without poverty of spirit there can be no abundance of God.
~ Oscar Romero

No one wants to admit to being needy.  It is, after all, allowing someone else to have strength and power to deliver what one is desperate for. 

Relinquishing that control is painful but it is more painful to be so poor that one is hungry without food, thirsty without drink, ill without medicine, cold without shelter, alone without God.

When we are well fed and hydrated, healed, clothed and safe in our homes, it is difficult to be considered “needy”.  Yet most of us are ultimately bereft and spiritually impoverished; we need God even when we can’t admit our emptiness, or we turn away when He offers Himself up to us.

Despite the wealth with which we surround ourselves every day, our need is still overwhelmingly great; we stand empty and ready to be filled with his abundant and lavish gift of Himself.

Helpless and hungry, lowly, afraid
Wrapped in the chill of midwinter;
Comes now among us, born into poverty’s embrace, 
new life for the world
Who is this who lives with the lowly, 
Sharing their sorrows, knowing their hunger?
This is Christ, revealed to the world 
In the eyes of a child, a child of the poor

Who is the stranger here in our midst, 
Looking for shelter among us?
Who is the outcast? Who do we see amid the poor, 
the children of God?
Who is this who lives with the lowly, 
Sharing their sorrows, knowing their hunger?
This is Christ, revealed to the world 
In the eyes of a child, a child of the poor

Bring all the thirst, all who seek peace;
Bring those with nothing to offer.
Strengthen the feeble,
Say to the frightened heart: “Fear not: here is your God!” Who is this who lives with the lowly, 
Sharing their sorrows, knowing their hunger?
This is Christ, revealed to the world 
In the eyes of a child, a child of the poor

~Scott Soper (1994) “A Child of the Poor”

There is No East or West

1. In Christ there is no east or west,
in him no south or north,
but one great fellowship of love
throughout the whole wide earth.

2. In Christ shall true hearts everywhere
their high communion find;
his service is the golden cord
close binding humankind.

3. Join hands, companions in the faith,
whate’er your race may be!
Who loves and serves the one in him,
throughout the whole wide earth.

4. In Christ now meet both east and west;
in him meet south and north,
all Christly souls are one in him
throughout the whole wide earth.
~William Dunkerley

We Christians are often rightfully accused of being judgmental and unwilling to consider other points of view. We can be the first to criticize another Christian of being unfaithful or heretical, not following doctrine and creeds, or being too liberal or too conservative or just too plain stubborn.

I’ve done it myself (doing it now in this post!) and have received more than my share of mean-spirited, even hateful, messages from Christian brothers and sisters who disagree with my point of view on some issue.
Christians can tend to revel in eating their own.

When I’m tempted to judge lest I be judged, I remember who Christ hung out with: the cast offs and most undesirable people in society. They were surely more receptive to His message than those who believed they knew better than Him, who questioned His actions and motives, and who plotted against Him behind His back.

We need reminding that Christ isn’t more present in one political party over another, one denomination or faith community over another, one zip code over another, or in one racial or ethnic group over another.

We, east and west, north and south, constitute His body on earth, we dwell fully in His image just as we were created to be. It is only through His loving Spirit we are brought home where we belong, back to the center from the fraying edges of our faith.

Our Ordinary Unmysterious Lives

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

photo of Wiser Lake Chapel sanctuary by Barb Hoelle

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.

And not forget our crash helmets.

walking to church in Tokyo


To Leave Something Behind

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

Esther Meyer, nearly 92, photo taken by a granddaughter
Esther’s hands – photo by Donna Meyer
photo by Danielle Meyer Miljevic

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.”

“Yes, Grandma.”

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 was Wiser 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.

Holding My Feet to the Fire

God is the fire my feet are held to.
~Charles Wright, from “Ars Poetica II” in Appalachia

If we think we’re going to get off easy in this life
because we do what we’re told to do:
keeping the Sabbath
and our noses clean,
saying what we ought to say
when we should say it
and keeping our mouths shut when
it is best to say nothing at all.

If we think our good deeds
and relative lack of bad deeds will save us,
we have another think coming
and a lot of explaining to do.

We walk through fire
because nothing about God’s glory
is easy. We are hidden in the cleft because He is too much for our eyes to behold.
We remove our sandals
to feel the hot coals of holy ground.
He burns without being consumed
so our hearts are scorched in His presence.

Yet His feet are blistered too.
He knows exactly how this feels.





Here and Now

Unless the eye catch fire,
Then God will not be seen.
Unless the ear catch fire
Then God will not be heard.
Unless the tongue catch fire
Then God will not be named.
Unless the heart catch fire,
Then God will not be loved.
Unless the mind catch fire,
Then God will not be known.
~William Blake from “Pentecost”

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.

Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
the world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment

Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
~T.S. Eliot from “East Coker”

Today, if we feel we are without hope,
if faith feels frail,
if love seems distant,
we must wait, stilled,
for the moment we are lit afire~
when the Living God is
seen, heard, named, loved, known,
forever burning in our hearts
in this moment, for a lifetime
and for eternity.
Here and now ceases to matter.