He Sees Us As We Are: Coming Together

This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.
Ephesians 3:6

photo by Barb Hoelle

The journey begins when Christians leave their homes and beds. They leave, indeed, their life in this present and concrete world, and whether they have to drive 15 miles or walk a few blocks, a sacramental act is already taking place…

For they are now on their way to constitute the Church, or to be more exact, to be transformed into the Church of God. They have been individuals, some white, some black, some poor, some rich, they have been the ‘natural’ world and a natural community. And now they have been called to “come together in one place,” to bring their lives, their very world with them and to be more than what they were: a new community with a new life.

We are already far beyond the categories of common worship and prayer. The purpose of this ‘coming together’ is not simply to add a religious dimension to the natural community, to make it ‘better’ – more responsible, more Christian. The purpose is to fulfill the Church, and that means to make present the One in whom all things are at their end, and all things are at their beginning.
~ Father Alexander Schmemann from For the Life of the World

Human beings by their very nature are worshipers. Worship is not something we do; it defines who we are.
You cannot divide human beings into those who worship and those who don’t.
Everybody worships; it’s just a matter of what, or whom, we serve.

~Paul Tripp

Back in the early days of Whatcom County,  the little church on Wiser Lake had been constructed through “contributions of the people” in a rural neighborhood only a few miles from where we now live.  $600 in lumber was provided by a local farmer whose trees were cut and milled and brought by horse drawn wagon to a building site adjacent to a one room school house along a corrugated plank road. The total property was “valued at $1800, but of even more value to the community.” The dedication ceremony was held on Sunday, August 27, 1916 followed by “a basket dinner—come with well filled baskets for a common table, under the direction of the Ladies Aid”. This was to be followed by a “Fellowship Meeting, special music and fraternal addresses” and the day ended at 8 PM with a Young People’s Meeting.  So began the long history of the “Wiser Lake Church”.

For reasons unrecorded in the history of the church, the original denomination closed its doors thirty years later, and for awhile the building was empty and in need of a congregation. By the fifties, it became a mission church of the local Christian Reformed Churches and launched a Sunday School program for migrant farm and Native American children in the surrounding rural neighborhood.  No formal church services started until the sixties. By the time the building was sixty years old, so many children were arriving for Sunday School, there was not enough room so the building was hoisted up on jacks to allow a hole to be dug underneath for a basement full of classrooms. Over the course of a summer, the floor space doubled, and the church settled back into place, allowed to rest again on its foundation.

Over seventy years after its dedication ceremony, our family drove 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.

It felt like home. We had found our church. We’ve never left. Over 30 years it has had peeling paint and missing shingles, a basement that floods when the rain comes down hard, toilets that don’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 also has a warmth and character and uniqueness that is unforgettable.

It’s really not so different from the folks who gather there.  We know we belong there, even if we too are musty, a bit out of sorts, yet still warm and loving and welcoming — no matter what, every Sabbath we are called to come together to be very clear about Who we worship.

This year’s Lenten theme on Barnstorming:

God sees us as we are,
loves us as we are,
and accepts us as we are.
But by His grace,
He does not leave us where we are.
~Tim Keller

He Sees Us As We Are: Substitution Allowed

For the essence of sin is
man substituting himself for God,
while the essence of salvation is
God substituting Himself for man.

Man asserts himself against God and puts himself
where only God deserves to be;
God sacrifices Himself for man and puts Himself
where only man deserves to be.

Man claims prerogatives that belong to God alone;
God accepts penalties that belong to man alone.
~John Stott, The Cross of Christ

Our struggle,
from God’s first breath into our nostrils,
is wanting to forget
we are made from dust,
molded from mud,
and will return to the ground,
no matter what.

We make a poor substitute for God.

Between the womb and the tomb
we can act as though we own the earth
and somehow the earth owes us.

Instead we must tread lightly,
knowing each breath, each morsel, each day
is an undeserved gift given
by Him having taken our place,
becoming our substitution.

When we acknowledge we broke His heart on earth,
He bled so our hearts continue to beat,
so we may laugh, cry, love and worship.

Only then we are right with God,
instead of insisting we be God.

His heart broken so we are made whole;
God, the perfect substitution for man,
made manifest both in heaven
and on earth.

Legalistic remorse says, “I broke God’s rules,”
while real repentance says, “I broke God’s heart.”
~Tim Keller

This year’s Lenten theme on Barnstorming:

God sees us as we are,
loves us as we are,
and accepts us as we are.
But by His grace,
He does not leave us where we are.
~Tim Keller

So Then, Live

It is not only prayer that gives God glory but work.
Smiting on an anvil,
sawing a beam,
whitewashing a wall,
driving horses,
sweeping,
scouring,
everything gives God some glory
if being in his grace you do it as your duty.
To go to communion worthily gives God great glory,
but to take food in thankfulness and temperance
gives him glory too.
To lift up the hands in prayer gives God glory,
but a man with a dungfork in his hand,
a woman with a slop pail,
gives him glory too.
He is so great that all things give him glory
if you mean they should.
So then, my brethren, live.
~Gerard Manley Hopkins – Poems and Prose of Gerard Manley Hopkins

Photo of Aaron Janicki haying with his Oberlander team in Skagit County courtesy of Tayler Rae
photo by Tayler Rae

Thanks in large part to how messily we humans live, this world is a grimy place.  

As an act of worship, we work at cleaning up after ourselves.  Hands that clean toilets, scrub floors, carry bedpans, pick up garbage might as well be clasped in prayer–it is in such mundane tasks God is glorified.

I spend time every day carrying buckets and wielding a pitchfork because it is my way of restoring order to the disorder inherent in human life.  It is with gratitude that I’m able to pick up one little corner of my world, making stall beds tidier for our farm animals by mucking up their messes and in so doing, I’m cleaning up a piece of me at the same time.

I never want to forget the mess I’m in and the mess I am.  I never want to forget to clean up after myself.  I never want to feel it is a mere and mundane chore to worship with dungfork and slop pail.

It is my privilege.  It is His gift to me.
It is Grace that comes alongside me, to keep pitching the muck and carrying the slop when I am too weary to do it myself.

The Healing Power of a Church Potluck

The church, I think, is God’s way of saying,
“What I have in the pot is yours,
and what I have is a group of misfits
whom you need more than you know
and who need you more than they know.” 

“Take, and eat,” he says,
“and take, and eat,
until the day, and it is coming,
that you knock on my door.
I will open it, and you will see me face to face.”

He is preparing a table.
He will welcome us in.
Jesus will be there, smiling and holy,
holding out a green bean casserole.
And at that moment, what we say, what we think, and what we believe will be the same:
“I didn’t know how badly I needed this.”
~Jeremy Clive Huggins from “The Church Potluck”

Perhaps a celebration at the end of a long cold winter month
Possibly a need of respite from a month of dieting
Likely a response to bad headline news day after day:
A potlatch, a potluck, a communion of comfort food.

What to bring? What soothes stomach and heart?

Macaroni and cheese, with drizzled bread cubes on top
Beef stew chuck-a-block with vegetables and potatoes
Buckets of fried chicken
Greenbean casserole
Meat loaf topped with ketchup
Tossed Caesar salad
Tator tots drizzled with cheese
Jello and ham buns

Home made bread, steaming, soft
Whole chocolate milk
And ice cream sundaes

Nothing expensive
Or extravagant
Or requiring going into debt to pay.

A fitting ending to a Sabbath of worship,
After meeting for prayer and hymns and the Word;
When times get tough, when we feel all alone,
When we drown in discouragement.

This is time for connecting congregation and community,
For huddling against life’s storm
Forgetting our worries for a time
And sharing God’s comfort food, all together, misfits that we are,
Smiling to know — we all badly needed this.

All We Know of God

It hovers in dark corners 
before the lights are turned on,   
it shakes sleep from its eyes   
and drops from mushroom gills,   
it explodes in the starry heads   
of dandelions turned sages,   
it sticks to the wings of green angels   
that sail from the tops of maples.     
It sprouts in each occluded eye   
of the many-eyed potato,   
it lives in each earthworm segment   
surviving cruelty,   
it is the motion that runs the tail of a dog,   
it is the mouth that inflates the lungs   
of the child that has just been born.     
It is the singular gift   
we cannot destroy in ourselves,   
the argument that refutes death,   
the genius that invents the future,   
all we know of God.     
It is the serum which makes us swear   
not to betray one another;   
it is in this poem, trying to speak
~ Lisel Mueller “Hope” from Alive Together

As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time. I shall get up Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.

Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society — things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.

Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.

Sincerely,
E. B. White ~from Letters of Note: Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience 

We can’t claw our way out of
the mess we’ve made of things;
it takes Someone
to dig us out of the hole,
brush us off,
clean us up,
and breathe fresh breath into our nostrils.
We can only hope
hope will be more contagious
than any pandemic virus.
We can only hope
and grab hold and put down roots
when His hand reaches down
to plant us firmly the dirt.

Embraced By God’s Restless Love

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.

Stop What I Am Doing Right Now

Sometimes
if you move carefully
through the forest,

breathing
like the ones
in the old stories,

who could cross
a dry bed of leaves  
without a sound,

you come
to a place
whose only task

is to trouble you
with tiny
but frightening requests,

conceived out of nowhere,
but in this place
beginning to lead everywhere.

Requests to stop what
you are doing right now,
and

to stop what you
are becoming
while you do it,

questions
that can make

or unmake
a life,

questions
that have patiently
waited for you,

questions
that have no right
to go away.

~David Whyte, from River Flow: New & Selected Poems

I remind myself how brief this all is.

How fleeting are the years when I look in the mirror and realize how much is past and how much remains – who knows how little?

How many questions remain unanswered but even more unasked?

This morning, as every Sabbath,
I sit silent in a pew of worship,
humbled and overwhelmed by the question
“what is my only comfort?”
but even more so by the answer:

I am not my own
but belong body and soul
to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ
.

A question and answer that can make or unmake a life
that patiently waits for me
and will never go away.

photo by Barb Hoelle