Waiting for Seven Ducks in a Muddy Pond

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Perhaps it was his plain talk about the Word of God. Perhaps it was his folksy stories tying that Word to our lives. Perhaps it was because he was, like the rest of us, so fully a flawed and forgiven human being. Pastor Bruce Hemple ministered to thousands over his lifetime of service, yet the simple act of climbing the steps up to the pulpit at Wiser Lake Chapel was nearly impossible for him.

Bruce had one leg. The other was lost to an above the knee amputation due to severe diabetes. He wore an ill-fitting prosthetic leg that never allowed a normal stride and certainly proved a challenge when ascending stairs. He would come early to the sanctuary to climb the several steps to the chair behind the pulpit so he would not have to struggle in front of the congregation at the start of the service. As we would enter to find our pew seats, he would be deep in thought and prayer, already seated by the pulpit.

He often said he knew he was a difficult person to live with because of his constant pain and health problems. His family confirmed that was indeed true, but what crankiness he exhibited through much of the week evaporated once he was at the pulpit. Standing there balanced on his good leg with his prosthesis acting as a brace, he was transformed and blessed with clarity of thought and expression. His pain was left behind.

He came to our church after many years of military chaplaincy, having served in Korea and Vietnam and a number of stateside assignments. He liked to say he “learned to meet people where they were” rather than where he thought they needed to be. His work brought him face to face with thousands of soldiers from diverse faiths and backgrounds, or in many cases, no faith at all, yet he ministered to each one in the way that was needed at that moment. He helped some as they lay dying and others who suffered so profoundly they wished they would die. He was there for them all and he was there for us.

One of his memorable sermons came from 2Kings 5: 1-19 about the healing of the great warrior Naaman who was afflicted with leprosy. Pastor Bruce clearly identified with Naaman and emphasized the message of obedience to God as the key to Naaman’s healing. Like Naaman, no one would desire “Seven Ducks in a Muddy Pond” but once Naaman was obedient despite his pride and doubts, he was cured of the incurable by bathing in the muddy Jordan River.

Even upon his retirement, Bruce continued to preach when churches needed a fill in pastor, and he took a part time job managing a community food and clothing bank, connecting with people who needed his words of encouragement. He was called regularly to officiate at weddings and funerals, especially for those without a church. He would oblige as his time and health allowed.

His last sermon was delivered on a freezing windy December day at a graveside service for a young suicide victim he had never known personally. Pastor Bruce was standing at the head of the casket and having concluded his message, he bowed his head to pray, continued to bend forward, appeared to embrace the casket and breathed his last. He was gone, just like that.

He was not standing up high at the pulpit the day he died. He was obediently getting muddy in the muck and mess of life, and waiting, as we all are, for the moment he’d be washed clean.

 

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Is Everything Sad Going to Come Untrue?

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photo of Mt. Baker by Joel DeWaard

 

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“Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead! Is everything sad going to come untrue?”
~J.R.R. Tolkien as Samwise Gamgee wakes to find his friends all around him in The Lord of the Rings

“The answer is yes. And the answer of the Bible is yes. If the resurrection is true, then the answer is yes. Everything sad is going to come untrue.”
~Pastor Tim Keller’s response in a sermon given in an ecumenical prayer service memorial in Lower Manhattan on the fifth anniversary of Sept. 11.

 

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In our minds, we want to rewind and replay the sad events of a tragedy in a way that would prevent it from happening in the first place.

We want those in a broken relationship to come back together, hug and forgive.  The devastating diagnosis would be proven an error, only a mere transient illness.  When a mass casualty event happens, we want the dead and injured to rise up again.  The destructive earthquake becomes a mere tremor, the flooding tsunami is only one foot, not over thirty feet tall, the hijackers are prevented from ever boarding a plane, the shooter changes his mind at the last minute and lays down his arms, the terrorist disables his suicide bombs and walks away from his training and misguided mission.

We want so badly for it all to be untrue.  The bitter reality of horrendous suffering and sadness daily all over the earth is too much for us to absorb.   We plead for relief and beg for a better day.

Our minds may play mental tricks like this, but God does not play tricks.  He knows and feels what we do.  He too wants to see it rewound and replayed differently.  He has known grief and sadness, He has wept, He has suffered, He too has died.  And because of this, because of a God who came to dwell with us, was broken, died and then rose again whole and holy, we are assured, in His time, everything sad is going to come untrue.

Our tears will be dried, our grief turned to joy, our pain nonexistent, not even a memory.  It will be a new day, a better day–as it is written, trustworthy and true.

May it come.

Quickly.

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.  Revelation 21: 4-5

 

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A Time to Take Off Your Shoes

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Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God:
But only he who sees takes off his shoes.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning

 

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Yesterday, on a beautiful Sabbath evening, some fifty folks spent a few hours here on our farm for worship and potluck for this summer’s first of our Wiser Lake Chapel’s long-running “outdoor church” tradition at various farms in our county.   Over the many years we have hosted this wonderful gathering of our church body, we have met up on our farm’s hill pasture and also under the shade of our front yard walnut trees.  As lovely as it is to meet on the hill with so many vistas and views, there are many manure piles and mole hills lying in wait to sully the bare toes of our active church kids.

Indeed, our children are more apt than the grown ups to follow the instruction of the Lord when He told Moses:

Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.

There have long been cultures where shoes are to be removed before touching the surface of the floor inside a residence or temple in an intentional act of leaving the dirt of the world at the door to preserve the sanctity and cleanliness of the inner life.

Yet we as Christians wear shoes into church every Sunday, having walked in muck and mire of one sort or another all week. We try our best to clean up for Sunday, but we track in the detritus of our lives when we come to sit in the pews. Rather than leave it at the door, it comes right in with us, not exactly hidden and sometimes downright stinky. That is when we are in obvious need for a good washing, shoes, feet, soul and all, and that is exactly why we  need to worship together as a church family in need of cleansing, whether indoors or outdoors.

Jesus Himself demonstrated our need for a wash-up on the last night of His life, soaking the dusty feet of His disciples.

And then there is what God said. He asked that holy ground be respected by the removal of our sandals. We must remove any barrier that prevents us from entering fully into His presence, whether it be our attitude, our stubbornness, our unbelief, or our constant centering on self rather than other.

No separation, even a thin layer of leather, is desirable when encountering God.

We trample roughshod over holy ground all the time, blind to where our feet land and the impact they leave behind. Perhaps by shedding the covering of our eyes, our minds, and our feet, we would see earth crammed with heaven and God on fire everywhere, in every common bush and in every common heart.

So we may see.
So we may listen.
So we may feast together.
So we remove our sandals so our bare feet may touch His holy ground.

 

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Thank you to Bette Vander Haak and Kerry Garrett for sharing their pictures of outdoor church on our farm.

 

 

This Good Man

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This good man
~who has left us behind~

whose farm-hardened hands
wielded not only heavy hammers
but cradled a trembling wee bird.

This good man
~who has left us behind~

raised many a calf and chick
and a plethora of pups and piglets
and enough canaries to fill a thousand homes with song.

This good man
~who left us behind~

whose gentle smile
and generous heart
volunteered thousands of hours of selfless service.

This good man
~who has left us behind~

who raised no children himself
yet loved and nurtured a slew of nieces and nephews,
keeping track of every single one.

This good man
~who has left us behind~

who plowed and planted,
harvested and gathered
and saved and gave and gave and gave.

This good man
~who has left us behind~

who dressed for the farm every day
yet changed his jeans and tee shirt and muck boots
each week to Sunday’s best button-down shirt and sweater.

This good man
~who has left us behind~

is the only man to ever have owned both
a church organ in his front room
and a gold FireBird Trans Am in his back shed.

This good man
~who has left us behind~

has shown us the way to follow Him:

by his faithful service
by his love for the land
by his love for the garden
by his love for his animals
by his love for his family and friends
by his love for his church
by his love for the Lord.

This good man~
This good and humble man~
This good and humble and gentle man~

has gone down the lane ahead of us a bit
and will be waiting for us around the bend,
watching and waiting, waiting and watching,
keeping vigil until he can
someday see us coming on the horizon
and beckon us in and welcome us home.

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Uncle John Smit

As If the Only One

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Yesterday’s Easter morning sun halo — photo by Rachel Vogel

 

God loves each of us as if there were only one of us to love.
~Saint Augustine

 

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When I am one of so many
there can be nothing special
to attract attention
or affection

When I blend into the background
among a multitude of others,
indistinct and plain,
common as grains of sand

There is nothing to hold me up
as rare, unique,
or exceptional,
worthy of extra effort.

Yet it is not about my worth,
my work, my words;
it is about His infinite capacity
to love anything formed

by the touch of His vast hand,
by the contraction of His immense heart,
by the boundlessness of His breath
reaching me
as if
as if
as if
I were the only one.

 

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Turn Aside and Look: Eastering Up

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There is a fragrance in the air,
a certain passage of a song,
an old photograph falling out from the pages of a book,
the sound of somebody’s voice in the hall
that makes your heart leap and fills your eyes with tears.

Who can say when or how it will be
that something easters up out of the dimness
to remind us of a time before we were born and after we will die?

God himself does not give answers. He gives himself.
~Frederick Buechner from Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale

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“Let Him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us, be a crimson-cresseted east.”
― Gerard Manley Hopkins

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All changed, changed utterly:   
A terrible beauty is born.
~William Butler Yeats from “Easter, 1916”
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It has been a slow coming of spring this year, seeming in no hurry whatsoever.  Snow remains in the foothills and the greening of the fields has only begun. The flowering plum and cherry trees finally have burst into bloom despite a continued chill.  It feels like winter at night yet the perfumed air of spring now permeates the day. Such extreme variability is disorienting, much like standing blinded in a spotlight in a darkened room.

Yet this is exactly what eastering is like.  It is awakening out of a restless sleep, opening a door to let in fresh air, and the stone that locked us in the dark rolled back.

Overnight all changed, changed utterly.

He is not only risen.  He is given indeed.

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Turn Aside and Look: April Corpse Light

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Lined with light
the twigs are stubby arrows.
A gilded trunk writhes
Upward from the roots,
from the pit of the black tentacles.

In the book of spring
a bare-limbed torso
is the first illustration.

Light teaches the tree
to beget leaves,
to embroider itself all over
with green reality,
until summer becomes
its steady portrait
and birds bring their lifetime
to the boughs.

Then even the corpse
light copies from below
may shimmer, dreaming it feels
the cheeks of blossom.
~May Swenson “April Light”

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In April we wait for the corpse light~
a mysterious illumination which comes alive
on a bright Sabbath Easter morning,
taking bare stubs of people,
begetting them green,
bursting them into blossom,
their cheeks pink with life,
in promise of faithful fruitfulness.

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