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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The World as Wheat

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I tried to paint the sound of the wind in the ears of wheat.
~Vincent Van Gogh in a letter to Paul Gauguin
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Ears of Wheat ~ Vincent Van Gogh 1890 in Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

There is nothing here but wheat, no blade
too slight for his attention: long swaying
brush strokes, pale greens, slithery yellows,
the hopefulness of early spring. All grass
is flesh, says the prophet. Here, there are no
gorgeous azures stamped with almond blossoms,
no screaming sky clawed with crows, no sunflowers
roiling gold and orange, impasto thick as Midi sunlight.
His brush herringboned up each stalk, the elemental
concerns of sun, rain, dirt, while his scrim of pain receded
into the underpainting. He let the wind play
through the stems like a violin, turning the surface
liquid, a sea of green, shifting eddies and currents.
No sky, no horizon; the world as wheat.
~Barbara Crooker, “Ears of Wheat, 1890” from 
Les Fauves

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I come from this – these green-ripening-to-amber wheat fields.
My mother was born nearly a century ago in a house built in a swale of these Palouse hills, where grain rose prolific each year from the soil.  Her father used horses and harvester over hill and dale to bring in the wheat, and piled it high in the local elevator until the train could pick it up.
My grandfather, grandmother, uncle and my mother are no more, now but dust, yet this land continues to produce and yield without their help.
When I return for a visit, I listen for what Van Gogh must have heard and seen in his own fertile land: the sound of the wind in the ears of wheat, the grain moving in waves across the landscape, the complexity of color of each individual stalk blending together to become an unending carpet undulating over the earth.
Yet to really take it in and not be overwhelmed, (to get out of the weeds, so to speak), I go high on the butte to see the world as wheat from above.  I then can imagine God’s own view of our grassy flesh which withers and fades away, as we shrivel in the sun and fall – yet the harvest of His Word endures forever.
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Two Mysteries for the Price of One

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By common confession, great is the mystery of godliness:
He who was revealed in the flesh,
Was vindicated in the Spirit,
Seen by angels,
Proclaimed among the nations,
Believed on in the world,
Taken up in glory.

1Timothy 3:16

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Here are two mysteries for the price of one — the plurality of persons within the unity of God, and the union of Godhead and manhood in the person of Jesus. . . .
Nothing in fiction is so fantastic as is this truth of the Incarnation.

~J. L. Packer from Knowing God

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The Christ is not just a reflection of the Father God onto earth,
no mere shadow projected from God’s image in heaven.No, our Savior is real flesh and blood,
sinew and tissue,
neurons and synapses,
exactly as we are.
A fantastic truth and endless mystery to ponder:
Jesus as mortal flesh gifts Himself to us
so that we may know the Three in One;
the powers of hell vanish
as the shadows are cleared away.
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The Unquiet Spirit of a Flower

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inchworm hitching a ride on a dandelion seed

 

Tis May; and yet the March flower Dandelion
Is still in bloom among the emerald grass,
Shining like guineas with the sun’s warm eye on–
We almost think they are gold as we pass,
Or fallen stars in a green sea of grass.
They shine in fields, or waste grounds near the town.
They closed like painter’s brush when even was.
At length they turn to nothing else but down,
While the rude winds blow off each shadowy crown.
~John Clare

 

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In the meadow-grass
The innocent white daisies blow,
The dandelion plume doth pass
Vaguely to and fro, –
The unquiet spirit of a flower

That hath too brief an hour.
~Ellen Mackay Hutchinson Cortissoz

 

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All people are like grass,
    and all their glory is like the flowers of the field;
the grass withers and the flowers fall,
     but the word of the Lord endures forever.
And this is the word that was preached to you.

1Peter 1:24-25

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Like a seed released when buffeted,
or simply blown aloft at the moment of ripeness,
may we be the unquiet flower spirit
carrying your Word on fragile wings
to far corners and hidden places;
settling softly, taking root
wherever your breath takes us.

 

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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: All of These Things

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Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
John 20:29

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Why worry about the loaves and fishes?
If you say the right words, the wine expands.
If you say them with love
and the felt ferocity of that love
and the felt necessity of that love,
the fish explode into many.
Imagine him, speaking,
and don’t worry about what is reality,
or what is plain, or what is mysterious.
If you were there, it was all those things.
If you can imagine it, it is all those things.
Eat, drink, be happy.
Accept the miracle.
Accept, too, each spoken word
spoken with love.
Mary Oliver  – “Logos”

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Many reject him because they weren’t there-
how can they know
what was real without seeing and hearing him
with their own eyes and ears.

We read his words
and think about
how his voice sounded
in a crowd
of 5000 people so hungry,
and how his eyes teared
as he was betrayed
and rejected
and nailed

We weren’t in the garden
that day when he was mistaken
for the gardener
nor were we on the road to Emmaus
walking beside a stranger whose words
made our hearts burn within us
but we can imagine hearing our name spoken
and knowing it is him
or watching him break the bread
and recognizing his body.

We weren’t there
but we didn’t have to be.

If we can imagine what His Logos tells us,
it is plain and real,
a mystery of the heart

all of these things
all of these things
all these things
and so much more