We Who Are In Doubt

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so far behind the others
in their neat little v, in their
competence of plans and wings, if
you didn’t listen you would think
it was a cry for help
or sympathy?
friends! friends!?
but it isn’t.
 
Silence of the turtle on its back in the street.
Silence of the polar bear pulling its wounded weight onto the ice.
Silence of the antelope with a broken leg.
Silence of the old dog asking for no further explanation.
 
How
was it I believed I was
God’s favorite creature? I,
who carry my feathery skeleton across the sky now, calling
out for all of us. I, who am doubt now, with a song.
~Laura Kasischke, “the call of the one duck flying south” from Space in Chains

 

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We instinctively tend to limit for whom we exert ourselves.
We do it for people like us, and for people whom we like.

Jesus will have none of that.

By depicting a Samaritan helping a Jew,
Jesus could not have found a more forceful way to say
that anyone at all in need –
regardless of race, politics, class, and religion –
is your neighbor.

Not everyone is your brother or sister in faith,
but everyone is your neighbor,
and you must love your neighbor.
~Tim Keller from Generous Justice

 

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I should know better than to think: 

because millions of lives were lost, a war was fought and won against white supremacists only seventy years ago, stopping the annihilation of a group of people executed due to their faith

–that the hatred between people of varying cultural, ethnic and faith backgrounds would cease.

 

I should know better than to think:

because blood was shed from bodies black and white in a war fought and won only 150 years ago stopping the “right” to own other people as property

–that somehow the inequality, disagreement and disparity among the diverse peoples of this country would be resolved.

 

I should know better than to think:

human beings surely must learn from their own checkered, bloody and horrific history of bigotry, racism and bias

–yet by our self-imposed blindness to what has transpired before, we doom ourselves to repeat history over and over again.

 

I should know better than to think:

freedom of speech and freedom to assemble can be exercised peaceably and without arms

–yet rallies, demonstrations and marches become killing fields and motor vehicles used as deadly weapons.

 

I should know better than to think:

college campuses are laboratories for debate and discourse, dissecting the mistakes of the past, plotting a course for a hopeful, more inclusive and better future, learning and stretching through the discomfort when one’s beliefs are challenged and tested

–yet tolerance for differences has transformed into an academic intolerance for differing points of view.

 

I should know better than to think:

we the people, all colors, all faiths, all backgrounds, are in this together, united as we move forward through the storms of history, the turmoil of the present and the unknowns of the future

–yet there are still those who shout loudest, reinforce walls to create distance, purposely intimidate and hurt neighbors rather than offer them a helping hand.

 

We are a seriously wounded and anguished people,
each of us having tried flying solo,
believing we are in the right and somehow favored.

Instead we have faltered and fallen.

We now lie bleeding alongside the road, as did the Samaritan,
dependent on someone,
the “other”,
to reach out in compassion
knowing we bleed the same blood.

We who doubt,
must no longer doubt the truth of who and what we are.

We bleed together.

 

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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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All That Was Me is Gone

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Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
Say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye.
Give me again all that was there,
Give me the sun that shone!
Give me the eyes, give me the soul,
Give me the lad that’s gone!
Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
Say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye.
Billow and breeze, islands and seas,
Mountains of rain and sun,
All that was good, all that was fair,
All that was me is gone.
~Robert Louis Stevenson from “Sing Me a Song of a Lad That is Gone”
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photo of San Juan Islands by Joel deWaard

 

Do we recognize ourselves as we journey through life, at first lighthearted and merry, but with each stumble, disappointment and wound, become more embittered and wary?

All that was me is gone?

To where to we flee in this sorry world?

I want to cover my eyes and ears, to be shielded from the headlines, from the threats and the worries.

This is not our home.  Give me the soul; give me the Son that shone!

 

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photo of San Juan Islands by Joel DeWaard
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The Golden Amber of Her Eyes

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photo by Tomomi Gibson

 

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photo by Nate Gibson

 

She seems to hide all looks that have ever fallen
into her, so that, like an audience,
she can look them over, menacing and sullen,
and curl to sleep with them.
But all at once

as if awakened, she turns her face to yours;
and with a shock, you see yourself, tiny,
inside the golden amber of her eyeballs
suspended, like a prehistoric fly.
~Rainer Maria Rilke from “Black Cat”

 

 

 

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Bobbi arrived on the farm 14 years ago after living a life of luxury in town.  She couldn’t accompany her owner to life in the big city so moved in complete with a van full of her own cat furniture, a personal chair, toys, and special cuisine.  When she strode out of her cat carrier, took a look around and climbed into the nearest tree, she never looked back at the accoutrements of her former full time indoor life.  She became queen of the farm, undisputed and regal, watching the goings-on from a carefully calculated and royal distance, never interacting with her subjects unless it was absolutely necessary.

She tolerated other cats, but barely.  They scattered when she came in view.  She thought dogs were a waste of fur covering empty skulls, but when they met her needs, like on a chilly night, she would happily bunk down with them.  They were astonished but grateful for her royal blessing when she decided to sleep among them: a two-dog and one-cat night.

She chose only one person to be subject to: our daughter-in-law Tomomi.  On Tomomi’s first visit from Japan, Bobbi approached her and decided then and there they were meant for each other.  During Tomomi’s annual summer visits, Bobbi brought her mice on the welcome mat and followed her like a puppy, coming only when Tomomi called, and deigned to allow her to touch her calico coat.

Earlier this year, nearly 16 years old, Bobbi took over the front porch bench when our black cat Jose died.  She liked to stay a bit closer to us, but seemed thinner and less disdainful.  When two kittens arrived to live in the barn this summer and within a week formed a coup and took over the front porch, Bobbi retreated again to her other quarters on the farm. I worried a bit that she had given in too easily with no yowls or flying fur.

Yesterday morning she lay still on the grassy slope out front – she was never one to take her naps where her subjects could see her.  I knew her long life was over.

Long live Queen Bobbi.  May you forever reign in our hearts.

 

 

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photo by Nate Gibson

 

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photo by Nate Gibson

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photo by Nate Gibson

Missing the Knock on the Door

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When a great moment knocks on the door of your life,
it is often no louder than the beating of your heart,
and it is very easy to miss it.
~Boris Pasternak

 

 

 

Years ago, a young woman I’d been treating for depression for several weeks in my clinic called unexpectedly on a Friday afternoon and canceled an upcoming appointment for the following Monday and did not reschedule. The receptionist sent me a message as is our policy for patients who “cancel and do not reschedule”. It gave me a bad feeling that she was turning her back on her treatment plan and I was uneasy about the upcoming weekend without knowing what was going on with her.

I could have just put on my coat and headed home at the end of that long Friday after a very stressful work week and even more stressful year. I was discouraged about many aspects of the clinic work load and the after-hours responsibilities only seemed to get heavier.  I was frustrated at how ineffectively I was communicating to administrative supervisors about the need for change.  I was ready to quit and walk away.

Instead I decided to call my patient to find out how she was doing.  She didn’t answer her phone. I mulled over my options, looked up her apartment address and drove the few blocks to get there. As I approached her door, I could hear someone moving around in her apartment, but she ignored my knocks and my voice and when I tried the door, it was locked.

So I stayed right there, talking to her through the door for about 15 minutes, letting her know I wasn’t leaving until she opened up the door. I finally told her she could decide to open the door or I would call 911 and ask the police to come to make sure she was okay. She then unlocked the door, tears streaming down her face. She had been drinking heavily, with liquor bottles strewn around on the floor. She admitted an intent to overdose on aspirin and vodka. The vodka was already consumed but the unopened aspirin bottle was in her hand. I was the last person she expected to see at her door.

Miraculously the mental health unit at the local hospital had an open bed. I told my patient that we could save time and hassle by heading over there together right then and there, and avoid the emergency room mess, and the possibility of an involuntary detainment.

She agreed to come with me and be admitted voluntarily for stabilization. I visited the hospital the next day and she greeted me with a hug and thanked me for not giving up on her when she had given up on herself. In sobriety, her eyes were brighter and she was more hopeful. She never expected anyone to care enough to come knock on her door when she was at her lowest point,  and she struggled to answer, as consumed as she was in her own painfully beating heart.

She was astounded and grateful and frankly, by deciding to do what I knew was necessary and right even though it disregarded every workplace policy, so was I.

Four years later, a small card arrived in my clinic mailbox on another most challenging work day from an unfamiliar address two thousand miles away. The name looked vaguely familiar to me but when I opened and read the contents, this time the knock on the door was to get my attention, to focus the beating of my heart on what was most important – not the stresses of my work place — and it was my turn to let tears flow:

 

“Dear Doctor,

I am not sure if you will remember me considering you see a number of patients daily; however, I am a patient whose life you changed in the most positive way. I never truly THANKED YOU for listening to me and hearing my silent words of grief and hearing my cries for help. If it had not been for you, had you not knocked on my door, I would not be writing this letter to you today. I don’t know exactly what to say to the person who saved me from hurting myself fatally. You were a stranger in my life, but a dear friend in my time of need. THANK YOU, for everything that you did for me. You have a permanent place in my heart, you have given my spirit hope, you have reminded me that a life is worth living. Thank you, thank you, thank you! Sincerely, L_____”

 

I’m grateful 4 years ago I had the sense to go knock on her door when all she could hear was the beating of her own painful heart. I had the stubbornness to stay put until she responded, and most of all, I’m appreciative for her gracious note letting me know it made a difference. When I needed it the most, she made a difference for me that has kept me on the job all these years later.

She knocked, oh so gently, on my door and I opened it, amazed that someone cared, and found me awash in my own tears.

 

 

My Heart in Hiding Stirred For a Bird

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thank you to Kate Steensma of Steensma Dairy for these photos of young kestrel falcons

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I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing.

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.
~Gerard Manley Hopkins “The Windhover – To Christ Our Lord”

 

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We do indeed hold our hearts in hiding, trying to protect that tender core of who we are from being pierced and shredded by the slings and arrows of every day life.

Yet to live fully as we are created to live, we must fling ourselves into the open, wimpling wings spread, the wind holding us up hovering.

We take our chances, knowing the fall to come.  Our wounds shall be healed, even as they bleed.

There is no wonder of it.  So stirred.

Ah…  Ah, my dear.

 

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Set Down Bewildered

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Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed?

Can the writer isolate and vivify all in experience that most deeply engages our intellects and our hearts?

Why are we reading, if not in hope that the writer will magnify and dramatize our days, will illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage and the hope of meaningfulness, and press upon our minds the deepest mysteries, so we may feel again their majesty and power?

What do we ever know that is higher than that power which, from time to time, seizes our lives, and which reveals us startlingly to ourselves as creatures set down here bewildered?

Why does death so catch us by surprise, and why love?

We still and always want waking.
~Annie Dillard from “Write Till You Drop”

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It’s true.

I am bewildered by life most of the time. Anyone looking at these online pages can see the struggle as I wake each day to seek out what I’m called to and how to make this sad and suffering world a better place.

I have so little wisdom to offer a reader other than my own wrestling match with the mysteries we all face.

When a light does shine out through darkness,  I am not surprised.  It was there all the time, but I needed the eyes to see such beauty laid bare.

 

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