Tarnished and Dry

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In a patch of baked earth
At the crumbled cliff’s brink,
Where the parching of August
Has cracked a long chink,

Against the blue void
Of still sea and sky
Stands single a thistle,
Tall, tarnished, and dry.

Frayed leaves, spotted brown,
Head hoary and torn,
Was ever a weed
Upon earth so forlorn,

So solemnly gazed on
By the sun in his sheen
That prints in long shadow
Its raggedness lean?

From the sky comes no laughter,
From earth not a moan.
Erect stands the thistle,
Its seeds abroad blown.
~Robert Laurence Binyon –“The Thistle”

 

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There isn’t much that thrives in a dry summer like this other than mounds of blackberry bushes and scattered clusters of thistle.  They both are defended by thorns to keep them from being eaten by all but the most persistent and hungry grazing animals.

I admire and recognize such tenacity, knowing I too have held tightly to my own defenses to keep from being swallowed up. I approach these weeds with respect for the scars they can leave behind – their roots go deep, their seeds travel far.

We coexist because we must.

How else would beauty come from our bleeding wounds?

 

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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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To Labor and Not Seek Reward

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And then there was St Kevin and the blackbird.
The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
His cell, but the cell is narrow, so

One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
And lays in it and settles down to nest.

Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,

Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.

*

And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,
Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?
Self-forgetful or in agony all the time

From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?
Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth

Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river,
‘To labour and not to seek reward,’ he prays,

A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.
~Seamus Heaney “St. Kevin and the Blackbird”

 

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Eternal Word, only begotten Son of God,
Teach me true generosity.
Teach me to serve you as you deserve.
To give without counting the cost,
To fight heedless of wounds,
To labor without seeking rest,
To sacrifice myself without thought of any reward
Save the knowledge that I have done your will.
Amen.

~St. Ignatius’ Prayer for Generosity

 

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Heaney shifts from the literal (if “imagined”) physical world to the metaphysical and symbolic. In the midst of burnout and mental detachment, Kevin is somehow returned to and reconnected with his calling at a level deeper than conscious thought. Indeed, in the span of one brief line break, it is as though he has become indistinguishable from his life’s mission itself: he is “mirrored clear” in the pure, deep waters of an empathetic love for the “network of eternal life” into which he is presently and vitally “linked.”

The way Heaney constructs the next two lines calls attention to the paradox of mindfulness he illuminates. Kevin “prays,” which perhaps most immediately suggests that he entreats God to help him “labour and not to seek reward.” But after the stanza break, Heaney reveals that this prayer is not at all what the reader might have expected; Kevin’s prayer is not conscious because he is no longer conscious in the workaday-world way. Rather, Kevin’s is

“A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.

When he can no longer muster the energy to think of the life entrusted to him, his own delights and discomforts in fostering that life, or even the original life force (here, the “river”) that led to his vocation, it is as if a kind of autonomic spirituality kicks in to complement the compassionate detachment with which—or in which—he holds the blackbird. Body and soul and work are one.
~Kimberly R. Myers, PhD, MA from “Mindfulness and Seamus Heaney” from JAMA’s
A Piece of My Mind, Aug.1, 2017

 

hydrangeaaugust

…we have tried to do too much, pretending to be in such control of things that we are indispensible…

…if you’re like me, you take a kind of comfort in being busy. The danger is that we will come to feel too useful, so full of purpose and the necessity of fulfilling obligations that we lose sight of God’s play with creation, and with ourselves.
~Kathleen Norris from The Quotidian Mysteries

 

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Removing the Splinter

 

 

To pull the metal splinter from my palm
my father recited a story in a low voice.
I watched his lovely face and not the blade.
Before the story ended, he’d removed
the iron sliver I thought I’d die from.

I can’t remember the tale,
but hear his voice still, a well
of dark water, a prayer.
And I recall his hands,
two measures of tenderness
he laid against my face,
the flames of discipline
he raised above my head.

Had you entered that afternoon
you would have thought you saw a man
planting something in a boy’s palm,
a silver tear, a tiny flame.
Had you followed that boy
you would have arrived here,
where I bend over my wife’s right hand.

Look how I shave her thumbnail down
so carefully she feels no pain.
Watch as I lift the splinter out.
I was seven when my father
took my hand like this,
and I did not hold that shard
between my fingers and think,
Metal that will bury me,
christen it Little Assassin,
Ore Going Deep for My Heart.
And I did not lift up my wound and cry,
Death visited here!
I did what a child does
when he’s given something to keep.
I kissed my father.
~Li-Young Lee, “The Gift” from Rose

 

 

I did, without ever wanting to, remove my child’s splinter, lance a boil, immobilize a broken arm, pull together sliced skin, clean many dirty wounds. It felt like I crossed the line between mommy and doctor.  But someone had to do it, and a four hour wait in the emergency room didn’t seem warranted.

My own child learned to cope with hurt made worse by someone they trusted to be comforter.
I dealt with inflicting pain, temporary though it may be, to flesh that arose from my flesh.  It hurt as much as if it were my own wound needing cleansing, not theirs.

Our wounds are His – He is constantly feeling our pain as He performs healing surgeries in our lives, not because He wants to but because He must, to save us from our own destruction.
Too often we yell and kick and protest in our distress, making it all that much more difficult for both of us.

If only we can come to acknowledge His intervention is our salvage:
our tears to flow in relief, not anguish,
we cling to His protection rather than pushing Him away,
we kiss Him in gratitude as we are restored again and yet again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thorns Will Never Overcome

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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