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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A Flower That Smiles Back

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Nobody can keep on being angry if she looks into the heart of a pansy for a little while.
~L.M. Montgomery

 

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The world is in sore need of a cure for the grumbles. Just glance (just glance, don’t dwell!) at the headlines.

Fortunately, the cure exists right outside in our back yards, along sidewalks and in vacant lots. A cheerful face is irresistible to all but the crabbiest among us, guaranteed to bring a smile every time.

Beyond the pansy’s obvious superficial charm exists a depth of heart — roots able to thrive in the thinnest of soil, at home among rocks and weeds,  resilient even when tromped on.

We carry its seeds on the tread of our boots in spite of our grumbling and help spread the good news: anger left unfed will dry up and blow away.

And we’re thankful the constant heart of the pansy lasts in all its diversity, generation after generation.  Thriving in some of the toughest, sparest, and most unforgiving places, it still, and always, smiles back.

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Turn Aside and Look: To Laugh and To Cry

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It is in these afflictions, which succeed one another each moment,
that God, veiled and obscured, reveals himself,
mysteriously bestowing his grace in a manner
quite unrecognized by the souls
who feel only weakness in bearing their cross…

~Jean Pierre du Caussade from The Sacrament of the Present Moment

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The past few mornings have been unveiled in snow flurries, mist and fog, tentative spring dawns of freezing air and warming soil trying to break loose from the vise grip of a tired and dying winter.

I am struggling under the load of 14 hour days working with despairing and suicidal people,  in addition to keeping a barn clean and animals and humans fed.  Even sleep is not restful when there is so little time to quiet myself in reflection and gratitude.

I am keenly reminded of my weakness as my strength wanes at the end of a long day, having slipped in the mud while trying to gain traction unloading a couple hundred pounds of manure from the wheelbarrow.  Landing on my backside, my pants soaking through,  I can choose to laugh or cry.

I choose to see the baptism of mud as a sacrament of the present moment,  reminding me of my need for a cleansing grace.

I laugh and cry.

Though obscured from view, God is nevertheless revealed in these moments of being covered in the soil of earth and the waste of its creatures.

He knows I need reminding that I too am dust and to dust shall return.

He knows I am too often wasteful and a failed steward,
so need reminding by landing me amidst it.

He knows I need to laugh at myself,
so puts me right on my backside.

He knows I need to cry,
so sends me those with the saddest stories and greatest needs.

He knows I need Him, always and ever more,
to restore a sacrament of grace evident in the present moment
and every moment to come.

To be known for who I am
by a God who laughs with me,
weeps for me
and groans with pain I have caused~
I will know
no greater love.

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When Jesus wept, the falling tear
in mercy flowed beyond all bound;
when Jesus groaned, a trembling fear
seized all the guilty world around.
~William Billings

 

Not Choose Not To Be

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Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist — slack they may be — these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?
   Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.
~Gerard Manley Hopkins
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I hear the same anguish
from one patient after another:

their struggle with life makes them
frantic to avoid the fight and flee~

they would
commit suicide,
yet not believing
in God
would mean
jumping from
the pain of living
into

…nothing at all…

I thought
feeling nothing
was the
point
of ceasing
to be

still in their unbelief
they do not recognize
the God who wrestles relentless with them,
who heaven-flung them here
for such sacred struggle

Perhaps they can’t imagine
a God
(who created
doubters
sore afraid
of His caring
enough to die)

so no one
is ever now,
nor ever will be,
~nothing.

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Between Midnight and Dawn: Drenched and Flooded

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“Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof.  That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. 

When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.”
Luke 7

 

God of our life,
there are days when the burdens we carry
chafe our shoulders and weigh us down;
when the road seems dreary and endless,
the skies grey and threatening;
when our lives have no music in them,
and our hearts are lonely,
and our souls have lost their courage.

Flood the path with light,
run our eyes to where the skies are full of promise;
tune our hearts to brave music;
give us the sense of comradeship with heroes and saints of every age;
and so quicken our spirits
that we may be able to encourage the souls of all
who journey with us on the road of life,
to Your honour and glory.
~Augustine of Hippo

 

Those final few days of His life may have been like this:
the sky oppressive with storm clouds,
the shouldered burden too painful,
the soul weighed down, discouraged, disheartened.
Each step brought Him closer
to a desperate loneliness borne of betrayal and rejection.

But the end of that dark walk was just the beginning
of a journey into new covenant.

Instead of rain, those clouds bore light,
flooding the pathway so we can come together to lift the load.
Instead of loneliness, there arises community.
Instead of stillness, there is declaration of glory.
Instead of discouragement, He embodies hope for all hearts.
The promise fulfilled spills over our path.
We are drenched in gratitude, flooded with grace.

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During this Lenten season, I will be drawing inspiration from the new devotional collection edited by Sarah Arthur —Between Midnight and Dawn

Shimmering Bliss

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I became aware of the world’s tenderness,
the profound beneficence of all that surrounded me,
the blissful bond between me and all of creation,
and I realized that the joy I sought …
breathed around me everywhere…
in the metallic yet tender drone of the wind,
in the autumn clouds bloated with rain.

I realized that the world does not represent a struggle at all…
a predaceous sequence of chance events,
but shimmering bliss,
beneficent trepidation,
a gift bestowed on us and unappreciated.

~Vladimir Nabokov from his story “Beneficence”

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