Preparing Through Parable: Knock Like You Mean It



Then Jesus said to them, “Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.’
And suppose the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.
“So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”
Luke 11: 5-10




…we are faced with the shocking reality: 
Jesus stands at the door and knocks, in complete reality. 
He asks you for help in the form of a beggar, 
in the form of a ruined human being in torn clothing. 
He confronts you in every person that you meet. 
Christ walks on the earth as your neighbor as long as there are people. 
He walks on the earth as the one through whom 
God calls you, speaks to you and makes his demands. 
Christ stands at the door. 
Will you keep the door locked or open it to him?
~Dietrich Bonhoeffer from an Advent Sermon “The Coming of Jesus into our Midst”



Over ten years ago a young woman I’d been seeing for several weeks in my clinic for depression 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 but decided to call my patient. She didn’t answer her phone. I mulled over my options, looked up her apartment address and drove there. As I approached her door, I could hear someone moving around in her apartment, but she didn’t respond to my knocks or my voice.

I decided to stay 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 opened 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.

I called the mental health unit at the local hospital and they had an open bed. I told my patient that we could save time and hassle by heading over 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 went the following day to visit her 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 knocking on her door looking for her, and to stand firm when she was rejecting all approaches. She was astounded and grateful, and frankly, so was I.

Four years later, a small card arrived in my clinic mailbox on a 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 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 so many years ago I had the sense to go knock on her door, 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. Later, on a most difficult day, she made a difference for me.

She kept knocking on my door and I opened it, awash in my own tears.


May my eyes see, my ears hear, my heart understand.  He prepares me with parable.

When Flesh and Heart Shall Fail



(Ten years ago this week, this healthy young college student came to our clinic stricken with seasonal influenza complicated by pneumonia.  His family gave permission for his story to be told.)




Nothing was helping.  Everything had been tried for a week of the most intensive critical care possible.  A twenty year old man, completely healthy only two weeks previously, was dying and nothing could stop it.

The battle against a sudden MRSA pneumonia precipitated by a routine seasonal influenza had been lost.   Despite aggressive hemodynamic, antibiotic, antiviral and ventilator management, he was becoming more hypoxic and his renal function was deteriorating.  He had been unresponsive for most of the week.

The intensivist looked weary and defeated. The nurses were staring at their laps, unable to look up, their eyes tearing. The hospital chaplain reached out to hold this young man’s mother’s shaking hands.

After a week of heroic effort and treatment, there was now clarity about the next step.

Two hours later, a group gathered in the waiting room outside the ICU doors. The average age was about 21; they assisted each other in tying on the gowns over their clothing, distributed gloves and masks. Together, holding each other up, they waited for the signal to gather in his room after the ventilator had been removed and he was breathing without assistance. They entered and gathered around his bed.

He was ravaged by this sudden illness, his strong body beaten and giving up. His breathing was now ragged and irregular, sedation preventing response but not necessarily preventing awareness. He was surrounded by silence as each individual who had known and loved him struggled with the knowledge that this was the final goodbye.

His father approached the head of the bed and put his hands on his boy’s forehead and cheek.  He held this young man’s face tenderly, bowing in silent prayer and then murmuring words of comfort:

It is okay to let go. It is okay to leave us now.
We will see you again. We’ll meet again.
We’ll know where you will be.

His mother stood alongside, rubbing her son’s arms, gazing into his face as he slowly slowly slipped away. His father began humming, indistinguishable notes initially, just low sounds coming from a deep well of anguish and loss.

As the son’s breaths spaced farther apart, his dad’s hummed song became recognizable as the hymn of praise by John Newton, Amazing Grace.  The words started to form around the notes. At first his dad was singing alone, giving this gift to his son as he passed, and then his mom joined in as well. His sisters wept. His friends didn’t know all the words but tried to sing through their tears. The chaplain helped when we stumbled, not knowing if we were getting it right, not ever having done anything like this before.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far
and Grace will lead me home.

Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

When we’ve been here ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun.
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’ve first begun.

And he left us.

His mom hugged each sobbing person there–the young friends, the nurses, the doctors humbled by powerful pathogens. She thanked each one for being present for his death, for their vigil kept through the week in the hospital.

This young man, now lost to this life, had profoundly touched people in a way he could not have ever predicted or expected. His parents’ grief, so gracious and giving to the young people who had never confronted death before, remains unforgettable.

This was their sacred gift to their son so Grace will lead us home.





God Was Here: Wanders Through the Thorn



…Do not be afraid, though briers and thorns are all around you
Ezekiel 2:6




Christ … is a thorn in the brain. 
Christ is God crying I am here, 
and here not only in what exalts and completes and uplifts you, 
but here in what appalls, offends, and degrades you, 
here in what activates and exacerbates all that you would call not-God. 
To walk through the fog of God 
toward the clarity of Christ is difficult 
because of how unlovely, 
how ungodly that clarity often turns out to be.
~Christian Wiman from Image Journal essay “Varieties of Quiet”



Gardener/author Alphonse Karr in the mid-19th century wrote that even though most people grumble about roses having thorns,  he was grateful that thorns have roses.
After all, there was a time when thorns were not part of our world, when we knew nothing of suffering and death. In desiring more than we were already generously given, we have received more than we bargained for.

We reel under the thorns we have chosen to wander through — indeed every day there is more bloodletting, barricading us from all that is sweet and good and precious. Thorns tear us up, bloody us, make us cry out in pain and grief, deepen our fear that we may never overcome them.

Yet even the most brutal crown of thorns did not stop the loving sacrifice, can never thwart the sweetness of redemption, will not spoil the goodness, nor destroy the promise of salvation to come.

The Lord, our Rose, has mercy upon us.




“the only begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds;
God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God;
begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father,
by whom all things were made”
~from the Nicene Creed




1. Maria walks amid the thorn,
Kyrie eleison.
Maria walks amid the thorn,
Which seven years no leaf has born.
Jesus and Maria.

2. What ‘neath her heart doth Mary bear?
Kyrie eleison.
A little child doth Mary bear,
Beneath her heart He nestles there.
Jesus and Maria.

3. And as the two are passing near,
Kyrie eleison,
Lo! roses on the thorns appear,
Lo! roses on the thorns appear.
Jesus and Maria.



This Flower, whose fragrance tender with sweetness fills the air,
Dispels with glorious splendor the darkness everywhere;
True Man, yet very God, from sin and death He saves us,
And lightens every load.
~from “Lo! How a Rose”


God Was Here: A Flower of Grace





Here God lives, burrowing among
the petals, cross-
pollinating. Here is Christ’s mind
juiced, joined, fleshed, celled.
Here is the clash,
the roil, an invasion, not gentle
as dew; the rose is unfurled
violently until the scent explodes
and detonates in the air
And oh, it trembles—
thousands of seeds ripen in it as
it reels in the wind
~Luci Shaw  from “Flower head”

It was gardener/author Alphonse Karr in the mid-19th century who wrote that even though most people grumble about roses having thorns,  he was grateful that thorns have roses.  After all, there was a time when thorns were not part of our world, when we knew nothing of suffering and death, but pursuing and desiring more than we were already generously given, we received a bit more than we bargained for.

We continue to reel under the thorns our choices produce — indeed every day there is more bloodletting.

So a rose was sent to adorn the thorns and even then we chose thorns to make Him bleed and still do to this day.

Yes, a fragrant flower of grace blooms beautiful,
bleeding amid the thorns,
and will to the endless day
that ever was and ever shall be.




There is a flower sprung from a tree,
The root thereof is called Jesse,
A flower of great worth;
There is no other such in paradise.

This flower is fair and fresh of hue;
It fades never, but ever is new;
The blessed branch where this flower grew
Was Mary mild who bore Jesu —
A flower of grace,
Against all sorrow it is solace.

The seed thereof was of God’s sending,
Which God himself sowed with his hand;
In Bethlehem, in that holy land,
Within her garden he found her there.
This blessed flower
Sprang never but in Mary’s bower.

When Gabriel this maiden met,
With “Ave, Maria,” he her greeted
Between them two this flower was set,
And was kept, no man should know it,
Until one day
In Bethlehem, it began to spread and spray.

When that flower began to spread,
And his blossom to bud,
Rich and poor of every seed, 
They marvelled how this flower might spread,
Until kings three
That blessed flower came to see.

Angels there came out of their tower
To look upon this fresh flower —
How fair he was in his colour,
And how sweet in his savour —
And to behold
How such a flower might spring amid the cold.

Of lily, of rose on branch,
Of primrose, and of fleur-de-lys,
Of all the flowers I can think of,
That flower of Jesse yet bears the prize,
As the best remedy
To ease our sorrows in every part. 

I pray you, flowers of this country,
Wherever ye go, wherever ye be,
Hold up the flower of good Jesse,
Above your freshness and your beauty,
As fairest of all,
Which ever was and ever shall be.
~John Audelay 15th century priest (translated from old English)



Quieting the Soul





At times these days I think of the way the sun would set on the farmland around our small house in the autumn.  A view of the horizon, the entire circle of it, if you turned, the sun setting behind you, the sky in front becoming pink and soft, then slightly blue again, as though it could not stop going on in its beauty, then the land closest to the setting sun would get dark, almost black against the orange line of the horizon, but if you turn around, the land is still available to the eye with such softness, the few trees, the quiet fields of cover crops already turned, and the sky lingering, lingering, then finally dark. As though the soul can be quiet for those moments.

All life amazes me.

– Elizabeth Strout, from My Name is Lucy Barton







I have learned, from those much wiser than I, to recognize moments meant for quieting.  The news of the world constantly rushes past; there is suffering beyond imagining in the lives of a few I know and millions I don’t know.  There is much I can do to make a difference but so much more beyond my feeble reach.

Instead of feeling abandoned on the shores of overwhelm, I seek out the familiar, the routine, and the ordinary, immersed in the recurring patterns of the day and night as the world turns on its axis.  I turn myself around to witness what surrounds me.

And so I am quieted.  And so I am amazed.






Nothing Left to Do





Toward the end of August I begin to dream about fall, how
this place will empty of people, the air will get cold and
leaves begin to turn. Everything will quiet down, everything
will become a skeleton of its summer self. Toward

the end of August I get nostalgic for what’s to come, for
that quiet time, time alone, peace and stillness, calm, all
those things the summer doesn’t have. The woodshed is
already full, the kindling’s in, the last of the garden soon

will be harvested, and then there will be nothing left to do
but watch fall play itself out, the earth freeze, winter come.
~David Budbill “Toward the End of August” from Tumbling Toward the End.






I dream now of fall, wanting this stubborn summer to flame out, to leave its bare bones behind.  The last few weeks have been particularly cruel with wildfires, hurricanes, drought, sweltering heat, and flooding rains.  As if nature is not damaging enough, humanity continues to threaten humanity with local and global violence and threats of annihilation, while hundreds of thousands of refugees migrate from one poor country into even poorer countries in search of some semblance of hope and security for a safe future.

Anxiety and despair seem appropriate responses in the face of so much tragedy – they take root like weeds in a garden patch– overwhelming, crowding out and impairing all that is fruitful.  The result is nothing of value grows–only unchecked proliferation of more weeds. My worry and anguish help no one and changes nothing, serving only to hinder me from being fruitful.

It shouldn’t take bad news and disaster to remind me of what I already know:
I am not God and never will be.  He tends the garden and He pulls the weeds when the time is right.

His harvest is at hand.  Either I’m fruit or weed.

Acknowledging this is everything.  There is nothing left to do but watch as it plays itself out.






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Waiting for Seven Ducks in a Muddy Pond



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.