The Big Sky

SCN_0477This list of books is not my favorite books.  It’s the books that have stayed with me.

I confess that I hadn’t opened The Big Sky by A. B. Guthrie, Jr, since I first read it in the late 1970s. However, I have kept it with me, moving it from apartment to apartment, and then from house to house. I would look at its cover every now and then, and feel the weight of it in my heart.

It wasn’t until I was looking up information for this post that I learned it had sequels. Gosh, I don’t think I could read another book like this.

Well, the other day, I pulled it off the shelf to put it in my stack, and opened it.  I flipped to the last chapter.  The words were still there.

“The world’s a-comin’ at me like a sea,” he said, “a hill and then a holler rollin’ under my feet, tryin’ t’upset me.  I drunk too much, Dick, but I got to go on. Got to go for’ard.” His hand took hold of the latch on the half-opened door.

“Don’t hurry yourself. I ain’t got this bottle ready yet.”

Boone looked down in his palm, at the latch his hand had broken off. “It’s all sp’iled, I reckon, Dick. The whole caboodle.”

And they still hit me. Hard.

Sometimes we screw things up in a big way. Everything feels spoiled and ruined. Nothing will ever be right again.

That image of life coming at us, like a sea, with waves trying to knock us off our feet — yes, that.

But we keep moving.  Moving ahead, because we can’t go back.

It still gives me a pit in my stomach.

What The Big Sky leaves out is faith. Yes, we mess things up, but –

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
    his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.

Lamentations 3: 22-23

When life is roiling, we need to keep moving.  Even if it’s all spoiled. Especially if it’s all spoiled. That’s the lesson of The Big Sky.

There is always hope.  That’s the lesson of the Bible.


I’ve been thinking a lot about Betsey Bolt.

For several years I have been researching a local physician, William Purple, who practiced in my little town in the mid-1800s.  Through that research, I stumbled upon Betsey Bolt.

Poor Betsey Bolt. She disappeared from her house in the middle of the night and was never found. Her story has been pieced together, crazy quilt style, after the fact.

Let me say, up front, that John Johnson was found not guilty of her murder, but then again, no body was ever found. The jury deliberated for half an hour.

In 1844 Betsey Bolt and her husband, James, moved to a farm in Triangle (yes, there is a town called Triangle.) The wealthy landowner, John Johnson, offered to give Mrs. Bolt a ride there in the wagon while her husband drove the hogs, sheep, and cattle on foot.

When James got there, it was obvious something was wrong with his wife. He called in Dr. Purple, who described her as agitated, anxious, and disturbed. Betsey finally told her husband that Mr. Johnson had raped her. He confronted Johnson who confessed and offered to pay him in money or land, whatever he wanted, but James wanted justice. Shortly after that, his wife disappeared and was never seen or heard from again.

Nearly every witness for the prosecution was female.  They cited improprieties by Mr. Johnson, threats he had made about killing people, ways he had described getting rid of a body, and abductions purported to have been attempted by his henchmen.

Nearly every witness for the defense was male and authoritative.  John Johnson had a lot of money.  He hired the best lawyers and the best witnesses.

438px-Amariah_BrighamHis most convincing (and final) witness was Amariah Brigham, one of the fathers of American Psychiatry, who ran the Utica Insane Asylum. Below is some of his testimony at the trial:

Persons subject to hysterics for years have a tendency to insanity; and hysterical women do the most strange things of any class of persons, sane or insane. I speak from my own observation, and history attests its correctness.

Hysterical women will deceive their friends, and frequently their physicians, by inventing stories, with little if any regard to truth; and will, in carrying on the deception, submit to painful operations by the physician or surgeon, and I am not prepared to say but that they do in part deceive themselves.

I do not attribute their false statements to moral obliquity, theologically speaking, as the obliquity is produced by disease. They are apparently sincere, and I have never known one to own the deception. It is a diseased state of the nervous system, and I think the subject is irresponsible…

Hysterical females see visions and dream dreams, that are so vivid that they take them for realities.

… Hysterical fancies and strange delusions are very likely to occur in young females that menstruate.

Amariah Brigham

In 1852, a Dr. Grindrod added these thoughts on the matter:

Hysteria is a very common affection at the present day. It is a real disease, and should be treated always as such. But hysterical persons generally get little sympathy from friends or enemies. “She is only nervous,” is the common expression, as if nervousness were not a disease. “Nervousness” is, in fact, one of the worst of diseases. Let no one call an hysterical person well; such a thing cannot be. They are far from it; but we arc glad to say the affection is generally curable; perhaps, always, when not connected with some other and more formidable disease. Drug-treatment will seldom if ever cure it. Bathing, with suitable dieting, exercise, &c., are the means that should be employed.

Hysterical persons should not marry until they are cured. Once cured, the sooner married the better, provided there are no other obstacles in the way. How many miserable wives there are, who are not only miserable themselves, but make their husbands and others about them a vast deal of trouble, in consequence of the diseased state of their nervous system.

Some day, 150 years from now, someone will look back on events of 2014 and wonder how we could have thought or done such-and-such.

Some day all this present murkiness will be clear, and people will laugh pained laughs at our misconceptions and wrong judgments.

Some day we will know as we are known, but until then this glass is awfully dark and dim.



Aviary Photo_130529384584576130For Christmas, a dear friend gave me a journal.  It has become my prayer journal, but not your typical prayer journal, where prayer requests are written. No, I write prayers in it, a new one for every week. The prayers come from a variety of sources and are written by a variety of authors ranging from St. Augustine to Tozer to my brother, Stewart.

Last week I chose a prayer from the Syrian Clementine Liturgy called A Prayer for Peace.  I was concerned about the strife in the Middle East and was touched that this prayer, probably from the 5th century, also concerned itself with that.

Plus, it had the word “ineffable.”

I love words.  Always have. Always will.

Ineffable — what a great word.

Ineffable is one of those words that I sort of knew what it meant, but not really.  I looked it up in the dictionary and learned that ineffable means not effable.  Thank you, Mr. Webster.

What, then, is effable? Effable is “able to be described with words.”

Ineffable, therefore, is that which cannot be described with words, and usually refers to something too wonderful for words.  Like God.

Aviary Photo_130529385440450075Here’s where God is funny — and by funny I mean all-seeing, amazing, and knowing why this was the perfect prayer for that week.  There was an abyss in the prayer.  The prayer begins,

O God,  you are the ineffable Ocean of love,
the unfathomable Abyss of peace …

Who knew that my news-feed would be abyss-full following the news of Robin Williams’ death?

Depression was described over and over in news stories as an abyss, an apt description if ever there was one.  I know, because I, too, have stood on its precipice, feeling the earth crumbling under my feet, knowing that even a breath too deep could push me into that abyss.

The abyss is dark and black and unfathomable.  It may even be ineffable.  Those who have experienced it may very well say that it is ineffable in the darkest sense of that word.

But, you see, God wanted to remind me that if there is a dark and scary abyss, so there is also an abyss that is Him, an abyss of peace.

While the black hole abyss is ineffable in its darkness, so is He, Jehovah, I AM THAT I AM, also ineffable, and He is an Ocean of love.

In the time that it has taken me to ponder this thing (days and days), the news stories have moved on to other tragedies, equally abysmal, equally unfathomable — Amish girls kidnapped and innocence stolen, a black youth shot, bloodthirsty jihadists slaughtering Christians.

Yet God is unchanged — an abyss of peace, and an ineffable ocean of love.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is high; I cannot attain it.
Psalm 139: 6


Red geraniums

Red geraniums

I can see through the fence to the outside,
where the Polish people live.
The ones who aren’t Jewish.

I see a white house with red geraniums in front.
What is it like to have flowers in your garden?
We only have vegetables.
It seems like a dream to live outside the ghetto.
The houses look so bright and clean.

Yellow Star by Jennifer Roy

In World War II, over 200,000 Jews were herded into the Lodz ghetto in the city of Lodz, Poland.  Only 800 walked out after the war.  Of the 800, only 12 were children. Syvia Perlmutter, Jennifer Roy’s aunt, was one of those children.  Her words still haunt me as I try to wrap my mind around the unthinkable, the systematic annihilation of a people.

Since reading the book, I have often thought about that woman with the white house and the geraniums.  How could she live in such close proximity to squalor and mistreatment of her fellow-man and not do anything? And yet, what could she do?

It seems almost heartless, showing off her geraniums to the people trapped behind the fence.  I have something beautiful and you do not.

This weekend, I found myself rethinking those geraniums.

What if, in the greater battle of good versus evil, this was her way of fighting?  Perhaps her statement was not to the prisoners, but to their captors. You make the world ugly, with your killing and hatred, but I know there is still beauty in it. See? I have these red geraniums.

And to the prisoners she said, Look, there is still beauty in the world.  Hold onto the dream.

After following the horrible news stories of the past few days, I read this by author Jennifer Trafton Peterson,

I don’t know how to solve the terrible suffering in the world. All I can do is try to keep making beautiful things to push back the darkness.


My kitchen counter

I went down to my flower garden, the first I’ve ever planted myself.  I cut flower after flower after flower to fill a bucket. My kitchen counter bears witness to this endeavor.  I wanted to fill my home with beauty as best I could.

And I wanted to push back the darkness.

Not with my head in the sand — for I know that politically, possibly militarily, and certainly humanitarian-aid-ishly, concrete action must be taken.  I can look for ways to help enact that change.

But I can also have a fuller understanding that the skirmishes of this greater battle — the good vs evil battle — the skirmishes that take place in my own heart, can be won with beauty, with love, and with kindness.

I can’t do any big thing.

But I can do some small things with great love and thereby try to make the world a little brighter.

Hmmm… now who would like some flowers?

Winslow Homer and Shoes

This past week, I took a group of campers to the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown to see the Winslow Homer exhibit that was on display.

I told the children to look at all the paintings in the gallery, choose their least favorite, and stand beside it.  Then I walked from child to child, asking them about their selection.  Here are a few things they said:

“It makes me feel cold.”

“I don’t like chickens.”

“The woman looks mad.  And I don’t like her shoes.”

Their comments were interesting.  Even more interesting was the fact that some of the same paintings were chosen when I told them to stand beside their favorite.  The favorable comments were:

“The ocean looks so real.”

“Roosters are pretty.”

“The woman looks strong.”

Winslow Homer's Watching the Breakers: A High Sea (1896) Arkell Museum at Canajoharie

Winslow Homer’s Watching the Breakers: A High Sea (1896) Arkell Museum at Canajoharie

Yes, the ocean looks very cold and very real in Watching the Breakers.  The bundled observers in the picture are undoubtedly feeling the spray of salt water as it crashes against the rocks.  I agreed with both comments on the picture.

The rooster painting — and I’m sorry I didn’t note the actual title of the painting, but I’m guessing that it is something like, “The Rooster” — evoked no response from me. It was, quite simply, a colorful rooster on a dark background. I suppose that if you don’t like chickens, you won’t like the painting, and if you do, you will.  I think I read somewhere that this painting was Sterling Clark’s first Winslow Homer acquisition, and he probably bought it because it reminded him of summers on the farm.

Winslow Homer's Inside the Bar (1883)

Winslow Homer’s Inside the Bar (1883) Metropolitan Museum of Art

But the woman, the painting of the woman on the beach, was very interesting. The little girl who didn’t like it was my youngest camper.  “She looks so mean,” she said to me, pointing at the woman’s expression, “and her shoes look like men’s shoes.”

I laughed at the shoe comment.  My main criteria for choosing shoes are functionality and comfort.  This woman’s shoes look very functional, although I can’t speak to their comfort.

The little girl who liked the picture was one of my oldest campers. At twelve, she was a full three years senior to the disliker. She was a pretty girl with delicate features. I loved the fact that she could look past the woman’s coarseness and see strength.

The woman in Homer’s painting is strong. Her face is set. Her stance says Don’t mess with me.  The wind is blowing at her apron, her hair, the ocean, and the boats, but she is unmoved by it.  She will go about her business in her sturdy shoes and pay no mind to the opposition.

I loved the painting.

I especially loved that a little girl showed it to me.

Two little girls, in fact. But one looked beyond the shoes.

Detail of a Cullercoats Fishlass, 1883.jpg
Detail of a Cullercoats Fishlass, 1883” by Winslow Homer
(Life time: 1910) – Original publication: Cullercoats
Immediate source: Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.


“Father sat down on the edge of the narrow bed. “Corrie,” he began gently, “when you and I go to Amsterdam-when do I give you your ticket?”

I sniffed a few times, considering this.  “Why, just before we get on the train.”

“Exactly. And our wise Father in heaven knows when we’re going to need things, too. Don’t run out ahead of Him, Corrie. When the time comes that some of us will have to die, you will look into your heart and find the strength you need-just in time.”

Corrie ten Boom, The Hiding Place

In February, I traveled to Texas, to a place called Laity Lodge.  No other trip has come this close to filling me to the brim with rest and rejuvenation.

Of course, I didn’t know what was around the next bend in my life journey.  I didn’t know how much I would need those reserves.

Less than two weeks after I got home,  my brother died unexpectedly.  What with that and a few other large pot-holes, the road of late has been bumpy.

I keep going back, though, to Threshold, an art installation at Laity Lodge.  I spent hours there, alone, with friends, at dawn, at dusk, in the middle of the day.  If I were to choose a favorite place in the world, this would be in the running.

Sometimes we need a strong tower.

Today I’m thankful for Threshold.

Strong tower Mighty in love

Strong tower
High and glorious

Strong tower, High and glorious

Strong tower,
Mighty in love

Our refuge Our defender

Our refuge
Our defender

Strong tower Lord above

Strong tower
Lord above

The Newsboys, Strong Tower

Loaves and Fishes Revisited

I inwardly groaned when the minister started talking on Sunday.  The text was the feeding of the 5,000 from the book of Matthew.

IMG_2737[1]Everyone has their hot button issues.  One of my personal hot button church issues is the handling of the story about Jesus feeding the 5,000. I wrote about it Loaves and Fishes.

So there I was, sitting in church this week, listening to a story of how the people shared, and the crowd was fed.  The bottom line for the sermon was that when we all share what little we have, everyone has more than enough, too.  It’s a charming little sentiment.  And quite possibly true.

But no one will ever convince me that the story of Jesus feeding the 5000 is about sharing.

I had just read the story earlier in the week — the version in Mark’s gospel (Mark 6:30-44) — and noticed something I hadn’t seen before.

In case you don’t know it, I’ll summarize.  Jesus and his disciples and a crowd of about 5000 people were off in the middle of nowhere.  So when the disciples told Jesus that the people were hungry, and his response was, “You give them something to eat,” they probably thought that he was crazy. Where would they get all that food?  To make a long story short, the two fish and five loaves (with a little help from Jesus) fed the crowd and twelve baskets of leftovers were gathered afterwards.

That’s pretty much the story.

The next thing that happened, though, was that Jesus sent the disciples off in a boat because he wanted to be by himself.  After he had a little alone time, he started walking across the water.  In fact, he meant to just slip past them, but they saw him and it scared them. They had been fighting a headwind all night. Seeing Jesus walk on the water in the midst of that, well, I can understand why they would be frightened.

Here’s the rest of the story as told in Mark:

But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”  And he got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.

They had just witnessed the feeding of the 5000 AND saw Jesus walk on water.  Still, they were “utterly astounded because they didn’t understand about the loaves.”

I guess if the disciples didn’t understand about the loaves, I may need to cut these preachers a little slack when they don’t understand either.

They didn’t understand about the loaves.  Their hearts were hardened.

What things do I not understand?  In what ways is my heart hardened?