A Touch

Nighthawks by Edward Hopper 1942.jpg
Nighthawks by Edward Hopper 1942” by Edward Hopper – email. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

I reach my hand over,
just enough,
to touch your fingers.
Roughness and warmth pulse
through them
to me. It lingers,
and I can remember
the times
I absorbed your grace,
your love and forgiveness
although
here, now, in this place,
I feel so alone.
Alone.
Even yellow light
fanning on the sidewalk
does not
drive away the night.
Ours hands, but not our eyes,
may meet.
Hope lies in a touch.
For when we connect,
that small
moment means so much.

*******

5501_10152261695866043_678688786_n

When my father shared his grief with my mother over my brother’s death.

At first I dismissed the challenge of writing a post based on Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks.”  However, the more I studied the painting, the more I was drawn in — to the light and the dark, to the people, to the curves and lines of the street corner.  I kept coming back to the two hands touching — the man and the woman at the counter who are obviously together but not looking at each other. Are their hands touching? I so want them to be touching. So I wrote a little poem about it.

A Prayer by Saint Augustine

God of our life,

there are days when the burdens we carry chafe our shoulders and weigh us down;549441_3974881900462_1335825395_n

when the road seems dreary and endless,IMG_4979

the skies gray and threatening;Aviary Photo_130588962220261428

when our lives have no music in them,063

and our hearts are lonely, and our souls have lost their courage.562645_3974907301097_1909183476_n

Flood the path with light, we beseech Thee;Aviary Photo_130588981694958953

turn our eyes to where the skies are full of promise;Threshold 025

tune our hearts to brave music;Laity Lodge 020

give us the sense of comradeship with heroes and saints of every age;5501_10152261695866043_678688786_n

and so quicken our spirits that we may be able to encourage the souls of all who journey with us on the road to life,167009_10150110057411043_6512674_n

to Thy honor and glory.”

Pastor Appreciation

As I went through the papers in my brother Stewart’s apartment, I was struck by how poorly he was treated as a pastor.

Goodness, how we fail at loving our pastors! We are quick to offer criticism and quick to complain.  But it’s all wrong. Our complaints occur in the church kitchen, or the church nursery, or the church parking lot, to a fellow parishioner. We are not constructive. And, when I say “we”, I mean “I”.

But this is Pastor Appreciation Month.  The other morning I made a list of all the pastors/ministers I could remember from the churches I have attended in my lifetime. I wanted to consider their ministries and pray for them.

Pastor Botbyl

Pastor Botbyl (officiant at our wedding)

Fourteen names appear on the list.

  1. Bob Herst (First Presbyterian Church of Cooperstown)
  2. Ron Hawkins (Main Street Baptist, Oneonta)
  3. Dave Cornell (associate pastor, Main Street Baptist, Oneonta)
  4. Ed Henning (Syracuse Alliance Church, Syracuse)
  5. Don Botbyl (associate pastor, Syracuse Alliance Church, Syracuse)
  6. Dick Burr (Cheyenne Alliance Church, Cheyenne)
  7. Ken Niswender (Meadowbrook Baptist Church, Cheyenne)

    Steve Holmes (baby dedication)

    Steve Holmes (baby dedication)

  8. Steve Holmes (Community Bible Chapel, Toddsville)
  9. Wayne Taylor (Community Bible Chapel, Toddsville)
  10. Roger English (Community Bible Chapel, Toddsville)
  11. Jack Klosheim (Community Bible Chapel, Toddsville)
  12. Chuck Reppard (Berean Bible Church, Greene)
  13. Justin Bleuer (Berean Bible Church, Greene)
  14. Amy Gregory

    Amy Gregory (family wedding)

    Amy Gregory (First United Methodist Church, Greene)

Two pastors let us borrow their personal automobile for a period of days when we were in need. Generosity above and beyond. Thank you for holding your earthly possessions with open hands and for sharing so generously.

At least three pastors didn’t follow the Bible school or divinity school track to the ministry, but worked regular jobs, like running a dry cleaner or having a coca-cola sales route or doing carpentry, before following God’s leading to full-time ministry. Common men with a heart for God. I love that you were once one of us; it’s a wonderful example.

Some are excellent teachers.  Thank you for all your wise words.

Some are highly intellectual and deep thinkers. You have challenged me to dig deeper and look at things from different perspectives.  Thank you.

Some care and nurture from the very depths of their being. What a blessing you are to me and to others!  I know caring like that comes at a cost.

None of the pastors on the list are flawless. Being a pastor doesn’t mean perfection. In fact, it forces mere humans to live in a fishbowl.  Forgive me for the times I failed to extend grace to you.

Each is gifted slightly differently.  All are following a calling.

I look at that list of names and consider what a rich heritage I have.

They are a great cloud of witnesses.

I am blessed.

Thank you — to each of one.  I am better for having known you and having sat under your teaching.

Have you thanked your pastor lately?

Musings in Church

IMG_4945In front of me, a little boy was playing with a toy — one with a face and metal shavings under a plastic shield, and a magnetic wand to move the shavings. He had propped the toy against the back of the pew so he could kneel on the floor and play with it. He was struggling, though.  He would pull the metal shavings up to form eyebrows and they would drop back down in the pile.

I watched, slightly amused.  Clearly he understood the basic properties of magnetism.  What he was failing to account for was the additional force of gravity pulling the shavings down once the magnet was no longer acting on them.

IMG_4947Bud reached over the pew and laid the toy flat so the boy could create his masterpiece. He whispered a simple explanation, then we all watched while a face was successfully haired.

Later, as the guest preacher spoke, my youngest son, a teenager too old for junior church, reached over and grabbed the toy.

The pastor was speaking about the two gods in the Old Testament — one who was angry and vengeful, and the other who was loving and compassionate.

I felt sad for the minister.

In so many ways, his mistake was not much different than the boy with the toy.  In focusing on one aspect of God while denying another, he failed to understand God’s ineffability.

You see, God is like the magnet and the shavings.  They share physical properties, kind of like Jesus as God becoming man.  Imagine Jesus saying, “I am this great and powerful magnet, so powerful you cannot possibly understand me, but I’m going to allow myself to be shaved down into little tiny pieces so that I can interact with you. I can bump against you and move with you. You’ll be changed if you spend time with Me.”  Indeed, Jesus even says, in John 12:32, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

But God is also like gravity. Everyone, whether they are aware of it or not, is affected by it. Every step we take, every move we make, every silly little toy we play with is impacted by gravity. If I said that I no longer believed in gravity, it wouldn’t change the way it works in my life. If we ignore gravity, it doesn’t ignore us. It is a constant presence on this oblate sphere.

And God is somehow in the wand and the muscles, the nerves, the brain fashioning that picture. His Spirit fills us. Guiding, directing, creating. Shaping, forming, transporting. Moving in our lives. Moving through the shavings. Giving us a free will, but working in and through us as we yield ourselves to Him.

Dichotomous God. Phooey.

There is only one God.

He is bigger than gravity, magnetism, and the creative idea.

He is bigger than vengeance and compassion.

He is far far bigger than the toy in the pew. Or the woman in the pew. Or the man at the lectern.

When will we learn that we cannot put God in a box?

The question isn’t how can we edit God to fit Him into our box, but what is it about God that we are failing to understand.

As C. S. Lewis said, “He is not a tame lion.”

IMG_4948

(My apologies to pastors everywhere that I don’t pay better attention in church…)

Playing in the Dirt

I wasn’t really sure why the session was called “Playing in the Dirt.”

Drawing on Arthur Boer’s book, Living into Focus, Andrew Peterson talked about focal practices.  He defined them as activities that 1.) demand effort, 2.) connect us with others, and 3.) put us in touch with powers greater than ourselves. Three men joined AP in his presentation — a beekeeper, a birder, and a pipe-maker — and each shared how their “hobby” brought them into a deeper relationship both with God and man.

I left the session wondering what my focal practice could be.

“What did you think of the session?” I asked Mary a little later.

“I think that it made me want to get my own printing press,” she answered.

Yes, I could picture Mary with her own printing press, setting type, learning the mechanics of the machine, playing with inks and papers, and connecting with other people who shared that interest. I envied her a little that she could so easily identify a focal practice.

In my notes I had written, “In that moment you don’t want to be anywhere else or doing anything else.” I have had moments like that, but they are very private moments, in prayer or study, where hours pass and I am unaware of that passage of time because I am so engrossed in what I’m doing.  Unfortunately, those moments are so private that they fail in the criteria of connecting me with others.  Others feel like an intrusion.

I came home from Hutchmoot pondering a printing press for Mary.  Where could we get one? Where could we put it? The ready answer for her seemed an easier problem to tackle than coming up with a focal practice for myself. It’s not an easy problem, though.  Where would we get one? Where would we put it?

IMG_4996As I stood at my window on Tuesday morning, looking out at the leaves that have fallen on our garden, I noticed that some of the zinnias were still blooming despite the hard frosts. I had cut what I thought were the last of them before I left, but there were more, still blooming.  I grabbed the clippers to cut them so I could enjoy them on my kitchen table.

This morning, Friday, as I thought again about that focal practice, I looked at my little bouquet of zinnias and out the window to the still more blooming in my garden. I walked to the garden again and cut the flowers, smiling at the marigolds nestled in the leaves and flat out grinning at the daisy that dared to show her face in mid-October.

Marigolds in the leaves

Marigolds in the leaves.

Zinnia still blooming

Zinnia still blooming

A rebel daisy

A rebel daisy

Playing in the dirt.

Ha! My focal practice may indeed involve playing in the dirt.

The joy I experienced this summer in growing flowers was one I knew that I wanted to enjoy again next summer.

It will take effort — sifting through soil, choosing seeds and plants, tending, weeding, watering.

It will connect me others — as I glean knowledge from more experienced gardeners and as I share what I know and grow.

It will put me in touch with a power greater than myself. It already does — pushing back the darkness in this aching world and bringing in some color and light.

Beauty and mystery in growing flowers, a focal practice I can dirty my hands with.

An October bouquet -- Zinnias and a coneflower

An October bouquet — Zinnias and a coneflower

The World is a Wedding (and a Herkimer Diamond)

The other day I was sitting at our local mechanic’s shop, waiting for an oil change, and reading the Talmud.  (Isn’t that what everyone does while waiting for an oil change?) Anyway, I came across this sentence: “The world is a wedding.”

Aviary Photo_130563776508764253Having just been to a beautiful wedding, I thought this a wonderful way to describe the world.

A wedding is a love story, two people promising themselves to each other “til death do us part.”

Our world is also a love story — between God and man, where the church is the bride of Christ.

A wedding is a leaving and joining; it’s the close of one chapter and the beginning of another; it’s a little bit of sadness and a lot of joy.

What I loved most about Owen and Emily’s wedding were the little details.

flowers on the window ledge in the church

The flowers on the window ledges came mostly from our gardens, and the bottles were mostly borrowed from friends.When they were moved to the barn where the reception was held, they were a thread of continuity between the ceremony and the celebration.

Flowers along a beam in the barn

Owen and Emily included elements of fun, too, like the pinata and the bobble-heads.

Pig pinata

Pig pinata

A table of bobble-heads and treats.

A table of bobble-heads and treats.

Their wedding included everything from carousel rides to cider and doughnuts. It makes me smile just to think about it.

The table decorations, to me, were the icing on the (gluten-free) cake.

Table decorations

Table decorations

Brightly colored napkins, some made by Owen, served as the place-cards, tied with twine, with a name attached, neatly placed on each plate.  A strip of burlap ran down the center of each table.  A milk glass vase with a few flowers stood at either end of the table. And rocks. Several rocks were placed at random intervals on the burlap.

I looked at the rocks and was absolutely delighted. They were Herkimer Diamonds.

Herkimer Diamonds in our garden

Herkimer Diamonds in our garden

Herkimer Diamonds are unique double-terminated quartz crystals found in a roughly 30 mile swath of upstate New York near Herkimer. Hunting for them is so much fun. Getting the crystal free and intact from the mother-rock takes skills that I don’t have, so when we mine, we take the whole rock. The rocks sparkle even if there is no obvious diamond.

The world, and a wedding, are like Herkimer diamonds. They are hard. They can be rough.

But there are also plenty of sparkles for those willing to look for them.

The world is a wedding.

Thanks be to God.

Learning from a 5 year old

We recently changed where we sit in church. If I had known how much fun it would be to sit behind Jacob, I would have moved years ago.

Jacob is 110% boy. His serious 5-year-old face belies his enthusiasm, but the twinkle in his eye reveals all. He has the kind of energy that people try to bottle and sell under brand names like Monster and 5 Hour Energy, except his is all-natural and can’t be bottled. While he is constantly moving, he is also constantly listening.

Yesterday, he was doing a speedy side-slide shuffle along his little section of the pew while the scripture, Micah 7:18-20, was being read.

Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity
    and passing over transgression
    for the remnant of his inheritance?
He does not retain his anger for ever,
    because he delights in steadfast love.
He will again have compassion on us;
    he will tread our iniquities underfoot.
You will cast all our sins
    into the depths of the sea.
You will show faithfulness to Jacob [emphasis mine]
    and steadfast love to Abraham,
as you have sworn to our fathers
    from the days of old.

When the words “to Jacob” were read, little Jacob stopped dead in his tracks.

“To Jacob,” he said out loud. “Why me?”

I laughed. Why me indeed? Shouldn’t that be the response every one of us gives to a passage about God’s forgiveness and faithfulness?

IMG_4944Later, Jacob was lying on the pew, zooming two pencils over his head like little airplanes, as the pastor was finishing the Great Thanksgiving and issuing the invitation to receive communion.  Upon hearing the words, “Come, the table is ready,” Jacob leaped to his feet, clapped his hands, and said, “Wait for me!”

The church we attend welcomes children to partake in communion.  Communion can, at times, be a bit chaotic. There may be some who may look down on this practice, but I have found it refreshing. I fully understand Jacob’s joy at going forward to receive the bread and the wine.

In the words of The Great Thanksgiving,

Gracious God, pour out Your Holy Spirit upon us
and upon these Your gifts of bread and wine.
Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ
that we may be for the world
the body of Christ, redeemed by His blood.

By your Spirit draw us together in one body
and join us to Christ the Lord,
that we may remain His glad and faithful people
until we feast with Him in glory.

I receive the bread and the wine with sobriety, and also with great joy. Communion is not just a time to reflect back on Christ’s sacrifice, but it’s a time to look forward to a day when we will feast at a great banquet with Him. I love that.

If you think church is boring (not that it is for me), look for a Jacob to sit behind.  He can teach you a lot.