Shall We Gather At the River

Yesterday morning, when Dad came out for breakfast, he told me that he had composed a song while he was sleeping.

“Really?” I said. “Are you going to sing it for me?”

“Yes, I will,” he replied. “Just give me a minute to remember it.”

He sat there thinking, while I took his blood pressure and got his morning meds for him.

My father has compared his singing with Lee Marvin’s in Paint Your Wagon. In fact, I can remember times when my father would burst into “Wand’rin’ Star,” singing the first few lines. Lee Marvin’s gravelly baritone-bass was just enough off-key that I felt a kinship to him, and just enough on-key that I enjoyed the song — but my father was just off-key. I always smiled, though, when I heard him singing.

My mother was a soprano. Yesterday we sang “Shall We Gather at the River?” at church. I got a little lump in my throat because I could hear her singing this good Baptist hymn. It reminded me of my mother’s Baptist upbringing. I remember her singing it.

Shall we gather at the river,
Where bright angel feet have trod,
With its crystal tide forever
Flowing by the throne of God?

Yes, we’ll gather at the river,
The beautiful, the beautiful river;
Gather with the saints at the river
That flows by the throne of God.

My father was bobbing his head a little, trying to find the rhythm for this song he wanted to sing for me.

“The words are kind of crazy,” he said. “I don’t think I can remember them all.”

“Just sing what you can,” I said, getting more curious by the moment.

He closed his eyes and sang, “Humpty-backed camels and chimpanzees…” He swayed to some internal music, then finished with, “but there ain’t no uni-corn,” and opened his eyes to see what I thought.

“I hate to break it to you, Dad,” I said, “but that song has already been written.”

He laughed, “Well, isn’t that the darnedest thing.”

I sang The Unicorn Song for him, (not nearly as well as The Irish Rovers)

There was green alligators and long-necked geese
Some humpty-backed camels and some chimpanzees
Some cats and rats and elephants, but sure as you’re born
The loveliest of all was the unicorn*

He mouthed the words with me and nodded, remembering them better as he heard them.

“That’s right!” he said.

“You were listening to it last night,” I said. “It probably got stuck in your head and played in your dreams.”

He shook his head, “The brain is an amazing thing, isn’t it?”

The funny thing about the Wand’rin’ Star song is that my father was born under the farthest thing from a wandering star. He was born under a stay-put star. Fifty-some years ago, when he left the Army, he bought a house and settled in.

He put closets in the house.

The house had only one closet when he bought it — not nearly enough for a family of seven.

He planted trees, putting down roots.

My brother standing by the newly planted orchard – 1968

Those humpty-backed camels — I suppose they were a part of his life, too — but only a small part.

My father and I riding a camel

The last verse of Shall We Gather says —

Soon we’ll reach the silver river,
Soon our pilgrimage will cease;
Soon our happy hearts will quiver
With the melody of peace.

Perhaps it’s there that we’ll find those missing unicorns.



Lent 2018

My sister messaged me yesterday, “…about Tuga… has he returned to your pocket, or was he so last year?”

Tuga, the little brown bunny who stayed in my pocket for Lent 2017 as a reminder of the sorrow in the world, is not so last year. He’s so in Bosnia.

I have other Tugas. Three sets, as a matter of fact, of Tuga and Aleluja, sitting on my shelf. One set is promised to someone. The other two are at-the-ready, for when I meet someone who needs a mindfulness token of sorrow and joy.

Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, has had new meaning for me since 2014. That year, early in the morning of Ash Wednesday, my sister called with the news that my oldest brother had unexpectedly passed away after a heart attack.

Yesterday I read through some of the posts I had written in the subsequent days. Most are private now — as in, you can’t read them; I took them down because they were too personal — but the Ash Wednesday one is public.

When I’m telling someone about Stewart, I almost always refer to him as brilliant. Hamilton College undergrad — their first Russian Studies major. Yale Divinity School for his M. Div. and then Syracuse Law for his J.D. He had a home computer before that was a thing — like in 1983. He had set it up to run tessellations — which, of course, has nothing to do with Russian or Divinity or Law.

In the last few years of Stewart’s life I had been frustrated with him.  He had been nearly job-less, doing pulpit supply and seemingly little else. Every month my father sent him money to pay his rent.

In the meantime, I was running myself ragged, driving back and forth between Greene and Cooperstown, trying to help my father take care of my mother.

“Why can’t Stewart move in with Mom and Dad?” I griped to my sister. “He could be of real help to them and Dad wouldn’t have to keep sending him money.”

It irked me.

It seemed unfair.

But when Stewart died, and I met the many people whose lives had been touched by Stewart’s, I realized that I only knew part of the story. Stewart lived in a low-income area. He drove neighbors to doctor’s appointments and listened to their lives. His congregation gathered every evening in the apartment complex’s gazebo.

“That’s where Stewart sat,” one lady told us, pointing to a bench at one of the picnic tables. “He was always here for us.”

He had a church, unrecognized by anyone, because it was so informal, yet so personal. It didn’t pay the bills. It paid in intangibles.

I couldn’t see it — I don’t think anyone could — until he was gone, and we slowly unknotted the knot that was his life.

In his book, Great Lent, my Lenten reading for this year, Alexander Schmemann said,

If God loves every man it is because He alone knows the priceless and absolutely unique treasure, the “soul” or “person” He gave every man. There is no “impersonal” love because love is the wonderful discovery of the “person” in “man,” of the personal and unique in the common and general. It is the discovery of the unique in each man of that which is “lovable” in him, of that which is from God.

I looked around my room this morning for something to carry in my pocket for Lent. Tuga had been a good companion last year, but I wanted something to remind me of the hidden person, the God in each person I meet.

I settled on a Monkey’s Fist that had been sitting on my dresser. It probably belongs to one of my children — but it’s mine for this season. A knot, the heart of which is hidden from me.

Wikipedia says, “Monkey’s fists are commonly used as a convenient and unobtrusive method of storing and transporting precious gemstones.” What can be more precious than God?

God wears a costume of human flesh. He’s in the guy at the gas station, and the friend that encourages me.

But He’s also hiding somewhere in the woman who irritates me, and the man sitting on the couch in the other room, rifling through papers again and again.

I’m going to be on the lookout for Him.


Let me be candid. I was shouting in the officials’ room at the swim meet on Saturday.

Not my finest moment, for sure. That ugliness left me bone-weary at the end of the day.

The next morning when I got up early to read, I still felt the stone in my gut, the last vestiges of that conflict.

Several years ago, my friend and fellow-blogger Anna Brown made a reference to pearl-formation. I liked it so much I tried to incorporate it into my daily prayers, specifically in my creed where I state those things I believe. After many iterations, I settled on these words:

I believe that the trials in my life are ultimately God’s good for me; they are like grains of sand in an oyster that God uses to produce pearls.

When I arrived at that part the other morning, I thought of the man who had shouted at me and at whom I had shouted in turn.

“Lord,” I prayed, “I believe that ______ is a like a grain of sand, and that You can use him to produce a pearl in me.”

I sat there picturing the process that happens in an oyster. The presence of the irritant is sometimes a grain of sand, but often in nature is a parasite. The  oyster excretes a fluid that coats the irritant, and then coats it again and again and again. The fluid, called nacre, is otherwise known as mother-of-pearl. Shiny, luminous, iridescent. Beautiful.

The longer the irritant stays in the clam, the more coatings it receives. It’s a slow process that can take up to three years for the pearl to reach its size. “Lower-quality pearls have often been ‘rushed’ out of the oyster too quickly (sometimes a year or less) and have a too-thin coat of nacre.” (from

As I prayed, I could feel the edges of my irritation softening.

I prayed it again, this time inserting a different name. I’ve been walking the edge of irritability for a while now, more and more often losing balance and falling into frustration with this person or that situation.

As I named specific people or issues and prayed the prayer over and over, I began to picture a string of pearls.

And tears began to roll down my cheeks.

The more irritations, the more pearls. I found myself feeling thankful for each one.

The funny thing is, I know I have three more years of interactions with the shouting man.

Three years. Just the right amount of time to form a good pearl.



First Sunday of Advent 2017

I peeked at the first page of The New Christian Year (compiled by Charles Williams) one last time before putting it on the shelf.

My well-worn copy is even more well-worn now that I’ve been through the book several times. The New Christian Year isn’t so new anymore. My copy is from 1941 — and it was written in but not falling apart when I got it. I picked it up at a used bookstore, not knowing what a dear friend it would become. It’s falling apart now, like a Velveteen Rabbit of books.

Charles Williams introduced me to so many Christian thinkers — St. Augustine, John Donne, Lancelot Andrewes, William Law, and Blaise Pascal to name a few.  The New Christian Year helped me fill my bookshelves with deep, rich books.

But, when I read Brueggemann’s Sabbath as Resistance earlier this year, I knew I was reading a modern author who would challenge me to change my life and deepen my faith. I ordered Gift and Task as soon as I finished the Sabbath book.

When it arrived, I set it aside. I would have to wait for Advent, the start of the Christian year.

My brand new copy of Walter Brueggemann’s Gift and Task beckoned me this morning.

All those pages so new and clean.

Oh — to write in the margins!

Brueggemann starts the Christian year not with light and hope, but with a roar.

…Advent is “in like a lion,” a roaring truthfulness that disrupts our every illusion…

…Christmas is not a safe, private, or even familial enterprise but is preoccupied with great public issues of war and peace and issues of economic justice that concern the worth and bodily well-being of human persons. Our Advent preparation may invite us to consider the ways in which we ourselves are complicit in the deep inhumanity of our current world.

Not what I was expecting at all.

Indeed, for me, Advent roared in like a lion, but Brueggemann concluded today with these words –

The lion opens space for the Lamb, who will arrive soon.

I hope I’m ready for this new Christian year.




Rough and Slippery Roads

Those who journey on level ground have no need to give one another their hands, whereas those who are on rough and slippery roads hold fast one to another… in order to walk securely and help one another in the many difficult places through which they have to pass.

St. France de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life

A helping hand while climbing the rocks at Whytecliff Park

God, in His mercy, blessed me with a number of people who offer me their hand in the difficult places.

This Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for each one of them.



New Every Morning

“I hurried over so you could take a picture,” said Matt, the lifeguard who was taking over for me so I could home.

Two weeks of working together and he’s got me figured out. How many times has he heard me say, “I need to get a picture of that!” Or, how many times has he seen me grab my phone out of the office so I could snap a shot of the sunrise.

I told someone at Hutchmoot that I was practically giddy over the prospect of working at this job, and that hasn’t changed since it started.

Leaving the house at 5 AM to lifeguard for two hours every morning has been fun.

And stimulating. Adult conversation is such a treat.

The sunrises aren’t bad either.

I arrive in the dark. This morning I stood, looking out from near the pool, and snapped a grainy picture. The white dot in the distance is a lighted lamppost.

Since the pool was redone, it has a wall of windows facing east. The lights are always on in there. In the darkness, the pool area fairly glows when I arrive.

Of course, when working as a lifeguard, I’m not staring out the windows. I’m scanning the pool, in case any of those early morning lap swimmers need help. So far the only help anyone has needed is turning the music down or alerting maintenance that the hot water isn’t working in the showers.

But I love my co-workers. They are such interesting people. And we converse in complete sentences.

I’ve tried explaining to people how being a caregiver for someone with dementia is like taking care of a toddler. Anyone who has had children knows the stage of incomplete conversation. That’s how it is with my father these days. That, or trying to guess what he’s trying to say, or trying to follow the tangents that his mind travels down.

Right around the time I’m getting ready to go home — I can only really afford two hours when I know he’ll be sleeping — the sky is changing.

One day last week, I tried to take a picture of it, but the pool reflected back off the glass and gave me this shot.

So this morning I went from window bay to window bay trying to find a place that didn’t reflect the pool.

“Just step outside,” said one of the other guards, so I did.

Golly, it was pretty.

I stopped again just beyond the pool on my way home.

I wondered if there was a liturgy in Every Moment Holy for the sight of a beautiful sunrise.

Then I realized I already knew one, and recited on my way home —

But this one thing I bear in mind,
and therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
His mercies never come to an end;
They are new every morning;
Great is thy faithfulness.

Lamentations 3:21-23


Every Moment Holy: When Something Is Lost

I lost my wallet.


I started to write out the sequence of events that led up to the last time I remembered holding it in my hand, but none of it really matters. The important part of the story was that my wallet — a nice little clasp purse made by a dear friend — was missing.

At 5 AM, I was searching, trying to be quiet while the rest of the people in the house were sleeping, but I had to be at work at 5:15 AM and was starting to panic.

My mother often said, “It’s always the last place you look.”

The morning schedule was tight:  lifeguarding at the pool from 5:15-7:15, go home, eat breakfast, leave by 8 AM to take Laurel to the dentist which was an hour-and-a-half away.

Every Moment Holy, my new favorite book, sat on the table where I had finished my morning readings. Was there a liturgy in there for lost things?

I searched through the Table of Contents, wasting valuable other search time, looking for a prayer to fit this occasion.


But the beauty of Every Moment Holy lies in the title. Every moment is holy. Even the anxiety-ridden ones.

Before I left the house, I tip-toed into my father’s darkened room with a flashlight to see if perchance he had picked it up. My mother, in her dementia, used to squirrel away all sorts of treasures, and my father has started doing similar things. She had opted for shiny things — silverware and napkin rings, but he liked books and pens and shirts. My wallet wasn’t in his room, though.

I drove into the pool, worrying, and trying to allay my worries with words that could go into The Liturgy for Searching for Lost Items.

I got to the pool only to find the service door locked.

“Sorry, Sally,” said the woman at the front desk who let me in.

“No worries,” I said. It’s my standard response. Even when I’m worried.

And I was quite worried.

But the liturgy for lost or misplaced things was starting to take shape.

I found that when I started feeling the worry rise, it helped to think about what the Bible said about lost things.

I had two hours at the pool, three hours in the car, and an hour sitting in a dentist office to think about it. Six hours of pushing worry into prayer.

My initial thoughts:

O, Lord — I know You care about lost things
You talk about a shepherd leaving ninety-nine sheep to search for the one lost lamb
You talk about a widow searching for a lost coin

My later thoughts:

Lord, I’m holding on too tight to the temporal, to things that don’t last.
If I never find that wallet again —
If every worse case scenario I imagine comes true
If it was dropped and found by an unscrupulous person
Or taken because I wasn’t paying attention
If my credit cards and, worse, my identity are stolen,
It’s okay
Because I have everything I need in You

My hands are open, Lord.
Whatever You want from me is Yours
It was never mine to begin with

Truly my morning was holy.

Anxious — but also holy in a way I couldn’t have imagined.

My mother was right. It’s always in the last place you look. Sometimes it’s in a place you’ve even looked before.

I found it when I got back home. Even though I had looked there previously, it was in my father’s car.

Matt Canlis said at Hutchmoot that God is closer than you think and in places you don’t expect.

I realized that all my searching wasn’t about my wallet. It was about God guiding me into truths I need to learn.