Shepherd My People

 

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One of my dear elderly friends is a member of a local church here, the church I was baptized in as a baby. She is on the board, meaning I know not what, but what I do know is that she often calls the pastor to tell him how he is doing.

“And how is he doing?” I asked. We were watching a storm come in.

“Well mostly fine. Sometimes he steps on toes, goes too long without talking to someone, you know, and I let him know they’re upset. He’s always quick to speak to them the following week, and long to stay. But he’s not good at home visits and hospitals. I’m always on him about that. He says they didn’t cover that enough in seminary and he’s scared. People won’t understand that, I tell him, so you have to go anyway.” She sighed, as if over a wayward son.

I shrugged. “He came with communion when Pop was dying and I thought he did great.”
“Who did?”
“Pastor Dave.”
“Pastor Dave?”
“Yes.”
“Pastor Dave came to Harold? ‘
“Yes.”
“With communion?”
“Yes.
“Who was there?”
“Just the three of us. ”
“I didn’t know.”
“Oh. I’m sorry. It was beautiful. And unexpected. He didn’t call, I don’t think, just showed up at the door with a little silver communion set.”  It was like something from a storybook, that day, like a scene with Father Tim from Jan Karon’s Mitford, except cowritten by George MacDonald, for I still could hardly make sense of it beyond praise. “Pop was in and out of consciousness. He apologized for not coming sooner, but it was alright. I didn’t know he was scared.”

We were quiet awhile. She was disrupted, not because she wasn’t grateful, but because she wasn’t grateful sooner. She was further disrupted when she considered what else she may not know. This man had received her correction humbly, perhaps even foolishly, for such open criticism could hardly be healthy to the average pastor, apart from his wife, if he’s lucky. He hadn’t shared his victories, even to an old woman who would’ve relished and repeated them. A whole year had passed since that day when he brought the Lord’s supper to a stunned girl and an unconscious old man long loved by the church he was appointed head of, daily serving and only sometimes welcome in himself. Too heady, too preachy, too northern, they’d said.

“And he’s always quoting old people,” one told me once.
“Old people? Like yourself?” And I guess I deserved that dirty look.
“Dead people. Long dead.”

Maybe it was those long dead people who taught him not to stand on his rights and maintain his superiority and make it known how dearly he deserved his wage. Maybe it was Samuel Rutherford’s down with your top sail! Stoop man, stoop. It is a low entry into heaven’s gates, or Paul’s, do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves, that gave him that secret character we only occasionally stumble upon in this world. But it’s living people who will love him for it, I thought, as I saw the dark skyline pass from my friend’s determined face. She had thought of a way to show him and I knew her well done would be a good foretaste of the Father’s, and worth every bit of her pastor’s long obedience. 

“Here is Your War”

“In wartime it is an axiom that the closer you get to the front the less you know about what is going on… we would often say to each other that we wished we were back in New York so we could find out how we were doing,” wrote war correspondent Ernie Pyle. My great-grandmother Lela, an orphaned, adopted cowgirl, turned young wife and rancher, bore many babies, the depression, dust bowl and two world wars. She read these words and smiled, blew out the lamp, turned over and closed her eyes. When she read the headlines from Washington she would dream of wastelands, scorched earth and young bodies shriveling up, smaller and smaller into dust in the ceaseless wind. Even when it was good news, she’d wonder what they weren’t saying, what frontlines they concealed for morale, if her boy was there in the silent place, or her neighbor’s. She’d heave her sore bones into the kitchen, turn a glass right side up in the pie safe, strike a match and pick up where she left off in Brave Men. She would read simple, common things about simple common men: Tom Temple, or rather Thomas Nicholas Temple, was a seaman second class. His father deliberately put in the middle name so the initials would read TNT. Tom, aged nineteen, was tall and thin, very grave and analytical. He talked so slowly I thought sometimes he was going to stop altogether… then across the spine, Arch Fulton, of 493 East 129th Street, Cleveland, Ohio was an electrician’s mate second class. Before the war he worked as a lineman for the Cleveland Illuminating Company. Fulton was married and had two children. He was thirty-seven, much older than most of the crew. He was born a Scotsman and went to America at seventeen… turning the page, Arch had a short pompadour which slanted forward and gave him the look of standing with his back to the wind. He had a dry Scottish humor, and he took the Navy in his stride. Back in Cleveland he used to read my columns, so you can see he was a smart man… then at the bottom there, her favorite Fred Moore, a young black man from Alabama who was a wizard at baking delicate and beautiful pastries. He made all the pastry desserts for the officers mess. He had never done any cooking before joining the Navy, except to fry a few hamburgers at a short-order joint. He couldn’t explain his knack for pasty baking. It was just like somebody who can play the piano beautifully without ever taking lessons. The whole ship paid tribute to his streak of special genius… but before she could get to Fred Moore’s view on the action, she dropped off, her head back on the bars of the rocker, dreaming of young men growing as fat and as merry as Santa Claus, eating Fred’s pastries. When the roosters started crowing, she woke gently from letting out the seams on a thousand uniforms.  

Today is the 75th anniversary of the Normandy landings of WWII, or D-Day. I had seven great-uncles in the war, and two of them were Lela’s sons. One of these, Harold Lewis, was missing in action. A government man came all the way out to the ranch to give them the news. Lela went right on praying for his safety every day, until the end of the war when he turned up in an army hospital. He was 68 pounds. She and his wife went to get him, and despite the doctors orders, bailed him out and brought him home at last. When Ernie Pyle died in the Spring of 1945, they say Lela mourned him like a son. He had helped her through war on every side, from without and within, from the enemy across the great sea to the black rat snake eating her biddies in the chicken coop. He brought the women of America to the frontlines, the trenches and the shores, where they longed to be, and yet he left them in their own battles still, better fit to face them, ashamed to turn back at danger, resigned to suffer quietly, quick to smile and ready to laugh at anything that halfway qualified. He didn’t spare them the painful truth, and they respected that. He told of boots sticking out from deep in the sand like driftwood, of photographs and cigarettes and blank writing paper littering the ground, but also of sunsets and sights beyond their imaginations and gardens to pale their own struggling crops, yet in all this, a world not unlike Vian, Oklahoma, Georgetown, Kentucky or Esto, Florida. He opened their eyes not only to the story in Europe, but the story at home, so that, when the sons and brothers and husbands returned, the ones who did, they found that they were remembered by name and known, not only in their place, but every place and every heart where Ernie Pyle was loved and read and mourned. Just a cheerful man with a typewriter, facing the smoke, asking questions, listening and telling the truth.

If you don’t remember him, it’s because you haven’t asked a lady of that time if she does. 

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Walk as Children of Light

   Sally pointed to the stucco wall, where a bit of paint had chipped off. 

   “Do you see the little boy with the kite, Big Mama?” she asked.

   “No, I don’t. But I used to see things like that.”

My sister Jesse has had four children. One of them died and the youngest is yet to be born. Had I looked ahead into this, selfishly, and seen myself not following her, as I’ve always done, and having marriage and motherhood too, with all its joys and sorrows, I would’ve winced. But this reminds me of what Mark Twain said about having a lot of trouble in his life, most of which never happened, for being an aunt has been a complete delight to me, unstained by even my own selfishness. Not unstained by sorrow, though, which is a kind of stain that well prepares the fabric of our hearts for the seams of the shape we must take if we are to go on in the Image of God. The sorrow comes when the children know sin and death and parting. When they hear harsh words and see angry looks, when we have to help them see those things even already in themselves. When they learn that people we love, those we miss every day and those we never met, died. And slowly, when they learn that death will come to them as well. 

My paternal grandfather died when I was nine, after a long illness. I called him Papa Cigar, because he was always working on a Dutch Master, whose box gave me the mistaken impression that the pilgrims smoked. He had been an MP in the army and then a civilian policeman. He told me, while sitting on his lap, that people were easy to kill. This may seem a disturbing fact to share with a kid, but I remember feeling merely surprised, which is perhaps why he told me.

I spoke to a man the other day who was reasoning that children conceived in violence shouldn’t live. He put up his hand to silence my response, turned to my male friend and said, “I mean, if your wife was raped, would you want that kid?” This man wasn’t confused about when life begins and he didn’t have some misplaced compassion. He wasn’t full of protective love toward women carrying children, or little women being carried. He was glad people were easy to kill, just $395 and a couple hours in his week. He had done this many times, and he didn’t understand why we cared so much. But the truth is, I care too little. I have walked passed open doors in squalid nursing homes because I was afraid. I have driven past those buildings entirely, when I could’ve not been as busy as I was. 

Last week, I lay in a hammock swing under the full moon beside the Port Royal sound. The young people were gone and the old were asleep. The tide was coming in. I always feel very safe in this place. They say the island has a ghost and sane people have seen it. Only at night, for it looks like a light. Just a light. Why do they call it a ghost I asked. Because it’s inexplicable they said, and gives you chills. Sounds like poetry, doesn’t it? Sounds like a whole lot of good things. Sounds like one broken hearted person interceding in the darkest place imaginable. Sounds like the man who loved us when we were his enemies, which is perhaps why it doesn’t make me afraid. 

When my niece Sally was born, she was a strange little thing. She held her head up in the first few days and looked around. She had the oddest unbabylike combination of nose, ears and expression. She was unusually skinny, though strong and healthy, just fine according to the doctors, but many suggested she wasn’t getting enough to eat, which became a continual anxiety for her first time mama. I wondered if people would ever let Sally be different from the Gerber baby. When she was four months old, we introduced her to a few of my dear old lady friends. We were beside a pool together, a group of women all very much exposed, Sally’s fresh skin and new swimsuit beside the wrinkled and papery blue-veined skin, torn and bandaged, of the ladies in swimsuits worn thin. They were too old to buy new ones. It was unlikely they would swim again. We had grown so protective of Sally by this time, but I remember the utter relief and tear-filled joy of Jesse, when Mrs. Georgia held her high and laughed with absolute love for this little elf like girl. And Mrs. Ruby leaned in confidently with her finger in the air, as if to say she heard from on high, “Now that is a marvelous baby.” Sally loves to tell this story, and also of how the very dark skinned old lady from the nursing home held her sister Adah, and proclaimed, “Now ain’t she a doll out the box!” She loves these stories because she knows they make us happy. She doesn’t know all the careless things people could say, or that many fragile babies like herself are cast aside and never lifted high and prophesied over by the Rubys and Georgias of the world. I wish she never had to learn these things. 

Mrs Ruby saw, like Sally’s kite in the stucco, what other’s failed to see and this from lack of light, a light which must rise from salvation of the heart and mind and especially the imagination. To lift a lanky spider-like girl to the sun and call her marvelous, to believe, against all propaganda, that the son conceived of your great hurt is a gift, to defend his life with even more force than with which yours was attacked, to raise that man in the astounding beauty of redemption and the surpassing glory of adoption, to visit those who need to be cleaned and changed, and realize that there is no one to do it but yourself, God helping you, to hear the call toward your neighbor, behold your son, behold your mother, or to wait at the foot of their cross, helpless to do anything but stay.… all this requires exposure and the burning out of our days, until worn out skin sits laughing in worn out suits. To walk as children of light requires all, our lives and many deaths, and more than that, a man, a man of sorrows.

It’s as chilling as a bright spot on a dark island, but the good news is this: you can keep your $395. 

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A Letter to Beth

Dear Beth,

It was last Spring when you said I might write for you. Another year, we’d be tempted to say, and the same. The same fears about the same problems, the same prayers, the same silence. It reminds me of the leak in the Carolina Room, that’s the dining room and my bedroom, you know, with all the windows. My parents aren’t worried about it. After summer fishing, we’ll take a look, they say. I’ve pretty much gotten used to it raining inside the house. Last spring I spread out bowls. Now I just let it come and mop the floor when it’s over. A guest came and asked about all the trees the other day, Aren’t you worried one will fall on the roof? No, they said. We built the house and we can build it again. We can build it again even better. And I can see a sort of excited conspiracy in their eyes as if this was their plan all along. This is an odd way to look at something so important, yet it is like the Lord in a way. 

I know you do not care for some things the Lord has done and you ask yourself why he did them, why he does them. I don’t know, but I’ve been thinking on it. 

One of the big things that led my mother to the Lord was the drowning of a little boy. She was called to the scene as a first responder and did all the things she should do, but he had been in the warm water much too long. At last a helicopter came and she went inside with the unresponsive body as a young paramedic did all he could, but it was no good. She started to shake and cry. He reached out and put his hand on her, in anguish himself. We just keep trying, he said. 

When the emergency room doctor decided it was time to stop trying, Mama joined the family in the waiting room. That was the very worst part of all. The grandmother had to be sedated. The mother viciously blamed the father, who blamed the fourteen-year-old brother who was in pitiful shock that such a thing could even happen under the sun. The hospital chaplain came and added to the awful noise by saying that it was God’s mercy, because the boy could’ve grown up to be a wicked man. God’s mercy, Mama said, was that no one seemed to hear him. 

But that just couldn’t be right, she said to him. He patted her knee. Peace, peace.

How did she not hate the sovereign Lord after that? Well, she went searching for an unseen good, staring long and hard at the unknown God while surrounded on all sides by the awful noise of brazen questions, easy answers and false peace. But yet, she was found by Him. And she found Him good. Faithful in all his words and kind in all his works. Risen, just as he said, and blessed are those who have not seen, yet believe.

But she didn’t find him answering all her questions. How is it that what drew her in could drive others, even us, out? 

I have often forgotten the basic fact of Christianity: that Faith is the evidence of things hoped for, the substance of things not seen. It is rising at dark to walk in the daylight so you might see the dew on the webs you believe were spun. It is enduring the sun’s slow descent in the summer to watch the fireflies dance below Orion. Faith is the rising at dark. It is enduring the sun. It is the sinew in the spider’s silk and the binding in the starry belt: It is obedience. Faith is not ultimately why but yes, sir. It is not lying, not murdering, not stealing. It is loving your neighbor and your neighbors marriage and children and achievements. It is not saying all you think until your heart no longer thinks what you shouldn’t say. It is considering more the dreams and sensitivities of others than your own. It is not taking offense. It is calling your mother who always wants to know why you haven’t called already. It is not feeling sorry for ourselves. It is resting our uncertainties on the ground of all we’ve been told and given already, which is a gracious plenty, isn’t it? 

You know I am not preaching to you. It is just that in lieu of a standing desk I found an old pulpit and I think it’s effecting me. 

Have you noticed a trend of asking questions of (and about) God as if that is evidence of faith and honesty? It might be. But it might be evidence of pride and irreverence too. That tree could fall both ways, as in: did God really say? Raw is the term for baring all feelings and inquiries. I guess in the city that word invokes Whole Foods and expensive honey jars, but on a farm it could be anything. This reminds me of my grandfather who said that when he was a little boy he used to eat dead chickens. This worried me for too long. 

Anyway, the child of God must brace himself to receive questions as well as ask them, and be humbled under them too. Humbled to the point of shutting up. To the point of blind obedience. That’s the kind of thing you find in the kitchens, back yards, tractors and cubicles of the world, laying in hospital beds, bent over bathtubs, slumped over books and standing in the grocery line, and not on social media. 

But maybe I’m just old fashioned. I had a teacher once who wouldn’t let us raise our hands to ask or answer. It seemed like senseless torture at the time, especially as she had us sitting in teams and raising the hand would call down  ‘Disqualified! You and your team!’ I don’t remember now what disqualified meant, but it wasn’t great. Twitter needs that lady. 

In the first book God asks: Where are you? What is this you have done? Why are you angry? Where is your brother? Where have you come from and where are you going? Where is your wife Sarah? Why did she laugh? Is anything too hard for the Lord? Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? What troubles you Hagar? What is your name? Why is it that you ask my name? In the infant story of God and fettered, foolish mankind, I’m weak Eve and passive Adam, jealous Cain, miserable Hagar and confused Abraham. I am mostly impudent, limping Jacob. What you and I aren’t is almighty, the Good Question Asker. 

Beth, in the things you don’t want and can’t love, is He asking you something? But don’t worry— by now I’ve disqualified the whole room well into next year, so you can take your time. 

I came across a mulberry tree today, heavy with fruit. I ate from the low branches. The long dull colored berries are better even than blackberries, sweeter than you could imagine, but they grow high and the wood was so fragile it couldn’t be climbed without breaking a limb. But it was something just to know they were there though out of reach.

Yours, Sarah

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My Roses Want to See You

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   No where does one thing lead to another more than in the garden.  You start out pruning roses, then find yourself pulling the weeds around them and then the weeds everywhere, only to empty the wheelbarrow over the compost pile, fill it again with that good rich dirt and spread it over a waiting bed, in which you sprinkle the arugula and parsley seed you stuck in your back pocket that morning. One plant leads to another too, whether it flourishes or not, it will beget either the stubbornness to try again or a hunger for something new. This I realized today, as I counted the roses in the vegetable garden alone. There were twenty-two. How did this happen you ask? Well I’ll tell you.

    It started as five bare-root roses scrounged from the clearance section at the Park Seed garden festival. They were only a few bucks apiece. What was there to lose? Had we known the whole landscape would be all but taken over one day, we would’ve considered more carefully.  But such is the nature of garden-life: You just never know. (Consider the artichokes, for instance!) They were gaudy hybrid-tea roses with cheesy names like Miss America, Sun Fare and Always and Forever, but they were enough to prove the critics wrong. Roses are worth every bit of the trouble they cause and will go on causing trouble and being worth it long after the lazy postmodern gardeners rest under plastic flower arrangements.  

    In our quest to learn how to prune and defend against the various pests and nefarious spots and molds, we stumbled upon David Austen’s English Roses and thus began the one great love affair of my gardening life. Though the hybrid-teas are still with us, the English Rose is a breed apart. They are simply what roses ought to be. Chesterton said, “I don’t deny that there should be priests to remind men that they will one day die. I only say that at certain strange epochs it is necessary to have another kind of priests, called poets, actually to remind men that they are not dead yet.”  English Roses are the poets of the garden, filling you with rapture while letting blood, wedged between the peppers and the eggplant, like learning in wartime, giving value to survival.

There is Queen of Sweden, Lady of Shalott, Munstead Wood, Generous Gardener, Molineux, Young Lycidas, Lark Ascending and more. We’ve made room for their coming in all their varied hues, scents and postures and we’d gladly scoot the tomatoes over for just one more.

     What’s the secret to rose-gardening? you ask.  Well, there is one and I’ll tell you. Horse manure.  And here again one thing leads to another, for if you give a girl a rose, she’ll need a horse to go with it.

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     “I took a walk through Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. Believe it or not, there amid the trenches and the bomb craters and in the raw, cold weather was a whole garden of red and yellow roses in bloom.”  -from Ernie Pyle’s Here is Your War

Freedom Also For Her To Stay (and Our Ever Sure Place to Light)

I once wrote lightheartedly about my decision to not go to college and live at home helping my family, but there was a lot more to it than that. “Telling a story is like reaching into a granary full of wheat and drawing out a handful,” Wendell Berry writes in one of my favorite novels, “There is always more to tell than can be told… there is also more than needs to be told, and more than anybody wants to hear.” I am ever conscious of this when I wrestle with words as with a gar fish, fighting the line for hours only to throw him back because nobody wants to eat him or even thinks he’s pretty. But the fisherman and the writer will go on wrestling because the only thing that fights harder than the words you throw back are the words you keep. And the only thing that fights harder than the ideologies you reject are the ones you espouse.

I wrote lightheartedly back then because it was nothing but. I took a lot of grief for that decision. Then I started taking grief for other things too. I think it was Amy Carmichael who said we mustn’t be surprised when the way of the cross leads to the cross and my friend Lore Wilbert is famous for saying Fidelity to the Word of God and not to an outcome. We need to hear these things and frame them on our walls because the immediate path of our decision making won’t be paved, descending and shaded. Mine hasn’t been. It’s really been more like a walk in the fire swamp. Woe unto them that call evil good and good evil, as the prophet said, and this is what we’re up against: those who call shame honor and honor shame, those who throw under the bus what is sacred, like dignity, humility, submission, sacrifice and the freedom in Christ that a young girl has to pursue what’s been laid on her heart, even if it’s, heaven help her, a broken old fashioned home and a community full of all too unconscious sinners. 

I can write more seriously about it now because that was eight years ago. I believe I chose well in that crossroads not because I think higher education and familial independence are bad things or because I’m always delighted with my current status, but because I chose in good conscience. When I was little I was often told by my elders to find a place to light and I would go and try my darnedest to be still and quiet somewhere. Obedience to God and delight in His will, taking up our obvious duties, discerning new ones, using our passions and gifts unto wonder, love and praise— this is our place to light. This is where we can settle down, however unsettled. Every time I get discouraged there is mercifully a friend to say in their own unique way, He created a spot in the world for you, Sarah, and what they’re saying is it’s good. I can see now that one of the most important parts about maturing in Christ, especially as women, is sorting out shame and not-shame, the simple commands of a merciful God versus the heavy and unrealistic expectations of a billion not-gods.

Christ came and died, rose again and now reigns, to give us freedom to obey His Good Word and worship Him, no longer slaves to sin, to what people think, to what everyone else is doing, to fear of the future, to love of money, to love of self, to fear of entropy, to convincing everyone of our love-worthiness, to endlessly attempting to atone for our own guilt, glory be. It takes a little time to grow into this freedom, like a young tree breaking through the canopy. It takes a little time for all these pitfalls and temptations to occur to us. About eighteen to twenty years, I’d say. And if we need help, Aunt Ellen is there. How will you marry a doctor and be rich if you don’t go to medical school? How will you show the world what women can do if you don’t go into the workforce and compete against men? How will you dress well, have a grand house and nice vacations if you don’t market yourself? How will you become somebody without changing drastically? Grilled at the Fourth of July picnic, served on a platter for everyone to pick at, shamed for things that are not shame and exposed to the judgement of lesser gods, you will surely be confronted with everything your heart could run after but the One Thing Needful.   

Who hindered you from obeying the truth? Paul asks in Galatians 5. Bound up in Christ, we can say nobody. Ain’t nobody able to do that. No sir. 

These things are on my mind because a friend of mine is graduating from high school this summer and we spent the day together recently. Her family owns a dairy and her grandparents could use her help and her parents left the decision to pursue college and a career at this time or not, up to her. She’s decided to do what I did, but I fully intended to talk her out of it. I was afraid she was following me, and that’s a broken mooring. She’s already met with opposition in her extended family, church and peers, but this small redheaded girl who is normally so laid back explained to me with passion that she believed staying home and doing the needed work was God’s will for her life. She had thought it out and made her decision in good conscience and she didn’t care what great Aunt Ellen said or anyone else for that matter, presumably myself included. I was driving when she said this and we both just kept looking straight ahead. I don’t think I said a thing, but what I thought was, Good.‘Cause girl that’s what it takes. 

She’ll cross her bridges when she comes to them. She’ll probably think more than once of running away and changing her name, and daydream about starting over someplace where people are more appreciative. She’ll struggle with resentment in her lowliness and bitterness toward her authorities. She’ll pray for deliverance out of her problems, and accept deliverance in them, ever so slowly. She’ll learn to prize courage more than safety through feeling very afraid. She’ll be chased out from beneath all her false hopes. When the outcome isn’t what she thought, suddenly looking back in eight years, she’ll forget her first love and worry. She’ll worry that God has put her on a shelf and forgotten her, even though she never forgets the cows at milking-time. Then she will be very very happy. Her joy will come upon her as gentle as fireflies, as surprising as summer lightening. In other words, my friend Rose will be like every other woman who chooses, despite the particulars of place of work and rest, mere Christianity. 

In her moment of deepest need Jesus will be nearest to her. Perhaps that’s not right, for he’s always nearest her. Her every-second has passed through him first, and in all her tomorrows he’s already there. But when her heart is emptied of all hope and security, Jesus will fill her as a dam breaks over a dry river bed, expanding the borders, those limits of her capacity to give and receive, moving stones, uprooting trees, till all that is left of her is a place on earth for Jesus to fill, which is what she was all along, only she’ll know it now. And so will everyone else. When his waters recede, she will be emptier than she was before and she will miss him more, and so her great perennial need will become a sign, like a thumbprint in a cookie, the One Good God in the soul of man. 

And maybe someday, if she’s discouraged, I can say:  I remember how you got here Rose, and it wasn’t by mistake. He created a spot in the world for you and it’s good, girl. It’s one of my favorites. Perhaps I’ll even have the presence of mind to quote Wendell Berry, who after all got me into this mess to begin with: “But faith is not necessarily, or not soon, a resting place. Faith puts you out on a wide river in a little boat, in the fog, in the dark. Even a man of faith knows that (as Burley Coulter used to say) we’ve all got to go through enough to kill us.”  

If in a little boat in the fog in the dark (with a fishing pole) isn’t the best way to send a graduate into the world, well I don’t know what is. Yet the ransomed will have their moorings aboard and an ever sure place to light. 

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What is our certain calling?
Blessed are we to be called to that which also fulfills our deepest longing: to have no gods before God and to love him with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength. To have no higher allegiance than to God Most High, to seek no other end of all our actions but making His glory seen, and to have no deeper affection than for Christ who is our life. Whatever our lot, we have all we need to fulfill this calling through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.

And the second calling is like it: to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Ex 20:3 Matt 22:39, Luke 10:27, 1 Cor 10:31, 1 Peter 1:6-7, 2 Peter 1:3, Col 3:4, Matt 5:16

Question #3 in this remarkable Catechism by Alicia Akins you should read here.

A Table Before Us

 

“Would you like something to eat?” 

Mrs. Ruby walked to her dresser, opened a drawer and lifted the delicates, to reveal a selection of halloween candy, two cookies and a yeast roll, wrapped up in a paper napkin. This was her table for me, the only one she had. Not good enough, but good enough all the same. I took a Reese’s and a cookie and sat on her bed. The chocolate had turned white and the shortbread was stale. “Thank you!” I said, eating them up and she smiled. She didn’t have her hearing aids in, but she was watching me.

“I’ve been saving them,” she said.

Two years later, I was called into her hospital room one morning. “Please, would you try to get her to eat? She hasn’t taken a bite in two days,” her children said. 

I sat beside her and we talked awhile, just taking turns and nodding, because her hearing aids had been lost during surgery. 

“Not hungry?” I yelled, pointing to the covered dish on the rolling tray.

“No, I’m not,” she said firmly. “They are putting medicine in my food and I don’t want it. A patient has rights,” she said, with that lovely thin finger in the air. 

I nodded my support and opened the cover off the plate. Her breakfast had grown cold. The grits were solidified and the scrambled eggs were too pale. Hospital food doesn’t exactly foster the will to live. I opened a little syrup container and poured it over the sausage and jellied the biscuit and started eating. Mhmm, I said. 

Her eyebrows raised. She was watching me. “Is that real maple syrup?”

I looked down at the label. “No—” I said but with a smile and a nod, for the Greater Good. 

“Want some?” I offered her a bite from my fork, and she took it.

Back and forth, we ate the biscuit. It was her last meal, and my last in her sweet company. It wasn’t great, but it was good. It was good to be together. 

Twenty years ago, I was lifted up onto a washer machine by my grandfather. He popped open a can of Vienna Sausage, and using his Old Timer pocket knife, offered me a bite. Even then, I had a general understanding of what real animals look like prepared for eating, and this clearly wasn’t one of them, but I opened up all the same. 

There isn’t much I can talk about with expertise or standing. In order to be professional at something at the age of twenty-six, you have to have been born into it. People sometimes ask me for advise on ministering to the elderly, often their own family members who won’t quite trust them for whatever reason. The best (and sometimes hardest) counsel I can give you is to eat with them. Eat their own food with them, whatever it is. It’s like any other kind of kinship. With all love there is an element of shame. Presenting our food is like nakedness, sharing it, an intimacy. Will they despise me, laugh at me? If you don’t understand this, you’ve never been a kid at a school lunch table, with a red cabbage burrito inside your lunchbox, surrounded by PB&Js on square white bread and lunchables. I couldn’t muster the courage to bring it out. I chose to starve. Food and shame, shame and food. With children and the elderly these things are just more upfront. They are fragile, closer to God. Yet loving them is simple. Just sit down and offer that toothless man who is so uncertain of what you think of him and so fearful of life and death, a sip of your milkshake.

 


I opened the door to the big brick house the other day. “Come on in Honey, it’s good to see you. Before you do anything, I want you to go to the back fridge and get that slice of jello mold. They had it at the church social last week and I want you to taste it.”

I do not like molds, dear reader. Or sugar-free jello, highly marketable for the elderly, or mini marshmallows or Red Dye 40 or food that comes home to linger for days after surviving a church social. Call me a people pleaser, but the only thing that sounds worse is hurting the feelings of a good woman. So I ate it, glad to find pineapple and pistachios there on the bright side, and felt the conviction that jello molds are, after all, not a thing intrinsically evil and thus capable of redemption in the fullness of time.

But Aspartame will surely be put under His feet before the last enemy is destroyed. 


See Also:   Table for Three and Mrs. Ruby at Sea

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New Things Coming On

     My grandfather lived with an abiding shame from the sins of his part in a demoralizing and confusing war. He never told me what happened on VC Hill in Vietnam. I learned many of his secrets before the end, even honorable things he covered over, but not that one. I thought for sure it would come, for he was, in his own words, like an old refrigerator, can’t keep nothing. But I was wrong. I expected confession and fear, but none came. I had the right answers about forgiveness and assurance prepared, but I didn’t need them. I was ready to run the distance between him and his God. Instead there was only a firm pressure on my shoulders, pushing me into a chair. Sit down. 

     Almost two years have passed and looking back I occasionally wonder if I missed some moment of ministering to his spirit. Maybe he roamed over VC Hill while I was sleeping, but I don’t think so. He was peaceful throughout, but so quiet. Where are you? I wondered, watching the movement of his sleeping eyelids. If he was entering gloryland, all bright like the Mount of Transfiguration, why wouldn’t he say? But perhaps his response was what Peter’s should have been. 

     Like Peter and myself, my grandfather had a big mouth and a fearful temper. I don’t wish to make light of it. Anger is a grievous sin, and putting people back together isn’t so easy if Jesus in the flesh isn’t standing right beside you. The last thirty years of his life, my grandfather became a faithful, active member of a church, setting himself apart from many generations of fathers and brothers who were too proud to submit to and serve a group of humans they wouldn’t care to go on vacation with, or any group of humans for that matter. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t hurt and get hurt in that church. Truth be told, there was a man he didn’t like and it was fairly obvious that man didn’t like him either. And that man was the pastor. He was much younger than my grandfather but he became sick and died several years before. His name was Jack.

     One evening on his deathbed, my grandfather did some talking. When this happened, everyone in the house would gather around and piece together his meaning and when it was over, I’d write it down. This time, he looked from spot to spot in the ceiling and on the far wall with recognition at a familiar, invisible face, as if they were truly there before him. No actor could have put on a show so thoroughly convincing. With one he giggled and made funny faces. It was too perfectly ridiculous to be one sided. That’s when it fully came to me that whatever he was seeing was as real as the world we’re part of. It was like the feeling of reaching into a laboring doe to readjust the position of the baby, expecting everything inside that secret place to be strange and untrue, then suddenly knowing in that otherworld the familiar form you’ve held a hundred times here in the shadowlands: soft hooves, bony knees, floppy ears… beautiful, just out of sight and nothing to fear. Perhaps it was Donny Willoughby he saw, his best friend as a child, or one of his brothers. Then he turned to look at a new face and said kindly Jack. What Jack? What’d you say? He looked as if he was straining to hear, eager to listen, as you would to the distant voice of a long-missed friend.

    My mother, who is never one to leave a mystery behind through delicacy got down in his face and said, Jack? Jack who? She said his last name, in question. My grandfather turned to her annoyed, interrupted. Of course, he said.

     Over the years I had joined the counsel of reasonable women to lecture him about his feelings toward Jack. We had the right answers and laid them on thick, and rightly so, but it didn’t amount to a hill of beans. So we washed our hands of it and secretly questioned the sincerity of his faith, to let an offense live so long. We women know how to handle these things. We don’t leave them laying around for people to see, like an over-stretched undergarment. But my idea of a fitting resolution to this distance between church members could not have been so glorious, no, nor so perfect as what God brought to pass in his infinite wisdom. What kind of storyteller expects anyone to believe the kind of things we see in this life alone? The threads of his work aren’t tidy, and sometimes they can’t be followed and they break off in all the worst places, but in the end you see it secure and whole, and not the dishrag you imagined at all, but a tapestry filling the whole world, with every scene more beautiful than the last, where those of a cool unfriendliness meet over a hillside and listen to each other, where sad old things have passed away and you feel a pressure on your shoulders… for it’d really be wise, my friend, to sit down for the sight of all the new things coming on.

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My sister said this ended too quickly, but it’s as far as I can see at present. Perhaps, one day, more. I had a piece published recently here, if you’d care to read it. In other news, Spring is here. The trout lilies have bloomed, the little brown jug is back, the bluebirds are building their nest, the goats are great with kid, the hens are broody in the egg boxes and when I asked Dad just now if the baitfish were spawning in the shallows, he said defensively, “Who wants to know?”

So I suppose you and I must draw our own conclusions.

Our Common Life

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Do you like my mule? Isn’t she grand? Annie drew her for me.

“I need a mule,” I told her in the church foyer, while the bells rang. “But just a simple one. It could even look like a donkey.” I like to say things like that to her, just to watch her face retain its serenity and composure.

Annie is something special. Besides being an artist, she’s also a mighty fine seamstress, specializing in authentic reproductions for reenactors, and she’s the proprietor of a rare and vintage bookshop. She speaks thoughtfully, walks quickly, loves patiently, reads avidly and if you need a knife, she’s got one. She’s also one of my very best friends.


I’d like to say welcome and thank you to the new readers, and the old ones, too. There are many other places you could be right now, in this land of a thousand doors, and I’m sure honored to have you here with me.

I’m sitting at my desk. There is a vase of wilted daffodils and too many books, mostly ones I’ve read and can’t stand to put away. There is a mountain of laundry downstairs and a greenhouse that needs watering outside. I haven’t made my bed because a cat is curled up in it. I went to sleep last night thinking I needed to love people better than I do, and woke up wondering if someone left enough coffee in the pot for me. Somehow I feel the need, even in the ordinariness of my subjects, to warn you against thinking I have something you don’t. Your life is worth words, dear reader, and I hope that’s what you get from mine.


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In the loft of my parent’s house, I work part-time as a seamstress for an ultra-lightweight hiking apparel company. I do this in the evenings when everyone is asleep and I listen to podcasts, often about infectious diseases or conspiracy theories, which serve as a substitute for coffee. It’s hard to fall asleep on the job when the little grey cells are busy with the incoming news that Bigfoots (the correct plural) prefer Poptarts to just about anything else, and if I miss out on the history of hantavirus in Finland while the machine is going, I really haven’t missed anything. This is noise. It’s fun, sure, if you like that sort of thing. But it hasn’t produced anything in me, useful or beautiful. 

     So I cut it off last night, to listen to the house I could live in blind on the dark hilltop, but it was freezing outside for the first time in many weeks, and all was quiet, even the spring peepers. I didn’t think of anything for awhile but the fabric and pattern, the razor blade and pins. None of the bearded men on Youtube need pins, but I do. I sat down to make the round stitch for the heel, then laid it on my lap to secure to the next piece for the final seam. After that, I could be done. That’s when I noticed all the seams on my overalls. 

     I’ve never told you about the sewing before. There’s no shame in it, but as Reb Tevye said in Fiddler on the Roof, it’s no great honor either. I’m thankful for the job, but it’s just a job, and one that doesn’t bring me into fellowship with people who have stories. Except for when, in the quiet of the loft, I see that it does. It is no great thing to be an invisible worker, just one of many thousands at a post in an assembly line or a girl winding a bobbin in a dark house, unless people are born naked. 

     Look down at your seams dear reader for a moment and remember that “our common life depends upon each other’s toil,” as the Book of Common Prayer says, and consider how the life of that seamstress has touched your own and answered your want, and how the work you do not love to do, might be the most needful.

Make Welcome

     I spoke to a young woman in a parking lot one day last week. She was there to have an abortion. How old is your baby? I asked. Eight weeks, she said.

    Can I ask you.. why?

    I don’t want it.

    But is it alright to kill a person we don’t want?

    She cursed me, sufficiently and repeatedly with a four letter word I don’t even know the meaning of.

  I was still there when she came out again. She had taken a pill in the office and it was already working on her womb, changing the atmosphere into a hostile place. The slip of paper in her hand told her what to expect after Pill Number Two, told her not to look in the toilet. If she did, I knew what she would see.

   Oh, would she look? Would she see?

  She turned to me. Do you want my baby? she asked. I only nodded, because I did want her baby, but I sensed a lack of sincerity in her voice. Well, here you go, she said, and pulled down her pants to expose herself. She made the space between us inhospitable, because she didn’t want me either.

  This parking lot belongs to a large brick building in a nice part of town, a prosperous old Southern town, home of one of the most prestigious golf tournaments in the world, and about thirty people, not guilty of any crime, are killed and put in a freezer here every day. I drive past it all the time, and did today, as I took an elderly friend to the doctor, where there was a new form for her to fill out, including the question, “Have you been abused?” I cringed at the sadness of the question, and wondered what she would say, how far back her mind might go.

    Then she leaned in and whispered in that way old ladies have of informing half the room, “Why don’t they ask if I’ve been abusive? Nobody wants to ask that one.”

    Now, this woman has been hurt. Not a year out of eighty five has gone by without a personal injustice, and some held a good deal more than others. But somehow, at some point, she was given eyes to see the hurt she herself had done looking back at her. You are the man as Nathan said, and with those painful words the hard-hearted king became a shepherd boy again.

    I have never been a mother, not even for a moment. But I’m glad to be a woman. I’m glad to be that part of creation made for the sake of man, and able to bear mankind. I’ve always believed it the greatest honor. Every month my body prepares itself for company, then cleans house only to prepare itself again. We biologically make welcome, and if we can’t for some reason, it concerns us. Unless we in our autonomy do it to ourselves. We fight to keep it legal, but no amount of legislation under the sun could make it right.

    I was in a big house yesterday, all richly furnished and clean. I was keeping the people, an elderly couple and a baby. The old folks slept, laid flat back on recliners, snoring. I sat in a rocking chair with the little girl asleep in my arms. She had hold of my hair so I wouldn’t lay her down. The afternoon light was coming through the blinds all golden. It had been raining and was going to rain again, but now the sun had come to set fire to the little dust motes no one was there to watch but me. There is something here, I thought, no, something missing. Someone missing. It was the woman of the house. I was just the help, yet here I was in the magic hour, keeping peace, witnessing the stillness of the sun between rains shining on the dust motes. It wasn’t right that it should be me, but that’s okay, because they weren’t paying me enough. Nobody wants to keep house anymore. Nobody wants to rock the baby.

     On the main road near the abortion mill, a beautiful woman stands with a sign most Saturdays. Her name is Mrs. Eva, and sometimes I stand with her. She usually tells me to go away, for the cold wind whips like nowhere else in the world around that building. You are too skinny to be out here! she’ll say, as if she wasn’t eighty-two. In Mrs. Eva’s presence, I often feel like my niece Adah, who wants always to be held just at dinnertime when my hands are busiest. Hold you, she’ll say. After hearing no a few times, she just valiantly climbs up my legs, and lo and behold, we find I can put dinner on the table and hold her at once, just as she suspected.

    Mrs. Eva stands for the unseen ones who enter the brick building and come out again in bags to be hauled away, sold for parts or burned, according to their usefulness. What happens here has all been made real to her. She sees them. I seldom have the eyes or strength to look, but I do see her.

    Mrs. Eva is a holocaust survivor. She did survive, just barely. At the age of nine, she was ripped from her home, forced on a train and into an extermination camp in Yugoslavia, where she witnessed and suffered unspeakable things. These abusers didn’t want to actually put the knife to the unwanted throats. No, they would just remove all subsistence behind walls where no one could see for reasons that sounded excusable at the time. She says there comes a moment, in your helplessness, when you can no longer watch what is happening, when the anguish is so great it will drive you insane, and all you can do is cover your eyes and try to run or hide. But if you survive, you will grow up and in some ways, you will recover. You will put on strength, God helping you. And then… then what? Well, there are lots of options for victims available today with a whole menagerie of hashtags. Or you could be like Mrs. Eva, who moves her old feet to the cold floor of a Saturday morning only to stand on a busy road to be cursed and spit upon, who feels the bitter wind up her spine and tells me to go get warm, who would be first to say I’m sorry, please forgive me, and come on in, who has, with all her cares, held my hand in the winter rain and prayed for me.

     I’m not a political activist. I don’t keep up with all the latest. Big things can happen in this world and I won’t know about it until I read the newspaper while mulching the garden six months later. I spend my days with the dying generation who remember as in a dream a place where men looked out for women and women looked out for children and children looked out for the stray cat, and that all sounds pretty good to me, and a long time gone. I’m just an American girl, a product of public schools, Disney and on a good day, Hank the Cowdog. But I’m also a storyteller. If there’s a tidy moral to these narratives, it isn’t yet obvious to me. I’m just here to tell you what I’ve seen lately in the parking lot, the waiting room, the big house and on the roadside.

    I’m just here to tell you a story, like Matthew when he said, Jesus called a little child to his side and set him on his feet in the middle of them all. “Believe me,” he said, “unless you change your whole outlook and become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of Heaven. It is the man who can be as humble as this little child who is greatest in the kingdom of Heaven. Anyone who welcomes one child like this for my sake is welcoming me.  (Matthew 18, JB Phillips)

       Maybe I do have something to say, a conclusion, however unoriginal: If you are a woman, be a woman. If you have a home, keep it. Don’t think you’re too important to witness the dust motes in the afternoon sun. If your mind is turned to the ways you have been hurt, consider longer the ways you have hurt others. And if you are a mother be a mother. Make welcome.


   I confess I am afraid to deliver these words, for the internet is like an over-grazed pasture, and I’ve always been one to step in it.