Monday, November 20, 2017

Thirteen Reasons to Keep the Doors Open

Pixabay
While fog wept outside the door, the air hung heavy with regret inside the old church building. Of the dozen people gathered around the table, only one was male. However, not even the virtue of gender could make Thomas Stone a leader. Thomas breathed a sigh of relief when Cora Wilson called the meeting to order. As church clerk, Cora was the last, and highest, vestige of authority left. The pastor had departed in disgrace, leaving a decimated congregation in his wake.

Cora carefully explained the situation. She didn’t miss a miserable detail—which was why she was the church clerk. By the time she was done, it was painfully clear that the options were few.

“So, what do we do now?”

Matilda Manheim was 84. Faded blue eyes shifted slowly from one face to another, challenge written in every glance and punctuated by her terse words. She was a charter member of the congregation, had survived two world wars, the Great Depression, been widowed and left destitute at the age of 40, and still raised three fine sons on her own. Tillie wouldn’t give up without a fight—and she still had plenty of fight left in her despite her age.

“Maybe the denomination could help us out?”

This come from Sadie Waters, a quiet, tremulous voice that caused Matilda to crank up her hearing aid so that she could catch every word. Other voices answered.

“Fat help they’ve been. Wasn’t it them that insisted we pay the pastor a year of severance? Darn near broke the bank.”

“Yah, we got to show Christian love, which was more’n he showed us with all his high jinks.”

Cora could tell that the conversation was headed downhill—and quickly. There was still a lot of healing needing to be done. The wounds were still seeping.

“No use us crying over spilt milk. What’s done is done. We have to move on; to think about our future.”

“They could help us find a new pastor,” insisted Sadie.

Jane Stephens sighed, still smarting from the severance issue and her husband’s resignation some months previously from his position as treasurer and church member.

“Who’s going to come to a church with a dozen members left, most of them women, no money, and a rotten reputation in the community?”

Another nail smashed into place in the church’s coffin. In such a small town, news traveled fast. Months of conflict between pastor and people hadn’t stayed a secret for long, especially as members abandoned the battle to find peace in other places.

“Nothin’ wrong with women,” muttered Matilda.

“Nothing at all, Tillie. It’s just that none of us are wage earners, not even Thomas. Pensioners can’t carry the church.”

With great tact, Cora left out mentioning single mothers like Sadie, and women like Jane, who were financially dependent on their husbands.

Now there were lots of voices, all with problems, not a single one with solutions.

“Most of our best workers are gone. We need people, even one person would be an encouragement.”

“Preferably one who doesn’t know all the gory details.”

“Now you are asking for a miracle.”

This time it was Tillie who brought the group back to order.

“Are we saying that we close the doors of the church?” she demanded. “If one person can make the difference, God’ll deliver him. Did we lose our faith along with our pastor?”

The silence provided the answer to the question Tillie had left twisting in the cold wind of despair.

Suddenly the outer door swung open and a blast of moist air swept in, pushing an older man ahead of it. The stranger was decently dressed, but looking a little disheveled.

“I’m sorry to disturb you. My car broke down at the end of the lane. The fog is so thick that I feared getting lost while I went for help. I’m looking for 57 Birch Street.”

He laughed as he removed his hat.

“Imagine not being able to find your own house, but I just moved here. When I saw the light from the cross on your steeple I knew that God hadn’t abandoned this old retired preacher.”

The people seated around the table looked at each other in awe. For the first time, Thomas Stone spoke up:

“Welcome, Pastor. We’re what’s left of Bethlehem* Church.”

He turned towards Tillie.

“It looks to me like God might have just provided us with our baker’s dozen.**”




*Bethlehem means house of bread.
** A baker’s dozen is 13.

Friday, August 18, 2017

The Argument

Pixabay
The sounds come tumbling,
Cresting the tip of the tongue
With the suddenness of a Spring flood.
Will the force of the argument,
By its sheer volume, dissolve my banks?
Or will reason sweep your detritus away?
You speak. I answer.
Is it you who blithers and blathers?
Or could it be I who dithers and dathers?
Perhaps both.

There is an eddy in the mind
Hidden from the swirl of verbal emoticons.
It says maybe I’m right. Or maybe not.
But the dam must hold against the torrent.
A thought rushes by,
Though, tossed by the current, it passes
Before I can net, then dry it in my mind.
I respond to what is already gone.
Feeling foolish as soon as the words are launched.
The flow has swept both thought and response far away.

Why do you imagine I don’t know?
Why do I think you don’t understand?
Even as the tidal wave subsides
I feel a malevolent current underneath the surface.
Lapping gently, but determinately,
Wearing away that which holds the argument secure.
I resist, shoring, buttressing, sandbagging.
It is no longer the argument, but the principle that reigns.
Do you feel the same?
Does the argument weaken even as the resolve grows stronger?

An ocean is full of things the same, yet different.
Each is right and none is wrong,
Divine absolutes cannot be changed.
But are yours divine? Are mine?
I hug that truth, fearful of allowing it to surface,
To face the light after the dark depths of mind.
You too, I suppose, must wonder
If the storm of opinion has stirred up muddy waters
Disguising truth, faking fact.
Do we hold tight to water in a sieve?

I let my river run again,
Though this time damming its flow.
It is not weakness that stems the tide,
But caution instead.
A strategic retreat, a reversal of the tidal bore
That signals, not defeat, but assessment.
I know, and I think you understand.
You understand, and believe I know—
Something.
And for the moment the waters are still.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Returning Point

Pixabay
The wood creaked as the old man pushed the window open as far as it would go. During the heaviest rains it had been swollen by the damp—and kept firmly closed. Now, dried out, and with the rain stopped, the wood yielded to gentle persuasion, allowing bright sunshine to enter.

Noah shielded his eyes against the brilliant light. He’d opened the window when his floating zoo had come, with a decisive thump, to rest against the mountainside. He hadn’t seen peaks—or sunshine—for a long time. The air smelt blue not green, like water not grass. The birds he loosed came back, unable to find a place to land.

So he waited, opening the window and looking out every day, curbing his impatience. All the inmates were restless, anxious to get out, to feel solid ground under their four feet, two feet, ten feet, three hundred and fifty-four feet, or no feet at all.

They were all that was left, too few to afford to make a mistake and leave the safety of the ark before God had made adequate provision for them. Everything else was gone, a world scrubbed clean by the brush of the Almighty.

They would have to start again.

But the birds had kept coming back.

Then the last one didn’t.

Like an old hound, Noah sniffed green on the breeze, heard the Voice, and turned toward his traveling companions bunched up behind him.

“Out!”

Years later another old man stood outside the entrance to the great city, staff in hand, watching a floodtide of humans and animals flow past, heading toward the wilderness.

They carried, carted, or drove everything they owned—along with bags and chests of items that their “hosts” for the last four hundred years had eagerly thrust on them. Was it compensation for years of ill treatment? Or desperation? The cries of bereaved Egyptians could still be heard even above the tramp, shuffle, and creak of the Hebrews.

When the crying stopped and the anger set in, Moses knew that they would be pursued. He shaded his eyes, looking to see if the end of the column was visible yet. They had to hurry, get as far as they could as fast as they could.

For Moses, what was happening on this day was a kind of redemption. Years ago he had tried to do what God had done today—rescue his people. He’d failed miserably. He carried that failure into the desert. Now, a better and more humble man, Yahweh had brought him back to Egypt, to do it right, to take His people toward a brighter day and greater prospects.

“Forward!”

Forty years later Moses was dead. Joshua felt his absence. For all those years he had followed the old man, listened to his instructions, obeyed his orders, and seen God work through him. Now, the newly-minted leader stood on the shores of the Jordan and wondered if he was capable of wearing Moses-sized sandals…or if he wanted to.

He’d witnessed the stubbornness of the people Moses had led out of the Egypt. Just because those he was leading were of a new generation didn’t mean much. They still had the same genes, and the same propensity to want to do their own thing their own way.

Across the river lay fortified cities, and people stronger and more numerous than the Hebrews he led. He had seen them. Though he knew that Yahweh would give them what He had promised—a homeland—he also knew that gaining it wouldn’t come cheaply.

Still, it was a new beginning. At long last, entrance into the land promised to their forefather, Abraham, awaited them.

The priests stood at the edge of the river. Between them, carefully carried, was the Ark of the Covenant that represented the promise the great I AM had made to them—and the commitment they had made to Him.

They waited for Joshua’s command. Behind them, still and silent, were the soldiers and the citizens of this new nation.

He shrugged off the heavy cloak of his fears, remembering that late night encounter with Someone much senior to him. He may have succeeded Moses as leader but he knew he wasn’t the real commander.

He raised his spear.

“Cross!”

Yes, cross—another new beginning.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Coroner's Report on the Soul of a Nation

Pixabay
I hover, reluctant to detach myself from what has been my home for one hundred and thirty-two years, six months, ten days, twelve hours and fifty-seven minutes.

It isn’t that there haven’t been other moments, similar events and rebellious people just like these, who have threatened my existence before this. Oh, there had been plenty of those! But the Soul-Giver, forever creative and extremely patient, has always made a way to rewind that clock, overcome those circumstances, move or remove a nation.

Sometimes the adjustments have been substantial; oftentimes just big enough to keep me going for a while longer.

My intimate connection to the Soul-Giver prevents me from even considering that the Giver Himself might be cruel or unjust. I accept that my reason for being includes abuse at the hands of those to whom I have been entrusted. The Giver has decreed that no sacrifice is too big, no effort too great, in the quest to restore creation. And so I have continued to root out evil, to stand for truth and right, to promote peace and exercise kindness in spite of every obstacle and every defeat.

But this day has finally come; the day I have longed for, but dreaded as well. The Soul-Giver enfolds and caresses me. This is the good part. He speaks to me gently, without reproach, assuring me that none of this is my fault.

Enough now, my gentle essence. You have fought bravely and done all that you were able to do but the time has come for you to step back, and for me to take a different tack with this part of my creation.

I shudder, for I remember only too well another time when the Soul-Giver gravely pronounced these very same words. I know what they meant to a wayward people He had rescued from slavery and who had thrown that freedom back in His face in order to chase after delusions. The meaning of the Soul-Giver’s words to this new nation and generation is the part I now dread anew. And I weep, for I know what is about to happen to another people who have trampled underneath their feet the heart and spirit of the Soul-Giver.

What little light that flickers against the dark of evil will soon be gone. The sun will continue to shine, but what good is that to blind men? The grapes will ripen; sweet and rich on their vines, only to turn to vinegar in the cask. The harvest will be gathered only produce worm and weevil in the storehouse. Men who dispensed injustice will themselves seek Justice only to hear her mocking laughter as they stare in dismay at their reflections in the cold polished marble of her halls. Club-footed, love twists inward. The gold standard of truth turns green; raped of her purity, beaten and unrecognizable.

My greatest desire is to stay longer. Perhaps there is still something I can do. But I hear the voice of the Soul-Giver speak again:

No, no more. It is too late. Go back, my precious essence, rest and recover. There is nothing more for you to do here. There will be other battles for you to fight, other hearts to touch, other lives to change. These dead can no longer hear your voice.

And at that, I back slowly away, the last vestiges of light and warmth clinging to me. For a while no one will notice that I am gone. It will be “business as usual”. Life will go on until the smell of death grows so strong that even the dead can no longer stand their own stench.

I, the soul of this nation, distance myself from my charges. Though bruised and battered, I am reluctant to go, but unable to stay. But I guard within me the nature of all that is my Maker and because I know that nature, I also know that I will return.

So justice is driven back, and righteousness stands at a distance; truth has stumbled in the streets, honesty cannot enter. Truth is nowhere to be found, and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey. The Lord looked and was displeased that there was no justice … so his own arm worked salvation … “ (Isaiah 59:14, 15, 16b NIV)

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Jail House Rock

Pixabay, Public Domain
Sy and I were minding our own business, just shooting the breeze as we walked. We’d landed in a pleasant enough place, met some nice people. In fact, we were on our way to the river to meet up with some of the gals from the church. They were into praying — the girls seem to do well at that for some reason — and if we didn’t move it, we were going to miss the announcements (we like to get them out of the way first so as not to disturb the flow of the worship). I was already warming up my vocal chords:

Gonna lay down my sword and shield, Down by the riverside, Down by the riverside …*

Not exactly a worship song, but it was my own personal favourite seeing as how I’d spent a lot of years fighting against the followers of The Way before God got my undivided attention.

I was kind of hoping we could get through the center of town without that crazy fortune-teller appearing. She, or her handlers, always seemed to know where we would be at any given time. Mind you, we never made any secret about our schedules. The whole point of being in this town was to talk about The Way, and a public forum was the best way to do that.

Under different circumstances, the girl could have been a poster child for our movement. For days she had followed us, but instead of saying whatever it was she was supposed to say to earn some bread for the dudes who skulked around behind her, she always ended up preaching. It was a good message too: “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.”** Sy joked that if I wasn’t careful, I’d lose my job. Fat chance, says I, the Boss told me I would preach in Rome and since I hadn’t been there on either of my previous foreign trips, I figured I was not going to join the ranks of the unemployed anytime soon. Besides, the church wasn’t ready for women preachers — yet!

Well, I decided if she was going to preach, she might as well do it from personal conviction rather than against the will of the snake that possessed her. As she appeared at the head of the street and came toward us, I met her with a divinely inspired message of my own:

“In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!”***

It seemed that no one but the girl and us was happy with the result. The town went into a major meltdown. Next thing you know we’re being hauled into court, beaten and thrown into jail. Sometimes, you gotta wonder how a day can go south so fast. Personally, I call it “The Joseph Syndrome.”

Since we couldn’t think of anything better to do with our time — seeing as how there wasn’t anything better to do with our time — we picked up where I’d left off in the morning.

Gonna put on my long white robe
Down By the riverside
Down by the riverside
Down by the riverside
Gonna put on my long white robe
Down by the riverside
Ain't gonna study war no more.


It was a long song, and we sang all the verses, interspersing them with the prayers we had not quite gotten to earlier in the day.

There were a few other unfortunates in the hoosegow with us. They didn’t know the words, but by the time we got to the last chorus, they were humming right along:

Ain't gonna study war no more
Ain’t gonna study war no more
Ain’t gonna study war no more …


The earth shook. At first, I thought it was just my enthusiastic toe taping despite being in stocks. The crumbling brick scattering dust on my head, doors jumping from their hinges and chains snapping at wrist and ankle, clued me in. God was adding a big bass to our meager melody.

It never occurred to any of us to run. Besides, I had a feeling that someone else might need help laying down his sword by the riverside that night. As we waited for God’s encore, I wondered if the world was ready for a new genre in music. I’d call it Jail House Rock. That seemed appropriate.




* Down By The Riverside was originally written for the Boy Scouts
**Acts 16:17
*** Acts 16:18

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

One Little Snowflake


Once upon a time, long ago and far away there was a little snowflake. She was one of many waiting her turn to announce the coming of yet another winter season. The delicate embroidery of each flake had been lovingly crafted by the Master Snow Maker. Still, the little snowflake felt lost and forgotten in the presence of the bigger and more complex designs.

As her time approached, the little snowflake grew more and more worried. “I can’t do this,” she whispered, for she was afraid of what might await her out in the outer limits of the heavens.

The little snowflake made one last appeal to the Master Snow Maker. Perhaps he would have compassion on her and let her wait until she too, was bigger and better.

However, he shook his head, and with a wise smile, eased her out the celestial windows along with a multitude of others whose time has also come.

“You may not become the cusp of the biggest snowball, or the cornerstone of the strongest snow fort. You might not be the first to signal the coming of winter, or freeze into perpetuity in the still waters of a waiting stream. But, you’ll be exactly what you were meant to be just as you are. You will do what you were designed to do-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o …” and his voice drifted away as she fell further and further into the dark night.

For a time she lost sight of the rest of her companions as she drifted down through puffy clouds. She was teased by gentle breezes and tossed by some that were not so gentle. Now, more than ever, the little snowflake felt small and oh so alone.

As she drifted through the blackness, she tried to remember all that the Master Snow Maker had said. “You are unique. You know that I never make even one snowflake like any other. Only you can be you.”

“But I am only one among so many,” she argued.

“You are still the only one that is YOU,” he patiently insisted.

The little snowflake felt her progress slow. The breezes had faded. The night was still and silent. The air was cold. She could see more clearly now. The clouds had drifted away leaving the skies intense with glittering stars. One in particular drew her attention. It shone more brightly than the rest, bathing the landscape in a warm glow that penetrated the cold and dark.

“I’ll head for that star,” she said to no one in particular. She picked her currents of air carefully and soon found herself under the pale light of the bright star. Below her, the little snowflake could see the outline of hills against the dark sky. Nestled among them was a village. Pale lights flickered from the rough dwellings, occasionally disappearing as their inhabitants went off to bed. Against one hill, on the edge of town, a shed rested, its tired beams sheltering the entrance to a hollow carved out of the hillside. The star on whose mantle she rode seemed to point the way to that unlikely spot.

Closer and closer the little snowflake came. In the light of the star, she saw that there were four-footed beasts huddled beside the humble shelter below her. Some of her quicker companions melted themselves into curly wool and rough hide. Others slipped through the gaps in the roughly hewn slats in the roof and came to rest on the woolen cloaks, weathered cheeks, and calloused hands of the sheep keepers seeking shelter inside the shed.

The little snowflake braced herself. Her end was coming. She wondered how it could possibly fulfill all that the Master Snow Maker had promised. She landed gently on soft and pure flesh; the tip of the tiny nose of a Child nestled deep in the straw of the feed box. He made no sound, no move to brush her away. She, so small and insignificant, would go unnoticed right to the end. Or, would she?

As the little snowflake melted into Him, she felt the warmth of His smile and sensed that, somehow, He had been waiting for her arrival. In a flash as bright as that of the star she had followed, the little snowflake knew in her deepest being that in finding Him, she had found everything and had discovered not her end, but her beginning.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Tinkle and Clang

A flurry of discordant sound announced the arrival of several sections of the bell choir.

“Move it, you three. You’re late and we haven’t got much time,” chimed the Bell Master from his place on the bottom rung of the carillon.

“Nag, nag, nag,” whispered the D flat to his buddy, C, as they climbed into their places on the top level. “What’s the hurry, anyway? Clang’s got his clapper in a knot for sure this morning.”

“Morning? It’s still dark outside,” protested the F major, breathlessly hauling himself up behind the others.

The smaller bells finally got themselves into place, just as Clang struck the note that indicated readiness and silence in the ranks. He looked around, carefully checking to make sure no one was missing. Worse than a faulty note was no note at all.

“Where’s Tinkle?” he boomed from his assigned spot.

Tinkle was the littlest bell of all. Her spot was high up at the top of the carillon.

Like an evil wind brushing through the tower, the rustle of the bells created dissonance as everyone looked around, hunting for Tinkle.

“I’m here sir. Just polishing, Bell Master.” Her clear, high sound rang out as Tinkle took her place at the apex of the musical arrangement.

“That girl takes herself too seriously. ‘Just polishing, Bell Master.’ As if fingerprints made any difference to anyone,” mimicked the D flat.

“You have something to share with us?” came Clang’s voice from down below.

Everyone froze. More than once Clang had said out loud that he wished they never had to have contact with their human counterparts—the evil always rubbed off a bit, like fingerprints on the burnished surface of a bell.

“Uhmmmmm, no sir. I was just, well, wondering what all the rush was about,” stuttered the offender. “It’s not even daylight yet.”

“Well, if—and I know keeping time for you doesn’t usually include knowing what day it is—you had been paying attention during rehearsals, you would have remembered that dawn today is the biggest moment of our year. Today we bring hope to the world.”

From somewhere in the middle of the bevy of bells came the dulcet tones of one of the G’s. “But, boss, do you really think anyone listens to us? It’s nasty out there. Everyone knows what happened to poor Liberty. Those humans are a mean lot and we don’t seem to be making much of an impact.”

There were a couple of chuckles from the group at G’s unintentional play on notes. The subdued merriment stopped as Clang’s clapper sounded for silence.

“I’ll admit that I sometimes have my doubts as to whether anyone gets our message, but that’s not the point. The point is that we have a message that we have been assigned to deliver, we’ve been practicing faithfully for this last year, and we are going to chime out that message no matter what. It’s up to the Master Musician to do the rest. So, are we ready? It’s almost time.”

The bell choir stirred, positioning themselves, clappers at the ready, all eyes on Clang.

“Tinkle?”

“Yes, sir?”

“Don’t forget, your part is critical. Sometimes people don’t hear the high notes, so you can’t hesitate or show weakness.”

“I won’t let you down, sir.”

Slowly the blackness outside the tower retreated before the insistence of the watery light of a winter sun. As it peeked above the horizon, Clang readied himself, gave the choir one last check, and nodded to Tinkle.

The high, light sound rang out loud and clear, followed by a rolling scale of melodious notes that reverberated across the awakening town.

Far below the tower, in the manse beside the church, a pastor looked up from his prayers. He had wrestled all night with his Christmas morning message. What could he say that would bring hope to a world where evil ruled men’s hearts, where even Christmas was banned with an “X”? How could he make sense of a world where, in the name of preserving peace, war was wrought?

He listened, remembered, and smiled. Hope was in God’s final note—which had yet to be played.

***************

And in despair I bowed my head/There is no peace on earth I said/For hate is strong and mocks the song/Of peace on earth, good will toward men/
Then peeled the bells more loud and sweet/God is not dead nor doth he sleep/ The wrong shall fail, the right prevail/Of peace on earth, good will toward men./
(from: I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day)