Monthly Archives: July 2008

Keep me honest…

I was at an old-fashioned church supper the other night. The memory of such meetings is an echo in some part of my heart; I grew up waiting in playground agony for the grand suppers after service on Sunday when all the mommas would gather in the church kitchen and shoo us kids away. But it’s been awhile since I visited the close, aromatic confines of a church-basement dinner. I do believe I was the only person under fifty as we gathered round a table heaped with barbecue and pickles and homemade cookies. It was a simple affair; vigorous feasting, leisurely conversation, and the laughter pricked out by a witty old man in a starched blue shirt as he handed out silly gifts to the blushing members of his congregation. At meals end there was a sort of hymn sing when everyone was sated and complacent and seated with their second bowl of fresh made butter pecan ice cream. But before we were called to a general chorus, the pastor got up and quieted us all down and said “we’d begin with a song from Brother Jim, who we know, loves to sing.”

And up stood this old man with tanned, skinny arms and ropy, muscled legs, wearing a big old t-shirt of royal blue with the sleeves cut off and out so that the unsunned part of his arms showed through like snow. He had a kind face, a round, good-natured shape of smile and a round, stubbly head that he bent with an easy solemnity over his music. As he sang his hymn, I saw only the side of his face with its slight wobble of skin around his chin, the downcast hood of his eyes.

He was neither timid nor over-sure in his song, but steady. His voice poured over his lips like water slipping over the rim of an old pitcher, clear and freely poured with an occasional bubble of vibrato or a rush of melody. He never looked up, but it wasn’t from shyness. No splinter of self-consciousness marred his ease. He sang, just sang. His eyes rambled beyond the papers in his hand as if he saw the scenes of the old hymn playing out before him in the vacant space just beyond his fingers. He fixed his sight upon them and opened up his voice and let the sight of what he saw flow down into his music.

And then he sat down and the pastor stood up and fifty more voices joined in a mighty, jarring chorus of revival hymns. But as we sang, the echo of that first song, and the gift of Brother Jim’s gracious, unassuming music ran through my head as a woven theme that subtly influenced the music I sang. And I realized that his singing changed the way I sang; for once, I didn’t think so much about myself, or even really notice my own appearance and performance as we sang.”Brother Jim” had given me a gracious, unassuming gift. The downcastness of his eyes and the simple surety of his voice didn’t require anything from me; no admiration or acknowledgement, he sang simply because God had given him music in his heart and he loved it. He made me want to sing in the same way. And so did the people around me; forgetful of myself, I watched them as we sang, the way their eyes rested easily on whatever was near, unconscious of the opinions or gaze of anyone else. I saw the way their hands tended to reach out to the other hands near them or clasp themselves together during the music. And then I bowed my head when the pastor closed us in prayer.

I closed my eyes and thought hard about what I was feeling and barely could name. But the first word that came was that here, on this night, everything felt real. Real? As if the other parts of my life were fake? No; but that evening there was a unconscious humility, an honesty of circumstance and personality, a free offering up of an unvarnished self that is surprisingly rare in my experience. I realized for the first time in awhile, how self-consciously I live most of my life. I couldn’t help but compare those humble hours to most of the church and ministry, or even modern events of my life; I find them startlingly contrived. Screens and soundboards and professional musicians for worship at church; streamlined sanctuaries and restaurants and malls and houses, all modern, clean, and free of any jolt of unsightliness. There is a showmanship, a self-aware drama to the way we modern people dress and talk and outfit our spaces and bodies. I find a performance aspect to our worship and to the services we attend; to the clothes and personality in which we attend them.

Can I say that the old way is better? Better than the enhanced version of humanity that seems to me to be so prevalent in my time? There are, of course, great aspects to modernity. I value a well-presented person. How can I ever really compare them, or defend the comparative merits of either when, as all people born, I am a child of my age? All I can say is that in that linoleum-floored basement with several dozen old farmers and retirees and their wives and children over a supper of barbecue, there was no pretention. No hipness of style, no varnish of performance or awareness of appearance.

There was just food, and old, plump people, and a sweetly given song and a score of scratchy voices lifted up in an earthy, sacred music. That night I found a welcome ease, an honesty of existence that didn’t require me to perform or project some invented version of myself. In their friendly ease, I found a glimpse of the real, rather comical, slightly unsightly, food and music and chuckle-loving sort of people that I really believe God knows we all are. That I am. In the air-brushed modernity of my age, I think I forget it. I feel watched and critiqued by every eye and I am quick to enter into critique myself. But I forgot to worry about it all that night and found myself far better for admitting my honest self in the presence of other honest selves. I think we are all rather comical, perhaps a little gangly, but the grace is that God loves every part of us, the gangly and the gorgeous. That’s what’s real. 

It takes a certain sort of being, a certain set of humble mind to live that out.

I do believe I’ll try.

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In Real Life

So, on Monday, I had the great and quite new delight of meeting Kimberlee, one of my “blog friends” in real life! There’s a strange and tingling sort of joy to hug a person you’ve only ever known through typewritten words and find they are full of laughter and spice and real, tangible friendship. During an adventure of a day (she’s a great sport) involving crazy drives, searches for a good restaurant (because unbeknownst to me, every cafe in my little mountain town closes on Mondays), drives through the Garden of the Gods, and a lovely tea as a storm came rolling in, we forged a fast new friendship. It’s so fun to find a common stream of thoughts in the brain of a new friend. So thank you Kimberlee, for a lovely day and a welcome friendship.  And watch out, I’m coming up to Alaska soon! You all should check out her very insightful and captivating blog about life and beauty and learning in Alaska: The Buggy Side of Dog. (Don’t you love the name?)

I am currently, and rather unexpectedly, in KY. Joel is on his way home from a music camp and I flew out to help with some driving and other fun things. It was kinda a spur of the moment thing, so I am reveling in the unexpected grace of a mini vacation at Gwen’s lovely cottage. I was greeted by the forgotten goodness of a southern summer dinner – there are a few things we just miss out on in CO. We had a feast of fresh corn on the cob, pickled cucumbers, hand picked salad, and the like. It was a welcome refreshment. When we lived in TN before, we used to drive up into the hills to the north and east of our home and find the Amish communities, following a rough map farm to farm in search of the freshest garden fruits. It was fun to taste summer deliciousness again. Then too, a blithe, blushing little rose was waiting on my bedside table and that is a welcome beyond words.

I am in a bit of a waiting pattern in my life of late… I have no definite news yet, and no sure decisions so I barely know how to articulate some of my current thoughts to you, let alone to myself. But I am learning much, pounding out new places in my soul, and one of them is a determined new capacity to live in the goodness offered now, in this moment. I’ll write more about it all soon. Meanwhile, may you revel in every summer warm, berry bright, firefly minute of these days. I’m certainly trying to.

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Happy Sabbath

“I feel just now,” said Emily, who couldn’t bear to hide anything from her father, “that I don’t like God anymore.”
Douglas Starr laughed, the laugh that Emily liked best…
“Yes you do honey. You can’t help liking God. He is Love itself you know. You musn’t mix him up with Ellen Grere’s God, of course.”
Emily didn’t know exactly what Father meant. But all at once, she found she wasn’t afraid any longer, she felt as if love was all about her and around her, breathed out from some great, invisible Tenderness. One couldn’t be afraid where love was, and love was everywhere.

-Emily of New Moon by L.M. Montgomery

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In the same vein…

I don’t think it is enough appreciated how outdoor a book the Bible is. It is a “hypaethral book” such as Thoreau talked about – a book open to the sky. It is best read and understood outdoor,s and the farther outdoors the better. Or that has been my experience of it. Passages that within walls seem improbable or incredible, outdoors seem merely natural. This is because outdoors we are confronted everywhere with wonders; we see that the miraculous is not extraordinary but the common mode of existence. It is our daily bread. Whoever really has considered the lilies of the field or the birds of the air and pondered the improbability of their existence in this warm world within the cold and empty stellar distances will hardly balk at the turning of water into wine – which was, after all, a very small miracle. We forget the greater, and still continuing miracle by which water (with soil and sunlight) is turned into grapes. –Wendell Berry
(Christianity and the Survival of Creation)

Interesting, huh? I just happened to reading those Berry essays this afternoon and ran smack into this.

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Better

God’s world, to me,

Is sometimes better than His word.

A heretic you say?

Then show me how a row of text,

Can echo grace like broad blue sky,

Will twelve-point type,

Trace mercy’s path as deftly as the stars?

Writer as I am, I must confess,

Words crumble with the burden,

Of my need,

To touch and taste and gasp,

God’s grace.

Cold terms of goodness sometimes leave me chilled,

An outcast,

From the thought they should reveal.

But wind,

Can breathe His mercy,

Sharp, like storm air fresh upon my face.

While all the black that stretches twixt the stars

Hints at the depth,

I keen to taste.

Words are bright… and brittle,

Sculpted ice that shimmers yet is frail,

Beneath the ray of light

Which is,

The speechless thought,

The nameless height and width and depth.,

Of Him…

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Sisters Adventure

Heigh ho from a stormy evening back from the first official “sister’s adventure”.

Joy and I hijacked the family suv and headed for the high, green hills. Back, as far back as a dreamy-eyed me could manage, into the mountains we drove, through perilous passes and river valleys that I had never known were within our reach. We stayed at a rambling cabin in an old, ghosty mining town, hiked red slopes with wild roses, listened to Middle Earth music through the greenest valleys and a book on tape through the high plains. Our itinerary included a tea house, an alpine slide, a B&B, and a family-run orchard on the western slopes of the Colorado mountains.

Joy and I are eleven years apart; I like this. It means there’s too much of a stretch in our ages for either of us to much care about competition; our worlds are quite distinct. But that makes it a rare boon when we have a stretch of time to our own two selves. I find that I have a best friend, a whimsical, quirk, gypsy kindred spirit in this golden haired, brown-eyed sister that I have loved since the night of her birth (I was there!). This is our first official expedition just the two of us. And these were the scenes I won’t quickly forget:

A world of butterflies.
“Go wander,” said the farmer, his eyes as bright with sympathy as ours were bright with pleading. So we did. The gypsy chant of a river was in our brains, the red energy of fresh picked cherries in our veins, and it seemed an awful sorrow to get back in the car when there was sun still dripping through the cottonwoods and hours of driving before us. Wrapping vines of moonflower round our wrists for the sake of enchantment, tucking clover behind our ears, we trod the beaten brown of oft-used road down deep into the valley. Peach trees, newly green and shy within their leaves nodded as we traipsed the narrow path and then… stopped. A lane of earth, laced by slender streams of water curved between the little trees. Unwitting, we stepped forward with tiptoe steps and then were stopped in shock and wonder by a sudden cloud of pearls. ‘Twas a mist of wings, a host of tiny butterflies that grew, glinting now with gold, with every forward step we took. We held out our hands and felt the brush of velvet, and then held them higher as seven lordly swallowtails joined the throng with their ebony and sapphire. For the length of a field we walked in a flitting world of butterflies and sun and soft, wet earth. I think we both would have liked to stay… perhaps forever.

Joy – the mistress of Imagination.
There was something about the little mining village where we stayed that piqued our curiosity. Old paths leading to abrupt ends in the river, mysterious paintings, a mountain trail twining up amidst gigantic red boulders with strange white markings on their slopes. Joy had an entire mystery begun by the time we left in the cool, bright morning. And as we sped our merry way through passes and forests and sudden valleys, she scratched away at a haunting tale in her brown leather journal. By the time we reached the last rush down the mountains, she had her play outlined and the characters set. We turned on our Middle Earth music to the most haunting, storm and shadow song, and she read me the tale of Brella and Caden, and their quest through the fell, enchanted mountains. To the west, a storm was brewing in navy, and the wind shoved our car nearer the old pines. Her eyes widened and she looked up, and there were worlds pooling in her sight. Ah, my Joy.

The presence that bides in mountains.
There is a wordless force of thought that thrums out from the heart of earth when it has grown up into pale, pure sky. It has a voice; soundless, fierce, that slips through the doors of my thought and takes the mastery of my sight. In mountains my eyes are no longer my own; entranced, I am forced to stare, to meet the gaze of cold stone peaks, to brave the awful glance of hills whose eyes are green and swift, so lit by a reckless, joyous light that I am cowed by their sidelong sight. Joy, as we drove the gypsy’s ribbon of a peak today, turned and said, her brown eyes solemn ‘neath her freckles, “do you know, the reason anything is beautiful is because it echoes whatever thought God was thinking when He made it.” And then I knew that the mountains have their mastery over me through the soul of their Maker, the soul that still inhabits every atom of their bulk, staring out in the points of brooding pines, in the hard grey slant of rock and the lilt of summer valleys.

A jaunt to be loved and remembered and brooded on a little more when I have time. For now, I give you all a hearty goodnight. We made it home! The news I posted about last time is in the maybe, maybe not stage, so I’ll let you know as soon as I know myself. And believe me, I hope its soon!

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