Wild and Sweet the Words Repeat

June 29, 2018

In his poem “Our Earth We Now Lament to See” [United Methodist Hymnal #449], written in 1758, Charles Wesley describes the Earth he sees as

“one wide-extended field of blood,

where men like fiends each other tear

in all the hellish rage of war.”

When I come across this poem in our hymnal’s ‘social holiness’ section, I’m always taken aback.  No wonder it’s not set to music!  But I’m glad we kept it.

In 1864, American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow surveys a similar field of blood. The American civil war has wrought inconceivable carnage and misery. Longfellow is grieving personal tragedies as well. So no wonder the ‘old familiar carols’  ring hollow for him. He appreciates the ‘chant sublime.’ But the words stick. Like a good psalmist, he admits his despair, and gives evidence for it. And then he chooses hope. What a very human poem! And how human of most churches to omit stanzas 5 and 6 from their hymnals.  True, seven verses are a lot to ask of a congregation.   But perhaps a bit longer reflection on the shadow side of Christmas would not be amiss. To my mind and personal experience, the wound needs to be named and named thoroughly before healing can happen.

“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1864

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Till ringing, singing on its way
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

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 to men.”

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound the carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn, the households born
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.”

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Christmas bells on Evangeline.  Evangeline–one of Longfellow’s best-known poems, also my street for 34 years. ‘Evangel’ means bringer of good news.  Remember though, much as we crave good news, we walk on two feet:  Joy and Sorrow.  It wouldn’t work very well to hop on one foot all the time. Or so I’ve heard.

 

Give Me Work!

June 29, 2018

Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might.

Ecclesiastes 9:10

At six months, my granddaughter is teething.  I had forgotten how challenging this is for everyone. Yesterday when I kept her she was out of sorts, and none of my tricks nor any of her teething devices did any good. She tried to be happy, she tried to smile. But tears welled up, she gnawed on her fist, and there was a piteous look in her eyes. My visiting friend remarked, “We all have days like that.” Which gave me an idea: Give me work!  I have mine, a baby has hers.  So I put her in her ‘office’ (her walker with toys attached to the tray) where she spent an earnest half hour, focused with all her heart mind soul and strength on manipulating the toys. With her right hand. Curiously, her left hand remained up. Invoking Heaven?  Enjoining silence? Or perhaps it was a right-turn signal?

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O thou small person, so dear: Blessings on the days ahead, especially on thy current work of growing teeth.

Love,

Honey

 

Proposal for a Bumper Sticker: How Is Your Log Removal Going?

And why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own? How can you think of saying to your friend, “Let me help you get rid of that speck in your eye,” when you can’t see past the log in your own eye? Hypocrite! First get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye.

Matthew 7:3-5

Hearing this first-century wisdom preached in twentieth-century Arkansas marked a big step forward in my personal engagement with the church.  I was six years old, or thereabouts.  It was if a light turned on for me. It was as if I thought, ‘ This Jesus fellow makes sense. And he just gave me a delightful shock. Something to keep me awake and growing the rest of my life.  As for church, I think I’ll stick with it.’

I would enjoy many more trips to Prescott with my family, and much more training and nurture at First Methodist.   For me, it was holy ground.  Then my grandparents were gone, and not much reason to return. Years passed. My last trip to Prescott happened in 2013, when Uncle Paul died, and we needed to clear out his house.  Now the venerable matriarch of the group, I insisted we go to church.  I took some pictures.  Couple of years later, looking at the pictures, I remembered some unfinished business.  Listen:

At sixty-something and sound of mind

And long in the Methodist church

I remember how it started

Finding a place to perch

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Perch at the church with my grandma

When I was six or seven

We prayed, and oh! we sang the songs!

I was sure that this was heaven

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Creaking pews and ladies in hats

And me so young and small

Dark polished wood and walls of white

Fans whirring on the wall

Velvet on stately upright chairs

For preachers and bishops I guess

Should a bishop appear of a Sunday

We’d want to do no less

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And there above the choir

Knocking at the door

Stained-glass Jesus with his staff

Stirred me to my core

Robed in red, gowned in blue

Poised to hear if I heard

Him on the doorstep of my heart

Waiting with a word

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And then the preacher, Brother DeBlack,

He talked to us a while

And I remember the story he told

And how it made me smile

He offered a pearl of teaching

Before me bright it lay

It opened the heart of a little girl

And stayed there to this day

A log and a speck, how funny is that

How delightfully down to earth

I heard it in Prescott, Arkansas

Ground of my father’s birth

To me it made such perfect sense

That one can hardly see

To take a speck from someone’s eye

When in your own—a tree!

A log and a speck, a speck and a log

A sprightly thought for me

A verse I heard in the Methodist church

How lucky can one child be?

But hearing it is one thing

And practicing another

For often still I find a log

And hypocrisy? Oh brother!

Quick to note transgressions

And take your inventory

Not so eager to list my own

Examine my part in the story

I have so many blind spots

And miss important things

Stlll God loves me, this I know

God’s wisdom round me rings

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Wisdom, and friendly reminders

God woke me, that’s a fact!

To take the time to send my thanks

To Brother Alfred DeBlack

Not him of course for he is gone

But I found an address for his son

My email flew to Arkansas

And I hoped he was the one

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Why, yes he was, and he was glad

To have a word from me

He’d been that day to the grave of his dad

Under a lone oak tree

Looking back was Thomas DeBlack

When I reached out to him

Just two ‘kids’ looking back to their dads

Remembering Alfred, and Jim

Our fathers, and other dear ones

And precious days of old

When we were, as we are, beloved

Lambs in the Methodist fold

A lovely if sentimental thought!

For Tom may be a lamb

I’m sure he is—I have no doubt

But that’s hardly who I am

I’m a lamb not always lamblike

For I can hurl lightning and frogs

But I can be better if I can beware

Of lurking ocular logs

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The teaching of Jesus hits us where we live. We cannot stand as humbugs before him for one second. He educates us down to the scruple…There is no getting away from the penetration of Jesus. If I see a mote in your eye, it means I have a beam in my own. Every wrong thing I see in you, God locates in me. Every time I judge, I condemn myself…I have never met the man I could despair of after discerning what lies in me apart from the grace of God… You have to walk in the light of the vision that has been given to you and not compare yourself with others or judge them; that is between them and God.

Oswald Chambers

Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. And do not judge and you will not be judged; and do not condemn, and you will not be condemned; pardon, and you will be pardoned.

Luke 6:36-37

And underneath are the everlasting Arms.

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Music of the Spheres

June 27, 2018

‘For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.’                                                                                                                          —Psalm 139:13-14

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In the July/August 2018 edition of Atlantic magazine, Nathaniel Comfort reviews Carl Zimmer’s new book She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity.

My first thought, prompted by the book’s title: What if your mother disappears?  Daughter keening for mother is a force with potential to break our hearts, wake us to outrage, move us closer to wellbeing for all.  Wellbeing for all. It’s a vision, anyway. Without a vision, the people die.  Without justice tempered by mercy, without critical thinking tempered by tenderness, the people die. If we won’t wake up and stay awake, we die. All at once, or a little at a time. So the prophet said.  Poor prophets, never popular!  But still they call it like they see it, those daughters and sons of the living God.

I remember when my own mother died, sixteen years ago.  Her sprightly mind had been gone for a weariness of years.  It was time and past time to rest.  But when she left, I was bereft. Even at 48, full grown and philosophical, the soft animal of my body cried out for mother.03 baby Phoebe, 1954.jpg

reaching for mother, 1954

Back to the book review. Here’s a paragraph that charmed me:

All of the heredities—chromosonal, mitochondrial, epigenetic—still don’t add up to your entire you. Not even close. Every one of us carries a unique flora of hundreds if not thousands of microbes, each with its own genome, without which we cannot feel healthy—cannot be “us.” These too can be passed from parent to child—but may also move from child to adult, child to child, stranger to stranger. Always a willing volunteer, Zimmer allowed a researcher to sample the microbes living in his belly-button lint. Zimmer’s “navelome” included 53 species of bacteria. One microbe had been known, until then, only from the Mariana Trench. “You, my friend,” the scientist said, “are a wonderland.” Indeed, we all are.

Mariana Trench. That’s deep. Ha! I wonder if God is smiling at how long it took us beautiful rowdy children of mothers to investigate a belly-button and find a universe.  Life-long learning in service to God’s highest–that’s our heritage, and our calling.

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All the heredities, all the flora, adding up to ‘you.’  You, my friend, are a wonderland! Did you know that if we could take the DNA in your body and stretch it out in a line, it would reach all the way to Saturn and back—seven times! Or so they say.

Speaking of Saturn:  a few years ago my alert and ever-helpful brother informed me that the Cassini spacecraft had taken and sent back to Earth a close-up photo of a profound oddity, namely one of Saturn’s moons: Phoebe. He offered headlines: “Scarred, Cratered Old Surface Points to Checkered Past.” “Saturn’s Moon Phoebe: Old, Beaten, and Still Mysterious.”

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Enchanted, I hastened to research and write an essay about this eccentric skull-shaped moon of Saturn, keeper of cosmic secrets, veiled until now.  She of the  tilted, retrograde orbit, circling Saturn ‘backwards’. She who by some reports came from the outermost edge of our solar system, to join Saturn’s other moons. Part of the circle, but keeping her distance–keeping to the vulnerable outer edge, flinging icy debris with each hit she took.  The mother of Saturn’s rings!

So I’m thinking, what might my “navelome” reveal? I do have some thoughts on that.

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‘This is my Father’s world, and to my listening ears all nature sings, and round me rings the music of the spheres.’  And underneath, the everlasting Arms!

The Subject is Shells

June 26, 2018

New day on Evangeline. As I walk into my kitchen in search of coffee I notice an arrangement on the wall. Who put that there?? How lovely!

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Some long ago “I” made that shadow box. Here we have a clue to one woman’s mind. Evidently she likes to curate creation.

It cannot be said enough: ‘The art of life is to blur the line between work and play.’

Well then! One day on Evangeline I find myself supervising some repair project or other.  Housebound.  Time passes.  More time passes…

Flash of inspiration!  Out come the shells.  Out comes the shadowbox, bought for the shells, for that elusive day when things ‘ease up a bit.’  That day is here!  Go find the ruler, and the glue!

Oh precious work of creation. Sun in the middle, angel wings, ‘macaroni’ for interest. And how do you like the plaid? Some Creator, yes? Seems God likes pizzazz.

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Later, the shells attract more beauty:  card from Brenda, angel from Kate. And here it all is, prepared by me, to bless some future ‘me’ and precious others on Evangeline.

I hearken back to another day, on Deauville Beach, in Delaware. This was, oh, nine years ago. There I was with Janice and Brenda, three ladies of a certain age, reposing on beach chairs.  Sea breeze, sun on our heads. Our hearts were full, for sure.  Someone should capture this moment, put it in a shadow box!  One joy I did capture was a mother and child, at water’s edge:

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Is that holy, or what?? But wait, there’s more.

I may have mentioned ‘ladies of a certain age.’   I don’t know why people, especially women, are so coy. In 2009 I was 55. There!

55 is a respectable age, a reasonable speed limit. Settled and sedate, less fleet of foot than we used to be, yes?  All the more remarkable what happened next.

Others were on the beach, younger, keener of eye. But it was I who saw the Miracle come tumbling out of the waves. Small form, growing larger.  I was transfixed, beyond speech. Why does no one see?  Is this moment really mine?

The Miracle leapt it sparkled it gleamed it rolled ever closer, seeming to say: “I am yours. Come and get me, my darling. If you want me.” Having spoken, it drew back, skittered back from whence it came. “I’m leaving now.  Come and get me. If you can!”

I was up like a shot, running like the girl I used to be, running to claim my prize.

‘Oh, be swift my soul to answer him; be jubilant my feet! Our God is marching on.’

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drying,  on a Delaware porch

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at home, in Southeast Texas

 

Her Life Lifts My Heart

June 25, 2018

Yesterday as we were circling up for Sunday school, the subject of trees arose, and took hold. This was not in my lesson plan! But one thing I’ve noticed and learned to love about leading a class: “The Spirit bloweth wild, high surging where it will.” As I pondered how I could work with the Spirit while easing us toward our lection—maybe I could say that Goliath towered like a massive oak over sapling David??—we spun tales of trees we love for their beauty and suffer for their messiness: limbs and sticks, drifts of dead leaves, gumballs on the ground, brown curlicues of pollen, yellow dustings of different pollen, brilliant red magnolia seeds smashed into driveways, magnolia cones thumping onto roofs—oh you magnolia! Good thing your flower is heavenly and your leaves so green, at least for some of the year. We spoke of the wisdom required to properly place a tree, that is, in a few years you will rue the day you planted a live oak close to your house. Naturally we couldn’t let the subject go without mentioning the sin of “crape murder.” Well, perhaps we accomplished as much in this preface to the lesson as we did the rest of the hour! For me, every moment was exhilarating.

Exhilarating. Life-breathing. Wisdom is a tree of life to those who take hold of her. So spoke the proverbist of old. Which brings me to my darling Chinese elm. Technically, she may be a lacebark elm. I don’t know for sure. I just know I love her! Listen to an essay I wrote a few years back. Listen, and see if it moves you to your own love song.  How dearly we need love songs about our particular corners of creation.  “A song, a chime, a chant sublime,” from our hearts, rising to heaven, for the healing of the world:

Chinese Elm

She has that certain something. Regarding her unusual beauty, people attuned to such things ask me what she is, where they can get one like her. Centerpiece of our small back yard, she’s a Chinese elm, thirty-five years old, arms outflung in wide embrace, to the fullness of her height.

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Springtime drops over those arms a shimmering frock of palest green, by which she captures hearts as surely as any Southern belle.

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In summer her greenery darkens. Her trunk and branches swell with vitality, flinging off gray curls of bark to reveal mahogany smoothness beneath.

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In the fall she sets seeds; they fly from her hands on brown-paper wings.

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In winter she composes herself to rest.   Her poise is a dancer’s, balanced, strong, her inclined stillness enlivened by a supple turn where she widens to meet the earth.   A bonsai master could not have posed her more charmingly.

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But it was Hurricane Bonnie, not bonsai, who shaped her when she was young, the storm twisting, then laying her flat. With hope, and help from neighbors, we hoisted her heaviness upright as best we could, staked her—and somehow she lived. Subsequent years brought more challenges—ice storm, Hurricane Rita, Hurricane Ike, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, severe prunings on her south side to render room for power lines. But in spite of all, this lady-tree grows more beautiful every year. Her life lifts my heart.

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She’s noted for her hospitality. Little boys enjoyed her shade; so did their dog, of blessed memory. In her branches, birds of every hue and feather—tiny wrens, fierce hawks—have sheltered, sung choruses, mated, or merely paused to catch their breath. You hear a northern cardinal? Look up. There he is, at her crown! Squirrels travel the highway of her arms.

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Yesterday I saw a curious sight: In the hot afternoon a squirrel was napping on one branch, smack in the middle of the highway, as if in his scampering he simply gave out—this far and no further. Maybe that droning cicada-music got to him. Who knows? Anyway, there he lay, spraddled on his stomach, chin on Mother Elm’s smooth skin, all four legs hanging down, tail stretched out behind. “Surely I have composed and quieted my soul; like a weaned child rests against his mother…” After a time he sprang up and resumed his travels.

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In Hebrew imagery, that which lifts the heart, reinvigorates, restores high spirits, is called a Tree of Life. According to Proverbs, Wisdom is a tree of life to those who take hold of her, and happy are those who hold her fast. Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths are peace. What do you think? Can one’s back yard contain Wisdom—an invitation to prayer, to the perfect stillness of divine embrace? I believe so.

 

In the Pink

June 23, 2018

For now, the rains have passed. For now, I can get out in my back yard and see such pleasant sights as met my eyes this morning:

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Pink, a lovely color! When we say ‘in the pink’ we mean in the best possible condition, especially of health. Energetic, upbeat, with glowing cheeks. As for me,

I wish I could say I’m ‘in the pink’—

that rosy thoughts are all I think—

Rosy for now, but in a blink

My face grows pale—my spirits sink…

Such an observation calls to mind another definition of ‘pink,’ familiar to you seamstresses and gardeners out there: ‘to cut or to pierce.’ Think pinking shears, and the cut-edges of dianthus petals.

I  am learning, as an awake person should, that life is not always ‘roses, roses, roses,’ and it does more good to work with this fact than resent it.    It’s like this:  I’m feeling sprightly this morning—grateful and alive, in my garden and energetically about my work.  Yet here come the waves of ‘cut and pierced.’ One reason: the soul-shredding of current events.  But chiefly because someone important to me has died.  My heart is missing my good friend and fellow teacher, who is no longer around to help me in the work we did for many years. When I check attendance in Sunday school tomorrow, one person will be missing. His spirit is with us, but his dear face? No more.

The fullness of these realities is what I have to work with today.  Today being all I have, and more than enough!  The poet Mary Oliver:  “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  Write an excellent Sunday school lesson, that’s what.  And present it well.

These body-blows of pain are our companions, yes? And increasingly so as we get older. As Willie Nelson sings, “It’s not something you get over, but it’s something you get through.”

And so pink can be our angel today. What heavenly news does it bring?  “Rosy cheeks and wounded hearts, intertwined. Life is lovely, and multi-faceted, and ever-evolving.”  As my friend of blessed memory put it, “We are enfolded in an unfolding mystery.”  And as I like to say, quoting Moses:  “Underneath are the everlasting Arms.”