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Down by the Riverside

Aging

Grinnell Glacier

     This fall, a photo of our eighteen-month-old grandson was featured on the Facebook page of a local cider mill as he took a big bite of one of their pumpkin-spice donuts. "Do you remember your first donut?" the caption read. With his beatific expression and crystal blue eyes, it's no wonder they picked him as their poster child.  "Dexi loves his donuts," his momma says.

     My husband, Ed, and I were "poster children" in a different setting several years ago. Though I've never seen our photo, I'm sure we didn't look nearly as cute as Dexi. Let me tell you how it happened . . . .
     We were hiking above the tree line toward Grinnell Glacier at Glacier National Park in Montana under a blazing sun on an unusually warm day—84 degrees. Other hikers we met looked disheveled and sweaty, too. "I've never felt it this hot at this altitude," one said. We'd come to Glacier National Park for the first big trip of our retirement because our daughter, Barbara, told us we needed to go "before all the glaciers melted." Under this sun, it seemed the glacier was, indeed, shrinking before our eyes.

     We were seventeen days and six hard hikes into the vacation, and I was feeling resistance from a body not yet reconditioned after too many hours in front of the computer during my last years at work. I couldn't jump up and go after long periods of inactivity like I once could. My feet hurt, the tendons in my calves were tight as bowstrings, and my lungs burned. We'd brought along our hiking poles, which helped us keep our footing on the steep terrain, but it was still hard going.  Ed said that this strenuous hike of eight miles with an elevation gain of 1,840 feet was probably our limit.

     At one point, the hiking trail crossed a waterfall that came straight down the mountainside to our right, sluiced across slippery shale, and then tumbled to our left over a sheer cliff to the valley below. Yikes. I walked carefully through the stream, trying not to look left.

     After crossing, I held my red bandana under the falling water and then tied it, dripping, around my neck. Half-an-hour later, however, according to Ed, my face was still red as my bandana. I felt every bit of sixty-two years old. "Sixty is not the new fifty," I said to him. I paused to ease the catch in my side.

     An energetic-looking woman approached us from the other direction on the trail. "Excuse me," she said enthusiastically. "May I take your picture?"

     "What?" I asked.

     "I'm teaching a class on healthy aging," she explained. "I tell my students they need to use walking sticks and not be afraid to push their limits."

     I snorted. "Us? Looking like this?"

     "Yes," she said.

     I hesitated. "Oh-kay-ay."

     I wondered if her students were adults or youth. I tried not to think about twenty-somethings with carefully-styled hair sitting somewhere in an air-conditioned classroom looking at a photo of these two geezers with red faces and sweat-stained shirts. I remembered a time two years before when Ed and I had been making our way slowly down the trail from the Maroon Bells, two peaks in Colorado, when a trim young woman in black tights and light hiking shoes looked at our hiking poles and heavy boots with pity in her eyes.

     I hate pity.

     "You'll be old someday," I had said to her in my mind. "Just you wait."

     Still, after the photographer of healthy aging clicked our picture, I had to admit to a secret pride. At least we were still on the trail.

     And, that evening, as we sat down to dinner at the Two Sisters Café in Babb, Montana, to rainbow trout and huckleberry aioli with grilled yellow squash, zucchini and red pepper, garnished with a cool slice of watermelon, and a hot popover, I felt a profound sense of gratitude. Such bounty, after such beauty.

     Even though my feet still ached, my veins tingled with fresh mountain air, and my mind scrolled through a continuous internal slide show: high meadows spread with wildflowers; the grainy gray ice of the glacier; and the deep, silty, greenish-blue water of Grinnell Lake.

     Now, when I fuss about the indignities of aging—more aches and pains, more medical appointments, more worry about whatever is coming next—I will try to remember these beautiful scenes. I told Ed that maybe I should also resolve not to complain about my ailments. But I'm not sure I want to do that. Why give up one of the perks of aging?

     "That's what old people do, anyway," Ed said. "Talk about their visits to the doctor and how many times they get up in the night to pee."

     Besides, you can learn a lot from such conversations. I may need to know who to call for advice: where to buy a lighter canoe; which surgeon does the best hip replacement; and how to survive the night times when a beloved companion dies.

     A ninety-year-old parishioner told me once, "Getting old isn't for sissies."

     We need each other's wisdom and forbearance now more than ever.

     So, whatever season of life you inhabit, whether your skin is soft and supple or dry and lined, may you give praise for the beauty you have seen. May someone listen kindly to your complaints. And, whatever our age, when other people look at our faces, may they see the grace of self-acceptance and gratitude for our span of days. 

 

"Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom." – Psalm 90:12 (NIV)

Playlist: "Otherwise," read by the author, Jane Kenyon, published in her posthumous collection, Otherwise: New and Selected Poems, 1996.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eQsSweF8F8w.

 

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Leap

     July 21, 2017. Ed and I were hiking the Garden Wall section of the Highline Trail at Glacier National Park in Montana.  

     And I was terrified.

     I had not known until that moment just how afraid of heights I was. This was Rockies high, an altitude of 6,647 feet at the trailhead at Logan Pass.

     It didn't help that that we had come to the hiking trail via an early-morning drive on the Going-to-the-Sun Road, a narrow, twisting two-lane road that winds over passes and curves between jagged cliffs as it crosses the Continental Divide. The shoulder of the road falls away precipitously on either side. I took little sips of the scenery as we drove, trying to appreciate it, but the heights, the drop-offs, and tight turns frightened me.

     It didn't help that I felt shaky, jacked up on caffeine, having slept badly the night before, kept awake by campground noises and anxiety about this day's hike. 
     It didn't help that when we arrived at the Logan Pass Visitor Center and opened the car doors, we were buffeted by a strong, cold wind. I hunched my shoulders and huddled in the leeward side of the door.

     Ed did not understand my hesitation. Being "steady Ed," calm and unflappable in any outdoor setting, he has spent many hikes waiting for me to step gingerly down a steep slope or shuffle toward the edge of a cliff. I remembered a time at Colorado National Monument some years before when we were hiking on bare rock that sloped down to a boulder-studded canyon far below us. Fear had prickled up and down my spine. Ed said encouragingly, "You can do this. Your boots will hold you up."

      I glared at him.

     At least it had been warm and sunny when we'd hiked in Colorado. This was neither. I zipped my heavy fleece up to my chin and tightened the drawstring on the hood of my rain jacket. Heaving a sigh, I stepped away from the car.

     We set out on the trail. When we got to the Garden Wall, I almost stopped. One writer describes this section of the trail as "the famous ledge with the reputation for terrifying those with a fear of heights." The ledge, which hangs like a shelf in the Garden Wall, is only four to six feet wide. Beyond the ledge is a sheer, one-hundred-foot drop-off to the Going-to-the-Sun Road below. "This segment lasts for only 3/10 of a mile," the writer adds helpfully, "but may seem forever if you have a fear of heights. Fortunately, the National Park Service has installed a hand cable along this stretch of the trail. Don't let this [challenge] deter you, as this is one of the most scenic trails in America."

     I did not use the hand cable. I had that much pride. And we'd brought our hiking poles. Keeping close as I could to the wall, I recited my own mantra: "Four points touching the ground: two poles and two strong boots." Whenever fear rose, I listened to the click of the poles and felt the earth beneath my soles.

     When other hikers blew past us, young and fit and confident, I said to them in my mind, "Pffft." And some other curses. But I kept on hiking.

     I also tried the technique of thought replacement. When fears about heights or bears (that, too) arose in my mind, I thought of our oldest daughter, seven months pregnant, and I prayed for her baby, whom I had nicknamed Blueberry. This will be the most prayed-for baby in the world, I thought, at least during our two weeks of hiking at Glacier.

     Another hiker passed us. "Pffft," I said. Out loud.

     We finally made it to our destination, Haystack Pass, 3.6 miles from the Visitor Center, and an elevation gain of 377 feet. The hike from Logan Pass to Haystack had been more than "scenic"—it was spectacular.

     We stood eye-level with enormous jutting peaks draped with fields of snow.  Waterfalls cascaded down steep green slopes or over rock slabs in tiered ledges or across jumbled stones. And the wildflowers! Blue, pink, yellow, white, purple, and orange flowers grew out of every crevasse and spread across the gravelly slopes. Fireweed, mountain lily, mountain gentian, rosy paintbrush, red columbine, angelica aster. Every turn of the trail showed us a different peak or different view of the same peaks—Mt. Cannon, Mt. Oberlin, Heaven's Peak. It was a garden planted by God.

     I actually enjoyed the descent back to Logan Pass, taking in the views and stepping with some confidence. Columbian ground squirrels scampered away from the path and hoary marmots whistled at us from recesses in the rock. We saw fresh bear scat on the trail, but no bear, which was fine with me. My anger at Ed and the other hikers dissipated with my sense of accomplishment. I did it! I did it!

     The sun came out and the air warmed as we drove back toward the campground. We swung into the parking lot at the Red Rock Overlook alongside Upper Macdonald Creek where swirling whitewater plunges into a deep turquoise pool. Shedding our heavy fleece, we climbed out on the rocks beside the creek, took off our boots, and put our aching feet into the cold water. I breathed deeply of the fir-scented air.

     As we sat, we watched a ten-year-old boy jump over and over again from the rocks into the pool. After each jump, he would surface, whooping, and fling his blond hair back and forth, sending droplets of water in a wide, sunlit arc around his body. Behind him were the mountains and the bright blue sky.

     "I want to do that," I said to Ed.

     "It will be cold," he warned.

     "Yeah," I said, "maybe I've had enough adventure for one day."

     I did not jump into the pool that particular day. But today, some five years later, I'm collecting rejection slips for my latest book, which feels much like hitting cold water, over and over again. With three unpublished books already stacked in my closet, I worry that this one won't get published either.

     Author Julia Cameron says that all artists have to deal with fear: "The fear of not being good enough. The fear of not finishing. The fear of failure and of success."

     Cameron says that "there is only one cure for fear. That cure is love." Love for yourself and love for what you are doing. You may not know the outcome, but all you can do is take the next step.

     What Cameron says is true for any human endeavor—starting a business, building a program, agreeing to leadership, creating a work of art, taking the risk of love. Cameron goes on to quote the American naturalist John Burroughs: "Leap, and the net will appear." *

     Whatever leap you are trying to make, I hope you can find some of the courage and joy of that ten-year-old boy.

 

"Perfect love casts out fear." – 1 John 4:18 (NRSV)

Playlist: "Rocky Mountain High," John Denver, Rocky Mountain High, 1972.


*Julia Cameron, The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, 1992.

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Church

     Some people may wonder why I speak so passionately and poetically about the natural world, yet do not speak in the same way about the church that was my life as a pastor for more than 35 years.

     Well, the woods never hurt me.

     And the church? Let's just say it's complicated.

     Apart from atrocities committed by the church through the ages—wars, crusades, inquisitions, and executions—I can think of too many times when people who called themselves Christians did physical or emotional damage to me or someone I love. Like the people who say that God considers my lesbian daughter an "abomination." Like the people who cheat their workers of fair wages on Friday and sing hymns on Sunday. Or Christian pastors who sexually abuse children, like my father abused me and other young women in the churches he served.

     It's enough to make you weep.

     And, I can think of too many times when I, a professed Christian, did damage to someone else. A vengeful act. A self-righteous remark. A turning away from someone who needed my succor or support. A hoarding of my wealth while someone else suffered want. When, by my silence, I allowed others to believe I condoned acts of bullying or injustice.

     There are prayers of confession, of course, for such sins of commission and omission, prayers that I learned from the church, which at its simplest, is a group of people who try to follow Jesus.

     Accounts of Jesus' life show that he never hurt anyone. He started out by proclaiming that God loved all people, but especially the poor and the hungry and the broken and people who'd messed up their lives. Religious leaders were so incensed that God might be lavishing love on persons they considered unacceptable that eventually these same leaders used the Roman government to secure a death sentence for Jesus.

     And Jesus had never hurt anyone.

     Nor would he let his followers hurt anyone in his name. When certain villages turned them away, and Jesus's followers wanted to call down fire from heaven on their ungrateful heads, Jesus simply said, "Move on." When the members of his inner circle tried to out-maneuver each other to achieve greater honor, Jesus reprimanded them. When the soldiers finally came for Jesus, and his right-hand man, Peter, drew his weapon, Jesus said, "Put away your sword." 

     Jesus never hurt anyone.

     Now that didn't mean Jesus was always nice. He called his opponents terrible names, notably, "a brood of vipers" and "whitewashed tombs full of dead men's bones," because of their hypocrisy. Jesus hated hypocrisy. (See paragraphs three and four above.) Jesus said that the very people these religious leaders were condemning would get into heaven before they did. 

     Yikes. It's hard to escape the conclusion that I am more like the religious leaders than the people they condemned. I'm a pastor, after all. 

     Which is enough to send me fleeing back to the woods. There is even a movement called Wild Church comprised of people who've had enough of what they call "indoor church." They do their worshipping out of doors. And, many, many other people have just quietly left the church I served for so long. Maybe they call themselves "spiritual, but not religious." Maybe they continue to do good in the world, righting wrongs or caring for people who need care, in the name of no particular god at all.

     So what do I do in the woods? Well, here's the funny part. Besides admiring the trees and dabbling my hand in the river and complimenting the wildflowers on how good they look today, I pray. I pray. Which sends me back to church, because, for better or worse, church is where I learned to do it first.

     I also have to say that some of the kindest, most generous, most self-sacrificing people are people I've met at church. Who have found the strength to care patiently for a parent with dementia year after year after year. Who travel around the country in their RVs to shore up walls or repair roofs or build homes for people who cannot afford it. Who decorate the church hall with rainbow streamers and black curtains and a disco ball, throwing a gala for LGBTQ teens so they will know that God loves them. At church I have met wounded people who have forgiven others terrible transgressions and simply moved on with their lives. 

     How do they do that? They say it's because of what Jesus has done for them.

     I was never prouder to be a United Methodist (my brand of Christian) than when thousands of us went to the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina to muck out flooded houses and help rebuild. Supporting the volunteer work crews were the prayers and money of people in the pews back home.

     I also remember when members of my former church raised $5,500 in one month to purchase mosquito nets and to dig clean-water wells for people in Liberia whom they'd never met so that the children and the old people would not be blinded by malaria or die of dysentery. 

     Of course, the church has no monopoly on good people. Or bad people, for that matter. When I used to complain to my husband, an engineering manager, about some churchly idiocy I had witnessed, he would say, "It's no different where I work." Then he would mutter something about "adults behaving badly." People are people everywhere.

     So, what should I do? Choir practice has started again. We sit up front on the stage during worship services, and I don't know if I have the wherewithal to face a whole roomful of church people looking back at me week after week. And yet these are my people. Their faces are my own.  

     What should I do?

     I could ask you to meet me in the woods and consider how the leaf-strewn path opens before us. Or we could meet at church, since Jesus called people like us, flawed and noble, into his circle of friends. The apostle Paul went so far as to call us the body of Christ—as indispensable to Jesus and to each other as eyes or ears, hands or feet. 

     If, some Sunday morning, I should sit with you in a grove of glowing maple trees, or watch with you how sunlight slants through a stained glass window, it would be the same trembling luminescence that shines through both. The light within us and beyond.

     Come. I'll meet you there.

 

Scripture: "We, who are many, are one body in Christ… If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it." –Romans 12;5, 1 Corinthians 12:26 (NRSV)

Playlist: "Holy Now," Peter Mayer, Million Year Mind, 1999.

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Wealth

     As fall deepens, and only a few tattered asters still bloom along the roadsides, I am beset with a sense of loss. Even the goldenrod is mostly gone from the meadow. Walking in the autumn woods, I remember the abundance of wildflowers here in May, flowers that covered the slope down toward the river and blanketed the upland hills. Little white cups with a circlet of yellow stars as far as the eye could see: wood anemone. Spring beauty was scattered profusely, too, with its veined, pale pink petals and lance-like leaves. Marsh marigold squatted in a little stream, water flowing around the green and gold island that it made. And don't forget the tender, waxy trillium nestled at the base of a black walnut tree.

     When I got home from my springtime hikes, I would pore over the photos on my phone and make lists of what I'd seen, counting colors and petals and leaves in a glory of acquisition, like my mother-in-law who would fling open the doors to her china cabinet so we could see the carefully-painted details on her collection of Hummel figurines.   

     I want that sense of abundance back.

     It doesn't help that many of my peers are experiencing other losses: of parents or property or mobility or health. And while retirement brings us freedom, with that freedom can come a loss of identity and meaning. Late in her life, my mother used to lament, "I don't know what my purpose is. Why am I still here?"

     I want the lushness of spring again, not only here in the woods, but also in my body that creaks and groans like the branches of trees above me as they rub against each other in the wind.

     Isn't this the lament of old age, wishing you could be twenty again, but with all the wealth and wisdom you have now? My husband, though, says he wouldn't go through young adulthood again, not for all the money in the world.

     Soon these maples just touched with color will turn all scarlet, and aspens will wear bright bangles of gold, like the glittering dresses of women in the Roaring Twenties. These turning leaves are a kind of wealth, I suppose, and even better than all my household goods, for  they require no Last Will and Testament, no instructions to my lawyer about distribution to my heirs. This deepening color does not need to be sorted, boxed, bagged, or loaded into a dumpster after I am gone.

     I remember one day in late October two years ago, when Ed and I were hiking at the Brighton Recreation Area, the brown tops of oak trees waved to us from a pewter gray sky. Yellow maples glowed in the valleys. A plush green brocade of moss cushioned my step. I reached down to touch the high gloss of a scarlet oak leaf, more richly burnished than any Chinese emperor's vase. And the pattern of leaves beneath my feet was more intricate and interesting than any ebony box inlaid with ivory. Aspen leaves were flung on the ground like gold coins from the blue velvet bag of the sky.

     With all this richness, what more did I need? I was wealthier than a queen.

     So, let me go out like these in a blaze of glory. Let autumn teach me about holding loosely and letting go. Let me scatter my gold on the hillsides and see how it shines.

    

Scripture: "Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these." – Matthew 6:29
Playlist: "Autumn Leaves," Eva Cassidy, Live At Blues Alley, 1996. 

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Apple Fritter

     Sometimes, after a bad night, I drive to the Bearclaw Coffee hut on the corner of North Territorial and Dexter-Pinckney Roads to get an apple fritter. And a strong cup of English breakfast tea. Then I go to Hudson Mills Metropark and sit in the Rapids View picnic area to watch the Huron River.
     The tea steams in the cup. The fritter waits in the bag. The river flows by. And I am filled with gratitude for the baker who got up in the middle of the night to make the fritter I am about to eat. Here's my tribute to her:     

To the person who makes the apple fritters at the Dexter Bakery

Monday, it's always Monday,
when the desire for heavy pastry rises in me.
Perhaps it's the exertions of the weekend—the long

hikes, the high piles of laundry, the necessary exhortations
of the sermon—striving to be better than I am.

I think of driving to the little coffee house at the corner

of two country roads to wait my turn with commuters tapping
their consoles and construction crews shifting in their bright  
neon vests, waiting, waiting for the pony-tailed barista
to hand our treats through the window in a thin paper bag.

The thought of those fritters rousts me from the warm dent
I've made in the bed. I put on my clothes and shoes. Then

I remember: You are not there. Monday is your day off.

As it should be.


You, too, deserve, a rest from your labors, a break
from the heat of the ovens and the clatter of baking
sheets in the racks. The sugary dust that sticks
to your skin. Even if you still love the way the yeast
bubbles through the dough, and how the dough flares

in the fryer, and still admire how the glaze slides

into every crevasse.

You need your sabbath, too.

This summer when you took a week of vacation, every
day we went to the small window asking for fritters
only to be handed a grainy cake donut or some good

for you cookie with oats and millet and God knows what.
The barista agreed with our dismay: "No one makes

fritters like her. She'll be back next week."

Do you know, dear baker, dear maker of delectable
pastries, how many people you gladden on any given
day? How many tense fingers loosen just a little, how many
callused palms receive a bit of goodness from the work
of your hands?

Life is so often hard.

Yet this bread breaks in easy chunks
and fills our mouths with sweetness.

Just so, in simple and hidden ways,
we strengthen each other.

 

Scripture: "Bless, oh Lord, the work of our hands. Oh, bless the work of our hands." –Psalm 90:17 (paraphrase)
Playlist: "Take Our Bread," Joe Wise, 1966.

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Native

     I met someone the other day who just moved to Livingston County from Chicago. She and her husband had lived downtown in "The Loop" for thirty years and wanted to get someplace closer to nature. They chose southeast Michigan. She asked me, "Are you a native of Michigan?"
     I answered that I was born in Wisconsin, but have lived here all but six years of my life.
     So, yes, I consider myself a native.
     I could have told her some of the ways you can tell that someone is from Michigan. We pronounce "Mackinac" as "Mackinaw." We pronounce the town name of "Charlotte" with the emphasis on the second syllable, not like the girl's name. And Detroiters say, "Dee-troit."
     I could also trot out some of the jokes about Michigan. Such as: We have four seasons—almost winter, winter, still winter, and construction. Or, that we design our kids' Hallowe'en costumes to fit over a snowsuit. Or, that "vacation" means going up north past US-10 for the weekend.
     Most importantly, we point to the palms of our left and right hands to explain to people where we grew up or where we're going on "vacation."  
     I could have told her that I assemble Made-in-Michigan gift baskets containing Dearborn ham, Kowalski sausage, Pinconning cheese, Jiffy corn muffin mix, Michigan navy beans, Kellogg's Frosted Flakes, Better Made potato chips, Vernor's ginger ale (the only ginger ale worth drinking), Sander's hot fudge, Traverse City cherry jam, and Bell's Two-Hearted beer. My mom always told us to buy Michigan products whenever we could. I remember our pantry shelves containing Romeo maraschino cherries, Pioneer sugar, and Velvet peanut butter.
     I could have told my new acquaintance from Chicago about the perennial argument we have in this state. Do we call ourselves "Michiganians" or "Michiganders"? "Michiganian" has a whiff of privilege about it, whereas "Michigander" honks like a goose. I guess both could be true.
     Of course, none of us relative newcomers—white, black, or any of the other ethnicities that now populate Michigan's cities, towns, and counties—are true natives. That designation belongs to the indigenous peoples we displaced.
     My home river, the Huron River, is named for the Potawatomi and Wyandot who traveled in birchbark canoes to catch fish, harvest wild rice and barter with other tribes. A signboard beside the Huron River in Hamburg explains that French Traders referred to the local natives as "Wendats or Hurons." The map on the signboard shows Native American villages, encampments, and burial grounds throughout southeast Michigan.*
     The sense of being from somewhere is crucial to memory and identity. "Where are you from?" is one of the first questions we ask of a new acquaintance. Our answer to that question deepens over time as we consider the family ties and the lands that have shaped us.
     So, I don't agree with the sentiment expressed by the old spiritual my dad used to sing while accompanying himself on the guitar, "This world is not my home, I'm just a-passing through." This world is our home. And, like a 250-year-old elm tree in Elmwood Cemetery in Detroit**, our roots go deep. My mother's family is planted deep in the soil of Macomb County. A road is named after us, Inwood Road, and my Grandpa, Orlin Inwood, farmed a Centennial Farm on 30 Mile Road. He and his five brothers collected the arrowheads that turned up as they cultivated the soil. After awhile, they affixed the collection to a piece of wood that had pride of place in the parlor. My mother donated the arrowhead display to Stoney Creek Metropark when the farm was finally sold.
     On my father's side, an uncle and two cousins still till the soil in Huron County, the fifth generation of family farmers, turning the furrows with enormous machines where great great grandfather George Smith would have used a horse and plow, setting their sights on the horizon of the flat land that once lay beneath prehistoric glacial Lake Algonquin.  
     This particular world—the glacial hills and lake bottom farmland—is my home.
     And yet, prompted by that song my dad used to sing, I would also have to say that there is another place that claims us, another identity that shapes us beyond our home soil. Jesus called it the Kingdom of God, a place where the values of God reign supreme. A place where everyone has a seat at the feast—newcomers and latecomers, landowners and the dispossessed. Some folks now call it the "kin-dom of God" to give it a gender-neutral label and to emphasize the family feel of this spiritual place. Whatever term you use, it is like a seed planted deep in our souls, or like a home for which we long without even knowing it.
     Where were you born? Where have you lived? What landscapes do you name?
     Wherever you are from, may you know the fullness of your identity. May you remember the stories of your people, for good and ill. May the soil and trees and rivers, and the beating of your longing heart, tell you who you are.

Scripture: "The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how." Mark 4:26-27 (NRSV)
Playlist: "This is My Song," Lloyd Stone, to the tune of Finlandia, 1934.

*Michigan History Center signboard along the Lakelands Trail.
**This elm tree, older than the Declaration of Independence, marks the site where Chief Pontiac fought British soldiers along Parent's Creek in the Battle of Bloody Run in 1763. https://www.freep.com/story/news/columnists/neal-rubin/2022/07/07/elmwood-cemetery-historic-elm-tree/7793612001/

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Willow

     No songs today.
     No joyous recounting of trips to the river. 
     Only muffled sobs and the shock of loss.
     Another mass shooting. This time Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. Nineteen children and two teachers dead.
     It could have been my grandson, Emmett, going to public school this fall. Or my grandnephews, Victor, Parker, and Elliott, or their mom, Catie, who works as a para-professional at their school. Or my sister, Sharon, or my nieces, Brenda and Michelle, all teachers. Or my grandniece, Emma, just turned 16, the same age as Tate Myre, one of the four students gunned down at Oxford High School last November.
     Or, it could have been one of the children or grandchildren of members of the NRA who oppose any restriction on access to guns. They love their families as much as I love mine. Based on what I see on social media, they hope the guns they carry will protect their loved ones if they are threatened by an intruder.
     But that's a fantasy. An illusion fed by movies and video games in which the brave hero saves the world by shooting all the bad guys.
     In real life, people are more likely to be killed by their own guns than protected by them, whether from accidental injury, homicide, or suicide. A 2015 study by the Harvard Injury Control Research Center reported that ordinary citizens are more likely to be injured after threatening attackers with guns than if they'd called the police or run away.*
     Nor do I want a well-meaning civilian shooting up a public place in response to a real or perceived threat. Leave that to law enforcement, who are trained and accountable.

     This madness of mass shootings must stop.
     In the 7th century BCE, the Israelite prophet Jeremiah stood at a site in the Hinnom Valley outside Jerusalem where human sacrifice was practiced. While some of the details are unclear, it appears that children were burned there as an offering to the Canaanite gods of Baal and Molech. Jeremiah condemned the site and prophesied that it would become a mass grave for inhabitants of Jerusalem during the coming invasion of the city. "Because they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent," he said.**

       My neck prickles with horror.
      What would Jeremiah tell us, whose schoolrooms and supermarkets and churches have become places of sacrifice? Would he say that we are as much in thrall to the gun lobby as the ancient Israelites were to the pagan god Baal? Would he say that we, like worshippers of Molech, are making our children "pass through fire"?
     It sickens me that the curriculum in schools across the country must include active shooter drills. That teachers are told to bring belts to their classrooms to help construct barricades. That supply cabinets contain materials to quickly staunch the flow of blood.
     We sacrificed our children to the great god Gun.

     Understand, I have no argument with hunters. We walk through the same woods in the autumn, breathing the crisp air, rustling through fallen leaves. In winter, we look for deer tracks in the same snow. We love many of the same things.
     And I know that many responsible gun owners teach gun safety, and make sure their weapons are secure.
     But no one—apart from the military and law enforcement—should have legal access to assault rifles. We cannot know for sure whether every person who enters a school, supermarket, church, synagogue, university, concert venue, or dance club is not suffering from a mental illness. But we can try to make sure they are not armed with military-style weapons.

     Please.
     Enough.
     Yesterday, Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who represents the Sandy Hook community where 26 elementary school students and educators were killed in December 2012, pleaded with his colleagues for a compromise on reasonable gun control.
     Today I am writing my representative, Elissa Slotkin, to ask if the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bi-partisan group that championed her Lend-Lease Act to help Ukraine, could do something about this war in our streets. I will ask her for universal background checks, an age limit of 21 for the purchase of any gun, and a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines and assault-style rifles for everyone except the military and law enforcement.
     Tomorrow I will write to those who represent me in the Senate, where gun control legislation favored by a majority of Americans has repeatedly been blocked by a filibuster of Republican legislators.
     It's hard not to feel hopeless. But I will keep trying.
     And I will join others at the Capitol Building in Lansing for "Woke Wednesdays" simply to stand and pray and write letters. "No talking, no demonstrating," the carpool organizer said. "Just standing against the violence."
     I will stand in grief and mute fury like the ancient Israelites in exile who hung up their harps in the willow trees rather than sing for their captors.
     There's a place on the Huron River in Island Lake Recreation Area where the remains of three huge willow trees stand by the water's edge. I will go there and weep. 

     Please.
     Enough.
     When Ed and I were walking at Hudson Mills Metropark this morning, we heard the voices of children in the distance. "Maybe toddlers at the playground?" I said to Ed. Then we came upon a group of six schoolchildren walking with an adult chaperone who was carrying a clipboard while the kids were peering into the vegetation along the trail. It looked to be a scavenger hunt.
     "Hello, fellow hikers," one cheerful kid called out to Ed and me.
     "We have to find a potato," another kid confided.
     I could have told him that both skunk cabbage and cattails have fleshy, tuber-like roots. But the only way this kid would find a potato along the trail would be if the teacher who created this fun science activity had placed it there ahead of time.
     May we show the same creativity and foresight as this teacher to protect our children's lives.
     May all children walk in the woods, in their classrooms, in their neighborhoods, in our nation—wherever their feet take them—joyously and unafraid.
     It's up to us.

"On the willows there we hung up our harps." Psalm 137:2 (NRSV)
Playlist: "On the Willows," Stephen Schwartz, Godspell, 1973.

*"Will a Gun Keep Your Family Safe? Here's What the Evidence Says," https://www.thetrace.org/2020/04/gun-safety-research-coronavirus-gun-sales/ ** Jeremiah 19:4-14, 2 Kings 23:10

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Crossing

Yankee Jim Canyon, Yellowstone River, Montana

     You don't want to be following us when we're driving down a two-lane highway that goes alongside a whitewater river. Ed and I will be craning our necks to look at the rapids and plotting how we would paddle through each one. Then, when a bridge over the river appears, we will slam on the brakes and pull off to the shoulder. Walking out on the bridge, we'll look down at the bouncing water to continue our discussion of which rock to dodge and which downstream "V" to ride.
     You see, we're following in the tracks of a beat-up brown van we once saw with two equally-abused kayaks tied on top. The van sported a bumper sticker which said, "This vehicle stops at all river crossings." It was a parody of the decals you see on the rear door of busses and other service vehicles warning that—just to be safe—the driver will brake at every railroad crossing.
     So many fine miles we've spent driving alongside whitewater rivers or standing on bridges above them, looking down. The Nantahala River along Highway 19, for example, on our way to the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) in Bryson City, North Carolina. The New River along Highway 20 near Hinton, West Virginia. Or, the Yellowstone River along Highway 89 in Montana through Yankee Jim Canyon. Now, at this stage in our lives, we'd have no business paddling Yankee Jim—we'd get trashed in the Class III-IV stacked rapids.
     But it's still fun to look.
     During one visit to North Carolina, we stood on a bridge to watch some Olympic kayakers weave back and forth through the training gates set up in a slalom over a rapids on the property of NOC. The helmeted and spray-skirted young men and women were like demi-gods to me. I used to pore over whitewater guidebooks like I studied Bible commentaries, hoping to find some secret knowledge, some key to success that would allow me to ferry my canoe through gnarly rapids with the same insouciant ease. Such skill, to me, was a taste of immortality.
     Our car stops at all river crossings.
     In some camp songs and gospel hymns, crossing a river is a metaphor for entering the afterlife. Going to heaven. Receiving eternal life. Whatever phrase you want to use. "The Jordan River is chilly and cold," one song goes, "chills the body, but not the soul." Michael, row the boat ashore. The image is that of crossing over to the other side, that unknown place after death.
     We have to use metaphors because no one really knows what happens when you die. In recent decades, advances in medical technology have allowed us to hear reports about tunnels and bright lights from people who've had near-death experiences, but for most of human history, poetry has had to suffice.
     When we first started hearing about COVID-19 deaths, when horrifying reports came from Italy that bodies were piling up because the morgues were full, I told myself, "You, too, could die anytime." But the reality of that truism didn't really sink in until last summer when my good friend, Barbara Lewis-Lakin, died at 67—not of COVID, but of cancer. Since then, I've been thinking a lot about death. The death of my loved ones. My death.
     Perhaps these obsessive thoughts are an attempt to inoculate myself against the bare fact that death comes. If I worry enough about it, maybe it won't happen.
     Right.
     As a pastor, I'm no novice at death. I've sat in hospitals and nursing facilities and hospice units and family homes with people who are dying. One man, unmarried, middle-aged, who had hidden his cancer from his parents until it was too late for treatment, took his last breath at the very moment that I spoke the words from the 23rd Psalm, "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death." Though I finished gamely with the rest of the verse, "I will fear no evil, for thou art with me," we all were spooked. His mother reached forward and gently closed the eyes in his yellowed face.
     I remember sitting with another man, Dan Brown, a stout, square-faced beer salesman who'd served on a Navy destroyer in World War II. Dan told me about a great sea battle in October 1944 that they called "The Battle of the Tin Cans" because a few U.S. destroyers held off five Japanese battleships. Dan had a large, elaborate anchor tattooed in blue on his right forearm. He told me proudly that nowadays young men with spiky hair wearing chains and studs would come up and admire his tattoos.
     Once when Dan was at home on leave from the Navy, a hostile neighbor was speaking belligerently and strutting around his front porch showing off his muscles. Dan said to him, "You want a piece of me?" The neighbor backed down. Dan was a fighter.

     Underneath his tough exterior, though, Dan was also a lover. He'd been married twice, first to Nora, then to Ruth, and at age 85, still had an eye for pretty women. One of the first things that people in the church told me about Dan was how faithfully he had cared for Ruth when she got dementia. Every day he went to the nursing home and ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner with her—for three years—until she died.
     In his last week of his life, Dan told me that he kept seeing Nora, Ruth, his parents, and his deceased sister Louise, standing in the corner of the room. "They're waiting for me," he said. I'd heard something similar from other parishioners—that their loved ones had come to help them make their passage into the next life.
     When my mother, Mary Smith, died in April of 2019, the last word I heard her speak was "Ma." She, too, was staring off into the distance at something or someone I could not see. I first assumed she was calling out for her mother, Rosalie Inwood. But she also could also have been speaking to Ma Peterson, a woman she'd met at a religious camp meeting and who'd been a significant spiritual mentor when she was young. It comforted me, anyway, to think that my mother was being welcomed into heaven by people she had loved.
     So, maybe it's safe to follow Ed and me after all. Though I'm in no hurry to cross over, I hope to be greeted by those who've gone before me. Likewise, I hope to be among those who welcome my loved ones when it's their time to go to the other side of the river.
     And you, when you need it most, may you hear someone calling to you, "Come on over. The water's fine."

"I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you… I will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also." John 14:18,3 (NRSV).
Playlist: "Moon River," Peter Mayer, Elements, 2001.

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Blown Down

     Ten years ago, on March 15, 2012, Ed and I heard a news report that a tornado had gone through Dexter, Michigan, twenty miles from where we lived in South Lyon. We knew many people in that area. But we didn't fully comprehend the extent of the damage until three months later on June 24 when we went canoeing on the Huron River through Dexter.   
     We saw large tree trunks snapped in half twenty feet up. We saw other trees blown down entirely, their upturned root wads lining the river with walls of dirt and twisted sticks.
     The slow-moving tornado had produced winds of 120-140 mph, touching down within sight of Hudson Mills Metropark (the place where we'd just launched), and moving parallel to Huron River Drive. One hundred homes had been damaged, in some places the roof joists strewn like straw.  
     Fortunately, no one had been killed.
     Money and donations had poured into Faith in Action, a local social service agency. Our friend, Nancy, the director of Faith in Action, had scrambled to set up a disaster relief fund with oversight by a local bank. She was putting in twelve-hour days to help coordinate relief efforts and to distribute funds and supplies.
     "What can I do to help?" I'd asked her over the phone. "I'm no good with a chain saw."
     "Not much right now," she said wearily. "I've got piles of used clothing I don't know what to do with. The trick is getting everyone and everything to the right place." Another call buzzed in at her end. "I've got to go," she said.
     "I'll pray for you," I'd said.
     Ed and I canoed through another corridor of root wads from overturned trees. What would it be like to be out on the river, unprotected, when such a storm came through? You'd be lucky to survive.
     We passed the wreckage in silence.
     A chain saw fired up in the distance. I felt vaguely guilty to be out playing when others were working so hard to clean up, even three months after the storm. It was like being tourists in a war zone. But this canoe trip wasn't only for pleasure. We were scouting the river before we took a young family on a guided trip they'd won at our church auction.
     I pushed my paddle hard into the current.
     When I hear news coverage about the war in Ukraine today, I feel some of the same helpless guilt I felt while canoeing after the Dexter tornado. There seems to be so little I can do. I can pray for the people of Ukraine, and give money for disaster relief. As so many others are doing. But how long can the Ukrainian army hold out against the Russian juggernaut?
     The war in Ukraine is not a natural disaster—this disaster has been caused by human beings. In particular, by a powerful, ego-driven leader who has been systemically silencing any who oppose him. What do we do when something terrible is happening and our efforts to make things better feel inconsequential?
     Our pastor said we should pray for Vladimir Putin, that his heart will be changed.
     I have prayed for Putin. I've prayed for God to strike him dead.
     I know—it's not a very Christian sentiment. But I'm not the first or only person to feel this way. I join my voice with the psalmist who prayed that God would "break the teeth of the wicked." (Psalm 3:7) In another part of the Bible, the prophet Jeremiah said to God in bewildered pain, "Why does the way of the wicked prosper?" Jeremiah wanted the wicked to be culled "like sheep for the slaughter." (Jeremiah 12:1,3)
     Take that, you scum.

     When I called our friend Nancy to check the facts for this blog, she and I talked about Ukraine and about the polarized political situation in the United States. Nancy said that we're being "lazy" when we pray for God to take down our enemies. "It's a quest for easy answers," she said. As always, she is so wise. I would add, though, that we also pray this way because we're frightened and exhausted. Of course we want help from a higher power if we believe that corrupt and self-serving leaders have thrown down the timbers of the house of democracy and sent them whirling in a violent storm.
     I guess I can pray that God will give me the strength to see the suffering of others and to do what is in my power to do. I saw on Facebook that some enterprising souls started buying nights at Ukrainian Airbnbs as a way of donating money directly to the Ukrainian people. Most religious denominations have disaster relief organizations already in place. The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) has already sent almost a million dollars worth of medical supplies. I can pray for these organizations and for the pilots who fly the planes bringing aid and for the brave relief workers on the ground. I can pray for those U.S. and world leaders who are creating strategies to oppose Putin without starting World War III.
     And here at home, when a storm of whatever size or cause comes through, I can hearken to the point-of-view espoused by Mary, the mother of Jesus, who praised God for having "brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly." (Luke 1:52). If this is God's plan, I, too, can oppose the proud and help the humble.
     As for Putin, I leave him in God's hands. Which is where he is anyway.
     Lord, have mercy.
     On us all.

Scripture: Luke 1:46-55 (NRSV)
Playlist: "Do Something," Matthew West, Into the Light, Sparrow Records, 2012. 

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Home

     All of my life I've been an outsider. Growing up in parsonages as a preacher's kid and becoming a pastor myself, moving from town to town, I was always the new kid in the classroom or the new person in church. I skirted the perimeter of conversation circles, listening to people talking or laughing, looking in.

     My husband, Ed, who couldn't wait to leave the small town in which he grew up, thought I was crazy to envy people who'd lived their entire lives in the same place. "They belong," I told him. "They know their place in the stories of the community."
     I had no place.
     Is it any wonder, then, when I got old enough to go out on my own, that I took to the fields and the rivers? I spent my childhood picking black raspberries and chasing butterflies with a net made from a broom handle, a coat hanger, and a curtain sheer. Tiger swallowtail. The well-traveled monarch. I waded shallows where bluegills darted in the shadow of an overhanging oak. Once I spent an entire afternoon cleaning sticks and debris out of a small rapids on the Huron River near Commerce Elementary School, happy as the freshwater clams I saw in the stream.
     Is it any wonder that I would call a river my home?
     I remember a morning in May when our girls were in elementary school. It was the time in the school year when everyone was tired of the grind, so we declared a "Willobee Skip Day." Ed and I took the day off work, we pulled the girls out of school, and we all went canoeing. Blessed respite.
     I also remember a particular day of pure joy in September of 2013 when members of our family came to celebrate Ed's birthday with a canoe trip on the Huron River. A thunderstorm had just passed through, chasing everyone else off the river, and the current was flowing clear and fast. Turtles crawled out of the water to climb on logs. An eagle perched high in a dead sycamore. An osprey rocketed upriver.
     On such days, the river was not just home, but heaven.
     And yet, I also remember times when I didn't feel like an outsider. How sweet those moments in high school, for instance, when I sat in the school cafeteria with my girlfriend, Linda, and the rest of our gang, laughing at Larry who was squirting chocolate milk out of his nose.
     Or, last month, when a group of kind and well-read women sat around my dining room table laughing and talking, drinking red wine and discussing our latest book club title. Though they'd known each other for many years, living in the same community and raising their children together, they let me in to their circle.
     Or, last week, when I stood in a queue at the front of the church in order to receive a white wafer and a tiny cup of juice. Holy Communion. "Everyone is welcome at the Lord's table," the preacher said.
     Also heaven. Also home.
     "You're not so alone," my soul tells me.
     I claim as companions not only eagle and osprey and bluegill, but also these dear human faces: family, new friends, the cadre of fellow seekers, and invisibly, around all of these, the communion of the saints. Those who've gone before us to show us the way.
     Today, may you know yourself held within a community. And if you see someone on the outside, let them know they are not alone.
     We are each other's home.

 

Scripture: "Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses… let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us…" Hebrews 12:1 (NRSV)
Playlist: "Your Love, O God, Is Broad Like Beach and Meadow," Anders Frostenson, 1968, translated by Fred Kaan, 1972.

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