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Down by the Riverside

Surprised in November

Frost on the patio railing

     Yesterday we woke to a hard frost that sparkled in the sun, making patterns on the patio railing and furring the grass.
     This has been the sunniest November I can remember.  

     Except for a few gloomy days around the time change, we've had a peek at the sun nearly every day this month. I know, because I keep track on my calendar whether or not the sun shines.  

     I need the sun.

     While walking on the Lakelands Trail west of Pinckney last week, I stopped on the bridge over Honey Creek and swiveled my head toward the south like a flower, letting the late afternoon rays bathe my face.

     While hiking on the nature trail at Hudson Mills Metropark, I stopped mid-step and spread my arms wide like the branches of a white oak tree, letting the light soak into my limbs.

     As my family and friends  know, November is my least favorite month. "Dark" was the meditation that began this series of blogs in 2021.

     But this November has been different.

     Because of the extra sunlight, I've noticed the blue sky between the branches of the trees. As poet and priest Arnold Kenseth said, "Now are the trees windows, / And the eyes see distances."

     I've noticed how the Norway maples hold their golden leaves longer than the other maples.
     I've even appreciated the muted colors of November's palette, the grays and beiges and browns, spiced with an occasional dash of scarlet. Or the bleached beauty of field corn rattling in the wind.

     I am grateful for simple daily things like the smell of Ed's coffee in the kitchen in the morning or the colors in a bowl of chicken chili – red tomato, green pepper, yellow corn.  

     And I am grateful for special things, like the prospect of seeing our family over the holidays when grandchildren will careen through the house.

     I am grateful that a long spell of difficult work is nearly over, and that I came through a bleak period of internal pain. It's been a hard autumn for me, which is why I haven't written a blog in several months.

     But, now, to my surprise, in November, I skip while walking and sing while praying. I am grateful for that, too. Because it doesn't happen all the time.

     And if I kiss my husband on the back of his neck rather than glower over my breakfast cereal, that is a gift, too.

     I know the dark will come again, and soon.

     But today I feel myself blessed beyond measure.
     So, as the scripture enjoins, I bring the sacrifice of praise.

     I say in the words of an old prayer, "For all thy blessings, known and unknown, remembered and forgotten, we give thee thanks."

     Happy Thanksgiving, dear ones. May you, too, come through whatever hard season you are in. May you be surprised by a thankful joy.

Scripture: "Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that confess his name." – Hebrews 13:15 (NIV)

Playlist: "We Bring the Sacrifice of Praise," Kirk Dearman, 1984.

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Touching the White Oak

My offering for August is a guest blog on the site of my friend, Maureen Dunphy, a Michigan writer who also loves the outdoors. Her most recent book, Divining, celebrates trees.


If you want to read my guest blog, follow this link:


As always, I'm grateful for your thoughts. May you enjoy these lovely, end-of-summer days.

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     My husband, Ed, does most of our grocery shopping. I feel guilty about not sharing the load, so occasionally I offer to go along. "I could do the dry goods, you could do the meat," I tell him.
     Turns out, he doesn't like to go grocery shopping with me. He says I take too long.
     It's true—I do dally. I peruse the offerings on the seasonal shelves or consider the items that hang invitingly next to the pink confetti frosting in the baking aisle. 

     I especially enjoy the chromatic array in the produce section. The glossy purple eggplant. The scarlet radishes. The red, green, and yellow peppers stacked together in a bag like the colors in a traffic light. "Stop," they whisper, "look at me."   
     So I do.

     Now, I know that these are calculated strategies by the marketing department. They dangle impulse purchases like low-hanging fruit. They arrange the eggplant to please the eye.      

     I know I'm being manipulated.

     But the kid in me? She just wants to look and look.

     My husband, though, is the son of a factory worker at Pontiac Motors. Ed himself did time in the hot, dirty, and dangerous foundry during one summer of his college years. That was enough, he said, to send him back to school.
     Of course he just wants to go to the store, get the job done, and go home. Condensation is forming on the waxed carton of milk. The ice cream is melting.
     "Keep the line moving," my husband says.

     A lot of us in the Detroit area have a punch clock embedded in our minds.
     Don't get me wrong. I prize efficiency, too. I worked at a factory in Walled Lake for one summer, operating the injection-mold machines that spat out the plastic toys sold at Kmart.

     I was raised by the son of a farmer who had a similar attitude about work. You do your chores as fast as you can because there is always something else that needs to be done. The next row to hoe. The next crop to harvest. Before rain ruins the hay or turns the fields to mud.
     My mother, also raised on a Michigan farm, had no patience with woolgathering, either. She needed all of us kids to pick beans in the garden and hull the strawberries she bought by the case. I remember September afternoons when we pulled glass jars of canned tomatoes out of the steaming kettle with the big metal tongs.

     I can still hear her voice: "Get your nose out of that book and come help me."   

     I get it.
     Life is hard work. The Protestant work ethic is bred into my bones.

     I know that if I want spotless mirrors, I have to get out the Windex and wipe. If I don't want dust bunnies, I have to wrestle the flexible hose of the Dyson into position, thrust it under the bed and suck up the stuff.

     "Days of toil, and hours of ease," the old hymn says.
     And were it not for Ed's speed, it would take two days instead of one afternoon to clean our house.

     But, still.
     Sometimes the kid in me wants to come out and play. To be released from the relentless ticking of the clock. Just to be.

     When I was in seminary, I learned that ancient Greek philosophers had two words for time. Chronos was the word for the ordinary, chronological, sequential time under which we labor.
     The Greek word, Kairos, meant something else, the crucial or right or opportune moment. In the New Testament, Kairos means "the appointed time in the purpose of God." When God acts in human history to fulfill God's purposes.


     Kairos is the word for those mysterious moments when the transcendent breaks into our humdrum existence. When time stands still.
     That's why I go to the river.
     When I am canoeing, the flow of the water soothes my mind and releases something in my soul. The chatter of "monkey mind" inside my brain ceases.
    I can listen. I can see.
    The push of the paddle becomes a prayer.
     When I get off the river, I feel less burdened. More playful. More whole.

     Kairos happens for me sometimes when I am writing, too.

     So, if you see me tapping on my keyboard at the library or loitering in the aisles at Meijer, you'll know what's going on.
     And, if you see me on the river, for God's sake, don't tell me what time it is or how many miles we have yet to go.
     I don't want to know.

     I want to stay in the moment when the world stands still, when there is nothing but the rasp of the cattails and the trill of the blackbirds in the marsh. Nothing but the press of the current against my paddle.  

     I want to be open to what God is doing around me.

     May you be given such moments when God breaks in.


Scripture: "The time (Kairos) is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand." – Mark 1:15 (NRSV).
Playlist: "Down to the River to Pray," Alison Krauss, O Brother, Where Art Thou? 2000.

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     Two years ago today my friend Barbara Lewis-Lakin died. This morning a colleague who also loved Barb emailed me a poem by Maya Angelou about grief.
     Beginning with the line, "When great trees fall," Angelou traces the progress of our bereavement when "great souls" die. Angelou describes how the very air around us changes when we remember things undone. She tells how our souls, dependent upon the nurture of these loved ones, "now shrink, wizened."

     That word—"wizened"—is exactly how I felt when Barb died.

     "Wizened" means to "dry up, wither, shrivel." As in a sustained drought.

     Angelou predicts that "after a period peace blooms / slowly and always / irregularly."[1]

     I read Angelou's poem this morning while looking at a blurry photo of Barb taken during the summer of 1985 at a restaurant in Melvindale, part of a region that Detroiters call "Downriver."
     Barb and I were both young pastors. We may have agreed to meet for brunch after she conducted worship at her church in Melvindale. Her son, Peter, a toddler, stood on the bench seat beside her, eyeing the knob that flipped the selections on the juke box.

     My daughter, Laura, just weeks old, slept in a bucket-style car seat on the floor. My husband, Ed, was watching Peter, perhaps to catch him if he tumbled.
     The table, awaiting our order, was spread with coffee mugs and condiments. Maybe a waitress took the picture for us.
     Barb was, as the scripture says, already "acquainted with grief." [2] Her first husband, David Byers, had died seventeen months before.

     She smiled for the camera with a sweet, steady weariness.

     Maybe it was a trick of the light shining from the window behind her head, but even then Barb seemed suffused with the radiance that Maya Angelou describes in her poem.

     Throughout her life, as a pastor, counselor, and friend, Barb showed us how to meet grief with grace and courage. And how to make space for joy.
     Though my heart still aches—I wish we could meet again for brunch and I could show Barb the photo, and laugh about my ridiculous sandals, and about the way she often sat with her foot tucked under her skirt—I am feeling more at peace.

     I was blessed to know Barbara Byers Lewis-Lakin. She was a great soul.

     If you are downriver of grief of any kind, may comfort come to you.

     May your senses revive over time.

     May you be surrounded by the radiance of those who have gone before us.

     Oh, how they shine.


Scripture: "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it." – John 1:5 (NRSV)

Playlist: Philipp Nicolai, "O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright," 1599; translated by Catherine Winkworth, 1863.

[1] Maya Angelou, "Ailey, Baldwin, Floyd, Killens and Mayfield,"

[2] Isaiah 53:3.

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     There is an illness you can get from the feces of beaver—giardiasis—also known as "beaver fever," a parasitic infection of the digestive system that can cause diarrhea, stomach cramps, and dehydration.
     Once, when Ed and I were canoeing in the Sylvania Wilderness Area of the Upper Peninsula—a beaver haven—we took an afternoon swim in High Lake. How clear the water was, and—I hoped—how clean! I worried that this beautiful, turquoise-tinted lake might actually be contaminated. I feared a parasite would infest and sicken this, my only body.

     On a different canoe trip in Lake Superior Provincial Park, we surprised a beaver that surfaced right beside the bow of our canoe. The look on his face! Pure horror.
     The beaver and I stared at each other for a long moment, then he turned, slapped his tail loudly on the water, and was gone. Perhaps the beaver was outraged that I, a human, had entered his lake. Perhaps the beaver feared I would harm him or this water, his only home.

     Which, of course, is what we humans have done on so many rivers and lakes. We've left death in our wake.

     Last summer, it was another toxic release into Norton Creek, a tributary of the Huron River in Southeast Michigan—not PFAS[i] as in 2018—but hexavalent chromium, a chemical used in auto plating. The spill was caused by an employee of Tribar Manufacturing in Wixom, who repeatedly overrode the system designed to keep untreated effluent from entering the river. Fortunately for the city of Ann Arbor, which gets its drinking water from the Huron River, the hexavalent chromium was contained at the Wixom Wastewater Treatment Plant.

     But what about all of the aquatic plants and animals in Norton Creek?

     In many other places, a large-scale disaster was not averted. Valdez. The Gulf oil spill. This past February, after a Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous materials derailed near East Palestine, Ohio, black smoke hung for days over the town. Crews released vinyl chloride into a trench and burned it off so that train cars did not explode. Now, residents and clean-up workers complain of health problems, and something foul bubbles up from the sediment of Leslie Run Creek. 

     It's enough to make you curse. Or weep.

     Yet life goes on.

     Resurgent in Southeast Michigan, beavers are felling trees along the stretches of the Huron River and its tributaries where my husband and I hike and canoe. Streamside tree trunks are girdled with teeth marks. Once-tall trees lie prostrate on the ground. Beavers are now working on a multi-trunk tree Ed and I saw while canoeing below the town of Dexter. Five feet in diameter, this particular tree will take the beavers while. But it's coming down.

     Though I usually appreciate wildlife, I'm not pleased.

     So much of the landscape where I live has already been lost to human enterprise—houses, businesses, strip malls, ball fields—I feel fiercely protective of the green spaces that remain. Riparian trees shield the river, cooling the water for certain fish species, and stabilizing the banks.
     "Damn beavers," I say. "Leave these trees alone."
     Which, of course, the beavers won't do. Their incisors will grow into their own flesh if not kept worn down. They must gnaw or die.
     We could say the same thing about humans, I guess, about our endless expansions, migrations, and incursions into territories not originally our own. We have a long history of development. "Generations have trod, have trod, have trod," the English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote in 1918: "And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil; / And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell."[ii]
     How much more, one hundred years later, he would have mourned.
     What is a sustainable pace of growth? What is an acceptable loss of wild places? Are the waters fouled forever?
     Many scientists fear we have already passed the point of no return.

     Still, a young arborist calmed a friend of mine who was upset about trees in her yard downed by DTE and recent storms. "Trees grow back," the arborist said to my friend.

     Yes. But not this particular white oak I have stood under, pressing my palm against its furrowed bark.
     And not in my lifetime.
     May my children see it, then. And their children.

     Perhaps we humans could agree to exert only the scale of damage inflicted by beavers. Take no more than we need to feed ourselves and our small, furry families. Bite off no more than we can chew.
     Sometimes, I simply despair at the vast devastation humans have wrought. I, alone, cannot fix this mess.

     Together, however, we can insist that those who harm the earth be held accountable. We can apply the same skills, ingenuity, and intelligence that we've used for unbridled development to make wise and sustainable choices from here on out. We have the tools to repair some of the damage we've done.
     Several months after the PFAS spill on the Huron River, my paddling club met with Dan Brown, a watershed planner for the Huron River Watershed Council. Brown urged watershed users to contact state officials regularly about water quality issues. "I call my representative every Friday," he said. "Be polite, persistent, and persuasive."
     According to Brown, because of widespread public concern, the state of Michigan was the first state in the nation to do a high level of monitoring for PFAS chemicals. "We provided a new model for cooperation," he said, "approaching the PFAS issue as a whole watershed, exploring how we could deal with partnerships of communities."[iii]

     May the cleansing of the rivers and the re-foresting of their banks come about through the uneasy, outraged, yet hopeful alliance of all who dwell therein. 
     May we protect the earth, this, our only body.
     May we heal the waters that we share with all creatures, our first and only home.

Scripture: "Darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters." – Genesis 1:2 (NKJV)
Playlist: "Blue Boat Home," Peter Mayer, Earth Town Square, 2002.

[i] "PFAS" is the acronym given to a family of more than 3,000 toxic, synthetic, "forever" chemicals used to fight fires and to manufacture many household products. Toxins accumulate not only in fish, but also in river foam. After the 2018 Tribar spill of PFAS into the Huron River, river users were told to avoid contact with the foam, as well as to keep children and pets away from it. A "Do Not Eat the Fish" advisory is still in effect.  
[ii] Gerard Manley Hopkins, "God's Grandeur," The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, Edited by Richard Ellman and Robert O'Clair (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1973), page 80.
[iii] Daniel Brown, presentation at a meeting of the Great Lakes Paddlers, March 12, 2019.

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Skunk Cabbage

This time of year, three years ago, my husband and I were walking in the woods, scared out of our wits. We weren't afraid of wild animals—bear and cougar and wolf are long gone from these parts. We were afraid of a virus that was picking people off like a hidden sniper perched on a rooftop, sighting random victims with a cold eye.

     Though the elderly, service workers, and people in poor health were especially vulnerable, healthy people, too, had died of COVID-19. Died. Morgues in Italy had closed because there were too many bodies. Our niece, a nurse on a COVID-19 floor, described what was happening in hospitals here in the U.S.: "I'll never forget the nights we heard dozens of emergency intubation calls," she said. "Gearing up to hold iPads in dying patients' rooms and trying not to cry while their families prayed and sang and wept with them." 

     The governor of our state had told everyone to "shelter in place," hoping to slow the spread of the virus. Ed and I went the only place we could—to the parks and hiking trails around our home.

     At Pinckney Recreation Area, we hiked alongside Pickerel Lake and stopped on a wooden footbridge over a channel that connects two sections of the lake. Tall oaks with tattered leaves and needle-less tamarack trees bordered the lake. When other hikers passed behind us on the bridge, they flattened themselves against the railing, giving us wide berth. Whenever we encountered others on the trail, we did the same.

     Ed and I stood on the bridge a long time, looking at the water, trying to calm our anxious hearts.

     When we finally crossed the bridge and stepped back on the dirt trail, I stopped short. There it was: a mottled purplish horn breaking through the dark earth. Unmistakable.

     Skunk cabbage.

     A member of the Arum family, skunk cabbage protects its round, lemon-yellow spadix with a pulpy, purplish-brown sheath. In larger flowers, the sheath curves over the spadix like a finger pointed toward the ground.

     The plant would manifest its distinct odor in a month or so. One guidebook described it this way: "The broad leaves, which appear after the flowers, are at first coiled, later become very large and have a foetid odor when crushed."[i] Foetid. Now there's a word.

     Skunk cabbage might be classified as a flower, but it didn't look like a flower to me. Not white or pink or delicate or pleasantly-scented. The round yellow spadix with its knobby little flowers poking out of the sheath looked like the head of a tiny alien emerging from a spaceship.

     It heartened me, however, to see the strange plant emerging from dead leaves. A sign of life in an otherwise gray landscape.

     I quickened my step, and smiled at other hikers under my mask.

     Just this past week I had another experience of being heartened by signs of life in a seemingly bleak landscape. Since the mass shooting at MSU in February, I've despaired at our nation's inability to stem gun violence.

     Last Wednesday, however, I participated in an Advocacy Day in our state capital organized by the Michigan Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Three hundred people gathered in Lansing, going in small groups to the offices of their senators and representatives to ask them to support common-sense gun legislation.[ii] They told stories of how they'd been affected by gun violence. They rallied, wrote letters, sang hymns, and prayed.

     I got to meet my representative, Jennifer Conlin, and thank her for what she's already done. A former New York Times journalist, Conlin ran for office last year because of the Oxford school shooting.[iii]

     It was good to be there last Wednesday with others who are concerned about gun violence. The House Judiciary Committee was considering safe storage bills that very morning. After the event, organizers told us that "Our support had an impact at a critical hour. Later in the day, the House of Representatives passed all the safe storage bills with bipartisan backing."[iv]

     I don't kid myself—the process of political change is fraught with opportunities for grandstanding, self-righteousness, name-calling, and inflammatory rhetoric. Divisions run deep on this issue, polarizing people in the same families, communities, and churches. Political change isn't any prettier than the strange-looking skunk cabbage that rises in the spring.

     And I know we've a long way to go before children are safe in their schools. But, bit by bit, concerned citizens can make a difference. Polls show that a majority of people in Michigan, even in red districts, support common-sense gun legislation.

      So, here is my plea: do what you can to end gun violence, whoever and wherever you are. I think it's particularly important for Republican legislators to hear from gun owners who support reasonable gun controls. Partisan divides on this issue are not doing our children any good.

     We found ways to come through COVID together. We can do this.

     Don't lose hope. God is always at work for good in the world. If you look closely, you can see signs of life everywhere. In an overheated gymnasium at a downtown church last week, a bunch of motley United Methodists, many of them gray-haired ladies in sneakers, sat around tables and planned what they would say if given the chance. And in the damp black earth along creeks and hiking trails, mottled purple horns are poking out of the ground. 

     That's how spring comes in Michigan. It isn't pretty, but it comes.


Scripture: "For now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come." – Song of Solomon, 2:11-12 (NRSV)

Playlist: "Step by Step," John McCutcheon, Step by Step: Hammer Dulcimer Duets, Trios, and Quartets, 1986.

[i] Roger Tory Peterson and Margaret McKenny, A Field Guide to Wildflowers of Northeastern and North-central North America (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1968), page 368.
[ii] Universal background checks, safe storage laws, and extreme risk protection orders.
[iii] https://www.bridgemi.com/guest-commentary/opinion-oxford-inspired-me-seek-office-msu-must-inspire-gun-reform
[iv] For more information about the Advocacy Day, see https://michiganumc.org/um-advocacy-day-impacts-state-capitol/


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Cauldron Spring,

Werner-Boyce Salt Springs State Park,

Port Richey, Florida

Last month Ed and I drove down to the Gulf Coast of Florida to escape Michigan's winter gloom. Once there, we won the weather lottery: five straight days of sunshine and 80 degrees. It was glorious!

     We went kayaking with friends on the Crystal River, gliding alongside the manatee that congregate in the warm water of Three Sisters Spring. A mama and baby swam right next to our kayak, the four-foot-long kiddo tucked against the mother's bulky body. Then, when we were out in King's Bay, a dolphin surfaced ten feet off our bow.

     A few days later we booked a rental canoe at Werner-Boyce Salt Springs State Park, a 4,000-acre preserve that includes four miles of pristine, mangrove-lined coast on the Gulf. The park features tidal marshes, freshwater creeks, pine flatwoods, oak hammocks and many small artesian springs. Ed hoped to see manatee and dolphin again on the waters of the estuary leading into the Gulf. I was eager to paddle the narrow creeks back to the freshwater springs we'd glimpsed from hiking trails the day before.

     What would it be like, I wondered, to sit quietly in our canoe above the rippling green water of Salt Spring that plunged to a depth of 320 feet? The park brochure said there was a large cavern at the bottom of the spring, 50 feet high and 200 feet wide. I wondered if I'd be able to sense the depths even though I could not see them. I'd experienced that feeling once while paddling a deep lake in the Boundary Waters, a prickling of the arms when we passed over the deepest spot.

     And what would it be like to nose our canoe right up to Cauldron Spring that bubbled up in several places and sluiced through a cement culvert underneath the hiking trail? I wanted to dip my fingers in the clear water that welled up from the ground. I wanted to put a drop on my tongue to see if it tasted salty or fresh.

     We loaded our gear into the canoe and headed out toward the Gulf, trying to read Google maps on my phone in the bright sunlight. The outfitter had instructed us to look for the roofline of the Energy and Marine Center, an environmental education facility for Pasco County Schools, so we did not get lost on our way back from the Gulf. Ed was better at orienteering than I was, but he'd left his glasses in the car. He literally could not read the map on my phone.
     Where exactly were we? Were we headed west toward the Energy and Marine Center, or were we going south toward a small island? The outfitter had also suggested that we hug the shoreline to be protected from the 15 m.p.h. winds. Did that channel up ahead open to the Gulf or were we still in the more protected waters of the estuary?
     We kept paddling tight to the shore and heard the shouts of schoolchildren. Aha! That boardwalk on the shore surrounded by palm trees must be part of the Energy and Marine Center. We could now navigate with some confidence. But any time we headed away from the shore, the wind hit us. We also had to push against the force of the incoming tide.

     Between the wind and the tide, it didn't take long for me to tire. My back and arms ached. Taking shelter in the lee of a long, narrow island, we joined a flock of white ibis draped over the mangroves like tatters of white cotton. A little blue heron tucked its head into its copper-colored neck. Mullet jumped a foot out of the water and smacked back down.

     The outfitter had told us that paddlers the previous day had seen a whole pod of dolphins chasing fish brought in by the tide—but I wasn't eager to go out any further into the Gulf. Tides aren't something you have to think about on the Great Lakes. Here, every day, the tide goes out and comes back in, rushing into the estuary, stirring the overhanging branches of the mangroves, filling up the creeks with a force I did not expect.

     When we finally paddled up to Cauldron Spring at 2:40 p.m., the incoming tide had completely covered the cement culvert that had been visible at noon. A slight troubling of the surface of the water was the only sign of the spring. In the same way, the water of the much larger Salt Spring seemed surprisingly calm. How would you even know there was a spring below? I guess you just have to trust the upwelling even when you cannot see it.

     In my last blog, I mentioned my lifelong struggle with dark moods that move through me with unwelcome regularity. Like the tides, those dark moods exert a force against which I must push if I want to get anywhere. Sometimes, daunted by their power, I stay too close to shore. It's a fact of life for me, implacable as the pull of the moon.  

     However, if the tide comes in, it also goes out. The dark moods pass. And, like those hidden springs, even when I cannot see it, I know that the grace of God is always flowing, flowing, replacing salty water with clear, the freshness felt far out into the sea.


Scripture: [Jesus said], "The water that I give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life." John 4:14 (NRSV)

Playlist: "Cry Me a River," Barbra Streisand, The Essential Barbra Streisand, 2002.

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(Good) Morning

Morning Canyon, Green River, Colorado

     I'm not a morning person.
     I can relate to the coffee memes posted by one of my siblings on her Facebook page. Memes like "Morning forecast: Slightly exhausted with 100% chance of needing coffee. Scattered sarcastic comments through the afternoon." Or: "Nothing like the smell of freshly brewed magical psychotic rage stabilizer in the morning." The one I like best is: "Really, I'm pretty low maintenance—I just need my coffee and 6 or 7 hours of alone time in the morning and I'm fine."

     Only my beverage of choice is strong black English Breakfast tea.

     I, too, need time to adjust to the expectations of the day. Some Sundays when we go to church and an ebullient worship leader bursts forth with a cheery "Good morning, Church!" honest to God, I shrink back in my chair, thinking I should have ingested that tea earlier. One of my darkest secrets is that I feel like an atheist until after 10 a.m. Though I know feelings are not facts, I find it hard to believe that "God's in his heaven and all's right with the world" until after a sufficient dosage of caffeine.

     Maybe it's because I was born with a melancholy temperament. (Think Eeyore.)  When my siblings and I were going through some boxes of family photos after our mom died,  we found an album she'd put together of pictures she thought were significant. Under the cellophane pages were arial photos of the family farm, wedding portraits, reunion photos, and those tiny school pictures of us from every grade. Mom had also kept a candid photo of me at four years old, face stormy, lower lip thrust out, turning away from the camera. Mom had affixed the caption: "Sondra in a sulk."

     Apparently, this had happened more than once.

     Or, maybe I feel like an atheist until after the caffeine kicks in because I'm all too aware of suffering and injustice in the world, the endless horror show that is the morning news. 

     So, that's why I treasure memories of really good mornings. Like the morning of June 4, 2016, the day our youngest daughter, Barbara, got married. Barb had rented a gorgeous log cabin on the shores of Lake Huron for the festivities. While others were finishing their breakfasts, I took my little Sawyer Starlight solo canoe out on Lake Huron. The water was calm and all silver except for a molten path made by the rising sun. Balancing my weight carefully over the center of the canoe, I headed toward the horizon, ripples unfurling from the paddle like folds of gray silk. I breathed deeply of the sweet air, knowing that soon we would celebrate one of the most sacred moments in our daughter's life.
     I also remember a morning on a river trip that the whole family took in 2014, four days and three nights whitewater rafting on the Green River through Dinosaur National Monument. Swept along by a cool green current from the Gates of Lodore to Split Mountain Canyon, we floated by fantastic layered and uptilted rock formations. We saw bighorn sheep and black bear cubs in pocket canyons. A bald eagle calmly surveyed the river from a high cliff.

     Sometimes we paddled double or single in inflatable kayaks. Sometimes we teamed up in six-person paddle rafts. Sometimes we took it easy on an oar raft and let the guide do all the work, pivoting us around rocks or dropping us five feet into a rollercoaster of waves. Once the guide glided up to a canyon wall and showed us Fremont petroglyphs etched into the rock. What a joy to experience all this with our adult children. Describing the portion of the trip through Island Park, our oldest daughter, Laura, wrote: "The wind coming out of Split Mountain Canyon urging you to back. Don't leave. Stay forever."

     On the morning of Day #3, we sat in a circle of camp chairs on the sand eating French toast for breakfast. Sunshine brightened the slanting walls of the canyon at our backs. We gasped as a peregrine falcon rocketed upstream. Then, across the river from us, stepping daintily out of the shadows, a doe and a fawn came down to the water to drink. Spellbound, we held still and did not speak. The deer, the mist over the water, the sun rising above the remote and shadowed canyon—it was our own Garden of Eden.   

     In her most famous poem, English author Eleanor Farjeon juxtaposed God's original act of creation with her own moment of hearing a blackbird sing on a sunlit, rain-washed morning. "Morning has broken like the first morning / blackbird has spoken like the first bird."* I've sung "Morning Has Broken" many times in church, but the version I love most is the 1971 recording by Cat Stevens. The rolling piano accompaniment, the lilting Gaelic melody, and the exquisite lyrics combine to remind me: Oh, Sondra, take delight in this beautiful world. The song's purity and durable sweetness dispel my habitual gloom. 

     Today, may your delight in God's creation rise with the sun. May you praise with elation when moments of glory come. Whether calm water or tumultuous rapids await you, may you receive with gratitude the gift of this day. 

Scripture: "God said: 'Let there be light'; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good." Genesis 1:3-4 (NRSV)

Playlist: "Morning Has Broken," Cat Stevens, Greatest Hits, 1975. 

* Eleanor Farjeon, "Morning Has Broken," reprinted in The United Methodist Hymnal, #145.

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Green River, View from Harper's Corners,
Dinosaur National Monument

     January is not my favorite month to paddle. The wind is often raw, or the river is limned with ice. So, I'm having some indoor adventures. Today I'm culling my files.  

     I slide a shallow box labelled "Xerox copies of books and articles" from a stack of boxes in my closet. Lifting the lid, I see the title of the top article: "Jewish Division of Day into Hours." Who knows why I photocopied this gem? Written by Robert L. Odom of Nashville, Tennessee, it's from a journal for pastors titled simply, The Ministry. Maybe I came upon it back in the 1990s when I was doing research for a biblical novel set in the 7th century BCE.
     I do remember going back to my seminary to browse the stacks in the library, metal shelves full of bound journals that smelled of dust and disuse. Even when I was a student in the 1970s, when we were supposed to immerse ourselves in the wisdom of the ancients, I rarely saw anyone crack the spines of those journals.

     Maybe I decided to keep the article because historical fiction is supposed to be realistic, and I wanted to understand how biblical people reckoned time.

     But I'm not sure why I kept it.

     You see, I've shuffled and re-shuffled the stacks of articles and boxes of unfinished projects in my closet so many times that the chronological layers are all mixed up. Unlike the  geological strata of canyons carved by the Green River in Dinosaur National Monument, which are fixed into colorful ribbons of sedimentary rock—my office closet is a shifting, jumbled mess.     

     But it is the date of this article that stuns me: April, 1946.

     Written to assist pastors with biblical exposition for their sermons, it begins with a calmly pedantic sentence: "In the time of Christ it was the custom of the Jews to divide the daylight portion of the day into twelve hours." The article was published just when the world had ceased being on fire.

     April, 1946.

     During World War II, which had ended just seven months before, the cities of Berlin, London, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and many others had been incinerated. This writer, Mr. Odom, may have sat in his study in Nashville, hunched over a wooden desk, clattering away on his typewriter about the ancient hours appointed for work, prayer, incense, and burnt offerings, while survivors spent their daylight hours sifting through the debris of ruined cities.

     Did he feel vaguely guilty? I know I do, if others are suffering while I am safe.
     Or, when he turned off his bedside lamp, perhaps remembering his sentence about how ancient Jews divided the night into four watches, did he think about wounded soldiers groaning through the night in hospital beds? Did he pray that Jesus would come to them "in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn"? (Mark 13:35)

     Mr. Odom was doing his job as a writer, of course, just like the faraway soldiers were doing their jobs. He was trying to help pastors who were trying to help their parishioners survive the enormous grief, terror, and privation of the war.

     Aware of war's vast causalities, perhaps he thought of lines from a hymn written two hundred years before, during Britain's war with Spain: "Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away; they fly forgotten, as a dream dies at the opening day."       

     As he hummed the hymn in the dark, perhaps he found comfort in its affirmation of God's overarching care throughout human history. "O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, our shelter from the stormy blast, and our eternal home." Being a biblical scholar, Mr. Odom probably could recite Psalm 90:4, on which the hymn was based: "For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night." (KJV)

     Taking the long view can bring a certain consolation. Humanity has made it through hard times before. Every epoch has its stories of bravery and hope.
     During this never-ending pandemic, when I see how others are still suffering from illness and anxiety, and when I struggle with the conundrums of my own life, the perspective of Psalm 90 eases my breathing and stiffens my spine: Time passes. God is bigger than my problems. And one day, the mess in my closet will just be dust.

     In the meantime, however, I can receive strength from the practices of ancient Jews and Christians, who gathered for prayer, morning, noon, and night. I can pause throughout my day to receive help for my admittedly smallish troubles.
     I wrote some blessings from gospel stories about Jesus. Perhaps they will help you, too, as you move throughout your day.

     9 a.m. (Third hour): May a powerful spirit come upon you as the Holy Spirit fell on the disciples in an upper room at Pentecost, freeing your tongue to speak the marvelous works of God. (Acts 2:1-21)

     Noon (Sixth hour): May you meet your spiritual guide at midday like the Samaritan woman was greeted by Jesus beside Jacob's well. May you drink deeply of the water that gushes up to eternal life. (John 4:1-42)

     1 p.m. (Seventh hour): May your fevers leave you as they left the son of the royal official in Capernaum that you may live and believe. (John 4:46-53)

     5 p.m. (Eleventh hour): May you receive the wages of faithfulness at the end of the work day as did the laborers in the vineyard, not demanding your due, but rejoicing in God's generosity to all, even the undeserving. (Matthew 20:1-16)
     12 a.m. (Midnight) May a word of consolation and challenge come to you in the second watch of the night, as it did to Nicodemus, who stole out under the cover of darkness to meet  Jesus. In hope and in fear, may you be reborn.

     Whatever your time, season or circumstance, may you know the Eternal One as shelter and home.

"Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations." –Psalm 90:1 (KJV)

Playlist: "O God, Our Help in Ages Past," https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IRgVNVVBVDA,  Isaac Watts, 1719.

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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.



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