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Down by the Riverside


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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     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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     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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     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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     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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     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.

     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. 

     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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