Saturday, April 25, 2009

Come Summer, Come Winter

Like cups of cold, spring water on a scorching, thirsty day and like embers of hot, fireplace coals on a freezing, lonely night, so is the feel of God’s grace upon my soul. A cool breeze rising in the heat of summer, a warm fire crackling in the freeze of winter, when I have needed such blessings, God’s grace has brought them to me.

In these days when my climbs among the mountain pines have become strolls among the valley willows, I can gaze back over the miles and see that every human need does have its divine counterpart in grace.

In my youthful exuberance, wisdom sometimes came my way, most often in the slow and patient words of old pilgrims who walked a mile or two with me. Now in my aging contemplation, strength sometimes comes my way, usually when a young adventurer passes by and I snatch an ember from his passion and his dreams. I suppose it is God’s way. For the cold there is the warm; for the hot there is the cool; for the young there is the old; and for the old there is the new.

I can still feel the cold, wet towel upon my fevered brow, held there by a prayerful mother’s hand, a touch of grace dressed in simple gingham. Together we made it through the night, a little boy who knew not the danger, a young mother who knew too well the danger, and a God who trusted in His grace being lovingly administered through human touch.

I can still feel the steaming hot chocolate upon my lips, as my mother tried to rub away the bone-chilling cold acquired by my playing too long in the Canadian snow. Ah, but it was so much fun - building snowmen, throwing snowballs, climbing snowdrifts. Yet, little boys, as sturdy and resilient as they are, they can stay out too long in the wintry wind. Yet this is why mothers are taught by some divine instruction on how to remove the crust of melted snow, unbundle one by one the layers of woolen clothes, rub away the frost, and soothe away the cold with the heavenly warmth of hot chocolate made in love.

For every cold there is a warmth, for every hot there is a cool, for every human need there is a divine counterpart in grace.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009


Even now, in the mellow autumn of my life, I keep returning to those sunshine summer days of my boyhood on the farm. I like to bring it all back to life - that Tom Sawyer that still lingers in me, those farm fields that were the extent of my world, those black-tar barns that were stately in their rustic simplicity. Yet most of all, I especially like to bring to life my Grandma. Her voice sounded like light-hearted brook water making its way through the maple woods. Her touch was like kitten’s fur rubbing upon one’s soul. Her smile was like God’s gentle grace reaching out to you. I loved her and I still love her, for she loved me and she still loves me. Yes, we loved each other but even more than that, we loved being with each other.

We would often wander together through the wide-open pasture that stretched out beyond the barn. We would go searching for a delicate, white flower she called Angel Lace. The rest of the world seems to call it Baby’s Breath. And that name is fitting enough, but I still hold a liking to Grandma’s preference.

She once told me that Angel Lace would sometimes appear here and there in the morning dew. You never knew where it might appear. It simply appeared.

Where did it come from? According to Grandma, it seemed that sometimes during the moonlight, angels would come down to earth and dance among the fields. The angels were so beautiful that the earth would be reluctant to have them leave. And so as the angels rose up with the first light of dawn, the fields would reach up and snatch a bit of the lace from the angel’s skirts to remember them by.

Oh with all my biblical scholarship and theological sophistication, I realize that this story of Angel Lace is but the fancy of mountain legend, yet I cannot help but remember the story of Jacob’s Ladder. Yes, the old gospel song does claim that we are the ones who are climbing up that ladder rung by rung to heaven’s higher realms, yet the Biblical account is something quite the contrary. In the story, the ones who dance up and down the ladder are the heavenly angels, not we earthbound mortals.

Again and again, this seems to be the direction of God and human souls, up and down and down and up. God comes down to meet us here and we go up to meet Him there. We go searching for Him up there on the mountains and God comes searching for us down here in the valleys. Our praise rises up and God’s grace showers down. I am not always sure if we are going up to heaven or heaven is coming down to us.

But in this mellow autumn of my life, I am thankful that every now and then I still find myself in those places where angels have come down to play. And I have the Angel Lace to prove it.

“Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Haran. When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep. He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.” - Genesis 28:10-12 NIV

Sunday, March 15, 2009

In Shafts of Cathedral Light

The Paris traffic just added one more snarl to that sizzling summer day. The honking, the cursing, the ringing, the screaming of the sirens scorched the air as much as if not more than the August sun that somehow had drawn closer to the earth than it ought. Even the heavy wrought iron latch of the huge cathedral door felt like a branding iron fired in the forge of that sun’s blazing heat.

As I leaned my weight into the door, its majestic weight began to yield. Then with its closing behind, me, I left the world of crowded, noisy madness into a solitary, quiet of holy light and shadows.

At first, the cathedral hushed the world I had left me, taking away its heated breathing. But then, not long after, the cathedral snatched away my panting breath and then began to breathe into me its timeless, eternal breath. And indeed, I must say, I could hear this sacred lady that had lingered here all these many generations whisper to me her sighs and prayers. She breathed the air of ancient saints, the air of faithful prayers, the air of candle smoke mixed with five centuries of hymns. She spoke in Latin; she spoke in French; she spoke in the language of farm boys now grown old.

My footsteps echoed off the stones and upward into the lower realms of heaven. I felt that if listened ever so carefully I might hear the very footsteps of immortality, the weary feet of humble pilgrims finishing their journey from once where they were to where they were called to be. Six hundred steps it took to make my journey down the holy mile, to stand amidst the shafts of stained glass light that descended down through dusty air and unto me. I closed my eyes so that I might feel that light, that light of majestic red and regal blue and old, so very old gold. The light felt warm. The light felt like mother’s grace. The light felt like the touch of a wisdom far wiser than my own.

There I prayed midst the grand and noble towers of granite and glass. There I prayed humbled by the vastness of it all, in what ought to have been a strange land for a soul saved in white clapboard, country chapel. Yet, it all felt like home. I could still hear townsfolk singing the well-worn hymns; I could hear the old preacher giving it all he had just one more time; I could hear the water being poured into the baptismal font as a sinner knelt down to pray.

Yes, here among the shafts of cathedral light, the God who stops and visits country churches that are nearly lost on backwoods roads, came to sit with me in the Cathedral of Notre Dame.
In the Mists of the Great Zambezi

My ears were filled with the roar of constant thunder; my face was covered with the mist of ancient waters; my eyes were dazzled by the dance of momentary rainbows coming to life. I was but a wisp of humanity witnessing the majesty of God’s Creation, humbled by it all yet somehow empowered by it all.

The soul of Africa is found in this Eden known by most as Victoria Falls, a name ironically imposed by colonial powers who came late in the history of this vast continent’s beating heart. Here in the thundering mist and in the dancing rainbows one meets the spirit of this land; its way of hidden mystery, its way of untamed power, its way of somehow keeping touch with ancient origins. Here at the foot of Victoria Falls, one can become lost in Africa.

Here the great river, the great Zambezi, in one dramatic act of grandeur descends into a deeper realm to create out of itself something even more, something unexpected, something that reminds us that the river of God is filled with power. For miles and miles the Zambezi flows patiently, relentlessly, even sometimes lazily, then here at this fracture in the earth, the sheer weight of its eternal flow explodes into a few moments of mist and fog only then to reassemble itself as the flowing river once more.

And as I get lost in praise at the wonder of it all and in the wonder that I am alive to experience it all, a brilliant flash of sparkling blue dances before me. It is a butterfly, a tiny gossamer of sapphire. She seems too delicate, too fragile, to be in the midst of this brawny, awesome cauldron of overwhelming power, yet she holds her own. She accomplishes her flight. She even snatches my attention away from the mighty falls, making them but a background for her playful charm. Then I realize that this is her realm more than mine as I note that the mist of the great Zambezi tries to kiss her wings.

The majesty of God is found in equal share here in the heart of Africa in both the mighty river and in the mighty butterfly.
In the Half-Golden Light

In the daylight hours the streets of Manhattan flow with yellow taxicabs and panel trucks, the conveyances of the overheated commerce that makes this city live. But come the nighttime, the sidewalks once crammed with three piece suits and harried ambitions now become the shadowed alleys of street cleaners and street walkers, the world of those who have somehow been left behind. It was also the world I knew as a young man who worked as night watchman at the Salvation Army lodge.

Come six o’clock, the line would form of men who lived their lives one bowl of soup at time, surviving the streets one more day, maybe with one more bottle of muscatel to soothe their moldy despair. Two hundred men would take their turn stopping at my green, folding card table. “Name please. Do you have your ID? Empty your pockets. Your clothes go in the bag by the shower. Dinner at seven. Lights out at nine. No smoking. The bus leaves for the labor pool at 6:00 a.m.”

These weathered, old knights of the road, they knew the routine, it had become their way of life. Some had taken to the road after the war and simply had stayed on the road too long. Others were broken men, casualties of bad homes, bad breaks, or bad choices.

While they showered, we would fumigate their clothes, replace socks and underwear that needed to be replaced, maybe provide a hand-me-down shirt or a half-worn pair of trousers. They would dress and comb their hair with one of the thousands of Salvation Army combs we always had on hand. Where all those combs came from, no one knew, but we always had boxes and boxes of them.

Dinner would always begin with a table grace that I usually provided, but every so often an old fellow named Wild-Eyed Jack would recite a prayer that his godly grandmother had taught him when he was a boy on a farm in upstate New York. That was before the War when a grenade had stolen away his right eye and left with a life of limping and begging, a life of aching pain and the pity of folks who walked on by. After biscuits and soup, green beans and a necessary slice of onion, Bear, our grizzly cook, would always bring out platters of ginger snap cookies. I always loved those ginger snap cookies.

Soon after, I would begin corralling the men into the long, one room dormitory, each of them to a cot covered with a drab green blanket with the Salvation Army shield imprinted in black ink upon it. I would give a warning or two that lights out would be coming soon. Then, when I felt the moment had come, I’d flip the light switch and they would one by one slip away into few hours of dreams of what might have been - and I suppose now and then - of what might one day be.

I would sit and watch over this household of broken dreams and worn out souls as a soft, half-golden light from the illuminated cross that hung on the far wall would settle upon these old, snoring men. And for one more night in the flow of eternity that gentle light of that old cross would bath those two hundred one-time little boys with the gentle grace of God.

That Salvation Army lodge at midnight, there in the light of that cross, was one of those places that one finds in the realm known as the kingdom of God.