The Dove that Would Not Fly Away

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dove   As a participant in church youth activities and outings, he was one of those young men who was always athletic, good-natured, cooperative, and congenial. When he graduated from high school and enlisted in the Army, following in the military footsteps of his relatives, we sent him off with every expectation that he would succeed and serve admirably. Toward the end of his basic training we received the terrible news that he had killed himself, alone in his barracks, when everyone else was away on leave. Family and friends were devastated. As his pastor officiating at his funeral I also was at a loss to speak much more than our affection and appreciation for the young man we knew and to pray that God heal his and our broken hearts.
People took part in the funeral with the open emotions and incredulity that come with a largely young adult crowd. Even those of us who were much older could only register our questions and grief. Tears and comforting hugs passed abundantly. The crowd moved to the cemetery in old Aspen Grove, where the trees provided graveside shade on a sunny afternoon, on the edge of a slope into a sheltered valley.
The family had chosen a symbol that seemed fitting of the idea of the spirit’s release into the heavens—a white dove, actually a homing pigeon, freed at the end of the graveside committal service to fly away. Only the bird, once freed, made a circle and came right back to the casket to perch. A little polite waving had no effect on the bird. We proceeded, of course, to complete the actions at the cemetery, accommodating the presence of the white dove.
Family and friends returned to the grave in the following days, only to find the dove nearby or at the marker. “What does this mean?” they asked each other, until presumably the owner of the pigeon came to claim his bird and take him home. Not believing that everything necessarily has a meaning, I deferred to others’ answers. Still, I heard people say often enough that he did not really want to leave us and needed to find a way to let us know.

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Walls Go Up and Walls Come Down

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trump's wall   “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down.”
Robert Frost penned those lines in his meditation on neighboring titled “Mending Wall.” The poem seems to contradict itself with its other famous line, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
Burlington is busily building a new wall out of steel and concrete, a floodwall protecting us from our source as a community and a periodic threat to our central downtown as well, the Mississippi River. We may wonder how long this new wall will serve its purpose. Will it be high enough, strong enough, good enough? The designers promise that it will not hide us from the beauty of the river, and we are waiting to see.
Many of the old walls have fallen in the last thirty years. They were mostly walls of limestone, placed carefully without mortar in many cases, and gravity has gradually taken its toll. The limestone, so prevalent and so full of Burlington’s famous crinoid fossils, has been an abundant resource for wall construction. Walls served the purpose of confining the chickens, horses, and hogs, or they simply helped to clean up lots that were covered with limestone.
In June, 1992, Zion’s High School youth tackled the project of removing one such wall. The old limestone wall fronting Zion’s parking lot had shown a determination to change its position. Zion’s section was moving to the west, an inch or two a year, while next door Victoria Apartments’ section was moving to the east. Two major cracks exposed the conflict. The young people speeded up the process, adding their brawn. We fantasized the possibility of circling the wall seven times and blowing a trumpet, especially when considering the four 300-pound stones that topped the eight-foot high wall. In the end a more direct and tiring approach pulled those heavy stones down with ropes from a safe distance. It was tug of war with us on one side, the wall on the other, putting up a good fight.
After that Mathew Johnson sat atop the middle section attacking with a heavy hammer and chisel. Most of the stones needed just a nudge, for a hundred years reduced the original mortar to powder. He soon found another force at work as a million angry ants made his seat untenable. They were not happy with any of us who were destroying their dry and happy home. We further meditated on upsetting the biosystem that the wall represented, pausing often to shake the tiny defenders off our clothing, but we continued our assault. One by one we carted the stones away, loading a pickup truck several times, leaving only the foundation for another day, and leaving the northern section on our neighbor’s property to go its own way.
We admit that we did not like that wall. It had stopped serving whatever purpose it originally had. Over decades people had made many efforts to keep it intact and oppose its own desire to obey the laws of gravity. A layer of concrete smoothed over the outside of the rock, so it did not have the charm of the rear wall of the parking lot with its vines and decrepitude.
After we thought about that day of practicing our faith, we named and recognized other walls that remain in our lives. Walls without purpose are leftover from earlier ages, without honor or beauty, with defenders aplenty, but they too will succumb to the laws of nature and spirit. We have seen some of those walls fall as easily as Jericho’s, but we cannot expect to walk around all of those walls and find the same result. Some require more concerted and strenuous efforts. Sledgehammer anyone?

The Luck of a Clown

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Self-potrait 1988  A six-year old boy put his name in the box for a drawing at the Grab-It-Here grocery store in Paxton. The prize he was hoping for was the shiny new Schwinn bicycle in the store window. Other prizes were on display, but the bike was the one that had his full attention. A couple of weeks later he learned that his name was drawn. He was a lucky winner, but not the winner of a bicycle. He won a stuffed clown, about half as big as he was. His mother brought it home, and he kept it for many years, since it was and remained the only thing he was lucky enough to win. Some luck, he thought.
Probably many objects attracted his attention and his hopes that he might be lucky enough to gain, but most were insubstantial, and their unimportance made them forgettable. The important things, he realized somewhere along the way, exceeded the realm of luck. To go to college and graduate school and get the scholarships, grants and fellowships to pay for them, to find a loving mate and to have her willing to marry him, even with the poverty and insecurity of the times in which they lived, to study for the ministry and find three churches that would accept him as their pastor, to have children and raise them to be responsible and successful adults—these were beyond the luck of the draw. In applying for a doctoral program, he was asked what he expected to be doing in ten, twenty, thirty years, and he answered that he expected to be a pastor doing his work well, and part of the time he wanted to teach philosophy, ethics, or bible, his academic interests, possibly at a community college, where a variety of ages and interests would be present. He was admitted to the doctoral program, and he completed it.
Ten years later he found himself in emergency rooms, successively on several occasions, until enough information accumulated to provide a diagnosis of the heart problems involved, stemming from childhood infections. The cardiologist told him that if he was lucky, without changing his lifestyle, he would probably live about seven years until he required at least an open-heart surgery. Not believing in luck, he chose to change his lifestyle—eating, drinking, exercising, and dealing with stress.
In all of these matters he was more than lucky, although not one of these was something that he could have completed by himself. If he had been confident enough to call this his life plan, then he also would have to be exceedingly happy to realize that the plan had been fulfilled even beyond his dreams. Now that boy is a seventy-one-year old man, still marveling that he has been, not so lucky, but so blessed to have had his dreams realized, and then some.
The future is still open and unknown, and his aims seem to be transforming the earlier goals into forms that are more limited and manageable in the years to come, according to the strength and breath that remain—still exercising, more slowly, and writing, teaching, finding ways to be helpful to family, friends, and the world beyond.

An Answer to Prayer

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deer & fawn
I rolled out my sleeping bag on the wooden planks of the log cabin porch at Morgan-Monroe State Forest in Indiana. Nestled in a wooded valley next to a loudly gurgling brook, the cabin was a century old, but I was barely thirteen. I felt much older because the other Boy Scouts and I had hiked twenty-five miles that day. The back-country sheds and shacks we had passed, with roaming cows, pigs, chickens, and assorted other creatures, must have been like the little farmsteads my people had come from many decades before in Ohio and Pennsylvania and Virginia, unlike the treeless prairie in central Illinois where I was born. The autumn splendor of the trees and hills surpassed anything I had yet seen.
The night was cool and star-studded, and the porch was more inviting to me than the dark interior of the cabin. Wherever we chose, we lay down to sleep. The attempts to whisper inside the cabin were just audible. They thought I couldn’t hear, and they were talking about me. They were telling a lie about something I had done, poking fun at it. It was something important to me, one of the first things in my life that I was really proud of doing. I was angry and ready to go in and set them straight. But the plank floor was too comfortable, and the stars were shining brightly, and I asked God how I should defend myself, and all I heard was the music of the stars and the distant whippoorwill.
The next morning I awoke before anyone else to a misty sunrise filtering through the trees. To my surprise there was a doe and fawn drinking from the brook barely twenty feet from the porch where I was lying. I had never before seen deer in the wild. They finished drinking and the doe wandered toward me and stopped at the railing and looked at me, our eyes meeting. Then she slowly turned and nudged the fawn and bounded away.
Life was good, and life has remained so. Some things are so beautiful that they erase all thoughts of the ugly. I no longer felt the need to correct the misinformation that the boys had spoken about me. Nor did I tell them about the deer. I just proceeded to fix the best breakfast outdoors that those fellows had ever eaten, and I said the blessing.

Showers of Blessing? September 1998

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Milford 2  The church youth group was on its way from Burlington, Iowa, to Colorado for some camping, rafting, horseback riding, and other mountain-loving activities cherished by flatlanders. We stopped to camp on our first night at Milford State Park in central Kansas and set up on a gentle slope overlooking the lake. During the night a five-inch deluge left our campground looking like stacks of cast-off clothing after a flood. One of our teenage campers was heard saying, “If I had a bus ticket I’d be on my way home now.” Old hands at camping, of which we had only a few, said, “There, there, now, in a day or two, when we’ve had a chance to dry out, everything will look brighter.”
We had rain every day except one. Mostly we got used to it and adapted, using coin-operated laundries when necessary, and learning how to set up tents so the contents would stay dry…mostly. Every major activity that we planned, including the rafting, we got to enjoy without the rain’s interference. When rafting, the first thing we learn anyway is that we get wet. We read Psalms each morning and evening, and several passages claimed that God was in charge of the clouds and the rain. That made us wonder a bit about the messages we were getting.
We also read Ezekiel 34:26 about the “showers of blessing” God brings. The Gospel song of course came to mind. The trip proceeded as smoothly as any we had planned, either for service or for fellowship. No vehicles broke down. Everyone cooperated with few moments of tension. We kept the schedule of reservations and plans for each day. We covered 2500 miles in nine days. The showers kept us on our toes, depending on God to provide, which God did, as far as we were concerned. Getting wet unintentionally and getting wet purposely didn’t make much difference after a while.
When we got home to Iowa we found that Iowa was dry as a bone. Until the end of August it remained so. Somehow the field crops continued to grow, with just enough moisture to keep going. One of the congregation’s farmers, Don Thie, came dripping wet into the first fall choir rehearsal, and he said, “Since I prayed for rain, I guess I should learn to carry an umbrella.”
We also found that, while we were on the road, one of the church members, Chuck Murray, had installed a shower in our basement restroom, so that our overnighters, drop-in-travelers, service project workers, runners, and any other sweaty folks would have a convenient place to clean up.
So we began the fall season that year with dozens of plans that we hoped would recharge and enhance the life of our community, and we sang the old song with renewed hope, “Showers of blessing; showers of blessings we need; mercy drops ‘round us are falling, but for the showers we plead.”

Corporate Efficiency

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New River WVA   Several years ago on a lovely summer evening several of us sat on the wooded banks of the New River in West Virginia, relaxing and enjoying the quiet after the first of our planned two days of rafting. During that day we had floated a relatively smooth portion of the river. We had visited some of the ruins of the old riverside mining towns that played a part in the struggle between management and miners in the formative days of the unions that finally succeeded in improving the conditions that workers and their families faced. The rafting outfitters had prepared for us a delicious steak dinner on their portable grills, they had erected tents for us, furnished a blazing campfire, and one of them was warming up on the guitar for some singing. We looked forward to the next day when the rough and tumble part of the river would show us why the New River is a popular rafting destination. We needed our rest to prepare for it.
Across the river ran the railroad tracks that had served the New River Valley since early coal mining days, and, sure enough, along came a train with cars full of coal headed north, filling the world with roar and rumble. We supposed correctly that the trains we had not noticed during the day of rafting would make some unpleasant appearances during the night, interrupting the restful sleep we craved.
About thirty minutes later another train rounded the bend, with its coal cars also loaded, headed south. It was not enough that the peace of that lovely ancient valley would be interrupted regularly by noisy trains, whose places of origin had to be separated by many miles in either direction. They were both carrying the same commodity in opposite directions!
Hold on. Wait a minute. What’s going on here, we asked. What sense does it make that coal mined far north would pass coal mined in the far south to get to places in the far north and the far south? Who organized that? They need some help. Keep the coal mined in the north in the north. Keep the coal mined in the south in the south. Forget hauling all this heavy stuff through this long meandering valley, where we want to rest and sleep and enjoy the beauty of nature.
There may be, possibly is, a reasonable and legitimate explanation somewhere, but it sticks in my mind as an example of human efficiency, planning, and cooperation. Carrying the same commodity, passing in the night, going in opposite directions, carrying resources to places they already exist, people expend their energies. A variation of the Greek myth of Sisyphus seemed to be replaying before our eyes. Does God have a sense of humor, or what?

Attractive Nuisances, January 2002

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cropped-bell-route.jpgThermostats are attractive nuisances. They are dangerous instruments and touching one can put you in serious jeopardy. Therefore we have tried in public institutions, like churches, to surround them with fences in the form of plastic lockable boxes, so that people will leave them alone. To no avail. We misplaced the keys long ago, and it’s easier just to take that silly lid off and reset the dial where we want it. Now that we have thermostats that can be preset for both summer and winter, the feud between the hot-blooded and the cold-blooded can go on in all seasons. (I will not admit to being cold-blooded.)
Whoever is first to set the thermostat never has the final word. In a building that is big and complicated, like Zion Church, there is no available science that can indicate a comfort zone that fits everyone. One must also consider the delay factor. Since it takes about thirty minutes to reach the indicated temperature, those who are chilly may reset the thermostat a dozen times while waiting for it to reach their goal, not knowing that they may have passed their own target temperature several times. When the temperature finally reaches the last setting, and the room fills with people and the body heat they bring into it, those who enjoy the climate a little cool have baked to a crisp.
The problem in these days is aggravated by the need to save energy and not add more carbon to the atmosphere. One side pretends to be more righteous when they want to turn the heat down. The other responds with “Insulate! Insulate! Insulate!” as they turn the heat up.
It is not an easy compromise in a building as small as my house, where two people do not agree on a satisfactory setting. One likes the stat set at 62, the other 72. Guess who? “Put on more clothing.” “Wrap up in a blanket.” And that’s for mid-summer. “It’s easier to put clothing on than to take it off.” “Who says so?” This is conversation?
Do you snowbirds in the Sunbelt have this problem? I reckon you do.
How many other opinionated preference issues are like this? Don’t even get started trying to make a list.
Who knew that the thermostat would be the most divisive issue that a couple would face in their long and enjoyable marriage? Who knew that a church, of all places, would find that a temperature setting would be the best indicator of their spiritual capacity for mutual love and understanding?
“Turn up the heat” faces off with “Let’s be cool!” Lord Jesus, will you help us figure out what energy setting keeps us from being lukewarm in our faith?

Hidden Doors

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Hidden pocket doors at the Chapman farm Oct 2016  We reoccupied the farmhouse in October of 2016, after sixteen years of renting the house to two other families. We could not continue to rent the house to others when many major repairs and updates were required. We decided to live at the house a good share of the time while we work on it, enjoy the farm environment, and appreciate the memories made in the only house that my parents ever owned.
The first task was to remove the wall-to-wall carpeting from the main and the second floor. The main floor carpet was approaching thirty years of use; the second floor included carpets that were threadbare after fifty years and more. Nothing was salvageable from these carpets or their pads. Underneath were the original Southern yellow pine floors, hard, durable, and needing refinishing, which would wait until other tasks were completed.
The second task was one that had waited through years of my wondering curiosity—discovering what was hidden in the walls between the three living rooms on the main floor. One room serves as a dining room, one as a living room, and the last as a library, with a small half bath carved out of its corner. The walls between these rooms were thicker than normal in their construction. Vinyl folding doors had separated the rooms, and those doors had been added before we first occupied the house in 1963. They were obviously not original to the 1915 design. The last renters had removed those vinyl doors as they began to fall apart.
I verified my first suspicion, that the wall between the living room and library contained two heating channels for the second floor, justifying its larger size. I suspected that the other and thicker wall, between the dining and living rooms, had once contained pocket doors that matched the five-section ladder door design throughout the rest of the house. It was not likely that they were still there. Prying the plywood cover off of the door jam revealed the answer. There had been pocket doors there, and they still were there, pushed back into the pocket and covered. One rolled out easily, just as it had originally. The other rolled out a few inches and stopped, resisting to roll farther. They both were covered with dust, after their exile for sixty years or more., but underneath the dust was a beautiful finish, just waiting to be cleaned.
I surmised that the reason someone had hidden the doors was due to the failure of the one door to roll properly. There was no other evident problem with it. My son-in-law Au arrived soon after I had discovered the doors. He grabbed a flashlight, found an easy-to-reach adjustment mechanism, borrowed a screw driver and did a little adjustment, and that door worked perfectly, like the other. No mechanical problems defies Au for long.
How often do we give up on solving a problem before we’ve made a sufficient effort to find an answer? How often do we substitute something that is of poorer quality for something that just needs a little adjustment? How often do we live with something that is unsatisfying before we return to something that is beautiful and durable? How often do we hide doors instead of opening them? Oh, the lessons! The lessons keep rolling out.

Finding Philip

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organ console   In 1985, while Jan and I were living at Minonk, Illinois, I read an article in the Bloomington Pantagraph about a skilled organist who drove himself in an adapted van back and forth thirty miles to Illinois Wesleyan University. There he played the organ and instructed students, which was remarkable because he was partially paralyzed due to ALS, and he had been dealing with this progressive disease for sixteen years after his diagnosis. To my surprise the subject was my friend Philip, whom I had not seen or talked to since 1968. I had no idea what had happened to him, but I had a clue to why he had seemed to disappear.

I called the only listed number bearing his last name and it belonged to his sister Mary, with whom he was living. She was cordial as I explained my connection to her brother from years ago. She said she would tell him I called, and I left my number. Soon Philip returned my call and enthusiastically invited me to come to their home.

Their home as well as his van was well-equipped to accommodate Philip and his wheel-chair. A ramp circled the back room entrance, which was centered around a large electronic organ console. After we spent an hour catching up on how we had both spent the last seventeen years, Philip demonstrated his project of recording music and adapting organ consoles for people who needed a manual pedal and recording arrangement like himself. He was in touch with several disabled organists, and he was convinced that instruments could be adapted so that their skills would not be lost. His ministry had been redirected, but he had not lost his desire to serve.

Over the three years that followed, we visited every two or three months. He continually tried to accept and adapt to the limits that his disease imposed. He had been able to slow the progress of the disease and work with the disabling effects, much like Stephen Hawking, and he was not quitting. He chafed at having his choices increasingly limited. He sought ways to have new choices, and in that search he proposed that he come to Minonk and investigate the possibility of living there independently.  I would have to drive his van, since he knew that the miles were more than he could drive, along with the regular daily tasks of self-care he had to manage. He had to return to his home with Mary by evening. He had already made arrangements to see an apartment in the local subsidized housing.

We made the trip, introduced Philip to my family and church, heard Philip play the church organ beautifully, visited the apartment, and got him safely home. He would think about what such a move would mean, although sister Mary was clearly not convinced that it would be wise. Nor was I, since no one I knew could provide the assistance that he would need in the future as well as his sister, but I was not ready to close that option if he chose it.  I was not able to persuade the congregation to share the duties of church organist, if Philip decided to come, although the faithful eighty-year-old organist, who had served the congregation for over forty years, was reaching the limits of his abilities as well.  At the end we all decided the move wasn’t a good choice, but I was glad that I had not simply rejected the option at the outset.  

Philip and Mary both expressed disappointment when I left Minonk for Burlington, Iowa, but I promised to keep them aware of our progress there. Our visits were fewer, but we stayed in contact. Philip suffered a heart attack and other disabilities as the years passed, and ALS paralysis took its toll. He died in 2002, after a few months in a nursing home. Mary, who had retired as a public school music educator in order to care for her brother, died in 2008. Few people have opened so many doors to understanding for me as these.

 

Points of Pastoral Privilege

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Pentecostal banner   When I was fifteen, my pastor, Glen Sims, introduced me to one of the potentially high and holy moments that ministers get to experience. He took me to visit an elderly woman near death. “If you are thinking about becoming a minister, you must be able to be with people in their most difficult times.” The woman was herself the wife of a minister who had died several years before. She observed my youth, naivete, and shyness with her own years of experience, wisdom, and serenity. “You have a wonderful life ahead of you. I enjoyed almost all of it myself. But I have a wonderful life ahead of me, too.” Such was her faith.
Up to that point, the privilege of being with people at very special and terrifying times was an aspect of ministry that was hidden to me. I had observed the work of worship, even helping to serve communion at the kneeling rail around the altar, as was the Methodist custom of those days. Pastor Sims had invited me on a few occasions to lead a pastoral prayer in front of the congregation, and he loaned me Harry Emerson Fosdick’s Prayers, so I had a model to use. I knew about the activities of meetings and Church School classes, and youth events. I had no idea about being with people who were sick, or dying, or in crisis, or grieving. I could not imagine trying to moderate disputes between angry spouses or alienated family members, or aggrieved church members, or offended community people. The thought of being an advocate for people who were poor or needy or in trouble had not crossed my mind. Eventually he and other mentors introduced me to these challenges of ministry.
These are privileges that the people of the church make possible for their ministers and to some extent for each other. The door opens to the hardest challenges that people face. The embrace is extended. The chair is offered. The mutual tears are shed. The horrible fears are faced together and with the halting words of fervent prayer.
I told my pastor that I didn’t think I had the strength for this. I asked him how he was able to do it. I can still hear him admit that he wasn’t able, not on his own. He talked about a power greater than he was, greater than anyone on their own, that lets people come together in such times and struggle together. God’s Spirit comes and helps people face the hardest trials and get through them.
In thousands of episodes that followed—hospital visits, counseling sessions, emergency calls, and everything else—some moments remained terrifying enough to send me back to some quiet corner where I might enjoy being a gardener, a scholar, a writer, or anything other than a pastor. My own pastor’s words became flesh many times over. There are holy moments when our God of compassion and wisdom comes near enough to be tangible in the air we breathe and the light we see. Blood, sweat, and tears all yield their power and make room for the mysterious presence of the Living God.