Category Archives: Faith and Spirituality

Shall We Gather at the River?

Every year as summer deepens and July 4th comes and goes, my mind drifts back to some of my earliest memories. Over the Independence Day weekend in the early to mid-60s, my parents and I would join my mother’s side of the family in central Kentucky. July 4th would find us, not at my grandparents’ house in town, but, as we said, “up to the river.”

My maternal grandmother Nora spent her girlhood years, as well as much of her married life, on a rise overlooking the Rolling Fork River. Portions of the original log cabin on the site remained and had been incorporated into the white frame structure likely built in the mid-nineteenth century. Dates and details are lacking; my family tends to pass along the stories of the past haphazardly and in shattered, scattered fragments, so that the puzzle always remains incomplete. The photographic record is even more insubstantial. A couple of photos, above, from the 70s, show the farm, with its buildings, at a distance. I took some pictures of the house in 1986 (below) when it was in sad disrepair, after years of sitting vacant, shortly before demolition. I’ve been able to find no images that show it as the center of a thriving farm, and a happy, busy family home.

But I have memories of a time when it was exactly that. In those childhood days, my mother’s oldest brother Leland farmed the land by the river. By then, my grandparents had moved into the Queen Anne farmhouse on the Springfield Road in Lebanon that I remember with great fondness. Leland was the only one of my mother’s four siblings to follow in my grandfather’s footsteps as a farmer. He raised tobacco and Black Angus cattle. There were pigs, some sheep, and chickens, as well. When Leland and his wife Dessie moved into the old house in the 1940s, it lacked electricity and indoor plumbing. The structure was unassuming but relatively spacious. There was a wide staircase off the front entrance that led to several sizable bedrooms on the second floor. My grandmother and her two sisters, Alpha and Maude, had shared one room as little girls. Another was for her three brothers, Thomas, Clarence and George. My aunt and uncle, in the later years that I look back on, lived primarily on the first floor, using the upper rooms for storage. I vaguely remember, in one cozy downstairs space, an enormous brick or stone fireplace. It was suitable for a pioneer cabin, large enough to roast an entire side of beef. In a first floor bedroom, there was a narrow cupboard that could be locked with a heavy wooden bolt. It opened to reveal a slim staircase winding up to a single chamber, separate from the other bedrooms on the second floor. According to my mother, this was a feature common to rural homes of the time. An itinerant worker, or any stranger passing through, could be given a bed for the night, safely shut away from the rest of the family. A practical solution for extending hospitality to those we don’t know well enough to trust completely.

The house was never grand, but it was larger and more architecturally interesting than it appears here, in a dilapidated state, stripped of most of its exterior elements in preparation for being razed. I wonder if the log cabin portions were revealed during demolition.

In my memories, certainly the farm at the river was nothing if not hospitable. While I can no longer picture the house and its grounds clearly in my mind, those fuzzy images nevertheless conjure a powerful sense of belonging. I’m not sure if I ever spent a night in that old house, but I passed enough time inside and around it, in the company of loved ones, to recognize it as a place that breathed the breath of home. It was our place. Not in the sense of ownership, but of affinity, of kinship.

And in this sense, the river was our river, a well-loved member of the family. The highlight of July 4th, for that young me, was the time we spent splashing in the water and wandering the banks. From the house, it was a pleasant walk, down the hill, across the road, and through part of a field. Geodes and arrowheads were there among the smooth stones of the banks, for those with the patience to look. I loved the tiny gray-green frogs that hopped about among the rocks. For the most part, the river near the farm was fairly shallow, but there were deeper spots suitable for swimming, and for the thrill of plunging into the water from a rope swing. Rumors of blue holes of unfathomable depths abounded. I was probably in second or third grade before I saw the ocean. “Going to the beach” was a foreign concept to me until I was a teenager. Our family had no need for the ocean. We were river people.

Me, at the river, July 1986.

After an afternoon at the river in those old days, we’d head back up the hill for one of my aunt’s delicious meals. Now we’d refer to all the ingredients as locally sourced. Back then we just said home grown. There would be country ham or fried chicken, green beans, tomatoes, sweet onion slices, probably potato salad. Cornbread, always. My favorite dish was what we referred to as fried corn, which is fresh corn, straight from the field, cut from the cob and cooked on the stove in bacon grease or butter with a little milk and a bit of flour. It’s the luscious essence of summer on a plate.

Daddy skipping rocks at the river, July 1986.

Seems like we’d savor these festive summer meals outside, where we could gaze down on the river. We typically gathered in the front yard, seated in an assortment of metal garden chairs and webbed lawn chairs. The entire farm was a land of enchantment for me as a kid. In addition to the river, there was so much to explore and experience: my aunt’s extensive vegetable and flower gardens, an ancient grape arbor, a number of outbuildings, including the big barn, several ramshackle sheds, and a spring house cut into the side of a hill, still an effective outdoor source of refrigeration. There was the wildly overgrown remains of a one-room schoolhouse that my great-grandfather had built so his children could be taught year-round. Of course there was a privy, still in use after a bathroom was added to the house in the 50s. The ever-present threat of snakes added an element of the exotic.

Why, I wonder, are my mother and my Aunt Margaret wearing identical shirts? And what am I doing with my hands?

The significance of our annual “4th up to the River” celebration is suggested by the existence of the photo above. It’s the extremely rare, posed family picture, and it’s nearly complete. Taken at the farm on July 4th, 1964, it includes my mother, her parents, her sister and three brothers, as well as four of the five siblings’ spouses. Only my Uncle Edwin’s wife, Betsy, is missing; she must have been the photographer. I’m in front with my parents, and my cousin, the son of my mother’s sister Jessie, stands in the center back. He is twelve years my senior. I don’t remember ever paying much attention to the absence of cousins about my age. I do remember enjoying the company, and the unique personalities, of everyone in this photo. As I recall, they did their best to keep me amused. Maybe I was akin to the dog who appears to consider itself a human; maybe I didn’t notice that I was the odd one out. I only know that despite my small size, I was never made to feel lesser. I was not talked down to or treated like a precious princess, it seems, but more or less as an equal. I learned to take humorous, good-hearted teasing as a compliment.

The older I get, the more I treasure my memories of those golden days with dear family up at the river. As I look back on that part of my childhood, glimpsed through the haze of decades, I feel again the abiding solace of knowing that I’m loved, knowing I belong, knowing I’m not alone. May the sacred ties of family, of friendship, and of place, beautifully entwined together to create the idea of home–may they never break, but stretch and expand. My daughter is another only child who was often surrounded by adults during her formative years. I pray that she carries with her a cache of cherished recollections that provide her with a similar sense of contentment and assurance.

Fifty-eight years after that family photo was taken, only my mother, my cousin and I remain here on earth. I pray that our future holds for us a reunion on the banks of another river, one glorious beyond imagination, in our true home.

Shall we gather at the river, where bright angel feet have trod,

with its crystal tide forever flowing by the throne of God?

Yes, we’ll gather at the river, the beautiful, the beautiful river,

gather with the saints at the river that flows by the throne of God.

–Shall We Gather at the River

words and music by Robert Lowry, 1864

On that same July day in 1964, Aunt Dessie holds me awkwardly in her arms. I can still feel her exuberant embrace. My grandmother looks slightly miffed that we’re invading the space of her lawn chair. I’ve seen that expression on her face a hundred times. Uncle Edwin, holding his drink, smiles easily. The rolling hills of home, of central Kentucky, stretch out behind us.

For the Fallen Accidental Soldiers of our Hometown Wars, Let’s Really Think and Pray

Another Memorial Day weekend has come and gone. Every year around this time, fresh new memorials to lost American lives appear across our country. They commemorate the growing number of civilians forced unwittingly to serve as soldiers in our ongoing hometown wars.

Among these most recently fallen conscripts are the nineteen fourth graders in Uvalde, Texas, who almost made it to the end of the school year. These nine and ten-year old kids might now be relishing the start of summer, had they not been shot to death in their classrooms after returning from an awards ceremony. They include two teachers, both mothers, brave women who did their utmost to protect their students. They include ten people of various ages, from twenty to eighty-six, who had the misfortune to stop by their neighborhood grocery store in Buffalo for snacks, or strawberries, or a cake, at the wrong time.

We should also grieve for the traumatized survivors of these urban battles, whose lives are forever altered. They include the Uvalde children who evaded death because they chose an effective hiding place, or because they smeared their clothing with the blood of their dead and dying classmates. They’ll never see many of their little friends again. There is the young woman in Buffalo who eluded the gunman when another woman lunged at him and was shot dead in the process.

To these survivors and to the families of the lost, we are quick to offer our “thoughts and prayers.” This phrase, if uttered automatically, has little meaning. But we should, indeed, be thinking about, and praying for real solutions. Solving a problem requires opening our minds in order to approach it from various viewpoints. Prayer, to be effective, needs a similar attitude, a willingness to consider answers that might push the boundaries of our comfort zone. Prayer should prompt us to release our tight hold on notions we cling to simply because we have always done so. I pray that we can find some common ground, and that it will move us to take strategic steps toward stopping our country’s epidemic of gun violence.

And as we think and pray to find this common ground, let’s remember that, at any time, we might find ourselves, or our parent, grandparent, child or spouse, forced suddenly into battle. We’re all in this dangerous lottery together; we don’t know when or where our number may be called. Medical exemptions or wealthy parents will no longer keep us from the fight.

Easter 2022: Love Lives Again

Virginia Bluebells and Bleeding Hearts.

Now the green blade riseth, from the buried grain,

wheat that in the dark earth many days has lain;

Love lives again, that with the dead has been:

Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green.

Solomon’s Seal.

In the grave they laid him, Love who had been slain,

thinking that he never would awake gain,

quick from the dead my risen Lord is seen:

Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green. 

Appalachian Red Redbud.

Forth he came at Easter, like the risen grain,

Jesus who for three days in the grave had lain;

quick from the dead my risen Lord is seen:

Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green.

When our hearts are wintry, grieving, or in pain,

Jesus’ touch can call us back to life again,

fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been:

Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green.

Now the Green Blade Riseth

Traditional French carol with words by J.M.C. Crum, 1928

Virginia Bluebells.

May you find new life in the promise of Easter!

**************************************************************************

Thanks to my friend Judy for encouraging me to take photos of her woodland garden plants above!

Palm Sunday 2022

It’s Palm Sunday.  A day that begs to be called out, to be distinguished from just any other first day of the week.  It launches the period known by Christians the world over as Holy Week.  Palm Sunday sets an expectant, celebratory tone, one that contrasts, shockingly and painfully, with the shattering  disappointment of the terrible day we call Good Friday.  In between falls the oddness of Maundy Thursday.   So much is packed into the events of these seven days, which lead up to the triumphant culmination of Easter.  Indeed, without Easter, the story of new life, hope and possibility would have been one of failure, death and despair.  I’ve written about the days of Holy Week several times before.  What else can I add?  No doubt there is something.  But for now, the various demands of life, including several painting projects, prevent me from writing any more.  

So, here is last year’s Palm Sunday post: 

Doesn’t Everyone Love a Winner? 

Ash Wednesday, Again

I wasn’t going to write about Ash Wednesday this year. I thought I’d exhausted the topic, never a crowd-pleaser, in years past. Didn’t I write about it just yesterday? See here for last year’s post. These days it seems like it’s always Ash Wednesday.

The pandemic has put us in a holding pattern of perpetual Lent. Just when we think the deliverance of Easter is about to arrive, it vanishes like a mirage. Perhaps, finally, the light at the end of the covid tunnel may no longer be that of the oncoming train. Could it be that this long, limbo season would at last be brought to a joyful conclusion? It seemed like a real possibility.

And then Putin began his invasion of Ukraine. Our Ukrainian brothers and sisters, anticipating the rebirth of spring, as we all do, are faced with the desecration of war instead. They must confront terrible choices: whether to fight or flee, whether to stay or to pick up hurriedly and go, leaving homes, businesses, farms and beloved animals behind. The enormity of the emerging loss must be confounding and overwhelming.

The path ahead is perilous and forbidding. For the Ukrainians most emphatically, and to a lesser but still substantial degree, for those of us who watch, anxiously, from afar. No easy solution is at hand, no matter how much world-wide support is forthcoming. There will be no feel-good, happily-ever-after ending to this crisis, which will have long-lasting global implications. Lives are being lost, and the losses will multiply as the conflict escalates. It’s hard to imagine any scenario in which Putin might back down.

These are dark days. But Ash Wednesday urges us to look, steadily and without flinching, into the darkness so that we can rediscover the grace of God that searches us out to lead us back into the light. It reminds us that hope remains, even during the darkest days. Even in death. Ash Wednesday tells us not to underestimate the power and persistence of love, light, and life.

Today I saw an interview with a Ukrainian woman sheltering in a communal space in Kyiv with her children, the youngest of whom was an infant, asleep in her arms. She said that the presence of her tiny daughter was a blessing to her and all the others there with her. The baby, she said, was living proof that innocence, that something good, something kind, still exists in the world. Ash Wednesday tells us that evil, despite its bravado and air of military might, is no match for true goodness.

This morning I came upon a patch of bright white snowdrops among the dead brown leaves in a friend’s garden. I hadn’t seen these humble little flowers in years past.

Their sweet, quiet beauty reminded me of the sleeping Ukrainian baby.

Snowdrops, like God’s grace, like God’s love, are persistent. They’ll be blooming before long in the forests of Ukraine.

Return of the Live Nativity

The animals were back, after last year’s absence, at our church’s live nativity this Christmas Eve.  Joining us again were a burro, a small ox, a sheep, a goat, and, of course, a camel.  Because of ongoing covid precautions, no human actors were featured in the tableau. . .

. . .except for camel’s handler.  Delilah was the camel on duty this year; her colleague Samson was engaged elsewhere.  She was as friendly and patient as we’ve come to expect her to be.  

Kiko enjoys the live nativity primarily for the multiplicity of smells it affords. The animals responsible for them are of less interest. Our dog rarely looks up, and the camel’s great height puts her well out of Kiko’s radar. He seems oblivious to her presence.

Delilah isn’t especially curious about Kiko, either, but she never seems to tire of posing for photos with a parade of curious onlookers. If encouraged, she offers a welcoming nuzzle.

The furry little donkey has a cuteness quotient that rivals any dog’s.

Evidently the group had a busy holiday schedule. The sheep was drowsy, and the goat was sleeping soundly, until Kiko got close and woke him. The goat was startled, and Kiko was even more so.

One family brought along their big white bunny, whom they eagerly introduced to Kiko. The rabbit didn’t appear enthusiastic about the meeting; his air was more akin to that of a sacrificial victim. Our dog had never seen a bunny before, and he wasn’t sure what to make of this new creature. Should he consider it an equal, as he does the sheep, goat and donkey? Or is it more like a squirrel, something to be pursued? After several encounters, he seemed possibly inclined to think it was the latter. At that point, we made sure he kept some distance from the bunny, who was, no doubt, relieved.

Delilah opens her mouth for a big yawn. Her shift is coming to a close; it’s nearly time to get back into the trailer for the next gig. She wishes everyone a lovely Christmas Eve and a merry Christmas!

On Winter Solstice, A Need for Christmas light

This shortest day of the year has been gray and bitterly cold here in the suburbs of our nation’s capital. I spent a good part of the afternoon out with my elderly dog, making halting progress around the perimeter of a grocery store parking lot.  One of the abiding pleasures of Kiko’s old age is a ride and a walk, followed by a snooze in the car while I shop.  Having underestimated the chilling effect of the breeze, and not expecting to be out for very long, I was inadequately dressed.  Every leaf and every square inch of sidewalk seemed to be calling out to my dog’s discerning nose.  He sniffed, and sniffed, and continued to sniff some more.  Yet there was no resolution.  Never a suggestion of a lifted leg, nor even the briefest of squats.  An unlimited number of intriguing smells, yet none deserving of Kiko’s unique canine signature.  We made our usual circuit and then continued on around the assisted living facility.  Still nothing, so I put him back in the car and headed into the grocery, my fingers numb, my patience tried, my temper short.  I knew that once we got home, Kiko would need another outing.    

Sure enough, as I was dealing with the groceries, Kiko strolled confidently into the kitchen and pawed at the door. On his placid, expressionless face, I read smug entitlement. I love this dog, I thought, but why? By then it was dark, and even colder, but I bundled up as if for an arctic expedition. Fortunately Kiko remembered the reason for the walk, and we were back quickly.

Back into the indoor warmth and the cheerful, comforting lights that currently adorn nearly every room of our house.

On this first day of winter, and on the short, dark days ahead, I’ve found that I need the soft, glowing lights of Christmas like I need food and water. Like my old dog needs his slow, rambling walks. The lights of Christmas are a heartening reminder that in our chaotic, angry, crazy world, God’s love endures.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

–The Gospel of John, 1:5

Tis the Season?

Christmas is five days away.  Every year around this point, I ask myself: how can this be?  How can Christmas be upon us?  But this year, more than ever, time seems slippery, unreliable, prone to eccentricity.  Yesterday seems like a month ago, yet wasn’t Halloween just last week?  Is it because of my advanced age?  Is it because of sudden and broad temperature fluctuations?  In a typical seven-day span, here in Northern Virginia, we experience weather appropriate for all four seasons, sometimes in a single day.  Is it because we’re approaching our third Covid winter, and the weeks and months are draped in a veil of sameness? 

It’s certainly not because I’ve neglected the usual Christmas prep. I haven’t, and it’s kept me too busy to write. The evidence of the season is all around me, but still, this mid-December has an air of unreality. Something just seems off.

After further reflection, I think it may be this: the back-of-my-mind awareness that our daughter will no longer be joining us for an extended winter break. The Christmas season, in recent years, has begun in earnest for me with her arrival home from college. Last year, it started with her final online exam, as she was already here. I think what I’m missing now is the anticipation of having her back with us for about a month. That extra spark of excitement is absent.

At this realization, I had a mental pep talk with myself. Our daughter will be coming home soon, for about a week. She can’t stay longer because she’s gainfully and happily employed. (I’ve never held a job that ticked both boxes.) She’s embarked on a career that relies upon her training. This is why she went to college. At least it’s why the time, trouble and expense of college can be justified. All those demanding classes in aerospace engineering and astronomy are being put to good use. And while she’s a Maryland resident now, she’s closer to home than she was in Charlottesville. When she first began applying for jobs, my husband and I both feared that she’d find it necessary to move to the West Coast. In the rare absence of traffic, she can drive home in about an hour.

So I’m a lucky mama. We should see our dear daughter in two days. And then Christmas Vacation will officially begin.

As my mother reminds me, having recently watched a PBS show about the medieval origins of the twelve days of Christmas, December 25 is only the first day of the festive season. I’ve got plenty of time to get that spark of excitement back. In fact, I’m starting to feel it already.

The spirit of the season is popping up in unexpected places. Here, for example, is a radish that resembles a little head in a pointed elf cap.

The halls have been decked. It’s time to savor the joy of Christmas.

This morning’s full moon, not long after sunrise.