Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Hollyhock Man


There once was a man, who lived on the prairie, or should we say on the land of prairie. The prairie had been mostly ploughed under to make way for forests of corn and waving fields of golden grain. Yet some parcels of prairie remained for the cows to leisurely graze and wander. On those places the wildflowers of the native lands still grow to signal each season’s un-going life giving rotations of color and change.  Life on the prairie had changed since the immigrants ventured into this sea of billowing grass and plants that bloomed and faded, to bloom and fade again.

Such is the life on the prairie. The tall Bluestem at times greeted the thundering bison and traveling native people but the sod was basically left to grow again once these visitors had passed on to taller grass.  Still change did come in a staggering way when the sea of grassland met the immigrating boatloads of plowing, planting, sacrificing and surviving people who did stay and did change the land.

Change has always been part of life. Change can be subtle and change can be drastic.  Change comes through effort, toil and intent and change comes when forces larger than human intervention intersect with soil and places to change what was, into what is now. Most of the change on the prairie came from the intentional adaptation of those that tended the land and thus the native was mostly replaced by the exotic. Isolated pockets remained but mostly the seas of grass had passed into fields of production. It is not right or wrong but it just became a different life on the aged prairie sod. It was a change meeting changing life.

The “Hollyhock Man” came just after the time of great change on the prairie-lands. His grandfather and father before him had turned over the native sod to plant and to plant again, over and over into the rich humus, their dreams of life. The promise was sown again and again into the soil … that life would be better than it had ever been in the old country.  The dream basically become true in the most part except for a few decades of dirty, depressing upheaval in the heartland of the states they call “America.”

Those that first came from the crowded places in Europe brought various items with them. Of course they brought heirlooms and history but they also brought seeds. Seeds of flowers from the homeland tucked away in soiled handkerchiefs, folded in sealed envelopes … so that they might remember the gardens of the mothers and fathers they had left behind. 

Such were the seeds of the hollyhock which grew in myriads of gardens of the homelands of the immigrants since it had been carried back from the ancient trade routes to Turkey and China.  The hollyhock was stout and sturdy and it blossoms with color reaching the full height of the tallest man.  First it was planted around the local parish churches but later it was found everywhere as it was easily propagated because as the flower faded, handfuls of seeds were freely available to be gifted to another. Thus the process of the blessing of the tall hardy flower continued on to another family and another garden.

Hollyhocks were perfect for adding color to the bleak house and yards of the immigrants because they do not need pampering or special attention.  Throw a handful of seeds under the window and in couple of years, there would be a wall of color to grace the sparse edges of the challenging new life on the prairie. 

Children always loved hollyhocks because there was never a shortage of blossoms and thus there was never a danger of picking too many flowers and getting in trouble.  Little girls loved hollyhocks because you could make them into little dolls with little faces complete with tiny eyes, green hats and flowing dresses of bright and dazzling colors.  Little boys didn't mind them either, because somehow although they were slightly obnoxious, they could yet be charming by making their own versions of odd dolls which in some strange way might attract the attention of a childhood sweetheart they were momentarily swooning over.

As time progressed and as seasons came and went, other cultivated flowers took the place of hollyhocks and the faithful and generous trunks of showy hollyhocks were banished to the other realms of the farmyards.Years later when the discreet woman of the prairie mentioned she had to visit the hollyhocks, it was to serve notice that they were attending to the call of nature in the little house out in the backyard. Still the hollyhock continued growing upward in scattered places despite losing favor, ascending to the bright blue sky as it filled its stems with ample flowers of every hue and color.    

The “Hollyhock Man” loved hollyhocks for a multitude of reasons. He was an endlessly hard working farmer dedicated to improving his land, improving its production and improving the quality of life for his family through his dedicated efforts. This tireless dedication to improvement in so many areas left him little time to focus on flowers but yet he loved flowers, plants and trees. Yearly he would order seeds from catalogs, to plant flowers around his house. After all ... there were always new varieties of hollyhocks.  He always took time to help his lifelong sweetheart, who was now his beloved wife with her flowers, so that she might have fresh blossoms for her table.  He loved flowers because deep down, he loved people … not just by spouting words of love but by truly loving people and finding great joy in the time he spent with them. Thus he loved the smiles, flowers produced in those he loved and the hearts brightened in the giving of flowers to others. He loved flowers and he loved hollyhocks. Even though it was decades ago, I can still picture him smiling and laughing ... as he watched my sister and her cousins assembling and organizing hollyhock dolls in imaginative regal pageantry and color on an flower covered picnic table.  What delights, hollyhocks brought to the farm life! He could not afford flowers around all the buildings on the farm but after the hollyhocks became wooden stalks devoid of any reason to stand along a house, they could be neatly laid along another building with the hope of color coming in a new place … in a new season.

So in the prime of his life, the “Hollyhock Man” had hollyhocks everywhere. Forests of hollyhocks along all the buildings of his farm and as his farms increased … so did the hauling of armloads of brittle stalks of hollyhocks leaking seeds by the thousands … always banking on showy new displays growing along another set of new buildings.  I have often wondered why the “Hollyhock Man” bothered to continually plant and replant these towering flowers over and over again.

Now after his passing, I think I know why.  The “Hollyhock Man” was always a dreamer, full of faith and a true optimist. He was that way in his disposition and he was that way in his interactions with everyone along the way on his journey through life. He took great care in the preservation and preparation of the soil on his farm that it might produce up to its great potential.  He believed all effort would generally be rewarded and if things were difficult and bleak … there was always a new season to come. Hollyhocks represented his core belief in a complete and practical way. The effort of transporting the stalks when the plant looked hopelessly bleak and barren would always bring flowers in the coming years. He looked at the people around him the same way. People were like hollyhocks! No matter how life looked, it had the potential to grow tall and blossom with color in a coming season. This is what he believed and this is how he lived. This is why; sometime late in the August heat … he would show up at your door with an armload of hollyhocks and ask you, “Where do want me to put these?”

Now after his years of hauling hollyhocks and his loving and caring ways have come to a close and the forests of blooms along his buildings are just a memory, there is a living legacy of dreaming, trusting in our faith and being optimistic that has been implanted in the hearts of all of those who knew him. There is also a good chance that somewhere, in some yard, a hollyhock or two is even now growing upward towards the bright blue sky, filling its stem with ample flowers of every hue and shade. There is also a good chance that some little girl will be shown the tricks of making hollyhock dolls and the cycle of the joy of the hollyhock will begin again for a new generation. Thanks, Dad for being the“Hollyhock Man” to so many of us. Thanks for believing in us, walking beside us and for teaching us to dream and to trust our faith as we look forward to the wonderful colors on the brittle stalk of the hardy hollyhock, which will be coming anew in the season of summer on the prairie. 

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Going Home







“An ox knows its owner, and a donkey its master’s manger, but Israel does not know, My people do not understand” (Isaiah 1:3, NASB).
     The confines of the familiar field were now forgotten as the small brown horse realized she was in the open territory on the other side of the fence. In the moment, she realized there were no perimeters holding her from recklessly venturing into the beckoning unknown. She could sense she had the freedom to run with the wind as far as her stout and sturdy legs could travel. Racing along the busy highway unaware of the dangers of speeding vehicles, she just ran and ran with abandon.
 
   The drivers on the roadway saw her, and were worried about the little horse with her flowing wheat colored tail and mane, darting and trotting alongside them. They wondered who to call or what to do to return the mare to the security of her pen.

    The little horse became scared of the sounds, smells and even of her freedom itself. I tried to call her name, but she would not listen. I tried to coax her to follow me, but she would not come. Instead she headed at full speed for steep cliff on the edge of the deeper woods. She was far and away much faster than my human legs could travel. I slipped and fell numerous times as I tumbled down the treacherous bank through the briars and musky timber. At the bottom of the hill midst the thorns, burning nettle and damp mire … she stood panting. There was our little horse with her huge dark eyes finally recognizing me as her friend.

     She came and nuzzled her sweating head against my right leg. I put my hand on her neck just behind her ear and tried to soothe her with some quieting words, “It’s okay … we’ll go home.” Now she only wanted to be close to me, as her face persistently nudged my leg during the uneventful journey home.
    
     We should know our loving Heavenly Father as a simply and significantly as any animal knows its master. Yet we like any horse, can become intoxicated with the freedom beyond the confines of His designs for our safety and protection. We sometimes run with abandon in our selfishness and sin venturing into the unknown, naively unaware of the dangers along the highways of life. We do not know that we do not know and in those moments we do not understand His provision and purpose. So we plunge over the cliff ending up very unsure and scared midst the briars, muck and burning nettle.

     What a joy to have our Heavenly Father come and find us and gently walk beside us as we journey back home to be with Him. There is nothing anywhere in the world like the mercy, compassion, grace and love our Heavenly Father gives to us over and over again when we have gone astray. Thanks be to our Heavenly Father who loves us with such a great love.

“‘Come now and let us reason together,’ Says the LORD, Though your sins are as scarlet, they will be white as snow; through they be like crimson, they will be like wool” (Isaiah 1:18, NASB).
Suggested Reading – Isaiah 1

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Finding significance at the second hand store ...

Finding significance at the second hand store ...
  It was around 12:00 noon and even though I was in town to visit people, I didn’t want to show up uninvited at someone’s door while they were eating. So I decided to go in a second hand store retail business for a short time. I was browsing in the store when the owner struck up a conversation with me. I eventually put my items by the register and she checked me out. We talked for a while afterwards and it came out that I was a pastor.

    “So, you’re a pastor,” the woman pried a bit in an awkward manner, “Is it wrong to decide for someone whether they should live or die?” I was unsure about what exactly she was asking and so I inquired as to the situation. She was uneasy in her asking and I had no idea of the direction of the conversation or how I would answer such a difficult question. My short browsing time was changing before my eyes as she began to tear up and as the emotion began to come forth.

    “I’m struggling with all they are putting on me,” she exhaled in voice and desperation. “I don’t know what to do,” she further explained. As I listened, compassion started filling my heart, the extra time I had to fill just a few minutes before was now lost in this woman’s story. Her husband had severe dementia among multiple health problems and she had been asked to decide about “end of life decisions” for her husband. She was
obviously unsure and desperate about how to decide.

     I asked gently about her feelings and when and what exactly did she have to decide? Minutes could now be measured in units of tens as I journeyed along the events of her life and the placement of her husband in a nursing home because she could not take care of him. I reassured her that although the law allows decisions to made on “end of life” directives that she didn’t have to decide right now. I looked into her eyes and spoke about the fact that these decisions were immensely difficult for anyone and the overwhelming anxiety that she was feeling was quite normal. I asked her if she was a believer and she nodded. I reached out my hand and asked if I could pray with her about her husband and the momentous decisions she faced. I cannot remember the words that I prayed other than the context and my sincere pleading that our God come and comfort her with the peace that only He can give. No words came out after the prayer except a simple “thank you” even as hardly noticeable flow of tears was coming from the corners of her eyes. I left and stepped into the sunshine.

     As I made my way to my car, I was completely overwhelmed with God’s timing in our lives. How does something like this come about? What started as insignificant time had before my eyes been transformed into another “calling upon God” powerful and significant moment in time in my life. As I sat for a few seconds in my car, debating where I should go next,I became completely enveloped in the incomprehensible reality that I worship a living God. He is not only a God that directs our paths but uses us to show His compassionate love to others on those very same paths we are walking. Incredible simply incredible.  

Friday, October 4, 2013

A revelation in fire and a small voice.

  Is it the spectacular or is it the common that we find our deepest moments in our faith? Which has greater impact? Was it the words that Christ spoke with compassion or was it the miracles that burst forth from his God/powered interactions with people and situations that truly brought people to belief? Was it not both? At times it was not the spectacular but the quiet and the smallest of moments. At times the gentle words of Jesus nudged people to believe in him and at other times the unbelievable was hardly noticed, much less acknowledged even though the miracle might have echoed as a witness of God’s power in the Son. Sometimes the teaching words of Jesus were mocked and yet a miracle was about to unfold bringing change to the very lives of those standing before Him. Impact and influence even during the ministry of Jesus the Savior seems to be unpredictable. Is it a matter of the hardness of the heart that negates seeing the working of God?  Sometimes God doesn't have to do the mighty to speak, we just have to listen.

     For a week or so, I had been praying to be in the right place at the right time for God's power to be evident. On a cold morning on one of the first few days of November, I had awoken with a start at 4:30 A.M., eyes wide open, with a distinctive earnestness; desiring on this day to be in the right place at the right time for God to use me.

     Just a few hours later, this earlier prayer was even again on my lips, as a cloud of steam appeared on the side of the highway just ahead of me. As I got closer, the car from which the steam was rising up from was now beginning to burn. Bight orange flames were beginning to appear around the bottom of the engine, ugly black smoke began to billow upward. I came to a stop and realized there was a man was still sitting in the car. I jumped out and ran up to the side window and told the man that he needed to exit the car quickly. He stated, "It’s not that bad, it is only a blown head gasket."
   
     "No, no, your car is on fire," I exclaimed. Moving slowly, he hesitantly began to leave the car, but he also wanted to go around to the front and look under the hood. “Sir, we have to get out of here ... we cannot stand around,” I nervously tried with my words and hands to get him to move away from the fiery danger. Finally he listened to my words and we slowly we moved back from this heart pounding scenario. We first stepped back about 20 feet and then further back to about fifty feet away from the ever increasing fire. The flames began to grow ever hotter and higher and soon the car was a large fireball. I hurriedly dialed the fire department and they said they were on their way. The tires began to blow off like bombs and in a few minutes, his wife came driving up. She thanked me and said to me, “My husband has suffered some strokes and moves sorta slow,” before telling her husband to get in her car. Afterwards she slowly moved further down the road. Now the spectacle became a reproduction of a movie set with cars stopping all along the road, sheriff sirens and neck straining drivers coming dangerously close to causing additional accidents as they strained to look at the event in full production.
  
     After a few more minutes the sheriff said to me, "You are free to go" and I shook the old man’s hand. He smiled and said, “Thanks so very much, I don’t know what would have happened if you hadn't come along.” I turned and walked away taking some deep deliberate breaths, which I hadn't noticed I had needed until that moment. I sat for a few minutes in my truck and wondered about God’s powerful hand in this fiery encounter.
     
    At the end of the day as I was falling off to sleep, a simple thought broke through as I thought about the events of the day. A small voice came to me. God impressed this thought upon me, "He was there in the spectacular but he was also with me in the many moments during the day when I did not even sense Him." He was there in my directed words that I spoke to the old man in danger and He was there in the countless other words that I had spoken to different people I encountered throughout this same day. It should not have taken a revelation in a fire for me to understand anew, God's mighty power and His small voice both proclaim His love for those that will listen. After all ... He created the universe and He can move mountains yet He can also speak in the smallest of words directed to a tender heart. I know what happened in the fiery scene earlier in the day but I don’t really know what He did with my words spoken throughout the rest of the day. The crux of the matter remains ... God is God. Whether He moves in the common or the spectacular is not really to be argued but we must delight in the involvement of God in our lives as His children. What a wonderful and humbling reality it is to realize, God is involved in all of the moments of our lives.  He can and will use any of them to deliver His messages. Fiery miraculous spectacles are impressive but the still small voice is just as important because it too, comes from God himself. 


Dear God, help me to always listen, be ready to speak and let my heart be tender to you whether in the small or the spectacular. Help us never to miss the smallest of words from your voice because we are looking for the revelation in fire. Help us to simply seek you, be still and wait for you.  In the name of Jesus our Lord, Amen.

"The Lord said, 'Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.' Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake.  After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave" (I Kings 19:12 NIV).

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Looking out from from a open window at Glen Eyrie.



  I pull up an over-sized chair to sit below the reproduction portrait of a daughter painted by American Master in a true American castle built by 20th Century Railroad Baron in the foothills of Pike’s Peak, Colorado.  The daughter seems silted and stiff even as the master painter tried every technique to instill life and dimension into the likeness of the privileged descendant of “Manifest Destiny.”  The massive mantelpiece in the same room was gathered up from 16th century Spain to add authenticity to this frontier mansion seems to dwarf my humble position as a paying guest with its symbolic carvings long since lost in their purposed meanings.  The hundreds of quarter-sawn oak panels lining the over-sized hallways and the stairs wide enough for the Victorian gowned women and their escorts cry out, as if each contained a name determined to be remembered as one of the important guests that have long since passed from their appointed days of entertainment and business with the powerful and wealthy General Palmer at Glen Eyrie.

    Glen Eyrie castle as it is now was built by General Palmer to remember the affections and in memory of his wife who lived many years in Europe for health reasons away from the higher elevations of  Colorado.  It was designed as bit of Europe in the wilds of the Middle West.  Queenie Palmer had fled across the Atlantic to regain her health and the magnificent stone castle built out of love and excess was incredibly functional and magnificent for its time and still is today. Still for all the expense and all the beauty ... life is fleeting, even in a great house in spectacular setting.  In fact, in fitting with the general ironic pattern of massive houses, mansions and even castles … the builder seldom enjoys long life in the created building with its realm of exquisite glass and detail, exceptional quality and design and finished notoriety and attention.
   
    It seems ill health, unintended misfortune, accidents, financial ruin, marital discord and familial problems plague most of these elegant estates. It is as if the over spending, over planning and over sizing allows a vacuum of excess in these gigantic homes leaving too much room for the opposite side of life.  The fulfillment of all the dreams seems to evaporate even as the builders finish with their crafted and skilled labor of excellence.  A certain kind of sadness seems to invade the extra spaces that were left empty to show affluence.  A certain kind of futility seems to settle over the purposed show of greatness in the grand houses and the common traits of the elusiveness of having it all in one’s lifetime overshadow the architect’s carefully chosen classic lines and stately elements designed to impress the world with the created structure.   

    It is remarkable to me, as I ponder life.  There are common threads to our existence on the earth. In the ancient and in the modern, certain themes seem to hold true through time.  Human beings can build massive buildings, exquisite homes and beautiful structures for numerous uses which can be geometrically designed and perfected and ascetically purposed. Some stand throughout time and are timeless and some stand out in time as skeletons and reminders of the elusiveness of wealth, power and prestige without being used for anything except to serve as a design or an architectural example for the following generations.

    All these buildings and homes represent the power, prestige and wealth of the person or of  the age and yet these same structures seem to stand more importantly as examples of the futility of wealth and position to secure anything permanent in their intended purpose and fulfillment.  From the military realm to the political realm, to the countless other realms that occupy our daily living … there are no realms that are completely and timelessly worthy of our trust in the deepest parts of our souls.  None can be completely trusted.  It is only the Lord God and His ways that can be trusted.  So where are you putting your trust?

“Now know I that the LORD saves his anointed; he will hear him from his holy heaven with the saving strength of his right hand. Some trust in chariots, and some in horses: but we will remember the name of the LORD our God. They are brought down and fallen: but we are risen, and stand upright” 
(Psalm 20:6-8 NIV).


Friday, April 19, 2013

Peace from the Lord.



      “Lord give me peace ... wonderful peace  ... from the Lord, peace for the journey ... peace in the wilderness, Lord take me over, Lord give me peace.”  Over and over this stilted cadence verbally came  forth in hopeful language from the crooked mouth of an aged and bent white haired woman in an unmoving wheel chair. Her chair with wheels seemed made to travel but on the other hand it seemed destined to move very short distances around in this Alzheimer unit.  Her endless sequence about peace was never the same, yet it was ever earnest in its spoken longing coming from this dear child of the Lord.  This is a child of the Lord who desires to leave her disease bound desert like condition and cross over into the fruited land of eternal promise.  
     She could not see nor could she hear but she could see the place she longed to go and she could hear her Savior talking.  She could not go to this place by way of a man-made wheel chair pushed by an aide’s assistance nor could she loose the ties that held her in this endless waiting day after day.  This was a long waiting to cross over to that place of perpetual, eternal peace.  The release she desires will come on the wings of peace, a peace that is deep inside of her.  A peace she speaks of as she lives in this suffering place.  It is a peace that holds even in the silence of the Lord she knows when He does not grant her wishes to journey to His bosom.   Peace, she knows.  The Lord she knows.  Not peace as in the absence of suffering, but peace in suffering.  Not a Lord who takes away suffering but a Lord who suffers with her.  This is what she knows.  Peace from her Lord in spite of age limiting pain and frustration.  This she knows.   
     She now knows no others … not her family, not her friends, not the people who are paid to care when all that is a life and living in normalcy is forgotten.  Forgotten is now her real disease, forgotten are the voices, forgotten are the conversations and forgotten is the person who cannot answer the questions addressed to her.  Maybe it is all the others like me, those in this room, who try to answer about suffering who do not know.  Still we insist on trying.  We try to answer all the questions about her because she cannot speak.  We think someone needs to answer all the questions about why this tragedy of non-living happened to someone that was dearly loved and now only suffers.  Maybe no one has to answer.  Maybe it is the rest of us that do not realize there can be peace in a silent and brutal place.  Maybe we have forgotten the Lord who suffers because we consider and value to know only the God who provides, too much.
            Maybe it is enough to remember what this forgotten woman who cannot move or answer, is truly speaking of.  For what the woman remembers, is what she has; and no dreadful disease even one that abducts hope itself, can possibly take that away.  Peace comes from the Lord who both suffers and provides.  It is peace in the wilderness, peace for the journey and finally peace that will take us over into peace everlasting.  Lord, give us all, that peace. srm


How do you fit the church in a bedroom?



“Your mother is taking her last breaths now.”  These were the words of the hospice nurse as my mother died.

It was a moment that grew in significance as days turned into weeks and the weeks into years.  It was a period of minutes that seem strangely like dream when things go wrong and you are left dumbfounded at the outcome.  It is a place familiar to all of us … a place where we all think we can always just wake up and the outcome will change.  I was trying desperately in some way to force by my will: a waking, a change or even an alternative date for this ending.   It wasn’t that my mother wasn’t ready to die.  She had been saying for days that she “just wanted to be with the Lord.”   It wasn’t that we hadn’t said good bye.  We had told her just the night before that she could go, to which she responded, “Can we all go together?”  It wasn’t that her death was unexpected.  We had been waiting for six months for this leaving by the precious person who that had taught us all what the grace of our heavenly Father looked like in a living way.   
Still there was no human effort that could modify this final earthly separation.  There was no magic trick that any doctor, nurse or family member could possibly offer to limit the pain, soften the blow, strengthen the body or even postpone the hour.  Affection was generous from teenagers to siblings, tears were pouring forth as if they had external storage capacities and touching seemed to speak when language was unknown.  It was like every form of normalcy was laid aside when we entered that room.  For the next hour; senses seemed keener, aching seemed to feel comforting and soft words seemed to speak forth like an eloquent orator with their deep connections.  Communication came from the eyes, a touch, even in the motions we made with our hands and sometimes we even gave them voice.  
In middle of all of this, a voice came forth from a woman I had never met. A hospice nurse had come to the house just a few minutes before the death of my mother.  We just started using the hospice program on that particular day.  My sister had called to speak with this nurse a few minutes before and after being made aware of the symptoms she stated, “I will be right over.”  One of the first things she asked about when she arrived was if my mother was a believer in Jesus Christ.  The answer was to the affirmative and she proceeded to tell our family, that my mother would die in just a short time and her ministry was to come at times like these.  In fact she prayed daily to be present and to be used at times such as this one.  Everyone in the house was summoned to say goodbye to my mother.  She stated, “Your mother has just a few breaths left.”  We all kissed my mother amongst prayers both silent and audible and then this nurse gently said, “Your mother is gone, she has left us.”
            Who is this woman and how did she know the exact moments when life would depart from my mother’s body?  Her gentle words carried our family through a difficult moment with a graceful manner with a heavenly intervention, but how did she arrive at just this moment?  Why did her factual words seem strangely soothing?  She came with an official title but what united us was something else.  It was more than one person.  It was as if the thousands of people that my mother knew, loved and blessed were with us at the moment of her leaving us.  They were there along with our family she held so dear, the nurse who had just entered our lives and our Lord, the Christ we all knew and my mother going to meet. Somehow the living Christ and His living body, the church had all come into this small bedroom, summoned at a particular moment by His guiding Spirit with the tender care of a Heavenly Father who truly loves His children.   One child of His was carried home while a roomful of His other children were comforted.  Still, I cannot, no matter how I try, describe how it is possible to fit the church of the living Christ into a bedroom. srm 2006 & 2013