Articles


My Church Mirror

by Serena Rice
 
Standing there before the glass, 
I wince. 
My eyes slide down,
unfailingly
to the unwelcome bulges,
pudgy ankles,
things that I would like to change. 
I do not see the whole.
I notice only inauspicious parts
that do not fit the image that I want to see
Reflected.

But then I leave my mirror,
leave my house,
walk through another portal.
Sunday morning worship. 

Standing there among my friends,
I smile
My eyes connect,
unfailingly
to warm and welcome grins,
shining eyes,
people I would never want to change. 
I see myself among the whole,
I notice only how I am a part
that is included in the image of our God
Reflected. 
   

Lakeside Fountain

by Gareth Chilcoat
 

The path to the lakeside led under a concrete bridge looking 30 years old, grass squeezing through the cracks and exposed rebar, guardrails long since rotted away.  I pictured the lines of cars crossing it all summer long, the weight it faithfully bore of countless station wagons and minivans stuffed with beach toys and sandwich lunches, family after loud cheery family arriving at the lakeside.  There wasn’t a car to be seen here now.  The wind rustled briefly in the trees, but there was no other sound.  The summer echoes had long ago quieted away.

I crossed underneath toward the lake.  The bright autumn sun shone with a warm desperate grasp that reached fruitlessly for the last joys of summer.  Yet the air had turned cold.  The wind was fiercely strong as the lake opened before me.  Lifeguard chairs stacked and chained for winter, the beach, almost completely free of footprints and caked with a rain crusted sand, sprawled motionlessly along the shore in silent resignation of the approaching frost.

Beside me, bathhouses rose deliberately from cracked and pocked concrete. Harsh geometric shapes and surfaces were gloriously rendered in weathered pressure-treated posts and lumber.  “Early 80’s Parks and Recreation Abstract”, if there was such an architectural style.  I almost expected the covered courtyard to burst into a geodesic dome, but a simple roof instead sheltered an old vending machine and some bare spots on the wall where pay phones used to be.

I walked up to the machine and studied it.  There was faded paper sign taped to the front, the lettering long bleached illegible by the sun.  The wind was dry, and a drink sounded particularly wonderful, but the buttons all clicked lifelessly.

“It doesn’t work,” came a voice from somewhere underneath one of the bathhouses.  I looked around, but could see no one.  There was a sharp metal bang and some swearing, then a short woman in a uniform climbed furiously through a small hatch at the base of the building.  In her hands, a battered wrench and flashlight.

“THAT thing,” she said pointing to the machine, “hasn’t been running in three seasons.”  She was rubbing the side of her head briskly, looking hopelessly frustrated.  “Even if you were able to swindle it into giving you something, I wouldn’t recommend drinking it,” she wisely advised.

She was young.  Her hair was twisted and tangled, dusted with an occasional cobweb which had surely been exhumed from the substructure below.  Her uniform had a “Parks Service” badge on it.  I didn’t dare doubt her ability with the wrench, but I imagined her the only non-seasonal staff left after decades of budget cuts to shut the place up for the winter, manning the phones, setting the fold-down signs to “closed for the season”, padlocking the shutters and doors, etc.  

“What are you doing?” I wondered aloud.  She looked at me silently, then at the wrench, then back to me again. 

“Culinary Arts?,” she quipped.  “What are YOU doing?”

I hadn’t expect this, and no words rose up to fill the void.  What WAS I doing.  I thought of trying to explain my fascination with seasonal locations at the end of the summer, of the wonderful quiet and lonely photos you can take just as everything dies down, of that bittersweet summer memory just before the cold snaps it all away.  No, it was too much to put into words.

“Just a walk by the lake,” I finally replied.  Her response was immediate, like she was ready for this answer.

“Why?  All the action’s gone.  There’s nothing happening here now.  This place was a wild time all summer.  Picnics.  Boating.  Parties and games.”  She was teasing me for sure, but there was something else behind it it too. “Now it’s all gone.  You missed it.  Where were you?”  How did she guess I hadn’t been there all summer?  I laughed nervously, but her expression was serious.  She waited for me to answer.

No, I hadn’t made it here all summer.  The weeks all ran away from me, one busy day after another.  I tried to think of what filled them, but they spilled together in such a way that nothing really stood out.  Shameful.  “Better late than never?” I offered.  Even I didn’t sound convinced.  

She shrugged briefly, a faint glimpse of satisfaction on her face, of a response well played.

“Fine, but that’s not why you’re here.”  She started walking away, out of the courtyard toward the lake.  I could feel the conversation slipping away, and I had to know what she meant.  I couldn’t let it go.

“OK, why am I here then,” I called, following after her.

“You came to see the fountain,” she said over her shoulder.  She had stopped before a large fenced off circular area at the end of the beach, surrounded by a low fence.  I had walked right past it before, not even realizing it was there.

Before her in the middle of the concrete stood an immense fountain.  Huge metal plates congregated in abstract forms and patterns rising up against the bright blue sky.  Numerous nozzles of various sizes and shapes pointed at curious angles, some against the plates, some toward the sky, worn and weathered from years of seasonal use.  The metal was coated in a thick layer of rust, dark and red against the organic greens of the surrounding grass and trees.

The whole structure was massive.  It was like nothing I had seen before.  There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to any of it.  Whatever the creator had been thinking was lost on me, and yet it was beautiful in a unique and curious way.  It didn’t fit with the style of the bathhouses.  It did fit with any style whatsoever.  She stood there leaning on the fence, grinning.

“What were they thinking!?” I finally said aloud.

“I know, right?”  She stared up at it too, watching the birds circle overhead.  “The board of directors hates this thing.  They keep trying to have it torn out and replaced, but it’s written into the park bylaws.  It stays in the park as long as it runs.”

“Who built it?”

“That’s a bit of a mystery.  The bylaws mention it by name, but nothing of the artist or the parties who commissioned it.  It was a massive construction project though. Underneath this slab there’s a pump room and a small water treatment plant to recycle everything from the bathhouses.  Unlike the rest of this place, it has worked flawlessly every season.  The whole park was built on scrounged together state grants and volunteers.  But for this, no expense was spared.”

“Weird.  What’s the name?”  I asked.  The women looked at me for a minute, confused.  “You said it had a name?”

“Ah.  It’s called ‘The Advocate’,” she answered.  The name brought up no references, and did nothing to further explain its form.

“Advocate of what?” I thought aloud.  “The beach?  The park?”

“I think the water.”  She seemed confident of this.

“And they run it every season?”

“Yup.  The park commissioner swears every spring when it faithfully starts sprouting water again.  ‘We’re stuck with that thing for another year.’ ”

I stood there trying to imagine the water splashing off all the metal surfaces.  It must seem alive, a living pattern that hisses and coughs a refreshing spray in the hot summer air.

“Want to see it run?” the women asked finally.  I looked at her surprised.

“You can turn it on?”  

“Of course.  I just turned it off a few weeks ago.  Running it for an extra hour this season won’t do any harm.  Hold on.”  She walked over to a locked cover, fumbled with her keys and then disappeared below the concrete.

After a minute or two, there was a loud gurgling and the fountain burst into life.  Sheets of water arched across the planes, dividing, merging, conforming into crystalline ropes and webs of impossible movement.  A fine mist enveloped the fence, swirling, breathing and gasping like a newborn child before lifting up and over the highest metal joints.

I couldn’t take my eyes from it.  I filled my lungs with air, long and patiently slow.  It was calming.  Inspiring.  Reassuring in a way that seemed to bubble up deeply from my core.  Around me its random surfaces cast a shadow of precise mathematic complexity, of recurring and interlocking patterns, surrounding me with order.  A formation that seemed to reassemble my priorities.  Align my time.  My wound and overwrought life.  I could taste its clean mist on my lips.  The refreshment on my tongue.

The young woman was back again, grinning, brushing some new cobwebs from her shirt.

“You’re standing in the right spot.” She said, pointing at the shadows from the sun.  I was speechless.

“How many people have noticed this?”  I finally asked.

“Not as many as you might guess.  It’s there for everyone to see, of course.  Most people don’t bother.  Most don’t take the time to look.  Or have the patience to understand what they see.”

“It’s remarkable.”

“Yes.  It changes with the position of the sun, and the wind against the water.  I don’t think it’s ever the same twice.”

“Did you know I’d see it like this?”  I looked at her carefully.

“I had a hunch,” she said after a moment.  “I won’t lie.  It’s fun watching people see it.  There aren’t many that do.”  I didn’t know what to say to this.  I was grateful.  Maybe even indebted.  I had nothing to offer in return.  I turned back to the fountain again.

“Take as much time as you want.  I’ll be back over there wrestling with the plumbing.”  Without another word, she walked quietly back to the bathhouses leaving me in quiet admiration and reflection.

 

Broken Body, Resurrection Hope

by Serena Rice
 
Forty day journey at its end,
time for reflection and remorse,
a time our hearts are meant to lend
attention to a change of course.


And yet... these weeks have witnessed pain
not of repentance, but of pride
that marks white robes, already stained
by ripping wounds caused from inside.


This Church, this body, meant to be
United by one Spirit's breath,
appears, to tear-soaked eyes, to me,
to be a witness more to death.


Death of love, and death of grace,
unable to extend a hand
when its own member's wounded face
asks faithfulness to understand.


"I can still love the God you serve
but disagree with you about
five scriptures that expose a nerve,
about the sanctity of doubt."


But wounded hands pull back in fists,
defensive, curled around the pain,
with closed-off ears, both sides insist
"I am the right, you are to blame."


Self-righteousness that tears and rends
a body meant to live as one.
Contracted muscles can't extend
to open arms as did the Son.


Now we must see another form
broken, hanging on a tree
Good Friday calls us near to mourn
the sacrifice on Calvary.


Oh, may that memory impart
return to humble brokenness,
give healing balm to bleeding heart,
heal lips that struggle to confess.


We all are broken, every one,
and all imperfect in our faith.
By the one Truth we're all undone.
There is no credit we can take.


And brokenness like this is blessed
if it can cause us to return
to love, where arguments aren't stressed
for we all know grace is unearned.


And, despite the bloody trail
the evidence of Church undone,
we can still rise in joy to hail
the Whole and Resurrected One.


He is our hope, alive and true
that broken body can still mend.
A dying Church can still renew
leave fear behind and rise again.
    

I know, I'm sorry, Thank you!

by Serena Rice
 
I know my little ones can be distracting,
when she does her jumping bean impression
on the seat two feet from yours
for seventeen minutes straight;
when he asks me
in a whisper loud enough for a Broadway stage
"what is the pastor saying?"
when they spread the contents of our busy bag,
my careful plan for several hours' child-minding tasks,
across at least six seats
and all your floor space.
I'm sorry if your worship is disrupted,
when she throws a fit about communion,
refuses to come up, accept a blessing,
because she's hungry for the bread and wine;
when he performs a pantomiming tantrum
just past the plate-glass walls
designed to let in light, not 4-year-old rebellion;
when they select the moment meant for reverence
to provide an object lesson
- in high decibel surround sound -
of the fallen state of humankind.
I know...
I'm sorry...
and I want to say...
Thank you!
Thank you for your understanding smiles
when I want just to pick them up and run
to ease my own embarrassment.
And thank you even more for how you welcome them
loud noises
and irreverence
and ill-timed questions
and all.
Because he's learning from you all
to sing our Jesus's name
with a love-full voice and heart;
to pray "Dear God"
and to expect a listening ear;
to listen to the prayer we pray together every week,
and to ask at bedtime
what it means
to forgive as we have been forgiven.
And because she now wants to join this family,
to embrace the rite of water;
to confess a faith that's hers;
to follow all of your examples
in loving Christ
and loving each other
TOGETHER.
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