Forever-Open

Once I was a week’s vacation for a church janitor. On paper, the position is called sexton. But in truth, I cleaned bathrooms. Lots of other work too. Dusting under stained glass windows. Polishing hundred year old timber. Lightly mopping myself out of the sanctuary. I took the trash. The church was massive and historic. Built in the late eighteen hundreds. Episcopalian. On paper, high church. And it takes a lot of work to hold that title. I was only there a week. But I had just finished spending two and a half months principally living in the woods.

My first day off trail, I held the keys to a century old building.

The tick tock of hard heeled boots on marble floors. Bowed in iron floor grates that would take deep spooky breaths ever so often. Seeing stained glass scenes at different times of day. Not just mornings. It was early November, upstate New York. The space was warming. In every way I needed. Empty churches have always felt like home. Growing up the middle son of a Lutheran Pastor, whose ministry crossed several churches and state lines in the course of my childhood. We’d spend a lot of time at a place most people see only once a week. I remember playing hide and seek in graveyards. I think of it now, but in no way back then did I even question for a second if what we were doing was wrong. Proximity. And creativity. The blinders all children see the world within. And here I was again, alone in an intentionally intimidating, hollowed-out space. Empty enough to fill with echoes even of slight gestures. A no whisper space. A better not start unwrapping that cough drop until the hymn starts up again space. And I had it all to myself. Keys in my hand. And a list of chores my credibility was attached to. It was an interesting overlapping of experiences to say the least.

I have known many church janitors, or sextons rather, in my lifetime. Never thought twice about any one of them. Didn’t really process that it was a real job. Definitely refused to recognize a church’s dependence on that position, almost as much as a pastor even. I saw it done to perfection. I saw it taken advantage of. You never could have convinced me to believe I’d be one one day. That guy with the keys dangling from a belt loop. Trust. Access. Responsibility. Fifteen an hour. Fifteen hours. Ornate, immaculate linens with real wax candles in gold colored holders. Dripping. Rafters forty feet, I don’t know, felt like a hundred, maybe somewhere in between, dark stained support beam skeleton and light yellow white painted spaces. Altars etched with latin words. No crucifix. All crosses and cups full with grapes and stained glass scenes with farm animals and children.

The organ made you move with or without making music. A true to form pipe organ. Powerful, to say the very least. A mountain range of volatile motion capable of capturing the most experienced hiker in an off trail outward bound mouth hung down might be drooling a little as I stare off into space mind racing while an organ erases anything that may have previously fulfilled the expectations I had for a word like powerful, to say the most. Boxy boxed off section of pews for the choir. Two pulpits. Or one pulpit, one podium. I believe they corrected me on that too. One of them was an eagle, wings outspread legs arched forward the instant before a strike. A larger than life Holy Bible invitingly spread wide open on its back. Air conditioning screaming up from the basement. Intricate black trails of sediment locked in ancient white sheets of carved up ground smooth granite. The weddings, white dresses starkly contrasted against dark stained wood. Line of men standing shoulder to shoulder nervously smiling and poking each other with elbows to deal with the anxiety. A room full of people. Breathing. Whispering. Passing hard candy down from grandma. Twisting spinal columns to see if the Narthex was loaded, safety off, bride in the chamber, groom sat out a hundred yards like a target. Wavering in the wind of childlike anticipation.

Churches are vessels for memories. God, not so regularly. You get to the afterlife looking for a house of worship, you’ll probably be handed a hammer and nails. We have no evidence whatsoever to believe a divine current running throughout the universe has much if any interest in our buildings. I had just walked eight hundred miles across four states, I spent a little time in the whole east coast’s backyard. Trees blurred together into forests before me, mountains overlapping ranges like skyscraping waves far out in the ocean. Three walls and a tin roof made me feel like royalty. A fire, all alone, out in the woods, kept me in lively company. All my needs fit in tiny waterproof sacks stuffed in a bag on my back. Worship is experience. Church is a hostel. A place for the traveler to find some reprieve. Reflection. Catch your breath. Invest it into a little friendly conversation. But God isn’t like us. It has its own ideas about architecture. Besides, time, nature, weather, inevitability is constantly trying to diminish and tear these places down. There is a literal team of hard fought individuals who show up, clock in, grind gears, push pens, stack paper, answer phones, clean bathrooms, dust windows, shut off the alarm when the new rector accidentally sets it off. Rector. Another word for pastor. And congregation, a word for a herd of fresh shorn, darty eyed, collar throated, had too much corn with a touch of bloat, sheep. Also, God can’t take credit for sheep. Or any domesticated thing. Even feral, untouched by man, there’s a good argument to be had that we can’t rightfully credit a possible creator of the entire universe with the detailed shapes and design of anything we find here on earth. But possibility. Potential. Different. Of this sort of metaphysical work, there is evidence. And one could put up a decent argument that churches operate as modes of restriction imposed on chaos. A roof to block out earth’s roof. Windows that can’t be seen through. Doors that open so wide but with copper locks buried inside intended to keep them closed.

Memory. Not creation. Canon fired, for fear of allowing any more genesis to take place. Heels echoing against hundred year old paint still streaked with the brush strokes of hands upheld sixty feet up a ladder now buried in the ground. A brass lettered placard in the Narthex tells the church’s story, lists crucial dates, responsible parties. Behind the altar, a musky sacristy. Silver orbs on silver chains to swing burning sage. Choir robes. A refrigerator full of holy wine. Crackers in the cabinet. Crackers on the cross. Crackers in the pews. I was never a fan of that point of view. Can’t get comfortable in an audience. Felt fine polishing where they sit though. Sweeping off where their feet had been. Mopping away the winter boot prints. Running a bleach soaked rag over their toilet seats, where their naked bodies had touched down, where the holy leftovers of water were graciously offered, stagnate in the corner of the stall. Wondering if they realize there is wine in there. The wine in our urine. The blood in the wine. The wafer. The meal heard round the world, still got deposited down the side of some tree, or planted into empty space beneath an overturned boulder.

“We are called to the table,” I spoke out loud, my deepest booming voice directly into the cold embrace of this massive historic church’s hollow breast. “Later on, we’ll be called to the bathroom.” The rounded trailing sounds of once-words fizzle and fuse into the wood grain, the three inch thick stained glass window panes, down, into imperceptible spaces in pristine, glass-faced marble, inhaled by raspy high heel hungry grates embedded in the floor up front.

“We are called to this table, to eat, drink, and prepare to be called away from this table.”

I am standing as upright as I possibly can behind the widespread wings of a golden eagle, heavy book on its back like a turtle shell. All alone in a titanically empty room. The keys that unlock it are in my pocket. I was thin. Hardened. Incorrigible. Feeling invincible. Called. Walked to the very hostel I’ve spent my entire life arguing with and running away from. Not to talk, or lecture, or give a sermon, or even edit one. But to sweep. Mop. Clean bathrooms. I remember thinking as I worked one day in the sanctuary, how every person who pursues a pastoral ministry, should start by cleaning a church, head to toe. From the altar, to the restroom. Body of Christ, indeed.

“The point was not so we could come here and be given the tiniest proportion of bread and wine to take a little slack off our worried minds about where we go when we die. The point was, we’re already dying. Hunger is your daily reminder. Thirst, a warning sign. It’s unavoidable. We all extend out and can be traced back to the table like a vine. We are mutually severed. Every time.”

Lights turn on in the hallway. Doors that enter from the back of the giant room are suddenly traced by bright rectangles.

“This place. This is the hostel. At the base of the mountain. It is not the mountain top. We’ve taken a hiking, walking, working person’s philosophy, as a reason to stop. Rest. Reprieve. Take in the view. If you like it well enough, you never have to leave.”

The light go off. That side of the sanctuary returns to dark. I lean a little forward, both fists resting on the pages of a tremendous bible, on the back of a golden eagle. The light is fading from the darkest stained glass first, the reds have gone brown, the purple and royal blue now black, only yellow and white still allow the light of a quickly setting sun to pass.

“The point was not to forsake knowledge in pursuit of belief. Jesus, of all people, knew you’d be hungry again tomorrow. And the next day. If we’re lucky, there will always be more work to do. This place is a hostel, a temporary relief along a journey. Church is something you carry with you. Into the world. Over the mountains.”

“Worship is simply a quieted, hollowed-out space inside yourself.
Where the doors are forever-open and bear no locks.”

The Carrot

These are serious questions we’re asking. To no one.
For no reason. Just asking. Deeply insinuates, we do not already understand.
If we took our conscious state as evidence, we’d know the secret of the universe.
It’s confused.
Sunlight is confused.
Hydrogen commiserated in the arms of oxygen.
It makes molecules of confusion.

If empty bare bones black space could speak it would sound just like me.
Scattered.
Incoherent.
Incapable of the task before it.
Attempting it anyway.
Great capital I It.
All of It.

The answer behind the question we’ve been asking in complete contradiction
of the true state of existence which, by all means, we should have taken at face.
From the start. If we knew, what would we do.

If there was nothing left to ask, why have we all been put to task.
The mere existence of an answer would negate the treasure trove of motivation
uncovered in an unrepentant state of childlike bewilderment and confusion.

Asking all the serious unanswerable questions. Full with so much expectations.
Hope. That this is not the way It really is.
Some better, clearer, simpler destiny must exist. It doesn’t.

It is a carrot dangled dangerously in front of the whiskered nose of a mule.

One taste.
Is all it takes.
And believe me, we wouldn’t walk again.
Not another step.

For Mankind is a stubborn animal.

Please Pass the Plate

We have a universal religion. Survival. No matter your belief system, to even have the conversation, we all have had to eat a little, drink a little, and especially this time of year, we had to sleep inside out of the weather. Just to have functional ears, and flowing blood, and eyes absorbing. No matter the particulars of your faith, figures, mantras, customs, symbols, traditions, if there is a creator, it commanded we all first work diligently at the sacraments required for maintaining alive, before all else. Or, if you do not believe in a creator, you still did a lot of work to come to that conclusion, and you share all of that labor with every single believer, of any faith whatsoever.

We have differences. We have cultural divisions. We have distinctions, and arguments, and logical impasses, and even judgments standing solid between us. But not dinner. Not hunger. That is a custom we all share. Like thirst. Like exhaustion, and exposure. We could build an entire way of life, distributing basic resources, instilling simple agriculture economies, connecting neighbors and communities in small, cyclical food and barter systems, before we ever even have a good enough reason to discuss our differences. We don’t live and die by our divisions, until a human being decides so. But whatever led to this, the universe, and life as we know it, did want us all to sit down at a dinner table first. We all live near a well, or some kind of straw connected big sloshy tanks at the tops of towers, or held in reserve in reservoirs full with fish.

My point is not that anyone is right or wrong in comparing religions, belief systems, political pursuits, ideologies.

My point is that the argument starts after dinner.

After everyone has eaten.

It is impossible to have a healthy discussion of religion with someone who is starving.

No matter the faith, its first commandment must be, please pass the plate.

And the sun sits. While the earth turns.

What do we believe? So we’ve skipped right past knowing, have we.
To have faith. Or be had by one. Buyer’s choice.

To the chagrin of mainstream religion.
God gave dominion broken up equally among all the living.
And doesn’t much care who wears white collars.
It isn’t likely to care too much about any one us at all.
Just lucky to be lumped in with the rest of the universe.

I believe.

If language fails to articulate the relationship we have with our creator.
The flaw is in language.
We are here. We exist.
Some thing. Some it.
Some process led to all this.

God is the three-lettered word we use to discuss whatever that is.
Whatever It it turns out to be. Or doesn’t.

Even if It only happened once.
And now It isn’t in existence.

Belief.
I believe.
I know.

There will be a tomorrow.
The sun doesn’t rise to convince me.

I can see it in the stars.
The entire earth is turning.

Of Theologians and Farmers Alike

My God is the heart of the universe.
My God radiates gravity like it was light.
It started to hold the whole lot of us together
as soon as It figured out how to let us go.

We are held in mighty arms, like infants,
by a God that can not stoop to know us.

We are related.
But we are not of a kind. You see.
We do not belong in the house. Not yet.

We are like a supernatural child’s pet.
Arguing against Its parents
for our existence
since the very beginning.

We are God’s garden.
Its favorite pet project.
We enter the house at dinner time.

And are kept
in a kennel
in the backyard.

See.
Daddy didn’t want to get a dog.

My God
is a mom
who got one
anyway.

Save your prayers. Send a postcard.

If we take our lives at face value, as in, we assume,
almost all creation came about the same way we did,
then we have a clear precedent for the possibility of making a thing,
damn near conjuring it up from spare parts
and convoluted yet meticulous genetic instruction,
yet still not understanding it in the least.

God could be out there begging pretty please.
While we proud-child our way out of the room.
God may be all knowing, all seeing, held breath disbelieving,
still unable to change a thing without unsettling the child sleeping.

Whom we are grooming for the wild.
Who can not live its entire life within the dense jungle growth of family.
Saplings don’t grow tall in the shade of giants.
Only where they fall.

Our deity may be very much the same thing to us as our parents.
Different. Person to person. Story by story.
The source of our entire existence. Out there.
Driving to work. Or playing golf, or church, or retired,
or buried somewhere.

If our universe is grooming us to go out and re-invent worlds of our own,
it makes sense for our farmer to be more hands off.

Our great, almighty, omnipotent, gracious, loving creator,
just waiting on a postcard.

Well fed martyrs #oldjournals

Turn. Change. Transfigure. The trinity of our people.
Our people, used loosely, for we have never come together as one.
Failed, where ants and honeybees succeed,
at creating and sustaining efficient colonies.

Community. Congregation. Culture. Concentrated into cults.
Letting children light their candles.
Thinking drinking symbolic blood makes a better person.
Group-think denial-grace came at no cost,
when it earned its chief revelator a cross.

Transformed torture devices into symbolic vestiges of sacrifices
we, as a people, are not yet prepared to make. Flimsy. False. Fake.
Even if we were to nail up a martyr or two, our crosses would probably break.

We’re different. We’ve changed. We’re transfigured.
Also, as a whole, people have gotten bigger.
We might need to upgrade to an anchored metal frame
to sustain the weight of such well fed martyrs.

Peace Reigns

Peace please give us a piece cut out from the heart of war.
Fair. Dark. Slice a center line and give pale peace to the world.
Amputated. The shadow possessing truth. Gradual.
Procession of armies toward a center that starts in the clouds,
while gray and full of storms, majesty thick enough to choke the world.
Grace grace expanding plumes of vapor. Peace and war.
Downed. Low. Hidden in shadow. Patriotism is like a torch,
it shines impressively more alluring seductive in the dark.

Deeply planted amidst fear, confusion, ignorance.
Eyes turn to the patriot, but with ease, when it is light,
eyes yield to peace. Pieced storm clouds looming,
lingered overhead, overheard mongering, malice beneath.
Voices talk of preparation for battle. Killing embraced. Strangled.
Too well by the shadow cast off of peace.
That good, light, utopian years increase a people’s fears. And stupidity.
That a piece of peace can be begged for, fought over, many wars,
in peace name.

This prayer, for peace and not much else, brings pain.
Like a storm carries lighting and wide-mouth thunder.
Strong roof rustling wind and of course, that shadow. Darkness.
Spread over the land like a stain.
Then, and only then, peace rains.

Wisdom teething

Feeling of small.
Of ignored.
Of no help.

To no one at all.

Of hiding from none seeking.
Of not talking to God.

But singing.

Of pressure mounting against bleeding molars.
Of snipping red skin off the white sides of a torn tongue.
Of being young but not young, not grown.

But growing.

Of being too close to some impossible place.

To reach to quit. To need to quit.

Of wanting to.
Of knowing quitting is better than all options staring in your face.
Of only ever feeling home alone.

But even then, there,
feeling out of place.

Faith is a vehicle

Driving all over the state in a jeep that should have never left the farm.
Visiting other states like they were neighbors just up the street.
Jumbled cities and towns connected by the elastic-bound coils of highways.
Lost thoughts to tiresome engines and air screaming high through undercarriage.
Virginia for the night. Tennessee on the way to getting there.
Southern carolinas for the cheaper gas and fat.

Let both time and the pedal be pressed. But not yourself.

Miles thump and roll below mountains conjured up from flat pastures
into green peaks that push white clouds, grazed by cows,
dotted by a house caught in a dark gray asphalt web.
Downtowns resurrected and loved and so much neglected.

Framed eyes above walking feet must see this old jeep,
this young me, staring, steering, praying feet down on pedals.
Fearing the day he does and nothing happens.

Feeling each hesitation in acceleration like the apathetic reality of God.
The great absent good.

Where a man or woman puts his or herself, there also is their faith.

Like abandonment, betrayal. Like that vehicle
would carry me a lifetime away from home
and just quit, give up hope, leave me there.

Jeep better left on the farm.
God like a towering mountain.
When you are happy where you are,
a daunting level of faith is required
to go just about anywhere.