Being the Church in 1838 and Today

There weren’t ghosts but there were often echoes. Most of my babies learned to walk in that old house. Small bare feet padded across wide floor boards; pine holding the curves of settled ground and over two-hundred years of footsteps. In the kitchen, I washed dishes and looked out the window, surveying the hayfield, wondering how many other mothers had stood in this spot, with their feet planted and their eyes rising to the same blue sky. There were other babies, other children. I could close my eyes and hear generations of life that grew up in the shelter of the walls around me.

And, sometimes, the walls held more than echoes. Upstairs, in a bedroom that faced the faded barn, my husband was replacing one of the old windows. Behind a plaster wall, his hands found papers that had not been touched for nearly one hundred-eighty years. He came down the stairs, calling for me, his arms full of history. Carefully, afraid they would crumble in our hands, we started unrolling and smoothing newspapers from the 1830s. At the tops of front pages in beautiful cursive handwriting was signed the name Joseph Comings. There were papers with local news and ads for tonics to cure diseases with names I didn’t recognize. There was a handwritten account of expenses for the Baptist church down the road; the name of a pastor and his salary. A pamphlet published by the New-York Female Moral Reform Society in 1838; “‘A Plea For Moral Reform’, by a lady”.  On the cover we read, “As prejudice is an unexamined opinion, so the mind can only be freed from its influence, by carefully weighing in the balance of truth, every subject presented to its contemplation.”

And then, with a weight of significance pressing on my heart, I ran my hand gently over another pamphlet.

PROCEEDINGS

OF THE

ESSEX COUNTY ANTI-SLAVERY

CONVENTION,

HELD AT DANVERS, OCTOBER, 24, 1838

WITH AN

ADDRESS TO THE VOTERS,

ON THEIR
DUTIES TO THE ENSLAVED.

It was with sobering awe that I thought of my home standing in the days before the civil war, the air filled with conversations about duties to the enslaved. Suddenly 1838 didn’t seem so long ago. Not when day had just followed day and these papers had rested in our walls. History was no longer far away but instead leaning over me as I poured over these papers.

I pulled out my History of Cornish, New Hampshire [1] and inside I found a picture of Joseph B. Comings. His parents, David and Phoebe, along with their six children, moved to Cornish in 1806 and settled in our little farmhouse.  Then, Joseph was only a year old and his feet may have padded out their first steps on those same pine boards. It was surreal to read about the family that once filled my house. Three more babies were added and I imagined again the echoes of laughter and mealtimes and hard work. And, I could almost hear their prayers.

The Baptist church was erected just a stone’s throw away to the South. Sadly, the very year it was finished, in the early spring, David Comings and his nineteen year old daughter Phoebe both passed away. The History of Cornish said, “It is noteworthy that the father, with a loved daughter, were the first two whose remains were carried into the new Baptist church on Cornish Flat, after it’s erection in the spring of 1819, and that 27 years later, in 1846, the mother with a devoted son were the first two whose remains were borne into the same house after a complete remodeling of the same.”

On a walk to the post office, I took a moment to look for their stones in the graveyard. There, the family names were in a row, with dates to say when they were born and died. And, time seemed so thick and so vaporous all at once. On the father’s stone were the words, “Within this sacred bed of rest, a tender father lies, But he shall live among the just, when Christ shall bid him rise.”

And that night, as I washed dishes in the Comings’ home, and my home, I sang, “For all the saints, who from their labors rest…”, and I looked forward to the day when I’d meet these people whose steps I crossed in place but not in time.

When I lived in Cornish, the Baptist church was still standing but empty. Every other Saturday, my husband would take his turn to climb a set of rickety stairs and wind the clock. In a tower above a small green filled with war memorials, the hands still kept time, and a bell would ring out the hours.

But, when those newspapers were first stuffed in the walls around the old window in my upstairs bedroom, the church was still a place where Christians gathered. They came to worship God and they struggled through what it meant to follow him faithfully. Reverend David Burroughs became the pastor of the church in 1837 at only twenty-seven years of age. During this time the anti-slavery movement was growing and ripening in the north.

In school, I felt a little northern pride over the fact that we were opposed to the enslavement of human beings. I imagined a line separating the north from the south, not just physically, but in our deepest sentiments as well. But, as I learned more about the church in my front yard, I realized that lines in geography and in human hearts are never that clear and easy. The Reverend Burroughs had a battle to fight in Cornish, New Hampshire, of all places.

Most of the congregation believed in the abolition of slavery, but there were some individuals in the church who did not. As the Reverend Burroughs became more outspoken about things, some in the community joined in protesting his views. One Sunday, according to The History of Cornish, “the pastor ascended the high pulpit stairs and found the pulpit already occupied by a black ram. He retraced his steps down the stairs and occupied the deacons’ station as a pulpit for that forenoon. He made no allusion to the matter in his discourse, but the black occupant above, occasionally responded during the service, beside occasionally rising and standing on his hind legs, looking over the pulpit at the audience and causing much amusement for the children and the less seriously disposed part of the congregation.”

One Sunday, in protest of the denunciation of slavery, the white doors of the church were marked up with black paint. As the parishioners walked through the entrance to worship, the anger of the world outside, and the pain of the suffering, would follow them in their thoughts and make their way into prayers. And, they were a praying people. Reverend Burroughs started out with two faithful attenders of the weekly prayer meetings but it grew to over a hundred saints gathered together.

When history comes close, and leans over me, breathing into me the realness of people and makes time feel like an illusion, it quiets me.

I feel like I’m living in especially confusing, contentious days. But, as the war memorials on the green in front of the Cornish church display, most generations have lived in confusing and contentious days.

But in the past and today and until it’s finished, a house is being built on a foundation of people. And, we are growing into the frame and walls and floors. The empty building in Cornish isn’t the church; this house being constructed is the church. And, our foundation has a solid cornerstone.

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. (Ephesians 2:19-22)

When days feel confusing, my eyes are to be fixed like plumb lines to the cornerstone of Jesus. To build well, every word, thought and action is to be measured and made to align with his example. This house is board upon board of truth and service, heartfelt prayer and mercy. And, when days feel contentious, I’m to listen to the echoing voices of the apostles and prophets, the saints at rest, remembering that the church isn’t built on political victories but through long-suffering and in bringing hope to the enslaved and captives. (2 Timothy 2:25-26)

I’m writing these words from my new house in the woods. It doesn’t have any echoes. It’s walls are filled with store-bought insulation. But seven little ones are sleeping peacefully as I sit here in the early morning hours. Like all mothers, I think about their futures. But more than what the world will be like, as they grow up, I think about what kind of echoes they’ll leave behind. This life is a breath. We’re here for a moment. If we choose to build on the cornerstone of Jesus, we’ll have to use whatever time we have to bend low and wash feet. We’ll listen to pain and suffering and be moved to compassion. Often, when we hold to truth, we’ll encounter black paint on white church doors. But, we can pass through them into worship and open wide the windows of the church so that this hurting world can hear our songs of hope and restoration and welcome. May the gospel be what echoes from us, his church, his dwelling place.

~Lara

church-in-cornish

Church in Cornish Flat, New Hampshire, image taken from waymarking.com

[1] Child, William Henry, History of Cornish, New Hampshire with Genealogical Record, 1763-1918,  (Concord, NH, Rumford Press, 1911), 124

Providence and My Anxious Heart

 

“Someday you or I will die.”

“Lara, that won’t happen for a long, long time.”

“But, Mama, it really is going to happen.”

“Shhhh… it will be okay. We’ll just cross that bridge when we get to it.” 

I was five or six years old and my mother was trying to comfort me. But, I remember how I lay awake, looking into the darkness of my room, and thinking about this bridge in the distance. It didn’t matter how far away it was; someday we would have to walk across it. It was real.

I can still be overcome at times with anxiety. It rises up when I hear that my husband has to travel for work, or that one of my children isn’t feeling well, or that a snow storm is due to hit town right when I need to be driving somewhere. I start imagining awful things and grieving for sorrows that haven’t happened yet.

I’ve felt tension between how overwhelming this anxiety is and the Biblical commands not to worry. Over and over again, my Lord tells me, “Do not fear.” And yet, despite that and all my self-talk about the futility of anxiety, I still fear.

This winter, now that the cold and snow have settled in, I’m cozying up to my winter project. In the spare moments, or evenings, I’m opening old books, sitting before hundreds of pages of interviews, magazine articles and newspaper clippings. There are faces in old photographs, letters with pretty slanted handwriting, and stories on old typewriter paper. I’ve been researching the history of my family and roots in Maine, and starting to piece together the old stories.  As I do, the familiar sinks back into history; the hills and valleys, roads and ponds, set securely in their places suddenly are transferred back over the years to a time when my ancestors called them home. They were farmers and lumbermen, teachers, bootleggers, store keepers and mill workers. At times they were soldiers. Each name scratched on a family tree contains a lifetime of stories, though I’m often left with just a few dates to go with the name.

There’s something about letting my mind traverse the old stories that leaves me feeling both more grounded and somehow ethereal.  I can imagine how my own name would look, written out in one of these genealogical record books. It would be next to the name of my husband, with the dates of our births and marriage, and below would be the names of four sons and three daughters. Truly, we aren’t separate from history. This is just our moment to breathe and work and love and pray and hope. And it’s really just a moment.

I’m drawn to the old things and their reminders that others have walked the same roads we’re called to walk. My children all learn to read holding a one-hundred year old primer, turning the thick, brown-edged pages with their fresh little fingers. An introduction to the teacher reads, “…The subject matter is within the range of the experience and the imagination of most children of five or six years of age. It is full of incident and action. It enlists at once the liveliest interest of children…” And somehow, though these words were written about children learning how to read while the Great War was raging in Europe, my own children have their ‘liveliest interest’ enlisted as well. My sons love that some of the old books still have pictures of little boys with guns and hunting dogs. I love the simplicity of the stories; the focus on nature and agriculture. And there’s something time-surpassing about the human desire for ‘incident and action’ and things that speak into our ‘experience and imagination’. We all love stories.

Last week, amidst unexpected events and accidents and with my husband getting ready to board a plane, with anxiety swelling, I prayed and asked God for His grace to obey his words concerning worry. I trust that God, who delights when we know truth, is willing to teach us wisdom in our secret hearts. (Psalm 51:6) I’ve experienced this digging and exposing and thought-shifting work of God.

When I was a young Christian, I heard someone say that the many ‘fear God’ verses in the Bible really mean that we are to be in awe of Him. We’re to just be reverent. He’s our friend. We don’t have to be afraid of God.

But if we’ve never been afraid, I don’t think we’ve ever encountered his glory.

I’ve stood on a rocky cliff and felt spray from ocean waves on my cheeks as the wind whipped through my hair. I’ve heard their roar below me, and known that if I ventured too close they could crush me and pull me under. There’s something awesome and to be revered and also something fearful about the waves and the weight of the water crashing against the shore.

I’ve felt the same sensation as I watched a storm rumble in from the west on a summer day. The wind picks up, the sky darkens, and soon thunder is shaking the house and leaving a rumble deep down in my bones. Nature is awesome and fearful and seems to be telling us an old, old story.

But how much greater is the weight of glory that the Creator of the waves and the thunder holds? A true taste of God’s glory makes us tremble. I’ve certainly found that true prayer isn’t safe. There’s a true, appropriate, healthy fear; a fear with a purpose of leading us to salvation.

Perhaps there’s nothing that makes me feel more small and vulnerable than looking up into the night sky. Sometimes I pause on my way back to the house from some errand that has taken me into a dark night. As I look up, higher and higher into the heavens, I feel myself shrinking into exposed insignificance. The stars are some of the most humbling witnesses of God’s glory. And amazingly, Psalm 103 says, “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him…” To truly come to know God is to fear Him; a heart pounding, knees knocking, trembling fear in the face of power. But to truly know Him and fear Him is also to receive a great and steadfast love that washes our fears away. The ocean waves, with their crashing power, don’t love me. The thunder doesn’t roar promises to hold me in the palm of its hand and cover me in the shelter of its wings. But God does.

It’s this weight of power and love that is the only match for my anxiety.

Too often I’m trying to grab the pen and write my own story. I want to control the plot line, because I feel like I’m the main character. I want to keep the story pretty tame, without much incident or action, but with plenty of comfort, security and just a little poetic romance springing up from purely happy things. This is the story I want to write for all of those that I love.

But there’s an Author already and He holds the pen. Do I trust him?

He wrote a story that I don’t always understand. I don’t know why he allowed sin and suffering to stain the pages when it seems he could have kept it out. I want a beautiful ending and I want it now. But what He’s given me is a stunning climax. The crushing, fearful holiness of God met in full force the deep, steadfast love of God when he wrote himself into the story. This is the gospel.

I keep thinking I understand this. While I’m reading the Bible or listening to a sermon or praying in earnest, this greater story will suddenly break into me and I’ll feel my fears being swept away as I see Him. “The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything…”

But so far, without fail, my anxiety flares up once again. I start telling myself stories about all of the what-ifs and dwelling on the sad or scary things that could happen to me or my loved ones.

When that happens, and I start to sink, I’m learning that my lifeline is to spend some time sharing stories with the Lord. I need it over and over again. I come to him in prayer and tell him my heart story. I tell him how I’d like the next few pages to go. And He holds me close and whispers back the time-surpassing, fear-stilling story He’s been telling his children from the beginning.

 

A few years ago I was drawn to a tiny, old book at the thrift store. I brought it home and found an inscription written neatly inside the front cover.

Jacob Langdell, New Boston, N.H. May 29th 1862

When I typed the words into an internet search, I found that Jacob wrote the inscription less than four months before he enlisted as a soldier in the Civil War. The New Boston historical society website showed a picture of him, sitting tall in his uniform with his legs crossed. Twenty-four men from New Boston volunteered along with Jacob to serve in the 16th New Hampshire Regiment. They were sent south by steamship, and ten of them died from disease (likely malaria) while in Louisiana. From the hospital there Jacob wrote a letter home to his mother, dated January 27, 1863. I saw his handwriting, the same neat, slanted letters as in the book I held. “… if I live and prosper I shall be at home before many months. I am contented for I know that the same Providence watches over me here that does you at the north.”

jacob-langdell

Jacob Langdell, New Boston Historical Society collection

I looked again at the hands in the photograph, a farm boy’s, long and lean against his musket. I marveled that they once held this book now resting in my own, maybe even carrying it to war and safely back to New Boston once again. On one of the well-worn pages was a prayer.

“O Lord, I know not what I should ask of thee. Thou only knowest what I want; and thou lovest me better than I can love myself. O Lord, give to me, thy child, what is proper, whatsoever it may be. I dare not ask either crosses or comforts, I only present myself before thee; I open my heart to thee. Behold my wants, which I am ignorant of; but do thou behold, and do according to thy mercy. Smite or heal; depress me, or raise me up; I adore all thy purposes, without knowing them. I am silent, I offer myself in sacrifice. I abandon myself to thee. I have no more any desire, but to accomplish thy will. Teach me to pray. Pray thou thyself in me.” (Mirror of Thought, pg 112)

A century and a half after a young soldier may have done the same, I spoke these words aloud. My voice was soft as my heart struggled through each line. This was once again the whispering story of providence and the beckoning call to trust Him. Here was the only assurance that quiets my anxious thoughts and lets me rest deep in contentment. God loves me. He knows better than I do. It is safe to abandon myself to Him. He is intentional about every ‘incident and action’ that He allows into the story of our lives, and wants to use our experiences to enlist our liveliest interest in what will bring us the most joy. He’s made us to live in His story, and He’s willing to tell it to us over and over and over again.  It’s the old story that breathes new life into the present. It stirs my heart and lifts my voice so that I can say, “Teach me to pray. Pray thou thyself in me.”

Jesus did this. He spent time sharing his heart story with the father. The night before he was going to die on the cross he prayed in such distress over the wrath he was about to bear, that his sweat contained blood. He was honest about his desire to be spared from this suffering if there was another way to save us, but he was willing to be obedient to the point of death. “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will.”

Jesus drank that cup of wrath and has handed me the cup of communion. There is nothing left to fear. Jesus died profoundly alone on the cross. But because of this, as for me, God draws near even in the darkness. There will never be a bridge that I’ll have to cross alone. My fears are really calling out a question to God. His answer is the only thing that will quiet them as He holds me close, and in all His glory He says to His child, “I am with you always…

A Lost Bird and The Ghost Dance of Abortion

A Lost Bird and The Ghost Dance of Abortion

She was so covered with blood that those who found her thought at first that she must have been severely injured. It had been four days since her people had been slaughtered and lay dying on the cold ground near Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota. The bodies around her were stiff and emptied of blood now frozen under the snow. In a last act, a mother had found what shelter she could on a creek bank, bundled her baby as much as she could against the cold, and covered her with her dying body. For four days this baby girl had lived in the shelter of her mother’s frozen body. And that is where they found her.

Her name was never known or spoken again. It left with the breath of her people. She came to be called Zintkala Nuni, or ‘the Lost Bird’.

Yesterday, while the trees in our New England woods burned red and orange in the gray of the rain outside our windows, I learned along with my children about westward expansion. We talked about the railroad and gold in the Black Hills. We heard about men in comfortable chairs with papers spread out in front of them. And after my children left the plains and returned to their playing, I kept reading. When I was a child in school I remember seeing dates and names on a chalk board. There were thick text books with pictures of generals in the military and maps of battlefields. I’m sure there must have been a chapter on the Sioux of South Dakota. There must have been dates and names of treaties and of bills passed in the halls of congress. But when I sat at a school desk trying to memorize dates, names and places, I never experienced the ache in my chest like I did yesterday.

Later in the day, with the image of Lost Bird under her mother’s frozen body still fresh in my mind, I read about hearings before our modern congress. Once again there were testimonies and evidence being presented to our elected leaders, and once again people with good intentions were trying to discern truth amid double talk and to further what they believe is best for our nation. My mind filled with images of blood spilling in snow and on white sheets and in petri dishes.

It is always the most vulnerable, those with voices we can’t hear and languages we don’t understand, whose blood stains show up darker than the scratches of pens on white paper.

Lost Bird likely slept to the sound of the ghost dance; a circle of men and women dancing and crying out for a messiah to come and bring with him the spirits of their dead and restore to them their land. There were feet pounding, hands raised, voices crying in grief and loss and hope and desperation. She heard her people’s cries; longings for peace, for grief removed by resurrection, and for a land of the truly free. It pounded like a heartbeat as she slept.

Others heard the beat as well; a sound of death and fear.

And men sat in the halls of congress and signed papers. They weighed arguments and discussed what amount of human suffering was worth it for the good of the masses. While in another world, the ghost dance pounded with hope like a heartbeat.

I read the testimony of babies and science and women’s rights and money and freedom. There were pictures of intelligent faces and washed and manicured hands but all around I could see the red blood staining babies under the wounded bodies of their mothers and the white blanket of deceit and frozen conscience.

We haven’t changed. Mothers and babies have not changed. Men have not changed. But when as a society we tote things like #shoutyourabortion, I believe there is something that has died in places deeper than our wombs. In this world there are stories that make nothing easy and simple. The waters we wade as a society are deep and filled with many stumbling stones of fear and safety-seeking power. It’s so easy to paint a Native American or a soldier or an abortionist or a prolife activist as a monster. We’re so good at wiping war paint on our enemies and not seeing the people underneath.

But I truly believe that there is something broken in all of this. We have fought for our rights as women, and in the process we have let something more essential become a casualty of that war. We’ve despised a tenderness that calls us to sacrifice. Being a mother calls us away from our right to our body, to our time, to our personal growth plans, to our schedule, to our autonomy, to how we look to others. It weakens us in those ways; it makes our decisions no longer based on our wants or appearance or comfort or even what seems best for us.

But as we’ve fought for our rights and despised the weakness of motherhood, we have lost the strength of it as well. When a woman can stand over a petri dish that holds a child strewn in pieces, and that woman can laugh and say, ‘it’s another boy’, something is deeply broken. That is a loss of something strong and beautiful.

Strength, in both women and men, is what rises when we see vulnerable life and we would give our own lives to protect it. Strength is the mother who places her body as a shield between her baby and flying musket balls. Strength is in the finger nails of a dying mother as she scrapes in dirt on the side of a hill to shelter a child as the blood spills from her body. Strength is in choosing life when it means our own life is changed forever.

There is a lie we’ve embraced as a country and told to our young women. Instead of a baby, we see something we don’t need to love or protect called fetal tissue. We’ve looked once again at a people, and said they are not a people. They are less than those of us who can talk together about their fate and sign papers making something tragic legal.

And in doing so, we’ve created and become so many Lost Birds. There are children whose faces we will not see, and whose names will never be spoken. There are men and women who have moved past the decisions they made, gone on to have good and happy lives, and yet never feel completely whole. The death of the life in them was its own ghost dance; the promise of hope and the erasing of past injustices or mistakes. But for many, the ghost dance hasn’t ended with an abortion. There’s a grief, and a steady background beat of loss, that continues.

Near Wounded Knee Creek, before the massacre, the ghost dance pounded out the hope of life resurrected. It promised that someday the world would be made new and that peace and safety would come to a people who had been broken and essentially enslaved. There would be a reunion with those their hearts were aching over in loss. The enemy would be destroyed.

I’m crying out with a similar song. My hope is in a Messiah who let Himself become weak to save us with sacrificial strength. Rather than clinging to the right of autonomy over His own body, He gave it to us as broken bread. He died so that we could live. He looked at a people who were not a people, and covered them with His blood to make them a people. He calls for us to come and to be forgiven; to be held by Him. As we draw close there is no pain, or sin, or brokenness that makes Him despise us. We live sheltered by the warmth of His crucified and risen body. My hope is in a resurrection that has already taken place that ensures resurrection to come.

And yet, this world still suffers. We’re still waiting and pounding out a song of grief and wailing as we witness the suffering of the weak and the death around us, whether from abortion or war or sickness or injustice. So, what do we do as we wait for the last enemy, death itself, to die? We speak for those who cannot speak, and cry with those who mourn. We hold out plainly the truth as we see it and love those with whom we disagree. We embrace weakness when it’s what is required to love strongly. And we pray. We let our hearts feel the tenderness that sin would try to harden, we let our eyes burn with empathy for those who suffer, and we lift our voices to the only One who can speak light into darkness. We ask Him to replace our hearts of stone with hearts of flesh, and to make them beat to the rhythm of His own; a steady pounding that resounds with the sure hope of a day when He brings all Lost Birds home.