The way Herod liked to listen to John the Baptist, summoning him from his cell for private chats but could make no sense of what he said; the way Festus kept the apostle Paul locked up for two years because he enjoyed hearing him talk, although his words made him afraid; the way the German guards, terrified by night bombings, sought out Pastor Bonhoeffer, even though he was, by his own account, a provider of cold comfort, writing to a friend, “I can listen all right, but hardly ever find anything to say. Yet perhaps the way one asks about some things and is silent about others helps suggest what really matters”—did not stop the sharp rap on the prison door or the words “get ready to come with us” as if for one more quiet conversation about what really matters.
You do not need me to bless you for the shorn field easily gives up its treasure into your baskets. Your quick fingers conjure food out of early morning mist, and in this light even the dumpster gives up its chipped vase, its clawfoot end table. The sidewalk gives up its clear brown bottle. You do not need me to bless you but I will anyway wish you clear sight into the world’s crevices and corners. Harvest the chives flowering under the workbench. Harvest the copper tubing looped in the scrap pile, the chrome fendered bicycle at the sidewalk sale. Clamp the broken slats of the chair together. Restring the guitar. And let your metal detectors whine always with joy. May you find all you seek, because at the end of the story the woman knots up her apron heavy with grain, then steals up to the sleeping body of the man who does not yet love her. And when she lies down next to him she will gather even the scent of his sleep— the smell of all future harvests, ripening.
Here’s your Ash Wednesday story. A mother carries her tiny daughter With her as she gets ashed and the Girl, curious and wriggly, squirms Into the path of the priest’s thumb Just as the finger is about to arrive On the mother’s forehead, and the Ashes go right in the kid’s left eye. She starts to cry, and there’s a split Second as the priest and the mother Gawk, and then they both burst out Laughing. The kid is too little to be Offended, and the line moves along, But this stays with me; not the ashy Eye as much as the instant when all Could have been pain and awkward But instead it led to mutual giggling. We are born of dust and star-scatter And unto this we shall return, this is The Law, but meantime, by God, we Can laugh our asses off. What a gift, You know? Let us snicker while we Can, brothers and sisters. Let us use That which makes dark things quail.
Between 1990 and 2010, Iowa lost over 500 churches. The numbers reflect migration from rural to urban areas and the fewer number of people who identify with a faith community. The decline in churches is having a direct effect on the social fabric of the state. According to research at Iowa State University, nine out of ten rural people said they rely less on their neighbors than they once did. Surviving churches have gone back to older patterns to find leadership, engaging itinerant pastors or lay leaders. Some are surviving through cooperation with other denominations or with ethnic Christian groups (Pacific Standard, January 20).