May 23rd, 2006


A drop of bitters to start the day

I was reading George MacDonald's story, The Wow o' Rivven, and it occurred to me that many of his stories are soaked in sorrow.  He writes of untimely deaths, deaths of children, unfulfilled lives.  And yet he is generally seen as a writer for children (or the childlike).  Part of this is what we call "Victorian," of course.  All feelings, including sorrowful ones, were indulged -- nay, wallowed in.  It was the fashion of the time.  But there's more to it than that, I think.

We forget how close death was only a century and a half ago.  There were not the medicines or surgical techniques of today; infant mortality in what we think of as the (now) industrialized world was very high.  Mourning was part of life, and not shunned as we shun it, lock it away, avoid all reference to it.  So MacDonald was just addressing life as it was in his stories, not merely wallowing in sentiment.

Years ago, Phred and I went camping around New Year's.  Snow covered the ground in the Hoosier National Forest, and all the trails were frozen hard.  We took a hike back to an old country cemetery.  There was a whole row of headstones bearing the same name, all in a row --  an entire family, some five children and one or both parents? --  with the same death year (1921? 1922?).  Possibly, an influenza epidemic took them.  There were waves of it back then, and they were deadly.  Indeed, they were partly responsible for the old country saying I remember hearing when I was a student pastor:  "A green Christmas makes a fat graveyard."

I see people in church today who feel personally affronted by the inconveniences of life, and for whom a death in the family (even of an aged parent) is a cause to question the goodness of God.   I suppose any death is a cause to question the goodness of God, but really, I look to old times and the people who lived in them, and I find too much smallness in people today.  What did you think life was about? I want to say?  Did you not know, as my mother used to say, "ain't none of us gonna get out of this world alive"?  If your religion cannot endure sorrow, then what was it for?  A toy to keep you amused?

In MacDonald's story, the aged village idiot can only speak -- when he bothers to -- about the wow o' Rivven -- his name for the great bell of the village church in Ruthven, Scotland.  He follows every funeral to the churchyard, and to him the bell says, Come hame, come hame, come hame.  He is befriended by a lonely young woman with a delicate condition, who would like a home of her own, but finds no one who will offer it to her.  As she lays dying, she says she hears the bell, too, and asks to be buried beside the old fool.
Side by side rest the aged fool and the young maiden; for the bell called them and they obeyed; and surely they found the fire burning bright, and heard friendly voices, and felt sweet lips upon theirs, in the home to which they went.  Surely both intellect and love were waiting them there.

Still the old bell hangs in the old gable; and whenever another is borne to the old churchyard, it keeps calling to those who are left behind, with the same sad, but friendly and unchanging voice -- "Come hame! come hame! come hame!"

"Thy sun shall no more go down; neither shall thy moon withdraw itself: for the LORD shall be thine everlasting light, and the days of thy mourning shall be ended." --Isaiah ix.20.

Long, long trail a-winding

I was thinking on the end of our Venture Crew's amazing record. This summer will probably be our last trip. Thereafter, we will all go our separate ways. What a decade it's been!

Three Philmont treks, two Isle Royale treks, Yellowstone, Adirondacks, UK, and twice to Tanzania. One of our shakedowns was a trek in itself, to Cumberland Gap. We have camped and hiked on three continents.

Ten Bronze Awards, four Gold Awards, four Silvers, two Rangers. Two Good Samaritans, two Torches, a Cross & Flame. Five Bishop's Awards of Excellence (if you count in our predecessor Post's BAE). Ten God & Country awards (that I've counseled -- there have been plenty earned with other counselors). Mission projects, devotions, prayer in emergencies, communion at night in the mountains. Leading worship, leading missions education.

And all that way, we went at the pace of the slowest hiker, we accepted each eccentric just the way he or she was, we let everybody be important, we laughed and loved and sang and joked and played cards and did it all for a modest price (with help if even that was too much). We have set a mark I have never seen matched by another Venture Crew.

Forty-five youth and adults have participated in our summer treks. Several others have participated in other Crew activities. I am so blessed to have been their Advisor. I love them all.

When we return from Africa, just before collinsmom and I move from Tanner Valley to Yonder, we will hold our traditional photo party. We're calling it "The Last Hurrah" this year: after two rebirths of the Crew after almost disbanding, I think this is really the end of the trail. I want to propose a toast and have us sing Auld Lang Syne, and that will be it.

Anyway, I was thinking over all this, and the closing lines of Taliessin at Lancelot's Mass came to mind:
That which had been Taliessin rose in the rood;
in the house of Galahad over the altar he stood,
manacled by the web, in the web made free;
there was no capable song for the joy in me:

joy to new joy piercing from paths foregone;
that which had been Taliessin made joy to a Joy unknown;
manifest Joy speeding in a Joy unmanifest.
Lancelot's voice below sang: Ite; missa est.

Fast to the Byzantine harbor gather the salvaged sails;
that which was once Taliessin rides to the barrows of Wales
up the vales of the Wye; if skill be of work or of will
in the dispersed homes of the household, let the Company pray for it still.