In the decade since I moved away for a second time, my hometown has changed. The sleepy community of mostly Dutch settlers two miles west of Lake Michigan has flourished in many ways. New businesses are expanding to the east and to the west; new homes in all directions. A few businesses are now open on Sundays, a fact that still surprisingly shocks me. Many are still bothered by seven day commerce, even when they find their way through the doors of Mentink’s Piggly Wiggly for a dozen eggs on a Sunday afternoon.

But my interest today is in the farm. I lived in eight different houses before I turned 18, so my aunt and uncles farm provided my most consistent space. When I survey my childhood, this farm is always in the picture.

Leaving Oostburg, the land is flat enough that I could see the farm over the cornfields a half mile or so away, silos rising together. I turn north onto Minderhaud Road. The road itself holds memories. It is mostly straight apart from a few fades left and right and left again. And it is narrow; narrow enough that I am surprised teenagers ever thought it a good idea to race this road. Perhaps the danger was part of the appeal to only partially myelinated brains.

I turn left into the driveway and I’m home. I see my cousins standing under a tent in front of the “new” house, now 35 years old. My memories of the old house have faded considerably. I cannot even picture it now; though sometimes flashes of recollection emerge. The ground itself shows no trace of memory of the original foundation.

I hug Connie, Rachel, and Nikki, my sisters. We are not siblings by blood, but by love. Seeing them reminds me how much I miss them. I also embrace my dear aunt Sandy, with whom I share a love for writing, and beauty. When I write, I often write for her.

I step up into the house from the garage. New stainless steel appliances update the kitchen, but the bones are the same. There is still no dishwasher, I notice. I remember my grandma Laura standing at this sink, washing the dishes in too hot water and looking off to the south. What did she see? What does she see now?

The main level has two bathrooms. With mom, dad, and three girls, I imagine two bathrooms was a necessity when it was built. I look into the first bathroom, but I use the second. You can see through the first window from the deck, but not the second, I remember sheepishly.

Later on, I grab my camera and walk the hundred or so paces to the barn. It seems so much closer now that I am grown. I walk across a concrete slab, thinking of the buildings and the cows that stood here. The pavement is so white; a far cry from the manure that used to paint this place. I walk to the barn and look through a clouded window. Aluminum cans and building supplies line the milking parlor, but I can still see the cows and my uncle John working, working, working.

I stay out of the barn today; I don’t feel the need to go in. Thankfully, Grace ventured inside and even up a ladder into the hay mow, where she took some beautiful pictures at elevation. When I was reviewing her shots, a small part of me wondered why she would think it was a good idea to climb unsupervised, but a bigger part of me was thrilled that she grasped the opportunity right in front of her. That should happen here.

How much did these barns shape who I am? How about these fields? More important than place, how did these four women guide who I am now? How did their love and their correction affect me? And what about the mischief? As I watched my son and Rachel’s daughter playing together, I could not help but think of Nikki and me. We played together and worked together and ate together and misbehaved together. I am certain I would be shocked if my children misbehaved in the ways that we did at the farm, but I don’t regret it. It helped make me who I am today.

And every time I return to this place and these women, I come back home.

The Old Coat

A man was walking alone down a dusty path.  He lived hard and it showed.  Each line in his face made up a tapestry revealing a lifetime of difficulty.  Earlier in this journey, there was a bounce in his step, but no more.  Now, with each step, his knees ached and his joints creaked.  He could scarcely remember those days when things seemed so easy.

The old coat he wore showed the wear and tear that he felt in his body.  Frayed at the cuffs. Patched at the elbows.  The grime from the road was set in deep.  He used to try washing it, but now it was useless.  The filth permeated every thread and there was no hope for the return of its vibrant colors.  The dirt was a part of the coat in a way that it seemed as though it always had been.  Indeed, much like his body, he could not remember what it was supposed to look like.

In the distance, he saw a stranger approaching him.  He hated these encounters.  It was so much easier to be alone with his own thoughts.  No doubt this man would look upon him with disgust.  Weary old men were rarely looked upon with honor, especially when they had lived hard like he did.  And why should he be honored?  He was unworthy of it.  He made up his mind to draw his coat tight around him, keep his eyes averted and prayed that this approaching stranger would just pass him by.

Though he did not look up, he could sense the man drawing nearer.  Something seemed different.  He longed to look up at the man, but he could not bear the inevitable shame.  He heard the man slow and then his feet stopped.  What could he want?

“Greetings.”  The man wondered, did he just say something to me?  Was there someone with him that I missed?  Again…“Hello.”

The old man ventured a glance.  Unlike him, the stranger was clothed in white. The man wondered why someone would wear white on this dusty trail, yet this man’s clothes seemed impervious to the dirt.  How could that be?  He longed to ask him, but he feared the conversation that would inevitably turn to his own dirty apparel.   Moving on would be best, so he stepped forward.

The stranger reached out and put a hand on his arm, “may we talk?”

The old man hesitated.  He sighed deeply, debating–“What do you want?”

“I was watching you approach from a long way off.  You look like you have been walking a long time.”

“I have.”

“You seem weary and worn out.” 

“I am.”

“Your jacket has seen better days.  Is it able to keep you warm?”

“Listen, it’s the only jacket I have.  I’ve tried repairing it. I’ve tried cleaning it.  I even tried making a new one.  I know it is threadbare and filthy and compared with your beautiful coat it is disgusting.  But, this is the one I am stuck with, so please just let me be.”  He began to move on again, this time with greater urgency.

The stranger called to him again, “I would like to offer you my coat.” 

He must not have heard him right.  “What did you say?”

The stranger said again, “I would like for you to have my coat.”

The weary old man dismissed him, “Your coat is beautiful, but I have no money.  I have never been a wealthy man and I suspect your coat would cost more than I could ever hope to earn. Thanks anyway.”

The stranger replied, “There is no cost. I am offering to give you my coat.” 

“But what would you wear?”

“I will wear your coat instead.”

“Sir, have you seen my coat? It is dreadful.”

“I have seen your coat, but I have come to give you mine in exchange for yours.  The dirty for the clean.  The old for the new.” 

“But why?”

“Friend, I have been watching you for a long time.  I have seen you try to fix this old thing yourself.  I have watched you try to make a new one.  With each passing day, I have watched your discouragement grow. For many years, I have wanted to give you my coat, but you were not ready until today.”

“I said I don’t have any money.  What can I offer you in return?”

“Brother, it is a gift to you.  You cannot buy it from me.”

Hesitantly…“Are you sure?”

“I have always been sure of it.” 

Slowly, the old man took off his coat while the stranger did the same.  They exchanged their garments.  The old man, filled with gratitude, put on the white coat.  He saw his old coat on the stranger and, more than ever, he was aware of how filthy it really was, which made him all the more thankful for this gift.

As they parted ways, the old man began walking again, newly confident in what lay ahead.  His new friend, the one who now wore his old coat, took a different path up a hill topped with three trees.

Repost: Boanerges

When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a vilate of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him. But the people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. And they went on to another village.–Luke 9:51-56

I was struck by this passage this morning. Jesus and his disciples are not received in a Samaritan village and James and John, the “Sons of Thunder,” offered to call fire down. They wanted to seem some action.  Imagine this scene.

Weary from a long day on a hot, dusty road, Jesus and his disciples entered the village as the sky was growing dusky. A band of rag-tag men, unfamiliar to the townsfolk, aroused suspicion. Jesus asked his disciples to inquire if there might be a place for them to rest for the night. At each door, they faced hard stares and firm nos. Some of the disciples were disappointed, some anxious, and some angry. All of the were tired. James and John were once again riding the waves of their feelings. With fire in their eyes, they asked their teacher, “Do you remember the story of Sodom and Gomorrah? Do you want us to call down fire like that?” 

Jesus turned and caught both of their eyes. Looking back and forth between them with a mix of conviction and compassion, he rebuked them. “Guys, you are going to face disappointments and even downright attack if you follow me, but mine is not the way of retaliation, but the way of love. If you want to be my disciples, you must move beyond your desire for retribution and power and instead begin to practice compassion and peace.” 

Something shifted in John that day. He had always been sure that the Messiah would be a man of might, come to set things right by his power, but it was dawning on him that perhaps his understanding of power was all mixed up. What if ultimate power resided not in destruction but in love? As he continued to learn to live the Jesus way, he embraced love as the way to live. 

When we pay attention, the stories in the Bible show us that people change because of Jesus. If we listen to him, we can change too, from angry, retributive victims, to loving, peaceful servants.