Sunday, September 29, 2013

Burned Memories

My great-grandfather’s house burned down recently. He had a summer camp named Camp Vision on the top of Page Hill in Tamworth during the early decades of the 20th century. My mother used to tell me about it when I was little.

She described the wonderful views of the mountains, the stone porch, the spring house, and even the outhouse!  He had built the house with his own hands, and it reflected his distinctive artistic style. He was a painter and a professor of Art at Plymouth Normal School (now Plymouth State University.)

Even though he died the year before I was born, and the house was sold soon afterwards, the memories of the place are wrapped up with my memories of my mother and grandfather. We used to visit the place on occasion. My mother would walk me around the grounds reciting her childhood memories. She showed me old black and white photographs of the place in its heyday. It seemed like a magical place to me, more like Camelot than Tamworth.

Over the years I have continued to visit the house, even in the decade since my mother’s death. Every few years I would drive up Page Hill Road, park at the bottom of the short driveway and trespass onto someone’s property.

No one was ever there, and the cabin never changed over the years. It always looked as if my great-grandfather had just closed the door and walked away. The new owners had left the place exactly as it was in the 1920’s and 30’s. It was a place frozen in time. 

I took this pilgrimage to Camp Vision in the Spring of 2011, shortly after returning to live in Sandwich. I took it again this summer of 2013, only to find the house in ashes. I later learned that it had burned down in June of 2011, one of the victims of a teenage arsonist who torched several homes in Tamworth that year.

It is hard to describe my feelings. It is a sort of grief. Like I have lost an old friend or a member of the family.  I wonder what will happen to the place now. It has been over two years, and it has not been rebuilt. Will it return completely to the forest now, like the homesteads in Sandwich Notch? Young saplings are already growing from the ashes.

On August 28, I heard Nixon and Saundra Bicknell give a marvelous concert at Surroundings Art Gallery in Center Sandwich. It was the last concert of the summer, so I was already feeling nostalgic. Nixon played “Six Woodland Sketches” by Edward MacDowell on the piano.

One of the sketches was entitled “A Deserted Farm.” As I closed my eyes and listened to that piece, I saw Camp Vision. I realized that houses may burn down, but memories are burned into our hearts forever.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Amber’s Notes

It was my birthday recently, and I received a birthday card from a retired friend in Florida. Ruth used to be a Sunday School teacher in my church years ago. She was cleaning out her house and ran across some notes from a sermon that I preached on June 26, 1988. So she sent them to me with the card.

Actually they were notes that her four-year-old granddaughter Amber wrote. Of course Amber could not write much at that tender age. They were four pages ripped out of a small spiral notebook. Each one was covered in scribbles. Some of it looks vaguely like writing. The first page looks it might depict stick people … sort of.

On the front page Ruth had recorded her granddaughter’s explanation: “I’m writing down everything he says, Nana!” Indeed she did. Of course no one can read it. The actual words I spoke are lost to history, but that is okay. It is not important what I said that morning.

I can hardly remember what I preached on last Sunday, much less twenty-five years ago! One would be hard-pressed to find any parishioner who can remember what I preached further back than last Sunday. Realizing that fact keeps us pastors humble.

It is not about words or even ideas. It is about sensing that something important was happening in church. It was worth Amber writing it down for Nana. In the end, worship services do not translate well into words.

Do not get me wrong. I believe in words. It is what I do. Preachers deal in words. I write sermon manuscripts, which I take into the pulpit.  And I stick pretty close to the text. Afterwards I clean them up and post them on the internet along with videos. I even rework some sermon series into books.

My life as a pastor is filled with words. But in the end ministry is not about words. Words can celebrate God. Words can direct our attention toward God. But words always fall short of the glory of God. They can never capture God.

Words are nothing more than scribbles on paper and vibrations in air. At best words refer to something unwritable and unspeakable. When used well, words can point to the wordless Presence of God.

Amber’s notes are better than words. A four year-old sat next to her Nana in church one Sunday, and God was present. She wrote it all down. We just need to read between the lines.