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Pastor Doug is a good egg. I walked over though a blustery gray November and found him waiting in the white party tent we rent. Sanctuary for COVID-conscious Sunday services stands against the hard north wind. Iron stakes driven through the asphalt. Permanence is what you make it sometimes. We watched our watches and no one else came. I settled into a chair in one of the wind-eddies, ankle deep in blown-in maple leaves. Wind blew under and through. Blew the worship materials off the utility table altar. Blew the little driftwood cross over.

He said he’d do the service just for me but I let him off the hook. Last week was unseasonably warm and Pastor Karen said that Peace Lutheran Church would continue with the COVID-inspired outdoor services for as long as people wanted them. I told her I would be the last. I didn’t expect to be last so soon. I wanted to sit for a winter service, to shuffle my boots through dry snow, to sing my hymns into the empty wind. To feel it bite my fingertips. Cold air has a smell, it finds you. Find me.

But I’m a nut.

So I went inside and found a socially distant place among the pews. Here I was, back in our church sanctuary after a year and a half away. Surprised to be back. But back as a resignation, a sop to circumstances, not the way I had envisioned it. I wanted transcendence. I wanted to swoon but my swoon switch was off. Back within the cedar paneling, oak pews, maple in the chancel and birdseye maple on the real altar, rich rich walnut, including the great cross leaning out towards you, arms canted back and flying. Even inside, I worship among the trees.

I love this space. On either side of the cross are abstract paintings done by one of our artists. They look like sedge-meadow wetlands to me, right down to the foggy morning light. I imagine astringency and tannins, cold sphagnum water oozing between my toes.

And over it all, our stained-glass dove, our dove, flying among the conic sections, mathematical elegance and ancient symbolism. I am a scientist, a biologist, a part of this family, a writer who’s trying (I guess I can say that now since The Twelve gives me a regular gig). I am many things and all of us love that dove.

The dove is the Holy Spirit, the living flame, the biological storm, the ancient mystery. The boundaries are indistinct.

But here now. On the sudden first Sunday back inside, on the first Sunday of winter, I contemplate our dove again and am surprised to be looking through. My attention is captured by the movement beyond the stained glass. Raw November blows through the bare top branches, near the lower sill through the glass are fruits and a few stubborn leaves. How is it that seventeen years on, with near weekly contemplations of that dove, I‘ve seen the tree through the glass moving and failed to recognize it waving for my attention? And I don’t know what tree it is. I can only say I’ve seen it before – but not truly looked.

We adjusted our worship practice for the pandemic. Covid realities revealed essentials that were less salient before and some of that salience lies on the other side of the stained glass. After worship I walked out to identify the tree, to taste the wind hardened fruit. I thought I knew but I should have been more careful. And now I’m second-guessing myself.

We took our upheaval outside and worshiped with doves of flesh and feathers. We returned during a time of urgency and wind. There may be no normal to return to. Maybe we shouldn’t pine for that. I learned of something elemental outside of the stained glass. It’s demanding our attention. I’m going to go and look again.

Tim Van Deelen

Tim Van Deelen is Professor of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He grew up in Hudsonville, Michigan, and graduated from Calvin College. From there he went on to the University of Montana and Michigan State University. He now studies large mammal population dynamics, sails on Lake Mendota, enjoys a good plate of whitefish, and gains hope for the future from terrific graduate students. 


  • Judie Zoerhof says:

    Thank you, Tim Van Deelen. I ‘see’ when you write. What do we see through the dove?

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Well? The tree?
    Medieval stained-glass windows were meant (like icons) for looking through, not looking at. They were meant to allow you to look into heaven and see the saints there (as well as to bring the saints into the liturgy, riding the light in). So you saw through the window was not just into heaven, but, as a Calvinist, into the sacred world around us, thanks to the feathered Holy Spirit. Wonderful, how She gives us transcendence, even when we are cold to it.

  • Tim Van Deelen says:

    Daniel and Judie: I think Daniel just said it better than I did. The sacred world around us. That was a thought that I kept returning to during our COVID inspired outdoor services. I think its important for re-orienting Christians to the earthkeeping we easily profess but seem to care little about in practice.

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