j a s o n    s t e p h e n s

Sunrise Service


In the early 80s the pastor sold logging rights behind his property and now a road extended up through the hills and branched off into six different sections, each ending at a clearing. The muddy tires and heavy loads had worn down the surface into hard ridges between deep ruts, which, over time and snowmelts, left the road in miserable condition. Along the top of the ridges grew thistles and tall Whitetops and the occasional daffodil that sometimes died early in a late spring freeze; otherwise they stood bent by the spring runoff, year after year.

It's not a frequent event, but in the years following there were four separate microbursts. The wind flattened the trees against the land and those trees that had grown old and tall now died against the hillside on a bed of browned pine, only slightly less effective than a family of beetles. During the most recent microburst that occurred in the dead of summer on a hot July day, and four of the different logging trails were cut off. Several trips were required in order to cut trees down and move them. Though the road was not traveled, it was well-maintained by the pastor.

The most significant damage occurred at a clearing that overlooked the saddle between the mountains where the sun rose every day. The burst had leveled completely a fully bloomed grand fir that lay now, majestic—its roots exposed and standing eight feet in the air—next to the outlook of the valley. Clots of dirt dangled off the growth with veins of weed intertwined and connected, so that the roots resembled the gardens of Babylon. The pastor returned several times to the tubers no longer anchored in the ground. He cut stairs along the edge and from the fir he created a pulpit that loomed over the clearing, over his imagined flock, and upon which he stood and spoke: "For we are saved by hope: but hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for? But if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it." He paced across the tree serrated now by the chainsaw's blade with bits of sawdust on his boots that the soft breeze had picked up.

Throughout the fall he came back to the large clearing with different volunteers from the church, and with a chainsaw and collected trees from the microburst they created a place of worship. They cut several cords out of a thick pine and then cut out of the center a wedge. With the female piece created, they used split logs and on each end fashioned male counterparts, using ring shank nails and wood glue to hold the pieces together. Altogether they created eight benches that flanked the pulpit and looked toward the valley. Enough room for the whole congregation.

The following spring he met with the elders of the church. They followed an animal trail up the hill behind his house and began to flesh out the animal trail up the hillside into one that even the oldest members of the congregation could use. They created several switchbacks past salt licks, pulled weeds along the packed ground, and shuffled up the hill where it was possible. In some places where mud had dried, the trail had to be broken to ensure that it would not give way under the feet of the congregation. They worked hard and did not finish until the sun set and by that time they were all at the clearing, looking down across the valley. The moon was waning but still strong, and they could see behind themselves, but when they looked down to the well-lit house the trail obscured as the lights competed. Instead of the trail they'd built, they followed the logging road around the hill and down to the house for safety.

On the 17th of March the congregation assembled in the blue morning in front of the pastor's house and together they ascended to the clearing, walking the well-maintained lawn to the footpath that bore fresh scars from the shovels and pickaxes that created it. They continued past patches of snow, hidden in the shade of the trees that were sheltered by the treeline from the burst. They passed patches of snakeweed and thistles that were still growing. The mountain flowers lacing the hillside looked colorless in the depthless blue. They climbed as that blue behind them whited and ahead a rosy hue took over the sky.

A large white Ford belonging to an elder idled at the clearing with its tailgate down facing the benches. On the tailgate sprawled a bag of Styrofoam cups and those in the congregation who had brought Thermos with them removed the lids and soon the air mixed with the scent of peach tea, coffee, and pine. A light breeze picked up from the east and those who had been focused on something warm to settle the cold now looked at the church before them with their cups in hand to be filled. At the head of the pews the pastor stood talking softly to the elders. They broke apart and dispersed to welcome the congregation, motioning them to their seats in preparation for the sunrise. And when the sun rose on March 31st in 2002 the crowd watched in awe. Soft whispers of personal prayers echoed the pastor's own before the worship team sang out As the Deer. As the song built momentum they joined in what had become an impassioned song of salvation for the little mountain congregation.

The pastor then stood from his own seat upon the pew and walked to the pulpit that stood now, drenched in sunlight, and ascended the steps to his imagined podium. His lips quivered a bit and there was the business with his hands fidgeting in a disconnected way, but his presence overshadowed the actions of his body.

"There is something greater in store for each of us that we can ever imagine, than we could ever hope for. Something that surpasses the visible fantasies and jealousies that we suffer through as humans—for our experience is only an everlasting promise once the glory of the world is dimmed and we, instead of dreaming of what we can achieve and own, we dream of what God has in store for us. In Romans 15:13 it is written, 'Now the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that ye may abound in hope' and thus it is for those that choose to accept his son into their hearts."

Between each sentence was a sort of paced breath. His sharp black suit and tie against a burgundy shirt looked out of place against his boots that stood solid on the grand fir. In the light he perspired and his widow's peak created the outlined dam that held back the salt from passing over his face onto his lips.

"Indeed, 2000 years ago was the culmination of another scene, a birth of the son of God and the promise of a reconnection. And as Jesus entered into Jerusalem, though he did not know the plans of his father, he knew that he would carry out and follow through with the plans that the Father had in store for him. As he entered the old city, riding between an ass and a colt the multitudes that followed cried, 'saying, Hosanna to the son of David: Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest. And when he was come into Jerusalem, all the city was moved, saying, who is this? And the multitude said, This is Jesus the prophet of Nazareth and Galilee.' So too are our lives written out upon Christ's entrance to Jerusalem as we face new tribulations and experiences we also face new elation and joy, each new experience brings new excitement, but all of it—all this experience pales in comparison to the joy that is promised beyond that which is seen."

There was a sort of startled murmur among the congregation. In front of them stood a man empowered by the light, and whether the sun was too hot or the perspiration had finally started to fall, the pastor reached up to his collar and unbuttoned his shirt, loosening the tie as he continued.

"So we must remember when celebrating this day that the crucifixion of Christ is an example of what we must take upon ourselves. Let us not forget the words of Matthew who wrote, 'For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the world, and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul? For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works.' And so too must we keep in mind that we are not judged in this life, in this flesh by what we have collected, but by who we are. We must follow in the footsteps of Christ and accept that the flesh is a momentary lapse of suffering in comparison to the never-ending joy that Christ promises to his flock. Indeed, we are the nation that inherits that knowledge. We have inherited through our heritage and through our own families that same blood and knowledge of Christ and with open hearts we will inherit too the promised glory from the Father when our time comes."

There were several audible Amens that sang out like lark songs amid the coming morning. Even the children seemed enlivened by the sermon, though most pointed and giggled at the pastor who had begun to hunch over, itching at his legs between spits of words and water. If ever his soul did thirst for anything worldly, it was now as he quickly scanned his feet for water. One elder noticed and moved to bring water to the pulpit, but there was no time to wait.

"So what shall we accept? A life ripe with worldly and fleshly joys? The world is full enough of them and there is pleasure to be found, but it is momentary. So what then brothers? Shall we follow and believe truly the words of Paul to the Romans: 'Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him. For in that he died, he died unto sin once: but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God.' Yes, we believe the words of Paul. Yes, Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior and, yes, he lies at the side of our Father in Heaven. And as he died once for all sin, so too shall we accept his love and in that be dead to sin as well. 'For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection.' The choice is ours, for some death can be a friend waiting to bring you home, yet for others it may be an invitation to a time that never ends. It is only through Christ and through a persistent pursuit of Christian living that we can face in truth Jesus' resurrection and our own life."

Everyone was quiet. He didn't hear the mountain bluebirds whistle in the trees, nor did he see the robins that had collected on the roof of the truck. He was only aware of the penetrating heat of the sun as it burned down upon his head, even the low bugle of an elk cow off in the distance did not break his voice, which seemed to take less and less breath as he powered through his thoughts. His heartbeat raced and the children all looked frightened at one another as his calves thickened against his trousers. Some reached for their Styrofoam cups and drank deeply, others dropped crushed cups with fluid pouring out of the separated bottom.

"Indeed we are all set upon this earth as ministers of God and we are here set with 'the word of truth, by the Power of God, by the armor of righteousness on the right hand and on the left, by honor and dishonor' the Lord in his patience has given us power to fight through until our time to join him. This world is momentary and fleeting, yet we are his flock and he has set us apart, 'as having nothing, and yet possessing all things.' It is true, we Christians are not one pastor, we are many pastors. We have no one leader, but we have many leaders. Not one teacher, but many teachers. We are his nation and as it is said in Psalm 'Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord; and the people whom he hath chosen for his own inheritance.' Yes. Each new experience brings joy, but it is only through the Lord our God that we can experience everlasting life, and we as his disciples must pray that he can save us from ourselves and from this world."

Unable to stand anymore the pastor lunged his two front feet forward onto the pulpit as he tore the suit off the majority of his body; the sun continued to churn him. The children leaned forward and the adults stared now at their Styrofoam cups and listened intently, the Amens came once again more frequently and the birds echoed them as more cows were heard in the distance. "Pray with me the prayer of David: Judge me, O God, and plead my cause against an ungodly nation: O deliver me from the deceitful and unjust man. For thou art the God of my strength; And as he has given new life to Christ, so shall he bring new life to us. Do not forget the words of John: 'For God so loveth the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.' Remember that we are saved by hope, and it is not a hope for something better—for something on the otherside of the mountain, no my brothers, it is for something that we do not see. That we do not know. Something that we must have the patience for. We shall be watched over by the Lord, our God, for nothing 'nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.'"

The congregation could no longer understand the bugling that came from atop the majestic fir that lay on its side before them, nor could it make out the pastor blurred in the light. The sun blazed across the opened ridge line and with no shade or cover the congregation averted their gaze, or stared down at their Styrofoam cups. The Amens intermingled with the elders who now spoke in tongues and stood with hands held high, and soon singing broke forth among the ranks of the believers. They sang Christ the Lord is Risen Today, though the song was drowned out by the cries of beasts. The clearing was filled with animals, flailing arms, and noise—and atop the majestic fir stood the hulking bull elk, his figure blinded by the glaring sun, bugling the loudest of all.



JASON STEPHENS was born and raised in the mountains of the Boise basin. He's left behind the mountains of Idaho for the coasts of Florida. He is an MFA student at Florida Atlantic University.

I S S N     1 5 5 9 - 6 5 6 7