Thursday, June 7, 2018

The Scale of Life



I waited patiently upon the LORD; he stooped to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the desolate pit, out of the mire and clay ... he put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.” (Psalm 40)


I sometimes lose things.

In a world where people have lost their lives; in a world where people have lost their jobs or health insurance; in a world where people have lost children to drugs, or marriages to infidelity, or health to bad genes, bad decisions, or bad luck; in a world where people have lost so much that is of true and enduring value, the loss of a trinket or misplaced doodad is pretty low on the scale of things.

If I have lost some “thing” and have time to look for it, I’m blessed, for I’ve lost so much more over the years – and I know it. Thank God! Without loss, how would we appreciate what we have?

I cannot speak for the rest of creation, of course, as the only things of which I have any knowledge are my own thoughts, feelings, and experiences. But what I do know is that when I have a problem of any sort – major, minor, or something in between – I can almost always trace its genesis back to one spot: me.

It’s always possible someone took off with what’s missing, but highly unlikely. Like most inanimate objects, it did not walk off on its own. But the odds are good it got moved around in some mysterious shuffle and will almost certainly be found – because it has been my experience that I’ll find the errant object and cry, “Ah, that’s right; I put it there. Now I remember!”

None of that is important, of course. The reason this grates on me is because it violates an image I have of myself of being a relatively competent, careful, and attentive person. I want to scream to the rafters, “I do not lose things,” and yet if I pause before shouting, I can recall countless times I have misplaced items, or forgotten where I was going, what I was doing, or what I had intended to say in a conversation.

It is called “being human.” I don’t want to be human, of course; I want to have what God has: a perfect memory and complete power (and maybe an adoring fan-base). Sadly, I am not God; no one is.

When I get into a pickle, it is of my own doing. I may have help along the way, but I’m generally able to get stuck in the muck and mire of life without anyone else’s help.

So the first thing I must do is acknowledge and accept my very human limitations. They do not excuse lapses of good judgment or carelessness, but they go a long ways towards explaining what it is that’s happening. As neat and tidy as I want life to be, it is messy and unmanageable, I’m stuck with it, and there is nothing I can do about it.

I am, in a sense, powerless, but I am not alone. There is a God to whom I cry out when I am in despair.

I don’t mean when I’ve misplaced my glasses or bookmarks; that would be a perfectly silly waste of God’s time. God is with us, in us, and around us a hundred percent of the time. The Bible is clear enough that there is no hole deep enough or deed dark enough that God cannot find us, hold us, or hear us; so to beg God’s intervention for a “thing” just seems irreverent to me.

I believe God is with us in the pit, and that God not only knows the way out of the pit; I believe God IS the way out of the pit. Greater is the One who sticks to us than is the schmuck who’s stuck to the muck!

Psalm 40 reminds us that while we may be good at walking “eyes wide open” into desolate pits and slimy sludge, God is good at seeing, hearing, and patiently rescuing us.

That’s why I look to God; he is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen in this, God’s valley; and I think God’s worth singing about – don’t you?

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Truth: Stranger Than Friction

There’s no need to talk about it, because the truth of what one says lies in what one does. Bernhard Schlink, The Reader

Our yard is full of rocks. Not just any old rocks, though. They’re red lava rocks; leftovers from an era where someone thought they would make a grand landscaping material.

“You never have to weed rocks,” I’m sure the person said to themselves. I doubt they would have said it to anyone else as that is about the dumbest thing one could say in a world as seedy as our own.

They tried to turn their opinion into a reality by laying out landscaping fabric first – to keep the weeds down – and then applying a layer of rocks atop the fabric. The goal was to create an environment that would be fun to look at and require little to no maintenance.

“Oh what fools these mortals be,” said Shakespeare’s Puck.

Weeds have no trouble working their way up through the fabric – far easier than fingers working their way down through the rocks to get to the roots – which are well-protected by both the rocks and fabric (through which fingers cannot penetrate, unless said fingers have a poking device to tear the fabric open to get to the roots which then results in an easier assault of new roots coming up through new chinks in the armor).

Because our house sits on a hill, I find our rocks don’t like to stay in place. One would think lava rocks, which are quite rough and frictional on the outside, would stay put, but they’d be wrong. These stones are constantly shifting (presumably to get a better view of the hills across the valley – maybe looking for the quarry which gave them birth). They have an instinct where, like lemmings, they seek some cliff off of which they may hurl themselves to oblivion.

Our “cliff” is a scalloped wall of bricks that line the flower beds, protecting the lawn from the incursion of a basalt army seeking greener pastures. Most rocks stay put (I’d say those are the gneiss ones), but there are a few hardy souls that make the leap each night. So before I mow the lawn each week, I must explore the verge looking for those runaway rapscallions and putting them back to bed.

It’s strange how we humans are always trying to make life easier and end up complicating it beyond all reason. We plant grass for reasons which elude me – devoting time and energy to watering, fertilizing, and mowing it ad nauseam. We Americans seem to be addicted to work, don’t we?

I recall learning from my college Anthropology classes that ancient peoples often spent up to ten hours per week laboring (hunting, fishing, and gathering), and it was to these kinds of people God said, “You need to take a day off each week – let’s call it the Sabbath.” At that rate, we should be Sabbathing every other day according to my estimations! Where on earth did we get to thinking a forty hour work week was normal (let alone healthy)?

I may wish life were simpler and less demanding. However, as a neighbor once said in response to my wishful thinking: “Spit in one hand, wish in the other, and see which fills up first.”

Life is what it is, so we do what is necessary to make as pleasant an experience of it as we can. We water, fertilize, mow, and move rocks. Is that such a bad thing?

Maybe our love of labor is genetic. Maybe we don’t believe we have value unless we are producing something.

I know that I would rather be up and doing something rather than sitting in front of the television all day long. I find it isn’t the labor, per se, that attracts me, or the productivity, strictly speaking, but being creative. I may complain about yardwork, but in reality, I enjoy creating a pleasant space and doing what I can to beautify our neighborhood.

There’s something soothing in hearing the sound of gasoline engines popping up all over the city after I’ve put my mower away – creative juices flowing freely everywhere, inspired by one man doing what he must: Mowing (after moving rocks) for a clean slate here in this, God’s valley. Truth is stranger than friction. Rock on!

Thursday, May 10, 2018

When Vegetables Run Riot


Nature is not a place to visit. It is home. Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild

I went down to a local nursery a week or two ago and bought a couple of tomato plants for my vegetable garden. Well, actually, it isn’t a vegetable garden yet. Our back yard has many plants in it, but none of them are edible. If I want to eat, I have to steal blackberries from my neighbor to the north, or grapes from my neighbor to the south. Fortunately, their vines grow along the fence, so the law of the jungle permits me the luxury of claiming whatever grows on my side of the fence as mine. Or, as a child might put it: “Mine, mine, mine, all mine!”

The law of neighborliness, on the other hand, compelled me to chat with my neighbors and discern that neither is concerned with me meeting my nutritional needs through fence-line gleaning (a grace also known as permission). That works for me, too!

Meanwhile, I bought these cute little tomato plants, the varieties of which I have no knowledge (my natural state with most matters, come to think of it), hoping that they would (a) not die, and (b) produce fruit in due season.

For the past two weeks they have sat in the kitchen window awaiting the day I would release them back into the wild. Miraculously, they have (a) not died, and (b) already borne flowers which will (cross your fingers) become actual tomatoes! Through the miracle of me not having killed them (yet), they have also grown from three inch beasties to monstrous plants, both over a foot tall, and one branching out (apparently more bush than vine).

Now I have to find spot in the back yard in which to plant them. The weather here has warmed up enough that the danger of frost or dangerously cold weather has passed. Tomatoes, it turns out, are originally from Central America and not overly fond of the cold. That likely explains why my tomatoes didn’t do so well when I tried to grow them in the Madison Valley.

It’s funny, though; I don’t know where to plant them. Our yard is populated with a wide variety of trees, bushes, flowers, succulents and the like – so food-bearing plants simply look out of place no matter where I put them. It’s almost as if vegetable gardens are required to have their own space, surrounded by chicken wire (to keep out the rabbits) and segregated from species that are more pleasing to the eye than the gut. Oh my.

Never fear. If there is one thing I’m known for, it is my fearlessness in bucking trends, breaking rules, and ignoring anything resembling taste (unless it involves edibles), so I shall find a wide spot that works for me (and maybe for the veggies, too).

Life is too short to fret details like where to put something in the yard. Certainly, we want things to look nice. We need to ensure that plants which need a lot of sunlight will have a space where that need is met. We want to make sure they are properly hydrated – not too much and not too little water. We want to make sure to keep pests at bay. Blood is supposed to repel rabbits. Well, I may be a bleeding heart liberal, but I also find blood somewhat repellant. Still, there are alternative repellants we can buy at the local garden center, so I can minimize my personal blood-letting (aka shaving) for now.

I confess I am surprised at this sudden interest in growing things outside. I have always found yard-work more repellant than blood-letting. I suspect my distaste at such things hearkens back to the days where yard work was anything but fun.

Now that veggie-culture (aka farming) is a choice and not something compelled by a foreign power we referred to as “parents” – it is less onerous and a bit more pleasant. It is possible I might even come to (gasp) enjoy being out in that wilderness we call the back yard and watching the young tomatoes at play. I wonder if momma tomatoes are as protective as momma bears; I’ll let you know.

For now, it’s time to catch up with my tomatoes, so I’ll ketchup with you later in this, our valley.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Chains


It’s often safer to be in chains than to be free – Franz Kafka

In the early stages of retirement, I’m beginning to think that freedom is an over-rated concept.

I was hoping that retirement would allow us more time to do what we enjoy, although why anyone would want to spend more time sitting around doing nothing is quite a mystery. It has given me more time to count my pennies at the end of each month, but after about three and a half seconds I find myself wondering, what next?

It really isn’t that bad, however. I am still an early riser, so I get to go online and discover whether or not the world has survived the night without my leadership or input. The good news is that it is still safely in God’s hands, although there are enough greasy souls engaged in misbehavior that it’s no surprise that at times the good Lord’s fingers seem to be losing their grip on things.

Still, the universe at any given time is just as it should be, so I can concentrate on taking care of my side of the street and leaving the running of the universe to the Boss.

One reason I can get on with my day is I know from the get-go that everything will be OK. How do I know that? Well, for one thing, I have a friend who lives in the down under and I sometimes chat with him when I get up. The other day it was about 6 a.m. locally here and just past midnight for him there. If the world ended today, he couldn’t be there tomorrow, so all is well!

Much of our time, since retiring, has actually been devoted to working in and around the house to make it a home. The low-maintenance yard has been anything but. That promise was a complete fabrication by the seller (AKA LIE), but it is what it is and, although it takes more to keep it up than what I was wanting or envisioning, it really is a pleasant space for leisure living (which is what I call it when I collapse face-down on the lawn after mowing).

It is now in the sort of shape and condition where, if we wanted to, we could take time off to get away. It seems we humans always expect paradise to be somewhere else, and never where we are. On the other hand, if you knew what sorts of things go through my mind on a regular basis, you would know why I would want to get away – and the disappointment of discovering, wherever I get to, that there I am! Drats!!!

Freedom is a challenge, that’s for sure. It isn’t the money (although I wondered about that at first), but the sudden access to forty or fifty hours a week we never had before. The first thing I did to help compensate for the influx of time was learn to slow down. When I go grocery shopping, I may have a list with five items, but it takes me forever, because now I have time to read every label of every competing brand of the same thing I am wanting to buy (tough to read that small print, isn’t it?).

I move so slowly that I picked up a small bunch of green bananas the other day and by the time I got to the checkout, they were yellow!

Retirement, though, is a lot like coming up from scuba diving. You need to come to the surface slowly so you don’t get the bends. Ironically, I don’t bend as well as I did before, so maybe I should get going a little faster!

Retirement is also a lot like riding a bicycle. When I got my first bike as a kid, I discovered that as scary as it might be to go fast, it was also exhilarating. More than that, though, is if you stop, you fall over! The same goes for retirement. Don’t stop! And don’t let your pants leg get caught in the bike chain.

Beyond that, there’s not much to say. Keep moving. Use the wisdom you’ve accumulated over the decades. Be kind to one another. And remember, without links, a chain is useless, so stay connected, for it turns out that’s where true freedom lies in this, our valley.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Clouds and Security


If I stay in the tenderness given by / the silent sunlight coming down through the trees / surely everything comes into my eyes will be a message – Yumi Arai

I see on the news that almost everything in life we ever thought was safe and secure isn’t.

Financial institutions have been breached. Social Media sites have been drained. Retail outlets have been ravaged. Whatever hasn’t been pillaged has been shown to be vulnerable. All I can say is, “Ha! Welcome to my world.”

I take privacy very seriously. People who made confessions should be delighted to know that God blessed me with a wonderful “forgetter” – a capacity to forget everything I’ve ever seen or heard within minutes. I am that proverbial chap who dares not stop on the stairs lest I forget whether I was heading up or down – and for what?

I find it amusing that we are encouraged never to give our Social Security number to anyone, and yet every institution and employer requires it – the same organizations that have been breached, looted, ransacked, or rifled.

I am reminded of the early days of the internet where we were told the only way to secure the information on our computers would be to pull the telephone cord – and the power cord. If we really, honestly, and truly want our information secure, we need to write it in a book, stick it in a steel box with a good padlock, then stick the box into a massive blast-proof safe, and drop it off a ship as it passes over the Mariana Trench in the South Pacific.

I’m not so sure. The ocean isn’t as deep as we once thought, and no part of it is out of reach for those willing to go to great lengths to retrieve what’s down there. I notice investors will spend millions to search wrecks for gold doubloons and other valuables – but hardly a centavo to clean up the Texas-sized island of garbage that’s floating around out there over “them thar” wrecks. What’s wrong with this picture?

Garbage isn’t the most romantic of topics, and yet I find taking out the trash results in a more pleasant home. The air’s fresher when our wrappers, scraps, food waste, and floor sweepings are gathered up and placed in the gray bin outside. Now, if folks want to sniff that stuff to find out more about our family, they’re welcome to; just clean up the mess afterwards.

Getting back to security: we do the best we can. There is nothing fool-proof. There is no encryption system that can’t be beaten, and it is the fool who thinks they can develop a fool-proof system. If it is a system, it can be beat. Doors can be kicked in, windows can be broken out, locks can be picked, safes and codes can be cracked, files can be searched, and the list goes on.

I supposed what interests me most isn’t the security of life (or lack thereof), but that always-elusive thing we call the quality of life. Who wants to go through life scared to death someone’s going to break in and steal anything?

I find it ironic how Jesus compares God with a burglar breaking into “a strong man’s house, tying him up, and stealing his valuables” (Mark 3). For God, it isn’t the gold, silver, or bearer-bonds that are valuable, but people like you and me: sinners – (gasp)!

We do what we can to be secure in our homes and persons, but I have long ago given up fretting about such matters. I have good locks on the home. They’re not impervious to great violence, but they’re good enough to keep honest folks honest. What we have at home is mostly stuff. It’s stuff we like and appreciate – but it’s all replaceable for the most part. We have smoke and CO2 detectors to keep us safe from fire or noxious fumes. We’ve got strong passwords on most of our internet connected sites – but we should change them more regularly – an area for improvement, but not for fretting.

While there are things in life that are vulnerable to malicious behavior and which could be considered insecure in matters of safekeeping, we can all be sure of one thing: God’s love for all people. We can be secure in that truth here in this, our valley.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

The Daffodils




There’s a lot of hope and a lot of faith and love mixed up in a miracle – MEINDERT DEJONG

My wife and I went out for a drive as we are wont to do from time to time. It was a weekday evening and, what with the time change and lengthening of days of early spring (and a nice day, to boot), I thought we’d go out and see the daffodils growing commercially in fields just west of us.

I wasn’t exactly sure where we would find them – I think the local farms are better known for their tulips (which don’t come into bloom for another month or two) – but I knew that if I drove around aimlessly for a while I would surely discover them.

We headed west towards Anacortes on the old Memorial Highway and sure enough, there they were: fields of bright yellow daffodils swaying in the breeze. I grabbed a few quick snaps from my phone for, alas, I had left my good camera at home. My brother-in-law’s words bounced around the cavern between my ears: “You can’t get pictures if you don’t take your camera.” He won’t read this so it’s safe to say this openly: He’s right!

While cell phone cameras have come a long way, and while some can take breath-taking photos, my phone isn’t one of those. So I got some decent shots, but nothing as spectacular as what we saw before us, but that’s OK. Perfection is God’s responsibility, not mine.

While I enjoy photography as a hobby (and I am really a beginner of a novice, and not really even a novice yet), the fact is I am finding joy in simply living. While it is nice taking pictures (and quite ego-stroking setting up the tripod, changing lenses, playing with focus, composition, f-stops, and the like – to the oos and the ahs of the local lookie-loos), I am coming to appreciate actually just being “in the moment” –  like looking at a field of flowers swaying ever so gently in the breeze. It was truly a “wow” moment.

Lifting up my eyes from the field of golden daffodils (do they come in any other color?), I gazed to the east and couldn’t help but notice the clouds billowing over the north Cascade Mountains. It wasn’t the usual flat gray slate that usually hangs over our part of the world. These were angry, well-defined and muscular storm clouds looking to put some serious water down on the hills to the east. Again, all I could do is let out an almost imperceptible “wow.”

Living in the moment. What a concept. I forget who it was who said, “There is no past; there is no future; there is only now – ever only now.” Incidentally, if no one actually ever said that, I’ll be happy to take credit. Please send royalties my way via the Madisonian.

It has been said that a miracle is an event that can’t be explained with the laws of science or nature, but I would disagree completely. Just the complexity of the universe in which we live is a miracle. Just the fact that a seed or bulb can be shoved into a bit of black or brown dirt and come up in bright green and yellows is a miracle.

The fact you and I can see that stuff – and knowing we don’t really see it, but an image of reflected light is caught by lenses that evolved over more millennia than we can count, hits a fleshy slate containing rods and cones at the back of our eyeballs (upside down, no less), is converted to chemical and electrical impulses that snap, crackle, and pop along an optic nerve to a patch of gray matter that lies between our ears, and is perceived (right side up) as something which then causes other parts of our body to secrete endorphins that eventually produces a smile upon one’s mug – that’s a miracle!

Miracles are everywhere. All we need to do is look around with eyes to see, and listen with ears to hear.

To appreciate what we have, and what we see, and what we hear, and what we feel, and what we experience – and that we can do it alone or in community – by golly, those are also miracles here now in this, our valley.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

On Track




Whatever you want to do, do it. There are only so many tomorrows. Anonymous

Life is sometimes likened to a train trip. It has a starting point and a destination. We’re on the journey, but we’re not driving the engine. As long as the train is sufficiently fueled, properly maintained, and stays on the track, the passenger need not worry or fret, for all is in good hands. So …

Winters here on the north end of the I-5 corridor are not nearly as rough, wet, or icy as they are in southwest Montana, but they can be quite gray and dreary. As much of a home-body as I am, it is nice getting out every now and then to do something new and different.

To help break up some of the monotony, I did a bit of research and discovered I could catch a train and visit Seattle for less than what it would cost to drive down and pay to park in the city, so that’s what we did.

What a pleasant way to travel! We got to the train station here in town (with free parking – how convenient is that!?). There were no crowds, no lines or queues, no baggage handlers or x-ray machines. There was just a handful of fellow sojourners hanging around making small talk and waiting for the arrival of the 9 o’clocker.

The passenger train glided into the station very quickly (and surprisingly quietly) about twenty minutes late, but no one seemed flustered, fretful, or bothered by the delay. We were directed to our cars by the friendly rail-crew and allowed to sit wherever we wanted. We were in the economy class, but our seats were very comfortable and spacious – nothing at all like airline seats!

As quickly as the train had arrived, it departed the station giving a long, cheerful wail of its air-horn. I was surprised at how swiftly it got up to speed, rolling down the track with a … What?

Where was the clickity-clack of the track? Somehow, the traditional sound of wheels rolling over track seams was gone! I hadn’t been on a train since the mid-1960s, and one of the true joys of train travel back then had been the simultaneous swaying of the train as it sped down the track, and the rhythmic clacking of the wheels as they rolled over each succeeding section of rail.

The iron ribbon has become seamless, it seems (no pun intended). For those who appreciate a quiet environment, it was certainly an improvement. In fact, the entire journey was tranquil. We didn’t have the constant roar of jet engines or the dings, pings, or intrusion of pilot-to-crew instructions. We travelers could actually have a normal conversation!

The only directives we received were given face-to-face by the conductor who pointed our way to the Bistro car, where we could go pick up refreshments (which we did). While standing in line awaiting our turn, one woman turned to my wife and said, “9 o’clock is too early to catch a train.” After a brief pause she added, “… but not for Bloody Mary!” which she ordered, received, and carried almost amorously back to her car.

The train made all of its stops along its route and yet we still made up for the late departure and reached the King Street Station in Seattle right on schedule.

There is something delightful to be found in letting someone else do the driving. I wasn’t worn out with a white-knuckle drive along a congested freeway. There were no potholes to avoid, lanes to change, or blue light specials to worry about.

We made our way from the heart of our town to the heart of the Emerald City in less than two hours. When we were finished for the day, having done our sight-seeing and visiting with our son, we caught the early evening train home and arrived exhausted from the day’s activities, but not from the day’s journey. What a blessing!

Life is sometimes likened to a train trip. I couldn’t agree more. Each of us had our own destinations, plans, and “stories,” but we journeyed peaceably together. For the crew, it was a milk run; for some passengers it was party-time; for others, coffee-on-the-go. For me? It was a rolling parable; kingdom living in this, our valley.