Thursday, December 6, 2018

Winter Grasses

O God, you are my God: eagerly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you, as in a barren and dry land where there is no water. Psalm 63

I have had the pleasure of being retired a little over a year now. The adjustment to a life of leisure hasn’t been too bad, although I have found the “leisure” part of the equation somewhat more elusive than finding the end of Pi. There seems to be no end to the number of little things life requires of its organisms

That’s as it should be. We each have a purpose, even if mine seems to be to provide carbon dioxide for the grass outside so I have something to mow for three out of the four seasons. I don’t mind. In fact, I rather enjoy following my self-propelled grass muncher as it wanders to and fro looking to swing its blades of glory against the forest of local fescue (and dandelions) residing ‘round the house.

Fortunately, we have entered the season of winter, and the lawn seems to have gone dormant, storing up its energy for a springtime assault on my sinuses. That, too, is as it should be, for if it wasn’t for my sneezing, I doubt I would get the exercise I need to huff and puff my way around the house between meals and snacks.

Speaking of which, while the sod has gone to sleep, this sod-buster has had to shake off his slumbering ways and prepare to take a couple of services while our minister is off on a spot of vacation.

I had thought that by not preaching regularly my mind would be gathering up fresh ideas and thoughts and illustrations the way squirrels find and store up their own nuggets of nutrition day-by-day, but sadly, that hasn’t happened. It’s either that or someone has broken into that cranial storehouse of wisdom and insights God (or Darwin) stuck between my ears and made off with all those treasures!

The truth is, I suspect, that the old adage “Use it or lose it,” is valid.

Back in the day when I was preparing sermons to deliver on a weekly basis, I know my eyes and ears were alert to looking and listening for things that would connect our faith with life.

I remember one day driving around Ennis Lake and finding a woman pushing her bicycle along the road. I stopped and asked if I could help, thinking she might have a flat tire. I was wearing my clergy shirt and collar and driving my pickup, so hoped she wouldn’t be alarmed. She told me she was fine, so I drove off. I would love to say I offered to help out of the goodness of my heart (and surely, some of that was there), but I also knew the gospel lesson coming up that Sunday addressed the story of the Good Samaritan, and I was NOT going to be the priest “who passed by on the other side” of the person in distress.

Things like that happened all the time when I was preaching regularly, but now that I’m not, I find my eyes have clouded over a bit. I simply am not making the connections I once did. It’s not for lack of activities, but for lack of paying attention to the world around me.

It’s like with friends you haven’t seen in years. You would assume you’d have tons to talk about making up for lost time, but actually, you end up having less to say, because the connections aren’t there. Each has gone their own way, points of contact and commonality have separated, and so you don’t know where (or how) to start. And so you share some inane pleasantries, and then you move on.

There aren’t that many of us who preach, but we do connect. With the holidays drawing near, it seems maybe now is as good a time as any to begin strengthening the connections we have. I would hate to be standing over the punchbowl at some gathering and have little more to talk about than news, sports, weather, or the state of my grass.

Which reminds me: dandelions make a wonderful Christmas gift. Not only can you not kill them, they help clear your sinuses each spring in this, our valley.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Advent 1 – Land of Shadows and Light

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light …

I haven’t been to the Mall in quite a while. I haven’t been to the one in Burlington, or the one in Bellingham, or the one in Everett. I’m not against going to the mall. I just haven’t bothered turning in to shop, walk, or rub elbows with anyone.

I’ve been to other stores, of course, and there’s no doubt the Christmas season is in full swing – and has been since before Halloween.

There’s a word for this: INSANE. The world is absolutely crazy.

I’m reminded of the scene in HOME ALONE where the young boy is accidentally left behind as his family flies off to Paris. He discovers he is alone in the house and goes berserk doing everything he knows he’s not supposed to. He watches movies he’s not supposed to; eats loads of junk food; jumps on the bed, ransacks his older brother’s room, runs through the house screaming at the top of his lungs.

In short, He’s being an 8-year old set free, and while the carnage of freedom lasts for a little while, he makes a shift from recklessness to responsibility - from making a mess to taking care of his “world.” He buys groceries, does laundry, decorates the house for the holiday, and defends it from the forces of darkness outside (the WET BANDITS).

Advent is our refuge from an insane world. Some of us may have come in looking for Christmas decorations, Christmas trees, poinsettias, Nativity sets and all that, but the closest thing we have to the seasonal foo-foo (that’s the liturgical term for all that stuff) is our Advent wreath over here.

On the First Sunday of Advent, we light a single candle. We pray God to give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, but one little light doesn’t really seem up to the task, does it. And how about that phrase: “Works of darkness”? That seems a little melodramatic, doesn’t it?

I used to love that phrase in the Prayer of Humble Access we use to pray: “we are most heartily sorry for these our misdoings. The remembrance of them is grievous unto us; the burden intolerable …”

I don’t know. I’m not sure I ever felt the things I did were intolerable. At least not to me. But maybe to God.
Have you ever thought of God sitting there on the throne, looking down and saying, “Folks, I’m down to my last nerve, and you’re standing on it!” (Crash, thunder, BOOM)?

But God’s desire is not our death, not our destruction, but our restoration – our restoration to health and salvation.

Did you know that SANITY and SANITATION share the same root? It’s the Latin word for health and wholeness. To be insane is to be unhealthy in mind; to be unsanitary is to be unhealthy in body. When people were sick with lingering illnesses, they went off to Sanitariums – places where they could be restored to health.
The Church is a spiritual sanitarium. It’s a house of healing.

I love the Church and the Church Seasons because they remind us that we are human. There is a mixture of light and dark we can’t get away from. It’s like walking through the forest. The sun shines through, and the forest floor is dappled with the interplay of shade and sunlight. The sunshine and the shadows are both there. Like driving down the freeway, you sometimes get that strobe-light effect, and your eyes are going STOP THAT!

As Christians, we KNOW insanity resides here. We know what it’s like to smile on the outside and act like everything is OK, while on the inside little Kevin McCallister’s on the loose wreaking havoc. But we also know we have a God who not only CAN restore us to sanity, but who will.

We light a single candle, and it may not look like much (at first) but it is a start. It’s the first step in casting away the works of darkness.

To confess there is darkness residing here in this space (heart) and here (mind) and here (gut) is the first step. To invite God to come in and do her work (restoring those spaces) is the armor of light we put on. It isn’t our strength that gets the job done, but hers. That’s the GRACE part of the equation. God restores us.

When people complain about the insanity of Christmas, I get to share good news with them: You know, that’s one of the things I love about our church: it’s an oasis of peace and serenity at a time I need that most.

One final thought: in Home Alone, Kevin does all he can to protect his home. He calls for help, and he knows help should be on the the way. He runs away from danger, though a neighbor's house, and as he comes upstairs, the bad guys catch him. They hang him on a hook and tell him everything they're going to do to him when BANG! Another neighbor hits the two bad guys, lifts Kevin off the hook, and carries him to safety.

That is the Gospel in a nutshell. God rescues us, gets us off the hook, and carries us to safety. Like Kevin, we do what we can, and we cry out for help, and God does the rest. We cast off the works of darkness, and God clothes us with the armor of light. Happy Advent! :-)

Friday, November 16, 2018

A Boxing Match

“If you love a flower, don’t pick it up. Because if you pick it up it dies and it ceases to be what you love. So if you love a flower, let it be. Love is not about possession. Love is about appreciation.” Source unknown

I grabbed a box of cereal for breakfast this morning and was amazed at just how strong and robust I had become. I thought it might have been caused by my daily vitamin pills finally beginning to kick in. Having been taking them for at least five years, I thought, “It’s about time!”

But as I took a gander more closely at the carton, I realized I hadn’t suddenly developed the strength of an onscreen superhero, but the box itself no longer contained the volume of cold cereal it had in the past. The manufacturers had kept the box the same height and width I had been accustomed to buying, but it was no longer as thick. Front to back was only about two thirds of what it had previously been.

I hate “tricks” like that. Instead of raising the price of the product to reflect more accurately the cost of producing it, they kept the price the same and simply reduced the volume the shopper was buying. I hate that, and should have been more alert to their nefarious schemes.

As a creature of habit, I will continue to buy what I like. As a creature of habit, I will pay whatever it takes to put what I like on the table. But it does irritate me to know I eat smaller portions (by choice) and yet need to restock the shelves more often because of this sleight of eye perpetrated by the world purveyors of the finest grains, sugars, and fillers!

It reminds me of the days before I bought my coffee by whole bean. I would buy my ground coffee in three pound cans. But then the mountain grown happy pills were put into slightly smaller cans with about twenty percent less coffee with a note plastered across the label: “New and Improved grinding process! The same great taste using less coffee!”

No it didn’t. I still had to use the same number of scoops to make my coffee. Why not just put an ounce of coffee in a tea bag and instruct people to pop it into a pot of hot water? It’ll surely color the water, but we all know it won’t taste like coffee. If I can see through the beverage, it isn’t coffee by any definition that would stand up in court!

No, somehow we have gotten away from being an honest people in this country. We struggle to be honest. It used to be that a person’s word meant something (although I suspect that was more Hollywood-Western dreaming than reality), but at least if one was caught in a lie, one would admit it or have some semblance of shame, but not anymore.

Anyone who watched any television over the past few months can affirm the number of outright lies that were perpetrated on the voting public. It got to a point I just couldn’t watch a program with sound during the commercials. What a crock of hooey.

Fortunately the elections are over, so the 2020 commercials won’t start up for another couple of months, so we can hopefully get back to enjoying sports and entertainment without the taint of politics. For that, I’ll tune into the news when my stomach is up to it.

Meanwhile, the Good Book admonishes us to be honest with one another. Good Manners suggests the same thing. It isn’t just telling the truth that’s important; it is a reflection of who we are. When we lie to one another, it becomes easier to begin lying to oneself, and with that we become lost; not in a going to perdition sort of way, but in terms of knowing who were are, where we are, and (most importantly) Who’s we are. Every lie is a little death.

It’s possible the world’s producers of the world’s food supply are afraid we’ll stop buying their groceries if they’re too honest. I understand fear. But really? I’m going to stop eating because the cost of fertilizer has gone up? That leaves a bad taste in my mouth, and in this, our valley. Harrumph!

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Wandering and Wondering

Make your mistakes, take your chances, look silly, but keep on going. Don’t freeze up. Thomas Wolfe, You Can’t Go Home Again

Three of us stood there in a church parking lot, puzzling over a question of what to do. One had found a driver’s license of someone we didn’t know, but whose home address appeared to be just a matter of being five or six blocks away. Perhaps it had been dropped while the owner was out for a walk. Perhaps it had been tossed from a stolen wallet. Whatever the case, it was up to the three of us – three wise men (or at least the wisest men in the parking lot at the time, for we were alone) – to decide what to do.

The first to speak up said, “Verily, we should drop the license into a mail box that some letter carrier might deliver it upon his or her appointed rounds!”

We pondered the idea for a moment, but worried that such a small thing as a driver’s license might easily be lost in the vast expanse of the average drop box.

Another suggested driving it down to the police station so that someone from the local constabulary might deliver it or contact the owner to come down and get it. But no one was heading in that direction, and it seemed to us it would be very inconvenient for the licensee to have to go shagging after it (if the PD should deign to notify him).

So we studied the license carefully and confirmed that the owner only lived a few blocks away, and it would be quickest just to go deliver it directly to him. The only problem was that the street we were on did not go through to the address we needed to find. The three of us scratched our collective heads as we discussed the various routes we might take to find the man’s house, but every option seemed to be blocked by woods, cliffs, or dead-ends.

Two of the gentlemen standing there in the parking lot have lived in town for most of the past sixty years, so I deferred to them for their knowledge of the geography, but when they couldn’t figure exactly how to get to where they wanted to go, I finally suggested we just look it up. I pulled out my cellphone, put the address into the map app and, voila! I had the route with an estimated arrival time of two minutes. Ironic, as we’d been discussing it for about five!

This reminds me of the old joke of why the ancient Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years – because Moses was too stubborn to stop and ask for directions!

So anyway, one of my compatriots knew immediately where the address was and offered to take it over, so that was that.

It is amazing how good it feels to do something nice. It makes me wonder why anyone would ever want to do something bad, naughty, or destructive. While I may not always BE nice, I find it just feels so good I can’t imagine why anyone would want to spend any time in that other space – that negative, dirty, rotten, scoundrel zone.

I suppose that’s one reason I have made being part of a community of faith a central part of my own identity.

I look back on the three old coots trying to figure out how to solve the mystery of the lost-license-now-found, and when we were done, laughing about how simple deciding what to do had been. We hadn’t gotten all caught up in trying to top one another, or angling for rewards, or anything like that.

We had simply talked, putting our thoughts out on the breeze for everyone to hear and consider, played in the metaphorical mud-hole for a few minutes until the eyes became clearer, and then ultimately did that which was most neighborly.

Maybe if people spent more time talking with one another face to face rather than device to device, we’d find more solutions to more of the world’s problems. Seeing a smile light up a face in person has no parallel in the world of gizmos and gadgets, although it is sure nice having an app tell me where to go and how to get there here in this, our valley.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Does Happiness Happen by Happenstance?

The very first condition of lasting happiness is that a life should be full of purpose, aiming at something outside self. Hugh Black

I came home from church the other day and was quite happy. The music was glorious; the message in the sermon was thought-provoking and timely; the fellowship was delightful; the air was brisk, clean, and fresh; the day was sunny. All was right with the world.

Then I pulled into the driveway and noticed something under the tongue of our travel trailer that seemed out of place, so I parked the car and went to check it out. Sitting under the trailer were a couple of cables, plastic lids, and a nylon strap that appeared to have been cut with a knife. I tilted my head for a moment, deep in thought, as I began to puzzle out for myself the meaning of what I was seeing. And then it hit me: someone had stolen the batteries off of the trailer!

Amazingly, I did not blow a gasket. Oh sure, I spent a moment or two thinking about how I might set up a force field around the RV that would vaporize any miscreant who might dare to come within ten feet of our precious little tenement on wheels, but that idea dissipated quickly as the wisdom of my years came rushing to the fore, reminding me that I would most likely be the one vaporized (as I doubt I’d remember to turn off the zapper if I needed to get something out of the trailer at any given moment).

So I muscled my way past my disappointment with humanity in general (and our local thieves in particular) and cleaned up the debris, phoned in a police report to the local constabulary, and began to research places to buy replacement batteries. I also spent some time in prayer and meditation (which I find soothing and comforting) and pondered the possibility (however remote) that the thief was a homeless soul in need of the power my batteries would provide, or an addict in need of some quick cash for a quick fix. While I don’t endorse theft for either of those situations, I find them forgivable.

I’ve learned, you see, that one of the keys to happiness is creating the capacity to forgive.

One of the petitions we offer up in our daily prayers in the faith tradition many of us practice is a request for God to “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” For many, “vengeance is sweet,” but I find it gives me indigestion.

Our faith tradition has also taught us that “’Vengeance is mine,’ saith the Lord.” I can’t help but wonder if I don’t feel like an irritating pebble in God’s shoe when I try to stand in them, so I really do try to let God be God, stay out of her shoes, and just settle for being me as best I can. That seems to work out best for the both of us.

So I made some calls, shared my tale of woe on social media (because there’s no use being miserable alone), and found replacement batteries at a local shop that only cost me about a quarter of what I thought it would; so that was the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow (caused by the sunlight refracting off my tears, of course).

I bought the batteries, kept them safely in the garage, and wondered how I would secure them in such a way as to avoid them being stolen again. I went down to the local hardware store, explained my situation, and – voila – the clerk and I found a sensible and affordable solution: adjustable cable locks that allow me to cinch down the cable over the batteries in their boxes. The cables are strong, resistant even to bolt cutters, and easy to install.

I have since also taken the precaution of moving the trailer up off the street (which I never cared for as a place to park it anyway) and into a space alongside our driveway, so it is about as secure as it can be.

That’s all we can do, and that should be enough in which to secure life, liberty, and happy trails in this, our valley.

Cable locks now secure the battery boxes

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Some Assembly Required

It always seems impossible until it’s done – Nelson Mandela

Life does not come with instructions.

I am often amazed how, at my age, I am still confused by situations that arise from out of the blue. It would seem that, by now, one would intuitively know how to handle situations that used to baffle them, but I’m still waiting for that gene or knack to kick in.

Over the years I have put many things together, and over those same years I have seen instructions actually improve, and the mechanisms for connecting pieces of a construction puzzle have likewise gotten better.

I bought a pantry from a local big box store a few months back and all the parts were well packaged and labeled so that I always knew what was what, what went where, and which side was up, in, out, or optional. With the help of my son-in-law, we assembled it in about an hour and everything was square, plumb, and true.

That was a vast improvement over past experiences where similar units never had doors that hung right, and box corners were approximately square (give or take five degrees in any direction). I have learned that if a piece has a finished edge and an unfinished edge I will always – absolutely without fail – install the unfinished edge so it is what is seen.

I don’t know if that would be considered a knack (for reversing things), a gift (not everyone can be wrong 100% of the time), or a curse (I am leaning toward the latter).

In any case, things have improved remarkably well in the world of knock-yourself-out-while-you-do-it-all projects and I, for one, am elated. I love how screws, bolts, and washers come packaged and labeled on a bubble board rather than loose in a plastic bag. I love how various pieces have stickers clearly identifying them (A, B, C, or 1, 2, 3, etc.) so they are easy to match with the step-by-step instructions. It’s almost like my prayers over the years have been answered. It has also resulted in less procrastination on my part – a miracle, indeed, if there ever was one.

Well, I see ol’ Murphy of Murphy’s Law fame has been at it again, though.

My wife and I are expecting a grandchild in a few months, and so we bought our daughter and her family a new crib (with drawers and changing table). Andrew (my aforementioned son-in-law) and I opened the package and removed the contents and discovered to our horror and chagrin that virtually none of the parts were labeled, the instructions were in ancient Sanskrit, and the instructions had been drawn by a drunken otter during a long weekend bender.

I presume this was payback in the war on tariffs, but let’s not go there and stick to the story.

Andrew and I slowly, but surely, began to identify the myriad pieces to the puzzle and hardware and, piece-by-piece, began to assemble the Crib-Mahol (as I deem it). Little by little it came together and began to resemble the picture on the box. After only an hour or so, the major portion of the project was finished and it was exactly what we had hoped for – sturdy, square, straight, functional, and beautiful – with one exception. Two pieces had been reversed (by yours, truly). It doesn’t affect the functionality of the crib in any way, and only those knowing what to look for would see the error.

The baby isn’t due for several more months, so there is plenty of time to disassemble a few parts and fix the error; I may yet do that.

It could also be evidence that I had helped put it together – the backwards pieces being my signature – so archaeologists in the future may identify the crib as an Axberg-original. It also serves as a reminder that only God is perfect. There are some crafts-folks who intentionally add a blemish to their work to keep their humility in check. Alas, I need no such reminders, for I am all too human.

Life comes with no instructions, but that’s OK. Even with instructions, I manage to goof things up, but nothing catastrophic (that I know of). My dream is to assemble an ultralight airplane, but with my track record, that may not be wise.

At least I’ve learned that much in this, our valley.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Ford vs Kavanaugh

I am a guy. I have been a guy for a while. I think it started in utero, but it could have also started with the Big Bang some eons back. Who knows when such things start, how, or why. All I know is: I'm a guy.

I do not live in women's skin. I don't know what it would have been like to have been a girl in high school in the 1960s (when I went to HS), nor in the 1980s (when Dr. Ford and Judge Kavanaugh) attended, nor in our current millenium. How could I know? All I know is I am a guy.

I was a cop in Spokane in the 1970s. As a patrolman, I took rape reports and to the best of my recollection, they were all of the "stranger" variety - the stranger who mugged and/or raped girls or women. My primary task was taking the initial reports and, due to the nature of the crime, those were followed up by detectives who did the lion's share of investigating those cases.

In nearly five years on the department, I do not recall ever having taken a report of any sexual assaults between acquaintances or high schoolers. I did break up the occasional backseat love-fest out by Joe Albi Stadium on a Friday night. I do recall searching for a naked lad who'd been chased out of his girl-friend's house when her dad came home for lunch one day. But I never got called on a "report of an assault" involving youth, drugs, booze, or parties.

Does that mean they didn't occur? Of course not. I have no doubt they happened, but I also understand the reluctance a young woman would have in making the report. Being at a party with boys and booze would not look good to family. Questions of what she was doing, what was she wearing, how much had she been drinking, what "signals" was she sending, etc. ad nauseum would easily stand in the way of her making a report.

"Boys will be boys" also stands as a sickening rationale for the beastly behavior of boys. I know that young men, especially when in a group (or "pack") will often do things they would never do alone, especially when fueled or emboldened by booze (which conveniently dismantles inhibitions quite nicely). All it takes for them to "get away with it" is to threaten their victim with telling the school wild tales and lies - which (tragically) people tend to believe far more than the truth. Even the victims will believe it. Easier to believe they deserved what they got than to believe they deserved far better behavior from their peers (whatever age and gender).

Dr. Ford has apparently made a good life for herself and gotten over the assault about as well as one can get over the abuse of trust and of their body. Kavanaugh has also done quite well. Many women have come gushing to his defense, and his wife has even gone out and given newsmen/women cupcakes during this terrible ordeal the world is putting her poor hubby through. Dr. Ford has had to hire security, endure death threats, and leave her home, while #45 (the pussy grabber in chief) sings the praises of his SCOTUS nominee and slams the temerity of Dr. Ford to share what happened so many years ago (and add all this crap to her PTSD).

As a cop in Spokane, I have no doubt I would have been sensitive to any young lady reporting an acquaintanceship-rape, and yet I also know I would have had all those other questions in the back of my mind - blaming her for what she got, even if I didn't want to, mean to, or intend to. Why?

All I know is: I'm a guy.

That's not an excuse. It is just a statement of fact. I will add, however, that I have learned a lot more about women, assaults, and the #MeToo movement. I have made efforts to grow up, to be kinder, to be more thoughtful, less arrogant, and less abusive. I'm not there yet, of course. I'm still a guy. I'm still human - not as God designed or intended, but as happened after the Fall in the Garden.

I have no doubt that Dr. Ford was assaulted as a high school girl, and that among her assailants was Kavanaugh. His quick denial of doing anything wrong before he even knew who was making what accusations speaks volumes. Informed of an accusation, people immediately want to know who said what. The child who pipes up, "I didn't do it," before hearing any details is always, always, always guilty. Kavanaugh has lied during several of his confirmation hearings (now, as well as last decade), and I believe he is lying now. Kavanaugh has riffed off the Las Vegas ad campaign: "What happen(s) at (his school) stays at (his school)." His high school buddy has written books alluding to their antics in high school. Kavanaugh lies and has no place serving on the Supreme Court and, in my opinion, should be impeached for lying under oath during his hearings when he was made a federal judge.

I do know there are and have been false accusations made against men from time to time. Men are not the world's only liars. But I have no reason to believe this situation is one of those. Everything Dr. Ford has spoken of reeks of the gawd-awful truth that she was in high school, and attended a party where there was drinking and swimming and where one of the two young men she knew drunkenly tried to rape her while the other watched and possibly tried to help his buddy and not her. That event is seared in her memory only as traumatic events can be.

I stand with Dr. Ford. Why? Because I'm not a guy. I'm a man, a child of God, and we men have been called to love justice, do mercy, and to walk humbly with God. It's time for us to grow up, take responsibility for our attitudes and actions, make amends as best we can (with amendment of life) and giving all people - but especially women - their due (respect, dignity, and genuine listening).