Sunday, July 14, 2019

Weeds, Bees, and the Local Buzz

It doesn’t matter who hurt you, or broke you down. What matters is who made you smile again - Anonymous

The other day I went out to hack away some of the overgrown weeds around my father’s house. He’s not able to tend to them anymore, so I do what I can to control the tangle of greenery. They look like they’re victims of some botanical form of highway robbery, reaching for the sky as if they’re going to be shot.

I know I can be a vegicidal maniac, but I don’t shoot the shoots. Rather, I chase after them a bit like Freddy Kruger or Michael Myers of horror movie fame, slashing at them with garden shears, rusty hoes, or chattering hedge trimmers. If that doesn’t make your sap run cold, you ain’t got no sap! Speaking of saps …

Summers in the Pacific Northwest are absolutely amazing. Things grow so fast out here. A yard can be wonderfully landscaped, each plant shaped and sized to fit its tract ever so perfectly, but within a year, it becomes a jungle. Invading Triffids would stand no chance against the local flora. Even as careful as I am, as well-equipped and well dressed as I am for my assault on the overgrown brambles of life, they do not go quietly into the bin for garden clippings. They have their own plan of attack, snagging anything and everything they can find.

It’s no wonder I’m not overly fond of yard work. I am sure I leave a pint of blood for every ounce of sap they leave behind. I like to think of myself as a man of peace, but the shrubs have made a bushwacker of me, instead. I should “leaf” them alone.

That’s easier said than done, of course. I was out spraying dandelions the other day (a real pain in the grass, if you ask me) and a neighbor noted in passing, “You know, if dandelions were hard to grow, we’d treasure them the same as we do our roses or orchids. They’re actually kind of pretty.”

When you think about it, it’s true. When I peek at a dandelion, I see a weed, but it’s not all that unpleasant to look at. A weed, as we are told, is just a flower that grows where you don’t want it. Every spring I head out and admire the fields of daffodils and tulips in the Skagit Valley, and yet whenever I see a lawn that’s more dandelion than grass, I’m offended. Why is that?

Who made me a judge over the world’s botanical delights – to decide what is worthy and what isn’t? At the end of the plant planting day, did God say, “It is good” or “Ew, ick, dandelions!”?

God found everything in creation to be delightful. Do honeybees avoid dandelions? Of course not!

I have only been stung three times in my life by honeybees and, ironically, all three occurred on the same day, and each bee was on a dandelion I had carelessly trampled while barefooted. I was about twelve years of age at the time, and I learned two things. One, watch where I step, and two, wear shoes … period.

Bees don’t seem to care whether the flower they milk for nectar is a weed or something else. What they care about is that it has what they need for the health and well-being of the hive. A flower is their gold; they need not dig for it, nor do they need to melt it down or refine it. They do not destroy the flower, kill it, or crush it. They simply flit from plant to plant, benefiting the entire field by transferring pollen from one plant to the next.

I’ve gotten to that stage in life where I’m less interested in pulling weeds, and more interested in sitting in the back yard, sipping a spot of tea (with a touch of honey) and appreciating how plants are contributing more to the health of our planet than I am with my hacking and wheezing.

The fact is there is little reason to do as much “yard work” as is often done for in the end, nature wins. Nature always wins. I want to learn to relax and enjoy creation more; that’s the buzz here in this, our valley.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

The Age of Tolerance

My tongue will tell the anger of my heart, or else my heart concealing it will break. William Shakespeare

One day people brought children to Jesus to be blessed by him. His disciples tried to keep those rowdies away. Maybe they were trying to protect Jesus – his time and energy. Perhaps they wanted to keep Jesus for themselves – jealous of any and all who would come between him and them. It is also possible they felt children weren’t worth his time and attention. Maybe they thought blessings poured out onto ankle-biters would diminish the supply of blessings they wanted for themselves.

Whatever their reasons and motives, Jesus was quite clear: “Suffer the children to come unto me.” I always thought the use of the term “suffer” was strange. I know the old English term means to “allow” – to allow the children to come to (Jesus), but it still seems strange. It implies that there is a burden involved, for to suffer is to bear up under the burden of some person or situation.

Life is full of burdens, of course. There are people who drive too slowly in the fast lanes. There are homeless camps littered with garbage, used needles, and assorted cast-offs. There are people who show up late for appointments, forget to silence their cellphones at the movies, talk too loudly in restaurants, or fail to wash their hands after using the facilities.

It is so easy to be intolerant if we want to. Like the disciples, we can operate out of fear or anger. We can try to protect One who needs no protecting, or prevent others from drawing near to One who wants nothing more than to gather all people – the clean and the unclean alike – beneath the shadow of his wings.

To be welcoming and affirming is a burden, of course, because it means putting our own attitude and perspective on hold or at least on a back burner. It means there is a number one, and that One’s not me (or you). That’s an uncomfortable place to be. There are seven billion souls on this planet (not to mention all the non-humans), which means few of us will ever be anywhere but in the great muddle of the middle. I think Jesus would recommend we learn to accept our place in the universe and not be too pushy.

I had popped in to grab some groceries the other day and needed to pick up some green onions. A woman had parked her cart in front of the green onions while she examined the contents of the radish bin with the thoroughness of an IRS auditor. Not one radish escaped her eagle-eyed survey as I patiently stood by until she had finished. Nothing I did was heroic; I was simply stoic. When she was done, she moved on and I got what I needed.

There was no applause from my fellow shoppers, and I doubt seriously there was much rejoicing amongst the heavenly hosts. I just figure people have enough burdens of their own to deal with, why should I add to them by being intolerant?

The same goes for politics. Each of us has a perspective on who or what is best for us or our community. Goodness knows I do. I’d even like to think I am right, but a moment of thoughtful reflection would confirm that others are, first of all, entitled to their opinions and, secondly, have perspectives based upon experiences which could enlighten or inform me. Working humbly together, we might be surprised and find better solutions and make better decisions than if we simply screamed loudly at one another.

Each of us brings something important to the table – our experience, strength, and hope. So rather than trying to “win” an argument, perhaps we should suffer the other to come to the table. After all, it has been said that a burden shared is a burden halved.

Jesus acknowledged that others could be a burden. “Suffer them,” he says. That includes us, of course. I can sometimes be unbearably insufferable. But Jesus’ shoulders are broad, strong, and more than up to the task of carrying us all across the finish line.

Can we do less than suffer one another here in this, our valley? I hope so.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

The Old and the Gray

And now that I am old and gray-headed, O God, do not forsake me, till I make known your strength to this generation and your power to all who are to come … Psalm 71

I am old and gray-headed as I start this column. I wasn’t always that way, of course. I was once a bouncing baby boy – full of life and drool and (likely) a bit of other stuff as well. I knew nothing of God and don’t know a whole lot more now. I grew up in a family that didn’t go to church, so my earliest experience of God was generally as a word attached to a string of other words expressing some displeasure toward someone or some unpleasant thing the adult members of the family were experiencing (I’ll mention no names).

That changed over the years and we began to attend a local church which, to be honest, I found quite boring. The music leader would jump up and down trying to whip the congregation into a frenzy whenever they were singing one of their hymns, and yet the congregation just dragged its feet and refused to become enthused.

We sang sitting down, as I recall, and if there is one thing I’ve learned over the intervening decades it’s that one cannot sing while sitting down. You need to stand to allow your diaphragm to work properly, and to get your air moving in and out with strength and gusto (and hit those gosh-awful high notes that are thrown in for good measure by those dirge-writing craftsmen of yore).

Well, we did some church-shopping back in those days and finally found a parish where the people stood to sing and knelt to pray and where it seemed God was something other than a swear-word. And with that, something changed in me.

I loved the calisthenics in church. We were always moving: standing, sitting, and kneeling. Worship wasn’t passive, but active, and I came to discover that a congregation isn’t an audience sitting listlessly while watching an entertainment event up front, but a community gathered before God to engage in a divine conversation.

There is no one right way to do church, of course. People may look around and I suspect they are bewildered by all the different choices out there in their communities. I think humans are diverse enough that God recognizes a diversity of expressions will, of necessity, take place. I appreciate the more settled rhythm and flow of a liturgically oriented church. Others may prefer more loosie-goosie expressions of faith. Each is different from the other, yet each points beyond itself to God.

Today, I am old. I’m not decrepit (yet), but there are days I feel my age more than others. I’m old and I have come to believe more and more two things about God: God is love, and in our being filled with the Divine, God expects us to share that love.

Some may complain that’s too simplistic. They could be right. Who am I to argue? I am sure God has enough space in heaven that those who are of an exclusive bent can have their own quarters and not be disturbed by the grand banquet taking place for the rest.

That’s the other thing I’ve learned. I am here, and my life’s experience has spanned fewer than seven decades in that continuum called eternity. I don’t really think God expects any of us to get our acts all that well put together to be perfectly right about anything. She is satisfied to have us sit in the back seat of the Family Sedan and not kill each other on this trip we call life.

God’s promise, as I understand it, is that God will lend us the strength and the power we need to behave responsibly in taking care of creation, in loving one another, and in being decent human beings – reflections of the Divine – in our own speaking and doing.

We may botch things up from time to time; I know I have, do, and will! But we have God’s word that we have been forgiven, are forgiven, and will be forgiven. God expects us to pass that favor (called “grace”) along: “Forgive us … as we forgive …”

That’s my heart’s hope and desire in this, our valley. Have a great week!

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Blog a Day - Keyword: Golden


Golden Sun, blue sky
clouds wafting lightly up high
my summer will fly.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Where the Wind Blows

Life contains but two tragedies. One is not to get your heart’s desire; the other is to get it. Socrates

A few months ago we had a fairly strong windstorm blow through our neighborhood. It wasn’t anything like the tornadic activities we see in the nation’s midsection this time of year, but it was enough to blow down sections of fence between us and our neighbors next door.

While it wasn’t the best looking fence I had ever seen, I didn’t realize just how rotten the fence posts had become over the decades since they had been put in. The whole property predates us, of course, as my wife and I have only lived here a couple of years. Still, it is what it is, and so we talked things over with our neighbor and made plans to replace the fence this spring, and the time has come to get ‘er done.

There are a few bushes alongside the fence that Barb and I have never much cared for. They are a wind-break variety of evergreen that stand about eight feet tall. As wind-breaks, they obviously didn’t work, and we never really liked either them or their placement in the yard. Seeing as they were standing in the way of the fence repair job we were about to undertake, we decided to take them out to make our work easier.

I grabbed all my tree-felling equipment and approached the offending greenery with all the confidence of Paul Bunyan and Babe. I stood there, hand on hip, sizing up the monstrous forest before me, curled my lips in the meanest manner I could muster, seized my chainsaw, plugged it in and, voila, the battle was joined!

I approached the base of the first bush, wielding my chainsaw as if it was a Samurai’s Katana. Sadly, my little electric chainsaw has about as much bite as a slug on downers. The chain screamed its little Bonzai while the bush simple shivered in laughter. But I persisted. I did not give up, and after a few minutes the first trunk (of about an inch in diameter) gave way and toppled over. I’m not sure, but I think it was reaching for a cigarette.

In any case, I knew the project would last decades if I didn’t take another approach, and so I got some industrial grade loppers we use for trimming trees, and I spent the next hour or so simply lopping off the bushes’ trunks one-by-one until most were down. I used a reciprocating saw for the stems too large for the loppers, and gummed the few over-sized left-over trunks with the chainsaw which, eventually, would gnaw its way through the wood with some patience, persistence, and (perhaps) profanity.

The space is now clear enough to work on the fence, and I’ve arranged for a young man to come remove the stumps (as he is better built for such labor). I know, because we had him do some other work a few weeks ago and he managed to break the forged steel blade of my pick/mattock! I was suitably impressed and plan to have him do all my digging before heading off to college this autumn.

Over the years, I have learned to pace myself and identify what jobs I can handle and which ones need to be farmed out. That’s also true of my faith and spirituality. There are some things I can do (avoid murdering those who annoy me, or stealing from those who have things I wish I had, e.g.), but there are things I cannot do. My mind wanders through some weird and dangerous neighborhoods. My soul is stained with stuff that won’t leave no matter how much I may try to Shout it out.

That’s where God comes in. God covers a multitude of sins and misdeeds. God chops away at the root of my problems and pries them out with the hard tempered steel of her love. God uses a blade that will not break and which, miraculously, leaves a life behind which is stronger and more beautiful, loving, and wise in her wake.

Sometimes it takes a storm to reveal what is rotten, a blade to remove what’s in the way, and time to discover what is yet to be. So be it in this, our valley.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Age of A-Clutter-Us

Life is what we make of it. Travel is the traveler. What we see isn’t what we see but what we are. Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet

Many years ago I was at a Conference on Aging and I must admit I didn’t pay much attention. It’s not because I wasn’t interested, but rather because the things they talked about weren’t immediately relevant beyond their academic value.

As a priest, I have always enjoyed working with people of all ages. I never valued one group over another. I have as much fun sitting on the floor with toddlers as I do sitting beside a frail elder in a nursing home. The toddlers are exploring life in all its brightness and newness, while the elders take time to share what life has been. Some give thanks for what they’ve had; others weep for what they’ve lost.

I have recently had the privilege of spending much more time with my father who has been recuperating nicely from his wrestling match with Death. Charon (the boatman on the River Styx) will need to come by some other time. Dad just turned 90 last month, and until this recent illness, has been otherwise quite strong and healthy. It was only last year he stopped mowing his own lawn, hiring someone else to do it. “Why pay someone to do what you can do?” he’d ask.

However, over time, the list of things he planned to “get to” has gotten longer, and his ability to do them has only declined. So I pop in a few times each week to take care of chores, organize his meds for the week, check his blood pressure and glucose levels, help with meals, run for groceries, set out the trash, and otherwise sit and provide him with some company – the one thing he needs almost more than food, water, or oxygen.

Now that I am retired, I have the time I need to help take care of him. As I told him: “You took care of me the first few decades of my life; the least I can do is return the favor!”

I am coming to recognize what the folks at the conference meant when they referred to the three stages of retirement. Stage One is “Yippee!” One is (generally) free to be as active as they are able: going on trips, taking up hobbies, pursuing varied interests, etc.

Stage Two is “Crikey!!” Retirees may continue with what they were doing, but frequency and intensity slows down. Their activities tend to be organized more and more around doctors’ appointments. I have a friend who’s retirement is devoted to roaming the country in an RV, but like salmon coming home to spawn, he returns annually to his home base for a whole slew of medical appointments, treatments, and what-have-you.

Stage Three is “Owie!!!” Many outside activities come to a near stand-still. Aches, pains, and medical appointments increase. Household chores are limited to taking meds, eating, napping, and engaging in whatever activities one is able to handle. Things are put off and pile up where they’re left for “later gator” (and largely ignored).

My father isn’t a hoarder, but there were lots of things that needed to be gone through and tossed or donated. He’s lived in his home for nearly half a century. He doesn’t mind letting go and downsizing the amount of stuff he has. What he hasn’t been able to eliminate on his own, we’re helping to jettison for him, and he is thankful.

I think that’s something I’ve been learning to do in my spiritual journey. Over the years I’ve prided myself on what I’ve been able to do (or avoid doing), and it’s all worked out well enough. But God visits daily and offers to help repair relationships, remove trash, heal wounds, and monitor one’s spiritual health.

I am thankful for God’s help. I am also thankful God engages me in conversation as a friend, and never as a dictator. Like with my father, we decide together what to keep and what to toss.

God is kind and gentle, watching over us, and tending to our needs. The glory of God is God’s mercy, and it’s an honor to practice that in my faith and walk with people of all ages – family, friend, and neighbor in this, our valley.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Finding Resurrection in Remote Places

And after all, everyone needs a few flaws to make them real. Helen Simonson, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand

I walked into one of those big box electronic stores and looked as lost as I could. I’ve found over the years that when a customer looks lost, there is a great parting of the employee seas like unto the days of Moses. One group flees the floor like blood-sucking parasites from Fido’s flea collar. The others draw near in hopes of being of service.

It occurs to me I have gotten to the age where technology gurus know two things for sure. First, I know nothing. You can explain a product or a process as if to a kindergartner, and the child will know what they’re saying light years ahead of me. Secondly, they know (or at least suspect) that I am at the age where if I’m not living out of my car, I likely have disposable income, and there is nothing sweeter than the tingle-bleeps of the cash register.

They hope, of course, that I’m there to buy a 65 inch monitor (back in the day, they were called televisions, but now they’re monitors, video displays, or anything else that hides what all they can do). Why such a big TV? Well, I’m old, and my vision isn’t what it used to be, and so it would be helpful to take something home that will allow me to see what on earth I’ve been paying my entertainment provider to send me.

Sadly, I wasn’t there to lay out any Benjamins for anything that would challenge the nation’s power grid (or help my vision). I walked in with a twenty year old remote control for my father’s twenty year old sound system. He and I had put in fresh batteries, but the old remote was deader than dead, so I took on the challenge of finding something to replace it for him.

My great fear was that years and obsolescence would have made finding an appropriate replacement controller highly unlikely. After all, the remote’s serial number was in Roman Numerals … carved … in stone. Never-the-less, like any politician worth their salt, I persisted. I strode up to the store’s greeter and asked where I could find remote controls. He looked at the paper weight in my hand, stifled the guffaw that was building steam deep in his belly, and pointed me toward the back of the store where the Video Components were lying in wait.

I nodded my appreciation, toddled off, and found a dizzying array of remotes from which to choose. Lacking a mentor, I was tormented with confusion and indecision. Fortunately, Sales Associate Libby was nearby, saw the tell-tale twitches of a sensory overload, and came to my rescue. I showed her the dearly departed device I needed replaced and confided it was not a product of the current millennium. She offered her condolences and pulled a remote off the kiosk in front of me and suggested it might well do the job. She admitted that not all remotes are as universal as they claim to be, but she assured me I could bring it back if it didn’t work as promised. She also pointed out the list of brands the remote worked with and, lo, the coal-fired amp in question was on the list!

I asked Libby about the other, more expensive devices and asked what they offered that the one she handed me didn’t. She shrugged her shoulders and said, “Nothing.”

Imagine that; a sales associate who let me buy the least expensive item that would do the job! Will wonders ever cease?

I sometimes find myself discouraged with the state of the world. I’m sure I watch far too much news; it has a toxic effect, making me cranky and pessimistic, and that’s not good. That’s why I appreciate (and need) to get out and do things for others. For one thing, it gets me out of my head. For another, it connects me with others who actually have a desire to be helpful – who are genuinely friendly and honest.

There is something detoxifying with such encounters, and I think that gives me some insight into the mystery of the resurrection. It makes life just a little nicer and less remote in this, our valley.