Friday, November 29, 2013

Blowhards in the Valley

“You are the salt of the earth … the light of the world.” Matthew 5

I stepped out of the car the other day to run into the post office to grab my mail when the wind blew my hat off my head and across the parking lot.

That was most disconcerting as my hat and head generally stay connected unless I intend otherwise. Further, as much as the wind blows around these parts, I can’t remember the last time it was able to blow my hat off. I will admit there is less to hold it on these days. Still, I didn’t put it on my head to have some blow-hard knock it off and make me go chase after it!

But, that’s life. We must stay ever vigilant. There are powers at work over which we have no control.

Take Thanksgiving, for instance. By an act of Congress we are called to order on the fourth Thursday of November and commanded to give thanks for all the blessings that have been bestowed upon us. That causes me to wonder, though: If we are so thankful for all we have, why do so many go out the day after (or the evening of) the Thanksgiving holiday to buy so much more?

If we are truly thankful, does it make sense to trample one another for the sake of being the first into the store, or one of the lucky few to grab hold of the season’s “hottest” new “must-have”?

Every year it is the same thing. We gather, we feast, and then we join the brotherhood and sisterhood of National Berserkers for a month of berserkery.

I mentioned last time that it is my desire this year to make things different. I really want to experience the holiday season this time ‘round the block in a completely holy and wholesome fashion.

The down side, if there is one, is that it may not “feel” like Christmas if one isn’t going bonkers.

What’s the fun, you may ask, in putting up a string of lights and a wreath on the house that doesn’t throw the nation’s electrical grid into an emergency overdrive?

What’s the fun, you may ask, of walking through the house where every other ornament and decoration doesn’t break out into song or season’s greetings?

What’s the fun, you may ask, of bringing out just a few holy treasures to help one focus on the birth of Messiah?

Do we dare live a month without Frosty and Friends? Will Santa really get lost if Rudolph isn’t there to guide his sleigh? Will the world really stop turning if we leave some (or most) of our seasonal junk in those storage tubs out in the garage, shed, or storage room?

The fun, I think, might be found in taking charge of the holiday – and not vice versa. The holiday season will blow through like it always does, and people will become stranger than normal, as they always do this time of year.

But for me, it will be enough to simply keep my head. If I can keep my hat on too, that’ll be oh so sweet. How to take charge, though; there’s the rub.

In his great Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says we are the salt of the earth. Salt was quite valuable in Jesus’ day. People were often paid in salt. The word salary comes from the word salt. Jesus seems to be saying that it is we (human beings) who are of great value. It isn’t our money or possessions, but we ourselves.

Maybe if we spent more time spicing up our community with peace, joy, and goodwill towards all – being salt – and less time being combative or assaultive, the world would be a bit more pleasant for our being here. Maybe if we spent more time twinkling in life, and less time putting twinkling lights on our homes, the world would be a bit brighter for our being here.

The wind blows where it will. It serves to remind us there are powers at work around us over which we have no control, but keeping one hand on our hat, and keeping our head when the wind blows are both things we can do if we choose to here in this, our valley.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Tracking the Storm

“Even if you are on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.” Author Unknown.

We are told that a body at rest will stay at rest, while a body in motion will stay in motion. One of the keys to maintaining a healthy body is to keep it moving, whether that means getting out and walking (or using the treadmill at the gym when the weather gets bad), or hauling and chopping wood. The nature of the movement and exercise is less important than the simply getting up and doing it.

In a month or so it occurs to me that Christmas will be here. I know, I know. No one wants to be reminded of the fact. We have only just gotten past Halloween, we haven’t even gotten our Thanksgiving bird, and the stores have long-since been stocking up for the big holiday season.

Normally I am a Christmas Crab. I have more in common with Ebenezer Scrooge (pre-conversion) or Henry F. Potter (It’s a Wonderful Life) than selfless George Bailey. I’m not a miser, exactly, but I prefer to close the gates, raise the draw bridge, and turn out the lights until after the holidays have come on gone. The holidays, in my mind, are like spiritual hurricanes that blow through wreaking all sorts of chaos and damage in their path.

Part of my attitude is a result of the season. The weather is wet and cold, the nights long and dark, and the world is more “me” oriented than usual. I know that for every seasonal greeting of love, joy, or peace that is expressed, there will be reports of mobs breaking down doors at the malls, shoppers tazing and pepper-spraying one another, drunks and addicts slaughtering friends and neighbors on the roads (or regaling us with their political/sports insights or opinions as we sit around feasting – hoping the night will end sooner than later).

As I said, normally I am a Christmas Crab, but not this year. I am approaching the season with eyes fully open, and mind fully alert. The world of violence and destruction, arguments and fights, drunkenness and greed is precisely the world we live in.

So, what can we do? What should we do? Is there anything we can do to put the “holy” back into the holy-day season that is bearing down on us as we speak?

First things first, we don’t need to panic, nor do we need to hunker down. We need to prepare. What needs to be done?

What do you do when you board a plane? You stow away your belongings. You put away anything that can become a missile in the event of an accident. The first thing I am stowing away for the holiday are my expectations. Expectations often become resentments (that take on a life of their own) when they are unfulfilled, so I will let life unfold and respond with as much grace and good humor as I can. I can’t control people or situations, but I can be kind, gentle, and graceful; so I will.

Secondly, I am not responsible for anyone else’s happiness. “The foolish man seeks happiness in the distance; the wise grows it under his feet” (James Oppenheim). I will look for ways to convey my love this season in a manner that reveals what’s in my heart more than what’s in my wallet. Gifts will be the result of thoughtful, prayerful, and careful consideration. To be sure, Hickory Farms MAY be the answer to my prayer for someone, but let’s hope not! I can open my heart, so I think I will.

I believe that if many of us were to take those two steps alone this season (and starting now), we would be on track for a holier season, a lovelier season, a brighter, friendlier, and more peaceable season. It’s only two steps away, but that is something at least, so let’s get a move on in this, our valley! Shalom.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A Happy Glow

“Happiness, I have discovered, is nearly always a rebound from hard work.” David Grayson

We are told that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. It is a cliché, because it is true.

When our firewood for the season was delivered (my electric chain saw won’t work out in the forest where there is a real dearth of electrical outlets!) the trailer-load looked like it would take quite a while to unload and move to our wood racks. I was sure it would take hours.

However, once I began, it went quickly. I began the process of picking up the logs with one hand, laid and balanced them on the opposite forearm (against the chest), and repeated that process until some supervising muscle cell yelled, “Enough!” – and then I walked with the armload out the garage, up the steps to the deck, and then finally arranged them on the rack. I then repeated that whole process again and again in an almost robotic fashion. Before I knew it, trailer-load one was done – and it had taken all of 35 or 40 minutes!

I felt good. I was happy. If I had stood there first, pondering the details involved in moving wood from one spot to another, I would have gotten worn out just with the thinking part of it. But, rolling up figurative sleeves (I kept them down to protect my arms from slivers, spiders, sap, and other such what-not), I simply dug in, did the deed, and when finished, stepped back quite pleased with the results.

“Happiness,” says David Grayon (whose real name is Ray Stannard Baker), “is nearly always a rebound from hard work.”

Hard work produces happiness. Chemists, doctors, and physical fitness aficionados will say it is the endorphins that produce that sense of pleasure we feel, and no doubt they are partially right.

But the happiness I am thinking about isn’t so much the drug-induced euphoria we get from a good cardio workout (something about which I know VERY little), but that comes from the sense of satisfaction we experience when there is a job to do, precious little resources for getting it done, and overcoming the inertia to just do it (no trademark infringement intended).

Created in the image of God, I believe we are designed to tackle tough problems and solve them, and even if we fail, to feel OK. Don’t get me wrong. No one likes to fail. No one likes to lose. But there is satisfaction in being finished.

What is important is giving it our best shot, and then developing an appropriate level of amnesia to carry on with our next project.


Yes. We need to be able to get past our failures. They don’t define us. They are part of life’s experiences. We need to reflect on what we did (or failed to do), decisions we made (or failed to make), and then file away in that messy cerebral junk pile we call a “brain” the information we need to make better decisions, or find better options.

We may perspire from our labors, but we don’t need to sweat the results. As my grandmother used to say, “Horses sweat; people glow.”

Too often, though, we hang onto a sense of shame about our failings, and we begin to think WE are failures. That’s what we need to forget. That’s where the amnesia comes in.

After we humans messed up in the garden of Eden, I think maybe God just conveniently forgot the death penalty he had handed out in his preemptory warning to the young couple.

He figured, “Hey, we’ll work this out.” And rolling up his sleeves, and humming a sweet celestial tune, he began his journey of a thousand miles. His first step was to take Adam and Eve by the hand, and to walk with them out into the world.

I think Amnesia is one of God’s greatest gifts, ranking right up there with happiness in this, our valley. We just need to learn to glow with the flow.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Calling the Shots

Face it, fix it, and forget it. Source Unknown

It must be hunting season. The deer and antelope seem more skittish than usual. A beautiful buck with a nice rack wandered into our yard. I grabbed my camera, which was by my side for once, and in the time it took me to turn, grab, and turn back, the buck was gone. Even though it was outside and I was inside, it seemed to know instinctively that it was about to be shot. Whether the shot was to be ballistic or digital mattered not to that ol’ mulie (or was it a white-tail?). It skedaddled.

I snuck up to the window to see where it might have gone, and as I peeked along the edge of the pane, I saw the deer peeking back from around the corner of the house. We spent a few minutes playing peek-a-boo with each other, but nothing much came of it (not even the courtesy of him saying, “Cheese”), so I gave up and went back to reading the news. I will have to try my hand at photo-journalism some other time.

Cameras are like that with me. They are never in hand when I need them. When something happens and I want a picture, the camera is elsewhere; when the camera is with me, nothing happens.

A couple months back a black bear ran across the highway as we were driving up out of Virginia City. I did the best quick-draw I could with my cell-phone (holstered on my hip), but by the time I “woke up” the phone, unlocked the screen, and found the camera icon, ol’ Smokie had gone off, gotten married, and had cubs and grand-cubs. Grrr!

A couple weeks back we were headed to Virginia City for church and – LO! The town moose and her calf were crossing the road 100 feet from our house. I slammed on the brakes, whipped out my cell-phone and, with in-humanly blazing speed, caught their rear ends dropping down into a neighbor’s backyard brush. After church I rushed home to check out the photos. Sadly, not even the most sophisticated CSI agents would be able to prove that the brown spots surrounded by black splotches in the center of the photos are the backsides of a moose and her child. Grrr!

But that’s life, isn’t it? I really want to memorialize my experiences in pictures, but what I end up with are memories – and what’s wrong with that?

There is a commercial I see on television every now and then of folks at a school play fighting, scratching, and clawing their way to the best places to record the play, while another couple with a latest and greatest cell-phone/camera sit back, relax, and enjoy the show (because their phone brings the action to them). It’s a good commercial. Why do I say that? Because it makes me WANT THAT PHONE! Of course, that is only my evil twin – Covetous Keith – talking. Contented Keith is above all that nonsense.

Anyway, the point is that we are sometimes so wrapped up in our various technologies (designed to connect and communicate) that we forget what it means to actually enjoy the experience of where we’re at, who we’re with, and what we’re doing. Isn’t it enough to simply enjoy the bear ambling across the highway? Do we need to capture it on film (or digital media)? Isn’t it enough to simply watch a moose and her calf trot across the street a couple of first downs away from our home? Isn’t it enough to play peek-a-boo with a majestic, but skitterish, buck – and regale our friends with the tale (sans photos)?

I wonder if God is taking pictures and recording our every thought, word, move, and deed. Perhaps God is satisfied with watching us at work and play, doing what we do.

If God DOES take a picture of us doing something kind or noble, let’s hope it isn’t just because God has never seen us do such a thing. Let’s hope it is because God has finally just gotten the hang of how to use his latest and greatest cell-estial phone here in this, our valley. Just remember to say “cheese” every once in a while.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

No Fear in Love

“Love has no fear because perfect love expels fear.” 1 John 4:18

Have you ever noticed how much easier it is to be against something than to be for something?

I am in need of a new computer. The one I am using now is showing signs of old age. I have run all the available programs to eliminate junk files, malware, viruses, and the like. I have transferred files and folders to storage drives. I update my drivers and install hardware and software patches regularly. Never-the-less, there are signs that her health is not great, and catastrophic failure, while not imminent, is likely not too far around the bend.

Still, I hesitate to run out and buy a new machine. Why? Because PC Operating Systems have undergone a number of major shifts since I acquired my current laptop. I know how this one works. I know its quirks. It has everything I want loaded into it. She knows my secret handshake so I can log onto sites to take care of business efficiently.

But the real reason I don’t want to run out and buy a new computer is fear. I am afraid I won’t be able to figure out the new way of doing things. What will I do if they moved the little “x” from the upper right corner to the upper left corner of the screen? What will I do if the Ctrl-Alt-Del fix-all I have used for years has been changed to something else by some geeky wonder-kind?

I can imagine many scenarios where I would simply be lost and without hope with the new-fangled technologies that keep rolling down the pike. But if I am wise (which is normally quite a leap, indeed), I will come to realize there is a learning curve that every generation has to face at some point in life – and we don’t need to be afraid of those changes.

The key is to set aside the fear one is facing, and forge ahead.

Imagine the challenge our fore-bears had when they had to transition from slate tablets and chisels to papyrus and styluses (styli?). The ancient priests must have been terrified of the lost work-force when they couldn’t hear the constant chiseling taking place in those temple cubicles – only to find that the chicken scratches they were hearing were their workers writing away. The workers no doubt rejoiced when they discovered how much more time they could spend at the water cooler debating whether paper cuts hurt more than hammer-mashed thumbs (or vice versa).

While it is human nature to complain and worry, the Bible teaches us that perfect love casts out fear. I presume it is talking more about human relationships than technology, but I wonder if those two things are all that dissimilar.

One way to disarm the fear we might have of a thing, is to just set aside the fear and face the thing head-on. The first time getting behind the wheel of a car was quite scary, but setting aside the fear, one put the book-learning into practice. Acting with as much bravado as one could in a car full of equally scared driver’s education students, one gained experience and quite possibly even a love of driving over time. That love and experience cast out the earlier fear, didn’t it?

Like-wise, we fear people for a variety of reasons, but mostly we fear what they will think of us. The problem isn’t the other person, but our own fragile ego. We know the adage: Better to keep silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.

If we realize that our value is not based upon what others think of us, but rather is based upon what God thinks of us – and God loves us unconditionally – then we don’t need to be afraid. The Book tells us: God so loved (insert your name here) that he gave his only begotten Son so that those who return that love will not perish, but forever have a place in God’s home (my paraphrase of John 3:16).

God’s love casts out our fear, allowing us to love others more perfectly. Ctrl-Alt-LOVE. Now isn’t THAT a command worth learning here in this, our valley?

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Hide and Seek

Playing Hide and Seek

“Please, Lord, rescue me! Come quickly, Lord, and help me.” Psalm 40:13

Barb and I flew into Raleigh, North Carolina for the start of our vacation. We had never been to the state, and it was late. We collected our baggage and found the shuttle that would take us to the car rental agency. We were on vacation, so I decided to splurge and opted for a nice sized SUV for our time in NC. In a moment of mindless penny-pinching, though, I opted not to get a GPS unit for the car. What could go wrong, eh?

Nothing, of course; nothing went wrong until we left the parking lot of the rental agency. Asking where we could find a restaurant open for a quick bite before hitting the road just before midnight, the agent gave us some quick directions that I was able to just as quickly forget by the time I figured out how to turn on the headlights – which I didn’t need to turn on as they were on “automatic”. Who’d have thunk it!

Anyway, I quickly gave up looking for any sort of restaurant. Perhaps suspecting Yankees were lurking about the region, the entire area seemed to be in a perpetual blackout mode. The road signs were posted on three-by-five inch placards – printed with some sort of non-reflective paint, and the large markers above the roadway didn’t tell you what highway you were on; only what roads you might discover if you kept your eyes peeled while traveling upon that rain-slicked, unilluminated track of asphalt.

We drove for a few minutes when it became obvious I had no idea where I was, which way I was headed, or upon what road I might be traveling, so we turned around and went back to the airport. There, Barb and I switched seats and she drove while I studied and interpreted my Google Map instructions during the intermittent flashes of lightning and toll road cameras. Within an hour we found a town with street lights, an open motel, and a not-yet-closed fast food outlet. We were in heaven, so we holed up there for the remainder of the night!

We were in North Carolina for a week, and while we visited a number of sites and kept busy, I never did feel like I ever knew where we were. I am no Davy Crocket or Daniel Boone, but I have always been able to piece together maps and geography and find my way around – until now. I was feeling a bit embarrassed by it all until my brother in law loaned me his GPS unit.

Heading back to their house from the Atlantic coast, even the GPS got lost. Can you believe it? Even the latest and greatest satellite-connected brain on the market couldn’t figure how to get us from where we were to where we were going. Except for the part where I imagined us dying lost and forgotten in the rain-soaked wildernesses of North Carolina, I felt better knowing that I was not alone in my geo-challenged befuddlement.

Life is sometimes like that, though. We have skills and abilities, tools and technologies, and yet for all of that, we can still find ourselves lost and adrift in a sea of confusion.

I have gotten to the age where there isn’t enough time left to figure everything out for myself. When I get lost, I have learned to pull over and ask directions. Consequently, I stopped at a local speedy mart and asked the man at the counter how I might get to where I was headed, and he told me. “Ignore the signs,” he said, “and follow my directions.”

He was right. He drew out a map for me (ironically, on the back of my internet’s map directions), described the landmarks to watch for and, lo and behold, before you know it, we were safe and sound right where we belonged.

Once again, the Lord came to the rescue. God came to us in the form of a kindly clerk in a run-down pit stop deep in the heart of Dixie. Our God saves even those far away from this, our valley – and for that, we are thankful.