Saturday, December 28, 2013

Christmas in the Valley

“Mary quietly treasured all these things in her heart and thought about them often.” Luke 2:19

For the past several weeks my wife, Barb, and I have been pulling things out of the attic with which to decorate our home for the holidays.

Some, we just pull out and put up without much thought. I have one of those (don’t stone me!) trees that goes up in about five minutes; the sections plug together, and the plug goes into a timer and – voila – a tree that lights up right where we want it, and when we want it.

That does seem to run against the grain for we wilderness types (using the term “we” very broadly), but it was forced upon us by circumstances far beyond our control. When we moved to Michigan back in the 1990s, we bought our annual Christmas tree at a tree lot a few blocks from our house. We got it home and set it up, and as the silly thing thawed out, it rained needles. It didn’t sprinkle needles; it was more of a tsunami of piney pokers. By morning, we had the skeletal remains of a tree and a deep dark green carpet comprised of fine noble fir detritus.

Aargh! It was late in the season (our tradition was to put the tree up a week to ten days before Christmas, but we had been delayed by work and the hustle and bustle of the season til just a day or so before Christmas). What to do? We hit the mall and ran into Sears, where everything was sold out except for one floor model artificial tree. We didn’t care. We bought it on the spot, dragged the pieces home in garbage bags (they couldn’t find the box), set it up, threw on the lights, balls, and holy doodads and called it a year! We were done.

Well, it wasn’t natural, but it worked. It lasted about 20 years, or 140 in doggie years, but we finally found it a new home and bought a replacement tree with the lights built in, and I will admit, I’ve never regretted it. When it goes up, I have no nicks or cuts, I have no sap gumming up my clothes (or hands) for next three seasons, and best of all, I have no needle trails making the indoors look like the outdoors.

It is pulling these treasures out little by little that I wanted to talk about. A few go up without much thought, but there is a story behind most of them.

There is the mouse angel (a Little Cheeser) that started us off on a decades-long hunt for the rest of the set pieces (making up my favorite nativity set). Silly as it sounds, it reminds me: Cheeses Saves!

There’s the Nutcracker our son gave us so the other nutcracker wouldn’t get lonely; there’s the “I Love You” ornament our daughter made at the school for the deaf; there’s the hollow egg upon which a parishioner painted the holy family, star, and manger – that has survived for nearly thirty years and Lord only knows how many moves; and a wax angel ornament we received from another parishioner that has survived more than two decades, despite our moves and the summer’s heat in central California.

We pull these out and we can’t help but stop, look, and ponder the love that has been packed into all these things.

One could argue they are only things, but they aren’t. They are treasures, precious and dear. Even if fire or thief were to take them away, the memories would arise from the ashes. They aren’t the same, of course, but they are just as real.

When Jesus was born, we are told his mama listened to the songs of the angels and the tales of the shepherds and “she treasured all these things in her heart.”

As we have pulled our treasures out of the attic, garage, closets, or sheds this season, I hope that you will have joined me in taking some time to ponder the mysteries of the child who was born for us. May you find Joy in your stockings, Peace under your trees, Hope in your hearts, and Love in your homes. Merry Christmas to all of you in this, our valley – and beyond.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Advent in the Valley

“Be prepared, for the Lord is coming!” Matthew 24:42

Watch. Wait. Stay awake! These are the watchwords of Advent.

The past several columns I’ve talked about my desire for a more safe, sane, and holy month leading up to Christmas. At our community choir holiday concert at St. Paul’s, in Virginia City, I explained to the audience that for the world “out there” this is the Christmas season – a time of shopping and celebration – but for the world “in here” (inside the confines of the church) it is the Season of Advent.

Advent is a season of patient anticipation. In some ways, Christmas can be more special when we don’t jump the gun. We can approach the birth of Christ thoughtfully, meditatively, deliberately. How many people start singing happy birthday to one another a month or two in advance of the actual birthday?

I’m not such a stick in the mud that I cringe at the Yule-tide shenanigans of the season around the community. Winter is dark and dreary, so it’s delightful joining in and working with the community choir to provide seasonal cheer in voice and song. A goodly number of hearty souls came out to enjoy the concerts in the minus double digit temperatures that hit the region really hard this year. For that, I am thankful!

We are part of a community, and participating in activities that warm hearts and minds is important. I’m glad we could do that, and especially glad that people put the community service over a Thursday Night football game – or whatever else might have kept them more sanely indoors. One will never confuse the talents of the local community choir with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, but we came together, we sang and celebrated, and then we feasted, and that was enough.

No, the world goes crazy this time of year, and that’s OK. It is the insanity of the human race that really explains why God bothered to send us more than a greeting card – or a Cease-and-Desist order, for that matter.

For millennia, God tried a number of things to help restore sanity to the world, but after Adam and Eve’s bungle in the jungle (and consequent ejection from the Game-Preserve), things just went down-hill fast.

God could have left us alone to our own devices, but we just seem to prefer the vices. During the time of Noah God put us into the wash and rinse cycle, but that didn’t seem to work either. None of us, it seems, is wrinkle free!

God laid down the law with Moses, and while it gave us some structure and parameters within which to work, we still don’t get it. It seems we’re pretty good at looking for and finding loopholes.

“Love your neighbor?” Sure, I can do that. Here are the three people on my Neighbor List. Everyone else: Watch out!

“Do not covet”? No problem. I will just borrow the money I need to buy the stuff you have that I want (whether I need it or not) – and then it’s not coveting because I’ll already have it, so there!

God tried religion, and do I really need to lay out how THAT has worked out over the past few millennia?

Ironically, the purpose of religion is to unite. The root word is “lig” (as in ligature or ligament). But we clever humans use it as a bone of contention.

The point of law is to bring order out of chaos, but it turns out that is more like nailing jelly to a hot wall. There is a law of physics (the second law of thermodynamics) that simply points out the propensity of everything to decay in time.

So, since law and religion don’t seem to be very effective in changing the world for the better, God sent his Son into the world to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. This is the essence of the Christmas story. And we can’t get it all on one day of the year, or even in a month of manic berserkery or miracles on 34th Street.

We get it by quieting down, waiting, watching, and staying alert. Advent. It’s a good word. It means the Adventure is about to begin, and I’m excited to be a part of it here in this, our valley.