Saturday, December 27, 2014

Christmas in the Valley

O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum, Wie treu sind deine Blätter – German Christmas Carol

I don’t think there is anything that evokes Christmas memories quite as effectively as Christmas trees.

We have a wide variety of nativity sets we have acquired over the years, and they certainly point to the Reason for the Season (It’s all about God!), and yet they don’t inspire the same sense of mystery, wonder, and recollections of Christmases past as do the lighted trees at home and around our towns.

Each of us could probably regale our friends and neighbors with tree-mendous tales involving these seasonal conifers.

Our own family “hiss-tree” includes the Christmas without a tree, because my brother kept climbing and pulling it over until our father, having had quite enough of that nonsense, picked the tree up one last time, marched it (lights, ornaments, tinsel, stand, and all) to the back door where he shot-putted it (maybe it was more of a javelin throw – my memory is a bit hazy after six decades) out into the back yard where it stayed the rest of the season.

Then there was the time my buddy and I decided to head up into the mountains to find his parents the ideal Christmas tree. No mere tree-lot tree would do. No siree bob! We headed up into the Cascades, transitioning from highway, to gravel and logging roads, and Sasquatch trails until, looking down, we could see we were just above the ceiling for angelic flight.

We then trudged our way around the mountain until we found the tree we had been searching for. It was gorgeous. It was also about twenty times taller than necessary, but that’s OK. John and I scampered up and found a perfect spot upon which to start hacking with our butter knife (or whatever it was we thought would handle our tree-cutting needs) and within a fort-night we hacked off the tree top.

When we got down and set it up to admire our handiwork, we couldn't help but notice that the eight foot tree was closer to twelve; no problem. We topped the top (which was pretty anemic, even by Charlie Brown standards) and saved the bottom eight foot section for John’s parents.

I took the remaining four foot section home to my apartment – my very first Christmas tree – and decorated it with a single strand of lights, a couple of ornaments my parents had given me, and topped with a glass ornament that bent down the top nearly to the floor. Somewhere in my personal archives, I have a black and white snapshot of it, taken with my Polaroid Swinger.

Over time, the trees have changed. We've transitioned from getting real evergreens each year to the pre-lit artificial one we have now. We put it up each year and select which ornaments we’ll pull out to hang (as we have acquired far too many throughout our marriage for any single tree). There are a couple of small packages sitting under the tree now, but nowhere near the epic piles we had created when our children roamed the roost – but that’s OK.

Our children are now grown and the near-empty tree-skirt reminds us we have everything we need and virtually everything we want. We no longer need to scurry about buying presents, wrapping them up and finding places to hide them until Santa could set them out on Christmas morning. We've reached the place now where the song goes, “all is calm …”

Christmas, for us, truly is calm. The tree stands tall, bright, and silent – but not without meaning.

No matter the season, an evergreen is ever green. It is true and faithful; its conical shape points skyward toward heaven, ever reminding us of the One in whose Name O Tannenbaum stands.

It is topped with an angel, whose cry goes out to those willing and able to listen: “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all people. Today … a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord ….” (Luke 2, NIV) – to which news I can only respond in the song of the angelic choir, “Glory to God in the Highest, and Peace to God’s people on earth.”

God bless you all, and Merry Christmas and/or Happy Holidays to you in this, our valley.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Coincidental Cookies in the Valley

“Comfort, O comfort my people …” Isaiah 40

The other day I was taking a shower and accidentally knocked my wife’s razor off its hook. It fell to the floor with a cheap, plastic “clack”. Although I don’t recall ever doing that before, I thought nothing of it until later that day when (browsing online) I noticed the day was Safety Razor Day. Was it coincidence? It could have been, but who knows?

Then last night the Ennis Community Choir performed their first holiday concert of the season at our church in Virginia City. I baked a delicious chocolate chip pan cookie that morning for the after-concert social hour and, considering how half-baked an idea it is for me to make cookies or anything else of that nature, it turned out surprisingly edible. When I got home I had a text from my son reminding me that it was National Cookie Day (for he knows of my love for cookies). Was this also a coincidence? I’m beginning to wonder.

We are sometimes told there is no such thing as a coincidence – that our thoughts and actions are simply part of a larger plan or purpose. Things get chalked up to “coincidence” when we see a connection between two seemingly unrelated things happening at the same time.

I will admit that I do believe in coincidences. I am not convinced that all actions are part of a great Master Plan. I believe a person can bake cookies and come to discover that it is National Cookie Day without seeing it as an integral part of God’s desire to bring reconciliation and peace to the world.

It could just as easily be part of a Master Confectioner’s plan to sell flour, sugar, and flavored morsels – or a national Dental Association plan to promote cavities for their members to fill.

I think it is a good thing to recognize a coincidence when we see one. That does not negate the reality of God working in our lives. It is quite the opposite, in fact.

When I knocked my wife’s razor onto the shower floor and became aware it was National Safety Razor Day, my heart was drawn closer to God by the coincidence – not further from God. What we call coincidence, and others call synchronicity, yet others call these moments “God shots;” that is, we see God present in the event, and that brings a smile.

If one were to sneak into God’s corporate headquarters, would one find a (metaphorical) book written eons ago with a footnote: “On December 4, 2014 Keith will bake cookies and the stars will once again be properly aligned.”? I think not.

However, an opportunity to make treats so that our church could practice a small act of hospitality for friends, neighbors, and strangers aligns with God’s command that we not just preach love, but practice love. That it was National Cookie Day simply placed a halo over the action.

Sometimes people feel very far from God or from God’s grace. Our job as human beings is to make sure God has a human face in our homes and neighborhoods. Each of us is called (and privileged) to be the human face of God, but sometimes we don’t live up to the billing. We close our eyes to suffering and barricade our lives with resentments. The result is that we are no longer a godly presence. Worse yet, we fail to see God in the face of our brethren; we fail to see God at work in the happy little moments of serendipity that surround us on every side. How sad.

I cannot control the world around me, and that’s a good thing. As has been said in the past, control is the opposite of love. When we try to control people or situations, we are no longer loving them, but more likely trying to manipulate them – bending them to our will or desires. When people don’t live up to our expectations, we develop resentments and become miserable souls to be around.

So my goal this holiday season is to be more loving and less controlling, to look more readily for God shots in my life, and work for peace and reconciliation in all I say or do. Even if everything doesn’t work out the way I plan or desire, that’s just the way the cookie crumbles in this, our valley. 

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Thankfulness in the Valley

“We thank you for setting us at tasks which demand our best efforts …”Book of Common Prayer

It has been a while since I have reported on the progress at Trinity Church in Jeffers, just east of Ennis, Montana.

The Children’s Window is back! That’s the window that faces the road. It was bought and paid for by the children of the Madison Valley a hundred years ago who, week by week, brought their coins to church until sufficient funds were acquired to commission the creation and installation of the round Trinity “Children’s’ Window”.

The window was removed a month or so ago when an inspection determined that it was in serious need of repair and rebuilding. Lead, being soft, is subject to aging (aren't we all!) and has a useful life in stained glass windows of about 75 years.

The window, which is about five feet in diameter, is comprised of many small pieces of glass with paints and pigments painted on (and fired in, making the paint an integral part of the glass). Over time, of course, gravity has been pulling on those pieces of glass, creating sagging, bowing, and a general weakening of the window.

So the window was removed and taken to a studio near West Yellowstone where it was lovingly restored to its original luster and beauty. Just yesterday it was brought back and returned to its home. The Plexiglas protecting the window had been cleaned inside and out, and the dirt and grime of a century had been scrubbed off the window during restoration so that, when it was put back in place, it literally shined more brilliantly than it has in decades. Wow!

It seems to me that “shining more brilliantly than (we have) in years” is a large part of what this project has been about for the people at Trinity, and what a life of faith is about in general.

It is about far more than the physical plant. God is working on all of us all the time. Even when the lion’s share of a project is finished, the work is never really done. There is always ongoing maintenance and repair, cleaning and disinfecting, scrubbing and polishing. There is still a lot to do.

But, in essence, the lion’s share of what needed to be done has been done. That’s a picture – an icon, if you will – of a person’s life, too. The lion’s share of what needs to be done (theologically speaking) has been done by God. We are transformed, partly by what we do, but largely by the renewing of our mind, which takes an act of God (because, lord knows, I don’t want to change!).

God takes away our shortcomings, restores us to fellowship with God and one another, and calls us to new life – a life of grace.

Trinity Children’s Window shines because it has been cleaned. Broken glass has been replaced with good, strong, fresh glass. The window has been made stronger with fresh lead, solder, copper ties, and structural supports.

The work wasn’t easy. Most things of value aren’t. Since the window is round and had been sagging under the weight of gravity for a century, I suggested just turning it 180 degrees and letting gravity put it back over the next hundred years, but wiser heads prevailed.

Good parents always admonish their children: “If you’re going to do a job, do it right – and do it right the first time.”

God often sets us at tasks which demand our best efforts, and if we listen, and if we work at it, the results are often nothing short of amazing. Best of all, God calls us to do it together – to work together, each contributing our gifts, skills, and talents for the good of the whole, for the good of the community – for friends, family, neighbors, and strangers alike.

This is what God does for us, as well. The key is to let God do with us what God wills to do with us. That’s part of what we pray daily: Thy will be done – in me, in us – as it is in heaven.

May God grant us grace to grow and shine in love and joy in this, our valley. May God help us to be thankful for the blessings of useful work. Amen!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Veterans in the Valley

… thy kingdom come, thy will be done … The Lord’s Prayer

The following is a true story, although some details may be in error. The fault lies with this writer and not with the original teller of the tale.

Some years ago – decades, really – my father was in the army. He was an infantry soldier serving in Europe after the Second World War; he and his fellow GIs were based in Italy near Trieste, standing watch on the border with Yugoslavia. Negotiations had been underway between Italy, the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and the United Nations and the border was being moved.

Orders came down from on high to turn over the border installation to the Soviets at noon on the day my Dad stood his watch. That morning he observed a Soviet armored column climb the mountain road toward his position and notified his commanding officer – a First Lieutenant whose name has been lost to the mists of time. It was about ten in the morning when the lead tank arrived at the border crossing – which was secured by a red and white swing-gate (and a couple of privates).

My father was sitting behind a few sandbags, hands resting comfortably on a machine gun. The lieutenant stepped over to the tank commander, saluted, welcomed him to Italy, and asked how he might be of assistance. The Soviet commander returned the salute and explained he was there to escort the American troops out of Yugoslavia.

The lieutenant thanked him for his offer and then informed him that they would not need an escort and that they would turn the position over at noon in accordance with the newly ratified treaty (and the orders under which he was operating).

The Soviet commander’s demeanor darkened. “The border changed at Noon, Moscow Time,” he said, adding, “You must leave now.”

The young lieutenant looked at his troops – a handful of American GIs with M-1 rifles and a single machine gun – and looked at the tank column stretched out along the road – and then back to the Soviet commander and said, “I’m sorry, but I am under orders, and cannot turn this position over to you until Noon local time. You’re welcome to wait here and join me for some coffee, if you’d like.”

The Soviet commander stepped back and spoke with his officers in a heated exchange. They had their orders: Escort the Americans off the mountain and secure the position. The Americans had their orders: Hold the position until Noon, at which time they were to turn command over to the Soviets. Compromise was out of the question as neither officer had the authority to change their orders.

After a few minutes, the Soviet commander reached over to his left wrist, removed his watch, and put it into his pocket. He walked back over to the American lieutenant and stood still. He seemed unsure how to say what he wanted to say. Troops on both sides of the border crossing looked at each other – Dad from his machine gun nest, and the Russian tank commanders from their iron monsters. Finally, the Soviet commander spoke.

“I seem to have misplaced my watch. Looking at the sky here, I cannot tell what time it is in Moscow. Can you?”

The young American lieutenant thought for a moment and said, “I’m not really sure, but I would guess it is about 10:00 a.m. in Moscow. I could check with headquarters, but I am sure it would take them a couple hours to figure it out. You know how slow generals can be.”

The Soviet war dog smiled. “Yes, I know. Let us watch the pass together and protect it from intruders until you feel it is safe to depart.”

And with that, peace prevailed.

I am thankful for the young rifleman who stood watch for us that day so many years ago. The dangers he and his fellows faced were no less grave than those faced by soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen, or merchant marines during active war-time.

I am thankful, too, for the friendly, clear-headed actions of a young American lieutenant (who knew his duty) and of a grizzled veteran who had nothing to prove – who had seen more than enough blood spilt in the past decade to last a thousand lifetimes.

I am thankful for the countless veterans who serve (and have served) their nation to preserve our freedoms at great personal cost and sacrifice. I remember them before God, and I thank God for them – each and every one – from the bottom of my heart here in this, our valley.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Saints in the Valley

“My regimen is lust and avarice for exercise, gluttony and sloth for relaxation.” Mason Cooley

Halloween is almost here. As a child, I am pretty sure Halloween ranked right up there next to Christmas as days and seasons of unbridled avarice and greed. Costumes and dressing up seemed pretty silly, but if that’s what one needed to do in order to acquire a bag full of sweets, then one would just have to bite the bullet, dress up as a pirate or fiend, smear grease paints upon cheek and brow, and have at it, so to speak.

Our aims were pretty modest as a family (growing up). When the time came finally to hit the streets, my brother, sisters, and I knew how far we were allowed to go. We were limited to our neighborhood, which meant a couple blocks in each direction. We weren’t turned loose and allowed to plunder the entire north end of Seattle (like some kids seemed to). We had bags that were very modest in size and when full, we knew we had gone far enough – and back to home we would trundle.

Having a sweet tooth, Halloween is still amongst my favorite holidays. A few weeks ago I picked up a bag of chocolates candies for our neighborhood saints and sinners – I think it has a couple hundred individually wrapped treats. When I brought it home, my own personal sweetie took a look at the bag and raised up an eyebrow. Knowing the question on her mind I told her it was for Halloween.

“How many kids did we have last year?” she asked.

“About fifteen or twenty, as I recall,” said I, “but this year we could have more, and I certainly don’t want anyone coming to our door to go away disappointed because we ran out. That would be scandalous and violate every principal and tenet of hospitality we hold most dear,” I added.

She rolled her eyes in apparent approval of the holiness of my intentions and let the matter drop. I drooled in true, honest, and sincere appreciation.

So, what exactly is Halloween? Why do we celebrate it?

In a land that honors and celebrates the separation of church and state, the truth is that the reason for the season is mostly lost on the world around us. We celebrate Halloween primarily because the date is on our calendars and the stores are filled with costumes and we learn at an early age that it is the one day we are allowed to go from house to house extorting our neighbors to hand over their bounty lest they find their homes egged or tee peed in the morning.

My, how quaint a tradition, eh?

In truth, Halloween is a contraction of All Hallows Eve – the evening before All Saints (or All Hallows) Day (which falls annually on November 1). On that day, Christians celebrate the lives of all the saints who “from their labors rest”.

Who are the saints? “Those are the people,” answered the little girl – pointing at the stained glass windows in church – “the light shines through.”

Christians are a diverse lot, so I can’t speak for all (or even most) of them, but what I mean when I use the term “saint” is someone who’s life has been touched by God, and who passes that on in their living.

It is customary to think of saints as people who have died – especially good people, like St. Mary, the mother of Jesus, or the apostles Peter and Paul, or giants of the faith, like Francis of Assisi. In medieval Europe, people dressed up like the saints of old – to thank God for the example of those lives that made the world a better place.

Dressing up as ghosts and goblins came much later, and the goal was not to scare people, but to make fun of the devil (whose defeat is certain). That’s the reasoning behind the costumes. And why ask for treats?

I think we look to our neighbors, asking them for help in sweetening our dispositions. By myself, I am a hoodlum. With my neighbor (acknowledging I am not alone in this world), I can become a better person. “Trick or Treat” then becomes a cry for help, and that I am glad to do amongst you saints here in this, our valley.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Resting in the Valley

Jesus said, “Come away to a deserted place … and rest a while.” Mark 6

The other day I looked out the window and there, standing in the window looking back, was a nice buck. He seemed curious to see what I was doing, just as I was curious what he was doing – for one cannot peer into the house through that window without leaving the yard and trespassing onto the deck. He seemed awfully bold.

I decided I should have a conversation with this mulie who’d come a calling, but as soon as I got to the back door he beat a hasty retreat, doing a near-back-flip away from the window and over the rail to the yard below and off into the sunset (several hours early, I might add).

While it isn’t unusual to have twenty or thirty deer enjoying breakfast, lunch, and dinner in our yard (not to mention regular morning and afternoon siestas), it is unusual to have them up on the deck. For one thing, we don’t have much for them to eat, although it does give them access to the more tender branches of our aspens out back. Still, there’s a lot of tender stuff at ground level they could have anytime they should choose to.

A while later I found the buck back on the deck. He and a buddy were playing King of the Mountain on the steps and seemed to be having a wonderful time jousting for fun.

Ah, the life of a deer – especially our town herd. They have no predators to speak of. They have plenty of gardens and trees from which to grab their munchies, a river and some creeks from which to drink, and grassy fields in which to bear their young. Trees and homes shelter them from the icy blasts in winter and from the scorching heat in summer.

They seem to do a better job of living out the twenty-third psalm (The Lord is my Shepherd) than we humans. I’m afraid I have a harder time relaxing than does our local mule deer population.

I wonder how they can relax so easily. Haven’t they heard about Ebola? Haven’t they heard about ISIS/ISIL? Has no one told them about global warming?

Maybe they know something we don’t. Maybe they know something we have forgotten – that it is enough to live. They fight and run when they must for survival; they remain alert to their surroundings for purposes of safety, security, and survival; but mostly they just live in a symbiotic relationship with the world they inhabit.

Jesus knows we aren’t deer; we aren’t sheep. We are fretters. We adorn ourselves with chains of gold and links of purest fear. We fret about the past – which cannot be changed – and we fret about the future. I detest that commercial on TV – Will you have what you need when you retire? Of course not, unless you invest with us!

Making wise financial decisions is important, but I hate it when folks capitalize on fear. I think that’s why Jesus got out of Dodge as often as he could – crossing the lake to the “other side” – away from town; away from the hustle and bustle of Galilee’s commercial center; away from talk of politics, sex, and (yes) away from the insanity (and very real dangers) of religious debates.

It is hard, in our culture, to admit we need a break. Many might see that as a sign of weakness or as an escape from “reality”, but I think Jesus sees it as a return to sanity. When you get away from the jingle and jangle of a crazy world, you can actually hear yourself think. Like Dr. Seuss’s Horton, when all is quiet, you can hear the Who, and come to discover the Who is the “God in you”!

When we can think, we can choose a direction that makes sense and which promotes life and well-being. We can play on the deck for the joy of playing, and not for the sake of winning. We can sit beneath the quaking aspens and rejoice that it is they which quake, and not us.

We can discover we are in the presence of a God who “restoreth my soul” and who “leadeth me beside the still waters” in this, our valley – and that’s more than enough.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

YES in the Valley

“Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Jesus (Luke 5)

The other day I got a call from a friend asking me if I could help move a piano. I checked my bucket list real fast and noticed that moving pianos was nowhere to be found. I truly didn’t want to move a piano and, fortunately, I was sick.

It’s true. I was down with one of those viruses that requires a “Night-time, Sniffling, Sneezing, Coughing, Aching, Stuffy-head, Fever, So-You-Can-Rest Medicine” so I declined his request.

I felt bad. I didn’t want to let my friend down. I didn’t want him to think I was making excuses (which I can do when push comes to shove – especially when the push-comes-to-shove involves a baby grand), but I have learned that when people ask for help, the only proper response has got to be “yes, of course I will help”.

There are times when it is OK to say “No”.  Saying “no” for reasons of health makes sense; saying “no, I will not lie for you” sets an appropriate boundary for friends and loved ones. Saying “no” when someone wants you to do something for them that they need (and are able) to do for themselves is also appropriate so as not to create an unhealthy dependency.

But basically, while there are exceptions, I think we need to cultivate a culture that knows how to say “Yes” better than it says “no”.

I was thinking of Jesus needing to address a large crowd by the lakeshore. The best way to do that would be to get into a boat and use it as a pulpit. Seashore acoustics are great that way. He asked a local fisherman to help. The poor fellow had been working all night to no avail. He was tired, hungry, and ready to go home and crash. But he (no doubt rolling his eyes) said yes, shoved the boat back off the beach and into the water, and rowed Jesus out 10-20 yards, where the young man could speak, preach, and teach.

When they were done, Jesus didn’t let poor Peter off the fish hook (so to speak). He told him to put out into the deeper water and cast his nets. Peter knew there were no fish out there, but he did as he was told (probably muttering under his breath: “I’ll show him there’s no fish; who’s the fisherman out here, anyway?”)

Of course you know the result. So many fish! Peter had to call for help so his friends and partners got into their boats and came to the rescue. Artists generally paint Jesus sitting or standing idly by while the fishermen heave and pull, but I am sure Jesus put his back into the effort, and I am equally sure there was a ton of laughter and joy as well.

Peter was just a fisherman, but when he said “yes” something happened. I am sure he and Jesus knew each other in passing – you know how small towns are – but working together, they developed a deep and lasting friendship.

Saying “yes” is so important – a gift of love. “Yes” scares us, because it means we have to leave our comfort zone. We have to let go of what we want to do, or subordinate our own desires momentarily to the wants and needs of someone else. So there is a price to be paid when we say “yes” and the reward isn’t always apparent, isn’t always dramatic, and may even be barely discernible, and yet ...

… sometimes it is sufficient to experience the warm feeling of having done something nice.

God often sends people our way who will push us out into deeper waters, forcing us to do things we never thought we could. They may anger us, they may frustrate us, they may irritate the heck out of us, and yet, when all is said and done, we are stronger than we thought we were, more capable than we ever thought possible, and better off than we ever hoped we might be – and all because someone with vision knew where we would find the fish for which we so desperately searched all of our lives.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Darkness in the Valley

“It is almost as important to know what is not serious as to know what is.” John Kenneth Galbraith

Some many years ago I was walking home from school in Seattle and, as was my custom, stopped in at the local grocery store to pick up something to munch on. As I scoured the candy rack for something sweet enough to keep the family dentist in business, the shop-keeper and a customer were watching the news on a little black and white television set behind the counter. There was some sort of report involving the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I wasn’t paying much attention, but the shop-owner snarled mid-report and said, “Somebody ought to shoot that (man).”

I was shocked. First, I had always considered the owner of the store to be a nice guy. Secondly, while I didn’t know much about Dr. King, I knew that his focus was on improving relations between white people and black people through just and peaceable means.

I was shocked and wondered why anyone would want to kill a man of peace. That was insanity and in good conscience I could not and would not spend another dime in that store ever again.

Events in Ferguson Missouri brought back those memories of the tensions and riots in the 1960s (and the martyrdom of MLK, Jr.). They also reminded me of another incident.


(1974, Spokane, WA I was part of Spokane PD's 
Larceny Squad - patroling from a Vespa)

After I graduated from college and before I went off to seminary, I was a police officer in the city of Spokane. One night my partner and I responded to a silent alarm call on the city’s south hill. It was winter; it was a moonless night (about 1 a.m.), and despite the snow that lay upon the ground, it was quite dark. We pulled up to the address of an antique shop and my partner went one way on foot around the building while I went the other.

As I rounded the corner I confronted a man standing at a window in back. He was dressed in a dark coat and wore a knitted ski-cap pulled down low. He hadn’t heard my approach, but when I saw him I drew my weapon, identified myself, and ordered him to freeze.

Startled, he turned and I glimpsed a silver flash in the beam of my flashlight. I tensed, applied several pounds of pressure to my Smith and Wesson’s trigger (which takes three pounds of pressure to fire) and ordered him to drop his gun NOW! I suspect there might have been an expletive or two thrown in for good measure – and it worked.

He dropped his weapon. It turned out to be a screwdriver he was using to pry open the window of the shop he was burgling. He came within a half-pound of trigger pull of being shot.

Looking back, I find myself wondering if I would have exercised the same level of restraint on my trigger if he had been black. I like to think I am color blind when it comes to race, but I also know that racism is not a matter of the intellect, but of the gut. If he had been black, this story might have ended differently; I cannot dismiss that possibility.

When the adrenaline pumps, humans shift gears from the intellectual brain to the more primal, ancient, reptilian brain – the Fight/Flight center. We are afraid of that which we do not know or understand, and so we react out of that fear. Racism is rooted in xenophobia (fear of the stranger) and we need to quit denying it exists. If we acknowledge it, we can begin work needed to overcome it – like most any defect of character.

I don’t know precisely what happened in Ferguson that fateful day. I hope, pray, and expect the investigators will be thorough and that justice will prevail, but I hope, too, that each of us will look deep within ourselves and know just how far we have yet to go.

I am human. I am fearful, and ugliness of thought and deed are very much alive and well in this soul of mine.

We can overcome our baser instincts, but first we’ve got to face reality, admit the problem, and then be willing to seek solutions and work together to achieve them in this, our valley (and beyond).

Life Unfolding in the Valley

“Many things get done in the world because someone had a vision of something better.” Herbert O’Driscoll

I have recently taken to watching more and more how-to shows on television. Of special interest are woodworking programs on our local PBS station.

The show I like best exhibits all sorts of projects that make life easier, more beautiful and, best of all, better organized. I look at a team of professionals (each taking a part of any one project) and, beginning with a couple scraps of this and that (and a spot of white glue), before you know it, they’ve put together chests and cabinets that open, close, fold, bend, and twist in ways too numerous to count.

Unfortunately, they go through the steps so quickly that I don’t quite understand how everything relates or connects. Consequently, my projects start off as pieces of wood in standard dimensions that end up making my garage (which is my “shop” – very loosely defined) look like a FEMA disaster area, and the project looking somewhat primitive (which it is). That’s very discouraging, or it could be if I let it be.

Fortunately, I know I am an amateur (or rank amateur – heavy on the “rank”) and so I do not expect perfection. For me, the fun is in the trying. My first goal is always to make something functional. My second goal is to make it pleasant to look at. My ultimate goal, however, is to make something I can show off. You see, inside this carcass of mine is a kindergartner screaming to be noticed.

I find that setting goals is important. If I “settle” for functional, that is generally what I will produce. So it is important to set higher goals. Nothing will ever be perfect, but anything can be improved, and that’s where the joy is to be found.

One of the problems we face is in determining what the “better” looks like.

Take your life, for instance. Is it where you would like it to be? Do you have friends you can depend on? Do you have a job that satisfies and delights you day in and day out? Do you face challenges that push you toward excellence? At the end of the day, do you look back with a “Whew, that was a good one,” or with a “Whew, that was a colossal waste of time”?

One of the things I like about wood working is that a project is literally in one’s own hands. The finished product is dependant to some degree upon the quality of the tools, but more so on the skills of the carpenter. The sharpest blade in my shop will not restore an inch of wood to a board I cut too short – no matter how many times I cut it, it will still be too short. Measuring accurately and cutting with precision takes time, practice, and patience.

The rules I follow in the shop seem appropriate for an improved life. First: Be safe. I like my fingers (all of them); I like being able to see; I like being able to hear. So safety has GOT to be rule one.

In life, watch where you’re going. Speak kindly – don’t cut others down. Wear gloves when dealing with rough people or messy situations.

Rule Number Two: No whining, complaining, or excuses. It’s no use crying the blade is too dull, the wood is too hard, or the measuring tape is inaccurate. If the blade is dull, sharpen it; if the wood is hard, sharpen the blade again; if the cut is “off” measure twice or three times or whatever it takes to cut it right the next time.

In life, don’t blame others (or yourself). Just pay attention and make adjustments as needed (in your own words, attitudes, or deeds).

Rule Number Three: Be early. If I wait to start a project too late, I lose interest or momentum before I’ve even started, so I find I need to start early for best results.

In life, be early. If tempted to sleep in ‘cause there’s nothing to do and you’re bored, get up early and do something different. Be responsible for producing something of value, whether it is a chest or a memory. Take charge and live the dream.

I think you’ll be glad you did in this, our valley.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Ants in the Valley

“To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” John Henry Newman

The other day I bought something online that I could not get locally to take care of a problem with pests. Specifically, we have lots of ants in the yard and one cannot weed or stand in one place for long before a gang of ants decides we would make a wonderful trophy to mount over their little ant fire places.

We tried to take care of the problem with a local pest control service for a couple years, but that didn’t work, and we tried various over-the-counter pesticides, but they only got the ants high (and craving munchies), so we took to the web (figuring spiders would know best how to deal with pesky insects) and found a solution that seemed reasonably priced and – best of all – looked like something a normal person could do themselves.

While the “normal” might be hard for me to pull off, never-the-less I decided I would give it a shot.

That’s what we did; we ordered the product, which came with easy-to-follow instructions, and we set out the bait stations (which are certified safe from anything that isn’t an ant – like dogs, cats, deer, and other critters of that ilk).

After a few days, it seems like the ants have taken the bait and, much to my delight, they appear to be disappearing!

The problem with pesticides, I find, is that they attack the critters above ground, but they don’t get to the Queen – that egg-laying machine who stays safe and secure in her underground cell. If we can get to her, we can solve the problem – and I think we have.

It seems like that’s also a good illustration of how we deal with many of our personal problems. So often we attack issues on the surface without really getting at the heart of the matter, which lies beneath.

The “Queen” who lies beneath, for me, is my ego. I know, I know. It sounds highly unlikely to my dear readers that I would have an ego problem, but believe me – I am alive; ergo, ego-maniacal thoughts, feelings, and attitudes make their appearance from time to time.

When I get mad, it is generally because I’m not getting my way about something. The weather is too hot, cold, wet, dry, or windy. The cars and drivers around me are going too slow or too fast. Some person, place, thing, or situation isn’t the way I want it to be and – BOOM – the Queen gives birth to an Anger Ant who charges into battle.

An ant stings with a stinger, rends with its mandibles, and is just generally an irritable sort of beast – and that’s me. When I don’t get my way I can sometimes pout, and sulk, get depressed, or behave quite boorishly.

Now, I must confess most of that stuff takes place between my ears. Because I am a man of the cloth, my outer self is quite calm, cool, and collected. I bear the slings and arrows of life with remarkable equanimity and peace. That demeanor, though, is not completely an act (or fake)

Over the years I’ve come to learn that I have very little control over the people and situations that surround me. I can allow the frustrations to eat me up, or I can choose a different path. What path might that be?

I’ve learned to knock the ego down to size with several tools at my disposal. First, relax. Controlling the world is above my pay grade. That’s God’s job, not mine. The Bible tells us God loves the world. It does not say anywhere that God controls the world.

Consequently, my task is to love the people and the world I live in, and to forget trying to control it. When I do that I have peace and serenity, and I like that.

Secondly, I’m thankful. Our world is a delightful place. The people around us are strange and quirky, to be sure, but so am I. When we accept people for who they are, we can be at peace. Even if they are restless, irritable, and discontented, that’s their problem. The fact is Pain is inevitable, but misery is optional.

We can change, and change is an ANT-idote to misery in this, our valley.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

How Brown is my Valley

“Our very life depends on everything’s / Recurring till we answer from within.” Robert Frost

We went away for a couple of weeks on vacation. When we got home, our lawn had failed to maintain a lush green appearance we have worked so hard to create in our own spot of Eden on Earth. What happened?

Well, we had left; that’s what happened. We had gone away and we had not asked anyone to take care of our lawn. No one was here to set out the sprinklers and move them around day by day.

Did the grass die? No, not really. The grass did what grass does when the rains stop – it went dormant. It went to sleep, conserving energy in order to survive.

We came back and I looked at the lawn. It looked like it was dead and dying. The grass was largely brown, with only a few patches of green here and there – mostly where our neighbor’s water had carelessly encroached on our territory. There, the grass had continued to grow green and luxurious.

Of course we began watering the lawn again, and it has greened up somewhat, but I’m not sure it will come back the way we want it to. That’s just the way it is. We didn’t kill it with neglect; it simply went to sleep and will perk up again when it is dog gone good and ready.

The good news is that I don’t have to mow it as often now. Yippee!

It’s funny how we try to manipulate nature like we do. I wonder what is wrong with us – with we human beings. Why do we want lawns and flower beds? While birds make nests and coyotes dens, I don’t see them spending any time decorating. What is it in the human psyche that requires more than simple shelter – this “need” to surround ourselves with “stuff” that require more resources, more labor, more time to maintain?

I don’t know of any animal (and am not sure how I would go about confirming this observation) that recognizes beauty. Oh, I’m sure there is some semblance of that going on with the mating rituals animals engage in – large racks on elk, bright plumage on birds, and the love songs of croaking toads, but the goal there is procreation, not beautification.

But the idea of a bird arranging its nest “just so” and adding a sprig here and there to make it look prettier just doesn’t seem to be there (in the animal realm), as I see it. I could be wrong, of course. After all, I’m a guy. I don’t see the need to paint a room unless the old paint is cracked or peeling. Fixing what’s broke is fine, but changing out the home décor seasonally just isn’t on my list of priorities. That’s not to say it shouldn’t be, but it simply isn’t.

However, not being in a single state, life is not as I would have it, but is as “we” (husband and wife) would have it – and that’s a good thing.

The fact is that while I don’t understand the need to beautify my world, I have come to appreciate the beauty of “our” world. The truth is that in the end, I DO like a fresh coat of paint; I DO like a green lawn, and trees trimmed of dead limbs, and blooming flowers (even if the deer eat most of them before we can actually enjoy looking at the blossoms).

Perhaps, having been created in the image and likeness of God, our appreciation of color, balance, symmetry, and life’s many wonders is a reflection of who we are, and who’s we are. While there is labor and the expenditure of precious resources to maintain and support this weird aspect of our human nature, perhaps it is worth it as it also imbues us with deep satisfaction within.

It’s not that we can control nature, but we can bring order out of chaos. It takes time, but that is one of God’s great gifts. We come to discover that it isn’t the external control that satisfies, but the outward manifestation of internal grace that brings peace and joy.

And that’s a beautiful thing here in this, our browning valley.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Relaxation in the Valley

“The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.” Bertrand Russell

One of the wonderful, but unexpected, benefits of holidays and vacations is learning to relax. I’m not exactly a type-A personality. I know how to pace myself, for the most part. I enjoy my days off and time away from church and office. I’m not much of a work-a-holic, but still, relaxing takes a bit of doing for me.

When I need to go somewhere, there is no “enjoying the journey” as such. I set my sights on the destination and then plow ahead come hail or high water. It doesn’t bother me to stop for fuel or food, but there are few roadside attractions for which I’ll slow down and gawk, let alone visit.

Part of this is my Scottish ancestry. Now, admittedly, it only accounts for about 1/16th of my blood, but when it comes to thrift, I could pass for 100% Highlander. Some roadside attractions are a perversion of that wonderful Bible passage: You were a stranger, so I took you in. Hospitality is fine, but no one likes to be “taken in” – right?

Oh sure, when our children were growing up, we made sure to stop and enjoy the world’s “Mystery Spots” where the laws of gravity are suspended through the creative use of optical illusions. We enjoyed visiting the amusement parks with their roller coasters and fun houses. We bought our fair share of tee-shirts confirming where we’d been and what we’d done and seen. But as adults, with our kids out of the house, my tastes have changed; my desires have changed; my interests have changed.

I enjoy going places and doing things, but I don’t much care for the roadside attractions anymore. They hold a “been there, done that” quality to them that simply doesn’t appeal to me anymore. My preference has always been people. I like visiting family and friends and catching up with them. For me, it is the people that matter, not the sights.

I can be a bit fussy regards what I consider entertaining or fun, but we did change things up a bit. We decided to visit family in the Seattle area this year, but rather than taking the Interstate, as we normally would, we chose to make the journey via some old black-top highways instead. While the trip was slower, we came to discover that it was much more enjoyable.

Part of the pleasure was to be had in actually having to drive the car. We have gotten so used to zipping along freeways non-stop that we have forgotten the actual delights of driving. The old roads are narrower, curvier, and much more scenic. One must slow down, speed up, and pass through towns (rather than around them or past them via segregated corridors).

The trip that, by freeway, would have run about eleven hours took about sixteen to eighteen hours, but it was broken up into several overnight layovers. That made the expedition much more relaxing and gave us a chance to see parts of the world we had not seen before. We got to stop for meals at local diners, rather than at the tried-and-true chain restaurants we’re more used to. In short, we got to spend time IN America, rather than in passing THROUGH America, and that made all the difference for me.

Until now, most of my life has been focused outward – school, work, projects, obligations, meeting the needs, desires, and expectations of others. Keeping busy and “doing unto others” certainly has its own profits and rewards, but I think I am finally wising up and discovering the benefits to be gained by slowing down and turning inward.

By easing up on the accelerator, I find it has been easier for God to catch up and replenish my soul. In our jet-paced, turbo-charged world, we sometimes forget that God tends to be a walker. He walked in the cool of the evening in the Garden, and he walked the dusty trails of Galilee. He’s certainly got a long stride, but I’m beginning to think God prefers the sound of footsteps to the monotonous drone of a highway life.

As a follower of The Way, perhaps I don’t need to be so “driven” in this, our valley. It’s time, I think, to get some walking shoes, instead.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

A Slip in the Valley

“Do not look where you fell, but where you slipped.” Liberian Proverb

It was the fourth of July. It was not hot, but it was more than warm. The sun was shining brightly as my wife and I set up our chairs on Main Street just east of “The Fisherman.” We were about an hour ahead of the parade, but that’s OK. We weren’t in a hurry exactly, but we did want a decent place in which to sit and watch the spectacle unfold before us.

The sun dipped in and out of the clouds as we enjoyed the wait, which wasn’t long as we exchanged pleasantries with folks who came from near and far to experience a bit of small-town charm.

The parade was nice, and when it was finished, folks remarked on how much better (or worse) is was than last year’s event (depending on who one was listening to).

It was fun eavesdropping, listening in on the smattering of opinions offered by the roadside critics. I wondered how many of the complainers would join the Chamber to improve the event for next year. Without doing a survey, my gut tells me the answer is somewhere between none and zilch. Still, maybe a grump will come forward. You never know.

Years ago, we lived near a very small town called Kettle Falls on the Columbia River. They have no parade, but there is a town picnic every year at which contestants vie for the most prestigious position of all: Town Grouch. Travelers entering town are greeted by signs saying, “Welcome to Kettle Falls, Home to 1,550 Friendly People and 1 Grouch. It is the highlight of one’s life to be recognized as the Town Grouch for a year.

One of the keys to being an effective Grouch isn’t just having a grumpy attitude, but having solutions to offer.

While there are things that irritate me, I like to think I am open to considering solutions. “It is easy to curse the darkness,” they say, “but better to light a candle.”

One day I was helping to gather trash at a summer-time festival in a small town in which I was serving. As I bent down to pick up a bag of garbage I nicked my head on the corner of the open louvered window on the back of the trailer from which our fellowship group was selling hot buttered corn and nachos. I made a mental note to be more careful, and yet on each ensuing trip to the trash, I continually banged my head on the open window until, finally, I drew blood.

At that point I’d had quite enough. I did not blame the window or the trailer. They hadn’t done anything to me. Neither did I curse my own stupidity or carelessness. Instead, I grabbed some paper towels and duct tape and padded the corner of that window for the rest of the fair. Ironically, once it was padded, I never hit it again.

Grumps sometimes complain that no one ever listens to them, but if they can learn to offer solutions to their litany of complaints, I wonder if they won’t discover that people will not only start listening, but might even start implementing some of those ideas over time.

In any case, I enjoyed the parade. It was fun watching the crowd gather; chatting with friends and neighbors, honoring our veterans as they marched past; waving at the dignitaries (but avoiding the clowns), and realizing yet once again why people from every place and nation under heaven yearn to make this their home.

The Colors led the parade when it began. Hats off, hands over hearts, America stood at attention on thousands of Main Streets across small-town America. Young and old, rich and poor, male and female, firm and infirm – all rose to salute the flag in honor of all those who sacrificed life and limb to give it birth, raise it up, and pass it on to us.

America is a work in progress. Like an old Model-T, it needs constant attention and tinkering and is never all it could be, but it’ll get us there if we just hang on, hold on, and refuse to ever let go in this, our valley. If you’re grumpy, though, be sure to bring towels and duct tape!

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Power of Questions

“I am not afraid of storms for I am learning how to sail my ship.” Louisa May Alcott

One of the things I enjoy doing is sitting in the comfort of our home and watching the birds flit around outside our front window. I had never given much thought to birds. I grew up in Seattle and most of what they had there were gulls, pigeons, swallows and, come spring, robins. If there was anything else in the air, I didn’t notice.

Here in the Treasure State, of course, it is different. Our usual residents are the magpies, crows, and a variety of raptors, but with the advent of spring and warmer weather, in come all the migratory birds.

Heading down to the Madison Dam the other day with my sweetheart, we enjoyed watching bald eagles soar overhead, pelicans floating gently on the river, and muskrats swimming past. A fleet of Canada Geese crossed the road to the lake with their young ‘uns; an Osprey sat on a power pole surveying the land, and a flotilla of red-winged blackbirds played leap-frog with us as we drove along. It was magnificent!

Each morning we listen to the mourning doves land on our chimney’s tin cover, cooing and calling gently to one another to come visit or play. And now, we have some really beautiful birds – reddish heads, yellowish bibs, touches of white and brown – flying in and out of our evergreens in front. I called them Lone Rangers, for they had masks like the one Tonto’s friend wore in days of yore, but I wanted to know their true identity.

I snapped some pictures and sent them off to David Hoag, my good friend and go-to-guy for avian identification. I find he is much faster at identifying our feathered friends than I am (as I fumble my way through the Field Guide to North American Birds). He told me they were Cedar Waxwings, and the mystery was solved.

There is another bird that flies in and out so quickly I have NOT been able to snap a picture. He (or she) has a much deeper red head (more round and without a waxwing’s crest) and is covered with much brighter yellow over most of her body and wings. She is so quick and flighty that I haven’t really seen her well enough to compare her to the pictures in the field book, so that mystery shall continue.

Mysteries are OK. It is fun figuring out what things are, and today I often approach matters with the questions: Why, or How?

I don’t remember asking my parents “why” very often. I wasn’t inquisitive as a child. I mostly operated on the assumption that things simply “are.” When you flip a switch and the light comes on, I wouldn’t ask how it works or why; I simply noted that’s what happens when one flips a switch and that, as they say, would be that.

I suspect that one reason I lacked curiosity as a youngster is because I grew up feeling sort of dumb, and asking questions would simply confirm that impression so I wouldn’t ask anyone anything.

As I have gotten older, of course, I have discovered that being dumb isn’t permanent, especially when you learn to ask questions. Getting answers makes one less dumb, and that is a good thing. To be teachable – now THERE’s a concept I can embrace.

Over the years I have come to accept that I don’t know everything, and that’s OK. Birds don’t know everything either. In fact, being bird-brains I suspect they don’t know much, but what they DO know is enough for them. They know when to fly south and when to fly north; they know where to find food, drink, and mates. They know how to care for their young and how to protect them (for the most part) from predators and dangers.

What they do, they don’t do perfectly. One bird hit our front window and died instantly. My wife and I gave him a decent burial. I figured that’s the least we could do. Death, after all, is very much a part of life, and I have learned how to respect that, too.

Being dumb gets old, but learning to ask questions tends to keep us young in this, our valley, and that is a powerful truth.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Dreams in the Valley

“God’s gifts put man’s best dreams to shame.” Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Excavation is underway at Trinity. The church and parish hall have been moved and the excavators have cleared away the rubble and begun the foundation work. John Benedict, working the back hoe, found a couple of marbles (not the kind one would find in the Louvre, but round glass marbles).

I looked around and found an old bone. I figure it must have been the funny bone from some critter – maybe a deer or antelope – as it made me chuckle. It was probably buried there by one of the local ranchers’ dogs, or a coyote. Who can know such things? I didn’t see any other bones or skeletal remains, so am certain it was a random find.

John and I didn’t argue over it, so it was no bone of contention, and work continued unabated – at least until I had a thought.

I have come to learn through some six decades of riding the earth ‘round and ‘round the sun that when thoughts come to me, most folks may want to stand back or at least don helmets or body armor. Things can get ugly pretty fast, but they’re never quite that obvious at the time.

I watched John dip, scoop, swing, and dump load after load of beautiful Madison Valley top soil into his truck for hauling and I wondered. I wondered, “Just how hard could that be?”

So I asked John, when the truck sped off to dump a load, “Do you mind if I give that a try?”

Now, normally John doubles the bill when his customers want to help, but I suspect he thought to himself, “Surely this is a man of God, what could possibly go wrong.”

Courageous man that he is, he stepped out of the cab and allowed me to take his seat. He gave me a quick run-down of how the controls work (one controls the boom and cab, the other the bucket and something else – ah, what is life without details, eh?). Anyway, at the time, I had an inkling of what the controls did, but no idea how to get them to work together in concert.

John, though, was good teacher – brave and true. He stood by my side while I gave his excavator a major case of the Shakes. I did not know Construction Equipment could suffer from Delirium Tremens, but apparently in the right hands it can! After what seemed an eternity, I dipped the bucket into the earth, scooped a load up into the bucket, swung around, and dumped it into the truck. Half a day later (it seemed) I got the bucket up out of the truck bed and swung back around to the dig site (without hitting the church). Since there were only about ten hours of daylight left and a lot more work to do, I graciously returned the Captain’s Seat to the Job Commander. I believe that was one of the wisest decisions I have ever made.

It was nerve-wracking, but fun.

One of the things I’m learning in life is how important it is not to take one’s self too seriously. I am a preacher, pastor, and priest. I am not now, nor will I ever be put in charge of skip-loaders, earth-movers, or backhoes – and that is just fine with me. I got to try my hand at working one piece of equipment one time, and it was an exhilarating and refreshing experience.

God has equipped each and every one of us with the skills, tools, and temperaments to do what God has called us each to do. Part of life’s joy is in discovering for ourselves what it is we delight in, and then “putting our hand to the plow” moving forward to do that work and “be” that people.

It is OK to not do some things well. It is a relief, in fact, to know that none of us is Omni-competent. Being able to do all things perfectly well is God’s job, not ours. What a relief that is.

We simply do our part to the best of our ability and know God delights in our endeavors. At the end of the day, God doesn’t throw us a bone; He throws us a party – a real hoe-down (you might say) in this, our valley (and beyond) – and that’s enough.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Chicken Hawks in the Valley

The Prayer of the Chicken Hawk does not get him the chicken. Swahili Proverb

I was over in Jeffers the other day checking out the construction site where Trinity Church once sat. The church is still there, of course, but has moved some thirty feet or so to the north. Well, it didn’t actually move on its own. Tamietti movers jacked it up, braced it with steel beams and sturdy cribbing, and then slid it off its foundation in one of the slickest moves I have ever seen.

I was curious how they were going to move the church all in one piece, what with the bell tower and all the crazy architectural details. Somehow I thought they would jack it up, load it on some gargantuan moving truck, and drive off to its temporary resting place.

But no; they jacked it up, strategically arranged steel beams under the floor joists, then set the smaller i-beams onto channel glides resting on two sets of larger i-beams, and then they did something totally unexpected. They rubbed down the support beams with bars of Ivory Soap, and as they winched the church along those iron bars, they lubricated the runways with liquid dish soap. I didn’t note the brand, but I would say the church was moved along with great Joy!

I mentioned earlier that I was unsure how the job would be done, but I will also say that I was really not all that worried about it. I knew the movers had the experience, know-how, and equipment to do the job and to do it right. The church was in two sets of good hands, you might say.

I should also note that my confidence in the movers was not based solely on blind faith or personal testimonials. I watched them prepare for the move. They were working with something sacred and they honored that fact. They went to great pains to ensure that nothing would be damaged by carelessness or inattention. They treated the property as if it was not just their own – but God’s. Their reverence for the task entrusted to them impressed me mightily, so I was not worried. I trusted in Tamietti; I trusted in God also. They worked well together.
So, getting back to my inspection of the job site, I happened across a robin who seemed quite pleased with the work we had done. Standing on the rubble that was once the church’s foundation, the bird surveyed the scene with peepers sharpened – on the lookout for any edible morsel that should have the misfortune of catching the eye of the cheery little avian on site.

The meal is there. Of that the bird is certain. It knows the heart of the Creator, and so the robin does not fret. It prays for prey, but it does not just pray. It looks with eyes wide-open, seeking sustenance not only for itself, but for his children – his hatchlings.

It seems to me birds have a good way of understanding prayer. To act is not to doubt one’s prayer (or the God to whom one prays). We don’t pray to give God direction (OK, Lord, here are your marching orders for the day …). We pray to take direction from God.

Too many people pray, I fear, begging God to do this or that, but fail to rise up from their knees (or their bums – however one chooses to plead) to do the “thy will be done” part of their supplications!

A raptor looks for and finds the food it needs for the day. It does not can, refrigerate, or freeze what it finds; it seeks, finds, eats, and shares.

I’ve been told that some tricky birds lay their eggs in robins’ nests so the rusty-breasted thrushes will hatch and feed birds that aren’t even their own. Robins don’t seem to care; they are not resentful, nor do they act put-upon. They hatch and feed all comers, for that’s just what they’re called to do!

We should to approach prayer like the chicken hawk and the robin; we ought to keep a sharp look-out for God’s answers. They will always appear; all we need to do is look and work for them. And keeping a little Joy on hand doesn’t hurt us either in this, our valley.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Catching Flies in the Valley

“True contemplation is not a psychological trick but a theological grace.” Thomas Merton

Well, it was bound to happen. The first house fly of the season has made it into our house. Drat!

It’s a quick little thing, too. Flies in the fall are usually pretty slow and easy to track down and exterminate – but the spring flies are quicker than all get-out. I think I did a double marathon yesterday during my fly-hunt. Sadly, I was not successful. By evening I was left in a heap while it was buzzing the “Wild Blue Yonder” song, or some buggy variation of that tune.

Fortunately, as I was shutting off lights for the night I discovered it was in our bonus room, which is windowless and with a single way in or out. Ah ha! I had him right where I wanted him (or her), so I stepped into the room, shut the door, and – voila – it was mano-a-buggo.

There was a problem, however: I was unarmed. My trusty fly swatter was downstairs, so I was left to do battle with brute force and cunning on my side, and with speed, agility, and the intelligence of a gnat on the other side. The war was on!

An hour later I declared a truce and departed the room with the fly trapped inside. If only I had used my mental powers earlier, I could have left the fly in a room bereft of food or water and gone to bed smiling. Uff da!

This pre-season battle of the wits betwixt man and beast reminded me of my childhood.

Growing up, flies were a much more common pest in our home. Our doors and windows had screens in them, but only in the technical sense that the things nailed into place over our windows had once had a metal mesh fabric. Most had holes large enough to drive a Panzer through, so when we opened windows to let air into the house in the spring, a flotilla of flies, gnats, bees, wasps, spiders, mice, cats, and elephants would come on in and set up house. It was kind of embarrassing, but that was life in simpler days when “Open Concept” did not mean a home without walls – but screens with humongous gaps.

There was a benefit to having such an open and welcoming home-life, of course. My siblings and I couldn’t get into too much trouble as we spent our summers chasing down flies with a vengeance. It also helped us develop problem-solving skills and drove the engines of youthfully creative ingenuity.

Flies were fast back in the day, but so was I. I have slowed down a bit of late, but back then I could snatch flies out of the air with chop sticks. Mr. Miyagi had nothing on me! But I didn’t want to limit myself to catch and release, as much fun as that was. I had a cruel, homicidal side to my soul back then. I bored quickly of snatch and squeeze fly-a-cide. For a change of pace, I would track down flies in the house and shoot them with rubber bands. I discovered I had a knack for hitting them – on the wing as well as when standing still.

My brother and I didn’t just use any limp laggy bands in our anti-Muscoidea missions. We used those heavy, thick rubber bands like one uses to secure heavy parcels. We got tired of shooting one fly at a time and knew we needed to up the ante, so I invented my first weapon of mass destruction. I took a board, nailed a stiff clothespin to it, cut an inner tube into strips – manufacturing ammunition that would take out a flock of flies in one fell swoop – and it worked!

After a couple of rounds up against my Rubber Ranger Bazooka launcher, the flies made their exodus to greener, less deadly pastures. The war was over, and we celebrated VF day with Kool-Aid and cookies. Victory had never felt so good.

Over the years, my thirst for fly-blood has subsided; I am a man of peace now – by which I mean I am simply out of rubber bands and clothes pins in this, our valley. I think I’ll fly over to True Value on a wing and a prayer and try to rectify that problem today.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Being Floored in the Valley

“I laid a foundation as a wise builder … If anyone builds on this foundation … his work will be shown for what it is …” excerpts from 1 Cor. 3

Anyone walking around Trinity Church in Jeffers (Montana) today will think they are in the middle of a war zone. The place is a shambles. The front steps and wheelchair ramp have been demolished and removed. The steps to the parish hall are gone. The Sacristy has been gutted, and dirt, dust, and debris are everywhere. The furnace has been pulled up out of the crawl-space and Jesus has been found.

No, really … Jesus has been found! Contractors found a five foot tall wooden carving of a Sacred Heart Jesus. He could use a bit of a cleaning, but is otherwise in fine shape. He was located in a space that was inaccessible until after the floor had been removed in a small add-on connecting the church with the parish hall.

What on earth was the statue doing there? Who put it there, and why?

I have lots of questions, but the “find” is exciting. Since the hall was dragged over to its current location from a nearby ranch in the 1950s, we know we don’t have a relic dating back to ancient times, so we are unlikely to find many Indiana Joneses making a pilgrimage to Jeffers. That’s too bad. Their brain-trust would be helpful.

I learned, talking to one of our locals that the statue used to sit in a corner of the church building, greeting people who came to worship. Apparently the day came when he no longer needed to be there (in the minds of some), and so he was taken away. He once was lost, but now is found … Hey, that would make for a wonderful song!

Now, I know that a statue is an “it” and not a “he”, but Jesus was a teacher – a rabbi – and I believe He continues to teach us, if only we would look and listen.

Since our renovations will take months to complete, we will have time to consider what to do with Jesus. The real question in the meantime, of course, is what will Jesus(!) do with us (WWJDWU – I wonder if that would sell well as a bracelet)?

It seems like my life is constantly under renovation. Try as I might to stay ahead, there are things that always need fixing. There is always dirt and debris that needs to be picked up from the things I do, and there is always the stuff that falls apart because I haven’t been taking care of them the way I ought to have! Oi vei!

But what joy there is in finding a treasure beneath the floorboards. That, in itself, has made the journey a wonder – and we’ve only just begun!

How about with life? I wonder if the fear we have of digging into our souls – the fear of finding scary things (like spiders and cobwebs – and there are plenty of those, I’ll tell you!) doesn’t diminish the very real possibility we will find, instead, treasure – a pearl of great price?

What if, by digging down deep, we discover, not a monster, but a source of peace and blessing? It reminds me of the old song (One Tin Soldier) where the valley people make war on the mountain people to steal their treasure, only to discover that which was hidden was nothing more than a sign: “’Peace on earth’ – was all it said.”

I look at the Sacred Heart of Jesus statue, and he seems to be at peace. He holds up his hand in a sign of blessing, and suddenly I am, myself, at peace, and I like that feeling.

A statue does not bless, of course. A piece of wood does not actually bless, but it is a blessing. I believe God works through all of creation, including those odd bits of stuff we run across every now and then. When we see what we have in front of us, and take a moment to ponder, think, or ruminate on the person, place, thing, or situation, we have an opportunity to receive a blessing.

The peace of God passes all understanding, and that floors me – just to think about it in this, our valley.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Being Straight in the Valley

“If I tell you I’m good, you would probably think I am boasting. If I tell you I’m no good, you KNOW I’m lying.” Bruce Lee

When I was growing up, there were occasions when I was not on my best behavior. I know that must come as a shock to some of you, but it is true. When I was caught misbehaving, my parents would say, “Straighten up, young man!” They generally had a few more choice words added to the mix to help me understand how serious they were, and it worked. I would turn away from my transgressions – often for minutes or even hours – until they were out of sight and out of mind. In the fullness of time, I would once again be me.

We are a mix, of course. We are all a mix of good and bad, noble and perverse. We make every effort to be relatively decent, but sometimes we fall down on the job and are just barely tolerable.

The other day I was doing some pyrography (wood burning). I was burning an image of a local church onto a piece of oak. The picture came out pretty good, but I hadn’t noticed the defects in the wood I was using. It wasn’t a good piece of oak. The board had been manufactured by gluing several dissimilar pieces of oak together. If the board is going to become a shelf, that’s not a problem. But to serve as the backdrop to a piece of art I was creating, the result was disastrous.

The problem is that I hadn’t considered all aspects I needed to in choosing what to use in my wood-burning. I am a neophyte, and making mistakes is part of the process of learning. I don’t have to beat myself up over it.

No, I made a mistake, and now I know I must choose my wood more carefully. My goal is to make good – not perfect – art. My goal is to become a better – not a perfect – craftsman.

I did another, similar project using a board of poplar, and the result was much better. Learning from my earlier experiences, I prepared the wood ahead of time, sanding it smooth and squaring off all of the cuts. I looked at the grains and the colorations of the planks and arranged my pencil lines to take better advantages of those traits. I spent more time setting up and framing the drawings so they would look more pleasing to those who would be viewing them. In short, I took what I was learning and tried to apply that knowledge to my current work, and the results are an improvement.

It seems that is some of what it means to “straighten out.” It isn’t a matter of being perfect, but of working to become better.

This is Holy Week, and for many, that means the end of Lent and preparing for Easter. I’m happy to report I’ve already got my Peeps in hand! But before we jump into Easter, I think it would be helpful for each of us to review these past forty days and ask how we’ve done. What have we learned about our relationship with God, neighbor, and self?

In preparing for company, we always straighten up the house. That generally means tossing stuff into closets and cupboards – out of sight and out of mind. It seems, though, that Lent isn’t about hiding all our junk as much as it is about clearing OUT much of what separates us from the love of God, neighbor, and self.

It occurs to me that there isn’t much a piece of lousy oak can do to change. It did not choose to be what it was: scraps glued together to form a board, but in the hands of the right wood-worker, it’s able to fulfill its destiny. So can we; we are in the hands of a master carpenter who did his finest work on the roughest wood there was – the Cross – converting scraps into saints!

Maybe we should worry less about becoming something we aren’t, and letting God make of us what we are “in Him”. God’s done a lot more with a lot less. I have faith in His skills and believe in his hands Church-life could be a bit more Poplar and useful in this, our valley.