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.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Tenacity in the Valley

“Train up your child in the way they are to go, even when old they will not depart from it.” Proverbs 22:6

I was driving down the highway the other day when I glanced at my driver’s side window. There, hanging on for dear life was a bug. It wasn’t really a bug; it was a flying type insect. Not being an entomologist, I don’t know what it was. I can tell you it wasn’t a common house fly, horse fly, wasp, bee, locust, or mosquito. But it was something with wings, and she hitched her ride somewhere between Ennis and Jeffers. Beyond that I haven’t got a clue.

What amazed me, though, was how she hung onto the glass as I zipped down the highway. How does she do that, I wondered? I couldn’t picture the glass having enough dirt for her to gain a claw hold; neither did it seem clean enough for suction cup feet to glom onto, either.

However she did it, she was tenacious. She hung on for a while, and when it was time, she let go and disappeared. I presume she flew over to the sand bar on Odell Creek to grab something to drink and maybe chat with the chiggers and ticks.

As interesting as are the mechanics involved in “how” she hung on, I found myself also wondering “why” she hung on as long as she did, for hanging on is hard to do.

I know; I’ve got the attention span of a gnat. I will concentrate on something for a few milliseconds and then my mind finds another trail to wander; I reach a fork in the road and without fail, I take it.

I don’t know if the lack of focus is a character defect, a mental disorder, or a lack of discipline and will power. I have no idea. I would have to give the matter some thought, and Lord knows THAT ain’t going to happen any time soon.

What I do know, however, all kidding aside, is that if one wants to get good at something, one has to learn how to hang on and to persevere – and one does not have to be perfect at it. It is sufficient to hang on long enough to improve, and to be willing to let go long enough to advance, and then to hang on again some more.

That’s how caterpillars make progress, isn’t it? A horse may have long powerful legs to help it go long distances very quickly, but the caterpillar’s short stubs move it far enough and fast enough to load up on the energy she needs to become a butterfly before the season is finished. She is not in competition with the horse, so her ego’s not battered and bruised when the horse trots by. She creeps, she eats, and in the fullness of time, she soars. She may start slow and ugly in life, but later on she neither bites nor stings, is pretty to watch and is a world class pollinator. What’s more, many species of butterfly range over 2,000 miles in their lifetime. One would never know that if they focused only on the caterpillar, would they?

So what can we learn about tenacity and hanging on from flying hitchhikers and butterflies?

First, find satisfaction in being who you are. In Socratic terms: Know yourself. You don’t have to be better or more tenacious than your neighbor; just be better today than you were yesterday.

Second, be teachable. We can learn from books and bugs alike. Be open to learning from the expertise and experiences of yourself and others.

Third, focus on the now. If you are learning a new hobby or trade, take it one step at a time, and concentrate on the current step. Get good at what you’re doing, and then move along.

Fourth, ask for help if you need it. Few people feel like they are experts, but they’re quite honored when asked to provide instruction or insights. We are called to respect the dignity of every person; when we ask for help, we build up those whose help we seek.

Lastly, don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Recognizing a mistake is an act of learning! It’s part of being human.

So let’s bug out and tenaciously embrace our humanity in this, our valley.

Monday, April 14, 2014

On the GO in the Valley

“Now the LORD said to Abram, ‘Go …’” Genesis 12:1

The weather was beautiful yesterday. The sun was shining, the birds were chirping and singing, the deer were grazing in the peaceable kingdom that is our valley – all was and is as it should be.

Of course no day is perfect. It was too nice to sit in front of the computer all day, so my bride and I went out and spent some quality time in the yard cleaning up the winter’s debris from our lawn. There was the usual assortment of twigs and branches that have blown down in the varied and sundry blasts of wintry wind; there were the leaves we didn’t quite get to last fall for one reason or another; we also managed to scoop up many tokens of affection left behind by our ever-growing herd of local mule deer. Ah, spring!

You may think I am complaining, but I’m not. It isn’t that I enjoy playing pick-up-chips in the yard, but I do enjoy the sun’s warming embrace. The other day I drove over to Virginia City on roads that were quite treacherous in the morning – a veritable ice rink – and by early afternoon those same roads were bare and dry.

Winter’s not done, of course, but her icy grip is weakening. The frigid blasts of cold Canadian air are giving way to more moderate breezes from the south and west, and I like that. Where we have spent much of the past few months hunkered down, weathering the winter storms and sub-freezing temperatures within the confines of hearth and home, we and our neighbors are increasingly anxious to enjoy what is yet to come: spring thaw and warmer, more pleasant days.

“I lift up my eyes to the hills,” says the psalmist. Each morning the sun rises a bit earlier and makes its appearance just a tad north of where it rose the day before. A month ago it hove into view just above the saddle to the south of Fan Mountain; today it came up over Bee Hive peak just north of Fan Mountain. Wow!

In short, shaking out the cobwebs of winter’s sleep, the world around us, like the sun, is on the move.

The trumpeter swans have signaled their return with trumpets blaring; the Canadian geese are honking (their love of Jesus, I presume); the crows and/or ravens are paired up and dancing with unabashed joy in the skies above; and the ground squirrels are skipping their way across the snowy fields in search of food and who knows what else.

The world is on the move. It is as if God has fired off a starter’s pistol that each soul can hear. Like Abram, millennia ago, we hear God say, “Go,” and like the psalmist we break out in song – the song of cattle calving, ranchers repairing their fences, store keepers stocking up on supplies for the seasonal influx of fisher folk, hikers, campers, and sojourners.

God said “Go” to Abram but God did not just say, “Go.” God added one more thing to his command: “I will bless you so that you will be a blessing.”

I wonder what life in the valley would look like if we were to take seriously God’s call to go AND to bless.

I realize that scooping up deer drops isn’t the most romantic, exciting thing one can do, but I also know the yard looks a lot better for the effort, and one is now free to roam about the lawn without fear of tracking certain treasures into the house. That may not sound like much of a blessing, and yet to one’s spousal unit it surely is and was!

I wonder if the Land of Promise isn’t less about land and more about one’s attitude towards the world in which we dwell, and the people around whom we live. God told Abram to go, and the story continues, “So Abram went …” He didn’t just think about it or talk about it; he just went and did it.

That’s what I’m going to do. I am going to do what needs to be done, enjoy it (even if it kills me), and I’m going to keep an eye out for the deer in this, our valley.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Being of Service in the Valley

“Learn the lesson that, if you are to do the work of a prophet, what you need is not a scepter but a hoe.” Bernard of Clairvaux

I have been reading an interesting book, Six Frigates, by Ian W. Toll. It is the story of the founding of the United States Navy after the Revolution up to and including the War of 1812. I haven’t finished it yet, but it is a fascinating tale. I have especially enjoyed seeing how the debates in congress regarding holding the line on taxes and spending have not changed a whit in nearly two and a half centuries. Only the names of the players have changed.

One of the sagas Toll relates regards the Frigate Chesapeake. If ever there was an ill-starred ship, that was it. No matter who was in charge, she never seemed to be ready for whatever she faced. She was stopped, boarded, and became an embarrassment to the country in peace time, and she was soundly beaten by a slightly inferior foe (and dragged off in chains, so to speak, and paraded before her enemies to her shame) in wartime.  

Why had the Chesapeake failed against a roughly equal opponent while her sister Frigate (the Constitution) had succeeded in her contests?

One factor was simply a matter of dumb luck. In the days of sailing ships, taking out a rudder, wheel, or mast would drastically reduce a ship’s chances in battle.

Secondly, the Chesapeake had a fairly new crew with little or no experience with their guns. They simply had not practiced. Their opponents, on the other hand, were experienced and captained by an officer who was fanatical about training.

While luck played a part, the primary difference was in the level of training amongst the players.

What has that got to do with faith?

Well, as we make our way into the season of Lent this week, which begins on Ash Wednesday, March 5th, I think it is good to note the purpose of the season isn’t to flog our members, but to train ourselves up for service. We serve our God and our community better when we practice our faith.

How exactly does one “practice” their faith? Well, first of all, by just “doing it”.

We learn to pray and to pray better by praying regularly. We make time to pray upon waking, morning, noon-time, afternoon, evening, and when heading to bed. We pray before each meal. We end each meal with a prayer of thanksgiving. What I have learned is that it is harder to get into trouble or to misbehave if one’s mind is focused on talking to God who stands and sits beside us, and who also lives within us. So praying regularly and often throughout the day should help us become more of one mind with God, making the aim of our prayers to be more faithful and effective in our daily living.

Second of all, we are called to read scripture. Don’t think of the characters as dusty old people from long ago and far away. Put yourself in their shoes. These are your stories, really. The Gospels tell the story of Jesus asking YOU to be a disciple; of God healing YOU when you were sick; of God taking YOUR side when you were beat down or hungry. This is God humbling YOU when you got too big for your britches.

Practice putting yourself in the picture and see if that doesn’t help you become more faithful and humble as a child of God. The purpose of reading scripture isn’t the memorization of verses, but the transformation of lives.

The third thing we are called to do is review our own lives and take those things that do not measure up to God’s expectations, and throw them out like the trash. Take your resentments, laziness, or egotism and throw them away, and replace them with the fresh springtime flowers of forgiveness, fervor, and humility.

The point is, Lent is a season that invites us to clear the decks for action – not to destroy, but to bring the kingdom of heaven closer in our own lives, and in the lives of those around us. It’s my desire that God should be the master of my fate and the captain of my soul in this, our valley. Happy sailing.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Anecdotes in the Valley

“Here begins the Good News about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God …” Mark 1:1

A while back I was driving down Bear Trap Canyon from Bozeman and looked at some of the scrubby evergreen trees that dot the landscape along the way. I was doing a bit of daydreaming as I sometimes do when traveling down old familiar roads, and an image began to form in my mind.

It wasn’t much of an image; it was more of a thought or concept, and as it rolled around that vast expanse of inner cranial space that keeps my ears from touching, the barest outline of a story found a nook into which it took up lodging, and stuck.

I gave it no more thought as I continued my journey home, but the seed had been planted. Tendrils stretched out and, from time to time, began to tickle my imagination here and there until I couldn’t ignore it any longer.

Every now and then I would sit down and try to give the story some shape and substance, but each draft turned out to be a false start, a false hope, a false beginning. It seemed hopeless, and yet the story continued to nag and nudge until I found the format in which it begged to be written. When that happened – BANG – it was there, and I honestly struggled to keep up with the tale as it unfolded far faster than my hunt-and-peckery little fingers could fly.

I finally finished it last week, although it is “not ready for prime time,” as they say. It hasn’t gone out to an editor or publisher, nor even to an agent. It may not even ever get published, and that’s OK, for that’s not exactly why I wrote it.

Why did I write it? Simply because it is a story that would give me no rest until I gave birth to it. Now she needs to be cleaned up and allowed to mature, but that will be fun. The labor is finished, now the work begins.

That’s the way of stories, isn’t it? Don’t they beg to be told?

Humans are the only creatures I know who gather together to share stories, ideas, thoughts, and to ask questions.

Deer, elk, and geese may congregate in herds and flocks for a wide variety of reasons, such as procreation and security, but humans often assemble for little more purpose than to talk.

I recently spent an hour or so with a person who complained about a friend who had bored him with her endless tale of woe when they were out for a walk. Near the end of our time together he caught the irony of having done with me what he was complaining about his companion doing with him. We couldn’t help but laugh.

Much of the time, that’s what we’re here for. We tell each other our tales; we enhance and embellish them in order to gain a more attentive audience, and when done, we feel a bit relieved that we’ve been heard and understood, which is all most of us really want out of life and companionship.

We want to be heard and understood.

One of the gifts we provide one another is the time and place to share our anecdotes and significant events in our lives. I think it is helpful if our stories serve a purpose. I must admit I bore easily when I listen to someone prattle on with gossip or inane triviality, or when it’s all about “them”.

I also know that what may be trivial to me may be inordinately important to the teller of the tale, but still …

The pathway to good conversation has got to be the capacity to share and to listen. There is much each of us has experienced than can help others to live better. The Bible tells us we should work to build one another up, rather than to tear apart or knock down.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear our politicians have gotten that memo; I see the attack ads have already begun. Sigh.

A friend once said, “We should say what we mean, and mean what we say, but not say it meanly.”

I think that is a good place to stop in this, our anecdotal valley. May your words be like honey; Sweet dreams!