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.