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.