Saturday, December 27, 2014

Christmas in the Valley

O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum, Wie treu sind deine Bl├Ątter – 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!