Saturday, December 26, 2015

Dreams in the Valley

Christmas started with a dream / God’s dream for you and me / Yule not find it ‘neath a tree / This dream for me and thee / Not in the stores, nor in the malls / Nor in the things of earth / The dream was meant for human heart / The birth of Christ: a Start!

God is a dreamer.

You might think that’s kind of strange.  Some would argue that God is like a clock maker who made the universe, set it in motion, and left.  Theologians tell us that God is omniscient:  God knows all; or God has a plan:  As in a game of chess, God moves us piece-like around the board, and when all is said and done: Checkmate (or Armageddon). 

But that’s not God.  When you read the scriptures, you see that God is less an architect, and more an artist.  I mean, listen to the creation story:

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. The breath of God blew gently over the face of the waters …” (Genesis 1, NKJV)

That’s not the picture of an engineer looking over a set of blueprints to ascertain the structural integrity of a project. That’s the picture of an artist, working with a fresh canvass.

She looks it over, and taking a deep breath she dips her brush into the oils and begins to apply more than colors; she applies her very soul to the canvass one stroke at a time.

“In the beginning God …” is the story of an artist – a dreamer – at work.

God prepared this magnificent jewel orbiting the sun, a glorious planet with clean water, fertile land, and lush vegetation.  Living creatures of every shape and size were present.  Birds sang the sun up in the morning, and crickets sang the sun down at night.  There were no endangered species.  There were landmasses, pounding oceans, fresh-water lakes, life-sustaining rivers and streams. 

It must have taken God’s breath away the first time he stepped back to survey this wonderful work in progress.  One of the most mesmerizing pictures of the late 20th Century is that photograph of the earth rising above the surface of the moon; Earthrise, they call it.

You can almost picture the angels crowding around, noses pressed against the studio glass in hushed silence, watching God at work. 

What did God create?

God created a magnificent habitat for all – a Dream house.  God gave us a place to call home.  That was his dream.  That was his vision: to create a place where all could live in harmony with God, creation, and one another; where lion and lamb would frolic by day; where child and adder could cuddle by night.

It didn’t last long, of course. Wanting to be “like gods” we destroyed God’s dream house, trashing the environment, hunting majestic creatures into extinction, and our favorite past-time, waging war against all comers. God’s dream was shattered, like a tacky leg lamp crumpled beyond repair.

Many of our dreams lie shattered too. Pink slips are handed out at Christmas parties – shattering dreams; loved ones are killed by drunk drivers – shattering dreams; men in uniform quietly arrive on the front porch to deliver sad news from overseas – shattering dreams. For everything there is a season, but in every season: shattered dreams.

What is God to do?
Closing his eyes, God stretches out a new canvass; God begins to paint – a new hope and a new dream.  He starts with a baby in a manger in a Podunk town in a dustbin land. We can’t see it of course, but God can.

Lying there in manger rude / the child of God is born / and giving birth to hope and peace / he’s here on Christmas morn / and if we deign to shut our eyes / we’ll feel the oils applied / upon the canvass of our lives – these lives for which he died. / So come, ye faithful, raise the strain / for Christ is born – that peace o’er us may reign!

May the good Lord apply the oils of love, joy, and peace upon the canvass of your souls – the substance of hope in this, our valley – his Christmas gift to you.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Winter Comes to Jeffers

 Here is the deck at Trinity, as seen from the Parish Hall's South Entrance.

Here is Trinity as seen from the Southeast corner of the property.

Here is the church as seen from across the road. No one has plowed the parking lot. What you see is what the wind and nature have done.

Trinity, taken from a bit further North of the previous spot (gee, sounds like something a referee would say after a penalty).

The same shot, but with camera turned for more of a Portrait effect. It warrants a "meh" from my perpective. How about yours?

St. Francis has come in for the winter (as resin is apparently sensitive to the cold), and greets parishioners and guests alike.

Two more shots from the corner of Jeffers and Jeffers Loop Roads. I think I like the one above better (although I just barely lost a bit of the weather-vane atop the bell tower.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Shadows, Feet, and Refuge

Almighty God, grant us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light … (Book of Common Prayer: Collect for Advent 1)

As I have gotten older, I find I need more and better light to see what I am doing. The other day I was putting together some electronic doo-dads and gizmos for a friend. I had all the parts and I knew where everything was supposed to go, but no matter how I turned the pieces of equipment to maximize what light was available, I just couldn’t draw a bead on what I was doing.

I even tried bobbing my head up and down like a drunken pigeon, looking through every square millimeter of my eyeglasses to find some point – ANY point – where there might be a hint of things coming into focus, but it was all for naught.

Amazingly, when I have good, strong light, like with those ubiquitous LED flashlights you find everywhere, my vision improves tremendously. With enough candle-power, I can see like a teenager (albeit, a teenager with arthritis). Without those supplemental lumens, though, I’ve got the visual acuity of a bat. Sadly, I don’t have the bat’s uncanny ability to “see” with my ears. Even if I did, I’m not sure I could plug things together very well with my ears, so it’s all a moot point, anyway.

The bottom line is, I like light and find life less painful with good illumination.

One night I was away from home on business. The hotel accommodations were plush, but I wasn’t as familiar with the room as I am with my own house. I got up to enjoy a night-time pilgrimage that is required more often these days than in the past. I didn’t want to wake up the light of my life, so I padded forth bravely in the shadowy murkiness of the suite to take care of business and discerned that the foot of a chair at the end of the bed is harder than the middle toe at the end of my foot.

I don’t want to exaggerate the level of pain I experienced, but it woke up my wife. For a brief moment she thought Godzilla had made an unexpected visit to Billings and was rampaging through our room, looking to devour someone. I explained to her what had happened, which helped divert my attention from the blindingly excruciating trauma of the moment.

My wife offered to call for a toe truck, but since we didn’t have “Triple Eh” trip insurance, and since I hadn’t tripped anyway, I declined the offer. A year or so down the road the swelling and bruising have pretty well gone away; I can simulate a pretty convincing limp if the situation warrants it, although my better half suggests it is more the excuse that’s what’s limp.

Anyway, the point is, darkness is not bad in and of itself. The darkness did not stub my toe; I did. The chair did not assault me; I did it to myself. I could not blame the darkness for my injury; I could only acknowledge that I had been careless – and shall strive to be more cautious in the future.

There is an old proverb: Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. I suspect that is why we take time to decorate our homes, hang lights on our houses, and string lights on our Christmas (or “holiday”) trees. We are “putting on the armor of light” so to speak.

The problem for human-kind, however, isn’t the lack of light in the literal sense of the word. When needed, most of us can flip a switch, light a candle, or pull out a kerosene lamp (or flashlight). No, the darkness we have to watch out for is the darkness of soul.

Some people fear the dark, but I think it is fear itself that is the darkness with which we struggle. We are afraid of people and situations we don’t understand. We can light a lamp and seek to understand, or we can shut our blinds, bolt our doors, and shoot our shadows.

As for me, I prefer to take refuge in God. God chases away shadows, exposing life to experiences, situations, and people I’ve learnt to appreciate in this, our valley – much to my delight.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Lightening the Load in the Valley

“Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light ...” (Episcopal Prayer Book)

It is now just about a month before Christmas. Happy Thanksgiving!

As you read this, a significant number of turkeys will have fulfilled their destinies in this mortal life, and now turkeys of another sort will begin crawling down crowded malls, creeping through crammed stores, and clicking through the world-wide-web, seeking the Reason for the Season, the Meaning of Christmas, and (maybe) “the perfect gift.”

It is a crazy time of year, and as I have gotten older, I have come to appreciate just how fast time flies. Further, I am aware of how less and less capable I am of keeping up with the frenetic pace of our world and culture. I am fully in sympathy with the character who cries out, “Stop the world; I want to get off!”

Each of us comes to this season, like Santa, with a bag full of stuff; but unlike Santa, our bags contain trash we have accumulated over the years. We’re so used to carrying it around we are unaware we even have a burden. I wonder if snails know they are hauling a house around with them. No wonder they are so sluggish.

Santa, of course, has the right idea. This is the season for lightening the load, not increasing it.

One of the perverse realities of human ingenuity is our capacity to take a good idea and twist it so badly that it is no longer good, but toxic.

“It is more blessed to give than to receive” is a wonderful truism, and yet look at what we do with it: we are wracked with guilt when we receive a gift from someone we didn’t buy a gift for; the average American (Note: singular) spends $750-950 on gifts and accessories for Christmas; and we buy gifts on credit (which means we spend money we don’t have in hand).

At the end of the day, many of us don’t feel blessed; we’re worn out and frustrated, our nerves are frazzled, and we’re about as far from “love of God, love of neighbor, and love of self” as we can get.

So what can we do?

A good friend of mine shared an outline he and his family have adopted as a means of reigning in some of the excesses of Christmas, and I would like to pass them along to you for your consideration.

The first is this: Jesus is a radically free person; he came to liberate others. To prepare for the birth of the savior, we are invited to identify what’s in the bag (more than “what’s in the box”) and eliminate everything that does not promote a life of love, joy, peace, and happiness. Start with the world’s expectation, then the expectations of others, and finally your own expectations. In other words, “Cast aside the works of darkness.”

Secondly, Jesus respects all life; he came that we might have life in its fullness. To honor the birth of the savior, we are invited to participate in activities and events that improve our relationships and personal well-being. Don’t waste precious resources on impersonal gift cards or meaningless gifts, but choose gifts that will delight both the recipient and the giver (by being meaningful, NOT by being expensive).

Thirdly, Jesus cares about all people; he came to involve himself with others. To experience the birth of the savior, we are invited to set aside the bag entirely, and invest our time in worship and in service; being truly “present” with those we visit, write, or call on during the season. We are invited to be the hands and feet of the savior during this season, visiting others with the goodness of the “real presence” of Christ.

These changes will not come easily, of course, as they fly in the face of what we have come to expect during the holidays. We may find ourselves standing alone among others who don’t understand the choices we’ve made, but by being unburdened by seasonal expectations, being intentional and thoughtful in our giving, and by being truly present with others, we can cast aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light in this, our valley. Happy Advent, folks!