Thursday, December 21, 2017

Santa and the Stranger

Twas the night before Christmas … – C.C. Moore

Santa sat in his easy chair sawing logs when he was awakened by the approaching jingle jangle of Oof-Dah, the house elf.

“Santa,” whispered Oof-Dah, “it’s time.”

Santa wiped the crusty sleep from his blood-shot eyes while squinting toward a novelty clock that hung upon the wall. Rudolph’s hands pointed out the hour and minutes whilst his tail swung away in the rhythmic dance of a pendulum. It took Santa’s peepers a few moments to clear away enough eye-slime to see the time.

“Not again,” he groaned, as much to himself as to Oof-Dah.

There once was a time when Santa loved Christmas. For one thing, Christmas wasn’t a day, but a way of life. In fact, not only was Christmas a way of life, it was THE way of life. This was long before Santa was even called Santa; he was Nicholas, Bishop of Myra.

Towns-folk knew him as a nice old man who mostly spent time tending to the business of his church – reading, writing, preparing sermons, hearing confessions, pronouncing absolutions for the penitent of heart. He visited the homes of the sick, anointing them with oil, offering prayers, a gentle touch upon their fevered brows, baptizing those who appeared ready to take their final journey into the loving arms of God.

Nicholas could often be found wandering the port-side piers, talking to sailors, taking in hand letters to loved ones (to be delivered in the event they did not return from their nautical sojourns). Sailors would occasionally hand Nicholas a coin or two, asking him to help those in need. It didn’t seem like much to those crusty salts, but it was something, and they knew they could, in their own meager way, help Nicholas carry out his charitable work.

Nicholas would also visit the prisons, conversing with both guards and prisoners. Many detainees languished in jail, lost and forgotten by their families – disowned, even. They relied on the mercy of this holy man who brought food and water to help meet their most basic needs.

Sometimes Nicholas was their only visitor; he treated both guards and prisoners with the same love and respect he showed to all people. He reminded the guards that despite the differences of their situations, “all are brothers and sisters,” so he admonished them to “treat one another as you would be treated.”

Nicholas died, as all people do, but he was not forgotten. He exemplified in his own life the way he believed Jesus of Nazareth had lived. There were three pillars to his faith: Do justice; be merciful; walk humbly with God. Beyond that, there was nothing more to do than to practice those principles in all one’s affairs.

Santa looked up with a start. He found himself doing that more and more – reminiscing on the old days when things were simpler, the days before he had been transformed from a living, breathing, loving bishop of far-away Myra to a jolly old elf of the frozen northlands – a mythical creation with so-called magical powers, but no real substance.

Ever since Moore captured him in that fanciful poem, Santa had become a prisoner of Commercial Interests. The kind and gentle saint had been Gulagged – interned in a frozen wasteland from which there was no escape.

No escape, unless …

Oof-Dah gave Santa a wink.

Santa looked at his shackled wrists – chained to the belts of Avarice, Inebriation, and Accumulation – and in just a blink of the eye, his fetters fell away.

Oof-Dah smiled. “You’re free, Santa,” was all he said.

Santa sat there gob smacked. “Wha-happened?” he queried, wondering just how on earth he had been suddenly set free from the shackles of a commercialized perdition.

As Santa pondered the imponderable he glanced at the nearby fireplace. Astride a blazing yule log, a solitary figure stood silently and slipped some keys into a robe that was somehow not consumed by the flames. The Mysterion said not a word, but Santa perceived an answer to his unspoken questions in the face of the One who was not a stranger, but a friend. That message?

Do justice, Be Merciful. Walk humbly with God.

“Ho ho ho-kay,” he laughed, and holding tight the hand that freed him, went about dispensing gifts of love, joy, and peace to all in need.

May all who find themselves in Santa's muck-lucks find themselves likewise unshackled by the One who came to set all people free; Merry Christmas from this, our valley!

Friday, December 1, 2017


I grew up in a Union (Teamsters) home with parents who were "independents" ("We vote for the person we believe to be best for the job") but in the main voted Democrat. Consequently, I considered myself an Independent and also voted, primarily, Democrat.

I grew up in the turmoil of the 60s and fully supported integration, full suffrage for men and women, and was pleased as punch when the voting age dropped to 18 - matching the age of those being drafted for the war in Viet Nam. I appreciated Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty" and saw that as a mighty good. That some people took advantage of the system was an irritant, but no reason to make others go hungry or homeless.

Issues such as Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and the like were way off my radar in those days, but generally I felt they were good things. Our family had medical coverage under my father's Union contract, and many doctors still made house calls, if you can believe it.

While our family might never vote Republican, we never thought of Republicans as the "enemy." I heard the term Southern Democrats and suspected they might be somewhat different than their northern counterparts, but politics wasn't my focus, and so I never really knew or understood what the difference was. I never equated one political party or the other with good guys or bad guys, but I knew the bad guys were Communists, the KKK, Fascists, and Nazis.

I did know that most progressive measures took place when Democrats had charge of both the House and the Senate, and that most bills passed with bipartisan support. There was no voting as a block as best I could tell. The goal was always What is Best for America.

Sadly, that is no longer the case. It isn't the system that is broken but the people running the system - gaming the system. If I were a Republican from the days of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, or Eisenhower and saw what the GOP was doing today, I would abandon them. I will also admit that if I were a Democrat and the Dems began to act as the Democrats during the times of Lincoln and Wilson, I would dump them as well. Both of those extremes are SO antithetical to American values I cannot fathom how anyone would support them or those who espouse such attitudes and behaviors.

Today, this week (and for the past year or more), the Republicans have done all they can to destroy America. They have shifted wealth from your basic standard issue American to the richest of the rich. The rich have not turned those monies into greater income for their employees; they have not built new factories at home; they have not improved the middle class in any way, shape, or form. There is not and has not been any trickle-down benefit obtained by the citizenry.

The purpose of Law is to protect the nation and its citizenry. How does the new tax law being rammed through Congress do that? It doesn't. It increases debt, takes food off the tables of the hungry, removes roofs from home-buyers, lets the sick die (talk about death squads - that is the GOP forte!), and nails shut the door to progress for all but the very rich. That, my friends, is an abomination to the Lord, if there ever was one.

I do not believe writing our congressional delegates and senators accomplishes much of anything. 77% of the people hate what the GOP is doing, but rather than change what they're doing, they're changing their lies to further hide the truth - to bury it so it cannot be seen. Pornography is more honest than that! Congress has simply become a Glory Hole for the gutless wonder in the White House.

No, if we want change, we need to be clear with our congressional men and women of BOTH parties that if they are not working to solve this mess, in 2018 there will be wholesale changes in both houses. If they will not listen to reason, then make them listen to our Purses. Let us close up those puppies.

Let's also outlaw private funding of political campaigns. If Corporations are "People" then let's limit them (and all people) to contributions of no more than $1 each. OR, let's force corporations to live under the tax laws WE the PEOPLE live under. Let's end Corporate Taxes, and put everything under Personal Income Tax rules and regulations. No more "Separate but Equal" treatment of Corporate and Personal Income taxes!

Sunday, November 26, 2017

King and Kingdom

What Kind of Kingdom? What kind of King?

Some years ago, I got to see a real king. A real king in person. 1976, in Seattle – Shilshole Bay Marina. The King of Sweden was going to be part of a public ceremony by the Leif Erickson statue.

I was somewhat disappointed. Everyone on the dais wore standard-issue suits for the occasion. No pomp. No circumstance. No sash, sword, robes, crown, or scepter. Just a man in a nice business suit.

I complained about it to my mother. Her response?

Isn’t that nice! He’s normal – just like us. He gets to walk around and hang with people – just like us.

What a concept! A king who’s able to blend in and spend time with people – just like us.

Some years ago – even further back in time: The Day the Earth Stood Still – a man has come from far away to visit earth – to bring peace. He gets shot and wounded, escapes from Walter Reed where he’s being cared for, and decides to spend time getting to know what kind of people we earth people are. What he discovers is that, for the most part, we’re scared.

We are fearful. Scared of nuclear war; scared of communism; scared of things we don’t understand; scared to change.

That was 50 or 60 years ago, and it seems like we’re still scared.

Every time I turn on the news there’s a new health scare; We see children being murdered in their schools, worshipers being murdered in their churches and mosques; we’re getting older and access to healthcare seems more and more to be at risk; friends and neighbors – people of color – being swept up and detained without access to legal aid.

Fear is a normal, healthy, human trait, but for many of us, that fear has gone into overdrive and become HIGH ANXIETY.

When I was young, our family did not go to church. We went occasionally, though, and in Sunday school I remember the teachers telling us about Jesus. Jesus was a good shepherd. Jesus loved to have children sit in his lap. Jesus told us God is love. But I couldn’t believe it. If there was a God, I was sure I was going to hell. I was sure I could never measure up. No one ever told me God was mean. I never had people stress God was vengeful, and yet there was something about my own self-image that assured me I was beyond hope, beyond help, beyond God's ability to accept, let alone "save".

But then one day – I don’t know how; I don’t know why – it hit me. I had my conversion experience. It’s not about me measuring up, but about God reaching down and hauling me up.

If religion is about me trying to please God and never being sure I’ve made the grade, our faith is about God who opens the door when we knock and goes, “Wow, What a surprise! Come on in!!!”

A young woman tells the story of going to confession. She was in grade school. I don’t know what sort of sins or misdeeds an 8 year old could confess – they should have bounced off the priest like kernels of popcorn – but he looked at her through the screen and said, “You’re going to hell!”

I don’t know what sort of monster he was to say that to a child (I can picture the sign over his booth: “Abandon Hope all ye who enter here”) and while there’s a side of me that would like to think he went to perdition when he died, I think God probably gave him a place at the Pearlie Gates, and his job is to greet people as they arrive and say, “Hi. I’m Father Paddy O’Rourke*, and I was wrong. Come on in!”      * Not his real name

Jesus tells a story: Pearl of Great Price. That’s the Gospel! God is this raggedy little merchant who travels from place to place. Finds a special little jewel: “Ah, I’ve GOT to have that!” Sells all to acquire it. Sound familiar? Selling it all? That’s Good Friday! Gaining the Pearl? That’s Easter Sunday, when the oyster opens up and Christ comes out. The Gospel? YOU and I are the Pearl of Great Price. And out there: More pearls!

“Go get ‘em,” says Jesus. Remember the Great Commission? Go; Make Disciples of ALL people; Baptize them (cleanse, forgive); and Teach them!”

The past few weeks, we’ve been reminded: Be wise, keep your lamps full and your wicks trimmed; take what God has given you and work with it; and this week: We have a king who walks among us. He’s hungry; she’s lonely; he’s in jail; she’s in hospital; he’s scared; she’s thirsty. The Good News? God prepares the way for us; God is a Companion on the way with us; and God resides within to comfort us.

As we close out Year A, I am reminded of Karl Barth, who summarized our faith this way: ♪♪♪ Jesus loves me ♪♪♪ I suggest we go and do likewise, in Jesus' Name.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Alarming Truth of Fall

“We all live with the aim of being happy; our lives are all different and yet all the same.” Anne Frank

Technology will be the death of me; I kid you not.

I was sound asleep the other night when off in the distance I heard a soft chirp. As I was asleep, I couldn’t really register what I was hearing or how it connected with my dream (the subject of which I have absolutely no recollection). I do vaguely recall hauling out a jack with which to pry open one blood-shot eyeball and, glancing at the clock beside my bed, noted the time was something “foggy past midnight.” That’s about as clear as I could make it out.

After a few minutes I heard the chirp again and this time I squeezed my eyelids as tight as I could (as if that would simultaneously close my ears – such is how my mind works at the wonky-weird hours of the night).

My wife nudged me and said, “It’s the smoke alarm.” I think she expected me to do something with the information, but without a whiff of danger in the air, my brain blinked “Does Not Compute,” and sent no instructions to either my joints or my muscles. Being fluent in Neanderthal, I responded with, “Um hum, snort.”

I did my best to ignore the twittering chirps which seemed to be taking place every ten minutes or so. God has gifted me with a tremendous amount of patience (sometimes known as Sloth, my favorite Cardinal Sin), as well as an age-related decline in hearing, so I tossed and turned for several hours whilst simultaneously disregarding the relentless chirping of the smoke detector.

Finally, I had no option but to get up and address the matter. That I was forced to do so was the result of two things happening at once. First, I knew I had performed a number of minor electrical repairs in the house after we moved in, so having smoke detectors in good working order is critical, and secondly, the call of nature by then was also chirping.

So I crawled out of bed and quietly crept through the house, closing the bedroom door behind me (so as not to awaken the love of my life); turned on some lights (which really are quite blindingly bright – more so than me – at 3:00 a.m.) then stood in a stupor while I awaited the next chirp so I could find the bleedin’ smoke detector through a technique known as pseudo-echo-location (as I knew my eyes would not be functioning for another few minutes).

Once it chirped, I remembered where it was, so I opened the coat closet and pulled out the little kitchen step ladder (which unfolds more loudly than normal when one is trying to be quiet), stepped up to the chirpy little ceiling hugger, opened the battery hatch, and removed the 9 volt corpse from its vault.

There, that should stop the chirping I thought to myself. Oh pity the fool who suffers to think at 3 a.m. The alarm chirped cheerily in response and put an end to any notion of serenity.

So I traipsed over to the cupboard where we keep all our batteries, pulled down the plastic bin with its wide array (and alphabet soup) of energizers and found what I needed. I pulled it out of its zipper bag (yes, we are disgustingly well-organized neat freaks), climbed the ladder, slid the battery into place and, voila, finally got to enjoy the sound of silence.

By this time, of course, I was wide awake and have learned that returning to bed and sleep is seldom a viable option, so I made myself a pot of coffee and, having turned off most of the lights, enjoyed a cup of go-go-juice in the quiet semi-darkness of very-early-morning and thought:

There was a time one changed batteries on smoke detectors every six months and used the time-changes from Daylight to Standard and back again as their chief reference point. But these days, Standard time is a substandard four months; from now on I will have to simply rely on the vernal and autumnal equinoxes to attend this very important duty.

Lesson learned: don’t be a Chirp-skate. Please replace your batteries now throughout this, our valley; the sleep you save could be your own!

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Reading Leaves

“Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.” Will Rogers

The tree outside my front room is changing. The tender leaves of summer are giving way to duller shades of green while those well-past their prime have morphed into various hues of orange, gold, and brown.

Every now and then a falling leaf catches my eye. I look up to see if the momentary flit is that of a bird or a bug, but more often than not, it’s the drop of a leaf that’s lost its cling and taken one last adventure, flying off on some autumnal fling.

I chanced to ask the tree what she thought about fall and she smilingly replied, “It is only in letting go that I am able now to grow.”

I had always assumed a significant level of wisdom resided in trees (wooden you know it). They grow slowly for the most part; they have no axe to grind. Like dogs, they bark (but ever so quietly); although many are Branch Managers, they’re humble and seldom bossy; they seem to be introverts who know well enough to leaf one another alone with their thoughts. It’s no wonder I like and appreciate trees.

Since the Maple was kind enough to answer my initial query, I wondered if she wood mind carrying on a brief conversation, as I am always eager to tap into all the wisdom this world has to offer, and this was a tree-mendous opportunity standing right here in front of me.

Although I can be a blockhead at times, I knew better than to beat around the bush, for I figured Ms. Maple might bore easily, so I went out on a limb and dared ask her about her take on the Meaning of Life.

She sighed (or maybe it was the wind blowing gently through her boughs), “Life is.”

“Life is what?” I pressed, like a plywood manufacturer.

There was a great pause, and she simply repeated, “Life is.” Her voice was soft and gentle, although a bit raspy, like the voice of a smoker. Perhaps this Maple has some Ash in her genes, I thought.

I didn’t want to push my luck regarding this investigation; if she was satisfied to tell me twice that the Meaning of Life is simply “Life Is,” then I should be satisfied and move on. Perhaps there was another way I could put my question that wouldn’t make me look like such a sap barking up her trunk. Maybe I could get to the root of the matter another way.

“Last month,” I continued, “my wife and I removed a ton of ivy from some of the trees out back. We were concerned the vines might do them harm. Do you worry about things like that?”

The Maple stood by silently, perhaps deep in thought, perhaps knot. I couldn’t tell, but after a few moments she sighed and replied, “Ivy lives. Why worry? Life is.”

I considered her words and knew instinctively that she was right. The ivy has as much right to live as the Maple. Yes, we may prefer the tree to the vine, but we are human and not divine. Even if the tree should choke and die, it will continue to live, returning its substance to the earth, and from the earth on to the vines, mosses, fungi, worms, and such what-not.

I thanked the tree for her time. I was amazed by how much wisdom was encapsulated in those two simple words, “Life Is.”

It certainly is. I’ve always appreciated nature, and especially what she has to teach the rest of us mere mortals. We like to think we’re so smart, and yet it seems our best thinking gets us into the worst messes imaginable.

Nature is humble. Yes, each creature (whether mineral, vegetable, or other life-form) strives to survive, but ego never gets in the way. The cat that misses catching the mouse doesn’t berate itself for being slow or stupid; it simply looks around for another chance at a meal.

Perhaps humanity would be well-served to ratchet down its delusions of grandeur and the monstrosities of its dog-eat-dog cannibalistic ego run-amuck.

It shouldn’t take a 2x4 alongside the head to figure out that “Life Is” really is enough for all of us here in this, our valley. 

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Autumnal Chalk & Squirrels

The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven – John Milton, Paradise Lost

I woke up this morning and wondered what the day was going to be like. My first instinct was to unsleep my phone and check out the weather app for time, temperature, and expected highs and lows, but then decided, instead, to open the drapes covering the slider and checking the weather the old-fashioned way – by looking outside.

The sun hadn’t quite made her appearance as yet; the skies were pretty flat, like the well-worn gray of an old fashioned black-board. I caught the momentary whiff of chalk-dust being inhaled – the gift of a memory’s dance with the present.

Back in the ‘60s, teachers often rewarded the day’s most honorable student in class by letting them take old chalkboard erasers across the asphalt playground to the boiler room where eager young lads and lasses could enthusiastically whap them against the brick exterior of the old and venerable Whittier Elementary School (in Seattle). Sadly, I did not have many opportunities to smack erasers against the walls of that ancient institution of lower learning – but when I did, there was no greater joy, not even in Mudville.

Such were the memories that flooded my mind as I looked outside. The sun had not begun to even try to crack open the dawn in the murky darkness, and yet there was enough light to see the air was crisp and clear, and while there was likely a layer of low clouds hanging overhead, it did not appear we would be in for rain – at least not for a while.

I grabbed a cup of coffee – the nectar of life – and returned to the slider to enjoy the slow emergence of the day. Glancing down, I observed a squirrel make her way across our deck. I wondered if she was expecting a handout, or if she was even aware of this human standing still against the glass door and watching her every stop and start. She paused and turned her head ever so slightly, looked me in the eye, returning glance for glance, shrugged her shoulders and went back to foraging the deck for whatever it is squirrels like for breakfast.

I thought about offering her something from our cupboard but, for the life of me, couldn’t think of anything that would be good (in the healthy sense of the word) for squirrels. The fact is, there isn’t much that would probably actually qualify as being good for human consumption either (too much sugar and sodium), so I set aside that thought for now. Besides, I did not want this squirrel, or any critter, for that matter, to become a pest, begging for peanuts or crumbs or bread, or things like that.

Then I looked up at the hummingbird feeder that hangs above the deck.

Hmm. Why is it OK to feed birds and not squirrels? How do we humans justify our inconsistencies?

A lady working her garden once told me (when asked), “The difference between a weed and a flower is nothing more than a weed is a plant that grows where you don’t want it.”

Is it the same for humans? Do we consider some people to be weeds – communia colligentes zizania – and others to be flowers, worthy of cultivation and care?

The Good Book tells us that the human family was created in God’s image (even if we may not always act like it or look like it or even feel like it). Hmm.

After a moment of pondering I returned to my morning squirrel-watching, but she had apparently moved on. I couldn’t blame her. Philosophy did not appear to be high on her list of things to do. I suspect she really didn’t care what I was thinking. I doubt she considered herself “less fortunate” than the birds who could access our fake nectar-dispensing bottle.

I believe she simply followed her nose wherever the Great Squirrel inspired her to go, and delighted in all Manna of tasty morsels found along the way.

I looked over the neighbor’s house and watched the sun begin to break open the dome of heaven in the East, took another swig of coffee from my mug, and smiled at the simple pleasures of Fall in this, our valley.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Black Holes and Rebar

You live most of your life inside of your head. Make sure it’s a nice place to be. Anonymous

There is a flower bed in front of the house that is mostly covered in red rock – lava rock, to be more precise. I know there are some people who delight in landscaping with rocks, but must admit I am not one of them. It isn’t because I don’t like the looks. True, I’m not crazy about the aesthetics, but that doesn’t bother me. What bugs me is they never stay put.

I don’t know when these rocks first made their appearance, but they’ve faded and gotten grimy over the past decade or two with the soot of both fires and smog. Lichen and moss have taken a toe-hold in the aforementioned layer of detritus, and gravity has played the Pied Piper, leading some of the rocks down off their bit of heaven enough to knock over the wall of brick that has, until now, kept those rascally boulders in place.

There is nothing sadder in this world to look at than a limp wall in serious need of a blue pill.

I figured it would be nearly impossible to overcome two-score years (or more) of rocks pushing and gravity pulling to fix that border, and breathed a sigh of relief at what had been my first intelligent thought of the day. But the peace and tranquility were quickly set aside when it was suggested that we needed to fix the border and return those pock-marked pieces of pumice to their proper places.

While I was tempted to locate my slide-rule, grab some paper and pencils, and outline all the reasons (scientific and otherwise) why those stones should be left unmolested and unturned, I resisted the impulse and, instead, said, “OK.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. First of all, at my age, hearing doesn’t come as naturally as it once did. Secondly, what I heard was a direct violation of the Prime Directive to not interfere in the natural evolution of other worlds (and I am neither vegetable nor mineral). And finally, it was at variance with the unseen forces of darkness that reside within my heart – which is to say, I’d have preferred to go off to play, gouge my eyes out with a rusty spoon, or doing almost anything other than yard work. Wow!

What caused this transformation, you ask? In a word: Acceptance.

We had a problem and it needed to be fixed. Until I could accept that fact for what it was, I would be miserable (or make life miserable for those around me). I would agonize over the insane thoughts of a thousand wild monkeys running rampant in the jungle of my imagination, or I could accept there was something that needed doing, and simply plan how best to get it done.

Anxiety, for me, is the Middle Man who needlessly drives up the cost of living, edging out all semblance of serenity. So, why not eliminate the Middle Man from the get go and just see what needs to be done and figure how to do it? Serenity is a decision, more than a discovery.

We could pay to have the border fixed, or we could do it ourselves. Those were our options, amongst which No was not.

So, by accepting the situation as it was and not as I wished it to be, I was free to examine the problem with an eye to finding what solutions were available, and which option might be best.

So I put on my work gloves (recently bought for such emergencies, such as saving money). We raked back the rocks, removed the brick slabs, dug a new trench, returned the bricks to their full and upright positions, and then went and bought some rebar to help support the bricks as they stand sentry duty over life’s rolling rocks.

I don’t know if rebar will restrain the relentless flow of life’s dried lava, but I do know that acceptance has stanched the rattling river of rocks rolling ‘round my head. Consequently, not only does the yard look nicer, but my mind is a more pleasant neighborhood, too. And that’s how it goes in this, our valley. So …

Rock on!

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Black Holes

The quieter you become, the more you can hear. Anonymous

I read a report the other day that suggests there are more black holes in the universe than was previously thought. For those who are as scientifically non compos mentis as I am, a black hole is simply what’s left when a star of a certain size and mass explodes and collapses in on itself. I suspect there are Hollywood types who fit this description, but what I am talking about are the ones far, far away.

From what I understand, the nearest black hole to earth is about 1,600 light years away, so the odds of getting sucked in anytime soon are astronomically small.

The interesting thing about a black hole is that it is so dense even light cannot escape it’s gravitational pull. Hey, I’ve preached sermons that remarkably resemble that remark! Scientists cannot actually observe black holes (because of the aforementioned gravity problem). According to a NASA website, scientists infer their existence from “the effect they have on other matter nearby.”

Isn’t that a great description? I believe there are more black holes on earth than people realize. I suspect each of us is a complex assortment of black holes in motion. There are things in our lives that have collapsed in on themselves and become invisible to the naked eye, and yet they’re still there manifesting their effects in a variety of ways.

Some problems are fairly inconsequential and leave hardly any signs behind. There was the papier mâché cow I made in second grade and of which I was especially proud. After all, it’s not unusual for me to have a cow every now and then, but this was the real thing and quite accurate in its depiction of a real life Guernsey. It had a prominent place on display atop the refrigerator, and must have sat there for months. It served as a reminder to drink milk for strong bones.

One day I came home and noticed the cow was missing. Not just “the” cow, but MY cow. I asked my mother where it went and she told me, “I threw it away.” Unspoken, but in the silence I could hear her add, “it was ugly.” She often tossed out my sacred cows without discussing it first.

Now, on a scale ranging from being pelted by marshmallows to being nuked, this was definitely on the marshmallow end of the scale, and yet it is a pin-head sized black hole in my heart. I know, because of the way it affects me.

I snarl at people that ask to borrow a pen. It’s not like I don’t already have about half a million pens of every size and sort scattered around the house (half of which quit working some time last century).

Notice I said “that ask …” instead of “who ask …” That tiny detail tells the careful reader that I have depersonalized the beggar. It was a subconscious choice I made.

I take full responsibility for the choice, by the way, but I also know that tiny black hole was the proximate cause of both snarl and word-choice. There is a gravitational pull at work; one may not see the darkness, but the effect is readily available to those with eyes to see and ears to hear.

The fabric of our lives is covered with many events like that. None of this is unique to any of us, but common to all of us.

I think Jesus knew that. “Let the one who is without sin (i.e. a black hole) cast the first stone.” He became a human shield for a woman with plenty of holes in her life and invited the community to look at their own lives first.

The solution to so many problems, you see, is to acknowledge there’s a problem to deal with in the first place, and the source of the problem isn’t what we see, hear, feel, or experience around us, but the constellation of black holes swirling in our heads, hearts, and memories.

“Let go and let God,” says the happy twelve-stepper, but it is easier said than done. Like scientists, we need to quietly examine the effect the black holes are having on us and those around us and accept there is a solution in this, our valley. I’ll talk about that next time.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Day of the Triffids

“We should learn to enjoy our own company. Tell yourself cool stuff, about exciting things you’re going to do, about how you will turn your mistakes into victories, how the future will turn out just fine. If you don’t tell yourself positive stuff, who will?” Sereno Sky, “Lonely Traveller”

It’s a jungle out there.

No, really. It’s a jungle.

When we bought our home, it had a beautifully manicured and landscaped yard, and it had all the appearances of being relatively low-maintenance which, if anyone knows me, that’s a good thing.

My thumb is anything but green and I’ve been known to kill artificial plants with my tender loving care, so buying a home with a nice-looking yard was really an invitation to disaster, but we went for the gusto anyway.

Of course, we couldn’t do anything for a while when we were engaged in the process of negotiating for the purchase, jumping through hoops with the bank, and all that assorted nonsense. Then there was the month we had to wait to take occupancy because I was still heavily involved in that thing … Oh, gee, what was it called? Oh, right, work. I was still working then.

I always suspected work could interfere with life in the worse way possible, and this proved it.

I say that because when we finally got to our new home, the garden gnomes has transformed the yard significantly. In fact, one could say it was more terraformed than transformed. The bushes had all gone hippy on us with tangled leaves and branches flying in all directions; the grass had gone dormant while the dandelions had been busy making baby dandelions (proving walls don’t work, by the way, but that’s a subject for another column for some other time); and someone had apparently left their copy of Jumanji open as the blackberries had begun their efforts to turn our yard from something to look at to a Garden of Eatin’ – Holy Triffids, Batman!

For those who may not be all that familiar with the Pacific Northwest, Blackberries are an invasive species of deliciousness. As we toured the house and property back before even considering making an offer, our realtor pointed out these tiny baby creepers here and there and with a faint look of horror written on her face; she uttered words of grave concern through trembling lips in a prophetic Jeremiad: “Th … th … those are (dramatic pause) … Blackberries! You’re going to want to get rid of those as quickly as you can!!!”

Well, when it comes to gardens, although I am more horror-culturist that horticulturist, if there is one thing I know it is this: If I am going to spend time tending a garden, it darn-well better be producing something I can eat.

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against beauty, flowers, and artistic arrangements (either outside or inside). Beauty has its place, but what good is it if you can’t run it past your taste buds?

Still, it seems there is a well-known story of a couple who lived in a garden who had a similar attitude about it, and they got kicked out as a consequence of their gluttony, greed, and idolatry. I may be slow on the uptake, but I’ve been known to catch the point of a story that’s been sharply told, and so Barb and I heeded the words of the oracle and began the process of cutting back and digging up all the little blackberry bushes that were trying to take root in our yard – as painful as it is (did I mention how thorny blackberry vines are?).

I know we will never truly eradicate the tentacled invaders as they wend their way through our yard here and there, but the upside of all this is that our neighbor’s vines are doing fine, and we’ve managed to collect some of the crop that is beginning to ripen along the fence – “The harvest is plentiful,” said Jesus. He was right.

I have also come to appreciate how carefully one must work to collect those black morsels of deliciosity from the fence-line. Over time, I have no doubt I will collect the scars of battle that come from this War of the Blackberry Brambles, but trust me: a blackberry cobbler’s got magical healing powers here in this, our valley.

Friday, August 11, 2017

The Boxer rebellion

It’s not the load that breaks you down. It’s the way you carry it. CS Lewis.

Oh my aching back.

I fought the law and the law won. At least that’s true with regards to the Law of Gravity!

We completed the “moving” portion of our move the other day, and are now left with the task of unpacking all our worldly goods. I am beginning to believe it is incorrect to identify such things as “goods” as they seem to be having a bad effect on me.

The worst part is that I wasn’t all that involved in the heavy lifting. We had “relocation specialists” do much of the heaving and hoeing, and all we needed to do was mark off the boxes on the inventory sheet and direct them to their various destinations, but that was enough so set me to wheezing and hacking externally (with accompanying panic attacks internally).

Part of the problem we face is transitioning to a house half the size of the one we left. We didn’t down-size enough before we moved (although we tried). Also, we needed to pack up and leave a month before I was scheduled to retire, so our goods went into storage for a month – and our memories of packing details faded exponentially with each passing day. And finally, we had a mix of boxes that included old boxes from previous moves, borrowed boxes from friends, and gifted boxes from the moving company – each with its own label or marks of contents past, so not all cartons contain what they say they do.

Good heavens; isn’t that a picture of the human condition?

The result could be a lot of confusion and frustrations, of course, but life is full of those sorts of issues, so it is easier to simply work our way through our items one by one, eliminate the debris as quickly and efficiently as we can, and know that eventually it will all be taken care of. We have the essentials; that’s what’s important (and each other).

As CS Lewis reminded us, it isn’t the load we carry, but the way we carry it that breaks us down.

I find the load lightened significantly by simply being thankful each and every day for each and every blessing that comes our way.

I can too easily complain about mis-steps (and there were certainly a few of those); I could also grump about the mess, disorganization, or chaos we face. But the fact is our goods arrived. That’s a good thing. We have our essentials. That’s a good thing. The weather is warm (not hot), and dry (not raining). My back hurts (it’s true) but I have pain relievers our ancestors could only dream about. Everything in the house works (after I replaced all the worn-out outlets) and we were able to paint the interior more easily having no furniture to move out of the way; so what is there for which to be ungrateful?

I got up this morning and there was food in the refrigerator. There was coffee in the pot. There was hot water for a shower. There were clean clothes to put on. There was the world-wide web to explore. For which of these blessings should I wear a frown?

Life is good, even if messy – so I give thanks. There is none of this I deserve; there is none of this I have earned. I just happen to have been born in a world where anything short of awe and wonder would be an insult to the Creator.

So, like Paul and Silas in the days of yore, I am learning to give thanks for all things, good and ill, for that which does not kill us (we’re told) makes us stronger.

In the end, that’s good news; that’s good news for my retirement; that’s good news for my life; ultimately, that’s good news for my back!

Maybe giving away excess baggage is a good thing to do in this, our valley. It might turn out to be the best (and cheapest) medicine of all.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Red Light - A True Life Mystery

So far, about morals, I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after. Ernest Hemmingway, Death in the Afternoon

What do you do when a signal won’t change? What do you do when you have no director, coordinator, or flagger to tell you what to do?

The other day my wife and I were traveling up to visit relatives we hadn’t seen in a couple decades. We came upon one of those portable traffic signals the state puts up when they are doing road work and, as is usual, the light was red, so we stopped.

Aside from the signal and a little white sign directing us to “Stop Here” (with a helpful little arrow pointing at a specific spot on the road in front of us), there was no evidence of construction in progress. There were no parked cars indicating workers were in the area. There was no flagger standing by the signal to indicate all was as it should be. The road itself was clear as far as the eye could see for a mile or more until it curved and disappeared behind the mountain heading into a valley.

I was a bit perplexed but as that is my normal state of mind I thought nothing of it. There was a car in front of us and the license plate indicated they were from Quebec. I guess red lights are universally understood to mean Arrêt, so our French Canadian neighbours (sic) must have felt at home. I wondered, though, what they thought of a stop light out in the middle of nowhere with no apparent raison d’être.

I sat quietly pondering the imponderable while waiting for the light to change or for some pilot car to approach from beyond the bend in the highway, but nothing was happening.

This went on for about five minutes; then I remembered a line from a movie: “Wait five minutes. If I’m not back, go on without me.” That led me to another line from another movie: “Wait five minutes. If I’m not back, wait longer.”

Oh what to do; what to do. I felt stupid sitting at a red light that had no apparent reason to be there, and yet I also didn’t want to set a bad example for our Canadian voyageurs by going around them with a “damn the torpedoes; full speed ahead” bit of derring-do. After all, David Farragut I am not.

After a full ten minutes had passed I knew we had reached the end of reasonableness. There had still not been a single car (pilot or otherwise) approach us from the other direction. I deduced from that fact that the road was likely closed or blocked at the other end – wherever that might have been. What if there were folks sitting at another traffic signal like us, waiting for the powers that be to finally decide it was time to end the joke and let traffic pass? Is it ever OK to assume a traffic signal is malfunctioning, or that it has been forgotten by a road crew?

Unfortunately, the alternatives before us were not good. In the wilderness there just aren’t that many detours that would have worked with regards to getting us to our destination. We were stuck at a red light with nowhere to go and no other way to get there.

“How long, O Lord,” cries the psalmist. I could relate.

Meanwhile, cars were lining up behind us and, like us, each was committed to obeying the law. A red light means stop. The signal also had unlit amber and green lights, so one couldn’t treat this as a stop-pause-and-go light.

The law is clear: One must obey a traffic signal – or be willing to suffer the consequences of disobedience (a fine or jail time?).

After fifteen minutes wresting with this moral conundrum, a car approached from the other direction. The state’s Pied Piper led a veritable train of hardy pioneers around the bend and past us. Only then did another vehicle come and lead us on toward the Promised Land.

We passed no construction, by the way; both lanes were open in both directions. I’d say we passed a moral test in this, our valley (but I doubt Hemmingway would have).

Sunday, July 9, 2017


O God, you have taught us to keep all your commandments by loving you and our neighbor …

How do we say good-bye? How do we take leave?

The short answer is: We don’t. If you know the movie ET, Elliot and the Alien realize at the end that they will be here and here (HEART & MIND).

When Elijah ascended into heaven, he left his staff and his cloak behind, so Elisha could carry on the work that Elijah had begun. “If you see me go, you will inherit a double portion of my spirit.”

When Jesus ascended into heaven, he said to his disciples: Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the ages.

In each of these leave-taking events, we are reminded that while we may be apart in body, we are never really apart in spirit.

In our time together, many of you have shared your experiences of clergy past – Dub Wolfrum, Rev. Karen, Ray Brown, Roy Turley, Todd Young, John Hay, Leigh Wallace – to name just a few.

So, maybe the question isn’t so much how we take our leave, but is there something we can offer one another that will serve as bread for the journey that lies ahead?

For my part, I would hope that you will remember that our task, our call, our vocation is always to share the Good News of God’s kingdom. Remember the church’s mission. 

Memorize that passage from the catechism: What is the Mission of the Church? The Mission of the Church is to restore ALL people to unity with God and one another in Christ. We pursue that mission as we worship, pray, serve, and give for the spread of God’s kingdom.

Jesus gives us great material to work with. What is the kingdom like? It is like a Pearl of Great Price. Remember to look at these parables from 2 directions. 

First, you are the Pearl of Great Price. God gave EVERYTHING to acquire you: you the individual; you the parish; you the diocese; you, the people of the world. In other words, look in the mirror and hear the good news: God gave his all for you.

The flip side of that is the kingdom of God is a real treasure to which we are invited to walk along, stub our toes, and discover to our great joy.

Imagine, if you will, stubbing your toe on Sheriff Plummer’s bag of gold in the backyard of some house in VC. You can’t just take it ... that would be stealing. 

So you knock on the door and ask the owners how much they want for the house. “It ain’t for sale.” “I want it. How much?” They suggest some ridiculous price, at least twice what they think it’s worth. You sell everything and you buy it, and when the dust settles, you “discover the bag of gold” – and it is yours fair and square. And then you not only get the value of the bag, but you get the movie rights, and you get Tom Hanks to play you, and Meryl Streep to play your spouse!

“The kingdom of God is like that!” says Jesus.

The question is, are we looking? Are we paying attention? Do we see what God sees? Do we see the value in our neighbor? “You have taught us to keep ALL your commandments by loving you and ...”

The challenge we sometimes face is that we can too easily become Pontius Pilates when it comes to the kingdom of God. We see people and maybe we don’t think they quite measure up – and we’re right. 

As St. Paul says, “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” But we have to remember that ALL includes US. None of us measures up fully, and if we make like Pilate and wash our hands of our neighbor, are we asking God to wash his hands of us?

God forbid! I want God to embrace me. I want God to hold onto me. I want God to love me with all his heart, soul, strength, and mind. And so I need to be willing to let go my prejudices, let go my greed, let go my laziness, let go all my other character defects – because if I let them go, then my hands will be free to become God’s hands; my hands will be free to embrace others in Jesus’ Name.

That’s why we prayed (in our collect): “Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart, AND united to one another with pure affection …”

… because it is only by God’s grace that we can hope to do any of that.

Grace. That’s a gift, you know. As Paul tells us, “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life.”

In other words, what Paul tells us is that we have all earned a spot in front of the Firing Squad. We’ve all been fitted with a blind-fold; we’ve all had our last meal; we’ve all had our last cigarette. But just as the executioner is ready to give the command to FIRE, a pigeon has arrived from headquarters, and the message tied to her little pigeon ankle says: Hold Your Fire; the King has granted a full pardon!

The question that leaves us is simply this: Will you tell your friends and neighbors how you deserved to die, but were given your freedom, instead?

Or will you live a lie? Free, but pretending nothing ever happened? You neither deserved death, nor did you ever gain or merit pardon?

There is no greater freedom I know than to admit I was a sinner, am a sinner, and will likely always be a sinner – and that God has a place at table for me anyway.

And the privilege that gives us is to say to another human being, that’s my story; that’s the truth and, you know what? I’d love it if you would join me for dinner, because I’d love to hear your story.
That’s why Jesus invites us (in today’s Gospel reading) to “Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

You and I are not lone mules out pulling a plow all by our lonesome. Jesus has fitted us to work together with him and with one another.

I have a friend who used to own a pair of Belgian Draft Horses. One day he said, “You know, these horses may be able to pull a heavy load by themselves, but when teamed up, their strength is multiplied; not added.”

The kingdom of God is like that.

At the risk of moving from preaching to meddling, I would like to suggest that when parishes are yoked together, like Trinity and St. Paul’s are – it might be helpful to consider the yoke as a symbol of how God is strengthening us for service multiplying our faith, rather than adding to or subtracting from.

There is an old story of heaven and hell where people are seated at a grand banquet table, loaded with Good Eats. 

In heaven, everyone is well-fed, healthy, and happy. In hell, everyone is malnourished, sickly, and grumpy

In both heaven and hell, everyone has a long fork tied to their hands – so long they can’t bend their elbows and eat.

What’s the difference between heaven and hell? In heaven, the people feed those sitting across from them; in hell they try to feed themselves.

In concluding my time with you here, I will openly confess that my spiritual health has always depended upon the generosity and grace of those with whom I’ve served – those who have fed us with companionship, friendship, phone calls out of the blue, drop-in visits.

Those are the sorts of things that sustain clergy in this life – more than anything else I can think of.

I would hope and pray that I have given at least half as well as I have received.

As English writer and philosopher Elizabeth Bibesco says, “Blessed are those who give without remembering, and take without forgetting.”

Barb and I have been blessed – honored to have been yoked with you, and we will never forget you. You will always be Here, and Here – in Jesus’ Name.


Saturday, July 8, 2017

The Air Apparent

DEWEY 1898 – 1910 “He was only a cat” but he was human enough to be a great comfort in hours of loneliness and pain. Found on a Tombstone

Sometimes life confuses me. Mostly when I’m awake, I’ll confess, but never-the-less, I find it quite mystifying.

Everything was quite fine and then one day recently – BLAM – my sinuses erupted in quite a Vesuvian style. I shouldn’t be surprised. It happens this time every year when the local trees begin tossing forth their dander. Most people have no trouble perambulating through this fuzz-filled air, but not me.

I could understand this vegetative assault on my sinuses if I were some sort of vegan or cereal murderer, but I am a carnivore. I am so kind towards the world’s flora I don’t even like mowing the lawn (but do so under the directions of a higher power).

Still, pollen hates me. Either that or it loves to afflict me. I suspect it has to do with my Scandinavian heritage. Snow and ice have no pollens so we blue eyed blonds have developed no defenses against such blights, I’m sorry to say.

It is a good time of year to stock up on your Tissue Stocks as sales bloom prolifically. I should just hang a roll from the ceiling above my chair and pull and tear as needed, for the bounty from my nose requires an endless issue of tissue.

I have tried taking a medical approach to my allergies, but find the instructions, warnings, and the complexity of symptoms each pill, capsule, or syrup addresses leaves me more confused and dizzy than the allergies themselves, and as nasty as it is to have a face that resembles the running of the bulls at Pamplona, it is preferable to the zombie-like trance so many meds put me in (or under).

Still, as my trash can can only hold thirty three gallons of used tissues before needing the bag to be replaced, I decided to try some of the OTC meds to see if they might help slow the mighty muddy flowing from Mount Schnozzola.

Some meds claim to do it all, but I’ve never been crazy for multi-taskers. I don’t want a pill fixing what ain’t broke. I just want something to stop post nasal drip (if that’s the issue), or to stop my coughing, if that’s the problem. I don’t normally have all twelve listed symptoms, so it seems a waste of resources to address that baker’s dozen – although to be completely honest, knowing there is a capsule that can address so many symptoms at once is not a concept to be sneezed at!

So I stopped by the pharmacy to check out my alternatives and was overwhelmed by the sheer number of pharmaceutical options sitting out there on the shelves. My goodness; we are either the sickest nation in the world or the healthiest! Only in retirement can I hope to have the time I need to read all the labels to determine which drug (or combination) I need. And have you seen the size of the print?

When I was a child, my eyesight was so keen I could read a passage of scripture printed on a microdot (although what earthly good a microdot passage of scripture could be is beyond my capacity to conceive). But now, I find it helpful if anything I need to read is done in the headline font of the local paper. How on earth is someone suffering from watery eyes, a runny nose, and constant sneezing and hacking supposed to stand in an aisle and read the micro-fine print that warns the dangers of taking that particular chemical experiment-in-a-box?

So I did the most counter-intuitively thing imaginable; I asked the pharmacist what I should take for what ailed me and he made some suggestions after asking a few pertinent and probing questions. I made my purchases, followed the instructions and, voila, have been improving. I am almost back to normal – or as normal as I ever expect to be – and hope some day to once again be a productive member of the human race.

In the meantime, I think I better start eating more fruits and vegetables. It’s the only way I know how to exact vengeance on that which has had its way with me each spring in this, our pollen-filled valley.

Friday, June 30, 2017

The Vagabond Life

Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten. Neil Gaiman, Caroline

I looked out the window as the truck pulled away from the house. The lion’s share of our worldly belongings were in that truck, and while the driver had a bill of lading, he was really leaving without a genuine destination in hand. For the short term, our goods were going into storage. From there, God only knows.

We have our suspicions, my wife and I. We know we will be relocating in about a month (that we are technically homeless). We still have a Post Office Box, but it isn’t really spacious enough for the two of us. By God’s grace, we have friends and they have taken us in for the month until my retirement from active ministry takes effect. For that, I am eternally grateful.

A month! Can you imagine that? There is an ancient document called the Didache (The Teaching) that instructs Christians to receive prophets, apostles, and teachers into their home – if they are “true” prophets. How can one know if they are false? If they outstay their welcome, of course! One day; two at most. “If they stay three days, they are a false prophet!”


The Didache even provides a remedy for guests who overstay their welcome. On the third day, hand the vagabond a loaf of bread, show them the door, and wish them well. It’s such a handy little treatise, that Didache document. I’ll have to show it to my friends (after we leave).

Anyway, retirement is finally upon us, which is a good thing. I’ve worked all my life to get to this point (using the word “work” quite loosely, of course) and am actually looking forward to it. A friend recently mentioned how the other day he sat down and was dog-tired. “Come to think of it,” he said, “I always wondered what it would feel like to get old, and now I know!”

That’s so true. Some months back I hurt my shoulder. I have no idea what I did. I’d love to say it was from carrying the weight of the world while Atlas was off getting a massage, but in reality, I suspect I did nothing more than shrug when someone asked me a question. I went several months suffering with shoulder pain, a joint so sore it was hard putting on a coat or reaching for a conclusion.

I’d never had an injury that wouldn’t heal after a few days, so after a couple months (I never claimed to be a fast learner) I went over to the Clinic (for another malady, by the way) and before I was released back into the wild, my PA asked me if that was all. I hesitated a moment and told him about my shoulder. I was embarrassed to admit I had no idea how I had injured it – possibly flipping a page on my Prayer Book, scribbling a thought down on paper, or splitting an infinitive – but the healer nodded knowingly and told me it was my Rotator Cuff.

“That’s a really wimpy spot,” he said matter-of-factly, “It doesn’t take much to hurt it.” He then ordered up a little physical therapy for me and, voila, it’s much better. I figure I should be able to start cooking meals again within the next year or so, but I don’t want to rush it and risk a fresh injury.

Retirement, as they say, is not for the faint of heart, but I’m going to retire anyway. I have things to do I’ve always wanted to try – like sleeping in past sun-up. But more than that (and more seriously), retirement is not a time to stop working, but to engage life and ministry more fully, to take one’s benefits and serve God more freely. That will be my goal.

I will continue writing columns as long as anyone is willing to publish them and you feel they are worth reading. I will continue to reflect on matters that affect us until the streetlights come on, the fireflies dance, and some higher power should call me home.

Until then, know that I will always be your friend in this, our valley (but keep a loaf of bread handy, just in case).