Thursday, June 7, 2018

The Scale of Life

I waited patiently upon the LORD; he stooped to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the desolate pit, out of the mire and clay ... he put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.” (Psalm 40)

I sometimes lose things.

In a world where people have lost their lives; in a world where people have lost their jobs or health insurance; in a world where people have lost children to drugs, or marriages to infidelity, or health to bad genes, bad decisions, or bad luck; in a world where people have lost so much that is of true and enduring value, the loss of a trinket or misplaced doodad is pretty low on the scale of things.

If I have lost some “thing” and have time to look for it, I’m blessed, for I’ve lost so much more over the years – and I know it. Thank God! Without loss, how would we appreciate what we have?

I cannot speak for the rest of creation, of course, as the only things of which I have any knowledge are my own thoughts, feelings, and experiences. But what I do know is that when I have a problem of any sort – major, minor, or something in between – I can almost always trace its genesis back to one spot: me.

It’s always possible someone took off with what’s missing, but highly unlikely. Like most inanimate objects, it did not walk off on its own. But the odds are good it got moved around in some mysterious shuffle and will almost certainly be found – because it has been my experience that I’ll find the errant object and cry, “Ah, that’s right; I put it there. Now I remember!”

None of that is important, of course. The reason this grates on me is because it violates an image I have of myself of being a relatively competent, careful, and attentive person. I want to scream to the rafters, “I do not lose things,” and yet if I pause before shouting, I can recall countless times I have misplaced items, or forgotten where I was going, what I was doing, or what I had intended to say in a conversation.

It is called “being human.” I don’t want to be human, of course; I want to have what God has: a perfect memory and complete power (and maybe an adoring fan-base). Sadly, I am not God; no one is.

When I get into a pickle, it is of my own doing. I may have help along the way, but I’m generally able to get stuck in the muck and mire of life without anyone else’s help.

So the first thing I must do is acknowledge and accept my very human limitations. They do not excuse lapses of good judgment or carelessness, but they go a long ways towards explaining what it is that’s happening. As neat and tidy as I want life to be, it is messy and unmanageable, I’m stuck with it, and there is nothing I can do about it.

I am, in a sense, powerless, but I am not alone. There is a God to whom I cry out when I am in despair.

I don’t mean when I’ve misplaced my glasses or bookmarks; that would be a perfectly silly waste of God’s time. God is with us, in us, and around us a hundred percent of the time. The Bible is clear enough that there is no hole deep enough or deed dark enough that God cannot find us, hold us, or hear us; so to beg God’s intervention for a “thing” just seems irreverent to me.

I believe God is with us in the pit, and that God not only knows the way out of the pit; I believe God IS the way out of the pit. Greater is the One who sticks to us than is the schmuck who’s stuck to the muck!

Psalm 40 reminds us that while we may be good at walking “eyes wide open” into desolate pits and slimy sludge, God is good at seeing, hearing, and patiently rescuing us.

That’s why I look to God; he is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen in this, God’s valley; and I think God’s worth singing about – don’t you?

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Truth: Stranger Than Friction

There’s no need to talk about it, because the truth of what one says lies in what one does. Bernhard Schlink, The Reader

Our yard is full of rocks. Not just any old rocks, though. They’re red lava rocks; leftovers from an era where someone thought they would make a grand landscaping material.

“You never have to weed rocks,” I’m sure the person said to themselves. I doubt they would have said it to anyone else as that is about the dumbest thing one could say in a world as seedy as our own.

They tried to turn their opinion into a reality by laying out landscaping fabric first – to keep the weeds down – and then applying a layer of rocks atop the fabric. The goal was to create an environment that would be fun to look at and require little to no maintenance.

“Oh what fools these mortals be,” said Shakespeare’s Puck.

Weeds have no trouble working their way up through the fabric – far easier than fingers working their way down through the rocks to get to the roots – which are well-protected by both the rocks and fabric (through which fingers cannot penetrate, unless said fingers have a poking device to tear the fabric open to get to the roots which then results in an easier assault of new roots coming up through new chinks in the armor).

Because our house sits on a hill, I find our rocks don’t like to stay in place. One would think lava rocks, which are quite rough and frictional on the outside, would stay put, but they’d be wrong. These stones are constantly shifting (presumably to get a better view of the hills across the valley – maybe looking for the quarry which gave them birth). They have an instinct where, like lemmings, they seek some cliff off of which they may hurl themselves to oblivion.

Our “cliff” is a scalloped wall of bricks that line the flower beds, protecting the lawn from the incursion of a basalt army seeking greener pastures. Most rocks stay put (I’d say those are the gneiss ones), but there are a few hardy souls that make the leap each night. So before I mow the lawn each week, I must explore the verge looking for those runaway rapscallions and putting them back to bed.

It’s strange how we humans are always trying to make life easier and end up complicating it beyond all reason. We plant grass for reasons which elude me – devoting time and energy to watering, fertilizing, and mowing it ad nauseam. We Americans seem to be addicted to work, don’t we?

I recall learning from my college Anthropology classes that ancient peoples often spent up to ten hours per week laboring (hunting, fishing, and gathering), and it was to these kinds of people God said, “You need to take a day off each week – let’s call it the Sabbath.” At that rate, we should be Sabbathing every other day according to my estimations! Where on earth did we get to thinking a forty hour work week was normal (let alone healthy)?

I may wish life were simpler and less demanding. However, as a neighbor once said in response to my wishful thinking: “Spit in one hand, wish in the other, and see which fills up first.”

Life is what it is, so we do what is necessary to make as pleasant an experience of it as we can. We water, fertilize, mow, and move rocks. Is that such a bad thing?

Maybe our love of labor is genetic. Maybe we don’t believe we have value unless we are producing something.

I know that I would rather be up and doing something rather than sitting in front of the television all day long. I find it isn’t the labor, per se, that attracts me, or the productivity, strictly speaking, but being creative. I may complain about yardwork, but in reality, I enjoy creating a pleasant space and doing what I can to beautify our neighborhood.

There’s something soothing in hearing the sound of gasoline engines popping up all over the city after I’ve put my mower away – creative juices flowing freely everywhere, inspired by one man doing what he must: Mowing (after moving rocks) for a clean slate here in this, God’s valley. Truth is stranger than friction. Rock on!

Thursday, May 10, 2018

When Vegetables Run Riot

Nature is not a place to visit. It is home. Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild

I went down to a local nursery a week or two ago and bought a couple of tomato plants for my vegetable garden. Well, actually, it isn’t a vegetable garden yet. Our back yard has many plants in it, but none of them are edible. If I want to eat, I have to steal blackberries from my neighbor to the north, or grapes from my neighbor to the south. Fortunately, their vines grow along the fence, so the law of the jungle permits me the luxury of claiming whatever grows on my side of the fence as mine. Or, as a child might put it: “Mine, mine, mine, all mine!”

The law of neighborliness, on the other hand, compelled me to chat with my neighbors and discern that neither is concerned with me meeting my nutritional needs through fence-line gleaning (a grace also known as permission). That works for me, too!

Meanwhile, I bought these cute little tomato plants, the varieties of which I have no knowledge (my natural state with most matters, come to think of it), hoping that they would (a) not die, and (b) produce fruit in due season.

For the past two weeks they have sat in the kitchen window awaiting the day I would release them back into the wild. Miraculously, they have (a) not died, and (b) already borne flowers which will (cross your fingers) become actual tomatoes! Through the miracle of me not having killed them (yet), they have also grown from three inch beasties to monstrous plants, both over a foot tall, and one branching out (apparently more bush than vine).

Now I have to find spot in the back yard in which to plant them. The weather here has warmed up enough that the danger of frost or dangerously cold weather has passed. Tomatoes, it turns out, are originally from Central America and not overly fond of the cold. That likely explains why my tomatoes didn’t do so well when I tried to grow them in the Madison Valley.

It’s funny, though; I don’t know where to plant them. Our yard is populated with a wide variety of trees, bushes, flowers, succulents and the like – so food-bearing plants simply look out of place no matter where I put them. It’s almost as if vegetable gardens are required to have their own space, surrounded by chicken wire (to keep out the rabbits) and segregated from species that are more pleasing to the eye than the gut. Oh my.

Never fear. If there is one thing I’m known for, it is my fearlessness in bucking trends, breaking rules, and ignoring anything resembling taste (unless it involves edibles), so I shall find a wide spot that works for me (and maybe for the veggies, too).

Life is too short to fret details like where to put something in the yard. Certainly, we want things to look nice. We need to ensure that plants which need a lot of sunlight will have a space where that need is met. We want to make sure they are properly hydrated – not too much and not too little water. We want to make sure to keep pests at bay. Blood is supposed to repel rabbits. Well, I may be a bleeding heart liberal, but I also find blood somewhat repellant. Still, there are alternative repellants we can buy at the local garden center, so I can minimize my personal blood-letting (aka shaving) for now.

I confess I am surprised at this sudden interest in growing things outside. I have always found yard-work more repellant than blood-letting. I suspect my distaste at such things hearkens back to the days where yard work was anything but fun.

Now that veggie-culture (aka farming) is a choice and not something compelled by a foreign power we referred to as “parents” – it is less onerous and a bit more pleasant. It is possible I might even come to (gasp) enjoy being out in that wilderness we call the back yard and watching the young tomatoes at play. I wonder if momma tomatoes are as protective as momma bears; I’ll let you know.

For now, it’s time to catch up with my tomatoes, so I’ll ketchup with you later in this, our valley.

Friday, May 4, 2018


It’s often safer to be in chains than to be free – Franz Kafka

In the early stages of retirement, I’m beginning to think that freedom is an over-rated concept.

I was hoping that retirement would allow us more time to do what we enjoy, although why anyone would want to spend more time sitting around doing nothing is quite a mystery. It has given me more time to count my pennies at the end of each month, but after about three and a half seconds I find myself wondering, what next?

It really isn’t that bad, however. I am still an early riser, so I get to go online and discover whether or not the world has survived the night without my leadership or input. The good news is that it is still safely in God’s hands, although there are enough greasy souls engaged in misbehavior that it’s no surprise that at times the good Lord’s fingers seem to be losing their grip on things.

Still, the universe at any given time is just as it should be, so I can concentrate on taking care of my side of the street and leaving the running of the universe to the Boss.

One reason I can get on with my day is I know from the get-go that everything will be OK. How do I know that? Well, for one thing, I have a friend who lives in the down under and I sometimes chat with him when I get up. The other day it was about 6 a.m. locally here and just past midnight for him there. If the world ended today, he couldn’t be there tomorrow, so all is well!

Much of our time, since retiring, has actually been devoted to working in and around the house to make it a home. The low-maintenance yard has been anything but. That promise was a complete fabrication by the seller (AKA LIE), but it is what it is and, although it takes more to keep it up than what I was wanting or envisioning, it really is a pleasant space for leisure living (which is what I call it when I collapse face-down on the lawn after mowing).

It is now in the sort of shape and condition where, if we wanted to, we could take time off to get away. It seems we humans always expect paradise to be somewhere else, and never where we are. On the other hand, if you knew what sorts of things go through my mind on a regular basis, you would know why I would want to get away – and the disappointment of discovering, wherever I get to, that there I am! Drats!!!

Freedom is a challenge, that’s for sure. It isn’t the money (although I wondered about that at first), but the sudden access to forty or fifty hours a week we never had before. The first thing I did to help compensate for the influx of time was learn to slow down. When I go grocery shopping, I may have a list with five items, but it takes me forever, because now I have time to read every label of every competing brand of the same thing I am wanting to buy (tough to read that small print, isn’t it?).

I move so slowly that I picked up a small bunch of green bananas the other day and by the time I got to the checkout, they were yellow!

Retirement, though, is a lot like coming up from scuba diving. You need to come to the surface slowly so you don’t get the bends. Ironically, I don’t bend as well as I did before, so maybe I should get going a little faster!

Retirement is also a lot like riding a bicycle. When I got my first bike as a kid, I discovered that as scary as it might be to go fast, it was also exhilarating. More than that, though, is if you stop, you fall over! The same goes for retirement. Don’t stop! And don’t let your pants leg get caught in the bike chain.

Beyond that, there’s not much to say. Keep moving. Use the wisdom you’ve accumulated over the decades. Be kind to one another. And remember, without links, a chain is useless, so stay connected, for it turns out that’s where true freedom lies in this, our valley.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Clouds and Security

If I stay in the tenderness given by / the silent sunlight coming down through the trees / surely everything comes into my eyes will be a message – Yumi Arai

I see on the news that almost everything in life we ever thought was safe and secure isn’t.

Financial institutions have been breached. Social Media sites have been drained. Retail outlets have been ravaged. Whatever hasn’t been pillaged has been shown to be vulnerable. All I can say is, “Ha! Welcome to my world.”

I take privacy very seriously. People who made confessions should be delighted to know that God blessed me with a wonderful “forgetter” – a capacity to forget everything I’ve ever seen or heard within minutes. I am that proverbial chap who dares not stop on the stairs lest I forget whether I was heading up or down – and for what?

I find it amusing that we are encouraged never to give our Social Security number to anyone, and yet every institution and employer requires it – the same organizations that have been breached, looted, ransacked, or rifled.

I am reminded of the early days of the internet where we were told the only way to secure the information on our computers would be to pull the telephone cord – and the power cord. If we really, honestly, and truly want our information secure, we need to write it in a book, stick it in a steel box with a good padlock, then stick the box into a massive blast-proof safe, and drop it off a ship as it passes over the Mariana Trench in the South Pacific.

I’m not so sure. The ocean isn’t as deep as we once thought, and no part of it is out of reach for those willing to go to great lengths to retrieve what’s down there. I notice investors will spend millions to search wrecks for gold doubloons and other valuables – but hardly a centavo to clean up the Texas-sized island of garbage that’s floating around out there over “them thar” wrecks. What’s wrong with this picture?

Garbage isn’t the most romantic of topics, and yet I find taking out the trash results in a more pleasant home. The air’s fresher when our wrappers, scraps, food waste, and floor sweepings are gathered up and placed in the gray bin outside. Now, if folks want to sniff that stuff to find out more about our family, they’re welcome to; just clean up the mess afterwards.

Getting back to security: we do the best we can. There is nothing fool-proof. There is no encryption system that can’t be beaten, and it is the fool who thinks they can develop a fool-proof system. If it is a system, it can be beat. Doors can be kicked in, windows can be broken out, locks can be picked, safes and codes can be cracked, files can be searched, and the list goes on.

I supposed what interests me most isn’t the security of life (or lack thereof), but that always-elusive thing we call the quality of life. Who wants to go through life scared to death someone’s going to break in and steal anything?

I find it ironic how Jesus compares God with a burglar breaking into “a strong man’s house, tying him up, and stealing his valuables” (Mark 3). For God, it isn’t the gold, silver, or bearer-bonds that are valuable, but people like you and me: sinners – (gasp)!

We do what we can to be secure in our homes and persons, but I have long ago given up fretting about such matters. I have good locks on the home. They’re not impervious to great violence, but they’re good enough to keep honest folks honest. What we have at home is mostly stuff. It’s stuff we like and appreciate – but it’s all replaceable for the most part. We have smoke and CO2 detectors to keep us safe from fire or noxious fumes. We’ve got strong passwords on most of our internet connected sites – but we should change them more regularly – an area for improvement, but not for fretting.

While there are things in life that are vulnerable to malicious behavior and which could be considered insecure in matters of safekeeping, we can all be sure of one thing: God’s love for all people. We can be secure in that truth here in this, our valley.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

The Daffodils

There’s a lot of hope and a lot of faith and love mixed up in a miracle – MEINDERT DEJONG

My wife and I went out for a drive as we are wont to do from time to time. It was a weekday evening and, what with the time change and lengthening of days of early spring (and a nice day, to boot), I thought we’d go out and see the daffodils growing commercially in fields just west of us.

I wasn’t exactly sure where we would find them – I think the local farms are better known for their tulips (which don’t come into bloom for another month or two) – but I knew that if I drove around aimlessly for a while I would surely discover them.

We headed west towards Anacortes on the old Memorial Highway and sure enough, there they were: fields of bright yellow daffodils swaying in the breeze. I grabbed a few quick snaps from my phone for, alas, I had left my good camera at home. My brother-in-law’s words bounced around the cavern between my ears: “You can’t get pictures if you don’t take your camera.” He won’t read this so it’s safe to say this openly: He’s right!

While cell phone cameras have come a long way, and while some can take breath-taking photos, my phone isn’t one of those. So I got some decent shots, but nothing as spectacular as what we saw before us, but that’s OK. Perfection is God’s responsibility, not mine.

While I enjoy photography as a hobby (and I am really a beginner of a novice, and not really even a novice yet), the fact is I am finding joy in simply living. While it is nice taking pictures (and quite ego-stroking setting up the tripod, changing lenses, playing with focus, composition, f-stops, and the like – to the oos and the ahs of the local lookie-loos), I am coming to appreciate actually just being “in the moment” –  like looking at a field of flowers swaying ever so gently in the breeze. It was truly a “wow” moment.

Lifting up my eyes from the field of golden daffodils (do they come in any other color?), I gazed to the east and couldn’t help but notice the clouds billowing over the north Cascade Mountains. It wasn’t the usual flat gray slate that usually hangs over our part of the world. These were angry, well-defined and muscular storm clouds looking to put some serious water down on the hills to the east. Again, all I could do is let out an almost imperceptible “wow.”

Living in the moment. What a concept. I forget who it was who said, “There is no past; there is no future; there is only now – ever only now.” Incidentally, if no one actually ever said that, I’ll be happy to take credit. Please send royalties my way via the Madisonian.

It has been said that a miracle is an event that can’t be explained with the laws of science or nature, but I would disagree completely. Just the complexity of the universe in which we live is a miracle. Just the fact that a seed or bulb can be shoved into a bit of black or brown dirt and come up in bright green and yellows is a miracle.

The fact you and I can see that stuff – and knowing we don’t really see it, but an image of reflected light is caught by lenses that evolved over more millennia than we can count, hits a fleshy slate containing rods and cones at the back of our eyeballs (upside down, no less), is converted to chemical and electrical impulses that snap, crackle, and pop along an optic nerve to a patch of gray matter that lies between our ears, and is perceived (right side up) as something which then causes other parts of our body to secrete endorphins that eventually produces a smile upon one’s mug – that’s a miracle!

Miracles are everywhere. All we need to do is look around with eyes to see, and listen with ears to hear.

To appreciate what we have, and what we see, and what we hear, and what we feel, and what we experience – and that we can do it alone or in community – by golly, those are also miracles here now in this, our valley.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

On Track

Whatever you want to do, do it. There are only so many tomorrows. Anonymous

Life is sometimes likened to a train trip. It has a starting point and a destination. We’re on the journey, but we’re not driving the engine. As long as the train is sufficiently fueled, properly maintained, and stays on the track, the passenger need not worry or fret, for all is in good hands. So …

Winters here on the north end of the I-5 corridor are not nearly as rough, wet, or icy as they are in southwest Montana, but they can be quite gray and dreary. As much of a home-body as I am, it is nice getting out every now and then to do something new and different.

To help break up some of the monotony, I did a bit of research and discovered I could catch a train and visit Seattle for less than what it would cost to drive down and pay to park in the city, so that’s what we did.

What a pleasant way to travel! We got to the train station here in town (with free parking – how convenient is that!?). There were no crowds, no lines or queues, no baggage handlers or x-ray machines. There was just a handful of fellow sojourners hanging around making small talk and waiting for the arrival of the 9 o’clocker.

The passenger train glided into the station very quickly (and surprisingly quietly) about twenty minutes late, but no one seemed flustered, fretful, or bothered by the delay. We were directed to our cars by the friendly rail-crew and allowed to sit wherever we wanted. We were in the economy class, but our seats were very comfortable and spacious – nothing at all like airline seats!

As quickly as the train had arrived, it departed the station giving a long, cheerful wail of its air-horn. I was surprised at how swiftly it got up to speed, rolling down the track with a … What?

Where was the clickity-clack of the track? Somehow, the traditional sound of wheels rolling over track seams was gone! I hadn’t been on a train since the mid-1960s, and one of the true joys of train travel back then had been the simultaneous swaying of the train as it sped down the track, and the rhythmic clacking of the wheels as they rolled over each succeeding section of rail.

The iron ribbon has become seamless, it seems (no pun intended). For those who appreciate a quiet environment, it was certainly an improvement. In fact, the entire journey was tranquil. We didn’t have the constant roar of jet engines or the dings, pings, or intrusion of pilot-to-crew instructions. We travelers could actually have a normal conversation!

The only directives we received were given face-to-face by the conductor who pointed our way to the Bistro car, where we could go pick up refreshments (which we did). While standing in line awaiting our turn, one woman turned to my wife and said, “9 o’clock is too early to catch a train.” After a brief pause she added, “… but not for Bloody Mary!” which she ordered, received, and carried almost amorously back to her car.

The train made all of its stops along its route and yet we still made up for the late departure and reached the King Street Station in Seattle right on schedule.

There is something delightful to be found in letting someone else do the driving. I wasn’t worn out with a white-knuckle drive along a congested freeway. There were no potholes to avoid, lanes to change, or blue light specials to worry about.

We made our way from the heart of our town to the heart of the Emerald City in less than two hours. When we were finished for the day, having done our sight-seeing and visiting with our son, we caught the early evening train home and arrived exhausted from the day’s activities, but not from the day’s journey. What a blessing!

Life is sometimes likened to a train trip. I couldn’t agree more. Each of us had our own destinations, plans, and “stories,” but we journeyed peaceably together. For the crew, it was a milk run; for some passengers it was party-time; for others, coffee-on-the-go. For me? It was a rolling parable; kingdom living in this, our valley.

Monday, April 23, 2018

A Loving Embrace

"Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved." – Helen Keller

I was talking to a friend the other day; he mentioned in passing how much the Christian faith has changed over the centuries.

“For the first three hundred years,” he said, “Christians were identified by the things they did. After Constantine, they were identified by what they believed.”

That’s a very profound insight and one to which I hadn’t given much thought, but it makes sense.

I wonder what it is about the human condition that impels us to hold opinions, and then to use those opinions as yardsticks against which to measure others – for inclusion or exclusion.

When I look at the world of animals, I’m not sure I have ever seen opinions expressed by creatures which are not human. A dog may prefer one kind of food over another if given a choice, but I don’t know of one that would exclude from its pack a hound that preferred rabbit to beef.

Are we all that different from dogs, cats, or other members of critterdom? Do we make choices based upon belief, or do we make them based upon our desire to belong and to be a part of some larger group?

Aren’t the principles we embrace a means by which we describe who we are and how we have learned to relate to one another? Isn’t that, in essence, what a belief is: a description of who we are and how we have decided to live out that identity?

In the early days, it was said of Christians, “My, see how they love one another.”

These days, however, we drive down the street and see churches that come in many shapes and sizes, with many different rules and regulation – each striving to convince folks that their brand is better than the competing brand down the block; people still look at Christians and continue to say, “My, see how they love one another,” but honestly, it’s not admiration they’re expressing, is it? Sigh.

Marcus Borg once pointed out that our English word “believe” has its roots in the Old German word “belieben” (beloved), so that belief (for him) had less to do with the head (an opinion held by the mind) and more with the heart (a person we hold most dear). It was Borg’s perspective that when we say, “We believe,” what we mean is, “We embrace.”

The point is that we don’t believe in God as a theological principle. The Bible tells us the devil also believes in God – and trembles! Rather, we embrace God who created us (and who desires to live in love and harmony with us); we embrace God who delivers us from evil so that we may be all God created us to be; and we embrace God who strengthens us so that we may be of service to God, our neighbors, and ourselves.

Embracing God is like embracing your parents, your children, your spouse, or your significant other; it’s personal!

I don’t embrace the Ten Commandments; I embrace God who delivered one Law (in three parts): Love God completely; love your neighbor justly and mercifully; and love yourself gently.

Everything else from Genesis to Revelation is just commentary. The scriptures give us food for thought, but we have turned the meal into a Food Fight over the course of “God only knows” how many eons.

We do violence to God (and one another) when we confuse what we believe with the One in whom we believe. We run the danger of being idolaters when we make the Bible our golden calf. We run the risk of being bigots when we alienate ourselves from our neighbors, using creeds as cudgels to compel, rather than as an “art-form that in-forms.”

This, I believe, is as true of our politics as of our spirituality.

Are all beliefs equally valid or good? Of course not, but we ought to ask whether people are being helped or hurt by what we do – for our actions flow from our beliefs.

If we hurt others, we must change our actions, and we will discover joy as God works to restore us and our relationships, and I believe that would be good for everyone in this, our valley.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Reviewing the Second Amendment "Right"

In 1789, the Constitution was amended to include what we refer to the Second Amendment (in the Bill of Rights):

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

One should note the entire amendment. It is not a two-part amendment separating a well-regulated militia from the peoples' right to bear arms. The sentence uses commas, not semi-colons. The point of the amendment is "the security of a free State." The "State" does not refer to those 13 former colonies, but the Nation - i.e. the United States of America.

How do we know? Because the militia went out under the leadership of President George Washington to put down the Whiskey Rebellion - to enforce the Law. This intention was also made evident by the United States when it undertook to preserve the Union during that unpleasantness we sometimes call the Civil War.

The Second Amendment was not included to empower the people and prevent the government from getting too big for its britches. The intent, in fact, was the opposite: to empower the government to put down and survive rebellion(s)!

The Second Amendment was added to the Bill of Rights and intended for the southern Slave States in order to help them suppress any Slave Revolts a la Spartacus. It was rooted in both national and state defense needs - NOT for the needs of individual persons.

The intent of the Amendment has clearly been to preserve order and suppress rebellion - particularly black rebellion.

The NRA, when I was growing up, was an educational organization with an educational focus. Since the 1960s, though, it has changed its focus from education to Deifying Firearms and "supporting and preserving" the 2nd Amendment. One might ask why, and one might note, coincidentally, the changes taking place in the 60s. The civil rights movement scared red-necks and (primarily poor) white people wherever blacks began to be getting "uppity" and demanding rights and respect.

The NRA began to feed off this fear, profited mightily from it, and continues to stoke the fires of fear.

The Second Amendment has never been in danger of being repealed. While machine guns and certain other weapons have been limited (remember the gang wars of the 20s and 30s?), no one has ever worked to eliminate any American's right to own a standard firearm (handgun, hunting rifle, shotgun, or sporting gun).

It is the Excess of firearms and the Easy Access to them that has created a problem unlike any we have faced before as a Nation.

That's the matter we need to address. Not whether or not we should have firearms or what kind. How do we protect our nation from lawlessness that firearms exacerbate?

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Thoughts on Guns

"This is a rifle, it's not a gun;
it's made for shooting, it's not for fun."

So runs a line in a movie, the name of which I have long forgotten. If I recall correctly, Richard Widmark is one of the main actors and plays the part of an army (or marine) drill sergeant.

It is one of those weird quirks of mine that, having heard the D.I. instruct a young recruit not to go around calling a rifle a "gun" that I wince whenever there is talk of "gun violence."

But wincing over the term "gun" is nothing compared to the contortion one goes through when under actual attack. I stood on a fire escape at the old Raymond Hotel in downtown Spokane one night in the mid-1970s when a disturbed man inside took a shot at me through the hotel window. I was a cop at the time and was on that fire escape to prevent him from becoming a sniper. He was mentally disturbed, threatening suicide and threatening to shoot anyone who got in his way.

I was fortunate in that the bullet missed it's mark; I got into a better vantage point to ensure he wouldn't do that again. After a stand-off that lasted a few hours, one more round was fired by the hotel's tenant; he died from that self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

The question we face in our day is how to prevent firearm violence. It would seem an impossible task for a nation of 300 million people and a nearly inexhaustible supply of firearms.

No matter what you do, it is argued, criminals will always be able to get their hands on firearms and do harm. That's true. It is equally true that if there are fewer firearms, that criminals will eventually have to resort to using butter knives or box-cutters. To be honest, I would have preferred the man at the Raymond hotel to have thrown a knife at me than to have fired at me with his Saturday night special!

Just because a problem is complex, though, does not mean we should not begin a process of addressing it. Kicking the can down the road does not solve the problem, does not answer any questions, and simply irritates neighbors as they listen to it clang down the road!

Further, the delay in addressing these issues seriously (and without the flag-waving, name-calling, or insult-hurling screams of either gun-nuts or gun-abolitionists) means that another 30,000 people will die each year from gun violence.

While the mass murders get the major publicity, it is the common run-of-the-mill murders and suicide that do the country's heavy-lifting for the funeral industry (and let's not forget the many who are not killed but injured, or the families, friends, and loved ones left behind, and not to mention the collateral damage we may be ignoring or not even considering in our debates).

In the story of Noah's Ark, after the waters had receded and the bodies of the dead were beginning to wash up on shore, God repented of what God had done. God hung up his bow (the primary assault weapon of the day - God's AR-15, if you will) as a reminder to GOD - "I'll not do this ever again!"

Maybe we ought to give serious consideration to the prophet's call, to consider doing the same: Toss our weapons into a foundry, melt them down, and transform them from weapons of death to instruments of life: plows and pruning shears.

As St. Paul says, "Let's put on the helmet of salvation, the breastplate of righteousness, and shod our feet with the Gospel of Peace."

As people of God, that should be our FIRST order of business.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Creation Matters

Compassion is … a spirituality and a way of walking through life.  It is the way we treat all there is in life – ourselves, our bodies, our imaginations and dreams, our neighbors, our enemies … Compassion is a spirituality as if creation mattered.  It is treating all creation as holy and as divine … which is what it is.  – Matthew Fox

In almost every world religion, and from the lips or writings of almost every major world-class figure in spirituality, one reads what is often referred to as the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.

We teach our children from early on not to hit their siblings or neighbor pals because “you wouldn’t want them to hit or bite you, would you?”

With such a small lesson we teach such a large principle: that people are to be treated with dignity and respect.

Over time, of course, we teach them that there are exceptions to the rule.  When a child hits our child, we may well teach them to set aside the golden rule for a moment and “protect yourself”.  It isn’t too far down the slippery slope where we find ourselves rationalizing that it is OK to “don’t get mad” but “get even”.

Spirituality is fine and good, it seems, when everyone is behaving properly, but it doesn’t take much to identify multiple exceptions to the rule.

We have heard it said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” but Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek, and if one tries to take our coat, to offer him our cloak, and if one would compel us to go a mile, go an extra mile!

That is very counter-intuitive advice, and not very practical. 

Was Jesus crazy?  Was he really that out of touch with human nature and the inordinate capacity of some people to take absolutely every advantage one gives them?  Didn’t he know that when you give someone a second chance that they’ll want a third, and that if you draw the line anywhere, they’ll resent you for it and hate you for it – and probably forever?

I don’t believe Jesus was crazy; I think he had something else in mind; he was addressing a world where compassion was in woefully short supply; he had two people under consideration as he spoke: “you” and “the other.”

Our very own humanity is bound up in the humanity of the other person.  Their ill treatment of us or of our property has nothing to do with how we ought to respond or behave, except to respond to the other person as a human being, whom God requires us to treat with dignity and respect; not because they have done so to us, but because that is how we must treat them if we are to retain our own humanity, and keep our own spiritual connection with God healthy, alive, and well.

While there are bad people in the world, they are probably fewer than we would like to admit.  It has been said that every person is the hero in his or her own story.  If that is true (and I believe it is), then we need to understand that the thoughts and actions of others are a function of their own heroic perspective; we tread on dangerous ground when we presume our own thoughts or actions are innocent and heroic, while imputing evil motives to those with whom we may be at odds.

Taking a moment to view the hero in the other person, even when we would most like to punch their lights out, allows us to see where we may have fallen woefully short of our own humanity, and of how we may have contributed to the mess we’re in.  Taking our responsibilities seriously, we may find the time we need to make amends and prevent further violence to those God calls us to love.

Perhaps it is time to ponder anew the golden rule and see if it doesn’t result in a bit more peace and joy in this, our valley.  I’m sure we would all find that nicer to look at than a bunch of smug neighbors stumbling around half-blind and toothless.  At least “eye” would hope so – and that’s the “tooth”.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Gift of a Smile

Even as children, you understand, we set our paper boats on a stream. We watch them go. M.O. Walsh, My Sunshine Away

I was gliding through the mall. I try to get out for a daily walk and when the weather is wet, cold, blustery, or otherwise miserable, I head for the mall and take advantage of the dry, warm, and sterile environment of its covered courts and stroll along to the boring strains of whatever generic music they’re piping throughout the concourse.

The retail space is quite empty these days. As I perambulate along the outer edges of the hallways, I can’t help but notice the same two guards trudging along as they make their rounds. We occasionally make eye contact, but that seldom lasts for more than a fraction of a second. In that fleeting moment they recognize I’m just a walker, nod a quick “hello” if they’ve the energy or are of a mind to, and as swiftly as that, we continue our appointments with health or security.

The mall has various places for people to rest. There are comfortable leather massage chairs people like to sit in, but I’ve yet to see anyone insert any money. They just sit and enjoy a chair that’s more comfortable than the standard mall couch or metal food-court seat as they await a friend or spouse to finish whatever they happen to be doing.

This particular day I found one fellow laid back and snoring away on a pay-chair by the sports team store. By the time I circled back for the second time, one of the yellow-vested security men was standing beside the sleepy slacker and informing him that while he could sit there he really shouldn’t sleep there.

I couldn’t help but wonder which I preferred – the purposeful snoring of a living being, or the digital tones piped over the metallic speakers spread throughout the mall, ensuring no one would ever have to endure the silence of their own thoughts, or the padded sounds of their sneakered footsteps. It was no contest. I preferred the earnest honesty of the snore.

There are also other walkers who, like me, are intent on getting in their “steps” or whatever measurement they are using. As with the guards, we walk, acknowledge one another with the briefest glance (furtively striving to look away – the better alternative for we shy types), and each continuing their way, lost in his own thoughts, adrift in her own bubble.

Each day I pass by the same venders. There are no crowds. There are no shoppers. There’s just us walkers, us mall-crawlers.

The venders situated along the center of the causeways sit in silence, face-down, scrolling through digital morsels proffered from their cell phones.

Could you imagine that anywhere else? In foreign lands, those venders would be crying out, calling for people to come check out their wares, fruits, vegetables, or baked goods. Not here. People sit in stony silence. If they’re on commission, they’re as good as dead. If they’re on salary, it’s got to be the hardest, loneliest buck on the planet to earn.

My one delight in walking at the mall was stopping and enjoying a good cup of coffee, tea, or hot chocolate at the beverage shop located mid-mall outside Macy’s. Sadly, it closed just after the first of the year.

A part of me died with its closing. I didn’t mourn for my loss, exactly, but just for what its closing represented – the slow but relentless death and decay of the traditional American mall. Yes, one can often buy things cheaper online, but I have yet to see the internet deliver a cup of decent coffee moments after ordering it. I have yet to see an electronic barista pass the time of day with pleasant conversation while working on my espresso or cappuccino.

I pondered this loss and glanced at a couple shuffling along hand in hand. They must have been pushing 90 or so. She leaned on him and the two of them hobbled along. Unlike the other crawlers, this couple was in no hurry. Unlike the others, the couple simply beamed, pleased as punch to be alive, walking, and together.

They looked at me and smiled. It was a gift – freely given. Thank you, God; they set free my own smile in this, our valley.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Prisoner

“Nothing of me is original. I am the combined effort of everyone I’ve ever known.” Chuck Palahniuk, Invisible Monsters

This is a horror story so terrible I hope it doesn’t cause panic amongst the newspaper reading public. I say that because it is a true story, none of which is made up, fake, false, or anything like that. If you read it here, you can trust it is the genuine article in which there is no artifice or dissimulation. OK?

You’ve been warned.

I left the house to run some errands the other day and as I got a few blocks away I tapped my hip to discover (to my great horror) that I had left my cell phone at home on the table. In other words, I had ventured forth into the void (sometimes called the “neighborhood”) with no way to communicate, locate myself (via GPS), or find where I was actually going (via the maps app).

My pulse began to race (a condition with which I have very little experience), my skin began to crawl (although it was nice to feel like a newborn baby once again), and my breathing came in great gulps (like as if I was some poor cut-throat trout lying out on a sun-drenched gravel bar awaiting the agonizing rip of a fisherman’s filet-knife).

The blood drained away from the block that sits upon my shoulders and my vision began to blur. Was this the end? Is this how I would make my grand exit – a pile of goo holding onto a steering wheel, frozen in place, uttering those final words that no one would ever hear, “My pho …” (voice trails off – a finis coronat opus)?

After a few seconds, though, the panic in extremis passed. As the rain splashed against the windshield and the wipers continued the rhythm of their swiping, I began to realize that the human race had made it through several millennia without access to cell phones. People had actually traveled across continents and over oceans with little more than a stick in their hands with which to fight off fierce wild beasts or snag a kippered snack for supper.

I eased my grip upon the steering wheel, allowing blood to flow once again, crossing over my knuckles and back into the brain bucket from which it had originally been drained. The world righted itself and I realized everything would be okay.

I reflected on the matter and came to recognize that perhaps I had become too attached to my phone. Where it is supposed to be a tool which serves its owner, it had become the master – the “Lord” Vader – and I had become the student, the Woe-be-gone-Keith-Obie. I had become a prisoner, imprisoned (probably why it’s called a “Cell” phone), but now I was free.

Freedom, of course, is just another word for nothing left to lose, so I continued on my journey, taking care of business (every day), taking care of business (every way), taking care of business (it’s all mine) … oh, sorry. I got carried away in (Bachman Turner) Overdrive …

Anyway, it’s funny how paralyzing fear can be. That momentary lapse into panic (while possibly exaggerated for effect) was very real, but ultimately groundless. The key to breaking that moment of angst was to do some real grounding. Listening to the wipers, watching the splashing of the rain, smelling the soft vapors of the air freshener, and feeling the warm air blowing from the vents restored me to sanity (a major marvel, to be sure).

Whenever I find myself worried about things going on around me, the majority of which are outside my control – like the weather, politics, the rising and falling fortunes of my favorite sports teams, etc. – I find it helpful to put my five senses to work, finding concrete reality in the world around me (versus the noise and static coming from the warp and woof of my imagination).

We have embarked on a whole new year. We’re several weeks into it and it has already lost some of that New Year smell. Still, touching base with those we love and staying grounded one step and one day at a time will work to make it a sane year. Also, don’t text and drive – today’s PSA.

What more could we ask for in this, our valley? Happy Trails!

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

The Personal Assistant

“You’re going to have a hard time in life if you let every little mistake bother you. Life is good. Enjoy it.” M.O. Walsh, My Sunshine Away

Christmas is over. Well, not really. The tree is still up and will be until the 6th of January. The twelve days of Christmas end then. But psychologically and culturally, the feast really ended at sundown Christmas day.

The outside lights are still up, but they don’t seem to twinkle quite as festively as they did in the nights leading up to Christmas. The wreaths continue to hang but seem a bit gray and tired – sort of like those who put them up in the first place. The stockings are droopy, having been dumped and emptied at the sound of Gabriel’s horn on Christmas morn.

Yep. Christmas is over. We didn’t get as much meat off the lamb as we usually would off a turkey, so the leftovers were pretty skimpy. The taters and rolls got scarfed down and about all we had left was the pink fluff we make for our holiday meal. It’s mighty tasty, so I’m always glad to see a double-batch thrown together for the family supper. But still, there wasn’t enough to last us even to the Five Golden Rings day of the season!

However, while the day itself may be done, finished, and caput, some parts of the holiday will live on for a long, long time because this year one of my true loves gave to me – a Personal Assistant!

It is one of those voice activated devices you set up to make life more convenient, which is a good thing, for there is nothing more inconvenient than living. For one thing, there’s eating, breathing, and all sorts of biological minutia in which one has to engage if one is going to be considered alive. That’s mighty inconvenient, as I’ve taken nicely to being a quiet lump on the couch staying out of everyone else’s way.

But now I have a Personal Assistant available at my every beck and call. “Alexa, what’s the weather?”

“The weather outside is a balmy 39 degrees. Rain is expected, so you may wish to take an umbrella with you if you go outside.”

Good heavens; not only do I get a weather report, but she gives it with sass! And, to be honest, I never get tired of being told what to do when I go outside, or how to dress, or what to take with me.

She is connected to my phone; I can ask her to fill out my grocery list so when I go to the store I don’t have to fumble with a paper list – trying to cross items off as we load them into the cart. Now I can just check each item off as I get it and, voila, no punching holes in lists I generally can’t read anyway (with my penmanship, I really should have been a doctor).

One downside to having an electronic PA is that she is limited in some of the more practical things one might desire. For instance, she can’t fetch my slippers or run out to the mail box to grab the mail. She doesn’t pour coffee or bring it when I ask, and she can’t do all the things she could do if we lived in a smart house (like turn on lights, open the garage, or adjust the thermostat for when we leave or return home).

Still, it is kind of nice having someone to talk to when I’m by myself, but she also fosters an eerie sense that one is not really ever alone. Her green light fades in and out as she sniffs the air for sound – yearning for a question or command.

She sometimes interrupts a private conversation, interjecting, “I’m sorry, I didn’t quite get that,” so we know she’s listening in; eavesdropping. Should we be worried? Is Big Brother or Big Sister listening in?

The answer is, probably, and for many that could be unnerving, but her microphone can be shut off. That reduces any concern I might otherwise have. For me, she’s just the newest member of the family, and that’s OK.

Now, if she’d just learn to fetch my slippers and pour my coffee here in this, our valley, I’d be set for life – a happy lump.