Thursday, December 6, 2018

Winter Grasses

O God, you are my God: eagerly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you, as in a barren and dry land where there is no water. Psalm 63

I have had the pleasure of being retired a little over a year now. The adjustment to a life of leisure hasn’t been too bad, although I have found the “leisure” part of the equation somewhat more elusive than finding the end of Pi. There seems to be no end to the number of little things life requires of its organisms

That’s as it should be. We each have a purpose, even if mine seems to be to provide carbon dioxide for the grass outside so I have something to mow for three out of the four seasons. I don’t mind. In fact, I rather enjoy following my self-propelled grass muncher as it wanders to and fro looking to swing its blades of glory against the forest of local fescue (and dandelions) residing ‘round the house.

Fortunately, we have entered the season of winter, and the lawn seems to have gone dormant, storing up its energy for a springtime assault on my sinuses. That, too, is as it should be, for if it wasn’t for my sneezing, I doubt I would get the exercise I need to huff and puff my way around the house between meals and snacks.

Speaking of which, while the sod has gone to sleep, this sod-buster has had to shake off his slumbering ways and prepare to take a couple of services while our minister is off on a spot of vacation.

I had thought that by not preaching regularly my mind would be gathering up fresh ideas and thoughts and illustrations the way squirrels find and store up their own nuggets of nutrition day-by-day, but sadly, that hasn’t happened. It’s either that or someone has broken into that cranial storehouse of wisdom and insights God (or Darwin) stuck between my ears and made off with all those treasures!

The truth is, I suspect, that the old adage “Use it or lose it,” is valid.

Back in the day when I was preparing sermons to deliver on a weekly basis, I know my eyes and ears were alert to looking and listening for things that would connect our faith with life.

I remember one day driving around Ennis Lake and finding a woman pushing her bicycle along the road. I stopped and asked if I could help, thinking she might have a flat tire. I was wearing my clergy shirt and collar and driving my pickup, so hoped she wouldn’t be alarmed. She told me she was fine, so I drove off. I would love to say I offered to help out of the goodness of my heart (and surely, some of that was there), but I also knew the gospel lesson coming up that Sunday addressed the story of the Good Samaritan, and I was NOT going to be the priest “who passed by on the other side” of the person in distress.

Things like that happened all the time when I was preaching regularly, but now that I’m not, I find my eyes have clouded over a bit. I simply am not making the connections I once did. It’s not for lack of activities, but for lack of paying attention to the world around me.

It’s like with friends you haven’t seen in years. You would assume you’d have tons to talk about making up for lost time, but actually, you end up having less to say, because the connections aren’t there. Each has gone their own way, points of contact and commonality have separated, and so you don’t know where (or how) to start. And so you share some inane pleasantries, and then you move on.

There aren’t that many of us who preach, but we do connect. With the holidays drawing near, it seems maybe now is as good a time as any to begin strengthening the connections we have. I would hate to be standing over the punchbowl at some gathering and have little more to talk about than news, sports, weather, or the state of my grass.

Which reminds me: dandelions make a wonderful Christmas gift. Not only can you not kill them, they help clear your sinuses each spring in this, our valley.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Advent 1 – Land of Shadows and Light

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light …

I haven’t been to the Mall in quite a while. I haven’t been to the one in Burlington, or the one in Bellingham, or the one in Everett. I’m not against going to the mall. I just haven’t bothered turning in to shop, walk, or rub elbows with anyone.

I’ve been to other stores, of course, and there’s no doubt the Christmas season is in full swing – and has been since before Halloween.

There’s a word for this: INSANE. The world is absolutely crazy.

I’m reminded of the scene in HOME ALONE where the young boy is accidentally left behind as his family flies off to Paris. He discovers he is alone in the house and goes berserk doing everything he knows he’s not supposed to. He watches movies he’s not supposed to; eats loads of junk food; jumps on the bed, ransacks his older brother’s room, runs through the house screaming at the top of his lungs.

In short, He’s being an 8-year old set free, and while the carnage of freedom lasts for a little while, he makes a shift from recklessness to responsibility - from making a mess to taking care of his “world.” He buys groceries, does laundry, decorates the house for the holiday, and defends it from the forces of darkness outside (the WET BANDITS).

Advent is our refuge from an insane world. Some of us may have come in looking for Christmas decorations, Christmas trees, poinsettias, Nativity sets and all that, but the closest thing we have to the seasonal foo-foo (that’s the liturgical term for all that stuff) is our Advent wreath over here.

On the First Sunday of Advent, we light a single candle. We pray God to give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, but one little light doesn’t really seem up to the task, does it. And how about that phrase: “Works of darkness”? That seems a little melodramatic, doesn’t it?

I used to love that phrase in the Prayer of Humble Access we use to pray: “we are most heartily sorry for these our misdoings. The remembrance of them is grievous unto us; the burden intolerable …”

I don’t know. I’m not sure I ever felt the things I did were intolerable. At least not to me. But maybe to God.
Have you ever thought of God sitting there on the throne, looking down and saying, “Folks, I’m down to my last nerve, and you’re standing on it!” (Crash, thunder, BOOM)?

But God’s desire is not our death, not our destruction, but our restoration – our restoration to health and salvation.

Did you know that SANITY and SANITATION share the same root? It’s the Latin word for health and wholeness. To be insane is to be unhealthy in mind; to be unsanitary is to be unhealthy in body. When people were sick with lingering illnesses, they went off to Sanitariums – places where they could be restored to health.
The Church is a spiritual sanitarium. It’s a house of healing.

I love the Church and the Church Seasons because they remind us that we are human. There is a mixture of light and dark we can’t get away from. It’s like walking through the forest. The sun shines through, and the forest floor is dappled with the interplay of shade and sunlight. The sunshine and the shadows are both there. Like driving down the freeway, you sometimes get that strobe-light effect, and your eyes are going STOP THAT!

As Christians, we KNOW insanity resides here. We know what it’s like to smile on the outside and act like everything is OK, while on the inside little Kevin McCallister’s on the loose wreaking havoc. But we also know we have a God who not only CAN restore us to sanity, but who will.

We light a single candle, and it may not look like much (at first) but it is a start. It’s the first step in casting away the works of darkness.

To confess there is darkness residing here in this space (heart) and here (mind) and here (gut) is the first step. To invite God to come in and do her work (restoring those spaces) is the armor of light we put on. It isn’t our strength that gets the job done, but hers. That’s the GRACE part of the equation. God restores us.

When people complain about the insanity of Christmas, I get to share good news with them: You know, that’s one of the things I love about our church: it’s an oasis of peace and serenity at a time I need that most.

One final thought: in Home Alone, Kevin does all he can to protect his home. He calls for help, and he knows help should be on the the way. He runs away from danger, though a neighbor's house, and as he comes upstairs, the bad guys catch him. They hang him on a hook and tell him everything they're going to do to him when BANG! Another neighbor hits the two bad guys, lifts Kevin off the hook, and carries him to safety.

That is the Gospel in a nutshell. God rescues us, gets us off the hook, and carries us to safety. Like Kevin, we do what we can, and we cry out for help, and God does the rest. We cast off the works of darkness, and God clothes us with the armor of light. Happy Advent! :-)

Friday, November 16, 2018

A Boxing Match

“If you love a flower, don’t pick it up. Because if you pick it up it dies and it ceases to be what you love. So if you love a flower, let it be. Love is not about possession. Love is about appreciation.” Source unknown

I grabbed a box of cereal for breakfast this morning and was amazed at just how strong and robust I had become. I thought it might have been caused by my daily vitamin pills finally beginning to kick in. Having been taking them for at least five years, I thought, “It’s about time!”

But as I took a gander more closely at the carton, I realized I hadn’t suddenly developed the strength of an onscreen superhero, but the box itself no longer contained the volume of cold cereal it had in the past. The manufacturers had kept the box the same height and width I had been accustomed to buying, but it was no longer as thick. Front to back was only about two thirds of what it had previously been.

I hate “tricks” like that. Instead of raising the price of the product to reflect more accurately the cost of producing it, they kept the price the same and simply reduced the volume the shopper was buying. I hate that, and should have been more alert to their nefarious schemes.

As a creature of habit, I will continue to buy what I like. As a creature of habit, I will pay whatever it takes to put what I like on the table. But it does irritate me to know I eat smaller portions (by choice) and yet need to restock the shelves more often because of this sleight of eye perpetrated by the world purveyors of the finest grains, sugars, and fillers!

It reminds me of the days before I bought my coffee by whole bean. I would buy my ground coffee in three pound cans. But then the mountain grown happy pills were put into slightly smaller cans with about twenty percent less coffee with a note plastered across the label: “New and Improved grinding process! The same great taste using less coffee!”

No it didn’t. I still had to use the same number of scoops to make my coffee. Why not just put an ounce of coffee in a tea bag and instruct people to pop it into a pot of hot water? It’ll surely color the water, but we all know it won’t taste like coffee. If I can see through the beverage, it isn’t coffee by any definition that would stand up in court!

No, somehow we have gotten away from being an honest people in this country. We struggle to be honest. It used to be that a person’s word meant something (although I suspect that was more Hollywood-Western dreaming than reality), but at least if one was caught in a lie, one would admit it or have some semblance of shame, but not anymore.

Anyone who watched any television over the past few months can affirm the number of outright lies that were perpetrated on the voting public. It got to a point I just couldn’t watch a program with sound during the commercials. What a crock of hooey.

Fortunately the elections are over, so the 2020 commercials won’t start up for another couple of months, so we can hopefully get back to enjoying sports and entertainment without the taint of politics. For that, I’ll tune into the news when my stomach is up to it.

Meanwhile, the Good Book admonishes us to be honest with one another. Good Manners suggests the same thing. It isn’t just telling the truth that’s important; it is a reflection of who we are. When we lie to one another, it becomes easier to begin lying to oneself, and with that we become lost; not in a going to perdition sort of way, but in terms of knowing who were are, where we are, and (most importantly) Who’s we are. Every lie is a little death.

It’s possible the world’s producers of the world’s food supply are afraid we’ll stop buying their groceries if they’re too honest. I understand fear. But really? I’m going to stop eating because the cost of fertilizer has gone up? That leaves a bad taste in my mouth, and in this, our valley. Harrumph!

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Wandering and Wondering

Make your mistakes, take your chances, look silly, but keep on going. Don’t freeze up. Thomas Wolfe, You Can’t Go Home Again

Three of us stood there in a church parking lot, puzzling over a question of what to do. One had found a driver’s license of someone we didn’t know, but whose home address appeared to be just a matter of being five or six blocks away. Perhaps it had been dropped while the owner was out for a walk. Perhaps it had been tossed from a stolen wallet. Whatever the case, it was up to the three of us – three wise men (or at least the wisest men in the parking lot at the time, for we were alone) – to decide what to do.

The first to speak up said, “Verily, we should drop the license into a mail box that some letter carrier might deliver it upon his or her appointed rounds!”

We pondered the idea for a moment, but worried that such a small thing as a driver’s license might easily be lost in the vast expanse of the average drop box.

Another suggested driving it down to the police station so that someone from the local constabulary might deliver it or contact the owner to come down and get it. But no one was heading in that direction, and it seemed to us it would be very inconvenient for the licensee to have to go shagging after it (if the PD should deign to notify him).

So we studied the license carefully and confirmed that the owner only lived a few blocks away, and it would be quickest just to go deliver it directly to him. The only problem was that the street we were on did not go through to the address we needed to find. The three of us scratched our collective heads as we discussed the various routes we might take to find the man’s house, but every option seemed to be blocked by woods, cliffs, or dead-ends.

Two of the gentlemen standing there in the parking lot have lived in town for most of the past sixty years, so I deferred to them for their knowledge of the geography, but when they couldn’t figure exactly how to get to where they wanted to go, I finally suggested we just look it up. I pulled out my cellphone, put the address into the map app and, voila! I had the route with an estimated arrival time of two minutes. Ironic, as we’d been discussing it for about five!

This reminds me of the old joke of why the ancient Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years – because Moses was too stubborn to stop and ask for directions!

So anyway, one of my compatriots knew immediately where the address was and offered to take it over, so that was that.

It is amazing how good it feels to do something nice. It makes me wonder why anyone would ever want to do something bad, naughty, or destructive. While I may not always BE nice, I find it just feels so good I can’t imagine why anyone would want to spend any time in that other space – that negative, dirty, rotten, scoundrel zone.

I suppose that’s one reason I have made being part of a community of faith a central part of my own identity.

I look back on the three old coots trying to figure out how to solve the mystery of the lost-license-now-found, and when we were done, laughing about how simple deciding what to do had been. We hadn’t gotten all caught up in trying to top one another, or angling for rewards, or anything like that.

We had simply talked, putting our thoughts out on the breeze for everyone to hear and consider, played in the metaphorical mud-hole for a few minutes until the eyes became clearer, and then ultimately did that which was most neighborly.

Maybe if people spent more time talking with one another face to face rather than device to device, we’d find more solutions to more of the world’s problems. Seeing a smile light up a face in person has no parallel in the world of gizmos and gadgets, although it is sure nice having an app tell me where to go and how to get there here in this, our valley.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Does Happiness Happen by Happenstance?

The very first condition of lasting happiness is that a life should be full of purpose, aiming at something outside self. Hugh Black

I came home from church the other day and was quite happy. The music was glorious; the message in the sermon was thought-provoking and timely; the fellowship was delightful; the air was brisk, clean, and fresh; the day was sunny. All was right with the world.

Then I pulled into the driveway and noticed something under the tongue of our travel trailer that seemed out of place, so I parked the car and went to check it out. Sitting under the trailer were a couple of cables, plastic lids, and a nylon strap that appeared to have been cut with a knife. I tilted my head for a moment, deep in thought, as I began to puzzle out for myself the meaning of what I was seeing. And then it hit me: someone had stolen the batteries off of the trailer!

Amazingly, I did not blow a gasket. Oh sure, I spent a moment or two thinking about how I might set up a force field around the RV that would vaporize any miscreant who might dare to come within ten feet of our precious little tenement on wheels, but that idea dissipated quickly as the wisdom of my years came rushing to the fore, reminding me that I would most likely be the one vaporized (as I doubt I’d remember to turn off the zapper if I needed to get something out of the trailer at any given moment).

So I muscled my way past my disappointment with humanity in general (and our local thieves in particular) and cleaned up the debris, phoned in a police report to the local constabulary, and began to research places to buy replacement batteries. I also spent some time in prayer and meditation (which I find soothing and comforting) and pondered the possibility (however remote) that the thief was a homeless soul in need of the power my batteries would provide, or an addict in need of some quick cash for a quick fix. While I don’t endorse theft for either of those situations, I find them forgivable.

I’ve learned, you see, that one of the keys to happiness is creating the capacity to forgive.

One of the petitions we offer up in our daily prayers in the faith tradition many of us practice is a request for God to “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” For many, “vengeance is sweet,” but I find it gives me indigestion.

Our faith tradition has also taught us that “’Vengeance is mine,’ saith the Lord.” I can’t help but wonder if I don’t feel like an irritating pebble in God’s shoe when I try to stand in them, so I really do try to let God be God, stay out of her shoes, and just settle for being me as best I can. That seems to work out best for the both of us.

So I made some calls, shared my tale of woe on social media (because there’s no use being miserable alone), and found replacement batteries at a local shop that only cost me about a quarter of what I thought it would; so that was the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow (caused by the sunlight refracting off my tears, of course).

I bought the batteries, kept them safely in the garage, and wondered how I would secure them in such a way as to avoid them being stolen again. I went down to the local hardware store, explained my situation, and – voila – the clerk and I found a sensible and affordable solution: adjustable cable locks that allow me to cinch down the cable over the batteries in their boxes. The cables are strong, resistant even to bolt cutters, and easy to install.

I have since also taken the precaution of moving the trailer up off the street (which I never cared for as a place to park it anyway) and into a space alongside our driveway, so it is about as secure as it can be.

That’s all we can do, and that should be enough in which to secure life, liberty, and happy trails in this, our valley.

Cable locks now secure the battery boxes

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Some Assembly Required

It always seems impossible until it’s done – Nelson Mandela

Life does not come with instructions.

I am often amazed how, at my age, I am still confused by situations that arise from out of the blue. It would seem that, by now, one would intuitively know how to handle situations that used to baffle them, but I’m still waiting for that gene or knack to kick in.

Over the years I have put many things together, and over those same years I have seen instructions actually improve, and the mechanisms for connecting pieces of a construction puzzle have likewise gotten better.

I bought a pantry from a local big box store a few months back and all the parts were well packaged and labeled so that I always knew what was what, what went where, and which side was up, in, out, or optional. With the help of my son-in-law, we assembled it in about an hour and everything was square, plumb, and true.

That was a vast improvement over past experiences where similar units never had doors that hung right, and box corners were approximately square (give or take five degrees in any direction). I have learned that if a piece has a finished edge and an unfinished edge I will always – absolutely without fail – install the unfinished edge so it is what is seen.

I don’t know if that would be considered a knack (for reversing things), a gift (not everyone can be wrong 100% of the time), or a curse (I am leaning toward the latter).

In any case, things have improved remarkably well in the world of knock-yourself-out-while-you-do-it-all projects and I, for one, am elated. I love how screws, bolts, and washers come packaged and labeled on a bubble board rather than loose in a plastic bag. I love how various pieces have stickers clearly identifying them (A, B, C, or 1, 2, 3, etc.) so they are easy to match with the step-by-step instructions. It’s almost like my prayers over the years have been answered. It has also resulted in less procrastination on my part – a miracle, indeed, if there ever was one.

Well, I see ol’ Murphy of Murphy’s Law fame has been at it again, though.

My wife and I are expecting a grandchild in a few months, and so we bought our daughter and her family a new crib (with drawers and changing table). Andrew (my aforementioned son-in-law) and I opened the package and removed the contents and discovered to our horror and chagrin that virtually none of the parts were labeled, the instructions were in ancient Sanskrit, and the instructions had been drawn by a drunken otter during a long weekend bender.

I presume this was payback in the war on tariffs, but let’s not go there and stick to the story.

Andrew and I slowly, but surely, began to identify the myriad pieces to the puzzle and hardware and, piece-by-piece, began to assemble the Crib-Mahol (as I deem it). Little by little it came together and began to resemble the picture on the box. After only an hour or so, the major portion of the project was finished and it was exactly what we had hoped for – sturdy, square, straight, functional, and beautiful – with one exception. Two pieces had been reversed (by yours, truly). It doesn’t affect the functionality of the crib in any way, and only those knowing what to look for would see the error.

The baby isn’t due for several more months, so there is plenty of time to disassemble a few parts and fix the error; I may yet do that.

It could also be evidence that I had helped put it together – the backwards pieces being my signature – so archaeologists in the future may identify the crib as an Axberg-original. It also serves as a reminder that only God is perfect. There are some crafts-folks who intentionally add a blemish to their work to keep their humility in check. Alas, I need no such reminders, for I am all too human.

Life comes with no instructions, but that’s OK. Even with instructions, I manage to goof things up, but nothing catastrophic (that I know of). My dream is to assemble an ultralight airplane, but with my track record, that may not be wise.

At least I’ve learned that much in this, our valley.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Ford vs Kavanaugh

I am a guy. I have been a guy for a while. I think it started in utero, but it could have also started with the Big Bang some eons back. Who knows when such things start, how, or why. All I know is: I'm a guy.

I do not live in women's skin. I don't know what it would have been like to have been a girl in high school in the 1960s (when I went to HS), nor in the 1980s (when Dr. Ford and Judge Kavanaugh) attended, nor in our current millenium. How could I know? All I know is I am a guy.

I was a cop in Spokane in the 1970s. As a patrolman, I took rape reports and to the best of my recollection, they were all of the "stranger" variety - the stranger who mugged and/or raped girls or women. My primary task was taking the initial reports and, due to the nature of the crime, those were followed up by detectives who did the lion's share of investigating those cases.

In nearly five years on the department, I do not recall ever having taken a report of any sexual assaults between acquaintances or high schoolers. I did break up the occasional backseat love-fest out by Joe Albi Stadium on a Friday night. I do recall searching for a naked lad who'd been chased out of his girl-friend's house when her dad came home for lunch one day. But I never got called on a "report of an assault" involving youth, drugs, booze, or parties.

Does that mean they didn't occur? Of course not. I have no doubt they happened, but I also understand the reluctance a young woman would have in making the report. Being at a party with boys and booze would not look good to family. Questions of what she was doing, what was she wearing, how much had she been drinking, what "signals" was she sending, etc. ad nauseum would easily stand in the way of her making a report.

"Boys will be boys" also stands as a sickening rationale for the beastly behavior of boys. I know that young men, especially when in a group (or "pack") will often do things they would never do alone, especially when fueled or emboldened by booze (which conveniently dismantles inhibitions quite nicely). All it takes for them to "get away with it" is to threaten their victim with telling the school wild tales and lies - which (tragically) people tend to believe far more than the truth. Even the victims will believe it. Easier to believe they deserved what they got than to believe they deserved far better behavior from their peers (whatever age and gender).

Dr. Ford has apparently made a good life for herself and gotten over the assault about as well as one can get over the abuse of trust and of their body. Kavanaugh has also done quite well. Many women have come gushing to his defense, and his wife has even gone out and given newsmen/women cupcakes during this terrible ordeal the world is putting her poor hubby through. Dr. Ford has had to hire security, endure death threats, and leave her home, while #45 (the pussy grabber in chief) sings the praises of his SCOTUS nominee and slams the temerity of Dr. Ford to share what happened so many years ago (and add all this crap to her PTSD).

As a cop in Spokane, I have no doubt I would have been sensitive to any young lady reporting an acquaintanceship-rape, and yet I also know I would have had all those other questions in the back of my mind - blaming her for what she got, even if I didn't want to, mean to, or intend to. Why?

All I know is: I'm a guy.

That's not an excuse. It is just a statement of fact. I will add, however, that I have learned a lot more about women, assaults, and the #MeToo movement. I have made efforts to grow up, to be kinder, to be more thoughtful, less arrogant, and less abusive. I'm not there yet, of course. I'm still a guy. I'm still human - not as God designed or intended, but as happened after the Fall in the Garden.

I have no doubt that Dr. Ford was assaulted as a high school girl, and that among her assailants was Kavanaugh. His quick denial of doing anything wrong before he even knew who was making what accusations speaks volumes. Informed of an accusation, people immediately want to know who said what. The child who pipes up, "I didn't do it," before hearing any details is always, always, always guilty. Kavanaugh has lied during several of his confirmation hearings (now, as well as last decade), and I believe he is lying now. Kavanaugh has riffed off the Las Vegas ad campaign: "What happen(s) at (his school) stays at (his school)." His high school buddy has written books alluding to their antics in high school. Kavanaugh lies and has no place serving on the Supreme Court and, in my opinion, should be impeached for lying under oath during his hearings when he was made a federal judge.

I do know there are and have been false accusations made against men from time to time. Men are not the world's only liars. But I have no reason to believe this situation is one of those. Everything Dr. Ford has spoken of reeks of the gawd-awful truth that she was in high school, and attended a party where there was drinking and swimming and where one of the two young men she knew drunkenly tried to rape her while the other watched and possibly tried to help his buddy and not her. That event is seared in her memory only as traumatic events can be.

I stand with Dr. Ford. Why? Because I'm not a guy. I'm a man, a child of God, and we men have been called to love justice, do mercy, and to walk humbly with God. It's time for us to grow up, take responsibility for our attitudes and actions, make amends as best we can (with amendment of life) and giving all people - but especially women - their due (respect, dignity, and genuine listening).

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Life is Full of Disappointments

He brought me out into an open place; he rescued me because he delighted in me. Psalm 18:19

Life is full of disappointments.

I was enjoying a few moments of peace and quiet on our deck, reclining on what purports to be a zero gravity lounger. While it is quite comfortable, I’m afraid my body has always been able to detect the existence of gravity and, in fact, would no doubt attract space clutter at twice the speed it normally does on earth – but that’s beside the point.

I was lying there on the lounge and spied a marvelous spider web shining off in the distance across the yard. I was amazed I could see something so light and wispy from so far away, and then realized that perhaps it wasn’t as fragile as I’d thought – that perhaps it had been created by some gigantic mutant Shelob – that perhaps the reason I could see it was because the spider WANTED me to see it, WANTED me to come explore it, check it out and … SNAP! That would be the end of your dearly-beloved-now-departed columnist.

Well, my fear of spiders goes back a long way, and so I wasn’t going to fall for that, but I had decided to go check it out and was impressed with what I had found.

The fact is it was a common, ordinary garden variety spider who had been quite busy in our – yes, you guessed it – garden. I don’t think she would have rated a 10 in the Miss Spider Beauty Pageant, but still, she was of a freckled variety, and the web stretched from the roof of the house down to the shrubs below, and across the pathway to another shrub entirely. It was quite a feat of engineering and most intriguing.

I decided against disturbing the little beastie, even though the abode had closed off an entire pathway. Instead, I decided to leave it until morning and capture some brilliant shots with my camera. With any luck, the web would glisten with dew in the morning sunlight and I could come away with photos of prize-winning caliber for National Geographic or something.

The next morning, while it was still dark, I got up and, as is my custom, got the coffee going and while the nectar of life dripped slowly into the carafe from which I would draw the life-sustaining go-go juice, I got out my camera, set the dials, and mounted it on a tripod for a photo-shoot with the aforementioned sure-to-win-a-trophy arachnid. 

I stepped out onto the deck as the sun made its ascent, breaking over the trees to the east. I crept up to the spider’s lair and … nothing! She was gone. The web was gone. A single strand of webbing hung from the soffit, waving good-bye in the faint morning breeze.

Life is full of disappointments. My dreams of a Pulitzer – dashed. My dreams of a cover shot for the National Geographic – slashed. However …

My coffee was ready, so I gathered up my equipment and drank away my disappointments.

Life happens. Maybe a bat swooped in during the night and made off with my little spider friend. Maybe he or she found someone else with whom to pal around or make baby spiders with. Maybe she found the neighborhood too active with paparazzi – who wants to live where there’s no sense of privacy?

So, I abandoned my quest for the perfect picture.

I wonder why I didn’t get all my stuff together and take some photographs when I had the daylight and the shot the day before? Why did I think the future would be better than the present?

Perhaps life is full of disappointments when we try to live in either past or future, and not in the now. I’d made a decision based upon a dream. I could have taken a picture when I first saw the web and its fascinating occupant/architect, but I didn’t. Shall I regret that choice? Or is it wiser to reflect on what I did (and why), and decide to seize the moment next time I have it?

There may or may not be a next time, but there is always a now, and that’s where I think God would have us live here in this, our valley.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

9/11: An Essay

9/11 was a terrible day. My wife woke me up to tell me we (America) were under attack. Like many, I got up, turned on the telly, and watched as the broadcast cut back and forth from live feeds to replays. I was disoriented as I never knew which was which (live or replay).
Every year on 9/11, those clips are played over and over ad nauseum, and social media feeds are filled with American Flags, the Twin Towers, the Statue of Liberty, and all that and I, for one, am tired of it all. So tired.
For 17 years we have re-lived the tale. Nearly 3,000 died. True. Also true? Not all who died were Americans. About 10% (300 +/-) were from other countries. Since then, how many men and women have given their lives overseas in a “response” that shows no signs of ever ending?
Each year, 30,000 people (in this country alone) die from gun-related violence. More than half are suicides, some are accidents, and the rest homicides. That figure includes first responders, men, women, children, transgender (and all the other parts of the alphabet), people of color, white people, legals and illegals, rich and poor, sick and healthy, the smart and the stupids.
What have we done as a result? Hunkered down and wrapped ourselves in a flag, making of it our golden calf. We close our eyes to the violence around us and see an enemy (that consists largely in our collective minds) moving in the shadows, while ignoring the enemy that is destroying us from within - Fear and Hate.
We point fingers, preferring to fix blame than to fix problems. We build walls that divide rather than mending relationships, addressing grievances, correcting injustices, or developing courage through love and sacrifice.
Shortly after 9/11, the commitment was made to rebuild the Twin Towers one way or another. An early design or Meme was created where a tower would be built looking like a fist raised in defiance, with a single finger raised in an even higher “Fuck You” to the terrorists. Well, while the sentiment could be understood in the anger and anguish of 9/11, it has been transformed by our current administration - the logical consequence of a nation moored to fear and hate - where the Fuck You Finger has been shown to any and all who dare frustrate the Tard-in-Chief and all his handlers and enablers.
The smoke from the Twin Towers hung over New York like a pall over a casket. That smoke has dissipated, but the pall remains and shall remain until the people of this nation rise from their slumber and cast off the miscreants who have slithered into their various offices and work to replace them with men and women who can place national-interest above self-interest, and international justice above Fear, Hate, and vengeance.
My take from 9/11? It is time for America to grow up.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

On a Clear Day, You Can't See Anything!

Blessed are those whose hearts are set on the pilgrim’s way … Psalm 84

My wife and I had the pleasure of getting away for a week to enjoy a bit of vacation. As everyone knows, vacations are ever so restful and relaxing, so I suspect we might have done it wrong. We came home all tired and tuckered out and I am hoping we don’t have to do that again for a while.

As our readers may recall, we decided to head west and spend some time on the beautiful Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. We left home with our little RV (making our maiden voyage with it). We drove to Coupeville on Whidbey Island and caught the ferry to Port Townsend. The ferry didn’t hit an iceberg and sink, so one maiden voyage will miss the history books. That’s a good thing.

As soon as we got to Port Townsend we made our way past Port Angeles along the Strait of Juan de Fuca to our destination – a little RV park near Snug Harbor. They only had back-in spots for trailers, so Barb and I got to practice our communication skills. The maneuver was less than routine as I had virtually no experience backing trailers, and our little road had a small cliff running alongside it, making wrong turns quite hazardous. We actually got settled quite nicely, and neither of us checked search engines for divorce lawyers, so by the end of day one, all was good. We were happy campers (literally).

The next morning we took an excursion to Neah Bay and, after enjoying a fine lunch at the Warmhouse Restaurant, ventured off to find Cape Flattery and the northwestern most corner of the “Lower 48” (states). We managed to find a parking space and hiked the mile or so downhill to an overlook. The view was magnificent, in theory. In reality, the coast was quite foggy and the sky so cloudy that I wasn’t able to capture any memorable photographs.

But the hike was invigorating, the forest was lush, and we did manage to see some wildlife along the trail. True, our wildlife encounter was with a couple of slugs (each ranging about a half-foot in length). As tempted as I was to capture their image for posterity, the aforementioned temptation was overpowered by the one-two punch of sloth and indifference, so we satisfied ourselves with watching creatures slower than us for a few minutes before moving on with our trek back up the hill to our vehicle.

The next day we drove up to Hurricane Ridge to see the magnificent Olympic Mountains. Sadly, the air was so smoky from all the fires up and down the west coast there was nothing to actually see. I tried a number of different filters on my camera to see if any of them would clear away the haze so that I could get some decent photographs but, again, I was thwarted in my efforts. It was enough to make the trip and enjoy our time away however, and we did manage to see a young deer or elk on the slopes just below the visitor center. It was close enough we knew it wasn’t a slug, but far enough away we couldn’t positively identify its make or model. Never-the-less, it was a more pleasant sight than the terrestrial gastropods we had seen the day before, so the day was not lost.

All in all, although the smoke and weather were less than ideal, I found myself enjoying the outing anyway. I took a fair number of photographs while we perambulated some of the peninsula’s many trails. None of the photos was of prize-winning caliber. Although I know the camera was set to take color pictures, they mostly came out in various shades of gray, whether due to the smoke or the fog, it didn’t seem to matter. Even colored clothing came out in shades of gray, so that was an interesting observation.

I could go on and on about our holiday, but suffice it to say we did more than what is reported here. I don’t want this column to become a home-movie-in-print (as exciting as that prospect might sound), so I will close it out with one last observation:

We had fun, and that’s what vacations are for in this, God’s valley.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Wash Your Hands, for Heaven's Sake!

Some years ago I was asked to take services for a small church out in the sticks. I led the service, preached, and served communion. After the service, people thanked me for coming; thanked me for my sermon; thanked me for being there; invited me to stick around for coffee. They did all the right things; they said all the right things.

But there was this one woman who came, looked me in the eye, and said, “You didn’t wash your hands after the peace! You didn’t use the sanitizer!” And like Moses heading home to Mt. Sinai, she turned and left. (I had done the ablutions, but that wasn't enough for her). She left, so I couldn't apologize, and we couldn't have a conversation - because I really did appreciate her concern!

In this day and age of aids, zika virus, flesh-eating bacteria and all the rest, we’re learning to take sanitation and hygiene more seriously, aren’t we? We need to!

It’s actually hard not to be clean, when you think about it. We’ve got hot and cold running water in our homes and shops. Our laundry soap tells us we can wash our clothes in cold water, and while there might be science behind that claim, my gut tells me clothes need to be washed in hot water to be really clean.

I KNOW the water isn’t hot enough to kill germs, and clean clothes isn’t about killing germs (but removing dirt and stains), and yet my gut tells me – use the hot water (or at least warm), because warm water feels better when I wash my hands. Hot water feels better when I wash dishes. Sanitizer may work scientifically, but I hate the feel of it! Give me soap and water any day!

In the gospel, Jesus has his critics. Folks have come from Jerusalem to check him out. They haven’t come to talk about the cripple he restored to wholeness. They’re not there to talk about the little girl who’s life he’s saved, or the woman who’s 12 years of miserable bleeding he stopped, or the demons he has cast out of synagogue or the guy down by the graveyard. They’re not there to talk about his feeding 5,000 men over here, or feeding 4,000 over there, or helping the blind to see or the deaf to hear.

No, they’ve come to see what kind of teacher he is (must have been Labor Day – right before school is set to start).

They see his disciples – his students – eating without first washing their hands, and they’re shocked!

(Mark even makes an aside and says, “No one does clean like the Jewish people; they wash their hands before every meal; they wash their pots and pans; and they even wash their fruits and vegetables when they bring them home from market!”)

But we do a dis-service to the story if we think they’re just talking about hygiene here.

These are the People of God. It’s not about washing fruits and vegetables, pots and pans, or face and hands.

Water is precious. Nazareth, where Jesus grew up, had a town well. It was not unusual for the well to go dry in the summertime, and folks would have to go into the hills, find a spring, and carry home their water each day – not just for cooking and drinking, but for their ablutions, as well.

Water is precious. Water is heavy (pint/pound). Water is scarce.

“But this is who we are,” say the Jewish leaders. “Washing our hands, we remember God brought us across the sea to freedom. Washing our faces, we remember God gave us to drink from the rock in the desert. Washing our fruits and vegetables, we remember God brought us across the Jordan into the Land of Promise.”

Water reminds us we are God’s people – separate, and holy. We’re not talking about hygiene. We’re not talking about best practices. We’re not talking about good habits to get into. We’re talking about our identity as the People of God.

Now, it’s interesting. Jesus doesn’t apologize for being a bad teacher. He doesn’t rationalize his actions – although it look like that’s what he’s doing. Mark (or a redactor) says, “Yea, we don’t have to follow these man-made rules. We’re free to eat what we want.”

But Jesus isn’t rationalizing his behavior or making excuses for his disciples (who really were slobs).

I wonder if, deep down inside, Jesus wasn’t just a little bit embarrassed by his disciples. They didn’t seem to be very good at following the rules – picking grain on the Sabbath, eating meals without washing their hands. They walked with him and talked with him but they never seemed to “get it” – whatever he was talking about.

But instead of excusing their behavior, or dealing with it right then and there, Jesus went in a different direction.

“What you can see is important, but it seems what goes in is LESS important than what comes out.”

Now, our lesson skips a bunch of verses (and I hate it when they do that), but Jesus goes on to talk about – well, let’s call it what it is – manure!

Has anyone here ever stepped in doggie-do, or a big ol’ cow-pie out in the middle of a pasture?
Jesus looked around. This was sheep land. This was goat land. This was the land of ox-teams who plowed the fields. Jesus and his disciples went everywhere on foot. Undoubtedly, they were all-too-familiar with landmines along the way.

“Oh John!” “Oh Judas!” “Oh Peter!”

Jesus says, “You know, it’s not what goes in that’s the problem. It’s what comes out; THAT’s the problem!”

The same way, Torah goes in and tells us we are God’s people; good people; loving people; holy people. All that good stuff comes in, but what comes out?

“All those wonderful sins come out of us. They stink to high heaven. We don’t know how. We don’t know why. We wish it wasn’t true, but it is.”

Have you ever gotten a whiff of something and blamed it on the dog or the cat, or one of the other people in the room?

Not that I ever do that, but don’t you find yourself trying to pass off responsibility to someone else. If there’s 2 people in the room, you go, “Was that you?” People will try to look innocent, won’t they?

Jesus says, “That’s the human condition. The problem isn’t that we’re human. The problem isn’t that we’re fallible. It’s that we try to pretend we’re innocent when we’re not – that we’re better than those around us.”

In our collect for day, we pray for God to graft in our hearts love of his Name. What is God’s name? YHWH – I am who I am.

We ask God to increase in us TRUE RELIGION.

I get a kick out of people who say, “I’m not a religious person; I’m a spiritual person” as if that makes them superior. That’s as silly as saying “I go to church, so I’m better than you” or “I pray in the woods so I’m better than you.”

The root of the word spiritual is “spiritu” wind – breath – life. In Hebrew it is Ruah; in Greek it is Pneuma. If you are alive; if you draw breath, you are a spiritual being. You’re not superior to anyone or anything.

The root of the word religion is “liga” – connection. In music, when you see a smile or a frown over some notes, it is called a “ligature” – it means the songwriter wants those notes connected as a unit. True religion is that which connects us with God AND with one another.

Jesus says to the folks from Jerusalem, “Washing is important, but if you don’t see the connection between the act and God, then there’s a problem. If it divides us into ‘we and they,’ or ‘us and them,’ or ‘in and out,’ then there’s a problem.”

As Helen has said often, “Life is complicated.”

We ask God to bring us together – not to remove us from the world, not to wrap us up in bubble-wrap to keep us safe, but to bring us together so that, together, we can see the wonderful things God is doing in our midst, identify them, tell one another about them (and share them with the world around us – our friends and neighbors and family members and maybe even our enemies), and find ways to build one another up, rather than tearing one another down.

Instead of pointing out faults like the professionals from Jerusalem, our task is to share our vulnerabilities with one another; to confess our faults, identify our weaknesses and failings, and to look one another in the eye, not to say, “Oh look, a speck!” but rather, “Oh goodness, I’ve got this log stuck in my face, but I can’t see it to pull it out. Would you help me?”

That’s the point of the Gospel. “Graft in our hearts a love of your name (which is I AM ALL THAT THERE IS), increase in us TRUE CONNECTIONS, nourish us with GOOD STUFF, and let only SWEET THINGS pour out of our lives (and our mouth); on those occasions we find ourselves really ‘stepping in it,’ help us to laugh, clean up, and move on, and for heaven’s sake, help us remember to wash our hands, in Jesus’ Name.”


Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Vacating Life

We did not all come over on the same ship, but we were all in the same boat.  – Bernard M. Baruch

It is something of an oxymoron to confess that while I have been retired about a year now, my wife and I haven’t really taken time off to enjoy a vacation.

Unless you are desperate for some sleep, I don’t need to bore you with the details of what we’ve been up to this past year, but suffice it to say it has involved moving to our new house, settling in, and doing everything we could and can to make it into a home. I am pleased to report that while it is still a work in progress, we seem to have moved forward far enough to risk taking some time away to simply enjoy days that, in the short term, won’t involve mowing lawns, weeding gardens, unpacking boxes, or vacuuming floors.

Our plan is to head over to the Olympic Peninsula to visit some beaches and historic sites, do some hiking to see some of the waterfalls for which the Olympics are noted (assuming the rivers and creeks haven’t all dried up; they are reputedly most impressive in early summer), and otherwise relaxing in the shade of old growth forests.

Vacations aren’t something I do well, however.

I suppose some of my reluctance to enjoy summer holidays stems from my youth, where vacations meant piling into the back of the family sedan, four kids smooshed into a space designed for three, driving for several days straight from our home in Seattle to visit relatives out near Chicago, and having little to do upon arriving except to sit in the sweltering heat of summer while the adults sat in the shade shooting the breeze and enjoying their adult beverages.

Not all vacations were hot and boring, though. I remember a trip the family took one time to a nearby lake when I was just a wee lad of seven or eight. We stayed in a small travel trailer, which I presume was a rental as we didn’t own one. My dad bought my brother and me a kid’s fishing rod, which had about five feet of string attached. I presume it had a kid-friendly hook, but don’t recall for sure. It didn’t matter as I knew, even at that tender age, that I would never catch fish a foot or so from shore – and didn’t. On a positive note, it wasn’t hot. On the flip side, it was boring.

Another time our family took a trip to the very same Olympic National Forest we will soon be visiting. We were a family of four at the time, and it was summer (I’m sure it was before I was in school yet – the memories are very faint). My dad, ever the soldier, set up the tent in quick and efficient fashion and even went to the trouble of digging out a small drainage trench around it “just in case.” Well, that night it poured. To be more accurate, a tsunami came down from the darkened sky and nearly washed us away into the River Hoh (or whatever creek we had camped beside). The next morning we poured the campsite back into our rusted ’49 Plymouth and drove home. I’ll be honest; I don’t remember much fun happening on that trip, either.

These incidents, though, do bring to mind the one thing I enjoy doing more than pretty much anything else. I love to complain! I am never so happy as when I’ve got something to criticize. I resonate with Saint Paul who says at one place in one of his early columns, “Oh, who will deliver me from this body of death?”

Now there’s a saint after my own heart!

The answer, of course, is one who took the ultimate trip from paradise, set up his tent in our world, and went to the grave that we might live. Keeping that in mind, I find it helpful to pause from my carping and to be simply thankful. When I let go and let God, so to speak, life becomes much more bearable – even vacation-life!

Furthermore, not everyone gets to go on vacation, and with any luck, I’ll have more stories to share with you when I get back here in this, God’s valley. Until then, I’m outa here!

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Things to Do Whilst Your Summer Sails Along

I am running away, but I prefer to call it a strategic retreat – Tennessee Williams

I was scanning the internet the other day. Sometimes this activity is known as killing time, although, to be honest, time has been killing me for years. If you don’t believe me, come on over and take a look. So I found myself tumbling through some random spots online and found a gif (a brief moving picture or clip that runs for about 1 or 2 seconds). It was the picture of a sailboat where the sail was adjusted for the wind, and as the canvass swung from one side to the other, it caught and tossed a sailor into the sea.

That’s all there was to the image, and I found myself briefly wondering, hoping (and presuming) the sailor was retrieved by his fellow yachtsmen. Beyond that, though, I found it quite comical and entertaining – not unlike some Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin bit.

As we head into the dog days of summer, it occurs to me that some folks may be struggling with bouts of boredom and looking for ways to stay busy. As a service to my readers, then, I thought I would provide you with my top ten list of things to do when the mosquitos are biting and the fish aren’t – and you’re looking for some sort of reprieve from those flaccid days of summer. In no particular order, here goes:

Coming in at #10, go inside, close the drapes and blinds, select a decade, and binge watch your favorite TV show. Bonanza will probably take you almost to Halloween!

At #9, do a search on Tumblr, select a topic of interest, and follow the Links, Likes, and Followings until you get back to where you started – or Christmas (whichever comes first).

At #8, hop in the car or truck and see how far into the mountains you can get. Then hop out and see how long it takes for anyone to notice you’re missing. Remember, your local Search and Rescue team needs practice, so this would be a genuine community service. And for all those times your better half has asked you to Get Lost, you can show them how much you really DO listen!

At #7, when telemarketers call, ask them to hang on; then go water your lawn, wash your dishes, plan a deck party, or run to the store and do some grocery shopping. Warning: Do this only with your landline. Charges may apply against your cellular plan, so check with your attorney first.

At #6, sit down and address your Christmas cards. Begin your annual Christmas letter, starting each paragraph with a succeeding letter of the alphabet. Your friends and family will LOVE it!

Coming in at #5, close your windows, turn off your lights, climb into bed with flannel sheets and turn on your electric blanket and pretend it is winter. You may not get much rest, but you’ll quickly drop a few pounds and fit into those clothes you’ve been storing since 1977.

At #4, head over to your favorite community service organization and ask them how you can (gasp) be of service. Offer them the gift of your time, talent, or treasure (whichever works best for them). Make a commitment and stick with it.

At #3, take a stroll downtown, block the sidewalk and talk with visitors and friends. Grab a soft drink or water, look at traffic on the main drag through town, take a deep breath, and remember that’s what folks in big cities deal with all year long. Exhale, and offer God a note of thanks.

At #2, call a friend or family member you haven’t seen or talked to in a long time, and catch up. Note: Hang up on the telemarketer first.

And finally, coming in at #1: Go outside and when the first star appears, don’t make a wish. Just be thankful, and enjoy the view, for you’re closer to heaven than you can possibly know.

There you are. Enjoy these waning days of summer, don’t play with fire and, for heaven’s sake, watch out for pranksters in this, God’s valley.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

The Trimming Life

We’re all only fragile threads, but what a tapestry we make – Jerry Ellis

Ah, the joys of retirement.

I held my a trusty tape measure against a piece of wood, made a magical mark, measured a second time (as any wood-working professional would), confirmed the measurement was true and accurate, then proceeded to cut the door trim with my miter saw at an angle set for the proper number of degrees. When finished, I carried and tested the finished product against the door frame and – voila! It was too short. It seems I mitered the board in the wrong direction from my mark. Uff-da!

It’s ironic being a man who worked some thirty three years for a Jewish Carpenter from Nazareth (the carpenter – not me) and finding myself with all that experience still being able to make that sort of mistake. What a life! The double irony is that I don’t recall ever cutting a sermon too short!

But life moves on. One can’t stop trying just because things don’t work out as planned the first time and, to be honest, I know my skills with wood and saws well enough to confess I actually figured something like that would happen, so I made sure I had extra wood on hand!

Hah! Take that, o ye Fates!!!

I don’t mind admitting failure. Oh sure, there was a time I would have swept the sawdust under the rug and denied ever making an error like that, but that was so long ago the Allosauruses who might have tattled on me have gone the way of all the rest of the dinosaurs. And besides, it’s possible I’ve grown wiser. What’s the fun in hiding the funny things we mortals do, anyway?

I’m sure it isn’t funny to the tree that gave it’s all so I could trim the doorway in our home, but I managed to put the scrap lumber to use for smaller trim pieces that were also needed, so all was not lost. I have come to realize that life is too short to sweat the petty stuff. As someone once said, “Those who’ve never made a mistake have never done anything.”

The fact is there was nothing wrong with the door trim or baseboards in our house – or the spare bedrooms, to be more precise – but they don’t match the rest of the trim in the house which was updated prior to our buying it. We thought it would be nice to finish the update. Note: I use the term “we” quite loosely, but let’s not quibble over details. The fact is that left to my own devices, I would prefer to lean on my Lazy Gene (but misplaced it during the move).

So anyway, there’s work to do, although it is work of a different sort. I now have the time to practice doing things I’ve not done much of, and that is a nice change of pace, although the pace is quite glacial and needs to be timed with a calendar rather than a stop watch (and I slow down even more if anyone stops to watch me – I’m not fond of having an audience when playing with sharp objects like saws and drills, nails and hammers, and the like).

One of the pleasant things about doing my own honey-do woodwork is I can admire the greater skills of genuine carpenters. The good news is it was professionals who did the public spaces in our home, and the areas upon which I have been toiling away are and will be hidden away from the rest of the world (except maybe horror house movie makers – here’s a shout out to Hollywood).

That’s as it should be. While I know I shall improve over time (gaining experience along the way), I also know I will never be perfect. That job, thankfully, belongs to God.

In the meantime, I continued to measure multiple times and by the time I got to the last bit of trim, I had gotten the angle on doing miters a mite better and faster. And where my splices are sloppy, I have discovered the joy of wood putty (but I’ll save that story for another time).

Until then, enjoy your summer. May you never be board (sic) here in this, God’s valley. I know I won’t be!

Thursday, July 5, 2018

When the Bough Breaks

People are what they believe – Anton Chekhov

I was outside watering my tomatoes when I heard what I was sure was a rabid grizzly bear beating the bushes in my neighbor’s yard. It’s hard to describe a sound, but suffice it to say that if you have seen any wild grizzly movies on the silver screen (Night of the Grizzly and The Edge come immediately to mind) you will know the ominous sound of a beast single-mindedly wanting to have you for breakfast – or dinner.

Well, that was the sound I heard over in the corner of the yard as I was tending to my veggies (which are doing very nicely, I should add). I looked up from my hydrating duties to see what was causing such a crunchy commotion just in time to see a mighty bough break off from the neighbor’s fir tree and come crashing down onto the fence separating our two properties.

The good news is that the bough was crib-less, so no “rock-a-bye” babies fell as the incident unfolded. Also, while it had been my intention to water plants and bushes where the tree limb fell, I hadn’t gotten that far, so this baby did not have his noggin cracked by the aforementioned falling bough.

After confirming that I was still in one piece and whole in both life and limb (and heart continued beating within my own trunk – although it wasn’t beating about the bush), I went and got my wife to tell her what had happened (after all, she is the branch manager of our home) and the two of us trundled over to our neighbors to let them know about the damage to the fence we shared.

I thought the tree belonged to him, but as it turns out, it belongs to yet another neighbor who, while friendly enough, declined any responsibility. “The tree is on my side of the fence,” he said, “but it was planted by someone else and is actually on the property line, so it’s not mine.”

Ah, who says good fences (or walls) make for good neighbors? Some knot-head, no doubt.

Anyway, it didn’t matter to me who the tree belonged to and, the fact is, the damage to the fence was minimal. My neighbor and I took a couple of saws and loppers to the offending yard waste and laid waste to the trespassing vegetation. We chopped and lopped everything down to size in about an hour, and then loaded everything into my pickup, hauled it to the landfill and dumped it. A few days later we replaced the broken stringer and reinstalled the fence boards and, voila, all was made whole once again.

I do worry the tree will continue to shed limbs, for it does not appear to be a healthy tree. It has a number of dead branches holding on for no good reason except to keep the world in suspense. There hadn’t been any wind the day that one big bough broke, but I give gravity credit for its fall. It had no choice; it was the Law (of gravity).

I won’t lose any sleep over the matter. No one was injured. The incident gave me a chance to get to know my next-door neighbor a lot better as we worked together. I got to at least meet another neighbor I had not known at all, and I suspect I will get to know him and his wife better as the law of gravity continues to be rigorously enforced in our neighborhood. He may deal with his tree; he may not. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. The tree is sick, to be sure, but it is also short enough it is highly unlikely it will convert our home into a tree-house any time soon.

I will admit that fences help delineate property lines, but I wonder if they truly do promote neighborliness. It took a broken fence to discover who my true neighbor is.

A fence may give the illusion of security, but I dare say it’s only an illusion. Not only did a mindless fir crush it, but squirrels cross it all the time as they plunder Nature’s Market for their daily bread!

I’m glad God broke the fence. I’m especially glad it was God and not a grizzly here in this, God’s valley.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Naught, Knot, and Not

Live in such a way that you would not be ashamed to sell your parrot to the town gossip. Will Rogers

In the Bible, we are called to be truthful.  I have always found it interesting that the commandment addressing honesty is couched in the negative: “Thou shalt not bear false witness”.

Why not put a positive spin on it?  Why not say, “Thou shalt bear true witness”?

Perhaps it is this focus on negatives – the THOU SHALT NOTs – that causes some people to see religion in a negative light – seeing religion as a culture of NOTs.

Thou shalt NOT bear false witness; thou shalt NOT have any other gods before me; thou shalt NOT covet thy neighbor’s wife, livestock, or other precious commodities; etc.

It is the NOTs, I suspect, that gets us all knotted up, and yet it seems to me that there is a value in the negatives. Is it the “nots” that make us “naughty?”

Many of us go through life thinking of ourselves as honest men and women.  When the clerk at the store gives us back too much change, most of us will point it out and correct them.  There are those who don’t, of course. Some will rationalize their dishonesty and their misbehavior – blaming the stores for short-changing them in the past, or making too high a profit, or more than able to “eat” the mistake. But a lie is a lie, and theft is theft, and a mistake should be corrected whenever possible.

For the most part, most of us are honest and will do the right thing if we notice an error, whether the mistake is in our favor or not.  We “do unto others as we would have others do unto us.”  That’s the Golden Rule; it is known and expressed in any number of world religions and philosophies; and it is a rule that makes our world a better place to live when practiced.

Ironically, it is our basic honesty that often blinds us to the complete truth about ourselves.  We are basically good (and I really do believe that), but in our very goodness arises a certain complacency about our true condition. We are good, but not perfect. Our motives may be good, but our results are sometimes flawed.

A while back I was driving out along Ennis Lake and saw a woman walking her bicycle on the gravel road. I slowed down and asked if she needed help (thinking she might have a flat tire or some other issue). She assured me she was fine, so I continued on my way.

Now, I would love to say I offered help out of the complete goodness of my heart, but the fact is the parable of the Good Samaritan was the listed reading for the upcoming Sunday, and I did NOT want to be identified as the “priest who passed by on the other side.” I genuinely wanted to help (if needed), but I was also protecting my fragile ego!

Isaiah tells us that all our righteousness is as filthy rags when compared to God.  Is it possible that we are content to think of ourselves as good, rest on our laurels, and not dig deeper out of fear of what we will find?

Is it possible that the commandments are put in the negative form precisely because our temptation is to bear false witness?  Not just about what we have seen or heard, but in what we have done or thought in the secrecy of our own heart?

Jesus said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”

It is often out of fear and shame that we hide the truth from our friends, our neighbors, and ourselves, but there is no hiding the truth from God.  Further, I have learned over the years that being honest with our friends (at least with those who are trustworthy) – removing the masks of hypocrisy we wear – allows us the freedom to be more honest, and greater opportunity to be the kind of people that put a smile on God’s face.

To be human is to be flawed. True. But we are loved by God, just the same – and called to love one another, quirks and all.

That’s the truth – at least as I see it here in this, God’s valley.

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?