Saturday, February 18, 2017

Wisteria

Several years ago we planted a couple of wisteria plants to grow up and over an arbor over the patio outside my mother-in-laws bedroom. I really didn't want the plants. Wisteria is very invasive and, in my opinion, shouldn't be planted near any structure or small, slow moving children. It will simply take over if you don't keep it in check. It is pretty though, and does a good job of shading the sliding glass door that leads out of mom's bedroom keeping her room cool in the summer.

Three weeks ago tomorrow we had a rain-free day so I got out my ladder and hacked away at the dormant wisteria. We got it hacked back to the point where I probably won't have to worry about it much during the growing season. I didn't think much about the pulling, hacking and stretching I was doing to get the wisteria in check until the next day at work. All of the sudden my lower back seized up and I soon realized I was in trouble as I was unable to stand straight up.

I worked cautiously through the rest of the week but my back was not getting better, it was getting worse so I ended up at my doctor's office on the Monday a week after the wisteria wrestling project. He gave me some muscle relaxers and put me on some restrictions for work.

I am not a patient patient.  I don't really like to be waited on when I don't feel well and I've found myself the last three weeks needing help. My wife has been wonderful through these weeks of semi invalid-ness.

I had a conversation this past week with my Spiritual Director about some of this and while we were talking I was reminded of something.  About 14 months ago my wife had her knee replaced. I became her main caregiver through her recuperation and I was reminded this week at how happy it made me to help her with so much she could not do. My recent bout of insufficiency due to my back and my reluctance to accept the help I've needed brought home some lessons.

My reluctance to ask for and accept help during these weeks has probably made it harder for my wife and others who've offered help to actually give me the assistance I need. My attitude probably robs others of some of the joy I experienced while helping my wife last year.

My Director pointed out that God has joy in helping us in our insufficiency. How often do we block enjoying His joy by our insistence in denying we are insufficient? I think at times we try to hide our insufficiency from Him when all along He accepts, no, He welcomes our insufficiency into the relationship with Him.

I think we also believe His goal in the relationship is to make us more sufficient, that times where we are face to face with our insufficiency are meant to teach us something. God is a great teacher but is that all He is up to when He encounters us? Yes, there are times He wants us to learn something new but I think we do a disservice to the heart of our relationship if that is what we primarily think He wants. He is not always a school teacher intent solely on teaching.

Perhaps I need to learn to simply be with Him, enjoy His beloved gaze when I can only bring my insufficiency to the table of feasting He invites me to. I want to hide the insufficiency but He is calling me to lay it all out there before Him and let me be loved by Him in my insufficiency.

We are giving serious thought to taking out the wisteria and replacing it with something a little less invasive but I don't want to forget this helpless feeling I've experienced and the idea that I am deeply loved in my helplessness.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Sauce

If I have a hobby, and I'm not sure I do, it would be cooking. Gail and I belong to a gourmet supper club with three other couples who all enjoy cooking, good wine and are also common in our love for Jesus. We've been meeting quarterly for about 20 years now. I get so excited when we've set a date and the days are ticking by getting us closer to our evening together. We are scheduled for next Saturday the 11th. We are taking appetizers and the evening is centered around France. Oh boy!

My favorite thing to do in the arena of cooking is making a sauce. There is something about putting together a complex sauce that really satisfies me. Mexican Mole is one of those sauces that is one I find especially satisfying but it doesn't come together without some pitfalls.  I am not one of those cooks who just "wings it" with a sauce, I prefer to have a recipe to go by and for Mole I use Rick Bayliss' recipe out of a book of his I own.  It involves about 17 different ingredients and several steps to cook it to perfection. It is about a half day endeavor for me.

One thing about my cooking is I tend to be a bit messy.  The first time I made Mole was for our supper club and it was particularly messy.  You have to cook it once with one mixture then add a second mixture for more cooking.  It tends to plop and splatter with a thickness slightly less thick than ketchup.  I was using a screen over the pot to keep the splats of dark brown sauce contained. When I tipped the bowl of the second mixture to add to the pot of cooking sauce, it slipped out of my hands and the bowl landed perfectly in the cooking pot. As if in slow motion, the lazy liquids came together forcefully and then continued upward into an impossibly large splat that now proceeded to decorate the stove, cabinet above the stove, counter, me and the floor with spicy, partially cooked Mole.  Just then I heard my wife came out of our upstairs bedroom after an afternoon nap and I said, "Do not come into the kitchen".

Eventually I got it all cleaned up and finished with a sauce that was proclaimed by my friend Syd as delicious that evening. As I recall, he said something about wanting to pick up his plate and lick it.

There isn't a chicken pot pie that I've met that I didn't enjoy, even those cheap Banquet ones you can find at the super market.  In fact, I had a wonderful one last Friday evening at my friend's home. Tom and Karen, thanks again for a wonderful meal and evening together.

I have a very good recipe I've used a couple of times for chicken pot pie. It starts with cooking a whole chicken in a large stock pot along with a whole onion, celery, carrots and various spices tied up in a cheesecloth bag.  Once the chicken is cooked, I remove the chicken, all the vegetables and the bag of spices and then simmer the broth in the pot until it cooks down to a mere 3 cups. The broth is used for the base for the gravy for the pie; all those flavors have been condensed down into a very rich tasting sauce. I made this pie for our supper club one night when we were having a "comfort food" themed evening.

When I think about that broth simmering down, leaving the essence of the chicken, vegetables and spices I think about Jesus and His ministry during His time physically on earth. What if you could reduce down all His words, actions, His death, resurrection and ascension into one singular idea, thought? What you would have is LOVE. You would still have all the rest of the themes He proclaimed but mainly I think you would come to LOVE. Take a minute and think about this and see if you come up with the same idea.

John records in detail Jesus' last evening with is disciples in chapters 13 - 17. It is such a rich passage.  I think you could put together Matthew chapters 5 - 7 with the five chapters in John and you can have a pretty clear idea of who Jesus is. Oh, but I digress a bit here.

John 13: 35 & 36 is where I am landing on: " A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another". (You English teachers could help me out here, I never know where to put the period, before or after the quotation mark? Oh but I digress again.)

Some time in 2013 I sensed God asking me to extricate myself out of the political conversations that were just beginning to swirl, especially in the arena of social medias.  I only participate occasionally on Facebook but I am aware of other arenas where conversations take place. Specifically I sensed Him asking me to step out of the coming 2016 fray that we found ourselves in by considering not voting. Frankly, it was a hard thing to even consider.  I sensed Him asking to guard my heart by stepping out of the conversations that had not even really begun in earnest.  After about a year and a half of praying over this I decided I would honor His request and I decided to sit out this election cycle we've "sort of" just finished. I know all of the arguments against this and I am not offering this here to engage in discussing this decision with any of those who may read this. It is simply just a backdrop for what I want to say here. The end result is this; while I do have thoughts and opinions about where we are as a nation politically, I've been able to keep my heart out of this present place many of us find ourselves in.

This is not easy.  I have friends on several sides of the present great divide we are in right now. Many feel it important to voice their thoughts through posts and re-posts of articles and pithy little comments.  That is all well and good for those that feel so led. It does concern me though that characterizations are made often with the broad brush of opinion that does little to convince those with opposing views. Often I read a harshness that only divides, and these comments often come from those that are Christ followers.

In light of the passage I quoted above, this grieves me. In Jesus' opening of what we call the Sermon on the Mount He notes nine "Blessed ares" with the seventh being, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God". It makes me wonder how we, who follow after our elder brother Jesus, are to be peacemakers in the present great divide we now find ourselves in.

Recently while meeting with a spiritual direction client, my client made a passing reference to the recent election. It was a statement that prompted me to think of reasons to refute the comment but I decided to opt out of the statement and let the conversation flow. Had I decided otherwise, all direction would have stopped. In retrospect, I see I will probably never continue that portion of the conversation. It would needlessly divide.

I think about what Jesus said about love as a new commandment given that night as recorded by John. How are we to love when we are, at times, so deeply divided? I think it means we lead with love, not our held opinions regarding our recent election.

I know this may sound like a rebuke, I don't intend it to be that. I simply am asking all of us who consider ourselves to be Christ followers to think about leading with love.

However, leading with love does come at a cost. It means remaining silent at times, choosing to love out of silence rather than engagement. It has meant that at times I have been dismissed. It has meant that relationships have become strained to the breaking point.

It also means learning to trust that God is in charge during these tumultuous times with opinions heated by events we may or may not agree with. Keeping my eyes on this fact, God is in charge, has become a deep exercise in faith.

I don't want to be known first by what I believe politically. I want to be known as a man who first loves God and loves others. My political views are totally unimportant if I am to lead first with love.


Monday, January 9, 2017

Paint Stripper

Some time ago we gave up cable TV but most of my favorite shows when we had cable were on HGTV. Rehab Addict was one show that I always found entertaining.  Not only is it taped in my former adopted hometown of Minneapolis, I simply love what Nicole does to old homes. Restoration of down and out homes to their former glory does something for my heart. If I could afford it, I would love to live in something older. When we lived in San Francisco we lived in four different apartments that had that old charm often shown in the homes she restores.

One thing that amuses me is when she attacks a piece of painted wood, either woodwork or an old door. She uses stripper and starts the laborious job of stripping off the layers of paint.  What amuses me is the touch of editing.  The show would lose much of it's charm if they showed how long and how hard it is to strip off the paint, even with the aid of chemical paint stripper.  They simply shut the cameras down and the real work begins.  Then cut to the next scene where the newly refinished woodwork or door is shown in its restored glory.

There are a couple of themes that come to mind as I write this.  The first involves paint stripper.  I've used it several times in the course of home improvement projects. The thick orange liquid is quite something as it bubbles away layers of paint.  It is messy and hard work as the caustic chemicals do their work.

It has made me wonder about the times stripper has been needed in my own heart. I am thinking of grief, fear and pain as strippers used to get down to something more real, more lasting. We spend an inordinate amount of time avoiding these things and often think something is wrong when our lives are disrupted by the inevitable grief, fear and pain that will come.

Fear is one of those things we especially hold in suspicion. Yes, perfect love does cast out fear but when we are assailed by fear we think something is wrong with us, we begin to treat ourselves less than graciously. We sometimes attempt to deal with fear by repeating the mantra, "Perfect love casts out all fear". Unfortunately this mantra does not work.  There is truth there but it is misappropriated by the use of it as a verbal panacea for what we fear.

Maybe though, fear is something to be heeded, something is there that should be listened to. Perhaps we should invite the fear knowing that we belong to a Father who is greater than whatever is causing the fear. If we push it aside we might miss something important our Abba wants to deal with. Perhaps it would be wiser to ask ourselves what it is that we fear and then invite Jesus into the fear and see where He might lead us to resolve what underlies the fear. His perfect love will then release the fear.

Recently I've been dealing with grief. I've written previously about my mother's passing in July. This holiday season we've just passed through brought up many memories that were painful in their recollection due to mom's death. The family I celebrated with in that house on Lime Kiln Road is nearly gone with only memories left along with one sister. It was lonely at times as those memories settled in. Oh yes, I do have a family, my children, grandchild, mother-in-law, sisters-in-law, my sister and my dear wife are my family but I longed for one more glimpse into Christmas with my mom, dad and sisters in our home.  The grief has made me long for home, the real home we Christ followers are promised by our elder brother Jesus. Had I not allowed the grief of this first Christmas without my mother to surface I might not have found this sacred longing for my true home. The paint stripper of grief did a good work for me.

The other theme I see is that of restoration. I am often confronted with my need for a deep restoration of "something".  I am often not sure what it is but somewhere underneath all the paint is something to be restored. While I might not know exactly what it is that will emerge from the cocoon of paint, I can trust the love of God to bring out something of His image in me, after all, we were made in His image, to reflect His glory. We are the sons and daughters of the Most High seated alongside our brother Jesus who has redeemed us.

Just as stripping paint off old wood is hard work, allowing fear or grief to strip us also may be hard work. It gets messy and painful at times but I can trust my loving Abba with my heart in difficult times of grief or fear.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Advent V

Today is Christmas Eve. My thoughts are a bit jumbled but I still want to write something here.

I have thought off and on about my own birth.  There is a picture of my mother a couple of weeks before I was born. Her sister Norma and her husband Bill along with their two children have gathered at their parent's home in Nevada City.  The picture shows my mom hugely ready to be done with this pregnancy, a pregnancy that was a bit of a surprise. After the birth of my older sister my folks wanted another but after some years they gave up, got rid of the baby furniture and moved on with their life. As my mother would tell it, by the time she found a doctor that would agree she was pregnant they had moved from Madera to Grass Valley and was told she would have a baby in the summer of 1953.

July 3rd, 1953, Jones Hospital was where I made my entrance, an entrance complicated by my insistence on arriving butt first that necessitated a C section for safe delivery. The hospital was an old Victorian house built in the 1860's and converted into a hospital in 1907. It presently is a bed and breakfast. My younger sister was born there in 1962, I spent several days there after breaking some bones in one of my feet and I had my tonsils out there.  It was a full functioning hospital allbeit somewhat unorthodox.

So there I was this newborn with big hands and a big nose that caused my mom to giggle. Did she wonder what I was to become? Newborns always cause me to think about what the future holds for the tiny, yet complete human being.  I know I had those thoughts when my two children entered, Abigail with big brown eyes taking it all in and Charlie with a full head of straight up brown hair who was ready to eat.

Much is made of another birth so long ago, a birth complicated by a suspect beginning, a census ordered by a man 1400 miles away and a tiny village unprepared for the inflow of visitors so that no decent room could be had for the birth of a baby that would change my life 2000 years later. While I was born in a huge house that was nearly 100 years old, the Son of God made his earthly appearance in a cave, a stable more suited for animals. Jesus' birth was attended by his teenage mother and a faithful man whose skills in child-birthing were probably next to nothing.  Somehow it all worked out and before long the only folk interested in seeing this new-born were a bunch of ill-kept shepherds who'd received a very special invitation to viewing the baby, the messiah.

As I think about what it might have been like I am reminded of a phrase from "O Little Town of Bethlehem", The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight. These words, published in 1868, capture for me a bit of the awe and wonder that Christmas Eve holds for me. It was a tall order for that newborn laying in a stone-hewn manger but, in time, we can see He was up to the task. I can lay all my hopes and fears right there in my feeble understanding of what it might have been for Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus.

Oh but there is so much more that we can have if we just believe. It is faith that unlocks some of the secrets and mysteries this man Jesus would talk about. If we fast forward, as Scripture does, we will find words and actions of a man so unique in history that we can only bow in awe and wonder, if we believe.

So I am sitting here and thinking about the gifts I've received through believing Jesus was the Son of God. There are so many but I am reminded He told his main group of guys on the night before He died that He was One with the Father and that we are in Him and He is in us.  That right there takes my breath away.  This little babe was to provide a way for us to become new creatures sitting with Him, our elder brother, alongside the Father on His right side. He offers abundant life and enables us, through the giving of a new heart, the ability to listen in and hear our Father speak to us.  This babe, the light of the world and the Word made flesh came to rescue us from darkness. "The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned" (Isaiah 9:2).

It is this light I celebrate at the close of a glorious Advent Season.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Advent IV

A year ago next Saturday, Christmas Eve, my father-in-law, Ken Dolan, passed into his eternal home. The next day my wife and her three sisters sat at our Christmas table stunned.  There were words and we all made the best of it but it felt surreal. Something very real had occurred but we all were cushioned by disbelief from the reality he was gone. I say "cushioned" because grief has its own way of unfolding and disbelief is the first reaction, the first experience of loss that allows our hearts to haltingly prepare for the waves of pain to come.

Six days later my wife would have knee replacement surgery and her care overruled most thoughts of the loss of Dad. We were able to get her to his memorial service 10 days after her surgery but those days are such a haze now, nearly a year later.

Seven months and two days later, my mother also went home. It was the day after her 93rd birthday. After a whirlwind weekend with the addition of Monday to the weekend, we made all the confusing steps of an ER visit with my mom, finding a new care facility for her to live in with her new frailties, moving in the few things she would need and moving her out of her apartment that Monday, I received a call that Tuesday from the caregiver telling me she was gone. My mind raced with all the upcoming details as I drove home. My two kids met me at home and the three of us moved mom's things out of the room she'd only occupied since the previous Saturday afternoon.

That afternoon I sat at home alone. Dazed. I thought we would have a couple more weeks.

So here I am, wanting to write something "adventy" but memories of long ago Christmases have knocked me sideways.  From my perspective, Christmas was one of two times a year when Mom was relatively happy and content so I have a small collection of good memories. Remembering does carry its own pain, however. Dad has been gone since 1999. My older sister, Carla, has opted out of the family by disappearing. We had one 20 minute phone conversation in April but since then her phone is disconnected and I have no address for her.  This leaves my younger sister Elizabeth and I to be the sole heirs of these memories.  They are all I have of that home we five were together in on Lime Kiln Road. This is how this works.

Christmas is thorny for us this year. Memories will push and prod and poke.  I will smile at some memories and others will cause the grief of loss of these two important people in my life to cause me to weep tears. I suspect I have company in this season. Everyone has lost a loved one and Christmas causes old memories to stir and surface to once again be looked at. Smiles will be mingled with tears.

But it is Advent, the birth of love, light and our personal salvation into the Heavenly Kingdom. While His birth was noticed by only a few here on earth, a tsunami of change swept the Heavenly Kingdom that holy night. We who believe in Him have been adopted into the Father's household, we are new creatures, the sons and daughters at Abba's table. This hope, this healing love is what I also have during this glorious season of Advent.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Advent III

Shepherds. We know the story.  They are in the fields and are startled by angelic beings telling them of the birth of Jesus, who He was and were to find Him.  Frankly, it is such an old story we might miss the wonder of these guys getting the news first.  Several years ago I learned that being a shepherd meant being perpetually "unclean" in terms of Jewish custom. Their livelihood meant they could never be "clean" and therefore were outside of the culture. Those that are unclean are first told of the birth. Pretty amazing to me. It speaks volumes to me about who Jesus came for.

I also find it interesting that they not only went to Bethlehem and saw the tiny infant exactly as told to them, but they also went and told all who would listen of what they had heard and seen that night.  Unfortunately, we have no record that anyone really listened and also went to find this babe.  That speaks to me as well. Perhaps folk were just too wrapped up in their own lives for them to be bothered with a baby in a stable. More likely they would not really listen to this group of dirty shepherds.

I also am in awe that later Jesus would declare Himself the Good Shepherd. Eventually He would bear our uncleanliness though He Himself was spotless. Oh my, what a glorious thought that ties to that first group to be told of His lowly birth.

The Wise Men, probably many in number, are foreigners from the east, we are told.  They see something in the sky that seems to tell them something important has happened, the birth of a king they surmise. We really can't be sure why they come to that conclusion. There are those, much smarter than I, that have good ideas but, for me, the bottom line is these are foreigners who come a long way to worship. Foreigners who are outsiders looking in to the wonder of this child.

They've seen something inexplicable in the sky and follow it, first to Jerusalem where they ask around and end up talking to Herod. Then this star leads them southward to Bethlehem from Jerusalem.  My pastor a couple of weeks ago pointed out the inexplicable nature of a star first leading westward then leading them southward. I don't think there is a logical explanation for this odd turn that defies astrophysics. More simply, God wanted them to find the child and used their "language", that of the lights in the night sky, to communicate to them and they listened and acted. Isn't it odd that no one else thought anything of this light in the night sky?  I do. Were folk so caught up in their own small stories that they couldn't see the light and wonder? Evidently not. Noting a light like this and wondering at it's meaning requires some embrace of mystery and a willingness to step into a larger story.

I also find it interesting that they heed a warning that comes to them in a dream. This too speaks of an embrace of mystery.  How many of us would consider a dream and see it as a warning? It takes some deep wisdom to seriously consider dreams a means of revelation. These guys seem to have this wisdom.

Foreigners and dirty shepherds seem to be the only ones who would recognize something important had occurred. But then there are two others who are intertwined in the story and also see, through faith, God's provision in this babe.

Simeon and Anna, at the temple when Joseph and Mary bring Jesus to the temple are two who simply know. These two appear to represent the faithful who Jesus came for as well as the foreigners and the shepherds. Even those that are faithful have a need for what Jesus will offer in His life, death, resurrection and ascension. The full work of Jesus, started in a stable is for all.

But I've jumped ahead. For now we have so few who would stop and listen to the gentle whisper found in their hearts for it is in our hearts we must learn to hear those herald angels saying, "Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace and goodwill towards men".


Monday, December 5, 2016

Advent II

You're serving your time in Jerusalem as a priest, probably the last time you will have this opportunity as you are now in the later season of life.  You fully expect to go home shortly when your time is finished to your beloved wife. The two of you have done all you could to follow after God in spite of the great disappointment in your life, you've had no children and you are both well past the time for this.  For you it is a lonely ache but you know for Elizabeth it has been a disgrace she's borne with great dignity. You really are ready to go home.

The day comes and you are chosen by lot to be the priest to offer the annual sacrifice for sin. You are honored as you thought you would never have the opportunity to do this. Few ever have this honor. This has to feel like the "pinnacle" of your priestly life, your whole life, and you vow to fulfill the duties with all the humility and honor the task demands. After this act, you think your life is over, fulfilled as fully as possible.

Oh but God has other plans and frankly I think He must have laughed a bit about what was coming to Zechariah and Elizabeth, two people too old for what was coming. I also have no problem understanding Zechariah's response to Gabriel's announcement, I think I would have responded similarly. I am probably close to the age he was when told he's going to have a son. He couldn't possibly imagine such a thing would come to his lonely household so he questioned the announcement.

I am also amused that he is struck silent until John is born. He now had plenty of time to contemplate how very different his life would become, thoughts only heard by God. Perhaps his first month was a silent bargaining with God until he finally came to rest and nestle into a silent initmacy with this God he'd served his entire life.

When the day finally arrived that this baby boy was to be named his tongue is finally loosened and out flows confirmation of John's name and a prophecy over his son that rings through to this day.

He thought his life would be over after the "pinnacle" of being chosen that day to offer the sacrifice but God had another idea, another life to come from those two, Elizabeth and Zechariah.

I identify with this man in so many ways. I've had days when I felt I'd squandered too many years, stumbled along with a job that really was no "career" with little satisfaction; that I'd contributed little to the Kingdom. But just as a new life was to flow from Elizabeth and Zechariah, we are offered a new life as well. For me that is part of Christmas, God with us.

This "God with us" means my life is fused with His. My days, no matter how many I have, begin in a manger in a cave-barn. I am once again swept into the deep mystery of God bundled in a baby and my life beginning again this Advent season.