Friday, February 20, 2009

Value Meal I'm in Burger King's drive-thru with Josh, and Maddie (my son and dog respectively-see previous posts). The voice in the speaker says "that'll be $9.59, pull around to the first window." The cashier inside the first window was a young man-probably 20 years old or so. He was very overweight, spoke with a prominent lisp and slight speech impediment. There was some degree of disability-he had probably been a "special ed" student. Maddie had her nose sticking out the car window and was enthusiastically anticipating her Whopper Jr. The young man engaged us about the dog. "Was it a Lab? It looks like it has some Lab in it." He told us about his parents Beagle, what colors it was, the nicknames they had for it, and on and on. I was conscious of the car behind us, and frankly thought we'd talked enough about the dog, so I said thanks, and pulled forward toward the second window for the food. I looked at Josh, expecting to share some mocking remark or an imitation. Josh said, "I just love people like that. They're so friendly and nobody pays attention to them. And it's a lot nicer than the crabby people who are usually at drive-thrus." Once again, who's teaching whom?


Sunday, February 15, 2009

holding hands

I don't care for cliches. Those expressing their ideas in fresh ways should, I believe, avoid them-even if their ideas are recycled concepts summarized well by some cliche. Finding the right words of your own, I believe, is always more interesting than repeating someone else's. Having said all that, here comes a cliche. I don't know to whom to attribute it-could be Moses, could be Jesus, could be Confucius, could be Plato, could be Abraham Lincoln, could be Bob Dylan, could be my grandmother-and I'm not even exactly sure how it goes. But the essence is this-"I felt sorry for myself because I had no shoes, 'til I met a man who had no feet."

Today, at 7:30, the alarm went off for me to get up for church. The boys and I agreed the night before we were all going, and as the spiritual mugwump of the house, it was my duty to follow through. But the sheets were cool, the pillow was just right, the dog was sleeping soundly at the foot of the bed, the boys had been out until 12:30 or so, so getting up seemed less than attractive. I decided the late service would be ok, and reset the alarm for 8:30. Well, an hour later was not much more attractive, but I shouldered my duty, and got up. It all seemed such a chore-making coffee, showering, getting dressed, getting the boys up, trying to allow enough time to stop for Shmuffins, eating 2 of them in about 5 gulps so we wouldn't be late, dealing with the between-services parking lot chaos, and finally, finding good seats. During the brief time of detox between sitting down and the worship team cranking up the first song, I felt smugly satisfied with my self for having surmounted all these obstacles and leading my family through the spiritual warfare, arriving safely at Church. As the worship began, my attention was drawn to my left, to a group of people sitting in a cluster who were either "signing" along with the songs and commentary, or watching a lady who was sitting on a taller seat, facing them all, and "signing" everything that was said or sung. They're there every week. We don't generally sit close enough to their section to actually watch, though. Some, I deduced, were "signers" in training, following the lead of the woman on the stool. Others were hearing impaired, and dependent on the skills of the lead "signer" to translate the service for them. I couldn't stop watching one young man in particular, late twenties probably, who was not only deaf, but blind as well. He had a person sitting face to face with him, and he held her hands to feel her signing. There was so much I wanted to know! How in the world does this dear soul get himself to church? How much of the information the rest of us heard and saw was he able to receive? Does he get, say, fifty percent? Or eighty percent? Does his mind "connect the dots" in ways that comprehension is achieved? And what about the non-verbal elements-sarcasm, irony, urgency, or the communication nuances in tone of voice, and gesture, and timing. Does he know when the congregation laughed, or when they fell very still when the message was poignant and moving? Do signers, skilled ones, have ways of imparting those subtleties we take for granted? And who was this girl, who lovingly, generously "spent" her worship time in service-difficult, skillful service to another. What a snapshot of what true Christian servanthood looks like-being the eyes and ears for someone whose own have failed. Isn't that what all our gifts, and resources, and wealth, and time, and talents are for? If we profess to follow Christ, are not all those things-every thing we have-to be made available to those who have not? Especially others in the Kingdom? This dear girl gave away her hands so another could participate in worship. I look at these two beautiful people and am ashamed of my own selfish addiction to comfort, and sloth, and "stuff". I know nothing, NOTHING of the difficult lives so many others live, like this young man without sight or hearing who came to worship his King. Most of the world would be overwhelmed by the lives of relative ease, and comfort, and luxury we enjoy. But am I, of my own nature, compelled to raise my arms in adoration, and thanksgiving, and humility? Do I have a deep desire that my abundance be shared, used by those in need? No, I grumble how tough I have it when the alarm goes off Sunday morning.

Monday, February 9, 2009

there once was a plant

There once was a tiny plant, in a tiny cup, on a window sill, beside a chair, where the man who cared for it sat to read and write. A mere inch of green, a blade-of-grass sized shoot. Each morning the man gave it a dropper of water, and turned the cup slightly so as to evenly nourish it with the morning sun. Thus it grew taller, and thicker, and very straight. In time, the singular shaft of green began to sprout offshoots-tiny hair thick branches that gave new complexity, a broader identity to the little plant. The man proudly observed his care being translated into growth, and thickness, and strength. Now a bit more water was required each day, and still he carefully exposed each side of the little plant to the morning sun so it stayed straight and grew ever taller and rounder and more complex. Soon the sill could no longer accommodate the plant, so the man brought it a tall, round table and moved it from the sill, but still near his chair, and the morning sun. Six inches, eight inches, ten inches, the little plant reached higher and higher. One morning the man watered, and turned, and looked with concern at a tinge of yellow on the tips of some branches. The next day it was more evident, and more extensive. Too much sun? Too little water? The man worried. He moved the table back from the window a bit. He touched the soil-it seemed properly moist. Then he saw a few of the tiny limbs that always seemed to reach upward, were downturned at their tips. Each day the plant seemed to pass ever so slightly more from confident and ambitious, to saddened and tired. One day the man kneeled by the table, touching the soil, his brow furrowed with concern and spoke, "My dear little plant, what is the matter?" And the plant spoke back. "Kind sir, I'm thankful for the water you bring me each day, and your thoughtfully turning my cup. But I, sir, am a Spruce. I need the depth of the outdoor earth. I need the water of rain, and the drought in between. I need the dormancy of winter, and the awakening of spring. Kind sir, free me from my cup. Plant me outside this window, so I may again reach upward." And so the man did. He found a spot in the center of his yard. He dug a large enough hole, and mixed peat and soil. He wetted the area. He weeded it, and picked out the stones. He gently lifted the plant and it's tiny roots out of the cup, placed in in the soft loam, and patted firmly around the base. He stood back to appraise, and was satisfied with the preparation, but uneasy about turning his precious sprout over to the elements. So now each morning the man came to visit, sometimes brought water, sometimes brought a chair to sit near and read and write. Summer turned to fall, then winter. The man visited less often, but came to brush aside the deeper snows to protect the tree. One year turned to two, then five, then ten. The tree now was taller than the man. The limbs reached toward the sky like outstretched arms with palms up in praise. The man, now, had a tinge of gray at the tips, and stood a little less straight. He sometimes used a cane to help himself get to the tree, but on sunny days he'd sit and read or write all morning. He usually brought water in a sprinkling can, and poured it at the tree's base. He knew it was of no consequence, but it was just what he did. He filled a basket with cones and sat them on the table where the cup once sat. In time, people started to help the man get to his chair under the tree. They held his arm, put a blanket over his lap, and laid his book there for him. The tree offered him shade, and the sweet smell of sap. One October morning, in the tree's thirty-first year, the man sat beside the tree with a book in his hands. The book fell to the ground, the man's head bowed, then he slowly tumbled out of his chair onto the ground. He came to sit no more. Then, some weeks later, people came to the tree with a painted jar that held the man's remains and sprinkled them beneath the lowest branches. Rain came, and sent the ashes into the soil to be taken up by the tree's roots. And the tree reached toward heaven, majestic, and towering, and mighty-the man and the tree.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

I get it, Vincent

Sometimes you look out the window, and the very same scene that yesterday looked idyllic, and hopeful, and sunlit today looks cold and dead and frozen and ugly. Sometimes you see what Van Gogh saw. Sailboats on a sea can look colorful and enviably adrift and serene or imminently upended, threatened by the rage around them. A couple strolling in the woods, pausing to be observed, is oblivious to the tangled undergrowth and brambles they walk through. Shoes, inanimate and without voice, cry out alone of hard years, an austere existence, worn out, yet still waiting to serve. A country cottage isn't inviting, but neglected, haunted, about to endure another storm. A self-portrait glares at the viewer,uncomfortable with the introspection, annoyed, impatient with the scrutiny, yet looking beyond you-past you-not actually meeting your eyes.

Artists have the luxury, if the talent, to slash and stab with their brush, and paint in darkened shades, to lay violence into a vase of flowers or anxiety and tension in a patch of irises. Words alone lack that extra dimension of color and texture. Yet, today, I want to slash and stab, and paint long shadows and impending violence. The pendulum's swing, it's arc, touches optimism, cheer, hope, and charity at one end then swings towards darkness, anger, disdain, fatalism, pointlessness. Sometimes it seems the existentialists are right. Life isn't a movie, where conflicts resolve, justice prevails, and truth is vindicated. Quite the contrary, truthfulness is rare, violence and exploitation are only tempered by the threat of a greater ability to do violence, and inhumanity is so common that righteous outrage has been dulled. It seems that real life is a cellophane thick epidermis of contentedness, lightheartedness, and cheer enwrapping cores of desperation and futility. Walking in circles. I get it Vincent. The scene out my window, today, should be painted in thick, angry swipes of indigo, and gray, and brown. The pendulum will swing. Spring will come. The palette will change to light green, and sunny yellow, the sky will look powder blue, and I'll pity the man who painted all these darkened scenes. But only for a season.


Monday, February 2, 2009

Gravity, a Mountain, and Books

I've long thought some of history's landmark "discoveries" were a bit hyped-like Newton's revelation that apples fall. You would think even the most backward of his contemporaries, the ones that believed leeches fixed "what ails ya", and giant turtles held up the flat Earth, could deduce if you sat beneath an apple that became unattached to its tree it was going to hit you on the noggin.

So it is for me with reading. Since undertaking the personal challenge to stop watching O'Reilly, or Jim Cramer, or Billy Mays infomercials (that's the Oxy-Clean shouter. Does he always talk that way? "HEY, HONEY, WHERE'S MY CAR KEYS?" or "THIS IS GREAT COFFEE". If so, his whole family must use those squishy foam ear plugs you wear to shoot guns.) and read more, I've seen myself as on a lonely climb up a difficult mountainside, and soon I would breathe the rarefied air at the top. Well as I reached the summit, and peeked over the edge, I saw...lots of people who had been there all along. There was my wife, Lori, lying in bed with lots of pillows, the dog beside her, reading a book. There was my friend, Ty, on an open recliner, with Oreos lined up on his mid-section, reading a book. There was my Mom, on her couch, the View on her TV, reading a Danielle Steele novel. There was Pastor Brian Rice, pedaling a stationary bike, a book in each hand, reading them simultaneously, and pausing at regular intervals to do a few dumbbell curls. My journey of discovery had taken me to a place these folks and zillions of others knew about long ago.

So, the new dilemma has become 'what to read?' I go to Borders and stand there dumbfounded by the myriad choices, with little basis to choose other than cover photos and dust jacket blurbs, so I just get coffee. So I have come to rely on the recommendations of those whose opinions I value in other areas. Pastor Brian's blog (linked to the right) is a treasure trove of recommendations, but his posts are so cerebral, so esoteric, I have to open on the other tab to understand them-and still often do not. Ty, whose reading list is nearly as lofty as Pastor Brian's, will translate it down to my sophomoric level (like rewriting a Pavarotti aurea so Kenny Rogers can sing it) and offer recommendations that fit. When there is a title both Ty and Pastor Brian recommend, that's a winner! Such was the case with Jesus for President-Ty listed it as a favorite on his blog (also linked), and Pastor Brian listed it in a church bulletin sermon notes insert. For me, that equals "must read". On a recent stay-at-home-'cause-I'm sick weekend, I finished a book Saturday midday, and facing at least 36 more hours of sequestration, desperately needed a new one. I hadn't changed out of my torn sweatpants shorts and stained T-shirt jammies, my breath smelled worse than our trash toter, and I had paper towel stuffed into my nose because it was running faster than I could blow it, so Borders was out of the question. Serendipity! Very near the chair I read in, in our bedroom, are two very tall, very wide mahogany colored shelves holding hundreds of colorful, vertically aligned rectangles that I was only subconsciously aware of until that moment. They were books! Lori, long a voluminous reader had accumulated a mini-Borders all around me, and a reliable source of reviews, framed by intimate knowledge of my narrow range of interest and limited depth, was laying on the bed behind me-reading! I began rooting through the titles to find something interesting, and she threw out a few titles I might like. I discovered, as well, that besides the hundreds she had read, there were a couple dozen she had bought for me, in the hope that someday, when I grew up, I too would become a reader!

All this has been a circuitous route to the real reason for this post-to recommend a book. It's one I got from Lori's List (similar to the Oprah Book Club, except there are 12 million fewer followers but the selections are personalized for me!) It's the 2006 book A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson. O.K., I can hear the collective, "Duh, been there, read that..." Too bad. It's new to me. I'm about half way through it, and unless the second half suddenly takes a dull turn, it will rise to near the top of my comparatively short list of favorites. It is laugh-out-loud funny. In fact, I've had to stop reading more than once because my eyes were watered from laughing. It's about two middle aged, out of shape former college buddies (one of them more out of shape than the other) taking on the Appalachian Trail, all the way-from Georgia to Maine. One typical anecdote-early on, they meet another hiker, a solo female, a pudgy,very gullible, know-it-all, who is in no better condition than the guys. She lectures them endlessly about their inferior equipment, their slow pace, and their overweight physiques, pausing every few seconds to pinch the middle of her nose, make an intense snorting noise, and empty her "tubes" by shooting the contents onto the ground. The one fellow, Katz, tells her they both knew a guy who did that and one of his eyeballs popped out.
"Really?" "Oh, yeah." It rolled across the floor, and his dog ate it. Being a not financially well off family, they had to paint a ping pong ball like an eyeball and put that in. "Really?" There is the occasional expletive, but not many. I guess it would be PG-13. But if you like to laugh, have some respect for the wonders of wilderness (or are willing to develop some) this book is a good one!