Place…

“…I knew I had not escaped Kentucky and had never really wanted to. I was still writing about it and had recognized that I would probably need to write about it for the rest of my life. Kentucky was my fate- not an altogether pleasant fate, though it had much that was pleasing in it, but one that I could not leave behind simply by going to another place, and that I therefore felt more and more obligated to meet directly and to understand. Perhaps even more important, I still had a deep love for the place I had been born in and liked the idea of going back to be part of it again. And that, too, I felt obligated to try to understand. Why should I love one place so much more than any other? What could be the meaning or use of such love?”

 

“I knew as well as Wolfe that there is a certain metaphorical sense in which you can’t go home again- that is, the past is lost to the extent that it cannot be lived in again. I knew perfectly well that I could not return home and be a child, or recover the secure pleasures of childhood. But I knew also that as the sentence was spoken to me it bore a self-dramatizing sentimentality that was absurd. Home- the place, the countryside- was still there, still pretty much as I left it, and there was no reason I could not go back to it if I wanted to.”

 

“But what I had in my mind that made the greatest difference was the knowledge of the few square miles in Kentucky that were mine by inheritance and by birth and by the intimacy the mind makes with the place it awakens in.”

 

“I came to see myself as growing out of the earth like the other native animals and plants. I saw my body and my daily motions as brief coherences and articulations of the energy of the place, which would fall back into it like leaves in the autumn.”

 

Wendell Berry[i]

 

 

My mother loves trees… and strawberry shakes.

I know this, because she tells me every Saturday. I pick her up at the ALF she lives in, and we go to Culver’s to get a small strawberry shake, a medium caramel shake for me (after all, I am bigger than she is…and growing bigger with each shake!). I used to also get onion rings, originally at her request, but the onion rings have stopped because she now refuses, or forgets, to put in her dentures, so they would be left for me to eat and I do not need them. Her absent dentures are a result of the fog of dementia which has deepened over the past 6 years through which I have lived near her. One reason I moved near her on the Central Gulf coast of Florida, was to help my sister and brother-in-law care for her. She is 94, and they have born the brunt of keeping watch over her slow deterioration. Dementia would be enough of a battle, but what makes the struggle worse, is my family’s life-long battle with her bi-polar disorder.

My brother, sister, and their spouses tell me I interact with mom the best of our family, which has been surprising to me considering how difficult our relationship was throughout my life. They also tell me that she says I am her favorite child. In the past, when they would say this, I would roll my eyes, and ask if they would like to trade me positions in the family hierarchy. They then assure me that neither of them will compete with me for the distinction. It is also surprising because with each visit, I never know who she will understand me to be.

Sometimes, I am her brother.

Sometimes, I am her father.

Sometimes, I am my father.

Sometimes, I am her boyfriend.

Sometimes, I am her son.

Sometimes, I am not sure she knows who I am, but there is a feeling of familiarity of someone she trusts. I like that. The trusting part, because it is so different and new.

After we receive our shakes through the drive-through, we go to a large park nearby. I drive slowly through the park, and she says…every time…that she loves the beautiful trees, which are a tangle of short palms, young oaks, and the occasional coastal pine. I usually point out the various shelters which protect picnic tables, and the gatherings of people underneath. Sometimes there are balloons and banners on the shelters which identify birthday parties or other gatherings. I mention them, because the gatherings warm my heart, and I hope the sight will warm her heart, too. Sometimes she will look at the gathering. Other times she can’t seem to tear her gaze away from the trees.

As we are approaching Culver’s, or the park, she will say, “This is where Larry brings me.”

I say, “Yep. That’s me.”

She will often respond, “Oh, yeah.” In her voice, I detect both embarrassment and humor, as if her mind still remembers how to be self-deprecating. I share in the humor with her. No reproach. “It is just how your brain works right now,” I tell her. She seems comforted by that sometimes.

One of the things she has recently repeated several times is, “You are my son, but also my brother.”

I like that…

It is profound…

…and it reminds me of how I feel about my own children. The thought describes both a genetic connection, but also a relationship on even ground, with none of the struggles for power that often characterize parent-child relationships. Unconditional, mutual love and respect, without attempts to manipulate the actions of each other.

So…

…a relationship completely different than the one she and I had throughout many of my 57 years with and away from her.

Now, her mental state often leaves her in a place before I was born. Before my brother and sister were born. Before she married my father, and all the years driving across the country from church service to church service. Back to when she was young. Either when she was a college student, or when she was a child. To be honest, her behavior is often that of a two-year-old. She can become so confused that her childhood memories invade the present. Not the memories themselves, but her view of the world then. The trees and plants around her ALF were planted by her father, she says. There is no reason to argue the point with her. No reason to try and pull her 85 years into the present. In those times, it is all she is capable of understanding. I think it is a way for her to survive the confusion. To make sense of not knowing or liking where she is. It may be comforting to be Home, if only in the deep recesses of her mind.

That is why she loves trees, I think.

The place she is remembering, is School House Holler. I have been there once. It is in the hills of Southeastern Ohio, up-river from Huntington, WV, where she was born, and where her family moved when she was older. It is the place where her earliest memories lie. Her fondest childhood memories. Where her mother fed her cornbread and milk and flap-jacks and green beans with ham hocks and biscuits with milk-gravy. Where she worked with her brother pulling caterpillars off the tobacco plants and plopping them into a tin Hillsbrother’s coffee can with kerosene in it to kill them. Where she and her brother got sick when they rolled a tobacco leaf into a homemade stogie, hid and smoked it, then got a spanking when her mother found out. Where her daddy worked all week in an industrial job along the river, then came home to work all weekend in their large garden with multiple fruit trees and then hauled the garden harvest to the farmer’s market in town on Sunday to sell to city folks for extra money during the depression. Where her daddy had to park his pickup miles away when it rained and then walked home because the roads were too muddy. Where their single milk cow and mule and pigs were. Where her crazy grandfather lived with them and would frequently disappear and have to be searched for in the woods. Where all her sisters and brother walked down the same path, being joined by neighboring kids intermittently along the path to the one-room school in the valley. Where the house was small, but the country was big and beautiful and full of adventure.

THAT place!

Once, when I first moved here, she drew maps of the farm, and the layout of the kitchen, and showed them to me. I didn’t realize at the time the significance of the maps. I was still living with my own memories of her, I guess, so I was less receptive to her remembrances. I was amazed by her memory, then. Now I understand it was her attempt to go Home again. Just like her love of the trees in the park every Saturday.

She was born fourth among six children, three years younger than her brother, Harold, and three years older than her sister, Betty. She seems to have been closest to Harold, although it may just seem that way, because the stories she told me about School House Holler usually include him. The two of them either busy working or getting into minor mischief together. There were always chores to do. The house had neither running water, nor an indoor bathroom, so there was always water to fetch, a cow to milk, or eggs to gather from the chicken coop. It was at School House Holler that her work ethic was born and honed.

I think her bi-polar disorder also contributed to her need to be up and moving. Even now, when she falls into a nap in some chair, unexpectedly she will awaken and begin to immediately get up, which is not as easy a task as it was even one year ago. When I am with her and she does this, I ask, “Where are you going?” Her response to me is a blank stare, then maybe, “Connie is coming…” or some imagined task. I will say, “No…it’s ok. There is no reason for you to have to get up.” It seems to be the way her brain works. It does not stop, as if there is a perpetual thumb in her back pushing her to go and do. She obsesses about things. When she was younger it was religion and reading the bible, to herself, or to whomever was nearby. At the ALF, she added working in the yard, planting and trans-planting plants, pulling weeds, or wanted plants masquerading as weeds in her mind.

These two activities often got her into trouble in her ALF.

 

 

Meal time bible reading…

 

Often, at meal time, when everyone in the facility was in the dining room, she would take her bible (one of five she has) and begin to read aloud…really loud. She either could not understand that everyone didn’t want to hear Leviticus at meal time, or she did not care if they wanted to hear it. “They need to know Jesus!” she would exclaim, and it did not matter that they either already knew Jesus, knew about Jesus, or that there was nothing in Leviticus ABOUT Jesus. THEY NEED TO KNOW! Eventually, I began to think the bible readings were less about Jesus and either more about her need to be seen and heard or that she perceived God to demand it.

In years past, I would have said that Mom loved God above trees or strawberry milk shakes. Now…I’m not so sure…

When I consider my mother’s relationship to God currently, I must be honest that I do NOT know what disjointed thoughts go through my mother’s mind, nor can I trace the lines of difference between who she was and who she now is. First, because we didn’t know about bi-polar disorder when we were growing up, so all we knew of Mom was how she acted, and what she said. Second, because I must overcome my own inner issues with who I knew her to be, and the way I interpreted her thoughts and feelings towards me as a child, adolescent, and man. Third, because my expectations of her have not been met.

Now, her actions regarding God seem to go between two spiritual poles:

Jesus, lover of her soul…

Or

God, demander of perfection…

Both these perceptions seem to be held within a brain that is rapidly deteriorating, so there is no logic holding them together. Instead, she flips between the two when she relates to other people. She is sweet as French Silk pie until she gets angry, then she is mean as a rattle snake. She does not like to be bossed, especially by women, and she can be quick to strike out with her fists when someone is directly confronting her in an action she is taking, no matter how dangerous or non-sensical the action. The part of her brain within which civility was constructed is broken and has given way to the part of her brain that runs the survival program.

I often wonder if Mom retreats to School House Holler because it was a time before there was a dissonance in her perception of God. While I have learned that the memories of childhood are clearer for a person disappearing into the fog of dementia than more recent ones, possibly due to where they are stored within the brain; I also wonder if the complexity of theological messages she received through the years are harder for her to integrate. It is also possible that she never did integrate them. I have come to understand that throughout her life, Mom did not think critically about differing interpretations in the theology with which she came in contact. Once she heard something she understood as true, she held on. I think she believed theological doctrines for reasons even she wasn’t aware. This is a facet of her personality directly attributed to bi-polar disorder. When she latches on to a thought, she is like a pit bull holding on to a log. Even though pit bulls to not eat logs, and it makes no sense to hold on, it seems to be the principle of the thing: “You WILL NOT take this log from me! It is mine, and I want it!”

She can be stubborn like that.

Although I am not completely clear on this, I don’t believe she encountered church and an orderly, theological belief system until after her family moved from School House Holler. I believe they moved to a house along the river when she was in junior high. She came to faith at a revival meeting in a small, very conservative church when she was 15 or 16. She must have been quite popular with the elders of the church, because they offered to pay for her tuition in God’s Bible School, a religious boarding school in Cincinnati, Ohio, approximately 150 miles from home. Mom accepted the offer, leaving home to attend GBS 150 miles away at 16.

From what I have learned, God’s Bible School was known for two things: a legalistic, conservative theology and evangelistic fervor. If it was like what I saw in the tradition when I was a child, there was a strict dress code. Especially for women. They always had to wear dresses with hemlines below the knees, and sleeves stretching below the elbow. (I guess I never realized how sexy elbows and knees are…) There was to be no make-up worn or jewelry of any kind, including wedding rings. The women also could not cut their hair, nor wear it down. It had to be piled up on top of their head or wound into a tight bun which seems to have been preferred. Interaction between men and women would have been limited to classes, church, and evangelistic activities. Evangelism was a strong priority, defined as telling other people about Jesus, and warning them that they were headed to hell after they died if they didn’t believe certain things and then adhere to a strict life-style which emphasized self-denial and obedience to the church hierarchy. The organized evangelistic activities included teams of people that would stand on street corners, sing, and proclaim the gospel of Jesus through bible reading, preaching, giving out tracts, and talking with people. Mom was an enthusiastic participant in street corner evangelism, even to the point of going by herself when necessary. It is from these experiences that her ALF, meal-time bible reading comes. It’s how she was raised to be and do in her earliest experiences with God, minus the dress code….

 

 

Yard work…

 

I moved to Florida in January of 2012. My son helped me, and we took our time on the trip, spending the night in Memphis. We listened to the blues on Beal Street, toured Sun Studio, and visited the Lorraine Motel, site of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and now remade into a civil rights museum. Our arrival in St. Petersburg was sometime in the early morning hours. Later that morning, after a late breakfast of biscuits and gravy…my favorite… made by my sister, Connie, the three of us went to see Mom at her ALF. Connie asked Mom to take us on a tour of the grounds. While we walked, Connie explained to us how many of the plants we saw had been planted by Mom. Baird and I were amazed by the number of them, and how much work it must have taken by my then 88-year-old mother. During the tour, I don’t remember my mother saying very much, unless it was to explain the plans she had yet to complete. Although I might have described my mother at the time as being active, I didn’t realize just how physically strong she has been and still is. Within the past year, that strength has considerably lessened, and she needs a walker to help her keep from falling, but that strength is still there, especially when she gets mad.

Eventually, gardening became an issue. Mom would constantly be outside working in the yard, even in the heat of the Florida summer. She would be so focused on what she was doing, she would forget to drink or eat. Sometimes, she would pull up plants that were part of the landscape plan, and either try to transplant them, or throw them away. While pulling at a small tree root, she would lose her grip and fall, sometimes hitting her head, and nobody would know about it until she came inside with a black eye or bruise. Her clothes were often dirty. She always had cuts on her legs. But she would not stop! It became a problem…

Despite many warnings, she persisted. Even when the owner locked away her tools and put a lock on the water faucet. She would make do with other objects as tools and put a container under the AC condensation spout for water. Once, before they locked the water faucet, she attached the hose, and walked in front of the smokers on the porch with the water on full to water the plants. One of the smokers…a woman…confronted her, kindly reminding her she wasn’t supposed to use the hose and telling her she was spattering water all over the smokers. Mom turned the hose on her. In the resulting struggle for the hose, the faucet was damaged so that water was spraying from it. The water had to be shut off, and the faucet fixed. Everyone said it was Mom’s fault. She wasn’t popular for awhile after that incident. (When I heard the story, I was extremely doubtful that she had the strength to break that faucet. That was four years ago. Now, I think it at least possible…)

One good thing about her yard work was that she would at least sleep through the night. Or, at least until 4:30-5 in the morning. She would then get up and begin the day by reading her bible, which could often be a problem if she had a roommate. It is a behavior of which I am both profoundly aware and to which I shake my head with feelings of embarrassment and dark humor. She COULD have gone into the dining room with her bible, and allowed her roomie to sleep, but…no. It is an action that can be defined as one of devotion to God, but also as passively aggressive. Everyone SHOULD be up reading their bible at 5 in the morning, right?

As my mother’s physical ability has diminished, the issues with her working in the yard have ended. Instead, her brain continues to push her to do…something…she just doesn’t know what that something is. Two Christmases ago, I gave her a large pack of colored pencils and several adult coloring books. I chose books that had floral arrangements bordering scripture passages or historic prayers. My hope was that she would become obsessed with them instead of working in the yard. I also thought they would allow her to still express her creativity, and then she would have art she could hang on her walls or give away to family and friends. It worked. For about a year and a half. She would sit for extended periods of time meticulously coloring those pages. She especially loved the book filled with prayers.

I am not surprised she loves the prayer book. Prayer has always been important to her. She has spent countless hours through the years praying for her kids. She will then tell us about it, too. In years past, she would sometimes call and eventually ask, “Is everything ok with you? I woke up last night and the Lord brought you to my mind, so I prayed for you.” Nice story, right? God and my mother have my back, right? Well, sometimes it was. Other times…

My mother was seriously aggressive and judgmental and controlling and discouraging…passively. She would often send letters which explained “what she was learning in scripture…” It soon became apparent that what she was “learning” was what she thought I should know or do. If she were to be asked why she would write such letters, I am sure her eventual answer would be that God wanted her to. They were “The Epistles of Helen.” I didn’t realize it at the time, but what I took from these letters, what they communicated to me, was that there was always something wrong with me. I wasn’t good enough. It did not matter that I had a strong spiritual life and was struggling to unearth much needed grace from a theological belief system that I was increasingly finding inadequate to explain a loving God. It did not matter that I was trying to live in and by that unearthed grace, all the while being distracted by money issues, raising children and living in a difficult marriage. It also did not matter that I was an intelligent adult.

She still had to write…

Or send me books…

Or send cassette tapes…

Or call me…

I found out later, that my former wife eventually would open the letter before I got home, and when she found the letter to be unhelpful, she would throw it away. I appreciate that. After our divorce, I would do the same. I would read the first lines, and when I saw the tone headed in a particular direction, it would go into the trash. To some, this practice might sound harsh, or even rebellious. And it was rebellious. But it was a rebellion that was necessary. It was born out of a need for self-protection and a process of redefining myself, and God. It is never a good idea to try to form your understanding of Self and God from the template built by a mentally ill mind.

What I find interesting, though, is that Mom doesn’t seem to carry that destructive, ungracious morality when she is centered in the world of her memories of School House Holler. When she is Home, all is orderly, and in balance.

For her sake, I wish she could have lived in that place longer…

For my sake, I wish I had a similar place…

 

 

 

[i]The World-Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry; Paul Kingsnorth; Counterpoint; Berkley, CA; 2017; Pg. 6,7,8.

 

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Pete…

We lost a friend a little over one week ago…

Pete Chenhall was walking on Blind Pass Road on Friday night to see a friend, and was struck and killed by a drunk driver that drove her car onto the side walk. We all lost a great guy.
Pete was only 40-years-old, but he was kind of old-school. He was in a bowling league and loved to play pool. He loved sports, but was particularly passionate about the Indiana Hoosiers. Actually, Pete was a pretty good athlete, too. He played basketball in high school…obviously…because he was raised in Indiana, and made the Indiana University golf team while in college. Pete and I shared frequent conversations about sports, but also about life. He loved life, and people. People loved him back, too! What I especially loved and respected about Pete though, was his relationship with his father. “Pops”, as he is affectionately known along the beach, would hang out with Pete all the time. Pops was Pete’s best friend, too. Pete was the first to tell you so! What I especially loved, though, was how much Pete enjoyed Pops finding love later in life. When the love first began to blossom, I remember telling Pete how much fun I had watching the new love affair. Pete responded in an explosion of joy! Immediately, he began to describe how much he liked her, and how happy she made Pops, and…on…and…on…and…on…..
His response brought tears to my eyes.
I have always loved watching fathers spending quality time with their children, no matter where I see them together. I think it says something about the dad. He seems to understand his responsibility, but is also learning the joy that can be shared between child and parent. A man that is a Dad…or Pops…is invaluable in the life of a child. Obviously, being a dad isn’t just about trips to the amusement park, or buying the newest “toy”. Sometimes being a dad means confrontation. However, these difficult times can be more effective in helping a child learn to make decisions when they have been prefaced by time spent doing mundane, normal things together. When the child comes to know their father’s love for them by watching him choose to include the child in the activities he must do, the child learns they are valuable. Many times, it is easier for a man to do the errands or tasks he needs to do by himself, but inviting your child with you is both a teaching opportunity and a show of respect towards the child. I think its a good idea to ask your child questions, that spur individual thought and problem analysis. Especially when they are young.
This isn’t only affirming when the children are young, however. One of the most important moments in my life, was when I was older and my father asked me a question about a book we both read. To me, the question wasn’t as important as the fact that he asked me my opinion. It felt like I was invited into the adult world of ideas. I could tell he wasn’t just asking me the question in order to prove a point, or begin an oratory about his own viewpoint. He was really interested on my take on the issue. He was being vulnerable, and showing respect to me. It was especially interesting to me that he was asking about a point of theology. He was a preacher, and he was asking me about how I viewed God, and my perspective of God’s interaction with people that held differing theological viewpoints and lived in different theological traditions than the one we both were raised in. What was especially surprising to me was that, after I shared my perspective, which was different than our common faith tradition’s doctrinal perspective, he agreed with me! I wasn’t expecting that.
Unfortunately, that conversation was both a beginning and an ending, because it wasn’t long afterwards that he was killed in an accident. In the years since his passing, during my adulthood, I have looked back at the conversation with a wistful disappointment. His acknowledgement of respect for me by simply asking the question whetted my appetite for an adult relationship with my dad, which could never be. I have always wondered if his presence in my life would have changed some of the decisions I made through the years. When I was younger, Dad was never one to butt in, and I was never one to ask. But as I grew older, I became less cocky and more cognizant of my need for a mentor. Life has a way of washing away your sand castles leaving a man feeling both vulnerable and defensive. It is in that gap, between vulnerability and defensiveness, that a trusted mentor can fit. I never was able to find one, or courageous enough to seek one out. However, I learned about life! It was the crucible in which was shaped my own style of fathering. While that style hasn’t been perfect, my children seem to love and respect me.
I have come to believe that the love of a child back to the father, not only shows respect for the father, but also the strength of character of the child. Every father that takes being a dad seriously knows when he has blown it. Quite honestly, many fathers carry these moments with them like a load of bricks. I have and do. It is this load that fuels the anger of many men, I think. We often feel like we have to be perfect. So many messages in the culture, at least men’s culture, tell us that. Too often, since we don’t know what to do with that anger, we either pour it outward, or turn it inward, becoming silent and distant. Handling anger with either method is quite destructive both to our self, and our relationships. If a man is to grow, he must acknowledge this anger, and try to make amends in some way to those he loves. That is what I tried to do. 
Not long after our divorce, I went to both my children separately and apologized for my own mistakes as a father. Especially for the times my anger came out in emotionally disruptive ways. The times when my discipline was too strong. I told them that I was wrong, and that I regretted my actions. What surprised me was that each of them responded almost identically:
“What are you talking about? I don’t remember that!”
They both then shared positive things about me as a father, and I was blown away by their grace and love.
As I watch them being adults, I am proud of their character and tenacity to love and care for their friends. They have great relationships with people. To me, this is most important! They are good people worthy of respect, and I do respect them.
The relationship a father has with their children changes through the years, and a wise father adapts. A strong father allows their adult child to see their own vulnerability. He remembers his child is a person, capable of making their own choices, and yet is willing to come alongside during times of struggle or confusion, to help the adult child with the pain, or process of making tough decisions. Much as he would a friend. And that is what I saw in Pete’s relationship with Pops…friendship. 
It is what I experience with Baird, Ryann, and Hannah. I am sure Pops is both distraught over the tragic death of Pete, yet thankful for the man he was…
…the son he is…
And so am I.

Christmas, 2016…

The idea occurred to me on a hot Florida day in July as I sweated my way through a long line of appointments doing pest control. Finally, after wiping my face for what seemed like the thousandth time, I said to no one in particular:

“I want to be somewhere cold…not cool…COLD!”

That thought began to stir within me a longing to return home, at least for a little while.

For me, Home is in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. My family moved there when I was 16, between my sophomore and junior years of high school. I have come to believe, that there is perfection in this life. Perfect in terms of time and place and how they combine in life to provide experiences filled with joy, fun, challenge, and growth. Longmont, Colorado was just that for a span of two years. The opportunities I had in Longmont High School through music and football were foundations upon which I built a life filled with love for both. Although I had previous experiences in music and football, my two years at LHS were filled with positive relationships that welcomed me as a new student as if I had been with them our whole lives. The students, choral director, teachers, and coaches recognized talents of which I was somewhat insecure, and then nourished and challenged me to develop them. The school introduced me to a level of community that was open, positive, and affirming with each other. I have yet to find another community like it.

Similarly, the mountains were always a haven for me. I would often take our Irish Setter, Sammy, into the mountains when I went fishing. Rather than fishing in one of the mountain lakes close by, I preferred to fish in the streams that cut their way from the high country through the rocky foothills that then spread out across the flat landscape at the base of the mountains. Longmont is about 10 miles from the beginning of the foothills, and is surrounded by farms and ranches which take advantage of the rich soil deposited by these same streams, and also by ancient glaciers as they eventually melted. At some point following WWII, Japanese farmers came to the St. Vrain valley (named for the river in which I fished), and began to raise vegetables which they trucked to farmers’ markets either in Longmont, or just outside of town. These farms were incrementally sold through the years prior to my family moving there, and yet there remained a couple farms still raising and trucking vegetables when I lived there.

The presence of these farms also felt like home to me when I first moved there. We previously lived in the Hi Plains region of Southwestern Kansas, and I had worked on a ranch. I especially enjoyed working with horses and cattle on the ranch, so the ranches and farms surrounding Longmont were pleasantly familiar to me.

I left Longmont, Colorado and my beloved Rocky Mountains immediately following high school graduation ceremonies and moved to Indiana, where my parents had moved early in my senior year, allowing me to live with family friends and finish high school at LHS. Sadly, I seldom returned after leaving. But I never lost the feeling that, in some way, my identity had been both shaped and discovered in this place. However, I don’t think I was able to articulate that feeling until later in life, after I had lived in other communities and geographical regions.

I now realize that this place will always be Home for me!

It is with this historical context that I decided in the heat of July, that I would rent a place in Estes Park, Colorado and invite my adult children to join me in celebration and pilgrimage to the Rockies at Christmas.

The cabin I settled on is cozy and part of a cluster of similar cabins a few miles outside of Estes Park on the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park. Estes Park is an old-school tourist community surrounded by peaks of the Continental Divide. Since it is further north of the myriad of skiing resorts that are busy during winter, Estes Park is less crowded and less expensive during Christmas time. That makes it perfect for an intimate retreat for my kids and I. I have always wanted to do this, but never realized it: un-rushed time together.

Time to just Be Family…

Fully in the present…

Open to serendipity…

Surrounded by the beauty of the Natural World…

Our reservation began on Saturday, Christmas Eve, and we couldn’t check in until 4 P.M. Baird and Ryann drove in from Kansas City a couple days early to spend a day skiing and stay one night in Boulder, Colorado. I flew in from Florida late Friday night and spent the night at the airport before getting my rental car early Saturday morning. Hannah flew in from Huntington Beach, California on Saturday morning, and I picked her up. Hannah and I met Baird and Ryann in downtown Denver for lunch and to wander around talking and taking pictures…OK…it was mainly me taking pictures.

Since we had decided earlier on to exchange gifts with each other, we decided…OK…they asked me to decide…when we would open our gifts. When I was older, my family traditionally opened gifts on Christmas Eve. I always liked that, because…well… we didn’t have to wait until Christmas Day! Decision made…

We left Denver and began the drive to Estes Park via a drive through downtown Longmont and a stop at Longmont High School. Once again, I took pictures at LHS, and we walked partly around the school, while I told them stories about my time there. We then took a quick detour past the house in which I lived at that time, and the church of which my father was pastor.

Finally…

The drive through the farmland and into the mountains!

After a quick stop at the grocery store (where they didn’t have Egg Nog!), we drove through town to our cabin. Upon arriving and unloading our luggage, I started a fire while Ryann put up the small Christmas tree, and Hannah began cutting cheese and Summer sausage to go on Ritz crackers, which is one of the family traditions we do. The gifts came next, and then…

White Christmas… a movie we all love, and traditionally watch together…

…and a beautiful epiphany for  me in the midst of the movie…

…in a cozy cabin in the middle of the mountains…

…with my daughter’s head resting on my leg…

…my son and daughter-in-law lying on the floor…

…a fire burning, lights off, candles lit, and lights on the tree twinkling…

…as Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney sing the following words:

“When I’m worried, and I can’t sleep

I count my blessings instead of sheep

And I fall asleep, counting my blessings

When my bank roll is gettin’ small

I think of when I had none at all

And I fall asleep, counting my blessings!”

Blessings…

A lump grew in my throat, and my eyes became moist.

I am Home…

…and it’s Christmas…

Later, I went outside into the quietness of the night where millions of stars met me with a symphony of silent light…

Somewhere in the distance, an owl called into the night…

I realized just how connected I am to this place and these people…

It seems to me, that the point of Christmas is just that! A child is born into the world surrounded by people, and animals, and stars, and shepherds, and searchers…

The birth is an affirmation of humanity’s connection to time and place and each other and the larger world and universe. A celebration, really, and in that moment, my heart was full of joy. It felt…

Perfect.

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

 

It is now February 17, 2018. I wrote most of the above in the days following my Perfect Christmas. The world feels very different than it did in that cabin in the mountains, whipped by a cold wind bearing show, surrounded by my children. I don’t really need to explain the state of the world currently to you, Reader. You know.

My memory returns there every so often. I am reminded of the joy we shared that Christmas. Honestly, the world was pretty chaotic then, too. We were just able to pull in tight, together, and keep warm in the cold mountain winter nights. We were present fully with and to each other in that place. We were able to take in the beauty surrounding us, because we were open to it. It’s called “being present in the present.”

I have to admit, I spent most of my life preoccupied with what MIGHT happen in the future, or what DID happen in the past. Both practices robbed me of the beauty I could have experienced in the present, and were mostly tied in some way to fear and self-criticism. Pretty self absorbed, actually. To be fair to myself, I need to explain what I’m NOT talking about:

I’m not talking about planning for the future…

I’m not talking about learning from the past…

Both of those activities take place in the present…

And they mean I am in the process of living fully, and honestly in the present…

I guess what I DO mean is living daily with a mindset to choose gratitude rather than fear, anger, and suspicion. I am still learning how to do that. I believe it is important to feel what I feel, and examine the feelings, yet remain optimistic that “the arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” as Martin Luther King Jr. put it so eloquently. Mourning is part of gratitude. Activism towards change through confronting injustice, is also part of gratitude. Living with gratitude does not mean living in denial, nor does it mean being unaware of the needs of other people. In fact living with an attitude of gratitude in the present means that I am more aware of both my own pain, and that of those I come across daily.

The birth and life of Jesus, the Christmas Child, calls me to live that way. He gives me hope that I can be that person with each new day.

 

 

Liturgy for A Political Divide…

This is a re-posting. It seems especially pertinent this election season…

Blue Eyes Seeing Clearly

I just returned from the Face 2 Face component of my online seminary program at George Fox Evangelical Seminary in Portland, Oregon. Part of the program entails travelling to the seminary campus in Portland, for a more traditional classroom setting. This occurs each semester, and allows us to come together with the members of our cohort, meet the professor and online coordinator, and other members of the seminary community. Face 2 Face is always the highlight of each semester. The document below, was written for a class I am taking: Christian Ministry for Reconciliation. The class is about the process of reconciliation; whether it be in a marriage, racial divides, societal issues, gender issues, or whatever division needing reconciliation. The document below was drafted by myself and two classmates for an assignment which required us to draft a liturgy for a public worship service. My group had to choose the…

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I Am Hearing…

I hear God speak…

 

…in the natural world…

 

“That same day, Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. As he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty. Let anyone with ears, listen!”[i]

 

The story above is a parable told by Jesus on the banks of the Sea of Galilee during one of his treks through Galilee.

(If anyone reading this blog doesn’t have much…or any…experience reading the Bible, please know that I will keep that in mind as I write. Also…if that is the case, I would invite you to purchase one…you can get one in a used-book store pretty cheap…and read through it. The Bible is arguably the most historically foundational piece of literature ever written. It would be worth your time and money.)

A parable is a fictional story constructed about ordinary events with a larger meaning that must be interpreted by the ones listening or reading. Jesus used parables all the time, and when asked why he used them, he said it was because…

“(although) seeing, they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.”[ii]

 

He continues with the explanation by quoting an ancient prophet: Isaiah…

 

“You will indeed listen, but never understand,

And you will indeed look, but never perceive.

For this people’s heart has grown dull,

And their ears are hard of hearing,

And they have shut their eyes;

So that they might not look with their eyes,

And listen with their ears,

And understand with their heart and turn—

And I would heal them.”[iii]

 

It seems Jesus thought people were so busy living their lives, that they were blind and deaf to the meaning of their lives, so he told a story to externalize normal events in a way that meaning was perceived from listening to it.

The parable above was taken from the normal activity of people farming the land; which was a common way people fed themselves in Galilee, in conjunction with fishing in the Sea of Galilee. I have had some experience living in a predominantly farming and ranching community, so the parable speaks to me in great depth. The primary interpretation I learned growing up in my ancestral faith tradition explained that each type of soil was symbolic for different types of people. In fact, Jesus explains the parable to his disciples in this way:

 

“Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom (of God: where God’s intention for the way life on the earth is to be lived is actually lived out) and doesn’t understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what is sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”[iv]

 

However, I have recently understood, or “heard”, a different interpretation for the types of soil. I have begun to realize how each type of soil can be illustrative of different areas in my own life. In effect:

I am the soil!

Each soil metaphor helps me understand that I can be resistant to Eden’s balance in many ways. I also correspond to the seed sown in good soil, in that there are areas of my life and personality, in which I bear fruit.

And yet…

…I often feel like some of the seed sown in my life, personality, and body…in the form of talents, interests, relationships, and experience…now lie dead and deteriorating deep within. “That time and opportunity in my life is past. Its history!”, I think to myself, as I try to make peace with its passing. However, God challenged my assumptions about the dead seeds earlier this year…

In my back yard, just outside the back door, lies a small patch of ground on which nothing grew for the first 3 years in which I occupied the house. The patch is a perfect rectangle, measuring roughly 5 feet by 8 feet. It is bordered by the walls of the house on two sides, the concrete patio on one side, and a path made of 6-sided concrete landscape pavers that are especially popular on older properties in Florida. Since I moved in, I have wanted to fill the space with some kind of living plant. Part of the challenge to grow something in the space is that it is partially covered by the overhanging roof of the house on one side, and the branches of a tree on the other. So, it is shaded, sandy, and portions of it can be quite dry in all but the wildest of rainstorms.

Finally, last spring, I decided to find a plant that would act as a decorative cover for the patch. I went to Home Depot, and found a plant that the label indicated would grow and spread quickly. I bought 12 of them and planted them after adding topsoil and compost (chicken manure…I forgot just how bad it smelled until I watered-in the plants) to the sandy soil of the patch. For the most part, everything I plant in the yard must fend for itself. I try to use plants that supposedly will work in the Central Florida tropical climate and soil. I then give it a push start with water in the beginning and in dry spells, but after that: it grows or it doesn’t. After the summer of that year, 2 of the three landscape projects pretty much failed miserably. I wasn’t completely disappointed by the results, though, because I learned a lot from the long term process.

For instance, most of the plants in the small patch in the back yard died, except a small strip which was closest to the pavers; the soil of which received the most water and diffused sunlight. By the end of the year, I decided I would use different plants this spring: Foxtail Ferns. I planted them in another spot, where the conditions were similar, and they have done quite well since.

Then…

…around the end of February or the beginning of March…

…I noticed something I hadn’t expected…

Little tendrils of the plant began to pierce the soil from underground roots, which had remained dormant during the winter (a FLORIDA winter anyway). I realized that the plant wasn’t done…it hadn’t died…it was just waiting for another growing season in which it could, once again, take hold of its space and grow. Excited by this unexpected re-appearance, I bought three more plants, planted them along the path, and then watered and fertilized them through the spring. As I am writing this, it is late July, filled with the humid heat of summer, and the recurring afternoon and evening showers of the tropical rainy season which continue to both challenge and nourish the plants. Although they haven’t spread as quickly nor are they as dense as I hoped, they are hanging in there.

When I first noticed the re-emergence of the plants this spring, I was personally going through a daze of ambiguity regarding the purpose of my life. I am 55-years-old, and in a period of my life both unexpected to the younger me, and perplexing to the older me. I often feel alone, but have friends who remind me I am not. There are talents I have used throughout my life that now feel buried, and dead.

But…

When I saw the plants, God seemed to say:

“Your gifts aren’t dead they are just waiting to re-emerge in the next growing season. It is how life is designed to work. Death and Resurrection. The Seasons of Grace!”

 

Reading the parable above, in light of this…

I remember all the farmers I knew when I was young, and how they would patiently work the soil before planting the seed…

When the soil was too hard…they would till it, to open it and make it more permeable to the seed, rain, and other nutrients…

When the soil was susceptible to pests…they would tenaciously fight them…

When the soil was too rocky…they would remove the impediments, so the land could be farmed…

When weeds and other plants grew and competed with the seeds intentionally planted…they would cultivate the soil in which the newly planted seeds grew, in order to remove the weeds until the seeds grew into plants which were mature enough to fight off the interloping species…

When the soil was good…they would do everything they could to help the seeds grow and be as fruitful as possible…

I imagine how the words of Jesus must have been understood when he first spoke them. Seeds were precious in that time and place. Seeds for this year’s harvest were ones saved from last year’s harvest. Broadcasting seed just anywhere, without the soil being prepared to receive it, would have been a waste of a generative and highly valued resource. So, while I am usually most concerned by the quantity of the harvest…

“How much will the seed produce?”

“Who is at fault…who do I blame…if the seeds don’t produce, or how much they produce?”

“Who gets the credit for how much they produce?”

“How can I force them to produce more?”

“Produce…produce…produce!”

 

I firmly suspect the people hearing Jesus’ parable would have been thinking about the sower:

“What an idiot! You don’t waste seed that way! You plant a seed in order to grow a plant which multiplies the first seed into a harvest of grain to make food! Not all seeds sprout and grow at the same rate! They must be planted at the right time of year! Some seeds take time to sprout, and even longer to grow into plants capable of producing a harvest. Some seeds need the perfect conditions to grow, and if it is a dry season, the harvest is affected. It isn’t that easy! It takes a wise farmer that prepares the soil, plants the seed at the right time, and gives the plant what it needs to be healthy and reproductive. The farmer works WITH the seed, and WITH the land, and WITH the plant, and WITH family and neighbors to get the work done, and WITH GOD who provides the rain and sun….

Ahhh…..I understand!”

 

God was the first Gardener…

A wize Gardener…

 

My life is a jumble of soil types and qualities, all in different stages of preparation. I often…ok…usually…believe it is my responsibility for the condition it is in, and to prepare it to be fruitful. I am also quite critical of the quality of seed, too.

Talents…

Giftedness…

Passions…

Insights…

I am especially critical of the quality of the seed, how I let it germinate, and the quantity and quality of the harvest. But the soil doesn’t GROW the seed planted within it. The life present within the seed does that! God places within each seed the qualities and power necessary for life and reproduction. The soil receives the seed, nourishes it, and has…in its very composition…everything it needs to allow the seed to sprout and begin to grow. It could even be said that the soil is a Sanctuary for the seed. None of this is surprising. Seed and soil are meant to benefit each other, and facilitate the growth of new life. It is a naturally recurring process.

I mentioned earlier about compost…

The soil in my little patch is very sandy. It doesn’t hold moisture very well, and I figured since nothing grew in it in the preceding three years, it might need some additional soil and compost. Compost is a mixture of organic materials which are being naturally broken down in composition to become a rich addition to soil. It is filled with helpful bacteria that break down formerly living and growing organisms into nutrients in a more usable form for new seeds and growing plants. Compost also helps to conserve water so it doesn’t run off and leach away the nutrients you are trying to add to the soil. To make compost, you add plants, table scraps, leaves, and miscellaneous garden scraps in a pile or a container designed for the purpose and add three things:

Additional bacteria to help the process of breaking down the material…

Water intermittently…

And air, by turning over the material with a pitch fork.

These four components cause the mixture to heat up as the process takes place…

…and sometimes produces an unpleasant, distinctive odor…

Yes…

It stinks!

Additionally, you will often find twigs, and the occasional small rock in compost. These objects either take longer to break down, or are more resistant to bacterial action. A benefit of these harder objects in the soil is that they help the soil stay loose, and create small pockets of space in which air and water are located.  Loose soil is beneficial for planting, because it is easier for the seeds to take root and for new growth to push through the surface into the open, then continue the ascent to maturity. Most plants grow both upwards, and downwards. Roots push through the soil in all directions to support the needs of the plant for water, but also to provide a strong physical foundation underground to keep the growth above ground anchored to the earth. It is important to know that good soil is full of life and activity both where it can be observed in the landscape, but more fundamentally, below the surface; where it takes some digging to detect. To judge soil only on the surface production, neglects where it all begins: below the surface.

Nature is patient. There are rhythms to the natural world. Seasons of growth, but also of dormancy. It is often in the dormancy of winter, or apparent dormancy after a fire, that the soil is being prepared below the surface for new life in the growing season.

If we describe Nature as patient; how much more so, God? Just as a forest takes decades, or centuries to be considered mature, I must remember that my life isn’t defined by what I consider to be “Production”! I am beginning to understand that there will be aspects of the fruitfulness of my life which are so deeply buried, that it won’t be available for harvest until after I have died. Also, just as in good soil, I find certain “hard” elements in my life that I am not sure what to do with. There have been experiences I don’t understand, and about which I feel dissonant. They don’t fit nicely in line with my previous expectations of life and fruitfulness. However, I am realizing that the hard elements…

Hold…

Space…

The space surrounding the dissonant memories are where…

Air and Water…

Grace and Mercy…

Meet the Dust of my Flesh.

These spaces are where God’s Spirit invites me to tenaciously trust that the Seeds God has placed in the soil of my life are and were intentionally planted. The hard places do not detract from the ultimate fruitfulness of my life.

Another word for it:

 

Incarnation…

 

Where the separation between Seed and Soil becomes imperceptible.

 

The Ecology of Eden…

The trick is to remember that when life stinks!

[i][i] Matthew 13:1-9. New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.

[ii] Matthew 13:13.

[iii] Matthew 13:14-15.

[iv] Matthew 13:18-23.

God Continues to Speak…

God speaks…

…in the heat of the day when my shirt, hat,  and top half of my trousers are soaked with sweat, and I am wondering why 94 in Florida is so much different than 94 in Kansas City, as the sweat pours into my eyes behind sunglasses so fast that my shirt sleeves are eventually useless to dry them, and my vision is blurry and eyes stinging from the salt.

God speaks…

…as I roll down the window while I drive to my next appointment so I can smoke a cigarette, and realize simultaneously how good the hot wind feels against my wet skin and how thankful I am to feel God’s…

…patient…

…persistent…

…nudge towards the day that I will quit smoking…

…not because God is angry that I smoke…

…but because God’s love is…

…patiently…

…persistently…

…convincing me that I am both worth loving, and worth having around on earth for a few more years.

God speaks…

…as the workday ends, and I drive home listening to Bill Withers knowing full well that when I get home, and after I organize my schedule for tomorrow, that I will argue with myself about whether I will go to the gym to sweat some more.

God speaks…

…while my mind composes beautifully articulated, well chosen words and phrases that communicate perfectly what I would like to write, except I am driving, so cannot record them, and the only ones to hear them are God and me…

God stops speaking…

God listens…

…and I realize…

I am praying…

God Speaks…

God speaks…

…in the early morning, during the final dream state of the night, as my Unconsciousness magically expresses my deepest longings or greatest fears in a symphony of emotions, free from the…

commanding…

demanding…

structuring…

influence of Consciousness.

God speaks…

…as my mind slowly climbs out of the clinging, inviting arms of slumber, and the enticing gaze of the snooze button, then regretfully instructs my arm to wrestle the covers off my body, and swing my legs over the side of the bed.

God speaks…

…while my muddled steps wind their way to the waiting coffee maker, and my fingers fumble with the filter after partially spilling water poured into the reservoir, followed by coffee spilled both in the filter and into the water on the counter.

God speaks…

…as I grumble about needing to clean the spill, but lose the argument, push the “Start Brewing” button, then wander to the bathroom to brush my teeth.

God speaks…

…when the aroma of brewing coffee  brightens my optimism for the day, all the while trying to desperately grasp, or shake loose the retreating emotions of my final dream.

God speaks…

…when I remember that the dream wildly leapt from one unfinished storyline to the next in a disconnected ramble which elicits a response of, “What was THAT all about?”, while the toothbrush rumbles away in my mouth.

God speaks…

…in my first taste of coffee…

…which energizes me to clean the mess surrounding the coffee maker, and order my thoughts about the day before me.

God speaks…

…when my thoughtfully constructed plans for the day work perfectly, and I begin to progressively feel like I have a handle on this thing called Adulthood.

God speaks…

…as the events of the day conspire to crush my thoughtfully constructed plans for the day, and I am left hearing Life laugh at my audacious attempts to control the future.

God speaks…

…graciously, on the days I have NO plan, and events work perfectly in SPITE of my incomplete preparations.

God speaks…

…when I am listening…

God speaks…

…when I am NOT listening…

God speaks…

…when my response to Parker Palmer’s wise counsel to “Let Your Life Speak” is, “But my life speaks a language I don’t understand, and I could use either an interpreter, or a ‘Life-to-English’ dictionary! Is there a Gibberish interpreter in the house?”

God continues to speak…

…and I will too…

Later!