Monday, December 31, 2007

Home, Where I Least Expected to Discover It

Fifteen years ago today I began a new life. In a sense that is nothing conspicuously significant. It wouldn't be the last new life I would begin in the course of those fifteen years -- some on the far side of curves that threatened to scuttle me. The difference is that none of the subsequent new beginnings involved a car and a thousand-mile change of address. Fifteen years ago today I drove into Des Moines, Iowa after a lifetime firmly planted in Texas.

It hadn't occurred to me that I would ever live outside of Texas. It never occurred to me that I would ever live in Iowa. It certainly hadn't occurred to me that I would likely live out the rest of the my life in Des Moines. But then who ever knows about such things?

I remember calling my parents the next day to report a safe arrival, mentioning that "it was zero degrees when I rolled into town, and then it got cold." Indeed it did. It was my first experience with sub-zero weather; truly a foreign land.

But it was a land shortly to become home in every way that matters. I'm quite certain that I will always be a Texan -- that Lone Star illuminates every corner of my personal universe, and I read, for better and for worse, by its light -- but I am almost as certain that I'll not live there again. It was a good move fifteen years ago, in countless ways I could not have predicted, and I am grateful -- not so much for what I left behind, because I keep that ever and blessedly with me. No, I am grateful for the new world, indeed the new life, I have subsequently found, where least I would have expected it.

Fifteen years later, no one could still be more surprised than me.

Living proof that God works in mysterious ways.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Who Cares About a Few Aching Muscles?

When I could no longer right myself once fallen I knew I was too tired to continue. It was my first attempt at cross-country skiing, and by this time in the afternoon every muscle was twitching. It was a good twitch, but twitching nonetheless. I had only fallen a few times -- not once, actually, until I left the flat figure-eights in the field where the neophytes learn. Throughout those circles I managed to stay upright, and then I got ambitious. It could be that I got "cocky," but I prefer to think "ambitious." After all, you can't live all your life picking low hanging fruit. As lovely as was the field, I longed for the beauty of the upper trails.

Of course, there is the hill that must be mounted just to reach those trails. And there are those myriad slopes of varying degrees once in that elevation. But even then, for the most part, I managed to stay vertical. For the most part. Thankfully, the fourteen layers of clothing I was wearing kept me warm and surprisingly dry. And blessedly, skiing is populated by people of grace who were ever nearby and ready to help, ready to offer a tip about poles and arms and how best to get back up, ready to check and see if anything was broken. "Only my pride," I routinely responded. But even that was mere sociability. The truth is I hadn't mounted the mount with any pride to break. I could only exceed my expectations, and for the most part ended the day pleasantly surprised. And along the way, when I remembered to quit watching the tips of my skiis and started seeing where I was -- on a snowy hillside in Southern Vermont with trees all around me and trickling brooks beside me and the bright sky above me -- the falls, the hesitations, the calculations, and the incessant twitching seemed completely worthwhile.

Friday, December 28, 2007

A First Day in Paradise

The roads were clear today, and blue sky elbowed its way in-between the clouds -- quite a change from the snowy arrival late yesterday afternoon. What should have been a two and half drive from Boston's Logan Airport demanded more like four. Traffic was as heavy as the falling snow. Every time I became aware of my white knuckles on the wheel I reminded myself that "snow is why we are here." Admittedly that recollection was easier once we arrived at the Vermont inn where we will welcome our third straight New Year.

Driving today was a different story. We started south toward Grafton to discover the cheese factory there. We headed back north to Woodstock to stroll the quaint streets and add more flannel to our wardrobe. But most importantly we pulled off the road and hiked a bit up a mountain road where branches still labored under their snowy loads, and the mountain stream rolled between their banks, the sound uninterrupted by traffic or talking or...anything. "This," I had no trouble reminding myself, "is why we are here."

Now twice-supped, one day explored, and content beside the fire in our room, we are enjoying the pictures from the day.

And the peace.

And the quiet.

And the snowy lanes and streams.

And though we have not yet seen a moose, we have had the chance to kiss inside a covered bridge.

Ah! December in Vermont.

The moose can wait until tomorrow.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Silent Night, Quiet Morning, & the Blessed Awe of Christmas

There are bubble wrap bits on the floor from the package that Barrington had tried to open. A bow is here, an empty box there. Wall sockets are busy charging new gadgets for their official launch, and the kitchen betrays evidence of the night before. It's Christmas morning -- a more leisurely affair than once upon a time. The kids -- no longer kids -- now gather the night before for worship, egg rolls, and presents, instead of dawn to reconnoiter Santa. It's quiet; the only sound the coffee brewing and the fire and the echoes from the night before...

...Isaiah and his kind...
...Matthew and Luke...
...O Little Town of Bethlehem...Angels We Have Heard on High...Joy to the World...
...and Silent Night;
...children describing angels they have seen flying and grasshoppers they have seen hopping; of a young couple's preparation for a first child;
..."Merry Christmas"...
..."I love you"...
...the gift of awe-filling grace...
...the light that the darkness cannot extinguish.

Christmas is hardly over. We have miles to travel and more family to embrace; we have more presents to open and more food to eat; we have more fires to gather around, and more memories to make. And despite our middle-age and lifetimes of experience holding candles on Christmas Eve, we still have a gospel to comprehend.

Which is to say that, far from being over, Christmas is still just beginning.

Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Perhaps the Brush of Angel Wings

It's the weekend before Christmas and all through the house not a preacher is panicking, not even... Having wakened early, I plugged in the Christmas tree lights, turned on the coffee, fed Barrington, and knocked out the last of the special bulletins. The sermon for Sunday is almost in hand, the Christmas Eve candles have been prepared by a loving volunteer, and the nativity scene -- the one my in-laws molded and painted and built some years ago -- is reassembled, and so far no mischievous hands have absconded with the baby Jesus.

It not only is quiet; it actually feels quiet for a change. And more snow is predicted tonight and tomorrow. Perfect! Not that everything is done. There is still a gift or two to buy, and there is the wrapping still ahead. We need to find something to do with all these cookies and candies we made earlier in the week, and there are a few returned cards for which we need to find new addresses. There is a meal to plan and groceries to buy.

But those aren't really "tasks" at all; they are the very candle flames of Advent. All of it is, actually -- even preparing all those bulletins and scripts. Getting ready. Making preparations. Putting life in order for the day -- for the One -- who is to come.
Make your house fair as you are able,
trim the hearth and set the table.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the Guest, is on the way.
And so while much, if not most, is accomplished, I'm still getting ready. There is silence to embrace and prayers to attend; there are dreams to revisit and hopes to embrace; there are eyes to look more deeply into, and if I turn my ear just right... angel's song to hear.
"On earth."

Monday, December 17, 2007

Faith and the Politics of Religion

My sense is that he is half right. I have been conflicted about the public debate that has been rumbling regarding the religious beliefs and fidelities of the Presidential candidates these last many months. At various times they have been queried about their prayer life, their understanding of forgiveness, and perhaps most publicly their view of the Mormon faith. It is a debate that has hovered near the electoral process at least as far back as John Kennedy's speech seeking to allay concerns about his Catholicism, and eight years ago Joe Leiberman's Jewishness. This year, religiosity seems to be of particular concern -- specifically how relevant it ought to be. In his Sunday opinion piece, Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer pleads that we "Keep Religion Out" of the presidential selection process, and as I say, he is half right. His impression is that the campaign season is "knee-deep in religion, and it's only going to get worse." Through the breadth of his column Krauthammer cites numerous examples to support his contention. As he wants to clarify it, "the Constitution prohibits any religious test for office," and that a religious underpinning should confer no "special status" to a policy proposal. As he rightly points out, "In this country, there is no special political standing that one derives from being a Christian leader..."

Krauthammer laments that none of the Republican candidates, when asked in the recent CNN/YouTube debate if they believe that "every word" of the Bible "is true" had the courage to respond, "None of your damn business." Guts, perhaps, or maybe political sense.

It's true that there have been too many extraneous questions about the candidate's religious life, but I don't think that means there are no valid religious questions to be asked. I agree that no "religious test" belongs in the American electoral process, and that no religious tradition or practice should have special status, but I do believe we are entitled to learn what we can about the meaning-makers active in a candidate's psyche. Religion is not the only such maker of meaning available to people in the world, but when candidates publicly claim a given religious expression, then I believe that profession becomes relevant to further inquiry. In fact, I would assert that it is not only appropriate to ask about such frameworks of value and meaning, it is important for the public to explore them. It's none of my business how devout a candidate's religious practice may be -- whether or not he or she is in worship every Sunday, how often the candidate prays, or about what, but I don't think it unfair to ask of candidates who claim religious affiliation how that affiliation shapes them. If one's religious formation provides some characterization of "the good," I think it is relevant for the voter to know what that "good" might look like, and how, according to that tradition, said "good" is to be attained. If that religious tradition makes some suggestion about "ultimate intent," I would like to know how that "end" informs the core of a candidate's visionary aspiration? How does one understand "evil", since that word seems to get thrown around a lot these days, and how are we to respond to it? When a candidate promises "high moral leadership," what, specifically, are those moral values, what is excluded from the list, and why?

Both Jesse Jackson and Pat Robertson, by way of historical example, ran for President as Christian leaders, but both scared away most of the electorate. I submit that it wasn't their Christianity that frightened voters, but rather the very different ways that Christian faith took shape in their priorities, behaviors, and advocacies. It wasn't, in other words, what Christianity meant to others that made their faith relevant; it's what that Christianity meant to them.

Maybe, then, to return to the earlier example, it's not so much how often candidates pray that matters to me, nor even about what; it's what those candidates hear God telling them that I want to hear more about.

That could be interesting, indeed.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Frozen Inspiration

By no means did they all survive. Freezing rain drenched the city earlier this week, followed by heavy snow. Many neighborhoods went dark as ice-tugged power lines went down, and heavy weighted branches and boughs succumbed to the extra load. But they were the exception. Not to minimize the frustration of those who lost power or to ignore the crack of breaking limbs, but far, far more stayed up than fell down. The city has been, to echo the song, a "Winter Wonderland" of ice-sleeved trees and wires and -- well -- everything. If bare branches and high wires posed the greatest threat, evergreen boughs felt the greatest weight, and their needly arms sagged beneath the strain.

But -- and here's the thing -- they didn't break. They certainly look worse for wear -- disheveled, in a way, and tired -- and who knows whether their resilience will again elevate and restore their more stately pose. But they are hanging on. Tall, strong, firmly rooted, and grand.

Hanging on. Maybe that's not the most exhilarating hope for long and heavy Advent days when life seems to drop on us everything it's held in storage; maybe that's not the brightest metaphor for holidays more accustomed to twinkles and sprinkles and mall speakers cheerily droning carols. But when the phone won't stop ringing and the hungry and homeless keep knocking and the nits around us keep picking and the bombs keep exploding and the rhetoric keeps intensifying -- when the rain turns to ice, and then it snows -- hanging on may be the best that we can do. Arms bending but not breaking, after all, can be powerfully heroic sometimes.

And we can use all the inspiration we can get.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Advent's Prayer for Peace

If the first Sunday of Advent restarted our imaginative hope, this second Sunday provides the architectural drawings for that hope: peace. In a world like this -- in a time like this -- who can imagine such a state? Surely my wish for a horse when I was 5-years-old stood a greater chance of coming true than this adult hope for peace. At 51, I'm still waiting for the horse; who can calculate the wait for peace? Perhaps, then, now more than ever our hearts pry open our lips to pray...
God of Peace, we give you thanks for the thought. We are battle-weary from arguments and conflicts at the office, at home, in Washington, between presidential candidates, between armies, and within ourselves. Tired of the volume, tired of the vulnerability and the fear, tired of the anger and the grief, tired of the scars left on our bodies and our souls, we long for the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, of counsel and knowledge and justice and rest; we long for the day when war is so long forgotten that not even the libraries contain books that remember them; when the earth will be as full of the knowledge of you as the waters cover the sea.

In the meantime, dear God, help us live in the midst of today – not only hoping for peace, but working toward it; not only talking about peace, but making it as well, starting with a fresh and appreciative awareness of lives already shot through with joy. There are marshmallow dollops of snow on evergreen branches; hoarfrost jewels the barren limbs, and there are the lively songs of children. We may not have the company we dream of, but we are not alone. The breathing beside us reminds of the presence of those who know our names, and the wreaths on countless doors remind us of your never-ending love…

We aren’t blind to the needs. We aren't deaf to the challenges. But we offer them into your safekeeping, fully trusting that you will hold them in your transforming grace. O God of Peace, make straight, again, the path to you, for we pray in the name of the one cleared it and set us upon it.

Friday, December 7, 2007

A Tin of Memories, Melancholy, and Gratitude

When the box arrived, I hardly knew what to do with it. I am sentimental to a fault -- tears in the eyes and lumps in the throat can be paralyzing for me -- and these days are too busy to stand still. From a safe distance I finally sliced the tape and lifted the bluebonnet tin. But even then I waited. I knew what was inside. Over the Thanksgiving holidays my sister-in-law and my mother had rediscovered the boxes of Christmas ornaments that recent years of holiday simplification had left stored away. My brother's family took away their share. The shipping company delivered mine. Ornaments from through the years. School projects. Kitchen crafts. The very crucible of deep memories, melancholic joy, and lumps in the throat.

Today I am alone -- my day off from the office and Lori at work. With the last page of the novel turned and the laundry underway, I stared at the empty branches on the Christmas tree downstairs and understood that today was the day. I carried the tin gingerly from my dresser down the stairs as if it were an offering of some kind -- which, I suppose in a way, it was. Setting aside the lid and the bubble wrap inside I retrieved the construction paper Santa long faded and bent, the yarn Santa faces my Grandmother had knitted, and the brownish "shrinky-dink" ornaments in which I could neither remember nor discern any particular shape or intention. And I hung them. Offerings from my past to my present; from all that has gone before, to all that is and is to come. Silently. Carefully. Gratefully.

We are, I thought again, never fully formed, but always becoming -- the holy alchemy of all we have learned and experienced, all who have left upon us their fingerprints and on whose shoulders we stand, and all that is catching our eyes and touching our hearts and pricking our imaginations at the time. The fullness of our past -- in its simple profundity -- as the nursery of our present -- in all its unpredictable wonder. My grandmother's care, my own clumsy but determined coloring and scissoring, my mother's patience and my sister-in-law's diligence -- fifty-one years of moments and treasures, of words and actions, of hooking on branches and packing carefully away; an old woman and a little boy; a young mother and countless precious hours -- all together in one place, joining all the life and love and memories since: here, now, beautifully, tearfully united and alive.

I was right about the tears and the lump in the throat. I was right about the sentimental embrace. But I was wrong about the rest. I'm not paralyzed at all; rather strangely and quite surprisingly alive in a way as new and fresh as the snow; and larger than I have ever known. And it is good.

Merry Christmas, indeed.