Advent Confession

It’s supposed to be good for the soul so I’m going to make a confession here as I don’t want to appear to be something I’m not. I’m already playing Christmas Music. As a matter of fact, I’ve been playing Christmas music for a while now. Like, since October. Yes, I know it’s Advent (or will be this Sunday), and a responsible cleric would honor and embrace the unique graces of each season and would encourage her or his congregants to do the same. I’m sorry. I can’t help myself. I may be in denial, but I think I’m able to observe the anticipatory and penitential character of Advent waiting while I concurrently rejoice in that waiting’s conclusion. Of course, I would assert that my immersion in and profound enjoyment of the Christmas Spirit bears little or no resemblance to the touting of Christmas in the parallel universe of American consumerism. While the world around me declares excess and acquisition the appropriate garb of our entrance to winter as though the gloom in the world is lessened in direct proportion to the size of one’s high definition television screen, I am transfixed by the juxtaposition of light dispelling darkness. While well intentioned shoppers work to provide the children in their lives with the electronic and overstuffed gizmos they swear they can’t live without, I am inexplicably drawn to the complete sufficiency of the child who had no toys, no crib for his bed but who, in total poverty, provided eternal richness for all. And, frankly, it’s okay with me that the dominant culture busies itself with shopping and glitz and visions of sugarplums. The world’s hunger for something special in the depth of winter is apparent, dressed in the only way the spiritually impoverished can muster – in tinsel and excess. The relative paucity of society’s Christmas observances aren’t wrong or un-religious or counterproductive. They are just…..less. Less than they might be if the world and it’s people took Jesus of Nazareth seriously and focused their Christmas excess on the least of his brothers and sisters; less than the lingering glow of gratitude of the heart that has embraced the invitation to step outside of self and into what we might call Manger Living; less than what we want but more than what we have. And the Advent waiting, the longing, the looking to the future in hope – all of these can thrive side by side in my enjoyment of the season with the excitement of Divine Triumph that has entered the world in a most unusual and unexpected way. For the possibility still exists that God, through the hearts and hands and eyes and lives of the Body of Christ present in this world can redefine culture’s craving for abundance by giving witness to the wealth that is never exhausted, the glory whose brightness is never dimmed. So, Joy to the world! And Come, O come Immanuel. Share this:Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window)Click to share on Google+ (Opens in new...

Living in a Dangerous World

My first awareness of the immediacy of danger in the world around me was a certainty spreading through the ranks of first graders at Ardmore Avenue Elementary School in suburban Philadelphia. 1954, perhaps. One of my friends had learned that there was a bee of sorts – a big bee — known as the Seven Stinger. It could sting multiple times, but its seventh and last sting was so venomous that the unfortunate person who received it would die instantaneously. Eyes focused on low lying branches of trees and border gardens in yards, my daily commute to school (we walked back then) was marked by a cautious screening of the neighborhood for these winged killers. Recess provided an opportunity to recount sightings and near misses of Seven Stingers identified and dodged. Each day above ground was a victory for vigilant children and a loss for insectoid denizens of death. I don’t know whether my undeveloped First Grade mind linked the localization of danger embodied by Seven Stingers with the wider atmosphere of national menace provided by the infiltration of communists in every level of government assured by Senator Joseph McCarthy. The full scope of live broadcast of the Army-McCarthy hearings on our living room Zenith may have been beyond my elementary intellect, but the subtext was clear even to me – America is awash in unseen dangers. [Parenthetical aside: it wasn’t until much later that I realized that election to high office was no guarantor of the quality or character of those elected. The most unprincipled often wind up in office thanks to the inability of the American electorate to identify and elevate good men and women. This is as true today as it ever was.] Television continued to provide iconic images of widespread threat while playground bullies kept danger close to home. Nikita Kruschev and his banging shoe assured me of communism’s goal to bury me while an overweight neighborhood thug named Dominic who brandished a bicycle spoke as a weapon and took a particular interest in whipping me, presented a more immediate threat. Dangers, rather than ebbing and flowing, continued to mount steadily. Adlai Stevenson waited until hell froze over, teachers urgently insisted we kneel before our hallway lockers with our heads tucked in around our galoshes – the assured method of surviving a nuclear attack in our first strike neighborhood. Frequent air raid drills bolstered by grainy black and white films of mushroom clouds and buildings being vaporized by atomic blasts somewhere in New Mexico created and sustained a subcutaneous level of certainty – our destruction was not a question of if, but when. As the years passed the players changed, but the danger remained the same. Assassination, Vietnam and the lottery that would determine whether able bodied young males were to become Cong-fodder, Americans in uniforms hosing and beating other Americans hungry for fundamental rights. 1968, when the whole world was watching. Watergate. The passage of years did little to lessen the danger – like referred dental pain, it just kept it moving around. Vietnam ultimately became a tourist destination while the Middle East emerged as the locus of destruction (when, O when will the all expenses paid guided tours of Baghdad begin?). Continuing Congressional nonsense as the elected behave more and more like the unAmericans that McCarthy was looking for. And now, rather than being a 10 year old terrorized by bullies in the playground and worrying about death raining from the sky, I have a 10 year old grandson who attends disaster preparedness workshops, pretending to be mortally wounded (replete with gory makeup) while practicing first responders decide whether he should get attention instead of the bloodied actor next to him. He has his own emergency bug out bag that contains items necessary for survival in the event of catastrophe. Instead of cowering in a hallway locker, he practices barricading his school room preparing for lockdown in the event of a maniacal shooter’s arrival. As I did, he has bullies in his life, so the danger is as close as it is widespread. There is an interesting difference between my childhood and his: the stories that inform and shape our world. I read books like Tom Swift and Nancy Drew – thin-as-dishwater novels that emphasized the ability of clever people to overcome any obstacle, solve any mystery through wit and inventiveness. He reads books about dragons and demons, magicians both bilious and benign: stories that begin with the assumption that danger is beyond ordinary human ability to manage let alone overcome. Death continues to rain from above, but men and women haven’t created it, and we can’t stop it....

Moving On, Again

In the three months between the sale of our home and the transition to a new house in Oregon, my wife and I will be moving three times. Knowing that we would remain in Taos for four months after the sale of our home as I brought my practice to a close, we started looking for a short term rental – nothing too fancy, just basic accommodation. We started our search and discovered there are two kinds of rentals in Taos – relatively comfortable spaces for visiting tourists (translate: Texans), and rentals that aspire to be worthy of Section Eight reimbursement some day. The apartments for Texans come, not surprisingly, with a Texas sized monthly price tag. We wound up in one of the other types. Our rental is little more than a studio. There is a second room, but the four sealed south facing ceiling-to-floor windows and the bare bulb light fixtures make the room too warm for habitation. The apartment is an icon of the disparity between Taos-the-Dream and Taos-the-Reality. Set on a plateau above the fertile Taos Valley, it sports a broken ceiling fan, a toilet, and piles of construction waste as lawn ornaments. We sit on a road pocked with so many craters that NASA used it as the primary filming site to fake the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969. The apartment is part of a triplex of sorts – there is a two story apartment adjoining ours (the connecting door between our hot room and their entryway is sealed with 35 decking screws and a handful of ten penny nails), and an additional living space that our builder-landlord is transforming into a third apartment. I’m assuming that the toilet in the yard will eventually migrate into the third apartment, dispossessing the family of field mice that have taken up residence therein. The two story apartment beside and above our space is something of a mystery. As of this writing, we have lived in the rental for five weeks. Every night there is considerable foot stomping in the room above us, but the vehicle outside the apartment changes daily. Either our upstairs neighbor is a used car dealer who brings work home every night or the space is a hostel-hovel for transients; at least, I hope that’s the case, although the term “crack house” floats menacingly in my consciousness. So far, no sign of the DEA, but then they would probably need a HumVee to navigate the cratered road. Shortly after giving the landlord an initial deposit but prior to moving in, my wife went over to get the “feel” of the space and wound up sobbing as she faced the prospect of spending a third of a year in the rental. Within an hour of leaving she had sent an email to a friend who bi-locates between Taos and Austin asking if we could rent her house for 6-8 weeks. The friend said yes, so next week we’ll be moving again. It will feel like moving from the Rots to the Ritz. But it will be moving. Still in all, there will be internet, television, laundry facilities and comfortable chairs waiting – certainly worth another transition. Six weeks later we will move once again – this time a two day drive in early winter through some of the snow-iest states in the western half of the United States. Next time in a box. As much as anything, the Bible is a record of people moving on. From the first “ideal-to-real” transition out of Eden, the Bible records the movement of peoples from old and familiar places to new ones. Not surprisingly, each of these moves has at least one visionary who is either carried unwillingly to a place or senses it’s time to go. Their very names are synonymous with the transitions – Noah, Joseph, Moses, Jeremiah, Thomas, John. Each wound up in a place they never expected to be, and each struggled to find a way to flourish in new spaces. Some of those spaces and the circumstances imposed produced heroes – Miriam, Ruth, Daniel, and my favorite Old Testament trio Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego. To be sure, some of the transitions ended badly – Peter’s unconventional crucifixion, Paul’s beheading, John’s exile. I suppose that one of the consistent themes behind the Biblical narrative is that we are always on the move between one place and another whether those places are geographical, psychological, or chronological (the famous opening line “I once met a man on his way from the City of Darkness to the City of Light” comes to mind) and the question is how to move well...

Say goodnight, Gracie

  I suppose the number of people who actually watched the Burns and Allen Show during the 1950s is dwindling rapidly. For most folks, George Burns is best known for the films he did after Gracie Allen passed away in 1962 – movies like “Oh, God” and its sequels and “The Sunshine Boys.” The show itself was typical 50s fare with one notable exception. The paper thin plots would play out while George served as a kind of Greek Chorus – standing off past the proscenium (in the earlier shows) or watching the story unfold on a television in his study. He would carry on a running conversation with the audience about events that unfolded on the set then step into the action by engaging with Ronnie (his son), Gracie, and almost weekly, firing Harry Von Zell. Then he would step out once again and engage the audience commenting on what had just happened or predicting events that resulted from his interventions. It was all accomplished with a wink and a nod, appreciative of the audience as unindicted co-conspirators (to borrow a phrase from a later and less pleasant television experience). The act of stepping outside the fourth wall wasn’t original with George Burns and has been used extensively since, but he was perhaps it’s most playful master. The device allowed George a dual privilege – the ability to laugh with the audience at Gracie’s indecipherable logic while enjoying his adoration of her. I have suggested to a client from time to time that they think of their life as a television show or a movie – a compelling narrative filled with joy and sorrow, hope and fear, suspense and uncertainty. I ask if they realize that the audience watching the film would be rooting for them, hoping for a happy ending, gasping with every misstep, cheering with each success. When I suggest it, I often receive a quizzical look indicating that either they had never thought of such a thing, or that they can’t imagine that their lives are of sufficient interest to keep the attention of an audience. Encased as we are in a first person perspective, we rarely take the privileged position of standing outside the fourth wall and watching the action of our own lives. If we did, we might actually marvel at our perseverance, admire our tenacity, ache with our suffering. We might view our own responses and behaviors with compassion rather than bearing feelings of shame and regret. Astonishing as it sounds, we might begin to realize that in the struggle of daily life we are acting out in microcosm the Great Endeavor – the striving for purpose, meaning and fulfillment that has defined the human story since the beginning of time. It would be nice to think that the audience for this ultimate expression of theater was appropriately large: that it encompassed not only family, friends, neighbors and coworkers, but (in the dreaming of the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews) that we are compassed about with a great cloud of witnesses, all of them watching breathless on the edge of their seats.   Share this:Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window)Click to share on Google+ (Opens in new...

Bunny Wars

  I have just put about $450 worth of flowers and vegetables in my garden. In my imagination, my summer yard will rival the gardens of Babylon and will provide enough food for my wife and I to make morning juicing cost free for at least three months. Kale, collards, broccoli, chard, onions, garlic, shallots, peas, beans, cucumber, potatoes, corn, beets (red and gold), peppers, tomatillos, tomatoes – even edible flowers like pansies and nasturtiums all cover the arid and unforgiving expanse of northern New Mexico that I have enclosed in my personal Eden. In truth, part of the work is undertaken with curb appeal in mind as we hope to put our house on the market in the Fall. But to be fair, I have planted in abundance for years. Each spring my heart swells with expectation and I dig and feed and supplement with passionate ferocity. By midsummer defeat is already visible as an unending tide of tumbleweed, dandelions and other unwanted greenery rise en masse to choke the more tender but productive things I have planted. As autumn nears, I plan the work of clearing and turning beds, resigned to the fact that my garden only provided an approximation of my expectations formed a few months before. Still, the catalogues come early in the year, tempting with new varieties posted on glossy pages in glorious weed and insect free color. Surely, this year…. Last year we had a bunny. Not a jack rabbit, a bunny. Brown, wiggly nose, fur that dances in the breeze. He/she hopped around the exterior of the yard content to nibble on the abundant weedery beyond the fence. Kinda cute. This year we have a dozen. One big, eleven small. On the whole, I’m quite happy to have visitors to the garden. Finches and hummingbirds, quail and magpies all visit the feeders which I gladly fill. There are a few honored guests. We have a pair of flycatchers that have nested in our portal every year for the last five years. I’m always glad to see them back. Last year new tenants arrived – a pair of Western bluebirds took up residence in our carport and my wife and I felt privileged to have them about the house. The coyotes sing at night and while they are often visible, they maintain a respectful distance. There are even Texans that pass by from time to time and, as there is no economy in Taos without them, we wave and try to appear rustic. However, bunnies aren’t welcome, at least not in the numbers that they have appeared this year. They are welcome to all the vegetation they can find outside the confines of my garden, but once inside the fence, it becomes personal. Now I have a dog – a fair sized German shepherd who has horrific breath but a sweet disposition. She sits at the front door and guards us against her perception of vicious threats to my safety. Unfortunately, she seems most threatened by the folks I wait earnestly for – the UPS man and the FedEx driver. One would think that this conscientious sentinel would protect us against the theft of food and flower and chase the bunnies away, right? Oh, no – she sits on the welcome mat and watches them romp, no doubt admiring their free spirits. If I were a real New Mexican, I’d git me a gun and blow ’em away. Unfortunately, Beatrix Potter ruined any chance I might have of reducing the rabbit population. So instead I actually spend money on liquids that smell of rotten eggs guaranteed to repel rabbits (turns out it’s the rabbit version of Geurlain’s Vol de Nuit) and invest in huge rolls of poultry wire that so efficiently encases my garden that I am prevented from harvesting my own vegetables without risking suture-worthy lacerations. I can’t believe it. I just discovered that they have made their home in my woodpile. Now they’re neighbors. They drop by to visit hourly. I run outside when they wander through the petunias waving my arms and yelling. They look at me fixedly while munching on strands of about-to-bloom lobelia, no doubt thinking that this kind large animal who has provided them with a fabulous buffet has just begun a ritual welcome dance. It isn’t even June. It’s going to be a long summer. Someone once told me that Bruce Lee’s sensei taught him two things. First, be like water – adapt to that which is around you and move smoothly past obstacles. Second, never place yourself in opposition to nature. I only hope that they will leave a few onions...

One of the reasons I love Stevie Nicks

Some songs stay with me forever. If my high school Latin teacher had set the conjugation of verbs to music, I’m sure I could recall more than amo, amas, amat. Incredibly, even the most complex melodic lines have a kind of “right to residence” in my memory. Stevie Wonder’s Sir Duke is an excellent example. The instrumental introduction is a breathtakingly intricate melody, yet I can summon it in a nanosecond. Pretty remarkable when you consider that I can’t remember what I had for dinner last night. The lyrics stay as well. Words to popular music from the thirties, forties and fifties that my mother used to play on the piano are fixed in my memory despite the passage of more than five decades: I cover the waterfront, I’m watching the sea; will the one I love be coming back to me?  On a day like today, we’d pass the time away writing love letters in the sand. Night and day, you are the one. It’s only you above and under the sun. Songs that stay in my memory speak to something that I have felt or expanded my perception of the world around me. Music provides something intangible and difficult to describe – it accesses or enhances or highlights something true, something which, if not universal, is at least broad spectrum. My musical tastes tend to be pretty diverse. There aren’t many musical forms that I find completely unappealing. A few years ago I would have said that rap was well out of my area of interest, but then I heard Now That You’ve Found Love by Heavy D and the Boyz and a chink appeared in my anti-rap barrier. Then I saw Mos Def act in a movie and a television show and found him so appealing that I wanted to understand his music. While I still wouldn’t seek out rap on my radio dial, I am willing to dip in from time to time. Likewise, I also felt that opera was little more than dying set to music, but the ubiquitous presence of Pavarotti’s Nessun Dorma (and Paul Potts’ performance on Britain’s Got Talent) a few years back broke down yet another barrier of musical snobbery and I have found other arias to love. My willingness to explore opera even prompted me to drive with my wife to New York to see Baz Luhrmann’s production of La Boheme more than a decade ago. Okay, it wasn’t Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and I didn’t do much toe-tapping, but I was engaged (Catherine Martin’s remarkable staging helped). Country/Western? Well…I suppose anything is possible, but I’m not holding my breath. While there has been a wealth of music that has delightfully accompanied my journey through the years, other songs (fewer songs) have actually defined it, stated it more clearly than I ever could. There was a time in my life when Billy Joel’s I Go to Extremes explained me better than I could explain myself. There has been music so profoundly moving that I would want it at my funeral as a sufficient statement of my psychological, spiritual, and relational reality – the thrilling pipe tune The Black Bear, Judy Collins’ My Father, Caoineadh Cu Chulainn (look it up), Come Thou Font of Every Blessing, Eva Cassidy’s Songbird, Love Divine All Loves Excelling, Loreena McKennit’s Dante’s Prayer… actually, forget the funeral; I’ll just provide a ninety minute playlist and people can gather for the soundtrack of my life then go out for pizza. The playlist will have bookends, though. It will begin and end with a single song: Stevie Nicks and Kenny Loggins’ Whenever I Call You friend. The song contains one line that dragged me through incredibly difficult times and to this day orients me toward the future. It was an antidote to resignation, a reminder, an encouragement, a challenge. The majority of the song was fine, cheerful but forgettable. But that one line, nearly shouted in Stevie Nicks’ gorgeous gravelly voice soars above the refrain like a cosmic descant of determination. That line carried me through dark days and nights and still has the power to dispel my fatigue and discouragement. It’s the line I would leave behind as an anthem of resolute intention, a challenge to live and engage in the face of overwhelming odds and soul-stealing despair. You won’t find it in any hymnal or collection of sacred music, but to me, it was a reflection of something divine, something life giving and spirit affirming and I would leave it behind for others who have faced their own dark nights and difficult roads: In every moment, there’s a reason...