Monday, December 9, 2019

That Christmasy Feeling

My wife, Melanie, and I recently put up our first Christmas tree in our new home.  We always have a real tree that we buy from a tree lot; a tree that has been recently cut in the mountains and transported to Charlotte.  This year we bought a tree that is nine feet tall, the tallest tree we have ever bought.  It would not fit into my CRV so I asked the people at the tree lot to tie it on top of my car.

On the way home from the lot I thought it would be smart to stop and check the tree to make sure it was not loose.  I pulled into a parking lot, opened my car door, got out of the car and shut my door.  As soon as the door shut the rope used to tie the tree snapped.   When I tied the two severed ends together it was too short to fasten to the car.  So I rolled the window of the car down, put the rope into the window, got into the car, rolled the window up, wrapped the rope around my hand and held on while I drove the remaining seven miles home.

We made it home with the tree, although, all the way home,I had visions of the tree flying off the car and onto someone’s hood or through their windshield or hitting someone standing in their yard. Needless to say, the tree had not yet given us that Christmasy feeling.

In the driveway I unwrapped that thin, rotten, sorry (and some other names) rope from the tree and began to slide it off the car towards me.  At this point, I did not know how much that tree weighed.   I realized how much it weighed as it began to roll off the car into my arms.  The sound of it hitting my side mirror and knocking it to the ground filled my ears.  

And there I stood.  Tree on the ground.  Mirror wires dangling from the car.  No visions of sugar plumbs.  No sounds of angels singing.   No Christmasy feeling.  

I put the tree stand on the tree and took it inside.  I stood it up.  It was crooked.  I tightened one side and loosened another side of the stand.  Still crooked.  I loosened it more; tightened it more; loosened it; tightened it.  Finally I loosened one side so that it couldn’t be loosened any more, stood up and pushed the tree in the direction it needed to go.  Tightened it.  Looked at it.  Almost straight.  Good enough.  Walking away, looking at it, I quickly calculated the cost of the tree with the side mirror of the car added into the calculation.  Plus labor.  I did not feel Christmasy.

We added the lights.   One strand wanted to blink, not all the time, just once in a while.  We yanked it off the tree.  We discovered we did not have enough lights for a 9 foot tree.  Melanie ran out to CVS for more lights.  I took a break and listened to Christmas music while she was gone.  She returned.  Traffic was horrible.  Crowds of people were everywhere.  She bought 600 more lights.  We put them on.

And then, standing there in the dark, the tree glowed.  The Trans-Siberian Orchestra began to play the Christmas Canon, and a miracle began to take place in each of us.  “On this night, on this night, on this very Christmas night...” sang the children, as we began to hang the Christmas ornaments; ornaments our children had made; ornaments we had purchased on our travels; ornaments given to us by special friends or family members; ornaments of sleds and mangers and angels.  After we finished we stood staring.  It was beautiful.  This tree.  This first tree in our new home took our breath away.

And the children sang, “This night we pray our lives will show, this dream he had each child still knows, on this night, on this night, on this very Christmas night.

And we felt more than Christmasy.  We felt the miracle of Christmas.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

My Ebenezer

Thirty-two years ago in February 1987, my wife, Melanie, and I moved into a new home.  Well, the house was actually 12 years old, but was new to us.  It offered us more living space, a big yard, a large garage, a deck, and a swimming pool.  Our daughter was four years old and Melanie was five months pregnant with our son, so the move was timely.

We lived in that house until January 31 of 2019.  Our children became adults there.  We raised dogs, guinea pigs, hamsters, turtles, gold fish and probably an assortment of other critters that I cannot remember or don’t want to think about.  I taught my children how to swim there.  In the back yard, I hung a tire swing in the oak tree; I planted a vegetable garden almost every spring; we played kickball, and croquet, and bad mitten.  The back yard was where we had cook outs on the grill and sat on our deck and later on our patio and had dinner.

Inside, our gathering place was the den where we watched our favorite shows on TV or used the computer.  Our son liked to use the stairs to send his hot wheel cars whizzing down a track from the top to the bottom.  And at night I would either carry the kids in my arms upstairs to their beds or shew them up as I ran behind them.

A lot of love happened there.

Seeing the house empty, and walking out and locking the door, never to return, was hard.

As I was leaving, I saw the large stone that had sat in our front flower bed for all the years we lived there.  On impulse, I decided to take it with me.  It weighs about 100 pounds so it was not easy to lift into the trunk, but I was determined that it was going with us.  I unloaded it into the flower bed of our new house, in our new 55+ neighborhood.  It has been sitting there since February 1, 2019.  Seeing it each morning fills me with joy.  Seeing it at night under the porch lights gives me comfort.

Today I read that the word Ebenezer means “stone of help”.  It struck me that the rock that I had carried from our old house to our new house is just that.  Somehow that stone, sitting inanimately, and motionless, speaks to me and moves me from present day to yesterday and back.

So, if you are ever in our neighborhood, stop by.  And on the way in, say hello to Ebenezer.  He sits in the front flower bed.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Paper Products

Years ago, at a church I attended, we used to have a lot of meetings.  Some of the meetings would include a meal or light snacks.  Frequently, the person in charge of the meeting would arrive early only to find that there were not enough cups or plates, or spoons or a combination of all or everything.

This problem affected those meetings and was recognized as a problem but no one seemed to have an answer or care if there ever would be an answer, because they were involved in larger issues, things that were of importance to God.

Things went along this way until an older couple decided to own the problem and to treat the problem as if it were a special ministry from God that they were called to do.  With them this small problem was not a problem but a blessing, because it gave them the opportunity to serve the church in a special way.

They never announced what they were doing, they just went about solving the problem quietly and unseen.  Suddenly, meetings had enough paper supplies; more than enough.  The supply room shelves, which once were empty, were now always full.  At first, no one knew how this was happening.  It was like Christmas morning when you opened the supply room door.  

One afternoon as I was on my way home from work, I stopped in at the Church and went to check to make sure we had enough supplies for an upcoming meeting.  As I entered the building I saw them, working silently, stocking the shelves with supplies that they had purchased.  It was as if I was watching a holy sacrament being performed.

I did not interrupt them.

I knew the answer to my question.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

It’s the Small Things

I recently read an article written by a person who had corresponded with a man in prison serving a life sentence with no chance of parole.  In his last letter, this man realized that he had just a few years to live and that he would never see the outside world again.  The letter went something like this:

“ I deserve to be here.  I have wasted my life.  When I think back on it, its not the big things that I think about, but the small things that I miss the most.”

“I miss the rain.  The feeling of it falling from the sky and down on my head. And the way rain smells as it falls in the trees.

I miss church choirs and church bells.  Sunday mornings.

I miss dragonflies over ponds.  And fish jumping.

I miss fried trout over a campfire.

I miss gardens and farms with fields that stretch as far as you can see.

I miss animals like dogs and hogs.  And birds.

I miss toast with homemade jam.

I miss picking berries on bushes and seeing a cornfield full and ripe with a small breeze blowing.

I miss coffee on the porch when it rains.

I miss people talking to you for no reason; people you can trust with what you say.

I miss waking up and hearing people you love talking in the kitchen.

All these things...that’s what heaven is.  All these things.  And that means that there are no small things, are there?  Nothing is little or insignificant.  Everything is huge and holy and so stuffed with miracles that the miracles leak out and give us hope for this world.  And maybe for ourselves.”

In the end, it is the small things that will save us.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Unofficial Goat Supervisor

I retired today (for the third time).  Everyone asks, "What are you going to do next?"  I have a number of things in mind.  Travel, write, get involved in ministries at church.  But a recent development has presented itself that has me really excited.

Our new neighborhood has hired goats to clear out an area where the trees are not going to be cut down and where someone with a weed eater would have trouble.  The first set of goats that were placed under the trees apparently were not hungry and lay under the shade of the trees most of each day.  The second set of goats were hungry and cleared the area of underbrush in no time at all.

Just when we were thinking that the goats were a good idea, the goats rebelled, led by a small female Spartacus who pulled down the electric fence with her horns and led the goat herd toward Albemarle Road.  Who knows what the plan was once they reached that busy road.  Maybe they were going to catch the bus into downtown Charlotte or ride toward the greener pastures in the town of Albemarle.  Or maybe they just needed a break and were headed to Stooges Pub and Grub down the road about a quarter of a mile.

At any rate, before they managed to get out of the neighborhood, neighbors saw them and ran after them.  Being unfamiliar with the techniques of goat herding, a scene looking a lot like something out of  an episode of the Little Rascals ensued before all the goats were rounded up and put back into their pen.

So, I have now appointed myself as the unofficial goat supervisor of the neighborhood.  This should keep me busy for a while and is a worthy profession.  Each morning I will walk past the goats and make sure they are hard at work and not lounging in the shade or plotting anarchy or pulling the fence down.

A working goat herd is a happy goat herd I always say.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Wedding Homily for Erin and Tony

 If I speak in the tongues[a] of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast,[b] but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 1but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.  For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. 
(1 Corinthians 13)

I wish I could give you some words of wisdom from the homily given at my own wedding 41 years ago.  But I can’t. I can’t remember a word of it. But you will, because this homily is different. Because I am your Father, Erin, and soon to be your father-in-law, Tony and every time I see you from now on I am going to ask you about it.

This is a moment of great beauty and great meaning which transcends the flowers, the dress, the music (sorry Sandy).  What makes this time so special? This moment embraces two qualities that are central to our humanity- love, and hope.

Human beings feel these things as no other creatures on earth.  We are the only ones who have the capacity to truly love one another, to cherish one another and to hope with one another.  Because of this, these two feelings carry the spark of the Divine; they are God’s signature within us.

God has also given us the ability to choose with whom we share our love and our hope.  And this is why this day, this moment, means so much. Because by marrying one another you are saying more than just “I do.”  You are saying I choose you. A wedding is about making a choice to love someone for a lifetime and committing your life to that person; It is about giving and opening your heart without reservation to that one special person. Today, you are saying far more than “I do”.  You are saying “I do” believe in love. I do believe in hope. You are saying “I choose you for a lifetime of both love and hope.” Today you are affirming the mystery of God’s love and hope, and saying that you care for one another and will care for one another no matter what.  You are saying that you believe that your future together will be brighter because you are together.

You are expressing with your presence and your promises here today something that poets have been trying to put into words for centuries.  So, let me try to express it with a story. Erin, when you were three or four years old you used to stand on the living room couch and look out the window of the front of the house, waiting for me to come home. One night I had worked late and I just knew I had missed you and that you were probably in bed. Bus as I drove up the driveway I could see your face in the window, waiting for me. No matter what kind of day I had had, no matter what I had done, your love grounded me, put my priorities in order and gave me hope.  

As a couple, your love is the shelter from the storm; it is a light in the darkness of your day. Today, you are promising to nurture your marriage and protect it from the wind, the rain and the cold. Today, by saying I do, you are promising to be the light for each other, with your love, with your hope and with your choices.

I would like to say something to the friends and relatives who are here today.  Most of us are familiar with the beautiful words of St. Paul we heard a moment ago- his clear and eloquent verses about love.  We hear this scripture often at weddings. But Paul was not talking about marriage. He was writing to the Corinthians about how to live together as a community.  And so, I would like to ask all of you here, this community, to take those words to heart, to make those words a prayer- and then give them back as a gift to this couple.  I ask all of you to strive, very simply, to be the definition of love for this couple; to be patient with them and kind to them. Rejoice with them. Believe with them. Hope with them.  Endure with them.

This is what Paul asks of the Corinthians- and really, it is what Christ asks of us.   If we truly live this way- with this couple and with each other- we will give this bride and groom gifts more valuable than any gift on their registry; gifts that will not tarnish and will not wear out.  The gifts of love and hope.

Erin and Tony, it is my prayer that you will always give hope and love a place in your home and that you will always choose to love one another, and that this love gives you reason to hope that the future is always bright.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Not So Very Long Ago

Recently, I have been going through a lifetime of old photographs belonging to my mom and dad.  Mom and dad have passed away and the photographs are now my responsibility.  I am sorting them out to distribute among my brothers and other family members.

The photographs are in boxes and are in no particular order.  Each box contains dozens of envelopes from various pharmacies that developed the film.  Each envelope contains at least 50 or so pictures.  Each picture contains a memory and I have been living in the memories of my childhood and early adulthood for the past 30 days. 

One envelope, in my mother’s handwriting, was labeled “One Easter, not so very long ago.”

The pictures inside the envelope are of my children and my brother and sister’s children having an Easter egg hunt in my mom dad’s backyard.  And, even though that photograph was taken over 30 years ago, like my mom wrote, it seems like only yesterday.

Both of my children are grown now and living on their own.  But wasn’t it not so very long ago that I held them in my arms and told them stories?  

Wasn’t it not so very long ago that we played games on the floor of the den?  

 Wasn’t it not so very long ago that we laughed as we made up silly songs that they sang in the tub?  

Wasn’t it not so very long ago that I carried them up to bed and tucked them in and kissed them good night?

So much time has passed.  But it seems like no time at all.

How is it that I am old and my children are approaching middle age?

My advise to the young is to cherish every moment.  

My advise to the old is the same.