Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Wheels on the Bus (Train) Go Round and Round

tonight we leave on a little trip.  i'm excited and apprehensive at the same time.  excited because we're taking the first leg of our trip on the train (i love to travel by train, and it's been a long time since we've taken a train ride), we're visiting one of my favorite cities (chicago), we'll see lots of amazing architecture (first an architectural tour on the chicago river, then some frank lloyd wright creations in wisconsin that i've never seen in person), we'll get to see some new countryside (we've never spent time in wisconsin, only passed through it), we get to hear one of my former students perform as soloist with his university orchestra, and finally i get lots of leisure time with my wife.  apprehensive because we have to negotiate the "el" in chicago (despite my careful research, i fear we'll take the wrong line and lose lots of time), we have a tight schedule while in chicago so everything has to work together or we'll miss out on getting to our tour on time or picking up our rental car before the office closes.

even as i write about my apprehensions, i realize that they're imaginary worries.  if something goes wrong, it's not really wrong.  the day is a gift and things that are "wrong" usually lead to something that's "right," just not what is planned.  so my "apprehensions" are really opportunities for adventure--maybe hopping on the wrong el train will show us something we haven't seen before, maybe missing our rental car deadline will lead to extra time in chicago.  none of the "bad" things that could happen are disastrous, so now i'm excited and looking forward to an adventure!

i read the story of the miraculous feeding of the five thousand in all four gospels this morning.  two things struck me: first, Jesus and the disciples had gone to someplace remote for a quiet time together, but, when thousands of people showed up, Jesus welcomed them.  second, Jesus taught us that out of our need, God provides abundance.  knowing how to make the most of what we have is a great thing to learn.  we need to be content with our five loaves and two fish, rather than grasping for a banquet that won't satisfy us.

may each of our lives be abundant, may we be content with what we have and embrace the gifts of the present, and may we each have adventures to look forward to.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Each Loving Life a Psalm of Gratitude

in my morning quiet time yesterday, i tried to recall all those who had been forces for good in my life and offer a prayer of thanksgiving for them.  of course, my long list wasn't a complete one, and i'll return to it to make additions from time to time.  i spent some time focusing on my maternal grandmother, a person with whom i spent as much time as i could because she brought such joy to my life.  as i pictured her in my mind, the first thing i saw was her hand holding a jadite coffee mug.  she always had that mug in her hand, and she sipped coffee from it from the time she began her day until she washed it at the end of the day.  i have her and her mother, my great-grandmother, to thank for my lifelong love of coffee.

there is so much more that i thank her for, though.  she and my grandfather had a small neighborhood grocery, and i learned many life lessons from watching her interact with their customers.  my grandfather was always in the butcher area of the store, but my grandmother's post was behind the cash register near the entry door.  to her right was the candy counter with large containers of cookies an arm's length away from her.  directly in front of her was an open counter that served as her desk for writing charge tickets, and behind her was the cigarette rack and the large ticket file for keeping up with the customer accounts.  from her spot on her work stool, she greeted every customer who came in.  it didn't matter who the customer was, all were treated with kindness and respect.  the children who came in to by three cents worth of the two-for-a penny cookies were treated in the same way as the affluent customer who came by for a week's worth of groceries.  The neighborhood drunk that wanted to charge enough luncheon meat for a sandwich was given the same courtesy as the owner of the dry-cleaning business down the street.

working in my grandparents store was a joyful lesson in life for me, and my grandmother always made me feel that my bumbling efforts as a little boy made her life so much easier, though i'm sure my "help" had just the opposite outcome.  she never once spoke unkind words to me, and my mistakes were always treated as a chance for her to teach me gently and lovingly.  i never felt that i was in her way or that her life would be easier if she didn't have to explain the complexities of figuring sales tax to me.

what did i learn from my grandmother?  first, every person is a gift from God that deserves our kindness, love, and respect.  second, children are great blessings and time spent helping a child is never wasted time.  third, when someone comes to you in need, you help them, even when it means opening the store for an emergency on Sunday morning, or extending credit to someone that will probably never pay you back.  fourth, coffee is one of God's greatest blessings to us.  i'll stop there, though the list could go on and on.

my prayer is that each of our lives are filled with people like my grandmother, people whose simple acts of kindness continue to influence our lives for good long after they've departed this life, and that we pay their gifts to us forward in our own lives.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Each Smile a Hymn, Each Kindly Deed a Prayer

it's been a week since i've taken time to write a post for this blog.  during that week, my life has been incredibly busy completing some projects around the house, running errands, entertaining visiting friends and relatives, and generally enjoying life.  as i sit this Lord's Day, i hear birds chirping outside, my visiting brother-in-law turning the pages of the morning paper, and the boiling water in the tea kettle as it heats up for my first cup of coffee for the day.  life is calm, peaceful, and filled with quiet joy, and i look forward to worship with friends and a drive up to the mountains north of where we live with our visiting relatives before they leave tomorrow morning to head further north into the mountains for a short vacation.

i have been reading the prayer of eusebius of caesarea and the Whittier poem, o, brother man, each morning as part of my morning quiet time.  both of these have become favorites of mine and speak to the person i pray to become during my journey.  i commend them to you as my testimony about what i believe God calls each follower of Jesus to move toward.  may your sunday be filled with peace and joy and may you sense the presence of God in you and around you this day.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Appearance and Reality

the other day, as i left on my bike ride, i made it my intention to be mindful of the trees in the park as i rode past them.  the first thing i noticed were the pine trees.  i thought about how beautiful these native pines in the park are and how many of these beautiful trees we've lost from our forests.  over the past hundred years, many of the forests in our part of the country have been clear cut to make way for the planting of a variety of fast-growing pine that is well suited for pulpwood to be used in making paper.  this process has accelerated in the past twenty-five years.  when the diverse forests of native pine, cedars, and hardwoods are cut, a tangled mess is left that is then burned so that these agricultural pines can be planted.  the trees that were removed are not harvested to be put to any good use, and i grieve that so much beautiful and useful wood is lost and that the beauty of the natural forest is sacrificed so that we can have more cardboard for packaging and more facial and toilet tissue.  for this reason, the magnificent pines in our park are especially valuable to me.

they have large trunks, and their needles are long and a deep green.  the bark had an intriguing rough texture.  they are all the more lovely because they are scattered among large oaks, and in the winter, the contrast between the dark green of the pine needs and the bare branches of the oaks is striking. as i rode through the western side of the park, an oak tree in the middle of the park caught my eye.  It appeared that this tree was leaning precariously toward the south, and i made it a point as i rode through the center of the park to look for it.  to my surprise, i couldn't find it.  as i rode on through the eastern side of the park, i looked back to the west, and there the tree was.  when i made my second circuit through the west side of the park, i spotted the tree again, making a mental note of its location near a small service building.  this enabled me to find the tree on my second ride through the center of the park.  what had appeared to be a large tree leaning to the south was instead the large branch of a still larger oak tree.  the south-leaning branch was so huge that, from a distance with the base of the tree obscured, it seemed to be a tree on its own.

this discovery led me to think of how often our perceptions are skewed.  because we can't so the entire picture, reality is often quite different from appearance.  Sometimes, what is real is dependent on our perspective, and we make judgments based on incomplete information.  perhaps, we would be wiser simply to observe without judging and wait until we have more complete knowledge.

my prayer for myself and for you this day is that we live in the moment, mindful that reality is not always what we perceive it to be, and that the transitory nature of life colors our judgment about the reality we believe we are experiencing.

Friday, March 18, 2011


today i want to write about joy.  as i sat in my den earlier, watching the change in the light outside as it moved from the eerie "almost night, not yet day" of dawn to the gentle light of early morning, i thought and prayed about the great joy i experience each day, how it is completely undeserved.  sure, i've worked hard all my life, i've set aside money for my retirement so i wouldn't have to worry about the essentials of life, i've tried to live a good life, i continue to work at being a caring person.  But there are many others that have worked harder and, despite their hard work been unable to save much, that have lived a better life, that are more caring than i, and many of those have not had my good fortune.  why should this be so?  the inequities of life are troublesome, and i pray daily to understand the lesson of Job.

that being said, every day seems to be such a perfect day.  i go to bed at night thinking of all that good that has come my way during the day and invariably fall asleep before i complete my thanksgiving for the day.  i wake up each morning full of eagerness to experience the day, to see what it may bring, secure in the knowledge that, no matter what comes, the new day will be a day filled with joy.

it seems that the more i let go of the need to control, the more joyful i become.  i read a devotional last night by a respected christian leader who spoke of how God sends suffering in order to help us.  i thought, "what rubbish!"  there is always an opportunity to learn and grow from suffering, but God doesn't send the suffering; God helps us when it comes, but God is not the source--life is.  what i've come to believe more and more is that when we just let go of our controlling impulses and take life as it comes, joy is abundant.  if one has no expectation except that the day will be filled with joy, then the day is filled with joy.  petty irritations and frustrations are just that: petty and transitory.  great disappointments and tragedies are also transitory, and even in those life-changing events there is also joy to be found, though that joy may not be discovered as quickly.

my prayer today is that each of our lives is filled with joy and that we are able to share our joy with others who may need to see joy where they didn't believe it existed.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Loving-kindness, Compassion, Generosity

lent has begun, and i am focusing on two disciplines.  first, as i wrote in an earlier post, i'm working on controlling my tongue, and necessarily trying to change the way i think about others.  as i've thought and prayed about how to do that, a second discipline has developed as a way of accomplishing the first.  each time i begin to think a critical thought about another person, i silently say these three words to myself: "loving-kindness, compassion, generosity."  it has amazed me that this little mantra has helped so much in redirecting my thoughts from criticism to tolerance and a desire to help that person i was inclined to criticize.

another thing i'm doing during lent is ignoring much of the news that normally occupies my attention.  when i pick up the morning paper, i read the comics first, then i skim everything else.  i gave up watching news on television several months ago and find that i'm better off for it.  in the US, politics seems to be dominated by anger.  every elected official seems to believe that his or her point-of-view is the only right one, and the spirit of compromise and tolerance that used to enable our government to get things done is largely absent.  i'm simply tired of the anger.  the idea that "i'm right, therefore you must be wrong" paralyzes our government and is creating so much ill will.  more and more, i'm convinced that truth usually lies somewhere in the middle between two opposing viewpoints, and intolerance of another's position keeps our leaders from discovering that truth-in-the-middle.

righteous indignation over wrong is certainly not a bad thing, but if righteous indignation leads to inaction, there's little point to it.  so, here are my three goals for lent: (1) controlling my mind & tongue to be less critical of others, (2) replacing criticism with loving-kindness, compassion, & generosity, and (3) replacing anger over our national discourse with thoughts of how to find common ground.

my prayer for each of us this day is that we will learn to be more tolerant of others, respecting them even when we disagree, and seeking common ground that enables us to take action for the good of others.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Consummate Evil

this morning, as i thought about God and God's relationship to us, i tried to come up with images of the two most evil people i could think of.  immediately, hitler and stalin popped into my head.  what was it about them that conjured up evil for me?  was it their lust for power?  was it their indifference to the suffering of their compatriots?  for me, their greatest evil and the cause of all the evil things they set in motion was their conviction that what they did was for the greater good.  from my limited knowledge of the lives of these two men, it seems that they believed that, by ending the lives of millions that they were convinced impeded the progress of their own vision of a better world, they were moving those who remained forward toward that vision.  this is not to suggest that each man shared the same vision, but rather that each one was convinced that his own vision was the correct one.  so much evil is done in the name of "the greater good."

the question i put to myself was, "why would a good and loving God allow such consummate evil to exist, causing so much suffering?"  in thinking about some reasonable answer, i considered my own relationship to my two adult children.  when they make decisions and take actions that i know will lead to an unsatisfactory result, my impulse is to intervene, to tell them how wrong i believe the course one of them is following is.  sometimes, i do exactly that, but more often, i bite my lip and stand ready to help them when they call on me.  if one of them asks for advice, i give it, but generally i try to keep unsolicited advice to myself.

is that what God does on a much larger scale?  does God allow us to fumble along, refraining from intervening in most instances?  does God patiently wait on us to right the wrongs we see being perpetrated against the powerless?  does God keep silence unless we call for help and guidance?  is God's seeming inaction the only way we can be free to learn and grow?

my prayer today is that each of us seeks to understand the existence of suffering and evil and that our thoughts lead us to truth that enables us to serve our fellow creatures without seeking to impose our own vision on their lives.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

God and the Question of Evil

the nature of God and how God relates to us is something about which i spend much time thinking.  in the past, i believed that God had a detailed plan for each of our lives, that we were placed on this earth to fulfill a specific purpose, a decidedly calvinist point-of-view.  along these lines, i believed that each of us had the responsibility to seek God's plan for our lives and, once that plan was discerned, we were to follow it.  this would mean that God is directly and intimately involved in every act of every person, constantly trying to pull us into line.  that would mean, too, that the God who is so involved in directing every person's life stands idly by in the face of great evil, permitting terrible cruelty to be visited on the very people God seeks to direct.

of late, i'm not at all convinced that this is the nature of God.  more and more, i am inclined to believe, or at least to explore, the idea that God is ever-present, always ready to help and comfort us when we permit God to do so, but that God's will is simply that we seek to treat others as we want to be treated, that we try to live as beings created in God's image.  beyond that, i believe God gives us the freedom to make our own choices, whether they be good or bad.  the problem of evil and suffering is one that we create for ourselves.  God is involved only to the extent that God gives us the freedom to live our lives practicing good or evil.  all of us do some of both, but there are a few who do much good and little evil, while a few do much evil and little good.

the great question of the existence of evil and the suffering it produces is one with which we all struggle, and my superficial and all-to-brief writing about it only begins to scratch the surface of the question.  i continue my struggle, and my prayer for each of us is, that no matter what our religious or philosophical perspective, we seek to do good for our fellow creatures and to avoid harm to those with whom we share this planet.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Architecture and Art of Living

architecture is an art that interests me a great deal.  i am convinced that our experiences with the buildings in which we live, work, and worship are among our most important life experiences, that these buildings influence how we live and who we become.  in this blog, i've written about two churches in which i worship with some regularity and how those structures affect how i worship.  i have mentioned the home in which my wife and i live in this blog, but today i want to devote the entire post to our home and our experience of living in it.

when we first moved to this town, we drove past our home as we were searching for a house and thought it quite ugly.  it had been vacant for over a year, and the yard had fallen into a sorry state.  as we described the sort of house for which we were looking to our realtor, he said that he knew of the perfect house for us.  he brought us to this "ugly" house that we had rejected when we first saw it from the outside.  as we walked through the front door and on into the house, we were speechless.  everything we had described to the realtor was there.  It had the perfect floor plant, beautiful wood moldings, abundant windows, the right size overall, rooms that were perfectly proportioned.  But there was more--cedar-lined closets, a huge mechanical room that housed the washer and dryer, the central heating/cooling unit, and a large pantry with space for a freezer.  What was unusual was that the mechanical room was right in the center of the house, not at the very end of the house opening off the kitchen.

one of the first things that struck us was the gorgeous oak doors, mostly pocket doors, and many with a cactus carved into the center of the upper panel.  The doors were quite unexpected.  They, like all the moldings except those in the bathrooms, were finished so that the beautiful grain of the wood showed through the clear finish.  The upper and lower panels of the doors give the appearance of being finished by hand rather than machine.  They are distressed and a coat of white wash had been applied and then wiped away, so that only a little remains in the grooves in the wood.

the house had been constructed in the mid-50s.  it was designed by an architecture firm that built a number of homes in our town.  when one drives around, their work is apparent, because their homes are quite distinctive.  they have low-pitched roofs, wide overhangs, careful placement on the lot, and a combination of brick and tongue-and-groove wood on the exterior.

i haven't been inside but a few of them, but none of their interiors of those i've seen show the careful attention to interior finishing that ours does.  that leads me to think that there was a close relationship between the architects, the contractor, and the family for whom the house was built.  there are many craftsman-style influences evident in the home at a time when that style had fallen into disfavor.  the strongest craftsman feature is the abundant use of wood, but the oak that one sees throughout the house, and particularly in the common rooms, is finished in a light finish, rather than with a dark stain as one sees so often in craftsman-style homes.  there are numerous electrical outlets and phone jacks (one small room that may have been designed to be used as either a spare bedroom or an office has three phone jacks), something one doesn't often find in homes from this era.

as we've lived in the house, the thoughtful planning that was put into its design has been revealed to us.  for instance, there is a band of awning-style windows that fills the outside wall of all the rooms on the north and south sides of the house.  these are the long walls of the house.  these windows are placed almost at the ceiling and extend down about four feet.  the effect when seated is that one is in a forest.  because there are many tall trees in our neighborhood, only the canopy of trees is visible from a seated position; the placement of the windows makes the other homes in the neighborhood invisible.  these awning windows pivot out from the top, so they can be open and one never has to be concerned about rain blowing into the house.  the screens are on the inside, so that if the windows need washing, both sides can be washed from outside the house.

the one feature of the house that was disappointing to us when we first moved in was the kitchen.  the architect's original plan had been altered so that the arrangement was awkward and one end of the kitchen was quite dark.  we made some temporary changes in the kitchen that improved the situation, but it was several years before we could afford to completely gut the kitchen and correct the problems in it more permanently.  in the process, we took in a small porch in the back by putting a wall of full-height doors and windows that gave the effect of a wall of glass looking out to the back yard with its beautiful oak tree that is the focal point of the house.  this enabled us to enlarge the kitchen slightly and give it views of the back yard.

later, we called in an architect who, fortuitously, had apprenticed with the firm that designed the house.  he helped us design a new den that extended into the back yard where the wall of glass from the previous kitchen renovation had been, preserving the oak tree as the focal point while giving us more space for living and for the office in which i am working right now.  the new den fits in beautifully with the original house and, thanks to the architect's careful design, appears to have been part of the original plan for the house.

it is difficult for me to stop writing about this house that is our home.  i cannot describe the great feeling of warmth and peace that it conveys.  one senses that the house was created with a great sense of respect between those involved with its creation and that much thought was put into its planning.  in many ways, architecture is the greatest of the arts because we live IN it, rather than experiencing it as something outside ourselves and then internalizing it.  the space in which we live ought to enhance our lives, making us realize the importance of warmth and shelter and enhancing our appreciation of beauty wherever we find it.

my prayer for each of us is that we all have a place of shelter that does more than protecting us from the elements, a place that helps us to become better people.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Zen and the Joy of Biking

yesterday during my bike ride, i divided my time between mindful riding and thinking about the joy my home brings to me.  when i got home, i decided that those two things would be the topics of my next two posts.  later in the day, i spent some time thinking about the nature of God and some of the insights i seem to be finding through my continuing reading, prayer, & meditation.  as i think on that topic, i want to post about what's going through my mind right now about understanding God and how God works in our lives.  here goes my post on riding mindfully.

yesterday was unusually cool for this time of year in our part of the country.  the trees are leafing out, the fruit trees are blooming, and the daffodils are beginning to spring up.  spring is definitely in the air!  most years we don't have four distinct seasons--fall tends to be almost as warm as summer, winters are mild, and spring is warm.  this year has been different in that we've had a winter that really seems like winter with three pretty good snows.

as i rode, there was a cool wind that was just the right intensity: enough to keep me from getting too hot as i rode but not so cool as to require a jacket.  i thought about the perfection of that breeze.  sometimes it was strong enough to make me have to work hard at peddling to climb hills, but most of the time it was just a gentle breeze that made my ride more enjoyable.

because it was a little on the cool side, there were few people in the park.  on the trail there were fewer walkers that usual.  the playground was empty.  the college baseball team was playing on their field, but there were few people in the stands.  there was one other bike rider.  it is rare to see another bike rider in the park, so i guess someone else thought it was a perfect day to ride.  the sparsity of people made the park very quiet.

the only noise was that of the loud music that is usually played during the college baseball games and the sound of a passing train.  the music was not offensively loud  i could only hear it when i was near the baseball field where they were playing.  the train track is just across the road from the park, and when a train passes, the sound carries throughout that side of the park.  the sound of a train is one of the most pleasant sounds i know.  i grew up near a train track and always loved hearing the sound of the passing trains as i lay in my bed at night as a child.

there are my two impressions as i rode yesterday--a gentle cooling breeze and silence interrupted only occasionally by energetic music and the peaceful sound of a train passing.  could there be a more perfect bike ride?

my prayer for each of us today is that we enjoy some activity that takes away from the demands and stresses of our daily lives and transports to a place of peace and joy.

Monday, March 7, 2011

More on Transformation

a great thing happened this past weekend.  i learned that the hard drives in both of my computers and my external hard drive had quit working.  how could that be a great thing?  having my fears that this was the case confirmed by two different computer gurus was not a good thing, but my reaction to the news was.  in the past, i would have gone into a deep funk with "great weeping and gnashing of teeth."  that didn't happen.  i was able to put this calamity in perspective--it's not like a loved one died or i lost all my savings to some swindler.  there are many things worse than failed computers, even though it will take many hours to restore the lost data by re-entering it all.

my reaction to what has happened was a signal to me that something fundamental has changed in my perspective on life.  certainly, part of that is the process of aging.  i see that the end of the life-as-i-know-it is approaching and embracing the coming of death has an effect on what is of primary importance.  more than that, though, i understand that what would have brought great suffering before, i now see as nothing more than one of those unfortunate accidents that is a part of life.  life goes on, and that is the great thing!

this afternoon, i begin the work of starting over with my income tax forms that were lost in my computer disasters, and i'll see what else i have time to restore in my new computer.  at least, i have the resources to replace the hardware that failed, along with the time to address the problems.

my prayer for myself and for you today is that we can accept whatever comes as part of the joy of life, that we can embrace change and look for the good that is often a part of loss.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Be Careful, Little Tongue, What You Say

yesterday one of the pastors of our church (we have a husband-wife pastoral team) posted several ideas for lenten disciplines on his blog.  the one that hit me in the face was one about controlling one's tongue--a big challenge for me.  one of my greatest sins is that of being hyper-critical of others.  it's something i pray about daily, & i find that i'm not as quick to judge as i once was.  i'm a long way from allowing God to remove that sin from my heart, though.

as i read his suggestions, i thought, "this is a great way to avoid being so critical."  can i get through one day, then another and another, without saying one critical thing about another person, without complaining about anything?  can i make it a point to encourage at least one person every day?  can i use my tongue only in a positive way one day at a time?

i had just read Jesus' teaching in the sermon on the mount, in which He said that the we will be judged as we judge others.  i'm in big trouble if God applies the same standard to me that i apply to others.  one of the things i have to think about as lent approaches--it begins one week from today--is why i am so critical of others.  maybe i'll share some of my thoughts on this topic in coming days.

my prayer for myself and for you is that we can control these mischievous tongues of ours, using them in kind ways that build up rather than tear down.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Jesus, Thou Art All Compassion

two words keep running through my mind: "compassion" and "loving-kindness."  this morning i spent a few minutes meditating on "compassion."  what does it mean to have compassion?  it's easy to have compassion for those you love, for your family, your friends.  how does one show compassion for those you don't know so well, for those who are outside your own experience?

every day i pray for "the strangers in our midst."  when i pray this phrase, i am thinking of those who are in our country as immigrants from other country, especially those who are here illegally.  i tried to imagine what life must be like for an "illegal", for someone who at any moment may be torn from a spouse, from a lover, from children, and deported, who is at the mercy of an unscrupulous employer who may cheat an "undocumented" worker, who must live in crowded houses and apartments, who has none of the legal protections that citizens enjoy, who is a scapegoat for the problems with our economic system, who is the object for political point-making by uncaring politicos.  what must it be like to live in such fear all the time, when all one is seeking is a better life for oneself and one's loved ones?

as a practical matter, though, even if i can empathise with someone who is in our country illegally, what can i do to help that person?  i know a few such people and have given them employment and have befriended them in other ways.  i have spoken out in support of, and admiration fo,r them.  i have written letters to politicians regarding bills that would help or harm illegals.  i have posted support for beneficial legislation on my facebook page.  is that enough? 

perhaps, my best course of action is to continue thinking about compassion, imagining what it might be like to walk in the shoes of others, even to imagine what life is like for someone for whom i don't particularly care.  my prayer this morning is that those two words keep running through my mind and that you & i both will learn the meaning of "compassion."