Advent — Day 1

GOD is intelligible light.

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica

Recently, one of my children asked me who my favorite author is.

For someone who likes to read, that should be any easy question, but I puzzled over it. Who do I like to read?

I have a Buechner shelf at home. It flows into a Robert Farrar Capon. Elie Wiesel is on the shelf above, right next to local history. Go figure.

C.S. Lewis didn’t get his own section. He is scattered. So is Wendell Berry.

I have hundreds of children’s books. They aren’t arranged by author. They are on the shelf partly based on size of the book and partly on where I saw a place where I could wedge it in.

If I go to the used bookstore — one of my favorite places in the whole world — what  am I looking for? Generally, not Buechner, Capon, Wiesel, Lewis, or Berry.

I go to the religious section. There I look for old worn books. Small ones, that I can put in my bag or on my bedside table.

The biggest selling point for a book, though, isn’t the author. It’s when it falls open to certain pages and has sections underlined or things written in the margins. Dog-eared pages are a plus, especially when it looks like that dog-eared page has been revisited time after time after time.

I found just such a book on a recent trip: The New Christian Year, chosen by Charles Williams, 1941, Oxford University Press.

Based on the strong recommendation of Mr. Kenneth White — who received the book in the summer of 1941, and who used it for years, the latest dates scrawled on a flyleaf being 3/25/56; who underlined and asterisked sections; who wrote page numbers in long lists inside the front cover and the back cover, with key words beside the numbers; who broke the binding — I purchased the book and could barely wait for the Christian Year to begin.

It began today — the first Sunday of Advent.

Every day contains usually two or three short passages from a variety of great Christian thinkers. However, the reading for the first day was six quotes. Quotes from Aquinas, Kierkegaard, St. Ignatius, Thomas a Kempis, Pascal, and Leonardo da Vinci.

I got stuck on Thomas Aquinas.  “God is intelligible light.”

I looked up the word “intelligible” — and settled on this definition: “able to be understood only by the intellect and not by the senses.”

Still I struggled.

So I read the quote in context, in Summa Theologica. The magic of the internet offers such luxuries.

Aquinas was answering the question, “How is God known by us?” and in this particular quote, he is specifically addressing “whether the created intellect needs any created light in order to see the essence of God.”

It was then that I realized that I could spend all of Advent on this one quote, or this one work,  but that would defeat the purpose of my little book and Mr. White’s underlinings.

From this quote and my mini-investigation into it, I can easily state, though, that the more I understand about God, the less I understand about God and the more I want to study Him.

And isn’t that the point of Advent — preparing for Him. Inching closer to the manger like a lowly shepherd. Trying to understand this thing which cannot be understood.

Day One of Advent.

I’m excited for what is to come.

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Block Party

I was a little embarrassed to have been caught. At the auto mechanics, in the customer waiting area, inches from the television, staring at CMT.

“You can turn it up if you need to,” said the young mechanic as he walked through.

“Umm… no… that’s okay. I was just trying to see if someone I knew was in the video,” I stammered.

He looked at me with a yeah-right smile, shrugged, and went his way. I decided to look up the video on YouTube when I got home.

Now, Alison Krauss has a beautiful voice, and I love the song she was singing, but, yesterday, at the car shop, I didn’t really care about Alison Krauss. I wanted to see if Ron Block was in the video.

Ok, so I’m a little late to the Block party. Before I went to my first Hutchmoot, I had no clue who Ron Block was. Now that I’ve heard him speak, and sing, and play, well, I would put myself in the fan category. He’s part of Union Station, and a singer-songwriter in his own right. In fact, his CD “Walking Song” was my favorite CD of 2013.

I really wanted to see if he was in this video so I pulled it up on YouTube and watched it, stopping it multiple times, asking Laurel (because she was in the room), “Do you think that’s him?”

I never was quite sure. It’s 20 years later, he’s not wearing a hat, and I have trouble recognizing faces anyway.

My mind is showing its age.

I’ve hit a major roadblock in memorizing, too. For whatever reason, I just don’t seem to be able to cram any more verses in.

So I picked up a little art journal the other day and decided to attempt a new tactic. I started drawing pictures to go with the verses.  Trust me, I am no artist.

But I figured that no one is going to see them.

Except me.

And now you.

Because I’m going to be brave and show you the picture I drew yesterday morning, hours before my is-Ron-Block-in-the-video moment.DSC01239The drawing, I know, is faint. I have no boldness when it comes to sketching.

My writing is messy, so I’ll decipher it. “What distinguished him? Nothing that was visible to the human eye. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. It was all something beyond our grasp, beyond our eyes, beyond our perception. What else am I missing?…”

I look for God all the time. And yet, I know that I miss Him in so many ways.

It hit me that the reason I couldn’t pick Ron Block out of the music video is that I don’t know him well enough.

You see where I’m going with this.

The reason I may miss out on God’s presence in my day-to-day is that I may not know Him well enough.

You’re probably wondering what the song was.  Alison Krauss – “When You Say Nothing At All” – it’s a beautiful song. And the words of the first verse fit right in here:

It’s amazing how you can speak right to my heart
Without saying a word you can light up the dark
Try as I may I could never explain
What I hear when you don’t say a thing

Picture singing that to God.

Lord, let me be more perceptive of all the ways You are present and speaking today.

The Bully

In Clyde there always hummed the deep machinery of violence. His pale, lashless, empty eyes, his emotionless mouth — they were a lie. His easy, liquid stride and the subduing murmur of his voice were all a lie. Clyde was blonde and lean and three years older than I. And evil. The boy could kill.

Miz Lil and the Chronicles of Grace by Walter Wangerin

I had pushed the memory aside, a habit I have with unpleasant memories. I choose not to think about them.

When I dropped my daughter off at camp one summer, though, it flooded back. Try as I might, to stuff it back under the rock where I had hidden it, it was there, leering at me, taunting me, stripping me down to nothing. Again.

SCN_0406I think I was eight years old when it happened. I went to Girl Scout camp, all by myself. I had begged my mother for the opportunity. Probably someone had come to my Brownie troop and given a presentation. Oh, those presentations can make camp seem so appealing! Girl Scout camp – swimming and hiking and singing around the campfire. It sounded so fun.

“But you won’t know anybody there,” my mother had said. I went anyway.

Our tent was of heavy green canvas, set on a wooden platform. The doors rolled back like jellyrolls and were neatly tied. The other girl inside were unrolling their sleeping bags onto cots. As the last to arrive, I got the leftover cot near the back of the tent.

tent-romanyThe counselor had us all sit on our cots and say our name, our age, and where we were from. I was the youngest by two years and from a different town. They all knew each other. It didn’t faze me. Oblivious to all but the fun ahead, I never saw the danger.

About the third day of camp, I went to change after swimming. The counselor wasn’t in the tent, but most of the other girls were. As if on cue, one of them stood guard at the door while the rest circled around my cot. They took my clothes, all of them, and threw them out of the tent.

One girl called the shots. “Hold her down,” she said. “Tickle her.” They obeyed her commands. “Keep tickling her.” They held me on the cot and tickled me until I wet myself and cried.

As quickly as it started, it ended. They left me alone in the tent, shivering, wet, crying. I grabbed my towel, a wet dirty heap on the floor, wrapped it around myself, and ran outside to get my clothes. No one was around. I spent the rest of the day with my counselor, probably annoying her with my puppy-dog closeness, but never whispering a word of what had happened.

It happened a second time before I wised up to the fact that I should not go in the tent alone or when the counselor wasn’t there.

Something is twisted inside the heart of a bully. The funny thing was that I grew to fear not the bully, but the pack.

As a psychology major in college, I learned that experiments have shown that what people do as part of a group is different from what they do as individuals. They give it names and labels — mob mentality, herd mentality, pack mentality — but it all amounts to the same thing. We don’t always think for ourselves.

What I learned from my bully experience is that we walk a fine line of independence and interdependence.

It’s important to think independently. I don’t think every girl in the pack of girls that tickled me was twisted. One came up with the mean idea; the rest followed. I will think for myself, thank you very much, and not be sucked into some perverse idea of fun.

A lone wolf, though, is a prime target for the bully. It’s important to know who the safe people are and to trust ourselves to them. There is strength in numbers, but those numbers don’t have to be a pack.

In Miz Lil and the Chronicles of Grace, Walter Wangerin places himself, over and over, in the role of the villain. In the story of Clyde, Clyde is clearly the villain, and yet Walt still blames himself for giving information to Clyde that allowed him to bully another weaker individual.

His mother, knowing that something was wrong, tried to get him to talk about it.

“Did he hurt you, Wally?”

This was my mother beside me on the street. I accepted her coming without surprise. I stood up and buried my face in her stomach and continued to cry.

She held me. “Did Clyde hurt you?” she said.

I shook my head, but I couldn’t answer her. I just hung on.

“Wally? Wally?” she said, stroking my hair. These tears of mine were endless, bottomless. “Wally? Why are you crying?… How can I help you if I don’t know why you’re crying?”

Because I am the one who told the other kids about her in the first place. …

Walter never told his mother about the bully any more than I told my mother about my experience. He blamed himself too much.

For me, some things just stay inside.

Although hidden, they shape us.

With God’s grace, they don’t twist us, but they mold us into wiser and more compassionate people.

Turkey Bone Soup

The best part of Thanksgiving Dinner came about a week later.  The Soup.

My mother made the best soups.  The soup made from the Thanksgiving turkey carcass was the unrivaled.

My mother was of a generation where very little was wasted.  Rotten bananas became banana bread.  Stale bread became bread crumbs. Old apples became applesauce.  Bones became soup.

I did not grow up poor.  My father was a professional with a good job and healthy income.  This stewardship of our food resources was something my mother learned from her mother, who in turn probably learned it from her mother.  My mother’s mother was the youngest child in a large family, and the only child born in America.  Her father and mother, straight off the boat from Denmark, worked as tailor and laundress.  They scrimped and saved so that their children would have a better opportunity.  I’m sure they didn’t waste food.

Today, I threw some apple peels in the garbage.  Too lazy to walk down to our compost heap, it was simpler to just throw them away.  I am such an American.

All this is to say that I’m struggling to get past the first few pages of Chapter 3 in Robert Capon’s The Supper of the Lamb.  There he explains the difference between ferial and festal cooking.

To the extraordinary or festal cuisine are relegated all roasts, joints, chops and steaks, and, in general, any meats that are cooked in large pieces and carved at the table.  To the ferial cuisine belong all the rest — the dishes which take a little, cut it up small, and make it go a long way.

The reason for the distinction is obvious: economy…

It leaves me pondering why, having been raised primarily on ferial foods, I feed my own family in a festal way.

He starts the chapter with a statement that answers my own question.

Lamb for Eight Persons Four Times is not simply a recipe.  It is a way of life.

It is a way of life which I have abandoned, primarily because of laziness.  With a large family, it is easier to put a ham on the table, than to chop up everything needed for even the simplest stir-fry.  I rationalize that I can get a second meal out of the ham (how ferial of me!).  I think if I studied Capon, I could get four meals out of that ham.  It would just take some work and economy.

Am I feeling convicted? You betcha!

When I think about my mother’s turkey bone soup, ferial dining at its finest, I remember how wonderful it tasted.  I need to put that memory on a post-it note and stick it to my refrigerator.

It’s worth the work, so worth the work.

An Act of Love

My friend suffered an unspeakable loss last week.  Her son shot and killed her husband, his father.

Just writing these words, I feel like I’ve been punched in the gut. My heart aches so terribly for her.

Today friends are going to her home to clean.  The police have completed their investigation. Now there is blood to be scrubbed from the floorboards and bullet holes to be patched in the walls.

I wish I could help.

It is such a helpless feeling, to sit in my kitchen miles away, knowing there is work to be done.

I hate to wash my own floors, but I would wash hers for her, as an act of love.

Sometimes the hardest place to be is watching from afar, powerless to effect any change.  Imagine the Marys watching Jesus being crucified on the cross. How hopeless and helpless they must have felt!

And yet, I am not hopeless.

It is that great Hope that carries me forward.  I know what the Marys did not at that moment; Jesus lives.

Bill Gaither sang, “Because He lives, I can face tomorrow..”.

And so can my friend.

She can face today, and tomorrow, and all the tomorrows that come, one after the other.

She has friends who will wash away the blood, and she has Blood washes over her in an Act of Love.

From a distance, I can pray. And pray and pray and pray. Because I am not hopeless or helpless. It is my act of love.

Raising Cane

My father was scolded the other day for raising cane.

Betcha thought I spelled that wrong, but I didn’t.  I know the difference between “raising cane” and “raising Cain.”

Honestly, I can’t picture my father raising Cain.  From The Free Dictionary, to “raise Cain” means:

to make a lot of trouble; to raise hell. (a Biblical reference, from Genesis 4.)

I have a hard time imagining that my father ever raised Cain.  He’s about as stand-up a guy as you can find.  From The Urban Dictionary, “stand-up guy” means:

Mafia term: A good solid man business man. not one to bullsh**, can be trusted. Will do anything needed for his family.

No, my father didn’t raise Cain because he’s a stand-up guy.

He did, however, raise his cane and was duly scolded for it.  Here’s what happened.

My father and I went to an art gallery last week.  When we first walked in, I felt like I was entering with a rock star.  The security guard on duty made such a fuss over my father, was so sincerely happy to see him there, went so out of his way to treat him with dignity and respect, that it warmed my heart.  He had been my father’s barber at one point and just loved my dad.  He came over to me while I was looking at the paintings and whispered, “I didn’t want to say this in front of your dad, but he was always one of my favorites.”  He didn’t have to say it;  his actions showed it.

A little later, as we made our way through the gallery, my father and I were discussing one of the paintings.  He raised his cane maybe six inches off the floor, gesturing towards another painting we had seen.  There had been a literal changing of the guard while we walked the gallery.  Seconds after he raised his cane in that benign gesture, a baby-faced guard was there to scold.

“Sir,” he said sternly. “I need you to keep your cane on the ground at all times.  Please do not wave it around the gallery. You could damage a painting.”

I looked at him, dumbfounded. Are you kidding me? I thought.

My father, ever the stand-up guy,  apologized and promised not to do it again.

However, I was tempted to raise Cain over the whole thing.

Labor Day in Greene, NY

One of the most delightful surprises about moving to Greene, NY, was the way they celebrate Labor Day.

I grew up in a town that celebrated baseball.  It made gods of the men who excelled at that game.

In Greene, however, there is no day set aside to honor men with bats and balls.  The town celebration occurs on Labor Day, a day to honor all working men and women.

labor dayThe day begins with hose fights.  What’s a hose fight, you ask?  I had no idea, either, until we moved here.  It’s a ball suspended on a cable down one block length of the main street.  Two teams stand at opposite ends of the cable armed with a fire hose and try to send the ball down its length.  It’s wet.  It’s loud (all the cheering).  It’s a tradition.

While this is going on, a 5K race is being run, or walked.

A parade follows.  For small town parades, it pretty darn good.  Lots of old cars, and horses, and firetrucks, and the local marching band.  It has everything from microd racers to boy scouts.

Then, there’s the picnic.  The area churches work together to sell barbecued chicken.  The money goes towards college scholarships for local students.

And they have a midway — but the games are run by groups from the school and community.  The National Honor Society runs balloon darts and the boys’ soccer team sells sno-cones.  You get the idea.  The money, again, goes to local projects — the summer playground program and the like.

Quite honestly, I have never seen a community work together like this.  Every single year.  For almost a hundred years.  Literally.

In Cooperstown, I saw the same all-hands-on-deck mentality that was necessary to pull off Hall of Fame weekend.  In Cooperstown, the money went into individual pockets.  In Greene, it’s all about community.

At the end of the day is a fireworks displays that rivals many larger town’s 4th of July effort.  It’s wonderful.  After working hard and playing hard all day, they sit on the grass or on their blankets and watch together, families and friends, neighbors and co-workers, enjoying and celebrating together.

I don’t think I knew how Labor Day was meant to be celebrated until I moved here.  Now, I feel blessed to be a part of it.

If you’re in upstate New York on Labor Day, stop on in.  You won’t regret it.

Spider Web, or, Lessons from a Cat

I stood staring at the thin barely-visible filament of a spider’s web.  It stretched 15-20 feet, from the railing of our deck to a high branch on a tree.

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Spider strand — can you see it?

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Spider strand stretching to the tree top

I looked at it for a long time, thinking that there must be a metaphor here somewhere.  Like the “Footprints in the Sand” poem, which illustrates how God’s presence is not always visible in our lives, I thought about that tenuous filament and how it was only visible where the morning dew had settled on it.

It was delicate, yet strong.  It had an almost ethereal beauty.

“Lord,” I asked, “what is the lesson of the spider web?”

Almost on cue, our cat, Trinity, jumped up onto the railing.  She began walking, as only a cat can walk, perfectly balanced on the rail. Suddenly she stopped at swatted at something.

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Trinity — she’s not falling; she’s swatting.

A little further on, she made herself comfortable and looked at me rather smugly.

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Trinity

She had swatted my spider filament away.

I laughed out loud.

“Okay, Lord,” I said. “I think I get it.”

God doesn’t want us to put our faith in the beautiful but tenuous.  It may seem cool or artsy to find Him there, but He’s so much more than a spider strand coated with dew.

God is a rock, a fortress, an ever-present help in time of need.  There’s nothing spider-webby about Him.

I’m thankful today for my cat that God uses to teach me lessons.

Color My World

I am no movie aficianado.  I do, however, recognize genius when I see it.  The 1939 film version of The Wizard of Oz had genius elements, most notably being the use of Technicolor.  To hear Dorothy singing about a rainbow in a sepia-toned world probably didn’t seem out of place to the first audience.  Can you imagine, though, the oohs and aahs when she emerged from her home into a Technicolor Land of Oz?  Genius.  The Land of Oz was so different than the Kansas in which Dorothy lived, and the film captured that in an amazing way.

Thoughts of Oz flooded through my mind when, yesterday, Helen made this comment.  “Don’t you think it’s pretty amazing that the past was in color, not just black and white?”

Quite honestly, I laughed at first when she said it.  It sounded kind of crazy.  Of course the world has always been in color.

She was looking at a picture in her college magazine, a black and white photo of the college town where she had lived for the past three years.   She knew the town was not a black and white town because she lived there.  But 100 years ago?  Was it in color?

SCN_0008I look at my parents’ wedding album.  It’s all black and white.  This picture of my mother and her father, standing on the porch before leaving for the church, yes, it is black and white.  But the day of the wedding, the scene was as Technicolor as Oz.  The viewer must, with imagination, fill in the shades of green on arbors.  My mother has talked about the wisteria around her home.  Is this the wisteria?  Did the color consist of shades of lavender mixed in with the green?  I don’t even know what color her house was and the photograph gives me no clues.

Several months ago Owen shared with me a Radiolab show about color.  It was about how, when people didn’t have a word for a certain color, it also meant that they couldn’t see that color.  Or could they?  According to William Gladstone, an authority on Homer, Homer never colors the sky blue in the Odyssey or the Iliad, but rather green.  Historically, has the color of the sky changed?  Or, as I like to believe when I look out my window, is the beautiful blue sky over Chenango County the same blue sky that the early settlers in this area also saw? 

At first I laughed at Helen’s question, because it sounded absurd.  Yet there is a depth to it that I’m still trying to get my mind around.

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it still make a sound?

If the world is full of vibrant color and nobody captures proof-positive that all those colors are there, were they?

Can something exist without being perceived? 

Was something real if it was never documented?

Sometimes I get so caught up in the realities of the daily grind that I forget to think deep thoughts such as these.  Or I laugh when I hear them.

The “aah!” and awe of Oz is not something to be taken for granted.  I’m so thankful for children who awaken my senses to the Technicolor around me.

Parking Thoughts

Simplistic hokey advice for a friend struggling with discouragement.

junky carPicture yourself driving down the street in a beat-up junky car.

Emblazoned on the side is a word like “Discouragement” or “Anxiety” or “Failure” or “Ugly” or whatever it is you are struggling with.

Park that car.  It doesn’t matter where you are.  Just pull over to the side and put it into park.

Get out of that car.  Don’t forget to slam the door behind you.

winnerWalk to a different car.  Look for one that’s labeled “Hope” or “Peace” or “Success” or “Beauty.”  It’s right there, waiting to be driven.  The keys are in it.

Get in that car and drive away.  Don’t even bother to look back at the junker that you’ve left behind.

Remind yourself often of the car you are now driving.  Don’t be afraid to enjoy the luxury of the leather seats.  Hit the gas every once in a while so you can really feel the power of the machine.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. (Phil. 4:8)