Sunday, January 25, 2015

Friday, January 2, 2015

Happy New Year!

At least, for those of us denizens of Spartan Nation, it was (my apologies to those of my friends who are sports-disinclined; this will be my last sporting post for a while; I promise).

Against all odds, we won our Cotton Bowl game against the Battling Baptists of Baylor University.  The final score was 42-41, but going into the fourth quarter we were behind 41-21, and we hadn't looked very good getting there.  For that matter, even given the 21-0 differential in our favor for the final quarter, we didn't look all that good, even then.  So many things had to tilt our way, even just to keep us in the game long enough not to lose it.  Baylor had to miss a field goal (off the upright!) early in the quarter, which would have put the game out of reach.  So when we drove the field to pull within 41-28 with 12 minutes remaining, we still had hopes of winning.

We recovered an onside kick, but then a couple plays later, our quarterback threw the most gawd-awful interception I think I've ever seen (this was far beyond the realms of 'what the hell was he thinking?', WAY past 'what the hell was THAT?'; it was just. . . gawd-awful. . .), which was duly returned 85 yards for the clinching touchdown against us.  But wait, the referee is speaking on-camera - "illegal block in the back".  So, no touchdown against us, just yet; we're still only down 13.  Still and all, we failed to score, we lost the ball, and Baylor's offense, which we never really stopped all day, had the ball again.  But Baylor turned the ball back over to us on downs, failing on a 4th-and-2 at our 40-yard line, and this time, we drove the field and scored again, with about 5 minutes left, cutting the margin to 41-35.

Once again, Baylor began marching up the field, eventually lining up for a field goal attempt with just over a minute left, which, if they made it, would put them up nine points, and make it all but impossible for us to score twice with a minute left to play (Just before the field-goal attempt, ESPN's Win Probability Tracker gave the Spartans a 0.4% chance of winning - 1 in 250).  But we blocked the field goal, and returned the block to the Baylor 45-yard line.  Our QB continued his erratic play, badly missing a couple wide-open receivers, but completing just enough passes to keep the drive alive (converting once on 4th-and-10).  We finally scored the tying touchdown with 17 seconds left, and the extra point gave us our only lead of the second half.  Baylor got the ball back, but we sacked their quarterback twice, and intercepted his 3rd-down pass to seal the victory.

Looking back at the game, I still don't quite know how we won it.  Baylor threw for over 600 passing yards, completing over 70% of their passes.  Bryce Petty, their quarterback, was amazing all night long, threading passes through tiny openings to incredibly fast receivers.  Our defense, which has been the hallmark of our excellence in recent years, seemed to have no answers for him.  But late in the game, we found ways to stop them, or at least, slow them down, just enough to get lucky and win the game.  Unbelievable.  One of the most incredible never-say-die games I've ever seen, even if I didn't care who won.  Which, however, I did.  Go Green!

And then, in the evening's playoff games, Oregon beat Florida State, and Ohio State upset Alabama.  So, the only two teams to beat us all year will be playing each other for the national championship.  Does that make us Number Three?

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Here we are in 2015, and we still don't have any snow to speak of in OurTown.  I've been able to ride outdoors right up to the present, even getting in 10 miles on December 30th, before the sub-freezing temperatures just made my toes hurt.  I ended with 74 miles in December (I've never even had half that before), and 1110 for the year 2014.  Funny to think that I was sweating getting to four digits a month ago, and ended up going over 100 miles past that.  Heck, this afternoon, I'm going out for my first 10 miles of the New Year, so 2015 is already well-begun.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

God With Us; or, He Loves Us, He Really Loves Us. . .

This is a conflation of a couple of Christmas meditations I wrote in my 'paper journal' back in the day (20 years ago and more. . .), and a partial re-post of what I posted here a few years back. . .

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"Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
     and they will call his name Emmanuel - 'God With Us'."
          - The Gospel According to Matthew, chapter 1, verse 23
              (ref. The Book of the Prophet Isaiah, 7:14)

"The Word became flesh and dwelt among us."
          - The Gospel According to John, chapter 1, verse 14

"In the past, God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets
     at many times and in various ways;
But in these last days, He has spoken to us by His Son. . ."
          - The Epistle to the Hebrews, chapter 1, verses 1-2


I recall a sermon I heard once, in which the preacher made the point that, in the Incarnation God, who is greater than the Universe, willingly confined Himself in human flesh.  The One who created the Universe, who called it into being and sustains it by His merciful love, emptied Himself of his infinite Divine prerogatives and lived among us, as one of us, knowing in His own body our finitude, our weakness.  It's as though I, in my compassion for worm-kind, became a worm, to live as a worm among the worms, to understand in my own life and experience, what worm-hood is like.  Except that God taking on human flesh is a bigger existential 'leap' than me becoming a worm; I already know what it's like to live in a body, for one example. . .

So then - God is no longer remote from us; He has come to us - God is with us.  He's One of Us (I think of the Joan Osborne song from the 90s; she asked a better question than perhaps she knew. . .)

How differently would we understand our lives if we were more consciously aware of this foundational truth - God is with us.

How differently would we relate to our minor trials (or our major ones, for that matter) if we knew - really knew - that God is with us.

How different would our sins look to us if we really understood that God is with us?

What a privilege, what an awesome possibility is laid before us - God has become one of us, that we might become like God.  And yet how little do we - do I - take hold of it and venture so bold as to live by means of God's grace?


And then this -

"He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all - 
     how will He not also graciously give us all things?"
          - The Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans, chapter 8, verse 32

God didn't have to send His Son, the Eternal Word, to be incarnate, but he did.  And if He did that, what won't he do for us?  Can I even grasp what this - the Incarnation - means, in terms of how God wants to relate to me?  With what gracious favor, what kindliness, what gratuitous, extravagant, profligate love, He regards me/us?  The 'plans He has for us, plans for good and not for evil, to give us a future and a hope?' (ref. Jeremiah 29:11)

It reminds me of what CS Lewis said in 'The Weight of Glory' - "We muck about with drink and sex and ambition, when infinite joy is offered us."  We just don't get it. . .

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O God, have mercy on us; help us to see clearly, and to know, really know, the lavishness of your love for us.  Let it change us, purify us, make us holy, make us more like you created us to be in the beginning, to be your presence in the world, to shine as lights in the darkness. . .

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Please Pray, Won't You?



I've only got about 4 or 5 more-or-less regular readers left here in The Yard, and one of 'em, Buck Pennington, the Exile in Portales, is pretty seriously ill just lately, enough to be in an ICU one state over from home.  Would you please take a moment to offer a prayer for his recovery?  (Buck, who I believe has Buddhist leanings, likes to make reference to The Deity At Hand; I'm quite sure, at any rate, that The Deity At Hand knows Who He Is, whether we do or not. . .)  Buck has become a good friend over the blog-years (even if he is a fancier of Notre Dame; we hold the Red Wings in common, though), and I would hate to lose him just yet. . .

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(update, 20 December)

Buck's sons posted of his passing yesterday.  Clearly, the Deity At Hand has His own inscrutable plans for Buck. . .

I will miss him.

Requiescat In Pace, Buck

Sunday, December 14, 2014

A Pair of Heart-Warming Vignettes. . .

Or at least, so they seem to me. . .

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One night recently, Jenn and I were in our bedroom, preparing to retire for the night, when she looked at me, grinning broadly.

"We're doing it!" she said, enthusiastically.

Um, doing what, Sweetheart?

"We always said we wanted to grow old together, and we're doing it!  We're growing old!  Together!"

What could I say to that?  Yes, we are.  And there's no-one I'd rather grow old with than you, dear. . .

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I was a recent visitor to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn (a very cool place, if you're at all into historical machinery).  At one point, I was walking across an open space past a group of a half-dozen or so girls, who were, I would guess, around seven or eight years of age.  One of the girls, bolder than the others, perhaps noting my, um, girthiness, combined with my mostly-white beard and graying hair, approached me to ask, "Are you Santa Claus?"

I smiled at her benignly.  "No," I replied. "I'm his brother."

As I walked away, I heard behind me a chatter of excited voices - "That guy is Santa Claus' brother!"  "Really?!?"  "No, he's not!"  "Uh-HUH!  He told me!"

And I smiled. . .

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The weather around these parts has been unseasonably warm/dry for December.  High 30s/low 40s, and aside from a couple inches the week before Thanksgiving, we really haven't had any snow to speak of.  And thus, I've gotten in two rides, for 27 miles, so far in December (and 1063 for the year).  I've also flatted three of the last four times I've gone out on my bike (*aaaaarrrrrggggghhhh*).  My working hypothesis is that, the roads being just slightly damp this time of year, stones stick to the surface of the tire, and slowly get pounded through to eventually puncture the inner tube.  But. . . December miles.  I'll take all I can get. . .

(*update, 17 December*)

I finally took my bike in to the shop to see if he could figure out any hidden causes of my recent rash of flats.  Turns out, I had three pieces of glass lodged in my tire, none of 'em so deeply that I could discover 'em with the standard run of my fingers across the inside of the tire (I always do that because, you know, if you leave the cause of the flat in place, you're gonna get repeated flats. . .) (D'oh!)  So, when I'd go out and ride for 20 miles or so, the little sharp edges would keep poking at the inner tube until, Voila! a complete puncture occurred.  So, one new tire later, I'm (I hope) back in business. . .

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Advent, One More Time. . .

In recent years, in solidarity with my friend Suldog and his Thanksgiving Comes First campaign, I've re-posted a piece on Advent that I originally ran eight years ago.  This year, I offer it to you once again, lightly edited. . .

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This past Sunday was the First Sunday of Advent - the beginning of the Christian season of spiritual preparation for Christmas, and the beginning of a new liturgical year (so hey, Happy New Year!). Over the years, I've really come to love Advent, imperfectly though I may observe it. In rough terms, Advent is to Christmas what Lent is to Easter, with a bit more low-key emphasis on the whole 'penitential' thing. Rightly done, Advent is a time of contemplation, a time to step back from the normal frenzy of daily life, take a few deep breaths, and anticipate the coming joy of Christmas. One of the old traditional Advent hymns bids us

Make your house fair, as you are able,

in preparation to welcome God in human flesh four weeks hence.  So, Advent is pretty much the polar opposite of 'consumer Christmas'. Pausing for contemplation is not a thing we Americans are terribly inclined to do (perhaps I should rather say it's a thing that we're inclined to do terribly).

In the larger American culture, the 'Christmas season' runs from the Friday after Thanksgiving until Christmas Day, but in traditional Christian circles, the Christmas season begins on Christmas Day and runs until Epiphany (January 6) - thus, the 'Twelve Days of Christmas' - and Advent is marked out by the four Sundays immediately preceeding Christmas. So, when most of our neighbors are finished with Christmas (sometime in the late afternoon or evening of December 25th), we're just getting started. It always perplexes me just a bit to see all the Christmas trees out on the curb on the 26th; when Jenn was a kid, Catholics didn't even put their Christmas trees up until Christmas Eve. And, just as I'm getting pumped to finally be singing 'Joy to the World' and 'O Come, All Ye Faithful', most of my neighbors are sick of the whole 'Christmas thing'.

Maybe I should blame it on the Magi - they started the whole giving-gifts-at-Christmas thing. I doubt they had any clue how far it would get out-of-hand, though.

When it comes right down to it, though, I've got to admit that my spiritual preparation for Christmas is my own responsibility. It's not up to American culture to get me spiritually prepared. It might be nice if the culture were more supportive (or even just less disruptive) of what I'm trying to accomplish, but it is what it is.

So, our family is setting out on Advent. If, over the next few weeks, I seem a little reticent and low-key about Christmas, you'll understand, won't you? And then, if I'm getting all Christmas-y just when you're getting tired of it all, you'd be very kind to indulge me. In the meantime, I'll be over here, singing 'O Come, O Come Emmanuel', in a minor key. . .

Sunday, November 30, 2014

So Close. . .

Alas. . .

7M's football team lost a heart-breaker in the Division 5 State Championship game at the big domed stadium in Detroit, to the defending state champs.  The final score was 24-20, and we can take some small comfort from the fact that it was one of the more intense, competitive, exciting games of the championship weekend (Michigan crowns 8 state champions, in divisions according to enrollment). . .

Our guys started off slowly, making uncharacteristic mistakes (it's possible they were in awe, or at least a bit jittery, at the whole ambiance of the dome, and the championship stakes), and fell behind 17-0 by the middle of the second quarter.  They scored a touchdown just before halftime to make it 17-6 at the half (and those of us who keep track of such things were looking at each other saying, "hey, it's closer than it was in the semis". . .).

In the second half, the defense stiffened, and the offense started to find its rhythm.  In the third quarter, we mounted a 96-yard drive to a touchdown, making the score 17-13.  The defense stopped the opposing offense, and then the offense went back to work, starting again at our own 4-yard line.  They marched up the field and scored the go-ahead touchdown, making the score 20-17  in our favor with just over 7 minutes left in the game (it turns out that that was the first time all year that our opponents had been behind after halftime).

But of course, our opponents didn't become the undefeated defending state champions by going away quietly when things get difficult.  They began a slow, painstaking, 17-play drive, converting on fourth down three times, scoring the winning touchdown with a minute left in the game.  Hats off to them.

I'm sure that both teams tested each other as severely as either of them had been tested all season.  (Cliche alert!)  It's just a shame that one of them had to lose (and all the moreso that the loser had to be us).  Honestly (Cliche alert, redux) it was a great game, if you didn't care who won (but alas, I did. . .)

7M played a good game.  He made a couple tackles (and got his name called over the PA at Ford Field!), and generally contributed to the success of our defense.  And he was inconsolable at the final result (as were his teammates and coaches).  I'm sure, at some point, they'll all gain some perspective on the privilege they had of just playing in such a game, and taking the champions to the limit of their ability, but for now, getting so close and coming up empty feels maddeningly cruel.

7M is a junior, as are the majority of the starters on the team, so they'll have another opportunity next year.  I told 7M after the game that, starting now, he's one of the senior leaders on next year's team, and if they want to go back again and win, it will take even more hard work than what they put in to get so close this year.  Nothing whatsoever is guaranteed them; they'll have to earn their spot all over again, and it'll be no easier next year.  But they're in a position, having been there once, to understand what it takes.  We will see what we will see. . .

But it has been a heck of a ride this time through.  I'd love to do it again. . .

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I was given a gratuitous gift of temperatures in the 50s this afternoon, so I went out on my bike for 21 miles.  Combined with the 13 I did on Thanksgiving morning (which was cold, but clear and dry), I'm at 1036 for the year (and 160 for the month of November).  Of course, any December miles are a gift, but as the eminently quotable Yogi Berra once said, it ain't over until it's over. . .