Wednesday, December 29, 2010

God Bless Us, Every One

It was Christmas Eve at our house, which, according to our family traditions, begins our celebration of Christmas. We had all ten of our family members present, along with a pair of overseas guests, one from Scotland, one from Lebanon.

We started with our traditional Christmas dinner of Chicken Kiev, with asparagus and brown/wild rice. After dinner, we got in our cars and hurried across town to where a small church puts on a 'Live Nativity' - a short dramatization of the Christmas story, complete with angels (wearing mittens and earmuffs, to protect them from the 20F cold), live sheep/goats (the shepherds have got to have something to tend, right?) and even a donkey (I don't even want to think about what it took to get the permit for the live critters out of City Hall). The part of Baby Jesus was played by a realistic-looking rubber doll (not a hidden 40-watt bulb).

Returning home, we gathered around the tree in the living room for our annual reading of O. Henry's short story, 'The Gift of the Magi', after which we handed out the presents under the tree, and opened them. Most everyone seemed to enjoy their gifts. After a few rounds, all that remained were a few envelopes, mainly containing cards promising Gifts to be Delivered Later. One of the cards pointed 8M (who is eight years old) to a fishbowl surreptitiously stashed at the neighbors' house, containing six goldfish, five of which had died by the time he got to them. The sixth died by the time we left for Midnight Mass, so there was much teasing of the poor boy, on the order of, "On the Sixth Day of Christmas, my True Love gave to me. . . Six Dead Goldfish. . ."

One of the last to be opened was an envelope marked for 6F, from 8M. At this point, I should mention that 6F is hoping to go on a mission trip next summer, either in Costa Rica or Honduras, and she is just getting ready to gear up her fundraising campaign of letters to various relatives and friends. When 4M went on a similar trip a couple years ago, to the Dominican Republic, we were stunned by people's generosity. 6F opened the envelope, which contained a few dollar bills and a small handwritten note. Her upper lip quivered briefly, and she passed the envelope and its contents to Jen, who read the note and dabbed at her eyes, passing the note along. In short order, it was passed to me, and I beheld four $1 bills, with a note from 8M saying, "It's not much, but this is for your mission trip. Love, 8M."

There was nary a dry eye in the house by the time the envelope finished circulating. After that, we went to Midnight Mass, which ended with the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's Messiah (one can never sing the Hallelujah Chorus too often), after which we returned home to indulge in some celebratory treats.

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All in all, a most satisfactory celebration of Our Lord's Incarnation. And that note from 8M will stay with me for a long time. . .

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Good Is the Flesh

For Christmas, another re-post, from four years ago, of one of my favorite poems. I hope you like it as much as I do. . .

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Good Is the Flesh (by Brian Wren)

Good is the flesh that the Word has become
Good is the birthing, the milk in the breast,
Good is the feeding, caressing and rest,
Good is the body for knowing the world,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

Good is the body for knowing the world,
Sensing the sunlight, the tug of the ground,
Feeling, perceiving, within and around,
Good is the body, from cradle to grave,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

Good is the body, from cradle to grave,
Growing and aging; arousing, impaired
Happy in clothing, or lovingly bared,
Good is the pleasure of God in our flesh.
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

Good is the pleasure of God in our flesh,
Longing in all, as in Jesus to dwell,
Glad of embracing and tasting and smell,
Good is the body, for good and for God,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

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I love this poem because it is so ‘incarnational’. It bespeaks God, in Christ, taking on human flesh – that life in the body is good, and the dignity of human bodily life is only enhanced by God taking it on Himself. Through the Incarnation, God takes our embodied-ness, and fills it with Himself. No longer is He remote from us; His knowledge of us is not merely that of ‘Creator on High’ – He has walked in our world as one of us, hungered and thirsted, stubbed His toe, and ultimately, died.

Good is the flesh, indeed. It is not merely that God created human flesh, although it has a dignity that inheres simply to that, and in His image, no less. But even more, the Word became flesh. Emmanuel – God with us. Awesome.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

How Come Is It. . .

. . . that Oakland County, Michigan, which not so very long ago was one of the Ten Wealthiest Counties in the United States (alas, an ebbing tide can founder even really wealthy boats), can't seem to find any salt to put on its roads, while neighboring Genessee County (county seat - Flint), which is something like the poster child for the current economic troubles (and the ones before that, and the ones before that), can? Just askin'. . . See, 'cuz I drive, like, 84 miles to work (yeah, that's one way). On a normal day, it takes me about an hour-and-a-quarter, which is long, but not terrible, since it's about 90% freeway driving. When it snows, like it did last Sunday/Monday (about 6-8 inches), it can take longer. Sometimes a lot longer. My record for a one-way commute was three-and-a-half hours. Until last Monday. But, I'm getting ahead of myself. One of the benefits of living in Michigan is that we're pretty good at handling snow, and those grueling commutes are virtually always one-time events - by the next day, roads have been cleared, at least to the point that traffic can flow pretty smoothly, even if not quite at posted speeds. At our place, last Sunday (the 12th) was a pretty snowy day. As I said, we got somewhere between 6-8 inches. And after the snow fell, the temperatures dropped into the single digits, and the wind blew. Which, generally speaking, takes a bad snow situation, and makes it that much worse. And the kids were duly rewarded with a snow day on Monday, which was called just after they'd gone to bed. I expected Monday morning's drive to be difficult. But I was hopeful, since the snow itself had stopped late Sunday afternoon, that the counties had had time to get the salt trucks out, and the roads might at least be passable. And they were. I set out on the freeway, and it was a typical morning-after-the-blizzard drive - the freeway had one clear lane, in which it was possible to go 50mph or so, and one snow-covered lane, in which 35 or so was about the max possible. And of course, there are always those timid souls who can't bear to go faster than 30-35 in the 'good' lane, so other drivers were constantly having to weigh whether or not it was worth it to pull out into the 'bad' lane to try and get around the slowpokes. But traffic was moving, even if at a slow pace, and it took me about an hour-and-a-half to cover what normally takes just under an hour. Which took me to the Oakland-Genessee county line. And suddenly, the marginally 'clear' lane disappeared, and drivers were confronted with three lanes of polished glare ice. Instantly, the speed of traffic dropped to around 20-25mph (and if you've ever gone even 20mph on polished glare ice, you know what kind of an adventure that is). I was calculating in my head that, at this rate, I'd be another hour getting in to work. And not a stress-free hour, either. But hey - a two-and-a-half-hour commute the day after a blizzard really isn't awful. So I called my boss on my cell phone, and told him about how late I expected to be. Of course, he understood: "Just take your time and get here in one piece." And so we trudged along, until, about seven miles from my exit, traffic came to a complete and utter halt. Not good. I had the radio on, and expected to hear about some massive, grisly accident, but no word came. And we just sat. In the car directly ahead of me, a group of college guys got out of their car and took a group-whiz against the concrete barrier, followed by a snowball fight. If it had been warmer than about 5F, I might have just turned the car off, and waited it out, but the heater was a necessity of life at that point. Slowly, at odd intervals, traffic would inch forward. The sports-talk show that I had on the radio ended, and was replaced by another one, with a different host. And still the traffic inched ahead, when it wasn't stalled completely. Finally, two hours later, when we were about a mile from my exit, I saw the reason for the delay. There was a long (though hardly steep) uphill grade on the freeway, and a dozen semi-trucks were effectively stranded on the grade, spinning their wheels, unable to gain any traction on the glare ice. The trucks were distributed across three lanes, one here, another in a different lane a few yards further on, two side-by-side, and so on. So that the cars had to dodge and weave among the stranded semis like a trail of ants, sometimes even having to leave the nominal roadway to get past. By the time I finally arrived in my office, I was into the third sports-talk show of the morning (now early afternoon) on my radio, and it was just over four hours since I'd left home that morning. A new record. I'm so elated. And it was all because Oakland County didn't send out their salt trucks. Some explanation was given to the effect that, with the cold temperatures, the salt wouldn't have done any good. And I'm enough of a scientist to know that, yeah, the salt will be less effective in cold temperatures than if it had been just slightly below freezing. But the poorer counties I'd driven through on my way to Oakland County had gotten their salt trucks out, and the contrast couldn't have been more stark. I worked about a five-hour day before getting back on the road to head home. And on the homeward leg, the roads were a bit better. It only took an hour-and-a-half to travel the 25 miles of Oakland County this time. But once I crossed the county line, traffic was moving at posted speeds (see, we really do know how to deal with snow; unless, apparently, we live in Oakland County). So I got home in about two-and-a-half hours. You have not lived until you've spent six-and-a-half hours driving to work and back, let me tell you. Tuesday morning was better. I again made the first hour's-worth of my drive in an hour, but it took 45 minutes to cover the 25 miles of Oakland County. Tuesday evening was the same, and Wednesday wasn't much better, although I did see one salt truck on my drive home Wednesday evening. Which elicited a sarcastic cheer in the back of my brain - the kind you'll hear when the home team scores a touchdown late in the game, so that they end up losing 65-7. It wasn't until Thursday morning - the fourth day after the snowstorm - that Oakland County finally had I-75 clear of ice, and I could get to work without feeling like I was taking my life in my hands. I actually work in Pontiac, which, as it happens, is the county seat of Oakland County. Which puts me uncomfortably close to the morons public officials who made the worst road-maintenance call that I have ever seen (or, more truly, they failed to make a no-brainer) (which would imply something like negative brains, wouldn't it?) If they had sent the trucks out Sunday evening, Monday morning would still have been slow and difficult, but by waiting, they made the situation orders of magnitude more treacherous, and extended it over three days, instead of one. Brilliant. Just brilliant. ------------------------- I really aim to keep this blog pretty much rant-free, and I do apologize for going off today. But this was just the most stunning, egregious, display of pure moronic idiocy, by people who are nominally responsible for other people's lives, that I have ever seen. Anyway, Christmas is coming; I'd better be good. . .

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Love Hurts

Yet another re-post, from a couple years ago. . . ------------------------- “If I never loved, I never would have cried.” Simon & Garfunkel “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing, compared with love in dreams.” Dostoevsky “[Jesus], having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end.” The Gospel of John, chapter 13, verse 1 Mother Theresa was fond of saying that our main task in this life is learning what it really means to love. She was also fond of saying that there is no spiritual growth without suffering. And I’ve come to understand that the two – love and suffering – are not so very separate from each other. I think we’re sort of conditioned by our culture to think of love in terms of mellow warm feelings toward another person. But if warm-fuzzies is all that we mean by love, it winds up being pretty shallow and lame. Real love has as least as much (and honestly, probably a lot more) to do with changing shitty diapers in the middle of the night (or cleaning up after the Beloved's messes, more generally construed), as it does with beautiful sunsets, or walks on the beach. In a fallen world, it comes to seem that any love worthy of the name inevitably has a tragic aspect about it. We are all fallen, broken persons, and our fallen-ness and broken-ness redound to the pain of those who love us. And hobble our ability to love others as we ought. We inevitably hurt and disappoint those who love us, and in many ways, the measure of love is the manner in which it deals with those hurts and disappointments. Our kids have taught some of this to Jen and me. When 1F was the ‘perfect’ adolescent, it was pretty easy to love her; to soak up the accolades we received for having raised such a wonderful girl. But, I don’t think I’ve ever been more deeply wounded than I was when she walked away from our family. And I never, in my worst dreams, would have imagined one of my daughters having a baby out-of-wedlock. But, you know, in the ensuing years, I think we’ve come to a stronger love for each other. I found out that my heart could bear more pain than I thought it could, and that I loved my daughter even though she had hurt me like I’d never imagined I could be hurt. Likewise for 3M – it was easy to love him when he was a cute and precocious child, when we got appreciative pats on the back for his wit and intelligence. But when he ran away from home, and defied us in every possible way, he simply broke our hearts. And such is the tragic aspect of love – real, down-and-dirty, harsh, dreadful love. He is not yet quite all that I would really want him to be - what he himself could be - but he's making real progress. And I think we have learned to love each other for who we are, apart from any questions about ‘approval’. All of our kids, in one way or another, have suffered from my (and, I suppose, Jen’s, although for me even to say so evokes thoughts of the Log and the Speck) failures of love. 1F and 3M have just been the glaring, nuclear examples. 2F suffers greatly to this day that we didn’t love her as she needed us to – that we were so dazzled by her sister’s ‘perfection’, and too easily put off by her more strong-willed personality. 5M has too easily gotten lost in the chaos that swirled around his older siblings. And I'm sure, if I thought about it just a little, I could come up with examples in the lives of each of our kids. But perhaps we are learning, just a little bit better, what it means to love. Perhaps we can dig a little deeper, and give our kids the love they need, where once we’d have come up short. Perhaps. At least, I hope so. . . It’s not just the kids, either. As much as I love Jen (and she me), there is, even still, a tragic aspect to our love. She has not avoided disappointing me (or, to be certain, I her), even though she is still the most amazing woman I’ve ever known. Some part of the measure of our love is coming to know – really know, where it hurts to know – each other’s weaknesses and character flaws, and keep moving forward. Even to cover for each other’s weaknesses (whether or not we ever thought we should have to). So, again - the measure of our love is not the absence of our disappointments with each other. The measure of our love is what we DO with the inevitable hurts and disappointments that we inflict on each other – can we let “love cover a multitude of sins” (I Peter 4:8), or not? And then we have the example of God Himself, who “demonstrates His own love for us in this – while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Jesus didn’t wait for us to get our, uh, stuff together in order to make a gift of Himself for our sake. He loved us, “to the end,” even in all our fallen, broken, garbage. In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously said that, “When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.” And I think it’s likewise when it comes to ‘learning what it really means to love’. To love greatly is to risk being hurt greatly. To ‘pour ourselves out’ for the sake of the Beloved, with little or no regard for what we have left when we’re done. “And greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) Jesus, with all trepidation, I ask of you. . . teach me how to love. . .

Sunday, December 5, 2010

'Twas the Season

Well, the arrival of the first real snow of the winter, along with temperatures persistently below freezing (and seriously? it was like the calendar flipped to December 1, and the Weather Switch flipped to 'Instant Winter' mode), have effectively marked the end of the 2010 bicycling season for me. You can be sure that if, any time between now and the nominal arrival of spring 2011, we get temperatures above freezing, and ice-free back roads (and all on a weekend, or at least a day I don't have to work) (thank you, Dr. King), I'll be out, grabbing whatever miles I can. But this past weekend, the temps topped out below freezing, and the snow (which wasn't really all that much) stuck around enough to create a bit of a 'black ice' hazard. So, with a heavy heart, I fired up the stationary bike in front of a football game on TV (something about athletic young men running up and down the field helps inspire me to keep my own legs moving) (or at least takes my mind off how much my own legs are hurting, especially in the last 15 minutes or so), and bid a peaceful winter's rest to my two-wheeled steed. But hey - the (provisionally) final tally for 2010 - 1609 miles. Which is the most I've done since 1992. When I was still in my 30s. Heck, 5M was born that year, and he's a high-school senior now. So it's been awhile. Since I got back on my bike a few years back, when I started with the weight loss, my max was just over 1400 miles, which was enough to make me proud. But this year, I thought if I really went for it, didn't take any weekends off, and pushed myself for just a few more miles on the rides I did, maybe I could make 1500. And I went past that by over a hundred miles. Sweet. . . ------------------------- And hey, I don't want to make TOO big a deal of it ('cuz I know what happens when I post sports-related stuff here) (*crickets chirping*), but my Spartans successfully finished their football season with 11 wins (the most in school history; but that's mostly because the Bubba Smith teams from back in the 60s only played 10 games) against only a single solitary defeat (for which, hats off to FADKOG's Hawkeyes, but goodness, it seems to have shot them all to heck for the rest of their season). For which, they earned the title of Co-Champions of the Big Ten. Woo-hoo!! It's 20 years since my Spartans were Big Ten champions in football (the basketball team has had a bit more success, of late). Even longer than it's been since I rode more than 1600 miles. Heck, it was so long ago that we only had four kids at the time. (It was SO long ago that the Big Ten only had ten members.) So now we get to go bowling in some pleasantly warm place on New Year's Day. Woo-hoo again! ------------------------- Anyway, a couple of noteworthy seasons in my life have just come to a close (well, almost; enough to have a 'sense of completion' about them, at any rate), and in most happy manner. Neither of them is of particularly 'ultimate' significance, but I do take a bit of happiness from them, y'know?