Sunday, December 30, 2012

Slip Slidin' Away

I grew up way Up North in Michigan, and snow was a major feature of my entire childhood.  In a typical year, the first snow came around the beginning of November, and it was usually right around Thanksgiving that the snow stayed on the ground, and didn't melt away in the next day's sunlight.  By Christmas, we typically had a foot or more on the ground, and all through January and February, the snow cover averaged around one-and-a-half to two feet.  The sidewalks were little miniature canyons, and the piles of snow left after the streets were plowed often rendered the street invisible from the sidewalk, and vice-versa.  One year (I think it was January of '71), we had a pair of freak lake-effect blizzards in the same week that dumped 42 inches on us, which, because of drifting, etc, necessitated digging tunnels to the entrances of the high school.

So, yeah. . . snow.  Which meant that snow-fun, such as sledding, was a main staple of wintertime recreation (we also enjoyed skating; our town was a hotbed of speedskating in my childhood, in the aftermath of Terry McDermott's Olympic medals; nowadays, they're more into hockey).

When our family first moved Up North, in the fall of '63, I went to a 'rural' school, since we lived on the lakeshore, 7-8 miles out of town.  The school grounds were expansive.  There was a small, blacktopped 'playground' close to the school building, with the requisite four-square and hop-scotch courts painted onto the blacktop, the standard swingsets and monkey-bars.  And there was a large, open field, surrounded by woods.  The woods were actually on school property; somewhere 50 yards or so into the woods, there was a wire fence marking the limit of the school grounds.  At the boundary between the large open field and the woods, there was a five-or-six-foot rise.  So we would cross the field, climb a little ridge, and be in the woods.  It's hard to convey how incredibly cool recess was at that school. . .

When the snow fell, the six-foot ridge was laboriously converted into a long row of ice-slides.  At the first recess after a big snow, dozens of kids would run out across the field to the ridge, form little teams of 5-10 kids, and begin stomping up and down the ridge, packing the snow down, and ultimately polishing it into an icy glare.  By the end of the day, there would be 10 or 15 icy chutes distributed along the ridge, and for the rest of the winter, we'd spend recess sliding down the ice-slides in every configuration we could think of - face-up, face-down, standing (surfing, if you will), two of us one-on-top-of-the-other, etc, etc, etc.  It was pure wonderfulness.

Even on the blacktopped playground, kids would stomp back and forth, creating a 30-foot-long frozen slip-n-slide.  So when recess came, we'd line up, get a running start, and slide on our bellies across the ice.  Or, some of the baseball players would practice sliding into second base.  We weren't supposed to slide standing up, but we always did, when we thought the playground-teacher wasn't looking.  And every once in a while, somebody would slip and whack their head on the ice-covered blacktop, and win a trip to the school nurse, and a few punitive lost recesses.  But, to my knowledge, no-one ever died, or suffered permanent brain damage (but hey, this was the early 60s; we still rode in the backs of pickup trucks, and seatbelts were just appearing for the first time).


The best, most excellent sledding action to be found in our area was at a place called Manning Hill, which was maybe 15-20 miles west of town.  I'm sure that Manning Hill has grown in my memory over the years, to where it is, by now, on a par with Pike's Peak.  But I've been by Manning Hill in the last 10 years, and it's still a pretty impressive bump; maybe a couple hundred vertical feet from base to top.  We'd pull off the main highway into a parking lot, grab our sleds and commence the long uphill trek to the top of the hill.  On a good sledding day (a sunny day in the 20s, so the snow wouldn't get soft and slushy), there would be a hundred or more kids on Manning Hill.  Roughly half of their parents would just bring a newspaper and sit in the car; the hardier half would accompany their kids up the hill, and occasionally grab a seat on a down-bound toboggan.  My folks were generally of the climb-the-hill-with-the-kids persuasion, although they didn't slide downhill much.

In linear terms, the sledding run down the front of the hill was somewhere between a quarter-mile and a half-mile.  If the snow was soft and fluffy, you might go most of the way down the run before you came to a stop.  If it was hard and slick, you might make it all the way down to the parking lot; there was a steep upturn at the bottom of the hill, so no-one would ever end up sliding into the parking lot ('cuz, you know, that just wouldn't be good. . .)  When your downhill run finally slid to a halt, you'd get up off your sled and begin the long trudge back to the top of the hill.  You might spend 3-4 hours at Manning Hill, and make 10 or 12 downhill runs.  Each run would last a minute or so; if you really managed to milk it, you might get two minutes of adrenaline rush.  Then it would take 10 or 15 minutes to climb back to the top of the hill (it only seemed like two days).

There were toboggans, which were cool, because you could get four or five people on the same ride, and you were (generally) sitting upright.  There were a few saucers (aluminum ones, not the plastic ones you see today).  Some kids just brought an old cardboard box with 'em, and I was always impressed at how much fun there was to be had from a simple cardboard box sliding downhill.

But by far, the preferred sleds were the vaunted old Radio Flyers - the steel runners with a wooden-slat surface on which to ride, and the wooden cross-bar to steer with.  The preferred configuration was to lie on your belly and steer with your hands, but some kids would sit upright and steer with their feet.  And of course, tandem pairs of kids would lie one-on-top-of-the-other.  The added weight meant you could go faster, but every bump and divot in the sliding surface meant that the kid on the bottom got the wind knocked out of him as the kid on top slammed down on him.


One year, I think when I was in junior-high or high school, we had an absolutely perfect sledding day - it was bright and sunny, with temperatures in the upper 20s.  So, as long as we stayed active, we weren't going to get frozen, and the snow would be hard, but the bright sun would make for a slick crust on the top of the snow surface.  Oh, the sledding was fast that day.  The first time I went down the hill, I flew.  I felt like I was an airplane coming in for a landing as I zipped down the hill at half the speed of sound; I could feel the pressure waves building up in front of me, I was going so fast.  I had to look far down the hill ahead of myself to plan my steering moves, and hope that no kids at the bottom of the hill decided to wander across the main sledding lane.  I didn't come to rest until I rocked up onto the incline at the edge of the parking lot.  It was incredible!

Our whole family was there, and my brother and I were quickly engaged in various contests and races.  It was the greatest day of sledding in my whole life.  I don't know how many hours were actually spent there, but I'd have been willing to keep going by starlight, if they'd let me.

At one point, in the later afternoon, my brother and I were standing on the top of the hill, catching our breath after our most-recent uphill trek, and preparing for our next high-speed descent.  As we huffed and puffed, we looked around, taking in the scenery from the top of the hill, from whence we could see a surprising distance over the surrounding countryside.  At one point, we were facing away from the front of the hill, where everybody was sledding, when we noticed, for the first time, the back side of the hill.  It was steep at the top, just like the front, but about halfway down, the slope became more gradual, and it continued on for a long way - MUCH farther than we could go on the normal run on the front side.  There were even a few sled-tracks running down the back side, so it wasn't like you couldn't sled back there.

My brother and I looked at each other, an unspoken 'You wanna?' passing between us.  We didn't say a word, just set our sleds on the brow of the hill, pointing down the back run.  This was gonna be cool. . .

We pushed off, and instantly, we were flying!  My brother would pull ahead of me by a foot or so, then I'd catch back up and nudge ahead, and we just kept going.  It was the most incredible run either of us had ever had.  At some point, I was aware that, if we'd been on the front side of the hill, our run would be over, but we were still flying, the wind peeling our cheeks back, adrenaline still pumping through our veins.

Our speed dropped off, just a bit, as we continued onto the more gradual slope halfway down, but at that point, it became a contest just to see who could keep going the longest, and run the farthest down the hill, more than simply who could go the fastest.  Even so, my brother and I were eyeing each other, one of us, and then the other, nudging ahead by a few inches as we continued downward.

After a certain point, I looked ahead, and saw a fence.  When we were at the top of the hill, the fence had seemed ridiculously far away, that we could never go that far.  But now, it seemed quite possible that the fence would come into play before our run was over.  I looked along the fence, and saw a gap, maybe ten feet wide, with two large maple trees marking the edges of the gap.  The fence went up to the maple tree on either side, and whoever had built the fence had decided not to fill in the gap with an extra ten feet of fencing.  So I began to steer myself toward the gap in the fence, just in case I still had some speed left when I got there.

My brother saw what I was doing, and quickly ascertained that he should steer toward the gap, as well.  And we continued sliding down the hill.  We were still going fast enough, though, that our 'steering margin of error' was still pretty comparable to the width of the gap, and I began to get nervous as to whether I would be able to actually hit the gap or not.  My brother's sled moved closer to mine, and we began to bump each other sideways with the realization that it was gonna be a pretty close thing for both of us to shoot the gap together.

Finally, we were in the last few yards, still moving at a rapid clip, and I smiled to myself as I realized that, yes, by golly, I was indeed going to hit the center of the gap.  I sailed on through, between the two huge trees, and found myself cruising across virgin snow at the back of some farmer's field, and I only made it 20 or 30 yards into the field before I slid to a halt.

But where was my brother?  I looked around, and then I saw him, lying face-up in the gap between the trees, but I couldn't see his sled.  I grabbed the lanyard on my own sled, and trudged back to where he was laying.  As I approached, he looked up at me.

"Are you OK?" I asked.


"What happened?"

"I had to bail."

"Where's your sled?"

He rolled over, looking toward the tree that had been on the left side of the gap as we approached.  There was his sled, a small dimple in the metal framework at the front of his sled.

"I was gonna hit the tree," he said, "so I had to bail.  The sled hit the tree.  I hope it still works."

We picked it up and gave it a quick inspection.  It looked like it might be slightly bent, so we torqued on it, to try and un-bend it.  Then we set it back upright.  It seemed to sit flat on the surface, so we pronounced it OK.

Then, we turned and looked back toward the hill, which was much farther away than we'd ever seen it, having never been down the back side before.  It was gonna be at least a half-hour trudge back to the top.

So, we adjusted our mittens and our stocking-hats, grabbed the lanyards to our sleds and began our wintry trek back up the hill.

"Coolest. . . run. . . ever. . ." my brother smiled.

"Yeah," I said, "and I won. . ."

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence

I love this ancient hymn.  I don't know that it was written specifically as a Christmas hymn, but it sure seems to fit. . .


From the 4th-century Liturgy of St. James
(translated from Greek into English by Gerard Moultrie):

Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence

Let all mortal flesh keep silence
And in fear and trembling stand.
Ponder nothing earthly-minded,
For with blessing in His hand
Christ our God to earth descendeth
Our full homage to demand.

King of kings, yet born of Mary,
As of old on earth He stood.
Lord of lords in human vesture,
In the body and the blood.
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.

Rank on rank the host of Heaven
Spreads its vanguard on the way,
As the Light of light descendeth
From the realms of endless day,
That the powers of Hell may vanish
As the darkness clears away.

At His feet the six-winged seraph;
Cherubim with sleepless eye
Veil their faces to the Presence
As with ceaseless voice they cry:
Alleluia! Alleluia!
Alleluia, Lord Most High!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Theotokos and Me. . .

It being Christmas time, and all (I know it's still Advent for a couple more days, but Advent does point toward Christmas, after all), and Christmas marking, at its most basic level, the Incarnation of the Word of God (OK, that would technically be the Feast of the Annunciation on March 25th, but work with me here. . .), several thoughts, of a Theological nature are swirling around in my head.  Perhaps you'll find one or two of them interesting (or, you know, perhaps not. . .)

'Theotokos' is a Greek word meaning, literally, 'God-bearer', and it refers to the Blessed Virgin Mary; in Catholic circles, it's almost always rendered as 'Mother of God' (I'm not sure how my Greek Orthodox friends render it into English; for all I know, they just say 'theotokos', and figure they know what it means).

Theotokos is a 'theological' word, born out of the Christological controversies of the 4th/5th centuries AD; the idea is to be utterly clear that Jesus, the 'fruit of Mary's womb', was the bearer of a divine nature, along with the human one he shares with us.  There were those who preferred the term 'Christotokos' - 'mother of Christ' - but that came to be regarded as tantamount to a denial of Christ's divinity (back in the 4th-century Byzantine Empire, they took their theology seriously).

It's hard not to have a certain sympathy for the folks who would have some reservations about a term like 'Mother of God'.  I mean, Mary, this teenaged Jewish girl, could hardly be said to have any kind of 'ontological priority' over the Creator and Sustainer of All Things.  God, who is Before All Things, can hardly be said to have come into being in Mary's womb.  And yet, Jesus, who was 'born of a woman' (and, more to the point, this particular woman), was certainly God, incarnate in human flesh, and in that sense, 'Mother of God' is precisely what she was.


OK, enough woolly theology, at least for now.  I have been through my own journey relative to the Blessed Virgin, in the course of my Christian life (I gave an account of my spiritual journey here, more than six years ago).  I didn't grow up Catholic, so 'Marian stuff' isn't 'in my bones' the way it is for 'cradle Catholics'.  In general, my Evangelical/charismatic teenaged self was as suspicious of Marian piety as most Protestants are.  Basically, "what's up with the 'Mary stuff'?  Isn't Jesus enough for you?"  And I was exposed to all the more hard-edged stuff about pagan goddesses and fertility rites, etc, etc, etc.

When I undertook to be received into the Catholic Church myself, Mary was probably the biggest obstacle that I had to overcome on my way through the door.  I just didn't get what the 'Big Deal' was.  Honestly, at least at first, I more-or-less 'punted' on the whole 'Mary question'.  I had no problem with the Catholic Church as such, and so, if the Catholic Church told me I had to accept those doctrines, well, then, I would, if only as an act of trust in the Church herself, even if I didn't really understand them.  And I prayed that, as I 'lived through' my newfound Catholic faith in the coming years, that God would give me understanding.  And even some of my Protestant friends would point out that Scripture itself calls her 'blessed'.

And for several years, that's where I stood, relative to the Blessed Virgin, the Theotokos. . .


For several years, starting around the time I turned 30, I wrote annual meditations on Christmas, Advent and/or the Incarnation.  In the course of one of those, on the Incarnation, it dawned on me: Jesus was The Word Made Flesh, God Himself in Human Flesh.  "For we do not have a High Priest who is unable to sympathize with us in our weakness, but one who has been tempted in every way as we have been, yet without sin." (Hebrews 4:15)  Jesus' humanity makes possible for us an incredibly intimate and sympathetic relationship with the God of the Universe.  And the human nature that Jesus took on, he got from Mary.  She is, if you will, the Vessel of the Incarnation.  And suddenly, I understood a little better.

Much is made of Mary's example of saying 'yes' to God (or, as Scripture would have it, "be it done to me according to your word"), even when she couldn't possibly have understood what-all was hanging on her answer.  And amen, I should be so ready to obey the promptings of the Holy Spirit in my own life.

But sometimes I smile.  Being adopted, for many years I had no idea where, in human terms, I had come from.  The shape of my nose, the color and texture of my hair, the general shape and size of my body, the wacky way my fourth toe curls under my third - how did all these things come to me?  And when I met my birth-parents, I knew.

So, sometimes, I think of Jesus and Mary, and I think, "Oh, he got his divinity from His Father's side; his humanity comes from His mother."  And that makes sense. . .

Monday, December 17, 2012

For Your Consideration. . .

I came across this today.  Coming, as it does, in the aftermath of the Newtown tragedy, and in the wake of yesterday's post, it resonates with some of our experience.  We've never feared for our lives with any of our kids, but we do understand what it's like to wonder what your kid is gonna do next, and what's gonna set him off this time?  And to feel utterly helpless to do anything about it.

Friends of ours have dealt with something even closer to what Ms. Long describes - a grown son (brilliant, by the way; can't a few of these guys be dolts?) who would fly into rages and berate the stupidity of his parents, and any other authority figure at hand, and vandalize their house.  He physically attacked his father (than whom he is considerably bigger) at least once, but thankfully, not with a weapon.  But it's not a given that he never would.

I also understand the isolation that Ms. Long describes.  I know another family whose mentally-ill son brought them unsolicited comments from 'friends', telling them what terrible parents they were, and that their son's deeds (which were suitably awful) were chargeable directly to their parental account.  Thankfully, no-one has ever been quite so brash with us (frankly, it's doubtful anyone would say anything to us that we haven't already said to ourselves), and our children's misdeeds haven't landed them (or us) in the headlines (at least, not so far).  But we have experienced some of our friendships becoming more 'distant' as doubts about our parental competence came to seem more plausible.  (One of our friends did think it might be helpful to point out to us that "some people tell their children what to do, and they do it."  Just, you know, in case we were wondering.)

As I've often said before, Jen and I have not been perfect parents (and if any of you have been, feel free to go ahead and chuck the first stone our way).  But we've tried to do the best we could, and even so, our hearts have been broken.  I think that might be one of the reasons that Newtown is hitting me so hard; I have some distant, dim idea of what it might have been like to be Adam Lanza's parents. . .

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Pardon the Interruption. . .

. . . but this essay captures my thinking very well, and I would commend it to the attention of my friends, if only to understand where I'm coming from (feel free to go ahead and read it; I'll wait. . .).  But, you might even find it worthwhile yourselves. . . (and, just because I know you'll wonder, because I did - as far as I can tell, Elizabeth Scalia is not closely related to US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.)

I almost studiously avoid political topics on this humble little blog of mine, mostly because I find the 'Politicization of Everything', so rampant in present-day culture, to be pretty severly cramped, in terms of its contribution to human life and flourishing.  Politics is good for what it's good for, but the tendency these days (and really, since my youth) has been to invest it with something approaching Ultimate Significance, and it just doesn't work that way.

So, then. . . I know that, the electoral season having just recently ended for a week or two, before the next cycle starts back up again, many of you are weary beyond telling of anything that smells remotely of politics.  Me, too.  But, if we can train ourselves to see our neighbors as Human Beings, made in the Image and Likeness of God (regardless of how vehemently we may disagree with them). . .

Well, what kind of a world might that be?

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The King Shall Come

This is one of my favorite Advent hymns.  Our family has performed a version of it a few times, together.  If I were really ambitious, I might make an audio file and embed it here, but really, it works pretty well just as a poem. . .


The King Shall Come
(translated from Greek by John Brownlie)

The King shall come when morning dawns,
And light triumphant breaks.
When beauty gilds the eastern hills,
And Life to Joy awakes.

Not, as of old, a little child,
To bear and fight and die,
But crowned with glory as the sun
That lights the morning sky!

O brighter than that glorious morn
Shall dawn upon our race,
The day when Christ in glory comes,
And we shall see His face.

The King Shall come when morning dawns,
And light and beauty brings.
Hail, Christ the Lord! Thy people pray,
Come quickly, King of Kings!


"Even so; come, Lord Jesus!"

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Briefly. . .

Today, the temperature is hovering right around freezing, and there's a wet mix of snow and rain intermittently falling from the sky.  Besides which, I don't feel very well (too much rich holiday food; or maybe a really mild flu).  So, I won't be out on my bike today, the first weekend since February that I haven't been.

I took a vacation day this past Tuesday, to get some medical tests done, and it turned out to be such a nice day that I went out for 24 miles in the afternoon, bringing my total for the year to 1821 miles.  I sure didn't see that coming.

There are still a couple weeks left in Calendar Year 2012, so that number could possibly crawl a bit higher.  But even if not, my legs, to say nothing of my heart and lungs (or my butt), can be happy with a job well done for this year. . .

Sunday, December 2, 2012


I don't want to distract anyone from the main body of the post, so I'll just mention ahead of time that yesterday was nice enough (mid-40s, no precipitation) that I got out for another 24 miles.  So I got December miles (yeah, I know it was only December 1st, but hey, it's December) for the second straight year, meaning that I've gotten actual on-the-road miles for the last 21 consecutive months.  And my total for the year is at 1797.  It shouldn't be too hard to find three miles somewhere between now and the end of the month, but we shall see. . .


On to the Main Event. . .

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 six years ago.  This year, I offer it to you once again, lightly edited. . .


Today is 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 less of a 'penitential' emphasis. 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 receive 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 Jen 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. . .