Thursday, December 21, 2017

A Candle in Our Window

Not everyone gets excited about Christmas in our hometown. When I stop to think about it, there are some who do not celebrate the event at all. It is no great surprise for us, as we stop and think about it, even in small-town rural Nova Scotia. The days are gone when it was a natural assumption for everyone to begin to get excited when the Eatons and Sears Christmas Wish Books came out in the local order offices. For those in the dark on that label of “Order Office”, here is the skinny on that one. Each town, and in some instances each community, had a local store where they could go to submit and then pick up orders for both of the named catalogue companies. Each fall children waited in great expectation for the Wish Books to be delivered so that their parents could go pick them up and the initial perusal could begin. Soon pages had their corners turned down and items were clearly marked for interest and pleas for their placement under the tree were made.

Now, all that information about Wish Books will date those who understand, and you may chuckle at the memories it elicits. How many hours were spent pouring over their pages; sometimes writing notes, or letters, to Santa explaining how and where he could find the items being wished for, along with an assurance that we had been good all year? In my early childhood (the 1950’s) we looked forward to Santa being on the early evening CBC programming, and listening to his little speech, followed by his wonderful laugh, as he wished every boy and girl a good night! Even then I began to realize that not every boy and girl got their wish. The harsh realities of life meant that many (far more than I realized at that time) had no real Christmas at all. It had little to do with culture or tradition… it was more about poverty, loss and so many things beyond life’s control. We sometimes overlook those truths. We hide them from our mind's eye, hoping that things will be the same for everybody. We merely want our personal and family situation to find a brighter, more meaningful measure of peace, joy and fulfilment, above all the stresses of preparation and hype surrounding the Christmas Season.
In this generation, diversity of culture along with a heightened respect for the traditions/beliefs of others has softened the language of the Season and it is sometimes difficult to know when to wish someone a Merry Christmas. We find ourselves hesitant, not wanting to offend their beliefs, tending to be embarrassed by our inability to proclaim the joy for the season. I believe in diversity, but still defend my right to celebrate what I believe, as long as in doing so it does not clearly offend someone personally… within reason. True diversity is found not in self-right alone, but in common deference for difference. Our joy is made complete when we love one another with openness and presence rather than indifference and aloofness.

Though commercialism has reigned in much of the traditional true meaning of Christmas, there still survive those elements of the season that remain. They are the “Hidden Meanings” that have become mere decorative rudiments that touch the heart of familiarity, more than that being tradition. Someone was reminiscing to me a few weeks back that it was becoming harder for them to “get it all out and in place” each year. Yet Christmas seemed to be missing something for them without those familiar ornaments, lights and special decorations. Our home is not a strict reflection of conformist traditionalism. Ok… who knows what that means? More to the point… who cares? Well, basically our home follows more the true meaning of Christmas and not the commercial enterprise that it has seemingly grown to be, but varies to a larger extent from the “old look of traditionalism” of our grandparents. We buy and exchange gifts, but we also make gifts; something that I enjoy as often as I can. With a gaggle of grandchildren and all the wishes that may find their way to our hearts, there are some things that can be realized and some that cannot, but nevertheless, Christmas is about the “Reason for the Season” in our “Faith Walk” not just about gifts being exchanged. Faith is not just a belief; is it a life strategy that finds it meaning in, caring, sharing and presence, which means much more than a “one-off” presentation of generosity… it is a lifestyle of meaningful presence in the lives of others.  Ringing in my ears is that jolly Santa shouting forth, “… and let’s make every day just as happy as Christmas Day!”

So I digress… I am known to do that… reading this “Stuff” takes patience. We have a tree. It doesn’t look like my grandparent's tree. First, it is not been plucked from the forest… it is stored in a box from Christmas to Christmas. Second, it does not have tinsel or garland, popcorn and cranberry strings adorning its branches. Third, you may have to look very hard to see glistening balls or icicles… they will only appear in your imagination. So… you ask… what “does” your tree have for ornamental presentation? It is artificial, so there is no odour of freshly cut fir present… rather bland eh! In our mind's eye, it is not the “presentation” as much as it is the “representation”. It is a tree… OK … artificial yes… but there’s still meaning for sure! Without debating the mixed histories of “the tree”; its presence in our home reminds us of the central place of memory, along with the joy of having a focal point for the Season. Our tree has lights of various colours, poinsettias, a few meaningful ornaments that our children or grandchildren have made and here’s the kicker… it has bears. Yes… lots of bears.

My wife loves bears. Our grandchildren have collected bears for Grandma, and they get added to the tree each year. Atop its branches, sits a beautiful bear angel. I did mention that we are not “strictly a conventional Christmas tree” family! I am asked each year for my opinion about a proper time to put  up said tree. I guess that most in our region begin to decorate for Christmas in either late November of early December. We are home in early December, so it seems to be appropriate to have it in place to enjoy before Christmas Day… so, up it goes around the first week in the month. I enjoy a front row seat that allows me a clear view of its presence in our home every day.  For me, not all memories are joyous, so a fun tree filled with “our memories”, representing both the family and its connection with our faith, has deep meaning for me.

We also, like many homes in our area, have candles in the windows. There is just something that draws my heart in when I see candles adorning the windows of homes during Christmas. Wonderful displays of the Christmas presentations are judged, viewed and held in awe, as we tour the communities to see all the decorated homes, but still, the practice of candles in the window, hold for me a special place in my heart. The tradition stems from a very practical application of adding a light to the window, to guide a missing one home. Somebody once said, “Yeah, the old man is out getting drunk and his wife wants him to come to the right house!” Well, maybe so, but the point was that she wanted him both home and safe with her again. Do we really take in the poignancy of the meaning of some of what we do? Not everything is just about laughter and smiling faces.

On the water, fishermen once depended on the lighthouses along the shore to not only guide them but to keep them from harm’s way. The simplest of accepted practice becomes mundane in recognition, just by virtue of its design. Do we question the headlights on our cars or the need of a flashlight in our homes or automobiles for emergency use? How about those bright street lights at intersections along the highways. Common practice makes these items almost unseen, not by any ineffectiveness, but merely due to their collective presence in our lives. Without those lights, our lives would be much different.

Then there is the angel or the star placed on your treetop at Christmas; if in fact, you do celebrate Christmas in your home and life. Like the light in the window, guiding the missing person home or welcoming the guest in, the treetop star has a purpose as well. It is a reminder of the “Star of the East”, that once guided the Wisemen to Bethlehem town, where the Baby Jesus lay. The angel atop our tree still reminds us that the announcement of the Christ Child’s birth came to mere common folk (the shepherds on the hillside), not just to kings and governors. How you perceive either the treetop star/angel or the lights in the windows, may make a tremendous difference in what Christmas becomes for you.

As you read today, I pray that you might find a deeper meaning for your celebration this Christmas. We tend to put so much effort into the preparation, that our energy is expended in the work needed to carry off a day, that literally just flies by. For many, it is followed by a horrible anticlimactically decent into exhaustion and for some even depression.  Take time to stop amidst the cookies, cakes, treat making, gift wrappings and decorating, and remember … God’s gift was a child, born in a manger… no frills or banners there… just a star, some shepherds, along with a variety of animals…  a truly a humble event. Let’s not make Christmas more than it needs to be, but more a time of family, friends, and the celebration of an event in time given to us. May the light, perhaps found in your window extend welcome to others this Christmas! May God’s richest blessings flow into your lives as you celebrate the birth of Christ this year!

Monday, June 12, 2017

The Bard asks: Is Silence Golden, Or Just Plain Yellow?

To my Dear Wife Karen; Thank-You for this thought provoking title, spontaneously submitted!

I had never before been given a topic or a title for my blog, that might be opened up for my personal interpretation, regardless of the suggested idea put forward. This title, when offered, I receive from my dear wife one day as we were driving alone together. She has always seemed to enjoy my musings, so in conversation about my latest blog, I casually asked if she had a topic that might be of interest to her, and others. Each of us thinks differently and that is a good thing. While I had my original thoughts, as I mulled over in my mind a direction that the title might take me; at the time she offered no explanation on her idea. Before I tackled the theme that was now pervaded my thoughts on the title that she suggested, I decided to reconnoiter the lay of the land, and see if there might be some different revelation forthcoming from such a valuable source. She is such a dear and after a few minutes of circumspect silence, she thoughtfully voiced her reason for the suggestion, and left it for me to flesh out, and to later pay the consequences, if it did not meet her standards. I am not too concerned; I have not failed her yet, as far as I know, in literary undertakings. Your first insight into my real life! (Yes, I did chuckle as I wrote that!)

There is a duality in our natures that creates within us some very opposing situational events in life. For instance, what we may say in a moment of great challenge, might not always elicit the response we desire.  We live day to day under the assumption that everything is straightforward while we are very young. It doesn’t take long for us to understand that life can be complicated; as issues arise greying the areas of our understanding, while complications and contrasting voices expound differences of more than just opinion alone. It has been said that if you put 2 people together in one room, you will get 3 opinions and this presents the unstable foundation upon which we begin to set levels of personal expectations, and our perception of life being lived. That period of life, known as our formative years, is where we begin to find more than a confusing comprehension of a looming complexity, mixed into an already overwhelming diversity that life holds for us, and can lead us to the slippery slope of cynicism and doubt.

 It begins sometimes with the actuation of life’s most confusing issues; that being the challenges found in bringing up children in our home. I grew up hearing those directives, meant only to keep me in line and safe, yet bearing both the ridiculous and apparent message of confused context that most often portrays the frustration of a parent at their wits end.  At least I pray that is all it ever becomes. Have you ever heard someone in defeat say to their child; “If you don’t stop crying, I am going to give you something to cry about!” In fact I found myself using that same phrase as I as a parent, much to my chagrin. It did nothing to instill an assurance of process, in the hearts of my children, which would lead to perhaps a better dialogue of understanding and a positive outcome for both them and me. But I am able to now reflect on how hopelessly insufficient it all was, in helping my children to understand both their situation and my own, in such given circumstances. Ah, those awkward moments of self-confession. 

For those who have studied history, or even read novels on historic themes, you will know that in past centuries that spousal relationship was highly protected in secrecy, in fact just as much as one’s personal privacy. Not really so much has changed as we might think. Today secrets are still prevalent in all facets of society and are perhaps most blatantly visible throughout politics, as we well know. It is not good, we are told, to have a total open window into the running of our political machines. Too much information made available undermines security, fiscal planning, and economic stability… if all that can be believed. One might become totally paranoid and not want to discuss anything with anyone, if the barriers of total secrecy were broken down altogether. This brings us to my first premise, containing its own irony, when considered from a deeper perspective.

If silence is most often found while being totally alone (where silence is actually possible), how can it be golden? Here we must begin with the definitions related to the understanding of the old proverb; “Silence is golden!”  The internet relates that the poet Thomas Carlyle, translated the phrase from German in Sartor Resartus, 1831, where it is concluded that silence gives one the time, ability, environment to bring forth beautiful though, due to having time for clear and more purposeful thought (paraphrased). Most people are social in nature and will not often withdraw into a most private realm of presence without drastic provocation. You might say that we love to have interaction, the sound of laughter, conversation and as the mood strikes, and in some cases, the loud intervention of music and entertainment to heighten our zeal for life.

To withdraw into oneself, away from the din of the world, is not always as uplifting as we might think. For those of us who are introverts by nature, there can be a healing level of comfort to find ourselves alone from time to time. I understand from personal experience that this is not always the situation for everyone. Personally I was literally dragged from my shyness and the comfort levels I had in life, while remaining behind the scene. One day God called me into those arenas in life which became; as the phrase I have used often quite aptly describes it, as merely tinkling cymbal and sounding brass. I was called to the fray, the administration, into leadership when all I wanted was to be just one of the labourers at the table of life. Is there a clear and obvious time where we always feel content, at peace and yet fully engaged, while in the midst of total silence?

I have met people who find it difficult to find themselves comfortable in total silence, being enabled to bask in the possibility of total relaxation or the opportunity to find inspiration, either in problem solving or the healing of the soul. They have a tendency to panic rather than relax. Most may define it more normal to use their ability to withdraw from the world and curl up with a book and steep themselves in in a quiet time of reading; but, is this what we can call true silence. We may not hear the children’s playtime, or the television’s low expressions of media, but is this true silence? We have to ask then this question; “What can be defined as true silence?” In the observation of eastern meditation, it could be defined as focused presence, the absence of thought along any vein of concern. You can see the dichotomy of the issue at hand.  It may be that much depends upon our desire for outcome. Thus is the quiet reading of a book true silence for the soul, if one is in an interactive state with the plot?

Where there is an overwhelming negativity to find ourselves in a state of emptiness; to awaken to the fact that we are more confident in the presence of the others, desiring the opportunity to interact for our own comfort, the idea of silence being golden rings with less of a kinship with our take on life. Here is where the idea of silence, as being just plain yellow, begins to find the basis of meaning in some perspectives. There is no right answer to everything in life, but here as we have considered the first of the varying viewpoints on this proverb, let us at least take into consideration that the variables found in those perspectives do not always have a more correct or acceptable answer. If silence is to be both a unique and acceptable state for all of us, then may we offer to those who seek both true silence in the emptying out themselves in meditation, and to the others who seek a more quieting comfort in whatever level of silence seems most appropriate for them, a loving respect for their individual choice.

This brings me to the second premise which contains a certain element of fundamental decision making, where again not everyone feels either secure or comfortable. Is silence really golden or are we fearful of speaking out and being heard? I was never told that my opinion was worthless by my parents. Of course there were others who made it plain that what I had to say meant little in the grand scheme of things, but those naysayers were mere mortals like me and in that grand scheme, it is sometimes better to have not spoken, than to decide to choose to make a fool of those who chide you. After years of chairing very large boards and committees, I soon found that when the time is right; in God’s timing, your voice is heard by those who need to hear what you have to say. But, it does build one’s character and sense of worth to hear someone say to you; “It’s OK… I want to hear your opinion!” and really mean it. I have questioned, down through the years, while counselling with people, whether they ever had a voice in anything. Sometimes people can be very cruel.

I grew up in an era where children were to be seen and not heard. Well, perhaps I am only partly right in that; it was merely on the fringe of acceptable practice in families at that time. I grew up in the early post Second World War generation. I was born into a family who were loving, and for the most part accepting of everyone’s voice on matters. I remember when our Mom decided that it was necessary to reconfigure our home to accommodate both our family and our grandmothers. There was also to be a built-in added income flat upstairs, to give us more financial freedom, which would allow my Dad to work less hard to make ends meet.  My mother at the time was busy, when time afforded, making drawings, and so with delight I waded in with my own set of concept drawings, which ranged from underground bunkers to images of castles. There was no end to my creativity and each plan was accepted as part of the process, even though they were kindly rejected for more modest and feasible models.

The point here is that perhaps the level of accepted interactivity, modeled in family in our early years, goes a long way toward what level of confidence we display in being forthcoming, with our opinions or revelations about self or situations, in our later years. Time does not heal all wounds. Once stung, twice cautious, as a proverb seems to ring as a more temporary truth, but actually has a more lasting influence on people that we might think. Without the opportunity, somewhere along the pathway of life, to overcome such life shaping negative influence, one may always struggle to feel either equipped, or at ease in situations calling for opinion, reflections, or even one’s own defense if needed. I used to use an illustration of this concept being a real part of growing up and finding the ability to trust. When an infant is placed on a tabletop and we hold out our hands and beckon them to run into our arms. If they feel secure they will, without much hesitation or great consideration, toddle or run into your arms, even stepping off the edge of the table to do so. As long as you don’t drop the child, causing them their first experience of fear, they will repeat the action and giggle in enjoyment while doing so. But, drop them, or allow someone to enter the room shouting their disapproval, stating that the child could fall, then trust is ether lost or badly shaken. We are products of our upbringing in many ways, shaping our personality and forming our behavior in community.

So there is this further complication in life, where it is not always golden to be silent. In this latter premise of thought, persons withholding from interaction for whatever reason, or on the other hand those others who want answers, may be of that opinion that silence is much less than golden. Consider the case of two people seeking love in their relationship; with one person who does not feel the need to speak openly after the vows, and the other who longs for those moments of intimacy in sharing self, in spoken reflection of life history or personal desire, here golden is far from an adjective for silence. It is more likely that in this scenario these people may be finding silence as just plain yellow… some worn out and faded, diminishing joy, in life. I’ve worked with some relationships not too far in the past. A wife once related to me that her husband had not told her that he loved her after the wedding vows were spoken. His take was simple; “She knows that I love her…. I told her enough to get her to marry me!” Life is not always as simple as we presume it to be. The complexity of issues for all of us can rob us of meaningful interaction that might otherwise allow a blossoming relationship in life.

There is of course “that” silence, quite often misunderstood, and that is in relationship with God. There is so much to be said on this topic and I will deal with it in a greater depth another time. But, in the case of silence with God, it is far different from that silence of God. In life, no matter our nature, we can come to God freely and in confidence of His hearing us. We may feel that “His silence” is not golden, for it “is” sometimes difficult to hear His voice above the scream of our constant and consistent pleas. “OH!”… you say! Many are there who forget that Biblical characters,(even the Christ), had to withdraw, and in silence await the strength, courage and direction, forthcoming from God for their lives.  Are you waiting in silence for that loved one’s voice to join yours in intimate conversation, or more importantly awaiting God to speak plainly, clearly and loudly, so that the intention of His message for your life is succinctly understood? Remember if you will, that in the case of God’s silence, it is for our good. I pray that your decision for silence is golden for you and those around you… not a mere yellow reflection of what should be for a more desirable, healthy and secure life. May the Lord bless you in your attempts at a positive silence… it is living near the edge when attained, and the view from there can be astounding!

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Those Golden Years – Where We Wear Out, Rust Out Or Just Fade Out

As I began to approach the later years of my life (I guess I am there now) I have begun to think about the past more, and it is reflected in this series of pieces with other themes on memories, thus now the Golden theme. Down through the years from our adolescence on into what becomes the age of supposed maturity, we have occasion to examine our lives. Being a pastor for nearly 30 years, and laymen steeped in the work of all facets of the church before that, I experienced many of the uplifting times in life, as well as the sadder moments.

I was never a daredevil so to speak, not really, but I was up to a dare or a challenge, if it seemed reasonable and within the norm of my latitude of acceptability. There are those things that young people get caught up in from time to time, as you hear the words; “I double dare ya!” I was not however the type to just leap in without due consideration of consequence, not just to me bodily, but for me psychologically. Ah ha, you say… he was a person of reason even back then. No… I am not saying that! I was afraid more of what disturbance it may create within family and community, with the negative effects on my desire to maintain an acceptable decorum. Ok … perhaps a bit of a thinker even back then. The ordinary pulse of growing up includes the push and shove from within the peer group, and we naturally do our best to stay on a reasonably strong footing, because if you didn’t, it could mean disaster for you socially. 

I didn’t have a lot of friends, a few perhaps, but none who would turn out to be BFFs, in my case anyway. Was I a total loner then?... no not at all. I was athletic, and it led me to several types of teams at school until I began to work, and then my time was taken up with that necessity in life. I enjoyed the evenings out in the group settings of dances and some parties. I was not “the” social wall flower, but I wasn’t a VERY popular person in school either. I had my run-ins with the bullies of the time and people who were perhaps a bit jealous, when I received an athletic award at one year’s graduation; but for the most part my life in school was quite normal I believe. I was however an “administration pet”. I got along well with the office staff and leadership of every school I have ever attended and there have been a few. Enough said on that subject.  So I made few friendships that had expiry dates! The hard part of it all was that I began to realize that these friends, though not bound to be best buddies for life, still tied me to memories that I cherished and there is for me an element of sadness that that entails. 

As the years have turned into decades, and those into generations, I have tried to cautiously rekindle some of the fringe friendships that I nurtured to some degree in my childhood and adolescence. As the social media has made contacting old friends more accessible, I did spend some time cultivating that idea with only little success. Those who I have found, and felt I still had a close enough kinship with, have remained my friends on the media for some time now. It is good to watch their families grow, as they began to have grandchildren of their own, and in some cases, we still carry on weekly interactions of jests or blessings for one another. As life sometimes announces, the time soon arrived, when the joy of remembering had its difficult moments. I can’t say exactly when I lost my first friend to death. It was some time ago and his death was a shock, it was sudden, and it was a heart attack. I have had heart problems of my own down through the years, and it was my first reminder that life is precious, and perhaps I needed to take better care of myself. 

Where does time go we might ask, as suddenly we realize that we are no longer the young, energetic persons we used to be? I had never really looked deeply into a mirror before, and gazed into a strangers face, until the time of my father’s death. Having parents alive and situationally present in our lives, seems to define us as still having a modicum of youth still remaining, I believe. Well, I paused that morning, in front of his bathroom mirror as I began to shave, and gazed almost in disbelief, to see a man present and looking back at me; he was a much older version of who I used to be. I have to admit, it was troubling to say the least. He was wrinkling, there was a heaviness above and below his eyelids and those once flat and sleek eyebrows had suddenly begun to look bushy… just like my Dad’s. That reflection had jowls and a pronounced double chin, and so much more that just seemed to startle me immediately.

My Mom once said that I was too much like my father. "Oh?"... was the rhetorical question I lobbed back in return. Because we did not always see eye to eye, my Mom and I had to banter from time to time just to keep the air clear. By this time in life I had a fair sense of my Dad’s past and most of the work he had done throughout his working years. He worked hard; there was no doubt about it. Physical labour was not above him, and he didn’t easily back away from the difficult challenges placed upon him, in the standard workplaces of his lifetime. On one day in those early years, I had just come off of a stint of work with a large local paving contractor, when the secondary roads within the county were being repaved. That day in particular I had arrived home and was planning to go out for the evening, to meet my girlfriend at the time. Mom could see in my eyes that I was exhausted and a mere fast meal and shower was not going to meet the needs for my recovery that evening. I had literally hand swept, with an industrial broom, 10 miles of highway, (yes miles!) cleaning the gravel left behind from the process of laying down shouldering, next to the new pavement. I went up 5 miles, doing one lane, and then back down the other five miles, sweeping the other lane. Why? For some reason the owners felt I could be trusted to do the job properly, and so I was chosen to be kept on that “last” day, enabling me to earn more wages,  before they began to shut down for the winter months, which they did while I swept. They could have easily taken the tractor, with the forward sweeper, and completed the job in a couple of hours or so. I had started work as per usual, at 6:30 that morning, and arrived home at 6:00 that evening, and I was only working on the road less than 1 mile from home. Exhaustion or not... I had a date to keep!

Life has brought illness, in its various forms, in my stretch of lifetime thus far. I have always seemed to bounce back and be well enough to carry on with some success. But as we know each illness takes its toll on many facets of life and our body parts either wear out or give out at some juncture, after the wear and tear of continued illness. Some of us know the hazards of years of prescription medications. While they do add comfort, relief and even acceptable levels of important readings for our medical needs, they sometimes create their own sets of problems for other parts of our physiology, relying on not being attacked just to save another organ, gland or muscle. As an example, many meds to control colesterol will attack our livers. LOL It sometimes reminds me of the proverb about robbing Peter to pay Paul. Not everything becomes a quick fix in the medical world.

So it is that we begin to realize that aging has begun. Most of us, or at least some of us, try our level best to grow old gracefully. I am not one to join a gym and begin a regime that will transform me into a remake of a 50 year old. All power to those who can do it, or have a driven passion to undertake the pain and discipline to take it on… but it is not for me. I already have too many problems that will not allow me to exact that kind of exercise on my already broken body. Some years back I hurt both knees in the Himalayas, in the northern regions of India. It was my first trip there, and in the following years I was no longer able to undertake the treks down the mountain paths to visit local pastors and their families. Today I am having trouble negotiating the stairs in our home and will soon have to consider sleeping on the main floor level. My aim is to be able to walk more and further to keep my cardiovascular needs met.

How we choose to live, what we are willing to undertake in the name of work, and with only reasonable risk in doing so, along with a good diet, (event that is under discussion and argument these last few decades) can have much to do with the outcome we find for our later years.  For instance, my Dad ate bacon and eggs (2 at least), along with baked beans, brown bread, coffee or tea a great deal of his life. He was for the most part quite healthy and was told that he may even live to see 100. Unfortunately a stroke shortened his life, complicate by pneumonia at age 96. But his body reflected the punishment of those years of physical labour. 

In life you may choose for yourself to be a person who lives a simple, yet athletic, lifestyle. And there is much to be said for that. On the other hand there are many who work in more sedentary situations, such as you would see in offices, vendors in cubicles in the mall, where life become a matter of keeping up with what is before them on a desk, on the computer screen, or in the confines of the home. I once heard a woman say that a day’s work at home was worth as much in exercise as any formal regime. Well… that may be so for some, but I tend to feel that most of those mothers out there would be well served with some form of cardiovascular exercise for both their heart and their souls, to augment their needs when possible.

I’d been asked if, when I retired, I knew what I was going to do with my life. I was retiring early, opting out of the stresses I found myself in, and needed to recover myself and my soul, so that I might have fullness of life, not just life in eternity. By that I DON’T mean that I dreamed of perfect health, but a more fulfilling life, spending more time with the love of my life, being my sweetheart of 45 or more years, and more time with family, doing some of the things that our dreams had envisioned for our later years. We are fortunate to live close enough to our children and grandchildren that we can be of some assistance, but not fulltime babysitters or mere maintenance workers. We have the options to jump in or reservedly refuse the most difficult of situations, if it is not a matter of life or death (and we all know about many of those circumstances) and most are not! My Mom once reminded me that there has to be a time to cut the umbilical cord and like the eagle, give the chicks a shove out of the nest to test their own wings. Yes… in some eyes it is either fly or die folks… I err most times on a more cautious reserve and take a long look at each situation as it arises, before I jump to a solid conclusion. I have much to be thankful for from my mother’s advice, and in doing just that, I learned to take hold of problems with eyes wide open, finding acceptable solutions, and meeting the challenges that come every day for us, as families now on our own.

So, how does one manage their life, so that the outcome matches their dreams? Well, it may be a real eye opener for some to suddenly realize that the best of well laid plans, do not always work out in the way intended. There is an old saying about the word assume… “It makes an ass out of you and me!” Now before you go all viral and send me to the back burner for using such language, it was for illustrations sake only. It is NOT part of my everyday language, believe me. In terms of plans, it is good to make them, and if you can, they should be well thought out and reachable, along with being simpatico with those you love. It is always dangerous to assume that just because you have well thought out plans, have done the ground work in financial and physical planning, that all is going to be well with the outcome. 

My answer to the question of what I was going to do was this; “I will find more than enough to do, for my plan is to wear out and not rust out!” Each of us will have those options available to us.  No matter the social or economic strata which we fit into, there are things to be done, things to accomplish for humanity, for community, and most importantly for God. The simplest of undertakings may seem too miniscule to be of any meaning to others, but God’s hand is working through you, as you work for Him. That doesn’t mean that you must immediately run out and join a foodbank, start raising money for a mission trip to Africa, India or the street missions of a North American city. It may be that you will answer the call to wash dishes one day at a community breakfast, note the snow-blocked front steps of an elderly person’s home and decide to shovel it off for them;  it is often the small things, within our body’s means that can mean the most, especially if done in secret, so that the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing (common saying meaning anonymously).

Well, the mirror did not lie! It has now been nearly a decade since that first shock, and as I look from time to time at that old man staring back at me in the mirror these days, I just grin. The “Golden Years”! What are they besides the time spent in the deepest joy with family, friends, (both old and new) and in company with a host of believers who raise their voices in praise to the God who created and now sustains. He brings comfort to those of us who mourn their losses, and grants peace in the midst of those mighty storms that oft rock our foundations. I don’t really mind the so called “Golden Years” at all.

Are you nearing the Golden Years, or walking through them, while wondering what is in store for you in the days ahead? It is the truest and most significant walk near the edge that we shall ever take. In the questioning of certain facets of the past, it is there that we face our present reality; what about time spent, the validity of our choices, the value of our personhood to others and finally perhaps, “AM I AT PEACE WITH GOD”? It may be the selection of our individual choices in life that will make the final decision, regarding those enduring questions, found on the heart of those approaching the Golden Years. Do you want to choose now and hope for the best:  will you wear out, rust out or just fade out? I suspect that, when all is said and done, many of us will just fade out after all. In closing I will leave you with the wisdom of my Dad’s epiphany, after wrestling with failing strength, and the limitations placed upon him, as his last stroke left him very weak. “I started life in a crib (actually it was the drawer of a dresser) and now I am ending life in a bed with rails… I am again in a crib!” Then, he cried; we cried together, as I held his hand that night! But God was walking with him through it all, and some months later, as I was holding his hand again, and gently rubbed his forehead, God took His precious child home to be with Him. Dad “may” have faded away in some respects, but he has left an aura of greatness, that many alive knew and loved about that man! In reflection today though, I truly believe that my Dad really did just wear out! He never sat still until his failing health no longer allowed him to be an exceptionally active part of his home, church and community. Lord, if it is included in your will, my choice would be to wear out, as neither rusting out nor fading out seem to me to be a preferred set of options in my mind.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

If We Have Memories Worth Relating – What Would They Tell?

Not everyone has stories that they either want to remember or love to tell. The generation I grew up in, like all before me, had a mixture of those sorts of individuals that at one moment loved to rehearse their youthful escapades, and at other times seemed a bit reticent to open up those parts of their past. Perhaps the telling might shed too much light on a too personal perspective on life. One cannot blame another for not wanting to divulge too much of themselves to a child, much less a young adult. It seems that we all carry a few skeletons in our closet that may rattle about in the minds of those whom we would not necessarily want to shape in our exact image.

I have often said that my dear wife reminds me, along with others as well I might add, that it may be quite important to set down in words some of the stories/songs from my youth. So many had been shared by my Grandfather/Grandmothers, my Mom and Dad, along with those many and various relatives that gathered, in joyful family get-togethers, in what Mom called our “Dell”. Around the fireplace, so lovingly built by my parents, while we sat on lawn chairs and logs or even kitchen chairs, stories flowed and the neighbourhood quaked with echoes of our laughter and singing. It was during those precious times of my childhood that I tried to sit quietly absorbing the stories that were shared. It was never just teasing and playfully embarrassing stories to be heaped on one another in jest. It was meant to remind them that life lived, though fraught with its years of trial and tribulation, was also adorned with the jewels of those treasured moments of togetherness and love, regardless of the heartaches they had at one time faced.

When Mom’s family got together, their corporate memories were important and  Mom often continued to explain, when I asked questions, long after the gatherings had ended. My mother’s family suffered that particular heartache, which many others shared in her generation, as did others before them. Her parents were afflicted with Tuberculosis. This was not uncommon as most will know. What I found most distressing in my childhood was that her family was broken up and sent off in different directions, to be raised by others. In the case of one son, he was actually adopted away from the family and community into which he was born. I didn’t meet him until my mid-teens. Children were often conceived even after a diagnosis that might surely mean the deaths of their parents, and this was the case with my Mother’s parents. So it was that my Mom was taken in by a cousin who lived just down the road from my grandparent’s home.  This dear lady, who I knew as Grammy Chetwynd (her husband died before I met him), grew to be a central part of my early childhood years, when she came to stay with us during the winters in her later life. Both she and my Mom related so many stories and spent time laughing about the odd things that brought about first, my parent’s long-term friendship, and then the love that led to their marriage, after my mother finally got out of the TB hospital when she was about 28.

I walked the stomping grounds of my Mom’s childhood neighbourhood, quite often in my early years, in company with both my immediate and extended families. I learned the daily life of those times along with the many names of places both on the mainland and the island offshore from their property. They were glorious days, filled with freedom and exploration, so very different from the more inland situation of my own home. We got to waft the smell of the barrel of lobster bait when we were introduced to a small shack along the water’s edge. But there was another barrel there as well, and it held fish liver oil. I can remember thinking of how awful it must have been as Mom and her siblings were forced to swallow that concoction back then. It had been left simmering in the heat of the day, preparing to become an elixir for bracing up the immunity of whatever person could get it swallowed, and not heaving it back up in disgust.

The huge boulder near Gram Chetwynd's
There were ghost stories, about the headless man of John’s Island, shared at the campsite during the evenings. We never tired of asking about all the special places that Mom and her brothers used to go exploring, when opportunity afforded it. One such place was the Thrum, or the Grand Thrum, which was a huge rock out-cropping on a section of land, jutting out from the shoreline below the two adjoining properties of both sets of Mom’s parents. Mom shared tales of hours she spent there at the beach, discovering all the magical pools up at Lyles, and catching minnows. Just behind the beach there was an inner pond where frogs and pollywogs could be caught. Another place, that I have often wished I could visit again, was a huge boulder near the house where Gram Chetwynd lived in her later years. There is a lot of history rehearsed about that particular spot, and its popularity down through the years has made many memories for those who were brought up in that area. Times have changed and these days’ children are drawn more toward electronic media and games, than they are to the great out-of-doors. The knowledge of such places becomes only a fond memory to our now dying generation.

We were given permission to pitch our family tent below the home of Mrs. Lizzie Adams, who lived very near both the childhood homes that my Mom had enjoyed. She offered to let us use one of the fields just off the lane, leading to Gram Chetwynd’s old property, where Lizzie was pasturing some cattle. Mom, who was always afraid of large animals, swung her purse at a cow near the fence gate, through which we had to pass. The purse separated from its handle and flew off scaring the cow as it sailed toward her. I am not sure who got the greatest fright, Mom or the poor cow. That dear lady, Mrs. Adams, had the strength of a man, and the heart of saint, in my eyes. I was told she used to go fishing, cut down and manufactured her own winter’s wood, raised cattle and chickens, and put in a full garden, all while maintaining her own home and property. Folks living through the early 20th century were a tough, and for the most part, hardy people. But, due to the prevalence of tuberculosis in the area, there was always a stark reminder of how fragile life could be when illness invaded the lives of families, sometimes changing previous plans that they had made, forever.

Dad was not always as forthcoming with his tales as my Mom. It took a lot of prodding sometimes to prime the pump, so to speak, and getting him in the mood to ease into reminiscing about bygone days. His childhood,(him being a bit older than my mother) put him in a bit different era in some ways. My Dad, born in 1909, was a survivor of the “Great Depression”, making his stories quite different. Many families were separated as the menfolk had to move around looking for work. For some that meant uprooting themselves from familiarity and relocating to the far reaches of the continent or further, in search of something that could give them financial stability for their needy families. Many families migrated to the United States to work on farms or in the timberlands of Maine, and sometimes even further west to Michigan. Many of course took to the sea working on foreign ships or schooners bound for all types of fisheries.

But my father’s stories were not about moving away; his were mostly about sticking closer to home and fulfilling family responsibility, though they could be interlaced with hunting stories by times, or trips to baseball games somewhere in the county. His trips were only short trips to harvest apples, which did not seem to suit his personality. Dad was a man of deep thought, having a good natured ability to influence people with his skill and prowess, rising out of what experience taught him, growing up as a lumberman’s son. He was used to watching and learning from the various skilled labourers, such as those who teamed horses in the woods. He understood the best way to get teams to perform their duties, showing both respect and love for the animals under his care, and in doing so he never had occasion to be kicked. There were instances where he did however encounter biters that always seemed to find their way to logging camps. He told me that there were also those excitable horses that liked to squeeze their handlers. When he found himself between the horse and the stall walls, a good sharp thumb in the ribs seemed the only correction that was ever needed during those isolated events.

He did however love to talk, once he got started, about his months working on the river dams for the Shelburne Electric Company, while in his early twenties; they were located up on one of the back lakes of our County. He would recall in detail the types of work and play during his stay in the camp. It was not easy work, and the times were hard, so a man did what he could to provide for the family. He chatted about competitions where men would see who could carry the heaviest rocks over a measured distance, either in their arms or in a wheelbarrow. He lived to regret those rather crazy tests of strength, when later on in life he suffered with some very painful back problems. This included a couple of deteriorated discs that had been crushed during those escapades in camp.

I was always amazed at the variety of things that Dad was willing to undertake. I have often reflected, when thinking of my own life, how like my father I really am, in light of his revelations about his working career. He and I had driven ambulance for a while, sold insurance for a very short time, had a love for metal and mechanical things, and worked in construction. He laughingly told me one day about his one and only carpentry job. I had been helping some carpenter friends on a job site, while I was still quite young, and when he found out what I had been doing he said; “well you are ahead of me… I got fired off my only carpentry stint because I couldn’t pound a nail, or make a straight saw cut!” As you can see, he loved challenges, and even though he had his family later in life, (he didn’t choose to marry until he was 40) he was still up to foot races and arm wrestling bouts, up into his 50’s, when finally one of us children beat him at one thing or another. After that he was content to walk along behind or contentedly watch others with their competitions.

We generally never tire of knowing more about our parents. While Mom could tell outrageously spontaneous stories of her experiences, both at home and at the Sanatorium, where she lay for years recovering from TB, Dad’ stories came more reservedly. It often seemed to me that they were given with a sense of appropriate timing, and a reflective longing on his part. I never knew exactly what Dad thought about many things. It took a lot to get the “whole” truth about what had happened and why some things “were” happening; not that he lied to me, and I am sure  he never did. Some things, he told me once, were best left unsaid until the right time came for their discovery. I may divulge at some point a few of those, but perhaps for now they are better left for another day.

Little may be known about your own parents or grandparents, or those persons who brought you up. You on the other hand may feel that you already know far more than you want to know, or even feel comfortable with knowing. It may be like that in our approach to God. I know in my own life that I have railed out against God, as things turned bleak by times. When my mother was returned to the TB hospital, over 4 hours away at that time by car, I was devastated. I was around 7 years old, and I could not understand why she had to leave, other than that I had known she had fallen ill again. I understood that if she went there she might get better. But, she might be away a whole year? Why would God do such a thing when I was being told what a loving and kind God we had; our God could be called upon in prayer, for He heard and answered. I called on God a lot as we got the news, and my prayers were not being answered. Of course the problem was that I prayed selfishly, and was too young then to understand timing and reason, in God’s plan.

But, as God’s greater plan unfolded after several months, Mom was returned to us and she became a patient in a nearby hospital where we could visit regularly, and life began to flow back to normal, and the stories continued in person. Now those family stories have become my stories. As you have noted in my blog, most of my stories are about how God interacts with me, in life within family community and everyday life, yet interaction with Him is most often dependent upon our own sense of being. The story of my life thus reflects more of a presence of God, than it does merely my parent’s influence. This is not meant to diminish the part my parents played, because without their Christian inspiration in my life, I would not have known who God really is. If our personality leans toward us having a strong independent spirit, then we may not readily include God in the picture. There may be personal tragedies in life, when people seeking God and not hearing a reply, or feeling no heavenward response, begin to decline the decision for faith. They begin to lean on the physical presence of humanity, sheltering only in the arms of friends or loved ones, or for some, perhaps in a worst case scenario, seek a temporary chemical answer, hoping to assuage the pain. But, believe me; this avenue of response will not get the job done… God is the only answer to humanity’s trials, which will ever give true peace.

Whatever your story has become, I pray that somewhere along the path of life, you will allow God to be evidenced in your own journey. He is there already, no matter what path you have chosen for yourself, and regardless of whether or not you have bothered to acknowledge Him as present. The amazing thing for me has been that though life has thrown some mighty outrageous screwballs my way, God has both held the bat and made the calls from behind the plate. Ok... a baseball analogy and not everyone likes baseball! My personal stories include, as I prattle on to those who would choose to listen; (or in this case read) a background of assurance upon God that has gotten me to this day. My prayer and belief is that God will continue to see me through to perhaps more than a reasonable conclusion in life. I will leave that one up to your future evaluations and God’s grace. There are more stories I could share, as this is just a few of the numbers of memories to be retold! Perhaps a walk near the edge, digging into your own memory banks, will bring some great stories to mind, prompting a whole new perspective on life, from there.

Monday, May 15, 2017

A Sobering Thought…. My Eulogy

In the years spent dealing with death, family visitations, grief counselling along with funerals and memorial services, I have had much opportunity to both read and listen to the eulogies expounding memories of people gone, but not forgotten, once loved, but now lost. There have been many occurrences, especially during the funerals of my own family members, that occasions mentioned and relationships rehearsed, brought tears to my eyes. Some of the speakers, on behalf of the families did so with steady voice, while others struggled to maintain courage and strength throughout their presentation. By times, it was suggested that the eulogy be opened to public offerings of memories. I have discouraged this being done at funerals, as there may be quite inappropriate statements made. Sometimes we forget that decorum should be the better part of judgement, and it may be sadly found lacking in some instances.

Through the years, during a few solemn services, there have been outbursts of laughter, and chiding, and while it may have been meant with the best of good intentions, it always left a sour taste in my mouth. I have often wondered why the world seems to find a reason to mock outwardly, during these most obvious times of religious solemnity and meaningful moments in people’s lives. On more than one occasion a bride was heard to comment; “Now you know why I didn’t want that person at our wedding!” But life goes on and I have always tried to calm the hearts of those who were confronted with such outbursts and have always tried to pave the way for God’s presence and blessing, to be both found and felt, in whatever service I was able to render.

I have, down through the years, often thought about my own death. Most of us do I suspect. In my life thus far I have had 3 cancer scares. Nothing drastic ever came of it. I will mention one of those events. I had lost my aunt to thyroid cancer within the past year on one such occasion. She had suffered through surgery and treatments, but the cancer came back and I had one day found her crying alone in her apartment when I went to visit. She had asked for my help to get into a nursing home, clear up her apartment and look after her family affairs. I did the best I could with love and meaning. A few months later, on a trip to our doctor after the usual annual blood tests, I was told that my thyroid count had changed. I had been complaining of hoarseness and having trouble swallowing, so I was sent for tests and the report showed both ends of my thyroid had hot spots, indicating a cancerous condition and I would need surgery, to have them removed. Not good! So I prepared myself, trying to steel my heart for what may eventually happen, as I remembered my aunt and her struggles with Thyroid Cancer the year before.

Of course before these types of surgeries, you are sent to have mapping done. So, off I went to the hospital to have the radiated iodine scan. Lots of prayer surrounded me, and I felt prepared for whatever I was to face. After the procedure, I asked how things went, and of course very little was shared, as usually happens. I was told a report would be sent to my family doctor and he would be in touch with me. Well, the day came for my appointment and I went with a bit of elevated fear, along with as much courage as I could muster, to hear the results and get a sense of what would be taking place. The answer I got was what I least expected. The latest scans were clear and whatever had been noted before on the previous scan had disappeared. So, I was observed for several months and had blood tests to verify the last findings. It has been many years since then, but I will not forget the prayers sent heavenward for me during those weeks.

Did I evaluate life through that trial with the unknown? Absolutely, I did. Have there been times since, when trials have arisen and life seemed unsure, and I looked fearfully at the future? Yes, but perhaps no more than many of my friends and family. Nevertheless it is during these struggles when we find ourselves taking a look at the past, while gazing toward the uncertain future, that we most often take stock of life. On many such occasions I have thought about what could be said about my life. Would I want merely flowery words and sorrowful tears to rehearse my life? Would there be any good or important thing to say, that would add the true meaning of what either my mere living or any striving after a fullness of life had meant, in the context of my years? It was during one such occasion that I had a change in direction, a new vision of what I desired, (if I was to have any say) to be found in my eulogy after my demise.

There is little in life that has true meaning, but that which affects others for good, for righteousness, faith and love for others. We too often measure education, achievements and even single moments, as having value in themselves. It is true, that should one dig up a history of my life, or read a former CV (a resume for employment in general) that there might be milestones, accomplishments and things to warrant some level of praise, but that has become of so little value to me. It is not where I have been, or what it is thought that I have accomplished, that is important… it is how I was capable, prepared, and engaged to undertake, and to some extent, to succeed at what God had seen fit for me to do. Someone asked me one time what drove me to do the things I have done, and the only answer I knew that held any meaning was this; "I have tried my best to follow God’s calling… I know I have fallen by times, but it was God that got me back on my feet and revived my soul toward His ends."

When asked about my education, as I have enough to get me by, my answer has always been since my early adulthood; “I finally know now that I don’t really know anything… education itself has proven that to me!” I have met people with no formal education to speak of, yet they have wisdom beyond our imagination, where experience has taught them far more about life, and existence in this world, than perhaps it is naturally understood in today’s culture. I went kicking and screaming to university as a young adult. I had a wife and 3 children in tow. I wanted a quiet life, yet God took me to situations, position and before people that caused my heart to tremble and He saw me through it all, not by my education, courage, strength or personality, but by His will.

What could my eulogy say that could meet the need of my heart and not the need of family or friends to aggrandize a life that was normal, simple and for the most part shy and afraid? Life plays games in the hearts of the beholders, the onlookers, those who watch from afar, even those who, under the wing of family care and relationship, cannot see or evaluate fully the inner being of the person they have striven to know. We love our loved ones! We care for our peers and community. We hold them in as much respect as their value to us seems worth, and then in death we oftimes heap accolades of praise upon their memories, which may be merely tinkling symbol or sounding brass to our Creator, Sustainer and Redeemer God.

You may begin to see that at this juncture in life; I see my life as rather insignificant, other than perhaps the mixed levels of joy at my presence to my family and a close circle of friends. To most we become either a convenience, should we be needed for a specific reason, or merely as a matter of comfort, as people relate to the stability of community and circles of friendship that become more remote as years pass us by. It may surprise you to know that in conversation with many seniors, down through my many years of ministry, even outside the professional context (and I disliked that label, but had to live with it) before I entered pastoral ministry, that many seniors relate to the sentiments of the teacher in Ecclesiastes 1:2-3. "Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the Teacher. "Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless…." We find ourselves unable to justify all that has taken place in life, outside perhaps that most meaningful of activities,being childbearing. Yet, even there the context of our influence is so miniscule, as life and its living steers our children, perhaps even more than the training we give during their early years.

I would never want to be thought of as a pessimist. These thoughts today are merely mine in the context of what I value most in life and want said at my death. It is neither meant to change the mind of others, nor to diminish the desire of others to speak of their loved ones departed. It is merely here for some to read and perhaps for others to take into consideration. Should I have family who read this and surrender, bowing to my wishes, beyond any need to speak otherwise... I would be thankful.

My Eulogy
(Ps 103:13-19 NIV) "As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear Him; for He knows how we are formed, He remembers that we are dust. As for man, his days are like grass, he flourishes like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more. But from everlasting to everlasting the Lord's love is with those who fear Him, and His righteousness with their children's children; with those who keep His covenant and remember to obey His precepts. The Lord has established His throne in heaven, and His kingdom rules over all."

Man is like the grass of the field, and this man we have known, now taken up into heaven, has a desire for 2 things from those who remember. First he wanted no credit for anything said, accomplished, or given in his lifetime that brought joy to your lives. Secondly, for those who may, please forgive, as the Father forgives, for any sin spoken or done in the weakness of the human flesh against you, for we all have fallen short of the glory of God; we all are sinners saved by grace.

Each breath he took, he gave credit to his Heavenly Father, each gift he received, from family to friend, he knew it was a blessing come from God. There may be some here today who will desire to give credit in some way, for a human context of thanksgiving for a life lived, but to God be all the glory! As Edwin most often said following sermons or after long hours of facilitating meetings; “God provides; I am merely the agent of delivery.” Without God, Edwin would not have had the many blessings that he felt he received during his lifetime. Even in respect to God's gifts.. he felt that they were most undeserved; yet he coveted the love of his wife, children, grandchildren, and those who would chance to call him friend.

It is not important to remember the “man”, the flesh that has carried the name Edwin D. Allen up to this day, or into the days following. If you are to remember anything, this is his wish; ”Life brings to our feet the good and the bad, it surrounds us with potentials for uplifting joys and overwhelming sadness, but through it all "there" is God. He is our Rock and our Stronghold.. and in Him I placed my trust! Do not shed tears that my life has passed, only in joy that God’s grace has granted me an eternal home in his presence. Do not be fearful of being alone without me, for I have only been the human touch of God’s hand, if comfort has been known by my presence. God remains, and it is His peace that will carry you through. I have lived by His strength and in the joy of your presence with me, but let me go… this tent of human flesh I’ve shed and a heavenly robe I now wear. Be glad for me. Love as the Heavenly Father loves you … love each other, regardless the chasms of separation you feel… I wish I could have done it better… I tried and sometimes I failed; But I loved the best I could, in God’s strength!”

If there be ears let them hear…

End Note: Be aware… I am not going anywhere yet…  scary as the thought of my remaining might be. :)

Shoes Worn Through, No Socks and Blistered Feet

Noon on Pennsylvania Ave, Washington DC that summer was both hot and crowded. It was not my first rodeo down there, but we were back as a family this time, to visit the tourist haunts, so that our children could soak up a bit of the history of our neighbor to the south. It was our tradition during that decade to take some major North American trips every couple of years. It meant saving up all our extra cash and any tax refunds that we might be fortunate enough to receive, but we saw it as an important part of our children’s education.

People seemed to be shoulder to shoulder that day. There were long lines for the Whitehouse, the Capital building and in some cases the National monuments and museums. It seemed like a never ending battle to decide what was worth either the waits or the maintaining of presence in the line-ups. Everything moved at a snail’s pace and concern for meals and heat exhaustion were preeminently at the forefront of our concern. But, we had stopped on our way west to give our children this advantage in their lives, that not everyone was blessed enough to experience, so we stayed the course.

Amidst the throng, as the noon hour progressed, people were partaking of the fares and wares of the local vendors. These summertime entrepreneurs likely did a great business, while charging excessive prices for everything. Still in all honesty they were fulfilling a need created by the numbers of unprepared people who swarmed like ants throughout the venues. Not everyone was there to visit museums. There were others who were there by necessity. It was a blatant shock to our senses and an eye-opener to our children, as they gawked open mouthed, at those “others” who made their way among the throng of tourists.

It can be a shock to both our sense of reality and our moral fiber to watch what unfolds before us by times. I will tell you of the harshest of these realities that made a difference in both my life and the lives of my children that day. What looked like a middle aged man was making his way up the avenue. He was a bit stooped; he wore a dirty felt brimmed hat, old shoes that didn’t fit properly and believe it or not a long dirty trench coat that covered his filthy apparel down to his shins. His pants were short, he had no socks and from all appearances he had holes in the miss-fitting shoes. His eyebrows were long and bushy; he wore a heavy long beard and the most distinguishing feature was his very long blackened curly fingernails. Those types of nails I saw again, in later years, in India on my various trips there.

The gentleman paid no attention to anyone at all. His task was simple and filled an immediate need; to find food, to scrounge every garbage can, picking up half-eaten burgers, uneaten fries and even finishing off any leftover drinks that had been discarded that day. If something was worth saving he shoved it into the pocket of his coat, to be eaten later. We had seen people on the freeways coming into New York, on our trip down to Pittsburgh some years before. They were common elements, quite often seen on our trips, to be found entering major cities in the east. They sold practical objects to people in cars, trucks, campers and big-rigs, as traffic came to a crawl and then halted in rush-hour tie-ups. It was how they earned their living, but his man in Washington ate out of garbage cans to stay alive; this was vastly different.

We could ask ourselves how this could be happening in this day and age. How could someone be so radically isolated from assistance, when this was taking place in the very capital of the most powerful country in the world? It may come as a shock to some to find out that power, affluence and economic prowess does not mean an automatic equality for all people, in or under a country’s, state’s, business’s or family’s care. While society, due to the nature of the egregious offence to its have-not elements, does its best to secure a path toward some practical fix, many still remain outside the parameters of any assistance at all. The political/economic machinery needed to run programs, along with the financial support, for both their inception and continued presence in needed areas, most often become sadly forgotten and oft times falls prey to diminished budgets. The argument for refocused efforts toward the forgotten in society, often goes unheeded, and a blind eye excuses both the deficiency and the mediocracy of the political conscience. Meanwhile billions of national budgetary dollars are spent with blatant excess on superficial pursuits, having little to do with primary health care, social support, education or even pivotal superstructure renewal.

In our local neighborhoods, here in middle-class affluent North America, it is hard to see and experience first-hand, a great deal of blatant oversight in social services and care for the forgotten and indigent of our country. Other avenues of assistance spring up to take up the slack through programs in our cities, towns, villages and religious institutions. Yet, there seems to remain a programmed overall desire to isolate ourselves from the hands-on practical participation in recovery for those in financial tribulation at varying degrees. It is easy to drop a few coins in the box, to write a cheque as the canvassers ring our door bell, but is there an actual conscious/proactive awareness of the plight of so many, defined as the forgotten, the have-nots, and the beggars who live on our streets?

The Bible reminds of Christ’s stories, (parables) of those who were the forgotten and rejected, and our need to be found “hands on” in our application of both concern and love for our fellow man. On Pennsylvania Avenue that day we sadly only watched, much to my sorrow and shame today. But the effect it had on me that day, soon moved me to volunteer in our local food banks, work as a volunteer with sheltered workshops and finally across the world to both teach, and give financial assistance, as much as I could, for several years.

The parable of the Good Samaritan epitomizes the various facets of how society interfaces with such problems. Can we imagine not helping someone in need? Yet, as hard as it may be to accept, many would rather pass to the other side of the highway and be on their way. To become involved means both responsibility and commitment. In the above mentioned parable, not only did the Good Samaritan take care of this broken man who was not of his religion, but he also left resources with the innkeeper to continue his care, along with the promise to cover any deficiencies in the cost not covered, on his return. (Reference: Luke 10:25-37)

Imagine if everyone cared that much. What a different world we would live in. Loving our neighbor as we would be loved should be our motto; value being placed on meaningful interaction on a regular basis. God has given us the resources as a gift from Him. We claim to earn our own living, but who has created all that is; even the resource from which the manufacture of goods and products come, by which we receive wage and compensation? I tend to view life as a gift in itself, and the joy of sharing has become foremost in my mind and my principle of practice.

The gentleman on Pennsylvania Avenue showed no shame in what he was doing that day. He was living on the edge. Had his life taken such a sharp turn that he was no longer able to maintain a standard lifestyle as we know it, or was he dislodged by indifference and just slowly became one of the forgotten? I am able to gain peace by walking along our beaches and shorelines while gazing out at the ocean. I lie down in a comfortable bed at night and eat regular meals; I have great health care and the blessing of a caring and loving family for support.  If everything suddenly changed for me, in the twinkling of an eye, someone would be there to pick me up, but I have seen thousands now, in my lifetime, who have no options; or very few to say the least. For the most part we here in North America are blessed beyond our true comprehension. We have much to give thanks for, even though there are days where heaviness of heart may bring the weight of distraction to our shoulders. Yet, still among us are the silent sufferers who surround us; the forgotten or the lost, striving to eke out a life daily, while hidden in our blindness and oversight!

If you are walking near the edge today, and that edge drives you to distraction, take opportunity to pause and look outward for a few moments. My grandmother told of a young woman who was driven by the desire to be beautiful. Every living moment she reflected on that possibility and it created not only personal dissatisfaction, but also animosity in both her peer group and especially within her family. One day her grandmother took her aside from the mirror where she was standing gazing at herself, and told her that if she began to concentrate on helping others in their need, she would be blessed with beauty. Years passed and she was able after a while, entering her teenage years, to finally defeat that constant bane to her existence. While working in a native village as a missionary a decade later, she was invited to visit a special reflection pool, which an older young lady she had been helping, often frequented as a matter of blessing. After walking for what seemed miles and sharing her experiences with the young girl, they finally arrived at their destination. The young missionary sat at the edge of the pool taking in the beauty of the surrounding vista. Without thinking, she glanced down and was surprised at the face staring back at her from the calm surface. Comely and attractive features had replaced what had been in her childhood a “plain-Jane” face that brought sadness to her young heart. She began to cry and murmured quietly; “What precious time I lost in longing for what came so naturally; as I was giving to others … God was quietly giving to me”.

It is not easy to forget about ourselves and focus more on others. It is hard to imagine both the context and quantity of hardship there is in the world, but it still remains. But as you stand amidst your own trials, there at the edge, what is happening may not be so terribly bad as it may then seem. It may just be personal, and what happens to us personally is most often felt in its extreme. Take time to pray about it. See if there is another outlook, another avenue, not to deflect or put off a resolution, but to give time to put life into perspective, beyond the immediate collapse of life as you know it. Perhaps that is what God was doing for me on that extremely hot summer day in Washington DC. I was soon given another chance to respond… after all there were lots of shoes worn through, no socks and blistered feet that confronted me in my years of travel that followed that first face to face experience with abject poverty. Maybe God has something for you to do… perhaps to sooth just one tired blistered foot (or heart) at a time. It can take you to the edge of a different class altogether... but it brings a deep satisfaction and a beautiful joy to your heart! 

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

New Bridges over Old Chasms

I grew up in a whole different environment than this generation of high tech and instantaneous everything. I had the curious experience, while very young, of following around a grandfather, who was by nature somewhat quiet, but did take time to spend with his grandchildren. It was a time with a much slower pace in life. Our household fluxed with the needs of family, as they came and went for various reasons, sometimes staying for a month or more with us, but they were good times for us all. Some of the stories of my youth I have shared already, others are still to be recounted and put into print. Here are some more of those memories.

Our backyard had relics of the past, reminders of how things used to be when Grandad kept a horse, either one of his own, or for someone else. I was always enthralled by items such as the old sledge used to bring tree length logs out of the woods, both at home and elsewhere. In back of our home was an old corduroy road that was a remnant left from one such access to our back lot, where firewood was harvested for the winter, and was likely placed across the swamp so the horse and sledge could safely get to the woodlot and back.

These old roads could be found everywhere in my time. Along with the common corduroy roads were the log bridges, built across brooks and streams, which needed constant repair and upkeep, to ensure another season’s use. They were a necessary part of the work load and their maintenance was part of the landowner’s schedule, if the roads to woodlots were to be used for another year. If the stringers got bad, then the whole bridge was replaced, if the wood on the other side of the stream was worth the work needed to rebuild the structure from the ground up. This work was all done by hand, taking long hours in some cases, and much back-breaking effort.

Winter and spring storms that brought floods, meant that rot or complete destruction was a norm for the woodlot owner back then. Today, machines move into woodlots building roads, bridges and ditching the access routes to ensure years of practical usage, and when they do need repairs the machines return. What could take days or weeks then, in some cases, may only take hours in today’s standards. They are putting in a new set of bridges across the local river in our town. One of the bridges replaces a train trestle and the other a single span bridge used for vehicular traffic. Both were in need of replacement, both will be a welcome addition, especially as the vehicle bridge will now be a double lane structure. The look is certainly different, but the structure will be much safer and grant an easier route along a busy highway. Seems like the work is being completed in the twinkling of an eye!

This past weekend, which has been Easter, I got to spend the day with my whole family; meaning all of our children and grandchildren along with some of the extended family, including our sons–in-law’s parents and other of their children and grandchildren. It is times like these that I give thanks for family and am reminded of my own childhood, as I watch both old and young alike gather in a very different format, than I would have experienced in my own youth. I sat in their local Church Service on Easter morning and my heart swelled as all of my children and grandchildren filled several of the pews around me.

Easter in my childhood was very much about the change of season. People wore their “Easter” outfits, small children sported new clothes and little girls had on new Easter bonnets. Religious services often spanned a three day celebration, starting with a 3-hour service on Good Friday, sometimes a musical event somewhere on Saturday night, and then Easter morning events and services. The hardest part of the celebration for me, is and has been, the knowledge that while the Easter’s message, being one of reconciliation and forgiveness as God’s grace to His creation shone forth in the Christ event of death and then resurrection, seems of little consequence in the overall perspective of many. After all, it was the once and for all breaking down of the wall that sin had built, between Himself and humanity. Yet, little seems changed in the hearts of those who fill the churches to celebrate… life goes on as usual, as they exit the building. Mine is neither to judge or condemn... I have no right, yet my heart aches nevertheless.

I had in my youth, a fascination with the flexibility of the moral fiber of those who call themselves believers. Varying levels of acceptability of practice and denominational tolerences made the challenges of personal direction of faith sometimes grey and forbidding. Though there is much debate over the breadth of practicalility in the sweep of that brush; there creates a much confused set of definitions, that have been debated at all levels of religious strata, since the time of Christ. Our moral compass is greatly affected by our environment, decision processes, and to a great extent our peer groups, and the effects upon us can be as many as they are varied. Knowing personally how easy it is to be drawn into a situation,  without even realizing the folly that has beset you, I fear for those who have no hope in faith that is founded in Christ. To hear the Easter Message, to celebrate why and how God made it possible for people to gain forgiveness, should make a difference in our lives; shouldn’t it?

What does it take, in the case of the human soul, to repair the damages of time and mishap? Unlike the labour of strong hands and clever skill sets, enabling men to repair and rebuild damaged bridges just by their sheer will and ingenuity, the malefactions of humanity encompass such a broad spectrum of both subtlety and blatantness, that man’s sheer will is not enough to either overcome, or repair the rift between themselves and God.  There could be only one solution and that became totally dependent upon God himself. We find in all religions, the presence of a deity who is both master and co-ordinator of the universe, yet none who themselves became the sacrifice by which the believer was granted both reconciliation and forgiveness, but in the God of the Christian Faith. As the believer has cause to sing the great hymn of the Faith, “Redeemed, How I Love to Proclaim It!”, the quiet peace of knowledge of God’s love and assurance, to those who seek Him, still rings true today.

I am sure there are many who read this blog, and feel embittered by religion and the fickle nature of the "Church”, as we have all watched humanity drift in and out of the church-house seemingly unaware of the nature of their witness to the world. We are called to worship, and much of the time are confused at both its meaning and its call to the state of both mind and heart. It perhaps becomes easy to settle upon a neutral state of limbo, both revering God in some circumspect awareness and a haphazard compliance to tradition, when circumstance demands. Churches are oft times full at Easter, Mother’s Day and again, while not so much, on Father’s Day and then filled again at Christmas. A quiet need to revert to family tradition, or to pass on to the next generation the religious context at some level, is a need that is not totally passed over at least by “this” generation. My concern remains for the next, as the rift between belief and faith find an unholy indifference towards one another as time goes on.

If you are the searcher, the wanderer, the procrastinator or even the cynic, you have chosen a path that has been steered by situation and experience. We each face life, never ready for the winds of change and disappointment, but nevertheless find a course that we feel suited to our personal satisfaction, based on both need and comfort. While there are quite often variances in such a generalization, most often we settle in life just for the comfort of settling itself. There is little room to wriggle in some situations I understand. We find a way to sustain presence without too much damage to either our moral fiber, or our presence as part of family and peer groups alike. While many choose to run from life, more than we might believe do stand and fight against the fear and anxiety of life being lived.

Sorrow, despair and depression are not crimes against normalcy, though they are quite often treated like they were. Upon hearing chiding voices speaking those hurtful words, “Only the weak need God!”, many once deigning to chance the walk of faith have had their resolve broken, never to return to that path once again. Those turning to God with significant needs are walking near the edge, many times so weary of the activity of living that there is nothing left to hide from God and so look up, not wanting just an end, but merely to finally realize peace. Here near the edge there can be peace. Here near the edge we can find love and acceptance. Here near the edge does not mean we shall no longer feel the storms of life, but we are assured that the fear of being in the midst of the fray can pass while never feeling totally alone. Today humanity still occupies the pews of the local church, and as humans pass through the portals, coming and going to worship, they still carry the burden of all those human shortcomings that have been the bane of our existence since the fall of mankind. They go... many seeking.... many finding!

Each person who enters God’s house does so as an individual; entering not to gain, but to give back, not for mere profit in redemption, but as a gift of love toward God, never to merely fill the coffers of the religious establishment, but in due homage to Him who has granted life, not merely in eternity, but also life in fullness, to those who would believe. The bridges once broken across chasms, once deep and wide are spanned, and the swamps, bogs and un-crossable terrain, now have a passable road to carry us to safety within God’s love; that proffered in the death and resurrection of the Christ Event, celebrated at Easter! You only need to trust the bridge, and take that first step! I trust the builder and so can you!