Friday, December 31, 2010

On this thirty-first day of December the leaves on sweet gum trees, like almost all of 2010, are history; but a few hang on stubbornly... like some good and not-so-good things from last year which will stick around awhile. I could recite the litany of things that went wrong in the world last year, and I could say the good things that happened; but you know what they are without my making lists. So let’s take the leaves and make a Chinese Scroll Painting and pretend they will now last forever... and let’s take the gifts and blessings of last year and be grateful for them.

Happy, Healthy, and Prosperous New Year!

Thursday, December 30, 2010


Wednesday, December 29, 2010

I think I could have interested Braque, Picasso, Gris, and Leger in these images; and Marcel Duchamp might have found a nude ascending stairs...Abstract designs of the melaleuka, also know as punk trees in Australia, change daily as the bark splits and peels.

how she said she wanted...
a baby...
or did she say a child...
someone to hold
the way she held dolls
when she was herself a child....

And now she is ballooning
with a six-month pregnancy...
twins, one of each,
a boy and a girl...
which leaves me wondering
what she will do
when they both cry at once...

And then I know
the appropriate answer
is that the father takes one
and cradles it
in the crook of his arm...
or lays it on his shoulder
and pats gently until sleep comes...

Anyone knows
who has watched baby birds
stretch up and up... mouths wide open
when the mother comes back
and perches on the side of the nest
with a worm or beetle squirming...
she bears the greater weight of parenthood...

He knows his part
is mostly to wait and watch
and come alongside with strength
when what she has to offer
is almost enough
but not quite...
That is what after all love is...

--Jerral Miles

Monday, December 27, 2010

IT'S WHAT'S ON THE INSIDE THAT MATTERS... Well, not altogether. In the evolutionary great scheme of things the outside is obviously also very important. Take the orange with its beautiful, tough skin, for example. A tough outside provides protection for the seeds. Yesterday I wrote about how that papaya we had for breakfast at our house ignited my imagination and set me thinking how marvelous it is that living things evolved over millions of years in such a way that future generations are assured a start at least on our planet. Today the orange I ate for breakfast had no seeds... not one; so that set me thinking about how much I like the convenience of seedless oranges but that designer living things may not be such a good idea. Of course, I know making a seedless orange doesn't mean we are in danger of dooming oranges to extinction; but extinction of living things on this planet is a distinct possibility. After all, avoiding the consequence of uncontrolled proliferation of nuclear weapons is what the START TREATY is all about. I still can't believe the Republicans in Congress considered even for moment not ratifying that treaty... but that's another subject and could easily get me sidetracked off the subject of seedless oranges.

By the way, the orange was delicious... fragrant and sweet. Are seedless oranges tastier than oranges with seeds... or is it just the inconvenience of seeds that's the problem? Is it a matter of tidiness or sanitation? I remember eating oranges with seeds, and it's true that unless you have something into which you spit the seeds, they wind up in your hand or on the ground.

I'll give it some more thought.

Sunday, December 26, 2010


Making sense of things seems not to be something that everybody needs to do; yet there are some who want to know the how and why of just about everything. Those of us who fall into that second category of people are easily side-tracked. I can imagine my second grade teacher telling my mother that I was easily distracted. I remember Mother telling me that the teacher, Mrs. Foshee, told her that I saw every butterfly that flew by the classroom window. I was only seven years old, but I remember; and the reason I remember it so clearly was that my Mother wasn’t scolding me. I don’t know exactly what she said. I imagine she urged me to focus on what the teacher was saying and on whatever tasks the teacher gave the class; but she didn’t say I shouldn’t look at butterflies. That was just one of many gifts my Mother gave me.

A good chunk of my time every day, especially now that I am retired and can “afford” to spend time the way I want to spend it, is taken up with wondering about things that some other people apparently don’t care about at all. This morning, for example, as I made two halves of the papaya Margaret and I had for breakfast, I was awestruck by the beauty and mystery of that fruit. The gray-green-almost black, round, shiny seeds, crowding the space in the middle of the papaya, surrounded by the bright pink flesh of the fruit... the experience of laying it open reminded me that all living things have hope built into them... and later in the morning I had a reason to remember a poem by Gerald Manley Hopkins that I especially like. Of course, my analysis is an over-simplification, but essentially it’s a poem about hope that exists in the middle of doubt.

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;

There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

It’s not likely that many people will understand the why and how of my leap from breakfast papaya to Gerald Manley Hopkins’ “last lights off the black West” (sunset) reassuringly followed by “Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs--.” The way the human mind works doesn’t require explanation to be appreciated. My seeing hope in the cradle of papaya seeds doesn’t need explanation.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

IF ALL THE WORLD could have had the peace we enjoyed at our house today, all the fighting everywhere would have stopped. What could be better than PEACE ON EARTH!

Friday, December 24, 2010

The way my long-time friend Robert Smith, District Superintendent of a United Methodist District in New Jersey, sees it.

In shopping malls, up and down most streets, on lawns and the fronts of homes in every neighborhood there are indications of the Christmas season dressed up by “full blown” imagination and bright lights. Underlying the giant snow globes, blow-up magi, and that “jolly ole’ elf”, there is an assumption that this is a season of joy and happiness drenched in a 2010 more cautious extravagance. And if most of us were asked, we’d have to admit that it’s fun. I confess to enjoying the drive home from my office. It gives me uplift from my too often somber mood. But does any of it represent the mood of Christmas depicted in scripture?

I read the early church’s Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke and don’t see the bright lights, bells, and whistles of the way we do it now. On cards, at cantatas and Sunday School pageants we tend to view the legends of Jesus’ birth through the lens of singing angels, a bright star, and gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh making it a light, bright, and happy story. Is that it, really? It’s not. In fact, the stories and events depicted are dark... a scary darkness.

Mary and Joseph are forced by a foreign occupying military to march from their homes in Nazareth to the town of Bethlehem eighty miles away. Mary is pregnant and there is no mention of riding a donkey; she and Joseph may have walked the entire way. When they get there all the guest chambers are full and after Mary gives birth the baby is placed in the only space available, a manger. Almost all the major players in the story are dark figures. The soldiers couldn’t care less about the Jewish citizens of Palestine and are willing to carry out forms of genocide through stoning and crucifixions. The Roman governors only want peace in order to extract heavy taxes that will be sent to the Roman Emperor and for the glory of Rome. Herod, the vassal of Rome and Pretender to the throne of David, kills prophets and anyone who threatens him. It is this pretender who kills innocent babies in an attempt to maintain his illusionary power. Because of him Mary and Joseph are forced to flee for Jesus’ life and theirs to another country.

The real story is not about angels or magi or a bright star, it’s about Jesus, Immanuel, God with us. It’s the only part of the story that really works for me. I love the other stuff, the fancy, the gift-giving, the tree with bright lights and a star at the top; but the part of “The Story” that really works for me is Jesus, Immanuel, God with us. I have other stories, too; and I share them because it’s through them I came to an understanding of Christmas that sustains me every Christmas Eve. It’s about darkness and Immanuel.

     A few weeks before Christmas 23 years ago, Doug, a 24 year old, had a middle of the night argument with his mom and ran out of the house. He got into his car, put the pedal to the metal and about a mile away skidded off the road and hit a tree. I was called to the hospital. I knew one of his brothers, but had not met his parents or other siblings prior to this time. We are now best friends. Doug was placed on life support and it became clear that he would not survive. I’m sure they would describe it as the darkest day of their lives. Doug had already bought presents for everyone and they were wrapped and ready to be given. Gift-giving took on another meaning that year and every year since.

In the fall of that year a young woman gave birth to a beautiful baby girl, but two days later she died because of a blood clot that stopped her heart. Miriam’s death was another pitch dark day for her husband, older children, and for me. The story of the birth of a child and a mother’s labor had a different sense of risk and danger that year and every year since.

In another church a baby was diagnosed with cancer and hundreds of thousands of people prayed. Within a few months she died. Lily’s funeral was held the week before Christmas in a sanctuary fully decorated to help us scale the heights of a season of joy. I can’t tell you how dark it seemed when we placed Lily’s small casket in the middle of hundreds of poinsettias and white lights. Placing that beautiful baby in that manger that night made me realize how death surrounds life, all of it, and put me in touch with a darkness I’ve touched every Christmas season since.

On December 24th every year each of those families is present for the candle-lighting service. Through my tears and my intense gratitude for their presence I see these heartbroken families lighting their candles, holding them up, and trying to sing, “Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright…with the angels let us sing…Christ the Savior is born, Christ the Savior is born.” No angels sang in the middle of their darkness; no gift made them happy; it was all about Jesus, Immanuel, God with them, no matter what, with them and with me. In their darkness they were not alone and the story that is told, the real story, is simply God is with us, no matter what, with us, Immanuel.

Some darkness is just there, pitch dark, and will never be flooded with light. Some mid-night skies will never produce angel choirs or unusually bright guiding stars. Some wars will rage on and on endlessly and never be interrupted by peace. Some prayers will never change the suffering of children or our own heartache. Some pain will only be relieved by drugs that get us through the days of our lives. And some day we each will know that our final manger is a grave. Yet in the dark of it all, there is God, God with us, Immanuel. And that IS enough. And that IS Christmas.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

I imagined when I was a child
a world where lines were blurred
between what was verifiable
and what needed no verification
to be useful in dreams.

Toadstools are proof enough
fairies and elves and yes ghosts
live in the woods and under bridges
and come out to dance and play
only with children who believe.

No affidavit required.