I am prepared to be snowbound. Provided the power does not go out, I have food in the freezer and books galore to read. I have been told about some snowfalls so high that the only way to get out is through a window, then you essentially snow-shoe out. Given 1) I have no snowshoes, and 2) even if I got out, my car would be stuck in the garage, unless there is an extreme reason, I plan on being happily stuck.

Even if that doesn’t happen for us this winter, I have four books to recommend, none of which are religious. Yet each could expand your soul and mind, if that makes sense. They are books to savor, to curl up in a chair with a glass of wine or coffee alongside, and simply enjoy. They are not to be speed-read through, but to ramble through at your own pace, maybe even re-reading sections.

The first is Ursula K. Le Guin’s No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters. Le Guin died in January at age 88, after a lifetime career writing classics in science fiction/ fantasy, essays, children’s books and poetry. Her books have been translated in languages around the world. (When someone asked her what one novel meant, she had to respond that her answer depended on what it meant when it was written, what it means now, and what it means to someone reading it in Turkey…) Check Wikipedia for all of her awards.

This is her final book, a collection of essays ranging from her dealing with the various issues of aging, to The Great American Novel (TGAN, which seemingly has never been written by a woman, thus freeing women to simply work on “their book”,) to letters written to her from children, to assorted essays about the cat she and her husband recently adopted from the animal shelter in Portland. As you read, it is not reading WISDOM, just the wry astuteness and humor of a great mind who has lived long and well. As I read it, I had the sense of listening to a well respected friend talk, gripe, and be totally, wonderfully, impressively human. I wish I had known her.

Another book of essays is more for those of us who are addicted to books and literature. It is The Collected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick. Hardwick was the co-founder and editor of The New York Review of

Books. Over the decades, she wrote essays, reviewed books, and promoted authors. Some of the titles of the essays will give you a feel for the book: “America and Dylan Thomas,” “Loveless Love: Graham Green,” “Paradise Lost: Philip Roth,” and “Locations: Landscapes in Fiction.” It is not a book to charge through, but take an essay at a time, as the spirit moves. Her writing is something experiential, such as her opening for “America and Dylan Thomas”: ” He died, grotesquely, like Valetino, with mysterious, weeping women at his bedside. His last months, his final agonies, his utterly woeful end were a sordid and spectacular drama of broken hearts, angry wives, irritable doctors, frantic bystanders , rumors and misunderstandings, neglect and murderous permissiveness.” If this type of writing draws you in, check out this book.

The third book I am considering to have our Food for Thought group get to discuss over several weeks: Ten Poems to Change Your Life, by Roger Housden. I am a great lover of poetry, so it was inevitable that I got this book. He does not use ‘favorite” or ‘classic” poems: I would bet that most you have never read. But they are well chosen, to jar you into deeper thought. He includes essays on his own take on the significance of the poems, which you can agree with or not. But between the poems, and either agreeing or disagreeing with him, you will be influenced. At minimum, simply read each poem (one day at a time), then sit in silence to let what it says sink in. Only after you have felt its impact, use your mind to discern the “why” of the impact. Your experience will differ from others’. That is the glory and power of poetry.

The final book is a feel-good read. Anyone who has experienced war-zone combat will tell you that it is not glamorous or uplifting. Rather, after viewing carnage, and discerning what you are capable of doing, most veterans simply don’t talk about it, except maybe to other vets. But if during the midst of horror you get the chance to do something truly good, something you can safely tell your family about afterwards, that is a story to treasure. Towards the end of World War II, it was discovered that the Nazi’s had stolen and hidden away herds of Lipizzaner and Arabian horses, for their “perfect horse” after their victory. The story of the rescue of the horses, under the guidance of the Spanish Riding School leader Colonel Podhajsky, was made into a Disney film in the early 1960s, The Miracle of the White Stallions. (A movie I recommend for the riding sequences, where real Spanish Riding School riders rode. But as a war movie, I fast-forward, for in this “war film” there is no gore, and the heroes do not get dirty or even wrinkled.) But now, in the book The Perfect Horse, by Elizabeth Letts, you can read the whole story from those who took part. With footnotes and an index, she shows how much research she did, backing what she writes. The pictures are a nice touch as well! The fact that the Allies took this on and were successful is a story not to be forgotten. Enjoy

Mysteries surround us:

– There are physical mysteries: why is it that the wood door on the front of my house expands and sticks in the summer, but is fine now during the winter, yet the wood side door of my garage is fine during the summer, but is now sticking?

– Then there are social mysteries, such as why is it acceptable to be seen outside in a bathing suit, but not in your underwear? Why is it inevitable that someone will introduce you to a new person when you are looking your worst? Or for me as clergy, why do people start talking to you in a counseling mode, while you are naked or changing clothes in the gym? Being introduced as a chaplain at that point is also awkward.

– There are inside-yourself personal mysteries. I live in a house over a hundred years old. Over the years, the foundation has settled in a not totally horizontal way. Consequently, both of my dressers have a single drawer that comes out on its own. The others stay put, the single comes out as though the dresser were haunted. But not all of the time: they each have good days, bad days for staying put. So finally after six months, I decided to do something about it. I decided to find something to lift up the front of the dressers, so they would have a harder time sliding out. In the Vermont Country Store catalog, I found solid-wood cedar bed-raisers. Two for each dresser should do it, and if they are strong enough to hold up a bed with people in it, they should be strong enough to hold up my dressers!

The package arrived over a week ago, and is still sitting on my kitchen counter, unopened. One of these days I will open it up. But to put them under my dressers, I have to first pull out the drawers or empty them, so I can lift. Any day or weekend now I will do it. At least, that is my plan. But as the days add up, I have to ask, “Why don’t I just do it?” It is a mystery. I feel much like when I worked in the Washington State Unemployment Office just after college, and would occasionally man the phone desk. People would call in, complaining that their check had not arrived. I would check the computer, and see that that there was no red flag on their case. So I would tell them, “It should be arriving any time now. If it hasn’t arrived in a month, we can put a tracer on it.” “It should be arriving any time now” is right up there with “One of these days I will do this.” Should I die tomorrow, whoever comes into my house will see the box of bed raisers, and wonder.

I add up other things I intend to do “one of these days.” I once saw a wonderful cartoon in The New Yorker magazine. Two men are standing talking in hell, with flames surrounding them. The caption read, “What gets me is that most of my sins were sins of omission!”

AUGH! I have a nagging feeling that could be what I will be charged with when I come before God. Not things I have done as much as good things I intended to, but never quite got around to doing. I wonder how many others are like me in that? Lent will be upon us soon, a time for personal reflection and review. May we use the time as it was meant to be used! And may I have my dressers fixed by then as well.

Once there was a man who announced to friends and family members that he was dead. Not dying: he was dead. They pointed out that they could see each other, talk, and do everything living people do. He breathed, ate, slept: he was not dead. But he insisted that he was.

Finally they took him to a doctor. Rather than arguing with him, the doctor asked him, “Can the dead bleed?” The man thought, then admitted that no, the dead can’t bleed (because they are dead.) The doctor proposed this: “I will cut you, then stitch you back up afterwards. If you bleed, you are alive.” The man agreed to be cut.

When the scalpel broke through the skin, blood immediately spurted forth. Quickly the doctor patched the man up. He looked triumphantly. There was a surprised look on the man’s face, then he said, “Well I’ll be! The dead DO bleed!”

[From Rabbi and psychologist Edwin Friedman’s Friedman’s Fables.

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I wonder how many of us have opinions set in cement, which we will not be moved from? We may believe that we are dead in a way, in that there is no hope, we are helpless, life is not worth living. Or we believe a certain group is evil, without having had any in-depth interaction with them. The list could go on. It is worth thinking about as we approach Lent! Some introspection might help us to become more fully alive.

Recently I took a beginning tatting class. I have long wanted to learn, but could not figure it out from books and there was nobody who did it, let alone taught it. The five of us in the class were guided by our instructor, who showed us the basics as a group, then individually time and again. She showed patience, humor, and was good at slow-motion demonstration. I now think it is possible and doable! But I definitely will need follow-up as I try my hand at this new skill.

I started thinking about all of the things difficult or impossible to learn without someone you can watch, ask questions, and receive guidance as you practice. Crafts and hobbies: could one learn fly-fishing or woodworking, clog dancing or saxophone playing?

Branching out to other areas of life: if one was abused as a child, how do you learn how to discipline without either giving in to all demands or exploding and battering? If you never were around infants and toddlers growing up, how would you know what is normal, and what is an unreasonable expectation? I once talked to a man who had severely beaten his three month old son for not obeying him and for being disrespectful. According to him, children needed to be taught to show respect and obey “from the very beginning.” Admittedly, common sense should have guided him that infants are too young to learn. But given his ignorance, could watching other fathers interact with infants have taught him without words? And maybe after a friendship and trust were established, having a safe way to ask questions? (I am thinking about inevitable toddler challenges, like how to handle it when your two year old “doesn’t mind” and keeps throwing their spoon onto the floor. How do other parents handle that?) There are so many things common to all: to use a cliche, why should each have to reinvent the wheel?

Expanding that: learning how to live a balanced, healthy life throughout your life. In one church in Utah, a member was a high-ranking executive in a national company. Consequently, he traveled a lot. Yet his job was not his life. One of the gifts he gave his two sons was that, when he was home, once a week he would take each son out for breakfast before going to school. He made the time. Ninety percent of the time they simply ate and discussed sports. But in the other ten percent, the son had some private time with his father to talk, share, with no interruptions or other family members listening. An invaluable gift, no expertise required. And that gift had a ripple effect, as other fathers tried their versions of it.

Now think in terms of ethical living, standing up for the poor and against wrong. Or what a life of faith looks like, of actually having a positive relationship with God. For most of us, seeing first hand teaches more than watching a video or reading. What if, while watching, we had the chance to talk, ask, learn? And what if our “experts” turned out to be as human as we are, not infallible or omniscient, yet still showing that there is a way of living that gives light in darkness?

We don’t have to be experts. Are we willing to share so that those watching can learn? And maybe by showing patience, humor, and admitting when we also find something difficult, end up helping others realize that they, too, can learn and do? Coming full circle, think of all of the things that enrich and strengthen our lives that can only be learned if someone is willing to show how. If not you, who?

Once while stationed at a shore command, we arranged for Santa to visit during a children’s Christmas party. Santa was a six foot tall, broad shouldered elderly gentleman with a real white beard that went down past his shoulders. Santa was in great shape, except for his knees. (He had knee surgery recently, and we worried about his knees holding up between getting to the chapel hall and kids bouncing on them.) The fire department would bring him to the chapel with bells ringing, lights flashing. If they stopped at the right place, he wouldn’t have to maneuver the deep road-side ditches, but simply get off at the driveway. (Unfortunately, they missed it by a few feet, and he had to go through the ditch.) As we approached the time for Santa to arrive, over thirty children had gathered, plus adults. The noise level was high, and they were very, very energized for the visit.

All I could picture was Santa getting mugged. The kids would swarm, his knees would give out, and we would have a public relations disaster, as well as a hospitalized Santa.

Santa arrived in high style, made it over the ditch with no obvious problem. Instead of swarming, the kids went silent, staying at a distance. Santa looked surprised, but went with me to the fellowship area and sat on the large decorated chair we had set up. The kids followed, but still stayed at a distance once inside. Not a single child would approach, even with Santa encouraging and smiling. Finally a Marine dad strode forward, his son reluctantly following. Dad did a semi-squat over Santa’s legs, not quite sitting, but faking it well. He told Santa what he would like for Christmas, and Santa beamed. His son then followed, making sure dad stayed nearby. After stalling tongue-tied on Santa’s lap, he finally talked. Santa listened gravely, and responded appropriately.

Having witnessed that it was safe, the other kids came forward. They did not swarm, but took it all extremely seriously. (For a party, it was very sober.) Only after all had talked to Santa and survived did the energy and noise levels return.

Afterwards, I tried to figure it out. Final conclusion: this Santa was too real. Other Santas were men is costumes. This guy was different. They came to see Santa, but had not anticipated meeting reality.

I wonder how many of us are like those kids? What would be our reaction to a direct, indisputable encounter with God? I once met a woman who had been miraculously healed. Consequently she stopped attending church. When I asked why, she told me about her fear. God was now too real. It frightened her.

Think the angel appearing to Mary, or the many to the shepherds. Think wise men from the east appearing bearing gifts. How did they, how do we, handle Reality intruding into our reality? We pray: what are we expecting? We worship – what would be our reaction if we had what is termed a “religious experience”? It is worth considering, pondering. Would we turn from God or stand at a safe distance away if it all became too real?

I am a big fan of Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol. I have a large collection of different renditions, ranging from a CD of Patrick Stewart’s reading it in his one-man show, to the classics, to the Muppets Christmas Carol, and other variations. The strangest so far is Dr. Who’s version. Christmas Eve evening after the worship service I will start my marathon watching and listening. (If you haven’t heard Patrick Stewart perform, make the investment for next year. Turn the lights low, stretch out on the sofa, and listen to his Royal Shakespearean Theater trained voice.) Though the story is the same (with the one exception being Dr. Who), they are not clones. Albert Finney’s Scrooge singing “I Hate People” in Scrooge emphasizes that aspect. After watching George C. Scott as General Patton in Patton, in his portrayal of Scrooge I keep thinking it is Patton getting briefed and changing directions. Not reforming, just adjusting the battle plan.

Towards the end of the story, having seen his dismal end Scrooge demands that there must be a way for him to change, otherwise “why show me this if there is no hope?” He awakens back in the present. But from then on, the past and the future remain with him, affecting his present. He can’t change the past. He will still die in the future. But by living differently, by being different in the present, the course of his destiny will change. It is not too late.

A Christmas Carol was written quickly, when Dickens was in one of his many broke periods, and he wrote to take advantage of the demand for Christmas stories. It is ironic, for it has become a classic, better known even than his Oliver Twist (a full book that took much effort.) It gets messages across in ways that aren’t complicated, just effective. It is timeless, for unfortunately humanity has not changed, so the calls on behalf of the poor and for better working conditions for the down-trodden are as relevant and needed today as back in the 1800s. There is even an anti-Christmas-consumerism line that is omitted in several of the movies, where the Ghost of Christmas Present points out that Christmas isn’t just one day a year, for the Child born that night is present every day of the year.

The Christmas Carol is a ghost story. But it is a ghost story that denounces injustice, shows the nobility of the poor, and the reality that wealth won’t buy a way into heaven. Or, for that matter, wealth

won’t even guarantee true mourners when you die. It is a radical story, easily read in one evening. It gives hope even as it calls for reform. It speaks to all of us. I invite and challenge everyone to savor it this Christmas! If you have never read it, read it aloud (as it was meant to be read.) You will rediscover a treasure.

I am a big fan of the British author Terry Pratchett. In one sense he writes fantasy novels, but within them is biting social commentary, complete with footnotes that add a zinger or two. Yes, they are fantasy, but he makes Disc World so everyday- real that the fact that there are dwarfs, trolls, goblins, werewolves and vampires among the working-class human residents seems reasonable. They are all regular beings, trying to make a living and go about life. The hero is the chief of police who tries to maintain order while also dealing with in-house issues such as a vampire demanding his Equal Opportunity rights to be hired, pointing out that there were no vampires on the police force (why not?) In one scene, a tired dwarf sergeant doing the front-desk duty tried to explain to the speaking ashes of another vampire that technically it was not murder if you are already dead when it happens.

One of his books not set in Disc World is Good Omens. There, the end of the world is supposed to be happening soon. The anti-Christ has been sent to earth to be born the son of a major political figure. (Think The Omen movie trilogy.) Unfortunately, the ones making the switch that would replace the infant of the politician with the anti-Christ blundered. Instead of the politician, the child was placed with a common bank clerk. Instead of growing up as the privileged son of the elite, here was a kid who went to regular schools, had chores, got grounded if he misbehaved, and had unexceptional friends. Even the sending of the Hell Hound backfired. The demon dog would become what the kid named him. Instead of Terror or a similar name, the boy while talking to his friends described the type of dog he would like: not big, not small, just a medium-sized mutt that he would name Dog. Thus the Hell Hound was transformed into a people-loving regular kid’s dog.

On the story goes, with both demons and angels trying to change things. But the kid is wise, deciding it was all too complicated to try to fix everything. He would simply let the world work itself out, while he dealt with his friends, school, and trying not to get grounded.

During Advent we celebrate Jesus’ birth, as well as the future Second Coming. I suggest that we should also give thanks for the setting in which he was raised: by ordinary people, in a community that was a minority and oppressed yet still maintained its culture and sense of worth, each struggling to make a living and trying to do what was right, without power or influence. All of the children would have chores and help out keeping the family going. As a toddler he would have been reprimanded, as a child and teen been grounded (or whatever their version was, probably simply more chores.) He would have been afraid at times, confused at times, maybe even bullied by kids of wealthy parents. He would have rolled his eyes, griped with his friends over the unreasonableness of parents, and taken in all of the complexity of life.

That is our good omen: God “pitching his tent among us,” one of us, so understands what we are going through. Emmanuel – “God With Us.” Which also means besides

understanding our struggles, God also understands our joys, shares in our laughter, appreciates the silly as well as the well-loved mundane. A good omen, indeed.