[Note: this was originally written in January 2018]

I am off TV (no cable, no dish, just NetFlix and Sling on my TV.) But the other day I bumped into the old Clint Eastwood movie, Pale Rider. I had not seen it in decades. (I am not a Clint Eastwood fan.) But I had watched it once, after an experience at New Horizons, the drop-in center for the teen prostitutes in Seattle where I worked before joining the Navy. We had only four paid staff, and worked out of a condemned building. Ron, one of the staff, took some of the street kids to see the movie. Afterwards he marveled that besides enjoying it, they had all caught a single line in the movie, and talked about it afterwards. In the movie, a teenage girl offers herself to Eastwood’s character the Preacher (who is also a gunman assassin.) Instead of accepting her offer, the Preacher says “You need to know how to love, before you make love.” Our teen prostitutes totally agreed. If life was as it should be, there should be love before “making love.”

Bumping into the movie again, and watching it (albeit fast-forwarding in parts), I marveled once again at the wisdom of that one line. It has made me think of how many areas where a variant of that truth could be applied. Such as, “One should know they are coming into the presence of God before taking part in a worship service.”

Once while deployed a fellow chaplain priest and I went from ship to ship in the Middle East to offer worship services on the small boats that had no chaplain. Lez, my fellow chaplain, had the heavy Polish accent of his parents. He was possibly the worst singer I have ever had the misfortune to stand next to during a song. He struggled with understanding jokes and humor. Yet if ever there was a man who could transmit coming into the presence of God, it was him. We were on a small Cutter (even smaller than a Destroyer), which was patrolling the area. Small crew of under 100, small spaces for everything. We held our worship services in the galley, the dining area for the crew, which consisted of six booths, and the kitchen immediately behind us. Our services were just before lunch, so the meal was being prepared in the background. (To give the cooks credit, they were as silent as they could be.) My turnout was decent: they filled the six booths. Throughout the services those on duty had to respond to calls and leave then return, but all was taken in stride.

Lez’s turnout was standing-room only, truly packed. Unlike me, who had simply brought my stole, he had packed his robes in a duffel bag, along with all of the implements for Mass. Gravely as the crew gathered, he donned his robes. Since there was no alter/ communion table, he put an intricately embroidered cloth over an emergency box on the wall, then placed the chalice and hosts on that. (I have a picture of that scene, which I treasure. His eyes are serious, inward. Behind him, the box has been transformed.) For the next 45 minutes, that galley area became sacred space. One sailor had been an alter boy, and volunteered to assist. Together with the crew they offered up the Mass.

Looking around at the faces, I was struck by how serious and focused all were. They were using their limited free time not to sleep, not to do laundry, not to write home or work out, but to come to Mass. They were there to worship God. It was not a church sanctuary, but if ever there was now a holy space, this was it.

As the mass went on, other crew members had to pass through the area, potentially interrupting.. (The open area to pass through to get through to another section of the ship was only a person wide.) But Lez, would simply step forward without missing a beat, so they could pass behind him. All went without a hitch. They truly took part in a Mass. I was in awe. I had just witnessed what is hard to explain or describe: true worship on holy ground.

“You need to know how to love before you make love.” “You need to be aware of coming into the presence of God before you worship.” We have much to rediscover as Protestants, about coming into the presence of God when we worship, Are our worship services sacred time, a time of love and devotion, or simply “making love” without the needed prerequisite?

The Sunday after Easter several from the church went to the St. Raphael’s Assisted Living facility (also known as a nursing home.) Thanks to Jeff and Angie on guitars and Dawn on the flute, we offered alternative, lively music. Thanks to several others, we had strong singing as well. Their hymnals are large in font, few in hymns, but we found some Easter ones they knew. Unlike last time where there were several that sang loudly and well, this group was less connected to the present, but enjoyed themselves. One woman who could not talk still bounced her foot in rhythm. Afterwards, as a special event we served treats as well as gave away Easter containers. All had a good time.

But until I got there, I have to admit great trepidation. I really, REALLY hate nursing homes. I am not sure which is worse: dementia where you cannot remember anything and often are in fear or anger towards everyone, or being mentally competent but so physically disabled that you must live in a nursing home. To me, in the ideal world (a world of my own creation), before that time a party would be held celebrating our life, then we would travel off into the sunset to be mercifully killed.

Life in a nursing home is a long haul for many. Not only for them, but for their friends and family who have to remember to visit, to do their best to help while feeling helpless. For those without friends or family nearby, it is being very, very alone. In good places, the staff does their best. In bad places, investigations are done.

So I was less than enthused when the deacons decided to lead worship and offer treats at St. Raphael’s. It was something that needed to be done, but….. Music is one thing, but a message? If most have dementia and talk throughout the short message and prayer, what do you do? Does any of it help?

In the road to Emmaus passage, the two disciples are trying to escape from Jerusalem and their grief. Yet Jesus met them as they were, and first listened to them, then helped. He walked with them. He listened before he talked. He broke bread, acting as host rather than guest, and was recognized in the blessing, breaking and giving. They were still themselves afterwards, but hope and joy had transcended and reshaped facts as they

knew them. Yes, the crucifixion was real. But so was the resurrection, and so was Jesus walking with them.

A friend was a Navy pilot shot down during the Vietnam War. At first so many bones were broken that as a Prisoner of War, his fellow prisoners had to wash him, feed him, do everything for him. At first he continually apologized and felt ashamed. Then slowly he learned the benefits of being interdependent, rather than independent. Both sides had things to offer, to give. Both sides needed the other. It freed him from needing to be totally self-sufficient in order to have worth.

Maybe that is what we learn if we have to live in a nursing home. In The Christian Science Monitor there was an article where a person set up a company linking incoming foreign students with active-mind nursing home residents, via Skype. The students practice their English, learn the ins and outs of living in an American town, and thereby feel more confident as they approach this major change in their lives. For the nursing home residents, they benefit by being able to give, not just receive. They have things to offer that the other needs. It is a win-win situation. Isn’t that a marvelous program?

I still fear and don’t see any benefits in dementia. But where the mind is still tracking, perhaps those in St. Raphael’s and other places both learn some good things about themselves, as well as can teach us if we will listen. Like the Stranger on the Road to Emmaus, we may not see until after the fact, but afterwards, our hearts burn within us.

It is amazing how life can change in an instant. I went for my dental appointment, and all was as usual: well except one filling had a crack in it. (Given its age, not surprising.) But they had me do an x-ray in which I stood with my mouth holding onto a section, tongue planted at the roof of my mouth, while the machine rotated around my head. An x-ray, but more than what I was used to: simple inserts being put uncomfortably in my mouth, I hold still, it zaps a picture, and that one is done. This one took in the whole head, not just the teeth. Result: a visible large black mass where it should not be. Also a hidden “wisdom tooth” buried deep: maybe the mass was simply “moss” that had grown around it. No pain, no interference, but never the less, a mass that was not matched on the other side.

I am now scheduled for first an analysis by specialists, then surgery in a hospital to remove whatever it is. Cancer? Or just a cyst? I have had a LOT of basil-cell cancer. But it is unlikely to be basil-cell, given its location. So it is either very bad, or an irritant that needs to be removed then monitored, but that is all. Either way, I will be out of commission for a bit in terms of talking and preaching, since it is behind my left jaw bone. Worst case scenario: I will be permanently disfigured and disabled.

Why is the jaw worse? When the basil cell was all on my scalp, it was horrendous, but both not disfiguring, just embarrassing as I went through my bald phase. Sores on the head were covered by a beanie. I looked normal, albeit bald, wearing a beanie. But jaw work? That is something very different.

Easter: the reality of both suffering and death, AND the unexpected – resurrection. I am facing both. I have to admit my mind is mostly on the fear, the negative – the dark mass. But then there is Easter to counter-balance.

On Easter I will continue a decades-long tradition. I will bake a chicken in a clay Dutch-oven, make a green-bean casserole, and watch Ben Hur, with Charleston Heston. He was made a galley slave, unjustly. His mother and sister were imprisoned and got leprosy, unjustly. Yet they persisted in living, and miracles occurred. Those miracles did not cancel out the past, but made the present and future all the more dear. The darkness was real. But so was the light, which the darkness could NOT overcome.

How do they do it? Early last year I purchased an air plant (“Tillandsia” is the scientific name. It is in the family of bromeliads.) I have to admit it survived despite me. At first I would mist it with tap water, which turned the leafs brown. So I left it alone in my enclosed deck, with it simply taking in whatever moisture it could from the high humidity. It nearly died, but didn’t. Then a botanical garden offered a class on their care. For the cost, you would get three small varieties that would fit into a glass ball the size of a baseball. I went, and learned why my plant was miserable. They hate tap water. The water must be left overnight in a bowl, so the chemicals evaporate. If you can collect enough rain water, that was the best, but few could do so.

I started setting mixing bowls of water out overnight, then soaking the four upside down in the water for 20 minutes. This I did twice a week, so they benefited from both the humidity and the watering. My near-dead one thrived. (In the picture, it is the second one over from the left. You can’t see it, but the very bottom leafs are battered. All that you see is the new growth.) They quickly grew to the point where having them in a ball was not an option. They now fill a serving platter. To my surprise and delight, the one on the far left bloomed! Now once it blooms, a bromeliads will not bloom again. Instead, they produce “pups” around the adult, which, in their turn, will bloom, then produce pups. If you zoom in on the picture, the slightly larger-leaf plant growth in the center is the new pup. I am looking forward to seeing how the other varieties handle blooming and pups!

How do they survive? There are no roots. I am assuming in the wild there are at least hair roots to attach them to a base. Mine do not have them. They merely take in nourishment from the air and sun around them. They have no defenses, except their ability to take out of nothing. There are many varieties: the second from the right has no wide leafs to take in moisture, yet is happily growing. That they are alive is a given. HOW they live is a wonderful mystery, something to be delved into and wondered over.

That could be said of many people of faith: how does their faith stay alive under their circumstances? Yet it does. Not only do they survive, they may even be thriving. They take in nourishment that is real, though not visible. The ones who follow them are even grander. The “why” of their condition we may never understand. But this we know: God is there for them, and they are taking in the Holy Spirit. Do we need to understand it all first, before we accept and partake? Or shall we acknowledge that there are wondrous mysteries around us in nature and in community through which God can teach and strengthen us? May God open our eyes to see.

Over the past month, I have come close to getting killed twice. Okay, maybe the second wasn’t a “close to death”, just a “major injury possible,” but both jarred me and made me think.

The first happened on a sunny day when Highway 53 was clear (admittedly with a chance of ice, but clear), and I was heading to Boomtown in Eveleth for the ministerial meeting. I crossed the bridge and was not yet passed the meridian barriers when a woman drove straight towards my driver’s door. She was not sliding around, desperately trying to regain control of her car. Instead, both hands were gripping the wheel and she was staring straight ahead. She was seeing, yet not seeing, my orange compact SUV directly in front of her. I tried to speed up and sound the horn, but as her car came within a foot of me, I knew I would be hit. I glanced down, waiting to see the impact. At the last possible second it seemed like she came to, and suddenly pulled the car away with enough force that it spun, hit the cement meridian in the left (fast) lane, and ended up stopping facing the wrong direction, hood crushed in. How it came to be that her car did not ram me is a mystery, a miracle if you would. Trying to figure out where to pull over, glancing in my rear view I saw that two other cars had pulled over to help her. By this point, I was a distance away, my heart pounding, hands still gripping my wheel. I decided to continue on to the meeting. Otherwise I would have added to her misery.

The second happened when the warm snap started. I hadn’t noticed that some of my garage roof’s snow had fallen off until I tried going out the side door after putting my car away. I discovered the way was blocked. Fortunately I keep a snow shovel in my garage, so I got it and shoveled a path through to my sidewalk. Pleased, I turned back, took one step into the garage to put the shovel away, and suddenly there was a deep rumbling sound as an avalanche of snow mixed with ice fell down upon where I had just been standing. The path disappeared. If I had still been standing there, it would have crashed onto me.

Life can change in less than a minute.

After 20 years as a military chaplain, in one sense I have my house in order. I have a Living Will (do not resuscitate, cremate and scatter, donate whatever organs are still useable) as well as a Last Will and Testament. With my Last Will is a sheet giving my various accounts that my executor will need, plus such miscellaneous as instructions to have my first editions appraised, and what to do with my pets. Add to that, friends and family know that I appreciate and love them. In one sense I am ready, should death come unannounced.

I got to reviewing all of the funerals I have officiated over since I was ordained in 1982. As a Navy chaplain, many of them were young people, including an infant who died of SIDS. I honestly don’t know if there have been more elderly than young.

Probably that is different for civilian clergy. But if anything, it taught me that death can come when you least expect it, and to ones young and in great health.

Am I ready? Are you? We tend not to talk about it, even among family and friends. We sanitize dying and death. Is that healthy? I have my doubts. Recently I received the newsletter of the Monks of New Skete, an Orthodox Monastery. A lay associate wrote about the funeral he had observed for one of the monks. The deceased had been struggling with dementia, and was elderly. During his last hours, monks sat next to his bed, read scripture aloud, prayed with and for him, and reassured him that he was not alone. They were there, God was there. When he died, there was no embalming. He was simply dressed in a white cassock and laid on a handmade wooden bier in the chapel. There the monks rotated through the night, reading the Psalter, keeping vigil. This monk had been part of the praying community most of his life. He was now part of his final recitation, with brothers who knew and loved him, even when he was no longer “himself”. A grave was dug by the monks, deeper than normal. A graveside service by the community was held, then the deceased on the bier was lowered down into the grave, a monk waiting below to balance and maneuver. A white cloth was put over the face, then the monk climbed out on a rope ladder. Slowly the grave was filled with dirt, by members as everyone prayed.

For the observer, there had been no disguising death. But the respect, the love, and the faith showed through so much that for the first time in his life, a funeral was truly holy. There was no “celebration of life”: death was faced head on. Instead of the emphasis on the life, there was just a trusting gratitude, and commending that life back to God. “As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be….”

Lent calls us to pause, and ask ourselves that, should life change in a minute, what then? It is not being morbid. Rather, it is a reminder to take each day as a gift. Use it well.

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.