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.

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.

///////////

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?