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.

In my office is hung a framed T-shirt, with the saying emblazed upon it, “I Survived Panic in a Can.” I was awarded it after finally managing to get out of a submerged helicopter simulator, the first two times with eyes open, the final time wearing blackened goggles. I flunked the first time, managing to hit the ceiling rather than the exit, and the divers had to pull me out. Before they put me through it again, I got remedial training. For that, the instructor strapped me onto a chair just above the water, then lowered me in upside down. I was to not release the straps immediately, but pause to get my bearings first. Oddly, when I did that, I saw the exit, my heart rate went down, I did not start running out of breath, and I managed it easily. After three or four practices doing this, he had me put on the blackened goggles. Again, I paused while upside down, this time in total darkness. But in my mind I “saw” the exits. Again, calm came, I unhooked, then hand-over-hand pulled myself to the exit.

When I finally got to go through the submarine again, I made it! I was delighted, my instructor and the other students applauded.

Just before then, I had to demonstrate that I could swim a distance with overalls on, plus boots and helmet. These things definitely weigh you down. The fact that there was no speed minimum, that I could have essentially floated my way did not matter. I tried harder and harder to swim faster, to get to the end, but was not making it. Pounding the water with everything I had, I more or less managed to swim in place, with my boots pulling my legs down and my helmet blocking my sight Then I heard a commanding voice shouting in my ear, “Breathe! Breathe!” It was a rescue diver swimming alongside, who I had not noticed in my concentration to stay above water and move. I took the hint, slowed down my pummeling, and let myself get to the far side. I simply alternated slow side glides with some swimming.

I let myself get there, rather than forcing myself there by sheer strength of will and increased flailing. That is a standard axiom of swimming – treat the water as your enemy, pound it with your legs and arms to go faster and farther. It is a matter of muscle strength, conditioning, and practice.

So imagine my surprise when I read the obituary in the Nov. 18th issue of The Economist for Terry Laughlin, a record-breaking swimmer and renowned coach. It was him who coined the term “total immersion.” Rather than fight the water, immerse yourself in it. Flow, swim silently. “Worry less about the power of your engine, and more about the sleekness of your fuselage.” Reduce friction. “Aim to glide through the water, concentrating on balance, fluidity and relaxation, delaying exhaustion by using just the muscles you need, and only when you need them. Thread your hand through an imaginary slot in the water, treating it like the prow of a ship.”

Working on your mind in order to put this into practice is a lifetime’s work. Concentrate on “incremental improvement, through cleverness, patience and diligence.” The starting point is unconscious incompetence – when a swimmer does not even realize what is amiss. Next comes conscious incompetence, when you spot what is wrong and try to stop doing it. Then comes conscious competence, when you

do the right thing but only with effort, and finally unconscious competence: the mental equivalent of automatic pilot.

Reading the article, if I had substituted spiritual formation for swimming, I could have been reading an ancient, revered work by many spiritual masters. What would change in our view of good discipleship, if we applied his swimming principles to our faith walk ? As we begin Advent and face the start of a new year, it is worth considering, then trying them out. “Total Immersion for Christians”: that has potential, doesn’t it?!

Recently the Food for Thought group (which meets every Tuesday morning at 11:30) watched a documentary instead of discussing a book. The documentary was The Cave of Forgotten Dreams. It showed the astounding, jaw-dropping animal paintings on the walls of a cave in France. Carbon-dating has placed the works somewhere between 28-30,000 years ago. They are not “primitive” stick figures, but full three-dimensional portrayals of lions, horses, rhinoceros, fighting bulls, and other creatures, with movement conveyed. As the narrator commented, one could almost hear the sound of the bulls’ horns connecting. In one section, the heads and necks of three horses are portrayed, each with different expressions, different personalities. In another, a cave lion is about to pounce. It is six feet long, yet the proportions are perfect, as is the depiction of that pause before pounce, when the cat’s rear is slightly up, the shoulders ready to spring. All this, done 28,000 years ago.

We discussed what was missing from the panels: no humans, no story line of hunt or conquest, no religious connotation, no reason to be there except……. Why? Why did the artist draw them? Why were they honored (the honor shown by being allowed to remain)?

Perhaps part of the answer is that we all have a basic, inner need to share the wondrous. The beauty of horses galloping, a mountain lion prepared to pounce, bulls fighting. Once years ago I took part in a charity run-walk with my dog. I had planned on taking part in the run, until I saw the group prepared to take off. Each looked liked they ran marathons. The dogs were lean sporting breeds, ready and conditioned to go miles at full speed. The men looked like greyhounds on steroids. My collie and I looked at each other, then decided to switch to the walk-group, where we joined an elderly friend with her two Shelties. The runners took off first, with a start that reminded me of the Kentucky Derby. Nearby, a woman restrained three gorgeous Borzoi hounds. (Two of the three were breed champions, the third was one show short of getting his championship status.) Their long coats gleamed in the sun, their muscles rippled as they surged together as a pack to follow the runners. Instinct kicked in, and the pack wanted to hunt. With difficulty she held them back.

I will never forget that fleeting moment of wondrous beauty, when the sun reflected off of their long silky coats and the muscles rippled. If I was an artist, I would have done my best to capture the moment on canvas.

I would do so for two reasons: to remember, and to share the experience. If someone else “caught the vision” and took similar pleasure, my own joy would be increased. Perhaps that need to share is as much a basic need as the need for shelter, for food. The artist was not “wasting time” when he could have been doing something else more practical. Instead, he used his great skills to share, and now, 30,000 years later, we continue to appreciate and be grateful as well as in awe. What

he saw and shared, what we see, is indeed wondrous, and our lives are enriched because of it.

It is a good thing to remember wondrous moments. It is a good thing to give thanks for them as the gift from God to us that they are. Then may we have the courage to share them. The world is better off when we do.