The Paper Tree

 

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I didn’t want to carry those boxes of Christmas ball ornaments up the stairs again, unwrap their contents one by one and hunt for their little wire hangers. I do still love that assortment of sturdy glass balls of maroon, cream, and gold that I purchased in small, medium and large a few years ago when that fragile haphazard old collection had lost its luster.

But I just wanted to do something different this time … something easier.

So my first thought was paper. Yes, paper … and the sturdy bright kind in shades of Lunar Blue, Solar Yellow, Terra Green, Cosmic Orange, and Fireball Fuchsia. And yes, I just happened to have a pack of a brand called Astrobrights in my desk. Forget all of the other ornaments … though pretty, special, or authentic Native American. Let’s just keep it simple this time. Simple?

And thus began my obsession.

In the midst of ordering gifts, wrapping and mailing, Christmas letters and cards, Christmas parties, concerts and church events — I have somehow found the time to cut out strips of pretty paper, twist them around in any old way with no real plan in mind, and loop them onto my “Paper Tree”. They’ve mysteriously turned out to be rather attractive. And my various shapes and sizes of colorful paper chains are a joy for my eyes to behold!

Maybe we could just call it therapy in a busy season. Maybe we should call it a strange use of time. Or maybe we could even call it a “God Thing”.

The Rest of the Story:

Shortly after my first long paper chain was in process, a friend who had just returned from (of all places) Bangkok dropped in. She had been gone a few weeks during which we had no contact, so I was surprised to find out she had brought something back for me all the way from Thailand.

It was paper Christmas ornaments.

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Re-arranging the Christmas Scene

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There they stood … the cow, the camel and the sheep, the shepherds and the Wise Men, the Angel … and even Mary and Joseph … all lined up before the Baby Jesus in a straight line, as if ready for inspection. I’d eventually rearrange them back into their traditional places in the stable, clustered around the manger, only to find them the next day all lined up again.

Our older daughter, no more than a toddler then, had been making a practice of taking all of the figures from the Nativity display and re-arranging them in a long, straight row in front of the Baby Jesus, who had somehow left the stable in his manger bed to lie there front and center before the row of admirers. When I finally asked about the purpose of this daily re-arrangement, she replied quite matter-of-factly …

“So they can all SEE him.”

And now isn’t that the Point?

That we can see Him in our Christmas activities, in our gift buying, our caroling … in the midst of the lights and the shopping frenzy. That we can see HIM beyond “Jingle Bells” and dreaming of a “White Christmas”, and the seasonal movies about snowmen, reindeer, and Christmas romance.

One Christmas Eve of my childhood, arriving home from the church Christmas Program, I was sure that I heard the Angels singing as we approached our back door. Could it have been that same Angel Choir that sang to the shepherds in the field that first Christmas? Or was it just the Chorus of Sisters of Divine Savior Hospital, singing beyond the wall that divided that building from our back yard?

Perhaps it didn’t matter.

Because if we listen carefully, maybe we can still hear those Angels today in this troubled world of ours saying, “Do NOT be afraid. I bring you good news of GREAT JOY that will be for ALL the people.”

“TODAY … a Savior has been born … to YOU.”

And though these words were said over 2,000 years ago, they still apply. Christmas is not just a “once a year thing” … or a “one time and place thing”. The Good News of Great Joy on that first Christmas was for ALL time.

So be sure to take the time to look for HIM amidst the clutter of this Christmas Season. And maybe even re-arrange a few things to make sure that HE can be seen.

The Greatest Contradiction of All

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When I moved from Alaska to Arizona a few years ago, my new surroundings were about as direct a Contradiction as you could find between one place and another. It was like I had moved into “The Land of Opposites”.

I used to live in an Alaskan village at sea level, and now I live 5000 feet ABOVE sea level. My home in Alaska was nestled below the St. Elias Mountain Range, and my home in Payson is now nestled beneath the Mogollon Rim, a lifting up of the earth, but not really a mountain range. Elk have replaced Alaska’s Moose. And my many miles of flying have been replaced by many miles of driving.

And that’s not all.

In Alaska I was surrounded by the Tongas National Forest (with its tall SPRUCE trees), and now I am surrounded by the Tonto National Forest (with its tall PINE trees) — rather similar — but this Arizona forest also contains cactus plants. The first time I drove past that section of the road between Payson and Phoenix where they suddenly begin, I wondered how this could be part of the forest. Where were the trees??

In Alaska the Pacific OCEAN was practically at my FRONT door, and now the Sonoran DESERT lies not far from my BACK door.

And if we take a look at the weather ….

I used to live in a wet temperate rain forest, with a very high level of annual precipitation. And now I live in a mostly dry climate with a very low level of annual precipitation. I used to live in a place where a summer day of 70 degrees was unusually hot and now I live in a place where a summer day of 70 degrees is unusually cold.

And even more dramatically — I have moved from a place where the cycle of light and darkness peaks at midsummer with 18 hours of daylight, and at midwinter with 18 hours of daily darkness — to Arizona where the most dramatic change in the cycle of light and darkness for me has been remembering to change my watch ahead when I get to the Navajo Reservation.

Meanwhile the rest of Arizona serves as a Contradiction to every other state in the nation by remaining in Standard Time all year, even though Alaska is the state that certainly doesn’t need any further hours of summer daylight savings.

But perhaps we can learn something from the Contradictions life holds.

They might make life confusing sometimes. But to the “contrary”, without them life could get boring and we could even get stuck in a rut. Contradictions, however, can stir up thinking, and just maybe even encourage us to pursue a better understanding of the rest of the world and those around us. Like riding a bicycle with two miss-matched wheels that won’t work at ALL with just one wheel — sometimes we just have to accept our differences, and try to work together to get down the road.

I have discovered in my journey from Alaska to Arizona, that when Contradictions are appreciated, they can open up the way to new kinds of adventures and opportunities, new things to explore, and to new ways of looking at life … whether it be in our relationship with the beauty of nature that surrounds us, our relationships with one another, or even our relationship with God.

And yes, we can hold two “contradictory” thoughts together, and they can both be true, which is perhaps a Contradiction in itself. But this is why we are actually capable of believing two different things at once — like that we might miss the constant rain in Southeast Alaska but are happy to be out of the dreariness in sunny Arizona.

But is this not also a way of understanding God’s saving grace?

Is it not, after all, the appreciation of the Contradiction that our Savior was both Man & God, (having both natures at the same time), the very reason he could be our Savior? Is it not why he was able to understand our human emotions and needs, to love us as imperfect as we are, and to suffer and die on the cross, but yet able to promise us NEW LIFE through his DEATH?

New Life through Death  …   Is this not for us the very best Contradiction of all?

Or is it simply the mystery of God’s love for us?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back Up and Running

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You can have the best-looking 4-wheeler (quad) in town, with all four wheels dressed up in brand-new tires with impressive treads, perfect for frolicking along an Alaska beach or Arizona desert. But it won’t get you anywhere if that vehicle won’t start. I know this from both fact and experience.

The gas tank can be full, the battery charged up, and it isn’t going to matter a bit until you get that thing started! So you tap here and there on a piece of metal, hoping to awaken a spark of life. And if you have the skill or intuition, or imagine you just might get lucky, you might even begin to take that machine apart, looking for that something that will make a difference.

Getting started … Even in life in general, that can be the hardest thing of all.

You can put your best-treaded running shoes on and never make it to the starting line, whether it’s that intriguing project you’ve been eager to get going on, or the one you’ve been putting on the back burner for years. But even a full tank of ideas doesn’t guarantee the energy and initiative needed to get the project in gear.

What stops us or gets in the way? Is it lack of confidence? … fear or depression? … difficulty in focusing or lack of clear direction? Do we continue to tap here and there, looking for that missing spark that we hope will bring us to life? Or do we finally come to a point when we have to admit that we need more than our own resources to get ourselves going, along with some better tools?

For me, one of those tools is prayer, but I don’t mean the usual kind where we ask God to give us this or that, or to do this or that for us. I’m talking about simply sitting with eyes and mouths closed, waiting for God to speak to our open hearts. Try it! Close your eyes, relax, clear your mind … and wait. And let God do the rest.

It’s amazing what a difference just sitting awhile with God can make in getting our engines back up and running again, and those wheels turning smoothly in the right direction.

A Beak Full of Bread

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A dashing pair of bluejays made their residence near our home. They’d taken it upon themselves to scold and chase off a few cats who would have liked to have lived there too. They were not at all shy, and were happy as larks (or should I say joyful as jays), to find in our driveway a few pieces of stale bread that they took to be a fine house-warming gift. The next day one of them appeared again in his best blue suit and freshly-combed top knot, strutted around a bit and announced his presence with a few squawks! l was duly impressed, and reached into my bread wrapper to find two whole pieces of fresh bread for my stately visitor. (I was out of the stale stuff.)

I threw the bread into the driveway in various-sized pieces, as he watched from the branches of a tree. Then in a self-assured manner, he headed straight for the biggest piece of bread and picked it up. Rather unbalanced, he hopped over to another piece of bread and stopped, a bit puzzled. Then he dropped the first piece to pick up the new one, which wasn’t as big. Being a rather greedy bird and seeing his dilemma, he picked up the big piece again and managed to get the other one into his beak as well. This done, he headed for yet another piece. But here lay a greater challenge. Setting the first two pieces down, he went for the third, and somehow got all three large pieces of bread into his beak before taking off and struggling to gain altitude.

I hope he made it all the way with that full beak! But what are we to make of him?! Should we scold him for his greed or applaud him for his perseverance? Was this a lesson about greed almost getting the best of him or about the courage to risk all for a greater gain? The Bible discourages the first and encourages the second.

And in our own lives, if we are truthful with ourselves, our hearts will know the difference.

When Easter Hope Is A Handlebar

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One day I looked out my window and saw a handlebar peeking out above the deep snow just under my window. And my first thought was “Easter”. My second thought was “Hope”. But Easter had already come and gone, and the snow had come late and had stayed. And the only hope of it all melting soon was the sight of that persistent handlebar.

Until that happy day I’d had to imagine that handlebar beneath the snow and the ATV attached to it, still sitting where I parked it when the autumn days had grown windy and wet — and the darkness of winter had followed. And in the worst winter ever, my powerful motorized toy had soon entirely disappeared under a deep bank of snow. And unless you had parked it there yourself, you wouldn’t have had a clue that it was even there.

But now there was new hope for a ride on the beach, and new enthusiasm for the days ahead. And I even considered doing some digging to hurry the process along, before deciding to let nature take its course.

But what about Easter? And why did my discovery turn my thoughts to that day already come and gone? And what’s the connection, anyway, between my emerging ATV and a holiday filled with eggs and bunnies? Not much, I’m afraid, unless we are aware of the meaning of this day.

Easter is about knowing there is hope, even when it’s buried beneath life’s struggles and concerns. Easter faith is about believing that some things we can’t see with our eyes are still here and real, and waiting to be revealed to us. Easter is about the hope of overpowering the powers of darkness in our lives. And it’s about New Life bursting forth — like my ATV emerging from beneath the snow with the promise of spring and beach combing.

But Easter faith isn’t just a one-day experience, like a handlebar appearing from the snow one day and then covered up the next by yet a new snowstorm. It can be a daily celebration of New Life and Hope emerging from the darkness, manifested both in this life and beyond.

Close Encounters!

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Encounters with Unidentified Flying Objects have been categorized into five groups: encounters of the 1st kind, encounters of the 2nd kind, and of the 3rd, 4th and 5th kind.

Seeing a UFO within 150 meters is an encounter of the first kind, and when an encounter with a UFO in the sky or on the ground leaves evidence behind (such as scorch marks or indentations), it’s an encounter of the second kind — with each category thereafter becoming progressively more up close and personal.

And this, a personal encounter of my own, begins with a side trip down a dark, two-lane road one night.

We had strayed from our main course of travel, and turned south — heading down New Mexico’s Interstate 25 from Albuquerque to the little town of San Antonio. It is there that Route 380, a road famous for unfortunate encounters of various kinds, heads cross country toward Roswell. But we had not intended to be on that road so late. The night sky had already blended into the darkness of the road beneath it. We were alone. And our own headlights were all that illuminated that dark road.

My daughter and I were on the first road trip we had taken together since her younger years, when she and her sister had sat complaining in the back seat, reading their books and refusing to take in the scenery. And even then we had often found ourselves driving in darkness after my insistence that we take the time to encounter an experience advertised on a road sign along the way.

Back then the car I had owned was small and economical, without even the luxury of air conditioning. But this time the tables had turned, and my daughter, now an adult and appreciative of those former road trips, had insisted on doing most of the driving and had taken on the responsibility of arranging and financing a rental car. I had preferred the cheaper model, opting for the more frugal choice, but she had cautioned about the importance of paying for the extra protection of the sturdy, more solidly built and more expensive model, with the windshield protruding out and away from the front seat. And thank God … in light of what was to come.

Though we were already running late, I had true to form insisted on the side trip. But I have to admit that even I began to have second thoughts that night.

The road would soon take us just south of the spot where the wreckage and debris had been found from that questionable alien encounter in 1947, the place where the story of the crash of a UFO and alien bodies had bumped heads with a possible government coverup. But this was an adventure, and I love adventures! And I have to admit that I was secretly hoping for an encounter of some kind.

And then it happened! The lights up ahead … and the encounter!

I had just offered to drive, and my daughter had accepted the invitation, lying back in the passenger seat to doze off for what proved to be just a fleeting moment. I had just pulled out to pass the slow-moving car up ahead, its tail lights the only light besides our own headlights in either lane.

 
And it was then that that it appeared … suddenly — as out of nowhere — there right in front of our headlights, soaring across the road at great speed — with its huge frame pushing the window in close to the passenger seat, stopping just inches from my daughter! An encounter of the second kind … leaving behind the evidence of indentations to our solidly-built car’s hood and roof.

And then just as quickly, the huge buck with its imposing antlers was gone, as suddenly as it had appeared! And we had become yet one more example of the most frequent encounters along this road — between automobiles and the deer population.

We were shocked — and shaken! But unharmed!

But if it had not been for the shattered glass and slivers of glass showering down on us, we might have reported the accident and continued on our way with a slightly-dented hood and roof. The other car stopped to help and they directed us to the next town where the only police officer on duty directed us to what might have been the town’s only hotel. We were glad for a place to stay and assess our situation.

But yes — to my great joy, we did indeed encounter that most famous story of close encounters as well. And without our own encounter we would never have heard it.

That next morning we couldn’t drive out of town slowly enough to stop the shower of glass splinters upon our laps, so we suspected that going back to the Interstate would not be a good idea. Unfortunately the little town had no car repair shop. But by the grace of God we came across a tire place, where a man with a pick-up truck pulling a flatbed had just pulled in. He was good enough to hoist up our car and take us back up to Albuquerque, where he just happened to be going that day.

And on the way, with open cab windows blowing hot New Mexico air against our cheeks and blowing our hair, we heard that Roswell Encounter story almost first hand by a man who had been a neighbor to one of the witnesses. He assured us that these neighbors, whom he and his family had known since childhood, were good people whom he didn’t believe would tell any tall tales.

I will let you come to your own conclusions.

After exchanging our damaged car for one that looked more like the one I had at first preferred, I convinced my daughter to drive back down to Roswell, where I bought a little rubber alien souvenir and my alien, glow-in-the-dark t-shirt. And we completed out trip safely, with no further encounters.

Now isn’t life like this sometimes? You’re going down the road, maybe even hoping for something interesting or exciting to happen, and then a crisis appears out of nowhere. It’s dark and you are in unfamiliar territory. But although God doesn’t prevent every crisis from coming our way, I do believe that God can give us the right vehicle to see us through … and in our case that quite literally included both that solidly-built car with the right windshield and the pick-up truck with the flatbed.

And I recognize that as an Encounter of the God kind.

Snowman☃️

l was taking a walk one winter day and came across a strange assortment of items along the side of the road. Scattered near a driveway were a few carrots, and several pieces of coal. And as I wondered aloud what sort of bird or animal the carrots were left there for, and why someone had dropped the coal, my friend simply said “Snowman”. And the nearby clumps of melting snow took on new meaning, as the picture formed in my mind.

A few days later I built a snowman with my granddaughter, who had never seen one before. It was her first winter as a toddler. The snow was icy and didn’t stick together very well, and the finished product was a tiny, misshapen creature with two stubby little arms, dents for eyes, and a stone nose that kept falling off.

People walking by probably didn’t even notice the pitiful little snow sculpture, but my granddaughter peered over the back of the couch frequently to point him out through the window. “Snowman! Snowman!”

What we see is influenced by more than eyesight. We see through the eyes of experience, through the eyes of love, and even through the eyes of childlike faith. And sometimes that’s what‘s most important of all.

Never Too Early

[Revision of  an Earlier Post]

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A huge truck with the letters D-A-T displayed boldly on its side rumbled to a stop in front of our house one day — looking for direction to deliver who-knows-what to who-knows-whom on our disjointed road.

And I could not help but think that if our little granddaughter had been there with us on our front deck that day, we might have passed her off as a precocious one-year-old reader, as she would no doubt have pointed with great enthusiasm to that truck, shouting “dat!”

She is now 3 1/2 years old.

But this word, which we think meant “that”, was one of her first words after “Mamma” (and maybe “statue” of all things), and was used to point out anything of interest to her. The popularity of the word was rivaled only by “oonch!”, which she used for anything she wanted us to get FOR her or take her TO. And don’t ask us the etymology of that one!

It’s surprising what these little ones understand before being able to put it into words — at least what we might call English. It’s popular nowadays to teach a few words of sign language to babies, which they can amazingly pick up from early on. So little Petra could sign “eat” and “enough” and such things before her first words. And from that she developed her own sign language of beckoning little hands and wriggling fingers amidst the “oonches” and “dats”, to make her point — which was often “please take me outside to my pool”. And soon she was quite proud of herself to have added the distinctive “up” and “down” to her vocabulary, accompanied by large arm movements in each direction, after which she would run to her parents with great glee over this accomplishment.

But my biggest surprise was to hear from the lips of this one-year-old child the words “God” and “Jesus” — well, actually “Ga!” and “Za-jeesh”, while pointing to an old picture in a little plastic case from my childhood, and then recognizing him in other pictures without our prompting.

Just how does God, as we understand Him, work in these little ones? Where, when, and how can we speak to our children of that which is spiritual? Perhaps it’s really so simple that we are tempted to make it hard. Perhaps we just need to let the words speak for themselves, and “preach” more through our own sign language and actions.

And it’s never too early.

**Hear me reading this story at: storytellersofstarvalley.com

A Little Christmas Story

The Christmas Tree in Bethlehem in Manger Square

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Once upon a time Christmas couldn’t wait any longer. So it made its appearance before Thanksgiving in a flurry of catalogs,      store displays, and Black Friday coupons.

And then with barely a moment to spare, it soared  quickly past Thanksgiving in a display of colored lights, illuminated trees, and the promise of multiple holiday events and Cyber Monday’s      best deals and coupons.

But Christmas was still early. So it stuck around and began to overshadow and overwhelm the often forgotten time of anticipation and preparation we call Advent — the season of waiting and expectation, and preparing our hearts for the coming of God’s greatest gift.

Yes, something was missing.

So Christmas made another appearance, this time with an old story of a Child wrapped in swaddling clothes, and of Angels and a star and the song of peace on earth and goodwill.

And then Christmas became real.