Sunday, April 28, 2013

My not so sweet gum tree, may it rest in pieces. Deep thoughts . . .

A sweet gum tree has made a couple of past appearances in this blog.  Calling this tree sweet in any way is misleading.  A few years ago the top of it fell  on my head. You can relive my account of that incident here, if you are bored on this rainy afternoon.  It has been dying for quite awhile.  It needs to be taken down.

The problem is that it is located about ten feet from the power line that allows me to cook and stay warm and watch TV and use the Internet. .  . and it grew leaning toward the line.  I have a chain saw, but I could not figure any way, given my limited lumberjack expertise and its previous effort to kill me, to cut the tree down without depriving myself of electricity, and possibly giving it another chance to finish me off.

So I let it be for the past few years.  It continued to die, its demise being accelerated by the evil poison ivy vines that choke it.  As you regular readers know, poison ivy is part of the axis of evil that has invaded my yard against which I have an ongoing battle, and is normally by enemy.  But, sometimes, as the ancient Arabic and Chinese proverb says,  the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

As I walked out of the house this morning the driveway was almost blocked.  The top portion of the rotting tree lie in a broken heap, tangled with poison ivy.  The weakened, decayed trunk that remains is considerably shorter, and I believe I can take it the rest of the way down without hitting the power line or allowing it to break off and bash my skull again.

There have been many times in the last few years that I hoped and prayed that since we were suffering storms full of straight line winds and tornadoes that the tree would be taken down by these otherwise unwelcome forces.  But a dying tree has few leaves and branches to catch the power of the winds.  So there were many times that, while looking at the fallen trunk of a beautiful hickory or oak with its sprawling branches full of lush green leaves lying in the edge of the woods, I cursed silently the ugly sweet gum tree, still standing, taunting me.  There was no justice.

The tree rotted from the inside out, it grew weaker and weaker, its bark and wood dying, turning into a mealy mush.  It was not high powerful winds that finally took the tree down. Last night, in the final stroke,  it was the torrential rain.  Without a canopy of leaves for protection, the rotten, dead remains of the tree soaked up the water like a sponge.  Eventually the added weight proved too much for the tree, and it fell into the heap that appeared on my driveway this morning.

So, I'll have to put on my hazmat suit to avoid the massive poison oak vines, and clean up the driveway.  Water-soaked dead gum wood is heavy.  And poison oak vines large enough to support a tire swing could be lethal to me. But I don't care.  The sweet gum tree, though not completely defeated, is now manageable.

It's strange isn't it?  Had the tree been alive, had the bark and wood remained strong and not decayed, it would have been strengthened by the rain.  But in its state of decay and death, the same rain caused its collapse.

I think its strange how the scripture and various proverbs say that it rains on the just and the unjust as if rain were necessarily a bad thing.

Rain is rain.  The question is us.

Whether we are living or dying.




Thursday, April 25, 2013

Brother Bert, a means of Grace . . .

I have been struggling with something for awhile.  I feel passionately about many things, things that I think are of grave importance.  

Things that other folks have passionate feelings about that are diametrically opposed to mine.

I want them to see the light.  I want them to learn the truth.

I want them to see how right I am. And admit it.

That's the way I feel much of the time.   But my better angels tell me that it is not good.  For anything.  Except creating chasms so wide between people that what is said from one to another can no longer be heard, unless conversations escalate to shouting matches. It is hard to hear anything when everyone is shouting..

So, I've been wondering for awhile, how does one express ideas and opinion and expect them to be heard and considered by those who disagree? 

I don't know.

I'm thinking about it tonight because a friend of mine died last night.  Bert Goodwin seemed to know the answer to my question.  

Brother Bert was a United Methodist pastor in the North Alabama Conference, ordained as an elder in 1960. A couple of years later he and Ella and Mike moved into the parsonage to serve us at Lester Memorial, where he was my pastor when I was a kid. I learned  about Christian fellowship around the table in the parsonage after the Sunday night service as our families gathered as friends to talk and eat and laugh . . .mostly laugh. As a kid, I always felt welcome at the adults table at the parsonage.   A few years later Bert was the director of Camp Sumatanga, which has been a second home to me for much of my life, a place of "rest and vision."  There was not much rest for Bert and Ella during those years as they nurtured and expanded the vision of that Holy place, as well as its sewage and water systems, roads, paths, and buildings. But it has been that place for thousands of others of all ages because of the investment of years of life the Goodwins made there.   He was instrumental in bringing the Walk to Emmaus to Alabama, at Sumatanga, and sustaining it.  He liked to say with that dry smile,trademark shoulder shrug and a voice he assumed when he was being sarcastic, that after the first Walk he thought the Walk to Emmaus would be a pretty good thing, that a few people would attend, and that would be that. That was about thirty years ago. Alabama Walk to Emmaus #413 will be going on at Camp Sumatanga this week-end.. I figure around 18,000 pilgrims have Walked to Emmaus from North Alabama, changing lives and energizing local churches.  

Bert and Ella served other churches.  He was a district superintendent in the North Alabama Conference.. There are a lot of other big and good things that Bert Goodwin had a hand in.  I just listed a few that directly affected my life. (Feel free to list additional things with a comment if you wish).  An exhaustive list would be just that . . .exhausting. And Bert would not like that.  

As amazing as Bert's life resume is, it still doesn't answer my question. But while his life resume may not answer it,  his life did. 

Bert had a way. No matter who you were, he would make time for you, even in the past few years when he should have been taking it easier.  But he did not always tell you what you wanted to hear.  He tried to tell you the truth.  Sometimes it was a hard truth.  Sometimes he spoke the truth to individuals.  Sometimes he told it to congregations. He was not afraid to speak it to power.  Because he knew there was no greater power than the truth.

Sure, he ruffled a few feathers along the way. The truth can do that.

But the amazing thing is, most of the time, it didn't work that way.  He spoke the hard truths.  But you loved him anyway.

Because he knew that something else was important.  He spoke of it often. I think it is my answer.


Truth spoken with grace.  When you left Bert, even if the truth skinned you up pretty good,  you knew you were loved.

And I pray, as he left us, he knew the same thing.


Monday, April 22, 2013

Check the codex, Jesus couldn't have meant what this says . . .

It is a tough time to be a follower of Jesus.

Or at least it should be.

Not because Jesus has been taken out of schools.  Or because health insurance premiums may cover the cost of birth control pills.  Or because the ten commandments are sometimes kept off of public walls.  Lord, haven't we suffered enough?

Jesus makes it truly tough to be a follower, especially this week. If we decide to really follow Him.

We act like the gospels are written in some kind of mysterious code.  That the words of Jesus are some kind of puzzle worthy of the Da Vinci code.  But mostly they are not. Like the irreverent American theologian Mark Twain observed:

"It ain't those parts of the Bible that I can't understand that bother me, it is the parts I do understand."

Jesus spoke very clearly.  This is not a paraphrase. It is right out of the New International Version of the Bible, Matthew 5: 43-48:

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[i] and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

It is not okay to hate.  Ever.  For any reason.

But worse than that, we are not called simply to  refrain from hating, to be satisfied with a tortured, yet civil ambivalence, sort of like an Auburn or Alabama fan who unconvincingly mutters that he or she supports the other team when it plays anybody else.

No.  We face the ridiculous, illogical command using action verbs. Love.  Pray.

For our enemies.  For the ones who hate us. For those who persecute us.

This is Jesus' only instruction on how to deal with  enemies.

Do we have the nerve to suggest that Jesus does not know what it means to be hated? To be persecuted?  That He simply does not understand the evil that He is asking  us to endure . . . no, to love?  Surely He didn't mean that we should love the ones who kill us?  Surely He doesn't understand what that feels like. 


One of the killers is dead.  The other will receive the best justice our government is capable of delivering.   It is not perfect.  But our rule of law is a remarkable thing. His life is over, one way or the other.

But that is how our earthly enemy's fate will be determined.

The question, far more important for the rest of us, is what our fate will be.

Will we indulge our worldly appetite for hate? For revenge?  It is a sweet, all you can eat buffet.

It is part of the great deception. 

Our hate will do no further harm to our enemies.  In fact, it sometimes gives them satisfaction. Justification.

But it will destroy us.  And haven't we suffered enough destruction?

So we must love, even the brothers Tsarnaev.  And each other. And all the others.

It is the only thing that will make the difference we long for.

And that is really, really tough.


Thursday, April 18, 2013

Thurvey 4/18/2013

It is Thursday and once again time for a survey.  The Thurvey.  Spring is here, the sap is rising, the birds are singing, and we may see tornadoes by morning.  So there's no better to time to cast your opinion onto the web.  There is no telling when you'll have electricity again .  Simply enter your answers to any or all of the questions in the comment box below. If the box is not down there, click on the tiny "comments" word below this post and it should appear.  Let the opinions burst forth as clouds of yellow pollen . . .

1.  Tuesday, April 16, 2013, marked the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s famous "Letter from the Birmingham Jail.  Many have been inspired by King's writings and speeches.  Whose words, written or spoken, or perhaps sung, have inspired  you?

2.  Charles Dickens opened "A Tale of Two Cities" with the now famous line, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."   He could have been describing springtime in Alabama.  What is the best and worst of springtime in the southland?

3.  Governor Robert Bentley has announced that he will seek re-election in 2014.  What has been the governor's successes and failures, strengths and weaknesses in his first term?  Who else would you like to see throw his or her hat into the ring?   Even if it is just for the entertainment value.

4.  The Alabama Legislature is rapidly winding down this term.  Have you paid attention to what they have been doing?   What have they done that you agree with?  What have they done that you disagree with?  If you could give them advice of what to do, what would it be?

5.  What do you get the most het up about?

6.   How do you feel about gun safety laws? 

7.  Recently, Jim & Nick's was named as Alabama's best barbecue.  Do you agree?

8,  What question would you like answered this week?

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Blessed are the prosecuted . . .just another sarcastic rant

It is a banner day for freedom in America thanks to forty one courageous Republicans and four patriotic Democrats in the U. S. Senate.

They stood up to the will of over eighty percent of Americans who would love nothing better than to oppress a minority group who cling desperately to their rights.

They boldly protected and preserved the rights of convicted murderers, rapists, child predators, drug  traffickers, and thieves, violent and nonviolent, and the mentally ill to purchase firearms of any and all descriptions  in order to kill you and your children.

This Republican led group of American heroes refused to require these poor, outcast souls to undergo the tortuous humiliation and inconvenience of a background check prior to the purchase of their guns.

And the added insult of not being able to buy one.

Thank God for statesmen like that.  I pray that He properly blesses them.

Background checks would make no difference anyway.  Felons and mentally ill don't buy their guns from places that require background checks.

Because they don't have to.

All they have to do is run down to the nearest gun show at the local civic center or convention hall.  The law does not require background checks at those sales, or on any private sales at all.  These sales presently constitute forty percent of the gun sales in the United States.

Forty percent of guns in the United States are purchased from sources other than commercially licensed gun dealers, and therefore, under present law,  require no background check and little or no paperwork.  .  .  not a bad set-up for the marginalized criminal minority. Thankfully the Republicans were able to preserve this affirmative action program for the persecuted prosecuted.  And the Republicans also struck a blow for the economy and jobs  in the same vote by defeating the proposal that would make trafficking in guns illegal, saving thousands of jobs and untold dollars of commerce.  That kind of commerce is generally untold and untaxed, another Republican strong point.

And the Republicans aren't stupid.  They have seen the writing on the wall. After losing the last two presidential elections because they ignored and offended the growing minorities in America, they have come up with a solid strategy.

They have locked up the vote of convicted felons, of murders, rapists, drug traffickers and thieves, certainly a rapidly growing minority in today's America.

Sure, most convicted felons have lost their right to vote.

 Another travesty that the Republicans will be addressing soon.


Tuesday, April 16, 2013

When I consider how my light is spent, in this dark world and wide . . .They also serve who sit and watch TV? (apologies to John Milton)

I watch the news media coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing because I feel helpless. The two or three hours of coverage I have  seen since yesterday afternoon have been a regurgitation of the same fifteen minutes worth of information over and over and over again, despite the sincere efforts of the reporters, commentators and experts.   Very little new. Nothing changes. Same 45 seconds of video running in an endless loop. And yet, as hard as it is to watch,  it is difficult not to.  I want to do something.  But nothing will undo the damage. Three lives will not be restored.  Severed limbs will not re-grow.  Innocence lost will never be found again.

So I sit and watch TV.

The stream of details continues. I am now even more afraid of pressure cookers than I was as a child when I would hear about the horrors of a pressure cooker exploding in some grandma's kitchen when she was doing her summer canning of garden vegetables.

I'm not saying there is anything wrong with watching the coverage.  Ignorance is never a good thing, despite what you may have heard.

But, watching is not a substitute for doing.  Fans are great at a football game, but there is no game unless the players show up and kick it off.  It is easy for us fans to become absorbed by the game.  We learn all the players and coaches, the plays, the defenses, the stats. We shout advice to the coaches. We yell at running backs, telling them to run.  You know we do.  We scream at defenses telling them to "get him, get him . . ."  We are Sabanesque with our insights into the game.. Our presence and opinions are critical.    After a while, watching seems like doing.

But it is not.

But what can I do about the Boston Marathon bombing?

Nothing.  It is done.  I cannot change the past.

The future, on the other hand, is a different matter.  I have no choice. Everything I do changes the future, for good or bad. So why not choose good?.

There has been a lot of public discourse lately about how to stop the violence that plagues our country.  We talk about new laws and established personal liberties.  Practical discussions to address these horrible acts of violence are good and necessary.  And hopefully they will result in some helpful public policy.

But even in that, I am still a spectator.   Laws in themselves change no one. They are at best a safety net, a minimum standard for civility and survival.  If we depend completely on the laws of the government to address the problem, I am afraid we have rendered too much unto Caesar and merely established another guide for knowing just how bad we can behave and still stay out of legal trouble. 

 The most important question remains, since it is too late to do anything about the Boston Marathon bombing . . .

What can I do to make things better?

Sometimes I am fooled.  I become afraid because of the darkness that seems to be growing around me. I grow weak and paralyzed for fear of what I cannot see. It is easier to sit down and watch TV or check facebook and watch the action from the safe distance of the shadowy courtyard.

But I had physics teachers and Sunday School teachers and an itinerant rabbi  who taught me the truth about darkness and light.

Darkness has no power.  Darkness is simply the absence of light.  It has no energy in and of itself.

But until the light is carried into the darkness, nothing will change.  

But when it is, everything will change.

Light is a powerful, present energy.

Light will overcome the darkness.  Love will cast out fear.

And I think that has something to do with the answer . . .



Saturday, April 13, 2013

Give 'em an inch and they'll take a yard . . .

Saturday. Sofa. Coffee.

It is one of those rare Saturdays when my sofa coffee break is actually a break.  Normally I am still wiping sleep from my eyes as I take my own sweet luxurious time in coming to life. On a normal Saturday morning I have not yet done a thing to take a break from.  It is one of my life rules.

But today is different, an exception to the rule..  The only thing I am wiping from my eyes is pollen and the resulting bio-gunk that gives everything a glamour shot halo in the early morning sun.  It is the first day I have had a chance to suit up and do battle with Mother Nature's advancing army.

 I was up as the sun was peeking over the mountain ridge above Taits Gap. It was colder than I expected, as clouds of frosty breath rhythmically marked the accelerated pace of my heart and lungs.  I thought hopefully that perhaps the cold air would give me an advantage, discouraging the tender shoots of spring from advancing further.   But apparently young shoots are not nearly so susceptible to cool spring air as older arthritic joints.   As I stepped out into the quiet, a platoon of deer, my odd allies in this effort to halt the flora advance, popped their heads up, stood stone-like for a couple of seconds, and bounded into the forest, each following a different evasive route.  I think of the deer much like I think of libertarians. We agree on the thing that needs to be done.  The reason the thing needs to be done is another matter.  But in times like these, ideological purity must wait for another day.

It was quiet. But in the stillness there was an almost imperceptible sound, a rustling. Probably just my imagination.  But still,  I knew that sound.  It was the telltale sound of the insidious enemy.

 The axis of evil.

 Maniacal botanical.

 Privet, poison ivy, and wisteria.

Oh sure, there are hundreds of other species exploding with new life, green behind the ears, stretching new limbs and leaves hopefully outward and upward into empty spaces. Out in the open. Honestly. I've got little quarrel with them.  We can work things out.

But the axis is different.

It moves and creeps, faster and faster, in the dark, out of sight, underground, a complex and far-reaching rhizome or stolon web (not sure which)  until on days like these, it explodes like hidden land mines, ripping through the soil and into the warm air, arrogantly claiming massive amounts of territory in the name of its dark powerful underworld.  As it grows and expands it requires more and more of the soil, space and water around it.  Soon there is nothing left for anyone else. It surfaces in one place, then another. The botanical version of Wack-a-Mole, except less fulfilling.

And the axis is slick.  The flowers of the privet and wisteria  are pretty and smell sweet. The lush leaves of poison oak glisten as if just sprayed by the florist's mister.  It is easy to be seduced by the axis' siren song and perfume on warm spring mornings.  But don't be drawn in too close, for unlike Ulysses, who tied himself to the ship's mast to resist the seductive sirens' call, this bunch will reach out with their tentacles and bind you themselves so that you cannot move, you cannot advance to defend your ground.

And so, having been fortified with caffeine, a bit of hyperbole, and a rest on the sofa, it is time to go back out to the battlefield that is my yard.   And I have a battle plan.

Lop and saw.

If I'm not back soon, don't cry for me.

Oh, right, that's just your allergies.


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