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October 31, 2010

while watching the steelers lose

no flash and no sense of things lurking in the dark.

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with flash

October 28, 2010


[One angle at Pastor Appreciation month.]

The very first thing I remember about the pastor is Kevin berries. It was about twenty five years ago, standing somewhere in the woods of southwestern PA, hunting ginseng with my father.

Ginseng. It's not a mystical herb of the orient. You can find the "white" variety right here in PA. All you have to do is hike through the right type of woods at the right time of year, sight the fairly rare plant, dig up the roots, dry the roots out over a period of weeks, then sale them to distributors who supply the supplement companies. Simple as that. 

ginseng roots
The point right is not to examine the various claims and scientific findings on Ginseng. The stuff is in demand. A lot of people apparently would like to do more pirouettes on the beach. But I have no doubt that the most therapeutic thing about Ginseng is the autumn hike through the woods with your dad.

Back in the hills of southwester PA, dad explained the difference between the red berries that help you identify a valuable ginseng plant in the fall versus another fairly toxic plant that also has small red berries. By their fruit you will know them.

Well, dad didn't put it quite like that.

"See here. These are red berries with five-pronged leaves, but they're NOT Ginseng. These are Kevin berries."

"Kevin berries? Like, uncle Kevin, the one from Harrisburg? What's he have to do with it?"

"Oh. Well...he's a clown."

good "fruit"
Kevin Berries!
Dad told the story. My grandfather took his knucklhead son-in-law Kevin into the woods hunting ginseng. Through the woods, Kevin would shout, "Paap. Paap. Found some." Pap managed his way through steep rocky knulls to find Kevin standing by the counterfeit ginseng. There were red berry lessons, but the whole process repeated itself too many times. Kevin breaking the still autumn air with excited yells. Pap hiking the ridge. Kevin proudly pointing at the wrong type of red berries.

 So that's where it started. Your uncle Kevin is a clown, and don't be fooled by the Kevin Berries. And that was dad trying to be nice.

You know when Jesus warned about being able to identify false prophets and scoundrels who appear to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves? Well, here you have someone who actually had a bad fruit named in his likeness.

These days, Kevin often speaks about his life before he came to know Jesus. Kevin berries were the least of it. When the Browns packed up and took off for Boston (and then Harrisburg) to be all religious and stuff, I can understand the eye ball rolling that must have ensued.

But do you know what happened over the years? A lot of good fruit fell from that tree.

-Kevin, always the one adult horseplaying with all the kids in Grammas pool, grunting, grasping blindly as the bucket head monster. I was moved to tears this past summer, at the site of the exact same bucket monster defending himself against a new horde of children.

-My gut reaction upon hearing that the Browns were headed "back home" toward Pittsburgh around holidays and vacation times. The "religious" people were not prudish bores. It was kind of the opposite, in fact. It was surely going to be a barrel of monkeys, and I wanted me some of that.

-The reaction of the family; all of the family taking them seriously, at least to their faces. When the Browns came in, uncle Bill (who lived with Gramma then) took down all the girly posters and hid a bunch of movies in his closet.

-The words. I wasn't around a lot of bad language as a child. But I did notice that each person's language was at least 10% tighter.

-Feeling weird and uncomfortable with their "Lord this" and "Jesus that" when they prayed before meals. It sounded like it came from the heart. It was different than the faith community I was raised in. Praying like that felt very odd and very good.

-All the occasions where Kevin made time to simply show interest in me. I can't imagine he gave a lick about my baseball season or remote control cars or Sega Genesis. But I remember him asking about those specific things; whatever I was into, just to have some common ground.

-Playing house and ongoing. I've had the opportunity to simply be present to observe a Christian's response to real life outside of the church. For anyone who tends to be too academic and skeptical toward life offerings toward a God who is unseen, witnessing how the leader lives makes all the difference in the world

Behold good fruit. This is how a person of faith testifies to the glory and honor and power of the Creator. It's how a man who loves Jesus validates his words of worship and admonition. It's how any sinner does the will of the Father, from a place of peace and grace.

I cherish and appreciate these pieces of fruit. Kevin is clearly no clown, no wolf, no false prophet. He's an honest, funny man who owns up to his foibles and mistakes. My earliest impression has been buried under baskets of good fruit. I'm certain the rest of the family is with me on that.

A bad tree cannot bear good fruit. And them ain't no Kevin berries.

October 20, 2010

Sights of Walnutfest

Walnutfest began in 2006 when I decided that I've had enough raking and throwing walnuts out of my back yard. Why not have a picnic, and make up a few games that involve kids and grown ups goofing off, throwing, kicking, and hitting walnuts out of the yard? We've scaled 'er back quite a bit over the years for a number of reasons, but Walnutfest still came. It came just the same.

We did have a bit of a problem this year. There were very few Walnuts, I guess maybe because of the dry heat and such. Shout out to Becca for the imports.

Stella trapped Rocky.

Kissing the silver walnut before the Tim Burtonesque trees.

Thanks folks.

October 19, 2010

Comfort Food

He caught my eye immediately as I passed through the doorway. By the time the teacher finished "Owen your dad's here" he has launched at me, in mid jump, to be caught. He's holding something, today's craft, and proudly thrusts it to within a millimeter of my eyes.

"Oh, what's this?" I retract my head to focus. "Thanks Owen. Cool!"

And this one was a keeper. Once every month or two, the brothers bring home something from class or church that's worth saving. A lot of the masterpieces find their way into the circular file. Okay, almost all of them. Amy and I just don't attach that kind of sentimental value to every pipe cleaner angel and origami fish that finds it's way through the door. We can't, if we don't want to have our house featured on that TV show where all the junk sentimental, practical mementos are piled to the ceiling. 

This orange string of plastic caught my eye. It was woven through six dry rigatoni, with each piece bearing the name of a person in our family. Three dazzling plastic beads completed the necklace. No instructions came with the craft, but I'm pretty sure the beads were supposed to represent the Holy Trinity. Well, they could have; it seemed rather likely.

Neat idea. Personal. Made by Owen.

Normally I sock something like this away to the "secret" box in my closet for future reference and reflection. Or maybe I'd actually use this one, in prayer, as some sort of rigatoni rosary.

But not that day. I was distracted when we pulled in the driveway, leaving the necklace in the cup holder. The following day, Amy or I spilled a little coffee, effectively putting the necklace on a long, slow simmer.

I saw the results the next day while fetching something from the car. Lifting the necklace, the noodles folded and fell off like meat on an overcooked turkey leg. I was sad that it was ruined. It was kind of tragic. I actually froze with the thought that every single person in this family is going to die. Someday, we will.

I don't hover over my children or my wife. I'm not panic stricken with fear. But for some reason, I do fret possibilities and unthinkable senseless tragedy. Sometimes I do feel the pain of separation, and the reality that one way or another, that day is coming soon.

I looked at the lumps of rigatoni decaying more with each roll through the palm of my hand. How fragile. Then I considered the plastic beads and string, not exactly invincible, but unblemished from the coffee incident. All of existance represented in four cents worth of pasta and plastic.

Perishable things last but only a moment and return to dust. That which is eternal runs through us at the core, fully intact, connected by and through the Alpha and the Omega. There's a part of us that doesn't fall away at all.

The Comforter was there all the while. A current of gratitude and confidence ran through my portion of the orange string. And I tossed the lumpy pasta to the dust.

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October 15, 2010

The use and making of memories

"Kevin, no wrestling during Sunday school."
"Judah, we're not talking about that right now."
"Owen, not so loud."

Some of the 3 to 5-year olds, mostly those at the "girls table," remain seated, carefully coloring and gluing.  Kevin makes his hands into race cars, in an apparent neck and neck battle toward the finish line at the far edge of his table. He leans across, knocking crayons on the floor and planting his elbow in a pool of glue.

My blood pressure rises.

God laughs.

There was a time when I was just a little older than this crew, probing the limits of a Sunday school teacher's patience and grace. When was that? Like, yesterday?

Back then I could understand that church was important. That was clear. St. Boniface was set apart as something different from the rest of the world. It demanded a unique kind of respect. Like you had to be clean and don't wear a hat or chew gum. You can goof off with your friends in CCD, because that's for kids. Mass reserved a different kind of respect. Above all else, that means being there and being quiet.

I (wrongly) understood that you went to St. Boniface to do a good deed. Staying still and quiet for 60 minutes every Sunday morning; this is what the Lord asks of a boy. So I almost always went, sometimes with a battle, because Mass seemed s  o     l   o   n   g.

When your attention span is maxed out at 5 minutes, coping strategies ensue. You hunt the wood grain of the pews for animal shapes. You imagine the dark knots of wood on the ceiling as distant galaxies diverging from one another in some deep slice of the night sky. You analyze the patterns in the clothing of old ladies. Twelve rows of grey diamonds with eleven rows of blue in between. You try to identify the person who, at the appointed time, would be the first to extend you "a sign of peace." You avoid eye contact with the coughers and nose blowers.

Bathroom breaks are a sweet relief from stillness. You're entitled to one trip per week. Once per week a boy washes his hands with hot soapy water for the entire recommended duration. Play your cards right and you'll be back in time for communion.

These memories are the mother of patience toward Kevin and the boys in Sunday school. They're the medium of grace, created in the beginning, and passed down through generations. My memories of St. Boniface cause me to be more concerned with building relationships and helping them have fun gluing googly eyes onto shoddily cut out fish than with getting them to appreciate the depth of Luke chapter 5.

If God once used the church to teach me to wait and listen and notice the details in everyday minutia, then he can certainly reach these young ones through glitter and scissors and Silly (Veggie Tales) Songs With Larry.  I don't think they're missing anything until the day they have questions. In those days, we'll certainly seek to help them consider where they put their faith and their trust.

For now, we'll be here, every week, singing and wrestling. Not yet like Jacob did with God, but like Kevin trying to throw down with everyone near him. We'll gather together, learning how to pray, eating tootsie rolls from Charlie, and making nightmares for the cleaning committee. 

Allowing space for memories in the making...

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October 10, 2010


The smell of October. It's death, mostly. Fragments of dead leaves permeating the air. And old men smoking cigars outside of high school football games.

I'm never ready for August to end. Or September. Darkness comes early, suddenly. Time drags me through October by the scruff of the neck. Some of it is pure and preference. Some of it's because I've always had a hard time letting things go. Why move or change when you exist in contentment?

Well, because nothing here stays the same. And what was good for one season may not often be good for two. And there may, even should be, good things to come. And because November smells like a big old iron wood burner and homemade chicken soup.

And it's just time. 

David Wheeler writes, "my neighborhood remained the far reaches of my childhood travels, and everything seemed so natural and obvious. You don’t realize the work it takes for a semblance of stability until you’re the one constructing it. I was always going, and then going away; and, I never really grew to appreciate my home, not fully, I think."

And so the seasons seem so natural and obvious. But how easy it is to miss the blessings along the way.

Lord help me to see and share, looking back with gratitude and forward with hope.

*** Please excuse the ugly date tag on some of the pictures.