Take shelter

Have you ever thought about the purpose of a blanket fort? You’ve probably made one before: blankets strewn across chairs and pillows on the floor, like a sheik’s tent nestled by a desert oasis. From an adult’s perspective, it looks like blankets that will have to be refolded and throw pillows not designed for sitting upon and chairs which have been dragged to new locations, leaving scuff marks on the hardwood floor. But to kids it’s a shelter. A warm, shadowed place for them to feel cozy and safe.

 

Our family recently attended a funeral for a dear friend. As the six of us lined up and walked down a church pew, our youngest son was the last of the group to be seated. Not overly pleased to be in “Big Church” on a Thursday, he plopped down with the tall end of the church pew on his left and me on his right. In spite of the loving, celebratory tone for the memorial service, I noticed our son scooting in to the protection of my side. I rested my arm behind him on the back of the pew, and he leaned in. The solid wood on his left and the warmth of his mom on his right was comforting and protective. It was a safe shelter in a stormy place where fathers pass away and people around him cry through several tissues.

 

The Book of Psalms is full of language describing a desire to feel that kind of protection and shelter in moments of sadness and fear.

 

“Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings.” Psalm 17 (NIV)

 

“For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling; he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent and set me high upon a rock.” Psalm 27 (NIV)

 

“In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety.” Psalm 4 (NIV)

 

“I long to dwell in your tent forever and take refuge in the shelter of your wings.” Psalm 61 (NIV)

 

With 2017 coming to an end, the general consensus is that it’s been a tumultuous year. Floods and fires and fighting in Washington has made me yearn for a safe and protective place. I want the shelter a baby bird feels as he draws in to the soft feathers of his mother, when she pulls her child in close and rests her wing on top of him.

 

I crave the dark, muffled stillness of a blanket fort. Heavy blankets draped across chairs and me cuddled beneath.

 

But most of all, I desire the same thing the Psalmist David did so many thousands of years ago. I crave a refuge, a warm safety, a shelter.

It’s a Celebration!

With Christmas right around the corner—houses lit with blinking red and green lights, wreaths on doors, and bell ringers in front of every store, I (like any normal, Protestant girl) am thinking about the Passover. Okay, maybe that’s not necessarily a natural connection, but stick with me here.

 

From what I can tell, most every culture has its own unique traditions, music, and history. (They each also seem to have their own version of a dumpling, but I digress…) If you dig into what make these groups distinctive, you also find recurring celebrations.

 

After a limited amount of internet research mostly consisting of me and my husband looking at pictures and descriptions of obscure festivals and celebrations after I googled the phrase “Obscure Festivals and Celebrations,” I’ve decided these traditions can be put in one or a combination of four categories: 1.) Celebrations for religious reasons, 2.) Celebrations for political/historical reasons, 3.) Celebrations related to nature, 4.) Celebrations as excuses to do stupid stuff.

 

Take, for instance, the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain. It’s a part of a nine-day festival to honor Saint Fermin who was beheaded for sharing the Gospel in France, but it turned into a justification to risk life and limb by jumping in front of giant bulls being herded to the bullring. If you ask me, things got a little out of hand.

 

Each festival I read about told a story of people gathering to commemorate a moment or a movement or an ideal. The reasons vary from sacred and very special to “you just had to be there.” (Like the Cheese Rolling Festival in Gloucester, England where locals attempt to win a large wheel of cheese by rolling down a steep hill after it. Many are hospitalized after they reach the bottom. That better be some good cheese.)

 

The Jewish culture is famous for its festivals and holidays, and why shouldn’t they be? The Old Testament is full of God’s commands to memorialize extraordinary events. There are holidays set aside to seek God’s atonement like Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. There are holidays such as Pentecost, the Feast of Tabernacles, and Hanukah which are meant to remind God’s people to be thankful for His Provision. Then there are holidays designed to commemorate God’s rescue in times of trouble: Purim from the book of Esther or Passover from the book of Exodus.

 

God gave Moses His very specific instructions for avoiding the punishment which would soon be meted out to all of the Egyptian firstborn sons. God said “This is a day to remember. Each year, from generation to generation, you must celebrate it as a special festival to the Lord. This is a law for all time. Celebrate this Festival of Unleavened Bread, for it will remind you that I brought your forces out of the land of Egypt on this very day.” (NLT)

 

After they had escaped Egypt, Moses reminded the Israelites of God’s festival: “…you must explain to your children, ‘I am celebrating what the Lord did for me when I left Egypt.’ This annual festival will be a visible sign to you, like a mark branded on your hand or your forehead. Let it remind you always to recite this teaching of the Lord: ‘With a strong hand, the Lord rescued you from Egypt.’” (NLT)

 

Although celebrating Christmas isn’t a command found in the Bible and we can’t pinpoint the exact date for Jesus’ birth, we are told again and again to remember what the Lord has done for us. The word remember is found more than 250 times in Scripture. God calls us to remember.

 

So let us remember what God has done for us. He sits at the Seat of Mercy. He’s the Great Provider. He’s our Rescuer. Let’s celebrate His Son!

The Meanest Man in Town

Mr. Hopper was universally regarded as the meanest man in town. He just didn’t like kids—not in his grass or near his car or close to his mailbox or even in his peripheral vision. At 3:00 pm every day, he made sure to position himself in his front yard with his garden hose in hand. It only took a few showers for the kids to re-route their walk home from school. A shortcut wasn’t worth an afternoon of soggy socks and sodden tennis shoes.

As people moved away and new families moved in, the reputation of Mean Mr. Hopper grew to legendary proportions. Some said his wife had left him, and he hadn’t been the same since. Others said he had fought in Vietnam leaving him bitter and angry. One unsubstantiated rumor claimed he had been an informant for the Feds, now forced into hiding from the Mob.

The neighborhood’s assumptions about him were challenged every year on December 1st. Rain or shine, Mr. Hopper spent the day dragging inflatables and wooden cut-outs from his garage. He untangled miles of orange extension cords and blinking Christmas lights, pausing from time to time to wipe the sweat from his forehead with the bright red handkerchief he kept in his back pocket. He carefully placed the reindeer figures in the seats of the five-foot tall Ferris Wheel before plugging it in and checking that all the lights along the edge worked properly and it rotated smoothly. He set the giant, inflatable M&M near the oak tree then started up the fan that breathed life into the flat green bundle of shiny fabric. Scaling the old splatter-painted fiberglass ladder, he hung the icicle lights on his gutters along the front of the house. By the end of the day, hardly an inch of empty space remained, including the front porch where super-sized versions of The Grinch, Pillsbury Dough Boy, and Mickey Mouse stood guard.

The final piece to Mr. Hopper’s tribute to twenty years of Day-After-Christmas sales was the life-size Mrs. Claus cut from plywood and painted with poster paints. She stood front and center with one hand waving to any passers-by and the other hand holding a plate of tree-shaped cookies. Mr. Hopper would remove his handkerchief to tenderly wipe away any grime she had collected from the dusty garage, then he would stand back to survey his hard work. Without a smile of satisfaction, he would give the yard a nod and walk inside the house to await the increasing darkness that would add magic to his display.

As the days leading up to Christmas tumbled by, more cars would slowly roll past the bright house. On many occasions, Mr. Hopper could be seen peeking out his living room curtains. When drivers caught sight of him, they would speed up to continue down the street rather than risk being on the receiving end of a a fist-shaking from this grouchy neighbor.

“I can’t imagine why a man that ornery would want to do his house up for Christmas,” Mrs. West said to Mr. West as the Hopper house twinkled in the rearview mirror. “They say he’s as tight as a miser with his money. Makes you wonder what he thinks about his electric bills when they come in the mail ‘round this time of year.”

*          *          *          *          *          *          *

One year Mrs. Haven returned to town on Christmas Eve. She was an elderly woman who had been Mr. Hopper’s neighbor nearly thirty years before but had moved to San Francisco to be nearer her only daughter. Having been the town’s first librarian, she had been invited to the opening of the new public library. At a reception following the ceremony, one of the patrons asked Mrs. Haven if she had kept up with any of her former neighbors.

“No,” she said as she carefully held a plastic cup of punch, “I’ve lost touch with everyone, I’m afraid. It’s too bad because we lived here for ten years.”

“Where was your house?”

“We had a lovely split-level on the corner of Maple and Birch.”

“Oh my! Isn’t that next to Mr. Hopper?”

“Charles Hopper? Yes, that’s right.”

“Muriel Haven, how did you ever stand living next to that man?”

“He was a wonderful neighbor.” Mrs. Haven furrowed her brow with a confused expression. “He kept his lawn neat and his wife baked the best cherry pie.”

“His wife?” The circle of people took a step in toward the center, closing in on Mrs. Haven like a pack of hungry wolves.

“Yes. Charles and Penny were a dear couple. I suppose Penny has passed on now. She would never leave her bed after little Charlie’s accident…” Mrs. Haven paused to sip her punch and glanced at the faces surrounding her. “Of course you all know about the accident.” No one spoke or even breathed. “He was only four when he was hit by a car in the street in front of their house. Poor Penny was such a sweet, meek, little thing. She just crumbled into pieces. My husband and I moved a year or so after the accident and when my letters were unanswered…well, we just never heard what came of them.”

*          *          *          *          *          *          *

The late local news had ended. Mr. Hopper had just turned off the television set but he had a difficult time pulling himself up from his recliner. He knew he had to turn off the outdoor lights before preparing for bed, but he dreaded the moment when the brilliant brightness would be extinguished. The sudden darkness always made him feel blind and unsure of what lurked just beyond his yard. He reached up to switch off the floor lamp so that he could fully appreciate the cheerful flashing and whirring outside.

Thoughts of a little boy with blond ringlets tearing open the wrappings on a new train set Christmas morning made a hollow ache spread from his stomach to his throat and into the deep sockets behind his eyes. He had spent the past thirty years trying to forget the son who had been a joyous surprise to an aging, childless couple. He had worked hard to prevent any children coming within twenty feet of his door but memories are no respecter of boundaries and garden hoses. He always told himself that he did it for her. He kept them away for the same reason that he put out the lights and decorations every year—to bring her back to him—to make everything the same as it had been before Charlie. In moments of honest introspection, he admitted that he also did it for himself to prove that he was still alive. Sometimes he needed more proof than just the air entering and exiting his old chest.

“Charles?” a weak voice called from the back bedroom.

“Coming, Penny.” Mr. Hopper folded the leg rest on his recliner and stood, then he went to kiss his wife goodnight.

Birds

I have a kind of love/hate relationship with birds. I’ve written posts about them working together as a group, eating from our bird feeder, and terrorizing our gutters.

I love the idea of them—their beauty, their gracefulness, their little birdy tunes whistling through the trees—but I don’t want them too awfully close to my personal vicinity. I decorate my home with whimsical paintings and lamps and ceramic figurines of songbirds, but the real ones need to stay outside.

 

Maybe I watched Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds at a formative age and developed a real aversion to them. Or maybe having birds fly down our chimney and enter our basement as if they’d unknowingly flown into their worst nightmare when I was growing up has made me assume they would peck my eyes out if only given the chance.

 

When I was in elementary school, our librarian rescued a baby bird that had fallen from its nest. She brought it school where it lived in a little cage that sat on the checkout counter. I remember observing the tiny bird that was mostly pink skin and frail bones. Every so often, Baby Bird would let out a pitiful squeak, and the librarian would prepare the bird’s food, filling an eye dropper with some whitish, liquid concoction. She would squeeze a few drops into the open bird mouth, and the food would almost instantaneously come out the other end. Needless to say, Baby Bird didn’t make it.

 

When my husband and I were first married and living in Memphis, we spent a lot of time with other newlywed couples. Most of us didn’t have kids yet, but a few had pets. One couple had two cockatiels— “Mr. Tumnus” and “Prince Caspian” which they adored. When we would gather at their apartment, they would let the birds fly freely around their living room. Such a treat, except for my crippling fear of eye-pecking and bird-pooping.

 

I’m not sure why I have this conflicted relationship with birds. I admire them, fear them, eat them and appreciate them all at the same time. I look at the amazing things they’re capable of—making nests out of twigs and fluff, laying eggs and caring for those babies, warbling their lovely birdsong, displaying their marvelous and colorful feathers. Still there is something that makes me nervous when I’m near them. Their actions are seem unpredictable, and this scares me.

 

To be honest, I find myself having conflicted relationships with people, too. Humans are also capable of so much—kindness and cruelty, beauty and destruction, love and hate. Sometimes we’re as frail as that baby bird in the library. And other times we are regal and free to fly (and poop) without restraint. And still they are times when we are afraid, flying into a new place and attacking those trying to help us out.

 

We are also like birds because we go through seismic changes throughout our lives. Birds go from egg to flying creature, and we (hopefully) go from immature child to wise adult. These changes are necessary.

 

According to C.S. Lewis (whose literary characters some people name their cockatiels after): “It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.”

 

Let’s be willing to make these changes so we can have the opportunity to soar!

The day the lights went out

One mid-morning last week the power went out at our house unexpectedly. There were no storms or other obvious reasons for the outage. I was unloading groceries from my van and then, with a click and a fading whir, everything just stopped. I waited to see if the problem would be remedied quickly and magically and without my assistance, but nothing happened. I checked the breaker box and saw that all of the switches were facing the correct direction (that’s the extent of my electrical expertise). I stepped outside to listen for any noises associated with electricity coming from neighboring homes—HVAC systems humming, garage doors screeching. All was quiet.

 

I finished unloading my groceries, grouping items requiring refrigeration together so that I could sneak them into my dark refrigerator stealthily to let out as little cold air as possible. Then I called the electric company to report the outage.

 

I never do this. I always expect someone else to make the call when the power goes out, but this time I started thinking about how few people are home on a Monday at 10:00 am and how none of our neighbors might even know that the power went out.

 

Another thought which crossed my mind was how foolish it would be for me to sit down at my kitchen table and twiddle my thumbs while I waited for others to take steps to get everything turned back on. Additionally, how foolish it would be to assume the electric company would act if no one alerted them to the problem.

 

When I called, the friendly electric company employee seemed surprised by the outage and told me that no one else had reported any issues. An hour or so later, everything revved back up, including the lights in all of the rooms I had earlier entered and automatically flipped on the switch even though I knew the power was out.

 

I moved from room to room, turning off lights and changing the time on the flashing digital clocks. (Side note: I forgot to change my husband’s alarm clock and the next morning he woke up at 4:20 am, showered and dressed and drove a mile before he realized it was an hour earlier than he thought. Oops!)

 

There are times when an issue rears its ugly head and we must report it, when bad behavior or unfair treatment must be dealt with. Ignoring the power going out wasn’t immediately a problem for me—it was warmish in the house and I didn’t have anywhere pressing to be so the garage door could stay open for a while—but it would’ve become a major issue eventually. When my food began to spoil and the night grew cold, I would be forced to act. Unless I was planning to become Amish, forsaking all electricity, I would have to take steps toward correcting the situation, even if I was limited by my own power and skill to completely rectify the problem.

 

We face life-altering dilemmas every day and the complicated enormity of these problems tempt us to ignore them. But we can’t sit at our kitchen tables and twiddle our thumbs, assuming others will make the call. We need to draw clear lines and act when those lines are crossed. There’s no good reason to sit in a cold, dark room or to let others do the same when we have the ability to get the lights turned back on.