September 26, 2010

Laid To Rest

Yesterday we had a small gathering at Inspiration Point, above Huntington Lake, to finally lay to rest the ashes of Susan Freeman Harper. This point about a half mile above Camp Keola is holy ground upon which many a prayer has been prayed, many a hymn or song of praise sung, and many a sunset watched with awe. Shortly after Susan was first diagnosed with cancer she had informed me that she wanted her ashes put at Inspiration Point. Her earthly place of final rest has a view of Huntington Lake, which you can see behind me in the picture above, as well as great views of the San Joaquin Valley (when the air is clear) and great sunset views almost every evening.

The picture immediately above is of the "urn" in which Sue's ashes were put by folks at Farewell Funeral Service of Fresno. I had previously likened it to a plastic box about the size of a half gallon of ice cream. I had a moment of panic on Friday morning while packing up for this trip. I couldn't find this brown box of ashes. Valerie popped her head into the garage, where I was looking for this box, and asked what I was doing? "I'm looking for your mother," I told her. "You lost mom?" She asked incredulously. Then, knowing I had taken a fair number of boxes of stuff to Good Will, she smirked and said "Don't tell me you gave mom to Good Will!"

That thought had occurred to me before she accused me of it. Though I didn't think I had taken Sue's ashes to Good Will, I was pretty sure that if I couldn't find them, that would be pinned on me for the rest of my life. I spent another 45 minutes searching the garage in vain. When I finally went back in the house I occasioned to glance into Valerie's bedroom. There, on the floor of her bedroom, were two cardboard boxes. The only two boxes in which I had not yet looked. The first contained only papers from Sue's desk. The second, thankfully, had the little brown box of ashes.
While preparing for the event, Mark Wiens and I had another moment of amusement. We carefully cut the tape seal from the top of the box and, holding the box so as not to spill it, pried the lid up. We didn't know what we'd see, but we did not expect to see styrafoam peanuts. The box was half full of styrafoam peanuts, which we found humorous because Sue hated those things.

The reverand Mark Wiens officiated. He had conferred with Pastor James and they had come up with a good Psalms passage -- the one about looking up unto the hills in times of trouble and turmoil, and from whence commeth my help? From the mountains? No, my help comes from the Lord. Then Mark dutifully read from the Book of Common Prayer as I poured Sue's ashes into the hole: "In the sure and certain hope of resurrection to eternal life through our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God our sister, Susan Freeman Harper, and we commit her ashes to the ground; earth to earth; ashes to ashes; dust to dust. The Lord bless her and keep her. The Lord make his face to shine upon her, and be gracious unto her, and give her peace. Amen."
Different ones from the assembled group then threw snippets of berries or snippets of the local wildflowers into the hole and recited a memory or thought about Sue. Valerie poignantly recalled that Sue had been a good teacher, and that we had all learned something from her, and that it wasn't until recently that Valerie had fully realized the final lesson Sue had sought to teach us all: That when you are secure in your faith in the saving power of God, and when your death is only a passing to eternal life, then death is not something to be feared.

And then, to the fading colors of a fading sun, we sang Amazing Grace. It was, indeed, a sweet-sounding moment.

September 13, 2010

How to Care for a Daisy Plant

Today I am publishing a guest blog from Cheri Sarmento, of Tahoe City, California. Cheri sent this to me in response to the comments and discussion surrounding my last post, titled "Ploughing Forward." The pictures are of Cheri and her daisies, and this guest blog and the pictures are published with her permission.
How To Care For A Daisy Plant - by Cheri Sarmento
A daisy plant blossoms and grows throughout its season, continually adding flowers that bring beauty, substance and fullness to its life. When this rich season begins to change, and some of the daisies begin to fade and wither, the flowers left behind must stretch and strain to stay healthy and to adjust to the differences in the way their plant is now growing. Suddenly the plant has lost some of its beauty and will never be the same. The flowers left behind must be cared for with gentleness so they can continue to reach and to grow.

How do we care for our daisy plant? What do we do with the flowers that fade and wither? How do we care for the daisies left behind, to maintain their health and stability and life, while at the same time progressing them toward renewal and strength and growth?

When some of the daisies wither, do we pull them out of the plant, blossom, stem, leaves and all? We may think, "This plant is plenty full. Pulling out some of the stems won't harm it." But, when we do so, we leave the plant sparse. The daisies left behind no longer have their firm base on which to stand. They topple, they droop, they become separated from one another. They are sad and ragged and fragmented. Their base is exposed to weeds, bramble and drought.
Instead, we should carefully prune only the withered blossoms away. This leaves the stems, the leaves, the very foundation from which the little daisies first began to grow. Careful pruning enables the daisies left behind to reach tall, to stretch, to adhere to their comfortable base and join together with strength. Their base is full and healthy, full of life and support.

Careful, gentle pruning does not harm or cause pain to the daisies; rather, it allows those who are left behind to keep their good health and enables them, when they are strong and accepting, to make room for new blossoms who will enhance and add beauty to the plant. As the seasons come and go, the daisy plant grows richly and plentifully, not only because of the flowers who gave it its firm foundation and have now faded away, but also because of its new blossoms who have brought to it freshness and new dimension.

September 10, 2010

Ploughing Forward

This spring and summer I have traveled a number of roads, both literally and figuratively. More than a few times on my literal travels I have encountered traffic that is slow-moving, or worse, stopped dead cold. Road work, trains crossing, bottle-necked traffic, accidents and rubber-neckers clogging things up -- and no way to pass.

It's reality, I know. There's a lot going on in the world. There are a lot of other people out there doing their thing, and sometimes they get in the way of my progress. Still, it's frustrating. Sometimes it makes me want to shout "Excuse me!!! Coming through!!! Se puede passar?!!! Can one pass?!!!"

These images of bottle-necked frustration, and the unspoken phrases that go with the frustration, are also playing out this year in my figurative travels on the road of life. My life, and the lives of my two daughters, as well as those of many of our friends and family, were stopped dead cold earlier this year by the untimely death of my wife (their mother/daughter/friend etc.) Sue.

In regard to those literal road blocks, I don't know why, but some people have an inexplicable need to slow down and look at the road work, or the carnage, as the case may be, while blocking the way for others who are ready to move on. The same appears to be true for the figurative road blocks of life. Some are ready to move on, and others want to linger. Some are sure you are less than human if you don't also want to linger and look, and damn you anyway if you don't.

Yesterday evening, at a gathering to watch the Saints vs. Vikings pro football season kick-off game, I had a moment of insight about this dilemma. I passed around a picture of my new girlfriend, Cheri, and then I sat next to Christa Wiens, who observed that she missed Sue, and asked if I still experience sadness about the loss of Sue. I didn't know if her question had anything to do with the picture of Cheri I had just passed around, but I responded that, yes, I do still experience feelings of sadness about Sue. Christa then shared that she also still experiences feelings of sadness about the loss of her baby, Caleb, who died just over five years ago, but not to the degree she once did. She told me she vividly remembers the first day after Caleb's death that she didn't cry, and that she cried later that day because she felt guilty that she hadn't cried over Caleb. I could relate. We both agreed you move past that, but to a lesser and lesser degree over time it is still there.

Later, sitting alone at home and reflecting it occurred to me that Christa and her husband, Aaron, have moved forward from their life-stopping grief. They now have two lovely kids and they love them dearly. Everybody loves those precocious kids. They bring a lot of joy to that family, and to the world. And it occurred to me that one can move forward, and live somewhere between the sadness of loss and the gladness of gain. But on these figurative roads of life, when slow-downs and stoppages occur, ultimately one must choose to move forward toward gladness, and toward life, or to be indefinitely stuck in the bottle-necked quagmire that holds them back. The sadness of loss may be looked on directly -- should be looked on directly -- but ultimately, in my opinion, it must be observed only through the rear-view mirror; and ultimatley, as one moves forward, it must become a more-and-more-distant image.

In a recent discussion with my younger daughter regarding my moving forward in my relationship with Cheri, she observed that I am the kind of guy who will "plough forward without apologies." Ploughing and digging have something in common. However, I must acknowledge that she is partly right (well, mostly right). Going with the ploughing analogy, what other way can one plough than forward? But to the extent that "excuse me, can I pass through?" is a form of apology, I am not completely without apology for ploughing forward. "Se puede passar?" "Can one pass?"

September 8, 2010

Groundswell of Hate In Christendom

Yesterday General David Petraeus, commander of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan, expressed concern that the upcoming well-publicized burning of copies of the Quran by a "Christian" pastor might endanger U.S. troops depoloyed in Muslim countries. Lately I have been much more concerned about the danger I am sensing here, in the U.S., that a groundswell of hate threatens to discredit and despoil the faith of Christians; Christians who profess to be adherents of the God of Love; Christians who profess to believe in a Jesus who calls us to forgive, and even to love our enemies.

I find it ironic that the Quran-burning pastor, Terry Jones, runs a church called the "Dove World Outreach Center." The images of doves reaching out to the world and burning Qurans are, to my way of thinking, contradictory.

On August 26, 2010, about a week ago, the Madera Tribune had an article on page one sub-titled "Local Mosque Vandalized" under the bold caption "Hate Crime Suspected." Ya think? Almost every major newspaper around the country has had similar recent stories of hate crimes against Muslims. The Madera Tribune article featured a picture of a sign which was affixed to the Madera Mosque by hoodlums -- presumably "Christian" hoodlums -- which read: "No temple for the god of terrorism at Ground Zero." How ironic; Christian terrorists intimidating alleged Muslim terrorists whose terrorism allegedly derives from their belief in God. We are talking God, the God of Abraham here. We are talking God, the God of Love.

This vandalism of the Madera Masjid has been but one of dozens of recent hate crimes against Muslims throughout the U.S. As the 9th anniversary of 9-11 looms, we are experiencing, in our so-called "Christian nation," a palpable groundswell of hate which, although it is not state-sponsored, has vague and disturbingly similar themes to the hatred Christians exhibited against Jews and outcasts in Nazi Germany. Where was the collective Christian voice of love then? Who was standing against the violence? Who was speaking up for their persecuted neighbors?

Where is the collective Christian voice of love now? These Muslim people in America are our neighbors, and our fellow citizens. The God they worship is the God of Abraham, just as it is for both Jews and Christians. If that God is the god of terrorism, so is the Christian God. Of the millions of Muslims living in the U.S., only a handful are misguided toward violence and terrorism. This is presumably not statistically different than Christianity, where misguided Christians stab Muslim taxi drivers in New York and misguided Christian pastors stage Quran burnings. We need look no further than the Klu Klux Klan for sad examples of "Christian" terrorism in the U.S., and frankly, there are many more unpleasant and current examples of terrorism perpetrated by "Christians" which we could discuss.

I, for one, will resist the current groundswell of hate. I will speak up for my Muslim friends and neighbors. I will love them, and I will respect them. I will help them, and protect them if I can. I will no longer tolerate the climate of hate, nor the language of hate, which both offend me and sicken me, and which I believe offend and sicken the God of Love.