Saturday, January 21, 2012

Well that was. . .fun

In case you didn't hear, we had a little snowstorm up here in the Puget Sound area. After a brief snowfall on Sunday, and some light snowy conditions early in the week, we woke up Wednesday morning to a foot of snow covering everything.

It was beautiful. It was wonderful. It was a nice day to take the kids sledding at the local elementary school, followed by hot chocolate at a friend's house.

Thursday's when it all got interesting. The snow was followed by freezing rain. Everything was covered by 1/2 an inch of ice. The Jeep looked like it was encased in crystal. Plants and trees glistened as if dipped in glass. It was breathtaking.

It was also dangerous. All that extra weight was more than many trees could bear. Water seeped into trees, and, freezing, expanded outward. Soon branches large and small, and, in many cases, whole trees were crashing to the ground. The road below our house was raining large branches and heavy chunks of ice. We wandered down to the marina and saw many trees broken over. Our driveway was blocked by a 16-inch oak branch. There was a boat broken loose at the marina. Everything was a mess.

Then the power went out. We were out about 24 hours, which isn't so bad, considering many are still in the dark. The woodstove kept us warm, and candles offered light for playing and reading. Inside, it was cozy.

But I wandered out Thursday night and stood in the middle of our driveway. It sounded like a war zone, between the constant popping of trees snapping off and the flash/bang of transformers blowing up over by the highway. For the first time in 6 years I actually felt a little worried about living in the woods. The night was restless, as sleep was punctuated by the sound of falling trees, and chainsaws clearing the road below.

Friday we got the Jeep out and went for a drive, checking on people and shooting some video footage. Trees were down everywhere. Power and phone lines dangled down from poles onto the ground. Ice chunks continued to rain down from on high. More branches lay across our driveway.

And yet, everywhere we went people seemed in a good mood. There was laughter and joy in the sharing of survival stories. We had lunch at the local Mexican restaurant, and saw a dozen or so friends there. Across the street at the market cars were slipping and sliding through the parking lot, but everybody was helping each other out. While people in more civilized areas seemed to be angry and offended at the weather (based on the tone of callers to local radio programs), those out here on the KP just got down to making it work.

And now it's melting, and life is returning to normal, and the kids are getting restless, and 'mom and dad can hardly wait for school to start again." I think we can even get the Kia out of the driveway. And last night I told the girls "now when you're old you can say 'I remember back to the great storm of '12, when school was closed for a week and all the trees fell down and we had to use a Jeep to get out and we all camped in the living room to stay warm by the fire.'"

Good times.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Book Review: A Christmas Carol

I've seen the movie countless times; in fact, I've seen countless versions of the book countless times. There's no denying it's a classic in Western Literature; perhaps one of the best-known stories in the English language.

Not that anybody's ever read it.

I hadn't, up until this year. But last spring I found it at the Borders Going-Out-Of-Business sale, and decided it was about time to hear it as Dickens intended.

It's a difficult book to read, both because we're not used to reading Victorian English, and because it's impossible to avoid hearing the voices of Kermit the Frog and Michael Caine and George C. Scott. And yet, it's such a necessary book.

It's become important to the pantheon of "necessary items for Christmas," along with "A Christmas Story" and The Carpenters and ugly sweaters. But even more so, I think it's necessary for our world today. It's a little unfortunate that it's become window dressing for the festive season, because the message is entirely prophetic, judgmental, and yet hopeful. It's a message we need once again.

I don't need to rehearse the story or themes for you, but think about it for just a second - there's a message here about the proper place of money in relationships, there's a message of the importance of all people, whether they are rich or poor, there's a message about the voluntary redistribution of wealth; but it's all couched in a story of redemption. Yes, there is strong judgment against selfishness and greed (perhaps echoes of the Rich Man and Lazarus), but rather than simply condemn that man, Dickens paints a picture where even the worst can be redeemed and restored. That is a message sadly lacking in the 21st Century.

It's interesting to read the story, as so many familiar lines pop off the page; at the same time, there are tender and poignant scenes that I have yet to see in the movie versions; young couples in love, ships' crews huddled in their cold cabin celebrating Christmas far out at sea. The Ghost of Christmas present even gets in a pretty direct shot at the church of Dickens' day.

In the end, though, we're left with the familiar story of an angry, bitter, broken man who has all the money in the world but has lost all human connection, and the work of spirits to save him. Dickens reminds us that there is hope for even the worst of sinners, if repentance is found.

The bonus of this book is the addition of two lesser-known Christmas tales penned by Dickens - The Chimes, and The Cricket on the Hearth. The Chimes tells us of a broken-down man beset with terrible dreams while (accidentally) locked inside a church steeple; it's a mystic, visionary tale, lacking a bit of the clarity of A Christmas Carol. It's a cold story, and yet hopeful and redemptive. The Cricket on the Hearth is a warmer tale, with brighter characters and (in my opinion) a more interesting story. There's an old cartoon version of this one out there; I remember seeing it some years ago. Like Carol, it can be a little difficult to follow simply due to the Victorian English vernacular, but it's a fun story full of lame dogs and old horses and mysterious strangers and inept babysitters and blind saints and grumpy old men. And yes, in keeping with the others, it brings a surprise redemptive end, complete with a homespun party.

So Borders, I'm sorry you went out of business. But your sale finally convinced me to pick this one up, and for that I'm grateful.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012


For those of you not in our area: I am the faith columnist for the Key Peninsula News, our local paper. This was my article published in the December edition. It received quite a bit of positive feedback, so here it is for your enjoyment. It was originally entitled "Just Another Article about the Real Meaning of Christmas."

It’s the story of a pregnant teen and her shame in the face of an honor-bound society. Subplots include a government that will stop at nothing – even violence – to maintain control. Throw in economic hardship, lack of affordable housing, and an ill-timed road trip. As for the characters, you have it all – from kings and priests to common day laborers and migrant workers in the field.

Sometimes this is all lost to our modern sensibilities. Christmas has been redefined for us by cute crèches adorning our lawns, by Christmas card watercolors of happy people living happy lives, enjoying their place in this drama. Choirs sing songs of silent nights, of peace, of joy and gladness and festivities as we celebrate this season.

But strip that all away and take another look. It wasn’t a silent night. Childbirth never is. Transport the scene into a dark cave, surrounded by smelly farm animals, and no midwife to be found. You can bet the cattle were, indeed, lowing. A frightened mother giving birth to her first child in the dung; and then, just when she’s ready for a quiet moment, in barge filthy shepherds clamoring about angels. It’s not the most sanitary way to begin a story.

Things take a frightening turn. The local politician, sensing a threat to his power, orders the National Guard to head into town and kill every baby boy. What should have been a celebration with visiting dignitaries turns into a midnight flight, with death nipping at their heels.

This is the story Christians tell at Christmas: a Savior born to shame and poverty, a child bullied by the authorities, a king who shows up in the grimy soil, a messiah whose coming was announced to the outcasts of society.

In the end, it’s our story, yours and mine. We who struggle with shame, who work hard to put food on the table, we who find our lives manipulated by those in power, we who have been hurt by religion and politics and family and so-called friends. We who come home with dirt under our nails and grease stains on our clothes. Who, as the old carol says, find ourselves “beneath life’s crushing load . . . who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow.”

This ancient story surpasses the sanitized store-front display and becomes our story. As the angels declared, this is “good news of great joy for all people.” “All people” includes you and me. And I don’t know about you, but I could use some joy right about now. The world is in desperate need of good news.

And so, this: God showed up, standing in opposition to the slave-traders, the bullies, the religious elite, the violent, the thieves in high places. In so doing, he stands in solidarity with the poor, the marginalized, the broken, the victim, the lonely, the shamed. There you have it: God is on the side of the minimum-wage-earning single father forced to work through the holidays just to feed his kids; he stands against the corporate powers growing rich on the backs of those workers.

If you’re feeling particularly lonely, desperate, sad, used, or angry, then remember this: Christmas is for you. Not the plastic, shop-til-you-drop Christmas of our local malls, but the real Christmas – the story of one who came to be with you in the darkness. Behind the facades of office parties and family gatherings and fake snow and manufactured joy, the real story is a story of hope, a story that gives meaning to the struggles of our lives. We are not alone, but are part of this story. God is on our side. God is with us. Emanuel.

On behalf of the Key Peninsula Ministerial Association, I bid you a truly merry Christmas, and joy in the New Year.