Time For A Tune-Up?

R1-36When I was sixteen, I bought a guitar. The Everly Brothers were very popular back then, and I wanted to be just like them. I quickly learned about five chords and figured out how to tune the thing. (Get the low “E” string to sound about right, then tune the other five off that string). There was a music book out called “The Real Fake Book” which purported to enable one to play any song with a minimum number of chords. Fingering the chords properly was key, and doing so made for a smooth transition from one chord to the next. I couldn’t quite get it right, so I made up some of my own fingering. This fact, along with a severe lack of musical talent forever doomed my chances of becoming the third Everly brother.

So I played, mostly to entertain myself. I had a whole repertoire of Everly Brothers and Kingston Trio tunes I could fake. Later in life, I faked some of the campfire tunes and popular Christian songs so that as a youth leader, I could inflict myself on the teens in my charge. A few years ago, even though I, by then, could finger about a dozen chords, I gave my guitar to my grandson. Never heard my guitar sound so good as when he played it.

It was one of the Kingston Trio, I think, who quipped during a pre-song tune-up “That’s good enough for folk music”, meaning that close is adequate if you’re not in a symphony orchestra.

Most guitars have six strings. The high “E” is very thin, and each string gets progressively thicker, and some are wrapped with a thinner wire. You put tension on the strings by winding them up on the pegs.

If there is no tension on a guitar string, when struck it will make no sound; it just kind of lays there like someone who has binge-watched fifteen seasons of “Midsomer Murders” on Netflix. If wound too tightly, the pitch gets way out of range, or the string might even break; like someone who has been petrified about going out to the store, who trembles at the sound of a cough, who feels a tickle in the throat is a precursor to certain death.

It is only when the tension is correct, will a guitar string sound its own clear note exactly as it was made to do. And when each string is tuned just right, and when all strings are properly fingered, and stuck together, a beautiful sounding chord results. Music happens.

So what does this have to do with anything? Well, we are slowing coming out of three months of isolation, and before we re-engage with other humans, it might be a good idea to tune up a little; it might be a good idea to check the tension. Some of us may need to take out the slack and sharpen up; for others, ease off the tension to get just the right note. If everyone does a little tune-up before we go out again, we might just make some beautiful music together. Or at least sound good enough for folk music.

 

 

 

 

Hello Fellow Humans!

Tuesday morning I felt numb. After reading, praying, reading some more, and sitting, even a third cup of strong black coffee didn’t help. Staring out the window at the water-soaked yard after seven inches of rain in the past few days, thinking about the dozens of things I wanted to do. Buy and plant some shrubs? No, I have to stay home and it’s too wet and I have to save money. Get a haircut? Three months since my last haircut and I look like a guy who’s been living on the streets. Or in a cave. But Sportclips has yet to reopen.

My wife walked into the kitchen, saw the blank stare, and asked what was going on. I listed the things I wanted to do but couldn’t.

(I must say God has been especially good to us during this time. My poor hearing and her soft voice combine to make for challenging communications. But in answer to prayer, we’ve been very gentle with each other, each trying to care  for the other.)

I decided to take a walk. Put on the walking shoes and a light jacket (with a hood in case of more rain), grabbed the walking stick and headed out the front door. It was gray, cool and damp, and my jacket was too light. The moist wind quickly penetrated my clothes, and my face got cold. Good! At least I was feeling something. It takes about thirty minutes to walk the subdivision, walk east, then north, then south around the cul-de-sac, back north, then west, now south to the highway, turn around and north to home.

There was standing water in the ditches. The sump pump drainpipes gurgled and spewed out more water. Some of the ditch bottoms were un-mowed, and the long grass lay flattened by the flowing water from last night’s rain. A wash-out in one ditch left tree roots exposed; two pine trees, one on each side of the ditch, their roots intertwined in the air. Looked like death.

Then I spied two women coming toward me on the opposite side of the road. They are among the usual walkers in the subdivision, most of whom I know only by sight. They gave a little wave and said, “Hi!” I waved back and for some reason said, “Hello fellow humans!” They chuckled and passed by. Fellow humans.

I miss people! I want to see their smiles, I want to bump into them at the store, shake their hand at church, and high-five my buddies on the golf course. I want to sit with some other old guys at the restaurant, have the waitress pour coffee and bring plates of eggs and bacon and toast, while we talk about the rain or the news or whatever. I want to sing in my loudest voice along with the whole congregation, in a sanctuary so full that I won’t even be heard, joining in a joyful noise lifted up to God, my creator and savior.

Ah! That’s it. That takes away the numbness and the lethargy. “Lift your eyes Bob! Look at me! I AM your God. You are safe in my hands; there’s a room waiting for you in heaven with me. Be patient; rest in me.” “He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” Revelation 22:20 (ESV)

Average Joe

IMG_8714-5That would be a good name for a coffee shop, wouldn’t it? “Average Joe.” No fancy gurgling, spurting machines, no exotic syrups, no froth, no outsize paper cups. Just solid ceramic mugs, maybe some cream and sugar for those who must, and fresh-brewed, full-bodied black coffee. I remember drinking coffee like this in local diners back in the days when I lived in New York City. Getting to sit there with a steaming mug, solid in my hand, enjoying the wake up.

These days it seems, nothing is permitted to be average or ordinary. Even the hype seems to be hyped. Even when it comes to people. Your day must be filled with extraordinary achievement; you have to be fabulous at your fabulous job, exercise must be exhilarating as you tone your perfectly healthy body. Your recreation has to be exceptional and fulfilling. The things you own are to be the best, the newest, the fastest. The food you eat is cutting edge, strictly conforming to the latest “science” of nutrition. And on and on…

Ordinary is just not allowed.

Ever drive through the wheat fields of Nebraska? Thousands of acres of wheat ready for harvest, able to feed millions of people. Know what you’re looking at? Billions (trillions?) of ordinary kernels of wheat, each one indistinguishable from the others, each one completely capable of fulfilling its purpose.

I am a decidedly average Joe, so ordinary that, like a kernel of wheat, no one would notice me in a crowd. Slightly overweight, often under-motivated, married for over five decades to an average wife, two kids, three grandkids. I live in an average house in an average subdivision, drive an average twelve-year-old car. My favorite meals are any home-made soup, meatloaf or pasta with home-made sauce. I play an inferior game of golf. There are millions of people just like me: ordinary.

But ordinary is essential. The nurse, the cop, or the UPS driver, who gets out of bed in the morning, puts on ordinary clothes and goes to work is essential. So is the mailman, the grocery shelf-stocker, or the auto technician doing his tenth oil change of the day. It’s not the names in the headlines, the ones who grace magazine covers, who make the world go, it’s the faceless ordinary people. Oh sure, the guy or gal who comes up with the vaccine to cure COVID-19 will deserve our admiration and gratitude, but it will be the nurses and doctors that will get it to the people.

That’s the way God intended it to be. He put a man and a woman in a garden to tend and keep it. The most commonly used image in the Bible is that of a shepherd. Even Jesus was raised, not in the palace of a king, but in the home of a carpenter. The twelve Apostles were not learned scholars or priests, mostly they were fishermen. Martin Luther taught that every vocation is worthy, an appointment from the Creator. In the Apostle Paul’s description of the body (the church) there are no unimportant parts, The ordinary is essential.

When I wrote my book, “Aimless Life, Awesome God”, I could have sub-titled it, “An account of an ordinary, not too remarkable life”.If you read it, you might be tempted to say, “So what? I’ve had a more interesting life than this guy. What’s so interesting about a man schlepping through the years like he did?” But what is extraordinary about my life, and yours, is how God uses us to accomplish His  purposes, to tend His garden.

Ordinary is essential. And so are you. Let’s have a cup of coffee and think it over.

The Errant Arborvitae

 

It’s not my fault! I followed all the instructions to the letter: The size of the hole, the root prep, the topsoil backfill, watering, and mulching. IMG_0074

Last Spring, I planted thirty-one six-foot tall columnar arborvitaes. The first thing that went wrong was that they delivered thirty-one when I had purchased and paid for just thirty. Right off the bat, I had to go back to Menards and pay for the extra one. I could hardly return it, right? Then, I had to dig one more hole. These trees came in individual five gallon sized containers. So each excavation had to be larger than that. It took a couple of days to accomplish that; dig a hole, rest, drink water, resume digging.

The evening when they were delivered, it was almost dark. As the two guys unloaded the truck, I used a hand cart to lug each tree to its appointed hole in the ground. I guess the semi darkness explains the extra tree.

The next morning planting began, twenty-six in one row along the west property line, and four (now five) along the east  line. You should not interpret this as an indication of which neighbor I get along with best. The planting went like this.

Tip the tree on its side, remove the plastic container, manhandle the root ball into the hole, apply root feeder, water, fill the hole with good topsoil, water, make sure the tree is straight. Repeat. Thirty more times.

The next day, the westerly neighbor came over, admired my work and noted that the northernmost tree was tilting to the east. Wearily I replied, “It’ll straighten up”. A few days later, after a heavy rain, I sneaked out and gave that errant tree a big shove to the west. Done.

We had a lot of rain last year, so more than once, I had to shove that arborvitae back to an upright stance. Now, early this Spring, we had three inches of rain overnight along with heavy winds. There was that unruly tree pointing east toward Lake Michigan again. I rummaged through the garage and found a length of galvanized pipe and some rope, pounded the pipe into the ground on the west side of the tree, and tied it up with the rope. Done.

Except that the very next day, we had more rain, coupled with an unusual wind shift from the east. West and northwest, sometimes southerly, but NEVER does the wind come from the east. Now, my errant arborvitae was serenely leaning to the west against the stake, the rope just limply hanging there. Back to the garage. Found an old broom handle. Pounded it into the ground on the east side of my tree (with excessive force I might add). Retied the rope to center the tree. Rested. Done.

I think I’m going to name this tree “Bob”. Because as I watched it moving this way then that, I was reminded of this Bible verse, Ephesians 4:14 (NLT) “We won’t be tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching. We will not be influenced when people try to trick us with lies so clever they sound like the truth.” And God said, substitute “Bob” for “we”.

IMG_0074 (1)

The preventive remedy given in the previous verses is to learn biblical truth and listen to sound doctrine. Like two stakes in the ground, these are my anchors whenever I doubt, or am tempted to believe some “new truth”. I’m spending much of this time of isolation re-reading books by great teachers on sound doctrine and biblical truth. That, along with my daily Bible reading and my Pastor’s recorded sermons helps to keep me upright. Like two stakes and a piece of rope, these will hold up my faith whenever the next wind blows from an unexpected direction.

 

 

 

Who Do You Trust?

Back in January, the nation’s unemployment rate was under four percent; a report from my financial advisor indicated that my IRA would continue to grow at a nice clip in the next twelve months; and I was looking forward to an interesting year of politics around the upcoming presidential election in November. I even bought a one year subscription to a national newspaper so I could read about the candidates in more depth.

Today there are about thirty million people out of work in the United States, my IRA has shrunk by twenty-five percent, and the incumbent president and his likely opponent are self-destructing in full view of the voters they hope to attract in the Fall.

A tiny microscopic life form, a virus that lived in a bat in China, infected humans there and quickly spread to every corner of the earth. It killed people in every nation, stopped the economies cold, decimated stock markets and turned the human population into frightened rabbits cowering in isolation in their homes. And we could not stop it.

The United States, with all its enormous wealth, abundant resources, and intelligent, educated people, was brought to its knees. Everything we relied on failed. Finger-pointing did not produce a single mask, ventilator, treatment or vaccine. Where can we turn? Who should we trust?

Back in the fifties the polio epidemic was killing and crippling kids. There was a girl that lived around the corner from me who wore leg braces and walked with crutches. Her name was Judy. Polio took away her ability to walk and play and she was bitter about it. I’m grateful to this day for Dr. Jonas Salk who invented the vaccine that removed the threat of this disease from my own children born many years later. Mumps, measles and chicken pox were all part of growing up for me and my friends in that decade. My kids received vaccinations that prevented these diseases from affecting their childhood. Thank God!

Some say we should “trust science”, while others say “trust your leaders”. Or just trust yourself. Really? When we trust science to the extent that we believe it holds all the answers, that it will always be right, we are deluding ourselves. After all, just a few decades ago the scientists were telling us that the world was getting colder, that we were all in danger of freezing if something wasn’t done. Now they say that unless we take swift action, the world will get too hot. Politicians once told us that prosperity for all was just around the corner, that a war on poverty would wipe out economic hardship for all the poor. Capitalists promise unlimited growth, a reward for hard work and risk-taking.. Socialists promise to take care of every citizen’s every need. How’s any of that working out for you today?

A woman called us this week. She lives just down the road. We belong to the same church. She wanted to know if we were OK. She sighed when she said she missed worship, and that she and her husband can’t view the online recording of the weekly service. She wondered if it would be alright if we got together for coffee. She said, “I think God is testing us.”

I agree. Every once in a while, especially when the people get “fat and happy”, trusting the wonders of science or the wisdom of government, or the strength of the economy, or their own judgement, God says, “Stop it!!” ” I made all this and I made you too. But you won’t worship me, you won’t thank me, you keep acting as if you are in charge. You’re not; I AM”.

This virus is a terrifying reminder that we are not sovereign, that we don’t have all the answers and that God will not tolerate a people who ignore, defy and trivialize Him.

Listen, I’m a Christian, a sinner saved by grace. Thanks to Jesus, I have a life that is safe in Him. Now, I may still get sick and die from COVID-19, or I might spend the rest of my life in poverty and want, but my future is secure in Christ. While I do enjoy the blessings that science has provided; while I love the freedom and prosperity I’ve experienced in this country, made possible by the form of government we have and responsible statesmen who have led us in the past, my trust is in none of these.

No, I trust my Creator, unchanging, unshakeable, loving, gracious. and merciful. I say, along with the whole church, “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” Psalms 124:8 (ESV)

Who do you trust?

Who Is That Masked Man?

IMG_0069My wife, the quilter, has been churning out face masks for family and friends, turning scraps of fabric into colorful protective devices. The one she made for me is suitably manly, sort of a muted blue-gray pattern. I wore it for the first time last week when I went to pick up an online order from our usual grocery store. The woman who brought our stuff to the car was one of the regular baggers; she was also wearing a mask. I greeted her by name, thanked her and told her to “be safe.” 

That’s the new phrase, “Be safe.” I say it to everyone I meet, everyone I talk with on the phone. “Be safe.” It feels stupid to say it because what else are they going to do? They’re masked and gloved and standing six feet from me. Or tucked safely in their living room while speaking on the phone. Of course what I really mean is, “Please don’t get sick.” Please don’t catch this awful virus. Please don’t die. Please, God.

Yesterday I ventured out to a different grocery store, because, you know, some store shelves are empty. Of course we all know about toilet paper. “Psst buddy, they got some over at Pick & Save.” Everyone was searching for those elusive rolls. A few weeks later it was eggs. You’re staring at the empty cooler where eggs are supposed to be, and some guy behind you says, “They’ve got lots of eggs at Festival” so off you go.

Well, yesterday it was long grain rice. Regular store was out of it, so I took the grocery list to a different store. Right off the bat, I could see that it’d be a long search since I didn’t know the layout. Masked people wandering around me, but it was easy to spot the regulars. Their carts were full, and they were moving resolutely down the aisles. Newbies like me, had their heads up, scanning the aisle signs, brows furrowed in puzzlement. Said to one guy, “You finding it yet?” “Nah.” “Me neither.”

In another aisle, a man was stocking shelves, down on his knees. He looked up as I approached and nodded. I smiled back. After a few more steps, I realized, “I’m wearing a mask!” So I went back to him and said, “ I forgot about the mask, and that you couldn’t see me smile. So Hi! And be safe!” He smiled; no mask.

I finished my search, found the rice and a few other items and headed to the checkout. There was a big plexiglass shield between me and the cashier. As the bagger was finishing up, I inserted my card, got the receipt and turned to go. “Thank you” I said, “and be safe.” What I really wanted to do was hug them, They were risking their safety so I could get a bag of long grain rice.

Before the virus, we all had other things on our mind. Preoccupied with the petty details of life, heads down staring at our smart phones. Now, I just long to make eye contact with another human being, to say “Hi!” and relate in that passing moment. I attend worship on TV screen, but I long to shake hands, hug people and look into their eyes and see how they are doing. Hopefully, when this is over, we will have learned to appreciate one another, friends and strangers alike. Until then, be safe.

Bird Seed or Bat Flu?

Forget toilet paper, I should have stocked up on bird seed when COVID-19 first came on the scene. There are three seed feeders hanging on a triple hanger pole just outside the kitchen window. We imagesit at our kitchen table and watch the birds pick at their favorite blend, while the squirrels and chipmunks gleefully chomp whatever falls to the ground.

The first year we had this setup, we bought a bird book and checked off all the varieties that came to dine here, putting a paper clip on the page when we spied one kind or another. Soon, there was a clip on nearly every other page; the only birds we did not see were eagles, hawks, turkey buzzards and a few other exotic species. We quickly gave up trying to remember the names, settling for, “little speckled ones” or “big noisy black ones” when we couldn’t clearly distinguish a cardinal, a blue jay or a goldfinch.

As Spring came rushing on (except for the days it was snowing, this is Wisconsin after all) my seed supplies were dwindling. Trying to keep the feeders full, I began to let them get nearly empty before adding any more seeds. We started getting “looks” from the birds. The blue jays, for instance, will actually perch on the top of the pole ,and, facing our window, they call out as if to say, “We know you’re in there! Where’s the food?”. The other birds seem to flutter and nod in agreement. The half dozen doves that regularly decimate the food supply have been gathering suspiciously, muttering among themselves, as if plotting something.

Worse yet, the head chipmunk stands on the back step, just by the door, threatening to march right in if something isn’t done soon. The squirrels look ready to back him up. It’s gotten so bad that I feel guilty while munching my ham sandwich. I’d close the blinds, but I’d still hear them out there. I’ve been seriously thinking about eating in the living room.

So today, I have to make a decision. Should I go to Farm & Fleet to buy more bird seed? Risk getting the deadly bat virus for the sake of my feathery and furry dependents? Do I disobey the governor’s “Safe at Home” orders; is feeding these critters “essential”?

There’s a lot of noise and activity outside the kitchen window right now. I’m afraid of what they might be up to out there. That’s it! I can’t take it any longer. Good bye dear wife, I’m heading out….

Silent Saturday

This morning, during my usual walk, things were really quiet. Even the birds were muted in their chirping. Traffic was light on the road and few people were out. And I began to ruminate about that long-ago Saturday, the day after the crucifixion, the day before the resurrection. When I returned home, I quickly looked through the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Not a word about Saturday.

They have a great deal to say about Friday. The early morning betrayal of Jesus in a dark garden where torches were necessary to guide the way. The trials before the high priest and Pilate. The beating and mocking and gambling for the tunic. The cross, the nails, the two thieves. The last cry of an innocent man, “It is finished!” The men who came and prepared the corpse, the new tomb, the big stone. Then, silence.

The soldiers probably went home, washed their hands and had supper and wine. The crowd dispersed; the spectacle over. Those who were Jews went home to observe the sabbath. The priests, and sadducees and pharisees went home, glad to have avoided defiling themselves by letting Pilate do their dirty work. Jesus? Problem solved.

The disciples went into hiding; confused, brokenhearted, afraid. Blank stares, some weeping, maybe a little bit of anger. What do we do now? And maybe some hope? Look, didn’t He say He’d come back? Yes, but His corpse is in a sealed up tomb.

Christians have liturgies and worship services for Maunday Thursday, Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday. But what are we supposed to do on the un-titled day, Saturday?

Maybe since scripture is silent that’s what we are to do. Pause for a day. Reflect on the cosmic events of Friday. Take a breath. Wait. Do what God says, 

Be still, and know that I am God.

I will be exalted among the nations,

I will be exalted in the earth!”

Psalms 46:10 (ESV)

On Cleaning Golf Clubs

IMG_0063Yesterday I called a friend up in Michigan. He and his wife moved away last year and began practicing “Social Isolation” before “Social Isolation” was cool. Since they moved into a cabin in the middle of nowhere, without cable or even an antenna, I was the one who had to tell him that the Masters Tournament had been postponed until September. Come on, the Masters without azaleas & magnolias?

When I told him that I had just cleaned my golf clubs, we began to lament the closing of golf courses under COVID-19 social distancing orders. What nonsense! With my erratic shots, I’m rarely within shouting distance of my foursome except for tees and greens. Even then, while they are on the green in regulation, I’m usually two shots out from the green-side sand trap. They are impatiently waiting to attempt their birdie putts, I’m hoping to avoid a triple bogey.

Right now, you’re probably wondering why I play the game. Well it begins with cleaning the clubs on a warm Spring day. Get a bucket of warm soapy water, a scrub brush, and a rag, and plunge the clubs into the suds. Remove the driver, scrub out the grooves on the face, wipe the whole thing down, especially the grips, dry it and put it back in the bag. Same with the three wood and so on. Get some fresh golf balls, mark them and throw them into the pocket. Maybe get a fresh golf towel to hang on the bag.

All the while thinking about that one really good shot you made with the seven wood, or the sand shot that rolled onto the green and into the cup last Fall. Or that time when your buddy made a hole-in-one. Then there’s my golfing buddies. One of the Monday morning regulars (actually he’s the instigator) is about six inches taller than I am, and routinely drives the ball fifty or more yards farther than me. We josh a little on the tees, but mostly it’s a silent walk to the next shot, then conversation resumes on the green. Everywhere you look there are green grass fairways, green trees, still and shimmering ponds. And we are all equals out there.

Because we are not competing with each other, we are challenged by the course and a thing called “par.” For me, “par” is like a high, unscalable mountain whose peak I seldom reach; on a particular hole, maybe, but for a complete round, never. But my buddies are scrambling too, they’re after the same thing “par.” That’s what makes the game fun. It’s a lifelong challenge to make, or beat par. And every time you do, whether on one hole or for the entire round, it’s worth a fist bump. And every time you creep closer to that goal, you celebrate.

This pandemic will end; that’s why I cleaned my clubs this week. Right now, God is making the grass to grow and the trees to bud and He is refilling the ponds. Soon I’ll re-join my buddies and we’ll walk the fairways together. Except of course, when I’m in the weeds, looking for my ball.

Return of the Ducks

Every year about this time, a pair of Mallard ducks drops into our neighborhood looking for a nesting place. It’s interesting to watch them walk (yes walk) around from yard to yard, talking with each other as they go. Yesterday, they stopped below our bird feeders for lunch. The drake kept watch while the hen pecked at the ground; then she stepped back while he munched on the safflower seeds. They never eat at the same time, one always keeps watch while the other eats.

We look on from the kitchen window, hoping they’ll pick our yard for their home this year. They’ve done so in the past, once under the birch tree in the front yard, nestled in the creeping phlox. and once in the back yard under the maple, sheltered in the pachysandra. A few years ago the nest out front had twelve eggs, eleven of which hatched. We watched from the living room window as the hen led her new-born brood out of the nest to who-knows-where.

Spring is an encouraging season, especially this year. First the crocus emerged under the living room window. Then, the birds came to the feeders, each type in its own time, doves, finches, blue jays, chickadees and more. Daily refillings are now part of my routine. Robins are claiming their favorite nesting sites.The grass is greening up, the maple and lilac are showing signs of budding. All this free entertainment, all these annual signs of life, all proof that the God of life, the Master Creator, is still in charge.

A virus like the sci-fi sounding COVID-19 can make us feel as if everything is out of  control. People are dying, the stores are closed, my granddaughter’s bridal shower got cancelled and we’re stuck in the house. But everything is not out of control. The ducks prove it. There is a God who is sovereign over every square inch of the universe, ensuring that life goes on. If anything, this virus is an antidote for arrogance; our idea that we are in charge. It’s a hard way to learn that lesson, but we do need to be reminded over and over that we are flawed and finite creatures.

People are dying, I know. But people are always dying. I’m going to die, and given my age that’s likely to be sooner than later. But I can lift my eyes to heaven and think about the God who holds me and the world in His hands. And I can look out the kitchen window at the carefree critters frolicking in the yard and see evidence that this good God cares for His creatures.

So it’ll take the ducks a few more days to settle on their temporary home. The hen will build the nest, the drake will guard it and her. Together, they’ll tend the nest until the inevitable day when the eggs hatch, and the hen will lead the brood to their new life. I hope they will choose our yard.