Partly Saved by Wayne Danielson


Partly Saved

Wayne Allen Danielson

A Book of Spiritual Encouragement

for American Families

Copyright 1997 by Wayne Allen Danielson

To my wife, children, stepchildren, grandchildren, and the homes they warm with their love, and to those partly saved people everywhere who may recognize themselves in the pages of this book and rejoice that they are not alone.



Chapter OnePartly Saved

Chapter Two Home Improvements

Chapter ThreeThanksgiving List

Chapter FourImagination

Chapter FiveHunters and Gatherers

Chapter SixDragonfly

Chapter SevenColors

Chapter EightInside and Outside

Chapter NineSimple Things

Chapter TenPeach Peelings

Chapter ElevenGood Morning


I am not a preacher or a seminarian or a theologian, and I send this book forth with the warning that my lack of qualifications to write about spiritual matters will undoubtedly be readily apparent to  readers.  I do hold the doctor of philosophy degree from Stanford University, and I have spent more than forty years as a teacher and administrator in American universities.  I have counseled thousands of young people. Add to these experiences, an abiding interest in the church and a lifetime of study of its texts,  and you have the only scholarly basis for this book. Mainly this is a layman’s book, written to express my conviction that the holy scriptures can influence our own lives and the lives of our families for the better and that we should not be apologetic about our prayerful use of them for this purpose.

The book has its origins in the realization, beginning in the late ’60s and early ’70s,  that  our own children were growing up ignorant of their spiritual heritage, and that, as a consequence, they understood little of the civilization they lived in and the source of the values that that civilization espoused.  I wanted to try to remedy that situation.

My first wife and I decided to return to the church with our family. (It hardly seemed fair to send the children and not attend ourselves.)  An adult Sunday School class invited us to join, and even asked that I give a monthly talk about the ways Christianity influenced our family life.  The personal  essays that resulted constitute the heart of this book.

Now, years later, widowed, remarried, father of four children and two stepchildren, grandfather of ten, and a survivor of many of the troubles associated with the last half of the Twentieth Century, I pause to attempt to see what all of it has meant.  Never a person of strong faith, I have called myself one of the “partly saved”  Christians of America.  My message to other partly saved Christians is that mainstream American churches, struggling against terrible odds in a materialistic society, still offer families something that is difficult find anywhere else – a blessing – the same blessing  that Jacob received long ago, the chance to find greater meaning in all of life.

Wayne Allen Danielson

Austin, Texas

June 1998

Partly Saved


Wayne Danielson

Partly Saved

Our son Paul loved to play baseball. He really got into the game.  He could hit pretty well, but he wasn’t too great at catching the ball.

Usually, the coach would put him in right field.  Not much happens out there.

I faithfully attended most of his games, but sports never interested me much, and I often took a book to read or some papers to grade.  The other parents kept track of the game and told me when to quit reading and watch something important that was about to happen.

Consequently, I got to see most of the times when Paul messed up.

The game would be just about over.  Our team would have a one-point lead.  The other team would have two outs and two men on base, and the last batter at the plate.  Our


pitcher, “Moose” Scruggs, would load up and throw one of

his fast balls.  The batter would connect – bad luck! – and

the ball would sail ........... straight toward right field.

“Oh, no,” a neighboring father would say.  “It’s going toward Paul.”

“What?” I would reply, looking up.  “What’s going on?”

And I would see the ball sailing high in the air, impossibly high, turning in the sunlight, and then coming down, faster and faster, right toward Paul.  He would be watching it carefully, with his glove all ready.

“Oh no!” said my helpful neighbor. “Not again.”

Paul, of all our boys, was most likely to miss the ball.  It would plop into the grass right beside him.  The runners would score.  The other team would cheer wildly.  What a sad time Paul had – to love baseball so much, and to be unable, ever, to be a hero.

In the Sunday School room of the little church I attended in Iowa as a child, we had a piano to accompany our songs.  It wasn’t a new piano.  It had some missing ivory, and some of the keys had jagged like sharks’ teeth.  Someone had donated the piano to the church, and, to tell the truth, in the midst of the Great Depression, we were glad to have it.

But our piano had one problem.  The second D above Middle C didn’t work.  And when the pianist came to that note, all she got was – a kind of clunk.

She was a conscientious woman, and she tried to choose


songs that never used that note.  We learned a lot of rare songs that way, and we got by most of the time.  We took some pride in singing songs with four or five flats, songs most children had never heard of, songs without D’s.

But we had difficulties.  Sometimes a D would sneak into a song when you were least expecting it. Clunk.  An embarrassing gap would ensue, and everyone would giggle. And Christmas was always a time of crisis because everyone insisted that we sing “Joy to the World” even though it is written in the key of D, has lots of D’s in it, and, worst of all, begins with a great descending scale starting – you guessed it – with our missing note. 

Our Sunday School music teacher, Louise Swan, would warn us, “Right after the shepherds enter wearing their pajamas – I mean their robes – we are going to sing ‘Joy to the World’, and no one is going to laugh.  No one!”

Well, we listened politely, but in our hearts we knew it was hopeless.  And on the night of the program, in front of our parents and the minister and everyone, when the piano began to play “Clunk to the World, the Lord has come” we broke down in gales of helpless laughter.

It was years before I could hear that song without smiling.  You see, something was basically wrong.  Our teacher warned us.  The pianist tried.  We tried.  But when everything was said and done, a clunk is a clunk.  We were second best, not quite adequate.  Something was missing.


Did you see the movie, “The Summer of ’42”?  It was a sensitive story of a teenage boy’s first love. I had my own “Summer of ’42,” but it was, actually, thinking back, in the summer of ’45.

Everything happened that summer.  World War II ended. My brother returned from the Pacific. I fell hopelessly in love.  And I got partly saved.

That summer I attended a Methodist Summer Camp in Mount Pleasant, Iowa.  It was held on the campus of Iowa Wesleyan College.  Summer in Iowa is beautiful – short, but  beautiful.  Also, it seems to me now that the grass was greener then, the skies were somewhat bluer, the clouds were definitely whiter, the flowers were more beautiful, and the girls – the girls were as wonderful and mysterious as girls always are for a fifteen-year-old boy.

I must tell you that I don’t even remember her name, but she was only a little bit taller than I was, and she had long, dark, curly hair.  She came from Muscatine, Iowa, and when she kissed me underneath an elm tree at 9:30 on an August evening, it was just fine.  On the last night of summer camp, the minister conducting the farewell service asked those of us in the audience who wanted to be saved to come forward.  I hadn’t planned on being saved just yet, but when she  decided to walk down the aisle and kind of smiled at me to come along, I thought, “Why not?”  It was, as they say, satisfactory.

For the next two weeks, everything was perfect.  I was in love.  Heaven was my destination.  I was saved.  But then doubts set in.  She wrote me a letter, and I discovered that


beautiful, dark-eyed, dark-haired girls from Muscatine may be excellent kissers, but they can’t necessarily spell.

Her letter began, “Dear H o n y.”

It shouldn’t have made any difference, but, somehow, it took something away from the entire experience.

My mother washed my shirt with her picture still in the pocket.  It pretty much ruined it.

I decided that she was quite a bit taller than I had thought at first.  And, after all, it was hard to keep up a romance with someone who lived forty miles away.  My love faded.

When school began that fall, I started running around with a bunch of rowdy teenagers, and some Sundays I began to sleep in instead of going to church.  Sometime later that year – maybe in the spring of ’46 – I decided that something had definitely gone wrong with my religious conviction too.  Being saved hadn’t worked out the way it should have.  Deep inside, where I should have been washed white as snow, malice grew, deceit prospered, spite glowed and flickered.  I decided that I had been only partly saved.

Partly saved.

That’s impossible, isn’t it?  You can’t be partly saved any more than you can be “kinda pregnant.”  You either are or you aren’t.  At least that’s the way our country theologists had it in those days.


We used to sing the lilting song, “Love Lifted Me” in Sunday School, and the words I remembered were:

Souls in danger, look above,

Jesus completely saves;

He will lift you by his love,

Out of the angry waves.

It seemed to me back then that there was little room in the West Hill Methodist Church for a partly saved teenager, one half in and half out of the angry waves.  I felt the stares of the old Swedish ladies upon me.

“There goes that partly saved Danielson boy,” the stares seemed to say.  “What a shame for his parents.”

I was uncomfortable, and, in the language of the time, I began to “drift away” from the church.

A long time later, nearly two decades later, I decided to read again the books of the New Testament.  I hadn’t read those books since I was a child, and I thought I owed it to my Christian heritage to read them as an adult.  I didn’t expect anything startling to happen, and, indeed, nothing did.  But as I read the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the Acts of the Apostles, and the letters of Paul, a voice – one voice – in addition to the voice of Jesus, began to call out to me.

I admired the apostle Paul, but I never felt close to him.


  His intellectual power simply left me in the dust.  It wasn’t Paul’s voice I heard.  I admired the individual authors of the New Testament books – the rough, amazed Mark, the schoolmaster Matthew, the story-teller Luke, and that poet of the spirit John.  But it wasn’t their voices I heard.  No, the voice that called to me through all the writings, all the authors, was the voice of Peter. 

Peter I knew.

Peter was every boy who ever had a tendency to drop a fly ball.  He was every piano with a missing key.  He was every teenage boy whose first love doesn’t work out.  He, like me, in spite of his best efforts, was only partly saved.

I read in the Book of John that Peter didn’t even meet Jesus on his own.  His brother Andrew took him to see Jesus.  At first, Peter rejected Jesus’s offer to be “a fisher of men,” saying to Jesus, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man.”

But Jesus insisted, and the sinful man Peter came along with the others, always in trouble, never quite understanding what was going on, never quite making it.

Once Peter asked Jesus, “If my brother sins against me, how many times do I have to forgive him – seven times?”

Jesus must have shaken his head at Peter.

“Seventy times seven,” he said. 

Peter could never get anything right.

When Jesus called to Peter to get out of the boat and


walk across the water that stormy night, Peter tried – you have to give him credit for that – but he didn’t make it.  Like a cartoon coyote going off a cliff, he started out OK, but then he began to sink, and Jesus had to fish him out of the lake.

In the words of “Love Lifted me”:

But the Master of the sea

Heard my despairing cry,

From the waters lifted me,

Now safe am I.

Peter was safe, maybe.  But he was never right.  He was never a winner.  He never really understood what was going on.

When Peter objected to Jesus’s foretelling his own death, Jesus actually condemned him: “Get thee behind me, Satan,” he said, “for thou savorest not the things that be of God, but the things that be of men.”

How do you suppose that made Peter feel?  He must have felt only partly saved.

As the various miracles of the Lord took place, Peter was just there, somehow, helping out in minor ways.  For example, it was his brother Andrew, not Peter, who got to bring the bread that Jesus broke at the miraculous feeding of the multitude.


And on that last terrible night of Jesus’s life, Peter made one mistake after another.  He balked at letting Jesus wash his feet at the Last Supper, and Jesus had to reprimand him.  Later, in the Garden of Gethsemane, when the Lord asked Peter and John to wait and pray while he struggled with his great decision, Peter – and John too, let it be recorded – fell asleep three times.  And when the guards came to arrest Jesus, Peter took a sword and whacked off one of the guard’s ears, and again, Jesus had to tell him to stop.  We won’t even mention that before dawn of the next day, as predicted, Peter had denied his Lord – betrayed him – three times.  When the cock crew, as Luke says, “The Lord turned at looked at Peter.”  All Peter could do was run away, weeping bitterly.

Even on the day of Resurrection, it was not Peter who got to the tomb first – it was the women, and then, running in a race with John, it was not Peter but John, the beloved disciple, who beat him there. Second again Peter.  Drop the ball Peter.

And yet, the Bible is perfectly clear about which one of the twelve disciples became the leader.  It was Peter.  The Bible is perfectly clear about what Jesus thought of the man.  He loved him.

In response to Peter’s impassioned confession of faith – “Thou art the Christ, the son of the living God” – Jesus replied, “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.

(That’s the only time Jesus used the word church , and he said he wanted bumbling, partly saved Peter to get it


started.  How odd.)

“And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Jesus, who could have asked any one of the disciples, chose the imperfect, impetuous, all-too-human Peter to hold the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.

Why did he choose Peter, of all people?

The voice of Peter seemed to speak to me out of the pages of the gospels, “Don’t you see?  He chose me as an example for everyone who will come later.”

The church that will endure to the end of time won’t be made up of perfect people, but of people like Peter, people capable of every error, people capable of every failing, people capable of every sin, people just like me, in other words, people who in spite of all their faults, keep returning, keep trying to follow the Master.

Reading the New Testament writings again after many years began a slow change in me.  Peter spoke to me.  As a man now, and with a man’s sensibilities, I understood that I was not the first person – and I would not be the last – to feel only partly saved.  Other partly saved people exist –


people with lots of faults, people who keep losing the way, people who can’t walk on water, but people who, like Peter,  keep coming back to their Savior.  It is to those imperfect people that this book is dedicated.  I suspect that  none of us will ever stand at the gates of heaven, holding the keys.  But somehow I’m glad that the Lord chose Peter to stand there, aren’t you?

Matthew 14:23-32, Luke 22:54-62, Matthew 16:13-20.

Home Improvements

It seems to me that we’ve been spending a lot of time on

home improvements lately – you know, those little things that need doing around a house, even a new house. Things like –

Changing light bulbs,

Putting in air filters,

Installing a flapper valve in the master bathroom toilet.

No matter how hard we work on these tasks, however, we never seem to finish them. Have you ever noticed that the home improvement list is one of those lists that you never get to the bottom of? At least, I’ve never got to the bottom of mine.

A couple of weeks ago, I almost decided to call a moratorium on all sentences beginning with the words:

“We need to ...”

“We ought to ...”


“When are we going to ....”

I didn’t try to declare the moratorium, because I realize that sentences like this are the foundation of all good marriages, and if we didn’t say them we might not have much to talk about. But I certainly thought about it.

Why is it so hard just to sit out on the deck and enjoy the evening, without thinking about the burned out light in the Japanese garden?

Why is it so difficult just to plop down in the library and enjoy a good book, without noticing the big wine spot on the carpet that seemed to appear by magic after our last dinner party?

Why is it so difficult just to lie in bed at night and drift off to sleep without hearing that high-pitched hiss of water being wasted by that defective flapper valve?

I don’t know the answer, but it certainly has been a problem lately. I plan to think about it some more.

Our home improvement list recently got so long we decided to devote an entire looseleaf notebook to it. The notebook is called “The List,” and it contains a page for every room in the house, the garage, and the attic and for every area on the outside of the house and in the yard. The book consists of 29 pages in all, and it’s still growing.

Now whenever we hear ourselves starting out a sentence with –

“We need to ...”

“We ought to ...”


“When are we going to ....”

I just say — “Put it in the book.”

Put it in the book. It’s a great system. Sometimes we just walk around the house and yard crossing off things we’ve done — that’s fun — and adding things we need to undertake. This relieves some of the pressure of remembering everything, but it doesn’t solve the basic problem of home improvement itself, namely, that the list has no end.

Here are some of the things we need to do in the dining room:

• Get a new table centerpiece for summer.

• Polish the brass candlesticks.

• Get more plates.

• Get more glasses.

• Get more silverware.

• Plug holes in the china cabinet.

• Reverse the Chinese screen.

• Get a new vase for gladiolas.

• Repot the closet flowers.

• Lower the drapes one inch on the right. (Oh, LaVonne did that one!)

Here are some things for the library:

• Give some of those books away.

• Replace Madame Butterfly print.

• Find throw for chairs.

• Get some new CD’s — no more classical guitars.

• Find the missing dealies that go under the drinks.

You can see all the important things we need to do. What’s wrong here? Isn’t something missing?

Our home improvement book does have a sense of humor. Its final item says, “Build a swinging bridge across the canyon.” I think I had that idea, and it was so far out, we both laughed about it. Now, when we think of something really outlandish that we’d like to do, I say, “Put it in the book right after the swinging bridge.” You’d be surprised at how many postscripts we have.

The book has one other virtue. It’s a “we” book. That is, it makes is clear that we share the obligation of completing these home improvement tasks. That’s good, I think. The book is not just a list of things the other person in the marriage needs to attend to.


Maybe it would be interesting to make that kind of book.

I could put LaVonne’s name on the cover, and in it I could write down all the things I think she needs to do to clean up her act. And fair’s fair, she could make a book with my name on it and write down all the things she thinks I need to do to improve my character. After we work on these books for a while — assuming that we’re still married to one another — we could add books for all the children and grandchildren, and when they came to visit we could remind them of all the things they need to do to become better individuals. For that matter, we could add all the people in our workplaces — we both know lots of people with serious problems they ought to attend to — and we could make lists for them too. Like the Lord High Executioner in Gilbert and Sullivan’s opera, The Mikado, we could say “I’ve Got a Little List....” We could make lots of lists. We could extend the lists to include our neighbors, the church, the City Council, the State Legislature, the Congress, the Supreme Court and the present occupants of the White House. With some additional thought we probably could go international and make self-improvement lists for most of the countries of the world.

That’s a pretty big order, isn’t it?

But to hear us talk sometimes, we sound like we think we’re capable of doing it.

We’re not.

In the final analysis, all of us need to find ways to improve the things that need improving in our own lives.

In our own lives.

That’s the key, isn’t it?

The message is plain enough. We ought not to keep home improvement lists for one another. We ought to keep them for ourselves.

Changing others, molding and modeling them into the people we would like for them to be, is a difficult if not impossible task. Our overflowing prisons are testimony to this truism. We need to pay attention to those people we can change, namely ourselves. Changing ourselves is difficult too. But it is not impossible. We can change our own lives. We can make the home improvements in ourselves that need to be made. We can find the happiness that we seek. If enough people learn to do this, one by one, the world itself will be transformed.

One by one.

That’s the way the world changes. We’re impatient. We want to organize into vast groups of people, vast armies, and get things done right now. This seldom works. We need to be patient. One by one is the way to do it. It takes longer. But the resulting change is stronger, able to stand up.

How do we change ourselves? How do we build deep foundations? How do we foster enduring values? How do we create permanent change for the better in ourselves? What tasks should go on our own self-improvement lists?

A very important task, perhaps the most important of all, is to live a life devoted to others.

A kind of balance or symmetry exists in all our relationships. If one thing happens, then something reciprocal takes place.

Children learn that if they take turns, others will generally take turns back.

They learn that if they share, others will usually share in return.

They learn that two, playing together, is lots more fun than one playing alone.

The opposite is also true:

Children learn that if they are selfish, their friends are selfish in return.

They learn that if they they don’t share, others won’t share either.

They learn that if they hit, others hit back.

They learn that quitting the game and taking their ball and going home means that the fun is over, and they will spend the rest of the day by themselves.

If, somehow, we fail to learn this rule in childhood, we generally have second chances to learn it as adults:

If we condemn others, we will be condemned in return.

If we blame others, we ourselves will be blamed.

If we speak in mean words to others, we will get mean words back.

On the other hand –

If we are compassionate, we will receive compassion in return.

If we give someone a  gentle hug, we will get a gentle hug back.

If we speak a kind word, we will hear a kind word spoken in return..

One soft kiss evokes another.

Whether it’s Christmas presents or love, the value of what we receive is about the same as what we give.

As far as I can tell, this is a universal law.

It is a lot easier not to believe this. It is a lot easier to blame the other fellow. It is a lot easier to wait for the other person to make the first generous move before we make a generous move ourselves. It is a lot easier to keep home improvement lists for other people than to keep them for ourselves .

I gave a talk on this subject in a neighborhood church some years ago. I guess I got going pretty well on turning the other cheek, walking the extra mile, giving up your cloak when someone asks for your shirt.

After the sermon, as I stood in the doorway of the church shaking hands with the people as they came out, a tiny gray-haired woman approached me with her blue eyes snapping:

“I can’t stand that text,” she said. “I try to do most of what the Bible says, but I just can’t turn the other cheek. I think Jesus got it wrong somehow. And if I ever get to heaven, I intend to talk to him about it.”

I wished her luck. I often feel that way myself, even though I’m sure I’m wrong.

Home improvements.

The most important kind, the most difficult kind, I think, are on the lists we keep not for others, but for ourselves.

My personal home improvement list is a long one. I guess you could say I have lots of cracks in my foundation and lots of shaky values. I think I must be a slow learner. Here are the Top Ten items on my list. I’ve been working on them a long time. Some of these might be on your list, too.

The Top Ten Items on Wayne’s Home Improvement List

10. Let people learn for themselves. Be helpful, but don’t try to do everything for them. Ask questions. Don’t preach.

  9. Listen. Sometimes people don’t want help. They just want to talk. Sometimes your job is just to nod, and say “right,” and keep the conversation going.

  8. Be here now. Avoid being off somewhere in the future or somewhere in the past. The only time we have together is right now. Use now wisely. Pay attention.

  7. Just say yes or just say no. Avoid maybe. People want to know what you think and what you will do. It’s ok to tell them. As a matter of fact, it’s the right thing to do. A halfway promise is no promise at all.

  6. Ask for what you want. Hinting never works well. Just say, “Please pass the potatoes.” What can happen? You’ll either get the potatoes or you won’t. Is this so bad?

5. Express your love. Hinting never works well. Actions can sometimes be misinterpreted. Just say, “I love you.” What can happen? The premise is that you’ll get back what you give and then some. It could happen.

4. Pray a lot. I don’t need to explain that. I just need to do it.

3. Trust others. As a rule people like you. They’re not out to get you. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Believe in them, and they will believe in you. It works. It really does.

2. Be courageous. If you stand for the right, someone will always stand with you.

1. Remember that at all times you are in God’s hands. What can happen? Nothing can separate us from the love of God. We’re on his home improvement list permanently.

What is on your home improvement list?

Do you need to polish the candlesticks? Repot the flowers? Get a new centerpiece for the dining room table? We all have regular home improvement lists. Personal home improvement lists are a little more unusual. But it seems to me that they might actually do more to improve our homes than the other kind because they help us change. What do you think? I’m sure of one thing: keeping my own list is better for me than keeping a list for other folks. And one of these days, who knows? I may be able to cross off a few of my Top Ten items.

Luke 6:47-49. Luke 6:41- 42. Luke 6: 36-38.

Thanksgiving Lists

Do you remember making Christmas lists?

I certainly do.

I remember when I was a kid making a list of the things I would really like to get for Christmas and putting it on the fireplace mantel. My mom would let me make changes up until about three weeks before Christmas, and after that, no changes were allowed.

Making a list was difficult for me. I was always in conflict about whether I should ask for what I really wanted or what I thought I would probably get. I knew that our family was poor — it was the middle of the Great Depression, after all — and that it was extremely unlikely that I would get a pony or a brand new Schwinn bicycle or a Red Ryder BB gun.  On the other hand, I didn’t really want the clean linen handkerchiefs or the argyle sox or the seersucker stop-at-the-knee pants I was likely to get.  I didn’t want to make my parents feel bad by asking for the impossible.  Nevertheless, I didn’t especially want to go back to school and watch the other kids show off their new bicycles and toboggans and chemistry sets while I blew my nose on a fresh handkerchief and walked around in knickers that whistled when my legs rubbed together.

Usually, I tried for something in the middle. I made a list of things I wanted, but that were in range of the family’s finances.  My list would go something like this:

A Chinese Checkers game.

A sling shot.

Roller skates.

Fresh water colors.

A thirty-six color box of crayons.

An adventure book.

A pocket knife.

I would listen to my father talk about Christmas in the old days. If he dwelt a lot on how all they got on the farm when he was growing up was an orange and a lump of brown sugar, I would revise my list downward before the cut-off date for list changes. If he talked about the time they got a new buggy with eisenglass windows and a fake fur lap robe, I would cross off the water colors and add on a Radio Flier.

What we actually got at Christmas was often a surprise, however, and only remotely related to our lists. Oh, we got the handkerchiefs and the knickers as expected, but the other things were often unexpected,  not what we ordered, but sometimes a lot better. We got a brass kaleidoscope, we got a make-it-yourself crystal radio set, we got a stuffed dog you could operate on, we got a bull made out of sawdust and glue.  The bull was named Ferdinand, and he had legs that moved.  You could put that bull in the most unlikely positions. It was great. I miss that bull.

We’ve kind of got out of the habit of making Christmas lists nowadays, I think. For one thing, my design consultant recommends keeping the front of the refrigerator clean in our new home, and I always do what my design consultant recommends.  I miss my shaggy old refrigerator that kind of fluttered in the breeze with its countless lists, but I do like the pristine, after-spring-cleaning-look of our new kitchen.

Another reason for abandoning the lists is the sheer size of the enterprise now that we have combined families. We have so many children and grandchildren and relatives their lists would take up a sizable chunk of the hard drive on our computer. So we’ve had to move toward mass production and wholesale purchasing, a kind of Christmas by Sam’s approach.  Out-of-state relatives get pecans and ruby-red grapefruit.  In-state relatives get calendars or candles or magazine subscriptions. Children and grandchildren get books and checks more or less adjusted to the cost of living index.

The old lists are gone, but their memory lingers.

I got to thinking the other day that it might be a good idea to have lists for holidays other than Christmas.

Easter for example. What would be on your Easter list if you got to make one and put it on the mantel? What kind of eggs would you ask for? Those purple ones with the sugary white insides, or chocolate ones, or chocolate kisses covered in aquamarine foil? Maybe you would like a spun sugar chicken or a marzipan rabbit. Would you rather have an azalea or an Easter lily? Why don’t we make Easter lists?

Or take the Fourth of July. What kind of fireworks would be on your list? Do you like really loud firecrackers or mildly glowing sparklers? How about those smoke bombs or those gray pills that you light and a snake comes crawling out? They’re nice. Do you want to go to Auditorium Shores and be surrounded by thousands of people, or do you prefer to watch the fireworks from the comfort of a high rise balcony in the financial district? A fourth of July list would be nice, I think.

And how about a Halloween list? Halloween has now become the biggest holiday in America except for Christmas. A lot of money changes hands every Halloween for decorations and for goodies to hand out at the door and for costumes. People don’t always get what they want. One of the kids at our door said “no thanks” this year when I offered Butterfingers. Why don’t we make lists to be sure that we get what we want? Do you want Brachs candy corn?  Do you prefer bite-size Snicker bars? Do you want to go to the masked ball as Snow White or as the Evil Queen?  Do you want to go as Elvis or as Bill Clinton? We could have Halloween lists, couldn’t we? It would make things more efficient.

And how about Thanksgiving? What would be on your Thanksgiving list? Do you prefer your dressing dry or moist?  Should the pie be pecan or pumpkin?  Are you in favor of sweet potatoes or mashed potatoes or both? Do you want your green beans cooked a long time with bacon or just barely thawed in the microwave. We could have Thanksgiving lists, couldn’t we?

Thanksgiving isn’t really like the other holidays, is it? Think about its name. Thanks giving.

I haven’t thought about it seriously in a long time. The word just runs together in my mind.  It has lost its meaning. Thanks giving. It’s a day for giving thanks, isn’t it? It isn’t a time for making a list of the kind of food we want or which team we would like to win the football game. A list for Thanksgiving shouldn’t be a list of things that we want at all, should it? It should be something else entirely. It should be a list of things we are thankful for.

The list we put on the mantel should be a list of the things in our lives we thank God for.

What would be on your list? I’d like to share mine with you, and maybe it will give you some ideas for your own.

But first of all, I have to say that my list was difficult to make. When I set out to do it, I felt like Barbara Ann Kipfer. As a girl in the sixth grade, she began making a list in a little spiral notebook of the things that made her happy.  As the years passed, she graduated to larger notebooks and finally to a personal computer. Eventually she had written more than a million key-strokes worth of word pictures. The resulting book is entitled 14,000 things to be happy about..  Next to the Bible, this is the book that I turn to most often when I am feeling down in the dumps or sorry for myself. Here are ten entries from her enormous list of things that make her happy:

• Holding hands on the way home from a concert.

• A sudden glimpse of a Christmas tree through a window.

• Standing in line next to someone you love.

• A rustic bench in a sequestered spot.

• Putting a pumpkin on the porch and a wreath of dried flowers on the door.

• The writings and etchings on school desks.

• Miles of toilet paper in the trees.

• Rain rattling on the roof and banging on the windows.

• Checking your fortune-cookie message to see how it matches up with your mate’s.

• Having the cleanest car in town.

Barbara Kipfer’s inspiring book reminds us that we all have an enormous list of things to be happy about, an enormous amount to thank God for.  Unlike Barbara, however, we just have never bothered to write our list down. The problem, I suppose, is where to start.  We wonder about how to get going. Should we try to put the list in some logical order? Should we start with the most important things first or the least important?  Should we try to guess what things would please God the most? Frankly, I think that this sort of worrisome thinking is incorrect. Like Barbara, we should just write down the things that we are most thankful for today, and let God sort it all out and think it over, the way our parents thought over our simple requests at Christmas before giving us the best gifts that they could afford that were so often just the right gifts for us.

My mantel list for Thanksgiving, as of today then, would go something like this:

• The rain this week was nice, Lord. Thanks. We could stand a little more, if you can spare it, but not all at once please. Take your time.

• I like the way the winter rye grass has come up fresh and green on the cliff in the back yard. It makes those gray rocks of yours stand out, somehow.  It’s a very good effect.

• And thanks for that little frog you put in our new pond. I don’t know where you found him this time of year or how you told him where the pond was, but he looked  nice sitting on the lily pad in the sunshine the other day. He looked right at home.

• While we’re thinking about wildlife, Lord, thanks for the fox that has moved into the woods behind our house. I like to hear him barking to his mate as they start out hunting at night, and LaVonne, who actually saw him in our front yard one morning early, says he is a handsome creature, one of your best so far.

• And speaking of canines, Lord, thanks for helping me find out that that our 14-year-old dog Chelsea likes bacon. We both get up early in the morning now, and we both have some bacon while LaVonne is still sleeping. Chelsea is looking stronger now, and his coat really shines. Thanks for that.  I’m about the same.  And I appreciate that too.

• Please excuse me for acting grumpy the other night when three of our kids called one after the other after we had gone to bed. Actually, I’m grateful to you for helping us keep in touch with one another.  I don’t have your skill, Lord, in giving them the advice they need, but mainly I think they call just to tell me their troubles, the way I always call on you, no matter what time it it.  They’ll find the right answers on their own, Lord, I know they will. Just keep me from being grumpy at being awakened out of a sound sleep, and be sure to keep reminding them to call, no matter what the hour.

• It has been one of the busiest weeks in my life, Lord, and I am tempted to ask that you let me have a little more time off. But somehow I find it comforting that I am still useful in my job and that I can still produce words that heal and help and encourage my students and colleagues. Thanks for keeping my nose to the grindstone, Lord.

• By the way, thanks for the dinner out Friday night and the symphony afterward. The new chef at the Headliners Club is a real master with shrimp and salmon. And his sauces, well, Lord, you know how good they are. It’s true that I fell asleep afterward at the symphony during the Mozart, but I was hearing it in my dreams, Lord, truly I was. And just being there with LaVonne, well you know how much I appreciate that.

• This list is getting a bit long for the mantelpiece, Lord. I’ll tuck it in behind the picture of the irises, so my design consultant won’t object. She frowns on  my messy masculine ways. But you’ll know, I’m sure, this is only part of what I might have written.  I could have covered the entire mantel.

If you have the time, you might consider making your own Thanksgiving list. It would be a lot different from mine, I’m sure, but I’m equally certain that God would appreciate hearing from you on this special day. As a matter of fact, you don’t have to wait; you can call or write any time. He’s happy to hear from you.

And by the way, it might be a good idea  to turn some of our other lists upside down too. What if we thought about the real meaning of the Fourth of July, for example? What kind of thank you list would we write to the Lord for the privilege of living at this time in this country? That would be a hummer, wouldn’t it? And how about Halloween? It’s  meaning is Hallowed Evening. Think of that. What would that holiday be like if we treated it in the sacred way it was meant to be treated?  What might we thank God for then? And how about Christmas? That means Christ’s Mass. Instead of a wish list, what kind of thank you list might we write to God for the gift of Christ in our lives?  It would run on forever, wouldn’t it? And, after all, that’s just the point. That’s how we ought to live our lives – in constant thanks and praise.

Psalm 100.


Sometimes I amaze my children.  Not often, but sometimes. And often the things that amaze my children are not amazing to me at all.

One cool fall evening when the children were little, we were all together – the family going to dinner at La Tapatia Mexican restaurant over in East Austin.  As we got out of the car I noticed that the sky was a beautiful soft pink.   As we strolled across the parking lot I remarked, "I see that Mrs. Santa Claus is making cookies tonight."

My children were amazed. 

They doubled over with laughter.

"What are you talking about?" they wanted to know.

It wasn't amazing or funny to me – that's what my mother taught me.   That's what she always said when she saw a pretty sunset. The soft colors in the sky were the frosting that Mrs. Claus was going to put on her Christmas cookies.

Is that hard to understand?

My children have never let me forget it.  Whenever they

see a sunset now, they poke each other in the ribs and say, "Hey, Dad, look at that sky.  Does it make you think of anything? Anything sweet?"

I learned many useful things from my mother. 

For example, I learned that if the day looks cloudy and you want to know whether it will clear off later, you can apply this scientific test –  if you can see enough blue to make a man a pair of pants, the clouds will burn off.  Did you know that?

Did your mother teach you to think of sky as something

you can make imaginary pants out of?

My mother did.

She also told me that the time to plant corn in the spring is when the leaves on the oak tree are as big as a squirrel's ear. Not when they are a half-inch long and a quarter-inch wide –  when they are as big as a squirrel's ear. That's better, isn't it?  That's something that you can remember. That's imagination.

Do you know how to keep a kitten from running away from home?

My mother taught me this too.  You put butter on its paws.  It works too.  The cat may wander away, but it can always find its way home by following the scent of its buttery footprints.

We always had a couple of  well-buttered cats around the house when the children were small, and we couldn't get one of those cats to run away if we wanted to.

Imagination.  Creativity.  Looking at one thing and seeing another. Where does it come from?

I think it is often a gift we receive from our mothers.

Fathers are terrific people, don't get me wrong.  You can

take your father's hand and walk right through a cemetery at

night and never be afraid.  Your father can tell you all about

football and baseball and how you ought to choke up on the bat more and for heaven's sake don't swing up on the ball.  Fathers are good at things like that.  And, if you should get hurt, it certainly feels nice when your father picks you up in his arms and carries you home.  Fathers have their uses.

But, let's face it.  Few fathers are strong on imagination.  They tend to see the world plain.  When they cut down a tree, they don't worry about whether it hurts the tree.  If the zinnias need thinning, they just thin 'em out; they don't agonize about which ones have to go.  If you ask a father to set the table, all the equipment you need will be there –  you can count on that –  but the arrangement may not make the cover of next month's Gourmet magazine. It's from our mothers most often that imagination and creativity come.

So it is with us, and so it was with Jesus, I like to think.

Have you ever considered that?

Jesus no doubt got his technical training from Joseph, the builder, his father.  If you look at the gospels, you see many examples of Jesus' interest in building things.  He used the example of a house without a good foundation in one of his parables.  In another, he talks about a man who before he starts to build, calculates to be sure that he will have enough money to finish the task.  He speaks of himself as the stone that the builders rejected that became the cornerstone of the  house.  In his last week in Jerusalem, his disciples came running to him, full of excitement, asking him if he had ever seen anything more wonderful than the temple.  Then Jesus shared his vision of the destruction of that magnificent building.

Jesus, we know, learned many things from his father, Joseph. But the religious imagination – the tremendous, soaring, religious imagination of Jesus – that, I like to think, may have been stimulated by Mary, his mother.

Take the image of the flowers in the field. Jesus said that

"not Solomon in all his glory"  was clothed like those flowers.  Who taught Jesus to stop and look at the flowers?  Joseph? Maybe.  But my vote is for Mary.

And how about the image of sparrows falling – and a kind God counting every one?  That's a kissing cousin to Mrs. Santa Claus making cookies, unless I miss my guess. It sounds like a mother's story –  not a father's. 

• The Kingdom of God is something wonderful. It's like a woman who puts a little bit of leaven in some flour, and, before you know it, a miracle happens. The bread rises. The whole loaf is leavened.  Who taught Jesus  to see God at work in the rising of the bread?

• The Kingdom of Heaven is like a woman who has lost a silver coin.  Do you think she will ever forget about it?  No, she searches the house.  She sweeps out everything.  She keeps on searching until she finds it.  And when she does, how happy she is.  Her feeling at that moment is what the Kingdom of Heaven is like.

• What shall the Kingdom of God be compared to?  It's like a mustard seed.  The smallest of all seeds.  But if you plant it in the garden, and water it, and wait –  it sprouts and grows and grows until the birds can come and rest in its branches.

The teachings of Jesus are filled, packed, with unforgettable metaphors.  Jesus constantly looked at one thing and saw another –  and he invited us to do so also.

Jesus taught in images, poetic images.  Many of the people Jesus talked to had earlier gone out to hear John the Baptist preach his thundering sermons calling for Israel to repent.

"What did you go out to the wilderness to behold," Jesus

asked, "a reed shaken by the wind?"

The poetic image is fixed in one simple phrase. It is fixed in the minds of his listeners.  In Luke's mind.  In our minds.  Forever.  No, Jesus said.  You didn't go out to see a reed shaken by the wind. You went out to see a prophet.  And not just a prophet. The prophet. The one foretold by the scripture, the one who was to prepare the way.  Religious imagination.

Jesus may have learned the Law from his earthly father.  He may have sharpened his incisive, probing mind and his strong sense of morality with Joseph.  But these attributes, important as they are, were enlivened by a magnificent religious imagination, an imagination that was stimulated, perhaps, by his mother.

What are we doing to stimulate the religious imaginations of our own children and our grandchildren? Are we doing enough?  Are we doing as much as our mothers did for us?

Sometimes I wonder about that. 

Our children spend three or four hours a day watching television, learning that the world is a cold and dangerous place, filled with criminals, murderers, rapists, drug pushers. Do we help our children develop their imaginations to see God in the world around them?

Perhaps not often enough.

As parents, we often tend to be problem-centered and success-oriented in dealing with our children.  We're practical. We're very practical. In Austin we now have a preschool that teaches three-year-olds to program computers.  That’s certainly practical.  But will anyone teach these children that every rainbow is a promise from God never to destroy the world again by flood?  They need poetry too.

A long time ago I was in the hospital waiting for our first  grandchild to be born.  I had a long wait and I met a number of other grandparents. (The husbands are all inside with the wives now. It's the grandparents who are out in the waiting room.)   At any rate, shortly before Benjamin was born, a beautiful baby girl was brought out to the warming room by her father, and do you know what the grandmother said when she saw her?

The first thing she said was,  "Well, of course, we can have her nose fixed!"

I was really ticked off at that woman.

This was a moment of mystery and wonder.  This was the moment of birth.  This was a time for an overflowing of love and tender emotion and joy.  And she saw only a nose.  I wanted to tell her that God had been working on that nose for 5,000 years, and how dare she criticize it.  It was a wonderful nose.  A magnificent nose.  It was her granddaughter’s nose.

We're too practical, too prosaic.

When we plan religious programs for our teen-agers, we tend to talk with them about drugs, about death and dying, about sexual promiscuity, about crime, about abortion, about child abuse, about drunk driving, about worldwide starvation and nuclear annihilation.

Where are the flowers that look like the robes of Solomon?  Where are the seasons turning?  Where are the fields glowing white with the harvest?  Where are the sparrows falling, the bread rising? Where are the buttered feet of the kittens?

My strong feeling is that what truly sustains the church

is not the annual budget, but the magnificent symbols of the bread and wine of communion. What turns our hearts toward God is not the prose, but the poetry of religion.

In my opinion, we don't need more facts about what the

National Council of Churches is up to nearly so much as we need better religious imaginations. And it is my belief that these imaginations, if they develop at all, will develop today, as they have developed in the past, priomarily under the influence of the women of the church.

What have you done recently to help a child look at a

colored leaf and see the gates of heaven?

What have you done recently to help a teenager see in an old man's face the lines traced there by the finger of God?

What have you done recently to help a young parent hear in a child's insistent cry the echo of an angel's voice?

Often this world seems cruel and cold to us, a hard and loveless place.  Yet we know that God’s Holy Spirit moves in the world, animating it, illuminating it with warmth and love. All we need to do is stop, look and listen. Near us, around us, among us, is a heavenly kingdom. We need to  open our hearts and our eyes so that we can see more of that kingdom every day.  We need to share that vision with others through the gift of imagination.

Luke 7:24-28.

Hunters and Gatherers

Nothing strikes terror in a man’s heart so much as when his wife comes into the room, smiles sweetly at him and asks, “Do you notice anything different about me?”

The question, you see, centers squarely on one of the major differences between men and women.

Men are hunters. Women are gatherers.

Men, since Adam, have been concerned with the big picture – the main chance – the global concept. Women, since Eve, have been concerned with the details of the situation.

The man looks at the woman and decides, after some deliberation, that it is his wife. “Yes, that’s Janie all right,” he concludes.

Beyond that, however, he is in deep trouble.

So many things could be going on. She could be wearing a new dress. He really doesn’t pay that much attention to what she has on, as a rule. She could have had a makeover at Dillards and be wearing new eye shadow. She could have fallen down in the back yard and broken her leg.

He truly doesn’t know, and he has learned that it is not a good idea to guess. He is supposed to know.

“You look terrific to me, honey,” he finally says, in desperation.

“It’s the hair,” she grumps, “the hair.  It’s a new color and a new style. Marc at Screaming Angels spent four hours on it this afternoon.”

Hunters and gatherers.

One evening not long ago I picked up what I thought was a dead wasp, and it stung me on my ring finger.

I’m allergic to wasps, and I promptly took off my wedding ring, knowing that my finger was going to swell up.

I put the ring in LaVonne’s jewel box for safe keeping. I was afraid that my finger would be swollen and sore for a couple of days.

It was.

And by the time the swelling went down later in the week, I forgot to put the ring back on.

A fellow teacher at the University, a woman, asked me to go to lunch at the Hole in the Wall to discuss her academic future – what she needed to be doing to get promoted and receive tenure.

We had a good, greasy lunch and discussed in some detail what she was doing in her teaching and research.

As I was gathering papers together, preparing to leave, she suddenly said:

“May I ask you a personal question?”

Somewhat taken aback, I paused, and then said, “Certainly, go ahead.”

“Are you and LaVonne getting along all right? Is your marriage okay?”

Well, this struck me as an odd question.

“Certainly,” I said. We’re doing great. Couldn’t be better”

And with that, I picked up my stuff and left.

When I got home that afternoon, I told LaVonne about the strange thing that had happened, and the question my colleague had asked.

“I can’t figure it out,” I said.

“Where’s your wedding ring?” LaVonne said.

“Oh, it’s still in your jewelry box,” I said. “Do you think that could be it?”

“Women notice these things,” she said. “It’s probably all over the college that you’re not wearing your ring.”

“That can’t be true,” I said. “Nobody would pay attention to such an insignificant thing.”

“Women do,” she said. “Put that ring back on right away.”

The next day I made a point of returning a book to the woman’s office. We talked for a few moments together. I held my left hand to my face during the entire interview.

Men and women. Hunters and gatherers.

Since getting married again, I have done a lot of shopping with LaVonne.

Shopping is one of her interests, and I’ve tagged along quite a bit. I’ve learned in the process. I know what some of her favorite colors are, for example, and I know some of the kinds of dresses she likes. I can distinguish a Donna Karan from a Christian Dior or a nifty knit by St. John. I’m on speaking terms with the owners of St. Thomas and Benolds, and I have a nodding acquaintance with the folks at the Barefoot Iguana.  I can more or less tell the difference between Ysatis perfume and Ombre Rose and Joy. I have seen the antique kitchen cabinet at Whit Hanks that they want $35,000 for.  I know that it is impossible for LaVonne to walk past the shoe department at Dillards without stopping. It doesn’t matter what we are shopping for, she will always check out the shoes.

As a rule, men don’t do that.

If a man is going to Foley’s to buy a sweater, he just heads for the sweater department and starts looking. He is a hunter. A woman is a gatherer. She will look at everything in the store on the way to the sweater department, and she may not go there at all if she finds something more interesting along the way.

Men and women. Hunters and gatherers.

Men have short attention spans. They generally have one or two things on their minds, and that’s about it. Women have “to do” lists that go back for years and extend indefinitely into the future.

Women like to check out antique stores and garage sales, for example, and men don’t.

Why is that?

Generally speaking, you can’t go garage saling or antiquing, for some particular object – a special brand of motor oil, or bolt, or fishing plug, for example. Garage sales are for gatherers. Garage sales are for people with immense lists of things that need doing or things that might be nice to have. Men don’t have lists like that in their heads. Women do. That is why women almost never come home empty handed from a garage sale or an antique store.

“There’s nothing here,” the husband says, at the exact moment the wife exclaims:

“Oh look, honey, this is exactly what we need in that blank space to the right of the telephone”

“Oh yes,” the man replies, trying to be agreeable. To tell the truth, he doesn’t even recall where the telephone is until it rings, and he certainly never noticed any blank space next to it.  He was sure that the house had no blank spaces left.

Men and women. Hunters and gatherers.

Of course, it’s not true that men are exclusively hunters and women are exclusively gatherers. Some women are hunters, too, as a matter of fact. They wake up in the morning wanting to kill something just as a man does. And some men are pretty good gatherers as well.

If I put my mind to it, I can pay attention to details.

After all, I grew up in Iowa, which is mainly corn fields. If you don’t learn to pay some attention to details in Iowa, you have nothing to talk about. So you learn, and after while you can tell a field of Pfister 225 from a field of Harshbarger 1701 and you have something to say to Uncle Lester.

The question is, of course, how do these hunter and gatherer differences play out in our religious lives?

The sacred writings are frequently criticized by feminist scholars for their masculine cast.

Men are the major players in the scriptures, no doubt about that. It’s Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. It’s Moses and Aaron. It’s Joshua and Samuel and Isaiah. It’s David and Solomon and Daniel. It’s Jesus and Peter and James and John.  If you just count names in the Bible, the masculine names far outnumber the feminine names. There’s no question about that.

And if you consider the general direction of Biblical thought, in the broadest sense, it is about a typical masculine interest. The Bible is the story of a quest, a pursuit, a hunt if you will. It is man searching for something – an unobtainable, unreachable quarry – the infinite God.

Cain slays his brother Abel, and when he is confronted with his deed, he asks the first ethical question in sacred writings, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Pretty masculine stuff.
Jacob wrestles with an angel (his conscience?) all night long. It is a masculine struggle, a man against something vastly more than man, and in the end, Jacob obtains the angel’s blessing and becomes Israel, the father of the Jews.

Abraham single-mindedly prepares to take a knife and slay his son Isaac – until, in a flash of insight, another ethical decision is reached – human sacrifice is wrong. It is not what God requires. The quest starts off in a different direction.

Moses and Pharaoh duke it out with plagues and disasters until, worst of all, all the first-born males of Egypt die and the Hebrew males, protected by the blood of a lamb, survive, and Moses leads the people on a 40-year hunt through the wilderness, searching for the promised land.

The sacred scriptures of the Jews are hunter tales in large part, no doubt about that.

The New Testament writings, by and large, have the same masculine, hunter flavor.

Jesus forms a band of twelve men – it reminds me of the Dallas Cowboys – to aid him in his quest for the Kingdom of God. And what a group the disciples are – rough fishermen, a tax collector, a zealot, all called to the masculine task of becoming “fishers of men.”  They were men.  They could understand fishing. 

They live in the open. They tramp the roads of Galilee and Judea. They meet every kind of sick, blind, leprous outcast in the country. They raid the heart of the Jewish religion itself, the temple in Jerusalem, upsetting the tables of the money changers. And they witness – at least some of them do – the barbarous torture and death of their leader Jesus on a cross.

It is a masculine tale, to be sure, and the Acts of the Apostles – particularly the tales of the traveler Paul – are similar in their rough, masculine imagery.

Hunter tales to be sure.

And yet. And yet. That’s not entirely true, is it?

Moving along in time with the masculine stories of the Old and New Testament are stories of the gatherers, the women who add the details that we most remember.

It is Eve, after all, who finds the tree of life in the Garden of Eden. She notices it, doesn’t she? Not Adam. She is curious about it.  And it is she who talks to the serpent and decides that the apple might make an interesting snack. Adam is unaware of all this, stumbling around the garden with no clothes on.  I’m not sure of this, but I’ll bet it was Eve who thought that some fig leaves might make a definite improvement in his appearance. “Adam,” she probably said, “why not wear the green fig leaves this morning. The dried brown ones just don’t go with your coloring.” No doubt about it. Eve was a gatherer.

It is Pharaoh’s daughter, going down to the Nile to bathe one morning, who notices, in a typical gatherer’s way, the small basket floating among the reeds with a baby in it. The baby of course is Moses, who will grow up to become the great lawgiver to the human race.

It is Lot’s wife, who adds poignancy to that tale by looking back at the smoldering ruins of Sodom and Gomorrah – paying attention to details, who is burning up and who isn’t, while Lot is mainly concerned with getting out of town. Of course Lot’s wife is turned into a pillar of salt for looking back, but, honestly, what woman wouldn’t?

It is Sarah who laughs – one of the few laughers in the Bible – a woman laughing at God’s male foolishness in thinking that an old woman with a 100-year-old husband could have a baby. Of course, Sarah is wrong, and God is right, but Sarah’s laughter – the laughter of a gatherer – adds a wonderful touch to that story.

It is Ruth who disregarding tradition and advice decides to stick with her friend Naomi and gives us the incomparable – and very  feminine poem:

Ruth 1:16-17. And Ruth said: Entreat me not to leavethee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go: and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God. Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if aughtt but death part thee and me.

It is Mary, the mother of Jesus, busy helping out at the wedding at Cana, who notices that the wine is running out. None of the disciples notice this. It is Mary who asks Jesus to do something about it, and in response to her request, Mary obtains from her son the first of his many miracles.

It is Mary Magdalene, late in the story of Jesus, who anoints the Lord with precious oil and wipes his feet with her hair. How tender. And how feminine. It is Judas Iscariot, single-minded male, who complains to Jesus that the money she spent for the oil could have gone to feed the poor.

It is this same Mary, some scholars believe, who went with the other women to the tomb of Jesus and became the first witness of his resurrection. It is to be noted that it took the flexible, gatherer minds of the women to understand that somehow life and not death had come out of this tomb. The men, single-mindedly were a long time in coming to the same conclusion

It is Martha, the very traditional sister of Mary, who complained to Jesus that Mary was not doing her share of the work of feeding and caring for the disciples. Jesus rebuked Martha for not understanding Mary’s spiritual nature, but later in the story, again being scolded by Martha for not showing up in time to save her brother Lazarus, he responds to her request for help with one of the greatest of all his sayings:

Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live. And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.

The sacred writings of our faith, while they tell mainly the stories of men, are enriched and enlivened by their stories of women.

Without the stories of women these would be pale and wintry texts indeed. In my opinion, they would have survived neither as literature nor as theology.

It was Jesus who told us that when men and women marry, they become “one flesh.” Something new is created, something that goes beyond what the man and woman are capable of as separate human beings. That certainly seems true to me, and the same thing can be said of the texts of our faith. If they were all male hunter texts they would be less than they are. If they were all female gatherer texts they would be less than they are. Together they form a whole, something new, something complete, something infinitely more powerful.

What are the lessons of these holy texts for our daily lives?

As men and as women we need to be kind and patient and understanding with one another. Our families need both our hunters and our gatherers. We need our single-minded men. We need our women who notice blank spaces next to the telephone. We need that one-flesh mixing of male and female values that emerges from good marriages. We need the wisdom to realize that only full and complete men and full and complete women living and loving together can create the social matrix out of which will arise, in God’s good time, the wonderful Kingdom that Jesus envisioned so long ago – the Kingdom of God.

Ruth 1:16-17, Genesis 3: 6-7, John 11: 20-28.


Not long ago, I was in Atlanta attending a convention. In a shopping center on Peachtree Street, I saw the family of a security guard coming to meet him as he got off work. The little girl of the family – about three years old – gave her dad a big hug. As they started walking out of the mall. the little girl said to her dad, “Hold my hand. Hold my hand.” He took her hand in his, and I could see the child’s happiness increase as she skipped out of the mall tightly holding on to her father.

Happy are those who have someone to hold their hands, I thought.

In Fort Worth last summer, LaVonne and I went to see an exhibition of Impressionist and modern paintings – the Barnes collection – at the Kimball Art Museum. It was a wonderful exhibit, but it was very crowded. Bunches of people stood in front of every picture, peering over one another’s shoulders. Crowds tend to bring out undesirable aspects of my character, and I was soon at my worst, shoving little old ladies aside so I could get a good view. Then I noticed a frail woman in a wheel chair being pushed through the museum by her chauffeur. He carefully paused in front of each painting, waiting for an almost invisible movement of her hand on the arm of the chair before moving on. A quiet smile illuminated her face as she slowly and lovingly viewed the works of Monet, Pissarro, Van Gogh, and Matisse perhaps for the last time. I noticed that she spent an especially long time before Matisse’s master work, La Bonheure de Vivre, the goodness of living or the happiness of life. I stopped pushing little old ladies aside for awhile and relaxed and enjoyed the exhibit.

Happy are those who take the time to appreciate the beauty around them, I thought.

We’re making a Japanese garden in the back yard of our new home. It’s still a question whether it will all turn out. Some days it looks more like a weed garden than anything else. But maybe this summer we can get the plants to grow that we want to grow. We do have one success. That’s a little pond we built at the foot of the garden, using some of the surplus rocks – and we have a lot of those – from our steep hillside. We put the pond in last spring, and it looks almost natural now. It has plants in it and around it, some tiny fish grandson Ben borrowed from the creek that flows through Reed Park, and one crawdad down in there somewhere. It looks like a real pond.  The fish eat the mosquito larvae, and the crawdad eats whatever it is that crawdads eat. A green-striped frog moved in on his own this spring, and and night we can hear him rehearsing the Budweiser commercial – Bud – weis – er.  Mockingbirds and cardinals come by for a drink on hot afternoons. Raccoons and deer visit at night. And the other morning about 10 o’clock, a brilliant red dragonfly alighted on the horse tail fern nodding above the waters of the pond.

“What’s he doing there?” LaVonne wanted to know, as she looked up from attacking another patch of Bermuda grass.

“Just watch,” I said, “I think he’s showing off for his mate.”

And sure enough, in a few moments we saw his plain brown mate flitting above the surface of the water, laying eggs. She was shy and inconspicuous, concentrating on her task of providing the next generation of dragonflies for our neighborhood.  Big Red carefully watched her every move. And whenever she came near his glorious presence, he flew in tight, fast circles around her. Affectionately, I thought, she flew a few circles with him, and then she returned to her more important task.  A little huffily, he flew back to his high perch on the horse tail fern, making sure that the sun shown on his magnificent redness.

Happy are those who can show off for someone they love, I thought.

In these difficult years at the end of the century, I sometimes think that we have little to be happy about.

Our freeways are dangerous. As I drive to work in the mornings, I have to look out for urban cowboys who want to switch from lane to lane on MOPAC at 70 miles an hour. “What an idiot,” I think, as some crazy driver dives across three lanes of traffic heading for an exit ramp he could have got ready for two miles before.

Driveby shootings abound. What is going on in our society, I wonder, when teenagers have guns and simply drive around the streets looking for people to gun down? I was semi-evil as a teenager growing up in rural Iowa, but about the worst thing I did was to shove a pear up the exhaust pipe of Uncle Dewey’s Oldsmobile on Halloween so it would backfire the next morning when he started it up. But evil as my intent was, it seems a far cry from shooting someone just for the thrill of it. Television and films are filled with sex and violence. I’m participating in a three- year study of just how much violence there is on cable television. And believe me, Senator Dole is right, a lot of it exists. It almost seems as if our writers are suffering from a lack of imagination.  If a story line grows dull, they throw in a gratuitous killing. They even make a joke of it. “Hasta la vista,baby,” Arnold Schwartzenneger says as he prepares to blow away a female opponent.  And everyone in the theater laughs. Our children see thousands of killings a year on television. How does this affect us? Research seems to show three things:

1. Some of our young people imitate what they see. They grow up thinking violence is the main way or the only way to solve problems.

2. Although our young people may not resort to violence themselves, many are frightened of violence. They think that the world is a more dangerous place than it really is.  Some even arm themselves, thus increasing the chance that they will use violence impulsively in situations where they otherwise might not have done so. My son Matt works with out-of-control elementary school children in AISD.  Last year he had to look after dozens of first through fifth grade children who had brought guns or knives to school.

3. More of our young people are becoming used to violence, desensitized the experts call it. They “expect” violence around them. And when they see it, they don’t react to it with normal human compassion toward the victims. As in the story of the Good Samaritan, they are quite likely to pass by on the other side of the road.

Is it possible to be happy living in such a world?

Many of us try, I think,  but we get off on the wrong track in our pursuit of happiness.

How often I find myself thinking, “If only I had X, I would be happy.”

X varies from week to week, from day to day, sometimes from hour to hour.

The popular song, “I’m Just a Material Girl,” could have been written for me, with a gender change of course. “I’m just a material guy” in many ways:

• I’d like to have a new computer at home with more RAM, a bigger and better color monitor, and a CD-ROM drive.

• I’d like to have a real Monet painting for our guest bedroom, instead of the faded reproduction we have now.

• I’d like to have the kind of sports car that you have to carry extra insurance on because teenagers want to steal it.

• I’d like to be 10 years younger and six inches taller and a lot better looking.

• I’d like. I’d like. I’d like.

And yet I know – deep inside I know – that happiness does not come from things and the possession of things. Happiness comes from somewhere else.

Sometimes I think that I would be a lot happier if I could control the behavior of those around me. Not a lot.  But some.

“If only A would do X, I would be happy,” I think.

Notice that there are two variables in the equation now. A, the person, and X, the action. Both vary from week to week, from day to day, and almost from hour to hour.

I would like to improve the behavior of many of the people around me:

• One of my grandsons would be a lot pleasanter child if he would stop sucking his thumb and picking his nose at the same time.  If he would just quit doing one or the other, I’d be a lot happier.

• One of my friends would be a lot more fun to have lunch with at the faculty center, if he would quit crabbing about his wife. If he would just stop doing that, I’d be a lot happier.

• One of my students would be much easier to work with if she would stop complaining about the work load in my class and just get down to business and do some of it. If she would just do that, I’d be much happier.

When I stop and think about it, of course, I realize that my happiness is not really dependent on what other people do or don’t do. My happiness is my responsibility. It comes – or fails to come – from inside of me.

Do you ever get off on the wrong track in your personal pursuit of happiness?

Sometimes I think happiness is just a matter of time – if I wait for happiness, it will come. I’m miserable and morose and nasty to other people today, but next week I’ll be all right. I think:

• When this stormy weather passes by, then I’ll be happy.

• When we get to go to Maine for that long weekend next October, that will make me happy.

• When I get out from under this heavy workload in a week or two, then I can relax and be happy.

• When this ache in my leg goes away, when the check comes from the bank at the first of the month, when all the fire ants in my yard up and die, when my ship comes in, when the future arrives, then I will be happy.

That’s just not the way it works, however, is it?  Deep inside I know that unless I can find peace and happiness in this instant, under whatever my circumstances are at this moment, I’m unlikely to find happiness in any future I can imagine. I know that. And yet, I still count on happiness to come my way some day in the future.

Where is true happiness to be found?

People have always wanted to know that, and one of the best answers to that question was given a long time ago by a man who spoke on a hillside in Galilee. We call his answer, the Beatitudes.

When Jesus was asked by his followers about how to be happy, interestingly, and characteristically, he didn’t give them a direct answer. He didn’t say do this or do that. He said, in effect, that he couldn’t tell them the secret of happiness. They had to find that out for themselves. But he did say he could look around and point out some people who looked happy to him. And in the Sermon on the Mount he did just that.

“Do you see that fellow over there saying his prayers?” he must have said. “He’s happy. Why?”

“And how about that little girl over there chasing the butterfly – she’s happy. Why is that?”

“And that woman cradling her baby in her arms. Isn’t she happy?”

The words we have from the Master (paraphrased) are these:

Look at those people who acknowledge their need for God. They have quit pretending that they can do it all themselves when they can’t.  They are not weaker but stronger for doing this.  They rejoice in their strength.  They are living in the kingdom of heaven right now. They are happy.

Look at those people who are able to mourn, to grieve. They are in touch with their emotions. They are able to feel. They know they are sad. They know why. They are going to be all right. They will be comforted because they can be comforted. How much better off they are than those people who are grieving and don’t know it, or who pretend that they are just fine when they are not. How much better off are they than those people who have grown so callous, so desensitized, that they cannot grieve.

Look at those people who don’t demand everything – don’t want everything. Look at the meek. The ones who claim nothing have everything. They will be happy because they can be satisfied. They will inherit the earth. All they need to be happy is a hand to hold.

Look at those people who are not concerned about the righteousness of others, but who are concerned about their own righteousness. They are the ones who will be okay. They are blessed. They are the happy ones. They don’t spend their time trying to control others. They are not control freaks. They concentrate on improving their own behavior. They will be filled. They will be satisfied.

Look at those people who are prepared to forgive others. Look at the merciful. They are not filled with hate and anger. They do not need or seek revenge. They are not out to get anybody. They are blessed. They are happy. Because they are willing and able to forgive others and they actually do it, they are the ones who will be forgiven. They will obtain the blessing. They will experience happiness.

Look at those people who are pure in heart. They don’t suspect everybody else’s motives. They are not paranoid, suspicious, mistrustful.  They don’t think their neighbors are playing around. They don’t think that shopkeepers are trying to cheat them. They are pure in heart.  They are innocent. They can see God at work in the world and not just the devil. They are blessed. They are happy.

Look at those people who don’t go around trying to make trouble but instead go around trying to patch things up. They are the peacemakers. They lead calm and happy lives themselves, and they help others to do so.  Their families and their friends are at peace with one another. They settle their disputes without violence, without harsh words. These people are blessed. They are happy. They do good work. They shall be called the sons of God.

Look at those people who are being persecuted for God’s sake. It’s amazing but true. They are happy. They know they are trying to do the right thing in their own lives. It doesn’t matter that others are down on them. They are living in the kingdom of heaven right now.

I can’t tell you how to be happy, Jesus seemed to say to those who wanted to follow his way. But just take some time to look around you. Look at the people you know who are happy and do what they do. Maybe you can find inside yourselves the path that will lead you to true and lasting happiness.

It probably won’t involve reforming other people. It may involve reforming yourself.

It probably won’t involve getting more things. It may involve becoming richer in the spirit.

It probably won’t be found in some distant future. It probably will be found in the here and now.

I sometimes like to let my imagination go free and wonder what things Jesus would notice if he were with us today. What people would he point out as being happy? What beatitudes would he notice?

Would he notice a little girl in a shopping center, reaching for her father’s hand, and grabbing onto it with all her might, finding there all the happiness she needs.

Happy are those who have someone to hold their hands.

Would he notice an old woman in a wheelchair pausing to look at a painting called “The Goodness of Living.”

Happy are those who take the time to appreciate the beauty around them.

Would he notice with amusement a vain red dragonfly showing off his beauty to his mate.

Happy are those who can show off for someone they love.

Matthew 5:1-10.


On these cold winter mornings, I get up while it is still dark and make a cup of coffee and sit in my favorite chair in the living room while LaVonne prepares to go off to teach school. My commute begins about an hour later.

Often, I don’t turn on a light. I just sit there in the dark with the coffee cup warming my hands. I think about things. I don’t plan for the day, really. I just let things run through my mind. I’m just not in gear yet.

LaVonne, on the other hand, is ready for the day.

From the bathroom, she calls out: “Remember to pay the city today or they’ll turn off the lights.”

“Okay, honey,” I reply, but I may not remember to do it.

“And don’t forget that Lita comes today. Leave her money on the counter.”

“Okay, dear,” I reply. “I won’t forget.”

But often, my mind is far away. I’m still half asleep.

My chair faces the front door. If I look through the beveled glass in the door, I can see one of the front yard lights through the bevel. The light catches my attention. It’s red. No, if I move my head slightly, it’s yellow. No, if I move a little more, it’s green.

I can make out all the colors of the rainbow in that one white light seen through the prism of the glass in our front door.

I sit there for a long time, moving my head back and forth looking at the colors. Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple.  I can barely see purple – maybe that’s the reason LaVonne says I can’t tell the difference between blue and purple.  I see the colors that I am capable of seeing, I suppose. And there are lots of them. All the colors of the rainbow. I can see them. But God can see even more. He sees to the right of red, he sees the infrared – the light we use to turn our TVs on and off with. He sees to the left of purple, into the ultraviolet – the light that can kill germs.  I wonder if God thinks I’m odd, because I can’t see all the colors he sees. God sees the whole spectrum. I see only a part.

LaVonne calls, “Honey, can you come in here and fasten my sweater?”

She has a sweater that she likes to wear, but she can’t handle the tiny buttons and loops on the back. I can’t either to tell you the truth. I grab the strongest glasses out of the glasses basket and try to do what I can with my clumsy male fingers. I don’t mind doing it. In fact, it’s one of my favorite ways of being helpful around the house. But it usually takes me a long time, even with my glasses on.

At last I finish, and I get a quick, early morning kiss for my work. I go back into the living room to look at the colors again. Yes, if I move my head just right I can see them – red, orange, yellow, green, blue and maybe purple.

People have colors, too, I think. When we first get to know them, we see only the obvious, the white light part, the illuminated part. We see only a part of our friends, the part that is most visible. But after a while, more colors become apparent. We learn to see and appreciate their other colors.

Take me, for instance. At first glance, I am just a gray-haired college professor, right? Old Dr. D. That’s who I am. That’s the person my students see.That’s right, of course, but in fact, I am a lot more.

I am also Pierre, one of the world’s finest cooks. Most people don’t know that I can cook. I don’t spread it around, because I prefer to be cooked for. But LaVonne knows that I can cook a mean meatloaf when I have to and that my French onion soup is superb.

I am also Clint, a Colorado cattle rancher. I run a small herd of mixed breed cattle in the mountains near Ouray. It’s a rough demanding life, and the winters are unrelenting. You can see those winters in my steely blue eyes. As a matter of fact, you may never see Clint at all in Austin. But put me in a four-wheel drive vehicle climbing the pass from Silverton to Ouray and all my Clint-like qualities come out.

And then there’s Grandfather Tree, the gardener. Grandfather Tree emerges on Friday night as a rule and doesn’t disappear until Sunday evening. He is a big spender at GardenLand,  Sledd’s Nursery, and Home Depot. He admires plants that can make a good living in a hostile environment. He gets really mad if you trim his bushes the wrong way. He does a lot of heavy lifting for a man his age, and often he may be found just standing in the back yard, kind of staring off into space.

“What are you doing, Grandfather?” his helpmate asks.

“I’m trying to think like a pine tree,” he says. “I am wondering what part of the yard I would like to be planted in.”


All of us have different colors, colors we may not notice at first. When we look at one another, when we look at our friends, we should look beyond the white light, and look for the rainbow of persons that is in each of us. If we want our friendships to last and to grow and to become more meaningful over the years, we should look for the true colors in one another, the way God looks at us.

The sky in the east is showing the first touches of dawn.  “Rosy fingered dawn,” I think, remembering Homer’s metaphor, still good after 3,000 years. Grandfather Tree there. He likes things that last.

I decide to take a glass of rosy-fingered grapefruit juice to LaVonne who is standing in front of the armoire, looking at herself in the full-length mirror, thinking about what scarf to wear.

“Thank you, honey,” she says as I put the glass down. I get to kiss her on the cheek now. Just a brief brush. She has her makeup on.

I return to my chair, thinking about getting the paper, thinking about making a little breakfast. Pierre the cook. Or maybeClint looking at the first light on the mountain over yonder.

But one more time, I look for the colors. I can still see them dimly through the beveled glass in the front door.

True colors. I remember a personality test I took a few years back. It said that most people come in some combination of four basic colors: gold, blue, green or orange. We had to take a test and add up some numbers. Then the psychologist running the course told us what colors we were.

Gold people were inclined to obey all the rules, mind their P’s and Q’s, toe the line, be faithful and painfully honest. They liked to work with details. They liked numbers. They liked to have things add up and be perfect. They never parked in a handicapped parking place. They lasted. They were faithful. They made good accountants.

Green people were thinkers and explorers. They liked to learn things. They were curious. They enjoyed theory. They enjoyed figuring out why things worked the way they did. They wanted to know the truth.  They enjoyed books more than people, as a rule. They made good scientists – chemists, and physicists, and engineers.

Blue people were outgoing and friendly. They enjoyed being with others. They worked well in groups. They were polite. They were empathetic, that is, they knew how other people were feeling, whether they were happy or sad, whether they needed a hug. Often, they didn’t have strong opinions of their own, and they were happy to let others lead. They sometimes got pushed around because of their easy-going ways. They made good teachers, and politicians, and ministers.

Orange people were risk takers and entrepreneurs. They enjoyed winning. They were competitive. They were fun to be with, but you had to be strong to keep from being swept away by their current interests and plans.  They didn’t understand why others sometimes opposed them. To tell the truth, they didn’t care all that much how others felt or what others thought of their opinions or their actions. They made good businessmen, executives, and leaders – but hold onto your hats, they might win big or lose big; there was little middle ground.

Sitting there in the dark, I thought about some of the people I knew best. My own children, for example.

Grace was mainly blue and green. If you got in trouble, if you wanted someone to talk to, you called Grace. She was mainly blue.  No doubt about it. But she also had some green in her personality, I thought. She was a good thinker. She liked to solve problems, arrive at the truth.

Matt was blue as well. He made friends easily. People trusted him. Maybe that was a little gold showing. If he promised to do something, he would do it. He would be there on time and ready to help out. A strong blue and gold combination, I thought. A good man to have at your side in the wilderness.

Ben was mainly green with a dollop of blue.  He was a true problem solver. He liked to cut through the surface clutter and get down to basics. He never forgot anything. And he could relate the seemingly unrelated. But he had some blue in him as well. He didn’t mind if you didn’t agree with him. That was your business. He was always polite, and he cared for others. He could be hurt by rude behavior. He made a good adviser. People always listened when Ben talked.

Then there was Paul, the youngest. Mainly orange, I thought. A true competitor. He loved games, and he loved to win. He made money playing poker in college. And he made money playing golf when he worked at the Lubbock Municipal Golf Course. He made money in his business. He wanted to be the best at everything. He had some blue in his makeup.  He got along well with his customers. He knew what they wanted. He knew how to please them. But he could blow up in an instant if his plans went astray. His anger didn’t last long as a rule, but when it flared, it flared bright orange.

All the colors of the rainbow, I thought, in just four kids. And I hadn’t even considered the nine-going-on-ten grandchildren.  But were these characterizations correct? Was I seeing my kids as they truly were, or was I seeing only part of them?

I thought of my own colors. The psychologist had shrugged his shoulders when he saw my numbers. I was all mixed up. I was a mess. Lots of blue there. And plenty of gold left over from my childhood in mainly gold Iowa. But I was green too. I had a strong desire to learn, to understand, to know the truth before I acted. And orange? – yes, orange was definitely there, usually hidden, usually pushed down out of sight.  I really wanted to win at Scrabble with LaVonne, but I seldom did. 

Pierre the cook was definitely orange, I decided.

And Clint the cowboy was blue and gold.

And Grandfather Tree was appropriately green.

Let’s face it. Dr. D – the ordinary “I” of me – was a mixture of colors, a mixture of light. Only God knew who I truly was because only he could see beyond the ends of the rainbow into the regions of being that are hidden from our minds.

It was definitely dawn now. The sky in the east was bathed in red, and the sun was ready to come up. It would rise this morning to the north of the mansion on the golf course – we call it the King’s House because it looks like someplace King Arthur and Guinevere might have built for themselves. The earth is tilting again, I thought. Spring would come soon, and I would no longer be able to sit in my chair in the dark and think deep thoughts.

LaVonne came rushing through the kitchen, getting her Coke from the refrigerator to help her wake up on the early morning drive down Mopac. She took a rice cake from the cupboard.

“Would you remember to get some more of those apple cinnamon ones when you go shopping?” she said.

“I’ll remember,” I said, thinking that she was showing a little orange today.

She gave me a peck and went out the door. Her green Acura tore down Skyflower Drive just as the sun came up.

Light. Colors.

Light is used as a main symbol throughout the Bible, I thought. The very first words of the Holy Scriptures describe the coming of God, the coming of light, in a dark universe.

Later on, God used the rainbow, his “bow in the sky,” as a sign of his covenant with Noah and with all of us. He would not destroy the world again by flood. He put the rainbow in the cloud to remind us and to remind himself of that covenant of love with all his creatures.

The Book of John begins its description of the coming of Jesus into the world with strong and beautiful images of light in the darkness. This coming is also creative, as God’s original coming into the world was. But here is someone coming to change a creation that has gone astray, that has gone morally dark, that needs fixing, that needs light.

Jesus is the one who says we can change. We don’t have to remain the people we have been. We’re not locked in forever. We are not stuck with being blue, green, gold or orange. The transforming power of God can change us. We are children of God.  We are children of light. We can become.

Paul, the great missionary of the Lord, writing to the Corinthians, reminds them and reminds us that we should change to become creatures of faith, hope, and love. Especially love. As we might expect of one who modeled his life on the life of Christ, Paul expresses his hope for change in us in terms of our growing up, of our becoming able to see things more clearly, of our becoming able to see the light of love that is always there for us to guide and direct us.

Love lights up the world, I thought.

Morning had broken. The timer had turned off the lights in the front yard. The colors in the glass in the front door had disappeared. It was time to get on with the regular duties of the day. But it seemed to me that I had come a long way that morning from the time when I first saw the light changing colors in the glass in the front door. Maybe I could change too. As I earned my daily bread, maybe I could take the time to see more colors in my family and friends, more colors in myself. Maybe I could help others do the same. Maybe I could become a small part of the light of the world.

Genesis 9:13-16,  I Corinthians 13:1-13.   

Inside and Outside

Mike Quinn, a friend at University of Texas, tells this story:

It is not widely known, but George Washington was really born on a ranch in Texas.  George’s father had a favorite mesquite tree that he liked to nap under during the heat of the day. One afternoon Mr. Washington went out to take a nap and found that the tree had been cut down.  He called his son before him, and asked: “George, did you cut down my mesquite tree?”

George replied: “Father, I cannot tell a lie. I chopped it down with my little hatchet.”

His father said, “George I want you to go inside and start packing. We’re moving to Virginia.”

“But why, father?” George wanted to know.

“Well George, “ he replied, “If you cannot tell a lie, you’re never going to make it it in Texas.”

I like that story, not because there’s a word of truth in it, but simply because it illustrates something about what growing up often means.

Most little children are like George Washington  They can’t tell lies. They don’t know how. They cannot dissemble. If you ask them a question, they just blurt out the answer, the pure truth as they know it. Sometimes it can be embarrassing. I’ve learned never to ask my grandchildren how things are going at home. Their parents may not think that the kids know what is going on, but they do. They know everything, and they are more than happy to tell grandparents all about it.

“Dad came home late on Friday, and Mom got really mad,” one said.

“Mom’s bill at Dillards was big, and Dad yelled at her,” another revealed.

Don’t ask your grandchildren questions about their home life unless you are prepared to hear the pure-D truth.

It’s true that as children get older, they begin to try to lie. When my g.randmother thought I was telling a whopper, she would make me say it “over my thumb.” (Do grandmothers do that any more? I expect that’s a useful child-rearing device that has been lost to time.)

“Someone took a big piece out of that chocolate cake I was saving for the Ladies’ Aid meeting” my grandmother said. “Did you do it?”

“No, Grandma,” I lied. “I didn’t do it.”

“Now, young man, just tell me that over your thumb,” my grandmother demanded.

My grandmother knew that I couldn’t lie and do anything else at the same time.

It was too big a mental effort.

“I didn’t do it,” I tried to say “over my thumb,” but I broke into gales of helpless laughter and confessed, “I did it. I did it.”

“I knew all along you were telling a fib,” my grandmother said. “Never try that again with me.”

But all that comes to an end as children grow older, doesn’t it?

For me, the end came in the summer of the third grade.

It was a boring summer day, and I had climbed up in the cherry tree in our front yard just to kill some time. I was hidden from everyone down below by the dense foliage.

My teen-age brother and some of his friends came by and sat under the tree.

It was an ideal occasion to gather information to blackmail my brother with, and so I remained quiet up in the tree, listening to what they had to say.

I got more than I bargained for. Their talk was a revelation to me. They used a vocabulary I had never heard before in our home. The concepts these words evoked in my eight-year-old mind were revolutionary.

After they moved on, I didn’t climb down out of the tree for fifteen minutes. When I finally came down I was stiff and sore and scratched by cherry bark and dazed by what I had heard. I was a changed child.

I had heard a lot of forbidden words, but I was determined not to rat on my brother as I had originally intended to do. I decided to keep it all to myself. In fact, I devoted the rest of the summer to learning all the words that I could pick up around the neighborhood. My neighborhood was a rich resource in that respect, and I must say that I learned a great many.

I could not rehearse my new vocabulary at home, of course, but in the long Iowa evenings – the sun didn’t go down until ten o’clock – I would sit by myself on the curb of Oakdale Street and admonish the butterflies that flocked there to enjoy the last bit of heat radiating from the concrete pavement.

“You blankety blank blank butterfly,” I would say. “You’re nothing but a blankety blank blank blank.”

My terrible talk didn’t impress the butterflies at all, and some of them even came and sat on my arm or my head as I berated them.

When I entered Miss Elsie Holstein’s fourth grade class the following September, I could not only lie over my thumb, I could rehearse my entire vocabulary for ninety seconds without repeating a word.

If Miss Holstein asked me to do something I didn’t want to do, like long division, I would say, “Yes, Miss Holstein,” and smile sweetly at her, and, in my mind, give her the full minute and a half’s worth.

I was no longer the unified child I had been. I was divided. I had changed. I had split up. If I wanted to, I could be one thing on the outside, and another thing on the inside. For all intents and purposes, I had become an adult.

The New Testament writings often refer to sayings of Jesus concerning youth and childhood as being prerequisite to admission to the Kingdom of God.

I have always found these passages difficult to understand.

“...Unless you change and become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven, “ Matthew quotes Jesus as saying.

And Luke has the teaching in these words:

“I tell you solemnly, anyone who does not welcome the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”

This teaching is strange, isn’t it?

It’s almost the reverse of the usual idea that you have to wait until you grow up before you can do anything worthwhile like voting, or owning property, or driving a car or getting married. In our culture, great emphasis is placed on coming to adulthood, becoming a mature, well balanced person, a grown-up.

But here is the Master telling his followers to “become like little children” or to “welcome the kingdom of God like a little child” if they want to get into it.

And John puts it even more dramatically. When Nicodemus one of the rulers of the Jews comes to Jesus by night, Jesus literally astounds him by telling him that he must be “born anew” if he wants to enter the kingdom of heaven.

What could he have meant by these statements?

I think, almost surely, that he did not mean that we should become simple again, as children often are simple. He did not mean that we should become irresponsible again, as children often are irresponsible. He did not mean that we should become “out of control,” as children often are out of control. No, in my opinion Jesus must have had something else in mind.

Some people have said that he meant that we need to come to God with the enthusiasm of childhood – we need to come to with all the energy and delight and wonder of children. This makes sense to me, and I think that we should approach worship in this way. But perhaps there is even more to it than that.

“Ye must be born again.” That mysterious phrase echoes down the years.

What did he mean?

Did these words refer to forgiveness of sin? Must we repent of all that we have done that is wrong in our lives and, in effect, start over as new creatures? Certainly this theme appears often in his teachings, most notably in the story of the prodigal son, who repented of his sinful life when bad times set in and returned to his father’s home to start over. Repentance and forgiveness and changing and starting over and beginning anew are certainly part of what Jesus meant when he used the phrase “ye must be born again.”

But it may be that he meant even more.

“...Unless you change and become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” he said.

And I wonder sometimes whether he meant by that that people – his followers – would be a lot better off if they became like children – the same on the inside as they are on the outside.

A terrific family battle can be raging, when, all at once, the phone rings. The battle is suspended. Mother picks up the phone. “Helloooo,” she says, ever so sweetly. Right in the middle of battle everything sounds like sugar frosted corn flakes.

All grown up people know how to do that. We all have done that. In contrast to children, we all know how to dissemble, to pretend, to deceive, to be one thing on the outside and quite another on the inside.

It only takes a man about six months of marriage to find out what the answer is when his wife asks him how she looks in her new dress. No matter what he thinks, the answer is: “Wonderful. Fabulous. You look just great.”

A child wouldn’t say that, but I guarantee that every successfully married man would.

All fathers learn what question to ask when a child asks for something. “May I stay up late tonight and watch TV?” the child pleads.  No matter what dad’s opinion might be, the question he always asks is: “What does your mother have to say about that?”

That’s right. We all do it, don’t we?  It’s something we learn. We learn to think one thing and say another. We learn to expect others to do the same. We learn to listen to our politicians speak, and we applaud what they say, and afterwards we wonder: What did he really mean? What will he really do? What kind of man is he inside? We often spend time thinking about something our spouses or our teen-agers have said and wondering: I wonder what’s going on? Is something wrong? Have I done something to make them angry? It is profitless to ask, if we don’t believe the answer we get in return.

Do you know that it was precisely this kind of hypocritical behavior, particularly when it moved into areas of moral philosophy and religious practice, that aroused the wrath of Jesus?

Jesus was the one who taught us be kind to our enemies, do good to those that abuse us, do unto others as we would have them do unto us. He was the one who taught us that if a man strikes us on one cheek, we should turn the other to him also. He was the one who taught that if a man requires us to walk a mile with him, we should volunteer to walk another mile with him.

You would have to say it took a lot to arouse Jesus to anger, but he did become angry,  most often we are told, when hypocrisy was involved.

• He chastised those who, under the guise of religion, turned the temple of God into a marketplace for their private gain.

• He condemned those people who failed to care for their aging parents, claiming instead that a gift to the temple made up for their neglect.

•He insisted that a large gift to God, ostentatiously made out of a rich man’s plenty, was not worth as much in heaven as the gift of a widow’s mite, given out of her need.

“As a man thinks in his heart, so is he,” he taught.  And he said,  “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.”

It seems to me that among their other meanings the images of childhood used by Jesus in his teachings may have been chosen to represent the unity of personality, the lack of duplicity of children.

Children are the same outside and inside.

They are unified. They haven’t learned hypocrisy. They don’t know how to lie. They may be simple and uneducated, but they are one thing.  In children, what you see is what you get.

That’s what Jesus wanted his followers to be. The kingdom of God that he prayed for, that he longed for, that he said was already among us if we could only see it – that kingdom would come for us only when we “became as little children.”

As we grow up, most of us develop an outside person that differs from our inside person. We change. We grow. Our personality becomes more complex, more fractured. It seems almost inevitable, a fact of life. Psychologists say that we lose touch with “our inner child.”  But wouldn’t it be wonderful if the real me and the real you, the person inside, were the same as the person outside?  What powerful people we would be. What a force for good we would be. What lives we would live.

It can happen. In addition to the life of Jesus Christ, we have the lives of the saints to instruct us. Peter. Paul. Augustine. Patrick. Francis. What a difference they made.   Couldn’t we do the same?

For most of us – for me, certainly – it seems impossible. I can see the value and the power and the beauty of living a more unified life, a more directed life, a life that makes me one with my creator and with myself. But the distance between what I ought to be and what I am often seems too great.  I just can’t seem to make it. I think I get one foot in heaven sometimes, but that’s the best I can do. Yet I would like to continue to try to be the child in Christ that God wants me to be. I want to continue to move toward life, to move toward truth, to move toward unity of mind and body and character and soul. I want to continue to move toward the kingdom of God. Don’t you?

Matthew 18:1-4, Luke 18:15-17, John 3: 1-3.

Simple Things

Sometimes I think life is becoming too complicated.

I have a hard time understanding my Dillards bill, for example. I always seem to be sending them more money than I should. They like that, I think, and they show no inclination to simplify their billing process. I long for a simpler system.

Balancing my bank statement is an art I have yet to master. At the end of each month, I dutifully check my column of figures and compare it with what the bank has to say. It never matches. It’s far too complicated. I usually “balance” my books by writing in the statement  – “The bank says I have $25 less than this.”

LaVonne balances her bank statement the same way, I found out. I suspect that many of us do the same thing. It’s just too complicated. I long for a simpler time.

I learned to drive in the days before the automatic shift was invented.

Our town had lots of hills in it, and I learned never, NEVER to leave a car in neutral. If you did, it might roll down the hill and wind up in the Mississippi River. Usually, I put it in low gear or in reverse.

It became a strongly ingrained habit. Times and cars have changed often since then, of course, but I’m still inclined to leave the car in gear now and then.  This irritates LaVonne.

“Use park,” she likes to tell me. “Put it in park.”

As a matter of fact she has told me that so often, I developed a short-hand version of the instruction for her to give me: PIPS.

That stands for PUT IT IN PARK, STUPID.

PIPS sounds much better, don’t you think?

The point is – cars have become too complicated for me. They have too many moving parts. I am not really interested in how many RPMs my engine is making going up Spicewood Springs Hill. Rather, I am interested in certain simple and practical matters: Does it need gas? Is it boiling over? Do I have enough power to get around this gravel truck in front of me? Can I read the speedometer easily so I can escape the speed traps the cops set up on Sunday morning on MOPAC to catch the Christians on their way to church. Those are the simple things I need to know.


I have never learned to program our FM radio properly. The compact disk player’s capabilities are beyond my comprehension. And let’s not even mention VCRs. I am convinced that those devices can be programmed only by engineers and grandchildren.

Simplicity. I long for it.

Figuring out what the health insurance company owes the doctor and what I owe the doctor is similarly too tough for me. I hope that President Clinton’s health insurance program does goes through –what I have now is clearly too complex for me.

As a rule, I just don’t pay the first three or four bills that I get from the Capital Medical Clinic. I let the doctor’s staff fight it out with the insurance company for a few months before I intervene. Last year the University switched to a new system, and Dr. Bynum didn’t get paid for six months. When I asked him about it one time he just shrugged and said not to worry – he didn’t understand it either, but he thought he would get paid eventually.

My dentist, Dr. Cannatti, always advises me to floss, and he regularly gives me some odd looking rubber tipped instrument I am to use to exercise my gums. Usually, I don’t do much until his office calls and sets up my next appointment. Then I floss vigorously and rubber tip dutifully for about two weeks be fore I go in. When he asks whether I have been flossing, I say, “Oh yes, every day.” I don’t think he believes me. The truth is that flossing is pretty complicated. Now I am trying a new toothpaste that is supposed to be so good that your dentist will think you have flossed even when you haven’t. I’ll let you know if it works.

The point is that modern life has too many moving parts.

I long for simpler times.

I have been doing some of the cooking at our house. I usually get home from work earlier than LaVonne does, and if we’re not going out, I generally try to fix something for dinner.

It’s not too difficult because of my extended dinner plan.

I make the appetizer on Monday, the soup on Tuesday, the salad on Wednesday, the main course on Thursday, and the dessert on Friday.

That way I only have to think up one meal a week.

Even so, it has become a problem in recent months.

Like other househusbands across the nation, I sometimes find myself in the kitchen just staring at the refrigerator.

Everything is so complicated –running the microwave, the dishwasher, the stove.  Everything in the kitchen has a blue timer on it, and if the power goes off, everything in sight flashes blue 12:00s and each timer has to be reset using a different method. It’s depressing.

I don’t know what to fix for dinner any more. I have begun to long for simpler times and simpler foods.

In the past few weeks, LaVonne hasn’t known what to expect. I have been serving dishes that nobody has heard of for generations –dishes that my mother used to make.

Somehow, I long for their simplicity.

Macaroni and cheese.

Hamburger patties.

Not a pasta salad in sight. Not a stroganoff to be seen. No Alfredo sauce on anything. No stovetop stuffing. No quiche.

Just plain meatloaf.

And scalloped potatoes with ham.

Just beans and weenies.

Last week I produced, get this: salmon croquettes. I hadn’t had salmon croquettes for twenty-five years. I had to look at about five brands of salmon at Simon David’s before I found one that still had the recipe printed on it. It was good, although it did taste like something from World War II.

Next week, watch out, LaVonne – it’s tuna casserole on Thursday.

I long for simpler foods. For simpler things. For simpler times.  Do you ever feel like that?

Elaine Pagels, a Christian historian and scholar who has written some of thebest books of our century on the early church, says in her book on the gnostic gospels that one of the reasons the Roman Church won the battle with gnosticism in the second century, was simply that gnosticism was too hard to understand. In the gnostic congregations no distinction existed between the priesthood and the laity – anyone could claim to have understanding and insight into the hidden mysteries of the faith.

In the Roman Church lines of authority were clearly drawn. No secret knowledge existed.  What you needed to do to be saved was perfectly clear.

The main line of Christianity would have won in any case, she says. The ruthless extermination of the gnostic books and rituals was probably unnecessary. Nevertheless, it did occur. It is only because some monks in a monastery in Africa disobeyed their superiors and instead of burning their library went out and buried their books in a cemetery that we have today any understanding of what the gnostics believed.

The Gnostic books were discovered in 1945 near Nag Hamadi in Egypt. The find was greatly overshadowed by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls at about the same time. Also, the introduction of these books to the world of scholarship was much more complicated and delayed as they were peddled separately to scholars and museums around the world. Great sums of money were exchanged. And shadowy deals were made in secret James Bond kinds of settings. But we have them all now, we think –and Christian theologians and scholars and historians for the past twenty years have been dealing with what these books contain.

Some intellectual and spiritual movements that we see in the church today – in particular the emerging role of women – can be attributed in part to the influence of these findings. The gnostic church, for example, had a Gospel of Mary that indicates a much more important role for Mary Magdalen than the relatively few stories about her in our gospels would suggest.

It is also from these books that we see emerging new groups whose claims to be Christian seem to differ from anything we have ever heard or considered. But just as the gnostics of the second century claimed a direct access to the divine light, so modern gnostics, in their various roles, claim authority directly from the “God beyond God” to discern the divine will for themselves without recourse to tradition or the existing church.

I suppose that most thoughtful people realize that the picture of first century Christianity that we have received is the picture passed on by the winners – the books that made the list approved by church leaders in the early centuries of the faith. John himself tells us at the end of his gospel, “This disciple is the one who vouches for these things and has written them down, and we know that his testimony is true. There were many other things that Jesus did; if all were written down, the world itself, I suppose, would not hold all the books that would have to be written.”

This passage suggests that there were competing books – competing interpretations of who Jesus was and what his life and his death and his resurrection meant. Indeed, the world of the first and second century did produce many more books about Jesus – books that were condemned and destroyed, as the canonical list was compiled.  We knew them only from the commentaries on them and the diatribes against them in the writings of the early church fathers. Now, after nearly 2,000 years, many have reappeared.

What will it all mean?

I suspect that eventually it will mean that being a Christian, like everything else, will become more and more complicated. We will have more and more to think about. We will have more and more choices to make. We will have more and more to try to comprehend.

Elaine Pagels put it this way in the last paragraph of her book:

When Muhammed Ali smashed that jar filled with papyrus on the cliff near Nag Hammadi and was disappointed not to find gold, he could not have imagined the implications of his accidental find. Had they been discovered 1,000 years earlier, the gnostic texts almost certainly would have been burned for their heresy.  But they remained hidden until the twentieth century, when our own cultural experience has given us a new perspective on the issues they raise. Today we read them with different eyes, not merely as “madness and blasphemy” but as Christians in the first centuries experience them –a powerful alternative to what we know as orthodox Christian tradition Only now are we beginning to consider the questions with which they confront us.

Certainly, I agree with Elaine Pagels.

But, nevertheless, I am inclined also to agree with the apostle Paul, who lived in the time when all those books were being written and all those competing beliefs were being expressed. Paul must have frequently been asked what it all meant –who was right? – who was wrong? – what did the story of Jesus Christ really mean?

In his book written to the Romans (He was planning to visit Rome and couldn’t make it, so he sent the book on ahead of him),  Paul did his best to cut through all the stories, all the conflict, all the disputes and get down to basics.

What does it mean to be a Christian?  Paul, in a wonderful passage in Romans, lays it on the line.  Hespeaks out for simplicity.

He does not claim, nor does he think that Christians should claim, any special significance for themselves or any special of hidden knowledge or ability.

He says they should be what they are for Christ and offer what they have to Christ. If they can teach, let them teach. If they can preach, let them preach. If they can run town hall, let them run town hall.

But in all things–in all of their simple daily lives – let them show their love for one another and, indeed, for all of humanity. They should work hard for the Lord, and be cheerful. They should never lose hope. They should never stop praying.

Paul didn’t like pretenders. He thought people should be sincere in their thoughts and actions. They ought truly to live by the golden rule and not return evil for evil, but return good for evil. They ought to live in peace. They ought not to seek revenge, but to leave it to God to repay evil doers.

The Christian’s job is to exhibit the highest ideals, Paul says – feeding the hungry, even if they are enemies, and giving drink to the thirsty, even if they are foes.

In a time of great confusion and true danger for the emerging church, Paul gave great credit to those saints who could achieve spiritual insight. But he insisted that the infant church had room for many others – just as the body had room for all its parts. As parts of the body of Christ, he says in a wonderful phrase, “We belong to each other.”

No special knowledge was required for admission to the church.

Everyone was welcome.

Everyone was valued and respected.

People were not ranked higher or lower depending on the amount of enlightenment they had achieved.

No, the rules were simple.

The way was clear.

The goal was union with Christ and the transformation of the world.

I suppose that Elaine Pagels is right. Out of all the ferment and confusion that these rediscovered texts from the first century have brought, powerful new forms of Christianity will emerge. But as for me, I remain with Paul, who himself spoke from the earliest days of the Christian experience. And what Paul said to those of his time who approached him with questions about the faith, what was true and not true, what was important and unimportant, what practice was justified and what was not, was this: Being a follower of Christ will make a profound difference in your life, that is true.

But doing it is not all that difficult.

It is, in truth, quite simple.

When all is said and done, to be a follower of Christ is a matter of simple belief and simple action.

You have to change your attitude.

You have to change the way you approach your daily life.

But your daily life will go on. If you are a tent maker you will still be a tent maker. If you are a teacher you will still be a teacher. If you are a manager you will still be a manager.

But you will be a tent maker for God, a teacher for God, a manager for God.

As a good father loves his children, God, who knows us well, loves us still.

I sometimes think I will never master the mysteries of modern life – bills and bank statements, health insurance forms, microwaves and VCRs. I will never understand all the information the dashboard of my car now provides. I will never truly comprehend the ways in which my church is changing and growing as it adjusts to the new knowledge that has come to it. But, in the midst of all complexities, I have this simple truth from the apostle Paul – that we all belong to God and to one another.

Romans 12:3-21.

Seasons of the Soul

To tell the truth, I almost never miss the North. The North can just stay up there and shiver, as far as I am concerned. I have no nostalgia for 10 below zero days, or runny noses, or the smell of cow barns in January. I don’t miss any of those things.

But when autumn starts to arrive in Texas – or that mild drop in temperature that we call autumn – then I begin to long for northern latitudes.

It’s kind of a craving, a hunger.

I want to see maple trees that really flame.

I want to feel a wind that stings my eyes and reddens my nose.

I want to smell antifreeze in the air.

Certain delaying actions seem to help.

Earlier this month I bought an acorn squash – and that’s what we had for dinner. That was the whole dinner – just the squash cut in half and baked face down for 35 minutes, and then turned right side up, filled with butter and brown sugar and pecans, and baked 20 minutes more. It was delicious. It tasted of fall. It helped, at least temporarily.

If I can’t have fall itself, then I want acorn squash.

If I can’t have fall, I want some pumpkin pie.

I want cranberries.

I want apples.

I want cider.

I want smelly cheese.

I want pumpkins and chrysanthemums by the front door.

Even though I am not a hunter, when this time of year comes, I want to get up in the morning and go out and shoot something.

We splurged Friday night – really splurged – and had a game dinner at Hudson’s on the Bend. We had roasted quail, escargot,  a dark green salad with goat cheese,  red wine, and crusty, chewy bread.  No summery pastas for me.  No air-filled desserts. No pale, white wines.  No watery vegetables. Give me something red. Give me something loaded with bad chloresterol. Give me some fall food. It was a fine fall dinner.

But even even food won’t assuage my hunger for fall very long.

As birds are drawn south at this time of year, I am drawn north.

And earlier this month, I said that I couldn’t stand it any more. I talked LaVonne into taking her two personal leave days from school teaching, and we flew to Boston and then drove up to Maine for a long weekend.

We stayed at the Five Gables Inn in East Booth Bay.

I can recommend this inn to any of you who are feeling a similar need to experience autumn as it should be. But you had better hurry. The owners shut down the inn at the end of November and spend the winter in California!

I spent a good deal of time watching the leaves turn in front of L.L. Bean’s store in Freeport. LaVonne had some autumn shopping to do. And you will observe my own rough, Maine-like appearance today.  Autumn is blue jeans weather, don’t you agree?

Our neighbors on Skyflower Drive, Jim and Marion Grant, made the trip with us. We hiked around lonely cemeteries filled with early American ancestors. We visited light houses. We drove to the tops of hills and looked at miles and miles of red leaves. We ate late-night lobster dinners at the local fishermen’s wharf.  We ordered double lobsters. That’s eight lobsters on the table. What a feast for only $13.95 apiece. 

How delightful it was to walk out of the Five Gables at night and sniff the cold breeze off the Atlantic, knowing that when we felt like it, we could go back to our room and snooze in front of a cozy fire.

So, I’m all right now.

I brought back a Macintosh apple as a souvenir, but I feel no overwhelming desire to consume it.

I’m okay.

I’ve had enough autumn to carry me over for another year.

I can look at the crickets and spiders and daddy longlegs that are invading our house right now without feeling an unreasonable pull toward the North Pole.

I’ll be fine for a while.

But I know that next year, when the morning sun begins to shine in the kitchen at a certain undefinable angle, and when the boat-tailed grackles begin to flock together, and when the harvest moon rises oh-so-close and golden in the east, then I’ll be wiped out again by an unreasonable nostalgia for fall.

There’s something in us, isn’t there, that responds to the seasons?

The ancients recognized a tie between the seasons and the soul.

In the annual turning of the seasons, they saw the ever changing, ever constant pattern of our relationship to God.

I think that pattern has been muted somewhat by modern life conveniences. We are divorced from the seasons nowadays. Our modern houses protect us from the weather. Summer is no longer as hot as it used to be. In Iowa these days farmers drive air-conditioned combines across the harvest fields, listening to Beethoven on their multi-directional Bose speakers.

Farming is far different from the way it used to be. That’s good, of course, because it used to be a brutal life. But even farmers are removed somewhat from the changing seasons now. They are insulated, protected. They plant their crops in the spring in relative comfort, sit back and watch them grow, and when the first cold weather comes they head down I-35 to the Valley. It takes a week of sudden change – like last week – to make us remember that there are seasons out there and that we are part of them body and soul.

What are the seasons of the soul?

Summer, I think, is a time of fulfillment, of satisfaction. George Gershwin’s song says:

Summertime, when the livin' is easy.

Fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high.

Your daddy’s rich, and your ma is good lookin'

So hush little baby, don’t you cry.

In the small Iowa church of my youth, summer really began when the Sunday School classes went on a picnic to the daisy fields. The daisy fields were just a farmer’s pasture south of town, but we gave them a poetic name reminiscent of the fields Jesus taught in in Galilee. As children we looked forward all spring to the trip to the daisy fields. Finally, the momentous Saturday morning arrived. Our moms made lots of fried chicken and biscuits and Jell-O salad and packed it in baskets. Our dads and older brothers lugged along heavy freezers of home-made vanilla ice cream. We drove to the daisy fields in a long caravan of cars, just to show the Baptists down the street that Methodists could have a really good time.  If you were at the end of the line, you had to drive in a solid cloud of choking dust. But it was worth it all when you got there. The fields were white with daisies. A little stream flowed at the foot of a limestone cliff. You could go wading. Cows in the fields scared the girls. It was wonderful. After lunch – and before heading for home – we picked daisies – hundreds and hundreds of them.  We wrapped them in wet newspapers and took them back to the church. And the next morning our plain little church was filled with flowers. We sat in the hard pews and fanned ourselves with cardboard fans from Prugh’s funeral parlor and thought that heaven must be just like this. We sang Beulah Land:

I’m living on the mountain, underneath a cloudless sky,

I’m drinking at the fountain that never shall run dry,

O yes I’m feasting on the manna from a bountiful supply,

For I am dwelling – in Beulah land.

Summer – in the seasons of the soul – is a time of praise. Of fulfillment. Of fascinating glimpses of the Kingdom of God.

My relatives up north tell me that in the Midwest this summer the growing weather was just right.  If the fall weather holds, they will enjoy a wonderful harvest of corn and soy beans. There is no drought – no disease. Everything looks terrific in the northern Mississippi valley.

What a fine autumn this will be for them.

Autumn in farming country is always a special time of year.

Leaves fall in a blaze of yellows, reds and browns. Corn dries in the fields, and the farmers hurry to get it into the bins before the rain and snow come. They work late, using the light of the harvest moon rising unbelievably big and orange over the fields. Geese fly south along the river. Chinese pheasants decorate the corn fields. Bittersweet glows red and orange along the fence rows. The cows are fat. The hogs are fat. The chickens are fat. The barnyard cats are fat. Everything is fat and happy and satisfied and buttoned up for winter.

In our church at this time of the year we decorated the Sunday School room with maple and oak leaves and big ears of corn. We thanked God for giving us a good harvest. We sang, and really meant it:

Come ye thankful people come

Raise the song of harvest home

All is safely gathered in

Ere the winter storms begin;

God our maker doth provide

For our wants to be supplied

Come to God’s own temple come

Raise the song of harvest home.

In the seasons of the soul, fall is for thanksgiving. It is for being grateful to God for blessing our lives. It is the season for being thankful for the gifts of food and health and strength and warmth and security.

Winter, in contrast, was a hard and bleak time in Iowa. Winter came early and stayed late. It froze the prairie hard and fast.  Evergreens were scarce up there.  The few trees along the stream beds were bare and black. The snow fell white and beautiful, but soon turned gray and sooty. Winter was hard. In the words of the poet Roy Campbell, winter is “the paragon of art that kills all forms of life and feeling save what is pure and will survive.”

In our church we took turns starting the furnace on Sunday morning. I remember getting up at 5 a.m. to light the fire. First I put in paper and kindling and when that started I began shoveling in big lumps of coal. It was hard to get started, but once it caught, it burned with a great roaring, snoring sound, and I could feel the heat begin to penetrate to my chilly bones. Upstairs in the dark and silent church, a crackling, snapping sound began as the metal in the heating pipes expanded. In the center of the church one huge hot air register heated the entire sanctuary. A column of hot air streamed upward from it like a geyser. If you sat near the register, you overheated. If you sat very far away from it, you froze. As children we liked to sit near the register and float pieces of paper in the rising air. If you were lucky a cleverly folded piece of the bulletin might go sailing high above the congregation during the sermon, causing the kids to laugh and the mothers to get very, very cross.

In our freezing, boiling church, we sang Christina Rosetti’s hymn:

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,

Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone.

Snow had fallen, snow on snow,

In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

We understood that song then. We knew what a bleak midwinter was like.  In the seasons of the soul, winter is a time of testing, a time of faith, a time of endurance.  It is a time to see what you are made of.  It is a time of hickory hard strength and resilience. It is a time of purification. A baby born then, in a stable no less, must surely be something special.

Spring in the Midwest farming country was a time of resurrection and rebirth. Our whole family would troop outside to see a purple crocus blooming in the melting snow on the south side of the house. Grass grew green in the pastures, and when the cows were let out of the barn and started eating it, the milk tasted funny.  And suddenly one day spring just arrived – a breeze from the south sprang up, and everything simply burst into life.

In our little church, we sang:

All things bright and beautiful

All creatures great and small

All things wise and wonderful

The Lord God made them all.

We knew what that song meant. We knew about creatures great and small. We knew how important it was for them to be born safely into the world and thrive and grow. Many a farm house had an orphaned lamb living behind the cook stove, carefully tended by the children.

In the seasons of the soul, spring is the time of resurrection. It is the time of feeling the renewing power of God’s love. It is the time when the holy spirit moves again in our lives quickening them with the vigor of God’s ardent love.

A debate still goes on between those who say we are here because God made us and those who say we are here because like Topsy we “just growed.” I am not going to get into that debate.  But I do want to observe that, however we got here, we surely are matched and mated to the earth and its seasons.

Seasons of the soul. The old ones knew about these things. They knew about summer’s praise, fall’s thanksgiving, winter’s test of faith, and spring’s rebirth of the spirit.

Where are you in God’s seasons right now?

Is it autumn for you – as it is for me– a time filled with rich blessings for which I am most grateful? Is it winter for you now? Is your faith being tested? Are you in the midst of trials and tragedy? Is it spring? Have you experienced the joy of resurrection, of healing after illness, of a spirit that has come again to new life? Is it summer for you – are you basking in the glory of the fullness of the year? Are you brimming over with a harvest of children and grandchildren – of good things happening?

Wherever you are in God’s seasons, one thing is certain. God is with you. And you are with God. And time will change things. The earth will turn. The year will roll around. And together with God, you will participate once more in that ever changing, ever constant relationship – the seasons of the soul.

Psalm 104. Verses 24-35.