Didn’t we just DO this?

Ornaments

Photo ornaments trigger memories worth lingering over.

“Didn’t we just DO this?” I asked my wife rhetorically as I opened the plastic bins containing our Christmas decorations. Appropriately for the season, they’re big red bins with green covers.

I’d already hoisted the gloriously pre-lit Christmas tree and assembled its three parts to reach seven feet toward the ceiling. An old friend, now in at least its fifth season with us, it brings unalterable joy because when I insert pole A into receptacle B, the lights come on. Glory.

Married nearly 43 years, we’ve accumulated lots of ornaments for our tree. Glass, plastic, wood, hinged, felted, furred, tacky and holy, most carry special meaning because of who gifted them to us, our circumstance in life at the time and because each ignites a special memory.

Of all our special ornaments though, none are more precious than the very simplest. Prompted by a children’s project at Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas where we attended when I was a seminary student, we’ve made simple paper ornaments with our children’s picture on them – and now our grandchildren’s.

This night, as I sorted through the decorations, untangling hooks and surreptitiously dropping the Mickey Mouse ornament back into the bin, I reached for a nearly ragged paper ornament featuring a tow-headed 10-month old. I reached to hang it onto the tree for the 39th time and a realization of how quickly time passes washed over me like a fog rolling in on an early morning bike ride.

I’m not sentimental about things. I’m not a big historical preservationist. If there’s something in my closet you want, take it. But moments that seared themselves like a hot grill into the raw meat of our minds are precious and I’m going to keep them, and I’m going to cherish them.

I don’t know what brings certain things to mind. Circumstances, events, smells, accidents, the way sunbeams, thick enough with dust to walk on, lay a slanted beam across a field. But when that precious memory comes, when it invades your conscious self and demands that you stop whatever you’re doing and linger there awhile, do it. Don’t resent it. Don’t hasten its passing. Don’t regret the time you devoted to it when you could have been doing something “more productive.”

We hang nice ornaments, too. Colorful glass, embossed and shiny plastic, wooden figures. But it’s the simplest ornaments, made by the kids or featuring the kids, that we appreciate most. Simple, like the manger.

I’m kind of a scrooge until the last couple of weeks before Christmas. I resent the trinketized trivialization of the season. But if I will trudge through the motions riding the momentum of tradition it will hit me. That moment when I realize how much I’ve lived and what a glorious wonder each of those photo ornaments represents.

And my ice coated Scrooge heart melts and I’m awash with the blessedness of Christmas again. Merry Christmas to you, and may every happy memory be a carol in your heart.

Handling Grand Things

Nature awes us at points where it convulses, where it snorts, sneezes and shudders, shaking its head to rise above the “ordinary” and astound us with a glimpse of grandeur.

Gentle waves sooth us, but we are awed when the ocean flails its fury against beach walls.

Rolling hills comfort us, but our mouths drop open when we first see a July cardigan of snow lying across the shoulders of Pikes Peak, which rises above Colorado Springs like Neptune from the ocean.

A cool breeze refreshes, but when winds wrap around themselves and drag a furious funnel tail through a city, we cannot comprehend its power.

We live in the womb of nature and pattern our lives on its dependability. We install no furnaces in Key West homes; no air conditioners in Juneau. We wear shorts in July and store our lawn mowers in November.

Predictable nature comforts. For awe, we search the fringes of nature for majesty, grandeur, depth, color, number or brilliance.

One summer almost 20 years ago I rafted the Grand Canyon with extended family members. During our first day down the icy Colorado River we stared until the wind dried our eyes.

Sheer rock walls towered 1,400 feet and more above us, close enough to touch. Frigid, 48 degree water poured over boulders that had crashed off the mountain walls maybe centuries before, forming rapids over which ran water in a volume of 24,000 cubic feet per second.

Big horned sheep scampered down barely visible scars across the rock face to pull juicy tufts of grass from sandy bars at the canyon floor. It was all new. It was all amazing. We wore out the ball bearings in our necks arching, craning and turning to absorb it all.

In a day or two, we settled in and motored mile after mile before the hum of a 30-horsepower engine. We huddled in rain suits to fend off the deluge of water cascading over us from the rapids, and we sat with backs to our equipment and watched the walls slide by on either side.

The canyon was every bit as majestic on the fourth day as it was on the first, maybe more so. The rapids were as big, the sheep as entertaining, the night sky as brilliant. But because our senses were so completely saturated with the marvelous, the equally marvelous had no chance to elicit a higher degree of awe. The next turn presented merely another incredible view.

Grand things lose their grandeur with familiarity. Proximity to things precious renders them ordinary.

That is something of what Jesus meant in Matt. 7:6 when he warned us not to throw our pearls to pigs. We handle precious things too casually.

We polish a new car every week. By the second year, we’re barely changing the oil.

Babies make us coo, giggle and jump with every sound. Six months later we roll over and moan a prayer that they will sleep through the night.

Newlyweds get cavities from their sweet, sugary murmurings. Before the first anniversary wives seethe restlessly, feeling ignored.

Those hungry cries that brought us quickly to our child’s room in the middle of the night mature into a pained cry as our teenager struggles with identity or a broken heart or embarrassment at school. But we’re too tired to stay up and talk, or too busy to give them our attention.

How does the grand become so mundane?

The car, the child, the wife, your worship become ordinary. We’ve floated that river for years. Where once we craned our necks and laughed, cried, cooed, huddled and prayed, the grand became ordinary with casual handling.

When we handle grand things with casual touch, our pearls are downtrodden and we become the pigs.

There are no old windows in Mainz

During a special anniversary trip to Europe this spring, we visited the ancient German town of Mainz. As with all excursions from our riverboat, we connected with a local guide glad to share his encyclopedic knowledge.

As he led us to the Mainz Cathedral, we entered to admire this gorgeous, active and functioning worship center on which construction started in the year 975. For those of you scoring at home that makes the cathedral 1,041 years old.

It stood during the Crusades. In fact, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa officially announced his support of the Third Crusade from this cathedral in 1188.

Surely the building buzzed with the excitement of Columbus’ discovery of a new world, and it was 500 years old at the Reformation started by Martin Luther.

Just saying that reminds me of how I laughed when President Reagan hosted an international economic summit in 1983 in what was continually referred to as “historic Williamsburg” Virginia. Some of the European attendees worked in office buildings older than Williamsburg.

Moments like these, embraced by walls that hold the secrets of 1,000 years, make travel an extraordinary experience.

We visited the Johannes Gutenberg Museum, honoring the Mainz native who invented moveable type, and viewed some of the most valuable and historically important books in the world.

But Mainz is more than the cathedral, museums and history. During WWII it was an industrial center producing war material for Germany. Because of that, allied bombers tried to turn it to dust.

The war ended for Mainz in March 1945 when the Third US Army occupied it without a fight. Eighty percent of Mainz had been destroyed.

Consequently, as our guide said, “There are no old windows in Mainz.”

That line stuck with me ever since.

Our guides in Germany talked about the war in matter-of-fact tones. They didn’t apologize, justify or defend Germany’s aggression that plummeted the world into war. Simply, “when the war was over” the industrious residents of Mainz understood their city was blown apart. Few elements remained of its life, identify and character.

Everything fragile was gone. There are no old windows in Mainz.

They understood that rebuilding their city was a chance to start over. And starting over meant deciding what to keep, what to restore, what rubble to haul away, what remnant to patch.

They knew that the part of their history created long before there was clearly a Germany or a France was the core of their identity. It was to be the magnet for visitors – like me – to come and marvel at the majesty of the ancient. Their restoration of center city reflects Mainz as it was long before German aggression rained destruction on it.

Today Mainz is a modern economy, centered on tourism and industry once again. It thrives because people are attracted to its core.

No one wants his or her life to be blown apart. But sometimes, exterior circumstances, decisions made by others, mistakes and bad choices of your own cause everything that’s fragile in your life to shatter.

When the majority of everything you’ve known has been blown to dust, but yet you live, you rebuild. Those elements of your life that were fragile are gone, and only the core remains. Is your core strong enough to become the base upon which to rebuild?

Is there a cathedral at the center of your life that stands tall and strong in whatever chaos rains around it? Or have you spent too much time installing glass windows, and putting on display fragile things that will not stand when bombs fall?

Identify your core before the wars which will come. Strengthen it. And when the dust settles, you’ll be standing, still.

Rainy walk proves journey is key

Rainy weather washed out our plans to ride bikes on the greenway. So my 7-year-old grandson Grayson and I rolled pennies, of all things.

Sue Ellen and I had months of loose coins that we’d started rolling the day before, but we weren’t going to do the pennies. We were going to just run them through the bank’s counter and pay the confiscatory fee by which they charged us to count money we were going to put into an account in their bank.

We’d sacrifice the 8-10 percentage tariff for the pennies, which weren’t worth the effort, but not for the big coins.

But, with us scrambling for entertainment on a rainy day we decided to roll pennies. Anything you can do with a little boy that gives him a sense of accomplishment is a good thing. So efficient were we, that we ran out of coin wrappers.

That necessitated a trip to the Dollar Tree a mile and a half away to get some more. I hated to drive the car that short distance, and the roads were too wet to safely ride our bikes. But the misty rainfall was not too furious to keep us from walking.

After assuring me that he could do the round trip, Grayson and I took off for an adventure, him in an old cap of mine, and a raincoat that dwarfed him.

We observed three power company trucks driving through the neighborhood as we walked, and remembered how the lights had flickered at our house, but hadn’t gone out. Odd.

We chatted as we walked, noting the quiet swimming pool on a rainy day, revisiting my recent bike wreck when he had gone for help, talked safety rules about walking on the road, teased about “chasing girls” in a few years that made him turn red.

I realized he didn’t think he’d have to wait that long. On the return trip, I made sure to inform him girls have cooties.

We talked about how a hill looks much higher and steeper from the top of a previous hill, but seems to level out as you walk it. So don’t be discouraged, keep moving forward.

He sounded the “how much further” refrain after the first mile, but by then we were in the shopping district and I could point out the traffic light we needed to reach. Alas, when we got there, the store was dark.

Employees sitting in front said they had no power and could not let us in the store. I moaned. A long walk for “nothing.”

Disappointed that we couldn’t accomplish our goal, and knowing how fragile a 7- year-old’s countenance can be, we started the long walk back home empty handed. We noticed, however, that on the other side of the street lights still blazed – including at a donut shop.

I suggested a detour and took the opportunity for more teaching about power lines, grids and transformers and how one side of the street can have electricity, while the other side remains in the dark.

I also shouldered my grandfatherly responsibility to illustrate the distinct taste advantages of an apple fritter over a chocolate covered cake donut.

Just when it looked like our adventure was a strike out, a hot and tired grandson with a chocolate smear on his face said, “We’ve got to do this again, papa.”

Grayson reminded me that time is our most precious currency and when you invest it on the journey your destination is irrelevant.