Friday, October 22, 2021

Burning the Living with the Dead: Some Things Need to Die

I am the vine and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit... Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will clear His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the granary, but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire.

The background noise of my childhood was the dread of my adolescence, the desperate attempt of redemption for a young man, and finally, the unexpected identity of this veteran soul. Constant and steady truth, met with never-ending shifts in my personal perspective. What was once noise is now the symphony that pushes back my insanity. I calm my soul and listen to the crack and pop of the burning branches. Together they burn... what is alive and what is dead.

I am gripped by this realization. My own soul burns with what was once alive and with what needs to die. I am this inferno of past and present, of angel and demon. It all burns together. This is the only way of purification. The dry and dead fuels and heats the green and living. The stuff of the past and branches of the present. It all must burn together to be refined. The smoke causes my eyes to tear and I watch little wisps of what once was float away on the evening breeze.

The past two hours were spent ripping honeysuckle from the earth. This beautiful vine that flowers golden with sweet nectar... quickly spreads and smothers out all other vegetation. Beware. Not all that is beautiful is good. Honeysuckle was introduced to the land here. It grows its leaves earlier than the native plants and then steals the light with its leaves, holding them back as it spreads.

There was something immensely satisfying about gripping this deceptively beautiful plant with my hands, setting my feet firm into the earth, and then ripping it from the ground, roots and all. What was to big to pull would be lopped or cut, with poison sprayed on the stump. Clear out the chaff so the indigenous plants could again grow.

The harvested honeysuckle branches, roots, berries, and leaves were then dragged to the fire. 

They wouldn't burn on their own. They were too green and too moist. I looked across the field and saw a pile of fallen pine branches. They were dry and brown. Suddenly I had a thought... a memory of scripture that recounted burning chaff. Maybe in this instance the branches didn't need separated, living from dead.

No, here the dead was necessary to burn the living. What once was good and dead could be used to burn what is now bad and alive. Yes, that was it! The by product of what was once good, could be used to snuff out this present evil. And so I began to stack the layers.

A bed of dried pine branches, layers of green honeysuckle, more pine, more honeysuckle... pile it over and over until it towered at eye level. Light the pine and watch it flash! It burns hot and it spreads uncontrollably, it cannot be contained. It began to consume the honeysuckle. Like the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal, the fire of God utterly destroyed the false Gods... the purity of the pine reduced the honeysuckle to ash. The indigenous in death defeated the interloper in life.

The land was being purified through labor, death, and fire. I stood in the smoke and considered this against my own journey. I've been through a time of purification. It required hard work on my own part. Self-examination, honesty, and change. It required death to bad habits and dangerous thinking. It required the hot fire of regret, grief, and even despair. Purification and reclamation come only with a price.

We must work for it. We must accept death to the old self. We must be willing to have our past and our present to be purified by fire. Only then are we again prepared for the new life of our indigenous soul to rise from the ash.  

John 15
Matthew 3

Monday, October 18, 2021

Native at Heart

Sterling holding an earthworm, or nightcrawler as we called them when I grew up here.

She held an earthworm in her hands with a smile on her face, that small life held in her hands. She adored it. Her brother looked towards her, capturing the moment in his own memory as he held an eagle feather.  We were all part of a fellowship of Native Americans and white people of European descent, walking the land and learning the history. This was a day of sharing deep history and bearing witness to tangible artifacts in the land. And yet... it was my ten year old daughter who best experienced the day.

Our Native American guide walked over to Sterling and observed the cradled night-crawler in her hands. He asked her if she had ever seen a salamander. Her face quickened as she said, "No." He flipped a log and deftly swept up the mud-puppy. He extended his hand towards her and she quickly laid the night-crawler to the earth and held her open hand towards him. The four-legged little creature slipped from his hand to hers.

I was enraptured with the moment. A descendant from Native American braves and a little girl adopted from China. History intersecting history, converging here in a moment shared with  a lizard thing. She immediately asked me if it was a boy or a girl. My intellect failed me as I responded, "I don't know." 

She carried the little fella (he looked like a boy) until we came to a barbed wire fence that we needed to cross and then she set him down. It must have been the journey of his life! Now the little mud-puppy fella was a stranger in a new land.

How often I have felt that way in my own life. Suddenly everything somehow shifts and I find myself in a new place.  This of course was not the case for Sterling. She was off to exploring the woods around her, running ahead of our guide and being called back by the sound of my voice.

Sterling was perhaps our soul-leader for the moment and we only subconsciously understood. She was leading us to be engaged in the moment... the immediate present. 

The world can shift in a moment. One spoken sentence changes everything. Grandma died last night. You have to wear a mask. I don't love you anymore. Yes, I'd like to have dinner with you. The power of spoken word. It changes our entire outlook with a breath. Nuclear.

Sterling. My ten year old daughter. She was grounded in the moment. What can I learn here? She is fully present, probably more than any of us. Grounded in this present reality while the rest of us are overthinking everything. I am arrested while I type these letters and words. I am called back to that moment. I stand on the trail, still... and I am listening.

It is the breeze that speaks to me. There is nothing threatening on the horizon. It is cool and light and serene. This is the reality of the world that I live in, but it is not the reality that I see. Too often I am caught up in the "what-ifs" of tomorrow and the "what-onlys" of yesterday.

"Dad, is it a boy or a girl?"

I had to travel so far to be present in that specific moment. It was as if my mind had been forcibly grabbed and pulled through the worm-hole of racing thoughts and slammed down into the earth on that hillside with her little face looking up to me expecting answers.

Mudpuppies, binary questions, and a mind that means the world to me. Sterling's question put me in the right head space for the rest of the day as together we followed the footsteps of our Native American guide and friend. I only had to open my mind as Sterling had opened up her hands. She received a salamander, and I received a fresh awareness of my place in that sacred space.

She was there naturally, but for me, I had to remember again that despite the noise of our American culture, we are all created native at heart. 

Thursday, October 7, 2021

Tire Swings, Sandboxes, and the Back Door of Heaven

My memory of the story likely comes from my mom's retelling. I was a little guy and I was traumatized, stuck in a tree. This wasn't just any tree, it was my favorite tree in the world. It was a Hickory tree and it dropped nuts all over my railroad truss, triangle shaped sand-box and my tire swing. My Dad had built these things for me and he had crafted both of them with his hands, improving on their design with his own ingenuity.

A typical tire swing simply hang with a rope tied around a discarded and worn tire. Dad's tire swing hung horizontal, creating a seat that could hold three people, supported by three ropes bolted into the tire, cinched into a single knot that was joined to the rope that was secured to the giant branch some 20 feet above the dirt ground.

Rather than a simple tire of sand, Dad had somehow gotten his hands on three railroad ties. These were the giant hewn pieces of wood that ran horizontal underneath the iron rails of the great American railroad. I suspect their acquisition had a tie to his employment with one our our nations great steel mills, Armco. 

The three ties were arranged in a triangle position, each about 6 feet in length, providing about 15.5 feet of surface area that was covered by fine sand, about 8 inches deep. My sandbox was a magical place that hosted countess galactic battles, die-cast car cities, and army man campaigns. Sometimes aliens invaded and and even monsters were defeated. The good guys won every single time.

And above it all... I managed to lose my grip while climbing that tree, and wedge my knee into the v-shaped juncture of the two main branches. I was a calm and independent little fella. I quietly began to work my leg back and forth so that I could free it. But it was hopeless... I was stuck.

Pride was defeated, the war was ended, the aliens, soldiers, and monsters had won... I was freaking out. I began to cry out for my mom, who was inside the house, about a basketball court's length away... although to my 5 year old perspective it was an absolutely insurmountable distance! Like the epic moment in a movie when hope appears over the horizon when all hope is lost... my mother suddenly came running out of the back door of the house.

All of my bravado immediately melted into gasped tears and shattered words as I began telling her to "call dad so he can get his chainsaw and cut me out!" I was convinced that my only salvation was the architect of this magic space. The man who had created me a tire-swing that lifted me off of the earth and a sandbox of limitless adventure, he was the only one who could save me.

And then there was only my mother's calm voice that took over my universe. She was consoling me, soothing me, telling me that everything was going to be ok. I was incoherent at first, continuing to insist that only my father and his chainsaw would save me... but she continued to talk and hold me. She calmed me. She held my wedged knee between the branches, and she lifted me free.

Unexpected liberation. No chainsaw. I clung to her with sobs of relief. She was the hero of the day. My entire world-view shifted. The creator that space was not my savior that day. But the one who saved me intimately knew me. Her rescue was perfect and beyond my comprehension. 

This has become a metaphor for my life. So many times there have been solutions in my own head that missed the mark. I was waiting for a chainsaw when the hero in the moment was already holding me, telling me to gently release my struggle. The rescue has already been arranged. It is not by my own struggle. It is not by my own intellect, imagination, or demand. My rescue is simply my yield. My surrender. My acceptance... to the help that has already been provided and has ran to me to provide my salvation.

Come unto me, all that are tired. That was the invitation to us all from a savior some 2000 years ago. The rescue of Jesus is enough. He too was stuck on a tree... a cross. Hanging there for us all. No-one came to rescue him. He died there. He died there to become the rescue for us all.

And he runs out the back door of Heaven, to hold you and to free you. He is the creator of this place of our imagination and our countless stories... He is the architect and He is the one to free us.

Hickory nuts, sandboxes, tire-swings, and heroes... my faith was built in those days.