Sunday, October 25, 2009

We Gather Together

Last weekend I enjoyed five "gatherings" outside around open fires; two night-time campfires; two early morning fishermens' warming fires; and one mid-day trout-fry fire. Though the gathered few were somewhat disparate in our faith views and practices, each of these "gatherings" was a worship session of sorts. For example, the first night fire was started by my buddy, Mark, in the campfire ring by his cabin. Five of us gathered around to cook hot dogs on marshmallow forks, sip wine and share a deep conversation that ran from politics to fathers. And through it all we each were held in wonder and awe at the handiwork of God with which we were surrounded.

One of our gathered group, Mark Boster, is a professional photographer. He had come to our gathering from an assignment taking fall pictures in Yosemite. Somehow the subject of the well-known Yosemite Chapel came up. At 130 years of age, the Chapel is allegedly the oldest structure in Yosemite National Park. The Ken Burns television series on the National Parks, which aired recently on PBS, noted that John Muir thought it somewhat asinine to build a church in one of the greatest cathedrals in the world, though, according to a May 2009 article by Lynn Arave, Muir did speak there on at least one occasion. We might even assume that Muir worshipped there occasionally. Galen Clark was another Californian who, like Muir, sought to protect Yosemite. Clark put it this way:

"It seems almost sacrilege to build a church within the portals of this the grandest of all God's temples. It is like building a toy church within the walls of St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome. But it will clearly show the contrast between the frail and puny works of man, as compared with the mighty grandeur and magnificence of the works of God, and I hope it will do good."

I pondered these thoughts this morning while sitting in my home church, North Fresno Mennonite Brethren Church. We were gathered in a group of two hundred or so church brothers and sisters, surrounded by sedate tan walls, listening to Gary Wall, our district minister, preach (among other things) about the importance of gathering as a community.

Do we need the buildings of the local church to discover the mighty hand of God? Not at all. God's own creation will be witness enough. Do we need the gathered body of the local church to worship God? Not at all. We may walk alone in the wilderness -- or be together only with the wild animals in one of God's own grand cathedrals -- and have a most excellent time of worship. But what of being community?

It is for community that We Gather Together. One can sing a most excellent melody alone, but, aside from multi-track recording, one cannot sing alone in four-part harmony. However, it isn't solely for the harmony of music we gather in community; We gather together because we are social beings made whole only by the blessings of being in community. Sue is lifted up and blessed, and healed, by our community of church friends.
Whether we gather with a thousand faithful in the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California, or we gather as a group of five around a campfire at Huntington Lake, being together in community is a significant part of what God intended for us. American Public Media has presented a special one hour Thanksgiving program, narrated by Garrison Keillor, titled "We Gather Together." Why don't you gather together with several of your community of friends and listen in? Click the link and then click "listen to the program."

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Surrogate Mother

Sue's mother, Peggy, passed away around 1990. She died at the age of 59 of cancer. We had two little girls at the time, ages 2 and 1.

But Sue wasn't ready to be without a mother. Lucky for her, she had a really good aunt, Aunt Audrie, who stepped in and became something of a surrogate mother to Sue. After she graduated from college, Sue took a job as a quality-control specialist in a garment factory in Los Angeles. During that year Sue lived with her Aunt Audrie and Uncle Russell in Hermosa Beach, California.

Sometimes when you're sick your mind takes you back to yester-years. You remember being sick as a kid, and how your mom took care of you. Now, even though you're "all grown up," sometimes when you're sick you just want your mommy.

Aunt Audrie is one of the most gracious, kind and generous people I have ever met. She calls Sue periodically and I have overheard bits and pieces of the conversation. Sue loves her Aunt Audrie, and several times recently I have heard her choke up a bit on saying goodby to her.

Yesterday Sue's Aunt Audrie, together with Sue's Uncle Val and his wife, Betty, stopped by for a visit. They were on their way back to Southern California following an elderhostel trip to Carmel. We shared a dinner meal with them. Our neighbors, Mark and Cindy, also joined us for dinner. They are surrogates of a different kind. We refer to each other as "chosen family." They've been like an extra mom and dad for our daughters.

For the past two weeks Sue has felt crummy. She's had a cold and she's been a little depressed -- or anyway a little sad. But yesterday was a really good day. She felt good and her spirits were buoyed. It's amazing how much healing power is in a "mother's" touch and presence. It's amazing how important it is to be surrounded by family, even if some of them are surrogates.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Shades of Sadness

On Monday of last week I left Fresno at 6 a.m. to drive up to Huntington Lake to meet representatives from Southern California Edison and the U.S. Forest Service about taking down some hazard trees to which SCE has attached their power lines. When I hit the country roads north of Fresno with a good view of the mountains it was still dark in the valley, but a pale white light -- what we fisherman call "first light" --was creeping up behind the mountains to the east. The mountains were black, and the only thing ascertainable was the ridge line behind which, slowly, the white light began to illuminate the landscape; First giving gray form to mountains and trees previously hidden in darkness, then, by degrees, giving up details.

As I got up to Pine Ridge, about 4,500 feet in elevation, I had a good view of the foothills and valley below. Low-lying fog filled the areas between the foothills and spilled out in thin sheets across the valley. As the sun rose and the light intensified; it changed the hues of the fog from gray to white to pink to orange, giving the foggy landscape below a melancholy, soft-edged watercolor-painting look.

The temperature at Shaver Lake was 30F, and steam was rising off the surface of the water as if the lake was a huge simmering cauldron. By the time I got up to Tamarack Ridge the outside temperatures had dropped to 20F. There was a fair amount of ice on the road. Icy mountain roads can be dangerous. I slowed way down so as not to become a statistic.

Fog and cold are two things that can slow you down. And while they have the capacity to invigorate, fog and cold also have the capacity to lock you up in unmoving, frozen gridlock. Let's be dead-on honest -- fog and cold can depress you, and if you aren't careful, they can kill you.

Sue was diagnosed with her cancer around May 1, following four months of increasingly debilitating pain. She is now in her fifth month of grinding medical treatment, so this whole process of having cancer, being diagnosed and being treated is coming up on a year now. And while she has, for the most part, maintained an amazingly good attitude throughout the whole ordeal, there have been times when sadness has settled over her like a cold fog. It's understandable. It's almost inevitable, or anyway, it's common.

In Sue's case, the neuropathy has been a constant source of physical pain. At one of her recent appointments with the local oncology doctor, the doctor told Sue that her neuropathy should have resolved by now and, since it hasn't yet resolved, maybe it won't. My mom always told us kids that "honesty is the best policy," but I'm not sure that's always the case. After Sue had that appointment with her doctor, I thought I noticed more sadness than usual.

I've been depressed myself at times, and I was worried that depression may have set in on Sue. True depression is different than just being sad, and, unaddressed, it can be as dangerous as an icy mountain road. Sue denied being clinically depressed, but at my urging she did consult her doctor about it. The doctor thought her sadness was normal and didn't seem overly concerned. I don't know clinical depression from tropical depression. But I know a sad person when I see one.

People often misuse the phrase "I'm depressed" to mean they are sad about something. It's used kind of fliply. But no one wants to cop to really being depressed in the clinical sense. It seems that people are stigmatized by the idea of depression, like it is some kind of a bad thing that you have done or you are somehow defective if you get it. Recently (August 25, 2009) Scientific American ran an article titled "Depression's Evolutionary Roots" suggesting that depression is not a malfunction of the brain, but that it is actually a useful survival adaptation of the human species. The authors of the article cite research which indicates somewhere between 30 to 50 percent of people in the U.S. have at some time met the current definition of "major depressive disorder." The authors conclude: "When one considers all the evidence, depression seems less like a disorder where the brain is operating in a haphazard way, or malfunctioning. Instead, depression seems more like the vertebrate eye—an intricate, highly organized piece of machinery that performs a specific function."

On this sadness versus depression question as it pertains to Sue, and even to me, I am in a bit of a dark fog. I can see some outlines in black against the first light. And as the light is beginning to intensify, the hues of the fog we're in are changing from gray to white to pink to orange, giving the foggy situation a melancholy soft-edged watercolor-painting look.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Power To Move Mountains

Last weekend while "the girls" quilted a few of "us boys" did a little "man" work. We cut up some wood using chain saws. We spread some wood chips around using a golf cart and dump trailer. We split some wood using a hydraulic wood splitter. If you've ever split wood the old fashioned way and then split wood using a hydraulic splitter, you know the power of machines. It's awesome what a machine can do.

The guys who are going to mill the trees we had felled at Lakeview Cottages have a big machine, a John Deere tractor with hydraulic claws, that can move logs the size of mobile homes. That's me in the cab. Only the photographer knows for sure whether I'm really operating the tractor. But even if I'm not, it's the idea of the thing, that with a machine like that I'd have the power to lift a huge log and move it around like lifting a toothpick and waving it around.

And as I spent the weekend marveling at the power of machines I contemplated the notion of power. What has power to move things? And it occurred to me that, as powerful as machines are, we have at our disposal at least three things with even more power than machines.

With the water level going down for the winter the faces of the four dams at Huntington Lake are exposed. I rode my Yamaha 225 around a bit inspecting dams and lakebeds and old short-line railroad tracks and massive water pipes and huge turbines and just marveled at the work that was done to create this system of lakes and power generating plants. But it wasn't the machines so much as it was the power of an idea -- the power of imagination and vision, that moved this huge project from nothing to reality.

John Eastwood, an engineer who was a pioneer in dam building and hydroelectric project design, rode alone on a mule through the San Joaquin river watershed in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, envisioning a series of dams and hydroelectric power generation facilities at a time when no comparable system existed anywhere in the world. While he was given little credit for his ideas, and did not profit much from them, it was Eastwood's ideas and vision that really set everything in motion to move the mountains and capture the power of the water. Southern California Edison calls the emergent project, the Big Creek Project, "the hardest working water in the world."

Machines don't make ideas; Ideas make machines. So ideas are more powerful than machines. Ideas are in the mind, where another great power originates -- that of faith. I once heard a speaker say that every great champion has one thing in common; they all have faith (a strong and abiding belief that something will happen before there is concrete evidence to support it). These people have faith before they become a champion, that they can and will be champion. Faith is a driving force without which great things usually cannot be accomplished. Faith taps you into power beyond yourself. Jesus once said that " ... if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there' and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you." Matthew 17:20

One thing is still more powerful, or at least more essential. All the recent science fiction movies envision the horror of a world controlled by machines or computers. Great and powerful machines but lacking the one great power of which we humans all have the capacity. And here I am talking about love. Paul, the apostle, put it this way: " ... if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing." 1 Corinthians 13:2

Sue's slow recovery from cancer has relied on all of these great powers: the power of machines; the power of ideas; the power of faith; and the power of love. But without the latter, without the love you and we have given her, it's all for naught. Love has the power to move people, and really that's more important than moving things, isn't it? Be a powerful person today. Tell or show someone you love them.

Friday, October 2, 2009

The Fabric of Community

Last night began the second annual quilters' retreat at Camp Keola. Last year a group of women from North Fresno Mennonite Brethren Church met there for an informal communal quilting retreat. This year they will be joined by women from Mennonite Community Church. It's quite a sight to see these ladies, young and old, with their projects spread out over numerous tables throughout the dining hall; Fabrics in every imaginable color and pattern, notions and sewing machines, clippers and pins. Tables of food and fruit and cakes and pies and cookies and snacks line the back wall, and coffee and tea are brewing all day and all night. All the while the ladies are working and carrying on the conversations of community.

The days at Huntington Lake now are clear and cool, and overnight temperatures dip into the high twenties. But the big dining hall is heated and as cozy as a large community teepee. I can imagine women and girls of the long-ago tribes sitting together cross-legged in their community teepee with their leather or bead or craft projects on their laps, contentedly working and humming and carrying on the conversations of community in the native ways.

Sue does not really have the energy for this yet. But she is there, among them, camped out in a canvas easy chair, wrapped in coats and blankets, with a hand-stitching project on her lap, listening and laughing and enjoying the comeraderie. And napping on and off. There is something healing about community. It's like an aromatic, warm balm.

Jessica is there, too. She's almost finished a dress and is starting a new quilt. Jessica needed help putting a zipper in the dress. Sue did not have the oomph to get up and show her how to do it, so Dotty showed Jessica. That's part of the beauty of community -- the whole village chipping in to help each other, to show the way, to teach and learn, to share stories, share a laugh, share a meal, and to share each others' burdens. For Jessica they are all surrogate moms and sisters.

It will be a busy weekend, but measured. Women creating beautiful quilts, sharing lives, making memories. Tom Hunter's song "Weaving" puts it like this: "We are weaving, weaving, weaving the future from the fabric of our past." These ladies are weaving the fabric of community, and it's a crazy, durable, strong, beautiful fabric .