Friday, December 19, 2014

Christmases Long, Long Ago

On my bookshelves, I’ve this toy that’s over fifty years old. Two other examples on Ebay (the toy inside the original box) had asking prices of $400 and $950. Those look to be in better shape than this one. I doubt that mine runs, but I’ve not tried it.

This was a toy Dad purchased for me for Christmas when I was four or five years old, that is, the early 1960s when The Flintstones were first on television. I loved the show. I even remember the end credits of the first season (1960-1961), where the camera panned out to show other houses in the Bedrock neighborhood, as Fred banged on his own door to be let in.

For some reason, however, I hated this toy. Something about the dino-crane frightened me. I must’ve felt okay about the box, which has my crayon marks on it. Dad’s feelings were hurt; though not in a mean way, my parents tended to attach love with gifts and appreciation of gifts, and they also tended to hang onto hurts and slights for a very long time. The toy was something Dad mentioned, maybe once every five or ten years or so. “Paul didn’t like that toy,” he’d say. But it had been stored in the attic with many other belongings of theirs, seemingly beyond the ken of man.

When Mom’s house was eventually cleaned out, though, the toy reappeared amid all the things that had been in the attic. A “D” battery, now very corroded, was still in the dino-crane. I’ve kept the toy and box on display in my own home, not as a reminder of a childhood misunderstanding but of my (now deceased) parents' generosity and our Christmases together.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Twelve Thirteen Fourteen

Today is 12-13-14, on the Gregorian calendar (although elsewhere in the world the date would be rendered 13-12-14).

These kinds of sequences happen occasionally. I worked at my hometown library during college, and one day, as I typed something at the counter, I realized the day was 5-6-78. Woo hoo! The last such sequence was 11-12-13, but The Today Show reported just now that this won't happen again until 1-2-34.

Why do such dates give us satisfaction? They aren't serendipitous or providential, like the way I hear unexpectedly from a good friend when I'm struggling with something. But they're still a pleasing example of found order. No one says, "Oh, hey, two plus two is four." That's no surprise. But you can feel a small sense of peace when you realize, "How fun, it's twelve, thirteen, fourteen."

Cutting Down the Salt

I had a good medical checkup the other day, except for my blood pressure which is high again. I've not been careful lately about my salt intake. So I stopped by the local grocery store and bought some fruit and low-sodium snakes.

I've a longtime love of salty snacks, however. When I was just a few years old, I wanted pretzels, but I said it "pet wows," and my grandmother who was babysitting me didn't know what I wanted, and I became more and more upset. A caregiver's nightmare!

Grandma would've been proud that I came interested in Bible study. I looked up "salt" on the online Jewish Encyclopedia. (All of the following references are from that site). Salt was abundant in the land, with the proximity to the Dead Sea (Gen. 14:3, Josh. 3:16; I've a stone from the Sea in my office), and the salt pits of the area (Zeph. 2:9, I Macc. 2:35). Newborns were rubbed with salt (Ezek. 16:4). Salt was necessary at the sacrifices (Lev. 21:22, Ezra 6:9, 7:22), and covenant ceremonies (Num. 18:19, 2 Chron. 13:5). Salt was also necessary to remove blood from meat, to fulfill the kosher requirement.

The article's author goes on to write: "Salt is considered as the most necessary condiment, and therefore the Rabbis likened the Torah to it; for as the world could not do without salt, neither could it do without the Torah (Soferim xv. 8). A meal without salt is considered no meal (Ber. 44a). Still, salt is one of the three things which must not be used in excess (ib. 55a)." So true!

Unfortunately, there is a holiday bag of chocolate covered pretzels that calls out, maybe as a treat after a low-sodium meal. Nothing in excess!

Sunday, December 7, 2014

(Re)Turning to the Center

I forget when Advent became a particularly meaningful time to me. With the purple vestments symbolizing solemnity, Advent calls us to repentance at the beginning of the church's liturgical year. But at the same time, the candles and the joy of the season brighten the late autumn, during the frantic (though still enjoyable) lead-up to Christmas.

In my book, You Gave Me a Wide Place: Holy Places of Our Lives (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2006), I wrote: “The word “repentance” (in Hebrew teshuvah) means to turn around or to return. Repentance is a synonym for regret and restitution. But [repentance can also have] a more positive meaning: of aligning one’s priorities in order to remain true to one’s values. Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson writes that, “The beginning place, as with any return, is of having a place from which we start, a home base, a point of origin, a beginning.” But Rabbi Artson also notes that turning/returning includes “finding our essence…our core.” He asks, “What is your core? What is your center? What is that part of yourself that you cannot abandon without walking away from who you truly are? Is your life balanced, centered? This kind of turning is not a turning to get back to some earlier time; it is a turning to remain true.” (1)

These quotations from Rabbi Artson has always inspired me. How might we think of Advent repentance in the way that Rabbi Artson writes: not just sorrow for sin but a rediscovery of our true nature? One way might be to reassess the “truth” of who we are and where we are in our lives. Are we involved in activities that give us a sense of satisfaction and service? Are we engaged in unhelpful activities (gossip, maneuvering for position, etc.) that bespeak a core of unhappiness and selfishness? Do the words we speak sound like the person we want to do--or like some angry, dispirited person?

Rabbi Artson’s questions inform a meaningful Advent time of reflection: “What is your core? What is your center? What is that part of yourself that you cannot abandon without walking away from who you truly are? Is your life balanced, centered?”

1. Bradley Shavit Artson, “Turning,” in Tikkun, Sept.-Oct. 2002, pp. 66-67 (quotation from p. 66).

(Thoughts adapted from a previous post.)

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Feast Day of St. Nicholas

Today is the feast day of St. Nicholas. I’ve been thinking of him, because my wife Beth recently traveled to Belgrade and purchased for me a beautiful Orthodox icon of Nicholas, which now hangs in our home. (Actually she was going to purchase it but her host there paid for it for her.)

I started to do a little research on Nicholas but discovered a site that gives comprehensive information about the beloved saint, specially associated with the protection of children. He’s the patron saint of many different persons and occupations, including pawn brokers, whose symbol evokes Nicholas.

This same site also explains why he’s a good saint and reminder for Advent. Although Advent is a time of longing and reflection rather than fulfillment, Nicholas bids us to show God’s love in tangible ways and to stay happy. “Celebrating St. Nicholas on his day in Advent brings a bit of fun and festivity into homes, churches, and schools. His small treats and surprises help keep the spirit of good St. Nicholas, especially when stories of his goodness and kind deeds are told and ways to express his care for those in need are sought. Saint Nicholas helps us remember Christmas is a feast of love, hope, kindness and generosity” (

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Kids in Leaf Piles

In my hometown, Randolph Street is one of the major streets, from the I-70/U.S. 40 interchange on the west side of town to U.S. 40-51 on the east side (and it continues a couple blocks east). But when I was young, Randolph St. hadn't yet been extended west and was a quieter street in the area near Jefferson Primary School, safe for a kid to cross. A grade school friend lived along Randolph (he's still a Facebook friend). Sometimes I'd walk home with him after school and we'd have adventures at his house before my mom picked me up for supper.

I remember one autumn when we played in the fallen leaves in the little park across the street, along Cook Street. One day, my friend buried me in leaves as I lay face down in a ditch. What fun to look around and see nothing but brown and red leaves! My mom was displeased, because I'd gotten so dirty.

One of my devotional guides (Living Faith, Nov. 28, 2013) has a nice image of children and autumn leaves. For adults, the shed leaves are a sign of death, and a chore to rake and discard. Children, on the other hand, see the signs of death as a chance to be happy and to live more fully. The devotion writer noted that we live in the season of end times since Jesus' Ascension, but faith in Jesus gives us the chance to live more fully and to "leap"happily into faith analogous to the way children leap into piled-up leaves.

That's a great image for Advent, which we begin today. Many late-autumn days are gray and most of the trees are barren. But there is a beauty in this chilly season. Death and life belong together, no matter how much we'd like to forget that. But death does not have the last word: new life is to come. We can feel great happiness during this season of transitoriness and promise.

(A post from last year) 

Saturday, November 29, 2014