Friday, April 26, 2019

The Golden Thread

When I was a young teenager in the early 1960s I became friends with a boy who lived a couple of doors down from me. We enjoyed many adventures in the fields and neighborhoods near our homes. In 1966, the year I graduated from high school, his family moved away. We determined to continue our friendship by writing letters; fifty-two years later, we continue to write, and our correspondence has amassed more than 1,500 pages. Our letters tell the stories of how I became a priest and he became a screenwriter for movies and television; of our marriages; and of our philosophies of life. We wrote the accounts of the deaths of parents and friends, of our moves, and of the many tragedies and joys of our lives. Both of us became published authors, and both of us were artistic and enjoyed illustrating our letters in pencil, pen and ink, and watercolor.

Letters produced on typewriters and now half a century old are fading, and the ink is slowly seeping into paper that is ever more drying out and becoming yellow and brittle. Last year for several months I spent two to three hours a day scanning the letters into my computer, improving the contrast, and editing them for general reading. Now the work is almost done. Soon they will become available in a 700-page volume through the print-on-demand industry.

As I was scanning, I read what I had written more than 45 years ago when I was in seminary, and described to my friend, who is not a Christian, the deep joy of knowing Jesus and how he was working in my life. I wrote, “This is a true continual natural high. I am a prisoner and a slave, but I am freer than I ever imagined, and it is forever.” I was in my early twenties then—idealistic and sensitive and definitely inexperienced, but the joy radiates to me off the pages I wrote so long ago.

Now I am approaching seventy-one and my career is mostly history. As I look back, I have lots of memories: being ordained with a noted television/movie actor who became a good friend; an emergency baptism of a newborn triplet who would not survive, leaving her sisters to be raised as twins; ministering to a newly-converted young woman who had been raised by parents who were Satanists; becoming friends with the author Kathryn Lindskoog, a friend and correspondent of C.S. Lewis, who was confirmed in her house since she was paralyzed with M.S.; being the instrument that converted an exotic dancer, who remains dedicated to Christ to this day; preaching at the funeral of a young murder victim in the presence of her murderer, who would not be arrested for about 15 years when technology caught up to the evidence; baptizing an old man on his deathbed; ministering seven years to a woman who had been described by the police as “one of the most savagely abused children in California history” so that she could become functional in society; walking down California coastal highway 1 with a priest-friend in formal clergy suits, tennis shoes, and Navy pea-coats while cars drove by honking greetings to us; performing a wedding for a “punker” couple with everyone in the congregation festooned with spikes, tattoos, and dyed hair and the bride seven-months pregnant; the amazing infusion of hundreds of college students into the Anglo-Catholic church of which I was Rector; and working with a forensic psychologist to track down the actual murderer of a woman whose husband, a member of my church, had been arrested for the murder—and who remains in prison 26 years later through the indifference of the legal system. These are just a few of the memories that come to the surface without much effort.

I have performed about 150 weddings and the same number of funerals, baptized at least 500 people, and heard about 800 confessions. I figure that I have said Mass about 6,000 times and preached at least that many sermons. Like all priests and ministers of the Gospel, I have my share of failures and successes, of sins of which I am greatly ashamed and saintly acts for which I am grateful to our God who guides and empowers—and in everything I see his always-reliable grace and mercy and beauty.

The immaturity so evident in the early letters to my friend is long gone. The world has changed and I have changed, and through the changes both the joys and sufferings of my ministry have been intense. Over the years I have been undeservedly loved by many people, and suffered grievously and equally undeservedly from the anger of a dozen or more others who projected on me fiery rage over hurt done to them by others. I have mental and emotional scars, and carry wounds that cannot ever heal in this life. I have learned what St. Paul meant when he wrote, “Let no one trouble me, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.” The marks are both evidence of deep suffering and tokens of the glory that ultimately triumphs.

From those heady days of seminary when I wrote naively to my friend of the all-encompassing joy of knowing Jesus, I can draw an unbroken line to my life today, and note surely that through the years there has always been the golden thread of that same all-encompassing joy that no one can take away. The priesthood is at the core of my calling and therefore of my identity for ever. Praise be to Jesus Christ!

Monday, July 30, 2018

How Terribly Strange...

In the spring of 1968, Simon and Garfunkel released their fourth album, “Bookends”. It had a song on it that caught my imagination right away: “Old Friends”. It was a reflection on old age, and described two old men who sit on a park bench like bookends. The lyrics of the hauntingly lovely song are, “Old friends sat their park bench like bookends. A newspaper blown through the grass falls on the round toes of the high shoes of the old friends. Old friends, winter companions, the old men lost in their overcoats waiting for the sun. The sounds of the city sifting through trees settle like dust on the shoulders of the old friends. Can you imagine us years from today sharing a park bench quietly? How terribly strange to be seventy. Old friends. Memory brushes the same years. Silently sharing the same fears.” An online commentary on the lyrics says that the song describes two old men who “ponder how strange it is to be nearing the end of their lifetime.”

I was 19 when the song came out, and Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel were both 26 when they recorded it. It was the time of the Viet Nam war. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy would be assassinated in April and June of that year. Richard Nixon would be elected President in November. I was halfway through my undergraduate studies in mathematics at UCLA, and active on the university’s varsity gymnastics team.

Now fifty years have passed. Half a century. On this day I turn seventy. Is it “terribly strange to be seventy”? I rather think it might be. Simon and Garfunkel both turn 77 this year. I wonder what they think about it.

The Bible says, “The span of our life is seventy years, perhaps even eighty if we are strong” (Psalms 90:10). Apparently when this psalm was written, seventy was thought to be a full term of life. What does it mean to be “old”? I read a Nancy Drew book a few months ago. The Hidden Staircase, written in 1930 when the author was 25, described two sisters as “elderly”. The way they were described, you’d think they were at least eighty. But a few chapters later you discover that they were in their late forties. I laughed out loud when that became clear. When I was fifty-five, a college student prayed for me, and lovingly asked God to bless me “as I neared the end of my life.” I was teaching two or three karate classes a week at that time, and could do more pushups than any of the students including the young men in their twenties.

Maybe one can think “how terribly strange to be twenty” and not know much about growing old. What is “old”? Well, maybe I am. Even if I live to be a hundred, my life is more than two-thirds over. When one is twenty, one’s life stretches far ahead into mystery. But the older one gets, there is less and less future left to oneself, and the more memories one has. My memories go back to the 1950s. How terribly strange. How terribly strange to be seventy.

You can find “Old Friends” by Simon and Garfunkel on youtube, of course. When I listened to it just now, I cried. I don’t know why.

I plan to celebrate my seventieth birthday by going to the public pool and performing complex dives the way I used to do when I was twenty. I can still execute a few of them. But I have the chronic aches, sagging face, and age spots of the elderly. I stopped doing standing back flips on the ground when I was in my early fifties. I’m not sitting on a park bench yet, lost in an overcoat. But maybe I will be one day. By now I trust that I have learned the most important life lesson of all, found in that same psalm quoted above:

“So teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom” (Psalms 90:12). And as the Bible tells us in many places, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Life’s experiences teach the same thing. I should know. I am seventy.

Wednesday, July 04, 2018

The Mountaintop Experience

Note: I've tried everything I know how to eliminate the unwanted underlining in this post, and gotten no results. The underlining is not in my document and it doesn't show in the draft of the blogpost. I give up. Here is the post, underlining and all.

Many times in my young teen years a good friend and I set out to explore the mountains to the north of us. The youthful desire to discover, find adventure, break away from adult constrictions, and stake a claim on independence pressed us to go beyond the asphalt streets and manicured lawns into wild territory. “Wild” territory was just following a stream that somehow managed to survive the shackles of neighborhoods and shopping centers.

I noticed one day about 1964 that this stream flowed along its gentle course adjacent to my high school, that it came from the north, and that to the north was a ridge of mountains. I reasoned that the stream must have a source somewhere within a few miles of us, and I suggested to my friend that he and I follow the stream until we found the spring that brought its waters to the surface.

For a number of Saturdays we hiked alongside that stream, passing through neighborhoods we’d never otherwise have known, cutting through fields, passing underneath rows of eucalyptus, and eventually coming into the foothills. When we got far enough away, we had to depend on our mothers to drive us to the place where we’d left off the previous Saturday afternoon, and pick us up eight hours later.

As we had feared that we might, once we entered the mountains we came to places we couldn’t get through on foot—steep slopes with Gordian tangles of briars and the like. We had to go around and then guess where the stream, ever narrowing, picked up. I’m pretty sure we did find its source—somewhere on a slope. The stream burbled down the incline into a narrow dell, turned to follow the decline, and went off to the points south where we’d come from. And it was obvious that the water had to emerge from the mountain at some place veiled in the briars. We considered our quest achieved.

By that time, though, finding the spring was only one reason we were hiking; we’d found so many hidden, nearly inaccessible places that our pleasure was not limited to completing our goal. We pressed on until we came to the peak of the mountain. There were four old pepper trees near the summit. Under their shade we ate our sack lunch and looked out over the valley in which dozens of incorporated little cities lay and a million people had their homes—including us. We returned to that small grove near a mountaintop several times over our teen years. This photograph shows the view we had from near the top of the mountains.

There is a theological reason why Moses met God on a mountaintop, why Jesus was transfigured on a mountain, why even the crucifixion took place on “Mount Calvary”. The term “mountaintop experience” refers to some sort of revelatory experience with God. A mountaintop is a place removed from the rush of life and the surroundings of familiarity. For the same reason, encounters with life-changing experiences also take place in a desert, a forest, or other faraway place.

Many people need at some time in their lives to be at the top of a mountain, whether it is low or lofty. The vision they are afforded must be literal as well as internal. Sometimes people need to see for miles and miles in all directions. Human minds and souls need remote horizons, not compaction.

I will never forget those days, well over fifty years ago now, when my friend and I left our neighborhood behind and trekked into the foothills and walked through fields and dells and the slopes of the foothills, eventually coming to the mountaintop. Those hikes began and cemented a friendship that continues to this day, from our early teens to our late sixties.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Calm Before the Storm

There is something undeniably rich and full about silence. On Holy Saturday especially, there is a feeling like a “calm before a storm”. Jesus’ crucifixion has been achieved and his body has been laid into the tomb. Notably, where before the cross there were three Marys (Jesus’ mother, the wife of Clopus, and the Magdalene), at the tomb there are only the latter two—along with a woman named Salome. Jesus’ mother by her absence shows that she knows that there is no need to go. Surely she is not at home prostrate with grief; she knows that the story isn’t over when everyone else thinks it is.

My earliest encounter with karate was watching an episode of an old western on television in about 1960. It was about an apparent sissy who appears in town; he wears nice suits and dressy cloth gloves on his hands. He is bullied and mocked by the he-men cowboys. He’s pushed around on the street and sneered at in the saloon. Finally, as the show nears its end, when he is mocked once again for wearing fancy gloves, he has had enough; he gets up from the table and takes off his gloves. His knuckles are enlarged with calluses. One of the punchers asks, “Wh—, whut happen to yo’ hands?” The newcomer smashes a table with his hands and then lights into the cowboys and lays them all out. Turns out he had recently returned from several years’ stay in the Orient where he had learned karate.

That was the time when karate was becoming known in the United States and schools were beginning to appear. A friend of mine became interested in karate in the late 1950s when a schoolmate said, “There’s this thing called karate [which he pronounced ‘kay-rate’], and the guys who do it can break boards with their hands.” Shortly after that my friend opportunely moved with his family to Korea for business and he earned a black belt in Tang Soo Do, a style of Korean karate, from the founder-master. (It was the same style as Chuck Norris’, who also first learned in Korea.) When my friend returned to the United States, he opened the first Tang Soo Do school in the nation.

The idea of an apparent weakling who humbly takes abuse from bullies until he finally turns the tables is one of the great stories of humanity. There are many such stories in our culture, in movies and books, many of which I could name.

Deep down, it is the story of Jesus—a fantasy which became fact. Betrayed by a disciple, Jesus was taken into custody by his enemies who were too cowardly to arrest him openly in public, put through a sham trial, and then taken to the secular authorities represented by Pontius Pilate who declared him innocent yet condemned him to death anyway as a savvy political move designed to keep the peace in a tense, politically fragile situation. All of them were bullies who abused their power to rid themselves of one seemingly weak and friendless man who threatened their security.

The week of political, legal, and official manipulation and self-protection finally culminated in an apparent triumph for the bullies. Jesus was executed and then buried in a borrowed tomb. Holy Saturday is the day after the crowd had done its worst to the apparent weakling, and think that they’ve won.

And then the weakling takes off his gloves.

There are many paintings by countless artists of the crucifixion, and a good number of the resurrection. But I think there is only one of the events of Holy Saturday. The day of rich quiet. The calm before the storm. It is this one. It is called “Easter morning”, and was painted by Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840). It is housed in a private collection in Switzerland; the painting was rendered in the early 1830s but not made public until 1973. It shows the two Marys and Salome going to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus. The bare trees are symbols of death, and the women are mourning like anyone else who'd had lost to death someone that they loved. Yet the full moon overhead symbolizes the resurrection of Jesus that has already happened, and which they are about to discover. The calm of Holy Saturday is already giving way to the storm of the resurrection. It is the Great Reversal. “Death is conquered, man is free, Christ has won the victory.”

Friday, March 02, 2018

The Four Marian Anthems

The four Marian anthems are hymns to the Virgin Mary used every evening during four seasons of the year. I have forgotten where I first heard of them, but for years they have been part of my personal devotions. Except for the first, their history is obscure and their authorship is unknown, but they have had their own music and have been used in the liturgy since 1239. Several texts are at least a century older than that, and the first goes back almost a thousand years.

They are the Alma Redemptoris Mater (Loving Mother of our Savior), the Ave Regina Caelorum (Hail, O Queen of heaven), the Regina Caeli (Queen of heaven), and the Salve Regina (Hail Queen). These are love poems of surpassing beauty, prayed devotedly by the faithful for many generations.

Just a day or two ago, while browsing Wikipedia I learned that the first, Alma Redemptoris Mater, was composed by a most unusual and impressive person named Hermann of Reichenau who lived in the eleventh century (July 18, 1013 to September 24, 1054). He was also known as Hermann the Cripple. He was beatified (the last stage before canonization as a Saint) in 1863, but has not been canonized. At least not yet. He was afflicted by a terrible disease from his earliest years. Scholarly guesses are that he may have suffered from Lou Gehrig’s Disease, but that is not certain; early descriptions of his deformity suggest that he may suffered from a cleft palate and spinal bifida. Whatever his affliction, he had great difficulty moving and could hardly speak. When he was seven, his parents could no longer take care of him adequately, and so placed him in a monastery, the Abbey of Reichenau in Germany. It is located on an island, and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Hermann grew up there, became a professed monk when he was twenty, and died at the age of 41.

In spite of his physical disabilities, he had a brilliant mind and became proficient in musical theory and composition, geometry and mathematics, astronomy, history, poetry, and theology. He wrote on each of these subjects, and also built musical and astronomical instruments, including an astrolabe—one of the earliest in Europe. He was also proficient in several languages, including Arabic, Greek, and Latin. He is one of a few people called a scientist-cleric.

While many of his works have lasted to this day nearly a thousand years later, the one for which he is best known is the Alma Redemptoris Mater. I can never pray it again without thinking of Hermann and giving thanks to God for his life, genius, and especially his perseverance through his disabilities to excel in so many fields of endeavor.

Here is the text of the anthem he wrote, followed by the texts of the other three Marian anthems. (Hermann is traditionally considered to have composed the Salve Regina also, but most scholars doubt that attribution.) Various versions of their performance can be found on youtube.

Alma Redemptoris Mater
By Bl. Hermann of Reichenau
Gracious Mother of our Redeemer, for ever abiding Queen of heaven and Star of the sea, O pray for your children, who, though falling, strive to rise again. You, maiden, have borne your holy Creator to the wonder of all nature; ever-virgin, after as before you received that Ave from the mouth of Gabriel, intercede for us sinners.

Ave Regina Caelorum
This poetic text can be sung to Hymn 339, “Deck thyself, my soul, with gladness”
Hail, O Queen of heavenly regions,
Mistress of angelic legions,
Root of Jesse, heaven’s portal,
Whence has risen the Light immortal.
Joy to you, O Virgin bless├Ęd,
Fairest of our race confess├Ęd,
Hail, O ever-beauteous maiden,
Plead to Christ for souls sin-laden.

Regina Caeli
This poetic text can be sung to Hymn 207, “Jesus Christ is risen today”
Joy to you, O Queen of heaven, alleluia;
He whom you were meet to bear, alleluia,
As he promised, has arisen, alleluia;
Pour for us to him your prayer, alleluia.

Salve Regina
There are two versions printed below; the first is Anglican and the second is Roman Catholic.
Mary, we hail you, Mother and Queen compassionate; Mary, most holy, great, and pure, we hail you. To you your children, members of Christ, lift our voices. To you we sing praises, for by your obedience you brought forth to us the Savior. Pray for us now, O our intercessor, that the grace of earnest repentance be given to us sinners. And may we, when our earthly sojourn has been ended, joy in Jesus, the blessed fruit of your womb, O gentle, O tender, O gracious Virgin Mary.

Mary, we hail you, Mother and Queen compassionate; Mary, most holy, great, and pure, we hail you. To you we cry, the children of Eve; to you we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this land of exile. Turn, then, most gracious advocate, your eyes of mercy toward us; lead us home at last. And may we, when our earthly sojourn has been ended, joy in Jesus, the blessed fruit of your womb, O gentle, O tender, O gracious Virgin Mary.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Miss Frouida Baker

“And now, a solo from Miss Frouida Baker.” I heard these words almost every week when I was seminarian assistant at St. Helen’s Anglican Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. I worked there for a full year, from the fall of 1971 through the summer of 1972. The Rector was the Rev. Canon J. Whinfield Robinson, a wonderful evangelical low churchman. He wore no vestments—just cassock, surplice, and stole; he was never called “Father”; people did not make the sign of the cross in the church and visitors who crossed themselves were corrected by the sidesmen (ushers). Canon Robinson influenced me greatly, and was always good to me. I learned a great deal from him, and remained in contact with him until he died on January 12, 1997, probably close to ninety years old.

It is the custom in many Anglican churches worldwide not only to have services on Sunday morning, but also to have Evensong on Sunday evening. There would be different lessons and a different sermon from what one had experienced in the morning. And many people came to both services. And so it was at St. Helen’s.

In St. Helen’s choir was an elderly single woman (many would say “old maid”) named Frouida Baker. She was always there, and very often, mostly in the evening I think, she sang a solo at some point in the service. Canon Robinson always introduced it with the same words: “And now, a solo from Miss Frouida Baker.” She was not a gifted singer. As I recall, her soprano voice was kind of warbly.

It has been 45 years since those days. Miss Baker is long gone from this world, as is Canon Robinson. But now that I am 69 and no longer 24, I look back on that year as one of those magic times in one’s life. I have known a few people over the decades who had no family. They either had never married or had been widowed; there were no children or siblings left alive; their parents were long gone and their cousins, if any, were also either departed or there had been no contact since childhood. I suspect that Miss Frouida Baker was one of these.

But she was the quintessential old maid who sang in her church choir week after week after week for years, probably without much reward, notice, or thanks. I can’t say that I ever talked to her even though I was in church with her just about every Sunday for a year. And I have no memory of what she looked like.

But somehow I have never forgotten her, and now that nearly half a century has gone by, I recognize her priceless gift. She made an unremarkable offering of song willingly without expectation of reward, notice, or thanks. She praised and served God humbly and dependably with what she had. She blessed and taught and changed me ever so subtly but powerfully and permanently. If only I could be so humble and so faithful.

Update, July 4, 2018: Intrigued by my memory of Frouida Baker, I looked her up on the internet and was gratified to find a little information about her. She was born in 1907 and died in 1997. She wrote and self-published a book in 1989 called An Airwoman Overseas, which appears to be unorderable. Her burial place is on Saltspring Island in British Columbia, apparently where such family as she had is also buried.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Meditation While Raking Leaves

In July 1945 a very short item by C.S. Lewis called “Meditation in a Toolshed” appeared in print. In it he relates a lesson about discerning truth that came to him while seeing a beam of sunlight come through the roof in his toolshed. Similarly, as I was raking leaves a day or two ago, a lesson came to me about the Christian life.

In October 2001 I spent a week at a clergy refreshment and formation conference. At one point the leader encouraged the forty or so of us to come up with a “BHAG” (pronounced bee-hag)—a “Big Hairy Audacious Goal” for our lives. She said that a BHAG was something that would take at least ten years to achieve, and had no guarantee of ever being achieved.

At the closing gathering we all sat in a circle, and she asked if anyone would be willing to share whatever BHAG he or she had come up with. There was probably a full minute of silence, so I decided to go first. I raised my hand, got the go-ahead, and said, “I’d like to be included in a future edition of Lesser Feasts and Fasts.” (This is a listing of saints in the calendar of the Episcopal Church.)

There was a pregnant silence for about two seconds, and then the entire group erupted into the loudest, most spontaneous, most feverishly uncontrolled group laughter I’ve ever heard: people doubled over in their seats, slapped their thighs, and guffawed. Tears came down some faces. It went on for about a minute.

Well, I intended it to be funny and to break the ice, and that certainly worked. When the laughter died down and the tears were wiped away, others began to share their BHAGs.

But here’s a secret: I meant it. Not that I be recognized and celebrated by future generations as a saint—that’s not what I wanted. But I do want to become truly saintly. Really, for everyone it is the only “BHAG” to have.

One of my favorite blogs is called “The Catholic Gentleman”, written by a fellow named Sam Guzman, a husband and father in Wisconsin. The tagline for his blog is “Be a Man, Be a Saint”. He’s nailed it. This vision, this goal certainly goes way against the grain in today’s culture, but the culture is spectacularly wrong. Being a man and being a saint is the only purpose of a man’s life. Saint Paul puts it this way: “For me to live is Christ” (Philippians 1:21) and “I press on to take h old of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me” (Philippians 3:12). This is what I want. Indeed, there is nothing else worth wanting—to become the man Christ calls and empowers me to be. To be a man of virtue: to be honorable, dedicated to truth, loving to small and great, chaste, patient, humble, strong, peaceful, courageous… all the virtues. The word “virtue” comes from the Latin word vir, which mean “man”. To be a true man means to be virtuous; to fail in virtue is to fail in manhood.

So what does this have to do with raking leaves? The week of Thanksgiving is the time when most of the leaves have fallen and my yard is littered with them. So it’s time to rake them up. They go into a long pile at the street-edge of the front yard, and a truck will come through the neighborhood once a week to suck them up. I could use a leaf-blower, but so far I have resisted. I still use a leaf rake—a rather small one, actually. It’s much better exercise, uses no power, and it’s quiet except for the persistent sound of the scrape of the rake against the earth. And my heavy breathing once I get going. Raking leaves is hard work.

This year I did the chore over a two day period: first one side, and then the other, moving the leaves from the back yard (where nearly all the leaves fall) through the side gates to the front yard and the strip adjacent to the street. You begin with a few leaves, but it doesn’t take long to build up to a pile, and the more you rake, the bigger the pile becomes. A half hour into the task, and just to make a little progress you have to move the entire pile.

As I was raking, it occurred to me that the spiritual life is like this. The farther you go, the harder it gets. You can see the clear ground behind you, but ahead is the daunting, leaf-covered yard and a lot to move just to make the least progress. The inner voices say, “Take a break; you’ve worked hard enough for now.” And, “Feel that pain in your shoulders, thighs, and lower back as you turn and twist and heave the pile forward; that’s gonna really hurt tomorrow. Better stop now.” And, “You don’t need to finish today. Just leave the pile and come back another time.” And, “Your neighbors will think you’re either too stupid or too poor to buy a leaf blower. They’ll think you’re old fashioned or don’t know any better. That young guy across the street with a leaf blower is obviously smarter and more efficient than you are.” Or even, “Wow, look at that 69-year-old man go! He doesn’t look a day over 65!” And, “You can leave that part of the yard unraked; it’s really not too bad and it’ll be easier and faster to let it go.” These messages are persistent and repetitive, appearing ever more and more sensible and attractive.

But as soon as I connected leaf raking with a dedication to growing in sanctity, I committed to finishing the job in one day. No giving up, even for a short time except to breathe deeply for a moment and swallow a little water. Across the back yard, through the narrow gate, and across the front yard. I recognized that the inner messages of discouragement, urgings to slow down or rest, or about what others may be thinking were the same messages that come whenever I try to become more and more obedient to God and his call to rely on his grace. Maybe the ever-increasing difficulty is a sign of progress—but really, it’s not progress but persistence that is important; I don’t think anyone can ever tell if he is making “progress”.

As I age, I become more and more aware of my grievous sins, my psychological and emotional burdens and failures, and how far short I am of life’s real BHAG. I can talk and preach the message of grace and mercy and God’s love and promises, but it is still hard for me to internalize it. It’s all grace, but that doesn’t in the least mean that there is no hard work to be done; on the contrary, the greater the dedication to “be a man, be a saint”, the harder it is. This is how God works. Any commitment to another takes work, and the commitment to God most of all, for there the stakes are highest and the reward the richest. “One thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. All of us who are mature should take such a view of things” (Philippians 3:13-15).

It took nearly three hours, but when it was done, there was a good-sized pile of leaves along the street-side of the front yard. But tomorrow, more leaves will fall. “Let us live up to what we have attained” (Philippians 3:16).