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My Christmas Legend

December 11, 2017 — Leave a comment

“Lani. Slow down! You’ve got four legs, I have two!”

mountaintopMy beautiful black Lab can sure motor when she wants. The brick-red shale crumbles under my feet as I try to keep up. We’re hiking up a steep grade to one of our favorite vantage points. The sounds of the valley accompany us. I can see my neighbor’s barn in the distance, a little beat up but a marvel nonetheless. Artists would love it if they could find it; within the confines of a farm, it’s taken for granted. As it’s early in the Christmas season, it’s an uncommonly warm day and snow remains a stranger. But when it arrives, the newly hung festive lights on the ranch house and barn will reflect magically off the whiteness.

I stop to catch my breath and look back to our starting point. I can see my house posing under a spectacular day. Surrounded by cottonwoods, oaks and aspens, it’s quite a sight. A picture of stone simplicity trimmed by green grass, western elegance nonetheless. Seventy-five yards in front of it, a fly fisherman scours the great serpentine creek. Big fish can be found but it will require intuition and skill.

We arrive at our destination; a rock cropping that never fails to amaze me. A frenetic coloring of gold, red, tan, grey, black and brown, the synergistic moss has sculpted itself into abstract paramecia. I sit and admire the vista. Incredible. Rolling hills in the foreground, mountains in the distance. Last season’s snow isn’t entirely vanquished from the high points as stubborn orphans cling to the shadows.

My breathing has calmed. “You trying to outrun a tsunami? What’s the hurry?” Lani is sitting like a Westminster show dog. Expectant. Searching.

I follow her gaze to an adjacent ridgeline. Grazing cows and calves are lethargically going about their business. Below them, a flock of sheep slowly enters into view from the saddle.

“Busy place.” I do nonchalant sarcasm well.

Lani glances at me briefly and then bounds across the side hill, jumping the chokeberries and oak brush, taking aim on the ruminants. If I commanded her to stop, she wouldn’t. She’s on a quest.  I follow but lose her from sight as I scramble through higher brush. I hope she’s not expecting to play with the sheep; a gun-toting shepherd might shoot her. I reach the low ground between the ridges and trot up to the flock’s main body. Lani is nowhere to be seen.

“Lani!”

No here-I-am bark in response. A short distance away is a solo cottonwood. A perfect spot for shade. Perhaps she’s cooling down. As I round the tree, still peeved at my missing dog, I find her. Comfortably relaxing. “Doggonnit Lani.” Usually she reacts to my scolding, not now. She nods serenely to her companion resting on matted grass.

“Hello. Nice to see you.” Piercing blue, sky-reflecting eyes are the mesmerizing feature of a white lamb that just greeted me warmly.

Lambs don’t have blue eyes, do they? They’re not known for conversation, either. “Exactly when did I wormhole to a parallel universe?”

“There’s only one. That should suffice, don’t you think?” The lamb said. “You doing well?”

Talking to my dog isn’t strange because it’s always a short monologue––mine. Okay, I’m all in. Let’s chat with a lamb.

“I’m doing okay.”

The lamb is studying me. Is he wondering if I’m being truthful? “I’ve been getting an update on your life.”

An update from my dog? Paging Dr. Doolittle.

“Really? Well, I have stepped up from a trailer to a real house. With heat of all things. And a real kitchen. It’s quite charming,” I said.

The lamb’s warm gaze seems to be taking an inventory of my being. “And yellow roses I understand. That has to be comforting,” he said with concern.

“Blessings are everywhere. In spite of everything, Lani and I are not lacking. I teach school on occasion, I help out some friends in town to earn a few bucks, my body hasn’t crashed. I can’t complain.”

“Subtle miracles?” he asked.

“If you only knew.” That’s odd, he’s using my term. I’ve always characterized subtle miracles as the wonders that filter through happenstance––only understood when connected retrospectively. Something that is beyond circumstance and clearly demonstrates God’s touch. Never the mind-blowing, heaven-rending variety. Those are for Moses and Bernadette.

I’m well aware,” he said compassionately.

The lamb and Lani exchange a knowing glance.

He is? How? Could an animal be an angel? Or maybe my guardian angel’s pet? No, he’s gotta be a messenger.

He continues: “I wanted Lani to bring you here. There are aspects of your journey worth talking about. Why don’t you have a seat?”

A broken tree limb looks like the perfect candidate. I find a comfortable spot. A glance at Lani. “And exactly how do you guys communicate? You don’t text,” I flippantly remark. She gives me a look.

“If you don’t mind me asking, how would you characterize the dark moments of the last few years?” The lamb asked.

How do I take all that emotion and pain and succinctly answer? “Agonizing,” I respond.

“But you’ve become a man of strong faith, haven’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Strength comes from meeting resistance, from overcoming obstacles. The stronger the opposition, the stronger the faith. You’ve been tested. Your faith was compelled to grow. Do you understand?” he asked.

I pensively nod.

“As clay in God’s hands, you had sharp edges, irregular form. As well as a hardened and misdirected will. You were determined to live your life as you saw fit. God, as potter, needed to remold you without breaking you. This shaping process, as you’ve learned, is arduous and time-consuming.”

“Was the hellish fire of the kiln necessary?” A bit of sarcasm in my voice.

“Every degree had its purpose.”

“There were times when I wondered how much I could take.” Momentarily, I lose myself in memories not so sweet.

“You received no more or no less than what was required. And now. Has your life changed by walking with Christ?”

Such a simple question. My eyes begin to well but fortunately they’re hidden by my sunglasses. “So much of my life has been focused on empty pursuits. I guess it shouldn’t be surprising in that I was living a hollow existence. Not anymore. With Jesus, there’s fullness to my life. The chaos has been muted. The contrast is startling, thankfully so.”

“Has life become easier?”

“Problems still remain. But they’re manageable and they don’t send me over the moon. I’m both grounded and supported by God. I’m also at peace. I know who I am and why I’m here. There’s a wonderful wisdom in that.”

“Are you happy?” he asked. This seems to be important to him.

There are seven billion types of happy. Nevertheless, I know what he’s asking. “In that I have a right relationship with God, I’m truly happy. Joyful. But I’m really not the jovial type, so my happiness is contentment.”

I pause for a moment to gather my thoughts.

“I was telling Lani that ‘all the world’s a stage’ is perhaps more insightful than Shakespeare intended. Because of my faith, I see life as a moral drama where even ordinary events have great significance. I’m never not aware of that.”

“A sense of purpose,” the lamb said.

“Absolutely! It can be exhilarating. I tell people I view the world through a spiritual lens. That I’m always trying to find connections to God’s plan. At times, I succeed.”

The lamb gets up from the grass and walks to the trunk of the cottonwood. He peers around it to check on his charges. Content that their grazing is as it should be, he returns to his resting spot. “Despair, cynicism, frustration. Are they still a stumbling block for you?” he asked.

“I may have a little regression now and then but never the all-out wars of before. Life can be unfair. Sure. But if you live in the shadow of eternity, this life isn’t the only life.”

“So does your life on earth have less meaning because you anticipate the hereafter?” He knows the answer.

“Not at all. The way I live my life has extraordinary consequences. It determines what my eternal fate will be. There are no throwaway days.”

“You couldn’t be wrong about this, could you? Perhaps guilty of wishful thinking? In much of the culture, Christianity is seen as a convenient coping mechanism.”

Is he really playing devil’s advocate? Of course I’ve heard this criticism. I would love to get in the heads of those people who espouse it. What are they afraid of? Are they worried about a disruption of their lives? A surrender of so-called freedom?

“Maybe I daydream too much and perhaps I’m prone to over analyze things. However, I’ve been able to embrace Christianity’s claims about God and the nature of reality with absolute conviction. They make sense to me. Their reasoned clarity never fails to impress. But don’t take my word on their truthfulness. Brilliant erudition through the ages attests to those truths. As well as some of the greatest scientific discoveries.”

The lamb stands and walks toward me. Stopping, nose to nose, care and love pouring from his eyes, he asks, “You mentioned daydreams. What about your nightmares?”

Wow, a mind reader too. As I try to remember the last one, I realize that my nights have been undisturbed for some time. Interesting.

“They just kind of stopped,” I said.

“I’m delighted. What about your loneliness?”

I have this overwhelming sense that he wants assurance. An acknowledgement that I trust God and that I’ve indeed surrendered my life to Him.

“Thankfully, I’m beyond that­­––I have a relationship with God. I trust and accept His will completely. And unlike all the other relationships in my life that have their own tidal currents, my bond with Him is permanent, glorious and faithful. And He’s forgiven me. For the pain I’ve caused, for my inimitable pride and for all the other sins I’ve committed.”

I’ve been reluctant to share these thoughts but giving them life in words is calming. I smile.

“Are you ever upset by the mysterious ways of God?” he asked.

I would love insider information, but it’s not in the cards. “If I consider the mystery of suffering, even mine, and death for example, intellectually I can understand them as part of God’s plan. But when I’m confronted with either one, well, it knocks me for a loop. However, I trust there are reasons and God is the only one that has the script. That’s okay with me.”

“You wanted to be a good man. Are you?” he asked.

“Not for me to say but I’m always trying to be a better person. Not because I have to but because I want to. That’s what God intended. Love Him and love my neighbor, which is the thrust of the Ten Commandments. Liberating truths that free us from the slavery of immorality.”

Sounds from the flock interrupt our conversation. The lamb looks over at Lani, then to the sheep and back to me. “I think it’s time. My drove is on the move and I’m the designated shepherd. I want you to know I’m pleased with you. It appears I can worry less.”

The lamb begins to walk toward the other sheep. As he approaches a lone flower, he hesitates for a moment to take in its fragrance and then turns and looks at me with his big blues. “God loves you beyond measure. We all do.” He nods his head slightly and continues on his way.

Lani and I both stand and watch him. Regal, this one.

I look back at Lani. “And that was…”

I swear my dog is smiling.

“C’mon kiddo, you can tell me. Was that just a lamb or did something beyond epic just happen? Could I have been talking to God’s proxy?” A reverential drop to my knees seems in order. Then out of nowhere, I yell in the Lamb’s direction, “Merry Christmas!” And instantly felt like a total goof.

The vortex from Lani’s wagging tail could blow a house down. And then she starts toward the saddle and distances herself from me immediately. So athletic and quick – she’s almost doing cartwheels. Suddenly, she skids to a stop and looks back at me with incredible affection, her eyes sparkling. It’s an extraordinary moment­­––as if love and companionship has been compressed into a singularity of infinite value. Then, with irrepressible joy, she turns and races for home.

I follow at a leisurely pace.

So many years ago, like a kid in a sandbox, I played in the clouds. It was as though God threw white fluffy lamb’s wool into the sky just for me; misty cumulus forms that reached for my body. I was alone in my jet, alone over the Pacific and except for ocean and sky, not anyone or anything could be seen. I could have been the only person on earth. It wasn’t frightening or intimidating. It was intoxicating. I felt important, unique, as if I were given an honor.

God presented the world to me.

I had forgotten those moments. They were lost in a faithless life. Yet, the sublime joy of seeking Him has been rediscovery. Although it seems everything has changed, some things haven’t. I’m as unique now as I was then. Loved now as I was loved then. And my life, the world, gifts from God, are still to be treasured.

Alright everybody, gather round. Something monumental has come to my attention – and I can’t wait to share – but I thought I’d take a few moments to address some of your concerns and frustrations. I’m seeing a lot of long faces.

First. Yes, there are some unbelievable jackasses out there and they are indeed monopolizing the news. Who are these lugnuts who think that their miserable behavior is no problemo. Were they raised by pre-Neanderthal apes? No “pass the potatoes please” at their family gatherings – it was grab the scrawny monkey and violently pull it apart like a wishbone.

Second. Yes, we are all sinners but there are gradations of sin. I have at times been lost in a dark wood but I didn’t get too far off the beaten path – thankfully, mercifully. But the aforementioned jerks (producers, actors, directors, politicians, businessmen, teachers, insert favorite occupation) somehow left county lines and beelined to Dante’s ninth circle all the while dipping their toes in the other eight ones.

Third. Civil discourse has somehow decided to hang out with Big Foot and Yeti. Good luck finding it anywhere. So we find ourselves in a very sad place of not being able to discuss problems and solutions without shouting and condescension. In today’s world, that is not good.

So. Where have all the heroes gone to show us the Way?

Let me answer by sharing a life moment. I was talking with a dear friend about my upcoming surgery – nothing ominous – and she suggested that I send a prayer request to her favorite religious Sisters for a safe and successful surgery (see link below for the Norbertine Sisters).

Key point number one. I’ve never done that in my life, ever. There are great Catholics out there like my friend that do that kind of thing (as well as regularly attend Mass, fast, confess, etc.), but I’m not one of them. I hope to do better, it’s a constant battle.

Now key point number two. I love God, I talk to Him every day, and it might take me twenty years to figure out all this Catholic stuff (I converted in 2001 from atheism). So, writing the Sisters wasn’t a terrible idea – just a bit outside of my comfort zone however. But I decided to soldier on and emailed Mother Mary Augustine.

I will say that my surgery prayer was only a small part of my email. I requested what I would characterize as team effort “shoot for the moon” prayer for two people I love and since this was all new to me, I did not know what to expect in reply, if anything. To my surprise, in a matter of a few short days Mother responded. And her response was magnificent on so many levels.

Mother’s email was of course prayerful, but also warm, thoughtful, personal, humble, and edifying. But her comment that prayer is the heart of their life as Norbertine canonesses and they intercede for the needs of the world helped me understand why God loves us. The Sisters exemplify humanity at its best – loving, selfless, communal, serving, tireless, industrious. Combine that with a life dedicated to God’s honor and glory and the saving of souls and you have the Norbertine Canonesses of the Bethlehem Priory of St. Joseph. Saints-in-training would not be a hyperbolic declaration.

It’s disconcerting that headlines of immorality, pettiness, and selfishness bombard our senses. We almost don’t know which way is up. That is the nature of so much of the world. But knowing the Sisters are out there in the hills of Tehachapi doing what they do fills me with peace, gratitude and hope. I’m rebalanced.

Maybe you should reach out to them. Zero downside by the way – infinite upside.

Lastly, the Sisters have a gift shop (perfect for Christmas) as well as a building fund for their future chapel. They would love your support. Please click on http://norbertinesisters.org.

A Brother’s Farewell

November 10, 2016 — 2 Comments

The plan is to have a Celebration of Life event for Matthew. Since I’m far away, the extended family is point for the arrangements. Hopefully, they do what’s right in a timely manner and respect the wishes of the entire family. Anything short of that dishonors Matt – as a former Marine, honor is fundamental to my worldview.  But I have to say I’m not encouraged by their efforts. So, as I’m sitting here, it’s highly unlikely that I’ll be able to eulogize my brother, at least in the traditional sense. It appears we’re heading for a Hatfield McCoy inevitability.

matt

But I’m writing one anyway … warming up in the bullpen just in case. And if the baton is dropped and languishes in the dirt, this eulogy will nonetheless be out in the cosmos.

You see, there’s nothing else I can do for Matt other than share memories for those that loved him – or would have had they met him. In the scheme of my life, it is a very important job and I want to do it.

As I begin this, it’s been two weeks exactly since that dreadful bike ride in Ojai. The healing process has sputtered along, but I’ve been startled by those quiet and alone moments in my otherwise busy days. Matt crashes through the normalcy, I see his face, grief pours over me as if from a cloudburst, and I cry. And then the sorrow quickly retreats as though my subconscious – or God’s grace – yanks it back to spare me the pain. I’m left with red swollen eyes as a searing reminder that my brother is gone.

I remember 1991 when our mother died. The Steele boys managed to get through that first week dealing with her affairs, concerned friends and the logistics of death. We laughed, reminisced, cried, took pills, drank beer and playfully split up her treasures – not the material stuff like lamps and couches, but the cherished things in her life; family pictures, letters from Dad, her sons’ baby shoes and report cards, her silly tools, her favorite ice breaker. In fairness, the pill popping, beer drinking and wailing like a newborn may have been all me but those seven days were an absolute blur.

The brothers didn’t argue that week, but we might have been tempted when it came to the expense for Mom’s funeral. We were sitting around a conference table, the typecast funeral director mumbling something quasi consoling, he looked like Lurch, and he placed the invoice on the table. As an aside, for you young mortuary entrepreneurs, hire grief counselors that look like Hooters waitresses; you’ll have bodies stacked like books in the prep room as the bereaved jockey for facetime.  Continue Reading…

Radical Surrender

August 11, 2013 — 3 Comments

Yep, I’m guilty of staring into space. Why? Because I spend a lot of time wandering around the maze of my mind picking up relics of memories.

CumulusI blow the dust off, feel their weight in my hands and try to imagine the emotions, smells and circumstances that might have accompanied their placement in my archives. In many cases, it can be quite fun–this daydreaming.

My God, those moments playing hide and seek at 25,000 feet in the billows of cumulus were other worldly. But then, under a stack of pleasantness, I occasionally find recollections that are just plain bad. Truly awful. And I’m reminded of how trying life can be.

It really is a test.

Continue Reading…

The Puppet Strings of Satan. It’s here.

My Papal Prediction

March 10, 2013 — 2 Comments

Ah, that moment when the new Pope walks out on the balcony–Habemus Papam (“We have a Pope”) still echoing in the Roman hills. Looking out on all those expectant faces, what will he be thinking? Or feeling?

Papal RingWill he have already decided on his second act as Pontiff (the first being his name)? Will he want nothing more than chapel time to pray? Will he want to huddle with confidants? Will he even have any in Rome? Or will he crave solitude?

His exterior might be serene. But inside? I remember landing aboard an aircraft carrier, very calm, in control. But I was pure adrenaline. I could have dunked a basketball with two hands. The same with our new Pope?

If I look outside the Vatican gates however, over the heads of the exuberant believers, my pondering stops. What I see is definitive. Indisputable. As in previous centuries, there are forces aligned outside the gates who want to destroy the Catholic Church. But now they seem larger, more threatening, diabolical.

In the center of a phalanx formation–the battering rams painted black–you can see secularism, relativism and atheism. Righteous in their belief that their time has come, they’re intent on killing all and taking no prisoners.

Continue Reading…

Inviting Mini-Martyrdom

March 7, 2013 — 2 Comments

For those of you who are frequent readers of my blog, you’re somewhat familiar with my journey from atheist to Catholic. For new readers, I entered the Church in 2001 but it was the last four years of extraordinary trial that cemented my faith in God.

St.-Peter-2-230x150In my last post, I wrote about a possible job. I’m still in discussions with the CEO but it’s proving to be a very positive experience. He’s very keen on identifying folks who will fit in with the culture, who are great (not good) team players and who have exceptional skills and character. Amid a thorough process, I’ve also had to succinctly articulate lessons learned from crawling along my road to perdition.

Because of this reflective assignment, I’ve sensed an obligation to identify myself as a Christian. In today’s increasingly secular world, by taking this tact you’re never quite sure how you’re going to be received. It could be a big mistake. Was I inviting mini-martyrdom?

Let me share some of my correspondence with the CEO.

I was asked specifically about life after my crash and burn in 2009 which was financial, spiritual and physical.

I worked occasionally as a substitute teacher, worked in a coal yard and wrote a book. I learned that my mistakes over the last few years weren’t monumental and that I was also tripped by events. Like the prodigal son who goes away and foolishly spends his inheritance, he’s then hit with a famine. I went to Durango and spent my money and then the great recession erased my new job opportunities. So I had to scramble just to eat.

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My Life On The Cusp

March 1, 2013 — 4 Comments

The past week has been very revealing. It reminded me of how busy I used to be. For the last three days I’ve been knee-deep in interviews for a new job. It went very well and I’m excited about the opportunity. But I could hardly keep up with the news regarding B16.

And this is most likely going to be emblematic of my life going forward. I will be absorbed by the necessity of engaging in a productive life leveraging the gifts that God has given me. But I will also have to doggedly keep my heart’s compass pointed towards Him so that I walk sure-footedly. Most of the planet has this same challenge. But how many pull it off?

I plan to. I’m committed to this duality and I sense that this new scenario is absolutely God’s will. We’ll see.

Driving home–six long hours–my thoughts ricocheted about like a ball in a squash game. It was a chance to let my brain maneuver between the multifaceted walls of what I believe to be a balanced existence–the human and the divine. Let me share a few random reflections.

*****

I’ve learned that Catholic faith is a gift from God, a pure package of divine relationship that can be eternal or momentary depending on the choices my free will makes. I’m aware that my intellect, another gift from God, is to be exercised in deepening my faith, and my level of religious knowledge, although growing, is light years removed from the scholars and thinkers who inspired me in my conversion. And here’s what I know instinctively. If my faith goes south or at least, vacations a bit too much, I should expect the road of life would be bumpier. Not so much that problems are multiplied but my handling of those problems is handicapped.

Continue Reading…