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Daily Reflections Earth Healing

Daily Reflections
by Al Fritsch, S.J.


A series of written meditations and reflections



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Table of Contents: Daily Reflections

December 2008

Copyright © 2008 by Al Fritsch

American Bittersweet (Celastrus scandens)


Inviting warm hearth turns us homeward,
        and we direct our attention to our loved ones.
Indoor environment is proper for this season,
        when more time is spent indoors.
Home economics is on our minds with holiday expenses,
       and with the economic crisis all around.
Scripture reminds us to fold in the tents
       as colder winds appear. 
December brings us to garden's bottom line,
       when the cold frame extends the autumn crops.
The solar greenhouse becomes a fresh food provider
       Swiss chard, kale, mint, dill, and garlic. 
It's evergreen season -- mistletoe, cedar boughs, holly, 
     dried flowers and kudzu and wild grape vine wreathes.
Homemade hickory nut and fruit cakes in bourbon-soaked
      towels, cookies, plum puddings and cream candy.
Jerusalem artichokes and parsnips and other root crops,
      stored winter squash, pears, apples, and pumpkins,

All being made ready for the year-end feasts.

A quiet late autumn evening
*photo credit)

December 1, 2008    Ten Ways to Get Ready for Winter

    Older folks find winter so troublesome that many flee south on I-75 and I-95 like the Canadians and the geese.  Those wise northern dwellers know that warm seasons are best spent in cooler climes, and winter in warmer ones.  In fact, the fuel to go from one place to the other and back is less than that required by summer-cooling in Florida or winter-warming in Ontario.  The great majority of us do not want to tip North America into the Caribbean, and so we stay put in our homes.  Can we make winter life easier?  Here are a few ways:

   1. Insulate the hidden places that were forgotten last year, for example, the cracks under doors or the outlets for electricity.

   2. Wear warmer clothes, maybe some of the newer fabrics, which wick well and keep the body dry.  A purchase at a yard sale or a used clothes place may help enhance the winter wardrobe also.

   3. Exercise outdoors daily when possible.  It is a mistake to stay cooped up indoors, and expect that the weather will not affect us on infrequent ventures outside.  Get out except when it sleets.

   4. In case the power goes off, store at least two weeks supply of food that needs no or minimal heating or cooking.

   5. Automobiles should be well maintained with proper oil, tire treads, clean air and gas filters.  Ensure there are a flashlight, sleeping bag, and other emergency materials.

   6. Stay home and do less travel.  If you must make a journey, learn the highway conditions, listen to or watch the weather reports, and stay on top of the current weather maps.

   7. Now is the perfect time to peruse reading matter that has been saved up through the more active months.

   8. Bird feeding is a rare winter pleasure that is good for those who stay through the colder seasons.  Feeding wildlife may make them dependent on us but, with respect to birds, we have already so damaged their habitats that feeding is only partial compensation.

   9. Auxiliary utilities need to be checked -- wood stove fuel, stored extra supplies of water, and solar units for lighting.

  10. Snow removal equipment is an area of special attention -- shovels, boots, scrapers, sand, and deicing agents (use salt sparingly, for it harms vegetation).  Be on guard against excessive physical exercise when deicing or removing snow.

     Prayer:  Lord, make us aware of the winter season and the ways we can adjust to it while retaining our own prayerful equanimity. Keep us watchful during this Advent season.




The changing autumn landscape
*photo credit)

December 2, 2008     Remembering National Events

     Many of us remember 9-11 (2001) or the day Kennedy was assassinated, November 22, 1963.  A thinning group of us remember that this coming Sunday will be the sixty-seventh anniversary of the attack that initiated our American entry into the Second World War and the song: "Remember Pearl Harbor."  As an eight-year-old I stood on the church steps on December 8th, 1941, and discussed with my classmates whether the Germans would bomb New York or points closer.  The war was to become part of our lives for four years, even when actual warfare was far away in Europe and the Pacific. 

     Major national tragedies make indelible marks on our minds and yet time softens, embellishes, and intermixes these events with somewhat related ones.  Many of us like to hold these events sacred; we show our mental control by recalling them to others as though we have a unique possession.  We seem to think that to forget the past condemns us to returning to similar conditions and repeating past mistakes.  But slippage occurs and we can have slippage of collective as well as individual memory.  We sympathize with those who endured the Holocaust of the Second World War, and who now are confronted with writers who say it did not exist.  Those who endured such ordeals often fear that future generations will not learn from the painful lessons of the past.  Yes, memory is fragile and the one remembering risks being considered old-fashioned and out of touch with modern reality.  Are we afraid that our history will become cobwebbed space that others prefer to overlook and scoff?  

     While we may affirm that memories are somewhat sacred and need preserving in oral tradition, written records or oral and videotapes, still some memories are painful; people regard it as mentally healthy to omit or avoid them.  However, national memories ought to be preserved for they often tell us much about ourselves and our emerging culture.  Some of these are what we are proud of and some are so very painful.  No one finds delightful that struggle associated with the slavery in our early republic. However, in such a recall we find the roots of racial discrimination.   What does "property" mean?  How do we treat laborers who ought to own the fruits of their labor?  Why do citizens defend and perpetuate certain economic conditions?  

     What we say about our nation could also be said about our families.  The pain of the past is part of our being who we are.  Family events are well worth remembering, and December is a perfect time to celebrate sacred memory.  Encouraging the next generation to respect and revere the past is a challenge whether that is our collective or family heritage.  Such awareness generates a healthy respect for our past, and respect is needed for healing our wounded Earth as well.

     Prayer:  Lord, teach us to remember the great events of our lives and to pass these on to the next generation just as we are called to remember our sacred traditions.






A Kentucky streambed in evening
*photo credit)

December 3, 2008          Our God Within

     When we function as balanced human beings we look at the functioning of our hands, head and heart.  The three "h's" form a harmony when working together and being of use for service to others.  It is easy to recognize hand service:  such workers push brooms and pick up garbage; they build and repair, restore and preserve.  However hands are not headless or heartless, but are most important for human activity for most other animals do not have similar dexterity.  The hands symbolize the creator in all of us -- though some people with great effort, can even create without hands. The head person within us directs the movement of service, organizes the hands to proper action, and formulates a word of encouragement to others;  the head is involved in reflection on the works of the hands and articulates the final handiwork to be of service.  The heart takes it all in, and with the work of hands and the reflection of the head, it gives a sense of belonging and love to the services we perform. 

     Some who favor the use of mind and the glory of mental exercises would contest the sequence of hands, head and heart, and say the head comes first.  Head work comes before all action;  without a good head one could not think and speak a word to the world -- but, in reality, head and hands work in unison and give a human aspect to our work.  Others would say the heart is first, and in some way they are right; no one works without an element of love (whether of self or others) involved.  But in the harmony of service that we perform, it is the heart that is touched by going out to others and planning to say good things to them.  We find that words cannot express it all, and so must muster up the resources of the heart to truly respond.  However, arguments about which come first are basically pointless.  Quibbling only distracts us from the desired harmony in our work in which hands, head and heart act together.

     Great thinkers (St. Thomas and St. Augustine) argued from stances which showed the Trinity at work in the process of learning by the human being.  In some way, this basic insight taken from Faith seeking understanding is what is done here but with a difference.  Here one argues from an activist agenda, a position of political and technological activism, of public participation and interaction with other citizens, of humans' and other creatures' (plants and animals) needs in the environmental spheres and the work we have done to produce crafts, arts, and technological innovation.  From the record of activists one discovers the interface of Earth and heaven, of God's image within us and our response in humble action.  It is our participation in the Trinity in action from within the harmony of our bodily functions.

     Prayer:  Lord, show me that my very integrity depends on the harmony I create, I restore, and I promote to the rest of the world.  My harmonious activity shows your presence within and that You are the true source of my enthusiasm.  Keep me enthusiastic both for my well being and so that I can be a model to others. 





A night drive through Crab Orchard, KY
*photo credit)

December 4, 2008       Automobile Accidents

     Don't say the accident will never happen to you.  We travel too much and we can get distracted, or at least the distracted cell-phone user in the next vehicle can cause the unexpected to happen.  Right now ensure that you have a flashlight, flares and up-to-date insurance papers in the car that you are driving.  In case of that accident remember the following: 

    * Stay calm.  Determine if anyone has been injured and requires immediate medical attention.  If needed, call the emergency number for an ambulance and call the police.

     * Reduce the possibility of further damage or injuries.  Turn on the hazard lights and, if possible, move everyone away from traffic lanes. However, don't move seriously injured persons

     * Move cars, if operational, out of the traffic flow after marking the road to show the cars' original position.  Route traffic around unmoved vehicles.  Use flares or have someone signal with a flashlight or cloth.

    * Exchange basic information with anyone else involved in the accident, namely, name, address, phone, registration numbers and license plate numbers, as well as name and address of insurance companies or agents.

     * Try to get names and phone numbers of witnesses for later insurance settlement.

     *  Avoid discussing the accident particulars, or admitting fault or answering questions about what happened.  Save that for the police and insurance agent. 

     *  While awaiting the police, assist the injured and then take down accident notes about weather and road conditions, and anything out of the ordinary about other cars and drivers.  Include street names, mile marker readings, traffic signals and directions of the cars involved.

     * When the police arrive, cooperate fully.  Try to obtain a copy of the official accident report or the file or item number for your insurance company.

     * As soon as possible, contact and report the accident to your insurance company.  The agent will give instructions on filing a claim.  If you later receive calls or letters from others in the accident, forward them to your agent.  Also keep the agent informed of any new developments, added damage to your car, or new medical expenses related to the accident.

     * Amid it all, stay calm and patient.  Accidents happen.

Prayer:  Lord, protect us on our busy road of life. 






A transplanted native bamboo plant takes root and grows upward
*photo credit)

December 5, 2008       Hobbies, Crafts and Arts

     Each year near the feast of St. Nicholas (tomorrow) we are reminded that craft products made by the giver are ideal Christmas gifts.  However, there are still more reasons to engage in a hobby, craft, or art.  Productive leisure occupations should spring from the deeper reaches of the psyche and our creative urges.  In his retirement years my father carved extensively, everything from statues to bookends.  However, those who go beyond hobbies and practice crafting for a living as professionals have a more serious commitment and harbor immense pride and enjoyment in their work. 

     I have regarded both writing and gardening as fitting into these crafting/arts categories.  These two practices yield produce that can be seen and shared with others, and something that both the producer and the receiver can enjoy.  All who are artists and crafters anticipate making certain products that will be available in some public manner.  They take pride in expressing the fruits of their skill or expertise quite well.  They may devote considerable extra time and resources to advertising or widely publicizing their products, or they may feel satisfied to share them with a few choice relatives and friends.  Artistic expression gives satisfaction whether it is sophisticated or primitive in character. 

     By a whim or instant impulse some people launch into a hobby or crafting venture and do not persist.  They soon discover that it takes time and patience to make something presentable.  They find out that the craft selection ought to be undertaken after deliberate consideration and not impulsively.  A friend and well recognized professional artist, John Freda, started as an expatriate in Italy with very simple art materials because he could not afford expensive ones.  He advises that, if you are creative, make a small investment in basic materials and produce something with all your heart.  If you are moved to continue, then invest more.  Excelling may require artistic courses and books on the subject but, more so, it requires patient endurance.

     Consider selecting a hobby or craft that makes use of locally available material whether products from native trees, local pottery clay, or wool from one's sheep; consider using professional resources close at hand -- including the expertise of those who will assist in launching the practice.   For making pine cone wreaths, one needs such products as heavy cardboard, adhesive, shellac, tools (shears, pruners, pliers), heavy string,  evergreen boughs, magnolia leaves, osage oranges, cones, nuts, milk weed pods, fox grape or kudzu vines, or seed heads such as okra or thistle or other local materials.  As a budding crafter you may produce some ornaments this year and more skillful ones for next year.  Think about ways to improve and be willing to ask advice from someone more advanced in the craft or art.  Take courage, for with time and effort you can improve.

     Prayer:  Teach us, Lord, to be creative in new ways or to redouble our efforts in existing arts, hobbies and crafts.



Home-made notebooks, gifts made with love for family and friends by Katie Kalisz
*photo credit)

December 6, 2008

     The "worst Christmas ever" happened in our family nearly thirty years ago when my five children  and I were preparing for Christmas without a father.  They anticipated a Christmas not too different from their other Christmases, but for a single parent, a lot of additional responsibilities had been dumped on my head.  Always the "Supermom," I rose to the occasion as best I could.

     It wasn't enough, I discovered, as I observed the Christmas morning disappointment on my children's faces as gift after gift failed to impress or warm the hearts of even the seven year olds.  The brave "Supermom" fell apart and broke into tears of disappointment and exhaustion -- something the children had never witnessed.  Their shock and concern over the scene was obvious, and they understood that even though it was Christmas morning, we had to talk.

     The children learned that even "Supermom" couldn't do it all, and they had to take more responsibility and help out more. "Supermom" learned to let go, delegate more, and focus more on the meaning of the event.  As the Grinch paraphrased, "Maybe Christmas doesn't come from a store. Maybe it means just a little bit more."   That was the day we decided that Christmas needed to be about love and not about presents.  We made a plan and decided that beginning immediately, Christmas would be about giving of ourselves, of helping, and of love.  Starting at dinner, they all pitched in to lessen the load on Mom-no-longer-Super!  Together we laughed and talked and sang as we prepared dinner, and had a wonderful rest of the day.

     Their plan:  from now on, Christmas gifts had to be made by each giver, gifts of time, talent and love.  They also had to be wrapped without traditional wrapping paper: comics, fabric, brown grocery bags, wallpaper, etc.  The next year we started with the nativity set on display in early December.  Everyone started early, making gifts for each family member.  A gift of one twin was a doll dressed exactly like her twin sister.  Another was a cake in the shape of a car for an older brother.  And so it went.  There were projects with glue and fabric and poetry and music and flour and sugar, but each person made something for each family member with so much love that it spilled out all year.  Their creativity overflowed to include wonderful wrappings.  On Christmas Eve we read together the book, "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever" before Mass, ending with knowledge that we had the Best Christmas Ever. 

     Now nearly 30 years later, the custom continues and has evolved. The family has grown to include spouses and many grandchildren, but we have our celebration mostly intact.  Our nativity set is the center of the celebration.  Gifts to each other are often performances and gifts of other talents: music, art, poetry, websites, dance, puppet shows, carpentry, memory books, etc.  But each person gives TIME, TALENT and LOVE....

Phyllis Fitzgerald, Newsletter from the Passionist Earth & Spirit Center, Louisville, KY   November, 2008.


Coralberry, a winter treat for many species of birds
*photo credit)

December 7, 2008         Preparing the Way                                                      

    Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.

                                    (Mark 1:3)

     We are preparing the way when we search our interior disposition and when we seek to bring balance and order to a fearful disturbed world.  We may have relatives overseas in harms way;  we know there is no easy solution to conflicts;  we experience financial conflicts and know of folks who find it hard this winter to pay for heating bills.  We hear a second refrain: make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God! (Isaiah 40:3).  Our world of conflict has become a wasteland, and by  working with the Lord we can make a difference;  we can straighten crooked ways through bringing about justice for all.

     John the Baptist unexpectedly appears in the desert or the wasteland to preach reform, which is needed in preparation for the advent of the Messiah.  John is dressed in camel's hair and eats wild honey and grasshoppers, goes into a wild area, which could hardly support anyone.  John speaks plainly and his intention is to get people ready for the coming of Christ.  He harkens back to Elijah the prophet, a simple person with a mission and with evangelistic fervor.  And John's simplicity is soon observed. 

     Through our baptism we are called to bring the Good News to others.  Scripture says that the true prophet is one who:

    * is anointed by God for renewal of a people;

    * is chosen from the ranks of ordinary people;

    * lives simply in contrast to neighbors;

    * witnesses often alone according to a unique personality;

    * is willing to perform a public act;

    * seeks to elicit a profound renewal from the audience;

    * encounters difficulties in being heard; and

    * accepts the fact that he or she is not being entirely successful. 

     Saint Peter (2 Peter 3:8-14) tells us to be patient and to be people who await new heavens and a new earth;  we are to do more than be just mere spectators; we are to hasten the coming of the day of God.  Thus we enter as participants in bringing about the end of the times;  like John we are to prepare the way of the Lord.  We have an urgent mission, saving our threatened Earth and the inhabitants who dwell thereon.  We do this by exposing the negative activities that harm our world and by affirming those activities that bring about better conservation, renewable resources, a just world system.  As a prophetic people we affirm that religion is not a private matter but rather a public social enterprise involving our whole being. Through collective encouragement we are to do our part in healing our wounded Earth.

     Prayer:  Lord, if we desire peace we must help establish justice through prophetic witnessing.  Help us to enter into the process of saving our fragile and wounded world. 





A snowy day near Cave Run Lake, KY
*photo credit)

December 8, 2008    Eve and Mary:  Choices

      He went in and said to her, "Rejoice, so highly favored!

 The Lord is with you."  (Luke 1:28)

     The drama of salvation included two women who appear prominently in our Sacred Tradition and Scriptures -- and both act freely according to our human ability to make choices.  Eve, the mother of the living, and Mary, the bearer of God, make monumental choices.  One says "no" to God and the other "yes."

     Today we celebrate the gift of God to Mary ---- a gift that makes the first moment of life so precious to us as Christians -- and even more so for Mary.  On Friday we celebrate another Marian  feast especially related to our Western Hemisphere, Our Lady of Guadalupe.  Juan Diego, the poor Mexican who, in 1531 received the apparition of Mary, was the simple agent who was to pass on a message to the entire Church.  Mary acts as agent just as in her motherhood she does something many of us are unable to do and that is physically bear the savior.  However, all of us through baptism share some things with Mary:  we are immaculately conceived into the Church itself; we can bring Christ to others.

     St. Paul tell us that from the beginning we were all conceived in God's plan and we are people who can freely choose.  God's gift is freely given and invites us to acknowledge the gift of choice in constant gratitude.  The drama of the Eden event is retold today with the garden of abundance, a tree of good and evil, and still our first parents say a definitive "no" to God's intentions for us. We inherit that tendency to say no on many occasions.

     Mary is conceived immaculately pure and has God's full favor from the beginning of time.  Her soul is transparent, something a person can look into and find the crystal of God's light shining out.  We honor Mary for her gifts freely given and freely received.  We strive in our spiritual journey to see that our souls need the transparency to allow God to be seen within us.  Mary as a young maiden has a unique moment in history to be instrumental in the coming of the Messiah.  God gives her a special favor and she freely responds with a "yes" in contrast to the definitive "no" of our first parents.  Mary is free, responds freely but is not trouble free.  She is destined to be the mother of sorrows, for a sword is to pierce her heart.  She allows her son to follow his calling, for he leaves home, opens his life of mission, and endures suffering and death.  And Mary stands beneath Calvary's cross.

     Through baptism we are called to reflect upon God's gift and to imitate the purity of Mary.  Just as Mary makes haste to assist her cousin Elizabeth, so we rediscover how to say "yes" to God in our own lives here and now.  Just as Mary was totally open and committed through her "yes", so we seek to say "yes" in our lives.

     Prayer:  Teach us Lord, to know the momentous gift of choice and help strengthen our will to do right.





Snapshots along the roadway, Franklin Co., KY
Snapshots along the roadway, Franklin Co., KY
*photo credit)

December 9, 2008   Some Hard Questions in Hard Times

      As we move through the holiday season and many of our citizens find it difficult to change their buying habits as Christmas comes closer, we ought to ask some hard questions about the economic situation in which we find our nation and world is in:

     1. Why is it that such an unregulated economic system allows the most lucrative players to have their profits guaranteed and privatized and their risks socialized?  Why must the lower economic classes accept these risks through federal handouts?  If risks are socialized, should not the profits be as well?  Are not the commons such that the benefits should be equally given to all, not just to the privileged few?

     2. Has the lack of regulation been due to the power of the established wealthy to dictate to legislators laws that work to their own advantage?  Will such a continuation of privileged practices erode the democracy that we all defend?

     3. Is it right that CEOs of the financial systems (and others as well) take any amount of salary that their greed dictates and the corporate system in which they operate allows?  Or are there limits to salaries of the privileged few when people hurt so much for lack of essentials in the world in which we live?

     4. Aren't the world's resources including financial resources part of a commons that belongs to all and especially the most vulnerable?  Under what law of nature or of an interpreted "divine right of the moneyed" should this unjust system of inequality continue to exist -- and ought we oppose it as God-fearing people?

     5. Is there not a better economic system where gambling with the life savings of people is not part of the legal game?  The question was seriously asked in a Time (October 13, 2008) article about the $700 billion autumn American bailout package -- "What is the difference between Wall Street and a casino?"  Time's answer is that on Wall Street the dealers get paid a lot more and are allowed to bet alongside of the customers.  Isn't it time to stop this gambling with the wealth of our nation as well as our savings?

     6.  Is it right to give money as handouts to citizens in order to stimulate the economy when what is handed out is simply an added indebtedness for a future generation of people?  Should an unthinking expenditure of future funds give the wrong message that it is okay to borrow and borrow beyond the means and time when the borrower will be alive to bear the repayment responsibility?

     7.  Is this American and perhaps global capitalistic system not a perfect example of the "Emperor with no clothes?  Where will this end?  Utter bankruptcy?

     Prayer:  Lord teach us to be honest with what we have and not to use what should belong to others.





Enjoying the beauty of dim afternoon sun on a winter's day walk
*photo credit)


December 10, 2008        Winter Nature Walk

    Winter in temperate zones can be problematic, if one wishes to hike in summer clothes.  However, winter hiking with a few extra layers and comfortable shoes can be fun.  Once engaged, we are generally happy we made the decision.  Winter has no worrisome insects; the air is crisp; the sights are more visible; the terrain is easier to traverse; those fearful of snakes are relieved.

    Exercise and nature learning.  Nature walks have advantages during any one season -- and that includes winter.  One gets a chance for excellent exercise, which is not too hard on the body.  The chance to get some full-spectrum sunlight plus fresh air is always good and affords us some Vitamin D as well.  We are able to break out of ourselves, and to see a little of the rest of the world.  Each nature walk is the time to activate our senses.  We become more alert to smells, sights, tastes, sounds, and feelings in being closer to nature.  Winter is when we observe topography and especially rock formations in greater detail; the shapes of trees along with quality of bark and trunk and relationship to neighboring trees are more evident without foliage;  the sounds carry more distinctly whether of scampering varmints or the cawing of crows or the honking of geese.  Winter's running streams give a particularly enchanting sound.

     Some like to think ahead before the walk, and maybe winter is a perfect time for doing so.  In the proper season, nature-lovers may find it worthwhile to carry books on trees, birds, insects, mammals, rocks, or flowers and mushrooms.  Without overburdening ourselves, let's take what is most needed, whether an extra windbreaker or socks, water or juice, a few snacks to tide us through, and other items depending on our personal needs.  Some like to carry extras in a knapsack, a fanny pack or a jacket with ample pockets.  As always attempt to travel light.

     Be open to new possibilities.  Don't limit your space and time too much.  Some of my best youthful memories are of hikes we took on Sunday afternoons across the countryside.  Some like to follow the same routes, but for the majority, hiking a little off the beaten path makes for a chance to see the unexpected.  Record those unexpected events and sights in writing soon after returning.

Companions and fellow travellers may make or break a hike.  Some hikers prefer to travel alone and be their own boss.  Others like companionship that adds spice to what is experienced.  That companionship may be naturalists (having acknowledged or regarded expertise), those with about equal knowledge, or those like grandkids who may be eager learners but know less than you the master hiker.  They may be people just wanting someone to take them for a hike.  Added company may help determine the distance, time, mode of transport, and route of the hike -- and the hike itself.  

    Prayer:  Lord, teach us to walk gently through the woods to show our respect for nature.  Help us leave no scars, litter, deep footprints, graffiti, or campsite residue. But inspire us to hike.





A windbreak protecting an Iowa farmstead
*photo credit)

December 11, 2008         Windbreaks

     When traveling in South Dakota in 1955 we observed groves or lines of trees standing near the farm buildings and fences.  The trees were part of the conservation wind barrier work of the 1930s, planted to allay dust storm damage that had wrought such destruction during the Great Depression.  The Scotch pines my dad planted in our old orchard to the northwest of our house served as windbreaks, as did the mulberry, locusts and hackberry that voluntarily grew at the edges of the pine grove. 

     December is a good month to think of designing and establishing windbreaks for next spring.  Consider it either at your house, or that of people who complain about high winter fuel bills.  These could use some extra trees on the side(s) of the prevailing wind; in our part of the country, this is generally the north or west side.  It may be best either to talk with local experienced residents or the county extension agent or to audit your own wind conditions by checking at various times of the winter for wind direction and speed.

     Windbreaks are useful because they can create a cozy micro-climate for your homestead.  Dense windbreaks provide the greatest protection when they are two to five times broader than the height of the trees used for the break.  The drawback of such a dense break is that negative pressure builds downwind and can draw the air diverted by the barrier back toward the ground.  A windbreak pruned to allow air to flow through it would reduce this effect.  Another helpful and energy-saving idea is to place low-growing evergreens close to the foundation of the building.  By preventing wind from whipping around the foundation, evergreen shields can create an air pocket close to the base of the structure.  In the winter time, these air pockets can sometimes be as much as ten degrees warmer than the ambient outdoor temperature.  For decades, windbreaks have been popular among rural homesteads on the Great Plains to help lessen soil erosion and protect wind-sensitive plants.  Their time has come elsewhere.  Vegetative barriers for buildings provide a relatively warm environment at little cost. 

     The ideal barrier is planted perpendicular to the prevailing winds and is composed of parallel rows of evergreens (such as Canadian hemlock, spruce or white pines) with shorter trees at the outer perimeter, and taller trees nearest the buildings.  In our cedar-growing part of the country this evergreen is ideal for wind barriers.  However, white pines grow very well in our temperate climate and could be used for windbreaks as well as spruce and other evergreen species.  The final barrier should be forty to fifty feet upwind from a single-story building and include the layers of trees of desired density.  Initiate tree planting immediately after building or acquiring property, for wind barriers may take time to become fuel savers.

     Prayer:  Thank you Lord, for the gift of trees to help insulate our homes from the cold winter winds.





Abraham Lincoln New Salem
Scenes from Abraham Lincoln's New Salem
*photo by Mark Spencer)

December 12, 2008    Establishing a Global Village 

     Idealists can paint a picture of a global village as though already established if we just open our eyes and see.  Maybe a realist should not deny the ideal but caution that it has not yet been reached.  Pessimists may question whether such a village is even able to exist without breaking up into warring factions.

Survivalists are incorrect in saying that such villages are unnecessary since any well organized gathering can furnish its own food, housing and other essentials. 

     However, total self-sufficiency is a mirage that does not exist in an interconnected world in which some affect others to noticeable degrees.  Even isolated inhabitants of the Amazon may awaken to the destruction of the environment all around them.  Because total self-sufficiency is impossible, the ideal of a global village has merit even if it is not yet fully attained.  We need villages integrated into larger and larger aggregates of interlocking groups because we are brothers and sisters with basic needs and collectively we need to confront the greed of others.

     To attain that ideal of working together we must still strive to begin with our own backyard, the template of the healthier world.  In this sense the "small is beautiful people" are correct for the local has great though not total importance.  Our backyard should be an ideal sight to behold, not a storage place for junk.  We can enhance our dwelling space by organic gardens, composting bins for domestic waste materials.  properly-labeled recycling containers, fruit trees and edible landscape, solar or wind energy producing units, and a rainwater container.

     The term domestic covers a broader area than the immediate individual backyard, and could embrace the front yard, the neighborhood across the street, and immediately adjacent farm or neighborhood property.  While it is estimated that over half of Americans have yard space, others need to share or extend their "yard" to neighboring lands -- vacant lots, ornamental yards, unused portions of cemeteries, institutional land that could be rented or leased or donated for gardening, composting, recycling, energy generation, and water storage.  We do need to help each other at the local level.  Infants, seniors, the mentally and physically sick add to the betterment through their good will.  We need others.  As our awareness of environment grows, we find that no smaller cluster of villages can survive without involving more and more -- and eventually a planet.  Responsible protection and enhancement are a cooperative global enterprise.

     Prayer:  Lord give us the willingness to establish the harmonious global village in which we all strive to be part.  On this feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe we seek to help establish that harmony among our brothers and sisters in this hemisphere so that it can extend from here to people in the entire globe.  Let our concept of village ever expand until all are a global village.






A freshly prepared garden spot, waiting for spring
*photo credit)

December 13, 2008       Garden Economics 

     As harder times await us this coming year, we could do well to review the possibility of supplementing our income by growing higher quality garden produce.   Homegrown fruit, berries and all produce are fresh, can be chemical-free and are gathered with little effort; dried mint can be used as a beverage to replace expensive coffee (5 to 10% of average food purchases).  Various local and exotic greens, fresh herbs such as basil and parsley, and fresh tomatoes and cucumbers can be grown for a span of months when started early with protection and  protected late in the growing year as well.  Higher quality, commercial organic produce often costs more, and thus added savings can accrue to home-growers.

     Overall economic advantages include;  the land used does not have to be cultivated in grass or other ornamental cover; the materials produced are supplementary to an ordinary food budget and can lead to cuts in purchase of some items; shopping time is reduced; seasonal surpluses can be preserved to supplement non-seasonal food needs;  the garden can produce provisions for local needy folks; the land value of the property can be enhanced through productive gardening; there is less need for personal vacations and special recreation because  gardening involves exercise and reduces stressful conditions; and the potential for income from selling surplus produce at a farmer's market begins to emerge with time.

     If one calculates the number of hours spent gardening, the produce may not be regarded as paying for itself.  However, gardening serves as physical exercise and has other non-economic benefits.  Small-scale gardeners soon realize that they need to work many hours to make what others regard as an average income.  They know that many commercial gardens operate by piecework, and small-scale farming often is "subsidized" by volunteer labor.  Because so much time is required for quality gardening, we soon account it as a true labor of love and consider the joy of gardening as part of the value.  Economic savings become the dessert, not the substance of the gardening banquet.  A good rule of thumb is to consider half of gardening as work and half as pleasure; the work includes the bonus of economic savings and the recreation gives non-monetary pleasure -- or recreation time that could be spent in expensive pursuits such as the casino or movies.

     Gardeners quickly learn that non-basic paraphernalia such as small carts and compost tumblers are costly and basically unneeded.  Money for seedlings can be saved by growing your own.  Other savings include using older and heavy-duty implements that can be acquired at yard sales, obtaining nitrogen from legume cover and urine, using flowers in place of biocides and other pest controls, saving non-hybrid seed from year to year, keeping economic as well as garden-produce records as well as time spent on operations, and keeping track of yields for future planning.

     Prayer:  Lord, allow us to see that gardening is a form of prayer that adds to the whole economy of salvation.





A brilliant rainbow, just after sunrise
*photo by Sally Ramsdell)

December 14, 2008       Rejoice Always

    I rejoice heartily in the Lord, in my God is the joy of my soul.             (Isaiah 61:10)

    Gaudete Sunday means rejoice, and this we must do, showing joy at all times through praying without ceasing (I Thessalonians 5:16-24).  We constantly give thanks for what God has given us and at the same time we beg for things not yet attained.  Rejoicing involves a number of aspects.  The first of these is the realization that the kingdom is already in process of coming and we are part of this; this awareness of ongoing advent is itself a grace or gift of God.  Seeing all of life as gift and that our responsibility flows from that gift turns us away from being ungrateful as though spoiled by good things.  Such gratitude does not allow us to be satisfied with the present world conditions but rather satisfied that we are called to overcome dissatisfaction.

     The second aspect of joy is that we see the need to confront the injustice of the world around us, but do not lose heart in undertaking such a confrontation.  We have the trust and confidence that God will give us the resources to undergo this confrontation.  The fullness of the kingdom has not yet been reached, but we are called to help overcome the difficulties encountered.  During Advent, we proclaim a time of jubilation, which includes the oppressed -- the homeless, sick, prisoners, those in hospices, the elderly, and the overlooked in any way.  Jesus, the liberator, is coming again.  He teaches us to acknowledge the existence of unjust conditions without hating the perpetrators or ignoring the victims.  Interior peace comes in liberation that includes no omission and no hatred.  God is with us in our efforts to assist the divine plan of establishing the kingdom. 

     In today's Gospel reading (John 1) we have a third aspect of joy beyond gifts given and service rendered by us as participants.  John the Baptist testifies to the light; we are also witnesses to the Light and in so doing we find our calling to be reason to rejoice.  We rejoice because we have been liberated from ourselves and can be of service to others in such a way that they are called to change, and we trust that they can do so.  This sense of freedom brings about an interior peace that can radiate out to others and fills us with enthusiasm; we are energized to continue in our efforts.  Enthusiasm means the God within or God's presence with us; it can be contagious, for if we are happy workers so will others be.  The result is an enthusiasm giving new life, allowing us to bubble over with exuberance but also to be calm enough to conserve our energy and afford to be models for others.

     Prayer:  Lord, make us the steady people who testify to your goodness, but being thankful always for gifts given.  In these hard times keep us from being dispirited by injustice all around and help us to be constantly enthusiastic in spreading the Good News to others, helping them be transformed into agents of joy.






A delicate pairing
*photo credit)

December 15, 2008    Lighten up: It's Divine Humor 

     In Advent we strive to rejoice and yet we are all too often saddened by the world filled with crises, terrorism, and many individual concerns and troubles.  It is often hard to manifest and retain a sense of humor in such trying times;  this is especially true when friends lose jobs, fall into debt and see their homes foreclosed.  How can we stay light-hearted without seeming to be forgetful of others in need?

     Humor can be the subject matter of a homily, but you have to be an accomplished humorist to pull it off, and many of us lack that talent.  Now, God has a sense of humor, or at least it appears that way in the course of the events of creation.  When the barns are full and all seems perfect, then something else happens to the self-satisfied.  If humor is a good, and all good comes from an all-good God, then we expect that God has a sense of humor, right? 

     I suspect that if any of us would write a script for the coming of the Messiah, we would change what actually occurred.  It seems good in timing that when the whole world is at peace and the Roman empire has a transportation system that would not be equaled again for 1,800 years, the Messiah would come.  Okay, so far.  But what about the place?  Not Rome, the seat of power, or one of the major cities, but the back country in a remote rebellious province of Galilee?  What about the promotion personnel and leading "advance person"?  How about a fancy dresser and good talker who could get along with all kinds of people?  No, the role of messenger falls to someone in camel's hair, who lives in a forbidding place, is uncertain of his place in the scheme of things, eats grasshoppers dipped in wild honey, and speaks of people of influence as a "brood of vipers."  Anyone who would prepare for the Messiah's coming in such a setting must be the product of divine humor.

     From the story that is transpiring we could note things in our own lives.  Maybe we should see the light side of life.  I can't do the task because I do not have a million dollars, or a golden voice, or an "in" with the right government leader.  Maybe God continues to work wonders in the most unusual ways.  Those of us who exert power will be put down, and those in low places raised up, as Mary says in the Magnificat.  That is part of the humor of God.  The empowering of little people is a sign that unexpected things are happening and will soon happen again.  It is not necessary that we expect the incompetent and the drifters to have the last word, but we must expect the unexpected, if that mysterious will of God continues to operate in our world.

     Prayer:  Lord teach us to lighten up and to see humor as good for the soul.  Help us take a second look at what are regarded as the serious things of life.  Today, the serious role of capitalism is being questioned -- and maybe that is a good thing to laugh at and thus change.  Help us to laugh when others think things are terribly serious -- and to do so with a kind heart.




An opened walnut found on the forest floor
*photo credit)

December 16, 2008     The True Meaning of Gifts

     I distinctly remember one of my very early Christmases when stationed in the Northeast as a newly ordained priest.  After the Midnight Mass I was invited by a local family for their gift opening event, which was for them a traditional holiday affair.  In the course of the evening I got a distinct feeling that members of this family were pretending to enjoy opening the many expensive gifts given to each other.  These gifts did not seem to be deeply appreciated by the young members even though the gifts were way beyond the price range I would have paid.  I seemed powerless to  reach out and touch their searching and lonely hearts.  I came away with a bit of sadness even though they had not neglected to give me a gift as well.  A lingering feeling persists:  gifts ought to symbolize an act of love, not the value of the materials in themselves.

     With harder times this Christmas many people are buying fewer  material things and engaging in some soul searching on how to teach their children and loved ones what the true meaning of Christmas is -- and what gifts of love mean.  Christmas is meant to celebrate the most spiritual act of self-giving the world has ever known. Through recent times the feast has been replaced by a grand show of materialism; this is the utter defiance of God's gift of Self through the substitution of material things -- electronic gimmicks, clothes, recreational equipment, and household wares.  This year the pattern of past giving could be different.  This is a perfect opportunity to tone down the material concerns of the past -- and to explain to youth that economic times call for something else.  Besides, the lessons are the best of Christian education.  How about gifts to others especially the needy, in the name of the loved one?  Also consider pooling names and giving just one within a given group.  See "Twelve Gifts in Hard Times" on December 6.

     Special attention is given this year to the youth of our nation.  Many of these have to experience the limits to giving.  Even Christmas gift trees in parishes are arranged as a location for expensive purchased gifts to be distributed to those who have less.  How about more essentials and less luxuries?  Still the goal should be to give fewer material things and more spiritual gifts such as prayers and services.  Address the charges of being stingy or uncooperative in a forthright manner.  Help youth to become proud of refraining from expensive gifts and to be willing to discuss these cut-backs with their friends. 

     Prayer:  Lord, show us that this year of harder times is a perfect opportunity to teach many about the true meaning of Christmas and about the importance of spiritual gifts.  We can join the poor Christ child in a special way and realize that we need to share with those more needy than we are.  Lord, teach us that to be sensitized to the poor is itself a valuable gift;  to respond as best we can makes this gift all the more precious.




Tiger Moth: Grammia species
*photo by Marge Para)

December 17, 2008      Enlightened Self-Interest, Really?

    Is not this the sort of fast that pleases me -- it is the Lord Yahweh who speaks -- to break unjust fetters and undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke, to share your bread with the hungry, and shelter the homeless poor, to clothe the one you see to be naked and not to turn from your own kin?  Then will your light shine like the dawn and your wound be quickly healed over.                             (Isaiah 58:6-8)

     A colleague once said he was a firm believer in enlightened self-interest, a term that is as near an oxymoron as any I knew then or know now.  I was speechless at the time, because I never expected the comment from someone in the public interest field.  Since then I have had utter contempt for this concept; it seems to be the motivation behind so much of what has gone wrong within the hyper-capitalist system that plagues this nation and world.   

     To be enlightened is to be aware of something through insight, but to say "enlightened self-interest" really implies that there is another alien or distant set of "unenlightened" self-interest that may be destructive and negative.  Our problem is not with enlightenment, but with turning self-interest into a virtue through enlightenment.  We find many tooting their own horn to emphasize the message or the messenger; too many horns are a racket.  Self-interest bankrupts social capital and weakens our democratic process.  Some argue that all activities are self-interested, and enlightenment is an attempt at be honest about an imperfect human condition affecting low and high rollers alike.   

     It is not enlightenment to choose self-interest over the public interest.  For those who do so, the pressure of self-interest closes like a noose, which strangles a fledgling public spirit.  The struggles of life to obtain the bare essentials of food, shelter, health and basic education overwhelm many and become a personal, family and community interest -- and are legitimate.  Self-interest soon proceeds to greed and involves the power that comes with controlling resources.  It stashes away the nest egg and excludes others in need.  A complete inner focus betrays a social dysfunction of the body politic, which invites service for others.  Self-interested people surrender to the temptation to serve themselves as mini-gods, to overlook others, and ultimately to  break down the social connections that bond us all in community.

     Enlightened self interest is a refutation of the public interest to which we are all called, if we are to retain our democracy and public spirit.  While some never abandon the self-interest of a spoiled infant, others mature into citizens who assist their fellow human beings. 

     Prayer:  We want to be of service but the most enlightened way is to use as models those who have been of public service to their neighbors.  Help us find and follow enlightened people who have others at heart, not their own self-interests.






Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) on a snowy December day
*photo credit)

December 18, 2008           Good Grief

     It is the commonly held perception that the Thanksgiving/Christmas/New Year "holiday season" should be the happiest time of the year.  For some, especially youth with no calamities in mind, this is perhaps true.  However, the holiday season can be a time of sadness for those who have experienced a death in the family, being away in another country, a divorce, a tour of military service or an imprisonment.  A surprising number of people will not be home for the traditional family feast days, and the closeness of family life will be sorely missed -- and the ones away and the left at home all suffer from a grief at holiday time.  Many churches, civic groups, military families groups and others have developed committees, which give special attention to the members of the community who have just lost or are separated from loved ones -- especially at this time.  Since the reasons for separation are complex, most practical suggestions are approximate at best, but may be helpful nonetheless:

   * Try to remember the missing person.  Don't try to forget for that will only exacerbate the grief;

   * Give yourself the gift of healing tears and encourage others to do the same;

   * Ask others for their help in time of your need and be sensitive to the needs of others who are grieving;

   * Keep traditions that bring you comfort and encourage others to do the same;

   * Visit special places, which bind you to the other;

   * Listen to your body, and take time to rest, refresh and renew;

   * Don't wait for other people to bring you happiness; and

   * Light a special candle in celebration of the love you still share.

     Final note:  Some call the explanation "good grief" an oxymoron, i.e., a figure of speech in which the opposite or contradictory ideas or terms are combined (e.g., thunderous silence).  But is it?  There is a time to laugh and a time to cry, and thus allowing time for grief can be something good.  To part company, and to do so with love and longing for reunion, is in keeping with the season, and this challenges misconceptions about grieving.  Don't suppress grief, but allow it to flow naturally for it is part of being human; don't tell another that his or her grief will be short-lived for they may not want it to be.

     Prayer: Lord, teach us to see the time for everything.  Jesus wept -- over the death of Lazarus.   So ought we to express our emotions at certain times.





Harvesting a Christmas tree, to be decorated with edible trim and used to
enhance wildlife habitat after the holidays
*photo credit)

December 19, 2008        Safe Decorations

     The holidays are meant to be a time of celebration.  However, every year we read or hear reports about some unfortunate case of a home fire or human injury caused by the decorations in this season.  Why should this occur, granting all the emphasis in recent years on the use of fire retardants and non-combustible materials?  We no longer light candles and place them on live Christmas trees or as crowns on the heads of youth, practices that our safety conscious twenty-first century would cringe at doing.  Using evergreen trees or boughs for decorations along with open fires and lighted candles has been an invitation to a disaster waiting to occur.  All too often those celebrating have their attention diverted to others and simply allow the danger to go undetected until too late.  But is lack of holiday safety only past history?  

     Fire hazards still exist.  Electric lights have not entirely replaced candles, which project an ambiance of traditions worth celebrating whether for dinner use or for centerpieces for wreaths and other decorations.  Some like the effects of candle glow or of scented burning candles.  Fires still burn in open fireplaces and these provide more than warmth, for all human beings are drawn to some degree to fire -- and we can still get burnt but never more so than during the holidays.  If such practices persist, do take extra precautions, especially if young children are around.

     Yes, Christmas is for kids.  As we age we enjoy watching others enjoy the glory of the holidays that take such a long time to come when aged three (one-third of a lifetime) or six or nine years.  However, the hyperactivity of the indoor festivities can allow youth to run about and even explore decorations.  So often, children are less supervised during festivities and so get into trouble more quickly than at other times.  Their supervisors are chatting; white berry mistletoe is tempting; beautiful red holly berries need touching and tasting -- and can prove poisonous and cause major discomfort if eaten.  The attractive red-leafed poinsettia is not a salad either.

     Paper or plastic streamers and flimsy ceiling hangings and outdoor lights are part of the seasonal decor, which could be the cause of a fire when one least expects.  Needless to say, the house interior should be a no smoking zone.  Omit those lit candles when combustible paper is hanging about.  Christmas tree ornaments are generally non-toxic today, but many folks have a tradition of rehanging older ornaments out of sentiment.  For some reason, a tree is a perfect enticement for a mobile infant, so take special precautions regarding both resident and visiting youthful explorers.  You may desire a lit yule log, but take precautions and place a screen in front of the fireplace, even though it unfortunately blocks off the direct radiation of the fire.

     Prayer:  Lord, help us celebrate without taking unnecessary risks during this most wonderful season of the year.   





A candle in the dark
*photo credit)

December 20, 2008        The Winter Solstice and Light

       The Lord shall be a light to you forever.  (Isaiah 60:20)

     The days are shortest now, and daylight is all the more precious.  Ancient observers noted the longest and shortest days with great accuracy.  Stonehenge and many other places contain rocks or other objects aligned to indicate the sun's position at the summer or winter solstice.  We marvel how ancient people had a deep awareness of seasonal changes and especially the solstices.  For Christians, we find festivities of former times have been "baptized," and we tend to celebrate feasts at those choice primitive-religion times as well.  Like the pagans of old we note the days growing longer and celebrate Christmas -- the birth of Christ.  Darkness, which brings goblins and spooks to imaginative youth and others, is not going to conquer us;  daylight will survive and grow in length again.  Still darkness has its redeeming elements: it is a time to concentrate and focus with far fewer distractions; a time to pray and turn one's mind to God; a time to rest and sleep unless we are nocturnal animals.  We value both daylight and darkness.

     The winter solstice has been marked by primitive and developed religions and spiritualities with certain fire rituals.  Light overcomes darkness.  Light (candles, new fires, torches, etc.) is associated in the biblical tradition with joy, goodness and peace.  The feasts of Hanukkah and Christmas enhanced these nature festivals with new and deeper meaning, thus the fire rituals and the seven candles of Hanukkah in the Jewish tradition, the twelve days of Christmas, the Advent wreath, and the lighting of trees.  The December celebration of Kwanzaa by African-Americans adds to the festive occasions involving lights.

     Light serves many functions: 

     Guidance -- Lights in lighthouses and on buoys serve as beacons.  Without light, whether natural or artificial, we stumble, for eyesight requires the gift of light.  The blind can compensate, but they cannot view stars, road conditions, sunrises or smiles.

     Warmth -- Light enters a greenhouse on a sunny winter day and the rays become trapped and produce heated space -- a greenhouse effect.  Storage materials release trapped solar energy at night.  

     Photosynthesis  -- Light catalyzes plant growth and ultimately produces food needed by animals.  Also, our physical and mental health require full spectrum sunlight, though too much sunshine can be dangerous.  Light triggers the production of vitamin D.

     Knowledge --  Light means insight, new knowledge, enlightenment, and intellectual growth.  We become points of light to others drowning in the sea of the darkness of ignorance.   

     Prayer:  Lord, You are the light of the world;  you ask us to guide, warm, enlighten and encourage others to grow as well.





The pure and simple elegance of the paperwhite, Narcissus tazetla
*photo credit)

December 21, 2008      Mary and Joseph

     Let the clouds rain down the Just One, and the earth bring forth a Savior. (Isaiah 45:8)

     Christmas is soon coming; it is a season to relax, but often there are stresses present -- some because of the circumstances that we or our loved ones are experiencing; some just preparing for the celebration.  Our faith and prayer help allay such concerns but they will not disappear, and it is better that we bear them with the Lord who is present.  Christmas concerns exist.

    Mary's concerns are real.  Something is happening with her body, something never imagined by men who can't experience it, or women who haven't experienced new life within.  The youthful virgin Mary is with child, and her spouse does not understand, the family will not understand, the culture will most likely condemn, and there is virtually no one to talk to about it except a distant cousin.  To obey God in this most holy way is beyond anything asked before, and it floods Mary's mind with the inner turmoil that comes with the reality of just living.  But the one within is mystery enough.  How will the birth occur?  Who will help?  Where is the money to supply the needed things?  What will the future bring? 

     Joseph's concerns are just as real.  We find Joseph, the just one, in great turmoil as well.  He is unable to comprehend one so beautiful and so pure as Mary, his one love, to be with child by another.   How could it be?  What is the explanation?  To put her away quietly is out of the question, though it is the temptation.  To expose her is unthinkable.  To explain this mystery by human reasoning is beyond human power, especially for a simple carpenter.  Only God knows!  And in the depth of turmoil that makes Joseph a just person, God speaks, for Word gives life.  Emmanuel is here.  Mary is not to be forsaken or desolate but she is to be his delight as she is God's delight.  But that mystery is only part of it.  Joseph has three hurdles at this time:  understanding the condition of Mary who is with child;  getting to the census, as required by law with a pregnant wife;  and finding a place suitable for the birth of a child.  Joseph and Mary bear their deep concerns with fortitude -- and so ought we.

     Today we have concerns that can be stressful, and yet we face the challenge as to how to deal with them.  Concerns seem to mount with our acceptance of responsibility, but we need not bear them alone;  we have the Holy Family on our side.  Our concerns extend to the entire world, a global enterprise embracing the concerns of people everywhere.  Mary and Joseph are totally open to God's will, and that relieves their stresses in profound ways.  We know that stress can burn us up within and cause paralysis; on the other hand our concerns, when part of a divine family affair, allow us to be confident that unforeseen solutions result -- when we have faith.

     Prayer:  Lord, open us to your will and mercy.  Like Mary and Joseph help us to bear Christ as Good News to the world.






Cranks Creek Survival Center, Harlan Co., KY
*photo credit)

December 22, 2008    Tough Times for the Really Needy 

     We all too often feel sorry for ourselves during harder financial times, but we still must ask once again, "Who is really hurting and forgotten right now?"  No matter how careful a concerned community is, some souls fall through the cracks.  In fact, affluence easily desensitizes us to who is really in need.  In a mobile society with smaller family units, lone dwellers or the friendless are often overlooked especially by those who are worried about recent financial downturns and weakening portfolios. 

     The needy come in many guises: some permanently in institutions, some temporarily in homeless shelters; some drift from day to day on the streets often hiding their desperate conditions through embarrassment.  In hard times the overlooked are out there, but it takes sensitivity and willingness to search out, find and assist them.  Let's not fail to look:

    * In apartments of the elderly and senior citizens' homes as well as hospitals;

    * Under bridges and in the haunts of thousands of street people and in the abandoned cars that they call home;

    * In the soup kitchens where we may help out on this holiday, or in the places where the needy would appreciate a kind gesture;

    * In boarding schools, reform institutions and foster homes.  While many make an effort to see that youth get some special holiday care, some of them may be forgotten;

    * Among immigrants and new arrivals to this country, especially those who have no church or community support system, and perhaps do not understand the community fellowship of Christmas;

    * With jobless and the poor who have had no celebrations because of lack of money this Christmas.  They may need far more than a single day handout;

    * In the ranks of the sick and handicapped who may be treated in a negligent manner by overworked caregivers.  They may need a visit, a smile, a trip to church or the store;

    * To those grieving the death of a loved one or who have experienced a fire, which destroyed their dwelling, or have had a young -- or old -- family member disappear; and

    * Among the distressed and mentally disturbed who are unable to show gratitude or say "thank you" for the visit, but deep inside these also appreciate acts of kindness.

     Prayer:  Lord, help us to acquire the fullness of the Christmas spirit; show us those in need so that we can help them especially during this holy season.





Frost formations on goldenrod
*photo credit)

December 23, 2008        Can We Pray Always?

     As we approach Christmas and New Year's, we ought to quiet down for a little bit.  We should wrap our prayer life as a loving present to God in thankfulness for all good things given.  Let us add a special prayer that we have a growing concern for others in our midst.  We find ourselves busy and yet we are called to pray always and to talk with the Lord as a nearby neighbor and companion on our road.  Can this be done in our super-active world?  Perhaps this season is the time to try praying.

     We can speak of the willingness to pray, but that means we have control of the situation.  We can speak of the gift of prayer and that we are powerless to fully implement that gift.  What the saints teach us is to be open to the gift and to seeing its fullness in our lives and that of others.  Our openness may allow the prayer to be short, spontaneous, and informal -- perhaps even conversational.  Formal prayer can be helpful at specific worship time and place:  we affirm our journey with others;  we emphasize the sacredness of time and place;  we do not multi-task on God.  Our communal prayer affirms the togetherness of the Godhead and our part in the family of God and makes us mindful that we are not alone in the struggle to find God.

     Praying always adds zest to life;  this form of informal togetherness means our communication with God as the principal party is ongoing.  We are able to reach beyond our immediate particular needs for health, courage, endurance, peace of soul, and forgiveness and open ourselves to more.  If we choose the topic of prayer, we are in control and think we can turn on or off the listening God as though we have a cell phone communication -- that is switched off for eating, sleeping and recreation.   Keeping the cell phone to God always on is the only way to "pray always."  Let us break informal silence or active noise with a simple "Thank you, Lord."   Our utterances are inspired by God and yet we are free agents who can speak thus and continue what we are doing.  

     The prayer of petition has a special place, especially at this time when we seem overwhelmed by materialistic allurements.  We are often confronted with a host of needs -- our own and those of our friends and relatives.  Prayers of petition may be communal or private petitions, which open us to deeper levels of spiritual growth.  We need to pray in our own way, possibly by a particular prayer, said over and over.  We may even find that our way of praying changes with the seasons that we experience in our  spiritual journey of faith.  We may see the morning as different from the evening and the days of the week as varied as well.  Can praying be as natural as breathing?  

       Prayer: Lord, help us to be able to talk with you at all times and places. Show us all time and space to be sacred in some degree for you are here and now.  Some times and places emphasize the sacredness a little more.  Make this season one of those times of your own making and ours as well.





Snow squalls across a Lexington, KY reservoir
*photo credit)

December 24, 2008       The Word Proclaims Peace

    How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of those who bring glad tidings.
    (Isaiah 52:7)

     The Christmas Story is old, and yet ever new when retold by believing folks.  This story of salvation history constantly gives us hope that a better day is dawning, a day when peace will come to our troubled world.  We have experienced war and conflict all too long and forget that peace is possible.  All the while we are moved to retell this story of word-becoming-flesh with freshness for it renews itself in the telling.  It's a story of an innocent and pure virgin who is surprised to find God asking something very special of her -- to bear a child who is the Savior.  She consents;  her husband-to-be is in consternation until he is asked to take Mary for his wife.  Then the Census decree demands that the couple travel with a soon-to-arrive babe over rocky roads to Bethlehem, a small place with little housing and mere caves, which served as stables.  Angels and poor shepherds are witnesses to the birth.  It's God's way of entering the human scene with all its uncertainty, bewilderment, turmoil and chaos.  And yet here is a spoken Word coming into an imperfect world to re-establish harmony through word and deed made one.  Are we now inspired by this event to make our words overflow and take on the flesh of living deeds?


       As an environmental visitor to Israel,

          I only saw Bethlehem once from an overlooking knoll,

          the city meant for peace and yet no peace; 

          I saw it from within a barbed wire enclosure,

          a camp used by English, Jordanian, Israeli troops.


       Here was a tranquil city seen from a military outpost;

          It made me wonder how war and peace can mingle

          and give some true meaning to a world called "home".

          How are we the powerless to save this wretched land?

          Speak, Bethlehem, speak!


     Christmas offers a word of meaning that is spoken in order to trigger a saving deed.  This utterance is in the form of a clear infant cry that breaks the silence of a waiting world.  To say "peace" with an emphatic voice no matter how humble the setting, triggers a catalytic effect upon a locked up and lifeless world.  During this precious season some prefer to think of toys, holly, jingle bells, and Santa Clauses;  however, the spiritually-driven yearn for peace, though it seems ever so remote behind the barbed wire of inertia and distant conflict.  Speak up for peace!

     Prayer:  Lord, help us to speak words of peace that are not hollow ones that we imprison in our old selves.  Help us to speak at this Christmas with a message of old that is truly renewed.  Please God, become one with us once again.  Give us the courage to help create a Holy City, a Hold Land, a Holy Earth.             






A walk on Christmas Day, 2007
*photo credit)

December 25, 2008       Divine Sensations

            From the low hills the shadows cast,

                Bethlehem, peace-loving site,

            A glow within a stable fast,

               faint at first, now eternal light.


            From the cold of first winter's air,

               Numbing chill, sharp with bite,

            Heaps of straw, a gentle touch where         

               God's warm breath fashions all aright.    


            From the quiet comes a baby's voice

              Out of the pitch black void of night,

            Soft music and then a trumpet sound;

              Tingle, jingle, utter delight.


            We strive to taste the Bread of life,

               Dough made ready to reunite,

            yet needs to bake in bitter strife,

               When God will make all things right.


            Scents strong and weak perfume the gloom,

               Give earthy fragrance to the plight,

            But somehow a red rose does bloom

               For the sweet Lord is born this night.


                     A blessed Christmas  -- AF





A house stands silent upon an Anderson Co., KY ridge
*photo credit)

December 26, 2008       Keep a Quieter House 

     In holiday season the parties and celebrations are louder than usual and we just might decide that the living or working space needs to be a little less noisy.  Fortunately a few suggestions may not be costly to implement in money or time and will help reduce stress and tension on the part of certain affected people:

    * Turn the volume down on the stereo, television, radio and the computer.  Use cell phones away from other residents;

    * Use foam pads under blenders, mixers, and all vibrating appliances and instruments;  insulating materials work well under dishwashers, clothes washers and dryers and around banging pipes;

    * Put rubber or other treads on stairs (they are also safer);

    * Oil squeaky doors and hinges;

    * Lay down carpeting to absorb noise, especially in second floors of structures that have little acoustical protection. Arrange drapes, heavy curtains, or cloth wall hangings when noise penetrates the indoors.  Upholstery and furniture covers and other fabrics add to the quieting effect;

    * Install sound-absorbing ceiling tile in kitchen and recreation areas as well as rooms where people are disturbed by noise.  Sound-proofing material is reasonably priced, but you may discover that empty paper egg cartons do an excellent job; 

    * Lower the volume on alarm clocks, door bells and other alerting devices;

    * Refrain from purchasing or acquiring noise-making toys for kids, for these can really disturb a household.  Some noisemakers cause permanent ear injury. If the noise is quite loud, register a complaint with the Consumer Product Safety Commission;

    * Obtain a noise meter and go from room to room in all living space areas.  Find out the decibel readings, which should be within the human safety range.  Mere noise tolerance is not the whole story, for residents can be seriously affected without complaining;

    * Learn to speak more loudly and/or slowly.  Often one or another person is hard of hearing, and so it is a good practice to have ears checked for hearing loss;  Operate power equipment only during normal waking hours, and slow down engine settings; and

   * Don't forget to remove your shoes when coming in late.

     Prayer:  Lord, we are told to listen attentively, but how can we if noise overwhelms us.  Help us know how to quiet things down.





Raccoon tracks, left behind in the snow
*photo credit)

December 27, 2008          Choose Life

     I call heaven and earth to witness against you today: I set before you death or life, blessing or curse.  Choose life, then, so that you and your descendants may live in the love of Yahweh your God.                                   (Deuteronomy 30:19)

     The feast of the Holy Innocents is traditionally celebrated on December 28th and commemorates infants slain by King Herod in an effort to kill Jesus;  the king put all males under the age of two in the Bethlehem environs to the sword in an effort to get rid of his possible competitor, Jesus.  However, these innocents are only part of an immense multitude who have often not had the opportunity to choose life in its fullness.   Holy innocents involve all who find it impossible or difficult to choose life: the unborn with a parent who does not wish to carry the fetus to term; African children with no medical assistance; those on death row or who are imprisoned as a result of being framed by others; residents of war-torn nations or areas of immense drought; endangered species threatened by air or other forms of pollution; and seniors and invalids who see no future. 

     Each of us ought to have a right to life opportunity and the chance to choose life in its fullness.  We ought to appreciate the value of life in an atmosphere of freedom.  That choice rests on the often unpopular or overlooked "right to life" principles:

     1. Life is affirmed as part of the creative act and especially voiced by believers who see Christ as way, truth and life.

     2. The web of life (Cardinal Bernardin) includes many strands that, when broken, cause the others to unravel.  To pick and choose one or other group and omit the others is not being "pro-life."

     3. Defending the right to life involves direct confrontation as well as enhancing the quality of life for all.   

     4. Respect for life is a delicate cultural matter and requires us to renounce the culture of death in all its forms.

     5. The responsibility to enhance life rests most on those closest to life, as is advocated by applying the Principle of Subsidiarity (June 16, 2007).  Others assist as best they can.

     6. The state defends the viability of life but must leave basic choices of rearing and education to parental determination.  No matter how awesome the responsibility, choices in an atmosphere of freedom must rest with the primary providers -- though the state has a role to play.

     Prayer:  Lord, teach us to choose life in all its forms and to assist others to do the same.  Help us to respect the fragile nature of life and to champion it against all who propose or champion the culture of death.






Stately old oak in winter
*photo credit)

December 28, 2008     The Holy Family Presentation

     Because my eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared for all the nations to see.  (Luke 2: 30-31)

     And who is this Jesus who is the saving one?  The early church asked this question and so do people in every age.  Part of the Luke and Matthew infancy narratives seeks to answer this.  Joseph Fitzmyer says that there is a historic nucleus to those parallel stories: the reign of Herod, the virgin Mary, Joseph being of the House of David, angelic announcements, Jesus as Son of David, the Holy Spirit, Joseph not being involved, the  name "Jesus," Savior, born after Mary and Joseph came together, the birth place of Jesus in Bethlehem, and the childhood in Nazareth. 

    What we use as the Holy Family Gospel passage in Year "B" is the story of the presentation of the child Jesus in the Temple.   It is an initial faith journey.  With due respect to their humble circumstance, Mary and Joseph offer in sacrifice a pair of turtledoves.  In this formal temple setting at the beginning of Jesus' life the elders speak.  Simeon is moved to make a formal proclamation:  Jesus is to be a light to enlighten the pagans and to be the glory of the people of Israel.   He adds some of the most significant words about Mary, the child's mother, And a sword will pierce your own soul too -- so that the secret thoughts of many may be laid bare.  Anna talks about the child as the deliverance of Jerusalem.  Both elders use spiritual language to present the one who is coming forth for all the people.  

     We are descendants of people of faith who believed in the future to such a degree that they bore and nurtured children and brought them forth and presented them to the world.  These elders presented a future that included small and great achievements along with the joys and sorrows of life itself.  We respect their hopes for the future, for through their deeds we find the courage and energy to carry on.  We have been presented to the world especially in our baptism; we carry on traditions by preparing for the future through the strength of families who formally present a new generation to the world.  Will they carry on?  The answer is hidden from the view of the presenters.

      We were presented by faithful people;  we must now do the same for a coming generation.  The HERE is the present condition of our world where all are hungry for spiritual values; the NOW is the times in which we live at the close of 2008.  We remember our past and those deceased loved ones; and we await 2009 and beyond in hope.  What greater promise than our love!

     Prayer:  Lord, we realize that in these difficult times, we are also to present Christ humbly to the world.  Help us to do this as family people seeing that we are better represented as related groups than as simply individuals.  Help us to make 2009 a family-centered one through more celebration, gatherings, and sharing of our lives with those nearer and dearer to us.  




A jumble of debris, collected near the Tyrone Rail Trail
*photo credit)

December 29, 2008         Rails-to-Trails

     Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) is a highly successful conservationist organization, which is finding ways to convert abandoned or unused railroad right-of-ways into hiking or biking trails.  The idea started small but now embraces over a thousand trails in the United States with a total trail mileage of about  10,000 miles and one and a half times that mileage in the project stage.  However, this effort only constitutes about one-fifth of the abandoned railroad mileage in this country alone.

     The heyday of railroads is over though some passenger trains are making a comeback.  Even though my parents could go to visit relatives in remote locations by rail in the early part of the twentieth century, that same feat by rail is almost impossible today.  The passenger and freight trains have given way to autos and trucks.  Since 1916, the 300,000 miles of railroad track have been reduced by half.  The total track mileage is still shrinking even with a ten percent rail passenger growth in 2008 and some conversion of long-distance diesel-guzzling truck traffic to energy-saving rail transportation.

     The rails-to-trails concept does not necessarily convert the track permanently to other uses, since a trail keeps the bridges, road cuts, etc. in place.  In fact, the conversion to trails is a way of preserving the corridors from other forms of development (buildings, fields, green space, streets, etc.), which would make it virtually impossible to reestablish a rail right-of-way without spending loads of money.  A trail could revert to a railroad in response to some future rapid transit demand, but it get excellent use because the hiking and biking lanes are surprisingly secluded, scenic and refreshing.

     Rails-to-trails (RTC) goals include initiating as many projects as possible, and even railroad lovers see this as something advantageous in the longer run.  The goal of more physical-exercise routes also includes a network of trails, which would span the United States from coast to coast.  The RTC says that one-third of the trail system already exists, while another one-third is under public ownership and the remainder under private control.  The total project is ambitious and will require considerable work.  A third goal is creation of a "railbank," which preserves the corridors intact for possible future uses.  No railroad has returned a trail to its former use, but it could be done.  Billions of dollars have been spent on our interstate highway system that does not allow hikers or bikers to use it.  Transportation money should serve people who wish to hike or bike from point A to point B.  A national trail system has arrived, and a key to this is abandoned rail corridors.  Resource conservation makes this a win-win situation -- more travel and less non-renewable energy use.  For information write to: RTC, Duke Ellington Building,  2121 Ward Ct., NW  Washington, DC  20037.

     Prayer: Lord help us to be mobile and to be resource conscious.






Holiday quilt barn square
*photo by Sally Ramsdell)

December 30, 2008    End-of-Year Reminders

    * Why go to a party, when you can watch (or listen) to the launching of the New Year in the comfort of home?

    * Make a list of the things worth celebrating in the past year, and cast it all in a positive light.

     * Balance the checkbooks and pay all the bills before December is over and 2009 has begun.

     * Acquire a daybook for the coming year and put your address in it in bold letters with a promise to compensate anyone who finds it, should it get lost.

     * Send an end-of-year donation to your favorite charity.

     * Whittle resolutions down to one or two good ones, which are also doable.

     * At least resolve to keep exercising during the cold weather and during the weekends in which you must travel.

     * List all the books you have read this year -- and how much  television you have skipped through reading.

     * Don't get caught next year without toilet paper.  Store two extra rolls in a place you won't forget.  Now do the same with the house and car keys and every other thing that can be forgotten.

     * Meat substitutes have become so tasty that some find it hard to tell veggie hamburgers and hot dogs from the real stuff.  Maybe this is a day to get some at the grocery store and test them out.

     * Assemble the catalogs for ordering garden seed and fruit trees for the coming year.  Just be prepared, for this January exercise will come sooner than you think.

     * Okay, send a New Year's greeting to those Christmas card senders you forgot, and wish them the best for the coming year.

     * Take an inventory of all the mail that was not answered, and at least shuffle the pile a little more.  Really answer a few and clean the desk top for the fresh start next year.

     * Make an end-of-year phone call to someone who lost a near and dear loved one during the past twelve months.

     * Finally, plan to set aside a little time to archive your materials so that they will not be a genuine puzzle in case you do not survive, mentally or physically, this coming year.

     Prayer:  Lord, help us to be able to do what we just said.





Sunset, Lake Superior (Michigan)
*photo credit)

December 31, 2008

                 A Gaelic Blessing

    May the blessing of light be on you,

        light without and light within,

    May the blessed sunlight shine on you

         and warm your heart till it glows

         like a great peat fire

      so that the stranger may come

         and warm himself by it,

      and also a friend.


    And may the light shine

          out of the two eyes of you,

       like a candle

         set in two windows of a house

         bidding the wanderer

       to come in out of the storm.


    And may the blessing of the rain be upon you,

         the soft sweet rain.

    May it fall on your spirit

      so that all the little flowers

         may spring up

         and shed their sweetness on the air.


    And may the blessing of the great rains

         be on you.

    May they beat upon your spirit

         and wash it fair and clean

       and leave there many a shining pool

       where the blue of heaven shines,

         and sometimes a star.


     And may the blessing of the earth

         be upon you,

       the great round earth,

     May you ever have a kindly greeting

       for those you pass

         as they are going on the roads.


     May the earth be soft under you

       when you rest upon it,

         tired at the end of the day,

     And may it rest easy over you

       when at last you lie out under it.

     May it rest so light over you

       that your soul may be off from under it

       quickly and up and off on its way to God.

                                           - Author Unknown


Copyright © 2008 Earth Healing, Inc.  All rights reserved.

Albert J. Fritsch, Director
Janet Powell, Developer
Mary Davis, Editor

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