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Saturday, March 3, 2012

Keeper of the Castle


Leed's Castle.

A beautiful, historic structure jutting straight up from the English countryside, reminding the traveler of a time when castles were an everyday sight.

Nearly 900 years ago, this beautiful castle was constructed. Many historical figures have waltzed their way through these grounds; the most famous would have to be a certain grotesquely obese monarch and his unfortunate harem.


That's right; the King everyone loves to hate, Henry the Eighth, found this delightful 500 acre site the perfect summer home, and converted it to such in honor of his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.

As a child whose youthful imagination was stoked by the coals of such masterpieces as "The Chronicles of Narnia," and the King Arthur fables, Leeds was a perfect castle.


This section of the castle was a more recent addition, but even this served to conjure up images of Knights and Maidens riding steeds out of the mists of Albion (the ancient Roman word for Britain).

Everything was so real. Everything was engraved upon my memory with a searing iron; I've been in Europe before, but these images stick out among the rest as what the Medieval world should be.

Looking at the castle, I couldn't help but remember the wonderful songs the sweet Psalmist of Israel wrote long before Leeds was even an idea in some architect's mind:

Lift up your heads, O gates,
And be lifted up, O ancient doors,
That the King of Glory may come in!



And no matter how glorious Henry thought he was, (or at least his grocer thought he was), it it comforting to think that there is a King whose glory lasts forever.


Inside the castle, we were greeted by actual round head armor from the 17th century! It was fascinating to think that this armor was probably used in the English Civil War. Makes me want to go pummel some puritans.


Another fascinating relic was this bathtub that Catherine of Aragon used. In keeping with the modest culture of the day, she would bathe with her robe on. How you get clean when covered with a robe is beyond me, but more power to her.

History is a wonderful thing; it becomes even more vibrant when you get to experience the ruins of time for yourself. I've stood in the Colosseum; setting my watch back a millennium or so, I could hear the roar of the gladiators as they fought their merciless fights.

I've stood in Ephesus, in front of that great library of the ancient world, and listened for the echoes of an excited church reading a letter from their spiritual mentor.

I've walked the streets of Tombstone, and have felt the bullets whiz by as two factions finally sought to rectify their differences.

But Leeds was different. In Leeds, I became a part of the history. I was a servant preparing the inordinate amount of food to feed a gross caricature of a monarch. I was the priest reciting mass in the chapel; I was among the congregation releasing our guilt.

Leeds was history flowing through my veins. I was immersed in a sweet, misty dream...

All dreams end. As we made our way further into the castle, a distinct change washed over the structure. Suddenly, gaudy paintings of black swans lined the halls. The color of the rooms switched from subtle stone to loud pastel.

We were in the 1930's.

In the early part of the Twentieth century, a socialite bought the castle, and preserved half of it in its original state, while the other half turned into her personal playground.

My attention span turned off at this point. As Early British history fascinates me, and I find it tasteful (my subjective view), the early 20th Century was gaudy and frivolousness (also my subjective opinion).


But I did admire her book collection.

History is nothing but change. Watching the transition from early 15th century to early 20th at Leeds drove this point home in a vivid manner. With so many changes in the world, I personally look for a solid foundation. And for that, I follow the tones of the Psalmist of Israel:

I love Thee, O Lord my strength,
The Lord is my rock and my fortress
and my deliverer; My God, my rock in
whom I take refuge.


A castle that does not change with the times. A word that withstands all undulating sentiments.


The fortress the world is looking for.

I'm sharing this with Faith Filled Fridays.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Day of Discovery

Our dog is a faithful dog.

She was once a seeing eye project; a project who just about missed muster on her exams. With this failure behind her, she came to live with us. Needless to say, the seeing eye's loss is our gain.

For over a decade, our gentle, lovable golden retriever has graced our company with her playful, if absent-minded, hi-jinks. We laugh at her eagerness to chase her tail; we smile at her willingness to please; we smirk at her half-hearted attempts to chase the ubiquitous deer off our property.

But what I appreciate most about our Halo, for that is her name, is her sense of discovery. This commitment to exploration of the surrounding world is not unique to her; every dog worth its salt should share an ever curious nose.

But watching my dog sniff out new areas with all the eagerness and wide-eyed wonder of Marco Polo is truly special. So I try to maximize her exposure to unknown regions to explore.


And she is just as eager to explore as anyone has ever been.

I took her to Turkey Point recently: a secluded, natural area on the banks of the Delaware Bayshore. Its wonder has never failed to capture my imagination; and I was curious to see how Halo would respond to the new surroundings.





First on discovery's unlimited menu: moss. Sphagnum moss: a dense carpet of vibrant color in an otherwise gray winter landscape. Also known as peat moss, this non vascular organism has had a variety of uses over time, including use as a fertilizer or a diaper for Native American children.

Moving on...

Halo's found a fern. Many types of ferns decorate our local woodlands. Whether cinnamon or fiddle-head, these fascinating plants serve as a beautiful under-story accent.


Ferns thrive in moist climates, which explains why in the forests of Britain, I found ferns the size of my head, (bigger than you think). But anyway, good job Halo, your nose has not let you down so far. See if it can find you something in animal kingdom...


Ah, my canid friend has found the remnants from another canid friend, probably a coyote. This wily creature has made his abode in a berm surrounding a nearby pond. Halo knows that this is the most interesting find so far; in this very hole, one of her distant relatives has set up shop, and has done quite well, if the demise of the deer population is any sign.


It's wonderful to watch new horizons of knowledge open up for people (and dogs.) It must be such a joy to be an educator, to sense the smiles form on virgin minds when a new concept is grasped. I see it all the time when I educate others on nature, and it has built the most rewarding type of job imaginable: sharing knowledge with others. It brings to mind the quote which has become a maxim: "If you have knowledge, let others light their candles by it." Not only a maxim, a God-given purpose to define our lives by.

But perhaps the most important discovery of all came toward the end of our walk; discoveries are endless. We found that out on the brisk February afternoon we walked through the woodlands of Turkey Point; up ahead was only one trail left to explore. Halo was fearlessly leading the charge when the woods suddenly opened up to a picturesque vista overlooking the marshes of the Delaware bayshore. We looked on as Black Ducks winged by in their usual brisk hurry. We watched the Great Blue Heron abscond with a cacophony of grunts and squawks accompanying.

But mostly, we watched the horizon, knowing the horizon of discovery to be loaded with possibilities.

Onward, Halo. The discoveries of God's creation are endless.

And we don't want to miss a single one.


---

I am sharing this on Hear it on Sunday, Use it on Monday.

Friday, February 10, 2012

An Interview with Mr. D.

The heavenly aura filled the room, ebbing and flowing like some half forgotten body of water in man's memory. The lights were very bright, but this did not seem to bother the girl at the desk. No, it appeared as if nothing would perturb her. In fact, a fall from Grace could take place right before her eyes and still not one stroke of her filing would be amiss. She sat there, cool and tranquil, chewing her gum.


I, on the other hand, sat sweaty palm in sweaty palm, staring at the ground. Too scared to move, too scared to speak.

"Excuse me Gloria?," I said, summoning all the courage I could muster. "Could you hurry him up? I've got things to do, and I'm not used to the time zone shift yet. Jet lag is still hanging on."

The secretary looked up at me with the speed of a cow during milking, and said in a most unearthly nasal voice, "Why don't you start walking, by the time you get there, he should be ready."

I agreed.

"When he's ready for you, his door will turn from red to green."

"Like the signs on a airplane bathroom" I offered to lighten the mood. The only light was a lightning bolt and low rumbles of thunder. My nervous chuckles were responded to with demeaning chuckles behind the receptionist's desk.

To interrupt the awkward moment, two enormous gates opened their masses toward us, reavealing a grand stairway.

"Is this the...uh..?" I inquired, not being able to say "Stairway to Heaven". Two apathetic nods were the only reply I recieved.

I started up the steps, and simeltaneously began to think. And judging by the size of the stairway, I had plenty of time to think.

How would I approach him? Cordially of course, but with determination. I had to be completely frank in all my motions. Surely he would respond to this. After all, he was the greatest character builder in the 19th Century, perhaps all of history. If I was honest and frank and to the point, this was sure to gain me a more favorable recpetion.

To be sure, honesty would be a big part of my succsess. He knew the difference between a truth and a lie. As simple as that may seem, he has it down to an art. There would be no buffaloing this guy.

And number one on my list of things to avoid: autographs! This would screw up everything royally. It would show me in an insincere light, which would ruin the whole interview. This mission is too important for that. No autographs. Ever.

"Man, this is taking an eternity!" I bemoaned. At that instant, the stair started to move. "Thanks" I offered the entity in charge of the stairs. I wonder what Led Zeppelin would think of an escalator in heaven.

The doors to his office were huge. I stood in amzement and awe at the beautiful engravings. Soon, I was to enter these doors. Was I prepared? What if I goofed up? Would I get a second.....?

My thoughts were interrupted by the silent creaking of the doors gliding effortessly apart, revealing something beyond all imagination. The room was an exact replica of his office on earth, only ten times more grand than anything earth could ever offer. I stood in awe of its beauty, in spite of the fact that my visibility was limited.

Even though it was hard to see, I saw his figure at the desk. Before I knew it, I was greeted by a hand. Not a particularily welcoming hand, but one that assured me I would be honored here.

"I thank you for recieveing me sir, you're very kind." I criticized every word I said, just waiting to mess up.

"What can I do for you" the kindly yet firm voice intoned.

Do for me? Do for me? What haven't you done for me, Mr. Dickens. Here I am, here civilization is, 200 years after your first earthly cry, and we are not same. We are moved by your characters, figments of your imagination that have taken the world by storm.

Do for me? Why, I would have never survived those boring, monotonous hours between college classes without David Copperfield. Without Bleak House, how different those twilight hours in the late summer would have seemed. Why, in fact Great Expectations and a Tale of Two Cities are perhaps the two greatest examples of sacrifice next to the Gospels themselves...

You, Mr. Dickens have done so much for us, a universe without you scarcely bears thinking about.

But these thoughts never materialized in the factory bewteen my brain and my mouth. They just sat there in backstock, waiting....

He looked at me with a silent tolerance, waiting for me to speak.

"Can I have your autograph? Sir?" I whined for lack of words.

More silence.




----

Happy 200th Birthday, Mr. Dickens! May your works live on well past 200 years!

I am sharing this with Brag on God Fridays.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Hallowed Walls

The chill of a Canterbury Evening is a chill like no other. It really blows my mind, but this is the same chill Thomas Becket must have felt in December 1170, before he met with some knights with a different sense of reverence than he had.

"I'm late for Evensong," I mutter, mad at myself that I can't find the entrance. Didn't the people in the twelfth century have any idea of signage. A simple "Ye Are Getting Hotter," would have been sufficient: but no, I'm left to wander among the cloisters on a moonlit Canterbury evening sans guidance.

I finally find my way into the Cathedral. Once there, I'm pleasantly greeted and directed by an usher to the place where evensong will be conducted.


Inside, I take my seat along with all the other participants. We sit simply and contentedly, listening to the bells ring. I don't know how old the bells are, but with each gong, I feel as if their triumphant heraldings have echoed through the hollows of time.

The bells fall silent; conversations die away among the whispers of the cathedral, and the boy's choir enters.

In the states, I've heard the Philadelphia's boy choir, and they are very good. But the ancient tradition that these boys take part in adds a deeply meditative quality to their high pitched strains. I wonder if these boys appreciate the sacred ritual they're allowed to participate in.

All eyes focus on the choir as they begin to sing. With Psalm book in hand, I think back to the young Israeli King who originally penned these words. I wonder if his spirit is with us now, approving of how his words have survived the ages, to once again be sung by those expressing their love to God.

It was Thanksgiving back in the U.S, so the strange irony that came when the minister approached the pulpit and read from Revelation 16, where 100 pound hailstones fall on people, did not pass me by. I could imagine the joyful hymns and Psalms of praise back home contrasting with this bleak prophecy, and suppressed a sick snicker.

The service broke.

The seats were vacated.

The boys choir made their way to the vestry once again; another days work done.

But I stay behind to ponder a little. I think about all the Kings, Queens and other various rulers who have graced this marvelous hall.

How many souls of historical import have mingled within these beautiful stones.

How lucky I am to be adding my footprints to such a distinguished list of shadows.

Once outside, the wind grows bitterer still, and my coat proves too thin for the brisk, English air. But as I walk away, I witness the moon rise over that mammoth structure.


And the memories of young voices mingling with ancient stone is enough to get me home warm enough.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

One Wing Toward Heaven, One Wing Toward Earth

I stand facing the seemingly endless stage in front of me. I am a simple spectator, wrought with tense expectation. The show promises to be a good one. I should know. I've seen it here before.

My anticipations fluctuate with every breath of air that brushes the tawny reeds. I stand still, breathlessly expecting the grand overture to begin. The next moment I'm in la-la land again, thinking about everything but the spectacle I came to be privy to.

The wait is forever. Not that it seems like forever; it is forever. I pace the empty auditorium, only to find it less vacant than I originally suspected. There's a bluebird, sending his constant "cheer-up" message my way.

"No, I don't have to cheer up!" I shout. "Get off my shoulder, old man!"

That'll show him.

From the west wing comes a big flock of meadowlarks; golden drops of technicolor sunshine just waiting for Judy Garland to start singing. But even these bright, cheery creatures are no consolation for the absence of the transcendent.

The transcendent. It keeps me going. It reminds me every time I walk outside that I am engaging a natural world that showcases the collision of the physical and the spiritual.

There is something beyond this world. I feel it in my bones, every time I lift my binoculars heavenward to look at a bird in flight.

Every time I watch a butterfly wing past, stopping to nectar.

Every time I hear the songs of warblers, singing in the distance of my memory.

These are the moments I know that I know that we are not alone.

"RRRRR" That strangely familiar trill ripples down my spine, ripping me from my thoughts.

There are the players this expectant spectator has longed to see. Flying high above the marsh are sixteen large gray birds. Their wing beat so dreamlike, Debussy would turn green with envy.
Their call so ancient, so mysterious, it would awaken atavistic longings in the most modern soul.

They are Sandhill Cranes. Just sixteen birds; a mere pittance compared to the 500,000 that invade Nebraska every spring. But still, they are sufficient to send my imagination whirling into the distant past. One bird alone could send a spirit soaring.


I watch the majestic forms fly over my head, giving calls I hear more with my heart than with my ears. I watch as they sail out of sight, only to leave a longing for one more look.

"There must be more than this..." I mutter. The last glimpse of their imperial form confirms this notion.

I leave the theater, amazed, entranced, and wanting more.

"Cheer-up" intones the bluebird on my way out.

"All right" I concede. "Have it your way."

I'm sharing this post with Spiritual Sundays!

Photo by Jeff White

Friday, November 11, 2011

Veteran's Day

I wrote this some years back about an experience that shook me visibly at a Veteran's Musuem. Though my writing style has altered and matured in the intervening years, the sentiment stays the same. No veteran should ever be forgotten.

That is a lofty exhortation; but if we try to make it happen, we will honor our ignored heroes greatly.



The warm texas sun glistened off the beautiful statue. I had never seen anything like it. It was mammoth, made out of bronze, I believe, and fitting in its simplicity. The soldiers raising the flag at Iwo Jima is a powerful sight in itself, but to see it so huge was a truly fitting tribute to those marines who gave everything they had so that we could have everything we want. Sound trite? These statements get bandied about a good deal, but they carry extreme importance. It's close to impossible to justly capture what these people gave in service of their country.

We were in South Texas on that warm March day. Our vacation was coming to a close, and we could definetely call this trip a success. The birding had been good, the people friendly and the scenery gorgeous.

But we had some time to kill before our plane took off, so my Dad pulled this destination out of the thin blue air. I have no idea how he found this place in a state we had never been in before, but find it we did. It was a memorial to the Marines who served in the Pacific, with a special emphasis on Iwo Jima.

The special emphasis came in the form of a huge gold statue in the middle of a field. It was awe inspiring, and I wish I could remember more. I have photos, but they don't seem to do justice to this triumph of sculpture. There was a lot of information about the sculpter, but I can't recall any of it.

But I do recall the gift shop. There were mugs, DVDs, mouse-pads, T-Shirts, you name it, it was probably in there. It also doubled as a museum, where a large number of school-children were taking a tour. The noise grated on my nerves, so I moved to a corner where a large number of sweatshirts and hats would muffle the cacophany of giggles and screams.

In the corner of this room was a standard fold up chair. It was empty, but I turned around and heard the soft shuffle of wise feet heading toward it. I glanced behind me and saw a veteran of the USMC working his careful way to the chair.

Then I brokedown.

I had wanted to go up and laud him for his wonderful service to his country. I wanted to tell him all the wonderful things I had experienced because he believed that the "master race" needed to go no further. His actions allowed me to grow up in a christian home, not worrying if I was not living up to a standard. Without him, and others like him, I would not be able to see the fifty-two birds I had on this trip...

But I brokedown.

Just to see his frail old frame sitting there, lonely, desolate, forgotten by most of the people he worked to keep free, stirred something unmentionable in me. It grabbed my soul and tore down my defenses.

I had grand things to say to him, but I couldn't bring myself to say them.
I shook his hand, stared him directly in the eye, and thanked him. He may not have heard, because my voice was cracking with emotion. Then I went into the map room and felt the storm of emotions well up inside.

I spent the plane ride home reading, catergorizing my life birds, and thinking. Had I said enough to the man in red? Did I say too much? Did he think me crazy for the visible discomfort on my face as we talked? I don't know because my emotions got the better of me at the time.

Now six or seven months have gone by. Birds have migrated through, graduation has come and gone, girlfriends have come and gone, work, play, college, all these things have had their season in my life and have passed. But I silently hope that honored old man still sits in that museum/gift shop. I hope he sits there as an immutable reminder to us all, of the courage and sacrifice of all veterans.

Thank a Veteran any Day.

Thank God for what he's given us in them.

I'm sharing this with Brag On God Fridays.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Breath of God

For seven months of the year, we tend to take trees for granted. In Southern New Jersey particularly, the notion of driving by hundreds of these majestic creations is something taken as matter of fact .

But come October, the trees announce their presence in earnest; they herald their existence in exclamations too loud to miss. Like tragic heroes about to die, they make their presence known in a most dramatic fashion.


Lining our roadsides in large numbers, sassafras trees give a wide variety of colors come the fall. These trees paint with a palette that encompasses anything from light green to deep red.

Unlike the other wildlife I like to observe, trees sit still long enough to let me make my judgments about their aesthetic appeal. At times, they seem straight and narrow, as plain as any other tree.


But viewed from underneath, the leaves become a dazzling kaleidoscope of bewildering reds and greens.




This black gum shows the typical fall foliage of the species; various shades of red, usually leaning toward the darker shade of the spectrum.


And here's a close up view of black gum leaves:


But these creatures of beauty are not just pretty faces. This winged sumac shrub provides valuable seeds for migrating songbirds. This particular shrub shows the grapple between life and death, summer and autumn.


Trees are valuable to God as well. He references them numerous times in the writing of his word; whether it's comparing the strength of a nation to the cedars of lebanon, or comparing the strength of the godly to a tree planted by a river, it's hard to get away from these wondrous creations in God's testament.

We should be thankful for this time of year; a time when God lets his less appreciated creation strut their stuff. We also need the reminder about how crucial these trees are to our well being.

They absorb sunlight in large amounts, letting us enjoy their shade.

They give us the wood with which we shelter just about everything we hold dear.

They produce the oxygen necessary for survival, giving off the breath of God.

And these few reasons barely scratch the surface of the benefits given by these sleeping giants. We have much to praise God for in the gift of these woody beauties.


And if the awe and wonder of a sassafras tree gone up in metaphorical flames were the only reason to give thanks, that would be reason enough.
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