It is New Year’s Day evening – Happy New Year, everyone. Put up with me as a picture of another sunset is posted. It is the first sunset of 2017. Yesterday’s rain clouds partially cleared as afternoon turned to evening – the sky becoming beautifully clear as the sun dropped below and in contrast to the horizon and the dark gray of the remaining clouds – the tinges of orange at the bottom of the clouds almost surreal. The sky was so clear there was the sense that you could see all the way to the Pacific Ocean if somehow the earth’s curve would get out of the way – a perfect evening sky for a new year’s beginning.
A week ago we celebrated Christmas Day with family in Grand Junction, CO. It was a wonderful day with lots of people and noise and laughter and commotion. Today in contrast, a week later, it is New Year’s Day 2017 – we are home – it is quiet and peaceful – just us – a wonderful day also. We worshipped with our church family this morning – class and worship service – the sermon was about a new year and purposefully setting goals with meaning; about living in a world where we are supposed to be, and understanding that our good makes a difference – it fit the day and it fit those things good we should have on our mind as we look forward on the first day of a new year.
We returned home from church services to a beef rib roast we had put in a marinade bag with oil and a little port and garlic and pepper and rosemary. I lit the propane smoker and turned the fire up as high as it would go and put hickory chips in the smoker trays and 2 hours later we enjoyed a feast fit for kings.
Regardless of our particular pessimism or optimism about the political changes which will occur in 2017 – in my circle of family and friends those feelings are more diverse than I’ve ever experienced – regardless of that, on a new year’s day when we are so blessed, there is reason for looking forward with a sense that the good we are already enjoying can be leveraged and managed to enable more good and happiness in our world. The ability to help spread good is more in our hands than in our leader’s hands. We can just keep counting and appreciating our own blessings, as we turn our vision outward – not hording or fencing those blessings in, but using them to serve common good. Maybe 2017 will be an especially important year for that – one where we look to our own caring and serving as the real source and hope for good for others.
For all of my life at Christmas time it has been our family tradition to exchange gifts with one another. I have always loved the tradition. As a youngster, it was mostly receiving from my parents and grandparents – it was a joy to sit down on Christmas morning and unwrap clothes and toys – maybe some gifts that were expected, but often some pleasant surprises were hiding under the wrappings. There wasn’t much giving from my end back then for lack of resources, but those who gave to me didn’t seem to mind – in fact it seemed like they were just as excited about my unwrapping of presents as I was.
As time went on and I became a parent myself the roles changed, of course. My turn to be Santa Claus and watch little ones open presents with glee on their faces hoping for that special thing their hearts were set on. Probably it is parenting that teaches us the beauty of and pleasure from giving more than any other experience in life. A parent comes to understand that giving brings happiness even without an exchange. The joy in the hearts of sons and daughters and grandchildren from receiving becomes your own joy – it translates, somehow – it translates in a way that even multiplies the good feeling and we become more greatly blessed than our children as they play with that special toy.
This Christmas for the first time in a few years we were able to spend Christmas day with most of our grandchildren. You can see they are getting pretty well grown up. Three of the seven we were with are living out on their own and a fourth has a part time job as he attends high school. These four were givers this year as well as receivers. I watched as others opened gifts they had purchased. You could see the anticipation in their faces as the gift was unwrapped as they wondered if the gift would be received as special or not. You could see a little relief and the smiles of joy as the smiles and thank you’s and expressions of the gift being special were rendered. A transition takes place in us – those who grew up being receivers discover that giving feels good also. Many things change in the world as time marches forward. Isn’t it neat that some of the best things don’t change? In Acts 20 Paul quotes Jesus himself as saying, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” The generations pass by and by – it won’t be very many years until my generation passes – yet certain things which are at their core, good, remain and are a blessing to every generation. There is great hope in that fact. There is a peace that comes from believing that there is more going on around us than the surviving of those who are the fittest. Christmas shows us that though giving is not an act advancing the competition of survival – it is an act which makes life worth living – and what would life be without those kinds of things?
Thanks to all for making Christmas day very special this year – to the Grand Junction Church of Christ and Doug Clayton for the worship and wonderful Christmas sermon – to Jessica for the planning and pulling everything together – to Matthew for the place to stay – to Sierra for the work in allowing her place to be Christmas central and for her cooking those green chile breakfast burritos and Christmas dinner – and to Joe for smoking that great brisket ( the best I’ve ever eaten) – and to all my family for the presents and for just being family.
I was 50 years old before visiting the Grand Canyon for the first time, even though I’d lived in striking distance most of my life. Dave Sherrill and I had ridden to Flagstaff from Grand Junction on our motorcycles for Memorial Day weekend. We got up early one of the mornings while there and rode to the Canyon. I was awe struck by the visit that day and the reaction when returning many times since is the always the same. This is our second visit in the year 2016. We enjoyed a day there from a stay in Flagstaff with Aaron and family and Jessica and family in June. I want to share some photos though they never do justice to what we saw.
We got up early and drove up Oak Creek Canyon from Sedona in the morning darkness to Flagstaff and then down Highway 180 to the Park. We arrived about 8:15 – the winter sun on this day of the Winter Solstice was still low in the morning sky. It was mostly cloudy with the sun breaking through here and there – the combination of shadows from the canyon formations on themselves and the shadows from the sun peeking in and out from behind clouds gave the views from the overlooks a sense of depth I’d not experienced in other visits.
The temperature was in the mid-20s as we stopped at the first overlook on the spur to Hermit’s Rest. It felt chilly with a slight breeze. The Park road to Hermit’s Rest was open to personal autos this visit. Most visits the overlooks on this road can only be accessed on shuttle buses that run every few minutes. On those visits, you exit the bus with a group at the overlooks you choose, spend the time there you want and then catch another shuttle to the next one. A visit with access by your own vehicle is very nice. There’s a measure of freedom and convenience that the shuttle buses don’t provide. We were almost by ourselves on the overlooks in the early morning cold – the Park became busier later as the sun warmed the air into the 50s by the time we left. There are a number of overlooks with places to park on this road which is 12 miles long – it begins close to the center of action at the village by the train station. There is a walking trail which connects all the overlooks. We walked the trail from Hermit’s Rest back toward the Pima overlook for a mile and return. We saw only one other group on the entire walk – a large family of visitors from the Middle East who, though I didn’t understand their words, were smiling and laughing and taking pictures and being amazed just as we were.
Each visit to the Park renews a sense of reverence which seems to engulf as you look out at the landscape. The vastness – the myriad of shapes carved by the elements in rock – the manifestation of the power of natural forces working over time – the realization that creation exists in a continuum – that beauty and wonder are worked by submitting to the forces of their existence – that good things were created and exist not in isolation, but in mutual cooperation. The wonders of the Grand Canyon are evidence that good has always existed – we don’t have to create good – it comes from aligning ourselves and joining with forces that have always been its subsistence. The experience is intensely spiritual. I’m sure this sense is not just in me – it is seen over and over in the faces and eyes of the visitors encountered during a day at the Park. The sense of reverence is a blessing – as much as the experience shouts my insignificance; it also proves that even in seeming helplessness each element exists with purpose.
We hope to be back to the Grand Canyon someday. It will continue to beckon our return.
Following breakfast at Wildflower Bread Company we drove to Red Rock State Park on the west edge of Sedona for a hike. The Park contains about 300 acres which were acquired and is operated as a State Park to protect a section of Oak Creek in its natural state. It is popular for both visitor and local hiking.
The trails provide beautiful views of sandstone rock formations and cliffs which line the valley of Oak Creek. Below is a formation named Cathedral Rock.
If you look closely at the center of the following picture you can see a mule deer we came across as we hiked standing behind a yucca plant. There were a pair of them – the white rump of the second doe is barely recognizable through a fork of the dead tree at the right side of the photo. They watched us closely and spent most of the time standing behind a Pinyon Pine as we stopped and watched them.
There was a grove of thick white barked birch at one corner of the Park standing in contrast to the red sandstone cliff.
Oak Creek in the photo below
We walked 3.4 miles of the trails in the park according to my watch GPS. The 4 hours went quickly. I was constantly stopping to take a photo. There’s a new picture at every bend in the trail. The temperature was in the upper 50s and the air was still – the skies with a thin layer of clouds and some haze. We shed our jackets early in the walk. Some of my favorite places in the West are Red Rock country – Moab and Escalante and Mexican Hat and Monument Valley and Bryce Canyon, UT – Sedona matches up to them in beauty. Tomorrow’s plans are the Grand Canyon – back to back days of Southwest desert wows – I’d better get the camera battery in the charger.
We got up early Sunday morning – packed the minivan with some clothes and a cooler with my pomegranate juice and Darlene’s Gatorade – brewed a couple coffees on the Keurig in travel mugs with some Ghirardelli dark chocolate melting chips in the bottom and were on the road by 6:30 AM. We’ve been anticipating the trip for a few months now – it’s good when the day arrives and you’re able to drive away.
We have timeshare reservations for 5 nights in Sedona. I wanted to attend worship service in Gallup – about ½ way on the 360-mile journey. We made Gallup in time to grab an Egg McMuffin and still make most of Bible class followed by worship. The service was an encouragement with 50 or so friendly people in attendance. We’ve come to enjoy visiting little congregations on our trips out of town. We often travel on a Sunday because our timeshare points go farther for Sunday through Thursday stays.
We left Gallup after services. The air was crisp and clear – I could pick out the snow caps of the San Francisco peaks which sit beside Flagstaff from 100 miles away. The peaks impose themselves upon the high desert rising over 5,000 ft above Flagstaff at their base to an elevation of 12,600 ft. There is a ski resort at the top – not something expected in Arizona. We stopped in Flagstaff for a late lunch at the Beaver Street Brewery in the historic downtown. There was a chilly breeze on the day following a winter snow storm. We’ve spent quite a bit of time in Flagstaff over the years and Beaver Street is one of our favorite places to eat. We shared a Thai salmon burger and a bowl of great sweet potato fries. The fries came with a creamy dip with a strong rosemary flavor – interesting and good. The salmon burger tasted really fresh, and the Thai slaw on it was especially spicy and good.
Sedona is about 30 miles beyond Flagstaff to the southwest. Outside of Flagstaff a short distance the road drops down world famous Oak Creek Canyon. The elevation change as the canyon descends is a full 3,000 feet with Sedona at an elevation of 4,300 ft compared to Flagstaff at 7,000 ft. There are stretches of the canyon with switch back curves and serious drop offs at the edge of the road. On the trips up and down the canyon in years past I have often ended up behind a driver – maybe from Kansas – intimidated by the curves and drop offs – they creep along riding their brakes; hugging the canyon wall. It happened again this trip. I’ve ridden the canyon often on a Harley Davidson in years past. It was easy to just jump around a slow car on the Harley – double yellow lines or not – not so with life in a minivan – patience is forced upon me. I’m sure patience is a virtue and I will learn to enjoy and appreciate it someday. You can see Oak Creek at times as the road descends – the landscape changes from the Ponderosa pines of Flagstaff to broad leafed trees and bushes and junipers and cedars as the red rocks of Sedona come into view.
As the bottom of the canyon is reached the red rock cliffs and spires and rugged sandstone formations on both sides of the valley come into view. It is a special sight that is always remembered. It is one of those things you are anxious to tell people about when returning home – the words, though, can’t ever match the things that were seen. The photos help a little, but even pictures don’t do justice.
The Wyndham timeshare resort in Sedona is very nice – beautifully landscaped with spacious units – many of them with views of the surrounding sandstone cliffs. We first stayed here in the early 2000s when the units were first built. Here are pictures of the view from the patio I took this morning and the interior living area in the unit.
We’ve got 5 nights in Sedona before heading to Grand Junction, CO for Christmas weekend with children and grandchildren. We’re meeting some old friends not seen in 25 years for lunch one day – they live in Phoenix and we’re meeting at a café ½ way between us. Phil was minister at a congregation we were part of in the 1980s in Grand Junction. Though it has been many years I still count Phil and his wife, Rene, as special friends. Then we plan on driving to the Grand Canyon one day – we’ll tour some of the many art studios and shops for a day and try to walk trails some each day. It should be a good time – these 4 days and 5 nights – and they all start and end with a road trip – the destination is always in mind – but the trip days are also a very special part of it all.
We put the tree up a few days after Thanksgiving like most years. It is a tight fit in this little casa we moved to a few months ago. Darlene decorated the tree and got all of the Santa Claus’s and other decorations out of the storage containers and placed them around the house. It all looks festive – in tune with the season. The reds and greens and lights and bearded dolls make me smile as I walk around the house.
I see more smiles and get a sense of more joy in others at Christmas time. I like it – like it a lot. There is more giving at Christmas – Christmas presents of course – the anticipation in small children is obvious and a delight as I see them romp around the stores – parents trying to keep them in tow. There is more generosity for good causes also – the non-profits who serve us in so many good ways are thankful for this time of year. Giving benefits those who receive the outpouring of goodwill. We know giving benefits the giver also – maybe more.
I long to see family and have them around at Christmas. It is a special time for families with the gift giving and the meals together and the sharing of the joy. We’re headed to Grand Junction, CO for Christmas weekend. We have two of our children and seven of our grandchildren who live there or who are visiting that weekend. I’m really excited about being with so many of them this year. Our oldest granddaughter is cooking Christmas dinner for us all – that’s pretty special. It is a time of many changes in our family. Some of us have moved this last year – Aaron and family moved east to Vermont – Darlene and I the opposite direction to New Mexico – 3 of the grandchildren are out on their own now with jobs and their own places. Being together in the same place gets a little harder as they all grow up – at the same time maybe the times being together seem a little sweeter.
Christmas has never been a primarily religious holiday in our family. Celebration of Jesus birth is not a component of the liturgy of the churches we’ve been part of over the years. I love the idea that thoughts of so many turn to Jesus and his birth. The extra measure of joy that is felt; the willingness to give and share; the desires for peace; the warmth of feelings for others that are all a part of this time that is Christmas are representative of the life that is recorded about Jesus. Those things are all a part of what is taught and emphasized because of Jesus in the church I’m part of and in many Christian churches. Whatever one’s religion or non-religion I hope that the joy and the goodwill that I feel are both welcomed and infectious. It would be a shame if someone was put off by those good things because of me trying to shove Jesus on them as part of it all. I’m not very bashful about preaching the goodness of faith in Jesus when given the opportunity. But for me, that is not the purpose of celebrating Christmas. Christmas can be a time when all people feel the good that comes from giving. It would be gracious plenty if it can be a time of peace and goodwill towards men that is shared by all peoples just because that’s the best way for treating each other and because that’s the best way for things to be.
In mid-December as the sun drops below the horizon you can see big flocks of both geese and cranes every evening fly up the Rio Grande valley headed for their nesting places for the night. They like ponds of water for the night – they’re safe there – not many of their predators are a match for them in the water. We live far enough south that some of the migrating birds winter over here – others of them stay a little while then head farther south before their migration ends. Darkness comes early in mid-December. The year’s shortest day is in just a few days. It seems like almost mid-afternoon when I go to close the window blinds for the night.
This Sunday evening sunset picture was taken December 11. I downloaded it to the computer and then headed to evening worship service at the Belen Church of Christ.
Sunday mornings usually begin by driving a couple of miles to Rutillios for a western omelet or breakfast burrito that we share. In New Mexico both come smothered in green chile with some papitos alongside. After returning from breakfast I finish preparing for class and then we head to class and worship – class and worship – a couple of hours and a little visiting time with nice people with common interests and common goals – friends that care and look out for each other. Then after services it’s off somewhere for lunch – lunch might get smothered in green chile also – but we do take a break and get a pizza sometimes – no green chile for pizzas. Then at home afterward, maybe a little yard work, or a football game on TV, or a nap, or a walk on the golf course – or a combination of several of them. This particular Sunday afternoon it was a nap and a walk, arriving back home just in time to sit on the patio and watch this sunset and watch the flocks of birds headed for their nests.
What would you exchange for a life that allows living Sundays like this? We live in good times with much to be thankful for. Not even all the politicians and Rush Limbaugh and Rachel Maddow together can convince me that I’m somehow being cheated and should be unhappy. The geese and the cranes and most of the rest of us have a place to go at night with a safe nest. I led a prayer of thanksgiving at Sunday evening services – there were lots of good reasons for it.